Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Here We Go Again

Damn it, I just read that Wilco has released a new album. And you know what that means. Well you don’t, but I’m going to tell you.

It means that I’m going to read a few reviews, and probably get pissed off because they mention how “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is the best album in the history of the universe, when I think it’s one of the most overrated works of the rock era. It’s not a bad album, per se, but great? Pazz ‘n Jop winner? Please.

Inevitably, I’ll hear a snippet of a song on the radio or on the Internet, and I’ll think to myself, “damn, that actually sounds good – like back in the days when they were making really good and unpretentious works, like “Being There” and Summerteeth.”

I’ll head to the record store, and for a guy like me, when you enter a record store…well, there’s just something in my DNA that won’t allow me to leave a record store without at least one CD in my hand. So if I happen to go in on a night when I can’t find anything else, I’ll wander over to the W’s, and next thing you know, I’ll be driving home with the new Wilco CD in my pocket.

I’ll give it a listen, and then I’ll mutter to myself, “Damn it. Never again.”

Until the next Wilco CD comes out.

All Over

It seems very, very strange to me for baseball's regular season to be ending on a Wednesday. For some reason, it just doesn't feel right. The season should end on a Sunday.

The Giants won't be in the postseason, but that's OK. I needed them to win a lot more last year than I do this year, and they did. This was still a fun season, and as long as they keep those pitchers in orange and black, we're always going to be contenders. A little offense next year would be nice.

The Phillies are obviously the best team in baseball, but the best team doesn't always win. For some reason, I've got a feeling that this might be the year for the Detroit Tigers.

Overall, it will be nice not to have a stake in the outcome. Playoff baseball is hard work.

Monday, September 26, 2011


“If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window; anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours no matter what. I don’t sit in while you’re running it down; I don’t carry a gun. I drive.”

The first 15 minutes of “Drive” perfectly set the tone for the narrative that follows. As the movie opens we are introduced to the driver, who we see preparing for a job. We hear him speak the words above, we see him pick up his car, and then we see the man at work. No lines are spoken, but the tension of every moment jumps off the screen, driven even higher by the propulsive bass line you hear on the soundtrack. As a whole, it is a hypnotic opening – and certainly the strongest opening to any film I’ve seen since the brilliant, almost silent first chapters of “There Will Be Blood.”

As portrayed by Ryan Gosling, the driver (we never learn his name) is a cipher. He's “a quiet man” – the kind of quiet man you sometimes read about in the papers. Even in his tender moments – reaching out to the young woman who lives in the apartment next door with her son, or watching TV with the young boy – there is a a sense of danger, lurking just below the surface. We know nothing about his background, or what forces – internal, external or some combination of the two – turned him into the man he is. And part of the puzzle of “Drive” is trying to figure out exactly who and what the driver is. Is he an innocent, trapped in a situation where the only way out is to inflict extreme violence on those who would do the same to him? Or is the extreme violence a part of his nature – inevitable, and just waiting for an outlet to express itself?

From the time the movie starts, you know that something bad is going to happen; it’s just a matter of time. And when the bad thing happens, the movie shifts gears faster than the Mustang that Gosling drives in the movie’s most exciting, exhilarating moment – a chase where failure to escape means certain death.

That the driver has a goodness in his soul is what leads to the clusterfuck in which he finds himself. The husband of the woman next door has come home from prison, and is determined to stay on the right side of the law, for his family. But he’s racked up protection debts in prison, and some “old friends” come calling to enlist his help in a heist that will erase (or at least reduce) his debt. When he refuses, he’s badly beaten, in front of his son, and with a warning that the next visit will be to that son and his mother. The driver witnesses the aftermath of the beating, and offers to help drive his neighbor on the job, and further help by telling the architect of the heist that this one job will erase the debt. Except it’s a set-up, with mob money involved, and before you know it bodies are dropping like flies and the driver finds himself in a trap from which there may be no escape. The rest of the movie boils down to the driver trying to find a way out for himself, the woman, and the boy.

