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Movies/TV

Breaking Bad: Season 2

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Season 2 of Breaking Bad mostly continues in the vein of season 1.  It continues to be a well-shot, well-written gift of a series.  It's particularly interesting watching it in such close proximity to The Wire.  While the Wire takes a top-down approach to crime storytelling, talking about the systemic nature, Breaking Bad takes a very micro approach, showing one small set of characters and describing how they build the drug trade.

Season 2 continues our slide toward hating everybody and showing everybody's insecurities.  Hank and Skyler both are getting significantly more developed, and the introduction of Jane to the series also brings in another character to watch making poor choices.

I'm not sure how this series is going to keep going for another three years.  I already feel like I'm in act 4 of a Shakespearean tragedy, with only the very short act 5 left when everybody dies friendless and alone.  It feels like Walter could get picked up tomorrow and the whole series would fold.

This season did make a couple choices which I wasn't thrilled about. but by and large this is still a very, very good series.  It will probably be the best TV I watch this year.

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30 for 30: The Dotted Line

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30 for 30 brings on one of the heavy hitters with The Dotted Line in Morgan Spurlock, he of Super Size Me.  Spurlock here takes on the world of sports agents.

It shows that Spurlock has a lot of documentary making under his belt, as this is one of the most polished entries in the 30 for 30 series.  It's particularly interesting in light of the documentary 2 Days in April, which I recently watched and reviewed.  After all, much of the movie follows a young agent as he tries to land potential draftees, and the waiting tensely for the draft numbers to be called is particularly reminiscent of the other film.  Spurlock, however, manages to do that scene much better.  You care about the draftees much more, and for all that the agent never quite is completely sympathetic, you do feel for him regardless.

This documentary doesn't say a whole lot that savvy sports fans don't already know.  The NCAA doesn't adequately police agent relationship and agents are a necessary cog in the sports machines that look out for the well-being of the athlete.  But the way that it is said is a pretty compelling argument.  Spurlock is clearly a talented interviewer, as the personality of all of the interview subjects comes through very well.

This is one of the best 30 for 30 out there, and I would suggest watching it for anybody who likes the series.

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Sports media that doesn't suck

Hi, my name is Paul, and I am a sports fan.

It may seem odd to word that as a confessional, but the pervasive culture of sports is one of talking heads, empty non-analysis, pining for the old days that never actually happened, and casual misogyny.  I am proud of none of these things, and yet I like sports.  Why?  Partially because I love the competition, spectacle, and physical wonder of it all, but also in large part because I can tune out a lot of the really terrible sports media.

The thing about sports media is that it's not all bad, it's just that the easiest stuff to find is bad.  Almost everything on ESPN is atrocious, in-game commentary is usually full of platitudes, and the commercial culture surrounding sporting events is mostly a competition by advertisers to sell the best substitute for manhood manifested as beer, trucks, or hardware.  But the thing about sports media is that there's so much of it, that if you dig a little bit, you can find intelligent commentary and analysis.  I know when I started looking for this type of stuff, I despaired of ever finding it.  Here's hoping this list will save some people some time.

 

Hang Up and Listen
My favorite source of sports analysis, by far, is a weekly podcast put out by Slate.  It's run by a Slate Editor, a longform writer (who'll make another appearance in this list), and a contributor to NPR.  This is the best source I've found for focusing on sports as a lens for society.  There's frank discussion of race and gender, as well as plenty of harsh critique for sports media when they revert to peddling the same stale storylines.  If you track down one thing from this article, make it an episode of Hang Up and Listen.

Sports Illustrated
The august old sportsweekly is still one of the best sources for analysis of sports news.  While the internet has stolen some of the thunder of breaking news, SI has gracefully made the move to editorial voice and investigative reporting.  The Scorecard section is a wonderful summary of the past week's events that you may have missed, along with some great contextualization of those events.  The feature story at the end of the magazine, too, is almost always worth reading.  While not focused on current events, the writings of Gary Smith, S.L. Price, Grant Wahl, and others tends to be some of the smoothest writing out there.

A Whole Different Ball Game by Marvin Miller
I can't overstate how much change this single book brought to my viewpoint of sports.  Marvin Miller was the leader of the Major League Baseball Players' Association, and he was the driving force in the change of sports labor, and had a huge role in creating sports as we know them today.  He was also the man who had the nerve to rock the boat and point out that sports were business, and that the owners were pocketing all of the profits and stifling innovation.

