Monday, August 24, 2009

An Era of Productivity... what I appear to be in. Three posts in roughly a week? Holy shit! Anyway, I watched a movie. Here's what I think.

Adventureland (2009)

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Margarita Levieva, Ryan Reynolds, Bill Hader, Kristin Wiig
Directed by: Greg Mottola
Rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

Certain things are very difficult to capture on film, and one of those things is the fleeting feeling that your life is changing and entering into a new era. It's a feeling just about anyone with any emotional intuitiveness has felt wholly. It possesses an exciting but terrifying presence that just overwhelms you at once and won't let go until it just slowly fades away into the comfort and sometimes complacence that time brings. Fortunately, Adventureland just nails that feeling, a fact that alone makes it worth spending your time on.

The film opens in 1987 with recent college graduate James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) sharing his excitement with a close friend about their upcoming summer trip to Europe, which is immediately to be followed by beginning graduate school at Columbia. Everything seems directly lined up for James' life to take off in the path he's made for himself. Soon, though, things begin to go vastly awry. First, James' parents let him know over lunch that things have been rough for them financially of late, and that James isn't going to receive his graduation gift as planned. What was the graduation gift in question? His trip to Europe. Completely devastated about having to spend his last summer before grad school at home in Pittsburgh, James later gets the news that the lack of money has gotten worse, and even a semester at Columbia isn't going to be possible. Without any other way of getting where he wants to be, James decides to take a meaningless summer job at Adventureland, a local summer carnival.

At the carnival, James makes several friends. First there's Joel (Martin Starr), who he works directly with in the games department, Em (Kristen Stewart), another games girl he begins to fall for, Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a slightly older maintenance man whose life is marred by lies and infidelity, and Lisa P (Margarita Leviera), the girl everyone has a crush on. All of these characters are created with love and drawn out carefully. No matter what we think of their actions, there's not one of them we don't at least feel something for.

The key here is that director and writer Mottola makes sure no one is a vacuous, generalized character. A less intelligent and talented writer would have taken the easy way out. James could have easily been an awkward literature nerd who is too shy to do anything or meet anyone and then overcomes this with flying colors by movie's end. But Mottola realizes this isn't realistic, and it's not interesting. James is outlined as a sometimes awkward literature nerd, but he has abundant feelings and opinions, he isn't terribly afraid of girls, he drinks and smokes pot from time to time, and he even gets in a fight when it's completely necessary. He is far from a cardboard cutout. The same can be said for Kristen Stewart's Em, a girl who is clearly intelligent and attractive, but isn't even close to believing in herself. While she has plenty of angst, Em isn't just an angry punk kid with a gruff exterior that she eventually sheds. She's a very complicated person who is deeply afraid to let herself feel as happy around James as she does because she doesn't feel like she deserves it.

Mottola also freely allows his characters to make realistic mistakes that reinforce the fact that Adventureland is head and shoulders above its peers in the genre. We find out quickly that Em has been having a periodic sexual relationship with Mike Connell. Most movies would make this into a dirty spectacle of moral outrage. Adventureland certainly does not. Em is doing this because she hates herself and Connell, as messed up as it is, makes her feel cared about. It's implied that Connell is doing roughly the same thing, looking for the companionship an empty marriage isn't giving him, but only semi-realizing that he is taking of advantage of someone in the process. Even James, who is amazingly nice and we constantly root for, goes on a date with Lisa P while his love for Em is still blooming. None of this would be effective if the movie's characters weren't so three dimensional.

Another thing Adventureland succeeds wildly in doing is feeling like a certain time and place. Set mostly at the carnival itself, the movie uses a 1980s indie rock soundtrack and awful '80s clothing trends to help heighten the sense of where this is. None of this is done carelessly or in an over-the-top manner. In fact, the music and backdrops used help to accentuate the life-changing feelings most of these characters are having, just as we all associate certain songs and places with certain periods in our life. You just get the sense that this is the summer all of these characters are going to remember when they reflect back on their lives.

