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throw back the crunch

Checking the shelves at a local chain drug store for some yummy treats, I came across a mini-box of my favorite cereal of all time, Cap’n Crunch. This delicious cereal was introduced in 1963, when I was 10 years old. Here is the very first commercial for Cap’n Crunch, created by former Berkeley resident Jay Ward, the animator who gave us such great characters as Rocky and Bullwinkle, Dudley Do-Right, Sherman and Mr. Peabody, and George of the Jungle. (A baby-boomer Hall of Fame.)

One sign of the times is that they promoted the cereal as “sugar sweet” ... at least they kept the word “sugar” out of the name, meaning it is still called Cap’n Crunch, just as it was in 1963. (Other cereals were not so lucky, resulting in name changes as times changed ... to the best of my knowledge, you can still buy Sugar Puffs, Sugar Smacks, Sugar Pops, Sugar Crisp, and Sugar Frosted Flakes, to name a few ... you just won’t see those names on the boxes, the word “sugar” being removed.)

The commercial also notes the importance of “crunch”. Cap’n Crunch is true to its name ... it is indeed quite crunchy. The ad tells us that this is because it stays crunchy, even in milk. My wife, who can’t stand the stuff, points out that the crunchiness, combined with the shape of each morsel, means you hurt the roof of your mouth with every bite.

The ever-trustworthy Wikipedia tells us that Cap’n Crunch actually has roots in something almost traditional, despite the aura it gives of being concocted in a lab out of sugar and chemicals:

Pamela Low, a flavorist at Arthur D. Little and 1951 graduate of the University of New Hampshire with a microbiology degree, developed the original Cap'n Crunch flavor in 1963—recalling a recipe of brown sugar and butter her grandmother Luella Low served over rice at her home in Derry, New Hampshire.

And:

Grandma would make this concoction with rice and the sauce that she had; it was a combination of brown sugar and butter. It tasted good, obviously. They'd put it over the rice and eat it as a kind of a treat on Sundays...
—William Low, Pamela Low's brother

All due respect to my own grandmothers, who were wonderful women, but I think Luella Low belongs in the main wing of the Grandmother’s Hall of Fame.

Wikipedia lists more than two dozen offshoots of the original cereal, beginning with Crunch Berries in 1967, but I always saw them as interlopers. My Cap’n Crunch never needed to be tarted up with berries and such.

I had a bowl last night. I was as delicious as ever.


by request: quartet (dustin hoffman, 2012)

I come to a lot of the movies I watch cold, or close to it. Mostly this comes because I keep endless lists of movies to watch, and by the time I get around to something, I’ve long forgotten why it ended up on the list. Requests are also like this ... someone recommends a movie, I put it on my Requests List. When I watch it, it’s brand new to me, no matter how old it is.

Quartet was recommended just a couple of weeks ago, though, so I didn’t have time to forget it. “Forget” may be the wrong word, though, because until it was recommended, I had never heard of it. Since I like being “spoiler-free” to a certain extent, when someone recommends a movie, I instantly start ignoring their descriptions ... eventually I’ll watch it, until then, details are pointless.

Despite all of this, I found, as I watched Quartet, that I knew all about it, no matter my efforts to remain clueless. Because Quartet is completely lacking in any surprises. When a brief summary tells you everything you need to know, surprises are pretty much impossible.

A who’s who of aging British actors (Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon) live in a home for retired musicians. A gala benefit is planned to keep the home from going bankrupt, and the highlight is intended to be a famous quartet of opera singers (see the first four listed above) reprising their greatest hit. But two of the four are still stewing over a relationship from the past, so it looks like the reprise will not happen. Guess what? Everyone makes up, and the quartet get back together.

Quartet is Dustin Hoffman’s first film as a director, and here again, there are no surprises. Quartet was originally a play, and Hoffman dispenses with the kind of “opening up” film makers often use to disguise theatre roots. Such a move would just be a lot of work for a neophyte, I guess. It’s irrelevant, since, like many actors-turned-directors, Hoffman proves himself adept at highlighting the work of the actors. None of my complaints really matter, since Maggie Smith et al get to show off their chops.

