Sunday, July 31, 2011

Horrible Bosses (2011)

7.31.11.Horrible Bosses

Horrible Bosses (2011)
Dir. Seth Gordon

3 out of 5

Horrible Bosses feels like a sign of the times – the wage-earner’s revenge fantasy against the incompetent and ineffective economic elite keeping an increasingly desperate grasp on their power as prosperity disappears. Indeed, when an out-of-work acquaintance casually admits that he’d “like to kill those Lehman Brothers” to the film’s put-upon triumvirate - an overworked corporate minion (Jason Bateman) under a sadistic senior officer (Kevin Spacey), a chemical plant foreman (Jason Sudekis) taking orders from his former boss’s cocaine-addicted son (Colin Farrell), and a meek dental hygienist (Charlie Day) intimidated and harassed by his oversexed supervisor (Jennifer Aniston) – an idea begins to gestate. New jobs are too scarce for these guys to just up and quit their current ones, so they hire a “murder consultant” (Jamie Foxx) who will teach them how to do their own downsizing.

A lot of comedies tend to peter out after highly involved set-ups like this, but Horrible Bosses bucks the trend with a constantly-evolving plot that re-drafts the premise two or three times over the course of the movie. By no means haphazard, it’s closer to what might happen when three men with limited and specific knowledge step outside the areas of their expertise. Can they afford a hitman? What about reconnaissance? If they do the deeds themselves, shouldn’t they murder each other’s bosses to eliminate easy motives? This is where Bosses sheds any suggested pretense of timeliness (which probably wasn’t ever a key story consideration) and maintains its tack as an enjoyably evergreen “take this job and shove it” farce.

Day steals the movie with his ingratiatingly funny childlike demeanor, at once crazily enthusiastic about the group’s ad hoc solution and genuinely powerless to pull off such dark schemes. Bateman shows why he is Hollywood’s go-to straight man. Sudekis’ is the only character that seems off-key, imbued with an inexplicable womanizing prowess that borders on the predatory. His head might be next if he ever becomes the boss. It must also be said that Farrell and Foxx are transitioning nicely into supporting roles after their own ill-fated dalliances with stardom (with exceptions, of course; it’s all about getting the right part).

Seth Gordon, who first garnered attention for the excellent documentary The King of Kong, has become something of a specialist in capturing manic-obsessive behavior. He is sometimes guilty of juvenilizing these matters, as with the sexual harassment subplot in Bosses. But at least the movie doesn’t traffic in easy fixes to the kinds of psychological issues that affect both the bosses and their subordinates. On the contrary, there’s a certain weariness in the characters’ duplicity that makes the movie endearing, as if it’s normal procedure no matter who’s in charge. To quote Pete Townsend: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

Friday, July 29, 2011

Super 8 (2011)

Super 8 (2011)
Dir. J.J. Abrams

3 out of 5

Super 8, J.J. Abrams' latest project about a group of ordinary folks terrorized by a largely unseen menace, feels like it was constructed from a blueprint for building the ideal popcorn movie. It's smoother and more assured than the Abrams-produced Cloverfield, which was often entertaining but gimmicky to a fault. It's also a deliberate homage to the summertime entertainments of Abrams' fancied predecessor, Steven Spielberg, right down to the absent parent (here, the main character's mother dies in an offscreen factory accident) and the bike-friendly neighborhoods. But there's a fine line between homage and fetishization. Abrams treads this line and, when modern audience expectations demand it, transgresses it - for better and for worse.

The better: genuine first-act drama that focuses on a group of junior high friends making a zombie movie under the thumb of their imperious leader/director Charlie (Riley Griffiths). Our focus is on the quiet, timid Joe (Joel Courtney), who spends his spare time building models and experimenting with monster makeup kits. He could have a bright future in the film industry, at least until he has to learn how to do it all with a computer. Courtney has a lot on his plate for a kid who just lost his mom, including tiptoeing around the fact that Griffiths has cast his crush, the older Alice (Elle Fanning), to play the female lead in their film. The look and feel are so perfect in these early scenes that it's almost another movie entirely. The monster plot quickly intrudes - on location at a rail depot, the kids witness the spectacular derailing of an Air Force cargo train carrying something big and nasty. G-men swarm their town, evading questions about disappearing animals and people. That leaves Joe's father (Kyle Chandler), a sheriff's deputy, as the sole trusted voice of authority.

