Quest for the Best (Picture) Final Edition

Film ReelIn this final installment of thoughts from our unqualified but enthusiastic movie reviewer about the 2014 Best Picture nominees, I’ll provide thoughts about why each of the six pictures I saw could, should, or won’t win the Best Picture award.

In alphabetical order…

American Hustle – Great ensemble acting.  Any of the four principals would deserve an award.  And yes, I love anything that Jennifer Lawrence is in. Amy Adams is pretty amazing as well. But the story line doesn’t hang together for me. (When I read this NY Times article on David O. Howard’s filmmaking style, I realized why.) While American Hustle is one of the favorites, I think there are several better movies in the running this year.

Gravity After seeing this movie on the plane earlier this week, the Tina Fey line at the Golden Globes about the lengths George Clooney will go in order not to date any female his own age finally made sense!  Seriously, this is a terrific movie.  Clooney is Clooney. (These days, he appears to just be playing himself in most movies, like a latter-day Jimmy Stewart. And that’s okay. He’s very good.)  Sandra Bullock is wonderful. The visuals were stunning on a small screen…I can only imagine what this looked like in the movie house.  Gravity is another pre-awards-show favorite, but to me it doesn’t hold up as well against the three that I felt were terrific movies.

Her A very well-crafted, but somewhat spooky, movie (especially if you spend as much time in front of your computer as I do). Joaquin Phoenix was terrific, and we were lucky this year to get another dose of Amy Adams (and those eyes!).  I don’t see this winning, but I want that little earplug and the hand-held smart phone/computer now.

Nebraska The more I think about this movie, the more I like it.  The black and white photography is stunning.  The acoustic roots chamber music is haunting.  And Bruce Dern is pitch perfect.  I’d be very happy if this film won, in a shocker.

Philomena This Judi Dench tour de force is also one of the sleepers of the year. The story – which is true – is a real plot twister that ends up where it began. Another one of my personal favorites for Best Picture. Again, it probably won’t win because – like Nebraska – it is a movie for adults and doesn’t have the amazing technical achievement of Gravity and doesn’t boast of a fabulous ensemble cast of actors like American Hustle.

Twelve Years a SlaveI felt this movie should win the moment I walked out of the theatre, and I still have a strong bias in its favor.  But it may get the Lincoln treatment from last year – great movie, epic story, well told, but…perhaps just a bit too serious for Hollywood.  That would be too bad to see that happen two years in a row.

So, while I didn’t get to see Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, and The Wolf of Wall Street, I feel as though I’ve seen the winner.  That sentiment was supported by the Times‘ “Carpetbagger” column. But only Sunday night will tell…so let’s do this already.

Thanks for reading, and more to come…


Quest for the Best (Picture) Update

Film ReelIn our quest to see all the Best Picture nominees before the March 2nd Academy Awards show, Candice and I find ourselves well behind our pace of recent years.  We’re going to blame it all on February.  Have I mentioned that I really hate February? Why does this month even exist?

But enough with the excuses…we’ve now seen four of the nine nominees.  I wrote earlier about the first two, so let’s focus on the most recent films we’ve seen.  Both were very satisfying.

Philomena stars the incomparable Judi Dench who – as Philomena Lee – undertakes a search for a son she was forced to give up for adoption some fifty years earlier by the nuns of an Irish convent.  This is a deeply moving true story, that is lovingly filmed.  Steve Coogan, as the journalist Martin Sixsmith who uncovers Philomena’s story, interacts very effectively with Dench on the screen.  I won’t spoil it for those who have not seen the movie, but this is one I strongly recommend.  Philomena is a terrific movie.

Earlier today, Candice and I walked up to AFI’s Silver Theatre (we really love our neighborhood theatre!) to see Nebraska.  Bruce Dern, as the elderly Woody Grant, is in search of what he believes is his $1 million sweepstakes winning pot. His son David (Will Forte), is the only family member who understands the search for what it really is, and after a couple of missteps he agrees to drive Woody to Lincoln, Nebraska, to “collect” the winnings.  June Squibb, as Woody’s long-suffering wife Kate, has some of the funniest – and most hurtful – lines in the movie.  Her response to Woody’s extended family as they try to shake him down is priceless.

