Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Analyzing the hate: Jeremy Wariner

Today, as a fun exercise, I thought I’d write something I strongly believe in that is also inherently ridiculous after which I try reasoning my way out of that ridiculous statement. My ridiculous statement today: I think Olympic track champion Jeremy Wariner is a ridiculous athlete and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say I hate him, I would actively root against him in a race. I know that seems ridiculous, and I doubt Jeremy Wariner himself is going to lose sleep after realizing I am not a big fan of his, but I am adamant that this is important because spectators are fans of athletes for different reasons and I often find that if I think really hard about why I like this team but not that team, I gain insight into how fan attachment works.

So who am I talking about? Jeremy Wariner was the Gold medalist in Athens in the 400 meter dash and silver medalist in Beijing. This year he finished 6th in the Olympic trials and is on the team as a relay specialist. He’s hardly relevant, but, hey I didn’t have a blog in 2004 when I first had these thoughts, so suck it.

An easy reason to dislike Jeremy Wariner is that he’s decked out in a lot of “bling” (as the kids like to call it) when he runs. Specifically, he has big flashy earrings, sunglasses, necklaces and the like.

This isn’t really a strong reason to dislike him although it doesn’t make me particularly fond of him either. If anything it distracts from the true issues at stake which is my feelings towards Jeremy Wariner. It’s as if he’s saying to me “Orrin, I know you’re unsure whether you like me or not, but does this 24-karat necklace and this diamond-studded earring change your mind? Pretty cool jewelry I’m wearing, huh?” I also think it would be distracting for Jeremy himself to run around the track adorned like 50 Cent. Doesn’t that slow him down? I wonder if given the choice, he’d also opt to have an entourage running follow him in adjoining lanes as well. But I mostly leave that out of the equation: If Jeremy Wariner wants to get all dressed up for me, that’s his business.

Another slight issue at stake is that Jeremy Wariner went to Baylor University and is very likely from Texas. He came on the scene at the height of George W. Bush’s unpopularity. I’m not suggesting that disliking everyone who became famous in 2004 from the state of Texas is rational but the beauty of being a sports fan is you don’t need rationality for deciding who to like. I only knew that whenever Jeremy Wariner spoke in his Texas drawl in celebration of his victory a mere two months before another man in a Texas drawl was threatening to win another four years in office, I did not like it.

But the main reason I dislike Jeremy Wariner is that after he won his medal, he gave a press conference in which he hired Michael Johnson* as his agent and said that he wanted to go professional. He said his goals were to be the best in the world and to break 44 seconds. I know this seems like a harmless act: To say that you want to be the best in the world seems like the thing you’re supposed to say.   

Except for this: He was proclaiming his goals to be things he’d already done. He just became the best in the world when he won the Gold medal and he had already broken 44 seconds in the 400 meter dash. It’s a minute difference. He could have just said “I want to continue to stay on top” rather than “I want to be on top” but his lapse was representative of his high degree of automation when answering all the other questions he was asked. All of his answers to questions were designed to be “the right answer” and, even worse, the questions he was being given weren’t particularly hard questions to answer, which made this lapse stick out even more.

When Jeremy Wariner was giving this press conference, it was a couple weeks before I became the beat writer for James Madison University’s cross-country and track teams. I found the sport highly exciting to watch but I came across the conundrum when interviewing that I was mostly asking questions to which I already knew the answers simply because I needed a minimum of three different sources for an article. If you ask athletes about their motivation, it’s obviously to have wanted to win the race or the boxing match or whatever it is they were trying to do. They also are not complete idiots so they won’t badmouth teammates or coaches. It’s not like I was necessarily looking to be Jerry Springer, but these restrictions mean that an athlete can’t discuss their process or team’s organization in any critical way. In the case of Wariner, he seems to not just play the game but almost believe he’s actually saying interesting things in a press interview which he isn’t.

Secondly, I don’t really admire Wariner’s goals. For the last eight years, since proving that he can do this, Wariner has devoted himself to running a lap around the track faster than anyone else in the world. That he hasn’t succeeded in doing this (a silver in Beijing is close enough) is beyond the point. I think it’s a shoddy goal. Now I know what you’re thinking: What about a person who remains a world-class distance runner or sprinter over the span of three Olympics like Hachim El Garrouj or Allyson Felix?

A sprinter is admirable because they’re pushing the limits of how fast a human being can go. Distance running is a sport of a thousand variables. Watch some professional-level 800 meter races and you’ll notice that even though the runners will usually finish in a 3 second range (1:44-1:46.99 although a small handful of people in the world go under 1:44 in any given year and some guy in Kenya ran 1:41), no two races go the exact same way.

Running a 400 meter race looks exactly the same every time. Jeremy Wariner goes fast after the gun fires, stays fast, and finishes ahead of everyone. When Wariner was second in the world behind LaShawn Merritt, it was the same thing except Merritt would be ahead of him when he crossed the line. There was no suspense or excitement in watching it and it’s not that much of a leap to assume that there’s little suspense or excitement running this.

As a former track runner, I can testify that running a 400 is a unique and difficult challenge because you can’t sprint the entire distance leaving you to ration your energy (although if I’m a world class athlete, I would imagine this problem is less severe). But I imagine that challenge would have been conquered a long time ago. Wariner is the equivalent to me of an actor who wants to be typecast in the same role over and over again or a desk jockey who doesn’t want to expand past his original job description. I personally just can’t see how what he’s doing could be continually challenging.

