Sunday, December 11, 2011

18 in a row



Like a backup outfielder riding the pine in the dugout during a perfect game, I've resisted the urge to talk about the fact that the Packers have won their last 18 games. And with Carson Palmer's Oakland Raiders entering Titletown, I risk it all by breaking my blogging silence.

Expert analysts have started to wage guessing games as to whether they can finish the season undefeated, while also measuring where the 2011 Packers rank with the great teams in NFL history.

Skeptics have rightly pointed out that the Packers have too poor a defense to be listed with the great teams in league history like the 85 Bears or the 72 Dolphins. But I think this fact merely makes the accomplishments of Aaron Rodgers and the offense that much more amazing.

A year ago at this time, the injury plagued Packers didn't look like they'd make the playoffs. They had to win their last two regular season games against the scrappy New York Giants and their rival Chicago Bears just to get in. Prior to the Bears game, actually during the game when the outcome seemed in doubt, I did something superstitious, which I am loathe to do. I gave my dad my cheesehead.

Once the cheesehead was in his possession, the Packers went on to dump the Bears and launch themselves into an unbelievable run the likes of which the storied franchise and its die-hard fans have never seen. Even though it's damaged my gameday experience to not be able to don my favorite foam headgear, the cheesehead has happily remained in northwest Indiana.

After last season's Super Bowl run, highlighted by winning three impossible road games just to reach Dallas, to me everything is gravy. There have been several games this season, especially at Detroit and at Atlanta, where I thought the Packers would finally lose.

Their pass defense does too poor a job rushing the quarterback, their secondary is too mistake prone since star safety Nick Collins was lost for the season to a neck injury. Their tackling has largely been somewhere between adequate and hilariously terrible. And yet, that offense.

With six wide receivers who would be the first or second options on most teams. With a tight end in Jermichael Finley somehow not getting his due considering the accomplishments both of his teammates and his contemporaries like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham.

And Rodgers, doing more in Green Bay than Steve Young did in San Francisco, to make fans forget the legend who came before him, who kept the seat warm. I've seen Rodgers described as having Favre's arm, Manning's smarts, Elway's mobility and Warner's accuracy. It's all true at his best. That's why losable games like last week in New York have found their way into the win column. That's why the team is able to overcome it's so-so running game and it's porous, yet opportunistic, defense.

I don't know where this Packers team ranks in history. That's a debate I'll be glad to have with Bears and Dolphins and Steelers fans over a beer at a sports bar in the coming years. What I do know is it's been pretty amazing to have a front row seat for this ride. I never saw it coming when I tossed my cheesehead across the couch this time a year ago.

Monday, December 5, 2011

From the Netflix Queue: Super 8

Super 8 is not a work of high art like the sorts of films that earn attention from the Academy Award or Golden Globe voters, but I found it to be a near perfect movie.

Hollywood films these days have lost their creativity and their ability to grip a person's imagination. The films that inspired Super 8 -- Goonies, E.T., Close Encounters -- had such a profound sense of adventure that they kept their stranglehold on our imaginations decades after the first viewing.

It's hard for me to gauge how Super 8 will be remembered by its true target audience, which I think is probably adolescent kids. My hope is that as years go by and those kids grow up, they'll return to Super 8 the way I return again, and again, to the Goonies.

Super 8 is a film within a film about kids making a zombie movie when a real-life monster adventure breaks out. Director J.J. Abrams does not offer up a story that's overly complicated, in large part because the disasters that unfold are digested by the kids at the center of the movie. Kids have the capacity to handle misfortune better than adults, partly because they're too young to know better and partly because they haven't been corrupted by the harsh realities of real life.

And so, as a town is taken over by the military and a creepy spider-like alien monster haunts the town, the 13-year-old buddies display a kind of heroism and bravery that seems to escape the adults in the town. The entire cast offers superb acting, which is saying something since it seems child actors are getting worse and worse. I love Modern Family, but the acting of Luke and Manny ranges from passable to community-theater bad.

Abrams continues to offer cutting edge special effects in a time when we're all kinda numb to great special effects since every movie seems to have them. The train crash scene near the beginning of the movie is unlike anything you've ever seen. But more than exciting explosions and scary aliens, Abrams delivers a film that is really a simple story about friendship and family relationships. Sure, his vehicle is a little out there, but so was the Goonies and so was E.T.

Set aside the weird Air Force conspiracy, the violent alien abduction scenes and this is a movie about a kid coping with his mom's death, getting to know his dad for the first time and learning to socialize with girls.

If you're my age, then this is a perfect next chapter to the Goonies or E.T. If you're a fan of Alias or Lost, this is the movie you've been waiting for Abrams to deliver.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Updated College Football Playoffs

With the conference championship games and final regular season showdowns next week, here is what the playoffs would look like under my scenario. Keep in mind, this will probably be dramatically different in a week.

Sugar Bowl
1. LSU vs. 16. Northern Illinois
8. Michigan State vs. 9. Oklahoma

Fiesta
4. Oklahoma State vs. 13. Louisville
5. Stanford vs. 12. TCU

Rose
2. Alabama vs. 15. Louisiana Tech
7. Oregon vs. 10. Houston

Orange
3. Virginia Tech vs. 14. Arkansas State
6. Arkansas vs. 11. Boise State

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Updated College Football Playoffs

It was a difficult weekend for highly ranked teams from BCS conferences, and so the prospective playoff bracket looks a little different. Pretty interesting that the SEC West has the top three teams in the country.

Sugar
1. LSU vs. 16. Northern Illinois
8. Michigan State vs. 9. Oklahoma

Fiesta
4. Virginia Tech vs. 13. Louisville
5. Oklahoma State vs. 12. TCU

Rose
2. Alabama vs. 15. Louisiana Tech
7. Oregon vs. 10. Boise State

Orange
3. Arkansas vs. 14. Arkansas State
6. Stanford vs. 11. Houston

Sunday, November 13, 2011

College Football Playoff Bracket

A new update to what a 16-team college football playoff bracket would look like:

Sugar Bowl
1. LSU vs. 16. Northern Illinois
8. Virginia Tech vs. 9. Stanford

Rose Bowl
4. Oregon vs. 13. Cincinnati
5. Oklahoma vs. 12. TCU

Fiesta Bowl
2. Oklahoma State vs. 15. Nevada
7. Arkansas vs. 10. Houston

Orange Bowl
3. Alabama vs. 14. Arkansas State
6. Clemson vs. 11. Michigan State

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Survivor live blog: the Evil Cocrhan episode

Coming to you on the heels of a historically awesome episode of Survivor. We begin with Cochran's former alliance confronting him for turning on them last week. Whitney gives Cochran the bin Laden treatment and tells him he "dis-GUSTS her."

She goes on to explain she's saved him three times at tribal council even though there's no evidence of this.

Cochran explains he didn't want his fate decided by pulling a rock, which makes total sense, except to Jim whose boiling anger is totally over the top. Several of his comments get beeped out. "Don't you ever beeping talk to me again. You're a poor excuse as a beeping man."

Unabashedly evil medicinal marijuana salesman Jim wins a disgusting immunity challenge, likely saving himself from being voted out. Note to Survivor producers, we need less challenges involving contestants spitting stuff out of their mouths.

As an indication this will be an epic tribal council, the producers have TC begin about 20 minutes early.

Well I take that back, there will be two tribals apparently. Ozzy makes a desperate illogical plea, trumpeted by Jim, to vote out Cochran. The tribe promptly ignores this and votes out Ozzy, including his fellow alliance members Whitney and Dawn. I wonder if Jim will berate them for going against the tribe? Prolly not.

A second immunity challenge has the three losers competing while seven in the majority chow down on sweets. Jim proves even more unlikable while scoffing at Jeff Probst.

Whitney, who many Survivor watchers didn't even know was in the game until she berated Cochran, wins the immunity challenge by outlasting ridiculously athletic soccer mom Dawn. Half the tribe was rooting raucously for Dawn, which leads Albert to want to vote her out.

Jim offers a weird plan to vote out Edna (WTF?), but Albert wants to vote out likable Dawn instead. Outstanding strategists they're not.

Brandon calls Dawn out at tribal council for blatantly contradicting herself over something stupid. Whitney starts crying about being vilified. Problem is, we saw the whole tribe demean and bully Cochran the whole season, so they're poor-me act doesn't resonate.

The tribe does the smart move by voting out villainous Jim. Stay tuned for scenes from next week: Albert goes for a big strategic move with little chance of it actually working.


Well that's it. Apparently Cochran did the right thing by stabbing his tribe in the back. Truthfully they did a poor job keeping him on board. Previous episodes where they gathered around and talked about how awful he was at challenges were hard to watch. I doubt he can win the whole game but he's certainly a more compelling player than those he's helped vote out (Keith, Ozzy and Jim).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

From the Queue: a buncha movies, cuz I got way behind

So I have done a poor job of staying on top of mailing back my Netflix movies and I've done an even worse job of trying to keep up with mini reviews on this blog site. I'll try to plow through the last several we've seen. I would honestly recommend all of them to friends and family.

