Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Rare is the day that I'll make it three-quarters of the way through a book and then stop, but I simply can't finish the grating "CIVILIZATION: THE WEST AND THE REST" by Niall Ferguson. The book, which successfully argues by the time five pages are consumed that the Eurocentric "West" is responsible for an overwhelming share of the advances that led to a state we call "civilization", promises much and delivers on it too soon before spinning into tangents. Essentially the Scottish historian makes the valid claim that it was the West that led the way to centuries of improving living standards by being the geographic pioneer and disseminator of six key areas:

1) Competition, both among and within the European states;
2) Science, beginning with the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries;
3) The rule of law and representative government, based on the rights of private property and representation in elected legislatures;
4) Modern medicine;
5) The consumer society that resulted from the Industrial Revolution; and
6) The work ethic

These areas are so wholly important to the functioning of the civilized world as we know it today - and ethnocentrism aside, all arose or were mastered in the West. Asia and the Middle East, for all its ages of glory, have not taken a leading role in these areas for centuries now.

It's an interesting and really, not-all-that-provocative, self-evident premise. Niall Ferguson than elaborates on each area, chapter and verse, with history lessons, anecdotes and grand sweeping themes that tie them all together. Sounds like a good, informative read, right? That's what I thought. The problem is how easily Ferguson gets bogged down in his own minor arguments, and how wildly his stories and anecdotes veer from his core theme. It's almost as if he verbally dictated it into a speech-to-text engine after a few well-mixed drinks.

The mind of the reader therefore wanders easily. Wait, did I need to check my email? Isn't there laundry in the dryer? Oh right, modern medicine has a lot to do with the goodness of British imperialism and the wrongness of German imperialism. Wait, what? Ferguson writes like a smugly self-satisfied expert, and that's all right if you're constantly driving the point home while illuminating it with great writing. That's only happening in parts here. I decided to cut my losses during the "consumer society" chapter because, well, I figured I got the cut of his jib. That was another three or so hours I was able to spend on laundry and email. Regrettably, this one's not recommended for discerning Hedonist Jive readers.

Monday, April 23, 2012


I’ve got a film for ya. It’s a Russian film called “HOW I ENDED THIS SUMMER”, and it’s available on Netflix streaming as well as on DVD somewhere, I’m sure. When it came around in the US last year, I made a mental note to see it, and see it I did this past weekend – and it’s a real tense, dramatic stemwinder with two terrific performances from the male leads, who are essentially the only ones on camera the entire time. Taking place at an Arctic substation where various readings are taken – coordinates, temperatures and other things I don’t understand, but which are apparently necessary for the Russian government – it’s a portrait of how immaturity, loneliness and misunderstanding can turn into something deadly and terrifying.

Pasha is the young “intern”, essentially, who’s come up to the frozen Arctic for a summer – the sort of summer in which it never gets dark and there are mosquitos everywhere. An Arctic summer, you might say. We see Pasha at various times rocking out on his headphones and playing violent video games back in their insulated shack/dorm room, which is outfitted with a rudimentary sauna and various old utensils in which to cook fish and walrus. Sergei is the middle-aged old hand who relays at times during the fairly sparse dialog that he’s been coming here for years to do this sort of mundane measurement work. You need to be a hardy, resourceful soul to survive even the summer in the Arctic, and early on we see Pasha sternly chastised by Sergei for naively leaving their residence without cartridges in his gun. There are polar bears, you know. It becomes obvious early on that Sergei has a barely-disguised loathing for his young, incompetent helper, a disdain that only increases in intensity as Pasha misses several crucial readings due to oversleeping.

