Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Jonesing at the Movies: Jurassic World Needs More Teeth

Synopsis: The park is open. John Hammond's crazy-awesome dream of a dinosaur theme park made possible by impossible science is finally a reality, but the people want more. In a desperate attempt to rekindle the magic of Jurassic World, the park's creators unleash a monstrosity.
Rating: PG-13 for some language and the obligatory dino-on-human violence.
Review: The ancient Delphic maxim "know thyself", the idea of identifying what one is good at and sticking to it, seems to have come up in early discussions before this film was made, dictating a simple formula: more dinosaurs, less of everything else.
At no point during the two-hour run time of Jurassic World does director Colin Trevorrow try to live up to the impossibly high standards set by Steven Spielberg 22 years ago. Instead, he constructs a new world for the dinosaur-obsessed to play in, with a little 1993 nostalgia sprinkled here and there. Every kid who saw the original Jurassic dreamed of what the actual functioning park would be like, desperately hoping to some day experience a place where dinosaurs once again roamed the earth -- confined to their cages, or course, and not terrorizing the kitchen staff.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Grumbling at the Movies: There's No Turning Back on Fury Road

Warner Bros.
My lady doesn't want to see Mad Max: Fury Road. Yours probably doesn't either. But she should, because this movie named after a dude is really a story about women who survive in a world they didn't invent. It's also about anyone who wishes they could say things outside of their car that they say inside of it. It's about a place with no yellow lights or caution tape. It's about the inevitable breakage that comes when men torque the bolts beyond their recommended limit. It's a plea for peace wrapped up in a commercial for chaos. It is the antidote to our pretty, pretty world.

Laws are made for lawless men, but when all men are lawless, the only law is power. Or horsepower, in the case of Fury Road. Modern manimal secretly longs for this chaos to come into his anodyne suburban world, to leave his parking tickets unpaid and his seatbelt flapping in the wind as he makes his own way to Valhalla. Then he turns around and buys a Camry. He says it's because Camry gets great gas mileage, but he lives in a world with lots of gas. Once it gets scarce, ho boy, he's going to need something a bit more substantial.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

10 Little Kids shows' intro music, ranked.

Content, educational value, all that stuff is important, but it's the theme song that's going to get stuck in your head all day. Which one is least likely to make you throw yourself in front of a dump truck?

1. Cat in the Hat

2. Dinosaur Train

3. Curious George

4. Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood

5. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (starts at 0:33)

6. Jake and the Neverland Pirates

7. Thomas the Tank Engine


372. The Backyardigans

957. Dora the Explorer
(I'm not evil enough to link a video. If you've heard it, trust me, stay away from dump trucks.)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

What not to do when you share a vehicle with others

Do you work with others? If so, are you the kind of person who leaves a note when somebody does something discourteous at work? For instance, a coworker brings spaghetti for lunch and leaves the inside of the microwave looking like a deleted scene from Evil Dead; do you whip out a sharpie and your most sternly-colored post-it for them to find later?

No, of course you don't leave a note. You roll your eyes and think passive-aggressive thoughts about stabbing that person in the kidney with your 15th anniversary letter opener. (Because you've been there long enough to know how things should be, but that anger management seminar put on by loss control last week told you to only think positive thoughts, and suppressing 15 years' worth of anger over reheated Olive Garden entrees is preferable to going down to HR, or - gasp! - having a civilized conversation with Chef Boyardee over in the next open workspace station.)

Which brings me to my situation. In the course of my duties patrolling the city for illegally dog-eared fence posts and unpermitted public displays of happiness, I often use our department vehicle. There are others from various departments who also use this car, but I operate it the vast majority of the time, given my responsibilities running flashing sign patrol, anti-happiness detail, and staff driver training. I suppose it's that last one that makes me so anal about backing city vehicles into the spot each time, centering the wheel, and turning off the A/C before disembarking.

Which is why this sight always causes my bowels to quake with anger:

Now, I am anal, I'll grant you that. I'm the kind of guy who removes his daughter's shoes when he picks her up from pre-school, lest my special girl's New Balance transfer toxic kid dust onto the rear door panels of my entirely un-special mid-sized sedan. You might even look at that picture and say "What do you mean you don't know which way the wheels are pointed? Just center the steering wheel before you back out!" That might be easy for you, Mr. McLaren driver whose steering doesn't approximate the ratio of an aircraft carrier. On my work car, which is a "suburban off-roader" with slow, texter-friendly steering, I can turn the steering wheel roughly six times in either direction before it locks, so unless I get out and check, it's impossible to know which direction the tires are actually facing.