Bridesmaids
This movie did not live up to the hype for me, even though it starred one of the funniest "new" comedians in a while in Kristen Wiig. I found the movie's obvious laugh-out-loud scenes (like when the bridesmaids get food poisoning and violently poop all over the place during a dress fitting) to be less funny than the more subtle scenes (like when Kristen Wiig nonchalantly turns down a strange man's offer to "go for a walk or something," by sheepishly telling him without missing a beat, "No I can't. I can't.")
Three stars

Rango
Rango is a good old fashioned western flick starring a cartoon lizard who must save a desert town of rats, insects, reptiles and other critters from drying out and dying. It's an epic story really, and it was easy to watch from start to finish. I'd have to guess Rango has a great shot to win best animated feature at the Academy Awards next year.
Four stars

Scream 4
I am an unabashed fan of the Scream franchise, even though the whole shtick of the film depicting life imitating the film gets a little old. After progressively worse installments, Wes Craven returns with his best offering since the classic original Scream. Nothing groundbreaking here, just a good, scary, campy slasher film.
Three stars

X-Men First Class
Ever since Spider-Man and X-Men cemented the comic book movie as something worth watching for more than just fan boys, like me, the genre has succeeded in making audiences forget the stories are based on old-fashioned comic books. Other than the Dark Knight, with its haunting performance by a dying Heath Ledger, X-Men First Class accomplishes this feat like no other comic book-inspired film. Take away the cartoonish superpowers, and this is straight up a great movie with phenomenal acting, an actual moral in the end and all topped with eye popping action sequences.
Four stars

Hanna
Hollywood is on a bender for action films based around tween girls who can kick ass. For starters, there was Kick Ass. Coming soon is the popular revenge porn Girl With series, and maybe the best of the bunch is Hanna. You may not exactly understand why the government agents want to hunt Hanna down. Even still, you'll be rooting against them and for her, even when you know she'll win.
Four stars

No. 21 Vampire Weekend

We all know why the anti-hipster hipsters hate Vampire Weekend. They make their case against the band in eloquent Pitchfork-esque arguments that I won't try to match. What I will say is that Vampire Weekend write catchy songs that remind me of several bands I also like. Their drummer is talented and their live show was fun and authentic.

The Vampire Weekend haters have only fueled my love for the band, but really I can throw in either of their albums into my car stereo and find myself listening to the same CD a week later.

Updated NCAA Playoff Bracket

Here is a quick update of what a playoff bracket my look like following last weekend's games.

Sugar Bowl
1. LSU (SEC) vs. 16. Nevada (WAC)
8. Nebraska (at-large) vs. 9. Clemson (ACC)

Rose Bowl
4. Stanford (Pac 12) vs. 13. Cincinnati (Big East)
5. Boise State (Mountain West) vs. 12. Houston (C-USA)

Orange Bowl
2. Alabama (at-large) vs. 15. Arkansas State (Sun Belt)
7. Oklahoma vs. 10 Penn State (Big 10)

Fiesta Bowl
3. Oklahoma State vs. 14. Toledo (MAC)
6. Oregon (at-large) vs. 11. Arkansas (at-large

Sunday, October 23, 2011

College Football Playoff Preview No. 1 (or try this, Mr. Whitlock)

On the heels of a memorable college football Saturday, renowned sports columnist Jason Whitlock took to social media to defend the status quo postseason bowl system.

Tweeted Whitlock: "CFB is great. Best regular season in all of sports. I'm cracking on the people who think CFB needs a playoff. It doesn't Leave it alone!!!"

Whitlock is right that the college football regular season is great, and yesterday was proof. Michigan State's Hail Mary win over Wisconsin and Texas Tech's gritty upset in Norman confirmed that sentiment, among other exciting games. But Whitlock is wrong that a great regular season means the postseason system should be left alone. It shouldn't. College football has the potential to possess both the greatest regular season and the greatest postseason in all of sports.

A college football playoff would attract impressive television ratings and sold out super stadiums. It would rival the drama of March Madness by pitting underdog upstarts like Toledo and Arkansas State against the sport's Blue Bloods like LSU and Oregon.

The last several years on this blog for fun, I've intermittently posted my weekly college football rankings. Whitlock's tweet has motivated me to try something a little different. I've created a playoff scenario not unlike those offered by real life college sports experts. I've used some of the scheduling and seeding formulas used in the FCS playoff system and the NCAA tournament. Each week, I'm going to post what a hypothetical college football postseason tournament would look like, and below is my first offering.

Here are the nuts and bolts: the tournament would be a 16-team, single elimination field. The champion from each of the 11 FBS conferences would automatically qualify for the tournament and the best five remaining teams would receive at-large bids, similar to the NCAA tournament.

In my system, eight higher seeded teams would host first-round games. Just like the NCAA tournament prevents teams from the same conference from meeting in the first or second rounds (unless this is impossible, as with last year's tournament because of so many Big East teams qualifying), my format does the same.

My proposed playoff system incorporates college football history by including the BCS bowl games. Here's how it would work. The four regular BCS bowl games - the Rose, Sugar, Fiesta and Orange Bowls - would serve as the quarterfinal games for the tournament. Just as there are conference tie-ins for the different BCS bowls, this tournament has tie-ins as well. The top seeded SEC school automatically would play in the Sugar Bowl bracket. The top seeded Big Ten or Pac 12 school would automatically be seeded in the Rose Bowl. The top seeded Big 12 team would feed into the Fiesta Bowl and the top seeded ACC or Big East team would feed into the Orange Bowl. So in my hypothetical system, if LSU defeated Nevada and Kansas State beat Michigan State in their first round games, they would play in the Super Dome for the quarterfinals in what would be called the Sugar Bowl.

The semifinal games could be played at neutral fields and called the national semifinal, and then the championship game would be played at whichever BCS bowl stadium's turn it is to host the title game. For instance, this year's title game will be played at the Super Dome, so that's where the final tournament game would be played as well.

In my first bracket, I took the first-place team from each conference, plus five at-large teams (which is subjective), and then seeded them based on their BCS and Sagarin rankings. As I said, choosing the five at-large teams is subjective. I included Oklahoma over Wisconsin, South Carolina or Nebraska for the final spot. Obviously this will change from week to week. I adjusted the seeding to comply with the scheduling rules, and here is what I came up with.

You could even maintain a semblance of the current bowl system by having teams that didn't qualify for the playoff face off in traditional bowl games. Doing so this season would theoretically generate games like Nebraska vs. South Carolina, Wisconsin vs. Arizona State or Georga vs. Virginia Tech.

I'm pretty sure Alabama and Oregon fans would sell out the Fiesta Bowl. I would imagine that a national semifinal game between Stanford and LSU would generate outstanding television ratings.

As it stands now, college football parlays its amazing regular season for the worst postseason in all of sports. It doesn't need to be this way. And anyone who argues that such a schedule would be a drain on the student athletes needs to look at the FCS system, which ends its season with a 16-team playoff. It defies logic that such a system is perfectly fine for Montana State or Delaware by too draining for LSU or Clemson.

Because only 16 teams qualify for the tournament, this system actually puts more emphasis on the regular season. Reaching your conference championship game in order to make the tournament is that much more important. I don't know about Mr. Whitlock, but I don't view an exciting postseason and a great regular season as mutually exclusive.


Sugar Bowl
1. LSU (SEC) vs. 16. Nevada (WAC)
8. Kansas State (at-large) vs. 9. Michigan State (Big Ten)

Rose Bowl
4. Stanford (Pac 12) vs. 13. Cincinnati (Big East)
5. Oklahoma State (Big 12) vs. 12. Houston (C-USA)

Fiesta Bowl
2. Alabama (at-large) vs. 15. Toledo (MAC)
7. Oregon (at-large) vs. 10. Oklahoma (at-large)

Orange Bowl
3. Clemson (ACC) vs. 14. Arkansas State (Sun Belt)
6. Boise State (Mountain West) vs. 11. Arkansas (at-large)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Why I'm rooting for the Brewers this October


This post is for people like me who don't have a team to root for in the baseball postseason. Let me quickly thank the 2011 Chicago Cubs for being uncompetitive and uninteresting.

Moving on. If you're trying to figure out why to care this postseason, let me suggest rooting for the Milwaukee Brewers. I'm not going to go on some soap box rant about the purity of small market baseball. I'm going to offer a first-hand account of why the guys on the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers deserve to be supported by fans.

The heart of the roster is the same as the 2005 Nashville Sounds, which I covered on a daily basis for the Nashville City Paper. Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, Yovani Gallardo, Ryan Braun. The Brewers will sink or swim because of these guys. The same group led the Sounds to the postseason, though most of them were in the big leagues before the team went on to win the Triple A championship.

Apart from being incredibly gifted players on the field, this group of guys was unbelievably nice off the field, at least to me. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun were stars with big name recognition, so one might have expected them to be standoffish with a reporter for an alt-daily, which they probably rarely read. The team also included outfielder Nelson Cruz, who is slugging away for the Texas Rangers. Cruz's English wasn't great, but he seemed to genuinely enjoy talking to reporters.

On the contrary, both were always willing to talk after games and handled themselves like old pros. They were polite, accessible and well spoken.

I wanted to share two quick anecdotes which I think demonstrate what I'm talking about. In one game against the Memphis Redbirds, Fielder was involved in an explosive argument with Memphis star Adam Wainwright. After a bang-bang play at the plate, Wainwright reportedly yelled, "Why don't you learn to play the game," to Fielder. The next thing I know, Fielder is charging at Wainwright with the ferocity of a raging bull, and needing to be restrained by multiple teammates.

I had two of the biggest up and coming stars in all of baseball engaged in a pretty amazing shouting match, so I knew that was my story after the game. Being a cub reporter, I was anxious that Fielder would be annoyed or even hostile at having to answer questions in the clubhouse. I approached with trepidation. Sounds infielder Chris Barnwell was sitting next to Fielder. "Oh hear we go, here come the hyenas," Barnwell said when I approached with my recorder.

"Nah, it's fine man," Fielder said, patting me on the shoulder. "Ask your questions."

He went on to apologize for his display of emotions while also pointing out, fairly, that Wainwright crossed one of those invisible lines in baseball. Don't question another man's knowledge of how the game is played. Fielder especially took offense since he grew up around the game because his dad was a professional player.

Just 20 years old, at the time, Fielder turned away from how most stars would have acted and treated me like an equal.

My other story involves Ryan Braun and the night he learned he had been called up to the big leagues. Essentially, Braun's childhood dream had come true and his life was about to be forever changed. I had the exclusive he had been promoted, at the time, but I needed to interview Braun.

The cell phone signal at Greer Stadium is spotty, to say the least, and Braun roamed around the outfield while he told his family in California he had been called up. I stalked around him at a safe, but noticeable, distance like a weirdo. I didn't want to intrude, but I also wanted him to see me so he knew I had to talk to him.

Once his calls ended, Braun apologized for making me wait and told me he appreciated me talking to him regularly because he knew he would get interviewed on a daily basis in Milwaukee as well. "It's been fun, man," he said, beaming.

