March 29, 2011

From the rubble to the Ritz.

Editor's note: If you don't like reading about other people's fantasy baseball teams, turn away now. If you do, you're officially a masochist. Carry on.

In 2006, thanks to a late-season trade for Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay, I won the elite, West Coast-oriented Yay Area Keeper League. It was my first year as a member.

In 2007, we switched to a keeper league. And like a moron, I engaged in a drunken unplanned fight with my then-girlfriend and missed the first four rounds of the draft. Instead of Alex Rodriguez, Joe Mauer, Hanley Ramirez and Ryan Zimmerman, I ended up with Alfonso Soriano, Justin Morneau, Jimmy Rollins and Jeremy Bonderman. An eighth-place finish followed.

It was the beginning of the end. After a few years packed with bad trades (Carl Crawford for Carlos Quentin and Erik Bedard) and dumb free-agent pickups (David Freese, Ty Wigginton), I've firmly ensconced myself in the league's bottom half.

But this year is going to be different. For the first time, I locked up five legitimate keepers: Halladay, Kevin Youkilis, Colby Rasmus, Adrian Beltre and Kendrys Morales. It might not be Albert Pujols and Carlos Gonzalez (damn you, Commissioner True), but after years of keeping scrubs like Ryan Ludwick, Matt Wieters and the corpse of Chipper Jones, it's practically a miracle.

And the first few rounds of my draft went wonderfully: young stud Justin Upton, a healthy Jimmy Rollins, flamethrower Carlos Marmol, newly christened Angeleno Ted Lilly and post-hype sleeper Gordon Beckham. Throw a few late-round value picks in there (Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson, Will Venable and one more go-around with Mr. Bedard) and I think you've got a legitimate contender.

I won two fantasy baseball leagues last year. In the my third, this one, the YAKL, I came in dead last. That makes me a AAA fantasy player; I can mash in the minors, but can I make it in the bigs?

A projected 30/30 season from Upton says I can. Another Cy Young season from Halladay? That'll help, too. Rasmus reaching 20/20 and Morales coming back from the DL with a vengeance? The icing on the cake. As I made very clear last year, I really enjoy my fantasy baseball. And there's nothing better than falling in love with a keeper team. This is your year, Sioux City Sarsaparillas. Make me proud.

March 28, 2011

Say goodbye to the quiet comedy.

The Hangover. Old School. Wedding Crashers. Knocked Up.

Funny movies? Absolutely. They're also some of the most commercially successful comedies of all time. The success of The Hangover, in particular, has proven that inspired casting and an engaging premise can trump even the latest bloated Jim Carrey/Adam Sandler corpse of a movie.

To varying degrees, I enjoy all of these movies (and many others like them). I do wonder, however, if they're doing serious damage to a different type of film. I'm sure film critics have varying names for it, but I'm going with "quiet comedy." And I realized, after seeing Cedar Rapids this weekend, that it's a form of filmmaking that's slowly dying.

Cedar Rapids stars two very popular comedic actors, John C. Reilly and Ed Helms, and comes with an easy-to-grasp concept: small-town guy overwhelmed by the "big city." Anne Heche and The Wire's Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Senator Clay Davis, sheeeeet) kill in supporting roles, and Maeby from Arrested Development plays a prostitute! It's got it all.

But after more than a month, it's made just over $6 million at the box office. Hell, I was surprised that it was even still playing; a baby-sized release of only 462 theaters all but ensured that it wouldn't find an audience.

Now, I know it's not fair to say that comedies like The Hangover are the reason that Cedar Rapids perished during childbirth (a comparison made even easier by the dual presence of Ed Helms), and I know there have been far more deserving movies than Cedar Rapids that also didn't make a dime at the box office. But Cedar Rapids could never in a trillion years be The Hangover, even if it wanted to be, and I find that interesting. Simple, well-executed and straightforward comedies, stuff that you could even justifiably deem its own form of art, just don't seem to cut it anymore.

And it's not like audiences have always been drawn to grandiose, laugh-a-second spectacles. Animal House, Groundhog Dog, Trading Places and Blazing Saddles wove memorable comedic actors and situations into legitimate (albeit oft-clichéd) storylines, and they still made millions upon millions of dollars. Even Ghostbusters and Caddyshack, two of the most memorable and quotable comedies of the last 40 years, don't cram funniness into your every orifice. They're paced far more deliberately; they're movies instead of joke vehicles.

