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November 2014
Next month:
January 2015

what i watched last year

A summary, sorted by my ratings. I tend to save the 10/10 ratings for older classics, so a more recent film that gets 9/10 is very good indeed. Movies that are just shy of greatness will get 8/10. I waste more time than is necessary trying to distinguish 7/10 from 6/10 … both ratings signify slightly better-than-average movies, where if I like them I’ll pop for a 7 and if I don’t, I’ll lay out a 6. I save 5/10 for movies I don’t like, and anything lower than 5 for crud. This explanation comes after the fact … I don’t really think it through when I give the ratings. They skew high because I try very hard to avoid movies I won’t like … if I saw every movie ever made, my average might be 5/10, but I skip the ones that would bring the average down. Thus, the average for the 127 movies I rated in 2014 is 7.4 out of 10.

 

10:

The Earrings of Madame de ...
The Gold Rush
The Great Dictator
A Hard Day's Night
The Road Warrior
Smiles of a Summer Night
The Square
Strangers on a Train
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

9:

12 Years a Slave
The Act of Killing
Caché
The Exterminating Angel
The Golden Coach
Gomorrah
The Heiress
Lawrence of Arabia
Make Way for Tomorrow
Mysteries of Lisbon
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
The Past
Persona
Schindler's List
Shoah
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Through a Glass Darkly
Viridiana

8:

All Is Lost
American Hustle
The Anniversary Party
Big Night
Blackfish
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
East of Eden
Eyes Without a Face
Fruitvale Station
Godzilla
Groundhog Day
Happy-Go-Lucky
Her
Inside Llewyn Davis
L'Age d'Or
Le Havre
Life Itself
Man Bites Dog
Midnight Run
Night of the Living Dead
Ninotchka
Now, Voyager
Our Hospitality
The Raid: Redemption
The Raid 2
Ruggles of Red Gap
Sans Soleil
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
They Were Expendable
Tristana
Wild Strawberries
The Woman in the Window

7:

Akira
Baby Boy
Certified Copy
Days of Being Wild
The Descendants
Dirty Wars
Drinking Buddies
Exiled
Frances Ha
Gilda
The Great Gatsby
Hausu
The Heroic Trio
The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Hunt
Kuroneko
The Lady
The Lego Movie
Locke
The Master
The Naked Spur
Nebraska
Oranges and Sunshine
Prisoners
Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom
Shock Corridor
Silver Linings Playbook
Summer of Sam
The Tingler
The Verdict
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
You Only Live Twice

6:

The Bad and the Beautiful
Brazil
Captain Phillips
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Executioners
The Garment Jungle
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Interview
Invasion of the Bee Girls
John Wick
The Killer Shrews
Little Miss Marker
Move Over, Darling
The Music Room
Saving Mr. Banks
Sexy Evil Genius
The Siege
Spider Baby, or, The Maddest Story Ever Told
They Died with Their Boots On
This Is the End
Thunder Road
Vampyr
The Werewolf
A Woman Is a Woman
Zelig

5:

13 Ghosts
Bad Santa
Godzilla vs. Mothra
Mister Lonely
Mr. Peabody & Sherman
Seven Psychopaths
The Sound of Music
World Without End

4:

The Fountainhead


what i watched last week

You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert, 1967). My wife and I have a couple of James Bond traditions. One is that we catch each new movie when it comes out. This grew out of … well, I hesitate to call it boredom, but we decided to watch every 007 movie, in order. This was back in the VHS days … we made sure we finished our festival just as the new Bond was released, so we could complete the project. (I think it was Tomorrow Never Dies.) Nowadays, you can watch pretty much anything whenever you want, but it was harder back then to hunt down movies like the 1967 Casino Royale. Still, we eventually managed to see them all, even finishing in time for the new release. The second tradition is that I put a copy of a Bond film in her stocking every Xmas. I’ve done this the last few years, choosing the movies in chronological order, skipping any we already own. All of which explains why we watched You Only Live Twice the day after Xmas. It’s a nice rebound from the sluggishness of Thunderball. The first three Sean Connery Bonds were good enough that everything after is treated a bit like an afterthought, but if you can past that, You Only Live Twice is a good effort in the series. At the least, I prefer it to most of the Roger Moores. There is, of course, a fundamental stupidity to the entire affair, but there are some good action scenes, the set of Blofeld’s volcano hideout is marvelous, and Mie Hama is gorgeous. And there’s also plenty of bad jokes and casual racism and misogyny, but you know that going in. 7/10. For a good double bill, you might watch it with Diamonds Are Forever, which saw the return of Connery to the role, or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which might be the best Bond of all if it wasn’t for George Lazenby as 007.

Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki, 2011). A slight film that proudly displays its seemingly humble story. André Wilms is believably human as a former Bohemian who lives as a shoe shiner with his wife and dog. There is a plot … the wife gets sick, and the shoe shiner by happenstance gets involved with a young immigrant smuggled into France on his way to England. Kaurismäki trusts in the essential humanity of his characters … no one is perfect or even particularly successful, but they look out for each other and they feel allegiance with the underdog. The humor in the film is so deadpan I barely noticed it, but that’s in keeping with the low-key charms of the movie. And the tone is far from the kind of dreary realism the above might suggest. In fact, there is a level of romance and fantasy that Kaurismäki wouldn’t get away with if he weren’t so skillful at making us like his characters without feeling manipulated. #214 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 8/10. I haven’t seen it, but La Vie de Bohème might be a good double bill … Wilms plays the same character, and Kaurismäki directs. Casablanca would also be a good match.

The Interview (Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, 2014). 6/10.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (Paul Weitz, 2009). 6/10.


what i watched over the holiday

The Interview (Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, 2014). In most ways, this is an easy movie to review, in a consumer guide way: if you liked movies such as Pineapple Express or This Is the End, you will like The Interview. If those movies weren’t your cup of tea, don’t bother with The Interview. Of course, that’s not what people want to know … they want to know if it really is outrageous enough to deserve censure. Well, as Annalee Newitz noted, it is pro-assassination. You might come into The Interview thinking it’s just another comedy … I did the same thing when I said you’d like it if you liked those earlier films. But where The Interview enters unfamiliar terrain is in advocating the assassination of an actual, living leader. I’m not saying this makes it a bad movie, or a good one. But there are reasons this movie has been singled out. Is it good? The first half is as good as those other movies. The second half gradually sneaks violence into the mix, and this isn’t like Bonnie and Clyde, where we laugh right up until the moment when the guy gets shot in the face, and we realize we are implicated. No, this is just supposed to be the hilarious ending of a comedy. To me, it wasn’t funny anymore. I didn’t find it objectionable, I just wasn’t laughing. But that’s me … my problems with modern comedies are well-documented. Outside of the hubbub surrounding The Interview, I think its value is interchangeable with This Is the End. Watch one, watch them both, skip them both, it doesn’t really matter. 6/10.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (Paul Weitz, 2009). I showed my ignorance when this movie popped up. I’d never heard of it, so my son-in-law said we should watch it (“It’s got Salma Hayek,” he said, knowing my tastes in such things). I was surprised I didn’t know the film when the credits rolled: in the cast, besides Salma, were John C. Reilly, Josh Hutcherson, Ray “Titus Pullo” Stevenson, Patrick Fugit, Ken Watanabe, Orlando Jones, Frankie Faison, Jane Krakowski, Kristen Schaal, and Willem Dafoe. We also noted it was based on a series of books, and of course, I hadn’t heard of them, either. Thus, I was prepared to smugly hate-watch a piece of junk. Well, it wasn’t junk. The tone was wobbly … there were real issues at stake (no pun intended), complicated groups battling each other, and plenty of interesting characters in the freak circus. But I was mostly confused, and so didn’t get involved in the plot. I was left to the individual performances, and the problem was there were too many of them. I would have liked to see more of Salma Hayek as a bearded lady, and Frankie Faison as Rhamus Twobellies. But they were just window dressing to the basic plot about a budding vampire’s assistant. Fair enough … the title warned me … but I found it an amiable time-waster, no more. On Xmas Day, at a family party, I was talking about the movie to my brother, and a couple of people knew exactly what I was talking about. I went from being smug to feeling pretty dumb … after all, I was the one who assumed because I hadn’t heard of it, no one had heard of it. One person explained that this movie was based on a trilogy, which helps explain the hurried plot and confusing passages. I got the feeling he felt the movie was a failed attempt to get the books to the screen, and he may be right … it cost $40 million and only took in $39 million at the box office. 6/10.


xmas 2014

We spent Xmas Eve at our daughter’s house, sharing the evening with her and Ray and Félix the Squirt. For dinner, our sister-in-law and nephew came over. After a nice Xmas breakfast, we went on to my sister’s house, where quite a gathering had assembled: all of the Rubio siblings, including the one from Oregon, partners and friends and extended family. I’ve been under the weather with a head cold, and it wasn’t always easy to keep my energy level up, but I made it through the day. We were happy to get home, though. The only downside was that we didn’t get to see Neal and Sonia, but hopefully that will remedy itself soon … their jobs make it hard to get even Xmas off, and many times, their favorite holiday is one where they can relax.

