Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Jack Donaghy Insult Generator

I am really, really going to miss 30 Rock.  My feelings about the show can basically be summed up here, with the addendum that the seventh-and-final season has been just as great.  Truly one of the great comedies of all time and, while I'm sad to see it go, I'm at least pleased that it's going out on such a high note.

And in the spirit of classy farewells, take a moment to peruse the Jack Donaghy Insult Generator.  Consider it part of your sadness scavenger hunt.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Winter's Tale (Shakespeare Re-Read #6)

When English students hear the name "Nahum Tate," they have a tendency to spit on the ground like when the residents of Dog River hear about their rival town of Wullerton.  Tate had a respected career and was in fact England's poet laureate for a time, but he is mostly remembered today as the guy who put a happy ending on "King Lear."  Seriously.  About 70 years after Shakespeare's death, Tate produced a rewritten version where all the good guys live and Cordelia gets married in the end.  While Tate's version was popular for the next century or so, eventually humanity came to its senses and Shakespeare's Lear became the accepted rendition of the story. 

Of course, Shakespeare himself adapted the story of Lear from earlier works so it's not like he had claim on the subject, but still, Tate's rewrite has gone down in literary history as hack work; the 17th-century equivalent of a studio executive giving notes and wanting to send the crowd home happy.  While I haven't read Tate's play, I can presume that it's not simply a case of Tate using Shakespeare's text for the first four acts and then slap-dashing his own material into the end, but rather Tate adapted the entire story, perhaps adjusting earlier elements to make Lear's tragedy seem less harsh, so the King is deserving of the happy ending that Tate provides.

I couldn't help but think of Tate while reading "The Winter's Tale" since this play actually reads as if someone stuck a happy ending onto a tragedy.  As if Shakespeare submitted a very tight, three-act, gut-punch of a play to his theatre company and a patron took him aside and said* "Billy, you've got a real corker of a play here but man alive, it's gloomier than ten Februarys.  We're not going to sell one ticket past opening night with this one.  Why not stretch it out, make it a five-acter, bring it all back around so we can put some smiles on people's faces and then we'll be cooking with gas!"

* = in the voice of a 1930's newspaper editor, naturally

It's as if the adage of "tragedy plus time equals comedy" was taken literally by Shakespeare, as he takes a 16-year jump between the third and fourth acts so that we see the aftermath of King Leontes' folly and now the King's horrible error in judgement is eventually (somewhat) resolved.  Usually Shakespeare's tragic heroes pay for their mistakes with their lives, but Leontes' survival means that he lives long enough to get a bit of redemption.  Whether he deserves such redemption is another question that we'll get to later.

It's a tough transition, story-wise.  We get this very dark, layered melodrama in the first three acts and then a complete tonal shift into a zany comedy in Act IV, with Autolycus' antics, the ongoing dopiness of the shepherd and his son and the love story between Florizel and Perdita.  Shakespeare essentially starts a new play in Act IV, with the only characters really known to us beforehand being Polixenes and Camillo, who are now just dressing up in disguises and other standard romantic-comedy fare rather than being embroiled in the drama from Sicily.  In fact, he almost literally does write another play given the extreme length of Act IV, particularly the last scene -- at a whopping 975 lines, Act IV/Scene IV has to be just about the longest scene in the Shakespearean canon. 

While the fourth act takes its bloody time, the fifth act is resolved with bizarrely quick fashion, as what should be the emotional high point of the play (Leontes realizing that Perdita is his long-lost daughter, his reconciliation with Polixenes and Camillo, and the subsequent allowance of their children to marry) is not shown to us, but is literally just recapped by a bunch of random supporting players.  It's a bizarre way of undercutting this huge moment, which I presume was done to make way for what Shakespeare chooses as his climax, the moment when Hermione's statue COMES BACK TO LIFE and reunites with her husband and daughter.

Yeah, things get weird in the second half of this play.  But then, it is a winter's tale, after all.  Young Mamillius says as much in Act II, Scene I: "A sad tale's best for winter. I have one/Of sprites and goblins."  It's supposed to be fanciful, with the horrible events of the opening three acts perhaps being so tragic that only the magical acts and coincidences in the last two acts (in the spring, 16 years later) are extreme enough to bring balance back to the kingdom.  I'd say the gods were bending the laws of nature, but not really.  After all, nature dictates that winter eventually ends, then we get back into spring and the season of comedy.  It's an old metaphor that the dramatic cycle is represented by the changing of the seasons, but Shakespeare gives the cycle another spin and runs through two seasonal changes in one single play.

