Sunday, October 20, 2019

Liz Phair’s 1990s’ Horror Stories don't start out horr-ible enough

Liz Phair is definitely one of my favorite 10 things about 1990s' rock. And that’s saying a lot, since those were the formative years when I was ages 20 to 30. She produced at least three of the decade’s great albums before falling off a cliff into Top 40 trash pop.

So Horror Stories is definitely a book I looked forward to for understanding how some of that magic emanated out of Chicago’s Wicker Park, where I spent a small amount of time myself in that long-ago decade.

Phair starts off defining that her book is not so much her personal story as it is a series of little horror stories that make up and can define a life, which sounds promising because that’s a good way of describing what her best songs are like.

One such story begins the book. It’s a memory she has from college when lots of girls discover another girl, passed out so drunkenly in a bathroom that she has soiled herself and the floor. Nobody does anything about the poor girl and that flash of lacking empathy still haunts Phair. It’s really not much of a story. We don’t find out if the girl died or what ever happened to her or even who she is.

The next story starts very slowly and builds to make a case for Phair’s maternal senses. She wishes she would have adopted a lonely dog on Mulholland Drive in L.A. and she wishes she would have saved a little boy being beaten by his rotten father on a beach while helplessly watching from a far-off cliff above. The moment of the beating is when the story takes on poignancy.

These sorts of stories seem a little like a cop out. Anybody who’s a halfway decent writer could jam out several little vignettes or memories of their past just like these ones. It’s kind of what a life, any life, really is. The difference that makes the book worth reading is that they are Phair’s stories. It further helps that she is an artist who has always been wrapped in quite a bit of mystery, leaving her fans to cobble together her story based solely on her lyrics, which are mostly relatively cryptic.

The opening stories are not as exciting as I had hoped. I’ve gone from wanting to buy the book to putting it on hold in my digital library queue and hoping I get more into it when it arrives. For now, there’s still always those great first three albums (Exile in Guyville, Whipsmart, and Whitechocolatespaceegg).

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Once Upon a Time vaults towards the top of my list of Brad Pitt favorites

In looking back at all times I've mentioned Brad Pitt on this website, it's amazing how many great films he's almost been in. That said, after seeing two Pitt classics over the past several days - Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Moneyball - it's amazing just how many classics in which he has accepted roles.

Hard to believe he's now been acting in movies for about 30 years and, with that output, there's a good chance I'm missing something here. But these are my favorite BP roles. In my top three, he is just about the coolest actor around (right up there beside George Clooney):

1. Fight Club
2. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
3. Ocean's Eleven
4. (Tie) 12 Years a Slave and True Romance (maybe both better than all these above it, but Pitt's roles are supporting ones)
5. Moneyball
6. Inglorious Basterds
7. Seven
8. The Departed
9. Interview With the Vampire
10. A River Runs Through It
11. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
12. Kalifornia
13. Ocean's Twelve
14. Burn After Reading
15. The Big Short
16. Killing Them Softly
17. Snatch
18. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
19. The Tree of Life (yuck)

Ones I still should see:
  • Legends of the Fall
  • World War Z
  • 12 Monkeys
  • Thelma & Louise
  • The Devil's Own
  • Babel
  • The Assassination of Jesse James
  • The Counselor
  • Fury

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Elton John's best 25 songs and Rocketman review

One thing that's tough to do when you have a full-time job and little kids is go to the movies.

With a week off between my last job and my next job, I was able to not only sneak in a movie yesterday, but also a great 12-mile roundtrip bike ride to and from the movie in Wheaton, Md.

I've always been an Elton John fan, so the new Rocketman seemed like a good way to spend two hours. While I wouldn't consider myself a mega fan (I've never seen him in concert, for instance), I do think he has at least 30 major classic songs, which puts anyone in Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame territory in my book.

Taron Egerton as Elton is a true superstar-making performance. One of the best moments of the movie is when the story of little-boy Reg suddenly blasts onto the screen as grown-up Elton/Taron. It's an electrifying moment when I knew we were in for a good ride. The actor sings all the songs, which he does indistinguishably from the real Elton. It is impossible to take your eyes off Egerton throughout, even through some occasionally bad writing and sometimes-exhausting musical sequences.

