Saturday, September 27, 2014

Mark & Ravi's (New) Epic U2 Chat

Five months ago, my pal Ravi and I teamed up for a no-holds barred discussion of all things U2.  In the wake of the surprise release of "Songs Of Innocence," we clearly had to meet up again.  There may yet be a second part to this chat, which we'll just unleash on you something out of the Cloud.

Ravi: We may as well start off with a discussion of the "gift" as it appears to be the main headline generator

Mark: Ah yes, the infamous iTunes drop.  Now, am I crazy in thinking that people are a) stupid, or b) overly whiny in complaining about this?

Ravi: Well, I think U2 is kinda like the Yankees by this point. They have a strong following, but also a strong base who utterly hates them.  So this "gift" has given people who hate them a chance to shit all over U2.  It doesn't surprise me that there's been so much uproar as music snobbery is rampant these days and nothing is less cool to a hipster/music snob than a big band getting paid millions to drop albums into everyone's iTunes.

That said, talk about a first world problem...

Mark: No kidding.  If you don't want the album, take two seconds out of your life and delete it.  This isn't a big deal.  When Radiohead, Jay-Z, Beyonce, etc. drop surprise albums out of nowhere, it's been as genius or innovative.....when U2 goes even a step further, it's EW, A FREE ALBUM, NO THANKS

Ravi: It does seem a tad desperate. They do give off the vibe of the "old guys still trying to be the coolest/biggest."  Take Invisible…I liked the song, but the video/production of it was kinda corny.

I did find it interesting though...I remember at TIFF Bono gave an interview where he worried whether U2 was getting into the "small ears" of people (I am paraphrasing).  I guess this was a way they figured they could achieve that goal

Mark: But I don't get that logic.  Why SHOULDN'T they still be "trying" to be big?  Why society seem to put an arbitrary age limit on musicians, so they're either "on the way up or "distinguished veteran"?  U2 has openly been trying to be as big as possible for their entire careers, why stop now.  As you noted, U2 were particularly curious about how to stay relevant in 2014.  Mission accomplished....while there are a lot of haters, they still got their album out to a potential 500 million new listeners.  If even a couple million of that number listen to Songs Of Innocence and get hooked, that's a big win for U2

Ravi: Yeah but it's the fact that Bono talks about "staying relevant" so much now it's annoying even to fans like me. Release your music, promote it, and let the fans decide.  For me, time will tell how the promo worked - I believe 33 million have downloaded Songs of Innocence and 13 albums are on the iTunes top 100 downloaded.

Mark: That latter number is huge.  It means the band actually is picking up new listeners who are getting into the back catalogue and becoming fans.  Who would've thought that 'October' would crack an iTunes top 100 in 2014?

Ravi: Which is too bad, because the album actually is quite good.

Mark: October?  It's the weakest U2 album but still a solid 3/5.  I can only imagine this will lead to 'I Threw A Brick Through A Window' getting a massive radio revival.

Ravi: Ultimately I chalk up the hate to: 1) Yankees syndrome mixed with 2) Music being such a snobbish endeavor these days that many young fans repel anything "big."

Mark: Young fans simply aren't programmed to accept anything from an 'older' musician that MTV isn't hyping ad nauseum 24/7.  It's also some of the old "selling out" double standard attached to rock music but not other forms of music.  If Jay-Z does this, everyone hails him for being a genius businessman again....U2 does it, everyone rips them for being too corporate.

Ravi: So, give me your dish on the album

Mark: I love it.  It's still early, but this might be a top-5 U2 album for me

Ravi: The back half is excellent, it gets stronger as it goes on

Mark:  That's true, and a nice change from recent albums that started strong and then really tapered off (ATYCLB, No Line).  That said, I love the opening half as well.  They're 21st-century U2 rock songs, yet with great melodies, guitar hooks and they have a real spirit to them, unlike more generic "let's write a pop/rock hit" tunes like I'll Go Crazy If...

The only track that doesn't really stand out for me is Song For Someone.

Ravi: I can do without Every Breaking Wave as well.

Mark:  It's interesting how that was the only 'known' song that made the album cut.  I wonder if some of the other unreleased tracks from recent years (North Star, Soon, Stingray Guitar, etc.) will also be souped up and released on the next record.

Ravi:  Miracle is clearly made for a stadium opener.  I think they learned their lesson to go with something fast/a little more upbeat after starting the first half of 360 with Breathe - which is a bit of a clumsy tune to sing along to.

Mark: Very true.  NLOTH lacked a song that would be an ideal concert hindsight, they maybe should've just led with Get On Your Boots.