Despite no major setbacks, there are a couple of things that just don't fit well within the movie's atmosphere. On hand to play a couple who runs Adventureland, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig often appear in the movie solely for punchlines, and most of the time it feels forced and out of place, like it would have been more at home in Mottola's last outing (Superbad). Both featured sets of parents in the movie are also a bit underwhelming. James's mom and dad don't seem the least bit remorseful about his dreams going up in flames, and Em's dad and stepmom both appear as awful selfish people who don't know she exists until she acts out ferociously. Despite this, Adventureland is a fantastically crafted coming-of-age story that has nothing to do with high school, jocks, nerds, or anything like that. It lands much closer to real life, and as a result hits much closer to home. As far as I'm concerned, that's a noteworthy achievement.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The John Smoltz Signing: A Complete Analysis

Still searching for some help in their surprisingly awesome starting rotation, the Cardinals picked up the freshly-released John Smoltz today to man the number five spot. Clearly the Cards are hoping Dave Duncan works some of his good ol' fashioned pitcher-fixin' magic, because Smoltz was thoroughly terrible in Boston after returning from yet another injury. Over the course of 40 gross innings, the future hall of famer has struck out 33 and only walked nine, which is cool until you see the rest of the 42 year-old's numbers. Perhaps the reason Smoltz has kept his walk total so low is that opposing teams have been too busy hitting the shit out of the ball to bother with taking pitches. Smoltz has been raped to the tune of a .343 batting average against, complete with 59 hits (eight of them home runs) in those 40 innings worked. Even more unimpressive is the fact that Smoltz has allowed 37 earned runs thus far, good for a Lima-esque 8.33 ERA. This sounds like exactly what the Cardinals need to stave off the competition and hold on to first place in the NL Central! It's like John Mozeliak read my mind!

Wait a second, though. Maybe I'm being a bit pessimistic. After all, Smoltz is moving from the ridiculously stacked American League East to the much less talented National League Central. Plus, Smoltzy flourished and built his legendary career as an Atlanta Brave in the league he is now headed to. After discussing this transaction with Spencer Hendricks, baseball expert and creator of the infinitely influential, we decided we should make a list of ten things that are unquestionably positive about the Smoltz acquistion. After all, we like to think of ourselves as "glass half full" kind of guys. So here are the things we believe John Smoltz represents for the Cardinals:
1.) A lights-out, one-out specialist when the opposing pitcher is batting. "There's real value in a guy who can be counted on to retire the worst hitter in the lineup when the game is really on the line," former teammate and leading advocate for Smoltz's acquisition Mark De Rosa insisted urgently. "Please don't compare my stats with Chris Perez since I was traded for him. That's just embarrassing."

2.) A way for Colby Rasmus's dad to save 15% on lumber from Home Depot. "I remembered seein' John on them commericals with all them lawnmowers a couple years back, and I remembered that my daddy was tryin' to finish his deck back home," recalled rookie standout Colby Rasmus. "Now at first I didn't put two and six together, but after I did I figured John could probably help out daddy by gettin' that wood a little cheaper. I just went up to Tony and asked him real nice if we could get John to be on our team and he said that would be okay and patted me on my head."

3.) A veteran La Russa can pretend makes a difference simply because of his tenure. "Honestly," La Russa finally admitted after years of speculation," I don't really even write a lineup card or fill out a pitching staff based on names or stats or anything. I just look at two things: age and experience. Sometimes I get a little risky and play someone just for the hell of it. The truth is, Albert never would have gotten a chance in the first place if I didn't secretly have a feeling he was 39 all the way back in his rookie season. He just had that look, you know. The look of a liar. Plus, you know how those Dominicans are with their age. It's not their fault they never tell the truth about it. I don't even think they have birthdays in that country." La Russa's tirade went on for a while longer and was said to have involved several subtle references of a homosexual nature to both Skip Schumaker and Rick Ankiel.

4.) A logical mentor for Brad Thompson. "We feel like John's knowledge of the game will be very beneficial to a lot of our pitching staff, especially a guy like Brad Thompson," pitching coach Dave Duncan said shortly after the signing. "See, Smoltz can really give Brad some perspective on how to pitch once you literally have no stuff at all, once your fastball is just straight and boring and slower than Jamie Moyer's. Of course it took John twenty years to get to that point and Bra just sort of started out that way, but you get what I'm saying. They're similar pitchers now," Duncan continued. "They certainly weren't a couple of years ago, though. God, no. Smoltz had that nasty slider and hard fastball with all that movement. Brad has never had any of that. Brad's awful. What am I supposed to do with him? Why does Tony keep him on the roster? If Tony and I hadn't been lovers for so long, I wouldn't put up with this." Duncan then looked awkwardly from side to side and quietly left the room.

