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girls, season one finale

Hopefully, things have quieted down a bit in regards to Girls. No series is above criticism, and Girls is not a perfect show … there is plenty to criticize. But too often, what passed for criticism about the show came down to either “it’s not about me”, or the slight variant, “it’s not meant for me”. Both are understandable reactions, and the latter is one of the more valid reasons to skip a TV series or movie or book or whatever. We aren’t required to like everything, as my son told me when I talked about Chipotle burritos. But while stating “it’s not about me” may be an understandable reaction, it is just that, a reaction, not an analysis. To construct a critique of Girls around the statement “it’s not about me” is stupid and pointless. Yet there was a lot of that when the show debuted. I don’t see it as much anymore, which I suppose means those people quit watching.

A comedy succeeds to the extent it is funny, and Girls is often funny. I’m not big on modern comedies, though, and I probably wouldn’t stick with Girls if it wasn’t also more than funny. It is similar to shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, where the humor comes largely from the socially inappropriate behavior of the asshole at the center of the action. But the underlying point of CYE is that, no matter how big a dick “Larry David” is, he is usually right in some fundamental way. That is, he can make you cringe with his idea of how to contest the behavior of a person who doesn’t clean up after their dog, but he is right that the person should have done their civic duty.

The nice thing about Girls is that it doesn’t bother to convince us that the characters are fundamentally “right”. They are fucked up in some unhealthy ways. But they are also deeper, more complete characters than the norm, because they are given the chance to be good and bad, to succeed and to fuck up, to be self-absorbed and a good friend. They are, in short, a lot like most of us, no matter that some see a bunch of early-20s white middle-class women and think “this show is not about me”. It’s a comedy about the human struggle to discover our selves, while also trying to avoid the narcissism such a struggle necessarily entails. And not always succeeding in the avoidance.

In Hannah Horvath, Lena Dunham has given us something remarkable. This is a character, much like Aura in Tiny Furniture, the film Dunham made before Girls, who is recognizably human, with an autobiographical subtext, played by Dunham herself, who also produces and writes and directs the show … Hannah “is” Lena, at least to the extent such bogus comparisons can be made. And Hannah not only isn’t perfect, she’s often insufferable, full of herself, buried in solipsism, prone to wallowing in self-pity. You’d think Dunham must hate herself, to give us a Hannah like this. Yet there is something uplifting about it all. It is clear that Dunham loves her characters, and also clear that she trusts the audience to accept these characters with all their flaws. We don’t excuse their behavior, but we become increasingly interested in them, and in the process, we develop fondness for them. We don’t hate Hannah, and once we realize that, we understand that Dunham doesn’t hate her, either.

So Girls is not the story of a talented young film maker whining about her miserable life, it’s the story of a woman who is too full of herself, in interesting ways. And that’s pretty universal, I suspect … as this article on Vulture makes clear, the audience for Girls is not just young women, but men over 50 (hi, there!), people who live somewhere other than New York City, even African-Americans and Latinos (whose underrepresentation on the show drew a good portion of the early-season ire).

Grade for Season One: A-.


euro 2012: tiebreaker addendum

Earlier today I said the rules on tiebreakers are very confusing. Well, I think I understand them now, but here's the thing: as Group A finished, the Czech Republic finished atop the table, with Greece second. Russia and Poland are eliminated, coming in third and fourth respectively. But, again adding that this is only if I understand how these things work, if this was a group in the World Cup finals, Russia would have advanced, while the Greeks would have finished third and been eliminated, because the World Cup (run by FIFA) uses a different tiebreaker than the Euros (run by UEFA).

This is not to say that Russia deserved to advance. I may have tabbed them as my dark horse pick, but they did little in the match against Greece to warrant my sympathy. It is true that once the Greeks have a lead, they are very hard to break down. But it often seemed as if Russia wasn't even expending much energy in the attempt.

