Pacific Rim (2013)
At least when I watch my roommate play Grand Theft Auto he’ll occasionally let me play. God, to have that luxury while watching Guillermo Del Toro’s latest diminishing return, Pacific Rim. Del Toro’s created the equivalent of his own live action video game and he’s not even very good at playing it. No matter which featureless, non-descript, banal (I just found out if you right click, MSWord offers you synonyms) character he trots out, he always manages to lose to the Level Boss. He must have some cheat codes because we eventually and thankfully get to the end sequence of a storyline that frankly isn’t much of an improvement on RAMPAGE. Rent Starship Troopers instead.
QUEUE IT SCREW IT
World War Z (2013)
You ever sit around the campfire, I don’t know maybe at summer camp and play that game where one person starts the story and then you go down the line and the next person adds to it? I think “Dungeons and Dragons” works the same way. It’s entertaining because the story can get twisted in so many ways; some people want to make you laugh; some people want to scare you; some people want to add aliens (I always hated the alien guy). In a nutshell that’s World War Z. Zombies attack New York and then it pretty much makes itself up as it goes along.
“Zombies in New York.” “Super-fast Zombies!” “And the hero is Brad Pitt.” (Ashley’s suggestion.) “And he goes to Israel with a scientist.” “But the scientist dies” “And then he goes to …”
You get the picture. The visuals are fun; a few moments of genuine suspense.
“And then the Blogger ends up with the Hot Chick.” “Emma Stone!” That’s better.
QUEUE IT SCREW IT
It’s fun. Just the sheer implausibility is a joy to discover alongside the characters. I know it’s a cop-out but the less I say about this movie, the better the viewing experience you’ll have. Not one for the ages at all but it saved a year primarily devoid of worthy Blockbusters. I’d buy it a beer.
Pacific Rim (2013)
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Starring That guy from “Always Sunny in Philadelphia”
Screenplay by Travis Beacham and Del Toro
Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro
World War Z (2013)
Director: Marc Forster
Starring Brad Pitt, Zombies
Screenplay by apparently Boy Scout Troop 540, the pride of Glastonbury, Connecticut
Cinematography: Ben Seresin
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Melissa Leo
Screenplay by Karl Gajdusek, Michael Arndt
Cinematography: Claudio Miranda
*Thanks to Currey for his input and sometimes letting me play his video games.
The disaster both financially and artistically of Carl Reisch’s 47 Ronin is well documented and well worth the read if you’re curious at all about the inner-workings and machinations that make up today’s Tentpole Hollywood.
The how and the why this thing fell is startlingly self-evident upon viewing. In fact, ten minutes in, I found myself dissecting every terrible turn the film chose to take which made it a far more fascinating viewing experience than investing in a plot that could only appeal to someone under the age of 10 (and only the most undiscerning of 10 year olds at that).
The film stars Keanu Reeves as Kai an orphan of American-Japanese decent (or of British-Japanese descent who somehow feels more comfortable using an American accent) discovered as a boy in the mystical Medieval swamps of Japan by a Warlord, Asano (Min Tanaka), who raises the boy in his palace.
During a visit by the Emperor/Shogun(?) to Asano’s digs, a witch in league with a rival Lord carry out the demise of Asano who is forced to kill himself, disgraced. The rival Lord inherits Asano’s lands and all of Asano’s samurai are cast out as master-less Ronin with strict orders not to avenge their Lord’s death.
A year later, the Ronin regroup, and Kai, who has spent the better part of his expulsion apparently Fight Clubbing some out-of-work Tolkien trolls, equips the Ronin with some powerful swords and they infiltrate the evil Lord’s wedding to Mika — oh I forgot to mention Mika, Asano’s daughter and love interest for Kai.
<SPOILER> (skip ahead if you want to, but, seriously, you’re not going to watch this thing so I wouldn’t worry about it): Witchy turns into a dragon, Kai slays her and baddie Lord ends up headless. Good guys win. Still, all the Ronin are forced to commit seppuku for disobeying the Shogun’s original orders not to seek revenge. The end. </SPOILER>
So, okay. What went wrong beyond this thing ever getting green-lighted in the first place?
First off, the casting isn’t the problem. Keanu Reeves, fine, whatever. No longer a box-office draw but I can see the reasoning, he’s right for the part (take that endorsement for what you will). Besides, it’s well known the original script was highly sought after within the studio ranks (even named to Hollywood’s 2008 Black List of the best unproduced work) and assumed strong enough to carry the picture even if people no longer were drawn to Mr. Reeves. I also applaud the decision to fill out the cast entirely of Japanese actors, not a bad strategic move either, the hope was to produce a simultaneous American and Japanese blockbuster. The decision, however, to film it in English undermined any hope for pan-Pacific success.
