A muscled, bronzed, hairless, oiled review of the first half of “The Art of Fielding”

The Babe. The Black Sox. The Mick. Dimaggio. Jackie Robinson. Clemente. Generations of Cubs fans. Roy Hobbs and “Field of Dreams” and Crash Davis’s “I believe” speech in “Bull Durham.” (“I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there outta be a Constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter.”) Sidd Finch, taught by monks to throw a 168-mph fastball. The glorious mustaches of Don Mattingly, Wade Boggs, Mike Schmidt, Rod Beck, Keith Hernandez, Bill Buckner and Dennis Eckersley. Diamondbacks over Yankees in the World Series.

From Life: Mickey Mantle made the All-Star team for 14 straight seasons and finished in the top five in MVP voting nine times. But this photo, one of the most famous depictions of an athlete in decline ever recorded, shows something else: a man on the downside of a glorious career, ravaged by injuries, betrayed by the very body that had brought him fame and riches.

The best thing about baseball, for those of us who love sports but not so much that sport, is the mystique of its best stories, real and imagined. Its capacity for classy nostalgia is unmatched by the other games we watch giant heroes play.

So here’s “The Art of Fielding,” ostensibly about a scrawny shortstop playing his heart out for a Division III college team in Wisconsin. Optioned by HBO. 2011’s best novel, according to Amazon. The New York Times book review ranked it as one of the year’s best books; Sports Illustrated had it as No. 1 in its wrap-up of 2011’s sports media (for whatever that’s worth); and my favorite podcast, Slate.com’s sports-themed “Hang Up and Listen,” has been hyping an interview with author, Chad Harbach, in an upcoming episode.

So I dug in, excitedly.

Oh my God, is this book gay.

The president of Westish College is stupidly named Guert Affenlight, and he’s an old man obsessed with Owen, a young mullato (his word) bench warmer on the school’s baseball team. How obsessed? Affenlight winds up looking for something on Owen’s computer, which gets awkward:

“(H)is wrist brushed against the mouse that was tethered to Owen’s computer. With a whir the screen came to life. He couldn’t help but look. Open in the internet browser was a picture of a man, a muscled, bronzed, hairless, oiled twentysomething man, sprawled in a wooden chair with one hand cupped over the tip of his erect and outsize penis like it was the gearshift of Affenlight’s Audi.”

I know what you’re thinking. No, I was not able to transcribe that without laughing out loud. How about some more?

“The first definable feeling that worked its way up to his brain was disappointment. Owen would never want me, he thought. If this is what Owen wants then Owen would never want me.”

Real quick, for those who have difficulty deciphering Shakespeare: Affenlight is thinking that Owen won’t want him, sexually.

“Maybe he’d been thinking of Owen as a creature of the mind, a pure spirit to be mixed with his own, but that wasn’t quite right, was it? Because Owen had a body too, and a need for bodies – and when it came down to that, how did Affenlight feel about Owen’s body? Did he want Owen in a sexual way? Because that website, that photograph – that was sexual. That was what he was getting himself into, or trying to get himself into. Not that Owen wanted him. But if Owen did want him – if Owen wanted his aging, pasty, great-for-sixty, okay-for-forty, unthinkable-for-twenty body, which was seeming more unlikely by the second – then would he want Owen’s body in return? He thought he did, had fantasized about it, sort of, but compared to the sharp lines of that photograph his fantasies were all caresses and quiet confidences, sweetness and abstraction.

“Two sets of questions swirled through Affenlight’s mind – one set to do with Owen’s erotic desires, the other with his own.”

“The Art of Fielding,” everybody!

There is a good baseball story here, about likable shortstop Henry Skrimshander. (Oy, these names.) Henry has real passion for the game’s history, and works like a maniac daily to become a top Major-League prospect at his small school. One day, though, he uncorks a throw to first that gets nabbed in the wind and winds up smashing Owen in the face. Henry suffers a crisis of confidence when he needs his skills the most, and starts making errors every time the ball gets smacked his way.

Henry’s tale would be the stuff of legendary dusty baseball paintings, luxuriating in a vine-wrapped outfield of some bright green 1960s new-suburban sandlot at sunset… if it weren’t buried in backstory like this:

“If Owen thought Jason was slightly better-looking than Affenlight but much better looking than Owen, then Owen thought that Affenlight was better looking than Owen. Which was a compliment. But to be compared unfavorably to an ex-boyfriend: that was a slight. But the conditional had been used: might even have been. It was like an SAT for gay flirting. Not that gay flirting differed from straight flirting. But if it didn’t differ, why was Affenlight so bad at it?”

Because, um, Who cares!? What are the players on the baseball team doing?

So I made it almost halfway through. Some of the characters (catcher Mike Schwartz, especially) are interesting and charming enough to keep a casual book reader like myself engaged almost halfway through, and I might return to “The Art of Fielding” if I can’t think of anything better to read. Or when the show comes out.

But for Christmas my sister got me that new novel by Stephen King, “11/22/63,” about a teacher who travels back in time to stop the JFK assassination. I just started it, and it’s so much cooler than “The Art of Fielding.” I gotta know what’s going on with the Yellow Card Man. Somehow, he knows.

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Yippee Ki Yay, Mother Yuletide

Twas the night before Christmas,

And all through the house,

Not a creature was stirring,

Except the four Grinches comin’ in the rear in standard two-by-two cover formation.

— Theo (He doesn’t actually say “Grinches,” but the rest is right.)

