Sunday, March 9, 2014

Things Are Right Again in Frisco, Texas

Not so long ago – right up to the present, in fact – there was a decrepit Shell station at the corner of Lebanon and Preston Roads in Frisco, Texas.  It wanted to be a Quik Trip or a Race Trac, or some early version of them, but, after what was doubtless a consultant-heavy process in the inner sanctum of Royal Dutch Shell, they decided to subname it Food Mart.  You can see that brand proudly displayed in the photograph.

In the back of that shabby Shell, barely visible from the front door, there was a sad little counter that served as the portal for service of the only Popeye's Chicken for miles around.  It was very cramped and because the service area was only a yard or so from the food preparation area, customers could observe what Popeye's International would probably judge questionable quality assurance procedures.  From that counter, a rapidly-rotating service staff would serve up ambrosial Popeye's Cajun Chicken, and, of course, the powerfully addictive Red Bean and Rice. 

I have been partial to Popeye's Chicken since my Chicago days.  I would even travel into sketchy neighborhoods to secure its tasty offerings.  A friend and I thought about bringing Popeye's to San Diego when I lived out there.

But, alas, Popeye's Chicken is not favored by the Memsahib, who controls most dining decisions at 7640 Red Clover Drive in Frisco.  Sometimes, however, she is out of town or dining with friends, and on those occasions I was able to procure those wonderful, grease-infused chicken parts fried up with that peppery, crispy shell protecting the doubtless contented flesh of their donors.  I would usually get an eight-piece all-dark special, which I would eat over the course of several days.  And Red Beans and Rice.

But one day, Popeye's Chicken went dark.  There was a great wailing and gnashing of teeth at 7640 Red Clover Drive and, I imagine, for miles around, for, as I said, there were no other Popeye's Chickens near about.

A sign went up at the poor Shell station.  It promised that a Golden Chick would be appearing.  Eventually, it did.

I like Golden Chick chicken.  But it is not Popeye's.  And it does not have Red Beans and Rice.

And lo, it came to pass that I was driving down Preston Road, home to an increasing number of delightful fast-food establishments.  I saw a new building, unlabeled, that looked like all of the others on that blessed strip.  There was construction equipment on the premises and the usual piles of dirt and rebar and packing materials.  It was located next to Randy White's BBQ.   In the window was a large sign that said NOW HIRING. 

Well, I thought, that's good. One can never have too many fast-food choices in Frisco.  Hey, maybe Mexican!  Someday I'm going to write an article on the incremental differences in the fare offered by Taco Bell, Taco Cabana, Del Taco, Cristina's, La Hacienda, Casa Rita, Posado's, Gloria's, Cantina Laredo, Blue Goose Cantina, Manny's Tex-Mex, Rosa's CafĂ©, Taco Bueno, and, in all likelihood, whatever was going into this new building.

I looked a little closer.  There, almost hidden, difficult to read through the reflections in the front glass, were some additional markings:

And there followed great rejoicing at 7640, and in the hearts of all Frisco bachelors, former bachelors, and male children with elevated tastes in fried poultry. 

"NOW HIRING."  You know, the Memsahib has been asking me what I'm going to do when I retire.

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For other articles on my adventures with fried chicken, see:

Sunday, March 2, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: "Nebraska," or, Why Couldn't Alexander Payne Have Been from Iowa?

I was born and raised in Nebraska.
If one is from Nebraska, about which few movies are made, one might be expected to be grateful and like movies about Nebraska and that are even named "Nebraska."
 Mm.  No.

The state has actually been featured in a couple of notable shows in the last few years.  One is the director's earlier "About Schmidt" (Jack Nicholson); the other is "Up in the Air" (George Clooney; directed by Jason Reitman; George works for a company based in The Big O).   I'll have more to say about "About" later.
Where the cinematography of the landscape of the Western Great Plains -- formerly known as "The Great American Desert" before the explorers got to the real deserts further on, now known more charitably as the High Plains --  is the best thing about the movie, you've got a problem.
Alexander Payne is from Nebraska.  He is active in the cultural life of Omaha, for which he deserves much credit.  I'll get back to him.

But now, "Nebraska," the flick.

I didn't look at my wa -- wait, I did once.  But only once.  I wasn't bored.  It wasn't a terrible movie.

Neither was it a terribly good one. 

Let's start with Bruce Dern's performance, much praised.  I like Bruce Dern a lot.  Being Laura's pop makes him aces in my book, but that's not important now.  I first saw him in what has become something of a minor cult classic, "Silent Running."  I saw it in a preview at the York Square Cinema in New Haven.  Such a cool movie, and even a major environmental theme.  He played the gardener in a gigantic orbiting greenhouse, trying to save some of the last growing things on an Earth suffering through an apocalyptic conflict back on the surface.  He was fine, which was difficult when your chief costars are three robots named Huey, Louie, and Dewey. 

And he's the first bad guy ever to kill John Wayne in a movie, in "The Cowboys."  He's one of those actors that is just flat watchable.

But was his performance in "Nebraska" really that good?  He plays Woody Grant, an elderly Montana man who receives an obviously misleading notification that he has won $1 million in some kind of magazine sweepstakes and heads off, on foot, to claim it in Lincoln, Nebraska.  He tries several times and is retrieved by his long-suffering, not terribly successful son David (Will Forte). (I've been through something like this -- I had to care for an elderly relative who would call me every day or so, having received an ad or something in the mail that would throw him into a complete tailspin -- insurance come-ons were particularly concerning to him.)

