Some thoughts on Tom Petty

I heard the news about Tom Petty at the end of the work day today. After listening to his music for the rest of the evening, I decided to ramble on a bit over on twitter. (That's what twitter is for, after all.)

Anyway, the Reds season ended yesterday and I don't have a game to write about tonight. I don't even have a game to watch! (Such a strange feeling.) So I thought I'd expand a bit on my earlier ramble, for posterity's sake.

As I sit here writing this, Tom Petty's music videos are playing on my television, via YouTube. I still remember the first time I saw one of his videos. I think I was 14 years old when I saw "I Won't Back Down" on MTV.

I literally remember standing in my bedroom, looking at the television as this video came on. I remember distinctly thinking two things:

"This song is awesome!"

"Who is this old guy?"

I had never heard of him. Now, Petty was only 38 or 39 when that video came out, so he wasn't old (or at least, that's what I keep telling myself these days). But he seemed old at the time. Shortly thereafter, a buddy clued me in: "Dude, Tom Petty is a certified rock star."

Every guy needs an older brother, if for no other reason than to teach him about music. I didn't have that older brother -- I do have three younger brothers -- to teach me, so I had never heard of him. I was mostly into the stuff my friends were into.

I could tell you everything you wanted to know about A Tribe Called Quest or Run-DMC or Eric B & Rakim, but I didn't know Tom Petty from Tom Lawless. So "I Won't Back Down" was a revelation. I had listened to plenty of what I thought was rock and roll, but was mostly just pop music on the radio. It was fine, but it never moved me. I mean, Duran Duran is okay, I guess.

But I had never heard anything like "I Won't Back Down." And that distinctive Tom Petty voice! 

So I immediately decided I liked this guy. Of course, that was the day when the radio was the only way to hear music -- that was a long time ago; yes, I'm the old guy, I know -- and I didn't own any Tom Petty albums, so the next thing I heard of his was the following single off that "Full Moon Fever" album: "Running Down A Dream," with that great animated video.

After that was "Free Fallin'"...and it seemed like that song was everywhere for months and months and months. I was completely hooked. For the rest of my life.

A couple of years later, during the summer before my senior year of high school, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their next album, "Into the Great Wide Open." I bought that cassette and wore it out in the tape deck of my burgundy Chevy Cavalier (I loved that car, even though it once died on me in downtown DC, during rush hour).

Then, when I was in college, that Greatest Hits album came out. I got that one on CD, even though I had all the earlier albums on cassette by that point. I had to have it, once again because of a video: "Mary Jane's Last Dance." Remember that video, with Kim Basinger? Incredible.

In the late 1990s, I was living in the Washington, D.C. area while attending law school (Hoya Saxa). A roommate had tickets to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live, and I jumped at the chance to finally see Petty in concert. We walked into the venue -- an outdoor amphitheatre now called Jiffy Lube Live or some nonsense -- and made our way to our seats. Second row, center. I couldn't believe it.

And Petty didn't disappoint. I'll never forget him leaning over and taking that big "Mad Hatter" hat out of a trunk in the middle of the stage. He placed it on his head with a wink and a grin, then launched into "Don't Come Around Here No More" with as much energy and enthusiasm as he could muster. The crowd responded in kind.

That show is still the best concert I've ever seen, and I've seen quite a few of them over the years.

In the last fifteen years, life got in the way a little bit. I still listened to Petty all the time, but kids and family and work and life conspired to keep me away from any of the band's live shows. When they announced the 40th Anniversary tour this summer, however, there was no chance I was going to miss the opportunity. After all, Petty had said this was the band's last tour. It was now or never.

So we got tickets to the show at US Bank Arena in Cincinnati, and it was fantastic. I never expected that the band would still be so great. They hadn't lost a single step.

At the end of July, our family took a trip with another family to New York City. After we arrived, we saw that the band was playing in Queens later in the week. The other couple wondered if we'd like to go see them, even though they weren't on our pre-planned and completely packed agenda. After all, they said, they hadn't seen Petty live before. There was no question: of course we wanted to. So we got tickets from some fly-by-night outfit that required we download a sketchy app to access our digital tickets, hopped on the subway, and headed out to Forest Hills Stadium. (I was pretty sure that app wasn't going to work, but we surprisingly got into the venue.)

It was another great show, but the best part was that my kids were with us, getting an opportunity to experience Tom Petty live. They went in a bit disinterested. They came out certified fans. My daughter wanted a t-shirt, and started learning to play "Free Fallin'" on the guitar when we returned home. My son played nothing but Tom Petty music in his headphones for a week thereafter.