The film features some of the most acclaimed Japanese actors. Forcing them to learn and deliver their lines phonetically (in my experience only A-Ha ever pulled off the feat successfully) is disastrous and in a way completely demeaning. The rumor is that all initial takes were filmed in Japanese while the subsequent takes actually used in the movie were filmed in English. The end result is everyone sounds like Keanu himself circa the Point Break era. (That was a low blow. I really do enjoy Mr. Reeves’ work).
The obvious solution would have been to offer a Japanese version of the film alongside an English version for the States if you’re rightfully worried about America’s disdain for reading subtitles. Maybe they did that. I don’t know. But based on its pitiful opening weekend in Japan, I would have thrown anything at the screen to salvage the mess.
Then there’s the shipwreck of the script. It tries to couple the trope of the American in a foreign land (i.e. The Last Samurai) with the mysticism of a “Dungeon and Dragons” cartoon. It lacks any teeth and any type of consistent tone. When the dragons and wolf-people seemingly appear out of nowhere, you’re left wondering where your focus should lie — with the somewhat fascinating story of a group of men driven by cultural honor or the corny hocus pocus?
In the end, I think Universal realized the flop they had on their hands (going so far to take the unprecedented step of taking a writedown on the project even before the film had opened Stateside) that the incentive to aim high artistically whatsoever gave way to the resignation that this thing should never have gotten off the ground and attempts at re-shoots weren’t worth anyone’s time.
Like the Ronin in the film, eventually all involved had to fall on their swords.
Nah, no need to kick it while its down
47 Ronin (2013)
Director: Carl Rinsch
Starring Tadanobu Asano, Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki
Screenplay by Chris Morgan, Hossein Amini, Walter Hamada (screen story by)
Cinematography: John Mathieson
Budget: $175,000,000 (estimated)
Opening Weekend: $9,869,000 (USA) (27 December 2013)
Gross: $38,297,305 (USA)(31 January 2014)
 Setoodah, Ramin, and Scott Foundas. “’47 Ronin': The Inside Story of Universal’s Samurai Disaster.” Variety. N.p., 30 Dec. 2013. Web. 14 May 2014.
”47 Ronin.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 14 May 2014.
“Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
Shakespeare, “Sonnet 18”
There is a moment in Monuments Men when one of its more realized protagonists, a man who has spent his life appreciating the beauty of the world’s greatest art, pens a letter home to his father from the front-lines of WWII describing the importance art plays in all our lives and society’s need, no, its charge to preserve it for future generations.
He notes that the particular piece he is attempting to spare from the reach of the Nazis (a regime with its own passionate if ruthless appreciation for the timelessness of art) has survived long enough to have been admired by Napoleon himself. A moving realization in its simplicity: art not only exists to inspire in the present but to provide an inexorable link to our past. A link that might possibly be worth dying for to sustain.
They are the words of a man, a troubled alcoholic, attempting to reconcile a life spent acknowledging the eternality of art with an inability to stop hastening the passing of the limited amount of time he’s been blessed with to enjoy it …
.. and unfortunately it’s one of the few resonant passages to emerge from a film desperately determined to deliver resonance and reflection.
Monuments Men plays primarily as a wistful treasure hunt. George Clooney’s Frank Stokes (a civilian art-lover(?) — I was never quite sure his proper occupation) convinces the Army to let him assemble a platoon to seek out and recover the millions(?) of stolen pieces of art by the Reich during its occupation across Europe. He puts together an international team of architects, artists, academics and curators to find them.
The obligatorily “rag-tag” bunch contains all the usual suspects: an acerbic Bill Murray (at this point is there any other? It’s Peter Venkman trapped in a Jim Jarmusch film); the bombastic John Goodman; the nebbish Bob Balaban; Hugh Bonneville as the aforementioned tortured British Lieutenant; Jean Dujardin (The Artist); Cate Blanchett; and Matt Damon because this film needed Matt Damon?
These men are not soldiers. They comically struggle through Basic Training and they would rather share a smoke and a conversation with than fight when ambushed by Nazis. Yet, there’s no denying their passion for the mission. They throw themselves ahead of the Allied lines in the hopes of both thwarting the retreating Nazis’ efforts to destroy their plunder and outrace the advancing Soviets who eye the stolen art as trophies owed them for the sacrifices of the Motherland, trophies to be kept rather than returned to their rightful owners.
Yet Monuments Men plays as little more than a hodge-podge collection of scenes oscillating awkwardly in tone between the solemn and the light-hearted. The scenes themselves seem interchangeable as if their sequencing had been cobbled together as though shaken from a box. There’s nothing fluid or overly imaginative here, nor dangerous in its presentation. You realize early on the players are never going to play against type and any attempts at building tension are undermined by the film’s disjointed, harmless made-for-TV approach.
