Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Giants Swept; Milk Carton Campaign Will Commence To Search for Offense

50 for 50: The Movies: #49, "Four Weddings And A Funeral"

That my tastes in movies is wide and varied should be evident by my pick for #49, “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” I’m not sure you could find two movies less alike than “Four Weddings” and “Se7en,” but it would be difficult for me to have to choose between the two.

On the one hand, “Four Weddings” is as light as air, but on the other, it is that rare movie that accomplishes everything that it set out to do. It’s hysterically funny, it’s well-written, it’s well directed, and it features a host of excellent performances from a cast that has terrific chemistry with each other. In fact, the worst chemistry in the whole movie is probably between Hugh Grant and Andie McDowell, and the story ostensibly is about the two of them.

But it really isn’t; the story is really about friendship and the bonds that people forge as the years pass. When I watch “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” these seem like real people to me. None of them are perfect, but all of them are real.

There are any number of laugh out loud scenes in the movie – but this is probably the most famous:

But in addition to those moments, there are many great “small moments” as well, usually involving the circle of friends. Glances, quick conversations, simply the way they act around one another. The relationship between Hugh Grant and his brother is a particular highlight.

Directed by Mike Newell, and starring Hugh Grant, James Fleet, Simon Callow, John Hannah, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Charlotte Coleman and Andie McDowell.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Where Do Restaurants Go When They Die?

A nice post by Ken Levine on the closing of one of his favorite restaurants.

He poses the question "is it too weird to mourn the passing of a restaurant?," a question to which I would reply "absolutely not."

Think of the great memories and meals that you associate with restaurants. In Sacramento, just off the top of my head, I can think of some late, lamented eateries:

- Chuck's Steak House. Of course I'm biased since I worked there for four years, but it really was a great steak restaurant. There is still one located in Waikiki, and when we were there four years ago, we made sure to have dinner there one night. I ordered my favorite, the Teriyaki Steak/Chicken Combo. Still the best Bleu Cheese salad dressing I've ever had in my life.

- Ken's Red Barn. A place we went often when I was a kid. I always had spaghetti.

- Alhambra Fuel & Transportation. Why this sticks in my head 25 years later I have no idea, but I remember a wonderful lemon chicken that I ate there one night with my then girlfriend, soon to be wife Debra.

- Wulff's. A classic French restaurant, the perfect "special occasion" place.

- Coral Reef. In the 1970s, this was the place to take your date on prom night. Great Chinese food, and as I learned later, great tropical drinks - including one that was served in a glass as big as a fishbowl.

- D.O. Mills. A great place in Old Sacramento.

And heck, that's just off the top of my head. So yes...if a restaurant you love closes, you should definitely mourn it.

Moonlight Graham

I'm sitting here watching the (beloved) Giants play the (hated) Dodgers, and Jon Miller just came out with tonight's piece of trivia:

On this date in 1905, Archibald "Moonlight" Graham made his only appearance for the New York Giants.

That may mean nothing to many of you, but for some it will mean quite a great deal.

50 for 50 - The Movies: #50, "Se7en"

“Se7en” is one of the most relentlessly dark movies ever made. Dark in subject matter, and dark on the screen. It’s also a polarizing movie – there are people whose opinions I respect and trust who can’t stand it, and in fact find it repulsive.

I’m not one of those people. Yes, there are certainly parts of it that are repulsive, but given the subject matter and the story, that would have been difficult to avoid. For those who are unfamiliar with the story, it’s pretty simple – some maniac is murdering people in ways that coincide with the seven deadly sins, and the detective duo of Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt are assigned the task of figuring out who is wreaking this havoc, and bringing him in. The two could not be less alike – Freeman plays a hardened, cynical cop in his last week on the job before retirement, and he instinctively knows from the moment that the first murder is discovered that this isn’t going to end well. Pitt is a young turk, eager and enthusiastic, and sees the case as his path to the big time. As it turns out, he’s probably right, but certainly not in the way he thought.

The movie is directed by David Fincher, who got his start filming music videos and had his major film debut with Alien3, a film that was reviewed poorly but I thought was underrated. Since then, Fincher has gone on to the big time, directing “Fight Club,” “Panic Room,” “Zodiac,” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” I suppose it could be argued that in “Se7en” he relied on style more than he did on story, what with the constant drumbeat of the rain and the never-ending dark hallways. For me, it worked, especially near the end when Freeman, Pitt and their adversary leave the urban setting for the surrounding, very dry and plain desert for the shocking denouement. At the very moment they enter the light, they are in fact descending into a greater darkness than they could have imagined.


I’m not sure if this is really a spoiler 15 years after its release, but the other great performance in the movie is turned in by an uncredited Kevin Spacey, as the serial killer John Doe. The scene below, when the three are heading towards their ultimate fate, is one of the best in this, or any movie.

