TV Review: True Detective Season 1

•June 23, 2014 • Leave a Comment

 

Seemingly every person who knows anything about television spent the winter of this year raving about True Detective via social media, while I huddled in the corner of the Twitter universe trying to avoid any and all spoilers. I’m happy to say I emerged unscathed, and ended up buying the show at Barnes and Noble (30% percent off!) last week. Aside from the bits and pieces that had popped up on the internet, I knew very little about this show, excepting Matthew McConaughey’s mustache.

The show, despite being lauded for its originality, is actually a pretty basic story of two detectives who have diametrically opposed views of the world. Woody Harrelson plays Marty Hart, who initially comes across as the sort of do-gooder in a land of corruption you’ve seen a million times, but ends up being, for lack of a better word, an asshole. Marty’s partner is Rustin Cole (McConaughey), a depressed, cynical dude who is probably one of the more interesting characters I have seen on television or in film in quite some time. His drunken, swirling soliloquies and meditations on life are the heart of the show, at least to me.

Anyway, the show has an interesting frame story; it starts in 1995, with the two detectives working a mysterious murder case, while they are simultaneously interviewed in 2012. The story later shifts to 2002 and then finally back to 2012 for the last two episodes. By the way, there are only 8 episodes (1 hour each) so the story comes and goes and doesn’t drag at all to my mind.

What I Liked

The acting from the two leads is incredible stuff, particularly McConaughey. I haven’t seen him in many serious roles, but his career has been experiencing a renaissance of late and it’s obvious why, because he takes the role of Cole and knocks it out of the park. Harrelson does a great job as well in a much less flashy role, but the two work together nicely.

Secondly, the cinematography and the way the show is shot is like nothing I’ve seen on television. It really feels like a long movie, and some of the scenery shots of Southern Louisiana are really breathtaking. There’s also an epic, 6 minute, Children of Men-esque take that I would highly recommend everyone check out.

Finally, I think the show does a fantastic job telling the story. The murder mystery itself is not really a novel concept, but it’s so well executed that you forget about some of its flaws.

What I Didn’t Like

The big issue people justifiably have with True Detective is that the female characters are not well written. I think this is a legitimate complaint, although I’m sure others will complain about how the PC police have taken over our society. I’m definitely not someone who thinks that every movie or television program needs to complete a checklist of every group of society. However, the female characters that are present are not drawn with nearly the complexity of the leads and mainly exist either to get a guttural reaction from the audience (i.e. everyone recoils at the sight of a dead woman) or as trophies for male characters. That’s about all I’ll say on that though!

My second complaint, which I already alluded to, is that the plot is pretty standard stuff, and this whole obsession with serial killers has started to feel a little stale. Not that it’s a focus of the show, but I just feel like the trope is played out at this point. It’s a credit to everyone involved in the creation of the show that this works as well as it does with such a trite story-line.

Overall

I’m not ready to anoint True Detective as the second coming of The Wire or Breaking Bad, but it is an excellent show. Great performances, great cinematography, and an interesting example of how television can succeed in ways that film cannot. Definitely see this show.

Rating: 9/10

Book Review: The Sports Gene by David Epstein

•May 28, 2014 • Leave a Comment

The Sports Gene Review

David Epstein’s book “The Sports Gene” is one of the more engrossing and intriguing books I’ve read in a long time (fiction or otherwise). The author, a former collegiate track runner at Columbia, sets out to look at the age-old issue of nature vs. nurture in terms of sports. In other words: What is more important to an athlete, good genes or good work ethic?

Epstein’s answer this unanswerable question is basically “It depends” but it’s the way he goes about looking at the angle that had me staying up way past my usual bedtime, bleary-eyed as I read about the Kalenjin tribe’s dominance in distance running or the Iditarod racer/dog breeder who literally bred work ethic into his dogs.

The book covers a wide range of topics across many different sports and continents. The discussion of Kenyan distance dominance has always been a hotly debated topic on message boards and the like, so it was interesting to see that the science is still not sure exactly why this relatively small nation has been able to so thoroughly dominate the sport. What was new was Epstein’s discussion of the “genetic diversity” theory, which states that, since life began in Africa, people from that continent are going to have a greater deal of diversity than, say, people living in Asia, who migrated there eons ago. Thus people in Africa, in theory, are going to have people with great genes for all kinds of things, but they’re also going to have people on the low-end of the spectrum (i.e. the fastest and the slowest runners in the world). Fairly controversial stuff, particularly when discussing Jamaicans, who primarily are from the West Coast of Africa, and the “warrior-slave” theory.

