Only God Forgives Review: Slightly Obtuse, Very Beautiful, Pretty Damn Good.

The following part is without spoilers. There will be spoilers below.

This is a tough movie to review. On one hand, it’s a Nicolas Refn movie. You kind of know what you’re getting when you walk in: lots of beautiful shots, lots of very violent, explicit gore.

On the other hand, it’s not like most previous Refn movies. The one character you’re following isn’t a hero (more on that in the spoilers if you want). He’s not Bronson or The Driver. I know a lot of people wanted to see Drive 2. This is entirely not Drive 2, no matter what the promos suggest.

What you do get is a very, very gorgeous movie that’s at times other worldly. Thailand is a completely different land from most of the world and Refn takes advantage of its bizarre beauty, casual sexual explicitness, and quasi-Wild West nature. It’s stranger in a strange land, but the viewers are the strangers this time.

Its biggest strike, however, and probably the biggest reason why most of the reviews so far are negative, is that the narrative isn’t neat and tidy. It’s very subtle. But once you see it, you see the movie that was supposed to be made.

It starts out other worldly. The scenes don’t seem connected and it looks more like you’re watching a bunch of random shots stitched together to make a movie. They make greater sense by the end. The intention is to make the world seem different and it is.

It starts with Julian (Ryan Gosling) and This Other Guy (that turns out to be his brother Billy (played by Tom Burke)) in a kickboxing gym. They pass some drugs. Billy and Julian then go out for their nightly hooker run. Billy finds his 16-year-old hooker, rapes her and murders her. The police find him, docile on the bed with the body on the floor. This one guy, the apparent ringleader, who we later found out is Chang, brings the girl’s father in. The girl’s father kills him. And that’s where the story starts. Chang cuts off his arm.

There’s some odd bits about premonition, dreaming and anticipation here. Julian goes to find the father to shoot him and finds out that the father was just given the opportunity after Billy had raped and murdered the girl–Chang was really behind it.

To make matters worse, Julian’s demanding, cruel mother flies into town to avenge her son’s death and is deeply disappointed in Julian for not killing the father despite knowing Billy had raped and killed his daughter (her exact response is, “he probably had his reasons”).

From there, the vengeance clouds the plot. One person tries to kill another and it builds and builds to a crescendo. Only it’s not really a crescendo.

And there’s one detail the audience needs to figure out to make sense of the movie.

If you want a hint, Refn hid it in the contrast of white and black in clothing.

Spoilers ahead. There’s more review below, so just skip this part.

The one thing that I think most people miss in this movie is Chang is actually the good guy. He’s, in fact, a lieutenant of the police, as Refn pointed out last night at LA Film Fest. That’s why the police officers are constantly around him–he’s actually their boss. He isn’t a ringleader of any kind. His main goal is the protection of his citizens and he is cruel to be kind a few times.

Refn hides this very effectively with some slight of hand movie tricks–camera angles, music, acting from Vithaya Pansringarm. Pansringarm is actually fantastic in the film. He’s absolutely menacing throughout, more or less emotionless. He’s also a fabulous fighter and uses that short sword of his with authority. If you didn’t know he was the enforcer of law, it’d be easy to construe him as the “bad guy.” In fact, I think that was Refn’s intention.

The easiest way to figure that out is by following Julian. Julian is the weakest link in a crime ring and everyone around him is cruel, unusual, and without morals. Julian seems to have some morals, though. Watch for the colors of his shirts. When he loads the gun and aims it at the father of the murdered 16-year-old, he’s wearing a white shirt. He chooses not to kill him after hearing his story.

Later in an apparent dream sequence, while wearing a black shirt, he chooses to be particularly violent to someone who just so happened to be in the same room as him.

Julian wears a white shirt for most of it, which signals his motives: they’re honorable. Even when he’s wearing his black suit, the shirt is always white.

Likewise, Chang’s undershirt is white and his motives are also honorable. However, he wears the same black outer wear throughout because he’s not a particularly forgiving man and his motives are unclear throughout most of the movie.

Julian’s mom is regularly wearing some kind of black undershirt or bra and is often masking it with a white dress or shirt, particularly in her death. Her motives are always dishonorable, though she puts a much nicer cover on it than deserves.

Chang, it turns out, is “God” from the title. Refn confirmed this last night. He’s the only one who forgives. And he spares the life of three people in the entire movie: the only three people who accept the consequences of what they’ve done. Each of them ask for forgiveness in different ways. The father is regretful, but doesn’t know what to do next. The man who hired the assassins completely accepts the consequences of what’s to befall him, but asks his son to be spared (we don’t know what happens to him after that, but I’m guessing he lost a hand). And Julian, although he doesn’t have a particular fault except for killing a man who was about to kill Chang’s daughter, accepts it and is willing to lose his hand.

