A Seamless Wonder and a Pretentious Quagmire

Two well-intentioned cable series surfaced in the past month, and they offer a stark lesson in the difference between good and bad filmmaking. 

First, I am happy to report that The Queen’s Gambit, Scott Frank’s adaptation of a Walter Tevis novel from 1983 I was unfamiliar with, is probably the best original production I have ever seen from Netflix, a seven-episode limited series that does not have one moment without brilliant acting, writing, direction, set design, music, and photography. Its story is so simple and seamless, it allows for its main character, fictitious chess prodigy Elizabeth Harmon, to move through her remarkable young life with perfectly displayed loneliness, grief, and joy, in a performance by 24-year-old actress Anya Taylor-Joy that will likely be remembered at the next Emmy soiree. 

I’ve played quite a bit of chess in my time, but understanding the game’s strategy is not essential to loving this series. The memorable chess players Beth meets in her growing career are smart and caring of each other, and discuss their moves in an entertaining way that never talks over the audience or feels detached from the scene. In the same vein, the numerous chess matches are filmmaking marvels, concisely directed for the most dramatic impact and staged in rooms that move from high school gyms to four-star-hotel lobbies to a grand palace in Moscow. The impeccable production design by Uli Hanisch and Steven Meizier cinematography paint every set and carries us along in a fluid stream of visual engagement, while giving us ample opportunity to identify with Beth and feel her emotions. 

I can’t recommend The Queen’s Gambit enough, and my only issue is why it took so long for this novel to find a home on screen. Tevis, who also wrote the Fast Eddie Felson books that became Paul Newman’s role in The Hustler and The Color of Money, died a year after Gambit was published. Heath Ledger reportedly was going to use it as his directorial debut, but after Ledger passed, the project languished for years. Like Beth Harmon’s chess-playing abilities, the series is an absolute gift, and one I can certainly imagine re-watching sometime.

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On the other hand, a series I have no intention of re-watching or even finishing is the fourth go-round of Fargo, Noah Hawley’s Coen Brothers-inspired creation that produced a fabulous first and second season and a third one that wasn’t as unforgettable but was still entertaining enough to enjoy. After a long hiatus, showrunner Noah Hawley apparently decided he needed to write some kind of political metaphor for the turbulent, racist times we currently find ourselves in. The result is an overproduced, over-directed mess of a plot with far too many characters and virtually none we find ourselves engaged with. 

What made the first two Fargo seasons so great was the smaller scale, and the handful of quirky upper midwesterners we liked spending time with—even Marvin Freeman’s doomed anti-hero Lester Nygaard and Billy Bob Thornton’s ruthless killer Lorne Malvo from the opening year. Season Four has abandoned all of that Coen-ish charm and settled on a cold, stylized treatment closer to a wannabe Tarantino epic. Two warring crime syndicates in 1950 Kansas City, one African-American and the other Italian, form an uneasy truce, but the considerable murderous mayhem that follows is dragged out like pretentious, tooth-cracking taffy, and despite Hawley’s artistic skills at re-creating the time and place, I find many of the scenes unnecessarily obtuse, the motivations cloudy, and there isn’t one character, aside from a 16-year-old black daughter of a funeral home family who seems to be narrating the story in the opening episode but is then dropped, who I care even a smidgen about.

Obviously, The Queen’s Gambit and Fargo Season 4 are completely different in terms of genre and mood, but their use of visuals and style to enhance their stories are like a symphony compared to a garage band. One Fargo scene from Episode Two, in which a Sicilian brute visiting from the old country recruits two henchman at a bar to perform a murder for him, seems to take five exasperating minutes to play out. The Queen’s Gambit would have finished the same scene in thirty delicious seconds.

Life After Baseball…and Before It

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Excavating the Game’s Past with Authors
Eric Nusbaum and Brad Balukjian

 

For reasons that are easy to fathom, the Great COVID Pandemic has put baseball on the back burner for many of us. While diehard fans can placate themselves temporarily with an endless supply of old games on YouTube or the MLB Network, not having the stream of daily box scores and radio calls on warm summer days has been tough to endure. Thankfully, a pair of new baseball books released in the spring—both of them passionate, original, and beautifully written—have done more to fulfill my baseball longing than anything else.

Stealing Home, by Eric Nusbaum (Public Affairs), is a moving, thoroughly researched account of the removal of the vibrant Mexican-American community living in Chavez Ravine, and how it ultimately made room for Walter O’Malley and his Dodger Stadium dream. By largely telling the story through the eyes and hearts of two completely different people, Abrana Aréchiga, the last ravine resident to be forcibly removed in 1959, and Frank Wilkinson, a left-leaning developer with a vision of building a utopian, low-income housing project on ravine land, the tragic fate of the community unfolds over the years with unforgettable power. After Wilkinson’s career is ruined during the Red Scare of the 50s, the city turned around and sold the land to O’Malley instead, who had a utopian dream of his own: a new palace for his westbound Dodgers.

