Thursday July 31, 2014
'I believe you've been waiting for this photo all your life'
My friend Adam Wahlberg posted this link, with the photo below, and the words above, on my Facebook page last night. I cracked up.
He knows I'm not a fan of either man—although I'd still take Jeter in a New York minute over W. I actually have admiration for Jeter. I just have no admiration for Jeter overadmiration, which is everywhere, even in Texas. Looking at the photo, I thought, all we need is “Transformers 2” playing in the background to complete the trifecta. My great big ICK of the first decade of the 21st century.
To paraphrase the MLB Network: What would your ICK trifecta look like?
Thursday July 31, 2014
Second 'Birdman" Trailer
I'm so there. I really hope it takes on all the crap it should take on—the obsessive, adolescent, wish-fulfillment fantasy of it all. Not just the sadness of his need but the sadness of our need. First trailer here. October 17.
Thursday July 31, 2014
Quote of the Day
“Stay gangster, Joe! I dig you, man.”
-- Unnamed student after Vice-President Joe Biden delivered the commencement address at the University of Delaware, May 2014, as reported in Evan Osnos' excellent New Yorker profile, “The Evolution of Joe Biden.” According to Osnos, after the shout, “Biden looked up, pleased but perplexed ... He waved and kept walking.” But I agree. I dig him, man.
Thursday July 31, 2014
Movie Review: The Ball Player and the Bandit (1912)
In the Mariners heyday in the mid-1990s, when the Seattle newspapers would print just about anything Mariners related, I remember a short piece about the players and guns: how many they owned, etc. Baseball players tend to be a conservative lot, and many of them are country boys, so there were quite a few hunting rifles mentioned. Most ballplayers are rich, too, at least at the MLB level, and so a few of these guys had guns for protection. Except one: Randy Johnson—he of the 99 mph fastball. He said he didn’t have a gun in his house; he just kept a bucket of baseballs by his bed. If someone broke in ...
“The Ball Player and the Bandit,” a 1912 one-reeler directed by Francis Ford, John’s older brother, anticipated the Big Unit by about 80 years.
Harry Burns (Harold Lockwood) is a good pitcher with a university team whose uncle comes into a bad way financially and can no longer send him to school. He suggests Harry go west to find work.
It’s the usual fish-out-of-water scenario. He shows up in a suit, clutching a handkerchief, sneezing at the dust, and with an aversion to guns. All the cowhands give him looks. He gets a job as an accountant, but even the little Annie Oakley there (Helen Case, looking a bit like Carol Kane) pokes fun at him. He stifles some of this abuse by winning a fistfight with a rival, but he’s still not completely trusted. He doesn’t like guns? The hell?
But he’s still trusted enough to pick up the payroll in town. Unfortunately, he’s followed by the titular bandit—as well as the girl, who pretends to be a masked robber. Even as she’s quickly revealed by Harry, the bandit appears, dressed in black, gun drawn, and grabs the payroll. Then he feels in Harry’s pockets to remove him of his guns. Except there are none. He only finds a baseball, which Harry’s old coach had just sent to him. Laughing, he drops it and leaves. At which point Harry picks up the baseball and beans the bandit in the back of the head. He and the girl truss him up, bring him back, Harry’s the hero.
It’s not much of a story. But it is fun to come across a Hollywood movie that doesn’t glorify guns the way 99% of Hollywood movies do. Add it to the list, including “Destry Rides Again,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Superman and the Mole Men,” and ... and ....
Wednesday July 30, 2014
Rick Perlstein on the Rise of Reagan
Author Rick Perlstein's new book, “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” which will be published this fall, is part of his series of books on the rise of the conservative right in this country. I've read the first and most of the second and plan on reading this one, too. Besides the history, it will probably spark a lot of memories, since 1972 to 1976, when I was 9 to 13, were wheelhouse years for my memory.
As part of the promo, and maybe just for general edification for folks who don't read, Perlstein has done a YouTube “History in Five” piece on the rise of Reagan. Think about the lesson as you're watching. What did Reagan believe that others didn't? I'll put my answer in the comments section.
Wednesday July 30, 2014
Quote of the Day
“William Bendix, who played the Babe in 'The Babe Ruth Story' is my personal favorite [actor who played Babe Ruth], for nostalgic reasons. I first saw the movie with my dad, who was a sucker for this kind of schmaltz. And it’s a fun movie to watch, with just the slightest hint of authenticity—Bendix was a Yankees batboy during Ruth’s prime years in the 1920s. In the movie, his over-the-top, obstinate pointing to outer space (as opposed to center field) before hitting the famous 1932 'called shot' home run against the Cubs in the World Series is hilarious. The pitch Bendix hits comes down like a slow-pitch softball floater, and his uppercut would have made Mike Tyson proud.”
-- Jerry Grillo, “Babe as Babe: Nobody does it better,” as he sorts through the various actors who played Babe Ruth and goes with an inspired choice.
Here, Babe Ruth shows William Bendix how to swing ... or gets ready to kneecap him.
Wednesday July 30, 2014
Movie Review: Ida (2014)
“Ida” is a spare, quiet, beautiful film, photographed in black-and-white with a 4:3 aspect ratio, about a novitiate nun in 1960s Poland who discovers a dark secret about her family’s past during World War II.
It’s also the best road-trip movie I’ve seen in years.
“You’re a funny couple,” says Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a young, handsome alto-sax player whom Anna and her aunt Wanda (Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza), pick up hitch-hiking. “My Aunt and me?” Anna responds. “I know.”
They’re funny ha-ha and not. Because they’re searching for unmarked graves. They’re searching for the bodies of Anna’s parents.
Road-trip movies are all about tossing together opposites, and “Ida” is no different, but on a deeper level. I think of Wanda as having lived through the middle of the 20th century—Depression, World War II, totalitariansm—and having absorbed its horrible lessons: there is no God, and there is no secular human progress. So what do you do then? What do you cling to? Wanda had communism for a while, and a rise to power in the 1950s, but now she simply distracts herself from the vast, absurd emptiness with booze, sex, and a wicked tongue.
The movie opens in a convent, where Anna, who has a spare, unadorned beauty that fits the film, is cleaning and restoring (one might say resurrecting) a statue of Jesus. She is also preparing to take her vows. Then the nuns tell her that her sole living relative, Wanda, living in Lodz, has finally responded to their queries. She should go see her. She does so, reluctantly, but with open eyes.
At Wanda’s place, the dark family secret is revealed quickly, and it’s less dark than tragic. Anna isn’t Anna but Ida Lebenstein. She and Wanda are the only ones left in their family because they’re Jewish and it’s post-World War II Poland.
At first it’s enough for Wanda to say all this and send her niece back. But she finds herself transfixed by Anna’s resemblance to her own sister, and she heads her off at the train station. She wants to bond with her. Or convert her? But to what? A prosecutor in the Stalinist era and now a judge, Wanda wants to find out what happened to Ida’s parents and bring their bones back, but she warns Anna about going along: “What if you go and discover there is no God?”
At the same time, she enjoys teasing her niece.
Wanda: Do you have sinful thoughts sometimes?
Wanda: About carnal matters?
Wanda: That’s a shame.
They first travel to the isolated farmhouse where the Lebensteins once lived. A Polish family, headed by Feliks (Adam Szyszkowski), now lives there, and he’s suspicious of all strangers but Wanda in particular:
Wanda: Did you know the Lebensteins? They lived here before the war.
Wanda: No, Eskimos.
But they’re respectful to Anna, scarved as a novitiate nun, and for a time I thought that would be the plan: send in beatific Anna, alone, to get the answers, which Wanda, a Jewish prosecutor, could not. Instead they follow Wanda’s lead and visit Feliks’ father, dying in a hospital, and go to a nightclub, where Lis, their alto-sax guy, is playing jazz. Wanda drinks too much, fools around, defends herself to a silent Anna. “This Jesus of yours, he adored people like me,” she says. The closer they get to an answer, the more Wanda seems to unravel.
The search doesn’t go much further than Feliks and his father, because it doesn’t need to. Feliks is responsible. He killed the Lebensteins for their home because he could. In exchange for leaving his dying father alone, he takes Anna and Wanda into the woods and unearths the bodies. There, Anna/Ida learns she had an older brother. “The boy was dark and circumcized,” she’s told. “You were tiny.” Thus she lives; thus he died. It’s that.
“Ida” is written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (“The Woman in the Fifth”), and photographed by cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, who have won awards all over the place for it—including the Spotlight Award from the American Society of Cinematographers. It truly is a gorgeous movie. Several shots stand out, none more than the last. There’s not a frame of the movie I didn’t like.
The road trip is great, but what makes “Ida” one of the best movies of the year is what happens afterwards. At the start, Anna has absolute faith, Wanda has none. So what happens? Anna returns to the convent but her faith isn’t absolute anymore. During a meal, she suddenly bursts out laughing—we don’t know why—and shortly after she speaks with the statue of Jesus. “I’m not ready,” she tells him. “Forgive me.”
The effect of the trip is worse on Wanda. Nothing is restored for her, more is simply lost. Maybe what kept her going all of these years was the mystery, and now even that’s gone. One day she’s cleaning the apartment, listening to Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, and suddenly she jumps out the open window. The camera stays. The music keeps playing to an empty house.
Ida comes for the funeral and hooks up with Lis. In bed, he talks of the life they’ll live together. They’ll have kids, buy a house, raise a family. “And then?” she keeps saying. “And then?” He’s offering her a good life but before the trip she had an eternal life. Now, not. Now there’s just “And then?” She can’t be on the eternal path but she doesn’t know which path to take. The final shots see her walking a road against the sparse traffic, her path uneven, unstable, the camera suddenly jerky. It’s our path.
Tuesday July 29, 2014
Quote of the Day
“We are only allowed to live one life: it’s the human condition, there’s no escaping it. In my view, only by studying the humanities can we hope to escape this fundamental limitation and understand how other people live. Because literature, history, or philosophy all provide extraordinary windows on the world. Foreign languages, too, are fundamental.
”The French language gave me an entrée into another culture. It allowed me to discover different means of expression, a different way of life, different values, a different system of thought. Because when you’re a judge and you spend your whole day in front of a computer screen, it’s important to be able to imagine what other people’s lives might be like, lives that your decisions will affect. People who are not only different from you, but also very different from each other. So, yes, reading is a very good thing for a judge to do. Reading makes a judge capable of projecting himself into the lives of others, lives that have nothing in common with his own, even lives in completely different eras or cultures. And this empathy, this ability to envision the practical consequences on one’s contemporaries of a law or a legal decision, seems to me to a crucial quality in a judge.“
-- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, ”On Reading Proust," interviewed in The New York Review of Books, Nov. 2013. The interview was originally conducted in French and published in La Revue des Deux Mondes in Paris as part of a special issue entitled “Proust vu d’Amérique.”
Tuesday July 29, 2014
- It's worth reading every word of Tim Egan's post about the sheer legal and political idiocy of John Boehner's lawsuit against Pres. Obama. Make them pay, folks. Because right now it looks like they'll be rewarded instead.
- First we had a documentary on Jodorowsky's unmade “Dune.” Now a documentary on Tim Burton's unmade “Superman” movie from the 1990s starring Nicolas Cage? How many other documentaries from other unmade sci-fi/fantasy movies can we make? Maybe we should just not make sci-fi/fantasy movies so we can make the documentaries about the movies that were never made. Why not? The movie itself usually disappoints, while the unmade movie holds the chance at being glorious.
- Indiewire presents: The History of Sex on Film in Infographic Form. Not very graphic or informative, unfortunately. I.e., there's not much there I didn't know.
- My friend Jerry Grillo breaks down the actors who played Babe Ruth and asks “Who was the best?”
- This past week the Baseball Hall of Fame (in Cooperstown) changed its voting rules so that eligible players who don't make the 75% cut but do get at least 5% of the vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) can only remain on the ballot for 10 years instead of 15 years. Why the change? Joe Posnanski ruminates over four theories. (Hint: It has less to do with the players than with the BBWAA.)
- No one has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with 100% of the vote—not Babe Ruth (95.13%), Ted Williams (93.38%), Willie Mays (94.68%) or Hank Aaron (97.83%)—but Tom Seaver, who has received the highest voting percentage ever (98.84%), thinks that the first unanimous Hall of Famer should be ... Derek Jeter. Right. Not Ken Griffey Jr. or Randy Johnson or Pedro Martinez; Derek Effin' Jeter. Because the poor guy just doesn't get enough attention. I barely knew he was at the All-Star Game earlier this month, for example.
- With all due respect to Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas, Roger Angell is my Hall of Famer.
According to Jerry Grillo (and most of us concur), here's the actor who played Babe Ruth best.
Monday July 28, 2014
Quote of the Day
“Our teachers’ best qualities—their sense of humor, their love for the subject, their excitement, their interest in students as individuals—are not being honored or valued, because those qualities aren’t measurable.”
-- Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which represents 84,000 teachers, in Rachel Aviv's devastating New Yorker article on the perils of applying corporate philosophy to education: “Wrong Answer: In an era of high-stakes testing, a struggling school makes a shocking choice.” It's not just our school systems, of course; most jobs are increasingly data-driven. So much is about the quantity and rarely about the quality. We now live in an era in which people are judged by numbers while corporations are judged as people. See Bunk for an appropriate response to all of this.
Monday July 28, 2014
Movie Review: Lucy (2014)
Most mainstream movies don’t think much beyond the current year. Maybe they go back a decade. Ancient history is history before Elvis. The dark ages. I remember when I reviewed “Little Nicky” in which Adam Sandler played a literal son of Satan who head-banged to heavy metal music, and my immediate thought was, “OK. So what did he listen to for the 3,000 years before heavy metal music?”
Luc Besson’s “Lucy” widens the scope a bit. We see the first cells splitting, and the first human, Lucy, drinking water from a stream. We’re told that matter only exists because of time. We’re told we never really die, which is nice to know. I like the intelligence of it all, the awareness of a time period beyond our own, the encouragement of a thirst for knowledge.
Here’s what I didn’t like. Halfway through, our hero, a modern-day Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), could kill the movie’s main villain, a drug dealer and gangster named Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik of “Oldboy” fame), but she doesn’t bother. She leaves him alive. Three-quarters of the way through she could do the same. By this point, she’s so powerful she can just think somebody dead. Still, she leaves him alive. An argument can be made that he’s so below her now it’s like killing an ant, or an amoeba, but that’s not why he lives. He lives because the primitive monkey brains in the audience, our primitive monkey brains, need the tension. We need the race for the prize, the villain tracking the hero, the gunfight at the OK Corral.
I also wasn’t a fan of how cartoonish Mr. Jang was; and that he was supposed to be Chinese but spoke Korean.
But leaving him alive? That’s some rookie shit. I expect that from someone using 5% of their brain’s capacity, not 50.
Brain brain, what is brain?
It’s a good concept anyway.
Human beings use only about 10% of the brain’s capacity. So if we could tap into the rest? Yowzah.
It’s contemporary times, more or less, and Lucy, last name unknown, is hanging out in Taipei, and going to school there, but somehow doesn’t speak a lick of Chinese. She’s also got a ne’er-do-well, week-long, Aussie-ish boyfriend, Richard (Danish actor Pilou Asbaek of “A Hijacking”), who tries to cajole her into delivering a briefcase to Mr. Jang at a Taipei hotel. No go. So he locks it to her wrist and tells her the key is with Mr. Jang. She’s pissed, sure, but off she goes: to the front desk, up the elevator, and into the private sanctuary of Mr. Jang, who’s busy wiping the blood of his enemies from his face. He also kills Richard en route. Because blood. Plus all of this is intercut with scenes of jaguars on the hunt in the Serengeti. Because Luc Besson.
The briefcase turns out to be carrying blue crystals called CPH4, which is apparently a chemical used in the second or third trimester of pregnancy to create us. This is its synthetic version. It’s a drug. For what purpose? Who knows? But Mr. Jang wants it taken to Rome, Paris, Berlin and New York. The captive mules for these four cities, including Lucy (NYC), have their stomachs cut open and a Ziploc bag of CPH4 inserted. The bad news for Mr. Jang, and the good news for us, is that, before putting Lucy on a flight to NYC, they apparently stash her in a grungy prison, where a skinny Chinese dude tries to fondle her, and when she objects, kicks her repeatedly in the stomach. Of course the bag inside her is broken open. It’s our gamma radiation moment. Her eyes even go all blue. She lucies out.
