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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Jon Heyman is an Idiot

Normally it’s sound policy not to link to an article you find infuriating, because so often the point of such articles is to infuriate, and thereby drive up their hit counts. However, when it’s the best way to prove that someone is being an idiot, then I think it’s allowable. Here then, is Jon Heyman’s piece for Sports Illustrated on why he did not vote for Bert Blyleven Hall of Fame candidacy.


I think I finally understand the reason they’re generally referred to as “sportswriters” and not, say, “sportsreporters”. Where else but the sports pages would you find someone who presumably considers himself a journalist telling his readers to ignore the facts and just accept his pre-certified “wisdom”? That’s basically what Heyman is asking you do, especially when he uses that noxious phrase “I was there.”

Heyman derides statistics in favor of a nebulous concept he refers to as impact. After reading his piece it seems that impact can be defined as playing on winning teams, especially those located in New York or Los Angeles. Oh, and being liked by sportswriters. Heyman never really refers to Blyleven’s strikeouts, complete games, innings pitched, or any quantifiable statistic. Instead he chooses to harp on the fact that Blyleven rarely finished high in the voting for Cy Young and never did for MVP.

The very reason that statistics are compiled is to compensate for the unreliability of human observation. Sportswriters are often susceptible to heart-warming stories of gritty team-leaders inspiring their team to win, or other such malarkey. Statistics are there for investigation, for support, and quite often, to contradict such claims.

Heyman’s idiocy hits its heights when he admits that Blyleven has better stats than Jack Morris, whom he has voted for plenty of times. The fact that he even resorts to the ridiculous and disproved “he pitched to the score” canard is all the more reason to never again take seriously anything Jon Heyman says about baseball.

I looked at Blyleven’s numbers today and I don’t think he’s a definite Hall of Famer. I don’t think the Hall is tarnished by his absence nor would it be diminished by his presence (Heyman himself admits this, curiously). But he has a case, and it deserves better than the cursory examination Heyman is apparently comfortable with.

The Kids Are All Right

Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right is a movie about a dysfunctional lesbian family that manages to completely sever the adjectives. The family at its center is not dysfunctional because it has a surplus of matriarchs, nor are those matriarchs gay due to some inherent dysfunction. The movie tells a compelling enough story of family conflict, to which the lesbian dynamic becomes almost nothing but an interesting wrinkle. The Kids Are Alright is not an “issue” movie, but a “non-issue” movie.

This is due largely to the strengths of the performances. Annette Bening and Julieanne Moore seem to accurately capture the state of their characters precarious relationship: loving but troubled. At the beginning of the movie they’ve been together a long time, and while Bening’s Nic is a successful doctor, Moore’s Jules is struggling to find an identity outside her role at home. It’s an extremely normal marital conflict, but rendered poignantly.

The drama begins when their 18-year-old daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) gives in to pressure by her half-brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) to contact the sperm donor who “fathered” them both. This turns out to be a scruffy, motorcycle-riding, free-spirited restaurateur named Paul, played by Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo is amazing in the role, assuming all the mannerisms and speech patterns of his likable but flawed character.

After discovering that their children have reached out to Paul, Nic and Jules try to be reasonable adults, and they themselves try to get to know him. But their differing stances on how much they should have to do with Paul set in motion a set of betrayals and discoveries that provide the story with emotional power.

For a seemingly quiet family drama, The Kids Are All Right is filled with little characters and subplots which, though never rising to the level of the main drama, provide such a nice feeling of realism. This is especially true for Joni and Laser, who must deal with normal teenage problems, while also struggling to handle the threat to their family. It reinforces the film’s central argument that there’s never one easily identifiable cause for all your problems.

The Kids Are All Right is a smart, sweet drama that eschews most of the bells-and-whistles of a “gay” movie in favor of telling a great story as well as it can.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

There’s a Simpsons episode where the kids participate in a focus group set up to find out why Itchy and Scratchy’s ratings are down. The kids advice seems to contradict itself, exasperating the show’s creator, who says, “So, you want a realistic, down-to-earth show…that’s completely off the wall and swarming with magical robots?”

