December 12, 2013

He's our huckleberry.

The date was October 7, 2011. It was Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series.

I was living in Bethesda, Maryland at the time, and some friends from Philadelphia had come down for the weekend. You'd think that we would be going nuts for this crucial matchup, but it was actually quite the opposite. We sat sipping beers, preparing for the night ahead, occasionally ignoring the pitchers' duel in front of us.

We'd grown complacent; in those days the Phillies seemed to be perpetually in the playoff hunt, including a delightful World Series championship in 2008. We couldn't have realized that this was the last important baseball game Roy Halladay would ever start.

He was 34 years old, not a spring chicken but nowhere near the age of typical depletion. He was coming off a 19-win, 233-inning, 220-strikeout season where he finished second in Cy Young voting and ninth in MVP voting. As studly as ever, Halladay seemed to be.

There was no reason to believe that his body would break down, that he'd throw only 218 more innings in his major league career, that the Phillies themselves were about to tumble from a half-decade of elite contention.

But here we are, in December of 2013, and Roy Halladay is officially out of baseball.

He retired on Monday as a Toronto Blue Jay, a fitting tribute to the team that helped him blossom into one of the game's finest pitchers. The Jays could never leap to the top of the AL East and get Doc into the postseason, but it was Toronto who gave the young Halladay a chance when a rocky start (10.64 ERA in 67 innings in 2000) would've doomed so many other arms.

Still, as Michael Baumann noted on Tuesday, Halladay made the most of his time in Philly. Despite only a few short years in the city, Doc found himself revered as one of the few universally beloved Philadelphia athletes.

Developing strong feelings for Roy Halladay was easy; we could tell from second one that he wasn't out for personal glory. He wasn't trying to round out his resume with one more bullet point; he wanted to win. You could sense that in every fiber of his being, with every pitch, in every photo snapped of his insane early-morning workouts. His icy stare could burn holes through a catcher or manager, but he seemed to love both Carlos Ruiz and Charlie Manuel. He was like a exacting father; he demanded the best, but earning that smile made it all worthwhile.

He came to Philadelphia because they were the hottest team in baseball: two straight World Series appearances, three straight playoff appearances, bona fide superstars in Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels. His arrival was the icing on the cake; add a Cy Young winner to a perennial contender and watch the magic happen.

Of course, it's not that easy, and he never got that ring. The Phillies ran into two future world champions in 2010 and 2011, then the wheels came off in spectacular fashion. In fact, I wonder what Roy might've done if the 2014 Phillies looked like title contenders. They aren't; they'll be lucky to sniff second place. But if the stars had aligned, would he give it one more try?

In the end, though, he didn't want to ply his trade for some mediocre team (in Philadelphia or otherwise), hoping that they'd catch lightning in a bottle. His body was falling apart: labrum, rotator cuff, back. We saw him labor on the mound throughout his ill-fated return in late 2013, sweating profusely and looking nothing like the Roy Halladay we'd come to love. The gradual decline turned into an all-out free fall faster than anyone could've anticipated; I know I wasn't the only Phillies fan who breathed a small sigh of relief when I found out that he'd hung them up.

Roy Halladay spent four seasons in Philly; only two of them ended up mattering. But in a way he validated the city as a premier baseball town; his time in a Phillies uniform confirmed our lingering suspicions that the team was (albeit briefly) among Major League Baseball's elite. For a while it was Boston or New York, Boston or New York, but for a fleeting moment, there was also Philadelphia.

Despite eight 1-run innings from their ace, the Phillies lost that night in October of 2011. Their anemic offense was mowed down by Chris Carpenter, another aging superstar who was also nearing the end of his dominance in St. Louis.

"Ho hum," we yawned. The bats were garbage; that's all it was. Roy and the boys would be back next year.

But they weren't. And now Roy is gone forever. While it's hard to feel bad for a man who's made $148 million and will probably make the Hall of Fame in a few years, I'm genuinely sad that he never won a World Series in Philadelphia. He doesn't need one, but athletes like Roy Halladay don't seem to come along very often. And it's a goddamn shame to leave them hanging when they do.

December 7, 2013

In praise of Eastbound & Down.

In this age of television antiheroes, let us kneel at the altar of Kenny Powers.

An oft-deplorable man who toed the line of irredeemable on a weekly basis, only to win us back through crippling honesty and sheer force of will. Comedy or drama, now or then, there's been no character quite like him.

We were overjoyed to live inside Tony Soprano's head for a while, but there wasn't much to love. Vic Mackey's finest hour was admitting all the horrible things he'd done and walking out a free man. Walter White did some right at the end, but only after so much wrong. Al Swearengen comes close, but by the end of Deadwood he was firmly on the side of good.

And when it comes to comedy, there's no competition. No show has ever pushed boundaries like Eastbound & Down, and I don't just mean all the boobs and butts. A drama can slowly peel back the layers of its tortured protagonist -- by the time Don Draper is at his most deplorable, we have some insight as to why -- but comedy, as it exists on television, demands some sort of relatable lead. Or at least a sympathetic buffoon like David Brent.

But Kenny Powers asks for no sympathy. He was fully formed from day one, a man-child unable to function in society. He mistreated pretty much everyone around him, sometimes humorously but often just to reestablish his standing in a very sad pecking order. But we understood why his essence could be so intoxicating, and we appreciated every fleeting moment of clarity as he struggled against his own demons, and what he felt was expected of him by the world at large.

And in a roundabout way, that's what made him relatable. He's a man striving for the gold in a disposable world, with no use for those its already chewed up and spit out. His 30 seconds of fame ended a while ago, but Kenny still struggles against the tide. This is noble at times, sad at others, but it helps him discover what he needs to fill the void in his soul.

What ultimately redeems Kenny, in both the universe of the show and for us viewers, is his self-awareness. His eyes and facial expresses betray a hidden intelligence; he knows when he's burying himself. He looks for a release in sex and drugs, but that's never properly satisfying. He wants to be loved and admired, at first by the world but eventually by the people he cares about. And the real trick is accepting that such love isn't conditional; he doesn't have to remain impressive, bombastic or outrageous. He can just be.

Of course, employing the charms of Danny McBride don't hurt. That hidden intelligence belongs to McBride, and he perfectly captures Kenny as a man unable to convey the churning emotions within. So when he finally does reveal his inner thoughts, it doesn't feel forced, or in service of the story. It feels like he's finally sunken low enough, or become so desperate, that they can't help but seep out.

To me, the first and last seasons of Eastbound are the only ones that really matter. Kenny's journey from comeback kid to reluctant father-slash-husband is important, but the bookends are the whole story. His readjustment to society, and then his acceptance of life's simpler pleasures, bring his character full circle. And an opportunity as a sportscaster is such a logical spot for Kenny to end up; it's almost the same amount of fame for even less work, a world his outsized personality could probably inhabit forever. The fact that he walks away is tantamount to his growth, or at least his understanding of self.

It's not like Eastbound gets preachy and insists that marriage and kids are the only path to happiness. But Kenny has seen the strength its brought his brother Dustin, and the (usually fucked-up) joy it brings Stevie Janowski, and we know he loves April. What it ultimately comes down to, more than dedication to holy matrimony, is the realization that satisfaction may lie in a place he never anticipated. We don't know how things will work out for the family Powers, but Kenny seems to comprehend that stability isn't failure. That feels like definitive progress.

In a way, Eastbound & Down ends similarly to The Shield. Not from a thematic standpoint; Vic Mackey remains an animal on the prowl, while Kenny Powers finally appears content. But as both wrap up, we're left to ponder the future of these fully formed characters. Will Vic strike back at those who've caged him? Will Kenny be able to exist in a domestic world? It's open-ended but also a summation of the story as a whole, which is the lofty goal that every television series should shoot for. Everything doesn't have to end when the cameras stop rolling. The adventures of Kenny Powers continue on, even if we can't see them, and that's the show's final victory.

Plus, there's this:

November 18, 2013

Catcher conundrum causes concern.

In 2004, the Philadelphia Phillies selected Jason Jaramillo in the second round of the MLB Draft. In the fourth round, the team chose Lou Marson. Travis D'Arnaud was their supplemental first round choice in 2007, and Sebastian Valle was signed out of Mexico that same year. Cameron Rupp was their third-round pick in 2010. Tommy Joseph was the "crown jewel" of the Hunter Pence trade.

These catchers have logged a combined 38 plate appearances for the Phillies, and today Carlos Ruiz was signed to a three-year, $26 million contract at the age of 35. This is not a coincidence.

I'm not here to slander Ruiz or his fancy new deal -- for the most part I agree with David Cameron's take -- but to chastise the Phillies for having one decade to develop a new catcher and utterly failing at the modest task that was their charge. Bill Baer touched on this very topic earlier today; minus D'Arnaud, who's been gone for quite a while, the luster has faded on every single one of those once-touted prospects.

Granted, Marson and D'Arnaud were part of the packages that brought in Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay. And most prospects bottom out eventually; only a chosen few end up contributing in the majors. But it's still relatively jarring to consider the resources dedicated toward grooming the catcher of the future and how empty the cupboard turned out to be when the team needed it the most.

I'm certain the plan was to amicably part ways with Ruiz in late 2013 and allow either Valle or Joseph to assume the starting job, but Valle's struggles and Joseph's concussions quickly changed that tune. Rupp had four hits in 14 at-bats near the end of 2013, but the 25-year-old has practically no experience above single-A ball (Darin Ruf alert!). For a team with no choice but to pretend that they can compete in 2014, the only realistic option was to meet Ruiz's demands.

