Sunday, January 26, 2014

First Feast: A Fulfilling Start to 2014

Men in Plaid: Billy, me, Mark, and Will as we happened to be seated at last night's First Feast.  The theme was Mediterranean, not plaid.  That part was happy coincidence.
Last night marked the annual First Feast gathering for Jennifer and me and our 'Dillo friends.  A lucky 13 gathered for the usual assortment of fine dining, drinking, music, and (often zany) conversation. This year's event featured a Mediterranean theme. Food highlights included more appetizers than I can recall but personally I was drawn to Jennifer's wonderful dates stuffed the goat cheese along with a plethora of various types of olives brought by different people.

The main course was a combination of "sea bass" (broiled snapper) and a lamb roast recipe. The accompaniments were superb. There was an excellent arugula salad and some awesome mashed potatoes along with several other excellent choices. Too many different kinds of wines to remember. Topped off by gelato and a decadent chocolate mousse with strong French-pressed coffee. Everything was up to typical First Feast standards, which is to say bordering on exquisite and excessive.

After dinner Will entertained us with rather spontaneous readings in outlandish style of various short poems and limericks he found in an old college literature book of Eileen's. Music for the evening was eclectic, of course.  It ranged from Mozart's Clarinet Concerto to John Adams' String Quartet to some wonderful Django Reinhardt with Stephan Grappelli that Will brought to newer stuff Clint turned us on to by The Giving Tree Band to The Grateful Dead to Neil Young to a recently released CD Mark owns of a live performance of Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd (namesake of my blog) for the BBC from 1974. Diane proclaimed it was the "best version ever" of that beloved record.  Mix all that up and you get some idea of how wide-ranging a 'Dillo gathering usually is.

There were discussions of various travel options for later in the year.  Many 'Dillos feel the urge to go to Swain Cabin. Clint is planning to go on monthly camping trips to north Georgia and North Carolina when the weather warms up a bit. There is another trip to Cumberland Island already set up for March.

I talked at length with Billy about his first full studio Brazilian-tinged album that he is putting the finishing touches on at the moment.  He has been working recently with some outstanding talent from New York and is very pleased with the results.  He hopes to actually do some live gigs later in the year as long as it doesn't interfere with his day job of practicing law. Speaking of finishing touches, Brian showed me some photos of the newly completed skyline ceiling and lighting in his remodeled living room, a project that has been in the works for years.  He is excited about finally getting that part of his home project completed and move on to plans for his basement renovation.

Jeffrey joined me and Jennifer for the trip into Atlanta. It was great seeing him again and we got caught up on his doings, both work wise and at home. Jennifer keeps up with him on Facebook and shares certain of his postings with me but I haven't had a chance to mingle with him in awhile. He is feeling pretty good about himself, losing some weight and cutting down on his smoking. It occurred to Will and I during dinner that my association with Jeffrey might be the oldest of all 'Dillo connections, though Brian and Clint go a long way back as well.  I think Jeffrey and I have them beat by a couple of years, our friendship dating back to my freshman year of college in 1977.

Great food, great fun with long-time friends helped to get 2014 off to a friendly and fulfilling start. Which is what First Feast is all about.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Watching American Hustle

American Hustle and Gravity garnered the most Academy Award nominations recently.  Each film received 10 nominations of various kinds.  While this certainly does not guarantee anything and, in and of itself, does not make them the two best pictures of the year, it did cause me to take notice and want to see American Hustle since I enjoyed Gravity so much several months ago. 

American Hustle is about con jobs and the really crafty, somewhat quirky people who do them. Not small time jobs. Large con operations.  Until, as (somewhat historical) circumstances reveal in the film, the two big con artists are finally caught by the FBI.  Instead of serving any prison time, however, the two cons luck up and begin working with an FBI agent to run an elaborate bribe operation to catch a handful of politicians including one famous US Senator. 

The film is filled with unexpected twists and turns, as you might expect, so you have to be on your toes when you watch it.  Following the various changing schemes and the action is not an overly arduous challenge, however.  The movie flows well and its two-hour plus running time seems to speed by. It is set in the 1970's which means several things right off to the discerning viewer.  The fashion styles (both clothing and big hair) are  distinctive and often somewhat flamboyant.  

