Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Early Reads

Kentucky and Illinois are both through a month and about a third of their seasons, and what can we say about the two squads?

How about too soon to tell.

Following wins over their respective biggest out-of-conference rivals (a 61-49 win by the Cats over Louisville on Saturday, a 73-70 win by the Illini over Missouri last night) Kentucky stands at 8-3, Illinois at 11-2.

Of the 5 losses, only the Illini's home loss to unranked Maryland could even remotely be considered a bad loss. Kentucky's 3 came against #1 UCLA and #18 Memphis in Maui, and #2 North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The other Illini loss was to #9 Arizona in Phoenix -- tantamount to a road game.

And yet the question marks for both still outweigh either the positives or the negatives.

While the Cats' wins have come against some OK comp (DePaul, Indiana, Louisville among others), they are 0-3 against ranked teams and have yet to post a real statement win. The 11 Illini victims have been mostly the little sisters of the poor. Prior to Mizzou, a narrow win over Bradley is their best, and their closest to a win over a major conference team (assuming the MVC is not a major conference, and that such distinctions matter anymore).

Kentucky has found one solid option, center Randolph Morris, who is averaging 16 points and 8 boards -- even after pulling a foul-induced donut against the Cards. Beyond that the only building certainty seems to be some terrific half-court defense. In the six games since making it back to the mainland, opponents have been shooting 32% from the floor, and a mere 24% from beyond the arc. The ability to force turnovers is still unproven (opponents are turning the ball over on a mere 19% of their possessions -- the lowest for a set of UK opponents since 1973-74) -- but if that does happen things could get very scary for opposing offenses.

More scary that it already is for the Cats' offense, hopefully. While some blips have been seen on the radar (e.g., Jodie Meeks' 18 vs. the 'Ville) no consistent second options (not to mention third or fourth) have yet to bubble up. As a result, this year's offensive production has been firmly stuck in neutral -- on a pace unseen since the Ford administration (the offensive points-per-possession is the lowest since 1976). While there's still time to turn that around, it won't get any easier once the cream of the SEC is guarding the ball.

The Illini have their share of question marks as well -- starting with who's suiting up. Three key players (Rich McBride, Jamar Smith and Brian Randall) have each missed multiple games through injury or suspension. As a result, the group that will will likely see the most floor time in the Big Ten has only found the floor in the last couple of games. While Smith seems to have hit the ground running (48% on his 3-pointers this year), Randall has been slowly working his way in (his 24 minutes against Mizzou are his high to date).

Both will be welcome full-timers to a rotation that has leaned heavily on Warren Carter and Shaun Pruitt, and found them both up to the task so far (25 points and 13 boards per game between them). A road tilt at Xavier next week may be one of their tougher remaining tasks, as an extremely favorable B-10 sked keeps them out of Columbus and Madison, while forcing the league's clear leaders to come to Champaign. Despite the serious doubts of Big Ten Wonk, there have to be reasons for optimism in Central Illinois.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Wire

In addition to proclaiming that "Rex Grossman is bad. I don't care if they're 10-2 [make that 11-2 now, Bill]. He's bad", Bill Simmons has some thoughts on the recently completed 4th season of "The Wire."
Speaking of Baltimore, after watching the season finale of "The Wire" this week, I wrote up an extended rant about the show and how much it means to me -- both as a writer and a human being -- and how I believe it's the most important show of my lifetime, how I can't remember being more attached to four TV characters than the four school kids from Season 4, how I simply can't fathom why more people wouldn't give it a chance ... but it ended up sounding too preachy, so I'm just going to say that it's my favorite TV show of all-time and leave it at that. Name another show that could peak during a season in which its best character (McNulty) basically disappeared for 12 of the 13 episodes? How is that possible? What a show. I miss it already.
Have to agree with that last sentence.

As I've said before, I've been aware of this show in the past, but never even bothered to take a look-see before this season. I guess I felt like one more cop show is something I could do without.

I could not have been more wrong -- on both counts.

It's hardly a cop show (or just a cop show, anyway), and it's hardly something I could do without.