The worse: the reveal of the mystery fails to match the promise of the film's first half. The characters become less compelling as Abrams turns his focus to unraveling the origins of the creature on the train. He ditches the idea of home movies as a nifty metaphor for the tricky childhood transition from innocent play to gradually-refined skill, and replaces it with a rite of passage only seen in the movies, where bravery grows in proportion to the number of special effects shots. This is not surprising - the combination of the coming-of-age drama with a sci-fi/horror story is part and parcel of the Spielbergian tribute - but it underwhelms just enough to make the peril appear absurd, especially as it ends abruptly before the movie's emotional coda. There's no coyness in Abrams approach, no curious beams of light or garbled signals from space. Super 8 is purely results-driven nostalgia.

Even though it tries its hardest to walk and talk like a Spielberg classic, Super 8 ultimately fails to pass the duck test. It's often impressive in its own right, particularly the performances of the young actors and the skillful blend of humor and danger. But it's inevitably hamstrung by its similarities to other modern CGI-heavy creature features, and Abrams places a jack-in-the-box where the film's heart should be. And that's just to be expected from the ideal popcorn movie - satisfying enough to leave a general impression, the details slowly fading from memory.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Sour Grapes (1997)

7.22.11.Sour Grapes

Sour Grapes (1997)
Dir. Larry David

1.5 out of 5

Sour Grapes is the best argument we have against a potential “Seinfeld” movie. Piling failures on top of ironies works well in the sitcom format, where even the happiest of families and the best of friends are caught in a terrifying time loop where the house is decorated exactly as it was the day they moved in and hairstyles can change only once every calendar year. It’s an existential hell – they just don’t know it. In this environment, the petty vengeance exacted for minor transgressions can easily feel like an epic struggle against a morally bankrupt society. We know that though we may squash today’s annoyance there are three more ready to take its place tomorrow. Keep this up for 22 minutes and it’s incisive, even therapeutic. But harping on it for longer than that? It’s just depressing.

So who could have thought that a joyless 90-minute screed magnifying the worst aspects of human nature would end up nearly unwatchable? To call the characters shrewish is an insult to all species of rodent; to call the plot “funny” is like dressing up an S&M club with a few rubber chickens and re-naming it the Laff Stop. The laughs indeed cease quickly in this tale of two cousins (Steven Weber; Craig Bierko) feuding over Bierko’s big slot machine payday that Weber – having spotted Bierko his last two quarters – thinks he deserves a part of. A nasty game of one-upmanship ensues, ensnaring their loved ones and complete strangers alike. But unlike the balletic frustration of “Seinfeld,” Sour Grapes is just plain irritating.

To be fair, there are moments of sublime hate-mongering that manage not to fall flat. Larry David’s disregard for social niceties is illustrated in entertaining fashion, notably when Bierko forces Weber’s girlfriend to toss her apple out the window during their drive to Atlantic City as the smell of fruit “disgusts” him. At times Grapes even vaguely resembles a caustic satire of the hubris and lack of self-awareness among urban professionals. Weber and Bierko don’t care to think about how odious they are, so they project their self-loathing onto every innocent soul in New York. (And because something has to explain a pointless subplot in which Weber, who is established as a neurosurgeon, accidentally removes both of a patient’s testicles. Guess I missed the montage where he becomes a urologist.)

But mostly, Sour Grapes is the old cur David refracting his crotchety worldview through the unseemly prisms of Borscht Belt comedy and prank cancer diagnoses. It’s too goofy to be truly despairing, but too mean-spirited to be a lark. Turns out that misery is funny only when there’s a weekly reset button to press after the final punchline.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Attack the Block (2011)

7.21.11.Attack the Block

Attack the Block (2011)
Dir. Joe Cornish

4 out of 5

Imagine if The Goonies grew up in the projects instead of the suburbs, and you’d begin to understand Attack the Block, a kinetic British sci-fi comedy about of a group of teenage street toughs defending their south London apartment complex from an alien invasion. When gang leader Moses (John Boyega) spurs his friends to kill the first creature they encounter, he unwittingly enters a game of survival that endangers his friends, his enemies, and his neighbors – including one (Jodie Whittaker) who is the target of a Boyega-led mugging in the film’s opening minutes. It’s a frighteningly funny twist on the survival horror formula, breathlessly plotted and brimming with attitude. Though it takes place on Guy Fawkes Night, the mood is pure Halloween prankishness that brings the silly and the spooky in equal measure.