I can't help but be reminded of December 2010. Much like now, the plan was to let Jayson Werth receive a much-deserved payday elsewhere and fill the hole in right field with a cheap, talented prospect. But that prospect (Domonic Brown) did not impress management in his 210 plate appearances. Eventually it was decided that some combination of Brown, Ben Francisco and John Mayberry was not going to suffice. Ignoring that the Phillies were, at the time, the best team in baseball, two top prospects (Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart) were traded for Hunter Pence. And we all know how that story ends...curiously enough, with the aforementioned Joseph.

The Ruiz deal isn't the exact same scenario; unlike Werth, I'd define what it took to keep him around as "understandably excessive." And their other options at the position, both internal and external, were either nonexistent or highly unsavory. There was no Dom Brown to even try out in this scenario, let alone ignore.

But it's yet another check mark in the negative column for an organization that hasn't been able to develop talent for quite a while. Spending for middling free agents (or overspending on your own) is exactly the mindset that helped the Phillies devolve from contender to pretender. Carlos Ruiz will be a plus in 2014 and (hopefully) beyond, but the fact that he had to return at all can only be described as a serious minus.

November 16, 2013

The lady don't mind.

I've never understood picking up women in bars.

I'm sure there are wildly confident, gorgeous men who can perform this task without blinking an eye. And I know there's an entire industry built around the strategy involved: how to get attractive strangers to have sex with you in seven steps or less.

But I personally could never wrap my head around the logistics. What could you possibly say to attract these women in such a short amount of time? Is it entirely physical, or are some people so innately appealing that it's a no-brainer from the moment you catch their eye?

I can, however, comprehend how women themselves can get the ball rolling. Because there was one time when the magic did happen, and I can promise you that I was not the one who ignited the spark.

A year or so after college, I was out with my friends at a trendy watering hole in Boston's South End. I stepped up to get a drink, and when I turned to my left a young blonde lady was looking right at me.

I can't tell you what she said, or how I responded, but a conversation did indeed begin. There was a seat next to her at the bar, and I felt obligated to sit down. After about 20 minutes and another round of drinks, eventually our legs sort of intertwined. These were all good things.

This was all made better, of course, by the fact that my friends was sitting mere feet away. At first, they thought I had bumped into an old friend from school. But eventually they realized that this was a total stranger, and that she and I appeared to be hitting it off.

Every 10 minutes or so, one of them would come to get a drink and give me a massive thumbs up. Girls included. And, of course, when the lady and I shared a little bar smooch, someone was ready with a camera. The photo's still out there somewhere; my head is almost entirely perpendicular to hers. Don't ask me why.

Eventually it seemed like a foregone conclusion that we'd go home together. She popped away for a second to "grab her friend," who instantly began looking me over like a piece of fruit in the produce section. Probably to check for signs of serial killer potential. I got the sense that I wasn't exactly the kind of guy the lady usually gravitated towards, but I seemed to get a stamp of approval because we were left to depart of our own volition. And depart we did.

As we walked away, chants of "mee-no, mee-no, mee-no" reverberated off the walls. I don't think the lady knew my last name then (or maybe ever) so she might not have understood they were in praise of me. Even if she did, I didn't care; I felt like a baseball player who just hit his first career home run. In retrospect, this may explain why the night turned out the way it did. 

We went back to her apartment, and the first thing she wanted was not naked time but chicken fingers. This was slightly confusing but understandable; hey, you gotta eat. So we traipsed to a restaurant down the street to see if they were still open. They were, and we quickly gorged on breaded poultry.

I was still hanging around after late-night food, so she had no choice but to invite me into her bed. She put on a Will Ferrell movie, either Anchorman or Old School, and a brief bit of hijinks ensued. Emphasis on brief; it was clear pretty quickly that she was ready for me to leave, and in accordance with the law and good manners I've never been one to ignore those kind of cues.

I actually don't recall offering up even a single word of protest or confusion; the night was such a whirlwind of unexpectedness that I certainly wasn't going to act like I belonged there. So off I went into the very cold, very late Boston night. Luckily it was only a 10-minute walk to my own place, and my belly was full of processed fowl.

She'd given me her number at the bar, which I dialed a few days later to see if she'd like to get a drink or hang out sometime. Never did receive a reply; given how our evening ended, I probably shouldn't have expected one.

I have no idea what I did to deserve that bit of "success"; I've never been able to recreate the experience. Perhaps I exuded some sort of confidence that's impossible to summon consciously; perhaps she was drunk and I happened to be in her line of sight. But either way, I heartily encourage all men to be approached by beautiful women at bars. At the very least, it makes for a hell of a story.

October 9, 2013

The day the hockey died.

I grew up in a period of hockey excellence.

From 1994 to 2004, the Philadelphia Flyers made the playoffs every season. They went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1997 and the Eastern Conference Finals in 1995, 2000, and 2004. No trophies, sure, but it was still a stretch where the team finished no lower than second in the Atlantic Division.

They weren't afraid to make big moves, pulling off the blockbuster that brought Eric Lindros to town and trading Mark Recchi and Rod Brind'Amour at the height of their talents for several other high-profile players (John LeClair, Eric Desjardins, Keith Primeau) who would power the team going forward. And while signings like Chris Gratton and John Vanbiesbrouck flopped, there was always plenty of money (and young talent) available to fill any voids.

But the scales never tipped fully in their favor. LeClair and Desjardins proved to be exquisite second bananas during the Lindros era, but the Flyers consistently failed to best superior teams in Detroit or New Jersey. And soon after the 2003-2004 playoffs, a remarkable stretch that led to Phil Esposito dubbing him "the most dominating player I ever saw," Primeau suffered a debilitating concussion that abruptly ended his career.

In a way, the loss of Primeau (nine games into the post-lockout 2005-2006 season) was the beginning of the end. Several talented players (Patrick Sharp, Dennis Seidenberg) were dumped for a song. And the ones who survived, well, they didn't exactly become the faces of the franchise.

The team missed the playoffs in 2007. They collapsed in 2011 after a 47-win regular season. And more than a few questionable decisions were made along the way.

It all came to a head on Tuesday morning, when head coach Peter Laviolette was fired three games into the season. Rather than bash how Laviolette handled a floundering team, fans and the media alike took another stance: "This organization is a disaster."

A little over three years ago, the Flyers were two wins from the Stanley Cup. In 2012, they pulled out a remarkably sloppy but entertaining series against the feisty (and, in many people's opinions, Cup-bound) Pittsburgh Penguins. That's not the usual recent resume of a disaster.

But very few disagree with the sentiment that the Philadelphia Flyers have lost their place as one of hockey's great franchises. They used to be admired for strong, decisive decisions. Now they're mocked for knee-jerk moves that we question from day one.

Trading Mike Richards and Jeff Carter for a handful of young guns (Wayne Simmonds, Jake Voracek, Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn) that could've conceivably led the way for years to come? That only looks like a mistake because Jonathan Quick won those two a Cup the next season in Los Angeles.

But signing Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year contract? Trading James van Riemsdyk to Toronto for Luke Schenn? Dumping Sergei Bobrovsky on Columbus for nothing, seemingly just to keep Bryz's mental state intact? Letting influential veterans like Jaromir Jagr walk? Placing any sort of post-2010 faith in Michael Leighton?

Once upon a time, I praised the Flyers for being "stubborn but aggressive." I thought they were one of the few sports franchises that truly went all out, every season, in an attempt to win a championship. But I also condemned them for forcing young players into roles they couldn't quite handle, for valuing size and grit over speed and talent, for refusing (or being unable) to develop young goaltenders in such a pressure-packed environment.

These flaws remain. And in the era of the salary cap, there are no more quick fixes. Invest in the wrong group and you're doomed. Besides Voracek, the young players haven't improved. In many areas, they've regressed. The defense is patchwork at best, a handful of slightly above-average guys who lack basic puck-handling skills. Once upon a time, we thought Braydon Coburn would become the total package. Now I wonder what the team can get for a 28-year-old who's been stagnant for three years.

As a friend of mine, a die-hard Boston Bruins fan, remarked on Tuesday afternoon, "If Chris Pronger were here, this never would've happened." And he's probably right; Pronger's talent, mixed with zero tolerance for bullshit, might've been the force that Laviolette needed to stay alive and turn this team around.

But Chris Pronger will never play in the NHL again. And Shea Weber isn't walking through that door to save the day, no matter how many times you call sports radio and ask about trading for him.

Now a smart coach pays the price for his mediocre roster. Maybe Ed Snider can't, in fact, fire the players; maybe Craig Berube will wake everyone up; maybe the youngsters really couldn't thrive in Laviolette's system. But it seems to me that we're viewing the dying gasps of a once-proud organization, one that might need to suffer though an extended dark period before everyone sees the light and realizing that whatever methods they're relying on are no longer working.

September 24, 2013

We love you, Charlie Manuel.

Charlie ManuelThe photograph on the right adorns the otherwise relatively bare walls of my Washington, DC apartment. It's of a 64-year-old man -- currently aged 69 -- on the happiest day in recent Philadelphia sports history, and the second happiest day of my life. It cost me $4 on eBay. I wouldn't sell it for the world.

Charlie Manuel stepped down as Phillies manager back on Friday, August 16. He went 780-636 in Philadelphia, winning one World Series and retiring as the most successful skipper in the team's history.

He was not a master strategist. His teams often won in spite of his tactical decisions; starters were left in too long, massive platoon splits were ignored in favor of "riding the hot hand" or "trusting his guys."