The entire cast is terrific. Gosling’s face never wavers from its laconic look, but somehow that just makes him look scarier. The increasing amounts of blood on the silk jacket that never leaves his side, rather than the expressions on his face, tell the story of what is happening. As his neighbor, Carey Mulligan is the driver’s polar opposite, with every emotion and hope clearly evident on her face. Bryan Cranston is great as Shannon, the mechanic, raconteur and would-be entrepreneur who might as well have “doomed” etched on his forehead. Ron Perlman is genuinely frightening as a hood with much more brawn than brains, and Oscar Isaac is effective and affecting as Standard, the husband and tragic figure who really did learn a lesson in prison and now just wants to do the right thing.

But the biggest acting kudos go to Albert Brooks, who is brilliant as Bernie Rose, the part gangster, part businessman who once produced films (“action films, sexy stuff – one critic called them European…”) and now makes investments, and hurts people when those investments don’t come through. Brooks is Perlman’s partner, and you get the feeling that he’s cleaned up a lot of his messes over the years (which leads to one of the film’s best jokes, when Brooks creates a little mess of his own, with the help of a knife and fork). Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching Brooks perform various types of comedy for over 40 years now, but the character he creates in Rose is entirely unexpected – entirely convincing, but unexpected. You get the sense that Rose genuinely wants things to work out for Shannon, the driver and the woman, but once he’s at risk, he’ll do what he has to in order to get out with his skin intact.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn gives the movie a look that is very reminiscent of Michael Mann’s work in “Thief,” “Manhunter” and “Heat.” Los Angeles deserves a listing in the cast credits, because she’s never looked more sleek and stylish – particularly during the shots at night. Even the score (by Cliff Martinez) feels Mann-like, particularly in those first shots, which almost sound as if they are an homage to the great Tangerine Dream score featured in “Thief.”

Suffice to say, “Drive” is not your ordinary, run of the mill action film. One could even be forgiven for calling it an art film. It should be noted that it probably is not for everyone – the violence is never gratuitous, but it is brutal and shocking. Where it will stand at the end of the year is to be seen, but I’d be surprised if it drops out of my Top 5 for 2011.

Called on the Carpet

The Association I work for holds its Board of Directors meetings at a local hotel. The hotel has recently done some renovating, which is good; but they've also installed some new carpet, and...well, judge for yourself.

When I see something like this, all sorts of questions enter my mind:

- Exactly where does one go to buy such carpet?

- Were these carpets in stock, or did someone request a special design?

- If someone requested carpets designed like this, how did they describe them?

I will say this: they smelled very good; that "new carpet smell" that feels new and fresh.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Seven Song Perfect Playlist: More R.E.M.

Who knows, this could go on for days...

I love that in this clip, Peter Buck and Mike Mills do all the talking, and Michael Stipe never even gets up to talk to Dave. Obviously, over time things would change.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Seven Song Perfect Playlist: R.E.M.

"To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening."

No. Thank you.

Goodbye, farewell and amen. I feel fine.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Top 50 Albums, #43 - "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," Lucinda Williams

I remember the details of my grandmother’s house (mother’s side) as if I had walked through it yesterday. Located in Sutter, at the foot of the Sutter Buttes, the house was built shortly after World War II. Grandma lived there until 1973, when a break-in spooked her (and everyone else), and she moved to Sacramento to be closer to the rest of the family.

You walked in the front door, and you immediately found yourself in what passed for the “family room.” That’s where the TV was, as well as a couch and a couple of chairs (I recall a recliner that was pretty comfortable). Just off of that room was one of the bedrooms – the one that included a swamp cooler. Like Sacramento, Sutter is very hot in the summer, but unlike Sacramento, the legendary “delta breezes” that result in so many pleasant summer evenings are almost entirely absent. In the summer of 1972, my dad, brothers and I spent a memorable evening there (“memorable” for all the wrong reasons) where the low temperature was 93 degrees (the high had been 117).

Past the family room was the dining room. You walked past a china cabinet (which was painted pink, but now resides in its restored glory at my parents’ house), and as soon as you went by, the cabinet began to shake, to the point where at any moment you expected one of the plates or cups to fall out onto the floor. There was also a bedroom attached to this room.