Nebraska has so much to recommend it.  The beautiful black-and-white photography captures the bleakness of the Midwestern landscape, and the life of the Grant family. Tin Hat’s haunting acoustic chamber music is so evocative of the sadness and sweetness found in this story. The ensemble acting with Dern, Squibb, Forte, Stacy Keach as Woody’s old business partner, and Bob Odenkirk as Woody’s son Ross, is superb.

The essence of this movie is captured after Woody learns that he hasn’t won the million dollars promised in the magazine sweepstakes letter.  Woody leaves the office of the Nebraska marketing company and David turns to the receptionist to ask if this happens often.  She replies that it does happen on occasion, often with older people like Woody.  She asks is Woody has dementia.  David replies, “No, he just believes what people tell him.”  “Oh, that’s too bad,” replies the receptionist.

And there, dear reader, is one of the horrors of modern life.  We say things all the time that we don’t mean.

But (spoiler alert)  the ending is sweet.  This movie is well worth a viewing.

Now, after four movies, Candice and I have the same rankings in the Best Picture contest:

1.  Twelve Years a Slave

2.  Philomena

3.  Nebraska

4.  American Hustle

We hope to see Her tomorrow, at which point we’ll pass the halfway point.  Look for further updates from your unqualified, but enthusiastic, movie reviewer.

More to come…


10 Reasons Super Bowl 48 Will Be My Last…

NFL Brain Diagram

NFL Brain Diagram via

…or how I came to the decision to stop watching NFL football.

Long before Super Bowl 48 came to an end and Seahawk fans were dancing in the streets of Seattle, the realization that pro football had lost any fascination for me – and, in fact, was beginning to feel like a really bad choice for how to spend 3 – 9 hours on approximately 20 fall and winter Sundays – had begun to sink in.  But being away from the games for a few weeks and with some time to think, I’ve come to the conclusion that not watching pro football is a great change to make for my Next Third of life.

Football has always been a distant second to my real love of baseball.  I still subscribe to Tom Boswell’s Why Baseball is So Much Better Than Football philosophy.  (Reason #63: The baseball Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown, N.Y., beside James Fenimore Cooper’s Lake Glimmerglass; the football Hall of Fame is in Canton, Ohio, beside the freeway.)  But I’ve always watched football – college and professional – and have actually enjoyed it in the past.  All that has changed in the last couple of years, and I’ve finally come to the realization that I need to pull back and act on my convictions.

So why would any sports loving American male stop watching the NFL.  Well, let me count the reasons:

10.  Those stupid Roman numerals – How pretentious can any sport be that lists its championship game by Roman numerals?  The World Series, which has been around since the beginning of time, is content to use the year (i.e., the 2013 World Series) – although one could make the case that simply using the words “World Series” for a game between two North American baseball teams is pretentious enough. But back when the words “World Series” were coined, America was the center of the baseball universe.  Simply put, I don’t like Roman numerals on cornerstones of important buildings, so why would I want them used for a silly game.

9.  The NFL is a non-profit (no, seriously) – Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the National Football League, was paid $44.2 million in 2012.  The NFL made $10 billion dollars that same year.  Yet, the NFL is a non-profit.  Seriously. How can a business that generates $10 billion, that makes international corporations pay millions of dollars to advertise on its championship game, and that treats most of its players like interchangeable parts (the average career of a NFL player is 3.2 years, notwithstanding what Roger Goodell has said) be considered a nonprofit by the U.S. Government?  Money talks, and the NFL makes sure that its tax advantages stay in place.  I’ve worked for the nonprofit sector since 1983.  Having the NFL included as part of that sector is a joke.