Ball Four by Jim Bouton
A Few Seconds of Panic by Stefan Fatsis
Out of Their League by Dave Meggyesy
North Dallas Forty
It never fails to amaze me how much the athlete is treated simultaneously as hero and commodity.  These three books and one movie each talk about what it means to be a professional athlete.  It's easy to forget how hard you have to work to be a professional athlete, and it's easy not to realize how merciless it is as a profession.

30 for 30
Much as I don't like ESPN, they are the genesis of the 30 for 30 series.  It was originally created to chronicle 30 important moments in the 30 year history of ESPN, though it has since gone into a second series.  If you follow this blog, you already know that I watch these a lot.  The nature of the series (different director and creative team on every film) leads to hit-or-miss filmmaking, but generally this series is worth watching.  There are some stories I know, some I don't, but most of them are more than just the regurgitation of the dominant myth.  There's more thought put into this than most sports media, and it shows.

Honorable mentions:
Grantland has a good mix of news and number crunching for the hardcore fan, despite the fact that it's owned by ESPN.
The Classical covers sports with a literary bent.
The Best American Sportwriting anthologizes great longform writing for the past century, and every year since, just in case you missed it.
Ghosts of Manila by Mark Kram did a lot to make me realize that my distaste for certain sports had more to do with my unfair biases and less to do with the sport itself.

30 for 30: Roll Tide/War Eagle

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I'm a big fan of the 30 for 30 series.  It has brought some of the freshest takes on sports journalism in a long, long time.  I recommend it to anyone who is interested in sports beyond the mouthbreather Skip Bayless level.

But sometimes the 30 for 30 series gets too interested in peddling the mythology of the thing it's supposed to be analyzing, and then it just feels like a longform sportscenter featurette.  The House of Steinbrenner and Four Days in October both fall into this trap, and now Roll Tide/War Eagle joins that ignominious parade.

This documentary is probably fun if you're an Auburn or Alabama fan.  For the rest of us, it's an examination of one particular brand of fandom.  The film's biggest reveal is that an overly enthusiastic fan poisoned some traditional trees to really sock it to his rival.  Though this story is horrifying, it's also been covered extensively, and done better elsewhere.

As a whole, this is another one to miss.

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30 for 30: Unguarded

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This is one of the rare 30 for 30 stories I knew nothing about, probably I have only a passing familiarity with basketball.  This is drugs as seen though sport, specifically viewed in the context of Chris Herren.

Herren is homegrown Boston hero who made good by playing for his local high school, his local college, and eventually even his local pro team, but who lost it all due to drugs.  It's a well-known story, and the documentary feels mostly like a regurgitation of the motivational speeches that Herren now gives professionally.  This is a story that needs to be told, for societal as well as personal growth, but it doesn't necessarily make it a particularly interesting story.  This marks the second time that 30 for 30 has tackled drug use via college basketball, with the first being Without Bias, but neither one is particularly striking.  Perhaps it's time to look elsewhere for inspiration.

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Why spoiler warnings need to die

You probably know what spoilers are. Plots are advanced by the narrative use of plot points. Any virtual or in-person conversation that reveals a plot point too early is deemed a spoiler.

Spoilers can apply to movies, TV shows, books, video games -- pretty much any story-driven media. For simplicity's sake, I'll stick to discussing movies. Reviewers have learned to compensate for spoilers by treading very carefully around plot points. Too carefully. The care to avoid spoilers has reached levels such that it leads to overly careful wankery like this.  Or like this. Or this.  

It's all wrong. If you're still concerned about spoilers, you shouldn't be. They're bad for critics and bad for viewers, bad for analysis and bad for plot.

 

"Spoilers" almost never spoil anything

Most things labeled as spoilers don't qualify for the moniker.  Only plot points that radically change the viewer's conception of the story can be truly spoiled.  Knowing that Bruce Willis is a psychiatrist in The Sixth Sense isn't a spoiler.  Knowing that he talks to Haley Joe Osmont isn't a spoiler.  Knowing that he is actually is dead the whole movie is.

But it still doesn't matter, because...

 

People will forget spoilers by the time they encounter the original plot

Some of you are probably angry that I just ruined the ending to The Sixth Sense.  Look, it's time we had a heart to heart. If you haven't already seen that movie, you are never going to. "Planning to see it eventually" doesn't count. And if you ever do see it, even an insightful masterwork like this post will be unlikely to stick around in your memory long enough to interfere with your enjoyment.

