Tim Cowlishaw

The best Scorsese is the other Scorsese in 2013

In Additional Facetime on January 1, 2014 at 11:35 am

I don’t know why I spend so much time anguishing over my Top 10 movies of the year which last year was expanded to Top 20 and this year reaches the almost unneccessary level of a Top 25. I am not a film critic. I do not pretend to be a film critic. There are choices on this list that you won’t likely find on other lists, mostly because I have my own way of looking at these things.

I thought 2013 was an excellent year with probably 7-8 movies I could have ranked No. 1 and at least 20 I could have listed in my top 10. So while trying to compile this list, I thought of 3 things in determining where these films should be ranked. 1. How much did I think about it when it was over? 2. How badly did I want to see it again? 3. How quickly did I want to tell friends to go see this movie?

OK, I’ve got a lot of rankings to run through here, so let’s get started.

1. AMERICAN HUSTLE — Was director David O. Russell paying respects to Martin Scorsese or just copying all his trademark techniques — lot of zooming in on characters, occasional freeze frames, great soundtrack? Doesn’t really matter to me. Russell has had his own great run of top 10 films lately (“The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook”) so I pretty much feel he can do what he wants. I just thought Amy Adams, Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper were all great here, in particular Bale who lets others (notably Jennifer Lawrence) do the scene-stealing here. And I guess I knew Amy Adams could look like that? But I never really though about Amy Adams looking like that. There was nothing I didn’t love about this movie.

2. IN A WORLD — Up until two weeks ago, I thought this terrific film by Lake Bell was going to be my No. 1 pick. It has two of the funniest moments I saw in movies all year (“What’s wrong with the blue towels?”). The title refers to all those movie trailers you have seen through the years (“In a world where….”), and with the death of the man who had cornered the market on that industry, everyone is competing to be the new “In a world” guy — including Lake Bell against her own father. It’s kind of odd that I ranked it this high and picked “Bernie” No. 1 last year because I don’t like most movie comedies. This is not standard comedy material, just great stuff.  

3.  DALLAS BUYERS CLUB — Matthew McConaughey is on an amazing roll — “Bernie,” “Killer Joe,” “Mud,” a small but great part in “Wolf of Wall Street” plus the upcoming HBO series “True Detective.” Somewhere in the midst of all this in the last two years (sorry I left off “Magic Mike”) he found time to lose 40 pounds and shoot this film (in New Orleans, not here) about a very heterosexual man diagnosed with AIDS in the ’80s. Jared Leto is probably going to win a series of Best Supporting Actor awards for his transgender character who eventually moves McConaughey’s angry young man into a more tolerant position.

4. GRAVITY — For a second viewing, I took my 87-year-old father. It was Willis’ first 3-D experience and I knew he would love all those incredible shots of Earth from above. I feel like giving this film a special award for being one of the few this year that isn’t 20 minutes too long or even more which brings us to…

5. WOLF OF WALL STREET — The latest Scorsese is all about excess in every conceivable way. Lots of money, lots of nudity, lost of cocaine to the point that when Leo rips open his own couch to find another cocaine stash in the film, it has zero impact. We’ve seen it. We get it. These people are unlikable and way out of control. And at 2 hours, 59 minutes, this is far more than any of us ever need to know about Jordan Belfort or any other corrupt real-estate types. Now having said that, it’s Scorsese, so it’s film-making brilliance throughout and there are scenes I would love to watch again and again. My favorite is DiCaprio (Belfort) on his yacht talking pleasantly to the FBI agent investigating him. When the conversation becomes something other than pleasant, it’s an amazingly powerful moment given that no one is so much as raising a fist. But, hey, Leo, you don’t mess with Coach Taylor of Friday Night Lights TV fame. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose, buddy.

6. THE ATTACK — It’s hard — I mean really hard — to make a film about a Palestinian suicide-bomber in Israel that finds a way to show both sides of the equation. To paraphrase as best I can remember what one character tells another near the end of the film, “We can talk for a thousand years and we’re never going to hear each other.” A terrific and intelligent look at an impossible situation.

7. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS — “Look at me. Look at me…I’m the captain now.” The first 90 minutes of this film has it competing for the very top spot on the list. By the end, when what appears to be the entire U.S. Navy shows up — even if that’s a fairly factual account of what happened — it takes too long and leaves you remembering those initial scenes when you were amazed at what the Somalian pirates were trying to pull off.

8. MUD — McConaughey again? Damn right, but there’s a lot more to this film than his puzzling island-bound character. You have to love the two kids, one of whom had never acted and just won an audition in Arkansas based in part on his ability to handle a boat.

9. FRUITVALE STATION — I really liked this account of what happened on New Year’s Eve in the East Bay a few years back, and it was only after the movie I learned I had been watching Wallace from “The Wire” in the lead role. I thought he looked familiar with those puffy cheeks but I didn’t know.

10. ENOUGH SAID — On the other hand, like everyone else, when I went to see this movie, I knew it was the last I’d see of the great James Gandolfini. That can’t help but have an impact on how you feel about a film. But not only is he great — very un-Tony Soprano like — so is Julia-Louie Dreyfus who is on a great roll herself with the success of one of my favorite shows, “Veep.”

11. THE HUNT — What happens when you’re wrongly accused of something truly awful? Do you ever get over it? Will people let you?

12. SIDE EFFECTS — Allegedly the last full-length film Stephen Soderbergh is directing. I’m a sucker for anything Rooney Mara is in and for “I didn’t see that coming” moments because, frankly, I never see them coming.

13. 12 YEARS A SLAVE — I know this is much higher on critics’ lists and it’s not as if I didn’t think it was outstanding. But I always feel that overdoing a thing works against a director’s best interests, even if we’re talking about slavery and mistreatment. Two or three shots of someone getting whipped do the trick. Eighteen shots of it diminish the impact for me. But there are some great performances here even if Brad Pitt riding to the rescue is a little much.

14. THE CONJURING — I don’t usually go see anything that falls into the “good scary” movie category because, to be honest, they scare me. I think my son Ben and I were both a little nervous as we settled into the Inwood balcony for this one. But I’ll watch anything that has Ron Livingston (“Band of Brothers,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Office Space” and apparently “Sex in the City”). First hour was good. And scary. Last hour was an Exorcist take-off but still very much worth seeing.

15. NEBRASKA — In the battle of “This Movie Is Going To Be Slow and Viewers Are Okay With It”, this film gets the nod over “Inside Llewyn Davis.” I remember seeing Bruce Dern on stage here almost 40 years ago at a Texas Film Festival showing of “Smile” and I haven’t seen a heck of a lot of Dern in between. He’s really good here and so is Jenna’s boyfriend from “30 Rock.” Not much happens. It’s in black and white. And that’s OK. It’s real.

16. THE WAY WAY BACK — Better than I expected. Steve Carell as someone you don’t like takes some getting used to.

17. PARKLAND — A story on the fringe of the big story here on Nov. 22, 1963. Lots of familiar faces popping in and out — loved, yes, Ron Livingston again as the beleaguered FBI agent James Hosty who didn’t follow up on an Oswald lead.

18. LORE — What happens when you see a torn photo and that appears to be your father…in a Nazi uniform?

19. DON JON — I would say this film gets a lot of things right about porn, but, hey, I don’t even know what that is. So I’m just guessing.

 20. BLUE JASMINE — Kate Blanchett’s pretty interesting and it’s fun to see Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), but this isn’t the quality of Late Era Woody that “Midnight in Paris,” “Match Point” or “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” are.

21. ALL IS LOST — I realize this is a great, nearly soundless one-man performance from Robert Redford but about 15 minutes in, all I could think of was: “Man, I hate sailboats.”

22. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS — Yeah, I’m still buying in because Zachary Quinto gets a young Spock about as right as someone could get it.

23. 42 — Nothing really new about Jackie Robinson here. Interesting to see that the kid from “Sling Blade” is now old enough to play Pee Wee Reese.

