Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"This is the End" Sort of Reviewed

I tried to write a coherent longer form post about this movie, but I really don’t remember it on a scene by scene basis in a way that makes that desirable so I’m just going to drop a few points:

·      Part of the reason that I can’t recall the film in much detail is its structure.  After a brief introduction, the apocalypse begins, and from there we’re mostly stuck with the six main guys in James Franco’s house for the next 75 minutes.  The main artery is a will they or won’t they get back together bromance between Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel.  It works for the most part but I think this group of actors and writers (Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote and directed the film) have told this type of story better in movies like “Superbad” and even “Pineapple Express.”  Other than this the movie is really a string of vignettes with what I imagine is a lot of improvisation that is funny in the moment but not crisp enough to retain in detail. 

·      There’s a real elevation whenever Danny McBride is on screen.  While Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Craig Robinson, and Jonah Hill all play slightly exaggerated versions of themselves, McBride exists in an entirely different reality.  He’s sort of like John Belushi was in “Animal House” in this way.  I think Rogen and Golberg were aware of this because they use McBride sparingly, and it takes a solid half hour for him to get introduced.  His character is the only one who is able to milk any comedic material out of the apocalypse conceit itself since the rest of the actors are playing it more or less straight.  Which brings me too…

·      What was the point of having Rogen play Rogen, Hill play Hill, and etc.  In the beginning there’s some slight fun that is had at the expense of Hill and Franco’s public personas, but then the gimmick is more or less dropped and this becomes a standard survival comedy.  My read its that Rogen and Goldberg made their initial digs at the various guys and then realized that they really didn’t have much left in the tank that wasn’t related to James Franco.  As a favor to him they didn’t pile on and what we got was what we got.  The best use of the novelty is early in "This is the End" that I won't spoiler here.  

Friday, June 14, 2013

Kyle Kendrick Consistently Puts the Phils in the Black

On a team like the Phillies, where most of the roster is constructed with either big money, already proven veterans, or wait and see whether they’ll pan out young players, it’s easy to not appreciate unspectacular but constant performers like Kyle Kendrick.  Kendrick, who I affectionately refer to as KK, a pitcher who many thought was a little lucky when he first came up and posted a sub 4.00 ERA over two thirds of a season, and then subsequently proved that he was the next year when he got completely shelled (5.49 ERA).  The performance was bad enough to get him bounced from the rotation and the majors for all but 26 innings of relief appearances and spot starts in 2009.  Yes, for much of the year Kendrick was relegated to the Phils Triple A affiliate, the Lehigh Iron Pigs.  But then something happened.  In the darkness KK found the light, and like a phoenix from the ashes he arose the following year to post a solid 4.73 ERA.

A word on this.  While Kendrick’s performance was far from spectacular that year he was merely occupying the fifth starter role.  On many teams the fifth starter is a rotating gallery of unpolished rookies, journeyman veterans, and patchwork relievers.  That year the Phillies entered with a starting four of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt.  All that we needed that year was someone to plug the dam every fifth day so as to not embarrass the team, and to allow the rotation to turn over where any one of Halladay, Lee, Hamels, or Oswalt had a much better than not chance of winning their respective game.  Kendrick didn’t make any highlight reels in 2010, but at under a half million dollars salary, Kendrick was better than league average, and didn’t operate to discount the team’s still formidable offense and historically excellent starting pitching.  More than anything he was an asset.

The International Accounting Standards Board defines an asset as “a resource controlled by the enterprise as a result of past events and from which future economic benefits are expected to flow to the enterprise.”  The defining feature of Kendrick’s tenure with the Phillies has been the reliability with which he delivers modest to better than expected results.  He never gets hurt, he takes the ball every fifth day, and he’s consistently gotten better over the course of his career.  These positive attributes are only a part of the equation.  What makes Kendrick such an asset, and what puts him in harsh contrast to the rest of the Phillies roster, is that he is cost-controlled. 