Maybe it all started with There's Something About Mary (probably). Or perhaps, as the movie industry grew larger and larger, it was the natural evolution of comedy in film. Whatever makes the most money is going to be copied again and again; belly laughs and fart jokes and the occasional small naked Asian man sell.

I should, however, point something out. Some of my favorite comedies are those from the Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker trio, such as Hot Shots! and The Naked Gun (and the far less beloved Jane Austen's Mafia!, High School High and BASEketball). These movies move a mile a minute, smashing you over the head with stupid gag after stupid gag. And I can't get enough.

I'm not 100% what makes their intentions seem different, even slightly purer, than something like Tropic Thunder. It might be because the Zucker/Abrahams movies are always poking fun at themselves by being so openly stupid. Or maybe they're just legitimately funnier than what's being released nowadays. I'm not a student of comedy so much as someone who likes to laugh, so I can only suppose. What I do know, however, is that I want there to be a place for the Cedar Rapids of the world. It's not like they aren't willing to compromise; Ed Helms drinks heavily and you get to see John C. Reilly's butt! Last time I checked, that's the stuff of a $400 million blockbuster.

March 23, 2011

A visit to Phillies spring training.

This past Saturday at 11 AM, I left Boston for sunny Tampa Bay. This wasn't a random trip to the South, nor was it designed with fun in the sun in mind. This was my first trip to Clearwater, spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies, and I was there to watch some baseball.

The elite traveling crew consisted of my father and younger brother, both of whom were making their initial pilgrimage as well. And, of course, family relations got off to a great start when my dad spent 20 minutes making fun of numerous holes in my beat-up plaid shorts. I was under the impression that "vacation wear" covered everything up to and (maybe) including hardcore nudity, but perhaps standards are higher in Florida. Tom Cimino's are, at least.

Our temporary home was the Days Inn Clearwater Beach, featuring a prison cell-sized room that was somehow meant to house two mid-20-year-olds and a 50-year-old for four days. And to add insult to injury, they initially denied our request to add a cot to the two-bed room. Luckily, the manager was a charming and helpful young man, although he may have also been a serial killer. He was very quiet and a little too pleasant, with a faraway look in his eyes that suggested constant consideration of how he'd kill all of us.

We ate at a bunch of renowned spring training haunts. Lenny's for breakfast. Whiskey Joe's for lunch. The Palm Pavilion for dinner. All were varying levels of wonderful, with Palm Pavilion being my favorite. You don't know delicious until you've followed up shrimp and crab chowder with "boneless chicken breast stuffed with bacon and cheddar Jack cheese, placed atop a big bowl of black beans and rice and finished off with pico de gallo, salsa and more cheese."

Bright House Field is, as everyone says, a gorgeous park. A tiki bar in left field is packed from an hour before the game to two hours after; it probably pays Cliff Lee's salary singlehandedly. The food is decent, and there are Phillies apparel as far as the eye can see. I received more than a few compliments for my Mike Schmidt mustache shirt.

Plus, it's not that expensive! The same beer stand sold 16 oz. Bud Light bottles and 24 oz. Victory drafts for the exact same price; don't ask me why almost everyone chose the former. But everywhere you went, the most touristy-looking places ended up being reasonably priced and relatively delicious.

And oh yeah, baseball. As expected, CC Sabathia outdueled Joe "Cowboy" Blanton on Sunday, but Roy Halladay showed young gun Jon Lester how it's done on Monday. And the offense…well, the lineup they're trotting out there won't scare many teams. But Jimmy Rollins looked healthy (even high-fived a shirtless guy in shallow left field!) and Raul Ibanez's beard has transformed him into an even more handsome and confident man.

Also, keep an eye on Josh Barfield, one of the relatively ignored competitors for the second base job. He drove in a few runs on Monday and even played a few innings in center field. I'd rather take a flier on him as a reclamation project than roll with 100% washed-up losers like Delwyn Young and Pete Orr (although Orr has spawned an awesome Twitter feed.)

