Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Both movies are based on true stories, the first an account of the birth and development of the seminal Chicago blues record label, Chess Records in the late 1940s through the 1960s, and the second a retelling of the story of how a group of German military leaders tried to assasinate Hitler in 1944. The raw material in each case is strong, and most of what you see in each film is pretty compelling. I know a bit about the first story, having researched the record industry extensively (it was the subject of my doctoral dissertation). Like most "Hollywood-ized" true stories, there are some fairly jarring lapses in historical accuracy. For example-- where the heck was Phil Chess? The movie centers on brother Leonard, for good reason, but no mention of his business partner at all seemed a bit extreme. The film also suggests that dj Alan Freed had a role in breaking the Rolling Stones in the US (at WINS in New York City, no less), which is a pretty bizarre stretch given that he'd basically been run out of radio some years earlier. The movie also plays loose with the chronology of Chuck Berry's career, having him arrested in Chicago (for a crime committed in Missouri) while listening to a Beach Boys record that wouldn't come out until he was released from prison three years after his arrest. But that kind 0f stuff is to be expected. What really interrupts the narrative flow of the film is the switch in emphasis away from Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf to Etta James (played by Beyonce) at which point the film takes a pronounced melodramatic turn. It seemed that the filmmaker fell prey to Beyonce's star power and as a consequence lost the rhythm and I think the heart of the film. That really isn't a criticism of Beyonce's performance, it's just that it seemed like an appendage to a different movie that had been developing up to that point, with the more subtle portrayals by Jeffrey Wright as Waters and Eamonn Walker as Wolf sacrificed to play up the more conventional star power of Knowles. It didn't exactly ruin the movie, but it made me wish for a follow through to the narrative tension that was as a result left largely unexplored.
The shortcoming in Valkyrie was that its pre-eminent star, Tom Cruise, came across as incredibly lightweight, especially compared to those who surrounded him in this cast. I'm not one of those people who automatically discounts anything Cruise does, but he is hardly at his best in a role that requires a dose of emotional heft. He comes across as an earnest boy scout, while Wilkinson and Nighy create characters of real psychological depth. Again, this isn't a severe handicap, as the inherent drama of the story effectively moves it forward anyway; but I can't help but think it would have been elevated beyond the mere thriller category if the central figure were a bit more interesting to watch (as a comparison, I might cite George Clooney in Michael Clayton).
I'm probably sounding way more critical than I need to be in relation to the films I've written about recently, since I've actually enjoyed them all to some degree (I sure don't feel that I've wasted any money on any of them). It's partly that I'm waiting for something to knock my socks off this holiday season, and so far all the likely candidates have been somewhat pedestrian. I'll keep looking for a knockout and let you know when (being optomistic) I find one.
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Here's another shot, of the corner of Franklin and Chippewa. This place is really hopping in the summertime, but on a chilly Monday night in December, not so much. But I think it's still a nice picture:
Saturday, December 27, 2008
Put your answers into the comments section, and the winner will be announced at the end of the week.
As a documentary, Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, might lead most viewers to expect something akin to the usual PBS American Masters special-- lots of archival footage intercut with talking heads, laying out a pretty straightforward account of the subject's life. But that is not the way the movie is set up, although it certainly contains those elements. The filmmakers decided to convey something critical about O'Day's story through the design and editing of their shots in a manner that I don't recall seing before. There is a visual rhythm that approximates O'Day's unique style of phrasing when she sings (which is commented on by a number of the aforementioned talking heads). The interviews with O'Day herself, which span the entirety of her long career reveal an artist totally at ease with herself and self-deprecating about her talent, and again, the visual style of the film seems to reinforce that easygoing attitude. It creates the appearance of swinging breeziness; but, if you stop to think about it, you realize how much thought and craft have gone into achieving the effect. That quality only fades in a couple of instances, when the film portrays a full song performance (as opposed to the much more numerous clips) by Miss O'Day, with the climax coming with her rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown" as it appeared in the 1960 concert documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day. At that point, there's no mistaking the artistry of this performer.
I mentioned that the film also shares some thematic qualities with Milk, which it does in segments on O'Day's relationships with black musicians and in tracking the expectaions on a "girl" singer in a predominately male milieu. But it does so in a much more subtle way than Milk, and while I really don't mean this as any kind of criticism of the Van Zant picture, I think it allows for Anita O'Day to present a much more well-rounded portrait of its subject. But I'm splitting hairs here-- try to see both and I doubt either will disappoint.
Friday, December 26, 2008
Remember, more to come tomorrow, so check back then.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Monday, December 22, 2008
And also a slightly belated happy birthday to nephew Gerik as well. I don't have a recent picture handy, but imagine the little kid in this photo about twice as big. Many happy returns Gerik, and I hope you got a snow day too!
