Sunday, February 28, 2010

Way to Go, NBC

I understand that the Closing Ceremony of the Olympics is hardly the most dramatic event of the Games, but to cut away before it's over in order to show Jerry Seinfeld's "The Marriage Ref?" Really?

UPDATE: I'm glad to see that NBC is getting bashed for this. I mean, good grief - is there not one person who works for the network who gets how contemptuous the coverage of these Olympics was to sports fans? Bob? Al? Anyone?

Whatever. Just more reasons not to watch Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld next week.

Ron and David: Thoughts on "Beautiful Mind" and "Eastern Promises"

By sheer coincidence, the last two flicks we've seen on Netflix have been "A Beautiful Mind," directed by Ron Howard, and "Eastern Promises," directed by David Cronenberg. It got me to thinking that there may not be two directors working today who are further apart from each other on the artistic spectrum as Howard and Cronenberg.

Thinking about Howard and Cronenberg also reminded me of the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Manny Farber essay "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art," in which he defined the former as "an expensive hunk of well-regulated area" and the latter as "termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement." You can probably guess which term I think applies to Ron Howard and which applies to David Cronenberg.

Which is not intended to be a hit on Ron Howard. A more likable guy probably doesn't exist in Hollywood, and he would have a place in my own personal pantheon for his role in "American Graffiti" alone. But thinking about his films, there do seem to be an awful lot of them which fall into the category of "expensive hunk of well-regulated area." One of those, "Apollo 13," is unquestionably a great film, and one of my all-time favorites. (Another, "Night Shift," is also one of my all-time favorites, but you have to wonder whether Howard would venture into such risky territory today). Many of the rest are good to very good movies, but perhaps not as good as they could have, or should have, been. I'd put "A Beautiful Mind" in that category. It has moments of brilliance, most involving Russell Crowe (although I'll never be able to watch a role like this again without thinking of Robert Downey Jr.'s acting advice in "Tropic Thunder") and Jennifer Connelly. But it's also shamelessly manipulative - and that's OK if you can pull it off, but I'm not sure "Beautiful Mind" always pulls it off. The Ed Harris parts didn't bother me so much, but the Paul Bettany parts were borderline irritating. All in all, a good movie, but maybe not one that I'd call Best Picture quality.

"Eastern Promises" is another animal entirely. You don't see David Cronenberg movies get nominated for Best Picture, and I'd hazard a guess that somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of your average crowd for "Beautiful Mind" would run screaming from the room during the first scene of "Eastern Promises." I'm not sure whether the things that Cronenberg is after in his films represent bigger or smaller game than the things that Howard tries to achieve. Where Howard tries to produce a shinier apple, Cronenberg is coring it out, exposing the raw meat underneath. There's no right or wrong here, it's just a different approach.

For a Cronenberg film, I thought the story of "Eastern Promises" was fairly old-fashioned. Like "A History of Violence," the Cronenberg film which preceded it, "Promises" includes scenes of stunning, shocking violence that are brilliantly staged. But where "Violence" used those scenes to underscore an entirely original approach to a story about family relationships and values, "Promises" is just another variation - albeit a strong one - on gangster movies that we've seen many times in the past.

The performances are uniformly outstanding - Armin Mueller-Stahl plays the Russian patriarch as if he were Don Corleone without the redeeming qualities, and Naomi Watts takes what is a fairly sketchy role and gives it depth and feeling. But the unquestioned star is Viggo Mortensen, who turns in an utterly chilling portrayal of a man struggling to maintain the last vestiges of his soul in an environment where such things are trivial and often punished. I thought Mortensen was brilliant in "Violence," but in "Promises" he takes his acting to a whole new level.

Two very different films, two very different directors.

Check It Out

A nice piece by Mark Evanier about his presentation to a class full of 8-year olds.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

New Format

I've been messing around with the design tonight. Comments are welcome (I think).

Friday, February 26, 2010

"The Only Thing That's Real"

"We were in the studio, getting ready to work — and I popped it in, by the end I was really on the verge of tears. I’m working with Zach de la Rocha, and I told him to take a look. At the end of it, there was just dead silence. There was, like, this moist clearing of our throats and then, "Uh, OK, let’s get some coffee."

- Trent Reznor

"Get Rhythm"

"September When It Comes..."

"A boy and his guitar..."

"Holding onto that chuckle..."

A terrific piece on Cash appeared in last Sunday's Los Angeles Times, by the great critic Ann Powers.


Holding onto that chuckle was a key part of the remarkable feat Cash and Rubin accomplished over the ensuing decade. Loving the work, Cash recorded all kinds of songs -- funny ones, familiar ones, some he'd recorded before and others he never would have heard if not for his hip younger friends. The material matters; it was a blessing that Rubin kept Cash away from the soft rock of contemporary Nashville, and occasionally, the hipster connection worked magic. But the greater value of the American Recordings emerges through Cash and Rubin's unflinching attention to the details of his slowly failing instrument.

Many older singers just sound bad because they're still trying to present themselves as totally masterful. Cash didn't do that. He let in the cracks and the shortness of breath and the flatness. That's when the chuckle comes in, often silent but always pushing against the inherent drama of the songs and the moment. "Oh, well," you can almost hear Cash say, "I'm still singing."

Read the whole thing. You won't be sorry.

"I Taught The Weeping Willow How To Cry..."

Dylan on Cash

"Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him. The greatest of the greats - then and now."

- Bob Dylan


"I love songs about horses, railroads, land, Judgment Day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother. And God."

- Johnny Cash

Johnny and June

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Folsom Prison Blues

The Man In Black

Friday would have been Johnny Cash's 78th birthday, so just brace yourself for a healthy dollop of the man in black over the next 24 hours.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ain't No Grave, Indeed

There’s no doubt about it, at least not in my mind – the collaboration between Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin is one of the great stories in the history of American music. Off the top of my head, I really can’t think of a parallel – a great artist in the twilight of his career, pretty much given up on by his record company, coupled with a producer who tells him “just play what you want, and we’ll see what happens.” Which leads to a 10-year partnership that results in four great albums, one great box set, a surge in popularity among all age groups, and, oh yeah – some of the best work of his long and storied career. As far as I know, it had never happened before, and we can only hope that someday it will happen again.

