Monday, October 29, 2012

Giant Dreams

At some point, the narrative will change.  Right now, the conventional wisdom is that the San Francisco Giants, for the second time in three years, have overcome a superior opponent through a mix of oddball characters and borderline mysticism to capture a World Series championship.  Over time, that will change, and the Giants will be recognized for the historic achievement that they've just completed.  Scoff if you will, but it is now possible to write "21st Century San Francisco Giants" and "Big Red Machine" in the same sentence, without laughing - or even cracking a smile.

They say that nothing is as good as the first time, and there is truth in that statement.  But the magical ride that this Giants team just finished is, in its own way, as good a story as anything the 2010 Giants were able to come up with.  To wit:

- The redemption of Barry Zito.  No, nothing Barry can do will ever justify the amount of money the Giants paid him and the length of the contract they signed him to.  But this was a guy who wasn't even named to the postseason roster in 2010 - and this year he won a game the Giants had to win (Game 5, NLCS), coming up with what may have been the signature moment of the series - his bunt for a base hit when everything was at stake.

- The reincarnation of Tim Lincecum.  The Freak had an awful year, no doubt about it, especially when judged against the standards he set in previous seasons.  Demoted to the bullpen, he became the old Timmy, mowing down batters the way a finely tuned Toro takes care of the wayward grass.  And if he was unhappy about his status, he sure didn't betray that disappointment to anyone.

- The attitude of Hunter Pence.  Since Hunter Pence came to San Francisco in mid-season, he did very little to indicate that he had the ability to start on a major league roster.  The numbers are what they are - and the analysis shows that his effectiveness at the plate was similar to what one might expect of an American League pitcher.  And yet, he will be long remembered by Giants fans as a key contributor to their postseason success.  Call it moxie, call it intangible, call it what you will - he was there every night, getting the players fired up, and it sure seemed to work.

- The awesomeness of Marco Scutaro - What can you say?  When Melky Cabrera went out with his idiotic suspension in August, I just assumed that the season was over, for all practical purposes.  But the Giants went out and got Scutaro, and the man was on fire, it seemed, from the middle of August through the last run of the Series.

And what more can one say about being down 2-0 and 3-1, and coming back like it was nothing more than child's play?

There's no such thing as a bad championship season, but the two that the San Francisco Giants have given their fans in the past three years have been better than good.  They've been better than great.  They've been magical.

The Reinvention of Ben Affleck

Ten years ago, Ben Affleck may have been the biggest laughing stock in Hollywood - a pretty boy with nothing much going for him except the good fortune of being Matt Damon's close friend.   At the time, you could have gotten great odds on the prospect of Affleck ever becoming a major, respected Hollywood player.

But here we are in the fall of 2012, and that's exactly what has happened.  As a director, Affleck has now delivered three consecutive thrillers - "Gone Baby Gone," "The Town," and now "Argo" - that together can easily stand against any other filmmaker's output during a similar time period.  And for good measure, Affleck has acted in two of them (the latter two), and if he hasn't turned in anything that might be considered an Oscar caliber performance, neither has he embarrassed himself.  And he's been surrounded by pretty heady company - Jeremy Renner and Jon Hamm in "The Town," and Alan Arkin, John Goodman and Bryan Cranston in "Argo."

As far as thrillers go, "Argo" is about as good as it gets.  The fact that it tells (and in some places, admittedly embellishes) a true story, about the extrication of six U.S. Embassy employees in Tehran who had the good sense to "get while the getting was good," is a point in its favor.  Anyone who was alive during the late 1970s will remember the hostage situation in Iran, and how it stood as a turning point in the annals of U.S. foreign policy and its standing as a world power.  The movie doesn't dwell on the politics of what happened in Iran, but it does a fine job of quickly establishing the basic facts that led to the ouster of the Shah and the installation of the Ayatollah.

From that point on, "Argo" becomes a bundle of increasing tension, as the six escapees - now ensconced in the home of the Canadian ambassador - are confronted on a daily basis by evidence that all that stands between them and an angry crowd that would, in all likelihood, execute them publicly - are the walls of the home where they hide.