Now, I don't get emotional about anything related to celebrities. (If you know me, you'd probably say that I get emotional about very little.) Still, it's sad that Tom Petty may be gone. I came to him after he was already well on his way to legend status, but Petty has been the soundtrack to most of my life. If he's gone...well, at least the music remains. I'm playing it tonight, and I'll play it tomorrow. It'll continue to be my soundtrack.

Tom Petty was just a great rock and roll star, that's all.

Two Minute Review: Blue Jasmine

Over on Twitter, I gave my quick and dirty assessment of Woody Allen's latest film:

Permit me to elaborate. As I've mentioned before in these pages, I'm a committed admirer of Allen's work. His films over the last fifteen years have been uneven, at best, but there are some beauties sprinkled in there. Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona are fabulous, and 2011's Midnight in Paris compares favorably to anything you'll see from his peers.

The flip side of that coin is that Allen has written and directed some stinkers -- You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, anyone? -- but the best thing about Woody is that you only have to wait a year, and he'll have another movie for you to pick over.

Which brings us to Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett as the title character. Jasmine is a Manhattan socialite who has her world tossed asunder when her husband (ably played by Alec Baldwin) is sent to prison for his role in various financial shenanigans. Broke, and broken, Jasmine moves to San Francisco to live with her working class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins).

Allen moves the narrative forward in very focused fashion, skilfully weaving flashbacks of Jasmine's previous life (relaxing in the Hamptons, for example) with her struggles to adjust to her new life. It is well-written, with all the hallmarks of an Allen comedy, including very strong performances by an ensemble cast. No performance is stronger than Cate Blanchett's.

Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if Blanchett were to win her second Academy Award next month. (No, I'm not really stepping out on a limb there. Blanchett just won the Golden Globe for this role.) She is engaging from the time she makes her first appearance on screen, seated on an inbound flight to San Francisco, as she bores the woman next to her with a barely-uninterrupted commentary on everything that has gone wrong with her life. Blanchett's Jasmine is never particularly likable, but somehow, she becomes eminently sympathetic throughout the course of the movie. If not a direct homage, the film was clearly inspired by A Streetcar Named Desire. More than once, I saw Vivien Leigh's Blanche DuBois in Jasmine.

The most surprising performance, as you may have heard, came from Andrew Dice Clay, as Ginger's ex-husband. Clay is legitimately good here, even if he didn't utter a single nursery rhyme in the entire film. Also good was Louis CK, as a seemingly-sweet guy who woos Ginger.

My only quibble is that some of the working-class dialogue didn't seem to ring particularly true, but that's a small criticism. Blue Jasmine is well-executed, and is a worthy addition to the Woody Allen filmography. By almost any measure, Allen remains near the top of his game, a formidable filmmaker still, after nearly five decades in the game.

Two Minute Review: "Orange Is the New Black"

I'm not a TV critic (yet), and I don't even play one on, well, TV. But this is my site, so indulge me, please. I don't think it's spoiler-y, but if you are worried about that sort of thing, you may want to stop now. The Netflix original series "Orange Is the New Black" was released last July, and I finally got around to watching the 13-episode first season over the last couple of weeks. I do have some criticisms, but let's make one thing clear from the outset: "Orange Is the New Black" is an outstanding show, nearly as good as anything else on television. I just wish it were on HBO.

There is much to love about "Orange." It's the story of a privileged woman -- Piper, played by Taylor Schilling -- who is engaged to be married and starting her own company, when she is charged with crimes committed when she was young and in love with a drug runner. Ultimately, she accepts a plea, and the story begins as she is incarcerated.

It's a brilliant idea for a series, based on Piper Kerman's memoir of the same name. In most respects, it is well-executed. The ensemble cast is filled with great characters, most of whom are nuanced and interesting. Series creator Jenji Kohan displays a deft touch in slowly revealing each character's backstory, and our view of several of the characters (notably Crazy Eyes and Mr. Healy) changes completely within the arc of one season.

There are notable exceptions, however. Two characters -- Natalie Figueroa, a prison administrator, and Mendez, a correctional officer -- are ludicrously over-the-top. "Orange" is a dramedy, so sometimes these characters are played for laughs, but their behavior is so exaggerated that it can be distracting. Often, it's like these two characters were pulled straight out of an Adam Sandler movie. I'm love Billy Madison as much as the next guy, but that's not a compliment.

