Saturday, November 21, 2009
This is probably a little late to the discussion, but after week of listening to sportswriters/talking heads tear apart or support Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th and 2, I feel compelled to point out a point of view that I haven't heard expressed. The breaking point for me responsible for this post was Bill Simmons' diatribe against the play.
I used to really like Bill Simmons. I always found his perspective interesting and enjoyed the pop culture-laced articles. However, ever since the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and the rest of the ensuing success of Boston sports, his writing has gone downhill. It's like he goes out of his way to ignore the rational to voice an alternative, usually unsupportable argument based on his observations of certain "looks" in player's eyes and the like (never mind that things like "clutch-ness" have been rejected as any sort of sustainable trait). He makes a few good points in the article, but they are hidden amongst ridiculous assertions. Simmons is using this ONE play as his reason for losing his trust in Belichick's decision making.
Which brings me to my point. How can you blame this play for the Patriots' loss? They had a 17-point lead earlier in the game. If the team would have executed and not let the game get within one touchdown, then this play wouldn't have come up. If something like this happens in the second quarter, sure it will be questioned, but no one will react like the coach was replaced by some alien clone.
This happens all the time in sports, where people focus on the most glaring element but forget to include the thousands of little things that led up to that point. Any time a pitcher gives up a game winning homerun, it was the wrong pitch or the manager should have used a different pitcher. In reality, it boils down to execution. In the case of the Patriot's, the were averaging over 6-yards a play during the game. 2-yards is not a lot to ask. So, they fell a little short. The game didn't end there. The defense still had to hold the Colts.
People view sports with tunnel vision. It's just easier to pick out the most egregious example of why they lost instead of viewing the game as a whole. With all of the interesting statistical work being done in sports, it's disheartening to see that, as fans, we aren't coming along for the ride and viewing the games rationally.
Monday, November 16, 2009
Those of us who are passionate about the things we enjoy (some may say overly-passionate) feel a bond with the creators of those things, be it music, film, painting, or wicker furniture. They are making it for US. Speaking to US. We soar with them as they achieve greatness. We pat ourselves on the back for have such great taste. There is an unspoken contract between creator and supporter: we’ll always be there to buy your product as long as you keep producing it at the highest quality. This is why we take it so personally when those we admire release something that falls short of our expectations. We don’t want them to stay the same from project to project, but don’t regress (this is a pretty unfair to the artist and history has shown that some of these “regressions” were critical divergences in propelling the artist to new and fantastic places).
However, in the moment, we do feel betrayed. From the announcement of a new project (which can easily be as long as a year), we anticipate. We gobble up every new bit of news. If it’s a new album, we check out leaked tracks. A movie, we watch the trailer and clips. By the time the full product comes out, we are ready to fully immerse ourselves in it. Our anticipation is palpable and when the product doesn’t live up to expectations, it’s more than a little depressing. The following is a list of groups and people I’ve been disappointed by in the recent past in no particular order. I still look forward to what they produce, but I’m a bit more cautious about it.
My Morning Jacket
From The Tennessee Fire in ‘99 to Okonokos in ’06, My Morning Jacket could do no wrong. The music was impeccable, their arrangements were getting tighter, their jamming was exploring new avenues, and their live shows were astounding. Then came Evil Urges in ’08. While not a horrible album, it is severely lacking. Jim James substitutes his falsetto for one that emulates Prince. The music is less inclined to rock and more inclined to, well, just sit there. That’s not to say it’s a horrible album, it just feels like they abandoned what made them great for no reason. That’s what side projects are for. At least the live shows are still epic.
This situation is about the opposite of what happened with My Morning Jacket (except for the live shows, because Folds is a great showman). Way to Normal feels like Folds is stagnating, hints of which could be sensed in his previous release, Songs for Silverman. He’s gotten a lot of mileage alternating between his silly, adolescent romps and his melodramatic tales of loss and love, but it just feels stale by Way to Normal. When Ben Folds Five folded and he went solo, he made the excellent Rockin’ the Suburbs, so maybe he just needs to shake things up again.
There is something off about Grandaddy’s last release Just Like the Fambly Cat and I’m not really sure what it is. It’s not drastically different from their other output and it’s not the same. It just feels inconsequential. It feels like they new the band was ending and just went on cruise control to finish the album. Fortunately, Jason Lytle released his first solo album Yours Truly, the Commuter is a return to form, even if it sound exactly like a Grandaddy album (isn’t that what we really wanted anyway?).
