Saturday, January 2, 2010

IT'S NOT COMPLICATED ENOUGH: The problem with It's Complicated goes deeper than its general wish-fulfillment fantasy structure which panders shamelessly to its women-of-a-certain-age target audience. Apparently, it wasn't enough that it's all about the Meryl Streep character being pursued by two desirable, erudite professional men who flatter her and insist she not change a thing, that she was physically and otherwise perfect already (as was her house, pre-renovations). Instead, it had to go further with its tunnel vision and close off any concern to the happiness of every other character in the film -- indeed, when the impact of the lead characters' decisions becomes too inconvenient, they just get disappeared from the film's universe altogether.

Spoiler below the fold (if I've figured out how to this to work) ...

Friday, January 1, 2010

NO, NO, IT'S JUST A CHARACTER I WROTE: I've generally enjoyed both The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire, but a query--is it just me or is co-lead Mikael Blomkvist one of the worst cases of Mary Sue-age ever? Like the late author Stieg Larsson, he's a muckracking journalist for a magazine in financial difficulties, who gets portrayed as smarter than basically everyone else in both books (save only Lisbeth Salander, his fellow investigator), irresistible to women of all varieties, and otherwise leading a glamorous and exciting life.

Discussion on this topic, as well as our occasional "what are you reading now?" topic, is in order, including what books were received for holiday reading and what books you've been reading to make the holiday travel season more bearable.
KENNEDY, I'M ON MY LEARNER'S PERMIT AFTER DARK: Matt Zoller Seitz pens an appreciation of the men he regards as the most important creative forces of the Aughts, Charlie Kaufmann and David Chase. On Kaufmann:
Kaufman defies Hollywood's demands that lead characters must be "relatable," that goals must be clearly defined (and preferably achieved) by the end of the story and that every event must be fed through the industry-sanctioned three-act-structure meat grinder. Each of Kaufman's aughts screenplays had a different tone, a different point, and found a new portal into issues that obsessed him. Taken together, his scripts are more distinctive, creatively unified and relevant to modern life than the collected works of almost any contemporary filmmaker, domestic or foreign -- a formidable achievement in a culture that views directors as gods and writers as chumps.
And Chase, about whom he's written so much great analysis:
The near-total elimination of medium-budget, classically styled adult dramas from mainstream film production this decade coincided with the rise of "Sopranos" and shows that drew inspiration from "The Sopranos." It's impossible to identify the chicken and the egg in that process. Either way, feature films became more like the Marshall McLuhan-era academic's kneejerk stereotype of TV (jumpy, trashy and stupid), while the best of aughts TV, led by Chase, embraced classically cinematic storytelling rhythms and visual grammar.
From Zoller Seitz's Directors of the Decade series.
WHAT WOULD BREESUS DO? While I'd prefer a list which commented upon and related back to its 2009 offerings, that's not going to stop me from pointing you towards the WaPo's annual list of What's In and Out for the New Year (for Hall & Oates, cupcake trucks and pickling, your moment has arrived!), with bonus decennial Fondly Remembered (OutKast, free baggage check, Uma Thurman's yellow track suit) and Good Riddance (Crocs, Uggs, Leno) lists for the Aughts.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

I just completed a hastily assembled list of the Top 31 movies of the decade and "The Wire" towers over any one of them and, as a 60-hour series, probably towers over the totality of my list of 31 movies. I didn't do a list of my favorite books of the decade, but rest-assured that "The Wire" ranks above any novel I've read in the decade, especially as a piece of cumulative storytelling. So, keeping things neat and simple, I have no trouble saying that "The Wire" is the decade's defining creative endeavor.

Soon you start expanding the circle, though. Is "The Wire" the best series ever produced for television? I'd say "Yes," while acknowledging that there's competition.

But looking more broadly still, if I'm teaching a college course on the United States of America and the American Dream -- it's a big topic, so it's probably an intro AmCiv class -- I'm putting "The Wire" on the syllabus next to "Citizen Kane" and "The Godfather II," alongside "Moby Dick," "The Jungle," The Great Gatsby," "Invisible Man" and "The Grapes of Wrath."

Okay, New Year's Cultural Resolution: I guess I should finally start watching those Wire DVDs that I have at home ...