His character is old, quiet, slow.  Impaired, although not in a tragic advanced-Alzheiemery kind of way.  More in a  .  .  .  lifelong alcoholic kind of way.  He is called upon not to emote, and in that he is successful.  Does that make it a great performance, to speak little, shuffle about, and to want to go to Nebraska?  It's a one-note part, and Dern plays it well, but its pretty much 110 minutes of staring, silence, and the occasional snarl at people trying to help him.

And this brings us to Woody's character as portrayed.  Payne doesn't know what this man is about.  Is he a dotty guy who just wants to buy a pickup truck (reasonable)?  Or is he, as he claims in one scene, and only one, someone who just wants to leave some money for his boys  (noble, high-minded)?  Or is he just batty (batty)?  Well, you say, he can be all these things.  No; it doesn't work.

This is the biggest false note in a movie that is full of them.  Let's take that letter from the sweepstakes people, the ignition for the entire plot.  Did anyone turn it over and read the back of it?  We find out that it explains exactly what is needed to win the million, and he didn't accomplish any of them.  When this is pointed out to him at the sweepstakes office in Lincoln, he seems to understand immediately.  An entire family uproots itself for this ridiculous quest, and everyone knows the notice is a come-on, but no one reads it out loud to the guy the day after he gets it and decides to walk to Nebraska? 

There's lots more:

The things that old people say to David about his father and mother and other family members, the sexual references -- no, wouldn't happen, and the words are wrong.

David's former girlfriend -- no.

Bob Odenkirk (Woody's other son Ross), a fine actor but one with one of the most unappealing speaking voices in modern entertainment and terrible hair, as a local network news anchor -- no.

Woody's wife Kate (June Squibb) -- a dreadful, coarse harridan who heaps abuse on Woody's unkempt head (the Memsahib said to me, "Didn't anyone ever think to comb his hair?").  As an old-timer who came out of nowhere to get this plump role, Squibb's performance has been praised and rewarded with an Oscar nomination, but I thought it was cartoonish and shrill and unbelievable.  (In fairness, the script called for it and so, I suspect, did the direction.)  The tenderness in the hospital -- no, not based on what has come before.  That coarse gesture at the cemetery -- no.   

Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, June Squibb, Bruce Dern
And, like another movie set on a vast plain ("August:  Osage County"), there is some effort to market this movie as a comedy -- I just heard someone on the Oscar show describe it as such.  And, like that other movie, reviewed below, it is not.  Is it a funny premise that a senile old drunk wants to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska, for the stupidest of reasons?  It's OK to think so, but that premise is the only faintly amusing thing about this show.

Alexander Payne ("The Descendants," "Sideways"):  He is celebrated for his Nebraska settings but it is not clear to me that he doesn't hold the Midwest way of life in some contempt.  "About Schmidt" had the same problem.  Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) himself is stupid, doesn't seem to know how pay phones work, is fascinated by the garbage sold at souvenir traps.  The people he encounters on his trip west through the state are not flatteringly portrayed.  That's OK -- sneering at Plains people is a legitimate artistic pose, although not one I admire or that makes any sense.

But this movie wants it both ways.  You can see it in that silhouette of Woody/Dern on the movie posters.  You can see it in the magnificence of the cinematography.  You can see it in the choice of dramatic, artsy (in a good way) black-and-white.   Payne signals that he wants the moviegoer to view the movie as a celebration of the nobility, or at least the humanity, of this seldom-portrayed slice of American life, the hopes and dreams of the elderly.  OK, I'm on board.  But it is surpassing odd that there is not a single appealing character in this entire show.  Even Will Forte, the son who indulges his father (who shows no affection for him whatsoever, save in that one off-tone scene where he mumbles that he wanted to leave him and Ross some money), is weak and whiny and dim.  And pining for a very unattractive departed girlfriend.

Woody doesn't love his children.  Woody's wife doesn't love Woody.  (Really?  You think that deep down, she does?  What is your evidence for that?)  Woody's relatives who he and David visit along the way are either near-dead or grasping and even criminal.

Is western Nebraska an attractive place to live?  (When it is not being photographed by Phedon Papamichael, that is.)  Well, it's a tough place -- some have suggested turning it back to the buffalo and quit trying to save it as a place for people to live.  (See Buffalo Commons.) But people live there, probably in about the same proportions of good and bad, slender and obese, loving and bitter, as most other places.  And likable and unlikable, but I can't find any evidence that Payne and his screenwriter Bob Nelson have any affection for a single one of them.

Ultimately, as pretty as this picture is, I just didn't believe it.  Didn't believe it in its pieces, didn't believe the whole.

The Great Nebraska Movie, alas, has yet to be made.

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Anyone reading these last couple of reviews might think, oh, Steverino just thinks movies have to follow some kind of old-fashioned rules, and if they don't, then they're no good -- he doesn't like movies that are just about life, you know?  Stuff doesn't have to happen.

Could be, could be.  But let me explain myself a little.

There are certain elements to the enjoyment of storytelling that seem inherent to human nature.  Aristotle recorded them.  Critics have debated them for years.  But few deny them.    

"August:  Osage County" and "Nebraska" fail as good storytelling.  

They don't succeed as comedies because they are not funny.  

They don't succeed as dramas because they are not dramatic.  That is, there is no movement toward a dramatic climax, which can be any number of things -- self-realization, a plot resolution, the discovery of love, the change of a life.  That doesn't happen in either of these movies.  