Because this is the natural order of things, then that essentially excuses Leontes from any question of if he "deserves" redemption.  Leontes, it should be said, is an incredibly unsympathetic character.  Here's a guy who tried to have his best friend (and another king) assassinated, had his wife put his wife on trial for adultery and treason and had his infant daughter sent out into the wilderness to die.  The King is a paranoid wretch whose jealousy was brought on by absolutely nothing.  There was no Iago whispering in his ear, or anything beyond a simple conversation between Hermione and Polixenes* that would've made Leontes' actions somewhat understandable, if not justifiable.  Once he realizes his mistake, he is horrified and crestfallen about his actions, but his 16 years of mourning is literally an act break.  To the audience, Leontes seems to get off pretty easy, given his prior three acts' worth of insanity and devastation he brings upon his family.         

* = who just seems like a naturally flirty dude, not a lecherous one.  He's even flirting with Perdita in Act IV and she's his son's girlfriend…uh wait, that doesn't help my "not a lech" argument.

To this end, the so-called turn of the seasons is an unsatisfactory resolution to his story.  Tragedy teaches us that the tragic hero's downfall comes at his own hand, while comedy is the province of wild coincidence, good fortune and the heroes being somewhat playthings of the gods.  To give a tragic hero a comic ending, therefore, is just a bit too jarring since it stands to reason that Leontes should DO something to reverse his fate, just in the same way that his actions causes his fall in the first place.  He chooses to not marry again but that doesn't seem quite enough.  As it is, it just looks like Leontes gets off the hook by waiting around.  He hides under the proverbial pile of coats until everything turns out all right.

…well, "all right."  His son is still dead, after all.  Poor Mamillius really gets the shaft in this play.  The Leontes family is reunited in the end, even to the extent of Hermione returning from the dead, yet ol' Mamilli Vanilli doesn't even merit a mention in the last scene.  That's just one of several oddities that kind of fall through the cracks given the shift of the last two acts.  Since magic is on the table, anything goes, which is why Shakespeare can insert a modern artist* into ancient times, have characters eaten by bears**, and why he can have a stone statue turn into a living woman, with her full memory and personality intact, plus even 16 years of age added to her face.  Paulina is so careful to lay these details out that some critics have argued that Hermione actually never died and was just kept in hiding by Paulina all these years.  Leontes asks to see her body in Act III, Scene II, however, so unless Paulina had access to some of that fake-death potion from Romeo & Juliet, it seems like Hermione was truly dead and there's magic afoot.  Also, if Hermione really was just in hiding for 16 years, I think her attitude towards Leontes would be less loving forgiveness and more capital-V Vengeance, no matter if Perdita had been found.

* = Julio Romano, a famous artist of the early 1500's, is name-dropped as the sculptor behind the Hermione statue, which is very out of place given the play's indeterminate time period.  This is the Shakespearean equivalent of the court dancing to David Bowie music in A Knight's Tale.  

** = The turn between the two 'moods' of the play is symbolized in the silliest possible way in Act III, Scene III when Antigonus is EATEN BY A BEAR!  What the what?!  His ship was wrecked in the storm anyways, couldn't Shakespeare just have had Antigonus get back onto it and THEN the ship is lost, rather than having Antigonus suffer such a hilarious fate?  Maybe all literary characters whose names begin with 'Antigon' are doomed.

All in all I'm pretty torn on Winter's Tale.  I just couldn't get on board with the last two acts, given the major shift in tone (and, possibly, the fact that Autolycus' antics fell pretty flat with me) and yet the first three acts are just so, so good.  It's almost like a horror movie, as while Leontes' jealousy isn't really explained, it escalates in such fashion that even the other characters are shocked at the lengths to which the king is going to erase his perceived cuckoldry.  Leontes' lunacy is countered by the tremendous characters of Hermione and Paulina, two of Shakespeare's better female roles.  I'm not picking the plays in any particular order in this Re-Read series so it's only by coincidence that I've thus far dealt with a number of plays that center around male jealousy and cuckoldry.  The common thread thus far was that the topic was almost entirely approached from the male perspective, so it was refreshing to have a scene like Hermione's "trial" where the woman actually gets a chance to defend herself against such charges, not to mention Paulina's bravery in openly calling Leontes on his nonsense.  

I almost feel like someone should do a reverse Tate on the story and omit the happy ending, just cutting things off after Act III and leaving one sliver of hope as Perdita is found by the shepherd.  Ooh, wait, adopted by a shepherd?  Biblical allegory!  That's gold, Jerry, gold!  That ending perfectly sets up Winter's Tale II: Perdita's Revenge!

