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March 2011
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what i watched last week

127 Hours. Not really what you’d think. Yeah, he cuts off his arm, and yeah, it’s really really gross, and yeah, the movie derives its narrative thrust from the fact that everyone knows in advance that he’s going to cut his arm off so no matter what happens in the movie, you keep thinking about his arm. But the first 10-15 minutes constitute a lovely paean to getting away from it all, and Danny Boyle manages to turn 127 hours of James Franco stuck in a crevice into something other than boring. And he gets it all done in 94 minutes, which is at least as important as the 127 hours. It’s really well made, but in the end, it’s mostly just Boyle showing off. Nothing wrong with that … it worked great in 28 Days Later … but on a basic level, Boyle never gets past making the movie about the guy who cut his arm off. #180 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

Hoop Dreams. #43 on my Facebook Fave Fifty. Review is there. 10/10.

Heart Like a Wheel. Phil Dellio had this at #44 on his Facebook list, so I checked it out. I was surprised to find a fairly standard biopic that works its way diligently through the events of Shirley Muldowney’s life, mostly getting the details right as far as her racing career goes (not that I’d know if they got it wrong), while tossing in the kind of human-interest tales that fill virtually every biopic that lacks bigger aspirations. There is nothing particularly wrong with this approach, but it’s not exactly innovative. Bonnie Bedelia is good, as is Beau Bridges, and it’s always a good thing to see Dick Miller. Phil got it right when he wrote “If there’s a hypothetical midpoint somewhere between Roger Corman’s Eat My Dust and one of those small Czechoslovakian art films from the mid-‘60s, that’s where Heart Like a Wheel exists.” But I think he also explains the film’s lack of aspiration: Jonathan Kaplan, one of Corman’s many protégés, breaks free in a small, Czech art film kind of way. 6/10.

Mildred Pierce. Seemed like a good time to revisit this one. I had previously given this a 9 out of 10, and to be honest, I couldn’t remember why. As I watched, I understood … it really is a fine movie. Oddly enough, I may have underrated it, since I’m not a big fan of Joan Crawford. Many of the differences between this and the recent mini-series can be attributed to the way HBO was able to return to the original novel, while Warner Brothers had to deal with the “unfilmable” nature of Cain’s book in the context of the early 40s. What is interesting is that Warners removed some of the sleaziest aspects of the book, but then added a murder (killing someone was more acceptable than sleeping with your stepdaughter). Ann Blyth’s Veda is more believable than what HBO gave us, and Crawford won an Oscar, although she’s no match for Kate Winslet. Michael Curtiz filmed it like a noir, and it works on that level. Still, I might have been a bit generous in my earlier rating. #596 on the TSPDT Top 1000 list. 8/10.

A Hard Day’s Night. #42 on my Facebook list. #445 on the TSPDT Top 1000 list. 10/10.

Inglourious Basterds. Not as much of a pastiche as other Tarantino films, although it is loaded with cinematic references. The film comes in chapters, and each of those is like a short movie of its own. Some are better than others, but, as is pretty much always the case with Tarantino, the better ones are as good as it gets. There’s his characteristic ear for great dialogue (considering that less than half of the film is in English, that’s pretty good), for one thing. And a few of the chapters, including the first, are extremely tense. There is also some showing off, and violence, and a rewriting of history that some find offensive. As for me, I realized as the movie began that I have really liked every single Quentin Tarantino film I have seen, even though I don’t think of myself as a fanboy. That streak holds true here. #72 on the TSPDT Top 250 of the 21st century list. 8/10.

music friday: fats domino, “whole lotta lovin’”

Early in the summer of 1970, fresh out of high school, a friend and I spent a month living in a church in San Francisco. It was my first attempt at the hippie life. We walked around a lot, not having a car and, at least in my case, not understanding the transit system. I was usually barefoot, and I wore what I called a serape, although it was really more of a poncho. The top picture is from around the same time period; the bottom picture is a couple of years later, but it shows the poncho more effectively:

Taco Bell  A033


Like I say, we walked around a lot. We were a mile or so from the Fillmore West, and one night we walked there and saw Sha Na Na, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, and Pacific Gas & Electric. Closer to home was Alta Plaza Park, which was in fact right across the street from the church. We would visit the park, watch people walking their dogs (there were so many of them, we called the park “Dog Heaven”), watch people playing tennis (we did this often enough that we started recognizing regular players, who we also named … I can recall “Fungus Forbes” being one of them), or just watching. The park (and the church) are in Pacific Heights, one of the tonier neighborhoods in The City. To my small-town eyes, though, it didn’t seem all that affluent … I came from the suburbs, and was a bit overwhelmed on the streets, seeing things I wasn’t used to.

