Is ‘Creed’ the New ‘Rocky’?

B1

Creed, directed by Ryan Coogler, is the 7th film in the Rocky saga, which over nearly four decades has chronicled the arduous journey of Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion.  This saga traverses through the mean streets of Philadelphia, extends to the hard hitting gyms of Los Angeles, across time and the ocean to what was once known as the Soviet Union and back again. For those of you who have never seen a Rocky film, you may be asking yourself if it is a prerequisite.  The answer is no.  Well, not necessarily.  You can walk into a theater today, buy a ticket for Creed, a box of popcorn or a pack of Twizzlers, and enjoy all 133 minutes of the movie without knowing who Apollo Creed AKA the Master of Disaster, AKA the King of Sting, AKA the Count of Monte Fisto ever was.  But it would help if you did your homework.

Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the son of Apollo Creed, who was once the most popular heavy weight boxing champion of the world.    We first meet Adonis, or Donnie as he prefers to be called, in a juvenile detention center.  Donnie has to be pulled off of another youth who insulted his deceased mother and invoked his wrath.  He pummels this larger boy with all of the rage he has inside of him and right away we see, misdirected as it may be, that Donnie has the spirit and heart of a fighter within him.  Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) pays a visit to Donnie in his cell and befriends him.  She tells Donnie that she was the wife of Apollo Creed and offers to let him live with her.

Over the next twenty years, Donnie lives with Mary Anne and eventually immerses himself into the underground boxing world of Tijuana, Mexico. He fights 15 times and has an undefeated record.  But fighting is his night job.  During the day he works at a financial institution where he is newly promoted.  He promptly resigns and informs Mary Anne that he plans to pursue boxing fulltime.  She is horrified at the thought of him following in his father’s footsteps.  Despite her objections which include a torrent of bad memories she recalls of Apollo being nursed back to health fight after fight, and ultimately dying in the ring, Donnie leaves the Creed compound in search of realizing his destiny as a prizefighter.

Donnie’s first stop is Delphi Boxing Academy in Los Angeles.  We see his father’s portrait venerably on display.  This is hallowed ground, perhaps not far from where Apollo trained at Tough Gym to become one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time.  Tough Gym is where he led Rocky to redemption after having lost the championship belt to Clubber Lang when Mickey died.  It’s where a fighter goes to get what Apollo famously dubbed the “Eye of the Tiger.”  Delphi Boxing Academy is being managed by Tony “Little Duke” Burton (Wood Harris).  Tony is unwilling to train Donnie, writing him off as an amateur in a world where real boxers have to fight in order to survive.  Undaunted, Donnie climbs into the ring and challenges any fighter to spar with him.  He puts the keys to his new Mustang up as collateral wagering it for a chance to be trained at Delphi.  If any fighter can land a glove on him he’ll surrender the keys.  Tony watches on.  Donnie ducks the first few punches of a game challenger and knocks him out with a wicked counter punch.  He roars in defiance of Tony’s refusal to take him seriously as a fighter.  But Donnie’s bravado is ultimately silenced by Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler (Andre Ward), Delphi’s best boxer and heavy weight contender, moments after Donnie’s short lived victory.  Next stop: Philadelphia, PA.

Donnie tracks down Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) at his restaurant Adrian’s.  Donnie asks Rocky to train him.  “I don’t do that stuff anymore,” Rocky says.  Donnie starts to recant stories of Apollo, details only Rocky would know.  Donnie tells Rocky he knows about the secret third fight they had after Apollo successfully trained Rocky to regain his championship belt.  He asks Rocky who won that third fight.  “It’s sort of a secret” Rocky says, impressed that Donnie knows these things but not yet sure of how.  Then it dawns on Rocky, as he studies the young man in front of him that only someone in Apollo’s inner circle could know such things. “What are you like a cousin or something?” he asks.  Donnie then tells Rocky that he is the son of Apollo Creed.

If Creed is to stand on its own, it must get out of the dual shadow of both the legend of Apollo Creed (as the progeny of any sports legend must ultimately do) and the legacy of Rocky.  This shadow includes 6 previous films, an academy award (Rocky was nominated for 10 Oscars and won for Best Picture in 1976), a score by Bill Conti which is synonymous with victory and routinely played in professional sports stadiums, and an enduring folklore which continues to champion the underdog in society. Can Creed do this?  Well, it would be unrealistic to expect this from a 7th installment of a saga.  Yet Creed has what it takes to merit its own successive sequels.

Where Creed may be lacking is in the antagonist department.  Rocky tells Donnie that his biggest opponent and challenge he’ll ever face in the ring is the one he sees in the mirror.  While Donnie’s repressed emotion at the loss of his parents certainly presents a formidable obstacle in his rise to become a champion in this movie, will that be enough of a rival to keep us interested?  After all, Rocky had Apollo to contend with and partner with for 4 movies.  I, nor any other paying moviegoer I would venture, am interested in seeing Adonis Creed fight himself in and out of the ring for 3 more movies.  Adonis will need a larger than life opponent to push him to excel to greatness, just as Apollo pushed Rocky to the limit, to the boundaries of that place that all would-be champions must go to prove to themselves that they are worthy of that pinnacle.

That being said, Creed certainly is a juicy, mouthwatering, appetizer and what I hope turns out to be the first of several more Creed plots.  And oh yeah, maybe it’s time we retire, as great as it is, Rocky’s theme music.  Adonis will need his own anthem if he is to become the cultural hero that Rocky has become.  Questlove, got anything?

My beautiful picture

© 2015

Advertisements

What Do You Do When You Can’t Afford Pay-Per-View?