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

IF YOU LIKE IT THEN YOU SHOULDA GOTTA FEELING: DJ Earworm mashes up the Billboard Top 25 Hits of 2009. Impressive. (Also, his 2007 and 2008 editions.)
JASON CASTRO WILL NOT BE AMUSED: Via PopWatch, some website claims to rank The Ten Worst Muppets and yet manages to skip Rizzo the Rat and Lew Zealand. Go figure.
I'VE ANALYZED THIS MOVIE WITH A GROUP OF CHEERLEADERS, WHO CAME TO THE UNANIMOUS CONCLUSION THAT IF I LET THEM GO THEY WOULDN'T TELL NOBODY: It seems improbable, statistically, that I would be anywhere near the first person in the ALOTT5MA community, congenially well-informed-about-funny-stuff as it tends to be, to hear about the70 Minute Mike From Milwaukee Review of Phantom Menace. Nonetheless, on the off chance that you've not yet been exposed, and are turning out of habit to the interwebs for distraction even during the slow posting season surrounding the winter holidays, allow me to recommend devoting several conveniently compartmentalized 10 minute blocks of your time to this last minute nominee for Best Humorous But Deadly Accurate Film Criticism, Long Format, 2000-2010. [NSFW].

Via /Film, via thewebsiteisdown.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"I'M JUST BORED TO DEATH AND UNIMPRESSED WITH HOLLYWOOD AND OUR COUNTRY": Bitter, party of one, your table is now ready. Good evening, Gallagher.

Among the things for which the 2003 California gubernatorial candidate takes credit in this week's AV Club interview? "I was the first one to allow a projectile to come off of the stage and into the audience. And I kind of take responsibility for the mosh pit. Major amusement parks now have splash rides—you don’t even have to be a participant in the ride to get splashed, you can be on a bridge." Also, includes YouTubage of the comic going Jamie Foxx-on-Doug Williams (okay, not as good as Foxx was, of course) on one of his opening acts. [Pretty much every link here is NSFW.]
THE GREAT TABLOID CRASH OF 2009: TaylorSquared (aka Taylors Swift and Lautner) are no more. Having not seen New Moon, my exposure to Lautner has been limited to his SNL appearance, which made my Gaydar ping quite loudly. I'm sure we can expect a song about this--maybe Swift will add a little Zevon to her live show?
THE SOUP IS F$#@(*$ TEN DOLLARS!: A graphic dissection of a menu showing the typographical tropes used to steer you away from the $115 seafood platter to the bargain $39 filet.
SPACEWOMAN ORDERED ME TO ASK THIS: What are we going to call 2010? Is it going to be twenty-ten or two-thousand-ten (Arthur C. Clarke-style)? Zolo? We only have a few days to reach consensus.
QUANDRIES FOR JACQUES BAILLY: Is that thing now pictured in our masthead a "Tree-Buck-it" or a "Tray-boo-chay?" Related--is the game you play with rackets and a shuttlecock (yes, cue Butthead laughing) "bad-mitten" or "bad-mint-on?"
THAT'S WHAT THEY DESIGNATED HIM FOR: In a few days, an electorate that ranges from insightful to barely literate will mail in its Baseball Hall of Fame ballots, and too few of those ballots will have Edgar Martinez on them.

The case for Edgar Martinez is simple. He was, in his 16+ seasons, one of the game's elite hitters. His career numbers -- depressed by a subpar final season and the three years he spent leading AAA in batting, thus shortening his peak -- include a .312 batting average (including two batting titles and seven top-8 finishes), a .418 OBP (including three OBP titles and 11 top-6 finishes), and a .515 slugging percentage (including six top-10 finishes). His career OBP is 22nd of all time; his career OPS is 34th. Other than Shoeless Joe Jackson (banned from baseball), Ferris Fain (1947-55), and Max Bishop (1924-35), Edgar has the highest OBP of any HOF-eligible player who is not in the HOF; only 10 members of the HOF have higher OBPs than he does. Edgar had eight seasons with an OPS+ greater than 150, and as ESPN's David Schoenfeld points out, only 24 other players can say that, all of whom (a) are in the Hall of Fame; (b) will be in the Hall of Fame; (c) are formally or informally barred from the HOF for steroid or gambling reasons; or (c) are Dick Allen. That he did all of this with a degenerative eye disease, as a right-handed batter (his 1992 batting average was the highest for a right-handed hitter since 1959), playing a significant portion of his career in Safeco (which disfavors RH hitters in a way that park adjustments don't reflect) is simply icing on the cake. With those numbers, plus the fact that he is, by all accounts, a wonderful human being (he is one of 8 MLB players to have been inducted into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame), if his hat said "NY" or "B," he certainly would be in the Hall of Fame.

