Tuesday, August 31, 2010
- J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney as Juno's father and stepmother. Has Simmons ever been bad in a role? Hell, I can still remember him in the early days of Law and Order. He's never been the lead, as far as I know, but he's always memorable, whether it's as J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man flicks, or the somewhat befuddled CIA boss in "Burn After Reading." Here, he plays a low-key dad who really wishes that his 16-year old daughter wasn't pregnant, but that doesn't mean he's going to freak out about it. He's as supportive as ever, as supportive as he can be, and he still loves to work on all his HVAC stuff. Janney is just as good as what could easily have turned into an "evil stepmother" type of role. She knows that because she's the stepmother, her relationship with Juno is always going to be a certain way. That doesn't stop her from dispensing good, common sense advice, sometimes in a low-key way, and sometimes with an exasperated tone.
- Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner as the would-be adoptive couple. I thought this was some of the best writing and acting in the entire movie. You're set up to think things are going to turn out one way, and then screenwriter Diablo Cody turns everything on its head. And even though you start by feeling sympathetic for one of them and end up being sympathetic to the other, they both come across as very real, likable people, with real problems that won't ever be easy to solve. Bateman is his usual terrific self, but for me the revelation was Garner. From sheer desperation to abject sadness to profound relief and love, she pulls off every emotion in the book.
- The scene where Garner touches the belly of Juno. This is going to sound like the corniest thing in the world, but anyone who has ever touched the belly of a pregnant woman when the baby is doing somersaults inside knows that it is one of the most memorable moments of one's lifetime. And the look on her face is exactly the way it feels - whoa...this is amazing!
- Ellen Page. Yeah, OK - so I'm becoming an Ellen Page groupie, which is probably not something you should admit when you're my age. But she's just amazing in this. What more can one say?
- The music. Classic stuff.
I'll probably think of more later...but that should suffice for now.
To deal with all the madness to keep from blowing up
Daddy needs a drink to calm down the badness
To execute his gladness on the fullness of his cup"
Daddy Needs A Drink, Drive-By Truckers
Sunday, August 29, 2010
The band’s new album, “The Suburbs,” doesn’t feel anything like its predecessor. Though easily recognizable as Arcade Fire, it doesn’t sound much like its predecessor either. And before you jump to conclusions about the meaning of those statements, let me come right out and say that at this very moment, I’d peg “The Suburbs” as the first classic album of this new decade.
The first time I put the album on and listened to the opening (title track), my immediate thought was “oh oh, this sounds a little cheesy.” But before the song was half over, I was entranced. While a much more subtle approach than a song like “Intervention,” the momentum builds throughout, and by the end you’ve reached a similar destination, if by a very different route. The opener blends neatly into “Ready to Start,” a flat-out rocker that carries with it the sense of excitement that you feel in all classic rock songs. Closing out an incredible opening trio of songs is “Modern Man,” and by its end, you know that you’re in pretty heady territory.
What distinguishes “The Suburbs” from its immediate predecessor is the sound. On the new album, the sound is lighter and airier, but this time around you really feel like you’re listening to a band. The album has an embarrassment of riches among its 16 tracks; flat out rockers like “Empty Room” and “Month of May” will have you jumping around the room wishing you could see them performed live in concert, while mid-tempo meditations like “City With No Children,” and slower songs like “Half Light (I)” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” leave you wishing that the lyric sheet was a little more comprehensible. And finally, an epic song like "Suburban War" just leaves you marveling at what is possible when a great band is at the peak of its powers.
“The Suburbs” is Arcade Fire’s first #1 album, and they’ve just recently sold out Madison Square Garden, so it appears that they’ve made the big leap from indie stardom to becoming a household name on the music scene. They deserve it, and the album is just more evidence that they’re going to be at or near the top for a long time.
Saturday, August 28, 2010
Sons #1 (class of 2009) and #2 (class of 2012) both attend(ed) Pleasant Grove High School, which opened in 2006 with just sophomores and freshmen. So the football scene took a while to develop, but when it did, it was like a lightning bolt. The first couple of years, the poor kids got their brains beat out most of the time, but the very first year the school had a full complement of classes, the team went 9-1 and to the second round of the playoffs.