After his turn around season Kyle Kendrick has posted ERAs of 3.22 in 2011 and 3.90 in 2012.  This year he is at 3.22.  The predominant way of quantifying player performance among number oriented analysts is the “wins above replacement” metric that values the number of wins a player contributes over a replacement level player.  A replacement level player can be imagined as a fringe major leaguer.  On the open market some have valued a single win above replacement at five million dollars.  This type of thinking justifies mammoth deals for proven sluggers and elite starters in excess of 20m a year.  An MVP candidate will typically post over 5 WAR giving the player a market value of $25m or so for that year. 

In 2011 Kendrick posted 1.8 WAR, in 2011 1.5 WAR.  This year KK has already accumulated 2.3 WAR after making just thirteen starts on the year.  Extrapolating that out to a 31 start season Kendrick will have been worth 5.5 WAR.  That would give him a market value of $27m give or take this year.  Obviously, this assumes that Kendrick will keep up his pace, but when you consider that he is only earning $4.5m this year you can see that he’s already made good on his contract twice this year.  

This extremely low cost to benefit that Kendrick delivers is in juxtaposition to the rest of the Phils’ roster.  Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee are great pitchers but if they’re not borderline Cy-Young contenders they’re overpaid at $19.5m and $25m respectively this year.  The Ryan Howard contract is an albatross and the Phillies will be stuck paying him ($25m/yr), at least twice what he’s worth, until the end of 2016 (Who knows what he’ll be then?  Collecting SSD perhaps).  Jonathan Papelbon has pitched great since he joined the club, but taking the ball for one inning twice a week just isn’t worth the $13m that we owe him.  Other than Kendrick the only value propositions on the roster are young outfielders Domonic Brown and Ben Revere who will soon earn big money through the league’s arbitration process. 

You’ll be hard pressed to sight a KK jersey walking around Philly this summer, but in a year where the team is still hanging around even though they don’t quite deserve too, it’s evident that Kendrick is a big reason for their moderate success.  Retaining him through the ups and downs of his early career was one of the few smart front office moves of recent years because this asset has paid dividends.  

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Great Gatsby 2D Reviewed

I don’t think it’s a leap to say that the strength of the book was not in the plot or dialogue, the elements that are most directly transferable to the screen, but the prose that Fitzgerald used between the action.  What I remember most is the book’s evocation of the excess of the 1920s, the corresponding social decay, and the futility of trying to reach in to the past and capture lost opportunities. 

Baz Luhrmann, who co-wrote the screenplay with Craig Pearce, tries to inject as much of Fitzgerald’s own words as he can through the creation of an awkward framing device.  The film begins years after the events of the novel with Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway in an asylum where a psychiatrist has asked him to keep a journal to help him cope with the memories of his tragic summer on Long Island.  Through Maguire’s narration of his journal the filmmakers get to include much of the novel’s memorable language in to the film.  The asylum scenes are unnecessary and don’t accomplish anything that a straight narration couldn’t have.

The first fifteen minutes or so are pretty rough.  There’s a manic energy and goofiness to the initial introductions of Nick, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), and Daisy (Carey Muligan) that didn’t quite work for me.  At certain points when the three characters first meet the film seems sped up and the characters have a stop motion animation quality to them that is jarring.  However the effect soon disappears. 

It’s when Tom drags Nick in to the city that the film begins to sizzle.  I know a lot of people will/have written off Luhrmann’s vision of Fitzgerald’s New York as overly synthetic and theatrical, but it works.  Fitzgerald wrote his novel at the height of American indulgence.  Investors were reaping the profits of an overleveraged stock market, despite prohibition alcohol flowed copiously, and the country’s victory in World War I had emboldened a frontier nation to abandon their provincial outposts to conquer the world.  Luhrmann gets this and his vision of this place and time steams of excess and moral decay.