The music is awesome, featuring classic tunes like A Horse With No Name, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Hot Stuff, Live and Let Die, among others.  The soundtrack CD is something I will keep an eye out for.  The automobiles are big, built more for style than aerodynamics, and still inspired by the 1950's.  No shortage of characters smoking cigarettes. 

I graduated high school in 1977.  So the effect of seeing this well-produced film in the authentic seventies was enjoyable for strictly personal reasons.  This was when I first went to college and started my own party life.  My heyday was rooted in the 70's.  So, the film felt comfortable to me even though there were some suspenseful moments and, while the plot is rather straightforward, the mildly non-linear narrative itself, what happens next, is sometimes disorienting. 

I like director David O. Russell's style in the film.  He explains things subtly through dialog and action. Happily, and a bit uniquely for a throwback story like this, there is no narration to assist the viewer.  This is definitely not film noir.  You might go a couple of minutes into a scene before you realize what is being shown to you happened years before or after where you last were in the story. It is hard to tell because  the film spans the seventies.  Pretty much everything looks the same even though the film covers the middle part of the decade to its end. The film uses the tried and true technique of beginning close to the conclusion of the movie and then looping around in time to explain exactly how this situation arose.  As I said, it keeps you on your toes though in an entertaining way, not convoluted.  Though the viewer sometimes has to play catch-up, the pacing of things is such that you never fall too far behind. 

The story itself is not up-lifting but neither is it a downer.  The script is very funny in many parts.  You will laugh out loud, though this is generally a serious film.  It is more grey than black or white, something one of the characters alludes to at one point.  These are con artists.  They work in a seedy world filled with unethical and just plain stupid people.  Even when they start working for the FBI you are not given a clear case to root for anyone on the grounds of what they are trying to do. A relatively clean politician gets caught up in a scam and his career is ruined, for example. Several other less savory politicians are also caught, however. 

Is there justice in American Hustle?  The film has no moral compass.  So while some "bad" guys are caught, in the end the distinction between the con men, the FBI, and the targets of their hit is rather blurred.  The crime is an invented one and the "criminals" who are ultimately arrested may or may not have been involved in such activities had the crime never been invented by the con men to start with.  In that sense the movie is rather ambiguous at best and, at worst, has an empty feeling to it. 

Yet that is only as far as the point of it all is concerned.  In nuts and bolts execution American Hustle is superb.  The script is strong and the directing highly competent.  But what sets American Hustle apart is the acting.  The cast is spectacular and takes this rather mediocre hustle movie and transforms it into a Shakespearean scale comic-tragedy. A flabby, bulging gut Christian Bale (he doesn't exactly have Batman's physique in this film) gives a solid performance as the primary con guy.  Amy Adams is Bale's sizzling con sidekick, sexy throughout the movie with brief scenes featuring her hot body (although there is no actual nudity in the film) and she exhibits a broad acting range by portraying an American girl faking herself as a Brit, accent and all.  There are a couple of wonderful scenes that really shine in this movie where she literally shifts in to and out of her faked accent.  It is like watching two versions of herself simultaneously.  Very nicely done. 

Bradley Cooper gets a change of pace for his career.  I have seen him previously in The Hangover and in last year's Silver Linings Playbook.  He has great chemistry with both Adams and Bale. The three of them carry most of the film's heavy-lifting.  Really fine performances that sell the narrative and keep the action entertaining.  Last but certainly not least is a support role by Jennifer Lawrence, who portrays Bale's well-kept, somewhat earthy yet elegant wife.  Lawrence steals the show and that is saying something with all the strong acting in this film.  I will be very surprised if her performance does not net her an Oscar.  If so, that will make it two years in a row for Lawrence.  She won best actress last year

I would give American Hustle a solid 7.  The story itself is really not that riveting though it is entertaining.  It is not something that especially lingers in my mind.  The film is competent but not extraordinary.  The script is very well written.  But, the acting takes the cake.  This fine ensemble turns in one of the best cast performances I have seen in years.  If you like a good con job with a fairly straightforward plot filled with unexpected twists and turns featuring some really excellent portrayals of quirky characters totally immersed in the 1970's then I'm sure American Hustle will entertain you.

