Wednesday, April 29, 2009


As Good As News has run too many posts to count on torture - just search this blog for "torture" - dozens of posts will appear and most of them, well at least 10%, are serious. Generally we are against torture and particularly upset with Dr. Yes and the other lawyers who strained to opine that interrogation techniques which, historically, had been prosecuted as war crimes are now OK.

Today, stirred by the overkill of coverage on the torture memos release (what's so new here MSM and where have you been for the last five years), for one day only, we will look for another side to the torture issue.

At least one form of torture, though cruel and fiendish beyond comprehension, will not violate the Geneva Convention, or any US law or treaty. The morality of this technique - well, we leave that to the judgment of our readers.

The prisoner is informed, truthfully, that if he can break par on a serious golf course he will be released, no strings attached. The prisoner is provided with equipment, lessons, unlimited practice time - in other words, a fighting chance to break par. The prisoner is then required to play 183 rounds in one month at Augusta National. No prisoner has won freedom. In fact, no prisoner has survived more than 17 rounds without breaking. By breaking we mean weeping like a baby, begging to return to Gitmo, offering the footnotes to Al Qaeda's long-term strategic plan. With waterboarding, you pretty much know it's going to be bad when they cover your face and you hear the water sloshing in the background. Only golf offers the tantalizing promise of the great shot, followed inevitably by the shank, snap hook, missed two foot putt, etc. Somehow the pain of the bad shot is always a surprise, even when it has happened a thousand times before. The more athletic prisoners get the worst of the golf torture, as the dream of freedom seems almost real on a hot streak, only to disappear, like an approach shot that lands a little hard on the wrong side of the green and slides gently into the adjacent bunker.

A second thought is stirred by Peggy Noonan's "sometimes it's better to just keep on walking" response to Obama's release of the torture memos. Didn't Goring say that at Nuremberg? When Jack Bauer saves Los Angeles by extracting the location of a dirty nuclear bomb from a recalcitrant terrorist in the heat of the moment, As Good As News will say "just keep on walking". When military and CIA interrogators seek legal opinions and cabinet level clearances for the use of torture as a regular interrogation technique- and get them - it's time for Nancy Sinatra, not Peggy Noonan. Dr. Yes, one of these days those boots are gonna walk all over you.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Song Sung Blue

Greg Kohs delivers his first film, a documentary that follows the lives of Mike Sardina, a very good Neil Diamond tribute act, performing as Lightning, who falls for Claire , a big blond with a big voice and a Patsy Cline repertoire. Together they are Lightning and Thunder, as they become Milwaukee celebrities in a career that hits its highpoint in an appearance before 30,000 fans at Summerfest, with Eddie Vedder singing along.

Offstage they sometimes seem like two goofballs. They don't have much time for their kids from prior marriages (two of whom live with them.) They live in a small house, made even smaller by clutter. They eat a balanced diet of Cheetos and cola and have a detailed career plan - make it big enough to move to Vegas. When middle age spread hits they address the chain smoking.

When Thunder is struck by a car while gardening in her own front yard, she loses part of her leg. This is the real beginning of Song Sung Blue, but Director Greg Kohs successfully incorporates so much material from performance tapes and the Sardina's older home footage that it seems like the beginning of the second act. The accident produces some instant publicity, but it ends up costing them gigs as pain, medication and money problems strain their marriage. Just as they seem to be rebooting for a life where they can survive by performing in small venues, Lightning's heart begins to give out. Even a quintuple by-pass can't keep him off the stage for long, but, it's only a temporary reprieve. Lightning's death, and a very touching gift from Eddie Vedder, give the film an emotional climax and an ending.

Through it all, Lightning and Thunder have a certain appeal. Sometimes it's the fascination of watching a train bear down on a school bus stuck at a rail crossing, but the film is not a freak show. Their love of performing and their love for each other is indefatigable and sometimes winning. Mike's illness also provokes Kohs into finally revealing Mike's history as a Viet Nam veteran and recovering addict, a man who went 30 years without touching heroin or alcohol despite a life spent in bars and clubs. Mike's inner strength isn't the only surprise. Step-daughter Rachel, who is consistently portrayed as a whining, ungrateful dope, writes and delivers a shockingly articulate eulogy at Mike's funeral.

