Monday, November 26, 2012

"The Way"

The story of "The Way" is simple - Martin Sheen plays a well-to-do doctor (ophthalmologist) who, while on the golf course one day, receives a call from overseas that his nearly estranged son (played by his real son, Emilio Estevez) has died, while attempting to make the pilgrimage on the El camino del Santiago - The Way of St. James.  When he travels to France to retrieve the remains, he decides - somewhat on a whim, so it would seem - to have the remains cremated, and to make the pilgrimage himself, spreading his son's ashes along the way.  And along the way, he meets a number of interesting characters, three who join him - a fat and sometimes jolly Dutchman, a Canadian woman who is wound so tight that you expect her to implode at any moment, and a talkative Irish writer who...well, can't stop talking.  Naturally, they all have their stories, and their reasons for making the trek.

While directed by Estevez, the movie clearly belongs to Sheen.  You could argue that he's simply channeling Josiah Bartlet, but there's little doubt in my mind that the movie's emotional impact - and there are quite a few moments that grab you and tighten the throat - is due solely to his presence as an actor, and his ability to raise even the most potentially trite moments to something that is emotional, affecting, and entirely believable.  Even at those moments when you're saying to yourself that what you're seeing on the screen is too good to be true, that moments like that don't happen in real life, Sheen is there to bring things back to Earth.

It's not a great film, but it's certainly an earnest one, and well worth watching.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Notre Dame Wakes Up the Echoes

Most of my sports fan friends seem to firmly be in the "hate Notre Dame" camp, but I'm among those who believe that the sport of college football - and any sport, for that matter - is enriched when teams like Notre Dame are great.  Notre Dame and (in all likelihood) Alabama in the National Championship game?  Who could possibly have a problem with that?

Right now it's fashionable to say that Notre Dame doesn't deserve to be in the championship game.  While it's true that they won ugly a lot of the time, it's hard to argue with 12-0.  And it's not like they had the softest schedule in the world - six bowl eligible teams (would be seven, had Miami not self-imposed a bowl ban), and two of the country's best teams - Stanford and Oklahoma. 

I see no reason why the Irish can't beat either Alabama or Georgia in the title game.  It reminds me of the 1973 season, when the Irish had a similar team go up against a heavily-favored Alabama squad in the Sugar Bowl.  That one ended up 24-23 in favor of Notre Dame, and we may be looking at a similar score in January.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


In "Persepolis," Marjane Satrapi tells the story, in graphic novel form, of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.  A clever, funny and headstrong young girl, Satrapi was wise beyond her years, but still struggled to grasp changes that perhaps only a young child could see were beyond logic and reason. 

The obvious comparison, both in form and content, is "Maus," Art Spiegelman's account of how his parents endured and ultimately survived the Holocaust.  Like Spiegelman, Satrapi was blessed with loving and supportive parents, with the common sense to understand that the change occurring in their country was turning into something even more horrible and oppressive than what preceded it.  There are some scenes in "Persepolis" that are so close to things that occurred in "Maus" that it's almost scary - and it's a tribute to Satrapi that she is able to present the story in a way that makes you understand, if not endorse, what the country was turning into.

The version I found in a used book store is just the first part of the story - "The Story of a Childhood" is the subtitle - and I look forward to reading the second part, "The Return."  Overall, highly recommended.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Top 50 Albums of All Time, #27 - "Late for the Sky"

Stephen Holden's review of "Late for the Sky," RS October 1974
For a very long time, I would have chosen "Running on Empty" as my favorite Jackson Browne album.  It's still a great album, and because of the concept - songs recorded live in concert, mixed with songs recorded on the tour bus, in a hotel room, and elsewhere - it still has a spontaneity that has sometimes been missing, even from his best work.

But over time, I've come to believe that "Late for the Sky" represents Jackson Browne at his very best - the most perfect combination of the personal and political that he's managed to date, and probably the best that he will ever come up with.

In his review of the album for Rolling Stone, Stephen Holden wrote that the overriding theme of the album was "the exploration of romantic possibility in the shadow of apocalypse," going on to say that "no contemporary male singer/songwriter has dealt so honestly with the vulnerability of romantic idealism and the pain of adjustment from youthful narcissism to adult survival as Browne has in this album." I wonder what Browne might say about that latter comment, given that he was only 26 at the time the album was released - a man certainly with a lot of maturing yet to do.  And let's face it - Browne's strength has always been his romantic idealism, even as he was writing songs like "Running on Empty," "Lives in the Balance," and "Looking East."