As a filmmaker, Affleck constructs the story masterfully - knowing that an ever-increasing cascade of tension might lessen the impact of the film's last act, he spends just the right amount of time in Hollywood, detailing the efforts to establish a credible cover story.  As Tony Mendez, the CIA exfiltration expert, Affleck wisely downplays the emotion, which makes the contrast between him and his Hollywood partners - John Goodman (as a noted makeup expert) and Alan Arkin (as a successful producer who's seen better days) all the more entertaining.  And in one memorable scene, he cross-cuts between a bogus Hollywood reading of the fake film and the propaganda "press conferences" taking place in Tehran - that clearly sends the message that whether it be film or it be "real life," we should not always believe what we see on the small (or large) screen.

The final act, where the escape goes into motion, is brilliant and almost unbearably tense - and it is here that Affeck's underplaying of his role pays off in spades.  It's likely that Mendez was at least as scared as his charges as they made their way out of the country, but he couldn't show it - he had to set an example for them, to convince them that he believed the plan was going to work.

Whether or not it garners any Oscar nominations, it's pretty clear that "Argo" is one of the best movies of the year - well written, well acted, and tightly constructed.  Kudos all around.

The Next Morning

Friday, October 26, 2012

American Top 40 Flashback - ELVIS!

There's a wonderful moment in the expanded edition of Stephen King's "The Stand" where Stu tells Frannie a story about the night Jim Morrison came into his gas station, years after he had supposedly died over in Paris.  Even though the story lasts no more than a couple of pages, it fits in perfectly with the tone and mystery (and danger) of the greater story that King is telling.

From time to time, I think about a similar story involving another King - Elvis Presley.  In my story, Elvis is still out there somewhere - maybe working in a late-night diner somewhere in the south, maybe overseas relaxing on a secluded beach, maybe just hanging out in New York City, drawing looks every now and then but ultimately nothing more than a thought from those who see him that "wow, that guy could have passed for Elvis, about 30 years ago."

In my story, the day arrives when Elvis decides, a la John Lennon circa 1979, that it's time to get the ol' axe out and hit the studio.  And, in a clandestine session produced by Rick Rubin, an album is recorded by a mysterious figure who sounds so much like Elvis that even Bruce Springsteen is tempted to make another late-night visit to Graceland.  And women in their seventies are heard to exclaim, "Lord almighty!  I feel my temperature rising..."

Someday, that story will be told in these pages.  For now, we have "Burning Love," Elvis' last great AM radio hit, where he made it sound easy.  A hunk of burning love, indeed.  From the Fall of 1972.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The more things stay the same, the more they change

Comparing Giants' starting lineups, Game 1, 2010 World Series v. 2012 World Series:

CF - Andres Torres/Angel Pagan
2B - Freddy Sanchez/Marco Scutaro
C -   Buster Posey
RF - Pat Burrell/Hunter Pence
LF - Cody Ross/Gregor Blanco
1B - Aubrey Huff/Brandon Belt
3B - Juan Uribe/Pablo Sandoval
SS - Edgar Renteria/Brandon Crawford
P - Tim Lincecum/Barry Zito

Brian Sabean takes heat for being the anti-Sabermetrics GM (deservedly so, in many cases), but you have to give credit where credit is due, and getting entirely different teams (in fairness, the pitching has remained remarkably consistent, and you know what they say about good pitching and good hitting) to the World Series just two years after winning it all is impressive.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Giant Karma

I like to think of myself as a faithful fan, but even I have to admit that, down 3-1 and with Barry Zito scheduled to pitch Game 5 on the road, my faith was sorely tested.  I wasn't nervous at all when that game began (or even as it transpired), and I think that was mostly because I'd already resigned myself to the Giants' losing. 

There's really nothing to add to the Zito saga as a Giant that hasn't already been said.  For years, Zito has been the Giants' highest paid pitcher, but he's never come close to being the Giants best pitcher.  Most of the time, his performance has been inadequate, to the point where he wasn't even named to the postseason roster for the magical ride of 2010.  When he's on, and that curve ball is working, there are few pitchers who are more fun to watch.  As a Giant, that's happened no more than 2 or 3 times a season.

Zito was much better this year, and his performance in Game 5 will long be remembered by Giants fans, no matter what else happens from here on out.  He got them back in the NCLS, and once the series returned to San Francisco, it was as if the Cardinals had decided that there was no further point in competing.  Along the way, a lot of strange stuff happened, like Hunter Pence's already famous "hit the ball three times on the same swing" double.  Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci called it "karma."