Song Sung Blue has its moments. Mike's Neil Diamond covers are fun and very well-done. The arrival of Eddie Vedder's gift is a moment so exceptionally apt it's hard to believe it's in a documentry. However, As Good As News does not recommend the film for most audiences. Song Sung Blue spends the first 75 of its 85 minutes focused on the most cinematic foibles of the Sardina clan. Their love of each other and drive to perform makes them somewhat interesting, but doesn't generate as much empathy as it could. Mike's grit and Rachel's smarts didn't happen overnight in real life. The deeper character revelation packed into the last few minutes should have begun earlier in the film, the whole family would have been more believable, more like us, if we had seen some of those extra dimensions from the start.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Merry Gentleman

This Gent starts with a silent bang. Black clad Frank Logan (Michael Keaton) executes an unsuspecting victim in a hit for hire. Logan may work in a tailor shop, but with his grizzled silence, broken mostly by hacking coughs, he's no suave Man from UNCLE. The scene shifts to Kate Frazier (Kelly Macdonald), who stews and cries following a beating from her husband Michael (a cop played by Bobby Cannavale in a small but significant role), then flees to Chicago, where covering her trail means having no past. Logan, now sniping from a rooftop, spots Kate in her new office through his telescopic site, then shifts his focus to knock off his intended victim. After the kill, Logan steps to the ledge of his rooftop with uncertain intent, attracting the attention of Kate as she exits her office. Kate screams to disrupt what she views as an impending suicide, surprising Logan, who falls back onto the roof as his hat sails to the ground. Elapsed time - approximately ten minutes. Total words of dialog - less than 200.

The police are summoned and we meet Dave Murcheson (Tom Bastounes), a chubby but handsome, divorced, chain-smoking alcoholic who likes Kate and is worried she won't like him back. The pace slows slightly and the characters begin to speak, albeit occasionally and furtively. Kate suffers through the holiday party at her new office, stopping to buy a Christmas tree as she cabs home. Kate tries to muscle the tree into her apartment, losing a farcical wrestling match as she's pinned on her own stoop. A mysterious stranger comes to the rescue, but when the camera moves from black shoe to black slacks to black coat to ...Mr. Logan, I presume. Coincidence? OK, The Gent is noir, not neo-neo but it is moving along nicely with signs of suspense and humor. Four characters introduced and propelled into a pattern that insures they will meet again, dire consequences to follow.

Suddenly the film shifts into very low gear. That would be very low as in neutral. The story inches forward almost imperceptibly as the characters reveal themselves with small, usually subtle gestures. The mood turns reflective, literally. Key scenes include mirrored reflections of speaking characters, lights bouncing off water in one dark scene after another. Logan, Dave and Diane (Darlene Hunt) a friend from the office, all want to get to know Kate, who's having little of it. Finally Michael reappears and things start moving, at a measured but discernible pace, to a very non-Hollywood resolution.

This is Keaton's first film as a director and it has a lot to offer. The characters are nuanced and usually interesting, thanks to solid, sometimes engaging work by the entire cast, particularly Macdonald. Keaton's low key performance makes a tough sell - the hit man with no life but a soft spot for Kate - credible. As always, As Good As News appreciates humor and it's scattered throughout this film. Kate's wit appears several times. Ms Hunt and Guy Van Swearingen, as Dave's partner, contribute strong performances in character roles that carry much of the comic load.

Despite the film's assets, the pace on that long march after the fast start and before the ambiguous finish was so slow that As Good As News dropped by the wayside. Fans of indie character studies with a taste for suspense may want to rent The Merry Gentleman, but it is not for most audiences.

Texas Finally On Way Out

It took several posts here [there are too many to link, it turns out As Good As News has been undermining the Union for some time, just search this blog for Texas] to get the ball rolling, but Texas succession is finally getting some backing from that state's highest elected official. Governor Perry seems to view this as a low key threat, or perhaps he just thought it would be fun to pander to an angry mob. 49 other states are screaming, "Please Don't Throw Us Into That Brier Patch, Governor Perry!"