And last but not least, “Se7en” was also the movie that made me change my mind about Brad Pitt. Based mostly on his pretty-boy looks and “Legends of the Fall,” a movie that I thought was ridiculous, I’d decided that I couldn’t stand Pitt, but something about his performance here turned me in the opposite direction. He’s now one of my favorites.

So there, you have it: #50 on the list of my favorite movies, and the first entry in the “50 for 50 Summer Film Festival” – Se7en.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Coming Soon To A Blog Near You!

(Or, if you prefer, "a specially selected blog"):

The 50 For 50 Summer Film Festival (sound the trumpets!).

Yes, that's right - I am finally ready to pull the trigger on what may be the biggest fool's errand in the history of this blog. Namely, listing (and writing something about) my favorite 50 films.

Why am I calling it a "Summer Film Festival?" I'm glad you asked.

In the summer of 1979, I took a summer course at the local community college on the History of Film, and it was there that I saw - for the first time - some of the greatest films in the history of cinema: "The Birth of a Nation," "Metropolis," "Citizen Kane," "The Bicycle Thief," "The African Queen," "Hiroshima, Mon Amour..." The professor, whose name escapes me but was from Czechoslovakia, was a really interesting guy who had strong opinions on just about every film ever made. As a matter of fact, he showed us "African Queen" as an example of what he hated in the cinema - namely, action movies. I can only imagine, if he is still with us today, what he would think of stuff like "Knight and Day."

And in the summer of 1980, the local independent television station (which is now a Fox affiliate) ran the first of their own summer film festivals, and it was that summer that I saw - for the first time - such classics as "High Sierra," "The Caine Mutiny," "The Apartment," "Red River," and "Some Like It Hot."

Since then, I've always associated summer with movie-going, even if they do save most of the Oscar contenders for the fall.

This was a lot harder than I expected, and I'll probably change my mind numerous times during the whole exercise. But I'm holding myself to the list I've got right now, even if "Inception" turns out to be the greatest Christopher Nolan film ever made.

Stay tuned!

Random World Cup Comments

- I'm not enough of an expert to comment on the overall quality of the officiating, but FIFA's reluctance to use technology for goal line reviews is mystifying. The type of reviews that they do in the NHL don't seem to detract much from the flow of the game, and it seems like, this being your sport's premier event and all, that you would want the focus of the public discussion to be on the quality of play, not the officiating.

- That was quite a ride by the U.S. team, and it was damn near heartbreaking to see them lose on Saturday. But as the saying goes, when you live by the sword, you die by the sword, and falling behind in every game was bound to catch up with them eventually. Too bad, since this was their best chance in years to make it to the semifinals.

- Argentina vs. Germany? Netherlands vs. Brazil? Those are matchups worthy of a final, and from what I've seen, they could go either way. And even though I picked Netherlands to go all the way, I won't violate my long-standing rule of always rooting for a South American team against a European team. Besides, how awesome would a Brazil-Argentina final be? One for the ages, that's for sure.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Review Of The Movie That May Have The Longest Title In The History of Cinema

As a film, "The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford" is as long and unfocused as its title. But that doesn't mean it's not worth the effort to seek out. It's a flawed movie with faults, not the least of which is a narrative that leaves the viewer asking - on numerous occasions - "what is he doing?", or "why is that guy trying to kill that guy?"

Having said that, I'd still rather watch a movie like this than the mindless pablum that Hollywood produces the vast majority of the time. Fortunately, the story of Jesse James and Robert Ford is familiar enough that, even at those moments when you're scratching your head wondering what the hell is going on, you can - more or less - keep track of the story. And while story is pretty damn important to the success of any movie, there's also the acting and a whole lot of other things to take into consideration. And on that score, the movie is a notable success. Brad Pitt, Sam Shepard, Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, Garrett Dillahunt, Casey Affleck - all turn in strong performances, and are fun to watch even during those moments when you're not exactly sure what's going on.

And while we're on the subject of acting, let's talk about Brad Pitt for a moment. Pitt (who I once detested, but that changed after "Se7en") is one of the best known movie stars in the world, but just take a look at the films he's been in during the past decade:

Inglourious Basterds
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Burn After Reading

The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

Ocean's 13


Ocean's 12

Mr. and Mrs. Smith


Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Ocean's 11

Whatever you think of all those movies, you have to admit that's a pretty impressive resume.

But back to the it a success? Yes and no. But in the end, I hope that movies like this continue to be made. Because if they're not, all we're going to have to watch are mindless Michael Bay-type productions.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Heavy and Hanging

This is a song from what is probably my favorite album of 2010...the only problem being that it was released last year. Oh well.