I was also fascinated by Epstein’s discussion of gender and its relation to sports, in a chapter called “Why Do Men Have Nipples?” Epstein points out that, at one time, it was believed that woman would reach a point where they would be be better than men at running events, due to how rapidly women were improving. As it turns out, this was primarily due to drugged up runners from Eastern Bloc countries.

At any rate, this book is pretty complex at times, but in terms of a book about science the author has done a phenomenal job of simplifying some staggeringly complex concepts into terms that even a science-averse philistine like myself can somewhat understand. My one criticism would be that he really does not address the PED situation in anything other than a cursory manner.

Overall, I’d highly recommend this to anyone who is interested in sports at any level. Although it’s decently long and at times complicated, the book never feels like work and is quite an easy read considering the subject matter.

 

Boston Marathon 2014 Race Report

•April 22, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Put together some thoughts about the Boston Marathon that were way too long to post on Facebook. Not sure how much general interest there is in this, but here you go: 

The Training

This was by far the busiest winter of my life and I just had a lot going on between graduate school, work, and coaching, so training was a challenge. Not to mention, this was a brutal winter weather wise with all kinds of storms that made getting out for 20 plus mile long runs a bit of a chore. Nevertheless, I was thrilled with the way everything went, all things considered. I averaged in the 85-90 mpw range from November until April and got in a 20 plus long run almost every week.

I also managed to string together some great races throughout this training block, with PR’s in the 3k (8:56), the 5k (15:36) and half-marathon (1:10:42). I also ran a solid training run at Stu’s 30k where I averaged 5:50ish pace for around 18 miles. Probably my biggest regret training wise is that I didn’t get in enough workouts at my marathon pace (more on that later).

Another aspect of the training that went surprisingly well is that I managed to emerge at the end of all this without any real injuries. I say it’s surprising because I did a piss-poor job of properly stretching/foam rolling/ice bathing and generally doing the little things that I tell my own athletes a good runner needs to do to stay injury free. This was primarily a by-product of my lack of time, but as I get older it’s going to get more and more difficult to get by without a good stretching routine.

I was visited by this weird knee spasm thing that sprang up in my last marathon training block. On occasion, usually when walking up stairs, I’ll get this little flutter on the inside of my right knee. It doesn’t hurt; it feels like there’s a butterfly trapped inside my leg flapping his wings. Maybe it’s a psychological thing, but I didn’t feel it at all in the race.

The Race

If I’m being honest, I thought much more about the starting line logistics than I was about the actual race. I did the Philadelphia Marathon in 2012, which is a big race, but for that one I was staying at a hotel within walking distance of the starting line. For Boston, there were a lot more steps. Plus, I was without my phone for much of the day, never a good feeling for a technology-addled person like myself.

Thankfully, everything went off without a hitch; I got dropped off in Hopkinton, stood in line for a bathroom for some 20 minutes, got on a bus over to the high school, stood in another bathroom line for some time before abandoning it, and then finally we were “allowed” to head to the starting line. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get in much of a warmup as most of the side streets were blocked off. I ran around the town common for about 5 minutes, then did some dynamics and strides before heading to find a decent place at the starting line.

I had to push my way past a number of people but I finally settled into a spot with a group of guys who were looking to run around 2:30, right around the time I wanted. There were various handshakes and well-wishes (as well as some dudes just straight up peeing on the ground, pretty gross) and then we were off.

I don’t remember too much of the first ten miles or so, I was basically just trying to find a good spot. I went out a tad fast for the 5k (17:31 or so when I wanted to be in the 17:40’s) but nothing disastrous. I wasn’t able to find a solid group and just shut my brain off like I’d wanted to, though; I kept moving from group to group, hanging on to one group of guys for a mile or two then drifting to another.

After going through the “Scream Tunnel” in Wellesley, I had a debacle and managed to get my Power Gel all over my shorts. Long story, but basically I made the foolish decision to put an opened gel back in my pocket so I could grab a cup of water. Then I ended up with one of my pockets being extremely sticky and gross. So that sucked.

I hit the halfway point in 1:14:46, on pace for a sub-2:30. I was feeling pretty good too! By the time I made the turn onto Comm Ave, though, I was starting to feel it. I had been running in the 5:40-5:45 pace pretty comfortably, but I started to slip a bit and by Heartbreak Hill, well, suffice it to say I was having some pretty dark thoughts. I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually contemplated dropping out of the race at one point, but then I thought about how stupid it would be to stop a marathon with  6 miles to go and I trudged on.