With the release of “American VI: Ain’t No Grave,” we can now add to that list, two worthy, posthumously released albums.

It’s not really fair to compare “Ain’t No Grave” to the albums that Cash and Rubin released before Johnny’s death in 2003. The box set, “Unearthed,” made clear that for every 14-16 songs released on each of the “American” albums, there were twice as many that, for one reason or another, didn’t quite make the cut. So we really have no way of knowing whether the songs on “Ain’t No Grave” would have made the cut or not. And after all, the album is barely 30 minutes long.

But in the end, none of that really matters. What matters is the chance, this one last time, to hear Johnny Cash singing songs that we haven’t heard him sing before – whether it’s an old traditional, an old Kris Kristofferson tune, a famous Hawaiian ballad, or the last original song that he wrote. We should feel lucky to have the opportunity, even as we feel sad that this will be the last one.

It Figures

Cal is poised to win its first Pac-10 basketball title in 50 years, so naturally SI.Com has to run a piece saying "...the once proud Pac-10 is suffering through a nightmare season..." Later on, the piece refers to the conference as "talent-starved."

Hey, after 50 years, we're ready to take anything.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Get Back, Jojo

Out of gas and short on inspiration, I'll just leave you with this.

Yeah, those guys could play a little.

Monday, February 22, 2010

In Other Words, We Don't Care What You Think

"I don't even worry about giving it a rating in my head. We believe in what we are doing here. The amount of time and effort that we put into preparing for the Olympic Games surpasses anything that I've been around. We have the strength in our convictions. We believe in what we are doing. We believe in the way that we present the Olympic Games. And I think the ratings back us up."

- David Neal, Executive Vice President of NBC's Olympic coverage, when asked if the criticism over NBC's tape-delay strategy was fair.

50 for 50: Glorious, Glorious Vinyl

I did this all from memory on my lunch hour, so I'm sure that I've left something off of the list...and I was surprised how hard it was to narrow it down to 50. There's probably 50 more just as good (well, let's say almost as good) lurking in those cabinets.

And yes, I do own a turntable, one that has worked well for over 25 years now.

The 50 Greatest Albums I Own On Vinyl, But Not On CD

50. New York, Lou Reed
49. Drums & Wires, XTC
48. Pure Pop For Now People, Nick Lowe
47. The Blasters
46. Murmur, R.E.M.
45. King's Record Shop, Rosanne Cash
44. Hotel California, The Eagles
43. Live Bullet, Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
42. Squeezing Out Sparks, Graham Parker & the Rumour
41. Off The Wall, Michael Jackson
40. Sign 'O The Times, Prince
39. Entertainment, Gang of Four
38. Talk Talk Talk, Psychedelic Furs
37. Katy Lied, Steely Dan
36. Damn the Torpedoes, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
35. Honky Chateau, Elton John (the first album I bought with my own money)
34. Shoot Out The Lights, Richard and Linda Thompson
33. Excitable Boy, Warren Zevon
32. That's the Way of the World, Earth, Wind & Fire
31. How Will The Wolf Survive?, Los Lobos
30. Let It Be, The Replacements
29. Tonight's the Night, Neil Young
28. Cosmo's Factory, Creedence Clearwater Revival
27. Songs for Swingin' Lovers, Frank Sinatra
26. Dirty Mind, Prince
25. Pretenders
24. Frontier Days, The Del Lords
23. Siren, Roxy Music
22. Los Angeles, X
21. Willie and the Poor Boys, Creedence Clearwater Revival
20. Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder
19. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John
18. Thriller, Michael Jackson
17. Document, R.E.M.
16. Red Headed Stranger, Willie Nelson
15. Late For The Sky, Jackson Browne
14. The B-52s
13. After the Gold Rush, Neil Young
12. Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen
11. The Basement Tapes, Bob Dylan and The Band
10. Robin Lane and the Chartbusters
9. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols
8. Every Picture Tells A Story, Rod Stewart
7. Parallel Lines, Blondie
6. Peter Gabriel (third album, "melted face" cover)
5. Rocket to Russia, The Ramones
4. Warren Zevon
3. Purple Rain, Prince
2. Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely
1. Abbey Road, The Beatles

Sunday, February 21, 2010

NBC This? It's My Middle Finger, Sticking Straight Up

So many words have been written about this that it probably falls into the category of beating a dead horse, but I can't help myself.

Never mind that one of the most dramatic moments of these Games was relegated to MSNBC, that being the U.S.-Canada hockey game. At least I get MSNBC at my house, and was able to enjoy what surely was one of the most dramatic games involving the U.S. since the Miracle on Ice.

And now, more than 3 hours after the end of the game, the tape-delayed West Coast coverage switches to "the last minute" of the game, followed by Bob Costas breathlessly talking about how Canadian newspapers all over the country will be talking about this game. And then, a quick cut to Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth breathlessly talking about how dramatic the game was.

Well, shame on you Bob, Al and Cris for participating in this charade. And screw you, NBC. Yeah, we'll keep watching, because we really don't have any choice, do we? But make no mistake about it - what you're doing with these Games demonstrates a contempt for your audience the likes of which hasn't been seen since...oh well, about three weeks ago, I guess.

23 Years Ago Today

Friday, February 19, 2010

American Top 40 Flashback - AWB

The #1 song, 35 years ago this week - "Pick Up the Pieces," Average White Band.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

50 for 50: The Rolling Stones

The concept is simple: 50 favorites, in the year that I turn 50. Tonight, we're going to start off with a biggie: Rolling Stones songs.

The thing to keep in mind here is that the list might look a bit different on any given day, and certainly the order might change a bit. The top ten, even twenty, is pretty solid. And one thing I can assure you is that the top 3 would never change.