(A note about the picture choice for this post.  Former Toronto FC head coach Aron Winter admittedly has nothing to do with the play, aside from his name and from the fact that TFC's 2012 season was awfully tragic.  But hey, what the hell, if Julio Romero can be inserted into the play itself, I can insert a picture of a failed soccer coach into a post about a 500-year-old play.  Deal with it.)


6. Much Ado About Nothing
5. Coriolanus
4. The Comedy Of Errors
3. The Winter's Tale
2. A Midsummer Night's Dream
1. Othello

Two of my New Year's resolutions for 2012 were to lose 38 pounds and to re-read (and in some cases, read for the first time) all 38 of William Shakespeare's plays.  Well, 2012 ended and I'm 0-for-2, but still, onward and upward.  And, since in these modern times it's impossible to undertake a personal project without blogging about it, here are a series of reviews/personal observances I'll make about the plays.  Well, 'reviews' is a bit of a stretch.  It's William goddamn Shakespeare.  What am I going to tell you, "Don't bother reading this one, folks!  What a stinker!  Ol' Mark doesn't like it, so you should definitely believe ME over 400 years of dramatic criticism!"

It's better that you read these instead of waiting for a weight-loss blog, since brother, that ain't happening.  The 'before' picture alone would break the internet.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Who's Filming The Office (And Do We Care)?

So last night we saw the fourth wall come down on The Office.  Well, I guess maybe the third-and-a-half wall…it's not like we saw Greg Daniels pop on camera and say, "Great take Jenna, that's a wrap."  Anyway, I'll recap the situation just in case you gave up on the show post-Steve Carell, a decision that I can't really blame you for making. 

The main story arc of this season has been Jim working part-time at a new job in Philadelphia, a job that he wasn't totally upfront with Pam about taking in the first place, and the two of them are struggling with him being away most of the time and (not a minor point) having a significant amount of their money invested in this new business.  Things all finally came to a head in this most recent episode, when Jim & Pam had a big fight over the phone, leading to Pam just breaking down in tears after hanging up, a scene that Jenna Fischer really knocked out of the park.

Then things got weird.  As you know, the gimmick of The Office is that we're seeing a documentary about the lives of the Dunder-Mifflin employees.  We've seen this narrative conceit get incorporated into the plot a few times over the years, but in this particular case, the documentary crew actually halts filming while one of the sound guys comes over to see if Pam is okay.  It's the first time we've actually seen the crew directly interact with one of the character and the first time we've actually seen them on camera, to boot.  Needless to say, it was a jarring moment, made even moreso by the fact that it was coming immediately after a raw moment between Pam & Jim.

I'm of two minds about this development.  On the one hand, you could argue that it's a very fresh angle to take on a show that, in its ninth and final season, has pretty much exhausted all possible storylines.  The "documentary" is not a new twist, of course, since it's been a part of the show since day one, so naturally it would make some sense to resolve why, exactly, Dunder-Mifflin was being filmed anyway.  (The Onion has touched on this.)

On the other hand….geez, it really was jarring, wasn't it?  It's one thing to peripherally acknowledge the documentary crew, it's another thing to actually see them in action.  Other shows that use a mockumentary format (Arrested Development, Modern Family, Parks & Recreation) just use it as a format, without any conceit that it's actually a documentary about the extended Pritchett family or Pawnee City Hall.  Aside from those characters having talking-head interviews or making JimFace reaction shots at the camera, there's no sign* that a documentary crew actually exists in those realities.  Even if you take into account that such filmmakers pride themselves on their non-involvement, suddenly The Office has about a thousand plot holes if the crew is a living, breathing entity.  They didn't get involved when, say, Angela tried to hire a hitman to kill Oscar earlier this season?  Half the cast has been cheated on or been cheating at some point in the series, so nobody got mad that these infidelities were filmed and not reported to them by a camera crew?  These guys never caught the Scranton Strangler* in the act?  Or hell, even in this very episode, the trigger for the Pam/Jim fight was that Pam had messed up filming their daughter's ballet recital and couldn't send the video to Jim; if they're so tight with the crew, couldn't Pam have just asked one of the camera guys to send Jim some footage? 

* = now that I think about it, I suspect AD probably did have a joke about the crew at some point or another, just because that show made meta-textual jokes about everything.

** = The Strangler has been mentioned so often that I'll bet he/she will be revealed as a known character before the end of the series.  Not a major character, but a supporting player who we've seen a few times but don't know much about.  Maybe Gabe, or Todd Packer, or one of the warehouse workers, or maybe Toby has a split personality like the guy on 'Do No Harm.'  Man, that show looks terrible.

