Monday, July 20, 2009

Put Baseball Trip '09 in the Books

Well, five days, four cities, three ballparks, two BBQ comas and countless beers later, BASEBALL TRIP '09: CINCINNATI, ST. LOUIS & KANSAS CITY has come to an end. Appropriately, it ended in spectacular fashion: We drove the ENTIRE 1,300 miles home from K.C. in one epic journey! Originally, we were going to stop over in Pittsburgh once again, crash and continue the rest of the way in the morning... but we fell behind schedule during the course of the drive and wouldn't have gotten there till after 1 a.m. By that point, we figured it made sense to just soldier on and get home as quickly as possible. Thanks to more bathroom/food/coffee stops and more general horseplay than usual, the ride took longer than it probably should have -- over 24 hours from the moment we left K.C. to the moment I arrived back at my apartment in NYC -- but it was worth it. The drive was fun, we got to see the sun set behind us and rise again before us, and as we passed through the cities we'd just visited, it allowed me to reflect on our many adventures: From the classic sandwich at Primanti's in Pittsbugh... to the 3-Way Chili, suspension bridge and awesome ballpark experience in Cincy... to the Arch, great BBQ and not one, but TWO Pujols homers in St. Louis... to the unparalleled glory of Arthur Bryant's, the beauty of Kauffmann Stadium and the Greinke-Kazmir matchup in K.C. The car rides were also memorable -- filled with good music, old school NES emulation, crossword puzzles (Murphy and I came within three clues of finishing the Sunday Times puzzle in the K.C. newspaper during the voyage home), snackage galore, and we probably listened to the "I Got Mail" Crank Yankers skit, like, 20 times and it never stopped being funny! (YAAAAAY!)

Now I just need to start sifting through the nearly 600 pics that I took during the course of the trips and get a nice, big photo gallery online. Stay tuned for that... but it may be a while before I'm able to recuperate from my exhaustion -- awesome as this trip was, it was not particularly RELAXING by any means, as we were constantly on the move and running on very little sleep -- in fact, at press time, I've been awake for over 33 1/2 hours and counting... but like Kenny Rogers and his titular Gambler, I am too tired to sleep. Argh. Soon, though, there will be pics... oh yes indeed.

(And hey, who knows, maybe this influx of blogging over the past few days will actually get me to start writing movie reviews 'n stuff more often! At the very least, I owe a HARRY POTTER 6 review... though I may wait a few days until I see it again in IMAX 3D before I offer up my thoughts, of which there are many. For now, know that it stands as my #1 movie of 2009 so far -- haters be damned!)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Kansas City, Hey Hey Hey Hey!

We busted out of St. Louis bright and early, piled into the van once again and set out along route I-70 towards Kansas City, our westernmost stop of Baseball Trip '09 (and, indeed, the furthest west we've gone yet as we slowly but surely fulfill our manifest destiny). As I mentioned the other day, I was particularly interested in this leg of the tour -- sure, I've seen the Royals on TV, and I've even seen them play the Mets in New York -- but did they ACTUALLY exist? Maybe the Royals I've seen over the years have just been figments of my imagination or complex illusions that MLB devised after the Royals last won the World Series in 1985? Personally, I've never met a real, live Royals fan in my life -- do they really exist? I have Zack Greinke on my fantasy team and it has been awesome, but is he a real guy? I was looking forward to answering all of these questions.

Also, how about this K.C. BBQ that I've heard so much about? Is it as good as advertised and touted? Well, after another long drive (this time featuring our first traffic jams of the entire trip), we were ready to find out... and our first stop in K.C. was ARTHUR BRYANT'S, widely considered to be the greatest BBQ joint in the Midwest, and perhaps the entire known universe. Upon first glance, we knew we were in for a treat -- kinda divey joint, with a mess hall-style line where they cut your meat and pile it onto your plate right in front of us. My friends & constant readers, let me tell you right now: This place was SPECTACULAR. I know, I know, I have been raving about my various BBQ meals throughout this trip, and each one has trumped the one before it -- but it is clear now that my experiences in Cincy and St. Louis were just appetizers for the main course that was Arthur Bryant's. I got the brisket sandwich, and when the server piled an absolute mountain of meat on my plate, my eyes literally widened as if I'd won the lottery. It was truly an astonishing amount of beef. Along with that, I partook in the baked beans and slaw and FREE PICKLES, all of which were great... but in this meal, meat was king. It was the most amazing brisket I've ever consumed -- tender like butter, perfectly cooked and expertly cut. There were three sauce options: Original, Sweet & Spicy and Rich & Spicy, the latter of which was my personal favorite. By the end of the meal, we were all in deep meat comas -- but it was glorious. If you are a fan of BBQ, you owe it to yourself to get to Kansas City and experience Arthur Bryant's before you die. Even if there was no baseball to look forward to, this would have been a worthwhile stop on our trip!