Ravi: The album is interesting as their are songs clearly "structured to be hits" (Miracle, for example) and then songs that aren't "classical pop tunes/rock songs" that could become classic U2 songs, like Cedarwood Road or Sleep Like a baby tonight.  The collaboration on Troubles I quite liked as well

Mark: Oh man, The Troubles is probably my favourite song on the album.  What a great tune.  I'd never heard of anything from Lykke Li before but she has a great voice.  I wonder if she'll be an opening act on the tour, or if Edge can manage to do her vocal part live

Ravi: If you look at the album credits, Tedder/Epworth play a bigger role on the first 5-6 tracks, then its more Danger Mouse exclusively or with one of them in the back half.  I bet this album kicked ass with just Danger Mouse but had less traditional "pop hooks"/concert sing-along tunes, which likely scared the band and made them rework some tunes

Mark: Probably true.  In that way, they did a much better job of connecting the two 'halves' of this record and made it all flow together quite organically.  The pop hooky songs don't stick out like sore thumbs as they did on NLOTH.  It likely helped that they had a clear theme and inspiration for the album, i.e. looking back on their early days in Dublin

Ravi: Yeah I liked that, it helped make the record a lot easier to follow.  I guess with U2 being a "fundamentally live band" we don't know how the songs will do until they tour ... though I can envision far more of these songs working live.

Mark: Absolutely.  As you said, Miracle is specifically written as a great live song and a concert opener --- hell, it's literally about the experience of seeing your favourite band in a live show.

Ravi: So what d'you think their plan is in the intervening months between now and a tour? Will there be a Songs of Experience, or perhaps something else to keep U2 in the press (besides for the download promo).

Mark: We're kind of in uncharted territory here for U2, so who knows?  It's an exciting time to be a U2 fan....I remember in our last chat, we talked about ways for U2 to freshen up their album release/promotion methods, and now they've done that in spades.

I like to think that Songs Of Experience is just waiting to be released, though Bono has promised quick follow-up albums in the past that never saw the light of day.  In theory, however, SOE could (should?) be out in the next few months, so next year's tour would be promoting both records.

Ravi: Yeah. I imagine right now the U2 camp is plotting/wondering what to do in light of the mixed response to this release.  But you're right, they didn't resort to old tricks (i.e. five nights on Letterman) but instead did something innovative which I have to applaud.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Conan & Jordan Talk It Out

The latest entry in the Conan vs. Jordan Schlansky cold war.  Congrats to Jordan and Emma!  Nothing more romantic than a CVS.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Two Gentlemen Of Verona (Shakespeare Re-Read #11)

Though four acts and three scenes, I was quite pleasantly surprised with this so-called weaker play in the Shakespearean canon.  Sure, it lacked some polish, but overall, it was a pretty interesting story with some funny and moments and it was all leading up to a big finish.  I was all set to cite Two Gentlemen Of Verona as a great hidden gem…

…until the ending.  And yeah, suddenly TGOV's low standing with the critics made a bit more sense.  That tricky plot and the web of relationships amongst the characters was all wrapped up in a mere 179 lines of Act V, Scene iv and yeah, it's not nearly enough.  Even by the traditional comedy standards of marrying everyone off for the happy ending, it's quite abrupt.  In those 179 lines, Shakespeare manages to completely undercut the fairly complex play he's woven in the previous four acts and three scenes and leave everyone saying, "wait, what?"  I can only chalk it up to inexperience, as TGOV is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays and he hadn't quite figured out advanced dramatic ideas* like, y'know, endings.

* = he also hadn't figured out things like "fewer racist bits that really stand out as glaring and awful for people reading these plays several centuries later."  Not to mention avoiding general misogyny, which we'll get to in a bit.

As a time capsule, however, TGOV is pretty interesting since it's almost like a coming attractions trailer for the rest of Shakespeare's work.  There are a lot of echoes of future plays in here --- Proteus' "villain as seemingly trustworthy nice guy" is reminiscent of Iago; Julia's cross-dressing disguise and pretending to be a servant for her love recalls Viola; Speed and Lance are hints at more fully-formed comic relief down the road like the Dromios of "Comedy Of Errors" or maybe even Dogberry of "Much Ado About Nothing."  It's like Shakespeare had some of the ingredients but he hasn't fully learned the recipe yet.

And it's SO CLOSE to being a legit classic play.  Here's how I saw things wrapping up….Silvia and Valentine would still end up together, Proteus gets his comeuppance, and Julia ends up marrying valiant ol' Sir Eglamour.  Sure, that would've been the definition of quickly falling in love since the two literally hadn't shared a scene together (and actually don't in the entire play) but that hasn't stopped other Shakespearean couplings in the past.  Eglamour* does something brave or he smacks Proteus upside the head, Julia is impressed, and boom, love at first sight. 

= let's talk about my man Eglamour here, who is presented as one of Silvia's suitors early in the play and then pops up to help her escape into the forest to pursue Valentine.  Clearly, Sir Eglamour wasn't a defender of the realm so much as a defender of the friend zone.  To make matters worse, he proceeds to disappear from the play between he and Silvia taking off in Act V.i and her being captured by the Outlaws in V.iii.  What the hell happened to Eglamour?  Did the gang kill him?  Sheesh, lots of dark stuff happening in this comedy.