Movies that play with the protagonist/hero/antagonist/villain roles tend to suffer. As we’ve seen from Breaking Bad and Mad Men, viewers will go a long way to defend the protagonist, even after he’s murdered people in cold blood. I’m about 90% sure this is why most people didn’t like it. That and the scene where Julian sticks his hand inside his mom. That was weird.

There’s also a part about the movie that’s about impotence and not being a good son. That one’s a little more obvious and I think you can figure it out for yourself. If you’re confused, look for the open hand-feminine/closed hand-masculine moments.

Spoilers over.

The movie does have a decent plot, it’s just well-hidden. If you spot it, you’ll probably enjoy it. If you don’t, I understand your complaints. If you do and still don’t like it, that’s understandable.

Without that, though, the movie is jarringly gorgeous. Very  few shots are wasted and the colors pop. Refn captured the day-glo nights, the rural shack life, the seedy underbelly, the sort of humble indifference of good and bad in the streets of Bangkok just within the visuals. It’s alluring. Watch it on a big, big screen.

Though Gosling is extremely muted–Refn commented he wanted Gosling to act as though he were in a dream for parts of the movie (for a reason)–his portion of the movie is still pretty damn good.

The two people who really steal the show, as they should have and, hopefully, with Refn’s intention, were Chang (Pansringarm) and Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). Both are great characters. Crystal is an absolutely cruel woman, willing to embarrass her son to a huge degree in front of his supposed girlfriend. When push comes to shove, she’s weak.

Chang is a fantastically calm man in the face of a strong challenge. He’s comes off as sinister and a bit frightening. His role is absolutely bizarre and amazing and Pansringarm plays it remarkably well.

 

As a whole, the movie is obtuse and a little weird. It’s supposed to be. Whether or not you like it is a different issue.

This movie will probably be divisive for years to come and I can see it getting a cult treatment eventually, a little less beloved than Drive.

But I loved it.

 

8.5/10

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under movie review, movie reviews, review

I Will Fight No More Forever

My father once sat me down before a synagogue service, I think it was Yom Kippur. I wasn’t religious and I was starting to show it. I was 18 at the time.

He said, “I don’t go to services because of religion. I go because when I go, I feel close to my brother.”

His brother, my uncle, died when I was 9, after a five-year battle with cancer. They were close. They were best friends and business partners. They were Dodger fans together. 

I never felt what he did at temple. I’ve lost more than half my family in the last seven years and I never felt it at all sitting in those uncomfy non-folding chairs with the high backs in the last row, listening to a rabbi talk about being a good son or daughter to your parents. In fact, it was the opposite. I felt further from them, because I knew my heart wasn’t in it and the only person I was fooling was myself. The holidays only made me wish they were still around so they could chide me for not having faith.

I felt them at Dodger Stadium, though. I felt them–I heard them talking again–looking through baseball archives and watching games from the ’80s and ’70s and ’60s. I felt their presence watching the 1960 World Series clips and watching Hank Aaron hit no. 715. I could hear my grandpa talk about Ron Cey and Tommy Lasorda and my dad calling for a pinch hitter any time Todd Hundley came to the plate (he hated Hundley).

 

I hate this time of year now. I hate Passover and I hate opening day.

I hate it because it represents the inverse of what it once was. It’s a reminder that my family has split apart. It’s a reminder that my dad has died and I’ll never get to talk to him again and I have no one I can talk to about baseball. It’s a reminder that my brother doesn’t live here anymore and probably never will be again. It’s a reminder that my sister has been able to move on with her life while my mom and I haven’t. 

After my father’s death, in my grief, I started looking up baseball stuff, just all sorts of shit. Heck, you can find it in the archives of this very blog. And I sat in front of this very computer and rationalized all of the shit that I was going through and all of the heartbreak and all of the pain and suffering and tried to give it reason. 

In the process of symbolically trying to reconnect with a dad I would never speak to again, I alienated the rest of my family. I grew further from them. I lost myself in the ether.

 

The sport is no longer rewarding. With 30 teams, 29 will not win it all. If we’re watching baseball because it’s rewarding in that casual sense, then that’s just plain old idiotic.

And godforbid it ever does become rewarding. If I’m being completely honest with myself, any victory will taste like ash. It’ll be spent without the one person who made it matter and after hearing for YEARS how awesome it was to watch 1959, 63, 65, 81 and 88 together as a family, I can’t have that now? That’s some bullshit.

 

Jon Weisman once said this time of year is the start of summer. He opens up his lawnchair and gets a glass of lemonade and takes in a big breath of fresh green hot air and he relaxes and he’s happy. For me it’s the opposite. It’s a source of anxiety and pain. it’s a bitter pill I have to swallow every year.

