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Up, Up, and Away (Book Review)

The history of the Montreal Expos is not a happy one.

This is pretty easy to assume, considering that they have been gone for over a decade now, leaving Montreal for Washington, DC, and now call themselves the Nationals.

expo3It can be debated as to whether Major League Baseball in Montreal was a success or a failure, in the end. Those who saw the final days of the Expos, with laughably minuscule crowds in the grotesquely expansive Big O (Olympic Stadium), perhaps the worst ballpark in the majors, may assume that the city was always neglectful of their team, and that they deserved to have them pull up camp and head for Washington.

Carter, Dawson, Rogers, Raines, OliverBut there is more to it than that.

Montreal loved the Expos. Passionately. There were the good times, when the team was consistently competitive (even getting a game away from a World Series appearance), and the Big O was packed. Players became local legends, and there was even a time where it could be argued that the Expos surpassed the legendary Canadiens as the most popular team in town.

But there were too many failings that forced the team to leave.

Following the tragedy of the players strike in 1994, which wiped out the Expos best chance at winning it all (the team was the best in the MLB at the time of the strike, and they were absolutely an incredible team, just look at that roster!), new owners decided that they needed money, and completely stripped the team in a Florida Marlins-esque fashion. It truly was the death knell for the team. Cheap owners, the abandonment from corporate Montreal, and some questionable decisions by the league made it impossible for them to stay.

expo4But there were definitely plenty of good times.

In Up, Up and Away, we are provided with the complete history of the team, from their hilariously thrown together inception in to the league, to their final days before leaving. It is a story of ups and downs, of a city falling for a bunch of underdogs, and finally rejoicing when they were good for real (that ’94 team remains possibly the greatest “what if” team in baseball history), readers are provided with a much clearer understanding of the last franchise that was forced to relocate, and the first one who had to do so in the previous four-plus decades.

There are plenty of great stories in here provided by author Jonah Keri, a die-hard fan of the team. He brings to life the characters that put on the baby blue uniforms and questionable caps of the Expos. He talks about the great players that went through, and the minor ones that are barely remembered. He discusses the fever that the city would get whipped into when the Expos would be challengers for a pennant, and we are taken to a time when they really were Canada’s team, before the Blue Jays came around and stole most of the coverage the Expos received.

While the book is not perfectly written, and often takes us into too many details of trades, it does a good job of helping us remember the scrappy team that ended up being abandoned by everybody in Montreal. The stories of the terrible ballpark and the failed attempts to get a new one. It is easy to tell that Keri writes with passion, on occasion bringing us into his personal experiences of fandom. Personally, I felt that parts of the book could have used a more personal touch, but as it stands, Up, Up and Away will stand as the most definitive history of the team that we have in book form.

expo5For fans of baseball, this is a good read. For those of us who remember the Expos, it is incredibly interesting to read about, and remember, the plethora of great players that went through that city on their way to massive, Hall of Fame careers.

And it makes us sad, because what could have been in Montreal. With only a couple of breaks here and there, either on the field or off of it, we could be looking at a completely different history of the team, one who could still possible reside in La Belle Province.

And that is what makes the Expos such a tragic team.

What could have been.

Up, Up and Away is a good read, and belongs in the pantheon of the many great baseball books out there.

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K2: Siren of the Himalayas (Film Review)

There are a ton of options out there for people who are interested in mountaineering documentaries, especially about the world’s most dangerous, and second tallest mountain, K2.

Despite having seen a number of shows about the perilous, and often unsuccessful, climb to the top of the mountain, each one of these documentaries offers something different. K2: Siren of the Himalayas is no exception, and it, like many others, offers incredible views of the mountain as a group of expert climbers make their assault(s) on the summit in hopes of getting to the top of the mountain with the highest death rate and fewest summits (barely over 300) of all the 8,000 meter monsters.

k22The film begins with the trek to base camp, where things become very real almost immediately, as the group watches a man skiing down a portion of the mountain die. From there, we are provided with insight into the methods and routes that can be taken to get to the top of K2. Going up to camps and back down, simply to acclimatize the body for the oxygen deprived ascents is grueling work, and by the time a group tries to go for the summit, they have already basically climbed the lower portions of the mountain several times.