Sixty-odd lines into Act V.iv, this ending was still in play.  Silvia says she'll never love Proteus, he snaps and goes full-on rapist, and then Valentine swoops in to stop him and put him in his place.  Proteus then expresses shame at his actions and begs for forgiveness….and Valentine just goes ahead and forgives him.  As I said before, wait, what?  Then you have Julia revealing her true identity to Proteus, and basically this happens….

Julia: It's me, you unfaithful jackass!
Proteus: Julia!  Oh, I've been a fool.  You know how men are, with wandering eyes and whatnot.  Julia, now that I think about it and see you again, you're totally hotter than Silvia!  Forgive me?
Julia: Okay, sure!

Wait, what?  Proteus goes from being a sneaky, hatable villain to completely getting away with it within the span of about 50 lines.  It's like everyone just collectively shrugged and said "Oh, that Proteus!"  Of course, saying this actually would've given Silvia a line in the latter half of the scene.  Silvia says "Oh heaven!" in line 61, as a shocked response to Proteus trying to assault her, and then literally has no dialogue again in the rest of the play.  We never hear her reaction to, say, seeing Valentine again or seeing Julia revealed, or even having her father show up to give his blessing to all the marriage.  It's a sad undercutting of what had otherwise been a strong character earlier in the play.

And speaking of undercutting….Julia, man.  Even a poor man's version of Viola is a fascinating character, and she's maybe the earliest example of a Shakespearean female who seems to have her own self and own interests rather than just being an object to marry.  All it took was a simple rejection of Proteus and boom, everyone goes home cheering Julia on (even if that quickie marriage to Eglamour happens).  Instead, she forgives Proteus for all his horseshit at a moment's notice.  Even for a comedy, it's a bizarre turn and not really justified or explained by anything Proteus does.

On the note, the ending sells out Proteus too, who (as noted) had a pretty terrific slowburn from romantic hero to villain over the course of the play.  Several of Shakespeare's comedies don't have an actual villain, per se, since it's usually just misunderstandings or dramatic irony that gets in the characters' way, but Proteus was making a solid case for himself.  Had he actually ended up being arrested or properly shamed, you could argue that the play is actually a tragedy from his perspective, as a man is simply undone by lust and stabs everyone he loves in the back in order to win Silvia.  Instead, he gets a slap on the wrist and ends up with Julia anyway, no worse for wear.  An ever-changing mind is literally hinted at in his very name so we're not surprised, but still, the utter lack of consequences is yet another reason the ending leaves such a sour taste in the mouths of the modern audience.

Oh, and I haven't even gotten to the worst moment --- after Proteus begs Valentine for forgiveness, Valentine's response is "aw, don't be so glum, bro!  You're still my best friend!  Hey, take Silvia anyway, go for it!  Bros before hoes!"  Now, it should be noted, I didn't actually interpret this dialogue* as Valentine literally giving Silvia away.  I thought he was just referring to how he was extending his own loving nature (like the kind he had with Silvia) to his old pal Proteus, and it wasn't until I was reading a bit of analysis about TGOV afterwards that I realized the more common interpretation, which is that Silvia is reduced to just a piece of property for Valentine to be offering to the man that was on the verge of attacking her just minutes earlier.  Yikes.

* = I was paraphrasing a bit, and "bros before hoes" is not original Shakespearean dialogue.

Here's the thing, I'm not sure "Valentine was giving her away" is that straight-forward a reading.  While Valentine is presented as a misogynist in the text, the one constant in his behaviour it that he really loves Silvia.  It's a stretch to even have him forgive Proteus, but what the hell, I'll roll with it; what I can't believe is that he'd forgive Proteus AND throw away Silvia.  Modern productions of this play try their best to smooth out the ending, and this one moment in particular; one version recast Valentine's "offer" as a last-ditch effort to prevent a despondent Proteus from committing suicide.  Other productions try to sidestep the misogyny and rapey vibe by making the rest of the play more overtly farcical so all the characters are just line-spewing goofballs and there's no hint of seriousness to anything.  Which…I guess it makes sense since it is a comedy after all, yet I feel like doing this would obscure the more interesting things that Shakespeare has going on under the surface.

Anyway, I've spent so much time unpacking this ending that I haven't mentioned the legitimately witty dialogue throughout, going from clever wordplay to the more broader elements of Speed, Lance and Lance's damn little dog.  Turio is an underrated comic dullard and the Outlaws were a blast to read, and presumably they'd be an even bigger hoot on stage.  The next time I'm mugged by a gang of hoodlums, I'll propose becoming their leader and see where it gets me.  Worked out well for Valentine!

Had the ending even been a D+ instead of an F-minus, history would regard Two Gentlemen Of Verona in a much kinder light, but them's the breaks.  There's still a lot to like in TGOV and despite that tragically misinformed ending, I'm still slotting it above a few other notable plays on my reading list thus far.  Complain if you will, but remember that I was a big fan of "Lost," so I'm used to trying to rationalize unsatisfying endings.    