 

I find no more joy in this time of year. I thought one day that might change and it hasn’t. I don’t know if it ever will. 

It felt good to say that.

 

As I started this blog up some years ago, I did it with the expressed intention of finding what drove me to this sport–what was compelling me to still watch this sport and why. I thought the answer would be family, but it’s not. It’s because I enjoy the play. I enjoy watching the tension. It’s Shakespearean on some level. I enjoy it because it’s the most beautiful artform of modern society and it’s rife with gorgeous history.

My family got me into it, though. That’s why it’s painful right now, but, and this is the weird part, only the Dodgers. I love watching other games, I just have no interest in watching the Dodgers right now. I can’t tell if that’s just something for this moment or something that’ll be forever. I hope not forever.

For now, though, I can’t write anymore about baseball. Maybe someday I can pick it up again, just not now. I’ll keep writing movie and TV reviews here, though.

I need to start experiencing shit. I need to get out of my house and go do things and spend time with my niece and sister and brother-in-law and I need to travel. I need to go have fun. I can’t remember when that last was. It feels like forever ago.

It’s time for me to move on now. 

 

Thank you for reading. Thank you for linking and supporting and being excellent people. I appreciate everything you’ve done, even when you challenged me and asked questions. You never really know the quality of a person’s character until you’ve challenged them and I learned I’m a much stronger person than I’ve ever thought.

 

I cannot tell you how much I’ve appreciated having this and how helpful it was in some pretty awful times. 

Take care and thank you again.

-Seth

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Celeste and Jesse Forever review

So in my lifetime, I’ve seen probably triple digits-worth of romantic comedies, a good number of them directly romantic and most of them dressed as different styles of movies–spy movies (Duplicity) or action movies (Knight and Day) or kids movies (Princess Bride). Occasionally you get a decent movie out of one of these that’s kinda schlocky, but funny, and has a personal piece in there that’s touching. Most of them talk about idealized love or detail-oriented love and come up with maybe one or two universalisms about pain and hurt and love and so on.

And then there’s the other kind of romantic movies, the ones that try to make them serious and usually get either extremely depressing or end up unfulfilling–your Leaving Las Vegases, your Blue Valentines, your Revolutionary Roads, etc.  Eugh.

In the last decade, I can name one romantic movie that pulled us in and disturbingly hit the right chords of funny, endearing, sweet, beautiful, terrifying, painful, and personal and it was so loaded half of it wasn’t even about actually being in love (Eternal Sunshine). (PS, fuck When Harry Met Sally.)

Celeste and Jesse aims just below that and hits its target, showing a sweet love that’s personal, and ultimately painful, but without trying to actively show us a horror story.

Celeste and Jesse promoted itself as a movie about two best friends who were married and got divorced and them working through that. This is kind of true. They divorce. Celeste plays with Jesse a bit and, after one night where they sleep together despite being divorced, he thinks he’s back in and she spurns him. So he gets up and leaves. 

It shakes her world. The movie then follows her meltdown.

While he moves on, wisely, she struggles to adapt. It doesn’t play with us or try to make a Love Hurts montage; he clearly wasn’t treated as an equal in the relationship and was the one to realize it first instead. Celeste, who’s clearly in denial about a number of things, denies it and is devastated when he decides to move on with a different woman.

Jones plays the part jarringly well. She becomes a hot mess. When she cries, you cry. Her neurosis isn’t quite our neurosis, but you sympathize for her without being her. You feel bad for her because she’s done this to herself and her self-righteousness–which is softly pointed out by a potential love interest here and there–keeps her from realizing it.

Maybe the finest part of the movie, and the truest to life, is how Celeste can sometimes navigate through her world and sometimes can’t. Emotions are presented as tethers on a string and not a narrative. She hates dating, she’s nervous, she’s anxious, she’s angry, she’s depressed, she’s anxious and then when she’s dealing with a date, she’s kind of charming again. She doesn’t overcome immediately. In fact, it takes a huge portion of the movie, which is about the right amount. She does, however, manage to handle work decently, in spite of a pretty big slip. 

The pain of a break-up is universal, which is why it’s in movies so often, but it’s so rarely made personal for us as it is in this one. Instead of trying to make it universal, the movie makes it particularly personal, which is what MAKES it universal.

There’s one particular scene where Jesse comes to her and his life is kind of out of order too and he’s unsure of what he’s doing. They make out a little and then he makes the smart decision to leave. When they meet up in the next scene to talk about it, she puts her heart on the line, offering it up to him, which she’d denied the entire movie, and he rolls his eyes and leaves. They fight and she sees red and says self-righteous little bits that are meant to be hurtful but aren’t because he’s seen this dog and pony show before. He sees the bigger picture and she still hasn’t at that point.