It's a can of worms that The Office has chosen to open very late in the game, and while you could argue that it's the last season and all bets are off, it still seems like a pretty major element to bring into a show at this stage.  The quick reaction, naturally, is that we don't care about the documentarians --- we want to see how the characters resolve themselves, not deal with this huge new factor in the series with 10 episodes to go.  It makes me worry how far down the rabbit hole we're going to go here if we're delving into the documented nature of the show itself.  Is Brian the sound guy going to get a talking head where he discusses some of the footage "they" didn't show since it didn't fit the narrative?  You don't want to do something in the final few eps that makes us question (or essentially ruins) everything we've seen in the previous nine years.

So, presuming that Brian The Sound Guy doesn't end up being the 'face' of the documentary, let's move onto more pleasant thoughts.  Who would be the funniest possible choice to be revealed as the producer of this documentary?

* Christopher Guest, the modern master of the mockumentary format.

* Along those same lines, Rob Reiner, in character as Marty DiBergi from "This Is Spinal Tap."

* Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, playing two British dudes bemoaning the fact that they were stuck spending almost a full decade on a documentary about an American paper company for BBC9 or something.  It'd be a funny way to bring the series full circle with a nod to the original version, though I'm not sure the idea would work anymore since Gervais has actually been on the show as David Brent.

* Werner Herzog.  Needless to say, this is the best possible option.  Doesn't even matter if he's playing a character or playing himself.  I'm not just saying that because I'm a long-standing Herzog fan, but also because it actually makes sense.  If you told me tomorrow that Herzog had been filming the daily lives of paper company employees, I would totally believe it.  That guy's nuts. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Random Nonsense

If Jesus was into online dating, would he sign up with Christian Mingle or J-Date?  Plenty Of Fish is probably out since Jesus can whip up a plenty of fish anytime he wants.

"Forgettable" is usually used as an insult in reviews but what if an album is perfectly good, but just….I dunno, forgettable?  Case in point, Ben Harper's "Diamonds On The Inside" record.  I got the disc about 10 years ago to review for my student newspaper, really enjoyed it, gave it a nice write-up and then proceeded to forget about its existence.  Flash-forward two years or so when I find the album on my shelf and it's a happy surprise, since I'd literally forgotten I owned it.  It was like hearing it again for the first time.

This pattern basically has repeated itself every couple of years.  I remember a few specific songs on the record but that's it, so it's virtually a totally fresh experience upon every listen.  That said, is it also a mark against DOIT if it so utterly fails to make any kind of lasting impression?  It's like eating a cucumber; tastes great, always look forward to it as a topping, but never personally buy them from a grocer and frankly, don't think it would impact my life if I never ate one again.

Note to self: come up with some kind of Game Of Thrones parody based on household furniture.  As in, couches, fridges, chairs, flooring, etc. are all sentient and belong to the House Of House.  "The Wall" can still be a thing in this reality, just make it the actual walls of the house.  Plot point: the treacherous stairs try to kill the homeowner but he literally hangs on for dear life after grabbing the railing.  The railings themselves have their issues with the homeowner but had to protect him since "a bannister always pays its debt."

From Grantland, Rembert Browne has a tournament bracket to determine the greatest Chappelle's Show sketch of all time.  Using this piece as a guide to go back and watch old Chappelle skits is a great way to kill time during a slow afternoon.  Browne's choice as the winner is an excellent one, but I think he gave Playa Hater's Ball the short shrift.  I mean, he actually named the brackets after the characters from the sketch! 

Put it this way, Johnny Cash's last name literally meant money, so you could argue that he could've had the most semi-legit reason to change the 'S' in his last name to a dollar sign.  Yet, he stayed away.  So, to musicians who use the dollar sign/S affectation (Ma$e, Ke$ha, A$AP Rocky, etc.), are you claiming you have more sense than Johnny Cash? 

Top eleven actors with the most infectious real-life laughs, as gleaned from watching sitcom blooper reels on YouTube…

11. Cobie Smulders
10. Jemaine Clement
9. John Krasinski
8. Max Greenfield
7. Nick Offerman
6. Jason Alexander
5. Amy Poehler
4. Dermot Mulroney
3. Julia Louis-Dreyfus
2. Lauren Stamile (Professor Slater on Community)
1. Lisa Kudrow

Friday, January 18, 2013

A Lazy NHL Prediction

The Kings?  My logic is that since they won the Stanley Cup last year, they should be in good position to win it again this year.  It's THAT kind of analysis that makes me a professional sportswriter, folks.

My Kings pick is also somewhat motivated by history, as the Kings are positioned as the only team who could win the Cup this year without it feeling pretty cheap.  Like, imagine if you're, say, the St. Louis Blues --- would you want the first Cup in your franchise's history to come in a 48-game Coles Note of a season?  The answer to that is yes, obviously of course they would, they want to finally win a frickin' championship, but I think everyone else would put a mental asterisk* on this achievement.  And god help us all if the Leafs somehow won a Cup this season; if anything, this would give the haters even more ammo.  