It all comes across like a reunion show of an old rock band. No one can sing or play as well as they used to, but it’s nice to see they are still trying. In every actor’s case, you can think of several better performances they have given in better movies or television shows. You would never start an examination of their career with Quartet, any more than you would start a study of The Who by looking at the post-Moon/Entwhistle era. Which doesn’t deny the pleasure of seeing these fine actors. It just means everyone, actors and audience alike, can settle for “good enough”. Surprises just get in the way.

You don’t watch Quartet to learn about opera, or about aging. You watch it for the heavy whiff of nostalgia. If this sounds like a good way to spend two hours, you will like Quartet, I assure you. 6/10.

(As many have noted, the best alternative to this film is Amour. Amour, of course, is excruciating to watch.)


what i watched last week

Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964). A series of ghost stories so gorgeous it’s nearly impossible to get any perspective on the quality of those stories. An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 1966 (it lost to The Shop on Main Street), Kwaidan demands our awareness not just of Kobayashi, but also of cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima and art director Shigemasa Toda. I don’t pretend to know who did what, but the result is stunning. Smartly, considering these are ghost stories, Kobayashi et al do not worry about an exact representation of the real. Instead, they use every available trick to augment the film canvas. The colors are brighter than those worn by circus performers, with the screen often particularly awash in the most dazzling reds. Often, I’ll see a movie like this and think of it as what I call a “coffee table movie”, something that looks so pretty you want to put it out on a coffee table for a friend to browse. But those movies are stagnant ... still photos as demo material. Kwaidan moves too much for a still to fully serve as an example. The format also works in its favor. As beautiful as it is to see, I might eventually get bored with 183 minutes of beauty. (There are alternate versions, including the original U.S. release, which simply removed one of the stories.) But the episodic nature of the film breaks those three hours into more manageable periods. And while this movie is slower, more patient, than the usual horror film, nonetheless the growing tension of each ghost story does mean you always want to know what is coming next (even though the plots don’t always make sense ... not sure they should, to be honest). It’s not easy for me to think of any movie that compares to Kwaidan ... at times I thought of Mario Bava’s anthology, Black Sabbath, but Bava’s style is nothing like Kobayashi’s here. Kwaidan is simply one of a kind, at least until someone points me in the direction of something similar. And I haven’t even mentioned the soundtrack, which is frequently so abstract I thought my Bluetooth earphones were broken. #898 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

Pride (Matthew Warchhus, 2014). 7/10.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011). 7/10.


film fatales #15: we need to talk about kevin (lynne ramsay, 2011)

We Need to Talk About Kevin is only Lynne Ramsay’s third feature as a director. This should not imply that the film has the feel of someone still on their learner’s permit, for Ramsay has very specific ideas about what she wants to put on the screen, and she has all the tools to accomplish her goals. Writing about her debut, Ratcatcher, I wrote that it was “an impressive debut that makes me want to watch Ramsay’s subsequent films.” Kevin is equally impressive, but for me, something is still missing. Ramsay is efficient and vague at the same time, leaving movies that are easy to admire but not so easy to like. (I pointed out about Ratcatcher that I didn’t think that was necessarily what she wanted, anyway.) We Need To Talk About Kevin is, in fact, very unlikeable, purposely so, which serves the purpose of forcing the audience to experience the fearful grating of the relationship between mother and son.

Kevin does need to be talked about, although ironically, no one in the movie ever actually does this. He is another one of those troubled teens who wipe out their schoolmates. On the one hand, we never get an explanation of why Kevin is a psychopath, yet even as the film seems to leave such analysis to the viewer, it points towards Kevin’s mother (Tilda Swinton) as somehow being the cause of the craziness. Whether Kevin is just a bad seed or a product of an unloving mother isn’t made clear, but both possibilities lay at least part of the blame on Mom (from what we can see, Kevin takes after his mother more than he does his father, leaving her responsible for his bad genetics).

