[50/50] Movie #14: The Sting

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Favorite Movie #14: The Sting (1973)

thestingSpeaking of old-timey classics, The Sting continues to hold up exceptionally well. This is all the more surprising when you realize that as much time has passed since The Sting was filmed, as the time it’s set in — the Great Depression.

Spinning a yarn of the two smoothest con men to every grace the screen, The Sting singlehandedly relaunched interest in ragtime composer Scott Joplin, and went on to win 7 Oscars, including Best Picture. The Academy Awards are, even in the best of times, either a self-satisfied mutual admiration society or a cynical marketing ploy (or both), but every so often they get it right.

The Sting is a near-perfect movie: an homage to caper films and the golden age of Hollywood, it is slick and entertaining in its own right. And while Paul Newman and Robert Redford are busily conning gangster Robert Shaw, the movie is delightfully misdirecting filmgoers with what’s happening on the screen. When the inevitable double-cross comes at the end, the audience is happy to be played.

This is the 2nd movie on this list by George Roy Hill, one of only three directors to score twice in the 50/50 countdown. His other — Slap Shot — is arguably the best sports comedy of all time. Both Redford and Newman did some of their best work under Hill, but Paul Newman in particular became a master of sly comedy under the director:

[50/50] Game #14: Wings of War

Monday, July 28th, 2014

Tabletop Game #14: Wings of War (2004) and Richthofen’s War (1972)

As today is 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, this is a timely entry. So to speak.

Unlike WWII, which still fuels the wargame industry like a perpetual motion machine, WWI was never a particularly popular era with gamers — with one grand exception. Anything that recreates the aerial dogfights of The Great War sells well — and are invariably fun to play. As deadly as the first use of the aeroplane was in combat (usually to their pilots), the high-flying romance of the period continues to enthrall game designers a century later. Plus, you get to shoot down your buddies, over and over!

There have been dozens of board, video and computer games published over the decades, such as the exceptionally clever Ace of Aces, an elaborately designed pair of books that allows two players to simulate a dog fight, though Avalon Hill’s Richthofen’s War is a sentimental favorite — if for no other reason than it was the first wargame I ever played. It blew me away, and I was hooked after one game. Not just on Richthofen’s War, but wargames in general. Like so many of AH’s titles, it also was slyly educational; soon my brother and I could tell you why a Spad 13 was better than a Sopwith Camel, and pick out the silhouette’s of planes that hadn’t graced the skies in 50 years.

wings of warThe winner though, goes to Wings of War, a game that is simply ingenious in its simplicity. The design is brilliant because you can teach anyone how to play in less than a minute. Turns are lightning fast, and dozens of people can fly at the same time, making it a perfect convention game. With large matches, players also get a true sense of the chaos and capriciousness of a dogfight in the skies over the trenches of WWI, and why a pilot’s career rarely lasted long.

wings of rusty

 

Countdown King

Monday, June 16th, 2014

american_top_40_logoI listened to American Top 40 religiously throughout middle school, famously running out of the room during the ball drop at midnight when WKBO played the year-end countdown on New Year’s Eve. In the mid-’70s, Casey Kasem’s voice was everywhere: countdowns, commercials and cartoons. It was inescapable, and that was OK.

Sadly, his last few months reads like one of the bizarre dedications he made every week on AT40. R.I.P. Casey Kasem

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/16/business/media/casey-kasem-wholesome-voice-of-pop-radio-dies-at-82.html?hp&_r=0

The return of Snooze Button Poetry

Monday, June 9th, 2014

Snooze Button Poetry IV

Scandals and wealth: we get a tour from
Courage to take easy or no show classes.
The mob from scaling them to laying their eggs
New dresses and casual shirts released
……each week
Making it impossible for matter
……to dig out of the black hole.

—May 2014

Save the Murals: The Next Stage

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

#savethesthsmuralsAs I may have mentioned once or twice on facebook — :) — the murals in the halls of Susquehanna Twp. High School received a reprieve this week, when the school board changed the installation plans of a new HVAC system for the building.

This is a huge win for the artists and alumni, who quickly came together to preserve almost 45 years worth of artwork and an important piece of our collective history.

Some of you have been asking what comes next, and how you might help. The deal we reached was made possible by the generosity of the McClure Company — who agreed to knock almost half of the cost needed to protect the paintings during this summer’s construction — but also by a promise from the community to raise the rest of the funds ourselves.

Right now that number is $92,000.

