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Friday, September 30, 2011

MLB Playoff Predictions


MIL over AZ in 4
PHI over STL in 4


DET over NYY in 4
TEX over TB in 5


MIL over PHI in 6


DET over TEX in 7

World Series

MIL over DET in 6

Guaranteed not to come true.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

TV Hiatus

Sorry, but I can't review new episodes for a while because I have no cable or internet at my apartment yet. Hopefully I will back online next week.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Chad Harbach’s debut novel The Art of Fielding centers on a college baseball player at the fictional Westish College who inexplicably loses the ability to throw. And Henry Skrimshander isn’t just any shortstop, he’s a pro-prosepect on the verge of breaking his hero’s record for consecutive errorless games. That hero is the fictional Aparicio Rodriguez, a Venezuelan Hall of Famer and author of the manifesto which also lends its name to the novel which contains it.

But while the novel centers on Henry’s magical ability and its mysterious loss, Henry himself could not rightly be said to be the central character. The Art of Fielding employs him as a sort of facilitator, a nexus between its other, more relatable characters. Henry, both as a genius shortstop and a wayward former genius shortstop is largely inaccessible. The reader feels sympathy for him without being able to fully understand him and his actions. Rather, Harbach allows the reader to focus on the effects Henry and his talent have on the people who surround him. Each of these characters comes complete with their own issues and entanglements, but through Henry, they each come to a sort of crisis, whether or not Henry can be properly said to bear any responsibility.

Henry’s mentor is his team’s catcher, Mike Schwartz, a self-made man from Chicago who loves his team and his university beyond all reason. It was Schwartz who discovered Henry and practically dragged him to Westish. Now in the aftermath of Henry’s lost talent Schwartz finds himself questioning his need to lead and wondering why his self-perceptions don’t match up with what everyone else seems to see in him. Owen Dunne, Henry’s gay half-black roommate is sitting on the bench casually ignoring the game when Henry’s errant throw sends him to the hospital. But that stay in the hospital sparks an unlikely May-December romance with the college president, Guert Affenlight. Guert’s daughter Pella, on the run from a manipulative older husband, falls for Mike Schwartz but their relationship is threatened by his compulsive need to help Henry above all others.

There are scenes in The Art of Fielding where Harbach doesn’t so much hold a mirror up to society but puts in under a microscope. The level of personal understanding he brings to each character is mesmerizing, and occasionally nerve-racking. A tense dinner scene between Pella and her ex-husband is so emotionally fraught that it had to pause several times while reading it.

By the end of the novel Harbach has weaved his characters into an extended family with a shared sense of love and loss. Like the university itself, they have become a support system. Harbach is wise enough to end his story on a memorable but not wholly optimistic note. Whether or not everything turns out all right, Henry and his circle have each other and the university. And that seems like it might be enough.

The New Girl: "Pilot"

I watched the New Girl pilot for the second time tonight, and despite my admiration for (okay, my crush on) Zooey Deschanel, I find the episode lacking. The main problem is that despite Ms. Deschanel's obvious charms, the script doesn't give us any reason to actually like her character. It's relying to heavily on Deschanel's real life appeal to draw viewers to the character. The episode itself provides no evidence of Jess's worthiness. Only her best friend character testifies on her behalf.

The three male characters are also only sketched out. There's the douchebag Schmitt, who legitimately seems irredeemable, but might still make for good comedy. Nick is a bartender struggling through his own breakup. And Coach, well, Coach won't be here next week because he'll be back on Happy Endings, so who cares if he's a too-intense athletic trainer who can't talk to women without yelling at them?

There are some good jokes in the pilot, and slight evidence that the show knows where it wants to go, but it has to let the viewers in on the plan. Otherwise, The New Girl will get old awfully quick.

Monday, September 19, 2011

2 Broke Girls: "Pilot"

Every time I've ever seen Kat Dennings in a small part I've wondered when she'd get a starring role to really showcase her obvious talents. (I swear that's not a boob joke.) Lead roles in movies didn't seem to pour in after "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" but 2 Broke Girls is going to make her a star.

