august 2014

The Master is a movie that I meant to see when it came out in the theaters, but never quite made it—although I respect both Philip Seymour Hoffman's and Joaquin Phoenix's work generally, I'm not a fanatic about either, and I've never really gotten into director Paul Thomas Anderson's films, either. But I was intrigued by the subject matter (a sideways look at Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard) and the strong reviews.

This movie just recently became available on Netflix, and I started watching it the same day I saw it appear on the new releases ribbon. It's not as focused on the Master of the title (the Hubbard character), but instead on Phoenix's character, Freddie Quells, a violent, drunken semi-sociopath who you nonetheless feel some sympathy and at times even admiration for. The movie hinges on this performance, and I have to say I haven't seen an actor knock it out of the park like Phoenix does in a long, long time.

I remember him mostly from his early-career big-budget performances in Gladiator and Signs, which are positively cartoonish compared to his work here (although he was pretty good in the otherwise dreadful 8MM with Nick Cage). According to the trivia about the film I've found online, much of Phoenix's performance was improvised, which makes it that much more impressive, and fits very well with the character—with all the lunacy in Phoenix's life over the past few years, it's hard to believe that part of the reason he's able to get so far into this character's skin is that he sees so much of himself in the character.

But I don't say that to take away anything from his performance, nor should details like Phoenix's decision to have a dentist implant metal plates on one side of his mouth to help him achieve Freddie's distinct speaking style cause you to think that actorly gimmicks are responsible for the character that Phoenix creates for us.

It makes complete sense to me that Joaquin Phoenix was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for this performance, but it's shocking to me that he was beaten by Daniel Day-Lewis (for his portrayal of Lincoln in Spielberg's film of the same name). I get the respect that Day-Lewis has earned in the industry, but let's be honest: as much as he inhabits his roles and characters, there is a disturbing similarity that runs through them all, especially his performances of the past 10 years. Phoenix in The Master was something completely off the charts, even when compared to Day-Lewis' impeccable and committed performances.

Spike Jonze's Her is another film that I meant to see in the theater, and it's Phoenix's first leading role since The Master. Given how much I enjoyed what he did in The Master performance, I'm not sure if I can wait for Her to show up Netflix before I see it; hopefully HBO will air it sometime this year before I have to rent it from Amazon.

I watched Simon Pegg's The World's End over the weekend, and like most of the movies that he's the primary creative force on, it was good but not great—if you like him, you like his movies, and if you don't, I'm betting that you're disappointed in most of them.

It revisted a familiar theme of his movies—a sinister presence lurking under the seemingly benign exteriors of the people who inhabit small, nondescript English towns—but the theme of this movie (aliens have replaced most of the townfolk with robots who help spread the aliens' philosophy in preparation for Earth's inclusions in a society of civilized planets throughout the galaxy) seems strikingly similar to his first movie, Shaun of the Dead, when most of the town turned into zombies.

It's still good fun, even if a lot of it feels too familiar, but the ending is kind of nonsensical and doesn't really give you any resolution with Pegg's character. I root for Pegg, and I think casting him as tech support in the recent Mission Impossible movies and as Scotty in the new Star Trek films is brilliant, but he's best in small doses, and in this movie he's definitely at the center of the stage. Again, I like him, so I watch his starring roles like I would watch a friend—I'm much less critical and much more forgiving than normal. I can recognize that this movie has some pretty significant flaws, but I enjoyed it anway—although I don't know if I'll ever have the desire to watch it again.

Another all-day retreat today, this time with the whole staff and not just the leadership. Similar to last week's retreat, we didn't get an agenda until yesterday, and it has me listed as giving three different presentations with three different collaborators, none of whom knew they were going to be giving presentations until yesterday afternoon either.

I have become less of a fan of meetings the more of them I have on my calendar, but events like this, where we can bring everyone together for a day away from their normal work responsibilities, can be very productive. But only if they are planned well, which we haven't done a great job of this summer. I don't think today will be a complete waste of time, but I know that we could have made more of it had we spent a little more time planning and preparing for it.

