what i watched last week

Closer (Mike Nichols, 2004). Mike Nichols’ first film as a director was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (see below), which got the audience’s attention in part by giving us Elizabeth Taylor, at the time 34 years old and one of the most beautiful women in the world, puffed up by 30 pounds, playing a much older character, drinking way too much and emasculating her husband in front of others. It was harder to shock audiences in 2004, so we get Julia Roberts saying she likes it when Jude Law’s characters comes on her character’s face. Closer isn’t quite as focused as Woolf ... while the latter features one couple battling each other in front of a second couple, with one cross-couple attempt at sex, in Closer, Dan and Alice are a couple, then Dan and Larry have cybersex without knowing who the other is, Larry and Anna become a couple and then marry, Dan and Anna become a couple on the sly, then openly, Anna sleeps with Larry one last time, Dan gets pissed, Anna goes back to Larry, Alice (remember her?) goes back with Dan, but by then she had slept with Larry, and at the end, we find that Alice’s name was really Jane. It’s enough to make one yearn for the simpler times of George and Martha. Some of the dialogue is cutting, and the actors give their all (besides Roberts, there is Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and Clive Owen). Roger Ebert loved it, drawing particular attention to how articulate the characters are. I found everything rather tiresome. #832 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 6/10.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966). Nichols’ debut won five Oscars, including Best Actress Elizabeth Taylor and Best Supporting Actress Sandy Dennis (Richard Burton and George Segal got nominations, as did Nichols ... there were 13 in all, Best Picture among them). The actors all seem to be trying just a bit too hard, with the possible exception of Segal, and Nichols (and Haskell Wexler, who picked up the Oscar for Best B&W Cinematography) pulls a reverse on the usual trick of “opening up” a play for the screen. Instead, Nichols fills the screen with close-up after close-up, as if seeing the pores on Liz’s face will convince us she’s really acting. Which is unfair ... everyone pulls their weight here, and no one embarrasses themselves. If it gives a bit of “much ado about nothing” after all these years, a decent fire remains. Try as they might, though, this isn’t anywhere near the level of A Streetcar Named Desire. #695 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. For a companion to either of these movies, try Wit, yet another play adaptation from Nichols, but much better than the above.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005). I’m in a hurry, and this movie doesn’t deserve much of my time, anyway. Black is very bright and is happy to show off, Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, and Michelle Monaghan are game for anything, and so fucking what. #739 on the TSPDT list of the top films of the 21st century. If you figure out why, keep it to yourself. 5/10.

by request: easy money (daniel espinosa, 2010)

Movies that utilize American genres in new settings can be enlightening as well as just plain good. Sergio Leone’s westerns are a prime example. You see the same old thing from a different perspective.

Easy Money is a crime thriller out of Sweden. On the surface, it is nothing special: a young man from the lower classes aspires to something more, and turns to crime to help accomplish his desires. He is a student in economics, and he pretends to more resources than he has, all the while driving a cab to support his too-lavish public lifestyle. His boss introduces him to the cocaine trade, and as things progress, his acumen in economics makes him valuable to his superiors. But the cocaine business is much dirtier than he imagined, and he is more replaceable than he thinks.

This young man, “JW”, is played by Joel Kinnaman, the Swedish-American actor who made his name here on the TV series The Killing. Easy Money is the movie that pushed him to stardom in Sweden, and it’s clear how this happened ... he has tall good looks with a hint of mystery, which also describes JW. JW is too smart for his own good, and his moral center emerges rather erratically ... he has the makings of an anti-hero, but he is never important enough to reach such a level. Easy Money shines a light on people who want more, with the title serving as an ironic reminder that “easy” is rarely an accurate descriptor.

Kinnaman is solid, and the supporting cast includes some people who are very menacing (Dragomir Mrsic, for instance, is a former bank-robber). Many of the characters, though, are in over their heads, whether they recognize it or not. Attempts are made to humanize them ... even Mrsic’s “Mrado” is driven by the need to take care of his young daughter. But these characters are not crime bosses, nor are they on their way to becoming bosses. Easy Money is not the story of Tony Montana. This lends an underlying class structure to the film, which connects specifically to JW’s posing above his class, and then going down a dark road to turn the pose into reality.

Easy Money connected with the audience in Sweden, where two sequels have been produced. There are, of course, the usual rumors of a Hollywood remake. Zac Efron is the name most-often associated with this, but nothing seems to have come of it in the five years since the original was released. Easy Money is a touch above the average crime thriller, smart and stylish, recommended to fans of Kinnaman or to those looking for a different angle on the genre. 7/10.

happy birthday, geoff

You think back to how you were influenced. My two grandmothers, one from Spain, the other from Kentucky, each passed along different things. Same with my mom and dad.

What we forget is that our siblings, particularly our older ones, exert a strong influence as well.

My brother Geoff is six years older than me. This meant that when he was in his teens, listening to popular music, I was a little squirt. And sure, I could turn on the radio. But my brother’s record collection had a huge impact on my own taste. OK, I never did come around on Bobby Rydell. But Geoff’s 45s couldn’t be beat.

