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December 2005
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February 2006

the 40 year old virgin

Another non-Oscar movie, which I rented thinking it would get some noms. The 40 Year Old Virgin is not the kind of movie I normally like, i.e. it's a contemporary comedy. I think it was better than most, though. The best of the male-humor movies work by being honest about male relationships while simultaneously showing how messed up they can be. The goofy guy humor is funny at times, but it's not really offensive, because the guys making the jokes more often than not come across as the losers. Add in a fine job by Steve Carrell, and you've got a movie that is funny, salty, and sweet, all in one package. If you like modern comedies, you might even think it was hilarious, although I personally wouldn't go that far. And while Catherine Keener is always good, the female characters weren't up to the ones in American Pie, which remains the best of the modern guy comedies.

pazz and jop 2005

I think I mentioned last year around this time that while I still look forward to the Pazz & Jop results, the immediacy has lost some of its edge now that sites like Acclaimed Music and Metacritic lets us know throughout the year how the critics are ranking the music. Anyway, 2005 is out. Kanye wins best album (Sleater-Kinney finished #4), "Gold Digger" grabs best single. Bruce finished #40 in albums, Mary Gauthier #63, Amy Rigby #70. Bruce tied for #66 in singles, S-K #112 (two songs), Gauthier #125. Bloc Party's "Helicopter," which may have been my own favorite single, rolled in at #183.

The best thing about the poll is the accompanying essays ... Christgau always has a long one by his standards that is usually excellent (only just saw the results were posted and so haven't read this year's yet). Oh, and I like checking out the ballots of critics I follow throughout the years. (Xgau gave the most points to Kanye, Thelonious Monk, and a Saharan music anthology, Marcus went with the Our New Orleans anthology, Ann Powers opted for the Mountain Goats, Scott Woods who did the interview with me listed only singles, and I'm not sure if they are ordered or not but Junior Senior is at the top of his list.)

yours truly on baseball

I just spent half an hour or so talking to Henry Schulman, a sportswriter for the Chronicle. Henry wanted my perspective on the work of Giants GM Brian Sabean for a piece he's putting together as Sabean begins his 10th year with the club. Schulman said he wanted someone who could give a less-positive perspective without ranting too much ... Sabean doesn't lack for champions of his work, so I guess I was representing the dark side.

It was very fun to do this interview. I tried to be fair in discussing Sabean, who has many strong qualities as a GM, despite all the complaining I do about him. What was especially fun, though, was getting Henry's picture of the team. Sportswriters work behind the scenes without being a part of the scene, which limits somewhat the amount of insight you can pick up. Nonetheless, Schulman obviously has a different and deeper understanding of the interactions amongst the Giants community. And while I don't want to say anything too specific ... not that he said anything all that outrageous, but I don't want to abuse any possible confidences ... I can say that it's very interesting to think about how a baseball club is, in many ways, a lot like any other enterprise, with office politics, people who are liked and people who aren't liked, pressures from above and below, stuff like that.

I will say this: while Henry Schulman is not blind to some of Sabean's deficiencies, he did a good job of presenting Sabe's train of thought. I came away from this with a better sense of how Sabean works.

OK, I can tell one thing he told me ... Neal, this is for you, I asked him about this specifically with you in mind. I said my son thought Mark Gardner would make a good pitching coach, and Schulman agreed that Gardner had the players' confidence, that he was helpful, and that a future as a pitching coach might be in the cards. Henry also added that Righetti likes working with Gardner as well, that they complement each other, and that there wouldn't appear to be any immediate changes in the Giants coaching staff.

craig ferguson's father

There is a bit of irony in what follows, considering the recent discussions I've had with my family the past few days.

Awhile back I wrote about Craig Ferguson, whose late-night talk show airs after Dave Letterman, opposite Conan O'Brien. I noted that Ferguson's opening monologues were different from the norm, and recommended that folks check them out on the CBS website.

Well, I highly recommend last night's edition, which can be found for a few days at least over at CBS ... you can either choose it from the "Show and Tell" section under "January 30, 2006" or select "A Tribute To His Father" on the right. It's an amazing piece. Ferguson's father died on the weekend, and he threw out the usual show to pay tribute to his dad, beginning with the monologue.

