Monday, January 31, 2011

John Barry R.I.P.

Tiger's Flame Dimming

Another great post by Joe Posnanski, talking about age, comebacks, and whether Tiger Woods really is finished.

It is amazing how quickly things can change. One moment, you're a lock for immortality, as Tiger was right after he won the U.S. Open in 2008 for his 14th major championship. And then, before you know it, it could be over.

Later in the day on Sunday, after Bubba Watson had won his second tournament on a course that Tiger has dominated over the years, hours after Tiger had limped home with a weekend 74/75, Jack Nicklaus teamed with Tom Watson to win the Senior Skins tournament over on Maui. And on the 17th hole, the Olden Bear turned back the clock, hit a terrific tee shot in the face of a driving wind, and placed the ball perfectly for his partner to knock it in and clinch the tournament.

And from Jack's reaction, you would have thought he'd just won his 20th major. A fist pump, a cackle of glee, the familiar high-pitched laugh which defined him for so long. And I'm thinking to myself, my God, this guy is 70, and he still wants to win more than anyone else.

What Posnanski writes about Tiger is undoubtedly true - what was once a given, that Tiger would overtake Jack's major championship record, is now a long shot. If it was anyone else, I'd say it was over. And perhaps I'm blinded by the very thing that Posnanski is writing about. But I still think he's got a shot at it.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Old Guys Rule - Elton, Leon, Gregg, John, Robert...and T-Bone

I almost called this post “It’s T-Bone’s World, We Just Live In It,” so let’s start this discussion with T-Bone Burnett. In the last couple of years, Burnett has undertaken a work schedule that makes even the prolific Rick Rubin look like a slacker. In the last 9 months alone, Burnett-produced albums have been released by Jakob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Ryan Bingham, John Mellencamp, Sahara Smith, Elton John & Leon Russell, Elvis Costello, and Gregg Allman. There was also the “Crazy Heart” soundtrack, and if you turn the page on the calendar, you’ll find more work with Costello, the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss collaboration, the “Across the Universe” soundtrack, and B.B. King. The man is hot, and he’s obviously in demand.

So what do you get when you sign on with T-Bone? Based on the evidence at hand (which we’ll get to in a minute), I’d use two words: “roots,” and “authentic.” I’m not sure if there is one singular “T-Bone Burnett sound,” because some of these albums sound very different from each other. What they share is an approach that can best be described as “a roots-based wall of sound.” Unlike Rick Rubin’s approach with Johnny Cash in the “American” series, T-Bone doesn’t go for minimalism. On some of these records, there is a lot going on, with more instrumentation than you’d be likely to see when the artists are performing the songs live. But it doesn’t feel like over-production, perhaps because it is a sound that I’m predisposed to enjoy, and perhaps just because it works so well (and perhaps both).

So let’s move on to some of the works – three T-Bone productions, and one that is not but takes a similar approach in its sound.

“No Better Than This,” John Mellencamp. In recent years, Mellencamp had become what is probably the worst thing you can say about any artist – boring. Imagine if, after “Nebraska,” Bruce Springsteen had decided to do nothing but songs in that vein, and you kind of get the idea. Yes, there was a lot of integrity in the sounds coming from the grooves, and you could say that it was never less than honorable. But jeez, John – how about lightening up a bit?

I’m pleased to say, therefore, that “No Better Than This” is Mellencamp’s best album in years. It takes an anti-modernist approach; the thing is recorded in Mono, for crying out loud!” The goal, apparently, was to make the record sound as if it had been recorded in one day, in some small, out of the way studio, probably somewhere in the South. And, thanks to the strength of the songs, it works. On songs like “No Better Than This” and “Love At First Sight,” Mellencamp sounds fresher than he has in years, and sounds like he’s doing more than just entering a set of lyrics into the “Dark, Brooding Mellencamp Song With Integrity Song Generator.” Welcome back.

On “The Union,” the heralded Elton John – Leon Russell collaboration, Burnett’s approach is very different. I’ve heard some say that this record is overproduced, but I don’t agree. Yes, there is a lot going on here, but it’s all part of a plan, and that plan is probably best described as “boogie woogie pop gospel.” There’s no doubt that Elton hasn’t sounded this relevant in about 35 years; if this album had been released in the late 1970s, it would have been hailed as an artistic triumph on his part. And if you want to hear overproduction, go back and listen to those Gus Dudgeon-produced Elton albums, which – and don’t get me wrong, I loved them – had everything on them but the kitchen sink, and the mix was always turned up really, really high.

The story behind this album is almost as good as the album itself. Elton was making an appearance on Elvis Costello’s show, and when asked by Elvis what were his influences, talked about Leon Russell. I suspect that triggered something in Elton’s mind. No matter what one things about this music, no one can dispute that Elton John is one of the most commercially successful singers of our lifetime. I can imagine him sitting there, wondering to himself whether it was really fair that he should become a mega-star, while someone like Leon Russell would be left to the ash-heap of history – still singing, still touring, but just to survive.

And so Elton did something about it, and the results are uniformly terrific. My favorite songs at the moment are “Hey Ahab” and “Monkey Suit,” but the great thing (and a sign of it being a great album) is that my favorites change on a weekly basis.

The most recent T-Bone production is Gregg Allman’s “Low Country Blues,” and I think the best way to describe it is that it’s the album that Eric Clapton has been trying to make for the last 25 years. I can hardly call myself a blues expert, and I know that the very concept of “laid back blues” strikes many as a contradiction in terms. All I know is what I like, and this sounds just terrific, and authentic in a way that Eric has rarely approached on his recorded blues efforts (live is another matter entirely). On the album, Allman tackles songs by many of the all-time greats – Skip James, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Amos Milburn, Otis Rush – and sings them like he has earned the right to sing them. Allman’s signature B-3 is present on every track, but so far the real star for me is Mac Rebennack’s (Dr. John) piano, which is as bluesy and “New Orleansy” as you could imagine. This is really good stuff, and if it gets bumped out of my Top Ten for 2011, I’ll be surprised.

Last in the docket is a non T-Bone production, but an album that takes a similar approach – Robert Plant’s “Band of Joy.” The record was produced by Plant himself, along with Buddy Miller, who in recent years has worked with Patty Griffin, among others. In his old age, Plant has found himself quite a groove, mining the fertile territory of Americana. “Band of Joy” is mostly an album of covers – not all by Americans, but songs that he expertly converts to that idiom – by the likes of Los Lobos, Richard Thompson, Townes Van Zandt, Low, and a couple of traditional songs in the public domain. Patty Griffin plays the role that Alison Krauss played on “Raising Sand,” albeit in a less conspicuous way. The album may lack one single song as good as the highlights of his previous effort (although “Silver Rider” comes very, very close), but where it wins me over is with a better mix of song tempos – as good as it was, after a while the relentless “slowness” of “Raising Sand” left one wanting one, just one, fast song to liven up the proceedings. Here, that is not a problem. And from Robert’s recent interviews, it sounds as if Jimmy Page is going to have to keep waiting for that Led Zeppelin reunion that seems so important to him. And that’s a good thing – because it’s doubtful that any music coming from a Zep reunion in this day and age can match the music that Robert Plant is producing on his own.

