Moneyball (the movie)

Considering how much of a fan of our national pastime I consider myself to be, considering I lived in the Bay Area for 10 years, and considering I now work for MLB, I really should have seen this movie in a theater when it came out. I have no logical explanation for why I didn’t. It’s stupid, see.

There’s really nothing like a great sports movie. Sports are inherently cinematic, with all of the key elements built right into the game, and baseball has the added plus (or minus, depending on how you look at it) of not relying on a clock, so the conflict/climax/resolution could come at any time within the nine or more innings. It’s beautiful. Baseball also has the bonus of infinitely, mind-bogglingly more stats to analyze than any other sport, precisely because of its timelessness and rigid structure, so the behind-the-scenes takes a wholly different shape from that of, say, football. I’m not sure there could’ve been a book or movie (or team or sport) that could have made stats so goddamn thrilling.

It really is crazy to think that, while I was off in Giants land in the early 2000s, watching Barry Bonds smash dingers and JT Snow save toddlers’ lives and Robb Nen revitalize Deep Purple and Rich Aurilia steal my heart forever, there was something completely different happening across the Bay. And I didn’t know about it because my house happened to be an orange and black house, and our TV received the feed that contained Duane (not Glen) Kuiper.

Once I started to get to know A’s fans in college and thereafter, I realized how truly shafted Oakland was in MLB. While we had our beautiful new stadium, broken in during that heartbreaking 2002 World Series (which, yes, I’m still bitter about, despite three wins since). And that’s what makes Billy Beane and Peter Brand’s feat so much more amazing — they worked so incredibly hard to cobble together a lineup that they truly believed in, with a fraction of the budget of most other teams, which pointed them in the direction of statistical success. And they did succeed.

The casting of this movie is superb. Not only were former professional ballplayers (like Royce Clayton and Stephen Bishop) tapped to play other ballplayers (Miguel Tejada and David Justice, respectively), but the Hollywooders in this movie also stripped away their Hollywoodiness and got down to Oakland business. It was awe-inspiring to see the stadium and the team — that I had just started to get to know — glorified in cinema, with the faces of Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt and Jonah Hill making it so.

PSH and Pratt, in particular, blended right in. Of course, we all know that PSH could play just about any role, and morph into just about any character, but it’s delightful to know that “baseball manager” was on that list. His face, his build, the way he carried himself, it’s like he’d been in the dugout this whole time. And Chris Pratt — who could be a long-lost Giambi brother, in my opinion, or even a proto-Mark Canha — exemplified that certain glamour of an almost-but-not-quite-forgotten ballplayer, the one whose humility had overtaken his ego long ago. As Scott Hatteburg, he was terrific.

I wrote down a note to myself when watching this movie, and I’m not sure if it was a quote, or something I came up with on my own. I assume the former, because Aaron Sorkin wrote the script and I really can’t give myself this much credit: “The key is finding the happy balance. It’s a numbers game until you start waiting for walks.” Not a particularly deep thought, but a simple one in this game. It’s very comforting knowing that, behind all of the analysis, there was so much soul to the A’s. Not only did the numbers tell a story, but they boosted the franchise’s confidence in its own players, which in turn boosted the players’ own confidence and sent the A’s surging into September.

I’ve gotta read the book. Go baseball.

Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.

I didn’t write much down in anticipation of this blog post when I was reading Rob Delaney’s memoir, Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. It wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it, or didn’t find anything relevant or memorable to note. Quite the opposite, actually. Everything Delaney shares is just that, memorable and relevant. It’s also highly contextual, so sharing it here in little tidbits would sort of detract from the value and humor and beauty of his writing.

Instead, I’ll just wax poetic about Delaney for a moment, and maybe include some of the tidbits I did write down. He’s such a special type of comedian and writer, the rare one who can do great things with pen and paper and even greater ones with a microphone and a willing audience. He’s got this Hot Dad vibe about him, which he’s completely aware of and plays up, but his comedy is so much more complex and intelligent and fucked up than you could ever imagine or expect. He’s gained perspective since being an alcoholic (p. 35: “I figured it was better for her sanity to believe that her son was a drunk klutz than an actively suicidal daredevil with the stunt proficiency of a trash bag filled with blueberry yogurt”) and nearly killing himself (p. 127: “Dementia would certainly ride well on the thought grooves established by depression”), and now since being married with a bevy of what I presume will be very hairy male children (p. 175: “The way I see it, my new primary function on this earth is simply to die before my son”). His trains of thought veer in directions you’ve never considered before. To say he is honest would be horribly insulting, because his level of honesty and confidence and vulnerability haven’t really been reached by other comedians. He’s at once eloquent and nonsensical, perverse and sensitive, brilliant and silly.

