Thursday, November 22, 2007

No Country for Old Men

Movie: No Country for Old Men
Writer(s): Coen Brothers
Director(s): Coen Brothers

The Coen brothers are back! While some have reported this "better than Fargo," I wouldn't go quite that far. Fargo is funnier; here the humor is blacker and bleaker. This is the grim tale of revenge and greed. A hunter finds $2 million in cash at a drug-deal gone bad in the middle of a Texas desert. All the drug dealers are dead, having shot each other, so he escapes with the dough. But soon they are on his trail, with a psychotic killer not far behind. Typical of the Coen brothers, all the characters are distinct and memorable; even the "throw-away" roles with only a line or two are shown to be human and personable (which makes their tragic demises more cutting). The story is complicated and is slowly reeled out, as the hunter tries to outwit the pyschotic. There are so many fascinating aspects of the characters -- like the pyschotic's use of a cylinder of compressed air to kill people and blow out door locks. This is the kind of film that isn't about the plot, but about the people, the atmosphere, and the wonderful filmmaking that totally controls our perspective. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. You're in the hands of masters of their craft.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Movie: Hitman

Kinda cool film about the "ultimate" hitman, a guy with no name (only a number) raised from birth to be a killer. When a hit turns out to be a fraud with himself as the target, the hitman must figure out who is trying to kill him, all while evading the cops and other hitmen. The film's fun and the action's good, but it's pretentious, with dark moody atmosphere and suggestive dialogue and photography as though we're supposed to think all this nonsense is important. It's quite silly, really, and I prefer my action flicks a little lighter and more aware of their silliness (like the excellent Die Hard series). But still, it's fun and entertaining and not the worse way to waste 90 minutes.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

American Gangster

Movie: American Gangster

This is a terrific film. It's long at over two-and-a-half hours, but I wasn't bored for a second. It's a complicated true story set in the late sixties/early seventies about a black man's rise to power in Harlem. After 15 years as a sidekick, when the old druglord dies, Frank wants to take his place but discovers no one will let him. So Frank makes his own way, bypassing the middlemen and bringing his own heroin into Manhatten via a drug connection in Thailand. This results in a purer product that he sells cheaper than anyone else, and overnight he's a multimillionaire. But he's smart, keeping himself low-key and invisible, so few even know he's the one behind the drugs. Meanwhile, we follow the career of a police officer who's put in charge of a special drug-enforcement team designed to bring down the top drug leaders. These parallel stories culminate in the cop figuring out the black man's the leader (unusual back when Italian gangs ruled) and trying to bring him down. Terrific writing, performances, and film-making. Great epic story, fascinating moral lessons, and entertaining as well.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

MLS Cup 2007

Soccer: MLS Cup 2007

Today the Houston Dynamo defeated the New England Revolution 2-1 at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. to win their second consecutive MLS Cup. It is only the second time in the history of the league that a champion has held on to their crown (DC United did it in 1997).

It was a cracker of a match, with Houston, ironically, having the fewer chances but capitalizing when it counted — the exact opposite of their season where they would have tons of chances in a game but few finishes.

Typical of Houston (and the San Jose incarnation), they do it best through adversity, giving up a headed goal to Taylor Twellman early in the first half. But Houston was calm. After all, just a few weeks ago they were two goals down to Dallas in the playoffs and won that series 4-2. And who can forget last year's immediate comeback against this same New England team in the final?

Houston's been a second half team all season and this game was no exception. They kicked things up a notch in the second half, coming out with more aggression and determination and fixed some of the defensive lapses they showed in the first half. New England, it must be said, looked like they thought they'd already won (shades of last year's Cup), and failed to be as aggressive as they could and scorned a few gorgeous opportunities.

The comeback for Houston started with a fabulous sequence of pressure by the Dynamo, getting the ball deep into New England's box and creating several dangerous chances. A Houston corner kick was rejected, but aggressive play from Dynamo Captain Wade Barrett kept the ball in play at the near sideline and he managed to toe-poke the ball to teammate Brian Mullan who fed a long ball into the box. It skittered across to Dwayne DeRosario on the far side and he managed to cross it hard into the box. It was too hard for Jaqua who was crashing in but it fell gloriously to Joseph Ngwenya. But he flubbed his left-footed shot as the ball went through his legs. But the Revolution defense didn't clear the ball and Joseph didn't quit, taking a second swipe at the ball with his right and sliding it underneath Revs' keeper Matt Reis to level the score.