Why don’t I feel this way about LeShawn Merritt or other 400 runners? The only other 400-meter runner I know of is LeShawn Merritt and he has professionally run the 200 and 300 and I happen to know in high school he ran the 300, 500, and 55 meter dash as well. Past that, I would be just as willing to look down upon the other 400 runners if I knew that they lacked the same determination to challenge themselves for eight years in a way that was, in fact, not at all challenging.

So there you have it.

*Michael Johnson is a guy I also dislike. The first summer Olympics I really got into was Atlanta in 1996 and Michael Johnson was the poster boy of that Olympics. He was supposedly incredible because he was doing something that had never been done before: Winning both the 200 and the 400. Once, I started running track and following the sport, I realized that this all is really not that big of a deal at all. Aside from the 100-200, 300-500 (indoors), 5K-10K or 1600-3200 doubles, 200-400 is a very common double to achieve. They’re both essentially long sprinting events. The most challenging double is really 400-800 and a Cuban runner did achieve this in Montreal 1976. The only reason Michael Johnson is more well-known is because we hate Cuba and also because of Johnson’s humongous marketing juggernaut team.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Tracing the History of the Suburbs to Suburgatory

Note: I don't start talking about Suburgatory until the bottom of the blog entry:
Two sharp satires of suburbia that have stuck with me the most are the Oscar-winning film American Beauty and the Showtime series Weeds. The degree to which both are considered edgy is related to the degree to which they paint a bleak picture of the suburb. The “suburb as hell” view is essential to both plots. Both Weeds and American Beauty condemn the suburb as some circle of Hell where people are imprisoned by a communal desire for conformity that is an artificial substitute for real problems.  In both cases, it’s the circumstances around them which push the protagonists to sin and for us to either root for them or at least empathize with them.

Since the creation of Brooklyn Bridge in 1875 allowed Manhattanites the option of escaping the evils of the city, the suburb has long been both one of America’s defining inventions. and its great paradoxes. The suburb came about when the grandiosity of the city was being overtaken by filth, crime, substandard living conditions, and an unwanted inflow of immigrants. Suburbia allowed Americans to own a piece of the countryside—what has long been considered the American dream—while retaining a closeness to the city. It allowed America the opportunity to remake the city in its own image. The balance between the contradicting desire of isolation and community; the arrogance in believing that the long-established urban ideal can be improved upon; the false premise of owning a piece of the countryside are all ripe for satire because they so intrinsically tie into the American Dream.

The theme of conformity in the landscape is referenced in the opening theme of Weeds which speaks of “Little boxes” made of “Ticky tacky” (implying fragility) that “All look the same” despite the fact that they are different colors (an implication of a failure of the community to accept diversity). Similarly,the memorable closing shot of “American Beauty” zooms away from a dead Lester Burnham to show a community of entirely identical houses that’s downright frightening in how far it stretches out.

 To examine why the suburb invokes such a powerful image, it might be helpful to go back to Levittown. Built in Long Island in the late 1940’s, Levittown was a mass-produced housing development that has long been considered by urban planners to be a prototype of suburbia. With the Baby Boom, the 1948 Housing Bill (which loosened lending restrictions) and the GI bill, Leavittown came along at the optimal time for suburbia to take off.

Leavittown was heavily marketed to the city dwellers and the concept of a rosier escape from the city was intrinsic to the idea of the suburb. The names of suburbs and housing developments often employed geopomorphic features, images of the country, or positive associations with place (Heaven, Eden, Paradise, Sunny, etc.). For example, take a look at the list of suburbs of Minneapolis: Golden Valley, Edinah, Eden Prairie, Maple Grove (as if you’d realistically find an orchard of maple trees there), St. Louis Park, Rosemont. This was satirized appropriately enough on “Arrested Development” when Michael Bluth picked a name for a housing development that his son, George Michael, said sounded like salad dressing.

Meanwhile, “Suburgatory,” a new show this past season that flew relatively low on the cultural radar (but fortunately, got renewed), shows you don’t have to condemn every element to effectively satirize it.

The show follows teenage daughter Tessa Altman (Jane Levy) and her single dad George (Jeremy Sisto) as they move from Manhattan to a suburb where communal pressure to fit in is particularly heavy. Like someone who watched American Beauty or Weeds, Tessa has a preset expectation that suburbia will be like Hell. George is on the opposite end of the spectrum. As the dramatic tension unwinds between the duo over whether this new town and subsequent lifestyle is good or bad, the show allows for an even-sided exploration.
In the closing credits of Suburgatory’s pilot, we see George out and about alongside all of his neighbors as they all water their law. George smiles while receiving a compliment from his intrusive neighbor from across the street, Sheila Shay (Ana Gasteyer), on the niceness of his lawn. It’s an empty compliment: the lawns (long considered to be the most frivolous vestiges of suburbia) are all identical. Whereas Tessa would take the compliment with cynicism, George has no such pretensions and that's the basic yin and yang of the show

            The irony of the situation is Tessa's process of growing up is to throw all the snark out the window and accept her new environment. While many of the characters (Ana Gasteyer's Sheila Shay, her school nemesis Dalia Royce, etc.) are fairly constant (though no less hilarious, the show has a GREAT supporting cast), Tessa slowly realizes that there are some hidden depths behind her initial assumptions. Cheryl Hines (deserving of an Emmy nod), in particular, shines as perky Southern belle Dallas Royce whose evolving relationship with Tessa is an often-underlooked source of pathos for the show.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Looking at The Power Rangers through Adult Eyes

In latest editions of looking at some program I saw as a kid through adult eyes:

1. Tommy was like the Yoko Ono of the Power Rangers as far as I was concerned. He just messed up the chemistry of the group. The group was supposed to be a true ensemble symbolically as well as literally. They all had roughly equal screentime and when fighting, they each made units that formed into a coherent whole in both their weapon and the super dinosaur they formed.

