Saturday, February 23, 2013


My mom has hosted an Academy Awards party nearly every year since 1968, and during that 45-year period, I doubt that I've missed more than three or four of them.  I still miss the days when the Oscar telecast was in late March or early April - I always connected the show with the start of spring, and as a harbinger of warmer weather.  Having said that, there's also something to be said for getting the awards season out of the way before March Madness begins.

We always have a contest, and we always require every participant to make a selection in every category - regardless of how many of the nominated movies they've seen that year.

This year I saw more of the nominees than any other year in recent memory, thanks in large part to a son (#2) who was determined that we hit the major contenders during his holiday break from college.  Last week we (wife and I) saw "Life of Pi," completing our Oscar cycle for 2012-13.  In my book, this was an excellent year, and there are no sore spots for me in the list of major nominees.  And this was a very interesting year in the realm of Oscar buzz, and let's just say that it's a good thing I didn't forge my predictions in stone when the nominations were first announced in early January.  So, without further ado...

Best Picture

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

I saw all of these except "Amour," and liked them all, but some much more than others.  There's little doubt in my mind that the best movie on this list is "Zero Dark Thirty," but given the snub of Director Kathryn Bigelow and the (ridiculous, in my view) controversy over the movie's depiction of torture, zero would also seem to be the best word to describe its chances of winning.  When the nominees were announced, I would have chosen "Lincoln," but that was before the momentum shifted to "Argo," despite (and in this case, perhaps because of) the snub of Ben Affleck in the Best Director category.  Plus, "Argo" and Affleck have won everything in sight since the Golden Globes.  And Affleck's story, going from ridiculed has-been actor to universally admired director, is hard to resist.  There's no reason to think that the "Argo" trend will change here.

And the winner is:  Argo

Best Director

Michael Haneke, Amour
Benh Zeitlen,  Beasts of the Southern Wild
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Thanks to the two most prominent snubs in recent memory, this is a really interesting category.  Again, when the nominations first came out, I was prepared to vote for a "Lincoln" sweep, but in its own inimitable way, the Academy seems to have decided that it is the film that needs to be punished for the snub of Ben Affleck.  It doesn't really make any sense, but that's what seems to be happening.  So while Spielberg could win, and in my book he would be a worthy winner, I don't think he will - and there will almost certainly be at least three cameras pointed directly at him to capture his reaction.

And the winner is:  Ang Lee

Best Actor

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Denzel Washington, Flight

I haven't seen "Flight" or "The Master," but I don't think that matters one bit.  Daniel Day-Lewis' performance as our 16th President is truly extraordinary, one that will be remembered for as long as people are going to the movies.  No contest here.

And the winner is: Daniel Day-Lewis

Best Actress

Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Quenzhenane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts, The Impossible

Although an upset is possible - the Academy has done stranger things than to vote for Riva - the deserved favorite here is Jennifer Lawrence, who in a very short time has established herself as one of the great actors of our generation.  She was great in the sometimes silly "Hunger Games," and even better in the harrowing "Winter's Bone."  But this is her best role yet, and as good as Bradley Cooper was in "Silver Linings Playbook" (and he was surprisingly good), when the two were together onscreen, there was little doubt about which of them had the greater presence and charisma.

And the winner is: Jennifer Lawrence

Best Supporting Actor

Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert DeNiro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

You just never know with these supporting categories.  I could easily see any of these actors winning - they're all pantheon level actors, and they've all won one before.  Arkin was funny in his role, but I kinda wish they've gone with Leonardo DiCaprio for his startling turn as an evil plantation owner in "Django Unchained."  This one is anyone's ballgame.

And the winner is: Tommy Lee Jones

Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams, The Master
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

On the other hand, this is probably the easiest pick of the night.  Anne Hathaway is as big a lock as there can be, although her big scene left me strangely unmoved.  In fact, I think she was better in, and should have been nominated for, "The Dark Knight Rises."

