Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Movies You May Have Missed - Adventureland (2009)

Are you a middle-class latent romantic who grew up in the suburbs and came of age during the 80s? I've got the film for you: Adventureland. Even if you don't fall under all those categories, if you stumbled through early adulthood a few decades ago, Greg Mottola's film will provide many enjoyable moments. It's rare for a coming-of-age film to make wit, intelligence, and emotional attachment the basis for a romantic relationship, and the fact that this occurs in a broke-down amusement park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania makes it even more unusual.

Jesse Eisenberg is James, well-read undergrad and very awkward virgin, who's about to traipse across Europe with his well-appointed buddy before starting grad school at Columbia. Unfortunately, his dad suffers a job demotion and financially strapped, James has to take a last-minute summer job at Adventureland where the games are rigged, the employees are prematurely burned out, and the owners are full-on dorks.

Amidst thuggish amusement-park clientele and horndog ride operators, James meets smart, funny co-worker Em, played by naturally pretty Kristen Stewart, whose tendency to mope is well-used here. Despite her comparative worldliness when it comes to relationships, Em is drawn to the kindness in James and since she's young and just figuring out that she doesn't have to settle for assholes (good lesson), this potential pairing makes sense. There's chemistry, I tell you—both actors look genuinely happy in one another's company.

Plus, bonus—Martin Starr as Joel—the most sardonic Russian lit and Slavic languages double-major ever to grace the big screen. And now:

Joel demonstrates to James the wonder-world of amusement park flimflammery. If I were to start a new cruddy job (and I have, many times), I would want a funny and dark voice-of-reason like Joel to ease me into it.

Thanks to a big bag of weed James European-bound friend bequeathed before departure, James is everyone's new pal at Adventureland, leading to potential romance with Em, who's bound for NYU in the fall. Adventureland is a real intellectual think-tank.

Except for all the lunkheads, nauseous pre-teens, and park owners, Bobby and Paulette (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig—weirdly hilarious, and strangely in tune with one another). Bobby's enthusiasm for all things Adventureland is like watching a cult-leader with a follower of one, his wife with the blank blue eyes.

Em drives an AMC Pacer, adding to the ambiance. The entire town could be so many places during the 80s. Old cars, bad clothes, unkempt appearances—we haven't changed much.

What a fine time for romance. This was a very depressed economic era for young people starting out. Jobs were crappy and low-paying and it didn't pick up for a long time. Screw Reagan and his followers.

The incomparable Martin Starr as Joel. The casual, hardcore partying of the era is well-represented in Adventureland. Nobody worried about addiction or health issues in general. It was good times, all the time. Also economically depressed. Could be a correlation.

Jesse Eisenberg can be a romantic lead. It's plausible.

There's not a lot of fancy camera-work, but I like this peep into opening an amusement park for a day of fun and money-making. Most movies about workplaces don't show much of the work getting done. Here's a brief glimpse of marginal existence on the job.

The arrival of Lisa P. sends carny hearts a-flutter. The rare film where the beauty is not always the focus of attention. It happens, just not in the movies so much.

Em, with her Buzzcocks, Lou Reed, and Aladdin Sane bedroom posters, is definitely the girl you want to be with.

James gives Em a mix-tape—the equivalent of his heart on a platter, surrounded by chocolates, flowers and affectionate note-cards in flower script. In this case, Lou Reed, Big Star, The Replacements and maybe some early Cure. James, Em's, and Adventureland's musical taste are impeccable.

Warning, out of all the fine songs on the soundtrack, Falco's Rock Me Amadeus is the one that will stick in your head for weeks afterward. James and Joel even comment on the sadistic nature of this in one of their scenes.

Let's hear it for the extras in Adventureland—brave wardrobe-challenged 80s-era background warriors.

The arcade is the perfect place to unwind and bond while talking gaming strategy.

Impromptu pot-smoking dates in abandoned carnival rides are full of youthful atmosphere without getting too nostalgic.

Bobby and Paulette really go for it at all times. The humor in this film is of the gentle variety, but these two manage to clown it up and still be believable employer kooks.

Hail, extra, in this tube-sock ensemble.

