Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sportsball Update!

Since we're about to head into the best month for sports of the entire year, it seems like a good time to share some random thoughts about happenings in the sportsball world.

We'll start with what is clearly the most important story in sports right now, that being the California Golden Bears.  No doubt about it, fans with a heart condition (or fans with a special appreciation for defense) should not watch this year's version of the Bears.  Sure, they're highly entertaining, but they're also hazardous to your health.  Last week, it was the Hail Mary in Arizona, made possible only after the team had allowed the Wildcats to score two touchdowns in the span of about 3 minutes.  This week, it was the double-overtime 59-56 survival contest against Colorado,  featuring seven touchdown passes by both quarterbacks. 

Clearly, the "Bear Raid" offense of the Bears can score a lot of points, and it is likely to keep them in every game they play this year.  Progress is clearly being made, and with the two Washington teams coming up in the next couple of weeks, 5-1 is possible.  After that, the Bears face one of the toughest stretches that any team outside the SEC will face this year - currently, 5 of the 6 teams are in the Top 25.  But you know what?  I'll be shocked if we don't beat at least one of them.

And then, we go across the pond to the biennial disaster also known as the Ryder Cup.  If it's late September in an even-numbered year, we must be getting our asses kicked by the Europeans.  And not a lot of it makes sense.  Sure, right now the Europeans have more players at the top of the world Top 50 ranking, but even that doesn't explain the disastrous performance of the Americans in the foursomes (alternate shot) matches year after year after year.  A friend called it "baffling," but you have to wonder whether it calls out a lack of strategic thinking on the part of the U.S. players.  And that could be a function of the courses they have played most of their lives; the majority of which lack the strategic elements that you find on many of the British/European courses.  Whatever the cause, we suck at foursomes.

And let's face it, with Tiger and Phil in full decline mode (and even at their best, they were never world-beaters in the Ryder Cup), the U.S. players near the top of the World 50 ranking are, shall we say, less than intimidating.  At #4 you've got Jim Furyk, as great a guy as one can imagine - but also the player above all others who has demonstrated a glaring inability to close the deal under pressure.  Then there's Bubba Watson, who if it weren't for John Daly would probably win the title of most inconsistent and maddening two-time major winner in golf history.  With Watson, you get all or nothing.  After that there's Matt Kuchar, another great guy but also another guy who is streaky and not likely to strike terror in the hearts of his opponents.  Then, a bunch of young guys like Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler who are definitely on their way up, but who also lack the experience under pressure to dominate in a contest like the Ryder Cup.

As far as I'm concerned, the kerfuffle around the selection of Tom Watson as Captain and Phil Mickelson's backhanded criticism of Watson's strategy in selecting his teams (which admittedly - he even admitted it - was less than stellar) is a red herring.  Hell, pick me as Captain, and I'll make the smart choices in the team play, as well as in the singles.  In the end that doesn't mean a damn thing, because the Captain isn't out there making the shots.

How about some baseball?  Can the Giants continue their streak of winning World Series in the even-numbered years of this decade?  It certainly doesn't seem likely, but hell - this is the streakiest team in the world, and all it takes to win a title is to get hot at the right time.  There's really no dominant team this year, and you can make a decent case for about six of the teams in the postseason.  Should be fun.

And finally, the San Francisco 49ers.  Jim Harbaugh may be in Michigan by this time next year, and Colin Kaepernick may look like he has no idea what he's doing out there about half the time, but a win against one of the three remaining undefeated teams in the league is nothing to sneeze at.  They could be (and probably should be) 4-0, but there's a lot of football yet to play and after four weeks it seems pretty clear that every team in the league (with the possible exception of the Raiders) is capable of beating one of the others.

And it's almost October...where the fun really begins.

LP of the Week - "Willy and the Poorboys" (1969)

"Willy and the Poorboys" was the THIRD album released by Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969.  Just wrap your head around that fact for a while.  Nowadays, artists that release an album a year (and frankly I can't think of any, off the top of my head) are called "prolific."  But Creedence wasn't like any other band, and back around that time they enjoyed one of the most artistically fruitful 24 months (or so) that a band has ever had.

