Wednesday, April 04, 2007

My Month of Entertainment – March 2007

Busy month, actually...impressive considering the RIAA boycott and everything. It was a nice combination of a) baseball season beginning and therefore requiring me to stock up on new data nerd books, b) all but one weekend spent at home and therefore requiring plenty of Netflix, and c) a series of fantastic finds on eMusic.


The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Bruce Markusen. The return of baseball means two things: first, I need to buy something related to the Pirates’ good ol’ days. Last year it was Clemente and the 1979 World Series DVD set. This year, it’s this lovely—and relatively short—book about the ’71 Pirates. Why did they “change baseball”? Because they were the first team to freely incorporate minorities without some sort of unspoken quote. Hispanic players like Roberto Clemente and Manny Sanguillen mingled happily with black players like Willie Stargell and Dock Ellis and white players like Bill Mazeroski (on his last legs) and Steve Blass (let's be honest--they don't come any whiter than Steve Blass). The book tells a very chronological story—what happened in 1970, what happened in the offseason, and what happened month-by-month in 1971—but for this type of book, that’s precisely what’s needed. I’ve made it through July 1971, and so far I’m very happy with the purchase. Now I just need the 1971 World Series Collector’s Edition DVD to come out.

Baseball Hacks, Joseph Adler. Every year I get more and more in touch with the data nerd side of me, and every year I get more and more into baseball statistics. This book is the first of 2007. Here’s the description: “Baseball Hacks shows how easy it is to get data, process it, and use it to truly understand baseball. The book lists a number of sources for current and historical baseball data, and explains how to load it into a database for analysis. It then introduces several powerful statistical tools for understanding data and forecasting results.” Sounds like perfect summertime reading to me!

Behind-The-Scenes Baseball: Real-Life Applications of Statistical Analysis Actually Used by Major League Teams...and Other Stories, Doug Decatur. This came as one of those Amazon package deals with Baseball Hacks, but I must say it’s a pretty neat read. Well, it’s not so much of a read as a browse, but that’s besides the point. I referenced the GM Quiz last week during my Pirates Rant™, and it’s pretty disturbing to me just how many questions Pirates Management would answer incorrectly, but hey...2-0, baby!

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t, Stephen Prothero. This was actually a purchase for The Butterfly, but I’m pretty sure I’ll end up reading this one as well. Prothero was on Daily Show a couple of weeks ago, and at the end of the interview, we looked at each other and both said that this was exactly the kind of book we hoped somebody would write. Lots of people are good at making huge judgements about you because you’re not as religious as they are, but how many of them are actually religiously literate (i.e. can name one of the Gospels, or even half of the Ten Commandments) and how many just use religion as a way to feel superior to others? This book seems to go into that, and I’m excited to read it.


This month's Netflix rentals:

Run Lola Run. When we first joined Netflix, we got into a pretty steady rhythm of solid indie flicks and mediocre new releases. Well...this month, the new releases were very strong and the indie films Lola is a really interesting visual movie, but The Butterfly and I were both unimpressed with the actual plot. This movie was highly regarded in the late-‘90s, but strangely it’s already aged quite a bit. Plus, Lola doesn’t run nearly as much as I thought she would.

Stranger Than Fiction. Great movie. I was pretty optimistic about this one because the plot just seemed so quirky and the cast was so strong, and both lived up to expectations. Will Ferrell uses his ‘blank slate’ look for drama instead of comedy, and it works. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, and Emma Thompson were all fantastic too, and Queen Latifah was decent enough. The ending almost buckled, but it stayed upright. One of the better new movies I’ve seen in a while.

Winter Passing. This is another indie film with a pretty neat cast—led by Zooey Deschanel and Ed Harris—but The Butterfly’s parents watched it first, and there was apparently a kitten-drowning scene. So The Butterfly wouldn’t watch it. I didn’t really want to either. So we didn’t.

Broken Flowers. The one indie-ish movie we watched this month that I liked. The ending was a lot more depressing than I thought it was going to be, but honestly I think I liked this more than Lost in Translation, the other, more renowned recent comedy-ish, noir-ish, Bill Murray drama. Murray is strong as a rich, former player who thinks he has a long, lost son, and Jeffrey Wright is phenomenal as his vicarious buddy Winston. Murray visits numerous former flings, and they’re all solid, though Sharon Stone is probably the best. A good rental.

For Your Consideration. We like Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman enough that we had to see this one, another Christopher Guest pseudo-documentary. This one’s about the making of an indie drama, and as always, every character takes him- or herself far too seriously. Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, etc., are quite good, though Fred Willard is extremely creepy as an Entertainment Tonight-style TV host. Lots of great characters here, as one would expect, but overall, FYC honestly didn’t sustain my attention as well as other Guest movies have. It was okay, but a bit disappointing.