But lucky us, there WAS baseball on our agenda! First we stopped at our lodging for the evening -- the fine, Midwestern suburban home of Geoff's friend Scott's mom. As soon as we got there, we were greeted with an unbelievable level of Midwestern hospitality which threw all of our east coast minds for a loop. Big thanks to Linda and J.P. (with special shout-outs to little two-year-old Charlotte, who likes jumping on beds and twirling; Oscar the big, loveable cat; and Bernie the dog).

We hung around at the house for a bit and then headed out to the New K -- newly refurbished Kaufmann Stadium, home of the Royals and a ridiculously huge, crown-shaped video screen. The park (which I can now confidently declare really DOES exist) was really nice -- it was similar to Cincy in that it had that great small-town "field of dreams" feel, and way better than St. Louis in that it looked different from all the cookie-cutter parks. The upper deck was sort of arc-shaped, and the outfield, with the aforementioned video screen and constantly-running fountains (which dance, Bellagio-style, in between innings) are lovely indeed. Our seats were on the Field Level, right behind third base, which was very sweet. Just a great park and a great place to watch a ballgame. Plus the tickets are cheap as hell and concessions are reasonably priced -- I was still stuffed from BBQ, so I just got a helmet ice cream (with fresh strawberries!) and a couple of beers. But they had some good-looking stuff on the menu, including more BBQ (natch) and buffalo chicken bites over fries, which I kinda wish I'd been hungry enough to try. Maybe next time!

The game was great -- we got really lucky and saw a pitching matchup between two aces: the Royals' Zack Greinke and Scott Kazmir of the Tampa Bay Rays. Both of whom I have on my fantasy team, so I was looking forward to a nice pitchers' duel... and that's exactly what we got! Zack and Scotty kept the hitters at bay for most of the game, giving up hits but getting out of jams unscathed. Scotty went six solid, and Zack went 7 -- then came the bullpens. The Royals took the lead in the bottom of the 7th, setting Zack up for the win. But then the Royals 'pen imploded and coughed up three runs in the 8th -- and in turn changed my entire outlook on the game. At first, I was rooting for both starting pitchers, but once the Rays took the lead, I rooted solely for them because, as it happens, I have Rays closer J.P. Howell on my fantasy team, too!). The reigning AL champs nailed it down in the 9th and the Rays won 4-2 -- the second Baseball Trip in a row where we've seen the Rays come back and win against the home team (they beat the White Sox last year in Chicago, also with Scotty on the mound... go figure!).

It was a good game for baseball fans, but not so much for Royals fans -- and I was surprised at their attitudes. Many people started leaving in the 8th when the Rays tied it up, and even more filed out when they took a two-run lead. As someone who has only left a game early maybe twice in his life, and who once saw the Mets score 10 runs in one inning to overcome an 8-1 deficit, this was appalling. But I guess it makes sense -- the Royals have been bad for so long, I guess their frustration shines through in games like this, when the 'pen wastes a solid effort from their new ace. Ah well. We were also annoyed when, in the top of the 9th, we tried to move down about 15 rows to watch the final inning... and this usher lady bitchily ordered to us to move back. WTF, Royals? For one thing, it was the 9th inning and half of the crowd had already left. For another... you're the Royals! Remember your station in life! It's all good, though -- we managed to get all the way down to the first row of the field level to take our group shot after the game, thanks to another, much nicer usher lady. THANKS, NICE LADY!

All in all, the K.C. ballgame experience was a good one, and the Big K will rank as one of my favs, thanks to its perfect mix of old-school charm and newfangled bells & whistles -- but not TOO many bells & whistles so as to detract from the reason you're there: BASEBALL. It is also worth noting that the Royals lead the majors in the number of different themed "cams" they show on the video screen throughout the game -- there was the Kiss Cam and Spirit Cam and Hairdo Cam and Dance Cam and the best of all, CRANIUM CAM, where they showed people with distorted heads. I wish the Royals the best of luck... especially when Greinke is pitching!