Her first stop is the hospital to remove the rest of the crystals. By this point (20%?) she knows Mandarin Chinese, and with a glance at the X-rays can determine whether the patient on the table will live. He won’t, so she shoots him dead and takes his place. While she’s operated on, she calls her mother. That’s a nice scene. She says I love you. She says she remembers everything. Everything. Petting the cat. “You couldn’t remember that, honey. You were less than one year old.” But she remembers. She remembers the taste of her mother’s milk. She remembers every kiss her mother ever gave her. Johansson is quite good here. Throughout the movie, really. You get the sense that Lucy calls her mother not because she’s about to die but because she calculates human interaction will soon be meaningless to her, and she needs this last moment.
That’s an interesting thought, by the way. In most stories where a character develops massive brain power—think Gary Mitchell in Star Trek’s “Where No Man Has Gone Before”—they become as imperious as Mussolini. They view humans as ants, amoebas. But an argument can be made for the opposite. Mussolini was hardly a Rhodes Scholar, so why is he the model? Shouldn’t their humanity grow with their brain power? Does Lucy’s? A bit. She certainly has a wider perspective. She calculates she has 24 hours left before she reaches 100% brain capacity and then ... Who knows? So what should she do? She asks this of a scientist, Prof. Norman (Morgan Freeman), who has long studied the topic. We’ve even seen some of his lectures intercut with Lucy’s story. He talks about the two ways the cell’s knowledge can continue to live—immortality and reproduction—and urges Lucy to do what human beings have always done with their knowledge: “Pass it on,” he says. I like that. Pass it on.
Since this is Besson, and since international box office, she gathers everyone in Paris—other mules, Prof. Norman—so she can get the rest of the CPH4. She hangs with a good cop with a great face, Pierre del Rio (Amr Waked), who protects her when she’s not busy protecting herself, and Besson keeps reminding us of where she is on the brain capacity meter. At 90%, while gun battles rage all around, she travels through time: New York today, then 100 years ago, then with the Native Americans. Then dinosaurs. Lucy even meets the original Lucy, our ancestor, whom we met at the beginning of the movie.
Pass it on
Some of this isn’t bad. But Besson isn’t interested in straying too far from the thriller genre. He talks smart but executes stupid. So just as a bloodied Mr. Jang, our apelike contemporary, whom Lucy has left alive again and again, closes in on her sitting in a chair surrounded by awestruck scientists and computer banks she’s just digested (or something), she’s reaching 100%. Will she make it? Or will Mr. Jang kill her first?
The tension is unbearable.
No, it’s not. He fires, she disappears. Because she’s everywhere now. That’s the message she leaves him.
And the message Besson leaves us?
The movie opens with Lucy narrating the following: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. This is what we’ve done with it,” and we get shots of, you know, ugly buildings and shit. At the close, she narrates thus: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.”
Well, not really. Still at 10%. Unless you mean the “Pass it on” thing. That I can do. FWIW.
Sunday July 27, 2014
Newest Superhero, Lucy, Clobbers Oldest, Hercules, at Weekend Box Office
“I won?” “She won?” The newest superhero (left) clobbers the oldest (right) at the domestic box office.
“Hercules” had a bigger budget ($100 to $40 million), better reviews (63% to 58% on Rotten Tomatoes), more theaters (3,595 to 3,173), greater name recognition, and, of course, way bigger biceps; but the girl, “Lucy,” still came out on top. She’s grossed an estimated $44 million to Herc’s $29 at the domestic box office this weekend.
This feels increasingly the way, doesn’t it? Beyond “Maleficent,” currently at No. 4 for the year with $232 million domestic, the annual top 10 is still the old boys club: Captain America, Transformers, X-Men, Spidey, Godzilla, 22 Jump Street, Planet of the Apes. But in head-to-head matchups, the girls are increasingly kicking ass.
So Angelina Jolie with sharp cheekbones cut up Seth MacFarlane’s flaccid western in late May. So Shailene Woodley with cancer beat out Tom Cruise with Groundhog Day Syndrome in early June. And now little Scarlett Johansson, armed only with looks, lips and boobs, plus 100% brain capacity, Luc Besson as director and Taipei as locale, has clobbered Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s attempt to pull the Hercules myth out of the B-grade swamp it’s forever been stuck in.
Is this a trend? Girls gone box office? Are the studios noticing? Will they notice in particular when Katniss wipes the floor with all the year’s movies in November? Or will they point to the so-so performance of “Divergent” ($150 million) in March and do nothing as usual?
Either way, ScarJo: Hen hao. Ni hen li hai.
The other openers? “And So It Goes,” the poorly received sexagenarian comedy starring Diane Keaton and Michael Douglas, bombed in 1,762 locations, winding up with $4.5 million and in eighth place; but Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last starring role, “A Most Wanted Man,” directed by Anton Corbijn, grossed $2.7 million in only 361 locations. It also garnered good reviews: 91% on Rotten Tomatoes.
In other good news, “Boyhood,” with phenomenal reviews (99% on RT), and playing in only 107 locations, grossed $1.7 million. It’s now up to $4.1 million for a movie that’s barely playing. If it’s playing near you? Get out and see it.
Sunday July 27, 2014
The Greatest Baseball Story Ever Told
Yesterday at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Roger Angell, 93, longtime fiction editor for The New Yorker, who wrote a few baseball essays on the side, was given the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the Hall’s writing honor.
Spink, in case you don’t know, as I didn’t, was the longtime publisher of The Sporting News; he died in 1962.
The only thing I can't believe about this is how long it took to honor Angell. I spent the fall of ’94, my first autumn without a World Series, reading Roger Angell. He was my compensation for the lost season. I read all of him, chronologically, and there are great baseball stories throughout, but the one below is my favorite. It’s from the essay, “Stories for a Rainy Afternoon,” from the book, “Five Seasons,” originally published in the summer of 1976. Enjoy.
Young Tommy Lasorda with a lesson for the ages.
Tommy LaSorda, it can be proved, is a patient sort of man. He grew up in Morristown, Pennsylvania, and became a serious baseball fan at an early age. When he was 12 or 13, he volunteered for duty as a crossing guard at his parochial school because he knew that the reward for this service was a free trip to a big-league baseball game—an event he had yet to witness. The great day came at last, the sun shone, and the party of nuns and junior fuzz repaired to Shibe Park, where the Phillies were playing the Giants. Young Tom LaSorda had a wonderful afternoon, and just before the game ended he and some of his colleagues forehandedly stationed themselves beside a runway under the stands, where they could collect autographs from the players coming off the field. The game ended, the Giants came clattering by, and Tom extended his scorecard to the first hulking, bespiked hero to come in out of the sunshine.
“Can I have your autograph, please, mister?” he said.
“Outta my way, kid,” the Giant said, brushing past the boy.
When Tom LaSorda tells the story now, the shock of this moment is still visible on his face. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Here was the first big-league player I’d ever seen up close—the first one I ever dared speak to—and what he did was shove me up against the wall. I think tears came to my eyes. I watched the guy as he went away toward the clubhouse and I noticed the number on his back—you know, like taking the license of a hit-and-run car. Later on, I looked at my program and got his name. It was Buster Maynard, who was an outfielder with the Giants then. I never forgot it.”
Seven or eight years went swiftly by (as they do in instructive, moral tales), during which time Tom LaSorda grew up to become a promising young pitcher in the Dodger organization. In the spring of 1949, he was a star with the Dodger farm team in Greenville, North Carolina, in the Sally League, and took the mound for the opening game of the season at Augusta, Georgia, facing the Augusta Yankees. Tom retired the first two batters, and then studied the third, a beefy right-handed veteran, as he stepped up to the box.
The park loudspeaker made the introduction: “Now coming up to bat for the Yankees, Buster May-narrd, right field!”
LaSorda was transfixed. “I looked in,” he says, “and it was the same man!”
The first pitch to Maynard nearly removed the button from the top of his cap. The second, behind his knees, inspired a beautiful sudden entrechat. The third, under the Adam’s apple, confirmed the message, and Maynard threw away his bat and charged the mound like a fighting bull entering the plaza in Seville. The squads spilled out onto the field and separated the two men, and only after a lengthy and disorderly interval was baseball resumed.
After the game, LaSorda was dressing in the visitor’s locker room when he was told that he had a caller at the door. It was Buster Maynard, who wore a peaceable but puzzled expression. “Listen, kid,” he said to LaSorda, “did I ever meet you before?”
“Not exactly,” Tom said.
“Did I bat against you someplace, maybe?”
“Well, why were you tryin’ to take my head off out there?”
LaSorda spread his hands wide. “You didn’t give me your autograph,” he said.
Tom LaSorda tells this story each spring to the new young players who make the Dodger club. “Always give an autograph when somebody asks you,” he says gravely. “You never can tell. In baseball anything can happen.”
Sunday July 27, 2014
Wonder Woman: All the World's Waiting For You
In case you haven't seen this yet. It was tweeted by (who else?) Zack Snyder, director of the upcoming “Superman vs. Batman” movie:
A lot of fanboys were up in arms when Gal Gadot was cast, but she looks fine. But it's just a still photo. We'll see.
(Imagine the whining, btw, if we were all online in 1987 when Warner Bros. chose Tim Burton to direct “Batman,” and Burton chose Michael Keaton to play Batman. There would've been bitching right up to the first trailer; then silence.)
So is she in a volcano or something there? I never quite got Wonder Woman. What were her powers again? She's not invulnerable so she should probably suit up a bit, particularly if she's in a volcano. Other thoughts about the character in my review of the 2012 documentary “Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines.”
After this shot was leaked, and coupled with the leaked photos of Affleck as Batman and Cavill as Superman, “DC Comics Talk” tweeted a shot of all three along with this challenge: “Your turn, Marvel.” To which I had to tweet back this. Because, I mean, c'mon.
Saturday July 26, 2014
John Lennon on the 'Happy Days' Set
This photo was posted on Facebook via The REAL Peter Tork:
“Happy Days had just been on the air a short time in 1974 when the cast noticed a familiar looking man hanging around in the studio one day. It was none other than former Beatle John Lennon, along with his then 10-year-old son Julian. ... Lennon stuck around for the entire day of shooting, drawing doodles for the crew and hanging out until they wrapped the shoot after some 12 hours...”
From the looks of it, this was from Lennon's “Rock n' Roll” period. Was he still on the outs with Yoko then? Hanging out with May Pang?
Yes. Just did the Google search. According to BuzzFeed, it was taken in January 1974.
So this was kind of a low point for him (artistically, personally) and a high point for “Happy Days.” The early shows were quite good, and the title almost ironic. Things invariably went badly for Richie, but he had family to fall back on. It was only when the show shifted from Richie-centric to Fonz-centric that it lost its sense of irony and became a huge hit.
But that photo's nuts. Isn't it? It's like some odd amalgamation of my childhood/teen years. It would be like a photo of Evel Knievel hanging out with the Twins at Met Stadium. Or Thor Heyerdahl and Lindsay Wagner visiting “The Planet of the Apes” set. Worlds colliding.
Saturday July 26, 2014
Luis Tiant with me and my brother, Chris, on Camera Day at Met Stadium, 1970. Should Tiant have gone into the Hall? Why didn't he? (Photo by Bob Lundegaard)
- The Hollywood Reporter writes about the domestic box office slump that I've been writing about for weeks. But, you know, with quotes from studio execs. So it's important.
- Some interesting criticism of “Boyhood,” some of which echoes mine—although I found the main character, Mason, too cool for school while others (Mark Judge anyway) think he's socially awkward. Judge's “Sideways” comparison, too, I think is B.S.: We identify with many aspects of Mason's upbringing not because we're critics but because we're human beings. As for Eve's three flaws of the film? Yes to 1, no to 2, and yes to 3. Again, my review here. And again: go see it. Because you'll enjoy it.
- Speaking of: John Hartl talks with “Boyhood”'s director Richard Linklater. The film is now playing in Seattle. At the Harvard Exit. At 12, 1, 3:30, 4:30, 7, 8 and 10:10.
- The Open Carry Texas folks held a rally last Saturday at Dealey Plaza—the site of the JFK assassination. No words.
- “Just a $3 increase will make a living wage ...” Kristen Bell as Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins in this Funny-or-Die viddy. Nice pipes. Good message.
- Via Hollywood Elsewhere and TCM, Clint Eastwood on James Garner.
- Why didn't Luis Tiant make the Hall of Fame? David Shoenfield thinks it was the timing.
- Read your Paul Krugman. Doctor's orders. Yesterday, he talked up California's comeback with some pointed words for the GOP. Not to mention Kansas.
- Your long read of the week: Rachel Aviv's excellent piece on cheating on standardized tests in Atlanta. The culprits? Teachers. And they're the heroes.
Friday July 25, 2014
Quote of the Day
Andrew Sullivan again. He riffs off of Tom Ricks' post, “Why Am I Moving Left?” by listing off some of the reasons he himself is not embracing the Bush/Cheney/Gingrich/Cruz/Ryan GOP, including its defense of torture, its ideological blindness, various issues regarding racism, sexism, and homophobia, and its political brinkmanship:
In fact, from that first stimulus vote on, Obama faced a unanimous and relentless nullification Congress. If he favored something, they opposed it. Despite Obama’s exemplary family life, public grace and composure, and willingness to compromise, they decided to cast him as a tyrant, a radical, a traitor and an incompetent. Their demonization of a decent, pragmatic man simply disgusts me to the core.
Amen. And I'm sorry so many Americans are too stupid to see this.
A decent, pragmatic man, too long demonized.
Friday July 25, 2014
Is Batman 75 Years Old ... or 2,000?
Director Zack Synder (I know) has released a new photo of Ben Affleck as Batman. You can see it here. It looks good, but, you know, Batman's all about demeanor, and Affleck doesn't really have the demeanor. At least that I've seen. But fingers crossed.
A few days ago, Warner Bros. and DC Comics celebrated the 75th anniversary of Batman with the usual marketing tweets and posts and blarghs. But aren't they underestimating Batman's age? Last January, P and I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and in the Egyptian wing I found this:
Seventy-five years old? How about 2,000?
Friday July 25, 2014
Movie Review: His Last Game (1909)
The story is pretty simple. Choctaw has a big game against Jimtown, and they count on their star pitcher, Native American Bill Going, to lead the way. But gamblers enter the scene to fix the game. They try to bribe Bill with money. After about 10 seconds of melodramatic temptation, he turns them down. So they offer booze. Same deal. Finally, they attempt to get him drunk anyway by fixing him the era’s version of a roofie. But he outsmarts them, switches drinks, and then throws the booze-filled drink into the gambler’s face. A fight breaks out and the gambler draws a gun. It’s wrested away from him and he’s shot and killed. For this, Bill Going is led away by the authorities for murder. Well, “authorities.” “Swift western justice” the title card proclaims, and we next see him in front of an open grave, with the sheriff and a firing squad nearby.
But wait! A letter!
If Bill Going wins this game, there’s new evidence in his favor and I demand a REPREEVE.
Signed by 604 of Arizona’s best cityzens an Yuba Bill, Sherif
Why is this new evidence going to surface only if he wins the game? Stop asking questions.
So the Choctaw chief stands in for Bill, who rides back to town, wins the game, and is about to celebrate with his teammates when he remembers the chief. Then he rides back and stands before the open grave. He asks for, and is granted, a pipe for a last smoke.
But wait! The Chief puts his ear to the ground and hears a coming horse! Maybe it’s a reprieve! No matter. The sheriff, standing behind Bill, signals for the firing squad to fire. They do, and Bill slumps into the grave ... just as, oh no, a man rides up with Bill’s reprieve! So sad!
C’mon, it was 1909. What do you expect—“Casablanca”?
People were obviously still learning the camera—or baseball—back then, as they tried to fit everything into the small frame. As a result, the ump stays off to the left rather than crouching behind the catcher, and it looks to be maybe 10 feet—rather than 90—between bases. Worse, when the catcher and ump aren’t in the frame, you have almost nothing in the foreground. Yet they didn’t move the camera for those shots. So the bottom third of the screen contains nothing while the top two-thirds contains everything—including a lot of characters who essentially have their heads cut off. It’s as if your grandmother photographed the movie on vacation.
IMDb is a bit sparse on the details behind the production, and Wikipedia is worse: only an Italian entry—so I’m not sure who made it or why or why they chose Native Americans. Did they think, “Hey, let’s mix westerns with baseball”? Or was the prevalence of Native Americans in early baseball—including Charles “Chief” Bender, a future Hall of Famer—a factor?