Miles 22-24 were definitely the hardest for me, but I was able to (reasonably) pull it together for the last two and finished strong. Overall, finished 136 in the field of roughly 36,000. I thought if I ran really well I’d have a chance to sneak into the top 100, but I’m happy with my time and my race strategy.

 

Image

Photo Cred: My brother. 

16) What is the Most Underrated Video Game of All Time?

•March 8, 2013 • 2 Comments

Q. What is the most underrated video game of all time?

A. Zombies Ate My Neighbors.

Zombies Ate My Neighbors is an absolute gem of a video game, yet sadly few people seem to be aware of its existence. I’ve had numerous conversations that go something like this:

Person A: So what was your favorite video game as a kid?

Me: Zombies Ate My Neighbors! That game was awesome!

Person A: Never heard of it.

Me: Oh…

Zombies came out on Sega and Super Nintendo in 1993. I know what you’re thinking: Zombies? Really? Keep in mind this was 1993, though, long before zombies had run amuck in American pop culture.

It’s a top down shooter where the player controls 1 of 2 kids in a suburban neighborhood that has been overrun by zombies, werewolves, chainsaw maniacs, evil dolls, and a host of other horror movie villains and archetypes. Think of it as the last scene of The Cabin in the Woods, the video game version. In every level, it’s the player’s duty to rescue the clueless neighbors from these monsters. Once all the neighbors have been saved, a door opens up and you move on to the next level.

So what is it that makes this game so great? First, there’s an incredible amount of detail in the game. You have a myriad of options for weapons, including a water pistol, soda cans that act as grenades, bazookas, fire extinguishers which freeze enemies, and a variety of other interesting pieces of weaponry. Then you’ve got the secondary weapons: inflatable clowns that distract enemies, speed shoes, and a potion that turns you into a purple, hulk-like beast. Certain weapons are more effective against certain enemies as well; for instance, the werewolf is easily dispatched by knives and forks (silverware), the vampire is destroyed by the cross, etc.

In addition to the stunning amount of detail, the games biggest asset is its sense of humor. The creators clearly took a tongue in cheek approach to the material, which is complemented by a great soundtrack that harkens back to the over-the-top monster movies of years gone by. The level titles are also hysterical odes to classic films or books. Examples include: “Mars Needs Cheerleaders,” “I Was A Chainsaw Maniac,” and “Where the Red Fern Growls.”

Another thing I appreciated about this game was that it was challenging, but it wasn’t so difficult that you found yourself slamming your controller on the ground after being sent back to the opening credits after 2 hours of gameplay.

I have to admit that nostalgia may be causing me to put on the rose-colored glasses in some ways. The game certainly has flaws; notably the password system is annoying because you are starting in a level without the requisite items that allow you to advance beyond that level. But I still think this is one of the more creative, well-done video games of its era and I would encourage anyone reading this to dust off the old Super Nintendo and give this game a whirl. You won’t be disappointed.

Why Everyone Hates Anne Hathaway Right Now

•February 27, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Still on a little bit of an Oscars kick, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about all the Anne Hathaway hate floating around the internet right now. It’s interesting, because ostensibly she seems like someone who the American public would embrace. She’s attractive, talented, and she seems like a decent enough person. She’s been in big budget films like The Dark Knight Rises and smaller, more indie-ish stuff like Rachel Getting Married. And yet, the hate towards her persists.

I was thinking about why that was, and I think oversaturation is definitely a primary factor. I mean, she’s seemingly won about every single award over the past month plus, which means that she’s given 5 or 6 atrociously annoying speeches. Her personality, which is likely fine in small doses, becomes grating after the 4th self-congratulatory speech.

But I think the biggest reason why the hate towards her is (somewhat) justified is this faux-underdog routine she’s adopted. When she began her speech at the Oscars on Sunday, she said something along the lines of ”It came true!” That is obviously a completely ridiculous way to open a speech when

1) She’d won virtually every other award to that point, so clearly her fake surprise was an act.

2) Just about everyone predicted she’d win the award.

People love an underdog, but they hate a fake underdog. A real underdog at the Oscars on Sunday night was Emmanuelle Riva, the 80 year old French actress who starred in Amour. Riva is so far outside the Hollywood establishment that hearing her say something along the lines of “It’s true!” would have come off as charming and genuine.

