erik lundegaard

Thursday May 28, 2015

Bob on Bob: My Father's Memories of Bob Feller

Apparently I've gotten my father to not only read Joe Posnanski but add comments. For Memorial Day, Joe, who is not exactly known for being pithy (and we're all the better for it), wrote a simple paragraph on Bob Feller and his WWII service, to which my father added, in the comments field, a pertinent trivia question: In 1941, the year Ted Williams hit .406 and Joe DiMaggio had his famous 56-game hitting streak, who led the league in hits? Obviously not either of those two.

I'll let him give the answer:

The answer is Cecil Travis, Washington Senators shortstop, and, at 28, a nine-year veteran. His lifetime average at that point was .327, which tied him with Honus Wagner for the highest among shortstops.

Now the sad part: He spent four years in the Army in World War II, froze his feet in the Battle of the Bulge and had three mediocre part-seasons when he returned home, still ending at .314, the highest among AL shortstops.

Unlike Feller, he didn't say what the war cost his baseball legacy. He was modest to a fault, claiming that he was a good player but not good enough for the Hall. Some people disagreed, among them Feller and Ted Williams, but he never received a single vote for the Hall of Fame!

(BTW: On Poz's site, check out the guy below my father's post who crunches the numbers and surmises that Travis probably would've made the Hall if not for the interruption.) 

Believe it or not, all of the above is throat-clearing. What I really wanted to post was what my father emailed me yesterday morning:

Two connections I had with Bob Feller: I was at Shibe Park in Philly on the night that, according to his autobiog, “Strikeout Story,” was the game in which he had his best stuff ever. If memory serves he had 13 or 14 strikeouts after five innings, set to break his record of 18, but he slipped coming off the mound and had to leave the game. The only player he didn't strike out was an outfielder named Barney McCosky, who was a hitter in the Cecil Travis vein.

Secondly, he cost me my job as an usher at Griffith Stadium in Washington. As usual, when he pitched there were more than the usual number of fans in attendance, and because of the crowd size I was assigned to sit along the left field foul line, on the field, to collect any foul balls. A fan behind me complained that he couldn't see over my cap, so I jokingly gave it to him to wear. Apparently Clark Griffith noticed the usher out of uniform and ordered that he be cashiered.

Anyone who thinks my father should write more about his baseball memories, raise your hand. Mine's already up.

Cecil Travis, Washington Senators

Cecil Travis

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Posted at 02:21 PM on May 28, 2015 in category Baseball
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Well, At Least One Person Agrees with Me about 'Meh Max'

From longtime reader Daniel, whose criticism of “Mad Max” gets closer to the problem than my review did:

Thank you for the critical review of Mad Max! I saw it Thursday, and I already knew of its acclaim which might have primed me for a letdown; but if I had to pick one word to describe this movie, that word would be “dull.”

I agree with your praise of the movie, and would add that the visuals of it are impressive and both Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy have terrific charisma and are mesmerizing to watch even when they are looking out a window. That said, I don’t think I found it dull just because I don’t like chase movies. I think it’s dull because we are given no reason to care about any of the characters.

Honestly, do you feel as though you have a sense of a full human being with any of them? Our eponymous character is closest, but how would you describe him? He’s tough and taciturn and plagued by nightmarish images of his past. That’s the best I can do. That’s the starting point for a character not its end point. By the way, the loved ones he didn’t save – did he make a choice of some kind to save himself rather than them? Or, were their deaths inevitable given the dire situations in which they found themselves? It’s ambiguous, but nothing is done with that ambiguity.

Mad Max: Fury RoadFuriosa? She is tough and taciturn. She wants redemption. But, wait, redemption usually means righting a past wrong. Is that what it means for her? Did she do something particularly wrong for which she feels guilty? Or, does she just want to do away with the maniacal patriarchy? It’s ambiguous, but nothing is done with that ambiguity either. What was her goal anyway? If she managed to bring the breeders to the green place, why wouldn’t that just lead to numerous raiding parties from Immortan Joe to that green place probably destroying it if it had not been destroyed already. Is Immortan Joe unaware of the (formerly) green place a day’s ride away? That seems unlikely, doesn’t it? I’m confused.