Nusbaum’s ability to tell the Ravine’s sad tale and the city’s corrupt role in it with concise, often breathtaking prose is a wonder, and the book is filled with priceless anecdotes about the unseemly operators who populated the city and wedged their way into these proud families’ lives to change them forever.

The Wax Pack, by Brad Balukjian, (University of Nebraska Press) is seemingly from a crazier, more innocent planet, but is equally moving and rewarding. After purchasing a 1986 pack of Topps baseball cards on eBay, Balukjian vowed to personally visit the thirteen living ex-ballplayers whose cards came in the pack, driving around the entire country in his 2002 Honda Accord in the summer of 2015. He tracked down and spent time with Steve Yeager, Garry Templeton, Richie Hebner, Lee Mazzilli and less notables Rance Mulliniks, Don Carman, and Randy Ready (among others) and the different ways they responded to being out of the game are very revealing.

Balukjian never did get close to Vince Coleman, Doc Gooden, or Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk, but his futile pursuit of them is just as absorbing. Throughout, the author seamlessly weaves his personal dreams and desires and regrets with the lives of his “wax packers”, and it makes for a humorous and very emotional ride. The book has a simple, engaging concept with a driving force all its own, and like Nusbaum’s quiet historical epic, I can’t recommend it enough.

Recently I spoke to both authors via email, being sadly unable to meet them in a coffee shop…

 

In addition to writing these original, passionate books, I assume each of you had an interesting path to eventual publication. Can you tell me what those experiences were like?

NUSBAUM: First off, thank you! I don’t think “passionate” is a word I’ve heard used to describe Stealing Home before, but it is a passionate book. It’s definitely also a passion project, too. I had this book on my mind for more than a decade before I finally published it. I first learned about the events in Stealing Home even before that, from one of the central figures in the book, a man named Frank Wilkinson who visited my high school history class. Frank was a public housing official who was caught up in a Red Scare conspiracy, and whose fall in many ways left an opening for Walter O’Malley to bring the Dodgers to L.A.

Now that I reflect on it, I think my whole career as a writer has been building toward Stealing Home. It existed in my head long before I was ever fully able to explain it — and certainly long before I wrote it. I had a lot of false starts publishing the book. I pitched the concept to a bunch of agents with no success, and then had an agent for a while, but even he wasn’t thrilled about it. Sort of dejected at this point, I put the idea back in the drawer. A couple years passed, and I hooked up with a new agent and then came up with an entirely different book proposal (it was a history of L.A. told through the freeway system.) We sent this proposal out to an editor we thought might like it. But he also asked if I might happen to have any Dodger-related ideas…well, I did.

BALUKJIAN: The next time I write a book I am going to print out an early draft just so I can put it in a drawer. While I never literally did this with The Wax Pack, I can relate to Eric’s stutter-step history. I was trained in college in magazine journalism; the founders of New Journalism–Wolfe, Talese, Capote–these were my literary heroes. I was spoiled in college, getting to write long-form stories about whatever topics tickled me because they were just class assignments. When I got to the “real world,” I quickly discovered how hard it is to get a 3,000-word story published, let alone a 90,000 word one.

I wrote short pieces in my freelance career for years, while I also pursued my other career as an entomologist and evolutionary biologist. Once I finished my Ph.D. and could come up for air, the first thing I thought of was finding a project that would finally allow me to “go long.” I was always enamored with the 26-team era in baseball (1977-92) and the fringe players from that era (I had an album full of Tony Fossas, Don Carman, and Marty Barrett cards). I looked at a wax pack and realized that there was a physical resemblance between a pack and a book—rectangular shape, 15 cards in a pack, 15 chapters in a book. And I fell in love with the idea of being at the mercy of whatever random 15 cards would be in a single pack.

It then took six years from bell to bell to get this thing published, because I didn’t have a Twitter following the size of a small city and because apparently no one cares about Don Carman and Randy Ready. I’m glad the publishing gatekeepers were wrong about that.

While “Stealing Home” obviously required much thorough research to tell its story, “The Wax Pack” has a spontaneous, freewheeling, seat-of-your-pants structure—yet both books are permeated with heartfelt emotion. Could you elaborate a bit on your writing process, and how long did the actual book-writing take?

NUSBAUM: The book took my entire life! In all seriousness, there are passages of this book that I can trace back to writing and research I did when I was living in Mexico from 2012-2014. And I’ve been “thinking” about it even longer.

I think you reinvent your writing process every day, and with every piece you write. At least I do. At first I thought writing a book would be like writing a bunch of long-form magazine pieces and stacking them together, but with this story, which was really big and messy and complicated, that was not the case at all. I had to learn how to organize all these moving parts. It’s quite intricate and figuring out how to manage my data was challenging. I did a lot of reading, a lot of interviews, and a lot of archival research. Then at a certain point I told myself “okay you need to start writing.” Looking back now it almost feels like I was in a trance. Working a ton. Living with this material in a very visceral way. I was dreaming about the people in my book every night.

