Friday 5: Forward

From here.

  1. What are you looking forward to in your personal life in 2017?
    Although I don’t really have an idea of how this will look, I’m hoping to be slightly more social this year than last.  I also would really like to finish the next draft of this long writing project I’ve been workingon for the past couple of years.
  2. What’s something you’re planning ahead for?
    The new gig is going to make it tougher and easier to hit my weekly step count goal.  I’ve been playing around with different ideas for the commute in order to address this.  The most appealing solution might be to ride a bus part of the way and walk part of the way, in each direction.  Last week, I walked the whole way from home to the new office, and it was about a 2.5 hour walk, but that was at night when it’s cool and when there’s far less street traffic.  It’s five miles or so, however, and that’s a good number.
  3. How intense is your to-do list for the last days of the year?
    Pretty intense.  I have a lot of work to do, for two clients, and I’m behind on my reviews for books and movies.  Need to get some groceries, too, and do some housecleaning.
  4. What’s something you’d like to jump past, between now and the end of the year?
    Almost all of my podcasts are on vacation, so I would like to jump past the vacation part, if that’s possible.  How do you jump past a non-happening?  Meanwhile, thanks to Julie, I’ve recently discovered the Judge John Hodgman podcast, and it’s super smart and super funny.  I’m working my way backward through that, and it’s been helpful, but I still miss my regular stuff.
  5. How will you ring in the new year?
    I’d like to see a movie in the theater and then spend the rest of my time quietly, at home.  Maybe with a DVD or two.  That’s the rough plan, anyway.

Fibula Rasa

Christmas was mellow.  I got most of my shopping done Friday, with one or two last things to pick up Saturday, and that always puts me in the mood for Christmas.  I have a low shopping tolerance, but not when I’m Christmas shopping, which I genuinely enjoy, even under trying circumstances.  It’s not as much fun in leaner times, for sure, but I’m mostly past those days when I just didn’t have enough money to get something decent for my closest relatives and friends.

Had a nice breakfast before taking the bus to see the folks.  We watched football and chatted.  I did some work (I had a deadline Monday).  The nephew and his girlfriend came by, we had a nice meal, we watched some more football, the niece came by.  I never saw my sister, so I sent her gift along with my nephew.

As has become my routine, after the last football game, I walked to Pearl Kai (it’s about two miles) and picked up a bus home to Kalihi.

The Raiders keep winning, but they lost Derek Carr to a broken leg, a terrible injury that pretty much wipes out any chance Oakland has to make it to the Super Bowl.  He’s regularly cited as the main reason the Raiders have returned to respectability, and it’s difficult to conceive of their advancing very far into the playoffs now, although with the level of competition so bad this year, I wouldn’t rule it out.

As I have been saying all season, I’m just happy with the winning record.  The fact that they’ve won twelve games is gravy to me; the playoffs is more gravy.  If they go out early, I’m fine.  They can come back next year with greater expectations.

I walked more steps last week than in any week since I started keeping track (about three years ago).  More on this next week, but it’s giving me some problems about next year’s resolutions.

I’m pretty sure I have more to say, but I began this at 7:30 last night and it’s ten hours later and I still haven’t posted it.  So I’m done even though I’m not done.

Review: About Schmidt

About Schmidt (2002)
Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermott Mulroney, Kathy Bates, June Squibb. Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Directed by Alexander Payne.

I’ve often said About Schmidt is an utterly forgettable movie, mostly because although I saw it in the theater in 2002 when it was released, I could remember almost nothing about it. There were a Winnebago and a naked Kathy Bates in a hot tub, but if a third plot element were the question in Final Jeopardy, I’d have gone home a loser. So in my review of (and catchup on) Alexander Payne’s directorial oeuvre, I was looking forward to this one because it seemed almost like seeing something new, while also not looking forward to it because I was pretty sure my not remembering it was precisely the correct response.

I was right on both expectations. By itself, it is a forgettable film, setting up some kind of emotional equation it never solves, like those reactions in tenth-grade chemistry you have to balance, connecting this oxygen atom to that hydrogen atom and making it all even out. Examined as part of Payne’s filmography, which was my intention this time, it’s a lot more interesting. Although plot-wise it has almost nothing in common with Election, the film Payne directed just before it, or Sideways, the film he directed just after, it has interesting thematic and film-making similarities.