Hathaway, on the other hand, is an engrained member of the Hollywood system. I mean, this is a woman who hosted the Oscars last year. She’s won all kinds of awards and rave reviews for her performance over the years, so to adopt this attitude of an outsider triumphing over the odds is, at this point, is absurd.

Now, I don’t think this means people should bash the woman mercilessly, but I do think the criticism is somewhat justified.

Why Argo Should Not Have Won Best Picture.

•February 26, 2013 • 1 Comment

(Warning: Spoilers about Argo and Zero Dark Thirty ahead!)

I’m late on this one by a few days, but I wanted to vent about Argo winning Best Picture at the Oscars. Before I get into this, I want to say that I enjoyed Argo. I thought it was an entertaining film that had a great cast and high production values.

Why, then, have a blog post about why it shouldn’t have won? There are a few reasons. The first is that the plot veers so far from the truth that claiming it’s “based on a true story” rubs me the wrong way. Let’s make a list of things in the movie that are true:

1) There was an Iranian revolution in 1979.

2) The Iranians did take a number of hostages from the American embassy.

3) There were a group of workers that escaped the embassy and spent time in a Canadian ambassador’s house.

4) Those 8 people were smuggled out of the country. Their cover story was that they were location scouting for a Star Wars-esque science fiction film.

Those are the only true aspects of the story. The fact of the matter is that the CIA actually had very little to do with the operation. According to then-President Jimmy Carter, the CIA’s value to this operation was about 10%, with Canada providing the other 90%. In other words, Canada did most of the work, yet they were reduced to little more than a footnote in the movie.

Then, you’ve got all the absurd Hollywood twists thrown in to build suspense. This is stuff like the embassy workers being against the movie-crew cover story. Or them nearly getting massacred in a lynch mob in Iran. Or the Iranian soldiers shooting at their plane as it was taking off.

The thing that bothers me most about this movie is the political implications. Salon.com writer Andrew O’Hehir points out in an excellent piece about Argo that the Iranian revolutionaries are vilified throughout the film for doing exactly what the United States did in 1776!

Obviously there were a lot of negative aspects about the Iranian Revolution and I’m sure many tragedies occurred during this tumultuous period. But let’s not forget that one of the primary reasons the Iranian Revolution happened in the first place was that the CIA overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh because he wanted to nationalize the oil industry!

So here’s the chain of events:

1) Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh attempts to nationalize oil industry in Iran.

2) CIA is upset because this means oil prices will go up.

3) CIA and British intelligence agencies stage a coup d’etat, overthrow Mosaddegh.

4) CIA installs Mohammad Reza Shah as leader of Iran.

5) Iranians revolt because of the Shah’s repressive policies and because they’re pissed off at Western involvement in their country (and who could blame them?)

6) Iran becomes a theocracy where the majority of citizens are vehemently anti-US (because of the coup).

7) 30 years later, Hollywood makes a movie celebrating the bravery and ingenuity of the CIA, when they were the same people who created the conditions for the Iranian Revolution!

So in other words, the CIA is being praised for getting American citizens out of a revolution…that was created by the CIA! That’s like praising a guy who set his own house on fire and pulled his son out of the burning building as some type of hero. It’s maddening.

And the thing that really annoys me about the whole situation is that these issues are completely glossed over in the film. Sure, there’s some brief mention at the beginning of the film about how the CIA’s involvement may have led to the revolution. But that obviously doesn’t get brought up ever again, especially as the film descends into a standard Hollywood action movie.

Contrast this with a film like Zero Dark Thirty, which brings up some very controversial issues and then tackles them head on. Now, some (including Senator and former Presidential candidate John McCain) have accused ZDT of bending the truth in the same manner of Argo, particularly on the issue of torture and whether or not the use of “extreme interrogation techniques” led directly to the capture of Osama Bin Laden.

To that I would say that, regardless of how useful it was, torture happened quite often during the zenith of the “War on Terror.” To me though, what’s important is that the film forces the view to confront this ugly issue. In a way, the film implicates the viewer in the widespread use of this ugly technique. There’s a key scene in ZDT where the CIA is having a meeting about how they may have to curtail their interrogation techniques because of the change in administration. “You don’t want to be the last one holding a doggie collar” one agent tells another. On the television in the background, Barack Obama is giving a speech about the inhumanity of torture and how it’s not what the United States stands for.

I think that scene illustrates the key difference between Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Argo is a propaganda film that paints a sterling portrait of the CIA and shows Iran as a brutal place. It justifies the United States position of superiority by painting the Iranians as barbaric and uncivilized. Zero Dark Thirty is not afraid to show that, when it comes to these difficult situations, there are no good guys.

