Saturday, May 31, 2014

LP of the Week - "Wild Planet," The B-52s (1980)

"The world's greatest new-wave kiddie-novelty disco-punk band," Robert Christgau called them in 1980.  And while the novelty piece of that equation is fair, it's also fair to note that they're still around today, some 38 years after they first came together in Athens, Georgia during the year of our nation's bicentennial.  And that they've had precious few lineup changes over those years - the only permanent one being when guitarist Ricky Wilson died of an AIDs-related illness in 1985.  Keith Strickland, the original drummer who then assumed guitar man duties, no longer tours with the band, but still considers himself a full-fledged member.

"Wild Planet" was their second album, released just two weeks before I would leave home for college in September, 1980.  To be fair, it's not as good as their debut, but that's not much of a criticism, because the debut was an enduring masterpiece that remains one of the greatest New Wave albums ever released.  If the self-titled debut was an A+, the follow-up is no worse than an A-, and a lot of bands have done a lot worse than that.

The only thing that really distinguishes "Wild Planet" from the album that preceded it is the lack of a single track as strong as "Dance This Mess Around" and "Rock Lobster."  It's remarkably consistent, and yes, they were sticking to a formula, but you could sure do a lot worse than record and release an album that features 9 eminently danceable, fun tracks without ever missing a beat.  "Private Idaho" is probably the best song, but "Devil in My Car," "Quiche Lorraine" and "Strobe Light" come close.  There's a reason that the album was one of the staples of my Berkeley experience, and the band's near-universal appeal is the reason why so many people in our dorm were enthusiastic about attending the band's two Bay Area concerts during that time.

Rock on, dance still sounds great today.

Monday, May 26, 2014

X-Men hit the mark again

The title may be a little clumsy, the plot may be a little complicated, and the whole enterprise may require more knowledge of the canon than most people could be reasonably assumed to have, but at the end of the day "X-Men: Days of Future Past" is an entirely satisfying comic book movie, one that builds on the promise of the "First Class" prequel while completely wiping the bad taste of "The Last Stand" from the memories of fans and movie-goers.

* Spoilers Be Ahead, Consider Yourself Warned! *

Similar to J.J. Abrams' first "Star Trek" movie, "Days of Future Past" uses time travel as a device, not just to bring the two X-Men casts together, but more importantly to reboot the series in such a way that anything that now follows can make sense (and be defensible to those who do have intimate knowledge of the canon).  Done poorly, that could have been a cheat, but like "Star Trek" it's done very well, and unlike the "Spider Man" franchise, which just seems to be telling the same story all over again (in fairness, I haven't seen the second one yet), it moves the story forward in a way that doesn't sacrifice continuity but also opens up entirely new avenues of story-telling.

As much as I love Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, in this film I have to give the Professor X/Magneto crown to James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, which really isn't surprising given that the story gives them much more to do.  The old guys are definitely there for a reason; don't get me wrong, but aside from one wonderful moment near the end when the old friends/foes clasp hands while Magneto wistfully wonders why they've been fighting each other for the last 50 years, the best moments are given to McAvoy and Fassbender.  Professor X and Magneto are flip sides of the same coin, almost as if Two-Face was split into two people, and both actors do a fine job taking that dichotomy to a new level.

If you've been even remotely paying attention, you've heard about the story - mutants and humans are under siege in the future from the Sentinels, which are like mutant terminators, able to instantly modify their structure in such a way that makes them invulnerable to whatever mutant power they are facing.  The only hope is to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, great as always in the role but so jacked up that he looks to be auditioning for a new mutant, Veinburst) into the past to bring the good Professor and Magneto back together, to stop Raven/Mystique from killing Dr. Bolivar Trask, the inventor of the Sentinels (because killing him will ensure that his Sentinel project moves forward).  So back we go to 1973, and needless to say things don't go entirely as planned, and all the while the few mutants left in the future...well, let's just say that things are looking increasingly bleak for them.

Kudos to everyone involved, although as the villain, Peter Dinklage is given nowhere near enough to do.  If you've watched any "Game of Thrones" at all, you know what Dinklage is capable of, and unfortunately the Trask role comes nowhere near to Tyrion Lannister in terms of interest or charisma.  Evan Peters is great as Quicksilver, in an extended sequence that might be the best thing in the movie.  And the ending, which gives us a glimpse at several characters we thought we might never see again, carries a powerful emotional punch.

All in all, a job nicely done.  Very much so.