It is no secret that Xmas is not my favorite time of year. It certainly isn’t the fault of my family. I have the best kids and in-laws and grandson, the best siblings, the best long-time friends in the extended family. But I feel an obligation to put myself on display, and that takes energy, so after a big family holiday, I’m ready to collapse into a cave.

Yesterday, though, I remembered the one Xmas in my life that I spent alone. I was living in Indiana … it was 1971 … and it turned out I spent the holiday alone with our dog. There were some good things about that holiday, mainly that it was my only white Xmas. But I still remember being a couple of thousand miles from the Bay Area, alone on Xmas.

Sometimes I put burdens on myself. It helps to remember the alternatives.

backyard 9-14

 

Addendum for those who miss him:

spot


the fifth annual karen sisco award

Four years ago, I started a new tradition. I called it the Karen Sisco Award, named after the short-lived television series starring Carla Gugino. Sisco was the character played by Jennifer Lopez in the film Out of Sight, and the series, which also featured Robert Forster and Bill Duke, was on ABC. They made ten episodes, showed seven, and cancelled it. Gugino was ridiculously hot (no surprise there) and the series, based on an Elmore Leonard character, got about as close as anyone did to Leonard’s style until Justified came along.

When I posted an R.I.P. to the show, my son commented, “Every year there is a new favorite Daddy-O show that gets cancelled mid-season. … You have some sort of fixation with doomed shows, did it start with Crime Story or does it come from your upbringing?” (In fairness, Crime Story lasted two seasons.) The Karen Sisco Award exists to honor those doomed shows.

Previous winners were Terriers (2010), Lights Out (2011), and Luck (2012). Last year, no series met the “rules”, so I instead spoke of the new/returning trend of mini-series, which begin with the idea of a limited run. I noted that mini-series are perfect for binge-watching, and here, I’ll note that the three previous winners of the Karen Sisco Award are also well worth your time.

I’m going to cheat again this year, but I’m not going to expand into genres. I’m picking a single series. It breaks the rules because it got through two seasons before being cancelled, not one. But many critics noted that the show became something different late in Season One, and thus I’m going to let this show sneak in on the basis of its best moments coming almost entirely in Season Two, which was the one that broke the network’s resolve and led to cancellation. I’m talking about FX’s The Bridge.

The Bridge was based on a Danish/Swedish series, with the locale changed from a bridge that crossed between Denmark and Sweden to the Bridge of the Americas that crosses between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. It sounds like a simple transition, aided by the casting of the blonde German actress Diane Kruger as the female lead … it’s not that she was a Dane or a Swede, but she seemed like someone who could have been cast in the original. The basic plot also seemed easy to translate: a body is found on the exact border of two countries; the body is severed in the middle, and it turns out it was put together from two different corpses, one from each of the border countries. Thus, the case involves police from both sides of the border.

A problem soon developed. The creators of the FX version had ideas for the direction the show should take, but there was a commitment to the plot line of the original. Until that narrative resolved itself, The Bridge was a mish-mash where the so-called main plot thread kept getting in the way of what was interesting: the developing relationship between the two detectives, and the depiction of the two border towns. The original narrative essentially resolved itself with two episodes to go in Season One, and fans of the series looked forward to a Season Two with a mind of its own at last.

The pilot episode had drawn just over 3 million viewers, but the series never even reached 2 million during the remainder of its run. The middle episodes of Season Two didn’t even get one million viewers, and the final two episodes barely squeaked over that marker, with 1.03 million. Three weeks later, FX cancelled the show.

The male lead was Demián Bichir, an excellent actor from Mexico who has gradually increased his presence in the U.S. (I knew him best from Weeds.) He and Kruger were the best reasons to watch The Bridge … Kruger had to play with her character’s unstated Asperger’s, and she managed to convey her emotional makeup even as she used it in her work as a detective. The way they warily came together reflected the hope that Mexico and the United States might come together, although The Bridge was always too dark to let that hope stand. One problem with the first season was that the general corruption always seemed deeper and more violent on the Mexican side of the border. Bichir, who has long been committed to improving representations of Mexicans and Latinos in Hollywood, noted that Juárez is much more than drugs and prostitutes, and that he wished The Bridge could show that. But he also felt that El Paso doesn’t come across any better, that it was a dark show, so maybe he didn’t agree with me about how Juárez seemed in that first season. The second season seemed, to my mind, to bring the two worlds closer together, and that corruption didn’t necessarily respect borders, but it’s been a few months and I may be misremembering.