That group of guys truly loved the game and they were extremely down to earth. I don't know if fame and fortune has changed them, and I'm not surprised those guys have achieved both in the ensuing six years. We often focus too much on what's wrong with professional athletes, so I wanted to take a few minutes to give this group of former Sounds credit for demonstrating what's "right."

For one October, they've given this Cubs fan something to root for. Go Brewers!

College Football Rankings Week 6

The SEC is looking a little top heavy. LSU and Alabama appear to be the top two teams in the country, but the next tier was supposed to be represented by Florida, Arkansas and South Carolina. Each of those teams already has an unimpressive loss on its record. If one of those teams, or perhaps Georgia, doesn't step up, then it's very possible LSU and Alabama could finish with a combined one loss and make the case for a championship game rematch. I doubt Clemson will keep it up, but it's pretty damn impressive they've beaten Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech.

1. LSU
2. Alabama
3. Oklahoma
4. Clemson
5. Wisconsin
6. Boise State
7. Stanford
8. Oklahoma State
9. Oregon
10. Texas
11. Michigan
12. Georgia Tech
13. Arkansas
14. Nebraska
15. Illinois
16. Virginia Tech
17. Florida
18. West Virginia
19. Kansas State
20. Auburn
21. South Carolina
22. Baylor
23. South Florida
24. Florida State
25. Georgia

Saturday, October 1, 2011

No. 22 My Morning Jacket

My Morning Jacket released their legendary album It Still Moves the same week I moved with my buddies from a grungy apartment in Antioch to a revamped 70-year-old 2-story home int he Belmont neighborhood.

It was a happy, loose, carefree time in my life and the album's songs were the perfect soundtrack.

In time, MMJ would follow with excellent albums like Z and so-so albums like Evil Urges. Along the way, the band never relinquished its mantle of world's best live band.

In Defense of Netflix (and Qwikster)

Netflix is catching a lot of heat for deciding to divide itself into two separate services and double its prices. The company did little to calm the storm when its CEO sent a weird, meandering email announcing, on the heels of colossal losses and fleeing subscribers, it was changing the name of its staple mail delivery service.

As someone, well several people really, pointed out a name change seemed like a strange idea since Netflix had actually became a verb in the American lexicon. Even worse, Qwikster is such a patently bad name, it was easy to see why Netflix was in a dive.

After the company announced that streaming and home delivery services would each cost $7.99, I carefully studied my family's Netflix usage to calculate what we could afford and whether $15 a month could be justified.

In the end, we elected to pay for both services. Here's why:

Over the last month we've streamed two of the best movies I've ever seen, and I say that without hyperbole. Bill Cunningham, New York is a documentary about renowned fashion photographer Bill Cunningham. The movie is touching, inspirational and insightful, just about everything a documentary is supposed to be. BCNY had a short run at our local indie theater, where tickets were about $10 a piece. My wife desperately wanted to see the movie, but unfortunately we were unable to before its short run ended. If it wasn't for Netflix streaming, we never would have seen BCNY, which is sure to get Oscar consideration next year.

We also streamed Alfred Hitchcock's unabashedly cool crime drama Dial M for Murder. With video stores out of business, the only place to find a classic film like this would be the local library, where the selection is spotty and the availability is hit-or-miss. We popped on the XBox and within minutes were watching one of the slickest most interesting murder mysteries (well I guess it's not really a mystery since we know whodunnit) I've ever seen. Again, if it wasn't for Netflix streaming, we never would have seen this film possibly.

More recently, we've begun watching Breaking Bad, the gritty family/drug drama starring television's best actor Brian Cranston. A season of Breaking Bad ranges from $15 to $30 at local big box stores. With three seasons available, Breaking Bad justifies the $7.99 monthly fee for the next several months.

We also decided to keep the home delivery service, even though we agreed Qwikster is a God awful name. In the last month, we've rented several films that aren't available to stream on any service and therefore would cost about $20 a piece if we decided to buy them. There's always cheaper rental options like Red Box, but the availability is inconsistent and indie films are rarely ever in stock.

Win Win was probably one of the best sports movies (yes, it's a sports movie) in recent memories. It stars Paul Giamatti as an unlucky family man and high school wrestling coach who has a 16-year-old show up on his doorstep. Surprise, surprise, the homeless kid is a phenom wrestler.

Everything Must Go sees Will Ferrell take a successful turn as a serious actor, even though the movie is actually a comedy.

Paul is a stoner movie about an alien on the lam with a couple of comic book nerds as his guardian. This is no doubt a movie I would have loved even more 15 years ago, but I'd still recommend it to my friends who love brainless, low-brow, highly-quotable movies.

We also rented Limitless, a convoluted thriller about an average guy who becomes a U.S. senator by taking a drug akin to adderall-meets-ecstacy-meets-crack. It helps his brain absorb and retain knowledge and next thing you know the failing writer becomes a Wall Street tycoon and national figure.

All of these films ranged from good (Paul) to excellent (Win Win). They arrived about every third or fourth day in our mailbox and, since we are both homebound and poor because of our precious 1-year-old, it was perfect entertainment value for us. Several of those films would have piqued our interest to see in the theaters, but we knew we could wait because they would come on Netflix at a fraction of the cost.

Even with the price increase, Netflix actually saves us money on going to the theater or whatever other entertainment source we might have otherwise spent our money on. It also helps us see movies we otherwise would have missed.

OK, that's my explanation of our choice. I certainly understand why people switched to streaming only or canceled altogether, but for me it would have been a mistake. Now, if you have Netflix go stream Bill Cunningham, New York or rent Win Win. You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

College Football Rankings Week 5

I had LSU as No. 1 last week and apparently AP voters have followed suit after the Tigers notched their third consecutive impressive win of the season. Is it too early to discuss an all-SEC BCS championship game? If LSU's only loss in the regular season is to Alabama, and the Crimson Tide finish the regular season undefeated, then those two teams should meet in the title game. The SEC is the best conference in the country and there's no reason to think this couldn't happen.

1. LSU
2. Alabama
3. Oklahoma
4. Boise State
5. Stanford
6. Oklahoma State
7. Wisconsin
8. Virginia Tech
9. Nebraska
10. Clemson
11. Florida
12. South Carolina
13. Oregon
14. Baylor
15. South Florida
16. Texas
17. Michigan
18. Georgia Tech
19. Arkansas
20. TCU
21. Illinois
22. Iowa State
23. West Virginia
24. Texas A&M
25. Florida State

Sunday, September 18, 2011

College Football rankings week 4

LSU deserves to be No. 1 because no team has a pair of wins as impressive as the Tigers' victories over Oregon and Mississippi State.

1. LSU
2. Oklahoma
3. Alabama
4. Boise State
5. Stanford
6. Wisconsin
7. Virginia Tech
8. South Carolina
9. Arkansas
10. Nebraska
11. Oklahoma State
12. Florida
13. Oregon
14. Baylor
15. West Virginia
16. Clemson
17. Florida State
18. South Florida
19. Texas
20. Illinois
21. Michigan
22. Texas A&M
23. TCU
24. Iowa State
25. Georgia Tech

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

2011 NFL Predictions

NFC North
1. Packers
2. Lions
3. Bears
4. Vikings
I don't understand why the Bears would take away Jay Cutler's center, tight end and third-down back in a single offseason and give him Roy Williams in return. The Lions could be a playoff team but Matthew Stafford has to stay healthy. I have a hunch Donovan McNabb is not the answer in Minnesota.

NFC East
1. Eagles
2. Cowboys
3. Redskins
4. Giants
The Eagles made for the most entertaining offseason with all of their high profile acquisitions. But will there be strong chemistry in their lockerroom? An injury to Vick would be devastating. The "rebuilding" Cowboys could be a sleeper team this season. The Giants' preseason injuries will doom them, but I would never write off a Tom Coughlin team. I'm not sold on post-Elway Mike Shanahan, so let's see what he can do with, ugh, Rex Grossman.

NFC South
1. Saints
2. Buccaneers
3. Falcons
4. Panthers
Every year a team that missed the playoffs the previous season becomes a contender. The Bucs are my pick to do so this season, and they knock the Falcons from their mantle. The Saints made all the right moves to fill the holes on their roster and Drew Brees is a proven winner. I think Cam Newton will be a star in the NFL and probably win some games he has no business winning, but there will be painful growing pains too.

NFC West
1. Rams
2. Cardinals
3. Seahawks
4. 49ers
The recipe for overcoming the lockout-shortened offseason is having a returning head coach and stability at quarterback. In this unpredictable division, the Rams are the only team with both of those categories in order. Arizona could make it a tough race, but I think it may take Kevin Kolb time to settle in. The Seahawks are a bizarre team, but their question mark at quarterback is impossible to ignore. I can't wait to see what Jim Harbaugh can do as a pro coach, but I wonder if he won't regret passing on the Michigan job.

Wild Card: Buccaneers and Cowboys
Champions: Packers

AFC North
1. Steelers
2. Ravens
3. Browns
4. Bengals
The Bengals seem like a team that should an over/under for wins of 0.5. There's no reason not to pick the Steelers here, and I wonder when the Ravens will finally go over the hill. Pat Shurmur could be a great coaching hire in Cleveland and I have faith in Colt McCoy, but that team surely needs time to develop.

AFC East
1. Patriots
2. Bills
3. Jets
4. Dolphins
I'm calling this as the season the Jets implode, the Rex Ryan act grows old and the team misses the playoffs. The Patriots, on the other hand, seem hellbent on returning to glory, what with their risky veteran acquisitions like Albert Haynesworth. The Bills are an intriguing team and I like how they improved their defense. The Dolphins round up the best overall division in football.

AFC South
1. Texans
2. Jaguars
3. Colts
4. Titans
All this talk about Peyton Manning's neck injury has focused on whether he'll play in the opener at Houston, but maybe the better question is if he'll ever be the same player? Ask Sterling Sharpe what neck injuries can do to you. Houston has seemed on the brink for about three seasons and, with their backs against the wall and their coach's job on the line, this is the year they finally break through. The Jaguars made a bizarre move to cut their veteran quarterback just a few days before the season. The Titans have a new coach, uncertainty at quarterback and their star player coming off a holdout. If they can overcome all that and contend, I'll be amazed.