Tommy was distractingly hunky (any guy who wears a pony tail is doing so to get attention), took up more than his fair share of airtime and had a dinosaur that didn't match up with the other dinosaurs. I later learned through the interwebz that Tommy was intended to be written as a guest role but the fan response was so overwhelmingly positive that they kept him on. This confirms my theory that Tommy was antithetical to the show's original vision.

2. Trini, the yellow ranger, seemed a little shyer and had less presence (at least to me) than Kimberly and the guys, although I don't think she was written that way.
Listen closely at her wavering accent and you can tell English was new to her. The quietest kids in school were Asian girls and most of the Asian women I'd seen on screen were pretty submissive. If the actress who played Trini, Thuy Trang,was just a little more assertive in her line delivery, if she shouted "sabretooth tiger" with the convincing gravitas of the others, I think she could have really Sidney Poitier'ed up for Asian girls. Missed opportunity. The actress tragically died in a car crash in 2001.

3. When I look back on films and TV that I experienced as a child, I tend to better remember colors and visuals for some reason (probably is true for all children although I've done no research on the topic). Even as an adult, you might notice as an adult that the wardrobe of the power rangers matched their colors as often as possible.
This raises questions if you want to really examine this closely because these rather unorthodox wardrobe choices (wearing a yellow outfit two days in a row is just a coincidence but having an entire closet full of yellow outfits is pretty much out of the realm of normal for any teenager trying to be fashion-conscious) were made by the Rangers before they knew they were going to be Rangers and after the transformation.

The fact that they were wearing those clothes before opens the door for interesting fan theories should anyone wish to take the show more seriously than what cast member David Yost later described as a 30 minute advertisement to sell toys. Did the Rangers always know on some deep level that they'd be pink, yellow, red, black, and blue?

I have equally pressing concerns about the use of color coordination after they knew they would be rangers: wouldn't that arouse suspicion?
Nonetheless, I actually did think that was a nice touch to the visuals of the show as a kid.

4. David Yost (who played Billy, right) and Jason Frank (who played Tommy) rank up there as the most ridiculous instances of an adult trying to be passed off as a high schooler. Interestingly enough David Yost didn't wear glasses for real and were given the specs to be nerded up for the camera. He reported it started to mess with his vision after a while. He was also gay and while the cast was supportive, producers and crew members would call him gay epithets causing him to storm off set one day when he had enough and essentially quit.

5. I had a crush on Kimberly as a kid and she is still as attractive as I remember. Perhaps it's because of her good looks that the actress Amy Jo Johnson was able to transition to a successful TV career. She was most notable for co-starring in Felicity. Considering how exaggerated the Power Rangers were required to act, I have trouble believing that acting on the Power Rangers would be the master's acting course needed to be able to star in a TV show watched by adults.

6. I think, especially to a kid, being a goody two shoes is the least desirable trait you could have. Back then, my greatest vicarious wish when watching this show was to see the Power Rangers just let go for an episode and light the school on fire or beat up a senior citizen just for the hell of it.

As an adult, I find them even more annoying. They're so eager to follow authority and rules that they're almost as ridiculous as the Nassim Pedrad character from Saturday Night Live who is constantly bragging about how great her parents are and won't leave them at parties. And this wasn't meant to be a comedy show.

7. Is it disconcerting at all that the black ranger in the first season and a half was black while the yellow ranger was Asian? Yellow has been used in derogatory terms to classify Asian people before anthropologists had a more exact idea of race. But that's not all: In one of the episodes that didn't go into production (this is top secret, so it can't easily be found on the internet), a big deal is made of Billy's blue blood (the Habsburgs to be exact), Jason is revealed to be 1/8 Cherokee (making him a REDskin) and Kimberly is so enthusiastic about pink power because she's a closeted lesbian.

8. Is it me or is fFinster not convincingly evil enough? Instead, he is adorable. He really does not seem to have an evil bone in his body and if the Power Rangers ever met him, they'd want to adopt him as a pet or grandfather. This seems like an intentional blunder for a show that really wanted to cement just how evil their bad guys were an how goody two shoes they're good guys were.

9. Bulk and Skully are highly curous creations (and by that, I also mean hillariously shoddily written). They have two main functions as far as I can discern:
1) Providing comic relief
The two have a crude Laurel and Hardy act goin on in which they have no sense of balance or coordination and manage to routinely hurt each other.
This isn't always the case but no worries: You don't actually have to find them hillarious to understand the fact that they're meant to be hillarious. To settle the "Is this funny?" internal debate that goes on in your head when something is sort of funny, loud carnival music blares through the score to help alert you "Yes, you should laugh here, because we're too lazy to make this naturally funny on our own."