* = This is the first time I've ever put an asterisk after the actual word 'asterisk.'  Anyway, sports history has been kind to winners of other lockout-shortened seasons since those champions ended up having mini-dynasties.  Nobody looks down on the Devils' 1994-95 Stanley Cup since they won two more Cups in the next decade, and nobody derides the Spurs' 1999 NBA title since that was but the first of four championships in an eight-year span.  The Heat's championship last year, as well, was hailed both since a) people decided they liked LeBron again after ripping hiim mercilessly for the previous three years and b) people figure Miami is good for at least another title or two as long as LeBron in the fold.  With this in mind, maybe we should project this year's Stanley Cup winner as hockey's best team of the 10's.

Fortunately, I think we can safely write off the Leafs, Oilers and any other mediocre club whose fans think that this lockout season will be so crazy and unpredictable that an underachieving team could sneak into the playoffs and go on a run.  It's not going to be THAT unpredictable.  The best teams on paper will likely still be the best teams and one of the ten preseason favourites will end up with the Cup.  While something like a Blue Jackets/Maple Leafs final would be insane enough to stoke the dying embers of my Leafs fandom, I think we'd also agree that such a result would kill whatever credibility this season (and really, the NHL) has left.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Packers Postmortem

The (sadly pretty much) annual Packers postmortem is a day late this year, not because I've been locked in a windowless padded room for the last 24 hours but rather because I spent the weekend in Whitby with my old team-up buddy Kyle and his adorable family.  Their house, while very nice, is very lacking in windowless padded rooms, so I was forced to just accept Green Bay's loss like a man.  Damn you maturity, you're no fun.  Anyway, I've traced the Packers' defeat to three possible reasons…

1. A few months ago I was watching a Thursday night football game in a pub when the waitress asked if I wanted to participate in the bar's regular football trivia contest, where the winner would win one of several NFL shirts hung around the room.  I agreed and somehow won the thing despite knowing relatively little about the histories of the Vikings or the Buccaneers (@humblebrag).  While there was a Green Bay hoodie available, I actually had my eye on a 49ers sweater given that my buddy Trev's birthday was coming up and he's a San Francisco fan.  So I'd made my choice…but the waitress had already brought me the Packer hoodie since she judged by my Packer toque that I was a Green Bay fan.  Since an exchange would've made her climb up on the ladder again to get the 49ers sweater, I just kept my mouth shut and accepted the hoodie.  Clearly this was bad karma and had I insisted on the San Francisco sweater for Trevor, the butterfly effect would've seen to it that Alex Smith remained the Niners' quarterback and Saturday's result would've been different.

2. I left my traditional lucky Cheesehead back in London, so I wasn't able to bust out my tactic of putting the Cheesehead on if the Pack are losing or facing a tough situation in the second half of a game.  To recap, my garment-related Packers superstitions include the Cheesehead, always wearing at least one item of Packer clothing on game days, and wearing boxer shorts in the colours of the opposing team, just for variety (and because one man can only own so many green-and-gold-coloured underwear).

3. The 49ers are just a better team than Green Bay.  If you can believe it, this might've had more to do with the outcome of the game than ANY of my clothing choices.  San Fran pretty much dismantled the Packers back in Week One and I'm not sure why I'd convinced myself that Green Bay would fare better four months later, especially when the Niners were, if anything, even more dangerous with Kaepernick as quarterback.  It's not like the Packers had suddenly proven themselves to not wilt against physical teams* or against teams with mobile quarterbacks.**  I said all season long that the two teams I was terrified for Green Bay to face in the playoffs were the Giants and 49ers and lo and behold, the 49ers came up big.

* = the Bears don't count, the Packers own the Bears.
** = Joe Webb doesn't count because LOL Joe Webb.

As confident as I was in the Packers' chances of beating anyone besides those two clubs, I didn't have nearly the confidence in the Pack in 2012 that I did last season.  Despite all of the 2011 team's flaws, I thought they had a legit shot to repeat as champions, though in hindsight the 15-1 record was a bit of a mirage.  This year, however, the flaws were all more or less still there but hidden by the fact that Green Bay had a pretty easy schedule (thank you AFC South).  The Packers were 11-5 overall but just 4-5 against teams with winning records, and even two of those wins were against Chicago, which barely count since Green Bay just seems to have the Bears' number.

