Jerry Meals Got Too Close to the Play

By , July 28, 2011 10:20 am

Two Steps Back and to Your Right, Jerry!

All umpires have nights like this.  It happened to me the first season I umpired full time.  Sure, it was Little League, but it was still a big game.  Extra innings, after 10:00.  I had the plate.  Tie game, runner on third, one out.  Ground ball to the pitcher.  The pitcher almost airmails it over the catcher.  The catcher jumps to catch the ball, and the runner crosses the plate before he comes down.  Safe, game over. 

Except I was bearing down so hard on the play that I looked at it too hard.  My brain saw two separate things happen, one after the other.  I wanted to make absolutely sure the catcher caught the ball, so I looked up at the glove and watched the ball disappear.  Then I looked down and saw the runner cross the plate.  Catch before runner, he’s out. 

Because I switched perspectives and had to briefly search for the plate and the runner’s foot, I didn’t think to look for the catcher’s foot.   I had no idea if the catcher pulled his foot off the plate to make the catch because I was focused on the glove, then the runner.  After I reacted to the two separate events and called him out, I realized I missed it.  Really badly. 

I blew the call and blew the game.  I let it get to me, and the zone started floating.  It was late, kids were tired, and the pitchers were all over the place.  Ball over the head, next one in the dirt, and then the third one two inches off the outside corner waist high.  Relatively speaking, it looked like a strike, but in reality it wasn’t.  The result is that it looked like I was squeezing 12 year old kids in an extra innings Little League game.  So the next shoulder high pitch was a strike.  At that point, you’re not umpiring—you’re meta-umpiring:  calling the game based on how your calls will be perceived rather than what they should be.

The game ended on a play at the plate where the catcher might have dropped the ball, I’m not sure.  The ball beat the runner to the plate, so he was probably out, but the catcher might have dropped it, I’m not sure, so I made the call based on what I think other people might have seen, not what I saw—at that point, I’m filtering everything through perception, so I’m not really seeing anything.

That game was nearly eighteen years ago, and I still think about it when I see a big league umpire blow a call.  I was a pretty good amateur umpire who worked my way up rather quickly at a young age.  That experience really helped me in law school when I worked for a prosecutor.  Not only did I learn that rules are not always directly applicable to the facts, but that perspective matters.  Which witnesses were in the right position to see what really happened?  Sure, the policeman filled out his report, but where was he when the thing he says he saw happened?  Besides, a manager who rides you about that outside corner is just defending his client on the mound, just like a defense attorney objecting to your line of questioning.  It’s not personal—he’s just doing his job and wants to make sure you’re doing yours.

So what happened on that Little League play?  Like a lawyer who takes her cases home from the office, I got too close to the play.  When the batter hit the ball, I should have stepped back to be able to see the catch and the runner at the same time.  Now, this is not the normal rhythm of a force play.  You’re trained on 95% of force plays to focus on the base and listen for the ball to hit the glove.  But on this particular play, you’re not going to hear the glove because of the distance.  And, because of the situation, I beared down on it and tried to see the catch and the runner too perfectly, which meant that I saw them separately when I needed to see them together. 

Which, of course, brings us to Jerry Meals’ instant classic of a blown call in Tuesday’s Braves v. Pirates game.  The throw beat runner Julio Lugo to the plate by ten feet.  Catcher Mike McKendry appears to applied the tag well in front of the plate.  So how the heck did Meals come to the conclusion that Lugo was safe?

I think there’s two parts to this, one psychological and the other mechanical.  First, the psychological.  In this situation, you really want to get it right, so, of course, you really bear down on the play.  You want to make darn sure you see the tag!  Meals didn’t see a tag.  He saw the catcher swipe his glove in the vicinity of Lugo’s jersey.  And, as Rob Neyer commented, McKendry may not have tagged him.  The replays don’t definitely show glove/body contact.  But even if we employ the criminal “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of evidence, it sure looks like he’s out.

The problem is that Meals wasn’t in position to see the play the cleanly, so he fooled himself into making the perfect call instead of the right one.  This is where umpiring mechanics comes into play.  MLB.com forbids embedded videos, so click on this link and watch it until the five second mark, then pause it.

Meals is behind the right-handed batters box.  He’s almost perpendicular to the play, so there’s little chance he could see that tag if it happened.  The ball was hit, and he made the classic umpiring mistake:  He got too close to the play.  He bore down on it, stepping at the play and letting the defender shield his view. 

The correct mechanic on most tag plays at the plate is to step toward the left handed batters box.  This way, when the catcher sweeps the tag, you have an angle to see if there’s daylight between the glove and the body.  Also, this puts home plate in your line of view, so you can see the tag and the plate touch in the same frame of vision.  Otherwise, you’ll have to look at the tag, then the plate—considering the two things separately when they need to be considered together. 

