Friday, December 28, 2007

This Sporting Life: End It Already

And now, a review of this year in Chicago sports, whether you want to look back on it or not:

The Bears. They started the year by going to the Super Bowl and losing to the Indianapolis Colts, but all signs pointed to continued success, even after head coach Lovie Smith fired defensive coordinator Ron Rivera so Smith's longtime friend Bob Babich could have the position, and general manager Jerry Angelo traded the team's number-one running back, Thomas Jones, so Angelo's first-round draft pick, Cedric Benson, could be the lead back. Both decisions turned out to be disastrous, but the team had many other problems, including inconsistent play by quarterbacks Rex Grossman and Brian Griese, too many turnovers, an offensive line that became ancient seemingly overnight and was unable to either open up holes for Benson or effectively protect the quarterback, and a defense that couldn't compensate for injuries to key players. Consequently, the team went from first to worst and was painful to watch most of the time. (Side note: Rivera was hired by the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers are going to the playoffs. Coincidence, I'm sure.)

The Fire. I...don't care about soccer. Next.

The Cubs. They made the playoffs for the first time in four years. They also got bounced out of the playoffs immediately. Still, they went from worst to first (see, Bears, that's how you're supposed to do it) and have tried to make improvements in the off-season, like signing Japanese outfielder Kosuke Fukudome. Unlike, say…

The White Sox. It's not fair to say that the Sox haven't tried to make improvements in the off-season. They have tried. Really. And they needed to after coming off a lousy season. But general manager Kenny Williams has missed more than he's hit, with free agents like Torii Hunter and ex-Sox outfielder Aaron Rowand spurning Chicago for longer, more lucrative deals elsewhere. The only major trade Williams has managed to pull off is a befuddling one: In-his-prime starting pitcher Jon Garland for aging shortstop Orlando Cabrera. There's a lot of time before spring training for Williams to make some more deals, but it's a bad sign when the biggest news of your off-season is not an addition to your lineup, but to your broadcast team (former Cubs color commentator Steve Stone). On the bright side: Manager Ozzie Guillen has never been quieter.

The Bulls. They made the playoffs for the third season in a row and even won their first-round series, sweeping the reigning champion, the Miami Heat. They lost in the second round of the playoffs, but things were looking bright going into this season, even with contract talks broken off with Luol Deng and Ben Gordon and trade talks regarding superstar/malcontent Kobe Bryant going nowhere. Then, unfortunately, the season started, the Bulls played listlessly and, after a 9-16 start, general manager (and former Bulls forward) John Paxson axed head coach Scott Skiles--on Christmas Eve. (Nice holiday spirit, fella. Downright classy.)

The Blackhawks. It's sad when some fans believe that the best thing that could happen to a sports franchise is the death of the owner, but that's how some--perhaps many--felt about William Wirtz, who had done about as much as one person could do to drive away fans without threatening them with physical harm. He raised ticket prices, refused to spend money to keep talented players (or to bring other talented players here), and wouldn't allow home games to be televised. When Wirtz died in September, some fans actually cheered. Everybody else sat back and waited to see what new team president Rocky Wirtz (William's son) would do. One of his first moves was to get as many home games on TV as possible--only seven this season, but that's seven more that we've had in decades. He also promises more for next season and going forward--maybe even games on broadcast TV like when I was a kid (and, back then, a big hockey fan). This bodes well for a team with a nucleus of good young players that is already better than in recent years. Not only will it be easier to see the Blackhawks, but they might actually be worth seeing.

What will 2008 bring for our mighty sports metropolis? More trauma for the Bulls? Improvement for the Bears and White Sox? The first World Series win in a century for the Cubs? Playoffs for the Blackhawks? More fans for the Fire--or, at least, a coach to last the whole season? To quote Doctor Who (specifically Sylvester McCoy's Doctor): "Time will tell. It always does."

Monday, December 24, 2007

Review: How You Look to Me (2006)

We see so many movies set on one coast or the other--in sunny, smoggy L.A. or crowded, noisy N.Y.C.--that it's genuinely refreshing to see a new film set somewhere in-between.

How You Look to Me is set in Louisville. (The last movie I can remember being set there is Return of the Living Dead.) Yes, this means we get plenty of shots of Churchill Downs, but we also get lots of great views of the rest of the city, courtesy of director J. Miller Tobin and cinematographer Michael Caporale, who make it look like a lovely place indeed.