50. Play With Fire
49. Sympathy for the Devil
48. Emotional Rescue
47. Time Waits For No One
46. Mother's Little Helper
45. Respectable
44. Luxury
43. Wild Horses
42. Under My Thumb
41. Can't You Hear Me Knocking
40. Almost Hear You Sigh
39. Biggest Mistake
38. Miss You
37. Dear Doctor
36. Moonlight Mile
35. Rocks Off
34. Some Girls
33. Waiting On A Friend
32. Sittin' On A Fence
31. Monkey Man
30. Let's Spend the Night Together
29. I Just Want To See His Face
28. Starfucker
27. 19th Nervous Breakdown
26. Beast of Burden
25. Start Me Up
24. Street Fighting Man
23. Route 66
22. Paint It, Black
21. Tumbling Dice
20. Casino Boogie
19. Parachute Woman
18. Get Off My Cloud
17. It's Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)
16. Midnight Rambler
15. Stray Cat Blues
14. Sweet Virginia
13. Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)
12. Shattered
11. No Expectations
10. You Can't Always Get What You Want
9. Rip This Joint
8. Love In Vain
7. Prodigal Son
6. (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction
5. Brown Sugar
4. Honky Tonk Women
3. Jumpin' Jack Flash
2. Stop Breaking Down
1. Gimme Shelter

I like it, I like it, yes I do...

Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris

I think it's fair to say that Pauline Kael is widely viewed as being one of the greatest film critics of all time, if not the greatest film critic of all time. Why is it, then, that there is so little of Kael's work available on the Internet? Am I just looking in the wrong places?

I was never a regular reader of hers, primarily because I never subscribed to (or bought) The New Yorker. I was much more familiar with Andrew Sarris, her rival and sometimes arch-enemy, because of my subscription to the Village Voice. Truth be told, I never even knew the two had a rivalry until Sarris wrote a snarky review of one of her anthologies in the Voice, which was followed a month or so later by a scathing article in Rolling Stone by Greil Marcus (who was firmly in the Kael camp) about their rivalry/feud.

Kael has been gone for some time now, and Sarris, in his 80s, is no longer writing on a regular basis (though he does have a Facebook page). I'm not sure if there would be a market for such a thing, but I'd read a book about the two of them, and their divergent views on film.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Up In The Air"

As I'm sure most film fans know by now, George Clooney plays a man in "Up in the Air" who lays people off for a living. I knew that going in, but didn't realize until those scenes began that maybe it wasn't the best movie to see at the start of a week when the Association I work for would be laying people off, for the first time in the five years that I've been there. I wasn't in the layoff meetings myself, but I was a part of the decision-making process, and can attest that it was no fun. It didn't help to be confronted a day or so later with the Newsweek cover story titled "Layoffs Are Bad For Business."

But I digress - and the point of sharing that information was not to elicit any sympathy whatsover, but merely to note that in order to do what Ryan Bingham does in "Up in the Air," day-in and day-out, you have to have almost complete emotional detachment from life. And that is a pretty good description of Bingham, as portrayed by Clooney. That's not to say that Bingham is an unlikable character - he's exceedingly likable, in the classic George Clooney mold. Smart and witty, the viewer's first impression of the man is that he is completely in control of his life. It's an unorthodox life, one spent almost entirely on the road and - you guessed it - up in the air, but one that he's made work very well. And anyone who has had to do a significant amount of travel as part of their work can appreciate the travel tips that have become second nature to Bingham. Not to mention salivate at the prospect of the rewards and benefits that Bingham receives as the result of all his travel. And that, in and of itself, is somewhat ironic. This man, who is in a state of complete emotional detachment, has achieved something that actually allows him to be treated by the travel industry as a human being. And anyone who's had their chain jerked by a travel provider should know exactly what I'm talking about.

Clooney is great in the role. Some might be tempted to say that he doesn't deserve his Oscar nomination, that he's "just playing George Clooney." To those people, I would suggest that if playing George Clooney was that easy, well...more than just George Clooney would be doing it. The rest of the cast is also first-rate, particularly Vera Farmiga as roughly the female equivalent to Clooney's Bingham, and Anna Kendrick as the young know-it-all who joins the company prepared to revolutionize it, and in the process learns a thing or two about herself. By the film's conclusion Bingham has also learned a thing or two about himself, and it's a bittersweet lesson. We can all speculate after that final scene what Bingham will do next, now that he's achieved his major goal in life and found out that it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. But the answer to that riddle is elusive, which is as it should be.

Among the cast, I also want to single out for praise Jason Bateman, who nails the aloof, somewhat detached himself boss of the company, and the always dependable J.K. Simmons, who in his few minutes on the screen proves that he's one of those actors that you should always want in your film.

Overall, it is an outstanding movie. Had I seen it before the end of 2009, it would have fit very nicely into my top five of the year.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Michael Connelly's "9 Dragons"

This was really the last book I read in 2009, but it was close enough that I'm going to call it my first book of 2010.

On the positive side, Connelly does some things in 9 Dragons that set up the Harry Bosch series well for the novels to come. Unfortunately, it's impossible to talk about those things without dropping major spoilers on the unsuspecting reader.

On the negative side, the bulk of the action takes place outside of Los Angeles...way outside - Hong Kong, to be specific. Bosch's daughter has been kidnapped, possibly as the result of a case that Harry is working in L.A., and he immediately flies over to join Eleanor Wish in a frantic search for her. Previous Bosch novels have spent time in Las Vegas, so there's no hard and fast rule that Los Angeles has to be a major character in every Bosch book, but Hong Kong is a stretch. There are things to like about the "fish out of water" aspects of the story, but in this case Harry is so far out of his element that he doesn't seem quite like Harry.

It's not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, and as previously noted sets up some nice things for the books to come. But overall, this is not one of the best Bosch books - probably middle of the pack, if not a bit lower.

Catching Up With Netflix

Quick thoughts on recent, and not-so-recent, viewings.