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Accent on Youth - Mad Comedy Scientists Create Romance With No Heart

David Hyde Pierce [revisits his award winning role as Niles Crane? - not entirely fair] milks every laugh from some witty dialog in the otherwise unremarkable Accent on Youth, a Manhattan Theater Club production now in previews. Steven Gaye (Pierce) is a playwright with a long string of successful Broadway comedies under his belt. After rounding age 51 ( or 53 or maybe it's 54) he writes a tragedy dealing with themes of December-May romance. Attempting to cast a leading lady, Gaye meets with a much younger old flame (Rosie Benton). Sparks fly. Gaye is prepared to chuck it all and flee to Finland with his renewed love when his (much younger, naturally) assistant Linda Brown (Mary Catherine Garrison) surprisingly declares her adoration. Gaye is smitten yet again, with inspiration. Suddenly, it's forget Finland. With a new first act inspired by Brown's revelation, the play succeeds. The former assistant captures the female lead in Gaye's new play and his life. Dickie Reynolds (David Furr) a handsome, inarticulate man's man, looms in the background as the male lead in that new play. Comedy ensues.

With sometimes inspired dialog and a few characters successfully walking the edge of farce, there are laughs present here. Pierce captures them with help from Rosie Benton and Charles Kimbrough (Jim Dial from Murphy Brown) as his valet. The predictable plot, thin characters, uninspired performances from Garrison and Furr and a somewhat one dimensional performance from Pierce himself don't generate much empathy, nor much joy when all is resolved. The result is a comedy that gets laughs, but doesn't explore any new ground and doesn't produce much of that Broadway non-black comedy staple, the emotional uplift.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Pirate Problem Solved

Fuji Watch - Day 12 - Fuji is sentenced to 25 years for human rights abuses (these abuses included 25 killings by government controlled death squads). He was already serving a six year term for ordering an illegal search of the home of Montesinos, his intelligence chief and henchman. One likely result, 31 years is enough so that Fuji will never stand trial for turning Peru into a near kleptocracy (or at the very least, standing by and cheering for his bagman Montesinos) in the 1990s. Many who aided and abetted this broad conspiracy, including members of the elite who are still serving at high level jobs in government and the private sector, are breathing a sigh of relief.

Phil Spector - Now convicted of murder. Will he go over the Wall (of sound) or just scare the guards to death?

Pirates - Really? Pirates who capture ships, not just guys in costume who tell a lot of ARRRRRRRRRR jokes? Yes, Pirates. Pirates who kill people, not just a team that hasn't won anything since Barry Bonds left? Yes, Pirates. Pirates who take hostages and vow revenge, not just kids, and movie critics, who revel in illegal downloads? Yes, Pirates. What do we do, it's not like Somalia is going to stop them? It's all taken care of. What? The pirates have decided they would rather surrender to the French than run into any more Navy Seals.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Why Treeless Montain is different from One Tree Hill, coming to terms with the Neo-neo Realists and the Holden Caulfield School of Cinema.

OK, the title alone is too long to tweet, but hang in there. If you read this post you will be able to comment on A.O. Scott's recent NY Times piece Neo-neo Realism and the subsequent exchange between Richard Brody of The New Yorker and Scott. You will not necessarily be able to comment intelligently (since you will know only what I tell you), but when the subject comes up (and it will) you shall name relevant names to the wonderment of those around you who had you pegged as an unemployed beer taster on a busman's holiday.

Why should you come to As Good As News for a neo-neo realism primer? Because we'll cover it all in the form of FAQs. Take that Times and New Yorker.