If you watch just one Christmas movie on Jesus’s birthday, you may as well make it the best. You may as well make it “Die Hard.”

What’s that you say? “Die Hard” isn’t the best Christmas movie? Maybe someone who talks to the computer isn’t really the sanest decider of such things. And, anyway, if “Die Hard” isn’t the king of Christmas flicks, what is?

Sure, there are many fantastic iterations of “A Christmas Carol” — Ebenezer Scrooge has been played brilliantly over the years by an eclectic assortment of actors including George C. Scott, Bill Murray and Donald Duck’s uncle, whose name escapes me — and “It’s a Wonderful Life” certainly deserves at least passing consideration as the top Christmas movie.

But get real. Those movies are, essentially, about how money doesn’t buy happiness. Even “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is an indictment of the materialistic mindset.

As awesome Americans we know how stupid that is, because otherwise Obama and the Republicans wouldn’t be negotiating tax deals while schools go unfunded. The Christmas spirit — charity, generosity, joy of giving — is a fine idea, but it’s also a lie. We got to hold on to our money, because it’s ours. George Bailey should have gone to prison.

“A Christmas Story”? Please. We can settle this scientifically through a comprehensive juxtaposition of each film’s violence (how else?):

Analysis One — Weaponry: Ralphie wants an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time. That does sound pretty cool, but Bruce Willis’s John McClane wants a machine gun. So imbued with the Christmas spirit is McClane upon finally receiving this cherished gift, he shares his joy by sending the first terrorist he kills down on an elevator with the corpse decorated in a Santa hat and the words “Now I have a machine gun. Ho, Ho, Ho” written in red across its sweatshirt.

Ralphie’s gun may put eyes out, but McClane’s puts lives out. Thirteen lives, to be exact. So it’s 1-0 “Die Hard.”

Comparison Thing II — Bully beatdown: Ralphie does unleash quite a string of curses as he’s pounding Scut Farkas into the snow. Consider how that fight ends, though … with Ralphie’s mom breaking it up. His mom! Ha! McClane beats up hulking mercenary Karl by bashing his head into metal pipes as he screams “You shoulda heard your brother squeal when I broke his Yuletide neck!” Then he grabs Karl in a headlock and drags him up a flight of stairs while raining massive, bassy blows against his enemy’s bloodied head. “I’m gonna kill ya, I’m gonna cook ya, and I’m gonna Yuletide eat ya!” McClane tells Karl before wrapping a chain around his neck and bouncing his body off a concrete wall. (He doesn’t actually say “Yuletide,” but the rest is right.) Eat it, Ralphie. That’s 2-0 “Die Hard” and the prosecution rests.

The staples of Christmas are everywhere in “Die Hard.” In one of the movie’s earliest scenes, McClane asks nosy limo driver Argyle “Don’t you have any Christmas music?” Argyle responds by turning up Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis”:

It was December 24th on Hollis Ave in the dark

When I seen a man chilling with his dog in the park

I approached very slowly with my heart full of fear

Looked at his dog, oh my God, an ill reindeer

But then I was illin because the man had a beard

And a bag full of goodies, 12 o’clock had neared

So I turned my head a second and the man had gone

But he left his driver’s wallet smack dead on the lawn

I picked the wallet up then I took a pause

Took out the license and it cold said “Santa Claus.”

The film is littered with the wondrous, heart-warming symbols of Christmas, like when Carl Winslow sings “Let it Snow” before his melodious rendition gets cut off by a terrorist’s dead body crashing out his windshield after McClane tosses it from a window 30 stories high.

It doesn’t get more festive than Christmas trees, and there just so happens to be one in the background when McClane first radios police to tell them terrorists have taken over Nakatomi Tower.

“Sir, this line is for emergency purposes only,” a dispatch officer says, her face illuminated by the tree’s lovely little bulbs.

“No mistletoe, lady! Do I sound like I’m ordering a pizza!?” McClane responds. (He doesn’t say “mistletoe,” but the rest is right.)

One small Christmas tree actually gets blasted straight into the air during “Die Hard’s” biggest shootout, when Hans and Karl pin McClane down in an office that’s decorated everywhere with light-up snowmen and candy canes, which McClane sprints past in his bare feet through broken glass. From that point on, McClane is leaving red (Christmas again!) puddles of blood in his wake.

Santa is actually a principal character in “Die Hard,” and he sees way more action than that phony in “Miracle on 34th Street.” Jolly Ol’ Saint Nicholas is in the office when greasy-bearded sleezebag salesman Ellis snorts cocaine, and Kris Kringle comes back again when Ellis gets his head blown off by Hans in a hilarious bit of Christmastime manslaughter.

What’s not to love? Alan Rickman’s Hans has got to be the best Christmas bad guy in movie history, a serpentine criminal genius with a goofball streak, backed by a platoon of mercenaries including the hilarious Theo, whose exclamation once he’s finally cracked the Nakatomi vault sums up the spirit of this season as succinctly as any two words ever could: “Merry Christmas.”

Indeed. Merry Yuletide Christmas.

(This article ran in the Albuquerque Journal last year.)

“The Artist” – a silent movie with a lot to say

So this reporter asks a hot-shot movie actor a question at the premier of his latest big feature. The actor, quite a charismatic fellow, happily replies. Everyone laughs.

A question: Does it matter what either of them said?

“The Artist” is an award-season release destined for glory (or at least near-glory) at the Oscars. But it is not a big movie. It’s all in black-and-white. With two brief and notable exceptions, the entire flick is devoid of any sound besides an orchestra.