Jenji Kohan probably should have toned that down, but subtlety doesn't seem to be in her arsenal. To wit: listen to the music that plays whenever Daya (an inmate) and Bennett (a C.O.) are together. It's ridiculous, and worthy of a 1980s Afterschool Special. And they play it Every. Single. Time. Before "Orange," Kohan was known primarily for the Showtime series "Weeds." I've never seen a single episode of "Weeds," so I can't compare, but I have real questions about some of the creative decisions on this show. (Also, I could do without the Jason Biggs-inspired American Pie inside jokes.) That's why I mentioned HBO above; in the best HBO original dramas, these little wrinkles have all been ironed out. (Then again, it's still the first season for "Orange" so there is time.)

When looking at the big picture, however, those are very small quibbles. In most respects, Kohan has put together a captivating portrait of life inside a women's prison. Piper is a fascinating character study, but she is arguably the least compelling personality on the show. Taystee Jefferson may be my favorite character, but the entire group of inmates -- Alex, Yoga Jones, track star Janae Watson, Sister Ingalls, Big Boo, and especially the Bible-toting meth-head Pennsatucky -- are each engaging in their own way. I'm not sure how Kohan was able to make each of them a fully-formed character in only 13 episodes (the flashbacks to life before prison helped), but it works.

I was happy to be able to watch the entire season over two weeks, one episode a night, thanks to the Netflix model of distribution, but "Orange" is a series that would have benefited from the traditional model. At the end of each episode, I didn't like the idea of waiting until the following night to see what would happen next (alas, my wife goes to sleep early, and she was just as engaged with the series as I). Imagine waiting a full week to see how Piper was going to resolve whatever issues were still lingering from the episode before. It's a series that could have built even more buzz than it actually did by giving each episode some water cooler time.

Either way, I am definitely looking forward to the second season, especially after the eye-popping cliffhanger at the end of season one's final episode. "Orange" isn't as good as "Mad Men" or "Sherlock," but it's just a cut below. Which means that it's better than most everything else on television (or whatever delivery device you prefer).

Ranking the James Bond films...from worst to best

Because everyone here is asleep, and I really don't have anything better to do: a ranking of the James Bond films, from worst to best. Enjoy (or not). Please remember, these are just my opinions, wagering. 24. Moonraker 23. Licence to Kill 22. Octopussy 21. The Man With the Golden Gun 20. Live and Let Die 19. The Spy Who Loved Me 18. Diamonds Are Forever 17. Quantum of Solace 16. Tomorrow Never Dies 15. A View To A Kill 14. The World Is Not Enough 13. Die Another Day 12. Never Say Never Again 11. You Only Live Twice 10. The Living Daylights 9. GoldenEye 8. Thunderball 7. Casino Royale 6. On Her Majesty's Secret Service 5. Dr. No 4. For Your Eyes Only 3. Skyfall 2. From Russia, With Love 1. Goldfinger

"Weekend Update" Anchors: Worst to Best

So, I tweeted that Kevin Nealon was the worst anchor in the long history of Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segment (yes, I forgot Colin Quinn). That inspired an enthusiastic and inane discussion about Weekend Update, and which anchors were the best and worst. Not willing to leave well enough alone, here are my completely subjective rankings of all the Weekend Update anchors. It may include anchors from the "SNL Newsbreak" and "Saturday Night News" segments, I may choose to exclude anchors who didn't spent much time behind the desk, and I may or may not rank certain co-anchors together or separately. It's my list and I'll cry if I want to...or something.

And, as always, these are my opinions only, so please: no wagering.

14. Kevin Nealon: the guy can't even read a teleprompter. Funny in other roles on SNL, but go back and watch him on Weekend Update. Simply brutal.

13. Colin Quinn: Sticking to my guns since I made such a declaratory statement on Twitter, but there's an excellent argument that Quinn was the worst. Terrible anchor. Great on "Remote Control" though.

12. Charles Rocket: no thanks, although he does receive points (or have them deducted, I'm not sure) for being the only cast member to utter a profanity on the air.

11. Jimmy Fallon: I feel like I have him ranked too high. Got sick of Fallon pretty quickly, and the "I can't stop laughing" schtick didn't work.