We had fun, though. One night we ordered delivery from Magnolia Thunderpussy’s … I think it was my friend who got a Montana Banana, which was a banana split in the shape of an erect penis. I don’t know which was weirder, that the desserts were shaped in erotic fashion, or that someone was delivering banana splits in the middle of the night.

We were out walking again one day, and were waiting at a corner for the light to change when a drunken guy missing half his teeth came up and asked if I had any change. Since I was destitute enough to ask the same question, I couldn’t help him out. But apparently I had something he could take instead of money. He planted a wet smooch on my cheek, and starting singing to me. And, since I had to eventually get to the song in the title of this post, I suppose you can guess what song he sang:

What a perfect record! Fats made a lot of perfect records … I’m never sorry when a song of his pops up. “Whole Lotta Lovin’” clocks in at a Ramones-eque 1:38. There isn’t a wasted moment.

And, since I’ve got New Orleans on my mind, here’s what’s coming soon:

luxembourg comes to china basin

Two people from Luxembourg sat behind me at the Giants game on Wednesday night. They were vacationing in California, and this was their first baseball game. It happens that we had a first-timer in our group, as well, but he’s a young American kid who knows baseball. The vacationing couple, though, came to the game cold … I asked if perhaps they knew cricket, but they did not, so it was hard to explain things, although they seemed to have a good time.

But knowing they were behind me got me seeing the game in a slightly different way. I wondered what the events at the park would seem like to a newcomer. The partisanship would be understandable, if you knew about spectator sports in general, which they did. But when one hitter bashed a double into the alley, I saw a lot of people running around in different directions. When a “K” was placed on the wall after a strikeout, I thought of how obscure that must seem (especially since some of the Ks were placed backwards, which might have seemed accidental but which in fact is done on purpose).

When we talked before the game, the woman asked me how long the game would take, adding hopefully, “two hours?” I said it would probably be closer to three hours, and as it turned out, they did leave after about two. They were also a bit unclear about what constituted a run … they thought perhaps a batter who reached first base would give his team a point. It was all a lesson in how arbitrary rules are in sports, and how much we take them for granted if we’re dedicated fans.

six, administrative assistant

Everyone thinks their cats are weird, and everyone posts pix of their cats online, and everyone gets bored of looking at pix of cats, but I feel the need to document this.

Six is the weirdest cat we have ever had, and this is the latest weirdness. She has apparently decided that if Robin is working from home, she needs an assistant. And so, on those days when Robin is in her home office, Six climbs on the desk and lays there pretty much until the end of the workday. It’s especially odd since Six seems to have ADHD … she is very easily distracted … but in her new role as administrative assistant, she remains vigilant.

administrative assistant

a few last words on mildred pierce

This isn’t how I normally do things, but it’s the easiest way for me to work out a few things, so here goes.

Matt Zoller Seitz, one of my favorite critics, loved Mildred Pierce. That doesn’t change my opinion that Seitz is one of the best, but neither does it change my opinion that Mildred Pierce was disappointing.

Unlike many of the people Seitz singles out, I did not find the mini-series slow. And I agree with him that there was a lot of great filmmaking throughout the series (although I eventually tired of Todd Haynes’ repetitive use of sticking his camera behind pillars and walls and the like).

But the only way I could tolerate the character of Veda was by treating the show as a comedy, and I’m pretty sure that’s not what was intended. I had hopes that the switch from Morgan Turner to Evan Rachel Wood would help, but no such luck. I can’t blame the actresses. They had dialogue to read and they read it … they were directed a certain way and they followed instructions. But when Wood started using the same annoying hand and arm movements that had made Turner’s performance so unrealistic, I knew this was on purpose. Since I hated it, that was a purpose designed to irritate me, not because Veda was annoying or irritating or evil, but because the body movements were pointless.