11. Pericles
10. The Taming Of The Shrew
9. Antony & Cleopatra
8. Much Ado About Nothing
7. Coriolanus
6. The Two Gentlemen Of Verona
5. The Comedy Of Errors
4. The Winter's Tale
3. A Midsummer Night's Dream
2. Julius Caesar
1. Othello

My New Year's resolution for 2012 was to re-read (and in some cases, read for the first time) all 38 of William Shakespeare's plays.  2012 has long since ended, 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!"

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Other People's Writing

Who needs me when you have these scribes?

* Let's kick things off with an exploration of the history of North American waterparks by Bryan Curtis, and it's an awesome read.  Most, if not all, of the rides and design of modern waterparks were designed by two guys (George Millay and Jeff Henry), and as a frequent visitor to London's old Wally World park in my youth, I tip my cap to these guys.  This article also is kind of a new horizon for Grantland features as wow, they go all out with the page design for this one, including interactive graphics and an actual video allowing you to "ride" one of the giant slides.  So yeah, if you have vertigo, you might want to have someone read this one to you.

* The cool graphic layout isn't just limited to one ESPN site, you also see some interesting visuals for this ESPN The Magazine profile of Jerry Jones by Don Van Natta Jr.  This is a very well-written piece that hits the perfect sweet spot between 'puff piece' and 'pull-no-punches expose,' and it's almost enough to make me kind of pity poor ol' Jer…..ah, who am I kidding, I'll always hate the Cowboys.

* Gawker's Jacob Clifton looks at both the finale and more or less the entire first season of The Leftovers.  It's a nice breakdown of how the show examines grief and the loss of hope (or, grief AS the loss of hope) and really gets to the heart of the fascinating Guilty Remnant, perhaps the favourite for the 'villain of the year' on TV this year.  To touch on my own thoughts on the show (after two episodes) as it related to the original book, it's interesting that Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta have essentially run through the novel's story just in the first season.  It's an interesting narrative choice and an exciting one, since I have no idea what the hell Season Two of this show could possibly look like.  Whatever happens, Carrie Coon is the breakout TV star of the year and she deserves an Emmy.

* Golf fans with short attention spans may not even remember Anthony Kim, yet it wasn't long ago that he was considered the latest next big thing of the golf world.  Now, Sports Illustrated's Alan Shipnuck catches us up on why Kim isn't playing on the PGA Tour and why he's living a very low profile (albeit still somewhat of a baller) life.  It's kind of an interesting moral conundrum that only the very wealthy would face: would you give up your life's work, something you've trained since childhood to do, for $35 million bucks?  Ok, so maybe it's not THAT much of a conundrum.

* Finally, we have a ranking of Mortal Kombat II's characters from Grantland's Shea Serrano.  While the omission of Jade, Smoke and Noob Saibot was pretty glaring, Serrano's list is pretty solid.  My own personal ranking...

12. Kung Lao
11. Mileena
10. Shang Tsung (Serrano is right, you wasted half the fight trying to remember the codes to morph into the other players)
9. Reptile
8. Johnny Cage
7. Scorpion
6. Kitana
5. Jax
4. Liu Kang
3. Sub-Zero
2. Baraka
1. Raiden

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Amateur Dream Analysis

DREAM: I'm in a bar watching a football game on TV, specifically the Sunday night game on NBC, and the Steelers are playing the Texans.  My dream begins only with a brief bit of the actual game, but Pittsburgh has a pair of incomplete passes to end the first half, and I see the score is 17-3 for Houston.  Not good news for Steelers fans.

It's time for the traditional pre-halftime brief interview with the coach, who's jogging into the locker room.  Field reporter Michelle Tafoya stops for a few words with Steelers coach….Tina Fey.  Yeah, Tina Fey is there, decked out in a Steelers jacket, Steelers hat and a headset (and no glasses), looking pretty perturbed that her team played such a poor 30 minutes of football.  Tafoya asks what went wrong in the first half, and Tina says "You name it.  Oh boy," and then does a Liz Lemon-esque exaggerated eye roll.

Then, who should sidle up to them but Mike Tomlin, the guy who actually coaches the Steelers in real life.  Tomlin is dressed like he always is, and it suddenly occurs to me that Tina is wearing the exact same outfit.  A surprised Tafoya asks what he's doing here, and Tomlin says he's here to support Tina, as he has no hard feelings about her taking over the job.  Tina says thanks and that his support means a lot to her…and then she asks "look, do you just wanna get out of here?"  He grins and gives her a big hug, and then they grab hands and jog across the field together to a waiting car (!) with a bunch of tin cans tied to the bumper, a la a 'just married' couple. 

As Tafoya puts it, and I remember this quote specifically from the dream, "breaking news here from Pittsburgh, Tina Fey and Mike Tomlin are eloping.  Stay tuned to see what this means for the Steelers in the second half."