If I give away much more I’ll have to reveal some major plot points, and I don’t want to do that. So let it be said that because of some things that happen, some circumstantial timing, and most importantly because of some things that are not said, these men for all intents and purposes end up hunting each other in a race to the death across the tundra. It reminded me more of battle-for-survival films like “Touching The Void” than it did an intense Russian drama, and it’s actually a bit of both. It may be a slowly-paced film, but it’s not a slow film at all. It is deliberate and exceptionally pulse-racing in parts. I think it’s a must-stream for all you film nerds out there.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


I may forever curse myself for not having been old enough to riot on the Sunset Strip in the 60s, kick out the jams w/ the MC5 & Stooges in Detroit in 1969, or pogo my ass off at the Masque in LA in 1978 with the Bags, Weirdos and Germs. But I was around and old enough to at least mark myself "present" during the heyday of what you might call "post-punk". This is commonly defined as what British and American punk rock morphed into starting around 1979, incorporating slower tempos, much more rhythm (to the point that much of the music was decidedly danceable) and more keyboards, synths and some atonality. It's a fine line one can draw between classic post-punk and "new wave", and frankly a lot of this stuff - even the good songs - was totally busting out on the British charts in the early 1980s. Siouxsie & The Banshees' outstanding "Spellbound", to name but one example, was a #22 charter in forward-looking England in 1981.

I turned 14 years old in late 1981, and as I've written about before, it was a point-of-no-return year for me in terms of maniacal music obsession. That was the year I discovered the NME, Sounds and Melody Maker (weekly music papers from the UK totally steeped in the hundreds of new bands releasing defining 45s at the time); the year I embraced underground, non-major label music and heard my first hardcore punk on the Maximum RocknRoll radio show; and the year I discovered my local college radio station, KFJC ("The Wave of The West"). Someone now long-forgotten to me in 7th grade told me about the "weird stations at the left of the dial" on my FM radio - an area I'd never before much explored. There lay KSJS (San Jose State's station), KZSU (Stanford's) and KSCU (Santa Clara University's). None of these held a proverbial candle to a station from tiny Foothill Junior College in Los Altos Hills, CA called KFJC, who had a posse of twentysomething record-collecting DJs who were totally immersed in the new records of the day, and who made it their mission to convert the uninitiated into the sounds of what had yet to be called post-punk.

Because 1981-83 KFJC was so British post-punk heavy, I actually missed out on a bunch of germinal American bands that they simply didn't play. I got to college in 1985 and was scoffed at because I'd never heard The Misfits - had barely heard of The Misfits. But I could sing you every song by The Jam, Siouxsie, Bauhaus and the Au Pairs backward and forward. I'd never heard Pere Ubu before, except for their performance of "Birdies" in "URGH - A MUSIC WAR" - a film that also did a lot to form my post-punk consciousness. (To give but one example, I still get a pleasant chill watching the incredible CRAMPS performance of "Tear It Up" give way to the AU PAIRS' "Come Again").

Ditto for The Pagans, Red Cross and The Flesh Eaters. If KFJC was playing them, I wasn't listening during those hours - and I swear with only slight exaggeration I listened to the station nearly every waking hour from '81 to '85. Near the end of that period, KFJC embraced American indie rock a la The Minutemen, Husker Du and the Meat Puppets (the SST "big three"), and added them to what was already a steady diet of LA "paisley underground" airplay of the Dream Syndicate, Green on Red and the Three O'Clock.

I want to go back to 1981 and 1982 for a minute. I want to convey what it was like to be exposed to songs that are now considered classics on a daily basis. I certainly had a bit of a "new wave" sensibility during my teenage years, so I was very open to pop-leaning, danceable art/punk much more so than I was in my snobbish pure-punk days later in the decade. Two DJs in particular at KFJC, whom I later found out were a couple, blew my mind on a weekly basis. If I remember correctly, Diana did her show on Monday nights, and Ransome Youth did his on Tuesday nights. Neither was a particularly memorable talker per se, but both made musical connections and concocted sets of new 45s that made my head spin on a weekly basis. I was constantly writing stuff down, and saving up as much money as I could ($20!) for my bi-monthly visits to Berkeley to visit my Grandparents, who'd turn me loose on Telegraph Avenue so I could spend four hours ogling records at Rasputin's, Leopold's and Univeral (worth another post down the road). Based on what I was listening to on a daily basis, I thought the relative importance and impact of bands like the Delta 5 and the Bush Tetras were far larger in the rest of the "scene" than they actually were in practice.

