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curve ball

I was looking forward to reading Jim Albert and Jay Bennett's book Curve Ball: Baseball, Statistics, and the Role of Chance in the Game, for the obvious reason that the subtitle is right up my alley. Sad to say I found it hard going ... while it's promoted as a book for the layperson, it's really got hard core stat stuff in there, and I confess I didn't follow it all. Dare I say it's a book that's better experienced via a detailed, intelligent review that explains all the important stuff in a short space?

And no, this won't be that review, but I can tell you what the main point is, and what is the part about baseball I found most enlightening. The main point is that chance plays a bigger role in baseball than most of us realize. If you flip a coin once, you call heads and the toss is tails, you'll feel unlucky, and you'll know it was only chance that made you lose. If you flip a coin a million times, it will come pretty darned close to 50/50 heads/tails. If you flip it ten times, though, you just might see eight tails ... flip it a hundred times and you might see 75 tails. It takes those million tosses to reach the point when chance is overwhelmed by the number of opportunities.

Well, non-fans might think that every baseball game is a million minutes long, but in fact, the total number of opportunities for something to happen in baseball isn't as great as we think. A hitter who plays almost every day will come to the plate maybe 650 times in a season ... if he does this for ten years, he'll get to maybe 6500 appearances. Over the course of ten years, he'll have enough opportunities to give you a good sense of his abilities, but over the course of one season, chance might make him produce markedly better or worse than normal. The fewer the number of opportunities, the more chance will intrude, so that even Barry Bonds will have a week where he only gets a couple of hits. In that week, Barry Bonds is still Barry Bonds ... chance wreaks havoc on his production.

Which leads to the other thing I found interesting. Fans have a tendency to look at a guy's batting average in June and say "he's a .300 hitter," when what they should say is "he's hitting .300." Those are not the same statements. If he hits .300 for 15 years, then you can say with some accuracy that he's a .300 hitter, but but if he hits .300 for two months, chance is mucking the figures, and he hasn't proven to be a .300 hitter but is merely hitting .300. If you can wrap your brain around the difference between the two statements ".300 hitter" and "hitting .300," you'll have a sense of how big a role chance plays in baseball.

And please don't blame Albert and Bennett for my botching of their theories.


Kinda boring.

Chris Rock was good enough. Sean Penn ... who would have thought the guy who was so funny as Spicoli would turn out to be such a fucking sourpuss? Hilary Swank ... who would have thought a 90210 alumnus would already have two acting Oscars? Jamie Foxx ... good speech. Salmita, you looked great as always.

Clint Eastwood as best director for the second time? I said my piece about Clint's directing a couple of days ago. I'll just add that tonight we saw evidence of the two best things you can say about him as a director: two of his actors won Oscars, and, as Clint himself noted in his acceptance speech, he shot the whole thing in 37 days.

Technical notes: I started watching a little after 6:00, so I gave it a 35 minute head start. There were more commercials than I expected, but what I really forgot about were the songs, which are the worst part of any Oscar telecast unless they cook up a big production number, which they didn't this time. I fast-forwarded through the first four songs, and all of a sudden it was 7:23 and I was caught up. So I had to sit through that godawful Josh Groban and a bunch of commercials. Next year I'm starting at 7:00.

It looked ok in hi-def, that's all.

And thanks to Taylor Hackford for directing Ray, because that meant I got half-a-dozen shots of Helen Mirren.

pre-Oscar blog

Tonight will be my first "DVR" Oscar, which means there won't be any real-time posting here, as I'll probably start watching an hour into the thing and fast-forward through the ads and songs. While the Oscars are usually the only awards show I watch each year, it's not like I actually enjoy them ... but they are a part of our culture in ways the other awards shows are not, so I'll be there, if slightly delayed.