Italian Wiki claims that Harry Solter, a silent film director with several dozen credits, directed the thing, but IMDb simply leaves the credit blank. At the least, we know it was produced by Carl Laemmle’s Independent Moving Pictures Co. of America (IMP), which, in 1912, merged with several other production companies to form Universal Pictures, which is still one of Hollywood’s “Big Six” studios, having produced, among others, “The Sting,” “Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Bridesmaids.” Laemmle’s first big success was “Hiawatha,” based on “The Song of ...” so maybe that’s the reason for the Native American focus.
“His Last Game” isn’t quite the first baseball story on film—that would probably be Edison’s “How the Office Boy Saw the Game” from 1906—but it is interesting as an historic artifact. Should we be surprised by its fairly positive portrayal of American Indians? Not according to Dave Kehr, who, in his review of “Reel Baseball: Baseball Films of the Silent Era,” writes, “The pro-Indian stance is quite typical for westerns, which have been caricatured for years as racist and genocidal, though I have yet to find an early one in which those sentiments were not placed in the mouths of villains.”
SLIDESHOW: No, the ump's not checking out the catcher's butt; he's just trying to not block the frame. And that thing over to the right? About five steps away? That's first base. They were cramming everything into the frame because the camera didn't move back then; there are only four camera angles in the entire movie. The bigger problem with that is this ...
... You take away anything in the foreground (like catcher and ump) and you get shots cropped by your grandmother during her trip to Wyoming.
The story: Gamblers try to bribe Bill Going into throwing the big game but he refuses. One of the gamblers winds up shot, dead, and Bill is slated to be executed for the crime.
But first win the big game, will ya? He does. Another foreground-empty shot.
This one is nicely framed: Bill enjoys a final smoke before the firing squad, while the Indian chief listens to a coming horse, which the Sheriff can't see.
Everyone is shocked, shocked by the death of Bill Going. But at least he won the big game. *FIN*
Thursday July 24, 2014
Movie Review: The Lunchbox (2013)
“The Lunchbox,” set in the bustling city of Mumbai, India, has a slow-paced, patient approach that suits the means of communication between its main characters: hand-written letters left in the lunchboxes that she makes (and which were originally meant for her husband), and that he eats. In this manner, gradually, they share their stories and insights with one another. He mentions that his wife is dead and buried, and that he recently sought out a grave for himself, but only vertical graves are left. A commuter who has to stand on the trains to and from work, he adds, “Now I’ll have to stand even when I’m dead.” There’s also this, which is true and isn’t: “I think we forget things if we don’t have anyone to tell them to.” Then they talk up the GNP, and how Bhutan has the GNH, or Gross National Happiness index, and wouldn’t it be great to live in Bhutan? Then she drops the bomb. “My husband is having an affair,” she writes. “I think it’s time for us to meet,” he writes.
Will they? What will happen then? Do they fall in love? Are they already in love?
Yeah. I didn’t care, either.
“The Lunchbox” is indie lite. It has its charms, but its slow-paced approach tends to lead to the obvious and precious rather than the wise and profound. You think you’re sitting down to a true Indian meal but it’s actually prefabricated and packaged and smuggled in through the kitchen door, then slowly heated. You’re supposed to not notice.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a Mumbai housewife and mother who converses with the unseen (“Auntie,” who lives upstairs and gives her cooking advice), but not with the seen (her husband, Rajeev, who is that movie staple: the busy phone guy). So she tries to woo him with food. Not dinner, lunch. Which is picked up and taken to her husband through Mumbai’s “massively efficient” delivery system. Except it gets delivered to the wrong dude. Oops. So much for “massively efficient.”
The wrong dude is Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), a grumpy, longtime accountant on the verge of retirement after 35 years, who has to train in his replacement, the grinning, gladhanding Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). But Saajan is also the right dude, since Ila’s husband is obviously the wrong one. Look, he’s still on the phone! Look, he’s not even noticing her! Despite the cooking! And he didn’t even notice the food he ate wasn’t her food! But Saajan? He notices. It hasn’t exactly warmed his heart yet—he’s mean to Shaikh, and doesn’t return the ball the neighborhood cricket-playing kids hit on his balcony—but give it time, give it time.
I liked, somewhat, the Shaikh subplot. Was Saajan being forced out? No, he voluntarily took early retirement. Is Shaikh a fake and a phony? No, he’s a decent, friendly man who inexplicably has no friends. That’s why he drags Saajan to his wedding. I also liked Saajan—or at least Irrfan Khan’s acting. Even eating, he gives you something.
I also liked the upstairs auntie, unseen, like Carlton the Doorman, who gives Ila cooking advice. I’m glad they kept her unseen.
But Ila? What’s there? She cooks, she listens, she hopes, she does the laundry, where she smells on her husband’s shirt another woman and knows. And knows. And opens up to the unseen Saajan. But there’s no there there.
We get a touch of magic realism. When she shoos a fly, he shoos a fly. That kind of thing. It’s a bit of a magic-food movie, isn’t it? Like “Like Water for Chocolate”? And “Chocolat”? But muted? For foodies? And sensitive, international people? But I was bored. I’m a patient, book-reading man but I saw where most of the story was going. Look, he’s nice to the cricket-playing kids now! How nice.
It’s a bit like “You’ve Got Mail,” isn’t it? About as profound, too. It does a good job, as romance needs to do, of keeping the couple apart for most of the movie, but then it does too good a job of it. The day they’re supposed to meet, he smells his grandfather in the bathroom and realizes it’s him. Then on the train, a young man offers him his seat. “Uncle, would you like to sit?” He’s old, she’s young, she needs to move on. “No one buys yesterday’s lottery ticket, Ila,” he writes. Then channels are crossed. He retires, disappears, returns. She looks for him, can’t find him, decides to leave her husband anyway. Her husband was never much in the picture anyway. Just in her life.
The ending itself is unnecessarily open-ended. They never meet. Are they still searching for each other? Don’t you want them to?
Yeah, I didn’t care, either. Maybe I’m cold-hearted. Maybe I need someone to make me hot Indian lunches.
Wednesday July 23, 2014
The Last Dismal Years of Babe Ruth's Career Weren't So Dismal
I can get lost in baseball statistics.
I was on Babe Ruth's Baseball Reference page this evening, for example, and noticed his OPS for the last years of his career. Generally people say Ruth began to fade as a slugger in the early 1930s, and it's true his HR totals kept going down: 49, 46, 41, 34, 22, 6 and out. The “6” was for his last truncated season with the Boston Braves. He only played 28 games, with 72 at-bats and 13 hits. That's a .188 batting average. Dismal.
Except guess what? His OBP was still .359. You know how many 2014 Seattle Mariners have an OBP of greater than .359? One: Robinson Cano. Everyone else is worse. They're all worse than the last, dismal year of Babe Ruth's career.
The year before that for Ruth? 1934? His last dismal year with the Yankees? When he was deemed washed up? Sure, he batted below .300 for the first time since his misbegotten 1925 campaign, which was the first time he'd batted below .300 since 1916. To be exact, he hit .288 in 1934. But his OPS? .985. You know how many Major League baseball players have an OPS greater than .985 so far this year? Two: Troy Tulowitzski and Mike Trout. That's it. C'est tout. Everyone else in Major League baseball is worse than the last, dismal year Babe Ruth had with the New York Yankees in 1934—a year so bad they had to cut him loose.
Anyway, those aren't even the baseball stats I wanted to talk about. (I told you I get lost in this stuff.) I wanted to talk about strikeouts.
If you've been paying attention, you'll know that when I interviewed David Boies last January I had to correct him on the all-time strikeout leader. He thought Babe Ruth. I told him Ruth had long been surpassed; it was now Reggie Jackson. But I didn't know how long ago, and by how much, Ruth had been surpassed. I knew Mantle had done it, but I didn't know it was in 1964. I also didin't know Ruth had so few career strikeouts (1,330) for someone who was the career leader for so long (more than 30 years). I also didn't know Mantle's final career total of 1710 was surpassed in 1978 by Willie Stargell, who wound up with 1,936. But Stargell held the mark for only four years, until he was surpassed in 1982 by Reggie Jackson, who wound up with 2,597, or almost twice as many Ks as Ruth had.
The current active leader is Adam Dunn (2,323), and before him it was Jim Thome (who stopped at 2,548), and before him it was Sammy Sosa (2,306), and before him, Andres Galarraga (2,003). And so for 10 years now, since the end of the 2003 season, our active career leader in strikeouts has had more than 2,000 Ks.
Here's the trivia question: When was the last time the active career leader in strikeouts had fewer than 1,500?
Answer in the Comments field.
Ruth, in the last, dismal year of his career, still had a better OBP than all but one of the 2014 Seattle Mariners. And that guy is making a quarter of a billion dollars.
Wednesday July 23, 2014
- Let's start with some good news for a change: Did you see Dustin Ackley's catch the other night?
- Less good news: ESPN.com has put together a list of the top 5 players to be named later (based upon lifetime WAR). Number one? David Ortiz. Who traded him as a giveaway? Your Seattle Mariners, of course.
- Joey P. on why the Royals suck offensively. He writes, acidically, “The Royals are not a singles-hitting, runner-stranding, offensively challenged team by mistake. They are one by design.”
- Of course, even the woeful Royals aren't last in the American League in team OPS. Who is? Your Seattle Mariners.
- My friend Jerry Grillo interviews astrobiologist Loren Williams, whose throwback website is the most-visited in the world ... for molecular interactions.
- Nathaniel over at Film Experience posts about the best red dresses in movie history. Which, of course, reminds me of one of my favorite stories ever.
- This spring I interviewed and wrote a profile on class action attorney Steve W. Berman for our publication in Washington state. It was a lot of fun. Check it out.
- Jeffrey Toobin on why partisan gerrymandering has been such a problem in the 21st century (thanks for nothing, SCOTUS), and what one Florida judge has done to stop it in his state.
- I know you know this, but Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX-OOPS) is a boob.
- You know the awful #RE2PECT/Derek Jeter ad? Funny or Die almost made me glad it exists with a parody ad focusing on A-Rod.
- Andrew Sullivan, in his post “Holding Corpses Hostage,” on the barbarism of the downing of MH17 over Ukraine, the Russian response (which he calls prickly, corrupt, foul and shameful, among other things), and the need to get Europe on board for sanctions.
- Meanwhile, Julia Ioffe of The New Republic reports on what the Russian people are hearing from state-run TV about the crash. It's not what the rest of us are hearing. Sort of like your friend's father with FOX-News.
Dustin Ackley's catch.
Tuesday July 22, 2014
Movie Review: God's Pocket (2014)
“God’s Pocket,” written and directed by John Slattery of “Mad Men,” is more fun than I thought it would be.
It’s set in the 1970s in a fictionalized version of a crime-ridden, blue collar section of South Philadelphia, Schuylkill (a.k.a. “Devil’s Pocket”), and focuses on the down-and-out, the scroungers, the made and the marginalized. The people from God’s Pocket, we’re told, rarely leave God’s Pocket, and don’t trust anyone not from God’s Pocket. And if they’re smart, and they are not many of those, they wouldn’t trust anyone from God’s Pocket, either.
The local newspaper has an alcoholic columnist, Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins), who likes to wax rhapsodic about the area. He’s its poet laureate, and he’s the kind of poet laureate it deserves. Early, he says, “I’ve been writing the story of this city for 20 years,” and I answered back at the screen, “So you should be better at it,” because he’s lousy. He’s semi-celebrated but 90% inebriated. That’s how you can tell it’s the 1970s: a newspaperman is a local celebrity.
Anyway he spends a lot of time sentimentalizing God’s Pocket, defining it narrowly, so allow me to try the same. There are two things you need to know about God’s Pocket and “God’s Pocket,” and they are both unexpected and the expected: You never know who’s going to win a fight and everyone is going to try to fuck Christina Hendricks.
Truth won't out
The movie opens with two funerals, spaced a few days apart, so, like in the cold opens of “Six Feet Under,” we wonder who is going to die.
It doesn’t take long to find out the first. Hendricks plays Jeanie Scarpato, first seen with her husband Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman) huffing and puffing on top of her in the early morning light. Then she rouses her twentysomething son, Leon (Caleb Landry Jones, trying to channel Heath Ledger), for work. He’s a druggie, thinks he’s a toughie, plays with a pocket razor at the factory. He also thinks he can pick on the one black guy there. Wrong. After putting the razor to his throat, ha ha, the dude clubs him with a lead pipe. Down he goes. Dead, it turns out. But the foreman, Coleman Peets (Glenn Fleshler, who played George Remus on “Boardwalk Empire” and—more memorably—Errol Childress in “True Detective”), tells the cops a crane swung and hit him. All the others agree. Nobody really liked Leon. Or maybe that’s just the way in God’s Pocket.
Jeanie, distraught, knows something else happened—she just knows—so she asks first her husband, then the cops, then Richard Shellburn, to investigate. They all kinda do. Because, well, it’s Christina Hendricks.
At this point you think: Who’s going to find the answer first? But that’s the wrong question. “First” is particularly wrong. Truth doesn’t out in God’s Pocket.
Instead, Mickey asks his connected friend, Arthur (John Turturro), to see if local crime boss Sal Cappi (Domenick Lombardozzi, Herc on “The Wire” and Ralph Capone on “Boardwalk Empire”) can’t send some guys down to ask some questions. They do. And Coleman Peets is there all by himself. Uh oh. But no. As I said, you never know who’s going to win a fight in God’s Pocket. Peets sends both men back, and one (Sal’s brother) without an eye. This sends an enraged Sal back at Arthur; but Arthur’s Aunt Sophie (Joyce Van Patten), running the register at their flower shop, takes out a gun, misfires, then kills both Sal and his brother. Then she and Arthur skip town.
Meanwhile, Shellburn’s investigation turns into more of an investigation of Jeanie. Meanwhile, the cops ... Well, they’re cops. They don’t factor.
Mickey is on his own, hapless, downward spiral. At the local bar, the Hollywood, run by McKenna (Peter Gerety, Judge Phelan on “The Wire”), a collection is taken up for Leon’s funeral, but Mickey blows it at the racetrack and then struggles to hide all this from Jeanie and the town. Unfortunately, the local funeral director, Smilin’ Jack (Eddie Moran), doesn’t accept half payments; and after losing a fight to a disappointed Mickey, locks both him and Leon’s corpse out in the rain. Mickey then: 1) loads up Leon in his meat truck; 2) tries to sell the stolen meat to make up the rest of the funeral charges; 3) winds up selling the truck instead, but 4) in the process, the truck is driven away for a testdrive, which Mickey didn’t agree to, and, chasing the truck, he spooks the driver into traffic, and Leon’s corpse winds up an accident victim: dead a second time.
There are small pleasures in “God’s Pocket,” not least all the alums from the great HBO, etc. shows of the last 10 years. It’s sad watching Philip Seymour Hoffman, of course, but his performance still gives off small pleasures. On the phone, the doubtful raise of his eyebrow he gives when he says of Leon, “They say something fell on him.” Mostly, though, I just like his head-shaking disappointment in everything and everybody. Sal unnecessarily decks a guy, a civilian, and Mickey shakes his head. Smilin’ Jack takes a swing at Mickey, Mickey shakes his head. Mickey is the guy not from God’s Pocket, and sometimes folks forget. “Oh right, you’re not from here.” He’s hardly a moral exemplar (gambling, etc.) but in a way he is. When he learns Jeanie is schtupping Richard Shellburn, he’s not enraged; he just sighs. Way of the world. Basically: What a disappointment everyone is turning out to be. In fact, when Shellburn shows up at the local bar, and the patrons object to one of his sappy columns—he describes them as dirty-faced—it’s Mickey who tries to come to his rescue. To no avail. Shellburn is taken outside and beaten to death. The second funeral is his. Someone else will have to write about it.
That’s how this all began, actually. “God’s Pocket” is based upon the novel of the same name by Pete Dexter, a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, who, in 1981, was nearly beaten to death in Schuylkill by locals who objected to one of his recent columns about a drug deal gone wrong. He suffered a concussion and gave up the newspaper business for writing novels. He won the National Book Award for “Paris Trout” in 1988. “God’s Pocket,” from 1983, is his first novel.
Why did it attract Slattery? Who knows? It’s not a great story but at least it surprises now and again. I didn’t walk away from it, as I do with most Hollywood movies, shaking my head.