Indy 500

Ryan Hunter-Reay with the victory milk.
It clearly lacks the cultural significance it once held, but the Indianapolis 500 remains one of my favorite sporting events of the year.  I don't mind admitting that part of it is nostalgia; to this day I can clearly remember the day that Mario Andretti one his (and his family's) sole 500, I can remember listening to the great Johnny Rutherford-A.J. Foyt duel on the radio in 1974 (back in those days, the race was only shown on tape delay, in the evening), and I can remember most of the multiple wins from great drivers like Foyt and the Unser brothers.  And even though I've continued to watch every year, the drivers aren't the stars they once were - that role has (for the most part) been taken over by the superstars from NASCAR.

But I've always preferred Indy-car racing to NASCAR, and while I'm far from an expert on either, I don't know that I've ever seen a NASCAR race with the drama and excitement that we were treated to yesterday.  Multiple leaders, strategy in and out of the pits, very few mishaps...and then the spectacle (after one of those mishaps) of a 6-lap sprint to the finish, with three (or was it four?) lead changes taking place in those six laps.  Amazing, thrilling stuff, and while I was rooting for Marco Andretti to end the curse, I would have been happy with either Ryan Hunter-Reay or Helio Castroneves taking the milk.  Congratulations to Hunter-Reay, who is well spoken enough that he might just be the guy to steal some of those NASCAR fans back.

Sunday, May 18, 2014


This was supposed to be a monthly deal, but you know how it goes.  Quick, sometimes random thoughts on movies recently seen via Netflix or Netflix Streaming.

Sense and Sensibility.  Along with Joe Wright's "Pride and Prejudice," clearly the best Austen film adaptation.  Just about every note is perfect, from the interplay between Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson) and her sister Marianne (Kate Winslet), to the boisterous good humor of Sir John (the great, and still ticking, Robert Hardy), the graciousness and innocence of Edward (Hugh Grant), the honor of Col. Brandon (Alan Rickman) and even the droll impatience of Mr. Palmer (Hugh Laurie).  The scene where Elinor finally breaks down and confesses her broken heart to Marianne is nothing less than a classic.  Screenplay by Thompson and directed by Ang Lee, one of the best.

Much Ado About Nothing.  Because I slept through most of it the first time around, I was really happy to see this pop up on streaming.  It's great, and just might be the most important movie Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dollhouse, The Avengers) has ever made.  I say that because I think it's great that Whedon is smashing barriers with this movie - showing the world at large that it is possible to make a high quality Shakespearean production for film, even if your background is in what a lot of people (not me) would consider "lesser" genres.  Anyone who's ever watched a Whedon show will recognize most of the actors, and it's clear that they are having the time of their lives.  They're all great, but for me the standouts were Alexis Denisof as Benedick, Amy Acker as Beatice, and Nathan Fillion as Dogberry.  And I want Joss Whedon's house.

Short Term 12.  Also a re-watch, but since I never got around to writing about it the first time around.   This is one of my favorite kinds of movie - a director and actors you've never heard of before, just knocking the ball right out of the park.  The movie is set in a temporary home for troubled youth, mostly foster youth, focusing not just on the kids who live there but also the young adults - some with their own troubles and problems - with the responsibility for managing their lives.  This one was brought to our attention by son #2, because the director (Destin Cretton) is a graduate of San Diego State (where son #2 is in the performing arts program) and brought a rough cut of the film for the students to view and critique.  Based on this, he has a long and successful career ahead of him.  Brie Larson is great as Grace, in a performance that in its impact reminded me of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone.

Nebraska.  I loved everything about this movie - the story, acting, soundtrack, glorious black and white cinematography...everything.  Alexander Payne's work clearly resonates with me, because I also thought his "The Descendants" was one of the best movies of recent years.  Bruce Dern deserved all the accolades, but Will Forte is also great as his suffering son, and yes, just like everyone said, June Squibb steals every scene that she is in.  Stacy Keach is suitably creepy as an old friend of Woody (Dern's character) who still is looking to be repaid for money lent decades ago, and the extended family is a hoot.

Thor: The Dark World.  Not the best comic book movie ever made, but it had its moments, mostly courtesy of Tom Hiddleston as Loki.  The plot really defies description, but the final battle scenes with Thor and the bad guy popping in and out of different dimensions/universes was really cool.

Saving Mr. Banks.  I'm told that I slept through a good portion of this one, but what I did see was pleasant enough.  I'm not really sure this story was demanding to be told, but the scenes with B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the Sherman brothers (with an assist from Bradley Whitford) were worth the price of admission.  You know, if we had actually paid for it.  Which I suppose we did, since we got it from Netflix.