AFC West
1. Chargers
2. Chiefs
3. Raiders
4. Broncos
The Chargers have the talent, but can they overcome their proverbially under-achieving coach? I think so, as I'm picking them to reach the Super Bowl (again!). The Chiefs capped off a pitiful preseason by losing their starting tight end for the season and their starting quarterback perhaps for the opener. The Raiders and Broncos are two sides of the same under-whelming coin.

Wild Card teams: Ravens and Bills
Champs: Chargers

Super Bowl Champs: Packers

2011 Green Bay Packers preview

I'm just another biased Packers fan but at first glance this seems to be a team capable of winning the Super Bowl, again.

The Packers are blessed with a young star quarterback, playmakers at key positions on both sides of the ball and outstanding depth at almost every position. There are question marks for sure, especially along the offensive line.

But the most logical reason why the Packers won't win back-to-back Super Bowls just might be the mere fact that no team has been able to do so in nearly a decade. Besides the sheer difficulty of winning consecutive titles, there's also the uncertainty brought on by the lockout that ended just before training camp.

The lockout might have negated one of the Packers' greatest advantages, which is developing young players through their offseason program

Still, it's hard to analyze the roster and not find optimism heading into the season. Most of the key contributors from the Super Bowl team are in place, along with the return of injured starters Jermichael Finley, Ryan Grant and Morgan Burnett.

I'm going to pick the Packers to win it all because I still see a team with a chip on its shoulder. Last season, despite its ultimate glory, saw the Packers lose too many games as they struggled to even qualify for the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers still hasn't won a division title or a home playoff game as a starter.

If the 2011 season sees fewer injuries and a better running game, this could be a special season with two or fewer regular season losses.

Quarterback
Aaron Rodgers is an MVP caliber player and Matt Flynn is one of the top backups in the league. Obviously an injury to Rodgers would be nearly impossible to overcome, but Flynn seems like a capable NFL starter. Rodgers has been very good, but I believe he has a "special" season in him and maybe this is the year where he approaches 40 touchdowns with 10 or fewer interceptions.

Running back
Ryan Grant enters the season atop the depth chart but his backup, emerging James Starks, may be the better fit for the run and gun offense. Starks is the better receiver and the more explosive player. Still, it's nice to have Grant back following his season-ending injury last season. Rookie Alex Green may not get the ball much early on, but he seems to have the potential to excel in the offense. The Packers only carry one fullback, but it's do-everything John Kuhn, who is a solid blocker, receiver and short yardage option.

Wide receiver
The Packers might have had the best receiving corps in the league before x-factor Randall Cobb was taken in the second round of the draft in April. Greg Jennings, like Rodgers, has put together an excellent career, but he's yet to achieve greatness. Maybe this is the season he does so. Elder statesmen Donald Driver is on the downside of his career, but Jordy Nelson and James Jones may still have their best football ahead of them. Nelson was stellar in the Super Bowl and Jones seems perpetually on the brink of breaking out.

Tight end
Jermichael Finley has the talent to be the best tight end in the league, but does he have the durability to live up to his potential? That's the $40 million question heading into this season. Behind Finley is a quarter of utility men and prospects including Andrew Quarless, special teams demon and kamikaze blocker Tom Crabtree and rookies Ryan Taylor and D.J. Williams. At first glance it might seem foolish to keep five tight ends, but the top three are sure to contribute and the rookies could be very good players down the line.

Offensive line
This is the unit that gives Packer fans the most cause for concern. Chad Clifton is coming off a shaky preseason in which he looked truly over the hill during the team's long no-huddle drives. T.J. Lang takes over for reliable, if unspectacular, Darren Colledge, who never missed a game during his pro career, at left guard. Scott Wells and Josh Sitton are outstanding and under-rated, while Bryan Bulaga appears to be a possible 10-year starter. But behind the top five players, the depth is thin and unproven. If Evan Dietrich-Smith, Marshall Newhouse or rookie Derek Sherrod are forced into extended action, it could mean the undoing of a special season.

Defensive line
Mike Neal may be the x-factor of the defense, as he takes over for Cullen Jenkins at defensive end. Neal's problem isn't his ability, it's his durability, and he enters the season with yet another injury. B.J. Raji is continuing his rise, but I worry the team relies on him too much due to poor depth and I wonder if he could wear down as the season progresses. Ryan Pickett looks to return to his natural nose tackle position. He's been a great find since he came to Green Bay in free agency, but he's got 11 years in the league and durability has to be a concern. The depth is a huge question mark with veteran Howard Green, who was a difference maker down the stretch but is blatantly out of shape, joined by unproven and unestablished young players in Jarius Wynn and C.J. Wilson.

Linebacker
Clay Matthews nursed his annual hamstring injury this preseason but enters the season on the brink of superstar status. He's proven to be a one-man wrecking crew but he's prone to nagging injuries. A season-ending injury to Matthews might take any Super Bowl aspirations with it. A.J. Hawk returns as the quarterback of the defense alongside bruising Desmond Bishop. It'll be interesting to see what Erik Walden, a midseason pickup last year, can do now that he's earned the starting job. Frank Zombo starts the season with a fractured shoulder blade, but he is someone who coaches were clearly planning to rely on this season. Rookies D.J. Smith, Vic So'oto and Jamari Lattimore all showed serious promise in the preseason. Robert Francois is the top reserve behind Hawk and Bishop.

Cornerback
Freelancing playmaker Charles Woodson was in a sling the last time he played in a game that counted. In the preseason, he showed his ability to rush the quarterback on blitzes and pester opposing receivers. All-pro safety Nick Collins returns with all-pro-caliber cornerback Tramon Williams. Coaches seem to fawn over Morgan Burnett, returning from torn knee ligaments, but he was shaky in the preseason. Sam Shields' ascension as the team's nickel back was amazing a season ago, considering he'd barely played cornerback before. But Shields was certainly one player who would have benefited from the offseason program and it's right to worry about him hitting a sophomore slump. Behind the top five defensive backs, depth is a question mark with inconsistent Jarrett Bush, Pat Lee and sturdy Charlie Peprah leading the way. Rookie M.D. Jennings defied the odds and made the roster, while gifted fourth-round pick Devon House is hurt to start the season.

Special teams
The Packers finally invested in their special teams this offseason. Besides locking up kicker Mason Crosby with a long-term contract, general manager Ted Thompson added at least three players whose primary value is on coverage units in rookies Taylor, Lattimore and Jennings. Cobb has the potential to be Green Bay's best return man since Desmond Howard. Punter Tim Masthay was an essential component in the Packers' wins over the Bears and Jets last season.

Serious injuries to Clay Matthews or Aaron Rodgers would probably derail the season, but that's true of most contending teams and their top players. If we take major injuries out of the equation, this roster is capable of running away with the NFC North and playing for another Super Bowl title.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

No. 23 Arcade Fire

Way back in June I started counting down my favorite bands of the moment. It's been a lesson in how fickle I am, since I didn't include Bon Iver on the list. Their new album, which is one of my favorites of 2011, would surely elevate them into the rankings, but I just can't find a spot for them.

Arcade Fire comes in here, just ahead of my friend's contemporary Christian group, which performed a casual reunion show after lunch last Sunday.

At its best, Arcade Fire can deliver epic, emotional performances that build and build until the band topples its audience like no other current band can. At its worst, Arcade Fire feels pretentious and out of touch with songs about how fucked up life is and no solutions how to fix it.

They're musically gifted, and they want you to know it, which I guess is why they've taken to swapping instruments after virtually every song during recent live performances. Did Led Zeppelin ever do this? I don't think so. Perhaps because Jimmy Page was so damn good at guitar and the band knew its fans wanted to see the master at work, even if John Paul Jones could hold his own as well.

See, I want to dismiss Arcade Fire as out of touch and over-the-top, but then they deliver certain performances I'll never forget, and certain songs that always seem to find me where I am. They won the Grammy for best album last year, which means their mass appeal is increasing and more people will be interested in what they do next. My advice is to simplify and try to write songs about something other than how messed up the world is. Coming from millionaire musicians who have conquered just about all there is to conquer, the old message falls a little flat for me.

From the Queue: Leon: The Professional and The Beaver

Leon: The Professional
This was the highest rated movie on IMDB that I had never seen, so I added it to the queue. It stars Natalie Portman, who proved at just 13 years old that she could play "quirky" alarmingly well. Jean Reno is relentlessly creepy as a mob hit man who meticulously cares for his precious house plant but is fairly incapable of basic human interaction. The movie starts out with Portman's family, who she mostly hates anyway, being executed by a renegade thug cop (the also creepy Gary Oldman). She's taken in by Reno, who inexplicably starts to teach her how to become a "cleaner," which is mobster code for a hit man. The action sequences are pretty cool and memorable, but the acting is consistently unnerving and I had to watch a few episodes of Parks & Rec in order to get the taste outta my mouth.
Three stars

The Beaver
For proof of how political the Oscars are, look no further than The Beaver, which was carried by an absolutely amazing performance by fallen star Mel Gibson. His star has fallen so far that critics, and I'm sure the Academy voters, will look past his turn as basically playing himself. The movie is about a guy so depressed that he's pretty much ready to kill himself until he finds a beaver puppet in the dumpster and uses it to create an alter-ego that is confident and masculine and owns a pretty bad ass Australian accent, which Ali got annoyed at me for emulating throughout our viewing. In real-life, Gibson seems pretty depressed and, I hate to speculate, maybe near death himself. It was clear this character hit close to home and the movie, as contrived as it is, will resonate with those of us with messed up family histories. The Beaver deserves props for daring to stand out and for finding actors who could turn its silly storyline into something resonant and memorable.
Four stars.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

From the Queue: Blue Valentine, Trust, Source Code

Blue Valentine was well reviewed because of its perfect acting, unique storytelling and edgy filming. But even though Blue Valentine will rightly be studied by film students for years to come, it fell short for me because of its bleak world view. It paints a picture of marriage, relationships and adulthood that border between being dark and outright disturbing. Want to find yourself unsettled? Then go watch the "lovemaking scene" between Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling toward the end of the film. Get a new perspective on disliking your job by watching Gosling pound beers before he heads off to his job as an interior painter. And then there's the film's climax, an uncomfortable, and not all that believable, scene where a buzzed Gosling confronts Williams at the doctor's office where she works. Watch this movie if you want your own life to feel better by comparison, or if you enjoy feeling depressed as hell.
Three stars.