And the winner is: Anne Hathaway

My other picks:

Original Screenplay: Amour
Adapted Screenplay: Lincoln
Foreign Language Film: Amour
Cinematography: Life of Pi
Documentary Feature: Searching for Sugar Man
Documentary Short: Open Heart
Animated Feature: Wreck-It Ralph
Animated Short: Head Over Heels
Live Action Short: Curfew
Editing: Argo
Production Design: Anna Karenina
Costume Design: Anna Karenina
Makeup: The Hobbit
Score: Life of Pi
Song: "Skyfall"
Sound Editing: Life of Pi
Sound Mixing: Les Miserables
Visual Effects: Life of Pi

Have fun!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Top 50 Albums of All Time, #24 - Talking Heads, 1977-80

OK, so I'm cheating with this one.  But it's my list, right? 

After several weeks of trying to nitpick the differences between the Talking Heads' first four albums, I've reached the conclusion that to take any one of them out of the context of what the band accomplished in the late 1970s would be a mistake.  Each one of the albums has its own distinct identity, but together they form a cohesive whole, and paint a picture of a band that over the course of a four-year period, figured out exactly what it wanted to do, and achieved it with spectacular results.

Listening to the debut album, Talking Heads '77, is what it feels like to read the first book by a great novelist.  All the pieces are there - the talent, the musicianship, the songwriting - all that it lacks is a sympathetic editor who can pull all of those pieces together and help the artist realize their potential and their vision.

With More Songs About Buildings and Food, the band found that editor in producer Brian Eno. As Robert Christgau wrote at the time, Eno and the Heads were the ideal producer-artist collaboration, and you can hear his contributions in the record's every groove.  If anything was lacking on the debut, it was a sense of sound - and love him or hate him, one thing that Brian Eno can do very well is create a distinctive sound.  Where the music on the debut sounded a little flat, on the sophomore effort it is full and distinctive.

On Fear of Music, David Byrne the songwriter and the band as musicians went in a completely different direction, but one that was no less successful.  Even more than "Psycho Killer," the songs on Fear of Music were insular, jittery and sometimes even a little scary (just listen to "Animals" and "Drugs," next time you have a chance).  At the time it came out, I remember telling a classmate that it should have been called "Dance Music for Neurotics."  Christgau didn't like it quite as much, but Lester Bangs loved it even more - which probably tells you everything you need to know.

And even with all that - three great albums, all critically acclaimed, and even a radio hit with a definitive cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" - little the band had done before (with the possible exception of "I Zimbra" on Fear of Music) was sufficient to prepare one for the epic soundscapes of Remain in Light.  I freely admit that I didn't get it at first, giving it a listen and wondering what the hell had happened - yes, I could hear David Byrne's voice in there, but this was so far outside the "Talking Heads mold" that it was a little off-putting (and besides, "The River" came out on the very same day, and it was such a rich feast that there was little time left for anything else).

It was only when I saw the Heads in concert - the first tour with the "expanding band" concept that would become legendary a few years later with the release of "Stop Making Sense" - that everything began to click.  What seemed expansive just two years earlier now seemed downright tame, as the band and Eno took the music well beyond the boundaries of punk or new wave, or whatever you wanted to call it, and created something that, to these ears, was unique.

The band would go on, without Eno, to record two more excellent albums, but nothing would ever quite match the excitement and the innovation of the first four.  But even if their career had ended in 1980, their election to the Hall of Fame would have been secure. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Top 50 Albums of all Time, #25 - "American IV: The Man Comes Around," Johnny Cash

And so we finally break the Top 25, and from here on out every selection will be an existential crisis, as I argue with myself on whether I have this or that album rated too low, too high, or whatever.  But from this point on, we're talking degrees of magnificence.  There really isn't much to choose between these records, and depending upon the day or my mood, I might rank them differently (with the exception of those at the very top).