For those who don't know him, Patterson Hood is one of the main songwriters and singers (along with Mike Cooley) of the Drive-By Truckers. This is from his solo LP, "Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Stories)." Great stuff.

John Hiatt's "The Open Road" - The Album of 2010?

As far as I can tell the album is getting very little attention, so I thought it might be a good idea to mention that John Hiatt's "The Open Road" may just be my favorite album of the first six months of 2010.

Hiatt is one of those artists who always seems to wander just outside the periphery of the big time - you might hear a new song every now and then by accident (at least in these parts, it's inconceivable that you'd ever hear one on the radio), and think to yourself, "Oh yeah, John Hiatt - solid guy, always seems to make good albums, maybe I should check it out." Well, this time I did, based on nothing more than the cover alone. That sort of impulse has gotten me in trouble before, but there was something about the design of this one, the simplicity of it, that (for some reason) made me think that the music inside the package just might be worth the 11 bucks.

What Hiatt does on "The Open Road" with his band - Doug Lancio on guitar, Patrick O'Hearn on bass, and Kenneth Blevins on drums - is make it sound easy. It's his 19th studio album, and I don't own enough of them to make a valid comparison, but it sure sounds like it might be a culmination of everything he's accomplished over the past three decades. Let's put it this way - if this were the new Tom Petty album instead of "Mojo" (and don't get me wrong - I haven't yet bought the new Petty, so I'm intending no disrespect), everyone would be saying that it was his best album since the halcyon days of "Damn the Torpedoes."

And it's not that Hiatt is really trying anything new - from the first chords, the music is instantly recognizable as John Hiatt - but he's doing it so damn well, and it sounds so fresh, that you just have to marvel that he can pull it off. The title cut, which kicks off the album, sets the tone. None of it is fancy, and it brings to mind a comment Lou Reed once made, something along the lines of "two guitars, bass, and drums...that's all you really need, you know?"

The album is chock full of highlights, but my favorites are probably "Haulin"" and "What Kind of Man." The latter is a song that could only be written by a man with a lot of years and experience behind him:

What kind of man do you think I am/One twist and I'd do it all again/What kind of man got these holes in his mind/Do the same thing over and over again/Expecting something different this time/What kind of man do you think I am

I could go on, but you get the point. Do yourself a favor - check this one out.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Kukaemoku on Maui

This one was too good not to post.

Ah Heck, Let's Show More Pictures From Paradise

You can see the whole family in this one - well, except me, who was taking the picture. This was taken at Laupahoehoe Harbor on the big island, the site of a tsunami in the early 20th Century.

American Top 40 Flashback - "It's Too Late," Carole King

I don't know how well it is remembered today, but up until the era of mega-albums like "Frampton Comes Alive," "Rumours," "Hotel California," and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, the highest selling LP in pop history was "Tapestry," by Carole King.

"It's Too Late" was the first, and best, song from the album - an absolute classic slice of contemporary soft rock that sounds just as good today as it did then.

"It's Too Late" - the #1 song in America, 39 years ago this week.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

One More Celebration

On this one, you need to watch the guy in the lower left hand corner of the screen - in the orange-reddish shirt.

He is having no fun watching this game - he's so tense, it looks like his head is about to explode.

When the goal is scored his head is obscured for a moment by the young woman in front of him, but then he races to the right, and immediately looks for the closest chair, on which to begin his celebration.

Such is sports...agony one moment, ecstasy the next.

The Thrill of Victory

With another hat tip to Steven Rubio.

Every now and then, I wonder why I watch sports. My mom once said of me, "if they keep score, Jeff will watch it."

I'm not a huge soccer fan, though I've watched every World Cup closely (if not religiously) since 1982, the year that Italy and Brazil played one of the great matches in history - unfortunately, it was in the quarterfinals.

But this video - and the hundreds of others like it - get to the core of why people watch sports, and why I watch sports. Unless you're lucky enough to be a fan of a team like the Yankees or the Lakers, the bottom line is that you're going to lose most of the critical games/matches that you watch in your lifetime. But you live for moments like these. This is like Big Game '82 for me...the moment that you let all your inhibitions down, and just revel in the success of the team that you're rooting for.

The Greatest View In The World?

The Waipi'o Valley, Big Island.

Slicing and Dicing With Anthony Bourdain

I don't know if it represents great literature, but I really doubt that I'll read a more entertaining book this year than Anthony Bourdain's "Medium Raw," subtitled "A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook." Anyone who's ever read "Kitchen Confidential" or seen Bourdain speak, or watched one of his television shows, or read one of his novels knows that he's a larger-than-life character. In "Medium Raw," that character comes across on every page of the book; it's a fast read where (cliche warning ahead) the words really do jump off the page.

