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February 2012
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by request: star trek (j.j. abrams, 2009)

I have a backlog of requests (thanks to all who made suggestions), but sometimes requests are more spur of the moment. This time, our friend Doug came over, wanting to watch something “science fictiony action”. Which is how we ended up watching Star Trek.

More than two years ago, I wrote:

I’ve never really watched any of the TV series, and only saw one of the movies prior to this one. … I approached this as I would any other sci-fi epic, or at least, I thought that’s what I did. When the movie started, I understood that even a non-fan is aware of the basics … I knew the names of the main characters, knew some catch phrases, stuff like that. So it’s silly to say I’m totally outside the Trek universe. How did I like the movie? It was OK … the science part of the plot didn’t reward any deep consideration, so I avoided that. The action scenes were ok, nothing special, the acting reasonable. … It was a nice way to spend two hours; don’t think I’d go farther than that.

I feel a bit more kindly to the film now. It is indeed a nice way to spend two hours; what is especially nice is that two hours is all it takes … this isn’t the typical bloated two-and-a-half-hour blockbuster of the 21st century. I'm also a bit surprised that I didn’t mention the time-travel angle in my earlier post, because this time, I found it the most intriguing part of the plot. It’s not exactly trend-setting … it’s more like Grade-B Phil Dick … but it offers enough head-scratching confusion to make it interesting (I mean “head-scratching” in a good way).

I also found myself obsessing over the way we all knew these characters before the movie even started. There was nothing wrong with the first 40 minutes or so, but at some point, I realized that most of those minutes could have been cut, since the majority of them was spent letting us see for the first time characters we already knew. By the end of the movie, I didn’t feel I knew much more about the characters than I did before it started, which means the film ultimately stands or falls on those action scenes (OK) and acting (reasonable).

Still, as I say, I feel more kindly now. Previously, I had given Star Trek 6/10, but I’m going to up that a bit. 7/10.

music friday: bob dylan, “all along the watchtower”

It’s a problem I’ve noted more than once, when talking about an iconic song like this. My tendency is to assume everyone knows the story behind the song, and to just post YouTube videos. But then I worry that this is one of those obnoxious Boomer things, where something important to us is assumed to be important to everyone. So, some background for those who don’t live in Boomerville.

Bob Dylan started out as a folk singer, and pissed a lot of people off when he “went electric”. He released three of his greatest albums in the mid-60s (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde), featuring many of his electric classics like “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, and “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35”. He then had a motorcycle accident and largely disappeared from the public eye. Eighteen months later, he went to Nashville, and in three sessions totaling less than a dozen hours, cut the entire John Wesley Harding album, which was then released without fanfare a month later. It didn’t need fanfare … it was the first Dylan music in a year-and-a-half. And everyone was surprised to hear a largely acoustic album with country touches.

“All Along the Watchtower” was filled with Biblical imagery, much of it apocalyptic. “There must be some way out of here”, it begins. “There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.” Later we learn that “the hour is getting late”, and as the song ends, “a wildcat did growl, two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.” The understated musical accompaniment forced the listener’s attention to the cryptic lyrics. It was an instant classic from someone who had written many of them.

And then Jimi Hendrix got ahold of it. It was the crucial year of 1968. Hendrix laid down basic tracks, take after take, adding overdubs, re-recording guitar parts. He worked on it over the course of several months … this, a song that Dylan had finished in a day, doing only five takes. Hendrix released it on Electric Ladyland, and it was a big, influential hit. Dylan himself was so impressed by Jimi’s version that he played the song as Hendrix did in concerts after that point (and he had plenty of time to get it right … Dylan has played “Watchtower” live more than any other song he wrote).