She reminded me of an ex or two. She’s an ubiquitous woman whose details are so specific we’ve all known her at some point in the movie, even as she changes in the movie. If Samberg’s character was developed more, you could see the same thing on his side.

And then the movie hangs a lot onto its subtlety, often having the characters just do something that goes against their character. (As opposed to most movies where a straight-laced character shockingly does Y and best friend character says “Jamie, you never do Y!!”). The great news is the movie finds that gap between showing too much and not showing enough and having to explain. If not for that, the movie completely wouldn’t work.

Celeste and Jesse ends up being about self-discovery and recovering from a disrupted world view, but through a personal lens. Celeste isn’t some weak-willed woman who’s wilted by losing a man; she’s a strong woman whose world has been shaken to its core. She overcomes.

Tackling love as an evolving, changing spectacle of highs and lows is an extremely dangerous endeavor, especially in movies, which only get an hour and a half of your attention. C + J doesn’t try to accomplish all of that, but it covers the desperation and the myopia people experience in their own relationships. When that myopia is challenged, worlds fall apart. That’s what makes this movie universal, understandable, painful, sweet and personal.

You can almost see if this movie wasn’t handled so directly by Jones and McCormick, who both star in it (McCormick is the second male lead), it would’ve been half the movie it is.

The other obvious comparison to this movie is 500 Days of Summer. What Summer accomplished was finding the humor in the pain because it’s universal. But C + J figured out why that pain is there and exposed it: break ups happen because someone realizes something before the other. While Celeste realized when they got divorced that he wasn’t shaping up, they both strung each other along. When Jesse realized he would never be his equal while they were together, it hit something at her core. And that’s what made this movie so funny, terrifying, painful and personal. It’s what makes this movie the second-best romance movie of the last decade.

See it when you get a chance.

 

Rating: 8.8

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Best and Worst in Movies and TV in 2012

I know I don’t usually post things about the arts here, but I think it’s time I did.

Best TV Series — Game of Thrones

This was an easy pick.  Although TV’s been getting better and better with its selections of programs and entertainment, both in ambition and the finished product, Game of Thrones was the most ambitious and the best finished product by far. The cast is enormous, the plot is a tumultuous grab bag of awesome, the characters are distinct snowflakes, the action is there, the drama is there; there are awesome good guys to root for, conflicted good guys who make (understandably) bad decisions, power-hungry bad guys that pull empathy out of the viewers and power-hungry bad guys that are easy to hate.  Game of Thrones combines the best in television: roiling, moving plots with roiling, moving characters.  The show changes with its world and its characters.  It’s a beautiful thing.

Breaking Bad deserves some credit here too, but I’ll save that write-up for when they finish next season.

Worst TV Show — NCIS

My mom loves this show and makes me watch it now and again when we spend time together.  I know there are some shows that are just like day jobs for some people, where they go in and film and they give the viewers what they want and everyone goes home happy.  This is the antithesis of TV show making for me.  It’s sloppy and hackneyed.  The characters are husks. One in particular uses pop culture to define himself. This show has always seemed like an excuse to have another procedural on the air and nothing it’s ever done has convinced me otherwise.

Most Surprising TV Show — Justified

I’m a little biased on this one since I had to review it for IGN. HOWEVA. Justified had a really great season. It was a show with a purpose.

Justified’s entire premise is more or less slice of life Kentucky law enforcement and country vs. city living in the south.  While there’s always been something there from the start–something to build on–it wasn’t capitalized great in the first season. By the second season, they created Mags Bennett and Mags was freaking awesome.  Good ol’ country law-breaking, moonshine makin’ Mags.

And then they killed her.

That’d normally be a terrible idea.  A character of Mags’ discretion, build, influence and attitude–and one as superbly acted as this one was (Margo Martindale)–is tough enough to build for any series.  To kill her off would be to kill off interest in the show.

And yet, it was the exact opposite.  While Mags was put to rest, we were introduced to several moving parts–Quarles, a carpet bagger from the north who saw a hole in the power after Mags’ death and wanted to take advantage; Quarles was a deeply fucked up character and his style and panache were just so creepy and off-putting it was hard not to like him for being so weird.  There was also Ellstin Limehouse, played with a sweet southern drawl by Mykelti Williams, and the resurfacing of Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) and the rise to power of Wynn Duffy (played by one of my favorite character actors, Jere Burns).

I don’t like to throw around the term “chess game” much when talking TV because most TV writers would be freaking terrible at it if they actually played, but Season 3 was a chess game.  The writers knew where they stood at the end of Season 2 (with a power gap in the seedy underbelly of rural Kentucky and no one capable of filling that hole yet) and knew where they needed to be by the end of Season 3 (a multi-player power structure run by the locals already within the show).  By introducing Quarles, all of the other power players saw the movements and jumped on in.

