Archive | May, 2013

Film review monthly: May 2013

31 May

As always I write these assuming you’ve seen the movies I’m writing about. All kinds of stuff gets spoiled.

In the House
This was an interesting concept, but it didn’t quite hit the way it could have. I thought it was going to take a turn into creepy thriller territory, but that didn’t really happen. I enjoyed it I guess, but I was hoping for more. Fabrice Luchini was the star, he was OK. I recognized him from last year’s Potiche. Now, I didn’t see Potiche. However, I did see the trailer like eight times. Landmark Cinemas was pushing that one hard. Kristin Scott Thomas was good. Kind of disorienting to see American/British actors in foreign-language films. I wish I had a French friend so I could ask if her performance was convincing.

A lot of the action takes place in a high school, and there were two noteworthy things there. One was the shameless use of the “talking teacher interrupted by the bell and all the students hurriedly pack up their stuff and leave as the teacher flails to get them to listen to what he’s saying” trope. This situation is beyond unrealistic. It’s one of those things that exists in the reality of the movies but not real life. I’ve never experienced it once in my many many years of schooling. There was also a creative shot/scene/something of photos of the school’s students, broken into a Brady Bunch-style grid. I thought that was great.

The Great Gatsby
I liked this movie. I liked it a lot. I think that’s because I went with the idea that the movie wouldn’t match the book and would be different from the book and I should just accept it for what it was. It wasn’t perfect and it had a lot of flaws, but the parts of it that landed were better than I had hoped for.

Making Gatsby into a movie is different than adapting almost any other book. It might be the only case where the majority of people seeing the movie have actually read the source material.* Most screenwriters don’t have to worry about being faithful to the book or changing the book etc., because no one reads books so no one seeing the movie will notice or care. The way Baz Luhrmann dealt with that was to use a lot of actual text from the book in the movie. I thought that was a great idea. However. The way that idea was executed was embarrassingly terrible. Having Tobey Maguire just read excerpts from the book as voiceover would have been fine. Inventing the whole sanatorium/Nick Carraway writing the book angle was dumb and unnecessary. Again, embarrassingly terrible is my feeling about it. It’s a movie. You can just have a voiceover narration with no explanation. There’s nothing wrong with that. Also, there was some condensing/editing of the text. They chopped off the end of the first sentence of the book. I was dumbfounded. That’s like the most famous opening sentence around. That really took me out of it. Someone should publish a concordance or something so I can watch the movie with the book on hand when it’s available on DVD/Blu-Ray/Netflix/whatever people will be using to watch movies at home in six months.

*I guess The Lord of the Rings might also fit the category.

I didn’t like the 3D. I don’t like 3D in general. It can work in an Avatar situation, where the whole movie is unambiguously computer-generated. In a movie like Gatsby it feels artificial. Every 3D thing has a metallic kind of sheen on it. Yuck. I will say that going in I was looking forward to Leonardo DiCaprio throwing shirts into the audience. They even staged that scene so he was throwing the shirts off a balcony. It was cool, I guess. Didn’t really live up to expectations. Plus the obviously computer-generated parts seemed really out of place. I’m thinking of Nick’s house in particular, which looked like something out of a fairy tale. Ridiculous.

The parts that worked for me were the really exuberant, over-the-top Jazz Age things. The best example was the scene where Tom and Nick go into the city and have a party at the apartment with Myrtle et al. The slow-mo, the music, the champagne. Just great. I think you have to let go of your inner literary snob and allow yourself to be sucked in, but that’s on you, not the movie. The climactic scene at the Plaza was similarly well done. Some of the other visuals were also on point. The Valley of Ashes in particular was compelling. Gatsby’s parties were also high points. As was the scene at Nick’s where Gatsby meets Daisy. The abundance of flowers was an unexpected little visual grenade that I enjoyed. OH. AND. The shot of of the black guys with the white chauffeur on the bridge. Bumping Jay-Z. That image is straight from the book and it was totally unexpected and jarring and just a beautiful moment.

I want to talk about the shot that introduces Gatsby. The shot where he turns around to face the camera in slow motion, smiling, as “Rhapsody in Blue” blasts in the background. It was right on the border between awesome and ludicrous. It made me laugh out loud. I’ll need to see it again before I decide whether it was good or not, but I’m glad it was there.

I came away impressed with the cast. I knew Mr. DiCaprio would be great. There will never be a better choice to play Gatsby than the 2013 version of Leonardo DiCaprio. I don’t know if I can explain it in words. You just have to see him on screen doing it. He’s probably the number one thing this movie has going for it, which is good, because a bad casting choice there would have sunk the whole thing. Tobey Maguire acquitted himself well. I’ve never really been a fan of his, but he had a good handle on Nick. He has a face whose default expression is a kind of boyish wonder, which really suited the role. Joel Edgerton was perfect as Tom. I’d never heard of him before, but kudos. And I have some nice things to say about Carey Mulligan. Credit where credit was due. I went in already angry with her for being in the movie. I thought, “How in the world could you make a Great Gatsby movie and not cast Michelle Williams as Daisy?” It seemed to me like a fatal error. While I think we’d all admit that Ms. Williams would have been the best choice for Daisy (or any film role, really), Ms. Mulligan was great. Daisy’s a hard role. There’s not a lot of dialog to work with, just a lot of expressions and reacting. Her introduction shot was also really creative. The fingers hanging over the back of the couch. Loved it.

