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The Pacific: As laconic as the ocean it's named after

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Band of Brothers is amazing.  It simply has no right being as good as it is.  It's not a particularly fresh topic, the shooting and camerawork isn't particularly noteworthy, and there's no riveting character or acting tour-de-force to carry the series.  Nothing's exceptional, but everything fits together in a way that is truly amazing.  It will remain a mystery to me how several different directors and several different writers put together a series that ended up being so cohesive.  It probably is the best World War II movie, and that is a spectacularly crowded genre. 

To say that I was looking forward to watching The Pacific, the followup to Band of Brothers, is an understatement.  Unfortunately, The Pacific just isn't as good.  For the same reason that it's so hard to tell why Band of Brothers was so good, it's hard to figure out why The Pacific isn't as good.  I mean, it's not like there's a steep drop in quality of any particular aspect.  But whatever is there in Band of Brothers that makes it a cut above is missing from The Pacific.

And there's lots of excuses we can make for why The Pacific won't be as good.  The role of marines in the Pacific theater of WWII is not particularly dynamic -- the Navy was the force that took most of the space, and the role of Marines was as a particularly gruesome cleanup duty, to make sure that the never-say-die Japanese were extricated from the islands once and for all.  Contrast, of course, the push/counterpush of the European Western front.  And, there isn't a force in the Pacific like the 101st Airborne to draw on, one that hits so many of the major battles of the war.  There's the Marines in general, but the organization is just too large.  The three protagonists in The Pacific never even meet each other.

So, if you're interested, you might want to watch the series.  But it's not going to be the same.  It's just another World War II movie, in a genre that is overcrowded already.

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GI Joe: The Rise of Horrendous

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Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a new candidate for my top 10 worst movies of all time list.  That movie is G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.  I got asked by several people why I even bothered to watch this movie.  The answer is probably the same reason that anybody watched this movie -- I watched the cartoons as a kid, and had a few toys, and had a misguided thought that this movie might bring back a good hit of nostalgia.  As with all movies based on 1980s cartoons, they have to struggle with the fact that, really, the source material of the 1980s cartoons is terrible.  There's very little redeeming about those pieces of trash, and G.I. Joe really isn't any exception. 

And I'll give the movie that much, at least.  It remains true to the crappiness of the television version.

Not to say that the movie is a true adaptation.  There's lots of changes, not the least of which is the wishy-washiness of the Baroness, a definite step down from the faithfully evil character of Cobra's #2 that she played in the TV series.  Ripcord, as Marlon Wayans, is nothing more than pure comic relief.

This movie makes no effort at anything other than its special effects.  The plot is the simplistic crap that I was expecting, but hoping might be better.  The writing is an absolutely awful incomprehensibility donut with cliche sprinkles.  The acting lineup is hardly great, but there are some truly awful performances turned in, particularly the wooden jawline-and-beret charade that Dennis Quaid turns in.

The one thing I will say is that this movie fit squarely into so-bad-it's-funny territory.  I don't generally make an effort to see that kind of film, but there's just so much amateurish material in this movie, that it's a hilarious tragedy.  How could anybody spend this much money on special effects and so completely ignore absolutely everything else about the film?  This truly deserves the 1 I'm laying on it.

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Ken Burns' Baseball

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I've been on a Ken Burns kick over the last year or so, after getting really into The Civil War.  Decided to tackle Baseball this month.  I'd tried it once, way back when, and stopped after the second or third of the 9 parts.

This time, I got through it.  It's good, but not particularly exceptional.  Burns is best when he's telling you what you don't already know.  I ate, slept, and breathed baseball for the first 14 years of my life, so I know most of the stories that Burns tells.  Still, it's an impressive compendium.  It's a good broad overview of the game up to 1990.

But really, who is this aimed at?  It's so relentlessly pro-baseball, and so upbeat about its place in America, that only somebody who's already a baseball fan is going to watch this.  Anybody else will dismiss this as more pro-sports propaganda, just another piece of the bread-and-circuses charade that is professional sports.  And that viewpoint has weight.  The institution of baseball is rarely questioned at its roots, or as an economic drain on society.  Sure, sometimes the baseball establishment is criticized for being anti-union or anti-civil rights, but rarely does the documentary zoom out far enough to question its more basic premises that baseball is worthwhile.  There is lots and lots of pseudo-philosophical pandering intellectualism that seems to characterize the literary world of baseball, by people like George Will and Mario Cuomo and Roger Angell.  But it's all about how baseball epitomizes the american spirit, and teaches us about losing, and to take our time, and all kinds of the usual claptrap about how baseball's painful boringness somehow teaches us about ourselves.

Sometimes, the game is useful as a social lens.  The rise of the urban game, and the reaction to the Black Sox scandal are illuminating, and the placement of the Babe's towering home runs couldn't have happened in any other decade beside the roaring '20s.  But as the 20th century drags on, it becomes half chronicle of the major leagues, and half a social discussion of the role of the African American in baseball.