I’m not doing a great job of describing this.  If you love watching great technical skills in TV writing, watch this show.  If you like character TV, watch this show.  There’s very few reasons to not watch this show now.  My only hope is they keep it up for Season 4, which starts in a week.

Most Disappointing TV Series — Dexter

I haven’t watched Dexter in years–I quit after I think Season 2 or 3–and this season sounded promising. Deb found out. Dexter was in deep shit. The big shit-hit-the-fanning was upon us.

The entire series had to do something about this at some time; it was becoming obvious that having a Serial Killer of the Year and Dexter finding him/her and hunting her down just wasn’t going to sate viewers. Something needed to come to a head.  And so Deb found out about Dexter’s serial killer ways.

Good.

Something needed to get this show out of alternative development hell and make it interesting again.  The only problem was nothing changed.

Things come to a head at the end of the season.  Laguerta finds out about Dexter and is doing a good job of actually prosecuting him.  Dexter’s track-covering is getting sloppy, but he’s still got Laguerta running circles.  Until finally this and that and the other thing and Bob’s your uncle, Dexter has to kill Laguerta.  OK, fine.  He gets her all ready for the killing and Deb finds him and points a gun at him and after some Sophie’s Choice moment, Deb kills Laguerta.

It was maybe the safest possible ending for everyone and probably the most gutless.  Laguerta was expendable.  The only interesting thing for next season is what people think happened to Laguerta, but I’m not interested in it that much to actually watch.

What I would’ve rather seen would’ve been maybe Dexter has to go on the lamb, and following that until his eventual arrest. This is basically what Homeland will start doing next season. Alternatively, having Doakes come back from the dead would’ve been a better possible ending for this season, even if there was no explanation. It would’ve taken some guts to kill Dex there, but that would’ve just thrown the whole show into chaos.

My colleague at IGN, Matt Fowler, has been defending this show for a while and he and I had distinctly opposite reactions.  Literally.  On Twitter, I immediately posted: “Meh.”

His response was “this was excellent.”

I respect Matt and he’s been watching the show a lot longer, so I trust huge Dexter fans loved this as well, but it didn’t bring me back into the fold.

Partial shout out to Homeland, which was set up for failure for Season 2.  There was absolutely no way Carrie and the gang was going to top Season 1 from start to finish, but at least the writers have set themselves up for what looks like a good Season 3.

Best Movie — Silver Linings Playbook

There are few movies this day and age that present a situation–a plot–where the whole world is topsy turvy and yet suck you into that world.  SLP was outstanding from beginning to end, hilarious when it shouldn’t have been, heart-breaking when it should’ve been and overall just a great, uplifting movie.

The basic gist is this: Pat (Bradley Cooper) has bipolar type II. He’s coming back from the mental institution. He meets a girl who has bipolar type II (Tiffany, played by Jennifer Lawrence) and they get each other. While the world around them is kinda nervous to see them and doesn’t understand what they’re going through, they get each other.

The entire story is more or less a Cameron Crowe romantic comedy. Guy is in love with ex-wife. He meets this new girl. New girl hooks him in via a quid-pro-quo. Guy falls in love with new girl despite ex becoming interested again. You get it.

The difference is, SLP understates the love story because the love story isn’t worth much. What’s stated is Pat’s every day battles with being bipolar and the world perceiving him as crazy–same with Tiffany–in a world where he wants to be normal.

And Pat’s world is wonderfully exposed here. Pat goes off his rocker a few times, and it’s not how you’d think. It’s jarringly real. He becomes obsessive; it’s a little frightening to his family and friends, who keep trying to deter him from contacting his ex-wife. He gets oddly aggressive about things that seem inconsequential. But his attitude is positive and because the film is shot as manically as Pat’s behavior, you root for him. You are in his world and you want him to come out in the end.

There’s so much more to talk about this that I can’t even begin to explain. David O. Russell absolutely NAILS what it’s like having someone with bipolar type II in the family and the every day fight against it. He presents it unapologetically. And yet, they live in their own world; a world that other people with bipolar get, but a world you and I don’t really understand. That’s why this movie works so well.

All right, you’ll have to go see it, I can’t explain it better than that right now.

Worst Movie — Battleship

I seldom go see movies I don’t want to see, but this was an exception.

As with any movie, there were some good things in this. Taylor Kitsch was actually pretty funny in it and it would’ve been a lot cooler if this movie didn’t kill his career. Peter Berg, despite being given a shit sandwich, directed it well. Rihanna was not a terrible actress.