The two most deserving teams have advanced. The Czechs refused to give up after being thrashed by the Russians in the opener, winning both subsequent matches. Greece did what they often do, scoring one goal in each match and then preventing Russia from scoring in the second half of their match together. Russia wilted, and Poland was valiant but clearly the lesser team overall.


euro 2012: the next four days

(A lot of this is cribbed from a post on my World Cup blog, which reappears every four years.)

On the last day of the regular season in 2011, four different baseball games decided four different playoff spots. It was one of the most memorable, exciting, nail-biting days in baseball history.

That kind of thing happens all the time in soccer tournaments.

Many/most of the biggest tournaments are broken into stages: 1) a group stage where teams compete against small subsections of the tourney’s entire competition to earn the right to enter 2) the knockout stage, where it comes down to win-you-advance, lose-you-are-gone. Euro 2012 features 16 teams in four groups of four teams each. The four teams in each group play each other, for a total of three games each. The top two teams in each group then advance to the knockout stage.

In a famous match at the 1982 World Cup, West Germany and Austria played a group stage match where the outcome (a 1-0 win for the Germans) benefitted both teams at the expense of Algeria. The Germans and Austrians were able to do this because Algeria had played their final group match the previous day, thus establishing exactly what West Germany and Austria had to do for them to both advance.

After this, FIFA changed the rules so the final matches in a group had to be played simultaneously. Which is why the next four days, beginning today, are going to be so loopy and exciting. Like the end of the 2011 baseball season, eight games over four days will decide who advances to the next round.

Everyone watches with their proverbial calculators in hand, watching the standings change with each goal.

Take Group A, which finishes today. At the start of play, Russia has 4 points, the Czech Republic 3, Poland 2, and Greece with 1 point. Say Poland scores an early goal against the Czechs. That temporarily puts them tied with Russia atop the group and moves the Czechs to third. If the Greeks then score against Russia, the temporary table will be Poland 5, Russia and Greece 4, and the Czechs 3. Every time someone scores a goal, the temporary standings will change once again. Not only that, but the tiebreaker system used for Euro 2012 is so confusing, I need someone to explain it to me every five minutes or so.

So everyone goes crazy. As far as ultimate results go, today’s matches are relatively simple. If Poland beats the Czechs, they advance to the next round and the Czechs are out. If the Czechs win, they advance and the Poles are done. If it’s a draw, the Poles are out, while the fate of the Czech Republic depends on the match between Greece and Russia that will be played simultaneously. In that match, Russia advances with a win or draw; if Greece wins, they advance. Simple, right? Except that during the 90 minutes in which the matches are played, these scenarios will change every time a goal is scored. And all four teams will know it. (As will the fans watching with their calculators.)

How to watch these matches, when they are played at the same time? I’ll be watching the match I deem most crucial on the big screen, while watching the other match on ESPN3.com. FWIW, the “most crucial” matches to my mind are: Poland-Czech Republic, Netherlands-Portugal, Croatia-Spain, and Ukraine-England. All eight matches have implications for the remainder of the tournament … only two of the sixteen teams have been eliminated so far.

Bring ‘em on.


euro 2012: sweden-england

A perfect example of my preference for cheap thrills over tactical excellence. The announcers kept talking about how much the match looked like a typical Premier League scuffle, by which they meant everyone was running about at full speed without worrying too much about skill. Ironic that the winning goal by Welbeck relied on a sublime bit of inspiration.

As usual, Michael Cox at Zonal Marking explains it all in terms even I can understand. I haven’t mentioned him yet in this tournament, so I’ll remind anyone reading this who doesn’t know him that the Zonal Marking website is crucial. Cox began his breakdown of Sweden-England with this sentence: “A scrappy game low on quality, but high on entertainment.”

We can all agree that the best matches are those that combine quality and entertainment, and we can probably also agree that such matches are rare. Where you come down on the continuum between quality and entertainment likely dictates what you thought of Sweden-England. Cox, to his credit, clearly appreciated the entertaining value of the match, even as he tore it to shreds from a tactical standpoint.