Here are those flaws, in order of importance.  A swiss cheese offensive line; yet another season of next-to-no production from the running back position; Mason Crosby inexplicably becoming the worst kicker in the league for about 12 weeks before pulling himself together by the end of the season; a defence that (while improved from 2012) was still far from a strength and was thin in the middle beyond Clay Matthews (Desmond Bishop being injured for the season was a major and underrated loss for Green Bay); injuries to key receivers that essentially kept Aaron Rodgers without a full complement of weapons for the entire seasons; Mike McCarthy's continuing inability to make in-game adjustments in the face of major obstacles, as we saw last week when Kaepernick kept running and running and Green Bay had no way of countering.

It's going to be a busy postseason in Green Bay since all of these areas have to be addressed, aside from I guess McCarthy's game management since it's not like they're going to fire him or anything.  This is probably it for Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and Jermichael Finley as Packers, so Rodgers will need some fresh weapons next year to go alongside James Jones, Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson.  The O-line needs major help since keeping Rodgers healthy is of paramount importance to the team, not to mention getting a solid running game to keep the Packers from becoming even more one-dimensional than they already are.  The D still has holes, to boot.  As much as Ted Thompson hates signing free agents, it might behoove the Packers to spend some money since they have more holes than can be filled via internal promotions and the draft.

The Packers will be competitive for as long as they have Rodgers, and this year did bring some good news for the future in the form of Jones' and Cobb's breakout years plus a great rookie season from Casey Hayward.  This is now two straight years, however, where Green Bay has fallen to most complete teams in the playoffs and they can't keep just relying on Rodgers (or my clothes superstitions) to bail them out.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Other People's Writing

After two whole days of posting in 2013, I'm exhausted.  (Resolution to be less lazy = shattered.)  Time to turn it over to other folks for this content.

* Ever notice that the local newspaper in Back To The Future had a really weird set of editorial priorities?  Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine did, as he explores the consistently poor headline choices of the Hill Valley Telegraph.  Reason #810684 why the Internet is awesome: you can openly throw shade on fictional newspapers.

* Deadspin's Ben Robinson breaks down how he and his friends plotted to get onto The Price Is Right.  I'm glad that the current generation still holds TPIR in some regard, as I feel my Generation Y-ers more or less jumped ship after Bob Barker retired.  The 'How I Met Your Mother' episode devoted to Barney's quest to dominate the show and meet Barker represented pretty much the high point of this Gen-Y phenomenon.  Heck, I even remember writing a short story for high school English class about a guy who obsessed over the show and was mentally ruined when he couldn't get out of Contestant's Row.  The title of said story?  "Rice's Plight."  I felt like that bit of wordplay was worth an A+ in and of itself but I got a measly A.  Thanks for nothing, Ms. Patterson!  #firstworldproblems

* Grantland's Bryan Curtis interviews Jim "Lee Child" Grant, author of the Jack Reacher novels.  It's an interesting look behind this apparently very popular book series that I had no idea existed until the recent (pretty decent) Tom Cruise action flick was released.  I kind of wish Curtis had asked why Grant went with the 'Jack Reacher' name, since it sounds so weirdly Dickensian, rather than the name of a tough-as-nail nomad hero.

* A hilarious story about the late Larry Hagman, as told by longtime TV writer Mark Evanier on his blog.  I've got to say, as cool as Hagman comes off in this story, I have some questions.  What's with the whole "only whistling on Sundays" thing?  I love how Evanier kind of just brushes over that and uses it as a punchline, but man, that's a weird-ass superstition.  Couldn't this have been adopted for an episode of Dallas?  Like, J.R. suffers a throat injury and can only communicate through whistling for a while?  And then he regains his speech just in time to get revenge on the man who injured his throat with a ring bell, the "Macho Man" Randy Savage.  Wait, I may be getting my 1980's iconography confused.

* Grantland's Brian Phillips heads to the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas and ohmygod is it weird.  As Phillips himself notes in the story, here is a subsection of humanity that he had no experience at all with and had little idea existed, yet it's fascinating to read about.

* Ever hear of Vasili Arkhipov?  Oh, he was nobody special, he just SAVED THE WORLD FROM NUCLEAR WAR.  Arkhipov has been the subject of a recent documentary about his unheralded but critical role in world history and The Guardian's Edward Wilson outlines the details. 

* As usual, I've got an oral history for you and it's a bit of an old one.  From all the way back in 2011, here's Amos Barshad of New York Magazine delivering the history of the Beastie Boys by talking to the band themselves and virtually everyone ever associated with them.  It's a bittersweet piece now in the wake of MCA's death last year.