Don’t let any of that stop you. “The Artist” may be silent, but it’s also a lot of fun.

Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a big picture star of the 1920s terrified by the encroaching switch from silent films to talkies. He meets a beautiful woman (Berenice Bejo) who is young and talented and steals all his thunder, movie-wise.

Valentin is trailed everywhere by the movie’s coolest character, a Jack Russell (played by Uggie). Uggie steals this movie. He does the “Bang, you’re dead” trick better than any dog I’ve ever seen.

Valentin feels his fame slipping away, though he still loves making movies. The studios are shunning him, so he makes a flick himself, in which he and Uggie and some babe are on an island somewhere. That movie ends with him getting swallowed into quicksand. (“Farewell, Norma. I never loved you.”)

There’s a big fire and some high drama and John Goodman plays a producer. It all stays very PG. There aren’t really any bad guys, and there are some fun comic moments, mostly involving the dog.

What’s most remarkable about this movie, though, is the way you’ll react to it. I didn’t miss hearing what the characters had to say. If something was crucial to know, a card would come up and to tell you what was said, like “Farewell, Norma. I never loved you.” Or “I wish it wasn’t like this, but the public wants fresh meat and the public is never wrong.”

Those cards don’t come up very often, and it’s still so easy to follow.

A lot of people won’t go see “The Artist” because of how it looks and sounds. But there are big, interesting issues being tackled here. Anyone who has ever felt left behind – like a newspaper reporter, to just pick an example off the top of my head – will relate to what it’s saying about stubbornness and acceptance and how artists are meant to fit into the world.

And anyone who wonders sometimes whether there’s too much talking in this world (just turn on the news) will find something to grasp in “The Artist” as well. I enjoyed it as an entertainment (really) but I liked it more as a commentary on our modern media culture, where what people say is so often more important than what they do. Sometimes people should shut up and enjoy the world for what it is.

War Against Dinosaurs From Another Dimension

This is what’s pondered by the type of person who paints Muhammad Ali fighting a dragon in space.

Forcefield!

One day I was standing in line to see some movie (I think it was “Public Enemies”) with a buddy, lamenting how hard it is for Hollywood to come up with original blockbusters. They’re all remakes or sequels or toy lines.

It hit me right then: The blockbuster I want to see is about a war against dinosaurs from another dimension. I saw something on TV once which said there may be alternate universes circling around each other in some vast patch of space/time. When these alternate realities bump into each other, we momentarily are infused with the memories or our alternate selves, and that’s what deja vu is.

So what if our reality collided with a different reality where that meteor never hit the earth? Where dinosaurs still reigned? If the realities stayed stuck, we’d have to fight them. But what would they look like?

Months ago, I sent the question to Slate.com’s Explainer. Today, Slate posted an article asking readers to vote on which unanswered question from the last year they should tackle for the Question of the Year. My question’s there.

It’s No. 14: Let’s say that a meteor never hits the earth, and dinosaurs continue evolving over all the years human beings have grown into what we are today. What would they be like? Would they have a society? A language? iPods?

Please, click this sentence and go to the article to vote for No. 14.

My question is second in voting right now, behind “Why are ugly people smarter?” Vote for it again and again and again, and ask your friends to vote for it too. Once I have the answer, I’ll start writing the screenplay. Michael Bay will direct.

With a gun barrel between your teeth, you speak only in vowels

I didn’t see “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” on Monday because I wimped out. It snowed all day, and the wind picked up once it got dark around 5, and the freeway was closed between here and Colorado. TV news convinced me I didn’t want to be driving to and from Albuquerque for the screening.

Major bummer. “Girl” looks great. Instead, I occupied my time spooning with the dog on my couch and watching a different movie by the same superstar director, David Fincher.

“Fight Club,” 1999, is Fincher’s fourth flick, after “Alien 3” (Two-and-a-half stars. The director famously clashed with the studio and was not completely satisfied with the final cut, which isn’t bad), “Seven” (Four stars. Easily one of the best modern serial killer movies), and “The Game” (Three stars. Michael Douglas and Sean Penn in a giant, real-life role-playing game).

Last year, Fincher’s film “The Social Network” lost the Best Picture Oscar, even though it was the best picture. I loved “The Social Network.” I wrote about it every chance I got.

“Fight Club,” though, has to be the coolest movie in Fincher’s awesome filmography. It’s a dark, funny rager – a much-needed primal scream for the first generation of men born and bred by society to blossom into joyless consumers.

Tyler Durden meets “Fight Club’s” main character (unnamed until the ending. I’ll call him Norton here, because this is my favorite Edward Norton performance) on an airplane, just after a scene where Norton daydreams the side of said airplane gets ripped clean off mid-flight. Norton’s so sick of himself, he says in voiceover, “I prayed for a crash, or a mid-air collision. Anything.”

Durden is a raucous id, played by Brad Pitt with the look and style of a rock star in his prime. The two men first fight at the request of Durden, who out-of-the-blue asks Norton to hit him, hard. Before that, though, Durden confesses what truly concerns him.

Wait a minute. Let’s go back.

Norton knows what he is. There are these great little scenes where his voiceover boringly describes yuppy purchases he makes regularly, “like a coffee table in the shape of a yin yang.” Or a treadmill. These items magically appear, prices hanging over them, in Norton’s trendy apartment as he describes them.

He orders “the Erika Pekkari dust ruffles” by phone from a magazine, while taking a dump.