In the end, the film is not disarmingly disappointing. It’s a (true) story worth telling and all involved realize that the memory of the real Monuments Men should forever be preserved and admired as much as the art they strove to protect. I only wish the filmmakers could have aimed a little higher with the film’s ferocity in their attempts to realize the same timelessness of the art they deemed so worthy to esteem.
The Monuments Men (2014)
Director: George Clooney
Starring Bob Balaban Cate Blanchett, Hugh Bonneville, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Dimitri Leonidas, and Bill Murray.
Screenplay by George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael (Director of Photography)
Budget: $70,000,000 (estimated)
Opening Weekend: $22,003,433 (USA) (7 February 2014) 
 IMDB, 9 May 2014. Web. Day 15 May 2014.
That Damn Ocean: Part 1 in an Agonizingly Long Series Detailing My Struggle to Stop Worrying And Learn to Love How I Got Here
October 23rd, 2013
“Stockholm, let me go home …”
– Jason Isbell
I’m writing this entry from the food court of a haute Galleria in the Östermalm district of Stockholm. As Yogi would say “it gets late early” in Swedish wintertime. Four in the afternoon and it’s pitch black outside but the indoor market around me stirs; the market’s incubatory lights nurture muted conversations of pockets of Swedish pensioners enjoying their late afternoon nips nestled amidst plasticine, canyonic aisles mortared of herring and cheeses.
I’m waiting to meet a gentleman for an interview for a position in the University’s Film Studies Department. I am waiting on the Department Chair. We’ve never met though the two of us have corresponded several times over the previous three months.
I’m surprised I’m here today at all – during our correspondence the Professor more than once referred to my candidacy for the position as unique (a polite, Swedish way of saying ‘flimsy’).
Turns out it was his students’ encouragement that led to my consideration.
See, in a past life, I was a film critic of very miniscule renown. It was a nice little Public Radio show with a surprisingly successful podcast edition that found a large international audience. We were big in Sweden.
The Professor’s students knew of my show and, at their urging, he listened to our back catalog of reviews. He must have appreciated them because he was eager to respond with his own analyses: long emails comprised of some of the most didactic, informed film criticism I had ever read, often genius-level takes that indicted my own ignorance on the subject. Two years removed from the game, I tried to fake it as best I could in my responses. (Who was Béla Tarr again? He directed Grease, right?) I must have fooled him just enough because when I said I would be in Sweden, he asked for a sit-down.
I like the idea of film school and I really like the idea of Swedish film school.
So it’s going to be all that much harder to tell the professor I’m rescinding my candidacy.
Sincere Happy Holiday Wishes to you one and all from Team Mattysballgame!
Please check back in the New Year as the site is re-launching with movie reviews, less than pertinent thoughts and whatever the hell is on my mind.
There were lots of Strikes and Gutters in 2013 for the Ballgame Household, some of the happenings:
- Bought the ring … two months later sold the ring.
- Worked as much and as hard as I have in ten years – will probably have to start voting Republican.
- Traveled to twelve states, three continents, and five countries.
- Found myself filling out an on-line Swedish Dating Site profile.
- Gave walking directions to Caroline Kennedy.
- And as always, the paternity suits continued to be inconclusive.
Random Movie Pick
The Way, Way Back (available on DVD);
Chekhov meets Apatow (and to my knowledge neither were involved in filming). In a year with a dearth of acceptable comedies Way Back is a quiet ensemble-based gem, a stand-out cast knowing their roles, never straining to punch the joke.
I knew it was going to be okay when I thought I saw Sam Rockwell wink directly at me in the early stages of the film, almost reassuring me, “I got this. Don’t worry.” Allison Janney (Kenyon College) will win an Oscar in the next five years.
(Dirs. Nat Faxon, Jim Rash) (Star. Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney) (Screenplay Nat Faxon, Jim Rash) (Cinematography John Bailey)
Verdict: Queue It!
Similar: Kings of Summer (2013)
To close, here are a couple of videos in honor of the two best things to happen to me all year.
1) For Ingrid from the Brussels airport (sigh, I will gladly let you keep my phone charger) ….
2) And for my new nephew Magnus Karl (may your first words be “I’ll take two Racing Forms and my Uncle would like to know if the burrito is included during Happy Hour”) …
Mother would like me to add a disclaimer to every blog post. These reflections ARE fictionalized. In fact, the entry you are about to read is actually complete fiction.
In This Corner …
Last weekend I managed to shorten the Bucket List I created when I was nine-years-old by one.
The scratch registered only #12 on the list: well behind my number #1: “touch a boob*” but it was still a biggie.
I was given the once unthinkable opportunity to arm-wrestle my childhood hero: a professional wrestler now reduced to autographing appearances in shopping mall food-courts. It cost me a measly twelve dollars to stand in line for the chance. I would have paid fifty.
