The Way Forward is Clear!

February 11, 2016 Leave a comment

Ever since I posted it almost 4 years ago, my post “Why would there be giant spikes on semi-truck wheels?” has always been my most-viewed post, day after day, week after week. No other post has ever come close.

But now, at last, I have a new winner: My review of Jane Got a Gun has been consistently beating the semi-truck spikes post ever since it went up two weeks ago.

I can’t say I’m sorry about this. I don’t really care about spikes on semi-truck wheels that much, and I really loved Jane Got a Gun, so I hope people will read my review and go see it.

This data also leads me inexorably to one conclusion: “Jane got giant spikes on her semi-truck’s wheels” would be my all-time most successful post.

Categories: Humor Tags:

My prediction for Super Bowl 50

February 2, 2016 11 comments

Give Denver this: they learned their lesson from their blowout Super Bowl loss two years ago. Unlike the Patriots, who still are vulnerable to the same gameplan the Giants used to beat them twice in the Super Bowl, the Broncos studied their flaws and took steps to correct them.

The upshot is that this Broncos team is far more balanced than the one the Seahawks destroyed. They have the top defense in the league. Their offense, while not as threatening as the record-breaking 2013 one, still can be fairly efficient at times, as in the first half of the AFC Championship game. And while Peyton Manning is physically a ghost of his former self, he is still a genius at reading the defense.

Against New England, Denver’s defense pressured Brady with a four man rush, forcing him to throw before he wanted to, and disrupting his timing. It was a very well-played defensive game.

The thing is that Brady, while indisputably one of the best quarterbacks ever, is not exactly fleet of foot. He has good pocket awareness, but he’s not much of a runner–even though he did have an 11 yard scramble for a first down in the AFC Championship.

Cam Newton presents a very different threat. He is fast, and he is strong. If they try to rush around the tackles and leave the middle of the field open, Newton isn’t going to dance around waiting for someone to come open–he can just take off down the field.

Even worse news for Denver: Carolina runs a play designed to confuse defensive ends and linebackers and slow down the rush. The read-option play is exactly the thing that you use against a good defensive line.

Throughout Denver’s win against the Patriots, I was marveling at how one-dimensional and unoriginal New England’s offense was. They never tried anything other than spreading out their receivers and trying to throw the ball on Denver. Minimal running, no end-arounds, no trick plays like the one they ran against Baltimore last year. It was a very uninspired gameplan.

Then I watched Carolina demolish Arizona with a varied, creative offense that looked like it would be a nightmare to defend against. If the power running doesn’t beat you down, Newton fires bullet passes to fast receivers downfield. If you try stopping that by dropping men into coverage, he runs for the first himself. They throw to the tight end out of running formations; they run wide receiver reverse plays disguised as option plays. It’s the complete package.

If Carolina’s offense has a weakness, it is that it’s not clear how accurate Newton really is. Against the Cardinals, he didn’t need to be–his receivers were consistently getting open and could adjust to make the catch. But if coverage is tight, I’m not sure he can make the pinpoint throws. The only receiver they have who seems capable of winning a physical battle for the ball is Olsen.

Of course, even with good coverage, Newton may still beat Denver with his legs. Of Denver’s 4 losses this year, 3 were to teams with scrambling quarterbacks who could evade the rush: Alex Smith, Andrew Luck, and Ben Roethlisberger. Newton is like those guys, only faster and stronger.

As for when Denver has the ball…

Peyton Manning has had perhaps the most bizarre year of any quarterback to ever reach the Super Bowl. He’s thrown tons of interceptions to not very many touchdowns, he’s been benched for a stretch… And yet he played one of the best post-seasons of his career, orchestrating clutch drives and big plays when his team needed them.

In the first half of the AFC championship, the Patriots inexplicably decided to play soft coverage and let Manning have easy completions. They also covered his top target with a linebacker. After Manning got two touchdowns thanks to this, they adjusted, and Denver managed only a field goal in the second half.

Manning doesn’t throw the ball with much force anymore. I’ve never heard anyone mention this, but I suspect the reason he chose to go to Denver after his recovery in 2012 is that he knew the thin air would mask this problem a bit. Unfortunately for him, they are not playing the Super Bowl in Denver.