After the game, we went back to the van and ended up joining a group of postgame tailgaters who were parked nearby. They were a bunch of twentysomething K.C. locals whom we probably never would have had anything to do with in high school, if you catch my drift. But in the context of the Kaufmann Stadium parking lot, with beers in hand, all was well. We can only hope that we were able to impart some life-changing east coast wisdom before we parted ways. We then went to Taco Bell to satisfy Geoff's hankering, then back to Linda & J.P.'s house to call it a night. Earlier in the day, I got lucky and won the room lottery, so I got to sleep in an actual bed for the first time on this trip -- so comfy!

We woke up bright & early once again -- got-damn, I am going to sleep so f'ing late on Tuesday -- to find an incredible breakfast spread in the kitchen, courtesy of Linda. Scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, coffee and some of the best pancakes I've had in a while. We ate our fill, bid our hosts a grateful farewell, piled into the van........ and just like that, we were heading back from whence we came. As I write this, we are smack in the middle of Missouri (yes, I am on the internet, thanks to a signal from Jay's iPhone -- thank Greink-- er, I mean, God for technology!). We'll be on the road for many hours and will be making one final Pitt-stop (shut up) at Matt's house in the 'burgh before ultimately returning home. Still to come: A final recap... and eventally, a massive photo gallery, once I'm able to sift through the 500+ pics I've taken, many of which are quite good indeed... so stay tuned!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Spirit of St. Louis

We bade farewell to Cincinnati and Covington bright and early. I was running on only a few hours' sleep, so I was exhausted but content -- Cincy was awesome and, at the moment, probably ranks as one of the top three baseball cities I've visited since we started taking these trips. But next on the agenda was a city that excited me even more: St. Louis, which is widely considered to be the greatest baseball city in the world (with all due respect to Cubs fans). I'd heard great things about the city, the stadium, the fans, the "sea of red" that fills the ballpark every day, and was very much looking forward to seeing it all for myself.

We arrived in St. Louis five hours later and were immediately greeted by a spectacular sight: THE ARCH. I have to admit, I am usually a sucker for national monuments and things of that nature... but I particularly liked the Arch! I couldn't stop taking pictures of the damn thing -- it was like when I went to Paris and by the end of the trip, I was just reflexively taking pics of the Eiffel Tower. The Arch was very cool, and we had a perfect sky for a backdrop throughout the day.

Our hotel was pretty damn sweet. We were right in the heart of the city -- mere minutes away from both the Arch and the ballpark. Our rooms turned out to be huge, almost suite-like, with a kitchen and everything. Nice little slice of luxury -- but the piece de resistance was when I looked out the window and saw the glorious visage of the Arch standing tall overhead. Nice!

After chillin' in the room with some beers for a bit, it was time to head to Busch Stadium, where we hoped to take a stadium tour. I was impressed by the stadium's grand exterior, and even more impressed when we entered and saw the field. It was pristine (probably even more than usual, since the All-Star Game was just here a few days ago), with an awesome view of the city skyline (and the Arch, of course) beyond the outfield fences. I felt a great thrill as the tour took us onto the actual field -- this wasn't the first time I'd been on a major league baseball field, but it never gets old. We then entered the Cardinals' dugout and enjoyed some photo ops. I could've spent the entire tour on the field and in the dugout -- and frankly, I kind of wish we had. The rest of the tour was kind of lame -- it was basically just a walking advertisement for Busch Stadium's luxury suites and premium tickets. It was nice to see all the tributes to Cardinals history all over the place -- the old-school baseball card wallpaper was nice touch -- but I really don't give a shit about the dining options in the Champion's Club. Our main tour guide was also kind of a tool. Still, the field was awesome and I couldn't wait to watch baseball being played on it later.