He hates himself. So much so he can’t sleep. A doctor tells him he needs to lighten up, and that if he wants to see real suffering he should check out the support group for guys with testicular cancer. It’s called “perspective,” little baby.

Norton goes. Bingo. Wearing a fake name, he attends the group to watch men bare their souls about facing mortality. Norton has coasted in his dull life, toward a desk and a tie and a life surrounded by products: “When deep-space exploration ramps up, it’ll be the corporations that name everything: The IBM Stellar Sphere, The Microsoft Galaxy, Planet Starbucks.” With the testicular cancer guys, and with the dying souls in other support groups he crashes, Norton can cry away his guilt.

Check out the American flag lit up in an otherwise dark background when he breaks down the first time, his face pressed between the “big, sweating tits” of Bob the former body builder (played by Meatloaf!). Norton weeps for us all.

A crass, suicidal smoker named Marla Singer (Ugats, Oscar, for ignoring Helena Bonham Carter in the role) starts showing up at groups one day. Norton knows she’s a faker too, and he can’t sleep when his nightly weird release is being spoiled by a “tourist.”

Then something even better than an addiction to support groups comes along. Norton’s apartment explodes. (Behold the cool little special effects scene explaining the explosion, ignited in flashback by Marla’s voice in the present.)

Norton winds up living in Durden’s dump on Paper Street, but not before they meet for beers and Durden explains what truly concerns him:

“We’re consumers. We are byproducts of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty – these things don’t concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines. Television with 500 channels. Some guy’s name on my underwear. Rogaine. Viagra. Olestra.”

And Martha Stewart, polishing the brass on the Titanic, because it’s all going down.

What Durden wonders is something most of us do not: “What’s essential to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word?”

The great essayist and journalist Chuck Klosterman once wrote this of wolves: “I suspect it’s unbelievably stressful to be a wolf. The world would be an endlessly confusing place, because a wolf has limited cognitive potential and understands nothing beyond its instinct and its own experience. Yet the wolf is more engaged with the experience of being alive.”

We are essentially animals on this planet, but what we have become is the opposite of a wolf.

Norton and Durden start fighting each other. They do this because they need something to remind them what it means to be a living creature. They don’t want to be soft. Norton tells Durden one night “I can’t get married. I’m a 30-year-old boy.”

Durden is laying in the bathtub, smoking and drinking beer with a washcloth over his eyes. He responds: “We’re a generation raised by women, and I’m wondering if another woman is really what we need.”

Fight Club grows enormously. Its members transform from wads of cookie dough to carved wood within weeks.

Durden becomes an bold, magnetic leader: “I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. God dammit, an entire generation pumping gas and waiting tables; slaves in white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so that we can buy sh*t we don’t need.”

“Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives.”

Tyler Durden shares with Heath Ledger’s “Dark Knight” Joker a few characteristics, including a fondness for dynamite. They are each men who can’t abide a social order, because it isn’t worth respecting. It’s boxed us in, changed us into something we aren’t. True rebellion frees us to be raging pranksters. Durden works part time as a projectionist so he can splice cock shots into children’s films. He gets waiting jobs at the swankiest hotels so he can pee in their soup. “Apart from seasoning the lobster bisque, he farted on the meringue, sneezed on braised endive, and as for the cream of mushroom soup, well… ”

“Go ahead, tell them.”

“Well, you get the idea.”

This is, sadly, no way for a person to be. Things fall apart. The bold, magnetic leader builds a small team of followers, who turn out to be idiots.

“Fight Club” is about a man who breaks away from what society is telling him to be. Tyler Durden decides to fill his days with intensity because life as a yuppy has sapped the electricity from his soul. This movie revels in a freedom to be creative that comes with giving in to our darkest urges to rage against The Man.

But it does not advocate for such action. The hero loses his way terribly. He puts the movie’s most vicious beating on poor Jared Leto, pounding his face into oozing chuck to put a bullet between the eye of every panda who won’t screw to save its species.

Full-blown terrorism is the ultimate result, and I think that’s because in this world we have to know our place.

In their first meeting on that airplane, Tyler tells Norton he’s clever. Then he asks “How’s that going for you, being clever?” Being clever gets us nothing.

But then again, we can’t be wolves.

This is a great little interview with Pitt and Norton. It’s cool to see how enthusiastic they were about this movie.

Charlize in “Young Adult”

Mavis Gary is an angry drunk who’s mean to her dog. We don’t often see a character like that at the center of a major movie, and this is what makes “Young Adult” so great: It’s a character study about someone we haven’t met before. Originality, especially these days, is something to seek out and cherish.

As is Charlize Theron, who plays Mavis. I wasn’t stalking Charlize when I heard she was hanging out at Joe’s Carraro’s in Albuquerque during the filming of “In the Valley of Elah.” Sure I started going there a lot more often, but it’s got ping pong.

Had we met I would have merely asked her over beers about this scene in “Monster,” the bus stop scene, where all the guilt of serial killing seems to finally take her over.

I don’t know how a person can do that. Acting is amazing. Is it a matter of practicing alone in the mirror somewhere 1,000 times? Does she actually try to become this insane person in her head? Heath Ledger famously hid away in a motel room for more than a month to channel Joker, so did she do something similar? Or maybe she’s thinking of some horrible event from her past that brings this hysterical reaction on naturally.