So there you have it, folks – the “old white guys,” as I call them, doing just fine.

Friday, January 28, 2011

American Top 40 Flashback - "Laughter in the Rain"

I don't know if I'd go so far as to call this song a milestone in my musical taste development, but it does serve as an example of a song that I was determined to champion at a time when everyone else made fun of me for liking it.

You have to consider the time and the context - this was January 1975, and I was a freshman in high school, that period of time when kids - even your friends - can be relentlessly cruel. This was around the time when it was no longer cool to listen to AM Top 40 radio, and in Sacramento that meant you weren't cool unless you were listening to KZAP, 98.5 on your FM dial. Now don't get me wrong - KZAP (and always read all four letters, don't say K-ZAP) in its glory was a great, great radio station. But I wasn't quite yet ready for FM radio and the adventurous nature of the overall FM ouevre. I was still addicted to AM radio.

So, I liked this song, it was catchy, it stuck in your mind, and it had a great vocal, even if Neil sounded a little...well, you can probably guess what the other ninth graders were saying about him. In those days I was too much of a coward to defend my opinions once the insults started flying, so I would just enjoy it in silence.

"Laughter in the Rain," Neil Sedaka - a great pop song, and the #1 song on this day in 1975.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Lehane's "Moonlight Mile" Revisits the Past

“I was a junior at Mount Holyoke when you found her the first time. I was obsessed with the case. I used to hurry back to my dorm to see the six o’clock news every night. We all thought she was dead, that whole long winter and into the spring.”

“I remember,” I said, wishing I didn’t.

“And then – wow – you found her. All those months later. And you brought her home.”

“And what’d you think?”

“About what you did?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You did the right thing,” she said.

“Oh.” I almost smiled in gratitude.

She met my eyes. “But you were still wrong.”

In “Gone, Baby, Gone,” private detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro were hired to find 4-year old Amanda McCready, after she had disappeared from her Boston home. It became a case that neither one of them would forget, and a case that tore them apart. In uncovering the conspiracy that led to Amanda’s disappearance, Kenzie and Gennaro were faced with an impossible decision – should they follow their minds and bring Amanda home to a mother who was clearly unsuited to raise her, or follow their hearts and leave Amanda with a couple who had broken the law in order to save her from a wretched existence? Kenzie chose the former, and it cost him the love and partnership of Angie – at least for a time.

Before Dennis Lehane hit the big time with “Mystic River” and “Shutter Island,” he wrote four novels featuring the pair of Kenzie and Gennaro. They were all good, and all in a category that I would call “edgy,” meaning that happy endings were hard to find, and even those that were happy…well, they really weren’t.

Now, after a run of film success that must have had Lehane pinching himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming (Eastwood, Scorsese, and Ben Affleck directing the films of his books, with Affleck making a very, very good version of “Gone, Baby, Gone”), he has decided to return to Kenzie and Gennaro, and return them to the case that has haunted them to this day.

Amanda McCready, now 16, has disappeared again. Amanda’s aunt, who hired Patrick and Angie 12 years earlier, again approaches Patrick to take the case. He and Angie are now married, and are the parents of a four-year old girl – the same age Amanda was when she was kidnapped. He doesn’t want to take the case, but he knows he has to take the case. He’s looking for redemption and absolution at the same time – and neither one is easy to find.

Along the way, Patrick and Angie encounter Amanda’s dissolute mother Helene, whose parenting skills have not improved much in the 12 years since they’ve seen her, a family of memorable East European gangsters (including Yefim, who fills the role of charming sociopath quite nicely), and finally Amanda herself, who, as it turns out, has a trick or two up her sleeve.

It’s all very nicely done, and it provides Lehane the opportunity to give the couple who gave him his start what is likely their farewell in the sun. And, as with other authors who have returned to their original creations years later, it’s a gift to the fans. This one appreciates it a great deal.

View From My Pillow

In the background is Sophie, who is almost 16 years old now but still going strong. In the foreground, refusing to look at the camera, Scooter, who is a little over 6.

When the weather turns cold, they turn to sleeping on me at night. And for some reason, only me.

Have you ever tried to turn over in the middle of the night with 24 pounds of cat sleeping, either between your legs or on your butt?

I thought not.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Bryan Ferry's "Olympia" - Long Live Roxy Music!


There used to be this ad (in the Fifties, I suppose) for a cigarette: You're Never Alone with a Strand! A guy alone in the street; belted raincoat, turned down hat brim; fog, drizzle, blurred neon lighting; three in the morning and he'd just left a party or come to the end of an affair or arrived off a train; down but cool (cigarette cool) and romantic, weary — a private eye at the end of a case. I always thought it was Frank Sinatra.

That was one role Bryan Ferry had figured out for himself.

Something else there used to be was two artists called Gilbert and George whose work of art was themselves. They exhibited daily in a classy gallery. Elegant, suited, disdainful, they'd stand there all day while people paid to look. Later on a little song and dance act became part of the picture.

That was something else Bryan Ferry wanted to be — a work of art.


Those lines are from Simon Frith’s review of Roxy Music’s “Siren,” which appeared in the January 1, 1976 edition of Rolling Stone. The first time I read those words, I was an impressionable 15 year old, who wanted nothing more than to be on the vanguard of what was considered “cool” music. I had no idea who Simon Frith was; as it turned out, he was one of the best critics from what I still consider to be the golden age of rock criticism. At the time, my favorite singer was Elton John, which may sound silly to some – but 36 years later, I’d still argue that few artists have released two albums in the same year as good as “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” and “Rock of the Westies.” But even with that, he was hardly the vanguard.

The review made it sound great, but in those days I was a teenager of limited means, so I didn’t buy it. Among other things, I would have had to ask my dad to drive me to the record store, and if he’d gotten a look at the album cover (featuring a very young Jerry Hall as the “Siren” in the title), it’s just as likely that the record would have gone right back in the shelves.

A couple of months later, I remember laying in my bed on a Sunday morning, listening to “American Top 40” with Casey Kasem. The countdown had reached #28 or so, and all of a sudden, this really weird but very cool song came on…turned out, it was called “Love is the Drug,” and sure enough, it was by Roxy Music, off of “Siren.” And at that point I knew – eventually, I would own that album.


In the spring of 1982, Roxy Music released what would turn out to be its last album. And by that time, it was clear that there were really two phases in the band’s career. The first began with the debut in 1972, and ended with the release of “Siren” in 1975. The second began in 1979, with the release of “Manifesto.” And while this second phase may not have been as adventurous, it was no less brilliant. Ferry had perfected his approach, and with “Manifesto,” “Flesh + Blood,” and especially with “Avalon,” had become the work of art he always wanted to be.

“Avalon” is a perfect album, from start to finish. It establishes a sound and a tone from the first song, “More Than This,” and manages to sustain it through the last, “Tara.” Like all the greatest albums, each song gains something from the ones that come before and after it, so that the work becomes much greater than the sum of its parts. And of those great parts, none was greater than “True to Life.” I can remember the first time I truly appreciated the song, listening to it in my dorm room shortly after I’d finished my last final before graduation. At that time I had no idea what my life would become, but listening to that song, all I cared about was that it would wash over me.


