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by request: the parallax view (alan j. pakula, 1974)

(Are spoiler warnings necessary for a movie that is almost 40 years old?)

Tomás is the first person to get a second request, which makes sense since his list was much longer than anyone else’s. In this case, we have a movie I have never seen, and I looked forward to this.

I remember when the film was released, and can’t recall why I never got around to seeing it. I thought about it more than once, though, during the 2010 run of the short-lived TV series, Rubicon. That series was often compared to 70s paranoid thrillers, because 1) it was paranoid, 2) conspiracy was at its heart, and 3) … well, it wasn’t always thrilling, but 2 out of 3 ain’t bad. I wrote, “Rubicon was 24 for intellectuals, and by that I don’t just mean it was directed towards smart people. Rubicon was about intellectuals … the heroes weren’t emotionally distraught shoot-first-ask-later archetypes, but instead really smart, neurotic office workers who pored over endless piles of intelligence documents, looking for connections.”

I bring this up because, even though the pace of Rubicon was excruciatingly slow, it kept my attention in a different way than did The Parallax View. Because in the film, the guy who is onto the conspiracy is played by Warren Beatty at his mid-70s sexiest, and while Beatty is a smart man, the last thing he could play in 1974 was a neurotic, obsessive office worker poring over documents. His presence ensures that the character will spend very little time on documents, and a lot of time rushing off on adventures. And Pakula doesn’t create nearly enough tension in those scenes. They are imaginatively photographed (courtesy of Gordon Willis of Godfather fame), but odd camera angles don’t make The Parallax View tense any more than the Expressionist sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari made that film scary.

As for the vaunted paranoia of the film, it is there, as it was in many American films of that time, and the paranoia is justified when Beatty’s character dies at the end. But the film insists on an absence of ideology that makes the Parallax Corporation a bit bland. They are not driven by political concerns; they will kill anyone. They are ultimately only mercenaries. Whatever conspiracy exists turns out to be beyond the scope of the movie, which never even bothers to suggest what might lie behind The Corporation. Its paranoia is merely a reflex response to the times. 6/10.

what i watched last week

I’m a day late with this, because we were away on our anniversary weekend, and I don’t have much to talk about, anyway, because I was grading papers. But here goes …

The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012). There are bigger Joss fans in the world than me. But the only reason I wanted to see The Avengers was because of Whedon’s involvement. Of the many films that led up to The Avengers, I saw only one (the first Iron Man), and comic-book adaptations are not my favorite kind of movie. I like the occasional Batman (Batman Returns, The Dark Knight) and … well, I’m sure I’m forgetting something, but I tend to avoid them, and when I see them, I’m not exactly overwhelmed (I saw all three of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies only because of his involvement, and didn’t think any of them came close to being as good as Drag Me to Hell, much less Evil Dead II).

So, Joss Whedon. I loved Buffy. But his subsequent TV series strike me as a mixed bag. I never did watch Angel. I caught up with Firefly after the fact. And while I thought Dollhouse was the best of the post-Buffy shows, it took almost an entire season of its short two-season run before it got any good. Like I say, there are bigger Joss fans than me. Having said that, I thought Serenity was very good, as was the recent Cabin in the Woods.

The Avengers? It’s better than those Spider-Man movies, but I don’t think it’s better than Serenity. It has its Joss touches … for one thing, while in most mammoth CGI extravaganzas, you sit in boredom through the character “development” and lame dialogue so you can get back to the good stuff, in The Avengers, while the action was good, I found myself wanting to get back to the scenes with dialogue. It was in the quieter scenes with the various superheroes interacting that I got my Joss fix. But there weren’t nearly enough of them, because there was always another big action scene on the horizon. For this, I join those who wonder if big-budget movies are the right venue for Whedon’s gifts. (The enormous box office performance suggests he’s doing just fine, of course.) I say this, even though I think he did well with the action: I always knew what was going on (sadly, this isn’t always the case in today’s action movies), and I especially liked the way the long final battle for New York linked the various characters in their various melees, rather like the way Richard Linklater connected characters in Slacker.

As for the acting, Mark Ruffalo had some nice scenes as Bruce Banner, but his character was pretty much the only one allowed to be recognizably human. Scarlett Johansson remains a remarkable piece of eye candy, and when properly cast as she is here, her deadpan style works well. Robert Downey, Jr. steals every scene he’s in, because that’s what Robert Downey, Jr. does. And it was nice to see Jenny Agutter, who I pined for back when she (and I) were younger than Scarlett is now. (Plus a welcome nod to Dollhouse with the cameo by Enver Gjokaj.)