After the tour, we grabbed some grub -- yes, more BBQ, this time at PAPPY'S SMOKEHOUSE. Now, I know I raved about the pulled pork sandwich I had at the ballpark in Cincy yesterday, but that was nothing, apparently. The good folks at Pappy's weren't messing around. The decor was no frills but the food was out-goddamn-standing. The pulled pork was ridiculously tender and delicious when slathered with their special hot BBQ sauce. The slaw was tangy and fresh and quite possibly the best I've ever had, but the baked beans took the meal to a whole other level -- perfectly prepared and drowned in tasty BBQ sauce. I hesitate to anoint it the "perfect BBQ meal" because we still have K.C. to look forward to... but Pappy's is definitely the frontrunner at the moment.

Next, some of us headed to the Arch for a closer look. The optical illusion of the Arch is interesting. It looks grand from a distance, but not particularly overwhelming -- but as you get closer, you realize just how huge it is. Depending upon your viewing angle, the Arch sometimes looks two-dimensional, sometimes shimmery, shadowy and ominous, sometimes inviting. Always cool. It was also fun to don our gloves throw the ball around in the grass alongside the Arch. What it all boils down to is that I really like this Arch!

But even more than the Arch, I love me some baseball, and soon it was time for the game. We headed back to Busch, admired the statues of Cardinals greats surrounding the stadium (Mets brass, for God's sake, take note!!!) and then went inside..... and almost immediately, our opinion of the stadium plummeted. Whereas the field is very nice, the lower concourses are obscenely ugly. With the dark, dingy lighting and exposed piping in the ceiling, it feels like you're walking through a dilapidated cavern. Very strange. The upper concourses were eerily similar to Citi Field (damn cookie cutter stadiums), but Citi makes it much easier to actually find and get to your seats. Our seats at Busch were good -- first base side in the upper box area -- and the view was very nice. I enjoyed the "sea of red," but did not enjoy the concession prices, which were so high that I ended up not getting a damn thing out of principle! The team store seemed far more overpriced than usual, too -- good thing we got a free t-shirt at the gate!

As for the game, it was fun. The Cardinals won 6-1 thanks to a strong outing from Chris Carpenter and a veritable one-man show by my boy Pujols: Two solo homers (including one curtain call) and several nice defensive plays. The man is a beast, and that is why I wore his t-shirt (well, also because he's been the lynchpin of my fantasy baseball team for years). All in all, the Busch Stadium experience was a bit of a mixed bag -- nice place to watch a game, but the rest of the stadium was kind of "eh." In that sense, considering my high expectations for what I thought would be an EXPERIENCE in all caps, I guess it was kind of a letdown. Ah well. (That said, the Cardinals do have the hottest "party patrol" girls I've ever seen -- they wore ridiculously short shorts and their act was unexpectedly sexual in nature: Lots of gyrating, bouncing and shooting t-shirts into the crowd with a slingshot that necessitated one of them to bend suggestively. TAG!)

After the game, we grabbed some grub at Max & Erma's (kind of like a midwestern TGI Friday's) and then headed back to the Arch to take some nighttime shots. It was pretty awesome because if you play with the angles, you could do some funny shit. Here are some examples:

Then it was back to the hotel and time to turn in. St. Louis was a cool town -- not sure it'll be high on my list of cities that I need to visit again in the future, but I had damn good time nonetheless... the Arch, of course, being my favorite part. If only they had such cool monuments and things in MY home city! .......oh, right.

K.C. on deck!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Cincinnati: Where Pigs Fly... least, that's what it said on a shot glass that I bought several years ago when my flight stopped over in the Cincinnati airport. Of course this means that Cincinnati is a place where you can expect the unexpected -- and after spending a day in and around the city, I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. Cincinnati -- and nearby Covington, Kentucky -- is a fun city, and a great baseball city, and is home to one of the best ballparks I've visited!

After leaving the hotel, we made a quick stop across the street at Skyline Chili, home to one of Cincinnati's finest delicacies: CHILI & CHEESE OVER SPAGHETTI. I had heard of this delicacy in the weeks leading up to this trip, but I was skeptical as to what it would actually be like. Indeed, it's a weeeeeird meal. For $4.99, you get a big mound of spaghetti covered with meaty chili and topped with a pile of grated cheese. The combination of flavors and textures is bizarre but surprisingly delicious. I wasn't even particularly hungry, so much as just curious, but I ended up demolishing the whole thing. Tremendous!