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Unfortunately, the conditions were not conducive to the usual offensive fireworks when we square off for some playful punting, and the match ended in a weather shortened scoreless draw (though we did last through three innings!). As I thought, a green field really does seem a prerequisite for such a game, not that we didn't have some fun this afternoon.
By the way, the winner of last week's Friday Family Blogging quiz was Lil Sis, who correctly identified the baby on Grampa's knee as Ben Rosiek (yes, the same strapping lad preparing to pummel his papa's pitch in the above photo). Congrats to Lil Sis, and thanks to all those who guessed. I'll try to get another quiz up as soon as possible.
Friday, December 19, 2008
And I'm not anticipating any kickball games on this pitch in the near future:
I know some of you suggested outdoor winter activities, but I still plan to pine for the sunshine and warmth of summer.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
But as much as I dislike Reality TV, I have to admit that I love reality comics, pioneered by Harvey Pekar's American Splendor (that's Harvey above; you can find a nice interview with him here). The difference is, I think, immense, with the comics actually more closely aligned with literary memoirs. They tend not to exaggerate circumstances (that's the domain of the action and super-hero genres), but rather to present the life of the protagonist as both ordinary and, often, universal. Pekar's work certainly speaks to a core element of humanity, acknowledging the struggles-- physical, mental, and emotional-- with which we all deal. He certainly reveals things about himself, many unflattering, that most would keep secret, but his story seems designed to spark a degree of identification, and ultimately a kind of camaraderie as we face life's endless challenges, big and small (and not of the type thought up by some overpriced producer who thinks it might be funny to watch people eat bugs).
You can have your Survivors, Big Brothers, et. al. I'll take Harvey Pekar, Chester Brown, Keith Knight, Lynda Barry, Joe Sacco and others of their ilk if I'm looking for a true dose of reality.
Boy, could I go for a good old-fashioned game of kickball in the backyard!
Is there a winter equivalent for this kind of leisurely activity?
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Monday, December 15, 2008
It's definitely starting to feel a little Christmasy around here.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
I remember when Siskel and Ebert launched the show Sneak Previews on PBS way back in the early 80s. From the start it was obvious that Ebert knew something about films and film history and Siskel was a reporter who somehow fell into movie reviewing. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and he was occasionally an astute commentator on the films under discussion. But it was quite clear which of the two spoke with more authority. That trend continued once Siskel passed away and was eventually replaced by the even more lightweight Richard Roeper (at a time when the likes of Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum were plying their craft in Chicage, home of the series-- it made me shake my head in wonder).
When Siskel & Ebert took their show to syndication, they were replaced on PBS by a similar pair, Jeffrey Lyons and Neal Gabler, wherein Gabler had some substance and Lyons was a bit of a goof (I remember someone once counting up the number of times he called a film "one of the year's ten best" and it totalled somewhere in the thirties-- some critical acumen, huh?). Maybe the attitude of producers was that the public wasn't ready for really solid, thoughtful discussion about movies?
If so, evidently that's still the case. When Ebert's health caused the recent cancellation of his program with Roeper, it was replaced by a new version of the show called At the Movies, hosted by Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz has a Hollywood pedigree (he's related somehow to Joseph who wrote and directed such classics as All About Eve and Herman who, among other things, co-wrote Citizen Kane). He's pretty sharp, and approaches the job with a certain amount of intelligence and wit. Lyons, on the other hand, seems to speak in movie ad blurbs (even when he doesn't like something). He seems to think glibness is a substitute for thoughtfulness, and I kind of get the impression that he expresses opinions following a set of templates he's laid out to service any occasion. In other words, opinions without any insight.
I know that the point of these shows is really to serve as advertising for Hollywood product, but it's disappointing that that cannot happen in the context of some really well-reasoned criticism. Oh well, I guess this is one of those areas where I'm nothing but an old curmudgeon.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
If you look at the first six presidents, they provide a good example of what we might characterize as leaders motivated by a powerful sense of public responsibility, true statesmen as opposed to politicians. They were all men of accomplishment and wealth, and certainly did not need to pursue a career in elective office to secure economic well-being nor even to insure a positive legacy in the history books. But something changed in the 1820s, with the expansion of what was called universal manhood suffrage (basically eliminating property qualifications as a condition for voting), and we saw public office transformed from a calling to public service to a path to personal gain. This didn't have to happen, but by swelling the rolls of voters with large numbers who could easily be manipulated to turn over their vote to a charlatan was just too bif a temptation, and the political machines that emerged to take advantage of the situation soon figured out just what buttons to push. Over the next few decades, if anything it became easier to "buy" votes, and once in office by virtue of such purchases, the professional pols rarely felt any compunction about taking advantage of their office to line their own pockets. Heck, they were proud of their efforts (see for example George Washington Plunkitt's memoir). When the muckraker Lincoln Steffens began a series of investigations into the widespread municipal graft across the country at the dawn of the 20th century, machine leaders welcomed him with open arms, believing that even his damning stories would have no impact on the power they wielded. Eventually, their corruption was just too brazen, and a backlash began, but in some places (like Kansas City and Chicago), elements of the machine lasted well past the second world war.