There are two, and exactly two, things that will keep him out. The first is that he spent most of his career as a designated hitter. Some of the people who make this argument believe that the DH is not a valid baseball position (and perhaps is just a passing phase), or at least is less valid than others. To these people, I say: (a) the NL is more likely to adopt the DH than the AL is to jettison it; (b) the DH is now old enough to run for President, and its children can vote for it; (c) nobody ever argues that AL pitchers should be excluded from the HOF because they don't bat; (d) the HOF includes, legitimately, a number of relief specialists whose contributions to the game are subsantially inferior to Martinez's; and (e) the HOF is already a little bit pregnant -- a third and a quarter of the games played by Hall of Famers Paul Molitor and Jim Rice (two players whose offensive stats were inferior to Martinez's) were at DH. Those two would not be in the HOF but for their performance as designated hitters. A more sophisticated argument is that Martinez should be penalized, not excluded, for being a DH. The response to this is that: (a) using Fangraphs's positional adjustment of -17.5 runs/season for a DH, Martinez's stats suffer, but he remains above the HOF cutoff; but (b) who penalizes players for defense, anyway? Under this argument, Edgar still comes out only slightly behind, say, Manny Ramirez (a somewhat better LH hitter, but a spectacularly bad fielder playing a -7.5 defensive position) and substantially ahead of Jim Rice (a worse hitter playing a -7.5 defensive position badly). More generally, in response to both of these arguments, look: DH is a position played, pursuant to the rules of professional baseball, by professional baseball players. If baseball recognizes the position, shouldn't baseball's Hall of Fame recognize the greatest DH of the first 30 years of that position?

The other argument that people raise with respect to Martinez is that his rate stats are great, but his counting stats are so-so. Me, I'm a big fan of rate stats; not so much a fan of career counting stats. They reward people who hang on too long and who hurt their teams by making a lot of outs while pursuing a few hits and homers. But if you care about those things, then consider this: (a) one of the reasons that Edgar has too few hits is that the idiot Mariners left him to abuse AAA pitching for three years while Jim Presley stunk up the hot corner in Seattle; and (b) another is that he walked so often -- he theoretically could have traded many of his walks for somewhat fewer hits, but that would have hurt his team. The fact is that when Martinez came to the plate, pitchers did not say to themselves, "I should pitch to him -- he doesn't have that many career hits." Pitchers knew that Martinez would punish them if they threw him anything to hit, and he did, which is why they often didn't give him anything to hit.

Edgar Martinez won't be in the Hall of Fame this year, but he should be.
YOUR TAUNTAUN WILL FREEZE BEFORE YOU REACH THE SOUTH MARKER (BUT YOUR LITTLE ONES WILL BE TOASTY AND WARM): My Mom, being awesome, bought the Little Earthling (and two of his cousins) each a Tauntaun Sleeping Bag.

The Little Earthling is on quite a Star Wars kick (and is especially fond of his Star Wars Lego and, moreso, his Lego Tauntaun). I had, nevertheless, kept him completely ignorant of the existence of this thing. He was blown away -- I can only imagine this was as good as Mom running down the last BigTrak in 1979 after resetting my expectations that there were none to be bad -- and the Wee Earthling (two in February) screaming Tauntaun! Tauntaun! at the top of her lungs was the first time I'd ever really regretted not having a video camera immediately at hand.

Enough ink has been spilt about the concept, so I just wanted to make a quick note on the product itself. It's great. It's adult size -- it's safe to say I don't box welterweight and I fit in very comfortably -- and surprisingly warm. The construction seems solid. The only weak part I can tell is the horn, which I would have stitched on completely, rather than at the base and with a single (but solid) attachment at the point. That part will fail first, but not soon. And heavy rough-housing might give the limbs a bit of a fright. It's plush, so this is a strictly indoor bag and I'd avoid even a tent in the backyard since this will pick up dirt easily. Of course, given that no one wants the things to smell bad on the inside, apparently machine washable (says the website; the tag inside says surface wash only).

This could have been all hat and no, er, Tauntaun, but it's a solid piece of merchandise. Is it worth the $99 list price over at ThinkGeek? I don't know about that, but you won't be disappointed by the item itself. It won't last forever, but I trust I will be fighting to keep this around the house long after the Little Earthling has gone to college.

Monday, December 28, 2009

PARDON OUR DUST: In connection with a comments upgrade currently in process, things may look a little strange around here today. Don't worry--everything will be back to normal (or at least as normal as we get around here) shortly.
IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT WINNING, SEBASTIAN: Congratulations to my co-blogger Alex Gordon, whose Sham Wows (runners-up, J.T. Marlin Division) bested my Germane Crowell Intentions (winners, Brewster Keegan Division) by a 103-91 score in the 2009 ALOTT5MA FFL Championship Game.