Musically, the album bridges the gap between singer/songwriter and all-out rocker, which I suspect Browne has always wanted to be (unlike many of his L.A. contemporaries, Browne dearly loves and respects the music of Bruce Springsteen, and even invited Bruce to handle his induction speech to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).  David Lindley, with whom Browne has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship, is absolutely brilliant on electric guitar and fiddle, Jai Winding contributes beautiful organ and piano lines, and Doug Haywood on bass and Larry Zack on drums make a potent if understated rhythm section.  The music Browne contributes is hauntingly beautiful - I don't know how many hundreds of times I've listened to "Late for the Sky" and "Fountain of Sorrow," and they almost never fail to raise goosebumps on my arms.

Jackson Browne isn't everyone's cup of tea, and there are people who seem to delight in making fun of him.  In my mind, he is - without question - one of the most important American musical artists of the past 50 years.  And "Late for the Sky" is his greatest, most cohesive album.

Late for the Sky (1974)
Produced by Jackson Browne and Al Schmitt

Late for the Sky/Fountain of Sorrow/Farther On/The Late Show/The Road and the Sky/For a Dancer/Walking Slow/Before the Deluge

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

Just a few reasons to be thankful this year:

- My wife.
- My sons.
- Our cats (well, most of the time).
- the San Francisco Giants.
- Bill Simmons.
- Joe Posnanski.
- the CSBA expatriates.
- my old friends at CSBA.
- my new friends at CASBO and the Capitol.
- Bruce Springsteen.
- Bob Dylan.
- Neil Young.
- Quentin Tarantino.
- Christopher Nolan.
- David Fincher.
- Disney hiring Lawrence Kasdan to write the next "Star Wars" movie.

Have a wonderful day, everyone! 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Giving Thanks for Tom Joad

I always pull "The Ghost of Tom Joad" out around this time of year, since it was released just before Thanksgiving in 1995.  It's one of my favorite albums by Bruce, and even though I know this is a decidedly minority opinion, I enjoy it more than "Nebraska," its closest kin in the Springsteen canon.  It's almost as bleak as the earlier album, but more tuneful.  But the music is subtle, and sneaks up on you - you have to give it time to sink in.

Bruce was living in my home state at the time, and I almost wish that he'd called the album "California" - because several of its songs are rooted in things that were happening here at the time.  It seems hard to believe now, but in 1995 you could have called California a red state and not be laughed out of the room.  The Republican wave that swept the country in 1994 had crested in California, leading to what had seemed unthinkable just a year before - the GOP captured the State Assembly, and it was only because Willie Brown was a lot smarter than his counterparts that the Dems were able to hold onto the house - he turned one GOP member, resulting in a 40-40 deadlock that gave new meaning to the term "political gridlock."

For some reason, Governor Pete Wilson - a decent enough man, and seemingly on the moderate side - somehow interpreted this as a mandate to run for President, and a mandate to base his campaign on on effort to dehumanize and expel "illegal immigrants" from the state.  It was a mean-spirited, out of character move, and it came as no big surprise that it crashed and burned in no short order.  And, proving the law of political unintended consequences, it pushed the state's burgeoning Latino population straight into the arms of the Democratic party, where it has remained ever since.

This, plus the severe economic downturn of the moment (not just in California, but in Texas and all over the country), served as the context for "Tom Joad," and songs like "The Ghost of Tom Joad," "Highway 29," "Sinaloa Cowboys," "The Line," "Balboa Park," "The New Timer," and most of all "Across the Border," with these heart-rending and beautiful lines:

Tonight we'll sing the songs
I'll dream of you my corazon
And tomorrow my heart will be strong

And may the saints' blessing and grace
Carry me safely into your arms
There across the border

For what are we
Without hope in our hearts
That someday we'll drink from God's blessed waters

And eat the fruit from the vine
I know love and fortune will be mine
Somewhere across the border

"The Ghost of Tom Joad" - always a reason to be thankful.

With All The Trimmings

An annual tradition - my posting of this wonderful Garrison Keillor essay on Thanksgiving.  It originally appeared in TIME Magazine in November 1995.

With All The Trimmings by Garrison Keillor

It is a wicked world in which the power of any individual to cause suffering is so great and the power to do good is so slight; but here we are, the week of our beloved national feast, our annual homecoming, and signs of loving Providence are everywhere around us.