Kevin is relatively sympathetic to Mom’s plight. Kevin is a truly monstrous kid, as a baby who never quits crying, as a youngster who refuses to be potty-trained, and as a teenage who regularly performs dastardly deeds. Mom is also burdened by Kevin’s ability to charm others into thinking he’s a fine fellow (Dad, in particular, falls for this, telling Mom “he’s just being a boy”). Ramsay pulls no punches: Kevin is sick.

But from the start, Mom is ambivalent about having a kid. If it takes her a long time to really hate Kevin (some might argue she never reaches that point), she can only pretend to love him ... all of her good intentions are constructed, not “natural”, and you get the feeling even Toddler Kevin knows that his mother doesn’t much like him.

The film seems like a mess, but it’s a studied mess, which is to say, it is no mess at all. As noted above, Ramsay knows exactly what she is doing, and the chaos of the splintered chronology of the movie reflects the inner turmoil of Mom. It also means the film is often confusing ... again, this is intentional ... Ramsay isn’t interested in a clear narrative as much as she wants to show us how Mom experiences her wretched life, an experience that isn’t any clearer to Mom than it is to the audience.

In my earlier review, I cited an excellent video essay by Tony Zhou, “Lynne Ramsay: The Poetry of Details”, which does a great job of showing one way to approach Ramsay’s movies. I remain intrigued by her work, I haven’t yet seen a movie of hers that seems a complete success. #359 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


by request: pride (matthew warchus, 2014)

If you are going to make a feel-good movie, might as well go all-in. Pride features a boatload of fine British actors, some veterans you have heard of (Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West) and others newcomers, to me at least, who more than hold their own. Based on a true story of a group of gay activists who travel to Wales to support workers during the UK miners’ strike of 1984-5, Pride milks its material in rousing ways, encouraging the audience to identify with the strikers and their gay supporters against the evil power of the state (represented by Margaret Thatcher).

Some of us resist this kind of shameless audience manipulation, but admittedly, Warchus is so good here that resistance is largely futile. You might feel like a heartless fuddy-duddy if you don’t leave the movie with the titular pride in your heart, listening to Billy Bragg remind us that there is power in a union, followed by Jimmy Somerville’s ballad for his friend Mark, a major character in the film.

It’s a bit odd, though, making a feel-good movie about a strike that failed. Which may be why the film is less about labor issues and more about getting together, Kumbaya fashion, in a celebration of the commonalities among all humans. The film offers a powerful statement about the importance of pride in the gay community, emphasized when it concludes with the Lesbian and Gay Pride 85 parade.

The miners and their strike fall by the wayside. The miners themselves are used more as props to further the story of people coming together than they are presented as complicated workers involved in a complicated strike. I don’t pretend to be an expert on that strike, but I know there’s much more to it than what we see in Pride. Whether it’s the strike’s failure, or the decline of the coal industry, or the resulting victory for Evil Thatcher that changed the UK forever, the strike deserves to be more than a backdrop for a story about emergent gay pride. And it’s no surprise that the actual political affiliation of LGSM co-founder Mark Ashton is buried (he was a Communist).

Having said all of this, there is still no denying the way Pride makes us feel good, and does so without resorting to many cheap tricks to wring emotion from the audience. 7/10.


she saved the world. a lot

This starts out being about sports, but it wanders, so here’s a spoiler warning for Penny Dreadful.

The Warriors lost their title to the Cavs. I didn’t like it while it was happening ... as I said at one point on Facebook, I didn’t want a good game, I wanted a Warrior victory, the bigger the better. And so it was a good game, even a great game, and LeBron James is the best player of his era, and his team accomplished something great. I am happy for the fans in Cleveland who have waited so long. Actually, I’m not happy, but one day I will be. It helps that 1) we got to celebrate just last year, and 2) the entire season up until these last games was such a joy.

Another thing that helps is being a fan of more than one sport. So while the Warriors lost, the Giants have won 8 in a row, and 27 of their last 35 (a record for the San Francisco team). They are for the moment comfortably in first place.