She already has the haircut for Christ's sake

She already has the haircut for Christ’s sake

Let’s discuss music. Lots of music. It played an important role in things. More so than in most movies. I’m kind of conflicted about it. Sitting in the theater, here in 2013, I thought having hip-hop in the soundtrack was a great idea. The movie is set in 1922. Jazz music composed in 1922 was as transgressive then as rap is now. Probably more so, even. Now, though, it just sounds quaint. It’s impossible to capture the excitement etc. of the parties and what have you with period music. The places where Mr. Luhrmann inserted rap songs were well-selected. They punched in the right places. Now, I do think that kind of in-the-now modernism will ultimately hurt the movie’s reputation. In twenty or thirty years, the soundtrack will sound dated and it will really take away from the movie. Imagine if the 1974 Gatsby adaptation had used funk songs or something. That just sounds ridiculous. Although I haven’t seen that version and by all accounts it was boring and stilted and pretty blah. Maybe that would have at least made it memorable. We’ll see what happens with this version. I also felt odd about the “Rhapsody in Blue” use. I know this is nitpicky, but it was composed two years after the movie takes place. It seemed like a “period” selection, and it was technically incorrect in that sense. I would have liked either all pre-1922 and post-2002 songs, or a wider variety of music from different time periods. I liked the Lana Del Rey song. I like her in general. I can’t believe they didn’t use “National Anthem” instead. That would have been just a perfect song for this movie. Perfect.

Listen to the lyrics and tell me it doesn’t match this movie as well as any song not written specifically for the movie possibly could

Costumes and cars: both great. Glad they stuck with the famous pink Gatsby suit. I also especially liked Nick’s tweeds. Everyone was generally attired in an interesting and appealing way. The big yellow Duesenberg was cool. Not really accurate to the book, but who cares. I thought they did a good job picking and choosing which of the little details to copy straight from the book. One interesting note: a careful viewing of the credits reveals that the cars were from the garage of hack comedian and historical car enthusiast Jay Leno.

One sentence review: Go see The Great Gatsby and have fun and don’t care if it doesn’t fit your personal vision of what a Gatsby movie should be.

Stories We Tell
This seemed like a pretty experimental kind of movie. A documentary by Sarah Polley about her family. And her biological father, and how his identity was and wasn’t a secret for her whole childhood. The structure and narrative format were both interesting. Ms. Polley did a good job building drama and judiciously doling out plot points.

It was also an interesting commentary about how we tell stories, and where individual people fit into the larger stories of our lives. It was funny/odd/kind of heartbreaking to watch Ms. Polley’s biological father telling her that he thought the whole thing was his story to tell and his alone, when the movie made it pretty clear that that wasn’t the case. Ms. Polley’s a good director. Take this Waltz was one of the more interesting movies of last year, and she seemed pretty assured in controlling the flow here. I would think a documentary is a much different moviemaking process than a fiction narrative, but I was impressed. The way she used old home movie footage and pictures and reënactments was creative. I’m not usually a reënactment fan. Their proliferation has been the death knell of the History Channel and American Experience. You have to be really really careful if you’re going to put them in your documentary. I’ll give them a hesitant approval in Stories We Tell. That’s as high a praise as I’ll ever give.

Room 237
I did not like this. At all. Very disappointed. I had pretty high hopes. The concept seems foolproof: A bunch of nuts describing their outlandish theories about The Shining. In practice, it just doesn’t work. This should have been a fifteen-minute short. Each of the aforementioned nuts had about three minutes of interesting things to say. After that it was simply boring. It seemed like the director was just indulging these guys and letting them ramble far past the point where they were saying things that could be worthwhile even for the purpose of mocking. It was like listening to a bunch of stoned teenagers talk about conspiracy theories. Unless you’re also a stoned teenager with a conspiracy theory, it’s just profoundly uninteresting.

Frances Ha
Joke review: Girls: The Movie! In black and white! With Adam Driver even!

OK for real now. There’s a lot to like here, but there’s also a lot not to like. The characters and relationships are worthwhile, but the story and setting just felt so unoriginal. Are people outside of Manhattan and certain sections of Brooklyn not worth dramatizing? That’s a definite feeling I get from a lot of entertainment people. It’s growing, and it’s tiresome. Set this movie anywhere else and it would have been a lot more interesting for me. I thought there were three really vibrant segments of this movie. They were in Sacramento, Paris, and Poughkeepsie.* The New York parts were OK, but the best thing about them were things that could have taken place anywhere. Good acting performances/direction for the most part. I like Greta Gerwig and I like Noah Baumbach.

*The Paris sequence was particularly good. Maybe French people would find it as tiresome as I found the New York stuff, but I’ve seen a lot of movies set in Paris and I liked it. It was interesting to watch especially with regard to the French New Wave influence I mentioned earlier. Kind of a cool little nod.

Dana Stevens mentioned the French New Wave influence in her review, and while that seems obvious in places, the story really devolves into boring Hollywood convention. Frances gets her shit together and everything works out for her in the end. Yuck. I wish they had gone for a less hopeful or more ambiguous ending. More about this in the Sacramento discussion below.

There were a lot of interesting character scenes. Frances and Sophie right at the beginning, some of the stuff with Frances/Lev/Benji, the dinner party, the Paris diversion, and the Vassar stuff. I wish they had focused more on that and less on plot things.

I thought the scenes of Frances visiting her parents in Sacramento really popped, although wish it had been less montagey. Maybe it’s because it was one of the relatively few movie stories that I can very directly relate to. Being in your twenties with your life in a state of collapse and going home to visit your parents. It’s an experience that vacillates wildly between tremendously comforting/reassuring and horribly depressing. I thought the movie did a good job capturing that. When Frances was waving wistfully at her parents at the airport, I was thinking the movie would end with Frances moving back for good. Too bad they didn’t do it that way. It seemed lazy and kind of implausible for her to all of a sudden be a budding successful choreographer in New York. I’d rather have seen a Sacramento ending or Frances staying at Vassar in some emotionally ambiguous capacity or doing something unexpected or weird or anything other than what actually happened.