But it wasn't until the next year that the "football culture" really developed. The team started slowly that year and at mid-season was only 2-3, but then one of those losses turned into a win when the other team was forced to forfeit because of using ineligible players. That seemed to give the Eagles new life, and they rode it all the way to the section championship game, where they were defeated by a team from Stockton.
Last year, the culture was in full flower, with huge crowds at every game - and again the team responded, advancing through to the section semis before losing a close game.
And last night, with the opening night game, it seemed to grow even bigger. It may have been the biggest crowd I've seen at a game for PGHS - and even for someone who doesn't like football (and I'm not talking about myself), there was plenty to watch and do. We were treated to the worst rendition of the national anthem I've ever heard in my life (really, I felt bad for the poor girl, but I almost had to bite through my cheek to keep from laughing), and the usual, somewhat alien sight of hundreds of high school kids there to enjoy themselves, if not necessarily watch the game. We sat next to the band, given that son #2 is in it this year, and were also joined by son #1, on his last night before heading back to college.
The Eagles won a tough game 20-12, with two touchdowns in the 4th quarter. The game was frustrating and PGHS was plagued by dumb penalties throughout, but they managed to hold on, even after their opponent began the 3rd quarter with a drive that lasted almost 10 minutes. When the Eagles intercepted a fourth down pass, I had a feeling they would pull it out.
But what has become more fun than anything else is just absorbing the atmosphere. It's hard to develop a sense of community in the suburbs, but one has definitely developed over this football team. And that is a good thing.
Friday, August 27, 2010
One of the all-time great songs of mystery - "Ode to Billie Joe," Bobbie Gentry, the #1 song this week in 1967.
August 27 is quite a day in my family:
- 16th birthday of Son #2
- 44th birthday of Brother #2
- 16th wedding anniversary of Brother #2 and Sister-in-Law #1 (well, the only one, actually)
And yes, that's right...our second son was born on the day that my brother got married, which also happened to be his birthday.
And yes, my wife and I were in the wedding party.
And the wedding was in Marin County, just north of San Francisco.
And the hospital was in downtown Sacramento.
But that's a story for another day...
Monday, August 23, 2010
At this late date there's little I can add to what has already been written - suffice to say that the series is an amazing piece of work, depicting the heroism and horrors of war with equal clarity.
Over on his old blog, TV critic Alan Sepinwall did a wonderful commentary for each episode, and there’s no way I can top that. You can read it here. I’ll just add a few random thoughts, focusing mostly on the characters and actors.
- Damian Lewis as Major Dick Winters. Throughout the entire series, Major Winters maintains a level of calm confidence that is truly inspiring. One of my favorite scenes of the entire series occurs in “Crossroads,” when Major Winters leads the charge on what very well could turn out to be a suicide mission. He doesn’t think about it; he just does it, setting the danger aside and doing the job the only way that he knows how. I can’t remember a single occasion in the entire series when Lewis (as Winters) has to raise his voice, but when he speaks, you know damn well that everyone is listening. A classic example of leading by example.
- Ron Livingston as Captain Lewis Nixon. For anyone who’s seen “Office Space,” Ron Livingston will forever be etched in the mind as Peter Gibbons. Had I seen “Band of Brothers” first, I might have thought differently about his performance as the man who never fires a shot, but pays a price just like those on the front lines. Livingston brings a world-weariness to the role that fits perfectly, particularly near the end when Livingston is desperately seeking that last bottle of Vat 69.
- Scott Grimes as TSgt. Donald Malarkey. When Scott Grimes first joined the cast of “ER,” I couldn’t stand him. By the time that series was over, Grimes had managed to completely transform the character – where he began as little more than comic relief, by the end he was a man and a doctor of substance, and is probably the only latter-year character that I’d place in the pantheon of characters from the early days. Grimes also does a great job as Malarkey, and the path toward greatness is similar. Malarkey starts out as a foil, someone to make the wisecrack, while the story then moves on to someone else. But after the horror of Bastogne, Malarkey is a changed man, and to see him in “The Last Patrol,” the 8th episode of the series, is to marvel at the ability of Grimes to pull it off. There are no wisecracks left in Malarkey, just pain and fatigue.