I am thankful to be alive. In Minnesota the lakes are freezing over in late November, and some men who envision a leadership role for themselves take their snowmobiles out onto the thin ice and fall through and drown in the cold water--their last thought in this life: "Boy, was this dumb or what?"--and so far I have not been one of them. Caution was bred into me: I never played with guns or made a hobby of pharmaceuticals or flung myself off a cliff while clinging to a kite. I read books instead. I read books in which men hearken to wild imperatives, and that is enough for me.

I am thankful for living in a place where winter gets good and cold and you need to build a fire in a stove and wrap a blanket around you. Cold draws people closer together. Crime drops. Acts of kindness proliferate between strangers. I have been in Los Angeles on a balmy day in January and seen the glum faces of people poking at their salads in outdoor restaurants, brooding over their unproduced screenplays. People in Minnesota are much cheerier, lurching across the ice, leaning into the wind as sheets of snow swirl up in their faces. Because they feel needed and because cold weather takes the place of personal guilt. Maybe you haven't been the shining star you should have been, but now is not the time to worry about it.

I am thankful for E-mail, which allows us to keep in touch with our children, and for the ubiquity of fresh coffee, the persistence of good newspapers, the bravery of artists, the small talk of sales clerks, the general competence and good humor I encounter every day. None of us is self-sufficient, despite what some politicians claim. Every good thing, every morsel of food comes directly from God, who expects us to pay attention and be joyful, a large task for people from the Midwest, where our idea of a compliment is, "It could have been worse."

I am thankful, of course, for Thanksgiving, a joyful and simple day that never suffered commercial exploitation and so is the same day as when I was a boy and we played touch football on the frozen turf and came to the table sweaty and in high spirits and kept our eyes open for flying food. My sister had good moves; you'd look away for an instant, and she'd flip her knife and park a pat of butter on your forehead. Nobody throws food at our table now, but in the giddiness of the festive moment, I have held a spoonful of cranberry for a moment and measured the distance to Uncle Earl, his gleaming head, like El Capitan, bent over the plate.

As I grew up, Thanksgiving evolved perfectly. It used to be that men had the hard work, which is to sit in the living room and make conversation about gas mileage and lower back pain, and women got the good job, which is cooking. Women owned the franchise, and men milled around the trough mooing, and if any man dared enter the kitchen, he was watched closely lest he touch something and damage it permanently.

But I bided my time, and the aunts who ran the show grew old, and young, liberated lady relatives came along who were proud of their inability to cook, and one year I revolted and took over the kitchen--and now I am It. The Big Turkey. Mr. Masher. The Pie Man. Except for gravy and pie crust, which take patience and practice, Thanksgiving dinner is as easy to make as it is to eat. You're a right-handed batter in a park that's 150 feet down the left-field line—it doesn't take a genius to poke it out.

Years of selective breeding have produced turkeys that are nothing but cooking pouches with legs. You rub the bird's inside with lemon, stuff it with bread dressing seasoned with sage and tarragon and jazzed up withchunks of sausage and nuts and wild rice, shove it in a hot oven; meanwhile, you whomp up yams and spuds and bake your pies.

The dirty little secret of the dinner is melted animal fats: in all the recipes, somewhere it says, "Melt a quarter-pound of butter." Think of the fancy dishes you slaved over that became disasters, big dishes that were lost in the late innings. Here's roast turkey, which tastes great, and all you do is baste. You melt butter, you nip at the wine, and when the turkey is done, you seat everyone, carve the bird, sing the doxology and pass the food.

The candles are lit in the winter dusk, and we look at one another, the old faces and some new ones, and silently toast the Good Life, which is here before us. Enjoy the animal fats and to hell with apologies. No need to defend our opinions or pretend to be young and brilliant. We still have our faculties, and the food still tastes good to us.

Walt Whitman said, "I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God's name." Thanksgiving is one of those signed letters. Anyone can open it and see what it says.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

In Praise of Jeff Tedford

The end was inevitable after what happened on Saturday, but it is sad nonetheless.  I think I'm old enough to qualify now as an "Old Blue," but unlike most of them - I'm thinking in particular of the ones who rain down boos on the field, and leave games early in the third quarter - you won't hear me do anything but praise the tenure of Jeff Tedford.

