Friday, January 30, 2015

What To Expect For Super Bowl XLIX

The much-awaited game between the New England Patriots and Some West Coast Team is ready to go this weekend, to much heraldment and poppistry*. There's going to be a lot of non-football fans watching the game, so now might be a good time to take a look at what one can expect this Sunday:

  • Bill Belichik might show up in a suit, what with this being the single most-watched program in the entire world, but he probably will show up dressed like he just woke up in a dumpster and stumbled to the field just in time for kickoff.
  • For the first time, NBC is streaming the Super Bowl live this year on the internet, which is good news for people who like to see the exact same ad for Geico 200 times in a five-hour period right next to a banner trying to sell you shady car insurance via a dancing cactus
  • For the first time ever, millions of girls under 10 are going to be really, really excited to watch the Super Bowl right up until the point when Idina Menzel finishes the national anthem and then they go to bed.
  • This Super Bowl will be played at the University of Phoenix Stadium, where tickets are selling at $6,500, which coincidentally is also the cost of one credit's worth of unaccredited online classes for medical transcription. 
  • Katy Perry is slated as the halftime entertainment. No less than Lenny Kravitz will be brought on as a guest singer. Audiences will certainly be disappointed if the halftime show doesn't somehow involve pot, Elmo, or fireworks shooting out of Katy Perry's boobs.
  • The Seahawks are making their second straight Super Bowl appearance. This is now the third longest-lasting thing in Seattle, right behind the rain and keeping up the pretense that if Kurt Cobain were still alive he wouldn't be a judge on The Voice
  • There's a pretty good chance that Aaron Rodgers will still show up and play a few downs just for the hell of it.
  • The game starts late and it's a work night, so lots of fans might end their night early. This might also include LeGarrette Blount.
  • Richard Sherman will precede the broadcast with an in-depth discussion contrasting the unique worldviews of Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel, providing a refreshing perspective that viewers can use to rethink their role in their communities.
  • Whatever commercial you currently find annoying--I bet it involves car insurance!--there will be an ever more annoying version of it on Sunday.
  • This will mark the 49th year in a row where the world is reminded that the best way to honor our veterans who have fought and died for our country is to buy watered-down beer and pickup trucks.
  • Viewers will be treated to no less than six dozen interruptions during the game for the announcers to mentions the PSI of the footballs at that exact moment.
  • No matter what the final score of the game is, the real winners are the guys who are going to earn overtime cleaning up murder scenes in Las Vegas.

*I don't think either of those are words, but they should be.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Interview: A Movie Review

By now, everyone knows about The Interview. The Seth Rogan-led comedy made headlines when its plot--an entertainment host and his producer go to North Korea to pull off the assassination of Kim Jong-Un--upset the government of North Korea, and the film was pulled from wide release when Sony, the movie's studio, was threatened.

After some time, it was eventually released (in limited theaters) and then released online in a variety of sources. Eventually it got itself to Netflix streaming, where most people will no doubt watch it.

As such, I watched it a few days. After seeing the film, the best I can say is: "eh."

I won't rehash the plot, since it's more or less covered above. A shallow entertainment host, James Skylark (James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogan) are celebrating their long-running success, but yearn for something more fulfilling. When news leaks that Kim Jong-Un loves Franco's show, the two of them get in contact with the leader to do an exclusive interview. The CIA then gets involved, convincing the two to pull off an assassination of the leader, stating that they have a sympathetic faction ready to take control.

Once there, Skylark finds that he and Un have a lot in common., and he becomes sympathetic. Rapoport, on the other hand, has to figure out a way to pull off the assassination himself--and ends up falling for Un's propagandist. When Skylark eventually realizes how horrifying North Korea really is, the plan changes--by changing the plan. The globally televised interview, which normally would be pre-arranged questions, soon changes to piercing questions about the North Korean regime. A battle ensues, with the reformers taking control.

OK, when I say "piercing questions about the North Korean regime," I mean "fart jokes." This is--when you strip away the meta circumstances and the pseudo-political trappings--a Seth Rogan movie. The first half hour is pretty standard, with crude jokes mixed with some legitimately intellectual humor. It then switches to a surprisingly bland spy film. It finally turns into an action flick as the climax occurs.

And that is ultimately my problem with the movie--it doesn't know what it wants to be. It tries to be a buddy flick with crude dialogue, but also a political movie trying to make political points, and also a spy caper, and also an action movie. And it ends up doing none of these things particularly well.

A few highlights--Randall Park does an excellent job in nearly everything he does (notably in Veep), and here he manages the role of Kim Jong-Un delightfully well. James Franco, however, seems like he's just supposed to be a good-natured shallow individual, but instead he kind of comes across as a creepy man-child. Seth Rogan isn't really acting, he's just doing the exact same thing he does in every movie. If this script had been strung together with a little more foresight and weight behind it, it could probably have managed to be a legitimately funny yet politically insightful movie; instead, it just comes across as a boorish mess.