The story is mostly well told, with Elton telling the story of his life from a chair in an addicts' anonymous meeting. The awful parents, the child prodigy, the ups and downs with his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, the ups and downs of his romances, and his drug and alcohol extravagances. I would have liked to see a little more of his life with other celebrities and rock stars, but I guess the point is that Elton is pretty introverted for an extrovert.

I also would have liked to learn more about Elton. Some of the facts and chronologies had to unfortunately take a hit for the sake of Hollywood and mass-public whims. What about his British mansion where he's lived since 1975? I guess that mostly came after the bulk of the film's time period, although the movie made it seem as if he was sobered up in the 1980s when he resurfaced for big hits like "I'm Still Standing," when, in fact, he was reportedly a huge cocaine addict throughout the 80s.

The one thing I definitely learned was that he took his stage name "John" from John Lennon. I would have liked to learn more little anecdotes like that. It would have made the film just the little bit more of clever that it needs.

4 out of 5 stars

As a bonus, here are my 25 favorite Elton John songs. Oddly, these are all pretty much classics, but after this list, Elton's quality drops precipitously:

25: Blue Eyes (1982)
24: Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding (1973)
23: Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word (1976)
22: Madman Across the Water (1971)
21: Nikita (1985)
20: Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters (1972)
19: Philadelphia Freedom (1975)
18: I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues (1983)
17: Honky Cat (1972)
16: Border Song (1970)
15: Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting (1973)
14: Tiny Dancer (1971)
13: Bennie and the Jets (1973)
12: Candle in the Wind (1973)
11: Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me (1974)
10: Levon (1971)
09: Don't Go Breaking My Heart w/ Kiki Dee (1976)
08: Someone Saved My Life Tonight (1975)
07: Your Song (1970)
06: Crocodile Rock (1973)
05: Daniel (1973)
04: Little Jeanie (1980) - even with its ridiculous line "I want you to be my acrobat," this is a favorite song from when I was 9 and 10 years old, owner of the 45 still
03: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
02: I'm Still Standing (1983)
01: Rocket Man (1972)

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Roger Corman is a punk rock movie all star

Roger Corman is a genius filmmaker.

Anyone interested in pop culture should check him out. I would sum up his ethos as somewhere between the Dead Milkmen song "Bitchin' Camaro" and The Warriors (one of the 1970s' best and most unheralded movies, all about what gang warfare was like before guns made it much less interesting).

A couple of films associated with Corman (if not directed by him) are about to leave Hulu, and I couldn't highly recommend a film any more than Suburbia. It's the tale of a girl who witnesses a baby she's caring for mauled by a wild dog and a couple of boys who run away from their violently alcoholic mom. They end up in an abandoned tract home in L.A. with a bunch of mosh-pitting punks (including a very young Flea, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist) who have suffered similar abuse at the hands of the families they have left.

It is an absolute stone-cold classic that I can't believe I hadn't seen.

Of lesser importance and quality is Rock n' Roll High School, the legendary entrance (and exit?) into film of The Ramones. It's far less of a compelling story than Suburbia, but it is indeed a ton of fun. The principal and the lead student rocker played by P.J. Soles are particularly captivating. Also, how did I never see that before!?

Suburbia - 5 out of 5 stars
Rock n Roll High School - 3.5 out of 5 stars

The next batch of Corman films I need to see include:

  • The Haunted Palace
  • The Pit and the Pendulum
  • House of Usher (can't wait to see how he handles the inimitable Edgar Allen Poe in all these horror takes)
  • the Intruder
  • The Masque of the Red Death
  • The Raven
  • Death Race 200
  • Grand Theft Auto
  • The Trip
  • Piranha

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Authors fail to understand the public's love of presidential scandals

I'm trying to clear out some of my grad-school books. As part of this project, I figured it would be good to revisit and review, for one last time, some of the books I used extensively in my thesis on whether personal scandals helped or hurt voter turnout in presidential elections.