The Aviator. This was better than I expected it to be, but it didn't really feel like a Martin Scorcese film. Leonardo DiCaprio was good, and watching him you could see hints that he could become the actor who was so convincing in "The Departed." Cate Blanchett was great as Katharine Hepburn, Alec Baldwin was great as Pan Am's CEO Juan Trippe, and Alan Alda was great as oily US Senator Ralph Brewster. I have to admit that I was a little surprised to be reminded that it was nominated for 11 Oscars, because I'm not sure if it was that good. What I'd really be interested in seeing would be Scorcese's take on the last 20 years of Hughes' life.

Being John Malkovich. The first of two trips through the labyrinth that is Charlie Kaufman's mind that we've taken lately. I don't know how any writing can do justice to the intricacy of Kaufman's screenplays; you just have to admire how someone can come up with something that on paper, sounds so crazy. The story must be familiar by now - in the office where he works as a filer, John Cusack discovers a hidden portal (behind a filing cabinet, of course), which leads into the mind of John Malkovich. Once you get sucked into the portal, you literally become Malkovich, for 15 minutes. The movie is filled with good performances - Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz (nice to be reminded that there was once a time when she played roles that required her to do something more than just be cute), and of course Malkovich himself. But my favorite was probably Orson Bean. Having grown up in the era of daytime game shows, I remember Bean being a regular presence on several of them, most notably "To Tell the Truth." It was great to see him again, long after I ever expected to.

There's a part of me that wonders whether the movie is too clever - the twists and turns were never less than brilliant, but much like a guitar solo that seems to have no place in a song, I'm not sure what they signify. The film does raise a lot of interesting questions about the nature of relationships, but to me the answers all felt pretty mean-spirited. Don't get me wrong - I liked the movie a lot and loved the unorthodox approach to everything, but in the end I'm not really sure how much all of it means.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The second trip through the Kaufman labyrinth. I thought there were a lot of similarities between this and "Malkovich," but this felt like a much more "complete" work, if that makes any sense. It's hard for me to put my finger on exactly what is different about this movie that made me like it more than Kaufman's earlier effort, but a lot of it had to do with the characters. The people played in "Sunshine" are no more perfect than those in "Malkovich," but to me they felt a lot more likable - with the exception of Elijah Wood, who I'm beginning to think is at his best when he plays a weasel. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are great, and Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, and Kirsten Dunst all lend a good deal of weight to the characters they play. The story? I'm going to take the coward's way out, and suggest that you check it out for yourself.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's Playlist #5

The Stylistics classic, "You Make Me Feel Brand New." And in case you didn't notice, this video is the property of Soul Train Holdings, LLC.

Valentine's Playlist #4

"Stand by Me," John Lennon. The track sounds like it is playing a bit fast, but it's still worth the journey.

Valentine's Playlist #3

"In Your Eyes," Peter Gabriel.

Valentine Playlist #2

"I've Been Loving You Too Long," Otis Redding, filmed at the Monterey Pop Festival, 1967. With a bit of "Satisfaction" thrown in for good measure.

Valentine Playlist #1

"Wonderful World," Sam Cooke, as seen in "Witness."

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tom Takes On Tiger

Tom Watson takes a spirited blast at Tiger Woods in this week's Sports Illustrated - not about his extra-marital escapades, but about his behavior on the course.

Having commented on a number of occasions on this site about Tiger's behavior on the course, I'm with Tom on this one. Watching Tiger at his best is pure joy, but watching him at less than that - and mind you, Tiger's standards of play are pretty darn high - can be excruciating.

Friday, February 12, 2010

American Top 40 Flashback

"Crimson and Clover," Tommy James and the Shondells, the #1 song this week in 1969.

California's Long, Painful Slide Into The Ocean

And if California slides into the ocean
Like the mystics and statistics say it will
I predict this motel will be standing
Until I pay my bill

- Warren Zevon

I haven't commented much on politics lately, because the whole thing is so damn depressing, but there are a couple of things going on in California right now that demand a bit of commentary.

The first is the ridiculous battle going on the Legislature (primarily, the State Assembly) over the nomination of Abel Maldonado as Lt. Governor. Frankly, if it wasn't happening before our very eyes, I wouldn't have believed it could happen. This is a job that has no value, no meaning whatsoever - with the possible exception of being one vote on the UC Board of Regents and the CSU Board of Trustees. There would less than a year left in the man's term in this generally useless position. So what exactly is the f*cking problem here? Please.

The second is the news this week that the drive to put a California Constitution initiative on the November ballot is likely doomed to fail, because the effort is being shunned by the signature gathering firms that view it as a threat to their livelihood. After all, if we actually reform California government, there may be less need for initiatives, and in turn less need for signature gathering.

Just think about that for a moment, let it stew, and then go swear at the mirror. I've sworn that I would never live anywhere but California, but this is the kind of thing that might actually make me reconsider that vow.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Quick Idol Thoughts

The top story of the week is that Ellen DeGeneres is a great addition to the show. Now, I can actually imagine that the show could survive without Simon.

Second, Ellen's success only points out the complete uselessness of both Randy and Kara, especially the latter. And I almost had to run for the bathroom when that one contestant brown-nosed her way to the next round by singing a Kara Dioguardi song.

And finally, not a single contestant really jumped out at me, except in a bad way. But then, they showed so little of their performances, perhaps that isn't a big surprise.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Donald Sutherland as Calvin Jarrett in "Ordinary People"

When you examine Donald Sutherland’s page on the Internet Movie Database, you see that he’s had 156 acting credits since 1962, which averages out to a little more than three projects a year. A long time ago, I remember reading an interview with Sutherland where someone asked him what kind of projects interested him, and his response was along the lines of “the ones that pay money.” Obviously, this is a man who likes to keep working. What it also means is that when you consider the course of his career, you can’t help but notice that while he’s been in a lot of famous and/or great movies, he’s also been in a lot of stuff that you’ve never heard of.

Of the three leads in “Ordinary People,” Sutherland was the only one who was not nominated for an Academy Award. I don’t see that as being a reflection on his work, but rather recognition that the role he plays – steadfast, strong father Calvin Jarrett – is the least “showy” of the three. But of the three, it is the one on which my own view has changed the most.