I got a pair of reading glasses earlier this week, and they are making a world of difference when I'm reading or working on the computer. And even though my issues do seem to be limited to that 12-14 inch range where reading glasses are supposed to be effective, this does reinforce that it's time for a visit to the eye doctor.

In other age-related news, my left foot is still bothering me, and physical therapy doesn't seem to be fixing it. It has definitely helped—I've been able to exercise-walk much more consistently since doing the daily strengthening and stretching exercises they gave me, and I like the inserts they recommended for my running shoes so much that I also bought a pair for my everyday work shoes—but I can still feel something not quite right about my foot, and I'll still have random flare-ups where it becomes very difficult and painful to walk on it for a day or two.

But I tried my first run in about a month and a half earlier today, and even though it was only a mile and a half, I didn't have any pain afterwards and I'm hoping it will still be feeling good in the morning. I go to the doctor tomorrow, and I have a feeling he's either going to tell me to keep doing what I've been doing and see if it continues to improve, or he's going to order an MRI or something so he can see what's really going on.

But either way, I don't think I should continue formal physical therapy, as much as I like the people there—the one time we really pushed it and put a long of pressure on the outer part of my left foot (which is where the pain seems to originate from), I wasn't able to walk on it for several days, so they've really taken it easy on me since then—even though I'm there for an hour, I usually only do two or three exercises beyond the ones that I'm doing daily at home anyway.

The Ravens played their first game of 2014 last night against San Francisco, the team they defeated in the Super Bowl two seasons ago. It was just a preseason game, and the first team offense played only one series, but still, it was very encouraging.

That one series ended in a touchdown, and the running game looked much stronger than last year, thanks to an improved offensive line and a better running/blocking scheme courtesy of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak (the run game was strong all night, even when using third string backs who are competing for a roster spot).

The Ravens have a tough start to this season—three games against their division rivals, including one on four days rest against Pittsburgh. Luckily the first two games against the Bengals and the Steelers are both at home, and I'm hoping that by the time of our first road game in week 3, Cleveland will be dumb and/or impatient enough to let Johnny Manziel start, because I think his tenure in this league as a starter is going to be very, very, short, and the teams who are lucky enough to see him during his trial period are going to have a field day against him.

Ideally we would come out of that stretch at least 2-1, although as long as we win at least one the season is not in jeopardy yet (although it does become a lot harder to envision making the postseason as a division winner instead of a wild card). I wouldn't say the rest of the season is easy by any stretch—there's not a single game I look at on the schedule and think it's a gimme—but hopefully everyone will be settled into their roles and the new offensive scheme will be producing more points and putting us in a stronger position to win.

Also: although no one else in the world really cares about the final score of a preseason game in which your first string only plays a limited number of snaps, this does make the third time that the Harbaugh brothers have met as head coaches in the NFL, and it's the third time that Ravens' coach John has defeated 49ers' coach Jim. The rest of the world will forget this game shortly, but I guarantee you John will make sure his little brother remembers the final score.

Just got back from Cleveland from a single-day business trip. Flew in Sunday night, spent 9-3 in meetings, and then headed to the airport to fly home.

Travel was pretty uneventful, but I'm just not built for the road—I usually need a couple of days to recover from a business trip, even a brief one like this, and that works our fine when I get back home on a Friday or Saturday. But now I've got to wake up in the morning and face nearly a full work week, which I'm not looking forward to at all.

It was a good trip, though, and this was the only day that worked for our hosts at Case Western, so I just need to try to get back into a normal work rhythm as quickly as I can.

I'd never been to Cleveland before, but it was much nicer than I expected. I mean, I still hate the place in the abstract—as a Ravens fan I am legally obligated to hate a large numer of cities, most especially those that are home to our AFC North rivals (Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh)—but if you had somehow removed the knowledge from my brain that I was in enemy territory, I would have thought it was a pretty decent place (at least the areas I saw around the university—I know there's a lot of urban blight there, and we definitely saw some hints of that driving in).