His final squad, the 2013 Phillies, proved to be painfully flawed. But they weren't helped along by Charlie's unwavering faith in broken players like Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard. He stuck with them through thick and thin, despite overwhelming evidence that they were nothing but shells of their former selves.

But he was never the man to invigorate a struggling franchise. He was a committed, supportive manager who believed in his boys and loved hitting. Give him a bushel of power bats and some decent starters and he'll whip them into a contender that you could never quite count out.

And the World Series champions of 2008 were exactly that. Charlie didn't have the bushel of aces that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. would acquire in later years, but he did have one (Cole Hamels) who never lost and three other starters (Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer, Joe Blanton) who provided consistent quality starts.

And then, perhaps, most importantly, he had JC Romero for the seventh, Ryan Madson for the eighth and Brad Lidge for the ninth. Clay Condrey and Chad Durbin could pop in for some mop-up innings or face a tough righty early on, but otherwise the bullpen was set it and forget it. And that's just the way Charlie liked it.

The offense was even better. Chase Utley (.915 OPS) was a superstar, and Ryan Howard (.881 OPS) wasn't far behind. Pat Burrell (.875 OPS) more than held down left field for the last time; once Jayson Werth (.861 OPS) took over in right field around August, all tinkering was officially over.

Rollins, Victorino, Utley, Howard, Burrell, Werth, Feliz, Ruiz.

According to Baseball Reference, they only lined up 10 times in that order throughout 2008's 162-game regular season. But they were all set by October, when it really counted.

Everyone remembers what happened next. Brett Myers drawing his world-famous walk off CC Sabathia. Shane Victorino's subsequent grand slam. Matt Stairs rips one deep into the night. Joe Blanton's homer, Geoff Jenkins' "leadoff" double, Brad Lidge striking out Eric Hinske and hugging Carlos Ruiz from his knees.

It was amazing. I laughed, I cried, I hugged everyone in sight for weeks. And we owe so much of that pure unadulterated joy to Charlie Manuel.

Maybe another manager could've led that same team to victory. But we were stuck with Charlie, which seemed like a mess in the early going but turned into magic before long. He was folksy, he was charming, he was smarter than he looked (and sounded). He was unique, and while we didn't appreciate him right away he soon found a path into our hearts.

I wrote this because I wanted to say goodbye to Charlie in my own way. The Phillies have become mostly unwatchable at this point, and I blame Manuel for very little of it. He was a man out of time, plugging holes with mediocre minor leaguers when he used to slot in potential All-Stars. At age 69, with Ryne Sandberg waiting in the wings, it was time to say goodbye.

But that didn't make it any easier. The state of despair when Charlie took over, and the state of bliss that held for most of his tenure, couldn't be more apples and oranges. The Phillies used to be the laughingstock of baseball; they were slightly above middling in the early 2000s. Then they found a manager who helped change all that, a captain who steered the ship to glory.

Charlie Manuel was that captain, and I'll never forget what he brought to the city of Philadelphia and its fans. We'll always love you, Charlie.

September 10, 2013

Once you pop.

Football sucked.

Twenty-three months ago, I admitted to the world that I preferred NFL RedZone to the Philadelphia Eagles. I was pilloried by many, Philly fans and general football enthusiasts alike.

Twelve months ago, I decided to throw my faith behind Andy Reid one more time. This was a mistake. A big mistake. But at least I was no longer alone in my disgust.

The once-proud Eagles franchise had sunk to the bottom of the National Football League. There were expected to be few survivors.

So we said goodbye to Andy, and we hoped it would get better before it got worse. Despite knowing full well that, even in today's wacky NFL, that's not usually how it goes.

There's always a team that moves from the rubble to the Ritz. But it's not usually one that blew an entire draft, that spent millions on an untested college coach, that barely improved their defensive backfield, that brought back an oft-injured veteran and moderately successful third-round pick to compete for the most important job in an extremely complicated offense.

Well, the Eagles still aren't ready to take up residence in any fancy penthouse. Their ceiling is probably 9-7, and that's with a lot going right (and a hearty handful of important players staying healthy).

But, wow. Last night was something else. I forgot you were allowed to have fun while watching your hometown team play football. Encouraged to, even.

I walked to my friend's house in my stylish Eagles-themed Hawaiian-style blouse (purchased from the wrong section, obviously, during an ill-fated Kohl's trip), embracing the occasional stare from fellow DC residents in RG3 jerseys. Not feeling confident in the least; just filled with the promise of a new season.

"At least it'll be different," I thought. Not necessarily better, but unlike what we'd been slogging through for the last few years. That would be progress.

But I flew home on a cloud (albeit a bit more modestly, being that it was relatively late and the local team had just lost) because I'd just seen the most exciting first half of Philadelphia football since Donovan McNabb was rewarded for his contract extension with 59 Michael Vick points in his face.

It was everything you hoped it would be. It got the entire football-loving nation buzzing. And, even though the more rational among us realize that this year's team is still fatally flawed, it brought back hope that maybe the Eagles were once again ahead of the curve.

Granted, the second half was considerably rockier. The defense is still largely unproven (at best). And there are certainly questions about how long the Chipper's boys can keep up a record-setting pace on offense.

But there was Chip Kelly in his sexy visor, using ridiculous Philadelphia-themed flash cards to call plays, running his boys out there like a well-oiled machine, making everyone believe again.

And with San Diego coming to town on Sunday, they of the massive Monday night meltdown, 2-0 is not out of the question.

Most people -- present company included -- would've been happy with 7-9. Now we can dream a little bigger. But, like a starving man who's handed a bowl of soup, we're not going to slam the bowl down and demand more.

That kind of greed comes later. For now, a nice hearty gulp will do.

August 19, 2013

When all the answers, they don't amount to much.

The logical thing to do was start dating.

We'd gone out numerous times, from drinks to movies to dinner and back again. On a physical level, she was very much my type. And she seemed to like me, at least enough to occasionally get naked in my presence.

For a while, in that nebulous period between college and true adulthood -- when you're underpaid and overworked and just trying to cover the cable and Internet bill every month -- it seemed like that might be enough.

But of course, it wasn't. This is not to slight her in the least; she was a very enjoyable and attractive young woman. But she wasn't what I was looking for; nor was I anything close to her soul mate. And in the back of our minds, where sweet logic that we didn't want to hear was whispered, we both knew this.

But it's easy to shut those little lingering voices up with wine, or mild drug use, or by closing yourselves off to reality and keeping busy. So that's what we did. We saw each other a few times a week, every outing as mildly pleasant as the last, and eventually forged a bond built on acceptance that this all was fine for now.

And it's not that dating for fun's sake is wrong; every relationship doesn't need to have the long haul as its end game. But to ignore this, or to realize the truth with great clarity but refuse to address it, can bring about a lot of strange and lonesome days.

I remember one happy hour with her work friends; it was clear from the moment we walked in the door that I didn't really feel like meeting them (and she didn't really feel like introducing me). But we went through the motions, smiling and sipping beers as if it were the most enjoyable evening in the world.

At the end of the night, she turned to me and said, "So I guess we should be a couple."

"I guess so," I responded. And there it was.

Fast forward a few weeks, and all my college friends are planning a night on the town. They want to meet my new lady, and I find this plan to be acceptable. I'm not sure if I want to show her off, but there doesn't seem to be much wiggle room.

So we head to my friend's place, and then to a bar. Drinks and witty banter are flowing freely, at least between some of us. She was clearly uncomfortable, and that made me unhappy. I recall trying to include her in the conversation, but I'm sure my efforts were transparent and forced. I drank heavily to compensate, and ended up extremely intoxicated.

Eventually, we left a bit early to head home. She made the very reasonable suggestion to get a cab; I disagreed. She pointed out that we were miles from our apartments and she was in very uncomfortable shoes; I demanded that we walk for at least a few minutes.

She rightly accused me of being a jerk. I wrongly, and loudly, accused her of being an idiot. She turned her back, got in the next cab, and left without me. I walked home at 2 AM, fully convinced I was in the right.

I woke up at about 11 AM, fully convinced I was in the wrong. I brought her flowers and apologized for being an asshole. She accepted my apology, politely asked me to leave a few minutes later, and broke up with me over Gchat the next day.

I never saw her again. Additional text message and email apologies, mostly delivered out of lingering guilt, were accepted but unremarked upon.

I was the bad guy; this is undeniable. I don't think I've ever been that directly responsible for the end of a relationship, before or since. But no less than two months later, I met the girl that I would end up dating for over three years. And I remembered that it's OK to aim high; that being young and confused about where you'll end up doesn't mean it's wise to ground yourself with any sort of unsatisfying anchor.

Every relationship is a learning experience, especially when they end with you screaming in the street.

August 6, 2013

House of Cards and the end of television's golden era.

To paraphrase Krusty the Klown:

1923: John Logie Baird invents the television.

1927: Philo Farnsworth invents the television...again.

Then, for a long time, nothing happened. Until 1999.

That's when The Sopranos started airing on HBO, and that's when TV changed forever.

More eloquent men than I have examined how and why this happened, but suffice it to say that television's potential was suddenly unlocked; everyone realized what a perfect medium it was for long-form, intelligent stories.

Suddenly, TV became character-driven. And not just any characters...flawed characters.

Tony Soprano was a sociopathic bear of a man who alternatively raged against, and embraced, the life he was born into. Vic Mackey found himself unable to change his needlessly aggressive ways, even as his friends perished and his family abandoned him. Al Swearengen learned to live within a society and curtail his murderous instincts...or, at least, use them for more productive purposes. Walter White, although his story has yet to be completed, became the worst human being in the world.