That’s the trick neatly pulled off by Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The show blends video game accoutrements with heartfelt emotional notes and does it without somehow devolving into absurdity or farce.

The characters in Scott Pilgrim are perhaps the most sympathetic gaggle of hipsters ever put on film. They care (too much) about music, they obsess over their place in the world, they make thoughtless mistakes that really hurt other people, and they wear stupid shirts and dye their hair. Some people will see these characters and immediately be turned off, indeed that may explain the box office receipts. But they are real, and capturing them honestly is a real accomplishment.

The film does itself a great service by accepting with total seriousness its outrageous premise. The boundary-pushing video game graphics are not just used for the fight sequences, but utilized for other purposes, including humor. (Title cards reveal information about the characters and settings, a “pee bar” shows Scott’s progress in urination.) There are other little bits spliced in as well, like the Seinfeld theme playing over a sequence in Scott’s apartment, that somehow heighten the film’s reality rather than undercut its connection to the real world.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is just a fun romp that succeeds on extra levels in order to become a more memorable movie experience.

The Fighter

There’s really nothing wrong with The Fighter. It has a lot of great performances, a fairly compelling story and it looks great. But there is just something missing, some indefinable quality that keeps it from earning the plaudits that it has.

Mark Wahlberg stars as boxer Micky Ward, theoretically the titular character but perhaps the light combative person in the whole movie. Ward’s career is floundering, but he’s reluctant to offend his manager-mother Alice (played by Melissa Leo) and his half-brother trainer Dicky (played by Christian Bale). Wahlberg’s characterizations may be appropriate, but they make the character kind of flat. He’s dominated by all these outsized personalities in his own family (and to a similar extent by his girlfriend Charlene, played by Amy Adams) to the extent that time spent focused on him feels squandered.

The performances by Bale and Leo are both intense and captivating, but occasionally threaten to drag the film into a cartoonish arena. The Fighter is set amid the so-called “working-class” of Lowell, Massachusetts, which means you get a lot of low-educated Irish racists mouthing off. This kind of thing can start to feel exploitative, especially as you recall that for the most part these are pampered Hollywood millionaires playing dress-up. Both Bale and Leo should get credit for inhabiting their characters, however outsized, with aplomb and gusto. Bale has the extra challenge of playing a crack-addict and maintaining a sense of charm, which he proves himself equal to.

Amy Adams also handles her character quite well. It’s a marked departure from her innocent-girl roles in Enchanted and Doubt, but she makes her bartender’s foul-mouth all her own.

The boxing plot isn’t much to write home about. If you’ve seen any boxing movie, you’ve seen it before. Guy gets beaten up, deals with his problems, gets beaten up some more, channels his frustrations into the ring, and has greater success. There is much more of interest in Bale’s character, who beats crack-addiction in prison and must deal with having disappointed his brother.

It took Wahlberg years to get this film made, and though again, it’s a fine film, you have to wonder what in particular struck him so deeply that he had to get it made.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

This debut novel is set during the decline of an unlikely holdout to the technological revolution, an English-language newspaper based in Rome. Founded by an American industrialist for mysterious reasons in the post-war era and staffed in the present day by a horde of dysfunctional expatriates, the paper struggles on despite budget cuts imposed by the uncaring ancestors of its founder, declining readership and as the CFO puts it, a “lack of a web presence.”

On the surface the novel seems hand-crafted for those ardent technophobes, myself included, who still clutch with ink-stained fingers to their newspapers. However, idealists and romanticists will soon find themselves disappointed. Rachman, who has worked for the International Herald Tribune, offers up no paean to journalism. His characters find no deeper meaning in their profession than any other workers might. If anything, their chosen career only exacerbates their neuroticism, trapping them according to their will.

