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gabba gabba hey

This morning, as a Halloween treat, I watched Freaks. There are some haunting, even terrifying, images at the end, when the freaks get their revenge on Cleo and Hercules, and in fairness to Tod Browning, the effects are not entirely due to the freakishness of the performers. I don't know where I stand on the "is he exploiting them or not" question, but I do think that question, along with the film's ending, is far more interesting than anything else going on in the movie. I believe Freaks is better after the fact, when it's being discussed, then while it is being watched. A couple of the "big" actors do well, but most of the freaks are cast because they're freaks, not because they have any particular acting ability. So Browning might get credit for accepting the freaks enough to include them in his film, but since for the most part they can't act, all that is left for them is to be freakish. Which smacks of exploitation, after all. It's worth seeing, even important, and it's shorter than Booty Call. But it's not a great movie.

I wish I'd seen the version where they castrated Hercules, though.

weeds: season two finale (spoilers, duh)

Perhaps it’s best, given the supposed subject of this show, to just quote the Grateful Dead and note that Season Two of Weeds was a long, strange trip. Not everyone stuck around for the ride, either … my sister Chris once again made the mistake of thinking she might like a show I touted, and made it through, what, two episodes? Three? (Season One, it should be noted.) Robin seemed to get increasingly frustrated as the season progressed … given a choice on Monday nights, she invariably chose to watch the erratic Studio 60 and postpone Weeds for a day, and tonight’s finale seemed to leave her cold … as I said when it was over, I may end up watching Season Three by myself. Even I found myself thinking a sophomore slump had affected the show; the first few episodes of Season Two seemed quirky in a different way than before, as if they knew they had more viewers than expected and felt they had to live up to the “quirky” hype.

But things got better as the season went on, with lots of twists and turns that were both unexpected in the extreme, yet perfectly understandable with the benefit of hindsight. All of which led up to the finale tonight, which piled on the plot twists so frantically that I can understand Robin feeling peeved. Me, I loved the finale, and while I usually don’t like the idea of season-ending cliffhangers, this one was so over-the-top … “this one” doesn’t get it, there were LOTS of cliffhangers, not just one … I went for it, 100%. Weeds is at its best when it combines the funny and the disturbing, and there was plenty of both to go around as the season ended.

I’ve managed to get this far without spoilers … I know that very few people who read this get Showtime, and thus the few of you who watch Weeds will be waiting for the DVDs. My advice, when you get around to watching Season Two, is to give it time, if you find the first episodes a bit off. If, at the end of the season, you’re still frustrated like Robin, you’ll know it … there’s no halfway about this show at this point, it’s taken such a turn that love it or hate it will be the only options. And while I said last paragraph that it’s best when it’s both funny and serious, in truth, while I laughed a lot the last few episodes, they really were darker than pretty much everything that came before.

Some general stuff. Nancy is still the world’s second-crappiest mom (Elizabeth Perkins’ character is still #1). Mary Louise Parker is still an acquired taste … it’s a taste I’ve always enjoyed, but there’s no denying she’s … well, quirky … fits well with the series. Her dippy brother-in-law was easier to take this time around, once they got past the stupid becoming-a-Rabbi subplot.

When I wrote about the first season, I called Weeds the best series I’d ever seen on Showtime. I don’t know if that’s still true … Showtime is really coming around, and Dexter is giving Weeds a real challenge for Best of Showtime. But, despite what you might have heard, Season Two of Weeds is every bit as good as Season One. So I’ll give it the same grade.

Grade for season finale: A

Grade for Season Two: A-

mental mashup: diminuendo and crescendo in goodbye to love

Every jazz fan knows the story by heart. Duke Ellington, arguably the greatest composer this country has ever known, was, by the mid-1950s, declining in popularity. At the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, Ellington told tenor sax player Paul Gonsalves to take his solo as far as he could. Gonsalves started blowing … and he blew, and he blew, and he blew. A blonde babe up front jumped out of her chair and started dancing, Duke told the sax man to keep blasting, and blast he did, for 27 choruses and nearly seven minutes. The crowd went bonkers, a live album of the performance was released, it was a giant hit, and Ellington’s popularity soared once again.

I was thinking about this, and thinking about the never-ending discussion of “Goodbye to Love.” What if one night at a Carpenters concert, for whatever reason, when it came time to play “Goodbye to Love,” Richard Carpenter whispered in Tony Peluso’s ear, “hey, Tony, we’ve got a great crowd tonight, why don’t you take a couple of extra choruses of your solo.” And what if Peluso pulled 27 of those choruses out of his ass? It would have put Wheels of Fire to shame, that’s for sure. If I knew how to do effective mashups, I’d make this one myself.

soccer against the enemy

Back before the World Cup … can’t remember when, exactly, I don’t seem to have the relevant emails archived … a friend asked me about national stereotypes related to soccer. At the time, I replied with “everyone knows Brazil is stylin’ and Italy plays defense and Germany is boring and inexorable” (thankfully, I was wrong about Germany … c’mon, US Soccer Federation, sign Klinsie as coach). I wish I had read Simon Kuper’s book, Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World’s Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power, for I could have just directed my friend to the book. In the early 90s, Kuper traveled to more than 20 countries, trying to find the essence of soccer in each place he visited. (The book, first published in 1994, has been reissued this year with a U.S. edition, which includes a couple of updated chapters.) He had two basic questions: “how [does] soccer affect the life of a country” and “how does the life of a country affect its soccer.” Soccer and politics, as many people he spoke with understood his agenda. Some of the best parts are, I suppose, the most predictable. He writes about how the Argentine junta tried to use the 1978 World Cup, which they hosted, to paint a pretty picture on the horrors of their regime. He uses the Catalan culture of Barcelona to help explain Scotland (and vice versa). He looks at rivalries, focusing on Celtic-Rangers. And he goes to Ukraine and Cameroon, South Africa and the USA. He even manages to work Osama bin Laden into his story without sounding too mechanical about it. (Soccer fans are always referring to people like Albert Camus when they explain how soccer is more than just a game … Camus was a goal keeper … Osama loves soccer, as well.)

