In order of viewing:
1) Out of Sight  – 9/10
2) Road House  – 8/10
12) Cheap Thrills  – 8/10
13) Incendies  – 9/10
14) 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days  – 9/10
* denotes rewatch
Best of the Month: This is a really tough call. Excluding rewatches, my favorite film of the month was a tossup between Incendies and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Both of these films blew me away in completely different ways, and they are going to be hard to top in this year’s project.
Worst of the Month: The Hangover Part III is not just the worst movie I watched last month, it’s the worst movie I have seen all year. I don’t think I laughed even once, and this is coming from someone who didn’t think the first sequel was all that bad. I don’t know why I wasted my time with that drivel. At least Death Wish 3, another bad film, was a complete blast to watch. Glad that one finally made it to Netflix.
How about you? What was the best film you watched last month?
In order of viewing:
1) First Blood  – 7/10
3) Miami Connection * – 8/10
6) Good Night, and Good Luck.  – 8/10
7) Say Anything…  – 8/10
9) Fast Times at Ridgemont High  – 8/10
* denotes rewatch
Best of the Month: Ignoring rewatches, the best film I watched was easily The King of Comedy. My take on that one will be up later this week. I was also quite impressed with Johnnie To’s Drug War, which would likely make my top 10 of 2013 if I revised my list. For games, DmC was a nice surprise: a hack ‘n slash adventure with a deep combat system. And, of course, the final season-and-a-half of The Sopranos was incredible. The ending was absolutely perfect.
Worst of the Month: On the Road was a mediocre adaptation of one of my favorite novels. Rocketbird was a painfully mediocre side-scroller that I only finished due to its short length. The worst offender last month, however, was clearly Dexter. I’m only finishing the series for the sake of completionism, but I am regretting that decision every second. Amazingly, as bad as season 7 was, the finale is even worse. What a shame.
7) Her  – 8/10
10) The Wolf of Wall Street  – 9/10
Best of the Month: For movies, The Wolf of Wall Street was every bit as crazy as I hoped. It came in at #4 in my top 10 films of 2013 list. I spent a fair amount of January catching up on last year’s films via Redbox and Netflix, of which Disconnect, The Act of Killing, Fruitvale Station and Prisoners impressed me the most. For video games, I absolutely loved Gone Home. It’s a short playthrough — about the length of a movie — but it provided an unforgettable experience.
Worst of the Month: I hesitate to call it the *worst*, but Upstream Color completely baffled me. I may have to give it another go someday, especially after reading Alex Withrow’s great interview with the actor, Andrew Sensenig. Nothing I watched last month was inherently bad, but Oblivion and We’re the Millers were run-of-the-mill sci-fi and comedy films, respectively. For video games, Resistance: Burning Skies was an uninspired FPS that I only completed due to its very short length. When compared to Killzone: Mercenary, its weaknesses are especially glaring.
How about you? What was your favorite film/game from last month?
April was a busy month for me, but it was also a good one. I’m happy that I finally sat down to read another book, even if it was the weakest I have read from Bukowski (one of my favorite authors). I also played through a few video games, watched some great films, and even started a new TV show. Here’s the rundown:
In order of viewing: (including my ratings)
1) The Dark Knight Returns: Part 2  – 8/10
4) Spring Breakers  – 7/10
5) Evil Dead  – 8/10
6) Trance  – 7/10
10) Y tu mamá también  – 9/10
15) 42  – 7/10
16) Mud  – 8/10
Video Games Completed:
1) Tomb Raider [Xbox 360, 2013] – 8.5/10
2) Guacamelee! [PS Vita, 2013] – 8.5/10
3) Gears of War: Judgment [Xbox 360, 2013] – 7.5/10
Movie of the Month: I’m starting to notice a trend here — my 50 Movies Project has been incredibly prosperous this year, with most of my “movies of the month” being from it. This month is no exception: Y tu mamá también blew me away, and it is easily one of the highlights from this month. Other contenders were two emotional documentaries: Winnebago Man and Dear Zachary. The former was surprisingly heartwarming, while the latter was absolutely devastating. Both are stellar films.