Bourdain is a man of strong opinions, and it is his opinions that drive the book. It sometimes seems as if he's got an opinion on just about everything: what U.S. students should be taught in the field of cooking, Alice Waters, the U.S. meat industry, tasting menus, food critics, "Top Chef," The Food Network, Thomas Keller, Tom Colicchio...the list goes on. In the hands of a lesser writer, this might come across as annoying, or even pathetic. But Bourdain is also a man who is aware of his own limits, and he knows that while he was a very competent, even excellent chef, he was never in the league of the all-time greats. His ability to downplay his own talents is what lends his opinions their power.

And let's face it, he's a hell of an entertaining writer:

"Is it too much to feel that it should be a basic right that one can cook and eat a hamburger without fear? To stand proud in my backyard (if I had a backyard), grilling a nice medium-rare fucking hamburger for my kid - without worrying that maybe I'm feeding her a shit sandwich? That I not feel the need to cross-examine my mother, should she have the temerity to offer my child meatloaf?" - From the chapter titled "Meat"

Bourdain goes back and forth between vignettes about his own life, now and the period in the past when things weren't always so sunny, and chapters about things like the meat industry, Alice Waters, David Chang (one of the hot new chefs of the moment), and an update on some of the key characters from the book that made him famous, "Kitchen Confidential."

However, there's no doubt that the strongest chapter in the book, a really magnificent portrait of an artist at work, is the one titled "My Aim Is True" - which tells the story of Justo Thomas, whose job it is to cut the fish at Le Bernardin, the great New York seafood restaurant. I hate to give too much away, but one can't help but marvel at the story of Thomas - a man who cuts, by himself, 700 pounds of fish each day, and does so in a manner that would make every workman and artist in the world proud. At the end of the chapter, Bourdain has a treat for Thomas - he convinces Le Bernardin to drop their "no staff allowed to eat at the restaurant" policy for one day (a policy that Bourdain reports is common among the greatest restaurants), and takes him to lunch at the restaurant at which he has never eaten the fish that he cuts. More I won't say, except that it is a wonderful, classic moment.

It's a fast read, but more importantly, it's a great read. I can't recommend it highly enough.

More Shots of the Lahaina Banyan Tree

The Banyan Tree of Lahaina

The Banyan Tree in Lahaina was planted in 1873. It now has 12 major trunks, and spans an entire park.


For those who have missed the great Andres Cantor during this World Cup, be sure to head over to Steven Rubio's World Cup blog for a link to his call of Landon Donovan's historic goal.

Sunset in Paradise III

Monday, June 14, 2010

Headin' Out to Eden, Yay Brother...

And with that, I'll catch you on the flip side...

Netflix Catchup

This almost brings me up-to-date:

The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg). I’ve seen this movie quite a few times, and I still think it’s the best Stephen King adaptation put to screen. It’s not a perfect movie, but it has one of the best Christopher Walken performances, as well as solid supporting work from Tom Skerritt, Brooke Adams, Anthony Zerbe, Herbert Lom, and Martin Sheen. I think this was the first movie Cronenburg directed that didn’t rely entirely on effects like exploding heads, and while his touch had not yet fully developed (he laid the Hitchcock homage on pretty thick), he still guided things with a sure hand. Watching last night, the only part of the movie that felt less than fully developed was the final act – while the “flash forward” featuring Sheen as a truly insane President (interesting to see now, knowing that “West Wing” was still to come) was as harrowing now as it was then, the denouement felt a bit perfunctory – like it could have used a little more backstory from the book. But still, one of my favorites.

Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy). Why, why, why can’t we have more movies like this? Given all of the talent in Hollywood and elsewhere, is it too much to ask that we be provided with intelligent entertainment a little more often than we receive it now? “Michael Clayton” is an expertly made movie, with a strong story, and stronger acting. George Clooney again shows his versatility here, and seeing Sydney Pollack in his last role made me appreciate that his acting may have been just as strong as his direction. Everyone is good in this movie, and best of all, the viewer has to think a little bit, as opposed to just waiting for the next explosion. Good stuff.

Chocolat (Lasse Hallstrom). The only word, really, to describe a movie like this is “delightful.” Lasse Hallstrom has a great way with films like these, where the people and the relationships are just as important as the story. The story is fairly predictable, but the movie is never less than entertaining. As far as acting goes, the biggest kudos belong to Judi Dench and Johnny Depp. Depp doesn’t show up until fairly late in the proceedings, but just about manages to walk away with the entire picture, seemingly without even trying.

