Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters – Adam Cornelius (2012)


I’m not sure if I’ve lost more waking hours or sleeping hours toTetris, but it’s a depressing number of each. A person can’t just casually play Tetris. A distant cousin of games like dominos andBreakout, at its slowest levels Tetris a perfectly simple game of creating lines for points.

At its highest speeds, Tetris is demonic and taunting, and if you’re not ready for the next speed boost you won’t last long. At its highest speeds, one simple mistake – one flick of the thumb too much, or not enough – and you’re done for. This trick, that it’s such an easy game, is where the obsession hides, deep in the coding. It should be as simple as counting to four with your thumbs. But when it comes to Tetris, the thumbs are incompetent slaves to the brain, and the brain is an incompetent slave to the will. Like most classic arcade games, it doesn’t have an ending, it just gets harder until you die.

But in the 1990s there was no one better at Tetris than a strange skinny kid from Texas named Thor Aackerlund. No one came closer to “beating” Tetris than he did. His thumbs actually were slaves to his brain, vibrating the d-pad more than pushing it, creating an incredible speed for sliding pieces left and right. Watching him play is a hard thing to reconcile with reality, that’s how agile his piece movement is.

Aackerlund, who finished in first place at the Nintendo World Championships in 1990, is the closest thing the game of Tetris has ever had to a grand champion.

But then he fell off the map.

In 2010, one of his competitors at the NWCs, Robin Mihara, set out to fix the record when it came to Tetris, calling together the country’s best players – as verified by the Twin Galaxies score board – for a winner take all tournament in Los Angeles.

Unlike King of Kong or Chasing GhostsEcstasy of Order doesn’t seek to find Aackerlund to mine his story for narrative gold. Though he seems to be something of a tragic figure in the small segments that do trace the broadstokes of his story, Adam Cornelius’ documentary is as obsessed with the game as its devoted fans are. It only seeks Aackerlund out because you cannot have a championship of Tetris without the man once regarded as the best.

Perhaps that’s a tragic flaw for the film. Perhaps Aackerlund’s life could have been mined and made for a better film, like Steve Weibe’s, but perhaps it’s also better this way. King of Kong was manipulated in ways that made for a great film, but for lousy reportage and I’ve always felt let down by that. Ecstasy of Order maintains its appeal in a more pure fashion: the viewer’s ownTetris demons. The tournament collects the best players in the world – Jonas Neubauer andHarry Hong, who have maxed out the high scores (999,999), and Ben Mullen, who held the record for high lines (296 – my own personal high is a paltry 191) – and shows their triumphs and failures in terms of the game itself. The best players in the world can be stumped by a longbar drought just like the rest of us. The best players in the world can drop a piece in the wrong place just like the rest of us. It keeps the allure of the game’s difficult simplicity alive as it asks the most tantalizing question: is there even a such thing as a Tetris Master?

Knuckleball! – Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg (2012)


Everything about the fundamental mechanics of baseball seems simple. Kids stuff. That’s when we come to it, as little kids hitting off a tee, or having a ball tossed softly to us in the park. There’s nothing to it. You rear back to throw. You kick as hard as you can to run. Extend your arms to swing. But as most of us know by now, as we sit at desk jobs or customer service counters, it ain’t simple at all.

In baseball, the thing that seems the most simple to perfect is the knucklball. You don’t even throw it, you dig your fingernails into ball and push it to the plate. It doesn’t matter if you can’t throw fast (in fact it helps not to), or if you’re not as athletic. The ball does all the work, not the pitcher. The knuckleball is, of course, the hardest pitch the perfect. In fact, there have been fewer than 100 full time major league hurlers who have thrown it down the years.

In 2011, when this documentary was filmed, there were two knuckleballers:Boston’s veteran righty, Tim Wakefield (44), and the Mets’ reclamation project, R.A. Dickey (36). Dickey’s age would seem worrying if he was any other type of pitcher, but unlike hard throwers, it gets better as your arm loses its velocity. Most can pitch into their 40s, like both Neikro brothers, Joe and Phil, who could still pitch when they retired, they just couldn’t field their positions anymore.

In factWakefieldand Dickey, both former-first round picks, were reclamation projects as knuckleballers.Wakefieldcame up withPittsburghin ’92 as a power hitting corner infielder after a big college career, but seemed lost at the plate with the switch from the aluminum bats in college to the wood bats of the bigs. It was chance that a minor league instructor saw him fooling around with the knuckler and he got to save his career, eventually playing 18 seasons. Dickey, after a great college career capped off with a bronze medal at the 1996 Olympics, could never put it together in the majors with his normal arsenal of pitches. He bummed around the minors until he gave the knuckleball a try to make one last grab at saving his career in the Mets minor league system.