This was a crazy, open match that could have gone either way – both sides had spells when they were on top. …

[T]he second half’s main feature was simply terrible defending – both at set-pieces and in open play. For two sides expected to retain great shape without the ball, they were both were all over the place – the wingers were slow to get back into possession, the central midfielders scampered forward when they should have been protecting their back four, and too many free-kicks were conceded.

All that, combined with (a) poor possession play when either side was ahead and (b) the fact that, realistically, both needed a win, meant a goalfest – but neither side actually played well, in tactical or technical terms.

Conclusion: Tactically, one of the least impressive games of the tournament.

Lest the above sound too negative, I’ll note that on Twitter, Cox summarized, “Great entertainment and dreadful defending.”

Me, I was reminded of Netherlands-Brazil in the quarter-finals of the ‘94 World Cup. Today, England took a 1-0 lead into the half, but then the second half featured a four-goal barrage as the Dutch took a 2-1 lead, and then the English recovered for a 3-2 win. In 1994, after a scoreless half, Brazil came out and scored two goals in the first 18 minutes of the second half. All seemed lost for Holland, but they got one goal back just one minute after Brazil scored their second. Then the Dutch tied the match in the 76th minute, only to see Brazil pick up the winner in the 81st minute. So the second half looked like this: 53 minutes, goal Brazil; 63 minutes, goal Brazil; 64 minutes, goal Netherlands; 76 minutes, goal Netherlands; 81 minutes, goal Brazil.

I admit I didn’t think England would get out of the group stage. I assumed they’d already be out of contention by the time they got Rooney back. Now they’ll have their best player in the starting lineup, with every chance of moving on to the knockout stage.


music friday: luniz, “i got 5 on it”

I can’t get this song out of my head. The Giants have gotten Bay Area legend E-40 to do a couple of commercials encouraging fans to vote for their favorite Giants for the All-Star game.

The other night, I was at the ballgame, and they played a new video featuring 40 and Ursuleezy. The video works off of the idea that you can vote 25 times at once online. The video takes the unforgettable background of the Luniz’ big hit, with E-40 in the studio laying down new words about Panda and Posey and Romo. It’s called “Vote 25 on It”, and I’d say it was a bit of a sacrilege, except “I Got 5 on It” has been covered about 10,000 times by now, so what’s one more? You can see it here, about 23 1/2 minutes in:

http://mlb.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?content_id=22246749&topic_id=22048014&c_id=sf&tcid=vpp_copy_22246749&v=3

The thing is, “I Got 5 on It” is a song about going out and scoring some weed. As @SFGiantsFan tweeted, “Only the #SFGiants could turn a song about buying weed into an #ASG vote anthem.”

Here is the Luniz’ original, with Michael Marshall of Timex Social Club singing the chorus:

This is one case where the remix is better than the original. A group of Bay Area stars got together to re-do the song (yes, E-40 is on there). The impossible-to-forget musical loop and Marshall’s vocals are still in the mix, though, a good thing since they really make the song better. And after you’ve listened to all of these videos, you’ll understand why I haven’t been able to get the song out of my head since I saw that video at the Giants’ game.


perfection

In the summer of 2009, my brother and I attended a game where Jonathan Sanchez of the Giants threw a no-hitter. He struck out 11 batters, did not walk anyone, and allowed only one base runner, on an error. It was the first no-hitter by a Giants pitcher in several decades, and it will be forever remembered by Giants fans.

On Opening Day this season, my son Neal and I witnessed a terrific pitching performance from Matt Cain. Cain struck out 12 batters, did not walk anyone, and allowed just a single hit, like Sanchez facing 28 batters overall, one more than the minimum. People talked about it for a bit, and then moved on, because one-hitters are not the same as no-hitters.

Last night, Neal and his wife Sonia went out to the ballpark. Matt Cain was even better than he’d been on Opening Day. He struck out 14 batters, did not walk anyone, did not allow any hits, and his defense committed no errors. Cain faced 27 batters, and retired them all, for a perfect game.