In "Nebraska," there's built-in, literal movement upon which a journey of discovery could have been hung, but it doesn't happen.  We know to a certainty what is going to happen when Woody and David get to Lincoln.  And when they do, and Woody learns that he's not going to get the million he's been dreaming of, nothing changes for him.  He doesn't even seem disappointed.  (I have considered the possibility that Woody secretly knows this and that his voyage is for another hidden reason that is the real backbone of this film.  If so, it remains hidden.)    He accepts a hat (which plays a role in the final scene) from the sympathetic sweepstakes lady, and he and David leave.  David does something nice for Woody right after that, but Woody shows no appreciation whatsoever.  In fact, in that final scene, he visits a final humiliation on David, the only person in this movie who -- foolishly -- indulges Woody's silly demand.

One can enjoy a movie where the only merit is an amazing performance.  But you love the performance, not the movie.  Tell me a story.

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Friday, February 28, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: "August: Osage County," or, Who Says There Aren't Any Juicy Roles For Women of a Certain Age? -- Part 2

[One minor spoiler -- happens early in the film.]

This movie gets a  thumb-up, which, in light of what I'm about to write, makes me wonder about my critical faculties.   That thumb is shaking -- I must need more magnesium.   There's a lot wrong with this show.  But I sat and watched it all the way through and I wasn't bored and I was interested to see what was going to happen next and I don't recall looking at my watch.  So if you ask me if you should go see it, I'd say sure, it was kind of interesting.  And it had lots of good actresses and actors in it, and I put them in that order advisedly.

There's a big cast here, and there are almost no minor characters.  Lots of relationships to keep track of and if I started I'd be giving too much of it away.  The basics can't be considered spoilers:  Famous poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) and wife Violet (Meryl Streep) live out on the Oklahoma plain.  He's a boozer; she has mouth cancer and is addicted to prescription drugs.  He leaves one day and commits suicide.  Their three daughters Barb (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and  Karen (Juliette Lewis) and their men (Ewan MacGregor and Dermot Mulroney) assemble at the house, along with Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) and their son, the sisters' cousin Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).

They have quite a time.  Revelations, you know.  I will refrain from sharing them, in case you want to download it someday.

But there are some things you should know.

This Movie Has Been Misleadingly Marketed as a Comedy.  Even the trailers are edited to make it look like "Terms of Endearment."  It is nothing of the sort.  It is about as bleak a movie as you can imagine.  From the sere Oklahoma landscape to the unceasing unpleasantness with which these characters interact with one another, there's scarcely a chuckle in it.

It's an Adaptation of a Stage Play, and Man, Does It Show.  In fact, I was not aware that this was originally a play.  Which is embarrassing, since it won the Pulitzer.  It was written by Tracy Letts.  (He's also an actor -- he plays Andrew Lockhart in Season 3 of "Homeland.")  There's a lot of speech-giving in this movie; a lot of theatrical declaiming -- the scenes look like they're being played on a stage; as I say, I thought that before I knew it was adapted from a stage show.  The Memsahib had exactly the same impression -- it doesn't look like a movie.

Hold the Catharsis.  Not only is it not a comedy in the ha-ha sense, it's also not a comedy in the classic sense of having a non-tragic ending.  No one improves in this movie; other than those revelations I mentioned, no one seems to have learned anything emotionally.  These are all damaged souls and there is no healing, nothing the viewer takes away that makes the viewer a more learned person.  Other than maybe to watch the booze. .

What's With All These Solvent Poets?  This is the second movie I've seen in the last little while -- the other was "Say Anything" (Dreyfuss/Gandolfini), reviewed a post or two ago -- where a poet is portrayed as financially successful based solely on publishing poetry.  In this case, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) is the blessed scribbler.  I'm here to tell you that not a single poet supports a house of that size and apparently some land, a wife that needs a lot of medical attention and meds, and three girls to have raised, on nothing but publishing poetry.  Oh, you may be able to exist on a rudimentary level as an archetypal starving artist, but the emphasis there is on the starving part.  Most working poets teach, speak, hold workshops, and the like.  The alcoholic Bev does none of these things.

Bad Guys.  The mom and sisters are bad enough, but the men in this movie -- the departed Beverly aside -- discredit the gender.  Weak, ignorant, faithless, fibbers.  To themselves and to their women.  I wonder how Letts thinks the species has survived.  If you believe this movie, the joys of love and sex and family can't possibly be worth the relentless misery.

There Is One Noble Character.  I won't spoil it by telling you who it is, but even that sympathetic portrayal is ultimately patronizing.

God Forgive Me.  God Forgive Me.   In considering the performance of Ms. Meryl Streep, one word cuts through the haze of the typical superlatives she is usually owed -- hammy.  Her rants and staggering about may be suited to the stage, where exaggeration of voice and gesture is called for to get the message past the footlights, but on film it's oppressive.  (She did not play it onstage; Deanna Dunagan originated it at Steppenwolf in Chicago and on Broadway, where she was succeeded by Estelle Parsons and Phylicia Rashad -- yes, the Cosby mom.)   Here she is exhausting her considerable bag of actorly tricks -- and they're great tricks, don't misunderstand me, like DeNiro's, who does the same things in the too-many roles he takes that are unworthy of his gifts -- in an effort to overcome the speechy script.

There is one scene in particular, one of those stagy ones, where she greets a police officer, a young man who used to date the Julia Roberts character.  Violet stumbles about uncertainly, mumbling and ranting in an extended monologue, and the other characters just stand there and watch her act.  OK, she's a seriously ill woman with various addictions and not at all a good Mommy, but the eye-rolling and mood shifts and lacerating speechifying in those claustrophobic sets simply overwhelms the narrative.  No Oscar for her this year.

