Monday, December 29, 2014

Aubrey Plaza Film Career in Fits and Starts with The To Do List

Aubrey Plaza is one of the main reasons I have continued watching Parks and Recreation all these years. She's now making the leap to movies and it seemed like the first place I should start is The To Do List, which got fairly positive reviews.

She plays Brandy Clarke, a high-school valedictorian who is inexperienced in many ways. Based on all the things her more experienced sister and mother tell her, she creates a to-do list of sex moves to perform during the summer before college, culminating in going all the way with cheeseball hottie and lifeguard rocker Rusty Waters, played pretty hilariously by Scott Porter of Jason Street fame in TV's Friday Night Lights. Her conservative, Rush Limbaugh-leaning judge dad is also pretty funny, although nowhere near the league of Ted Knight's high-bar-setting Judge Smails in Caddyshack.

Despite the all-star cast, including Bill Hader, Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Connie Britton, and Andy Samburg, not many laughs stick, and some bits, like the Beaches song and Caddyshack poop-in-the-pool take-offs, are plain painful to watch.

Plaza's movie career is starting in fits and starts. Safety Not Guaranteed was good but not great. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World was pretty average, and I don't think I can even consider watching Life After Beth.

Get it together April Ludgate. Parks and Recreation is about to end.

**1/2 out of ***** stars

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Yo La Tengo Digs Deep into Songlist for 30th Anniversary Show

I hadn't seen Hoboken, New Jersey's finest, Yo La Tengo since the mid-90s, when they played in St. Louis on the Painful tour (still their best album) and also in an intimate setting in the basement of Washington University's student center, where leader Ira Kaplan proceeded to pound his keyboard with precision and play guitar solos like Jimi Hendrix.

I loved the band's early albums like May I Sing With Me and New Wave Hot Dogs. But I haven't been all that into their less poppy, more spacey releases of the past decade-and-a-half.

That's why this special "Yo La Tengo at 30" tour in only New York, Philadelphia, and D.C. appeared to be the perfect show. A career-spanning set rather than a show that would focus on the new stuff. And the band didn't disappoint, especially at the start of the night.

"Ohm," the one great song from their newest album, began the show churning at just the right pace. Then "Double Dare" from Painful soared with its diving guitar parts. Their loud-soft dynamic was displayed with a few numbers, including "Beanbag Chair" from Electropura.

The full house was then treated to oldies like "Lewis" from New Wave Hot Dogs, "The Pain of Pain" from debut Ride the Tiger, and "Satellite" from May I Sing With Me.

Late in the show, when Kaplan wasn't doing his patented freak outs, highlights included covers of "Little Honda" by the Beach Boys and "Take Care" by Big Star, along with original "Autumn Sweater."

This was by no means a best-of setlist, but it also displayed just how deep and enjoyable Yo La Tengo's catalog is over its 30-year life thus far.

Lambchop opened and convincingly played its brand of slow, mostly-quiet folk.

**** out of ***** stars

Photo by Peter Hutchins.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Cate Blanchett Cracks Up in Blue Jasmine

For last year's Blue Jasmine, Director Woody Allen was clearly inspired by the whole Bernie Madoff financial mess. It's a dramedy about a woman named Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) whose mental state is collapsing from years of fooling herself into thinking her husband (Alec Baldwin) is a good and honest man.

At the start of the film, Jasmine is leaving her once-lavish life in New York to go live with her distant sister in San Francisco. It opens as she is trying to rationalize her living-in-denial life to a complete stranger in the airport. Through a series of flashbacks, we see how she got to this point as she tries to pull it back together out west. 

Some critics said the movie is Allen's dig at his ex-wife Mia Farrow, with whom he has had an ugly, lengthy, public falling out. Whatever the case, Blanchett is nothing short of spellbinding as a cracked person. It's no wonder she won just about every best-actress trophy last year, including the Oscar.

As for where Blue Jasmine fits within my list of Woody Allen's best films, I say it's his eighth best, right after Vicky Christina Barcelona and before Everyone Says I Love You.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Pop Culture Ephemera: 4-Star Books and Films That Everyone Has Already Seen

Here are a few items I've seen and read in the past several months.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - Yes, I know, I'm the last person in the world to get around to reading the first Harry Potter book. At least I saw the movie version years ago. But my excuse is that I was waiting to read it with Jackson, who was six last summer when we read it.

It's tough to argue against a book that seems to have improved literacy among an entire generation of kids. And it is a very entertaining book, although I was a little disappointed that more didn't happen in the story. It feels like author J.K. Rowling wanted to spread the plot out a little thin over the entire series to come.