I mentioned Seitz above because he offered a unique explanation for the character of Veda. He compared her to Iago, and quoted a friend saying:

She is not supposed to be taken literally, if you know what I mean … The way Haynes envisions her, she's almost like this manifestation of all of Mildred's fears. She doesn't talk like anybody else in the miniseries. Everything she says sounds like it could be Mildred's insecurity talking. When they talk to each other it's almost like Mildred is talking to herself.

Well, I’m sorry, but if Haynes wanted us to see Veda as a manifestation of fears rather than as a real person, he needed to do something to make that more clear. Of course Veda is a manifestation of Mildred’s fears, but she is represented literally … we don’t get to the end and find out that Veda was just a figment of Mildred’s imagination. Veda was a corporeal being interacting with other recognizable humans, and she was unrecognizable as a human. Comparing her to Iago isn’t enough to salvage the concept.

I also found it ludicrous that Veda suddenly developed the skills and technique of a top-level opera singer, even though she had been presented solely as a piano player until the moment we find out she is singing for a living. Seitz describes this as “the uncanny, inexplicable appearance of genius in a family that has never shown any evidence of it before,” and he somehow sees the inexplicable as understandable, which strikes me as twisting things to make them fit your concept.

I’m using Seitz because he’s good, and because he is such a strong proponent of Mildred Pierce, which he flat out says is a masterpiece. But much of what he loved, I hated, and it isn’t because we saw different things, it’s because we reacted differently to the same things. There’s no right or wrong here, but the differing opinions are interesting to me.

And yes, Kate Winslet was great. But I’ll remind everyone once again that if, for some reason, Winslet ends up in the same category as Emmy Rossum in Shameless, Rossum better win.

what i watched last week

Both of the movies I watched were part of my Facebook Fave Fifty project, meaning the reviews are there. If you’d like to read what I thought of these films, and you aren’t already part of the FB group, let me know, in comments here or in an email, and I’ll add you to the group. To pique your interest, here are the selections so far. First, a recap of my own picks:

  • 45. The Lives of Others
  • 46. Evil Dead II
  • 47. My Family
  • 48. Sid and Nancy
  • 49. Tomorrow Never Dies
  • 50. Under Fire

Jeff Pike:

  • 45. Videodrome
  • 46. Last Tango in Paris
  • 47. Another Woman
  • 48. Marathon Man
  • 49. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • 50. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Phil Dellio:

  • 45. Smoke
  • 46. Il Posto
  • 47. Hud
  • 48. Nixon
  • 49. The Sugarland Express
  • 50. The Heartbreak Kid

Each of us are offering up two picks a week, so there’s a new post every day except Sundays. We also include a few brief comments about each film, 300-400 words or so. And there is a comments section, which is often the best part.

Meanwhile, once again, the movies I watched this week:


The Lives of Others. #45 on my Facebook Fave Fifty. #34 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century, and #581 on the site’s list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. #44 on my list, and #23 on the TSPDT list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 10/10.

meeting an old friend for the first time

Recently I passed my 6th anniversary of being on meds for anxiety and depression. I don’t talk about them much, because they seem to work, but they don’t have such a huge effect that I’m all that much different on the outside. Those meds are just meds, alongside all the others I take for other, physical, problems.

Back on March 26, 2005, I posted an entry titled “zombie” where I asked if anyone had information on SSRIs … I was about to make a decision on whether to go to the doctor for meds, and wondered, “If you take meds to get rid of lesser personal characteristics, how do you keep from losing the better parts of your person as well?”

A couple of days later my friend Jonathan posted a reply. In it, he wrote about a cat he had that pissed on things, plus Jonathan and Carrie were trying to sell their house, and you don’t want a house to smell like cat pee when it’s on the market, so they took their vet’s advice and put the cat on Paxil. It worked … as Jonathan said, “His meow changed slightly, and otherwise it's like he's the same cat minus the pissing.” At one point, they decided to take the cat off the Paxil, and the cat started peeing again. So “now he's on it for life. Yes I know that's fucked up. But the house sold in one day.”

I loved this story. I saw myself as the cat, peeing on everything, pissing people off, you might say.