But Frank Underwood, the House of Cards protagonist so ably portrayed by Kevin Spacey? He's just a rich powerful politician who hopes to remain both rich and powerful.

Nucky Thompson, the main character on HBO's Boardwalk Empire, lives in constant fear that...he'll lose control of his unofficial post as big boss of Atlantic City? That someone will burst past his half-dozen bodyguards and run up the stairs of his large expensive home to (maybe) shoot him in the head? That he won't get to continue having sex with attractive women?

Will McAvoy, the "hero" of on HBO's The Newsroom, is a rich and famous newscaster who's had it up to here with modern America, and he's gonna tell you all about it. He's got some serious, no-bullshit things to say...about oft-dissected events that occurred several years ago. And if nobody listens, well, life will go on. Because it did, because these events all occurred in the recent past. And did I mention he's also rich, and famous, and pretty much untouchable?

All three roles are played by spectacular actors who I've enjoyed in numerous films, and all three of their shows are varying levels of blah. These particular programs pass themselves off as substantial when, at best, they're relatively entertaining.

House of Cards, The Newsroom and Boardwalk Empire are soap operas. There are no stakes, unless you count the (picture perfect) health and (relatively unassailable) livelihood of some fictional human beings. It does not matter whether the main characters succeed or fail, or even if they struggle in the process. They do not exist to shine a light on society, or as a commentary against a certain type of individual. They're empty pods, filled with subpar attempts to recreate what's made TV so great over the last 14 years without actually trying.

To enjoy these shows is almost voyeuristic: "Watch the rich white people be rich and white," only in varying time periods. Assigning any other value to them is being dishonest. They're not expected to be docudramas, but good art has at least a hint of truth to it. No one involved in the creation of these shows is plumbing for any hidden understandings of life or culture. There are no David Chases or David Milchs at the helm.

I've railed against Boardwalk Empire's flaws in the past, and The Newsroom is such a vessel for Aaron Sorkin's opinions (and neuroses) that it's a waste of time to accuse his show of being anything other than "a way to get all this shit off my chest." He's getting paid to produce his own televised therapy.

But House of Cards, the more recent sensation of the three, continues the trend of existing only as a cheap thrill. It's slickly produced and well acted, but almost in an attempt to confuse those who might otherwise notice that it sucks. It doesn't seem any more consequential than Scandal, except Scandal openly admits what it is and House of Cards puffs its chest out as a Television Event. It's big, bombastic and about an Important Subject like politics. For some, I suppose that's enough.

Ultimately, I'm growing concerned that this is the new direction television is headed. With Netflix, Hulu Plus and countless cable channels, there's an unquenchable demand for content, and only so many ideas (and brilliant minds) available to create what's needed. Isn't it easier to throw a few bucks at some Hollywood stars, slap on a respected name like David Fincher as producer and pump out some flashy, meaningless programming?

Probably. And it's working. Netflix has now made a boatload of bucks on a very ordinary political drama and an even crappier season of the greatest sitcom in modern history. I would not be surprised to look back in 10 years and realize that the era of televised excellence ended around 2013; House of Cards is Jaws. Now that that competent mediocrity has gotten a foothold in television, there may be no going back.

August 4, 2013

And kid, you better get the picture.

In the winter of my sophomore year at college, I became single for the first time.

This was new terrain. I was like a small house cat, raised in captivity and then released into the wild. My instincts were telling me to go out, be free, meet people. But I knew how to do none of those things; I was both enthusiastic and fearful that I'd find myself halfway up a tree before realizing I didn't know how to get down.

A friend who I'd long been attracted to invited me over one Friday night. She was having a house party at her off-campus apartment, and it was clear from the start that she was interested in me. Any apprehension was swallowed by adrenaline and alcohol; we spent the evening chatting away. It probably also helped that she was well on her way to falling-down drunk.

As the party ended, she walked me to the front door, and then into the street. We started making out in front of her building. Eventually her friends dragged her back inside; I found out later that she had been sorta seeing someone else at the time.

But that's no matter to a young man on the prowl. Still fueled by excitement and confused curiosity, I was invited over again a few days later to drink wine and watch Sex and the City. One thing led to another, and I ended up staying the night. It all felt relatively organic and natural. Sure, things were moving very fast, but it wasn't like we were strangers.

You'd think that I'd be on cloud nine; a few weeks after breaking up with my girlfriend, I'd stumbled upon a new lady who seemed to like me a whole lot. Talk about the perfect rebound, right?

Nope. In fact, just the opposite. Suddenly, I was petrified of everything. A switch had flipped in my head; for me, the game had changed. Things were going well, sure, but I had no idea what was happening or how I'd managed to back my way into such a wonderful scenario. Therefore, I was sure that I'd screw it all up.

So I tried to tread lightly. I couldn't call her to shoot the shit or even ask her out for dinner; I was too afraid. Too much pressure, too much room for error. What do you say to girls on the phone?! When I was in a relationship, my answers had felt predetermined. "Sure, let's go there tonight." Now I'd have to think on my feet, be clever. Was I even capable of that?

And my parents hadn't yet paid for a text message package; this was 2005, America was still on the cusp of the SMS revolution. So I couldn't send the casual "what are you up to tonight" messages that now drive 98% of all burgeoning sexual and romantic relationships worldwide.

So I'd send her texts through AOL Instant Messenger; this was back in the service's heyday, and one of its features allowed for messaging to mobile numbers. But you had to be by your computer to compose (or receive) them. So on Thursday nights, when she was presumably out in the world, I'd try and find out what she was up to.

And then I'd wait. I wasn't exactly chained to my laptop, waiting for a message from her with my heart in my throat. But I'd be hanging out with my friends in the other room, only to leap up every 10 minutes or so to peek at my messages. Sometimes, there'd be a reply. Most of the time, radio silence.

Occasionally, I'd summon up the courage to invite her to parties. But the only off-campus friends I had threw big, sweaty affairs that were barely fun for guys, let alone girls. There's nothing impressive about dragging a lady to a humid apartment with seven beers in the fridge and a bunch of dudes staring at whoever walks through the door.

Or I'd drunk dial her; nothing gets your courage (temporarily) up like a few domestic light lagers. But our conversations were far from substantial; even though drinking helped me dial her number, it didn't offer any advice on what to say once she picked up. My liquor-fueled ramblings ended up hurting more than they helped. It became obvious, certainly to me and probably to her, that single me was meek and sad.

Eventually, our "relationship" petered out. I still saw her every now and then; a few years later, it seemed like the spark between us might light up again. Alas, it was not to be. I suspect that, ever since our awkward string of interactions, even my mature and reasonable advances were colored by the memory of an utter inability to hold a normal conversation with a fun person. I took myself out at the knees.

Luckily, I can look back on this whole turn of events now and laugh. I went through at 19 what most people go through at 15; I suspect the whole thing would've been a lot easier if beer and college hadn't been involved. Battling against crippling insecurities are a young (and sober) man's game.

But, as a self-aware person who uses his painful mistakes to promote growth, I learned a lot. My inexperience with the opposite sex was bound to torpedo my existence eventually; in retrospect, I'm pleased that it happened so quickly. And pretty soon after, I talked my parents into the unlimited text package. There's always a silver lining.

July 16, 2013

A passionate defense of The Ten.

David Wain is one of the fathers of modern alternative comedy, and The Ten is -- to me -- the most lovable of his many offspring.

Sure, Wet Hot American Summer is a cult classic, and -- unlike Wain's other movies -- lots of people actually paid to see Role Models in theaters.

But for fans of extremely irreverent comedy, it doesn't get any better than The Ten.

When the trailer on its own is this weird, you know you're in for a good time.

Deadpan humor and an endless string of callbacks are woven through 10 stories (read: sketches) that loosely depict each of the Ten Commandments. But the jokes -- if you could even call them that -- pile up to ridiculous heights, as if Wain and co-writer (and co-star) Ken Marino kept trying to top each other until there was literally nowhere left to go.

That doesn't mean everything builds to an unexpected dick or a fart joke, although the last few minutes of the movie are indeed packed with nude men. For Wain and Marino, a passionate romance between a librarian and Jesus Christ (yes, that Jesus Christ) wraps up with...a casual meeting years later in St. Louis, where Jesus is a sales rep attending a prosthetics convention. A neighborhood feud between two middle-aged men turns into a family-ruining rivalry, a Bonnie Raitt hum-a-long and, eventually, the death of numerous innocent children. Two fatherless African-American children learn to love an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator, even when they discover their real dad is Arsenio Hall.

And who are the stars of this outrageous film, you ask? You've got Joe Lo Truglio and a plethora of fellow The State alums; you've got the wondrous voice of H. Jon Benjamin; you've got Delocated's Mather Zickel playing a character he'd go on to reprise in not only Childrens Hospital but also his own show, Newsreaders. In the first of his two segments, he's a pompous newscaster who spits before each shot. In the second, he's a shell of a man, beaten out for the woman he loves by a ventriloquist's dummy with a hard wooden dick.

But it's not just Wain's traditional stable of alternative comedians who are on hand. Liev Schreiber displays expert comic timing as one of the two aforementioned men engaged in a battle for CAT scan machine supremacy. Ron Silver plays a Hollywood agent -- with the ventriloquist (and dummy) as his assistant -- who turns a guy stuck in the ground (Adam Brody) into a TV star. Jessica Alba pops in for four or five minutes of narrative propulsion and baby voices. A pre-Mad Men Jon Hamm utters one unforgettable line: "I don't goof."