Bryan Ferry’s new album, “Olympia,” begins with a few bars – almost identical – from “True to Life” before it segues into a much harder edged song, “You Can Dance.” Apparently, Ferry considered making this a Roxy Music album, but even though he didn’t, for all intents and purposes, it is the Roxy Music album that fans have been waiting for, for almost 30 years now. It’s not as if Ferry disappeared during those years – making albums every now and then, including one I enjoyed a great deal which consisted of nothing more than Dylan covers – but this is the first time that he’s really tried to recapture the scope and the depth of those Roxy years.

And amazingly enough, he’s succeeded. Only time will tell if this stands up to “Siren” or “Avalon,” but I think it’s got a shot. It’s got all of the elements of a classic Roxy Music album, and it’s even got many of the old hands – Phil Manzanera on guitar, Andy MacKay on saxophone, Andy Newmark (Roxy Phase II) on drums…and even Brian Eno on a few tracks, for crying out loud. It’s got at least one song (“Reason or Rhyme”) that sounds like it will stand up with the best that the band has had to offer, and it’s got another (Jeff Buckley” “Song to the Siren”) that stands as one of the best in a long history of great cover versions that Ferry has managed to pull off.

And now, Ferry is back on the road, at age 65, on the first Roxy Music tour in many a year – one that even has the great Paul Thompson back on drums. And that, my friends, is a good, even great, thing. And I hope they play a lot of the new album on the tour, because even if it isn’t a Roxy Music album in name, it is most definitely one in spirit.

Kanye's Fantasy

Had it not been for Son #2, it’s unlikely I would have given Kanye West much of a listen. I don’t have any problems with the notion of rap being a serious art form deserving of its place in the rock pantheon, but in the end most of it is just not for me – which isn’t surprising, given that I’m a 50-year old white male. That doesn’t mean I don’t have rap in my collection – I’ve got a decent sampling of the early greats (Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, and some of the other Sugarhill groups), but that’s really about it. I’ve got Eminem’s greatest hits, and I think “Stan” and “Lose Yourself” are two of the greatest songs of this (or any) generation. But I’d never ventured into Kanye world, even with all of the critical acclaim and the public notoriety.

Upon its release in late 2010, it immediately became apparent that Kanye’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” was going to win all of the critic’s polls. It got a rave in “Rolling Stone,” it got a perfect ten in “Pitchfork,” Christgau gave it a solid “A.” And sure enough, that has come true, and its domination has been somewhat unprecedented. It’s probably fair to say that Kanye has come as close as any major artists in years (The Clash? Prince? Nirvana?) to conquering the entire spectrum of the rock critic establishment.

And as it turns out, there’s a pretty good reason for that.

One night in December, I was wandering around upstairs, and heard the sounds of a very interesting song coming out of Son #2’s bedroom. “What is that?” “That’s the new Kanye West.” Oh oh…just what I need, more music to check out. The song was “Dark Fantasy,” and it kicks off the new album in spectacular fashion.

I’m not going to do a song-by-song review, but suffice to say that nearly every track on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” crackles with that hard-to-identify edge and verve that separates the great music from the merely good. As I once said about M.I.A.’s “Kala,” the damn thing just sounds exciting. “Power” and “Runaway” are the standouts for me, and to be honest, I don’t even care what he’s saying. I can pick out a phrase here and there (“…you’ve been putting up with my shit just way too long…”), but it doesn’t really matter. For me, the brilliance of “Runaway” is not so much the message that’s being conveyed, but the excitement of a simple piano progression that turns into a pulsating beat that is so strong it sends shivers up your spine.

So, yeah…the guy can be a real idiot, and counter-productive to the very things in which he believes because of the things that come out of his mouth, but put him in a studio, and he knows what he is doing. There’s a very simple reason that “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” has topped every critic’s poll on the planet. It was the best album of 2010, and as much as I liked “The Suburbs,” I’m not sure anything really came close.

American Top 40 Flashback - "Baby Come Back"

Since I didn't have time to get to this on Friday (that pesky job, you know), why not start off the week with a bit of classic pop?

This is the kind of song that I miss from the old days of Top 40 radio. And no, by that I don't mean that I think this is one of the greatest songs in the history of rock and roll, or that Player was one of the great bands in rock history. As a matter of fact, I don't recall ever hearing another song by Player.

But this is a well-crafted, well played pop/rock song, and there will always be room in my memory banks for those. I wish there was room for them on the radio.

"Baby Come Back," Player, the #1 song on this date in 1978.

Top Twelve Addendum

You can check out my original reviews of the films on my Top Twelve list (as well as some others) by clicking here.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Finally - Top Ten of 2010! (Revised to a Dozen!)

UPDATE: Because I apparently had a brain-lock after 6 hours of football, I left two big ones off my list - "The Town," and "Machete." The revised list, which now includes 12 films, is below.

Now that I've seen "The King's Speech," I think it is finally time to put my Top Ten "to paper":

1a. “The Social Network,” directed by David Fincher, screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, and starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, and Max Minghella. I’ve included Sorkin in the credits here because his screenplay is probably the most brilliant component of a movie that includes a lot of brilliance. From the very first scene, you know you’re in the hands of masters. “The Social Network” will make you angry and you’ll want to punch Mark Zuckerberg in the face, particularly at those moments when you’re posting something on Facebook.

1b. “Inception,” directed by Christopher Nolan, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Tom Berenger, and Ken Watanabe. More brilliance – but of an entirely different type. I’ll concede that much of the screenplay (especially early on) is devoted to clumsy exposition, but the sheer scope and audacity of the entire enterprise renders that a moot point. This is the kind of movie where you just let the experience wash over you…the kind of movie where you buckle your seatbelt, hold on tight, and just enjoy the ride.

3. “The King’s Speech,” directed by Tom Hooper, and starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham-Carter, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon, and Derek Jacobi. Uplifting, inspiring, and moving. Great performances all around.

4. "The Town," directed by Ben Affleck and starring Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, and Jon Hamm. Affleck is well on his way to becoming an A-list director, and he seems to have a knack for intelligent action/thriller films like this one, which also includes a notable and memorable performance by the late Pete Postlethwaite as a crime boss who moonlights as a florist.

5. “The American,” directed by Anton Corbijn, and starring George Clooney. An art film, one that seemed to bore most critics to tears, about an assassin. I found its attention to detail and focus on the craft demonstrated by a master of his trade to be compelling and suspenseful.

6. “Black Swan,” directed by Darren Aronofsky, and starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassell, and Barbara Hershey. Trippy.

7. “True Grit,” directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, and starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Barry Pepper. Terrific remake, fueled by another a great performance from Bridges, and a remarkable debut from Steinfeld.

8. “The Fighter,” directed by David O. Russell, and starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Melissa Leo. Intense, satisfying story that is about family and relationships as much as it is about boxing.

9. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I,” directed by Peter Yates and starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint. It’s hard to believe the series is almost over. I’d hazard a guess that anyone with kids about the same age as ours (now 20 and 16) is feeling a little misty-eyed about the prospect of seeing one last Potter outing together. It’s also amazing how much more distinguished and mature the films have become as the characters have aged.

10. “The Crazies,” directed by Breck Eisner and starring Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell and Joe Anderson. Not exactly a zombie movie, but close enough – after all, the original was directed by George Romero. Very well done, with a great, charismatic starring performance by Olyphant.

11. "Machete," directed by Robert Rodriguez and starring Danny Trejo, Don Johnson, Steven Seagal, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez and Robert DeNiro. Blood-soaked, B-movie fun.

12. “Kick Ass,” directed by Matthew Vaughan and starring Aaron Johnson, Mark Strong, Nicolas Cage and Chloe Moretz. Most people seemed to prefer “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” a movie I would put in a similar category, but I liked this one better. An underappreciated performance from Cage, possibly because he’s been in so many bad movies in recent years.

And there you have it!

Wrapping Up The Holiday Flicks - "The King's Speech"

I think it’s fair to say that “The King’s Speech” qualifies as old-fashioned entertainment. It doesn’t have flashy special-effects; it wasn’t filmed in 3D; it doesn’t feature rapid-fire dialogue being read by the youngest, hottest stars of the day. It’s a period piece set in the mid-20th century, one replete with kings, queens, princes and princesses, prime ministers, and other assorted British royalty.

The movie tells the story of King George VI’s ascension to the throne, but focuses on his lifelong battle to overcome a terrible stammer. When Albert (“Bertie”) is just a prince, it’s not such a huge issue, although it does result in public embarrassment from time to time when the prince is called upon to deliver a public speech or message. But when Bertie’s older brother Edward abdicates the throne, Bertie becomes King George and overnight is thrust into a limelight that he never sought or desired.

The heart of the movie consists of the scenes with Bertie and Lionel Logue, the commoner and would-be actor with a gift (if not necessarily a degree) for speech therapy. Their scenes together are inspiring, uplifting, and at times, downright hilarious. Both actors – Colin Firth as Bertie, and Geoffrey Rush as Lionel – are magnificent in their roles, and it will not come as a shock if they end up competing for the Best Actor Oscar. The film’s other acting is almost as impressive. There are few actors as good at playing dissolute charisma as Guy Pearce, who does a nice turn as King Edward. Helena Bonham-Carter is a loving and supportive queen, Michael Gambon a formidable and intimidating King George V, and Derek Jacobi a fussy but determined Archbishop. It’s an impressive group from top to bottom.

While it may be hard after two decades of tawdry media attention to accept anyone from the British royalty in the role of underdog, that’s exactly how “The King’s Speech” is constructed, and it works perfectly. “King Bertie” comes across as an honorable man, but one who is flawed and human. He understands his duty, is somewhat terrified by it, but is determined to overcome his faults to serve his people and his country as King. He is proud, but not so proud as to prevent Lionel Logue from coming into his life, and not too proud to become his friend.

The movie ends with the speech that gives it its title, and the moment when Lionel looks into the King’s eyes and gives him a few last words of encouragement is one of those perfect movie moments that is destined to go down as one of the greatest in the long history of cinema.

Conference Championship Predictions

Packers 27, Bears 17. You probably won't hear many Packers fans talking like this, but in case you missed it, the game Aaron Rodgers played last week was better than any game that Brett Favre played for the cheeseheads. The Pack is on a roll, and even though they're on the road in difficult conditions - and in the biggest rivalry in the game, to boot - I don't see them dropping this game.

Steelers 21, Jets 17. I really, really don't know about this one. What I can say is that I have the same feeling about the game that I had about a game played between Denver and Cleveland way back in 1987 - and that one turned out to be a classic for the ages. The Jets could just as easily prevail - but whatever happens, the score will be close. I'm picking the Steelers because I loved the way they climbed out of a hole last week against a very, very good Baltimore Ravens team.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Holiday Flicks, Part III - "Black Swan"

“Black Swan” has generated a fair amount of controversy in the world of film criticism, but one thing you can definitely say about it is that it’s always engaging – even at those moments when you’re cringing at what you’re seeing on the screen.

Some critics have taken pains to point out that the movie is not “about” ballet dancing. I’m not sure that’s a meaningful comment, because without the ballet backdrop, little about the film would make sense. One could just as easily have said that director Darren Aronofsky’s previous feature, “The Wrestler,” was not “about” wrestling. Sure, absolutely – the movie was “about” a man who happened to be a wrestler, but without the backdrop of (and some knowledge about) the professional wrestling world, much of the point would have been lost.

I’m not sure what this says about me, but I probably know more than the average person about both professional wrestling and ballet. I’m no expert, make no bones about it. But I’ve watched professional wrestling off-and-on for more than 40 years now, and my wife and I have been season ticket holders for the Sacramento Ballet for more than 20 years. In both instances, I feel like I can instinctively tell good wrestling/ballet from bad wrestling/ballet. No, I don’t know what their lives are like offstage (one thing I do know is that ballet dancers seem to smoke an awful lot; I assume to keep their weight down), or backstage, so I can’t really offer an opinion on whether the atmosphere surrounding the ballet company that Aronofsky portrays onscreen in “Black Swan” is anything close to reality. But what I can say is that it feels real.

“Black Swan” proves that simply knowing the ingredients to a movie does not mean that you can guess how the receipe will turn out. And this one has a lot of familiar elements: there’s the aging star on her way out, there’s the overbearing mother, there’s the somewhat tyrannical, somewhat genius choreographer/director who dabbles in womanizing, there’s the dangerous, somewhat mysterious, perhaps from the wrong side of the tracks dancer, and of course, there’s the young, virginal, somewhat overwhelmed young ballerina suddenly thrust into the spotlight in the biggest role of her career.

Aronofsky takes this mix, which just as easily could be used to create a droll melodrama, and turns it into one of the trippiest experiences to be seen on the big screen in recent memory. The finished product made me think of “Altered States,” which I saw just about 30 years ago in Berkeley, the movie that didn’t always make a lot of sense, but you were sure captivated by what you were seeing on the screen. And in “Black Swan,” you’re never quite sure what you’re seeing, just as Nina (Natalie Portman) is never quite sure what she’s experiencing.

The lead performances are all noteworthy, beginning with Natalie Portman as Nina, the swan who thinks she’s the ugly duckling. Vincent Cassell is spot on as the ballet director, Mila Kunis is just fine as Nina’s opposite figure Lily, and Barbara Hershey is suitably frightening as Nina’s mother. But the real star of the movie is Aronofsky himself, who keeps the viewer guessing even when the ultimate outcome is fairly obvious from the beginning. But isn’t that what great filmmaking is all about?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Holiday Flicks, Part II - "The Fighter"

It’s highly unlikely that we’ve seen every Oscar nominee in every category, but after wrapping up the holiday releases, I’m confident that we’ll have most of the major categories covered.