The evil Lord Voldemort kills James and Lily Potter. Son Harry is orphaned to the terrible Dursley family. Ten years later, Hagrid saves him and takes him to Hogwarts wizard school. Harry makes friends with Ron and Hermione and becomes a star Quidditch player. At the end, Dumbledore tells Harry that his mother sacrificed her life to save Harry, and Voldemort didn't understand such a thing as this - love.

**** out of ***** stars

The Road - I also read and loved this Cormac McCarthy novel (my #56 all-time favorite) about a father and his son attempting to survive in a post-apocalyptic world gone mad. In the movie version from 2009, they walk down endless roads, just trying to survive, find food, and avoid flesh-eating gangs. It is unbearably sad, but probably as poignant an apocalypse movie as has ever been created. Anyone who's ever known the power of a father-son bond can't help but be moved.

**** out of ***** stars

Daddy Day Care - I had no expectations when I started watching this kids film, but then I got into it almost immediately and loved it by the end. I mean, really, how wrong can you go with Eddie Murphy, Jeff Garlin, and a bunch of cute kids?

Murphy is a marketing exec who gets laid off and, unhappy with his son's daycare run by Anjelica Huston, starts his own with fellow marketer Garlin.

You could do much worse watching a movie with your kids.

**** out of ***** stars

Friday, November 28, 2014

Giving Thanks to Professor Bill Ward's Life Lessons in Journalism

Professor Ward
A couple of weeks ago, I found out through Facebook that my top professional mentor, Bill Ward, had died at the age of 85.

Since moving to Washington D.C. 15 years ago, I had known Professor Ward, the title all his students knew him by, had lived in nearby Reston, Virginia since his retirement from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. And I had always regretted not somehow reuniting with him out here on the East Coast.

At least we followed each other online and he occasionally sent me his latest compilations of poetry through the mail. I've always sensed that SIUE was one of the hidden-gem journalism schools in the country and, because of Professor Ward and Nora Baker, who also died this year, the nowhere school of very little acclaim was the source behind dozens or hundreds of the country's best and most driven and successful journalists, PR pros, and law professors who studied under Ward and Baker.

Bill Plaschke
Bill Plaschke, an L.A. Times sportswriter who Professor Ward often referenced in my classes and was one of Ward's most acclaimed students, wrote a captivating eulogy this Thanksgiving to Professor Ward. Here are the parts of his article that seem equally like snippets of my undergrad life back in those hallowed SIUE journalism halls:

  • I was wandering the empty halls of SIUE, a state college in a swatch of pastures and woods down the highway from my parents' home. I walked into that cluttered closet [Ward's office] to announce my presence. That's where I first saw him, a middle-aged man who appeared to be a combination of Albert Einstein and Mr. Peabody, piles of frizzy white hair atop black horn-rimmed glasses, dressed in mounds of corduroy and surrounded by piles of newspapers. His name was Bill Ward.
  • Professor Ward had created an environment where everyone would be given a fair chance, where even the worst of budding journalists would be evaluated with no judgment, no bias, and best of all, no ceilings. Professor Ward's first lesson was that it was OK to dream. And then he taught me to write. Those human interest stories that appear in this space often enough to make hardcore sports fans shudder ... blame Professor Ward. He insisted sports was never really about sports, but about the people who played them. "The best thing about sports is its humanity," he would say. "Write the humanity."
  • Those short sentences and paragraphs in this column that drive everyone nuts ... Professor Ward again. He taught me to write as if I were having a conversation with readers around a campfire, nudging, explaining, infuriating, using my words to make them laugh or cry or think. "Write like you talk," he would say, and by now most folks know I talk fast and in spurts.
  • Professor Ward taught those lessons to a generation of budding SIUE journalists with a loud snort and an iron fist. He was my toughest editor. He was my harshest reader. He ran our small and obscure department as if it were a daily newspaper. If your copy was filled with typos or misspellings, you flunked the assignment. If you missed any deadline, you flunked the project.
  • I don't think I ever received an A. I don't think I ever even received an attaboy. Professor Ward had so much faith in me, in everybody, that we could never be good enough to justify it. I thought my sights were set impossibly high. He set them higher. Show up earlier than everyone. Stay later. Work harder.
  • From that cubbyhole he built one of the nation's top journalism programs. Our funny four-letter school would regularly beat the likes of Missouri and Northwestern in college writing competitions. They would enter stories about big-time college athletics, and we would enter a Keith Schopp story about a morbidly obese failed college wrestler that began, "The big man laughs."
  • It turned out I was not the best writer to study journalism at SIUE under Professor Ward. I'm not even the best Los Angeles Times writer to come out of his program. That would be our investigative reporter Paige St. John, a Pulitzer Prize winner, who would often sneak into a closed mass communications building and spend all night finishing her projects. "I sense I have not yet fulfilled his aspirations for me," she said this week.
I imagine that all of Professor Ward's students feel equally that they have not yet fulfilled his aspirations for us.