It's the story of three grad students, all wrestling with romance. William (Bruce Romans, who also wrote the screenplay) is quite the playboy, getting it on with a cute redhead before meeting up with his regular "friend with benefits," Katherine (Kiersten Van Horne), but he doesn't know quite what to do when he meets Jane (Laura Allen), a fellow grad student he is instantly attracted to. William's best friend, Maurice (Kevin Butler) is in love with waitress Kris (Pacey Walker), and it scares him to pieces, while moody loner Park (David S. Jung) attracts the attention of goth chick Sara (Laura Elton).

Observing all this at a distance is their writing instructor, Professor Driskoll (Frank Langella), who likes horses and hangs out at the racetrack with the boys (since William's dad is a wealthy horse breeder). Driskoll seems to be suffering from some disease--we see him taking medication and he often seems frail--but that doesn't stop him from prodding his students to try harder; at one point he very theatrically tosses all their papers into the nearest waste basket. He also pushes William in particular to either invest more of himself in his writing or take a job with his brother at Churchill Downs. William and Jane, meanwhile, start a tentative romance between poetry readings.

The readings themselves play authentically, with some pretty good verse--and some pretty bad verse as well, though that's strictly intentional. The interior scenes are as well filmed as the exterior footage, giving the whole movie a believable, comfortable look.

Unfortunately, Romans's lead performance is anything but comfortable. He's flat and expressionless, even in very emotional scenes. You never get the sense that he's passionate about anything--writing, horses or any of the girls he's sleeping with (or wants to sleep with). The dialog he's written has a realistic feel to it, but he can't deliver it naturally. Butler fares much better as Maurice, looking genuinely tormented over what to do with his feelings for Kris, and Allen is effective and sweet as she conveys resistance to William's increasingly well-meaning advances. Jung's character is already reserved, but he uses that trait to his advantage, making Parks lengthy speech to William on a basketball court all the more surprising and profound.

Langella has, in many ways, the most difficult role in the movie, since he's the best-known member of the cast, but with little screen time. Still, he brings a quiet, gentle authority to a part that could have been an overplayed clichŽ; Driskoll is clearly a man with regrets who doesn't want William wind up in the same place, wondering what could have been if he'd just tried harder.

How You Look to Me concludes without definite resolutions to all of its storylines--kind of like real life--and passes as a pleasant, lovely-looking slice of life in a town we don't get to see enough of at the movies. Like William and Driskoll, though, Tobin and Romans could have tried a little harder--maybe cast someone as William who could better express the emotional range needed to make an audience really care--and reached something truly special.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Joyful Noise

As I wrote yesterday, not all Christmas songs make me want to drink myself into a coma. There are plenty that plant a grin just above my chin. Most of them aren't the most obvious choices, though.

There are some holiday tunes I like because they haven't been covered to death. (Do we really ever need another version of "White Christmas"? Or "The First Noel" ? Or a hundred others? No, no and nooooooo.) I could choose just about anything from Spector's album and do well, but I have particular affection for "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" by the Crystals and "The Bells of St. Mary's" by Bob. B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans.

Why? For one thing, you can't go wrong with just about any selection from that album, but these two songs in particular also have the advantage of not having been reinterpreted over and over again. When you get down to it, neither one is really a Christmas song at all; the holiday isn't mentioned in either, though the former is at least about toys (a very Christmas kind of thing) and the latter is most closely associated with Bing Crosby (a very Christmas kind of actor/singer). Both are performed with substantial energy and production polish, and "Bells" in particular reaches heights that are surprisingly emotional.

There are other Christmas songs I love not because I love the songs in question, but the performers' treatment of them. For example, I've never really liked "Jingle Bell Rock." Something about it just bugs, and the Hall and Oats version from the '80s didn't improve it one bit (it was, in fact, a note-for-note remake and therefore entirely pointless). The version by British string quartet Bond, though, takes something annoying and makes it shine. Their approach is similar to Spector's "Wall of Sound," filling all the audio spaces with joyful noises and infectious energy. It also helps that they dispense with the lameass lyrics and go entirely instrumental, giving the song a tightness and urgency it never had before.

"The Little Drummer Boy" is another song I don't really get along with--not so much because of the song itself, but because of the irritating animated special Rankin & Bass (creators of the infinitely more entertaining Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer special that has aired at least once a year on CBS since my very first Christmas) built around the song. The aforementioned Bing Crosby, though, brought new life and sweetness to his version of the "The Little Drummer Boy," which combines it with another song ("Peace on Earth") and pairs Crosby with an unlikely, yet effective, duet partner--David Bowie. Unfortunately, this was Crosby's last Contribution to the Christmas music canon: a month after recording "Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth" with Bowie for a 1977 TV special, he died of a heart attack on a golf course in Madrid, Spain.