Most KFJC personalities in 1981-82 did lean a little more new wave than they did to the harder stuff, so mixed in with what we now rightly call classics was a lot of Squeeze, The Jam, The Specials and Kate Bush (all of whom except for Squeeze I totally loved).

The Human League were huge on KFJC (especially "Love Action") a good year before they became huge in America. I probably heard the annoying "Happy Birthday" by Altered Images 300 times. When "I Love a Man in a Uniform" by Gang of Four came out, it was played so much that when I called to request it, the DJ told me it was so overplayed on the station that they'd put a moratorium on it. Yet mixed in were then-fresh records by Throbbing Gristle, SPK and a bunch of UK punk bands of lesser repute like The Angelic Upstarts and Vice Squad, along with the list below.

Reconstructed from memory, these were the songs played the most frequently by my favorite DJs of the time - Diana, Ransome Youth, Stretch, JC Clone, Kevin Animal, Leah Angel, Boris Darling,  Buddy Awreetus, and the guy who did the punk show on Mondays after Diana called "White Noise" (Gibson?). I think you'll find it to be a fine education and mostly (not exclusively) a list of some pretty right-on songs that shaped my sensibilities for years to come.

KFJC's Most-Played Songs of 1981-1983 (or so)
  1. BUSH TETRAS - "Cowboys in Africa"
  2. KILLING JOKE - "Feast of Blaze"
  3. THE MODETTES - "White Mice"
  4. NEW ORDER - "Everything's Gone Green"
  5. ANIMALS & MEN - "Don't Misbehave in the New Age"
  6. AU PAIRS - "It's Obvious"
  7. GUN CLUB - "She's Like Heroin To Me"
  8. THROBBING GRISTLE - "Hot on the Heels of Love"
  9. BAUHAUS - "Bela Lugosi's Dead" & "Double Dare"
  10. SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES - "Trophy", "Christine", "Spellbound"
  12. SIMPLE MINDS - "The American" & "Love Song"
  13. DELTA 5 - "You" and "Mind Your Own Business"
  14. INVISIBLE BOY CLAMS - "I'm Sorry"
  15. GREEN ON RED - "Aspirin"
  17. THE FALL - "How I Wrote 'Elastic Man'" and "Totally Wired"
  18. GANG OF FOUR - "To Hell With Poverty"
  19. VIRGIN PRUNES - "Baby Turns Blue"
  20. FLIPPER - "Ha Ha Ha"
  21. TUXEDOMOON - "No Tears"
  22. THEATER OF HATE - "Do You Believe in the Westworld?"
  23. FAD GADGET - "Collapsing New People"
  24. HUMAN SEXUAL RESPONSE - "What Does Sex Mean To Me"
  25. DOLLY MIXTURE - "Everything and More"
  26. THE SOFT BOYS - "Kingdom of Love"
  27. MISSION OF BURMA - "That's When I Reach For My Revolver"
  29. ROMEO VOID - "Never Say Never"
  30. THE CRAMPS - "Goo Goo Muck"
  31. THE BOLLOCK BROTHERS - "The Slow Removal of Vincent Van Gogh's Left Ear"
Here are some of my favorite post-punk songs of all time for you to download.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


I went to a special screening of this praise-the-teachers documentary at my kid’s school the other night, and a friend mentioned to me beforehand that he’d hoped that “it would be the antidote to ‘Waiting For Superman’”. I told him I hoped not, at which point he gasped and the lights dimmed. Afterward, he incredulously asked me, “You actually liked ‘Waiting For Superman’??!? It was totally anti-teacher!”, at which point I threw up. Then I corrected him: “Not anti-teacher in the least. Anti-teachers' union. Big, big difference”. This failed to calm him, and it dawned upon me, as it often has before, that a very easy way to arrive at a point of view is to completely dismiss logic, common sense and facts in order to serve a preordained opinion that will be readily accepted by your peers. Except when it's not.

