Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Devouring "Serial"

I wouldn't say that LOST was my favourite TV show of all time, yet I was surely more into it than any other show I've ever watched.  By 'into,' I mean that in terms of discussing the show, reading about it online, arguing about theories and all of the other methods that mark 21st century pop culture fandom, I clearly spent more time on LOST than any other program, by far.  I wouldn't necessarily say that talking about the show was more fun than actually watching it (say what you will about the show "not answering enough questions" or not ending on a strong note, but LOST certainly delivered more than enough tremendous episodes to reward all of this fan obsession) but all of the theorization took on a separate life of its own.  For those who are just watching LOST for the first time now, I daresay that something would be missing from the overall experience by being years removed from all of the crazy internet message board speculation. 

This came to mind when I was listening to 'Serial,' the Sarah Koenig podcast that has become incredibly popular over the last months and developed its own world of online analysis (most notably on Reddit).  For those unaware of the podcast, a recap: Koenig is researching and investigating the murder of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore teenager killed in January 1999.  Adnan Syed, Lee's ex-boyfriend, was convicted of the murder and is still in jail to this day, and Koenig was first made aware of the case by an advocate who believes Syed is innocent and was railroaded by the criminal justice system.  Over each of the 12 episodes, Koenig looks at a different aspect of the original crime and Syed's subsequent trial.  It's about as exhaustive a look as can be expected, though there are naturally some major omissions --- Koenig's interview requests were declined by several major witnesses, the investigating detectives and the state prosector, plus Syed's defence attorney died several years ago.

Let's be clear, something like LOST is a fictional show, and Serial is a real-life situation.  It feels weird to say I'm a "fan" of Serial, per se, since obviously I take no enjoyment in this horrible crime.  It's very much worth noting that Hae Min Lee's family also declined to speak to Koenig, and one has to figure they're more than a little unsettled by her murder suddenly becoming a pop culture hot topic.  This isn't a "who killed Laura Palmer?" or "who shot J.R." --- Hae Min Lee was an actual person and deserves more than to be simply defined by her murder.

This being said, if you're going to spend a bunch of time analyzing something, there's more benefit to trying to figure out a violent crime than there is in, say, arguing about what the Smoke Monster is.  There has been an incredible amount of amateur sleuthing about every aspect of Serial, from looking at public record documents of Syed's trial to minute analysis of the cellphone records that form such a key part of the case.  Of course, this type of crowd-sourced detective work has led to no end of alternate theories and, frankly, some crackpot theories that would seem silly if they weren't making allegations about actual peoples' lives.

While Koenig was initially approached about the case as a way to exonerate Syed, she took a more pragmatic approach.  The very nature of the podcast seems to be an argument that Syed is innocent and that Serial is about discovering what REALLY happened, yet as the weeks went on, Koenig was careful to remain as neutral as possible.  Her final conclusion in the last episode was that Syed shouldn't have been convicted in court due to the very thin evidence presented at trial, though that doesn't necessarily mean Syed is actually innocent of the crime.  She quite openly admitted her own flip-flopping opinions of the case, thinking at certain points that Syed was innocent and at other times finding some pretty damning pieces of evidence.*

* = For all of the Serial critics who claim that the podcast is "championing a murderer," keep in mind that perhaps the biggest anti-Adnan point (producer Dana's "if he's innocent, then he must be the unluckiest person in the world for ALL of this stuff to go against him on that day" argument) was saved for the last 20 minutes of the last episode, almost as sort of a concluding statement.  I thought the placement of Dana's argument to be very telling and perhaps a hint as to the producers' true feelings about the case, though they didn't want to outright say it because everything was so circumstantial.

This unsettled nature only added to why the podcast was so fascinating.  Since it was real life, there was no promise of actual answers or a big conclusion in the final episode, and in general, there were stunningly few actual facts established about the case over the 12 episodes.  Almost every bit of evidence was circumstantial, leading to endless speculation about any tidbit of information --- a call pinging off a certain cellphone tower could be interpreted by some as proof that Syed is guilty, or interpreted by others as proof of his innocence.  Adding to the confusion and meta nature of Serial was that it was still evolving as the actual podcast was airing.  Koenig was still writing the episodes in real time, leading to things like other sources (Hae's then-boyfriend, a co-worker of sole witness Jay) coming forward to speak after hearing earlier episodes and wanting to clear some things up or add new details.  Of course, one could also note that these sources have now been influenced by Serial itself; perhaps their stories would've been different had they been willing to talk to Koenig when she was "just a reporter" initially, not to "a reporter on a nationally-known podcast."