8.  FOX coverage of NFL football – This is part 1 of a two-part rant.  (Part 2 will pick up with reason #4.) FOX Sports coverage of Super Bowl 48 simply solidified a growing unease with the militarization of football by FOX.  I would prefer to watch my sports without being shown countless patriotic scenes, troops in Afghanistan, more renditions of God Bless America than anyone should have to listen to in a lifetime (are you listening Major League Baseball), military flyovers for everything from preseason games to Super Bowls, and so much more.  Enough already!  It’s a damn game, not some statement on the American psyche and national manhood.  I’m also tired of FOX Sports coverage of baseball, but at least there I usually get to listen to our wonderful Nats announcers on MASN and – if I’m really sick of listening to Tim McCarver – I can even turn on the radio and turn down the sound on the World Series.  This network has already ruined much that was good about America (e.g., civility in public life, objectivity in journalism), must they also ruin sports coverage in the process?  No one should have been surprised by Richard Sherman’s rant to Erin Andrews after the NFC Championship – he was just doing a fine impersonation of a FOX News anchor.  By contrast, the coverage of football on CBS and especially on NBC (with Tony Dungy on the set) looks quaint by comparison, but is more in line with the stakes that are actually in play in the NFL (read, not very high as these things go).  To FOX Sports, this is war!

7.  Miami Dolphins bullying – I don’t even have the stomach to go into this, but would simply say that in any honorable profession, such actions as Richie Incognito’s bullying of fellow player Jonathan Martin would never have been allowed to have escalated to the point they obviously did.  Incognito  has had “issues” at every level where he has played, yet he was allowed to continue to play in today’s NFL until his victim finally had enough.  Might I also ask what type of employer hands out “inflatable female dolls” to his employees, as one of the Dolphin’s coaches did.  But that fits right in with a sport that has “cheerleaders” who are clearly there to serve the macho male audience. Who is running this show, Larry Flynt?

6.  Television coverage of the NFL draft, NFL combine, ad nauseum – Seriously, if almost half a year’s worth of coverage of the NFL’s games isn’t enough, now we have to cover the NFL draft, the NFL combine, etc., etc. as if these decisions were going to shape world peace and solve climate change.  Perhaps if we spent as much time talking about world peace and climate change as we do about the NFL, we might actually make some progress on those fronts.

5.  Thursday Night Football, Monday Night Football…when will the madness stop? – Many years ago, the NFL decided that more of a good thing was better…and introduced Monday Night Football (cue the music in your head).  So, if Monday night works, why not Sunday night, why not Thursday night?  Heck, since the players are interchangeable parts, let’s just play every night and we’ll cut that average career in half.

4.  FOX subjects innocent NFL fans to Bill O’Reilly – This is part 2 of my rant about FOX Sports.  I made the mistake of tuning in to the FOX Super Bowl 48 coverage about 90 minutes before the game, thinking that all the silly stuff would be out of the way and I could hear a bit about Manning, Wilson, Sherman, Welker, and the other players.  But noooooo.  FOX News intruded with a mean-spirited and disrespectful interview of President Obama by FOX News blowhard Bill O’Reilly.  My blood pressure kept rising as I listened to a litany of the FOX News faux scandals that O’Reilly hurled at the President.  Why did the NFL or FOX think that this was something that NFL fans would want to see?  As usual, Timothy Egan hit the nail on the head with his recent column Bill O’Reilly’s Gift for the AgesRead it.  You’ll laugh if you don’t cry.

3.  Steroids – We hear about steroids and other PEDs every other day in baseball, and the sport did come late to the table in addressing the issue.  But when was the last time you heard about PEDs in football?  And have you noticed that football lineman are now all the size of an 18-wheeler.  “Refrigerator” Perry seems quaint by comparison.  And I’ve actually met former NFL great Ed “Too Tall” Jones in person.  He was tall…but he didn’t look as if he took at whole bottle of PEDs every day.  You can’t say the same thing about today’s average NFL lineman.