24. PLACE BEYOND THE PINES — SPOILER ALERT: This movie has been out almost a year, don’t read the next two sentences if you are still waiting to go see it. I liked the first movie a lot. I just didn’t know there were going to be three. I mean, really, when Ryan Gosling hit the pavement, didn’t you think “That can’t be it!” ?

25. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS — I read a very interesting article about the cat in this movie in The Atlantic the day after I saw it. I didn’t get any of that. Maybe if I had, I would have been less inclined to look at my watch. The Coen Brothers make some of the best films in modern cinema, but for me, this is “A Serious Man with a Guitar.”       


Who Beat Lincoln? My Top 10 — No, Make That 20 — Movies of 2012

In Top Cat Goes to the Movies on December 27, 2012 at 9:12 am

Who Beat Lincoln? My Top 10 Movies of 2012 begins now…
(DISCLAIMER: I am not an official film critic. Or an unofficial one. I go to more movies than the average person but I don’t see everything, or almost everything, like critics do. If you read this list and say “Where’s ‘Dark Knight Rises?’ “ I never got around to seeing it. But it wouldn’t have made it, anyway. And if you read this list and say, “Where’s “The Avengers?’ ‘’ In that case, you’ve come to the wrong place but I couldn’t begin to tell you where to look.)
Since this was an excellent year and a few movies I really liked fell out of the top 10, I have expanded this to a top 20. I couldn’t have come close to doing that last year and, in fact, it would be impossible most years for me.
20. HITCHCOCK – If there are three films I know nearly every piece of dialogue from, it would be “It’s a Wonderful Life,’’ “Taxi Driver’’ and “Psycho.’’ The first remain an annual event. The other two relate more to a slightly disturbed childhood or young adult life. But since “Hitchcock’’ was ostensibly about the problems Alfred Hitchcock had making “Psycho’’ and how he was going to get the shower scene past censors, it had a chance to be great. Missed by a mile. I knew more about “Psycho” going into the theatre than I did coming out. Wasted efforts by some good actors.
19. THE GREY – I think I saw this last January so I’m putting it on list. Lots of wolves. Lots of snow. Lots of Liam Neeson showing toughness. And a surprise ending. But not much else.
18. MY WEEKEND WITH MARILYN – It seems like DMN film critic Chris Vognar (who you really should follow on twitter and read) called this a “bauble’’ and that’s exactly right. Michelle Williams does a great job playing Marilyn. Kenneth Branagh portrays Laurence Olivier as about what I expect he might have been like. But there’s not a heck of a lot here.
17. PROMETHEUS – I think I was supposed to like this more than I did. Maybe it was the sofas at the Inwood that nearly put me to sleep. It wasn’t bad or anything but I pretty much left the movie feeling the same emotions that Charlize Theron displayed throughout. Not a big sci-fi guy unless McCoy is saying, “I’m a Doctor, Jim, not a bricklayer.”
16. SEVEN PSYCOPATHS – Had more funny moments than expected but if you saw the preview, you got the basics. A movie being very cool about being a movie. For “Boardwalk Empire” fans, a rare (but brief) chance to see the long lost Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) along with not so rare appearance for Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) who was also in “Lincoln” and “Hitchcock.”
15. THE MASTER – See, I told you I wasn’t a critic. If I wrote for Rolling Stone, I guess I’d have it No. 1. I thought a lot about P.T. Anderson’s film after seeing it. For about half the time I was watching the film, I liked it. Loved Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack (but that’s a given as a Radiohead fan). But by the end, I was pretty sure I wasn’t the only one that thought this made no sense at all and there was nothing here. I realize others see it quite differently, even consider it a masterpiece. But when I think about “There Will Be Blood,’ “Magnolia’’ and “Boogie Nights” I wonder how this falls into the same category with Anderson’s previous great works. For me, it doesn’t come close.
14. LOOPER – The rare time travel movie where I walk out saying, “I think I understood that!” Nice work by Bruce Willis.
13. FLIGHT – Really enjoyed Denzel Washington’s portrayal of a high-functioning alcoholic who has a chilling ability to lie to those around him (a subject with which I am not unfamiliar). Really enjoyed Don Cheadle because he is great at everything, even if it’s commercials for the World Series. But then about every 20 minutes I think they felt they were losing the audience so they popped John Goodman onto the screen performing in a completely different movie. Ends up all over the map but certainly worth seeing for Denzel in a different role.
12. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED – Love April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) on “Parks and Recreation” and she’s more than capable of carrying this indie film from start to finish. Won a screenwriting award at Sundance.
11. LIFE OF PI – I suspect the million readers of this book would rank this much higher. I missed the book. And I liked the film a lot, and I’m not a 3-D moviegoer at all. The only thing I didn’t care for would require a spoiler alert so I’ll just pass and say it was very good and would make top 10 for me almost any other year.
10. KILLER JOE – Not for everyone. But it was a big year for Matthew McConaughey and this role played a huge part. It’s dark. And it’s set in Dallas although if you recognize any of the sets, more power to you. Not sure if any of it was filmed here. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”) was still alive. But he’s clearly still determined to scare the crap out of his audience or at least bother them to no end. I wasn’t a regular at KFC before this movie, and this film did not encourage me to give its products another try. The one thing I was thinking afterwards was that, knowing how many takes are required in some films, how much fried chicken Gina Gershon had to ingest.