2) Serving as a foil to the Power Rangers.
If the Power Rangers are supposed to be goody two shoe role models. These are the guys who are written as the opposite so you can be sure who not to emulate. Beyond that, everything about these two guys' identities and motives are completely unclear.

I'll give you an example of how awkwardly their scenes are written:
In the opening episode, Bulk and Skully first appear as suitors of Kimberly and Trini asking them out on a double date. Kimberly and Trini just smile and say "sorry guys." This reminds me of several instances where if Bulk an Skully weren't explicitly "bad guys," than the Power Rangers would look like complete d-bags for not being nice to them. For example, the girls can't even come up with an excuse or say "you guys are really sweet but let's just be friends"?

Bulk and Skully, being some ambiguous form of bad, decide that the proper response to being rejected is to run at Kimberly and Trini and unsuccessfully attempt to karate chop them to which Kimberly and Trini do a defensive karate move that flips them over onto a mat. I kid you not. This is good exposition for Kimberly at Trini because it shows that they are strong women who can defend themselves, but it does little to develop Bulk and Skully. Similarly, after being embarrassed at the two girls flip them over, Bulk and Skully decide after a long deliberation session (literally less than 2 seconds) that in order to better court and/or attack the objects of their affection, they will need to take karate lessons. Luckily, red power ranger* Jason is giving karate lessons, so Bulk interrupts him in the middle of the class to demand lessons. Then 30 seconds later, Bulk wants to show Jason that he does karate better than him.

I'm not saying that Bulk learns from Jason for thirty seconds and decides he's overpowered the master. It just seems like 30 seconds later, Bulk has no memory of ever wanting to have been a student of Jason. It's weird in a way that you can tell it's sloppily written.

Throughout the series, the only things we can definitively attach to Bulk and Skully is that they're straw losers and not thought of particularly positively by the gang. Other than that, it's unclear whether they want to emulate, date select members of, learn from, compete with or just plain mock the gang as peons of little interest to them.

*AP Style book is unclear about whether red power ranger should be capitalized.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Some more FAQs

Q: How do you get stories?

A: A: Well, I wouldn't say I go out story-hunting or that I even go out more than the average person. When I do go out, however, I do keep my eyes open. It's not a conscious thing at this point either. After doing this a while, I just have an internal mechanism when I see something story-worthy that goes off in my head with the thought: "That would be a good story" and I might proceed to get more information if I feel like it. Even in the time period since graduating from college where I haven't considered myself a journalist, I might have gone about the information gathering part if the story was good enough.

Another way of collecting stories is getting on a media lists. You can call most organizations and ask to be on an email feed that sends out all their press releases. The downside is you'll get a lot of junk mail. The upside is that occasionally a really cool story will come your way.

Q: What media lists are you on?
A: Because I keep a column on the film industry in Washington DC, I have a professional relationship with the DC Film Office and two days ago, I saw a story in my inbox that led to one of the coolest experiences ever as I got to go on the set of Parks & Recreation (I'll stop bragging about that soon, I promise). I get about 4 emails from them a week that I don't use. 
I'm also on the Arlington Chamber of Commerce and Arlington Arts Center media lists because I wrote stories on both of them.
I'm also on the USATF (US Association of Track and Field) media list and I would give you advice on how to get on it but I have no idea how I got on it myself (I have considerable experience reporting on track and field but not in any big enough way for the USATF to possibly take notice). For a while this past Spring, I would get invited every week to interview Olympic athletes in a telephone conference call with other professionals. I had absolutely zero outlets that would publish a story by me about Olympic hurdlers (I'm mostly localized) but it was a good experience to participate in the teleconference to learn what other reporters would ask a hurdler or a discuss thrower en route to the Olympics. That's more of a story than anything else. Sorry for the tangent

Summary: Media lists are good. They don't always let you on them but it never hurts to ask. Also be prepared for junk mail.

Q: What's all this about branding?
A: Branding is the idea of having your own voice and point of view which you bring. Some people (Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post) have said that branding is BS. I don't know whether I agree with Weingarten entirely but I don't worry about my "voice" at all and would find the process distracting if I started worrying about it now. There's a small chance that I might be wrong about this and that I should pay attention to my voice. I currently like not worrying about it.

I just try to write well and match the style of who I'm writing for. When you're writing publications are as diverse as a website for men, a magazine for woman (it was called fab and curvy, halted in preproduction), corporate clients, community reporting, and snarky humor websites, you definitely can't have a one-size-fits-all approach.

Q: How cool is to have your name in the byline?

A: It's moderately embarrassing now that I say this out loud, but occasionally it has been cool to impress someone (often a random person) reading my article by pointing out that I wrote it.

On the whole, however, I'm pretty used to it by now and there are usually a lot of larger concerns that are at stake such as whether I'm compensated for it properly, whether it's good, whether it's distributed properly, whether it's legitimately my article (I'll explain this in a second) to the point where I would gladly sign a lifelong contract to write every anonymously if some of the other stuff was taken care of.