K2 is a fascinating beast. It has been determined that there really is no easy route to the top, each one providing climbers with its own unique set of dangers and perils. K2 is definitely not Everest, where a parade of people manage to summit the mountain on a daily basis during the peak climbing season. K2 is a wasteland of destruction, serving yearly reminders of just how dangerous it is, despite not being the highest peak on the planet.

k23Siren of the Himalayas is a solid documentary, full of interesting mountaineers, and it does a good job to parallel their current trip to the original journey on K2, 100 years prior to their attempt. This provides us with not only the modern view of climbing the mountain, but the original perspectives of just how difficult the mountain is, from a far more primitive time. From the original journey to attempt to map out the mountain and find routes up in 1909, it still took nearly half a century before someone was able to make it to the top, which speaks bluntly to the difficulty of the mountain.

As badly as we may want our group to make it to the top, they are an intelligent and experienced group of climbers, and are smart enough to know when their bodies have simply had enough, and when the conditions are dodgy enough that they have to turn around. We aren’t provided with a bunch of brainless adrenaline junkies, but people who love the experience, and respect the environment. The hardest thing must be to be at the fourth and final high altitude camp, with the summit only a few hundred meters away, and realize that today simply isn’t your day.

k24But when it is a matter of life and death, as it so often is on K2, these decisions need to be made.

K2: Siren of the Himalayas provides us with the breathtaking sights seen from K2, including the famous pyramid shadow from the summit. It is always wonderful to look at, and has done a good job of capturing just how tough some of the sections of the mountain are, with its massive incline and waist deep snow.

For those who enjoy these types of adventure documentaries, you might as well add this one to the list, as it adds to the lore of the world’s most dangerous mountain. A good view.

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Sharknado 2 (Film Review)

Of course, Sharknado is one of the cheesiest, and most ridiculous TV films ever made.

Which, naturally, means that it is quickly becoming a cult phenomenon (one way to tell is the increasing number of cameos in this second film), and is already spawning a trilogy, in which our heroes must fight off multiple tornadoes filled with people-eating sharks.

shark2For the second installment of the series, ingeniously titled, Sharknado 2: The Second One, we get to see our central character, Finn (played by Ian Ziering), as he heads to New York with April (Tara Reid). She has written a book about the events of the first Sharknado that struck Los Angeles, and he is struggling with flashbacks to the events of the first disaster. On their flight, Finn sees sharks outside the plane window, which of course leads him to exclaim that, “It’s happening again.”

Some kind of superstorm is hitting New York City, and it is scooping up sharks along the way, to wreak havoc on the nation’s largest city. Well, something must be done to save the city once again, and Finn steps it up, as he did before in LA.

Sharknado 2 provides us with all the cheese that the first one did, which makes it oddly watchable and fun. Be sure to completely shut your brain off for this one before starting it up, because pretty much everything in the film is unrealistic and ridiculous, right down to the incredibly hammy acting and terrible dialogue. They don’t mess around too much with this one, and right from the beginning, it is pretty much action all the way through to the predictable ending of the film. We get to see some sharks shot, and chainsawed, and blown up. We get to see April have her hand chewed off, wonder if that shark actually remembered who she was, and we get to see Tara Reid at least try to act (we are not convinced by the end that this is accomplished).

shark3And of course, we get to see Finn stand above an expectant crowd, ready for him to step up and be the hero once more, and provide us with a delicious Independence Day-style speech about why New Yorkers are the toughest people on Earth.

It is insanely brilliant.

There is nothing new here compared to the first version of Sharknado, but if you were able to mightily suspend your disbelief enough to enjoy the cheese-fest of the first one, then the sequel is worth checking out as well. It is absolutely terrible, but almost in a good way.

I wish that they would have spent a little bit more money on some special effects, to at least make the sharks look like more than okay cartoons. I get it that cult classics and TV movies aren’t supposed to have good special effects, and I’m not asking for multiple millions of dollars to be spent on it. But with a strange following already set up, it seems like the producers could have dumped a little more money in there, just to ironically provide some kind of realism to the show. Maybe that would take away a bit from the overt cheesiness, but I’d be alright with that.

Regardless, Sharknado 2 is stupid, and a complete waste of time to watch.

So much so, that I can’t wait for Sharknado 3 to come out.

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Danger 5: Season 1 (TV Review)

I’m not exactly sure how I came across the Australian TV series Danger 5 on Netflix (it must have been on one list of recommendations for me or another), but I’m glad I did.