2.  Concussions – As someone whose spouse fell and suffered a serious concussion, I’ve seen firsthand the very real effects of impacts to the head.  I worry a great deal more these days about spills, trips, crashes, and other mishaps that could lead to concussions.  So why do I want to watch – and support – a sport where hitting someone as hard as you possibly can is considered great play?  And when I read about the stars of my youth – players such as the remarkable Tony Dorsett – having signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative condition many scientists say is caused by head trauma and linked to depression and dementia, I wonder if I can continue to support a sport that leads to such injuries.  I know that concussions occur in all sports, baseball included.  But no other sport outside of boxing comes to mind where the play itself puts players in such risky situation on such a regular basis.

1.  Daniel Snyder – Okay, this is too easy.  I’ll admit it.  But with Daniel Snyder – who is younger than I am – as the owner of the Washington football club (that has a racially offensive name that he refuses to change) for possibly the rest of my life, it is easy to make a decision not to watch NFL football.  Snyder has shown only one talent as a football owner:  to make money off the long-suffering Washington football fans.  Otherwise, his “stewardship” of the team is laughable at best.  I went to a Washington game about a decade ago and decided after an 8-hour day getting to-and-from the stadium and “enjoying” the game that I had enjoyed enough Washington football in person.  I’ve already taken the next logical step, in that I didn’t watch a complete Washington game the entire 2013 season.  So let’s go all the way…and not watch any games – Washington or otherwise!

This decision should give me a tremendous amount of time on Sunday afternoons in the fall and winter.  In those beautiful days of September and October, I can go bike riding with my wife.  When the weather turns cold, I can pull out a guitar or a book and enjoy them without keeping an eye on the television set.  And when I go to bed on Sunday night, I don’t have to worry about the stress of a last-minute loss or a blow-out, because I really won’t care.

I’m sorry to say goodbye to the NFL, but it is time.  Life is too short.  I’ll try to remember to update you on my progress this time next year.

More to come…


Claire Lynch Band at Home at IMT

Claire Lynch with DJB

Monday evening’s Institute of Musical Traditions show at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church had the feeling of a “living room concert” as founder and emcee David Eisner put it. The Claire Lynch Band – in what has become an annual tradition – put on a  musically adventurous yet still familiar and engaging show for a full house of family and appreciative fans.

The 2 1/2 hour concert had all the elements of a Claire Lynch show:  great singing by Claire and the band, sick guitar work from Matt Wingate, jazzy fiddle from Bryan McDowell, and lots of fantastic bass from the incomparable Mark Schatz. There were a number of swing tunes, which fit Claire’s voice to a T, tossed in with the bluegrass and folk.  While performing songs from her most recent CD, the first-rate Dear Sister, Claire also reached back into her catalog, especially including tunes from the Watcha Gonna Do CD from 2009.  The Mockingbird’s Voice and Barbed Wire Boys were two standouts among many.

There’s so much to like in Claire’s work these days…but I’ve written about her music here, here, and here in the past couple of years…and it is getting late.  Thanks for the fantastic show – a great way to kick off the week!

I’ll end with a video of White Train, another song performed this evening by The Claire Lynch Band.


More to come…


Quest for the Best (Picture), Year III

Film ReelYes, we’re at it again.  As has been the case the past two years, Candice and I are out to see all of the Best Picture nominees (or as many as possible) before the Academy Awards show.  We began this new tradition two years ago after we became empty nesters, and I have to say it  has raised my stock as a husband. One of my major failings in life before I came up with this brilliant idea was not making an effort to go to the movies. What can I say…

However, we got a late start this year.  (Once again, the “sure things” we went to see early in the year – I’m looking at you Lee Daniels’ The Butlerdidn’t make the final cut of the Academy.)

So here it is February 1st – with the awards show just weeks away, and we’ve only seen two.  However, I’m pretty sure we’ve seen the winner.