If you actually watched the pro-child, pro-parent, pro-teacher 2010 documentaries “Waiting For Superman” or “The Lottery” with your eyes and ears open, both of which are devastatingly straightforward in their diagnoses of the problems facing American public education today, you know that they were anything but anti-teacher. Both explicitly made the argument, as “American Teacher” does ad nauseum, that the most important factor in determining whether a child learns or not is the quality of his or her teacher in the classroom. No ifs, ands or buts from anyone here. Study after study has proven that a great, highly-motivated teacher who loves children and works hard to ensure their success is infinitely more valuable in an individual child’s life than an army of tenured, battle axe, just-waiting-for-my-pension teachers who can’t be disciplined, coached nor fired. Having good genetics certainly helps a kid, as do parents at home committed to a child’s education – but it’s that lone teacher at the front of the class that really makes the difference, particularly for kids “on the bubble”, who might  otherwise have some innate smarts but no ability to apply them without patient and enthusiastic guidance.

Living in a town (San Francisco) where anything that smacks of right-of-center (the center being the left here) is heresy and dare not speak its name, it’s pretty easy to badmouth a film like “Waiting For Superman” and expect 99 out of 100 people to nod their heads in violent agreement. Yet surely the left and the right-of-left can both agree on the teacher findings – and surely we can agree that anything that might undermine children’s ability to have a great education should be looked at intensely and skeptically. That’s one reason why I really liked “AMERICAN TEACHER”. It serves no agenda but that of the, uh, American teacher (beside that of the child, of course) – and making sure that the great teachers are recognized as such, and paid accordingly.

Obviously, they are not today. The profession, as the documentary makes clear, may attract some of our best and brightest right out of college, but it can't and doesn't usually retain them. The salaries simply can't support a family, and right around the time these enthusiastic and energized young teachers start hitting their late 20s and 30s, the reality of the salaries they're paid and the inability to match their peers in other professions makes starting families and supporting children completely untenable without ridiculous personal sacrifice. "American Teacher" shows us the cream of the crop & the salt of the earth in New York, Texas, San Francisco and elsewhere working multiple jobs, struggling hard and often just flat-out quitting the profession just when it's become obvious to them, their students and everyone around them that teaching wasn't just a vocation for them - it was truly a calling.

Often they don't even get that far. In the "last in, first fired" system espoused, promulgated and perputuated by the unions, many of our best teachers can't make it out of their early pre-tenure years without being pink-slipped multiple times, assigned to the worst schools and burning out, when they're not fully laid off. The well-done film is far from a screed. I almost wish it was far more direct in naming names and calling for solutions, yet there's certainly room for the "velvet touch" as well. We have to arrive at reform somehow. Producer Ninive Calegari (who personally screened this for my son's school that night) and director Vanessa Roth make it very clear whose side they're on - the overworked, underpaid teachers and children they're there to teach - but very pointedly don't bring up the unions directly and instead focus solely on salaries and lack of work/life balance.

They very briefly bring out a Washington DC city politician whose name is escaping me right now (not former mayor Adrian Fenty) to talk up the (excellent) reforms Michelle Rhee tried to make there to bend the unions and allow her demonstrably superior teachers to make a competive wage, before being hounded out by the Democratic establishment status quo. His inclusion in the film is quite telling, and tells me that Calegari and Roth have a pretty good idea of what needs to change to get teachers where they need to be. They're just not ready to say it for fear of alienating those who currently advocate a timid, meek "Race to the Top" sort of reform.

So let's talk about those teacher salaries for a second, and ask a few questions about who's being served by a system with rigid hiring, firing and tenure rules almost wholly run and managed by American teachers' unions.

Are American children being served?

Of course not. They are denied access to many of our brightest minds and most motivated teachers, who choose other professions that pay more, and are often stuck with those teachers who managed to stay around long enough to gain tenure. Sometimes these teachers are nonetheless excellent, and sometimes they're not - but it's all about a system that serves the grown-ups and not the kids.

Is American competitiveness being served?

Not if you look at our test scores. This first-world leader, bestriding the world in numerous quote-unquote competitive areas, falls somewhere in the middle of the globe across the board in math, science, reading and other key areas that will make or break this country as its population ages. We have a dynamic 21st-century economy being serviced by a 19th-century education model, with "reform" moving like molasses. The film compares us to South Korea and Finland, in which teachers are revered both in word and in deed, and we're far below these countries in every measurable standard of scholastic achievement.