9. SKYFALL – Never expected to see a James Bond film on this list. I pretty much checked out of this series when Sean Connery did. But Sam Mendes directed the very good “Road to Perdition” and “Revolutionary Road” and my favorite film of the last 15 years (“American Beauty”) so I gave it a chance. The 2-1/2 hours went by quickly. Hard to make a fight scene we haven’t witnessed before but the one in a Shanghai skyscraper at night filled with glass and reflections was just outstanding.
8. DJANGO UNCHAINED – It’s not as good as “Inglorious Basterds’’ but it’s still damn good. And that’s despite the fact that Quentin Tarantino’s depiction of violence always (for me) takes away from any film because it’s so over the top, who can take any of the rest of it seriously? People don’t explode like hamburger when they get shot…except here. I know Spike Lee’s criticism of Tarantino turning the slavery issue into a Sergio Leone western, and I understand that point as much as I can without being able to empathize with it. There is a certain discomfort about watching so many white actors dropping the N-word so cavalierly (it is 1858 in Mississippi, after all) and a mostly white audience laughing along with it. But Tarantino isn’t much for social causes. Spike Lee should understand better than I do that he makes films for people to listen to and think about. Tarantino makes movies for people to look at and say “Hey, I get that obscure reference.” Beyond that, Christoph Waltz is just too good throughout for this movie to fall out of my top 10 despite some reservations about it as a whole.
7. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK – It’s funny that a new movie can feel almost dated because of the main characters’ love for Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson. I’m still amazed that Jennifer Lawrence can possibly be the same young woman who was at the center of “Winter’s Bone’’ two years ago. If you saw it when it came out, you surely noticed how uncertain audiences were to laugh at certain scenes or lines. That’s not a bad thing. That’s real life.
6. SMASHED – This film might have been in Dallas for a week before disappearing, I’m not sure. It’s a shame. I would have hoped Aaron Paul (Jesse in “Breaking Bad”) would have been enough to pull in the audience, but the star is Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She plays his young wife and is someone who realizes they have a drinking problem and decides to stop and finds that stopping might end one very large problem but opens up unexpected new ones with the people around her (another topic with which I have gained some familiarity). Go see Nick Offerman (Parks and Rec’s Ron Swanson) in a completely different role.
5. SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN – This would have been an amazing documentary even if the man from Detroit known to almost no one in this country but almost everyone in South Africa named Rodriguez couldn’t sing. But he can. His sound is a cross between Dylan and Jose Feliciano, and he made two albums in the ‘70s that did nothing here so he vanished back into construction work and occasionally ran for political office in Detroit while he was somehow becoming a superstar in South Africa. Years later he got the applause he deserved there. Played at House of Blues here a couple of months ago and, except for the usual assholes talking throughout the show, it was a solid performance.
4. ARGO – Who had Ben Affleck on their list of “Next Marginal Actor Slated to Become Great Director?” OK, he’s better than a marginal actor even if he fell into some bad habits after making it big. When I think of “Good Will Hunting” although it’s really Matt Damon’s film, the scene I always remember is Affleck’s monologue near the end telling Damon he doesn’t want to see him hanging out and drinking beer and watching Patriot games in 20 years. “Argo” is an amazing tale set during the Iran hostage crisis. Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston (Walter White in “Breaking Bad”) carry it even if Affleck is the central character. Of all the nervous moments I had watching movies this year, No. 1 without a doubt had to be the “get that plane off the ground” feeling in this one.
3. MOONRISE KINGDOM – I was temporarily stripped of my hipster card by local restaurateur and full-time film buff Josh Babb (Kenichi, Shooters) a few years ago when I admitted to not liking “Royal Tenenbaums.’’ I hope to get it restored by placing Wes Anderson’s best film at this lofty spot. It’s about young love and awkwardness and scout camp and other things I can’t begin to explain. It has a host of big-name stars (Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton) but the kids at the heart of the film are the reason you love it.
2. LINCOLN – Ranking somewhere alongside “Miami Heat’s chances to make the playoffs” you will find “Daniel Day Lewis’ chances of winning an Oscar for Best Actor.’’ To say he gets Lincoln just right is to suggest I know what Lincoln was like. I’m old but quite that old. But his is a performance – amidst some great supporting work by David Straithairn and Tommy Lee Jones – that makes you say, “That’s got to be just about right.’’ You watch Lewis getting into one of Lincoln’s storytelling moments and start thinking, “Are the other actors on screen scared to death of screwing this up?” The shouting scene between which Lewis and Sally Field as his troubled wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, is as powerful as anything on the screen all year.
1. BERNIE – I have a very test for determining which movie was the best of a given year. It’s the one I went to the Magnolia to see three times. That’s in part because I saw it first by myself, then knew I needed to take my kids to see it. Rachel was in Europe, so I took Ben. Then when she got back, Ben and I took Rachel. Good grief, my parents pretty much dropped out of the movie-going business 20 years ago, and they went and loved it. Obviously, Jack Black and McConaughey and Shirley MacLaine are excellent at the core of a movie based on a Skip Hollandsworth Texas Monthly article about a murder in Carthage, Texas. But the East Texas townspeople shot in Richard Linklater’s documentary style – some real townspeople, a few actors like scene-stealer Sonny Carl Davis – generate even more laughs than the major stars. Yes, it’s a murder-comedy and it’s based on real events. And it’s as good as Jack Black will get I’m afraid. And I wouldn’t mind seeing it a fourth time this afternoon.

