Friday, September 30, 2011


The Steroid Era in major league baseball changed the game in many ways.  Majestic home runs and high powered offenses became prevalent.  Power was glamorous and glorious and commonplace.  Salaries skyrocketed along with the pitchers’ ERA’s.  In the midst of all this run scoring, something horrible happened.  Once proud, successful small markets teams were priced out of the market for the muscle bound big boppers that suddenly ruled the game.  Organizations such as Kansas City, Pittsburg, Cincinnati, San Diego, Oakland, and Minnesota were on the outside looking in as the fat cats threw money at slugging free agents year after year.  Teams had to change their business model to even hope to compete.  Success had to be built from within each organization through the draft and be selective with the leftover free agents.  There was very little room for error and teams that missed on their top picks soon became buried in the standings.

The movie Moneyball is really the story of Billy Beane, a former first round draft pick of the New York Mets.  More so than the book by the same name, the film tells the story of Beane’s struggle to think outside of the box.  As the general manager for the small market Oakland A’s, he had to watch a successful team from the 2001 playoffs be dismantled.  Free agent star players from that team were plucked away by teams with deep pockets like the Yankees and Red Sox, frustrating Beane to no end.  A chance meeting with a Yale graduate named Peter Brand led Beane and the A’s to embrace a form of player evaluation based on mathematics and algebraic formulas rather the excepted commonplace evaluations used for decades.

The movie follows Beane’s travails trying to convince his own scouting and coaching staffs of the relevance and possibilities of trying something new, as well as following Beane’s own career through flashbacks.  Beane and Brand searched for players who had the skill set of getting on base but for whatever reason were undervalued by the market.  The film chronicles the 2002 season for the A’s as the team struggles to produce the results Beane and Brand expect and what happens when those expectations finally came to fruition.  The book devotes a great deal of space to the drafting process and philosophies and that part is completely ignored in the movie. 

Moneyball is not just a film for baseball lovers and stat nerds, although it probably helps.  The movie is dramatic and exciting and does a good job at explaining the process for non baseball fans.  Brad Pitt portrays Beane with just the right amount of charisma and quirkiness.  Jonah Hill is Brand and seems woefully uncomfortable through most of the movie.  Philip Seymour Hoffman is pretty good as Manager Art Howe, who according to the movie, fights Beane tooth and nail on Beane’s new vision but accepts the accolades when success is attained.  

The fact is Moneyball the book, and the success of the 2002 A’s had a huge impact on baseball, especially now, as baseball recovers from the Steroid Era.  Not only have small market teams embraced sabermetrics (the term for the algebraic application to baseball) but big market teams have as well.  If you have every watched and game between the Yankees and Red Sox, you will know how long and drawn out each contest can become.  One of the philosophies of sabermetrics is to work pitch counts and get on base as often as possible, really embracing base on balls.  This has caused games to drag on at times.  Some teams have been slow to embrace the new method.  The Kansas City Royals for instance, a very cash poor team, was very slow to embrace sabermetrics.  Other teams, such as the Twins, Yankees, and Red Sox have all had a lot of success.  In the case of the Yankees and Red Sox, money and sabermetrics have lead to championships.  Now, all teams pay attention to the mathematics of baseball and not just the raw results.  As the power and glamour of the Steroid Era fades and statistics return to the levels known before the game was ruled by cheaters, sabermetrics is now becoming more and more accepted throughout the game and once again the small market teams are forced to look for success outside of the box again.  That is for another day.

Moneyball is a baseball movie but I don’t believe you have to be a baseball fan to enjoy it.  It’s a good story and it plays out well on the big screen.  Pitt and Hoffman give good performances and director Bennett Miller seemed intent on not bogging the movie down with the math itself or on discussing the draft process, which would bore non baseball fans.  If you are a fan of sports movies or films high on drama, give Moneyball a chance.