Art that has been released recently is a bit more difficult. If you're the type of person who keeps up with TV shows, for instance, you are probably watching that show within a week of its release. Of course, then avoiding spoilers is easy -- just don't read any article that purports to be a summary within a week of its release. If you don't have the self-discipline for that, then what makes you think that a silly little spoiler warning is going to stop your craving for instant gratification?

 

There is no such thing as "unspoiled"

Unspoiled art is pure art, art untrammeled by expectations, and uninhibited by context. It's also impossible. The moment that you can conceptualize a piece of art enough that you know you want to experience it, you have already gained context, and thus lost the spoiler battle.

Art cannot be experienced without context. You put art in a white room with white walls with soft ambient lighting, or you can put it in a dark room projected on a screen from behind you, or you can listen to it using the most expensive headphones you can find, but even those approaches still don't eliminate context, they only minimize distractions. Aside from that, you as the viewer bring your own emotional baggage. Are you sleepy, content, nervous, or distracted? Are you overfull from a just-finished meal, or are you hungry? Did you have a long walk to get to the gallery, or did you saunter over to your couch and turn on the TV? These and innumerable other factors change your art experience.

A lot of smart people figured out that context matters in the 20th century, and it led to relativity in physics, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics, and contextualization in postmodern philosophy and art.  It's not a brand new concept, and we are doing ourselves a disservice to pretend that art is the one thing that can be experienced without context.

In fact, some of our most treasured media institutions are designed to bring context and spoilers.  Postcards, flyers, and advertisements are meant to get people to see art, but they also spoil the purity of experience.  The very purpose of movie previews is to be bombastic spoiler machines.  How are these spoilers so good if all the other spoilers are so bad?

 

Spoiler warnings are distracting and decrease signal-to-noise ratio

Up to this point, every point I've made has been about how spoiler warnings are irrelevent or ineffective. Time to shift gears and point out how they are actively bad.

Spoiler warnings are annoying, hamper usability, and generally make discussion a chore. When I see some variation on "Don't read further if you want to avoid spoilers," I am no longer thinking about the point of the piece I'm reading, but instead I'm thinking about my process of reading. This is like watching Life of Pi and having a sign flash on halfway through the first act that says "YOU ARE WATCHING A MOVIE WITH A CG TIGER." Thank you, fictional sign, but I already knew that.

 

Spoilers actually increase viewing enjoyment

It's true, you will actually like something better if you get exposed to spoilers beforehand.  Science says so.

 

Spoiler concern eliminates valid discussion

This is the Big Kahuna, the real reason I hate spoilers, and the whole reason I'm writing this blog post in the first place. Have something to say about a movie? You better make sure you get signed forms from all people in earshot waiving their rights, in perpetuity, for them to object to hearing what you want to say.

But, you know, just don't say it, right? Wrong. Completely wrong. That viewpoint is the information wants to be free argument turned on its head. Understanding is gained through analysis and discussion, and there's no surer way to quash discussion than by putting the onus on the speaker to make sure that his audience is ready to hear what she has to say.

Let's give everybody the benefit of the doubt, and say that nobody wants to be rude and ruin a plot for anybody. (For our example, it doesn't really matter, as rude people are unlikely to care about spoiler warnings anyway). For every person who has something to say on Twitter, Facebook, on a blog, or in person, if they have to check with their audience before revealing a possible spoiler, what are they likely to do? Are they likely to ask everybody if they can talk? More likely they don't say it.

But that's what the spoiler warning is for, right? It's there to give people the opportunity to share without injuring the poor precious virgin ears that are unready to hear it, right? Still wrong. Not only does it provide a frustrating hoop to jump through whenever you want to talk about art, it means that readers who would otherwise engage on a deeper level with the art instead choose not to read further, in the name of some fallacious "pure first experience" that is as impossible as Jesus riding up on a Unicorn with a briefcase full of war bonds.

 

It's time for our art discussion to give up our spoiler obsession.  Not only are they annoying non-content, they actively reduce the quality of our critique.  Join me in the rallying cry: Death to spoiler warnings and shame on those who use them!

30 for 30: The Announcement

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The Announcement is slightly overblown, but educational.  It's easy to forget about Magic Johnson, as it's easy to forget about most retired atheletes, but Magic occupies a special place in our culture for being one of the first stars in our culture to come out publicly with HIV.