I also don't think it's nearly as interesting to be in the byline as being in the newspaper and being written about. 95% of the people I'm writing about are more interesting than me, and I like it that way because I prefer to write about stories that interest me. I was in the newspaper three times in high school for cross-country races (by senior year, I was something like the 7th best runner in the school, I wasn't a star) and that was more thrilling for me, than the 20 times I had already written for that newspaper the summer before.

There are various reasons where I don't want my name in the byline and sometimes I use pen names. I might misspell my name by one letter or use my middle name instead of my last name. When I was writing for the website for men, I didn't necessarily want my name linked to it.

I also wish I could erase my name off the byline for various reasons. Five years ago, I wrote for NBC 4's DC Scene Blog when I was starting out. The NBC Blog came about because the person running DC Scene no longer had the ability to manage the articles coming in so he created a blog for us and even the blog started to become unmoderated, so we all got sloppier.

Some of those articles I wrote 5 years ago were awful. The good news is I've improved. The bad news is that my articles are still there with my name on it.

Lastly, being in the byline of a newspaper can mislead others into thinking you're successful at what you're doing when you're really not.

A: What does it mean to have your name in the byline?
It depends greatly. Remember, just because my name is there, doesn't mean I necessarily wrote it. Editors sometimes heavily alter what I write and often do it in ways I don't personally think improve the story, or worse, alter the story to such a great degree, I don't recognize what I wrote and feel fraudulent that my name is there.

I also have cowritten pieces which can be a greatly misleading title. In one case, all it meant was that I transcribed a debate. In another case (here's a long personal anecdote, skip to the bottom of paragraph if that's not your thing), I wrote season previews on the cross country programs for two of the three schools in Arlington County. The third one was the school I ran for and as luck would have it, I was named by my coach as one of the runners to watch for when I was interviewed.The problem was the editor grouped the three high school write-ups together with our two names in the byline. Can you guess the problem here? It looked to the rest of the team that I just inserted myself into my own story.

Q: I like to write but don't have the time. What do I do?
A: When I feel like writing, I try to capitalize on it. Usually, after I see a movie, I'll have the most desire to write because I'll respond to the movie and want to sort those out on paper. Once I do that, I might be in the flow of writing so I write about something else or something that I need to write.

I also try to write a couple different things at the same time or intersperse it with another task so if I'm feeling blocked on one thing, I just move on to another thing.

Lastly, I might write something sloppy on a message board or converse with someone about something. You might not like writing but you might like having a conversation, right? So I converse with someone online and then I start taking what I wrote and just cutting and pasting it.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Random Movie Review: The Invasion (2007)

Nicole Kidman stars as a doctor who is trying to save her son, as well as the entire planet from an invasion of microscopic aliens, in this remake of the 1956 classic sci-film "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Like the Jonathan Demme thriller "Manchurian Candidate", the Ashton Kutcher-Bernie Mac comedy "Guess Who?" (based on the 1967 film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner") or the Adam Sandler comedy "Mr. Deeds" (Based on Frank Capra's 1936 film "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town"); "The Invasion" belongs to a class of remakes that is created out of a desire to reintroduce modern audiences to the classics. I find these films far preferable to the class of remakes like The Italian Job (2003), The Shaggy Dog (2006), and Fun with Dick and Jane (2005) that are created out of a desire to improve on a film that never resonated with audiences in the first place. Too often, the films in the second group feel like an excuse for a writer not being able to come up with original material of his own.
In the case of the original "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers," the film was not only considered to be one of the high points of 1950's science-fiction film-making, but in its day, the film was read as a metaphor for the dangers of passivity in the McCarthy era (although Director Sam Peckinpaugh never admitted the film was anything more than a film about aliens). The 2007 remake, however, leaves out any preachy subtext and simply tries to recapture the excitement and feel of 1950's science fiction through updated techniques.

The result is an interesting blend of outlandish scientific absurdity with elements of the modern thriller. Science-fiction from the 1950's and earlier came from an age where modern science was at much earlier stages of deciphering the mysteries of outer space and the human body, so the science-fiction stories of the time was usually built around more fantasical plots that didn't need scientific explanations. In another recent remake of a 1950's sci-film, War of the Worlds, Stephen Spielberg didn't even try to explain the scientific absurdity of having aliens spring up from underneath the streets and just turned the film into a tight-paced thriller. Although without the craftsmanship of Spielberg to guide them, the camera-work and editing feel a little overambitious without in some scenes, but Invasion still feels like a thriller of the same caliber. Like Spielberg's "War of the Worlds," the struggles of the entire planet in the wake of an alien invasion are played out through the race of a single parent trying to protect themselves and their offspring from attack.

"Invasion," however, is a little more science-heavy. In "War of the Worlds," Tom Cruise spends the film outrunning the alien invasion, but since he knows practically nothing about where they came from or where else they're located, one is tempted to ask "Where exactly is he running to?" In "Invasion," issues like these are well-thought: she's running to a lab that will cure her. Of course, with this outdated plot, you have all sorts of stretches like Nicole Kidman's misguided belief that by drinking lots of mountain dew and taking pills she can stay awake forever, but Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig (who plays her boyfriend and colleague) and Jeffery Craig (playing her colleague) are such consummate professionals and they take the material so seriously, that the plot holes seem that much smaller. The film's attention to detail can be enjoyed in the same way a Tom Clancy or a Michael Crichton novel can.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Guild

Much has been written on the paradox of how actresses cast in romantic comedies are usually among the most beautiful women on the planet, yet they have to convince an audience that they would have any problems finding dates (until Mr. Right comes along, that is). Not only is a beautiful woman bound to get the attention of any man with a functioning pair of eyes she walks past, her ego will naturally be inflated by it to the point where she couldn't possibly see herself at home among socially-awkward nerds.