So now, we head into a World Series that we may have no business winning.  The Tigers are rested, and they have the best pitcher on the planet, who will be starting at least two games in the series.  The Giants' rotation is totally out of whack, and it appears we will see something on Wednesday night that was unthinkable just a week or so ago - Barry Zito as the starting pitcher in Game 1 of the World Series.  Chew on that one for a moment.

It would not shock me if the Giants head back to Detroit down 2-0.  If that happens, then we've got them exactly where we want them.

Monday, October 22, 2012

National League Champion San Francisco Giants

I never get tired of saying that.

Game 7

I've said before that when your team is in the playoffs, watching the games really isn't much fun. 

When the Giants were down 3-1 and starting Barry Zito last Friday, I wasn't nervous at all, because - and I hate to admit this - I really didn't think we had much of a chance.  But Barry came through like he's never come through before, and my anxiety level was ratched up quite a bit for last night's Game 6 - even though the Giants took an early lead and were never really threatened after that.  But having watched what the Cardinals did to the Rangers last year and to the Nationals in Game 5 of the NLDS, I knew that they were a team that you don't count out until the final out.

So now we come to what I believe is the 4th Game 7 in Giants history.  In 1962 (when I was 2 years old), they lost at Candlestick Park to the Yankees, when a screaming line drive by Willie McCovey that would have tied the game went straight into the glove of Bobby Richardson at second base.

25 years later, the Giants took a 3-2 lead back to St. Louis, lost a classic nailbiter in Game 6, and were left having to start the inconsistent Atlee Hammaker in Game 7.  Game over, and series over.

15 years after that, we had a Game 7 in Anaheim that they might as well not have played - that's how certain I was that the Giants were going to lose, after having blown Game 6 in a meltdown of epic proportions, losing after having led 5-0 as late as the seventh inning.

So here we are 10 years after that, another Game 7 against St. Louis, and I know that every pitch is going to be hard to watch.  For what it's worth (probably not much) all the momentum is on our side, and we've got Matt Cain on the mound, so you have to feel pretty good about our chances.  But these are the Cardinals, after all, and they are the champs.  And you know what they say - you have to beat the champ.  No one is going to give it to you.

We shall see. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

George McGovern

I was in the 7th grade in 1972, and was already a political junkie.  My family all hated Richard Nixon, so it wasn't difficult to figure out which side of the political spectrum I was going to land on.  My views have modified over time, in no small part from having worked in and around the state Legislature for more than 20 years, but to date I've still never voted for a Republican for President (while I have for a number of statewide candidates).

That fall, our school - Will Rogers Intermediate School - had a big Assembly that was styled like a mini-convention, with students making speeches on behalf of both Nixon and McGovern.  My friend Craig and I proudly made and held up a sign reading "McGovern for President."  We were decidedly in the minority, as the final schoolwide tally came to:

NIXON              521

However, I like to think that we had the last laugh.  Looking back on it now, it's really a miracle that McGovern was nominated in the first place; even setting Nixon's Dirty Tricks Machine aside, it's not likely that he ever could have been elected President.

The photo is from an article McGovern wrote that appeared in Rolling Stone in March 1975, following the demise of Nixon and the installation of Gerald Ford as President.  The conclusion reads as follows:

"Our time has been stained by the bloodiest wars and the darkest genocide.  Yet we are confronted still by stark questions of human and national existence.

We dare not respond with conventional rhetoric, with empty measures, with paper promises signifying nothing but a thirst for political power.  For the people know better.  They seek leadership that will shake and reshape things as they are, for they know we cannot go on the way we have been.

There is a great wave cresting across America.  It first stirred and then mounted during the protest against racism and war it has been swelled by a revulsion against the corruption of our values and a revolt against the exploitation of our economy.

The economic royalists will fight to turn it aside.  For it threatens to sweep over the status quo and sweep down the walls which guard the citadels of economic privilege.

But for us this is not a threat; it is an opportunity.  For if we ride and reinforce the wave of change, then before it is spent, we will restore the ideals of this land and lift the quality of life among ourselves and for our brothers and sisters around the world."


The Longest Netflix Wrapup Ever

For the sake of completion, some quick thoughts - in some cases, very quick - on movies we've watched on Netflix or Netflix Streaming in the past few months, and I didn't say anything about.