Paul McCartney On the Run in the 1970s

In the introduction to a new biography of Paul McCartney's surprisingly under-reported 1970s era, author Tom Doyle discovers a very human side to a person oft-perceived only as an international and almost beyond-human treasure.

"Between 1969 and 1981, McCartney was a man on the run - from his recent past as a Beatle, from his horrendous split with his bandmates, from the towering expectation that surrounded his every move. Behind his lasting image during that period as a Bambi-eyed soft-rock balladeer, he was actually a far more counterculturally leaning individual (albeit one overshadowed by the light-sucking John Lennon) than he was ever given credit for - freewheeling in his hippified way, taking to the road with "a bunch of nutters" for an impromptu, disorganized university tour with the proto-Wings, viewing the world through perma-stoned eyes, and defiantly continuing to flip off the authorities the world over who sought to criminalize him, all the while adopting a shrugging, amused attitude to it all."

Here are some other nuggets from the opening of Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s that have my mouth watering to get back to the rest of the book soon.

  • As 9/11 unfolded, McCartney was parked on the runway of JFK Airport in a commercial jet that was suddenly going nowhere.
  • He can't really use an iPod because the headphone system of listening to music reminds him too much of working in the studio.
  • He has his misgivings about reporters, which isn't surprising given all his years spent in the tabloids. "But they're not bastards, they're lovable rogues. They're just not as lovable as they used to be," he says.
  • He once hit a photographer, but it luckily didn't get reported. "I think he thought he deserved it."
  • "His eccentricity often gets lost behind his deceptive facade of straightness," Doyle writes.
  • In the late 60s, he thought about recording an album called Paul McCartney Goes Too Far, but he never did. "I was such a daring young thing. We were on this wacky adventure," he said.

Gone Girl Can't Help But Be Good in Movie Form

I wonder what the people in the theater who hadn't already read Gone Girl thought of the movie.

I loved the book as an enjoyable page-turner, and I enjoyed the movie as well. But it followed the book almost exactly, so all the Hitchcockian suspense was a little ruined by my prior knowledge of what was coming next.

Leaving that behind, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike turn in really good performances as a fairly unlikeable man and his disappeared wife. Especially Pike, whose deep-throated blonde-bombshell performance clearly echoes and pays homage to the great Alfred Hitchcock leading ladies Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, Janet Leigh, and Tippi Hedren.

David Fincher certainly doesn't hurt his already impressive resume of film direction, which includes Seven, Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

That said, Gone Girl was such a great book that it was a bit of a softball of an easy home run to turn into a movie.

**** out of ***** stars

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Classic Reads: The Battle of Good and Evil Summed Up in Moby Dick

Moby Dick is probably the greatest tale of good versus evil ever written.

Herman Melville wrestled throughout his epic novel with how man fits into the universe and, while the white whale may seem like the evil one for the book's generations of young readers, Captain Ahab is certainly far worse for his over-the-top obsession to kill the whale.

The story begins with Ishmael, a schoolmaster from Massachusetts who is left empty by his job and heads to New Bedford to find a new one on a whaling ship. The night before setting sail, he meets and befriends a bizarre fellow named Queequeg. They both set sail on the Pequod, a Quaker-owned whaler from Nantucket.

Starbuck and Stubb are in command at first because the mysterious captain remains in his cabin. But then, after a few days, the harsh Ahab appears, not with a wooden leg but with one made of whale bone. He is also scarred along his face down into his collar, making it look like it runs the length of his whole body.

Ahab announces that he will give a prize of gold to the first person on the ship to spot the great white whale Moby Dick. Starbuck and Stubb think Ahab is crazy and that he is bound to lose more than just his one leg to the sea monster. Not to mention that the whale would probably kill them all.

The Pequod encounters other ships whose captains warn Ahab not to seek out the whale. One English captain even has a fake arm also made of whale bone. Finally the crew receives enough clues that "there she blows" is soon uttered and, almost just as soon, the whale dives under the ship and splits it to pieces.