Jerry Meals didn’t just want to go home, nor did he get tired or lazy.  He tried too hard to get it right and made a mechanical error on a play that is counterintuitive to the normal rhythms of umpiring.  In this way, Jim Joyce made the same mistake last year:  Because of the play’s importance, he got too close to it and lost the larger perspective.  Yes, Meals’ is a historically bad call that might cost the Pirates their first playoff spot since 1992.  But as Armando Gallaraga told Jim Joyce last year, “Nobody’s perfect.”  I just hope the 1994 Rotary Club team can still forgive me.

Bad Teacher

By , July 26, 2011 2:07 pm

"No, tell me Justin, what happens after I open that box?"

Reviewed by Stephen Himes

The only way to understand the genius of Jake Kasden’s (the underrated, ambitious “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”) “Bad Teacher” is to imagine Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker watching this movie.  If you’re Governor Walker, you have to revoke teachers’ right to collectively bargain because, though most teachers are good hearted people, they’re overpaid, have too many benefits, and have too much time off—all at the expense of the taxpayer.  And then there’s the teachers unions, who entrench teachers who don’t care about their jobs because tenure means they don’t have to care about their jobs.  Look at those test scores, people—all proof that teachers are lazy and incompetent!

If that’s your worldview, then you immediately recognize the flask-sipping, movie-showing, meeting-skipping Elizabeth Halsey as WHAT’S WRONG WITH EDUCATION.  Film critics have called Cameron Diaz’s performance “gratuitously nasty,” which, as John Stewart captured, is just barely beyond the rhetoric deployed by Fox News during the collective bargaining crisis in Wisconsin. Miss Halsey, like everybody else in the world, is motivated solely by money, so she seeks a sugar daddy who’ll take her away from this awful job.  Halsey, unlike her frumpier and fatter colleagues, doesn’t have the patience to just show up and count down the retirement clock.  Or, as Halsey tells us, “When I started teaching, I thought it was for the right reasons:  shorter hours, summers off, and no accountability.”

So, if you’re Governor Walker, and you’re willing to chalk up the Daisy Dukes car wash and the boob job sideplot to “Hollywood,” then this movie is in your wheelhouse.  I mean, this is hilarious because it’s not that far from the truth!  Then Kasden’s masterstroke: Halsey can earn her boob job through a performance bonus based on student test scores!  Awesome!  Because teachers will teach better if you threaten them!  Seriously, they just need to be motivated by money to turn themselves into hard-ass drill sergeant super teachers!  Finally, a Hollywood movie about teachers conservatives can really get behind!  Michelle Rhee, Governor Walker is on Line One! 

But this is where Kasden gets them.  Suddenly, Miss Halsey passes out To Kill a Mockingbird and starts drilling them with questions about the effectiveness of Scout Finch as a narrator.  She hurls dodge balls at boys’ nards without spilling her coffee.  If Dewey Cox walked hard, Elizabeth Halsey teaches hard.  Really hard.  She disintegrates pencils in her hands, she’s teaching so damn hard. 

Then it hits you: This isn’t teaching.  Yelling questions at kids doesn’t cultivate the critical thinking skills they need to evaluate Scout Finch’s narration.  “Bad Teacher” is so obviously Hollywood that it exposes the most essential truth about the teaching labor market: “Motivating” teachers isn’t going to suddenly make them good at their jobs.  The Hollywood improbability of (Spoiler Alert!) Miss Halsey winning the performance pay award for test scores underscores this very point.  Bad teachers are going to be bad whether you “motivate” them or not.

The problem with the teaching labor market—if we are brutally honest—is that we do not value teaching as a profession, so the best college students don’t choose teaching as a profession.  Please do not misread this—I myself chose to go back into education after law school, and there are lots of great minds and great talents in education.  But the numbers don’t lie: teacher education schools are populated by lower caliber studentsThey’re far less selective than other countries’ programs.  We don’t even bother to measure whether these programs develop good teachers.  Besides, college students know that teaching is long hours for low pay, and you take the blame for “society’s” problems.  Teaching has an extraordinary burnout rate—nearly half in the first five years.  There’s little chance for advancement.  Everybody says teachers are underpaid, but when it comes right down to it, we don’t pay them what they’re worth, and Governor Walker’s benefits cuts aren’t going to cause the nation’s best and brightest to knock down the schoolhouse door. 

Kasden captures this perfectly in his random assortment of short-sleeve dress shirted administrators, overweight gym teachers, and other socially awkward teachers in John Adams Middle School.  He overdoes it by half—more than half, actually.  Most teachers are professional people—and bless the middle school teachers of the world, who do God’s work everyday.  But we need more—many more—and to start siphoning off charismatic, talented people from professions (I’m looking at you, lawyers and financial services) where their talents aren’t leveraged for the larger good.