The Secret Life of Bees - Really, really good.  I hope that Dakota Fanning doesn't spend the rest of her career in stuff like the "Twilight" movies.  Although only 14 when this was filmed, she is fully formed as an actress, and completely convincing as Lily Owens, a young girl on a quest to find out more about her dead mother in 1964 South Carolina.  Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo are all outstanding as the Boatwright sisters, and Paul Bettany is frightening as Lily's angry, limited father.  Jennifer Hudson rounds out the cast as Rosaleen, the family maid and cook who joins Lily on her journey.

Muriel's Wedding - Some sharp edges and a very interesting performance from a very young Toni Colette make this more interesting than your usual "young women coming of age/ugly duckling" story.

Step Up - Entirely predictable but entertaining "rags to riches" dance story starring Channing Tatum.  I don't know what he thinks about this one today, but at least he met his wife while filming it.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - This one certainly generated a lot of strong opinions.  Not entirely unsuccessful, but not entirely believable either.  The young boy's quest never quite rang true for me, mostly because the sight of a young boy wandering around New York City seemed a little too good to be true.  The most effective (and affecting) scenes are the flashbacks with Tom Hanks, although Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright and Max Von Sydow all turned in strong supporting performances.  And, Sandra Bullock did the best she could with a somewhat thankless role.

Mamma Mia! - Fun, light, and entertaining.  Sort of like ABBA music.

The Women on the Sixth Floor - French film; the women in question are the day workers who, as hard as their employers may want to deny it, are also human beings with lives and feelings of their own.  Sometimes it ventures into melodrama, but overall very good.

The Girl Who Played With Fire - Noomi Rapace was pretty good in this role as well, folks.  The story is not quite as strong as the first book/film, but still very good and well worth watching.

Lost in Translation - One of my favorite movies.  Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson are amazing.

Bronson -  Volcanic performance by Tom Hardy as a man with anger issues.  And trust me, "anger" doesn't do his issues justice.  Hard to watch at times, but fascinating for that performance alone.  And, apparently based on a true story.  The stylistic kind of film that Nicholas Winding Refn has become famous for.

Dan in Real Life - I used to say that I couldn't understand why Steve Carell was so popular, but over time (and watching a lot more of "The Office" than I had at the time) I've really come to appreciate him.  He's very good in this, the story of a family coming together at the family compound, bringing with them all of their quirks and their issues.  Dan meets woman, quickly falls in love with woman, and then finds out woman (Juliette Binoche) is his brother's girlfriend.  Dane Cook is also good as the brother, and the always reliable Dianne Weist and John Mahoney are excellent as the quirky parents.  And of course, they all live happily ever after.

Taking Woodstock - Very enjoyable Ang Lee film about the days leading up to Woodstock, focusing on the young man (Demetri Martin) who played a key role in making it all happen, even though he wasn't quite sure what was happening around him a good part of the time.

Dark City - Nice slice of dark science fiction.  We watched the director's cut, which wisely omitted the ridiculous voice-over that pretty much gives everything away in the movie's first few minutes.

Burke and Hare - Odd little movie starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis as 19th century grave robbers who figure out a way to make a little money with their schemes.  Directed by John Landis, of "Animal House" fame.  Not bad, but a bit on the strange side.

30 Minutes or Less - Directed by Ruben Fleischer, but not as good as "Zombieland," his previous effort.  Two dimwitted would-be criminal masterminds strap a bomb onto the chest of Jesse Eisenberg, who then has to rob a bank for them - or else.  One of those movies that tries to find humor in situations that aren't really funny, and it only works about half the time.  Aziz Ansari is the best part of it.

The Warriors - Pretty famous cult movie, but I'd never seen it before.  Interesting to see an old film like this and compare those who were supposed to become stars with those who really did.  Glad I saw it, but I won't be putting it on my regular rotation.

I may have missed a couple, but that pretty much brings me up to date.

Big Game 2012

It still sucks that the scheduling geniuses at the Pac-12 moved the game to October, but once we got there, it still felt like the Big Game.  And since I've read that it moves back to its traditional November date next year, I guess we can give them a mulligan.

The game was dull, and terrible from the perspective of a Cal fan.  You can't win many games with a net rushing total of 3 yards, and the Bears lost this one 21-3.  If Stanford's offense had been crisp, it could easily have been worse than that - much worse.