Pay-per-view 2

It’s the end of the world!  Well, not really.  Sportscasters weren’t predicting doom when they dubbed this weekend as “Sportsmageddon.”  The NBA and NHL playoffs are in full swing.  The NFL draft is in its third day.  The Kentucky Derby will showcase the best in thoroughbred racing today.  The New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox renew their timeless rivalry.  And, of course, the granddaddy of all spectacles-American Prizefighting presents the much anticipated boxing match between Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao.  Boxing fans from all over the world have flocked to Las Vegas, Nevada, in hopes of witnessing what is being promoted as the premier fight of the century.  Others will watch in crowded bars or from the comfort of their own homes for a whopping $100 a pop.  Whew!  The price of ordering a fight has sure gone up over the years.

Before you accuse me of becoming the old curmudgeon that even I fear I may be evolving into, let me just say that I don’t consider it to be entirely foolish to pay $100 to watch a boxing match on television.  On the contrary, what may turn out to be the unwise decision is to dismiss the potential for the unexpected to occur in a boxing match.  Take for example all of the sports fans who were convinced that James “Buster” Douglas didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of defeating the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world “Iron” Mike Tyson.  So what did they do?  They watched the NBA Slam Dunk Contest which was being telecast on TNT, and woke up the next morning to the startling news that “Buster” Douglas had knocked Mike Tyson out in the 10th round.

Or take for example the night I begged my brother to order the Roy Jones Jr. vs. Antonio Tarver rematch.  We were at his apartment, I was desperate to watch the fight, and completely at his mercy.  I pleaded with him, “Please order the fight.  I will pay for it.  It’s only $50.”  He shrugged me off with a cold shoulder and said “We’re not ordering the fight.  The Lakers are playing tonight.  We’re watching Shaq and Kobe.”  I wouldn’t give up.  I kept bugging him about it because I had a funny feeling that something spectacular would happen.  He finally relented only after I again promised to pay the $50 for the fight.  And what happened?  Roy Jones Jr., who had only been knocked down in a fight once before, got knocked out in the 2nd round.  No one ever thought Roy Jones Jr. would ever be knocked out.  I let out a triumphant yell when he went down, “I told you!  I told you!”

This time around I don’t have that same feeling.  My boxing intuition is not telling me that I’m going to miss anything phenomenal by not ordering the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight tonight.  My sentiment mirrors many in the boxing world that this fight should have taken place years ago, when both fighters were still in their prime.  Truth be told, I don’t have $100 to spend on a boxing match these days.  I can’t even afford cable television.  I use an antenna to watch over-the-air digital television programming.  I listen to my beloved New York Yankees on AM radio.  Fortunately for me and other modern day rabbit ear using boxing fans, CBS and NBC have teamed up to present Premier Boxing Champions on some Saturday afternoons and evenings.  On these Saturdays, new up and coming boxers are featured, hearkening back to the good old days of ABC’s Wide World of Sports when boxing was showcased from time to time.  Unfortunately, no fights are scheduled on NBC or CBS until next Saturday.

With all of the buzz surrounding the big fight tonight, I find myself scratching my head, trying to find a way to satisfy my craving for jabs, stiff arms, uppercuts, hooks, clinches, elbows, head-butts, cornermen, enswells, occasional low blows and rabbit punches, ear biting, crazed fans parachuting into the middle of the ring, ripped trunks exposing bare ass, urine drinking, knockouts (technical and otherwise), standing 8 counts, unanimous decisions, split decisions, draws, disqualifications, no contests, ringside judges, commentators, referees, entourages, grand musical entrances, weigh-ins, bells ringing “ding, ding,” post-fight interviews and brawls, promises for rematches, national anthems, multicolored trunks, gloves, robes, flying mouthpieces, water bottles, Vaseline, smelling salts, buckets, guts, blood, sweat, tears, snot, spit, ring card girls, and celebrities present in the front 5 rows visible at the very top of my television screen.  But what do you do if you can’t afford Pay-per-view?

So, here’s how I’m  going to spend “Sportsmaggedon.”  As I’m typing this up, I’m watching the Washington Capitals square off on ice against the New York Rangers.  I have the sound muted, so that I can listen to the Yankees and Red Sox game on my radio.  I’ll watch the horses run in the Kentucky Derby.  And then…I’m going to watch Rocky.  Yep.  Rocky!  And I’m going to go on record as saying that even though I know Apollo Creed wins, it will be more satisfying than if I had purchased the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight.  When Rocky humbly steps into the ring tonight, via the 2 Disc Collector’s Edition DVD that I purchased for $5.99 at Barnes & Noble, he won’t be doing it for a 75 million dollar check.  When Apollo cockily strides into the ring tonight, regaling in full Americana apparel, even he won’t be doing it for a 100 million dollar paycheck.  Mickey will be in one corner and Duke in the other.  Adrian will be watching on with thousands of other Philadelphians.  Butkus will be slurping up water and food out of his bowl at home.  I’ll use the special feature option to include audio commentary from the director, producers and cast members.  I’ll throw a frozen pizza pie in the oven and maybe crack open a “cold one.”  When it’s over I’ll watch Saturday Night Live like I do every Saturday.  When that’s over I’ll probably fall asleep, and then wake up in the morning to find out if the boxing world as been forever changed.

Pay-per-view

© 2015

Top Five (A Film Review)

Tope Five

 

Top Five is the story of Andre Allen, a comedian who is at the precipice of his career and struggling to navigate through a conundrum of celebrity.  It’s written and directed by Chris Rock and produced by Jay Z and Kanye West.  Played by Chris Rock, Andre is a recovering alcoholic in the 12 step program who is engaged to Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) who is a reality television star.  Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) is assigned to interview Allen for the New York Times, and the film opens up with the two of them strolling down a New York street, conversing about race and politics.  Andre points out that whenever something goes wrong in the country, White people point the blame at President Barack Obama.  Chelsea shoots back saying that the next president will be a woman, a Latina, a lesbian, and then America may even have another disabled president.  Andre steps off the sidewalk into the middle of the street to further illustrate his point that America is still a country plagued by racism.  He holds up his hand to hail a cab thinking that because he is a Black man no cabbie will stop.  To his dismay and embarrassment, the second cab that sees him screeches to a halt-an ironic nod at the current place of race relations in America fraught with continuous advances and regressions.