It's for these reasons of source bias that I wonder how difficult it will be for Koenig and company to create their second season of Serial next fall.  Unless they've started already (which seems unlikely given how they were still so deep in the Hae Min Lee case), whatever case or story they choose to examine next will invariably now be impacted by the fact that Serial is now a thing.  I guess this doesn't necessarily make it different than any other news program, though there'd certainly be more internet focus on the subject of the next Serial rather than, say, the subject of a random 60 Minutes story. 

I actually wonder if the next series could almost be a continuation of the Hae Min Lee investigation, since the case just keeps evolving.  Thanks to Serial, Syed's case was taken on by The Innocence Project, and Syed is also trying to get an appeal heard in court.  There's also the fact that Jay has now gone on record with The Intercept, another media outlet, giving his side on the case (and providing, by the way, yet another timeline of what happened on 1/13/1999).  The whole thing is so fluid that you wonder if Koenig will, at the very least, give us one more episode to see how things have developed, or if the Innocence Project's requests for DNA testing on Hae's body reveals something truly earth-shattering.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

After Randomly Watching 'American Pie' On TV Last Night...

….I've decided it's time to update the career power rankings for the cast.  I last addressed this topic in February 2011 after a long chat with my friends, and while we were all in unanimous agreement on the top two, there was a ton of dispute about everyone else.  After a few more years of evaluation, some of the actors have continued to do jack-all in terms of notable roles, while a couple of others have gotten back into the game thanks to one particular show.  There was also the actual fourth AP movie, "American Reunion," that actually included all 10 of the principles but that doesn't really count in the rankings if that's *all* they've been doing.

(n.b. watching "American Pie" a whopping 15 years after its original release is quite an experience.  The fact that it's 25% dated and 25% unintentionally hilarious thanks to cheesiness and terrible acting actually only adds to the charm, since the other 50% generally holds up pretty well.  Also, for some reason, I can recall every single lyric from the song 'Laid.'  Who knew that James was good for something besides a completely un-Googlable band name?)

To recap the rules, we were counting just the core 10 kids from the original movie.  This discounted the likes of Eugene Levy and Jennifer Coolidge, not to mention actors with minor parts like John Cho, Casey Affleck or Christina Milian.  Including those five would really blow the rankings out of whack, considering that Cho and Affleck could possibly be the top two, and those guys don't exactly leap to mind when you think of 'American Pie.'  Onto the new rating!

10. Shannon Elizabeth (previous ranking: 7)
9. Thomas Ian Nicholas (8): The bottom five are all rather in the same boat as actors who have been pretty consistently working, so I'm forced to just essentially rank how large and notable the parts were.  Elizabeth goes last since she's been in virtually nothing of note, with ol' Rowengartner himself a close second-last. 

8. Chris Klein (4): Klein's first two roles were major parts in AP and "Election," so I guess he couldn't help but go downhill from there.  His hopes of becoming a major lead were probably scotched by the "Rollerball" remake --- Bill Simmons (of all people) put it best when he noted that Klein comes off a poor man's Keanu Reeves, which isn't a very high ceiling.     

7. Eddie Kaye Thomas (5)
6. Mena Suvari (9)
: A couple of grinders, just puttin' in work in show after show in minor guest roles.  They go ahead of Elizabeth, TIN and Klein on sheer volume if nothing else.  Fun fact, I had no idea that Thomas has been a voice on 'American Dad' for years and I've seen literally every episode of that show.  Also, I couldn't help but lump these two together due to the American Pie/American Dad/American Beauty connection.  Hell, Klein was in 'American Dreamz,' maybe I should've lumped I'm in here too.  Suvari gets the edge since she at least has "major part in a Best Picture winner" on her resume.