The more specific answer: I quit my job at Vice to work on the book full-time in early 2018. The book came out about two years later.

BALUKJIAN: Thanks. I like the seat of my pants. You’re right, there’s a lot of heart in both books. Eric’s research is truly prolific. I was awed by how much he packed into each page in such a compelling way. And while The Wax Pack is much lighter on the research, I did do an enormous amount of research on each player in advance of my road trip so I knew exactly what I wanted to ask them in my limited time. If you read my book carefully there is a lot of background work in there, it just hopefully isn’t too noticeable; as Eric Schlosser said, “Your writing should be like an iceberg. What you put on the page is like the tip of the iceberg. Everything else is there, even if the reader can’t see it.”

I spent an enormous amount of time on my proposal, which ended up at about 130 pages. This included chapter outlines and a couple of sample chapters. I reworked the proposal from late 2016 until late 2018, cycling through two agents and 38 rejections from editors, before finally striking a deal with the University of Nebraska Press. I then wrote most of the book in about five months. I laid out a schedule of writing a chapter about every ten days. I was able to write quickly because I had been mapping out the story for so long in my head, thinking cinematically in terms of a chronology of scenes. I do a lot of my writing in my head as I go through routine tasks like showering and brushing my teeth, so that when I sit down I’m ready to go. And I relate to Eric’s description of that writer’s high, that trancelike state.

Eric, I found “Stealing Home” less of a straightforward baseball book and more of a moving Los Angeles history with baseball as a backdrop. Was that always your original intention?

It really was. The more I researched and wrote and got into the story, the more I realized that it was more of a city story, or an America story, or even a family story than a baseball story. There’s obviously baseball in it—the book is about how L.A. got Dodger Stadium, after all. But that turn of events had more to do with subjects like immigration, public housing, the Red Scare, dirty politics, and on and on.

Baseball’s signature appeal for me has always been its rich, colorful past. Both of your books mine this history in different ways. How much has the game’s past contributed to your personal feelings about it and inspired your work?

NUSBAUM: I think what’s interesting is that Brad’s book and mine both sort of excavate the concept of nostalgia in different ways. Brad’s looking at this very personal experience of buying baseball cards, loving the Gods who appear on them, and then coming to terms with the fact that they are really men and everything that means. It’s a living history.

My book gets into boosterism and salesmanship and all the other stuff that happened to make these men into Gods in the first place. We’re both deconstructing mythology. He’s doing it with the players, and I guess I’m doing it with the mythmakers themselves a bit.

I love history, I love baseball. I love learning these stories, and I love telling them. The work of the book only made me more in awe of the vastness of this history. Every team, every city, every ballplayer, every pitch is a story.

BALUKJIAN: What Eric said. Ha ha, no, he’s right on there. The deconstruction of mythology is exactly it. When I was writing some blog posts on my road trip, one of the players, Don Carman, texted me and said, “You know you’re going to make some people angry.” I didn’t know what he was talking about at first, but I realized that yes, I was messing with some people’s childhoods. I was telling them that their heroes were mortal, flawed, sometimes angry. A lot like them. And you and me. It takes a certain courage as a journalist to tackle something you’re personally passionate about and to look it in the eye and say, “there are parts of you that I don’t like or agree with.” On the whole, though, I love baseball even more after writing this book. Because it’s really just another entry point into what we all crave, which is connection and emotion.

If a publisher offered either of you a deal to write a sequel to your books, would you consider it or prefer moving on to a completely new idea?

NUSBAUM: I don’t think I could do it! The story I wrote really ended with the opening of Dodger Stadium in 1962. There are some really great books about the Dodgers and L.A. in the years following Stealing Home. I’m talking specifically about Michael Leahy’s The Last Innocents and Jason Turbow’s They Bled Blue about the 1981 Dodgers and Fernandomania. Plus Jason is one of the founders of the Pandemic Baseball Book Club with us and everybody should definitely buy his book.

I’d also add that the soul of Stealing Home is really with the communities of Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop that were destroyed first to make way for public housing and later Dodger Stadium. I hope other writers and scholars continue to do work that honors the history of those communities.

BALUKJIAN: Nope. While another road trip would be fun, a sequel would lack the novelty and creativity of the original. Besides, outside of Star Wars and The Godfather, name me a sequel that lived up? Too often creative types return to the same material for the wrong reason ($). Even if I tried, I know a sequel wouldn’t be as good because I wouldn’t believe in it the same way. Writing a book is an act of faith, not science.

How do you feel about the current and future state of baseball, particularly in this pandemic age? And what teams do you root for, anyway?

NUSBAUM: I love the game. Lots of exciting young players! The Dodgers (who I root for) might finally win a World Series soon! But I’m skeptical about whether the current crop of owners really cares about growing the sport and making it sustainable long term. It seems to me that the folks who run baseball always prioritize short-term cash grabs over the health and sustainability of the sport. This segues me into the “season” they are about to play. It strikes me as delusional and selfish and deeply misguided to try and play baseball right now. But Brad is an actual scientist. Let’s listen to what he has to say about it!