The creatures in this movie have character. They are not CGI creations, but the old fashioned man-in-a-gorilla-suit style of beastie. Think of a pitch-black Komondor with no facial features except the glowing fangs of the creature in Alien. A hipster dropout (Luke Treadaway) with a background in biology just happens to be paying a visit to the block’s resident weed man (Nick Frost) this fateful night and conveniently develops useful theories about the creatures’ taxonomy and motives. Suffice to say, there’s a zoological explanation for this invasion that makes just enough sense if you don’t think on it too hard. It is worlds more satisfying than the imperative in a film like, say, Battle: Los Angeles.

Cornish, who wrote and directed, does a fantastic job of juggling the film’s many tonal shifts. Clearly a protégé of Edgar Wright, he deftly merges tried-and-true generic convention with the ever-shifting rules of storytelling in the Twitter Era. He also doesn’t blink when it comes to portraying the brutally violent deaths of kids barely old enough to shave.

If there’s a knock on Block, it’s that Cornish misses several opportunities to add depth to the film’s featherweight political subtext, especially given the grittiness of the setting and the rarity with which international moviegoers see the seedier side of Britain. These kids have been virtually abandoned by society at age 15 – the pay-as-you-go plans on their cell phones provide the only hint of actual parenting.1 But the film’s not really concerned with teachable moments, just throwaway jokes: when Whittaker mentions that her unseen boyfriend is off helping poor children in Africa, one of the gang wonders why British children seem so undeserving of charity. Really, that’s just fine for a movie that resembles a kiddie version of Die Hard. Perhaps it’s why Moses and his friends can quickly regroup and stand stalwart in the wake of the initial attacks – after struggling against the expectations and demands of the bourgeoisie, killer aliens are a piece of cake.

1 Only in the U.K. is the lack of “available minutes” a feasible suspense-building device. In America, even 7-year-olds have Droid phones with unlimited talk, text, and data; thus, we are conditioned to accept that a cell phone will always run out of battery just as the heroine realizes that the killer has broken into the house.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)

7.17.11 HP7.2

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)
Dir. David Yates

4 out of 5

Leave no stone unturned. That’s the mantra of the We Need Absolute Closure era – every loose thread pulled, every character fulfilled. All’s well that ends well? Try all’s well that ends wrapped in a bow with a note thanking you for your attentiveness. Congratulations! You didn’t waste a single second of your time!

There isn’t a moment to waste in Deathly Hallows Part 2, the action-packed conclusion to the Harry Potter series. After seven films of info-dumping flashbacks, supernatural side-quests, and hammy turns from Britain’s finest thespians, DHP2 sticks largely to the fulfillment of one goal: Harry’s (Daniel Radcliffe) final tete-a-tete with the supreme evil of the wizarding world, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). It’s the series’ most focused installment since Goblet of Fire. It’s also the shortest in terms of running time. And why not? By now, the audience is as comfortable in this environment as the actors – all David Yates has to do is wind both groups up and watch them go.

Considering that they might as well have posted a “for serious fans only” sign at the box office four films ago, it feels petty to complain about the manic pacing. Perhaps Yates is making up for the relative stillness of Deathly Hallows Part 1. Regardless, there’s no compelling reason why this book required two films when J. K. Rowling’s longer tomes (Fire and Order of the Phoenix) were neatly told in one. As I observed at the time of DHP1’s release:

Of course, there was no way to [include the entire story in one film] without fans sharpening their knives and/or leaving literally billions of dollars on the table. I just don't like being lead in by my wallet instead of my heart or my brain, especially with the rare story that transcends traditional Hollywood kiddie bullshit - get in, tell it, then get out.