I stood in line alongside 30-odd kids at best (pun completely intended) in the middle of a subfuse shopping center in one of Chicago’s nondescript outer suburbs. The queue ran from the east end of the lower-level Sbarro to the far edge of J.C. Penny.
Despite the fact most of my fellow attendees looked no more than age 14, I silently mocked them, ruthlessly, undeservedly for their ignorance. It wasn’t their fault, I know. They were simply too young, too young to appreciate the privilege awaiting them at the end of an unassuming dais, dais perched on risers borrowed from the “Dotty Mac and Farm Friends” stage plopped strategically next to Baby Gap.
No, to these kids my hero was just another of the handful of hulking, balding men, wrestling days long behind them, sitting in a row of folding chairs (yes, for those in the know, apropos) underneath a drooping yellow banner that announced “Legends of the Ring.”
These kids never had the honor of witnessing the breath-taking exploits of these Masters of the Universe in their prime when they plied their trade in front of thousands; in arenas packed to the rafters; to millions glued to their televisions at home, hanging on their every move, gasping at the effortless grandeur of their ballet of death.
These were proud men, now shells of the magnificent Titan-defying Gods they once were.
And they once were Gods. Vengeful Gods. Old Testament style.
And my hero stood head and shoulders above them all. He was the golden calf a young “Matthew” venerated every Saturday morning.
The routine went unbroken for years: promptly at 11:00 A.M. after Smurfs I turned to channel 9 to watch the greatest hour-long program television has ever known: “Wide World of Wrestling’s Weekly Weekend Showcase.”
I cleared our downstairs coffee table in front of the television to the side of the room. I called for my best friend and wrestling manager Slapshot, our wire-haired dachshund; he took his post and sat attentively in the corner of the “ring” (adequately played by our downstairs rug).
My Spiderman pajamas were quickly cast aside and I squeezed into my custom-fitted Zubaz. I slipped on my dad’s tuxedo bow-tie and began circling the rug like a Chippendale’s dancer mid-strip.
With one eye locked on the TV, I began to imitate my hero’s unmistakable cocksure strut. Just like him, I stared down imaginary opponents (an unlucky combination of GI Joe’s, those homely Cabbage Patch Dolls stolen from my sister’s closet — sometimes even my sister) all unknowing lambs brought to the slaughter.
Suddenly my theme music would begin to play: sometimes Hammer, sometimes Wilson Phillips, most often Nelson. Then I yelled in time with the television’s “Ding, Ding, Ding” announcing the start of the first match.
I rushed forward onto the carpet, scraping bloody knees across the floor, dodging an open palm slap, delivering quick kicks to the chest, maybe a forearm to the midsection. Commentator Jessie “The Body” Ventura roared with approval as I climbed outside of the ring to smash my opponents over the back with the ubiquitous folding chair! (In reality there was no folding chair, this particular move was mimed, commissioner’s orders).
Then, just as my opponent began to retaliate and possibly gain the upper-hand, Team Robinson’s strategy began to fall into place:
Slapper’s job was to berate an incompetent referee (poor Paddington Bear) in order to distract him long enough so I could sinisterly introduce a “foreign object” into the match — usually a pink Sharpie-branded eraser that I used to wound my opponent.
Perhaps I landed a sharp jab to my opponent’s eyes or maybe a crowbar across the knee (crowbar = mimed). Finally, the unknowing referee would turn to see me draped over my dazed opponent and pound the mat three times with his palm.
It was the slap of victory.
I didn’t need to cheat every time … but I did win every match. Each contest was won in grand style: Big John Stud was no match for my flying elbow off “the ropes” (the armrests of my parent’s late 60’s putrid-orange corduroy couch). Rowdy Roddy was no match for my violent close-lines across the chest.
And no less than the Great Hulk Hogan himself could possibly escape my hero’s patented move – replicated to near perfection – the devastating, debilitating “Sleeper Hold.” I would laugh diabolically as I dragged my prey to the middle of the ring, sling my arm around his neck and squeeze my biceps until I fully restricted the flow of blood to my hapless victim’s brain. The poor man would flail helplessly until he fell unconscious to the floor.
It was a move so perilous my sister once chipped a tooth … which lead to a suspension from the ring on orders of the commissioner including a denial of access to my “Star Wars Guys” for a good month.
As you can tell, my hero was a villain, a “heel” in the parlance of the ring. His was a character created solely to be despised, created solely to draw the ire of millions.
And I loved him for it.
I’ve always loved the Iago much more than any hero.
The villain is so much harder to play, so much more rewarding, so much more fun.