Are great teachers being served?

No way. They get pension benefits and often lock in collective bargaining gains that help their marginal standard of living move up (no matter what the economy), but in so doing, are constantly subject to pink slips in their early vulnerable years, and never get to reap a salary that is actually in line with their worth to the children, and the society, they serve. The ones who stay often do so out of a great altruistic love for teaching children, and we're all the better for it. It's heartbreaking that so many of them don't.

Are mediocre or bad teachers being served?

Absolutely. They're the only real winners in the union game. They get those benefits and the lifetime job security that comes with the union card, and are rarely if ever held accountable for being depressingly mediocre in their ability to motivate and inspire children. Only in government and union work - often the same thing these days, right? - is this the case.

The film doesn't make this clear, but I'll try to: the reform starts when we name the problem. Let competive and creative destruction loose on the American system of education, let teachers compete to be the best at what they do, and let parents have a choice of which public schools to send their children to. The mantra should always be, "the money follows the child". That's who matters here, not the adults.

If our society is committed to spending tax dollars on educating our populace, then let parents take their portion of the per-child cut and spend it at the schools that will best educate their children in the manner that they see fit. Reform, growth and evolution follows naturally and organically, just as it does in all other spheres of life. Then let the teachers at those best-performing schools be rewarded for what they did to get their students prepared for life, and be comfortable with different standards for different schools (as opposed to a one-size-fits-all "No Child Left Behind" federal mandate). That's not anti-teacher at all in my book. That's pro-teacher to the extreme, just like this film.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


I know I went a little overboard in my criticism of NHL hockey two months ago. I’d just come off a run of the regular season blahs. My two main sources of hockey information early in the season were my weekly subscription to Canada’s HOCKEY NEWS and the Toronto-based 24/7 NHL Home Ice channel on Sirius XM, which I often listen to in my car. Both were/are so dry, and yet so effusive about uninteresting developments in the hockey world that their utter mediocrity caused me to blindly curse the sport, curse the players, and curse Canadians in general. Plus my team (San Jose) were tanking. I was sour, and I turned to the NBA for succor. There I found, as I always do, a podcast/media network full of great talkers and great writers, able to shine a light on an often ridiculously entertaining sport full of funny, weird and transcendently superhuman athletes. I went a little overboard in acting like I’d traded my NHL badge for an NBA badge, but you might recall I promised I’d return to the fold come playoff time.

Here we are. Playoffs start today, with several games tonight and tomorrow, including brain-melting series like Pittsburgh/Philadelphia and Detroit/Nashville. Even my own San Jose Sharks snuck in that last week of the dreary regular season, and have at least an even shot of taking down the St. Louis Blues starting tomorrow night. Looking back at my 2011-12 predictions for the season, I was able to correctly prognosticate 13 of the 16 teams that made the playoffs, though I don’t believe there’s much chance of my preseason wish for a San Jose/Washington Stanley Cup final coming true – though both did make it in, “and you never know what can happen in the playoffs”, right?

One thing I’m noticing is the increasing popularity of playoff hockey pools. I got asked to be in two this year and accepted. One benefits a relative of mine who’s struggling with cancer right now; another benefits a far less lofty cause, and provides the winner with multiple craft beers from around the country. Folks are deservedly treating the NHL playoffs with the “second season”, March Madness-like respect they deserve and are choosing brackets, predicting upsets and are wagering real cash money on their picks. Here are mine:

Round 1

New York Rangers over Ottawa
Boston over Washington
New Jersey over Florida
Pittsburgh over Philadelphia

Vancouver over Los Angeles
San Jose over St. Louis
Chicago over Phoenix
Nashville over Detroit