Primary among them is Payne’s interest in representing his home state of Nebraska in a way that seems to be uniquely his. The opening shot is mimicry of the first moments in Citizen Kane: from a distance, across a vast, flat cityscape, we see a lone high-rise. Subsequent shots bring the building closer, seen from different angles but always with the tower occupying the same place in the frame, growing larger and larger, until we are inside the building and see a bored Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) at his empty desk, watching the second-hand of the clock tick off the final moments of his professional career. Omaha is no Xanadu, and Warren R. Schmidt is no Charles Foster Caine.

Matthew Broderick in Election, Paul Giamatti in Sideways, and Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt all play small men living small lives, the first two in the middle, and the last near his end. We drop into Jim McAllister’s life just as he’s making his idiotic choices, into Miles Raymond’s sometime after, as he’s still dealing with the consequences, and into Warren Schmidt’s as he discovers that his mistakes were made long ago, without his being aware of them, as he earned professional success only to discover that a life’s work has amounted to nearly nothing. It’s a good idea, but I have difficulty understanding Payne’s intention. How am I meant to feel about Schmidt’s journey and destination, by the time this film concludes?
(spoilers in this paragraph only)

Schmidt expresses his concern about his daughter’s marriage, in a well-done scene with Hope Davis, where she says something like, “Oh, now you care about my decisions?” We don’t know exactly what’s come between her and her father, but it’s easy enough to imagine that it’s the stuff that happens to many of us in our own families. So far, so good. But then Schmidt offers a toast at the reception, at first a bit awkward, but then gracious and seemingly heartfelt. Are we supposed to take his words at face value? It’s difficult to tell whether he’s had a change of heart or is merely playing a part. Cut to the final scene, where he’s sitting home alone at his desk, certain that his life has amounted to nothing. He’s been writing letters to Ndugu, a young boy he’s sponsoring through one of those charities, and there is a letter from his teacher, telling him how much Ndugu has appreciated his gifts, along with one of Ndugu’s drawings, a crude representation of a man holding hands with a boy. Schmidt begins to sob, and the film is over.

Is this a moment of despair, or is it a moment of redemption? I could tolerate not knowing if there were evidence enough to support either conclusions, but there isn’t. I suppose the stronger case can be made for despair, but there’s been enough good interaction during Schmidt’s trip to imply that he’s got a lot of interesting living to do, if he decides to live it. Another possibility is that Schmidt is finally taking a moment to grieve properly, but I think he has his moment the night he sleeps on the roof of his RV, and our last image of him should be more positive.

Now that I’ve seen this film three times (once in the theater, twice on DVD) I’m much fonder of it than I once was, but it’s really no better a film. Seven years ago, when I first set up my Criticker account, I ranked it 66/100; I think 60 is more like it now.


Friday 5: Something’s Afoot

  1. What’s the nicest pair of shoes you’ve owned?
    About fourteen years ago, I bought a rather expensive pair of shoes.  Or maybe they weren’t so expensive.  I’m kind of cheap when it comes to shoes, so I don’t know what expensive shoes are.  These were a nice pair of black dress shoes from J. C. Penney and they were about a hundred and twenty-five bucks.  They look good; I still have them.  They are in need of a good shine, though, and I haven’t worn them in maybe five or six years.  When I wear them, I usually get complimented on them.  They’re okay for what they are, but I don’t wear them unless I really need to.
  2. What’s likely to be your next shoe purchase?
    Almost certainly some athletic shoes for walking around in.  I just bought a really, really cheap pair of all-black Avias at Walmart for fifteen bucks, and they’re a lot better than I’d have expected.  They look pretty good, good enough to wear to my job interviews this past month, and they’re confortable enough.  My right foot has been a bit achey lately, and I’m wondering if it’s the shoes.  The right shoe’s been noticeably loose, but I tightened up the laces last night and it felt a lot better.
  3. Where’s your favorite place to get shoes?
    For my entire teaching career, I wore all-black Vans to work.  Teaching really dictates athletic shoes over dress shoes, no matter what they tell you about appearances.  The same is true of jeans, but both schools where I taught have been slow to embrace this fact, because apparently appearances mean more than practicality, despite very few people ever actually seeing me teach except my students, who didn’t care what was on my feet.

    So all-black Vans were a nice compromise.  They’re comfortable for most of the moving around I did, and you’d have to look closely to notice they were really skater shoes.  There used to be a Vans outlet nearby, down at the old Dole Cannery, but when it opened a new location in Waikele, where all the outlet stores are, it closed shop in town, so my go-to has been Famous Footwear.  But I do prefer the Vans store when I can get out there.

    I once bought a pair of running shoes from ESPN, back when they sold gear from the website.  They were marked down quite a bit, and I was running five days a week after work, so I kind of thought this would be the most hassle-free way to keep myself in decent shoes.  I’m thinking I will go back to online shopping for shoes in the near future.