I don’t know. This all might not make much sense. It’s hard to separate a discussion of Frances Ha from a discussion of the larger cultural space that it inhabits. That cultural space is so small and any exploration of it seems so limited and navel-gazing that it’s hard for me to embrace it and take it seriously on its own terms. There was one noteworthy spot when the movie touched on this. Frances was calling herself poor and Benji responded with something like “Don’t call yourself poor. It’s an insult to actual poor people.” THAT was interesting. The conflict between hipsters and the working poor in urban spaces and gentrification etc. is an idea I’d like to see a movie about. I don’t think that’ll ever happen though.

The New Yorker: May 27, 2013

29 May

I usually think of TNY as consisting of three parts: the front, middle, and back. The front is Goings On About Town and Talk of the Town. Middle is reporting and fiction. Back is everything after the fiction–The Critics, as it’s called in the Table of Contents. I’m mostly dividing my recap into those three parts this week.

Cover
I like the drawing, and a brief Googling reveals another Ana Juan cover from 2008 that is very good, but this one doesn’t do it for me. A little too current events, a little too New York. Maybe “a little too New York” is a dumb complaint to make of a magazine called The New Yorker, but I just saw Frances Ha yesterday and I’m a little New Yorked out right now. Sorry.

Front
I only read the blurbs in Goings On About Town. Sometimes they’re interesting, sometimes they’ll be about an artist or musician or something that I’ll seek out more info on as a result. Not this week. Anti-global warming Comment by Elizabeth Kolbert. I generally find the Comment to be worthless. Standard liberal whatever–nothing that’s ever interesting or thought-provoking. The very definition of preaching to the choir.* Other than that, a banner week for Talk. I liked the thing about Arne Svenson, a photographer who surreptitiously took pictures of people in the apartment building across the street from him and collected them into a gallery show. He was then “surprised and upset” to find that the people in the building didn’t want to be secretly photographed in their homes by a stranger. Amazing. The other two shorts were also enjoyable.

*I assume conservatives read The Dallasite or something instead of TNY.

Middle
The best piece this week was George Packer’s Reporter at Large about politics and Silicon Valley. What really interested me was the discussion of how tech jillionaires affect the local character of San Francisco. From where I sit (Oakland) they have an almost wholly negative influence. SF has two kinds of people: rich douchebags and homeless people. I don’t think I would enjoy living there even if I could afford to. There’s some fun stuff to do there, but I don’t feel a need to cross the bay more than once a month or so. One fact Mr. Packer cites is that the black population of SF has shrunk to less than 4%. That’s amazing. I can’t imagine there’s another major American city even close to that. I won’t be able to say anything here that improves on the article. Well worth reading. If you can’t read it, the takeaway is this: Computer types in the Bay genuinely seem to think they’re heroes for revolutionizing the world and society with their smartphone app that lets you order sushi from home and have absolutely no larger perspective about anything.

Jeffrey Toobin on stop-and-frisk was good as usual. One of the best things about TNY is their stable of beat-ish journalists who are both interesting writers and have genuine expertise (Jerome Groopman and Atul Gawande on medicine are probably the best example).

I said earlier I was New Yorked out right now, but I make an exception for Tad Friend’s story about a local real-estate scam artist. I try not to do summary, but I can’t resist. Kind-of-but-not-really famous photographer rents an apartment. He gets into financial distress. He agrees to sublet his apartment to dozens of different people on Craigslist. He meets some of them. Some of them try to move in. He manages to mostly evade them and abscond with many thousands of dollars. There’s a lengthy process involving a lot of people and housing court and regular court and his dupes and his landlord and his dog. He’s eventually sent to jail. Great read.

I like when they do a Portfolio. I do wish they’d have more images. These felt like the kind of photos you’d see 3’x4’ prints of in a museum. Hard to capture that in a magazine, so why bother trying? I thought the goose was the best.

Fiction
The gimmicky format stuff can be dicey. I didn’t think this one really worked.

Back
Sort of interesting Daft Punk review. I guess they are a big cultural force now. When did that happen? I like two Daft Punk videos. Maybe not like. Captivated by in a difficult-to-explain way.

They used to play this video on The Box a lot. Nothing about the 90s seems more hopelessly quaint than The Box.

I guess this isn’t an official Daft Punk video. Whatever.

Apparently there is a neverending stream of Dante translations on the market. As you might guess, there are a lot of ways to translate rhyming verse from medieval Italian. Some of them tend to the ridiculous, apparently. Also some fun notes on the latest Dan Brown novel, which seems to be sort of about the Divine Comedy.

I haven’t yet seen either of the movies reviewed by David Denby this week. Just as well.

Cartoons
Improperly drawn striped tie on page 64. You’d think everyone at America’s WASPiest publication would wear a striped rep tie every day and could therefore draw one correctly. I bet cartoons in the 50s had correctly drawn tie stripes.

Caption Contest entry
“Hey, you can fly!”

The New Yorker: May 20, 2013

22 May

A lot of athletes talk about overcoming adversity. It’s pretty much the standard template through which they view themselves. If the Heat win the NBA title this year, you can be assured that LeBron James will mention all the adversity the team overcame. The whole thing has gotten to the point of laughable bullshit. But not here at TPY. Readers, I have truly and legitimately overcome adversity to bring you this week’s eagerly anticipated New Yorker recap.