And that, Governor Walker and Chancellor Rhee, is the argument for tenure reform and performance pay—it’s actually professional pay. From the Scott Walker and Michelle Rhee perspective, tenure reform and performance pay is a punitive measure to punish the Elizabeth Halseys of the world.  Fair enough, but if you don’t ensure that you’re going to replace Elizabeth Halsey with a better teacher than Elizabeth Halsey, you’re just wasting valuable human resources by firing Elizabeth Halsey. 

Thus, the point of tenure reform and professional pay is to reward teachers for exceptional outcomes—as we do in the private sector.  It’s a recruitment and retention strategy designed to bring the Scott Delacorte’s (Justin Timberlake’s good hearted nerd in the movie) into the profession (if he’s talented enough), and move the Russell Gettis’s (Jason Segel’s gym teacher) out if they’re not.  If education reform is just about firing BAD TEACHERS, reform will never happen because replacing BAD TEACHERS with BAD TEACHERS still leaves you with BAD TEACHERS.

The performance bonus proffered by “Bad Teacher” has no point except as a plot device to allow us to watch Cameron Diaz throw dodgeballs at twelve year olds.  As a policy matter, it opens the door to the next step, as Kasden brings up when the principal complains about not being able to fire Halsey, which is tenure reform.  You can imagine “Bad Teacher” sparking Governor Walker’s imagination to run wild with visions of tearing apart the teachers union so he can just start firing people!  Like Michelle Rhee did!  It’s fun!  She’ll let you watch! 

I would, however, argue with Kasden’s plot point that Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch) won the top test scores award three years in a row.  Squirrel is a horrifying vision of perkiness who thinks “enthusiasm” is “caring” about her students, which makes them want to learn.  She rolls out practiced cornball puns nobody thinks is cute, and her “dynamic” style involves hand clapping and making kids stand up and say things.  She is the worst kind of busybody teacher because she has “energy,” but her kids don’t learn anything because she’s impossible to respect.  There’s no way she is able to command a middle school classroom to teach kids anything.        

But I digress.  Sure, “Bad Teacher” sells out at the end, and most of it is Cameron Diaz’s take on Billy Bob Thornton-style offensiveness. Still, at its heart, “Bad Teacher” offers the only real argument the Scott Walkers of the world have for punitive tenure reform and benefit reductions: that if you can’t get rid of Elizabeth Halsey, then who can you get rid of?  And if you can’t get rid of her, then you have to “motivate” her.  Which is a dumb strategy because BAD TEACHERS aren’t bad because they’re lazy; they’re bad because they lack the talent and skills to teach well.  Just as kids won’t learn if you yell at them, teachers won’t teach better if you threaten them.  Governor Walker, put down the dodgeball before you end up looking like an ineffectual bully—the state capitol’s version of Elizabeth Halsey.   

The Pitch:

2 Mr. Woodcock

2 Mr. Woodcock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Governor Scott Walker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 Bad Teacher

3 Bad Teacher

3 Bad Teacher

Harry Potter and the Deathy Hallows, Part 2

By , July 15, 2011 1:00 pm

"You hand over that flask right now, young man!"

Reviewed by Stephen Himes

Chris Columbus directed the first two “Harry Potter” films as if afflicted with Lucas Syndrome:  The false impression that the success of a pop culture phenomenon transforms the work into mythology, requiring reverence from the moviemaker.  Lucas solemnized the “Star Wars” prequels until they were, in the words of Homer Simpson, boring as church, with its immaculate conceptory midichlorines, marriage vows conflicting with duties to a priestly order, and long talks about the Empire’s repression of the Chosen One.  Ron Howard caught the disease on the set of “The Da Vinci Code,” where he treated Dan Brown’s pseudo-religious insanity as a reverent tome.  For too many adapters of fiction, fidelity to the “source” is the director’s charge, and must be treated with the respect of a bloody Christ reenactor carrying His cross through the Seven Stations.

Thus, Columbus’ interpretation of Rowling’s world was of meticulous CGI imaginings, each pixel matched perfectly to a syllable.  The problem, as is the symptom of all directors affected with Lucas Syndrome, is that “The Sorcerer’s Stone” and “The Chamber of Secrets” lacked adventure! Not just with movies—but adventure stories, even BIG IMPORTANT MYTHS, are supposed to be fun, which absolutely does not mean that adventure stories can’t be fun and about something at the same time. 

Adapters of fiction tend to forget this, I think, because of the inherent bias that books are always better than the movies.  If that’s true, then why make the movies at all, except as two hour trailers for the book?  And no, the movies-get-kids-interested-in-reading argument is not a justification for adapting written stories into movies.  The movies must stand alone as their own works of art, which is why Columbus’ “Potter” movies fail.  Mostly, Harry and company spend most of those movies gawking at all the floating staircases and talking flying hats and whatnot. In myth, the hero’s story becomes our own, but Columbus takes this too literally: Harry looks on in wide-eyed wonderment at all the magical things happening around him, as if Hogwarts were a multiplex.  In fact, he flattened the intricate gothic design of Oxford’s Duke Humfrey’s Library into a kind of green screen for his special effects wizards.  Thus, the movies are emotionally flat because Columbus does the cinematic equivalent of powerpointing the novels.