Six years is a big break, and I’m sure I bugged the shit out of him ... imagine him being, say, 15 years old, and his 9-year-old brother wants to tag along. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t, but in retrospect, I don’t remember those years in a negative way at all. Without ever seeming to do it, he kept an eye on me. And that couldn’t have been easy ... I’m the kid who was already on “nerve medicine” as a youngster.

Once he got older and moved out of the house, he always welcomed me to visit, in San Francisco and later in Mill Valley. He took me to my first concert, and to my first rock concert. I think he’s the first person to get me high on hashish, although my memory’s a little foggy on that one (rightly so).

When he came back from Vietnam, there I was, just out of high school, with no ambition other than to be a hippie. I had, shall we say, few prospects. He invited me to move in with him, which I did for almost a year. He introduced me to the world outside the house I grew up in, at a time when he must have been working through a lot of things, himself. And he gave me a chance to fulfill my ambition for a short while, for which I can never repay him.

You know, when I was a kid, I felt I had to live up to Geoff’s standards. He was smart, so I had to be smart. He skipped a grade, I skipped a grade. It’s the plight of being younger. You outgrow that stuff.

Except now we’re geezers, and damn, he is still someone to live up to. There was the time he spent working a suicide prevention hotline, and I thought, thank goodness for people like him, knowing that I was always more likely to call such a place than to work at one. Hell, he’s a crossing guard now, and you know how lovable crossing guards are!

Happy birthday, brother!

Geoff and Steven Disneyland

music friday, 1973 edition

This weekend, Robin and I will go down to Santa Cruz to celebrate our 42nd anniversary (the actual date is Tuesday). Besides our getting married (at 19), 1973 sticks in my mind in a musical sense because I bussed tables in a cafeteria with a jukebox that year, which meant I heard a lot of the same songs over and over. Here are some 1973 songs that bring back the year for me.

Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Freebird”. Treated as a joke now, but I once voted for it as the best song of the 70s. This being the 21st century, of course I can find a video of the band playing their great song from the one time I saw them live. (It’s the link in the song title.) When the band would get to that spot everyone knew was coming, as Ronnie Van Zant finished off his singing, it was like when Steph Curry prepares to take a three, and the whole crowd holds its breath for a moment, and then the ball swishes in. I love this song to this day. BTW, Robin was at this concert, as well, although I suspect she doesn’t remember.

Ann Peebles, “I Can’t Stand the Rain”. John Lennon once called it the best song ever. It was everywhere, with Peebles climbing onto that Hi Records groove.

Elton John, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”. This one is tied inextricably with my first summer working in a factory. It was as if the rhythm of the song matched the rhythm of the machines.

Sly and the Family Stone, “If You Want Me to Stay”. Fresh was the end of an unmatchable run for one of our greatest artists. Rustee Allen on bass.

Aretha Franklin, “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)”. The greatest female artist since the beginning of rock and roll. The link is to a live version with Stevie Wonder, who was ever present in 1973.

The Rolling Stones, “Tumbling Dice”. From 1972, not 1973, but it was on that jukebox where I worked. Actually, the selection was Side One of Exile, so I heard five songs all the time, and “Rip This Joint” has always been my favorite. But as I get older, I move closer to “Tumbling Dice”, which Linda Ronstadt did wonderful things with a few years later.

Mott the Hoople, “I Wish I Was Your Mother”. I played Mott over and over again back then.

The New York Dolls, “Personality Crisis”. The video is from The Midnight Special, which, along with In Concert and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, provided lots of TV viewing.

Dan Hicks and His Lot Licks, “I Scare Myself”. Cheating again ... Hicks first recorded this in 1969, and then again in 1972. The night before our wedding, I was watching one of those concert shows, and Hicks sang “I Scare Myself”. I thought it told my story, and the next day at the ceremony, I read the lyrics aloud:

I scare myself just thinking about you
I scare myself when I'm without you
I scare myself the moment that you're gone
I scare myself when I let my thoughts run
and when they're running
I keep thinking of you
and when they're running
what can I do?

I scare myself, and I don't mean lightly
I scare myself, it can get frightening
I scare myself, to think what I could do
I scare myself -- it's some kind of voodoo
and with that voodoo
I keep thinking of you
and with that voodoo
what can I do?

(it’s me I’m scared of)

but it's oh so so so different when we're together
and I'm oh so so so much calmer; I feel better
for the stars have crossed our paths forever
and the sooner that you realize it the better
then I'll be with you and I won't scare myself
and I'll know what to do and I won't scare myself
and I'll think of you and I won't scare myself
and my thoughts will run and I won't scare myself

love throwing at the crab

1984 was the first year I had season tickets to the Giants. They lost 96 games, the most since they’d moved to San Francisco. (The record lasted one season ... the 1985 Giants lost 100 games. That’s 196 games in two years. Those two seasons remain the worst in SF Giants history.)

1984 was also the year of Crazy Crab. And now Colin Hanks, a life-long Giants fan and son of Tom Hanks, has directed a documentary on The Crab for the ESPN 30 for 30 series:

The Anti-Mascot