Gangs of New York (Martin Scorcese). Every now and then I fantasize about going back in time and spending a few years in an interesting place (sort of like the episode of Star Trek: TNG where Captain Picard lives half a life in the span of about an hour). Well, after having seen this movie, I think I can cross mid-1800s New York City off the list. I don’t think I’ve seen so much dirt in my entire life. And with so many scenes taking place where Daniel Day-Lewis did his butchering, I can only imagine that it didn’t smell so great either. But what about the movie? I’d put this in the category of “Scorsese near misses,” meaning that it is very good, but doesn’t quite approach the greatness of his best work. But I did learn quite a bit about New York history that I didn’t know before, and as usual admire the dedication that Day-Lewis puts into his work. Leonardo DiCaprio was good but not great, but I’m not sure that Cameron Diaz was quite up to the task of playing a thief. Of course, I’m probably reacting badly in reaction to the over-saturation of commercials this weekend for her upcoming Tom Cruise flick.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Almost All Packed

Where are we going?

Stay tuned.

Two Quick Comments About the NBA Finals

1. Kobe Bryant is amazing. With any kind of support tonight, the Lakers would be on the verge of another NBA championship. The fact that Boston played well - very well - and the fact that the rest of the Lakers played poorly - very poorly - is a testament to Kobe's ability. This game should have been a blowout, and the only reason it wasn't was Kobe Bryant.

2. Doris Burke is the best sideline reporter I've ever seen. I still am not convinced that sideline reporters need to exist, but she is great. Even Phil Jackson, who for some odd reason seems to delight in being a jerk with sideline reporters (and with clowns like Craig Sager having the job, I can't say I blame him), gives her respect and answers her questions.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Trying Out New Templates

Blogger has upgraded their Template Design, so let's try out a few...

Let me know what you think.

UPDATE: "Upgrade" was probably a misnomer. I'm not thrilled with the choices, but can live with any of them.

NEW UPDATE: Out with the new, back with the old...sort of.

It's The Most Wonderful Time of The Year

Can you say "Bev Mo 5 cent Wine Sale?"

Want to Follow the World Cup?

Then head on over to Steven Rubio's World Cup Blog.

Space Cowboys

The short-lived TV series "Firefly" was about just that - space cowboys.

The story of "Firefly" is both sad and uplifting - TV show is cruelly mistreated by network, despite coming out the box like gangbusters, is canceled before all of the filmed episodes can even be shown, fans band together, and somehow a multi-million dollar major motion picture gets made, to provide a coda to the story.

Last week, we again watched "Firefly" from start to finish (14 episodes), and it still amazes me how Joss Whedon was able to create characters that immediately meshed into a coherent whole. Most series, even the great ones, take some time to find their footing. Just watch episodes from the first two seasons of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and you'll know what I mean. In fact, I'm not sure there was a single great episode (some very good ones, I'll concede) in those first two seasons.

But on "Firefly," the show hit the ground running - or would have, had Fox allowed it to. But for some reason, someone at the network thought it would be a good idea to show the episodes out of order, and not show the pilot at all. It may not have been the dumbest move in the history of broadcast television, but it was certainly among the dumbest.

Not all of those 14 episodes were great, but even on the less-than-great ones, the characters and acting more than made up for it. Every major character on the show - from Nathan Fillion's rugged captain Malcom Reynolds to Summer Glau's haunted River Tam - was fully defined, and interesting - which is always the key.

The morning after we finished (with "Serenity," the feature film), TV critic Alan Sepinwall began his summer series of reviewing old TV shows with a review of the first (pilot) episode, also called "Serenity." As he often does, he nailed it:

Watch the series in order, though (and then watch the feature film that followed, also called "Serenity"), and you see that it came out of the gate fully-formed. The characters, the world, the style and tone were all presented in "Serenity" exactly as they'd be throughout the brief run, and with such confidence and heart that it improbably vaulted past "Buffy" and "Angel" to become the most beloved Whedon show (at least among most of the Joss fans I've encountered).

If there was any justice in the world, the show probably would have been wrapping up a glorious run right about now. But as we know justice can be fleeting, so what we are left with will have to do. Do yourself a favor - go out and buy the DVD (it's cheap), watch, and then read along with Alan. You won't be sorry.

Friday, June 11, 2010

American Top 40 Flashback - "Funky Town," Lipps Inc.

With a song like this, one of two things happens: you immediately reach for the dial every time it comes on the radio, or you eventually succumb to it.

I can't remember when, but at some point I just gave up.

"Funky Town," Lipps Inc., the #1 song this week in 1980.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

...Without Much Enthusiasm

We've had some pretty dismal election seasons in California over the past decade, but I'm not sure we've ever had one quite as disillusioning as the one that is wrapping up today.

Let's take a quick look: we had no Democratic Primary for Governor, because no one saw fit to challenge the man who was Governor more than 30 years ago. On the Republican side, we had one candidate who has voted in less than half of the elections during her lifetime, facing off against a candidate who strongly disavows nearly every position which first got him elected to public office. And we're not talking about a lifelong transformation here, a la Ronald Reagan - we're talking about a complete political transformation in the span of a mere six years. Well, excuse me if I don't believe a minute of it.

