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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

 

"Vacation's" Over

After a month off from blogging, it's good to be back at the keyboard.  I wouldn't exactly call it a vacation, since there were weekend business trips to Savannah and to Orlando and then it was tax time.  But now we should be back to a weekly, or at least bi-weekly, schedule.  By the way, I was somewhat disappointed in Savannah.  In part, the weather was at fault, but the food options were nothing to rave about and the bar scene, even downtown, was pretty lame.  There were some better options in that latter regard on the river walk, and I saw one pretty decent cover band.  But it's not a town I would be rushing back to.

I really don't need to discuss Orlando again, although I have to admit we found much better food this time around.  Of course, we went to some pretty expensive spots.  Speaking of expensive, the most expensive taxi cabs in the world have to be in Orlando.  Seriously, it was 10 bucks on the meter before we even got off the hotel grounds.  That trip was during March Madness time so we saw plenty of B-Ball in the evenings at the hotel bar.  And then baseball finally started!  So that trip was too long (6 nights) but otherwise, OK.

Next stop is beautiful Albany, NY for two nights to end the month of April.  Let the lobbying begin!
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 Do I feel any differently about the President's performance now that Russia has annexed Crimea and is threatening Eastern Ukraine?  Well, on the one hand, no, since again, this administration has taken our defensive posture down so many pegs, we are really not in position to do much militarily.  So tactically, they haven't had any choice; strategically, this administration has been a disaster, which is what we've said all along.  The one tactical mistake Obama did make was promising to veto any stronger sanctions Congress would pass, which gave Putin the green light to do whatever he wants.  That position needs to be reversed immediately.  I know the Administration is concerned about the scenario where they strengthen sanctions and have Russia cut off Europe's gas supply.  But the only way we have  to back Putin off is to fire up the sanctions and we need to do that post haste.  Americans can do their part by not buying any imported Russian products.  I know Stoli is good vodka, but there are lots of others.  Let the Stoli's pile up on the shelves, folks.
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There was good news from the Supreme Court where Chief Justice Roberts seems to have his mojo back.  In a logical follow up to Citizens United, the Court ruled that the ridiculous overall limit of $123,200 on contributions an individual can make to all candidates in a cycle violated the First Amendment, which any high school junior could have told you (if they still taught civics in public schools).  Now, there is no way my contributions would ever be in any danger of hitting half that total, but that's no reason to deny someone else their rights.  Frankly, I would have been happy to see the Court throw out all of McCain Feingold, but they didn't need to go that far to decide this case, and the majority did indicate that they would welcome a case that gives them the opportunity to do that.  Of course, Dems howled that the decision would mean endless money in politics, but they really don't care about how much money is in politics as long as it's theirs to spend.  No one raises more money than the Clinton's and Obama and their bundlers.  So it's all politics.  Which is why the GOP is going to pursue the IRS scandal to the end.  That's all politics too and you know the trail ends at the White House someplace.
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Two interesting movies showing on Showtime that you may have skipped during their theatrical runs are The Great Gatsby and On The Road, each based on iconic novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack Kerouac respectively.  In recent polls, Gatsby has been frequently staked to the number 1 position among American novels of all time.  Fitzgerald, though, is notoriously hard to screenplay, ironic in that he ended his career writing screenplays.  The reason his books don't lend themselves to the movies is that in truth, they are largely psychological and introspective with surprisingly little action and not all that much plotting either.  There will be long descriptive passages and narrative insights, but really, it's the Seinfield of American dramatic literature, nothing happens.

At least in Gatsby, something does happen.  There are parties, both drunken huge ones and tension filled intimate ones.  There are lovers reuniting, would be affairs failing to germinate, and it all culminates in a tragic fatal accident and a murder suicide.  Probably more action than in his other novels combined, and all squeezed into what is basically a novella.  Yet, even with all that, the passages that we Fitzgerald fans love are still the moments of intimate dialogue and narrative insight.

The 1949 movie version with Alan Ladd is rarely, if ever seen on television, so most of us have little or no familiarity with it.  Running only 92 minutes, it is little remembered despite a pretty fair cast.  But the 1974 version, staring Robert Redford in the title role, Mia Farrow as Daisy, Sam Waterston as Nick, and a terrific Bruce Dern as Tom (a chilling performance) is well known.  It stuck pretty close to the book including all the memorable character building scenes and many of our favorite quotes.  The (mis)casting of Redford as the mysterious Gastsby is notorious.  I thought actually Redford played the part too well and was too true to the character.  A persistent criticism of the novel has been that the Gatsby character is not clearly drawn and at book's end, he is still the one main character we don't fully get, although Nick seems to think he does.  In that sense, Redford pulled it off.  At movie's end, we really don't know what to think of him either, except that he clung to the possibility of reclaiming Daisy regardless of the odds and that wry smile gave him a puncher's chance.  Nothing else seems to matter.  My guess is that Redford thought this was how he was supposed to play the part.  My main criticism of him is how slow paced his scenes all are.  He's even worse as a Director.  I mean, did The Legend of Bagger Vance really have to take that long?

The new version, directed by Baz Luhrmann, and starring Leonard DeCaprio as Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Tobey Maguire as Tom and Joel Edgerton as Tom, is much more entertaining than the 1974 version, even as it expands on and strays from the book a little without changing the characters or the plot.  The Director (and co-screenwriter) makes a lot of interesting choices, many of which work and a few don't.  Most obvious is a soundtrack overlaying 20's jazz with rap and other modern forms.  I thought I would find that much more obtrusive than it was.  The music certainly adds an element of fun and excitement to the big party scenes at Gatsby's estate.  Another interesting device is to have Nick tell the story after the fact from a sanitarium where he is recovering from alcohol abuse and other ill effects of his Long Island summer.  He returns to his writing, encouraged by his doctor who tells him that penning the story of Gatsby will be good therapy.  He does so, and brilliantly, and because of this device (where Nick is so clearly a stand-in for Fitzgerald), we get to hear some of our favorite narrative passages with the author's observations (which since they don't actually move the plot, we would probably not get to hear otherwise).  In prior versions, it was not so clear whether Nick or Gatsby was Fitzgerald's stand-in.  After all, Gatsby's story in some ways parallel's the author's, whose marriage to Zelda was put on hold until he struck gold with his first novel.  This could explain some of the ambiguity surrounding Gatsby's character, since Fitzgerald likely was not so keen on revealing so much of his own character.