No, we never made it to the Rose Bowl, and no, we never advanced quite as far as Stanford has in the past couple of years.  But there's no question that Tedford was one of, if not the best, football coaches that Cal has ever had.  And for anyone who remembers the dark, dark days of the Joe Kapp, Keith Gilbertson and Tom Holmoe eras, even a season hovering around .500 was a blessing.  And let's not forget these tidbits, courtesy of the official press statement:

- Under Tedford, Cal compiled an 82-57 from 2002-11.

- Under Tedford, Cal advanced to bowl games eight times (would have been nine, but the team was on probation and ineligible for a bowl in Tedford's first year).

- Tedford won more games than any previous Cal coach, and also owns school records for most bowl wins (5), most games coached (139) and most conference victories (50).

- And perhaps most importantly, Tedford is tied with Pappy Waldorf  for most Big Game wins (7).  Including, I might add, five in a row for the first time in the rivalry's history.

Because this is Cal, the press release makes a big deal about the fact that the team's academic results have fallen in recent years.  So we are treated with this quote from Sandy Barbour:

"Cal football is integral to our department and our university, and its influence can be felt well beyond the walls of Memorial Stadium.  The program clearly serves as an important part of the connective tissue that binds our community together, and it is imperative that Cal football be recognized as a leader in competitive success, academic achievement and community engagement."

Please.  Does anyone really think we'd be reading this announcement if the Bears had gone 10-2 this year?  A more honest statement might have said something along the lines of "we just forked over a small fortune in private bonds to finance the renovation of our stadium, and in order to keep the payments going we need those Old Blues in the stands funneling money to the Alumni Association and elsewhere."

Thank you, Jeff Tedford, for some fun and exciting years at Cal.  May you find success elsewhere.

The Sky's the Limit

I've enjoyed reading the many James Bond retrospectives that have appeared concurrently with the release of "Skyfall," Daniel Craig's third outing as Bond.  What's fun is the diversity of opinion - people largely agree on what constitute the great Bond films, but after that it's a real crapshoot.  For example, I've seen "Quantum of Solace" as high as #11, as well as all the way down at the bottom.  Likewise, everyone seems to agree that "The Spy Who Loved Me" was Roger Moore's best Bond, but after that they're all over the map.  The Connerys tend to be in the upper tier, the Daltons in the bottom third, and the Lazenby - well, that one seems to be a love it or hate it proposition. 
I don't consider myself qualified to come up with a ranking of the entire catalogue, but I can say that I've enjoyed every Bond movie I've ever seen - even "Quantum of Solace."  I grew up with the Roger Moore Bonds, and the first one I saw in a theater (a drive-in, no less) was "Live and Let Die" - which, by the way, still has what I consider the most over-the top (and unintentionally amusing) death scene in any movie.  I also enjoyed the Pierce Brosnan Bonds a great deal, and think he's been underrated as an actor - personally, I believe he could have pulled off the "dark Bond" that Daniel Craig has perfected over the past 7 years.

Having said all of that, there is little question that "Skyfall" is one of the very best Bonds - and may even one day be considered the very best.  As others have written, it is a throwback to the past, with an antagonist (a terrific Javier Bardem, teetering on the brink of hamminess but never quite crossing over) less concerned with conquering the world than seeking revenge for more personal concerns.  James Bond is not a comedian in this movie, nor is he a superman - he's actually pretty screwed up, and if you watch and listen closely you can pick up some hints why.  That doesn't mean the movie isn't without humor, but it's certainly no laugh-fest on the level of something like "Moonraker."  In a way, "Skyfall" is almost like a reboot and an homage in one - although the entire enterprise is deadly serious, one can't help but crack a smile as each nod to the past occurs.

My very favorite moment in the movie, and I won't give it away although it's easy enough to find if you Google the title of the film, is the meaning of "Skyfall."  In the past, "Skyfall" would have been some complicated plot of world domination, most likely led by a Mr. Evil-type character with a big ring on his finger and a persian cat sitting on his lap.  Not this time, and when the reveal happens, it is a true moment of inspiration - the kind that leaves you sitting there thinking, "damn it, I wish I had thought of that - and why didn't I?"

So kudos all around.  I haven't always been a fan of Sam Mendes' films, but he does a terrific job here, injecting a sense of relevance into the Bond franchise that hasn't always been there in the past.  Judi Dench is amazing as always, and this is without question her best and most affecting portrayal of "M."  Ralph Fiennes is his predictably good self, and even I was smart enough to figure out where that particular plot point was heading.  And the reinvention of "Q" is a master-stroke: respectful to the past, but also a complete renovation of the character to fit today's times and technology.  Even the "Bond Girls" are strong - and seem like real people, as opposed to caricatures.  And hey, Adele's song is pretty great too.