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Friday, September 23, 2011


The themes and premises of disaster movies have never really bothered me.  Whether it was an asteroid hurtling toward Earth or California breaking off into the ocean, these natural catastrophes, while all possible, just don’t cause me immediate worries.  Not so with biological threats.  Maybe it’s because there is a relatively recent history of such events taking place in the last few hundred years, or if I just believe these types of thing are more possible, biological apocalypses frighten me to a whiter shade of pale.  Ever since I read Stephen King’s The Stand, this type of scenario makes me pause.  Even in a fantastical setting as AMC’s The Walking Dead, where a virus turned most of mankind into flesh eating zombies, the very thought of a biological catastrophe seems real and possible, with or without zombies.

Contagion is one the few movies I have watched that has nearly zero entertainment value.  There is little that is upbeat or joyous.  The movie is listed as a thriller and because of its intensity, I can’t argue this point.  To some, the intensity may offer some entertainment value but I didn’t find it so.  That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good movie.

The best thing writer Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Soderbergh did was to keep the mystery of the origin of virus secret until very late in the movie.  It kept me on the edge of my seat and held my rapt attention.  The atmosphere is obviously dark but the story line maintains a brisk and terse pace, moving forward in a day by day format that never really bogged down.

The story followed several characters, including victim one and her family, CDC agents, a World Health Organization investigator, and a self serving blogger.  The story also spreads out to the people and world surrounding these characters as the world rapidly descends into hysteria and anarchy.  Almost all of the story lines worked although the film seemed to stall slightly when the plot revolved around Alan Krumwiede, the blogger.  In the end, this thread made more sense than it did for most of the film.

The cast is large and distinguished.  None of the roles are big or meaty and none of the performances really stood out for me.  This does not mean it wasn’t well acted because it certainly was.  The movie is more about the plot and not so much about the characters.  Matt Damon, Larry Fishburne, and Jude Law probably had the most screen time but solid work was turned in by Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, and Elliot Gould.  Gwyneth Paltrow’s role was tiny and brief.

Contagion is a movie of scary doom and gloom but it never seemed preachy in pushing across its point.  It showed how precariously unprepared we are if such a virus, either man-made or created by nature, were to break out and attack the general public of the world.  To me, it seemed more of a warning and it certainly gave me a certain degree of fright.  I don’t how this movie will play with those who nominate and vote on Golden Globes and the Oscars.  The movie was well written and directed, and has certainly played well in the theater but I see few of the acting performances as award worthy – Winslet was probably the best in a supporting role.  Contagion is a good movie, just not an overly entertaining or uplifting one.  I would keep young or overly sensitive children away because the premise is extremely upsetting.  The theme has not kept people way from the theaters but I doubt the film will lose anything on DVD.  And it is a movie I can’t imagine many people will need to see twice however good it was the first time.

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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Sons of Anarchy

Now that the last pass has been thrown on the set of Friday Night Lights and Rescue Me has put out its last fire, I started to consider what my favorite television program is now.  There are several shows I really enjoy for different reasons – Justified (an engrossing lead character), Chuck (just plain fun), Madmen (all around brilliant), Law & Order: SVU (intense storytelling), Big Bang Theory (laugh out loud funny), Psych (original and fun), Boardwalk Empire (gritty and epic), and Modern Family (brilliantly written and acted) are among my favorites.  One program, though, stands out for me.  I didn’t realize just how much I missed this show until I started seeing promotions for it on air.  For the past month or so, I have been eagerly awaiting the season four debut of Sons of Anarchy. 

FX’s bread and butter has been the development of the flawed hero.  What I mean by this is that most of their lead characters are not perfect or pure people and sometimes are downright evil.  Despite these flaws, audiences are often pulling for them.  FX started this successful formula with The Shield and continued it with Rescue Me, Damages, Justified, Terriers, and Lights Out.  Not since The Shield, though, have I found myself pulling for the lead character, not matter what brutal act he commits, more than I do for Sons of Anarchy’s Jax Teller.

Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) is the heir apparent of a California motorcycle gang his father co-founded decades earlier.  The gang, or club as they call themselves, deals mainly in guns and violence, with sidelines in bribery and porn.  The members live from payday to payday as it were.  They are paid as money comes in from their various nefarious enterprises – not a steady income at all.  They battle rival gangs, corrupt politicians, like-minded outlaws, and fired up law enforcement officers.  And, of course, themselves.

Jax is a troubled young man, though.  His father’s dream for the club was based more on brotherhood and family rather than violence and greed, but he died tragically early.  We know there is more to his death than has been revealed and deep down, Jax suspects this as well.  Jax’s father left a manuscript describing his vision of the club but he lacked the courage to direct the club in its early years in the direction he wanted.  Jax has read his father’s legacy and agrees with it but is waiting for the opportunity to extract himself.

This is a nearly impossible task because the Sons are controlled by his step father, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) and more subtly, his mother Gemma (Katey Sagal).  Much like Michael Corleone, every time Jax tries to get out, they pull him back in.  Jax has a family – two sons and a fiancée, Tara (Maggie Siff).  He wants to raise his family without fear of death or imprisonment.  The problem is that no one who is in as deep as Jax is can ever get out alive.  Jax is no innocent; he is often violent and sometimes unpredictable.

The leads are brilliant.  Ron Perlman’s whole career seems like preparation for this role.  Katey Sagal, in this role, is so far from Peg Bundy, it doesn’t seem possible it is the same actress.  It is criminal in itself that Sagal and Sons of Anarchy have been ignored at Emmy time.  Sagal is absolutely brilliant and has Emmy worthy moments in all three of Sons first three seasons.  Hunnam’s portrayal as the earnest and sincere Jax is believable and makes us pull for him despite his violent nature.  Several other actors do a superb job filling out the members of the gang, especially Ryan Hurst as the brooding, hulking, Opie, Jax’s best friend. 

An underlying theme of Sons of Anarchy is family and brotherhood.  It is at times warped and unhealthy but in most instances it is sincere.  Despite all the violence and corruption, the men and women love their families and friends like people in every day lives.  It shows a side of violent criminals rarely shown with any depth on television.  It is one of the things that make us pull for the Sons over the people who are trying to shut them down.  Of course, it helps that the good guys are hardly less corrupt that the Sons themselves. 

The other theme lurking in the shadows is the mystery of what happened to Jax’s father.  Most certainly, Clay was involved and it wasn’t an accident.  We also don’t know if Gemma, Jax’s mother, was involved or not.  I’m sure as the series moves on, and Jax steps up his plans to leave the club, more and more details will reveal themselves, with dire consequences.  This keeps me watching and involved week to week.

Sons of Anarchy is brilliantly written by creator Kurt Sutter, Katey Sagal’s real life husband.  Sutter is in complete control here and he knows what he is trying to create.  The show is intense and action filled with plenty of dramatic moments.  This show is also unbelievably well scored.  Sutter and company use music to set tone and mood with a lot of little known music or surprisingly styled cover songs.  Every week, I am impressed by the music used.  I can’t really describe how important to the show this is. 

When Sons of Anarchy was first aired, I didn’t find the premise an interesting one.  I only gave it a try because it was on FX and it came on the heels of the end of The Shield.  I am so glad I did.  There is so much depth to it and the characters are so fleshed out.  Its seasonal storylines have been different and entertaining, not to mention intense.  The villains (club enemies) have been interesting each season.  I eagerly awaited the season premiere and now each week I will bemoan the fact I have to wait a whole week for the next episode to air.  Despite its violence and less than perfect characters, I am pulled into their lives and I want them to defeat their enemies, good and bad.  It is a tough sell to get audiences to pull for characters like this but Sons of Anarchy pulls it off and this has become a FX trademark.