My brother posted another reply about Prozac that was very helpful. He said that Prozac “didn't mean I just was able to ignore my ‘social duties’, just that they didn't control me anymore.” (Rereading that, I have to say, that is a perfect description of how it turned out for me.)

Finally, a good friend pointed out in an email that “Being miserable and crazy/funny/fill in the blank is overrated.”

I took their advice; six years later, I’m still on the meds, and, as I say, my brother described it perfectly. It’s working for me. I’m not advertising their use for others, just talking about myself.

Well, last night, we were at Jonathan and Carrie’s house, and who do you think I met? Yep … the peeing cat! He’s still alive … I saw him with my own eyes. I felt like I owed him my life. I don’t think he even knew I was there.

Which is probably how it should be.

opening day 2011

I hate to be lame, but there’s not a lot to say that hasn’t already been said about yesterday’s opener. I can’t speak for everyone, but it felt like this one got more media attention than any that came before, for the obvious reasons. So, if you are interested in the opener, I’m pretty sure you’ve already seen highlights, including the pre-game ceremonies (that were not only very long, but very strategic … a good portion of those ceremonies took place only after the Cardinals had taken the field for their introductions, meaning they had to stand around for half an hour watching stuff completely unrelated to them).

I could mention the “allergy moments” … you know, when your allergies hit just as something emotional is happening. Funny how that is. Someone seeing me then might have thought those were tears of joy instead of hay fever kicking in. I don’t know that I had a favorite moment … maybe Brian Wilson running the championship banner out to the flagpole.

I did notice something during the actual game that was new to me, although I wasn’t surprised. A woman … the kind of woman you often see at the ballpark, looked to be in her 60s or 70s, was with a woman friend, I always wonder if they are people who used to go to the games with their husbands, but they outlived them and now they go together. Anyway, this woman had a tablet … could have been an iPad, but I confess I haven’t ever actually seen one, so maybe it was another brand. She was keeping score on the tablet … again, that’s something a lot of the older women do, keep score … no need for a scorecard or a pencil, she would just hit the touch screen and record the action. Was doing it on a pitch-by-pitch level, too … the ump would call strike one, and she’d press the screen. I was just far enough away that I couldn’t really see the screen, so I don’t know exactly what was on there, but it was pretty cool. And there was another advantage …when, around about the 12th inning, some guy asked her if there was room for all these extra innings (that being a common complaint from the announcers when a game goes too long with too many substitutions), she laughed and said there was plenty of room in that thing for a lot more than 12 innings.

Taking a moment to enter Cranky Old Geezer mode, I hate standing. That’s not entirely true. Back when people would stand up with 2 strikes and 2 outs in the last inning, letting out lusty cheers of encouragement, that was fine. When Jonathan Sanchez threw his no-hitter, you can be sure we stood all the way through that 9th inning. But now, standing has become some weird requirement of attending a game. This isn’t like at a soccer match, where some fans like to stand and sing all day long … this is when it’s the 4th inning and there are two outs and the count is full, and suddenly everyone thinks this moment is of such import that we should all stand up. And standing, of course, is contagious, since if the person in front of you stands, than you have to stand, which means the person behind you has to stand.

This creates a faux-vital situation out of a commonplace. If you stand up for a pitch in the 4th inning, what do you do with 2 outs in the ninth, commit hara-kiri? I’ve bitched about this for what seems like forever in the context of standing ovations … as a perfect example, Sanchez got a standing O yesterday for pitching 5+ innings. If that was worth a standing O, how could we possibly honor him when he threw a no-hitter? It’s the same with this Everybody Stand Up routine in the 4th inning … it’s an attempt to make every moment special, and that’s a fine philosophy, but I’m getting old and I don’t want to stand up and sit down for 4 1/2 hours.

End of Cranky Old Geezer mode. It was fun to see one of the team’s more expensive albatrosses come through for a second straight Opening Day, it was fun to watch Pablo play the field, it was interesting when LaRussa played 5 infielders, and even Brian Wilson, who had a poor outing, was fun. From my seat, I got a regular look at Wilson’s profile, and my goodness, that beard has become a force of nature. I kinda fear it, myself.