As the men engage in a torturous battle with the creature, Moby Dick becomes more and more listless. The rope from Ahab's flung harpoon coils around his neck and rips him into the water. All the crew is lost except Ishmael, who incidentally tells the tale.

Moby Dick is no doubt a must-read for everyone.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Best Magazine Reads: Freddie Mercury Was the Messenger of the Gods

Although I've never been a massive Queen fan, catchy songs like "Killer Queen," "You're My Best Friend," and "Under Pressure" are undeniably high in the rock cannon.

And when writer Mikal Gilmore has an article in Rolling Stone, I know it's going to be loaded with nuggets about the debauchery of whichever classic-rock act he's researched. Here's what I learned recently about Queen:

1. I knew Freddie Mercury grew up in Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa because I visited the Freddie Mercury gift shop there while on honeymoon in 2005. But I didn't recall his real name growing up there was Farrokh Bulsara, or that he went by the nickname of "Bucky" because of his teeth, a topic he was sensitive about his whole life. Teachers, instead, began affectionately calling him Freddie and he embraced it.

2. With British Colonial rule ending in 1964, riots broke out in Zanzibar and Mercury's family moved to England right at the time it began swinging with the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

3. The name Mercury was a reference to the Roman messenger of the gods.

4. It took Mercury a long time to realize he was gay. He always thought he liked women. Even till the end of his life, he referred to Mary Austin, his personal secretary and advisor, as his common-law wife.

5. Queen stopped touring the U.S. after 1982 because its audiences were the least accepting of Mercury's flamboyant stage persona. As guitarist Brian May said, there was always some other place that loved them a lot more than America and could let them be themselves.

6. Mercury's feelings were hurt when nobody from the band was invited to participate in Bob Geldolf's "Do They It's Christmastime?" But Geldolf invited them to play Live Aid London in 1985 and the band stole the show.

7. One day after Mercury finally announced to the world that he had AIDS, he died at age 45. Aretha Franklin sang at his funeral and he was cremated. Mary Austin placed his ashes in a location that has never been announced.

American Milkshake Looks at High-School Life in D.C. During the O.J. Years

American Milkshake is a fairly unknown Sundance high-school drama about a street- and book-smart white kid in Washington D.C. who attends a magnet school to avoid the "dorks" at what would have been his regular school.

All he wants to be is black, like the majority of students at the school and on the varsity basketball team that he makes as a token white person.

He dates a black girl. He later dates an Hispanic girl. He thinks dating these two girls at once is "dope" and will give him the street cred he so desires.

The filmmakers seem to have a good grasp on the silliness of Jolie Jolson - yes, he's a direct descendant of Al Jolson, made famous long ago for his song-and-dance routines in blackface - and the film makes a nice arc to display his coming of age and a certain level of maturity by film's end.

The last line of American Milkshake is hilarious and makes the movie both believable and inconsequential at the same time. That said, there is something very lovable about Jolie, played with a  knowing smirk by Tyler Ross, who doesn't even have an entry on Wikipedia!

With the O.J. Simpson trial happening throughout the background of the story, set in Jolie's senior year, this is a nice trip down memory lane of the mid-1990s, when Netscape was just beginning to rear its head and face-to-face relationships were the only relationships.

**** out of ***** stars

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dramatic Range, With a Touch of Children's Hospital, Sparks In a World ...

If I weren't already a fan of Children's Hospital, sort of a beyond-bizarre version of Scrubs, I'm not sure what I would think of this In a World ...

Lake Bell stars, writes, directs, and produces this indie comic-drama. Children's Hospital's Rob Corddry and Ken Marino also have significant parts.

But the comparisons end there. This is not a wacko goofy film. If anything, it is almost a documentary on the competitive world of actors vying for voiceover parts in films and trailers.

Bell's character is the daughter of a legendary voiceover artist who is not ready to cede his roles to her. She wins a part that he wants. Family dysfunction ensues.

Even as a fan of many of these actors (and there are many many guest appearances from comedy and film stars), it took me nearly half the picture to warm up to them and feel like I cared about the niche industry of voiceover.

By the end, the characters and the story are absorbing. The filmmakers even achieve giving Corddry dramatic range.

***1/2 out of ***** stars

Monday, September 29, 2014

Classic Reads: Beowulf Teaches Us That Striving Doesn't Have to Be All About Success

It didn't take reality TV for people to want to be famous.

In college, as I studied English literature, I focused more on the significance of the mnemonic devices used by Northern Europeans to translate Beowulf over generations.