One thing about Karen Sisco winners is that I don’t understand why they weren’t more popular. I can’t really say that about The Bridge, which was indeed dark, bilingual, often violent. It certainly didn’t lack for great acting, not just from the leads but also from Lyle Lovett, who had an oddball presence that fit his character, and Franka Potente, who is incapable of a bad performance but outdid herself here. The real revelation for me was Matthew Lillard, who was so perfectly cast as Shaggy in Scooby-Doo that I feared he’d be typecast for life. I needn’t have worried.

I don’t know what this means, but three of the four Karen Sisco winners were on FX. The network is clearly willing to try something different, although it is just as clear that they have an idea about who their audience is. They’ll ride a ratings winner like Sons of Anarchy long past its sell-by date. But without the ratings, nothing lasts … unlike HBO, ratings matter to FX. (HBO cancelled Luck for reasons not necessarily related to ratings.) It occurs to me that The Riches was also on FX, but it got a second season, and it wasn’t as good as the shows I’ve discussed here.

And so, with no further ado, I give the 2014 Karen Sisco Award to The Bridge.


teevee 2014

Here is my annual television wrap-up. I don’t make a Top Ten list, I just look back and some of the things I wrote since the last time I did one of these (December 22 of last year).

First, for what it’s worth, I’ll note that my choices for the five best shows in 2014 are Justified, The Americans, The Leftovers, Happy Valley, and Jane the Virgin. I just made this list up off the top of my head … there are probably other shows I should put on the list. At the very least, I loved all five of those shows. If I had to make it ten, Shameless, Mad Men, Penny Dreadful, The Bridge, and Rectify might be there. Oh, Transparent, too. I also included Treme below, because its series finale came after last year’s post. (Sorting those 11 shows by network, there are 3 on FX, 2 on Showtime, and one each on HBO, AMC, the CW, Sundance, Netflix, and Amazon.) (Discussing this list with my wife, who knows my preferences, I might agree with her to swap Penny Dreadful and Jane the Virgin. And she thought I liked Orphan Black enough for it to make the above list somewhere.)

 

Treme: “I already miss the characters from Treme: Big Chief Albert Lambreaux, LaDonna, Janette, Annie Tee, Antoine and Harley and Aunt Mimi.”

Downton Abbey: “But the acting is still very good, and if the storylines are less than I’d hoped for, at least after four years we’ve come to know the characters enough to want to visit them weekly.”

True Detective: “What we will remember about this season down the road is not the mystery plot, but the two characters and the actors who played them.”

Girls: “In a better world, Shameless would be the water cooler show, and Girls would be that other show we liked. But this is the world we have.”

The Walking Dead: “I still don’t think The Walking Dead is much more than an excuse for pushing the envelope on how much violence can be shown. But I have come to realize that the creators of the show are trying for more than that.”

Helix: “Helix is like the guy hitting 8th in the batting lineup of a major-league team: it may not be as good as the first seven guys in the lineup, but it’s a lot better than most of the baseball-playing universe.”

Shameless: “Shameless isn’t about happy endings. As Fiona asks Lip, ‘is this family ever going to catch a break?’ The wonder of Shameless is that it always asks the question, and never quits hoping for a positive answer.”

Justified: “It was too obvious, though, by the end of the finale, that everything was just setting up the final season we've always known was coming. It promises to be a great season.”

24: “As long as 24 offers us Jack Bauer saving the world (and there is no other reason for the show to exist), the idea that he is ‘different’ can only be cosmetic.”

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “It’s so refreshing to have a 50-year-old woman as a central character in a show like this, and when she kicks ass, it’s even better.”

The Americans: “It’s an ordinary family drama, with parents who keep some things from the kids, with kids who rebel, with neither side really understanding the other. Except Mom and Dad are Russian spies.”

Mad Men: “There are so many characters in Mad Men that we still care about, and the possibility of another classic episode is always there, and did I mention, it’s Season Seven? Mad Men isn’t just great, it is historically great.”