But, still fun.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Orange October

In honor of Halloween, and of course in honor of the San Francisco Giants.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Alex Karras

In the "better late than never" department, I just wanted to pay brief tribute to Alex Karras, who died last week.  Karras' NFL career was nearly over by the time I started to watch football on a regular basis, so I was familiar with him mostly through his 3-year stint on Monday Night Football, and his presence in the entertainment world.  I never watched an episode of "Webster," but Karras was just one of those guys who always seemed to be around.  His most famous role was as Mongo in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles," but since I didn't appreciate that movie as much as many others did (and do), I'd say that his performance in "Victor/Victoria" - a great and somewhat unappreciated film - is the one to remember him by.  His scenes with James Garner in that one are classic.

But there aren't a lot of good clips of "Victor/Victoria" online (at least not scenes with Karras in them), so we'll have to settle for a clip from MNF, in 1976.  This clip has a lot going for it - you'll enjoy what passed for cutting edge graphics in the 1970s, you'll enjoy the overbearing Howard Cosell, and hopefully you'll enjoy Cosell's reference to Lou Holtz ("the young Lou Holtz) as "understated," which is likely the only time that has occurred during the course of Holtz' life.

And then there is Karras, singing a song that Holtz wrote for the Jets - which helps to explain why Holtz quickly beat a retreat back to the world of college football - and having a grand time doing it.  And then you'll get to see a glimpse of Frank Gifford, who as always has that "what the hell I am doing here with these loons?" look on his face.


Saturday, October 13, 2012


Adding to my collection of urban ballpark photos in cities where I've attended conferences - Chase Field in downtown Phoenix, Arizona - home of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Friday, October 12, 2012

American Top 40 Flashback - "Miracles"

Before Jefferson Starship turned into Mickey Thomas, Grace Slick and a bunch of sidemen, they were a very interesting band.  You had Paul Kanter, you had Marty Balin, you even had Papa John Creach, and for good measure you had a very young Craig Chaquico, who at the time appeared to be a potential guitar hero along the lines of a Clapton (or at least a Mark Knopfler).

"Red Octopus" was their best album by far, and "Miracles" became a surprise smash for the band.  It's not the sort of thing you often heard on AM radio - for one thing, it was long, although if memory serves there was a radio edit.  It wasn't a particularly flashy song; it seemed to be built for the kind of FM station that played a wide diversity of music with a mellow-sounding DJ who just might, at any given moment, have been stoned out of his mind.

I own this album on vinyl only, and it has held up well - especially this song.

"Miracles," Jefferson Starship, #1 during the month of October 1975.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Drama, Torture...Call it Baseball

It was a good thing that I was on a plane for nearly all of today's Giants game, because I'm not sure I would have been able to take it.  But as it was, we disembarked just as the bottom of the ninth inning began, so I was treated to the most exquisite torture the team has offered since the historic 2010 season.

The way this postseason is going, the Giants definitely have as good a chance as anyone else to win the World Series.  What they accomplished this week alone is pretty amazing - after getting clobbered at home in two consecutive games, there was absolutely no reason to think they had a chance to beat the Reds.  But then, they won a game that they had no business winning.  The Reds' pitching in Game 3 was dominant - the Giants could do nothing.  And yet, they won.  And that put into motion something that's never happened before.

In the NLCS, I suspect we'll see Tim Lincecum back in the rotation, partly because of how well he pitched in the NLDS in a relief role, and partly because Barry Zito demonstrated in Game 4 that he just isn't a reliable option.  Washington had the team's number this year, but it's been months since they've played.  If it's St. Louis, the Giants will have home field advantage.  Either way, there's no reason to think they can't do it.

Orange October lives on.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

More on "Margin Call"

After watching it all the way through four times now, it's pretty clear to me that "Margin Call" is going to be one of those movies that I'll never get tired of.  I've written about it before, but it's worth saying a few more words.

The movie takes place over the course of 24 hours, and is about a financial firm that melts down overnight, after it is discovered that the formula by which they've been packaging investments for the past year doesn't really work.  In fact, most of their holdings are now worthless, and during a series of increasingly tense meetings, decisions are made on how to keep the firm afloat - investors be damned.