I first saw him at Cobb’s in San Francisco, and most recently at the Bell House in Brooklyn. Both times he utterly delighted and surprised me, and reading his book is like getting to experience that all over again, at your own pace. He’s a furiously hard worker, and I can’t imagine anyone consuming his comedy or writing and not being entertained or enlightened.

Delaney 2016! Just kidding, #ImWithHer. (He is too.)

Runaway

I forget how or why I decided I needed to read some Alice Munro, but I remember thinking she seemed like the kind of person I might take a chance on identifying with. Runaway is a very nice, surprising collection of essays, with individual pieces that I found moving and relatable, but on the whole, I’m not sure Munro is for me.

Munro has a way of building a beautiful world, dropping in incredibly sympathetic characters and then saturating that world with those characters’ crunchiest, least appealing traits. I’m with her when she introduces the characters, and even when she lets us get to know them a bit, but then she has this tendency to layer in details of the emotionally-unimportant or visually-repulsive variety.

I’ll first share a few of those pleasant, world-building snippets. Here are a couple simple, specific descriptions of the houses in a small town: “… with a yard full of firewood, lumber and tires, cars and parts of cars, broken or usable bikes, toys, all the things that have to sit outside when people are lacking garages or basements” and “… most of the houses are like those in the woods, each one in its own wide cluttered yard, as if they have been built within sight of each other only accidentally” (p. 50). See, that’s nice. This one is, too, even if it sounds a touch outdated: “That was what a girl should be, to be fallen in love with” (p. 164).

But Munro can go dark, too. At one point she describes rape as “being broken into,” which is at once beautiful and horrifying. And this passage on adultery, from p. 174, sneaks up on you: “And she thought it must be a relief to Maury to be driving down the highway by himself, rearranging his impressions of his Grace so that he could stay wholeheartedly in love with her.”

Now, onto the characters. Munro favors solitary women, to whom I’m generally able to relate, by bringing us into their vulnerability. “Tricks,” for example, in part details a woman’s attempt to spend the evening alone, treating herself to dinner and such. And “Trespasses” really nails how cliques inflict pain with exclusivity. Munro is also not afraid to extend her characters’ stories as long as necessary. “Juliet” is the focus of three of the short stories in Runaway, and “Soon” provides the immediate sequel to “Chance” that I didn’t even know I wanted. “Silence,” which wraps up the trilogy, is perhaps the most heartbreaking, since it deals with Juliet’s estrangement from her daughter. By the end of it, you feel completely connected to this fictional person’s life, and you gain a skeletal but profound appreciation for that part of motherhood that no one really talks about — communication.

So, finally, the annoying stuff. Munro leans on a comma-heavy stream-of-consciousness crutch, which I found difficult to read. And her blatant worship of the Canadian version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is rampant. Those two grievances can be summed up in one passage, actually: “Juliet knew that, to many people, she might seem to be odd and solitary — and so, in a way, she was” (p. 56). Here’s another one that made my skin crawl: “As she was herself by now, and Penelope, on the steps, even more so” (p. 98). To me, these types of ugly sentences completely negate the elegant ones she constructed elsewhere in the book. They’re like rough drafts inserted into the final version, and they took me completely out of the scene and story and into Munro’s possibly-neurotic brain. It’s enough having the stories themselves center around the aforementioned MPDG — but to have the narrator channeling it, too? I’m against it. I don’t think touchy-feely-type phraseology does any favors for the characters’ likability. It doesn’t add credible flaws to the characters; instead, it discredits Munro’s narrative voice. She couldn’t resist adding in-text footnotes that were better left unsaid, and now the stories are slathered with this mumbling, emotional excess.