No game is complete without controversy and this came in the 64th minute when Cano Smith and Craig Waibel clashed in the box. Smith wanted a penalty kick (it was shoulder contact, not a foul) but the ref waved it off. Smith and Waibel had words, however, and then Cano — a mere yard from the referee — out-and-out head-butted Waibel in the jaw! Shockingly, this outrageous display of temper and unsportsmanship — little different from Ricardo Clark's kick to Carlos Ruiz that earned him a league-record nine-game suspension — was dealt with merely a yellow card by referee Alex Pruis. I don't like to see red cards in finals, but that was deliberate and regardless of the amount of contact (Waibel dodged most of the blow), it should have been a red. It was no different from Zidane's head-butt in the World Cup final. (That said, a red would have tainted the result and I'm perfectly happy with the final score.)

Late in the game New England had a couple opportunities but couldn't capitalize. One of the best was a cross through the box with Twellman waiting at the back post for a certain tap-in goal, but Dynamo goalkeeper Pat Onstad (my Man of the Match) flew in and got his fingertips to the ball to snare it with a fabulous saving play. Even better, the rebound was easily dealt with by the Dynamo defense and a counter-attack started.

Exactly forty seconds later, the Dynamo scored at the other end. Ngwenya's good hold-up play on the right wing got the ball to Waibel who'd run up in support and he played it to a wide open Brad Davis just outside the box. Davis' gifted left foot placed the ball perfectly in the box for De Rosario who snapped his head to the ball knocking it into the far corner past a helpless Reis. The defending champions were now leading with less than twenty minutes to go.

The final few minutes saw some tremendous pressure from New England and an unbelievable save from Onstad. In the 87th minute the Revs took a corner kick which eluded the Dynamo defense and reached Larentowicz who met it with a diving header just three yards out. It was bullet of a shot that should have been a goal — but Onstad was well-positioned and the ball ricocheted off his legs and was successfully cleared by Houston.

Amazing, and plays like that had to hit New England's confidence where it hurts most. They never looked the same after that save, with Houston defending with authority and the Revs struggling. This was epitomized by play from DeRosario in the 91st minute when Jay Heaps twice tried to play a long cross to the box and both times DeRo leaped in front and blocked it with his back. If you can't put in a simple cross from the half-field line with just one guy in front of you, what can you do? Disheartening, to say the least. The final play was a long feed from Reis that went right to his counter-part, Onstad, and the game ended without another chance for New England.

While I feel deep sympathy for the Revs — I've been a fan of theirs for years, since their underdog days (us long-term San Jose fans related to them), and I can't imagine what it is like to lose three finals in a row — I have to give the Dynamo the win in this one. While they defended more than I preferred, their defense wobbled but didn't break, and they pressured aggressively (even when the game was tied) and took two chances and converted. If you look at all the little things in the match — the way the forwards helped out on defense, the work rate, the relentless pressure, their calmness in the face of mistakes — Houston deserved this championship. Nowhere was this more evident than the reactions of each team when they gave up their first goal: the Houston players nodded, clapped each other on the back, and gritted their teeth, while the Revs cursed and moaned and looked at each other in bewilderment and frustration. And remember, Houston did this without two key players in Brian Ching and Ricardo Clark, which is the hallmark of a championship team.

Hat's off to New England who fought hard, and played aggressive, attractive soccer. They have accomplished a lot: three straight finals and an Open Cup trophy is an amazing achievement. Their day will come.

Congratulations to the Houston Dynamo! You guys were wonderful all season. You battled through adversities, injuries, national team call-ups, trades, and the inevitable human error. In the end you've repeated as champions, which people who know sports say is always much harder than winning the first one.

Soccer's a team sport, and Houston (going back to the San Jose days), is the embodiment of team spirit. I hope they never lose that. It's what makes this group of rag-tag cast-offs from other teams greater than the sum of its parts.


