We came up with an idea of curtailing our literary output as a show of solidarity with our friends in the Writers Guild of America. Shut things down for a while, stop watching Carson Daly (or rather watch it for the first time, then stop watching it), picket the major studios, give the finger to Sumner Redstone. We came up with this idea about fifteen minutes ago as an excuse for not doing shit for the last two weeks. The truth is we were either sick, busy with holiday-related familial duties, or sitting on our ass watching movies that may or may not be Academy Award screeners that we should or should not have had access to.
So as a way of symbolically prostrating ourselves at the feet of our twelve regular readers, and as A. the Pac-10 season starts this week, and B. we’re going to be seeing both USC and UCLA play this week, we’re going to preview what looks to be the toughest conference in the country while also providing some insight into two weeks of Academy screener-sponsored couch potatoing.
1. UCLA/No Country For Old Men – There are very, very few filmmakers working today that can touch the Coen Brothers. Yes, even Renny Harlin. Coen Brothers movies that don’t involve George Clooney (no knock on him, they just seem to reserve the B material for him) have just about everything – a great script, a unique vision of storytelling, exceptional acting, all beautifully shot by the peerless Roger Deakins. “No Country For Old Men” is a place where the violence is unredeemable, arbitrary, and unglamorous, the Coen Brothers most nihilistic work yet, if not the bleakest, most soulless world on film since “Wild Hogs”. It not only presents a passing from one era of modernity to the next, it seems to say that, unlike in Cormac McCarthy’s most recent work, The Road, and other futuristic visions of the End of Days, the Apocalypse is already upon us. Now about that ending…well, we’ll reserve judgment on that one. Which we’ll also have to do for the Bruins, who have excelled under Ben Howland, a coach with few peers who has been granted a peek of the Promised Land the last two seasons before sudden, unsatisfactory conclusions. The Bruins do just about everything well themselves, and no doubt they will at the very least reach the Final Four, but the truth is that anything less than a National Championship this year is a disappointment.
2. Washington State/The Kingdom – If you really know college basketball, you know Wazzou is for real and a legitimate threat to UCLA for the Pac-10 crown. Now “The Kingdom” is no threat to anyone’s Oscar chances, but that’s more a result of the groupthink nature of the awards, which tend to reward pompous message movies and thin star vehicles rather than genre-be-damned examples of great movie making (Though to be fair, the voter who may or may not have lent us the Academy screeners said this was the best movie he saw in 2007.) Honestly the politics of the movie isn’t the point as much as it is the setup, but that’s not a problem if, like us, you believe the adage that people like war movies not because they confirm their belief that war is bad, but because they like seeing shit, and bad guys, blown up. The penultimate sequence is as taut and suspenseful as any film in any year. The one message the movie does try to send is poignant but hit you over the head easy. Similarly the Cougars deficiencies, namely the occasional offensive dry spell, are fairly obvious. Washington State won’t be winning any national titles, but for one game we’d take them against just about anyone.
3. Arizona/The Bourne Ultimatum – Arizona is going to be a hell of a lot of fun to watch; they’ll be both giant killers and giants killed. You really can’t have a bad time watching the Wildcats, because even during those occasional periods of time when you wonder if Chase Budinger is still alive, there’s always the chance that he will suddenly reappear and throw down on someone like some non-drug abusing, private-schooled Chris Andersen. Similarly it’s hard not to enjoy a Bourne movie, a franchise which quite honestly is shaping up to be more solid than James Bond. There’s the same, if not as obvious or numerous, lapses of logic you get with Bond movies, but for two hours of diversion you can’t do a whole lot better. There’s something to be said for that. But however rosy things look now for Damon and Co., there’s a chance that the formula could derail sometime soon, perhaps as some kind of cosmic payback for killing off Chris Cooper and Brian Cox, two of the best character actors working, in the first two movies. It remains to be seen if the same will be said for the Luteless Wildcats in a couple of months.
4. USC/Ratatouille – Some things are much less than the sum of their parts. “Ratatouille” is, as it bills itself, the best reviewed film of the year. After one viewing in the theater with my son, and about fifteen viewings over Christmas of the DVD, I’m starting to turn on this thing. Mind you, it’s still better than “Happy Feet” and 99% of the crap that is out there for the SpongeBob set, but there’s something that bugged me about the movie from the first time I saw it and I finally figured it out – it’s the concept. The beauty of Pixar has not been in the execution of their animation or the script themselves, though both are superb, it’s in the concepts for the movies themselves. The most effective ones have a great idea, the idea that toys talk and socialize amongst themselves, the idea that monsters live in a world whose portal to ours is a child’s bedroom door, the idea of the domestic lives of out-of-shape superheroes, all great ideas. Now stop and think about the idea behind “Ratatouille” and wonder if the notion of disease-carrying vermin not only being in a restaurant kitchen but actually cooking the food doesn’t, on at least a subliminal level, make you the teensiest bit uneasy. After some early season growing pains, the Trojans now seemed similarly poised to play to rave reviews, but I can’t help that think that in a sport where chemistry counts more than any other sport, a team that visibly hates each other is a concept that is doomed to fail.