Trust is a movie about a young girl who falls victim to an online sex predator and then, along with her family, struggles to cope with the crime's fallout. It's also a movie about the complicated reaction to statutory rape, where the victim doesn't always feel like a victim. Clive Owen, never one to smile on screen, plays the girl's dad, who goes off the deep end while trying to cope. He thinks about grotesque revenge with such zeal that his family, especially his daughter, start to slip away. Gritty stuff. And while, like Blue Valentine, the acting was stellar, I was kind of left asking myself what's the point of this movie? As the credits role at the end, you see a home video of the attacker walking with his wife and kids and interacting with strangers as if nothing in the world is wrong. It's creepy for sure, but didn't we already know online sex predators were creepy. Oh, and the fact it was directed by Ross from Friends inexplicably made Trust more unnerving for me.
Three Stars.

Source Code is good old fashioned utterly impossible sci-fi fun about a former soldier who gets dozens of chances to avert a terrorist attack of a Chicago commuter train. The science behind why the solder gets so many tries is never fully explained, and all the better, since no explanation is really necessary. By the end of the film, the hero (Jake Gyllenhal) has a crush on a girl on the train. He's told no matter what he does, the train will blow up and the girl will die, but he believes otherwise, and the audience knows better. This is a slapstick thriller that hooks you immediately and never lets go. Just be sure to remove your thinking cap before you watch this one.
Four stars.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A love song

For the nerds and the fanboys. For the fans of Lost and fantasy basketball. For the guys who know what Indiana's recruiting class looks like for next year and who the junior senator from Vermont is. For the guys who visit blogs to weigh in on their favorite NFL team's inside linebacker depth, and the guys who know their favorite brew's score on Beer Advocate. For those who logged on to buy Animal Collective tickets to the Big Sur show and lost (devastation!). For anyone with an XBox live handle and a grasp of Tim Riggins' strengths and weaknesses. For everyone who bought Y: The Last Man, each edition by glorious edition. For the superstars of the local dive bar trivia league, for the science geeks and creative writing dweebs. For all those guys who inexplicably and completely without reason found a girl to love them. I believe the cliche is "outkicked his coverage," correct? A love song:

Monday, July 25, 2011

Twitter favorite

There are very few tweeters with the skill of being consistently funny in 140 characters or less. I should say deliberately funny since some Twitter users, especially pro athletes, manage to be unintentionally funny on a regular basis.

Perhaps my favorite funny Twitter feeds belong to Mindy Kaling, Jonah Hill and the like. They're professional comedians, so I guess that's about what you'd expect.

But I've been stunned to find out over the last few months that my friend Ashley (www.twitter.com/ashleydevin) has a feed that measures up favorably to the pros.

For example:

AshleyDevin Ashley Chilton
I had a dream that I was pregnant and that one of my students was carried away by a buzzard. Both are equally possible.

AshleyDevin Ashley Chilton
Nothing like getting a band aid wrapper in the trash can on the first try to make you feel like you'll be okay in life.

AshleyDevin Ashley Chilton
It would be really weird if my hidden talent was that I was just really amazing at drawing the sultan from Aladdin.

It's been especially refreshing for me to have Ashley become funny again since for a several months she was dating this guy and her tweets became markedly less hysterical.

She keeps her Twitter private, but tell her Nate sent you and I'm sure she'll grant you a follow.

From the Netflix Queue: Cedar Rapids, The Adjustment Bureau, Enemy at the Gates, The Lincoln Lawyer

Cedar Rapids
For the latest humorous take on how jacked up suburban life can be, check out the consistently funny, but weirdly dark, Cedar Rapids. Ed Helms was already carving out a nice career as a middle-class funny man before his starring role as an insurance salesman who's never left his small Wisconsin hometown. Between the Office and the Hangover franchise, Helms has proven he can play "that guy" we all know from our jobs, our our friend group or what have you. Coming from a small midwestern town myself, Cedar Rapids was easy to identify with. It manages to make fun of and pay tribute to small town American life and be consistently hilarious throughout (thanks in no small part to John C. Reilly). The mere act of leaving his hometown for booming Cedar Rapids was terrifying enough for Helms' character. So you can imagine how things have spun out of control when he winds up smoking crack and partying with a prostitute. This was a well-made movie that managed to pull off satire and real-life equally well.
Four stars

The Adjustment Bureau
Another chapter in the long-line of Matrix-y movies. Instead of a super computer running the universe, the Adjustment Bureau's reality is run by spiritual superpower referred to as the chairman. Modern day angels clad in trench coats and fedoras affect our destiny with modest acts of intervention like making sure Matt Damon's character misses the bus or spills coffee on himself so as to ensure the chairman's plan stays on course. It's really a convoluted way of weighing the centuries-old debate about free will and destiny. The plot was a little choppy, but the movie was fun throughout.
Three stars

Enemy at the Gates
Rotten Tomatoes may not be the end-all-be-all of a film's worth, but it's a useful tool to gauge critical acclaim and audience popularity. Usually believe it or not, moviegoers and critics tend to agree on films. Toy Story 3 was awesome. Battle Los Angeles was not. The Human Centipede was something else altogether. Anyhow, I was surprised to see such a huge discrepancy between what audiences and critics thought of Enemy at the Gates. It seems audiences liked the movie (RT score of 86) while critics disliked it (59). The film is flawed in its depiction of Russian military history, apparently, and it over-simplifies and even glorifies war. Those black marks may be well-earned, but Enemy at the Gates has something that viewers, like me, found appealing. It is suspenseful and fun to watch with great acting by dueling snipers Jude Law and Ed Harris. If it got some historical facts wrong, American audiences are likely to forgive Enemy at the Gates since Russian military is not something most of us know anything about. I'll agree a war movie can be better done than this, Saving Private Ryan and the Hurt Locker are good examples. But if you want to sit on the edge of your seat while watching two snipers fight to the bitter end, then this is one worth seeing.
Four stars.

The Lincoln Lawyer
Matthew McConaughey is not for everybody, and apparently he is not for me, since I find his acting predictable and grating. The Lincoln Lawyer is basically a comic book movie about a swashbuckling macho guy played by hilarious bravado by McConaughey. It's sort of a courtroom drama, but it could have been a Western or a cop flick or a sports movie. The real point is to ogle McConaughey, but if that's not something you're into than this one can fall flat at times.
Two stars.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

From the Queue: Country Strong, Barney's Version, Of Gods and Men

Country Strong
Gwyneth Paltrow spent much of her time during the filming of Country Strong gushing about how much she loved Nashville, its food, music, shopping and people. Even though she talked about the 600,000 person state capitol as if it was a tiny, undiscovered hamlet at times, I was intrigued by the film because of her affinity for the place I call home. I was disappointed, therefore, to find that the Nashville scenes are all too few. Yes, there are some obligatory shots of the honky tonk district on lower Broadway, but overall the film fails to capture the flavor of Music City the way Paltrow's blog posts indicated it would.
If I was disappointed by Country Strong's depiction of Nashville, I was even more disappointed by its dull, unrealistic plot, lifeless acting and bland musical sequences. I found it wholly unrealistic that a guy would go from playing on lower Broadway to opening for a national headlining act (Paltrow's character) before he ever had a recording contract, or had ever recorded a record of any sort apparently. Virtually every character is a caricature of one-dimensional stereotype. The alcoholic former star. The musical purist good ol' American boy. The girl-next-door beauty queen.
Perhaps the most unrealistic component of Country Strong was Tim McGraw's bizarre hair piece. If the actor playing the character is good looking enough to be a real-life country music star, then why, in God's name, would a director feel the need to change the way he looks? This is one of the worst toupees in cinematic history.
This film is bad in every way a film can be so. If you want to see a good film about the country music industry, I suggest Crazy Heart, featuring Jeff Bridges awesome performance from a year ago. If you've already seen Crazy Heart, watch it again and it will be more satisfying than Country Strong.
If you've already seen Crazy Heart so many times you don't want to watch it again, invite over some of your best friends, set up a flip cam, and record yourselves acting out the scenes from crazy Heart, and you'll still have a better film than Country Strong.
They say country music is heading in the wrong direction because it's been so glammed up, glossed over and dumbed down. Country Strong is sad proof that films about the industry are also heading in the same direction.
One star

Barney's Version
Alzheimer's disease is unquestionably the most depressing topic possible for a film, so give Barney's Version credit for taking such slit-your-wrists subject matter and making it intriguing, suspenseful and pretty damn funny.
Watching Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman play their son and father characters together was a joy in and of itself.
Barney's Version has so many layers. Relationship drama. A did-he-do-it murder plot. And it's pulled all along by one man, Barney, slipping sadly into the clutches of Alzheimer's. The acting is so good that you almost don't notice when the plot becomes mildly convoluted. The film is so unique, as most Giamatti films are, that it's strikes me as something viewers will be hard pressed to forget.
Four stars

Of Gods and Men
Why would nine Catholic monks entrench themselves in a war zone between Muslim extremists and a corrupt, incompetent government when they must surely know (as the viewer does when they watch Of Gods and Men) that they will die in the end?
Of Gods and Men is compelling because it gradually offers a sophisticated answer for why the nine monks stayed in the Algerian mountains to face their own demise instead of running for cover and fleeing the country. You see the men and their very human reaction to likely death, as they doubt their choice to stay and their faith in God. I came away impressed by their faith and moved by their conviction and devotion to the people they felt called by God to serve. This French film based on a true story is a must-see. It doesn't ruin the experience to know, as a Google search will tell you, that the monks are massacred in the end. The point of the movie is to find out why they bravely stayed in harm's way when simple logic and human instinct surely told them to leave.
Five stars.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

No. 24 Palisade

Palisade is the most out-of-place band on my list, because instead of indie or alternative rock, the group was a contemporary Christian vocal pop group.

