December 27, 2011

Bringing 'em all back home.

The Philadelphia Eagles will close out the 2011 season with a win over the Washington Redskins on Sunday, and Andy Reid will return as head coach in 2012.

These may not be certainties, but I feel pretty comfortable in making both assumptions.

The real question will be what to do with the rest of the team in 2012. Resign DeSean Jackson? Trade Asante Samuel? Buy into the maturation of Kurt Coleman and Brian Rolle?

And, of course, bring back Juan Castillo as defensive coordinator?

The facts are these: The Eagles are now eighth in yards allowed and tied for 12th in points allowed. Back on November 28th, the Eagles were 15th in yards allowed and 21st in points allowed. Pretty big jump. They've allowed only 67 points over the last four weeks, and that's including the debacle in Seattle.

They're first in sacks with 49. They've given up the sixth-most touchdowns through the air (26) despite holding teams to only 210 passing yards per game (eighth overall). Their 23 takeaways (14 picks, 9 fumbles) are middle of the pack, while their 36 giveaways on offense are tied with Tampa Bay for worst in the NFL.

This tells me a few things: The Eagles' defense -- despite early-season, late-in-game struggles and some poor work in the red zone -- is above average. You could even argue that it's good. The offense, on the other hand, which was supposed to be the team's strength, has faltered at key times. More than faltered, even; they've given the ball back to the opposition more than anyone else in the league, creating a strain that'd crush even the best teams.

Simply put, Juan Castillo seems to be running a damn fine defense these days. And maybe the Eagles should give him the chance to prove that the last few weeks are no fluke.

There are a few intelligent arguments against this idea. My dad and I got in one such debate recently; his take is that a easy late-season schedule has made Castillo's defense look better than it really is. A mirage, so to speak. But Miami was on a roll when the Eagles came to town (27.8 PPG over their last five games), and the biggest non-New England defensive hiccup of the last two months was the result of Seattle feasting on Vince Young's mistakes (two TDs off interceptions, another returned for a touchdown).

And now the inevitable Steve Spagnuolo talk has begun. In a vacuum, no one with a brain would argue for Juan Castillo over Steve Spagnuolo. In fact, Spags seems like the perfect candidate: history with Andy Reid and the Eagles, Super Bowl ring, etc. But you have to admit that Juan's defense has improved in pretty much every aspect of the game. If Spagnuolo is looking to strip down and start over, is it worth suffering through another bout of growing pains for a former head coach who's probably not looking to settle down in Philly too long? Not sure if going with a hired gun, even one that's a known quantity, is wise in what very well may be Reid's last season.

Unless, of course, upper management would consider Spagnuolo a possible replacement for Reid down the line. But that's a whole other can of worms that we'll have the pleasure of opening if/when the time is right.

Honestly, I didn't want to bring Juan Castillo back. I thought it was a fun experiment that had flopped in embarrassing fashion. But if you believe in the strides that the team's been making, if you buy that Juan's finally earned the trust of his defense, if you think Jim Washburn's pass-rushing strategy is doing its job, then don't blow it up. Don't bring in another coordinator who might want something totally different, even if he does come with a link to the glory days of Jim Johnson.

Give Andy and Juan a short leash; one more season to show what they've got. Juan was Andy's call; let him make or break Reid's tenure. I don't want to see another maddeningly inconsistent year of football, but I like what I've seen over the last few weeks. I think it's for real.

I was all ready to go cold turkey on this team after the Seattle game, but they haven't quit on themselves. With a few smart personnel moves, some continued improvement from young players and seriously cutting down on turnovers, there's no reason the Eagles won't bounce back in 2012. Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater until you're damn sure it can't be cleaned.

December 20, 2011

In praise of The Tobolowsky Files.

Until recently, I wasn't much of a podcast listener. And I'm not sure why The Tobolowsky Files became my gateway into the world of long-form digital chatter.

My only guess is that I love character actors. Harry Dean Stanton, James Rebhorn, Fred Ward, Richard Jenkins. Some are a little more well-known than others, but they're all adept at making even the smallest part seem important. Casting Frank Vincent as a mobster can give the role a little more gravitas than going with some unknown Italian guy. In many ways, they end up having far more interesting, and lengthier, careers than big-time blockbuster stars.

Stephen Tobolowsky, of course, is quite the character actor; one of the most prolific of all time. I knew him chiefly from memorable roles in Memento and Groundhog Day, but also from guest spots on Seinfeld, Heroes and Deadwood. He's one of those performers who always looks happy to be there, even in a do-nothing part or a lame children's movie.

And that's probably because he is pleased to be there, pleased to be working, no matter what thankless task he's assigned. Stephen Tobolowsky isn't quite rich, and he's only mildly famous. He's not exactly handsome or dashing. He's a professional actor, yes, and a successful one, but he's also very much a human being. He's not disengaged from reality, and he suffers from the same kind of loss and heartache as we do, the kind that we don't always associate with Hollywood folk.

