Saturday, April 30, 2011

At the Movies - Lincoln Lawyer, Source Code

The Lincoln Lawyer. Michael Connelly must be breathing a sigh of relief right about now. Unless I missed a positive review somewhere, the only previous adaptation of a Connelly novel, “Blood Work,” was universally reviled, even though living American legend Clint Eastwood directed and starred in it. I liked the book so much that I decided to skip the movie once the initial returns came in. It must have been bad, because even Connelly himself made jokes about it in some of the novels that followed.

“The Lincoln Lawyer,” on the other hand, is an outstanding adaptation, with a sharp screenplay, good acting, and a vibe that makes it feel a little bit like a 70s-era crime thriller. For those not familiar with the book, Michael (Mickey) Haller is “the Lincoln lawyer,” called that because he does most of his office work in the back seat of a Lincoln Continental. He’s one of those lawyers who always seems to skirt the bounds of ethics and propriety, but is smarter than most people give him credit for. His ex-wife, Maggie “McFierce” McPherson, is an attorney in the district attorney’s office.

Matthew McConaughey is a little younger than I had pictured Mickey Haller to be, but this is probably the best acting he’s done since… “Contact?” And that was quite a while ago. Marisa Tomei is great as Maggie, and Ryan Phillipe is effective as the pretty-boy client that you know is bad news from the moment you lay eyes on him. And in case you weren’t sure, the movie casts Bob Gunton as his family’s attorney, and when see Gunton, you know that evil can’t be far behind. Also good is a disheveled William H. Macy as Haller’s private investigator, and Frances Fisher makes a delightfully evil matriarch.

I’m not sure if it’s possible to go into too much detail on the plot without spoiling all the fun, but it boils down to the client’s family tricking Haller into taking the case, and then Haller trying to figure out how to bring his client to justice without losing his law license in the process. The whole enterprise may require a bit of belief suspension, but it’s a fun ride. Oh yeah – and the soundtrack is great, too.

Source Code. If Duncan Jones keeps this up, people are going to start calling David Bowie “Duncan Jones’ father” instead of the other way around. Jones follows up his magnificent debut, “Moon,” with another mind-bending experience that rewards careful viewing.

The movie begins with Jake Gyllenhaal finding himself on a train, having no idea how he got there, and having no idea who the woman is that is sitting across from him and speaking to him as if they were friends (or even lovers). Eight disorienting minutes later, the train is engulfed in a fiery explosion, and everyone on board is killed. When Gyllenhaal awakes, he is encased in what could be a tomb, or an interstellar pod. The soothing voice of a uniformed woman on a viewing screen brings him back to reality, and the reality is that he – a helicopter pilot in the Afghan conflict – is part of a project that allows him to be projected into the last 8 minutes of the life of a man on the train. His assignment – find out who brought the bomb on the train, because whoever it was, they’re intending to detonate a dirty nuclear bomb in Chicago, perhaps at any minute.

And so – again and again, the pilot – Colter Stevens – is inserted into the “source code” of what occurred, and each time he gets a little further in his quest to determine who the culprit is. Along the way, he gets the notion that perhaps he can change history – save the people on the train – despite being told that isn’t possible. And more, I should not say for fear of spoiling the best parts of the movie.

As the pilot, Gyllenhaal is a credible action star with depth. As the woman on the train, Michelle Monaghan is good, even though her part is little more than a plot device designed to generate sympathy and sadness from the audience. Vera Farmiga is predictably strong as the God-like figure on the screen, and Jeffrey Wright is very good as the scientist who you want to believe developed this whole enterprise to do good, but who twitches a little bit too much to be trustworthy.

It may not be quite as good as “Moon,” but it’s further proof that for Duncan Jones, the future is limitless.

Friday, April 29, 2011

American Top 40 Flashback - Frank and Nancy

This is one of those songs that I know I shouldn't like. It's corny to the point of being utterly ridiculous, and it's far from Frank's (or even Nancy's) best performance.

But you know what? I can't help myself. I still like it.

"Somethin' Stupid," Frank and Nancy Sinatra, the #1 song this week in 1967.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Coming Attraction

This was something I had originally planned to do last year, but come to think of it, there were a lot of things that I had planned to do last year. But now it's definite - beginning the first week of July, I'll begin a countdown of my Top 50 Albums of All Time. There will be two a week, and at the very least there will be a short commentary on each selection.

Should be fun.