A hint to future competitors: apparently, it's good to get more than seven total points out of your three starting wide receivers (Wayne, Chambers, Britt).
OUR BALLS ARE IN YOUR COURT: Among the more prestigious -- or at least, the most consistent awards I've given out each year on the site is the ALOTT5MA Award for Funniest Half Hour of Television of the Year. Our past winners are:
2004: The Daily Show, Night Two of the Democratic National Convention ("My father was a poor Virginia turd-miner ... ")
2005: South Park, "Best Friends Forever"
2006: The Office, "The Injury"
2007: 30 Rock, "The Source Awards"
2008: The Colbert Report, April 17, 2008 (Edwards, Clinton, Obama cameos from Philadelphia.)
The answer didn't come immediately to me, because the funniest show I remember from this year is technically ineligible -- the Office episode "Stress Relief" which followed the Super Bowl lasted an hour, but oh, what an hour. Save Bandit! Boom, roasted. You don't have any friends or any family or any land. (Alan has more.) But rules are rules, and an hour is not a half hour. (Same goes for the wedding episode, which was warm and wonderful.)

So I started thinking about other shows, and in particular Modern Family, and mostly about "Fizbo," which between its nonlinear structure and the confrontation at the gas station brought an already great show to a new level of awesome. People are gonna stare! They're not used to seeing one clown in a car!

Anyone wanting to declare "Fizbo" the winner can do so with confidence, and I'll confess to not having seen enough Parks & Recreation (or Better Off Ted, or this season of Curb) to know if I'm really missing an obvious winner from there.

But in the end, I went back through that list of Office episodes and was reminded of "Broke," in which Dunder Mifflin was forced to buy out the Michael Scott Paper Company -- of which I said at the time "I take back every skeptical thing I said about The Office last week. That was beautiful. I do love it when Michael demonstrates his intelligence." Indeed, it's where his childish stubbornness and business savvy merge perfectly:
Michael Scott: I'll see your situation and I'll raise you a situation. Your company is losing clients left and right. You have a stockholder meeting coming up and you are going to have to explain to them why your most profitable branch is bleeding. So they may be looking for a little change in the CFO. So I don't think I need to wait out Dunder Mifflin. I think I just have to wait out you.
Michael Scott: Our company is worth nothing. That's the difference between you and I. Business isn't about money to me, David. If tomorrow my company goes under I will just start another paper company. And then another and another and another. I have no shortage of company names.
David Wallace: Michael ...
Michael Scott: That's one of 'em! Yes!
(Alan thought it was superb.) The Office has remained strong over the years while contemporaries like 30 Rock have faltered. Its creators understand that the best comedy starts from great, nuanced characters engaged in plots about which we care. This year saw the rise and fall of the Michael Scott Paper Company, Pam and Jim's wedding (proving again that love need not ruin a show) and the gradual collapse of Dunder Mifflin itself amid these trying economic times. Just because it's a sitcom doesn't mean it can't also be ambitious, and I am happy to acknowledge the greatness of The Office one more time.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

YOU CAN DO A SHOT-BY-SHOT READING OF THE SCENE UNTIL THE COWS COME HOME AND YOU'RE NEVER GOING TO SEE A GUN IN THE MEMBER ONLY GUY'S HAND: Our Friend Dan Fienberg has been counting down the top 31 television series of the decade, and if The Sopranos are only #5, the top four had better be really good. (Okay: The Wire, The Shield, Mad Men and Arrested Development appear to be what's left.)

It's all high quality writing, and on a website which gives Dan the space to do the analysis these shows deserve. Here's some of what Dan had to say about #7, American Idol:
You watched "Idol" for the awesomeness and you watched it for the awfulness. You watched to see who Simon will make cry and, in the Aughts at least, you watched to see who would make Paula cry. You watched for the strange guest judges -- Quentin Tarantino is probably one of the few who actually worked -- and the awkward guest mentors (Randy Travis' poorly concealed horror at hearing Adam Lambert's version of "Ring of Fire" was a classic). And you tuned in for the scandals that "Idol" either would or wouldn't address, the abruptly dismissed contestants, the contestants weathering dirty picture storms, the weird voting SNAFUs. You watched for the musical guests who looked like they'd rather be any place else and for the washed up icons desperate for the attention.

And I would be remiss in not pointing out the 2007 and 2008 "Idol Gives Back" specials. If raising $130 million for various charities isn't worthy of some "best" consideration, nothing is. Seriously, $130 million. Make fun of that. I dare you.
Dan's essays are a great way to spend some time during a week in which I hope you're not doing too much work.