Over the next month, hundreds of alumni and their families will attempt to bridge that gap with an online kickstarter. This includes NFL wide receiver and STHS grad Marques Colston, who is donating some of the proceeds from the remaining home games of the Harrisburg Stampede, his arena football team. We will also be putting together a team of photographers and designers to scan and digitize the murals to create a permanent record of the 80-some paintings that adorn the halls.

mural82If you went to my high school in the early ’80s, you might remember all the time I spent on that scaffolding painting my senior year. (I’ll admit it, it was a good excuse to get out of class, but I still learned an amazing amount that semester.) Now multiply that effort, that creativity, by 80 artists. That’s what we’re trying to save.

So, we’re now asking you, the public, if you would donate and help us reach our goal. $10, $25, whatever you can — it’s all good.

You can give online at https://fundly.com/save-the-sths-murals
— or you may write a check to the STHS Alumni Association,
PO Box 61474, Harrisburg, Pa. 17106-1474.
(Please note “Murals” on your check.)

The Fundly site is convenient but they take 4%-7% for fees. Mailing a check to the Alumni Association has the advantage of being an 501(c)(3) public charity, so your donation is tax deductible, and the full amount goes to Save the Murals.

Thank you. Seriously
+Jape

[50/50] Song #14: “I Ran”

Friday, April 11th, 2014

Song #14: “I Ran (So Far Away)” — Flock of Seagulls (1982)

DebutSeagullsI’ve really enjoyed the rise of Future Islands, a Baltimore-by-way-of-North Carolina band that recently hit critical mass — if for no other reason than I always feel like I’m back in college when I hear them. The time I first saw them, I jokingly described them as A Flock of Seagulls… if Tom Waits had been the lead singer. While Future Islands’ style has since become distinctively their own, they still sound like a they just came through a wormhole from the 1980s.

Hopefully they will avoid the fate of A Flock of Seagulls, better remembered (and mocked) now for their hair than the droll synthpop of their New Wave hits. “Space Age Love Song” and “Wishing (I had a photograph of you)” ensured they wouldn’t be one-hit wonders, but so what — it is “I Ran” that will be played again and again (as it was just about every hour on MTV in 1982). My freshman year at IUP the local automated radio station played it so religiously you could set your clocks by it, and there wasn’t a dorm you could walk through without hearing it echo down the hallway.

As with Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” I could listen to the bionic reverb that makes up the backbone of the song on an infinite loop. Forget about the hypnotically-bad haircut; “I Ran” is mesmerizing all by itself.

Bonus North Carolina connection: After their last hit in 1984, A Flock of Seagulls went into a slow spiral over the next decade or so. The breakup, when it came, was painful, and created a rift between the two brothers at the core of the group. They reportedly didn’t talk to each other for years. It turned out that Alister Score, the drummer, now lives just north of here, one county over. When lead singer Mike Score formed a new version of the band for an ’80s oldies tour in 2008 with Naked Eyes and Human League (cripes it hurt to type that line), and played at nearby Koka Booth, he invited his brother to sit in and play the drums for “I Ran.” Awwww.

“Road to Ritter”

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

0707S_029I first met Mike Ritter in 1999, on the rooftop patio of this great little bar in Chattanooga. Directly across the street from the daily newspaper, it was where all the reporters went to drink after deadline (or, maybe, before), so we cartoonists felt right at home. Mike was going on and on about the classic ‘Road to …’ comedies of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, which, as I would soon discover, were not just his favorite movies, but quite possibly his favorite anything. I remember thinking at the time, ‘no one can talk about Dorothy Lamour’s outfits for 20 minutes and not be gay.’ So, got that right….

Others have recounted his incredible talent, wicked wit, and sense of humor. All true. Mike’s passion and insight were keenly refreshing. He once described the AAEC convention as a necessary way station to recharge his inspiration every year, always giving him just enough of a kick to make it through to the next year’s convention. ‘It’s like one of those turbo boosters on a Hot Wheels track, launching the car around for another lap.’ There isn’t a cartoonist gathering I’ve gone to since where I haven’t thought about that.

I loved Mike’s drawing style and warped perspective — both literally and figuratively. As energetic as his line could be, his work often had a dark tinge to it, full of shadows and inky blackness. My all-time favorite cartoon by him was one on a national frenzy over a huge lottery jackpot, after people had reportedly spent their savings on tickets. A forlorn figure hunches over a pile of shredded lottery tickets in the middle of a vast, empty apartment. The small child sitting on the floor looks up at the figure and asks, “Did we win?” It is heartbreaking.

(I couldn't find the lottery cartoon, but here's an appropriate one.)

(I couldn’t find the lottery cartoon, but here’s an appropriate one.)

Looking back now, I realize it’s been almost 10 years since Mike and I talked, twice as long as the handful of years we were friends. We worked together when he was President of the AAEC, but even then it was clear he was starting to pull away. Mike got harder and harder to get ahold of and, as happened to so many of us, stopped returning my calls altogether. I was happy to hear he had resurfaced in Atlanta a few years ago, apparently successful in rebooting his life.

