Waitress, Stardust Best Movies of ’07

I spent Oscar night watching good movies on video. I didn’t even know the Oscars were on television until I happened to check the news online and notice that some winners had already been announced.

Out of the 24 Oscar winners, I’ve seen only four of the movies. Of those, I didn’t particularly like Golden Compass, and Bourne won only for technical achievements. I quite liked Ratatouille (even though I’ve never understood why “animated feature” gets its own category, given that there are so few decent animated movies in a given year), and Elizabeth: The Golden Age was okay. The only other winner that I have a particular interest in seeing is Juno. I do want to see No Country for Old Men, and I might watch Once, though I’ve already marked There Will Be Blood off of my “maybe” list. I don’t care how good the acting is if the movie is fundamentally grotesque.

So what did I do while happily ignoring the Oscars? My wife and I watched Feast of Love, which we enjoyed despite some serious problems with the writing (such as the use of a psychic as a plot device), and then we discovered a very fine film: American Pastime.

I’d never heard of this latter film till we saw a preview on another rental. Both my wife and I loved this movie. Okay, part of the plot is somewhat contrived; the interracial romance, the father who just doesn’t understand his daughter, the competition among brothers, and the miracle sports comeback all felt a bit obvious. But I’d rather watch an old-fashioned, heartfelt story than a play of some miserable moral monster. Oscar can stuff it, as far as I’m concerned (though I’ve rarely been much of a fan, as my notes from 2006 and 2004 suggest.) At least Michael Moore didn’t win, which surprised me.

American Pastime is about a baseball team formed in a Japanese-American internment camp. But it’s about much more than that. It’s mostly about a young man’s struggle to deal with racism and injustice. The main character loves jazz and baseball, but his pending college education (on a baseball scholarship) is interrupted by the war and his forced relocation to the camp. Understandably, he feels bitter about this. He and his brother clash — until his brother joins the Army to fight in Germany. And the young man finds a romantic interest in a girl who just happens to be the piano-playing daughter of the camp’s main guard, who just happens to be the star player on the local baseball team. As I mentioned, this sounds like a story-telling setup, but the characters are well developed and believable. The main actors are quite good.

Looking back at 2007, two movies stand out for me. Neither received a single Oscar nomination.

Waitress is a spectacular movie. The Oscar group committed something approaching a moral sin by failing to recognize Adrienne Shelly for screenplay, Keri Russell for best actress, and Andy Griffith for best supporting actor. Waitress is among the great films of the decade, not just of 2007.

Russell plays a waitress (big surprise) who is also a spectacular baker of pies, which reflect her moods. She works at a pie shop owned by Griffith’s character, and Griffith is absolutely superb as the grumpy but perceptive proprietor. He nimbly tightropes between a cynical demeanor and a compassionate heart. The problem is that the waitress is married to a complete jerk — and she is pregnant. This is a love story, but not between the characters of Russell and romantic interest Nathan Fillion, but between the woman and her child. It is a beautiful, gorgeously written story.

Stardust is my other favorite film of the year. I’ve already briefly summarized it:

A young man, trying to win the heart of the local beauty, sees a falling star and pledges to fetch it in exchange for the girl’s hand. But to retrieve the star, our hero must cross the wall that separates England from the magical world beyond. In that world, a fallen star is not a hunk of metal and ash — it is a lovely young lady, in this case portrayed by Claire Danes. Our hero must learn to become a man, save the star, and figure out whom he loves.

This coming-of-age story is a fantasy for grownups. Forget about how silly it sounds to make a star into a girl: it works. And Robert De Niro as the tough-talking (but eccentric dressing) pirate is both hilarious and touching.

Both Waitress and Stardust are such fabulous movies that, of course, neither won even a single nomination from Oscar. (In neither film is a despicable son of a bitch the main character.) But who cares what Oscar thinks: both films earn an Ari.

Heath Ledger, 1979 – 2008

I was saddened to read of the death of Heath Ledger, who had become one of my favorite actors.

On the very day of the Oscar nominations being announced for 2007, the Australian actor Heath Ledger was found dead in a Manhattan apartment. Born in Perth, in Western Australia, Heathcliff Andrew Ledger would have been 29 this April 4th. First reports of his death mentioned drugs in evidence, but no one really knows enough yet to say anything except how great the loss is. Ever since he played Mel Gibson’s son in The Patriot (2000), it was apparent that his striking handsomeness went hand-in-hand with high ambitions as an actor, courage in the roles he took and a fierce intelligence. He is likely now to be known forever for his cowboy, Ennis, in Brokeback Mountain… At his death he had just finished playing the Joker in a new version of Batman – The Dark Knight – and that may reveal fresh sides to what was a developing career.