Numbers of the day: this was my 7th extra-inning opener. It was my second April 8 opener (the previous one was the last at Candlestick in ‘99). It was my first opener against the Cardinals. My best opener remains 2002, when Barry hit a 2-run homer in the bottom of the 10th inning to win the game. And my most exciting opener will probably always be 1983, even though the Giants lost, because at one point they were losing 16-6, yet they somehow managed to bring the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the 8th before falling, 16-13.

music friday: iris dement, “let the mystery be”

Iris DeMent was already in her 30s when she released her first album, Infamous Angel. Growing up, her roots were in country and gospel music, which you can hear in those first recordings, along with a good portion of folk music. That album, released first on an indie label and then later re-released by Warner Bros. after they signed her up, was made up largely of DeMent originals, supplemented by an old gospel tune that was a staple of the Carter Family, and a traditional song, “Higher Ground,” that featured DeMent’s mother on lead vocals.

DeMent’s vocals are interesting. She has a lovely voice, but … and here, words fail me, mostly because I don’t have a background in music theory. Her voice lacks affectation … she sounds, to use a discredited term, “real.” I don’t know if many people care about authenticity anymore, but if you do care, DeMent’s voice has the sound of authenticity.

The combination of that idiosyncratic voice and her lyrics, simultaneously artful and simple, works well within the music of her roots. But she wasn’t satisfied with just fitting in. Her second album was a refinement of the first, but her third album was explicitly political, and the musical backing was a bit more hectic (the big duet this time was a rollicking piano-bar blues with Delbert McClinton).

And then? Some called it a hiatus … there were stories of writer’s block … in any event, after The Way I Should in 1996, DeMent did not release an album under her name until 2004, and that album had only one original, the rest of the songs being old gospel and spiritual tunes. She hasn’t released another album since.

One thing I find fascinating about DeMent is that she finds comfort in those old gospel tunes, even though she has grown into an agnostic. Well, that growth occurred before her first record, which leads us to “Let the Mystery Be,” the first song on her first album, a paean to agnosticism that established her as outside the country mainstream as much as anything else she did:

During her hiatus, DeMent showed up on other people’s albums. The best, to my mind, was John Prine’s In Spite of Ourselves:

Here’s Iris alone, one more time, with “Sweet Is the Melody”:

opening day #32

Tomorrow I will attend my 32nd consecutive Giants Opening Day. At various times over the years, I’ve posted histories of those games. This time, I’ll take a more selective approach, looking at my 2nd, 12th, and 22nd openers.

April 9, 1981. Since this was my second Opening Day, you could say this was the day the tradition started … it isn’t a tradition until you’ve done it more than once. I seriously doubt I gave much thought to the possibility I’d still be there 30 years later. The Padres were in town, and it was a good old fashioned pitchers’ duel (for some reason, baseball games are always good old fashioned … if the teams had combined for 20 runs, it would have been a good old fashioned slugfest). Ex-Giant John Curtis allowed only one run through 10 innings; Vida Blue allowed one through 7, that one coming in the first inning thanks to good old fashioned small ball (leadoff single, stolen base, go to third on foul out, score on wild pitch). Greg Minton threw 4 heroic innings in relief of Blue, but when Al Holland entered in the 12th inning, the Padres busted it open: 3 singles, 2 walks, 1 passed ball, and 3 runs, making the final score 4-1.

April 15, 1991. The Giants opened on the road, losing 4 of 6, and then welcomed the hated Dodgers for the home opener. It was another good old fashioned pitchers’ duel, this time between Tim Belcher and Bud Black. The Dodgers scored 2 in the top of the first on three singles and a walk … they didn’t score the rest of the game, but it didn’t matter, since the Giants only scored one unearned run that came home during a Willie McGee double play.

April 2, 2001. The second year of the new park. Yes, it was another good old fashioned pitchers’ duel between the Padres and Giants. Truthfully, the starters weren’t overpowering … Woody Williams couldn’t get through the 6th inning for San Diego, and Livan Hernandez gave up a couple of runs, as well. But both bullpens shut things down, with Robb Nen striking out the side in the 9th for the 3-2 Giants victory.

April 8, 2011. We know one thing: this will be the first Opening Day where the Giants are world champs.