Conclusion? The Avengers is good enough. It doesn’t insult its audience, it’s coherent (if also unbelievable, but this is a fantasy world we’re talking about), and it has moments of actual, honest-to-goodness humanity. Compared to a standard Michael Bay movie, The Avengers gets an 11 out of 10 (make that 12 … no, 13). In the real world, 7/10.

Semi-Pro (Kent Alterman, 2008). 6/10.

what a difference 39 years makes

Before we left for home, Robin and I made a stop in Capitola. We walked on the beach, got our feet wet and sandy, and the proceeded to walk along the Esplanade so Robin could get a cupcake for the road. We approached the location where we had eaten Mexican food on our honeymoon. Both of us thought the place had closed down long ago, but we were wrong. The sign on the window of El Toro Bravo said closed, but the door was open. I looked in, and a woman asked if I needed help. I told we ate there 39 years ago on our honeymoon. She told us to come on in and get something to eat, it was time to open, anyway.

I remembered a picture I’d taken of Robin back in ‘73 … Robin knew which one I meant. And then, praise Google, I realized I might have a copy of that picture somewhere on Google+. I looked around on my phone, and found it! When the woman came with our food, I showed it to her … she seemed like the owner of the place, and she talked a bit about how the décor had changed over the years. She was quite excited.

Here is that photo, taken on our honeymoon, probably May 27, 1973:

honeymoon mexican

And here she was, earlier this morning, at the same place, 39 years later:


20 years ago today

Baseball fans, set the WABAC Machine 20 years into the past, May 27, 1992, as the Oakland Athletics host the Cleveland Indians on a pleasant Wednesday afternoon at the Coliseum. I’ll let you know at the end of this post what made this game special, but first, let’s indulge in the nostalgia of recapping the action of a long-ago game.

Just under 25,000 fans turned up to watch the first-place A’s under manager Tony LaRussa. Mike Hargrove led the Indians, who were already 14 games under .500. The A’s had one future Hall-of-Famer in Rickey Henderson, and another should-be-future Hall-of-Famer in Mark McGwire. The pitching matchup featured Dave Stewart against Scott Scudder. (and Retrosheet) allow us to examine old games, using a bit of imagination to make it even cooler. So I can tell you that after the A’s took a 1-0 lead in the first inning, Albert Belle led off the second with an infield hit. Hard Hittin’ Mark Whiten then lined a shot into right-center, and Belle took off. Unfortunately for him, Dann Howitt ran the ball down and doubled Belle off at first.

In the third inning, Rickey walked to lead it off and then stole second. He hurt himself, though, and missed the next couple of weeks. Randy Ready came in to pinch run (something to tell the grandkids), and later scored to make it 2-0, Oakland.

But Dave Stewart was a victim of the long ball that afternoon. In the fifth, Paul Sorrento hit a 2-run homer to tie the game. And in the 7th, both Belle and (again) Sorrento homered to put Cleveland in the lead, 4-2.

The A’s got the potential tying run to the plate in the bottom of the ninth, but Steve Olin got Lance Blankenship to ground into a double play to end the game.

So, outside of the trip down nostalgia lane, and the mention of a couple of big A’s stars, what makes this game so important? Well, I’m hoping she’ll give details in the comments section, but my sister and I were at this game, and she got a foul ball! And she had to work for it … during the mad scramble, one lady (I want to call her an “old” lady, but she was probably younger than I am now) pulled Chris’ ears!

Chris is tough, though. Unlike Rickey, she didn’t need to go on the DL.

our 39th anniversary

Every year I post a little something on our anniversary. I’ll throw in a picture or two, talk about what movie we’re going to see, show a video (“In Spite of Ourselves” by John Prine with Iris DeMent is a favorite), or simply offer up the song lyrics I read at our wedding (“I Scare Myself” by Dan Hicks).

This year, I’m still thinking about something my brother said a couple of weeks ago. I don’t remember the exact words … my memory is already changing them and fitting them into something short and sweet … but the general idea was that I was a very lucky guy for finding Robin.

(I have to confess, she found me. She says she had a crush on me for a year before I even knew who she was. In the fall of 1968, when I was a junior in high school and she was a sophomore, she was one of my makeup girls for a play … can’t remember which one. I was in the midst of a brief, never-really-happened fling with her best friend, and at the cast party, the friend dumped me, I saw Robin, and it was kinda like that sappy moment when Tony and Maria first see each other in West Side Story. We kissed … it was September 28, 1968, I was 15, she was 14, turned 15 six days later.)