And here was my hero now, once an esteemed, laureled gladiator sitting in the gosh-darned (I’ve been told to watch my language on this blog … yes, by order of the commissioner) platitudinous confines of something called the Gurnee Hills Mall, a Suburban morass of Honda Odesseys, Land’s End strollers, a darn Chili’s in the darn parking lot.
Such magnificent an actor, showman, athlete, should never be reduced to such a fate. Here was a champion slumming it with mere mortals. One should never be drummed out of Valhalla to the sounds of muzaked Hall & Oates.
As the line drew closer to his table, I rehearsed what I would say:
Do I tell him about the BETA cassette tape my dad recorded for me as a child? The tape of his biggest match, a tape I watched over and over, watched so many times until the on-screen action became indecipherable.
Do I dare admit the genuine anguish I felt as my hero’s “tag-team” lost their title under the spotlights of the grandest stage of them all, none other than Madison Square Garden itself? About the agony I felt at the match’s end when the announcer, the legendary Gorilla Monsoon, exclaimed in a far too enthusiastic tone, “It’s over! It’s over!”?
Do I tell him that the only shred of relief I clung to watching that worn tape was the fact that my hero wasn’t the man pinned to the canvass, the one given the three-count? Or about the life-long animosity I held for his partner who allowed himself to walk into a flying body slam and a (far too quick) three-count resulting in the loss of their Tag Team Championship Title and its accompanying glorious, nay, PULCHRITUDINOUS gold-plated belts.
Oh, the helplessness I felt as my hero’s title was forfeited to a pair of non-descript, milquetoast “Good Guys”; Generic Good Guys outfitted in red, white and blue tights (really?), a duo of baby-faced newcomers the Wrestling League was eager to promote.
No, I didn’t need to tell him. He’d heard it all before. He already knew.
Finally I reached my hero’s makeshift desk. I was a nervous wreck.
I can stand in the wings of a theater about to perform a 20 minute monologue in iambic verse and not require the aid of more than two Clonopins and vodka sodas.
I was achieving a goal that seemed so impossible far too many years ago and now seemed far too easily within reach.
I was about to shake hands with a man, whom, along with my father and “King of the Hill’s” Hank Hill, completed the Trinity of men whose respect I value most. I learned knees do in fact jelly.
But truthfully in that initial moment, I wasn’t there, standing ten feet from the combination KFC/Taco Bell. Of course not, I was perched on the ropes of a stained couch, I circled a worn knock-off Persian rug, my pal Slapper, gone for more than 17 now sat right there in my corner …
Standing there, I marveled at my hero, marveled at how much larger he appeared in person, unconstrained by the limits of our 18″ inch Zenith television. Sitting there, dwarfing the table, his presence as commanding and larger-than-life as ever.
Sure, he no longer sported his signature jet black mullet; his muscles didn’t threaten to bust out of his shirt; he was actually wearing a shirt. But little else had changed. He still wore that devious smirk, the same smirk he wore when he raised his arm to the spotlights hanging above the ring, gleefully inviting a cacophony of boos to rain down on him. The crowd booed futilely because they knew what was coming next, they knew all too well their precious “Good Guy” was done for.
No one escaped The Sleeper.
Now my hero’s smirk gave way to a smile. Sizing me up, he quickly realized he had a true fan on his hands.
He knew his demographic. He knew I wasn’t one of these young punks in love with what passes for today’s wrestling: a glorified pyrotechnic light show offering plotlines callouslly crossing every racial and mysonygnistic line. A multimillion enterprise of excess, a depraved product built on graphic violence, the worst of the worst of what passes for modern bread and circuses.
Maybe I’m guilty of looking back through a scrim of rose-colored nostalgia. But the artform I knew, the one that played after Smurfs, offered a whimsical, self-depracating, considerately configured theatricality complete with a knock-off cartoon show. It wasn’t Chaucer, but it was a heckuva young adult beach read.
My hero could identify the kids that grew up with his action figure. Our hairlines and Violent Femmes t-shirts gave us away.
He asked politely what I was up to, what I did for a living.
His voice hadn’t changed either. He spoke with that same guttural mix of spit and sweat-stained acrimony.
And, well, he seemed genuinely interested.
I told him far too gleefully (oh God Matty, gameface, gameface) that I was a film critic on the radio.
(Seriously Matty? On the radio? It just sounded awkward. “On the radio guy” would eat at Chili’s.)
Surprisingly he didn’t follow up with one of the typical responses I get when I’m forced to admit my profession. He didn’t ask what films he should see. He didn’t list his personal favorites.
Instead he asked “Where did you go to study that?”
I was a little taken aback; I reached frantically for an answer, I went to school, right?
(Technically not true, I studied theater, but, heat of the moment, best not to pick nits.)
He nodded. “Good school.”
At that moment I was arrogant enough to hope MY HERO felt some small notion of pride that he once provided hours of entertainment for a future Ivy League graduate student and a microscopically celebrated film critic.