Drunk on Sports goes to the movies “Flight”, “Smashed” and more

In Drunk On Sports: The Book on November 23, 2012 at 12:07 pm

For those interested in an update on the book, there is essentially none. A bunch of publishers that had expressed either mild interest in or appreciation for what I was trying to do were contacted and told things like more than 5,000 people read a chapter in a single day after one post on twitter. And they all (apparently) said some variation of  “Hey, that’s great, good luck with the book.”

I don’t know enough about publishing a book — or anything about it really — to say that these people are all idiots. So I’ll never say that. They are apprehensive about the ability of a sportswriter’s memoir to sell in large numbers at a time when people aren’t reading newspapers. I get that. There’s some logic to those concerns. And if that’s all this book amounts to, a collection of chapters about how I became a “big-time” sportswriter and talking dog on TV, then they won’t miss out on much. I’d like to think it’s going to mean a little more than that, not just to those with drinking problems or those who know someone with drinking problems (that’s pretty much everyone, right?) but to others who just want to have some laughs at my expense.

Anyway, the bottom line is it will probably be an e-book early next year, and that’s fine with me. In the meantime, I’m going to post some thoughts on the films “Flight” and “Smashed” which deal with alcoholics in very different ways along with a chapter that won’t make the book that I wrote two years ago. It might sneak in as a few paragraphs but I’ll just run it in full here after I say a few things about the two recent films.