What it is, in fact, is the Baltimore cop show equivalent of a Dickens novel. The whole of the city's life is examined, from the mayor's office down to the street corner. The thread that ties them together is the lack of control that any of the characters have over the course of their lives.

A longshot mayoral candidate is pushed over the top by exploiting the apparent murder of a state's witness, only to find out after the election that the "murder" was merely another random twist of fate, a misguided bullet from a nearby target shooter. Once ensconced in the office he sought in order to move the city in a better direction he finds a $50M time-bomb waiting for him, facing him almost instantly with a choice between either attempting to move up (to the statehouse) or out (no way he's going to be reelected to City Hall).

Even at that lofty level, the wheel turns mercilessly.

At the level of the school kids Simmons refers to, the fates are even more unpredictable and their effects even more unrelenting. By the end of the season, the opener's four relatively carefree boys of summer have been scattered in the wind and only one seems to have any hope of escaping a sorry fate.

I've read often about how this show has apparently failed to find an audience over the years it has been on HBO (Simmons alludes to this as well). I really have no idea whether this is the case or not, or if it matters or not since it's an HBO show. What I do know is this. Given my experience with the show, it is impossible to conceive of anyone watching this show and not becoming a slavish devotee of it.

I, for one, can't wait for the next (final, I'm told) season to begin.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Three Movies

I've had a Netflix account for a few months now, but the last three movies I've received from them are maybe the most interesting I've seen so far. One I've seen before (although it's been too long), but the other two were new (and long overdue for a view).

The one I've seen before is The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola's intermezzo between The Godfather and The Godfather Part II -- and the first release in his annus mirabilis of 1974. The most amazing thing about this movie -- and there are a lot of amazing things about this movie -- is that Coppola had actually finished the screenplay in 1969, five years earlier. Amazing because it so perfectly captures the zeitgeist of 1974, a nation wrapped in the tight embrace of Watergate and all its revelations of secret tapings and eavesdropping ne'er do wells.

Consumed by paranoia, Gene Hackman's Harry Caul is still helpless when his paranoid fantasies come all too true. As a professional survellance specialist, Harry is used to silently cataloguing the lives of his targets. By the end of the movie he's become a tool in the service of larger conspiracies -- conspiracies by which he is now silently watched, listened to and engulfed.

The most paranoid of movies, made in the midst of the most paranoid of times, but its themes of secretive forces at work never seem to go completely out of style.

The second of the three was McCabe & Mrs. Miller, by the recently departed Robert Altman. Like The Conversation, it is a product of a time that is unlikely to ever be seen again -- the true golden age of Hollywood. From its beginning in 1967 with The Graduate, to its death in 1977 with Star Wars, those ten years saw a flowering of wide-release movies with the aim of actually speaking to adults. Just about every one of my very, very favorite movies were made during these 10 years, and the great ones from that period all share an ability to understand that humans are complex creatures, with a myriad of motivations to undertake any number of actions, and everything doesn't always turn out OK. These sorts of movies still get made, but they're a hell of lot harder to find, aren't they?

McCabe is a miniature tale -- man (Warren Beatty) comes to an outpost of 19th century Washington (the state) to build a new tavern & brothel. It becomes successful when a fiery British opium addict (Julie Christie) takes over as madam, leading to an offer by the railroad to buy him out. When he decides to try to jack up the price, they rescind the offer and send an Old West hit squad to take him out of the picture. In time they succeed, and we're left with the titular hero slowly expiring from his wounds and the cold in the middle of a mountain blizzard, while the madam hits the pipe in the local Chinatown.

Need a happy ending? Not in this Chinatown, either.

The third was a little more recent, although I'm probably the last one to see it.

Fight Club was released in 1999 -- and quite frankly it's hard to imagine some of its scenes of public mayhem being released by a major studio after 9/11. Its themes include the need for men to break free from the grip of women and materialism, and the way to do this is to have the crap beaten out of you. Beating the crap out of someone else is good, but the point of the fight club in Fight Club is to feel the pain. Eventually, this need to break the grip leads to the final solution of destroying all records of debt, leading to chaos and a more atavistic lifestyle.