Boston over New York
Pittsburgh over New Jersey

Vancouver over San Jose
Nashville over Chicago


Pittsburgh over Boston
Nashville over Vancouver

Stanley Cup Finals

Pittsburgh over Nashville

I won’t go into too much detail except for to say that Pittsburgh might be the most deep, unstoppable team I’ve seen since the Colorado Avalanche Stanley Cup team of a decade ago. Even if Sidney Crosby gets his face torn off by the Flyers this week and is concussed right back onto the bench for the rest of the playoffs, the Penguins will come out of the East rather handily. I’m also a big believer in the Nashville Predators, hailing from that hockey hotbed of Tennessee, with an arena right around the corner from the Grand Old Opry. Pekka Rinne is my favorite goalie in the NHL – a consistent, Brodeur-like superstar not subject to the whims and fates of the calendar the way most goalies are – a huge complaint of mine when you see 30-year-old Mike Smith (who?) working miracles in Phoenix all of a sudden, or Ilya Bryzgalov play one week like Patrick Roy and the next like Homer Simpson. Not Rinne and his amazing defense. Those boys are going to give Pittsburgh the fits in the finals, only to lose in 6 games.

And for those of you bummed at the increase in music and sports posts on this site, please sit tight. I’m going to work on a more-balanced attack in coming weeks, as well as an increasing frequency. One thing that’s helped is my folding up shop on my beer blog due to lack of drinking – not easy to write about beer if you’re barely drinking it, right? Keep your dial right here and I’ll be back real, real soon.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

AMERICAN SUN – “American Sun” 7”EP

Dressed like the angry triplet daughters of Fred & Toodie Cole, and with a cover sleeve that apes the Dead Moon ethos in every way, shape & form, you’d be forgiven for expecting mystical, magical biker rock on AMERICAN SUN's debut single. It’s instead a fairly aces set of three numbers that meander between wobbly, tuneful garage rock with a mildly psychedelic sheen (“American Sun”), Frightwig-style atonality & tribal beats (“Poor Girl”) and more longform winding-path pop music with loud guitar & coolly sweet vocals (“Indian Morning”).

It’s not refined and it’s not anything more than a really solid debut that hints at some pretty great things coming down the line. And here's the deal - since the whole thing is available for free over at their Bandcamp page, I won't post any of the music here - a couple more clicks and you can be doing it for yourself. And you should! (Then buy it so they'll make more).

Sunday, April 1, 2012


After a bit of a lull I've been watching motion pictures again, and wanted to tell you about the most recent five I've seen. Sure, you can skip to the letter grade and then rearrange your own Netflix queue accordingly, but I'd recommend reading my insightful and penetrating commentary in an effort to question your personal biases & assumptions and to broaden your cineastic vocabulary. Let's get started!

THE IDES OF MARCH - Talk about exceeding expectations, this dark political morality tale from George Clooney & starring both him and Ryan Gosling was as good and as thrilling a film I've seen since "Melancholia". Gosling's an idealistic junior campaign manager for a Hollywood liberal dreamboat Democratic candidate  (Clooney) on the eve of a make-or-break Ohio primary. Through a series of back-stabbing meetings and fortuitous discoveries vis-a-vis his "just sex" encounters with the ravishing intern played by Evan Rachel Wood, Gosling maneuvers himself into a much different place in Clooney's campaign than he was in at the start of the film.

It plays like a thriller, and shines a light on the Washington DC dirtbag political culture as well as anything I've ever seen. The cast all actually seem completely and totally real, especially the senior campaign managers played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti. Sure, it's a pretty Hollywood film but so well-acted and -paced and so nasty that I'm surprised it didn't get more attention the few weeks it was around. Absolutely a must-rent. A-

YOUNG ADULT - Only missed seeing this in the theaters a few months ago due to lack of babysitter and a surfeit of inconvenient showtimes. I knew I'd dig it based on the reviews, despite the marquee writing credit of the overexposed "Diablo Cody". The film is a scathing look at a self-centered, self-deluding former homecoming queen high school beauty played by Charlize Theron whose best days were behind her the moment she threw her graduation cap in the air. She's now a declining, aging but still-beautiful Minneapolis ghostwriter for a series of young adult novels, who begins to obsess about her high school boyfriend back in small-town Mercury, MN the moment she finds out he's had a baby.