AV Club writer (and a friend of this blog*) Nathan Rabin went so far as to coin a popular term-"Manic Pixie Dream Girl"**-to express a theory that girls only really exist as a vehicle to help the male protagonist achieve his goals and are too quirky to exist in real life.

That might go toward explaining why Felicia Day is something really special: She more or less looks like she belongs in Hollywood but she really is a nerd and that gives her an edge with the "painfully shy and nerdy" quality that beautiful women always have trouble nailing down. She really did have the gaming addiction and pulled from those experiences when writing the web series "The Guild." And yes, not only is she a true nerd and a relatively beautiful lady, but she is a very talented writer.

TV and movies focusing on pathetic people leading lives that seem bleak to the audience (ie Party Down, Weeds, Misfits, The Good Girl, Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State, American Beauty, an internet comedy by Front Page Films I just saw called Kid Farm) usually falls into two categories with little middle ground: life-affirming or depressing. In terms of patheticness, The Guild sets the bar pretty high: the web series centers around a team of six role-playing gamers who are devoted to some team mission at the expense of sextet of role-playing gamers who play on some form of a team together and devote themselves to the team's quests at the expense of any healthy semblance of reality due to the 6-8-hour-a-day time crunch that this hobby acquires.

One of the members, Vork (not his real name: his game name), has no income outside of his deceased grandfather's social security checks and is more concerned with acquiring in-game gold than he is with earning actual money. He also gets his electricity through a rather ingenious scheme at the expense of his alzheimers-ridden neighbor.  Another character, Clara, is a mother so neglectful of her three kids that if not for the sheer hilarity of her situation, you could more easily picture her as the villain in a movie of the Kramer vs. Kramer genre with her overly-appeasing husband as the protagonist.

Then there's Felicia Day's Cyd (aka Codex). She's a former concert violinist with social anxiety who's turned to gaming for refuge against what we assume was a career-ending traumatic experience (later revealed that it either might have to do with a dad who turned gay, or that she set her ex-boyfriend's cello on fire because he turned out to because he was either canoodling an oboist*** or turned out to be gay himself). The opening scene shows Cyd being dropped by her therapist via phone because she's not committed enough to leaving gaming behind. As cold as being dumped by your therapist over the phone is, Cyd barely cares enough to get off the phone and do something about it (among the the show's strengths is how economical it is with providing exposition).

The catalyst for change for Cyd and the rest of the group is the arrival of one of the other players, Zabbu, to her apartment because he mistook a flirtatious exchange ("I accidentally typed a semicolon" she insists, to which he responds "it was a Fruedian slip") for a physical relationship. A manchild among man children, Zabbu comes off as a little extreme (his mom bathed him until age 15) but the show seems to be able to find a good mix of characters in various stages of stunted development. In contrast to Zabbu, there's a teenager in the gang, Bladezz, who seems less caricatured as sheltered teenagers go.

It's through trying to get rid of Zaboo that Cyd concocts the idea that they should all meet up in real life and just like that everyone's out of their bubble. It's an unlikely group of friends that forms and that's why the show is so uplifting when it could easily fall flat.

Definitely,  a strong entry among web shows.
*Did I say friend? I meant someone who I've exchanged pleasantries with on twitter once or twice several years ago. This blog, however, has a looser definition of friendship. Its a bit of a friend whore.
**If anything, I resent Rabin achieving my longtime dream of coining a word AND coining the idea I already had in my head and was vaguely aware of
***And really, who wouldn't want to leave a violinist to canoodle**** an oboist.
****"oboist canoodling"=is that a coinable term?

Friday, July 06, 2012

Review of 2010 season/ 2011's failures

Last Fall (ed. note: This was written a year ago but for some odd reason placed in July 2012 by the blogger software), I eagerly jumped into the new TV offerings and proudly backed a number of losers: No Ordinary Family, Running Wilde, (*# My Dad Says, and Outsourced. All four shows appeared problematic from the outset to most critics and I valiantly defended them based on either potential or the fact that they were already pretty good.

Some of these shows I slowly watched decline in quality and took too long to admit to myself that they were lost causes. No Ordinary Family initially had some flaws (TGIF-levels of family mushiness) and some strengths (great sidekicks, cool special effects) and strengths but the weaknesses got more annoying as it became more apparent that the writers were incapable of fixing it.

Outsourced faltered in the last couple of episodes but was a good run. I still think the critics, the audience, and other assorted pop culture pundits didn't give it a chance. #$)* My Dad Says never had a lot to offer and I never expected much from it beyond some pleasant one-liners, so I was never disappointed.

Running Wilde, on the other hand, was somewhere in the middle. I never found it unenjoyable to watch but if you put a gun to my head, I might be forced to admit against it's detractors that it ran into a bit of a holding pattern with its characters. Defending the show was made a harder task by the fact that even Mitch Hurwitz wasn't even on my side: He later admitted that the network stifled his vision.