Andre finds his status as a comedian in serious jeopardy.  On one hand, his star is rising in the public’s eye thanks to a string of commercially successful movies in which he plays a character called Hammy.  Hammy is a police officer who just so happens to be a bear.  Dressed in a bear costume and looking like Kanye West’s mascot on The College Dropout album cover, Andre as Hammy is a super cop of the order of Action Jackson.  Fans everywhere love Hammy.  Yet Andre knows that these sorts of blockbuster movies he continues to make aren’t fooling his most ardent fans, who’ve been following him since his days of doing standup comedy in clubs. Andre also has a new movie he is promoting called Uprize about the Haitian Revolution.  Chelsea underscores what Andre already knows when she asks him why he isn’t funny anymore.  Andre responds by acknowledging that people want him to be funny like he was when he first started doing comedy.  When he first started making people laugh, he did it high on drugs and booze.  Now sobriety has taken a toll on his ability to connect with his audience.  Or so he thinks.  It will take a fairy tale ending, replete with princes and princesses, to erase the curse of addiction and restore Andre’s confidence to once again be the comedian that everyone first fell in love with on stage.

In essence, Top Five is an amoebic romcom that at once pays homage to Hip Hop (think Brown Sugar), takes you on a behind the scenes tour of a comedian’s private life (think Funny People), and does so with perhaps the most star-studded cast of budding and legendary Black comedians since Harlem Nights.  Richard Pryor isn’t there.  Eddie Murphy isn’t there.  But Chris Rock is there, and he brilliantly sums up their importance to the pantheon of Black comedy, calling Pryor the most honest comic to ever grace the stage, and ranking Murphy’s performance on stage as being more exciting than Michael Jackson’s.  Add to the mix, fellow past and present Saturday Night Live cast members Tracy Morgan, Jay Pharoah, Michael Che and Leslie Jones, along with Cedric the Entertainer, Bruce Bruce, Kevin Hart, Romany Malco, Sherri Shepherd, J.B. Smoove, Ben Vereen, and the incomparable Whoopi Goldberg, and you come as close to comedy bliss in the 21st century as is possible.

Even though Top Five doesn’t reach the ascent of Harlem Nights, say in scenes like the one where Della Reese and Eddie Murphy square off in the back alley, or when Redd Foxx and Della Reese compete for curmudgeon of the year, it does successfully remix it. Chris Rock graciously hands the mic to his would-be SNL successors and allows them and the others to freestyle.  What happens next is something special, only able to be captured on film once in a while, when comedians are given the opportunity to improvise.  You definitely get the feeling that they are heavily riffing, and spitting from the top of their domes.

The topic of conversation revolves around the question: Who’s in your top five?  Hence the title, meaning which rappers are in your top five list.  Now anyone who has ever been asked that question in a room full of Hip Hop heads knows that depending on who is listening, the rappers you place in your top five list could spark a heated debate.  Sometimes no one will have a problem with who you placed in your top five list, but rather take exception to the order in which you’ve ranked them.  Or someone may reject a specific rapper you’ve dared so courageously to defend as worthy of a top five ranking.  Either way, you’ve got to be prepared to defend your guys or gals that you put in the list.  Watching Rock, Jones, Pharoah and Morgan get into this discussion is like being invited into their home, into their living room for dinner.  Even Jerry Seinfeld, of all people, gets in the cypher and gives his top five.  Now I’ve seen and heard it all!

If who’s in your top five reveals anything about your true character, Rosario Dawson leaves the most impassioned impression of one’s love for Hip Hop since Sanaa Lathan in Brown Sugar.  Chelsea defiantly shouts her top five to Andre when he asks her who is on her list.  The performance comes off as something of a rallying cry for the current state of Hip Hop and its future.  If the last 30 plus years have taught us anything, it’s that Hip Hop isn’t going anywhere.  As the generations come and go, as in the world of comedy, there will be both stalwarts and neophytes included in top five lists.  No matter your age, sex, race or geographical origin, the only thing that truly matters is who’s in your top five.  Here’s my top five: The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, Nas, Tariq Trotter (Black Thought), and Common.

So, who’s in your top five?

© 2014

You Stay Classy Movies of Lake Worth

When I first saw the trailer for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, I made up my  mind that I would not go to see it.  I just couldn’t see how it would be able to top 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.  It’s been nine years, after all.  I resigned my continuation with the drama of Ron Burgundy and Veronica Corningstone’s tumultuous, and ultra competitive relationship, to the DVD release.  At which time, I would be able to place a hold on the movie at my local library, save my  money, and avoid the hype.  The build up to Anchorman 2 has included everything from Will Ferrell appearing as Ron Burgundy to pitch the new Dodge Durango, to writing a book as Ron Burgundy titled Let Me Off at the Top!: My Classy Life and other Musings.  He even appeared as Ron Burgundy on a Bismarck, North Dakota, local news broadcast, and co-anchored the entire show.  I’ll admit that promo gimmick made me chuckle.  After all, Will Ferrell is a master of improvisation.  But Wednesday, when the movie opened in theaters, I caved to the pressure.  The legend continues.

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything about a movie that I’ve seen.  So I figured, going into Anchorman 2, I would write something about the new Adam McKay sequel.  But on arrival to the movie theater, my instinct told me I might end up writing as much, if not more, about the theater itself.  I’m new to the Lake Worth, FL, area.  So when I did a search on moviefone.com for the nearest theaters showing Anchorman 2, I settled on Movies of Lake Worth located at 7380 Lake Worth Road.  Tickets were listed as $7.00 for adults.  The other theater in Lake Worth advertised their ticket prices as $8.50 for adults.  This was an easy choice.