And the U.S. men’s national soccer team has made it to the semi-finals of the Copa América Centenario, where Argentina awaits them on Tuesday. That gives us 40+ hours to imagine what it might be like for the USA to beat Messi and company.

So it’s not bad being a Bay Area sports fan right now, even if the Warriors game hurts.

The NBA season is over, but it will return. And tonight, after the sadness of the basketball game, there was the Season Three finale of Penny Dreadful. Showtime claimed it was two hours long, but it was just two episodes shown back to back. While the first episode, and half of the second, featured interesting stories about the show’s many characters, along with the usual excellent acting, Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives was noticeable by her absence. And since we knew everything was headed for a showdown with Vanessa, Dracula, and our intrepid heroes, it felt like a bit of stalling ... come on, I kept thinking, get down to it. When Green finally showed up, we were reminded why Penny Dreadful has, above all, always been her series. There were all the great fictional characters thrown together: Dr. Frankenstein, his monster, and the Bride ... Dorian Gray ... Dr. Jekyll ... The Wolfman ... Dracula and Dr. Seward and Mina Harker and Van Helsing and Renfield ... I half expected Abbott and Costello to show up. But in all of this, Eva Green rose above the rest. She was the best thing about a very good show.

And yes, here come the spoilers, and yes, I was speaking in the past tense in that last sentence. For Vanessa Ives died to save the world from evil, rather like Buffy in “The Gift”. Buffy was resurrected, of course, and hey, Penny Dreadful features Dr. Frankenstein, so I suppose Vanessa could come back. But it was her death that finally ended Dracula’s reign of darkness, and it was explicitly Christian ... her last words were that she could see “our Lord”, whose battle she had fought her entire life.

Much has been made of late about how frequently television series use “surprise” deaths of important characters these days, but even in that context, Vanessa’s death snuck up on us, even as it seemed inevitable. More surprising were the words that appeared on the screen at the end of the episode, after we’d spent a few minutes trying to imagine Penny Dreadful without Eva Green. “The End”. Surprise, surprise. Showtime managed to keep that under wraps. I hadn’t even noticed that Penny Dreadful had yet to be extended for a fourth season. I just assumed it would happen, given that Showtime has a well-deserved reputation for letting their best shows run long past their sell-by date. But it turns out that Penny Dreadful is expensive, and it doesn’t get many viewers in the right demographics. I love Eva Green, but she’s 35 years old, and the other main characters included the likes of Timothy Dalton (in his 70s), and Patti LuPone and Wes Studi (both in their late-60s). It felt like Josh Hartnett was there to appeal to the younger crowd, but heck, he’s older than Eva Green. Add the fact that most of the characters came from turn-of-the-last-century literature, and I suppose it would be asking too much for young people to take a shine to it.

I mean, I went to Twitter to find fellow fans to mourn with, and everyone was talking about Game of Thrones. Truth is, I barely know anyone who watched Penny Dreadful.

So it’s gone, an A- series that flirted with an A. And the Warriors are gone, at least until next season, an A+ team that slipped to a B+ at just the wrong time. But there are still the Giants, and the U.S. national team. And Game of Thrones, and Outlander. And hey, Orange Is the New Black is back! Mourn for a day, but then see what joys await us.

Saved image from Tweetium (8)


music friday: what I like

Came across an article that prompted me to head straight to Amazon to buy a book. The essence is in the title of the article: “The Gap Between What You Like and What You Say You Like”. I felt this connected to last week’s Music Friday post, wherein I used Last.fm, which tracks what I listen to, to see which tunes were my favorites of various randomly chosen artists. As I have noted in the past, Last.fm doesn’t lie ... I may say I like one thing, but it will tell you what I really listen to. This isn’t exactly like that ... I’m not listing my most-played songs. I just find it interesting what songs I play most by artists I like. So here I go again, ten songs, in each case featuring my most-played track by the artist in question.


after they’ve seen paree

It’s a story I’ve told before, but it is Throwback Thursday, after all.