Taking a look back now, the morals of the story from a vicious time in the Sixth Century are perhaps equally as interesting. We learn that it is striving rather than success itself that "reveals and ennobles the true hero."

Beowulf is a warrior and principal advisor to the king of the land of Geats, located in what is today south Sweden and Denmark. He learns of a monster called Grendel that is devouring groups of humans. Beowulf travels to battle the monster. He fails to kill him but rips off his arm before the monster escapes.

Grendel's mother is furious and goes to find Beowulf. She almost succeeds in killing him, but he reaches for a sword nearby and plunges it through the monster's heart. He then beheads Grendel.

The story picks up many years later when Beowulf is an old man and king of the Geats. One day, he kills a dragon, but in the process, the dragon bites Beowulf in the neck, which kills him as well. 

Beowulf's ability to step up when needed and provide heroic acts is what endeared him to his people, and their love of him has powerfully been translated through all these years. At his funeral, his people said, "Of worldly kings, he was the mildest of men and the gentlest, most kind to his people, most eager for fame."

Find the other parts of this ongoing series of "Classic Reads" in the Books section.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Placing the Microscope on Our High-School Years with Curtis Sittenfeld

There are those moments during your high-school years when things seem so lucid, so crystal clear, so in-the-moment.

Your friends are five minutes late to pick you up to go to a party and each second seems to drip by in agony and longing. Your eyes constantly search for the girl you would move mountains for, even though she barely knows you exist or, at the very least, is too preoccupied with much older boys.

Curtis Sittenfeld, in her debut novel Prep, is a master at articulating, with such precision (and how difficult it must have been to remember so many details about adolescence?), the way we were growing up. Towards the end, a couple of lines sum up what the book is about:
"I've never paid as close attention to my life or anyone else's as I did then. I remember myself as often unhappy at Ault, and yet my unhappiness was so alert and expectant; really, it was, in its energy, not that different from happiness."
Those words are uttered by Prep's protagonist, Lee Fiora, who leaves home in South Bend, Indiana for the prestigious boarding school, Ault, near Boston, which is no doubt helped shaped by the author's years of teaching at Washington D.C.'s St. Alban's preparatory academy.

Lee mostly stands in the background during her four years at the school, observing others and mostly bouncing idea after idea and thought after thought around in her own very unsure, unformed mind. In that sense, it's a true coming-of-age story, reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye or Ethan Canin's novels, but with an even sharper microscope.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Pop-Culture Catch Up: Rum Diary, Enough Said, and Frozen

I'm not going to lie. Having two kids is often more difficult than having one. By the end of so many days, I can barely keep my eyes open long enough to read one magazine article, let alone devour something of pop-culture value and then report its worth back to you, my fine and faithful readers.

That said, it's time to catch up with a few artifacts I've explored over the past weeks. And, I'll try to start blogging more regularly again after a pretty unimpressive summer collection of quantity and quality.

The Rum Diary is the first Hunter S. Thompson I've read since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas back in college. The "long lost novel" was apparently written in the 1960s and not published until 1998. It is basically the tale of Hunter himself (under the name Paul) going from New York to live and work at a newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

He carouses with the lowlifes who work at the paper and risks life daily drinking and fighting and romancing in a foreign land. It's the epitome of gonzo journalistic writing and serves as an underrated highlight of Thompson's prodigious career. Johnny Depp found the manuscript and had it published, then starred in the movie, which I should now go see for the first time.

**** out of ***** stars

Enough Said is a small rom-com that gains weight by the very fact that it was about the last thing James Gandolfini filmed before his death. Julia Louis-Dreyfus seems a little less great than usual in the film, despite very positive reviews.

The couple wins me over by the end as they suffer a series of setbacks while firing up an unlikely romance, but I still was a little disappointed and not that impressed with the overall story, general awkwardness, and pacing of this film.

*** out of ***** stars

Frozen is of course all the rage with the youngsters, but I was bored silly, wishing I could rematch The Lego Movie, The Jungle Book, Snow White, or any other kid movie.

Tip of the hat to Disney for making it about the importance of family instead of the usual fare of the importance of the prince. But if I have to hear someone else humming or singing "Let It Go" again, who knows what I'll do. Bad music in a hack of a story. It doesn't help that I don't particularly like any of the actors behind the voices.

Way overrated and hopefully will lose some of its runaway-hit momentum as soon as some better Disney films are released.