Boyle is one of my favorite directors working. I’ll defend A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach (which I feel is maligned due to the proximity to the Leo/Titanic hooplah). And I’ve spoken of my love of Sunshine despite its troublesome ending to many people. But I’m just not on board with Slumdog Millionaire. The opening chase through the slums is riveting (no one shoots a foot chase as well as Boyle), but the rest is pretty clichéd as far as love stories go and has the pointless Who Wants to Be a Millon-aire backdrop to connect the vignettes. It won a lot of awards and people loved it, but Boyle’s much better than that.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was one of my most anticipated films of 2008. All year long, I pined for the chance to see it, especially since it followed up the fantastic Zodiac. Not only was Button a let down, it was one of the worst film I saw that year. Unlike most let downs on this list, I struggle to find any redeeming quality to the film (OK, maybe the guy who constantly gets struck by lightning, which was already done in The Great Outdoors, so points deducted).
It’s popular among the cinephile elite to right off Burton as a stylist with no substance, but his output from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure through Sleepy Hollow is damn entertaining. However, once the new century hit, Burton has been in a slump with only the great Big Fish standing out (The Corpse Bride is decent, too). He’s on some bizarre remake kick that must be stopped. And for the love of god, someone get this man some practical effects! Say what you will about Planet of the Apes (and please, say a lot of bad things) at least the costumes and sets were amazing.
Of all the people on this list, I probably try hardest to rationalize Gilliam the most. This is probably because he has the longest history for me. I’ve loved Monty Python since I got Life of Brian when I was about 12. His movies are one of the bright spots of the 80s (along with Joe Dante’s output). Much like Burton, something happened at the turn of the century. The Brother’s Grimm is OK, if I’m feeling generous, but had potential to be so much more. I haven’t seen Tideland or Dr. Parnassus, but reviews aren’t encouraging. And much like Burton, he needs to revisit practical effects. They make films feel more intimate and tangible. I take solace in the fact that Ebert hated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Baron Munchausen bombed at the box office, because those films a fantastic. Maybe I just like rooting for the underdog.
I feel awful saying anything that criticizes the man who brought us the Brilliance (yes, capital “B”) of Arrested Development, but Sit Down, Shut Up isn’t… good. There are moments that are hysterical, but they maybe come once an episode and the rest is filled with overly meta joke (am I the only one getting a little tired of the constant blatant use of meta-ness?). The characters are completely one-dimensional and the considerable voice talent can only take them so far. The show has improved a little, though I bet no one even knew that it had a second season out.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Now, onward to the meat and potatoes!
Commercials are going to be the death of me. Not just because they are largely annoying (have you seen the new Miracle Whip ad campaign?) and interrupt the shows I’m watching, but because I block them out. You may ask, “Isn’t it good to block out the stuff that annoys you?” and you’d be right, except you’re not. By ignoring the commercials, I let my guard down and things bleed into my subconscious. The background noises, typically music, seep past the actual ad and into my ears. The next thing I know, I start bobbing my head around and tapping my feet. Sometimes this is a good thing, like the T-Mobile commercial that uses an Architecture in Helsinki song or the Buick commercial that uses a Black Mountain song. Other times, though, I’m horrified to discover I’m dancing along to an atrocious Mary J. Blige autotuned (or do they still try to say it’s a vocoder?) piece of garbage. Or that’s what I tell myself.
I guess the issue at hand is: what dictates our “liking” something. Clearly, on the basest level, if I find myself subconsciously affected by the music and that transfers to physical movement, there must be something about it that I like before I have a chance to acknowledge that it’s something that I do not (or should not) like. It’s like an instinctual reaction. This kind of scares me, because I REALLY don’t like the song in that commercial. But why? Is it the perception of others I care about? Do I have some image I need to uphold? Probably.
Another time this happened to me was watching the Doug Pray documentary “Scratch.” I’ve never been one for hip-hop or scratching, but a good documentary can make any subject enthralling (and it is a good documentary). However, I still came out of it not caring much for scratching, except I found myself moving along to the rhythm once again. These moments of cognitive dissonance are profoundly confusing to me. It’s like a fight between body and mind. Why can’t I just give myself over to the music? I won’t say it calls into question everything I know, but it calls into question the things I think I know, if that makes any sense.
Maybe I do like Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, and Beyonce. Hell, maybe I like Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and Nickelback (I got a little nauseous typing that last one, so I think I’m safe there). I’ll never know because I’ll never investigate further than what I hear on TV or the radio. I’ll almost definitely never admit to it even if the artist is critically acclaimed.