BALUKJIAN: F the Dodgers. I’m a Phillies and A’s fan (but gun to my head, I go Phillies first). I agree with Eric that they should not play this season due to COVID. This notion that the country “needs sports” is overblown. Sure, I would love to watch baseball, but baseball players are not essential workers. And I think we’re asking for a lot of trouble starting up again.

Give Me Victorian Martians or Don’t Give Me Any

War-Of-The-Worlds-Featured-1200x520I have a strange pet peeve about The War of the Worlds movies.

The 1960 version of The Time Machine, from another H.G. Wells novel, was my favorite film as a kid, and I swear I paid to see it 17 times. Intrigued by all things Wellsian, I then “read” his amazing and terrifying 1898 story about a full-fledged Martian invasion of Southern England in comic book form, one of a series called Classics Illustrated that introduced kids to famous literature back then. I hadn’t yet seen George Pal’s 1953 movie version with Gene Barry which was set in Southern California, but the comic book scared and engaged me enough that I picked up the original novel soon after that.

Screen Shot 2020-03-06 at 11.17.55 AMAside from being an incredibly vivid, graphic, and moving tale recounting a series of days that nearly erased humanity, the best thing about the book is that it’s set in Victorian England. The images of Martians walking through the idyllic English countryside inside towering, metal tripods and laying waste to everything is what makes the book so unique and startling. It’s like a Merchant-Ivory drama with heat rays. Wells’ creation of having the Martians shoot from their planet in a series of cylinders that arrive as meteors is also brilliant, especially given the lack of science fiction writing at the time—outside of Jules Verne.

Imagine my dismay, then, when I finally watched Gene Barry and girlfriend Anne Robinson learn of the first Martian meteor while dancing at a local small-town sock hop, and that the invaders unleashed their heat rays on L.A. County from cheesy, low-flying machines as opposed to tripods. Sorry, that wasn’t even close to the book I had read.

Neither was Steven Spielberg’s mega-budget version from 2005. While he did manage to nail the tripods perfectly (top photo) and create some terrifying CGI set pieces, the film was set in modern New Jersey with Tom Cruise, featured a father-son soap opera and traumatized Dakota Fanning, and never even identified the aliens as Martians. (Seeing that Orson Welles’ notorious radio version from the late 1930s was also set in northern New Jersey, the writers probably felt they were paying some homage to that.)

Screen Shot 2020-03-06 at 11.38.35 AMBack in 1998, a War of the Worlds TV series lasted for two seasons, and I’m glad I missed that one altogether. Apparently the bacteria that saved civilization from the Martians in 1953 was destroyed by radiation, and the Martians then came back to take over human bodies, a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Nice try.

So now we’ve been graced with yet another TV series of The War of the Worlds, a British, “modern re-working” available on the Epix Channel with Gabriel Byrne and Elizabeth McGovern. This one uses the name of Wells’ book, but is so far removed from the original concept that I’ve already lost interest because after three episodes it’s devolved into a post-apocalyptic character slog not unlike The Walking Dead. Sorry folks, having it take place in modern-day London doesn’t quite excuse this decision.

6906203806_d64303e0d3_bI don’t mean to sound like a line from a bad action movie, but these producers just don’t get it, do they? The accompanying illustrations perfectly capture the contrast between everyday life and alien horror that Wells’ novel details on practically every page. Having re-read the book again recently, what comes through even more now is the way citizens learned of alarming news back in that era. There was no television, no social media, or even telephones. The coming of the Martians, as word slowly spread by word of mouth from one quaint village to another, was scarcely believed. If a filmmaker ever makes a version that is genuinely true to the cinematically-written novel, they could deliciously underline this irony—from the sand pit on Horsell Common to the rubble in London.

Popping the “Aeronauts” Balloon

0_Felicity-Jones-and-Eddie-Redmayne-star-in-The-AeronautsAfter I moved to L.A. in 1982 for the singular purpose of writing and selling screenplays (written:20, sold:2) I took a Story Structure class with the well-known script guru Robert McKee. We did in-depth studies of Casablanca and Chinatown, and I fully absorbed most everything he said for those few months. The simplest thing he said, though, may have been this: a successful script is a good story that is well-told.

It isn’t often that a movie fails so badly at storytelling that it inspires me to write about it, but that’s exactly how I feel about The Aeronauts, an Amazon Original currently available on Prime. Starring Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne as a pair of brave balloonists in 1860s England, the trailer looked fascinating, exciting, and well-worth 140 minutes of lap time on my iPad. The filmmakers took some liberties with the true story of English meteorologist James Glaisher (Redmayne) by having him soar into the London sky with spirited, slightly mad Amelia Wren (Jones), a fictional creation based on French balloonist Sophie Blanchard, rather than the man named Henry Tracey Coxwell he actually flew with.