The trend over the last half century in both pop and literary fiction is towards wordiness.  Your typical Pen Faulkner winner tends towards pseudo-profound vagueness.  As B.R. Myers famously wrote for The Atlantic, authors like E. Annie Proulx, Don Delillo, and Cormac McCarthy, et al rely on “accumulation,” “barrages of hit-and-miss verbiage [rather] than on careful use of just the right words.” They obscure meaning rather than elucidate it, which is mistaken for intellectual depth.  Similarly, the pop novel is less pretentious, but lacks the discipline to use five words when fifteen are available.  Stephanie Meyer, ask yourself, does Twlight really need 500 pages?

J.K. Rowling’s books got better with practice, and her work deserves special praise for having the accessibility of “genre” fiction with the emotional depth of “Literature.”  Still, Rowling tends toward wordiness, especially as the material got more mature.  Roughly a fourth of her words are indulgent detail and plot recapitulation, bloating the pages like Harry’s aunt in the opening of Alfonso Cuaron’s “The Prisoner of Azkaban.” At worst, her prose is self-indulgent—some copyediting could cut 800 pages to 600.  An unwitting metaphor might be Hogwarts’ spell books that literally try to eat the students. 

But, Rowling’s greatest achievement is transitioning the series, like a tween to teen to adulthood, from “children’s fiction” to mature adult literature.  By the end, we’re left with the remnants of awkward, kid-ish names:  “Slitherin,” “Dumbledore,” even “Hogwarts” doesn’t sound quite right in the darkness of the “Deathly Hallows.”  Still, Rowling has assembled a grand, coherent myth in the Campbellian tradition.  The opportunity for the filmmaker is best expressed by Professor Sybill Trelawney: “The truth lies like a sentence deep in a book.”  Sometimes, Rowling’s truths lie deep within the chambers of her prose.

Thus, the best “Potter” movies find a theme to center the plot, which gives the filmmakers criteria to make coherent cuts.  Where Columbus-style “fidelity” demands throwing everything in at the expense of depth, centering the films strips away Rowling’s excessive detail and plot, allowing for depth. 

Alfonso Cuaron’s “The Prisoner of Azkaban” emphasizes Harry’s Dickensian roots with a gothic motif, opening the film with a hand-held sequence (“Harry Potter”…the arthouse film?) and an action sequence that zooms a triple-decker bus through London right into what looks like a Tim Burton movie.  Cuaron’s non-magical gothic touches (lonely trains whistling through a misty dusk, a snowstorm blurring Hogwarts, candles dripping onto tables in the main hall) build the mood, culminating in Harry climbing the gears of a rusty clock, as in the timelessness of his orphan’s struggle.  Cuaron slows the pace for the most touching moment of the film:  when Hermoine approaches Harry, sobbing under his invisibility cloak that hides him from the world. She lifts the veil, starkly exposing the wounded boy, reaching out to comfort him while they sit among a gaggle of dioramas of the solar system, slowing spinning as the camera pulls back slowly to reveal the scene.

David Yates’ first “Potter” film, “The Order of the Phoenix,” focuses on what many precocious fifteen year olds sense:  school enforces conformity at the expense of creativity, which is why gifted children have some of highest drop-out rates. Yates turns one of the great villains of the series, Ministry bureaucrat turned Defence Against the Dark Arts professor Delores Umbridge, into a horrifying vision of state-run education.  When Umbridge stands before the academy in her pink blazer and firmly sprayed hair (not in the book) and tells the students that they will have to reach certain ministry-approved benchmarks, behind the centuries of candle drips from the tarnished eagle of the Great Hall’s lectern—the point is clear: No government “standards” will teach what centuries of academy tradition can. Yates argues that schools like Hogwarts challenge students to achieve greatness by developing their gifts, and the modern bureaucracy celebrates mediocrity by teaching to the middle. That’s not teaching and learning; it’s manufacturing an obedient citizenry. Or, as Umbridge tells Harry before he writes “I Will Not Tell Lies” during detention, “The one thing I will not stand for is disloyalty!”

The wizards learn only enough theory to pass the ministry’s test, “which is what school is about,” Umbridge tells the kids with a matter-of-fact smile. Staunton developed a forced giggle and a perma-pursed expression reminiscent of the kind of evil perpetrated by Joseph Conrad’s Hollow Men: She’s not trying to turn Hogwarts into a fanatical Wahabbist madrassa; she’s bullying the students into obedience through sheer blandness. The students can’t use magic; their textbook’s spells have been bowdlerized into meaninglessness. She tacks so many “Educational Decrees” to the wall that you need a ladder to read them, all of which tell you what they can’t do. The wizards are simply bricks in Hogwarts’ wall.