All in all, Clearwater is a magical place. Whether you're traveling with friends, bringing a lady for a romantic weekend or spending 90 hours eating, drinking and baseballing with your family members, it's a trip you won't regret. Just make sure any holes in your shorts are all sewn up.

March 16, 2011

Season Two of Friday Night Lights is so very, very awful.

I really enjoy television. So when a few of my friends started pushing Friday Night Lights, one of the few critically acclaimed shows that I hadn't gotten around to yet, I was intrigued. I remembered the movie as a mostly forgettable sports flick, but I knew the book was a supposed mini-masterpiece from Deadspin's number one fan, Buzz Bissinger. And when the final episode of the series aired recently, I saw an outpouring of FNL support from people I really respect on Twitter.

"What is this 'clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose' thing that everyone keeps tweeting about?" I wondered. "Guess I'll give it a shot."

So I started flying through episodes on Netflix. The beauty of Friday Night Lights is that it really captures the essence of small-town Texans struggling to connecting with each other, or at least the kind of stereotypical essence that a young guy from the East Coast can understand. But even if the show ends up invoking a few inevitable clichés (girl struggles to overcome an apathetic upbringing, guy needs a football scholarship to escape, steroids, devastating injuries), it does it with heart and integrity. The littlest matters are taken seriously, and the football backdrop provides a perfect counterpoint to the soap opera-y drama.

Case in point: An early FNL episode starts with two young characters plotting to have sex and ends with them abandoning those plans to play a silly game on the floor of a tucked-away cabin. Meanwhile, the Dillon Panthers execute another outrageous come-from-behind victory and move one step closer to the playoffs. Oh, and did I mention that the two young, sexually charged characters are the coach's daughter and the starting quarterback?

It's amazing that storylines like those really work, because they look awful on paper. But FNL is cast so perfectly and executes everything with sincerity. Somehow, it all comes together.

Well, Season One did. Season One had so much cachet by the end that it could pull off pretty much anything. I'd heard talk that NBC's Season Two mandate was "turn down the football, turn up the drama," but I figured that was all overblown nitpicking. How could a show this good, this smart, this in tune with the message it's trying to send, totally go off the rails?

And then I watched the first five minutes of Season Two. The male football players sit around the pool while rock music plays and all the hot female characters walk around in bikinis. OK, I remember saying outloud, that's a little bit of a departure from the norm...but I can deal. Then two characters immediately undo a season's worth of character development in an inane conversation that demeaned every bit of progress they'd made so far. Well, I thought, that's really dumb. That negates half the reason I've been watching. So far, this isn't good television.

And it kept going on like that. The writers backed themselves into a corner with Coach Taylor's character; that would take weeks to undo. There was a new coach who turned out to be nothing more than a tough guy caricature. The handicapped former quarterback wheeled around for a while with nothing to do. And finally, in the ultimate insertion of unnecessary drama, a major character kills someone. KILLS SOMEONE! This had been a show about how a town defines itself through a football team, about the trials and tribulations of young people who too often peak at the age of 18. But everyone was right; it had lost its way.

Some friends told me to put my head down and power through. One guy even suggested I skip it entirely. "Nothing really happens," he said.

But I toughed it out. And luckily, it gets better near the end. All the unnecessary drama is wrapped up neatly; often too neatly to make a whole lot of sense, but I don't think anyone was complaining. Even the writers must have understood how poorly they'd steered their creation. The mandate was suddenly "get rid of the murdering, drop the overt sexiness, put the team back in the spotlight and treat everyone like real people again." Or at least the FNL version of real people, which is still light years ahead of other shows.

And now I'm onto Season Three, where things are getting wonderful again. Characters are making decisions that I can understand, that fall in line with who they are. The show is no longer forcing emotions down our throats, and it isn't manufacturing tragedy. The little victories are back to being the big ones: a smirk on Coach Taylor's face, a family getting a small bit of good news that renews hope. That's what makes it more than just a football show, what makes it a work of art. It's not the kind of entertainment that can come off as contrived; its admittedly overused premise puts it too close to the borderline already.