Rachman’s insights into the professional life of journalists, copy editors, and others connected to the paper seem authentic, but his portrayal of human behavior seems less believable to me. At the very least it seems awfully bleak. Most of his characters are pretty weak human beings, the women especially so. I don’t usually take political stances about literary characters, but Rachman’s women did unsettle me. Each of them seemed listless and unable to assert control over any aspect of their lives. Whether they were throwing themselves into obviously doomed relationships or merely allowing their husbands to sleep around, they didn’t paint a very flattering or nuanced or very realistic picture of womanhood.

The novel is mostly plotless, as it takes the form of short stories, each featuring a different character associated with the paper (one chapter even focuses on a loyal reader, who improbably reads every word of every edition, to the point that she is now thirteen years behind in her reading.) Spliced in between the chapters are vignettes depicting the circumstances of the founder, Cyrus Ott, and his less successful heirs. These threads come to an end in the book’s final chapter, but the Ott material is really too skimpy to add anything to the book.

The Imperfectionists features strong prose, but suffers from a lack of detail and a uniform vision of character. It is unlikely to thrill anyone but professional newspaper writers, which perhaps best explains its sparkling reviews.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Community: Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas

Considering the big promotional push engineered for this episode, I think viewers had every right to expect a top-notch, consistently funny, Christmas classic. And while the episode didn’t quite conform to my outsized expectations, I do think that expectation was realized.

The nice thing about Community is that it takes all of its characters seriously, no matter how they themselves behave. It grounds the show so thoroughly that it allows them to do ridiculous things like all-out paintball wars and conspiracy theory spoofs without devolving into meaninglessness. Here, Abed is the central focus of the story, and the conceit is a doozy: he has somehow broken with reality and sees everything in stop-motion animation, a la the Rankin-Bass “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, et al.

It’s an absurdity of course, but notice that none of the other characters make fun of Abed, or really joke about his condition. They’re all genuinely concerned, even if they have different ways of showing it. (Pierce insists he’s just there for the cookies.) What humor there is comes either from Abed himself (“Sad Quick Christmas Song” was the best musical interlude of them all) or at the general absurdity of the situation.

The pace of the jokes really slowed down after the gang traveled to Winter Wonderland, and coming on the heels of last week’s downbeat episode at the bar, I can understand some people’s frustration that the show seems to be moving away from comedy. But look at a simple moment like Troy and Annie choosing to help Abed maintain his fantasy because they think it’s best for him. It’s a tender, heartwarming scene, but also hilarious because of the implication that the two are actually restraining Duncan in the study hall.

The show also somehow managed to take Christmas seriously without resorting to maudlin sentimentality. I think they really got to something at the heart of the season with the circularly-reasoned “Christmas has meaning because we attempt to give it meaning”, but it really feels true. Christmas for a variety of reasons has long felt more universal than Christianity, even if people like Shirley would rather we left the celebrating to those sticking to the traditional reasons behind the season.

Although, as Britta, robot or not, would point out, celebrating at the start of winter actually predates Christ’s birth. Maybe we all need something to hang on to when the weather turns cold.

That might too much heavy stuff to heap onto an episode featuring a Christmas Pterodactyl, but that’s the neat trick Community seems to pull off week after week.

The Three Book Club

I discussed in my review of A Wild Sheep Chase that it was my second Murakami and I was reluctantly willing to read a third someday. That got me thinking of the comparatively small number authors that I have read three books by. There are some big names who don't make the cut: Fitzgerald (1), Nabokov (2), Dostoevsky (1), Joyce (2), etc. Obviously there is not much correlation between quantity and quality, but I thought it would be interesting to see how many authors made the cut. Here's the list, in the order in which their names came to me, along with a super objective listing of the best and worst novels I have read by each author, and the biggest omission for each.

To my female audience, I apologize for the appalling fact that there is only one woman on this list. If it's any consolation, she is number one in total books read.