What was this adversity? Just about the most adverse thing that could happen to the magazine recap writer: I lost my copy of the magazine. Maybe lost isn’t the right word. I know exactly where it is. In the dumpster at the Vietnamese deli where I left it on Monday. Or maybe it’s still on the table at the deli. Who knows. The point is, I had to read much of this week’s issue online and at the library. I persevered. I showed both the heart and will of a champion. And here are my thoughts about last week’s New Yorker.

May 20, 2013

This was one of the magazine’s occasional theme issues. “The innovators issue”. I’m not a huge fan of this concept. It generally entails having all the articles vaguely about the same topic and there are five or six short pieces on the theme by guest writers. Those are sometimes interesting, but are usually too short to make much of an impact. My biggest complaint about TNY is that it’s become formulaic in a lot of ways, and the theme issues are often the most formulaic of all. I read In Cold Blood recently. It was originally serialized in four parts in TNY. Those are four pretty long parts. Hard to imagine them doing something like that today. Just as one example. So my advice: scrap the theme weeks and do something actually different or unusual.

Talk of the Town
Nothing too interesting this week. James Surowiecki made an appearance. The Financial Page is the only thing I read anymore on that topic. He’s good.

Seems like sort of a waste to have Susan Orlean contribute a throwaway thing about treadmill desks. When I saw her name in the Table of Contents, I was hoping for something substantive and long. Oh well. Treadmill desks are an innovation or something I guess. A not-very-interesting one.

The best piece of the week was Ian Frazier on packaging materials made out of mushrooms. This is apparently a thing and it was fascinating to read about. I always confuse Ian Frazier with Ian Parker. Ian is one of those names that’s uncommon enough to be memorable, which is a curse when you have two contributors named Ian because they become difficult to tell apart. I don’t think the problem would be as severe if they were named Joe or something.

Anytime I read anything about online security, I become more and more convinced we’re headed toward some kind of hacker-induced global catastrophe. I don’t know if it’s possible to write about the topic without sounding like a doomsayer, but it must be hard because there are a lot of doomsayers out there. One of the reasons I try to keep my online profile as low as possible. That’s probably not much help to me in the upcoming catastrophe but at least it makes me feel like I’m doing something proactive.

The kite-powered wind energy piece was forgettable except for the fact that the company being profiled is headquartered in Alameda. On the decommissioned Navy base there. Sounds like they set up shop in some existing buildings. That whole site needs to be redeveloped. PRIME real estate. It would make an awesome park. A world-famous kind of park. Bay views etc. What landscape architect wouldn’t want a crack? Get cracking, Alameda.

Incredible civic opportunity

Incredible civic opportunity

I really enjoyed Nathan Heller on MOOCs. A MOOC is a massive open online course. These are all the rage at places like Harvard. A lot of inchoate opportunities and problems in the whole thing. It’ll be interesting to see where it is in five years. One issue Mr. Heller raised was the gap between elite universities and non-selective universities, and how MOOCs offered by elite universities relate to that gap. As an alumnus of one of the elites, it’s hard to think of students at Sacramento State or wherever claiming the same education as me. It requires putting away the snobbery I feel is my birthright. I say that mostly as a joke. I do think the MOOC concept is great, but I don’t know how it fits into an actual university curriculum. A few years ago I went through a Yale game theory course on Academic Earth. There was no grading or homework or anything, I just watched the lectures at my leisure. It was great just as a topic that interested me. I don’t think I would have done it if I had had to do reading or take tests etc.

Reading about new trends in dementia care is depressing. I’m glad someone’s working hard to improve dementia care I suppose.

I did not enjoy this week’s fiction. Sometimes TNY stories start slow and take a couple pages to grab me. This one never did. Not much there. Maybe it just went over my head. That’s always my fear. My guess is the magazine didn’t love this story, was sitting on it, and ran it this week because it had a tenuous connection to the theme.

One thing I sometimes skip is TV reviews because I’m chronically behind on TV and I want to avoid spoilers. So I kind of skimmed the thing about Mad Men. Didn’t seem to say anything new, honestly.

A Critic at Large is usually a highlight. This week’s article about empathy and society was interesting. They always have something interesting in that spot.

Always exciting to see Anthony Lane’s name in the Table of Contents. Reading his pans is always fun. The new Star Trek movie this week. I wonder if he decides to write about bad movies on his own or if TNY assigns them because they know he’s good at it. Some good thoughts about Stories We Tell. I agree with his overall assessment there, but some of his smaller points kind of lost me. That was an unusual movie. Definitely recommended.

Nothing notable in the theme week pieces. Gary Shteyngart and Mindy Kaling had the best ones. They always get big names for these. TNY has pull. They could be doing so much more with said big names. Not a great week for cartoons. The Napoleon one on page 102 made me laugh. That one was actually terrific.

Caption contest entry
“If you push a stroller instead of a rock you can feel smug instead of frustrated.”

Kansas City

21 May

I visited Kansas City once for twoish days. I was there to audition for a game show. I was surprised at how much I liked the place. A hidden gem of a city. I’d be happy to visit again sometime. Not in the summer though. I went in June and it was very hot and very humid. Yuck. I drove down from Minneapolis on Sunday and drove back on Tuesday. I tried to plan things so I would have some free time on Sunday and Tuesday. I also had Monday afternoon free. It was an action-packed trip. I know how to take a mini-vacation. I’d be a natural at writing that “36 Hours in…” column in the New York Times. I’m even going to copy the format here to prove it.* I tend to spend a lot less time at trendy restaurants and nightspots than NYT writers. I do spend a lot more time doing stuff that’s better than that, like driving around aimlessly and walking around aimlessly. Maybe they will read this and hire me.