So I'm glad the show realized its limits, that everyone in charge understood the danger of pandering to previously untapped (and probably already uninterested) demographics. I know the show wasn't ever very popular, but it's insane to see how close Friday Night Lights came to alienating the only fans that were keeping it alive in the first place. Most shows stay strong for a few years and peter out; FNL took a different route. I'm told things stay excellent from here until the end of the show's run, and I can't wait to see where everyone ends up.

If anyone out there is interested, hop on the Friday Night Lights bandwagon. Just grid your teeth throughout Season Two. It gets better.

March 8, 2011

What should we expect from Chase Utley?

He's smacked 177 homers and accrued 650 RBIs as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies. His .293/.380/.514 career line is stellar for almost any hitter, let alone a second baseman. And his trophy rack is already packed: Five All-Star Games, four Silver Slugger awards and, of course, one unforgettable slogan.

He's also been hit by 94 pitches in the last four years and played in only 115 games last season. He's 32 years old, and he aggressively plays a demanding position.

So what should Phillies fans expect from Chase Utley in 2011 and beyond?

That's hard to say. According to Baseball-Reference.com, his most similar comparison through age 31 is Jeff Kent. Kent had a line of .334/.424/.596 at age 32, and he even hit .289 with 29 homers at age 37.

Then again, Kent is one of the best offensive 2B of all time, a possible Hall of Famer (and apparently a giant asshole). As good as Utley's been since his first full season in 2005, he's got quite a ways to go before he even comes close to Kent's success or his longevity (2298 games and 377 homers, as compared to Chase's 1006 and 177).

But most Phillies fans aren't worried about how Chase's career plays out, or where he'll rank among the best second basemen of all time. They're worried about 2011 and 2012, about the years when Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Shane Victorino are all in their respective primes.

The Phillies as a whole aren't particularly young. Dom Brown's a super-stud prospect and Cole Hamels is only 27, but the rest of their stars are aging or aged. After four straight division titles and the return of Cliff Lee, it's officially World Series or bust for Charlie Manuel's boys.

But they can't do it without Chase. It's pretty widely accepted that this is now a pitching-oriented team, but they'll still need to be in the top four or five in runs if they want to make a serious title push. They were second in the NL last year, but only slightly ahead of young teams like Colorado and Milwaukee. They'll likely get better; the Phillies, especially sans Jayson Werth, will probably get worse.

And Chase's tendinitis sure isn't helping. It sounds like it could be a chronic ailment, which makes it all the more worrisome. If he doesn't get at least 20 at-bats in the spring, he'll likely start the season on the DL. Then, unless we're seeing marked improvement, this dull hum of concern becomes a full-fledged roar.

But it's April, and there's a long, long season ahead. If he can get on the field for 130+ games this year, he'll be a top 2B, and the Phillies offense will supply the Big Four and Joey B with enough ammo to win. Maybe he won't touch 30 homers or 100 RBIs, but expecting those numbers just shows how high our standards are. We've been blessed with an all-world player for years now, and it will be tough to accept his inevitable decline.

So maybe there's no batting title or MVP award in Chase's future. Maybe the fact that no one from the team is talking about his injury is a terrifying harbinger of things to come. Or maybe Utley, like most pro athletes, just got a little dinged-up at the wrong time. 32 isn't young, but you know what? It's not very old, either. And if anyone's going to make asshole bloggers like me regret calling him "on the decline," it's Chase Utley.

March 5, 2011

Assessing the career of Nic Cage.

A few days ago, my friend Conor and I saw Drive Angry.

We didn't do it ironically. We weren't drunk or on drugs. We did it because, despite his many flaws, Nicolas Cage can be damn entertaining.

He can also be awful. I doubt he's ever turned a movie down, no matter how subpar the script or idea. For every fine film, there are a dozen Cage-starring disasters.

Yet there's something about him that keeps drawing me back. Sometimes, in fiascoes like The Wicker Man, his awfulness ends up being truly memorable. Anyone who watches Internet videos on a consistent basis will agree with me.

So how does Cage's scorecard play out? What's worth seeing, and what's an unmitigated disaster?

The good:
Adaptation. One of my all-time favorites, a wild Charlie Kaufman-penned movie about Charlie Kaufman writing the movie. Or something. Either way, Cage plays Kaufman and his fictional brother Donald, providing a great back-and-forth and some of my favorite quotes of all time. "Mom called it psychologically taut."