The album clocks in at an economical 34 minutes, and it's really more like 29 since "Poorboy Shuffle" and "Side o' the Road" are not much more than filler.  But it makes the most of that half hour, featuring four bonafide rock classics ("Down on the Corner," "Fortunate Son," "Don't Look Now (It Ain't You or Me)," and "It Came Out of the Sky") two classic covers ("Cotton Fields" and "The Midnight Special") and two side closers that prove that Fogerty could stretch it out a bit and still stay true to the Creedence sound ("Feelin' Blue" and "Effigy").  Add it all up together, and it's an album that richly deserves its status as one of the all-time greats.

Some quick fun facts:

- I got the album for my birthday when I was in fifth grade.

- My youngest brother (who was four years old at the time) loved "Down on the Corner," and liked to listen to it on my transistor radio with the single earplug stuck in his ear.  If my parents knew how loud he liked it, I doubt they would have been very happy.

The only perfect Creedence albums are the two "Chronicle" collections, but it's a fair statement to say that they never released a bad one and came through with at least three enduring classics.  "Willy and the Poor Boys" is one of them.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Friday Mixtape: "Abel and Cain: Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon"


The origin of this one was Jackson Browne’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  That night, Bruce Springsteen gave a memorable induction speech, which included the following passage:

“The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson, they gave us California as paradise and Jackson Browne gave us Paradise Lost. Now I always imagine, what if Brian Wilson, long after he’d taken a bite of that orange the serpent offered to him, what if he married that nice girl in Caroline No? I always figured that she was pregnant anyway, and what if he moved into the valley and had two sons? One of them would have looked and sounded just like Jackson Browne. Cain, of course, would have been Jackson's brother in arms, Warren Zevon. We love ya, Warren. But, Jackson to me, Jackson was always the tempered voice of Abel. Toiling in the vineyards, here to bear the earthly burdens, confronting the impossibility of love, here to do his father’s work. Jackson's work was really California pop gospel.”

It’s not as if I needed an excuse to create a Jackson Browne/Warren Zevon mixtape, given that they’re both on my short list of pantheon artists, but Bruce’s speech was all the incentive I needed.  It doesn’t have a date on it, but I’m guessing sometime in late 2004.

Abel & Cain: Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon

Doctor My Eyes
Redneck Friend
Desperados Under the Eaves
Poor Poor Pitiful Me
Late for the Sky
Before the Deluge
Carmelita
Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner
Lawyers, Guns and Money
The Pretender

Running on Empty
Sentimental Hygiene
Lawyers in Love
In the Shape of a Heart
Bad Karma
The Indifference of Heaven
Sky Blue and Black
I Was in the House When the House Burned Down
My Ride’s Here
The Naked Ride Home

Sunday, September 21, 2014

LP of the Week - The "King" Kong Compilation

It's not quite in mint condition, but I suspect that "The "King" Kong Compilation" is one of the most valuable albums I own.  Currently, Amazon.com is listing 3 new copies available on CD, starting at $206.  I've looked for a CD version myself for years, to no avail.  Finally, I just went ahead and converted each song on the album to MP3 format, so I could listen to it on my iPod.

Why the album has virtually fallen off the face of the Earth is a mystery, because there's no question that it's one of the handful of landmark compilations ever compiled. A collection of reggae recordings produced by legendary producer Leslie Kong from 1968 to 1970, it features most of the early reggae legends - Desmond Dekker, The Maytals, The Melodians, The Pioneers, Delroy Wilson, Bruce Ruffin.  About the only major Kong artists not represented on the album are The Wailers and Jimmy Cliff, and they really aren't missed - the songs are that strong.

Track Listing:

Israelites - Desmond Dekker and the Aces
Monkey Girl - The Maytals
Sweet Sensation - The Melodians
Freedom Street - Ken Boothe
Let Them Talk - Tyrone Evans
Samfie Man - The Pioneers
It's My Delight - The Melodians
Peeping Tom - The Maytals



Rivers of Babylon - The Melodians
Gave You My Love - Delroy Wilson
Bitterness of Life - Bruce Ruffin
Night Flight (Sentimental Journey) - Ansell Collins
Long Shot Kick de Bucket - The Pioneers
It Mek - Desmond Dekker and the Aces
Why Baby Why - Ken Boothe
Monkey Man - The Maytals



The best known songs are those that open each side of the album, but it's really not a stretch to say that every song on here is great - no exceptions.  It's impossible to listen to it without feeling better, about music, or just life in general. 