Next was the kitchen, not large but definitely one from which a lot of delicious food originated. My grandma was a great cook, and to this day I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted better fried chicken gravy. No one would make a claim that it was good for you, but damn it was good.

And then you walked through a small corridor, to which the bathroom was attached. The less said about the bathroom, the better. The shower was so small that you could injure your elbows just washing yourself, and the plumbing system…as I said, the less said the better.

And finally, there was a small room at the back of the house that had to be an add-on. There was a bed there, but what I remember most about this room was discovering an old stack of TIME Magazines from 1960, and spending the good portion of a day reading about the 1960 Presidential election. Very cool stuff.

The room my brothers and I slept in was the middle bedroom, and given the weather conditions you almost always had to sleep with the window open. Next to that side of the house was an unpaved road, and most evenings there would be steady traffic – although I’m not sure where those cars were going. But crystal clear in my mind is the sound that you would hear as you lay in the bed, usually too warm to sleep but hoping that sleep would eventually come.

The sound of car wheels on a gravel road.

The first time I heard the song “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” [video here], I got goose bumps, because it so perfectly evoked a time and a place – with every little detail just right. It is a perfect song, the title song of what is pretty damn close to being a perfect album.

The recording history of the album is legendary – reportedly, it took six years to make, with Williams twice recording the songs from scratch. Attached to the album are well-known names like Roy Bittan (among those receiving a producer credit) and Rick Rubin (mixing). Sometimes that results in an inconsistent sound, but what separates this album from all of Williams’ later work is its consistency – consistency in the sound, consistency in the singing, and most of all, the remarkable consistency in the quality of the songs.

There is nothing that Williams doesn’t do well on this record – fast rockers, slow grinders, and ballads – and though I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite song, for now I’ll stick with the title track, “Can’t Let Go,” and the album’s closer, “Jackson.” But listen to it all – because it’s all brilliant.

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)
Produced by twangtrust (Ray Kennedy and Steve Earle), Roy Bittan and Lucinda Williams

Right in Time/Car Wheels on a Gravel Road/2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten/Drunken Angel/Concrete and Barbed Wire/Lake Charles/Can’t Let Go/I Lost It/Metal Firecracker/Greenville/Still I Long For Your Kiss/Joy/Jackson

Friday, September 16, 2011

American Top 40 Flashback - The Twist!

I had to go back quite a ways to find one for this week. All the way back to 1960, the year I was born.

I'm told that this was my favorite song to dance to when I was a toddler, but I have no conscious memory of that.

Nice clip as well - always fun to see the young Dick Clark.

"The Twist," Chubby Checker - the #1 song on this date in 1960.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


You often hear people ask the question, "why did the chicken cross the road?"

I don't know the answer to that one.

However, I do know, at least on the River Road heading from Elk Grove to West Sacramento, the reason that turkeys cross the road is to get to the river.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Man In Black

Today marks the eighth anniversary of his death. He was one of the titans. R.I.P.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Top 50 Albums, #44 - "Life'll Kill Ya," Warren Zevon

In 1995, Warren Zevon released “Mutineer.” It was a project that was almost entirely self-produced, with Zevon playing nearly every instrument on every song. It turned out to be his lowest-selling album, and even though it included three great songs (the title track; “Seminole Bingo,” written with Carl Hiaasen; and “The Indifference of Heaven”), it felt like something close to the end, if not the end itself, for one of the great, quirky artists of our time.

Five years passed before the release of a new album. And to be perfectly honest, the last thing I expected was that it would turn out to be Zevon’s best album; in fact, it was not until a read a short blurb in Greil Marcus’ monthly Salon column that I even bought it. Marcus wrote, “The old rounder borrows his old melodies, his old ideas and kicks over his own rocking chair,” and that was good enough for me.

“Life’ll Kill Ya” was the beginning of what is now referred to as Zevon’s second comeback, which sadly turned out to be short-lived with his death from mesothelioma in September 2003. From the very first cut, “I Was In The House When The House Burned Down,” the album crackles with a sharpness, a wit, and a vibrancy that hadn’t been heard for a long time. Zevon sounded like he was ready to take on the world, and more youthful than at any time since 1978’s “Excitable Boy.”