5. Tara Reid (6): This was a tough one to evaluate.  Remember, the goal is to rank everyone's post-AP career over the 15 years in total, not just where they are right now.  Reid scored some notable parts in the years immediately after AP and then, welllll, there was the whole "became a living joke" thing.  Still, you could argue she should be even higher if you're one of those who thinks that there's no such thing as bad publicity.  Consider that in terms of name value, most people can identify Tara Reid by name.  If you say to someone, "hey, how about that Eddie Kaye Thomas," they won't know who the hell you're talking about.

4. Natasha Lyonne (10): Hindsight being 20-20, she deserved to be higher than tenth last time since she was still working pretty steadily, despite some Reid-esque tabloid issues.  But, let's be honest, she makes the big leap this time due to "Orange Is The New Black."  Major supporting role on a hugely popular and critically-acclaimed show?  That's easily enough to shoot up the ladder.

3. Jason Biggs (3): He retains his ranking also thanks in large part to OITNB, even though his character is easily the least-interesting element of the show.  Biggs had his share of lead roles in the wake of American Pie, though things were just starting to slow down for him before OITNB came along.

2. Seann William Scott (2): I mentioned the name-value thing earlier on, and admittedly that's a bit of a weak argument considering that 85% of the world would identify Scott only as 'Stifler' at all times.  Despite that, this dude's been (borderline inexplicably) pulling down notable movie roles for years now, so he has a firm grasp on the #2 slot.

1. Alyson Hannigan (1): She was already on Buffy when AP was released, so she admittedly had something of a head start on the rest of her castmates.  But following Buffy up with How I Met Your Mother was just piling on…major roles on not one, but two of the notable TV series of the last 20 years?  Game over man, game over.  According to IMDB, Hannigan and Bill Paxton have never worked together, so I'm not really sure why I used that line, but whatever.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas!

If you watched basically any TV show from 1940 to 1998, you saw Eric Christmas' face.

Christmas trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, gained experience in English repertory theatre in 1936, and had a principal role in the London production of Noel Coward's "Bitter Sweet" in the 1930s. During the Second World War, he was a member of Royal Air Force production units and performed in the RAF's Gang Show. After moving to Canada in 1948, he started a long association with television comedians Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster, playing the character Madam Hooperdink. His own show "Christmas is Coming" toured Canada in the 1950s. He was artistic director at the Ottawa Repertory Company in 1954 and ran the Peterborough Summer Theatre that year. He began a long association with Canada's Stratford Festival in 1957, performing in 12 seasons and 21 Shakespearean productions until 1970. It was Christmas and a group of veteran actors like William Hutt, Tony Van Bridge, Jean Gascon, Douglas Rain, Amelia Hall, and Mervyn Blake (among others) who helped define Stratford in its early years. His final appearance at Stratford was 1987, when he played Dogberry in "Much Ado About Nothing." Christmas also had associations over the years with the Canadian Players, San Diego's Globe Theatre, and the drama department at the University of California at San Diego. He and his first wife had three children (Robin, Holly, Kailee), six grandchildren.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Random Nonsense

A quick Google search reveals I'm not the first clever wit to describe the show Gracepoint as 'Gracepointless' since it's such a needless remake of Broadchurch.  Then again, I feel safe in repeating the pun anyway since what the hell, needless copies are the theme of the day.

I'm late to the party on Broadchurch (having just watched the series on Netflix) so let me be just another voice to the overwhelming chorus of praise the show has received.  It definitely lends itself to a bingewatch --- having started one episode in mid-afternoon, I ended up watching the entire season before midnight since I am an absolute sucker for a) high-quality British TV, and b) mysteries.  It's probably natural for anyone who enjoys an original series to naturally balk at a remake, yet in the case of Gracepoint, I'm clearly not alone in wondering why FOX bothered with Americanizing the series.  It's 95% the same plot.  It's the same lead actor (David Tennant's entire involvement in Gracepoint makes little sense unless he's simply using it as a way to familiarize himself to the U.S. market).  Several of the scenes are shot and framed in the same way.  It's even mostly the exact same character names.

The whole idea of 'Americanizing' a movie or TV show seems quaint in today's media landscape.  Foreign shows aren't, pardon the pun, foreign to North America since so much is now available on platforms like Netflix.  FOX clearly thinks little of its audience if it presumes that Americans won't be able to fully grasp a mystery set in the far-off, alien land of….uh, England unless it's been translated into a U.S. setting.  I can't help but be reminded of David Fincher version of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a wholly pointless American adaptation of the novel that came barely two years after the Swedish adaptations of the entire trilogy.  For those who'd seen the Swedish movies, Fincher's movie couldn't have been any more unnecessary or, frankly, inferior given how well Noomi Rapace and company pulled it off.  (Even if the last two could've easily been combined into a single movie.)