Dennings is wonderful as Max, a jaded, sarcastic, modern young woman living in a run-down apartment in an apparently as-yet ungentrified Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Max can knock down presumptuous customers at the diner with a single line, and she can deflect creepy come-ons from the Russian cook with ease. She's a wonderful blend of confidence and uncertainty, and a really fully developed character right from the beginning.

Beth Behrs plays Max's foil, Caroline Channing, a trust-fund baby with no trust-fund any more. Behrs irritated me in the promotional ads for the show, but in the pilot she was actually funny and disarming. She's not quite the ditzy blonde portrayed in the ads, just a fish out of water. Her character isn't quite as realized as Max's, but there's only so much you can do in one episode.

There are some rough edges on display. A lot of people are bound to complain about the reliance on ethnic stereotypes. Garrett Morris plays a sort-of jive-talking old black man who traffics in belabored similes. "She's working harder than Stephen Hawking putting on cufflinks" is one example. Oleg the cook is a swaggering, leering jerk with a thick accent, and the diner is owned by an Asian-American only a few shades evolved from Mickey Rooney's Breakfast at Tiffany's character.

Still, the promise of the pilot is enough to keep me watching. By the end of the episode Max and Caroline have struck up a surprisingly poignant and compelling friendship, one that I am interested in following.

HIMYM: "The Best Man"/"The Naked Truth"

The Best Man opened with a glimpse into the future with Ted calming down a jittery Barney just before his wedding. (Of course Barney maintains a pretense that he's just worried he's choosing the wrong tie.) When Barney comes clean with his fear that his wedding will be "the worst ever" they both realize that it can't be because they've already been to the worst wedding ever, Punchy's.

Yeah, we're not really that close to the end of the story, as Ted makes plain to us and his children. But big things loom. Lily's pregnant but keeping it secret, and Robin is experiencing a rekindling of her feelings for Barney, who's still interested in her friend Nora.

Despite being a little long-in-the-tooth, HIMYM still does a lot of things well, and it's at its best when it remembers what those things are. The Best Man and The Naked Truth both fall into this category. The episodes introduce new mythologies and catchphrases and feature callbacks to earlier episodes. There are flashbacks and flash-forwards and funny, playful narration. The foreshadowing of Marshall ruining the wedding paid off nicely when his real sin proved to be unintentional.

The Best Man gave us a nice preview of where we're headed with Robin and Ted this season. Robin's denial of her feelings and her helping Barney with Nora by using her own sentiments were incredibly well-acted and heart-wrenching. And her and Barney's dance scene was surreal but awesome.

And then it lead to that great conversation between Robin and Ted, where he confessed the erosion of his belief in destiny, and she managed to cheer him up while sucking on a cigar.

The Naked Truth was less monumental of an episode but it did continue the groundwork laid in The Best Man. Barney lurches his way toward honesty with Nora, and the show manages to make it funny with his history of lies.

I didn't really care for the Marshall storyline, and Martin Short kind of strikes me as too cloying for this show. I hope I'm wrong. I did like Marshall's history of "sweeping declarations" and I might appropriate that phrase sometime.

Ok, I know this isn't exactly a major sign of my intelligence, but I was pleased with myself that I recognized The Kinks' "Victoria" as the recurring music cue and from that intuited the little "surprise" cameo at the end of The Naked Man. I'm so glad to see Victoria back and I hope she sticks around for awhile even if she's not the Mother.

All in all it was a promising beginning for HIMYM.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Up All Night and Free Agents

Up All Night follows Reagan (Christina Applegate) and Chris (Will Arnett) as their hard-working, hard-partying lives are changed by an unplanned newborn. The pilot quickly dispatches with the pregnancy and commences on Reagan’s first day back at work and stay-at-home dad Chris’s first day home alone with the baby. Maya Rudolph plays Reagan’s boss, a talk show diva named Ava, a character conceived to try and take advantage of Ms. Rudolph’s broad and loud style from SNL.