Movies of Lake Worth is located in a shopping plaza.  It’s very unassuming, evidenced by the marquee which plainly displays the word “Movies” in full view.  The ticket booth employee greeted me warmly when I stepped up to the glass window.  “Anchorman 2 for 1:15pm please,” I proffered while sliding my debit card through the opening in the window.  “Okay, but it’s cash only.”  Her retort confused me.  The last time I frequented a movie theater that accepted cash only was back in the mid 1990’s.  In fact, that theater may have also accepted debit and credit cards, but I would have never thought to use either or, because it was a $1.00 movie theater.  I backed away from the counter, and remembered that I had cash with me as well.   I gave the attendant a $10.00 bill, and she gave me $4.00 back and a ticket stub.  Apparently the matinée cost of a ticket is only $6.00.  That’s a great price!  The ticket stub did not have Anchorman 2 printed on it.  It just said Cinemas: Admit One.

Concession StandI walked into the theater and decided to get a soda.  “What kind of sodas do you have for sale?”  “We have Diet Dr. Brown’s,” the woman behind the concession stand answered.    Her reply befuddled me.  “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?  What type of sodas do you have?”  “Diet Dr. Brown’s.”  At first I convinced myself that she had merely made a mistake and meant to say Dr. Pepper.  But no, she had not made a mistake.  I have never heard of Dr. Brown’s soda before.  Maybe it’s because I’m from the Midwest.  In fact we say “pop” and not “soda” in the Midwest.  But apparently Dr. Brown’s has been around since 1869, as it clearly states on the can.  So what do I know?  “Okay I’ll take a Diet Dr. Brown’s please.”  Dr. Brown'sShe handed me the “naturally flavor black cherry soda with other natural flavors” housed in a pink can, and I handed her $2.50.  Just about that time, as I was turning with my soda in hand to walk into the theater showing Anchorman 2, an elderly woman addressed a man, who looked like he was the manager of the movie house.  “Excuse me sir, could you tell them that the sound is turned down way too low in our movie?”  Then it occurred to me that most of the movie goers around me were about the age of approximately 65-75.  The manager turned toward her.  “Which movie is it?”  “12 Years a Slave,” the elderly woman replied.  “The sound is always low at the beginning of the movie.”  “Oh, okay,” she said, seeming to have accepted that rationale for the inaudible audio in her showing.  Seconds latter a senior couple passed by me on their way to their movie.  “What’s Anchorman?”  “It’s a radio broadcast film,” the man said to his wife.  “Oh, I see,” she said after hearing his confident answer to her question.

As is my normal routine when I go to see a movie, I headed over to the restroom after locating my theater.  I hate it when nature calls during the climax of a movie I just paid to see.  I entered the men’s room, through a walkway which seemed to be designed to evoke feelings of being backstage in a Broadway theater, in the dressing room of the actors.  The gentleman next to my stall had just finished as I began, and was tapping down on the flush handle unsuccessfully.  He let out a frustrated sigh that felt incriminating to my generation, as if to say, “they don’t make them like they used to,” and “that’s what’s wrong with this country.”  As he exited, I pushed down on my flush handle.  The water trickled down sparingly and reluctantly.  I walked over to the sink, and as I washed my hands, I saw another gentleman behind me using the toilet.  The door was open.  He was standing with his back to me, with one hand operating his cell phone pressed to his ear, and his other hand…well, you get the picture.  I’m always tickled by people who are so busy that they have to talk on their cell while urinating.  The phone call was obviously pressing to the point where he didn’t care that the person on the other end of the phone, like me, could hear the splashing.  If Anchorman 2 failed to deliver the guffaws I’d paid for, I could always think back to the laughter I was now suppressing in the men’s room.Restrooms

When I exited the restroom and walked into the theater, I again was transported to the mid 1990’s.  The theater was very similar to those cinema theaters of the 1990’s-narrow and flanked by two columns of seats on each side, with about six or seven seats in each row.  There was only one way in and one way out.  There was only one aisle.  The sound of the projector could be heard in silent pauses during the movie.  Faint traces of those squiggly black lines that surface every half second, in all directions, on every inch of the screen, could be detected.  Visually, those squiggly lines are equivalent to the scratching sounds of vinyl records, which I particularly enjoy from a nostalgic point of view.  There were only five people in the movie theater.  I was the youngest person, and I would venture to say that there were a good three decades of age difference between me and the other people in the theater.  One gentleman had a walker.  I was curious to see how the other movie goers would respond to the raunchy, racist, sexist, crude, low-brow, comedy signature to the Anchorman franchise.  Approximately thirty minutes later, I got my answer.  No one had laughed out loud, except for me, and one woman walked out of the theater.  This only intensified the humor of the socially unacceptable antics of Ron Burgundy, Brian Fantana, Champ Kind, and Brick Tamland.

Without spoiling the movie, I’ll just say that walking into the movie I was sure that Anchorman 2 would not be as funny as the first Anchorman.  Upon leaving the theater after the movie was over, I was no longer sure that Anchorman 2 was not the funnier movie.  The battle of the sexes and glass ceiling theme of the first Anchorman movie, created the kind of archetype awkward tension between Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), that supplied a perfect, seemingly unending stream of hilarious scenarios.  In Anchorman 2, the theme switches to the presence of African-Americans in the workplace.  Meagan Good plays Ron Burgundy’s boss Linda Jackson.  The tension between Linda Jackson and Ron Burgundy is brought on by the sexually aggressive seduction of Burgundy by his boss (Meagan Good is as sexy as ever on-screen).  This conflict coupled with the taboo of interracial sex in the 1970’s and 1980’s is an ordeal ripe for hilarity.  Both Ferrell and Good excel at making the most of this comedic opportunity.  The other themes of what is news, and what is not news, and too much news, supply a concrete foundation for the jokes that follow.  And as if that’s not enough, there’s also Baxter, the irresistibly funny dog and faithful companion of Ron Burgundy.  Baxter is hands down, the funniest dog to ever appear in film.