*But I’m not going to copy their braindead and idiotic style of travel writing. I just don’t have it in me.

SUNDAY

3:30 p.m.
1. Look at art

The Nelson-Atkins Museum in KC is a legit museum. Much more so than you would think of a museum in a mid-size Midwestern city. They have an impressive collection of Asian art* and a downright respectable European collection. When I was there they even had one of Monet’s huge water lily triptychs in on loan. The museum is laid out like so many others these days–a terrific old Beaux-Arts building and a sleek modernist addition on the back. This is hardly my favorite thing, but it works here better than most places because the two are physically separated with a tunnel between them. The look of two distinct buildings instead of one hulking mishmash is far superior. Plus there’s a really terrific garden/open space in the front dotted with sculptures. Just a really pleasant feel to the whole thing. The Nelson-Atkins people should be commended.

*I just made a quick run through those galleries. I didn’t have nearly as much time as I would have liked, but I wasn’t about to get up super-early to drive seven hours. Not my style.

The Oldenburg/van Bruggen shuttlecocks are a nice touch

The Oldenburg/van Bruggen shuttlecocks are a nice touch

5 p.m.
2. Take a nap in your hotel room

After a day of driving and walking around a museum you deserve some rest.

7 p.m.
3. Eat at a famous barbecue restaurant

KC is famous for its barbecue. Specifically for a regional specialty–burnt ends. These are what they sound like. Charred, crispy, fatty ends of a smoked brisket. Served on a sandwich. The kind of sandwich you eat with a fork and use the bread to sop up BBQ sauce. This is a delicious food item that everyone should eat. This particular night I ate it at Gates BBQ. There are several Gates locations. I didn’t go to the original, but I’m sure the location I visited is just as good. Because it was fucking spectacular.

Yum

I enjoyed eating this

8 p.m.
4. Watch the NBA Finals in your hotel room

Just for reference, we’re in 2011. This was the final game, in which the Mavs dispatched the Heat and there was much mocking of LeBron James.

9 p.m.
5. Iron your pants for your game show audition and go to bed early

It’s important to look good and get plenty of rest.

MONDAY

9 a.m.
6. Audition for a game show

When you arrive at a nice hotel for this purpose, it’s impossible not to feel like a big shot. If only passersby knew how smart you are. If only you could stop all of them and tell them about it.

12:30 p.m.
7. Eat at a lunch counter that hasn’t changed in many decades

Town Topic Hamburgers is my kind of place. It’s old, cheap, a little run down, and has about ten seats. Really good food to boot. The kind of burgers that people who run websites about burgers gush about. 10/10.

You can tell it's good just by looking at it

You can tell it’s good just by looking at it

1 p.m.
8. Walk around for awhile

KC has a huge park complex that’s mostly dedicated to a World War I memorial. There’s a big tower in it but it was closed so I couldn’t go to the top. It’s kind of odd to think about such a big piece of real estate for a WWI memorial in a seemingly random place. And it’s apparently like the official national WWI memorial. I don’t think most Americans even know it’s there. I didn’t.

I didn't take this picture but I promise I stood on this very spot

This picture looks like it’s from the tower or maybe just the hill the tower is on I don’t know it’s hard to tell

4 p.m.
9. Drive around for awhile

KC’s pretty well-organized. They brag about having a lot of boulevards and fountains, and they should brag. It’s a really pretty urban environment. In the pretty places, at least. I swung through a bad neighborhood, same as all bad neighborhoods in non-major cities. That is, not very dense but immediately recognizable as the place where poor people live. I also went out to Kauffman Stadium and Arrowhead stadium. The Royals weren’t in town. Too bad, I’d have liked to go to a game. Also too bad that the stadiums are in their own little parking lot-enclosed world, which was closed, so I couldn’t get up close. I also made a little detour to Kansas City, Kansas. I wanted to see what that was about. I also wanted to cross Kansas off the list of states I’ve visited. Check.

Building stadiums in out-of-the-way locations in a sea of parking lots is a dumb idea

Building stadiums in an out-of-the-way location in a sea of parking lots is a dumb idea

6 p.m.
10. Walk around more and eat a sandwich described as very good on the internet

After I parked back at my hotel, I checked out the nearby Country Club Plaza. I heard much hype about this place. Its basically a big outdoor upscaleish mall. Meh. I headed up to the Westport neighborhood, which I guess is like the hip spot in town. Hard to tell since there are a lot fewer conspicuously hip people in the Midwest than on the coasts. Stereotype confirmed. I had dinner at the Westport Flea Market Bar & Grill. I might be a regular if I lived in KC. Seems like they do a good happy hour business and it was a pretty diverse crowd. Executive types and bros and families and hipsters and nondescript Midwesterners. I had a chicken panini something that’s supposed to be famous. It was really good. Pretty good beer selection too. I was fairly dehydrated from walking around a lot since it was 90 degrees or so. I had a large quantity of water instead of beer.

Cool truck bro

Cool truck bro

9 p.m.
11. Dick around in your hotel room and go to bed early

I was fucking exhausted.

TUESDAY

9 a.m.
12. Look at modern art

When you go to a small museum in a medium size city at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday, you will be the only person there who isn’t part of an elementary school field trip. The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art is a solid museum for its size and scope. They even had a pretty good Tina Barney print. The Bridesmaids in Pink. Tina Barney is great. My favorite contemporary artist.

I love you Tina Barney

I love you Tina Barney

10:30
13. Learn about baseball history

KC is home to both the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum. As much as I would have liked to hear all about the corners in KC where Charlie Parker scored heroin, I only had time for one. The NLBM was good, not great. A lot of educational material, but not a lot of artifacts. I like artifacts. I wish there had been more. It’s a rather small space, maybe that’s a consideration. I felt like a lot of it could have just been put in a book. There were a couple good video things.