“I saw the bride in her wedding gown”

Consistency had always been Zevon’s hobgoblin; even his best albums had been marred by one or two tunes that were ultimately forgettable. That’s not the case with “Life’ll Kill Ya,” and it’s the consistent strength of the album that puts it on this list over some albums that are probably more celebrated (and certainly sold better). It’s difficult to put the difference into words, but I’d go back to a word that I used earlier – “sharpness.” It can be found in the vocals, in the lyrics, and in the spare instrumentation. Whether taking on the demise of Elvis (“Porcelain Monkey”), his own condition (“My Shit’s Fucked Up”), or even covering a Top 40 hit (“Back in the High Life Again”), Zevon sounds larger than life, and ready to take on the world.

“The shit that used to work? It don’t work now”

And for a little while, he did – the albums that followed “Life’ll Kill Ya,” “My Ride’s Here” and “The Wind,” were almost uniformly strong. But neither was quite as good as this one.

Life’ll Kill Ya, Warren Zevon (2000)

Produced by Paul Q. Kolderlie and Sean Slade

I Was In The House When The House Burned Down/Life’ll Kill Ya/Porcelain Monkey/For My Next Trick I’ll Need A Volunteer/I’ll Slow You Down/Hostage-O/Dirty Little Religion/Back in the High Life Again/My Shit’s Fucked Up/Fistful of Rain/Ourselves to Know/Don’t Let Us Get Sick

Random Notes on 9/11

My only trip to New York City was in June 2000, a special 40th birthday sojourn with my best friend since middle school to see Bruce Springsteen play at Madison Square Garden. I flew out of San Francisco on the Thursday night red-eye flight, landing at JFK early in the morning. The concert was Friday night and I didn’t have to fly back home until Sunday morning, so we had plenty of time to wander the city, although in a city with the magnificent scope of New York City, you can barely scratch the surface in two days. My wife had bought me a couple of instant cameras for the trip, and I happily snapped my way across the city. One of these photos was taken from the apartment where we stayed during the weekend, and the other was taken on a walk north, up from Greenwich Village, towards Times Square.

From Mark Evanier’s blog “News From Me” (which I highly recommend), I learned of the September 11 Television Archive, which includes links to the live network coverage from that day. Watching the NBC coverage from that morning, I was quickly able to come up with one answer to the question “what has changed in our lives since that day?” The initial coverage came from Katie Couric and Matt Lauer on The Today Show, and from the onset their utter confusion was clearly evident. Even after the second plane struck the World Trade Center, there was incredulity that what was happening could be a planned attack. At one point, Couric makes a statement along the lines of “something must be wrong with air traffic control.” That sounds utterly silly today, and I don’t point it out to make fun of Couric but simply to make the point that before 9/11, no one assumed that disasters were the result of terrorism. Contrast that to what happened earlier this week in San Diego, when conversations around something as simple as a massive power outage (and I use that term loosely, and not to under-estimate the significance of that event) were framed around the possibility of whether the event was a terrorist attack.

Paul Krugman, the economist and New York Times columnist, has a brief piece up on his blog today that is almost certain to make him the most hated man in America – at least for today. Titled “The Years of Shame,” Krugman seeks to make the point that what happened following 9/11 was shameful. That is a legitimate subject for dialogue, but the way Krugman goes about making the argument is utterly shameful in and of itself. First, he begins the column by asking, “Is it just me, or are the 9/11 commemorations oddly subdued?” Well, let’s see – we’re paying tribute and remembering people who lost their lives, some innocent victims and others heroes who sought to help those in distress. Isn’t “subdued” the appropriate way to pay tribute to those people? Krugman’s premise is utterly nonsensical.

But it is the way Krugman closes his column that I find so offensive:

“I’m not going to allow comments on this post, for obvious reasons.” [emphasis added]

This is a classic case of someone trying to have it both ways. Introduce a concept that is certain to be unpopular, and then essentially turn off the mike, and leave the room. Now that is shameful, not to mention utterly cowardly.