With Lorne Michaels producing and the show being conceived by former Parks and Rec writer Emily Spivey, there is reason to have faith that the show will be funny. However that capacity is not demonstrated very much in the pilot. Applegate and Arnett seem woefully miscast. They seem too fit for the mommy and daddy roles that are supposedly throwing their lives into chaos. I just didn’t buy them as being reluctant to give up hard-partying. The scenes at Reagan’s workplace, which were reshot after the initial pilot to give Rudolph’s character more prominence, provide no amusement whatsoever. A silly plot about booking a quack doctor is poorly developed and utterly predictable.

There are a few funny lines (slight grin funny, not outright laugh funny) tucked into the banter between Reagan and Chris, especially when Chris tries to be reassuring but actually winds up saying, “Babe, worry, I can’t totally do this.” But these are tucked in the corners, practically hidden while bigger, louder set-pieces clunk and die.

Prognosis: It’s hard to predict NBC since even really low ratings can look good on NBC, but I think NBC is going to abandon the idea of Wednesday night comedy and that means a single season for Up All Night, unless Lorne Michaels is even more powerful than we know.

Free Agents doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of buzz, but the British import got off to a strong start in its pilot episode. The show opens with Alex (Hank Azaria) and Helen (Kathryn Hahn) in bed, post-coitus. They have a little tete-a-tete about whether he should call a cab or stay which serves as a nice little bit of exposition. In about two minutes we find out that he’s recently divorced and an emotional wreck, while she’s still reeling from the sudden death of her fiancĂ© a year ago. She can’t bear to take down all the studio portraits they had done as a couple just before his death.

It’s kind of a brave thing for a comedy to do, be so upfront about the sadness and despair in life and make it front and center in your two main characters. It’s a little darker than your average sitcom premise, even if it is just a way to get us to sympathize for Helen and Alex and root for them to get together.

More traditionally comedic are the scenes set at the corporate PR office where Helen and Alex both work. There they both struggle to fit in with a ruthless, charmingly creepy boss (Anthony Stewart Head, aka Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and an office culture that is a bit younger, cruder, and brasher than suits their tastes.

The office is replete with stand-up comedians utilizing their talents. Mo Mandel is the bro who wants to use Alex’s divorce to turn him into a wingman. Natasha Leggero is the caustic secretary who has no respect for Alex and wants to take his job. And Al Madrigal is the annoying married guy trying to fit in, and whom no one can stand to listen to. Joe Lo Truglio (whom you will definitely recognize from the small roles he has in nearly every Apatow or David Wain movie) plays the weird but harmless security guard whom Alex has befriended so he can sleep in the office.

The only character I didn’t like was Leggero’s, but that may just be a personal thing. I’ve often found her brand of ironic veneer especially phony and irritating. It doesn’t help that in the pilot she’s not so much sarcastic as just mean. The show sets up Alex as a likable hero, and Leggero’s character just dumps on him. On Cheers, if Carla had ragged on Sam Malone instead of Cliff, that wouldn’t have worked very well.

People who think Free Agents looks like a boring network show should be advised that the show was created by one of Party Down’s chief writers John Enbom. There is even a clever little shoutout to Party Down in the scene where Helen takes Alex clothes-shopping for his blind date. Shown a purple-striped shirt, Alex explains that he doesn’t want to buy it because, “I’m not planning to DJ an Armenian gangster’s acquittal party.”

Prognosis: Unfortunately, if I’m right about NBC’s retreat from Wednesday night comedy, that probably means Free Agents is a goner too. Hank Azaria isn’t the ratings draw a show like this probably needs.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Fall TV 2011

With the sneak-previews of Up All Night and Free Agents tonight, as well as The New Girl being available online, today seems like a good time to announce my plans for TV watching and reviewing this fall. In past years I have reviewed shows on an incredibly inconsistent and perfunctory basis. Too often I have either abandoned shows for lack of something new to say or relied on the not-particularly-insightful, “that line was funny, that line was not” format. This year I’m going to try to be more thoughtful, even if it means even less of a week-in, week-out schedule. Most of the shows I’ll be reviewing are comedies, because I don’t watch too many hour-long dramas and don’t feel that the ones I do watch (House and Bones in particular) lend themselves to analytic rigor.