What about Nicholas Hoult’s character? He is maniacally loyal to Immortan Joe and full of competitive machismo – until he isn’t because … um … he’s convinced that Immortan Joe would never forgive me for letting his favorite die. Why does he think that exactly? He’s an underling. Why wouldn’t he immediately think that Joe would want revenge and would reward him for killing those who killed his favorite? Isn’t Immortan Joe the angry vengeful sort?

As for that favorite, what can we say about her? She’s attractive. She starts acting heroically before she dies. But we aren’t given a sense that any of the others think of her as special outside of the fact that she is described as Joe’s favorite, a description that isn’t prefigured in any way. And once she’s dead, she won’t be mentioned again.

Zoe Kravitz’s character? She’s feistier than the others. Actually, she’s legitimately feisty. That’s a character trait, so good for her.

The brunette? She despairs at one point. But that despair isn’t prefigured in any way and once the one minute scene is over, it won’t be mentioned again either. And despairing at one point is not a character trait. All of these moments that aren’t pre-figured in any way and have no broader connection to the “story” are what I like to call “Bad Writing 101.”

The red-head? She is affectionate around Nicholas Hoult’s character and seems attracted to him. That isn’t a character trait. She seems vaguely more motherly than the others, but three of the others (the favorite, the brunette and the blond) are such non-entities that being a bit more motherly than they are isn’t saying much.

The blond? She mentions that she’s pregnant. It’s a comment that isn’t prefigured and will not be brought up again at any point. Obviously, being pregnant isn’t a character trait, but what else can you say about her?

As for the bad guys, Immortan Joe and his brothers are so grotesque as to be cartoonish. In fact, it has to be said that Ultron is less cartoonish than they are. He has actual goals. Their goals – wait, what are their goals? Does he just want his models, I mean, breeders back? Does he just want to demonstrate that no one can escape his authority? I guess that makes sense, but his society doesn’t seem susceptible to those kinds of worries – although it’s shown to be fragile at the end of the movie – which wasn’t prefigured in any way, sigh. I think he is just supposed to be angry and maniacal and patriarchal, and he’s giving chase with an army because: angry, maniacal, patriarchal. These aren’t actually goals in any real sense of the word. Outside of Nicholas Hoult, the big guy and the guy with the flaming guitar, the chalky underlings are less distinguishable than Despicable Me’s minions. They die randomly, and it doesn’t seem to matter to anyone at all. I realize that it isn’t supposed to matter, but with no real characters at all, it would help if the “villains” were interesting – well interesting other than visually.

I also have to say, I like that so little was done with CGI, but the stunts gave scenes visual heft but not emotional heft. Emotional heft is what matters, it is what gives a chase scene (or a chase movie) tension and drama. This movie is loud and frenetic, but it isn’t dramatic – which is why I found it so dull. Sometimes I will say about a movie that it’s very good but has some noticeable flaws. This movie is the inverse; it’s terrible, but it has some noticeable good points.

I did not intend to write this much. I think I’ve felt more exasperated by this movie than most because I do not understand the critical acclaim for it. Fairly often, if a movie is broadly critically acclaimed, and I did not enjoy it, I seriously wonder what I might have missed as you seem to have done by asking about your “major malfunction.” I haven’t felt that way with this movie. This movie strikes me as objectively awful, and, yes, I believe there is such a thing. Your criticism of it gave me something to which I could respond, and I hope you don’t mind my sending what I’ve written your way. Thank you for continuing to think and write. I appreciate it.

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Posted at 05:48 AM on May 28, 2015 in category Movie Reviews
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Wednesday May 27, 2015

Recommended: Theeb

I saw “Theeb” last night at the Harvard Exit and it's the best movie I've seen so far at SIFF 2015. Unfortunately, that was its last showing at the festival, but be on the lookout for it. Maybe it'll get a limited release in this country. Maybe. If we're smart. Otherwise, the usual suspects: Netflix, Fandor, et al. 

Here's the trailer:

My review will be up soon. 

It's a rare beast: an arthouse film that is also a great adventure story.