Monday July 21, 2014
Actually, Wallace Matthews, That is Exactly What I Want
From the ESPN.com/New York columnist's post on the Yankees 4-2 loss to the woeful Texas Rangers tonight:
Not what you want: Derek Jeter with the bases loaded, that is. The captain ran his streak of futility to 0-for-8 (he has two sacrifice flies) with the bases loaded this season, rapping into a 4-6-3 double play to end the fifth inning with the Yankees clinging to a 2-1 lead.
Anyone have a GIF of this? So I can watch it again and again?
Monday July 21, 2014
Boies on Colbert
While P and I were in Europe, super lawyers David Boies and Ted Olson, who argued opposite sides of Bush v. Gore before the U.S. Supreme Court in December 2000, and who became friends afterward and teamed up on the Prop 8 case, were on Stephen Colbert's show. You should watch the whole interview, but this part cracked me up:
Olson: I think that [Bush v. Gore] was a solid decision. Of course, I may be a little biased. But I think David agrees actually.
Colbert: I'm afraid we don't have time for his answer.
Boies: That's exactly what the Court said.
Even Colbert, master of the quick-witted response, was impressed.
I got to interview both men in January in New York, which was a great if nervewracking pleasure, and even got to correct Mr. Boies on his baseball knowledge. (My wheelhouse, apparently.) He used Babe Ruth as a metaphor for someone who hits a lot of homeruns but still strikes out a lot —more than anyone else in baseball history, he added. I had to tell him that the Babe was usurped in strikeouts long ago, and that Reggie Jackson holds the mark now. In fact, and obviously I didn't have this knowledge at the time, but the Babe is currently 107th on the career strikeout list with 1330—about half of Reggie's total.
That was a small sidebar, of course. Most of our interview was about the law in general, and the push for the federal constituational right for same-sex marriage in particular. Read the whole interview here.
Let me add that I could listen to David Boies talk about almost anything. He has a moment on “Colbert,” and it comes at about 4:40 in the above link, where I just fall in love with him all over again. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Monday July 21, 2014
Eurotrip 2014: Dekuju, Praha; Tag, Wien
It took me several days to finally remember the Czech for “thank you”: dekuju. The spelling threw me at first, I guess, but it stuck once I realized it was basically like Elmer Fudd saying “decree”: de-KWEE. Hehehehehehe. I also learned “Good morning” in Czech: Dobré ráno. That was it, though. I had an app I planned to use to learn more Czech but it kept crapping out on me. But those two words went a long way in the touristy circles I ran in, even as they were wholly unnecessary, since most folks spoke English. And German. And maybe Russian. Seriously, all of those “Speak English!” folks in the U.S.? They need to get out more. It’s less the number of languages people from other countries speak than the fact that you can go pretty much anywhere in the world and people will speak your language. English is doing just fine, dekuju.
P and I were reluctant to leave Prague yet arrived at the train station more than an hour early—even though the platform wouldn’t be announced until 20 minutes prior to departure. I didn’t know this. I always think earlier the better but here I felt like a rube. While we waited, P bought a coffee and I exchanged most of our korunas for euros. That was an oddity of our trip: We were visiting three countries in Europe, but two of them, the Czech Republic and Switzerland, weren’t on the euro. So we had a lot of exchanges. I spent a lot of times examining small coins. Was this a .... what was this?
Ten minutes before departure, our train platform was finally announced, and the huge, waiting crowd streamed through the tunnel—which includes a small bust of Woodrow Wilson, onetime hope of the world—and scrambled for a seat. We were less insistent since we bought tickets with assigned seats. Of course someone was in them. P spoke to him and the man apologized, moved his stuff, and sat in the seat in front of us. I was confused, though. How many seats were already bought? How could you tell? Were we even in the right place? Later in the trip—Vienna to Geneva—it happened again, but with a less polite deportee, but that time, an hour or so later, I found a conductor, who took a look at our tickets and declared, “You’re in the wrong car.” Wouldn’t be surprised if this was true during the Prague leg, too. Nothing more first-world than that, right? Declaring ownership of a spot you don’t own and booting folks from it. As they apologized for your mistake.
The car from Prague turned out to be the kid car. By which I mean the teenage car. Late teens? A group from ... Spain? I think they were on a second leg of a trip, because they were all tired, and several fell asleep sitting up, and one kid threw up. It was a source of great amusement for the others. Almost forced amusement, to be honest. One of the kids wore a T-shirt reading, I believe:
NO SOY YO
ES LA PERA
“Es la pera” or “Soy la pera” apparently means “I’m the pear,” which apparently means “I’m the shit.” But the rest? Anyone? Bueller?
Five hours later, after rattling past various rolling hills as well as a nuclear reactor in Brno, we arrived at the Wien-Miedling station. We walked down the stairs, took a left, and wound up blinking in the sun. I thought we’d see a train station, or at least a city, but we seemed in the sticks. Has we gotten off in the wrong spot? The Rough Guide to Vienna (also by Rob Humphreys) was a little sketchy on the subject, and I was ready to go back and turn right where we’d turned left, but P was anxious. So we just took a waiting cab to our hotel. Overpaid.
The pension kind of threw us, too. It wasn’t a hotel? With a lobby? It was just a door? We knew what pensions were but some assumptions are hard to break. Instead of a lobby, a heavy door led to a dark hallway, which led to an old-fashioned glass elevator, that you took to the third floor and the Pension Neuer Markt. It was a bit frayed around the edges but otherwise wasn’t bad. We got the key and I thanked the receptionist. Dekuju. I mean ... What is it again? Danke schoen. Thank you, Wayne Newton. Although, for me, in Vienna, I kept thinking of the “By Strauss” number in “An American in Paris.” Danke danke, bitte bitte.
Fifteen minutes to freshen up and then out into the blinding 4 pm sun. We walked a half block and ... boom. St. Stephen’s Cathedral. We laughed, it was so near and so beautiful. P wanted to go in right away but I counseled a walk around the city, saving the Cathedral for the next day. A block away, we tried to get a gelato at a busy store but were too frustrated by the disorganization. As we walked, P kept looking into shops for a new purse. That was her purchasing goal for the trip. Generally, though, she’d come out of the store, wrinkle her nose and shake her head. Not there. She would find what she wanted in a few days, and in the unlikeliest of places.
On Grabben, we had drinks at the outdoor café in front of the Pestsäule, a mercy column commissioned by Emperor Leopold I after the plague of 1679. It’s a statue that soars impossibly. It’s like a statue version of one of those supertall wedding cakes. Much of Vienna felt this way to me. Architecturally, it was impossibly white and fluffy. I wanted to scoop some of the icing off the buildings with my finger.
That night, the Rough Guide let us down—or time did. For dinner, Immervoll at 17 Weihburggasse sounded good, but when we got there, it wasn’t. We walked along: 13 ... 15 ... 19 .... What the--? A waiter at a nearby cafe told us it had moved a few blocks away—if the new one was even the same one. Instead, we ate at a quaint-looking but expensive restaurant run by an Asian dude. I had the weiner schnitzel. I was surprised when it arrived as deep-fried veal. I expected sausage. It was so-so. Maybe all weiner schnitzel is.
Heading out of Prague. This is probably about halfway to Vienna. P gently being rocked to sleep.
All the stuff you see out the train window from Praha to Wien: buildings ...
... decrepit train stations ...
... nuclear reactors ...
... and then, boom, Vienna. Stephansdom: Half a block from our pension.
Vienna ... or Vienna on Broadway? Only Neil Patrick Harris knows for sure.
The Pestsäule on Grabben. All the architecture in Vienna just goes up and up. Even statues to plagues.
P on Grabben, looking for a good new purse. She found it, but days later, and in the unlikeliest of places. *FIN*
Sunday July 20, 2014
Weekend Box Office: Hollywood Releases Crap Movies, America Doesn't Go See Them
The image to the right appeared in my email inbox on Friday.
Of the new films, “The Purge: Anarchy” (49% RT) grossed $28.3 million for second place, “Planes” (49%) grossed $18 million for third place, and “Sex Tape” (16%) uploaded $15 million for fourth place.
Is it still summer? Because it’s hard to tell from both the crap movies Hollywood is releasing and our tepid reaction to them. (BTW: Correlation?)
In overall 2014 box office news, “Spidey 2” crawled over the $200 million barrier, “Transformers 4” ($227m) is bumping up against “Maleficent” ($228m) for fourth place, but “Captain America” still rules with $258 million.
No worries. “Hercules” arrives next week. Here he comes to save the day.
Sunday July 20, 2014
- Indiewire's writers lay out the most underrated and underseen movies of the year so far ... and of course I haven't seen almost any of them. Only one, in fact: “Noah.” And I don't really agree with that choice. Among the others? “Dom Hemingway,” “The Rover,” “Le Weekend,” “God's Pocket,” “The Internet's Own Boy” and “Borgman.” Anyone see them? Anyone like them? “Borgman” had good buzz at SIFF this year.
- Nice review of “Boyhood” by Anthony Lane.
- Even John Boehner's friends are tired of John Boehner's whining.
- Jeff Wells slams the latest poster for “Skeleton Twins,” the funny, emotional, Sundance film starring Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, as “a poster that says ‘meh, no biggie’…a poster that screams Netflix and VOD when there’s nothing else to watch.” Can't disagree.
- But it still beats the official posters for “Philomena” and “Klumpfisken”: man, woman, bench, fake, ick.
- David Remnick was recently in Moscow interviewing officials who said Vladimir Putin needed to bring down the political temperature. And this was before Malaysian Airlines #17 was shot over Ukraine—supposedly by Russian-backed separatists.
- Post-MH17, Andrew Sullivan asks Charles Krauthammer and other chest-beating right-wingers, “How do you like your Vladimir Putin now?”
- Hey, Ukranian separatists: You've just shot down a passenger jet and pissed off the entire world. What do you do for an encore? You seize control of the bodies.
- James Garner, dead at the age of 86.
- Long read of the week: Jill LePore not only disrupts “disruptive innovation” in general and its advocate, Clayton M. Christensen, in particular, she lays waste to them. As recently as 2011, Forbes magazine called Christensen “one of the most influential business theorists of the last 50 years.” But LePore quietly eviscerates him: “In 2007,” she writes, “Christensen told Business Week that 'the prediction of the [disruptive] theory would be that Apple won’t succeed with the iPhone,' adding, 'History speaks pretty loudly on that.' In its first five years, the iPhone generated a hundred and fifty billion dollars of revenue.” Inevitably, there's been pushback against LePore. Who disrupts the disruptor of disruptive innovation theory? Forbes, of course. No mention of the iPhone in that one.
How I first came across James Garner: as the laid-back, perpetually put-upon private eye Jim Rockford.
Saturday July 19, 2014
Miss Me Yet? Part VII
“I went to a communications meeting the day after Jeffords switched. I remember feeling like I was looking at people who had won a reality-game ticket to head up the White House. There was this remarkable combination of hubris, excitement, and staggering ignorance.
”Someone made the suggestion that perhaps the president should call the new majority leader. And it’s like, Well, I’m not sure that’s really necessary. Margaret Tutwiler [assistant to the president and special adviser for communications] was there, and I remember her sitting at the head of the table, her eyes just sort of wide, and she sort of lost it. She’s like, Are you fricking kidding me? She goes, The president of the United States calls the new majority leader. The president of the United States calls the new minority leader, right? The president does these things because, you know, these things have to be done.
“And, you know, people around the table—Karl [Rove], Karen [Hughes]—all these people were like, Oh, well, do we have to? It was like an absolutely serious debate.”
-- David Kuo, deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, from Vanity Fair's ”An Oral History of the Bush Administration"
Friday July 18, 2014
Quote of the Day
“How can Putin really manage this? You’d need to be an amazing conductor. Stalin was an amazing conductor in this way. Putin can’t quite pull off this trick. The audience is warmed up and ready to go; it is wound up and waiting for more and more conflict. You can’t just say, ‘Calm down.’ It’s a dangerous moment. Today, forty per cent of Russia wants real war with Ukraine. Putin himself doesn’t want war with Ukraine. But people are responding to this media machine. Putin needs to lower the temperature.”
--former Putin adviser Gleb Pavlovsky in Moscow (to the New Yorker's David Remnick) a few weeks before Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, most likely by Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists.
Friday July 18, 2014
Movie Review: A Somewhat Gentle Man (2010)
I checked this out because I was so impressed with the later Hans Petter Moland/ Stellan Skarsgård collaboration, “Kraftidioten,” but “A Somewhat Gentle Man” (Norwegian: “En ganske snill mann”) didn’t quite work for me. Despite its great title, the dark humor is slightly off, its secondary characters aren’t as memorable, and then there’s the ick factor.
The ick, by the way, isn’t about violence; it’s about sex.
Skarsgård is excellent as Ulrik, a pony-tailed mob enforcer who, as the movie opens, is being released from prison after 12 years. A friendly guard offers him a bottle of booze and a piece of advice: Keep moving forward; don’t look back. So what’s the first thing Ulrik does when he steps out the gates? He looks back.
Not with animosity. If anything Ulrik seems stupefied, and it takes us a while to figure out it’s no pose. He was once a man who could kill without thought, but now he’s a man who doesn’t have many thoughts. Mostly he’s interested in going along to getting along. To a cringe-worthy degree.
At a café, he meets his old mob boss, Rune Jensen (Bjørn Flobert of “Kitchen Stories”), and the gum-chewing, matter-of-fact but argumentative assistant Rolf (Gard B. Eidsvold), and the former sets him up with a place to live, a job, and an assignment. The place to live is with Rune’s sister, Karen Margrethe (Jorunn Kjellsby), an ugly, unpleasant woman who sticks Ulrik in the prison-like surroundings of her basement. The job is at an automechanic’s garage, run by Sven (Bjørn Sundquist), who talks out subjects in long run-on sentences, and who warns Ulrik away from his secretary, Merete (Janikke Kruse), a pretty but severe woman. And the assignment is to kill the guy who sent Ulrik to jail 12 years ago.
So what happens? He winds up rejecting the assignment but sleeping with the woman. Not Merete; Karen Margrethe. That’s the ick factor. Imagine Billy Crystal sleeping with Anne Ramsey in “Throw Momma from the Train” and you get an inkling. Then times it by three.
First, Karen Margrethe brings him a television set, which he adjusts to get a Polish station; then crappy dinner leftovers; then increasingly elaborate dinners as her interest is piqued by his lack of interest. Finally, she steps out of her voluminous underwear and lays down on the small bed where he’s watching TV and tells him to get on. He does so dutifully. Not many movie scenes are tougher to watch.
Then it happens again. And again. Each time, you’re waving your hands in surrender: “No ... no!”
The world—and other women—act upon Ulrik as well. Merete’s former husband shows up at the garage and acts like an asshole; Ulrik watches. Ulrik’s ex-wife (Kjersti Holmen) tells him his son has disowned him, then asks for a quickie; he obliges. The son, Geir (Jan Gunnar Røise), finally meets the father, but without emotion, and introduces him as his uncle to his pregnant wife; Ulrik nods and goes along with it. Meanwhile, whenever he takes out a cigarette he’s told he can’t smoke there.
But slowly he begins to break out of his spiritual prison. Sven has a heart attack and asks Ulrik to watch the garage, where the ex-hubby shows up and beats on Merete until Ulrik headbutts him, takes him outside, warns him against hitting women and children, then breaks both arms. Merete is slowly grateful and, in passive-aggressive fashion, seduces him. But Karen Margrethe suspects, gets jealous, rats him out. All the small things Ulrik had slowly built up crumble, so he agrees to take back the assignment to kill the man who sent him to prison. But will he go through with it? Can he still kill without thought? Without conscience?
The ending is nice—standing outside at the salvage yard, enjoying a smoke, talking up the coming spring—and, again, Skarsgård is perfect in the role. You buy him as both acted upon and actor; as stupefied and smart. But the tone of the humor is either too loud (Sven’s run-on sentences) or too soft (the no-smoking bits). A few years later, with “Kraftidioten,” Moland gets the tone perfect.
Thursday July 17, 2014
- Drew Taylor and Jessica Kiang over at HitList rank all eight “Planet of the Apes” movies and get most of it right: from the awfulness of Tim Burton's 2001 attempt to how good the recent movies have been. But what makes the list worthwhile is less that than the fact that they've obviously rewatched the films. So often such rankings are just filler for a site, SEO crap, and it reads like crap. Even when it reads well, you can tell the writer just cobbled together a list from memory. Not here. Taylor and Kiang go deep. They know movie details and subtext. I love their reading of “Escape from ...” (No. 3), for example.