The story is great - good enough to be nominated for an Academy Award - but what really makes the movie special is the acting, and a series of scenes featuring the aforementioned meetings.  It's worth saying a little bit about each one of those scenes.  I'm sure there are spoilers here, so caveat emptor.

1 - Not really a meeting, but the scene where Zachary Quinto - playing a young risk management analyst - delves into the flashdrive left in his lap by his laid off boss Stanley Tucci.  Quinto is sitting alone in the office, working figures, earbuds in, and in a terrific visual moment, reaches the conclusion that the numbers just don't add up.

2 - Quinto has now called in his young colleague and the man who is now his boss, played with flair and elan by Paul Bettany.  Bettany has been around the firm long enough to have developed a finely tuned sense of cynicism, and having returned to the office after a night of drinking (celebrating with the fellow employees who were not laid off), is a bit (or a lot) drunk.  Quinto starts telling the grim story, prompting some smart ass comments, but again in a flash Bettany gets it - and proves that it is possible to "act drunk" but immediately shift to "act sober."  One moment he is almost slurring his words and wondering why he is there at 11 p.m., and the next moment he is all action.

3 - Bettany now gets to lay the story out for his boss, played by an even more veteran and decorated actor - Kevin Spacey.  Having just left his beloved dog at the vet to be put to sleep, the last place that Spacey wants to be is work.  Spacey quickly defines his character (who earlier in the day has given an entirely insincere pep talk to those who were not laid off that morning) by commenting, when Bettany pulls up a spreadsheet on the computer, "Jesus Christ, you know I can't read those things."  But within moments he gets it - "Are those numbers right?" 

4 - Up the ladder we go to the next meeting, with the two young risk managers, Bettany and Spacey being joined by Demi Moore, now the chief risk manager, an attorney and analyst from the corporate office, and Simon Baker as Spacey's boss.  I have never watched Baker's hit TV show, "The Mentalist," but based on this performance alone I might just give it a try.  Whether it was intentional or not, it's an interesting casting decision for anyone who remembers the relationship between the characters played by Spacey and Baker in "L.A. Confidential."  Now the tables are turned - somewhere along the line, Baker - even though much younger - has passed Spacey on the corporate ladder, and is nothing less than a shark in a well-tailored suit.  Baker is amazing in this scene - looking at the package that Spacey and Bettany has put together, he quickly gets the problem.  But the best part of the scene is the interplay between Baker and Quinto when Demi Moore has asked Quinto to recite his vita.  Suffice to say, Quinto is well qualified, leading to a classic line from Baker that I just can't spoil.

Spacey is also amazing in this scene, speaking in that familar, almost staccato rhythm that should be familiar to anyone who's seen a movie with Kevin Spacey.  The tension between him and Baker just adds to their performances.

5 - And then, just when you think things can't get any better, they do with the introduction of the firm's CEO, Jeremy Irons.  My guess is that Irons probably had more fun playing this role since lending his voice as the evil Scar in "The Lion King."  He's flamboyant, some might argue just skirting the boundaries of ham, but never quite crossing over.  Though he looks old and skinny, never for a moment do you doubt his sheer power.  Without question, the people in the room with him for this meeting are afraid of him.  He has so many good lines just in this one scene that there are way too many to mention, so I'll settle for what he says to Quinto when he's trying to make him relax and tell the group what his analysis shows:

"Maybe you could tell me what is going on. And please, speak as you might to a young child. Or a golden retriever. It wasn't brains that brought me here; I assure you of that."

The movie loses a bit of steam after this scene, but picks up nicely when the strategy to save the firm is unfolded.  I'll save the rest of the good stuff for another post.  But mark my words - you need to see this movie.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Happy Columbus Day

Well now Columbus he discovered America even though he hadn't planned on it
He got lost and woke up one morning when he's about to land on it
He wouldn't of got out of Italy, man that's for sure
Without Queen Isabella standing on the short
Shouting "Stand on it, go ahead man, stand on it"

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Tunnel of Love at 25

If you look through the set lists of the current Bruce Springsteen tour, or any of the recent tours, you're not likely to find many - if any - songs from "Tunnel of Love."