It passed quickly. I mean, of course he didn’t. I was small fry. Like his peers and the other greats before him, Verne Gagne, Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff, George “The Animal Steele,” my hero had brought joy to so many different walks of life: future Heisman Trophy Winners, Supreme Court Justices, bankers, bus drivers. I was merely a small soldier in a phalanx of believers.
My hero reached down, grabbed my blank white index card and wrote, “Harvard sucks.”
I told you! All-Knowing!
He reached out with his fist and prepared to grapple with the pixie sticks that pass for my forearms. (Don’t worry ladies. I’ve since started a regimen of Hot Yoga).
I’d been watching the shtick he had been performing for the younger kids in line ahead of me. The routine followed pretty much along the same lines every time: he would wrap his massive palms around the youngster’s wrist, grapple with them valiantly for a good ten seconds before the kid somehow managed to summon superhuman strength and began to turn the tide.
Ever the showman, shaking from head to toe in amazement at his impending fate, he unthinkably let his wrist begin to fall and land with a dull thud on the blue dish towel serving as a mat.
Every now and then he would reach out and try to perform a half-a**ed sleeper disqualifying himself from the match. After each loss, he would dejectedly lay his head down on the card table or complain loudly and wave his arms at his handler standing beside him, complaining that the kid had cheated.
For those in line of driving age, he would sometimes pretend to compete a little more outright, and, against those with suitable physiques actually looking for a match, at times, he would let himself win.
But I couldn’t do it.
I said I had to get going. That he would crush me and that I could never live it down to my girlfriend. (Ahem, non-existent, ladies).
He laughed, shook my hand and wished me well.
I did the same.
I walked away with a smile I hadn’t worn in years.
See, I couldn’t risk a victory, no matter how unearned.
A win would have been a disservice to all those Saturday mornings, to the army of Transformers that honorably lost their limbs in combat, but, most of all, I could never betray my wily old manager Slapper, my partner in crime for twelve unforgettable years …
Truth was I could never bring myself to be the good guy.
*Joke unabashedly stolen from Drew Carey. Yes, he was funny once.
“Do you know where I can find smoked bacon?” I asked the attractive woman wearing a Dartmouth sweatshirt, large black cat-eyed glasses and blue, striped Converse shoes.
We were both in the ethnic food aisle of my local grocery, Strack and Van Til. I interrupted Dartmouth as she reached for a jar of pepperoncini peppers.
Aside: I LOVE pepperoncini peppers. I also love that pepperoncini must be so ubiquitous that my Spell Checker didn’t even offer to correct its spelling just now.
It was an honest question. I didn’t know where to find smoked bacon, a fact that would probably surprise the Strack’s cashiers and stockpeople. They see me there most every Wednesday, strolling the aisles, red plastic basket filled with sundries: I probably should have developed a working familiarity with the bacon section.
What the staff doesn’t realize, however, is that I rarely buy anything. At the end of my visit, all of my groceries find themselves neatly tucked back into their original positions on their respective shelves.
They served their purpose. Merely props, all.
I’m there to meet women.
I firmly believe that the grocery store is a far healthier dating environment than any bar because the women in the grocery are on average far more approachable, generally more intelligent and further along in their careers.
And, as for you, the dating odds in the aisles of the grocery are much greater in your favor than on a stool at some club. The fact you’re even in the store buying your own food, especially Triscuits, Special K, cauliflower, Tony Canchere’s Cajun Seasoning, collard greens, corn, tomato juice, pepper jack cheese, pasta, cornbread stuffing and tuna, perhaps a Yoga mat for subtle garnish, speaks volumes for your character without you having to say much of anything.
Really, I don’t get why men are so intimidated by women. Maybe it’s a lack of confidence, a confidence perhaps you don’t build until you find yourself in your early thirties. Once you hit thirty you come to realize that women at that point have defined for themselves the qualities they’re looking for in a man – qualities that usually have nothing to do with looks (or, at the least, very little).
You come to realize that a little confidence, intelligence, and sense of humor go a long way and that any Football Brad is eight years removed from the equation.
So when you’re in the grocery (or Super Target – my Thursday night haunt) and you see a woman you think compatible, steel yourself as best you need to, walk up to her and compliment her on her shoes, hair, sweatshirt, whatever. It’s not disingenuous. You’re thinking it, just say it.
I once told a woman sitting at a bar in New York that I knew she was probably waiting for someone but that she looked fantastic in her dress. The next night, she was there again. Only this time she wasn’t waiting for anybody.
So, after approaching a woman in the grocery, the initial compliment, I ask for directions to a certain food item and if we happen to meet in another aisle, ice broken, it’s easy to further the conversation.
“What are [insert weirdly named food here] anyway?”