That's a touchy subject.  Jackie Robinson was a great pioneer, with sometimes overly conservative social views after retiring.  And the segregation of major league baseball was a real tragedy.  But Burns pounds it into the viewer's face over and over and over again that the segregation was unfair, that there were great players in the Negro leagues.  I would have liked this, if Burns just would have had the courage to make a more focused examination of race in sport, more like his Jack Johnson documentary, Unforgivable Blackness.  There's a story to be told, there, but it really deserves its own feature, rather than this awkward shoehorn into a format into which it doesn't really fit.

This documentary still has the Ken Burns style, down to the narration and constant repetition of music, as well as the good overview of history.  But you probably already know if you'll like it.  Like Ken Burns?  Like ponderous discussion of baseball?  Then you'll like it.  But if not, this probably isn't for you.

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The Office: Season 6

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At this point, it is mostly inertia that is compelling us to watch The Office (American version, not that boring British version that I abandoned).  Jim and Pam, the two coolest characters at the beginning of the series, have devolved to boring characters who are there to allow the producers take crazy risks like making jokes about what it means to get married and have babies.  Because, you know, the heteronormative lifestyle has barely ever been covered in sitcoms before.

There are still great moments in this season.  And they're why the inertia of the truly hilarious first few seasons hasn't been completely overwhelmed.  As Jim and Pam get more boring, the other characters in the series are starting to pick up the slack in a really serious way.  Kevin and Andy continue to evolve, as does Dwight.  And there are some truly brilliant moments.

But unfortunately, these characters, though funny, are almost entirely screwball characters.  And since they're providing the best moments of the series, the whole thing is becoming less relevant and less close to home.  No longer does The Office feel like that place you go to work, where people are a little bit strange.  Naw, now it's feeling more like a typical office sitcom, like Newsradio.  These people are in a place that doesn't feel real anymore.  It's still funny, but the scary similarities to your office are long gone.

There's still talent on The Office.  I have no idea how long it's going to last with Will Ferrell taking over for Steve Carrell, but I think this sixth season will likely be the last one I watch.  It's banished from the Netflix queue as of now.  If I think to put it back on the queue when season seven is up for instant watch this fall, I might give it another try, but as I think about the other stuff available to watch, I don't consider that likely.

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What Netflix has done for my TV consumption

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This is going to sound like an advertisement, and I really hate being a whore for large corporations, but sometimes what I get is so good, that I can't help myself.

Netflix is an amazing service.  It was a good service back when they used to deliver DVDs to your door whenever you finished the last one.  But now that they've added the instant watch service, I've become a shameless convert.  Sure, not everything is on instant watch, but a lot of it is.  I'm on the one DVD plan with instant watch, and the simple fact that I can have easy access to something that I want to watch, when I want to watch it, without having to leave my house is a fascinating thing.

But Netflix really changed my life by teaching me that TV doesn't suck.  Oh, sure, most of it still sucks, and sucks hard.  But Netflix got me watching television series as serials.  I know that some people experienced this with their DVRs, but for me with my ancient TV, my revolution came with instant watch of series on Netflix.  And now, I don't have to buy a series on DVD to watch it, and I am able to be very selective to see it.  I even get to see series that I missed.  In short, TV no longer is bound to the horror that is channel surfing.

So, Netflix, besides being a great way to watch a lot of good movies, also opened up a whole to medium to me.  And for that, I salute it.  I'm not going to cancel my subscription anytime soon.

X-Files Season 2

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There's no question that The X-Files starts to come into its own in the second season.  While the series' first season has some strong points, it also shows some growing pains as the writers are trying to figure out what to do with these characters.  The second season, for the most part, has the characters established, and the story is allowed to follow the characters.  No more Miami Vice/CSI syndrome, where the plot drives the characters, season two of The X-Files mostly has the characters driving the plot.  Oh, and for somebody who somehow hasn't seen The X-Files yet and maintains a serious interest in the series (which I suppose is me, 6 months ago), there will be spoilers ahead.

The second season had the first story arc that actually made me honest-to-god caring about what was going to happen.  Sure, it may have been predicated on real-world concerns about Gillian Anderson being preggers and unable to film for a while, but when she was abducted, I really cared about what was going to happen to her.  I wanted to see her pull through, I wanted the authorities to get what was coming to them.  This show kept me emotionally invested, rather than watching with a cool detachment as I am wont to do with lesser series.

Tara tells me that there are two kinds of episodes, and those are the myth arc episodes, and the monster-of-the-week episodes.  I definitely prefer the myth arc stuff, although it is quickly getting very, very out there.  I am praying, I fear hopelessly, that the myth arc will not fall into Lost territory, with we're-never-going-to-wrap-all-this-up syndrome.  I hold out hope. 