If Carolina is smart, they will play press coverage on Manning’s receivers, stuff the run with their linebackers, and dare Manning to beat them by making throws down the field. My bet would be that he can’t. The Carolina defense has looked vulnerable at times–notably against the other Manning brother–but their total domination of the vaunted Arizona offense shows they can be very tough to throw against.

Denver has done a very good job rebuilding on the fly after a loss that would have demoralized many teams. They still have a lot of players who were in the Super Bowl two years ago, and they are not going to let themselves get humiliated like that again. In the end though, Carolina just has too much talent and too many different ways of winning for Denver to pull it off. Denver won’t go without a fight this time, but they won’t win either.

The pick:

CAROLINA PANTHERS: 31
DENVER BRONCOS: 20

My Review of “Jane Got a Gun” (Warning: Some Spoilers!)

jane-got-a-gun.jpg

Natalie Portman in “Jane Got a Gun” All Rights Reserved by the Weinstein Co. and re-used under “Fair Use”.

The Western genre more or less died out after the 1970s. The social scientist in me wants to attribute this to the cultural change in that decade–the mythology of the American West was focused heavily on the image of white men with guns as heroes, and cast other groups as either supporting characters or villains. Not the most progressive genre.

But as the title indicates, Jane Got a Gun gives the firearms to a female–a mother, protecting her family from a gang of villains called “The Bishop Boys”, named for their cruel leader. (Ewan McGregor)

Natalie Portman plays Jane, the frontierswoman whose husband Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich) encounters his old gang and is shot nearly to death by them. When he returns home on the verge of death, Jane takes her young daughter to safety and rides off to get help from her old fiancé, Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), whom she believed had died in the Civil War, and had met again only after her marriage to Bill.

Dan at first refuses to help, still bitter that Jane left him for Bill. The Bishop Boys, meanwhile, are interrogating one of Hammond’s associates in the fur trade regarding his whereabouts. Bishop clearly remembers Jane as well, and means to track them both down.

Having been rebuffed by Dan, Jane rides into town to buy weapons. As Jane is leaving town with her arms and ammunition, one of the Bishop Boy goons drags her into an alley and holds her at gunpoint, demanding to know where Hammond is and threatening to rape her.

Dan arrives, and aims his rifle at the gang member, who offers to split the bounty on Bill Hammond with him.  Dan listens, feigning interest, and Jane takes the opportunity to fire a shot into the thug’s head.

Jane and Dan hastily ride out of town and back to Jane’s ranch, where Jane pays Dan to help prepare them for the inevitable attack by the Bishop Boys.  During this, we see flashbacks to Jane and Dan’s courtship, as well as to the beginning of the trouble with the Bishop gang.

Gradually, as she and Dan scramble to prepare the home’s defenses while also tending to the wounded Bill, their old feelings start to emerge.  Dan recounts how his love for Jane had sustained him through the War, and how it broke him to find that she’d married another man and had a child with him.

That night, Dan’s resentment towards Bill nearly boils over, and he holds his gun at the bed-ridden man–until Jane enters, which prompts the drunken gunslinger to stagger away, muttering “I don’t know what you saw in him.”

As Dan keeps watch from the upstairs window that night, Jane joins him and tells him about what happened to her after she joined the Bishop’s wagon train.  She had a daughter (named Mary, after Dan’s mother) with her when she placed herself under Bishops’ “protection”.  The Bishops then took Mary from Jane, and forced Jane into prostitution. The scene flashes back to when Hammond, as a member of the gang, tried to free her, but was prevented by Bishop.

The next scene was perhaps the most disturbing, as Hammond asks one of Bishop’s men what became of Mary. He chillingly replies something to the effect that “Bishop told me to ‘take care of her’–he didn’t explain what he meant, so I made my best guess.  Did you know she can’t swim?”

In a fury, Hammond races to the brothel and, in a violent but extremely cathartic scene, guns down the clientele and rescues a weeping Jane.

The transition from Dan’s face as Jane begins telling the story, to the flashback sequence, and then back to Dan, is really powerful.  His expression changes completely, and his rage is such that he can barely spit a few words to say that he hopes John Bishop himself is coming.