So why the (tepid) recommendation?  I thought Julia Roberts was quite good in a very nonglamorous (and overwritten) role, and Sam Shepard is one of those actors who grabs the screen even in bad movies and won't let it go.  Julianne Nicholson underplayed quite attractively.   Maybe I was just waiting for it to get better, or for the Big Moment when something was affirmed, where the scales fell from these sad persons' eyes, but the truth of the matter is that, even after all of the foregoing, I was engaged.  Maybe it was the star power of all those stars and I'm a sucker.  Hey, it's up for some Academy Awards.  Someone must have thought it was really good.

And I'll always give the benefit of the doubt to any movie with a title containing a colon.

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Thursday, February 27, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: "Philomena" or Who Says There Aren't Any Juicy Roles for Women of a Certain Age? -- Part 1

The first time I ever saw Dame Judi Dench she was naked.

Or nearly so.  She appeared as a concupiscent Titainia, Queen of the Fairies, opposite Ian Richardson as King Oberon, in Peter Hall's shimmering, perfect 1968 film adaptation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."    Now that was a movie.  Believe I first saw it in Alvin Kernan's Shakespeare course when I was a sophomore at Yale.

But today I am here to discuss her fine work in the first of our thumbs'-up films, "Philomena."  Her co-star, Steve Coogan, co-wrote and co-produced the film.  Dame Judi plays Philomena Lee, who enlists former Labour Government advisor Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) to assist in finding an illegitimate son, Anthony to whom she gave birth at a convent.  The nuns of the convent permitted his adoption -- for a handsome fee, it is suggested -- to a couple who had come in to adopt a little girl but ended up taking Anthony, the little girl's best friend, as well.

The movie is the story of their search, what they find, and, of course, there's the "getting to know you" angle between the buttoned-down and cynical Martin and the hopeful and spunky Philomena.  I won't say any more than that.  Needless to say, Martin finds something, and it is really all quite genuinely moving.

There has been some talk that the movie is anti-Catholic.  Mmm, not sure about that.  To be absolutely certain, those nuns of the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Roscrea, county Tipperary, Ireland, oh, they do not come across well at all.  In addition to selling kids out from under their unfortunate unwed mothers, they are terrible liars.  I have read that that Order says no, it didn't happen that way, and we're not going to settle it in this review.  At least one crucial scene was fabricated.  But yeah, you don't have a real good feeling about dogma when the movie is over.

But "Philomena" is not about whether the worldly punishment of sexual immorality is good or bad.  It is about the great undiminished love of a mother for her boy across the years and miles and choices.

Some minor misgivings:

Coogan's performance is understated almost to the point of invisibility.  He goes through the film with a faintly uncomfortable look on his face, perplexed by Philomena.  Never really snaps out of it, even as matters approach their climax.  While there's plainly supposed to be some kind of cathartic connection of this unlikely pair as the truth gradually emerges, it is not reflected in Coogan's performance.

Dench is one of those iconic actors who can barely be criticized ever about anything (although see next review).  And there's no fault to be found here, either.  The problem is that the film isn't quite sure who she is.  Sometimes she's a dotty, oblivious consumer of tacky romance novels; the next she's speaking knowledgeably about the range of contemporary sexual preferences.  Sometimes she's helpless, lost without Martin; other times she shows him up with her determination and spunk.  Not a dreadful fault -- just makes the thing seem just a little less than serious.

But, then and now -- what a Dame.

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Sorry, Virginia

There is a time in our lives when we are told about a wonderful man, a man who gives you things you don't even have to pay for. 

The people who are in charge of things tell you amazing tales about him,  tales of his compassion and astonishing abilities, qualities that seem like magic.  

Despite his powers, details of his youth and young adulthood are mysterious, assuming the quality of myth.

He lives in a very special home and is attended by large numbers of smaller people who carry out his wishes and who construct the bright toys he gives.   

He keeps lists of people he thinks are good and bad.  Brother, you do not want to be on that bad list. 

He's on television all the time, and you can even go see him in person when he comes to your town.

You love this man.  He's a dream come true.  No one has ever seen anything like him. 

As the years go by, though, you begin to observe that many things in real life are not consistent with the stories of him and  his mission.  But you are told to keep believing, and you do. 

For awhile; then, one day, the evidence of your own eyes and your common sense overwhelm your craving to believe in this man. Without anyone telling you, you can see for yourself that the stories about him are not true. The man is not who he pretended to be.  Even though you saw him with your own eyes, it turns out he never really existed as he portrayed himself and as others sang of him. (Yes, people wrote songs about him, and small children were made to sing them.)   He and his helpers knowingly misled you -- you and millions of others -- going to incredible lengths to sustain the illusion of the man's greatness. 

In fact, that man you saw, he's just a guy in a fancy suit who isn't special and has no particular fondness for you. 
Even those presents you got -- someone had to pay for them after all.  It dawns on you that sooner or later, you yourself will be expected to pay for gifts others receive. 

When the truth becomes apparent, you protest the deception.  But the people in charge say they did it for your own good. 

You're sad for a little while, but not long. You understand, finally, that some things really are too good to be true.   Some of your friends continue to believe in the man, but they don't advertise it, and many of them know in their hearts they've been had.  Others cling fiercely to the myths, fearful that if they do not the free presents will stop.  

You remember with fondness the excitement of those early years when you believed.  But with your eyes finally open to what is really going on, you put that man in the fancy suit behind you as you make your way in the real world.

