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oscar run iii: spider-man 3

Does anyone think this thing won't get Oscar noms, for special effects at least? (Let's be honest, that should read "special effects, period.") I haven't thought much of any of the movies in this series ... this will be the third in a row that I gave a 6 on a scale of 10, meaning the films keep my attention and usually have something worthwhile, but are mostly just time-wasters. (And speaking of time, this one clocks in at almost two Booty Calls, 1.8 to be exact.)

Spider-Man 3 cost a bunch of money, it mostly went to special effects, yet you get the feeling it wants to be remembered for its human element. It doesn't really work. Roger Ebert said it best, regarding the endless love affair between Peter/Spidey and Mary Jane: "Could a whole movie about the relationship between these two twentysomethings be made? And my answer was: No." They simply aren't very interesting. There are some nice turns by various actors ... Bruce Campbell never lets us down ... but the movie succeeds or fails on the big stuff, no matter how much they try to make the little stuff worth watching.

It's a fairly safe move, because you can always get a 6 rating just by making sure the effects are up to snuff. The Sandman is pretty damn impressive, for instance. But even there, you see the problem. You've got Thomas Haden Church, a likable, Oscar-nominated actor, and you give him a part where he spends most of the movie as a CGI dust storm. Like I said, it's a damn impressive dust storm. But if the Spider-Man movies really want to push the human element, they have to make room for it. And there isn't much room for humans when you've got a franchise and your movie costs a quarter-of-a-BILLION dollars.


the wire: the last season begins

Once again, HBO On Demand will be showing episodes of The Wire six days before the "regular" showing, and you know I'm not going to wait. If you're really sensitive to such things, there might be spoilers to follow, but I'll be mostly generic.

I had a thought just before we started watching, about how I wanted the series to end. I wanted the last shot to be Bubs doing what he does. I didn't need for everything in his life to somehow turn good ... in fact, that's not what I want at all. But I want him to live, I want him to still be scuffling, keeping on at keeping on. Given how The Wire treats our dreams, he'll probably die.

A note for people who have never seen the show and are wondering if it's too late to start now. It looks like Season Five, like the other seasons, to be honest, will be enough of a standalone that you can tune in on Sunday and be fine. The things you miss will be subtleties ... did you know "subtle" has a "b" in it? ... but otherwise you'll be OK.

I don't have much to say, really, beyond "it's back and good as ever." I confess I like it when McNulty is drinking (and that's a spoiler, I suppose, but it's been part of the ad campaign so I don't feel too bad giving it away), but in the past, the people he hurt tended to be himself, and to a lesser extent his kids and his ex-wife. The kids are OK but we don't see much of them, so I don't think about them much, and his ex was kinda bitchy, albeit with reason, so I didn't worry about her, either (it didn't help that the actress played an even bitchier person on Rescue Me, with the subsequent bleed-over influencing my perceptions of both characters). But this time, it's gonna suck that McNulty's a fuckup again, because in Season Two, and in her brief appearances since then, Amy Ryan has made Beadie Russell one of the most admirable characters on the show, and we don't want to see her get hurt. Not that Amy Ryan is crying ... she may get an Oscar nomination this year, so it's not like her career is faded.

Mostly, it's just good to have the show back, and all the characters on my screen again. Some were just brief ... there was Cheese for one shot, and all I could think of was "they killed my DOG!" And Snoop got a scene, and Clay Davis wasn't there but he's gonna be part of the plot and Isiah Whitlock is in the opening credits so he should get some serious screen time this season. And Marlo is still ominous to the point of scariness. Omar wasn't there, but he never shows up until a few episodes in. And Avon's picture shows up in the opening credits, so it looks like he'll make at least a cameo return. Speaking of the credits, Steve Earle does "Way Down in the Hole" this time, and it's not my fave version so far, but if anyone deserved to get a shot at that song, it's Earle, who has appeared in a few episodes.

Finally, each season's first scene sets the tone for the rest of the season. So it's going to mean something that the epigraph for the episode came from that first scene: Bunk saying "the bigger the lie, the more they believe."