I still never have found any middle ground, however, with the TV show "Mister Sunshine." This show has not generated an ounce of enthusiasm in pop culture from anyone: The critics and blogosphere basically shrugged it off as mediocre and, unlike some shows, no one has even suggested in response that it's worthy of some kind of "brilliant but cancelled" status.
The show stars Matthew Perry as a caustic GM of a sports arena in San Diego with Allison Janey as his zany boss (and she achieved a pretty unique tone of zaniness, I might add). Perry's mild brand of droll pessimism is countered by the annoyingly optimistic James Leisure. He also has a friend-with-benefit-turned-ex played by Andreas Anders, and another cloud cuckoo lander in the form of his boss' estranged son played by Nate Torrence.

Looking at potential reasons why this show didn't take off, one explanation might be that two other recent series-"Better off Ted" and "Archer"-took workplace craziness to further extremes and with more effectiveness. Additionally, the personas seemed borrowed from characters of the actors' pasts. Perry's character wasn't that far off from Studio 60, Janey's characters are usually nutty, Liesure and Andreas Anders were kind of playing those same characters on other shows I've seen them on, etc.
I'd argue that while "Mr. Sunshine" wasn't the sharpest satire of the bunch, it has some very strong characters and that was its greatest strength. While they never gelled together, they would have in time.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

What Colleges did the Olympian Track and Field Runners Come From?

I'm a big track and field aficionado and tried compiling a chart of Olympic Athletes by college. Olympic Athletes are taken from the past 3 Olympics. If they are from a foreign country I have that in parenthesis. Feel free to donate to my research efforts (in compiling charts like these).

Schools With Large Olympic Contingents:
Colorado: Kara Goucher 5K, Marathon; Emma Coburn 3K Steeple; Billy Nelson 3K Steeple; Dathan Ritzenheim 10K, Marathon; Jennifer Barringer 1500; Alan Culpepper Marathon; Shalaya Kipp, 3K Steeple

Oregon: Galen Rupp 5K, 10K; Andrew Wheating 800, 1500; Ashton Eaton, Decathlon, Rachel Yurkovich Javelin; Matt Centrowicz 1500; Becky Holiday PV; Brianne Theisen (CAN) HEP; Zoe Backman (AUS) 1500; Cyrus Hostettler Javelin

Stanford: Ian Dobson 5K; Ryan Hall Marathon; Timothy Mack PV; Gabe Jennings 1500; Grant Robinson 1500; Michael Robertson Robertson, Discuss; Johnathan Rielley 5K; Jill Camarrena-Williams SP; Amaechi Morton (NGR) 400H

UCLA: Meb Kefghlezi Marathon; Amy Acuff HJ; LaShaunte Moore 200; Sheena Tosti 400H; Chelsea Johnson PV; Suzy Powell-Ross Discus; Monique Henderson 400; Dawn Harper 100H

Arkansas: Tyson Gay 100, 200; Wallace Spearmon Jr. 200; Allstair Craig (IRE) 10K, Marathon; Dan Lincoln 3K Steeplechase; Chris Mulveany (GBR) 1500; Kristin Worth-Thomas 1500, 3KSt; April Steiner Bennett PV; Amy Yoder Begley 3K Steeple; Jeremy Scott PV

LSU: Dwight Phillips LJ; Isa Phillips (JAM) 400H; Muna Lee 100; Lolo Jones 100H; Bennie Brazell 400H; Kelly Willie 400, Kelly Baptiste (TRI) 200; Nickiesha Wilson (JAM) 400H 4X4; Derrick Brew 400; John Moffitt HJ; Richard Thompson (TRI) Sprints; Semoy Hackett (TRI) Sprints

Michigan Nick Willis (NZL) 1500, Kevin Sullivan (CAN 1500), Alan Webb 1500; Nate Brannen (CAN) 1500; Nicole Forrester (CAN) HJ; Nicole Sifuentes (CAN) 1500; Geena Gall 800; Jeff Porter 110H; Tiffany Porter (GBR) 100H

Tennessee Gary Kikaya (CON) 400; Anthony Flamenghetti 3K Steeple; Arles Merritt 110H; Tom Pappas Decathlon; Dedee Trotter 400; Justin Gaitlin 100, 200

South Carolina Otis Harris 400; Terrence Tramell 110H; Rodney Martin 100, 4X1; LeShinda Demus 4X4, 400H; Jason Richardson 110H, Tiffany Williams 400H; Amber Campbell; LeRoy Dixon 100, 200; Shevon Stoddart (JAM) 400H

UNC Erin Donohue 1500 5K; Shalene Flannagan 10K; Allen Johnson 110H, Alice Schmidt 800; Blake Russell Marathon; Monique Hennagan 400; Vikas Gowda (IND), Discus

Florida St Rafeeq Curry TJ; Dylan Armstrong (CAN) Decathlon; Dorian Scott (CAN) SP; Walter Dix 100, 200; Brian Dzingai (ZIM) 100; Abraham Nacaremos (ZAM) Triple Jump; Allena Francyque (GRN) 800; Tom Lancashire (GBR) 1500; Andy Lemoncello (GBR) 3K Steeple, Ricardo Chambers (JAM) 400, Maurice Mitchell, 200

Florida Hazel Clark 800, Tony McQuay 400, Kerron Clement 400; William Claye, LJ; Christian Taylor, LJ, Moise Joseph (HAI) 800