Dud of the Month: I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan, but I had a really difficult time getting into I’m Not There. The cast was phenomenal, but the scattershot narrative was just too much. I also found 28 Weeks Later to be a very underwhelming sequel.
Got a favorite from this list? What’s the best movie you watched last month?
God’s Middle Finger
Author: Richard Grant
Genre: Travel Narrative
Original Release: March 4, 2008
Although I have only been averaging one (usually small) trip a year, I am a traveler at heart. I love visiting new areas, learning about their culture and soaking up as many sights as I can see. Unfortunately, travel is expensive, and I have nowhere near the resources to go abroad as often as I would like. That’s where my addiction to travel narratives comes in. I am a huge sucker for a good travel book so I can romanticize about places unseen and live vicariously through the authors. It’s also fun to read about places that would not be at the top of my must-visit list, especially those that are generally considered dangerous for American tourists (or anyone in general).
God’s Middle Finger is one such travel narrative that caught my eye while perusing Portland, Oregon’s legendary Powell’s Books. Author Richard Grant, a thrill-seeking Englishman, decided he wanted to visit the infamously lawless land of the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. Widely considered to be one of the most dangerous places in the world, the Sierra Madre is almost entirely controlled by narcotraficantes (drug traffickers). Law enforcement is sporadic, and the majority of officers are corrupt. It’s basically anything goes, and murder, rape and kidnapping are all common occurrences.
Generally it’s a bad idea to visit the area, but Grant was lured by his sense of adventure as well as his genuine interest in the way of life of its civilians. His initial plan was to follow the nearly 900 mile long range from beginning to end, all while finding locals to act as guides. The beginning of his journey is essentially a game of “pass the gringo”, as he is transferred from one local to another, working his way through the mountains. He is frequently told not to travel alone, but he grows cocky the farther he goes, and eventually rides solo.
Not smart. The book’s prologue directly tells us what’s to come — it opens with Grant being hunted in the middle of the night by two drunk men. Naturally, this happened while traveling alone, unarmed, and in the dark. It’s a hell of a way to open a book, and I was hooked immediately after that point.
It takes a long time for the book to come back to the prologue, and when it does, it ends rather abruptly, but the journey to that point is a very fun read. Grant encounters a number of ridiculous people on the way, most of whom are either heavily armed and/or drunk. He attends religious ceremonies that feature natives getting piss drunk and beating the hell out of each other. He goes treasure hunting with a friendly Mormon, snorts cocaine with the local police, binge drinks with forceful drug lords, and even attempts to teach English at one of the rare local elementary schools. And, of course, he gets hunted in the wild.
As you would guess, there is a lot of craziness contained in this book, and it makes for a very quick read. Grant also generously shares some fascinating history lessons that provide some insight into the Sierra Madre’s culture. It’s hard to imagine that such a ruthless land exists mere minutes from the U.S. border, and it’s also shocking to hear just how much the Mexican economy relies on its drug trafficking (most of which is purchased here). Fans of adventure, travel and/or history should look up God’s Middle Finger — you won’t be disappointed.
As a companion piece to this novel, tomorrow I will be writing about the 1948 classic film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
It’s been a while. Time to catch up with another round of Quick & Dirty!