When the movie ended, the three or four other people still left in the theater made their way out.  I stayed put in my seat, just in case there was an extra scene at the end hinting at an Anchorman 3 movie.  There was not.  The silver-haired gentleman with the walker passed by me.  I nodded out of respect.  I guess if you’re of a certain age, you can sit through Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and not laugh even once.  Perhaps you can even enjoy the movie and not laugh once.  But not me.  I wiped tears of laughter away from my eyes on two occasions.  I laughed hysterically, yet subdued, under my breath, releasing only a few decibels of chuckles during the funniest scenes, out of deference for the other people in attendance.  I didn’t want to ruin their movie experience.  Even though through the whole movie, I wanted to stand up and yell at the top of my lungs, “Are you seriously not finding this to be the funniest shit you’ve ever seen?”

Mural

© 2013

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby (graphite and colored pencil)

It’s official.  My name can now be added to the long list of movie fans who got caught up in the craze of Director Baz Luhrmann’s release of The Great Gatsby.  Blame it on the “man crush” I’ve had on Leonardo DiCaprio ever since Titanic.  Leo’s Jack Dawson made me want to quit college, get on board a ship as a stowaway, go to Paris, become an obscure artist, meet a Rose DeWitt Bukater, and steal her away from her millionaire fiancé.  He made being a poor artist look cooler than being a gangster or a tycoon.  Fast forward 16 years, and you have, essentially, the same story.  A poor guy falls in love with a rich girl, and somehow has to convince her that he’s the right man for her.  He’s got to separate himself from the throngs of obviously more eligible bachelors and wealthy suitors.  He goes on a quest.  He painstakingly sets himself on a course of rigorous self-improvement.  Instead of mastering drawing, he perfects the art of becoming a gentleman; and makes nouveau riche look cooler than inherited wealth.  But this drama doesn’t unfold on the deck of a ship.  Well, part of it does.

Before I saw the movie, I decided to read the book.  Or I should say, I decided to re-read the book.  I remember being assigned F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in high school as a reading assignment.  Probably about 5-10 pages into it, I thought to myself “why the hell do I have to read this?”  I was an African-American teenager, living and attending high school in a predominately White neighborhood.  Back then, The Great Gatsby was just a literary reminder of being Black in a White dominated world.  As the title of Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece echoes, The Great Gatsby reminded me of what it felt like to be invisible.  I did not identify with the protagonist Jay Gatsby, because I did not grow up poor.  I grew up middle class.  The world of the aristocracy was not interesting to read about.  I considered myself anti-establishment.  I did not have aspirations to become rich.  I think mostly, like other teenagers who feel like they’re social outcasts, I just wanted to be left alone.

Fast forward 20 years, and now when I read The Great Gatsby, I don’t necessarily see Jay Gatsby in the mirror, but I do identify with him.  A little.  Somewhat.  I now know what it’s like to fall in love with a girl and lose her to a man who’s got money.  I’ve had that experience.  I know what it’s like to be poor, and want to move up the economic ladder to get the girl of your dreams.  That’s every poor man’s fantasy.  I identified with that hunger.  I identified with that ambition.  While reading, I hoped to soak up any vestige of fortuity still blinking, in this age of The Great Recession, of that “orgastic” green light that Fitzgerald so eloquently wrote about.

The best way for me to describe Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, is to say that it is a movie of contrasts.  From the start, this much is made clear.  A grainy, black and white projection is used for the opening credits, giving them a very Nickelodeon feel.  This nostalgic effect lasts only a few seconds, and gives way to a gilded makeover.  As the opening credits go, so does the music.  The Bryan Ferry Orchestra compositions used in the film constantly tangle with Executive Producer Jay-Z’s soundtrack.  Normally, I prefer a period film to only incorporate music from the era being shown.  Using Hip-Hop music in a Jazz/Big Band era at first would seem to be incongruent.  And it is, from a musical standpoint.  However, this incongruity helped to sharpen the contrasts between the lifestyles of the residents of East and West Egg, with that of the city (New York).  The extravagant parties thrown by Jay Gatsby at his mansion look like scenes from rap videos-everything from custom luxury cars to expensive champagne.  When the jazz music of the era plays in the film, all is gay.  When the rap music blasts from the Dolby Digital Surround speakers in the movie theater, you can taste the excess and touch the decadence.  No “old sport,” this is not your grandparent’s Great Gatsby.  About half way through the movie, I noticed that an older couple, probably in their early 70’s, decided to leave the theater.  I sort of chuckled, but in an understanding way.  They were probably expecting Duke Ellington and Artie Shaw alone to handle the score.  To be honest, so was I.  

The film also presented a spectacular contrast between the living and working conditions of the rich and poor.  The lush green acres of East and West Egg are paradise compared to the dry, gray ash heaps visible on the way into the city; where the sounds of steel driving hammers and gas pumps can be heard, workers are covered in soot, sweat and grease.  But the East and West Eggers are wrapped in pink and white clothes made of the finest materials to be found in the entire world.  It is class struggle in all of its cinematographic glory.

The only qualm I had with the film was that I did not get to meet Jay Gatsby’s father at the end.  This was, perhaps, a minor omission by the film in comparison with the book.  Still, it would have been nice to see Gatsby’s dad.  But I’m just being a stickler, a purist.  I generally enjoy the book better than the film adaptation.  And this was no exception.  That being said, and only having read The Great Gatsby a couple of times, I would strongly recommend it to lovers of the book.