Leaving Las Vegas. His Oscar-winning role. Cage absolutely controls every second he's on screen, portraying the most endearingly outrageous drunk in cinematic history. This is Exhibit A for anyone that thinks Cage can't act. You just gotta find him meaty roles, point his craziness in the right direction and let him go wild.

The Weather Man. Maybe the most interesting "straight man" movie of Cage's career. He plays a disillusioned weatherman in Chicago with family issues and no real direction in life. His dad is famous author Michael Caine, and his son gets almost-molested by Gil Bellows. This should be revisited by critics and film fans alike, as most people weirdly passed it over upon release.

And then there's the Bruckheimer triology: The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off. All tremendous pieces of entertainment that, and this is the most important, are impeccably cast. Ed Harris, David Morse, John Cusack, John Malkovich, John Travolta. These aren't the first actors that come to mind when you think "action," but they help raise the material above your typical paint-by-numbers, shit-blowing-up type of movie.

The bad:
Next. National Treasure (I saw this in theaters, don't ask me why). National Treasure 2. Knowing (paid to see this, too). Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Snake Eyes. The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Season of the Witch.

Coincidentally (or not), most of his worst movies have come out in the last decade or so. Maybe he just wants to buy more castles. Or maybe he's enamored with the idea of "Nic Cage, action star." No matter the reason, mainstream film audiences these days are right to cringe a little when they hear the words "starring Nicolas Cage."

So what was Drive Angry, good or bad? Surprisingly, I didn't hate it. William Fichtner (of Heat and "the beginning of Dark Knight" fame) was terrific as the Devil's accountant, and the action was absurd enough to keep me interested. But it was way too long (104 minutes) and Cage gave an unfortunately straight-laced performance. If the star of Ghost Rider is gonna sign up to star in trash, he might as well go hog wild. But he instead re-adopted his "serious surly action hero" persona from Con Air, and that kept Drive Angry from becoming a true Cage masterpiece.

But no matter what kind of schlock Cage signs up for, I can't wait to see what awaits us down the line. The two-time Academy Award winner is one of the most enigmatic and interesting stars of the last 20 years; you never know what he's going to do next. And he's got some serious acting chops, whether young audiences know it or not. There's at least one more memorable portrayal left in him, but I guess I'd settle for another amazing Japanese commercial:

March 1, 2011

Charlie Sheen's just screwing with us.

So the star of Hot Shots! and Hot Shots! Part Deux, due to either rampant drug use or mind-destroying sexually transmitted diseases, has apparently gone insane.

And with that insanity has come overwhelming amounts of Internet-themed fame. Soundboards. T-shirts. Amazing artistic renderings. It seems like half the world is demanding that we ignore Charlie Sheen's ramblings and get him some help, but the other half can't wait to see what else happens before his fire-breathing fists consume us all.

Well, I don't buy it.

I don't believe that Charlie Sheen is coked out of his mind in all of these interviews. I don't believe that, like Napoleon before him, syphilis is currently rotting Charlie's brain.

I think Charlie Sheen is, to a certain extent, screwing with us. I think that he's pulling a "Joaquin Phoenix from I'm Still Here," except that he's doing a non-shitty job. I think he's performing a pop-culture experiment the likes of which James Franco can only dream about.

He's obviously ingested a ton of drugs in his life, and he might be a teeny bit detached from reality. But everything he's said and done so far has been way too calculated to be the product of madness. And way too hilarious. Calling Thomas Jefferson a "pussy"? That's the star of Major League II at work, not narcotics.

I still love all this, though. Much like Keyboard Cat or Sad Keanu, the Internet needs new memes in order to survive. They're all funny for a week, and then you forget they even existed. This week's offering to the gods is Charlie Sheen.

So I guess when Charlie dies in two weeks and everyone says that we ignored the warning signs, well, I'll admit that I was wrong. But I personally think Charlie Sheen is, miraculously, going to come out of this just fine. All the Two and a Half Men fans might not get their show back, but hey, I think Major League III is still a distinct possibility.

For now, though, let's all kick back and live the Sheen dream.