The "King" Kong Compiliation: a great, great album.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Friday Mixtape: Bob Dylan

Now, this one was damn near impossible.  Doing The Beatles was really hard, and they were making music for less than a decade.  Dylan?  Try 50-plus years.

I wanted to include at least some representation from each phase of his career, but as you'll see below, ended up pretending that the years between "Blood on the Tracks" (1975) and "Good As I Been To You" (1992) didn't exist.  That's probably unfair, but you tell me which of these songs to drop in order to throw in "Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar" or "Every Grain of Sand."

Here we go - 87 minutes of Bob Dylan:

The Times They Are-a-Changin'
A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall
Maggie's Farm (live version)
Like A Rolling Stone
Ballad of a Thin Man
Visions of Johanna
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
Lay Lady Lay
Knockin' on Heaven's Door
Tangled Up in Blue
Tomorrow Night
Two Soldiers
Cold Irons Bound
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Thunder on the Mountain
Scarlet Town
The Lonesome River (with Ralph Stanley)

How does it feel?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Memo to Page: Listen to Plant

Every few issues or so of Rolling Stone, there seems to be a story about a potential Led Zeppelin reunion.  The narrative usually has Jimmy Page at the forefront, making the pitch to bring the band together - although it's rarely clear on whether he's talking about producing new material or giving the old warhorses another run around the track.  The next chapter is usually Robert Plant, expressing some level of dismay about Jimmy wanting to turn back the clock, and sometimes sharing a story about making an offer to collaborate on acoustic material, or some other non-Zeppelin related project.

When I listen to "lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar," the new album from Plant, I completely understand his resistance - why would he ever want to return to the world of Zeppelin, with the unrealistic expectations that would accompany such a venture (not to mention the fact that Led Zeppelin without John Bonham...well, you get the gist), when he's got such a worthwhile and great thing going on with his own music?

And make no bones about it - "lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar" is a fully realized, almost entirely successful album that stakes a claim for Robert Plant as "the most successful solo artist from a legendary band" of the rock era.  By my count, it's his third consecutive triumph, following his collaboration with Alison Krauss and "Band of Joy," the album he made during his relationship with Patty Griffin.  "lullaby" sounds completely different than those two works, and paints a picture of an artist capable of absorbing every genre with which he comes into contact.  On some songs there is a middle eastern feel, on others you hear bits and pieces of what sound like old American folk songs, and on still others he comes across as the greatest crooner of our age.

Although this is clearly Plant's album, it is also a collaboration, with the members of the band he is calling the "Sensational Space Shifters."  On songs like "Pocketful of Golden" and "Embrace Another Fall," there is an understated power to the music (and mystery - sounding like there is a lot at stake here), as if it were a powerful animal being held back by a masterful ringleader.  The sound of the album is also a key to its success, and it wasn't surprising to see Tchad Blake's name show up in the credits, having mixed 8 of the album's 11 tracks.  The sound has a depth and fullness to it that recalls Blake's earlier work with Los Lobos.

We're not likely to see the end of the Zeppelin rumors in our lifetime, but when you can make an album this good that is completely in the spirit of that great band's work, then why bother with a reunion?

NFL Postscript

Well, it's official - per my question in yesterday's post, it is now clear that the Minnesota Vikings have no idea what they're doing.  Having said that, this time they got it right and made the correct decision.  And it's notable that this time around, the team's statement was signed by the team owners.

So now I guess the remaining question is: what are the 49ers doing with Ray McDonald?  Whatever the NFL's equivalent of "administrative leave with pay" is, seems like it would be a good approach right now.  And if they truly believe he is innocent of the charges that have been leveled against him...well, they'd better be right.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The NFL: What happens now?

You know things are not going well for the NFL when the two words you hear most often during the pre- and post-game shows are not "completed pass," but "due process."  And what has become painfully clear over the last week is that the network-employed NFL talking heads are spectacularly unprepared to deal with issues like spousal and child abuse.  Which shouldn't really be a surprise, since so many of them struggle just to have an intelligent conversation about football.

Abuse of women?  Child abuse? These issues are so big that it really makes you wonder whether predictions in the past from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell - that football is on a slow road to its own destruction - have a chance of becoming reality.  And that's before you even start talking about the long-term issues associated with brain injuries and other physical injuries that are leaving increasing numbers of players disabled (or close to it) and unable to lead normal lives after their retirement.