5.) Another pinch-hitting option for when the Cardinal roster consists of only six position players and 19 pitchers. "Sure, it's very likely the Cardinals realize there's not much left when it comes to Smoltz and his old, sad arm," renowned broadcaster Rick Sutcliffe analyzed. "But that's not to say he can't still lift the lumber. Have you seen that beard? What a lumberjack! There's no reason, no reason at all he couldn't club 20, 25 homers down the stretch for the Devil Birds. If they really wanted to make a splash in their rotation, of course, they'd obviously have signed me."

6.) A way to prolong the career of former Cardinal fan favorite David Eckstein. "We kind of figure that if we're playing the Padres and we have a big lead, which against the Padres most teams do, we could put John in there to face Eckstein. David hasn't had a lot of success since he left us, and I'd really love to see him crank a couple of extra-base hits and hang around the big leagues a little longer," manager Tony La Russa speculated Wednesday. "And John's just the man to give up those hits. I mean, if I looked at stats ever I would know he gave up about a hit and a half per inning with the Red Sox this year."

7.) An interesting extracurricular science project for his teammates.
In between innings, on flights from city to city, or even just on a rainy Monday afternoon off day, the players can gather 'round and study the repeatedly surgically repaired body of John Smoltz. Think of it as a hands-on way to appreciate the miracle of modern science. "No way this guy would still be alive at his condition 50 years ago, " outfielder Colby Rasmus, born just two years before Smoltz's rookie season, was heard musing.

8.) A new way to feed Dave Duncan's ego. With Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright both in the Cy Young race this season, pitching coach Dave Duncan has been feeling a bit neglected by the mainstream media. "I'm really used to some random pitcher having half a season that's way over his head and me getting credit for that," Duncan told a local media outlet earlier this morning. "But everyone knows Carp and Wainwright are both legitimately good, and that I didn't do anything to get them there this year. With Smoltz on board, now I've got something to work with. I'll have him back to mid-90s form within a week. All he has to do is throw a sinker all the time and keep the ball down. And drop even more off that fastball if possible. It never fails." Duncan became frustrated after the reporter asked about Kip Wells and later left the interview after being questioned about Rick Ankiel's pitching career. "It never fails!" Duncan was heard screaming as he drove away.

9.) An opportunity for fans and players alike to relive the 1996 season, when Smoltz had the greatest year in pitcher history. "Back in '96," Smoltz will be heard muttering numerous times while watching from the dugout as the bullpen cleans up the remaining seven innings of a game in which he surrendered 14 home runs in just 38 pitches, "this field would be littered with the corpses of my enemies, all of them slain by my filthy, filthy slider." John's eyes grow distant and then misty as he removes the towel previously wrapped around his aching shoulders and covers his ancient face, sobs racking his body and threatening to send him to the DL.

10.) An easier way for Albert Pujols to win the 2010 home run derby. After being eliminated in the second round of this year's home run derby at the All-Star game in St. Louis, Cardinals star Albert Pujols felt humiliated and embarassed. Realizing the pain his best player was feeling, general manager John Mozeliak quickly signed Smoltz as soon as he became available. "I could just tell Albert was frustrated out there this year. I want Albert to be a Cardinal for life, and we're going to do whatever we can to make sure he's happy. Albert really wants to win another home run derby, and next year is the year," asserted St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak. "We kind of felt like the batting practice pitcher was throwing a little too hard, and like he had a little too much movement on his pitches. That's a big reason why we brought in Smoltzy, to take his place as Albert's derby pitcher in Anaheim next year. John couldn't throw it past Chris Duncan if he tried, let alone Albert," Mozeliak chuckled.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Wal-Mart: A Snapshot of America