Charlize is the best. She just is. She won a much-deserved Oscar for playing the monster in “Monster.” She may pick up No. 2 for her dynamic performance as a drunken, catty bitch in “Young Adult,” the darkly entertaining new movie from director Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Thank You For Smoking,” “Up in the Air”) and screenwriter Diablo Cody (won an Oscar for the “Juno” script, also wrote “Jennifer’s Body”).

Charlize on the left. Mavis on the right. Finally, she gets to act in a good movie that doesn't ask her to ugly it up.

When we first meet Mavis, she’s passed out on her bed one sunny morning, fully clothed, flat-screen bedroom TV tuned to a reality show. The first words we hear in the flick come from the show: “Kendra, you are the most beautiful woman.”

What becomes apparent over the zany hour-and-a-half that follows is that Mavis personifies the modern reality-TV culture of oblivious narcissism. She’s an author of young-adult fiction, and throughout “Young Adult” she takes breaks from destroying lives to write the story of popular high-school cheerleader Kendal Strickland. We get the book in spurts of Charlize voice over, like when Kendal wonders “Why was Ryan spending so much time with this dumpy new girl?”

Mavis gets an email from her high school boyfriend Buddy Slade, with a photograph attached of Buddy’s new baby. Between writing and drinking and sleeping with men she doesn’t like, Mavis finds herself logging on to look at the baby’s picture. She’s haunted by it, for some (genuine) reason (revealed at the end of the film).

She sets off from Minneapolis in her Mini Cooper toward home in tiny Mercury, Minn., where she vows to find Buddy and split him up from his saccharin, boring family. It is a mission destined to fail horribly.

Before she reconnects with Buddy in Mercury, Mavis bumps into her old classmate Matt Freehauf at a dive bar, and they get wasted together. Matt is played (perfectly) by the comedian Patton Oswalt. Mavis remembers him as “that hate-crime guy.” In high school he was beaten nearly to death for being gay, even though he isn’t gay. The attack left him permanently injured all over.

Matt and Mavis’s relationship is vital to “Young Adult,” and Oswalt and Theron have a blast playing off one another. Matt doesn’t seem to mind when Mavis is brutally mean to him – he likes being around her in spite of her fire breathing. This could be because she’s dead sexy, or it could be because they are both, for separate reasons, stuck in their adolescent mindsets despite closing in on 40. (He lives with his sister and paints old action figures in his ample spare time.)

What makes Mavis tick in this delicious Cody screenplay? The character is so interesting that we’re constantly on the lookout for clues to her psyche. Two hints come when she tells her parents “I think I might be an alcoholic” (hint one) and they prove themselves lousy guardians by not saying anything in response (hint two).

Check out the first scene in the trailer, when she’s checking into a hotel and has a brief discussion with the clerk about whether or not there’s a dog in her bag:

This is supposed to be funny, and it kind of is. But it also says something about her, that even when caught so completely red-handed she’s unwilling to give back an inch. She stays angrily defiant, despite the dog whimpering only a few feet from her head.

Beyond the script and the acting, the movie’s creepily modern setting will also suck you in. You don’t notice how many other movies take place in another dimension until you see one that doesn’t. “Young Adult” is ensconced in drab normalcy. One scene takes place in one of those Taco Bell-Pizza Hut-Kentucky Fried Chicken combo joints. In another, we watch Mavis walk from her car across the mall parking lot into a giant Macy’s.

The social interactions all ring true too. This movie captures brilliantly the strange, awkward feel of going home and bumping into old high-school acquaintances. Patrick Wilson plays Buddy and does a deft job as a happily married man with a crazy ex desperately throwing herself at him. He keeps smiling and acting friendly, but it can only go so far.

By the end of “Young Adult” we understand Mavis much better. Key moments from her sad past have been dredged. When she meets Buddy’s family, his wife shows Mavis a chart for their baby, with rows of cartoon faces making different expressions. It’s meant to help the baby learn emotions: happy, sad, scared….

“What about neutral?” Mavis says. “What if you don’t feel anything?”

Then something’s missing. That may make you sad and alone, but it doesn’t make you boring. Charlize is a total artist, and “Young Adult” is a great movie.

Muhammad Ali fighting a dragon during the Republican debate

Ron Paul yelled at Fox News thing Brett Bayer that "We don't need another war!" A lot of people seem to wanna go to war with Iran.

On the coolest movie I saw this year, and “War Horse”

Rolling Stone’s awesome movie reviewer Peter Travers picked “Drive” as the best movie of the year. I concur, though this was a really bad year for movies, what with “Battle: Los Angeles” and “Cedar Rapids.”

I saw “War Horse” last night for a review that’ll run at the end of the month. Very cool movie destined for a lot of Oscars nominations. The hero of the flick is Joey the horse, and Joey just kills it. He’s a really great war-movie good guy, and I think I know the biggest reason why.

Tony Soprano in Dr. Melfi’s office, angry at himself for talking to a shrink: “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American.”

The strong, silent type isn’t gone, but he’s certainly endangered, which gives “War Horse” and “Drive” a distinct power. The heroes don’t say anything, and it endears them to us. The Quentin Tarantino chatty gangster was a wonderful type, but talkers have gotten obnoxious. In this age of Twitter and losers who blog every half-cocked movie idea that enters their heads, we pine for animals of action.

Incidentally, this is why the new “Beavis and Butthead” works so well: People on reality shows like “Jersey Shore” aren’t doing anything, and what they’re saying is stupid. Modern popular culture is ripe to be made fun of by a pair of couch-potato idiots.