With respect to long-term impact and potential change, the most significant thing that's happened in the past few days may be the warning from Anheuser-Busch that was made public today:

We are disappointed and increasingly concerned by the recent incidents that have overshadowed this NFL season. We are not yet satisfied with the league’s handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code. We have shared our concerns and expectations with the league.

We've heard over and over again since last week that one primary reason the owners would stick with Roger Goodell as Commissioner - even those who might privately question his handling of the Ray Rice matter in particular - is that he has done more than any other commissioner to expand the bottom line.  But if that bottom line is threatened by a company currently dropping a cool billion into the league's coffers, that's bound to make some owners take notice.  And it's also bound to make other companies more likely to make their views known.

It seems to me that Goodell is damaged goods from this point on, and would probably be doing the league a favor by voluntarily stepping down.  Condoleezza Rice has been the name mentioned most often as a potential successor who might lead the league out of the morass, but at this point I'd be happy with anyone with a solid management pedigree who might be capable of looking at these issues in a different light - with a different approach.

And can someone explain to me what the Minnesota Vikings think they are doing?  What happened between Sunday and Monday (aside from a horrific home loss) that changed their approach to the Adrian Peterson issue?  If they believed in due process, why did they inactivate him for Sunday's game?  And if they're truly committed to taking a moral stand, then why did they reinstate him on Monday? It just doesn't make sense.

And at the end of the day, I know that none of this is really going to threaten the NFL's popularity, judging by the numbers from the first two weeks of play.  It hasn't stopped me from watching the games.  But there's got to be a tipping point somewhere, and wherever that is, we've got to be pretty close to it.

Monday, September 15, 2014

LP of the Week - "Hotter Than July," Stevie Wonder (1980)


Just as a reminder, the posts in this category are about an album that I own only on vinyl.

If you asked a random music fan to name what he/she thought was Stevie Wonder's best album, I'm sure one of the first you'd hear would be "Songs in the Key of Life."  No doubt there would be a few "Innervisions," some "Talking Book," and probably "Music of My Mind."  I doubt that many people would say "Hotter than July," but today we're going to try and do something about that.  And don't get me wrong; even I wouldn't say that "Hotter than July" is his greatest work.  But what I am saying is that it belongs on any short list of great Stevie, and is in fact my favorite Stevie Wonder album.

From start to finish, with absolutely no roadblocks along the way, "Hotter than July" is classic Stevie Wonder.  It's got great dance tunes ("Did I Hear You Say You Love Me," "I Ain't Gonna Stand For It," "As If You Read My Mind"), it's got great political tunes ("Cash In Your Face," "Happy Birthday"), it's got an all-time tear jerker ("Lately"), and it's got  "Master Blaster (Jammin')," a Bob Marley tribute that I'm convinced, nearly 35 years later, is one of his greatest songs.

And the band?  Just absolutely smoking hot.  Particularly in his latter career, Stevie was one of those guys (like John Fogerty) who liked to do it all himself, sometimes to the detriment of the songs themselves.  But here, he is accompanied by a classic band, the core being Nathan Watts on bass, Benjamin Bridges on guitar and Dennis Davis on drums.  And they are awesome - driving each song well past its limits.

You could almost call this Stevie's "Tattoo You" - the last great album from an indisputably great artist.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Did you hear? U2 has a new album

It's pretty clear after a few days that the big story surrounding U2's new album, "Songs of Innocence," isn't the music itself but the manner in which it was released.  For those who have been living under a rock or vacationing where the Wi-Fi don't go, the album showed up in the "Purchased" section of everyone with an iTunes library on Tuesday, there for the taking with a few quick clicks or touches.  And the way some people have reacted, you would have thought that Bono himself had broken into everyone's house, and slid a copy of the new one into the CD cabinet of everyone with a music collection.

Consider the reaction from Pitchfork:

"U2 being U2, they’ve taken that strategy one step over the line into indisputably queasy territory, aligning with their old friends Apple to insert their new album, Songs of Innocence, into all of our libraries without consent. By updating the old Columbia House Record Club scam to the digital age, U2 and their Cupertino buddies have created a new avenue of opt-out cultural transmission, removing even the miniscule effort it takes to go to a website and click “Download.”

