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."


    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.  

    Sunday, May 19, 2013

    "Mud" Reviewed

    Writer/Director Jeff Nichols is clearly a romantic.  In "Mud" his two most prominent characters, the titular river drifter played by Matthew McConaughey and Ellis, the young lead played by Tye Sheridan frequently give in to their own self destructive tendencies in order to protect and pursue the women they love.  This theme is magnified by the deceptively simple Southern culture that Nichols sets his film in.

    Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are two fourteen year old boys on summer vacation in their sleepy Arkansas town.  Ellis sells fish out of the pick up truck of his world beaten father (Ray McKinnon), during his free time he explores the inlets of the local river using a small motor boat with his best friend Neckbone.  One day, Ellis accompanies Neckbone to a small island where Neckbone shows him a large boat that has been deposited high in a tree's branches.  Soon realizing that the boat has been home to someone very recently, the boys soon discover Mud.  Mud and the boys forge a series of pacts by which the boys offer to gather supplies for Mud, who cannot go in to the local town for some mysterious reason.  Soon it is revealed that Mud plans to reunite with his long lost love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and sail up the river, away from the authorities and a group of bounty hunters who are searching for him because of a slaying that Mud committed in order to protect her.

    With his unkempt appearance, suspicious backstory, and lyrical musings about snake bits and evil spirits, it's easy to imagine a scenario where the character of Mud comes off as a grab bag of quirky traits met to endear, but lacking any type of "there" there.   However, McConaughey invests the character with a sense of drive and determination that illuminates from his words and actions.  Now freeded from rom-com movie jail, McConaughey has become one of our most interesting performers.  His Texas drawl, good looks, and energy give him a magnetism where the audience and the characters around him can't help but form a sense of trust with him, for better or for worse.  In "Killer Joe", William Freidkin's trailer park black comedy where he played a hit man doubling as a local sheriff, he seduced an entire family in to trusting him while carrying out abhorrent acts that destroyed the family but satisfied his own perverse sensibilities.  In "Mud", characters like Neckbone and a neighbor of Ellis's played by Sam Shepard remain skeptical of Mud's ultimate plan, but feel an obligation to help him.  The thoroughness by which Mud believes in his mission radiates on to others, and places a moral obligation on them to assist him in reconnecting with Juniper.

    Nichols has captured the essence of Southern Gothic literature before.  In his debut film, "Shotgun Stories" the shared bloodlines of two sets of brothers fathered by the same man but different mothers led to inevitable conflict and violence.  Here too Nichols uses the sleepy lives of his characters to juxtapose the complex nature of what fathers and sons owe to one another in a culture that seems at least a couple decades removed from the present.   

    Ellis like his father, believes in love.  Contrast this with Neckbone and his uncle who use instructional books in the hopes of getting their "tip wet" with as many women as possible.  Early on Neckbone finds a stash of dirty magazines in the boat.  Excited, he pages through them frantically as Ellis remains preoccupied with other tasks.  

    Seeing the failure of his parents' marriage, due in part to his father's inability to provide for his family, Ellis begins to see Mud as a surrogate father in his own right.  Unlike his biological father, "Mud" will do literally anything for his love.  This uncompromising devotion rubs off on young Ellis who more than once enters in to fist fights in which he is clearly overmatched, first with a jock who is groping an older girl at a local store and then with a man who is trying to coerce information from Juniper about Mud's whereabouts.  In the first instance, Ellis's bold action impresses the girl and they share a kiss days later at an outdoor party.  Despite the girl being four years older than him, she says "yes" when Ellis asks her to to be his girlfriend.

    The best scene in the film comes when Ellis's idealism is tested, and he is forced to accept the fleeting nature of young love and how the most powerful sensation in one's own mind can mean little to the person who is the object of it.  The moment mirrors a point in Mud's own plight where he is required to question the endurance of Juniper's devotion.  It's Nichols exploration of the pitfalls of boundless adoration that most succeed in "Mud."  Well that and the effortless injections of comedy that Nichols weaves throughout the screenplay.  Michael Shannon steals every scene that he's in as Neckbone's, mellowed out uncle and caretaker.  

    "Mud" is not a perfect film.  The conclusion with its hardboiled crime elements feel out of place with what has transpired prior.  It's too violent and the way in which key characters avoid their demise is a little too deus ex machina-y for a film that developed so naturally throughout its first two hours.    

    Still, Mud succeeds as a coming of age story that forces us to recall our now seemingly naive crushes.  Tye Sheridan is clearly a child actor who could make "the leap", similar to Jake Gyllenhaal or Leo Dicaprio, and turn in to a leading man in a few more years.  Furthermore, I'll continue to eagerly anticipate any future films that Nichols sets in the deep South.  His exploration of the twenty first century south often has an extraterrestrial vibe because of the lack of any modern technology in the proceedings and his sparsely populated pastoral landscapes.  It's just such a relief to see a film that's not set in the suburbs or Toronto doubling as NYC.