I’m seeing “The Artist” tomorrow for another review. (I know, I’m lucky. Plus, “The Artist” was Travers’s No. 2 movie of 2011.) It’s totally silent, about film stars of the silent-movie era. Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times that “The Artist” is commentary on this modern society where silence is dying because we’re all so constantly inundated with media. I think I’m gonna like it.

Now you’ll have to excuse me, because I have other places on the internet to be. Apparently Romney blasted Gingrich as “an unreliable leader.” I must know what Newt replied, and then how Mitt replied to Newt’s reply. Oh, and for the second straight week ESPN is has 50 separate analysts spending 55 minutes out of every hour speculating about where Chris Paul and Dwight Howard will be traded. Those speculations are like sweet maple syrup injected directly into a vein; no matter that they’re always wrong.

OK. One more “Drive” clip. I would never say Driver’s silence is the only thing that makes this movie so fantastic, just that it helps. There are a lot of really interesting, wonderful elements to “Drive,” (like the music in this clip). This movie will endure.

 

 

On fandom, Raab, LeBron, Karl Malone, and me

“Lighting bolts from my fingertips!”

I was standing in my kitchen, feet and hands out wide, palms pointed toward the sky. Facing Erin. I had just violently thrown on my purple Karl Malone jersey, the one with the original music-note logo.

This was Tuesday night. Wednesday, I was to spend the daylight hours flying on my snowboard down the steep, deep runs at glorious Wolf Creek. (Ski Santa Fe has 24 inches of snow as I type this. Wolf Creek reports 163 inches. God is trying to bury that place in snow, and I thank him for that.)

I left Erin’s sight. Took off the Malone jersey. Put on and zipped up my puffy, down snowboarding jacket. It’s an Oakley. Color: desert camo. With sweet wrist gators. Pulled the  jersey back on. It’s tight against the puffiness, but the lengths match. I like how the purple and yellow jersey works with the varying shades of brown and yellow in the desert camo.

Dope, no?

Strutted back into the kitchen. Erin sees my sick getup. We lock eyes for a few awkward seconds. Hers roll. “That looks so stupid.” Direct quote.

No duh it does. But it’s awesome. Totally awesome.

I have worn the Malone jersey on the slopes at least a dozen times. It infuses an obligation to excel. I ride my ass off when I’m sporting Mailman’s colors. Have to, because people can see me. I’m standing out. If you’re gonna do something to brazenly draw attention, you’d better represent.

Motivation to shred like an action hero is not the reason I do this, however. I do it because I want people to think about Malone. Remember him. Or at the very least wonder who the hell “Malone,” “32,” “Utah Jazz” is.

Numerous times, I’ve heard the hollers from the ski lift, or from Texan skiers taking one of the 30-or-so breaks they feel every run requires: “Malone?! He sucks!” “Boooo!” “Karl Malone, man?! What the hell?” This always makes me smile wide beneath my big goggles.

I know people hate Malone, a rugged NBA banger prone to dirty play; a hickish choker who was Michael Jordan’s greatest foil of the ’90s. Being the second-best player at the time of Jordan, on a team from Salt Lake City, with ugly uniforms and two white guards who wore short shorts, does not endear a man to the sports world at large.

But I love Malone. I was born in Salt Lake City and have loved the Jazz since before I can remember. I was in high school when John Stockton’s shot over Barkley sent Utah to its first NBA Finals; I jumped around my house cheering, fists in the air. Jordan’s flu game and the shot over Byron (OK, it’s “Bryon”) Russell still make me sad.

Jerk.

Me on a snowboard zipping under lifts while wearing the loud, ugly jersey of a player everyone else thinks sucks (if they remember him at all) is a pretty solid example of sports fandom, I think: irrational and deeply strange.

I know Jordan was the better player. I understand his greatness and am thankful to have seen him dominate in my lifetime. He’s got to be the greatest athlete in American sports history. But I don’t love Jordan. I love Malone and Stockton and those Utah Jazz teams of my youth. So occasionally I metaphorically rub that fact into the faces of others. Not because anyone’s asking for it, but because I want that flash in their mind of this man I so revere, and while the Jazz might be lame, I’m stuck with them.

What else would I do to exert my crazy fandom?

Esquire magazine’s subversive, brilliant, prolific writer Scott Raab has Chief Wahoo, the mildly offensive Cleveland Indians mascot, tattooed onto his forearm. He was a Cleveland Cavaliers fan in 1970, the team’s first season. He carries around with him a ticket stub from December 27, 1964. He sat in the lower bowl of Cleveland Stadium that day and watched Jim Brown lead the Browns over Johnny Unitas’s Colts for the NFL championship. It’s the last championship any Cleveland team has won.

“I was twelve years old. Old enough to stand fast, amid men warmed by whiskey and their fiery love for the Browns, and drink in the sight of 80,000 of our number rising as the clock ticked toward infinity, fixing that victory forever as a fact of history, past insult or dispute. That flag still flies in my soul. That roar still echoes in my ears. The vision – of Cleveland triumphant, of Cleveland fans in communal thrall to a joy beyond all worlds, of a Cleveland team lifting the town’s immortal heart to heaven – still fills my eyes. I’m fifty-nine years old now, far from Cleveland in every way save one: I still live with the Browns, the Indians and the Cavaliers, and I will die with them.”

What Raab did to exert his crazy fandom was go on a mission after LeBron James’s soul. Because what LeBron James did to Cleveland demonstrates an outrageous indifference toward fandom Raab could not abide. LeBron dissed Raab’s team and, more importantly, his city. He had to pay.