There are going to be a flurry of reviews here in the coming weeks, because I plan to give every new comedy at least one shot to impress me. The herd will inevitably be culled by cancellations and time-constraints, and unless I get a DVR in my new apartment, the fact that some of these shows share a timeslot will lead to some reviews being delayed.

All that being said, here is the slate of shows I plan to watch and write about this fall, with some degree of regularity.

Monday: How I Met Your Mother returns for Season 7, and I will check in whenever the show relives its glory days or reverts to its occasional embarrassing corniness. 2 Broke Girls doesn’t look promising (I love Kat Dennings, but Beth Behrs comes off poorly in the ads) but I’ll give the pilot a look. I’ll probably watch House on a delay, but will probably at least discuss the premiere, in which House will go to prison. I like Castle but never really watch it.

Tuesday: I’ve actually already seen The New Girl pilot, but I’ll save my thoughts for closer to the premiere date. I’ll almost certainly keep watching if only for my love for Zooey Deschanel. I’m still trying to find some way to say I like Cougar Town without feeling shame, and maybe I’ll work that out by the time it returns in November, though I doubt I’ll write on it frequently. Promising new show Apartment 23 also debuts in November and will get at least a pilot review. Last Man Standing (aka Tim Allen’s new show) and Man Up! Might test my commitment to reviewing every new comedy.

Wednesday: This is suddenly a crowded night. I plan to watch Suburgatory as long as it isn’t too annoying, and I’ll watch Modern Family and Happy Endings and try to write on both. Happy Endings is one show I’m really looking forward too. It showed a lot of promise last spring, enough that the show gave it a surprise pickup. NBC’s two new comedies Up All Night and Free Agents will get reviews. Both feature talented performers and writers I like, so I’m likely to stick with them even if early episodes struggle.

Thursday: NBC will get my eyeballs on Thursday nights. I’m going to try to review every episode of Community, since there is always something to talk about. (Is it too weird? Etc.) I love Parks and Rec, and I’m interested to see how The Office handles life after Michael. Whitney might not make it to episode two, but the first will be commented upon. Whenever 30 Rock comes back I’ll talk about it when warranted. I like Bones but it’s a pretty formulaic show, although Brennan’s pregnancy could change that. I enjoy The Big Bang Theory but it is a fairly unambitious show that leaves little to discuss. How to Be a Gentleman has a decent cast but little promise.

I won’t be reviewing any Friday or Saturday shows. (As you can see, I need to get outdoors sometimes.) I may or may not give Pan Am a look if the mood strikes me or if Sunday Night Football is a dud. I’ll try my hand at Mad Men reviews whenever that show finally comes back.

Looks like it’s going to be a busy fall full of sitting down.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Intolerable Cruelty

This will not be a thorough review of the 2003 movie, since I actually sat down and watched it weeks ago. I have been meaning, though, to slot it into my listing of the Coen Brothers movie in order of my preference for them. On the Slate lists which inspired mine, Intolerable Cruelty, The Man Who Wasn't There, and The Ladykillers were fairly anonymously the bottom three films, so I wasn't expecting much out of Intolerable Cruelty. Perhaps the movie benefited from these lowered expectations, but I am putting it above Hudsucker Proxy and even No Country for Old Men, into 10th place on the list.

It is probably the least representative movie the Coens have ever done, and more broadly appealing on a commercial basis than most of their output (True Grit being one exception.) George Clooney plays super-confident and super-competent divorce lawyer Miles Massey. He extricates Edward Herrmann's philandering Rex Rexroth from a potentially costly divorce by proving that his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) married him with the intent of divorcing him and taking his money.