You don’t see perfection very often. You can’t get used to it, because it comes so rarely. One nice thing about baseball, though, is that when perfection occurs, people recognize it. I suspect we’ve all done something perfect in our lives, but it likely passed unnoticed, even by ourselves. But when a pitcher throws a perfect game, all fans are aware of that perfection.

And so, the day after, you’ll find all sorts of fascinating commentary about what had occurred. And this is precisely because of the rarity. You might run out of things to say about a one-hitter, but perfection is bottomless.

So … today, Neal wondered, after all the games we’ve been to together over the years, “How is it possible we've both attended games with no hits or walks and neither have been together?” The answer is that these things happen so rarely, it’s even more rare for two people to share the experience in person. On Opening Day, together, we saw near perfection. That’s rare enough right there.

How rare was last night’s game? It was only the 22nd perfect game in the history of Major League Baseball, and baseball’s been around since the 19th century. The Giants as a franchise have been part of professional baseball since 1883, making this their 130th season. They have had a lot of great pitchers in those 130 years, including several who were inducted into the Hall of Fame. But Matt Cain’s perfect game was the first ever thrown by a Giant in all those 130 years.

This is why people want to talk about it, figure it out, relive it. From the moment the 27th out was recorded, our brains started recreating what our memories would be in the future. ESPN’s headline asked, “Did Matt Cain throw greatest game ever?” The numbers were deconstructed … how many fastballs, how many off-speed pitches, how fast were those fastballs in the ninth inning compared to the first inning, and, of course, how did Cain’s performance compare to prior greats (rule of thumb for baseball pitching: if you are being compared to Sandy Koufax, you are already in elevated company).

My memories are based on what I saw via television. I can remember being at the Sanchez no-hitter, and Neal telling me later all of the things they were featuring on the telecast. This time, he was there, and I was watching. So he felt the crowd, and I can tell you, there’s nothing like it. But I got to watch Cain’s wife, Chelsea, watching the final play unfold, mouthing “c’mon c’mon c’mon” as if she could wish the ball into the first baseman’s mitt. I got to listen to Duane Kuiper’s call (and I don’t know how it was scheduled in the pre-game, but Hall of Fame announcer Jon Miller was also in the booth … my guess is, in a normal game, Miller would call the final inning … I just picture him telling Kuip, “this one’s yours, buddy”).

You want rarity? There have only been 22 perfect games. Duane Kuiper was the announcer for #22. In 1981, he was the second baseman for the Cleveland Indians the night Len Barker threw a perfect game. I’d say Duane Kuiper recognizes perfection.


euro 2012: a few thoughts on the group of death, day two

Netherlands-Germany was arguably the most-anticipated match of the group stage. So, of course, the first match of the day, Denmark-Portugal, turned out to be one of the best matches of the tournament so far.

That match was an argument for the joy of goals. It’s not that there were no interesting tactics to discuss, but the frequency of the goals meant I was entertained throughout, no matter why the goals were happening. Meanwhile, I wonder if Cristiano Ronaldo could be compared to LeBron James. Both are players at the top of their game, at the least in the discussion for the best in their respective sports. And both get criticized every time their team falls short, no matter how well the player performs. Whatever … five goals, with the game-winner in the final minutes, was good enough for me. Stat that probably means something: Denmark had 58% of the possession, but were outshot, 17-9.

And then there was the Match of the Tournament. Except it wasn’t. The Germans have several top players, no matter if Rafael Van der Vaart thinks only three of them are worth mentioning. So it’s not easy to plan a strategy to deal with the team as a whole. Having said that, it’s hard to believe that Bastian Schweinsteiger (who even Van der Vaart admits is excellent) was given so much room to basically control the entire first half, with Mario Gomez and Germany the beneficiaries. Jonathan Wilson offered a convincing explanation, as he pointed out the ineffectiveness of Dutch midfielders Nigel De Jong (hasn’t he been banned for life, yet?) and Mark van Bommel:

With Mesut Ozil dragging the pair back and forth and creating space, Bastian Schweinsteiger was able to find unfathomable amounts of space in what Ottmar Hitzfeld terms "the red zone", that is, the central area 10-20 yards outside the 18-yard box. It is the space that defenses must protect above all else -- Roy Hodgson has based a career on it -- and yet Schweinsteiger merrily picnicked there in the first half, having time to measure his through-balls to Gomez. Whatever other problems plague the Dutch … this basic structural error undermines everything else.