If you've never heard of Broadchurch but enjoyed Gracepoint, drop everything and get caught up on the original.  Why bother with dinner theatre when Broadway is right there?

I'm including this link simply because I seem to be chronicling all of the Conan O'Brien/Jordan Schlansky interactions, though admittedly, this is one of the weaker instalments.

As poorly as the Packers offence played in Buffalo last week, I'm actually responsible for the team's loss.  I was out at a Boston Pizza to watch the game and, as part of a promotion, the restaurant had a Santa Claus in to entertain the children.  Once in a while Santa would stroll into the bar area to toss down three shots of Jack Daniels check on the football scores, and it turned out Santa was a big Bills fan.  Now, come on, what kind of bad karma is this?  I'm in the one bar in the world with a Bills-supporting Santa Claus?  Ugh.

I'm also responsible for that Leafs loss to the Hurricanes, as I recently dreamed that I flipped over to a Toronto/Carolina game and the Leafs had a 20-0 lead.  And after two periods!  Ok, so this one was slightly more unlikely, as you rarely see 20-0 hockey scores.  If one does happen, however, you can bet Korbinian Holzer will be playing for the losing team.  How can a guy with such a badass name be so terrible at hockey?

While we're on the subject of the Leafs, as a diehard fan, I'm obliged to hate everything about the Boston Bruins except a) Bobby Orr, b) that time Cam Neely beat the hell out of a turtling Claude Lemieux, and c) this kid.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Survivor Ratings: Natalie

As a big fan of The Amazing Race, few teams have annoyed me as much as Natalie & Nadiya Anderson, a.k.a. "The Twinnies," a.k.a. the twin sister duo who yammered and carried on like fools over two seasons of the show.  (Though they were the first one eliminated in their second appearance, thankfully.)  So it was with no small amount of surprise that I found myself really rooting for Natalie as she made her way through Survivor.  For the segment of the Survivor-watching fan populace that doesn't watch the Race, she seems to be one of the most popular players ever.

Then again, I think of how my brother and I would act if we were ever teamed in a race around the world, and if we lasted even a leg before coming to blows, it'd be a minor miracle.  Audiences would be left thinking, "geez, those two meatheads are in their 30's and they're still sniping and arguing like children."  So while Natalie's Survivor edit surely plays a role, I must admit that I look back on her Amazing Race performances with a bit more sympathy now.
How She Won: Technically you could say Natalie won via alliance, yet her original grouping of herself/Missy/Baylor/Jeremy/Julie (plus Jon & Jaclyn) sprung so many leaks along the way that it took some deft gameplay to avoid every problem.  For one, you had Julie quitting right after the merge.  Secondly, her group needed to woo the Jon/Jaclyn swing votes that led to Josh's ouster.  Then Natalie faced her biggest problem, which was that Jon/Jaclyn swung back to the other alliance to vote out Jeremy, her closest ally.  Rather than go vengeful at that point, however, Natalie decided revenge was a dish best served cold and bided her time to ditch Jon, instead using he and Jaclyn to get rid of Wes, Reed and Alec.

Remember, if it hadn't been for Natalie speaking up after Keith's "stick to the plan" goof at Tribal Council, Jon would've been blindsided out with an idol in his pocket and left Natalie/Jaclyn/Missy/Baylor going up evenly against Reed/Alec/Wes/Keith and being at a decided disadvantage in immunity challenges.  Natalie could've taken the easy short-term play of eliminating Jon then, but she took the longer view and it worked to her advantage.

After finally ditching Jon, she then went total ninja and voted out Baylor, who'd been her closest ally in the latter stage of the game.  It was an ice-cold move that was very well thought out --- after seeing how Missy turned on her allegedly tight pairing with Jon, Natalie was right to suspect that Missy might do the same to her.  (This move also undoubtedly won some jury votes given how unpopular Baylor and Missy seemed amongst the jury.)

