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A lovely Memorial Day Weekend

I skipped the column last week because of a jam-packed holiday weekend. It was kicked off on Saturday when I spent my annual day doing seva (selfless service) in preparation for a visit to San Ramon by Amma, an Indian guru who counts my wife among her devotees. The work involves cleaning and decoration of the home of Ron, a devotee who contributed the land for the American Ashram and still lives in a house on a hill a few thousand yards from the temple. You are supposed to be quiet and mindful while doing the work (quite a task for me, as you can well imagine), but I find it relaxing. Saturday night, Vicki and I went to see Every Little Step (see review below), a documentary about the casting of a Chorus Line revival on Broadway.

Sunday morning, up and at 'em for St. Stephens' Episcopal Church (where my attendance has been lax in recent weeks because of a coincidental month-long stretch of weekend filling activities.). I was overdressed, because it was shorts and sports Sunday, and I didn't know it. Oh well. It was also 50 degrees, so I didn't mind, so much, being overdressed.

Vicki and I had decided to treat ourselves to a night in the city, so we reserved a room at the Palace Hotel, downtown at Market and New Montgomery, one of the oldest and grandest hotels in San Francisco. We then went to see Woody Allen's The Floating Lightbulb at A Traveling Jewish Theater, deep in the Mission. Since Sunday was also Carnivale, we were treated to a number of costumed revelers wandering the streets (the parade ended before we got there). I was in heaven for so many reasons. Rae came in to join us at the play, I love spending time with Vicki, we had Indian food for lunch. Also, I am a huge Woody Allen fan and has been meaning to see the play for years. And, finally, I was happy because there is an extremely cool and trendy frozen yogurt store three doors down from the Palace Hotel called Yocup.

After a light dinner at Maxfield's (the bar in the Palace with the Maxfield Parrish painting The Pied Piper behind the bar) we watched The Women in our room (a film with no men in it). I never saw it in the theaters. I was saying things about Meg Ryan during the film that I suddenly realized were actually about Melanie Griffith. Oops! Quite a difference between those two actresses!

We decided to have a room service breakfast Monday morning (Memorial Day) because we didn't want to pay the $80 for breakfast for two in the Crystal Court downstairs. Turns out room service breakfast for two is also $80. We did our hour-long walk along the Embarcadero, getting almost all the way to AT T Park, and stopping along the way at the weekly street fair in front of the Ferry Building. I wear tennis shoes to work every day (they have extra support to keep my back from giving out), and they look terrible. F, my teacher friend across the hall, recently pointed out to me that leather tennis shoes can be polished. There is a shoeshine stand on the corner of Market and New Montgomery in front of the hotel, so I got my shoes shined.

We drove over to Cole Valley to have lunch with Marlow at Reverie, a café with a pretty back garden (cash only! No credit cards!). The weather was perfect and the food was pretty good.

I was a bad boy, skipping band rehearsal because being gone for a day had put me a day behind, in exercise among other things. If you're me, and you want to maintain your weight, it requires constant work.

A weekend to remember, for sure.

Every Little Step

4 stars out of 5

This is a documentary about the casting of a Broadway revival of Chorus Line. In order to enjoy it, you have to care a lot about Chorus Line and Broadway. Otherwise, I'm sure it would leave you quite cold. On the other hand, I can't imagine anyone walking in to see it that didn't care about both.

Chorus Line has had a special place in my heart since I went to see it in the summer of 1976 (it opened in 1975). I took the train down from Hartford where I was working for UPI. To the best of my recollection, I saw the show with the original cast. I found it deeply moving. The take-away message, for a 24-year-old, was follow your bliss, no matter the cost. Since my life has turned out really well, I'd have to say that lesson mostly worked out, although there were times in my past when it seemed dumb to follow my heart instead of my head.

If you know the story of the play, much of this will seem familiar. Chorus Line is based on 12 hours of interviews Michael Bennett conducted with a group of Broadway dances in 1974. The film plays back some of that audio tape, highlighting the moments when the famous lines from the play were first spoken. If you've never been in show business, or known anyone in that line of work, the heartbreak of the audition process can be hard to take. But it is illuminating, enthralling and engaging. This is truly a peek into a world most of us will never visit.

Easy Virtue

3.5 stars out of 5

Gosh, the BBC really can turn out the costume dramas, can't it? Here we have the old American marries into a British family story, with all the scenery and costumes appropriate for the era (the 1920s) The top of the line talent is really top of the line:

Jessica Biel, John "Chronicles of Narnia" Whittaker, Kristin Scott "Miss Indie Film" Thomas, and Colin "comfortable as on old shoe" Firth. It reads just like a Noel Coward play because it is based on a Noel Coward play. So the dialog is witty and brittle and everyone is either frightfully sincere or bitterly cynical. I loved every minute of it, and there were just the right number of minutes; God Bless You BBC Films, this movie clocks in at just over 90 minutes, the perfect length.