I know, it’s pretty standard for partners to say “I’m lucky I have you”, and I’m pleased to know that Robin would say that about me. But really, even adjusting for my general lack of self-esteem, it’s pretty clear which one of us is the luckier one. You don’t last 39 years without learning to put up with the quirks of your partner, but all I have to put up with is her knitting. She has to put up with the bipolar behavior of a misanthropic solipsist who is generally too self-absorbed to pay attention to anything outside my own brain. Yet she does put up with me. And I am really lucky she does, because without her, I’m doomed.

Do we still love each other after all these years? We sure do. I can only speak for myself, but that love isn’t the same as it was when we were high-school sweethearts. Being in love hurt when we were young … not just during the bad times, even the good times always threatened to overwhelm my emotions. And Robin spent most of the time back then crying, and I never knew why, but she often acted like it was a good thing. Now, love doesn’t usually hurt, good or bad, and Robin doesn’t cry much. Once in awhile I miss that hurt. But what has replaced the hurt is pretty cool, too. Knowing that someone has your back, that someone knows all your secrets and doesn’t reject you, well, I am lucky, indeed. Happy anniversary, Robin Robin Smith!

music friday: sector 27, “where can we go tonight”

A few years ago, when Music Fridays were still Friday Random Tens, I included Sector 27’s “Where Can We Go Tonight”. I wrote, “We actually saw this band in concert. Tom Robinson had laryngitis, so his vocals were completely shot. We all loved him anyway. For my money, this is a better song/anthem than ‘Glad to Be Gay.’”

Robinson, of course, led the Tom Robinson Band, which seemed very important for a year or two in the late 70s. Actually, “seemed” is unfair … they were an important band in those punk days. But they crashed soon after their second album. Still, “Glad to Be Gay” remains an iconic anthem, and their Power in the Darkness album, which admittedly hits the nail a bit too closely to the head with its rabble-rousing politics, nonetheless was powerful in large part because of those politics. That, and guitarist Danny Kustow kicked ass. All of these are present in “Up Against the Wall”, which kicks off this documentary on the band:

A few years later, Robinson formed Sector 27, which featured a more subtle use of politics (the politics hadn’t disappeared, despite what some said). They released one album … it was a good one (Christgau gave it an “A” and placed it 4th on his Pazz & Jop Dean’s List, behind only London Calling, Remain in Light, and Dirty Mind). It didn’t sell, and soon that band, too, dissolved. Luckily, they left us with that album (if you can find it, which isn’t easy). One of the best songs was “Not Ready”, available on YouTube, audio only:

And then there’s today’s featured song, “Where Do We Go Tonight”, which actually has a video. Back in 2008, when I first posted a link to the video, I left a comment at YouTube: “Tom, we saw you and Sector 27 back in the day, and I can remember saying ‘man, this new band is YOUNG!’ (We're about your age.) Watching the video now ... well, everyone looks young :-).” Robinson himself was the one who had posted the video, and he replied to my comment, “Blimey - well, it WAS nearly 30 years ago !!! Glad you still like the stuff... Tom x”. Yes, Tom, I still like the stuff:

mariano rivera on the backstreets

Howard Bryant wrote a recent column about the great relief pitcher for the New York Yankees, Mariano Rivera. Bryant began by noting how Rivera seemed to be different from other great athletes, in that Rivera had other things besides baseball that drove him, particularly his religion:

History tells us that the game and time are the two opponents that rarely lose; decline and defeat are the natural order of sports. But Rivera, beyond the human impulses of pride and vanity, would somehow be the one who'd win, because he was guided by something more powerful than desire. … Rivera has always held himself at a certain elevated remove from the game, from his contemporaries, the child of God at peace, understanding that baseball is merely a part of his life.

Rivera, playing in what might be his last season (he is 42 years old), was injured a few weeks ago, and is out for the season. He said he intends to return in 2013, and in that decision, Bryant saw “the disgust of a great competitor felled by random injury.” For Bryant, Rivera was revealing himself as “all competitive fury, all fire, all vanity, all of the components required to win”.  In this, “he was shockingly mortal.”

Bryant’s piece is a positive one. He respects Rivera’s accomplishments on the field of play, and the way Rivera carries himself on and off the field. But one thing I got from the article is illuminated by that last line: Mariano Rivera was mortal. He was, in short, just like us.

I don’t think for a second that Bryant intended to bring Rivera down to our level with his comment.  He was just adding another piece to the puzzle of this public man who has managed to go about his business in as anonymous a way as possible for a superstar athlete playing in New York.