Now, the thing is that hidden within that shit-pile of a plot are a hell of a lot of interesting thoughts and dialogue and acting (disclaimer -- yes, I am most definitely a Brad Pitt fan. I know this is an unpopular position, but there it is).

And then they decided to explain the plot.

Oh, man do I hate when they do that. Case in point was Vanilla Sky, a fine and nice little Cameron Crowe movie which had some interesting things to ponder and figure out...up until the moment that Noah Taylor is forced to describe the key to the entire plot because, well, you know, it might be too hard or interesting for us to figure out on our own. Kind of like that point in 2001 when HAL explains to Keir Dullea that the black monolith is actually a transmitter that indicates when man has evolved to the point where we're exploring the moon and ... what's that? He doesn't explain it? What did we do, figure it out on our own or something? Really? No way.

Anyway, in Fight Club the part of Noah Taylor is taken by both Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, but the idea is the same. Explain the key to the entire plot because, well, how else would we know?

Regardless, all three are worth watching, and The Conversation is worth watching (and listening to) again and again.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Over-rated (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap)

The most eagerly anticipated document since the last Harry Potter book makes its arrival today in Washington.

The long-awaited Iraq Study Group's (aka, "Jimmy" Baker's) report hits the President's desk today, and in addition to the title of this post the appropriate football cheer might be "Too Little, Too Late."

Each and every befuddled Washington politician on both sides of the aisle has yearned for this deus ex machina to show them the way out of the intractable mess that has been made of both the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the U.S. foreign policy in the world's most dangerous region.

The Bush Administration's recent moves to dampen expectations for the report should be taken as an indication that this chunk of paper is not about to swoop down and make everything all right -- whether our deluded President chooses to implement its proposals (mmmm, not likely) or ignore them (mmmm, what do you think?).

It may well be that its recommendations to make the attempt to put this into a regional context (involve Iran and Syria, get back to trying to solve the Palestinian problem, etc.) are in fact the best of a range of bad choices to try to move forward out of this tar pit. But it sure seems unlikely that this President (and Vice, remember him?) is going to take any steps which will involve even the impression that mistakes have been made and need to be corrected.

Beyond that is the even more vexing question of whether a solution even exists which involves anything but eventual disaster for our position in the region. Is there, in fact, a way out of this that will even look like a win for our side?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Maize and Blue. Very Blue.

Oddly enough, there are those who are upset about Michigan's football team playing in the Rose Bowl, rather than in the Mythical National Championship Game.

Or is that the National Mythical Championship Game?

Or does it matter, anyway?

At a national level, Gene Wojciechowski and Pat Forde seem to think so.

At a more parochial level, Mitch Albom and Bob Wojnowski really seem to think so.

Me? Not so much. Michigan had their chance to beat Ohio State and failed. Why give them a second chance rather than give Florida a first chance? No reason that I can think of.

In the dozen or so years since college football first started down the path of pretending to have a system for determining a "national champion" there have been a dozen or more teams that have made noises of getting jobbed, overlooked and/or hornswoggled.

Two really were, and neither is this year's Michigan team.

Penn State in 1994 was screwed by the fact that Joe Paterno rested his defensive regulars at the end of a blowout win over Indiana, and gave up a couple of late touchdown passes. That team didn't lose to anyone and wouldn't have lost to anyone that year, but Nebraska was given the "national championship." The fact that those two didn't actually play was probably the final straw that put us on the current track of pretending to have a system for determining a "national champion."

The other was the 2004 Auburn team that lost to no one all year, yet had to watch two other teams play for the "national championship." Now granted, both those teams (USC & Oklahoma) were also undefeated, and if Auburn had played instead the one that was left out would have been on this short list. But Auburn has an even greater right to make noise because one of those teams they were forced to watch (Oklahoma), got the crap kicked out of them by the other, 55-19.

I suspect that Auburn felt they could have done better.

Maybe Michigan will feel that way this year if Florida gets waxed in the Mythical National Championship Game. If so, well, they'll be in good historical company.

If Florida should win, of course ... well, I guess Michigan will have even more to bitch about, won't they?


You loves you some "Best Of" lists?

Sure you do.

The 2006 list of the best of 2006's best of lists, right here.