And all that’s really left to say (and please excuse all of my “blushing”) is that once again, Leonardo DiCaprio turned in an extraordinary performance.  By the end of the film, I think I was just as much in awe of Leo as Nick Carraway was of Gatsby.  Maybe it’s because I don’t get invited to parties.  I’m not what you call a cool or hip person.  I don’t have lots of friends.  I never was in the A crowd.  (What a rant!)  But when the movie ended, I felt like Gatsby was my friend.  I felt privileged to get to know him, captivated by how mysterious he was, inspired to throw caution to the wind and dream audacious dreams, like being able to “repeat the past.”  And yes, I’ve since adopted the phrase “old sport” and I plan to use it as often as possible.  (OMG…I think I’m turning into Nick Carraway)

© 2013

The 2013 Columbus Arts Festival

Yesterday, I attended the 2013 Columbus Arts Festival in downtown Columbus, Ohio.  The Columbus Arts Festival features some of the finest artists from around the world.  I was eager to get some pictures taken of all the art on display, but to my dismay, the festival committee enforced a “no photography” of the art rule.  That’s understandable.  If you visit the official 2013 Columbus Arts Festival website, you can view a list of all the artists featured in the festival, and a sample of their incredible work.  (There was, however, no rule against me taking pictures of the graffiti art I spotted just outside of the festival)

Lucky for me, and all the other festival goers, there were plenty of sights to take snapshots of in addition to the tremendous displays of realism, impressionism, postmodernism, mixed media, glass, metal, wood, ceramic, jewelry and photography.  Like many other people yesterday, I found myself pointing my camera at the bending arches and stretching bridges which highlighted the architecture of the riverfront.  The reflections of the downtown Columbus skyline upon the Scioto River, amidst the iridescent bejeweled Main Street Bridge, made for a terrific twilight scene.  The Main Street BridgeThe Main Street Bridge is something of a piece of art in its own right.  In fact, according to downtowncolumbus.com, “The Main Street Bridge is the first inclined, single-rib tied arch bridge in the whole United States.  AND it’s only the fifth inclined arch superstructure on the face of the planet.”

After walking around and looking at all of the art booths at the festival, I decided to visit the Community Stage, and listen in on acoustic guitarist Matt Steidle’s performance.  Matt played a slew of classic covers ranging from George Gershwin’s Summertime to Come Together by The Beatles.  Matt SteidleHe also covered Dave Matthews, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and played his own version of M.Ward’s Chinese Translation.  Though his interpretations of the classics were fantastic, I found his original songs that he shared on stage even more intriguing.  Particularly, one of his songs titled Giggles had the effect of tickling my fancy, as well as my funny bone.   As his skillful solo work on the high E string developed, he added a touch of improvised scatting into the microphone.  A group of children then promptly rushed to the front of the stage and began to dance.  I can’t help but laugh when I see children dance.  Children are so carefree and oblivious to the world’s constrictions, as if they are artists in the making.

After Matt’s set concluded, I headed over to the Word Is Art Stage to hear poetry.  But before I got there, I ran into 2 street performers.  The first performer was The Piano Peddler.The Piano Peddler  This guy was really cool!  He played an electric piano on top of the bicycle he used to arrive at the festival.  He also played a tambourine with his foot, showing off the full extent of his polyrhythm.  The second street performer was Mark Abbati of joyUNSPEAKABLE productions inc.  This guy was really, really cool! Mark Abbati

You’ve probably seen the performers who act as if they are statues and then all of a sudden, miraculously come to life.  If you have not, you’re in for a real treat if you visit his website.  Mark was dressed as a pirate, and entertained the kids and adults simultaneously during his performance.  It was thrilling to watch him spring to life, and then instantly turn to stone.  How does he do that?  (And yes, I did tip both of them, and you should too when you see amazingly talented artists performing on the street!)

Finally, I found my way over to the poetry stage.  Columbus has a very good poetry scene, so I was not at all surprised to find some of the city’s best poets congregated.  The first poet I listed to was Meg Freado.  Meg was the 2nd runner up in the 2013 Columbus Arts Festival poetry contest.  Meg’s poetry was deeply personal and introspective.  She shared a poem about her mother who passed away when Meg was only 17.  Meg FreadoShe shared deeply intimate memories and described, through descriptive prose, just how strong the bond between a daughter and a mother can be, even in the face of death.  Meg used cosmically illustrative metaphors like stardust and moonbeams to accent  her poetry.  My favorite comparison that Meg used to describe love was that of a storm chaser.  To paraphrase, Meg said that if searching for love is like chasing storms, then to find true love, you must not only be a storm chaser, but you must chase every storm.

Next up was the winner of the 2013 Columbus Arts Festival poetry contest.  Her name was Izetta Thomas.  Izetta is a school teacher and specifically works with autistic children.   She’s also one of the best poets in the city, having competed and won in poetry slams (contests) all over the country.  Izetta interwove gospel-styled singing and character portrayal while reciting her poems.  Izetta ThomasHer poetry introduced themes such as identity, childhood, racism, acceptance, and survival.  Izetta’s poem about the teacher strikes that occurred in Chicago, Illinois, in 2012, underscored the urgency of African-Americans in that city.   She asked the question: Where do we draw the line between just compensation for teachers, and ensuring that children have a right to education.  Using the metaphor of cookies being baked in a factory, Izetta’s poem held back no punches, as she lyrically questioned the city’s true intentions in sending children to schools that are inadequately funded and operated.  With a booming voice, Izetta’s poetry stirred the soul of attentive listeners, and raised the consciousness of passing onlookers.

After the poetry ended, I heard a rumble that sounded like thunder.  I looked up and saw that there were no clouds in the sky.  Then I heard it again.  Then I realized it was my stomach.  Yep, time to get something to eat.  And what better place to eat then at a festival?  So I made my way over to the  North Market’s stand (home to delicious food from all over the world) where I happily ordered a lamb and roast beef gyro for $5 (And for the record, it’s pronounced “yeer-oh” not “jai-row” as I used to call it).  Mmmm-mmmm!  Needless to say, I devoured my gyro in less than 3 minutes.  So then I washed it down with a $5 frothy, frosty, full 12 ounce glass of Blue Moon Agave Nectar Ale – a must try for all of you beer connoisseurs out there.

So there you have it.  The 2013 Columbus Arts Festival in a nutshell.  I had a blast!  You will too if you ever decide to go.