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Amadeus: Rock me, Salieri

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I watched Amadeus again recently.  This is the third time I've seen this movie, at three very different stages of my life.  I watched it once very early, probably in elementary school.  And I watched it again in high school.  And now I've watched it again as an adult.  And every time I've enjoyed it thoroughly.  Sure, it's campy at times, but there's also a lot of subtlety, a lot of stylistic flair, and a convincing narrative that never fails to draw me in.  The fact that it plays fast and loose with the history doesn't bother me that much, as I feel that the movie is up front about the fact that it isn't trying to hew closely to historical reality.  Instead, we are treated to a morality play, a classic matchup of good and evil.  It's much like the plot of, oh, a Mozart opera.

It's hard for me to imagine this movie done any differently, which is probably its biggest selling point.  Salieri is coolly convincing, the emperor is perfectly wooden, and Mozart is perfectly talented, but erratic.  The sets and costuming, of course, are amazing.  If I could change just one thing about this movie, it would probably be... nothing.

If you haven't seen this movie, I'm sure you're wondering why you should watch some movie about a dusty old composer that wrote a bunch of music that rich people go see big orchestras perform.  But, for all that this movie is about what could be a painfully dull topic, the movie just works.  There's a reason this won 8 Oscars.  It's fantastically well-crafted, back to finish.  You owe it to yourself to check it out if you haven't already seen this.

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30 for 30 reviews: Run, Ricky, Run

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Ricky Williams is an enigma, for sure.  There are very, very few professional athletes who walk away from their sport before the sport is finished with them.  The vast majority of professional athletes are cut in favor of somebody younger, somebody with more potential, or somebody more talented.  Those few athletes who do walk away from the game on their own terms are the superstars of the league, the ones who have long, illustrious careers and finally call it quits when reality sets in.  But very, very rarely do players retire while they are still at the peak of their game.  Barry Sanders is one.  Pat Tillman is arguably one, although he didn't so much desire to quit football as he desired to join the military and serve some sort of duty to country.  Ricky Williams is another.  He led the league in rushing, failed a drug test, and walked away from the NFL while he was arguably the best running back alive.

Of course, this is just one of the many puzzling choices that Williams has made over his career.  He hired an entertainer with no experience in sports to negotiate his contract, a contract that is one of the most one-sided deals in history.  He conducted most of his first interviews wearing his helmet.  He converted to Hinduism in a sport that doesn't usually take to spiritual journeys of finding oneself.

And this movie made me love him for it.  I knew Ricky Williams had some quirks, but I never actually had them all laid out in front of me.  There's also some genuinely intimate footage of Williams, when he is out of football for a year.  I found that I really empathized with Williams.  He's iconoclastic enough to quit football, confident enough to buck popular opinion.  He's willing to take time for himself, in ways that much of society doesn't want to understand.  Perhaps I'm projecting a bit, but it feels like the classic twentysomething's conundrum, Williams just had to take care of it under the glare of a national media.

The craft of this documentary is nothing special, but the content is really fascinating.  It caused me to change my views on Williams, and portrays an athlete at his most vulnerable.  It's a rare treat to see this kind of glimpse behind the smoke and mirrors of the NFL.

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30 for 30 reviews: The 16th Man

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Most recent in the 30 for 30 series that I've watched is The 16th Man, the documentary on the South African rugby team's 1995 win in the Rugby World Cup.  Many of you will probably be familiar with this plot from the fictionalized account starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman titled Invictus, but I've never seen that film, and thus can't compare it.

16th Man is a movie I really should like, but don't.  It covers the intersection of sports and society in a way that I usually find compelling.  Mandela was a great man, and what he did in South Africa to unite a heavily divided country was masterwork.  But I just couldn't get interested.  I found my mind wandering, and overall, I kept wondering why I wasn't just watching Invictus instead.  The film isn't overtly bad, it's just not particularly interesting.  Not the best in the series.

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30 for 30 reviews: Silly Little Game

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Silly Little Game is a silly little movie.  It's about the genesis of fantasy baseball, the granddad of fantasy sports.  And it has all the trappings of a microhobby documentary, those documentaries about a small group of people who are really obsessed with something that is a niche hobby.  You've seen this sort of movie if you've seen King of Kong or Word Freak.

As with all of these types of movies, the result is a sort of celebration of the common Joe, and comes across as half fascinated reverence and half 'look at the crazy dorks."  It's a good formula, and like in the other movies, it works.  It's fascinating to see these microcelebrities thrown into the spotlight, as well as all their idiosynchracies.  They, after all, were obsessed enough with baseball to not only follow the game, but to decide that they wanted to invent a whole new game to obsess over it.  And they have their moments of oddity, as well as their moments of genius and absolute unabashed passion.

These guys also are revealed to be proto-hipsters.  They met in the worst restaurant they could find in New York, named this new game after it (which is why it was called 'Rotisserie' baseball), and then got together and promptly turned into absolute ridiculous nerds about a very specific subject -- baseball in this case.  You can see the reflection of the urban youth of today in these old guys and girl.  Perhaps hipster in its modern incarnation is older than I gave it credit for.

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