- Shane Taylor as Cpl. Eugene Roe. Although he appears in all 10 episodes, Taylor really only gets a chance to shine in “Bastogne,” and he pulls it off in spectacular fashion. Roe’s role as the company’s medic is more than he can bear, until that moment when he is able to pull it all together and continue to do his job. It’s a great performance.
- Matthew Settle as Cpl. Ronald Speirs. Throughout the series, Speirs is the ultimate enigma, the ultimate mystery. Forgive the pun, but Settle’s performance is truly unsettling. You’re never quite sure if Speirs is the ultimate iceman – risking his life in an awe-inspiring charge at Bastogne – or simply psychotic. The expression never wavers, the potential craziness always just under the surface. At the time of his promotion, he was exactly what his men needed.
I could go on and on, but those are the ones that stuck with me the most. I’d be hard-pressed to pick my favorite episode, though it was probably “Why We Fight” – and the shattering moment when the men of Easy Company find out that for others, the horrors of war were much worse than those suffered by the men carrying the guns.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
Saturday, August 21, 2010
I will never forget the circumstances of how I came across Robert Crais, and in particular “L.A. Requiem.” As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my late Aunt Lenore was a voracious reader, and one of her favorite genres was detective fiction (another genre she loved was something my wife and I refer to as “bodice rippers”). Over time, she came to have a pretty good handle on what she thought I would enjoy, and since she had very little room in her house in which to store books, she’d literally give me boxes of books to look at, and give a shot. Among others, she introduced me to John Sandford, and I remember reading the first six “Prey” novels over the course of one three-day Labor Day weekend.
About ten years ago, “L.A. Requiem” was near the top of one of the boxes, and there was just something about the cover that made me think it would be really good (that kind of thinking has gotten me into trouble at the record store, but it usually works with books). I’d never heard of Robert Crais, so I didn’t know that he’d been a television writer for two of my favorite shows, “Hill Street Blues” and “Miami Vice.” I didn’t know that he’d already won a lot of awards, and that “L.A. Requiem” was in fact the 8th novel featuring his main characters, Elvis Cole and Joe Pike.
Since then, of course, I’ve gone back and read all of the Cole/Pike novels, and they are all great. But none of the novels that came before, or those that have come since (good as they are) comes close to “L.A. Requiem.” But that’s OK, because there’s little doubt in my mind that “L.A. Requiem” is one of the handful of true masterpieces in the genre, standing aside such stalwarts as Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest,” Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep,” Ross McDonald’s “The Chill,” James Crumley’s “The Last Good Kiss,” and James Ellroy’s “L.A. Confidential.” It really is that good.
In all of the previous Cole/Pike books, Joe Pike had been a supporting character. An essential character, but rarely in the spotlight, which always shone on wise-cracking Elvis (imagine George Clooney at his snarky best, and you kind of get the idea). We learn very little about Pike, except that he is deathly quiet, and lethal. We know that there is a bond between Cole and Pike that goes beyond mere friendship – but we’re never quite sure what it is.
What Crais does in “L.A. Requiem” is really quite remarkable. In effect, he turns the series on its head. And while Elvis Cole still drives most of the narrative, this one is really Joe Pike’s book. Through a series of beautifully structured flashbacks, we learn the life history of Joe Pike, and what we learn explains much. In essence, we learn that Joe Pike had to become lethal and quiet, because that is the only way that he could survive.
The book has a narrative force and momentum that has rarely been matched. Even without the flashbacks, it would be a great book, detailing Elvis and Joe’s search for the killer of Karen Garcia, a key figure in Joe’s past. But it is the flashbacks – usually no more than 4-5 pages long – that lift the book from “great” to “masterpiece.”
My favorite flashback is probably the first one – which tells the story of the day that Joe Pike met Karen Garcia. It sounds silly, but just thinking about it gives me goosebumps. An excerpt:
“Karen’s pulse hammered all the harder as she fought the urge to do something she had never done before. In a moment the two officers would drive away and she would never see him again. The next thing she knew, she was walking hard toward their car, taking long crazy steps as if some secret creature had taken possession of her. The two officers within were watching her approach. Pike’s window came down and he looked out at her. “Yes, ma’am?”