Grade for season premiere: A+, duh.


oscar run ii: no end in sight

Another documentary that might get an Oscar nomination, No End in Sight has already won several critics' awards for the best documentary of the year, and received a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. New filmmaker Charles Ferguson, who directed, wrote, and produced the film, did not approach his topic with his point already established in his mind. Well, that's not true ... as the title suggests, Ferguson assumes things have gone wrong in Iraq, and he sets out to figure out just what those things are. But his approach is fairly evenhanded. Ferguson himself shared some of the goals of the war's proponents early on, and he has managed to get a variety of insiders to talk to his camera, most of whom were part of the team either creating the plan or carrying it out: the first person in charge of reconstruction, a Colonel who worked with organizations on the ground in Iraq, a Marine who spent time there. Even Richard Armitage, who served under Colin Powell in the State Department and was the person who leaked the identity of Valerie Plame, offers his take, and a very careful take it is ... Armitage is not one to criticize his superiors in public. But a common thread emerges from all of these witnesses, Armitage included. Whatever your thoughts on the morality or political efficacy of the war, we might have pulled it off. But the people in charge were arrogant pricks who refused to listen to expert advice because they knew what they wanted to do, and they did it.

Bush is attacked primarily as the hands-off President who let things happen on his watch. The ones who construct the failed scenario (Cheney, Rumsfeld, and later Bremer, to mention three of a very small number) apparently didn't do a single thing right. So whatever "success" might have been possible was never going to happen, thanks to the colossal incompetence of the men (and Condi Rice) in charge.

The film's own success comes by presenting material you think you know from a slightly different angle, which allows you to see things afresh. This is not an anti-war film, or perhaps even an anti-Iraq War film. It is a film that unsparingly documents the endless series of boneheaded decisions that have left Iraq in a state of chaos. It is not a pretty picture, or a pretty film.


the pain from an old wound

A few of the more memorable scenes from the past year of television:

Curb Your Enthusiasm: Vivica A. Fox lays it down:

 

Weeds: Jesus freaks are singing:


Dexter owns Doakes:

 

Rome: Now that is an exit:

 

The Sopranos: Don't Stop Believing:

 

Battlestar Galactica: All Along the Watchtower (spoilers):

 

Mad Men: The Kodak Carousel:

 


friday random ten, 2007 edition

We made it! 52 weeks, 52 Random Tens, one per year. The first song was the Farmer Boys from 1956 with "Charming Betsy." Since then we've hit every year, adding a cross-posting to MOG along the way that has become slightly popular there. I've been doing some version of the Random Ten for several years, and I suppose I'll do it again in 2008. The only question for now is whether I should continue the year-by-year thingie for another 52 weeks. If you've got a vote, well, that's what the comments are for. Meanwhile, on to 2007 ... most of these songs weren't even released yet when we started back in January.

1. Amy Winehouse, "Rehab." OK, this one's from 2006, but it feels like it tells the story of 2007, and it made lots of 2007 lists, so here it is. I could have left it off, but no, no, no.

2. Arcade Fire, "Keep the Car Running." You know Bruce Springsteen likes you when he invites you on stage for a song. You know he REALLY likes you when he wants to play one of your songs.

3. M.I.A., "Boyz." On Xmas Eve, I was talking about M.I.A. with my kids, who were over for the holiday. They reminded me that when their generation hears the name "MAY-uh," they think of that singer who did "Lady Marmalade" with a bunch of other pop divas. Well, move over, honey, there's a new MAY-uh in town, if a person with two albums can be called new.

4. The Harlem Experiment, "Reefer Man." The third in a series that tries to offer various elements of a community through music, with the first two focusing on Philly and Detroit. On this track, Taj Mahal meets Cab Calloway. Some interesting folks drop by for the video.

5. Gogol Bordello, "Wonderlust King." My favorite find of 2007, although it's proof of how out of touch I am that they've been releasing albums for several years now. Here, they turn up on Letterman ... the video fixes itself momentarily, don't give up.

6. Britney Spears, "Piece of Me." Ladies and gentlemen, I give you 2007: Britney sings her version of how the life of "Britney Spears" feels from her perspective, but not before she lets someone else write the song. Which doesn't make it any less "real." And, as is often the case with Britney, no matter what else you think of her, the singles are usually terrific.

7. Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, "Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)." The oddball pairing of the year made perfect sense the minute the record was released. They'll win a shitload of Grammies, not that Alison needed any help in that area ... she already has more Grammys than any female artist in history.

8. Samuel L. Jackson, "Stack-O-Lee." There will never be a definitive version of this classic, but Sam Jackson, good goddamn, you come close! "I put nine of my bullets in his muthafuckin' chest!"

9. Dylan Hears a Who, "Green Eggs & Ham/Tombstone Blues." This was all the rage for 15 seconds, before the estate of Dr. Seuss and who knows who else shut it down. You want to hear it, try Google.