Monday, November 18, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: "Enough Said," or, You Can Say That Again

SPOILER NOTICE:  Most people will come to this movie knowing the basic plot outline, which is revealed in almost all reviews of it.  I will mention it here.  There is a plot twist in the middle of the movie that I will not reveal.

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The Memsahib and I should see more movies.  If we did, maybe I'd get to see more monster shows and violent revenge movies and jaw-dropping special effects stuff and naughty frat-boy comedies and possibly even naked women on the big screen.  (With the get-all-the-movies option on DirectTV, those kind of movies are eventually beamed into our home -- gathered in from outer space by our dish, which I actually have never seen, somewhere on our roof they tell me -- where I don't watch them, either.)   Instead, our movie choices tend to be dominated by the kind of things that the Mem will enjoy, since I'm very likely to enjoy them, too, and she is not going to enjoy the monster/frat/naked movies.  I am a loving and prudent husband, and I play the percentages.

The Mem is interested in seeing what we refer to as "relationship movies."  These are dramas or comedies that explore the relationships between family members or men and women.  Sometimes they are not slow and long.

"Enough Said" was an enjoyable relationship movie.  It was, however, slow and long.  I checked my watch twice.  (The current recordholder is "Amour," where I was checking my watch almost constantly, partly to attempt to determine when that particular torture might conclude, and partly because what was happening on my watch face was more interesting than what was happening on the screen.)   I recommend it.  I didn't love it, it won't make any of my personal top-twenty lists, but it was a pleasant night at the flicks with some very agreeable people.

Those agreeable people are mostly Eva, a divorced freelance masseuse(Julia Louis-Dreyfus); Albert , a TV archivist with whom she has an affair (James Gandolfini in his final feature role); and Marianne, a famous and weirdly well-off poet  who becomes Eva's client and eventually a friend and confidant (Catherine Keener).  

Left to right:  James Gandolfini, Julia Louis-Dreyfus

The good things about this movie are:  The general agreeability of the two people who get the most screen time.  Their familiarity to us from popular TV shows.  The fact that they get together.  The fact that, since we know this is a romantic comedy, they will probably end up together.  There are some amusing scenes.  There are some amusing lines.  There is a plot twist that adds some interest.

But -- you knew there had to be a "but" -- I did end up looking at my watch:

This was a talk movie.  Very little happens.  I'm not looking for car chases or monsters or even those naked women (although there is a lot of suggested James-on-Julia coupling, an image that somewhat compromises the romantic halo of this particular pairing), but it's pretty much a bunch of set pieces where people talk.  The big plot point doesn't occur near on to the beginning, where it might have propelled some interesting situations for the balance of the movie, but some ways into the show, where it doesn't.

There were some very odd subplots.   They did not seem to serve any larger message or illuminate the main plot; they felt like they belonged in another movie.  The strangest -- almost creepy -- was the relationship between Eva and her high-school daughter's friend.  Eva more-or-less adopted this girl into her household, much to her daughter's discomfiture and the well-deserved scorn of the girl's mother.   No apparent point.

Then there was the obligatory married-couple-who-observe-and-comment-on-their-friend's-romance-while-modeling-"love-is-difficult"-behavior-of-their-own subplot featuring Sarah (Toni Collette) and Will (Ben Falcone).  And they had their own sub-subplot relating to a maid who was either either indispensable or intolerable, who seemed to put objects away in inappropriate places, or maybe she didn't.  Point indiscernible.

Catherine Keener's famous rich poet Marianne was the finest performance in the film, her words sounding like she was making them up as she went along, a beautiful natural reading.   But her character couldn't exist:   poets do not publish serial best-sellers unless it's some kind of pop-culture stuff (not even then -- can you think of even one?), and we're asked to believe that she is a famous serious poet, an artist, yet recognized on the street by stout giggling women.   Nah:  Even the most famous poets today don't make a living from selling their poetry; even the best of them supplement their meager residuals by teaching somewhere, or perhaps lecturing.  But not Marianne -- she lives a life of exquisitely tasteful leisure while being recognized on the street for her books of poetry by stout women.  And able to afford a masseuse on a regular basis.  I can't think of a single poet in America who lives a life like that.

Catherine Keener in Artistic Poet Hat
But the main problem with this movie is that Julia Louis-Dreyfus is in every single scene.  This may not be a problem for some people, maybe most people who go to this movie to see her.  She's as appealing as you remember from "Seinfeld" and "New Adventures of Old Christine," but her bag of tricks is limited and she uses those tricks many times in the course of this movie.  Interestingly, director Nicole Holofcener  does nothing to glam her up.  (I guessed a woman director and writer before I learned her identity -- this is not a movie interested in the male point of view, which is a legitimate artistic choice and not particularly offensive, but just so you know going in.)  Her makeup is minimal, she's dark, a middle-aged woman presented as attractive, no longer "cute" in the young-chick sense, not trying too hard to be beautiful.  But one might think a woman of her years and presumed experience would be smarter than she seems to be, and more interesting.  And as funny as the story presents her as being, which she isn't.

That reminds me.  This pair is supposed to be attracted to one another because each finds the other amusing.  Here's the capstone example for this script, repeated several times:

      --  Albert says something about his life.
      --  Eva says: "Really?"
      --  Albert smiles and says:  "No."
      --  Eva convulses in laughter (see photo above).

Neither one of these people is very funny, certainly not as clever or as amusing as Ms. Holofcener seems to think.  It's not a very funny script.  "Light," I think the word is; "light comedy."  It's that.