Up (3D)

4 stars out of 5

My daughter Rae wanted to be sure that I mentioned this was her favorite Pixar film ever. I must concur; in fact, I think it may be the best animated film I've ever seen as well. If you're a podcast kind of person, go listen to the Fresh Air Podcast featuring the film's director Peter Docter. It's almost like having a commentary track for a film that's still in theaters. This is a film of depth and subtlety in places. For example, the montage which establishes the nature of the main characters marriage is one of the finest ever to appear in any film, and will stick with you long after you've left the theater. But there is also two-by-four across the head bluntness as well -- really, how much more obvious can the symbolism be than a man pulling his house along on a rope. Then, finally, letting go of the rope.

Ed Asner is perfect as the voice of the protagonist, the wilderness scout kid is cute, the talking dogs are funny, the animation is (of course) Pixar perfect. The members of the "scuff up the background" team did their usual excellent job, and no one is in danger of falling into the uncanny valley thanks to flawless character design. A delight and a joy. See it in 3D if you can. As Peter Docter said, he just strove to make a great film, and left the 3D work up to the 3D team. Clearly, they were up to the task.

Neal Vitale Reviews: Management

2 stars out of 5

Writer and first-time director Stephen Belber has created a sweet but simple-minded film in Management. This is a story we've all seen before - a socially awkward young man (Steve Zahn) comes into contact with an attractive young woman (Jennifer Aniston) and, however implausibly, sex and ultimately love ensue. Management has its appealing elements - Zahn the naif is charming. the soundtrack has a heavy dose of New Pornographers tunes, Woody Harrelson is a goofy punk-rocker-turned-organic-yogurt-magnate, and one scene nicely recalls John Cusack's boom-box Peter Gabriel serenade in Say Anything - but there aren't enough to elevate it above the pedestrian. [Ed. note: I saw it too, and might have given it 3 stars, but I'll not quibble with Neal's assessment. It is a nice star turn for Anniston.]

Neal Vitale Reviews (on DVD): Nothing But The Truth

3.5 stars out of 5

Knowing Paul's fascination with journalism films, I was interested to find that this late 2008 release had eluded him. Though Nothing But The Truth technically had a theatrical opening just prior to last Christmas (2 screens, with a gross of just over $3,000), it essentially went straight to video. This route is nnormally not a good sign for a film but, in this case, it was apparently due to the financial woes of its distributor. Which is a shame, as this is a very watchable, pulled-from-the-headlines story, modeled after the legal entanglements of New York Times reporter Judith Miller that ensued from her protecting the confidentiality of sources in the Valerie Plame case. Nothing But The Truth was written and directed by critic-turned-filmmaker Rod Lurie (The Contender) and, while it breaks little new ground, it is well-crafted and well-paced, with a nice twist at the end. The cast features solid, established talent like Alan Alda, Matt Dillon, Angela Bassett, David Schwimmer, and Noah Wyle. Standouts are Kate Beckinsale (Pearl Harbor, Van Helsing, The Aviator) as the reporter under durress at the center of the storm, and Vera Farmiga (The Departed, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas) as the government operative. A film very much worth putting in your Netflix queue.

MIT v. Stanford, MIT vs. Startup, Fun with Wikipedia, Dan Grobstein File

News from my alma mater:

Its interesting that open courseware can have such reach:
Free Stanford iPhone dev podcasts downloaded 1 million times
MIT was an early proponent of open courseware, Stanford is relatively new but has a strong focus on videos of lectures.

Navigenics, a Foster City, Calif. company that checks consumers’ genomes for indications of disease, is being sued by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for allegedly infringing on a patent that the university licensed exclusively to E8 Pharmaceuticals.

Bob Nilsson checks in with two hacks:

This was apparently quite difficult to get down from the dome.

Last month, a few solar-powered Red Line cars ran around the dome.

Daniel Dern notes the stereotyping of comic fans in the media.

Wikipedia has banned The Church of Scientology from editing articles after it consistently violated the rules.

Dan Grobstein File

  • BOOKS | May 29, 2009
    By-the-Book Reader Meets the Kindle
    Even if you are an unreconstructed book lover, the future might not be as hard to get used to as you imagined.

Christmas in May

I had a delightful time Saturday, despite the incredibly unseasonable heat. I spent the afternoon at Doyle Park in Santa Rosa with a good friend from college who holds his annual Christmas party in May. Good company, good fun, and we sang a couple of Christmas carols as well as songs from Sam Patch, the Greatest Story Ever Told So Far.