Always remember.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

"Sweeney Todd" - Tim Burton's Best?

Off the top of my head, I’m not sure I can think of a better match of artist and material than Tim Burton and “Sweeney Todd.” The sensibilities of Stephen Sondheim’s musical (which I’ve never seen) are a perfect match for the visual acumen and story-telling style of Burton, and the result is a movie that succeeds on almost every level.

And Johnny Depp makes the perfect Sweeney Todd. A tragic figure who has been wronged by life, the former Benjamin Barker decides to take out his revenge, both on the man who wronged him and the society that allowed it to happen, by becoming “the demon barber of Fleet Street.” And as anyone even slightly familiar with the story knows, his victims find their way into the meat pies of Mrs. Lovett, played with gusto as well as vulnerability by Helena Bonham Carter.

The cast is uniformly superb (not to mention a veritable who’s who of “Harry Potter” alums), from Alan Rickman as the evil Judge Turpin and Timothy Spall as his sadistic sidekick Beadle, to Jamie Campbell Bower as the young and idealistic Anthony and Jayne Wiesner as Johanna, the linchpin for everyone’s actions in the movie. I’m no expert on Broadway musicals or the work of Stephen Sondheim, but the songs, while not “catchy” in the traditional sense, are brilliantly intricate, providing all the exposition one needs to follow the story, so that the actors can focus on the characters and their actions.

The movie also has a magnificent, dark look, thanks to the cinematography of Dariusz Wolski, the production design by Dante Ferretti, the set direction by Francesca Lo Schiavo, and the art direction by Gary Freeman and David Warren. Together, they create a London that is lot scarier, not to mention more convincing, than the Gotham City of Burton’s “Batman.”

My only complaint? I’m not really sure we needed to see quite that much spurting blood. But aside from that, I’d call “Sweeney Todd” an unqualified success.

Friday, September 09, 2011

American Top 40 Flashback - Glen Campbell

This is not my favorite Glen Campbell song - "Wichita Lineman" wins that title, hands down - but it's grown on me quite a bit over the years. When it came out, I hated it. Listening to it now, I still wish Glen (or his producer) would have dispensed with the strings, but to be fair a lot of country songs went this route during that era.

There was a feature about Glen in a recent issue of Rolling Stone, and along with the release of his new album comes the sad news that he has early onset Alzheimer's Disease. The article was tough to read; frankly, Glen doesn't sound like he has any business being out on tour right now (it's being billed as a "farewell tour"), which makes me wonder whether there is some exploitation going on here.

My favorite Glen Campbell memory is of a long-ago Tonight Show appearance, circa 1979 or 1980, when Johnny asked Glen to play a tune "at the desk." He picked up his acoustic guitar and began to play, and it was only at that moment that I realized that he was one hell of a guitar player. And to be honest, I didn't realize until I read the RS article that Glen was an unofficial Beach Boy for a good chunk of the sixties.

For all his ups and downs, the man has had a pretty solid career.

"Rhinestone Cowboy," Glen Campbell, the #1 song this week in 1975.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

"The Black Dahlia" - A Noble Failure

So here I thought I was all caught up on the Netflix reports, but it turns out I was wrong. Last night I picked up the sticky note that Son #2 left on my computer (for the purpose of throwing it away), and realized that I’d forgotten to write about “The Black Dahlia,” directed by Brian DePalma and starring Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart and Scarlett Johannson.

The movie is based on the James Ellroy novel, and before I go any further I need to note that Ellroy’s “The Black Dahlia” and “L.A Confidential” are two of my all-time favorite novels. “L.A. Confidential” is a perfect 10, and “Black Dahlia” is close – somewhere between 9 and 9.5. They’re both part of Ellroy’s “L.A. Quartet” (the other two being “The Big Nowhere” and “White Jazz”), and they share the same sensibilities – the stories they tell are dark, gritty and violent, and they focus on the least attractive parts of the human condition. What they also have in common is a story that spans several decades. There are secrets at play in each book – dark, twisted secrets – and part of the joy in reading each novel is seeing how those secrets unveil themselves, like a flower that has just been bathed in sunlight. I remember actually getting goose bumps when I was reading the last section of “L.A. Confidential,” because Ellroy’s writing and plotting was so brilliant.