I would have gladly excused this fictional license if the film were as entertaining as the trailer promised, but I’m sorry to report that I couldn’t make it through 45 minutes of this dreck. For some inexplicable reason, the filmmakers made a decision to ditch linear narrative and tell the story of the aeronauts in a series of flashbacks—and it flat-out ruins the movie.

The concept of 1860s balloonists is original and visual and captured this fan of air travel in an instant. Why water down the wonder of it all for no apparent reason? The story of how Glashier gets no support for his weather study ideas from the scientific community or his family until he meets the widowed Wren at a party and asks for her help is powerful enough as is, and certainly strong enough to support a linear plot that would literally soar off the screen when they finally launched into the atmosphere. Instead, the film OPENS with Wren racing to join Glashier for the balloon launch and coming across as a brash, annoying lunatic because we have a) no clue who she even is, b) who Glashier is and why he’s even flying with this woman, and c) what this event even means in the context of the time period.

It’s only after they’re airborne and flashback scenes are wedged into “reflective” moments in the big basket like extra sandbags that we learn Wren’s husband was also an aeronaut who fell from their balloon in a ghastly accident (which largely made her unbalanced), and that Glashier went through circles of hell trying to muster support for his meteorological studies). These flashbacks—which Robert McKee cautioned should never be used in a screenplay unless absolutely necessary—are predictably dead of emotion and practically irrelevant, because we already know the two of them are soon going to be flying together.

All dramatic power is summarily eviscerated from the story, and the likely reason it was written this way doesn’t even hold water. If they wanted a big balloon flight to happen in the first ten minutes of the movie to capture the viewer, they already had one they could have used: the accident involving Wren’s husband! Letting the story then unfold from Wren’s point of view (with cutaway scenes to Glashier’s travails) would have completely worked and made their 1862 launch five times more memorable.

As is, the CGI effects and dangers of the flight are beautifully staged. Once we eventually are allowed to understand Jones’ wacky character, she becomes more likeable, Redmayne is fine, and there’s even a great turn by the legendary Tom Courtenay as Glashier’s senile father. But a story that should have soared was foolishly self-grounded before it even left the earth. The most amazing thing of all about The Aeronauts is that it was ever cut loose in this misconceived condition.

My Take on the National Treasures

Screen Shot 2019-11-04 at 10.50.09 AMI needed a little distance to be able to talk rationally about the World Champion Washington Nationals. Or maybe I just needed to recover from the shock of the miracle they pulled off. Ten games out of first with a 19-31 record on the morning of May 23rd after their arson squad bullpen surrendered six runs to the Mets in the bottom of the 8th the night before, they went 86-43 the rest of the way, including the postseason, for a .667 winning percentage.

No one admits they saw this coming—except me.

The weekend of August 23-25, I watched their entire three-game series at Wrigley Field against the Cubs—who were also a good team embedded in a pennant race. The Nats won all three games, on hostile turf, and made Chicago look like amateurs. Fresh from crushing the Pirates in Pittsburgh by scores of 11-1 and 7-1, they took the first two Wrigley games fairly easily by 9-3 and 7-2 scores, then in the Sunday game, to quote a line Bill James once used about the 1985 champion Royals, they played “like they had pepper in their jockstraps”. They took a 1-0 lead and the Cubs tied the game. They took a 2-1 lead and the Cubs tied the game again. They took a 5-2 lead and the Cubs tied the game again, before they finally scored two in the 11th to win the game in extras. Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto went a combined 7-for-11.

I took to Twitter immediately afterward and predicted that if the Nationals faced the Dodgers in the playoffs, they could beat them. A number of first responders said I was insane, but I had seen what this team could do—on the road against a contender—and more than anything sensed a relentless winning chemistry I had yet to feel from the Dodgers in any of their recent postseasons.

Two Labor Day weekends ago, I sat through a rain-drenched doubleheader at Nats Park with my brother. It was also against the Cubs and they won both games, but it was obvious at the time that much of the crowd and the media were fixated on What Bryce Was Doing, meaning “best player on the team” Bryce Harper, who went off to Philadelphia and a gigunda contract in the off-season. Bryce had amazing talent but also spells of lazy selfishness, and seemed to me to be a distraction in the clubhouse. With him finally leaving, it’s easy to see how the team could come come together in a new atmosphere guided by laid-back new skipper Dave Martinez. And because national baseball broadcasts are obsessed with Red Sox/Yankee, Dodgers/Giants and Cubs/Cards matchups to the detriment of most other teams, it’s easy to see why “nobody knew” how good Rendon and Soto were, keeping the club under the radar and helping them focus on the ultimate prize.

I have also been drawn to the team for personal Expos reasons. The Nats franchise, as most of you know, was born in 1969 north of the border, where I watched them play numerous times in their late ‘70s and early ‘80s heydays. Screwed out of a postseason appearance by the 1994 strike, when baseball play ended on August 11th with the Expos holding a 74-40 record, it was a nice touch of the Nationals to flip the stylish Montreal “M” on their hats upside down to create the Nationals’ “curly W” once the team moved.