Mark Abbati

Downtown, Columbus Riverfront (Graphite and Colored Pencils)

© 2013

The Art of the Garage Sale

There is an art to selling items in a garage sale.  I’m slowly learning this as I’m sitting in our family garage, waiting for the next customer to come walking up the driveway.  Our neighborhood is having a community garage sale today and tomorrow.  What better way to get rid of all the crap…I mean, unused stuff in the basement.  Of course it’s not really crap.  It’s just not useful to us anymore because we’ve either replaced the item up for sale, or outgrown it, or upgraded it, or broke it (yikes), or etcetera.  This was my first attempt to pull off a successful garage sale.  So I thought, why not offer all of you interested readers a narrative of how I helped to put it together.

My first step was to enter, what I like to call, “The Enchanted Forrest.”  It’s otherwise known as the crawl space in the basement.  I call it “The Enchanted Forrest” because it is home to all sorts of fascinating things, some of which can be found in an actual forest; things like insects, spiders, spider webs (huge ones), trees (mostly the kind you put up around Christmas time) and wood (possibly left-over 2×4’s from abandoned projects).  But also in “The Enchanted Forrest” you’ll find treasures; the keepsakes you hid away, money (usually coins but we’ll get back to that in a moment), documents you couldn’t find but desperately needed years ago, and all of the wonderful items that will enthrall your neighbors, as they search through your garage for that one special thing they’ll specifically be looking for.  So don’t throw anything away that you find in your crawl space, because as the old saying goes, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

After I sorted all of the items from the crawl space that I thought were worthy of consideration for our garage sale, my next step was to check with everyone in the house to see:  a) whom the item belonged to, and b) if they were okay with selling it.  The last thing you want to do is sell a painting that belongs to your mother which was given to her by a dear friend, who was a dear friend of the artist.  (Trust me!)  Next I lugged the soon to be merchandise up the stairs and into the garage.  Then I lugged the soon to be merchandise back out of the garage and into the kitchen.  Why?  Because I forgot to sweep the garage first.  So remember to sweep the garage first before you bring out the merchandise!  Your back will thank you.

Okay, so back to the money that you will find in your enchanted forest of a crawl space.  That’s important because you’ll need change for all of your customers.  They’ll be carrying cash but not necessarily one dollar bills, let alone pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters.  Again, make sure it’s your money that you found and not one of your family members’.  The last thing you want to do is cash in your brother’s stash of pennies that he’s been saving over the course of the last 10 years.  It’s down right selfish and he might have been waiting for the right moment to take all of those pennies, roll them up, and buy a pizza.  By the time I rolled up all of the pennies I had saved up, it amounted to $16.  Not bad huh?  As they say, a penny saved is a penny earned.  So I took all my pennies to the bank and exchanged them for one dollar bills-enough to give change to customers who wanted to pay with $5, $10 or $20 bills.

Next, together with my family, we created an itemized list of all of the garage sale merchandise so that we could agree on a selling price.  We contacted my Aunt Theresa, who is an expert with garage sales, for advice on how much to charge for each item.  Here’s a list to give you an idea of what we came up with:

Microwave – $20     Dishes – 50₵     Glasses – 25₵     TV’s – $10     TV Stand – $7     VHS Tapes – $1     Lamps – $2.50     Steamer – $10

Vase – $1 (large)/50₵ (small)     Iron – $2     Ironing Board – $2     Typewriter – $10     T-Shirts – 50₵     Dresses – $2     Hats – $2

Jeans – $2     Hangers – 50₵     Mirror – $5     Electric Skillet – $2

There were more items, but you get the idea.  In our case, our neighbors will be doing us a favor by taking these belongings off our hands.  We’re never going to use them anymore.  They can go and buy this stuff cheap at Walmart or Kmart, or wherever.  But we are giving them a real bargain.  And they are saving us the trouble of having to store it in our basement for more years to come.  It’s good for the environment too, because this stuff won’t end up in a landfill.  It will end up in the home of someone who can actually use it.  It’s a win-win situation.  And the best part is that when they buy it, they’ll thank you and be happy that they found such a great deal!

Okay, not much time before the garage sale starts, and we have a few more important things to do.  Next, I plugged in all of the electrical appliances and entertainment items to make sure they worked.  Check√  Then I made 2 signs that said “Garage Sale” and placed them on both sides of our mailbox so that our neighbors could see it, no matter what direction they were driving past our house.  (I had to learn this the hard way after a man walked up to us in the garage and said “you should have a sign out so that we know you’re having a garage sale”-oops!)  Check√  Fortunately our neighborhood organization publicized the community garage sale on craigslist, and put out signs by the main road so that anyone passing by could see it.

Now, I’ve been told that having refreshments to offer your customers is a good idea.  My cousin P.J. who also has experience in garage sales says that water, sodas, hot dogs and chips can go a long way to boosting your profits.  Ours was a rush job, but in the future, I think that would be an excellent idea, and a nice touch to add in making your garage sale stand out from all of the others.  But I’ve also found out that a good conversation can go a long way in making a sale.  I’ve engaged several customers about their family, sports and other interests so far today.  More than not, the conversation has ended in a sale.

Whatever we don’t sale today, we plan to donate to the Salvation Army and the Kidney Foundation.  However much money we make from our garage sale, our family plans to split evenly.  A neighbor told us she once made $250 from a garage sale.  We don’t have quite enough items to sell in order to hit that mark.  But so far, on this first day of the community garage sale, we’ve made $28.  Not bad for our house being on one of the side streets of the residential community.  All of the houses on the main road get people’s attention first.  Then, if they’re still hunting for deals, they venture down the side roads.  That’s that old rule of where to place a business if you want to be successful-location, location, location.   We still have tomorrow to go.  In fact, tomorrow is Saturday and is being advertised as the “main day of the community garage sale.”

So for the time being, I’ve got a garage full of great stuff to sell, and I’m surrounded by loving family members and fond memories.  Not a bad way to spend the weekend.  Have you ever had a garage sale?  If so, how did it go and what did you do to make it successful?