11:30
14. Eat at an even more famous barbecue restaurant

My last stop was an early lunch at Arthur Bryant’s. This is probably the most famous of the local BBQ joints. And it is a joint. In a brick building. Old linoleum floors and cheap tables/chairs/silverware. Food served on trays cafeteria style. Just great. I loved it. Burnt ends weren’t as good as Gates, honestly. Better sauce though. I bought a bottle to bring home for my parents. Us Northerners aren’t used to good BBQ sauce. Thin and vinegary instead of thick and molassesy. I much prefer the former. Good BBQ is probably the best reason to move to KC or any point southeast of KC.

YES

YES

LODGING

The Holiday Inn-Country Club Plaza is the perfect place for a broke traveler cashing in frequent flyer miles. A really good location actually. Right next to the two art museums and walking distance to a lot of good stuff.

The New Yorker: May 13, 2013

16 May

I’m proud to introduce a new feature here at TPY: The weekly New Yorker review. When I started writing this here blog, one thing I wanted to do was pick a TV show and write weekly recaps, which seems de rigueur among bloggers. I didn’t want to be left out. That proved difficult since I don’t have cable or a DVR and as a result I don’t watch any TV shows on a regular weekly schedule, especially not on their original airdates. That makes recapping them sort of pointless. But I just had a great idea. Instead of a weekly TV recap, I’ll do a weekly magazine recap. As far as I know, I am the inventor of this idea. The very first person to do this ever in the history of blogs. As far as I know. The only magazine I subscribe to is The New Yorker. I read it cover to cover every week and I love it. So every Thursday or maybe Wednesday night I will write my thoughts about the preceding week’s issue. I don’t know how I’ll do it exactly. Maybe it’ll be different every week. This will require me to finish every issue in a week. I hope I can manage that. I also hope New Yorker subscribers from around the world will find my recaps and read them. My expectation is that they’ll only be read by people who google “David Denby sucks” or something. That’s fine too. At the very least this will allow me to share my very droll caption contest entries with the world.

The New Yorker: May 13, 2013

Cover
A little on the nose for me. I don’t like the current events covers, and I don’t like the straightforward cartoony illustration style. Last week’s was much better.

Talk of the Town
I enjoyed Ian Parker’s thing about Victor Navasky and The Nation. The highlight was the anecdote about a Henry Kissinger cartoon. One of the drawbacks of reading a hard copy of the magazine is that you can’t look at the cartoon in question as you’re reading. I present it here as a public service.

HA

HA

The Ethan Hawke/Before Midnight piece caught my attention. This will be the third installment of the series, and there was mention of a possibility to continue revisiting the two main characters every decade or so going forward. I wrote about that very idea vis à vis John Updike and Rabbit Angstrom a while back. I wholeheartedly encourage that idea and I hope they do it.

Shouts & Murmurs is always so hit-or-miss. It’s such a standard template at this point that sometimes it can run together week to week, but every now and then there’s something really good. This week was a satire something about Gwyneth Paltrow. Meh. Her public persona is polarizing apparently. I don’t have very strong feelings. My main thought about her is that when she first started out she was almost impossibly pretty. Seven/Talented Mr. Ripley era. I should see Shakespeare in Love. I wonder if it’s good.

A profile of a professional backgammon hustler named Falafel? Yes please. This is the kind of thing I love about magazine writing. It wasn’t particularly long or notable for its style or format, but it would be hard to write a bad article about the world of underground backgammon hustlers (two of Falafel’s compatriots are the Bone and the Croc). Backgammon’s apparently a lot more complex than I would have thought. I wish there had been more about the technical side of things–computers and probabilities and what have you. The picture of Falafel was great. A little sad but not too sad.

Most of my Middle East knowledge comes from reporting in The New Yorker. They’ve really gone all-in there in the last couple years. Sometimes I feel like it’s overkill. It makes me feel like a bad person for not caring that much about the whole situation. Reading these things mostly just makes me feel hopeless about it all.

Page 54-55 features the two best cartoons of the week. I don’t think there’s a formula for good New Yorker cartoons. Sometimes they grab me and sometimes they don’t. Maybe in the future I’ll rank all the cartoons. That seems like a lot of work.

I enjoyed the fiction this week. Sometimes it can seem like a chore, but kudos to Fiona McFarlane. Amazon.com calls her a “major new writer”. Her first novel comes out this fall. I put it on my list.

David Denby’s Great Gatsby review totally missed the mark. Missing the mark is sort of Mr. Denby’s trademark. I don’t even want to get into this one. He comes off as stuffy and elitist and just yuck. Obviously he isn’t in Baz Luhrmann’s target demographic, but you think he would realize that and be able to see the movie from a wider perspective. I thought it was unnecessary and cruel and not even really true to note that Carey Mulligan is “not elegantly beautiful”. What a dick.

Caption contest entry
“I just like giraffes, OK?”

Comedy writing

9 May

Jimmy: Steve, this is my old friend Holden. Holden, Steve.

Steve: Pleasure to meet you Holden. You know, you don’t see too many Holdens around these days.

Holden: Yeah, my parents were big Sunset Boulevard fans.

Steve: Huh?

Holden: Yeah, personally I thought All About Eve was the better film, but they don’t let you name yourself.