First of all, someone needs to explain to me how what U2 and Apple did last week is like  "the old Columbia House Record Club scam."  If memory serves, the way that worked was that you paid a penny for 12 albums, and then you got one in the mail each month that you could either pay for or send back unopened and unbought.  Based on what I've heard from folks who were actually a member, more often than not the album coming each month was not likely to be one that you wanted to keep.  But unless I've missed something, there's no obligation at all with the U2 album.   I wasn't even obligated to download it, and I'm presuming that for those who don't, it will just as magically disappear from the iTunes library on the day that it goes on sale in more traditional formats.

So the whole thing strikes me as silly, and it makes me wonder how many folks complaining about having U2 in their library have readily agreed to throw their privacy away through the download of insidious apps that require access to so much of one's online identity.  It also makes me wonder whether the heartburn is more about the dislike of so many for Bono as a public figure.  And that, folks, is an old story.  Bono has been a pretentious twit for much of the band's history, but I've never found that a healthy skepticism for Bono as public figure needed to spill over into the consideration of their music.

So what about the music?  Well, the Pitchfork pan and the Rolling Stone rave don't come as a surprise, because the band isn't exactly plowing new ground on "Songs of Innocence."  There's very little experimentation, either in the instrumentation or in the production.  It sounds very much like the classic U2 sound that longtime fans will remember from the mid-1980s - and as far as I'm concerned, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I think this is clearly the band's best album since at least "All You Can't Leave Behind" from 2001, and perhaps going all the way back to "Achtung Baby" a decade before that.

It seems to me that, at a certain point, a band earns the right to do whatever it wants.  And if U2 wants to return to the basic sound that defined the period of their greatest artistic success - and does it well - then I say more power to them.  And while the album is still sinking in, songs like "Every Breaking Wave," "Song for Someone," and "Cedarwood Road" sound about as good as anything they've ever recorded.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I've never been a fan of their most experimental efforts, and think that "Zooropa" and "Pop" are the worst albums of their long career.  So if you like that vein of their work and those albums, I can see where you might see it differently.

And the controversy over the unconventional release?  There are a lot more important things to get upset about right now.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Beatles Mixtape

And now, here is my crack at a 90-minute Beatles mixtape.  And this one was damn near impossible. There's one song in particular that isn't on here that should be, but including it would have required me to drop another one just as worthy.  Coin flip!  In the end, I tried my best to include all the various facets of their career and musical development.

Clocking in at 87 minutes and change:

Please Please Me
She Loves You
Money (That's What I Want)
A Hard Day's Night
If I Fell
You've Got To Hide Your Love Away
Ticket to Ride
Eight Days a Week
What You're Doing
No Reply
Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
In My Life
I'm Only Sleeping
I've Just Seen a Face
Here, There and Everywhere
Tomorrow Never Knows
Day Tripper
Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds
A Day in the Life
Hey Jude
Helter Skelter
I'm So Tired
Come Together
Something
I Want You (She's So Heavy)
Because
Let It Be

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Stones Mixtape

On Labor Day, my blogging pal le0pard13 posted a Beatles mixtape that he put together for one of his friends.  In it, he mentioned that a different friend was putting a Stones mixtape together, and that piqued my interest because I'd been thinking about doing the same thing.

Mixtapes and I go way back.  I started making them in the 1970s, and still have a couple left over from those days.  Mixtapes were an integral part of wooing my wife, and since I didn't drive a car with a CD player (or with an iPod plug-in) until last year, they also helped me survive my daily commute for more than two decades.

I like to think that I still make mixtapes, although now I do them on CDs.  It's not quite the same thing, because the act of taping the song while it's playing forces one to be thoughtful about the flow of songs - just because two songs are great doesn't always mean that they're going to sound great when you listen to them back-to-back.  And others that you might not think are so great at first blush? Well, they sound just fine when coupled with something you might not expect.

As you've probably surmised by now, I think about these things more often and more deeply than your average human being.

So with no further ado, I present my Stones mixtape.  It's just under 90 minutes long, so it would fit on one standard length cassette tape, and touches on every phase of their career (and tries to represent the diversity of their musical palette).  I may have been a little rough on the mid-seventies, but I don't feel bad at all about leaving out a couple of their late career LPs, mostly because they were so unmemorable.