Next we headed to the suspension bridge that would take us to Cincy. It was a cool walk, loaded with panoramas, murals and photo ops. Fifteen minutes later, we were in Cincinnati, gazing upon the Great American Ball Park. Right off the bat, I was sold on this park -- in a sense, it's everything I wish Citi Field could be. There's a vast open area outside the stadium, just like Citi Field -- but in Cincy, there are baseball-themed statues, banners and tributes to Reds history, and just an overwhelming sense that this is, in fact, THE HOME OF THE REDS. God, Citi Field needs that... but I digress bigtime. We took in the sights and sounds and walked around. In particular, I took note of as many PETE ROSE references as we could find -- I was wearing my "Pete Rose: Hall of Fame" t-shirt, which I have owned for more than 10 years, and have worn on every baseball trip so far... and for the first time, I actually got a couple of compliments on it!

Our seats were awesome -- fifth row of the upper level box, right behind home plate. Perfect view of the field and vista beyond the outfield wall, which included the river (complete with passing paddleboats and coal barges) and the rolling hills of Kentucky. Very scenic indeed. The crowd was small and fairly subdued -- my friends and I were by far the loudest, and I think the Cincy fans were a little scared of our "Jo-ey... Joo-ey... Jooo-ey... Joooo-ey... VOTTTTTOOOOOO!" chant. But it was all good. And then there were the concessions, which were most impressive. Beer was reasonably priced, and food was plentiful -- they actually had a Skyline Chili in the ballpark, but another pile of chili & cheese & spaghetti might have killed me on the spot. Instead, I got a BBQ pulled pork sandwich with hand-cut chips, and it was spectacular. The sandwich was huge, absolutely loaded with meat -- at one point, half the meat fell out of the bread, and the sandwich was STILL huge! They also did not skimp on the chips. At first the guy put a big handful of chips in the tray... then he put ANOTHER handful! They were crisp, seasoned and awesome. Even with all the great food options at Citi Field, this was one of the best ballpark meals I've had all year. The vendors were also pretty entertaining -- actually, just one guy, Jarvis, who was quite possibly the greatest Dippin' Dots salesman I've ever seen -- the negotiation between Jarvis and Murphy was epic and hilarious, resulting in an exchange of money & cookie dough ice cream that belongs on the freakin' Sistine Chapel.

There weren't many negatives about the Great American Ball Park experience, to tell the truth -- it feels homey and comfortable and fun it's an all-around great place to watch a ballgame. I was, however, a little perturbed by the Reds mascot, Mr. Redlegs -- basically, he has a familiar-looking giant baseball head, but with crazy eyes and a big Italian mustache. He's like Luigi to Mr. Met's Mario! (There was also another mascot that looked kind of like the Philly Phanatic's mutant cousin, and for some reason, the San Francisco Giants' mascot was there hanging out. Also, Tea Leoni.)

It was a long game, but a fun one, even though the Brewers defeated the Reds 9-6 -- I'd predicted an 8-3 final score, which obviously did not come true, but that WAS the score after the 7th inning, so for a few minutes there, it was a kinda eerie. We saw some homers, some sparkling defense and the all-time saves leader doing his thing. Afterward, we headed back to the bridge to Covington without any real idea as to where to go next -- until we bumped into a transplanted Jersey girl who told us to go to Mainstrasse section of Covington -- a bar district which happened to be right down the street from our hotel! Our adventures brought us to the Village Pub, a cool place with cheap-as-hell beers and outdoor seating. We downed a few Lone Stars and Caribs, smoked some cigars and chilled for a while -- then retired to the hotel, but not before swinging by the nearby White Castle to soak up all the beer with some ratburgers. YUM.

We went to bed late and woke up early -- we're all tired now, but in a good way because it is the result of a kick-ass Cincy baseball experience. Now, as I write this, we are on the road to our next stop: St. Louis! Feel free to meet me there....

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Livin' on the Air in Cincinnati

We have arrived in Cincinnati! The drive from Pittsburgh was mostly pleasant, filled with NES emulation (with authentic USB controllers!), crossword puzzles and the like. We did, however, nearly get killed when a large plastic tub came flying off the back of a truck driving in front of us --fortunately, Isaac was able to wildly swerve the van out of the way and we made it past unscathed (though Jay's cup of sunflower seed shells did fly out of his hands and scatter everywhere... ew.) We then stopped at a Country Kitchen where we grabbed some grub & midwestern hospitality and watched an informercial for a "child behavior modification" program that included such topics as, "How to Fix Your Child in Less Than 60 Seconds." (Get your free trial at!).