Oh yeah - did I mention that the two of them together have spent more than $100 million on the race? And that we've been treated to a series of escalating advertisements where each claims the other is a "liberal?" Fortunately, every Republican voter I know is more intelligent than their candidates are giving them credit for. And the word that should be associated with Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner is not "liberal." In fact, several words come to mind: "fraud," shameful," "disingenuous," "dishonest." I could probably think of a few more.

We've got an initiative on the ballot sponsored by a major utility that is nothing more than an attempt to keep communities from making rational choices, and is spending millions to call it "the Voters Right to Choose Initiative."

At the local level, we've got three candidates for Sheriff who are so dismal that the local newspaper endorsed one under the headline "Best of a Bad Bunch." One of them happens to be a City Council member in the small city where I live, and my choice amounted to "do I vote for someone who is not qualified for the job, or would I rather get rid of someone who is doing damage to my city?" Wonderful choice to have.

One could go on and on, but why bother. At this point, I'd just like a couple of months free of television ads before we get to the next round - which I'm sure will replace the season just completed as the most dismal election season in California history.

And You Thought the Stairway Scene in "Psycho" Was Scary

Monday, June 07, 2010

Abdul-Jabbar on Wooden

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on John Wooden:

Mr. Wooden had an eye and mind that saw the game as if from above. He would drill us fiercely and expect dedication; he accepted no less. Dressed like his players in T-shirt, shorts, sweat socks and sneakers, with his jacket that read “Coach” on the back and a whistle around his neck, he would find our errors, our indecisions, and correct them. He never rode people; he treated everyone the same and displayed no favoritism, but you didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. When he’d get mad he’d say “Gracious sakes alive!” and it instilled more fear than any other coach’s tirade of obscenities. “That is not the way to do it,” he would say forcefully, and whoever had screwed up would stand there as if he’d been slapped.

Mr. Wooden taught self-discipline and was his own best example. His awareness of what was happening in all parts of the game was very acute, but his demeanor was always contained, as if by ordering himself he was controlling all elements. His philosophy, he showed us, was that if you needed emotion to make you perform than sooner or later you’d be vulnerable, an emotional wreck, and then nonfunctional. He preferred thorough preparation over the need to rise to an occasion. Let others try to rise to a level we had already attained; we would be there to begin with. He would smile and be happy when we won, but I never saw him truly exultant; about the only overt expression he would allow himself was the tight twisting of his program, rolled not so much into a weapon as into a handle on the situation.

- from "Giant Steps," the autobiography of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

I don't want to make too much of this, but I don't want to make too little of it either. When you read something like this from a man like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you can really appreciate the greatness of John Wooden as a coach. There were things that Wooden did - particularly with the treatment of some players - that Abdul-Jabbar was not always comfortable with. Not Wooden's treatment of those players, but his expectations for them, which Abdul-Jabbar felt did not always take into consideration the personal situations and life experience of those players.

But when you read passages like this, there is but one word that comes to mind: respect. There is little doubt that, even though Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had very little in common with John Wooden outside of the basketball arena, he had the utmost respect for Wooden as a coach, and as a man. And respect, it seems to me, is by far the most important attribute that a coach in any sport can garner from those under his/her charge.

Gil Scott-Heron's "I'm New Here"

It is a blessing that Gil Scott-Heron is even around today to record new songs. All you have to do is take a look at him in this new video for his song "I'm New Here" to know that it hasn't been an easy road. This is haunting stuff, especially for those who remember the vitality of Scott-Heron performances like "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," "B-Movie," "Winter in America," and "Johannesburg."

But at the end, he can still smile.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Lazy Sunday Afternoon

Of course, she does this every afternoon, so the title of this post is a little misleading.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

More On Coach Wooden

From Ken Levine:

"It’s one thing to preach a life of virtue and integrity and it’s another to actually live it. And that's what he did... every day for 99 years."

From Joe Posnanski:

"That’s what John Wooden did in his 99 years. He infused life with meaning. He found essence in the haze. He won a lot of basketball games without ever thinking that winning was the point. And he gave away a lot of love."

Friday, June 04, 2010

John Wooden

It's not a question of whether John Wooden was the greatest coach in the history of basketball. It's a question of whether John Wooden was the greatest coach, period.

But Wooden was more, much more than just a great coach. He was a true sportsman, in an era when the word seemed to mean less and less with each passing year. He wanted to win, of course - but he knew what was important, and the players who grew up under him learned those lessons.

When I was growing up, I was a bit of a front-runner when it came to sports. I rooted for USC in football, I rooted for the Oakland Raiders in the NFL, and I rooted for the Oakland A's in baseball. But more than any other team, I rooted for the UCLA basketball team.