“A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson
Due to other commitments, my reading time has been kept to a minimum. As such, it took me a lot longer than usual to work my way through this Bryson travel narrative. Normally a light and easy read, A Walk in the Woods is about Bryson and his former college buddy, Katz, tackling the ultimate U.S. hiking trip: all 2,000+ miles of the Appalachian Trail. Both guys are horribly out of shape and have little to no hiking experience, so this is quite the lofty goal for them. Their trip goes about as well as you would expect for a couple of absolute novices, though their time on the trail sure did help them get fit. A lot of people like Bryson’s style of humor, but I found it to be hit-and-miss. I laughed occasionally, but nowhere near as much as others led me to believe I would. To me, the most interesting parts of the book were when he wrote about the history of the trail, including some of the National Park Service’s disappointingly bad decisions over the years. As this book was written in 199?, some of the information is dated, but this is still a decent read overall. 7/10
Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil 
This horror comedy has been getting a lot of hype, and I am happy to say that it lives up to it. Tucker & Dale are two fun-loving rednecks who are mistakenly typecast as serial killers by a group of vacationing college students. When the students attempt to “save” one of their friends who was taken by Tucker & Dale to rest and recover from an injury, they start falling victim to their own tragic (and hilarious) accidents. In short, it’s funny as hell, and it’s a blast to see the “hicksploitation” genre turned on its head. Lots of gore, lots of laughs, and a great movie to watch with a group of friends. Just, whatever you do, DO NOT WATCH THE TRAILER FIRST. Seriously, it gives away a lot of the funny and WTF moments from the movie. Don’t do it. 8/10
Dead Space 2 [Xbox 360]
I finally have a working Xbox 360 again, so my first goal was to finally play Dead Space 2, the sequel to one of my favorite games from this generation. I am probably about halfway through the campaign right now, and it has not disappointed in the slightest. It feels a little more like an action game than before, but the atmosphere is still very tense with lots of startling moments. There are so many creepy little disturbances that have kept me on edge, such as alarm clocks randomly going off, lights flickering on and off, and corpses suddenly coming to life. This is a game best played in the dark with the volume LOUD. Loving it so far.
Fatal Frame [PS2]
In my Xbox downtime, I spent more time than usual with the PS2. My goal was to finally go through and finish Fatal Frame, a game I had started years ago but never finished. I opted to start from the beginning, and I am now playing through the final chapter. I love the atmosphere, and the fact that the only “weapon” is a camera makes everything even scarier. I am not in very good shape in this last chapter, however, as my health packs and film are way too low for the current difficulty level. My goal is to finish the game over the weekend and have a new review ready next week.
Resident Evil: Director’s Cut [PS1]
I hadn’t played any of the Resident Evil games in years, so I thought it would be fun to take a look back at where the series all began. I got a huge kick out of the first game’s terrible B-movie theatrics, including some live action cutscenes with acting that would rival Matt Hannon in Samurai Cop. I ended up playing about twenty minutes or so before calling it quits. The graphics have aged horribly, almost to the point of unplayability, and the gameplay is definitely showing its age. I might pick it back up at some point, but not before tackling some of the bigger and better games in my backlog.
The Book of Basketball
Author: Bill Simmons
Original Release: October 27, 2009
Bill Simmons’ “The Book of Basketball” is huge. Well, perhaps “huge” is an understatement. This sucker is massive, a full 700 pages of material. This is the Sports Guy given free reign to write as much as he wants about his favorite subject, basketball.
The Book of Basketball is essentially split up into two main sections. The first half of the book is all over the place, but its main focus is on the history of the sport from its inception through 1984. Why stop at 1984, you ask? As Simmons says, “I needed something extra for the paperback.” Outside of the written history, Simmons lists his top 33 “What If?” scenarios and includes a lengthy chapter on the immortal Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell debate (his take? Russell, easily). In the second half of the book, Simmons creates his fantasy Hall of Fame in what is essentially his list of the top 96 players of all time, all of whom are ranked in different tiers. It is a very, very long list, and ideally could have been a full-length book in its own right. He also writes about the best teams of all time, and his theoretical best lineup using players of all eras. To put it mildly, this is an exhaustive book.
Given the elongated nature of this opus, it is not surprising that Simmons has a tendency to ramble. He gets off on tangents very easily, often writing about random pop culture nuggets in comparison to the NBA. He is able to get away with this for the most part by including footnotes at the bottom of nearly every single page in the book. Seriously, the dude has a footnote fetish. Some pages have footnotes that take up at least half of the text. This bizarre format definitely takes some getting used to, but the notes are usually entertaining.
This free-form rambling is both a gift and a curse, although Simmons does have a knack for some well-timed jokes. He is a genuinely funny writer, and I found myself laughing a lot while reading. I could have done without some of his 80s pop culture references (was a rant comparing Kobe Bryant to Teen Wolf really necessary?), but for the most part this is a wildly entertaining book.
If you are a fan of the sport, you will enjoy The Book of Basketball. While its excessive length is daunting and could have been trimmed a bit, I found the book to be a surprisingly quick read. Nearly every subject in NBA history is touched upon, and really, who doesn’t enjoy reading lists about the greatest (of anything) of all time? Bill Simmons is a man who knows the game inside out and isn’t afraid to tackle any issue, even discussing racial differences at length, and this makes him all the more gratifying.