Having seen all the Potter movies now, I can put my cynicism to the side for a moment and admit their aims weren’t entirely commercial, not with the wry Ms. Rowling overseeing the visualization of her novels. As Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) remarks in the middle of a heavily-promoted, effects-heavy summer movie extravaganza, words may be our most powerful form of magic. Indeed, Rowling’s words have inspired justifiably powerful – sometimes frightening – devotion; they are fantastic stories of courage, tolerance, and community. There are messages far, far less deserving of a $7 billion worldwide gross.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Winnie the Pooh (2011)

7.14.11.Winnie the Pooh

Winnie the Pooh
Dir. Stephen Anderson and Don Hall

3.5 out of 5

Disney’s latest revival of A.A. Milne’s classic characters, Winnie the Pooh, is a charming ode to the most leisurely and lackadaisical parts of childhood, the type of movie where tumbling into a hole and finding your way out qualifies as a rip-snorting adventure. It is the cinematic equivalent of playtime. The movie’s brief live-action bookends – sumptuous pans through a nursery where Pooh and friends are realized as a menagerie of toys and plush animals – drive this point home.

Of course, these scenes are also ironic, as Milne’s creations have been merchandised so thoroughly that the Pooh “reboot” (a semi-blasphemous term to apply to beloved children’s literature) owes its existence to the Disney commercial juggernaut. And Pooh doesn’t have a narrative – it revolves around a mystery involving Eeyore’s missing tail – so much as a collection of expected character traits. Rabbit is persnickety. Tigger bounces. Piglet is timid. Pooh tweaks on honey. This is what makes any Pooh story so predictable, and it’s also what makes the stories so good. It’s the imagination’s comfort food.

Pooh is a lushly-animated cinematic storybook, and is nearly as brief – the feature runs no more than an hour. Anyone who’s old enough to tie their own shoes will find that this is the perfect length. And what the film lacks in depth it makes up in warmth, metatextual humor (characters often careen through the words of the book being “read” by the narrator), and catchy musical numbers (Zooey Deschanel’s chanteuse-y take on the “Winnie the Pooh” theme is a standout). I should also point out that a wonderful animated short, The Ballad of Nessie, precedes the feature, an unexpectedly moving tale about the origins of the Loch Ness Monster that might outshine the main attraction. Pooh certainly matches Nessie in cuteness; I just wish it could possess the same amount of heart.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Sideways (2004)

Sideways (2004)
Dir. Alexander Payne

3.5 out of 5

Every now and then an artist will try to show us that his hobby is no ordinary interest but a secret vessel for the Meaning of Life. For Alexander Payne, wine is that vessel. I do not have a great affinity for the world of vinaculture. My favorite libations are the ones that don't come with intricate pre-consumption rituals; just pop the top on a Silver Bullet and I'm good to go. It wouldn't be terribly difficult to replace the wine tour of the California coast in Sideways with the search for the perfect draft lager or martini. In art as in life, drinking is merely a jumping-off point for social encounters both beautiful and hazardous.

Sideways comes across as a project born more of passion than of snobbery. This is a great credit to the film's two leads, Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, who are perfectly cast as a sad-sack struggling novelist and a horndog TV and commercial actor, respectively. They are the players in a familiar farce: middle-aged men confounded by marriage and life in general. Church is about to get married but is also an inveterate philanderer. Giamatti is recently (but no too recently) divorced and cannot bring himself to re-enter the dating pool. Their jaunt through Santa Barbara wine country is supposed to help them get their groove back, but let it be said that it is not always the happiest wisdom that is found at the bottom of a bottle of spirits.

As a love letter to men of a certain age, Sideways is not without blemishes. In showing us just how lost he is, the behavior of Giamatti's character can skew too far towards the troubling. It's one thing to drunk dial your ex-wife, but it's tough to redeem someone who steals cash from his elderly mother. And for all of Payne's narrative aplomb, he can't avoid a precious monologue from waitress Virginia Madsen about how a bottle of wine is a living thing and how it embodies the constant change which is, of course, life. There is also the story, perhaps apocryphal, about the sales of Merlot dropping after Giamatti famously insulted it in the film. That sounds too tidy to be true. Sideways is amusingly fussy and mannered, not so middlebrow that it would subconsciously give marching orders to the Whole Foods army.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Wide Angle: Wearing Crocs to Versailles

An article? A "think piece"? An indulgent journal of an LA cinephile? It's all part of my non-reviews in 'Wide Angle'

There used to be a dress code at the Chateau de Versailles, in the days when French statesmen from Louis XIV to Louis Napoleon to Clemenceau paced its opulent drawing rooms. These days it is host to hordes of tourists who crowd the barriers to take pictures of chairs and mouldings and murals. They come in their Dockers shorts, their sleeveless shirts, their baseball caps. They buy tricolor umbrella hats sold by the African immigrants just outside the gates and ward off the sun while standing in line to enter the estate. They traipse around in those ubiquitous neon rubber clogs that resemble a hunk of Swiss cheese co-designed by Nike and Lisa Frank. Not all of the wearers are American.