Peep Show: Media and Politics in an Age of Scandal by Larry Sabato, Mark Stencel, and Robert Lichter, reports of a time during the Clinton Administration when the line between public and private was blurring more than ever in media coverage of politics. They found that responsible media was fooling itself into not printing some scandals while seemingly arbitrarily covering other ones. They wonder if some mainstream reporters are simply lazy and bad investigators.

One striking passage early in the book makes a claim that my thesis found not to be true at all:
"The fidelity of elected officials and other personal matters are of little concern to most Americans, despite the attention such stories get in the news."
The authors do back this up by noting that 80 percent of those polled disapproved of coverage of Clinton's extramarital affairs. But Sabato and company failed to wonder if these people could have actually been lying. And what about all those everyday, water-cooler conversations about Monica Lewinsky, Clinton's "I didn't inhale," and the poor academic grades of Bush and Gore?

I largely disagree with the authors' findings in this book and contended in my thesis that Americans did indeed care about sex, drugs, and rock n' roll-type scandals and that they drive higher turnout in presidential elections.

People say Clinton's mistake was the lie, but they certainly discuss the sex a lot more than the lie. What I thought was good from this salacious turn by the media is that it shouldn't have ever been the media's job to offer a "zone of privacy" to public figures (as they had for many years) who have done scandalous things in the past; it's more the politician's job not to run for office in the first place if they've done those things.

The authors also claim the public will tune out personal scandals. But all these years since this 2000 book was published, it doesn't seem like that's holding true at all. People are chomping at the bit for the next scandal to sink their teeth into. Even with the seemingly daily scandals of the Trump Administration, the public still has great interest in reading all about it, and those scandals may drive massive turnout from both sides of the political aisle, potentially resulting in Trump winning reelection in 2020.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

My favorite rom-coms of all time (and some I unbelievably have yet to see)

I'm an admittedly big fan of romantic comedies, so when Entertainment Weekly recently had a special rom-com issue, I was a little shocked at some of the titles I've either neglected to see or forgotten whether I've seen over the years.

So here is both a ranking of my favorite rom-coms of all time and, to start it off, a list of titles I need to either watch or rewatch so I can accurately place them in the list in the future.

Rom-coms high on my list to watch:
Love, Simon (2018)
She's Gotta Have It (2017)
Maggie's Plan (2016)
Sleeping With Other People (2015)
Man Up (2015)
What If (2014)
Top Five (2014)
Don Jon (2013)
Your Sister's Sister (2012)
Ruby Sparks (2012)
The Five-Year Engagement (2012)
Italian for Beginners (2001)
Notting Hill (1999)
An Ideal Husband (1999)
My Best Friend's Wedding (1997)
Picture Perfect (1997)
In & Out (1997)
Emma (1996)
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
Boomerang (1992)
Doc Hollywood (1991)
Pretty Woman (1990)
Coming to America (1988)
Mannequin (1987)
The Princess Bride (1987)
Moonstruck (1987)
The Sure Thing (1985)
The Apartment (1960)
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Indiscreet (1958)
Love in the Afternoon (1957)
The Seven Year Itch (1955)
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
Roman Holiday (1953)
Adam's Rib (1949)
The Lady Eve (1941)
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
His Girl Friday (1940)
Ninotchka (1939)
Holiday (1938)
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
The Awful Truth (1937)
My Man Godfrey (1936)
It Happened One Night (1934)
City Lights (1931)