Through an alcoholic haze with lots of lying to herself, she concocts a plan to lure him back to her, 17 years later. Since the very funny Patton Oswalt plays the voice of reason, despite having been brutally beaten by "fag-bashing" jocks decades beforehand and being a bit of a lush himself, I expected "Young Adult" to be a mildly tragic film with doses of comedy to leaven the pathos. Quite the opposite. This is a heavily tragic film, brutal in parts, with a tiny bit of comedy to smooth out a few minor rough edges. And Charlize Theron is a pretty phenomenal actress, isn't she? When did that happen? A-

JEFF WHO LIVES AT HOME - As it turns out, this still-in-theaters film actually shares a ton of DNA with "Young Adult" - not the cast nor the directing/writing staff, but the way it looks at adults still stuck in the throes of mental childhood. I've written before about my love of all things Duplass, and the brothers direct this one just as deftly and comically as all their others, maybe just a tick down from "Cyrus", their high point as far as I'm concerned. It all takes place in a day, and stars emotional cripples Jason Segel and Ed Helms as a live-at-home stoner and an incompetant husband, respectively, who happen to be brothers.

The former simply needs to go out and get a wood shutter repaired for his mom; the latter is having marital trouble; as their paths cross on this day, they discover that Helms' wife (the always-great second banana character actress Judy Greer) might be having an affair. Madcap hilarity ensues, and the "chase" to find out what she's up to leads them into unexpected discoveries - and insights about themselves! Whoa! Kidding aside, it's a great way to spend not even ninety minutes and there's no way on god's green earth you're not going to like it. The Duplass Bros always make sure of it. B

INCENDIES - All of last year I kept hearing about this "French film" (it's actually French-Canadian) called "Incendies" that was fantastic and that should have won best foreign film honors in 2010. ("In a Better World", which I reviewed here, was actually the winner that year). So we put it in the queue, and when it came, we just sat on it for five weeks and pretended it wasn't there. When it finally made its way into the DVD player, neither my wife nor I even knew what it was about. When it finished, we were both pretty thoroughly wiped, and ashamed we sat on it for so long. It's a heavy tale set both in the present and against the backdrop of the 1970s Lebanese civil war between Christians and Muslims (and the other factions murdering each other around that time). Despite the complete and total implausibility of the story, it's still tense, taut and exceptionally well-told.

Twins Jeane and Simon receive a will from their recently-deceased mother; in order for it to be executed, they must find their true father (whom they though to be dead) and brother (whom they never knew about). This leads Jeane and later Simon into modern Lebanon to trace the history of a mom they never truly knew. Their discoveries are increasingly shocking, and they find that their mother was not only a political firebrand but also endured some of the worst suffering a person can endure. Like I said, the final "reveal" at the end stretches credibility to the extreme - but hey, it's a movie, right? I was totally on edge during this entire film and I'd recommend it for anyone ready for a completely mirthless and heavy voyage into war, loss, and self-discovery. B

KINGS OF PASTRY - This was a total trifle, the sort of thing you watch on the couch in pajamas with your belly exposed. I don't ever watch reality cooking shows, so I'm not sure how closely this follows the form, but for 80 minutes this 2010 French documentary on a pastry-creating competition is a lot of fun. There's apparently a haughty designation bestowed upon pastry masters in France that's something only the French could dream up, and to get it, pastry artists (and that's what they are - more artist than chef) from around the world compete in a once-a-year tournament to see if they're magical enough to get the ribbon. Actually, it's a collar that one gets to wear when cooking that tells the world that you masochistically put yourself through the competition and somehow came out on the other side.

From what little I know about reality TV, this hues pretty close to the style. Ambition, a little (not much) backstabbing, heartbreak and redemption. The pastries themselves, with their elaborate candy ribbons and intricate decorations, are really something to behold - and totally meaningless as "food you can eat". I have such an innate distrust of the "reality" of reality programming that any drama that occurs feels to me as forced and made up for the cameras. I can't say for sure on this one, but like I said, you could do far worse on a Tuesday night. B-