– Helpful tip: If you do end up reading this book, make sure you have this Interactive Guide open in your browser. It has video clips and other helpful media to correspond with what Simmons is talking about.
Author: Michael Lewis
Original Release: 2003
Moneyball is the story of the Oakland Athletics and their general manager Billy Beane, back in the early 2000’s when they were winning games left and right despite having one of the lowest payrolls in the league. While there have been a number of small market teams in recent years to have found success (the Twins and Rays, to name a couple), the story of the A’s is novel because of Beane’s approach to building a team. Beane and his trusting group of assistants threw traditional viewpoints out the window and focused on cold, hard statistics to lead the way. In lieu of paying much attention to standard stats such as RBIs, steals and batting average, the A’s front office focused on OBP (on base percentage) and slugging percentage. Beane, his top assistant Paul DePodesta and others were avid fans of Bill James and his followers of Sabermetrics. These guys wanted players who would take pitches and get on base, not guys who would swing for the fences all of the time or took “unnecessary risks” by attempting to steal a base. This strategy produced outstanding results. In 2001 and 2002, the A’s won 102 and 103 games respectively, and they made the playoffs every year from 2000-03. With their $41 million payroll, they were putting up comparable results to the Yankees, who were spending in excess of $125 million.
The fact that Oakland was able to compete at all with that budget is just outstanding, and reading about the methodology and the management’s thought processes behind their moves is fascinating. Michael Lewis really excels with Moneyball, as he makes baseball statistics seem as exciting as an action thriller. There are so many great stories intertwined in the book that provide even more insight into the team. We learn about Billy Beane’s failures as a baseball player and what ultimately made him pursue a job in the front office. We read about Scott Hatteberg, a former Red Sox catcher who was unable to play behind the plate anymore due to injuries and therefore lost any appeal to 95% of baseball’s teams. Beane coveted Hatteberg since he was a guy who got on base a lot, signed him to a paltry deal and then stuck him at first base where he had no experience playing (every ground ball hit his way gave him a “mini panic attack”). Hatteberg proceeded to put up some impressively consistent numbers and grew confidence on the field. There’s also a chapter about Chad Bradford, an unorthodox relief pitcher stuck in AAA hell with the White Sox, who Beane savvily acquires for practically a bag of peanuts, and then goes on to become one of the key components in the team’s bullpen. Perhaps most intriguing are the moments where we get to listen in on Beane trying to pull a fast one on other general managers, essentially working his ass off to find trades that benefit him yet make the other GMs feel like they got a “fucking A” trade. Never mind the fact that certain teams refuse to even talk to Beane since they got swindled one too many times before. The man has a gift, and he sure knows it.
There’s also a large portion of the book dedicated to the now-infamous 2002 MLB draft in which the A’s selected a bunch of guys in the first round who weren’t even on other teams’ draft boards. Although they did get some players who have had lasting success in the big leagues (albeit to varying degrees) such as Nick Swisher, Mark Teahen and Joe Blanton, they also had their fair share of busts like the “fat-bodied catcher” Jeremy Brown, Ben Fritz and Stephen Obenchain. Still, it was very interesting to look into Beane’s mind and experience his wide range of emotions when he realized he was going to be able to get all of the players he wanted.
Since Moneyball was published in 2003, other teams have adapted to Oakland’s strategy, and many have incorporated the theories into their own systems. There are still critics of Beane’s ideas, especially since the A’s never found much success in the postseason despite winning so many games in the regular season. The aforementioned playoff run from 2000-03 had the same result every year — a heartbreaking game five loss in the first round. Still, you can’t deny that the team really had something special going on during that time. It’s always fun to see David stand up to Goliath, isn’t it? Moneyball is an excellent read from beginning to end, providing insight into a creative front office while delivering entertaining side stories along the way. This is one of the best baseball books available, and I highly recommend it if you are into the sport at all.
– Also, it should be noted that Moneyball is currently being made into a movie starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and it is coming out in September of this year. Could it turn out as well as The Social Network? One can only hope…