New Design

This is a radical change, but I was getting pretty tired of the old design. We'll see how long I stick with this one.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"Just Kids," Patti Smith

Patti Smith’s memoir, “Just Kids,” spins a magical tale that has the advantage of being a true story. It’s the story of two talented kids, both just barely turned 21, who find their way to New York City (Brooklyn first, followed by Manhattan) and somehow end up becoming icons in two different worlds – Patti in the world of rock and roll, and Robert Mapplethorpe in the world of art.

Patti’s writing throughout the book is engaging, and though I’m sure one’s enjoyment of “Just Kids” is enhanced by familiarity with at least one of the principal characters, I’d be willing to bet that such familiarity is not a prerequisite for enjoying the book. The supporting cast that Patti and Robert encounter on their journey to stardom is just as interesting – along the way, they cross paths with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sam Shepard, Harry Smith, and a litany of others…mostly at the Chelsea Hotel, but sometimes in other venues.

The way that Patti tells the story, it all sounds very romantic (and it is), but the hardships are always there, just lurking around the corner. Both of them went to the city with little more than confidence in their own abilities, but as they discover, the seedy old hotels and apartments of the city at that time were littered with the living remains of people – perhaps just as talented, but we’ll never know – who didn’t make it, and ended up strung out on drugs, or prostituting themselves to make ends meet, or both. So there was luck involved, sure – but one can’t help but thinking that success was their destiny.

Of course, the story does not have an entirely happy ending. Robert eventually succumbed to AIDS, and (although the book doesn’t chronicle this part of her life) Patti suffered the tragedy of multiple deaths of loved ones in a very short period of time. But above all, this is a book of poetic triumph. And as strange as these two may seem to some, you can’t help but root for them as you join them in their quest.


Reading the book inspired me to go back to Patti’s music, which I haven’t listened to for a while. Specifically, back to “Horses” – the debut album from 1975 – the cover of which is graced with a beautiful Mapplethorpe portrait of Patti.

More than 35 years later, “Horses” still sounds like a revelation. It’s a brilliant album from start to finish, but no more so than on the three extended cuts – “Gloria,” “Birdland,” and “Land” – all three of which combine Patti’s poetry with her music, to magnificent, spine-tingling effect. God knows that when I first heard those songs, it sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. Admittedly, it took me a few years to fully appreciate them. But now I do, and there’s little doubt that “Horses” is one of the great albums of the rock era.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Rock and Roll Contest!

About which rock and roll legend was the following written:

"She'd been dancing awhile when I first saw her. She walked into that Upper West Side party like a Jersey urchin who'd just inherited Manhattan. All in black - turtleneck and tight black slacks. She seemed more frail than she really was, but not fragile, though you could have counted her ribs, and her jet black hair straggled like waterlogged yarn. Her skin so pale it was nearly translucent, cheeks drawn so tight and thin I was tempted to pull her aside and offer her a decent meal. If only her teeth had been half rotted, she would have passed for Keith Richard's waif sister."

Bonus points if you can identify the author.

"The Long Good Friday"

Sorry folks, but this is all I've got for Good Friday - a clip of the last scene from "The Long Good Friday," a really good gangster movie from 1982 that introduced Bob Hoskins to the rest of the world. In this last scene, also note a verrry young Pierce Brosnan, who in case you have not seen the movie, is playing an IRA assassin.

By the way - harsh language within.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Paul Simon's Beautiful Comeback

It’s been lost for so long, one could be forgiven for thinking that it was never going to return. But fans of Paul Simon can rejoice, because after years of searching, he’s finally found his muse. “So Beautiful or So What” is his strongest album in 25 years, and I suspect one day will fit quite nicely aside “Graceland,” “Paul Simon,” “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon,” “Hearts and Bones” and “Still Crazy After All These Years” on the shelf of his best works.

The album opens with, of all things, a Christmas song, and it’s a really good one – in fact, I’m pretty sure, even though we’re only in April, that it will lead off my annual Christmas CD this coming December. “Getting Ready for Christmas Day” juxtaposes an old sermon from Reverend J.M. Gates with some of the catchiest, intoxicating music that Simon has written in years. Vincent Nguini’s guitars recall Ray Phiri’s work on “Graceland,” and signal early on that this is an album built on a very open, joyous sound.

As befits a sound where so many different genres are welcome, the musical credits read like the catalogue of a world music store (if such a thing existed) – among the instruments played on these songs are: dobro, tabla, clay pot, djembe, talking drum, viola, flute, English horn, glockenspiel, conga, gongs, celeste, marimba, angklung, and clarinet. Some of the songs sound like they would fit on “Graceland,” while a couple of others – “Love and Hard Times” and “Questions for the Angels” – are more in the “Hearts and Bones” vein.