There is one thing I can always fall back on. A happy place to go to re-center and find myself once again. Something so steadfast and true that I could build a religion around it. My security blanket… Journey sucks.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Now, on to talking about movies. Upon Nate’s recommendation, I checked out 2008’s Let the Right One In this year and thoroughly enjoyed it. I haven't seen many horror movies from the 2000s, but Let the Right One In has to be one of the very best, if not the best, of the decade.
I mention this film because when watching The House of the Devil, out in limited release now, I was immediately reminded of a similar, or what some critics have called an “old-school” (I just call it good) approach to horror filmmaking: an understated style based on continually building tension by focusing on mundane details and leaving much to the viewer’s imagination. It’s undoubtedly the signature element of Devil and one of its best qualities.
Where the movie goes wrong, however, is that it spends so much time building tension that it’s forced to cram an incredible amount of horror toward the end of the movie. The result is that the climax feels decidedly rushed, contrived in places, and oddly out-of-place, like it’s been spliced from a reel belonging to a different, more over-the-top horror film.
It’s regrettable that the ending is so disappointing, because pretty much everything that comes before it is so good. It's held together by a combination of the aforementioned dread-inducing style, and the strength of the few performances in the film, which are all stellar. Greta Gerwig, Tom Noonan, and Mary Woronov give highly engaging supporting work, but it’s Jocelin Donahue whose skillful, naturalistic performance drives the film. Most of the movie consists of following her around doing everyday things, but she does it so absolutely well that you simply don’t mind. Paired with director Ti West’s style, Donahue is really the reason to watch this film.
(And yes, she is pretty, but that's besides the point.)
Aside from the finale, the only other inherent problem to Devil is that the opening title screen unbelievably spells out the film’s subject matter. Why West chose to do this baffles me. It’s totally unnecessary and undercuts practically all of the mystery. In fact, I’d recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen this movie to not read the words that appear before the film starts (which I know is kind of tricky).
Basically, the movie is an excellent suspense film with a clumsily tacked-on horror-movie ending. If the two elements were integrated better, this could’ve been an outstanding film. But despite the fact it mishandles its most crucial moments, The House of the Devil is effective, absorbing and worth seeing.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
By: Paul Toohey
When Nate first started doing this series of posts, I mentioned to him that I liked the idea and I might one day steal it for my own blog. Then he offered to let me guest post on his blog and I thought, what better way to use his idea then as a guest poster on his blog? So that’s what this is. If you don’t know me already, my name is Paul Toohey and I’m a friend of Nate’s. We met through Allen and Becky, who are two of Nate’s grad school friends (I went to UT with Allen, where we both got our BS in RTF, if you’re keeping a scorecard). Nate and I are currently working on a project together that we should be sharing with you all soon, so hopefully this will be a good opportunity to get to know me a little before that happens.
I have the fortune of being born a bit earlier then Nate, and right in the heart of a really good string of cinema. Now I’m not trying to say that all the movies in and around 1978 were great. There were some great film there was also Convoy (film) (or the many rip-offs). I was born one year too early for Star Wars, but the same year that The Star Wars Holiday Special was released on the masses. 1978’s Best Picture Oscar was awarded to The Deer Hunter, which is a deserving film (and one of the only nominees that I can actually recognize as a film I’ve heard about). Ok, so it was also the year of Jaws 2. Piranha (1978 film), Every Which Way but Loose (film), and The Bad News Bears Go to Japan. But to me, of all the films from 1978, one stood head and shoulders above the rest. And that masterpiece is George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
“When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”
No, I did not see Dawn of the Dead in 1978. At least I hope I didn’t, I would really have a problem with my parents taking infant me to a zombie movie (although I did once see a mother change her infants diaper during Mimic in a theater I used to hang out at). I am not really sure when I first saw it, but I remember it vividly. The movie spoke to me. I was young enough to envision me and my brothers taking over a shopping mall and bunkering down like Flyboy and the gang. Making it our playground. Running around, having fun. You see, at the time I didn’t quite understand what the movie was trying to tell us. At a later viewing the message of the film crept up on me (get it, like a zombie…who creeps, but never runs). The Romero zombie films, like all great movies, tell more of a story with their subtext then is actually present in the text. This was Romero’s commentary on the consumerification of America.
Francine Parker: What are they doing? Why do they come here?
Stephen: Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.
Even before the over indulgence of the upcoming 80s Romero could sense where we were headed, and he wanted to warn us against being zombies and focusing on materialistism and consumerism.