- Did you know Woody Allen wrote, directed and starred in a short mockumentary in 1971 called “Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story”? I didn't, and I'm a huge Allen fan. It's a bit Philip Roth's “Our Gang,” isn't it, mixed with “Take the Money and Run.” Wallinger (Allen) is Pres. Nixon's right-hand man, which gives Allen an opportunity to send up the Nixon administration, Kissinger (the rumors of sexual prowess), the GOP, etc. It was supposed to air in Feb. 1972, but PBS got scared and pulled it at the last minute. Shame. Via Jeff Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere.
- My “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” of Batman '66? Get a load of the rest.
- Should you bat your worst hitter first? Apparently only when it's Derek Jeter.
- Ah, but you can't say that! Because it's Derek Jeter!
- And just so you know it's not me, here's Deadspin's post-All Star Game “Haters Guide to Derek Jeter.”
- BTW: Did Adam Wainwright groove the bottom-of-the-1st pitch that Jeter hit for a double? If so, there's a history of such grooved pitches to retiring legends.
- Goooooooooooal! The final one of the 2014 World Cup. It's a beaut.
- Finally, last Friday, Richard Linklater's “Boyhood” opened for a limited release but goes nationwide tomorrow, and it's getting the expected raves. Andrew Sullivan tallies them up. Jeff Wells says yeah, but. Here's my review. If you have the chance, go.
The 2014 movie to see.
Wednesday July 16, 2014
Quote of the Day
“That Sarah Palin, assorted Tea Party elements, and two-thirds of Republicans deem impeachment of the President a worthy undertaking only underscores the point. It’s easy to see this as simply a symptom of the partisan abyss that afflicts our politics—in 2005, nearly three-quarters of Democrats favored impeaching George W. Bush, and Congressman John Conyers authored a resolution to determine whether there were grounds to begin proceedings. That the fictive Benghazi and I.R.S. scandals have brought Republicans to the position that Democrats adopted only after the initiation of an unnecessary war and unwarranted national surveillance and the most inept handling of a national disaster in American history suggests, at the least, a sliding scale of outrage. More to the point, what we now call partisanship is simply the acceptable means to express other sublimated and less acceptable contempts.”
-- Jelani Cobb, “Talking Openly about Obama and Race,” on the New Yorker website
Wednesday July 16, 2014
Why Pete Rose is a Jerk
It's the hypocrisy.
OK, it's a lot of reasons. But I came across this quote from Pete Rose in a NY Times article on last night's All-Star Game. In the 9th inning of a game in 1978, Braves closer Gene Garber threw Rose back-to-back changeups to strike him out and end his assault on Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak at 44 games (tied with Wee Willie Keeler for second-longest):
Afterward, Rose criticized Garber for pitching “like it was the seventh game of the World Series.”
Earlier in the week, again in the Times, there was a piece on Rose crashing into Ray Fosse to end the 1970 All-Star Game, an incident which separated Fosse's shoulder and curtailed his early, promising career. Was the linebackerish tackle too much for an exhibition game? Among Rose's comments was this:
“Nobody told me they changed it to girls’ softball between third and home.”
So playing all-out is well and good and manly if you‘re Pete Rose. If you’re doing it to Pete Rose, well, god, what's the matter with you? Why you gotta be so competitive?
Wednesday July 16, 2014
Eurotrip 2014: Terezin
On our third full day in Prague we visited a concentration camp, Terezin, also known as Theresienstadt. I was vaguely familiar. At the Seattle International Film Festival this year I’d seen a documentary, “The Last of the Unjust,” written and directed by “Shoah” documentarian Claude Lanzmann, about Benjamin Murmelstein, the last president of the Theresienstadt Jewish Council, who was condemned as a collaborator after the war. OK, I saw two-thirds of it. It’s nearly four hours long, and I made the mistake of seeing another SIFF movie beforehand. Plus my arms hurt (an ulnar nerve thing). Plus the air-conditioning wasn’t working at SIFF Uptown that night. It was like a cattle car in there. So with an hour left, in the doc, and already missing the thread of the story, I fled. The mostly older, mostly Jewish folks in the room, made of stronger stuff, kept going.
But that was the camp, Terezin, a kind of weigh station for Eastern European Jews before most were sent on to Auschwitz. It was called a “model ghetto.” The Nazis actually made a propaganda film about it: “Hitler Gives the Jews a Town.”
Since Terezin is 60 km from Prague, we went with a tour group—mostly creative writing students from Chicago—as well as the Darryl and Darryl of the Czech Republic: Our driver was named Wenceslas and our tour guide was also named Wenceslas. The driver was another of those meaty Czech men who looked like he could crush you with one hand but was surprisingly gentle in manner. The tour guide seemed like a partisan in the mountains from a century earlier, but with an umbrella rather than a rifle slung over his shoulder.
On the drive, he told us about the history of Terezin: how it started out as a garrison town built by the Hapsburgs in the 1780s to defend the northern border from the Prussians; how it never had to do this. He was straightforward, perfunctory. He had his routine and didn’t deviate much from it. I wondered, as I wondered with many of the middle-aged Czechs I met, where he’d been in 1968. Or 1989? What had he believed? What did he believe now? I remember being slightly startled by his angry tone when he discussed the 1938 Munich Agreement. “Right,” I thought, “that was about Czechoslovakia, wasn’t it?” One of those distant countries to me, his to him. And now we would see one of the consequences of that decision.
Upon entering the Malá pevnost (small fortress), we immediately lost both Wenceslases: the driver because he was the driver, the tour guide because he also spoke Italian, there was another Italian group there, and he had to service them. So he handed us off to a tour guide with a thick German accent, Klaus, I believe, who told us we would have to pay for photographs, and then we all walked through a sign reading “ARBEIT MACHT FREI”: “WORK SETS YOU FREE.” A message that wouldn’t seem out of place on FOX-News, I thought. I took a picture.
I assumed the tour would be wholly about World War II, but recent floods were constantly mentioned, while the fortress’ most famous prisoner, Gavrilo Princip, was the 19-year-old Bosnian Serb who assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand, which precipitated Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia, which started World War I. Princip was imprisoned there for several years until he died of tuberculosis in 1918. I asked if, all that time, all those years, he knew what he had wrought. If he’d heard about or read about the millions of lives lost on the battlefield. “He didn’t start World War I,” Klaus said quickly. “Oh, right,” I said. “Well, he was a cause, right? So ...” But we didn’t seem to connect on this, and anyway Klaus didn’t know. But I thought I needed to read up on my WWI history again.
It was an appropriately overcast day, and P had several low blood-sugar moments—her worst of the trip. It seemed no amount of protein bars could get her back up. That seemed appropriate, too: being with someone who was basically starving for sugar. At the end of the tour of the small fortress, we saw a bit of the “Hitler Gives ...” propaganda film, but through a 1960s lens, and then were reunited with our Wenceslases. We walked back past the gift shop. I forgot to pay for the photographs I took.
Next we went to the Ghetto Museum, then the Magdeburg Barracks, former seat of the Jewish Council, which has been turned into a museum featuring the work of the various Jewish artists who passed through Terezin. There was amazing stuff—both propaganda for the Nazis (“Hey, everything’s OK here!”) and art for themselves (“No, it’s not”)—but we were rushed through so fast one woman objected. “Hey, can we stay here a little longer?” We didn’t. That seemed appropriate, too. We weren’t fed, we had no say, we were rushed through everything. We visited another cemetery and then went back to Prague.
The rest of the day, P and I went to see a movie at a nearby cinema. A few Czech movies were playing, but without English subtitles, of course, so we opted for something big and stupid: “Godzilla.” Years ago I thought about writing a book, “Watching Movies in Other Countries,” and some part of me keeps a hand in that long moribund project; but I have to admit, the Czech experience didn’t really differ much from the U.S. one. You got specific seats rather than general admission. That’s about it. You could buy popcorn, M&Ms, Kit-Kats, Coke. They were called popcorn, M&Ms, Kit-Kats, Coke.
For dinner, we went to Lokal, a much-recommended pub serving Czech food and beers, and sat with two Brits—one a current solicitor, one a former solicitor—who were in town for the weekend to see a steam-engine train exhibit. They were polite but I think we overwhelmed them with our curiosity—desperate, as we were, to talk to someone besides ourselves. We also ordered after them but got served first. I don’t think that sat well. Then we went to a less crowded pub next door for another beer and the end of a World Cup match: Argentina/Iran. On the walk home, we stopped off at a big grocery chain, Billa, to look for more protein bars for Patricia. Tomorrow was travel day.
The road to Terezin, which is about 60 km outside of Prague. Wenceslas was driving. The other Wenceslas was talking. It was odd just seeing the road sign.
The Jewish cemetery outside the small fortress.
Tour guide Wenceslas warning everyone not to step on the grass like Patricia. Kidding. But note the umbrella. I plan to carry mine that way soon.
Work sets you free. As FOX-News tells us.
The small fortress at Terezin.
Another Jewish cemetery.
Where do you go after a concentration camp? How about to a stupid Hollywood movie? It will make everything better. *FIN*
Tuesday July 15, 2014
Just Retire Already
Apparently this ad premiered last night during the HR Derby:
It was posted on YouTube with this tagline:
No matter what hat you wear, tip it to The Captain. #RE2PECT
Sorry. I don't have anything to tip to the Cap'n. Just something to flip. #2AWFUL
I just don't get MLB fans and MLB teams anymore. All of these parting gifts for Jeter? A Derek Jeter Day in Chicago? It's as if he never caused you and your team heartache. I can't believe Minnesota gave him anything (other than a razzie) considering what he did to the Twins in the postseason over the years. Ditto Seattle and the Mariners. Jeter has five rings while Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner never even went? And you want to give him more shit? To comfort him when supermodels aren't enough?
Seriously, if you want to show him respect, boo the crap out of him. That's what we do with opposition players who cause us heartache. Because this stuff? Farewell gifts and pats on the back and polite applause? It's what you give to someone old and feeble and toothless.
Tuesday July 15, 2014
Other Parting MLB Gifts for Derek Jeter
Tim Keeney is tracking all of the parting gifts MLB teams are giving Derek Jeter during his farewell tour/season. These include:
- An electric guitar (Cleveland)
- Stan Musial cufflinks (St. Louis)
- Art made from subway tiles (Mets)
- A New York Yankees #2 surfboard (Angels, bro)
- The last second base used in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome (Minnesota, yah)
Is anyone else embarrassed by all this? The man's the competition. What would Bob Gibson say? (What does Bob Gibson say?) I'm so tired of these gladhanding farewell tours. Who started this? Mariano last year? Cal Ripken in 2001? Because I don't remember a Willie Mays farewell tour. Or a Hank Aaron. Or a Harmon Killebrew.
But if we're going to do it, let's do it right. Here are my suggestions for parting MLB gifts for old #2:
- The ball that was blooped over his head to win the 2001 World Series for the Diamondbacks (Arizona)
- The bat Jhonny Peralta used to hit the routine grounder to short, on which Jeter broke his ankle, in Game 1 of the 2012 ALCS (Detroit)
- A Tony Tarasco “I wuz robbed” bobblehead, to remind Jeter that his first postseason homerun, the Jeffrey Maier homerun, which tied Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS in the 8th inning, was total bullshit (Baltimore)
- A glove made from the garbage found in NY subways, to honor Jeter's five Gold Gloves and career -9.4 defensive WAR (Mets)
- A DVD of ESPN's documentary “Four Days in October,” about the unprecedented comeback of the 2004 Boston Red Sox (Boston)
- One of Dave Roberts' running gloves from Game 4 (Boston)
- A David Ortiz jersey from Game 5 (Boston)
- A pair of white socks and a bottle of ketchup (Boston)
- A midge farm (Cleveland)
- A request for Minka Kelly's phone number (Oakland, Texas, Tampa Bay ... pretty much everyone)
- A ticket stub from the Kingdome, May 30, 1995, Mariners vs. Yankees, the game in which Jeter got his first hit. Wait, who is this for again? Jeter? Psych! (Seattle)
- A door, which shouldn't hit him on the way out (Minnesota)
Feel free to add your own in the comments section.
Of all the Jeter gifts, I like the surfboard best.
Monday July 14, 2014
Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Batman: The Movie (1966)
Nathaniel Rogers over at The Film Experience has a long-running series, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” in which he and other film writers post favorite frames from favorite (or not-so-favorite) movies. It’s an always interesting and frequently surprising exercise. How can two people, for example, with all of those frames to choose from, choose the same frame? Yet it keeps happening.
It’s also difficult. Man. After deciding to participate in the latest (any Batman movie), and halfway through the ’66 “Batman,” starring Adam West, I wondered, “Wait. Do we want the best aesthetic shot or the shot that best represents the movie?” I was going with the latter. But kind of a moot point with Batman ’66 since the movie doesn’t have many great aesthetic shots. Just devastating ones.
I still think “Batman: The Movie” is the best superhero parody ever made, but then it doesn’t have a lot of competition. “The Specials”? Meh. “Superhero Movie”? Blah. Rainn Wilson in “Super”? More a parody of vigilante movies, and more gross than funny. “Kick Ass”? Buys into the very thing it’s parodying. It takes superheroes way too seriously.
Not Batman ’66. Basically it’s a parody of movie serials and the post-war pomposity that often accompanied them. (Donald Trump wishes he were as self-important as Adam West’s Batman.)
Maybe it helps to be several decades removed from the heyday of the genre? Serials were usurped by TV and died, then played for laughs (at least the “Batman” ones) at the Playboy Club, which led to this spot-on parody. But movie serials had the last laugh. In the next decade, first George Lucas (“Star Wars”) and then Steven Spielberg (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”), would revive the genre with A-list production values and a relentless pace, and we haven't gotten off of that roller coaster ride.
For “best shot,” I wanted a moment that captured the brilliant absurdity of it all. Here’s a slideshow of runners up.
The TV show began as a midseason replacement in January 1966, became a huge hit, and the movie was released the following summer amidst “Batmania.” This is a classic shot, against blue screen, that we often saw on the TV show. It's from the beginning of the movie. Robin is phoning the airport so they'll get the batcopter ready. Because everyone in Gotham is at Batman's beck-and-call.
Shots like these indicate the movie had the budget to go outdoors, but these outdoor shots actually make the movie seem cheaper. It's as if the Batman universe needs false lighting; it shrinks in the sun.
Cops holding hats over hearts as the batcopter goes by. Love this. You really need to see the second Batman serial from 1949, “Batman and Robin,” to understand how perfect this is.
Again, better production values lead to a cheaper look. It's the shark jumping Batman rather than vice-versa.
Batman and Robin, with Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara, talking themselves through a complex riddle and into an absurd answer. This was a serious contender for a while.
As was this. I just love the briefcase with the little bat emblem on it. That's the thing about these superheroes and villains: everyone labels everything. Even the periscope the Penguin uses is in the shape of a penguin. Subtlety was not an option.
Another classic shot. Ralph Nader's “Unsafe at Any Speed” was published two months before the show aired and was certainly being buzzed about. Not sure if Nader is the reason for the shot or it would've been a good bit no matter what. I.e., these guys are such milk-drinking, straight-arrow heroes they buckle up every time. Plus crotch shot.
Not a contender. I just find it hilarious that Cesar Romero didn't even bother to shave his moustache for the role.
Our only shot of the batsignal. Way too cool-looking to get my vote.
Titilation was a big part of the Batman shows. Julie Newmar's Catwoman was totally unfair to the libidos of young men but Lee Meriwether wasn't far behind.
Frank Gorshin seems to agree.
A serious contender. It looks diabolical, but Romero's Joker is more right-hand man to Burgess Meredith's Penguin, who runs the show.
Not many shots with all four supervillains together. Here, Catwoman licks herself.
Another classic TV series bit.
Probably the movie's most famous scene: Batman attempting to get rid of a bomb along the Gotham waterfront, but constantly running into the more innocent members of society, such as mother and child.
Then a Salvation Amy band. Baby ducks were next.
“Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!” West's gift for physical comedy is underrated.
Another serious contender. The worst aspect of movie serials was the often serendipitous (read: lame) resolution to the previous week's cliffhanger. Here, the batcopter crash lands ... at a Foam Rubber Wholesalers Convention.
Another blue screen shot. It's intercut with footage of Batman and Robin running through ... is it New York? Does anyone know?
This is one of the better shots to include all four supervillains, and contains the extra absurdity of each of them wearing a mask as if to hide their identities.