Game of Thrones: “You could do a decent overview just by naming characters and talking about what you liked or didn’t like. I like pretty much the same characters everyone else likes.”

Fargo: “I wouldn’t call it a great series, although Allison Tolman needs to get more attention, she was great all on her own.”

Orphan Black: “it would be nice if Orphan Black-the-series kept up with Tatiana Maslany the Should-Win-an-Emmy actor.”

Orange Is the New Black: “Orange Is the New Black does a terrific job showcasing a diverse cast. You’ll meet all kinds on this show, and they are well-served.”

Penny Dreadful: “For the lurid elements, for the joyful way it dragged us through the world of penny dreadfuls, for Eva Green, for vampires, for these reasons and more, I looked forward to each episode.”

Longmire: “This is a solid show that tends to pile up on the DVR. But I’m never given up on it.”

The Bridge: “If you haven’t seen it, it is a worthwhile streaming binge.”

The Strain: “You don’t have to wait forever to figure out what The Strain is about … it’s about creepy, scary stuff, and who cares if it makes no sense.”

The Knick: “I’d talk about Clive Owen, and the horribly ugly scenes in the operating room (probably quite accurate regarding 1900 medicine, but holy moly).”

True Blood: “But even at its best, in those first couple of seasons, True Blood was only a B+ show. When it fell off, which usually happens with shows that run seven seasons, we were left with mediocrity.”

The Leftovers: “The Leftovers is about depression, and the attempt to escape it. It’s overwhelming to watch this week after week … I can’t imagine anyone binge watching it, even a week isn’t enough time to recover from an episode.”

Rectify: “To say that the writing is good, that the acting is good, that it is a character-driven series where the characters are finely-drawn … all of that is true, but it doesn’t distinguish Rectify from other good shows. That kind of praise neglects the most significant fact, that McKinnon has given us a unique show.”

The Honourable Woman: “Sometimes it’s fun to break free of the NCIS school of storytelling, and to just bounce all over the place hoping something works.”

Outlander: “Claire on Outlander is plucky … she thinks well on her feet, uses brain over brawn, and in general is a better role model than Starbuck if you care about that stuff.”

Masters of Sex: “The one episode that basically just put Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan in a hotel room (‘Fight’) was the best of the season.”

Transparent: “One way it is honest is that nothing goes smoothly, people have their bad days as well as their good days, families have fights and then come back together.”

Happy Valley: “In a world of Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy, where butchering happens with clockwork regularity, Happy Valley gives us a feel for the impact violent acts have on good people.”

Boardwalk Empire: “I admired Boardwalk Empire, but I was usually more eager to watch The Walking Dead.”

The Comeback: “It puts us alongside Valerie Cherish with her head between Seth Rogen’s legs, insists that even as we laugh, we get the humiliation factor from the perspective of the abused. The Comeback is not fun.”

Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce: “The writing is sharp … Noxon is very good here at moving between funny and serious, making this a dramedy that elevates the tired genre.”

Sons of Anarchy: “If someone down the road decides to binge watch, I’d recommend Season One for context, Season Two for excellence, and then go find another show.”

The Newsroom: “And now it’s done, and I realize I won’t miss it.”

Olive Kitteridge: “That we become invested in Olive Kitteridge is a testament to the great things Frances McDormand does with the character.”

Jane the Virgin: “The best friend of one character is sleeping with the friend’s wife. The wife has a mysterious, Eastern-European background. Jane’s boyfriend, a policeman, learns about this affair when doing a stakeout looking for information about an international drug kingpin. The wife is the person who was supposed to receive the artificial insemination that ended up in Jane. Her cuckolded husband is thus the father to Jane’s baby. In the midst of all this, Jane learns the identity of her own supposedly long-dead father, and he is … well, enough with the spoilers.”

The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson: "It was the most spontaneous late-night show of its time."

Ascension: "It's already better than Killer Women."

Shows I never got around to writing about: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (a YouTube fave); Homeland (after the first few episodes, much better); The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (still have two episodes to watch); The Bletchley Circle (done after two seasons, a good binge-watch); Too Many Cooks (if you haven’t seen it, it’s too late … it’s moment has passed).


ascension

Social media makes a difference, but you still need quality if you want to hang around. My TV viewing is driven by critical acclaim, and by the reputation of the showrunner. I found little critical reaction to AscensionTim Goodman said it was flawed but had promise, but mostly he commented on the number of bare butts (he suggested they change the name to “Asscension”). The showrunner is Philip Levens, whose most notable previous work was on Smallville, which I didn’t watch. The cast lacked star power, which isn’t really a problem … a good show can make a star … but since this is on Syfy, I worry it might turn into one of those awful movies that feature one B-level fading star and a bunch of unknowns. I recognized a few names … Gil Bellows used to be on Ally McBeal, Andrea Roth on Rescue Me. I don’t know Brian Van Holt, but he was on Cougar Town. And Lauren Lee Smith turned up along the way. None of these people are Steven Better Watch actors.