Even with the goal that brought Holland within one, Germany never looked in danger. My bracket has Germany making it to the finals, and I’ve seen nothing yet to change my mind. (On the other hand, I have the Netherlands finishing second in the group, so things may fall apart for me very soon.)


euro 2012 thus far

A few thoughts now that every team has played one match …

The first matches were, in general, entertaining. Only two teams were shutout, which by itself doesn’t mean there was a lot of attacking soccer going on, but it’s nice to see.

The tournament opener, Poland-Greece, featured a little of everything. Co-host Poland looked strong while taking a 1-0 lead in the first half, and when Greece, traditionally one of the most boring teams, had a man sent off, the odds were strong for a Poland clean sheet. But the Greeks equalized, and were the better team in the second half. This match was also a treat for those of us who struggle with certain languages. I’ve always found Polish to be especially hard to deal with, and Greece had the Player Name Moment of the first days when Papadopoulos was replaced by Papadopoulos.

Russia looked v.strong against the Czechs, making me look, for one day at least, like an expert for touting them as a good longshot bet. Day Two featured the two 1-0 matches, but both had their moments, especially Denmark’s upset win over the Netherlands. On the third day, Spain-Italy was the most tactically interesting match so far, as top-ranked Spain came out with a striker-less formation. It didn’t work, and I don’t suppose Vicente Del Bosque will use it again, but credit him for trying something different with a side that has won its last two major tournaments. Croatia, meanwhile, toyed with Ireland, as expected.

Finally, Monday gave us perhaps the best match so far, and no, I don’t mean France-England, I mean co-hosts Ukraine against Sweden. Often, when pundits agree on pre-match hype, they will find their opinions justified no matter what actually happens. But this time, the notion that Ibrahimovic and Shevchenko were The Story came true. It was a fine match for neutrals.

England, on the other hand, pissed me off. They took a 1-0 lead in the 29th minute, and then seemed to decide to play for a draw. They parked the bus for the remaining 61 minutes, got their 1-1 draw, and won praise from Alexi Lalas, who thought they played a great match. Well, no, they were the most boring of the 16 teams through the first four days. But Alexi was right in a pragmatic sense. As he pointed out, England is no longer one of the great powers of world soccer, and the proper strategy against the better teams should be to sit back, absorb pressure, and go for the win on the counter-attack, just like lesser teams always do. I appreciated that he was willing to point out the obvious, that no matter how good their domestic league is, England’s national team is second-tier. But, again speaking as a neutral, I found France-England to be the one boring match of the first eight.

The big match over the next four days is the one we’ve been waiting for, Netherlands-Germany. The Dutch shock loss to Denmark makes this even more important for Holland, but these two nations are always going to have a feisty match. Given that the Dutch will be desperate, I look for their darker side to make an appearance in this one. Germany should consider itself lucky if it gets out of the match without suffering an injury to a key player.