10. Tino Sanchez, "I Didn't Know." When we were in high school, the #1 soul man was a classmate named Tino Sanchez who sang lead for bands who played a lot of high-school dances. That was four decades ago, and we've all moved on. We reconnected with Tino in the last year or so, and reminded him of how much pleasure his singing brought us back in the day. When his father passed away, Tino went in the studio and cut a lovely track about his dad, which he was kind enough to send to me. Hearing his voice again after all these years was one of my favorite musical moments of 2007.


oscar run i: helvetica

Whattya think, shall I start even earlier this year?

What makes me think Helvetica is going to get an Oscar nomination? It has been nominated for the Independent Spirit "Truer Than Fiction" Award, and three years ago, the winner of that award went on to win Best Feature Documentary at the Oscars. That's all I got, but it will have to do.

Helvetica is a documentary about a typeface. I suppose that sounds pretty boring, but you know, a lot of documentaries sound more boring than they actually are, at least if you like the genre to begin with, which I do. I know more about Helvetica and other typefaces now than I did before I watched the film, but that wasn't hard, because I knew nothing about them a day ago. The film does a good job of explaining where Helvetica came from, does a good job of explaining why it became so ubiquitous, does a good job of explaining why some designers ultimately rebelled against it, does a good job of explaining why some designers have returned to it, and does a good job of explaining why some feel it may be what you might call the "last font," i.e. it's already perfect so sit back and enjoy it. As might be expected, the most entertaining of the talking heads are the designers who rebel against Helvetica ... one woman claims it was the typeface of the Vietnam War, and is now with us again as the typeface of the Iraq War. Better still is the guy who, frustrated with the impersonal perfection of the font, points to a piece of paper with the word "caffeinated" in Helvetica and complains, "that isn't caffeinated!"

Since the movie is only one minute longer than Booty Call (for newcomers to the Oscar Run, I'll note that all movies must be judged in part by their running time relative to the immortal comedy Booty Call, which ran a cool 79 minutes), it's unfair to complain about the length, so let's just say it's a good thing it wasn't two minutes longer.

Here's the main thing, though. If you are like me, almost completely lacking in the ability to make sense of visual style (it's not my fault, I was dropped on my head as a kid), then you will find Helvetica coming up short in one regard. Throughout the movie, the filmmakers offer interludes showing Helvetica in every possible venue of our daily lives. It truly is ubiquitous, and some reviews have noted that once you've seen the movie, you can't help seeing Helvetica everywhere you go. But this assumes you can spot Helvetica when you see it. I just spent 80 minutes looking at the damn thing, and I still don't have the slightest idea what it is. The film assumes a basic understanding that I don't have. I can now tell you that Helvetica is clean, simple, direct ... but that doesn't mean I'd recognize it if I saw it. Or rather, I'd be easily fooled by a Helvetica clone, because I'm sure now I will indeed see Helvetica everywhere I go, including plenty of places where it doesn't exist.


which is dumber?

This is a baseball post, so the rest of you can quit reading now.

I'm going to offer three tidbits I noticed today. All of them demonstrate that despite advances, the "new paradigm" of baseball analysis has a long way to go before we can say the change is definitive. Two of these are about fan perceptions; one is about the perspective of an honored baseball journalist.

To start with the fans ... ESPN is conducting a poll where fans can offer their choices for the Hall of Fame. Two players on the list of nominees stand out in this poll. One is Shawon Dunston. Dunston played for all or part of 18 seasons. In two of those seasons, he was an All-Star ... perhaps it is more useful to note that he was not an All-Star 16 times in 18 years. He never, in 18 years, led the league in any category. He never won a major award ... in fact, he never got any votes for any major awards. He didn't compile particularly noteworthy career totals ... 150 HR, 1597 hits, 212 steals. His career batting average was .269, slugging .416.

His career on-base percentage was .296. This is abysmal. His BEST OBP season was around 250 plate appearances in 1999 ... that OBP was .337, which would be a mediocre career figure, but this was his best. This was mainly because Dunston wouldn't draw a walk ... he played in more than 1800 games, came to the plate more than 600 times, and drew a grand total of 203 walks, of which 44 were intentional.

As of the last time I checked, 7.3% of the fans taking the ESPN poll have listed Shawon Dunston on their ballot as worthy of the Hall of Fame.