To put it plainly, there's a lot about Palisade's music that frankly isn't my bag of tea. But I couldn't list my favorite all-time groups without including them since Palisade was founded by some of my best friends.

Traveling with the group to tiny churches across the country to watch them play their music and meet some amazing people remains one of the highlights of my time in Nashville.

It was nothing short of amazing to watch Jeremy, Brandon and Ashley come to Nashville with all the expected naivete of three pastor's children and within one short year sign a record deal. Things didn't work out fully the way they planned, but it was still a cool sight to see their CD in the music section at the Target in my hometown of Valpo.

As I said, their actual songs fell outside of my musical wheelhouse, but Palisade did have one musical trick up its sleeve that would give me goosebumps without fail. Their renditions of traditional hymns such as It is Well with My Soul and Old Rugged Cross were truly something to see for yourself. I saw Palisade bring entire church congregations to their feet with the final soaring chorus of It is Well.

Unfortunately, I don't have any recordings of those performances to post, but I certainly will if I figure out how to post an MP3 from my iTunes. In the meantime, the contemporary Christian music fans among you can check out their MySpace (MYSPACE!) page.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

From the Queue: Another Year, True Grit, Biuitiful

Another Year
This is a movie that might have worked better as a play since the film brought just about nothing to the equation that the stage couldn't have showcased. The plot is less a storyline and more a set of somewhat connected anecdotes about the experiences of a mostly happily married British couple and their friends and family. I had to watch the film with the subtitles on because the English accents were difficult for me to understand at times. The dialogue is fast and the quips come faster for the family that likes to riff with one another. But their inside jokes fail to drown out the sadness that surrounds them, especially their friend Mary, a twice-divorced middle-aged secretary whose lonesome sadness is painfully depressing. This movie received an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay, but there's nothing particularly revelatory about this film, and I don't think it is a profound commentary of the state of family life in 2011. I do think it showcases gifted actors and accurately displays the complex and easy-to-miss subtleties of family life and lifelong friendships. This one's not for many movie fans though, and by the final scene I was ready for it to be over and done with.
Three stars.

True Grit
Jeff Bridges is the best actor going right now in my opinion, and True Grit is exhibit A as to why that is. A remake of a classic Western film starring John Wayne, there's nothing new here, except every actor in every scene is simply amazing, and Bridges is the best of the bunch. I find few flaws with this movie, but I'm going to preemptively offer one rebuttal against a criticism I suspect trained critics found in this Coen Bros. production. The story is as simple as can be, which reminds of the underlying reason why Avatar didn't supposedly didn't win the Oscar for Best Picture a year ago. What I don't understand is why simple plots are inherently a bad thing. A film is not a book. The viewer doesn't need to imagine what the scenery looks like or what the character's voices sound like, since directors and cinematographers and actors do that for us. Avatar was brilliant, and the best film of a year ago, because it was like nothing we'd ever seen before. Its plot was a version of Dances with Wolves and other notable films, and for that critics found it elementary. True Grit's plot is a straight revenge flick not remarkably different from any other Western. But the story is told through the filter of such perfect acting (besides Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld) that the simplicity of the story is actually a benefit to the movie. There are no new stories to be told, so every great film is going to remind us of something. Even though True Grit is as unoriginal as can be, it's a repeat of a film that's already been made, it feels new and uniquely memorable.
Five stars.

Biuitiful
I had high hopes for Oscar-nominated Biutiful mainly because star Javier Bardem's performance was touted as nearly legendary. Bardem was in fact stellar, but the plot was so weird and convoluted, I simply did not care about his character by the end. There's drug use and murder and political commentary and visions of haunting spirits and various other elements that make the story not necessarily hard to follow, but hard to invest in. In fact, by the end, I only wanted the movie to be over so I could go watch something lighter (I think I chose Modern Family) to cleanse my pallet. A real disappointment.
Two stars

No. 25 The Antlers

Here is a practice in time-wasting. The baby is asleep, all my workplace worries have stowed away at 1100 Broadway and I am alone with my thoughts and my music. As I said a few posts ago, I don't think particularly highly of obligatory music lists, or of ranking works of art in general.

This is merely me sharing for my friends and fellow music fans what bands I am enjoying right now.

Starting the list off is the Antlers, a Brooklyn-based group that broke through in 2009 with their creepy and beautiful concept album Hospice. The Antlers have followed up that effort this year with Burst Apart, which is worth purchasing for those who haven't heard it.

At their best, the Antlers remind me of some truly remarkable bands. On any given song, the young band can channel the raw emotion of U2, the intriguing textures of Radiohead, the haunting beauty of Arcade Fire and the goosebumping vocals of Antony and the Johnsons.

Having said that, their last two albums appear to me to be merely a foretaste of the great things still to come. Even though the Antlers remind me of rock royalty, this is still an inconsistent band and some of their tracks, even on the unforgettably outstanding Hospice, are regular skips for me.

Listen for yourself by watching a YouTube video of "Two," which is my favorite song (so-so video) by the band.

Monday, May 30, 2011

From the Queue: GasLand, Inception, Secretariat, Pushing Tin

GasLand
The next time you're locked into a friendly political discussion about the value of government regulations, and the person sitting across from you argues that more bureaucracy is a bad thing, kindly show them the movie GasLand. Full scale abandonment of government regulation of the natural gas industry has created a gaping loophole that corporations are exploiting in nearly every state in the country. The effect? Some people have water so polluted by natural gas leaks that it is flammable. The footage of faucet water being lit on fire is gripping enough, but GasLand is a road journal about what's wrong with corporate interests deciding government oversight. A must, must-see. Five stars.

Inception
This was a movie best seen at the theater, where one could gain a full appreciation of its mind-blowing special effects. Much like Avatar, the brilliance of Inception is its visuals moreso than its story. Unlike Avatar, Inception is bogged down by a convoluted, yet imaginative, plot that is difficult to follow. Having already seen the film a year ago on the big screen, I found the replay value only so-so. Even though I already knew the plot, it was weirdly hard to follow. Still an excellent movie though and very worthy of its Oscar accolades. Four stars.

Secretariat
Diane Lane's intense performance couldn't save this B-grade sports movie from being so watered down by its Disneyfied storyline. If you don't love horse racing, and I don't, then there's nothing really here for you. The plot is skin-deep and the story is one you already know. Three stars.

Pushing Tin
I'm a fan of John Cusack, who I regard as a great actor in just about every genre, but when he misses on a film, boy does he miss. Pushing Tin is a weird movie about an alpha male rivalry between Cusack and, of all people, Billy Bob Thornton. What starts as a bar-room one-on-one for who can hold a lit match the longest, turns into a game of one-upmanship leading to Cusack setting his sights on Thornton's wife (Angelina Jolie in a shockingly bizarre performance). Let's just say that, hindsight vision being 20/20, I can see how the former couple of Thornton/Jolie were vials of blood around their necks. If you want to see a good film about the stressful air traffic control profession, you'll have to wait for something else. If you want to see three good actors (plus Kate frigging Blanchett, who is left to play a dull supporting role) shock and awe you with their awkward behavior, then add this to your queue. This falls into the what-the-hell-was-I-thinking-when-I-put-this-on-my-queue category. Two stars

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Top 25 bands, the preamble

One of the worst aspects of the current state of Rolling Stone magazine is its ever-increasing zeal for publishing pointless rock n' roll lists. Top 100 songs, top 100 albums, top 100 guitarists. I believe the most recent ranking I saw was a list of Bob Dylan's top 40 songs.

The lists are pointless, not only because they are inherently meaningless, but because Rolling Stone's point of view on pop music took a hit the day Eminem's album got five freaking stars.

Having said all that, I bring to you a pointless list of my own -- my top 25 favorite bands. It's sort of my answer to such meaningless rankings, my catharsis from the unnecessary and the menial lists that modern music journalists find so obligatory these days.

A few things about my pointless list, it will be decidedly slanted toward bands in the last decade, when my passion for music grew and where my current playlists are mostly rooted. Therefore, iconic bands like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin are nowhere to be found but, say, The National, has a fighting chance to make an appearance.

Solo artists were left off, which meant the likes of Johnny Cash and, my unquestioned all-time favorite artist of all-time, Alison Carmona, will not be mentioned.

So, in honor of my totally self-involved, utterly pointless, and undeniably meaningless countdown, let me leave you with two videos I really love of two equally cool songs:

Lykke Li, with a deviant, creepy date performance for the ages:



The rise and rise of the New Pornographers:

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

From the Queue: A ton of movies because I got behind on this

So at the beginning of the year I tried to start using this site as an archive for movies I watched through my Netflix queue. It worked out OK until last month when our cable modem went down during an incident, which I've sworn under pain of death I will not discuss.

Anyhow, while the internet was out of service, Netflix was its same reliable self. Because I got so far behind, here is a very quick rundown of the movies that have arrived in my mailbox recently:

Inside Job: The Oscar winning documentary sought to explain the global financial meltdown of 2008. While the film did a great job of explaining the damaging effect of decades of government deregulation of the financial markets, it did a poor job of offering a fix. I don't think this film has mass appeal and I was especially disappointed that more prominent industry leaders like Allan Greenspan and Timothy Geithner weren't interviewed (by their choice) to offer a rebuttal. I struggle to understand how this film was a more important or better constructed documentary than Restrepo, yet I appreciate that it was willing to do what the mainstream media could not in the last few years: point the finger at the bastards who put the world on the brink of true financial calamity. Four stars

The Fighter: I believe this is one of, if not the, greatest sports films ever made. It shows the life of an athlete away from the spotlight in a brutally honest way that no sports movie ever has. The fact The Fighter happens to be a true story told with such delicacy, thanks to once-in-a-lifetime performances by Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, only makes the end result more impressive. This movie is for just about everyone, though it certainly is every bit as gritty as a crackhead-in-recovery tale should be. Five stars.

The King's Speech: Having now seen all of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture, I would say that The King's Speech was one of my least favorite films. The Fighter and 127 Hours were easily my favorites from last year. The King's Speech actually might have worked better as a play than a film. It was never boring, per se, but it was something less than captivating despite its astounding acting performances by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. Four stars.

