Vladdy Putin: Supagangsta

Vladimir Putin is not a man to be trifled with.

If this hasn’t been made abundantly clear to most of the news-consuming world by now, it damn well should have been. Putin, a man who has basically turned Russia into a new dictatorship and bullied the rest of the Western world into ignoring it has also (allegedly) killed at least two journalists in brutal intimidation moves AND regularly publishes propaganda highlighting his hyper-manliness at every opportunity (this includes photo shoots of the President kicking the crap out of people in Judo exhibitions and hunting bears. He’s like the bad guy from Rocky IV if the film had been set during the Presidency of Teddy Roosevelt).

“Dont mind if I do, fuckface!”

It’s not possible to say whether New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft got this memo. Right now, all we know is that Kraft’s Super Bowl ring is on display in the Kremlin. How exactly it got there is unclear, and Kraft’s story has undergone several revisions since he met Putin in 2005. At the time, Kraft said that he had given the ring, valued at somewhere around $25,000, to Putin as a gift, but earlier this month The New York Post (a bastion of reliable reporting) quoted Kraft as saying that the ring had been taken from him. That version goes like this: Kraft met Putin in Moscow with a business delegation, and for some reason (presumably because Putin was admiring it), took off his ring and let Putin hold it. According to Kraft, Putin put the ring on and then claimed he could kill somebody with it (!), before slipping it into his pocket and walking away, surrounded by bodyguards.

A representative from the Patriots camp came out recently to claim this quote was a “joke” that Kraft tells regularly to get a chuckle, but given the circumstances, that sounds an awful lot like kid who is willing to let the bully keep his truck if it means he’ll stop getting wedgies. Putin claims  the ring was a gift, but—weirdly–denies having any memory of the meeting ever taking place, despite the existence of plenty of photographs that show the President trying on the ring. The official statements coming from Putin and the Kremlin amount to little more than a very dry and smirking “fuck you”: the Russian President has referred to the situation as a dire “political matter” and just today, suggested that he will personally have a Russian artisan craft a replacement ring of a unique design and comparable worth for Kraft to keep and pass down through the team.

It’s my personal feeling that Putin probably pocketed the ring, Kraft was told to keep quiet about it so as not to rustle any feathers, and then let it slip last week because he’s an old man who’s gotten tired of being ribbed about it on the golf course. The Patriots’ “official” statement basically amounts to a “hush” for Kraft, and Putin’s response tells us exactly what he thinks of Kraft’s testicular fortitude.

While Putin’s motivations for taking the ring (if that is what happened) remain unclear—did he just think he needed to show the world at large that he would do whatever he wanted?—the thornier question lies in Kraft’s eventual response. Is he going to take Putin’s “replacement” ring? Accepting it basically confirms Putin’s side of the story AND forever marks Kraft AND the Patriots as Putin’s bitch(es), but I don’t really see any other move for Kraft, other than throwing diplomacy aside, flat-out calling Putin a liar and demanding the ring back, a move the state department would likely frown upon. Given the pride of Massholes when it comes to their sports teams, I can’t imagine many Pats fans being happy now that this story has broken mainstream news, and a “commie ring” probably isn’t going to cut it. Add in that whole situation with the Boston Marathon being bombed a while back and it’s likely that anti-Russian sentiment in Boston is about to hit an all-time high (yes, I know the Tsarnaevs were Chechen, but if you think the bulk of the Patriots fanbase know that you’ve obviously never spent much time in Boston).

We might never know what really happened to Kraft’s super bowl ring, but it’s shaping up to be a more embarrassing headline for the Patriots than “18-1”.

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It’s About Food

I was going to write a review of Man of Steel, but something that is so agonizingly New York just popped up into my Internet vision that I had to share/rant about it.

There’s (apparently) a new craze sweeping the city called “cronuts”. In case you’re lucky enough to not know what these things are, allow me to ruin your day, here’s the official copy from the creator’s website (who sounds like a massive douchebag, for the record):

Half croissant, half doughnut — the pastry hybrid created by Chef Dominique Ansel that is taking the world by storm. After it’s launch on May 10, 2013, Cronut fans spanned the world from Berlin to Singapore, making it the most viral dessert item to date.

I’m not going to bother with formatting it properly, but the name “cronut” has is trademarked in every instance on the site. The long and the short of it is they’re a cross between croissants and—wait for it—donuts!