I am the type of overseas traveler who looks at a foreign country and doesn’t consider it so much exotic as, well, foreign. The roads in Paris are choked with automobiles, but with Audi, Peugeot, and Citroen replacing the familiar Ford, Chevy, and Toyota. The use of the car horn as a method of communication is happily – and loudly – universal.

You don’t get a menu when you go to a café. If you do, then you’ve been outed as a tourist. True Parisians will decipher (or memorize, if it’s a favored brasserie) the scribbles on a chalkboard leaning against the building’s façade and squeeze into the tiny glute-shaping chairs on the sidewalk in front of tiny tables. This is another strategy for exposing tourists – even if you are a svelte American, you will nonetheless be caught off guard by chairs that would make more sense crammed into the bleachers of Fenway Park or the eighth row of a 747. I’m assuming that the question “Table or booth?” does not have a French translation.

This practice is wildly discordant with French culinary traditions, where cheese fondue with roasted duck and creamed potatoes qualifies as a light lunch. And dessert is not merely an upsell in France – it’s a delicious, delicious art. The waiters will largely ignore you while you eat, but that’s the point. The check doesn’t come until you ask for it. At some establishments you may have to apologize for not having exact change (the customer is most certainly not always right in France), but any culture that considers giant cups of hot cocoa a year-round staple passes my hospitality litmus test.

A long line for an art museum is unthinkable in the States, yet occurs with regularity in Paris. As I queued up for the Musée d’Orsay, I noticed that there was no wait to enter the Legion of Honor museum directly across the plaza. Access to the National Military Museum was similarly expeditious. Perhaps Paris is an eminently conquerable city, but it does have plenty of historical treasure to match its cultural treasure thanks to a 16-year winning streak that ended only when Napoleon’s half-court heave clanked off the back of the rim.

I’ve always assumed that there were more barriers than I could see in travel, perhaps because the physical proposition seemed so exhausting. But once you beat the jet lag, you realize that the world has spent centuries making itself more accessible to more people. Paris is like that. It’s rather friendly once you have a map and a few poorly-pronounced French phrases – and even if you insist on wearing Crocs.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

Battle: Los Angeles (2011)
Dir. Jonathan Liebesman

2 out of 5

Malicious aliens invade Earth for the umpteenth time in Battle: Los Angeles. They've come to steal our water supply, like so many extraterrestrials and Bond villains before them. I recall that in Signs, the creatures' Achilles heel was good old H20, a plot device that seems more novel with each successive film that exploits the threat of hydro-terrorism as the axe hanging over the head of all terrestrial life. This one hoists all the necessary signposts of half-decent military porn: shaky-cam 'immediacy,' an inexhaustible supply of ammo, a leader (Aaron Eckhart) with a shameful past, and Michelle Rodriguez.

Much of the movie is dedicated to a search-and-rescue mission behind enemy lines. It just so happens that our heroes also manage to deconstruct the physiology, technology, and strategy of the invaders and map out a plan for total human victory in the process. You could say Battle: Los Angeles resembles District 9 without the subtext, but that would be giving it too much credit. Battle barely even qualifies as text - the diverse cast of grunts is hardly developed beyond their hasty introductions, though Eckhart slips easily into the mannerisms of a square-jawed Marine (and in a cloying subplot, a surrogate super-dad).

The most commendable parts about Battle are the things that are not there. There's no shoehorned romance, even though Eckhart makes nice with one of the stranded civvies, a beautiful (and single!) veterinarian (Bridget Moynahan). There is no gratuitous destruction of famous landmarks. The film doesn't try to impress us with its special effects - though they are quite remarkable - and uses them effectively. By the way, the title is a bit misleading as most of the fighting takes place in Santa Monica. I got a kick out of the military brass planning maneuvers on streets where I and so many other Angelinos jog, bike, and play. Watching a war there, however, is simply a chore.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Fighter (2010)

The Fighter (2010)
Dir. David O. Russell

2.5 out of 5

The movies' love of boxing knows no end. What is it about palookas that is so inherently dramatic? Sure, there's built-in physical conflict, but I'd guess that most boxers don't take their fights personally. They're two guys paid to punch each other. We have to look in on a fighter's personal life to glean any sort of message beyond how to take a beating in the ring. In The Fighter, we have a take on the boxing genre that tries its best to focus on the struggles of the man wearing the gloves, but instead comes up with slightly modernized version of the sports hagiographies of yore. It might as well be called The Micky Ward Story.