The first time I saw the movie, I was a junior in college, just a couple of months short of my 21st birthday. The part in the movie that resonated the most for me, the one I most identified with, was Conrad, as portrayed by Timothy Hutton. I’d imagine that most people who saw the film at that age had a similar reaction, because even if you hadn’t had to deal with the tragedy that Conrad faced, what kid that age didn’t have to deal with some of the things which Conrad deals with – a mother who doesn’t understand him, the mystery presented by the opposite sex, the clueless teachers, the sometimes idiotic friends and companions. You could watch the movie, and hope that you’d never have to go through that kind of pain, but at the same time think “yeah, if I ever had to face that situation, I hope I’d do some of the same things Conrad did.” As I’ve already written, Mary Tyler Moore’s Beth Jarrett was also an attention-grabber, because the image of Mary Richards – the girl who could “turn the world on with her smile” – was still so fresh in everyone’s minds.

But Donald Sutherland as Calvin Jarrett? I didn’t really think much about it at the time. But now, 30 years later, with 2 sons close to the same age as Buck and Conrad Jarrett, I probably identify more with Calvin than I do with any other character. Even in the last scene of the movie, after he knows in no uncertain terms that sometimes, things are out of his control, he says to Conrad, “no, I should have known…I should have done something.” The difference between how Beth and Calvin deal with the tragedy is subtle, but huge: Beth wants everything to go back to the way things were, while Calvin just wants to hold everything that is left together. And Donald Sutherland plays him perfectly – the pain is not out there shouting itself hoarse for the entire world to hear, but is there, just under the surface. A man who, as Conrad confides to Dr. Berger, is wound so tight that he just might crack.

Though I may not have appreciated Sutherland’s performance then, I certainly do now.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

How Do People End Up Here?

Every now and then, someone lands here through a Google search that makes me laugh out loud. Today was one of those times, when someone landed here with the following search:

"who sings that song that goes in my head in me head calling calling with their bongs"

Well, I'm sorry to say that I don't know the answer to that question, but thanks for visiting.

"50 for 50"

Since the start of the new year, I’ve been trying to think of a year-long blog project, and I think I’ve finally landed on a feasible solution. A little later this year, I’ll be celebrating my 50th birthday, which seemed to be the perfect launching pad for a project that I’m calling “50 for 50.” The concept is simple – I’ll make lists of my 50 favorite albums, books, and movies (and maybe other stuff, if I get really ambitious), and write a little bit about each selection. I’m not going to hold myself to a timeline, except to say that everything will be wrapped up before the end of 2010. Maybe I’ll do them all in one shot, maybe I’ll do 10 at a time – we’ll just have to see where and when the inspiration strikes me.

So…coming soon, the “50 for 50” project.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Mary Tyler Moore as Beth Jarrett in "Ordinary People"

For people under a certain age, it will be impossible to understand how much of a shock it was to see Mary Tyler Moore playing Beth Jarrett in “Ordinary People.” Today, Moore is remembered primarily for her roles in two iconic television comedies – “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” in which she played Laura Petrie, and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” one of the most famous TV shows in the history of the medium (one of the few that can be rightly said to have made television history). Moore’s Mary Richards was single. She had never been married. She worked in a newsroom filled with stodgy old men, and more than held her own in her interactions with all of them. At the same time, she was funny, vivacious, and as the theme song said, could “turn the world on with her smile.”

It’s hard to imagine a character less like Mary Richards than Beth Jarrett. We know very little about Beth throughout “Ordinary People” – we don’t know much about her interests, outside of maintaining a fine home; we don’t know what she was like in college; we don’t know what her interests were when she was younger. We get a brief glimpse of what she was like when she and her husband were courting (or perhaps newly married), but that’s about it. All we really know is that for Beth, the world revolves around two things – her family, and appearances.

The movie’s three central characters – Conrad, Calvin and Beth – are all damaged. Calvin and Beth’s oldest son, Buck, has died in a boating accident. For reasons which are unclear when the movie begins, the younger son, Conrad, has attempted suicide and is only now, a year later, trying to fit back into the pieces of his life. As the story proceeds, Calvin and especially Conrad begin to come to grips with what happened, and begin to prepare themselves for the life that is continuing, as life does, after a tragedy. Beth cannot do that. She wants to have things back the way that they were. She is broken, but does not have the self-realization to begin the slow, painful process of putting herself back together again.

The intensity of Moore’s performance – so unlike her work on television – is almost frightening. As Moore portrays her, it is as if Beth’s psyche is enclosed in ice, through which she cannot break through. She feels the trappings of emotions – anger, laughter – without ever getting to the core of those emotions. The act of taking a plate full of uneaten French Toast and shoving it into the garbage disposal, as if it were covered in blood, is enough to send shivers down the spine. Moore transforms herself into a woman who remains respected by all and loved by some, but one who can no longer love – no longer recognize, as Calvin puts it at one point, that the world does not revolve around her.

It’s a great performance, one that richly deserved the Academy Award nomination it received. It’s also sad to watch it today, because when it comes to Moore’s film career, “Ordinary People” was pretty much it. Who knows – maybe Moore scared even herself with this role, and couldn’t bring herself to erase the image of Mary Richards that so many people still held in their minds at that moment.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Professor Longhair!

More from New Orleans.

More Sounds of New Orleans

Gary "US" Bonds, "New Orleans."

Let's Salute The Saints

...with a little New Orleans music. First up: "Yellow Moon," Neville Brothers (with an assist from John Hiatt).

Congratulations Saints!

And is there any doubt that Drew Brees will be the MVP?

Have fun, New Orleans. You deserve it!

Countin' On A Miracle

The Colts are moving efficiently down the field, and looks poised to score.

Dumb penalty on the Saints makes it first and goal.

So...looks like we're gonna get one more onsides kick?


And that's a wrap...congratulations Saints!

Give Me A Break

Memo to

Just stop it. Please.