Munro overshares without the commas, too. On p. 319, she attempts to summarize an entire gender, but it ends up falling incredibly flat within the context of the story: “Plenty of men never had a word to say about their lives, beyond when and where. But there were others, more up-to-date, who gave these casual-sounding yet practiced speeches in which it was said that life was indeed a bumpy road, but misfortunes had pointed the way to better things, lessons were learned, and without a doubt joy came in the morning.” This passage is clearly based on one person who existed in Munro’s life, and it would be much more effective as the character’s memory, rather than a sweeping generalization about men. I think it further discredits her voice; while she’s clearly a champion of women, I had a hard time believing this negative, out-of-nowhere stance about men. She seems much smarter than that.

My last complaint is about a paragraph on p. 61 that details what happens in the bathroom stall when a woman is on her period. I’m all for erasing the stigma around menstruation, because it happens to exactly 50% of the population. But Munro combined words in that graf that didn’t need to be combined. I considered bringing you all down with me and writing a couple of those word combinations here, but I’ll spare you, so long as you promise not to think periods are gross, because they’re not. (They are, but only those of us with XX chromosomes can say that.) I wish she would have spared me.

I’m open to reading more Munro, but I’ll need a pretty good argument for it first. For now, though, I’ll respect her female-driven fiction from afar — far south of the Canadian border.

Serpico

Only Al Pacino can play a real person more as himself than as … themself.

Pacino interprets Serpico as some sort of Italian hippie, a guy who’s seen more than you’ll ever see but also has a huge teddy-bear dog named Alfie. A cop who can play the game, but doesn’t know when to stop playing it. A man with sex appeal and psychotic tendencies. Whatever the magic combo is, it works — maybe an obvious statement, considering how nominated and awarded the film was when it came out in 1973. But the fact that its intrigue — and the true story behind it — still holds up is a testament to Pacino’s performance and Sidney Lumet’s direction.

Of course, because I’ve been lax to update this here blog, the details of the movie have escaped me, as I watched it a few months ago. What’s stayed with me, though, is how un-melodramatic the movie was, despite its premise. Serpico transitions from regular cop to plainclothes detective, dealing with unfathomable amounts of stress as he gathers information about corruption within his own department. He struggles to convey his emotions about it to the women in his life, who aren’t particularly important to the film (and maybe not to him) but seem relatively normal, given how weird he is. Yet none of those struggles seem out of his grasp — Serpico the man, the character, whomever, is always in control, somehow, even though he might given the lax, unpredictable impression that he isn’t. He can handle himself just fine — it’s the rest of the world that he finds challenging.

Serpico is a magnificent movie, and maybe the first one where I thought Dustin Hoffman might have rubbed off on him instead of the other way around. The signature Pacino madness is there, but with a bit of Hoffman’s soft lovability. The result is something you should watch, if you haven’t already.

10 Cloverfield Lane

After receiving a recommendation to see this movie, a friend and I made the pretty quick decision to Nike it. (Just do it.) I hadn’t seen Cloverfield, I knew I was getting outside my comfort zone by watching something potentially terrifying, and … actually, I didn’t know much more than that. It was all a big question mark, but every once in awhile, you have to walk into a movie theater not knowing anything.

I’m so glad I did. 10 Cloverfield Lane is thrilling and suspenseful — not actually horror, which I still am not into — and creative and thought-provoking. It really only has three main characters, and it leaves you as a fly on the wall the entire time, wondering what the hell you’d do in the situation.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Michelle, a woman who gets into a car accident and finds herself in a fallout shelter with Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) and Howard (John Goodman). In the span of an hour and a half, she deals with trust, doubt, survival, pain, fear, triumph and defeat. It’s an intense experience, and while I think the movie could have been drastically different with a different actor in the role, she played the “everywoman” in a way that I’m not sure any other actress could have pulled off. That first adjective I listed, trust, is something that actors seek readily out of their audiences, but she didn’t. She didn’t try to get anyone to like her throughout the course of the movie. Her character was focused on figuring out how she got there, why she was stuck in there and how she was going to get out, and pandering to a paying group of numbskulls was out of her jurisdiction. It felt refreshing, honestly, because in the process of not giving a shit about any of us, she made us like her more. Or she made me like her more, at least.