“Questions for the Angels, a beautiful ballad, also demonstrates that Simon has not lost his lyrical touch. The song begins with this powerful verse:

A pilgrim on a pilgrimage
Walked across the Brooklyn Bridge

His sneakers torn

In the hour when the homeless move their cardboard blankets

And the new day is born

Folded in his backpack pocket

The questions that he copied from his heart

Who am I in this lonely world?

And where will I make my bed tonight?

When twilight turns to dark

Later on, the pilgrim sees this:

Downtown Brooklyn
The pilgrim is passing a billboard

That catches his eye

It’s Jay-Z

He’s got a kid on each knee

He’s wearing clothes that he wants us to try

Throughout the record, Simon reminds us – with phrases that jump out from the record’s musical brew – that there was a time that for many, his claim to fame was his ability to write a memorable lyric. And throughout, the message is hopeful, even as we find ourselves in difficult times. As Elvis Costello perceptively notes in the album’s liner notes,

“These wonderful songs refuse to despair, despite the evidence all around us. “So Beautiful or So What” rejects the allure of fashionable darkness and the hypnosis of ignorance – better to contemplate and celebrate the endurance of the spirit and the persistence of love.”

Welcome back, Paul. It’s good to have you back.

Friday, April 15, 2011

American Top 40 Flashback - Fine Young Cannibals

Pieced together from the remnants of The English Beat, a truly great band, Fine Young Cannibals featured Roland Gift, a gifted young vocalist who at the time came on like a modern-day version of Otis Redding. The band came out with two fine albums, and then - as far as I know - pretty much dropped off the face of the Earth.

But a handful of their songs still get played today, most notably this one. "She Drives Me Crazy," one of the best dance songs of its era, and the #1 song this week in 1989.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A High Flying Airplane

There are four brilliant instrumentalists in Alison Krauss and Union Station, but the most magnificent instrument in the band remains the voice of Alison Krauss. It's the kind of voice that sends shivers down your spine on the good songs, and threatens to bring tears to your eyes on the best songs.

Up until now, there are two songs that I would have placed in the ultimate Alison Krauss pantheon - "Ghost in This House," and "New Favorite." And now there is a third - "Dimming of the Day," the great Richard Thompson song. What Krauss does with the song is akin to what Johnny Cash did with Trent Reznor's "Hurt" - the interpretive artist claiming the song as their own. And from that point on, it might as well be their song.

"Dimming of the Day" is the highlight of "Paper Airplane," the first album by AKUS in nearly 7 years, but it is hardly the only high moment. After just two days of heavy listening, there's little doubt in my mind that this is their best album - and will stand proudly as one of the best albums of 2011. On the record, there is also a wonderful version of Jackson Browne's "My Opening Farewell," the great title track, and three killer tracks sung by Dan Tyminski - "Dust Bowl Children," "On the Outside Looking In," and "Bonita and Bill Butler." In fact, there isn't a weak song on the album - with some of Krauss' best vocals, and some of the band's best playing.

The production, by the band itself, can best be described as pristine. This is music stripped down to its essential elements, and the musicians - Tyminski, Jerry Butler, Ron Block, and Barry Bales - play with a passion that one rarely hears on record, almost as if they are inspired by the voice of Krauss to take things just one step higher. As far as I can tell there are no tricks on the record - no strings, no echo, no odd effects - just the sound of great musicians singing and playing.

No question about it - this is a great record. In what is shaping up to be a great year, "Paper Airplane" is likely to challenge for the top spot.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A New Master

For the second year in a row, I was attending a conference during Masters week, which meant that my viewing time was severely limited.

However, I did manage to sneak in the last 45 minutes or so of the tournament on Sunday, watching with about 100 others on a set of televisions located in the snack bar of the conference's trade show floor. I tuned in just in time to watch Charl Schwarzel march through the last three holes of Augusta National as if he had been playing them his entire life.

It was some pretty amazing stuff, made all the more so by the fact that this guy isn't exactly a household name. I watch a fair amount of golf, certainly more than the average person, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I'd never even heard of the guy. But that was some of the most amazing golf this side of Jack Nicklaus in 1986. The aggression, the wonderful shots, and the wonderful reactions after sinking birdie putts on each hole. One for the ages.