And in a moment, the whole shooting match changes.

With that INT for TD, the game is just about over, and Bourbon Street is perilously close to a celebration the likes of which has never been seen. Having been on Bourbon Street on a normal night, I don't know that I'd want to be there tonight.

It ain't over yet, but the fat lady is getting ready...


Jim Nantz: "They're motoring now..."

The question...if they are going to score, how quickly do they want to score? Do you even worry about that?

The Biggest Challenge in Super Bowl History?

Well, scratch that part about the pools being changed. Saints now lead by 7, with less than 6 to play.

Could heading towards the first Super Bowl overtime?

Drew Brees, Superstar

At this moment, Drew Brees looks to be out-Manning-ing Manning. The speed at which this game is being played is amazing...and Brees looks dead solid perfect.

A Robert Meacham sighting! A great stiff-arm from Meacham.

Ah, here we go...speculation as to whether the Saints will go for two if they score, as it appears they will.

First and goal from the five with less than seven minutes. There aren't a lot of drives left in this game.

Thomas makes it down to the two...will they go play-action and try to hit one of the WRs?

No play action, but no run, and it's Shockey!! Last time he was at a Super Bowl, he was drinking heavily while watching the Giants shock the Patriots and the world. I'll be he's having more fun tonight.

Going for Bush on the field?

No good! And that changes the scope of pools all across the country.

Colts Turn

If the Colts score a TD on this drive and go on to win the game, that 4th-and-2 call will go down in Super Bowl history as one of the guttiest.

But the Saints recover on 1st and 2nd down with great offensive plays. HUGE play coming up, as the Colts are at the edge of Stover's range.

...and Stover misses the 51-yard FG...Advantage Saints!

Garrett Hartley

You think Garrett Hartley has solidified his position as the Saints' kicker in this game? Man...three 40 yards-plus field goals attempts, 3 kicks right down the middle. For a kicker, it doesn't get any better than that, unless one of those kicks is for the whole enchilada. Stay tuned...we may get there.

Colts Answer

This is really beginning to feel like one of those "whoever has the ball last" kind of games.

As Phil Simms said, "how about that drive?" Peyton Manning, Joseph Addai, Dallas Clark...just amazing stuff.

No doubt about it, we're having a streak of great Super Bowls unlike any other in history.

I wouldn't even think of hazarding a guess as to who will win this game, the way things are going right now.

The Saints Go Marching In

That drive was brilliant all around...but no one was more brilliant than Drew Brees. It's a shame he's too short to play professional football.


No doubt about it...that was the most exciting second-half kickoff in Super Bowl history!

I Predict...

That the halftime show by The Who won't be as good as the remix of "My Generation" that he did for the commercial.

UPDATE: OK, this is much better than I expected it to be. And I'll still be getting goosebumps during the intro of "Baba O'Riley" when I'm 80.

UPDATE II: Man, I feel sorry for Daltrey...he just can't handle those vocals anymore.

Now There's Your Momentum Changer

I didn't like the 3rd down or 4th down calls at all...if you're going to run the ball, doesn't that seem like a situation tailor made for Reggie Bush?

The Colts have done nothing this quarter, but still look poised to go into halftime with a 7-point lead. They've already proven this season that they can win games in which they barely touch the ball, and this may be another one of those games.


It's amazing how the perception of in-game time changes when you reach the playoffs, and especially the Super Bowl. This half feels like it has just flown by. Maybe it's because the referees tend to let them play rather than make calls they might be tempted to make in the regular season; maybe it's just the sense of urgency - the sense that every play matters - that makes the game go so fast.

Momentum Changer?

Jim Nantz said the Pierre Garcon drop "could be a momentum changer," and he could be right. That was a biggie; another beautiful Manning pass right in Garcon's hands, and yet it still hit the ground.

If the Saints come back to score a TD, we have a classic in the making.

Good job so far by Nantz and Simms. No-nonsense, no over-talking.

The Super Bowl Commercial Contest Is Over

...because nothing is going to top the Letterman promo with Oprah Winfrey and Jay Leno.


UPDATE: OK, the Brett Favre "winning the MVP in 2020" one was pretty good too.

Saints Close to 10-3

Well, I guess Dwight Freeney is good enough to play, at least for that play.

Colts, 10-0

Boy, I haven't seen Joseph Addai run like this for a long time. Even if the Saints are able to put pressure on Manning, if they don't have an answer for Addai, they're in trouble. Real chess game going on right now.

OK, that TD pass to Garcon was a thing of absolute beauty. If that didn't remind you of Montana to Rice, then nothing will.

And with the score 10-0, there is suddenly a lot of pressure on the Saints.

Colts' First Series

Well, even though the Colts have the lead, I'd say that was a push. The key matchup of the game is Peyton Manning's ability to read the defense vs. NO defensive coordinator Gregg William's ability to put pressure on him before he can make the quick read. For the most part that drive went to Peyton, but thanks to the penalty, the Saints were able to hold them to a field goal.

First commercial report - I liked the Snickers commercial with Betty White and Abe Vigoda.

First Series

Interesting call on 3rd and 2, with Brees going long for Meacham. I like the call, because it's an early indication that the Saints have a lot of confidence and think they can do anything they want on offense. Plus, I think it's important to get Meacham involved early, because he's tended to disappear in the playoff games.

Having said that, it did fail...

Keep This In Mind

The Colts' Super Bowl victories came when they were wearing white jerseys. Their most famous defeat came wearing blue jerseys.

You never know about these things...

The First Victory of the Day

...goes to yours truly, on the annual "guess how long it will take to sing the National Anthem" contest. I predicted 2:04; Son #2 said 2:08. Carrie Underwood came in at 1:48.

Dan Bunz!

The great goal-line stand from the 49ers' first Super Bowl win, featuring one of the great Super Bowl plays, courtesy of linebacker Dan Bunz. I watched this one in the common room of Cheney Hall, UC Berkeley, along with 50 or so rabid 49ers fans.