Totally worth $400

I know, I know, who gives a shit, right? Well, apparently a lot of people, because folks have been lining up as early as 5am to claim their maximum two cronuts per customer for the last two months. If that’s not stupid enough, supposedly a “black market” for cronuts has sprung up, and so-called “cronut scalpers” are waiting in line to buy the pastries then selling them for as much as $200 per cronut. If you want to go big, you can order 10 for $1,500.

Only in New York City would anybody be so blasé as to spend a month’s rent on fucking desserts, or even consider waking up in line at the crack of dawn to stuff your face with the culinary equivalent of Frankenstein’s Monster. Now, I’m no stranger to waiting in long lines (or paying high prices) for good food. I enjoyed Kogi BBQ tacos while I lived in Los Angeles, I’ve braved the wait at Roberta’s (not as bad as people will have you believe and there are bars nearby, so who cares), and I have even gotten in line for Franklin Barbecue at 9am (barbecue hipster alert: I remember when you could still get a ton of food from the Franklin trailer without getting up early. Hell, the first time I went, Aaron felt bad that I only got the scraps so he charged me like $6.00 for over a lb of brisket and the rest of the sausage. Anyway). However, those are foodstuffs that I either can’t or won’t make for myself or acquire anywhere else. I just don’t see the sense in waiting in line OR paying over $5 for a dessert, but I’m more into salt than sugar (insert blowjob jokes here).

You know what else the Big Apple needs to cut the shit about? Hot dogs. I mean, New Yorkers don’t even really bray about this, but the city still has this reputation as a place where you can get a great hot dog on every street corner. Wrong! Every cart in Manhattan is a stinking bucket of piss-water with sad, flaccid and soggy chunks of hog anus floating in it. And it’s yours for just $3.00! The only time I want one of these is when I’ve been drinking shots at Rudy’s and their hot dogs are FREE.

While we’re at it, tone it down a notch about your pizza superiority too (yeah, I said it!). Yes, New York has a large concentration of truly great pizza places, probably larger than any other city in the country. HOWEVER, a similar notion that you can’t go wrong with New York pizza is equally false, and New Yorkers who scoff at any pie made in an area code where you can rent an apartment for less than $1,000 need to ask themselves: how hard is it to really make a pizza? Also, the comparisons to Chicago are stupid. That goes for both of you.

A Trip Down RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES Lane

Yesterday afternoon, I found myself rushing to the train in order to get back to where I had just come from. Aziz Ansari had just tweeted about a last-minute live show, and advised early arrival, as there were only 150 seats available. After I was predictably turned away at 7:05 (the show started at 7:30), I got in touch with some assorted n’er do wells to see if a few beers could salvage the evening. Within an hour, Jen and I were knocking craft brews back at Blind Tiger Ale House, and then, since it was Tuesday and all, we decided to head further uptown to The Blarney Cove.

I mentioned the Cove a few posts back: it’s one of the few true-blue Manhattan dives left in the East Village, but won’t be for long. The place is shuttering just a few months after I even knew of its existence, so we figured a few visits before that fateful day were in order.

Previously, I’d only been to Blarney Cove on the weekends, and judging by the crowd on Tuesday, most of the regulars turn up on off nights to avoid faux-nostalgia hounds like myself. We sat between two guys who had clearly been darkening the doors of the institution for at least a few years: one who looked every inch of late sixties/early seventies, and the other who seemed twenty years fresher than his 51 years. Both were soused, and after the older gentleman gave Jen his Swiss Army knife, and the other yelled at me about Lebron James for a few minutes, he surprised us by asking Jen: “What’s the last album you purchased?” It only took a microsecond for her to reply with the title of Daft Punk’s latest opus.

He hadn’t heard of it, but after listening to our enthusiastic endorsements, especially of the Pharrell-fronted “Get Lucky”, he wandered over to the Internet jukebox  to pull it up. We all grooved a little in our chairs, the $3 Rolling Rocks erasing any self-consciousness. After it was over I asked our companion what he thought. He replied: “I think it might be the song of the summer.”

“Get Lucky” has certainly invaded the airspace of New York City. In the past few weeks I’ve heard it blasted out of countless DJ rigs and bar stereo setups. It’s a track perfectly suited for the up-tempo enthusiasm and reckless abandon of a warm night in the Big Apple: infectiously danceable, but laid-back enough to spare the less fleet-footed any awkwardness. It’s the sort of track we all wish Michael Jackson were making near the end of his career, and oddly enough, at least one fan has uploaded a pitch-shifted version of the track that makes Pharrell’s vocals sound an awful lot like the late King of Pop.