And what great teams they were - with incredible players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then, known as Lew Alcindor), Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, Henry Bibby, Bill Walton, Dave Meyer, and many, many others. The dominance of those UCLA teams was something that will never be matched again in the history of college basketball - the game has just become too big.

But all along, even after his retirement, there was Coach Wooden - teaching everyone lessons about basketball and about life, and about the things that were really important. Universally admired, and universally respected. Not just a great coach. A great man.


UPDATE: "The only Bruin who could get a standing ovation in a room full of Trojans." I can't think of a better tribute.

50 for 50: Jackson and Warren

It’s been a while since I’ve tried one of these, but as I believe I said earlier, I’m trying to stretch the 50th birthday celebration over an entire year. Why, just last week, I celebrated by having an endoscopy and colonoscopy – on the same day! How many people can say that?

But in any event – I could easily come up with 50 each for both of these artists, two of my main men, but they’ve been inextricably linked in my mind ever since Bruce Springsteen’s speech inducting Jackson into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For those who don’t remember:

"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."
So – and this one was hard, and I could change my mind within 10 minutes – here are the Top 50 songs by Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon, split right down the middle – 25 each.

50. Lawyers in Love (Jackson)
49. Gorilla, You’re A Desperado (Warren)
48. The Night Inside Me (Jackson)
47. Looking East (Jackson)
46. Shaky Town (Jackson)
45. Prison Grove (Warren)
44. Let Nothing Come Between You (Warren)
43. The Road and the Sky (Jackson)
42. Boom Boom Mancini (Warren)
41. Love Needs A Heart (Jackson)
40. Genius (Warren)
39. Splendid Isolation (Warren)
38. My Stunning Mystery Companion (Jackson)
37. Play It All Night Long (Warren)
36. Too Many Angels (Jackson)
35. Disorder in the House (Warren)
34. Ain’t That Pretty At All (Warren)
33. I Am A Patriot (Jackson)
32. For America (Jackson)
31. My Shit’s Fucked Up (Warren)
30. For A Dancer (Jackson)
29. Mohammed’s Radio (Warren)
28. The Naked Ride Home (Jackson)
27. Doctor My Eyes (Jackson)
26. Porcelain Monkey (Warren)
25. Keep Me In Your Heart (Warren)
24. Finishing Touches (Warren)
23. Before the Deluge (Jackson)
22. Fountain of Sorrow (Jackson)
21. Werewolves of London (Warren)
20. Sentimental Hygiene (Warren)
19. Alive in the World (Jackson)
18. Back in the High Life Again (Warren)
17. Detox Mansion (Warren)
16. The Load Out/Stay (Jackson)
15. For Everyman (Jackson)
14. Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner (Warren)
13. Redneck Friend (Jackson)
12. The Indifference of Heaven (Warren)
11. The Pretender (Jackson)
10. My Ride’s Here (Warren)
9. Sky Blue and Black (Jackson)
8. Your Bright Baby Blues (Jackson)
7. Carmelita (Warren)
6. Late for the Sky (Jackson)
5. Desperados Under the Eaves (Warren)
4. In the Shape of a Heart (Jackson)
3. I Was In the House When the House Burned Down (Warren)
2. Lawyers, Guns and Money (Warren)
1. Running on Empty (Jackson)


"Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan," released 28 years ago today. One of the very few movies I've seen on its opening day (the first show, yet!).

Good Grief

Well, I really don't feel so bad about my Spelling Bee post now, especially after this bit of absurdity that took place this afternoon.

And here we thought the "Non-Perfect Game" was the end of the world.

American Top 40 Flashback - "Get Back"

Yeah, the lads were pretty good live. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

"Get Back," The Beatles, the #1 song this week in 1969.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

"Nobody's Perfect"

"In the end, nobody's perfect. We just do the best we can."

A beautiful post by SI's Joe Posnanski, on what is destined to go down as one of the most infamous moments in baseball history.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Latest in ARD Technology

ARD, of course, standing for "Anti-Raccoon Defense."

Could You Please Use That In A Sentence?

The National Spelling Bee is once again upon us, and once again I find myself asking what all the fuss is about. That probably sounds cynical, or perhaps even heartless.

It's not because I don't admire the talent of the participants; I do. But having always been a great speller, I guess I just don't understand the appeal of watching a bunch of contestants spell words that we all know that few people have ever heard of in their lives, much less heard used in everyday speech.