But while the Nats’ “upset” of the Dodgers in the National League Division Series wasn’t exactly a shock, their sweep of the Cardinals to win the pennant certainly was, and their all-road defeat of the really good Houston Astros was beyond belief. Don’t be surprised if we never a witness a World Series won entirely by the away teams ever again.

The Nats hit timely home runs and got great pitching, for sure, but especially in the concluding game, they also made contact and stroked opposite field hits to beat shifts—something precious few players know how to do in these days of launch velocity. It was certainly unfortunate that the delirious Washington D.C. fan base, who went completely out of their minds when the Nats got three runs in the 8th to beat Milwaukee in the Wild Card game, didn’t get to enjoy a home victory in the World Series, but I think they more than made up for it on their weekend of parading and partying.

So did their ace hurler Max Scherzer, shown below dancing with fans in a local bar. If nothing else, the 2019 Nationals may be the most likeable, curse-defeating bunch of guys to ever walk our green fields.

My New Twitter Hero

The current presidency is such a daily train wreck that it’s become relatively easy to vent about it. Coming up with posts or tweets about Trump, though, that are compact and consistently hilarious is tough to do, and I’m happy to share a few selections from a devout anti-Trumper who has made his Tweets a virtual art form.

I had never heard of Jeff Tiedrich until the last six months or so, but doing a bit of research discovered he’s publisher of the well-known lefty Smirking Chimp web site, likes to play guitar on occasion, and looks a little like a good friend of mine who also happens to be named Jeff.

But his tweets! At least twice a day he gives me belly laughs and eases my pain over the present state of this country. Ever hear the expression, “Someday when this is over we’ll sit around and have a good laugh.”? Well, while we still can, I’m all for laughing now. Take it away, Mr. Tiedrich! (the Aug. 30th selection is my current favorite)…

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The Unfortunate Story of Us

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 9.44.19 AMOkay. I know I run the risk of being called unhip, out of touch, behind the times, or the worst and most tired insult of all: an old guy on a porch. I don’t care. Jordan Peele’s Us is one of the most overhyped films in recent memory, and in my longtime favorite genre of horror, a stunningly missed opportunity.

And this is coming from someone who found Peele’s Get Out original, funny, scary and hugely entertaining. Peele poured his heart and soul into that Oscar-winner, and the result was a cleverly conceived comment on race relations and brilliantly executed story that pays off even more with each viewing. With Us, Peele seemingly wanted to do a horror film that was more profound, on a larger scale, with metaphorical threads running throughout, with no easy answers to plenty of baffling questions. He may have succeeded in doing that, but along the way forgot to include the entertainment factor.

I found the movie to be an absolute mess, a ghoulash of influences and conceits from so many classic horror movies that they overwhelm everything you’re watching and leave the viewer artistically and emotionally detached.

For the first half hour, I was engaged with the movie big time, but as soon as the “shadow family” showed up in the Wilsons’ remote country driveway to launch a non-stop home invasion torture party, I was bored in a matter of minutes. By the time a second shadow family was breaking into the house of the Wilsons’ good friends and murdering them, I was ready to exit the theater. Without any kind of setup for the horrific “turning point”, without any explanation or even hint of what might be going on, I did not find myself caring enough about the Wilsons or to even be scared for them.

By the time the movie finally ends—at least a half hour too late—we’re subjected to some far-fetched “solution” involving an underworld of shadow figures, hundreds of rabbits, fire, and Hands Across America. Dude, this is supposed to be a horror movie; why are you obligated to give us Stanley Kubrick on a bad day? What’s sad is that Get Out’s script worked so damn well; the only excuse I can think of for this travesty was that Peele was rushed to produce another big hit on the quick and shoved the screenplay into production without running it by someone who could have suggested a few useful revisions.

I’ve always found that the best horror stories are often the simplest. An unforgettable one from last year that not enough people saw, A Quiet Place, starred Emily Blunt and real-life husband John Krasinksi in a story about a family hiding in a country house, unable to make any noise that would attract a race of killer aliens that hunt by sound. Even though we never learned why the aliens were even there, the movie was claustrophobic and gripping from start to finish.

Or take my favorite ghost story, the original version of The Haunting made by Robert Wise in 1963 and based on the Shirley Jackson novel. The first five minutes of the film show and tell you why the huge, isolated house in upper New England is haunted. Then we meet the characters, particularly emotionally vulnerable Eleanor (Julie Harris), and as she begins to have a nervous breakdown while investigating the house with her team, we find ourselves slowly drowning in her fears.

Peele should have taken a lesson from these other films rather than just borrowing elements from them—or even from Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, in which the entire narrative is seen through the eyes of the main character so you’re wondering throughout if the horrors are real or a product of the protagonist’s mind. If he had stripped the story of Us down to Lupita Nyong’o’s traumatic childhood memory where she thought she saw her doppelganger on a Santa Cruz boardwalk and kept the entire story from her point of view with only her evil, “tethered” other showing up at the house, it may have been less broad a concept but the final twist would have still worked, and it would have been a far more scary and powerful movie.