And then there’s Tricia Helfer. I thought she was underrated on Battlestar Galactica, until everyone figured out she was much more than a pretty face … I still liked her, but she was no longer underrated. Earlier this year, I gave Killer Women a try … didn’t last long, but the only reason I even peeked was Helfer’s star turn. There are limits … I don’t watch every episode of every show on which Helfer appears. But I always hope her career goes well, because I like her Twitter persona. @trutriciahelfer carries a lot of weight. Most of this comes from her interactions with her BFF Katee Sackhoff, who I really will watch in just about anything (hello, Bionic Woman and Sexy Evil Genius). When the two of them took a motorcycle trip across the country, checking in each night from their motel for video chats, I was there.

So … I tuned into Ascension because Tricia Helfer has an enjoyable Twitter persona. Ascension is a pilot masquerading as a mini-series; the six episodes worked OK as standalones, but there are plenty of avenues for continuation if Syfy decides to turn it into a series. It’s clearly an attempt by Syfy to recapture the glories of Battlestar, which also began as a one-shot movie that was turned into a series. (Helfer reminds of this by her very presence.) There are problems with this, though. The Battlestar Galactica movie/pilot was good, but it really clicked with the first episode of the actual series, which we haven’t seen from Ascension yet. And while BSG helped the careers of actors like Helfer and Sackhoff, the show also had two Oscar nominees in Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell. Ascension has pretensions, and right now, that’s a good thing … it means Levens has an idea of where he wants to take the series. It doesn’t have the ambition of a BSG, but few shows in history had as much ambition as Ron Moore’s take on Galactica.

The problem is, the mini-series is only mildly engaging. There are a couple of plot twists I didn’t see coming … they were startling enough that you just had to know what would happen next. But the sensation of those twists didn’t hold. There is some good acting … Helfer, as usual, and I was taken with Ellie O’Brien as a child who is different from everyone else. On the other hand, I didn’t get Brandon P. Bell, although I couldn’t tell if it was the actor or the writing.

Another thing about the plot twists: they got your attention, distracted you for a bit, but eventually you returned to actually thinking about the plot, and it is full of the proverbial “could drive a truck through them” holes. The basic concept of Ascension is fascinating, but from what we’ve seen so far, it is fascinating yet stupid.

Still, better that than too be simply stupid. I liked what I saw enough to check it out if it ever makes it to series. It’s already better than Killer Women. Grade for mini-series: B.


tv’s craig ferguson

Stephen Colbert’s final episode of The Colbert Report has gotten a lot of attention (well deserved), but he wasn’t the only person leaving the late-night ranks. Craig Ferguson aired his final episode of The Late Late Show last night.

You won’t be able to binge-watch Ferguson on Netflix, although YouTube does have an enormous stockpile of segments and complete episodes. The goofy stuff is what got people’s attention, for good reason … Ferguson always left the door open to goofiness. It was the most spontaneous late-night show of its time. Not that Ferguson didn’t have pre-planned bits, but the two essentials of a talk show are the monologue and the guest interviews, and in both cases, Ferguson preferred a “let’s see what happens” style to one based on cue cards and publicists’ info sheets. I never did figure out exactly how scripted his monologues were, but he gave the impression that he had a couple of jokes and he would then seize on tangents. He made a big deal out of tearing up the prep cards prior to interviewing guests, as if to say, fuck that, let’s just talk. Not every guest could pull it off, but when they did, you got chat segments that weren’t like those on other shows. For this reason, guests who liked Ferguson kept coming back. Tim Meadows held the record for most appearances, but in my mind, the best guest was always Kristin Bell, who over the years developed such a solid relationship that when she made her final appearance a couple of weeks ago, extremely pregnant (the baby was born yesterday), they pulled off the most casual “interview” imaginable. They didn’t try to be funny or to do shtick, although they had done plenty of that along the way. No, this was two friends, one of whom just had to have a few spoonfuls of peanut butter. I imagine most late-night shows wouldn’t have even aired a segment like this; for Ferguson, it was the norm:

Ferguson will be known for his musical cold opens:

For his robot skeleton sidekick, Geoff Peterson, who did a mean Morgan Freeman impression:

And the regular appearances of the great Secretariat:

But he will also be remembered for more serious moments, like his eulogies for his father and mother:

His monologue about his days as an addict, and why he won’t make fun of Britney Spears:

His one-on-one with Desmond Tutu, which won a Peabody Award:

http://youtu.be/PW7mvLTqVMM

http://youtu.be/lp3ajo7kxrE

http://youtu.be/rj3bwJrIVeU

And so, his final show:


the new inductees into the rock and roll hall of fame

Here’s the thing. I have no idea what the criteria are for being chosen. Most people think the reality is that Jann Wenner’s taste preferences are the primary influence on who gets in. OK, I don’t want to indulge in possible slander … I made up the part about “most people”. But at the least, there are tendencies … some genres are preferred over others, some eras are preferred over others.

Six artists are inducted as performers this year. One group gets in as “early influences”, and one artist falls into the “musical excellence” category. Eight artists in all, and the only woman is Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. Eight artists in all, and only two are African-American: performer Bill Withers and early influencers The “5” Royales. There are two blues-based artists among the inductees … they are both mostly white. Essentialist arguments only get you so far, but patterns do develop.

All eight artists have a lot to offer, which is part of the reason why it’s hard to figure out which artists are “Hall of Famers” (ignoring for a moment the obvious point that the definition of a “Hall of Famer” is “someone who is in the Hall of Fame”).

The “5” Royales are a good example of “early influences”. Steve Cropper, himself an influential guitar player, recorded an entire album of songs associated with the group. Cropper calls the group’s chief songwriter and guitarist, Lowman Pauling, as his greatest influence. Pauling wrote several songs that became rock and roll classics, most notably “Dedicated to the One I Love”. I don’t know how anyone could deny that The “5” Royales were important influencers on the music.

The inductee in “musical excellence” is Ringo Starr. Now, Ringo’s drumming has been unfairly maligned for so long he has gone from underrated to, arguably, overrated. But does he fit the requirements the Hall sets for musical excellence? The Hall states, “This award honors musicians, songwriters and producers who have spent their life creating important and memorable music. Their originality, impact and influence have changed the course of music history. These artists have achieved the highest level of distinction that transcends time.” In his life, Ringo Starr has helped create an enormous body of important and memorable music. The vast majority of it came with The Beatles. The Beatles, including Ringo, are already in the Hall of Fame. Does anyone really believe Ringo’s non-Beatles work is so monumental it deserves a place in the Hall? Well, obviously, someone believes it, because he’s going to be inducted, for the second time (the other Beatles have already gotten their second inductions). But this smacks of “the other Beatles got a second, we better give one to Ringo … maybe he and Paul can have a mini-reunion at the induction concert”.

What about the six artists in as performers? The Paul Butterfield Blues Band is a favorite of mine. They headlined the second rock concert I ever attended. Butterfield is one of the great harmonica players of all time. From their earliest days in Chicago, the interracial band were invaluable in bringing the blues and rock cultures together. Their first guitar player, Elvin Bishop, has had a long career, a fine career. Their second guitar player, Mike Bloomfield, was one of rock’s very best, innovative yet rooted in the blues. “East-West”, the highlight track from the album of the same name, can lay claim to being the best long-form rock instrumental. OK, I’m allowing my own taste preferences to step in … some years ago, a CD was released that featured just three tracks, all live versions of “East-West” … I grabbed it right away. But what does it add up to? The entire band is being inducted, not Butterfield alone, so the evidence relies on the six albums that band recorded. The first two remain highly regarded (significantly, those are the ones with Bloomfield). The other four showed a gradual decline … at first, Butterfield was attempting some interesting moves away from the pure blues, but by the end, the quality wasn’t there. Their reputation rests on those first two albums, on their historical importance in blues-rock, and on “East-West”. That’s a pretty good band. But the standards for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are impossible to pin down. Perhaps that is for the best … you can’t reduce art to systems of analysis. Me, I’d want a couple more great albums, maybe more than one essential track, before I’d elevate a band to the level of a Hall of Famer.