A year and a half ago, I wrote:

Previously I predicted that I wouldn’t think much of Brokeback Mountain, the gay cowboy movie. What I did not anticipate was Heath Ledger’s hauntingly sorrowful performance. Yes, the movie is beautifully directed and the rest of the cast is very good, but it is Ledger who makes it a memorable movie. I’ve always enjoyed Ledger’s movies, but his performance in Brokeback is amazing. …

An aside. It occurred to me that, if somebody wanted to spend a lot of money and make even more, they’d hire a competent writer to turn Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead into a full season of television (roughly 22 episodes each 45 minutes in length), then hire Ledger to play Howard Roark…

I also enjoyed Ledger’s Casanova, even though the story of the movie spins a bit out of control.

The movie I’ve been most looking forward to is Dark Knight. Judging from the previews, Ledger’s performance is stunning. I’m still looking forward to the movie, but now I’ll have to watch it with more than an undercurrent of sorrow.

Film: The Prize Winner of Defiance

I was pleasantly surprised by the movie, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (reviewed at Rotten Tomatoes), which I’d never heard of till I saw the video on the shelf. Based on a true story, it follows a woman living in the ’50s and ’60s who keeps her large family ahead of her careless husband by entering — and winning — contests that involve writing clever marketing lines. The acting of Julianne Moore as Evelyn Ryan, Woody Harrelson as the husband, and Ellary Porterfield as one of the daughters is absolutely top-notch.

The reason that I’m reviewing the film at this web page (which is after all dedicated to matters of religion) is that that religious themes run through the story. Ryan and her husband are Catholic. The husband has some major problems; in particular, he spends a large chunk of his weekly paycheck on booze, and he is prone to rage when he drinks. For example, at one point he beats on a just-won freezer with a frying pan; later, he throws food from the freezer out into the yard. Early in the movie, Ryan talks with a priest, who advises her to try harder to create a good home for her husband. Ryan doesn’t seem happy with this advice, but she follows it, even though her husband deserves nothing but divorce papers.

Moreover, the film encourages viewers to pity and forgive the husband based on three facts. First, he lost the quality of his voice and thus his singing career in a car crash. Second, he feels bad that he’s not the sole bread-winner of the household. Third, in his old age he takes real steps to make up for his earlier behavior. The husband is not irredeemably evil; he is merely a lout. And divorce is not easy for a woman with ten children to care for. Nevertheless, Ryan seems to stick with her husband because of Christian charity, not because he deserves the marriage.

Ryan (along with the film) confuses the issue of forgiveness (which properly must be earned) with the issue of holding true to one’s values and not falling into bitterness (which may or may not involve forgiveness). Also, Ryan enjoys more good luck (in winning various prizes) than most women in her position would find (even though Ryan’s success is based also on her skill with words).

The reason that I basically enjoyed the movie is that Ryan shows a powerful and positive spirit. Despite her setbacks and her husband’s behavior, she consistently seeks the joy of life. She maintains a strong, loving, and supportive relationship with her children, which comes out especially in the scenes with her daughter “Tuffy,” who later wrote the book on which the film is based.

The Wendell Baker Story

I’ve been thinking about The Wendell Baker Story, off and on, since I saw it yesterday. That confirms my thoughts that the movie, which few people have heard of, might be worth a second glance. On the whole, it’s not a spectacular film (it earned a 45 percent fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes), but it shows flashes of poignancy and heart. After a slow beginning, the film introduces older characters played by Kris Kristofferson, Harry Dean Stanton, and Seymour Cassel. The relationships among these characters, and between them and the lead character of Luke Wilson, give the comedy a soul of benevolent dignity. I especially enjoyed the performance of Kristofferson. Wilson wrote the screenplay, and his brothers Owen and Andrew join the project.

Take a moment to get your mind off of that movie, because, while I’m discussing movies, I thought I’d warn readers about a repulsive, disgusting film, Year of the Dog. I regard it, along with I Heart Huckabees and The Butterfly Effect, as the three worst, most nihilistic films I’ve ever seen.

Broken Trail

Over the Christmas holiday, I watched the film Broken Trail with family members. It’s a two-disk, three-hour movie that was made for television. I get the idea that it was filmed mostly or entirely in Canada, and the scenery is spectacular. The movie, starring Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church, is surprisingly good. (I was surprised because I’d never heard of it before.)