Agatha Christie- 50 novels.
Best: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Worst: Halloween Party
Biggest Omission: Murder on the Orient Express

Kurt Vonnegut- All novels (14 in total), 1 short story collection, 2 essay collections
Best: Slaughterhouse Five
Worst: Player Piano (It's his first, give the guy a break)
Biggest Omission: Man Without a Country (essays)

John Irving- 9 novels, 2 memoirs
Best: The Hotel New Hampshire
Worst: The Fourth Hand
Biggest Omission: Setting Free the Bears

Mark Twain: 5 novels, 2 short story collections, 3 collections of short pieces
Best: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Worst: Innocents Abroad (technically unfinished)
Biggest Omission: Either The Gilded Age or Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

Charles Dickens: 6 novels
Best: David Copperfield
Worst: Great Expectations
Biggest Omission: The Pickwick Papers, or Nicholas Nickleby

Raymond Chandler: 4 novels, 1 story collection
Best: The Big Sleep
Worst: All are good
Biggest Omission: The Lady in the Lake

Dashiell Hammett: 3 novels
Best: Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man (All are great)
Biggest Omission: The Dain Curse

Ross MacDonald: 4 novels
Best: The Blue Hammer
Worst: The Way Some People Die
Biggest Omission: The Doomsters

Rex Stout: 6 novels
Best: And Be a Villain
Worst: Fer-de-lance
Biggest Omission: The Doorbell Rang

Richard Russo: 6 novels and 1 short story collection
Best: The Risk Pool
Worst: The Whore’s Child and Other Stories

Philip Roth: 10 novels
Best: Goodbye Columbus
Worst: I Married a Communist
Biggest Omission: Sabbath’s Theater

Arthur Conan Doyle: 4 novels and 5 short story collections (All Holmes stories)
Best: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Worst: A Study in Scarlet

William Shakespeare: 23 plays
Best: The Merchant of Venice or Hamlet
Worst: Love’s Labours Lost
Biggest Omission: Othello or The Tempest

Ernest Hemingway: 3 novels
Best: The Sun Also Rises
Worst: A Farewell to Arms (need to re-read, I was only 16)
Biggest Omission: For Whom the Bell Tolls

William Faulkner: 3 novels
Best: The Sound and the Fury
Worst: Go Down, Moses
Biggest Omission: Light in August

Michael Chabon: 6 novels
Best: The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Worst: The Final Solution
Biggest Omission: Werewolves in their Youth

E.L. Doctorow: 3 novels
Best: Ragtime
Worst: Billy Bathgate
Biggest Omission: The Book of Daniel

John Updike: 3 novels
Best: Rabbit, Run or Rabbit is Rich
Worst: Rabbit Redux
Biggest Omission: Rabbit at Rest

Cormac McCarthy: 3 novels
Best: The Road
Worst: All the Pretty Horses
Biggest Omission: Blood Meridian

Jonathan Lethem: 3 novels
Best: Motherless Brooklyn
Worst: Chronic City
Biggest Omission: Gun, With Occasional Music

J.D. Salinger: 1 novel, 3 books of collected works
Best: The Catcher in the Rye
Worst: I liked all of them

Graham Greene: 3 novels
Best: The Power and the Glory or The Quiet American
Worst: The End of the Affair
Biggest Omission: The Heart of the Matter

Roddy Doyle: 4.5 novels
Best: The Commitments
Worst: Oh, Play that Thing!
Biggest Omission: Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha

That's 21 authors in all, although I feel I may be missing a few. You can see my love of mystery novels, not just in the number of Christie titles, but in the presence also of Stout, Chandler, Hammett, MacDonald, and Conan Doyle.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

For a while, this oddball noir by Japan’s most popular literary novelist manages to pull you through on the strength of its increasing absurdity and readable, if altogether too simplistic, prose. But when the time comes for the novel to reap what it has sown, and Murakami has to pull the various threads of his story into a conclusion, he falters badly. The reader is left with an utterly unsatisfying ending which to be frank, is quite stupid and nonsensical.