Of the scenes film omitted from the film, there’s nothing essential to the main plot or theme.  Which is not to say these scenes are without color or purpose, but again, Rowling does get bogged down in excessive, extraneous detail.  The post-Columbus directors have done an excellent job lifting the story up from the prose to give it immediacy without sacrificing the “mythic” proportions.  This explains the decision to divide “The Deathly Hallows” into two parts:  Rather than shove it all in, Columbus-style, Yates lets the story unfold at a pace that allows for the big action set pieces, but also the smaller moments between characters who’ve grown up together.

So, the question is:  What’s the theme of Part 2?  The tag lines seems to be “The wand chooses the wizard,” but what does that mean, exactly?  Part 2 focuses on Harry’s quest for the Elder Wand, which is basically Tolkien’s “precious” all powerful ring.  Because there’s already been seven novels of plot, the film is a series of set pieces unraveling the secrets of the wand.  Aside from the conspicuously Sith-ian way the wand passes to a new owner, I was a little unsure of what it means for the wand to choose the wizard. 

On one hand, a key element of myth is the hero is born the chosen one, then he grows into the man capable of the responsibility bestowed on him—thus, the wand chooses the wizard, but the wizard must also choose the wand.  He accepts responsibility and suffers the trials that build him into a hero.  The most unsatisfying part of myths, to my mind, is the idea that some higher power pre-ordained the outcome, which necessarily devalues the courage of the hero:  Divine blessing means he can’t lose.  “Star Wars” did this to Anakin Skywalker:  The secularized “Force” and his midichlorines (or whatever they were) bestowed him with pseudo-divine powers that pre-ordained his fate.

To Rowling’s credit, there is no divine power that guarantees Harry Potter’s victory.  Sure, there’s supernatural powers, but that’s not the same thing:  there’s no Zeus that tips the scales toward Achilles, no Athena that steers Odysseus home.   Essentially, the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort tests which of them solved the riddle (“Riddle” is also Voldemort’s given name) of the wand.  So, when Harry puts his life at risk to prove he’s right, there’s no guarantee he’ll survive—thus, the drama.  The brilliance of Rowling’s ending is that Harry’s resurrection is a direct consequence of the plot, without supernatural interference to make things right.  Voldemort only kills the piece of him that lives in Harry’s soul, thus killing himself with his own curse.    

This, I think, is really at the heart of fundamentalist Christian’s objection to the books.  The teaching of “black magic” is really beside the point: The Harry Potter universe has no higher powers to choose the “chosen” and administer justice to evil.  Yes, Harry Potter is orphaned and brought to Hogwarts, but not by random chance or divine intervention.  For the most part, Harry makes his own choices (though he does, admittedly, keep ending up in opportune situations).  This, not the “occult,” is what stands between fundamentalism and Potter-mentalism.  If there is a god in the Harry Potter universe, you earn your way into heaven, like a prep school without tuition.

Yates’ film revolves around this theme, emphasizing that the fragile nature of the world (even the august Hogwarts crumbles) is as much about the things we can control as the things we can’t.  I might object to the miserly hook-nosed dwarf accountants, but more than that, I think the “wand chooses the wizard” doesn’t quite capture what Harry Potter is about.  Harry Potter is about transforming dreams into reality. 

Rowling captured our imaginations with wizards and magic and spells and all the rest, and over the course of seven novels, we came to accept these fictions as true.  We all wished we went to Hogwarts because, yes, it cultivated creativity, but also enforced the kind of discipline that transforms fantasies into realities.  In fairy tales, dreams come true because fairy godmothers waive magic wands; in Harry Potter, dreams come true because you learn spells, practice until its perfect, and then you make the wand your own.This is how the fictions of our imaginations are realized in the real world.  Thus, the real theme of “The Deathly Hallows,” as spoken, of course, by Professor Dumbledore:  “Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not real.”

The Pitch:

2 The Revenge of the Sith

2 The Revenge of the Sith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 1/2 Fat Peter Jackson

1 1/2 Fat Peter Jackson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 1/2 Deathly Hallows Part 2

3 1/2 Deathly Hallows Part 2

3 1/2 Deathly Hallows Part 2

3 1/2 Deathly Hallows Part 2

Summer Movie Preview, July 2011

By , July 7, 2011 6:30 pm

"Look, I totally forgot about Sudekis' big charity fundraiser in Kansas City! He, Riggle, and Rudd get Nia Vardalos to show, and I'm supposed to be impressed by that?