In the end, there really isn't much not to like.  And at the end of the day, I don't really care where "Skyfall" ends up in the Bond canon - all I know is that it's one of the best films of 2012.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Tale of Two Teams and Two Coaches

One of many big screen TVs at Charlie's Italian in Redondo Beach.
Heard you missed me; well, I'm back. 

On Saturday, I had the good fortune to watch the USC-UCLA game with Son #1 in a sports bar filled with fans of both teams, in Redondo Beach.  It had been so long since I'd watched a game with such a large group of people that I'd forgotten how much fun it could be.  Needless to say the UCLA fans left a very happy bunch, but throughout the game fans on both sides made their fair share of noise.

This has been an amazing season for both teams, for very different reasons.  USC began the season as the #1 team in AP's preseason poll, and with one game left - against top-ranked Notre Dame - they are out of the Top 25, with four losses.  Matt Barkley, who was the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy before the season began, won't be making the trip to New York City at all, and if he does it's only because the Heisman folks are being charitable and want to honor him for returning to finish his final season.  Lane Kiffin, excoriated for leaving Tennessee in the lurch, was finally beginning to garner some respect for his results with the Trojans, and for all intents and purposes it appeared that the team was poised to give Oregon a run for their money.

Meanwhile, UCLA began the season with a new coach, Jim Mora, and if anyone was touting him as the savior of a team that has disappointed its fans for too many years to count, then I must have missed it.  The Bruins got off to a good start, but following consecutive losses - including a blowout in Berkeley against Cal - it appeared that another .500 season was in the offing.

As the old cliche goes, there is a reason that they play the games.  And now, also with one regular season game left on the schedule, UCLA finds itself with an outside shot to finish in a BCS bowl, and certainly has a shot at winning the Pac-12 Championship.  Even if it does neither, Bruin fans will long remember this season as what could be looked upon in years to come as the start of something really big.

On the field Saturday - for the first time in 51 years, it would rain during the game - UCLA looked like the team with more overall talent, looked like the team with more motivation, and looked like the team that was better coached - by a wide margin.  And even though the Trojans put up a valiant battle after falling behind 24-0, in the end it wasn't enough, and for only the second time in 14 years, the Bruins are the kings of Los Angeles football.

Not to be overly dramatic, but it's hard to put into words how disastrous this season has been for USC.  Athletic Director Pat Haden gave his vote of confidence to Kiffin on Sunday, but frankly I think Haden is lying  - and if he isn't, he should be.  With Barkley out, it doesn't seem likely that the Trojans can beat the Irish next week, and even if they do win, an 8-4 season is not what the faithful had in mind back in August.  8-4 is a successful season for many teams, including my own alma mater, Cal.  8-4 is a disaster when you enter the season ranked at #1 with the nation's leading Heisman candidate.

Was Saturday the harbinger of a new era for L.A. football?  Only time will tell.  But right now, it sure looks like Jim Mora is doing for UCLA what Pete Carroll did for USC a decade ago.  And if that happens, it would be a seismic shift of historic proportions.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Closing the book on another election

I used to write about politics on this site a lot more than I do now (hardly ever), but a presidential election is a big deal (aren't you glad you have me to confirm these things for you?), particularly one that was this interesting, so a few words would seem to be in order.

First things first - up until the early evening of Election Day, when it was apparent to everyone outside of the Fox News studio that the President was about to be elected to a second term, I thought Mitt Romney was going to be our next President.  President Obama had seemed off his game since his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in early September, where he delivered an uncharacteristically lifeless speech that never came close to threatening Bill Clinton's status as the greatest speaker within the Democratic Party.

After that, he clearly lost the first debate to Romney (I remember texting to a close friend, "WTF is going on?"), and did no better than achieve a draw in the other two.  Well, truth be told I can't really comment on the final debate, since I was devoted to other, more important pursuits - namely, Game 7 of the National League Championship Series.  But I saw enough of the clips afterward to know that it wasn't exactly a ringing victory for the President.  As we got closer to Election Day, I found it hard to believe that Nate Silver's numbers could be that right, and coupled with accurate accounts of Obama crowds that were a fraction the size of those that greeted him in 2008, it just seemed to me that the table was set for a narrow but painful loss.