I only had two meals there, but they were both fantastic. On Sunday night my brother and his SO, who live in nearby Toledo, drove over for dinner, and we walked to a Little Italy area a few blocks from the hotel for dinner (it truly was little—a three block stretch of one street where it seemed like every storefront on either side of the road was an Italian restaurant). We went with the hotel clerk's recommendation, Mia Bella, and got a table outside on what turned out to be a beautiful night.

We shared the lamb kafta appetizer, and then each got a Caesar salad and the cheese tortellini with a spicy tomato cream sauce, peas, and prosciutto (I ordered first, and wasn't surprised when my brother ordered the same thing, since that tends to happen a lot with my brother and my dad, but his girlfriend followed suit but added shrimp to her pasta as well). Even though we were very full, we couldn't resist dessert when our waiter went over the menu with us, and I indulged in flourless chocolate cake and a cup of coffee while my brother and his girlfriend each went for different flavors of gelato.

It was all delicious—easily one of the best Italian meals I have had in a long time—but the meal I had for lunch the next day put it to shame. During the lunch break from our day of meetings, our hosts took us to a French restaurant across the street from their office, L'Albatros Brasserie. I don't eat French food much, but I'm going to have to seek out a French restaurant in Atlanta after that meal, because if I can find one that can come anywhere close to my experience there, I'll be as regular a visitor as I can afford to be.

There were an astounding number of interesting choices on the lunch menu, but I opted for the cassoulet, a dish of braised white beans and root vegetables (carrots and parsnips, I believe) with braised pork belly, two types of sausages, lamb, and duck confit. Every single bite of it was amazing—one of the best dishes I've ever had. And for lunch no less! And they brought out around a dozen or so entrees to our group simultaneously, all perfectly prepared and plated. The entire experience was amazing, and if I ever have the chance to return to Cleveland, the first thing I'm doing after I schedule my flight is making a dinner reservation for L'Albatros—if they can make a quick business lunch that memorable, I can't imagine how impressive the dinner service must be.

Before you read this and think I have any sympathy for the Browns, please believe me when I tell you that, as a rabid Ravens fan, I hate the Browns, and I always will. But when I saw up close and personal how excited the fans in that city are for a team that is almost certainly going to have yet another awful year (new head coach, new offensive coordinator with a new system, unproven quarterbacks, and the best receiver—hell, the best player—on the team likely to be suspended for the entire season), I almost felt a bit of pity for them.

I mean, this is a team that has NEVER won the Super Bowl. True, they did win the NFL championship four times between 1950 and 1964 (three years before the first Super Bowl), but other than that, it's been mostly heartache and misery. Since 1970, they've only been to the playoffs 11 times, and only won 4 games during those playoff trips (and never more than a single game in any given postseason). Forget winning a Super Bowl; they've never even BEEN to a Super Bowl since that championship game's inception.

Contrast that to the team I love, the Baltimore Ravens, who were created from the ashes of the Cleveland Browns franchise that Art Modell moved out of Cleveland in 1996 (the Browns were later reconstituted as a new franchise in 1999). Within five years, the Ravens had won the Super Bowl, and by the next year, they had more postseason wins than the Browns had in the previous 30 years. And in the entirety of the Ravens' short 18 year history, they've been to the playoffs nine times, nearly as many playoff seasons as the Browns have had in their last 40 years, and along they way they've won two Super Bowls.

In the last few years, the Browns have been spectacularly mismanaged, changing ownership two years ago, going through four head coaches since 2009 (and going through nine starting quarterbacks during that same stretch), and making a general mess of their copious first round draft picks starting with the 2012 draft class (they've had five first round picks in the past three years). And while I believe that Cleveland fans are more than a little misguided about their enthusiasm for this year's first round quarterback pick Johnny Manziel (I would actually call them delusional), they have really rallied around him, dumping tons of unexpected money into Cleveland's coffers via jersey sales for Johnny Football—a player who has yet to be on the field for a single snap of an official NFL game.