Here is the original:

The Hendrix version:

There are countless cover versions … the Grateful Dead alone played it more than 100 times in concert. Dylan put live versions on four different albums, although in an odd way, he was covering Hendrix:

But perhaps the most unusual version of “All Along the Watchtower” came in the science-fiction television series, Battlestar Galactica. Here is what I wrote about this, back in 2009:

my first scoresheet team

Continuing my theme of “no one cares about your fantasy team”, here is my very first Scoresheet Baseball team (AL-only, one-year league):

  • C: Alex Avila, Yorvit Torrealba
  • 1B: Mark Reynolds
  • 2B: Ian Kinsler, Luke Hughes
  • 3B: Mike Moustakas, Brent Morel
  • SS: Alexei Ramirez, Sean Rodriguez, Eric Sogard
  • OF: Josh Hamilton, Austin Jackson, Josh Willingham, Alejandro De Aza, Andruw Jones, Craig Gentry, Casper Wells
  • SP: Felix Hernandez, John Danks, Scott Baker, Josh Tomlin, Hisashi Iwakuma, Brett Cecil, Brian Duensing, Kevin Millwood, Nick Blackburn, Charlie Furbush, Matt Maloney
  • RP: Mariano Rivera, Mike Adams, Matt Thornton, Joel Peralta, George Sherrill, Hisanori Takahashi, Darren O’Day

google account activity

Google has introduced “Account Activity”, “a new feature in your Google Account. If you sign up, each month we’ll send you a link to a password-protected report with insights into your signed-in use of Google services.” People who are freaked out about how deeply Google has insinuated itself into our lives surely hate the very idea of Account Activity (at least the default setting is opt-out). Me, I love learning what abstract data calculations tell me about myself, so of course, I opted in, and soon afterwards, I got my first report. The highlights:

Over the past month, I have sent 110 emails to 33 contacts from my primary Gmail account, and received 760 from 206 contacts. The #1 recipient of my emails is my wife, who got more than 1/3 of my emails (the four people who reached double-digits in emails received: my wife, my nephew, and my friends Doug and Jillian).

I made 585 Google searches for the month. The most common query was “best movie under 90 minutes” (clearly, I’m looking for the next Booty Call). More embarrassing, although unsurprising, was my third-most common search: “steven rubio”. Yes, I search my own name on a regular basis, despite the fact I also have a Google Alert setup for anytime my name shows up. 84% of my searches were for the web as a whole, 9% for images. I don’t know what the other 7% could be.

And this is the most popular video I uploaded to YouTube, over the past month:

luck, season/series finale

I’m not sure it’s worth discussing the reasons why there will be no Season Two of Luck. I’m in agreement with David Milch, who said that he had no bitterness towards HBO (“I think they were in an untenable position”) but that if it had been up to him, they would have continued making the series.

Those of you who are wondering if you should catch up on Luck when it turns up on disc should know that the season works fine as a standalone. There are some plot threads left hanging, but there is also a feeling that this first round has completed its run. If the show interests you, don’t let the sudden cancellation keep you from watching.

There was a lot of big-name talent behind Luck, and they all delivered: David Milch, Michael Mann, Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte. (Dennis Farina is a big name in my house, but I appreciate he might not fit everyone’s description of big name.) There were intriguing secondary characters played by the likes of Michael Gambon and Joan Allen. There was a finely-tuned understanding of the horse racing milieu, and Milch dropped us right into the middle of it, leaving it to us to figure out what the hell was going on (it didn’t take long to feel like a true racing aficionado). And there was a fascinating portrayal of an inscrutable trainer by John Ortiz. Finally, the was the usual array of “hey, it’s that guy!” … Richard Kind and Kerry Condon come to mind. Heck, we even had a jockey-turned-actor, three-time Kentucky Derby winner Gary Stevens, who more than held his own.

But for me, the heart of the show was found in the four racing addicts that Milch referred to as “The Degenerates.” Marcus, Lonnie, Renzo, and Jerry, each distinct personalities, all of them crazy in one way or another, but all of them true believers in the joys and sorrows of the track. Marcus was my favorite … the HBO website describes him as “a misanthropic ball buster in a motorized wheelchair”, and Kevin Dunn did a great job creating a King of Complaining who came alive during a horse race. As Jerry, Jason Gedrick pulled off quite a visual feat. Gedrick is 47, but in Luck, he looked like a drop-dead handsome guy of 35, gone to seed because of a gambling addiction. (The difference between a good-looking 47-year-old and a formerly good-looking, currently dissipated 35-year-old is subtle, but Gedrick makes it work. Or his makeup artist did.)