But when I read Bryant’s column, I thought of one of my very favorite Bruce Springsteen songs, “Backstreets”. At the end of the song, Bruce sings

Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go to see,
Trying to learn how to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be
Well, after all this time to find we’re just like all the rest,
Stranded in the park, and forced to confess
To hiding on the backstreets

When Bryant writes about Rivera, he is talking about someone who operates from a different place than the rest of us, and finding some common ground between Rivera and our own hopes and fears. What makes Bruce Springsteen different, though … and I think this remains true, and is perhaps one reason he remains vital and relevant to his fans … is that Bruce doesn’t sing about someone who operates from a different place. Instead, he places himself on the backstreets with the rest of us. He and Terry are “just like all the rest”. His great revelation isn’t the one Bryant reveals that some famous athlete is, as the article’s title tells us, “only human”. Bruce’s revelation is that HE is human. There is a distance between the life of the writer and the life of the athlete in Bryant’s prose. But there is no such separation between Bruce and the audience. He is “just like all the rest”.

I am quite possibly making too much of this. But it has always struck me as remarkable that Bruce Springsteen could have everything he ever desired and more, and still seem like “one of us”. The secret lies in “Backstreets”.

by request: semi-pro (kent alterman, 2008)

This was suggested by my son, who does a good job of nudging me to watch contemporary comedies on occasion, even though he knows they aren’t my cup of tea. I am aware of Will Ferrell’s reputation as one of the best we have, and I’ve liked a few of the movies with him that I have seen (Stranger Than Fiction, The Other Guys). Still, the truth is that when I think of Will Farrell, I think of Celebrity Jeopardy.

Oddly, I think the fact that I’ve missed some of Ferrell’s most notable films was a good thing when watching Semi-Pro. Several reviews complained that Ferrell is plowing the same ground here, with diminishing returns. But I haven’t seen many of his movies, so Semi-Pro was relatively fresh to me. I found it amiable, a word I seem to use whenever I’m describing a movie I didn’t hate but which I’ll forget as soon as I’m done writing about it. It wasn’t a particularly dumb movie, and that seems to be what bugs me most about modern comedies (I didn’t like Step Brothers, for instance). I laughed on occasion, and I enjoyed a few of the actors: Andre 3000, Maura Tierney, Jackie Earle Haley, and especially Will Arnett. I’m not sorry I watched it. But nothing in it convinced me that I should have a Will Ferrell Film Festival, either. 6/10.

mad men: don and joan

(Minor spoilers, I suppose, if you haven’t watched this week’s episode, yet.)

Tonight’s episode of Mad Men contained a longish thread where Don and Joan took a Jaguar for a test ride and ended up at a bar, talking about their lives. It sounds like a prelude to a fanfic wet dream, and it was very knowingly played as if the writers, the characters, and the audience all recognized the fanfic possibilities. But it was also played as something perfectly in character, in a way where both Don and Joan understand the attraction between the two, and know that there is no need for a Moonlighting Moment, because these two adults have an intriguing respect for their relationship.

And so you have the best-looking guy on the show, and the best-looking woman on this show or any other, and they’re sitting together at a bar getting drunk and enjoying the hell out of being with such a great-looking person, and they laugh, and they tell each other truths they don’t tell to anyone else, and then they drink some more.

As Mo Ryan pointed out, “If they ever got together, the resulting sexual energy might incinerate all of New York, if not North America, but hot damn. It would probably be worth it.” But because it will never happen, we get scenes like tonight’s. It wasn’t like the classic episode “The Suitcase”, where Don and Peggy learned about each other and became closer. Peggy would like to be Don, and her frustrations arise in part because the gender standards of the time make that extremely unlikely. Joan doesn’t want to be Don … in some ways, her expectations and desires are a bit lower than Peggy’s. Joan wants to be recognized as an important, extremely competent, essential part of the work team. And when she’s drinking at a bar with Don, she is with someone who thinks she is all of those things. He admits he was terrified of her when he first joined the firm, but Don, and the times, have changed enough that when he sees Joan now, he recognizes not just her importance, but how much they like each other, and how much they have been through together.

And this doesn’t happen very often in the Mad Men world. My brother and I were talking last week, trying to figure out if there was a single “good” person on the show, and all we could come up with was Joan. This is great for the dramatic thrust of the series, but, while Mad Men is often quite funny, it is rarely a show that elicits a smile, because no one is “good” enough, no one is really friends enough, to just be themselves with another. Don and Joan were themselves for a short while, and neither of them could quit smiling. Nor could I. I’m sure I’m forgetting something from seasons past, but off the top of my head, I can’t recall a single scene in the history of Mad Men that made me smile as much as this one.

Of course, Christina Hendricks and Jon Hamm were perfection. It was nice to see Hendricks get a chance to stretch … while many of the women characters are at least as interesting as the men, the show’s focus is on Don, and Joan/Hendricks is underutilized a lot of the time. The pleasure the two actors had in their scene together reached out to the audience. It was lovely.