Even though I don't know the man personally, I can say all this with certainty because I'm 38 episodes deep into his wonderful and illuminating podcast series. In it, Tobolowsky talks candidly, sometimes remarkably so, about his ups and downs in "life, love and the entertainment industry." Listeners who're just starting out may only know him from a movie here or there, but Tobolowsky does not hesitate in welcoming you into his own little world.

Every episode is a new story from Stephen's life. Some are pleasant and occasionally eye-opening tales from his many films and TV shows: the complications of guest starring on a melting-down Heroes, the antics of Bill Murray on the set of Groundhog Day, the joy that comes with being cast on a future hit show like Glee.

But it's not all about the work. Stephen also discusses lost loves, the deaths of friends and family, those dark moments when you can barely get out of bed, let alone go star in movies. He's not afraid to delve into his previous problems with drugs and alcohol, the difficulty of finding a job in an industry built on saying "no," the horrors of having your dreams nearly dashed by a vengeful peer or superior. He's an expert storyteller with tremendous skill at relaying roller-coaster-like tales of the past, and the podcast is a perfect vehicle for these kind of 40-minute, multi-part narratives.

What's most impressive, however, is the clarity with which he describes the events of his life. One of his stories touches on how Jane Lynch, star of Glee, has a supernatural ability to detach herself from personal disasters when relaying them in anecdotes. Tobolowsky's certainly not emotionally detached from his past -- he's been known to break down a bit when relaying a particularly heartbreaking tale -- but he seems to have figured out how each of his life's major moments fits into the giant puzzle of human existence. He can find lessons in both the good and the bad, and illustrate to his listeners how they made him, if not a better person, at least a more complete and satisfied one. At age 60 Tobolowsky boasts a pretty firm, and rare, grasp of the big picture, and an understanding of how each of his many years helped to paint it.

Not only is Tobolowsky still hard at work on The Tobolowsky Files (the latest episode dropped in late November), but he's also writing books, giving live performances and using pretty much every available medium to bring his stories to life. It's been a pleasure to see this truly charming actor -- a classically trained thespian with more range than people give him credit for (here's hoping some talented indie director crafts a Tobo-based lead role in the near future, a la Jenkins in The Visitor) -- tap into yet another creative outlet at this point in his career. The world is a better place for it.

If you're interested in breaking into The Tobolowsky Files, start with The Voice from Another Room. Or check out Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party, which is the feature film that sparked the podcast. Since you've taken the time to read this blog post about a podcast in the first place, I suspect you won't be disappointed.

December 7, 2011

A buncha movie reviews.

As my esteemed life partner Kat Devlin pointed out to me last night, writing up a batch of movie reviews only a month before my top 10 list comes out might be a bit repetitive. But I've seen four movies lately that have piqued my interest and deserve some attention. Plus, I don't have much else to write about (unless Ruben Amaro trades for Gio Gonzalez later today), so here we go.

Shame - The film I've seen most recently, and the one I was most excited for. I loved Steve McQueen's feature debut Hunger, about the hunger strike of IRA member Bobby Sands, and I was extremely excited to see what the great Michael Fassbender could do with the role of a New York City sex addict.

Well, Fassbender did not disappoint. By following up his scene-stealing performance in Inglourious Basterds with both X-Men: First Class and now Shame, he's shown an ability to throw himself into any performance, even if it involves wearing a big anti-telepathy helmet. Not only is Fassbender asked to perform a series of degrading, shocking acts in this movie, he's also forced to keep those tensions, that inescapable desire for filth, bubbling just below the surface while his character inhabits the real world. His disconnected demeanor may seem intriguing to some, but to an audience that has just seen him masturbating in the work bathroom, it betrays a twisted individual within who needs help.

But McQueen, in only his second feature film, comes up a little short. I loved how narrow and dark he made New York seem; every storefront Fassbender walks by seems barren; every bright light is either in the distance or obscured by a window. The movie, and the world of the movie itself, is unquestionably Fassbender's alone. But for all of his visual acumen, McQueen sets a very slow pace. Scenes and conversations are drawn out, ostensibly to heighten tension or increase intensity, but they tend to drag on a bit too long in the process.

And most of these lengthy moments are surprisingly limiting, offering little-to-no character development or plot detail. I usually enjoy when a filmmaker offers the viewer an opportunity to fill in a few of the blanks, but you have to present the blanks in the first place. Sometimes this movie felt aloof for the sake of being aloof, as if providing no backstory was a necessary part of making a provocative independent film.

Shame looks great and its lead performance is dynamite, but in the end it was more of a vehicle for those excellent elements than a complete work of art.

Martha Marcy May Marlene - Another movie, like Shame, that could have greatly benefited from a bit more backstory.

Elizabeth Olsen, the youngest (and by far the most talented) of the Olsen children, plays a young girl who's just escaped from a cult (run by the quietly creepy John Hawkes). She moves in with her sister, who's married a well-to-do businessman from the city and vacations in a home not far from the cult's headquarters. And, of course, scary dreams and mental breakdowns ensue.