  4. When did you last swap out the insoles or laces on a pair of shoes?
    I get insoles almost all the time now.  Since the budget dictated really inexpensive shoes this time around, I bought some gel insoles that cost about the same as the shoes, so call it about three weeks ago.  So yeah.  I’m gellin’ like a felon.  I haven’t bought laces since high school.
  5. What were the last shoes you got rid of like?
    I wore all-black New Balances for almost the whole year.  I bought them for the office when I was working in Chinatown.  They looked great, but then I no longer worked in Chinatown and didn’ t need to get dressed up, but by then I was really used to them, and they were built for activity anyway.  I Shoe-Gooed them twice to get a few extra miles out of them.  Finally had to toss them when the hard rubber sole actually wore all the way through to the foam-rubber cushion beneath.  I conservatively estimate that I put 2500 miles on them.

Know Payne

I’m having a personal Alexander Payne festival.  Started with Citizen Ruth, which I’d never seen, and followed it with About Schmidt and Election, both of which I saw but really didn’t remember.  I’ve got The Descendants and Nebraska next, both of which I remember quite well.  I really don’t need to see Sideways again, since I’ve seen it at least thirty times, but I probably will anyway.

I wasn’t aware that Payne has a few actors he likes to work with.  They’re an interesting group.  I was aware that his home state of Nebraska is the setting for several of his films (all but The Descendants and Sideways). something that definitely contributes to his aesthetic.

He’s an interesting director, and I’m enjoying revisting all this work.  I don’t think I’ve noticed yet any signature moves, although at least three of his films ends with his main character completely alone.

I was super disappointed that About Schmidt didn’t come with a director’s commentary, but there is an extensive collection of deleted scenes, with written notes by Payne, and that helped a lot with getting a grip on his thinking.  I’m hoping I’ll find time tomorrow for the commentary on Election.

Review: Citizen Ruth

Citizen Ruth (1996)
Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston, Tippi Hedren, Burt Reynolds, Alicia Witt, Diane Ladd. Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Directed by Alexander Payne.

Ruth is a single indigent woman, probably in her late twenties, arrested one day when she’s found unconscious after huffing paint. She’s been arrested many times, and has had children removed from her custody, and now the judge has had enough. He’s asking the prosecutor to try her for felony endangerment of her fetus, prophetically uttering, “I hope I’m not setting a precedent here.” Before she is sent to lockup, the judge tells her that he’ll reduce the charges if Ruth will abort the baby.

At her lowest moment, she asks God for help, and within a minute, she is joined in her holding cell by a group of anti-abortion protestors. They see Ruth’s plight and offer to take care of her, hoping to counsel her away from the abortion. Now Ruth is a symbol for a cause, but do her new friends care about her, or only about her unborn child and the message its birth will send to pro-choicers?

When she spends some time with the pro-choicers, she asks them a question they don’t have an answer for: do they still care about her freedom to choose even if she chooses to have the baby? As long as she’s not being coerced into having it, can she still be the symbol they wish her to be?

There’s a little bit of stereotyping in presenting the people on both sides of this battle, but darn it if it isn’t spot-on stereotyping. I recognize and sympathize with people in each of the camps, and if they seem a bit cartoonish, they aren’t really that exaggerated. The film doesn’t seem to take a position on either side of the debate, but it does make the point that Ruth, who can charitably be called not the brightest of women, knows a lot more about what she wants than anyone’s giving her credit for, and that in their eagerness to gain ground in this tug o’ war, they aren’t taking the time to understand the person they’re tugging at.

Citizen Ruth has a lot going for it: a thoughtful and creative script, some excellent acting by Laura Dern, and some really good laughs from unexpected places. Despite all this, it’s still a slightly unsatisfying film. For all its effort to make Ruth a real character among real people in a real social struggle, it doesn’t do very much to develop anyone else as more than a person serving a cause, except maybe the teenaged daughter of one of her pro-life patrons (Alicia Witt) and the bodyguard for her pro-choice supporters (M. C. Gainey), so that what’s really mild stereotyping comes across as full-blown, thoughtless stereotyping with no imagination. A film that begs its characters to get to know the person huffing that paint should make some effort to present those characters also as real people.

It’s still worth a look for its daring premise and for Dern’s very funny choices. This is Alexander Payne’s first full-length feature, and it feels like a starter kit for what came later, and it’s so far his only movie not to be nominated for an Academy Award. Not a great film, but promising enough.


Amy Adams Films Ranked

I haven’t seen as many as I thought I have.  The numbers following the release years are the ratings I gave them, if I gave them ratings.  That clump of 7s and 70s probably changes its order from day to day, although I feel pretty good about the higher 7s and the lower 7s.

