Friday, November 28, 2008

Cuban Criminal Mastermind, the Olympics, Football, Leopold & Loeb, Dying of Cancer and Vulcan Love

Despite my overly ambitious film going schedule, I do try to squeeze in some other activities. I try to go to the gym as often as possible. I keep track of my gym visits too and I get there about 70% of the time which is about 20 days per month. November was horrible for me. I was/will be out of town for 10 days in November plus one day the gym closed early (unannounced) plus the movie schedule that did not allow for gym visits.

After movies and the gym, my main leisure activity is reading. I subscribe to the Wall St. Journal and I read the San Francisco Chronicle most days on my commute. I like to read the book reviews because it give me a guide to books that may interest me.

I've completed some very interesting books over the past few months.

The best was Storming Las Vegas by John Huddy. This book tells the true story of Jose Vigoa, a Cuban refugee who led a crew on a spree of armored car and casino robberies in Las Vegas from 1998 to 2000. Vigoa's robberies were extremely well planned which reflects Vigoa training in the Soviet military. The author even suggests that Vigoa was a spy who came over on the Mariel Boat Lift. The author posits that Vigoa was a sleeper agent who turned to drug dealing and armed robbery. This book would make a tremendous movie - think Heat meets Scarface.

I also read Rome 1960 by David Maraniss. This book chronicles the 1960 Olympics. While it focuses mostly on US athletes, it also provides information about foreign athletes, the geopolitical environment (Cold War, China vs. Taiwan, Italy's not so recent fascist past, South African apartheid, etc.) and the Olympic governance and hypocritical stances with respect to "amateurism." Cassius Clay, Rafer Johnson, Wilma Rudolph, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West are among the more well known athletes to win gold in Rome. There are some many vignettes about Ethiopean Abebe Bikila running the marathon in bare feet (because his sneakers didn't fit), a cyclist collapsing during a time trial and dying (ampethamines were the cause) and US swimmer Lance Larson winning the silver medal in the 100 M freestyle despite having a faster time than the gold medalist.

Another sports themed book I recently finished was The Best Game Ever by Mark Bowden. This book tells the story of the 1958 NFL Championship Game which was groundbreaking. It is considered the beginnng of the NFL's march to preeminence among US sports. It was an overtime game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants. In hindsight, the teams were loaded with Hall of Famers. Frank Gifford led the Giants at halfback. Linebacker Sam Huff was the star defensive player in a new defensive scheme cooked up by Defensive Coordinator Tom Landry. It was called the "4-3" which is still the most widely played defensive alignment in the NFL. The Giants offensive coordinator was Vince Lombardi. The offense was so good that future HoF wide receiver Don Maynard was a backup. Giants QB Charlie Conerly would go on to become the Marlboro Man in print and TV ads. Giants kicker Pat Sumemrall is a Hall of Fame announcer.

The Colts were led by the greatest QB of his (all?) time - Johnny Unitas. Their star receiver was Raymond Berry who was ahead of his time in terms of training and watching game films in preparation. Their head coach was Weeb Ewbank who is probably more famous for coaching the New York Jets in Super Bowl III (the one where Joe Namath guaranteed victory).

The Colts also had the greatest NFL raconteur of all-time. His name is Art Donovan, he's still alive and telling stories. My favortie Art Donovan story involves a shower stall in a hotel. While on a road trip, Donovan, Unitas and another player were admiring the huge bathroom in Unitas' hotel room. They notice that the shower stall was water tight. Donovan stops the drain, starts the water and close the shower door. When the water gets high enough, they all climb over the top of the stall and start swimming. It was big enough for three NFL players to swim around in. While they are in there someone kicks the door handle, the door opens and water rushes out into the bathroom and beyond. The hotel room was split level so there was a sunken area where the water pooled. The weight of the water collapsed the floor and flooded the room underneath. The hotel demanded that they pay for the damages or they would call the cops. Donovan and the other guy were broke so Unitas had to pay the bill.

Anyway, The Best Game Ever is a short book filled with entertaining and insightful profiles of the players and coaches of both teams as well as the place the NFL occupied in the national consciousness.

I'm currently reading For the Thrill of It by Simon Baatz. It's about the Leopold and Loeb murders in 1924 Chicago. This too is a fantastic but true story. Two gay lovers think they are supermen (in the Nietzschean sense of the word). They feel they are above the law and plan the perfect crime. The crime involves kidnapping and murdering Loeb's 14 year old cousin. Leopold and Loeb came from extremely wealthy families (Loeb's father was a vice president with Sears Roebuck). They hired famed trial lawyer Clarence Darrow for their defense. The year after the Leopold and Loeb trial, Darrow would try his most famous case, the Scopes Monkey Trial. I knew the basics of the case before starting the book but reading how sociopathic Leopold and Loeb were is chilling. As I was reading the pair's plan for recovering the ransom, I couldn't help but wonder if Akira Kurosawa's High and Low was inspired by Leopold and Loeb. I see that American crime writer Ed McBain wrote the novel (King's Ransom) that the film is based on.

I also caught the final performance of Quality of Life at the American Conservatory Theater. The play did not feature any of the ACT core acting company. The cast was rather well known. It included Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne), JoBeth Williams (Poltergeist), Steven Culp (Desperate Housewives), and Dennis Boutsikaris. The play was about two couples and their differing approaches to life and death. Metcalf & Williams play cousins; one from the Midwest and the other from Marin County). Metcalf's husband (Boutsikaris) is dying of cancer while Williams' daughter was murdered. Culp plays Williams' straight-laced husband. The play approaches death and the red state/blue state divide with humor and a deft touch. I could never quite figure out Metcalf's position which was to commit suicide with her husband. In the end, her character was talked out of it so that story line fell a little flat. Metcalf was a hoot in her spot on Berkeley inspired garb and ululating. I have seen women of her age wearing clothes like this...tie dye crossed with Indian sari.

As an aside, Culp starred in my all-time favorite Enterprise episode. I don't think I mentioned it on this blog but I am a Star Trek fan (I don't go to conventions or own a Star Fleet uniform). In particular, I was a fan of Enterprise; no doubt my interest was piqued by Jolene Blalock's portrayal of T'Pol in a tight bodysuit.

In the episode "Harbinger" (I had to look up the title), there are two plot lines that were fun to watch. Culp played a special forces type commander that is brought on board Enterprise to train its crew. I remember the unit is called MACO (the mako shark was their emblem). Culp and Dominic Keating, who played Enterprise Security Officer Malcolm Reed, butt heads (figuratively and literally) and eventually get into a knock-down, no holds barred fight. Later in that same episode, T'Pol and Trip (Connor Trinneer) banter like Dave and Maddie from Moonlighting before they engage in interspecies relations (photo below). There was also a great scene in the mess hall where Malcolm and Trip are teasing each other about his rumored relationship with T'Pol and his rivalry with Culp, respectively. I guess my inner Trekkie geek is showing.

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