Don't get me wrong--I loved certain parts of it. It's by no stretch a bad movie--I laughed plenty throughout, and I'm glad I watched it. But as a whole it was very unsatisfying, not scratching a comedy, action or spy movie itch. It most certainly is not worth causing an international crisis over. So watch it, if you're into Seth Rogan movies, and even if you aren't it might be worth a pass, but beyond that it's not particularly memorable.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Why "The Office" Is The Best Sitcom Of An Era

Mass entertainment can often be difficult to judge; even more so when it's currently in production and fresh in our minds. And yet I feel a solid determination can be made: the US version of The Office is the best sitcom of the current era.

Oh, sure, there's plenty of great competition from the past 15-20 years, but I feel most of them have some critical drawback. Friends and Seinfeld both are solid, well-written, long-running shows with interesting characters, memorable episodes, and a critical collection of nostalgia, but they both seem freeze-dried in the 90s. Arrested Development will always have a place in my heart, but its short run will always be an albatross around its neck. 30 Rock is awesome, but it already feels dated and was too clever for its own good. Parks and Rec and Modern Family are still on and have the potential to be solid frontrunners, but we'll have to wait and see for both. Instead of maturing, most of the cartoon shows suffer from their long-running status. Other successful sitcoms around this timeframe--Everybody Loves Raymond, The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, Two And a Half Men, and so on--are generally good but just don't differentiate themselves enough to be outstanding.

Of course, let's be honest: the last 20 years have not been kind to sitcoms. After The Cosby Show made sitcoms hip again, there was a flourishing of comedy from the 80s into the 90s, but around the end of the decade sitcoms were getting pushed over for dramas--mostly medical shows, reality TV, and police procedurals. You can hardly flip through the stations without bumping into a Law & Order rerun or a CSI spinoff. (This isn't all that unusual, by the way--the history of television tends to go in cycles. Hell, there was a time in the 60s when there wasn't a single night of the week when a Western wasn't on.)

At any rate, I'm not plucking The Office out of a decimated lineup just for the hell of it. My wife and I have recently been watching it again from the beginning, and it's astounding to me how fantastically written that show was. It wasn't perfect--we'll get to that in a bit--but I can't think of a single television program that manages to piece together sharp writing, interesting characters, and an easily accessible environment.*

Here's what makes The Office great:
  • It's a familiar situation. Even if you have never worked in an actual cubicle farm, you at least understand the relationships between people who work in any organization. Sure, you may have never understood the frustration of a copier that just won't do what you need it to do or having to deal with that person who thinks they have more authority than they really do, but you have something similar wherever it is you spend your time, whether that means your home, your church, or your gym. 
  • The characters are interesting. At first glance, many of the characters come across are boring old office drones, but that quickly falls away as each develop their own quirks, foibles, and personalities--all of whom are someone you know. Every office has an Angela, or a Kelly, or a Creed. 
  • We can't really go any farther without discussing Michael Scott. Played to perfection by Steve Carrell, he shed a lot of the cringe that his UK counterpart had--although he still had plenty--and added in a little bit more competence and compassion. In fact, one of the biggest departures from the original UK version was that while David Brent was useless, Michael Scott was, at the end of the day, actually good at his job--useful, since it made sense as to how his antics were tolerated by those both above and below him. By converting him from a loathsome annoyance to a competent authority figure with a believable level of obnoxiousness, it lifted the entire show up and made its longevity much more likely.
  • Dwight deserves special mention, When I first watched the show, I kind of dismissed him as a sort of artificial antagonist; the whole concept of him obsessing over petty victories grew old. But on a re-watching of the series, I find that his character is much, much more than that, and it's downright hilarious.
  • The romance between Jim and Pam was tricky. On the one hand, you can't have everything happen at once; the driving force of most of the series was the trajectory of their relationship. We all knew how it was going to end, but half the fun was watching the details unfold. On the other hand, stretch it out too long, and it becomes boring and unbelievable. A lot of people criticize the show for basically becoming uninteresting once they get married, and there's a little truth to that, but it's unlikely that could have been stretched out any more than it already had.
  • Regardless, every episode showing a new step in their relationship just blew everything out of the water. Whether it was their first kiss, or Jim moving away, or Roy assaulting Jim, or Jim proposing, or their pregnancy, or their marriage...the list goes on. Each episode treated their relationship with respect and yet also managed to make it amusing and interesting. 
  • The ensemble cast grew to be incredibly interesting, so much so that by the last two seasons the entire show could stand on its own without the focal point of Michael Scott. And whether it was by design or not, the balance of introducing new characters and developing old ones was done remarkably well. 
  • The writing: there's an incredible balance between sharp wit, throwaway jokes, physical gags, heartwarming moments, and legitimate dramatic tension. It's also very consistent.
  • And finally: the end. (Minor spoilers follow.) The series finale is widely considered one of the best, right up there with M*A*S*H and Six Feet Under. It conveniently wraps up everybody's storyline with something that's satisfying. The entire premise of the show--being shot as a documentary--is not only addressed but displayed in a believable manner. And the return of Michael Scott--which at the time was a legitimate surprise, since news sources had stated he wasn't coming back--was done with the appropriate amount of understatement; he had, maybe, two or three lines total, but it was still pretty awesome. Wrap it all up around Dwight and Angela's wedding, and it was fantastic.
The Office wasn't without its problems. Some of the plots got carried away with their own cleverness and wound up being more awkward than enjoyable. Once Jim and Pam got married, a huge driving force of the series seemed to wind down, and the writers had to concoct an ever-increasing number of situations filled with artificial romantic tension to keep things going, most of which were flat-out uninteresting. There were a few plot lines that really didn't seem to work--for example, the Michael Scott Paper Company story seemed to be more trouble than it was worth.