Because of the scope and intricacy of each book’s plot, neither one was ideal for adaptation to the big screen. And as an aside, Ellroy is notoriously fussy about his books being turned into movies; I remember asking him at a late 1980s book signing what he thought of “Cop,” the film starring James Woods that had been adapted from Ellroy’s “Blood on the Moon.” “It sucked!” he bellowed, adding “they only filmed half of my book!” The challenge with “Dahlia” and “Confidential” is that it to fully capture the books’ scope, each film would have to have been at least four hours long. But Curtis Hanson (the director of “Confidential”) and Brian DePalma each gave it a shot, and for that we should be grateful.


“L.A. Confidential,” even though it omitted a major portion of the book, was an unqualified success – a great movie that will stand the test of time, and only get better with age (the result, it should be added, was fully endorsed by Ellroy). Unfortunately “The Black Dahlia,” which is forced to compress its story in a similar fashion, completely misses the mark in terms of capturing the spirit of Ellroy’s book. It’s not a bad movie per se, and it’s definitely a pretty movie to look at. But where “Confidential” captured the grittiness and the violence of Ellroy’s work, “Dahlia” comes across as a mere facsimile. Part of the problem is that the movie is too pretty to look at. Even the scenes of violence, such as those where the two main characters are beating each other’s brains out in the middle of a boxing ring, don’t feel entirely authentic.

Another problem is with the performances. It’s hard to remember now that when “L.A. Confidential” came out, no one had heard of Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce. Both are magnificent in the movie, and almost as good are Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger, James Cromwell, and David Strathairn. By comparison, “Black Dahlia” stands no chance. Both Aaron Eckhart and Scarlett Johannson have been wonderful in other roles, but here they’re merely adequate. Josh Hartnett does his best, but he doesn’t quite have the gravitas to pull off a role like this.

In short? Well made, but ultimately disappointing. And it certainly won’t make anyone forget the book.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

All Tangled Up

I never would have guessed that we'd end up watching a Disney flick on Netlix Streaming. But we did, and I'm glad we did.

The movie was "Tangled," the 2010 retelling of the Rapunzel legend. And what can I say? No one does animation like Disney, and the movie was positively delightful. Perhaps not quite in the upper echelon of latter-day Disney classics ("Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King"), but close enough.

It seems that every Disney movie has a classic, non-speaking animal character - and "Tangled" doesn't disappoint in that regard, with Maximus, a horse that seems to think he's a bloodhound.

Sometimes, you don't need complicated drama or intricate plots. All you need is some top-tier animation, with a story that brings a smile to the face. In that regard, "Tangled" scores on all counts.

Monday, September 05, 2011

"Before Sunrise" (1995)

Alright, I have an admittedly insane idea, but if I don't ask you this it's just, uh, you know, it's gonna haunt me the rest of my life.


Um... I want to keep talking to you, y'know. I have no idea what your situation is, but, uh, but I feel like we have some kind of, uh, connection. Right?

Yeah, me too.

Yeah, right, well, great. So listen, so here's the deal. This is what we should do. You should get off the train with me here in Vienna, and come check out the town.

The plot of “Before Sunrise” is very simple. A young American man meets a young French woman on a train that is crossing Europe. The man is flying back to the States out of Vienna the following day, and he doesn’t have enough money to spend the night in a hotel. He talks the woman, who is on her way to Paris, into spending that last night with him. They spend their time together exploring Vienna. At various times find themselves on a ferris wheel, in a cafĂ©, having their palms read, sitting in a church, drinking wine in a park, or just walking.

Even though I reject most of the religious things I can't help but feeling for all those people that come here lost or in pain, guilt, looking for some kind of answers. It fascinates me how a single place can join so much pain and happiness for so many generations.