Which brings us to DeCaprio's performance.  Certainly, DeCaprio is in the top echelon of current American actors, and this performance is transcendent.  For the first time, we are given a Gatsby we can understand, a cultivated personality with a purposely affected speaking accent, youthful (much more so than Redford), alternating between extreme confidence and awkward diffidence, and relentlessly optimistic, hopeful, and opportunistic.  We understand finally that he is very much the front man, subordinate in Wolfsheim's illicit bootlegging operation, since in this movie, he abandons Daisy in the middle of his party to take business calls. In the end, like Nick, we are left in admiration of his personality and his loyalties.  And as always, the energy and intensity of DeCaprio's performance make such a stark contrast to Redford's sleepwalk.

As for the rest of the cast, Mulligan is fine and Maguire is truly excellent in portraying the unworldly, naive Nick, so out of place in the East.  But Edgerton, as brutal as he is, fails to lend much humanity to Tom, and it was that aspect that made Dern's depiction of his brutality so much more chilling.

I did have a few nits to pick, mostly involving things that were missing which I consider almost indispensable.  Gone is the scene where Gatsby meets Tom and Daisy's child, the one irrefutable piece of evidence of their one-time love that can't be denied.  In the "74 movie,  Redford's sickly reaction to that meeting is one of his better moments.  Also, there is no witnessing of the Jordan Baker character cheating at the golf tournament.  In fact in this version, Jordan is a mere catalyst without any appreciable character at all.  In the book, Nick says he and Jordan "wearily began an affair" but there is not much hint of that in this movie.  Even Daisy's character falls a bit short in Luhrmann's script.  We never hear Di Caprio remark that "her voice is full of money," which was undoubtedly Redford's best line (and one of the book's most memorable).  Finally, a very moving scene (and enlightening as to Gatsby's history) in the book and the "74 version is Gatsby's father's arrival at Nick's home for the funeral.  That does not happen in the new version.  But these are quibbles.  Clearly this is the best Gatsby yet, and an entertaining one too.  If anyone wants to take another shot at Tender Is the Night, the message is clear - take some chances.
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On the Road is a disjointed mess of a movie, even though there are big names behind its production and a few big names in the supporting cast as well. That makes it faithful to the book, which, let's face it, is also a mess.  Kerouac struggled to get it on paper, famously discarding nearly complete versions, before finally sitting down and banging out the final version in no time at all.  This did not impress everyone, especially Truman Capote, whose opinion was "that's not writing, it's typing."  What Kerouac typed was really a US travelogue, finishing with a side trip to Mexico.  He depicted his own and his best friends' lives as generally unemployed artists, writers, and perverts who indulged in as much alcohol, drugs, and sex as possible.  The movie depicts this bohemian lifestyle which in the 1950's came to be known as the beatnik generation.  In addition to the above vices, there was a love of music, especially modern jazz, that is also central to the movie.  As in the book, there ain't much plot here.  But on some level it is fun.  I have never really understood Kerouac's idolization of his friend Neal Cassidy, the subject of the Dean Moriarity character, and in the movie, he is taken down a few pegs in the end.  There is some satisfaction in that, I think.  Less developed than in the book is the Allen Ginsburg character, though there are some scenes depicting gay and bisexual activities.

This is another book that is almost an impossible subject for a movie.  I was determined to stick with it, and if you do, there is some payoff.   But mainly, it made me want to go back to the book for another turn through the real thing.
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Here are the stock transactions.  There have been a lot of them.  March was a pretty good month, and we certainly wiped out that miserable January.  But so far, April looks real shaky.  Investors need to keep an eye on this market.  Most of the pros think we will end the year higher after a correction or two along the way.  I hope they are right.
 Buys                                                                                 Sales
Date        Symbol       Shares       Price                Date   Symbol     Shares   Price   Date Bought  Price Pd

3/5            SJM           25            99.16              3/5      GENC      200      10.91   2/2/09            8.17  
3/11          KN            100          28.02               3/10     AA          200      12.00   2/17/05        29.47 
3/14          PFG.PR.B  100         24.71                                                                   3/20/06        30.20
3/17          AGCO       100         52.40               3/12      PQ          400        5.35    4/22/09         2.91
3/21          KN             100         31.50               3/18     BYD        200       14.10   11/5/07       40.05
3/25          WFC.PR.P  100         21.98                                                                    11/19/07     38.25
4/4             KN            100          31.59                                                                    10/27/08      3.95
4/7             HSC           100         23.75               3/24     SFE        100        21.59   11/27/03       8.22
4/8             GLD             20        126.30              3/26     PWR      100        36.63    11/3/08        19.73
4/11            KN            100          31.35              4/2       AA         200        12.80     12/19/08     9.46
4/11           NVEC          50           53.44             4/2      CNRD     100        42.35     4/26/05       1.30
4/14           SBRAP        100         24.33             4/4       AWCMY 500         4.60     6/29/12       3.27

Yes, that's the right purchase price on Conrad.  We rode Boyd Gaming down a long way in the financial crisis until it started to recover.  It looked like it might no be able to service its debt there for a while.


                  
   

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