 

Yesterday I looked up A Mighty Wind on imdb. The third result for that particular search is a 1993 short called I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney. I naturally clicked on the link for that short. The director? Ben Affleck. Wow. I looked at Ben Affleck’s page. He was in Chasing Amy. In that movie he played a character named Holden. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if your name was Holden but instead of Holden Caulfield you were actually named after William Holden?” This is just how easy it is to write comedy. String together 90 minutes of gems like this, and I’ll have a hit bigger than The Hangover.

My parents came to visit last weekend

6 May

Last weekend my parents came to visit. I hadn’t seen them since I moved to California last year. They were pretty excited about the whole thing. And they should have been excited. Visiting me would be exciting for anyone. I’m going to go ahead and give a weekend recap just to give everyone a taste of what awaits you if you’re in your 60s and decide to visit me in the most exciting city in America.*

*This post might end up being really really boring.

Thursday
My parents wanted to see me, but they also wanted to see some sights, because why fly across the country if you’re not going to see some famous bridges and stuff? So on Thursday we set out for San Francisco.

First stop, the de Young museum. I should write a full review of said museum, because I know how much blog readers love reviews of museums in cities where they don’t live. It’s a pretty good museum. There was an exhibition of Dutch paintings on display, including Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, a painting so good it was made into a movie. When you’re a family of Dutch descent, a display of Dutch paintings in a museum called the de Young is a no-brainer. They even had Grolsch in the museum café. We had lunch in said café. A lot better than expected. The museum’s in Golden Gate Park. There aren’t any good places to eat there. This is a shame, since SF has countless highly-regarded food trucks. Can none of them park in the park? (HA see what I did there.) There are only a couple scattered hot dog carts. Seems like a no-brainer. The de Young also has a really cool observation deck, which is only nine stories up but has a more or less unobstructed view of most of the city. Mom and Dad enjoyed that.

I think Herzog & de Meuron are the only architects allowed to design museums now

I think Herzog & de Meuron are the only architects allowed to design museums now

Adjacent to the museum is the Japanese Tea Garden. Mom and Dad were big fans. There are a lot of plants/flowers/trees in this garden. Both of my parents love plants/flowers/trees. They spent much of the weekend pointing out various kinds of plants that don’t grow in Minnesota. That seemed like their favorite part of the trip sometimes.

There's no denying that this is a good garden

There’s no denying that this is a good garden

We then took our leave of the park and headed toward Fisherman’s Wharf. Driving through the city gave me a chance to show off my tour guide skills. I don’t want to brag, but I was a fucking great tour guide. This was the first time I had ever driven in SF, but my parents were none the wiser–they were super impressed at how well I knew my way around. The big highlight of the drive to the wharf was going down Lombard Street. This is the street that is steep and windy for a block. Right before we crested the hill to reach the top, I said, “Get ready to wave to all the tourists!” What a great quip! Because there are a LOT of idiot tourists walking up and down Lombard with cameras. There are even some in cars leaning out the windows with cameras. Luckily Mom restrained from doing that. Although she and Dad both seemed to enjoy gawking at the gawkers. And driving down the street is pretty cool, truth be told.

Fanny packs

Fanny packs

Fisherman’s Wharf is a huge touristy place. Good thing my parents were tourists! LOL! We walked from Ghirardelli Square to the actual wharf and back. Nothing too exciting, honestly. Then we walked out on one of the piers that has a really good view of the bay. Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin county, etc. SF has more places with good views than any other city I’ve been in.

When we were finished at the wharf, it was a little past 5pm. We had 8pm dinner reservations, which meant a couple hours to kill. Mom and Dad had done a lot of walking at this point, so I thought we’d drive around a bit. SF is a fun city to drive around in. We went along the water into the Presidio. I hadn’t planned on going to the GG Bridge, but that’s where we ended up. I don’t know my way around that well. Don’t tell Mom and Dad. We stopped at the GG lookout point or whatever, which was cool. They had a cross-section of a bridge cable and some other stuff. And, you’ll never guess, a spectacular view. That was a good stop. Glad I thought of it.

I bet you thought I was going to post a photo of the bridge

I bet you thought I was going to post a photo of the bridge

After we left the bridge, we drove through a couple ritzy neighborhoods into Lincoln Park. This is the site of the Legion of Honor and a nine-hole golf course. Pretty scenic. We went past the Legion of Honor and went out to the USS San Francisco Memorial. Beautiful ocean views. I was hoping to time it so we’d be there to see the sun set over the Pacific, but we were a little early. Too bad. We left the park and set out to dinner. We were still a bit early, so I took the scenic route. Down past Ocean Beach and back through GG Park. This was as close as I got to getting lost. I didn’t really know how the streets in the park worked. They’re curvy and when they spit me out of the park I was on the south side. I was totally turned around and thought I was on the north side. Oops. I figured it out when I made a turn and saw the towers of the GG Bridge where I did not expect to see them. I played the whole thing off like a champ.

Dinnertime. We ate at Chapeau!, which has an exclamation point in its name. Now we all know that chapeau means hat in French, but apparently with an exclamation point it means wow!. If they say so. Chapeau! is a really fucking good restaurant. A French waiter and everything. Dad had the cassoulet. He declared the duck contained within as the best duck he’s ever had, and he’s a man who’s eaten a lot of duck. I had a lamb shank. French toast with caramel ice cream for dessert. Highly recommended.

People who take pictures of their food at restaurants are the worst. Nevertheless, thanks to the guy on Yelp who captured the cassoulet.

People who take pictures of their food at restaurants are the worst. Nevertheless, thanks to the guy on Yelp who took this cassoulet photo.