"What gave me the idea I could and should produce Johnny Cash?"  In his house in the Hollywood Hills, sun squeezing through the stained glass windows, Rick Rubin is sitting cross-legged and shoeless on a sofa almost the size of Johnny's favorite room.  One black dog lolls on his back, next to him.  "There's no good answer to that; it just felt like the right thing to do.  I'd been thinking about who was really great but not making really great records; what great artists are not in a great place right now.  And Johnny was the first and the greatest that came to mind.  A unique character, kind of his own force of nature.  Someone who doesn't fit into any guidelines - whatever he does it's always, well, Johnny Cash - and who didn't seem inspired to be doing his best work right now." - liner notes, Cash Unearthed, by Sylvie Simmons

"The Man Comes Around" was the fourth Johnny Cash album produced by Rick Rubin, and the last released before Cash's death in September 2003.  That May, Cash had lost his dear and beloved wife June Carter Cash, and it's not much a stretch to imagine that as he and Rubin were recording the album in 2001 and 2002, that death was not far from his mind.  The album is a valediction - Cash confronting his own mortality through a series of songs steeped in death and pain ("Hurt," "I Hung My Head," "Sam Hall," "Streets of Laredo"), sending his eternal love to June ("First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"), and wondering aloud what might await on the other side ("The Man Comes Around," "We'll Meet Again"). 

"It was hard work.  I spent a lot of time on that song, "The Man Comes Around" - weeks and weeks writing and working the lyrics around to the way they are.  I was trying for something special.  It went through all sorts of changes.  I'd written it as a poem - I haven't written many poems before, but that's how it came out - based loosely on the Book of Revelation in the Bible, and I would go from one interpretation to another on this very complicated interpretation - or to me it's very complicated - until I finally found some lyrics that worked.  I probably have 40 or 50 verses that I wrote that I didn't use."  - Johnny Cash, liner notes, Cash Unearthed

There is an early version of "The Man Who Comes Around" on "Unearthed," and it is instructive to listen to the two versions back-to-back.  The first is primarily Cash on acoustic guitar with what I would call a pretty standard country music backing.  The song is undeniable, but on that version there is a clear disconnect between the power of the lyrics and the music, which doesn't rise to the occasion.  And that is where Rubin came in - because the structure of the song on "American IV" is part of what makes the song so frightening.  There's the spoken intro, coming in as if from another world, and then the unmistakable lead-in to the song, sung in almost staccato fashion:

There's a man going around taking names
And he decides who to free and who to blame
Everybody won't be treated all the same
There will be a golden ladder reaching down
When the man comes around

Clearly, not everyone will get to use that golden ladder.   This is a truly frightening song, real end-of-the-world stuff - and likely indicative of the things that were running through Cash's mind at the time.

"Usually when I send Johnny songs it's with no real pitch, just "Listen to them and see what ones you like."  But I do remember saying when I sent him Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," "I think this particular song is  really special one.  I feel like the words have a lot of power and with you singing them it's really going to take on a whole new light." - Rick Rubin, liner notes, Cash Unearthed

I've told this story before, but it bears repeating.  The first time I heard "Hurt," I was doing something that I've done dozens of times in my life - spending my lunch hour wandering around The Beat, the great downtown Sacramento record store that is one of the few remaining bastions of independence in the industry.  Like they often do, they had a number of albums on the CD player on shuffle, so the songs weren't coming up in any particular order.  The first "American IV" song I heard that day was "Tear Stained Letter," and I remember thinking "wow, that really sounds awesome."  A few other songs went by, and then all of sudden there was "Hurt."  And I stood there in front of the speaker, goose bumps running up and down my entire body, totally transfixed by what I was hearing.

If the album consisted of just those two songs, that would probably be enough.  But in addition to the great songs already mentioned above, Cash turns in great performances of several classic standards, including "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "In My Life," "Desperado," "Danny Boy," and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," as well as his own take on "Personal Jesus" and a new version of his old song "Give My Love to Rose."

It's a great album, and a fitting testament to a great, great artist.

American IV: The Man Comes Around
Produced by Rick Rubin

The Man Comes Around/Hurt/Give My Love to Rose/Bridge Over Troubled Water/I Hung My Head/First Time Ever I Saw Your Face/Personal Jesus/In My Life/Sam Hall/Danny Boy/Desperado/I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry/Tear Stained Letter/Streets of Laredo/We'll Meet Again

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Very Useful

I posted this on my Facebook page, but thought it was worth including here as well.

Still waiting to add the first person to the book.  Although the early contenders are:

- the advertising agency representative responsible for Sunday's ad; and

- whoever programmed the traffic lights on 9th Street in downtown Sacramento to ensure that cars would be required to stop at every single intersection for 9 blocks.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Second Half

5:29 - let's see if we can change the karma by starting a new post.