Now we are chillin' in our hotel, which is actually located across the river, about a 15-minute walk from the Great American Ballpark, in Covington, Kentucky (my first time in the great state of Kentucky!). The weather is sunny and hot, which bodes well for tonight's ballgame -- but right now, we've got the a/c blasting and a cooler full of beer, and life is good. More later!

We're in Pittsburgh.

Hello from Pittsburgh. We've been here before -- two years ago, in fact, when we came to see Pirates baseball, ate at a scary diner, bought 99-cent CD's at a cool record shop. This time, we are simply here for a Pitt-stop (I just can't help myself) -- but what a Pitt stop it has been!

Shortly after our arrival at our friend Matt's house, we set out again and hit up Primanti Bros., a famous (and oft-suggested) sandwich place, and got-damn, it was good. I had the jumbo fish & cheese sandwich, which was basically a massive pile of fish, cheese, tomatoes, slaw and fries in between two pieces of bread. It was huge and delicious. The sandwich was washed down with a good ol' Iron City brew, and after five-plus hours on the road, that totally hit the spot. Afterwards, we decided to go out for a nightcap at Hough's, a bar around the corner from Matt's place. Chill place, vast beer selection -- a good time was had by all.

Now I'm sitting on an Aero Bed in the attic, surrounded by walls of CD's and books, listening to the whirr of the fan which has made the temperature more bearable. (Damn hot air rising all the time!) Should probably hit the hay soon because we have to be up bright and early tomorrow. Cincinnati -- and BASEBALL -- beckons!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Baseball Trip '09 is Underway!

This entry is being written at about 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, somewhere within the confines of Pennsylvania as my travelling companions and I make our way to Pittsburgh. That is where we will stop over at our good friend Matt's house -- a way station of sorts -- before continuing tomorrow to our first baseball stop. There are six of us piled into a rented minivan (mint green in color, which is surprisingly masculine, I swear). Jay and Isaac will likely be sharing the lion's share of the driving, as they are the only ones named on the insurance. Dibi brought a bag of fruit, Geoff is rocking a Mark Grace Cubs jersey, and Murphy and I spent two and a half hours watching THERE WILL BE BLOOD on the computer. A good music mix is playing, there are peanuts and sunflower seeds to be eaten -- we're off to a good start! Here's a brief look at our itinerary for the coming week:

• Tomorrow we will arrive in Cincinnati, Ohio, home of those rascally Reds. The Reds will be taking on the Milwaukee Brewers -- who, oddly enough, we saw last year when we went to Milwaukee. (See how it all ties together?) Supposedly we will also eat chili over spaghetti, but this can neither be confirmed nor denied.

• On Friday we will make our way west to the great city of St. Louis, home of a beer of some kind, an arch of some kind, and of course, the Cardinals, who will be playing the Arizona Diamondbacks. I am particularly excited to visit what is widely considered to be the greatest baseball city in the world!

• On Saturday, we will continue to Kansas City, which should be very interesting, because really, have you ever met a Royals fan in person in your life? Do they really exist? Is the whole team, ballpark and history a grand illusion? I know I watched the 1985 World Series... but it's still hard to comprehend the very concept. We hope to see it for ourselves when the Royals play the Tampa Bay Rays. There will also be BBQ... oh yes, there will be BBQ.

After that we'll turn around and come alllllll the way home, with another pit stop in Pittsbrgh (I promise I will not make any "Pitt-stop" jokes... oh wait). I intend to blog whenever I can, though I don't know what the internet situation will be like in any of these cities. (Do they even have internet in Kansas City? Probably.)

Anyway, I think we're approaching Pittsburgh now, where you can most assuredly grow a beard. Food beckons. 'Til later.....