Through two Blood vs. Water seasons now, I think it's fair to say that it's a real advantage to having your loved one eliminated early, or at least it's a disadvantage to still being in a twosome very deep into the game.  As we saw in S27, Tyson, Gervase and Monica essentially formed an alliance of 'singles' and rode it all the way to the end.  This season, Natalie lost Nadiya after the very first Tribal Council and never got any chance to actually play with her sister, though it likely helped her a ton when it came to the final moments.  Jon/Jaclyn and Missy/Baylor always had to keep one eye out for what their loved one was doing, whereas Natalie could focus entirely on herself and her own plans.

To that same end, I wonder if it isn't also generally a good thing to lose your alliance partner relatively early in the game, a la Natalie and Jeremy.  While Nat was surely annoyed by the play, Missy/Baylor weren't turning on her --- they were just getting rid of a big threat in Jeremy.  Frankly, Natalie herself probably looks to ditch Jeremy at some point down the line anyway.  That said, Missy/Baylor going behind Natalie's back to eliminate Jeremy made them dead to her, and merely game pieces to be used rather than your standard "let's go to the end together, gang" alliance partners.  This generally seemed like a pretty laid-back cast that, judging by most of the jury questions*, were okay with getting voted out and realized it was just a game.  Natalie's business-like approach really appealed to them, as opposed to the games of Jaclyn and Missy that were so centred around their loved ones; the jury just saw them as halves of a whole player, while Natalie was see as her own person.

* = The exception, of course, was Reed's instantly legendary "evil stepmother" speech to Missy, though that was probably more about Reed wanting a big moment for himself on TV than it was about him being truly upset.

Skillset: Quite an impressive social player, which was again a fairly stunning development to Race watchers.  Natalie also more than held her own in challenges, and was competitive in virtually everything, physical or mental.  I've got to tip my cap to Dale, as in the very first episode, he warned his tribe about Nadiya by saying, essentially, "I've seen the Race and these two are dangerous, let's get rid of her right now."  I can't say that Nadiya would've played as well as her sister had she stuck around, but Dale was right, the Twinnies were a force to be reckoned with.

Could She Do It Again
: Now that I finally updated my ranking of Survivor winners, it's already a relic thanks to another season.  Sigh.  The ranking might be outdated in another way since it's hard to say that Natalie doesn't deserve a very high placement --- I'm hard-pressed to necessarily find a real weak spot in her game.  Good at challenges, good social player, found an idol, very smart strategically…what am I missing here?

As noted earlier, Natalie had to do a fair amount of scrambling despite her fairly solid position in an alliance, making it one of my favourite types of Survivor wins -- one that's equal parts dominant (to show how a player owned their season) and improvised (to show how a player can scramble).  It really shows off a player's strengths to win in such a way, and you could almost say that Natalie's victory is only a slightly lesser version of a Kim Spradlin-esque evisceration of the game.  The only thing keeping Natalie from the really top tier is that her life in the game essentially hinged on nobody voting her out at F4, yet even that was set up by her own decision to keep Keith around over Alec.  If Alec had been around at the end, Missy or Jaclyn are likely more apt to keep him because he's a total goat for FTC.  With likeable challenge-monster Keith still in the game, however, Natalie could realistically point to Keith as a bigger jury threat, leading Jaclyn/Missy to vote for him instead of her.  My guess is that a Natalie/Jaclyn/Keith final three probably leads to a Natalie victory anyway, though Nat should be credited for taking the easier path to a win.

I also guess that Natalie would face long odds at a repeat if she made another appearance on Survivor.  If Dale and company were already wary of the Twinnies before they ever set foot on the beach, future players will be even more worried of Natalie in a return appearance.  Clearly, Natalie's best strategy would be to return but say she's Nadiya --- everyone'll be like "oh, no problem, it's the 'bad' twin," and then be caught off-guard as Nat romps her way to victory again.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Good Commercial/Bad Commercial

John Lewis, the British department store, apparently has a tradition of making a superb ad every Christmas that everyone in the UK promptly goes mad over.  This year's instalment is the lovely tale of Monty the Penguin, and his quest to win a major golf championship find true love.  Of course, Monty doesn't find it himself, his child owner/friend simply buys a female penguin, and thus the real underlying message is that John Lewis supports the indentured servitude that is the mail-order bride system.  Shameful on you, department store.  Fortunately you won me back with that gorgeous cover of John Lennon's "Real Love."