Here in Springfield, Missouri there are several fine Wal-Mart locations to choose from when you just have to get toilet paper, gourmet guinea pig feed, and a small paring knife at 2:30 in the morning. I happen to live directly between two of Sam Walton's bullshit emporiums, meaning that I have a wealth of options at my fingertips every day and every night. While this may seem like a luxury, both Wal-Mart locales in close proximity to me have their distinct drawbacks. First, we have the Wal-Mart on West Bypass and Sunshine, which probably has the most depleted inventory of any Wal-Mart I've ever been to and happens to be directly across from two buildings marked "X-Spot" and "Bakery" respectively. This combination of facts makes the Bypass Wal-Mart nothing more than a last resort. The other murderer of small business near me is located at Kearney and I-44 and suffers from having a terribly small Redbox DVD selection and a greeter who always wants to see my fucking receipt even if I'm carrying 18 bags and have stashed my proof of purchase away safely in my wallet between three one dollar bills and my Ozark Fitness membership card from 1999.

What does this mean for me and my Wal-Mart selection? A lot of times my fiancee and I end up heading to the Glenstone and Kearney location, a magnificent venue complete with newly finished floors and a surprisingly large entertainment section. The story I am about to tell happened at said location on a hectic Sunday afternoon. Let me set the scene for you. I've already told you it's Sunday afternoon, so you can assume that there are roughly 120-150 octagenerian couples roaming the aisles in search of dietary regulators and Sunday papers (the neighbor kids stole the one that would've been delivered to them, leaving them couponless). You can also assume that there are plenty of churchy folk who have just finished praying and singing and whatnot and are ready to fucking buy some shit. None of the people I've just generalized figure prominently in this story, but a third demographic does. Which demographic are you referring to, Brian? Hungover single mothers in their mid-30s who have ugly children with self-inflicted bowl cuts, of course!

So Kimmy and I are standing in this express checkout line and we're on deck. There's one guy in front of us and he is swiping his credit card as we speak, meaning we're about to check out and then be on our way home. Wal-Mart is packed as all hell right now, so we're in a very enviable position. Directly behind us is a woman around age 35, her bangs twirling in all directions. She's wearing an odd-fitting striped shirt and some sort of baggy jean shorts. I'm fairly certain there's something wrong with her eyes. We'll call her Tina. Right beside Tina is her eight or nine year-old son, a skinny little bastard who is clinging to their full shopping cart with his grimy left hand and holding a WWE hat in his right. You don't need me to tell you he doesn't have any sleeves. We'll name him Cody, because that just has to be his fucking name.

The express lane to the left of us opens up, and the cashier calls out to everyone that she can help the next person over there. Seeing as how the guy in front of us is paying already, there's no reason for us to line jump. That would just be greedy. We've already ascended this far in the pecking order, why crush someone else's opportunity to get out of this hell a few minutes sooner? Because I'm the nicest person in the whole world, I turn to Tina and smile, politely offering for her to go ahead and take her rightful position as the first person in line at the register to our left since we were getting ready to pay anyway. After all, we had the right of way, so it's pretty much our duty to bestow the open position in the newly formed line to the party behind us should we choose to refuse it. Tina looks at me and responds with, "That's okay," and then proceeds to move her cart and her dirty child into the eighth spot in the line to the right of us.

What. The. FUCK!

So here were Tina's three choices:
1) Remain third in line in her current checkout lane
2) Move to the checkout lane to the left and become first in line
3) Move to the checkout lane to the right and instantly become eighth in line and waste 15 more minutes of a life that has already obviously been comprised of mostly wasted minutes

I'll never know why Tina picked door number three, but what I do know is that I'm done being surprised by the logic and utter disregard for physical or intellectual appearance that Wal-Mart occupants often display. I wanted to follow her into the line she chose and explain to her thoroughly why she would have been better off doing literally anything other than what she did. She could have started screaming Journey lyrics and gorilla tossing items from her cart into nearby aisles and I think I would have respected her decision-making skills more. I mean, seriously. How hard is it? It's like a math professor walked up to her and asked her a quick multiple choice question: Which number is the lowest, Tina? One, three, or eight? And then she picked eight.

Fuck it. I'm going to bed. My face hurts.