The primary question for the American audience is whether or not the book would appeal to the non-soccer fan. I’d vote yes … soccer is never irrelevant to the points Kuper is making, but the travelogue and political observations are equally as important.

lady of the night

I don't often write about movies here, because most of the movies I watch are long past their sell-by date. Does anyone really care what I think about an 81-year-old silent movie starring Norma Shearer? I watched this one, Lady of the Night, because Mick LaSalle gushed over it … called it a masterpiece comparable to The Great Gatsby, and he does love him some Norma Shearer. My own taste for Shearer is probably unfairly tainted by my overriding taste for Pauline Kael … Kael never much liked Shearer’s acting. I can’t really remember her in much of anything beyond The Women, where she’s dull in comparison to the rest of the cast.

This time she plays dual roles, good girl/bad girl thing, although the twist here isn’t just that the bad girl is really good, which is often true in these melodramas, but that the good girl is really good, too. It’s something of a positive message about women, that the two aren’t set against each other in any way except that they love the same man. Shearer does just fine, the movie is less sappy than I expected, and it’s a lot shorter than Booty Call, so if you can bear to spend an hour or so watching a silent movie and you get Turner Classic Movies, you might look for it the next time it rolls around. But, sorry, Mick, it’s no Great Gatsby.

Now, I ask you, did you really care about my thoughts on an 81–year-old silent movie?

how can you mend a broken heart

I watch a lot of soccer. Used to attend a lot of matches, until MLS moved my team to Houston. I thought I wasn’t emotional about it … well, that’s not true, of course it isn’t, but there was nothing I could do, and it’s not like the Houston club wouldn’t be on my TV on a regular basis.

Except, as I expected, I never bothered to tune in. Because every week I’d have a couple of dozen matches minimum to choose from, and without a rooting interest, MLS wasn’t particularly interesting. Given a choice between Manchester United, Werder Bremen, Barcelona, Inter Milan, and the Houston Dynamo, the Dynamo were going to lose out every time. Put it another way: I was choosing between Wayne Rooney, Miroslav Klose, Ronaldinho, Diego, and Dwayne DeRosario. I realize most of you don’t know any of those names, so you’ll have to take my word for it: the first four are better than the last guy on the list, and the last guy on the list is the best player on San Jose/Houston.

As luck would have it, the last few of weeks have featured highly-anticipated matches between longtime rivals, Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, Boca Juniors vs. River Plate, and Milan vs. Inter Milan, to name three. So I was focused on those games, and wasn’t paying much attention to the MLS playoffs, going on right now.

But this evening, I decided to watch Houston host Chivas USA. Of the eleven players who took the field for Houston at the start of the match, nine had played for San Jose last season. The coaching staff was the same, and most of the players on the bench were also former Quakes. I knew these guys very well … we used to sit in the fifth row, you get to know the players when you’re that close.

In a hard-fought, thrilling match, Houston won two minutes into extra time on a goal by Brian Ching, longtime stalwart for San Jose. They advance to the Western Conference finals.

And I wanted to cry. This wasn’t the first time I wanted to cry over a Brian Ching goal, but the reason was a lot different this time around. In the past, they were tears of joy. Now, I just feel like a jilted lover, watching his ex go out with the best-looking guy in town. He’s treating her right, he’s taking her to all the right places, she’s as happy as can be … and I’m on the outside looking in.

passing strange

Our friends Ralph and Laurie took us to the Berkeley Rep tonight to see a musical called Passing Strange. The performances were energetic, and the idea behind the play looks good on paper: musician bubbling just under the surface (Stew), veteran of several albums (with The Negro Problem and as Stew) and something of a cult fave, puts together a stage play that documents his musical and personal growth. But it worked better as concert than as play. This isn't solely Stew's fault ... I'm not sure exactly what Tommy was about, either ... but after spending more than two hours showing the hero moving from folk to punk, from L.A. to Amsterdam to Berlin, the finish, whereby he returns to L.A. and the entire ensemble finishes with a big rock song about how important it is to dance and play and have fun, feels abrupt. It might play better as a concept album without the dialogue.

I don't know what it is about Robin and I and oddball musicals. The only time I attended a play on Manhattan, it was the country musical Pump Boys and Dinettes. And now I've seen Passing Strange. Maybe one day I'll see a "real" musical, although I suspect the ones I've seen are more to my tastes.

reality and fiction

From an interview with our Vice-President:

Hennen: Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?

Cheney: It's a no-brainer for me, but for a while there, I was criticized as being the vice president "for torture." We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in.

From Battlestar Galactica, as Starbuck tortures a Cylon to get information that can save lives:

Now, if you were human, you'd be just about ready to start offering up some false information about the location of the nuke. Some tiny thing that might get you a reward and maybe spare you a few minutes of this. But then I keep forgetting, you're not human. You're a machine…. There's no limit to the tactics I can use.