There are so few great horror films now—this might be the first “serious” one since The Exorcist to earn a Best Picture nomination—that one with even a shred of originality is lauded like it’s the second demonic coming. Other than its fine directing and acting, I found Us to be a disjointed, sluggish disappointment, with stunningly poor execution of a good creepy idea that did not need to become a half-baked metaphorical statement.

The Kiosk

mcdonalds-kioskSometimes when I’m rushing to get to work and haven’t had time for a proper breakfast at home, I’ll stop at a fast food place near the office to nab a small, improper one. But the other day I walked in a McDonald’s that had apparently been recently remodeled, and found myself staring at an “ordering kiosk”.

I instantly rebelled.

It isn’t that I’m averse to using new technologies to make my life easier. (Remember fast-forwarding to a movie scene on a VHS tape? Standing in line for fifteen minutes at a bank on your lunch hour to deposit a check?) But one of the joys of stopping at a McDonald’s at 7:45 in the morning has been ducking inside to avoid the nine cars in the drive-thru line, then purchasing and getting my to-go order in less than two minutes.

Per usual, there was practically no one waiting to order inside this particular McDonald’s—just me and a sketchy, possibly homeless guy in front of me wanting a coffee. The young woman working the register, in an attempt to share the wonders of modern push-button kiosk use with Sketchy Guy, had to come out from behind the counter, walk him through the dizzying amount of steps he had to go through to buy his coffee on the kiosk board, then return to her place at the register. It was absurd.

“Hey, do I have to use that thing?” I asked the woman, “Because I really prefer to talk to people.” She gave it some thought, maybe afraid of being reprimanded by her boss or an invisible but all-seeing McDonald’s board of directors, then quickly shook her head. “THANK you,” I told her, and placed my order at the register. “There’s just too much of this automated stuff in the world already.”

I mean, there really is. I tried to place a take-out order at a local Thai joint the other day on the phone, something I’d done with them numerous times, and instead was transferred to some kind of multi-eatery food ordering call center. Whenever I call a customer service number and get a friendly robot (which is basically all the time now), I hit the “O” button for an operator as quick as possible in search of human contact. While I’m waiting to talk to a living being, the robot will still try to steer me to a web site rather than keep me on hold, but many times the question or matter I have really needs to be discussed, not reduced to a handful of keyword responses. Social media has succeeded in making us less conversant than ever, and I’d rather not contribute to speeding the decline.

McDonald’s is saying that their new kiosks will “speed up” the ordering process, but I saw no evidence of this the other morning with just two of us in line. What if there were twenty people and half of them were kids or simply kiosk-challenged? Wouldn’t it become something like the cluster of confusion in front of many mass transit ticket machines that have caused me to occasionally miss trains?

No, the only benefit to McDonald’s I can see with these kiosks is finding a new way for the company to eliminate human employees. For that reason alone, I intend to fight them until they drag me away from the cold, dead counter.

The White Album, Juggled

Beatles

Back in 1968, I had a friend who was a Beatles lunatic. He owned six copies of Sgt. Pepper, three of which he never opened. And the day the Beatles’ White Album hit Springfield, Mass we were taking the bus downtown to stand outside the door of Kresge’s Department Store and purchase the very first copies.

We played the thing over and over again in his bedroom the entire weekend. Any new Beatles album at that time was a gift from above, but this double creation was so bizarre and unique and filled with tunes you couldn’t get out of your head that it seemed like a work that was beyond art.

Fifty years later, I find myself strangely unimpressed with the White Album. My current best friend who is older than me recently called it “complete shit.” I wouldn’t go that far, but in my mind it doesn’t come close to Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road, Rubber Soul, or Revolver. As a collection of great individual songs showcasing each Beatle’s talents, it totally works. But there’s an erratic, meandering quality to the thing that gives it a show-offy quality, as if they were saying, “Concept album? Who needs a concept? Here we are just being our brilliant selves and aping every musical genre imaginable!” Even the stark, minimalist cover, though innovative, smelled of arrogance.

But I’m here to tell you I’ve now solved my biggest issue with the White Album: the order of its songs. Going from surf rock to a breathy ballad to hard blues to music hall ditty to acoustic fluff to Ringo’s whatever makes for a very disjointed and directionless experience. So I recently took the tracks and re-ordered them by tempo and intensity, going from soft and quiet to wild and deafening, and the result is an album that builds and builds and elevates your senses along with it.