And talking. Just conversation between two people. There is an obvious attraction between the two of them, but that’s not what the movie is about. For that matter, the movie isn’t really “about” anything, there’s no plot, per se. Just two people talking, sometimes about ideas, sometimes about their lives, sometimes about the things that are unfolding around them. They’re quite obviously intelligent people, but they aren’t going out of their way to impress or sound as if they were smart. They’re sincere, and they seem like real people.

I always feel this pressure of being a strong and independent icon of womanhood, and without making it look my whole life is revolving around some guy. But loving someone, and being loved means so much to me. We always make fun of it and stuff. But isn't everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?

The movie stars Ethan Hawke as Jesse, and Julie Delpy as Celine. They are both terrific. Kudos also go to director Richard Linklater, who also wrote the screenplay, with Kim Krizan. A movie like this is obviously not everyone’s cup of tea, but you can count me among its fans. Like “Lost in Translation,” it is a movie that is less important for what happens than it is for how its characters interact, and what they say to each other.

A movie like "Before Sunrise" is thought-provoking, because you can imagine something like this happening in real life. Two human beings making a connection, one spiced with mystery because at the end, you’re left wondering what will happen to these two people, and what will happen to their relationship…do they even have a relationship? [Of course, the puzzle is solved somewhat by the existence of “Before Sunset,” which revisits the same characters, ten years later. I’m looking forward to finding out what happened]. But that’s OK, because life is a never-ending mystery.

You couldn’t possibly know why a night like this is so important to me right now. But it is.

"Popular Crime" by Bill James

Bill James explains in the first chapter of the book that “Popular Crime” is about three things: famous crimes (with an emphasis on crimes that occurred in the United States after 1880), crime in general, and crime books. A far cry from the Baseball Abstracts, for sure – but as I’ve always said, Bill James is a great writer, even setting aside that for which he is justifiably famous – a revolution in the way the baseball establishment views the game and the game’s statistics.

James has something to say about most of the famous crimes you’ve heard of at one point or another during your lifetime – Lizzie Borden, the Kennedy Assassination, the Boston Strangler, O.J. Simpson, The Black Dahlia, Caryl Chessman, the “In Cold Blood” murders, Sam Sheppard, the Zodiac, and Ted Bundy, among many others. On most of those, he sets forth what he believes happened, particularly if what he thinks happened differs from the verdict delivered by the justice system. For example, he very much doubts that Albert DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler, and very much believes that Sam Sheppard was involved in the planning of his wife’s murder. The assessment that is bound to draw the most attention is how James interprets the evidence in the assassination of President Kennedy, where he reaches a conclusion – that Oswald fired two shots, but that the fatal shot was an accidental bullet coming from the gun of a secret service agent – that I’ve never even heard offered as a theory (which may be only because I haven’t been paying attention).

That last point may be enough to scare some people away from the book, but to that I would reply, “be careful.” James has spent his entire life challenging conventional wisdom, and more often than not he’s come out on the winning side. It’s like the old E.F. Hutton commercial slogan – “when Bill James talks, people should listen.”

James also offers his thoughts on what it would take to reform the prison system (thought-provoking, though I have no idea whether his concepts are even realistic), and attempts to establish a “scoring system” for trials by which one can judge whether justice in a particular case was, in fact, served. And as promised, James also makes comments, mostly brief ones, on dozens of crime books written about the murders and other assorted crimes he writes about in the book.

If you’ve ever read a book by Bill James and enjoyed it, then you’ll enjoy “Popular Crime.” It’s a refreshing look at topics which often spawn writing that is overly academic and self-important.

Catching Up Part Deux

Moving on through the Netflix backlog.

The 40 Year Old Virgin. I think I've now seen somewhere between 4 and 6 movies that Judd Apatow had a hand in, either producing, directing, writing, or some combination of those three. I think he's yet to make a movie that will stand the test of time as a classic, but "The 40 Year Old Virgin" is probably my favorite of those I've seen so far. Mind you, I think it could have been a lot better, and probably funnier, by toning down some of the more outrageous components (e.g., Elizabeth Banks' character), and focusing more on the relationship between Andy (Steve Carell) and Trish (Catherine Keener). I won't deny that some of the raunchier stuff is really funny, but the end result was a movie with a bit of a split personality.