The single is an appropriate slice of Random Access Memories, Daft Punk’s digital love letter to a more analog time in music history. If RAM has a thematic focus, it’s the constant fluctuation of popular music: part requiem for a time when people danced the night away at clubs and concerts with smiles on their faces instead of iPhones in their hands, and part triumphant rallying cry for a new generation of musicians who have endless soundscapes at their fingertips.

The album begins with the light-hearted “Give Life Back to Music”, a cut that firmly establishes the album’s groovy, 70s disco-funk era sound. Like many of the tracks, this first song isn’t all that danceable, but is a perfect song for those on the periphery of the dance floor. Much of RAM sounds like a soundtrack for good friends who are in the club not to get white-girl wasted or grind on strangers, but to claim some premium table space and knock back a few while admiring the eye candy.

An abrupt shift in tone follows with the forlorn “The Game of Love”. While Daft Punk have been known to venture into the bittersweet (see the career-defining tracks “Digital Love” and “One More Time” from Discovery), they’ve never gotten this downright sad. It’s not a reach to say that the lyrics may be coming from the POV of pop music itself, waxing poetic about the days when artists were as genuinely interested in expressing true love and other emotions as they were in bumping up their twitter follower count and Grammy nominations. Immediately after, things get a little more optimistic with “Giorgio by Moroder”, a sonic history lesson about one of the synthesizer’s most legendary patrons, as well as an exercise in exploiting the untapped infinite space available to electronic musicians (the track evolves into a densely layered ambient synth jam from a simple looped click).

Another navel-gazing tearjerker is up next: the moody and atmospheric “Within”. It’s serviceable for what it is, but seems to be retreading a lot of the same ground as “The Game of Love”. This begins the middle-sag of the album, rounded out by the forgettable “Instant Crush”, but then RAM roars back into top gear with the two Pharrell tracks: “Lose Yourself to Dance” and the aforementioned “Get Lucky”.

“Lose Yourself to Dance” is more a classic funk song than a radio-ready pop hit, but the production piles on in a subtly effective manner until the energy levels are positively throbbing. This track is a perfect example of why an album like RAM deserves either quality speakers or a high-end pair of headphones: the positively magnificent craftsmanship and production quality are tragically lost when pumped through tinny laptop speakers. “Lose Yourself To Dance”, while an undeniably new sound for Daft Punk, brings up many incredible memories from my late 90s/early Aughts club days, when all I needed to have a transcendent experience was a late curfew and a killer lineup at shady 17-and-up venues like The Lizard Lounge or The Red Jacket. The feeling that wells up inside one’s cochlea and then spreads out across the brain pan by the time the song peaks can only be described as “earphoria”.

“Beyond” and “Motherboard” are both slightly spacey, dream sequence type tracks to help us come down from the high-energy bounce of the two dance numbers. “Fragments of Time” is a nuts-and-bolts smooth-rocker, but it’s “Doin’ it Right” that takes us out on a high note. This sparsely produced but undeniably catchy number is begging for some talented DJs to remix it into a more stadium-worthy summer jam with an R&B personality at front and center. “Contact” is a fitting coda to an album that has taken us on a journey through sorrow, reminiscence, and led us into the new scene Daft Punk sees rising out of the ashes, as it calls up images of our French robot friends riding their rock ‘n’ roll funk starship into the stars and beyond.

My friend Hale, who I can credit with starting my fascination with electronic music, remarked that in the past, Daft Punk sounded like robots trying to make music, and that this album sounds like humans trying to make music sound like robots. The use of live recorded session musicians and vintage analog equipment gives RAM a more organic sound, but Daft Punk has always been about using the powerful tools of electronica to emphasize the most powerful aspects of music as a whole: namely love, joy, and a sheer adoration for experience. Random Access Memories is their most complete album to date, if not packed to the brim with the digital stadium-bangers that made them famous.

Nostalgia’s all well and good, but if you can’t back it up with some solid points that are relevant to a contemporary audience, you run the risk of sounding like a senior citizen rambling to themselves. Luckily, Daft Punk have dropped a much needed bomb on the increasingly stale electronic genre with this thoughtful and just plain fun disc that’s sure to dominate the airwaves well into the summer. I guess we all got a little lucky.