I think one of the reasons this movie failed to find the broad audience it so patently sought is that the Coens refused to sell out their characters. Zeta-Jones remains mercenary and money-hungry throughout the film, and the film never tries to soften her or rationalize her pursuit of the almighty dollar.

The film's plot takes a few interesting turns which show that the Coen brothers weren't just cashing a paycheck. There are also quite a few great set pieces and quirky side characters which make the movie feel more like one of their projects. These include a hit man with asthma, a judge who'll allow anything in her court, and Billy Bob Thornton's genial but dim-witted Texan.

Basically, Intolerable Cruelty is a lesser Coen Brothers movie with brighter colors and fewer obscure references and humorous double-talk. It's still an engrossing and worthwhile movie.

Fixing a Hole #2: The Age of Innocence

Here’s the second edition of my ongoing, sporadic series by which I plan to become a more worthy recipient of the sheepskin which bears my name.
(See http://iamnotprincehamlet.blogspot.com/2011/08/fixing-hole-1-othello.html for the first.) Our book this week is The Age of Innocence, which aside from being the least representative motion picture in Martin Scorsese’s filmography is also a novel by Edith Wharton.

How I Missed It: Misogyny, mostly. To my chagrin, as a white male I tend to gravitate toward white males when I choose my literature and the same goes for when I used to choose my literature courses. For my mental health, when I had to register for courses I struck from consideration any which contained the words Women (or Womyn), Gender, Sex, Class, Other, Labor, or really anything which promised to view novels through a prism based on leftist causes. This was mostly a great idea, but it unfortunately limited my exposure to novels by women (or womyn.)

What’d I Think?: Ugh, women. Relax, I’m kidding, but word to the wise, if you’re trying to convince someone that they should read more novels written by women, don’t use Wharton to make your case. The Age of Innocence most definitely falls into the dreaded novel about manners category. Newland Archer is a young man in a prominent New York family. He is engaged to an innocent young woman from another family just as prominent, so everything would seem to be just hunky-dory with old Newland, no? But the rich, God bless ‘em, have their problems too it seems, and not just the imaginary ones the hypochondriacs cooks up to get them out of going to the opera.

Archer’s world is shaken up by the repatriation of his fiancee’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, escaped from a horrific marriage to a Polish count. The Countess’s unusual ways, informed by her life among European artist and aristocrats, make her a pariah in New York. Archer is drawn powerfully to Ellen, whom he knew as a child before she left for Europe. He becomes closer to her as his soon-to-be-wife’s family implore him to use his legal authority to convince the Countess not to seek a divorce, a possibility so shocking to their sensibilities that they consider it much worse than her abusive marriage.

Wharton’s novel is at its best when it shows that it knows the people it chronicles are inherently ridiculous. But this humor is much too reserved and sparing; Wharton never lets these pompous gasbags really have it. And after all, she does expect the reader to feel sorry, not just for the sympathetic and appealing Ellen, but also for Archer, who is “trapped” by his class and its prejudices. He and Ellen commence the sort of affair-from-far, all words and considered clasps of hands, that make lots of novels about the nineteenth century such a bore.

Even though it is not an exceptionally long novel, The Age of Innocence takes too long to get to its obvious destinations, and its straightforward plot leaves the reader wondering what the animating force was that drove Edith Wharton to write it.
Do You Wish You’d Read it in Class?: Only if it would have motivated me to read it faster. Honestly, this novel would definitely have evoked the types of class discussions that were always most tedious to me. It would have been all gender roles, class distinctions, and the like. I would have disliked it even more than I disliked the novel.

Further Holes to Fill?: Wharton’s prose itself wasn’t too bad, and I’ve heard the House of Mirth is good, but I rather doubt I’ll be reading more Wharton. The goal of reading more women is an ongoing effort, the fruits of which can be seen on this blog. Just this year I’ve read novels by Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O’Connor, and Jennifer Egan, with mixed results.