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Breaking Bad: Season 3

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This season was great from start to finish.  My minor quibble with the second season was that introduced a few I-don't-buy-it storylines, but that penchant is gone, here.  Jesse has finally grown into his own, and is more than just an incompetence foil for Walter.  This season surprised me, compelled me, and made me immediately want to continue, which just goes to prove that it is great TV.

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Jurassic Park 3D

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With the 20th anniversary release of Jurassic Park that's out in theaters, Tara and I copped a couple of 3d glasses and decided to see what changed in 20 years.

I didn't have high hopes.  Jurassic Park is that part of Spielberg that makes me hate Spielberg.  The overly simplistic worldview that other people find charming grates on me to no end.

The movie is good sometimes, and terrible at other times, and one simple question is all that it takes to distinguish one from the other:  Is somebody talking?  See, when somebody is talking, it means they are following the script, which was an atrocious travesty in the mid 90s, and has not been treated well by time.  Not only is the dialogue intensely awkward, but the feminist and racial politics specialize in that truly awkward 90s thinking of "Gender and race proscription is just fine if we ridicule the bigots!"  Meanwhile, the movie's one driving thought is obvious in the introduction to the movie, and reiterated ad-nauseum throughout the movie.  If you didn't get that nature is more powerful than humanity from Dr. Grant telling a child about velociraptors early in the movie, you'll have plenty of chances to get it later, whether when eventually pretty much every other character says something along those lines, or when one of the characters dies because, you know, they weren't respecting nature.

I don't think I realized how much this movie is actually for kids, whether or not anybody pays attention to the PG-13 movie rating.  There's a decent amount of gore, and a lot of tension, but in many ways, this is a horror movie for 8 year olds, from the simplistic plot line to the dinosaur almanac subject matter.

The saving grace of this movie is that Spielberg is a genius, even if he is seemingly allergic to scripts aimed at viewers older than 7.  The kitchen scene with the velociraptors is truly amazing.  Pretty much every time you get to see a dinosaur, or a shot without somebody talking, you are free to marvel at the effects and the craft that Spielberg used.  Very few shots are wasted, and the movie has a way of bleeding beyond the frame, where you feel like you could look left or right and see a bit more of Isla Nublar, if only the camera would follow your vision.

This is the Avatar of the mid 90s, an all-sizzle-no-steak experience with questionable politics.

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30 for 30: You Don't Know Bo

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Nobody really knows Bo Jackson, or at least, nobody knows who Bo could have been.  Bo is legendary.  Not only was he the subject of an incredibly influential Nike campaign during his heyday, but he also was incredibly physically gifted, the kind of pure athlete that comes along approximately once per century.  It sounds like hyperbole to compare him to Jim Thorpe, but there was nobody else (with the possible exception of Babe Didrikson Zaharias) who rose so meteorically to the pinnacle of multiple sports. 

There is a place in our culture for the documentary that tells a well-known tale, but tells it with such crystalline structure that you fall in love with the subject all over again, a la the documentaries of Ken Burns.  This is a good example of one of these documentaries.  The exploits of Bo are so incredible that they become almost legendary.  It's no coincidence that Paul Bunyan comes up multiple times in this documentary.  To have them lovingly compiled and present in one exceptionally well-crafted documentary is a treat.

This is one of the best of the series.

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30 for 30: Broke

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Back in 2009, Sports Illustrated published an article entitled "How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke."  Director Bily Corben decided this was a good idea for a follow-up documentary, and this entry in the 30 for 30 series is his work.

Broke is one of the 30 for 30 series that I heard a lot about through channels other than the normal ESPN publicity machine.  By and large, it deserves it.  There's a lot of polish on this documentary, and it's a great example of the style of documentary that doesn't use a narrator, but relies on text and interviewees to provide all of the backbone for the film.

The interviews are very strong.  Not only are there big name athletes like Bernie Kosar, Andre Rison, and Curt Schilling, but there's also a very wide spread of other figures beyond athletes, including financial advisors.  The movie makes some great points, like how this is not something that's unique to athletes, but that it's a reflection of youth and a common story for people who come into money very suddenly.  Possibly the strongest part of the movie is that it doesn't adhere to the "Dumb jocks can't manage their money" sterotype, with all of its racial and social class undertones.  It also makes a few suggestions for how to address the problem, such as intervention by the leagues, players' associations, and NCAA, as well as increased presence of financial advisors in high-profile sports.

There's one place where this documentary falters, and that is its gender politics, which are pretty bad.  The one woman interview is a strip club owner, and there are no women athlete interviews.  Women are portrayed as gold-digging strippers, money-hungry mothers, wives-to-be with intentions to divorce and take all your money, and most repulsively, even women looking to get pregnant from athletes so that they can collect on hild support.  All of those are problematic, but the last is particularly abhorrent.  This goes back to the idea of woman as Jezebel, looking to undertake the enormous difficulty of giving birth to and raising a child just to collect a check.  Ignoring the fact that child support is notoriously difficult to collect, it's just not reasonable to assume that somebody would undertake that level of difficulty just to collect a rather middling check. 