To me, it's pretty simple: returning a shared vehicle to its original orientation and settings is no different, courtesy-wise, than turning off a light when you leave the bathroom of someone else's house, returning a borrowed gun with the safety on, or not leaving a shopping cart to block the aisle while you try to decide which type of Breyer's Ice Cream will have less of a laxative effect should your cat accidentally lick some up off the floor after you've spilled it during a 2am fridge raid. Okay, so I seem to have strayed into another rant just now. My apologies.

Simply put, if you approach a vehicle that's backed neatly into a space, with the A/C set to off, and the steering wheel oriented straighter than Ned Flanders, assume all of these things were done deliberately, and for your benefit! Your predecessor took the time to ensure that your face won't be blasted with moldy air the second you turn the key, and considered that you might not know precisely which way the wheels are pointed when you're presented with a steering wheel on which the Ford logo is facing the same way as a Lincoln logo, and that you might try to center said wheel, only to subsequently crash into a curb soon after letting off the brake pedal. Let this wash over your hurried mind, then pass it on to the next driver. Which is usually me.

Otherwise, I'm gonna have to do the unthinkable, and start leaving post-it notes.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Oldmanshirt's Guide to the NBA Store Christmas Catalog

This post originally appeared at Pounding the Rock

Attention, holiday shoppers! Especially you, stragglers and foot-draggers. Salvation has come in the form of the NBA Store's December Catalog, where you'll find your favorite team's logo slapped on everything from onesies to whiskey glasses. Of course, you could get something sensible like a pair of shorts or an NBA-branded compression sleeve, but why do that when you could throw away both money and good will on the following officially-licensed travesties?

What follows is no mere hater's guide. For each mistake-in-waiting I mock mercilessly, I'll attempt to steer you towards a more appropriate and cost-effective means of spreading holiday cheer. It's the principle of Good-to-Better applied to Christmas. It's how Pop would shop.
Ugly Sweater $64.95
Ugly Sweater
My, how quickly the ugly sweater party has moved from niche to mainstream. If you're one of the unfortunate many who've had a U.S.P. forced upon you, you know the correct response is to go down to the Salvation Army and drop $6 on whatever woven atrocity most resembles the Griswold house, an aggressive strain of bacteria, or the surface of Jupiter. The solution is not to spend $65 mocking your own team with a sweater that, on balance, is barely even ugly enough to qualify as a joke. (Unless you actually get the Knicks sweater. There's no way to make that pretty.)
Instead, you should buy...

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Grumbling at the Bookstore: Basketball's Greatest, by Sports Illustrated

(This review originally appeared at Pounding the Rock)

Sports Illustrated wants you to view Basketball's Greatest as a water cooler made of double bond, or a barstool with bookbinding. It's meant to stir up conversation by resorting to an age old tactic: The Ranking. Now, ranking things on an informal basis (read: Just for the mental exercise) is almost always reductive, and usually ends up doing more harm than good, or at least honoring one set of accomplishments at the expense of another. Combine this with the inherent self-importance and inefficiency of a coffee table book, and you have Basketball's Greatest, a follow-up to the SI's other sports ranking monoliths, Football's Greatest and Baseball's Greatest. Of course, just because ranking basketball players, coaches, franchises, clutch players, and even "moments" sounds to me like a recipe for social unrest doesn't mean there's no currency in it. Go online, and you'll find that articles ranking things like "Best TV villains" and "Top 25 Cities to Get Your Hair Cut" are tremendous click generators. But I'm skeptical of the My-Dad-Bill-can-beat-up-your-Dad-Wilt approach really working with this $32.95 marble slab of a book.

In a way, Basketball's Greatest is just a different manifestation of its parent publication. Beautifully designed and a little antiquated, Sports Illustrated the magazine exists with other paper periodicals in a kind of alternate reality, one where all walls are taupe and every reader is waiting in an uncomfortable chair for their name to be called. I cancelled my subscription to SI about ten years ago, and it's been at least that long since I've witnessed a coffee table book in the wild sitting atop its namesake. You'd have to go back to the Seinfeld days - and Kramer's metabook proposal for a coffee table book about coffee tables - to find a period of true relevance for these loud, heavy creatures which don't quite work either as reading or as art.