Everyone likes to that his or her moment is significant even when it’s an anomaly in a small sample size. Baseball (there it is) announcers love to do this. “David Eckstein is batting .415 with runners in scoring position and 2 outs after the 7th inning with a 2-2 count. I wouldn’t want anyone else up in this situation, and that includes A-Rod, Pujols, Babe Ruth, and God.” But the difference is, I don’t think anyone actually believes that that stat is in any way meaningful. On Monday Night Football, they keep their own stats that are separate from the games played on Sundays by the rest of the league, like there is some atmospheric condition that makes playing football on Monday an entirely different experience.
ESPN.com has a database of every MNF winner AND notes about those games. “Hey, basketball, I only care about who won every game played on Thursday’s in your history, so if you could get them to me… What? No! The rest of the games don’t matter. I just want to know who has the record for most rebounds on a Thursday.” It’s ridiculous to treat MNF like it’s special. It’s nice that the teams get to play a game without the distraction of other games, but that’s about it.
Does it really matter that Bo Jackson has the MNF rushing record of 221 yards when Adrian Peterson’s NFL record of 296 yards shatters that? Of course not. In fact, you could argue that single game records don’t really mean anything at all. Sure, some great players have set some of these records, but so have some mediocre players. To return to baseball, the list of players who have hit four homeruns in one game includes: Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays, and Mike Schmidt. It also includes Mark Whiten, Shawn Green, and some guy named Pat Seerey. Does that mean all of these guys are of equal skill. I think we all understand that sustainable performance is what matters. So why does MNF insist on treating itself as separate from normal football operations? The same players don’t even play from week to week. It’s all just fun with small sample sizes, which, truth be told, isn’t really all that fun.
Monday, November 9, 2009
Some of you may have seen this posted on my Facebook page, but I'm not done with it yet. There is so much to love and I can't bottle it in. If you haven't seen it yet, watch it before reading. It's short and incredible.
I think what makes it work completely is the costume. The tight, black spandex makes it look like he should be in front of a black backdrop and just a floating pumpkin head, but he's not. He's this absurd, pumpkin-headed, leotarded, human-handed freak. That the pumpkin mask maintains the same stoned and content expression throughout the dance, regardless of energy, and is slightly too small for the guy's head just makes it that much better.
The dramatic strains we all recognize as the intro the the Ghostbusters theme accompanied by the ever-spreading limbs builds amazing tension as to what he's going to do when the song kicks in and it doesn't disappoint. Pumpkinhead (really Pumpkinface) breaks out in this astounding Andy Kaufman-esque dance. The slight lack of coordination makes it all the more endearing. I'd be happy to watch him do this for the whole video, but no. He has other things in store for us. He busts out the tornado, which reminds me of the Steve Buscemi SNL sketch where he's in court and breaks out the same move (I may be the only person reminded of this sketch).
I can't really describe my feelings about his dance when the lyrics come in. It's like this giant, fat, graceless snake decided to dance. Epic. And holy god! "Who ya gonna call?" Pumpkinhead shrugs... "Ghostbusters!" I never thought that the shouting of "Ghostbusters" needed any miming to go along with it, but I know now that it was missing a crucial element: air punching.
The rest of the video is essentially epileptic dancing with a little vogue-ing and some Egyptian moves. A special shout out to the moments before the first, "I ain't afraid of no ghosts" (is Ray Parker Jr. saying he is afraid of ghosts?). I don't know what Pumpkinhead is doing, but he is really into it. I say good for him.
There are other videos featuring what appears to be a different Pumpkin-headed individual, on for Christmas and one for Valentine's Day (featuring "Don't Stop Believing"... had hit the mute button for that one). Those aren't nearly as good, save for the ridiculousness of associating a Jack-o-lantern with those holidays, which actually is pretty amusing. The Halloween video is perfection. Now someone give this guy a TV show!
Thursday, November 5, 2009
One of the biggest complaints people have about baseball (aside from the somewhat non-issue, in my opinion, of steroids) is the discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots. In light of the recent New York Yankees World Series victory (I still haven’t see footage of them winning, so I could be wrong about this), I looked up the league payrolls as I had several questions I wanted to answer.