She also held back a lot, probably on purpose, because showing too many cards in a potential hostage situation is never a good idea — or so I’m told in the movies, anyway. As the movie progresses, we learn just how evil and twisted Howard is — he’s convinced there’s been a chemical outbreak and that everyone above ground is dead — but he’s also incredibly adept at playing mind games and finding just the right wording to keep his captives both incredibly close and at an (un)comfortable distance. You’ve probably never seen John Goodman like this before, and you’ll probably never want to again. He’s a two-face, at once fatherly and caring while also holding Michelle and Emmett’s life in his hands. My movie-going friend made an astute observation about him after we left the theater, which was that evil and right are not mutually exclusive in his case. Not that they are all the time, but he’s a wonderful example of complex, subtle writing. A bad character who draws you in for a reason you’re not even sure about.

Towards the end, the movie adopted some supernatural elements, which I wasn’t expecting. I’ve never been huge into the sci-fi genre, yet after about 10 seconds, I totally bought it. The movie itself already feels like it’s in a supernatural world, given the supposed biohazard outside and the confined nature of the fallout shelter. And besides, Michelle ascends to this level of knowledge at that point that feels almost godlike. She surprises herself with her abilities, her reflexes, her inner power, and it would make sense that supernatural forces were at work alongside her.

Hey, they drew me into the movie theater, anyway. Hope they have the same effect on you, because this one is worth the thrill.

An American in Paris (the movie and the play)

If you haven’t indulged in any format of this lovely work, let me warn you: You’re going to be conflicted.

An American in Paris is a lovely piece of art, any way you consume it, but as a female in the year 2016, I couldn’t help but cringe. (And I’m the type of person who lets anachronisms go, because it’s not like they knew any better when they were making the movies, sheesh!)

The cringing mostly happened whilst watching the movie, which I did in preparation for seeing the play. The movie will make you fall in love with Gene Kelly, no matter your gender or sexual preference. He’s deliciously charming and talented and graceful. Watching him perform throughout the movie, I felt exactly like the woman in the background of this screenshot, which is to say, delirious because my smile was too big. (Here’s the full scene, by the way.)

cafe

Anyway. If you think about Gene Kelly and his character, aspiring artist Jerry Mulligan, too much, that’s when things start to get unsettling. See, Kelly was around 40 when he played Mulligan, and the girl he was going after was … let’s say too young. Lise (Leslie Caron) is beautiful and intriguing and doe-eyed and all that, but the age gap is too great to be sweet. And Mulligan, for all his attempted sweetness, is also pretty damn pushy as he’s courting her. I didn’t feel that Jerry and Lise were in love, because I never really saw them together in a way that made me think so. The entire time they were living in a fantasy — which, yes, is the point of the movie — but their love seemed based on nothing at all. Superficially, though, they seem to have a nice time together.

Meanwhile, the story gets tragic for other characters. Jerry straight-up steals Lise from his friend, Henri (Georges Guetary), who is engaged to her. And he jilts Patricia Clarkson lookalike Milo (Nina Foch), his sugar mama, essentially. And then there’s ol’ Adam (Oscar Levant), because everyone needs a bitter musician friend to boost their ego. Adam was my favorite part of the movie — besides the incredible dancing, the Gershwin tunes and the insane black-and-white party they all attended — because he seemed to be the only one with any clarity and logic to his thinking.

The play clears up a lot of the movie’s ambiguity, though Jerry and Lise’s relationship still seems pretty tenuous. In the Broadway production I saw — which was lovely and mesmerizing in its own way — all three men are after Lise, and we meet Henri’s parents as a way of gaining more insight into her ingenue background. She’s an aspiring dancer in the play, too, and a confirmed Jew who’s forever indebted to Henri’s family for getting her out of a bad spot. She’s got actual loyalty to deal with, rather than an overwhelming sense of proto-MPDG, which seems to be her sole motivation in the movie. Her dilemma of which man to choose — Jerry or Henri, because even though Adam is given a shot, he never really had one in the first place — seems grounded in reality.

So here’s what I’ll say. Both are worth taking in, at the very least for the divine spectacle of choreography to Gershwin soundtrack. You know all these songs, but you may not have known that they were from this movie. They’re timeless, even if the production itself is starting to show its age.