It will amaze me if this guy doesn't win more - he's just got that look about him.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Netflix Catchup

Funny People. Judd Apatow's "Funny People" is an epic comedy - not epic in the sense of being like "1941," but in the sense of being really, really long. It clocks in at a little over 2.5 hours, which by my reckoning is at least 30 minutes too long. In fact, it's really two movies in one - both starring Adam Sandler as a famous comedian who discovers he has a fatal disease. In the first story, Sandler decides to return to his roots as a stand-up comedian, and hires Seth Rogen to write jokes for him. Rogen plays a would-be comic who works behind the deli counter at a local grocery store, who along with his buddies frequents the Improv and tries his hand at stand-up. This part of the movie is genuinely funny - Sandler's interaction with Rogen and Rogen's roommates (Jonah Hill as a fellow comedian, and Jason Schwartzman as an actor who's hit it big on a terrible sitcom) are sometimes mean-spirited, but frequently laugh-out loud funny - and never less than amusing.

The second movie, which is far less successful, tells the story of Sandler and Rogen's road trip to Marin County to allow Sandler one last chance to rekindle a romance with his ex-girlfriend, who is now married with children. While this part has some funny moments, overall it's a waste of time because it doesn't add anything to what we've already learned about these people, and it's really not possible to care enough about Sandler's character to root for him in this situation. There's little doubt that, even if he is successful in winning her back, he's going to figure out some way to fuck it up.

Worth seeing? Yes. Less than the sum of its parts? Definitely.

Charlie Wilson's War. Now, here we have a movie that was only 97 minutes long, and probably could have been much longer without losing any of its impact. Based on a true story about the hard-drinking, fun-loving congressman who played a key role in the U.S. intervention in the Soviet-Afghanistan war of the late 1970s-early 1980s.

For the most part, the movie is sharp as a tack, as one would expect from a film directed by Mike Nichols with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. The acting is first rate, with sharp performances from Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson, and Amy Adams as his loyal assistant. But the movie is stolen by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is spot-on amazing as Gust Avrakotos, a disheveled, profane misanthrope who just happens to be a brilliant CIA operative and analyst.

As with just everything written by Sorkin, there are times when the dialogue seems almost too good to be true. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it sounds unrealistic, but I'm not sure that everyday conversations are supposed to sound this good.

The movie struck me as a comedic version of Jonathan Kwitny's "Endless Enemies," a book written in the early 1980s by a Wall Street Journal reporter that recounted how American foreign policy decisions in the last half of the 20th century consistently resulted in unintended consequences that ultimately worked against American interests. And what happened in Charlie Wilson's war was the perfect example of that - we may have won that battle, but we paid for it for many, many years.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

My Favrorite Sidney Lumet Movie

There are many loving and well-deserved tributes to Sidney Lumet to be found on the Internet today, as is appropriate for a man who directed such great movies as 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and Serpico.

I've seen all of those, and they are indeed great movies. But my favorite Lumet movie, in fact one of my favorite movies of all time, is Lumet's Prince of the City, which later this year will celebrate its 30th birthday. In a long-ago post, I went so far as to call it "the greatest unsung drama of our time."

Prince of the City tells the true story of Danny Ciello (the original detective's name was Bob Leuci, but the story told in the movie is remarkably true to the story told in the book written by Leuci), a New York City narcotics detective in the early 1970s. Ciello is a member of an elite group of detectives referred to by their colleagues (and their detractors) as "princes of the city" because of their citywide jurisdiction. They pursue the big dealers, make the big cases, and pretty much make up the rules as they go along. As Ciello tells a prosecutor at one point (I'm paraphrasing), "These guys will never get convicted. But we can steal their money, and make sure they get deported."

Eventually, Ciello suffers a crisis of conscience, and decides to team up with two young, ambitious district attorneys to bring corrupt detectives to justice. He goes undercover, but tells them that he has a line - he will never give up his partners. And from the moment he says that, it is inevitable that he will, in fact, give up his partners. The movie tells its story with care, and it slowly unfolds toward its inevitable conclusion. These are men Ciello cares about a great deal. At one point, he goes so far as to say "I sleep with my wife, but I live with my partners." He loves them as much as he does his wife and family. But he will betray them.

The movie was not a huge hit at the time, and it didn't win a lot of awards, but it should have. Treat Williams gives the performance of his life as Danny Ciello, but the real strength of the movie comes from its remarkable supporting cast - Jerry Orbach, Lindsay Crouse, Bob Balaban, Richard Foronjy, James Tolkan, and many others. It is an incredible ensemble performance.

Prince of the City is a remarkable film by a remarkable director. Sidney Lumet, R.I.P.

Other tributes:

- Sheila O'Malley talks about the impact that Dog Day Afternoon had on her life.

- Matt Zoller Seitz: "He made movies for adults."

Friday, April 08, 2011

A Streetcar Named...

Dylan in China

I think it's pretty funny that the lyrics of the songs that Bob Dylan sang at his historic China concert earlier this week had to be approved by the Chinese government.