Famke Janssen leaves Paul Rudd for an anchorman with a very large penis. Justin Theroux -- the man tasked with playing the son of God -- seduces Gretchen Mol in Mexico. Rob Corddry rapes Marino, with his implicit permission, in a prison cell. There are a few great shots of A.D. Miles' butt.

Suffice it to say that The Ten is not for everyone. If I tried to get my 57-year-old father to watch this movie, he'd be resisting the urge to punch me in the face after a few minutes.

And that's what makes it so spectacular. It feels like a bunch of movie stars got together and made a very strange movie for your amusement, and yours alone. Or, to be more grandiose, it brings about the realization that you share a partial sense of humor with Sabretooth and the Invisible Woman.

The Ten made $785,528 at the worldwide box office; its investors are probably still kicking themselves. Not many people talk about it; I suspect even fewer remember it exists. But I insist that, to a certain small subset of humanity with very curious ideas about what constitutes humor, it's a masterpiece.

David Wain and Ken Marino took 10 outrageous ideas, turned them into lengthy sketches and used a loose narrative to form them into some sort of motion picture. That kind of filmmaking won't win you any awards or make anyone a lot of money, but it allows for the kind of freedom that most other movies only dream of. And, more importantly, it ensured that scenes like the one below were released to the movie-going public, and will exist -- on DVD and the Internet and all to-be-invented forms of digital entertainment -- forever:

UPDATE: Wow. Hooray, the Internet!

July 7, 2013

Tonsil hockey.

In the spring and summer of 2004, the removal of my tonsils sent unexpected shockwaves through the world as I knew it.

The night after my surgery, I phoned a group of female friends who'd mentioned coming over to check on me. For long-lost reasons I cannot rouse, I decided not to call the girl I had a crush on. I called the other one.

The first question I got on Monday morning from my crush was a curious "So why did you call her instead of me?" I didn't have a good answer; nor did I need one. A seed had been inadvertently planted. I did not realize it could be that easy. Up until then, it hadn't been.

The next weekend, I went to the other one's house to watch a movie. We sat in her living room, petted her dog, engaged in idle chatter. If a transcript of my end of the conversation existed, I'd pay hundreds of dollars to have it destroyed.

Her parents came home around 10 PM; her dad, quoting an awful television commercial of that era, asked if my big red pickup truck "had a hemi." I laughed awkwardly; they went to bed.

We put on another movie; she snuggled up next to me; the movie ended. On my way out the door, I pulled her close and kissed her. She told me years later that, by that point, she'd given up hope. I was a lost cause, until I wasn't.

Smash cut to: One week later. She's lying with her head in my lap as the DVD menu for Big Fat Liar loops endlessly. She's looking directly into my eyes, practically begging me to kiss her again. My courage is nonexistent.

Smash cut to: Six months later. We're in that same living room; I'm silently breaking down in tears at the end of What Women Want because I know our relationship is falling apart but I'm too terrified to admit it out loud. My courage is nonexistent.

Gradual fade to: Nine years later. I'm sitting on the sofa in my underwear writing a blog post about the past. I am still not courageous, but I am moderately self-aware. This is progress.

Those particular sad times have drifted into nothingness. The mistakes I made were inevitable; my fears were understandable. I have learned what I can from both and tossed them aside, even if they still occasionally haunt me in my weaker moments.

There's a movie called The Way, Way Back that was just released; you should not see it, unless you're overly susceptible to cinematic depictions of young romance. Which I occasionally am.

Your first kiss. The first time you really felt special: that someone out there wanted you, maybe even wanted to understand you. That kinda stuff. It also stars Sam Rockwell, who is just great.

I enjoy remembering those moments; even more so, I enjoy placing 2004 me and 2013 me side-by-side, as if to measure their heights against the wall, and assessing my progress as a functional human being.

My first romance was not my best, nor was it my most memorable. But it'll always be one of the more prominent markers on the map of my life, the catalyst for so many of my choices of today. And as I compare the person I am now to who I was back then, I see that the seed sprouted in more directions than I could've fathomed.

There's hope for us all; you just need a little recovery time.

June 20, 2013

The quest for 81-81 continues.

The Philadelphia Phillies are 35-38, and that's exactly where they should be.

In fact, they're exceeding expectations. They've scored 269 runs and allowed 319; the team's Pythagorean win-loss record is 31-42. The bullpen ERA is last in the National League at 4.63; the pitching staff's overall ERA is not much better (4.22). The team OPS is .703, narrowly ahead of unsurprisingly bad offenses in Chicago and Los Angeles.

Tyler Cloyd, who'll make a nice living being called up twice a year to eat innings in doubleheaders, has already logged six starts. Jon Pettibone is good enough to keep Carlos Zambrano locked in a minor league holding pattern, which isn't saying much. John Lannan has only recently returned from his backiotomy. Cole Hamels, through little fault of his own, is 2-10.

Michael Young is on pace to challenge Jim Rice's record for most double plays grounded into over a full season (he's at 14; the record is 36). Delmon Young is batting .222/.277/.400, and still starting everyday. Ben Revere, though better lately, is miscast as a leadoff hitter and barely able to lob the ball from center field to second base.

Has a team even been more destined to go .500?

If Roy Halladay and Chase Utley were healthy and, well, Roy Halladay and Chase Utley, maybe they'd be giving the Atlanta Braves a run for the division. Or at least look like strong competitors in the double wild-card race.

But that's the problem: What were the odds of a team packed with aged stars staying upright and productive for 162 games? It was wishful thinking at best to assume that, after the horrors of last year, Halladay's arm could provide another batch of 200+ innings. Or that Utley's increasingly brittle bones would keep him at second base long enough to make an impact, even in a contract year.

We're talking about an organization that went into the season with Domonic Brown, Revere and John Mayberry Jr. as its starting outfielders. And Brown, he of the 19 homers in 262 ABs, was considered the weak link.

The annoying thing is, if you squinted just right at the roster in spring training you might've seen a team with promise. You've heard of all of these guys! Gritty veterans who know how to win. If everything breaks just right...

And that's where we are right now: Consistently talking ourselves into a team with an $160-million payroll and no direction whatsoever. With a $62-million infield and a $2-million outfield, with three aces and a bullpen that's among the worst in the game. Ruben Amaro says he doesn't do five-year plans, and I believe him. Sometimes I doubt he has a plan at all.

Every franchise hits a rough patch once in a while, but the Phillies have painted themselves into this specific corner with horrific contracts, knee-jerk trades and a misguided insistence that good times are just over the horizon. It's an increasingly delusional situation, presided over by a general manager who seems to be relying on luck and name recognition to carry his flawed ball club to unattainable playoff glory.

The Phillies won the World Series in 2008 with in-their-prime bats, an ace who couldn't lose and three dominant bullpen arms that secured every lead from the seventh on.

Yet here we are years later and the survivors from that team – Utley, Howard, Rollins, Hamels, Ruiz – remain the main attraction. And while some of them have juice left in the tank, the only meaningful add-ons are Brown (finally) and Cliff Lee. Everyone else has been injured, traded, worn out their welcome or never panned out in the first place. Reinforcements have not arrived.

A team that's banking on 2008's stars to power a 2013 championship run? Sounds like one that'll beat up on San Francisco and Washington and then lose to Milwaukee and Minnesota: the very model of inconsistency.

I don't expect them to sell Jonathan Papelbon or Lee. I expect Amaro to retool and tinker, believing his team to be one more massively overpaid free-agent away from competition.

And frankly, I'm fine with that. The Phillies have barely developed a capable position player since the mid-2000s, let alone a series of stars. Nearly every high draft pick has faltered; Brown was can't-miss, and still almost did.

I don't trust Amaro to blow it up. I don't trust him to patch things up either, but one more big blunder might force the organization to make a change. To me, that's the fastest way out of baseball purgatory.

The Phillies have become perpetually frustrating, and there's no more annoying record than 81-81. For a team built without a plan, that might even be more than they deserve.

May 5, 2013

He's a cool rocking daddy in the USA.

I've seen Bruce Springsteen in concert at least fifteen times. But at this point in my life, I'd rather see Bruce in the USA.

Yes, I prefer a tribute band to the real thing. No, I don't find that weird at all. This isn't the first time I've raved about Matt "Fake Bruce" Ryan and the boys, nor will it be the last. I'm told there are at least a dozen other cover bands based on The Boss, but I've only seen Matt's. There's no reason to try the rest when you've already had the best.

What makes a Bruce in the USA show more enjoyable, and occasionally more memorable, than an actual Springsteen concert is the simple straightforwardness of it all. Bruce Springsteen plays 60,000-seat stadiums, which means a) a decent amount of travel to oft-inconvenient venues, b) poor sightlines, c) pricey tickets with additional parking costs and d) expensive drinks/food.

Basically, you're paying for the experience. That's not to slight Bruce and the E Street Band; they consistently put out new material and perform distinctly different three-hour shows every night of massive worldwide tours. But the coordination and cost involved in attending a Springsteen concert often sucks out some of the fun. The best part of a Bruce Springsteen show is saying afterwards "Holy shit, I just saw Bruce Springsteen."

Compare that to Bruce in the USA, who provide power-packed 150-minute shows for $15 in wonderfully compact clubs and theatres all across the United States. Matt Ryan sweats as much as Springsteen himself, and works just as hard. If he ever learns how to slide across the stage, you won't be able to tell the difference. And I haven't even mentioned Fake Clarence Clemons, Fake Steven van Zandt and a delightful keyboard player who always has time for a few kind words and a fist-bump after every show.