** out of ***** stars

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Yes, We Could Get More Stupid, and Idiocracy Shows Us How

It's believed that Mike Judge's 2006 sci-fi comedy Idiocracy was released in far fewer theaters because of the way companies like Starbucks and Carl's Jr. were portrayed in it.

Fox, the distributor, allegedly didn't like that its advertisers were being treated unkindly. This is probably just one of many reasons to, even now, eight years later, watch the movie, which runs from time to time on cable TV.

I caught it on Comedy Central last night and thought it was hilarious. Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph play an average soldier and a prostitute respectively who get shipped 500 years into the future in a military experiment gone awry.

Once there, they encounter an America that has seen its gene pool deteriorate to the point where nobody is literate and people sit on their toilet loungers watching TV shows that make today's reality television look like Lawrence of Arabia.

Someone could easily say Idiocracy is, like what the Washington Post called the musical comedy I wrote with Dan Sullivan called Wiener Sausage: The Musical!, "tasteless and popular." But you can't even really say that. Sure, it's tasteless, but not many people saw it. Over the years, it has built a cult following and is becoming relatively more popular.

But if you're a fan of other Judge offerings, like Beavis and Butt-Head, Office Space, and Extract, go quickly to your DVR to schedule Idiocracy.

**** out of ***** stars

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Wiggle, Protected Lanes, and Bikeshare Bring Hope to San Francisco Bicycle Commuting

This article was originally published at Mobility Lab.

I got to explore San Francisco by bicycle over a couple of days during this month’s crucially educational Association for Commuter Transportation conference.

There’s no doubt the city is a leader at promoting bike riding. However, even in San Francisco, where dozens of riders pour down the protected bike lanes of Market Street every minute all day long, it is amazing that so much work remains to get Americans on board with doing something fun, healthy, efficient, and, yes, safe. (I mean, like, radically safe. So safe, in fact, that there has never been a death of anyone on a U.S. bikeshare bike.)

Start with the numbers: Commuter stats are a way to get a good read of a city’s bikability because if the streets are no good for urban bike commuting, then they’re probably not good for any other bike trips or for sightseeing bicycle tourists.

Portland’s bicycle commuters make up 6.3 percent of its population, based on 2011 numbers from the League of American BicyclistsThat’s as good as it gets in the U.S. and, frankly, it’s still pretty pathetic. San Francisco, Minneapolis, Seattle, Washington D.C., and Madison hover somewhere in the 3 to 4 percent range. Anywhere besides those places and seeing a bicycle taking up a lane may be a little like seeing a UFO for drivers.

If you ask me, protected bike lanes are where it’s at for getting children and elderly people bicycling on city streets. Once there, much of the rest of the population might follow. And there are not nearly enough protected bike lanes in San Francisco.

That said, the protected bike lanes there are the best I’ve seen in the U.S. The medians installed to buffer cars and bike traffic in front of Twitter headquarters are even pretty. They have cactuses in them, and Heath Maddox, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s bikeshare program manager, told me the first time they planted the cacti, they were all stolen. Now they are anchor locked beneath the ground.

The Wiggle is another highlight of bicycling in San Francisco. It’s a mile’s worth of green street markings and signage that allows riders to get from Market Street up to the Panhandle Bikeway leading into Golden Gate Park without having to climb any of the city’s infamous hills. I didn’t see any similar guidance in other parts of the city, although more wiggles would be most welcome elsewhere, as well as in other hilly parts of other cities.

And perhaps most hopeful of all towards improving bike commute share is the nearly year-old Bay Area Bikeshare, which has 350 bikes and 35 stations in and around downtown San Francisco and 35 stations along the Caltrain corridor in other cities like Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Jose.

Introducing bikesharing to the city was a goal of former Mayor Gavin Newsom, and the SFMTA gave Maddox, a bicycle and pedestrian planner in the agency’s Livable Streets subdivision, the job of leading the effort. Taking some time out from our conference, several of us from Mobility Lab and partner organizations goDCgo, Arlington Transportation Partners, and Arlington County Commuter Services were lucky enough to get a personal tour of the city on BABS from Maddox.

Like Capital Bikeshare in D.C., the system is managed by Alta Bike Share and it is publicly funded, by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Maddox is currently waiting to tabulate some of the first ridership survey data, but until then, we know that in San Francisco there are already about 3,000 members, and each of the 350 bikes average about three trips per day.

Maddox said there have not been that many complaints from riders, probably because there have been no major rebalancing issues. It’s relatively easy to keep the stations stocked since BABS is still confined to the areas north and south of Market Street and no further west than Van Ness Avenue.