If there is any justice in the world, 12 Years a Slave will win in a rout.  I don’t care what the other movies have to offer, this is a film that should win in almost any year.  It is difficult to watch, but 12 Years a Slave is powerful and compelling.  The violence of the slave life/economy is shown in all its horror.  As Candice said as we headed out of the AFI Silver Theatre and started our walk home –  (by the way, it is great to have such a wonderful theatre in our neighborhood) – “You hear about violence today, but it has always been a part of life in America.”  Yes. As a country we continue to pay for our original sin.

That’s the winner.  I’m laying down that marker now.

We’ve also seen American Hustle, which many of the media pundits see as the only film that can upset 12 Years a Slave.  The acting in American Hustle is terrific. Christian Bale has one of the great 1970s comb-overs of all time.  Amy Adams…oh my. I’m still in love with Jennifer Lawrence.  But…the film itself is disjointed.  And while I found it ultimately satisfying, let’s face it: this isn’t a “Best Picture.”  It is a vehicle for great ensemble acting, but the story isn’t compelling and it takes a while to sort it all out.  Sorry, I wouldn’t mind if this crew took two or three of the acting awards they are up for, but Best Picture…I don’t think so.

Now that I’ve been so demonstrative after seeing just two, we’ll head out again and try to get as many of the others under our belt this month as possible.  So we’ll see you at the movies!

More to come…


Happy Birthday, Del McCoury

Del McCoury at Red Wing Music Festival 2013Happy 75th Birthday to Del McCoury, one of the finest voices in traditional bluegrass music.

A winner of the National Heritage Fellowship lifetime achievement award and a member of the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, McCoury – at 75-years young – doesn’t rest on his laurels.  Just last Sunday the Del McCoury Band won a Grammy for The Streets of Baltimore and he continues to find new avenues to showcase his talent and new collaborators for his music.

Vince Gill has said “I’d rather hear Del McCoury sing ‘Are You Teasing Me’ than just about anything.”

It just so happens there’s a terrific “early morning” video version of a very casual Del McCoury Band performing Are You Teasing Me? posted by radio station WNCW.  For a group that generally appears on stage in the traditional suits and ties of the classic days of bluegrass, it is kind of fun seeing the McCoury boys in shorts (with Rob in flip-flops) and Del in his jeans.

Are You Teasing Me?

The Del McCoury Band at Red Wing Roots Music Festival 2013

Me, I’d rather hear Del sing 1952 Vincent than just about anything.  So from that same informal morning session at WNCW, enjoy Del’s take on Richard Thompson’s classic.

1952 Vincent

Happy 75th Birthday, Del.  Thanks for the wonderful years of memories, and may you have many more years ahead.

More to come…


Now THIS is a Cool Retirement Gift

Bernanke Baseball CardThe stick-in-the-muds who write headlines for the Washington Post may have thought that this customized baseball card for retiring Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke wasn’t up to his accomplishments (see I saved the economy and all I got was this custom baseball card), but die-hard Nats fans – of which Bernanke is one – realize that this beats a gold watch any day!

What true fan wouldn’t want to see themselves immortalized in that one medium that tells how good you really were…the baseball card.  I loved the career stats on Bernanke’s card:

2002:  First drafted from the Ivy League

2006:  Signed offer as Chairman

2008-2009:  MVP for most four-letter acronyms created

2009:  Named Time magazine Person of the Year

2010:  Inked new deal as Chairman

Plus he had 79 Congressional testimonies and 226 speeches given in his “career.”

Now, if you feel you need something more than a baseball card to capture Bernanke’s contribution to saving our economy (which – it should be noted – came with a great deal of help from the newly minted President Obama), read David Wessel’s insightful In Fed We Trust:  Ben Bernanke’s War on the Great PanicAs one of the most important grown-ups in the room at the time, Bernanke really did whatever it took to avoid a collapse of the banking system and our economy in 2008-2009.

I’m sure Bernanke received all sorts of expensive retirement gifts.  But for me, this is the coolest!

More to come…