FAQs sound too good to be true, does As Good As News actually know anything about neo-neo realism - most of your reviews seem to revolve around the question of whether Joe Sixpack will like a movie or not? Fear not. Through an unlikely chain of events, yours truly saw Treeless Mountain tonight, attended a Harvard Film Archive presentation of Goodbye Solo featuring a post screening discussion with director Ramin Bahrani on Saturday and watched The Little Fugitive on Wednesday. All three films play a role in the neo-neo realist debate, as do Wendy and Lucy, reviewed here, and Man Push Cart and Frozen River, viewed fairly recently thanks to the wonder of Netflix and my ever vigilant spouse. True, As Good As News takes Transformers (a dreadful movie with Megan Fox) over Truffaut, thinks Rossellini is a guy who married Ingrid Bergman and is not intimately familiar with the works of legendary Iranian indie filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (does Iran even have studios). Unlike the rest of the Harvard archive audience, As Good As News has not taken the Boston University course on Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu (confused here, but only momentarily, with ouzo). BUT, with a writing class at the New School and a session at the Manhattan Comedy School under my belt (not to mention three dusty diplomas in the attic) I have the credentials to prove I can bs when necessary, so I can and will provide enough information to help you out in that potentially embarrassing bar room discussion.

I'll bite, what's neo-neo realism? That question may be the core of the Scott-Brody debate and it's too complex for comprehensive coverage here (1). One thing Ramin Bahrani said on Friday (he said it more eloquently, this is not a quote) goes to the heart of the question. His goal is to avoid any artifice in story or production that would be noticeable to the viewer. The movie might be set in an unusual corner of the world, but within the context of that setting everything should occur just as it would in real life. No plot twists. No against the odds happy endings. No special effects. No "acting". The writer, director, even the cast in a way, must be an invisible hand, guiding the story while rigorously avoiding anything that feels phony. The neo-neo movies that Scott and Brody have put into focus are blue collar (or underclass), character driven indies, but is there any theoretical reason why a neo- neo could not be a carefully crafted studio pic set on the polo fields of Saratoga Springs - rarefied, but real nonetheless? Maybe, there are no rules on defining neo-neo realism, but there is a tendency to include an element of social realism, limiting the field to the everyday lives of the proletariat.

Nothing phony - OK, now we get that Holden Caulfield reference in the title, but is MTV Road Rules neo-neo reality TV? A million monkeys banging on a million keyboards might MTV might..NO, NO, NO. Neo-neo realism is a narrative form. Character development and story exist under very complete, careful control (2). In fact, the directors tend to extreme control. Many use non-professional actors, keep the scripts (which are detailed) in high security lock-up, feed the actors their lines just before a take and then shoot take after take- until the actor is just too worn down to attempt anything phony.

So the neo-neo directors are in complete control of every detail in something that's supposed to be "natural", isn't that phony? Every storyteller has a point of view. Even Holden Caulfield was deciding subjectively who was phony and who wasn't, all the while establishing his own personae (and we won't even mention Salinger and the whole anti-Hollywood thing, it just gets too complicated). The point of neo-neo realism is not to achieve some abstract nirvana of anti-phoniness, the point is to never, ever seem phony to the viewer.

Nothing that SEEMS phony, got it. But are you telling me Michelle Williams didn't even get to see a script for Wendy and Lucey? No. Don't know for sure, but As Good As News is betting she read a script before she agreed to do the picture. Her performance was a bright spot in a dismal swamp. Similarly, Ramin Bahrani used professional actors (Red West and Souleymane Sy Savane) for the first time as the leads in Goodbye Solo. They got scripts and the results were two very strong performances. The whole avoiding "acting" by using amateurs and keeping the script secret schtick (3)may be more budget side effect than control issue. Let's see what happens when more of the neo-neo directors can afford to hire expert, established experienced (4) actors who expect to be partners in a creative process.