Waiting for Superman: No one really doubts that our public education system is a sinful mess, but this movie still feels like a revelation when you see it. Having said that, it also over-simplifies some pretty complicated issues and seems to willfully ignore environmental issues like family problems that lead to troubled public schools. Three stars.

The Upside of Anger: One of my favorite Twitter feeds is Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert's. Besides hilarious observations about politics and pop culture, Ebert aggregates his reviews and posts archived reviews of old films. After reading his review of the Upside of Anger, I decided to add it to my queue, and I was not disappointed. As a general rabid fan of dysfunctional family films (for some reason?) I naturally gravitated to this one, but the leading performance Joan Allen is one for the ages. Please see this movie if a beloved family member has ever driven you to an internal rage. Four stars

In non-Netflix news, we also rented Rabbit Hole, the uber-depressing melodrama starring Nicole Kidman in an Oscar-nominated performance. The movie is about a couple coping with the death of their 4-year-old son so it's no knee slapper. Kidman plays the emotionally bankrupt wife and she deserves the accolades that earned her the Oscar nod, but the film was oppressively draining mainly because of its sadder than hell topic matter. Three stars

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Nate Kiper

I have a soft spot in my heart for Mel Kiper. I know "true" NFL fans find him irritating but I disagree. He possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of each year's draft class and is often spot-on in his analysis.

Even if he's wrong sometimes, fans shouldn't hold that against him since professional NFL GMs are often wrong too. Look at the Titans, their recent top-10 draft choices include Vince Young and Pacman Jones. I believe Mel Kiper could have made better selections than that.

While I've never fashioned myself a draftnik like Kiper ot Todd McShay, I do enjoy the NFL DRaft almost as much as any other sporting event. If time allows, I'll do a post about how I see the draft shaking out for the Packers. Last year's draft class might go down as one of the best in team history, especially if you throw in undrafted rookie free agents Sam Shields and Frank Zombo. Nearly every rookie on the roster contributed significantly.

As for this year's draft class, there doesn't seem to be a clear No. 1 player, but if I was making the top selection I'd go with A.J. Green. I know wide receivers aren't typically the centerpiece of a team and Green comes with some baggage.

But he's also unstoppable. And I think he's hungry to be successful (i.e. rich). I view him in the Randy Moss/Calvin Johnson/Michael Irvin mold of big, talented receivers and I think he's a surefire Pro Bowl player in the NFL.

Most experts have Green lower in the top-10, but they also over-value quarterbacks Cam Newton (who I view as a Vince Young replica) and Blaine Gabbert (whose so-so college numbers are alarming).

Other players I really think will make good pros are defensive end Cameron Jordan from Cal and wide receiver Torrey Smith from Maryland. I've seen Jordan mentioned as a possible inside defensive tackle, 4-3 defensive end, 3-4 defensive end or even 3-4 outside linebacker. He's versatile, athletic and was very productive in college. He should go in the top 5 or 10 but many mocks have him slotted lower than that.

Smith is a burner with a great, unselfish attitude who played in an offense without a quarterback capable of getting him the ball. He's got the size and strength to play in the NFL and the speed to overcompensate for the learning curve rookies typically experience at receiver.

In the later rounds, I really like receiver Greg Salas from Hawaii. He seems like a typical Packer selection who could fall to Green Bay in Rounds 2 or 3.

We'll see how this pans out in a week, during a 3-day festival of football that has become the NFL Draft. Coming off the Packers' Super Bowl win and caught in the middle of the lockout nonsense, watching Kiper and company will be a welcomed reprieve.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Some girl sold her ex-boyfriend's My Bloody Valentine CD

Of all the many tragedies produced by the digital music age, the most personally affecting is the gradual death of the used CD shop. For me, the memories and the music are inseparable. My teenage years are the same as Siamese Dream at the beginning and In the Aeroplane over the Sea at the end.

I'm alone this weekend because my wife and son are driving with my mother-in-law across the continent to California. To fill the void yesterday, I retreated to a lovely place aptly named the Great Escape, which pawns delicately used art of profound importance to nerds like me. Comic books, DVDs, video games and of course CDs.

I struck gold during yesterday's visit. The new album from Those Darlins, a Nashville quasi-country, garage rock, pop band, was inexplicably in the used wrack even though it only came out like two weeks ago. It's a sidestep for one of Nashville's great indie rock bands, but I still like Screws Get Loose a great deal.

I also found a copy of the seminal album Loveless by My Bloody Valentine. I never owned this album even though I've listened to it, and had it played for me, many times. I gobbled up a copy and I've been consuming it loudly for the last day and a half.

One of my hobbies-within-a-hobby is trying to come up with a backstory for why a certain CD has been pawned away. There's no reason to romanticize a backstory for why someone would sell their Third Eye Blind album. That music goes in one ear, out the other, leaving behind nothing but embarrassment and regret. But My Bloody Valentine?

There are only two explanations for why a copy of Loveless was up for re-sale at Great Escape. The CD itself was full of scuffs and knicks. Its plastic case had the wear and tear of a hockey puck, but blared through my car speakers, it sounded as scruffy, angry, creepy and brilliant as ever. That means this album was listened to a lot (thus the wear and tear) and by someone who loved the music (thus the fact the CD was in good enough condition that it still played just fine).

Either some indie rock nerd about my age was robbed and the fiend got away with re-selling it at Great Escape OR a young woman about my age broke up with a guy like that, ended up with some of CDs and, criminally, sold it away. Maybe she had one of her guy friends, who probably still listens to Third Eye Blind, sell it for her.

"Just get rid of it," she said. "I hated his weird music."

Home burglary or stone-cold ex, either way, I am the beneficiary. Thank God for stores like Great Escape keeping music alive.

My Bloody Valentine's Only Shallow

Those Darlins Be Your Bro

Saturday, April 9, 2011

From the Queue: I'll Cry Tomorrow and Due Date

For the first time in recent memory, a classic film recommended by Ali fell short. The movie was I'll Cry Tomorrow, which is the story of a Hollywood actress's battle with alcohol, depression and stardom after her fiance dies unexpectedly. Frankly the movie did not capture my attention. There are some classic films where I don't even notice how drastically different the style of acting was decades ago. But this is not one of them.
Two stars

I had high hopes for Due Date, since I revere Planes, Trains and Automobiles and since Zack Galiafinakis is hilarious. This movie substituted the cleverness of its mismatched roadtrip predecessor for crude, simplistic jokes. There are still funny scenes, since ZG and Robert Downey Jr. are funny guys. But this film makes the Hangover, hell even Old School, look like high art. I couldn't help laughing outloud, and then I couldn't help feeling guilty when I did. Eventually the laughs stopped and the film ran its course.
Two stars.

Baseball predictions



This is shaping up to be one of the great sports fan years of my life. The Packers have already improbably won the Super Bowl. The Bulls have the No. 1 seed and seem poised for a deep playoff run. And then there's the Cubs.

It only took watching a few innings of the opening series against the Pirates (?!) to see this would, again, not be the Cubs year. One week into the season the Cubs are .500, and if they can keep going at that rate Mike Quade deserves manager of the year consideration.

At first glance, the Cubs' formula success could be the same as last year's Giants, who won the World Series. If their veteran position players (Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd, Carlos Pena, Kosuke Fukudome, Aramis Ramirez) lived up to their considerable contracts and if their young pitchers (Andrew Cashner, Randy Wells, Marcus Mateo, James Russell, Jeff Samardzija) began living up to their potential, maybe this could be a contending team.

But it seems painfully obvious the veterans wouldn't form a dangerous lineup even if they earned their salaries. And it is a statistical impossibility that Soriano will live up to his ridiculous contract.

One week into the season, Cashner and Wells are already on the disabled list. The back of the bullpen, led by Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol, has already looked surprisingly shaky even though it was supposed to be the team's certain strength.

The Bulls and Packers may be perennial contenders, but baseball season won't turn around for Cubs fans like me for quite some time.

My 2011 predictions:

National League
East
1. Phillies
2. Braves
3. Nationals
4. Mets
5. Marlins

Central
1. Reds
2. Brewers
3. Cardinals
4. Cubs
5. Pirates
6. Astros

West
1. Rockies
2. Giants
3. Dodgers
4. Diamondbacks
5. Padres
Wild card: Braves

American League
East
1. Yankees
2. Red Sox
3. Blue Jays
4. Orioles
5. Rays

Central
1. White Sox
2. Twins
3. Indians
4. Tigers
5. Royals

West
1. Rangers
2. Angels
3. A's
4. Mariners
Wild card: Red Sox

World Series: Yankees over Phillies

Everyone wants to doubt the Phillies, but that pitching staff could lose two guys from its rotation and still carry them through the playoffs. The Reds may be the Phils' top competition. I see the Rockies emerging from a tough NL West.

The Yankees win a muddy American League because of Sabathia and a potent offense. The Rangers don't have enough pitching to carry them through a regular season and the playoffs. The White Sox look tough.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Strokes' Angles


Sometimes an album, like an old friendship, is valuable because of what it helps you remember.

That's how I've come to feel about The Strokes' fourth studio album, Angles. Critics have given Angles decidedly mixed reviews, and if this album was The Strokes' first offering I could understand that.

But The Strokes shouldn't be graded on the same curve as blogger-come-lately acts like Weeknd or Washed Out. The Strokes have earned their place in rock 'n roll history and this album, despite its very real faults, is a reminder of their greatness.

I got acquainted with this album over the same time that I got re-acquainted with some of my favorite old friends. Last weekend we spent a Saturday evening in Indianapolis acting like anything but a buncha 30-somethings with grown-up jobs, relationships and kids. We played drinking games, we told old stories from high school and college, we watched a lot of basketball and we quoted lines from Rounders until the early morning hours. The weekend in itself was a simple, fun guys' weekend, but it was also a refresher in how important it is to stay in touch with the friends from your childhood.

I think it's fitting that The Strokes soundtracked this weekend for me, because the band has soundtracked other moments in my life too. When I was 20 and had to get a job delivering pizza to pay my bills, the band's debut album, Is This It, blared from my 1988 Chevy Corsica while I darted around Bloomington.