Due Date. Basically, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" updated for the 21st century, without the trains. Has its funny moments, but falls far short of the earlier film for one key reason - Robert Downey Jr.'s character. I love Downey Jr., but his character in "Due Date" is almost entirely unsympathetic - an asshole, really. And unlike Steve Martin in "Planes," there's no gradual warming over the course of the movie. Almost until the end, he treats the Zach Galifianakis character cruelly, and then all of a sudden in the last scene he's the cuddly teddy bear. Perhaps that makes for a more believable character, but it also made for a less enjoyable movie.

This Is Spinal Tap. Yes, it's true - I never saw this movie in its entirety until about two weeks ago. Shameful, I know. I'm not sure what I was thinking (or whether I was thinking at all), because of course it's brilliant - maintaining the joke all the way through the end, when the credits are rolling. I'm still not quite sure how they managed to pull it off.

One more to go, but that one gets its own post.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Way Behind, Catching Up

Using golf parlance, I've been "put on the clock" by Son #2 for getting up to date on the Netflix reviews. So I'm going to give it a shot; however, caveat emptor - admittedly I don't have much to say about a couple of these movies.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I have to confess that I had trouble staying awake for part of this one. I think that had more to do with me being tired than me not liking the movie. But this is not the kind of movie you really want to fall asleep during and then have to write about afterward. Many of the individual scenes were impressive, but overall I found it to be less than the sum of its parts. But that could be my fault.

The Way Back. I have to admit that I'd never even heard of this movie. For that I deserve another demerit, since it was directed by Peter Weir, who was at the helm for three of my all-time favorites - "Witness," "Master and Commander" and "The Truman Show" - as well as several other very distinguished films. This one tells the true story of a group of prisoners who escaped from a Siberian prison camp during World War II, and then embarked on a 4,000 mile walk to India. While I understand there is some difference in opinion as to whether this particular walk actually occurred the way it was written by one of the survivors, that doesn't really matter with respect to considering the merits of the movie. As I would have expected from a Peter Weir film, "The Way Back" tells its story very effectively, and without an excess of sentiment. The cast, which features Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess and Saorise Ronan, is uniformly excellent. I'm not sure I'd place "The Way Back" in the highest echelon of films by Weir, I have no problem recommending it.

Where the Wild Things Are. If you really want to get a handle for what this movie is all about, you should read Sheila O'Malley's terrific review. As always, Sheila does a wonderful job of getting to the heart of the matter, and putting into words thoughts that most people would have difficulty expressing, even out loud. Now, having said that, I have to say that the movie did not connect for me the way it did for Sheila. I really wanted to like it that much, but for whatever reason, that special spark was missing. I also have to admit that I was really distracted by James Gandolfini's vocal performance - because while I agree with Sheila that Gandolfini does a great job voicing Carol, for the life of me I could not separate that voice from Tony Soprano. The movie is a marvelous achievement - it just didn't quite connect with me as it did for others.

127 Hours. On the other hand, 127 Hours connected with me to a degree that caught me by surprise. I was not expected to be moved by the movie, but I was. I think the success of the movie rests on two factors - first, director Danny Boyle does a wonderful job of filling in the blanks in the character of Aron Ralston (Franco) well before the accident that provides the movie with its title. You feel like you know Ralston, and that is what makes what happens after "the rock" so effective and so affecting. You start with a guy who seems like a lot of fun, but perhaps one who would not be accused of having a lot of depth. What makes the story moving once Ralson is trapped is the depth that he finds within himself, a maturity that perhaps was lacking before, that allows him to make the decision that ultimately saves his life. He comes to the conclusion that life is worth living, and not for the reasons one might suspect. James Franco deserved all of the accolades he received for the role, nailing perfectly both the fun-loving and spiritual sides of Ralston.

OK, that's four down, and four to go. Stay tuned!

Friday, September 02, 2011

All Good Things Must Come To An End

For one week only, we'll deviate from the American Top 40 flashback, and honor the unofficial end of summer with "All Summer Long," which may be my favorite Beach Boys song.