Nathaniel posted a similar shot. Penguin and Catwoman celebrate their abduction of the United World Security Council (see vials).
I considered this, too. It's from the final epic battle atop the Penguin's pre-atomic submarine that he purchased under the pseudonym “P.N. Gwynn.” Here, Batman and Penguin thrust and parry while the Joker takes a swing at Robin and misses by a mile.
Not a contender but always good to have another shot of Catwoman.
Batman is stunned to learn that his “love,” Miss Kitka, was really Catwoman. In the background, Parisian music plays. We were still on a WWII wavelength.
How can you not love this? Batman's utility belt outside his smock? The label on ... well, everything? Another contender.
One of the final shots of the movie. The grand pomposity is there in West's eyes, while Robin looks ready to receive his fatherly wisdom. “Who knows, Robin. This strange mixing of the minds may be ... the greatest single service ever performed for humanity.” *FIN*
All good contenders, but here's my best shot:
Everything comes together. Robin, intense as ever, is in the midst of his signature move, pounding fist into palm, while Batman crosses his arms like a bat. Meanwhile you have that great comic look from Stafford Repp's Chief O'Hara.
It's really a meta-message on the absurdity of the dialogue. After Batman and Robin escape the magnetic buoy, a Polaris missile writes two riddles in the sky. ”What does a turkey do when he flies upside-down?“ ”He gobbles up!“ Robin says. That's actually a legitimate answer to a legitimate riddle. Less so the second one: ”What weights six ounces, sits in a tree, and is very dangerous?“ It's when Robin gives the answer, ”A sparrow with a machine gun!“ that O'Hara gives us this look. Gordon adds to the absurdity by saying, ”Of course," but the greater, unspoken absurdity is the fact that Gordon and O'Hara, a police commissioner and his chief of police, follow the lead of a man dressed like a bat and a short-tempered teenager in tights. That's why this one gets my vote.
Sunday July 13, 2014
‘Apes’ Blow It Up Big but Summer Box Office Damned and Dirty
Apes rule. My review.
The most successful “Planet of the Apes” movie at the domestic box office (adjusted and unadjusted) is Tim Burton’s godawful remake starring a sleepwalking Mark Wahlberg, which grossed $180 million in 2001. Isn’t that depressing? Well, yes and no. The worst was first but at least the studio, Fox, didn’t confuse attendance with satisfaction and make a sequel. It probably helped that Burton supposedly said he’d “rather jump out a window” than make another “Apes” movie.
Either way, it looks like we’re going to have a new “Apes” champ now.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” opened this weekend with $73 million. (Cf., $54 million open for “Rise of ...”) It's the fifth movie to open between $70 and $100 million this summer but none have exactly stormed the barricades afterwards. Unless “Apes” has legs, or “Guardians of the Galaxy” surprises, this will be the first Hollywood summer without a $300 million movie since 2001.
Meanwhile, “Transformers 4,” in its third weekend, was a distant second with $16 million, for a domestic total of $209 million. Is this clinking clanking clattering collection of caliginous junk on its last legs? No, sadly. The movie is way off its usual domestic totals (“2” had grossed > $300 million by this point), but worldwide it’s kicking butt. It’s the biggest hit ever in China and the biggest hit worldwide in 2014 with $752 million—ahead of “X-Men” ($727) and “Captain America” ($712).
“22 Jump Street” finished fourth ($6.7) and has a domestic total of $171 million—fantastic for a comedy. “Maleficent” finished eighth ($4.1) and has a domestic total of $221 million, and a world mark of $668 million. It’s the biggest hit, both domestically and internationally, of Angelina Jolie’s career.
Better news? Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” in miniscule release (five theaters), grossed $359K or $71.8 K a theater. (Cf. $18.4K for “Apes.”) It’s set for a wider release next weekend. Watch for it. It’s one of the year’s best movies.
The weekend totals.
Saturday July 12, 2014
Song of the Day: By Strauss
Are these some of the best rhymes ever? Beats glove/love, charms/arms. Ira Gershwin had the mad rhymes, yo.
How can I be civil
When hearing this drivel
It's only for nightclubbing sousses
Oh give me the free-and-easy
waltz that is the Viennese
And go tell the band if they want a hand
The waltz must be Strauss'!
“Free and easy” and “Viennese.” Fuckin' a.
It helps when it's sung by Georges Guétary. I should check out more of his stuff. I'm a Gene Kelly fan but I never did get Leslie Caron throwing over Georges for Gene. I still climb stairs sometimes as he does in “Stairway to Paradise.”
Saturday July 12, 2014
Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” begins with a map of the world, where thousands of people, represented by red lines, travel between great cities, while newsreports intone about a virus, dubbed “the simian flu,” that’s spreading quickly. This virus is eventually traced to San Francisco (shades of AIDS!) and Patient Zero (again!) and the synthetic drug ALZ-112 and 113, created, in the last movie by Will Rodman (James Franco) to cure Alzheimer’s, although it actually led to a few apes becoming supersmart. Humans? Millions are dying. Then billions. Then, gradually, all of those lights, signifying great cities, go dim, and the newsreports stop.
Way to go, James Franco.
We don’t see him in this movie except on an old video recorder, so we don’t know how he felt about causing the end of civilization as we know it. One imagines badly. Thank god he didn’t have to act it.
We see about as much of Franco, in fact, as we do of Pres. Obama, who, in news footage culled from some other crisis (2011 flu? 2012 GOP debates?), warns people to protect themselves. It’s interesting seeing Pres. Obama here because I was thinking about him before the movie began. Specifically this question: Is it a coincidence that the first “Planet of the Apes” movies (1967-1973) occurred during the rise of black power, and this one coincides with our first black president? I’d like to think not but I’m a cynical SOB.
An edict introduced in the first act ...
“Dawn of ... ” is the eighth “Planet of the Apes” movie but the second in this series, following 2011’s “Rise of ...” and it leads to a semantic argument. How much further along is “dawn” from “rise”? Isn’t it actually a step back? Don’t you get the dawn before the sunrise?
It starts, anyway, with a few steps forward. Not only are humans decimated, but our first supersmart ape, Caesar, (Andy Serkis, finally getting top billing), leads a village of apes in the Redwood forests of Northern California. They’re basically a primitive tribe. They use spears, ride horseback, and hunt game. They have huts in the trees, the children are educated (mostly by Maurice, the orangutan, played by Karin Konoval), and moral lessons are handed down to the next generation. Chief among these is: Ape shall not kill ape.
Hollywood truism: a moral edict introduced in the first act always gets broken in the third.
Into this idyllic, primitive ape society wanders a doofus, Carver (Kirk Acevedo, Joe Toye from “Band of Brothers”), who, in panic, shoots and wounds an ape, Ash (Laramie Doc Shaw), friend of Caesar’s sad-eyed son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). Angry apes gather. A few humans gather, too, to bargain for Carver’s life, chief among them, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), whose team, part of the remnants of San Francisco society, includes, Ellie, a CDC doctor (Keri Russell), and their adopted son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee, all halfway grown-up from “Let Me In”). They’re in the area to try to start a water generator so S.F. will have power. But will the shooting lead to war?
Not right away. First, Caesar looks down imperiously with a sneer. Then he yells “Go!” Then he sends his right-hand man, former science experiment Koba (Toby Kebbell), to follow the humans to see what’s what. To see what’s become of them. Bad move. All the deaths that follow stem from this move.
Koba, you see, wants war. “From humans,” Caesar says, “Koba learned hate and nothing else.” But Caesar allows the humans, even the doofus Carver, to return, to try to start the generator. They do. Koba, though, knows that the humans, huddled together in their decrepit buildings, have an arsenal in preparation for a potential war with the apes—or simply because they’re scared to death. After pleading with Caesar, then losing a fight to Caesar, Koba infiltrates the target practice of two rednecks (including Kevin Rankin, making a career out of rednecking: see “White House Down” and “Breaking Bad”), who, oddly, are the only ones taking target practice. They freak at his presence, so Koba plays the clown to get close. Then he steals their semi-automatic. Then they dead. Then Koba have gun.
What does he do with it? He shoots Caesar, blames the humans, and leads the apes into battle against same. It’s a war based on false pretenses. Imagine.
After the war, won by the apes, humans, as well as potential allies of Caesar, are forced into cages. Koba is the new leader and he’s not exactly benevolent. At one point, he tells Ash to kill a human but Ash can’t do it. He says Caesar wouldn’t have wanted it. Koba nods. He understands. He puts his arm around Ash’s shoulder. Then he pushes him down, drags him up the stairs by the top of his head, and throws him over the City Hall balcony. Ape shall not kill ape? No, without cause. Remember?
It’s not a bad scene—I got a whiff of “Animal Farm”—and there are other not-bad scenes as well. But the movie doesn’t have particularly memorable scenes, either. And by this point, what’s the tension?
The tension is whether the truth will out. Will the other apes find out that Koba led them falsely into war? That he accused his victims of his own crime?
There’s a chance because Caesar lives. He’s found by Malcolm and company; but he’s weak and bleeding and Ellie needs supplies to save his life. So they drive to San Francisco.
At this point, the tension is: Can Caesar live long enough to tell the truth about the shooting?
Except, at Caesar’s directive, they go to the house he grew up in, Will Rodman’s house, with the circular window in the attic; and from there Malcolm is sent out to search for supplies so Caesar can be operated on.
Really? That’s a bit of a gamble, isn’t it? Why not drive, with Caesar, to find the supplies, so that if apes find you he can talk to tell them? He can call off the war? “They didn’t shoot me. Koba shot me. Stop it already.”
The short answer, the movie’s answer, is that apes care less about truth than strength, and right now Caesar is weak. It’s not a bad answer—we don’t care about truth, either, particularly in the wake of victory—but the real reason we go back to Will’s house is we need the pause, the moment of reflection, and the moment of bonding between Caesar and estranged son, before the final big battle between Caesar and Koba at the top of City Hall. Which Caesar wins. He has a chance to save Koba, too. You know the bit: Koba hanging by his fingertips, asking for help, Caesar reaching down, Koba reminding him of the first edict of ape society: “Ape not kill ape.” Caesar, with his imperial sneer, decides: “You ... not ape,” and lets him go. Seriously, Hollywood has to stop giving us this scene. It’s boring no matter which way the hero chooses.
More, we’re hardly getting to a planet of the apes, are we? I mean, if this is a dawn it’s a false dawn. It’s actually “One Step Back from the Planet of the Apes.” It begins with a village of apes and humans decimated. It ends after a costly war and ape society fractured. Plus they’re still one small village on a large planet in which humans are still plentiful; and the remaining ones seem immune to simian flu; and they still have guns.
Matt Reeves (“Felicity,” “Let Me In”) directed this one, taking over from Rupert Wyatt, and we get good performances not only from Serkis but from Clarke and Gary Oldman as a shaky leader. Reeves is supposedly directing the next one, too, as yet untitled. Votes? So far we’ve had “Beneath the ...” “Escape from ...” “Conquest of ...” “Battle for ...” “Rise of ...” and now “Dawn of ...” Maybe “Midmorning of ...”? “Tea Time on ...”? “Lazy Sunday Before ...”? I’m a fan, anyway, of a new preposition. Of has just been done to death.
Friday July 11, 2014
Quote of the Day
“If propaganda is so powerful, how come it can't help the word 'propaganda'?”
-- me, channeling (badly) Steven Wright, while reading Edward Bernays' book “Propaganda,” from 1928
Friday July 11, 2014
- The WSJ's Law Blog has a good primer on the big cases the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on this session, and how each justice voted. Apparently we have two swing voters now: Kennedy and Roberts. Even if they don't swing much. Or well.
- The Huffington Post gets its fact wrong about “Wire” creator David Simon and regrets it.
- Kevin Smith visits the new “Star Wars” set and really, really, likes what he sees.
- A friend of mine traveled with the Seattle Mariners in the early 2000s and met many of the players. Most were not exactly gentlemen, but two, she said, most definitely were: Jamie Moyer and Raul Ibanez. Joe Posnanski has now given us a beautiful post on the great after-30 career of Ibanez.
- Posnanski again on the introduction of the Lou Boudreau/Ted Williams shift, which is the talk of baseball this season.
- From my friend Andy, an old New Yorker piece: “Why You Should Read W.G. Sebald.” Which translates to why *I* should read W.G. Sebald.
- From my friend Ciam: Alan Brennert on getting screwed over yet again by the comic book industry—in this case, DC Comics. When there's money to be made, someone else besides the creator is making it. (Cf. Obadiahs' line in the movie “Iron Man.”)
- Related: Nicola Smith on how to sell a query letter. Via my friend Mike Smith, who's working on his first novel.
- Via Jim Walsh: The All-Star Game is being held in Minneapolis this year, Target Field, so local broadcast station WCCO looks back at the first All-Star Game held in Minnesota in 1965—with the help of Tony Oliva, whom you may have seen around this site once or twice. Possibly with me, age 8, hugging his butt.
- Andrew Sullivan tries to hold some of the chattering necons accountable in his perfectly titled post, “Never Listen to a Neo-Con Again.”
- You know how the third act of the latest “Transformers” movie was set in China? Well, it's paid off.
Thursday July 10, 2014
Quote of the Day
“Despite what some extreme gun advocates believe, no right is unlimited, whether it’s your right to own a gun or your right to practice your religion or your right to freedom of speech. But beyond the legal limits, there are also the limits we all respect in order to have a society where we can get along despite our differences. My neighbor has a First Amendment right to write pornographic 'Hunger Games' fan fiction, but if he hands his manuscripts to my kids he’s just being a creepy dirtbag, First Amendment or not.”
-- Paul Waldman, in his Washington Post piece, “Target, 'open carry,' and the clash of cultures over guns.”
Thursday July 10, 2014
EuroTrip 2014: A Day of Ripoffs
“This has been a day of ripoffs.”
That’s what I was thinking, sourly, before the chamber orchestra began to play Friday night.
We overdid Prague on the first day under blue skies, then redid some of it on the second day under cloudy skies. So it inevitably felt like a setback.
We visited the Stavovské divadlo (Estates Theater), where Mozart premiered “Don Giovanni,” and which is the only extant opera house where Mozart performed, but it was under renovation and shows wouldn’t begin again until we were in Vienna (ironically). We visited, with some difficulty, the Museum of Communism, which (again, ironically) is located above a McDonald’s on Na Príkope. According to the Rough Guide, it was started by an expat, and so has a bit of a chincey feel to it: the floorboards creak, the exhibits seem dusty, everything crowds in on you. P loved it. She felt the whole chinciness added to the experience. Then we walked down Na Príkope to Wenceslas Square (Václavské námestí), which was less square than superlong rectangle. More construction was being done there, while the beautiful 18th century buildings were now often standing next to the ugliest, nondescript Soviet-era buildings. Spasibo, Russia. Everywhere we saw ads for the Prague Hooters and the Prague Wax Museum, where, apparently, John Lennon was having a bed-in with a communist figure. The whole thing felt slightly unclean.
Late morning, we retraced our steps to Josefov, the old Jewish ghetto, but everything we visited seemed overpriced and underwhelming. The synagogue hardly compared to any of the cathedrals we’d visited, and the Old Jewish Cemetery was old but still a cemetery. Plus we had trouble finding it. (We had trouble finding everything.) Plus P had a low blood-sugar incident and we had to grab lunch at a nearby pub that was, again, overpriced and underwhelming. But I did buy a little Golem figure for a few bucks that I get a kick out of. Plus a book about the Prague Golem. So there was that. And anyway we would be hearing music that night: according to the program “Strauss, Mozart, Dvorak.” One wonders what Strauss did to get such billing.
It was at the Municipal House, a grand, early 20th century building next to the Powder Gate a half a block from where we were staying. At 5:45 PM, P and I, dressed to the nines (or maybe to the sevens), walked up the grand staircase and toward what I imagined was a giant opera hall. Along the way we passed a small room where chairs were being set up, and P remarked how so much was going on in this building. Then the hallway ended without a way to the hall. We backtracked. Eventually we realized—stupid tourists—that the small room where chairs were being set up? That was the concert hall. We sat in our seats, looked around, confused, and met the confused looks on other folks there. I felt gyped. I was worried we’d been ripped off again.
Then the musicians filed in, took their seats, chatted with each other. They were probably 10, 15 feet away from us. According to the program, most play for the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra. I fanned myself with the program and waited. Then they launched into the overture from “The Magic Flute.”