* Finally we have my favourite piece of the bunch, a look at professional pickpocket/entertainer Apollo Robbins by The New Yorker's Adam Green.  Just a very cool bit of work, and if you aren't fired up to see Robbins' act after reading this, I don't know what to tell you.  As entertaining as this story is, it's also terrifying.  I wear cargo pants, like, regularly --- am I just a sitting duck for pickpockets?  Should I just start wearing only a money clip, a la my posh buddy Trev?  I kid you not, Trevor has a money clip, top hat, bejewelled cane, and a full tuxedo on at all times. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Oscar Nomination Reactions

A few comments on this morning's Academy Award nominations, as we now live in a world where Seth MacFarlane is an Oscar nominee….

* If there was any doubt that Lincoln was the front-runner for Best Picture, this morning's noms confirmed it.  Probably the next two biggest contenders (Zero Dark Thirty, Argo) were dealt crippling blows in the director category, clearing the way for Spielberg's good but not great movie to take the prize.

* As noted, Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck weren't nominated for Best Director, which easily stand as the two most surprising snubs of the day.  It was a very deep and varied list of Best Director contenders this year and you knew that a few big names weren't going to make the cut, but the one thing that everyone seemed to agree upon was that Bigelow, Affleck and Spielberg were the locks and everyone else was fighting for the other two nominee slots.  In the end, however, KB and BA both were sent packing, along with the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Tom Hooper (the other two directors of Best Picture nominees who didn't get recognized) and the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson. 

* Of the two Andersons, at least Wes (and Roman Coppola) got screenplay nominations for Moonrise Kingdom, whereas PT got jack-all.  Can't say I'm too broken up given how The Master didn't go anywhere.  Though I didn't really like the movie, I would've been weirdly okay with PT Anderson getting a directing nomination for it, which I blame on my film studies education.

* So if Argo, ZDT and Les Miserables have all been chopped down as Lincoln's top opponents, can any of the other nominees stop it?  Beasts of the Southern Wild won't garner wide BP support, but even getting a nomination is a monster achievement for this oddity indie movie.  Amour also got a lot of love in the nominations but unless the elderly Academy voters really take to the story of old love, it's probably out (Michael Haneke is now the fave for original screenplay, however). 

* This leaves Life Of Pi and the Silver Linings Playbook.  It struck me as odd that Life Of Pi flew under the radar for as long as it did, given the huge popularity of the book, the big-name talent of Ang Lee attached to direct and the general sense that it would be nominated for something but wasn't a serious contender.  Well, 11 nominations later, I think we can officially call it a serious contender.  SLP got a bit of history itself going when it became the first movie in 31 years to get nominations for picture, director, screenplay and all four acting categories.  Clearly the Academy loves it, Jennifer Lawrence is probably going to win Best Actress and it is possible that voters will end up going with the quirky comedy over Spielberg's history lesson.

* This said, while there's officially no reason Argo, Django, ZDT or Les Mis couldn't still win Best Picture, the last film to do so without its director getting nominated was Driving Miss Daisy back in 1989.  I'd say that all four of those movies have no shot at the top prize, which is a shame since at least two will end up amongst the leaders in my own Markademy Awards coming up in February.

* Argo's nomination for Best Picture did clinch a bit of Academy Award trivia for George Clooney, who was one of the film's producers.  Clooney has now been nominated as a producer, director, lead actor, supporting actor and screenwriter, the first person to ever be recognized in all five categories.  It's an even more elite list if you factor in his People Magazine's Sexiest Man Of The Year award, which naturally every serious Oscar historian does.

* Meryl Streep made history last year when she cracked the prestigious "three Oscar" club, joining Ingrid Bergman, Jack Nicholson, Walter Brennan and Katherine Hepburn as the only actors to win three or more Oscars for acting.  This year, a whopping four actors have a chance to join this club, as Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, Sally Field and Robert De Niro all have a shot at Oscar #3.  I'm not sure Academy members really have history and Oscar statistics weighing on their minds then they cast their ballots, but you wonder if some history-minded voters will hesitate to vote for DDL or Field (the only two who have legit shots at a win) just because they think it's too soon for either to join the three-Oscar club.  In Field's case, she would be a stunning 3-for-3 in Oscars.  While they like her, they really like her (and her name isn't as out of place as Brennan's in that elite list), it would still seem weird to have Sally Field as, statistically, the most awarded performer in Academy history.

* It's overall a very familiar list of actors, as only four of the 20 acting nominees were being nominated for the first time.  The entire supporting actor field, for instance, is comprised of former winners, which I think is the first time this has ever happened.

* My man Greg P. Russell is back!  The hard-luck soundman has picked up his 16th nomination as he is on a quest for his first-ever Academy Award.  What are his chances?  Probably shitty, given history.