Meanwhile, there's Tim Raines. He's kinda like the anti-Dunston, so we'll start by comparing the two. Dunston played for 18 season, Raines for 23. Dunston was a 2-time All-Star ... Raines made the All-Star team 7 times. Dunston never led the league in any categories. Raines led the league once in BA, once in OBP, twice in plate appearances, twice in runs scored, once in doubles, four times in stolen bases, once in Runs Created, three times in Times on Base, and once in Offensive Win Pct. Dunston never won an award ... Raines won a Silver Slugger Award and was an All-Star Game MVP. Dunston never received any votes for any awards ... Raines received votes for league MVP in seven different seasons, finishing as high as fifth. Dunston's career totals weren't overwhelming. Raines? He hit 20 more homers than Dunston and 1008 more hits, stole 594 more bases. His career BA was 25 points higher than Dunston's, his SLG was 9 points higher.

And Dunston's career OBP was .296. Raines's was .385. After two cups of coffee at the beginning of his career, Raines put together 21 consecutive seasons with an OBP of at least .337, that low point coming when he was a 39-year-old part-timer. That was, in fact, the only time in those 21 years that his OBP was below .350. Dunston, you will recall, never got HIGHER than .337.

As of the last time I checked, only 38.4% of the fans taking the ESPN poll have listed Tim Raines on their ballot as worthy of the Hall of Fame.

Ah, but the writers, surely they know better. You don't get more esteemed than Tracy Ringolsby. A look at Wikipedia tells us that Tracy's been writing about baseball for more than 30 years. He has been a president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, the group who casts the "votes that count" for the Hall of Fame. He himself is in the writers' wing of the Hall of Fame.

To his credit, Ringolsby stands up for what he believes, and he doesn't run and hide from controversy. Today, the Baseball Analysts posted an interview their Rich Lederer conducted with Ringolsby, where no topic was off-limits. It's an interesting read, thanks to good questioning from Lederer and clear replies from Ringolsby. Near the end of the discussion, Lederer asked Ringolsby, who of course has a vote, who he included on his Hall of Fame ballot. Tracy listed the names, and then mentioned Tim Raines. Raines was a tough one, Ringolsby said. He mentions something that even Raines' biggest champions (of which I am one) know to be true: Raines may have been the second-best leadoff man in the history of baseball, but since he played at the same time as THE best, Rickey Henderson, Raines' career was always overshadowed. That's hardly a reason to discount Raines' achievements, but Ringolsby wasn't done. It's one thing that Raines isn't quite Rickey, but ... well, I'll let Tracy speak for himself. "[I]f you take Vince Coleman's five top years, I would say he outperformed Raines, too, and I don't see Coleman as a Hall of Famer."

Ringolsby has one thing right: Vince Coleman is not a Hall of Famer. He had, in fact, a worse career than Shawon Dunston. Coleman was a terrific base-stealer, leading the league in that category 6 times. And he got on base more often than Shawon Dunston, although Potsie from Happy Days got to first base more times than Dunston, so that's not saying much. His career OBP was .324, which was below the league average, but not quite Dunstonesque. But Coleman had no power ... his career SLG was an unholy .345 ... so his OPS+ ... well, let's stop a second. OPS+ measures your ability to get on base and hit for power, in the context of your era and ballparks. An average hitter would have an OPS+ of 100 ... a good hitter would have an OPS+ higher than 100 ... a poor hitter would have an OPS+ lower than 100. Tim Raines' career OPS+ was 123. Shawon Dunston's was 89. Vince Coleman? 83.

Vince Coleman played all or part of 13 seasons in the majors, and only twice was his OPS+ over 100 (i.e., better than average). This means that whatever you decide are his five top years, in at least three of them, he was a below-average hitter. (And he didn't win awards for his glove, nor did any of these guys, so that's not the question here.) Meanwhile, from Tim Raines' first full season in 1981 through his last season with 100+ games played in 1998, 18 seasons in all, Tim Raines' OPS+ fell below 100 exactly once, a 98 in 1991.

So you've got Tracy Ringolsby, a veteran baseball journalist with voting rights for the Hall of Fame, telling us that he didn't think Tim Raines was a Hall of Famer because Vince Coleman's top five years were better than Tim Raines. Even though Vince Coleman can barely carry the jock of Shawon Dunston, much less a Hall-worthy legend like Tim Raines.

So I ask you, which is a clearer sign of an unintelligent future for baseball analysis? That 7 fans out of 100 think Shawon Dunston belongs in the Hall of Fame? That more than 6 out of 10 think Tim Raines doesn't belong? Or that an award-winning baseball journalist thinks Vince Coleman's five best seasons "outperformed" Tim Raines?