It's never not worth the effort...even if that effort is massive. In early February, Bruce in the USA's Boston show (he usually does two a year) coincided with a record-setting storm that was burying the city in cold white powder. I'd snuck in the night before, praying that the snow would be light. It was not looking good.

The city was essentially a ghost town, but a pocket of devoted fans were tweeting at Matt and begging the band to make the drive from Brooklyn to Boston. Myself included; we made it clear that if Bruce in the USA found their way, they'd play to a captive audience.

After hours of waiting, word eventually trickled out that the show would go on. It still seemed a little dicey -- the government had shut down the roads -- but a pesky state mandate wouldn't stop The World's No. 1 Tribute to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band from driving into the storm for the sake of rocking.

The subway was shut down and cabs were nonexistent, so my friends and I bundled up for the two-mile walk from Central Square in Cambridge to the Paradise Rock Club. Upon arrival, we were amazed to find over a hundred dedicated Springsteen fans had also made the trek.

And if we looked surprised, well, the shock on Fake Bruce's face when the band took the stage was unmistakable. They probably expected a dozen weirdos; instead, they got ten dozen. And because only the most devoted fans would consider such a journey in the first place, everyone who showed up was beyond ready to rock.

Adding icing to an already delicious cake, Fake Bruce paused before one of the show's first couple songs to credit my friend Matt Kakley, who wrote a wonderful profile of Bruce in the USA several years ago and has been in the band's good graces ever since.

"We want to thank our loyal fans in the Boston area," Fake Bruce bellowed from the stage, "including Matt Kakley. Thanks, Matt."

Kakley was thunderstruck; the band even invited him to the green room for a few beers after the show. And while the two Matts were canoodling in the Paradise's backstage area, Fake Little Steven spent a few minutes chatting with my friends and I about the show and how "nuts" we all were to come out in the middle of a snowstorm.

Enthusiasm goes both ways with Bruce in the USA; if you love them, they'll love you right back.

March 28, 2013

The truth about Roy Halladay.

Roy Halladay pitched against the Toronto Blue Jays today. His line: four and a third innings, six strikeouts, eight hits, two runs.

We Phillies fans may want to get used to that.

Something is wrong with the Doc. Meaning, of course, that he's no longer the superhuman ace we grew to love from 2010 on. There are no more perfect games or no-hitters in his future. His Cy Young total will forever hold steady at two.

Maybe he's concealing (or battling through) a nagging injury. Maybe he's still adjusting to his body's new age-enforced limitations. Or maybe he's just burned out, done as a capable starting pitcher.

I'm voting number two; there are probably persuasive arguments for all three.

We'd hoped to receive a legitimate answer in spring training. How does he look? Was last year's mediocre performance, specifically the horrific final few months, an aberration?

But none were given. Today's start was apparently more of the same: he looked good, not great. He labored at times; his command was off. He touched 91 MPH but mostly sat between 88 and 90.

Afterwards, Halladay and pitching coach Rich Dubee were optimistic. And they should be; hope springs eternal, right? But it's starting to feel more and more like everyone's afraid to accept the inevitable.

It could all come unraveled in a jiffy; Doc's scheduled to start the second game of the 2013 season. His opponents will be the Atlanta Braves: Justin and B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman. There's no Chipper Jones, no Brian McCann, and Dan Uggla is a shell of his former self, but that's a solid lineup.

And if Halladay is still chucking 88 MPH fastballs down the pipe, still pretending like he's one start, one inning, one good pitch away, he's going to get clobbered.

We always thought Roy would go down throwing; we just never envisioned it being so soon.

I'm convinced that Halladay can still be a quality starting pitcher. More than a few top arms have reinvented themselves, starting relying more on deception and control, less on velocity and pure stuff.

But it's time to acknowledge that if his fastball speed stays down a tick, if his cutter isn't cutting, if his control has dissipated, he'll never come close to being "Roy Halladay" again. There are numerous ways this can end; none of them involve 20 wins or an ERA around 2.

At the end of the day, I think the biggest issue is Halladay recognizing what his 35-year-old frame can and can't do. This is the kinda guy who runs stadiums on his day off, the first one at workouts, an inspiration to so many; one of the hardest-working pitchers, if not the hardest, to ever come through Philadelphia.

If anyone is going to refuse to accept his own mortality, it's Roy Halladay.

Yet, here we are. We can see it with our own eyes. And so much is resting on this season: One year left on his contract, the team's last real chance to compete for the playoffs with this ragtag bunch of old-timers. They won't get it done without three aces, and no one fears for the other two.

Forget about Chase Utley's knee and Ryan Howard's ankle, Dom Brown's potential and Delmon Young's racism slash refusal to take a pitch. This season, and any opportunity the Phillies may have to achieve glory, rests on Roy Halladay.

He doesn't have to be a superstar. He doesn't have to take home any special hardware. And we won't burn him in effigy if he comes up short.

If he does, however, his team is cooked, and his time in red pinstripes is over. And the emotion I felt while typing that sentence reminds me why everyone associated with the team has a cautious smile plastered to his or her face.

We don't want to lose Doc, and we certainly don't want to see him break down before our eyes. But it's April in four days, and baseball starts in three. One way or another, we're soon to find out the truth about Roy Halladay.

March 10, 2013

Fly no more.

It's all over for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Yes, they're only three points behind the New York Rangers, currently the number-eight seed in the Eastern Conference.

But they're also only three points ahead of Florida, the worst team (points-wise) in the National Hockey League.

They've played 26 games and won 11. They've scored 72 goals (seventh in the Eastern Conference) and given up 80 (tied for third-worst). They're 4-10 on the road.

Simply put, they're not very good.

And this last week's slate of games was the ultimate kick in the pants. No one expected the Flyers to take down New York, Pittsburgh and Boston, but going 0-3 against your biggest rivals is one more dagger to the heart of a season that keeps on slipping away.

Sean Couturier (two goals, five assists) is regressing after a dynamite debut year. Ilya Bryzgalov is regressing after a dynamite first month of the season (2.20 GAA to 2.80 GAA; .923 SV% to .899 SV%). Only seven Flyers have more than 10 points.

Injuries haven't helped; Ryan Suter, Zach Parise or Shea Weber would've. But the team is the team, and the guys that are on the ice every night deserve the record they're currently saddled with.

If this keeps up, and I suspect it will, heads are gonna roll. Maybe Peter Laviolette's, maybe Paul Holmgren's, most likely Bryzgalov's (via amnesty buyout) and the unrestricted free agents (Simon Gagne, Ruslan Fedotenko). With James van Riemsdyk busting out in Toronto (14 goals in 26 games), the organization will most likely show some patience with its remaining bushel of young talent.

But that won't help this floundering bunch in the spring of 2013.

"It seemed like we packed it in," Scott Hartnell said after yesterday's shutout loss. Nobody's disagreeing.

The season isn't over; the standings are still very much in flux. Maybe they'll cobble together some wins versus lesser foes and sneak into the playoffs.

But the road to the Stanley Cup will go through Pittsburgh, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago, and the Flyers are miles behind those squads in both talent and execution. I can't imagine a scenario where they get hot late and mirror what the Kings accomplished last year, or what the Flyers themselves achieved in 2010. And beyond that, there's not much else to root for.

There are 22 games left in the 2012-2013 season, 22 more opportunities to right the ship and at least avoid a repeat of the 2006-2007 disaster. At this point, that might be the best they can do.

February 21, 2013

An obligatory overview of the Academy Awards.

If you're into movies, and a group of industry types telling you which ones are the "best," you must love the Academy Awards.

And how can you not? To paraphrase Scott Aukerman, the stars will be out! And they'll dress nice and be all rich, while you're at home, squatting in filth, covered in dirty rags and saving your much-needed pennies. But at least you'll (presumably) have wine, while they have to drink from carefully hidden flasks.

The Oscars are never as enjoyable as the Golden Globes (which already barely qualify as "fun") but they're more prestigious and give Hollywood bigwigs one more opportunity to rub all over each other and brag about how wonderful the previous year in filmmaking was. Which we all dutifully watch, like common lemmings.

The main purpose of this event, however, is to provide good fodder for pre-show blog posts and online banter. This whole week, I emailed back and forth with Andrew Johnson of, movie buff and Internet-based film critic. He's a Midnight in Paris fan, but I still respect his opinion. Which, believe me, takes a lot of effort on my end.

So head over to Tezini and check out our witty palaver, which includes a bevy of (as he put it) "hopes, musings and predictions." Do I mention Rush Hour 2? Of course I do!

And if you're really, really, really curious as to what I think about this upcoming batch of Oscars (besides that they kinda stink), here are my official predictions (only the good categories, of course). You can take them to the bank!*

* Note: Do not take these to any sort of bank.

Best Foreign Language Film - Amour
Best Animated Film - Wreck-It Ralph
Best Adapted Screenplay - Argo
Best Original Screenplay - Zero Dark Thirty
Best Director - Steven Spielberg
Best Supporting Actress - Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
Best Supporting Actor - Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Best Actress - Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Best Actor - Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Best Picture - Argo

February 16, 2013

Mega men.

I intimately know a Philadelphia-based band that plays video game music. If such a sentence doesn't excite you, please leave my website.

The band is Close to Good, and the music is the soundtrack from Mega Man III.