“The Fighter” is the kind of movie that, when made well, becomes an Oscar contender. When made poorly, it becomes the butt-end of jokes on Letterman, Conan and Leno. Fortunately, this one is made very well. The story, though one that is based on true events, could almost be accused of being hackneyed. You’ve got the good-guy boxer, you’ve got the older half-brother boxer who has fallen on hard times thanks to an insatiable hankering for snorting/smoking coke/crack/meth/whatever, you’ve got the domineering mother who also serves as good-boxer’s manager, you’ve got the crazy family, and you’ve got the tough but tender and supportive girlfriend. Sound familiar?

But with this group of actors and this execution, the movie works very well, and will likely take a spot in the pantheon of boxing movies. Let’s start with Mark Wahlberg, who is very good as Mickey Ward, all around good guy and neighborhood hero. Wahlberg should probably be considered the true auteur of the film, because without his efforts over a long period of years, the movie probably would not have been made. But it’s a sign of the movie’s success that he is probably least impressive of the lead actors, and you’ll just have to believe me that I don’t intend that as an insult. It’s just that the others are so good.

Amy Adams plays Mickey’s girlfriend Charlene, and her performance is a revelation. I was not that impressed by her turn in “Julie and Julia,” but now I think she was just playing the character – because here, she’s nothing short of spectacular. As Mickey’s half-brother Dicky, Christian Bale is spectacular, proving that he’s willing to do just about anything – in this case, lose a hell of a lot of weight – to make a role work. But losing weight does not a good performance make, and it can honestly be said that Bale is totally consumed by the character – absent the publicity for the film, one could be excused for not realizing that the person they’re watching on the screen is Christian Bale. Can you hear that sound? It’s Oscar calling.

But as good as Bale is, even he doesn’t quite match the titanic performance of Melissa Leo as Mickey and Dicky’s mother. And I can honestly say that I never saw this coming when I watched Leo on a regular basis when she was a member of the cast of “Homicide.” She’s just amazing – downright frightening in her determination to have Mickey succeed, to have Dicky be a part of that success, and to support her family, however crazy they may seem to someone on the outside. If she doesn’t win the Oscar, it will be a major upset.

But in the end, the key to any boxing movie is in the authenticity of its boxing scenes. And on this score, “The Fighter” passes on all counts. You believe what you are seeing, and you believe that Wahlberg is a real boxer. All in all, it makes for a powerful mix.

Monday Reactions

Well, here I was all teed up and ready to crow about a 4-for-4 weekend, when the New York Jets spoiled my plans. My distaste for Rex Ryan's public persona notwithstanding, I have to give him credit for a terrific gameplan, and credit for backing up the talk with action on the field. I haven't seen Tom Brady that befuddled since...well, ever, and I have to go way back to 1987 to remember a game where the clear Super Bowl favorite lost so convincingly (and believe me, that game was nowhere near as close as the score indicated). That year, the 49ers were destroying everything in their path, and ran into an unheralded Minnesota Vikings team who proceeded to tear them apart, limb by limb. Joe Montana - you've heard of him, greatest quarterback of all time, and all that? Well, in that game Joe got benched at halftime. Of course, at that time the 49ers had another Hall of Famer on their bench, guy by the name of Steve Young. Last night, the Patriots had no such option; not that it would have done any good.

Bears-Seahawks? Pretty much what I expected.

So now we have two conference championship games that, on paper at least, look like they could be classics for the ages. I'm not prepared to predict scores yet, although I can definitely say that I'll be going with the Packers. But that other game? I don't know how to call Steelers-Jets. It's hard to imagine the Jets being intimidated by Ben Roethlisberger, after having shut down the two greatest quarterbacks of this era on successive weekends. But then, I keep thinking about that gutty win on Saturday, and the way Pittsburgh just always seems to find a way to win this sort of game. So...stay tuned.

No matter what happens, it's looking like a great matchup for the Super Bowl. By the way, did I mention I was going?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sunday Predictions

Not a bad day yesterday at all, although admittedly I did not see the Packers rout coming. But that Aaron Rodgers kid - he can play a little quarterback, eh? And to think...yes, today he could have been a 49er. But, no...

Just two more quick comments on yesterday's games - one, I don't know how the Ravens allowed that long pass late in the game; and two, I don't know what the hell Matt Ryan was thinking on the last play of the first half. The game was over, right there.

On to today:

Bears 28, Seahawks 17. I really don't think the Bears are that good, and the Seahawks are on a hell of a roll right now, but I just can't see them pulling another rabbit out of the hat, especially in 18-degree weather.

Patriots 38, Jets 24. The fact that by 4:30 p.m. today, this game will be over is a major victory for the millions in this country who are sick of Rex Ryan and the ongoing trash talk between these two teams. Some buffoons, I find entertaining. For some reason, I think Ryan just comes across as an asshole. But I suppose you have to give the guy some credit for having the chutzpah to talk trash when his team was annihilated on this same field not so long ago.

In any event, I don't see the Patriots letting this one get away from them.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Prediction #1 - I foresee a couple of epic, hard-fought battles today, going down to the last minute.

Steelers 17, Ravens 14. This one is really hard to call - a Baltimore win would not shock me at all.

Packers 27, Falcons 20. I remember watching Green Bay play Atlanta on the last week in November, and thinking that they looked like the best team in the league until they blew the game in the 4th quarter. The turning points for the Pack were getting Rodgers back, and almost winning that game in New England without him. I'm riding them all the way to the Super Bowl (which I'll be at; did I mention that?).

Friday, January 14, 2011

American Top 40 Flashback - "Come See About Me"

In the 1960s, Motown captured lightning in a bottle. I know (or at least suspect) that it's more hip to be a fan of the Stax sound from the same era, and I can understand that.

But then, I put on my Motown mix tape, which includes great, great hits from Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations, the Jackson Five, and Diana Ross and the Supremes - 90, 120 minutes go by, and great song follows great song. And so many unsung heroes - the house band (with the legendary James Jamerson on bass), the songwriting and production team of Holland, Dozier, Holland...the list just goes on and on.

So, won't hear me making an argument that Diana Ross is a great an artist as Otis Redding. But what you might hear me say sometime is that "Come See About Me" is as great a song as "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay."

"Come See About Me," The Supremes, the #1 song in America this week in 1964.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cross That One Off The Bucket List

Thanks to a generous, longtime friend I will be attending my first (and quite possibly last) Super Bowl on February 6 in Dallas. I can hardly believe it myself; not only that I’ll be at the Super Bowl, but that I’ll be watching it from inside Jerry Jones’ playhouse. And yes, I can hardly wait to see that giant HDTV screen – I freely admit it.

And this is probably the perfect year for me to be attending the Super Bowl, because I have absolutely no stake in the game, and don’t really care who is in it. I suppose my preference right now would be Patriots vs. Packers, followed closely by Steelers vs. Packers. But I have to admit that seeing Seattle make it would be really fun.

And so the countdown begins…

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

End of an Era

Though I'm sure few will mourn it's passing.

The Brothers Maloof have reached a new arena-naming rights agreement with Power Balance, and on March 1 Arco Arena will be no more.