Next up is Green Day, and I think they are an easy choice. I suppose there are people who can’t imagine the brats who made Dookie belonging in the Hall of Fame. I might wish that The Mr. T Experience got more recognition. But Green Day was/is the biggest band in their genre, pop punk. They sold a gazillion albums, they won Grammys, they adapted one of their albums into a Broadway musical that won Tonys. And yes, they were a Berkeley band, and their bass player co-owns Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café, which matters mostly to my wife and I, since we eat there frequently.

Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. Those of us who love both rock and roll and baseball can’t help but compare the respective Halls of Fame of our favorites. This usually takes the following form: you think of a rocker, then you try to figure out which baseball player best matches the career of the rocker. I don’t like to keep telling the same story, and I don’t like completely relying on the words of another, but Christgau nailed this one. He had given a grade of B+ to four straight albums by Jett in the 80s, and when it came time to review Up Your Alley, he wrote, “Jesus I wish she was just a little bit better than she actually is … But though nobody else male or female puts out such a reliable brand of hard rock, lean and mean and pretension-free, and though being female gives her an edge in a quintessentially male subgenre, not since her start-up has she made something special of her populist instincts. It's almost as if that's the idea. B+”. Joan Jett is the ballplayer who put together a long career, made the occasional all-star team, was a member of a World Series champion, and while they were never the best player on their team, they were always one of the best, and they were “good in the clubhouse”. She was Gene Tenace. Tenace was a good player, underrated, I suspect. He was not a Hall of Famer. Whether Joan Jett belongs depends on how much value you place on her status as a role model. I think that in this case, that status is very important, and I don’t think her induction is an embarrassment to the Hall.

Lou Reed. I love the Velvet Underground, and I spent a good portion of my life intensely following Lou’s career. I don’t know that multiple inductions are a good idea, but Reed’s solo career was separate enough from the Velvets to make it right that he has a second chance. His solo career was erratic, but the highs were very high. I think he belongs.

Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble. I don’t feel qualified to speak on Vaughan. He was an immensely talented guitar player, people who like his kind of music put Vaughan at the top of the heap, and he had a lot to do with a revival of interest in the blues. I liked his music whenever I heard it, never really sought it out.

Bill Withers. Baseball’s Hall of Fame has procedures for returning to the past, looking for valuable players who were overlooked before. Some of those players end up in the Hall. Bill Withers would seem to be one of those kinds of players. He was an excellent soul man in a singer/songwriter mode who had several hits, including the unforgettable “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Use Me,” and “Lean on Me”. As late as 1981, he had a top-five single. His work fell off a few years after his big hits, but that’s a pretty common occurrence with rock and pop stars. Here’s the thing: Withers has recorded only one album in the last 35 years, and that was back in 1985. If Withers was Hall-worthy, what took them so long to induct him? Nothing about his work has changed in the last thirty years. Would I vote for him? I think he made the kind of music that doesn’t get a lot of respect, and it’s nice that he’s being recognized when he’s still alive to accept it.

So, who is missing? The most obvious choice is Chic. There was no better band in the history of disco. They had numerous hits, along with albums that were as good as the singles. Guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards were as important to the sound of Chic as the Funk Brothers were to Motown. Their influence spread far beyond disco, with Edwards’ bass lines in particular being regularly sampled by hip-hop artists. Chic is a monumental band in the history of rock and roll, and they have been nominated for the Hall ten times. Yet they have yet to be inducted. There is no sensible reason for this.

The Smiths were nominated this year. I’m not a big fan, but there’s no denying their legacy. They are #26 on the artists rankings at Acclaimed Music, which collates critical opinion. Other notables who were nominated but not inducted this year include Kraftwerk, War, N.W.A., and the Spinners.

I guess this group isn’t an embarrassment. Ringo as a solo artist is a stretch, and Chic belongs.


throw-in thursday

Twenty-one years ago today, Germany played the USA in soccer at Stanford. We were there.

For the U.S.:

Brad Friedel, Desmond Armstrong, Alexi Lalas, Mike Lapper, Cobi Jones, Mike Sorber, Thomas Dooley, Joe-Max Moore (71 Dominic Kinnear), Jeff Agoos (60 Brian Bliss), Earnie Stewart, Hugo Pérez (46 Chad Deering).

For Germany:

Bodo Illgner, Lother Matthäus, Guido Buchwald, Jürgen Kohler (46 Matthias Sammer), Stefan Effenberg, Thomas Häßler (75 Thomas Strunz), Dieter Eilts, Andreas Brehme (46 Christian Ziege), Andreas Möller, Stefan Kuntz, Jürgen Klinsmann (63 Andreas Thom).