Needless to say, I was wrong about that, and now Nate Silver is well on his way to becoming the most famous statistician in the world, and since Bill James made a name for himself with his annual Baseball Abstracts.  It's worth noting, for those who might be inclined to poo-poo the field of baseball statistics, that Silver once did a stint with The Baseball Prospectus.

And on Election Night, the President delivered a speech that was so moving and so conciliatory that it did two things - one, it made goose bumps stand up on my back, and two, it prompted me to send an email to another close friend with the comment, "where was THAT Obama during the campaign?"

I won't embed the entire speech here, but you should really check it out, even if you're not a fan of the president, because political oratory really doesn't get much better than this.  If you have just a moment, then fast forward to the final three minutes, which are positively masterful and include these words:

"...We are not as divided as our politics suggest, we are not as cynical as the pundits believe.  We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions.  And we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states.  We are and forever will be the UNITED States of America..."

With that, a couple of random observations:

- I was already well on my way to becoming a Twitter addict, but the one-two punch of Hurricane Sandy and now the election has put me well over the top.  In both instances, Twitter was way ahead of any other medium in reporting what was going on.  An indispensable source of information.

- Karl Rove's meltdown was really something to see.  Given that FOX was already straggling behind the other networks in making calls for the president, it was pretty ridiculous for him to suggest that there might be some ulterior motive in FOX calling Ohio for the president.  If I was a rich guy inclined to throw millions of dollars into the fire of political contributions, I'd sure want some assurance that the guy managing that money knew what the hell he was talking about.

So now, we shall see.  There are plenty of challenges out there, and plenty of people prepared to contribute nothing more than roadblocks to the debate, I suppose in order to prove some sort of point.  It's bound to get ugly very soon, what with the fiscal cliff and all (and now, the whole Petraeus thing), but I'd like to be optimistic that the sides can come together and actually do what the president's campaign promised, which was to move us forward.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Great moments in movies that aren't great

There's little question that "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith" was the best of the prequels.  I wouldn't go so far as to call it a great movie, but it does have its moments.

One in particular that I'm thinking of - and was lucky enough to see last night, having flipped to the channel just in time - was that moment when Anakin and Padme are "looking" at each other from across the city, and Anakin is slowly sliding into the dark side of the force and Padme can seemingly sense that it is happening.  It's a great cinematic moment, and it sticks out like a sore thumb in this movie because it is quiet.  For once, Lucas (who really seems to have forgotten how to work with actors) keeps things quiet, and just lets the visual on the screen tell the story.

And then Threepio walks into the frame, there's a quick cut to Obi-Wan fighting General Grievous, and it's over.  Cue the loud sound effects.

I Voted

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Manhattan, 33 years later

Looking for a movie on Netflix Streaming with a running time that would result in the movie ending before SNL began, I was pleased to discover that Woody Allen's "Manhattan" has been added to the roster.

Watching it again after a very long time - I'm not sure I've seen it since the late '80s - I was surprised at how my reaction to it has changed over the years.  When it was released, I thought it was his best movie, and perhaps even his masterpiece.  Looking at it now, I'd still include it among his best, but not anywhere near the level of "Hannah and Her Sisters" or "Annie Hall."

The look of the film remains spectacular - the cinematography by Gordon Willis is magnificent, and Allen makes the most of the scenery - its almost as if the city is an unnamed character in the story.

It's the humans I had a problem with - not a single one of them seemed real to me.  Allen's character is exactly what you would expect it to be, but Diane Keaton alternates between annoying and exasperating, and Michael Murphy is such a loser that I wanted to smack him in the face by movie's end.  Of the primary cast, the only one who seems like a real person - and acts like a real adult, despite her age - is Mariel Hemingway.  But frankly, the romance between Allen and Hemingway, what with all that occurred in real life since then, struck me as more than a little creepy.  Generally I don't have a problem with age-gap relationships, but something about 42m/17f just seems wrong - even if the 17 year old is more emotionally mature than her elder.

There are a lot of great, even classic moments in the movie, but in the end it adds up to less than the sum of its parts.  Mind you, my judgment is in comparison to other Allen classics, and not movies in general.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Neil Young's a pill

Notwithstanding his long-voiced disdain for digital recording, I've always felt that Neil Young - almost along among major artists - fully embraced the musical freedom made possible by the digital age.