It’s a classic Western. The two cowboys — Duvall plays the uncle of Church’s character — leverage the family ranch in order to buy a herd of horses. Their purpose is to move the herd from Oregon to Wyoming, where the horses are in demand for military use. (A major buyer works out of Wyoming.) Along the way, the cowboys must overcome obstacles natural and man-made. Early in their travels, they come across a man who is transporting five young Chinese girls, whose families sold them into slavery. They are on their way to a brothel in a mean town. Needless to say, our heroes do not get on well with the slave runner. But what are a couple of cowboys supposed to do with five girls in a vast wilderness while running horses? Unfortunately, the owner of the brothel wants the seize the girls, and she knows some unsavory characters.

Such a movie easily could have been routine. But interesting dialogue and heartfelt, edgy acting from Duvall and Church make it memorable. It is a movie of strong heroes and dastardly villains, and I like that. But the heroes, with all of their financial resources tied up in the horses, have to struggle with their fears, tempers, and difficult pasts to stick together and find the strength to be towering men. Nicely done.

The movie is available at Netflix and Amazon, I noticed. I plan to buy a copy.

Stranger than Fiction

Recently my wife and I put Babel in the DVD player. We were treated to a preview of another movie, I think called Perfume, in which the main character murders women and turns them into perfume. Lovely. So I was already psyched for Babel. In the early scenes of that movie, a young boy in a desolate land masturbates on a cliff, then shoots a bus with his family’s new rifle. That was enough for me. We popped out the video. I had already seen the preview, so I got the idea that the next two hours of the film are devoted to the husband of the shooting victim trying to find help for his wife. No thank you, and again I thank you.

Thankfully, we had also rented Stranger than Fiction, which I thoroughly enjoyed even more than I had on a previous viewing. Will Farrell is a genius actor of physical comedy. In this film, Farrell plays an IRS agent who initially leads an entirely routine life devoid of meaningful values. Then, one day, he begins to hear a narrator describing his life. As he anxiously tries to figure out what’s going on, he begins to reevaluate his life and do the meaningful things that he truly wants to do. I like the movie because it is bright and positive and caring and funny — all of the things banned from so many other Hollywood movies these days.

We also watched an old film called Executive Suite. I forget who recommended it. It is another film we truly appreciated. Yes, it’s a bit dated; all the executives are white males (and all served by female secretaries) and the title sequence is quite jarring. Yet it is spectacularly acted and well written. It’s the story of the struggle to replace the head executive of a furniture company after he dies. Contrary to Oliver Stone’s commentary — and I have no idea why his commentary appears on the video, as he had nothing to do with the film — the film is not a critique of business profits. (I listened only to a few minutes of his commentary.) Instead, the film is about producing something of quality, something you can believe in and sell with pride, and something that will serve the company’s long-term success, not just its short-sighted balance sheet of the month. There are a some problems with the ideas conveyed by the writing. For example, three of the seven executives are quite horrible, which is more than any business could plausibly sustain, and the other four are overly tolerant of their behavior. Nevertheless, the climactic speech is among the most rousing and morally inspiring conclusions to any movie I’ve seen. Furniture boring? Not in this film.

Notes on the Harry Potter Movies

I just watched the third Harry Potter film again. While the fifth book (The Order of the Phoenix) remains my favorite, the third movie (The Prisoner of Azkaban) is the finest of the series so far. The first two films are enjoyable companions to the books. But the third movie is a stand-alone artwork. The timing in the first two films is awkward and distracting. The third movie is impeccably timed. Moreover, the the use of lighting, camera movement, and transitions, as well as the creative visual interpretations of the book, place the third movie a step above. I was thrilled to find that the fifth movie is also quite good; it takes a close second, in my book.

I see that the sixth film is “in production.” The director is David Yates, who also directed Phoenix. So that’s encouraging.

I hope that the producers of the films consider splitting the seventh book — The Deathly Hallows — into two movies. There is simply too much material in the book to allow for a single movie of reasonable length. Besides, there’s a perfect place the split the movie: Chapter 24. Specifically, page 481. I think readers of the book will understand what I mean. Ending the movie there would be a fitting tribute to the character who fills that page. Then the eighth movie could be called, Harry Potter and the Battle of Hogwarts. Obviously, they should film both movies during the same period to save costs and maintain better continuity. Splitting the final book into two movies would make the studio a lot more money as well as please fans.

Thanks, Rockies!

