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Weekly digest (2/18/11)

Happy President’s Day (i.e. three-day weekend!). I’m pretty certain this day off is what the Founding Fathers were most excited about.

  • Read it. I read Steve Martin’s new book, An Object of Beauty, which was an engaging, slightly tragic tale of art collecting in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It comes with pictures! More books should come with pictures! (Also, is there anything Steve Martin can’t do?)
  • Saw it. This might be the first time I’ve ever said this, but I like the parts of the Grammys that I caught this year! Any Dylan in my life is a good thing, and it was great to see these young bands freaking out to share a stage with him.
  • Heard it. Still very much digging Mad’s Midweek Playlist.

Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain I decided to watch because I came across the soundtrack and fell in love. The film takes place in the Civil War-era South, and as a country fan, I was immediately drawn to the stark traditional arrangements. The music in the movie was produced by T. Bone Burnett and features, among others, Jack White (who also co-starred!). It’s easy to see the bridge between the Anglo-Saxon ballads transported from England to our modern country songs today.

The movie itself is incredibly beautiful. Filmed in the mountains of Romania (where my dad is from!), director Anthony Minghella’s shots sweep over mountainous snowy vistas and lush valleys. Even knowing it was filmed elsewhere, you get the sense of how open to possibility America still was, how there really wasn’t a lay of the land to speak of (yet).

Jude Law plays Inman, a Southern man who falls in love with Ada, a preacher’s daughter (played by Nicole Kidman). I’d like to deem him Sad Hipster Jude, as he has a musician’s scraggly beard and mourning, soulful eyes (still a good look for him, though! Jude – bring back the beard!). After fighting for and deserting the Confederates, he must find his way back to Cold Mountain and his love. There’s one epic battle scene in particular that is so bloody, such a pointless loss of life on both sides, that we got to Googling and learned 30% of white Southern men perished during the Civil War. I couldn’t help but be reminded of that line from The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”: “You take what you need and you leave the rest / But they should never have taken the very best.”

Inman’s quest does bring to mind The Odyssey, which reminded me of another modern retelling of Homer with a great soundtrack – O Brother Where Art Thou. Cold Mountain does not have as much of a sense of humor as O Brother, and it certainly doesn’t have as much an interest in words. Inman and Ada’s courtship exists mainly in longing looks and one intense kiss, and the actors are forced to maintain stoic intensity that almost verges on constipation.

The supporting cast is quite strong, though. You’ll recognize Jack White, Natalie Portman, Cillian Murphy, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Renee Zellweger in the most plucky role she’s held since Bridget Jones.

Cold Mountain will certainly strike you with its impressive, if glacial, beauty, but the heart of the film was in its music. Check out a video (below). It’s worthwhile viewing and even more essential listening.



Freedom is what I’d call a meat and potatoes novel. It’s the story of a family. It’s a linear narrative. It follows traditional story arcs and takes care to develop its characters. But it does all of this in such an elevated way that you’d think your mom collaborated with a Michelin chef to prepare your favorite childhood meal: you know you’re experiencing something unique, but it also tastes like home.


The best writing illuminates sentiments that you have felt, but articulates them with such clarity that you pump your fist in the air when you recognize your self on the page, and think, “Yes! This is exactly what I too would say if I was clever enough.” Like:

By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for her choices and all her freedom was more miserable (181).

Freedom is the story of a marriage, a family, the new upper-middle class liberal America, growing old in the aughts, growing up in general. Specifically it’s the story of Walter and Patti, two college sweethearts who marry and settle down as part of the early gentrifier wave in St. Paul, Minneapolis.

I know I’m lavishing praise here, but it really is a novel to reckoned with. The sentences are crisp, the story moves with purpose, and the characters are real to any reader, not just those who personify their demographics. It’s also an angry book, raging against the state of the world as well as how today’s young people choose to engage with it:

The nation was fighting ugly ground wars in two countries, the planet was heating up like a toaster oven, and here at the 9:30, all around him, were hundreds of kids in the mold of the banana-bread-baking Sarah, with their sweet yearning, their innocent entitlement–to what? To emotion (369).

You know that term “actor’s actor?” This book is like a novel’s novel. It’s got all of the strength and wisdom of the classics with all the potent immediacy of a newspaper.


I give it up, everyone in 2010! You were right!!
(In my defense, I had was #318 on the request list for the SF Library so that is why it took me so long.)

Weekly digest (2/11/11)

I’m still under the weather, so it’ s been another mellow week. But time for weekend! On to feeling better! Huzzah! 