Toronto is hosting the 2015 Pan-Am Games and the hype has begun in the form of this weirdly aggressive commercial.  As in, the athletes are literally invading Toronto and there's nothing the city can do about it.  "Ready or not," they're on the way and "you can't hide."  So on the bright side, at least the guys from the Delfonics are getting a royalty cheque.  But there are oh so many more downsides…

* a song called "Ready Or Not" about an event in Canada, and neither Amanda or Busy could make a cameo??

* why is the entire city deserted?  Are the athletes coming not to compete, but to ward off the zombie horde that has apparently overtaken the city?

* is the "ready or not" theme really the right tone you want to strike for an event that's had some issues in having venues and transportation arrangements finalized for July?

There's just such a tone of grim inevitability in this ad.  Since cities in general are getting more and more wary of paying big money for the "honour" of hosting these major sporting events, it's almost like the commercial is telling Torontonians that the Games are coming, so just shut up and enjoy them.  And these the Pan-Am Games, a.k.a. the poor man's Olympics!  The Olympics are a big enough joke as it is and would cost Toronto probably four times as much to host, but at least they're something the world somewhat cares about --- has anyone ever given a crap about the Pan-Am Games aside from the host city?

To that end, there's still a stunningly high number of Torontonians who have no idea what the Pan-Am Games are, or that their city is hosting them in the summer, or what exactly these games will do to life in town.  If Toronto traffic gridlock is a nightmare even under normal circumstances, having the Pan-Am Games involved will take things to Freddy Krueger levels for six weeks.  Perhaps the deserted city of the commercial is meant to symbolize how everyone Toronto will simply get the hell out of town for the entirety of July.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Hot! Live! Music! (U2 edition)

In honour of the two U2 concerts I'll be attending this summer, this edition of Hot! Live! Music! is dedicated to the greatest live band of all time. (Okay, this is technically just my opinion, but it's pretty objectively close to being true.)  Let's stroll through past U2 tours…

* "Every Breaking Wave" from the MTV Europe Video Awards
We can't represent anything from the Innocence & Experience Tour since, y'know, it hasn't started yet, though U2 has been just killing it with this stripped-down version of EBW at several different promotional appearances.  This'll be a showstopper come the next tour.

* "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" from the 360 Tour
An underrated dark-horse choice as the most popular U2 song of the last 20 years.  Man, am I glad the band brought this one back out of mothballs. 

* "Original of the Species" from the Vertigo Tour
As Bono said, they hadn't quite figured out how to play this one live, as the album version was so heavy on strings and keyboards.  Still…man, if this was "not quite figured out" then just imagine what a version they were 100% comfortable with would've sounded like.

* "In God's Country" from the Elevation Tour
Somewhat of a forgotten gem from U2's past, and it sounds almost as good in acoustic form as it does with the entire band driving away at it.

* "New Year's Day" from the PopMart Tour
So much energy, so much drive in this song, and Bono's voice literally just soars.  Ok, I'm technically misusing the word 'literally' but screw it.

* "One," by Bono, Edge, Brian Eno and an orchestra
Bit of a cheat here since it isn't really U2, it's only two of the guys teaming with Brian Eno at the Pavarotti & Friends concert.  Still a gorgeous version of the song, even if Eno is completely extraneous.  Hey Brian, no need for the backing vocal, Edge is already on it.

* "Where The Streets Have No Name," Zoo TV 1992
What better place to end things than with the greatest live song of all time.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Other People's Writing

* Chris Rock has been all over the place with terrific, insightful interviews with a number of different media outlets while promoting his 'Top Five' movie.  In fact, it's gotten to the point where you can probably make a list of your top five Chris Rock interviews from the last two weeks.  Tops on everyone's list, however, would almost have to be this outstanding talk with Vulture's Frank Rich covering every topic under the sun.

* A sprawling, all-over-the-place story by Grantland's Brian Phillips about both modern sumo wrestling and a failed coup attempt in Japan in 1970.  The two topics, Phillips readily admits, have nothing to do with each other yet addressing them at the same time seems almost fitting for a story set amidst the epic convergence of the past and present that is Tokyo.