ANALYSIS: It's no secret that I'm a huge admirer of Tina Fey, and I think she do virtually anything.  Write and star in a legendary sitcom, sure.  Do a killer job hosting an awards show, absolutely.  Write and co-star in the seminal teen comedy of a generation, you bet.  Destroy a vice-presidential candidate's career, you betcha.  Star in a very bland romcom with Paul Rudd, why not.*  So if I'm presented with the concept of Tina Fey coaching an NFL team by my weird-ass subconscious mind, I'm open to the idea.  For all I know, she's a football savant.  AND, she's from just outside Philadelphia, so she certainly has the Pennsylvania ties that are required to coach the Steelers.  Actually, hang on, I have no idea if any Steelers coach has actually hailed from Pennsylvania.  Who cares.

* = Hmm, who played Tina's mother in that movie?  Lily TOMLIN.  Aha!

Of course, if a team actually announced tomorrow that Tina Fey was their new head coach, it would cause quite a stir.  Not only would Fey be the first female head coach in the history of the big four North American sports leagues*, her seemingly total lack of qualifications** would also be a pretty big story.  Okay, so a lack of qualifications hasn't prevented several terrible coaches from being hired over the years, and in fact, there's probably a 30% chance the Oakland Raiders actually try hiring an actor as a coach sooner or later, but still.

As this dream would seem to indicate, Tomlin immediately preceded Fey as Pittsburgh's coach, which could be my mind saying that the Steelers are in for such a bad season that their usually-stable ownership will think that hiring an acclaimed comedy writer is the only natural next step.  I mean, even when the Lions went 0-16 a few back, they at least hired another football person next.  The Steelers are already 1-1 so I shudder to think what's on the horizon for this team.  Will Bane actually attack Heinz Field?  (It also might augur badly for the Texans, since they're facing a team coached by a neophyte and only winning by two touchdowns.) 

Tomlin, however, seems to have gotten over his firing, though it might've taken him a while to accept it.  I guess you can't blame him --- imagine if NBC told Fey she was being fired from 30 Rock and John Madden was the new star and showrunner.  It'd definitely be a hard transition, and clearly Mike isn't quite over it, given that he's still dressed head to toe in Steelers garb.  He even had the headset, which made me wonder who exactly he was talking to the other end.

Probably the only thing that would cause a bigger stir than Tina Fey coaching an NFL team would be if she actually left said job mid-game to run off with the team's former coach.  Firstly, talk about an unprofessional move, Tina!  Your team might've played like crap in the first half but geez, no reason to literally just walk off the field.  What are you, Bobby Petrino?  Secondly, this sounds like a romcom plot --- football coach is replaced by his girlfriend, he's upset at first and they clash but eventually they reconcile.  "The Challenge," coming to theatres near you this Valentine's Day.  As it could be observed from just these few seconds, Fey clearly has more chemistry with Tomlin than she did with, say, Paul Rudd.

* = Frankly, this would be a pretty gigantic story with any pair of coaches.  "Breaking news here from Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin and Bill Cowher are eloping.  Stay tuned to see what this means for the Steelers in the second half."

Tina is, of course, married, and so is Tomlin, as a quick visit to Wikipedia reveals.  Talk about awkward for their spouses, seeing both marriages end on national TV.  I'd presume that they're both single in this reality, given that they're eloping and there was no mention of bigamy…though in fairness, the bigamist angle is about the 30th-weirdest thing about this dream.  Even odder, in fact, is that Tomlin has the "just married" car when they're only on their way to elope.  Seems a bit premature, Mike.  Your friends should've held off on attaching the cans until the ink was dry on the marriage license.  One or the both of you could easily change your minds before it's official, since spur-of-the-moment decisions are clearly your thing.

So what does this dream all mean?  For starters, it clearly means I have a lot of respect for Michelle Tafoya.  A standard halftime interview gets crazy and she handles it like a total pro.  In the big picture, this dream makes some sense.  Tina Fey is, of course, one of my absolute favourites.  Pittsburgh is arguably my favourite American city, as I've been greatly impressed by the 'Burgh in both my visits there.  If I wasn't a Packers fan, I could talk myself into rooting for the Steelers --- great history, quality team, not-too-obnoxious of a fanbase, and it'd give me a chance to directly root against my brother's beloved Ravens. 

Perhaps the root of this dream is my desire for some actual fun NFL news.  Ok, so a mid-game elopement is more bizarre than 'fun,' yet given all of the horrible the off-the-field headlines from the last few weeks, football has lost almost all of its good spirit.  Domestic abuse, child abuse, tons more player injuries in an increasingly violent game, league executives seemingly too corrupt and/or incompetent to address any of these issues….it's brutal.  Watching the actual games on Sunday is almost a surprise, as if you have to be reminded that the NFL actually involves a spot rather than being an ongoing social drama.