Inside Llewyn Davis.  Seen it twice now, still not quite sure what the Coen brothers were trying to say, but enjoyed it both times.  Oscar Isaac really deserved an Oscar nomination (there's a joke in there, but I'll leave it alone) for his portrayal of Llewyn, and the Coens did a great job of recreating the feel of early sixties New York City.  And the music is good.

Dallas Buyers Club.  Don't get me wrong, McConaughey was great and deserved his Oscar, but I actually think he was better in "True Detective."  But this is a really good movie, and Jared Leto also deserved all the accolades and awards.  But once again, Jennifer Garner pops up in a supporting role, and just does wonders with it.  Maybe someday she'll get her due as well.

God Grew Tired of Us.  A well-made, heart-rending documentary about the lost boys of the Sudan, focusing on a handful of them who are able to immigrate to the United States and try to build lives of their own.  A good reminder of how much we take for granted in our day-to-day, "first world problem" lives.

Panic Room.  When this started I thought we were going to see Fincher's take on "The Shining," where the building was the most important character in the movie.  And that's sort of what happens, but once the plot kicks in it becomes more standard fare, with some pretty cliched bad guys.  But still, not a bad thriller - and the interplay between Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart is very well done.

Rush.  I'd definitely put this in the top tier of Ron Howard movies, but unless you know something about Formula 1 racing and the history of James Hunt & Niki Lauda, it might be lost on you.  Nice job with the racing scenes, but also the characterization of the two drivers.

Captain Phillips.   Expertly crafted adventure/thriller, with a great performance from Tom Hanks.  His acting in the final post-rescue scene is probably the best acting I've seen all year. 

Sapphire.  A 1959 film set in London, focusing on the murder of a pregnant woman originally assumed to be white but later found to be of mixed racial origins.  According to Wikipedia it was considered very progressive for its time, and it is fascinating to watch it today - although I'm not sure it comes close to greatness.

About Time.  You either like Richard Curtis movies, or you don't.  But you pretty much know what you're going to get when you see one.  There's a formula, but "About Time" stretches it, and even though the time-travel premise is not one that you want to think about too much, it does provide for a few surprising developments.  Bill Nighy is great as always, and Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams do just fine in the Hugh Grant/pick your American female star roles.

To Rome With Love.  It would appear that I no longer know the difference between a good Woody Allen movie and a bad Woody Allen movie.  "Midnight in Paris" was supposed to be great, this one was supposed to suck, and "Blue Jasmine" was supposed to be great again.  But I liked 'em all about the same.  And nothing I just wrote is intended as commentary on the ongoing Allen/Farrow family saga.

Half Nelson.  Early, strong Ryan Gosling vehicle with him portraying a pretty screwed up junior high school teacher.  Good enough to take the taste of "Only God Forgives" out of my mouth.

The Fifth Estate.  Excellent performance by Benedict Cumberbatch (is there any other kind?) as Julian Assange, but a less than memorable movie.

I should also note that in between all of this, we watched the entirety of "Firefly," and its unlikely movie sequel, "Serenity."  They hold up well, and make one wonder what might have been...

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Durant Speech

In a week when Donald and Shelly Sterling were seemingly engaged in a contest to determine which of them was a greater embarrassment to the NBA community (or the human race, for that matter), we thankfully had one of the most remarkable speeches ever delivered by an athlete to take back the headlines.

It's long, but Kevin Durant's speech is worth watching in its entirety.  Worth it for the raw emotion, worth it for the graciousness he shows to every single one of his teammates, worth it for the love and respect shown to Russell Westbrook, his most important collaborator, and of course worth it for heartfelt and moving comments about his mother.

We'll never know for certain the role that the speech played in the Thunder's hard fought triumph over the L.A. Clippers, but it couldn't have hurt.  And while I still doubt their ability to win a seven game series over the remarkable San Antonio Spurs, I wouldn't count them out either.

In more ways than one, Kevin Durant has cemented his reputation this year as one of the all-time greats.  Well done.

LP of the Week - "Spectres," Blue Oyster Cult (1977)

You don't hear much about Blue Oyster Cult anymore, but they were a pretty big deal in the 70s.  I'm probably the type of fan that hard-core devotees would scoff at, because (along with a couple of million people) I jumped on the bandwagon when "Don't Fear the Reaper" hit the airwaves, and the album from which that song came, "Agents of Fortune," hit the top of the charts.  Christgau referred to that album as "the Fleetwood Mac of hard rock," and that's a fair description.