It would be a mistake to interpret this obvious, and likely mindful, oversight as an indication that the album is lacking in merit.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that "Tunnel of Love" is Springsteen's best album, or an album that I'd take to a desert island before "Born to Run," "Darkness on the Edge of Town," or "Born in the U.S.A." - but I would say that it is a genuinely great album, and one that can withstand a song-by-song comparison with anything Bruce has done in his career, while standing its own.

"Tunnel of Love" is and album that people might think more suited to Jackson Browne - one that examines relationships between men and women; one that delves into matters of the heart.  At the time the album was released, Bruce was still in his first marriage - and it's pretty clear from the tone of several of the album's songs how it was going.  Given that, it's probably not surprising that the songs from "Tunnel of Love" have never quite fit into the story that Bruce has wanted to tell in the years since its release.

But make no bones about it - there are plenty of great songs on "Tunnel of Love," from the title track to "Spare Parts," "Brilliant Disguise," "One Step Up," and "Valentine's Day."  Bruce knew exactly what he was aiming for with "Tunnel of Love," and he achieved it - which is something you can't say about even some of his best records.

So here's a salute to a great one, on the occasion of its 25th birthday.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

"Handwritten" - Just the basics, baby

My first year at Berkeley, one of the guys on my dorm floor was big fan of bands like Rush, Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer - that ilk.  With the exception of Rush (sorry, fans - for me they're the musical equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard), I could enjoy that genre, but only in small doses.

I remember Brian laughing hysterically one day at lunch, and when asked what so funny, he pointed to the paper he was reading - specifically, an article about Bob Seger, who was coming to town in a couple of days - and said "get this - he calls Seger 'meat and potatoes rock and roll!'"  The rest of us just kind of looked at each other, and someone - I think it was me - said, "Uh, Brian - I don't think that was meant as an insult."

Nick Hornby's liner notes for "Handwritten," the new album by The Gaslight Anthem, begin with this:

It would be stupid to try and tell you that the music you're listening to is like nothing you've ever heard before.  The songs on the Gaslight Anthem's latest album are three or four minutes long, most of them, and they're played on loud electric guitars, and there are drums, and to be honest, if you haven't heard anything like this before, then you're probably listening to the wrong band anyway.

And that really says it all.  This is basic, stripped down rock 'n roll, an album 41 minutes long, leading off with what in the old days would have been called "the obvious single," and closing out with the record's lone ballad.  All in all, a total throwback to the days when you'd hear a band like this about every third song on the radio.

And you know what?  It's great.  It's got more energy than any record I've listened to this year, it's got hooks, and yes - it's got those loud guitars and drums that Hornby talks about.  It's a sound that sounds as good today as it did in any decade since rock and roll first hit the airwaves.  Is it groundbreaking?  Is it historic?  Is it one of the best albums ever made?  No.  But it sets a goal, and achieves it without breaking a sweat.  I have no idea how well it's selling, but I hope it's a big hit - there's always room for an album like this.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Bay Bridge Series II?

I can't remember a postseason where there were so many possibilities.  I look at the San Francisco Giants, with their post All-Star break record of 48-28 - not too shabby at all - and am hit with the realization that they are probably no more than the third hottest team heading into the playoffs.  I think that they can win it all, but in order to do so, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong are going to have to step it up.

You have the Cincinnati Reds, led by the erstwhile Dusty Baker (fellow alumnus of Del Campo High School), who seems to know how to do nothing as a manager but win (that's a compliment).  You've got destiny's darlings, the Washington Nationals, hoping to put to rest generations of baseball demons that have taken root in our nation's capital.  You've got the Atlanta Braves...the New York Yankees...teams with a long tradition of winning.  You've got the amazing Baltimore Orioles, who really have no business being in the postseason, except for the fact that they kept winning all of those close games.  The Detroit Tigers, with a late-season push to vault over the White Sox.  The Texas Rangers, hoping to put their own demons to rest.

And then you've got the Oakland Athletics...and whether you're a fan or not, you have to love this team.  The lowest payroll in baseball.  The worst park in baseball.  And a team so hot that they're setting new standards for the word.  No one has ever heard of these guys, and that's why it would be so much fun to see them take out the AL royalty on their way to another Bay Bridge Series.

My friends and colleagues in L.A. would hate it, but hey...that's the way the ball bounces, right?