A couple of notes for those who don't normally watch the show. The tie that Ferguson is wearing is part of the tribute, I assume ... Ferguson rather famously does his show without a tie, so the more formal attire is likely a sign of respect. Also, Ferguson mentions at the start that he'd been in Scotland for the past week, and his accent is very thick. We've all had this experience, where a friend will go home to visit the country of their birth, and when they return they've picked up a lot of their old speech patterns. This seems to have happened here as well ... Ferguson's accent is pretty thick anyway, but it's more so here, and in an odd way, that's a tribute to his father as well.

my fifteen minutes run overtime

Well, the fruits of someone else's kind labors allow me to blather, and you know how I like to blather. Scott Woods has had an interesting presence on the web for a few years, including various versions of Rockcritics Daily. Scott interviewed me last week about this blog, the very idea of which honored me much more than I deserved. You can listen to our conversation on "live from my mother-in-law's #1." The talk ranges from what my family thinks of my blog (Sue will like that!) to Charlie Bertsch to our kitchen remodel to Milton Berle's penis. Scott also asks me to choose a few songs to play ... while I chose them in advance (and he edited them in later), I didn't realize he was going to then ask me to pick them as we were talking, so if I sound surprised when he says "whattya want to hear now," that's because I WAS surprised. Thanks to Scott for giving me the chance to jabber. (The interview is a downloadable MP3 file, about 45 meg.)

no oscars: bad girls

Even now, I jump out of Oscar Run mode to watch another movie. This time it was a mistake. Bad Girls was a 1994 western that suffered from a troubled production, a mundane script, and a thousand cliches. The idea was interesting: a western with women instead of men, kinda like turning the male road movie into Thelma and Louise. Sadly, Bad Girls stunk despite the good idea and the interesting cast (Madeleine Stowe, Mary Stuart Masterson, Andie MacDowell and Drew Barrymore). I have a very high tolerance level for Drew, which got me through most of the movie, but this ain't exactly a feminist classic.

oscar run ix: war of the worlds

I think Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of Steven Spielberg's greatest movies. If you disagree, you might like War of the Worlds, which turns the amiable aliens of the earlier movie into the malevolent monsters supposedly more appropriate in a post-9/11 era.

Spielberg makes explicit the connection between his movie and terrorism, and it's a mistake. The 1953 version, like most science fiction of that period, is read today as an allegory about communism, and that's a useful take on the film and the genre. But I don't think most people believe the filmmakers of that earlier film put stuff in their movie on purpose so we'd get the connection with the Red Scare ... it's just something we recognize with the critical distance that comes from looking at the film and others like it with hindsight. Spielberg's already taken care of the hindsight, though ... he doesn't want to wait 30 years for people to figure out his allegorical intentions.

There are some good scenes in this movie ... my favorite is the train running full-speed with every car on fire. The special effects are impressive, as if that made for a good movie. But for the most part, this film is a failure. Tom Cruise brings little, although it's such a stupid cliche of a role (absentee father reconnecting with his kids) that perhaps that's not his fault. Dakota Fanning is good enough, but too often Spielberg merely uses her when Fanning is probably capable of offering insight into her character in a more subtle fashion. (That assumes Spielberg cares about character ... in this movie, it's enough that Fanning's character is claustrophobic and can scream real loud.) The scene in the basement where the humans hide while the aliens search through the rooms is a clear homage to a similar scene in an abandoned farmhouse in the 1953 version ... the problem for Spielberg is that his homage isn't nearly as terrifying as the original, which is one of the great scary scenes in movie history.

Meanwhile, there's the whole "they've been preparing this for a million years" angle. Here's the best advice I can give: go out and rent Quatermass and the Pit. It's not only a better movie than War of the Worlds, it actually has some intelligence behind its plot mechanisms. #557 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 6/10.

all the pieces matter

An essay I wrote some months ago, "All the Pieces Matter," has been published in the latest issue of Bad Subjects. In this essay, I discuss Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, using The Wire as an example of today's complex television.

The appearance of this article is timely, considering the comments I wrote about Syriana yesterday. I noted how often I get confused by the plots of spy thriller movies, even though I love complex plots in television series. In the context of my article, I'm reminded of what I wrote earlier in the year about Crash: that it would have been better as a teevee series. I think the same could be said for Syriana ... if you've got 13 hours, or three seasons, or whatever, to explain what in a movie would be stuffed into 2 1/2 hours, your audience will both be enriched by the added complexity and be able to better understand what's going on.