I love this sequence with Joel eating a corndog while Em and James connect during fireworks night. How many films focus sympathetically on the feelings of the third wheel? Later, he will try to impress a girl by lending her a book by his favorite author, Gogol, who, he pleasantly explains, burned all his manuscripts and then died a week later of self-starvation.

Who will be the courageous producer that sees Martin Starr as star, rather than side-kick? I think he can pull it off.

Oh yeah, there's Ryan Reynolds as Mike, who draws in the ladies by claiming he once played with Lou Reed. The thread of Lou Reed-worship running throughout is timely, given his sad passing recently. 1987-era Lou Reed was beloved for his Velvet Underground and early solo-career-cool. And it's easy to fall into that same feeling while watching the film. 

Reynolds seems likable, but those beady eyes... Proceed with caution.

Don't be completely fooled by the trailer—it's not all wacky high-jinks. There's dysfunctional family problems causing subconscious strife and self-destructive behaviors among these not-quite-adult characters. That's what elevates this comedy into something more personal and "real."

Who would like this film:
  • Sensitive people
  • People of the 80s
  • People who like good music from the 80s
  • The humorous
  • The well-read
  • Carny wannabes

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Diablo Valley Railroad - Model Trains and Miniatures

The Walnut Creek Model Railroad Society has opened its doors to the public, this weekend and next (otherwise open most Friday evenings throughout the year while members work on the line) and is a good experience for all ages. I've written about this permanently housed model railroad before, so this is mostly a photo post. I am such a sucker for a finely detailed miniature world. And this HO scale railroad line is teeny-tiny and very detailed.

First, the layout. I don't have the most advanced of digital cameras, so my flash tends to blow out foregrounds on wide shots in dark spaces (what a fascinating sentence to draw you in). Anyway, this is just to give you an idea of the space. You circle around the building to see the entire layout (4,300 feet of track) and at one point enter a tunnel-like hallway (where little trains tunnel along the wall with you). The other side of the building has a Jurassic Park diorama and a model of the only "real" place represented, featuring a miniature of the only electric train ferry to exist in the U.S., once based in nearby Pittsburg, California.

Guys up in the mezzanine running the show, like model train Gods.

I was really drawn to the teeny-tiny circus with working Ferris wheel and carousel. I think they've added more circus-parade train cars this year.

Feel free to use this close-up of "The Largest Blood-Sweating Hippopotamus" as your Google+ profile banner. I'm putting it out there in the public domain.

Yay! Going to the tiny circus!

Tiny sideshow!
Tiny elephants!

Every half-hour on the hour, the overhead lights slowly dim until it's "nighttime" on the set. Lights come up in all the tiny railroad towns and lightning and thunder effects start happening. Then it rains on you—for real. Water pipes overhead drop rain down. It really surprised me, especially when it landed on my camera. The circus looks like this at night:

Hey, let's go to town.

Town during the day.

Town at night. The Olympic Theater marquee advertises My Little Chickadee, starring Mae West and W.C. Fields. My kind of town.

I noticed a little building off the beaten path during the night sequence. All its windows were lit red. Is that what I think it is?, I thought. Come the daylight a few minutes later, I had my answer.

Yes, it's a tiny whorehouse—The Scarlet Slipper. And it looks to be a popular destination for tiny-town dwellers, even though it's tucked away outside town limits, and there's no visible road leading to it. Hey, every little western town had at least one, and more likely half-a-dozen of these. Don't kid yourselves.

Turn away, children!

Where are more family-friendly environs? How about Jurassic Park for camping, fishing and hiking aplenty.

Another great potential Google+ banner from me to you. Happy holidays.

Stay on the path, Timmy.

Train guys behind (and underneath) the scenes, doing their engineering.

I think the railroad baron lives in this tiny castle. Either that, or a tiny vampire.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

San Francisco's early-80s bands for inspiration

I just finished a big collaborative creative-writing project with my friend, who I met in the early 80s. What did we write about? The early 80s! Particularly the early 80s in San Francisco. If you weren't living there at that juncture in time, I can't do it justice in this little post here. It was a Whole Other World, I assure you.

I needed a lot of musical inspiration to write this thing, and since the 80s were a ripe musical time in the City by the Bay (remember Journey?—they were HUGE), I had much to choose from. This was when musicians (who weren't in Journey) could afford to live in San Francisco—crazy times!