The nameless protagonist and narrator of A Wild Sheep Chase is an aloof advertising executive, recently divorced and dating a woman with unusual powers, the source of which are apparently her perfectly beautiful ears. He runs into trouble after using a photograph of sheep grazing on a hillside, sent to him by a reclusive former friend, as an image in a magazine ad. He is contacted by an associate of the nefarious magnate who secretly runs Tokyo and is told to find one of the sheep in the picture, helpfully tagged with a black star on its side, or else.

The narrator’s search, on which his girlfriend tags along, initially offers promise of spectacle and intrigue, but Murakami gets bogged down in endless detail about sheep-raising, and the history of the small town to which the narrator travels. One hike up to a secluded mansion goes on and on, for no discernible reason. Then the reader is subjected to pages and pages of the narrator doing everyday chores.

If all this boredom is meant to somehow make the conclusion seem more dramatic by comparison, it fails even in that respect. The conclusion involves such outright hokum that it made me physically angry. Obviously nothing is out of bounds in fiction, especially not when you build up to it throughout the novel, but the ending here involves needlessly casting aside a central character for the last 50 pages, needlessly introducing an uninteresting character at the last minute, and perhaps the most flagrant dues ex machina since Aristophanes was upright and breathing.

Stay away. This is the second Murakami novel that I’ve found wanting, although I’m not yet ready to dismiss him. It’s possible I may give him another chance, but I will have to receive assurances from multiple trusted sources.

Running Wilde: It's a Trade-Off

If I had to guess, I’d say this episode was conceived and executed after all involved had a pretty good sense that they weren’t going to be doing this much longer. The whole episode, as well as last week’s, which I didn’t get to review, feels rushed, poorly planned, and just thrown out there. Sure there are some laughs, no one is saying that the people involved in this show aren’t funny, but overall it’s just a mess. No one will be mourning this show when it is gone.

I think Running Wilde is trying to achieve the screwball romantic comedy vibe by doing everything at lightning speed, as though the pace alone could make everything funny. It can’t. The underlying jokes, and romance, just aren’t there, and it’s obvious to any viewer with an ounce of discernment.

In most countries it’s considered rude to speak ill of the dead, so let’s not pile on Running Wilde too harshly. It was an ill-begotten attempt to take the style of Arrested Development to the masses, bound to please no one and tick off people who might have been its biggest fans. I would like to Keri Russel in a more traditional television comedy. I thought she showed the potential to be very funny, but the pacing here was unflattering. And Peter Serafinowicz, who played Fa’ad, absolutely deserves a platform in this country going forward.

I’m going to watch the rest of Running Wilde’s episodes, however few there are, because, well, why the hell not? But I may not bother writing reviews. Try not to be too heartbroken.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

How I Met Your Mother- "The Mermaid Theory"

A pretty forgettable episode of How I Met Your Mother, since there was literally nothing new about it. I'm not necessarily against familiarity in comedy, sometimes the same joke gets funnier the more you do it, but that wasn't the case here.

We've already seen Marshall and Robin bond, and they do hang out together, at The Hoser Hut. Sure, there they're probably ensconced in the safe topics of cold weather, sports, and cold weather sports, but still, it seems dangerously close to a continuity error.

Usually, Barney's fake histories fall into the "funny no matter how often they do it" category, but The Mermaid Theory was off just a little bit, as even the character seemed to acknowledge. "It's a thing," he insists, a little too sheepishly.

I'm sure many people were intrigued by the narrator's unreliability. Here Future Ted conflates personalities, timelines and arguments, only to reveal that he's getting ahead of himself, and that his Barney-Lily story takes place much later, and ends with Ted wearing a dress, somehow. That bears a pretty strong resemblance to the whole goat at Ted's 30th, no 31st, birthday trick.

Not even Robin in a manatee costume could save this episode.