And Season 8 bears special mention; after the departure of Michael, Robert California (played decently by James Spader) just wasn't very interesting and his character was wasted. (In addition, most of the plots of season 8 stretched even the already-expanded levels of believability as far as they could possibly go.) They also wasted the character of Nellie (played by Catherine Tate), who could have been something amazing but they basically did nothing to develop her personality and she just came across as a weird bitch, and then when they did finally flesh out her character it was too late. On the plus side, after season 5 the introduction of Erin (and, to a lesser extent, Gabe) added a huge amount of just flat-out fun to the series.

Thankfully, season 9 picked up and the writing was on par with the series' heyday. Even with the departure of Ryan and Kelly, the addition of Clark and Pete (two decent characters that just didn't have time to contribute much) and a weird plot line dealing with one of the sound guys (which thankfully ended after a few episodes), the last season is not only memorable but fantastic. Those who understandably dropped out after the 8th season would be well advised to power through it; it's well worth it.

At any rate, why does this make it the best sitcom of an era? As I mentioned in the first few paragraphs, it's a series that is clearly of a decade but not defined by it; its appeal is largely universal; and, most importantly, it has the writing and the characterization and the execution to back it up. While it's only been off the air for a few years, it already seemed to have been able to stand the test of time--re-watching shows from over a decade ago don't seem dated in the least. I can't say for certain if The Office will be regarded as the Cheers or M*A*S*H of our time, but I suspect it will be pretty close.

*The only other candidate is the previously-mentioned Arrested Development, which I would rank a little higher. But as I said, with only four seasons--with two of them shortened, and the fourth an admitted awkward half-effort--it's hard to propel it higher than The Office.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Trivial Pursuit

Who wants trivia? We all want trivia!

Well, maybe.

I've been sucked into playing the newest hot app, Trivia Crack. I won't lie, though: I'm not sure how long I will do so. Given the track record I've had with hot apps like this in the past (Word With Friends was awesome until their servers couldn't handle it and started begging for money, for example) and I've already encountered quite a few repeat questions. On the plus side, they have what seems to be an aggressive question-submitting system that will keep things fresh (although, to be honest, with a few too many questions about the Hunger Games.)

I have a love-hate relationship with trivia. Well, mostly love, but it's not without its issues. I think a lot of people have some misplaced sense of intelligence because they can rip through trivia games; in reality, knowing random facts doesn't always mean you have the comprehension or analytical skills to really be smart. (On the other hand, having a broad base of knowledge helps.) It's a tricky situation, since a lot of people have differing perspectives of what is considered "smart," but in any case there's too many people who think they're hot shit because they know how many seasons Friends was on the air.

(As an aside, I'd like to point out a huge issue I have with Trivial Pursuit, the grandaddy of all trivia games: namely, that the whole move-your-pie-and-get-wedges system is equally boring and frustrating. It doesn't necessarily reward people who know the most trivia; it rewards people who happen to be lucky as well. The fact that someone can theoretically win before anyone else has a turn is bothersome. When I play, we generally disregard the board and play with a point system, which is more fun anyway.)

Still, though, trivia can be fun. And there's no way to replicate that feeling of successfully knowing who played the male lead in Pretty In Pink when no one else did.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Frozen (No, Not That One)

So, it's cold.

Let me tell you how cold it is: for the past few days, my windshield washer fluid hasn't been working. I push the little button and you hear a sad little whirring noise but nothing comes out. Usually this is because I'm an idiot and forgot to put in new fluid (entirely possible, but not in this case) or because the outlets are frozen shut and the fluid just makes a bit pile of smurf slush (entirely possible, and what I assumed was happening).

I knew that there was fluid in there because I had recently filled it with this:

I would like to draw your attention to the label that said "Winter Formula" and "-20 degrees Fahrenheit."

So I assumed that it was because things were frozen shut, and a simple session with the ice scraper would solve the issue. Not so! After driving around for a few days I realized something else was wrong, to the point that I assumed that I had either burned up the motor or that the case had cracked open and leaked all the fluid out.

I popped open the hood to be confronted with this:

Frozen solid.

That's right, a liquid that is specifically designed to handle low temperatures couldn't handle the weather we're currently having.

And that's how cold it is.