The strongest remaining element of what the machines represented-- the professional politician-- remains today, and every now and then one of them seeks to press their advantages to an extreme (as seems to be the case with Blagojevich). Most pols are satisfied to exercise their authority in ways that indirectly benefit them, but I guess the old-time shakedown is still part of the play book too (anyone remember Abscam?).
I suggested above that this all became possible because of the expansion of voting rights, and I think that's a fair observation, but I would not want to imply that we should go back to the tighter limits on who gets to vote. I just think it speaks to the responsibility of voters to really find out about who is running and make responsible informed choices. Perhaps we can't expect the politicians to be honest, but that just means we need to do a better job of vetting them and then holding them fully accountable for their actions. Otherwise, we're just the poor saps who have to foot the bill.
Friday, December 12, 2008
Winner of last week's quiz was.... Richard, who correctly guessed that the picture of me was taken at the Santa Monica Pier in California. As it happens, even if Richard had not nailed it (he could have guessed Timbuctu), he still would've won for coming closest because HE WAS THE ONLY ONE WHO GUESSED! Come on everybody, can't you at least make a contest of it?
And the talent even extends to the related field of dance! Check out this short video:
Next week I'll be heading back to Buffalo for the holidays, so I should have some new photos to share from that side of the country in the next edition of Friday Family Blogging!
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Is this just a generational thing? Will youngsters today trot out dvds of Christmas With the Kranks or Four Christmases once they hit middle age? It just doesn't seem like the more recent holiday offerings have the same timeless qualities of those mentioned in the paragraph above. I'd be happy to be disproved on this point. Is there something I'm forgetting, or does anyone want to make the case for any Christmas movies, TV specials or songs from the past ten or so years? Surely our society hasn't lost the capacity to produce uplifting Christmas stories or music, has it?
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Which reminds me of my favorite political joke, told by former Minnesota Senator (and one-time presidential hopeful) Eugene McCarthy. McCarthy said that when he died, he wanted to be buried in Chicago-- so that he could remain politically active. Think about it.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
Peter Doggett, There's a Riot Going On [music]
Dean Wareham, Black Postcards [music]
Dan Kennedy, Rock On: An Office Power Ballad [music]
Jim Walsh, The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting [music]
Tony Judt, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century [history]
John Burrow, A History of Histories [history]
Martin Cohen, Philosophical Tales [philosophy]
Kitty Ferguson, The Music of Pythagorus [history/philosophy]
Richard T. Kelly, 10 Bad Dates With DeNiro [film]
Mike Edison, I Have Fun Wherever I Go [media]
Neil Harris, The Chicagoan: A Lost magazine of the Jazz Age [history/media]
Jon Clinch, Finn: A Novel
Robert Bolano, The Savage Detectives [novel]
Gary W. Moore, Playing With the Enemy:A Baseball Prodigy, World War II, and the Long Journey Home [sports]
Mark Steel, Vive La Revolution: A Stand-Up History of the French Revolution [humor]
Feel free to leave your lists in comments too-- I've still got some shopping to do myself.
My favorite Maddux memory is of his performance in game two of the 1996 World Series, when he spun a typical gem that made it appear inevitable that the team would take the series (though they then proceeded to lose four straight). My favorite story about Maddux was that when he had a comfortable lead, he would purposely make mistakes and give the opposition pitches to hit so that, in the future (when the game was closer), they'd be anticipating similar treatment only to have him shift his pitch selection to something completely different. Who knows if its true? It certainly gave some weight to his nickname: "The Professor."
Maddux was such an admirable and likable guy that even after he left the Braves, I always cheered for his success, and it gave me great pleasure that in his last game of last season (now the last,apparently of his fantastic career), he pitched another gem to move past Roger Clemons on the all-time victories list by one. Many would argue that Clemons was the superior pitcher of the two, whose careers mirrored one another in many ways. But Clemons was also one of those boors who seemed to take his success as a birthright, and often seemed motivated by purely mercenary impulses, often treating fans with something close to contempt (was anyone really surprised that he became implicated in the steroid scandal, which in turn led to other revelations about his character?). Maddux, along with his long-time teammate on the Braves John Smoltz (who, at this writing, appears ready to take the hill again in the upcoming season, after battling injuries last year), to me represents all the qualities we like to claim are central to sports' relevance, but often get lost in the "win-at-all-costs" atmosphere of contemporary culture: teamwork, hard-earned success, professionalism, and respect for the game, its traditions, and its fans.