We see much less of James Gandolfini than of Ms. Louis-Dreyfus, but still a lot.  When he's onscreen, the movie warms up considerably, although he is presented as unattractive in many ways.  He underplays his big scenes to excellent effect.

I can't discuss the unsatisfactory ending of the movie without giving away the plot point.  I'll only say that the movie doesn't give us any reason for the characters to do what they finally do.  They just do it, plot resolved, screen goes black.  

But having grumbled, I have to say that I enjoyed the movie because we actually do like these characters, ordinary though they may be.  We want them to be happy, and they pretty much are, most of the time and ultimately, so our expectations are fed.   The Mem liked it too (although her first words as the credits began to roll were:  "Well, it was slow.")  So there you go.

Two thumbs at about ten o'clock -- nah, make it 10:30.

   *     *     *

Monday, August 26, 2013

Why Don't Airports Routinely Film Takeoffs and Landings?

The crash of Asiana Flight 214 at San Francisco International airport on July 6, 2013, brings to mind a thought I've had since coming into the age of airplane-crash awareness.  I don't know when that was, but it was a long time ago.

There it is, there, in the title.

Plane crashes take place overwhelmingly on takeoffs and landings.  I just made that up, but I believe it strongly. Planes tend not to fall out of the air, although sometimes they do run into mountains or depressurize or collide or stray into fatally bad weather.  If something is going to go wrong on a flight, usually the craft either doesn't make it too far off the runway, or it come upon it the wrong way. Wait, here you go -- Airplane Crash Frequency by Stage of Flight -- only 8% of accidents take place while the plane is "cruising," that is, not taxiing, taking off, climbing, descending, or landing.  But, oh those cruising problems -- no fender-benders up there.

But thankfully few of them, so let's concentrate on a more useful datum, which is that most airplane crashes happen at and very nearby identifiable, limited areas known as airports. 

It would be relatively easy to capture clear images of each flight's taxi, takeoff, early climb, late descent, landing, and final taxi.  The concept would not be to capture a single aircraft on a single dedicated recording, but to install enough  fixed high-def cameras to cover all the runways, and some of the airspace nearby either end.  The day goes by without incident, no reason to hang on to the recording.  If there's a problem, the images are preserved and assembled from the various fixed cameras that recorded the plane's path.

It wouldn't matter how busy the airport is.  O'Hare in Chicago has about 2400 takeoffs and landings every day.   But since we're not trying to track every plane's path with a single dedicated camera but only asking each camera to keep a steady eye on one particular scene day in and day out, flights could come and go with any frequency with no greater burden on the system of recording.  Just turn them on and let them run.

I don't know how many cameras it would take to cover every open runway.  On some, you might even want more than one angle.   What if it took, oh, 200 cameras at a particular airport?  Some may be mounted on buildings or the low-slung signage along the runways.   Some may be peering out from the tarmac.   The plane comes into the frame, travels through the scene, and exits the other side -- at which time, another camera's field of view has already picked it up, and camera number one has already recorded the next aircraft to pass the scene where it's aimed.   Each camera records merrily away until it's determined that the recording was unneeded, and you start all over.

Issues:  Darkness; bad weather; expense of acquisition and maintenance; vibration from the engines and rolling on the runway.

Of course, this plan probably has some drawbacks or difficulties that I can't imagine.   But I'm thinking that  technology has reached the point that high-quality video may be acquired from small, efficient, optically sophisticated devices and that images can be manipulated and blended to show all those thousands of dramas when those gigantic vessels rise into the sky or float to the ground.  Amateurs film plane crashes on their cell phones, and those images are coveted for what they tell us about why an aircraft failed to thrive.  It would seem to me to be a simple, if perhaps costly, matter to institutionalize the practice.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Roadside Shoe

When I'm out on my bike, I stop for turtles.

I've only stopped for one live one, a big old slider.  It was at the curb just west of Preston on Eldorado.  It looked like maybe it was trying to climb the curb, and it wasn't going to make it.  Sooner or later it was going to make a break across the open road and that would likely be its end.  I took it by the edge of its shell and somehow held it balanced on my handlebars until I could pedal over to the pond at nearby Warren Park.

But most of the turtles I stop for are less fortunate, and more characterized by flatness.   And most of them I pass by on the bike until something registers, and I think what was that and I go back and look.  I see more dead turtles on the byways here in Frisco than I do dead armadillos.

When I was out for my ride this morning, something caught my eye near a curb drain.  It was too smooth to be a turtle; I doubted it was a smooth soft-shelled turtle so far from water so I pedaled on for another few dozen yards or so, until I knew I had to turn around.

It was a shoe.

It was this shoe:

A woman's shoe with a smashed high heel.  I turned it over but its topside was crusted with dirt.  The little plastic sticker with what I assumed to be the size was still on it -- you can see it there.  It's either a W6 or a 9M, I think the latter.  

I wondered if it was ever a nice shoe.  The Memsahib could have told me, but I imagined the looks I would have gotten if I had brought the filthy thing home and asked her.  It looked to be worn through at the toe and there by the arch, and worn and stained on the sole, injuries probably caused by overwear and not the trauma of exposure.  It was probably a cheap shoe that just wore out and was thrown away.

But still I wondered about it.  Wondered at its story, at the story of the woman who wore it to pieces and eventually discarded it.  Who may have really loved that pair of shoes, must have, because she wore them until this one, at least, fell apart.  

And what about that heel, the tip broken off ?  Maybe it had been run over.  If not, though  .  .  . what violence brought it to that state?