However, this was a very clear moneygrab. Everything was off from the start. Battleships aren’t even used in war anymore. Everything in the movie aimed toward this one scene where they tried to shoehorn in the actual game play.  It was sloppy and if it’s sloppy with Peter Berg at the helm, you’ve picked the wrong movie to make into a movie.

The basic premise of this movie was shit from the start and nobody in the middle of the process thought “you know what, maybe we’re stretching too far on this one.”

Most Surprising Movie — Amazing Spider-Man

So you’ve got Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone rehashing a franchise that was done (excellently) by Sam Raimi only a few years ago. Why? Probably because The Avengers need Spider-Man eventually and so just throw it in a pot and see if it boils. If it doesn’t, you have a Spider-Man for the next Avengers movie anyway, so what the hell.

Here’s the odd thing: I would’ve rather seen this Spider-Man series more than Raimi’s.  And I love Raimi and that series.

Amazing Spider-Man did what basically no other Superhero has done in a world of gritty reboots: it developed Parker’s teenage and formative years.

Peter Parker is the perfect superhero to do this to. He’s a sensitive guy, good sense of humor, and had a pretty tough upbringing. His uncle, the closest thing he has to a father figure, is killed.

This seems like a slam dunk to develop and yet no one really has. Because this one did, it made his rise to superherodom more authentic. You feel his pain and his compulsion to make the world right.

Some of Parker’s pain was utterly real. Parker saves the last voicemail he received from Uncle Ben and he listens to it in two important parts in the movie. As someone who’s lost a father figure at a young age, holy shit. I’ve done the exact same thing.

And then we watch Parker evolve into Spider-Man. He’s at first a decent kid. His world is thrown into chaos when his uncle died and he becomes despondent and angry and all the feelings that go into that.

While you feel his pain, you see the rationalizations that eventually turn him into the regular good guy Peter.

For a story about an awkward teenager finding his way through chaos into becoming a man, this was a well-thought out, well-produced, well-directed, well-packaged movie. It was painful, but cathartic. It was fun, and yet meaningful. It was a great story.

Most Disappointing Movie — The Dark Knight Rises

You watched the first two almost definitely, right? Re-watch The Dark Knight. Once you stop watching for Heath Ledger’s performance, there’s a lot of holes in it.

Unfortunately, TDKR doesn’t have Heath Ledger’s performance in it.

Tom Hardy is a fantastic Bane and I’m so very happy that Nolan decided to reintroduce Bane into the movie franchise after the awful Batman and Robin take. Bane is awesome in this one. The opening scene is particularly killer and we see early on why people follow Bane so readily. His eerily calm voice in a chaotic situation is the metaphor needed to project why his followers follow him so ardently.

The biggest problem with TDKR is everything else.

There’s a very clear War on Terrorism parallel here about intelligence and breaking laws to save humanity in the face of terrorists who want nothing but power. Unfortunately, it’s completely dehumanizing and overly simplistic on every level.

There’s even a parallel about using guns as a means of protection. It’s kind of disturbing, especially after the Aurora shooting.

Even discounting the political motivation, the movie lacked coherency. It was all over the place, trying to stuff too much info into too little time. (Strangely, had Nolan ditched the War on Terror strings, I think it would’ve been far more coherent). A single thread about battling Bane, with the RISE scene, and without Joseph Gordon-Levitt would’ve probably been smoother. Alternatively, taking out Catwoman probably would’ve helped too, but Anne Hathaway was great in it and I wouldn’t want to do that to her.

In the end, the whole thing is kind of a mess. This happens sometimes with trilogies where the first two are about the rise to power and fighting the good fight and the third one doesn’t know where to take it from there. Evil will continue to exist after Batman in the Batman universe, so having the trilogy end doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And there’s our conundrum.

OK, that’s this year in review.  Hope you enjoyed it.  Feel free to disagree with me and post what you think was the best/worst/surprising/disappointing.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Gray Lines in Steroid Use That No One Talks About

I’m a steroids apologist, I admit.  Barry Bonds destroyed baseball and, even though he was a Giant (with a giant head), his play was absolutely amazing to watch.

 

We, and by that I mean most of the people I follow on twitter and certainly sabermetricians in general, kinda gloss over the actual cheating by Bonds and others. While we keep throwing around stuff about greenies in the ’70s, I don’t think anyone here really knows how rampant amphetamine use was in that day: who was taking it, how much were their doses, how effective it was, etc. Heck, we don’t even know really how rampant steroid use is today. Not to mention, amphetamines and steroids are two completely different drugs.

Baseball’s record on drugs has been pretty goddamn awful from the start and there’s a lot of myopia on all sides. Either everyone’s guilty or no one is; either we accept all players who did anything to advance their careers or none of them.