Friday, December 5, 2008
There were shops on the street level, and I imagine offices and what not above that. Here's a closer look at the fountain in the center of the Piazza:
Across from those curved buildings was another complex of buildings (I think mostly government offices), built around another old Roman ruin that had been converted to a church and I think a monastery. Here's the entrance to the Basilica, which you can see was nowhere near as fancy or ornate as most of the others we saw across Italy. The inside was kind of dark, but nonetheless impressive too:
Walking away from the Piazza towards the restaurant where I would meet the rest of the group, I passed this book-stall right out in the middle of the street. I wish we had something like this in Dillon:
When I got to the restaurant, the party was already started (last night and all), our group had a back room all to ourselves, and in addition to some first rate culinary fare, we were entertained by a couple of the waiters who periodically picked up guitars and flutes to serenade us with Dean Martin songs. It was kind of funny, but entertaining.
And that's it for the highlights of my Italy trip. I hope you enjoyed the recounting. I may post the odd picture now and then as I go back and review all the photos I took (and may have missed posting) but otherwise will be moving on to other subjects. If there was something you wondered if I encountered but did not mention (or would like to see more pictures of one or another of the spots I featured), let me know-- I won't need much prompting to keep revisiting this wonderful trip.
Whoever comes closest (try to be as specific as possible) wins the prize-- leave your guesses in the comments.
I think what is particularly striking about this picture is that Helen seems to be completely at rest-- a state that generally seems alien to her nature
Thursday, December 4, 2008
This is a shot a little further along the street. It's a very ritzy shopping area, with a lot of nice restaurants and street cafes, trees (as you can see) and still pretty busy on a Sunday night:
And here's another fountain. I don't know anything about it except that it looked kind of cool:
Next up will be some shots of the Piazza della Repubblica at night, the last "tourist" stop of my trip.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
The trees and shrubbery in the park were particularly interesting. They must have been chosen and arranged to enhance the atmosphere of the park, and in the sunlight, they made for a somewhat enchanted setting:
The southeast corner of the park borders on the old city boundaries, marked by the wall in the following photo. This side is known as the Piazza le Brasile, and the wall goes back to the middle ages (I think):
Here's a view from the other side of the wall. The neighborhood is a kind of swank shopping district, but I found the wall much more interesting than the stores. It extends for about 7 or 8 blocks now, but at one time apparently encompassed the entire city:
Walking along the wall, I was stopped by an Italian man who asked me (me!) for directions. As it happened, he was looking for the street I was heading for, so I was able to tell him where it was (just a couple blocks away). He asked me where I was from, and when I told him America, he responded by asking if things there were going to be better with Obama, and I told him I thought they were. He agreed and said he was glad that I thought so too. I kind of got the feeling that was what everyone over in Italy thought (except maybe Berlusconi).
Monday, December 1, 2008
This is where Ear Candy really shines-- they qualify as a great store on both counts. I went in on Saturday hoping I might find one or two things, and walked out with six. All of them were items that I had not seen elsewhere, a couple from my list, and four surprises (the latter including a new release by the proprietor John's band, Secret Powers, which I put on in the car and enjoyed all the way to Drummond). In case you're interested, here's what else I picked up: the new releases by the All Girl Summer Fun Band and Andre Williams; a compilation by the Dirtbombs; a Real Kids album of outtakes from the early 90s; and a collection of garage rock rarities from the 60s. I don't get to Missoula often enough, but when I do, I'm glad there's still a place like Ear Candy around to make the trip worthwhile.
Here is a fountain supported by some neat horse statues:
This gazebo looks like it goes back a few years too. Looks just like the one in Clinton Park, doesn't it?
I really enjoyed spending much of the afternoon on the park. My feet were blistered and sore from a week's worth of walking, and this was a nice place to stop and take a lot of rests and just watch what was going on, or to drink in the atmosphere. But as the time grew later, there were a couple of other things I wanted to check out before I had to meet the group for dinner. Those sites will be the subject of the next couple of posts.
Here are some arches, which may be ancient ruins, or a re-creation (I'm not sure which, but suspect the latter). I guess if I could only read Italian I'd know for sure.
And here's a train that was ferrying folks around the park. I suppose the engineer would know about the history of the arch above, but since I didn't take a ride, I may never know.
I've probably got two more posts with Italy pictures to come. For some reason. I'm having some difficulty posting pictures, so no guarantees on when they might appear (though I'm going to try another right away). In the meantime, I may have some other things to comment on, so check back again soon.