That this book employs the talents and expertise of actual basketball writers such as Chris Ballard, Lee Jenkins, Jack McCallum, and Ian Thomsen to moderate 300 pages of power rankings and popularity contests makes intellectual frivolity the greatest of Greatest's many inefficiencies. "This book will settle some arguments - and start some new ones" proclaims the teaser on the dust jacket. The presence of these basketball experts is supposed to add weight and authority to the judgements presented - to at least fulfill the first half of the promise. What happens instead is that the casual reader has no appreciation for the expertise behind the rankings, while the savvy basketball reader suspects the ballots were filled out the same way coaches and GMs fill out theirs come postseason awards time, with a mixture of dartboards, coinflips, and interns.

Basketball's Greatest, like all things SI, at least looks pretty. Editor Bill Syken, a longtime SI writer and now independent author, does well to provide each page with timeless photography of epic or iconic moments. You'll see Jordan's free throw line jam at the '87 dunk contest, Bill Russell swatting Elgin Baylor's shot into oblivion, and magnificent point of view shots of Tim Duncan guarding the paint and Wilt Chamberlain's spindly legs reaching all the way to the ground. Each player, coach, team, game, and moment ranked is also indelibly captured in all their frame-worthy glory. The book could truly be worth the purchase for the photography alone, were so many images not cropped and diluted for the sake of intrusive, sidebars containing writer soundbites and context-free snippets from old SI articles.

But what about the results themselves? The experts voted, so we might as well talk about how they voted. And since a book of rankings is defined first and foremost by its content, for the sake of clarity, and as an attempt to get into the spirit of the format, I present Oldmanshirt's list of The 10 Biggest Rankings Bloopers in Basketball's Greatest:

10. Point Guard rankings, Jason Kidd over Bob Cousy
9. Power Forward, Dirk Nowitzki over Kevin McHale
8. Defenders, Dikembe Mutombo and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar over Dennis Johnson and Bruce Bowen
7. Coach, Lenny Wilkens over Don Nelson
6. Franchise, Utah Jazz over New York Knicks
5. Single-season team, '13 Heat over '14 Spurs
4. Center, Willis Reed over Bill Walton
3. Clutch Performer, Robert Horry over Isiah Thomas
2. Power Forward, Karl Malone over Tim Duncan
1. Coach, Chuck Daly over Gregg Popovich

Call me populist, but I think those last two deserve a few words. The ballot was split between Duncan as Center and Duncan as Power Forward, which just reinforces the flaws in the system itself, but is at least an explanation for voting Malone #1 when his only objective advantage over Duncan at this stage in Duncan's career is total points. Of Malone, Alexander Wolf says "As he aged, the Mailman got better at everything, from defense to free throw shooting." The better with age argument, and many other arguments, could be made for both power forwards. Duncan has played only one fewer season than Malone, is playing at arguably a higher level than Malone did at age 38, his teams have gotten better during the last third of his career, and the ring tally is now Duncan 5, Malone 0. As any Chris Paul apologist (apaulogist?) will tell you, rings aren't everything; but 5-0 is, shall we say, definitive. If you want to parse it further, Duncan has gone 2-1 in the Finals against his era's dominant wing player, while Malone went 0-2. And, yes, his free throw shooting has improved, too. Also, Malone got zero votes at center.

Putting Popovich behind Daly is much more of a head-scratcher. Of Daly, Chris Ballard writes "If he'd done nothing else, Daly might make this list for being the only coach to solve Michael Jordan." Yes, he solved Jordan right up until Phil Jackson came along and the Bulls ran Daly's team into the ground with defensive pressure and ball movement. As for the "something else", Daly's Pistons did win two titles as the bridge between the Lakers-Celtics era and the Jordan era, much like the '99 Spurs were the bridge between Jordan and the Shaq-Kobe Lakers. (To be honest, If '99 - or even '99+'03 - were Pop's only titles, I could understand putting Daly above him.) Daly also won a gold medal with '92 Dream Team. Is anyone prepared to argue that Pop wouldn't have done the same? The Daly section quotes McCallum from 1989: "The Coach is there to motivate, to prepare, to direct. But not to star." This self-effacing demeanor was also cited by Bob Ryan as one of the reasons Daly was perfect to coach the Dream Team. Is there any reason to believe Pop would've handled the job differently, or gotten results that were any less successful than Daly's? As I've argued before, Chuck Daly, while an innovative and, by all accounts, beloved coach, simply doesn't have the consistency and longevity of the other coaches I'd put in my top 5 all-time. (I also find the praise of certain coaches for letting players take the spotlight to be particularly ironic any time someone decides the top players based on the opinion of non-players.)