© 2013

42-The Jackie Robinson Movie

42 is the story of how Jackie Roosevelt Robinson went from an obscure baseball player for the Kansas City Monarchs to the most celebrated personality in all of Major League Baseball.  Robinson wore the number 42 when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, hence the film’s title, and that number was retired once his career came to an end.  No one will ever wear 42 on the baseball field again, except for today, April 15, when MLB annually recognizes the legacy of Jackie Robinson by having all major leaguers wear the number on their uniforms.

If you are a sports fan, or a history buff, then you already know the story of how Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play baseball in the majors.  So if you see this movie, you already know the gist.  A black man is denied access to the “whites only” world of professional baseball until a god-like figure materializes to open the door.  This god-like figure isn’t omnipotent in the sense that he can demonstrate supernatural feats of force.  His omniscience proves his divinity.  And the one thing he knows better than anyone is that money isn’t black or white-it’s green.

When Branch Rickey (the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers played by Harrison Ford) defends his decision to integrate American baseball in 1946, he tells his office staff that there are a lot of black people in Brooklyn who love baseball.  That translates to ticket sales.  The only missing component is a black player.  But not just any black player.  Rickey needs a black player who can not only perform superbly on the field, but equally superb off the field in the torrent of 20th century American segregation.

Rickey and his staff do their homework.  They start analyzing statistics of ballplayers in the Negro Leagues.  Some players have the stats but not the temperament for the job and vice versa.  Some players are too nice and likely “chum” for the sharks in the crowd who will no doubt show their disapproval of a black player with biting barbs.  But after studying Jackie Robinson’s (Chadwick Boseman) profile, Rickey has found his man.  Robinson is perfect.  He attended UCLA.  He’s a former U.S. Army lieutenant.  He was once court-martialed because he refused to sit in the back of a bus, but he was later cleared and given an honorable discharge.  His batting average is .350 (.387 in 47 games with the Monarchs according to the book Heroes of the Negro Leagues by Mark Chiarello and Jack Morelli).  He’s even a Christian.  In fact, he’s a Methodist like Rickey.  So far so good.  The only question is whether or not Robinson can stand up to the test of being jeered mercilessly by racist fans.  As it turned out, Robinson would also have to withstand death threats made to himself, his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) and their infant son.

In the first meeting between Rickey and Robinson, the Dodger owner initiates a role play in his office to gage his soon to be star’s temper.  Only Robinson doesn’t know that Rickey is testing him.  Harrison Ford summons the scoundrel as only he can do from his acting repertoire and calls Boseman’s Robinson a “black son of a bitch.”  Boseman is a monument of restrained, intense furry in his response, standing at attention to face the challenge he’s just been invited to.  He asks Rickey if he wants to see if he’s got the guts to fight back.  Rickey tells him no.  Instead he wants to know if he’s got the guts not to fight back.  The guts not to fight back like their savior Jesus Christ, and instead turn the other cheek.  Later Rickey will be telling him to “run bases like the devil” on the playing field  (Robinson had a penchant for stealing bases and stole home in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series).  But for now, he needs to be reassured that Robinson won’t “mess up all of his plans” to present the first black ballplayer in the big leagues as a decent, amicable guy that won’t sour white America by brawling with the first person who calls him a nigger.

Rickey assigns Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier as Robinson’s guide.  He acts as Robinson’s mentor, prepping him on how he should give interviews to the press and respond to hecklers.  Robinson is dismissive of Smith when the sportswriter asks him how it feels to be trying out for the Montreal Royals (the Brooklyn farm team) en route to becoming a Dodger.  Robinson largely ignores Smith’s question, until the same question is asked of him by a throng of white reporters, to whom he gives the reply that Smith coached him to deliver.  The irony is palpable-a black ballplayer considered insignificant by white ballplayers writing off a black sportswriter.

Robinson gets his first opportunity to not “mess up” Rickey’s plans in a series against the Philadelphia Phillies in 1947.  As Robinson steps up to the plate to bat, Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) pesters him with a vicious string of obscenities.  He ridicules Robinson in a good ole boy twang, calling him “nigger, nigger, nigger.”  His verbal onslaught is unbearable.  It is unceasing.  Tudyk’s repetitive pronunciation of the epithet, and the adjoining chuckle at Robinson’s displeasure was more than enough to unnerve all of the theatergoers in attendance.  It set the stage for the most powerful scene in the movie, (Oscar worthy in my opinion) when Boseman articulates Robinson’s anguish by exploding in the tunnel he walks off into after failing to get on base.  Boseman destroys a bat by swinging it into the walls, fueled by a deafening roar he lets loose from the pit of his soul.  His scream stops time.  It divides Robinson’s existence into two halves.  Before it, he was a black ballplayer in the company of other black ballplayers on the field, collectively struggling against a racist society.  After it, he was the only black ballplayer on the field, expected to war against it all alone.  This wasn’t his first game in the majors.  But it was the first game in which that tension of being the only black ballplayer on the field overcame him.

He collapses onto the floor, surrounded by splintered fragments of his bat.  He is in tears.  This giant of a man is sobbing, almost to the point of being inconsolable.  Rickey finds his way into the tunnel to see Robinson destroyed.  He tells Robinson that he must go back out on the field because he is “medicine.”  By going back out on the field, he is going to heal the wounds that racism has inflicted on the consciousness of everyone watching.  He is America’s panacea.  And by some miracle, Robinson gets up and makes his way out of the tunnel and back onto the field.

The baseball action in 42 was riveting- enough to engage the crowd seated in the showing I sat in to clap and cheer in approval whenever Robinson stole a base or scored a run in the movie.  They clapped just as enthusiastically at the epilogue, some of whom were maybe only 9 or 10 years old.  The fact that those of the younger generation were moved to such a degree is the true testament of 42’s effectiveness.  If the film can emotionally connect with children whose parents weren’t even alive when Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball, then its message is enduring.  That, along with a sensational 1940’s era set and costume design (love those throwback jerseys), makes 42 a home run.

© 2013