If you can get past that, this is really an exceptional documentary.

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Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 3

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This is the season where the series really starts to hit its stride.  The first season is mostly bad, the second season has good episodes but is still pretty hit-or-miss, but by the end of the third season, even the bad episodes are alright.

The acting is better as well.  More of the crew are starting to come into their own, and the show isn't leaning quite so hard on Picard or Data to carry the episodes.  Some of this is variety, such as the addition of Guinan, but characters like Worf and Crusher are starting to seem a bit more real.

The hegemonic nature of the Federation continues to fascinate me.  The extreme autocracy and authoritarianism just seems so... unamerican.  It does jive with the technocratic end goal that geeks love to espouse, but I am somewhat surprised that the show was seen as realistic at all.  For all that the Federation is supposed to be humanity's better nature, it's amazing that individual freedom is so deemphasized.

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30 for 30: Catching Hell

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Once, back in 2003, it looked like the Cubs were going to win the World Series.  Then, they choked in a playoff game, and it all got blamed on one fan: Steve Bartman.

The act was simple.  The Cubs led the Marlins in the National League Championship Series 3 games to 2, and they led the game 3-0 with five outs left to go.  Then, they allowed a double, and then the next batter hit a long foul ball toward the third base side.  Steve Bartman, an unassuming Cubs fan sitting in the front row, reached out for the ball, along with several other fans.  Bartman deflected it enough the Moises Alou, reaching into the stands, couldn't catch it for the second out.  The Marlins, then hung 8 runs on the Cubs, who went on to lose the game, as well as the following game and then the series.  And so died the most recent good hope of winning a World Series.

Chicagoans have fixated on Bartman as the reason that the Cubs lost that night.  Never mind that Alou was reaching into the stands, where it's allowed by the rules for the fans to catch the ball.  Never mind that Bartman was one of five or so fans reaching for the ball, one of which doubtlessly would have knocked away the ball if Bartman hadn't.  Never mind that the catch was a difficult one, and there's no guarantee that Alou would have caught it.  Never mind that the Cubs pitchers had already allowed a double that inning, or that they couldn't get two outs before giving up eight runs, or that the best-fielding shortstop in the league muffed an inning-ending double play.  Never mind that the Cubs flubbed their chance to win game 7, or that they had already lost two games earlier in the season.

No, this was clearly Steve Bartman's fault, and Chicago let him know it.  This is a shaming moment in the history of sports fandom, not for Bartman, but for everybody who blamed him.  For the people who threw beer and concessions on and at him.  For every one of the thousands of fans who chanted "Asshole, asshole, asshole" that night in the stadium.  For the people who leaked his name and address and forced him to get police protection.  This was a symbol of just how badly things can go wrong when individuals start acting under the mob mentality.

As for the documentary, it does an excellent job telling a very compelling story.  As the director is a Red Sox fan, he compares the incident with Bill Buckner's infamous error in the 1986 World Series.  The connection is apt.  As Buckner's life was ruined, so was Bartman's, though the same vileness and sense of revenge.  This documentary made me feel, and that's a rare thing.

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30 for 30: There's No Place Like Home

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Uh, yeah.  James Naismith invented basketball in Massachusetts.  Then he went to Kansas and started the basketball program, where he coached for 8 years and posted a losing record.

Fast-forward more than a hundred years, and Naismith's great grandson decides he wants to sell the original rules that Naismith typed up.  A Kansas fan hears that this is the case and makes it his personal goal that Kansas should have the rules.  Never mind that they should probably be in Springfield, where the game was actually invented, if you want to stick with historical fidelity.

The documentary may seem like its about the rules, but this is more about the farce that unchecked fandom can become.  Basically, it's amazing to see this fan just believe so strongly in this.  I mean, really, this guy invents a cause which he believes will mystically bring success to his team (or at least strongly implies it).  Then, he decides that, even when the school doesn't really seem to want them, he's going to do an end run and make sure that the school gets them for sure.

In the end, what has he accomplished?  He played on the emotions of an overly rich Kansas fan, who decides that the rules just maybe going to Duke would be a Fate Worse Than Death and that he's willing to bid, well, whatever it takes.  So a rich guy and this really dedicated, somewhat slimy-seeming guy get together and bring the rules to Kansas, where they will... sit under glass and high security for Kansas fans to pass and think about how great their program is.

I like sports, I like history, but this is just a farce.  It really shows just how ludicrously much money some people have, and how they're motivated by the same stupid crap the rest of us are, just that they have more money.  This is a few people displaying questionable judgement, and us watching them do so.  It's fascinating in that train-wreck kind of way, but it is not the earnest thing that the documentary wants it to be.

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Portlandia: Season 2

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No word describes this series more accurately than "Ouch."  As in, "Ouch, I can't believe that this humor is so accurately skewering my way of life."  I don't know if this is because I live in Minneapolis, a near analog of Portland in terms of hip, urban, bike-friendly, and currently ascendent mid-size city, or if this is just a function of 30-somethings living in American Cities right now.  Either way, I've never had a comedy show feel quite as aimed at me.  This is the feeling that others have described about shows like Seinfeld and Friends.  I finally get it (though I still don't like those other shows much).