My list:
84. Friends With Benefits (2011)
83. Along Came Polly (2004)
82. Serendipity (2001)
81. Benny & Joon (1993)
80. Waitress (2007)
79. Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
78. The Incredible Jessica James (2017)
77. Working Girl (1988)
76. Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008)
75. Valley Girl (1983)
74. Extract (2009)
73. Enough Said (2013)
72. All About Steve (2009)
71. LA Story (1991)
70. Obvious Child (2014)
69. Splash (1984)
68. Roxanne (1987)
67. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
66. As Good As It Gets (1997)
65. The Object of My Affection (1998)
64. Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
63. The American President (1995)
62. Amelie (2001)
61. Kissing Jessica Stein (2002)
60. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
59. You've Got Mail (1998)
58. Clueless (1995)
57. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
56. Kicking and Screaming (1995)
55. Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011)
54. Punch Drunk Love (2002)
53. Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)
52. Miss Congeniality (2000)
51. Pretty in Pink (1986)
50. 500 Days of Summer (2009)
49. La La Land (2016)
48. She's the One (1996)
47. Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
46. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
45. Dave (1993)
44. Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
43. Juno (2007)
42. Arthur (1981)
41. The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)
40. The Importance of Being Earnest (1955)
39. Chasing Amy (1997)
38. My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
37. Broadcast News (1987)
36. 50 First Dates (2004)
35. About a Boy (2002)
34. Bull Durham (1988)
33. Keeping the Faith (2000)
32. Knocked Up (2007)
31. Bring It On (2000)
30. Groundhog Day (1993)
29. Jerry Maguire (1996)
28. The Graduate (1967)
27. Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
26. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
25. Music and Lyrics (2007)
24. Sixteen Candles (1984)
23. There's Something About Mary (1998)
22. Adventureland (2009)
21. Mr. Jealousy (1997)
20. The Big Sick (2017)
19. Wedding Crashers (2005)
18. Bridesmaids (2011)
17. The Brothers McMullen (1995)
16. When Harry Met Sally (1989)
15. Love Actually (2003)
14. Manhattan (1979)
13. Lost in Translation (2003)
12. Rushmore (1998)
11. Cold Comfort Farm (1996)
10. Grease (1978)
09. Reality Bites (1993)
08. Singles (1992)
07. Say Anything ... (1989)
06. Play It Again, Sam (1972)
05. Office Space (1999)
04. Annie Hall (1977)
03. High Fidelity (2000)
02. The Wedding Singer (1998)
01. Better Off Dead (1985)

With John Cusack starring in three of my top seven, I think it's safe to say that he gets the reward for my favorite rom-com actor of all time. With probably Cary Grant, who has tons of movies on my list to still watch (I've mostly seen his wealth of Alfred Hitchcock output), not far behind in second place. Dianne Keaton has to be in first place among female actors.

What do you think I missed and what are your favorites?

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

My quotes in the Washington Post about Metro failing to promote itself

The Washington Post's Kery Murakami decided to dig deeply into data about growth patterns of people moving into spaces within a half mile from Metro stations throughout the DC region.

He contacted me (representing Arlington's Mobility Lab) because our expertise is on how important initiatives other than infrastructure are to the transportation choices that people make. Sure, running safe, reliable trains on time is really important, but it straddles the line between infrastructure and the education aspect we focus on.

In places like DC where the transportation grid has been built out about as much as possible, the only way to go is to win people's admiration and loyalty to various ways of moving around. The good news is that it can often be effective (if done well, which it often isn't), and it's a heck of a lot less expensive than building new highways and train stations.

Anyway, this is a good article, with excellent reporting and (I think) some pretty great quotes from me! :-)
But even though that meant 38,000 more people were living near a station, ridership didn’t grow. According to Metro’s figures, it fell. Weekday boardings in the District dropped by 13 percent between May 2011 and May 2018 — or by an average of about 57,000 boardings daily — while all those people were moving in around stations.
That was “absolutely” a lost opportunity, said Paul Mackie, research director of Mobility Lab, the research arm of Arlington County Commuter Services. “It doesn’t help that the SafeTrack repair program has led to a general decline in both service and loyalty to Metro,” he said. “But Metro needs to promote itself harder, especially in light of competition from other options like Uber, Lyft, carpooling, e-scooters, bikes and bikeshare, and the rise in teleworking.”
Mackie also said Metro hasn’t done enough to reach out to all the additional people moving in around stations. 
“There is a huge TransitScreen on the marquee at Gallery Place/Chinatown that lists when the next trains are leaving,” he noted. “Why aren’t those signs in every neighborhood and bar and restaurant and library and hotel promoting transit?"
I was also quoted in a separate Post article titled, Data shows areas near Metro stations remain havens for the rich.
“We’re seeing the rich get richer – in both wealth and quality of life – and low-income people having to keep fighting to stay afloat with everyday tasks – like getting to work or daycare,” said Paul Mackie, research director for Mobility Lab, an Arlington transportation research center funded by local and federal governments.