It sounds as if Mike had begun to reach out to old associates recently. We had friended each other on facebook and traded a few chats, but his untimely demise ended that chance to get drinks and catch up.

You know, I believe “Road to Morocco” might cheer me up. I know Mike would enthusiastically agree.

I survived Three Mile Island

Friday, March 28th, 2014

TMI-credit-Joe-Ulrich-216x300

— An excerpt from my Indy article on TMI:

That night my friend Monty called. They were going to see The China Syndrome, which had opened the week before. My mother objected, but, now that I think about it, her reluctance probably had more to do with the fact that Monty had just gotten his driver’s license than anything else. “We have to go,” I told her. “This is historic! Besides, if there’s a meltdown and evacuation who knows when we’ll see our friends again!” She relented.

The theater was packed. At one point in the movie a character talks about the devastation that will be caused by a nuclear meltdown. “It would destroy an area the size of Pennsylvania!” the character says. The audience went wild. As we left the theater there was a TV news camera crew in the parking lot interviewing people about seeing a movie on a meltdown in the midst of a meltdown.

Read the whole thing here: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/i-survived-three-mile-island/Content?oid=1215163

Photo via WITF

[50/50] Album #14: “The Cars”

Friday, March 28th, 2014

[50/50] Album #14: “The Cars” — The Cars (1978).

The_Cars_-_The_CarsEven when you try and leave the past behind, it has a way of chasing after you. For the last few weeks I’ve been followed around by 1978 and 1979 like a pair of imprinted geese, honking with joy at every rediscovery. Today is the 35th anniversary of Three Mile Island, for instance, and I’ve already seen a half-dozen posts about it from friends on facebook. I heard recently that the boy’s basketball team from my old high school went to the state finals, just like they did in March of ’79. No doubt the school took bus loads of students to see the championship game, just like they did for us 35 years ago, and there’s a good chance a kid like me met a cute girl on the ride out to arena, and got to make out with her on the way back. Considering the finals were held in Pittsburgh, four hours away, that makes it one of the Best. Roadtrips. Ever.

And a short time ago when I was back for a visit to central Pennsylvania, poking around in my parent’s attic looking for something for my brother, I stumbled upon the motherload, the grand prize, The Holy Grail: a box of Super8 movies that has been missing for decades. Most of the reels were animated shorts Brent and I made in 1978 and 1979, and haven’t seen since. I was so excited, I made a detour through Baltimore on my way home to North Carolina to drop off the box at his place, where he planned to inspect and digitalize the aging film.

When I walked in the house, he already had one of our old vinyl records on a restored turntable, and my trip to the past was complete:

While the Cars’ first album peaked on Billboard in March, 1979, it stayed on the charts for the next two years, and spawn numerous singles that are still, no doubt, in heavy rotation somewhere. (It also gets points for having the greatest sampled snippet in a movie soundtrack.)

Anyway, here’s the whole album. “The Cars” by  The Cars:

[50/50] Sci-Fi/Fantasy Book #15: “Gateway”

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Science Fiction or Fantasy Book #15: “Gateway”—Frederick Pohl (1977)

gatewaynovelIn Good News/Bad News news this week, it was announced that “Gateway,” Frederick Pohl’s bleak ’70s masterpiece, has been optioned for development as a TV series. Considering how dark and full of existential dread television has gotten in the last decade, Pohl’s novel of desperate humans on an abandoned alien starbase will fit right in. On the flip side, the production team that snagged the rights is one half De Laurentiis and one half the people who brought us the awful wild west mess “Hell on Wheels.”

Which is a shame. If any novel is well suited to episodic TV, it would be “Gateway” — but only if it was done right. Set years after the discovery of an asteroid full of alien ships is found orbiting the sun, the book chronicles the horrible living conditions humans endure on Gateway, all in the slim hope they might strike it rich. Unable to control, dismantle or decipher the pre-programmed ships, people gamble their lives by climbing in the alien vehicles and hitting the launch button. Most of the time the ships never return, and when they do the crew is frequently dead — on rare occasions, however, someone returns with an alien artifact or other great discovery, one that sets them up for life. Crossing a gold rush with Russian Roulette, the novel is, according to this reviewer, “coated in dread.”

While the core of the book is the unpacking of the mystery of what happened to the protagonist — and the slow unraveling of his post-traumatic stress — the most powerful parts of “Gateway” are the one-page ephemera that divide chapters. Official mission reports that detail the fates of random prospectors, made all the more horrific by the memo’s cold and bureaucratic language, bolstered by snippets of classifieds from Gateway’s newspaper of people reaching out for a connection — any connection — in an uncaring universe.

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