This movie is 2 hours, 18 minutes long, and if I could hack it down to about an hour, 40, it would be excellent. There’s too much crap in it and whenever the director Robert Zemeckis (who has masted the art of very scary plane crashes, see “Castaway” as well) senses the audience might get bored, he puts John Goodman on the screen who’s playing in an entirely different film from what Don Cheadle and others have in mind.

The main point for our purposes here is that Denzel Washington does a great job playing a high-functioning alcoholic. I think I know what these people should look like up there on the screen, I was one down here on the ground for most of a couple of decades. I like the smaller touches in this film that they get right. At one point, Denzel is throwing away all the liquor in a farmhouse before he realizes it’s pointless because he has already been drug-tested. After throwing away all the good stuff in the house, he’s in the garage where he pulls out a small bottle of Gordon’s (it might be gin instead of vodka, I’m not sure). Gordon’s is cheap-ass stuff that you stash for a rainy day. I had a bottle of Gordon’s vodka in the top of the pantry for years. Not the same bottle, mind you. You tell people that you drink Grey Goose or Ciroc, but at home, alone, you’re just as comfortable grabbing the old Gordon’s and working your way towards oblivion.

Denzel is a great liar in this film. We all are when we drink. We become very, very good at it, so good that in time the lies you know you can get away with feel no different from the truth itself. You become just as indignant when a friend or colleague challenges you on a lie that you know they can’t prove as you do on the most obvious facts.

And (spoiler alert) I would also agree with Denzel’s character, Whip, that his drinking prior to the plane crash had nothing to do with the crash. The jet was falling apart much faster than Denzel was. And a person on a limited but familiar number of drinks can continue to function in many situations the same way they would if they were sober. Mind you, I did not just come out in favor of drunk driving or, in this case, drunk piloting. As the film goes along, it becomes harder and harder to feel any sympathy or empahty for Denzel’s character. He destroys those around him in search of alcohol. It’s not a pretty pattern of behavior but it’s a familiar one to some of us.


I like this much smaller film far more. I’m not familiar with the actress who carries the film, Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She looks a little like Alison Brie of Community (Annie) or Mad Men (Pete Campbell’s wife), and she plays the wife of Emmy winner Aaron Paul (Jesse in “Breaking Bad”). I also need to tell you Nick Offerman plays a very un-Ron Swanson character (Parks and Rec) in this movie.

But the young couple at the center of the movie are people we’ve all known, people maybe we still know, people we may have been. Kate and Charlie are young, they don’t have kids or a lot of responsibilities and they like to get hammered.  One night Kate comes home — or actually she comes home the next morning after smoking crack with a stranger and spending the night in a park — and realizes she may, in fact, have a problem. Charlie tries to impress upon her that the crack smoking was the problem.

“But the drinking leads to everything stupid that I do,” Kate tells him.

That, of course, leads us to the central argument around drinking, around the legalization of marijuana, around addictive behavior in general and that is — what leads to what?

In my case, drinking never led to smoking crack like Kate or doing cocaine like Denzel’s character, Whip. Beer led to vodka and that did enough damage on its own without taking subsequent steps into alternative substances.

Kate reluctantly goes to an AA meeting. She doesn’t really buy into what they’re selling but eventually comes around through the support of another woman in the group. The story Kate tells the group is a familiar one. “It seems like every time I drink something awful happens. All the shit I used to laugh off isn’t really funny anymore. The dumb drunk stuff has gone from embarrassing to scary.”

Some of us are in our 50s by the time we make this connection. Kate does it in her 20s. That, of course, is not the end of the story which is what makes “Smashed” such an effective and honest film. It’s hard enough — really really hard in many cases — for a person with a drinking problem to admit it, confront it and deal with it, whether that means going to rehab, attending AA meetings or just dealing with it on a personal level as I have done. But, as Kate learns, that’s just the beginning. It’s only solving (or attempting to solve) one problem while creating unforeseen new ones.