Friday
We swung by my apartment and Mom and Dad marvelled at the backyard garden filled with flowers and fruit trees. I hustled them past the rest of the place, which is a shithole. I avoided mentioning the various manhunts that have occurred on my block since I moved here. We drove around the neighborhood a bit. I didn’t go to any actually bad parts of Oakland, but it’s hard to avoid huge tags on walls and piles of trash on curbs. I’d be interested to hear my parents’ candid thoughts about my neighborhood. I think they were expecting the worst and were pleasantly surprised.

We drove around Lake Merritt and up to Berkeley for lunch. First we stopped by Cesar Chavez Park, which is a park I like a lot. We ate at 900 Grayson, which is said to have one of the best burgers in the country, and is neither a diner, a drive-in, nor a dive. I had the burger. Very good. The brioche bun was the highlight. A little fancy for my taste. Ahn’s ¼ Pound Burger is more my style.

A+ burgers in a style similar to midwestern favorite Culver's

A+ burgers in a style similar to midwestern favorite Culver’s

Next stop, Tilden Park in Berkeley. I spend a lot of time up in the hills, and Mom and Dad wanted to see what it was all about. I decided on Tilden because there’s a nice easy trail through the eucalyptus trees. I maybe should have gone with Joaquin Miller or Redwoods, but I wanted to go to 900 Grayson and this was more on the way. I think Mom and Dad were fine with eucalyptus instead of redwoods. They’re probably the more exotic of the two. Really cool-looking. Another point for Tilden is Lake Anza, which is a really cool spot. If I thought my parents had the gas to make it to Wildcat Peak, it would have been a slam dunk afternoon. As it was, not too shabby. We drove back to Oakland through the Berkeley hills. Grizzly Peak Boulevard. We stopped at one of the lookouts on the road. Pretty good view.

Eucalyptus bark is wild

Eucalyptus bark is wild

I dropped Mom and Dad off at their hotel for a nap. They were pretty tired from all the walking and the time change. The time adjustment from Eastern/Central to Pacific is often underestimated. It’s tougher than most people think.

Dinner at Champa Garden. Dad suggested some kind of Asian cuisine not readily available in Minneapolis. I thought about hitting one of the good local pho joints, but there are plenty of those in Mpls and I think Mom would have been put off by the ambience of a good pho house. (Ambience is inversely proportional to the quality of the soup, generally speaking–see Oakland’s best pho pictured below.) So Champa Garden. I don’t think there are any Lao restaurants in Mpls. Maybe there are. There probably are, now that I think of it. Anyway, I like Champa Garden. It was packed. A good meal was had by all.

Sounds like "fucking" hahaha I'm 13 years old

Sounds like “fucking” hahaha I’m 12 years old

Saturday
Mom and Dad wanted to go back and see downtown SF. Dad especially wanted to ride the BART. So that was our big plan. Mom had coffee with an old friend of hers in the morning and then we set out around 11. Mom and Dad were kind of fascinated by my descriptions of eating tacos served from trucks, so that was my great idea for lunch. We got some tacos and burritos and headed out for a picnic at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park.

Oakland's best park, non-hills division

Oakland’s best park, non-hills division

Middle Harbor Shoreline Park is a crazy and awesome park. It’s right in the middle of the HUGE Port of Oakland. Driving there through the shipyards, surrounded by semi trucks, is pretty intimidating. It is a great park. Great views of SF, the Bay Bridge, the abandoned Alameda Navy base, and gigantic unloading container ships. The port was more or less dead, it being Saturday, which was disappointing. It’s cool to be in the middle of the action.

After our highly successful picnic, we set out for SF once again. Dad’s plan was to get out downtown and just walk around. He and Mom were both surprised at the number of tourists. I was surprised at their surprise. We walked from the Powell Street BART station down to City Hall. We went through a couple highly sketchy Tenderloin blocks. I wanted to let Mom and Dad execute their plan of walking around, but I should have exerted more control over the route. No harm done in the end. We walked back up to Union Square. Mom wanted to do some shopping. She specifically planned to buy something for my sister. She wanted to stop at Forever 21 to do so. I am totally baffled by that impulse. She had just told me about the huge new Forever 21 at the Mall of America. Why waste your time at the one in SF? I steered her toward Uniqlo, and she bought a couple shirts.

I hear this is a cool store

I hear this is a cool store

Then we stopped at the mall on Market Street. Mom was blown away. This was maybe her favorite stop of the whole weekend. I was, again, baffled. This isn’t an especially large or impressive mall. I guess it’s just the fact that it’s downtown and is several stories tall. I don’t know. It has curving escalators and an atrium I guess.

Cool place for a bar

Cool place for a bar

Back to Oakland. We stopped and had a drink on the patio of Portal overlooking Lake Merritt. Mom and Dad were both impressed by how nice the east side of Lake Merritt is. I spend a lot of time down that way for the same reason. Dinner at Boot and Shoe Service. What an interesting and offbeat name for a restaurant! Food was good. Fancy pizzas and such on the menu. Dad had a deep-fried rabbit leg. Rabbit is a trendy thing on menus these days. Kind of an interesting phenomenon. It’s the only animal in America that I can think of that’s a) kept as a pet, b) found commonly in the wild, and c) eaten as food. When Dad was a lad, he sometimes visited his grandparents’ farm. They served rabbit that they trapped on said farm. They told the kids it was chicken because the kids, Dad included, wouldn’t eat rabbit. Now Dad spends $20 on it at a hipster restaurant. I can’t even imagine what old Wietse* would think of that.

*This is a Dutch name. Did I tell you my family is Dutch?

Overall a fun weekend. There’s a lot of good food to eat in the Bay Area. A lot of fun things to do. A lot of good views to be had. A lot of interesting vegetation. A lot of good weather if it’s snowing in late April where you live.