Archive for August, 2015

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Straight Outta Compton (2015)

August 20, 2015

Starring: O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti
Director: F. Gary Gray (Friday, Set It Off, The Negotiator, Law Abiding Citizen)

Bottom Line: I can still remember when my mom took my Dr. Dre The Chronic CD in disgust and hid it from me all the way back in 1993. I can also remember her driving me to Blockbuster Music to buy Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle just a year or two later. Go figure. Regardless of how ambiguous my parents were about whether or not I should be listening to gangster rap music when I was just becoming a teenager, they made one thing abundantly clear: rap was crap and there was no way it would last. Well, it’s 25 years later and not only has hip-hop become one of the most financially lucrative genres of music in the entire industry, but we are getting Straight Outta Compton, a biopic detailing the rise and fall of the pioneering rap group N.W.A. – a movie that is generating early Oscar buzz from a group of voters that probably used to make my parents look like radicals.

I loved it. As a hip-hop aficionado, Straight Outta Compton felt like a gift from F. Gary Gray given specifically to me. It’s an epic picture that covers the formation of N.W.A., a group consisting of MC Ren, DJ Yella, Easy E, and two entertainers that are still superstars today, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. From their humble beginnings coming from next to nothing in the ghetto of Compton, California, to their rise to the pinnacle of hip-hop while becoming public enemy #1, to the fragmentation of the group due to contract and payment disputes, to on record beefs with Ice Cube after he left the group, all the way up to Dre’s time with Death Row Records and Easy E’s tragic death due to HIV, Straight Outta Compton misses very little in the retelling of N.W.A.’s story.

Maybe it was because the Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious left such a bland taste in my mouth, but for whatever reason, I had little expectations for Straight Outta Compton up until I saw its first trailer and saw how authentic everything looked. The casting seemed solid and the idea of using Ice Cube’s son O’shea Jackson, Jr. seemed like a stroke of brilliance to me. Let’s just hope he can act! And boy can he. At least as his dad, which might not be the biggest stretch of his now promising career. He channeled Ice Cube so well and looked so much like his father, that it really feels like you’re watching a young Cube play himself in the film. It’s a remarkable performance. Jason Mitchell was stellar as Easy E and the rest of the supporting cast was solid as well. Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre was the only actor in the main cast that I didn’t love. He wasn’t exactly a dead ringer for a young Dre and there were a couple moments in the film where I actually winced at some of his acting. All in all though, the cast really brought this story to life and I was impressed with how genuine it felt. There were plenty of intense scenes involving encounters with police, other rap figures, gangs, good ole Suge Knight, and, sometimes, each other. Perhaps the best sequence in the film is when Ice Cube embarks on his solo career and the group makes a subliminal remark about him, sparking him to respond with his classic “No Vaseline” – and then watching as the remaining N.W.A. members and their entourage react as they listen to it for the first time. It’s comedy gold.

Now, while I was super impressed with Straight Outta Compton it was hard not to notice some inconsistencies as someone that grew up during the late 80s and early 90s. First, in the great opening sequence of the film, Easy E is seen trying to evade police during a drug house raid in 1986 while wearing a Chicago White Sox hat with a logo the MLB team wouldn’t adopt until the early 90s. Also, there’s a scene at Death Row Records where Tupac is seen recording his record “Hail Mary” right before Dre plays him the beat to “California Love.” While this certainly could have happened, it seems unlikely considering that “Hail Mary” appeared on the Makaveli album after “California Love” was released on Tupac’s previous album All Eyes On Me. Also, I couldn’t help but feel that Dr. Dre’s executive producing credit had a direct affect on his portrayal in the film. For one, there was no mention of his assault of female rapper/television personality Dee Barnes. For two, it’s pretty common knowledge in the hip-hop world that Dr. Dre is a studio gangster – I’ve heard rumblings about how “soft” he is for years. Straight Outta Compton paints a pretty picture: Dre is seen throwing blows and getting buck on multiple occasions, including getting right up in the face of notoriously scary Suge Knight and telling him he’s leaving Death Row Records. It’s a scene I just can’t imagine ever happened. Suge Knight was, and remains, a completely psychopath, with an affinity for violence and no moral compass. There is no way he let Dr. Dre talk to him like that and walk away unharmed. It just didn’t happen. Finally, the film completely skips past the on record beef between Easy E and Dr. Dre, which seems like a pretty substantial part of the N.W.A. story.