Yeah, it’s goofy, it’s Seinfeld, but it works.
If it seems like there’s chemistry, ask her if she’s ever been to BLANK neighborhood restaurant — you already have an idea what she likes to eat.
Perfect example: pepperoncini, as in “Have you ever been to BLANK? Their Bloody Mary bar has pepperoncini.”
Who knows? You just might get to enjoy a brunch over a Bloody Mary bar, learn her name is Michele, learn that she’s a 2004 Dartmouth grad with a degree in Sociology, that she’s originally from Racine, Wisconsin; perhaps you’ll have a good time over four fun dates, but maybe IT won’t quite be there and you’ll both end it on an amicable note.
It’s not a science. Like spiders, women are just as scared of you as you are of them.
Dating secrets aside, why did I really need to know where the smoked bacon lived?
I was charged with preparing the soup course for our third annual Orphan’s Thanksgiving Day Feast, a celebration for the handful of us living in Chicago spending the Holiday apart from our families — unintentionally or otherwise.
I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving in eleven years. Consequently every Thanksgiving I’ve celebrated over the last decade has taken on its own memorable color.
There was the blizzard of 2005, a Thanksgiving spent with my dear friend Emily in New York; our friends were unable to make the trip down from New Hampshire. Left with a six pound turkey and full bar to ourselves, we were drunk and fat by three in the afternoon and more than willing to invite Emily’s cousin’s bartender boyfriend’s co-workers over for a nightcap. When I’ll find myself ending the night talking Proust with a beautiful transgendered Asian again is in God’s hands.
There was the Thanksgiving spent in Moscow, in a theater devoid of heat, working with a Stage Fighting Instructor who barked his instructions entirely in Russian, furthering his points with giant smacks across the chest. Later that night we dined on liver and beets in a dimly lit bar owned by our gangster patron.
There was the Thanksgiving spent in Providence, Rhode Island, another blizzard. My friend Erin and I navigated six foot high snowdrifts, dragging ourselves to the Tortilla Flat restaurant. We ate Tex Mex and drank Narragansett beers with the locals until Erin ended up in the lap of a man who claimed to have met Papa Hemingway – never mind that the man looked to be in his late 30’s; never mind that Hemingway died in 1961.
Since moving back to Chicago, I have fallen into a bit of a routine. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving I spend the afternoon at the Jackson and Wells Billy Goat Tavern. The showing of Planes, Trains and Automobiles begins at 2:00 pm. Union construction workers, city employees, traders from the nearby stock exchange all file in to watch the film before catching their commuter trains home to the suburbs at nearby Union Station.
The motley assembly quote every scene along with the film over draft Miller Lites and Billy Goat lagers. They laugh uproariously at the genius of Steve Martin and the late, great John Candy; most of the regulars having sat on their reserved stools and enjoyed the same routine for the past fifteen years.
The next morning, Thanksgiving Day, I make my way down to Chicago’s Macy’s Day State Street parade. After watching the giant inflatable Elmo’s, Big Bird’s, Underdog’s limbo under the Lake Street elevated train, I head home and lock myself in the kitchen.
Each of us attending the Orphan Thanksgiving is tasked with providing a dish for the smorgasbord. This year I drew soup.
I settled on a recipe I had stumbled across in the pages of New York Magazine: an Oyster, Bacon and Beer chowder; done and done — Take those ingredients and throw in an un-chaperoned night with Bernadette Peters and you could rev up the crematorium, I’d slide in one happy clam.
Needless to say, it was game on.
I don’t know why I receive New York Magazine. I never subscribed to it. Methinks my stay at the Waldorf Astoria one long ago weekend might have encouraged the magazine’s publishers to send them to me unsolicited, obviously mistaking me for money. Every other month I receive a note and a bill asking me to “extend” my subscription. Obviously I don’t respond as I’ve never paid for a single page. And yet they keep coming.
I’m not one to critique business models (I write a blog for God’s sake) but is the magazine industry really pushed to the point of irrelevance that they’re resorting to tricking people into buying their rag?
Okay, let’s cook.
Now, if you’re looking to play along, know this: when I cook, I cook like I mean it. My chosen recipes ain’t cheap nor time sensitive.
Rachel Ray ain’t walking through that door.
Ground rules established, on to the play-by-play.
I started by dropping four pounds of washed and de-bearded mussels into a large pot where I showered them with two bottles of New Belgium’s Ranger IPA beer – though any Midwest IPA would do.
I let the mussels stew in the beer until they opened. Then I let them sit in the pot for a good additional seven minutes. You don’t want the soup to be over-powered by the taste of mussel, but you’ll see that the end product is rich with at least four or five distinct flavors and the mussel beer broth adds a really nice complement to nearly every one, so letting the little guys soak for an extra minute won’ t do any harm.