The bad news is that the Colorado Rockies got swept in the World Series. The good news is that they made it to the World Series! Who’d have predicted that during the regular season? Moreover, two of the games were very competitive, with the Red Sox beating the Rockies by a single run. Indeed, tonight in game four in the final inning, I thought the tying ball was on its way over the fence, at least for a couple happy seconds. But, for the first time, I got to watch a World Series to root for the home team. Thanks, guys.


On Saturday night, my wife and I went with some friends to DeVotchka’s Halloween concert in Denver. Amazing. The show opened with a Day of the Dead procession. After some opening music, giant ribbons descended from the ceiling, and three women climbed them to perform acrobatic dance routines. Most people were dressed in stylish costumes. And the music was up to DeVotchKa’s usual standards. The band, filled out by three extra strings and another trumpet player, in addition to the four core members, alternated between the group’s sorrowful tunes and heavier beats. They started playing around 10:00 p.m., and the next thing I knew it was after midnight.

We became fans with the album SuperMelodrama, though I like the next albums, Una Volta and How it Ends, even more. You can sample the band’s music at its web page or through iTunes. One of my personal favorites is “The enemy guns” from How it Ends.

Baseball Brings “External Malicious Attack” and Scalping

Never mind the fact that “all of California is burning.” We have real problems in Colorado: we can’t buy World Series tickets!

(Seriously, I offer my deepest sympathies to Californians who have lost property in the fires.)

Here’s the extraordinary story, as told by 9News:

The Colorado Rockies say tickets for the World Series will again be sold online starting Tuesday at noon after an attack brought down the Web site on Monday.

Rockies Spokesperson Jay Alves said on Monday night that ColoradoRockies.com was the victim of an “external malicious attack” that caused a system-wide outage with Paciolan.

Paciolan is Major League Baseball’s ticket vendor. The outage impacted all of its North American customers.

The Rockies suspended the sale of tickets on Monday after noon because of the system outage. …

The Rockies initially said the system went down because of the heavy traffic to the Web site. They said there were 8.5 million hits on the Rockies Web site after the tickets went on sale.

I was one of the people unable to purchase tickets at 10:00 a.m. on Monday.

But talk about some bitter fans! Sheesh! I read some of the stories in the papers and listened to some of the comments on the radio. More than a few people were outraged.

We might draw a couple lessons from this incident.

First, look at the context. The Colorado Rockies — whom a roommate of mine once mocked as the “Rookies” — are in the World Series! Even if you are forced to watch it on a big-screen TV with surround sound while sitting on a couch drinking beer and eating pizza, which, admittedly, is a sorrowful existence, it’s still pretty darn cool.

Second, be a little slower to cast blame. I assume the Rockies have good evidence about an “external malicious attack,” given that they’ve announced it to the media. So it turns out not to be the fault of the Rockies or of Paciolan. Indeed, the story could get even more interesting if legal action is pursued against the attacker.

That said, I do like the idea of an on-line lottery. The problem with physical lines is that they waste time. A lottery would be easy to enter and easy to decide, and it would give everybody a fair shake. Next time the Rockies get to the World Series, I’m sure the organization will consider such alternatives.

But isn’t it strange that a large percentage of the final ticket sales will go to scalpers? The baseball teams have created this value, yet millions of dollars will go into the pockets of ticket redistributers. Moreover, the process of redistributing tickets costs additional time, which could otherwise be spent in other work. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against scalpers, given the current system of ticketing. But why is that system set up to benefit scalpers?

If the Rockies sold tickets for what scalpers will eventually get for many of them, the Rockies would be accused of greed. So, apparently, it’s less greedy to knowingly redistribute millions of dollars to scalpers. (I assume that ticket prices are in some way regulated by Major League Baseball.) But, if the Rockies wanted to price out scalpers without seeming “greedy,” there’s another solution: they could sell tickets at market value and donate the “excess” proceeds to charity.

What about the fans who “deserve” to buy cheap tickets? The Rockies have already made tickets available to season ticket holders, so those fans are taken care of. But the Rockies could also, for example, hold a “spirit contest” to make true fans show their dedication before they’re allowed to buy less-expensive tickets. Or they could donate tickets to hard cases.

Offhand, though, I can think of no reason why baseball clubs should not simply sell tickets at their market value, and keep the proceeds. If they wanted, clubs could literally auction every single ticket, sort of like ebay (with unsold tickets available at gametime for the minimum price). But baseball involves many complex relationships between clubs, players, and fans that I do not pretend to understand.