Book Review: ‘The Book of Basketball’ by Bill Simmons

February 27, 2010 in Basketball, Best Of, Book Reviews, NBA by pacejmiller

[Update: If you want to know what Simmons says about Indiana Pacers legend Reggie Miller, click here to find out!]

At first blush, Bill Simmons seems like a sportswriter with a massive ego (and dick vibe).  I mean, you’d have to, to call yourself “The Sports Guy” and to name your book (or “Pulitzer”, as Simmons likes to call it) The Book of Basketball.

Yes, Simmons does have a bit of an ego, and he is as opinionated as hell, but there are two things you can’t deny about him.

One, love him or hate him, the man knows basketball.  He grew up watching basketball (he grew up in Boston so naturally loved the Celtics), idolizing basketball players (mostly Russell and Bird and other Celtics players), writing about basketball and breathing basketball.  How else would he be able to fill up a 700+ page book about the sport?

And two, hands down, Bill Simmons (or Jabaal Abdul-Simmons, as he used to call himself as a kid) is the most creative and utterly hilarious sportswriter today.

Combine the two and that’ll give you a fair idea of what The Book of Basketball is like.

Big call, but I rank The Book of Basketball right up there with Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries as the funniest basketball-related book ever (and borrowing from a Simmons-style analogy, both books were about basketball, both books were about race, both involved sex and getting blown, and both dabbled in drugs and homosexuality).

(Click on ‘more’ to read the full review and rating!)

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Movie Review: Daybreakers (2010)

February 27, 2010 in Movie Reviews by pacejmiller

Of all the vampire movies in recent years, Daybreakers has one of the most original and interesting premises.  2019.  The tables have turned and vampires are now in the majority.  Humans are hunted down and farmed for blood.  [Sorry, I couldn’t think of a way to explain the premise without giving those parts away]

Anyway, it’s a great idea, and everything about Daybreakers points towards a classic.  From the dark, cold colour scheme to some of the coolest futuristic inventions (for the vampire folk), old school action and car chases, sickening blood and gore, frightening creatures and Willem Dafoe, Daybreakers should have been a classic.

But it’s not.

And no, it’s not Ethan Hawke’s fault!  I like Hawke and I think he’s a suitable lead for this film.  He’s got that brooding, intellectual demeanor with an ample dose of wimpiness – but with hero potential, of course.  So no, it’s not Hawke.  He’s fine.

So is female lead Claudia Karvan and her Aussie/Kiwi co-stars Sam Neill, Vince Colosimo and Isabel Lucas.

So perhaps the problem lies with the fact that Daybreakers is not very memorable.  None of the characters are particularly interesting or stand out.  Willem Dafoe is supposed to be that guy, but he doesn’t quite get there.  There’s no dialogue that audiences are likely to remember or recite.  And apart from an early encounter, there’s not a lot of scares, and while there is nothing wrong with the action, it is actually rather pedestrian in comparison to the top notch action thrillers.

Having said all that, I did like the film.  It was one of those “it’s pretty good, but could have been so much more” type movies.  It kept me interested and intrigued, with a couple of twists thrown in for good measure.  At just 98 minutes, it made me wish for once the film was at least 20 minutes longer.  Maybe it’s the relatively low budget (by today’s standards) of only $20 million and a restricted vision that held it back from being great.

Argh.

3.5 stars out of 5!

Cafe Grazie: Taiwanese Italian Fusion

February 27, 2010 in Food, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

Restaurant: Cafe Grazie
Cuisine: Italian Fusion
Price: Around TWD 300-400 per person
Location/Opening Hours/Contact: 10 stores in Taipei City alone (see here for details)
Website: www.grazie.com.tw

If variety is your thing, then you can’t go past Cafe Grazie, a chain Italian Fusion restaurant in Taipei.

It’s best to go to Cafe Grazie with a bunch of people (preferably 4 or 5, or in multiples of 4 0r 5), and order one of their variety sets.  You can also order ala carte or single person specials or lunch specials or get one of their twin sets (for two people) or a party special.

We had the lunch special.  Get this.  For just TWD 1400, you can order a whole bunch of dishes to share between 4-5 people.  It works as follows.

Their massive menu with dozens and dozens of selections is split into various categories, and all you have to do is pick a few dishes from each category.  For instance, you pick 5 out of 11 starter dishes.  Then you pick 1 from 3 soups.  Then from 22 main-size pizzas, pastas and risottos/paellas, you get to pick 4 more.  And lastly, from a selection of 30 desserts and beverages, you get to pick another 8.  That’s 5 starters, 1 large soup, 4 main courses and 8 desserts/beverages!

[The party special is TWD 1490 and you get 1 extra starter and a few more options to choose from.]

The best thing is that all the dishes are reasonably sized and there is more than enough to share between everyone.  The advantage of having so many dishes to sample is that while the tastes may vary between from dish to dish, there will always be a few that you’ll mark down as your favourites.  That said, the general standard of the food is very good, and certainly none were disappointing.

I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

(Click on ‘more’ to continue)

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Book Review: ‘Replay’ by Ken Grimwood

February 26, 2010 in Book Reviews by pacejmiller

[I made a conscious decision to read more fantasy, so when I was in Taiwan, I picked up Ken Grimwood’s Replay (on special, of course), which is a part of the “Fantasy Masterworks” series.  According to the blurb, Fantasy Masterworks is a library of some of the greatest, most original, and most influential fantasy ever written.  Replay won the World Fantasy Award in 1988.]