Friday, November 16, 2007


Movie: Beowulf

I was really impressed by this film. It sensationalizes certain aspects of the story but even those are part of historical accuracy since the whole point of the Beowulf story is about the legitimacy of our heroes and legends. The computer animation is generally phenomenal, though there are one or two shots where something feels a little artificial (like Angelina Jolie's face from a couple angles). But most of the time the animation is stunning: the water droplets dripping off Beowulf's chest when he climbs out of the water looks photographically real. Amazing. The key for me, however, is not mere realism but how well the characters act and provoke emotion from the audience, and in this regard, the acting and animation worked extremely well. The tormented monster Grendel is truly a hideous creation, but somehow still conveys human-like emotion and evokes sympathy.

The story is quite authentic. It tells of the hero Beowulf coming to the Danish king to rescue his kingdom from the dreaded monster Grendel. Beowulf boasts of his prowess but there are some questions as to his legitmacy. Is he a real hero or a fraud? But after he kills Grendel, all are convinced. But then Grendel's mother, a demon-thing, attacks the town in revenge, and it's up to Beowulf to deal with her. So far the story's simple, but then it becomes complicated, as we learn there are secrets hiding: Grendel is the old king's son, a hideous creation, the spawn of human and demon coupling. Grendel's mother transforms herself into a beauty and seduces Beowulf, and he falls into the same trap as the old king. We then cut to many years later with Beowful now the old king and history repeating itself as his own son, a new monster, is attacking the village. This time Beowulf, after decades of hero worship and feeling guilty because he knows he is no hero, must save the kingdom again. This story is an incredible one, especially for such an ancient tale, and this version of it brings its lessons and message to a modern audience where hopefully people will see how vital and current those teachings are. Who are our heroes and why? What does being a hero feel like? How must today's celebrities, today's "legends" feel about their role? Are they frauds or merely playing their part? Lots of fascinating questions.


Monday, November 12, 2007

Breakfast of Champions

Book: Breakfast of Champions
Writer(s): Kurt Vonnegut

Hilariously inventive novel about a bizarre science fiction author and a crazy-but-rich used car dealer whose paths overlap. The plot is slim-to-nothing, but this is all about the journey and the humorous narrating style of Vonnegut, who includes himself in the story and writes about his characters escaping his control and doing things he didn't anticipate. I haven't read much Vonnegut and really need to read more because I love what little I've read. In this book my favorite technique of his is when he explains common everyday earth things as though the reader might be an alien and not understand such things. For instance, when he mentions people drinking alcohol, he explains this is a beverage that is a biproduct of sugar-eating yeasts (tiny organisms) and thereafter refers to people "drinking yeast execrement" whenever he wants to tell about people drinking alcohol. Hilarious! Overall this is a witty, fun, and entertaining book, and Kurt wisely keeps it short so the joke doesn't overstay its welcome.


Saturday, November 10, 2007

MLS Playoffs: Kansas City at Houston

Soccer: MLS Playoffs: Kansas City at Houston

In a first for Major League Soccer, the same two teams that met last year in the final will meet again this year. New England won their game on Thursday against Chicago in a dreary 1-0 affair, and tonight the Houston Dynamo soundly defeated Kansas City 2-0 in a match where the Dynamo defense was so stout KC never got a single shot on goal! Oregonian Nate Jaqua scored in the first half and Dwayne De Rosario scored in the second, and KC never had a chance. This sets up a repeat of last year's Cup, which Houston won on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw. This is terrific, for both teams are excellent and both teams are motivated to win. Neither will be satisfied with another draw and penalty shootout: Houston wants to prove that last year was no fluke and that they deserve the title, and New England just wants to win a trophy (this will be their fourth final and they haven't won one yet). So tune in Nov. 18th on ABC to see what should be a terrific battle.


Friday, November 9, 2007

Fred Claus

Movie: Fred Claus

This film has obvious comparisons to Elf, which is a much, much better film. The big problem with this? It takes itself way too seriously. The whole build-up and back story behind the "brother" of Santa Claus was authentically done and not the least bit comical. There really isn't much funny here at all. Kids won't be able to follow Vince Vaughn's rapid-patter con-man chatter, and it's only mildly amusing to adults anyway. There's a scene or two of slapstick that kids might like but adults will find annoying. Kevin Spacey plays an over-the-top villain that seems totally out of place among the seriousness, but in reality he's the only one playing his character correctly, as the whole thing should have celebrated its ridiculousness the way Elf did. Pretty lame overall. It has a tiny bit of heart in the resolution, but it comes about 40 minutes too late. Disappointing and not worth the bother.