FAST AND FURIOUS: The Strange Tale of the Third Wave Action Franchise

The Fast and the Furious holds a special place in my heart for many reasons. It was one of the first action franchises that I could really say belonged to my generation, and I remember seeing it multiple times in the theater with my high school buddies, with much bonding over the atrocious acting and dialogue. It was sort of a flashpoint for my entry into older and more venerable action franchises. Most of all, and this remains true to the day, The Fast and the Furious is the only franchise series that I have, from start to finish, viewed in the theater. More than one acquaintance has brilliantly remarked that it’s my generation’s Police Academy, and though I’ve never seen any of those films, the comparison seems apt.

So I’ve always had an intense fascination with the series, even though the bulk of the franchise reads like direct-to-DVD capers with slightly bigger budgets. It’s a bit staggering to think back to the summer of 2001, when major summer blockbusters could be conjured out of thin air. Though Paul Walker had appeared in supporting roles in lots of late 90s teen fare (Varsity BluesSkulls, etc), Vin Diesel was probably the film’s biggest star at the time. After writing and directing a few films that failed to get noticed outside of the festival circuit, Diesel had small supporting roles in Saving Private Ryan and Boiler Room before his breakout role as Riddick in Pitch Black. 

Like Riddick, Diesel’s Dominic Toretto is film’s star, even though Walker is ostensibly the protagonist. There’s something strangely compelling about Diesel in this role. Perhaps its the way he manages to seem completely unintimidating despite his stature (maybe it’s because his shaved head and baby face make him look a little like a muscular infant), or the completely canned way he rattles off lines from the script, which makes sudden moments of dramatic exclamation all the more hilarious (“NOS!!!!!!”) Above all, Toretto is the glue that binds the concept of the first film and all its sequels, together: a band of blue collar outlaws with hearts of gold, for whom family is everything.

Fast and Furious is the most contemporary reading of the franchise action flick in existence. It’s comprised solely of multi-ethnic, working class heroes who excel despite having the odds stacked against them. Characters are computer geniuses without ever having attended college, mechanical experts without any sort of concentrated schooling. In short, it’s a franchise about the new vision of the American dream: multi-racial badassery tied in with the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality that defines the fictional American character. In many ways, it feels like the action film for the 99%, as told by millionaire film executives.

Stranger still, but undeniably delightful, is the way that the franchise’s many directors have managed to mutate the series to perfectly reflect the relevant moment for each film. Each movie feels like a distinct slice from a different moment in the Hollywood chronology, a product of each film being released as a big summer tentpole: the guest stars, soundtracks, featured cars, and locales all reflect a particular moment in the timeline of flicks that go boom. As the series progressed, and most notably as director Justin Lin took the reins, the films began a slow transformation into a finely tuned fan service machine, perfectly calibrated to satisfy the cravings of each Fast and Furious loyalist. This formula reached peak perfection with Fast Five in 2011 (I just realized that this franchise has spanned over a decade. That’s mind-blowing), which found all the fan favorites from every iteration reuniting for a giant, Ocean’s 11-esque heist in Brazil, and threw in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for good measure. Similarly, the tone of the films gradually shifted from overwrought, 8th-grade style melodrama to lighthearted but badass capering. The films aren’t any more or less stupid or unbelievable than what Michael Bay’s been cranking out for the last few years, but Fast and Furious somehow feels more innocent and playful, and lacks all of the insulting cynicism and aggression that’s come to popularize Bay’s recent work.

I consider myself as big of a fan as the Fast and Furious franchise as one can find, however, I’m hard-pressed to recall plot details, or even broad overall strokes, from each film. In fact, it would be very easy for me to forget, without certain publications and critics, that the chronology of the series is incredibly fractured, no doubt due to the fluctuating popularity of the franchise (when characters who were killed off suddenly become available, the easiest way to solve it is to go back in time). For those who are curious, the events of the Fast and Furious timeline fold out like this (order in series is noted in parentheses):

1. The Fast and the Furious (1)

2. 2 Fast 2 Furious (2)

3. Fast and Furious (4)

4. Fast Five (5)

5. Fast and Furious 6 (6)

6. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (3)

It’s hard to say what it is about these films that keeps me, and scores of others, coming back to them time and time again. They aren’t particularly good stories (in fact, most of them are downright bad), and the acting ranges from “passable” to “atrocious”, but there’s something comforting in the simple (sort of), homespun (kind of) quality of the F&F gang. Deep down, don’t we all kind of wish real life were this way? That we might be able to pull ourselves up from impossible odds to beat the bad guys with all of best friends, who we’ve known since we were kids and who we stuck with ’til the end? Sadly, that part of the franchise may be the most fantastic thing in a franchise that once featured souped-up cars dragging bank vaults through the streets of Rio.