Into this environment, who wouldn't want to see two crazy kids in love?  All the best to Mike Fey and Tina Tomlin on their impending nuptials.  This could also lead to Troy Polamalu and Jane Krakowski hooking up at the reception, and that's just a recipe for comedy. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Random Nonsense

In the spirit of the opening image, here's the DuckTales opening theme performed by real ducks.  I know, I've officially become the guy posting cute videos of animals on the internet, but I don't give a duck.

It's like the people at Trivago really wanted to cast Scott Bakula, and when he wasn't available, they cast a guy who finished sixth in a Scott Bakula lookalike contest.

When even Bill Murray himself is making casting suggestions, you have to know this Ghostbusters reboot idea is likely happening.  Wiig, McCarthy and Stone were all obvious candidates, though Linda Cardellini is an inspired and interesting choice.  Does Bill know something we don't know?  Is Paul Feig giving a plum role to one of his old Freaks & Geeks buddies?  I NEED TO KNOW EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS MOVIE.

Does EVERY New Zealand team perform a Haka before a competition?  I really hope so, even during a seniors' sewing competition or during a chess tournament.  The American team, clearly very intimidated by the Haka, went on to win the game by 27 points.

I didn't write much about the "How I Met Your Mother" finale last spring but my reaction to the controversial ending was basically the same as everyone else's.  If the episode ends with Ted and Tracy under the umbrella at the train station, it's perfect; instead, we got the coda where Tracy died.

Anyway, the rumoured alternate ending to "How I Met Your Mother" has leaked and man, I'm just angry now.  I mean…who would look at this ending, and then the actual ending, and decide that Tracy dying and Ted ultimately ending up with Robin was the better idea?  It makes not a whit of sense.

Consider the pressure that Carter Bays and Craig Thomas faced as the years went on and their little show became more and more popular.  They presented their audience with a direct premise in the title and they were obligated to have to pay it off in a big way.  Can you imagine the thought that went into casting Tracy?  What actress could possibly live up to expectations as THE perfect Mother?  And then, against all odds, Cristin Milioti is cast and she creates an instantly-beloved character that has crazy chemistry with Ted* and somehow actually manages to live up to those expectations.  It's a home run all around….

* = Josh Radnor had tremendous chemistry with almost all of his romantic partners, which came in handy in the cases of Victoria and Stella, both of whom were planned to end up as 'the Mother' if the show had been canceled.  While Radnor worked well with everyone, however, he took it up another notch in his scenes with Milioti to really make it clear that Tracy was the one.  Kudos to the Rad, whose work on this show went largely unnoticed.

….and then they friggin' KILLED HER OFF and Ted winds up with Robin.  WTF.  It's clear the Ted-Robin ending was planned years in advance given the old footage of his kids (shot when they were younger) but still, somewhere you have to call an audible when a) Milioti is on fire and b) when it became pretty clear that the Ted/Robin relationship was a dead horse to the majority of the viewership.  Rehashing them in the finale's closing moment was just a head-buried-in-the-hands moment.

I'm not English and I don't care about rugby, but my god, am I suddenly fired up.  The wild thing is, you could've asked Charles Dance to simply convey his message through facial expressions alone for two minutes and the effect would've been exactly the same.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

U2, First Impressions

A full review of "Songs Of Innocence" is coming once I listen to the songs a few more times and once my brain is fully wrapped around the fact that a whole new U2 album just got released with about five minutes' notice.  (Ravi and I are tickled pink.)  My first listen came right here at my desk, right in the same place where I'm now typing this very post, and it was certainly the most unplanned "first U2 listen" I've ever had.  For the other albums, I've literally planned my day around my initial listen.

* For "No Line On The Horizon," I first heard it sitting on the couch in my parents' living room, after everyone else had gone to bed.

* For "How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb," I'd picked up the album on the way to school.  I had about a three-hour break between classes that day, so I took the opportunity to load the disc into my car's CD player and then just drive around northern London listening to everything.  (This was, admittedly, not the most environmentally-friendly thing I could've done.)  Then it was back to campus for my last class, and if you suspect my mind was still on the music and I wasn't paying a cent's worth of attention to the lecture that day, you're right.

* For "All That You Can't Leave Behind," I bought the record on the way back from school, which was admittedly a much smarter move since I could focus on my classes earlier in the day.  (Why didn't I remember this three years later?)  The first listen came in what was then "the computer room" in my parents' house, a.k.a. our old guest bedroom after we moved out the bed and put in a spare desk.  Fun fact, the record was actually released on Halloween, so my first listen came while I was in the basement and my mom was facing an onslaught of trick-or-treaters upstairs.  A good son would've helped her hand out candy, but…uh…

The earlier albums were all initially heard in the same place: the "old computer room" of my parents' basement, roughly 10 feet away from the guest bedroom.  No doubt I was playing solitaire or freecell while listening to the CDs, so as to not clutter my brain with a less-mindless task when I needed to be focusing on the music.  Since I was playing catchup with U2's discography at this point, I don't remember the specific circumstances of each first listen though I do remember *where* I got some of the albums.  "Joshua Tree" I bought at a Sunrise Records in Masonville Mall.  "Zooropa" I bought at, of all places, a CD store on the New Jersey boardwalk when we were visiting the Jersey Shore for a wedding.  "Boy" and "October" I both borrowed from my cousin Steve, and I recall initially thinking that October was pretty terrible.  (My opinion has since softened, though not by a ton.)