5. Arizona State/Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story – Ok, this is cheating since “Walk Hard” was the only movie we actually saw in the theater. Still, I’m going to rank it a hell of a lot higher than anybody else will, and I’ll do the same for the Sun Devils. Good comedies, critically overlooked for years, are finally getting some long overdue recognition. The fact is that it may be the hardest of genres to pull off successfully. But in a year when “Knocked Up” and “Superbad” may steal some critical accolades, Dewey Cox more consistently delivered the one thing any comedy absolutely must do – laughs. Sleep on Arizona State if you want, but this is a team that can make some noise.
6. Stanford/3:10 To Yuma – Both good, solid options with some great personnel (Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Brook Lopez). Never transcendent yet never disappointing. Not everybody can achieve greatness, but it’s still something to so consistently deliver goodness. Like the New Zealand tourism poster says in Murray’s office, “Don’t Expect Too Much – You’ll Love It”.
7. Oregon/Superbad – We’re going to piss some people off here. It’s now apparent that the Ducks were wildly overrated and will need to do more than just survive the Pac-10 season in order to make the NCAAs. They have neither a ballhandler nor a inside presence, just a bunch of guys who think they’re going to the NBA but would be better off preparing themselves to learn a foreign language and getting their passports in order. It says a hell of lot that the Ducks scheduled a road game against a mediocre small school, Oakland, just so two of their players could play in front of their hometown crowd, and then lost that game. Now “Superbad” is infinitely enjoyable to watch, hilarious, well executed, with pitch perfect comedic timing from nearly everyone involved. I’ll probably buy the DVD. But it’s still a big, dumb, dick comedy and frankly Dewey Cox delivered more laughs. Oregon isn’t bad either, but in this conference they could very, very easily get lost in the shuffle.
8. Cal/Knocked Up – Frankly we could put any of the teams from 5 to 9 in any order and could make a logical argument for each. So we were tempted, granted with the help of a little hometown bias, to pick the Bears higher. Ryan Anderson is one of the most underrated players in the country, a versatile threat from anywhere on the court, and the conference should ready itself for pure scorer Patrick Christopher. But in a deep league with tough perimeter defense, this team will only be as good as its point guard, and right now Jerome Randle continues to handle the ball with the same care that Lenny Small does with rabbits. In other words he’s well intentioned but the results aren’t always great. Or even good. “Knocked Up” is another movie that we liked and will definitely watch again. We just don’t think it’s anywhere near the best comedy, let alone movie, of the year. A parody or sex comedy can get away with a lot, but if you want to pass yourself off as a realistic comedy you better do something like, I don’t know, be realistic. Let’s just say we couldn’t see any earthly reason before we saw the movie why Katherine Heigl would be with Seth Rogen, and the movie did absolutely nothing to make that seem more plausible. I like the movie, I like the Bears, I just think reality should have something to say about both.
9. Washington/Eastern Promises – For those who like their sleepers almost dead, this one’s for you. We should be very, very grateful that David Cronenberg is suddenly devoting himself to small, impeccably crafted and efficient movies that you don’t have to smoke copious amounts of pot to enjoy. “Eastern Promises” is not as good as the underrated “History of Violence”, but it’s both very good and very encouraging. You may not know it yet, but there are few directors out there as good as Cronenberg. As for the Huskies, everyone is leaving them for dead, but with Jon Brockman in the middle and Yahoo Serious lookalike Ryan Appleby back from injury, Washington could be much better than you think. But they have a long, long way to go.
10. Oregon State/Redacted – The one movie we didn’t see. Why? Because Brian DePalma blows. I’m sick of not saying it, so there you go and every cinephile and video store geek can suck it for all I care. Brian DePalma is not a great auteur, he is what happens when you’ve had one semester of film school and think that stealing a little bit of Sam Fuller, a little bit of Eisenstein, and a whole lot of Hitchcock will make for great cinema. The other reason I didn’t see it is because I already did. A Brian DePalma movie about a troop of Americans in an unpopular war who rape a native girl? That was called “Casualties of War”, and you know what, except for John C. Reilly and the high comedy that is Michael J. Fox in a lead dramatic role, that sucked too. The Beavers may steal a win or two at home this year, but we don’t need to see them to know they’ll be the conference whipping boy. Unfortunately for Jay John, the coaching search might start by February. So unless you’re a real college basketball junkie, or unless a Brian DePalma marathon is on every other channel, no need to waste two hours of your life watching them.