Honestly, try this at home:

1. Long, Long, Long
2. Julia
3. Blackbird
4. I’m So tired
5. Mother Nature’s Soon
6. Dear Prudence
7. I Will
8. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
9. Cry Baby Cry
10. Piggies
11. Martha My Dear
12. Yer Blues
13. Honey Pie
14. Happiness is a Warm Gun
15. Rocky Raccoon
16. Revolution 1
17. Don’t Pass Me By
18. Glass Onion
19. Buffalo Bill
20. Sexy Sadie
21. Savoy Truffle
22. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
23. Everybody’s Got Something to Hide
24. Birthday
25. Back in the U.S.S.R.
26. Helter Skelter
27. Good Night

I nuked Why Don’t We Do It in the Road? and Revolution 9 because they’re complete shit, and left Good Night at the end because it’s still a perfect coda. Not sure how you’ll feel about the songs in this order, but I have found it makes the White Album ten times better.

Hell, if I could message George Martin about this I would.

A Perfect Movie Organism

alien1979theatricalreleNext year marks the 40th anniversary of the greatest sci-fi film ever. Or at least, the greatest one in my book.

I’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey a number of times, often under the influence of assorted imbibements. George Pal’s 1960 version of The Time Machine was my favorite movie growing up, and the Star Wars franchise has provided a lot of funtertainment. But the film I keep returning to again and again for aesthetic and psychological reasons that are so primal and deep they’re difficult to grasp—is Ridley Scott’s original Alien.

I recorded the slightly longer Director’s Cut version of the 1979 film on my DVR recently, and weirdly, have watched it a half dozen times in the last two months. Needless to say, it gets better with every viewing. But what is its pull? On the surface, it’s a bare bones concept that barely qualifies as science fiction: space mining crew investigates signal on distant planet, accidentally allows monstrous alien creature to board their ship and kill nearly everyone. Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett had a scary B-picture in mind when they sold their script to producers Walter Hill, David Giler, and Gordon Carroll at Fox. But with Ridley Scott’s masterful direction entwined with the late H. R. Giger’s creepy-beyond-belief concept art, a haunting, gorgeous score from Jerry Goldsmith and one of the best casting jobs ever, the film is a gripping, endlessly fascinating nightmare that puts its sinewy arms around you and won’t let go. Still more frightening than any space film ever made, it’s also UNLIKE any space film ever made.

The tag line the Fox publicists finally settled on was an instant classic: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” In its womb-like art direction and quiet, measured approach, the sense of isolation in space permeates every moment—beginning with this dialogue-free introduction to the towing ship Nostromo:

The seven crew members emerge from their cryogenic cocoons to enjoy a communal breakfast before learning they’re not even close to Earth, and it’s in this scene where the true genius of Alien is on display. These are not the zombied astronauts from 2001, the cartoony heroes from Star Wars, or even the obnoxious jarheads from subsequent Alien sequels. These are genuine blue collar people who happen to be working their daily jobs in outer space. Watch this clip and check out the concerns and attitudes of Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto. They could just as easily be on a graveyard shift at a Monsanto plant.

Stanton later said that Scott wrote out a biographical sketch for his character that ran five to six pages, including how many missions he’d been on, how he got along with his parents, etc. None of that info was used in the film, of course, but it gave Stanton embedded feelings that infused his smart-alecky character. Sigourney Weaver, in a later interview, praised Scott’s vision, which is that “space is a real place: filthy, greasy, and grimy.” Hardly the cold, antiseptic environments present in many a science fiction film. In the first ten minutes, we feel like we know every one of these characters, and like spending time with virtually all of them. Which makes the subsequent horrors all the more affecting.

The now-famous scene of the alien creature birth-bursting out of John Hurt’s stomach while at dinner is not just a thoroughly shocking moment that caused audience members at a Dallas preview to flee to the lobby and bathrooms to vomit, but a simple, dynamic plot point that sends the entire story smashing into a wall. Oddly, while it’s the absolute definition of the “first turning point” in dramaturgy terms that normally occurs a half hour in, this one falls dead center in the middle of the film. The second half basically becomes a “ticking clock”, as the crew tries to find and eliminate the creature while it’s gradually hunting them. Scott’s decision to show as little of the alien creature as possible adds to the characters’ terror and sense of isolation, and makes the experience very scary for us. What little we do see of the alien is so ghastly it lets our darkest imaginations run wild. And as the tension mounts, as they are throughout the film, the performances are pitch perfect:

After a brilliant plot twist that reveals Ian Holm’s Ash character to be a company-embedded robot with a hidden agenda to bring the alien home at all costs, the final third of the movie goes into complete overdrive, a breathless hide-and-seek game between Weaver’s Ripley character and the beast, with the imminent self-destruction of the ship providing a second ticking clock. Add to that sped-up camera work, shooting steam machines and strobe lights, and the finale comes as close to a mix of terror and sexuality as you’re likely to experience. After the climax and post-climax, we’re left with heroine Ripley back in her cryo-chamber, drifting back to sleep with her cat, the audience finally safe again.

On every single level, Alien works, even with models and miniatures employed instead of CGI, even with computer interfaces no more advanced than early Commodores. As Ash’s robot head utters before it’s blow-torched, the alien is a “perfect organism…I admire its purity.” I’ll say the same for this incredible, timeless film.