Given how long it takes U2 to release new albums nowadays, I look forward to hearing their followup record for the first time when it's beamed directly into my brain by my household cyborg butler.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

John Oliver & Cookie Monster

Okay, if this was just the original video, it would've been absolutely post-worthy.  But man, the outtakes take this to a whole new comedy level.  It turns out that Cookie Monster isn't actually real (WTF) and is played a puppeteer named David Rudman, who I have a ton of new respect for as a great improviser.  The "cookie from the 80's" bit just killed me.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

NFL Predictions

This is probably the least attention I've ever paid to an NFL offseason, so these picks could well end up being my most accurate yet.  I'm becoming increasingly turned off by NFL coverage becoming less 'sports league' than it is 'reality show,' so my actual following of player movement has been quite limited.  It'll be Week 10 or something and I'll still be going, "wait, he plays for the Jets now?"

Also contributing to the malaise is that, while I'm sure there will be a few surprises along the way, this year's NFL seems relatively easy to predict.  There are very, very few teams that don't possess at least one glaring flaw, so either one of the great teams will have something (injury, suspension, etc.) go badly wrong or one of the flawed teams will either correct their problem or simply be the least-flawed team left standing come Super Bowl time.  To the predictions!

NFC South: Buccaneers, Saints*, Falcons, Panthers
I feel like I've picked the Bucs as a darkhorse for the last few years in a row and they've always let me down, yet I feel even better about them in 2014 since they have a real coach now.  Raheem Morris was in over his head and Greg Schiano was a macho nutcase, but Lovie Smith is an actual legitimately good head coach --- he's not a project or a question mark, as you know what a Lovie team can do.  It's for this reason I see Tampa at least making the playoffs, though my division winner pick is perhaps a bit optimistic.  It'll be either them or the Saints, who are as reliable as always.  Atlanta could rebound from their Murphy's Law season last year, but I'm not sure if the 2013 Falcons necessarily had as many things go wrong as it was a case of a flawed team's problems coming home to roost.  In any case, they might rebound to around 8-8 but no further in a tough division.  Carolina is going to regress to the point that Riverboat Ron might actually need to get a job as a blackjack dealer next offseason.

NFC West: Seahawks, 49ers, Rams, Cardinals
Man, this division.  I'd probably have both St. Louis AND Arizona ticketed for the playoffs if they were in any other division…wouldn't all four NFC West teams just beat the hell out of anyone from the NFC East?  Seattle has to be the clear favourite to repeat yet you could just about talk me into any finishing order for the other three; yes, even San Francisco in last since I think they're due to regress.  The Rams losing Sam Bradford isn't really a big loss given that Shaun Hill might actually be a better quarterback; the Cards are praying for one more half-decent Carson Palmer year and the Niners are just trying to keep their entire roster from ended up on the suspended list.  Meanwhile, the Seahawks had a pretty drama-free offseason and you can pencil them in for at least seven wins based on home games alone.

NFC East: Eagles, Giants, [NAME REDACTED], Cowboys
Here's another division where the winner seems obvious and the other three as a crapshoot, though in the NFC East it's because everyone is mediocre rather than the hellacious West.  Philly should win without too many issues unless it turns out the league has completely caught onto Chip Kelly (which isn't far-fetched).  I'm picking New York for second solely because this seems like one of those inexplicable Giants turn-around years when they'll probably contend for the Super Bowl again.  Washington is Washington and Dallas is Dallas, so they'll just soak up 75% of the media attention while winning a combined 14 games or less.

NFC Central: Packers, Bears*, Vikings, Lions
Inexplicably, the Central might now be the second-toughest division in football.  I'm as surprised as you.  Minnesota and Detroit both figure to be improved solely due to coaching changes and, in the Vikings' case, because they've finally given up on Christian Ponder.  (I'm on the Teddy Bridgewater bandwagon and feel that the Vikes made a big upgrade.)  If Jay Cutler can finally stay healthy for a whole season, Chicago is a quiet Super Bowl contender, minus the fact that they can never seem to beat Green Bay when it counts. 

My Packers get their own paragraph since, frankly, I'm a little concerned by the offseason.  On the one hand, it seems like the Pack are getting a little Patriots-esque in assuming that anyone can fit into their offensive system, so a good receiver like James Jones was basically just discarded in favour of the up-and-coming cheaper option (Jarrett Boykin).  Losing B.J. Raji is a big blow to an already suspect defense and wasn't addressed as much as I would've liked, though I'm intrigued by Julius Peppers.  I'm picking Green Bay to win the division again because of Aaron Rodgers (and because I'm a homer), yet it's troubling that a team who has been so brutalized by injuries for two years running didn't do much to upgrade their depth.  If the Packers are just crossing their fingers and hoping for good luck from the injury fairies, that's not a sound winning strategy.  I could really go anywhere on the Packers this year, from 11-5 to even a 7-9 step back kind of season if the North is as improved as I think it is.