My Four Favorite Movies of 2012

•January 1, 2013 • Leave a Comment

So with 2012 finally in the past, I thought I’d look back at my four favorite films of the year. I’d say overall it was an average year for movies. I go to the theatre pretty regularly, and more often than not this year I left saying “Eh, that was alright.” These four films aren’t necessarily the “best” films, they were just my personal favorites. Some minor spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk.

4) The Dark Knight Rises.

The Dark Knight Rises

I don’t think anyone would argue that TDKR was better than The Dark Knight, but taken on its own merits this is still a highly entertaining film that does a fine job closing out the greatest series of superhero films ever put on camera. The highlight of the film for me was the performance of Tom Hardy as Bane. I know a lot of people had a problem with his garbled, Sean Connery meets auto-tune accent, but I thought the character himself was a great follow-up villain to Heath Ledger’s Joker. Both Bane and The Joker are essentially terrorists, but where The Joker was all about chaos and anarchy, Bane represents order. Interesting way to end the series.

Certainly this movie had a lot of problems. It takes forever to get into motion, for one thing.  Also, while I thought Ann Hathway did an admirable job as Catwoman (who’s really a ridiculous character, if you think about) the whole love story between her and Bruce Wayne just didn’t work for me.

At any rate, in terms of summer blockbuster this had everything you could want. An established character being pushed to his limits by a worthy adversary, solid acting, an impressive cast, and a ton of explosions and fist-fights to satisfy the bread-and-circuses crowds.

3) Looper

Looper

Time travel has always been one of my favorite film-subjects. If there’s any type of time-traveling element in a movie, I’m there. Primer, 12 Monkeys, and Donnie Darko are my favorite films that deal with the subject, but hell, I even kind-of liked The Butterfly Effect, a movie that starred Ashton Kutcher.

ANYWAY, I guess this affinity for people moving around in time meant that I was predisposed to like Looper, but I think most people who have seen the film can agree that this is an awesome movie. If you haven’t seen it, it is set in a future where time travel has been invented but is illegal. As such, the only group of people regularly using it are criminals, who use characters called loopers to assassinate enemies in the past and then dispose of the bodies.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays one of these loopers who is generally satisfied with his life until his future self (Bruce Willis) gets sent back as one of this targets. The plot gets complicated from there, and in lieu of blabbering away further I’ll just post this clip:

The thing I liked most about Looper was its originality. I don’t really feel like counting, but I’d hazard a guess that at least 60% of the mainstream movies shown in theatres over the past year were either a sequel, remake, or adaptation of something else (book, video game, board game, whatever). Looper, quite simply, is unique. It also draws great performances out of the two leads and makes an interesting point about the pointlessness of violence. If you haven’t already, go see this movie!

2) Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom

I was probably even more inclined to like Moonrise Kingdom than I was Looper because of my long-standing appreciation and admiration of Wes Anderson’s work. Anderson is a pretty polarizing guy, it seems, and while this film doesn’t stray far enough from his typical oeuvre to attract many new converts, it’s an outstanding example of his strengths as a filmmaker.

The movie is set in the 1960’s on a fictional island off the coast of New England. A young boy scout named Same and his girlfriend Suzy send the community into a frenzy by running away together. They are pursued by the Boy Scout Master (in a great, low-key performance by Edward Norton), a police captain (Bruce Willis) and the girl’s parents (Anderson regular Bill Murray and Frances McDormand).

This movie walks a fine line between drama and comedy, as most of Anderson’s films do. It is occasionally hilarious, but also touching. Sam and Suzy are outcasts, but are able to find comfort in each other, while the rest of their world searches desperately for them. T

1) The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods is a unique undertaking, to the point where I’m frankly surprised that it managed to do as well as it did at the box office. Directed by Joss Whedon, the film is initially structured as a typical horror movie. A group of young people go to a cabin the spend a weekend, where they find themselves under attack by zombies.

However, there is much more going on than meets the eye. At the risk of completely giving away the movie, I’ll just say that the second half of the movie is in essence a deconstruction of the entire horror genre. It is basically asking the audience why we watch horror movies in the first place. All this leads to a brilliant final sequence where the heroes of the movie face off with just about every horror-film cliché imaginable.

Some critics have griped that the movie is too clever for its own good, but I think that this movie and its creators should be praised for taking such a huge risk. They accomplished the difficult task of both putting out  quality, entertaining film while simultaneously poking fun at the genre.

 
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