The documentary is okay.  This is well-trodden territory, and the meat of the story is one of inspiration, almost like a promotional video for Magic.  There's space for that, but mostly I feel like I get too much of the mainline story already in sports, and I craved the additional access, the minor stories, and the feeling of depth that I get out of the best of the 30 for 30 films

But it's hardly a complete waste.  I learned some things, and I internalized others in a new way.  Magic Johnson was a bigger deal than I realized.  I was too young and not into basketball to really remember much more about him besides the HIV saga depicted here, but the first part of the movie does a really good job of explaining why Magic vs. Bird was such a big deal, and what the Showtime Lakers meant to basketball, and hinting at the rivalry between Michael and Magic.  And, Magic has remarkable camera presence.  He's got a 1000 watt smile, and he's smart and funny.  That alone makes the movie entertaining. 

You can afford to give this one a miss.

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Argo

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Argo is a well-executed thriller.  It's really as simple as that.  I was expecting to have a lot to say about the relations between Iran and the U.S. as portrayed in this movie, but I actually thought that the movie did a good job of accurately portraying the actual hostage taking and treatment, though Canada definitely gets less credit than it deserves.

The movie's strengths lie in its direction and costuming.  The tension feels manufactured much of the time, and it turns out that a lot of it is.  The most tense parts of the movie are wholecloth fabrications.  However, the movie gets the feel of the situation right, if not the details, and I'll forgive it some exaggerations as a result.

I saw this in theaters prior to its recent Oscar win, and I was surprised when I saw that it won best picture.  While it's good, it's just not a complete piece of moviemaking.  With the exception of the relatively small (and completely fictional) part played by Alan Arkin, the acting is unexceptional, and the script is merely adequate.  It was a snub that Ben Affleck wasn't nominated for Best Director, but the awards of Best Script and Best Picture must have been some sort of ridiculous compensation.

Speaking of Alan Arkin, "Argo fuck yourself" is the best line this year.

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30 for 30: The Marinovich Project

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I've been getting back into the 30 for 30 series again.  This, along with Renee, has been my favorite of the series thusfar.  The story of Todd Marinovich in the public eye is pretty simple.  Kid quarterback has amazing talent but gets into trouble repeatedly, gets drafted by the Raiders anyway, doesn't focus on the game, and so is quickly out of football and is proclaimed as a giant draft bust.  Sounds like Jamarcus Russell, but 15 years earlier which says as much about the Raiders organization as it does about the players.

The film's emphasis is on Marinovich's upbringing.  This is a kid who had a father much like Earl Woods or Richard Williams, but he had the idea earlier.  His child was going to be a quarterback, and he was going to be raised to be one from a very early age.  Everything in Todd's childhood was geared toward becoming a quarterback.  He got professional position coaching, he practiced for hours every day, he minimized his other childhood activities.

As Marinovich grew older, he began to realize that being a quarterback was no longer his highest priority.  Now, suddenly, all these other things are as important, such as fitting in, getting to hang out with other kids, and having the typical high school and college experience.  However, he still feels compelled to be a quarterback, and the pressure starts getting to him.  He starts losing himself in drugs, and he flames out after a solid college career and a short NFL career.

His story is a fascinating one, because we spend so much time talking about Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters.  We wonder what kind of a toll it takes on a child, and Marinovich is a good example of what the other side can look like.  This is a compelling story about the intersection of sports and humanity, just what the 30 for 30 series is best at.

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Breaking Bad: Season 1

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I stayed away from Breaking Bad for a long time because it sounded really gimmicky.  I mean, a high school chemistry teacher decides to start making Meth?  It sounded like a stoner comedy, which is just great in small doses, but didn't sound like a good TV show.  How wrong I was...

The show is good.  Very good.  Incredibly, I had buy-in almost immediately.  For most shows, there's an introductory period where I revert to skeptical old farmer mode,  a la "What in th' name of Roy Rogers is this newfangled entratainment?  I reckon I'd rathur just stick to ma old radio tunes."  No, Breaking Bad had me from the first episode.  The characters feel real, if odd, and the problems are real.  It's juuuuust crazy enough to feel realistic, even if it isn't particularly logical that our main character could actually make the transition as it's presented to us.

The show feels like a movie.  The care taken to keep the shots interesting and the camera angles dynamic is truly exceptional in TV.  While I've definitely been on the record gushing about our current golden age of television, it's mostly been related to the significantly improved script writing, as well as the almost otherworldly attention paid to set design and costuming.  Deadwood, A Game of Thrones, and Battlestar Galactica all stand out from that perspective, but this show makes you pay attention to the camera just enough to be interesting, but not so much as to seem pretentious.

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