  • Read it. This issue of the New Yorker has a much-discussed article about Paul Haggis, the director, and his decision to leave the Church of Scientology. I heard the author Lawrence Wright on Terry Gross, and this thing was fact-checked for 5 months or something. Intense. I say heads will ROLL.
  • Saw it. I finally watched The Secret of Kells, a fantastically beautiful animated movie about the 8th century illuminated manuscript (see picture!). It was absolutely breathtaking, and all I could think about was how much FUN the animators looked like they were having.
  • Heard it. Happy Valentine’s Day from Tom Jones! The dapper Welsh crooner is over at NPR describing his favorite lurvve songs.

David Byrne @ the Castro Theatre (2/5/11)

On Saturday I saw David Byrne speak at the Castro Theatre here in San Francisco. It was the 25th anniversary of True Stories, which he starred in and directed, a movie I admit I hadn’t even heard of until I had bought tickets.

I absolutely adore David Byrne. He’s one of my cultural icons – I love what he has produced as an artist, writer, and musician, and I love what he has done with his interests and fame (promoting sustainable transportation, city planning, world musicians).

Take his blog posts, which go so much beyond the genre’s lazier elements; they are well thought-out, long, and wholly original. (If you haven’t read them, promise me you’ll start). This same philosophy can be found in  his 2009 book, Bicycle Diaries, in which he recounts his experiences biking in many of the cities he has travelled to over the past 25 years. He’s an open, good-natured reporter who assumes a similar philosophy in his reader.

I was therefore quite excited to see him speak, despite never having seen the movie. True Stories, I learned, came directly from those human interest stories buried in supermarket tabloids – the woman who wouldn’t leave her bed, the man advertising for a wife on tv, the man who hears peoples’ frequencies like a radio. It’s a quirky film, to be sure, but without some of the overtly adorable elements we’ve come to expect in so-called “indie” films.

In the movie, Byrne is both visitor and tour guide to the small town of Virgil, Texas (looking quite spiffy, I may add, in cowboy hats and bolo ties). The small town boasts some famous faces, including John Goodman in an early role, as well as some homey extras. I was most drawn in by the musical numbers, all Talking Heads songs, some sung by characters (including Goodman!) in the film. It’s an odd film, but ultimately fun and quirky.

AFter the film, there was a Q&A session, and I gotta say, I was a bit disappointed. The event was part of SF Sketchfest, so I’m not sure how much they had to promote the comedy aspect, or highlight the film history aspect, but I would have been interested in hearing Byrne speak about the process of arranging the music for the movie, or even biking in Texas.

Still, it was great to even hear him speak, and discover his movie. Here’s one of my favorite scenes, in which little kids traipse through tract homes construction sites: [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FlNafR-gJU4&feature=related]

Weekly digest (2/4/11)

I was home sick yesterday, so I got even more reading (and sleeping, and lemon tea) in than I usually do.

  • Read it. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I’d like to take a time machine back to the end of 2010, when everyone was raving about this book and I pooh-pooh’ed it. Yes, everyone! It is that good. Longer review next week.


  • Saw it. I have been rip-roaring through Battlestar Galactica and I’m ticked off at how addictive it is.

  • Heard it. The Decembrists’ The King is Dead is far twangy-ier and honky-tonkin’ than I would have expected.  It used to be streaming at NPR Music but now you can find some tracks on their website.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

Hah!!! Did you think I had graduated into sex advice or something?

No, the roomies and I caught Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). It was made in 1972, back in Allen’s Golden Age. The film is based on an actual sexual guide, but don’t worry, you won’t actually learn anything watching this one.

The movie is a series of vignettes, each answering purportedly answer a question: Why Do Some Women Have Trouble Reaching an Orgasm? What Are Sex Perverts? Do Aphrodisiacs Work? You’ll recognize a lot of the actors, including a strapping Burt Reynolds and a shockingly young Regis Philbin. I was reminded most of Monty Python sketches, both in their absurdity and affinity for male cross-dressing. Every You Always Wanted also riffs on other cinematic tropes – the Shakespearian epic, the mad scientist horror schlock, and, my favorite, Allen as the Felliniesque Italian alpha director (but still neurotic, of course).

I also wonder why there aren’t movies made like this today. Wouldn’t this be a better alternative to the shlock like Valentine’s Day? For all the boasting about living in a post-Sex and the City world, I’d say most mainstream movies have steered firmly away from adult sexual relationships – unless you want to know if sex friends can be best friends.

The internet has kindly provided a sampling of the final, and funniest, segment – What Happens During Ejaculation?


Life (by Keith Richards)

Just finished Keith Richard’s autobiography, Life. What a ride. If you’re a Stones fan at, casual or no, you’ll appreciate this behind-the-scenes look at their songwriting and recording as well as the band’s decadence and gossip. It’s juicy, that’s for sure. Can you believe him 100% of the time? Does it matter?