Charlie wants to be supportive of his wife. But he sure doesn’t want to quit partying with his buddies. Drinking is such an integral part of our lives and our relationships that when it changes drastically for one person, the entire dynamic is altered. I suppose a relationship can work if one person is sober and the other’s a heavy drinker if it starts out that way and is understood in those terms from the beginning. Maybe.

But when one person blows the whistle before the other is ready to call off the party, that relationship is going to have a difficult time surviving. As Kate says, “Suddenly I have all these other problems now that drinking isn’t the problem.”’

Ultimately, although we may see a ray of hope for their relationship at the end — maybe — Kate’s conclusion is not that different from my own.

“My life is really different than it was. I live alone. I’m bored a lot more,” she says. “I’m really grateful for this boring new life of mine.”

And I’m grateful for honest, heartfelt films about alcholism like “Smashed.”



Drunk on Sports:   Interlude:

A one-year anniversary, a conclusion, a brief look at the worst Oscar award ever


 I remember the awkwardness of my stepmother handing my dad a glass of champagne when my son, Ben, was born at Baylor Hospital on Jan. 9, 1995. Willis was a little more than a year into sobriety and regular AA meetings that he still attends.

 So what exactly is the proper celebration for sobriety?

 We celebrate everything else with shots, with champagne, with forgettable and (often regrettable) toasts. But how best to celebrate a life newly devoted to…the avoidance of nightly celebrations?

 On May 9, 2010 – one year since my last drink — Megan said she wanted to take me out to eat. Anywhere I wanted to go. We were barely going out at that point as she was ready to get on with her life. Our 24-year age difference was never the factor people assume such a gap has to produce. Steely Dan’s lyrics to “Hey Nineteen‘’ (“That’s Aretha Franklin, she don’t remember Queen of Soul’) never applied. As a matter of fact, Steely Dan was her favorite band when we met. How many 27-year-olds can you say that about?

 But she was pushing 31 now – ancient by her standards – and ready to get married, start a family and do all the other things I could not accommodate. She was about to move on, and I cannot fault her for that (although I’m pretty sure I tried). Even if we weren’t really going out on a regular basis, the first year of sobriety was made easier by her occasional presence in my life. And I thank her for that.   

She took me to Cyclon Anaya’s, a kind of upscale Tex-Mex place on Oak Lawn. A couple of years before, going there for a couple of margaritas at the bar, then some sangria (to slow the pace a bit) during dinner on the patio would have been the perfect start to a great evening.

 Or a perfect start to an evening about to go terribly wrong. One never knows about these things.

 Instead, I was fine drinking iced tea and, I believe, one non-alcoholic beer. It was a good evening, not great. Hey, in this life “good” is good enough. It’s one of the most difficult things to learn, but once you accept that those great highs can only be accompanied by an equal number of miserable and sometimes disastrous, even deadly lows, a “good” time is more than just ok.

 For a more extensive celebration of the one-year anniversary of being free of alcohol’s grip, I decided to watch some drunks on film. I wanted to see what if anything I was missing. No, that’s not quite right.

 I wanted to see a portrayal of miserable drunks in movies. That was the intent. What I got was one of the most miserable portrayals of a drunk, one that was unfathomably rewarded with a Best Actor Oscar in 1995. More on that in a moment.

 I rented three movies – “Sideways,’’ “Barfly’’ and “Leaving Las Vegas.’’

The only one I hadn’t seen was “Sideways’’ and I was a bit misinformed as to what it was. Yes, Paul Giamatti and his buddy, Thomas Haden Church, drink a lot of wine and occasionally make poor decisions on an inebriated tour of the wine country.

 But these aren’t the drunks I know. I spent those two years covering the Giants and enjoyed the three or four visits to the wine country that my young wife, Lori, and I made there, but I have lived in Texas the past 23 years and for most of my life. This is the land of beer drinkers and shot takers.

This is not wine-sipping country.

 Anyway, I think Alexander Payne’s films (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants) are all more beloved by critics than by film-goers although I thought “The Descendants” was probably the best of the films nominated for best picture in 2011 (though not as good as “Drive,’’ “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’’ and “Take Shelter’’). I’ll save all that for my next book, “Why Sportswriters Get Awards Voting Right Compared to the Idiots in Hollywood.”