For a while, I was only writing full reviews and bothering to rate films I saw in theaters, but of course now I’m doing it for everything I see.  I need the reviews to remind myself of what I’ve seen and what I thought about it.  It’s one of the reasons I sometimes rent films I’ve already seen; just to get another look so I can write a review and try to nail things down in my increasingly faulty memory.

I haven’t rated Junebug, which I only saw a couple of years ago, but it’s easily a 90+.  When I rented it, I watched it three or four times (once with the commentary) before sending it back.  Need to see it again.

  1. Junebug (2005)
  2. Her (2013), 84
  3. Enchanted (2007)
  4. American Hustle (2013), 81
  5. Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) 7/10
  6. The Muppets (2001), 74
  7. Julie & Julia (2009), 7/10
  8. Sunshine Cleaning (2008), 7/10
  9. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
  10. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), 73
  11. Trouble with the Curve (2012), 72
  12. The Fighter (2010) 71
  13. Man of Steel (2013), 68
  14. Leap Year (2010), 66

Review: Finding Dory

Finding Dory (2016)
Voices of Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Hayden Rolence, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, and Sigourney Weaver. Written by Victoria Strouse and Andrew Stanton. Directed by Andrew Stanton.

I can’t decide if I’m a tough audience or an easy audience for Finding Dory, Pixar’s sequel to Finding Nemo. I have an enormous bias in Pixar’s favor, but I consider the 2003 original to be the animation studio’s best work. Would my predilection predict that I would like it, or would my super-high expectations predict that I’d be disappointed?

It doesn’t matter much now, because I freaking love this movie. It’s got just about everything the first movie had. The sequel doesn’t wow me quite as much as the predecessor, but it makes up for that with an emotional punch I didn’t see coming. There’s one amazing gasp-inducing emotional payoff that comes close to the lanterns scene in Tangled or even the library scene in Beauty and the Beast. This is rarefied air I’m talking about here, a comparison I don’t make lightly.

A year after Dory helps Marlin find Nemo, she’s become something of a helper in raising the young clownfish. But with her memory problems, she’s almost as much maintenance as Nemo, ‘though she remains beloved by her community on the Great Barrier Reef. Something triggers in Dory a memory she didn’t know she had, of parents and a home. She’s determined to find her family, but she knows that without help from her friends, she can’t hope to make it any more than she can hope to remember what she’s looking for.

You would think Marlin, after everything Dory has done for him and Nemo, would be completely on board, but he’s still psychotically risk-averse, and Dory wants to go to California, so for much of her adventure, she depends on the kindness of others, mostly a seven-armed octopus who agrees to assist in exchange for something Dory can do for him.

The animation is again fantastic, although since you’ve seen a lot of it before, you’ll have to look a little harder to see where the budget went. Water is a strange, beautiful thing that behaves differently from anything else I can think of. The way it moves, the way it changes in different kinds of light, and the way other things interact with it seem impossible to represent well, so there’s a good place to start. I suspect it’s a movie that rewards multiple viewings, and I look forward to discovering more.

One of the most rewarding things about Finding Dory is how elements in this story explain some things in Finding Nemo, stuff that didn’t really need explaining but makes that movie more interesting too. This isn’t just a spin-off, continuation, or rehash, although the general story structure is very close (almost disappointingly close) to the first film’s. It’s more like the ocean is an enormous place with a million stories, and some of them have interlocking pieces which complete each other’s pictures.

I’ve never heard of a voice actor getting nominated for an acting award, and that makes all kinds of sense, but if I were part of the nominating process, I’d be tempted at least to consider Ellen Degeneres for a best actress nod. This picture could have been animated by five-year-olds, and she would have made it worth watching. This was not animated by five-year-olds, and it’s an excellent film I’d put in the lower part of Pixar’s upper tier.


Tuesday Tunes (flashback): December 8, 2009

Another one from the archives of Music Memoirs, this one from December 8, 2009.