Karen Garcia leaned forward with her hands on the window. “I have a request.”
He stared at her, and her mouth went dry. She absolutely knew that she was making a fool of herself. “Would you take off your glasses, please? I’d like to see your eyes.” The older officer made a face like he wanted to spit; irritated, as if she had interrupted something. “Oh, for Christ’s sake.”
Officer Pike took off his dark glasses, and looked at her. She felt her breath catch. His eyes were the most liquid blue, the blue of the sky over the high deserts of Sonora, the blue of the ocean where it has no bottom and is infinitely clean. But it wasn’t the blue that stopped her breath. For just a moment when the glasses were first pulled away, she could have sworn that those eyes were filled with the most terrible and long-endured pain. Then the pain was gone and there was only the blue.
Karen Garcia said, “Would you like to go to a movie with me this Friday night?”
Pike stared at her for so many heartbeats that she wondered if she’d really spoken the words aloud. But then, slowly, he fitted the dark glasses over the incredible eyes again and put out his hand for her to take. “My name is Joe. May I have your phone number?”
When he touched her, she quivered.
“L.A. Requiem” – a masterpiece that should be read by everyone.
I watched almost the entire final round of the PGA Championship last Sunday, and even before the Dustin Johnson episode, I was all set to say the real winner of the tournament was the golf course, Whistling Straits.
But in this case, I'm not sure that's a great thing. On the one hand, I'd much rather watch a tournament being played on the Straits than I would at, say, Firestone, a course that is so dull and unpleasing to the eye (at least on television) that I chuckle every time I see the overhead shots from the blimp. At the same time, I think Whistling Straits is Pete Dye run amok, and that most of the features that make it look interesting have very little to do with the play.
And while the two-stroke ruling against Johnson for grounding his club in a bunker was the correct call, I really have to question the fairness of what happened. The whole "outside the lines" aspect of the drama just seemed a bit distasteful to me.
Kudos to Martin Kaymer for his victory. I was rooting for Bubba Watson, but I really like the looks of Kaymer - and I fear his steady impact on the upcoming Ryder Cup matches. The guy just looks like an unflappable machine - it doesn't look like Ryder Cup pressure is going to get to him in the least.
Friday, August 20, 2010
"Best of My Love," The Emotions, the #1 song on this date in 1977.
A classic Maurice White production, "Best of My Love" has never lost it - it's one of those songs that, more than 30 years later, sounds as fresh and vital as it did on the day that it was released.
Put this one on the turntable, and you just know the dance floor is going to be full within moments.
I don’t really know how to describe the movie except to say that it’s like a teen-angst comedy (something John Hughes might have made back in the day) crossed with the video game “Soulcalibur.” And if you have to Google “Soulcalibur,” that would be another reason you might have a little problem with “Scott Pilgrim.”
Michael Cera plays Pilgrim, the bassist in a band that calls itself Sex Bob-omb. Despite looking like the biggest dweeb on the block, Scott seems to be surrounded by cute girls. He’s still smarting from being dumped a year ago by a blonde bombshell, and he’s currently dating a cute high school girl with the unlikely name of Knives Chau. But then he meets what he thinks is the girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers, and before long he is head-over-heels in crazy love, with the emphasis on crazy. Unfortunately, it turns out that Ramona has lots of evil ex-boyfriends (and one evil ex-girlfriend), and in order to win Ramona’s heart, he must defeat the entire “guild of evil ex-boyfriends.” In the meantime, Knives is not too happy, and neither are Scott’s bandmates, who are looking forward to a battle of the bands, the winner of which lands a recording contract.
It’s even more complicated than that, but the rest should be saved for viewing onscreen. Cera is very good as Pilgrim, Allison Pill, Mark Webber and Johnny Simmons are great as the bandmates, and Ellen Wong is terrific as knives. Anna Kendrick is almost unrecognizable from the character she played in “Up in the Air,” but brings a sarcastic vitality to her role as Scott’s sister. And Kieran Culkin, as Scott’s gay roommate, steals nearly every scene he’s in.