Wilamette: Nick Symmonds, 800
Washington Brad Walker, PV; Derek Miles PV; Christian Boelz (SWI) 400
Washington ST Bernard Lagat, 1500, 5K
USC Jesse Williams, HJ;  Duane Solomon, 800; Byrshon Nellum 400; Marvin Watkins (SVG) 100; Felix Sanchez (DOM) 400H
California Magdalena Leavitt-Bowry, Marathon
UC San Luis Opisbo Stephanie-Tafton Brown Discuss
UC Davis Kim Conley 5000
Cal State Dominguez Hills Carmlita Jeter 100
Pepperdine Sarah Attar (KSA) 800  

Arizona St: Seth Amoo (GHN) 100, 200; Trevell Quinley TJ, LJ; Kyle Alcorn 3K Steeple; Amy Hastings 5K: Diego Estrada (MEX) 10K
N Arizona: Lopez Lomong 1500, 5K; David McNeill (AUS) 5K
Arizona: Abdi Abdiraham 10K, Marathon; Gorgianne Moline 400H; Bob Kennedy, Marathon; Bridget Baretta HJ
BYU: Josh McAdams 3K Steeple
Southern Utah: Cal Levins 5K, 10K
Colorado State: Janay Deloach, LJ
Idaho State: Stacey Dragula PV
Boise St: Jarred Rome DT

TCU Darvis Patton 100, 4X1; Khavendis Robinson 800; Kim Collins (SKN) 100, Brendan Christian (ANT) 200
Texas Tech Johnathan Johnson 800
Texas Marshavet Hooker 200, Trey Hardee Decathlon, Leonel Mazano, 1500; Sanya Richards 400
Texas A&M Jennaba Tarmoh 4X100; Tyrone Edgar (GBR) 200
Baylor Jeremy Wariner 400 Darold Williamson 4X4, Reggie Witherspoon 4x4
Rice Fimhoh Jinmoh HEP
UTEP Micea Bogdean (ROM) 3K Steeple, Chaundry Martina (NANT) 100, 200, Carl Hanraty (FRA) HJ
Harding (DII) Janet Cherobon-Bawcom 10K
NE Louisiana Beaux Greer Javellin
NW State University Kenta Bell TJ
Alabama Tim Broe 5K; Miguel Pate LJ, Kirani James (GRN) 400
Auburn Leevan Sands (BAH) LJ; Kerron Stewart (JAM) 100, 4 X 100; Maurice Smith (JAM) Decathlon
Mississippi: Brittney Reese LJ, Isiah Young 200

Iowa St: Lisa Uhl 10K
Illinois Gia Lewis-Smallwood Discus     
Millikin (DIII)-Lance Brooks Discus
Minnesota: Shani Marks 800
Purdue: Kara Patterson, Javelin
Indiana: David Neville 400; Aarik Wilson TJ, Derek Drouin (CAN) HJ
Butler: Scott Overall (GBR) Marathon
Notre Dame: Molly Huddle 5K, Thomas Chamney (IRE) 800
Ohio State: Rob Gary 3K Steeple
Wisconsin: Matt Tegenkamp 5K, 10K; Simon Bairu (CAN) Marathon; Evan Jager 3K Steeple
Cincinnati: David Payne 100H; Mary Weinberg 400
Oklahoma: Brittany Borman Javelin
Oral Roberts: Prince Mumba (ZAM) 800, Andretti Bain (BAH) 400
Kansas Charlie Gruber 1500
Kansas St Christian Smith 800, Eric Kynard HJ
Nebraska Dusty Jonas H; Dimtri Milkjevics (LAT) 800;  Priscilla Lopez Schlep (CAN) 100H
Missourri Christian Cantwell SP

Providence Martin Fagan (IRE) Marathon; Dylan Wylkes (CAN) Marathon; Kim Smith (NZL) 10K, Marathon
Dartmouth Adam Nelson SP; Devon Shoemaker Triathlon
Brown Anna Willard 3K Steeple
Manhattan Allian Pompey (GUY) 400
Roberts Wesleyan (DII) Jenn Suhr
Villanova Carrie Tofelson 5K; Jen Rhinnes 10K; Adrien Blincoe (NZL) 5K; Bogdama Mimic (SER); Sheila Reid (CAN) 5K
Ruetgers Julia Cully 5K
Columbia Erison Hurtaut (DOMINICA) 400
Princeton Don Cabral 3K Steeple
Iona Tim Bayley (IRE) 800
USMA Dan Browne 10K
Stony Brook Lucy van Dalen (NZL) 1500
Howard: David Oliver 110H
Va Tech: Queen Harrison 400H
Hampton: James Carter 400H, Kellie Wells 100H
ECU LaShawn Merritt 400
Wake Forest Michael Bingham-Ross (GBR) 400
Duke Shannon Rowbury 1500
Georgia Tech Angelo Taylor 400H 4X4
Georgia Hayleas Fountain HEP; Debbie Furgeson-McKenzie (BAH) 100, 200; Reese Hoffa SP
Miami Lauryn Williams, 100, Ginou Etlenne (HAI)
Clemson Ithay Maghidi (ISR) 3K Steeplechase; Tianna Madison 100; Shaun Crawford 100, 200
S. Florida Damu Cherry 100H