Nice job by Beyonce...nice Jeep commercial with Oprah.

5:31 - Apparently not...time to eat!

6:07 - Well, that was fun.

6:25 - Don't count us out yet.  Need some breaks on defense and we just might be able to get back into this one.

7:00 - Holy crap.  That was big to hold the Ravens to a FG right there.  Lot of game to play.

7:06 - TORTURE

7:22 - Setting up for quite a finish.  If Kaepernick can pull this off, it may be time for Joe and Steve to make room on the legends shelf.

7:46 - Well, fudge.

The Game

We'll see how this's been a long time since I did a live blog.

3:13 p.m.  Lots of talk during what little of the pregame festivities I watched about David Akers.  I'd just as soon not have the game come down to an Akers kick.

Beyonce wears makeup?  What's next...lip-syncing the National Anthem?

Yep, it's the Super Bowl all right - there's CBS' first commercial for The Masters...which as you may have heard, is a tradition unlike any other.

3:24 p.m.   Alicia Keys nearly breaks the 2:30 barrier!

3:36 p.m.  It definitely sounds like there are more Baltimore fans at the game than 49ers fans.

I don't dislike Jim Nantz, but of the top NFL play-by-play guys, he's my least favorite.  There's something about his work - modulated and steady - that seems a little more suited to golf than it is to football.  Al Michaels, Joe Buck and even Mike Tirico all do a better job of conveying the intensity of the moment.

3:40 p.m.  Touchdown Ravens, and the Niners have already been hurt by two key penalties.  Dear God, please don't tell me we're in for a replay of the Falcons game.

3:45 p.m., I really did not want to see that.

3:54 p.m. Nice answer, although a touchdown would have been nice.  Even better?  Ray Lewis looked old and slow on a couple of those plays.

...and Amy Poehler takes the early lead in the commercial sweepstakes.

4:05 - Good defensive series.  Nice to see us breaking through the sack barrier.  Alas, this one looks like it will be going down to the last quarter.

4:13 - Turnovers will kill you every time.  That was a big one, because we had all the momentum in the world on that drive.  Let's see if the defense can tamp things down.

We're pretty far into the game, and haven't really seen a marquee commercial yet.

4:21 - And with that, we are officially into danger-territory.

4:28 - And with that, we are moving into full blown crisis mode.  And let me be the first (I hope) to coin the phrase "Har-Brawl."

4:36 - Thank you John Harbaugh!

4:48 - Well, that was an absolute disaster.  I don't need to look it up to know that no one's ever come back from a deficit this big.

4:58 - Well, 3 is better than nothing.  We got 'em right where we want 'em!

Check out the second half here.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

The Prediction

Realistically, I know that this game could go either way...but there's no way I'm going to pick against the 49ers.  The Ray Lewis saga is wearisome, and I'm not certain it's written anywhere that it is his divine right to win his final game.

It will be a close, hard fought game, with the 49ers prevailing in the end, by a score of 27-17.

Remember, you read it here first.

Friday, February 01, 2013

American Top 40 Flashback: Badfinger

It might be going a bit too far to call Badfinger a "legendary band," but it's not every band that gets noticed by The Beatles, records a hit penned by Paul McCartney, and goes on to become a staple of AM radio for a few years before getting caught up in the messy dissolution of Apple and gradually fading away.  Even though the band continued to work until the early 1980s, the story had really ended a long time before that, and unfortunately in tragedy with the suicide of Pete Ham.

"Day After Day" is my favorite song of theirs, mostly because it still evokes memories of one of my favorite years in school, 6th grade.  For years after that, I would run into our teacher - Mr. Zarzana (we called ourselves "Zarzana's Zombies") - and he confirmed that it was a special class for him as well, because it was the last year he was a classroom teacher before moving up into the administrative ranks.  There are a couple of people from that class who are my Facebook friends today, and even though I haven't seen most of them in years, I'm pretty sure I could go through our class photo and remember every name, and something about every kid in that class.

"Day After Day," Badfinger, at the top of the charts in January and February of 1972.