Why neo-neo, isn't it all just realism? Not clear. Brody points to The Little Fugitive (American indie pioneers Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Ashley take the first chest mounted cam to Coney Island in 1953 and phoniness is scarce indeed) and asks the same question. Must we divide Less Than Zero, Last Exit to Brooklyn and Red Badge of Courage into neo-neo, neo and realism? If we accept a new label, do we risk limiting the artists working in that genre? Maybe no one will ever shoot that great, and totally realistic, movie about the polo set in Saratoga Springs because neo-neo realism will turn into a blue collar ghetto once the concrete sets around the definition. This is a point Brody makes in a more negative way, but let's view it as a plus. The best efforts of the neo-neos link to older traditions and show a curiosity about the unexplored corners of society, why wall off a new genre. If one accepts the "nothing that seems phony" definition , then a neo-neo picture can still have a big (but very carefully considered) budget, it can use stars, maybe even some (very carefully considered) special effects. So neo-neo is OK by As Good As News, provided it's not a blue collar ghetto (and we mean that in every sense, bigger budget pictures, middle and upper class subjects- all OK if treated properly). As a genre, neo-neo need not be about separation, but about restoration of the no phonies allowed ethic that can be applied with any budget to any subject if the artists are sufficiently dedicated and skilled.

Should I tell my new friends in the bar that I like neo-neo realism? It's your call. The neo-neos are choosing to abjure much of what most movie goers enjoy - the plot twist, the car chase, the leading lady more glamorous than real life, the sudden explosion of stars as the ship goes into hyper drive, the dialog that's just too funny to be true, etc. The neo-neos can and do make great movies that appeal to a fairly wide audience, but including the "phony" greatly expands the movie maker's canvas, the scope of stories and experiences the movie can bring to the audience. Audiences are willing to suspend disbelief and accept the phony, up to a point. The location of that point varies with the quality of the characters, the story and the production. Making the audience accept, even love, the "phony" has long been part of the job for most movie-makers. Making the phony "true", that is consistent with the characters and story the movie has created and thus believable to the audience, is an art too. So, do you want your movies to make you believe the phony or just give that phony up for a permanent Lent? Most will miss their phony, but in that bar room discussion, the neo-neos will be the hot team for the next few months.

Enough already, which movies should I see? Hard core Joe Sixpack should pretty much forget every movie mentioned in this post except Frozen River. Mellisa Leo deserved that Oscar, not just for Frozen River but for putting up with being cut out of the movie, but not the credits, in The Cake Eaters. If you are still reading this post, you are not hard core Joe Sixpack. Try two entries from Ramin Bahrani - Man Push Cart (a character study which has some extra impact in the post 9/11 era), then Goodbye Solo (a Winston-Salem cabbie butts into the life of a gruff passenger on a mission). Bahrani jumps into his stories, builds real characters without visible artifice and controls his narrative sufficiently to add suspense. Still interested? Follow Mr. Brody back to the origins. Revisit New York with Engel and Orkin in The Little Fugitive and (and/or Weddings and Babies, Lovers and Lollipops) while the NYC of Man Push Cart is fresh in your mind. If you are still with the program, try Treeless Mountain - a slow-paced, mostly melancholy story with very real and somewhat likeable main characters (two young Korean girls), a discernible storyline and an ending that will not require you to consider suicide. Under no circumstances should you see Wendy & Lucy. It is a darling of the festival circuit. Michelle Williams does deserve all the praise she has received, but the plot is like watching a turd in a toilet bowl after it has begun circling. If you are hungry for more neo-neo, then try something As Good As News has not seen (yes, you can use the links and actually see what Scott and Brody have to say) or see one of two outliers reviewed here - Canvas or The Black Balloon, both are very realistic stories of families dealing with medical problems. Both are only borderline neo-neo candidates because they show a little bit of artifice in establishing the ability of the family to cope with reality. However, the bright side is a realistic bright side and it's not stretching too far to consider these films, particularly Canvas, for membership in the neo-neo club.

(1)(2)(3)(4) - footnotes? you must be crazy, those numbers were just a feeble effort to get Spiro T. Agnew alliteration credit.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Sleep Dealer - It's Not About Black Market Halcion

Sleep Dealer is a story of connection and disconnection set in a future so near it's already the land of the possible. Memo (Luis Fernando Pena) is a bored young man living on a milpa (everyone but me apparently already knew this is a farm where corn and beans grow symbiotically in the same field) in very rural Santa Ana, Oaxaca, Mexico. The town is arid, its river dammed into a reservoir guarded by an electronic perimeter, its water sold locally only by the liter for an exorbitant price. Memo's father dreams of the river's return. Memo dreams of getting away.