I don't mean to shortchange the film too much; it's the first feature from director Sean Durkin, and Olsen should get an Oscar nomination for displaying such a healthy mix of both helplessness and combativeness.

But if Durkin had provided a bit more clarity, maybe Olsen's distraught behavior would carry more weight. Instead, in the end, we're left with the memories (or nightmares) of an untrustworthy narrator. While this comes with an implied sense of curiosity and dread, it also leaves the door a bit too wide open for my tastes. Was it all exaggerated, or even imagined? Is she going to live the rest of her life in fear of something that isn't even there? The possibilities offered up are intriguing but not enthralling. I was left wondering what more was there; how much impact a few more defining scenes would have added to the movie.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a damn fine debut for a young filmmaker and actress, but it feels incomplete and lacking the follow-through on what felt like an incoming knockout punch.

The Descendants - And now we get to the crowd-pleaser.

Even though George Clooney's movies don't gross as much as everyone thinks, he's one of our most beloved actors. Which is weird, when you look at his track record. I love Fantastic Mr. Fox, Burn After Reading, Michael Clayton and Good Night, and Good Luck as much as anybody, but they're not exactly moneymaking hits. In fact, minus Up in the Air and the Ocean's movies, Clooney's been practically an indie darling for the last decade.

But I'm not arguing with the guy's choices, especially his increasingly obvious desire to snare roles that aren't right in his wheelhouse. After supposedly campaigning hard to play Thomas Haden Church's character in Sideways, Clooney finally gets his leading gig in an Alexander Payne movie. And he knocks it out of the park.

This is frumpy, conflicted Clooney, not dashing spy Clooney. This is the kind of Clooney whose wife cheats on him with Matthew Lillard, as inconceivable as that may be. This is the Clooney who runs around corners at full speed in flip flops, the kind of Clooney who's best buddies with Mary Birdsong and Rob Huebel. He's still charming and smooth-talking, but you can see the handful of hardships he's suffered in his face.

What at first confused me and now interests me about this film was its relative lack of narrative structure. Things don't exactly fit together. There are emotional moments and the story flows along, but no one really learns anything. No characters go through big internal changes. They find out a little more about each other, and then they all eat ice cream together.

This threw me for a loop at first, mostly because I was expecting a conventional film with a beginning and an end. But it did feel more real, how a family might actually react to tragedy and controlled chaos. People are who they are, and in The Descendants, said people are a well-to-do "Hawaiian" family with issues like internal communication and not enough attention being paid to certain details. In this neat little slice of their lives captured on screen, they figure it all out well enough to function as a slightly tweaked version of their same selves.

I'm still not sure why this is garnering so much award show praise, but it is probably Payne's least quirky and most accessible film to date. Add in a little Robert Forster and a pinch of Judy Greer and you've got a somewhat perplexingly enjoyable movie.

Take Shelter - The first film I saw starring Michael Shannon was Bug, William Friedkin's adaptation of a play in which two people slowly go insane in a motel room. My brother loved it; I did not, but I was definitely intrigued by Shannon and his increasingly unstable performance. He played an excellent psycho.

And now here we are, after Revolutionary Road, Boardwalk Empire and a handful of other career-propelling roles, and Michael Shannon's finally a "leading man." Perhaps surprisingly, after so many movies where he's unquestionably mad, Take Shelter offers a nuanced take on Shannon's onset of mental illness and how it affects his family and the people around him.

In Shame, Michael Fassbender's character is developed through brief glimpses into his private life, offhand gestures and snippets of information. His dialogue is minimal and his backstory is basically nonexistent. As I said, this can be a fine way to make a movie: allowing an intelligent audience to fill in the holes as they see fit. But it doesn't always hold up when you're also asking us to emotionally invest. It makes it easy to detach.

In contrast, Take Shelter offers numerous scenes with Michael Shannon's wife and child, scenes where you can see how much he cares about them and how his descent into madness is tearing them apart. It makes what's happening onscreen less clinical and more affecting. Conversations with his coworker (Eli from Boardwalk Empire!) and his brother (the reverend from Deadwood!) make Shannon's character more than just another psycho, and they make his illness more than just a plot point that gives Shannon free reign to scream and flip over tables. This is a person with connections, and those might be taken away by forces out of his control. That's some heartbreaking stuff right there.

Maybe the point of Shame was to make Fassbender's character unreachable, to keep his twisted desires away from the audience and induce either pity or disgust. He had no connections, because he couldn't emotionally form them in the first place. No matter the case, I preferred Take Shelter's method. I cared about what I saw on screen, and when the movie ended with a curious final scene, I was compelled to discuss it with my friends and work out its meaning. As either a metaphor or reality, it captured the hell that his family would continue going through.

Take Shelter was an unexpectedly moving look at a simple man combating demons brought about by genetics and bad luck. Shannon's face and features have been long associated with a dignified sort of creepiness, but hopefully this movie will make it clear that his range extends beyond the neatly tortured souls he's specialized in up to this point.