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Posted at 08:58 AM on May 27, 2015 in category Trailers
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Movie Review: Meeting Dr. Sun (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

When I lived in Taiwan in 1987-88 I became a little obsessed with statues. You’d see them everywhere. Mostly they were of Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang dictator who died in 1975, and whose more benevolent son, Chiang Ching-kuo, died shortly after I arrived. (Black armbands suddenly appeared on everyone.) But nearly as often the statues were of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the 20th century revolutionary leader and first president of the Republic of China, whose 1923 speech on the “Three Principles of the People” was adapted into the Taiwanese national anthem, and who is so revered that both capitalist Taiwan and communist China claim him. Back then, I always wanted to do a photo essay on all of the Chiang and Sun statues in Taiwan. At the least, I wanted a headcount.

I mention all of this because the key artifact in “Meeting Dr. Sun,” the wholly original, humorously deadpan, imperfect-crime caper from Taiwanese writer-director Yee Chih-yen, is, of course, a statue of Sun Yat-sen. This one doesn’t stand in a school courtyard, or on a busy street, or in the middle of Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, but is relegated to a storeroom. And it soon becomes as desired, and as fought over, as the real Dr. Sun.

Yo meiyo
“You have to pay your class dues this month.”  

Meeting Dr. SunThese are the first words we hear in the movie, and we hear them over and over again. It becomes a theme. Not the words but repetition. Repeating phrases is a key element in the film’s deadpan comedy.

The one who’s being hounded with this phrase is nicknamed Lefty (Zhan Huai-Yun)—“as in ‘the left side,’” he says over and over—who is a gangly, slow-moving high school student in Taipei. One day, staring into a storeroom off the school’s gymnasium, he gets an idea and his face breaks into a smile; then he shares this idea—stealing and hocking the statue of Dr. Sun to pay for classes—with three fellow students who also owe money. He tells them this on the streets of Taipei while continually moving them away from potential eavesdroppers: flight attendants leaving a hotel, for example, and an elderly man with a walker; people, in other words, who have absolutely zero interest in what they’re doing. That’s when I first began to laugh.

Lefty is careful about every detail. He knows his team needs masks, so he buys the cheapest ones: plastic versions of a wide-eyed, blue-haired and red-bowed anime girl, whose mouth is stuck in a small “o” of surprise. Then he and his team practice and pantomime the heist. His face lights up with pride as he confirms they need to complete the caper in under an hour—before the one guard on duty stops watching TV and makes his rounds. Then, a complication: Lefty finds a notebook on the campus grounds and realizes that someone else is planning to steal and hock the statue of Dr. Sun.

That someone is nicknamed Sky (Wei Han-Ting), who’s smaller, tougher but not as smart as Lefty—a low bar he doesn’t quite reach. He’s also more conniving. Invited to join Lefty’s gang, he instead steals the equipment so he and his gang can pull off the heist first. Incensed, Lefty’s gang joins them, all eight wearing the same absurd anime masks, all of them needed to move the heavy statue of Dr. Sun. It’s not until they actually get the thing on the truck that they suddenly realize both gangs are present. Confusion and sloppy fighting ensues.

Two China policy
“Meeting Dr. Sun” is rarely laugh-out-loud funny; its humor is more on a constant, delightful simmer. It’s also charming and surprisingly gentle. And metaphoric? Are the gangs fighting over Dr. Sun representative of the two Chinas fighting over his legacy? Is the movie a class argument—what the poor have to do to get a proper education?

Such meaning peeks through. Near the end, there’s a big, two-minute fight scene between Lefty and Sky on the deserted, nighttime streets of Taipei, which is, again, funny, long, exasperating, and surprisingly gentle. As the boys roll around on the greasy ground, punching and kicking and flailing, the statue of Dr. Sun, stuck in the middle of the street, looks down on them as if with a mixture of bemusement and admonishment; and maybe a little shame that it’s come to this. 

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Posted at 07:01 AM on May 27, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Tuesday May 26, 2015

Movie Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The first time the lie was told I believed it and was relieved; the second time the lie was told I didn’t believe it and was even more relieved. But it needs to be there; and it needs to be a lie. 

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” from first-time director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”), and based upon the young adult novel by first-time novelist Jesse Andrews, won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and will draw comparisons to “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Both are coming-of-age stories set in Pittsburgh that make great use of the city and its bridges. Both feature nerdy guys as narrators fixated on adorable girls.