I've written about them before, in the salad days of February 2012. Back in high school, when the drummer was in a different band, I used to beg to hear "Werewolves of London" by Warren Zevon at all of their shows. They'd also cover a lot of Vengaboys..."a lot" meaning "the two hits we all know." Those were good times.

But this band is a little older, a little wiser, a little more serious. No more '90s pop; now it's all about recreating the beeps and boops that once emerged from an 8-bit console. Once upon a time they'd play "Those Who Fight Further" from Final Fantasy VII, but just one video game track apparently wasn't enough. Only a full album would do.

You may know Mega Man from such television programs as this:

But he's more than just a super fighting robot from a children's cartoon show. He's a virtual android-type boy who came to life on the Nintendo Entertainment System (or Famicon, if you're a stickler for details), birthed from the minds of a handful of Japanese designers at Capcom, with his own 4,000-word Wikipedia page.

And his series comes equipped with some of the finest music ever recorded for a video game. If you're a man between the ages of 24 and 35 who owned an NES, you probably know Wood Man's theme:

And now Close to Good has put a whole bunch of them to digital vinyl. Not to start sounding like a Time-Life commercial, but these are 22 of the most lovingly recreated tracks you'll ever hear. I was initially going to praise them for putting the songs in chronological order from a gameplay perspective, but if you're going to take the time to record an album of video game music you better be ready to go all the way.

They're far from the first ones to play video game music with rock band instruments, but they're the only ones that I know in real life. Look at the pure joy on these faces as they play the theme from the Gemini Man stage. I'm all for the creative outlet of writing, recording and producing your own original music, but there should also be time for the little things in life. Like a Dr. Wily medley.

So give the album a download; it's free! As it should be; I imagine Capcom has many lawyers on retainer and very deep pockets. And if you want to really impress me, video game-oriented rock bands, give this one a shot next:

February 14, 2013

Spring forward, fall back.

It is February of 2013, and the Philadelphia Phillies are underdogs.

It's odd, and possibly annoying, to call a team with a $154-million payroll an "underdog." That term is usually reserved for squads like last year's Oakland Athletics or Baltimore Orioles, scrappers who come from out of nowhere to overthrow divisional behemoths.

But there's no denying that the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves are -- on paper and, most likely, on the field -- miles ahead of the Phillies.

Washington added Dan Haren and Rafael Soriano to a team that won 98 games in 2012. Bryce Harper is on the cusp of super-duper-stardom; Mike Morse was wisely shipped out at the near-peak of his value; Ian Desmond (a potential MVP candidate before an oblique injury) and Danny Espinosa (17 homers, 20 steals, 25 years old) should only get better. Short of Gio Gonzalez being hauled away in handcuffs or Stephen Strasburg's arm exploding again, nothing's keeping these guys out of the playoffs.

Atlanta subtracted Martin Prado, Michael Bourn and Tommy Hanson but brought in the Super Upton Bros., certainly the most potential-laden adds of the offseason. Even a rough year from the two of them should result in 60 homers and 50 steals. That plus a full season of Kris Medlen, the continued emergence of Jason Heyward and even slightly better performances from Brian McCann and Dan Uggla (.698 OPS and .732 OPS, respectively, both the lowest of their careers) should lead to 90-plus wins.

And then there's Philadelphia. The big offseason additions were Michael Young (ugh), Delmon Young (barf) and Mike Adams (got no rib). All told, those three guys cost less than just one B.J. Upton. They also might be less valuable.

This is a team of ifs. If the three aces stay healthy. If Chase Utley and Ryan Howard can hold up for 145 productive games. If the two Youngs overcome being very old/very fat and provide not only stability but value. If Adams, Jonathan Papelbon and a gaggle of talented young arms stabilize a very shaky bullpen.

That's a lot of question marks. Leaps and bounds more than Washington and Atlanta, which is why everyone with a working brain has the Phillies third (at best) in the National League East.

But maybe we're all a bit too pessimistic. Last year was, for all intents and purposes, a disaster. Two starting outfielders with All-Star credentials, sold at midseason for spare parts. Two injured infielders, former superstars, neither of whom remotely approached 100% health. The beloved ace, Opening Day starter for the last three years, finally showed signs of mortality.

And they still won 81 games.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals reached the play-in game with 88 wins. Might that be enough again this year? If this team stays upright, might they come somewhere close to that "magic" number? Not likely, but not impossible.

Realistically, any team that signs Yuniesky Betancourt has no chance of competing for a World Series. And zero experts would rank the Phillies among baseball's top-10 teams for the coming season.

But there's still talent in Philadelphia. Old, creaky, injury-prone, overpaid talent. And 2013 is probably the last chance for this franchise to squeeze any juicy bits from them. Maybe it'll all come together one more time. Spring is, after all, the best time of the year for cautious optimism.

January 30, 2013

Amour reviewed.

From the man who brought you a piano teacher with masochistic fetishes and a town full of troubled German children comes a movie about an elderly married couple suffering through crippling disease and inevitable death in a Paris apartment. Sounds about right.

Amour is about love. Not Hollywood-style love, the kind that comes equipped with a traditional happy ending. Michael Haneke doesn't deal in such trifling matters. His films don't wrap themselves up in neat little packages.

He provokes audiences and asks probing questions. He offers up a film named "love" and drenches it in the slow stench of death. It's what makes him so damn special.

Amour is a lengthy, sometimes painfully drawn-out, depiction of an old woman's demise and the husband who watches it all from her bedside.

We see Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) wither away, a debilitating journey from initial diagnosis to a gibbering, zombified state. For either self-centered (he doesn't know how to live without her) or sympathetic (he's fulfilling her wishes to die at home) reasons, her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) devotes his life to her care and comfort.

Then, as it happens in most of Haneke's films, a brief moment changes everything. But the same questions asked beforehand still apply: Was this all a labor of love? What is love? Can two dramatically different approaches, or even a hundred, be undertaken in the name of such a feeling?

Some of Haneke's previous films – Cache and Funny Games in particular – are almost overwhelmingly detached. Funny Games asks us to look on as two men torture a family; Cache is all about being a voyeur, gaining a glimpse into someone's private life.

Amour shares some of those themes: the disease that takes Anne's life is torturous, and we're privy to every slip in her condition. And the view we receive of Anne's death is about as private as it gets.

But it's not a film about detachment. We're not meant to become unfeeling and sterile as Anne slips away. On the contrary; we begin to forget what Anne was like before death overtook her, when she was a smiling, seemingly happy woman. We're immersed in the crawl towards nothingness. And much like Georges, we wonder what is best for this shell that used to hold a human being, one he cared for deeply.

Eventually, Georges makes a decision. And while it may be shocking, it doesn't feel constructed, or set up to send us a message. It's presented starkly, but with much room interpretation. We're allowed surface-level access to these two characters, and then given a chance to dissect what lies beneath.

Amour feels different than Haneke's previous work. Maybe he's softening with old age. Or maybe he's chosen a less blunt method to portray a theme that cannot be pinned down in any objective way. Love is love. You know it when you feel it, and you express it in whatever way suits you best.

Editor's note: Going forward, my movie reviews will also be featured on They write about the cinema more than I do, so head over and take a look at what Andrew and the gang have seen lately.

January 12, 2013

To coach or not to coach.

Do I have an opinion on who should be the next head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles? Well, I am a living, breathing Philly sports fan...

I like Gus Bradley's defense in Seattle. By far the leader in points allowed (28 less than San Francisco) and fourth in yards allowed (behind only Pittsburgh, Denver and the 49ers), the Seahawks looked like a top-5 team throughout the second half of the 2012 season. Much of that was thanks to their defense. Seattle's Week 16 thrashing of the aforementioned 49ers, in particular, was one of the more striking games of the year.

But everything I've read indicates that the Eagles prefer an offensive-minded coach at the top position and a defensive coordinator who runs his own side of the ball, mirroring the Andy Reid-Jim Johnson dynamic of years past. Bradley is also Reuben Frank's top choice, but we've seen many times over that the hot assistant doesn't always make the best coach.

I like Mike McCoy's offense in Denver. Sure, he's lucked into Peyton Manning, but what really impresses me is how flexible he was with Tim Tebow last year. They didn't put up flashy numbers; in fact, most of the time they could barely move the ball. But this is the same Tim Tebow who couldn't beat out the abhorrent Mark Sanchez in New York. My takeaway is that McCoy played to his quarterback's strengths, putting a simplified system in place that worked well enough to keep them afloat.

Reid, in contrast, is the kind of coach who molds quarterbacks to his system. Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick, for better or worse, were shaped into pocket passers. This is probably a smarter plan when it comes to sustained success, but as the Vick experiment showed, it can also blow up in your face.

Of course, McCoy isn't some radical who's changing the game. He just recognized some glaring limitations and found a way to (mostly) overcome them. One of the things that felled Reid was his hubris, his insistence in jamming square pegs into round holes. A head coach with some flexibility and self-awareness; that's intriguing.

I like Brian Kelly's...well, I don't really like Brian Kelly. It seems ballsy to hire a head coach with zero NFL experience, even if Jason Kelce likes him. I also don't follow college football very closely, so I'm not sure how relevant my opinion might be.

In fact, I'm sure it's worthless across the board. Most of them are. Everyone loves to freak out over a head coaching search, and to a certain extent that's understandable. It's a lot of fun to go over the pros and cons of these guys and argue about how suitable (or unsuitable) they might be for such a lofty position.