Within seconds, P gripped my leg with excitement. What they did in 75 minutes that night was probably old hat for them but truly stunning for us. What I’d discounted—the smallness of the room, the proximity to the players, the lack of grandeur—was exactly what you want. Classical musicians are too often hid from us—on recordings or in pits or lost amid a big orchestra—but here they were up close and individual. It may have been our best night on the trip.
At Prague's Museum komunismu (Musuem of Communism) above a McDonald's (of course) on Na prikope. One wonders how cheap these statues came. Cheap, but at such a price. The museum itself is a bit chincey, but that probably adds to the experience.
Museum of Communism: A photo of communist leader Klement Gottwald in fur cap, which, of course, reminded me of the first page of “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.” (Read your Kundera, kids.)
Museum of Communism: A reproduction of a schoolroom. Czech would've come in handy here. Translation, anyone? Bueller?
Museum of Communism ad: It's less the blonde girl in the pigtails holding the pink balloon than whatever the hell is in that glass. Does anyone know what this soft drink is/was called? What precedes “OVONA”?
Wenceslas Square, where things happen. This is what was built under the Hapsburgs ...
... and this was what was built under the Soviets.
And this is what's arrived now. You're welcome.
P in front of the Stavovske divadlo, where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni: “... the only opera house left standing in which Mozart actually performed.” But we couldn't get in.
We had trouble locating the Old Jewish Ghetto, too. A WASP thing maybe?
Eventually we got there.
The Czech musicians who saved our day. *FIN*
Wednesday July 09, 2014
Mount Rainier, Sunday
We took this on the Noble Knob trail on Sunday. Click on the pic for a bigger version:
Looks unreal, doesn't it? Like a painting? P always thinks this. It's like Rainier is just too stunning to be real.
This was the second time we'd hiked the Noble Knob trail. The first time was more than 10 years ago, and I had some vague sense of dislike about it. Was it too hot? Not shady enough? Too flat and thus not challenging enough? Did I dislike the fact that you could see Rainier all along the trail, rather than at the end, so it felt like getting dessert before dinner and I'm too Puritan for that shit?
It was all of that, but it was mostly the dirt road you have to take to the trail head: bumpy, dusty, rocky for six long miles. We bottomed out three times on the way up, no times on the way down, but ... that stretch isn't fun. On the way down I timed it and it took us 40 minutes. Not exactly speedy. Ultimately the trail isn't quite worth the road in.
But Rainier? It's real and it's spectacular.
Wednesday July 09, 2014
Movie Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)
Here are the final words Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) intones in his stentorian, 1950s-Disney-nature-film voice at the end of the last “Transformers” movie, after he, the Autobots, Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf), his hot, hot girlfriend (Rose Huntington-Whiteley), and a ragtag team of Army men save Chicago, and thus the world, from Megatron and the evil Decepticons:
There will be days when we lose faith, days when our allies turn against us. But the day will never come that we forsake this planet and its people.
“Transformers: Age of Extinction” begins five years after that promise. As Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), your average junkyard inventor with biceps like pillars and a hot, hot teenaged daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz), drives through magic-hour light to his ranch home where U.S. and Texas flags forever wave, he passes a billboard with the following message: “REMEMBER CHICAGO: Report alien activity.”
It seems the U.S. government has repaid the Autobots for saving Chicago, and thus the world, by, um, hunting them down. Why? Cuz government. Cuz Congress stoopid. Just as, in the last movie, Congress succumbed to terrorist demands that Autobots leave the planet, so here it abruptly ends our alliance with the Autobots, allowing CIA chief Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammar) to step into the power vacuum. The CIA is supposed to be hunting down Decepticons but Attinger has something more all-encompassing in mind. “Alien combatant—here illegally,” he says of Optimus Prime. “It’s not their planet. Never was. Time we take it back,” he says. “The age of the transformers ... is over,” he adds.
Oh, if only, I thought.
Executive oversight? None. Just a visit from the President’s stammering Chief of Staff. Cuz weak executive. Cuz black helicopters. Cuz gummit.
Again, it would’ve been interesting if Attinger’s deception was strictly in the national interest—if he just hated transformers as much as I hate “Transformers”—but screenwriter Ehren Kruger (“Transformers 2-4”) and director Michael Bay (you know) stack the decks. Attinger is trying to protect America from giant robots by secretly aligning us with ... a giant robot: Lockdown (voice: Mark Ryan), an intergalactic bounty hunter, who wants to bring Optimus Prime, and only Optimus Prime, back to its creator. But apparently he’s so incompetent in locating OP he needs the CIA’s help. That’s why the CIA is hunting Autobots as well as Decepticons. It’s a traitorous quid pro quo. Lockdown gets OP from us and we get, from Lockdown, “the seed,” which will allow another Attinger ally, Chicago tech billionaire Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), to create “transformium” and thus his own, or our own, Transformers. He’ll corner the market, and we’ll have a superstrong military without a need for Army men.
Military-industrial machinations aside, you can make an argument for Attinger here, too. He still has the national interest in mind. Except not completely. He’s actually getting a multimillion-dollar kickback from Joyce. He’s just another longtime public servant who betrays everything he believes in for some quick dough at the end of the career. Cuz free market wins.
Wait, it gets worse. Because the seed? It will destroy all of us. An earlier version, 65 million years ago, is what killed off the dinosaurs. What, you thought it was a meteor? Dude. You also probably thought Transformers had nothing to do with the space race or Chernobyl, either.
In other words, Joyce and Attinger, with dollars in their eyes, have unknowingly set us on a course for planetary destruction. Joyce realizes this and tries to set things right. (So he’s not a bad guy.) Attinger doesn’t and doesn’t. (So he is.) Joyce lives, Attinger dies. Etc.
Some part of me is still attempting to unravel the levels of paranoia here. The fear of aliens and the hype of “Remember Chicago”? That’s bullshit, bro. But black helicopters in league with anti-American forces attempting to crush, and possibly kill, freedom-loving Texans on their own property? That shit’s true, yo.
Tech geeks stoopid
I have to admit, Wahlberg and his ridiculous biceps is still an upgrade over the frenetic everymanness of Shia LeBeouf, whose character, Sam, the one true friend the Autobots ever had, goes unmentioned here. Better: shaggy-haired T.J. Miller, recent of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” plays Lucas, Yeager’s friend and business partner, and provides genuine rather than cringeworthy comic relief. For a time, I thought, “Hey, this ‘Transformers’ movie isn’t as eye-stabbingly awfully as I thought it would be.”
Then it is.
Lucas dies, Optimus, a junkyard reclamation project for Yeager, is defeated by Lockdown, who, because he uses a net to reclaim him (rather than the magnetic beam he uses everywhere else), also scoops up, accidentally, the hot, hot daughter, who cries for daddy, and whose daddy’s tells her not to worry, even as he and the daughter’s Irish stock-car racer boyfriend, Shane (Jack Reynor), race to save her. They do this in Chicago with the remaining Autobots: the fat American one (voice: John Goodman), the Japanese samurai one (voice: Ken Watanabe), and the comic-relief Negro one (voice: Reno Wilson).
But will it matter? Optimus, despite his promise at the end of the last movie, has sworn off helping “the humans.” So Yeager and his biceps not only have to rescue his hot, hot daughter, spar with the boyfriend, and lament (for a second) the loss of Lucas, he has to convince Optimus to believe again.
The big showdown occurs in China, where ... whatever. Running, fights, explosions. Optimus, cheesecake, Bumblebee, BOOM! The series villain, Megatron, reborn as Galvatron (cuz tech-geeks stoopid), survives to fight another day, but Lockdown—one of the more honorable characters in the movie—is crushed; then Optimus takes “the seed” into outer space, where it won’t harm “the humans.” Joyce winds up with the hot Chinese chick (Li Bing-bing), Yeager acquiesces to her daughter’s relationship with the Irish stock-car racer, and the Irish stock-car racer’s Irish accent keeps fading in and out. “Why hire a non-Irish actor to play an Irish character?” I thought. Answer? The actor is Irish. That’s how bad a director Michael Bay is. He can’t get an Irish dude to sound Irish.
A few years ago, when I was railing against the second “Transformers” movie, my friend Laurion, one of the smarter guys I know, told me he loved it. “It’s giant robots battling each other—what could be better?” he said. It’s the best answer—certainly the most straightforward answer—to explain the popularity of this awful, awful series. If you want to watch giant robots battling each other, and many people do, well, Michael Bay is your man.
I get that. What I don’t get is the extra layer of stupidity Bay forces on us. Just as at the end of the last movie, Optimus says the stupid thing he disproves for most of this movie, so, at the end of this one, just before he takes off into outer space, he says one of the worst lines I’ve ever heard anywhere. He says it after a worried Yeager asks him if he’s ever going to return to Earth. Optimus doesn’t know. But he adds, in his stentorian, 1950s-Disney-nature-film voice:
Whenever you look to the stars, think of one of them ... as my soul.
Bay doesn’t need Megatron to crush me.
Tuesday July 08, 2014
Hollywood B.O.: Worst July 4th Weekend Since 1999
This is how it’s worked in the past.
Other studios accede the July 4th weekend to the second weekend of the “Transformers” series, which then grosses in the $40-50 million range. The other studios might release more serious films (“Public Enemies,” 2009) or comedies (“Horrible Bosses,” 2011), but they don’t want their A-movies getting crushed beneath the weight of all that stupid metal, so they let Michael Bay have the weekend more or less to himself.
This year it was the same. Warner Bros. released “Tammy,” an awful-looking comedy starring Melissa McCarthy, and ScreenGems counter-programmed with the Eric Bana horror film “Deliver Us From Evil." But the fourth “Transformers” movies till won the weekend.
Except it fell off by 63%, grossing only $37 million. (Cf.: $47 million in 2011 for “Transformers 3.”) Meanwhile, “Tammy” merely did OK ($21), while “Evil” bombed ($9.7).
Upshot? A July 4th weekend that was down 47% from last year when (get this) “Despicable Me 2” and “The Lone Ranger” were released. You know you’re in trouble when you can’t match “The Lone Ranger”’s numbers.
In fact, according to Ray Subers at Box Office Mojo, it’s the worst July 4th weekend for the top 12 movies since 1999.
Overall box office has already been weak this year—the tent poles appear bent if not busted—so unless a surprise champion emerges (“Apes”? “Guardians”?), it’s going to be a cruel, cruel summer for Hollywood. But maybe that will mean better summers for the rest of us in the long run.
How could Americans not want to see giant robots riding giant robotic dinosaurs?
Tuesday July 08, 2014
Stefan Zweig's Laments About His Time Speak to Ours
Wes Anderson's “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was inspired, so the credits say, by the writings of Stefan Zweig, an early 20th century Austrian writer of whom I had read approximately zilch. So during our recent trip to Prague, Vienna and Salzburg, I brought along his memoir, “The World of Yesterday.” Appropriate. Zweig grew up in Vienna and lived in Salzburg, and it was fun reading Zweig's thoughts about places we'd visited the same day.
What caught me by surprise about the memoir, though, was how often his time, and all that was lost by 1941, speaks to ours, and all that we've lost by 2014. Particularly in matters of politics.
There's this, for example:
... even the political and social movements [of the 19th century] were free of the terrible hatred which has penetrated the arteries of our time as a poisonous residue of the First World War. In the old Austria they still strove chivalrously, they abused each other in the news and in the parliament, but at the conclusion of their ciceronian tirades the selfsame representatives sat down together in friendship with a glass of beer or a cup of coffee, and called each other Du.
I've heard the same from many U.S. politicians about Congress after the 1994 midterms.
One did not look down at tolerance as one does today as weakness and softness, but rather praised it as an ethical force.
Political parties (often represented by flowers) sprang up everywhere (like wildflowers). Violence was expected from the socialists (red carnation) but came the German National Party (the blue cornflower), which, weak in the city and strong in the countryside, feels reminiscent of today's Tea Party:
... the German National Party had its followers in the Bohemian and Alpine border districts: weak in numbers, it compensated its unimportance by wild aggression and unbridled brutality.
My favorite bits, though, thus far anyway, tend to be non-political: how Zweig and his gymnasium friends found and adored writers like Rainer Marie Rilke and Paul Valery before the cultural establishment; and how Zweig ignored his dull schoolwork so he could read exciting new writers like Frederich Nietzsche.
Monday July 07, 2014
Quote of the Day
“A brief word on the non-performance of the Huffington Post in this matter, on their publishing ethic, and on the manner in which this institution conducts its business:
”The abdication of editorial responsibility in the case of aggregated sites such as Wikipedia or barely-edited copy dumps such as the Huffington Post is one of the sad retrenchments in news distribution and commentary. The ethos of such entities — hey, we don’t write the stuff; we’re just the blackboard it’s scrawled upon — sounds at first to be an ennobled argument for an open and unfettered marketplace of ideas, where some unseen hand of libertarian idealism ensures that better notions triumph over bad ones, and the lies are all, in the end, run down and brutalized by more powerful truths before much harm is done. Demagogues from Huey Long to Joseph Goebbels have an answer to that naivete; shit, John Kerry will sell you a used Swift Boat if you’re credulous enough to believe such tripe. ...
“Some of the best and most courageous journalism that I’ve witnessed involved the decision by good and careful editors NOT to publishing something incomplete, or inaccurate, or ethically impaired. Such things seldom happen with our present internet.”
-- David Simon, the creator of “The Wire,” after The Huffington Post published an inaccurate, and, to him, libelous column on him.
Monday July 07, 2014
The Return of Lancelot Links
In the Age of Social Media (2008-present), there hasn't been as much linking going on as there was in the Age of Blogs (2002-2008), and I've been as guilty as anyone: I haven't done one of these things since last April.
- Nathaniel Rogers over at Film Experience gives a rundown of Oscar hopefuls from the first (generally forgotten) half of the movie year. My main hope? That Ralph Fiennes' performance in “Grand Budapest Hotel” isn't overlooked but I assume it will be. It has three Oscar strikes against it: 1) early release; 2) gentle humor; and 3) Wes Anderson, whom Oscar traditionally ignores.
- Nathaniel also talks up the Blu-Ray release of the Adam West “Batman” series, sorts through his favorite Catwomen, and criticizes the top-heaviness of Henry Cavill's Superman.
- Joe Posnanski has a lovely, thoughtful piece on how we disagree about Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and the Baseball Hall of Fame.
- What did democracy mean to E.B. White in 1943? This.
- My friend Vinny alerted me to this thoughtful video essay by Tony Zhou on why Michael Bay, for all his horrendous awfulness, works. As Werner Herzog says: Do not avert your eyes. P.S. The car crashing through the hillside village? That's a ripoff, too, of Jackie Chan's “Police Story.”
- I like Jeff Wells on Harold Ramis (R.I.P.) playing the doctor in “As Good As It Gets”: “Sorry. I know this scene is just a calculated James L. Brooks massage but it gets me anyway. I didn’t know Ramis at all (spoke to him maybe two or three times) but the gentle vibe was real.”
- Andrew Sullivan dissects the positive June jobs report and the lowest unemployment rate since the Global Financial Meltdown.
- Finally, Jeffrey Toobin reminds us why we need to take Ted Cruz seriously. (He's a great debater, and a former solicitor general of Texas, who has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court nine times.) Toobin also lets him get away with some doozies. (Particularly on SCOTUS “striking down” Prop 8 in California, when it simply ruled the appellants had no legal standing.) Hold your friends close.
Julie Newmar's Catwoman from the 1966 “Batman” TV series: so sexy it hurt.
Monday July 07, 2014
Movie Review: 22 Jump Street (2014)
I liked the beginning and the end. I was often bored with the rest.
“22 Jump Street,” the sequel to 2012’s “21 Jump Street,” which was itself based upon the 1980s TV series of the same name, begins in the fashion of a TV show: a voiceover intoning “On the last episode of ‘Jump Street’ ...” followed by various scenes from the first movie: how Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) met, how they became friends, how they became members of “Jump Street” and infiltrated a high school to take down the dealer and supplier of a new “designer drug.” Oh, and one additional scene that wasn’t in the last movie: the two men attempting to cook lobster at home and antics resulting from lobsters breaking out of the paper bag and crawling around the kitchen. I burst out laughing. At the same time I wondered how many “Jump Street” fans got the “Annie Hall” reference? Is there crossover between these two movie audiences? What’s the Venn diagram on that?
Anyway, I laughed, and held out hope. Which didn’t last long. Hill and Tatum have good chemistry but most of the movie’s 112-minute runtime is spent on variations of two jokes:
- Schmidt and Jenko’s bromance going through the rituals of a heterosexual and/or homosexual relationship, replete with jealousy, breakup, etc.