Anyone who has seen Dylan in recent years (you can count me in that group, and it was a great show) knows that enunciation is not exactly Bob's strong suit these days. In fact, half the fun of seeing Bob play live is trying to figure out exactly what song it is he is singing.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Random Thoughts

- According to a billboard that I saw today, Judgment Day is May 21. I suppose I should clear my calendar for that.

- Driving through a hail storm is an interesting experience. Driving through a hail storm when you can see blue sky on the horizon is hazardous.

- It is indeed colder in San Francisco in April than it is in November. More specifically, it is colder in San Francisco on April 7 than it was at any time between November 28-December 4, 2010.

- The area around Union Square has now lost its Virgin Megastore and its Borders. I understand why, but it's still kind of a bummer.

- Sat next to a guy at a bar this evening who flew in from South Carolina for the Giants home opener. Now that's what I call a fan.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011


If an alien had arrived on Earth just in time to watch the men's and women's NCAA Championship basketball games, there's little doubt that they would now be saying to themselves, "ah, so it is the women who understand how to play this game."

I don't want to say that the UConn-Butler game was the worst basketball game I've ever seen...well, yeah I do - that was the worst basketball game I've ever seen, and remember that I've been going to Sacramento Kings games for the past 26 years. What we saw that night will now forever be known as "Butler's Disease," best described as a superhuman ability to avoid making baskets. And truth be told, I didn't think their screens were so hot either.

But it's hard to feel really bad for them - two straight finals? BUTLER? That's got to be one of the more amazing sports stories of our time.

The women's game was good and exciting, and even though I was rooting for the Irish, I enjoyed it a lot more than the game the night before. And it was nice to see someone other than UConn, Stanford or Tennessee in the final.

And so ends another season of the endless season, which begins before Thanksgiving and ends right around Easter time. And don't forget, we can't have a college football playoff because it takes the players out of the classroom for too long a time. Huh?

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain killed himself on my birthday. That is an odd and perhaps morbid thing to remember on a day when you're trying to celebrate, or at least relax, but it really doesn't bother me that much. It's sad, because you're left to wonder, as with other great artists who were gone before their time, what might have happened had things turned out differently.

When I think of Nirvana, I always go back to that autumn day in 1993 when they played live and acoustic on MTV Unplugged. I think it is one of the great live performances in the history of rock and roll. On that night, Kurt Cobain was able to channel the demons that would eventually overtake him and use them to fuel his performance. It was a remarkable performance, all over the map - Bowie, Leadbelly, Meat Puppets, The Vaselines, lesser known Nirvana - a performance that, nearly 20 years later, still gives me goose bumps.

So in honor of a great artist, a song from that performance.


Monday, April 04, 2011

Coming to Grips with "Friday"

I’ve bought several really good albums this year – by groups like The Baseball Project, The Low Anthem, Drive-By Truckers, and R.E.M. – with a lot of great songs on them. So naturally, the one song that pops into my head during every free moment that I have is “Friday,” the infamous Rebecca Black song that has now gone over 83 million hits on YouTube.

I haven’t decided yet whether the song is garbage or trash. There is a distinction to be made there; a lot of great rock songs fall into the latter category. The former implies, basically, that something is just a piece of crap. The song is totally ridiculous – ridiculous lyrics, ridiculous singing, ridiculous narrative (if you can even call the “story” the song tells a narrative). But damn if the thing isn’t catchy, much in the same way that “Sugar, Sugar” was catchy more than 40 years ago. People are still dancing and singing along to that one. I’d love to know what Lester Bangs might have to say about “Friday” – he was a fan of “Sugar, Sugar,” along with a lot of other late 60s bubblegum classics.

I’m not going to link to the original version of the song here; it’s certainly easy enough to find. I will link to the Stephen Colbert/Jimmy Fallon/Taylor Hicks version that appeared on Fallon’s show last week, because it was seeing that version that made me begin to wonder if this really did deserve to be a phenomenon.

You can argue that it’s a terrible song, but I don’t know that you can say much about this performance that’s negative. For me, it just might be the transcendent cultural moment of 2011, so far.

“Friday” – it ain’t gonna go away, that’s for sure.

American Top 40 Flashback - Joan Jett

Well, that was a heck of a week. Just a bit on the busy side, you might say.

So let's start the week off with what is normally our regular Friday feature.

I love watching classic videos from the early 80s. They have a made-at-home cheesy quality that, in my book, makes them much better than the artistic, million dollar extravaganzas that would follow within a few years. Plus, the clothes are a hoot.

This one is no exception, and it's a great song - "I Love Rock and Roll," Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. The #1 song on this date in 1982.