I also admire the contestants for keeping their cool under pressure, because I've been there. No, certainly not at the national level, or even at the state level. But in 1974, I won the Sacramento County Spelling Bee, which at the time was as far as one could go on the "spelling circuit" in this neck of the woods. The contest was open only to 8th graders, and it was a fluke that I even ended up in it. To enter at the school you attended (Will Rogers Intermediate School, for me) you had to be recommended by your reading teacher. Well, in 8th grade I didn't have reading, because I took Yearbook/Newspaper instead. For some reason they announced the names of the participants over the campus speaker system, and at the moment they did, I just happened to be in my typing class with Miss Petersen - who had been my reading teacher in 7th grade. She came over and asked why I wasn't one of the named contestants (since I hadn't missed a spelling word the entire year I was in her class), and when I explained, she stomped out of the room, muttering, "well, we'll see about that." I remember feeling embarrassed beyond belief, and even saying "no, really - it's OK," but it fell on deaf ears.

The first step was a written test, with 50 words. They didn't tell us our score, but I ended up as one of the 12 school finalists. A couple of days after that, they took us out of our last class of the day, marched us over to the library, and narrowed the group down to 4. Of those 4, one was a girl named Michelle Williams, who I'd known since we were in the same class together in 3rd grade. She was also a great speller, and in fact had beaten me in the only school wide spelling bee they held when we were in elementary school (we were both in 4th grade; and I came in second). Another was a girl named Jean, and she was definitely the smartest student in the entire school. I think she knew it.

It was during the school contest that something happened to me that happened to me in every Spelling Bee I'd ever been a part of. A word would come up that I would know, but for some reason my mind would go entirely blank. In 4th grade, the word had been "eight" - for the life of me, I could not remember how to spell that word, for reasons I'm still not sure I understand. This time around the word was "abscess," and again I had no clue. And again for reasons I still don't entirely understand, I spelled it correctly despite thinking at that moment that I'd blown it.

We then moved on to the district finals, held at the District Office. I think there were about 20 of us, and again they were narrowing the group down to 4 to advance to the County finals. Having my mom in the audience didn't do much for my nerves, but I made it through, along with Jean and two girls from different schools.

The County contest was held in a big auditorium in the Municipal Utility District building, and this time I remember being really nervous - not only was my mom there, but so was my school's Vice Principal and three of our teachers. Because both of her parents worked, we had given Jean a ride over, and I remember thinking that there was no way I was going to beat her, much less 14 other contestants. But then a funny thing happened - one by one, everyone kept going down, and every time, I knew the word. Jean was one of the first to go out, and to her credit rooted for me the rest of the way (or so my mom said; I had no reason to doubt her). Next thing you knew, I'd won the whole thing, and even ended up with my picture in the Sacramento Union.

It was fun, no doubt about it - my 15 minutes of teenage fame, if you will. But even then, the ability to spell well didn't seem like such a big deal to me. Over the years, when people have asked me about it, I always say the same thing - you can either spell, or you can't. I never studied; I never tried to memorize words; I never tried to memorize rules. I pictured the word in my head, and if it felt right, that was probably it.

It's all gotten pretty big now - ESPN, and now even ABC. And I'm sorry to say, it still doesn't seem like such a big deal to me.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

"Iron Man 2"

In my review of the first Iron Man, I wrote the following:

"For me, the most engaging and gripping scenes in the movie occurred near the beginning, when Tony Stark is captured in Afghanistan and begins his journey towards becoming a super-hero, out of necessity if nothing else. In those scenes, it is the performance of Shaun Toub as Yinsen, who under duress becomes Stark’s assistant and accomplice in creating the Iron Man, which lends the film its moral weight. Yinsen knows that for him there can be no escape, and though Stark has yet to understand the ramifications of what he does for a living (building weapons), Yinsen understands all too well. It is from Yinsen’s strength of character that Stark begins his moral awakening. "

Reading that again after seeing Iron Man 2, I feel a little silly for having used phrases like "moral weight" and "moral awakening." I'm not sure how much time is supposed to have elapsed between the two movies, but apparently Tony Stark's memory is affected by the Iron Man suit: the lesson he's taken out of his "birth" is that he needs to become more narcissistic than ever, and generally act like a jerk in whatever setting he finds himself. And I'm sorry, but the fact that the Iron Man suit is slowly killing him doesn't strike me as much of an excuse.

Don't get me wrong - Iron Man 2 is by no means a bad movie; in fact, it's very enjoyable. But it does strike me as a movie that's taken the easy way out - let's just let Robert Downey Jr. do his thing - trade wisecracks with Garry Shandling, Sam Rockwell, Don Cheadle and Samuel L. Jackson - and we'll have ourselves a movie. And to be honest, a lot of it works - I laughed at most of the right times, particularly any time Rockwell was on the screen. And there's nothing really wrong with the big action scenes either - the big fights are somewhat predictable, but at the same time they're fun to watch. Scarlett Johannsen is very cool, and Mickey Rourke is suitably menacing as what amounts to an evil version of Iron Man.

So what's the problem? I guess I'd have to say that there just isn't much humanity in the entire exercise. Which is probably a dumb thing to say about a comic book movie. Oh well.