Next I watched “Barfly’ which I remembered as being good but wasn’t sure how good. Who knows? There’s a pretty good chance I was drinking the first time I watched it at home, don’t you think?

It’s impressive that an actor such as Mickey Rourke, who’s not exactly afraid to overdo it or steal a scene, can get a drunk so accurately at the same time. I think drunks are difficult to play on TV or in film. Most actors get it wrong, slurring words or wobbling across the screen.

(If you want to see two people who get it right time after time, watch Amy Poehler and especially Rashida Jones on one of my favorite shows, “Parks and Recreation.” They do it a lot, and they nail it every time.)

Now you might be cynical and suggest Rourke was just playing himself. How much credit does a man who’s led such a wheels-off life get for playing a wheels-off character? Regardless, there are many great moments, and much of it is a tribute to the screenplay, not just Rourke’s performance.

Henry (Rourke) spends most of the movie getting beat up by Eddie (Frank Stallone of all people) and hanging out with fellow barfly Wanda (Faye Dunaway). I’ve seen people that maintain the perpetual half-drunkenness of Henry, able to function enough to get to the bar, to occasionally pay for their drinks but not quite capable of functioning in society.

“I can’t stand people,’’ Wanda tells him when they first meet at the bar. “I hate them. Do you hate them?”

Henry: “No….but I seem to feel better when they’re not around.’’

Henry delivers all of his little speeches in the film in the same sing-song style.

On why he doesn’t stop drinking: “Anybody can do that. Anybody can be a non-drinker. It  takes a special talent to be a drunk. It takes ENDURANCE. Endurance is more important than truth.’’

On not having a job: “You know somebody laid down this rule where everybody’s got to DO something, everybody’s got to BE somebody….a dentist, a glider pilot, a narc, a janitor, a preacher. Sometimes I just get tired of thinking all the things I don’t wanna DO, all the things I don’t wanna BE, all the places I don’t wanna GO, like India. Like getting my teeth cleaned.’’

Near the end, the woman who’s trying to encourage Henry’s work as a writer says that being a drunk “seems like a limited world, is there anything else to it?’’

Henry responds, “No. Just self-sufficient illusion.’’

Although the fights look like Hollywood fights, there’s never a single moment in the bar, The Golden Horn (“A Friendly Place”), that comes across as unreal. There’s never a shot where I think Rourke is anything but a genuine drunk.

Maybe I haven’t known people quite as destitute as Henry and Wanda. But I’ve certainly met a few just this side of desperate, folks whose local bar was their home away from home and for them, sadly, it was a happier place than their home. At least that’s how they envisioned the bar at the start of each day.  

On the other hand, there’s not a single minute in “Leaving Las Vegas” where Nicolas Cage is remotely believable. The manner in which he takes huge gulps from liquor bottles, the things he says as he moves inexorably towards drinking himself to death don’t contain an ounce of truth.

I remembered thinking the movie was overrated when I saw it in a theater and wondering how he and this film possibly could have been so honored at the time. You can argue the idiocy of “Dances With Wolves’’ over “GoodFellas’’ for best picture or “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan’’ for the same thing, but I’ll take Cage over the field as the biggest joke of all.

As he slowly drinks himself to death, you feel nothing. As for Elisabeth Shue, you just feel sorry that this was the best role she could get. Given her recent work in “Piranha,’’ maybe it’s just not going to happen for her. 

It was painful to watch, not because Cage reminded me of myself or anyone I’d ever known. I just felt bad for all the other actors in 1995 who watched him collect a Golden Globe and an Oscar for this portrayal.

Nobody who’s ever had a drinking problem has willfully chosen to be like Rourke’s character. But there’s an understanding of how a life can descend to that level and how, once having reached the bottom, the escape route doesn’t seem worth searching for. Rourke captures it. Cage swings for the fences and misses by a mile.

“Self-sufficient illusion.”

That’s a nice little phrase to repeat to yourself and ponder about a lot of things.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 70,051 other followers