My wife and I made our first trip to Europe in 1984. We stayed with Robin’s sister and her soon-to-be husband Peter in England ... I want to say they lived in Little Bookham, but I’m not sure. As I recall (I’m only going to say that once, but imagine I’ve said it before every sentence ... this was 32 years ago, after all), we quickly took off on a car trip. We were staying for three weeks, so time was tight. We drove down through France after taking the ferry (urp, barf), and crossed over into Andorra, which I probably didn’t know existed at the time. Then to Barcelona, where Peter had family ... he was a true European, English heritage but with time spent in Spain and France at least, conversant in several languages. While in Barcelona, we visited the Museu Fundacio Joan Miro, where Robin’s sister took the following photo, which recently turned up on Facebook:

miro 1984

I’m not sure what order we did things, but either going to or coming from France, we shopped in Andorra, which was duty-free. We also spent a night in the Pyrenees at a place Peter’s family owned ... there was a town named La Seu d’Urgell, perhaps it was there. On our way back through France, we spent one night in Meung, a small town on the Loire where I had the best birthday dinner of my life.

Back in England, Peter took me to Wimbledon. I always say I saw McEnroe and Connors at Wimbledon, which is technically true, although it was in different matches. Connors beat a fellow American, Lloyd Bourne, on Court One, after McEnroe had dispatched Australian Paul McNamee. I have long forgotten this, but McNamee actually took the third set in that match, making him the only player to do so against McEnroe in the entire tournament.

What brings all this to mind is a different sport. Euro 2016 is going on right now in France, and when we vacationed in 1984, the Euros were taking place, also in France. Wherever we went as we drove from England to Spain and back again, people were glued to their televisions. Spain made it to the finals, where they lost to France, 2-0. It was then that I discovered my first soccer hero, Michel Platini, who scored nine goals in the tournament (no one else scored more than three). What I knew about soccer in 1984 would barely fill an English teacup, but I have Platini to thank for getting me interested. (Here's a link to all of his goals: https://youtu.be/IU9S9oaa-AU

Platini was indeed one of the greatest soccer players of all time, and after his playing days, he went on to have a significant career in administration, spending eight years as President of UEFA. Sadly, not all stories end well ... he is currently banned for ethics corruption. Not to excuse him, but he was born at the wrong time ... it would seem that every soccer administrator today is steeped in corruption.

I retained a lot from that European trip. It was my first time in Spain (albeit we never got close to Andalucía ... that waited until 2000). When we went to Europe, I had just finished ten years in the factory. I guess it was a case of “How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree)?”, because within a couple of months, I had walked off the job, never to return.


winter light (ingmar bergman, 1963)

Earlier in the week, Charlie Bertsch posted a Facebook update about a movie he’d seen that inspired, as of this writing, more than 80 replies, and led to an essay by Charlie (“Consider The Lobster”) that extended his original thoughts. (I don’t think it matters what the movie was, and in fact Charlie didn’t tell us at first. It was The Lobster, if anyone cares.) It isn’t exactly true that his update and essay inspired this post, because I was going to watch and write about Winter Light already, but the two viewing experiences fit together nicely. Here is his original update (hopefully, he won’t mind my quoting it):

Charlie Bertsch just spent two hours watching a film that felt at least twice that long. It made him miserable, much of the time. He considered leaving before it was over on several occasions. And he could not bear the ending. Yet he would definitely consider it a worthwhile experience. Certainly, he won't soon forget the film or the discomfort that it caused him.

My first response was that life was too short for such “worthwhile” experiences. But the subsequent discussion, and the essay, makes me realize there was more going on than mere discomfort.

In his essay, Charlie introduces two major points. “For me,” he wrote, “becoming a true cinephile was inextricably bound up with learning to distinguish between the experience of watching films for the first time and the experience of processing them afterwards, whether in exchanges with friends or during second, third or fourth viewings.” I certainly appreciate the importance of post-viewing processing, but I am perhaps too much a child of Pauline “I Only Watch ‘Em Once” Kael to think extra viewings are mandatory. Still, I watch plenty of movies more than once (Winter Light included), and I often find my differing reactions useful. If, as I believe, Kael is partly arguing that our personal experiences while watching a movie (see Shoeshine) enter into our evaluations, then surely watching a movie in 2016 that I last saw in 1973 will be instructive, because I am not the same person.