I don't have proof of this at my immediate disposal, but I think it's possible that Arco Arena was the first stadium or arena in the country to be named after a corporation. It was hardly a name that generated fondness in the hearts of fans, but it did have a bit of a ring to it - a ring that "Power Balance Pavilion" lacks.

Not that anyone really cares.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Random Thoughts Leading to a Prediction

First things first - the damn season is just too long. We shouldn't have to wait 37 days since the last games played by these teams for the championship. And even given the potential of this matchup, it defeats the purpose of the game because it's hard to imagine any team performing at its best after a 37-day layoff - even with all of the practices in-between.

I love the Pac-10 and loathe the SEC, but try as I might I can't get that Auburn comeback against Alabama out of my head. That was the kind of game that makes "epic" a meaningful word. Oregon may be a better team than Alabama, but it is just impossible to overlook what it takes to overcome a 24-point deficit against your most hated rival in what, right now, is probably the most heated rivalry in the country.

So I'll be rooting for the Ducks and against my own prediction, but I see the Tigers capping their unlikely perfect season with a 38-31 victory.

L.A. Requiem Discussion

A post I wrote last summer titled "The Use of Flashbacks in L.A. Requiem" inspired a group of like-minded Crais fans to re-read the book, and hold on online discussion about it. Unfortunately I was not able to participate, but the discussion turned out great - you can read the transcript of it over at Pop Culture Nerd.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Considering the Hot Holiday Flicks, Part I

Like millions of others across the country, we spent a fair amount of time in movie theaters during the holidays. Below are some random thoughts on what we were able to see:

True Grit. I’ll start off with a confession – I’ve never seen the original, starring John Wayne and directed by Henry Hathaway. But from what I’ve heard, the 2010 version compares favorably, even after taking American icon Wayne into account. But that’s not a surprise – it’s not as if Jeff Bridges is a slouch, and it’s hard to imagine that Glen Campbell could have matched the performance of Matt Damon.

But as anyone who has seen either version of the movie knows, the key to the success of “True Grit” is in the casting of Mattie Ross, because the story really belongs to her. And the story is fairly simple – 14-year old Mattie’s father has been killed by a bad man, and she is looking to bring that bad man to justice. She’s wise and mature well beyond her years, and single-minded in her pursuit of Tom Chaney (well played by Josh Brolin). In Hailee Steinfeld, the Coen Brothers hit the jackpot, because Ms. Steinfeld is totally believable – though hardly more than a little girl, you don’t doubt it for a moment when she stands up either to Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) or the Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Damon).

Anyone who’s seen classic westerns also knows that sometimes, the searching is just as important and meaningful as the finding. And that is the case with “True Grit,” as Mattie, Rooster, and LeBeouf all learn something about each other, although never in a sentimental, heart-tugging way. The movie is faithful to its time, and faithful to the language of that time.

The Coen Brothers already have a place in the pantheon of American filmmakers, and “True Grit” will just add to that stature. There aren’t many people who would have the stones to take on a remake of the Duke. It makes one wonder what might be next – a remake of “Casablanca?” In the Coen’s hands, it might just work.

Tron Legacy. I’m going to say something that makes it sound like I hated this movie, so let me state upfront that I did not. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the very first trailer for “Tron Legacy” – which was released way, way back in July 2009 – was a much more effective piece of art than the movie that was released in December 2010.

Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad movie – because it’s not. Seen in 3D at an IMAX Theater, it’s quite a spectacle, and something that well qualifies as entertaining holiday fare. The special effects are terrific, and the pulsating score by Daft Punk is appropriate. The acting is fine, although the acting in a movie like this is mostly irrelevant unless it’s so bad that you feel the need to respond to the screen. And with Jeff Bridges on board, of course nothing sinks to that level. Garrett Hedlund is fine as the son, it’s nice to see Bruce Boxleitner again, and Olivia Wilde looks terrific in her skin-tight suit. Of everyone, Michael Sheen probably takes the honors in a small but entertaining role as Castor/Zuse, all decked out in basic early 70s era David Bowie pale.

So yes, it’s worth seeing on the big screen. But it never quite makes that leap to something that you feel like you just have to see again.

To be continued…

Sunday Predictions

Well, it's a good thing I didn't start this yesterday, because I'd be 0-2.

Game 1 - Ravens 27, Chiefs 10. Watching Kansas City play Oakland last week, one could have been excused for thinking that the Raiders were the team heading to the post-season. KC could not protect Matt Cassell, and there actually was something at stake in the game. I can't imagine Baltimore not getting to him on a regular basis.

Game 2 - Packers 28, Eagles 24. I have less of a feel for this one, just a hunch that because Green Bay closed the season much stronger than Philadelphia did, they'll be able to prevail in a close one. As always, the "X Factor" is Michael Vick - did the week off allow him to recover his mojo?

We shall see.

UPDATE: OK, I'm counting my Ravens-Chief prediction as a major, spot-on victory.

UPDATE II: Two for two! And another spot-on win, to boot. Not bad for a day's work.

Marshawn Lynch!

I've watched it about a dozen times now, and I'm still amazed by the 67-yard run that Marshawn Lynch pulled out of nowhere to seal the fate of the New Orleans Saints this afternoon.

As a Cal fan, I feel really good for Lynch, who has accomplished little in his pro career except getting his name in the newspaper for all of the wrong reasons. I'm not a Seahawks fan and have not been following them at all this year, but I hope Lynch has his life in order and his head on straight.

But no matter what happens, this run is going to live on for years, in highlight reels and on ESPN Sportscenter clips.

And man, I can't imagine what the Saints defense is feeling like tonight. Talk about being exposed - defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will be showing the film of that run for the rest of his career as an example of how NOT to play defense, and how NOT to tackle a running back. And I really feel sorry for Porter, #22, who not only got his arse handed to him, but then proceeded to totally give up on the play. I guess I can't blame him.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Books of 2011: "The Reversal"

Early on in “The Reversal,” the latest book featuring LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch, author Michael Connelly captures what Bosch is all about in one simple exchange. Bosch and district attorney Maggie McPherson are on their way to Puget Sound to interview a witness, and near the end of a conversation the following exchange takes place:

“You’re not happy, are you, Harry?”

Bosch looked at her and shrugged.

“It’s a weird case. Twenty-four years old and we start with the bad guy already in prison and we take him out. It doesn’t make me unhappy, it’s just kind of strange, you know?”

She had a half smile on her face.

“I wasn’t talking about the case. I was talking about you. You’re not a happy man.”

Bosch looked down at the coffee he held on the table with two hands. Not because of the ferry’s movement, but because he was cold and the coffee was warming him inside and out.

“Oh,” he said.
A long silence opened up between them. He wasn’t sure what he should reveal to this woman. He had known her for only a week and she was making observations about him.

“I don’t really have time to be happy right now,” he finally said.

Connelly has been writing books with Harry Bosch in them for nearly twenty years now, and Harry has never been truly happy in any of them. There are fleeting moments, several of them involving his now teenage daughter, but even those are usually tinged with sadness or tragedy.