And what will the fans get for all this? If they're lucky, a season in which the team commits to starting Hoyer for the whole season to give Manziel time to develop, a season which will nevertheless almost certainly give the team its seventh consecutive losing record. If they're unlucky: the Browns start Manziel within the first four games of the season, long before he's ready, and end up watching any potential he might have had at the NFL level be washed away as defenses demolish him and take away his confidence forever and/or seriously injure him.

There's not a lot of hope for this team until they can bring in a coach who can be disciplined about the long term plan and an owner who will support that vision during what will almost inevitably be two or three terrible seasons on the way to creating a strong foundation for the way the franchise operates. But it doesn't appear that they have either of those things in new owner Jimmy Haslam (who fired his wunkerkind head coach who was supposed to be the future of the franchise after just one season last year, which has to give you serious doubts about his commitment to his newest selection for that role) and new coach Mike Pettine, who is stoking the media fires of a quarterback competition even though returning starter Hoyer was 3-for-3 in his starts last year before a season-ending injury, and he's clearly got better mastery of the playbook and how to run an offense in the NFL than rookie Manziel.

So, yes, I hate the Browns. But I do feel a little bit sorry for the unlucky suckers who love them.

I recently watched Morgan Spurlock's POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, his exploration of modern marketing and advertising, in particular how product placement affects the making of television shows and movies. The way he approached this (as you may have guessed from the title) was to go to corporations, pitch them the movie, and then ask them to sponsor some portion of the film (offical car of the movie, official beverage, etc.—obviously POM Wonderful paid for the naming rights).

Once a company signed on, he would then feature their product as often as possible while filming the rest of the movie, so there are many, many scenes/interviews where he's drinking POM, driving in a Mini Cooper, flying JetBlue, sitting in a Hyatt, and so on. This isn't nearly as annoying as you might expect—I think we've all gotten so used to product placement and its increasingly unsubtle use by advertisers in the content we watch that even when it's being done in a very overt way, it's still pretty easy to tune out.

Spurlock might have stretched the idea a bit more than is reasonable for a full length feature documentary, but that's often the case with his movies, and as usual, his goofy, affable charm helps you not notice the lack of real insight so much. Still, I can't help but think that this content could have been compacted into an episode of his CNN show Inside Man.

One interesting reaction to the movie that I didn't expect: one of his sponsors was Merrell footware, a company that makes hiking boots and shoes, and a company whose products Spurlock already purchased and used prior to making the movie (although he does feature them prominently once they sign on as a sponsor and even gives a pair of them (and his personal endorsement) to Ralph Nader during his interview with the consumer advocate). I've been in the market for a new pair of hiking shoes, and now I've become dead set on getting a pair of Merrell shoes. The only reason I don't own them already is because I know that this is heavily influenced by what I saw in the film, and I don't want to buy something that was so blatantly sold to me as part of a satire about how susceptible we are to advertising, product placement, and celebrity endorsements.

But I do want them, and I know I'm going to buy them soon. I don't know what that says about me, or the film, or the power of advertising, but that's where I am.

I also recently watch Lars von Trier's Melancholia starring Kirsten Dunst, which I was interested in for three reasons: one, because I liked the concept—the last days before a giant planet crosses paths with Earth and destroys us; second, because a friend told me that Kirsten Dunst spends the majority of the movie looking miserable, and I enjoy the thought of her being miserable since her acting makes me so miserable; and three, because of a connection to Jens Lekman, one of my favorite musicians.

In terms of the planet-crashing-into-us-part, that was weirdly edited, and I'm not sure I understand why. The characters in the movie (all but Kirsten Dunst's Justine) all believe, up until the day it happens, that the planet is merely going to pass very close to Earth, but that it will cause no long-term damage. However, in one of the very early sequences (one of the many in which the music from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde opera features prominently), we see the Earth crash into and get completely absorbed by a giant roving planet named Melancholia. So from the audience's perspective, there is no mystery about what's going to happen, no tension around the planet's approach. Maybe this is done so that our focus is not on the will-it-or-won't-it aspect of the story and but instead on the characters themselves, but it still seemed an odd choice.