Still, those are small nitpicks and they don’t bring down the quality of the film at all. Straight Outta Compton was a total thrill ride. As a huge rap fan growing up, this movie was like eye and ear candy to me. There are tons of references to songwriting and performances of classic N.W.A., Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre songs. I enjoyed almost every minute of it’s absurdly long (yet seemingly too short) running time. It’s an absolute must see for hip-hop fans, but I also think it has a broader appeal since it’s such a great movie. In fact, I think I’ll be going out of my way to recommend it to my mom and dad, and you know what, they’re going to love it.

Replay Value: It’s a must own for me.
Sequel Potential: None. (Edit: Apparently I spoke to soon. While there probably won’t be a direct sequel, the success of this film already has the industry rumbling about a biopic detailing the rise of Snoop Dogg, Warren G, Nate Dogg, and the Dogg Pound.)
Oscar Potential: This is where it gets interesting. My initial feeling after watching Straight Outta Compton was that it was my favorite movie of the year so far. Then I started wondering if other people, like potential voters, might feel the same way, and early reviews and buzz has this movie receiving some consideration. I think the actors playing Ice Cube and Easy E could be seen as long shots for acting noms, and the movie itself should have at least an outside chance at a Best Picture nomination… of course, with those kinds of possibilities, also comes possible nominations for directing, cinematography, writing, and various other technical aspects. It will be curious to see how things develop as, right now, Straight Outta Compton doesn’t have a lot of stiff competition just yet.

Grade: 8/10 (Excellent)

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Open By Andre Agassi – an absolute must read

August 14, 2015

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Somewhere in my memory banks I feel like I remember hearing that Andre Agassi’s Open was an extraordinary autobiography. I’m glad for the recall, because by the end of the vivid, brutal prologue in which Agassi describes one of his last tennis matches, I could tell that I was in for something special. It was an incredibly detailed and powerful introduction to the book and I was immediately hooked. There is no co-author listed, so Agassi seems to have written this book mostly on his own and the quality of the writing is stunning for a star athlete – and high school dropout.

I was surprised by this book. Not just by how engrossing and well written it was, but by how wrong my impression of Andre Agassi was. I’m no tennis fan, so as one of the most notable stars of the sport during my lifetime, I just assumed that a) Agassi was a confident athlete and b) that he dominated the sport for his entire life. Open tells quite a different story. In fact, two of the biggest themes in the book are overcoming constant failure and battling a severe lack of self-confidence. We’re talking about a man that was so insecure that when his hair started thinning, he wore this catastrophe on his head:

Agassi says that one of his brother’s was nicknamed “born loser,” but after reading this book, it’s a pretty fitting description for Agassi himself throughout much of his life. Though Agassi clearly reached the pinnacle of his sport, it was a roller coaster of a ride with plenty of ups and downs and his biggest obstacle throughout his career was frequently himself. Throughout his book, he states that he “hates tennis” and never once wavers from this stance. From his days as a child when his father forced him to return tennis balls in their backyard in scorching Las Vegas heat against a serving contraption Agassi coldly refers to as “The Dragon,” for hours upon hours day after day, to his days at #1 in the tennis rankings, he consistently expresses contempt for a profession he never really chose for himself. It’s a life his father chooses for him, unrelenting pressuring Andre, until the day his son’s body physically can’t take it anymore. My favorite moment in the book involving Agassi’s father is when NFL legend Jim Brown is looking to play someone for money and Agassi’s father gets Brown to agree to play a 9 year old Andre heads up for $10,000. Unfortunately for Team Agassi, someone warns Jim that he’s going to get smoked and they wind up playing for a measly $500 and Andre destroys him.