Casino Royale. I actually really liked this movie...right up until the point where it decided not to end. This would have made a great 1 hour, 45 minute-long movie, but stretched into a 2.5-hour package, it loses some luster. This movie basically serves as a Bond prequel...that takes place in the present tense, about 40 years after the first Bond movie. That takes a bit of getting used to, but I think it works simply because it forcefully makes you to suspend all notions of time. If 007 really is the same person in Goldfinger as he is in Tomorrow Never Dies, then Casino Royale attempting to serve as technically the ‘first’ in the Bond series actually works. Plus, I enjoyed the nuance of Bond starting off a bit brash and cocky—and capable of love—before reeling it in to survive over the long haul.

Daniel Craig plays Bond with lots of ego and muscle, and it works (for me, at least). It will work a lot better if he slowly morphs into the more typical Bond character over the next couple of movies, though. There needs to be an evolution there. And his hair should be black. Eva Green, even only at age 26 (12 years younger than Craig), does a strong job as the first (and only?) woman Bond truly let himself love, and Judi Dench...sorry...DAME Judi Dench was fantastic in the role of M. Again, this was a well-executed just lasted about 30 minutes too long.

Borat. OH DE BABY. I’m not a fan of the type of humor that takes advantage and humiliates unsuspecting innocents...but I’ll make an exception here. Sacha Baron Cohen does a fantastic job of finding all the hidden, ugly flaws of Americans and making them seem almost acceptable. I’m not really sure if that’s the best way to word it, but that’s the best I can do. And beyond that...well, let’s just say that the obscenity level this movie reaches is almost admirable, and you’ll laugh. A lot.


Apollo New York ’79 (Live), Bob Marley & The Wailers. I should have sampled this album on emusic, but instead I just saw “Bob Marley” and “Live” and dove right in. Marley’s ’79 Apollo concerts were notable in his attempt to reach out to black audiences. It didn’t really work, as white college music nerds snatched up most of the tickets. I’ve read that Marley was visibly disappointed when he walked on stage—in Harlem—and saw nothing but white faces, but you couldn’t tell it from the music. Unfortunately, the sound quality on this recording is terrible. I’ve collected tons of concerts over the years, and a lot of them are audience (i.e. non-soundboard) recordings. I don’t have the highest standards for sound quality, but I do have standards. In this recording, the bass is loud and fuzzy and distorted and the vocals aren’t very clear. Which is disappointing considering (from what I could tell through the distorted bass) the quality of performance that was captured.

Freak ‘N’ Roll...Into the Fog (Live), Black Crowes. Top three most surprisingly great musical moments I’ve ever seen: 1) the first time I saw Jurassic 5 live, 2) the first time I saw Ozomatli live, and 3) the first time I saw the Black Crowes live. Now, J5 and Ozo were surprises because I’d barely heard of them when they rocked my world. However, I’d been listening to the Crowes for a really long time when I first saw them live at the Beale Street Music Festival in 2001. They were playing at the same time as Bob Dylan on the opposite end of the park, and we were going to watch one Crowes song before heading to see Dylan...but the Crowes had such an unbelievably full, hypnotizing sound that we ended up staying for half their set before finally pulling ourselves away to see Dylan...who probably is #4 on this list (seeing Dylan, even at the age of 60, set me off on about a year-long “Dylan phase” where I bought everything I could hear or read about him, but that’s a completely different story). There was no one particular aspect of the Black Crowes’ sound that made them so great—it was just that everything was there. The guitars, bass, keys, Chris Robinson’s was all just so perfect.

Well...Freak ‘N’ Roll doesn’t leave as perfect an impression as the Beale Street show was—Robinson’s voice isn’t quite as strong, and the recording itself doesn’t leave you with quite as full a sound...unless you turn it up really, really loud anyway. But it’s totally and completely worth adding to your collection. The professionalism is top-notch. And “Soul Singing” is transcendent.

Afro-Rock Volume 1. The emusic description: “Almost immediately after Fela Kuti died in 1997, his music was enthusiastically rediscovered in the English-speaking world — and the music of his African peers. US/UK reissue labels have barely scratched the surface of great African pop and rock, but they're digging, and this volume was one of the earliest fruits.” I’ll just say that, while there are plenty of misses on this collection, there are so many damn songs that will make you nod your head and bounce a little bit. Just some fantastic basslines in this album. If I were a hip-hop producer, I’d be sampling every single one of these grooves in some fashion. A great download.

Neon Bible, Arcade Fire. Two things about this album: 1) A lot of times when indie acts find success, their second album finds them with a recording budget and with access to lots and lots of instruments, so they use those instruments and big-budget items simply because they can and they lose track of what actually made their music good. With Arcade Fire, strings and other items of musical bombast actually enhanced their sound and made it better. Neon Bible is over-earnest and over-indulgent, but it’s also Arcade Fire at their finest. 2) It’s not nearly as good on the second listen. Maybe it was the mood I was in, but I listened to it again yesterday, and I was not nearly as impressed. Some albums grow on you, and some...well...shrink. We’ll see how this one ages.

Separation Sunday, The Hold Steady. All you ever need to read about The Hold Steady and Separation Sunday has already been written on this blog. Good album...I don’t find it great yet, but while Neon Bible might not be holding up, this one’s growing on me.