In one of the film’s best sequences, Maguire waits nervously as Edgerton’s Tom beds his mistress Myrtle in a NYC apartment.  Unable to escape Myrtle’s ready-to-go friends, Carraway gives in to the moment and resolves to get drunk.  Just as Maguire takes his first sip from a highball glass, a Kanye West song begins blaring over the soundtrack and the room dissolves around him.  Intoxicated,  the audience through Maguire suddenly gain an omnipotent view of the city.  Families sitting down to dinner, a mixed race couple sharing a moment of passion, a school girl staring out the window wistfully. With Kanye still thumping, Maguire sees himself on the street staring up at himself in the window.  The reserved Carraway has given in to the excitement of this time and place, and Luhrmann’s staging of scenes like this is why his “Gatsby” was worth making.   

A note on the hip hop soundtrack.  I think it works for an adaptation of this book in the year 2013.  To a greater percentage of the likely viewers, hip hop is a stronger signifier of over indulgence, raucous partying, etc. than flapper music from the 1920s. It’s a gimic but it’s a gimic that makes sense given the circumstances. 

Another strength is Dicaprio’s Gatsby.  I like how you can see the seams of his fabricated old money persona from his earliest scenes.  In Gatsby’s first prolonged scene with Carraway, Gatsby gives an elevator speech about his upbringing, then just a scene later a gangster acquitance of Gatsby’s reiterates to Nick the exact same talking points, showing that Gatsby has clearly prepped his gangster buddy to keep up his charade.  Other evidence such as DiCaprio’s dodgy accent illustrate the tragic ‘fake it till you make it’ M.O. that Gatsby utilizes in his pursuit of Daisy. 

So, for the middle hour, or let’s call it seventy-five minutes, the movie really hums.  I was amazed, and for a second I even thought that Luhrmann was going to pull it off, and deliver a unique but definitive version of a seemingly unthinkable novel.

However, sometime after Gatsby has reunited with Daisy, and the plot machinations of inevitable conflict between Gatsby and Tom, as well as Daisy and Tom and Daisy and Gatsby kick in the film goes on autopilot and Luhrmann basically shoots a straight version of the final fifty pages of the book.  I don’t know if it would have been feasible to keep the energy level from the first and second acts up until the end, but if you’ve read the book and know where things are going it becomes kind of tough to stick it out. 

The problem is that the novel is essentially a tragedy about unlikeable people.  Gatsby is delusional and manipulative, histrionics paralyze Daisy, Tom is Tom, and Nick is too passive to engage fully. Fitzgerald’s plot and dialogue in a vaccum doesn’t equate a great screenplay.  Hearing Gatsby, Tom, and Daisy repeat lines like “Tell him you don’t love him!” and “I love you, but I love him too!” over and over again, even by actors as talented as these is not enjoyable in it’s own right.  Having read the book, I know where this is going, and at a certain point I just wanted to see the credits roll so that I could recall the film’s more memorable sequences. 

But at the same time, I can’t imagine how a better film could be made out of this material.  For a majority of the running time, Luhrmann captures the essence of the novel.  Certain key imagery from the book is evoked effectively.  The performances are all good to great.  I don’t know if there’s another gear that Gatsby can throw it in to on film.  

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Schuylkill River Trail: A Ticking Time Bomb?

With sunny days comes the traditional rise in pedestrian, bike, and other traffic to the Schuylkill River Trail.  The trail is a paved recreational path that runs from an access point at Locust Street and extends out of the city in Manayunk.  The trail offers scenic views of the city skyline, Art Museum, and Schuylkill River.   On other blogs and sites such as Reddit, you don’t have to search long to find various debates about what groups use the trailer properly and which don’t.  Those with small children chaste cyclists for speeding through the heavily trafficked Art Museum and Boat House Row portions of the trail at speeds of 20mph and more.  The bikers are quick to rant about the inability of parents to keep their children from running unpredictably across the path.  Runners mostly get a pass because they stick to a predictable path and don’t typically block the trail by traveling in large groups. 