First thing to note – Keith’s always been about the music. When he writes about first hearing Elvis, and discovering Chicago bluesmen, and sitting with Mick in the early 1960s trying the master an American soul sound, you get that music has always been his driving force (and probably salvation). Real musicians will get more from the way he describes discovering new chord progression, and his trademark 5 chord grip, but it’s fascinating to read a master reflect on his trade. The way he tells it, the success of the Rolling Stones seemed to happen overnight. One day the band is playing little London clubs, the next stadium tours of the U.S. All Keith did was show up and write his songs.

Then again, not really. Because there’s the rest of the mythology, the parties and orgies and drugs. No hiding there. In fact, Keith brags that he remembers more than people think (although I counted at least three lost weekends in the book). He’s free about what he was using, priding himself on being able to maintain limits where others of his generation didn’t. Reading a fraction of what he put his body through, it is absolutely shocking that the man made it out alive. It must have something to do with the ways things just bounce off him. Car accidents, drug busts, prodigious abuse of all his organs – he’s as slippery as an eel.

You do get a sense about the havoc that was around him, though. I was most eager to read about the Exile on Main Street sessions, cause it’s my favorite Rolling Stones album and I totally love the imagery of recording these bluesy rock record in the basement of a villa on the French Riviera. Richards had no problem with the recording sessions, even while his bandmates would wait for hours for him to slip out a heroin-induced stupor. And the time Richards took his 7-year-old son Marlon on tour in the late 70s? The poor kid was tasked with waking up his dad right before shows because noone else could do it. (That’s a relationship that probably required some therapy).

As much as the Rolling Stones are a touring, money-making machine at this point, they really did set the standard for rock and roll excess. I’m a sucker for gossipy asides, and I totally dug his reflections on the famed, beautiful people of his acquaintance… most notably, Mr. Jagger himself. Mick didn’t come out as nasty as early reviews of the book implied. Yes, they were closer in the past. Yes, Keith pronounces judgment on his songwriter pal’s incessant need for flattery. But it’s a complicated and historied relationship, and it’s almost useless to try to describe to an outsider.

Richards manages the tricky feat of breaking down his blood drinking rockstar image while building up what he sees as his legacy – a musician. Is it odd to see a Richards family  Christmas card photo? Yes. (I wish the whole book had more photos!). He doesn’t let himself off scott-free but he doesn’t apologize either. This is it, luv. Only rock and roll, but I like it.

How bout some vintage Keith?



Weekly digest (1/28/11)

Lordy, where has January gone?! And yet Friday, I’m always happy to see your face.

  • Read it. I’ve been lugging Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life, on BART. I’ll write more next week about it, but, fact: it’s fun as a barrel of rum (and totally worth the shoulder strain).


  • Saw it. Parks and Rec deleted scenes!! (Now that it’s officially back I might post less about it. Maybe).


  • Heard it. KEXP (90.7 in Seattle) is my favorite radio station, and I listen to the Roadhouse weekly. Check out this great Roadhouse podcast, full of American roots music and you’ll get obsessed too.



Crazy Heart

As much as I like country music, there’s no way I’d want my life to mirror a country song. (Related side note: wondering which song fits your life best? Check out Mad’s awesome infographic!! I helped!).There’s a sense of inevitability in country music – you’re never going to find a happy ending to a sad country song.
Crazy Heart is the sad country song of Bad Blake, played by Jeff Bridges, telling the story of a man forced to come to terms with a lifetime of bad decisions. And really, when you make your living composing ballads about rough and rowdy ways, why should a cowboy be expected to settle down?
Bridges won an Oscar for his performance, and Bad’s sins certainly are firmly established in Bridges’ lined face and sagging belly. It’s almost a dark coda to the Dude of the Big Lebowski, if being irresponsible finally caught up to him. Colin Farrell, who suffered through some blockbuster humdingers in the past few years, was a real revelation as Bad’s successful, polished protegee Tommy Sweet. Both actors do their own singing, actually to the benefit of the soundtrack.
The film nicely captures the wideness of the American South while contrasting it with the claustrophobic nature of Bad’s hotel room benders. You see the real beauty in the open road, but its temptations too. Tommy Sweet drinks bottled water and plays sold-out stadiums; Bad chugs whiskey and plays bowling alleys.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the single mother who trusts Bad too early and almost becomes Mrs. Blake the sixth. The May-December redemptive storyline is a bit pat, even with Gyllenhaal and Bridges playing nicely against each other.
Crazy Heart is not an easy movie to watch. Can a man like Bad Blake change?  As Robert Duvall’s character tells Bad, when it comes to doing the right thing, “It’s never too late, son.”
Check out Ryan Bingham, a great country songwriter who produced the soundtrack, sing the theme song, “The Weary Kind”:[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIJTU9iY2iA&feature=related]