Both are bittersweet.

The thing we don’t want to happen
Me and Earl and the Dying GirlThe nerdy guy here is Greg (the imposingly named Thomas Mann), who begins the story by telling us he has no idea how to tell us the story. “Bad start,” I thought. Then he tells us he made a film so bad it literally killed someone. “That’s better,” I thought.

A senior in high school, Greg has figured out how to maneuver through the various cliques by having “low-key good times” with everyone but being friends with no one. He only truly clicks with Earl (RJ Cyler), with whom he make short movies: parodies of classic world cinema, including:

  • The Rad Shoes
  • My Dinner with Andre the Giant
  • Breathe Less
  • Pooping Tom
  • Death in Tennis
  • A Box of Lips Now

So that’s me and Earl. The dying girl is Greg’s classmate, Rachel (Olivia Cooke, quite good), who has been diagnosed with stage-4 leukemia. Greg’s mom urges him to visit her. She pesters him until he does. That’s a good scene.

He and Rachel hit it off, of course. He jokes around in his goofy, adolescent way, and she appreciates the effort. She doesn’t want the deep conversation, the air heavy with import, the insulting palliative that “God has a plan.” She likes what Greg, and then Earl, have to offer. And she becomes the first regular viewer of their Criterion homages.

I related in a lot of ways to Greg—and not just for his love of movies. To write his college essay, he adopts the nihilistic tone of Werner Herzog narrating a documentary, and I actually did something similar. In these essays, you’re supposed to speak about yourself in superlative terms and I couldn’t do it (Minnesotan/Scandinavian), so like Greg I resorted to satire. I made myself ABC News’ “Person of the Week.” (I didn’t get in.)

A few things in the film don’t quite work. Rachel’s mom is played by Molly Shannon, and she goes over-the-top in that Molly Shannon way. Her comic creepiness doesn’t mesh with the film’s deeper, quieter sensibility. I also don’t get how Greg’s relationship with Rachel dooms his veil of invisibility at school. Yes, he makes enemies, but just Ill Phil and Scott Mayhew, and both dudes are already ostracized. To most everyone else, he’s still invisible.

Greg gets off some good lines (To his mom about prom: “Have you seen me in a tux? It’s like when they make a dog wear human clothes”), but a lot of his humor is, well, adolescent. Plus he can be a pill. When Rachel gives up on chemotherapy, they argue, they fight, he leaves. Then he fights Earl. Then he fights with his mom. He isolates himself from everyone because he can’t deal with what’s happening to Rachel.

It’s also why he lies to us. “She gets better,” he tells us twice. “I promise." 

The first time he says it I was relieved, because we like Rachel. A second later, I realized the movie would suffer as a result. This is true of almost every movie: The thing we don’t want to happen is what ultimately makes the movie a better movie. But for most of its history, Hollywood has given us what we want, which is why we keep getting lesser movies.

“Me and Earl” isn’t that. Its last 15 minutes are almost silent.

Death lessons
I saw the film at the Seattle International Film Festival with Gomez-Rejon in attendance, and he said that in the end, originally, as in the book, Greg gave a big speech about Rachel before the high school. It was the moment when he decided to become visible. It was, in fact, the speech that everyone who auditioned for Greg had to recite. And it was a great scene. But Gomez-Rejon felt it disturbed the mood and rhythm of the ending. It disturbed the silences, the processing, and so it had to be cut.

Question: Even though “Me and Earl” gives us what the movie needs rather than what we want, is its lesson about death still wish fulfillment?

The lesson is first relayed by Greg’s cool history teacher (Jon Bernthal), who tells him that when his father died he kept learning about him—from family and friends—so it was as if he continued on. “Life can keep unfolding itself to you as long just as you pay attention to it,” he says. Initially, Greg dismisses the lesson, as he dismisses most things; but then he experiences it.