Last year, surreys (sometimes called quadricycles) became available for rental thanks to a partnership between the Philly parks department and Wheels Fun, a national franchise that leases the surreys.  I think the introduction of the surreys to the trail raised serious safety questions from day one.  It’s not unusual to see children, too young to understand right of ways or the dangers inherent in cutting off a rapidly approaching cyclist, swerve unpredictably after a parent lets them take over the driving privileges.  I’ve also seen adults operate the “vehicles” with little regard for those around them.  The surreys are large, as they are capable of seating four across two rows, and weigh anywhere from five to ten times the average weight of a bicycle when operated.  While they only travel at slow speeds, a cyclist colliding with a surrey or a child who is struck by one could be seriously injured.  Fortunately, I haven’t seen a serious accident during my time out on the trail. 

Last week, the city opened a new skate park just east of the Art Museum that is accessed in part from the trail.  The park brings hundreds of skateboarders to an area already heavily utilized by the aforementioned bikers, runners, roller skaters, and surrey renters.   Because the skate park is situated at the top of a hill, skaters can frequently achieve moderate speeds as they exit the park.

Surveying the scene while running this weekend I witnessed several cluster-eff moments.  One sticks out more than the others.  A twenty-something male with his presumed girlfriend or spouse was driving a surrey west along the boathouses.  As he traveled, he began to stand up on to the pedals so as to exert a greater force and achieve more speed.  Losing his balance, he grabbed on to the wheel to gain support.  This caused him to turn the wheel sharply to the right, veering off the path and on to the dirt that ran along the path.  In order to correct himself, he veered to the other direction sending the surrey across his natural lane of travel on the path, and in to opposing traffic.  A cyclist traveling at an otherwise safe speed from the opposite direction was forced to rapidly shift off the trail, and on to the grass running parallel to the lane he was traveling in.  The cyclist was able to reenter the paved portion of the trail, once the surrey passed him.  Just imagine if the cyclist didn’t have the free patch of grass, to avoid the out of control surrey.  If there were kids standing in the grassy area that he was able to avoid the surrey in, the situation could have ended in tears. 

I think this summer we’ll see a breaking point where park officials wise up to the fact that the trail, in many portions only fifteen feet wide, is unsuited for the numbers of people utilizing it for the array of activities that they are. 

A quick fix would be to relocate the station that leases the surreys to West River Drive on the other side of the river, and limit the surrey rentals to use on the Sundays that West River Drive is closed from April to October.  The surreys are a novelty.  I doubt there’s anyone who uses the Schuylkill Trail to ride a surrey, as they do to run, bike, or skate.  Confining their use to a closed off city street so that the other groups can navigate a less chaotic path on the other side of the river makes sense.  Besides, I doubt “surrey money” is going to keep an otherwise closing school open.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Simple But Good Paella Recipe

I'm intimidated by shellfish.  It's not that I won't eat them, in fact I really enjoy them, it's just that I don't really trust myself to cook them properly.  They're also quite expensive.  Therefore I often lean on this simple recipe when I have some extra time to make myself and others dinner.  The recipe can be made without the sausage so that a vegetarian or vegan can enjoy it as well.  The only modifier I would suggest is throwing some chili powder and papirika on the stew just prior to throwing it in the oven.  


  • 2 links hot and/or sweet Italian sausage (about 6 ounces total)
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch-wide strips
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch-wide strips
  • 1 small onion, cut into 1/2-inch wedges
  • 1/2 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3/4 cup Arborio or other medium-grain rice or converted rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 cup drained canned tomatoes, chopped coarse
  • 1 1/2 cups water


    Preheat oven to 400°F.
    Squeeze sausage meat from casings into a 10-inch heavy ovenproof skillet and add bell peppers, onion, and oil. Cook mixture over moderately high heat, breaking up sausage with a fork and stirring occasionally, 5 minutes, or until vegetables begin to brown. Add rice and sauté, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in wine, tomatoes, and water and bring to a boil, stirring to loosen brown bits. Transfer skillet to oven and bake, uncovered, 25 minutes, or until most liquid is absorbed. Season with salt and pepper."