And I can’t finish without giving a shout out to Dennis Dun, who 25 years ago was Kurt Russell’s friend in Big Trouble in Little China. I looked forward to his every appearance on Luck, as a poker player who could throw Jerry’s game off just by greeting him. “Jerry!”

It might make sense to give Luck an Incomplete. But it was far better than that, and enough closure was offered to remove the “I”. It’s too bad the series got cancelled just when it was finding itself, but Luck is not a candidate for a Karen Sisco Award … the cancellation had nothing to do with ratings or the show not getting any attention.

Grade for series: B+. Projected grade for the Season Two we’ll never see: A-.

what i watched last week

Five Minutes of Heaven (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2009). In the midst of all these requests I’ve been watching, I found this one the old fashioned way: looking for something to pass an hour and a half, I chose the first short movie that popped up, knowing nothing about it. Not a bad choice, with Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt doing some fine acting in a story contextually about The Troubles, but which is ultimately more a character study than a political tract. It feels like an adapted stage play (which it is not), which is fine since the point of the film is to examine the characters played by Neeson and Nesbitt, not to show off fancy film making. Nesbitt externalizes in a way that plays well off of Neeson’s more silent, tortured presentation, and Anamaria Marinca makes the most of her small part. 7/10.

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010). I’m using this film in a class I’m teaching this spring, so I gave it a second look. I liked it very much the first time I saw it, and I didn’t change my mind this time around. The film was a big critical favorite (gathering a 90/100 on Metacritic, with 36 positive reviews, 2 mixed, and no negative). The “worst” rating from anyone I read regularly came from Stephanie Zacharek, whose review was titled “Winter’s Bone a Little Too Pleased With Its Own Folky Bleakness”. She felt the “characters veer too close to broad caricature”, but still finds Jennifer Lawrence “impressively quiet and controlled”. I think it’s the best fiction film I’ve seen from 2010, and I thought Lawrence should have won the Best Actress Oscar over Natalie Portman for Black Swan. Lawrence was a revelation when I first saw the film. I knew nothing about her. Things have changed in just two years: as the star of The Hunger Games, Lawrence is poised to become one of the top stars of her day, and she’s only 21 years old. Thankfully, she doesn’t seem to have reached such a pinnacle at an early age for the usual reasons (great-looking, panders to young males), but because she is giving excellent performances. It doesn’t hurt that she’s great-looking, of course, but Winter’s Bone buries her traditional good looks in grit and mounds of cold-weather gear, allowing her to be a special kind of beautiful, strong and centered. Perhaps Portman gives us a peek at what Lawrence might have in store: three movies in the Star Wars franchise, lots of indie films, the lead role in an action picture, and ultimately an Oscar. #48 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 9/10.

Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965). Reviewed earlier in the week as part of the “By Request” series. 7/10.

mad men, season five premiere

Well, that was nice. The episode (actually, two episodes together to make a two-hour special) gradually reintroduced us to the characters, while subtly letting us see how much they had changed since the last time we saw them. I could list those changes, but if you care, you’ve already watched it.

Mad Men is a show, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that has a cultural impact that far exceeds the number of people who actually watch the show. Mad Men is not even the most popular show on its network: AMC’s biggest hit is the zombie series The Walking Dead. But Mad Men is the water-cooler show, or, in the modern era, the Twitter show. Everyone who does watch it immediate offers their opinions (this post being an example), making it a hard show to fall behind on, because spoilers are everywhere.