The Rolling Stones

Route 66
It's All Over Now
Not Fade Away
Sittin' on a Fence
(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction
Paint It Black
She's a Rainbow
Jumpin' Jack Flash
Gimme Shelter
No Expectations
Dear Doctor
Love in Vain
Honky Tonk Women
Brown Sugar
Tumbling Dice
Stop Breaking Down
Miss You
Some Girls
Shattered
Start Me Up
Mixed Emotions
Biggest Mistake
Like a Rolling Stone

The great thing with a band like this?  You could do another one and it might be just as good.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Summerflix, Part 2

Continuing the capsule reviews of the summer's films on Netflix:

3 Days to Kill - In his old(er) age, Kevin Costner definitely seems to have gotten his second wind.  A few years back the notion that he was once the nation's biggest box office draw seemed almost comical, but looking at him now it doesn't seem so unreasonable.  "Grizzled," I guess you could call him.  Not taking himself too seriously.  And in the process, making it all look pretty darn easy.  "3 Days to Kill" won't go down in the annals as an all-time classic, but it's a perfectly entertaining spy flick in the usual Luc Besson (who wrote the screenplay) mode.  McG is the director, and usually that's not a positive sign, but even though the premise teeters between unrealistic and laughable, a good time was had by all.  Hailee Steinfeld does the best she can in the role of the annoying daughter, which takes some doing, so I guess that means she proves that her performance in "True Grit" wasn't a fluke.  The Amber Heard character (who made me think of the old "Black Canary" comic book character) is a little hard to figure out (teetering between realism and outright absurdity), but that's almost to be expected in a film like this.

August: Osage County - I wasn't even sure if I really wanted to see this - the trailers just looked too painful.  And while the movie has more than its share of overwrought drama and melodrama, it is definitely worth seeing.  Meryl Streep was a little too much, but I thought Julia Roberts nailed it - which I think puts me at odds with most critics.  Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper are outstanding, Ewan McGregor is pretty much a non-entity, and Benedict Cumberbatch isn't really given enough to do.  Julianne Nicholson is particularly effective.  This is the kind of movie that makes one feel better about their own family dramas, and I can see where it wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea, but there's no disputing the amount of talent doing good work for the cause.

Tim's Vermeer - Fascinating documentary directed by Teller (of Penn and Teller fame) about a guy (Tim) who creates a way to replicate a Vermeer painting (or more accurately, paint a painting in the style of Vermeer).   A little slow in parts, but always interesting.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit - It's OK, but if this is the best they could do for a reboot, I'm not really sure it was worth the trouble.  I guess I expected more given that Kenneth Branagh directed (and plays the villain).

The Monuments Men - When the trailers for this first came out about a year ago, the movie was slated for release in the prestigious holiday period, which usually means the studio feels that it has an Oscar contender on its hands.  Then it was moved to February, and seeing it over the summer it's easy to understand why.  The premise is great and the movie is fine and the cast is sterling, but in the end it doesn't really add up to much.  It's OK, but I think everyone was expecting more than just OK.

The Spectacular Now - Well done movies with a focus on high schools students should be cherished, because they occur so infrequently.  This one succeeds, in no small part due to the terrific and believable performances from Miles Teller (who was so good in "Rabbit Hole") and Shailene Woodley (who was so good in "The Descendants").  The story is a bit of a cliche - hard-drinking, smart aleck boy meets down-to-earth smart girl and they try to make it work - but the strength of the story and the acting pulls it through.  We root for both of them, and we care about what happens to them.  And the movie doesn't cheat by pretending that they will live happily ever after - that is just one of many different possibilities.

Monday, September 08, 2014

The NFL and Ray Rice

"This is going to be a tough one, but there's a lot at stake here.  It seems to me that the NFL needs to make a clear statement that they're encouraging their players to behave and act as responsible human beings, and not simply like brute force giants trained for combat on the field."

I wrote that last November, after the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin workplace harassment scandal.

The fact that the NFL did the right thing in that instance makes their failure to do the right thing in the Ray Rice case even more unforgivable.  And the excuse ringing down from on high at NFL headquarters - that the most recent video wasn't made available to NFL "investigators" - just makes things worse.

Ray Rice dragged his unconscious fiancee out of an elevator.  And no one should forget that what was seen in the original video was deemed to be worthy of a two-game suspension. 

So what more did Roger Goodell really need to know/see?  What could possibly have happened in that elevator which would have made what Rice did subject to such a measly penalty?

No, it was only when confronted with a video that evoked memories of Joe Frazier sending a left hook to the jaw of Muhammad Ali that Goodell did "the right thing."  Just like a couple of weeks ago when he did "the right thing" by instituting stronger penalties for domestic violence violations.