But we don't know a damn thing. We see 1% of what's happening on the field, and zero of what's happening off it. That doesn't mean you have to nod your head and go with the flow; for example, the Cleveland Browns going from Chip Kelly to Carolina's offensive coordinator (19th in points scored) should make all of us point our fingers and laugh. I just hate to see fans puff themselves up and act like experts. Judge the eventual decision and its aftermath accordingly, but don't act like you knew better all along.

Speaking of the decision itself: Jeffrey Lurie has implied that he's looking for an innovator as his next coach, which explains the numerous interviews with coordinators and college coaches, along with the (seeming) lack of interest in Jon Gruden and the other veteran retreats.

And that makes sense to me. There's a lot of talent (I hope) still on this roster, but most of it is in desperate need of reorganization and reshaping. Name coaches can come with a lot of baggage, and there'd be a sort of "win now" mentality attached to such a hire; you're not paying a well-known guy millions upon millions of dollars to assist in a massive rebuild. Even though Philly fans are (understandably) hungry to win again, that kind of mindset would not be beneficial for this organization.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that the Eagles have been employing a "throw a bunch of good-sounding shit at the wall and see what sticks" strategy over the last few years. But winning a championship isn't about having the finest looking roster in September, or making the most headlines in the offseason. Honestly, what works best is probably the Andy Reid plan of the early years: Put a solid team on the field, aim to make the playoffs every year and hope a bunch of the late-season bounces go your way.

Unfortunately, the bounces never really went the Eagles' way. And Reid's eventual big moves, designed to put the team over the top, were ultimately misguided (Vick, Terrell Owens) and too little, too late. A desire to get back to basics -- to fundamentals and a fresh outlook and a disciplined, well-run football team -- sounds like exactly what the Philadelphia Eagles need.

So who's the best man for that job? Hell if I know; Bradley and McCoy both probably deserve somebody's top spot. In the end, all we can do is hope the people who are paid to know choose wisely.

January 4, 2013

My 10 favorite movies of 2012.

A time-honored tradition here at King Myno's Court is my list of the year's top 10 movies. Keep in mind that this is a list of my favorites, not the best. I find all of these films to be spectacular, but not on any sort of objective scale. I'm no film critic, just a boy who likes the cinema. Enjoy.

(Editor's note: I have not yet seen Amour, Zero Dark Thirty or Beasts of the Southern Wild. I suspect all three would have a very good chance of making this list. Apologies to these films and their filmmakers, although the first two have not yet been released in my area and I do live in a large East Coast city so it's really their fault.)

Argo - I was kinda hoping this wouldn't make my list (and I suspect it wouldn't, had I seen one of the movies listed above) but it was undeniably a crowd-pleasing thriller that turned an amazing story into an enjoyable studio film. I can't say I loved the first hour, with all the Hollywood-themed "jokes" and ho-hum team organizing (Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin and John Goodman, great as they are, are no Ocean's Eleven) but the last hour was taut and nerve-racking. Maybe it's not fully accurate, maybe Affleck was kinda shitty to the Canadians; neither taints the fact that he's matured into an impressive filmmaker.

The Avengers - Although the Avengers backlash has finally begun ("it wasn't that good, guys"), let's be honest: It's revisionist criticism at its best. Everyone loved it...until they realized how all-encompassing that love turned out to be. I'm still onboard; this and the next film on my list were by far the most enjoyable experiences I had in a movie theater this year. With a great cast that was used perfectly (Robert Downey Jr. takes the lead, Chris Evans and Mark Ruffalo spar with him a little, Chris Hemsworth hits things with a hammer) and a well-proportioned mix of action, special effects, emotion and levity, Avengers deserved every dollar of its $1.5 billion worldwide gross and every word of praise shouted its way.

Django Unchained - It's more Kill Bill than Inglorious Basterds, but we can't expect a picture-perfect masterpiece every time, can we? While I would've loved to see this be Idris Elba's big break, the four leads in Django (Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson) proved to be pretty much perfect. Foxx successfully bounces back from that Philly-based crime movie with Gerard Butler and shows that he has much more to offer than a spot-on Ray Charles impression. Waltz is Waltz, Leo is Leo, and Jackson's late-arriving, scenery-chewing stereotype pretty much steals the show. Tarantino probably should've chopped about 20 minutes off the runtime, but such a feeling might not be universal; my entire theater seemed invested in every second.

Holy Motors - I've already written 700 words on this crazy masterpiece of a movie, so let's just watch Denis Lavant and his street band play the accordion:

Killer Joe - Good lord, Matthew McConaughey. If I had an Oscar vote, you would get it. There's been a lot written about Mr. McConaughey's "resurgence" already, but let me add to the pile and say that it is so nice to see him using that natural hunkiness for evil rather than good. Being smooth and handsome should get you the girl; everyone alive knows that already. But when it's part of a murderer's repertoire, or if it helps fulfill some dark, nasty desire, well, that's the kinda movie I want to see. And Killer Joe is dark, and nasty, and laugh-out-loud funny. The more timid of you will cringe, or even gag, but William Friedkin's tale of a hitman and the teenage lady he loves wins the 2012 award for "most joyful gasps elicited."

Lincoln - A movie about Abraham Lincoln, possibly our most beloved President, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis? "Where do I sign up?" asked mostly everyone after hearing all that information. But what we received wasn't so much a biopic as it was a look at Lincoln as a careful, calculating negotiator. It's a movie about political compromise and a man's legacy; not so much about doing what's "right" as about doing what needs to be done, about finishing what you've started. Throw in cameos by every character actor in Hollywood, not to mention Tommy Lee Jones spouting ye olde insults in a wig, and you've got a smart, relatively accurate historical drama that feels like a play transposed on screen. In a good way.

Looper - Very few directors could put Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Bruce Willis makeup and have that be maybe the tenth most-disorienting aspect of their movie. But Rian Johnson is no ordinary director; Brick is one of the most ambitious feature film debuts in recent history, everyone loves the "Fly" episode of Breaking Bad, and The Brothers Bloom was great...until it collapsed under its own considerable weight in the second hour. Regardless, everything Johnson has made so far has been creative and unique, with Looper being no exception. A science-fiction movie with an original story that deftly handles time travel, this one got the nerds all riled up (and $166 million in worldwide grosses hopefully means more of the same). It's another Johnson film with a blistering opening and a cooler finale, but when you go from 0 to 100 at his kinda speed, you're allowed to drop back to 60 at closing time.

Moonrise Kingdom - Not sure why this is the most beloved Wes Anderson movie since The Royal Tenenbaums (did you people even see Fantastic Mr. Fox?!) but it's good to see one of them move beyond his built-in audience and entrance a few other folks. I was a little afraid that Wes would end up a more competent Kevin Smith. There are a few times when Bruce Willis seems woefully out of place, but Edward Norton fits the dynamic like a glove. And adorable kids! Anderson certainly has a talent for uncovering child stars. Other than that, you know (and love, or hate) the drill. Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, eclectic (yet perfect) song choices, stilted dialogue, lots of dry humor. He certainly has a type.

The Queen of Versailles/Undefeated - I couldn't decide which of these two was the finest documentary I saw in 2012, so I'm calling it a tie. They couldn't be more different; Versailles is the tale of a very rich family who saw their timeshare empire suffer during the economic collapse of 2008 and now struggle to live in a world where only some things, not every single thing, can be bought. Undefeated is another "a year in the life" story that follows Bill Courtney, then a high school football coach in Memphis, and his attempts to turn around the Manassas Tigers and the lives of his economically and emotionally fragile players. One is "kick em while they're down," the other is "watch them as they grow," but both feature people struggling in a world they're overly accustomed to. The family in Versailles forgets what it's like to operate in society; some of the kids in Undefeated feel like they don't deserve to belong in one.

Wreck-It Ralph - As always, thanks be to Pixar for making it socially acceptable again to revere animated films. Too bad their 2012 release went unseen by me; I suspect I would've preferred the one featuring M. Bison over it anyway. Ralph was certainly made with video game fans in mind, but it's not limited to fans of Sonic and Pac-Man (if there are any people who'd self-identify as Pac-Man fans). It looks incredible (as do most animated movies post-2002) and it provides enough character depth to tuck your heart strings at the right times. If you've ever said "I bet Sarah Silverman could do the voice of a precocious animated youngster in a movie and imbue her lovable character with some serious emotion," well, you're right.

And the rest: Sleepwalk with Me was a fun little dramedy that won me over with an honest ending, forgoing the usual mushiness yet still leaving everybody happy. Les Misérables was the longest movie in recorded history but every 10 minutes a terrific scene or song would start up and suck me back in, and Anne Hathaway is just the best. 21 Jump Street and The Grey were both far better than they should've been. I'm not the biggest Silver Linings Playbook fan (that scene where she's listing the sports scores while everyone oohs and aahs felt horrifyingly contrived) but Jennifer Lawrence was incredible and it was great to see the return of restrained Chris Tucker. Robot & Frank was the best human-robot relationship movie of the year, and Magic Mike featured the best Channing Tatum performance (and the second-best "creepy McConaughey" performance) of 2012.

It stinks: It's on a buttload of top 10 lists but I just couldn't get into The Master. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman both deserve numerous nominations (and hopefully a few statues) but I felt the movie kept you at arm's length and put itself up on a smart and sophisticated pedestal. No thanks. Prometheus was an uncompromising disaster of a train wreck. I only kinda liked The Dark Knight Rises, and I bet a whole burrito on Battleship being not terrible. And lost. Whenever you're ready to collect, Sultan of Swole, let me know. A Cimino always pays his debts.