July 1st

Transformers: Dark of the Moon:  Since this flick has been out a week, it ain’t much of a preview but there’s no need to preview Michael Bay’s epic re-telling of the first two Transformers films because you’ve already seen it. The first film had some nice moments of boy-meets-car that, if you squinted correctly, evoked an “American Graffiti” feel. The second film is a craven, hideous conglomeration of every awful blockbuster cliché you can imagine. Here is more of the same, with the dude who wrote “Scream 3” giving us some convoluted tale about the US teaming up with the Decepticons to retrieve something or another from the moon but the Autobots have to stop this alliance. Oh hey, would you notice Megan Fox was replaced by hot chick Rosie Huntington-Whiteley because Fox called the guy who gave her a big break “Hitler”? It also upset Spielberg, too, because he notoriously does not like Hitler. Oh, and as an added bonus, Frances McDormand joins John Turturro in the “The Coen Brothers’ actors need to pay their mortgage Players”. And hey…talking robots!—James Owen

Larry Crowne:

I’ve got the review for this one up already, and man, if you like scooters, this is your movie!  Personally, it made me yearn for a slimmer, less dorky, “Road to Perdition” Tom Hanks.—Stephen Himes

July 8th

Zookeeper: I know that Kevin James is the lame PG version of Chris Farley in the Sandler stable, but I’m not going to dismiss this one out of hand.  I enjoyed “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” not just as a “Die Hard” parody, but Kevin James really made me laugh with the effortless, deadpan way he maneuvered that Segway.  In fact, James turned the Segway into an extension of his character: he turned sheepishly when Blart was embarrassed, cut hard corners when he was pissed, and nonchalantly slow-rolled when he was trying to be cool.  I have no idea what he’ll do with animals, but I will give Kevin James the benefit of the doubt.—Stephen Himes

Horrible Bosses: This could be one of those insufferably, airless raunchy comedies the actors in this film (Bateman, Sudekis, et al) tend to make.  But the presence of Seth Gordon – who unleashed Billy Mitchell upon the world with “The King of Kong” –  makes this an interesting proposition. Then again, the gallery of titular characters is something worth checking out. Kevin Spacey seems to be reviving his role from 1995’s “Swimming with Sharks” in a way that reminds you of why he was better in supporting parts. Jennifer Aniston appears liberated by her sexed-up dentist role and, hey, Colin Ferrell just looks funny in a beard and a beer gut. Any Sunny fan has to take some comfort in a casting director putting Charlie Day in their summer release.—James Owen 

The Ward:  Whenever I think of Wes Craven co-writing the screenplay to the sequel to “The Hills Have Eyes” remake, I keep telling myself he earned the right to sell out. But John Carpenter never did. When he had a chance to make big movies, he made the anti-commercial and anti-material “They Live” that also happened to contain the best performance of Rowdy Roddy Piper’s career. So a career that began with creating the slasher film as we know ended with making movies like “Ghost of Mars”. Now, he returns to form with this film about a hot scream queen (Amber Heard) institutionalized (the old “snake pit” setting) that may…also…be…haunted? As long as it’s more like “Patrick” and less like “Gothika” we should be fine.—James Owen

Ironclad: Paul Giamatti plays King John in a twelve year old girl’s bob. John has already started reneging on the Magna Carta, so the rebels are out to exercise their 1215 version of the Second Amendment to stamp out tyranny. Brian Cox is running around, and the great Shakespearian Derek Jacobi is the unfortunately named Cornhill. The script, direction, and non-Giamatti acting will probably rank this one with, say, “Tristan and Isolde” (Wait, you forgot about that one.  Pre-hipster James Franco.).  But that’s not why you leave it on HBO while trying to fall asleep at 11:30 on a Tuesday night.  You want to see Giamatti chew up some scenery!  Chew it up real good, Paul!  That’s the stuff!—Stephen Himes

July 15th

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2: Ascension. It’s hard to believe it’s almost been ten years since I was completely convinced Chris Columbus had killed any chance this series had of any substance or integrity. Try as he did, with two chances, the JK Rowling adaptations were saved by Alfonso Cuaron with 2004’s “The Prisoner of Azkaban”. Since then, they’ve largely evolved into darker, richer stories. Granted, the first two novels were more geared towards kids and the series was to become more adult as it went along. But…Chris Columbus? Come on!

Here, Warner Brothers squeezes out another $12 for us to see the final segment of the Harry Potter in its full Joseph Campbell glory as Harry battles the nose-less Ralph Fiennes. This is the new generation’s Star Wars and, hey, at least this is based on a book and never had to resort to Ewoks.