When other artists used the extra 25-40 minutes made possible in the CD format to turn 10-song albums into 16-song albums, Neil (sometimes with Crazy Horse, sometimes with his more mellow stoner buds) just made his songs longer - sometimes, well over 10 minutes long.  More guitar solos, longer guitar solos, and on occasion, the epic narrative - "Cortez the Killer" on steroids, if you will.

On Psychedelic Pill, Neil and Crazy Horse set out to test the boundaries of that freedom.  The first song, "Driftin' Back," is over 27 minutes long, or roughly 7 minutes longer than the amount of music that could be crammed on one side of an old-style vinyl LP (plus, there are three other songs longer than 16 minutes - and you thought Dylan's "Tempest" was an epic?).  We're getting into some serious Grateful Dead territory with that kind of song length - I mean, "Dark Star" isn't even that long.  And it sounds exactly what you would imagine a 27-minute song from Neil Young with Crazy Horse would sound like - verses that build into a crescendo in the chorus, with lots of guitar interplay between Neil and Frank Sampedro in between. 

And what is the song about?  The nightmare of recording in the digital age, of course (among other things that aren't as fun now that things are so modern).  Check out this verse:

When you hear my song now
You only get 5%
You used to get it all now
You used to feel it all
Blockin' out my anger
Blockin' out my anger
Blockin' out my anger
Blockin' out my anger

That's absolutely true, but then on the other hand, I don't remember a lot of 27-minute songs on those vinyl classics like "After the Gold Rush" and "Rust Never Sleeps."   In the end, there's something pretty funny (at least to me) about a band that takes full advantage of technology that didn't exist 30 years ago to rail on about said technology. 

Don't get me wrong - I love Neil Young, and I own more Neil Young albums than I do albums by Springsteen, or Dylan, or the Beatles, or even the Stones.  And Psychedelic Pill, the second Neil with Crazy Horse album we've been treated to this year, sounds great - a lot better than anything he's released in recent memory, in fact.  I'll be listening to it a lot, and since there are some mornings when 27 minutes is the perfect amount of running time for my modest ability, "Driftin' Back" will come in very handy.

Friday, November 02, 2012

American Top 40 Flashback - Eagles

If I had to pick one word to describe "Lyin' Eyes," it would be "hypnotic."  Around the time the song came out, Jon Landau criticized the band for having too much filler on their albums, a point I can agree with.  But he also used "Lyin' Eyes" as an example, arguing that there was no reason it needed to be more than six minutes long. 

I'm not so sure about that - it seems just fine to me, the way it is.  I wouldn't go so far as to say it's the band's best song, but it's certainly among their best.

Eagles, "Lyin' Eyes," at (or near) the top of the charts in the fall of 1975.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Suddenly...It's Christmas!

November 1?  Check.

Halloween directions coming down at Walgreens and Christmas decorations going up? Check.

Red cups at Starbucks?  Check.

Of course, all of this can only mean one thing:


Suddenly it's Christmas, right after Halloweeen.
Forget about Thanksgiving;
It's just a buffet in between.
There's lights and tinsel in the windows;
They're stocking up the shelves;
Santa's slaving at the North Pole
In his sweatshop full of elves.

There's got to be a build-up
To the day that Christ was born:
The halls are decked with pumpkins
And the ears of Indian corn.
Dragging through the falling leaves
In a one-horse open sleigh,
Suddenly it's Christmas,
Seven weeks before the day.

Suddenly it's Christmas,
The longest holiday.
When they say "Season's Greetings"
They mean just what they say:
It's a season, it's a marathon,
Retail eternity.
It's not over till it's over
And you throw away the tree.

Outside it's positively balmy,
In the air nary a nip;
Suddenly it's Christmas,
Unbuttoned and unzipped.
Yes, they're working overtime,
Santa's little runts;
Christmas comes but once a year
And goes on for two months.

Christmas carols in December
And November, too;
It's no wonder we're depressed
When the whole thing is through.
Finally it's January;
Let's sing "Auld Lang Syne";
But here comes another heartache,
Shaped like a Valentine.

Suddenly it's Christmas,
The longest holiday.
The season is upon us;
A pox, it won't go away.
It's a season, it's a marathon,
Retail eternity.
It's not over till it's over
And you throw away the tree.

No, it's not over till it's over
And you throw away the tree;
It's still not over till it's over

And you throw away the tree.
"Suddenly It's Christmas," Loudon Wainwright III