Memo hacks into the universe just to hear something that's not Santa Ana, but intercepts the signal from the reservoir security system, igniting disaster for his family. A drone military aircraft, piloted from San Diego by Rudy (Jacob Vargas), a new recruit on his first mission, terminates an aqua terrorist attack on the reservoir with extreme prejudice. The terrorist is cleverly disguised as a thirsty native trespasser and the incident is broadcast on live network TV. The next day Rudy, operating via nodal connections that link his neural system to the drone's controls via the Internet, goes after the site of that signal interception. Memo is visiting relatives, but his father is home.

Memo needs work to support what's left of his family. He takes the bus to Tijuana, meeting Luz (Leonor Varela), an attractive writer with connecting nodes like the drone pilot. The Mexico-US border is closed - with a forbidding wall that extends across the beach and out into the ocean - but Tijuana looks the same. Would be crossers don't need to jump the fence, just enlist a coyotek to implant nodes, show up at the cyberfactory and plug into a net that allows them to labor by operating robotic tools anywhere in the world. Memo gets off to a rocky start. At Luz's suggestion, he prowls the town square for black market nodes, but he's left stunned and broke by a mugger posing as a coyotek.

Luz nodally uploads the memory of her meeting with Memo onto Trulife, a universal blog that seems to accept direct sensory input from its posters, while imperiously prompting them to try again when they dissemble. Luz's other memories aren't selling lately, so when the post on Memo gets a hit and a request for more, she's happy to oblige. She finds Memo in town, hooks him up, literally, with nodes and a job and stays in touch, gathering marketable memories. Memo grows on Luz, while the mysterious subscriber always wants more. The ending may be predictable, but As Good As News will not spoil it here.

Sleep Dealer is worth seeing, at home or in the theater. Do not go with false expectations. It was shot in Mexico, in Spanish on a low budget. You will be seeing subtitles, not billion dollar special effects. Despite the budget, Sleep Dealer is very successful at creating a completely believable futuristic aura, in part because Director Alex Rivera, Producer Anthony Bregman and Associate Producer Mark Russell get tremendous bang for their buck, in part because the sci-fi relies on very credible, incremental extensions of the present. A first world country uses it's drone air force to protect a private water reservoir across the border. The ability to focus the drone attack on a small target is technologically spellbinding, but target selection seems to fall in the unsupervised purview of private industry. The war on aqua terror is mass public entertainment, while the Internet has grown adept at capturing and micro-marketing inner moments (note to twitter - its the marketing that's micro - not the posts). The net and robotics have combined to create an outsourcing model that transcends geographic borders, making physical barriers at those borders all the more possible. If this all sounds like a Law and Order episode, ripped from the headlines, give Mr. Rivera extra credit, he wrote the story in 2001.

There's not much room for character development. Memo, and particularly Luz get beyond simple stereotypes, Rudy not so much. Futuristic setting aside, the plot is simple and serviceable, but sometimes awkwardly paced. These problems, especially the fact that Rudy is critical to the story's resolution but never fully developed, make for a few slow moments and an ending that's not totally satisfactory, but see Sleep Dealer anyway. The story and the characters are good enough, the setting will give you much to think about.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

SNL Finally Goes Too Far

-Yes it was just a Saturday Night Live sketch on the government nationalizing the entire economy and making some tough calls, but even in comedy universe, there is no possible way that the Giants and Cowboys stay in business while the Steelers get thumbs down from Obama. Mass boycott announcements to follow. Girly named Lorne Michaels will now feel the wrath of Steeler nation, starting with a friendly visit from Jack Lambert guesting next week in a skit on Terry Tate, Office Linebacker.

The real crime was the next item in the catalog of who survives - the stroke magazine category. To really make this work SNL should have had Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler all survive (which would have made stroke magazines the only category with no casualty), noting that Hustler was borderline but had saved itself just in time with an extraordinary Miss April from Arkansas then thanked Bill Clinton for his extensive assistance in the stroke magazine selection process.