10. Brian Doyle-Murray: completely forgettable in every way, except for having a funny brother.

9. Brad Hall: he's married to Elaine. That's cool, right? Right?

8. Amy Poehler: Poehler is brilliant on "Parks and Rec" but she was just meh on Update.

7. Tina Fey: big gap here. Seems like I have Fey ranked too low. Consistently good, and she carried Fallon (and, to a lesser extent, Poehler). Plus, she's a fellow Wahoo.

6. Jane Curtin and Bill Murray: good duo, and consistently funny. Of course, that was the point in his career when Murray could do no wrong.

5. Seth Meyers: yeah, probably ranked too high, but I'm a big fan. Meyers has that sly delivery that works well with the fake news. I think he'll be regarded well in SNL history, though his tenure with Poehler was not as strong as the solo years.

4. Chevy Chase: the original, and always funny. Generalíssimo Francisco Franco is still dead.

3. Dan Akroyd and Jane Curtin: the "Point/Counterpoint" gag remains one of the highlights in SNL history. Never really cared for either of them in anything else (except Ghostbusters), but together they were brilliant. Curtin, in particular, is underrated.

2. Dennis Miller: great in every way. Obscure references, witty rejoinders, and a perfect delivery. At one point, I couldn't imagine anyone could do Update better, until...

1. Norm Macdonald: ask me again next week, and I'll probably flip Miller and Macdonald in the top two positions. Both were brilliant. I have Norm at the top here because I was a huge fan of his standup -- and that deadpan delivery -- before he joined SNL (that was the golden age of standup), and he never disappointed on Update. By the way, did you know the Germans love David Hasselhoff?

Wow, I had way too much time on my hands today...

Ten second movie (p)review

I mentioned a while back that I was going to review the best documentary film I’ve ever seen. The time is now. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of Netflix. For the first time, I have a huge library of films available to me, movies that I wouldn’t get to see otherwise (since most good films don’t come to the theaters, and many don’t make it to video). In particular, I’ve gotten to see some fantastic documentary features through Netflix: Capturing the Friedmans, Spellbound, Grey Gardens, Word Wars, Grizzly Man, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Born Into Brothels, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.

At the top of my Netflix queue is “49 Up,” the seventh installment of the “Up” series, which Roger Ebert says is on his “list of the ten greatest films of all time.” I agree. It’s to be released on DVD next week, and my wife and I cannot wait to watch it. I can’t do a better job of describing the series than this:

49 UP is the seventh film in a series of landmark documentaries that began 42 years ago when UK-based Granada’s WORLD IN ACTION team, inspired by the Jesuit maxim “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” interviewed a diverse group of seven-year-old children from all over England, asking them about their lives and their dreams for the future. Michael Apted, a researcher for the original film, has returned to interview the “children” every seven years since, at ages 14, 21, 28, 35, 42 and now again at age 49.

In this latest chapter, more life-changing decisions are revealed, more shocking announcements made, and more of the original group take part than ever before, speaking out on a variety of subjects including love, marriage, career, class and prejudice.

Before last winter, I had never heard of the documentary series. One day last winter, I stumbled upon a review of the first film, “Seven Up!” Intrigued, I had Netflix send it.

My wife and I enjoyed it, and watched the other installments. We were absolutely mesmerized. It’s just a groundbreaking idea, executed perfectly by Apted, who has become quite the feature director himself (including a James Bond movie). I can’t reveal too much of the films without ruining the experience for you, but if you have a chance to watch the series, don’t hesitate. You’ll be astounded at how much you look forward to seeing what each of these children have become over the next seven year period. It’s spell-binding.

Once 49 Up is released on DVD and we watch it (here’s Ebert’s glowing review), I’ll report back. I’m expecting great things, though. The Up Series is, by far, the greatest documentary film I’ve ever seen, and one of the best movies I’ve had the pleasure to watch, period.

Ten second movie review

The wife and I watched “Click” tonight, with Adam Sandler, Kate Beckinsale, and Christopher Walken. Hey, this movie was actually pretty entertaining. Yeah, it was predictable at times, but it’s an Adam Sandler movie, so you just have to look over stuff like that. There were some typical Sandler belly-laughs, but it was also a good story. Good film for you to get a bowl of popcorn and watch on a weekend (or a Monday night).

Plus, you know, Kate Beckinsale was in it.

And Christopher Walken.

Three and a half stars out of five. Not bad.

Rodney Dangerfield

I didn’t mention it earlier, but I felt it was only appropriate to note the passing of legendary comedian Rodney Dangerfield. Anyone who (like me) is a fan of Caddyshack will miss Rodney. It’s ironic that, after his passing, he’s getting plenty of respect.