In “The Reversal,” which is outstanding, Bosch plays a key role but shares the spotlight with Mickey Haller, the attorney who previously appeared in “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “The Brass Verdict” (also with Bosch). The plot centers on Jason Jessup, who has been in prison for 24 years for the abduction and murder of a young girl. The case is reopened when DNA testing reveals that the semen found on the girl’s dress contains the DNA of her stepfather, and not Jessup. In one of the reversals in the book, Haller is asked to drop his normal role as a defense attorney, and take on this case as an independent prosecutor. He immediately suspects that this has more to do with protecting the District Attorney than it does with the department’s admiration for his skills, but he takes the case on the condition that Maggie “McFierce” McPherson, his ex-wife, be assigned as his second chair and that Harry Bosch be named as the chief case investigator. The trio faces the challenge of reconstructing a 24-year old case where many of the key witnesses are now dead, otherwise incapacitated, or have simply dropped off the face of the Earth.

The book alternates between Haller and Bosch, although each appear in the other’s chapters. The Haller chapters are written in first-person with Haller as the narrator, and the Bosch chapters are written in third-person. As the story unfolds, Jessup (who is out, having been released on bail) begins to act in some strange ways, eventually leading Haller and Bosch (as well as Rachel Walling, the FBI agent who has appeared in several Connelly novels, and plays a cameo role here) to believe that he is about to “blow” and perhaps return to his (alleged) old ways. I’ll refrain from saying more about the plot, to avoid spoilers.

Pairing Bosch with Haller has allowed Connelly to energize the Bosch series, as well as open some new avenues to explore his private life. And nearly two decades in, “The Reversal” shows no signs that the series is coming to an end. Which is good news for anyone who enjoys well-written detective novels.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Talk About a Win-Win!

If the reports are accurate that Jim Harbaugh has signed on to become the next coach of the San Francisco 49ers, I can't imagine a better scenario for someone such as myself. To wit:

- For the 49ers, my favorite NFL team, a huge step upward!

- For the Stanford Cardinal, the biggest rival of my favorite College team (the California Golden Bears, of course), a huge blow!

It doesn't get much better than that.

American Top 40 Flashback - "Brand New Key"

With the advent of the new year, I'm going to try and get back to doing these on a regular basis.

This is certainly one of the silliest songs of the pop era, and one that I had not thought about it in years, until it became the centerpiece of a new ad campaign for HP.

"Brand New Key," by Melanie - the #1 song this week in 1972. I actually remember it well...I was in 6th grade at the time.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Thoughts on "The Promise"

Like many others, I'm sure, my main Christmas present this year was "The Promise," the deluxe Bruce Springsteen "Darkness on the Edge of Town" box set. It's not for the casual fan, and can hardly be absorbed in one sitting. In total, you've got:

- The remastered version of the original album, "Darkness on the Edge of Town."

- A 2-CD set, "The Promise," which includes songs recorded for "Darkness" that did not make the final cut on the album.

- A documentary on the making of the album.

- A DVD that includes the band playing "Darkness" from start to finish, in an empty auditorium, in December 2009; random footage of the band recording some of the "Darkness" outtakes, and several songs from the 1978 Phoenix concert.

- A DVD of an entire concert (Houston) from the 1978 tour.

The packaging is impressive and frustrating at the same time. It's a spiral notebook, with notes that Bruce made during the period that he was contemplating and then recording "Darkness." There are handwritten lyrics, there are typed lyrics, and there are pages of Bruce trying to come up with the perfect song sequence for the album. A lot of it is interesting, but without much in the way of context, it's a bit like a photo album with a bunch of pictures in it that aren't in chronological order.

But for the hardcore Bruce fan, the entire package is a delight. I feel like I haven't even scratched the surface of it yet, but a few first thoughts:

* What is striking about many of the songs on "The Promise" is that they sound as if they would have fit perfectly on Bruce's last album, "Working on a Dream." That was hardly the most-loved album of his career, but what the old songs demonstrate is that there has always been a side of Bruce - even as he was making what may have been the toughest and bleakest album of his career - that wanted to do nothing but record pop songs.

* It pains me to say it because I didn't see him until 1980, but when you listen to the 1978 concert video, it's easy to see why long-time aficionados consider this to be the greatest tour of his long career. Having said that, there is something to the minority view that at this point of their career, the band was almost too manic. Bruce is so energetic, a veritable whirling dervish, that there are moments that it almost seems like parody. But then you come back to the music, remarkable music, and you remember that these were young men, playing to a young audience, and having the time of their lives. And you can only wish that you'd been there.

* Although I've written about it before, I have to say something about the version of "Prove It All Night" that the band played on the 1978 tour. On that tour, they played a version of the song that was never heard again - one with a lengthy, almost 6 minute intro, that stretched the song to almost 12 minutes. The intro would begin with just Roy on piano, and then Bruce would join in, usually with a verbal interjection at some point, and then the rest of the band, increasing the tempo and the tension until you can almost feel the song explode on itself. But what is most amazing about the '78 version is this - I've now heard five versions from that tour: The Roxy, Phoenix (on the box set), Passaic, Houston (also on the box set), and Winterland, and they are all different - Roy's piano varies, as does Bruce's solo. Even though I never saw it in person, I'm convinced that this was the band's single finest moment live.

* So far, my favorite part of the set is the 2009 concert played to no one. The band is no longer young, and the songs are no longer young. Everyone is dressed in basic black, and there's no playing to the audience, because there is no audience. Bruce and the band - and with the exception of Charlie Giordano for the late Danny Federici, this is the 1978 band (no Nils, no Patti, no Soozi) - are playing for themselves, and the results are wonderful. There is less movement, and sure, Bruce can't hit all of the same notes now as he could back then - but it hardly matters. What the show proves is that you don't have to be young to rock out, and that the band today is just as vital as it was more than 30 years ago.

All in all, pretty damn good stuff.

Working Late, Keeping Sane

Several of the blogs I read on a regular basis have recently run posts that talk about taking the time to do the things that enrich your life. Not in a heavy-handed or “you should be ashamed of yourself for spending so much time on the Internet” sort of way, but just in a matter-of-fact, straightforward style. Basically, just saying that it’s time to stop complaining about not having the time to do things like read and write, and make the time to do it.

The other night, one of my Facebook friends updated his status with the following comment: “There is no inherent value in working late…none.” Now that really got me to thinking, because I am a chronic “late-worker.” Without going into great detail, my work situation has been somewhat unique for a while now, and I’ve taken to keeping a notepad with me at all times just to write down new things on my “to do” list. It’s not numbered, so I can’t say how many things are on it, except to say that it’s a lot. Working through it and getting to the bottom of it between the hours of 8 and 6 is not going to happen anytime soon.

So for me, I suppose the inherent value in working late is that it allows me to stay as close to sane as possible. Having said that, I am bound and determined to read more in 2011, to write more in 2011, and yes – to write more in 2011. But as evidenced by the lack of posts in this first week of the year, it may be a more difficult challenge than I can meet.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Random Sports Notes

- Who knows whether the Pinstripe Bowl will advance past its current status as a second-tier bowl game, but given the awesome sight of seeing a football game played in Yankee Stadium, I'd say that it stands a chance. And yes, I know the sight lines in a baseball park are not ideal for football, I think it would be very cool if the Giants and Jets played one game there every year.