But it was already too late to do the right thing.  And just like countless scandals before it, this one will be defined by the reaction of the party in authority as much as by the transgression itself.

I don't mind admitting that I love football.  And there's little doubt in my mind that the vast majority of men who play football are decent and hard working, and in many cases much more than that.  And this just makes me more pissed at the NFL and at Roger Goodell for screwing this up.

This ain't rocket science, Mr. Commissioner.  There's a place for due process, but there's also place for humanity in the game.  And none of the talk on ESPN right now about how you and the Ravens "did the right thing" is going to change that.

Your move.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Summerflix, Part 1

I knew it had been a while since I'd written one of these, but I didn't realize it had been that long.  This goes all the way back to Memorial Day, so let's consider this the summer review.

The Company You Keep - Solid, thoughtful thriller directed by and starring Robert Redford.  You could call it the flip side of "The Big Chill" - it's about a group of adults who, like the protagonists in Chill, were together at the University of Michigan during the late sixties.  But unlike their counterparts, the characters in "The Company You Keep" were deep into Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground, and after a bank robbery they organized left a security guard dead, they scattered across the country, trying to lead their lives while keeping the past dead and buried.

Redford plays Jim Grant, who has led a relatively quiet life in Albany, New York as a public interest lawyer.  But when one of his old friends (well played by Susan Sarandon) is captured, the peeling of the onion begins, and Grant is soon on the run trying to find his old comrades for reasons that don't become entirely clear (but are reasonably easy to guess) until late in the film.  He's got a hotshot reporter (they still make those?) on his trail, but Grant is smart, and hasn't gone undiscovered for as long as he has for no reason.

Redford is good, although I was distracted by the fact that he's about 10 years too old to play the role.  The cast overall is pretty spectacular, featuring some of the best character actors of our time - Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Sam Elliot, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root - all of whom are good to excellent.  Shia LaBeouf doesn't ruin the movie as the young reporter, and Anna Kendrick is thrown in as an FBI agent for no particular reason.  But best of all is Julie Christie, who is terrific as the lone former radical who remains unapologetic and defiant.

One could argue that the ending is a little pat, but at the same time I think it's one that was earned.

Almost Famous - I can't believe I've never seen this before, given my well established obsessions with rock music and Rolling Stone magazine.  Directed by Cameron Crowe, it ostensibly tells his story, about how he came to write for the legendary magazine (back in the days when it was still creating the legend) when he was 15 years old.  It's entertaining, and the depictions of RS stalwarts like Jann S. Wenner, David Felton and Ben Fong-Torres are amusing (if inaccurate, if Greil Marcus is to be believed, and since he was there at the time, I believe him).  Seeing the late Philip Seymour Hoffman portray the late Lester Bangs is both funny and sad at the same time.  The depiction of the fictional band Stillwater is fine, especially in the scene when it appears they're all going down in a small plane and Billy Crudup starts singing "Peggy Sue" - which may have been the one time during the movie that I laughed out loud.  Where Crowe misfires are the elements of the story featuring his mother, which are a waste, and the elements featuring the groupies, which I'm pretty sure are an outright lie.  If not a lie, certainly inconsistent with an RS article he wrote in the mid-seventies where he spoke of "almost" being seduced after a concert - and opting to listen to Steely Dan instead.

Kill Your Darlings - Daniel Radcliffe is the star and does just fine as Allen Ginsberg, but after seeing this, it's pretty clear that Dane DeHaan is the actor.  It's hard to put your finger on it - he's certainly not what you would call classically handsome, but in both this and "Chronicle" (haven't seen the most recent Spider Man flick yet), he's the guy that draws your attention; the guy is who absolutely riveting from start to finish.  For those who don't know, this is based on a true story, when Ginsberg was at Columbia in the 1940s at the same time as William S. Burroughs (played in amusing fashion by Ben Foster) and Lucien Carr, the character played by DeHaan.  Suffice to say, their college years weren't quite like yours and mine, and certainly not like anything you saw in "Animal House."  It may be a little hard for some to relate to, but it's never less than fascinating.