Imagine a 350-plus-pound, bearded old Jewish man, so fat his legs have to be slathered in cream and wrapped. His feet so swollen he waddles about in size 14 Crocs. That’s the creature pursuing LeBron James’s soul like Gollum after the One Ring to Rule Them All. Raab sits in the front row of LeBron’s press conferences not taking notes or asking questions. Just staring, with hate in his eyes.

LeBron is fantastically talented, a born natural at his craft. That must be understood. Raab told him, pre-betrayal, “I saw Oscar in his prime. Michael. Magic. All of them. And you’re the best basketball player I’ve ever seen. Thank you.”

What can a professional sports talent like LeBron mean to a city? Watch these final seconds from a live news broadcast in Cleveland, running simultaneously against a live Cavaliers playoff game, which LeBron won at the buzzer with a shot from 30 feet away. This is a biracial, multi-gender portrait of the city itself reacting to LeBron’s on-court exploits:

Spontaneous joy.

Raab writes that he “sat in a hotel room in Hollywood alone on May 31, 2007, alone, awestruck, and weeping as he scored the Cavs’ last 25 points and destroyed the Detroit Pistons in a double-overtime playoff victory, the single most astonishing performance by any Cleveland athlete I’ve ever seen.”

We watched that live in the bar Uptown in Albuquerque, and everyone there was freaking out.

So he is, unquestionably, a singular talent. All those skills in one 6-foot-8, 270-pound package is a gift for sports fans.

But he is also tragically flawed. He chokes. He gets to the cusp of the finals (or even to the finals) after MVP seasons and suddenly plays inexplicably terrible basketball. This is a man going bald at 26. As a child prodigy, he had to become polished for the press at 13. His failures don’t make him hateable. They make him Citizen Kane.

Jordan came up before this horrible culture machine of highlights and sports pundits could seek him out young and destroy him. He famously was cut from his high school basketball team. (Actually, he dominated on junior varsity.) He went to college for three years, at North Carolina,  and won a championship there. (LeBron went straight into the NBA.) When the fame machine cranked up on Jordan after he won three Bulls titles in a row – and after he became the world’s most famous pitch man – Jordan took a two-year break from basketball for grounding in minor-league baseball, a move widely ridiculed. Then he came back to hoops better than ever and won three more championships to bring his total to six. LeBron hasn’t won one.

The timing was unfortunate for self-proclaimed “King James.” He came after Jordan, and was consumed wholly by the fame machine Jordan had wrought.

Raab has a different take on LeBron. He hates him. The LeBron hating is complete enough that a Tweet about dessert from @KingJames sets Raab off. Raab tweets: “Broussard sez @KingJames having pineapple upside down cake tom’w. Bucher doing recipe book. Wilbon to query chef. J Gray wiping Bron’s ass.”

“The Decision.” It gets to the core of the hatred. Broussard, Bucher, Wilbon and Jim Gray are all very famous basketball reporters whom Raab despises for “felating” LeBron on television throughout “The Decision.” See, LeBron didn’t merely leave Cleveland when his contract was up, he announced his new team in a live, one-hour special on ESPN. Cleveland fans thought he still might stay. Many of them thought he still might stay because it would be pretty damn mean to tell them you’re leaving with a show like this:

That announcement came after a half-hour of completely uninteresting questions like “How have you been sleeping these days?”

Here’s some reaction from Cavaliers fans. Check out the little interviews at the end. Consider about how this clip compares to the TV news one.

They wanted him to stay because he’s the best player in the NBA. LeBron is faster than anyone else. He’s the league’s best passer, scorer and defender. His team would have been a joke – the worst – without him. With him it won more games than anyone else each of his last two seasons.

They wanted him to stay, also, because he’s from a half-hour away in Akron, and he’d told them he understood the pain of Cleveland fandom from having grown up in it. In all these years since 12-year-old Raab watched the Browns win the NFL Championship (they have never won the Super Bowl, which the title game was named later) it’s been pure misery to root for Cleveland. In “Whore of Akron,” Raab describes with searing honesty his battles against drug addiction, weight gain and depression. He is big and sad, full of passion and angst. He personifies Cleveland fandom, with its inherent misery.

In one of his latter seasons with the Cavs, LeBron showed up at a playoff game between the Indians and the Yankees… wearing a Yankees hat. Raab wrote this then: “The sooner this son of a bitch hauls his ass out of Ohio, the better.”

Cavaliers fans were incensed with Raab for dissing The King. “Not because they didn’t love Cleveland and the Cavaliers and Browns and Indians, but because they weren’t old enough to have known Cleveland when Cleveland felt any collective pride and dignity. Having lived their whole lives in a punch line, having watched their favorite ballplayers leave as free agents or in lopsided trades, having seen each local franchises build a team seemingly good enough to win it all but doomed to fail in the end, often under circumstances so absurdly painful that some of them came to believe the town was actually cursed: Pride and dignity were foreign to a fan base whose daily bread had forever tasted of ash.”

When he finally did leave them – with that stupid, spectacular mistake called “The Decision” – it bulldozed an entire fan base.

“For seven years, LeBron did the same thing as any trollop worth her taxi fare: he made the right noises, told us how good it felt, how big we were, how he loved us, how special we were. He never even told us not to touch his hair.