I'm confident that this puts me in the minority, but my favorite album of theirs was "Spectres," the follow up to "Agents" released in the fall of 1977.  The album may lack a single song with the power of "Reaper" (although "I Love the Night," a vampire tale that could be viewed as a sequel to the earlier song, comes close), but it's remarkably consistent, with all of the band's songwriters - Eric Bloom, Joe Bouchard, Albert Bouchard, Donald (Buck Dharma) Roeser, and Allen Lanier - contributing at least one strong tune.

The album's best known song, "Godzilla," opens the album and sets the tone of a band that isn't taking itself too seriously, despite their reputation.  "Golden Age of Leather" follows that, and is another example of the band, essentially, making fun of itself.  Other strong tracks include "Searchin' For Celine," "Fireworks," and "Goin' Through the Motions."  There really isn't a bad track on the album.

I saw them perform once, in the summer of 1979 on a double bill with the red-hot (at the time) Cheap Trick.  It was a good show, and I'm pretty sure some version of the group is still out there playing somewhere.  At the end of the day, Blue Oyster Cult may not have quite been Hall of Fame material, but they were pretty darn good.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

The greatest week in NBA history?

Wow.  Just wow.

You could make the claim just for the games alone, which for the most part have been spectacular.  We're definitely at a point now where we can say that this is the greatest first round of the playoffs in NBA history - Five of eight series going to seven games, and one going to six that was just as dramatic as those five.  Close games, overtime games, games with controversial calls, games with amazing performances and games with head-scratching performances - this round has had it all, and now the only worry is whether the rest of the playoffs can possibly match it.

Oh, and then there was that little thing that Adam Silver did the other day - banning Donald Sterling for life.  He may, as Jimmy Fallon pointed out last night, look like the guy from "American Gothic" come to life, but with his decision this week, Adam Silver has cemented his position in sports history, after just a few weeks on the job.  If he isn't Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, then the magazine needs to really take a long and hard look at what that award is all about.

And yes, the afterglow of Silver's decision (and the decisive nature by which it was delivered) will dim with time, as people recognize that no, this in and of itself will not end racism in the NBA, and in fact could lead to a lengthy legal battle that lasts until well after Sterling has died.  Let's face it - we don't really know yet that Silver had any legal basis for what he did, although one can assume that the NBA legal staff spent a few hundred hours combing every nook and cranny of the NBA constitution and bylaws to ensure at the very least that they weren't standing on legal quicksand.  And yes, appearing in today's Sacramento Bee was an op-ed claiming that the "thought police" have won again, that Sterling had every right to hold whatever abhorrent beliefs he saw fit and still own (and make billions from) an NBA team.  And there is the very real issue of privacy, and whether we are all at risk of having our private comments thrown into the public domain because of the ability of today's technology to do just that.

But let's set those things aside for the moment.  What Adam Silver did this week was take a moral stand - he did what had to be done; he did what was right.  25 years ago, Greil Marcus wrote that a riot in San Francisco, lawless and dangerous as it was, was the only proper response on the night after Dan White was excused of his crimes.  This week, Adam Silver may not have had the legal basis to make the decision that he did.  But it was the only proper response, and for that he should be lauded.  He should be thanked.

LP of the Week - "Brotherhood," New Order (1986)

Back in 1980, when New Order rose from the ashes of Joy Division following the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis, you could have gotten really good odds on whether there would still being a working band called "New Order" more than 30 years later.  But even though they've broken up a couple of times and made a couple of personnel changes, they're still out there, even releasing an album every few years.

What the band proved in the 1980s was that Joy Division was not a one-man show.  Rightfully so, that band has come to be associated with Curtis' dark, brooding and frankly scary vocals, but even then, the music was just as important to the sound of the band as the vocals and the words.  Wikipedia refers to New Order's sound as a synthesis of post-punk and electronic dance music, and while that is perhaps oversimplifying things a bit, it's essentially correct.

"Brotherhood" was their best album, the album where they sounded most human.  There isn't a bad track on the LP, but there are three standouts.  On the first side, "Broken Promise" builds to a climax of guitar feedback and pulsing bass and drums that still makes my heart race almost 30 years later, and on the album's closer "Every Little Counts," the band proves that yes, it does have a sense of humor  But the highlight of "Brotherhood" is the song that I'd argue is the best they ever did, and one of the greatest singles of any era you might be tempted to choose - "Bizarre Love Triangle."  Again, Peter Hook's pulsating bass drives the music, until the end when Gillian Gilbert lays down one of the most beautiful synthesizer lines in rock history.  It's one of those songs that, were it released today, would sound innovative, new and fresh.  Just like it did back then.

The band has released a number of compilations over the years, many featuring various remixes of their most popular songs.  But if you want to dive into New Order, "Brotherhood" is as good a place as any to start.