What Danger 5 has provided viewers with is a delightfully ridiculous show that is a throwback to the spy pulp series of the past, which includes a strong sense of humour and lovably insane stories.

danger2Think Batman (the old one, with Adam West), mixed in with the absurd special effects of The Thunderbirds, and you are on track for the visual appearance of Danger 5. As for the story, it focuses on a group of five international spies that have to undertake different missions, but always have one goal in mind: to kill Hitler.

Many of the episodes have some of the most incredible episode titles ever: “I Danced for Hitler”, “Lizard Soldiers of the Third Reich”, and “Fresh Meat for Hitler’s Sex Kitchen.” Brilliant. And the stories of the shows don’t vary too much from the title. For example, there is indeed an episode where the Danger 5 gang has to stop the Nazi dinosaurs that are being created in a mysterious region of Antarctica, complete with claymation dino attacks and endless tongue-in-cheek jokes.

danger3Throughout Danger 5, there are some strong running jokes, such as the male members of the group being secretly, and not so secretly, in love with the female members, or a villain always revealing a perfect drink mix to one of the 5 as they are about to die. The ending of each show finishes in the same way, with the heroes relaxing in their lounge, smoking and drinking with members of the enemy side, sharing laughs and cocktails. And naturally, there is a reason in each episode for the female characters to be put into some kind of skimpy, 60’s style outfit.

danger4Despite how honestly ridiculous it is (and of course, it is intended to be this ridiculous), it is a fun show to watch, and it becomes our version of what so many shows in the 60’s were kind of like (or at least our how our modern views perceived them as being). Danger 5 gives us a true throwback series that we can sit back and enjoy without having to think too much. There is pretty consistent action, and the characters themselves are all humorous and enjoyable. Since the group is international, some of the characters speak in subtitles, which adds to the fun and cheesiness of the show. We have Ilsa, who speaks Russian, and of course, the recurring character of Hitler, who only speaks in German. Yet it is done seamlessly, and actually adds to the spy feeling of the show.

Surely, there must be controversy that goes along with Danger 5, and this would focus on the guts to make Hitler a comedic character in a series. But it is not intended to offend, it is simply providing us with an alternate view of things, the whole while having tongue planted firmly in cheek.

And when it comes down to it all, that is exactly what Danger 5 is: fun.

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Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (TV Review)

The whole premise of the new Netflix series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, is pretty funny, and the success of the entire show is based on the likability of star Ellie Kemper.

She has always been a goofy, enjoyable character, from our previous times seeing her on her years on The Office and in films like Bridesmaids. That continues on her new show, and makes it worth watching.

kimmy2Kimmy is one of the “Indiana Mole Women,” a group of girls who had been held in an underground apocalypse bunker for 15 years, because they were told by their cult leader that the world outside had ended. Finally found, they are released into the world, and the plucky Kimmy decides to give life in New York City a shot. She quickly gets a job as a nanny, and from here we are able to see her try to reincorporate herself into the normal world, of which she has missed so much.

The initial season provides some good laughs, and doesn’t rely too heavily on the fact that Kimmy is definitely out of the loop. If you think of the advances and changes over the past 15 years, she definitely gets on her feet pretty quickly, and is able to adapt to the new world fairly seamlessly (this can be irritating at times, but it generally works for the show). There could have been several episodes where she is discovering new things, but the writers hold back, almost putting it in the background at times that this woman lived underground for a long period of time.

The show was created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, so there is a definite sense of humour that is parallel to what we witnessed on the often great 30 Rock, including the use of Jane Krakowski again, in a role not terribly dissimilar to her one on Fey’s previous series. Unbreakable, like 30 Rock before it, is very watchable, and it shouldn’t take too long for viewers to pour through the first season of the show. It is easily digestible, and generally fun as we watch Kimmy, the Mole Woman with the heart of gold, try to make it in the world, while at the same time trying to rectify her own questionable past.

kimmy3One of the best roles in the series has to be John Hamm, who plays the Preacher/Cult Leader Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (one of the best character names ever), in his own brand of goofy and hilarious.

Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t really offer high brow comedy, but it is a good little sitcom that hopefully has some legs and is able to produce a couple more entertaining seasons. Most of the episodes are fun to watch, and it never gets too bogged down in the emotional side of things, instead, thankfully focusing on the quirky and silly. That is what makes the show an entertaining watch. It never really takes itself too seriously, and the primary focus is always on having a good time, instead of going through the emotional hell it would have actually been for a character in Kimmy’s situation.

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Detachment (Film Review)

Well, this movie is depressing.

