Movie Review: Russian Ark (Russia, 2002)

I’m sure you’ve heard the basics of this film. One long, single take of a walk through the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and Russian history. The techical achievement is amazing, but for me the historical element was very minor. Sure, there were scattered references to historical figures and events, but they were in no real order. Nor was the movie a guided tour of the Hermitage.  If there is a plot or a message, it’s that museums serve as repositories of civilization.

The whole thing was intended to come across as a dream – and it does that extremely well.

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Baseball Families

A little while ago, Joe Posnanski had a fun article on Hall-of-Fame fathers who had sons in the Major Leagues.

He looked at WAR (wins above replacement) to see which sons had the best careers. I wondered “What if you looked at entire families, and went with total WAR?” That sounded like a fun little project…

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Random Thoughts on the 2015 All-Star Game

Pete Rose did pretty well in the pre-game show. A little work on knowing when to stop talking and let the other guys speak, and he’ll be OK. He’s got a wealth of baseball knowledge, and is a fine raconteur.

The “Franchise Four” was a pretty neat idea. Rather odd comparing the young expansion teams to the “classic” franchises. Evan Longoria is a very good player, but he’s no Mike Schmidt. But every team does have players to be proud of.

So, Nolan Ryan’s a “Franchise Four” with three teams! Hmm!!!

To those complaining about the selections: This was done via a fan vote. For all the problems with that method, keep in mind that the results will probably be forgotten before the season is out. Sure, you could simply pick the four players with the highest career WAR over their time with the team, but where’s the fun in that?

Same thing goes for the “Greatest Living Legends”….

Mike Trout reminds me of Johnny Mize or Ted Kluszewski. Not just the skills, but the clean-cut, square-jawed, wholesome good looks.

Johnny Mize, Mike Trout, Ted Kluszewski

Johnny Mize, Mike Trout, Ted Kluszewski

By the way, that home run of his was no “monster blast” (like McCutchen’s upper deck shot later in the game). It traveled something like 340-350 feet. Would have been caught in center field… Heck, it would have been caught in right center (370′ to the wall).

In a pitching-heavy era like the present, a low-scoring game is to be expected. Makes for somewhat dull viewing, unfortunately. 24 of the 54 outs were recorded via the strikeout.

Speaking of strikeouts, did anyone else notice that when Jacob deGrom struck out the side in the 6th on 10 pitches, not one of the batters so much as made contact? Looking, looking, swing and miss. Looking, looking, outside, swing and miss. Three swings and misses.

A three-run lead going into the bottom of the seventh, with plenty of top-notch pitching arms available? And all of the big bats for the NL already out of the lineup? Yeah, it’s pretty much over.

While it’s nice to win, the All-Star Game MVP Award is probably the least significant of all the pieces of hardware a player can get. It’s the equivalent of a “Player of the Game” award – the kind where the local radio station gives you a free dinner for giving them a post-game interview. Yeah, there are a lot of great names in the list of winners. But that’s simply because the players in an All-Star Game are already likely to be great players. There’s more luck than talent involved. The list of winners includes such legendary players as Jeff Conine, Garrett Anderson, and Terry Steinbach….

On Short Films

Presumably coming soon to a theater near you is the latest attempt at comedy from Adam Sandler, an homage to early video games called Pixels. Astute fans of pop culture may recall an episode of Futurama that had a segment where the Earth was invaded by video game creatures – but that’s not the source of this movie’s theme.

You’ll have to go back to 2010, to a short film by Patrick Jean….

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The 2015 All-Stars

The voting has closed for this year’s Baseball All-Star Game. But even while it was still open, there was a lot of chatter about What’s Wrong With The Voting. It’s nothing new. Fans always gripe about both the voting and the selection process. Being able to complain is part of the fun. One of the lesser complaints is that every team is required to have a representative on the rosters. Often, this means that a “clearly deserving” player is left out. However, when you get right down to it, every team has at least one player who deserves to be an All-Star.

Without further ado, here are the best players on each team.

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BOOK REVIEW: Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution

by Thomas P. Slaughter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

Pity the poor high school teacher of American History. They have so much required material to cover, along with an assortment of topics mandated by various outside agencies, that they cannot possibly cover everything, much less make what they do cover interesting.

I know from my own education (way back in the Mists of Time – the 1980s, to be precise), that when it came to American history we were briefed on the colonies in Jamestown and Plymouth – and then suddenly it was a century and a half later, and the Revolutionary War was starting in Boston. Slaughter attempts to rectify this omission.

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Movie Review: A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)

Usually, when someone tells you a movie “has everything”, they are either lying or the movie tries to “have everything”, but it fails utterly at putting them together in a rational and balanced manner. A Chinese Ghost Story (literally: “The Ethereal Spirit of a Beauty”) has romance, action, horror, and comedy – and actually does integrate all of them successfully.