- A meta joke poking fun at the movie itself: the sequel that rehashes the plot of the first film, but with a bigger budget.
In this one, as Capt. Dickson (Ice Cube) said at the end of the last one, “You two sons of bitches are going to college!” It’s called MC State (I like that), and there’s another designer drug that’s causing kids to get high and die. It’s called Why-Fhy, or Wi-Fi, and one student has already jumped out a window. She was young, talented and black, which leads Schmidt to awkwardly tell the Captain how much they care. He’s riffing off of MWWS, and it’s not a bad bit: the idiotic, PC intentions of Schmidt meeting the cold scowl of Ice Cube.
In the last movie, Schmidt, the schlubby nerd, became popular, while Jenko, the handsome jock, didn’t, but they abandon that conceit here. Instead, like goes with like. Schmidt impresses at a poetry slam (a good bit), while Jenko tries out for the football team and meets his brother from another mother, Zook (Wyatt Russell, the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn), who is also, of course, a suspect. He quickly becomes a source of tension between the two protagonists: Schmidt is jealous, Jenko is upset with Schmidt’s clinginess and talks of a more “open” investigation, where they might investigate other people. Again, it’s not a bad bit—I laughed at Jonah Hill’s sad, wincing, lonely walk across campus—but it’s done to death. It’s good for a few minutes but half the movie is this joke.
Then we get the meta stuff—the overall stupidity of the movie we’ve paid to see—then a false resolution, then the real one amid a shoot-out during Spring Break in Mexico. Throughout, Schmidt has held Jenko back, so here he has to make the leap, literally, to save the day. Once again, Hollywood winks at us about the idiocy of movies but still gives us the idiotic wish-fulfillment fantasy we bottomlessly crave.
By this point I was bored, horribly bored, but then we got the credit sequence in which a dozen or more potential sequels are imagined—including one (“28 Jump Street”?) in which Jonah Hill’s Schmidt, in the midst of a contract dispute, is replaced by Seth Rogen’s Schmidt as if they were the same person. The sequence reminded me of all of those awful, imagined Adam Sandler movies from “Funny People”: “Merman,” “My Best Friend is a Robot,” “Re-Do,” etc. Again, it’s a joke about how stupid the movies are, but at least it’s a smart joke. I also hope it means there won’t be a “23 Jump Street”; but since this one is making beaucoup bucks, I assume there will be—with Seth Rogen, if necessary.
Sunday July 06, 2014
EuroTrip 2014: Overwhelmed in Prague
You tend to overdo the first day. You’ve spent all that time prepping and planning and saving and traveling. And then it’s all there. How can you not go a little crazy?
The Rough Guide to Prague, which wasn’t all that rough, recommended taking the #22 tram for an overview of Old Town, etc., but we decided to walk it. And walk it. And walk it. And were overwhelmed. Prague is a beautiful city, and it was a beautiful day: blue skies and 60s and 70s.
I’m drawn not only to the old and Gothic but to the new and kitschy; to the pop cultural stuff. On our first day, for example, on Celetná, the touristy street between the Prasna brana (Powder Gate) and Staromestke namesti (the Old Town Square), I found myself staring in a shop window at rows and rows of nesting dolls. They were less the traditional ones than newer, pop cultural ones: singers and actors and athletes. Mostly athletes. Instead of the same figurine inside, each smaller doll would simply be another player on that team—whether that team was Manchester United or the Dallas Cowboys or the New York Yankees.
I was staring at the Yankees nesting dolls, of course, pissed off that they’d found me again on the other side of the world, when the salesman asked if I was interested. “You want?” he asked. I waved him off.
Me: I hate the Yankees.
He: What is your team?
Me: The Seattle Mariners. But you don't have them.
He: We can make.
Me: No no no no no.
He: [Pause] One ‘no’ is sufficient.
He said it matter-of-factly. The nesting dolls quickly became old hat—they were everywhere in Prague—but I never forgot that line. I should have bought something from him just for that.
Is there value in trodding the same path so many others have trod, and visiting the same sites millions of others have visited? Not much, probably, but it’s helpful to me anyway. Now when people mention Staromestske namesti or the Charles Bridge, I’ll have memories and images and feelings about them.
At Staromestske namesti, we arrived early, when the day still felt fresh and cool, and the square wasn’t yet overwhelmed with tourists like us. P was immediately attracted to the Tyn Church while I enjoyed simply being in the Square. I later realized that this was the place recounted at the beginning of Milan Kundera’s “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.” In February 1948, Slovak minister Vladimir Clementis put his fur cap on the head of Communist leader Klement Gottwald, who was giving a speech to a cheering throng. Kundera:
Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history, and, obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.
It’s one of the great openings of a modern novel. If I’d remembered that that was the square, I would have sought out the balcony. Instead, I took photos of the Hus monument, convinced myself that the astronomical clock was the Tyn Church, then was corrected by Patricia in time to see it in action. It was created in the 15th century by Master Hanus, who, according to Rough Guide author Rob Humphries, “was then blinded by the town councillors to make sure he couldn’t repeat the job for anyone else.” And you thought your Christmas bonus sucked.
I was less impressed with the Charles Bridge and its 31 statues, the No. 1 tourist attraction in Prague, simply because we arrived later in the day, noonish, when we were feeling peckish, and when the crowds were beginning to get overwhelming. I did a lot of dodging on the bridge. I also wondered over the plethora of caricature artists making a living there. Who visits a beautiful spot in a foreign city and decides to get a caricature of themselves or their children? Why bring home that souvenir?
We had the best french fries ever at a corner restaurant (whose name escapes me), sitting in the shade and trying to get our bearings, then hiked up to the other great tourist attraction in Prague, the Prazsky Hrad (Prague Castle), which, despite its name, was less castle than working community. We got overwhelmed by another cathedral (St. Vitus) and climb up one of its spires for a great view of the city. Throughout the trip, P was always about the quiet and majesty of the cathedral; I was always thinking, “Yeah, but can we climb up?”
After unsuccesfully trying to find the #22 tram for the trip down, we gave up and simply walked it, then headed over to the Kafka museum, which, being more form than content, impressed P, the graphic designer, and left me, the writer, a little cold. And sleepy. Plus there’s the incongruity of it all: the ignored writer, writing about the ignored, being celebrated so hugely nearly a century after his death. You got the feeling that if Kafka came back and saw what they were doing in his name, he would go mad.
Prague's medieval astronomical clock—the third oldest in the world and the only one still working.
A closer look.
A statue to Franz Kafka in the Old Jewish ghetto.
Just an ordinary street during our walk. Like Paris, it seems there are no wrong turns in Prague. (Although I managed to find them.)
The Charles Bridge.
A statue of St. Anne, Mary's mother, with Mary, Jesus, and winged friends: One of the 31 statues on the Charles Bridge.
Leaving the Charles Bridge and entering Malá Strana.
Best fries ever. Also the first of many Caprese salads for P.
P in the Church of St. Nicholas, before ascension to the Prazsky Hrad.
It must be dispiriting for American priests to visit European cathedrals. They must think, “Well, shit ...”
Walking toward the Prague Castle, with Prague in the background.
Our third cathedral/church of the day: St. Vitus. Each seemed to top the previous one.
I mean, just look at this.
Saturday July 05, 2014
More Homers than Strikeouts: How Rare?
I know, I’m late to the Victor Martinez story. USA Today was on it a month and a half ago.
But I was checking out the stats on ESPN.com the other night, intrigued mostly by Mike Trout’s incredible numbers again this year—.313/.406/.616—when I noticed that Trout, for all his glory, still struck out a lot: 87 Ks to 51 BBs. But the guy with the second-best OPS in the AL? Victor Martinez? He’d struck out only 23 times. Against 33 walks. And 21 homers.
Twenty-one homers and 23 Ks? That’s Joe DiMaggio territory. So I began to wonder when was the last time someone had a season where they homered more than they struck out? With, say, a minimum of 20 HRs?
Turns out it was 10 years ago: Barry Bonds during his Hulk-Smash period, so feel free to discount it. In which case, it hasn’t happened since George Brett’s .390 year in 1980, when he hit 24 homers against 22 strikeouts. The time before that? 1956: Both Ted Kluszewski and Yogi Berra.
All in all, according to Baseball Reference, it’s only been done 45 times in baseball history: seven times by DiMaggio, five by Yogi Berra, four by Kluszewski. And only once (discounting Bonds) in the last 58 years.
Martinez’s year is not only an anomaly for MLB but for Martinez. Career, he’s got 178 HRs against 618 Ks. Compare that with, say, Albert Pujols, who has 510 HRs against 873 Ks. That’s not bad for this day and age. But DiMaggio is still the touchstone: 361 HRs, 369 Ks.
Saturday July 05, 2014
EuroTrip 2014: Getting There
Money belts were not invented with the vanity of middle-aged men in mind. You spend all that time trying to work it off (not very successfully) only to put it back on (much more successfully) in the form of money and passports. Seems unfair. You also wonder how necessary the thing is. Is it really safer than keeping my credit card in my front pants pocket? Or am I just insulting everyone around me? Excuse me while I dig out this money from the belt I only wear in your country because I don't trust any of the folks around here. Ultimately I only used it when we traveled from one city to the next. The rest of the time it was stashed.
Our two-week-long trip started well: a nice conversation at SeaTac airport gate with two young French women returning from visiting relatives in the states. (Their father is American, so they have aunts, uncles and cousins in Florida, Oklahoma and Washington state.) Both women are in law school and enthusiastic about the U.S. When I asked what they liked about the U.S., they mentioned, in order of increasing enthusiasm, the people, the cities, and the junk food. They were apparently returning to France with bags and bags of Cheetos. Fromage, schmomage.
Big news for me? I actually slept on the flight to Amsterdam. For five hours. I never do this. The key seemed to be some combination of beers, ear plugs, those nightshade eye masks they pass out on KLM, and Xanax. Even so, at Schiphol airport, I wasn't exactly wide awake, and thus a bit insulted by a Ryan Reynolds L'Oreal ad reading, “LOOK SHARP, NOT TIRED.” Nice airport message, Green Lantern. Note to L'Oreal (as with Microsoft): It's probably not good if the involuntary response to your ad is: “Fuck you.”
P, who didn't sleep on the flight over, and who had a low-blood sugar moment at Schiphol, felt nauseous for the quicker flight from Amsterdam to Prague, but recovered quickly. She'd booked, through our hotel, a cab ride into town, so we had a guy waiting for us and holding a BRADBURY sign. His name was Josef, and he turned out to be typically Czech: charming, multilingual, and with a face that looked like he could've played a mob extra in “Eastern Promises.”
The ride into Prague's old town, Staré Mesto, was picturesque, and just kept getting better, until, half a block from our hotel, we drove by the Powder Gate or Prašná Brána—a 15th century gothic gateway to the city. It was early evening of what seemed like a long day, but was in fact (for us) about four in the morning, so we had that groggy, stupefied feel. After checking in, we wandered a few blocks before taking the concierge's advice on a restaurant, Hybernia, just across the street from the hotel. I had the kabob, which was good, but P was less impressed with her food. P, newly gluten-free and vegetarian, knew she would be in trouble.
Our greeting in Europe after a long, tired journey.
First night in Prague: P in front of the Prasna Brana.
Again with the Prasna Brana: I could never capture its magnificence.
The first dinner.
My first kabob and Pilsner Urquell ... which you can get at Trader Joe's. *Fin*
Friday July 04, 2014
Are $100 Million Opening Weekends Approaching the Age of Extinction?
Could we really be getting tired of whatever this is?
While I was away last weekend, the fourth “Transformers” movie, “Age of Extinction,” became the 27th movie, and the first this year, to gross more than $100 million during its opening weekend. Barely: $100,038,390, according to Box Office Mojo and Paramount Studios. That’s down from the $108.9 million “Transformers 2” grossed opening weekend 2009, but up slightly from the $97.8 million “Transformers 3” grossed during its opening weekend in 2011. Is that $2 million jump because of star Mark Wahlberg? Is it his GAR (Gross Above Replacement)?
Either way, it’s a bit late in the year for our first $100 million domestic opener. Here’s the 27 broken down by month:
From 2004 to 2008, there was always a $100 million opener in May. In 2009, we didn’t have one until late June, “Transformers 2,” but 2010 gave us Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” inexplicably grossing $116 million during a March opening weekend. The first “Hunger Games” repeated that March feat in 2012 and then “The Avengers” seemed to reset the bar with a $207 million opening weekend in May 2012. We had four $100 million openers that year (none lower than $140) and three last year (none lower than $116). So it seemed like $100 million openings would soon be no big deal.
Until this year. This year, $100 million openings have been the benchmark that would-be blockbuster movies can’t quite bench. “Captain America” came close at $95 million, “Godzilla” at $93, “Amazing Spidey 2” at $91, “X-Men” at $90. But no cigars until “T4.” Kind of. Many in Hollywood feel Paramount’s numbers are inflated. And even with that inflation, it still just wheezed across the finish line.
So are the tentpoles creaking and bending? Is this franchise fatigue or something more?
Look at Box Office Mojo’s summer predictions from April. Its writer, Ray Subers, thought “How to Train Your Dragon 2” would be the big summer movie at $325 million; but after three weekends and $129 domestic, it’ll be lucky to gross half that. He predicted $290 for “X Men,” and it’s done well ($225), but not that well. His “Godzilla” prediction felt low ($230) but Godzilla is still clawing its way there ($197). Ditto “Spidey” ($225/$200). In the superhero realm, there’s a lot of wheezing going on. Comedies, too. Subers thought “A Million Ways to Die in the West” was a $125 million movie but it's stuck below $50.
The one surprise based upon his predictions? “Maleficent.” He guessed $150 and after more than a month it’s at $206. Or about what “The Avengers” did in three days in 2012.
Is there a breakout movie to come? A new normal that gets us past traditional superheroes? The “Planet of the Apes” sequel? “Guardians of the Galaxy”? Or for the year’s first true $100 million opener, will all the boys in Hollywood have to wait for Katniss to come to their rescue in November?
Thursday July 03, 2014
Dreaming of the NY Yankees at the Pension Neuer Markt in Vienna
Me: And I had nightmares.
P: (yawning) About what?
Me: I dreamed the Yankees were in the postseason and were crushing the Oakland A's in the first round. They won the first two games and were winning the third game, 22-6.
P: (laughing) I usually have nightmares about monsters and mean people.
Me: So do I.
-- early morning conversation with Patricia about jetlag, etc., at the Pension Neuer Markt in Vienna, Austria last week.
I suppose my mistake, a week into our two-week trip to Europe (Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, Geneva), was checking out the Major League Baseball standings the night before. In the first four days of our trip the Yankees had won four in a row, including a sweep of first-place Toronto, and were now in second place in the AL East and threatening, and my initial reaction was exasperration with the rest of the league. “Can't you guys do anything right in my absence?” So the nicest present when P and I returned home last night—besides, of course, Ward meeting us at the airport, and Jellybean greeting us at home—was the fact that, since the above conversation, the Yankees had gone 2-7 and are now a game below .500.
It's a bit incongruous dreaming about the New York Yankees in the middle of Europe, particularly during the early rounds of the World Cup; but, as I wrote 12 years ago, they're a difficult team to get away from.
I'm still too Minnesota Nice to take pictures of strangers without permission, so I didn't get any shots of the many Yankee-cap-wearing folks tromping around Europe. I probably saw about three dozen people doing that. But I did have a conversation with a guard at the “Treasures” section (reliquaries, mostly) at St. Stephens Cathedral in Vienna about her Yankees periphernalia. It was one of the last rooms, she was behind a desk, the place was as quiet as a church, and she was wearing a Yankees shirt. Fairly low cut. So I imagine my first attempts at a question, along with my subsequent hand gestures pointing to my own chest, didn't go over particularly well. Then I got to the point in English. “Why Yankees?” I asked. “Do you know the New York Yankees?” She smiled, laughed, and admitted she only got the shirt because she'd recently visited New York and that's what you do. Indeed. Witness my new HOLLAND shirt from the Amsterdam airport. Which, beyond the airport, we didn't even visit.
I just wonder how much money the Yankees get from all of this. Here's hoping for knock-offs.
Non-Yankee posts about Europe to follow.
Yankee caps for sale in Lausanne, Switzerland. Right next to caps reading OBEY and BULL.