Have you ever looked back on your life and the decisions you have made and regretted them, or wondered how things would have turned out had you gone down a different path?  Well, in Replay, the central character Jeff Winston gets to put those thoughts into action.  You see, Winston is 43-year old man who dies and reawakens to find that he has travelled back in time to when he was 18 again, except his memory of the next 25 years remains in tact.  Sounds like a familiar premise, I know, but 17 Again this is not.

At first, I thought Replay may have been a sci-fi story as opposed to a fantasy, but there is no scientific element at all.  It doesn’t really matter why this is happening to Jeff – what matters is what he does with his second chance(s).

My main concern when I started reading Replay wass that it may be a one-trick pony; a gimmicky book based entirely around this one ‘life replay’.  But I could not have been more wrong.  Replay has a terrific, in-depth storyline that is full of twists and turns.  There is so much more to the tale than just that first replay.

What surprised me most of all was how realistic it all felt.  Put yourself in Jeff Winston’s position.  What would you do if you got a second chance at life?  Would you try to right the wrongs this time around?  Would you use your knowledge of the future to make tons of money or make the world a better place?  These were the decisions Jeff was faced with, and because Grimwood makes him a rational, thinking person, it allows you to relate to him.  At no time did I think – this is completely stupid, he should be doing something completely different!

Part of the realism comes from how Grimwood ties in real-life historical events.  Sports, films, music, economics, wars, political assassinations, pop culture – just about everything that surrounds our daily lives becomes a risk or an opportunity for Jeff.  And that’s what makes the book so intriguing.

Grimwood delivers the story with a clear, straightforward writing style, and I think that is what makes it so effective.  Jeff’s joy, jubilation, fears, regrets, pain and sense of loss are conveyed to the reader with brutal honesty and without manipulation.  We would all love to have the opportunity to relive parts of our lives, but at various points of the book I could not help but sympathise with what Jeff was going through.  It is both a gift and a curse.

As with the best sci-fi and fantasy books, Replay has a poignant (albeit common) message about life.  Through Jeff Winston’s replay of his life, we are given lessons about how we should approach our one and only chance.  For someone like me who just made a life-changing decision, the message couldn’t have been clearer or have come at a better time.

4.5 out of 5 stars!

[PS: Why has there never been a movie version of this book?  There have been many travel back in time stories, but few have captured the emotion as well as Replay has.  Any screenplay, however, would have to be updated to reference more modern times.]

[PPS: Apparently, Grimwood was writing a sequel to Replay when he died of a heart attack in 2003 at age 59.]

DVD Review: Fighting (2009)

February 25, 2010 in Movie Reviews by pacejmiller

Fighting is one of those movies that looks, smells and tastes B-grade, but is backed by an A-grade cast (Channing Tatum and Terrence Howard as opposed to an unknown white actor +  Brian Dennehy) and a better-than-expected screenplay and director (Dito Montiel).  But for these factors, it probably should have gone straight to DVD.  Instead, what we ended up with is a slightly above average, albeit forgettable film.

Fighting is a film about…er…fighting.  Underground, bare-knuckle street fighting, to be precise.

Tatum plays Shawn MacArthur, a nice young man trying to make ends meet on the streets of New York, and Howard plays Harvey Boarden, the man who ‘discovers’ him and kind of takes him under his wing.  Throw in a few fist fights, a love interest (Zulay Henao), an arch nemesis (Brian White) and an unfolding back story, and that’s Fighting in a nutshell.

Right from the opening sequence, from the music to the gritty feel to Tatum’s outfit, you get the suspicion that Fighting is trying to channel Rocky.  You know, the underdog from the wrong side of the tracks who tries and manages to become something after being given an opportunity.

Tatum even gives a bit of a Stallone impersonation.  He’s got that good guy routine going, and he’s also got that underdog pride; even their persistence in picking up girls is similar.  The only thing missing is a crooked mouth and a speech impediment.

The fight scenes in Fighting are solid.  Naturally, they are a little over-the-top, but for the most part they maintain a slight resemblance to realism (apart from the fact that getting belted in the face hardly leaves more than a light bruise). Thankfully, each fight is given proper screen time – there’s no hastily prepared montage with rapidly accumulating victories.

My problem with it all is that the whole process from Tatum’s character being ‘discovered’ to him being in and winning fights is pretty dubious.  Seriously, the guy punched out a few stiffs on the street, and the next thing you know he’s been thrown into bare-knuckle fights with a massive underground audience?  And really, it’s not like he is a freakish talent or has abnormal kung fu abilities.  He’s just a skinny street punk who knows how to throw a punch or two – would he even have a sliver of a chance against the type of tough guys he was going up against?  I highly doubt it.  (One of the dudes was Strikeforce Middleweight Champion Cung Le!)

Maybe that was the whole point.  He wasn’t supposed to stand a chance, but somehow he manages to prevail.

Nevertheless, if Fighting was all about fighting, it would have been okay.  Unfortunately, they just had to insert the love interest in there.  Nothing wrong with a bit of loving, but it took up such a large chunk of the 105-minute running time.  And most of all, it was quite lame.

Oh well.

2.5 stars out of 5!

[Note: for about 2 months before watching this movie, I mistakenly thought ‘Fighting’ was ‘Never Back Down‘.  Gotta see that one too.]