The movie was directed by Edgar Wright, who previously brought us the terrific Simon Pegg vehicles “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” I didn’t like “Scott Pilgrim” as much as I did those two, but it is well worth a visit to the Cineplex, and cements Wright’s reputation as a director who is more than willing to take chances.
Not for everyone, but if your tastes veer towards the offbeat, give “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” a chance.
Sunday, August 15, 2010
Saturday, August 14, 2010
Friday, August 13, 2010
I can remember exactly where I was the first time I heard this song. I had borrowed my aunt's car, and was just pulling into her driveway when it came on. I couldn't quite place the artist, but I was mesmerized. I sat there listening until the song was over, chills running down my spine.
27 years later, the song can still do that to me. There's no doubt in my mind that it is one of the greatest songs in the history of rock and roll. Simple, but brilliant.
"Every Breath You Take," The Police. The #1 Song this week in 1983.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
– A sign hanging on the wall in the office of John Wooden
The notion that John Wooden (1910-2010) was a great basketball coach – in all likelihood, the greatest in the history of the game – is an established fact; it does not need my support. But John Wooden was more, much more, than just a great basketball coach. John Wooden was a great teacher. And the lessons he taught went far beyond the narrow confines of basketball courts and sports arenas.
To appreciate the ability of John Wooden as a teacher, all you have to do is read the words of his students. And there is little doubt that John Wooden’s two greatest students were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who in college was known as Lew Alcindor) and Bill Walton. NCAA champions; NBA champions; Most Valuable Players at both the college and professional levels – Abdul-Jabbar and Walton represented the very best that the game of basketball had to offer. But they both recognized that their accomplishments could not have been achieved had it not been for their teacher.
In his autobiography Giant Steps, Abdul-Jabbar described the teaching methods of Coach Wooden:
Mr. Wooden would drill us fiercely and expect dedication; he accepted no less. 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.
In a tribute that was published upon Coach Wooden’s passing, Bill Walton described his teacher in the following manner:
Coach Wooden taught by example. He never asked or expected anyone to do anything that he hadn’t already done himself. He gave us the ability to learn how to learn, and to compete. His keen knowledge and foresight to always be about what’s next, always about the future, enabled him to lead an incredibly active, constructive, positive and contributing life.
The stage on which John Wooden played out his life was much larger than that which the teachers in our local districts conduct their work. But just as Coach Wooden (who, by the way, earned a Masters Degree in Education) instilled a passion for life-long learning in his players and students, the teachers in our local schools are doing the very same thing on a day-to-day basis. They may not end up on the cover of national magazines or make the evening news, but they are genuine heroes, just as much as John Wooden was a hero.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
I leave my office, heading for the office of a co-worker. My stride is filled with purpose. I have a job to accomplish.
Halfway through, I forget why I was heading to that particular destination.
Sunday, August 08, 2010
What you see here is a postcard from Scandia Restaurant, which back in the day was quite the place to be seen in Los Angeles. Located on Sunset Blvd., the restaurant was a regular hangout for actors - once, my mom and dad spotted Harry Morgan and Loretta Swit having lunch, shortly after the end of M*A*S*H*'s run.
We went there on our L.A. summer vacation in 1977, and I remember it being very good. I can even remember what I had - beef stew. The other thing I remember is that our waiter was probably pushing 80.
Saturday, August 07, 2010
Friday, August 06, 2010
"Alone Again (Naturally)" dominated the airwaves during the summer of 1972. I always think of it as my family's first "Los Angeles song," because it was that summer that we took our first L.A. vacation, hitting all of the usual tourist spots - Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, the Japanese Deer Garden, etc.
The first few times you heard this song, what caught you up was the bouncy rhythm. It was only after a while that you realized, "man, this one f*cking depressing song." Of course, I didn't use words like that back then, but still. There are no two ways about it - this is definitely one f*cking depressing song.