“Oh, we knew – some of us knew better than others, of course – that he was only a child, and a child born unto a hapless mother more or less a child herself. His vast sense of childish entitlement seemed to speak louder every season. But, lord, the sex was fine. And there was very little he wouldn’t or couldn’t do; he’d even play in the low post once in a while. Good as he was from the get-go, he got better each time around. LeBron James put out like no one else.”

Raab stalks LeBron in Miami. Because he doesn’t hide his mission or venom from the Heat organization, he finds himself banned from practices and denied media credentials to games. He still gets there, though, and doesn’t hold back on Miami’s fans, who are issued a special book to tell them how to cheer and who don’t turn out on time for huge playoff games. “Sun-dried cretins,” he calls them. Raab heckles at LeBron. Stares him down in press conferences. Insults him viciously on the internet.

He knows it’s all crazy. But he’s a fan. He can’t help it.

“I acknowledge the validity of the view that fanhood is a matter of rooting for laundry,” Raab writes, “that the names on the back of the jersey will change as the years go by, and that loyalty – the word tattooed in cursive script running up LeBron’s left rib cage – is not integral to the business of pro sports. It’s a one-way street stretching from the fan to the franchise to the players.”

There was a really great Radio Lab podcast recently, all about why sports fans root for teams. It began with a San Jose Sharks fan talking about a day when they’d choked in the playoffs for the umpteenth time. The Sharks were always one of the best teams in hockey, and they always folded to lesser teams come playoff time. Always. The speaker said he found himself looking at the skyline of his city, a spectacular sight which had never failed to lift his spirits. Except all he could think after that Sharks loss was “Burn! Buuuuuuuuuuuurn!”

It sounds insane. Raab’s book on pursuing LeBron’s sole articulated like nothing else I’ve ever read why a person would throw on a Malone jersey for a day at Wolf Creek: Sports fandom makes us insane. It’s beautiful that way.

“Take Shelter.” But what from?

"Take Shelter" is entertaining, depressing, tense, scary, unfunny. Great acting (Shannon for an Oscar!), and a mind-blowing ending

If you think the economic system in America is making you crazy, you’re wrong. You aren’t crazy. Things actually are this bad, and they’re about to get worse. There’s a dark, violent storm coming, with huge lighting and poisonous rain and tornadoes and zombies. Metaphorically speaking.

So sayeth “Take Shelter,” an awesome new movie starring the great weirdo Michael Shannon. “Take Shelter” mixes essence of horror into family drama. It has something deep and angry to say about society.

A big, scary storm doesn’t have to be so metaphorical in a movie.

Shannon plays Curtis, a kind, quiet, small-town Ohio family man. Curtis’s wife is a little redhead played by Jessica Chastain (recently of most movies in theaters, including “The Debt,” “The Help” and “Tree of Life”). Their young daughter is cute and brown-haired and deaf.

Curtis begins to suffer terrible nightmares, which we experience with him to jarring effect. There is a massive storm in the dreams,
punctuated by booming thunder or thick rain that looks and feels like fresh motor oil.

The dreams get progressively more terrifying. Strangers whose faces we can’t see will attack Curtis from outside in the motor-oil rain, and pull his screaming daughter from his arms. He is badly mauled by his dog in one dream, and finds that in waking life he’s grown scared of the pooch.

As is wont to happen in such movies, the line between the dream world and the real world starts to blur. Curtis believes something heavy is at work in his head. He becomes sadly, desperately scared for his family, convinced a life-threatening storm really is on its way. He takes out a risky loan to build a fortified storm shelter.

What’s Curtis really afraid of? Losing his health insurance. Seriously. His daughter is in line for an ocular transplant to restore her hearing. That real dream dies if Curtis loses his job.

Finances are key. There are brief moments in “Take Shelter” when we see the high cost of putting gas in his truck, or glimpse how difficult it is for this family to save some money for a beach vacation.

The storm is literal in the film, but what it represents is the destruction of the middle class. Our grasp of the American dream has become so tenuous, the film suggests, we may have crossed a tipping point into hopelessness. (Full disclosure: I think a lot of movies are about this same subject , including “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” I’m right though.)

Curtis worries he’s going insane, and visits his mother at a mental institution to discuss her descent into paranoid schizophrenia when he was a boy. He needs a real doctor, but the only medical care he can get is inadequate counseling at a local clinic, where his worries aren’t appeased.

Shannon personifies fear in this flick. His performance is amazing. The movie’s highlight is its soul-wrenching finale – which hits like a battering ram – but the entire psychologically twisted tale is a ride worth taking, in large part because his performance is so affecting.

Shannon’s face could be a painting titled “Torment.” One of his big, unblinking blue eyes appears a bit wider than the other; his lips barely part when he talks.

He performed fascinatingly in the even more paranoid (and great) “Bug” in 2006. Two years later, he schooled Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet with an Oscar-nominated 10-minute performance that stole “Revolutionary Road.”

I love this scene. Watch how angry he makes Leo, and that great bit where he disses his mom, played by Kathy Bates:

Sweet parting shot.

(He’s also fantastic as a repressed, overly religious madman hunting bootleggers for the government in HBO’s prohibition-era gangster epic “Boardwalk Empire.” And he’s playing General Zod in the “Superman” movie they’re making right now.)

Again, the ending of “Take Shelter” is a beast, the freaky cap on a fast-pace buildup of tension including Curtis’s public freakout at a community dinner. I won’t say what happens – you should really experience this flick for yourself – but know that it does settle what’s happening to Curtis, crystallizing a fear of the immediate future many Americans probably share. This is a movie that hits home, and chills to the core.

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