Of the women characters, Betty is absent (she will only make occasional appearances this season, as January Jones was having a baby during the time the season was shot). Peggy is settling into her position of relative importance within the company, Joan is missed in the office during her maternity leave, there are new secretaries here and the same wives there. Mad Men has always managed to simultaneously show the misogynist tone of the times and the budding feminism of the 1960s. Women’s advances have been gradual, but Peggy and Joan are extremely valuable to the company, even if it will be a long time before either of them makes partner. And Jessica Paré as Don Draper’s wife Megan adds a nice touch to the ensemble. She is allowed to have her own personality in ways never given to Betty Draper (who was just morose, although it was very effective dramatically), and Paré has a kind of modern beauty that matches well with the 1966 setting (or at least, they let her show off that beauty, unlike Peggy … Elisabeth Moss is far better looking than they let her be on Mad Men).

As for the men, there is a lot of interesting things going on, and I look forward to the continued evolution of Jared Harris as Lane Pryce. But let’s face it: Mad Men is about Don Draper/Dick Whitman. And he’s rather unsettling as the season begins. As Peggy says, “I don't recognize that man. He's kind and patient!” But Megan doesn’t seem ready to play the trophy wife, and their sexual attraction to each other has a kinky undertone. Given that Don’s life was such a mess last season, it’s odd to see him almost happy. But even that happiness is off in some way. Megan nails it when she says of her co-workers (including her husband), “What is wrong with you people? You're all so cynical! You don't smile; you smirk!”

We don’t get much of Sally Draper this episode, but she’ll be around. And Christina Hendricks got to have a fine emotional scene … Joan presents such an assured front that when she breaks down, it’s surprising and hard to bear.

And finally, Mad Men seems ready to confront the issue of race in the 1960s. There has been criticism of the show in the past for ignoring race, but the characters are mostly clueless about their prejudices, and it is rare for any of them to know what is going on outside of their narrow world. But now there are black people protesting, and a stupid joke is taken seriously by a group of black people who show up to apply for a non-existent job with the company. It will be a smart move to hire at least one of those people, forcing the characters (and the show) to address things that have mostly been pushed to the side in the past.

Mad Men takes its time getting to where it’s going; even given the two-hour premiere, very little “happened”. Tonight’s Shameless was more, well, shameless in eliciting emotional reactions from the audience than usual, but I think partly it was that the raw nature of Fiona and the rest is so much different than what we see on Mad Men. In the course of just a few minutes near the end of the episode (I’d give a spoiler warning, but no one I know watches the show), there was a Thanksgiving celebration where the main dish went from a bunch of cans of Spam in the shape of a bird, to a bald eagle, to an actual turkey. The Gallaghers had a moment of familial bliss, at least as much as they can manage, only to have the mom try to kill herself. She is rushed to the hospital, and she’ll survive … and oh, Lip’s son is being born in that same hospital, so everyone runs into that room, watches the birth of a baby, celebrates once again … and then we learn that the baby has Down’s syndrome, and isn’t even Lip’s baby at all. (They aren’t done then, either … Joan Cusack as Sheila steals the baby from the hospital, escaping on the motorcycle of her new lover.) I list all of this to demonstrate how a show like Shameless is always ready to pull you all over the emotional map, and how Mad Men seems so civilized in comparison.

2012 rubio begonias, roto version

Much to say about Mad Men, but that will come later. Meanwhile, I added a Yahoo roto league to my Scoresheet league (my cousin asked, what could I say but yes). So here they are, 11 teams, AL/NL, keeper league:

  • C: Ryan Doumit
  • 1B: Billy Butler
  • 2B: Brandon Phillips, Kelly Johnson
  • 1B/2B/3B: Daniel Murphy
  • 1B/3B: Chris Davis
  • SS: Erick Aybar, Ian Desmond
  • OF: Ryan Braun, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Holliday, Michael Bourn, Jayson Werth
  • SP: Ted Lilly, Shaun Marcum, Ricky Nolasco, Alexi Ogando
  • RP: Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, Carlos Marmol, Mike Adams, Sean Marshall, Matt Capps, Santiago Casilla

music friday: etta james, “i'd rather go blind”

I’m not always big on lyrics. Usually what hits me in a song is the music. Which isn’t to say lyrics are unimportant, or that I don’t have favorites. But I love sound. And Etta James’ singing, well, there’s something to love.