Winnie the Pooh: Speaking of Ewoks, wouldn’t this movie be much more interesting if Pooh somehow ended up on Endor?  The only things of note here are the 69 minute run time and Craig Ferguson as Owl.—Stephen Himes

July 22nd

Captain America: The First Avenger: Perpetually bland lead Chris Evans teams up with perpetually bland director Joe Johnston (who gave us the third Jurassic Park and last year’s “The Wolfman”) for the story of this superhero who is committed to “American ideals”. What does that mean? I dunno…The Full Faith and Credit Clause? Congress’ right to regulate interstate commerce? I am sure Johnston will tamper down the nostalgic propaganda for more traditional thrills. If anyone can  remember “The Rocketeer”, it was Johnston’s second feature and was harmlessly fun if not a little corny. Expect a re-boot of that. Tommy Lee Jones barks a lot as a military guy and Hugo Weaving plays a sinister bad guy. Hey, nice work if you can get it.

Friends With Benefits: Yeah, I thought this movie came out in February too and it sucked them.  I guess we can safely call the Timberlake for Kutcher trade a net-positive, and you might say the same for the Kunis for Portman swap in a comedy. This one has Will Gluck (“Easy A”), which was lauded in a “Mean Girls,” “Freaky Friday” kind of way.  Gotta be better; why else would that have dumped “No Strings Attached” in the no man’s land of mid-winter while this gets the fully July treatment?—Stephen Himes   

July 29th

Cowboys and Aliens: Yep, we’re slicing and dicing genres and hoping something sticks. The Arizona territory town of Absolution (are there any Western towns in film that aren’t named after archaic Catholic traditions) braces itself for a stranger with no memory of where he has been (Daniel Craig, in his craggy sexiness) Harrison Ford (who could have beat up a version of myself from 15 years ago) plays one of the local town folk who have to take on these hyper-aggressive CGI creations. Director Jon Favreau, who is still banking capital from the first “Iron Man” despite co-scripting “Couple’s Retreat” and helming “Iron Men 2”. As long as the special effects do not create some sort of “Wild Wild West” retread, this flick could be a lot of fun.—James Owen

Crazy, Stupid, Love.: This one has buzz, a top-shelf cast, and a pair of interesting directors in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who gave you “Bad Santa” and the defiantly weird “I Love You, Phillip Morris.” Ryan Gosling teaches Steve Carell how to be a stud after divorcing Julianne Moore, until Gosling falls for Emma Stone.  Kevin Bacon plays the weird buddy, and Marisa Tomei is around the be 40 and hot.  I’m excited too, but I can’t quite shake the sinking feeling that this will disappoint: The screenwriter, Dan Fogelman, is responsible for the two worst Pixar scripts (“Cars” and “Cars 2”) and other bad animated films like “Tangled” and “Bolt”  And he wrote “Fred Claus”!

Larry Crowne

By , July 5, 2011 1:14 pm

"Momma always said you can tell a lot about community college professors by their shoes. If they're not wearing comfy shoes, they got denied tenure at a four-year state school."

Reviewed by Stephen Himes

Critics, I think, are completely missing the incisive political subtext of “Larry Crowne.” Ebert’s is a representative take, saying the movie “has no reason for existing,” echoing the consensus that it’s a “pointless” Hollywood rom-com.  And sure, on the surface, this movie has no obvious ambition, other than Tom Hanks trying to make his former find—Nia Vardalos, writer/star of the Hanks-discovered and produced “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”—relevant again with a co-writing credit.  Larry Crowne is just another recession victim who’s got to get his life together, like Will Ferrell in “Everything Must Go,” Ben Affleck in “The Company Men,” and all the people George Clooney fired in “Up in the Air.”  You might ask, well, what are Forrest Gump’s and Greek Weddings’ take on the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression?

Marc Olsen at The Village Voice sums it up,

Larry Crowne seems to be in some sense about getting rid of your shit, dropping the baggage, be it physical or spiritual, that bogs each of us down—a theme made literal with both Larry and Roberts’s Mrs. Tainot signaling forward movement by putting some stuff out front on the lawn. In trying to make Larry Crowne into a free-floating everyman, Hanks turns the film into something disconcertingly untethered, generalizing contemporary issues of downsizing and foreclosure and worries about gas mileage and accepting The New into something so blithely nondescript as to carry no real weight. If Hanks is even aware that Larry’s wallet chain is less a symbol of hip rebirth than a signal of a geezer hopelessly chasing youth, as a filmmaker he doesn’t have the teeth to reveal it.

Yes, Julia Roberts has her Will Ferrell in “Everything Must Go” moment when she piles her husband’s stuff on the lawn, and Tom Hanks has his Ben Affleck in “The Company Men” moment when he’s aghast at his boss for firing him despite how good he is at his job. But unlike other recession movies, “Larry Crowne” doesn’t channel any righteous anger.  Larry, despite being divorced (and childless, for reasons that go unexplained) and jobless, doesn’t descend into alcoholism, and Julia Roberts’ hinted alcoholism is played off as a perfectly acceptable way to blow off steam.  And yeah, like “The Company Men,” good people with marketable talents can’t find work and must learn how to get by, discovering how fragile their middle class existence really was.