The Mutants - Opposite World. The Mutants were such a special band of weirdos that they actually wore paper bags on their heads for this MTV video and for entertainment value, lit them on fire. Occasionally they do a reunion show and you should go. So should I. I saw them once on New Year's Eve as a youth and I swear they genuinely were mutating on the stage. I can't imagine what could have caused that.

New Drug. Punk-new-wave-sardonic-dance music.

Twisted Thing - San Francisco had its share of improv actors and comedians who seamlessly blended within the musical world, making for rich musical theater.

Insect Lounge - with the late Dirk Dirksen at the On Broadway, in the ancient year of 1984. This is a typical Mutants show, just so you know.

Let's move on to The Black Athletes—skate punks who would show up (or not, you never knew) and play an all-punk or all-ska/reggae show. It was random, like winning a lottery. They were a very tight band, a very mysterious band—evocative. And they rarely recorded anything. There's a cassette floating around with a bunch of their songs. I might try to archive that on the Internet somehow. I'll need my helpers and will get back to you on that. Die Laughing is very Fugazi-like.

The Residents - One-Minute Movies, from "The Commercial Album," featuring the late Snakefinger on guitar. These videos were on MTV occasionally—for real. Great low-budget creative weirdness. You can totally see how Journey came out of this.

Man's World  - Residents' song covers were...something else.

There can be no creative-writing project about early-80s San Francisco without Flipper's Ha Ha Ha. That's just how it is.

Sex Bomb - The one and only Flipper show I attended (at the Mab in North Beach) was so fraught with tension, angst, and God knows what chemical substances, that one band member walked offstage as the show began, leaving the band to recruit someone from the audience. They got a guy in the mosh pit to play guitar on Sex Bomb, and jammed on that riff for 30 minutes. They then left the stage for good. Hail, Flipper.

Pop-O-Pies - In Frisco. This is a reunion clip. The original song resides in record collections only and it's a true mess. But a glorious one. I remember the first time I heard this because nobody was supposed to call it "Frisco." That was considered tourist word usage only. Joe Pop-O-Pie was all about appropriating lingo to his own ends, dripping with deadpan irony. Ah, youth.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Rivendell Bike Book & Hatchet - Walnut Creek's Weirdest Store

It says so right on the sign.

A little context: Rivendell Bicycle Works is a unique company, making steel-frame bikes with tender loving care since 1994. Rivendell has always worked on old-fashioned principles of communication and hand-crafting and as such, the owner, Grant Petersen, has been writing his own newsletter since the company formed. If I were to summarize his bicycle philosophy, I would say: ride a bike like when you were a kid. Have fun, be comfortable, ride with friends, put stuff in your bike basket and head out.

Rivendell Bike Book & Hatchet is Rivendell's new store in downtown Walnut Creek that displays their bikes, has a wonderful selection of classic children's literature (including Edward Lear's A Book of Nonsense—a must-have), and hatchets—a wall of them. And you can split some wood at the store so you're assured of buying the right hatchet for your household.

All around the store hang these little signs, made of wood and twine, written with what must be a wood-burning kit, like you got for Christmas in 1974. This sign is in the front window and reads: average daily sales for the first 20 days of operations were, like, about $352...which, of course, isn't exactly sustainable—but, you know, things will, pick up as we get closer to hatchet season—which runs from Thanksgiving to Father's Day, which you know, generally arrives mid-June.

This is probably my favorite store sign of all time. It's so honest and straight-forward and optimistic.

Jackson models next to Rivendell's antique typewriter. You can type out suggestions on index cards and post them to the bulletin board, which promises to answer all suggestions—eventually.

I confidently stepped up to the typewriter to compliment the store on its book selection and to suggest some Jane Austen in the future. I learned on a typewriter much like this, so I had no fear. But this typewriter was a doozy. I had to really punch those keys. I ended up index-fingering it, like a newspaper reporter in a pre-code movie. But I managed to get through it and it was a satisfying form of communication.

So what can we take away from this shopping experience? Well, everyone at Rivendell is really, really nice. They gave Jackson a fine Frisbee that is now one of our favorites. They tried not to charge Keith for some IVO lip balm, but Keith insisted on paying. Maybe they felt bad about running out of pine tar soap. Grant thinks they might be the largest distributor of pine tar soap in the U.S. They're getting more—don't worry.