Ning Tsai-Shen (Leslie Cheung), a novice tax collector, arrives in a small town to carry out his work. Unsurprisingly, no-one is willing to give him a place to stay, so he ends up spending the night in a nearby ruined temple. There, he meets Taoist swordsman Yen Che-Hsia (Ma Wu), who tries to warn him away. But with nowhere else to go, he holes up in the ruins. There he meets the beautiful Nieh Hsiao-Tsing (Joey Wang), with whom he falls in love. Unfortunately, Hsiao-Tsing is a ghost, enslaved to a demon who uses a group of young women ghosts to sustain her by sucking the life out of men….

The gods must watch over novice tax collectors, since Tsai-Shen manages to somehow escape one peril after another. For example, on his arrival in the town, he is shoved up against a rack of scroll charms. They stick to his wet robe, causing him to be accused of theft. But that night in the temple, when he meets Hsiao-Tsing, it turns out that the fresh ink on the scrolls stained the back of his robe…and the charms were for Protection Against Ghosts….

Can this odd couple overcome the gulf between them and find happiness? Will Tsai-Shen’s luck run out, and have him become another victim of the spirits and undead inhabiting the temple? Will the demon find out that Hsiao-Tsing is betraying her by helping Tsai-Shen? Is Che-Hsia’s “Taoist Rap” one of the most awesome things ever committed to film? And just what the heck is the deal with that tongue?

The action sequences are amazingly well executed, the romance between Cheung and Wang is believable (and the pair are both easy on the eyes), the comic moments are deftly handled, and the scary parts are done very well. The artifice does show through a bit in some of the demonic scenes, but to Western viewers, the unfamiliarity with Chinese supernatural concepts is enough to compensate.

About the only thing wrong with this movie that I can see is that it is widely regarded as the epitome of Hong Kong cinema. So if this is your first exposure to that genre, you will have to live with the disappointment that no matter how much you look, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything better.

NOTE: There is an animated version of the same tale from 1997 (by the same producer), two sequels, and another movie (presumably a remake) of the same name from 2011. I haven’t seen any of them.

ANOTHER NOTE: Chinese names can be troublesome for a Westerner to get right. Forgive this humble “round-eye” if I have miswritten any of them.

Book Reveiw: Operation Nemesis

Operation Nemesis:
The Assassination Plot that Avenged the Armenian Genocide
Eric Bogosian
Little, Brown and Company, 2015

This year marks another centennial; one that is going with very little memorial or commemoration, or even much more than a passing nod in the general press. In 1915, using World War I military operations against the Russian Empire as a cover, the Ottoman Empire began a program to systematically wipe out Armenians in their territory.

For various reasons, many countries still haven’t gotten around to calling it what it was: genocide. It’s not like Armenia is really going around demanding reparations or punishment for those responsible. After all, it was a century ago and everyone responsible is dead. In fact, some of those deaths were the direct result of the Armenians themselves.

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The Face on the Twenty Dollar Bill

You may have been noticing a few modest news articles and op-ed pieces about a proposal to take Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill and replace him with a woman. Thanks to the First Amendment’s protection of the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, a petition has been presented to the White House to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 in time for the centennial of the 19th Amendment – the one that gave women the right to vote.

The petitioners’ arguments are varied. While I understand and sympathize with their effort, I believe that if they really want to celebrate Women’s Suffrage, they really blew it.

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Final Thoughts on Eurovision 2015

The kitsch / camp / cheese factor that the contest has been known for seems to have vanished this year. There were no truly bizarre costumes or “WTF?” staging. The UK’s Electro Volta did have light-up costumes, but given their music video, something like that was to be expected. Same thing for the “air violin” woman with Slovenia’s Maraaya.

Even though there are breaks in the show where one could insert commercials or sponsorship announcements, I don’t think we’ll ever see it on TV in the US. No network, even a cable one, is going to want to sacrifice four hours on a Saturday afternoon without being able to get advertising dollars; and the European Broadcasting Union is not going to alter their format for a country that isn’t part of the festivities anyway.

People take it WAAAAY too seriously. Oh no! Did a malfunctioning smoke machine hurt Nina Sublatti’s (Georgia) chances? France says their poor showing is an “injustice” and are thinking of withdrawing next year!* How could the juries have scored Italy so low when the song was so awesome? An Australian juror knows one of the people who wrote Russia’s entry!!! SCANDAL!  Jeez. It’s just a song contest. The biggest in the world, to be sure, but still a song contest. It doesn’t decide which countries get to be part of the EU or anything really important. If you really want something to complain about, ask yourself why San Marino (population 32,000) and Malta (population 446,000) have as much influence on the results as France (population 64 million) and Germany (population 80 million). Chill out, and instead of whining about the unfairness of it all, just go out and buy the music from your favorite artists.

* The performance was very impressive, and the song in and of itself was quite good, but it probably wasn’t a good idea to bring a song that was essentially a memorial to war dead to Europe’s biggest party….

While it is OK to make a little fun of the singers, I wonder if the UK would do better if they weren’t so snarky and condescending about the whole thing.

All the songs – even those that don’t make it to the final, or those that get the dreaded “Nil Points”, are actually pretty good. Even at their worst, they are still worth a listen or two.