- Even without a Pac-10 representative, the Rose Bowl is still the Rose Bowl. And this was a classic matchup, and in the end I was glad to see TCU win. With their impending move to the Big East, it is highly unlikely that the Horned Frogs will ever make another trip to Pasadena (unless they play UCLA in the regular season), and they made the most of their one chance at the most historic venue in all of college football. And it was a great game, although I have no idea what was going on with Wisconsin's offensive game plan in the second half. You've got the biggest offensive line in the world, and you're throwing the ball on first down? Made no sense at all.

- What exactly does Gary Kubiak have to do to get fired? I suppose Houston is to be credited for its patience, but you have to wonder what it will take - especially when coaches with better records are let go almost every season.

- You know what game I'd really like to see right now? Stanford playing Oregon on a neutral field. Stanford is a lot better now than they were in October, when the Ducks handed them their only loss, and I'm not sure the Ducks are quite as good. There's no question that Stanford is the most balanced team in college football, and after their annihilation of Virginia Tech in tonight's Orange Bowl, I don't feel so bad about The Big Game last November.

- Brett who?

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Wrapping Up Netflix 2010

We’ll start off the year with another post falling into the “better late than never” department – clearing out the Netflix backlog, and then rating the Top 10 old movies seen on Netflix for the first time in 2010.

“In the Loop.” Borrowing some of its characters from a British miniseries/TV production, “In the Loop” is a well-made dark comedy focusing on a foul-mouthed British Communications Director who is never satisfied with anything or anyone. Peter Capaldi is terrific as Malcom Tucker, but if you have a problem with characters who swear a lot, then this is not the movie for you. For someone like me, who considers swearing to be nothing less than an art form, it was great. Other familiar faces are in the cast, including James Gandolfini as an equally profane general and Tom Hollander (a veteran of classy English productions, as well as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies) as the somewhat hapless British Minister who can’t seem to avoid putting his foot in his mouth. The story here is secondary to the characters, and the characters are all well drawn. Not perfect, but well worth a watch.

“In Bruges.” I’ve mentioned before that I’ve got a thing for stories about assassins, and this is a very good, albeit off-beat, one. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are outstanding as two killers who are sent to hide in Bruges by their evil boss (a very nice turn by Ralph Fiennes) when a job is botched and a small boy is killed. It’s another movie where the story plays second fiddle to the strength of the characters, and their reactions to their surroundings in a city that lives by a pace that they are most definitely not accustomed to. The story becomes more conventional (and less interesting) when Fiennes comes to town to wrap things up (so to speak), but like “In the Loop,” it is well worth a watch.

“Life Is Beautiful.” When Roberto Benigni made a spectacle (and an ass) out of himself at the Academy Awards where he was crowned Best Actor, I swore I would never see this movie. However, the Netflix queue is not in my control, so I relented and gave it a chance. I would say two things about it – one, I am now convinced that Benigni is indeed a comic physical genius, and two, the movie just did not work for me. Try as I might, I could not accept the premise of a man trying to make light of what was happening inside of a concentration camp – even though he was doing it for the benefit of his son. So while I admit that I admired Benigni’s work a great deal, I can’t say I ever want to see the movie again.

“The Green Mile.” This was a very strong adaptation of the Stephen King serial, deftly guided by Frank Darabont’s patient direction. Darabont (now helming “The Walking Dead” series on AMC) allows the story to unfold at its own pace, much like “The Shawshank Redemption,” and as a result the payoff works. The strong cast helps quite a bit, and even though Tom Hanks is the “big star,” David Morse and Barry Pepper are just as effective, and Sam Rockwell was effectively creepy playing a very creepy guy. And Michael Clarke Duncan is just fine in a role that makes as much of his physical stature as it does any of his personal characteristics.

“State of Play.” This was a well-made, effective thriller with a great cast including Russell Crowe, Helen Mirren, and Ben Affleck. One’s enjoyment of the film can probably be gauged by whether they’re willing to believe Crowe and Affleck as opposites –one a straitlaced Congressman, the other a disheveled reporter – who also happen to be great friends. But it came close enough for me, and the pace never lets up. The story is layered, with congressional wrong-doing, corporate conspiracies, love triangles, and kinky behavior all playing into the denouement. Not a classic, but very solid.

Blood Diamond.” You don’t often hear Edward Zwick’s name mentioned when it comes to a discussion of great directors, but the “Thirtysomething” veteran has had a very solid career, with highlights such as “The Last Samurai,” “Courage Under Fire,” and “Glory.” He’s also made some lightweight but likable romantic comedies, and yes, he is to blame for the ridiculous “Legends of the Fall,” the movie that cause me to hate Brad Pitt until “Seven” was released. “Blood Diamond” is an excellent film, with a strong performance from Leonardo DiCaprio and an even stronger one from Djimon Hounsou. The story is disturbing, involving the market behind “conflict diamonds” and the terrible, blood-soaked conflict in Sierra Leone. The movie’s weakest point is probably Jennifer Connelly, who has been excellent elsewhere but never quite seemed believable as a hard-edged reporter.

And now, The Top Ten Netflix Movies of 2010. To qualify, the movie had to have been released prior to the calendar year 2010, but had to be one that I was seeing for the first time.


1. “A History of Violence,” directed by David Cronenberg and starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, and Willam Hurt.

2. “Lost in Translation,” directed by Sofia Coppola and starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

3. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” directed by Michel Gondry and starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet.


4. “Michael Clayton,” directed by Tony Gilroy and starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton.

5. “(500) Days of Summer,” directed by Marc Webb and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.

6. “Gone Baby Gone,” directed by Ben Affleck and starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, and Amy Adams.

7. “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” directed by Niel Arden Oplev and starring Michael Nyqkvist and Noomi Rapace.

8. “Sideways,” directed by Alexander Payne and starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh.

9. “Eastern Promises,” directed by David Cronenburg and starring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts.

10. “In Bruges,” directed by Martin McDonagh and starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Whoops, Forgot One...

...and it was my favorite song from my favorite album of the year, no less!

Arcade Fire, turning in a great performance of "Ready to Start."

And with that, I bid you a Happy New Year!

Songs of 2010 - "Welcome to the Future"

And this, my friends, is my top song of 2010.

If you had told me a year ago that a song by Brad Paisley would be my song of the year for 2010, I would probably have told you that you were insane.

But that was before I knew what kind of year it would be. And while there were great things that happened in 2010, the last six months have also presented challenges unlike any I could have imagined.

But throughout the worst of it, the optimistic audacity of "Welcome to the Future" was always like a shining beacon. And for that, it is the song of the year...even if it was released before the year began.

Songs of 2010 - "Heavy and Hanging"

Patterson Hood released an album in late 2009 that was as good as anything released this year. "Heavy and Hanging," a song about Kurt Cobain and his untimely demise, was the best thing on it. It's not exactly what you would call a happy song, but it's a great song.