what i watched last week

Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998). I decided to watch this again on D-Day, and it was much as I’d remembered it. Impressive beginning, long middle section, big action blowout at the end. The initial invasion is indeed a remarkable piece of work, deserving of its classic status. And what follows is OK, but it’s disappointing in that it’s nothing special. If you started half an hour in, after the soldiers have solidified their position somewhat, you’d be left with a standard, old-school war drama. No real surprise, there, since Spielberg has always been interested in recreating old genres. And it’s not a bad old-school war drama. Plus, the long, final battle is smartly choreographed, so you know what is happening, and where. It just would have been nice to have the entire film match the ambition of the beginning. With a big cast of “hey it’s that guy”s (Tom Sizemore), new-at-the-time guys (Vin Diesel), future TV That Guys (Jeremy Davies), even Dennis Farina. #780 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey, 1957). This famous remake of Love Affair is enjoyable for about an hour. Cary Grant is a playboy traveling on a cruise ship to New York to meet up with his v.rich fiancée. Deborah Kerr is on the ship as well; she has a rich man waiting for her, too. Grant and Kerr fall in love, and it’s nicely done, with plenty of the repartee Grant is so good at (Kerr is surprisingly up to the challenge, herself). The romance grows, they concoct a plan to meet in six months at the Empire State Building if everything works out, they get off the ship and meet their partners … and the film stops dead in its tracks. Unfortunately, there’s still an hour to go. Grant becomes a painter (what we see of his work doesn’t exactly make you want to run out and buy one), Kerr sings in supper clubs (dubbed, as usual, by Marni Nixon), tragedy ensues, they don’t meet in six months, they are apart and miserable, and finally, in the final ten or so minutes, they get back together. Give me the first hour and the last ten minutes, and I would have said this was a good movie. But I could barely stomach one number from an insipid chorus of pre-teens (“The Tiny Scout (He Knows You Inside Out)”, sample lyrics: “So you hate to go to Sunday school, and that's not bad enough. You start messin' with the Golden Rule, You think being good is ‘sissy stuff’”). When the kids visit Kerr in her hotel room and sing another number, I was ready to mess with a few golden rules, no doubt about it. The second hour feels more like three. Still, many people love this one … the AFI called it the fifth-best American film love story, and it’s #476 on the TSPDT list (it’s a favorite film of Jerry Lewis). 6/10.


mad men season finale

“Are you alone?”

Season Five of Mad Men has had its ups and downs, although I think people are a bit too hard on it. Sure, a high standard has been set, and no, this wasn’t the best-ever Mad Men season. That means it was, what, the second-best show currently on TV, after Game of Thrones? True Blood had its season premiere tonight, and it was full of the elements that make it such a popular show. A lot happened, there was violence, there was sex, there were arcane rituals and werewolves and shapeshifters and incest and little Anna Paquin. You definitely know what you’re getting with True Blood, and the premiere did not disappoint. But at this point it is safe to say that True Blood will never be more than an entertaining blend of anything that fits into a supernatural kitchen sink (or, rather, bathtub, since then, everyone could get nekkid).

Meanwhile, Season Five of Mad Men wasn’t as “entertaining” as previous seasons, and there are continuing problems that shouldn’t still be an issue on such a great show (the refusal to deal with race is the biggest one). But Mad Men still has great characters played by great actors featured in some of the best scripts on television. Jessica Paré made the most of her increased role on the show, as did old favorite Christina Hendricks.

The Lane Pryce plotline never went anywhere useful, and I’ll add my voice to those asking why Sal hasn’t yet returned. But in the end, as Tim Goodman regularly reminds us, Mad Men is a series about the existential crises of Don Draper. And Season Five did very well by that character, and that theme. At times, Don seemed almost human. His progress is glacial, but it does exist, and his marriage to Megan is a part of that progress. Still, he feels responsible for the suicides of two people in his past, he still has a piss poor attitude about life, and, yes, he is still alone. He is asked that question at the end of the episode, by a women in a bar hoping to pick him up. Don doesn’t answer before the screen goes dark for another season, because he doesn’t know the answer. What he does know is that the answer has nothing to do with the two hot babes wanting to have sex with him. The answer lies somewhere in those delightful scenes where he and Joan spent the day and night test-driving a Jaguar and talking at a bar. And it was there in the scenes with Sally Draper’s creepy “is he a boyfriend” buddy, when the boy tells Don, “everything you think is going to make you happy just turns to crap.” Don asks him what he would like to do more than anything, and the last thing we see is the youngster driving Don’s car with Don’s help.

So if I gave Season Four an A, and Season Five only an A-, well, there aren’t many shows that ever get that high. I look forward to Seasons Six and Seven.