Season 2 differs from season 1 in two big ways.  First of all, the show has clearly gotten attention, as there are a ridiculous number of cameos.  We noticed a bunch: Jeff Goldblum, Eddie Vedder, Greg Louganis, and Isaac Brock among others, and I'm sure there are many more that we missed.  Sometimes, the celebrity is recognized and worked into the plot, and other times the celeb just plays a bit part, but it never feels forced, like that one time that Troy Aikman showed up on Coach

The other defining piece of season 2 is an embracing of surreality.  Season 1 is finely honed satire, but I don't recall surreality ever breaking the bounds of satire.  That changes in season 2.  The show is treading on thin ice, as surreality can sometimes fail horribly, as Family Guy often proves.  But its done lightly and infrequently enough here, usually as a scene end or an interstitial short.  It works well.

If you're reading the blog, you should see this series.  If nothing else, you can make fun of me.

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30 for 30: Ghosts of Ole Miss

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This movie is an identity piece, on what it means to be a white Southerner.  This iteration specifically focuses on the year of 1962, when the University of Mississippi football team went undefeated, but more importantly, when it was forced to integrate.

I didn't know much about the integration story of Ole Miss. It was vaguely familiar, but it was always overshadowed in my mind by the earlier, though less violent, school integration in Little Rock.  For that reason alone, I'm glad I watched this movie.

The chronicle of the history is mostly well done.  

The story is written by and narrated by Wright Thompson, a sportswriter from Mississippi.  The main theme of the movie is Thompson confronting Mississippi's ugly past, and trying to find a line between taking pride in his heritage and not being racist.  There's struggle with accountability, such as whether we should try to hold those responsible for the riots accountable (yes, obviously), and how a culture scarred by prior insensitive behavior should move on.

Though it's clearly thought out, it comes across as mealy-mouthed.  Thompson grasps that the confederate flag is offensive, for instance, and doesn't make too much of a fuss about the loss of the Colonel Reb mascot, but he is less certain about the song Dixie.  This is classic Southern want-your-cake-and-eat-it-too attitude, the same stuff that leads to the offensive lost cause Civil War ideology.

I've said it before and I'll say it again.  The Confederacy was racist.  Economically, the South was dependent on slave labor, and was willing to come to arms rather than give up that system.  The states rights argument is very clearly flawed, as the Constitution of the Confederacy was identical to that of the Union, but for one clause that explicitly allowed slavery.  That, folks, is a one-issue war, about the subjugation of blacks by whites.

By extension, any symbol that is primarily a symbol of the Confederacy is racist.  That this isn't accepted is shameful.  Our culture understands that the hateful symbols of, say, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany are offensive, but the symbols of the Civil War South are allowed to remain, in the name of some sort of back-asswards tolerance.

The movie is well-made, and there's clearly thought here, but I just can't excuse what is still a flawed premise: That there's value in the cultural heritage and symbolism of the Confederate States of America.

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30 for 30: 9.79*

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Once upon a time, there was a very fast Canadian man.  That Canadian man won a gold medal in the 100m in Seoul in 1988.  Then it was revealed that he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, and his medal was taken away.

The documentary does its homework.  Not only does it feature interviews with Johnson and most of his cohort in the Seoul final, but it's also tracked down trainers, testers, and commentators of the era.  Everyone in this scandal who is still living is interviewed here, and several of the dead ones are represented in archival footage, quotes, and photos.

Ben Johnson's 1988 medal race occupies a very prominent place in the discussion of steroids and sport.  I'm not really sure why this is.  Perhaps this was the first famous athelete from an English-speaking nation to get caught?  Now, after Lyle Alzadothe baseball senate hearings, and Lance Armstrong, it doesn't seem to have the same kind of impact that it did then.  Now it feels like one in a long line of steroid scandals, and not particularly exceptional.

Perhaps because of this perspective, it's easy to sympathize with Johnson.  Protestations that everybody was taking the stuff seem much more valid.  Carl Lewis, the American who was elevated to gold after Johnson was disqualified, comes across (accurately, from my understanding) as self-aggrandizing and untrustworthy.  There's juicy stories about Lewis' camp contaminating the test results, incriminating-sounding quotes, and allegations by other runners about Lewis.

Clearly, there's fishy stuff that went on all over the sport.  Johnson participated in it, and he got caught.  Does the fact that the corruption seemed to be sport-wide mean that we should take it easier on Johnson?  That argument for Johnson is very similar to the argument for Lance Armstrong in cycling, and I have never been able to buy it in Armstrong's case.  That could be my own biases against Armstrong, or it could be because Johnson doesn't have the ruthlessness or the strident denial characteristic of Armstrong.

In a story as complex as this one, this documentary does a very good job of staying even-handed.  Highly recommended.

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