A couple of observations, one of which I came up with while commenting on Charlie's blog. I have only seen two of the five nominees for Best Supporting Actress, but I loved Virginia Madsen in Sideways and hope she wins, in part because a look at her resume shows someone who has been in some pretty dreadful movies over the years, and it's about time she got some positive attention. You can sort a person's films by IMDB rating, and it's v.instructive to do this with Madsen. At the bottom of her list are films like Zombie High ... here's how bad her resume is, she's made two movies with worse ratings than Zombie High. The #2 film on her list is Long Gone at 6.90 (this mid-80s HBO film compares favorably to Bull Durham and is unjustly neglected, by the way). Sideways is #1 at 8.09, which means it's not only an extremely bright spot in a dreadful career, it's way better than even the second-best movie she ever made.

Meanwhile, Chris Rock is a veteran of Saturday Night Live, and it's an accepted truth that SNL has produced a lot of movie talent over the years. But here's a shout out to another show that Rock was on, that has given us talent that appears in actual good movies, In Living Color: Jamie Foxx is gonna be the star of the night, and let's not forget Jim Carrey, very good in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and what the heck, even Jennifer Lopez used to be a Fly Girl.

oscar run 1976: king kong

I'm not going to say much about the 1976 version of King Kong, since someone's paying me to write an essay about it (which is why I re-watched it today). It did indeed win a special achievement Oscar for Visual Effects, a bit of a joke considering how much fun has been made of the film in that regard for the last three decades. Or maybe by "visual effects" they meant "Jessica Lange's legs" ... holy moly, do her gams look hot in those daisy dukes! (OK, they weren't called "daisy dukes" yet in 1976, but Lange's Legs are so magnificent my brain is still befuddled.)

I have to develop an angle on this movie for the book. I personally requested the '76 remake for my topic, which puzzled the editor, but I assured him I'd come up with something. I suspect I'll be writing about the revulsion the movie inspires amongst hardcore fans of the original. I'm one of the latter, to be sure, but I can't say I hate this one ... it's not a classic, but neither does it stink, and it's rather astonishing to watch it with its awful reputation in your mind, because it's a six on a scale of ten but judging by what others say, you're expecting a one. (Actually, IMDB users give it a 5.2 rating.)

And seriously, Jessica Lange's legs are hot. Even if her own reputation was so damaged by this, her first movie, that she didn't make another film for three years.

oscar run: the summary

I haven't seen 'em all, so my picks here are in the YMMV category.

I saw all five Best Picture nominees. Finding Neverland is the only one that I believe truly doesn't belong. Of the rest, I'd choose Sideways or Ray. Most obvious absences: Before Sunset, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

I saw four of the five Best Actor performances, missing Don Cheadle. How ironic that Cheadle has no chance of winning because another black actor is such a clear choice. Jamie Foxx would be my choice, too, since I don't think the other three I saw were worthy of a nomination.

I saw four of five Best Actress nods, missing Imelda Staunton. All of the ones I saw were terrific, and I'd hate to pick between them, but if forced, I'd probably go with Annette Bening. (Hats off as well to Julie Delpy, who didn't get a nomination.)

Once again, four of five for Best Supporting Actor (didn't see Clive Owen). Alan Alda's nomination is a joke, as is Jamie Foxx's, although in his case it's because he was the star of the movie and thus is in the wrong category. (I guess Alda's in the wrong category, too, but they didn't have a category for I'm-in-two-scenes-wasn't-MASH-a-great-show.) You can't go wrong with Foxx, Morgan Freeman, or Thomas Haden Church ... I guess I'd go for Church just because he's such an odd guy to show up amongst such great company.

I only saw two Best Supporting Actress jobs, but I can't imagine many performances better than Virginia Madsen's.

Saw four of five Best Directors, think all the ones I saw have flaws, think Michael Moore and/or Richard Linklater should be on the list. Oh, and Alfonso Cuarón, who made one of my favorite movies of recent years, Y tu mamá también, but may have done an even more amazing trick this year by directing the first good Harry Potter movie.

And then my ability to pick is hampered by a lack of seeing every film, or a lack of interest in the category. Saw six of the ten screenplay nominees, and would go with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Sideways of those I saw.