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Friday, September 2, 2011


I will be the first to admit I watch entirely too much television.  I don’t know why.  For a long time, I barely watched any prime-time tv.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve just started watching more and more.  In this age of the DVR, I can watch even more.  I seldom watch anything live other than sporting events.  Skipping commercials quickly and easily makes watching recorded programs an enjoyable pastime for me. 

Recently, I have tried to be more selective in the shows I chose to watch.  I am much quicker now to give up on programs I find mediocre instead of trying to wait them out until they improve, which they usually don’t.  There are some networks, like FX and USA, in which I will give whatever programs they roll out a chance.  Why?  Because they seldom miss.  Very few, if any duds, show up on their schedules.

While I did not sample every new show aired this summer, I did watch several new programs.  Funnily, I watched none of the shows aired on the big four networks, only cable.  While I have been entertained, two programs really stood out to me as quality productions.  One was TNT’s Falling Skies, which ended much too quickly and I didn’t get around to writing a review for it.  The other is Suits (USA, Thursdays, 9 p.m. CST).  While it has a rather flimsy initial premise, it has improved steadily throughout its first season.

That original premise was that dapper law shark, Harvey Specter hires young Mike Ross as an associate at his law firm.  The problem is that Ross never attended law school.  Ross is a real, if not naïve, brainiac and did pass the bar exam.  In fact, Ross made a career out of taking exams for others to get them into law school but could not afford the luxury himself.  On top of all that, Specter’s firm only hires Harvard Law grads.  I am in no way qualified to answer this question but it needs to be asked.  If someone can pass the bar exam, is he or she still considered a lawyer, even if they did not go to law school?  I don’t know but if anyone does know, please answer it for me in the comments.

Despite this very shaky premise, the show works.  I’m not sure but I think the show’s producers may have thought Mike Ross, portrayed with a wide-eyed innocence by Patrick J. Adams, would be the break out character.  While Ross is a fun and very likable character, there is a small problem with him.  For such a smart guy, he sometimes shows very little common sense and way too much naivety.  In my opinion, the real breakout star is Gabriel Macht.  His Harvey Specter is deep and mysterious, almost like a modern day Don Draper (Madmen) minus the womanizing.  Specter is driven to win and to do it without considering the people involved in whatever case he is working on.  Ross, his protégé, gets too involved but excels at bringing out Specter’s deep consciousness.  Macht is by no means a well know actor but I love his quiet, arrogant, competitive portrayal of Specter and I think he makes the show. 

Veteran Rick Hoffman plays Specter’s co-worker and chief rival, Louis Litt, who also has it in for Specter’s shadow, Mike Ross.  Hoffman seems to enjoy his role as the smarmy attorney who serves as the office villain week in and week out because he shines.  A trio of beautiful actresses fills out the regular cast.  Gina Torres is Jessica Pearson, the boss, Meghan Markle as the legal assistant who causes sparks of sexual tension with Ross, and Sarah Rafferty as Specter’s all knowing and wise personal assistant.  All three do a fine a job and their characters have been slowing developed as the season has progressed, giving each some nice depth.

The writing has been better than some of the writing I’ve seen on other summer shows.  Their development of Harvey Specter has been very patient as layers have been added to his character.  It seems as if they realized Specter was the most intriguing character about halfway through the first season and more and more of the focus is being directed to that role.  The weekly plot lines don’t seem ridiculous (like, for instance Franklin & Bash) but again, I am no legal expert.  The actors don’t seem to be forcing the dialogue and seem very comfortable in their scenes.  The cast chemistry also is real and unforced. 

There are many directions this show can go.  Both Specter’s and Ross’ back stories could easily lead to suspenseful story lines in season two.  Suits uses good acting and good writing to give us more welcome characters from USA.  I look for this promising series to give me several seasons of entertainment.  Season one wraps up next week but I will eagerly await its return next summer.  Now if only NBC could match its daughter network in airing likable and entertaining programming, viewers would be happy.

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