Enough Said - Wow - a romantic comedy for adults where the characters act like real people?  Yes, such a thing still exists.  "Enough Said" is terrific entertainment, a movie that allows its characters to have their warts and all, and sometimes even embrace them.  Both Julia-Louis Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini are terrific, as are supporting characters like Catherine Keener and Toni Collette.  It really makes you sad for the loss of Gandolfini, because he clearly had the ability to do a lot more than Tony Soprano.  In this movie he wants to be with someone, but at the same time, he is what he is, and he's not sure how much he wants to change in order to make that happen.  Louis-Dreyfus is the perfect match for him, even if it does take the two a while to realize that (hey, it is a romantic comedy, after all).

In a World... - "Delightful" is the word that comes to mind.  Lake Bell pulls off the hat trick here by writing, directing and starring in the film, which is "about" the movie voice-over profession but could probably be applied to just about any offbeat entertainment industry function.  Even though there is plenty in the premise that is outrageous, it's another movie that feels populated by real people, complete with flaws and all.  The main story is about the competition between Carol, the voice coach played by Bell, for the right to be the voice artist on the trailer for an upcoming blockbuster film.  Of course, she's in competition for the role against her father, a legend in the business, and his protege, who is way more smug than any one human should be.  But there are other threads going on, one featuring Demetri Martin as a studio guy with a crush on Carol, and Carol's sister and her husband, played perfectly by Michaela Watkins and Rob Corddry.  It's all good, and all fun.

12 Angry Men - I'm sure it's to my discredit that I've never seen this before.  Released in 1957, it regularly appears near the top of polls ranking the top movies of all time, and it's not hard to see why.  When you watch a film like this, you're almost overwhelmed (if not intimidated) by the history that surrounds it.  The director?  Sidney Lumet, just one of the greatest American directors of our time (naming just a few of his films - The Verdict, Prince of the City, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Fail-Safe).  The star?  Henry Fonda, just one of the greatest American actors of all time.  But just look at some of the rest of this cast:

Lee J. Cobb
Martin Balsam
E.G. Marshall
Jack Klugman
John Fiedler
Edward Binns
Jack Warden
Ed Begley
Robert Webber

Amazing.    The story is simple, these men are the 12 jurors in a murder trial, and nearly the entire film takes place in the jury room as they deliberate.  The first vote taken is 11-1 for conviction, and that's when things get interesting.  And not just in the story - interesting in how each actor approaches his role, and the methods and techniques they use to put their characters across.  It's film history.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

LP of the Week - "Traveling Wilburys, Volume One" (1988)

So what happens when a group of stars, superstars, and living legends decides to get together, work on a few tracks, have some fun and record an album?

One answer, and perhaps the best one, is "Traveling Wilburys, Volume One."  From first track to last, it's an absolute delight, without pretensions or any notion that the resulting work product was intended to be anything more than a bunch of really talented guys having fun and proving that you don't always have to serve up a plate of deep meaning with your rock 'n roll meal.

For those who weren't lucky enough to be there at the time, the Wilburys consisted of Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and George Harrison.  Ably assisted by old session hands Jim Keltner, Jim Horn and Ray Cooper, the old codgers came up with 10 pop songs that at the time were as good as anything any of them had recorded in quite a while.

And that's nothing to sneeze at; let's just consider Dylan for a moment.  Over the course of the 1980s he'd released a series of albums that, while they contained some good songs, threatened to tarnish the legacy of a man who had long ago established his rightful place at the very top of the pantheon.  He comes in and records a couple of playful albums with the Wilburys ("Volume Two" was very good, but not quite at the level of the original), and the next thing you know, he's on the comeback trail, first with a couple of good electric LPs, followed by a couple of classic acoustic sets, and then a series of masterpieces as good as anything the man recorded during the height of his Sixties powers.  His "Congratulations" and "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" are probably the two best songs on the record, but more importantly, they are the songs on which Dylan seems to have rediscovered his sense of humor.  Whether "Tweeter" is an homage to Bruce Springsteen or just Dylan playfully making fun of him doesn't really matter; what's important is that he once again demonstrates the wordplay that...well, made him Bob Dylan.

But those are hardly the only good songs on the album.  Both "Handle With Care" and "Heading for the Light" are top-notch Harrison tunes, Orbison's "Not Alone Any More" is better than anything he recorded for his comeback album produced by Bono, and both Petty and Lynne contribute lightweight but immediately catchy and danceable tunes that are akin to the icing on the cake.

It won't likely go down as the best thing that any of them ever recorded, but what the heck - every now and then, boys just want to have fun.