Montana to Taylor

OK, let's relive some great Super Bowl memories. I still have this entire game on tape, but here is the key moment. This was the famous drive which began with Joe Montana looking up in the stands, and commenting to offensive lineman Randy Cross, "hey look, there's John Candy!"

Joe Montana - the ultimate iceman.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Ordinary People: The Reviews

“Ordinary People” may be best known today as the film that won the Best Picture Oscar in the year that “Raging Bull” was released. Somehow, over the years this had led to the mythology that the movie is terrible; that it was one of the Academy’s most embarrassing moments.

Let’s analyze what the leading critics of the day had to say about the film, upon its release.

Richard Schickel, TIME Magazine:

Redford's use of previously unexplored locations around Chicago gives the picture a fresh, honest look. He has also asked much of his actors, and they have all responded superbly, but it is within the Jarrett family that the biggest chances are taken. The dramatically risky stillness in Donald Sutherland's performance remains constant as he moves agonizingly from being a passive player to an active force in reshaping his family's life. Mary Tyler Moore deserves some kind of award for her courage in exploring the coldness that can sometimes be found at the heart of those all-American girls she often plays. As for Timothy Hutton, son of the late Jim Hutton (Walk, Don't Run), he handles the sulks, rages and panics of adolescence with a naturalness any parent will recognize. He is a nice boy, but there is a scary power in the emotional volatility of his age, and he shows how that can tyrannize the lives of those around him. There are no villains in Redford's world, only fallible human beings trying to work things out, failing and succeeding in touchingly recognizable ways. That is a rare enough viewpoint to find at the movies now, but coming from a man whose fame might have carried him far from the realm of Ordinary People, it seems little short of miraculous.

Vincent Canby, New York Times:

The very real achievement of Robert Redford, who makes his directorial debut with ''Ordinary People,'' and of Alvin Sargent, who meticulously adapted Miss Guest's novel for the screen, is that the Jarretts become important people without losing their ordinariness, without being patronized or satirized. ''Ordinary People,'' which opens today at the Loews Tower East, is a moving, intelligent and funny film about disasters that are commonplace to everyone except the people who experience them. Not since Robert Benton's ''Kramer vs. Kramer'' has there been a movie that so effectively catches the look, sound and temper of a particular kind of American existence.

The Jarretts are not only ordinary people, they are also ''nice'' people. They wear the right clothes, read the right books, eat the right things and misbehave discreetly. They put great store in selfcontrol, as much in the privacy of their own house as abroad in the company of friends or strangers. The problem is that such niceness and control cannot accommodate the fears, furies and resentments occasioned when things go to pieces.

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times:

Director Redford places all these events in a suburban world that is seen with an understated matter-of-factness. There are no cheap shots against suburban lifestyles or affluence or mannerisms: The problems of the people in this movie aren't caused by their milieu, but grow out of themselves. And, like it or not, the participants have to deal with them. That's what sets the film apart from the sophisticated suburban soap opera it could easily have become. Each character in this movie is given the dramatic opportunity to look inside himself, to question his own motives as well as the motives of others, and to try to improve his own ways of dealing with a troubled situation. Two of the characters do learn how to adjust; the third doesn't. It's not often we get characters who face those kinds of challenges on the screen, nor directors who seek them out. Ordinary People is an intelligent, perceptive, and deeply moving film.

Now, don’t forget the point of this little enterprise – it’s not to tear down “Raging Bull,” it’s simply to tear down the myth that “Ordinary People” was somehow unworthy.

American Top 40 Flashback - Blondie, 1981

The number one song this week in 1981 - "The Tide Is High," Blondie.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Coming Soon To A Blog Near You

For years, it has gotten a bum rap as "the film which robbed Raging Bull of its Best Picture Oscar."

It is likely that I am in a distinct minority when it comes to these two films, but over the next couple of weeks - as we get closer to the Oscars - I'll be writing about "Ordinary People," and why it is one of my all-time favorite movies - one that I'd much rather see, seven days of the week, than "Raging Bull."

I will not damn Scorsese, DeNiro, and their film - it is one that I admire greatly. I seek merely to defend and make an argument for a film that deserves better than to be relegated to the ash can of Oscar history.

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Brief Thoughts on "The Yiddish Policemen's Union"

I’m not finished with it – about 2/3 of the way through – but I wanted to get some thoughts about “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” down on “paper” before they slipped into the nether regions of my mind.

I’ve had this book for a while now, so long that I can’t even remember if it was a birthday present or a Christmas present. But given that this is the year I’ve resolved to work my way through my backlog of unread books (a pledge doomed to fall by the wayside, given that it’s already February and I still haven’t finished a single book), Michael Chabon seemed as good a place to start as any.

The book takes place in one of Chabon’s alternate universes. In this particular universe, the state of Israel foundered shortly after being established, and an independent (but temporary) Jewish settlement was established in Sitka, Alaska. 60 years later, Sitka is about to return to U.S. control, meaning that many of the residents are about to shoved back into the diaspora. The main character of the book is one Meyer Landsman, a homicide detective with drinking problems, female problems, and a whole host of personal problems – in short, not unlike many of the classic hard-boiled detectives of the past. In the seedy hotel where Landsman lives, a murder has occurred, and from there the plot veers into unexpected territory. Very unexpected territory.

I think Chabon has said that this was his effort to try his hand at creating a classic, hard-boiled detective novel. On that score, I’d say that while this is a great book, it’s not a great detective novel – but I don’t mean that as criticism. Even before the plot began to take off, I was really enjoying it, because Chabon has few peers – John Irving, perhaps – at writing sentences that just jump off the page for the sheer brilliance of the writing. But about 100 pages in, the story begins to pick up steam, and the 20 or so pages I read last night (before the eyelids got heavy) – were absolutely enthralling – but really did very little to move the “detective story” forward. It didn’t matter.

This isn’t the last I’ll write about this book – heck, if it continues to gain momentum the way it has so far, the last 100 pages should be amazing.

The World's Most Dangerous Super Bowl Quiz

Good luck!