Yet, I have to say that “I’d Rather Go Blind” is just about the perfect title for a perfect lyric. The emotion at the center of that title rips you up before you’ve heard a note, before you even know the context. I would rather go blind … whatever follows is going to be something.

That it is. It’s a song about the departure of a lover, and how the singer would rather go blind than to see her lover walk away. The second verse pushes the emotions far past even the deep feelings in the opening: “I love you so much that I don’t wanna watch you leave me, baby. Most of all, I just don’t want to be free.”

I don’t want to be free. That’s two very powerful images, and by that point, I’d say it would be pretty hard to screw this song up. (I’m sure it’s been done, but thankfully, I’ve missed it.)

This was also a perfect matchup of singer and song, for Etta James could wrench emotion out of a turnip.

There’s no topping the original, but the song has lent itself well to other interpretations. Christine McVie did a fine job when she was still Christine Perfect (there’s that word again) in Chicken Shack:

Rod Stewart nailed it, back when he could do no wrong:

And, of course, Beyoncé was good playing Etta in Cadillac Records:

Finally, Bruce Springsteen took the idea and transformed it into his own song, “I Wish I Were Blind”:

And though this world is filled
With the grace and beauty of God's hand
Oh I wish I were blind
When I see you with your man

by request: alphaville (jean-luc godard, 1965)

This request came in the comments section of my post about Fahrenheit 451, another science-fiction film by a French New Wave director. The truth is, the two films have little in common, but the differences are instructive.

Truffaut made a “real” science-fiction movie, while Godard seemed mostly uninterested in that aspect. Both films offer warnings about present-day life by showing possible dystopian futures, but where Truffaut creates a visual future by adding things like big-screen interactive televisions and fire trucks that spew fire instead of water, Godard just photographs contemporary Paris in ways that make for an unsettling blend of the recognizable and the unusual. In many ways, the lovely colors of Fahrenheit 451 look more like the 1960s present than does the black-and-white beauty of Alphaville.

Truffaut made a fairly straight-forward movie, drawing on Ray Bradbury’s novel, telling an understandable narrative, making a simple point (reading is essential), and finishing off with the image of people wandering around, quoting from books they had memorized. Godard never made a straight-forward movie in his life, the narrative is jumbled, there is no single point but instead a philosophical mélange out of Jorge Luis Borges, and the ending relies on people rediscovering the power of words rather than books (an important difference).

In Alphaville, the central computer that controls everything applies logic to emotion, and rules the latter to be inefficient. If you show emotion, you are executed, and the Gideon’s Bible in hotel rooms has been replaced by a dictionary that constantly changes, as certain words are eliminated.

At the end, when Anna Karina’s Natacha von Braun wants hero Lemmy Caution to save her, he demurs:

Natacha: I don't know what to say. They're words I don't know. I wasn't taught them. Help me.
Caution: Impossible. Help yourself; then you will be saved. If you don't, you're as lost as the dead of Alphaville.

In Fahrenheit 451, humanity is saved when people memorize the words of others. In Alphaville, salvation arrives only when each person comes up with the words that will save them.

There is a lot to like about Alphaville. The idea of placing Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) at the center of the film is goofy in itself (Caution was the central character in more than half-a-dozen popular French detective films based on British novels), and it’s certain that Lemmy fans had never seen their hero as he appears in this movie. Godard has his usual little in-jokes; many can be seen in the names of the various characters (Professor Leonard von Braun, aka Professor Nosferatu, assistant professors Heckell and Jeckell). The person who plays Heckell was from the Cahiers du Cinéma. Jean-Pierre Léaud makes a cameo appearance, and Borges is quoted throughout.

Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard do brilliant work with no money to create a believable, atmospheric “future”. Eddie Constantine shows the kind of depth that wasn’t often required of him. And even though Anna Karina’s character is supposed to be disaffected, Godard can’t help making the love of his life sparkle.

Despite all of the above, Alphaville is a lesser film from Godard’s prime era, about as good as Contempt, but nowhere near the classics (take your pick … off the top of my head, I can think of half-a-dozen I prefer). #543 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.