* It's a simple question: Grantland's Jason Concepcion wonders if Kevin McCallister from 'Home Alone' grew up to be Jigsaw from the 'Saw' movies.  It all checks out.

* More or less the history of 20th/21st century pro wrestling in North America, as chronicled by Dan O'Sullivan of Jacobin.  The definitive novel (or really, you'd need a series of novels) about pro wrestling's history has yet to be written, but consider this an appetizer.

* So, I wrote my review of Gone Girl earlier this week and was pretty pleased with it, yet I'm just a speck on the beach compared to Wesley Morris' fantastic reviews.  Morris kills it week after week at Grantland, including this wonderful breakdown of GG.  Describing Rosamund Pike's performance as "a mix of salt, honey and antifreeze" is awesomely poetic stuff.  You know you're reading good writing when you disagree with the basic premise (I clearly liked Gone Girl a lot more than Morris did) yet I agree with every point he makes.

* More movie-writing, as Grantland's Alex Pappademas looks at Interstellar within the tradition of other milestone space exploration films, ranging from 2001 to Solaris to Star Trek to Contact.  There's even a mention of 'Sunshine' in there, perhaps the greatest "movie undone by its final 30 minutes" of all time.  Two-thirds of the way through Sunshine, I legit thought I was watching an iconic masterpiece but things just really went south.

* Every NBA team's top celebrity fan is broken down by Grantland's Shea Serrano in this colourful series of graphics.  I love the idea of these people actually all sitting in a row, so Danny Trejo is just hating life stuck between Macklemore and Justin Timberlake…what in the world would those three have to talk about?  I have to wonder if Fred Armisen is actually a Trail Blazers fan, but really, any excuse to post this sketch.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Pepsi vs. Arby's

You have to love it when corporations can poke fun at themselves...seriously, you have to.  You are legally obligated based on agreeing to a terms & conditions webpage years ago, and boy, don't you now wish you'd read that thing all the way through?

As someone who has eaten at Arby's exactly one time in his life, I'm still pretty confident that Pepsi is the tastiest thing on the menu.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Movie Review Jamboree

It is the height of laziness to compare Steve Carell's role as John du Pont in "Foxcatcher" to his most famous role as Michael Scott, but here it goes.  Both men live in Pennsylvania.  Both men have complicated relationships with their mothers.*  Both are yearning to be seen as both leaders of men and as 'one of the guys,' yet also are painfully incapable of making friends.  That's about where the comparisons end since, y'know, Michael never shot anyone** and was only borderline pathological, as opposed to all-out crazy.  It's a tremendous performance for Carell, who somewhat uses his reputation as a comedian and a generally-likable actor to keep us on our toes about du Pont.  On paper, he seems creepy as hell, but since it's Carell under all that makeup, maaaaybe there's a chance things will all turn out okay.

* = I'll never understand why 'The Office' never actually introduced Michael's mom in an episode.  They stretched this show out for umpteen years and introduced such inane plots as the whole Robert California era and Angela literally trying to have Dwight assassinated, yet the writers couldn't come up with a way to unlock the potential goldmine of Mrs. Scott as a recurring character?  For shame.

** = though he did hit Meredith with his car

Spoiler alert: they don't.  'Foxcatcher' is one of my favourite kinds of psychological thrillers, where relatively little capital-H Happens plot-wise, yet you never shake the feeling of mounting dread and the sense that the axe is just waiting to fall on someone.  Beyond Carell, Channing Tatum is perfectly cast as the proudly insecure Mark Schultz, and Mark Ruffalo equally so as the much more confident and comfortable-in-his-own-skin older brother Dave Schultz.  Tatum and Ruffalo absolutely look and act like they've been on wrestling mats their entire lives. 

Really good movie here, arguably the best yet from Bennett Miller which is saying something considering his brief but strong resume.  It's also strange that, in another universe, "eccentric billionaire played by Steve Carell decides to fund a wrestling team and takes a somewhat dim young wrestler played by Channing Tatum under his wing" is absolutely the setup for a hilarious comedy. 


"John Wick" is not a particularly good movie, though I'm a sucker for the particular action movie trope it used to great effect.  I love it when the hero is just such a badass that the villains literally say things like "Wait, we messed with WHO?!  Oh…no" and immediately start arming themselves as if they were preparing to face an entire army.  Frankly, it would've been fun to see this spread across the entire movie rather than just the first 25-30 minutes before Wick has some moments of fallibility. 