"Irish" Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is introduced as a once-promising welterweight who badly needs some victories to get his career back on track. Aiding and obstructing him are his half-brother/trainer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) - who once fought Sugar Ray Leonard before succumbing to crack addiction and petty crime - and his holy terror of a mother/manager, Alice Ward (Melissa Leo), the hideously-coiffed hive mind of a sprawling, brawling brood of Massholes. Wahlberg finally starts to turn things around without the help of the family concern, but he's forced to assert himself and clean up the messes of his relations when they have trouble keeping it together without him. He's strangely passive, and Wahlberg has trouble playing Ward as anything more than a workhorse gym rat who's mildly annoyed by his family's shenanigans.

The performances pick up the slack when the story becomes rote. Bale is great as the film's tragic figure, and Leo plays master puppeteer to the hilt, balancing maternal concern, fury, and guilt-tripping. Amy Adams has a turn as the woman whose love saves Wahlberg, but it isn't clear to me how she is different from the other meddlesome influences in his life who more or less assume his sainthood. In real life Micky Ward is best known for his classically brutal 3-match series with Arturo Gatti almost 10 years ago; I'm already well aware of his superhuman ability to absorb punishment and his overwhelming desire to win. Most of what The Fighter tells me is that he's a darn nice guy too for putting up with his nutty relatives. Perhaps the movie could have spent more time with them.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Land of the Parody

I'd like to celebrate the Fourth of July by noting that our national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," is tired, bloated, and way too difficult to sing. That extra 2-3 minutes that delays the start of baseball games could easily be a minute or less. Personally, I don't get it. Yet I can also see how Francis Scott Key's hymn to an obscure battle in an equally obscure war1 is strangely in sync with America's national character.

Nothing but absolute and unattainable perfection makes an American free from ridicule, so the anthem's notoriously challenging tune (and lyrics) are a gift from the
schadenfreude gods. And its length is one of the more brusque reminders of our death grip on the idea of American exceptionalism. Don't you love those awkward moments at the Olympics when an American wins the gold and the other medalists have to stand there annoyed as "Banner" goes on for a virtual eternity? To paraphrase Mariah Carey, it says "We the press conference, you a conversation."

I'm thinking it's time for a change. "Banner" was adopted by the (surprise!) military in the late 19th century. It wasn't long before it became de riguer at sporting events and was eventually declared the national anthem by an act of Congress in 1931. But I've always had a soft spot for the de facto anthem before our current official one: "My Country, Tis of Thee." It's catchy, evocative, and - most importantly - brief. Even Aretha Franklin needs to ham her way through
three of its verses to match the average length of "Banner."

I don't know exactly why I prefer it to other worthy choices.2 I think it dovetailed nicely with my elementary school obsessions with patriotic songs and "Weird Al" Yankovic. But I didn't grasp the song's connection to our nation's storied gifts of parody and legerdemain3 right away - it was a few years later when I realized that "My Country" cribs the tune from "God Save the King/Queen."

Maybe antagonizing a foreign country with a diss track is no longer appropriate for a mature nation, but at least the average person can understand its syntax, let alone sing the notes (that Wembley clip always gives me chills; nobody in that crowd is holding back for fear of bungling the tune). The only thing I don't like is that anachronistic bit about the pilgrims' pride. Good thing there are plenty of verses to choose from already, as well as a tradition of tacking on additional lyrics.

Just please choose one verse, America, and keep it brief. We're going to need all the time we can get to practice our Mandarin.

Happy Fourth!

1 It should be said that the Battle of Baltimore and the bombing of Fort McHenry in 1814 is unfairly forgotten. Repulsing a British invasion of the Chesapeake, it was a major turning point in the War of 1812 and led directly to the Brits' ill-fated invasion of New Orleans, perhaps more famous now because it inspired a much better war song. Sometimes it's all about PR.

2 There's definitely a case to be made for a recording of Ray Charles' "America the Beautiful" as a permanent anthem.

3 Spinning a national insult into a badge of honor, like "Yankee Doodle" or American Idol.