Some of my favorite holiday songs aren't holiday songs at all, but remind me of this time of year. Eurythmics' "There Must Be an Angel (Playing with My Heart)" has nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas, but Angels do, and Annie Lennox's gorgeous vocals (accompanied by a nice harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder) help this tune fit in with the season just fine. Brian Wilson's "Trombone Dixie" isn't a Christmas song either, but his liberal use of sleigh bells in the course of recording this obscure instrumental (during the same sessions that produced Pet Sounds, the greatest pop album ever--no, really, ever), unreleased until about 20 years after it was made, put in a box and forgotten, always makes me think of snow and smiles.

Wilson's younger brother, Dennis, recorded a song for the Beach Boys' second Christmas album (which was shelved by their then-record company and available only on bootlegs until the late 1990s, years after Dennis's drowning death in 1983) that walks the fine line between sad and happy holiday songs. "Morning Christmas" isn't so much sad as it is somber, a melancholy juxtaposition of the joy of children opening presents on Christmas morning with the more serious intent of the holiday, often lost amid the bows and wrapping paper--the celebration of the birthday of God's only son.

"Morning Christmas" is warm and subtle and lovingly constructed. It's a shame more people haven't heard of it. Maybe a couple more people know about it now.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas Mourning

I recently wrote about listening to Christmas songs way earlier than I should, including the new holiday CD by KT Tunstall. There are only six songs on it, most of which are covers--and most of which deal, on one level or another, with loneliness at this most festive time of year. (Are you trying to tell us something, KT? If me.)

Two of the songs Tunstall covers have become standards of holiday less-than-cheer: "2,000 Miles," originally by The Pretenders and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," made famous by Darlene Love on the Christmas album to beat all Christmas albums, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, and from numerous appearances on "The Late Show with David Letterman."

Chrissy Hynes's vocals on "2,000 Miles" perfectly and simply express the longing of a woman separated from her someone by great distance; just the simple phrase "I miss you" carries great emotional weight. Love, on the other hand, gets substantial aid from Spector's "Wall of Sound" production. Not that she needs it, though: Her voice is strong enough to pluck every emotional heartstring, so that by the time she dials it back to say, "You should be here with me," you're already in tears. (Or at least I am--the rest of you are heartless bastards.)

There are plenty of other Christmas songs Tunstall could have mined for seasonal sadness, though others have already covered that turf more than adequately.

Dido's "Christmas Day" is also about a woman lonely and forlorn on what's usually such a celebratory occasion. In her case, though, the guy she's pining for is a dude she met one time--he rose up on horseback, fed her some pretty lines ("Your eyes are green, like summer grass") and then rode off again, promising to return for her on the title occasion. You'd think somebody would yell at him, "Hey, dumbass. Dido is pretty freakin' hot. Ride back to her. RIDE. BACK. NOW!" But no, he continues on his merry way...and she never sees him again. We never know why--maybe he was killed in a war or had a wife or is feeding pretty lines to other freakin' hot singers. But poor Dido is left verklempt for the rest of her days, singing her sad, sad song.

I've always thought "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" had more than a little bit of melancholy laced through its lyrics, even though most singers try to pass it off as a sincere and glowing wish for holiday cheer. Not Diana Krall. Her version crystallizes the melancholy, making it clear that the person extending the wish has no real belief that either she or the someone she's singing to will have anything remotely approximating "a merry little Christmas."

Of course, that singer and her someone probably have homes in which to wrestle with their seasonal demons, while the subject of "Pretty Paper" is out in the street, begging amongst the throng of holiday shoppers. It's best known as a Roy Orbison tune, but I prefer the version by the song's author, Willie Nelson; his more ragged, less operatic voice makes the story told that much more heartbreaking.

Heartbreak, in its various, less-than-wonderous forms, is probably preferable to contusions or busted bones, but you can find them in holiday melodies as well, like the Ramones' "Merry Christmas (I Don't Wanna Fight Tonight)," where the singer pleads with his love to put aside their combat for the sake of the occasion. Their bruises are more emotional that physical, but that's not the case in the Kinks' "Father Christmas," where some punks beat the crap out of a street-corner Santa and take all the money he's collected. Merry frickin' Christmas, indeed.

At least Kris Kringle didn't die, unlike Prince's ladylove in "Another Lonely Christmas," who not only dies, but drowns on Christmas Eve. Geez, Prince. There's enough drinking around the holidays already--don't make me drag out the vodka and tonic.

So, is that what Christmas music is all about? Longing and loss? Mourning and misery?

Of course not. There are plenty of uplifting, cheerful holiday classics. Those aren't necessarily the ones that make me happiest, though. More on those tomorrow.