But to this day, I think it is a great song. Gilbert may have been a bit of a flash in the pan (if I recall correctly, he had the same manager as Tom Jones - or was it Engelbert Humperdinck?), but the kid did have talent, and he had a couple of other hits after this one. But nothing ever matched what he achieved here.
"Alone Again (Naturally)," the #1 song this week in 1972.
Wednesday, August 04, 2010
The uncertainty of that statement virtually guarantees that this will remain a story throughout the pre-season. And, perhaps 4-6 weeks into the season.
Here's hoping that it ends a lot sooner than that.
Tuesday, August 03, 2010
A more ridiculous spectacle one can hardly imagine, yet with each passing year the melodrama just seems to grow.
End it, already.
A story from the early 1980s:
I had borrowed my folks' car, because I didn't have one of my own, and left one of my mix tapes in the tape deck. The next time my dad drove the car, he was taking my brother to work, and they pushed in the tape, and they actually liked what they heard – in this case, a couple of songs from a Stan Ridgway album. They got home, and tried to describe for my mom what the songs sounded like. After a few failed attempts, my brother said (and this is second hand; I wasn't actually in the room when the conversation occurred), "oh, you know - it's those types of songs that Jeff likes." The reply, and again I should note that I wasn't in the room, was "oh, I know exactly what you mean."
I admit it – I have a weakness for mid-tempo songs with a certain sound and a certain feel; "depressing" might even be the word that comes to mind.
The National's "High Violet" is right up my alley. With an album like this, atmosphere is everything. If atmosphere isn't sustained throughout an entire album (Grizzly Bear's "Veckatimest," for example), you end up with something that's just kind of boring. In the case of "High Violet," when the atmosphere is sustained over the course of the entire record, you've got something special.
I would venture a guess that this one isn't for everybody. But it is for me.
Monday, August 02, 2010
Henceforth, my desk at work shall be known as "The Tim Zone." Tim being Tim Lincecum, "The Freak," the great pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. In what was probably the best thing to happen to me during that entire week, a friend at work (alas, a Dodgers fan) brought me a Tim Lincecum bobblehead, and he can be seen here proudly displaying his two Cy Young awards.
Meanwhile, the Giants are on fire, having just swept the Dodgers. I'm actually starting to get hopeful. I'm equally certain that's a big mistake.
Sunday, August 01, 2010
The Last King of Scotland features Forrest Whitaker as Idi Amin, the brutal dictator of Uganda in the 1970s. How well did Whitaker do? Let's just say I was completely convinced. I thought the movie downplayed the brutality, but Whitaker captured perfectly the man's charismatic insanity. From what I'd heard, Whitaker's performance was one of the few things worth watching, but I thought James McAvoy did just fine as the doctor who falls, willingly at first, under the dictator's spell. A good movie, featuring a great performance.
Walk The Line. I love Johnny Cash about as much as I love any other musician, and for that reason avoided this movie for a long time. And while Joaquin Phoenix didn't quite nail the man in black in appearance and vocals, I thought he got it just right in the emotional department. Reese Witherspoon, on the other hand, deserved all of the kudos she received for her portrayal of June Carter. I've watched some old videos of June, and let me tell you, Witherspoon just flat out nailed it. And while I know that Rosanne has said she had some problems with how the film portrayed her mother (Vivian), the emotions of the relationship rang true. Also worth mentioning is the wonderful opening scene, with Cash waiting to go back onstage at Folsom Prison and pondering the table saw as the bass and drums (and the crowd) can be heard in the background. Genius.
Ray. Jamie Foxx nailed it, but I liked the movie less than I did Walk the Line. I'm not exactly sure why, but it felt less authentic to me. But that should not detract from the performance of Foxx - absolutely amazing. I also enjoyed the portrayals of Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, and those seemed consistent with what I know about the history of Atlantic Records.
I still haven't seen "Juno" (yes, I'm sure that's to my own discredit), but there's no doubt in my mind that Ellen Page has that undefinable "something" - whether you call it charisma, or personality, or what, I don't know - that separates the great ones from the rest.
Even in her 30-second spots for Cisco, where she's just playing herself, her vibrancy jumps off the screen. That may sound silly, but I really believe it to be true.
People are going to be talking about Ellen Page for a long, long time.