Let’s do a winter word association, music style: I give you some words and you tell me the artist, song etc that you first think of.

snowflake:  This is going to sound weird, but the first thing I think of is that my friend Donna (one of my inspirations for starting this online journaling thing before it was called blogging; another reason this is not a blog) chronicled her very long struggle to conceive.  When she went through IVF, the little fertilized eggs they implanted in her were her “snowflakes,” and for the early stages of her pregnancy, she referred to her soon-to-be daughter as her snowflake.  And when I think of Donna and music, I always think of Stryper.

bitter:  The bitterest song I know is Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen.”

cold:  “Cold Gin” by Kiss. Ace Frehley wrote this, but in the early days of Kiss, Ace wasn’t very confident in his singing, so Gene Simmons sang it, even though Gene doesn’t drink. Ace re-recorded it for this year’s covers album, Origins, Vol. 1, maybe the last album I bought in 2016 before I had to switch into austerity mode. It’s a pretty dang good album, and Ace’s cover of his own song is a highlight. What an infectious riff.

snuggle: “We’ll snuggle close together like two birds of a feather would be.”

kind:  “Cruel to be Kind” by Nick Lowe.  A very very good song.

tree:  Wayne and Wanda, of course.

dark:  One of the greatest albums of all time, The Dark Side of the Moon.  I’ve waxed poetic about it in this space before.  Its greatness really cannot be overstated.

long:  Huh.  I wouldn’t have predicted this, but the first thing that pops into my mind is Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s “Long Time Gone.”  I can think of twenty songs with this word in the title, but this is the one I think of first.  Not really going to complain about that.  David Crosby’s lead vocals on this are some of his best.

candy:  I can’t think of anything once I think of Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy.”

special:  I have this 80s playlist in Spotify, and I spent some time adding stuff to it last night (it’s up to about 160 excellent songs).  Somehow, when I first created the playlist three years ago, I’d forgotten to include .38 Special, a band I totally loved when I was in ninth grade.  So I added some of my favorite songs by them while riding home on the bus last night.

I may have written about this before, but I got my first paying job in ninth grade, so I thought I might be able to go to my first rock concert, now that I’d be able to pay for it myself.  .38 Special was going to play, with Golden Earring opening, and I wanted so much to go!  I presented my case to my father, but I knew I was going to get a no.  It was on a school night.  My dad said he respected that I was trying to pay for my own entertainment, and all the details were in order except that he couldn’t let me go on a school night.  My parents had been consistent my whole life about school nights, so this wasn’t a shock, and I actually kind of understood.  I was prepared for no and no is what I got.  It was fine.  I saw Rush in concert a year and a half later, and I’m still proud to say that was my first show.  I think of .38 Special as almost my first concert.

Review: Star Trek Generations

Star Trek Generations (1994)
Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Malcolm McDowell, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, William Shatner. Directed by David Carson.

It was a good idea. A bridge between the Star Trek films with the original cast and a new series of films featuring The Next Generation characters should have been great. But instead of a properly nostalgic farewell to the old cast and an anointing of the new, Star Trek Generations almost forgets that it has any characters at all, and focuses instead on a lumbering, cumbersome story that sort of connects the two television series but doesn’t give us much reason to care.

The plot is so uninteresting and so horribly assembled as to defy summary, but the heart of it involves a weird extradimensional energy band—called the Nexus—that gives anyone caught within it his or her heart’s desires, a euphoria so complete that people inside never want to get out, and those who do get out yearn to get back in. One character is so obsessed with returning to the Nexus that he’s willing to destroy stars in order to shift the band’s direction so that he might get caught in it, even if doing so results in the elimination of planets and all their inhabitants.

I admire the attempt at complex story to develop complex themes. Jean-Luc Picard confronts enormous grief and the temptation of having his grief allayed. James Kirk confronts his own feelings about what he sacrificed during his long tenure as captain of the Enterprise. Commander Data is given an emotion chip so that he might be more human-like, but soon discovers that emotions are more of a handicap than a blessing. This much works, at least kind of, but it does so without real interaction among the principal characters, as if each is going through all this internal stuff alone, a construct that defies the best thing about either of these series.

Yet some of the climactic action sequences are uninteresting and too long, and we have to endure them twice for reasons best left to the viewer to discover, although I can’t really say why. Not spoiling this one element of the plot doesn’t make the film any better, but I suppose if the discover is at least somewhat interesting, I’d hate to rob anyone of that one little pleasure. Goodness knows it may be all it has to offer.

The film has one aesthetic worth examining, especially in contrast to the earliest and latest films in the canon. One of my favorite things about the reboot series is how sexy and sleek Enterprise looks. The Enterprise in this film is bulky, boxy, awkward, and graceless, and the crew’s uniforms seem built to match. They are nothing like the almost Steve-Jobs-inspired look of the unis and technology in the 2000s, a difficult thing to get used to even looking back. What a time the Eighties and Nineties were.

Thankfully, the series did not suffer as a whole because of this one subpar film. Many of the TNG films are quite good, and the reboot with the classic characters is excellent, so I’m willing to chalk this one up to a task too difficult to be completely satisfying.