While Agassi’s relationship with his father was hard and single-sighted, he develops plenty of father-like relationships throughout his career. In fact, if one is to believe Agassi’s description of his psyche, I’d say the team of men he surrounds himself with is highly responsible for most of his success. Without this incredibly strong foundation, Agassi seems like the kind of individual that would have eventually crumbled under his own self-doubt, rendering himself irrelevant in the tennis world. The team consists of Gil, Agassi’s strength and conditioning coach, sometimes bodyguard, and frequent rock; JP, a pastor with a unique approach that helps guide Agassi spiritually and mentally; Perry, Agassi’s lifelong best friend; and Brad Gilbert, his tennis coach and the final piece of the puzzle to get the struggling star to the top of the tennis world. There’s little doubt that without these men in his life, helping him along, Andre Agassi would have been remembered for his ridiculous hair and little else.

The women in Andre’s life don’t seem to have quite as profound an affect on his career, but were still very notable due to his high profile relationships. He spent a significant amount of time with Barbra Streisand and Andre leaves things quite a bit vague as to how intimate things actually were with the famed singer/actress, who had a whopping 28 years on him. While it’s pretty clear that they dated, he never goes into detail about their sex life and their relationship seemed platonic enough that maybe they didn’t even have one. Though Agassi winds up marrying and staying with Stephie Graf, his Holy Grail, that he declares an infatuation with from a young age, it’s his troubled marriage with Brooke Shields that takes center stage in Open. From the beginning, if one is to believe Agassi’s depiction of things, the Shields-Agassi union seems to come to fruition more so because it can than because Andre actually wants it to. So when they eventually become married, things quickly unravel because they just don’t seem to have any real chemistry together. Perhaps the most interesting moment of his time with Shields is when she gets a guest appearance on the hit show “Friends” and Agassi steams off stage after watching Brooke lick Matt LeBlanc’s hand. It’s a moment I’ve seen a number of times on the show that now carries a little extra weight to it.

Open is a great piece of writing. Agassi makes a sport that I’ve never found particularly interesting to watch on T.V., incredibly riveting just by listening to his descriptions of his matches. It’s an incredibly thorough and brutally honest book. I’ve read some borderline scathing biographies before (I’m thinking Mickey Mantle), but Andre Agassi gets so personal and self-deprecating in this book that readers have little reason to doubt anything he says. He admits to using crystal meth while he was bottoming out in his career and there are very few moments in the book that are undeniably happy. It’s a dark book from a man that doesn’t seem to understand himself until after his legendary sports career has come to an end. I couldn’t possibly recommend this book more – it’s easily one of the best sports biographies I’ve ever read and this is coming from someone who is in no way, shape, or form, a fan of tennis.

Finally, kudos to Erik Davies, who reads the book for its audio format. Davies gives quite easily the best non-fiction reading I’ve heard to date.

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The Gift (2015)

August 10, 2015

Starring: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton
Director: Joel Edgerton

Bottom Line: The Gift is a surprisingly solid thriller from first time writer/director (and co-star) Joel Edgerton. Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall play a seemingly normal and happy couple buying a new home in his old home town only to have things turned upside down when an odd man from the husband’s past (Edgerton) shows up with an unhealthy fascination with getting involved in their lives. It’s a pretty simple plot that is unraveled masterfully by Edgerton in his feature film directorial debut. The Gift is the ultimate slow burn – at times it can feel like the pacing is snail-speed, but it’s all worth it, as there’s an undeniable tension throughout the film, even during scenes of what seems like banal dialogue. For a movie with very few obligatory scare moments – there is one scene that made the entire theater jump in terror and then laugh at how silly we all are – The Gift is patently chilling.

It’s refreshing to see Jason Bateman play against type in The Gift. While he provides some moments to chuckle at, his character is no comedian and his dramatic, sometimes mean, performance is pretty impressive. Even though Bateman gets top billing, Rebecca Hall is quite obviously the film’s star and her performance is top notch. She shifts gears with ease and displays a wide range of emotions throughout the film; this is a fully realized character with an acting job to match. Joel Edgerton is wonderfully mysterious and creepy as the old schoolmate, but his work off the screen as writer and director is what he should really be praised for.