Saturday, November 3, 2007

MLS Playoffs: Dallas at Houston

Soccer: MLS Playoffs: Dallas at Houston

This was the big second-leg playoff match between Dallas and Houston with Dallas coming in with a 1-0 lead from last week's home result. This time it was Houston at home and with over 30,000 fans in orange cheering them on, Houston was determined to win. Strangely, I wasn't too nervous about this one. Houston was playing well with huge chances right off the kickoff and I just felt they would win. Even when Dallas got the first goal and it was a 2-0 lead, I felt Houston would get it back. In second half, things started to go the Dynamo way as Arturo Alvarez got himself red-carded seconds into the half and it was 11 on 10 the rest of the way. Coach Dominic Kinnear promptly took off a defender and added an attacker (Stuart Holden). With 23 minutes to go and still needing two goals just to tie it, I still wasn't worried (which surprised me). The team was playing so well it was just a matter of time. Now the pressure which had been intense, went up to the breaking point, and Stuart scored the first goal for Houston. The momentum built from there as soon Brian Ching tied it up. We went into 30 minutes of overtime and just a few minutes in Brian got his second and now Dallas were on the losing end. A moment later and it was all over as Brad Davis scored a freakin' awesome freek kick. The overtime was played out but Dallas never had a chance. Houston win the game 4-1, 4-2 on aggregate, and advance to the Western Conference Final. Go Houston!


Friday, November 2, 2007

American Pastoral

Book: American Pastoral
Writer(s): Philip Roth

I listened to the unabridged audiobook version of this novel and I found it lacking. It's the first audiobook I've heard that actually has technical problems (inconsistent sound quality and volume level) and the reading was poor. This made a remarkable book difficult to follow: from the beginning to the end I was confused and not sure who was who and what was going on. The actor's voice was the same for all characters -- I never could even figure out who the narrator was. I thought it was one person, but the viewpoint kept shifting, so I was forced to conclude that the book was narrated by different people at different times, but that was impossible to tell from the way it was read. Usually when there are technical issues like this it's disappointing but doesn't ruin the book; however, in this case, it did serious damage. I'm not quite sure I followed the story. The book itself is amazingly written and tells a character-based story of incredible depth. It's basically an old man looking back on his life and his family. Initially when we see him he has it all: he's the superstar high school athlete, he marries a beauty queen in college, takes over his father's leather glove business and is extremely wealthy, but later, as we piece together the traumatic events in his life, we see that there is conflict and tragedy. His wife hates the stereotype of beauty queen. Their beautiful daughter suffers from stuttering when younger, and eventually she rebells against her parents and runs away from home and is wanted by the FBI for murder. The mom suffers a breakdown and ends up in the looney bin. The dad is haunted by his daughter's bizarre behavior and his own guilt (which he isn't even sure he has). It's a fascinating look into a life. There's conflicts over personalities, religion, politics, economics, race. Scores of topics are touched upon. Unfortunately, the audiobook was so confusing that perhaps I didn't follow the novel properly enough to judge it right, but it felt like it peters out into nothing. It's a long story and I was expecting some sort of pay-off, some dramatic event at the end that would explain or justify everything, and I was given nothing but a "that's the end." Disappointing. I still think it's a remarkable book and I might actually try to read the print edition someday and give it a second chance and see if it was the reading that ruined it for me. I really liked most of what I heard; I just felt the story was confusing at times and the ending weak. Many scenes in the middle were powerful (though they might have been even better if I had a clearer understanding of what was going on). In the end, I recommend it with a "your mileage may vary."


Friday, November 2, 2007

Bee Movie

Movie: Bee Movie

I knew zip about this except for the incessant ads on TV. It's not that bad, but it's definitely a little weird. The plot -- losely -- is about a young bee that wants to see the world, falls in love with a human woman, discovers that humans eat honey, and with the help of the girl sues humans in court for theft. The bee is voiced by Jerry Seinfeld and pretty much is Jerry. Unfortunately, his humor is not "ha ha" humor, but "hmmm" humor, and thus the film, while pleasant, is not a laugh a minute like it should be. There are the requisite jokes in the background (punny signs, bee/honey jokes, etc.), but the story is thin, and in the end the film isn't quite funny enough for kids and not serious enough for adults. It's not bad, and most adults wouldn't find it too unbearable to endure, but I wouldn't go out of your way to see it.