 

 

But, and this is something I’ve heard multiple times, what’s the difference between steroid users and gamblers?

Well, besides the obvious.

Steroids are banned in baseball.  So is gambling.  Why is baseball not consistent on this?  Why not be equal?  Cheating is cheating, right?

 

Ethics is unsteady ground.

 

The thing that gets kind of annoying is assuming drugs are equally bad. This isn’t even faintly true.  Steroids and HGH are not the same and when you get into Andro and other supplements, the line gets grayer. I doubt anyone here can tell the difference between Mesterolone and Tetrahydrogestrinone. Heck, I didn’t even know before I looked it up. Both are banned by MLB.

This is glossed over the most in every argument and now supplement makers are the ones making the lines grayer. MLB, in its panic to set the record straight, just said “Fuck it, we’re banning everything marked Andro and steroids by the FDA.” There’s only equivocation: a banned substance is banned and it’ll get you big game suspensions.  Occasionally, banned substances find their way into weight gainers because guess who makes anabolic steroids and andro products for sale to pharmacies. The marginal return on weight gainer is pretty goddamn slim, but a positive test is a positive test. Meanwhile, training and weight lifting regimens are getting more scientific and advanced than ever before and we like to use The Eye Test on shit like this, so everyone looks guilty.
Seems to me, though, that the ones who took steroids and are HOF players were already HOF players: Bonds, McGwire, Sheffield, etc. Probably even Clemens. In fact, it may have hurt the cases of two hall of famers in Sheffield and Rafael Palmiero and I wouldn’t be surprised if both fell off the ballot just because of their ties to use–and that the focus of the pro-steroids HOF push is going to be entirely on Bonds and Clemens. Maybe there’s an argument about how Jason Giambi had a decent borderline case, but he’ll also probably be cut out. And then players like Miguel Tejada, Bret Boone, Albert Belle, etc, never really had a chance. I think Manny’s gonna be the only really interesting case here, but that’s for a few years from now.

There’s no doubt that Manny and Bonds took steroids, but the question is really how much did it help them, and it’s not likely it catapulted them from All-Stars to HOFers. There’s a wide chasm between good players and the Hall of Famers.

 

On the other hand, the line on gambling was pretty clearly drawn and had been for the last 50 before Pete Rose arrived on the scene, as it should be and as it should always be. Maybe the smartest thing Dan Shaughnessy ever said was when Bill Buckner booted the ball in the ’86 Series, NO ONE claimed he was throwing the game.

Gambling does call into question the very idea of playing the sport and why we watch it. Without baseball’s stiff upper lip, baseball would be a step above wrestling.

 

While both are illegal, both have different punishments and, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that steroids aren’t a good thing.  But MLB does right by its players.  A positive test is a positive test.  Find a different supplement if it’s a mistake.  If not, you’ll be caught again almost definitely.  There are chances for redemption, especially of the innocent.

Leave a comment

Filed under MLB, steroids

An End to the Hiatus

After our project wrapped up, I needed a break.  I’m done with that now.

Baseball’s been exciting.  I didn’t think it would be with a final four of San Fran, St. Louis, New York and Detroit.  Watching Phil Coke pull the pin on a beautiful slider to Raul Ibanez in the top of the 9th tonight was a lot of fun.

I hope you’re enjoying it too.

Leave a comment

Filed under MLB

A Brief Response to Some of the Smaller Bits of Backlash from Scorekeeping

First off, I’m really proud of the work Adam and I did, particularly Adam.  I want to show how much work this was to everyone that put it down and questioned it.

Almost three years ago, I started collecting smaller bits and pieces of broadcasters, reporters, and any kind of sports commentators calling a person of color lazy and a white person scrappy.  It wasn’t much.  I knew it wasn’t scientific and it was mostly for shits and giggles.

About a year and a half ago, Adam, who read my blog and also posted on the same message board as me, asked if we could take this to the next level and make it a real scientific study about the use of descriptors and adjectives in baseball with a hypothesis about the use of “hustle” and “grit” being primarily used for white players and laziness and all its substitutes being used for players of color.

I said OK.  After taking a month to organize PR materials, I launched a gritty little hustler of a kickstarter that worked hard in the span of another month and huffed and puffed its way to a $2,500 and even went a little past that.  All of the fundraising came from grass roots organizing, word of mouth, help from a message board, and a little help from Craig Calcaterra and Bill Baer.

And then came the hard part.

See, this wasn’t easy.  This wasn’t just some dudes watching some TV, marking down the time Vin Scully called a dude a butter and egg man in the background while playing MLB 2k11.

This was some motherfucking hard work.

When we started, we hired about 15 people to track the data.  We explicitly outlined what was required of them, what they had to pay attention to, and how to keep track of the data.  We offered a small stipend.