One minor quibble.  I'm not one to hunt down mistakes in films but there is a glaring, if rather mundane, error in this movie.  At one point a major character makes a telephone call to someone.  He desperately needs to meet this person. During the conversation the caller asks the person on the other end: "where are you?"  Now stop.  Think.  This is supposedly 1978. Every telephone is fixed, stationary, unmoving from its location.  Mobile phones don't exist in the general public yet. So, the person making the call should know exactly where he is calling.  The address is in the phone book.  This is a con man? As I said, a slight oversight, barely recognizable in today's cell phone reality.  Wrong nonetheless.

As another a matter of note: Paramount Pictures, one of the largest Hollywood studios, has announced that it will no longer distribute films as printed films.  Future films will be distributed digitally.  All major motion picture studios are expected to follow suit.  It saves money.  So, I suppose technically there will be no "films" anymore.  Just movies.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Neil Young Does Carnegie Hall

Neil Young just finished a four-night sold-out stint at the famous Carnegie Hall.  I have a bootleg CD in my rather robust Neil Young collection of his first performance there in 1970.  He was there again in 1973.  But, last week was the first time he has been back.  This return visit seems of have been a huge success both financially (you can't top four sell-outs) and critically.  My favorite review of one of his performances was from the third night as covered by Vanity Fair magazine.  Those bourgeois intellectuals attempt to parse-out and lyrically judge Neil's songs.  Yet they were all enraptured, stating that Neil "blows Carnegie Hall away."

The Economist even covered the event from the British perspective.  Of course Neil is Canadian so it sort of fits. Billboard was impressed though not enraptured with Neil, labeling the second night's solid performance as "classic performances of classic songs."  But the praise and critique that sets is the standard in rock music is always Rolling Stone which said of the first night, "Neil Young stuns with a spellbinding Carnegie Hall show."  Hard to top that level of achievement in live music.

Neil is a very picky, often short-fused guy.  He was "temperamental" with his audience according to The New York Times.  He chastised them for not being quiet.  Some criticized Neil for getting on to his audience. Eh, whatever.  I recall that he did that in Atlanta at an appearance years ago.  While the outdoor audience got drunk and talked during the performance Neil simply said something to the effect of: "I was playing an acoustic set in Vegas a couple of nights ago.  I don't know what I was thinking.  But, it's good to see a little Vegas in Atlanta tonight."  Then he brought out Crazy Horse and blasted the audience with the loud rocking stuff. 

Only at Carnegie Hall last week Neil did not have Crazy Horse to turn to.  But, he really didn't need them.  The audiences were worshipful and tame for the most part.  Neil also laughed and cut-up with his audience as the above video of Long May You Run demonstrates.  All in all this was a triumphant moment in Neil's long career, a return to his roots music-wise, performing an all-acoustic set on a variety of guitars, two different pianos and an old pump organ that I heard him perform After the Gold Rush upon in 2010.
Late Note:  Jennifer later found this on Facebook and sent it to me.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Big Chill Upon Us

This was our high on Monday.  With 20+ MPH gusts outside. Uber-Brrrr.  For fun compare this reading with the photo I took of this one in 2012.  Quite the contrast.
It is supposed to be uncool to talk about the weather. Hip people from mild climates find discussion of the weather to be mundane, unimaginative, and a sure sign of someone being dull. But, past posts will indicate that rain and snow and wind mean something to me. Living in the countryside, in the serenity of nature, has many advantages but it also amplifies the your vulnerability to the weather.

Earlier this week we experienced the coldest temperatures at my house since 1995. It was 6 degrees at my house Tuesday morning, with a constant breeze and a wild chill of minus 10. Ouch. Fortunately, we knew it was coming and spent a lot of time last weekend (when it was 55 degrees) winterizing our property in ways we haven't done in almost 20 years.

Record lows were set across much of the nation. It was the coldest Arctic blast (as my dad calls these things) in recent times. It is actually a lopsided swing of a constant Arctic weather pattern known as the Polar Vortex.