As a child of the 1990's, I was almost obliged to see "Dumb & Dumber To" but my god, could the commercials have made it harder on me?  Each ad proved to be more laugh-free than the last, and honestly, had it not been for a free film due to me on my Scene card, I might've skipped it.  I should've skipped it.  :(  You'll notice that the various ads and trailers exactly zero funny jokes, though I'm pleased to report that there were at least a few laughs throughout the entire film.  Four, to be exact --- one legitimately funny gag and three mild chuckles.  I laughed more than that during "The Number 23" and Jim Carrey wasn't even intending that to be a comedy.


On the flip side is "Fury," which was a familiar sort of WWII soldier story very solidly told.  You'll get your standard scenes of the rookie soldier being in over his head, the introductions of the mixed-bag tank crew, and yet the cliched "soldiers encounter civilians" scene was a real standout.  It goes for roughly 20 minutes, runs the gamut from comic relief to incredibly tense, and you never have any idea whatsoever where the scene is going.  Good performances all around from Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal, Shia LaBeouf (yes really, LaBeouf was actually pretty good here!) and one of my favourite underrated actors, Michael Pena.  This guy will certainly have a slot in my next instalment of Actors Who Should Be More Famous.  Overall, "Fury" could've only been better had the final line between Lerman and Pitt had been "tanks for the memories."


I never read "Gone Girl," but from everything I've read about the book in the wake of the movie (and, specifically, several people's criticisms of the movie), it leaves the reader very unclear as to whether or not Nick is innocent or guilty.  The film could've achieved that same thing had they cut the one little line of Affleck saying "Amy?" when he returns to the house the first time.  That one line lets us know he didn't do it.  If he just walked in, saw the broken glass table, smash cut to the cops arriving, that keeps us up in the air about what's happening.

I think it's that one little scene that really affects how one views the film.  If you never open yourself up to the idea that Nick was a killer, you're automatically on his side the entire time, which makes David Fincher's film less an examination of male/female marriage dynamic and more "So I Married A Knife-Murderer."  This was an important distinction for me and, in my view, a flaw --- without the whodunit aspect, you're left with a movie that is rehashing some very tired satirical points about how the mass media operates.  So if you don't buy into the whodunit and (like me) you tend to roll your eyes at hackneyed "boy, TV really twists things around, man" talking points, then you're left with the cat and mouse dynamic between Amy and Nick.  Fortunately, this is so strong that it's enough to carry the film on it's own, and it'll help make GG worthwhile to watch on repeat viewings even after you know all of the twists.

A note about the ending, however, since while the Amy/Nick stuff was awesome, even that is slightly undone by the conclusion.  It gives in just a little too much to the movie's desire to be a cutting satire.  It's not nearly in the ballpark of Fincher's "The Game," a film that was 95% incredible and then completely undone by a travesty of an ending, yet I can't help but feel that GG could've somehow ended on a stronger note.  Perhaps I should read the book (y'know, at least check out the Wikipedia entry) to compare it with how Gillian Flynn ended things on the page, though since she also wrote the screenplay, you can't argue Fincher went against authorial intent.  

Don't get me wrong, GG is a very good, well-made and unsettling movie.  (I guess 'unsettling' is almost a given since it's a Fincher.)  I cannot say enough about Rosamund Pike's instant classic of a performance, and she is merely the headliner of an overall exceptional cast.  Between this film and 'The Leftovers,' 2014 might be the year of Carrie Coon.  Kim Dickens could, and should, get some Oscar consideration for turning a theoretically pretty standard role into a great supporting turn.  Tyler Perry goes some nice work here, which is a sentence I never thought I'd write.  And then you have Ben Affleck, an actor I've never really warmed to, yet who wisely turns into the skid by playing up his own image in Nick's skin.  Let's be honest, we can all easily picture Affleck wasting a day on the couch playing video games when he's supposed to be working, much to the consternation of Jennifer Garner/J-Lo/Matt Damon/etc.  You can completely buy Affleck as a lout, but well-meaning enough that he certainly doesn't deserve all of the crap that's foisted upon him in this movie (though again, the fact that the movie more or less makes you so clearly take Nick's side is a mistake, in my opinion).