And now I can go back to watching old movies.

oscar run xxi: million dollar baby

We end this year's Oscar run with Million Dollar Baby, the latest in a long line of films to split critics between the Clintistas and the Paulettes. (You think I'm kidding about the Paulettes? I just typed "eastwood paulettes" into Google and got 324 hits. At this point, if you complain about a Clint Eastwood film, you're accused of being a Paulette even if you don't know what one is.) I suppose I'm a Paulette, but I've always liked Clint Eastwood more than did Kael. Which doesn't mean she was wrong about him.

Clint Eastwood directs the same way he acts: he makes room for whatever someone else has given him. As an actor, he's more iconic than anything else, funny when his dialogue is funny, heroic when the script calls for it, limited but, as he said in Magnum Force, "a man's gotta know his limitations," and Clint's a man if anyone is. Given how many actors have no idea of their limitations, you can see why audiences like Eastwood. Imagine Brando at his best, or his worst ... say, Streetcar Named Desire and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Clint Eastwood would never be good enough to play Stanley Kowalski, but neither is he an imaginative enough actor to be Dr. Moreau, at least as Brando played him. Clint Eastwood isn't great or awful, he just is, an actor who knows his limitations.

And that's how he directs. He makes room for the script, he lets his actors do what they are good at, he brings the films in on time and on budget, and after directing almost 30 films, does anyone, even his greatest champions, have any idea what constitutes the style of Clint Eastwood, director, other than that he knows his limitations and doesn't get in the way?

There's a value in such an approach ... I've ranted on more than one occasion about directors who are so taken with their style that their movies become self-referential messes. Give Clint Eastwood good scripts and good actors (and give him a good role, himself ... Eastwood the actor is the perfect match for Eastwood the director) and he'll give you a good film. Bad script, bad actor, bad film. (You'll note that Clint's fans rarely bring up the formulaic tripe that makes up a good portion of his career as a director,   Absolute Power, say, or Space Cowboys ... but not Bronco Billy, I love Bronco Billy!) He's like a modern version of the studio system director.

Million Dollar Baby is one of his good movies. The plot, while not always predictable, is a bit canned, but the dialogue rings true even when it turns poetic. Morgan Freeman never gave a bad performance in his life, and Hilary Swank continues to show greatness in a variety of roles, whether it's Oscar bids like this one or nothing parts that she elevates, as in Insomnia. The montage of fights where Swank kicks ass in one-round mismatches is delightful ... if you're thinking to yourself "I can't believe Hilary Swank as a fighter," well, this is the movies, and she's very believable kicking ass, and it's fun to watch. On the other hand, the film tries a bit too hard for its PG-13 rating ... the violence of the boxing matches is too often like a pulled punch, and the absence of R-rated cursing is noticeable.

Here's the thing. I am not the biggest fan of Raging Bull, but there's no question who made that film. It's lunacy and pulp power could only come from Martin Scorsese. Clint Eastwood will never make a movie as personal and stylish as Raging Bull. Which means Million Dollar Baby is a 7 on a scale of 10, which means Eastwood will never direct a 10, and that's no knock on Eastwood the director, in fact, coming from a Paulette it's massive praise indeed. But the idea that Clint Eastwood is an Oscar-winning director is as sure a sign as any that the golden age of American films is long past.

stuff i did

I'm not sure where this meme started, or if it's even a meme, or exactly what the rules are, but based on the examples of my friends lizyjn, jorit, and Charlie, here are ten things I've done that are ... well, I don't know what they are supposed to be.

1) Got married in a small-town park with a judge presiding and a little-league baseball game going on in the distance.

2) Took a frightened dump in Candlestick Park on October 17, 1989, while an aftershock took place.

3) Hiked to the top of Mt. Lassen.

4) Stood next to Jack Casady at a urinal trough in the Fillmore.

5) Stood next to Ron Dellums at a urinal on the UCB campus (I talked to him).

6) Served once as an acolyte at Grace Cathedral.

7) Saw John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon (OK, it was two different matches).

8) Became one with the ocean waves while on psychedelic drugs in Capitola.

9) Officiated at my son's wedding.

10) Killed a cat.