Anyway, shopping should be personable, fun, and sometimes weird, and this store covers all its bases nicely. And the books are great. I hope they get a bigger selection, because any store that promotes Robert McCloskey's Blueberries for Sal wholeheartedly is a good neighborhood store indeed.

Rivendell also has a bike showroom in Walnut Creek and you can test-ride bikes there. The new Bike Book & Hatchet is throwing a Grand Opening celebration December 14th: details. This very pleasant video introduces the people who make up Rivendell.

Disclosure: we've known Grant for a long time, though we really need to see more of him. I'm glad his presence has made its way downtown. Grant's Blog.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Random Image Post with Random Ramblings

I was tidying up today. Got rid of a ton of bulky clothes, file folders full of old property deeds and all sorts of this-and-that. One folder was labeled: Fancy Paper, and it was full of just that: handmade papers, containing pulp, flecks, leaves and string. It symbolized so much of what I choose to keep, give away, or toss. I kept the fancy paper, but the old tax records—they will go (in five years).

I cleaned up my digital files as well and here's some random images I came upon. I'm keeping all this, you betcha. Commentary is strictly off the top of my head. Anyone looking for images: this is what I call my "SEO stew."

Does anyone remember the 1970 Sid and Marty Krofft show The Bugaloos? It's pretty awful. These British fairy-folk and their ugly little pal, Sparky with a light-up butt, live in a Tranquility Forest, playing in their power-pop band while teaching lessons about sharing and not being afraid and tripping as hard as is humanly possible. 

A touching scene from The Bugaloos
And now the theme song will be stuck in your head for all of eternity:

Flower power to the MAX.

What else? Recently I read Lawrence Wright's dread-inducing expose, Going Clear - Scientology, Hollywood, & The Prison of Belief. Oh my God—madness, manipulation, mind control. Plus beat-downs, extortion, bullshit, and much about this entitled, unofficial spokesperson:

This image, from a leaked Scientology-produced interview, is so terrifying to me—like someone possessed in a Stephen King book. Doesn't Tom Cruise look like he wants to eat you? And chew on your soul for a while, like it's a piece of soul jerky. And then afterward pick his teeth with a gold toothpick manufactured by hundreds of Scientologist children, who labored in the high desert mountains for years, panning and digging and trawling for minerals, only seeing their Sea Org-bound parents twice a year, and for only a few minutes at a time, while inexperienced minions barely watched over them, having signed billion-year contracts to...

Oh, Jesus. Just read the book. It's truly horrible what this "religion" does to its followers.

And while you're at it, see The Master, which won't admit it's about that schizophrenic-spectrum sociopath, L. Ron Hubbard, but it is.

Ahh, look at Dinosaur Jr., before they were Dinosaur Jr. They started out in 1985 as Dinosaur, but this band of old musical farts from San Francisco, called The Dinosaurs, threatened to sue these three young fellows from Massachusetts over name infringement.

So they changed their name and were thoroughly great and a big influence on grunge, a few years down the road. J Mascis played guitar like he was channeling every radio hit from the '70s into one lunatic sonic boom featuring the ultimate in blistering guitar solos. He called it psychedelic country. Good deal.

Look, the Jackson 5. I loved the Jackson 5 so much when I was a kid. They brought great musical joy into my life. Michael was so phenomenal. His dad told everyone he was eight years old when he was really eleven, just to make him seem that much more amazing, but that was unnecessary (and unethical). We could all see and hear how amazing he was. The amount of hours and yes, misery, it must have taken to get the Jackson kids to this level of professionalism cannot be underestimated. I mean, I can't get my kid to watch The Iron Giant with me, though I know he'd love it. Perhaps growing up in a tiny house in Gary, Indiana is its own motivation.

Do you know how many hours my friends and I spent doing The Robot to this song? Untold hours.

Have we reached maximum SPIROMANIA yet?

Hell yeah, Spirograph

OK, one more. Now that I've cleaned up a little around here, it's time for some light dusting and vacuuming. I like to look my best while I clean house, because then I feel at my best. And that's what counts.