* Russell was nominated for Skyfall, as was cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is looking for his first Oscar in his 10th nomination.  I confess to not knowing much about the sound effects world so I have no idea if Russell has been snubbed on merit or what, but since I have eyes, I can safely say that Deakins should probably have a couple of Oscars already.  That said, his losing streak will probably continue as Claudio Miranda (Life Of Pi) should have this category wrapped up.

* Okay, so, more snubs.  Christoph Waltz was Django's only acting nominee, leaving Leonardo DiCaprio and (my favourite of the bunch) Samuel L. Jackson out in the cold.  My man John Hawkes sadly didn't get nominated for his tremendous performance in The Sessions.  My girl Marion Cotillard was cited on virtually every critics' list for her performance in Rust & Bone get didn't get an Oscar nod; I haven't seen R&B yet but given my history with Ms. Cotillard, I suspect I'll soon be a lot more upset about her snub.  Perhaps unsurprisingly given its mixed reaction, personal favourite Cloud Atlas didn't get nominated for anything.  A little more surprisingly, Dark Knight Rises was also shut out completely, even in the technical categories, thus finalizing the Academy's semi-annual slap in the face to Christopher Nolan.  In my mind, Anne Hathaway was nominated just as much for DKR as she was for Les Mis, but then again, my mind is a bizarre and frightful place.

* Just so nobody is too horrified, MacFarlane was only nominated as a co-writer of a best original song nominee.  Don't worry, it's not like he's up for Best Actor for Ted or something.  (Also, I can't help but think that MacFarlane is going to be a kickass Oscar host.  He can sing, he's funny, and it's hard to pull off a live-action cutaway gag.)

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The Streak, 2.0

So after my little posting break to begin 2013, I was all set to talk about a personal achievement when I suddenly realized that I'd basically written the post already, two-plus years ago.  You see, I recently completed a rare 17-0 season in a survival (or "suicide," if you're less PC) football league.  I don't want to rank myself amongst the great streaks in sports history, but let's just say that if Rocky Marciano was around today, even he would say his perfect boxing record was garbage in comparison.  Managing to always beat some of history's greatest boxers versus picking one football game a week from the comfort of my home laptop?  Pfft, no contest.  Take a seat, Rocky.

But remember, it was back in December 2010 when I wrote about my 15-week run in a suicide football pool.  Many of my strategies that I wrote about then were duplicated this year --- I identified early who the best teams in the league were and who were the worst were and just rode those teams accordingly.  Especially the worst teams.  Of my 17 wins, over half came from picking against the Jaguars, Chiefs, Eagles and Raiders alone.  You may recall that I picked the Raiders to make the playoffs in my preseason NFL picks but yeah, I leapt off that bandwagon quickly.  (By the way, going perfect in a survival league essentially counters my Raiders pick, leaving your appreciation of my football knowledge at exactly the same level as it was before looking at those two posts.  Even steven.)

The rules of survival football: you have to just pick the result of just one game per week, just a straight win-or-loss without a point spread involved.  If you get your game wrong, you're out.  The trick is that you can only pick a team once per season, so you have to be somewhat clever with how you apportion your use of the league's top clubs.  For instance, whereas in past years I just stuck to a 'pick the best team and worry about it later' strategy, this year I purposely avoided a couple of the better clubs until nearer to the end of the season.  For instance, I didn't use the Broncos until Week 12 or the Patriots until Week 16, giving me a couple of big bullets left in the proverbial chamber.

Two caveats to my extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime 17-0 season.  Firstly, I was in three survival leagues this year and crashed early out of the other two.  Secondly, SO MANY of my 17 wins were too close for comfort.  Of those 17 wins, only three were by more than 10 points.  There were way, way too many weeks when my picks played with fire, even when it was a terrific game against an utter dog.  Those Broncos and Patriots picks, by the way, were Denver's 17-9 win over the useless Chiefs and New England's 23-16 victory over the worthless Jaguars, so my "brilliant" idea to keep good teams in storage almost backfired horribly.

Part of me wants to just retire from survival leagues now that I've dreamed the impossible dream of 17-0 but nuts to that.  The challenge will now be to carry this streak into the 2013 football season and see just how long I can get.  Twenty wins in a row?  Twenty-five?  Thirty?  TWO STRAIGHT perfect seasons?  If I do that, I believe I'll win a five percent share of Yahoo stock, though I may have to re-check the rules and regulations of Yahoo fantasy sports.  If I do manage two perfect seasons and end up rubbing elbows with Yahoo's board of directors, I probably won't forget about it and write another post in two years about another meaningless fantasy sport achievement.