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Pre-Vacation Movie Roundup

Tonight, I begin what should be an awesome week of vacation, starting with the midnight screening of HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE at the Ziegfeld (mere hours away!), followed by my annual BASEBALL TRIP with my friends (this year, we'll be conquering Cincinnati, St. Louis and Kansas City), and capped off with the PAUL McCARTNEY concert at Citi Field. I am psyched... but first, let's catch up on the movies I've seen since I last wrote:

WHATEVER WORKS -- Woody Allen's latest is a return to his usual comic formula, but unfortunately, not one of his better efforts. Larry David stars in the "Woody Allen role", but instead of Woody's nervous, guilt-ridden nebbishness, David brings a harsh, guilt-free asshole-ishness to the role. An interesting change of pace, but not enough to save this otherwise dull, over-the-top and poorly-cast (Evan Rachel Wood is no Scarlett!) attempt. Perhaps Woody really should stick to films such as MATCH POINT and VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA, because he really seemed to have something there, whereas he hasn't made a really good formula comedy in a long, long time.

PUBLIC ENEMIES -- Solid film about the life and legend of John Dillinger, and a return to form for Michael Mann after the trash heap that was MIAMI VICE. Thanks to the use of hand-held digital cameras, the film has a gritty, 1930's feel, which is cool -- but on the other hand, it can be visually jarring at times. Fortunately, the action is fast-paced and well-crafted with a constant underlying sense of danger that elevates the story even when things are seemingly at a lull. It probably goes without saying that Johnny Depp is awesome, perfectly capturing Dillinger's charisma. Christian Bale is acceptable as Dillinger's FBI nemesis, and Marion Cotillard is scorching hot as his love interest. But my favorite performance belonged to Billy Crudup, practically unrecognizable as everybody's favorite crossdressing FBI chief, J. Edgar Hoover -- tremendous!

THE HURT LOCKER -- One of the best films I've seen about the war in Iraq for one major reason: There's no political agenda. It's a simple story about soliders doing their duty -- in this case, a team of bomb technicians -- and it is very refreshing. These guys have an especially harrowing job, because danger literally lurks in every nook, cranny, trench, building and garbage pile of the land. The action is always intense because there's no telling when something is gonna go boom -- apparently each bomb defusion scene was filmed in a single take, with multiple cameras, to heighten the drama, and it shows. A high-risk sniper sequence that rivals the one from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN raises the bar even more. Well-developed characters, great performances, unrelenting suspense -- it's a fantastic and expertly crafted film, so much so that I wouldn't be surprised if it found its way into the Top 10 at year's end.

ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS -- You might wonder, "How the heck can there be dinosaurs if the Ice Age came after they were extinct?" Well, such historical accuracy is of no concern to this surprisingly-fun animated franchise, and that's fine with me. If you liked the first two installments, and you like dinosaurs, you'll be entertained once again, as I was. Plus, you gotta love Scrat's epic quest to obtain that elusive acorn -- it's always funny and tragic in a way that rises above the rest of the film's hijinks.

I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER -- Imagine CAN'T HARDLY WAIT, if Preston had declared his love for Amanda at the very beginning of the movie, and instead of attending the big grad party, the two of them (and their cohorts) had embarked on a wild joyride full of shenanigans, crazy encounters fellow classmates, and of course, poignant self-discovery. That kind of sums up this movie, plot-wise, though it is nowhere near the CAN'T HARDLY WAIT caliber of awesomeness and quotability. In fact, save for a few mild chuckles, it's not very good at all -- and Hayden Panettiere, even semi-naked, is no Jennifer Love Hewitt!

BRUNO -- When Sacha Baron Cohen unleashed BORAT upon us a few years ago, it instanty became one of the top 3 funniest movies I've ever seen, in terms of the sheer, gut-busting, aisle-rolling laughter that it caused (the other two are the SOUTH PARK movie and BILLY MADISON). But now, I dunno... BRUNO was still very funny and I laughed quite a bit... but it just didn't have the same effect. Maybe it's because the shock value has been dulled considerably -- if you've seen Cohen's nutsack once, you've seen it a million times! Maybe it's because, after the staged MTV Movie Awards encounter with Eminem, I'm skeptical as to how much of the movie is actually real. Whatever the case, it just fell a little short -- though the interviews with Ron Paul and the stage parents who are willing to sign their kids up for just about anything were pretty classic. (Also, was it just me, or was that "gay converter" the same guy from Bill Mahr's RELIGULOUS, also directed by Larry Charles? He just needs to incorporate that guy into one more movie to complete the trilogy!)

And with that, let the vacation begin! I hereby vow to at least TRY to blog as much as possible over the next week (at the very least, I'll surely be microblogging about them on Facebook and Twitter, so that's something!)... so stay tuned!