The second aspect was really the biggest attractor for me: seeing Kirsten Dunst looking miserable. And boy did I get my fill of that. She and Kristen Stewart seem to have a lock on looking sour while turning in lifeless acting performances, and as with almost every film I've seen her in, this one made me like her even less as an actress. This one is right in her wheelhouse—looking bitchy and/or mad and/or deeply unhappy for no discernible reason—and even still it was a terrible performance. I don't know that this film would have been a great film even if it had had a different lead actress, but I know that choosing Dunst for the role never gave it a chance to begin with.

The third area of interest was the film's connection to Jens Lekman, one of my favorite artists over the last ten years. His hometown is Gothenberg, Sweden, which is the city closest to where von Trier filmed Melancholia, and Lekman wrote a song called "Waiting for Kirsten" about his near-encounter with the actress during the making of the film. Apparently Dunst mentioned in an interview that she was a fan of Lekman's music, so when he found out she was in town, he got it in his head to visit the local bars in search of her. He never connected with her—she never made it into the bars, because the bars there don't have VIP lines and she didn't want to wait in the queue with everyone else—but the song about his search for her is easily the best thing to be associated with Melancholia (coincidentally, the friend who told me about the movie and Dunst's Face of Misery was also the person who went with me to see Jens Lekman's show when he came to Atlanta).

This isn't to say that I disliked the movie, but I definitely disliked Dunst, and I struggled to find the overarching meaning of the film (although it could simply be that nothing has any meaning and the film was just a reflection of that, but this reading seems lazy at best and cloyingly clever at worst). The sequences featuring Wagner's music were lyrical and beautiful, and they were easily the film's strongest moments, and if there's anything else about this film that might appeal to you, i could be worth seeing on the backs of those sections alone.

Finally finished The Confusion. Now on to The System of the World...

Fun week at work. Everyone else is back from their summer vacations, the new hires are showing up, the students are back on campus, and everyone is ready to get back to work. My problem is that I haven't stopped working all summer and I'm completely burned out, so I'm very out of step with the enthusiasm around the rest of the office. Hopefully they'll be some equilibrium by early September after I finally have a little time off, but I am so ready to get out of here right now.

Nice job, Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine: you finally did what we all knew you'd have to do eventually (and what you should have done before training camp ever opened) and named veteran Brian Hoyer as your starting quarterback and kept college wunderkind who's never going to make it big in the NFL Johnny Manziel as your backup. But by dragging this out and pretending there was an actual competition here, you've wrecked your starter's confidence and significantly reduced his reps with the first-team offense.

Browns fans, if you want a peek at your future, let me give you a hint: it's going to be very similar to your recent past. You're going to go through at least two quarterbacks this season (and likely more), you'll end up losing a minimum of ten games, and your new coach who was supposed to fix everything will be fired shortly after the season's conclusion, along with his entire coaching staff, including the new bigshot offensive coordinator.

Sure, you'll have another high first round draft pick next year, but your new coach and GM will likely end up wasting that one just like they've wasted most of their picks over the past few years. So have fun with all that—we'll see you at this same time next year getting ready to repeat the whole thing all over again.

Still haven't managed to watch a single episode of the new Mad Men episodes that aired back in the spring. I didn't like this show at all when I first saw it, then got really into it around season 3 (starting off by watching seasons 1 and 2 on DVD via Netflix, then picking up new seasons on A&E whenever they aired), and I was pretty fond of the last season once it got rolling. But so far there's nothing about this one that's compelling.

At some point I'm going to force myself to watch it in preparation for the final episodes next year, since I would like to be able to read the commentary about the show as those last episodes are airing without subjecting myself to spoilers. But I'm just not excited about it; it's more like a chore that needs to be done than something I'm looking forward to.

Now that summer is all but officially over (pay no attention to the calendar—we all know that summer is really over by Labor Day), we're finally taking our annual vacation, so no posts next week.

Other than being ready to not be at work for a while, I'm totally unprepared for this trip—haven't done laundry, haven't packed, haven't made any plans for groceries, etc. Still, we're going to be on the road by noon tomorrow, and whatever we don't have we'll just have to buy when we get there—getting out of town is the paramount goal.

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