But “Larry Crowne” isn’t angry about all this.  Or, we should say, Larry Crowne isn’t angry about this.  He forgets to negotiate a severance package or consider an ageism suit (and the company forgets that locking in overproducing labor at below-market value is precisely what it should do in a recession), cleans out his house full of stuff, trades in the SUV for a scooter, gets a job as a diner line cook, and heads off to community college—all in his chipper, Hanksian way. 

You see, this is the political statement.  Look, you could be pissed off that you got fired, despite the fact that you’re the most litter-cleaning-up-est, efficient cart-getting, men’s wear zoning former marine in the history of big box stores.  You could be pissed about gas prices.  You could be pissed off at the mortgage industry and that real estate agent who put you underwater on your house.  You could be pissed off about having to take out a loan to get a degree that won’t give you any skills necessary to do your job, but is simply a line on a resume.  You could be pissed about having to go back to your old humiliating job just to buy groceries.  You could do that. 

You could sit on your lawn with your stuff and pound a case of PBR. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You could be too prideful to learn carpentry with your rube brother in law. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But that would make you a jerk.  And you don’t want to be a jerk, do you?  You know who’s not a jerk? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Larry Crowne, that’s who.  Instead of being an a-hole and getting all pissed off and descending into some self-pitying crap, Larry Crowne sells the SUV for a scooter, enjoys his new diner job because dammit he’s good at it, shows up at community college, and even throws his credit score to the wind by strategically foreclosing on his house.  All with a smile on his face.  That’s what Larry Crowne does, because if there’s one thing you can say about Larry Crowne, he’s not an jerk.

Larry Crowne is the corny embodiment of morning in America.  He’s got the sun in his face.  Larry Crowne isn’t political—he just wants good people to get the job done.  He votes for Presidents who make him feel like America does—he probably voted Reagan twice, Clinton once and maybe twice, Bush in 2000, and definitely Obama.  Why?  Hope, that’s why.  He believes in the promise of America, that if you get fired by some corporate jerk, then you work your way through school and you’ll be rewarded because that’s the American way. 

You might think that being a schlubby middle aged unemployed guy falling in with a big community college scooter gang headed by Wilmer Valderrama and his improbably hot and helpful girlfriend, who comes over to feng shui your house and fix you up with new hipster clothes (don’t miss the wallet chain), is unlikely.  You might think it unlikely that Mr. Sulu’s community college economics “course pack” holds all the secrets and mysteries of the post-recession economy, or that the cynical alcoholic speech teacher with the porn-surfing failed sci-fi novelist husband is “the best teacher I’ve ever had.”  You might think that nothing in this movie, from the scooter gang to wacky, lottery winning neighbors (Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson) holding a permanent yard sale, to the teacher who should be fired for her breaches of professional ethics, makes any sense—that it exists in some alternative universe unrecognizable to anybody besides Tom Hanks and Nia Vardalos.

But you know who lives in this alternative universe?  That’s right, Larry frickin’ Crowne. It’s called the American dream, people.  It’s not real until we conjure it up for ourselves.  At its best, America is an alternative universe.  Look, we don’t know where this crazy life is going to take us, and “Larry Crowne” presents you with a choice:  You can be realistic about your situation, but then you end up like Will Ferrell and close yourself onto your lawn or Ben Affleck and shut yourself in a cubicle at a job sourcing center.  Or you can be like Larry Crowne: be a nice, hardworking, likable guy, put yourself out there, and see what happens.  That’s what George Clooney was selling those people he axed in “Up in the Air”: You hated this job anyway, and it says here on your resume that you love cooking…so follow your passion!  Make it happen!  You can’t end up learning economics from Mr. Sulu, making out with Julia Roberts, or getting feng shui tips from Gug Mbatha-Raw from your recliner, can you?

Though his reasons obscure and not necessarily profound, Thomas Jefferson downplayed the notion of property ownership as an inalienable right when he penned the first draft of the Declaration of Independence.  Likewise, Larry Crowne doesn’t sit around worrying about his stuff.  And “Larry Crowne” wants you to be happy, so no lectures about Wall Street greed and the collapse of the American middle class here.  “Larry Crowne” isn’t here to talk about the past. This movie wants you to hop on its cinematic scooter in pursuit of happiness, fueled not by populist rage, but 150 mpgs of good ol’ American optimism.  So you can hate “Larry Crowne” for being a substance-free, nonsensical Hollywood bauble that exploits real fear for vague romanticism.  But hating “Larry Crowne” would make you a real Debbie Downer, and that isn’t why America is still the greatest county on God’s green Earth.  “Larry Crowne” is the kind of movie Larry Crowne would love.

The Pitch:

1 Hank Hill Forced to Take a Job at Mega Lo Mart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Non-traditional Student Association

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

2 Larry Crowne

2 Larry Crowne

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