I removed the cooked mussels with a colander ladle and dropped them onto a waiting platter. I saved the broth in the pot and set it aside for later, but I didn’t need to hold onto the mussels, so I chowed down on a solid twelve of them.
Now, beware eating the unopened mussel. The little guy was more than likely dead before you dropped him in the pot, so he’s probably spoiled. Hell, beware Chicago mussels in general; odds are they were probably collected from a rusted Lake Michigan intake valve.
Mussels consumed, I turned to Beetle Baileying three pounds of Jolly Green Giant golden potatoes. (The work progressed a lot faster after I removed the clear tape covering the edge of the new peeler).
Once the potatoes were peeled, I began dicing onions, celery and smoked bacon until I reached 2 ½ cups of each. After a solid half hour of dicing with no real end in sight, I could have killed for that late-night d**che pitchman Vince to walk in with one of those damn chopslappers.
I chopped those f**king onions for so long, I began reciting Clarence’s nightmare monologue from Richard the III trying to take advantage of the Niagara of tears dripping onto my “Chef Matt” apron that I received at a team building retreat six years ago when I worked at American Express. I had to make an upside down cake with hair-lipped Vipul from accounting.
Once chopped, I arranged the ingredients in my set of clear, nesting Emeril Lagasse bowls that I trot out about twice a year: I parse the ingredients into their separate bowls for no other reason than to admire my handiwork. Plus it’s always nice to get a “look at you!” from the roomie and his girlfriend when they wander into the kitchen to appropriate a couple of your Ranger IPAs.
Next, I shellacked a large pan over medium heat with 6 tbs. of butter (who am I’m kidding, I’m Swedish, ain’t never met a recipe you in which you couldn’t double the butter) and dropped in the bacon. I cooked it for about five minutes until it began to caramelize (that’s the recipe’s verb, I don’t know caramelize, I just cooked it for five minutes). Stirring occasionally, I added the celery and onions and cooked them until the vegetables softened just a tad. Don’t overcook the veggies, though the edges of the bacon can be allowed to brown a bit. Then throw in the mussel/beer broth and set the pan aside.
While the veggies simmered, I took to cutting my potatoes into approximated one inch chunks. Don’t stand on exactitude when slicing the potatoes. If you’ve ever had New England style clam chowder you know what general look you’re going for.
I mixed the potatoes with 2 ½ cups cream, 1 ½ cups milk, and three peeled garlic cloves in a another large pan. The recipe calls for the pan to simmer for 20 minutes but my stovetop’s heat is lacking so I needed to keep them over the flame for a solid 30 minutes until the potatoes softened.
Then I removed half the potatoes with a slotted spoon and dropped them into the blender. The recipe calls for an immersion blender. I’m assuming that’s what I had. All I know is that the blender had a puree button and I pressed it repeatedly until the potatoes liquefied.
Then I threw in the pureed potatoes, the remaining cream and milk potatoes still sitting in the pan into my beer/mussel/celery/onion/bacon broth. I stirred it for a good five minutes over low heat.
Then I tossed in 16 shucked oysters. I’m a great shucker. My children will be great shuckers. Seriously, I once spent a whole summer shucking oysters at a Bayside Beach Bar in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Frank Black of the Pixies tipped me $30 bucks. All things considered it’s been a nice life thus far.
Now, I love oysters. I once devoured two buckets of Apalachicola oysters in under a half hour at a seafood shack on Florida’s Redneck Rivera. I’m not entirely proud of the feat, well, hell, yes I am. I won a hat.
The recipe actually calls for Wellfleet oysters. Okay, I consider Wellfleet oysters to be the greatest oyster on the planet, truly the caviar of the sea. Bar none. Gun to my head: Theeeee Best. And I don’t really feel comfortable wasting Wellfleet oysters in some soup, no matter how good the soup. The recipe also suggests Blue Point oysters, but again, that’s some solid oyster, and I’m reluctant to drop them into a stew in which their nonpareil taste could be compromised.
So I bought whatever oysters the Strack offered up that day and slid them into the cauldron, making sure to add their juice as well. The off-brand oysters proved completely sufficient. I dusted the top of the soup with some chives, pepper, and a healthy dose of salt. Voila. Soup.
I served it right then and it proved bang-on fantastic, but if you have a half day or even a day, throw it into the fridge without the oysters and let everything mix. I’m of the opinion soup tastes better the next day. Just hold off on adding the oysters until you’re almost ready to serve.
So, go ahead, serve your soup, enjoy your last IPA and the compliments that will surely flow your way.
Who knows, you just might impress a University-of-Illinois-Chicago Film Professor and end up enjoying another, more private, showing of Planes and Trains later that night.
“Did you shuck these oysters yourself? Where did you get the shucker?”
“Aisle six, next to the pie plates.”