    Source: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Italian-Sausage-and-Bell-Pepper-Paella-13649#ixzz2U4DY4IOU

    Tuesday, May 21, 2013

    Phils Report: Michael Young keeps rolling-one base hit at a time

    The Phils apparently won 7-2 tonight against the lowly Marlins bringing their record to an unremarkable 22-24.  So far the season has gone about how I expected it would.  At best this team is a few games over .500, and that's with Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels turning it around which is far from a sure thing.  For the first time in a few years, I've changed the way I look at this team.  In a way, being a mediocre team lets you enjoy the smaller things, without sweating the standings or staying up to hope Tim Hudson gets lit up on a Braves west coast road trip.  Here are a couple thoughts on the season as it stands now:

    1) The Michael Young experiment is still on track.  Last year he recorded -2.0 wins above replacement, the worst in the majors, and his contract with the Rangers was largely seen as dead money.  Even with a lousy third basemen free agency class, I was miffed by General Manager Ruben Amaro's decision to bring Young in.  Young is hitting .296 and his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is not immensely more fortunate than his past seasons.  He's brutal in the field, and probably still not worth the money, but it's nice to see someone on this team other than Chase Utley who can take a walk and isn't flirting with the Mendoza line.

    2) The Ryan Howard contract is still awful.  Howard had one of the most foreseeable declines in the Major Leagues.  His OPS has dropped every year since his first full season except a brief uptick in 2009, long before Howard was given his 5 yr/125 million deal, and two years before his free agency.  I feel like in an alternative universe the team lets Howard go at his free agency in 2011, and makes due with a string of discounted, but productive veteran types like Lance Berkman and Adam LaRoche who provide more production than Howard has, and give the Phils some room in their budget to sign relievers and real starting outfielders instead of playing John Mayberry Jr., Lance Nyx, and Delmon Young for 1500 ABs a year.

    Star Trek 2 Reviewed

    It's late so a few quick thoughts:

    1) I'm not sold yet on J.J. Abrams as a film director.  In particular his framing and staging of action leaves a lot to be desired.  There is a foot chase between Spock and Benedict Cumberbatch's character through futuristic San Francisco where the entire sequence of shots could be jumbled up and randomized, and the scene would have the same coherence as it plays in the final cut.  Similarly there's a a shootout on a dark and dingy planet that reminded me of that Chronicles of Riddick movie that all of me and seventeen others saw, from a decade ago that was cut to hell to obtain a PG-13 rating.  Here it's clear that Abrams and crew were going for a PG-13, which doesn't prelude a filmmaker from orchestrating visceral gunplay, but here all we get is a series of sparks and hooded minions falling backwards.

    The introductory scene largely harkens back to Spielberg's Raiders intro, but here we get none of the buildup or anticipation prior to Indy grabbing the idol that made that sequence crackle.  If Abrams is going to engage me in the future he's going to need to become fluent in action and adventure filmmaking, not just copy and paste from other sources.  

    Abrams at this point really seems like more of a corporate steward or fiduciary of some set of intellectual property rights in trust.  After Disney acquired Star Wars and the rights to Star Wars, he was announced as the director and producer of the next Star Wars film.  Here and in the first Trek film he seems so desperate to widen Star Trek's base by appealing to the Transformers demo, but all the while towing the aging Trekkers behind him with extended cameos from Leonard Nimoy and entire story lines that are lifted from past films.  

    2) I'm so tired of seemingly every big ticket film since "The Dark Knight" relying on some variation of the bad guy intentionally getting caught by the heroes, but with his escape preplanned so that then, and only then, he gets to reveal his true plan.  See The Avengers, Skyfall, etc.  So lazy.

    3) Aren't all of the scenes in the film's first third at Star Fleet's headquarters the same type of futuristic council boilerplate scenes that George Lucas got crucified for in his Star Wars prequels?  

    4) That's not to say this is a stillborn film.  The cast, as it was in the first film, is dynamic and almost makes you forget the mediocre writing and set pieces.  Chris Pine should be a movie star by now, and Quinto brings new dimensions to what easily could have been an impersonation of Nimoy's iconic Spock.