I thought The Gift was going to be in the horror genre, but it’s clearly in suspense/thriller territory. Though my expectations were dramatically raised by strong reviews by the time I watched it, The Gift is a very pleasant surprise for 2015. Several months ago, I would have never guessed I’d even want to see this movie. It’s certainly worth the overwhelmingly positive praise it’s been receiving and gets a strong recommendation from me.

Replay Value: I would watch it again because it was good, but a lot of the film’s strength is based on the suspense of not know what’s going to happen.
Sequel Potential: There is some remote chance of a sequel, but I think it would be a bad play.
Oscar Potential: Rebecca Hall gives a strong performance, but it would surprise me to see this type of movie get awards attention.

Grade: 7/10 (Must See)

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Poker Goals – July 2015

August 6, 2015

July 2015 was one of the most turbulent and frustrating months of poker I’ve ever experienced. I started the month off hot, winning 8 of 9 sessions, including a solid showing in the Muckleshoot spread game on Super Sunday. All in all, after 5 days, I was up over 60 big bets at my normal limit.

I followed that happy start with back-to-back-to-back -$800 sessions over a three day period, which amounted to the largest downswing (in terms of money lost) I’ve experienced in at least five years – or since the days when alcohol used to wipe my entire bankroll out on a regular basis. Of course, now that I’m playing $8/$16 regularly instead of $4/$8 I’m not surprised to have bigger financial downswings, but having it happen so severely in three short days was a bit jarring.

It was a short lived disaster, however, as I quickly recovered by going on a massive heater that included nine straight winning days and profits in 12 of 13 total sessions. All in all, this stretch was good for a 260 big bet upswing and changed my game plan for the month. I initially planned to play the Muckleshoot deep stack tournament every Tuesday night, but since I was running at around $100 an hour in my normal game, I couldn’t really justify wasting my time in a tournament where my best result so far has been getting my money back. Even though running in the 4-5 BB/HR range is totally unrealistic, this wasn’t my first stretch like that this year, and running extremely well can affect your emotions and game just as much as running bad can. It’s easy to forget how hard poker can be when you go through a hot streak like this.

I was quickly brought back to reality over the last week or so of July. I played a mere 20 hours over 5 days, but I got clobbered again. I was losing hard and I was losing fast. My starting hands were running pretty good, but I was whiffing the flop almost every time I raised and when I did connect, I would win a small pot or lose a big one. My draws were pretty much never coming in and it really felt like an impossible task to show down a winner. Not only did I run at -$108/hour over this period, but I also lost more money in a single limit session than I have since I’ve started tracking all my results five years ago. Again, now that I’m an $8/$16 regular, this is to be expected. Not only are my downswings and single session losses going to be bigger financially, they are also likely to be bigger proportionately since the $8/$16 game I play in is significantly more volatile than the $4/$8 games I used to play. My worst result in a normal $4/$8 game was -66.25 big bets. That’s over thousands and thousands of hours – so probably as bad as it was ever going to get. In what is probably less than 1000 hours of $8/$16 lifetime, I’ve already far exceeded that bad result, by posting a -77 big bet session during this stretch of run bad.

All in all, it was a pretty bizarre month. I ended up with a pretty dinky profit for July which I guess is pretty nice considering I not only experienced my worst downswing of the past five years, but also my second worst downswing. On the other hand, it’s also pretty disappointing, since three weeks into July I was having an amazing month and felt like I was basically printing money. Oh well. It was a good exercise for my mental game and while I was incredibly disappointed with myself during that six rack loss – I felt physically ill and I was incapable of even pretending to be interested in what anyone was saying to me – the feelings didn’t linger and I felt normal by the time I got home usually and certainly by the next morning. So even though I felt some emotional collapse at the table, I could still see that my mental game has grown overall by my ability to move on quickly and put things behind me.

I decided to abandon the style of poker reviews I’ve been posting since the start of the year since it was a bit repetitive and a lot of the goals I set are shoo-ins to be met – for instance, playing most of my hours in $8/$16. Really, the only time I’m in a $4/$8 game these days is when I’m waiting for a seat in the bigger game or when I’m propping.