Detachment, starring Adrien Brody as a substitute teacher who tries to avoid close human relationships and has pretty much shunned having feelings at all, takes a month-long position at a troubled school, where the staff and students are burned out. Here, despite still being a lost soul, he is able to make some semblance of connections with the people he works with and some of the students. At the same time, outside of the school, he takes in a young runaway prostitute, also lost in the world, and they manage to form a deep connection, based on their mutual sense of being lost.

detach2The film provides us with an all-star cast, including many of the small roles, and this manages to add depth and credibility to the entire film. The focus is clearly on Henry Barthes (Brody), but some of the other characters are provided with their brief times to shine, and reveal their characters. Their stories definitely remain secondary, but they provide a renewed sense of hopelessness to the entire story, as they are in their own versions of troubled lives, centered around the endless issues at the school.

Detachment provides a view of the workings of a poor American school, stuck in a system that demands results without providing the opportunities for success, and the people that are being run down by these expectations. Violent students, an uncaring generation, a lack of funds or proper leadership, a staff of teachers who have long given up the dream of actually helping people and going into survival mode, all contribute to the dark tone of the film.

The story itself is quite engrossing, and despite knowing better, we can’t help but hope that things work out for the characters that we get to know and understand. But the problem with a cycle of incompetence is that it is a cycle, and it will keep on moving, regardless if the film has ended or not.

detach3It makes Detachment a pretty sad movie.

I did not love the direction by Tony Kaye in this film, however, despite it remaining a strong story. Many scenes felt as though he was trying too hard to make it artsy, and often the interviews with the teachers were unneeded and somewhat clunky, providing a little bit too much melodrama for my taste. But that is simply my opinion, and it didn’t really take away from what is a powerful story of lost souls finding one another in a time and place where they probably shouldn’t find one another.

Detachment is an excellent film, and one that should be viewed, especially by teachers. While it may crush the remaining ounce of hope they may have that they are able to make a difference in the lives of their students, it is still an interesting study of the educational system that is undoubtedly broken, and dragging people down with it.

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House of Cards: Season 3 (TV Review)

Frank Underwood is the President of the United States.

And he is still just as vicious as he has always been.

In the third season of the Netflix original series, House of Cards, we go into the Oval Office to see how Underwood handles the responsibility of being the most powerful man on Earth, and one half of the most powerful couple in the world.

cards2Although something has changed in this season: people are starting to stand up against him. Finding it difficult to get things done with the bureaucracy of the White House and Congress, Frank needs to go to different lengths to get things done. Only now, every move he makes is very visible in the media, and he is constantly questioned about his actions. It provides us with a new look at the way he deals with things with a ton of problems in his face.

Season 3 provides us with some continuing story lines, some of which aren’t completely necessary. I could have lived without the story of Doug trying to hunt down Rachel, to get revenge for the attack in the woods. While it really created and rounded the character of Doug, at times it felt like it was filler, as we waited to get back to the good stuff with Frank and Claire.

Some of the best scenes revolve around Underwood and his meetings with the Russian president as they try to negotiate (several times) over issues in the Middle East, a UN mission, problems in the United Nations Security Council, and with near constant manipulation of one another. It makes for good TV, and it provides us with someone who is not afraid of Underwood, and is not afraid of using his own tactics against him.

cards3We also get a continued look at the media, this time with Frank allowing a book to be written about him that is supposed to promote his idea for America Works, an all-inclusive plan to eliminate unemployment in the country. Here we are provided with an almost sensitive side to Frank, along with perhaps the weirdest scene in the entire series, during one of his late night meetings with the author he has hired to write the book.

New competition rises for Frank, as the primaries begin before the upcoming general elections. This creates the usual back alley deals and tricks in order for him to get where he wants to be. It also exposes us to one of the better characters on the show, Jackie, played extremely well by Molly Parker.

cards4House of Cards provides us with the entertainment that we are used to: a ruthless power couple constantly trying to expand and maintain their grip on power. This season is a little different than usual, in that Frank has now achieved everything he had wanted. He sits in the most powerful chair, so what could be next for him?

Legacy.

The third season is easily watchable, with a consistently strong script, good acting (highlighted of course by the lovably evil Kevin Spacey), and excellent directing. While not every part of the season is must-watch TV, the central story line remains exciting and entertaining, and we are always left to wonder how this man is able to get so many things done. He is good at what he does, and still is not afraid to stomp on whoever gets in his way.