And maybe I was wrong about those holes.  Maybe those holes weren't there when this shoe lost its way, and it has been in the elements for so long that rot or colllision or some other influence has brought it to that state.

Surely it had been a lot of places, with that tread worn smooth like that.  A woman wouldn't just wear heels like that around the house, would she?

And how did it get there?  Not such a mysterious question -- all kind of junk ends up next to roadways (but then, I wonder how that junk gets there, too).  Someone hauling garbage, and it fell out.  Someone littered.  

Where is its mate?

I imagined that a woman who wears holes in her shoes is not well off, or is otherwise unable to replace worn apparel.  Perhaps elderly -- but no, not with that heel, and not a shoe that strappy.  

I thought further back, to where the pair was made, and how, and by whom.  Where it was purchased.  Tried on, admired, just the ticket, I'll take them.

The only certain conclusion I reached was that no one who had ever encountered this shoe would have imagined that it would come to rest on the northbound Dallas Parkway just south of Panther Creek next to a curb drain.

But that's wrong -- it hasn't come to rest.  The next time I pedal by there, it will be gone.  Perhaps down the drain, perhaps scooped up by road cleaners, perhaps carried off by a critter.  

I got back on the bike and pedaled off, into my own unimaginable story.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Annette: Two Degrees of Separation, and Two Great Ladies Take a Certain Style With Them

Many years ago, especially MANY years before the Memsahib Era, when I had more hair and less of the rest of me, I was at P.J. Clarke’s in Chicago with my chum Doug, when a woman approached me.   Her name, as I recall, was Jackie.  Despite the dim light, I could see that she was well within tolerances – she had a scruffy Princess Di look about her, kind of a sexy little piece of brass.

I believe the word for what she did to me was “accosted,” and she said: “I’ll bet you wouldn't accept if I called and asked you to lunch.” (That's how you know how many years and pounds ago this was.)   She did, and I did.

I don’t remember much about the lunch, except that to her, Annette Funicello was “Aunt Annette.” Her uncle, Jack Gilardi, was Annette’s first husband, with whom she had three children. 

So Jackie, wherever you are, my condolences.

*     *     *
 Annette, Annette.  You didn’t rescue England or shame the Soviet Union like Margaret Thatcher, whose day of death you shared, but you moved a lot of movie tickets and a lot of adolescent trousers.  More than Baroness Thatcher, anyway.  (Although how could anyone fantasize about Annette?) 

As I considered the interesting coincidence of the simultaneous passing of two such different ladies, I was struck by one element of their individual styles that they shared.  One doesn't see women much choose it these days.  But I loved the look and still do.

Annette Funicello, Margaret Thatcher, RIP.  

We all pass, and the permanent is impermanent. 

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

You Cannot Trust Ladybugs

So I’m at Callahan’s yesterday buying some flowers for some pots I keep in our backyard.  At the checkout stand my attention is drawn to some movement off to one side.  It was a display of translucent sleeves of live ladybugs, 1500 per sleeve, it said, scrabbling uncomfortably over one another.   There was a sponge in there to keep things  moist, and because the market for sleeves of hundreds of dead ladybugs is negligible.   

The card said that they were buddies of the backyard, voracious consumers of aphids and fungus because they reproduced prodigiously – not such ladies after all! -- and would keep the landscaping blight-free all season long.   

Now I had never seen any aphids or fungus in our lushly landscaped postage-stamp backyard, but ‘phids – well, you know how they are.  And fungi!  You never know when their population might explode – their morals are also notoriously suspect – and attack the house.  

I was seized with the passion to liberate these little pals of innocent greenery and I bought two sleeves.  (By the way, ladybugs are not true bugs; they are beetles, and your entomologist would prefer that you refer to them as “ladybird beetles.”)  

I followed the directions with care, refrigerating them for an hour before release into the cool of the early evening onto pre-moistened plants, so they would have something to drink after escaping from that rancid little sponge.  I slit opened the sleeves and placed them on a couple of bushes.  They escaped with alacrity and began exploring the bushes.  Some took to the air as I spent some time removing a few of the more adventuresome ones from my person.  (I really need to throw out that “Eau de Maggot” aftershave.)  

I went inside and over the next two hours discovered a few that had hitched a ride in the folds of my ladybug-releasing outfit (loose fitting camo and a “BigButt Cigar” promotional cap I was gifted at a local smoke shop where I used to trade).   

Huh.  “48 Hours” fans, I guess.  

I went out this morning expecting to encounter a riotous banquet of Coccinellidae  munching merrily on landscape pests.  In my tour of the backyard, I saw precisely one ladybug.  


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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Speedfinger Gods, RIP

We lost two musicians of very different stripes within the last two weeks.  Both were known for their astounding technique.

The first, you have heard about.  Van Cliburn single-handedly -- perhaps two-handedly -- reawakened classical music in the United States with his stunning performances of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 1958.  In Moscow – at the height of the Cold War – he received an eight-minute standing ovation. 

This put the Russian judges in a terrible quandary.  Could they award the first prize in this inaugural quadrennial competition to an American?  The call went out, all the way to Nikita Khrushchev.   Khrushchev was the Great Satan of my childhood, but the years since have been somewhat kinder to him as we have tasted the brutality of his successors and learned the crimes of his predecessor Stalin, a murderer of civilians of Hitlerian proportions.   And when the judges’ tremulous inquiry reached him, Khrushchev is reported to have asked:  “Is he the best?” When told that he was, Khrushchev answered:  “Then give him the prize!”  And they did.