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Blade Runner at 30

At this juncture, it's probably a cliche to write about "Blade Runner" - heaven knows that the film's fertile ground has been tilled to within an inch of its life.  But I can't let the 30th anniversary of the film pass by without saying something about it.  This is a film that has resonated so strongly with me over the years that I can still remember the first time I saw the trailer for it, much less the film itself.  I remember thinking something along the lines of, "what is this ?"  A movie that looks like science fiction, but with a dreamy Vangelis score, and one clearly trying to set Harrison Ford up as a Humphrey Bogart noir type.

As everyone knows, the film was a huge flop upon its initial release, completely blown out of the theaters by the phenonomenon known as "E.T." (a film I enjoyed, but one I also think is severely overrated).  By the time I got around to seeing it, it was already playing in one of the local area's second-run theaters, the late and sometimes lamented Village Theater here in Sacramento.  And from the first frames, I knew that I was going to love the movie.  Even in a dank, somewhat smelly theater with something far less than ideal projection equipment, "Blade Runner" was a sight to behold.  The noir look, the patient pace of the movie, the wonderful performances from an incredible group of character actors, and Harrison Ford holding his own in the lead role - it all added up to a masterpiece, in my book.

But what really put it in that category were the visuals - which frankly, keep getting better with each generation of media by which we watch our films at home.  The version I own today is a first generation DVD that looks terrible today, in comparison with the newer blu-ray technology (something I need to rectify at some point).  But back to the accomplishment itself - the world that Ridley Scott and his team created in "Blade Runner" is one of the great film accomplishments of the modern era.  Nearly every scene is a visual feast for the eyes - there is always some small detail to fixate on, to admire, to just stare at with a sense of wonder.  The cigarette smoke in the opening scene...the frosty breath in the "cold room" where the eyes are built...the look of Tyrell's eyes behind his coke bottle glasses...the street scenes...Sebastian's house and neighborhood...the closeup of the origami...I could go on, but you get the idea.

And while Ford holds his own in a role that was light years away from Indiana Jones, the true strength of the film can be found in the actors who drive the story - all longstanding professionals, but none of whom could be called movie stars - Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, M. Emmet Walsh as Bryant ("I need ya, Decks...this is a bad one, the worst yet...I need the old Blade Runner, I need your magic..."), Edward James Olmos as Gaff, Brion James as Leon, Joe Turkel as Tyrell, William Sanderson as J.F. Sebastian, Morgan Paull as Holden, and even Sean Young and Daryl Hannah - all effective, and affecting, performances. 

There are people I love, respect and admire who can't stand "Blade Runner."  We just agree to disagree.  For me, if you don't get goosebumps during Roy's final words - "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe...", well...I just don't get it.

30 years, and still going strong - "Blade Runner."

Monday, October 01, 2012

Roll on you Bears

After another competitive loss, but a loss nontheless, the California Golden Bears find themselves with only 1 win and 4 defeats, and it is likely that the team will end up with its first losing record in the Jeff Tedford era.  If things get really ugly and the Bears end up somewhere in the 4-8 range, it could even cost Tedford his job.  I'm told that the crowds at Berkeley Memorial Stadium are already calling for his head.

I hope it doesn't happen - even if the Bears end up staying home for the holidays with a losing record, I hope Tedford gets one more year.  People have short memories, and maybe a lot of people have forgotten what things were like the year before he got there - only a win in the last game of the season against Rutgers (a game that had been postponed because of 9/11) allowed Cal to avoid an 0-11 season.

Yes, the Bears have been frustrating for a number of years now, seemingly always on the cusp of greatness but never quite crossing over to the other side.  But it's hard to complain about 7-5, 8-4 and 9-3 records when the standard in the years leading up to Tedford's hire were more along the lines of
2-9 and 3-8 (and of course, that one 1-10).  And of course, there was that one glorious year, 2004, when the Bears came within 3 yards of being undefeated in the regular season and perhaps playing for a national championship.  Instead, USC got to share the title, and the Bears were jobbed out of a Rose Bowl appearance by Texas coach Mack Brown, who was more skilled at politicking than Tedford and got his Longhorns into the game (which in fairness, they did win).

It's not too late for the Bears to turn this season around and make it respectable.  But even if they don't, and if Tedford pays for a losing record with his job, I hope his tenure is celebrated and that he leaves Berkeley with his head held high.

In the meantime...go Bears!