My first inquiry was into the payrolls of all the teams that made the playoffs this year. It turns out that five of the teams are in the top nine for spending: the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Angels, the Phillies, and the Dodgers. We were a one game playoff away from six of the eight spots being in the top nine in payroll. The Championship Series didn’t feature any team with a payroll below $100 million. Clearly, money plays a very important part of success in baseball. Sure, small market teams get a shot every now and then, like last year with the Rays, but the odds of them repeating their runs is pretty low.
Of course, it isn’t enough to have money to spend. The Mets and the Cubs (2nd and 3rd in payroll, respectively) showed us that you have to be moderately well run for success. The Twins and the A’s have shown us that a well run small market team can succeed to some degree, though neither have made it to the World Series in the past 15-20 years. Just making the playoffs is little consolation. The A’s are particularly unlucky because they lost whatever edge they had when the Moneyball philosophy was adopted by the big market teams.
Large market teams won seven of the last ten World Series with the Red Sox and Yankees repeating.
Now, this next part of my discussion is going to seem like Yankees bashing, and in a way, it is. I’m a Red Sox fan, so it really can’t come across any other way. Using the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry and the fact that these are probably to two most-hated teams in baseball, I’m going to put on a little math lesson (the Sox are 4th in payroll this year, but I don’t want to use the Cubs or Mets because they shit the bed so badly this year).
The payroll difference between the Yankees and Red Sox is roughly $80 million dollars. The payroll difference between the Red Sox and team with the lowest payroll, the Marlins, is roughly $85 million. The Marlins are also the lowest payroll by about $7 million. There are 25 teams between the Marlins and Red Sox and two between the Yankees and Red Sox.
What does this tell us? As discussed above, there is a huge gap in the amount of success with large market teams and small market teams. The Red Sox may be an “evil” large market team that has the ability to sign any high-priced free agent (and they are), but compared to the Yankees, they are just another small market team. I’m not saying this to gain sympathy from teams the legitimately struggle to compete, but to illustrate any Yankees success should be viewed through this lens. Yes, they have great players, most of whom deserve to be revered in their sport, but the success is hollow. They should never NOT win the World Series. Or at least make it there. It’s also why the schadenfreude is so great when they fail.
There are a few counterpoints I should address before wrapping up. I have to acknowledge that the value of a dollar lessons the higher the payrolls go, so the difference between the Yankees and Red Sox isn’t quite as pronounced as the difference between the Red Sox and Marlins. The numbers just aren’t as cut-and-dry as one would assume. Also, the lack of success for small to medium market success isn’t just a matter of the money they spend, but also a matter of the money they don’t spend. Some owners are stingy, though they can afford more. They don’t see that hiring better office people or spending more on talent could bring in more revenue. But we only have the product we see, so that’s what we have to go on.
So, congrats to the Yankees and all their fans. You won the World Series with a $200 million dollar payroll. It must feel good (dammit, I know it does…).
Monday, November 2, 2009
A few years after I got over my fear of horror movies and had a few of the classics under my belt, I’d still freak myself out at night trying to sleep. I convinced myself that the central air in my room sounded exactly like the breathing heard from Michael Myers in Halloween. This fear is responsible for why I don’t yell at characters for being stupid when going off alone because I did all sorts of solo investigating into dark corners of my room (and house, in general). The mind would rather believe it’s nothing than accept that there is a killer in the house.
Probably the most ridiculous fear regarding horror movies is that what you saw in the movie is going to happen to you, but only after you see the movie. It’s almost absurd how irrational this fear is. Millions of people watch these movies and only a very few ended up getting hacked to death or haunted in the ensuing hours, and generally due to forces unrelated to the movie. While this hasn’t happened to me in years, I’m embarrassed to admit that years is actually three years and doubly embarrassed to admit that the culprit was pretty terrible The Grudge 2: Grudgier (subtitle may or may not be accurate). If there is one the Grudge movies do well, though, is creating creepy as hell ghosts. The day after I saw the movie, my job took me to upstate New York where I was alone in a hotel room. The unfamiliarity of the situation and bizarre sounds of the room freaked me out. I got about four hours of sleep max that night.
Fortunately, horror movies don’t really get under my skin anymore. I’ve probably watched more in the past three years than the rest of my life combined. Maybe I’m just desensitized or I’ve gotten used to the conventions. It’s probably more related to my increased knowledge in how movies are made that lessons the impact. There is still one lingering fright in my life. About once a month, I have a dream that always has different subject matter, but features a familiar character: Freddy Krueger. They never fail to scare me and I always have trouble going back to sleep, but I take consolation that since I haven’t woken up dead yet, either it is just a dream or Freddy isn’t interested in killing me. I can live with either.