AFC South: Texans, Colts, Jaguars, Titans
Maybe the most miserable division of them all; even any of the NFC East teams would stand a good shot at winning the AFC South.  Houston seems like a safe bet to rebound since, unlike Atlanta, their downfall last year had one major root cause and that was Matt Schaub suddenly turning into the worst quarterback in the world.  Remove him for an upgrade in….uh, Ryan Fitzpatrick…ok, well, F to a D+ is still an upgrade….and boom, Houston is back on track.  Playing in this lousy division definitely lends itself to a quick recovery, though by that same token, it wouldn't be *totally* shocking to see Tennessee or Jacksonville suddenly string together a few division wins and get themselves in the race.  The Jaguars aren't as bad as most think, and while the Titans are maybe the most boring team in pro sports, they're at least a halfway tough out.  I hate that the Colts' QB is actually named Luck, since when I write something like, "the Colts' luck will finally run out in 2014," it makes it sound like a bad pun other than a solid prediction and you all know how much I hate bad puns.  Wait…

AFC West: Broncos, Chiefs*, Chargers, Raiders
Denver is certainly finishing first and the ongoing Oakland clownshow is definitely finishing last.  Most pundits feel the Chargers are for real and the Chiefs are due to regress, yet I'm not so sure.  It could be because I felt San Diego would be awful last year and I'm still not taking them seriously, but that roster just feels like a bunch that had every break go their way in 2013 and they still only barely squeaked into the playoffs.  (And then beat the Bengals in the first round, as if that's an achievement.)  The Chiefs just seem more solid from top to bottom and I think they'll finish ahead of San Diego, plus return to the playoffs.

AFC East: Patriots, Jets, Bills, Dolphins
This seems like the AFC West to me, where you have one clear-cut winner and one clear-cut loser, though maybe I'm being a bit too hard on Miami (they're better than the Raiders, in theory).  I'm picking New York over Buffalo since the Jets seemingly always overachieve under Rex Ryan while the Bills always underachieve no matter the coach or the talent on their roster.  If E.J. Manuel is healthy and the real deal, Buffalo could very well make the playoffs, yet that would entail something actually going right for that franchise. 

AFC North: Bengals, Ravens*, Steelers, Browns
This is a weird division for me, since while I'm picking Cincinnati to win, it still just feels like the Ravens or Steelers would both beat them head-to-head.  Cincy has enough talent to beat anyone and their ability to always beat the lesser teams will help them win the division again, yet when push comes to shove in the playoffs, I'd have to see them actually win a game before picking them to do anything special.  Baltimore is due to bounce back and Pittsburgh doesn't seem to have enough parts to do anything of note, though they'll inevitably win between seven and nine games.  The Browns are going to be their usual catastrophe, with Manziel getting torn apart both by defensive lines and the media every week.

* Saints over Packers
* Bears over Eagles
* Ravens over Bengals
* Chiefs over Texans

* Seahawks over Bears
* Saints over Buccaneers
* Broncos over Chiefs
* Patriots over Ravens

NFC title game: Seahawks over Saints

Part of me wanted to ride the Tampa bandwagon all the way to the NFC championship round, yet not even I'm that crazy.  Seattle is the obvious pick, the Saints are the safe pick, and the Seahawks will ride their home crowd to yet another Super Bowl.

AFC title game: Broncos over Patriots 
Seems too obvious, eh?  The fact is, the AFC is still a pretty weak conference overall and it's hard to make a case for any other team managing to rise up and overcome the Brady/Manning regime.  Denver wins again after Tom Brady is sacked on a critical fourth down play by a Bronco defender who shot up the middle, leading everyone to realize that Logan Mankins shouldn't have been traded and that "the Patriot Way" is code for being cheap.

Super Bowl: Seahawks over Broncos
Wow, am I literally just predicting a repeat of last year's title game?  Talk about phoning it in.  To be fair, I did totally call last year's Super Bowl, so maybe I'm the best prognosticator in the world.  Or, maybe Seattle and Denver still seem like the deepest and best teams in their leagues and, barring wear-and-tear from two straight extended seasons, both stand out as the favourites again.  This year, we'll even get a more competitive game as Peyton Manning will only choke in the Super Bowl by 21 points this year.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Bloopers & Recreation

Kudos to the P&R gang for keeping their gag reel to a more manageable length this year, and with fewer Pawnee commercials/interludes.  Perd Hapley is wonderful but only in a small doses.

Also, as amazing as Billy Eichner is, he may have missed his true calling as the "we can't do that!" guy on TV commercials that are advertising some crazy deal.