In 1962, I was ten years old and had little awareness of Van Cliburn other than thinking that it may have been the coolest name ever.  Then one day my sainted Aunt Geneva came to visit.  A lovely woman, and the kindest soul ever, who loved her niece Susan and nephew Steve.  She was a piano teacher in Wichita at the time, and worked for a company called Underground Vaults and Storage, which sold storage space in the abandoned Carey salt mines in Kansas.  Those deep caverns were dry, tornado-proof, and perfect for preserving stuff like the original prints of the movie “Gone With the Wind” and many other important things, but none more important to Aunt Geneva than the childhood scribblings of Sue and me.  The storage space was said to be able withstand a nuclear blast, an important consideration in those more jittery times.   I have since wondered if archaeologists who survived Armageddon would ever encounter Aunt Geneva’s treasures down there and wonder whether Steve Lawson’s first grade poem “The Sun” was an exemplar of pre-apocalyptic literature.

During her visit, she gave me a program from a concert she had recently attended in Wichita:

She opened it to an inside page, and there was Van Cliburn's autograph.  I didn't have any autographs of anyone; I don't know what my reaction was, but I hope for Aunt Geneva's tender sake I at least feigned excitement.  I saved it, of course, and on the occasion of Cliburn's death I hit the Steve attic archives to track it down.  As an Internet search revealed, Van Cliburn was very generous with autographs, and they may be had on eBay fairly cheaply. 

But I wonder how many people have Van Cliburn’s and his mother’s autograph on the same page?

The autographs appear to be in pencil – apparently a rather hard graphite, since they are faint.  Cliburn’s signature is the vertical one on the right-hand page.  Also appearing is the signature of the conductor, James P. Robertson, and, at the top right:  “With best of wishes, Rildia Bee Cliburn.”  Cliburn lived with her, his first piano teacher (she was trained by a student of Franz Liszt and was very accomplished in her own right) in Fort Worth until she died in 1994 at 97.

In this way I came to know better who Van Cliburn was.

The years passed.   Then one day when I was in high school, something possessed me to get interested in classical music.  What should I start with?  Well, sure, Van Cliburn.  I bought a cassette of his massive best-seller “My Favorite Chopin.”  I would play it over and over, along with “The Best of Peter Nero,”while tending the miniature golf shack at Bronco’s in Bellevue.  I was taking piano lessons at the time, and I could not understand how a human being’s fingers could move so quickly and so accurately across the keyboard and actually have to play the black keys sometimes while doing so.   That album also opened my eyes to Chopin, who sounded quite modern to me, and still does.  In later years, I learned the Polonaise in A Major, Op. 40, No. 1.  (Three sharps!  It was surely someone else playing that, and it should have been because I  played it badly.  I had better luck with the Prelude in E Minor, much more my speed.)

He retired from performing in 1978 at 44, but in 1994 he went on a 16-city tour with the Moscow Symphony, and I was fortunate to see him in San Diego.  He performed the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concertos.  It was thrilling, but I thought his performance was just a bit off.  I heard some missed notes, not that I was intimately familiar with the scores, and in some passages he hit two notes intending to hit one.  But his charisma and charm flowed over the footlights and he could have been playing “Heart and Soul” for all anyone cared.

*     *     *

I never lost my interest in classical music, but like all males of college age, and as my tinnitus now attests, my attention turned to rock-and-roll.  Thanks to Yale roommate Alan Ringel, I received a fine education in that most invigorating of art forms, and I was especially drawn to the technicians of the guitar. 

In those days, before any of us had developed any real taste in music, the question was – who was fastest?   My first guitar-hero crush was Johnny Winter, the albino guitar slinger from Beaumont, Texas.  His beautiful and scorching solos on B.B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault” off of “Johnny Winter And – Live” blazed out of the JBL speakers every room seemed to have.  We would listen to it during our bridge sessions after dinner almost every night, and I can still whistle passages of his incredible fretwork from that song.

But no one was faster than Alvin Lee.

These days speedy guitar players are all over the place.  Many quickly learned the two-hand hammer-tap popularized by Edward Van Halen, and there are many amazing guitarists out there these days who spent their afternoons up in their bedrooms with their Stratocasters dreaming of the chicks they were going to get after they dazzled the crowd with their jaw-dropping fretwork.  (Edward himself married Valerie Bertinelli.)  

But Alvin Lee, the front man for Ten Years After who died last week at 68, did it all the old-fashioned way, firing away on his signature red hollow-body Gibson 335.  He and the band vaulted to stardom with their performance at Woodstock.   They sold a lot of records but their dedication to British blues, in turn based on good-old-red-blooded Chicago blues, instead of hummable pop, kept them from breaking through to the really big time.   The first time I heard “Spider in My Web” off of "Undead" I could not believe what I was hearing.  Here it is, a slow blues, it does go on a bit -- but about six minutes in, hold on to your chapeau:    "Spider in My Web" -- Ten Years After, Live

Now, as I learned over the years, velocity like Lee’s was not unknown to jazz fans.  Players like Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin were also incredibly fast players.  McLaughlin in particular stunned rock fans when he crossed over to space-rock-jazz-fusion with The Mahavishnu Orchestra (saw them in New York on a bill with my all-time guitar hero Jeff Beck), and I still love “The Inner Mounting Flame” and "Birds of Fire."

But there is something about those old blues-influenced players – Lee, Winter, Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Roy Buchanan, many others – that make those Gibsons and Fenders stand on their hind legs and bite.

But the only thing I was ever fast on was a typewriter.  A skill not of much interest to chicks.  

Van, Alvin – RIP.

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