Charlie takes it a bit further: “I need to be able to distance myself from them once the films are over if I want to produce an analysis that doesn’t merely expand upon that initial rooting interest.” If nothing else, this explains a lot of Charlie’s writing on film (and art in general). I want to believe it, and when I would function as, say, a teacher, I would break down a movie the same way I was trained to break down a poem. Having said that, I am often a victim of my initial rooting interest, so when I saw The Road Warrior when it came out, my response was largely to pick my jaw up off of the floor, and when I saw Fury Road, one reason I loved it was because my jaw ended up in that same place. There is a tension between my rooting and my later analysis, and I am not always as diligent as Charlie about making sure to distance myself at some point.

And so, Winter Light, the second film in Bergman’s “Silence of God” trilogy. If Wikipedia is to be believed, Winter Light was Bergman’s favorite of his films, which is believable. I saw the first film in the trilogy, Through a Glass Darkly, when I was a teenager, and was much taken with the “schizophrenic” main character. Truth be told, I romanticized her illness, the way misunderstood teenagers will do. I then saw the trilogy in the early-70s when I was a film major (and, truth be told, still a teenager, being 19 at the time). I still loved Through a Glass Darkly, but I thought Winter Light was boring and The Silence ... well, perhaps it gave me discomfort. I remember writing about it for a class, and summarizing that it was “Sick. Sick, sick, sick.” (I really have to see that one again.) Well, I finally returned to Winter Light more than 40 years later, and I think I understand why I was negative about it when I was 19, and why I liked it now that I’m 62.

But first, I need to reiterate that the movie hasn’t changed over those 40+ years, I have changed, and to the extent that my opinion of the film has also changed, I am a poster child for the importance of personal experiences being reflected in the art we take in.

Winter Light is right up my alley, as it would have been in 1973. A pastor is faced with an existential crisis, finding he has lost his faith. According to the IMDB, Bergman’s then wife said, “Yes, Ingmar, it’s a masterpiece. But it’s a dreary masterpiece.” She is correct, but I am no longer convinced, as I probably was in 1973, that dreary=bad. These kinds of crises are dreary as often as not.

I could have been that pastor. By 1973, I, too, had lost my faith, but I wasn’t troubled by this the way a pastor might have been. My great hero at that point (and still) was Dr. Rieux from Camus’ novel The Plague. Rieux confronts the silence of God, and while he may never have been a believer, God’s absence is still oddly present. The plague that attacks the small town in the novel requires a response, and Rieux does his job as a doctor, trying to fight the plague because that’s what you do. While Rieux (the narrator of the novel) refuses to call himself a hero, he acts heroically. He is a role model, in my mind. When I was 19, I had no time for an unbelieving pastor who spent all his time whining about his miseries. It was existentialism without heroism, and that might be closer to true existentialism, but I was 19 and I wanted heroes to look up to. Thus, I dismissed the pastor, and dismissed the film.

Now, though, I see the silliness of my notions of existential heroism. (I still believe in them, I just know they are silly.) I’ve also lived long enough to know I am more like that pastor than I am like Dr. Rieux. So as I watched Winter Light in 2016, I was much more sympathetic to his struggles. And with that sympathy, I became involved in the film in a way I hadn’t before. If in 1973 I thought the 81-minute film must have been more than two hours long, in 2016 I saw and admired the compact nature of those 81 minutes.

I still prefer Through a Glass Darkly ... I can’t lose all of my rooting interest. But Winter Light is a good movie in its own right. “God” help me, I think I’m going to have to watch The Silence again. #470 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 movies of all time. 7/10.

(It seems that I am incapable of talking about Bergman without including this SCTV clip)