Maddox said, “Mainly we just get questions about when we’re going to expand the system. We’ve reassessed that we can do things less densely. We can still do a little infill of adding stations in neighborhoods where stations already exist, but we’re planning to introduce bikeshare to new places earlier than we had originally planned. We hope to go next into the Casto and the Mission districts.”

He added that he hopes BABS can expand to about 3,000 more bikes in the future, although that would depend upon getting a big sponsorship of some kind and about $25 million.

Concerns that he noted to work on include:
  • The overwhelming majority of bikeshare members are white, well-off males.
  • San Francisco’s “very well-developed bike-rental industry is really concerned that bikeshare will hurt their businesses and they’re hyper involved.” But he cited Capital Bikeshare’s data showing that companies located near stations see an increase in business because of traffic from bikeshare riders, so he hopes those concerns can be alleviated. (I rented a bike overnight for $36 from Blazing Saddles on Mason Street near Union Square and there certainly appeared to be no shortage of customers.)
  • Taxi drivers may be unhappy because about 50 percent of bikeshare trips appear to have been trips formerly taken by taxi. (So that leads me to think that the smart taxi drivers will mount bike racks on their vehicles.)

San Francisco is on the right course, promoting bicycling through protected lanes, The Wiggle, and Bay Area Bikeshare. These are all tools that will need to continue to be enhanced if the city has any realistic hopes of reaching its goal of 20 percent bike commuting by 2020, which was set in its 2009 Bicycle Plan and even harkens back somewhat to its 1973 “Transit First” policy, which noted that “travel by public transit, by bicycle, and on foot must be an attractive alternative to travel by private automobile.”

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Boyhood Perfectly Captures Exactly What Ages 6 to 18 Are Like

I saw Boyhood several weeks ago and never got around to blogging about it. But I just can't get it out of my head.

It's a beautiful film, and I'm pretty sure it will be my favorite of 2014. Following a boy in real life from age 6 to 18, Boyhood succeeds because it reminds us of the touchstones of our own lives growing up during those years. Nothing much happens. Everyday life unfolds. Minor occurrences seem major to a teenage boy, and to the other teens and other adults in his midst.

If you're a fan of director Richard Linklater's other classics like Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Before Sunrise, Slacker, Fast Food Nation, and Bernie, then you will surely think this is brilliant.

Ethan Hawke, who continues to be one of Generation X's best movie actors, plays the dad to best-actor-worthy Ellar Coltrane (who plays Mason Jr. to Hawke's Senior). The way they age and adapt and bond to each other is simply what life is all about and in turn mesmerizing.

Linklater allegedly told Hawke that he would have to finish the 12-year project if he died. Another interesting sidenote is that the film was originally supposed to be called 12 Years, but then Linklater heard about 12 Years a Slave and changed it to Boyhood.

***** out of ***** stars

Monday, August 11, 2014

Robin Williams' Top 10 Performances

Robin Williams has supplied humor to the world in parallel to my own life. I was a kid when his beloved alien hit network TV. Mork and Mindy is my 61st favorite TV show of all time. I grew up into my teens as he nailed some of the wildest standup comedy you'll ever see. Good Morning, Vietnam is one of my favorite movies, although it is sorely missing from my list of 60 funniest movies and list of 90 favorite movies of all time.

R.I.P. Robin, and here are my favorite performances. The top five are true powerhouses.

10. The World According to Garp (1982)
09. One Hour Photo (2002)
08. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
07. Deconstructing Harry (1997)
06. Moscow on the Hudson (1984)
05. Dead Poets Society (1989)
04. Good Will Hunting (1997)
03. Mork and Mindy (1978-1982)
02. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
01. Live at the Met (1986) and other early standup routines like Off the Wall (1978) and An Evening with (1982)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Apes are Slowly Making Their Move Towards World Domination

Dawn of the Planet of Apes is the second episode in a new series of prequels to 1968's classic Planet of the Apes. 

Much like after 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes (I saw both of these new ones with Dan), it is still not apparent how these will connect with the original, in which humans annihilate themselves with a nuclear bomb.

In that respect, nothing much happens in the evolutionary course of events with this 3-D movie. It's a transitional piece. 

Caesar was raised a decade ago by a scientist (played by James Franco). He is now leader of the apes in Muir Woods. A plague has since wiped out 499 of every 500 humans, but a few hundred are living in a tower in downtown San Francisco.