They might be underdogs, but watching the film you don’t ever get that sense from them. They are calm and professional, taking delight in how silly they can make the likes of Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter look with their simple 60 mile an hour pitch that dances its way to the plate. They say, in fact, they prefer to face the big swingers (who are used to quality breaking pitches and pure heat). It’s the scrappy guys who are used to hitting junk in the minors who put the most hurt on them.

Most pitches in the majors are about the tightest, quickest spin you can get on them. The tighter, the faster you throw it, the bigger the break, the wider the cut, the later the movement. It all adds up to a ball that is harder to hit. With the knuckleball all of that goes out the window. The key to the pitch is that it doesn’t spin, or it little spins as little possible – less than two revolution between leaving the pitcher’s hand and reaching the catcher’s glove (or at least the catcher’s general vicinity). With this lack of spin, the resting stitches catch the air different every time, making the pitch completely unpredictable not only to the hitter, but the catcher, umpire and even the pitcher himself.

But even for those who have mastered the pitch, it’s hard to control. A microcosm of baseball itself, the knuckleball is a cruel, unpredictable thing and, like Bill Bucknor or Mitch Williams before him, Tim Wakefield’s career highlight will probably end up being one bad pitch. He’s 200 game winner, yes, but he’s also the guy who gave up the walkoff homerun to Aaron Boone — Mr. Scrappy — in the 2003 AL Championship Series, sending the Yankees to the World Series instead of the Red Sox. Before that one pitch, a knuckler that tumbled its way to the plate more than danced, he was probably going to be the MVP of the series. He was dynamite against the Yankees that series. Hundreds of great pitches all forgotten because of one bad one.

Wakefield retired at the end of the 2011 season. This season, there was only Dickey to carry the banner. Carry it he did though, to the point that he’ll probably win the National League Cy Young Award after a 20-6 All-Star season where he threw back-to-back 1 hit shutouts. All of that means one thing: we’ll see a lot more of these oddballs in the future as kids now begin to take it as a serious pitch.

Arbitrage – Nicolas Jarecki (2012)


Nicolas Jarecki’s Arbitrage is not necessarily a bad movie; it just doesn’t seem to have much of a purpose or a point, and that’s troubling. If it’s a thriller, it’s not thrilling enough. If it’s about a modern god being destroyed by his flaws and indiscretions, then they simply do not run deep enough.

The god of the piece, billionaire fund manager Robert Miller (Richard Gere), has it good, but never seems to quite have the world by the balls like his real and fictional counterparts usually do. He has the jet and the townhouse, the lackeys (Chris Eigeman) and lawyers (Stuart Margolin), and the woman on the side, Julie (Laetitia Casta). But there is something missing. It seems he’s missing an edge – in his dramatic aura, there is a lesser order of danger and guile.

Still, Miller makes it work, building his fortune, funding his wife Ellen’s (Susan Sarandon) philanthropy mission and bringing his daughter Brooke (Brit Marling) along in the family business. The financial crisis has left him seemingly unscathed, or that’s what he tries to sell with his image. In truth, his fund is $400 million in the hole and he’s trying to sell as fast as possible before anyone notices. It’s complicated all the more when, driving upstate in the middle of the night with Julie, he dozes off and flips the car over, killing her. In that moment, he sees his world fall apart, scorched to ash by the licking flames of the burning car. Like any other rich, powerful man who wrecks his car while a girl he shouldn’t be with is his passenger, he runs.

In his running, we don’t even get running – we get cautious evasion. There is no psychological component to the film, just guilt and money. Jarecki is content to skip along the film’s surface, rending drama out of the legal trouble Miller causes for Jimmy (Nate Parker), the kid who picked him up that night. Jimmy is grilled at every turn by the overzealous Detective Bryer (Tim Roth) who wants nothing more than to nail a rich crook to the wall.

It feels like Gere’s involvement, like Robert Redford or Warren Beatty, sort of precludes the character from being too bad a guy. He’s bad, but there are extenuating circumstances, so he’s not really that bad. He may have done these horrible things, but deep down he’s a nice guy. Holding Robert Miller up to the likes of Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas in Wall Street) or Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanors), we find that very little ends up being at stake. $400 million is a sizable crater in someone’s personal economy, no doubt, but then I think back to an interview with Ivanka Trump from Jamie Johnson’s Born Rich, where her father points to a homeless man and tells her, “He’s worth $2 billion more than me right now.” Miller, on the other hand, never reaches the edge of the map in terms of his woes or triumphs. He simply evades and bargains. It’s tough to say what audiences are supposed to do with that.