Part One: Coaches

1. For one point each, match the following Super Bowl coaches with the college where they were head coach prior to becoming an NFL head coach:

1. Marv Levy a. Miami
2. Barry Switzer b. Stanford
3. Bill Walsh c. UCLA
4. Dick Vermeil d. Oklahoma
5. Jimmy Johnson e. Cal

2. For one point, identify the first coach to be doused in Gatorade following a Super Bowl victory:

a. Tom Landry
b. John Madden
c. Tom Flores
d. Bill Parcells
e. Bill Cowher

3. Prior to becoming a head coach, two Hall of Fame, Super Bowl-winning coaches were colleagues on an NFL Championship team – one was the offensive coordinator, one was the defensive coordinator. For two points, identify the coaches. For one point, identify the team.

4. For three points: Identifying the pattern below, fill in the blank.

Don Shula…Jake Scott
Chuck Noll…Franco Harris
Bill Walsh…Joe Montana
Joe Gibbs…John Riggins
Jimmy Johnson…_________

5. For one point each, identify the Super Bowl coaches who wore a tie on the sidelines.

Part Two: Venues

6. For three points: Who am I?

I am among the stadiums demolished after hosting a Super Bowl. However, I am unique, in that a brand-new stadium was built on exactly the same site. Which stadium am I?

7. For one point each, provide each name of a stadium located in Miami that has hosted the Super Bowl. Hint: a single stadium can have more than one name.

8. For two points: Who am I?

I have the distinction of being the stadium which hosted the Super Bowl with the lowest attendance. Which stadium am I?

Part Three: Announcers

9. For one point each, match the Super Bowl play-by-play announcer with those who served as their color commentators:

1. Pat Summerall a. Al DeRogatis, Kyle Rote, John Brodie, Don Meredith

2. Al Michaels b. Merlin Olsen, Bob Griese, Bob Trumpy, Phil Simms, Paul Maguire

3. Curt Gowdy c. Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf, Boomer Esiason, John Madden, Cris Collinsworth
4. Frank Gifford d. Tom Brookshier, John Madden

5. Dick Enberg e. Don Meredith, Joe Theissman

Part Four: Players

10. For Five Points: Identifying the pattern, fill in the blank:

Jack Dolbin…Haven Moses
Mark Seay…Tony Martin
Frank Pitts…Otis Taylor
Dennis McKinnon…_________

11. For three points: Who am I?

I played in a Super Bowl, and was an actor in the film which inspired Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.” Who am I?

Part Five: “Because I Can”

12. For one point each, match the Super Bowl with the #1 song that week on the Billboard
Hot 100.

1. Super Bowl XXIX a. “You’re So Vain,” Carly Simon
2. Super Bowl II b. “Let Me Love You,” Mario
3. Super Bowl XXXIX c. “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Marvin Gaye
4. Super Bowl VII d. “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,” Michael Bolton
5. Super Bowl XXIV e. “Creep,” TLC

14. For Seven Points: Identifying the pattern below, fill in the blank:

George Burns…New York Giants
Irma Thomas…San Francisco 49ers
Travis Tritt…Dallas Cowboys
Judy Mallett…_______________

Dreams II

Added a new one to the repertoire last night: enrolling at Berkeley as a 50-year old, and living in the dorms. My parents even helped me move in.

I'd say this is on the verge of being out of control.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

"Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Stories)"

If I’d bought Patterson Hood’s “Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Songs)” before the end of 2009, there’s little doubt in my mind that it would have topped my “Best of 2009” list. But that would have been difficult, because until he was recommended to me by a friend and colleague last month, I’d never heard of him, and never listened to anything by the band that he fronts in his “spare time,” the Drive-By Truckers.

Hood’s solo effort is a collection of songs that he’s written over the past 20 years, so at first glance one might be tempted to call it a “best of.” But that’s not really true, because during all of that time, Hood’s been in bands, contributing what one would assume was his best work. On the other hand, by no means could these songs be considered “rejects” – in the Drive-By Truckers, Hood shares songwriting duties with his fellow band members, and even on an album as “big” as the Truckers’ last one (“Brighter Than Creation’s Dark,” a review of which is forthcoming), there are only so many slots for each writer.

In the end, how one characterizes the origin of the album is less important than the fact that, for all practical purposes, it sounds entirely fresh, entirely new. Playing the album on my computer, it is classified as “country,” but that doesn’t feel right to me. I’d call it “southern rock,” but even with that, Hood manages to cover a Todd Rundgren song (“The Range War”), and writes in the excellent liner notes that his all-time favorite album is Rundgren’s “Something/Anything.”

The album is remarkably consistent, without a single weak track. It’s always a good sign when I keep changing my mind about what I think is the best song. On some days I might say “Pollyanna” (see above), on others I might say “Belvedere” (see below), and on weekends I might say “Pride of the Yankees,” “Screwtopia,” “I Understand Now,” or one of the album’s other tracks.

Since it wasn’t easy even finding the album in the stores I searched, I’m not sure that a guy like Patterson Hood is ever going to become a big star. But, one can hope.

The Most Obvious Feature of Internet Explorer 8 So Far

It seems to be much slower.

Monday, February 01, 2010

I Understand There's A Football Game Next Weekend?

Now that Pro Bowl mania has abated, I suppose it's time to turn our attention to the Super Bowl. I'm going to start with a brief comment on something Peter King wrote about in his "Monday Morning Quarterback" column this morning. Peter is a strong advocate of a new overtime system, one that would allow both teams to have at least one possession. He writes about the topic again today, but manages to come up with an eye-rolling statement:

One more thing: I knew the winner of the coin clip in New Orleans in the NFC Championship Game would win the game on the first possession. In the stadium, you could just feel it. It was a rock-'em, sock-'em-robot kind of game, and the two teams were absolutely spent by the end of regulation.

I'm not saying that King didn't actually think this upon the end of regulation. But it's a silly thing to say, once the outcome is well known. Not the best form to write about your prediction, unless you've put it on the record beforehand.