I did keep pretty studious notes during this past month, however, in order to post about hands that gave me trouble and to help identify how variance is affecting my results in the short term and to better help evaluate my own play. Here are the results of what I consider to be the key hand categories:

AA: 7-12 (58.33%)
KK: 13-17 (76.5%)
QQ: 6-9 (67.67%)
JJ: 7-10 (70%)
TT: 2-5 (40%)
99: 3-15 (20%)
88: 3-9 (33.33%)
77: 5-10 (50%)
66-22: 6-37 (16%)

AK: 6-29 (20.7%)
AQ: 13-33 (39.4%)
AKs-ATs: 8-31 (25.8%)
KQs-KTs: 11-23 (47.8%)
QJs-JTs: 10-20 (50%)
Sets: *14-21 (67.67%)
Flush Draws: **29-73 (39.73%)

*note: I made a set when I played a pocket pair about 16% of the time, which seems about average considering I’m including the times I made a set on the turn and river.
**note: I lost six times when I made a flush.

I ran well with my big pocket pairs and ran about average on making sets and flushes, but I lost a whopping 33% of the time I had a set and I lost over 20% of the time I had a flush. That seems unlucky. My AK results look less than ideal, but the rest of the hands look to have run pretty average overall. Variance seems to have had a modest affect on my results last month, it just seems worse because a lot of the losing hands happened in the last ten days of the month.

I missed the first Muckleshoot deep stack of August, but I likely will be playing them on Tuesdays going forward. I’m better off spending my time in cash games, but I plan on playing multiple events in the Muckleshoot Fall Classic next month so prepping for that series in the Muckleshoot deep stack makes a lot of sense.

Here’s to hoping August will be a smoother ride than July was!

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Trainwreck (2015)

August 3, 2015

Starring: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Lebron James, Brie Larson
Director: Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Funny People)

Bottom Line: Trainwreck is comedian Amy Schumer’s first starring role and she quickly establishes that she can carry her own comedy. More impressive, she wrote the film herself and it’s plenty funny while providing an entertaining narrative. In the film, Amy plays a 20-something career girl that was taught by her father that a life of monogamy is unrealistic, so she spends her nights bar-hopping and bringing various men home only to send them on their way before they can even think about sleeping over. Through her job, she meets a sports surgeon played by Bill Hader and they develop a relationship unlike any she’s experienced before.

I have to say I was impressed with the cast in this movie. I wasn’t surprised at all that Amy Schumer was funny and likable even though her character had some rather despicable traits. I could tell by watching her stand up that she has plenty of charisma and that she could be a rising comedic star. Trainwreck proves this fact. It will be interesting to see if she can keep the ball rolling, as a lot of comic actors have a tendency to wear out their welcome rather quickly (does anyone still look forward to a Will Ferrell movie?). What did surprise me was Bill Hader, who really seemed to have only one gear during his Saturday Night Live tenure and I never was a big fan of his style on the show. He plays it rather straight in Trainwreck and it’s a nice change of pace. Hader actually has some acting ability – and he still managed to be pretty funny. What surprised me more than anything was how awesome Lebron James was in his role. Granted, most of the credit should go to Schumer for writing LBJ a great role, but Lebron hams it up wonderfully without being so tongue-in-cheek that he comes across corny. He crushed it and his appearances on screen were the best parts of the movie, which is unfortunate because he mostly disappears during the second half.

Like most Judd Apatow movies, Trainwreck runs unnecessarily long, which makes it feel like it’s dragging at times, but Trainwreck is his strongest film since 2007’s Knocked Up. It provides just enough humor and drama to give the audience a genuine investment in the film’s story. Trainwreck is a solid step in the right direction for Apatow and a coming out party for Schumer and Hader. I’m looking forward to what everyone involved has in store for the future.

Replay Value: I will watch it again, for sure.
Sequel Potential: No spin offs for bit characters please.
Oscar Potential: I was impressed with Bill Hader but this isn’t the kind of movie that the academy will think about or remember.

Grade: 6.5/10 (Recommended/Must See)