In Remembrance of Porches

It’s officially hit summer in Brooklyn; the street outside my window is filled with the sounds of shrieking horseplay and Latin music by day, replaced with the gentle hiss of a cracked open fire hydrant by night. Last night the men who run the bodega on down on the corner were enjoying the first of many gently breezy evenings, playing dominoes and drinking beers as they laughed and joked in Spanish I’ve long since lost the ear for. I walked down Irving, and immediately began to reminisce about porches.

As I grew into drinking age, my love of porches expanded, and a decent place to sit under the night sky and crack a beer became a much sought-after luxury when choosing a place to live. The first one close to my heart was that of the house I grew up in, the two-story brick building that my parents still live in on University Boulevard in Dallas, Texas. It has a wooden deck out back, refinished by my dad, that overlooks a lush lawn and is crowned by a large tree that used to bear a tire swing and the unfinished foundation of a tree house. In one corner there’s a rusted-out trampoline, and nearby, a charcoal grill where many steaks and burgers were cooked while thoroughly inebriated diners lounged and drank Coronas at the green, metal table at the edge of the deck. My brother Alex turned 21 in that house, and we opened the usually sealed off French doors to allow the July wind to waft into the living room.

2609 San Pedro Street, Unit A, in Austin, better known as Fort Awesome, was where I began my true porch career. Our apartment was the bottom floor of an old, 1940s-era duplex, and the porch was a small stone affair that led to the front door and the neighbors’ stairwell off to one side, and dropped of into a dirt lawn, that quickly transformed into a carpet of bottle caps and broken glass as the year pressed on. Our house was situated on a busy thoroughfare between the frat houses of West Campus, and many a night when I was still too young to go to bars, we would sit back in chairs chained to the support pillars and drink cases of Lone Star as we watched the pledges and rushes shuffle by to their first college parties, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and then shake our heads with beery tongue-clucking as we watched them filter back, broken up and a little worse for wear. A tiny, battery operated CD player kept the porch filled with the likes of Johnny Cash, The Band, The Allman Brothers, and Neil Young. I once spent about thirty minutes berating an out of town Sooner who was visiting the girls upstairs, after she attacked Austin, UT, homosexuals, and blacks without provocation. That porch hosted innumerable parties, the most memorable of which was a zombie-themed 4th of July bash, during which I passed out roman candles to guests milling about in the yard and threw a 5,000 cracker roll of Black Cats into the crowd.

I remained in West Campus for another year, tragically porchless, but during my first senior year I moved in to a Wonderland, a four bedroom honest-to-god HOUSE that sat on a quiet street just off of Enfield Road. The year was altogether more quiet, although we did enjoy more than one night drinking scotch and smoking cigars while we sat at an in irregular table pilfered from Betch’s workplace. Sometimes I would drink morning tea out at that table, watching as the thin, hazy sunlight filtered through the many trees that lined our neighborhood. At Halloween, we were besieged by tick or treaters, many of whom had come from other neighborhoods, and seemed unduly excited that we were giving away chocolate candies.

My last porch, perhaps unsurprisingly, holds the most memories. It was a large but run-down house in a quiet North Loop neighborhood. We had a giant backyard, but the owners hadn’t tended to it, and it tended to be overrun with mosquitoes in the summertime. The front porch, large, raised, and made from sturdy wood planks, was the stuff dreams were made of. Ben and I sat and noodled on guitars while we listened to the World Series on the radio one Halloween as parents instructed their kids to avoid our hovel. Many were the nights that my good friend Paul and I drank glass after glass of good bourbon on that porch, reminiscing, looking to the future, or just enjoying the night air, punctuated by little else but the chirp of cicadas and the occasional tinkle of ice in a glass.

Now that I’m in a city, a dyed-in-the-wool, honest-to-god city, it seems that my porch days, at least for a while, are behind me. Stoop culture is prevalent here, and not one hour ago I cracked a tallboy on my front steps and sat perched there, enjoying the relative quiet and escape from the claustrophobia of my apartment. I went inside after a few minutes; it just wasn’t the same.