So here we are. Rankings are fun, and healthy in small doses, and even help maintain the intrigue that raises sports above the level of a game in our culture, as long as it's realized that the kinds of arguments that rankings foster are ultimately a zero-sum race to the bottom. And since the Spurs fans reading this are likely twisting their Coyote shorts into knots by now, I thought it would be fun to imagine what else SI might rank for a follow-up, which I'll call Basketball's Lamest. Here's some ideas:

- Top 10 worst defenders (Harden's indifference! Bargnani's incompetence! Nash's Canadian accomodative-ness!)
- Top 10 most disappointing players named Joe (Smith? Johnson? Jellybean?)
- Top 10 stupidest fights (On the court or off, Carmelo Anthony would definitely be involved one way or the other.)
- Top 10 ugliest uniforms (Are these #1? Or these? Neither! It's these.)
- Top 10 best guys to dunk on (Basically, Shawn Bradley, Roy Hibbert, and 8 other guys.)
- Top 10 worst owners (An epic battle between Ted Stepien and Donald Sterling!)
- Top 10 worst tattoos (I'm torn between Richard Jefferson's "RJ" and Tom Gugliotta's half-finished bicep barbed wire.)
- Top 10 dumbest quotes (How would Latrell Sprewell's "I've got a family to feed" rank versus something like Shaq's "There's no answer for my offense, just like the polythagorean theorem"?)

Whether or not you spend your hard-earned cash on Basketball's Greatest ultimately depends on your approach to sports. Those who look at basketball from a predominantly social or ritualistic viewpoint - the types who use the term "Big Game" and "Man Cave" a lot - will love having a important-looking but ultimately superficial NBA "tome" on their coffee tables. For the hard-core, or those truly interested in exploring the history of the game, something by David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game, Free Darko's Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball, Bill Simmons' Book of Basketball, or just about anything else by the wonderful writers in this book, will prove more informative, more entertaining, and far more bathroom-friendly.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Missouri Parents Stunned After Daughter Says She Enjoys Macaroni and Cheese

photo credit: urbanspoon
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - A Gladstone couple was shocked yesterday when their toddler proclaimed that she "likes" macaroni and cheese. The incident occurred during lunch at a Cheddar's off 152 Highway near Liberty. The father, a 32 year old city planner, had the day off from his cushy government job and had decided to treat his family to a meal in the corner booth of the bar section.

"After our food finally arrived," he told us, "well, first they have to take it back because the bartender who was waiting our table mistakenly gave her the grilled cheese, but after that's cleared up she takes a bite of her mac and cheese, nods, and says 'I like this.'" Asked whether the 3 year old had ever made such a remarkable pronouncement, the father - who identified himself as Mr. Oldman - said, "Never. I mean, she's a pretty smart kid, she doesn't eat crayons or stick her tongue in light sockets, so we were beginning to worry because she's never, ever told us she likes mac and cheese."

The mother was equally startled. "It's usually lean meats and vegetables all the time with this kid, so we're relieved to see she's finally taking to something with high fat and cholesterol," said the 30 year old, a health care worker who was enjoying her lunch under a drafty A/C vent. "We were seriously considering taking her to a doctor or something."

Asked whether the girl, who her father called "The Heiress" (possibly a reference to the government job), had any more surprising announcements in store, he replied, "We think she's starting to come around to puppies, bouncy houses, and sticker books, and the other day she managed to shrug when I put on Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood. Honestly, we were really holding out hope that someday she'd ask for ice cream instead of seconds on carrots. After today, it's fingers crossed."

The family was all smiles as they left the restaurant. "Now that we've broken down the mac and cheese barrier," said Mrs. Oldman, "I think anything is possible with this kid."