When some of them venture into the woods as a last-ditch effort to fix a dam that would provide them with enough energy to survive, the humans and the apes rekindle a relationship that has a bunch of miscommunications that could have resulted in eternal peace but instead ends ominously for what lies ahead when the next prequel is released.

The apes are stunning and, if I had to cheer for a side, it wouldn't be the dumb humans. Barring Charleton Heston in the first couple of original films, humans have never really been the interesting ones in Ape movies. They are particularly unworthy of cheering for in this one. All unlikeable and clueless, even stars Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman (usually entirely reliable), and Keri Russell seem to sleepwalk in the shadow of Andy Serkis, who again plays Caesar with endless heart worthy of Oscar consideration.

I also really miss the music of the original series, which was so creepy in a late 1960s kind of way. (Although the song that comes on at the gas station when the power starts working again does work pretty well.)

The stage is set. The next in this series should be a doozie, and I would say the humans are in big trouble.

**** out of ***** stars

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Tips for Effective Transportation Blogging

Here's an article By Paul Goddin from Mobility Lab that nicely quotes me at the end.

This article was also published by Greater Greater Washington.

Begin with your most important point. Use short sentences and clear, non-jargony language. Remember your end goal.

These were among the tips BeyondDC creator and Greater Greater Washington  (GGW) blogger Dan Malouff imparted at this week’s Lunch at the Lab. Malouff discussed effective blogging and how to get published by websites such as GGW and Mobility Lab.

Among his main points:
    • Put the most important information up front, in the first paragraph, with more specific details and supportive facts following. The glut of information and competition demands clarity and incisiveness.
    •  “Lead with the takeaway,” Malouff said.
    • Inform before you persuade. The best articles use a piece of news or data as a starting point, and then use it to draw conclusions or make an argument. It’s important to explain the context, as readers are not all experts already.
    • Transportation and city planners (not to mention lawyers) like to use jargony language. Blog readers respond better to simple language. Complicated, wordy prose can make an otherwise compelling article unreadable and/or suspicious. Use the rule that easier-to-read is better.
    • Don’t use the passive voice much if at all. If you can insert “by zombies” after the verb, then you are using it. For example, the sentence “The use of passive voice is discouraged” is easy to identify as passive voice since one could add “by zombies” to its end and the sentence would still make sense. Instead, the sentence should read “Don’t use the passive voice.” (Avoid nominalizations, like “the utilization of this grammatical construction leads to complication of the communication,” too.)
    • Keep articles short. A thousand words is typically too long. The “sweet spot” for web writing is 300 to 600 words.
    • Keep the blog post to one main idea. If you want readers to remember more than one big takeaway, then split the article up into multiple posts.
    • Mobility Lab Communications Director Paul Mackie facilitated the lecture. He called blogging an inherently democratizing medium. He said that institutions such as the New York Times are no longer the gatekeepers of information. Anyone with a keyboard now has a voice. Mackie described blogging as a way to “become a thought leader.”

(Author’s note: This article is 374 words long and, therefore, perfect.)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Anchorman 2 Sucker Punches Ratings-Inspired Cable News Coverage

I’m glad I skipped Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues when it was released several months ago. Letting the overwhelming hype and crass over-commercialization die down gave me more reasonable expectations.

Of course I heard that it received very mixed reviews, and several people have flat-out told me not to watch it. But in the end, I’m a sucker for Ron Burgundy and his brand of wacked-out humor.

The biggest problem I have with the movie is its slow start. The worse choice by the filmmakers was to make it so unfunny for so long. I counted to the 17-minute mark before laughing, which happens when Paul Rudd enters as a cat photographer.

Rudd actually doesn’t garner many laughs after that. Steve Carell plays, for me, the most consistently funny role as Brick the off-the-wall weatherman. His relationship with similarly nuts Kristen Wiig is endearing, his “pre-funeral” is kind of creative, and his laughing fit in the RV as the gang gets reacquainted on their way to big new cable-TV jobs in New York is equally laugh-out-loud for the viewer.

The worst parts of the movie are when it drifts into Spoils of Babylon-like family drama. It’s no coincidence that those first 17 minutes are heavy with Christina Applegate, who has no chemistry with Will Ferrell as his newscaster wife. Every star in the universe appears in the climatic news-personality fight scene, which again doesn’t work that well.

However, most of the main characters are likeable enough to spend a couple hours of your life with. The social commentary on the rise of ratings-at-all-costs media is insightful. And the 70s yacht-rock soundtrack (from Christopher Cross to John Waite to Kenny Loggins and much more) makes Anchorman 2 a slice of media pleasure.

*** out of ***** stars