After the first week, about seven dropped out immediately and the rest stopped after their first (and only) week.  Only three completed an entire month’s work of data (thank you Eric, Mike and Anthony).  We were looking at about 150 games that needed to be covered with almost nobody to cover them.

When was the last time you watched a baseball game intently?  And by that, I mean while you weren’t doing some other task.  Not working on your computer.  Not while you were on your phone at the same time.  But actually sitting down, staring at the screen, start to finish, listening to the entire goddamn broadcast?  I made it through six games before it drove me insane.

That’s what I want you to see: Adam and Michael Carver and Adam’s wife Alaina and the rest of our coders who put in three hours of work every day for weeks.  Not one week, but multiple weeks.  Michael particularly worked hard–he did about 7 teams by himself.  Adam did more than all of us–I didn’t even count how many he did.  I think he did 8 or 9.

So for simple math’s sake, let’s take the conservative estimates: 8 teams covered x 6 games in a week = 48 games total, right?  48 games x 3 hours each = 144.  144 hours.  8,640 minutes of straight listening to dudes making mundane small talk while describing a baseball game happening in front of them.  I almost feel sorry for the broadcasters for having that considerable amount of pressure on them to produce that much material.

And not only that, but writing down several variables (date, inning, score, who said it, who was it said about, what was said, and what category of speech, just to name a few) for each time even the mildest descriptor/adjective was used: hustle, gamer, grit, hard-working, butter and egg man.  Don’t forget to pause after each time one is said so you don’t miss another one.

To be honest, it was fascinating, if not mind-numbingly boring.  I would do it all over again if I had a job that paid me more than 13 an hour and gave me 12 hours in the day to do anything I wanted.

When it went to publish, almost all of the fundraised money had been used with the exception of a couple hundred dollars.  I can assure you, as a nearly-broke behaviorist living in Los Angeles, this was NOT about the money.  The Atlantic didn’t even pay us, as far as I know (Adam???).  All of this was simply because Adam and I love the sport and and hey, we were curious if there was any truth to the old jokes we used to throw around about hustle and grit and laziness.

So for someone like Rob Neyer, whose work I respect immensely, to immediately shit on it breaks my heart.  This wasn’t some fly-by-night operation.  This wasn’t some BIG ATLANTIC COVERING THE SCENE story.  This was two guys who love baseball–two guys who are part of the same baseball fabric that Neyer is a part of–working diligently to see if there’s something to the old rumors and pontifications that he and we and Keith Law and Ken Tremendous and everyone else have been scoffing and guffawing at for years.

And believe it or not, we found something–and it wasn’t what we thought it would be.  We found an actual goddamn correlation to something and it was awesome.  How about that shit. Something worth publishing.

Now suffice to say that the actual printed version on The Atlantic wasn’t everything Adam and I hoped it would be.  That happens.  When you take a 4,500-word article and chop it down to 2,500, some things aren’t gonna make the cut–and that’s not even factoring in the parts where we had to edit to make it “readable” for an Atlantic audience.  It seems to me neither Adam nor I nor The Atlantic crew knew how to publish the article and it turns out that we landed in the middle spot where most casual Atlantic readers would say “tl;dr” and the baseball-specific fans tried to find the holes in the article.

As for Keith Law’s criticism, he’s at least partly right.  Our study was entirely on scrap and grit and so on, but we did harp on Jon Heyman and that was unfair.

The point of the study wasn’t to point out anyone as racist–though, I mean, how could you not love the irony of an implicit association test using Jon Heyman as a point of reference three times.

Jon Heyman is almost definitely not racist (unless he’s secretly a member of the KKK or something).  The point was that even solid reporters like Heyman, who do a great job of breaking news, can sometimes be susceptible to the potentially hidden racism of casual use of adjectives.

It’s not that Heyman’s racist, and that’s far from the conclusion we want to draw.  Heck, it’s not even about Heyman; it’s about all of us.  We know what racism is and what it looks like.  It’s far easier to draw the line at an individual being racist–does that person not like people of color?  Yes?  Then that person’s a racist.  That simple.  But the line gets blurred on institutional racism and the use of those adjectives could be potentially (institutionally) racist.

That’s what our findings show.  And if that’s the case, then we should probably not be using these terms.

The good news is the full version answers a lot more questions.  If you bought one through the kickstarter, you’ve probably received it by now.  If you want a copy, contact me on twitter.  I think we may have a few hard copies left over at the end of this.  We’re gonna try to make it available by PDF so other people can see it.

Thanks for reading.  It’s a little frustrating that such hard work was taken so lightly by a number of people, but thank you so much for even stopping by and reading it and taking it seriously if you did.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Leave a comment

Filed under MLB, Scorekeeping