Monday, November 10, 2014

Jonesing at the Movies: Interstellar

Synopsis: With the Earth dying and mankind out of solutions, humanity will pit their bravest and most brilliant against the universe's greatest threat: time.
Rating: PG-13 for intense sci-fi action and lots of family drama. There’s no sex and hardly any language, but your kids probably wouldn’t enjoy it anyway.
Review: Interstellar, written and directed by Christopher Nolan with help from physicist Kip Thorne, is a beautiful and complicated saga of exploration and survival. Beautiful because it’s easily Nolan’s best attempt at a human story, with equal parts hope and heartbreak throughout. Complicated because of all the plot-muddying theoretical science based on the work of Thorne, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Grumbling at the Movies: Big Hero 6

Like a good casserole, Big Hero 6 depends on high-quality source material to deliver its metabolic reactions. Kids will only see and taste the fully-baked product, but for the seasoned moviegoer, it can be exhausting to mentally catalog all the Terminator 2 peas and Blade Runner noodles and Matrix green beans and Taken carrots and Incredibles cream of mushroom soups.

Ostensibly - and promotional-ly - BH6 is about a boy (14-year old Hiro) and his robot (Baymax). But the way the two come together (the robot is the creation of Hiro's older brother), what they do (chase down a masked industrialist who stole Hiro's microbot invention), and who they do it with (a team of the brother's tech school colleagues) incorporates various aspects of a buddy movie, revenge flick, and ensemble superhero romp. That these three genres are among the most active and profitable in Hollywood today is undoubtedly no coincidence, and in this combination is revealed both the genius behind BH6's gestation and the source of its biggest missteps.

Underlying the confusion about what it is, is BH6's confusing setting, which is a mashup of Japanese and American cultures nestled in San Francisco Bay ... or is it now San Fransokyo Bay? Though it lacks any timestamp, the movie's events obviously take place at some point in the future: The Golden Gate Bridge has been Nipponized with towers that look like pagoda roofs, elevated trains whisk around on spaghetti strands that run between and even through buildings, tethered wind turbines hover thousands of feet over the city, and the underground Bot Fighting scene is alive and well. But there are also plenty of cues which would set BH6 squarely in the early 21st century. Every bright color is contrasted by something matte black or carbon fiber like a Silicon Valley VC's speedboat, cars are still powered by internal combustion, coffee shops abound, and lithium ion batteries power the latest in personal healthcare robotics.

The grunge is lightly applied, mostly during night scenes, and rather than the whole city being destroyed during the raucous climax, as in recent films like Star Trek into Darkness and Godzilla, San Fransokyo is spared but for a couple of buildings. As it is - uncertainty about when it is notwithstanding - everything appears to have been a logical progression from today's City by the Bay, rather than a rebuild following some nuclear war or implied Japanese invasion or cultural takeover, ala Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Call it the post-postapocalyptic approach.

Nitpicking aside, I'd have to be Carl Fredricksen to not enjoy Big Hero 6. Almost two decades removed from Toy Story, the boundaries of digital animation continue to expand like Baymax's inflatable midsection; this is best represented in BH6 whenever millions of microbots combine into shapes and landscapes, or when opaque light is filtered through Baymax's white "skin." Characters are divided into tech-speakers and everyone else - though even the genius characters have personalities which can be characterized with one or two words, like neurotic, girly, burn-out, etc. - but everyone's moods and attitudes are thankfully unstable, and character reveals big and small are usually only one or two scenes away. The pivot point for this instability is the movie's central relationship, and the lack of tonal consistency does nothing to diminish the underlying chemistry between Hiro and Baymax, or dampen the impact of BH6's various emotional gracenotes. This is a Disney movie, after all, and Disney makes a good casserole. After consuming BH6, I was more than satisfied.

Unlike the best casseroles, though, it never really transcends the sum of its ingredients, and thus never becomes something truly original. To be fair, I don't get the sense that it's trying to be. There are no I, Robot-type threads about Baymax becoming human. In the movie, he's always a robot, and can only do what he's programmed to do, which is to either promote health by identifying and medically-treating illness and injury, or threaten it with karate moves and rocket launchers. BH6 is a lot of fun, provided you can forget it's programmed first and foremost to appeal to lots of people and make lots of money. If you can, and you're over the age of thirty, it might be a treat going on this cinematic scavenger hunt. If you can't, well, at least you'll get a meal out of it.