Now I tend to be an anxious guy. Anxiety is an underlying issue for me and has been for most of my life. I am the natural worrier that my dad's mother was. It is something I generally keep in check. But, when I have clear, rational reason for concern (as opposed to inventing troubles in my head) I tend to spring into action and react frustratingly toward anyone around me who makes light of whatever the impending, inevitable challenge might be.

My primary concern was the plumbing in my crawl space. My house sits on the side of a hill and is rather exposed to the wind. So, when I saw that this big chill would include gusts in excess of 30 miles per hour I knew simply closing my foundation vents wouldn't cut it this time.

But, also living in the countryside, sometimes materials are scarce. I needed something to further seal my vents and help insulate my crawl space against the coming winds. So I rummaged around my pole barn and found an old piece of carpet backing which I hauled down to the house and fashioned into rectangular pieces with a pair of scissors. The pieces were fitted for the vents, most tucking in nicely except for a couple that required some trusty duct tape to secure.

The last time we had a windy "Arctic blast" of this severity my water meter burst down by the road. It sits up on a bank above the surface of the road, exposed to the west. Luckily, the burst was nothing more than a pressure relief valve that the local government was responsible for replacing, even though Jennifer and I recall being out of water for a day or two way back then.

I certainly didn't want a repeat performance of that. The area around the water meter is more overgrown now than it was back in 1995. I thought about covering it some way but really never got around to dealing with it. Instead we simply decided to leave the water dripping in all our internal facets this time. That did the trick and we survived without any water issues.

Our power bill will be a different issue this month. The sunny South is covered with heat pumps for heating and cooling. But heat pumps by themselves a pretty close to worthless in temperatures this cold. Even with using the "emergency heat" setting (which really devours the electricity) the indoor temperature of our house dropped four degrees during the coldest night. Part of my preparation last weekend was to get my two kerosene heaters out of the barn and clean them up. I bought six gallons of K1 last Saturday for $4.59 a gallon, the most I have ever paid for kerosene in my life.

The last time I had the heaters out and cleaned was about a year ago when the tornado blew away my late grandmother's former house about two miles from where I live. We lost power and I was prepared to use the two heaters to keep our house warm in what was moderately cold temperatures in the absence of electricity. But, fortunately, the power came back on before I deployed them, just as I was firing them up for a initial burn in my carport before we brought them inside. Before that it had been many years (before recent warm winters of extended drought) since we had used any kerosene in the house.

When we first built on our property Jennifer and I used kerosene all the time to supplement our heat in the winters. But, we have grown accustomed to not using them and experiencing their residual odor in our home. Kerosene provides wonderful warmth but, even with new wicks and the cleanest fuel, the odor builds up over time in your house as long as you have the heater burning. I lit the heaters outside to keep the initial flame-up odor out of the house. Then I carried the heater inside. Not the safest thing in the world to do but I was careful and only had to carry them a few feet to our living room.

Anyway, having the odor in our house again was not a plus after so many years of not having to deal with it even though we were thankful for the powerful BTUs the heaters put out. They stabilized the temperatures inside within a half hour, taking a bit of the burden off the sputtering, struggling heat pump. Still, the heat pump ran continuously for about 60 hours on either emergency or auxiliary heat which will no doubt be rather expensive when it comes time to pay our power bill.

It got up into the lower 40's today, which felt downright balmy. I checked our crawl space tonight and all is well. We have survived unscathed but for the heating costs which will undoubtedly be high. Tonight the edge of the unusually severe winter weather is gone from my mind though the price tag to the American economy might be as high as $5 billion.

Apparently, this "swing" of the polar vortex was due to a combination of high-pressure systems over Alaska and Greenland. Some also attribute the radical southernly swing to global warming. They claim that the temperature difference between the polar climes and the equator is lessened due to the warming of the Arctic Ocean (and the melting of the northern ice cap). This causes the vortex to "wobble" and spin out of its "normal" geographic confines. Does this mean we will see more of these polar vortex events as global warming continues? Now there's a thought that makes me shiver.