After Rachel’s death, he returns to her room, where he discovers, on the wallpaper, little squirrels she’d drawn hopping from tree to tree. He’d noticed the tree wallpaper before but not the squirrels, and it recalls something Rachel told him about how she and her father used to take walks and count squirrels. (Greg had dismissed that story, too, with a one-liner.) Greg also discovers, in the books in her room, little dioramas she’d created out of their pages. He keeps finding out things about Rachel. She keeps unfolding, even in death.

I liked that thought when the lights went up. An hour later, I realized it was almost the exact opposite of the lessons I’ve taken from death.

For me, the death of a loved one, particularly a contemporary, forces you to deal with a heartbreaking, absolute finality. You will never see this person again. Whatever you go through in life, you will never be able to share it with them. Life may keep unfolding but they don’t. Their story ends. The movie’s lesson is nicer; I just wish it felt truer. 

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Posted at 05:09 AM on May 26, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2015
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Monday May 25, 2015

Box Office: 'Tomorrowland' Wins a Ho-Hum Memorial Day Weekend

Let's see ... 

“Tomorrowland” with George Clooney opened to $32 mil (kind of meh) and finished first, “Pitch Perfect 2” fell 55% in its second weekend (not great, not bad) to finish second, and both “Mad Max 2” (in its second weekend) and “The Avengers 2” (in its fourth) fell about 45% (not bad). The reboot of “Poltergeist” opened poorly ($22.6 mil, fourth place).  

As usual, the movies I most want to see are farther down the list: “Far from the Madding Crowd” (8th, $2.2), “Ex Machina” (11th, $1.4), and “Clouds of Sils Maria” (24th, $84K). Interestingly, the Apu trilogy, which I did see this weekend (yesterday at Pacific Place as part of SIFF) also made the cut, bringing in $16K. Glad to be part of that anyway. 

The Box Office Mojo numbers here

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Posted at 01:13 PM on May 25, 2015 in category Movies - Box Office
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Cannes Winners, 2015

The fact that the Seattle International Film Festival (or SIFF) happens concurrently with the Cannes Film Festival (or Cannes) assuages some of the disappointment with not being in the south of France at this time of year. Instead I rely on the usual suspects (Jeff Wells, Sasha Stone) for their reports. Not to mention the final awards, which were announced today. They are:

  • Palme d'Or: “Dheepan,” directed by Jacques Audiard, who has twice won “best film” at the Erik International Film Festeival (a.k.a. my annual Top 10 list) so I'm excited by this; I think Audiard is one of the best directors in the world right now. At the same time, the win is being called one of the great upsets in the history of Cannes. Further thoughts here. The movie below was supposed to win ...
  • Grand Prix: “Son of Saul,” directed by Laszlo Nemes. Another Holocaust film that seems particularly resonant. 
  • Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien, “The Assassin.” I've never been a big Hou fan, but ... open mind. At least 3/4 open.
  • Actor: Vincent Lindon, “The Measure of a Man.” I mostly know Lindon from the film adaptation of “The Moustache.”
  • Actress (tie): Emmanuelle Bercot, “Mon Roi”; Rooney Mara, “Carol.” Both Wells and Stone raved about “Carol,” which also stars Cate Blanchett.

The jury presidents were Joel and Ethan Coen, while the jury included actors Jake Gyllenhaal, Sophie Marceau, Sienna Miller and Rossy de Palma; directors Guillermo del Toro and Xavier Dolan; and composer Rolia Traoré.

Do these awards mean anything? Ca depend. Past winners of the Palme d'Or have included great films (“Pulp Fiction,” “The Pianist,” “The Class,” “The Tree of Life,” “Blue is the Warmest Color”) and some awful/arty films (“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”). But I love Audiard so I'm hopeful this year.  

Dheepan, Jacques Audiard

In “Dheepan,” a Sri Lankan Tamil warrior uses his skills to survive as an immigrant in Paris.

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Posted at 12:52 PM on May 25, 2015 in category Movies - Awards
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Is Every Line in 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' the Title of a Baseball Book?

Nearly. Follow the bouncing ball, kids:

Yes, some lyrics are fudged (“to” instead of “with”; “we” instead of “I”), and the Hubbard book is really “Strike 3, You're Out,” but thought I'd go with it.

Anyone know others?

Take Me Out to the Ball Game in books 

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Posted at 07:59 AM on May 25, 2015 in category Books
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