When I moved to Nashville, one of my roommates, an aspiring musician from Rochester, N.Y. was a huge fan of the band. We'd play their music while we talked about girls and enjoyed Nashville together. We even watched the band play an unforgettable set in 2004 down on the riverfront in which frontman Julian Casablancas acted like an imbecile, much to our delight.

Having said all that, Angles has its unmistakable flaws. At times Casablancas' vocals are utterly incoherent. If you can understand what he's singing about without the liner notes, then you should be deciphering code for Homeland Security. The album's fourth track, You're So Right, is truly irritating, and after only a few listens I no longer can tolerate the song. The mood of the album jumps around a bit, as critics have pointed out, and sometimes it's hard to separate The Strokes from their obvious influences.

Having said all that, the album delivers some "classic" Strokes songs like Under the Cover of Darkness and Taken for a Fool. Those songs would be right at home on Is This It or Room On Fire, the band's landmark albums that helped reshape indie rock.

This album isn't a classic on its own, but it's a reminder of where the band, and if you love them like I do, where you've been. A garbled album from The Strokes is still better listening than anything Weeknd could ever offer up. Sometimes an album from a great band is like a childhood friendship. It could fade some in time, but its value is intrinsic.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

From the Queue: Let Me In and The Switch

Let Me In was the Americanized remake of a thrilling Swedish adolescent vampire movie. Whereas the original film (Tell No One) was subtle and chilling, the American version was gory and creepy.

The films were both extremely well made and very memorable in their own right. Imagine campy takes on vampire drama like True Blood and Twilight. At the other end of the spectrum is Let Me In never turns the film's heroine vampire into a cartoonish caricature. Instead of turning the vampire into something monstrous and unrelatable OR dreamy and weirdly sexual, Let Me In manages to make the film's main character both eerie and likable. You root for her, even though she creeps you out. It's this success that makes this perhaps the best vampire story ever told, and you can take your pick which one you like best. I like them both the same. Five stars.

Ali and I have been interested in the Switch ever since we saw the trailer last year. Ali wanted to see the film because it looked like a charming romantic comedy. I wanted to see it because I think Jason Bateman is one of the funniest actors right now.

This movie doesn't achieve anything close to what Bateman pulled off in his legendary run on Arrested Development, but there are still some scenes that were funny enough that we hit rewind to watch them over.

The premise is absurd (woman wants to have a baby, so she plans on being artificially inseminated and has her friends over for a big party to mark the occasion, only to have the sperm switched out by her best friend's sperm (deposited by Bateman)).

If you want to satisfy your significant other by watching an in-one-ear-out-the-other romantic comedy, then I recommend this one for sure. Three and a half stars.

Survivor post-Russell

Is it so difficult to find interesting people who would understand the game of Survivor that the show's producers are forced to invite previous losers back again and again.

That's what happened this season on Redemption Island. Survivor producers were so desperate to make the show interesting again they brought back Boston Rob (for his fourth go-round) and Russell (for his third). They also added an unprecedented twist, Redemption Island, which gives castaways voted out a chance to stay in the game by winning a duel against the previous Survivor voted out.

Since this season was designed to focus on Rob and Russell, I'll start by saying out disappointing it is that Russell was voted out by his tribe without reason so early in the game. Despite his faults, Russell is an excellent strategist, maybe the best in the history of the game. So to see him voted out simply because the other guys in his tribe were intimidated by him was pretty devastating. The tribe has since voted out Russell's only two allies, two apparent strong strategists in Krista and Stephanie, whose only flaw was aligning with Russell.

On the other hand, things are moving along nicely for Boston Rob. He is in a safe alliance, he seems to be calling the shots and he even has a hidden immunity idol in his possession. However, I don't particularly like the strategic game Rob is playing. He voted out young, athletic and likable Matt because he was threatened by him. The Robfather from previous games never would have gotten rid of such a strong player. Rob has also kept around two nameless young women who seem to be pretty worthless in every aspect of the game, in addition to Phillip a certifiable loose cannon who may, or may not, be a former federal agent.

The twist of Redemption Island is interesting, but I don't like how arbitrary it is. We don't know when the last person from Redemption Island will be allowed back in the game. So far Matt is killing it at the Redemption Island duels, and it seems logical that multiple players could eventually find their way back in by the new twist. I'm predicting one player returns before the merge, and another after the merge.

The most glaring flaw of this season is there aren't any likable players to cheer for this side of Boston Rob, and there haven't been any noteworthy strategic plays yet. It's always possible things will get more interesting, but so far this has been a so-so season with multiple strong players getting voted out too quickly because they were perceived as "threats," a move I always find annoying so early in the game.

I still love the show and I'm hopeful that I can win the family Survivor pool (unlikely since one of the three players I drew was Phillip), but other than that this has been one of the show's more forgettable seasons so far.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

From the Queue (and Red Box and Netflix watch instantly)

One of the reasons I started writing blog reviews of our Netflix rentals is I've found so many movies, even the good ones, we rent are so forgettable. I thought writing about the films might help me remember them and recommend the ones I like to friends.

Last weekend was a reminder to me of what's "wrong" with Hollywood these days. We watched five films in five days. One week later, I've found that some of these movies have already gone in one ear and out the other. So here goes, a recap of a quasi movie marathon:

1. Animal Kindgom: This was a well-acted melodrama about an Australian crime family. It's chocked full of the requisite violence and obvious tension between family loyalty and self preservation. Lines are blurred between good and bad as the cops often kill without reason and the "bad guys" try to ditch their lives of for a career investing in the stock market. Jacki Weaver gives a chilling performance as the messed-up matriarch of the family. She smiles coldly and speaks with an eerie tone as she tries to keep her family together while her children die one by one. For all of this movie's strengths, its weaknesses are really due to the fact that we've all been there, done that with this type of movie. It reminded me a lot of The Town, which was also underwhelming for me. Three stars.

2. The Human Centipede: In a time when movies find a way to be remarkably forgettable, the Human Centipede is seared forever into my brain. The set up is pretty simple: a talented but demented surgeon wants to create a human centipede, by linking three people by their digestive tracks and then sewing them together by their lips and anuses. I dare you not to find that plot weirdly intriguing. The film's heroines -- two American girls vacationing in Germany -- oddly find a way to be as unlikable as the villain. You resent them for their awful decision making, as they wandered toward his evil lair deep in the German forest during a series of events that would make a pornography director roll his eyes. The acting mostly is subpar, except for the lead character, the detestable surgeon who does all of the needlework. When it's all said and done, this movie's flaws are so pronounced that a better man than me would likely find this movie to be subpar, if not downright awful. But I applaud the film for being memorable, even if there's no way in he'll I'll see the sequel. Three stars.

3. 127 Hours: Danny Boyle is a genius, and he proves it again by taking a movie that could have been a simplistic accounting of a real-life event and turning it into a creative masterpiece. This movie was interesting and suspenseful, even though I knew how it all turned out since I've seen the film's inspiration interviewed multiple times on national television. I highly recommend this movie to any audience, although if you're not one to watch someone hack their own arm off with a pocket knife then there will be times where it's wise to look away. James Franco kinda annoys me, but he's a great actor and I doubt he'll ever top his performance in this one. Five stars.

4. The Next Three Days: So I find it a little alarming that Russell Crowe is on such a lengthy cold streak. Sure he's a great actor, but it's been several years since he's made a good movie. Don't see this movie, if only because you've seen it before. It was a B-grade version of the Fugitive (which I adored) and Ransom (which I disliked). Two stars.

5. Unstoppable: For an action movie as well-received by critics, you have to applaud Unstoppable for being suspenseful without the need for all that many special effects. It helps that the film was based on a true story and it was easy to root for the lead characters. One pet peeve of mine is that action films often are so shallow you don't care about the subjects of the film, but rather find yourself simply waiting for the next robot explosion or good guy v. bad guy firefight. Unstoppable is a pretty rare movie indeed. Four stars.

Friday, March 11, 2011

From the Queue: Get Low and Paranormal Activity 2

I guess I'm not the only person who's wondered what people might say at my funeral. Get Low is a slow-moving drama about a simple guy (Robert Duvall) with a complicated past who throws his own funeral before he's even died. The film is set in the late 1800s or early 19-Dickities. Duvall's performance is great, and Bill Murray helped lead a solid supporting cast.

Because the plot seemed funny to me, I was a little taken aback at how serious the movie is. It mostly kept me interested until Duvall's final monologue, which also serves as the eulogy for his funeral. The final scene throws together in a few minutes what was supposed to be decades of anguish. It felt a little thrown together. When the main character actually does die at the end, the emotion I think the film is supposed to convey actually falls kind of flat. All in all, this was a bit of a forgettable movie that would have been much worse if Duvall didn't deliver his typically outstanding performance. Three stars.

--

Something about the Paranormal Activity franchise has me hooked. Maybe because in the back of my mind, I've always wondered why there wouldn't be at least one YouTube video of actual paranormal activity in an age when every man, woman and child on this earth is at the ready with their smart phone. If there really were ghosts haunting the living, it seems like it would eventually be caught on video.

So the PA films pre-suppose that the haunts are caught on video. As with any good horror film, Paranormal Activity 2 has plenty of moments when you want to scream through the television at the characters who seem so oblivious to their horrifying surroundings.

This time, the subjects of the demonic presence is a suburban San Diego family. The dad installs an elaborate security system with 24-7 video recording in every room of the house. When said-video system starts catching horrifying shit on tape, the dad weirdly stands in denial and blames elaborate evil events on the wind. Like when his daughter gets locked out of the house and the demon starts stalking his infant son, the dad refuses to go watch footage from the video feed he's likely paid thousands of dollars to install. As you might be able to tell, I found holes in the plot like this frustrating.

But the film does what it's supposed to do, which is freak you out. The ending is awful and left a bitter taste in my mouth. And I found the movie especially unsettling since it's about a demon stalking a newborn, since I happen to have a newborn right now. All in all, I highly recommend this movie to anyone who enjoys being spooked. Four stars