As the night wears on, Jane and Dan venture outside the house.  The scene is dark and atmospheric, and Jane utters a few words of courageous resolve.  Then, shots ring out and Jane and Dan both hit the ground.

So begins the climactic showdown–I won’t spoil the ending for you, but suffice it to say that it is immensely satisfying.  Not to give too much away, but watch for a certain transition that begins with a close-up on a revolver barrel–it works really well.

What a lot of the “feminist” or “strong woman” action movies get wrong is to portray the woman as a Rambo-like super-human, crushing everything in her path.  Jane Got a Gun avoids this pitfall–Jane is believably vulnerable, but gains her strength on fiery resolve and force of will, rather than impossible physical strength. Portman does a terrific job conveying the transformation from sweet, innocent girl to hardened frontierswoman that Jane undergoes.

Edgerton is suitably gruff while conveying an underlying decency, and his chemistry with Portman is absolutely marvelous. McGregor is the very picture of the “villain we love to hate”. All the Bishop gang henchmen are utterly loathsome in different ways, making each one’s demise a satisfyingly bloody catharsis.

The beautiful landscapes and moody soundtrack really stuck with me.  I’ve been a sucker for desert movies since I saw Lawrence of Arabia as an impressionable sixteen-year-old, and my Fallout: New Vegas binge only solidified my love for the harsh, barren landscapes. Jane uses this type of scenery to create a marvelous feeling of loneliness and isolation.

It was interesting to watch this movie so soon after seeing the new Star Wars film. Jane’s behind-the-scenes connections to Star Wars are well-documented, as Portman, McGregor and Edgerton all appeared in the prequel trilogy. More significantly than that, the original Star Wars, which the new one tries so hard to imitate, was really just George Lucas’s reinvention of the western–an attempt to translate the familiar Good vs. Evil melodrama for a new generation.

The latest Star Wars tries to do this too, but fails badly on every level. Jane Got a Gun (while obviously not a film for children, because of the violence) succeeds in capturing this old-fashioned spirit.

Both films feature a Good vs. Evil plot with a strong heroine, a reluctant hero, and a cruel villain. But while Star Wars‘s Daisy Ridley and John Boyega fail in their attempts to portray the archetypes of “strong heroine” and “reluctant hero”, respectively; Portman and Edgerton play those same roles to perfection. McGregor, meanwhile, brings a chilling charisma to the villain’s role–exactly the sort of touch Adam Driver failed to give his cartoon bad guy in Star Wars.

Jane Got a Gun does not reinvent the Western by any means, but it certainly revives it admirably. The performances are all first-rate, and the pacing is terrific.  It is marketed as an action film, but there is plenty of romance and suspense as well, and the haunting desert landscape and soundtrack give it a very strong atmosphere.  Go see it.

Thanks to all my new readers!

January 26, 2016 1 comment

One of my publisher’s core values is that their products–be they apps, books, or what have you–never collect user data. This is, on balance, a very good thing, as many users find it intrusive to download a product only to find that is collecting their personal information.

There is only one drawback to this policy, and that is that I never know who has bought my books. Which would be awfully nice to know, because I want to show I appreciate them. I know Barb Knowles of saneteachers is a recent customer, and I can’t thank her enough for her support. But, thanks to her, I’ve seen a real uptick in sales of The Start of the Majestic World lately, and I want to thank all my new readers for their interest. I hope you enjoy the book!

Categories: Books, My Opinion Tags:

Saneteachers and Regional Dialects

January 24, 2016 2 comments

I had a friendly bet with Barb Knowles on the AFC Championship game.  The loser had to do a post about the winner’s blog.  But, I like her blog “saneteachers” so much that I am going to post about it even though I didn’t lose.

She has a delightful post about the dialect differences she encountered on coming to Ohio Wesleyan University from New York. As she puts it:

They don’t speak New York in Ohio.  They speak Ohio in Ohio. Of course, to me it sounded more like Ahia.

As a lifelong Ohio resident–I grew up about a half-hour from Ohio Wesleyan’s campus–I know what she means.  Non-Ohioans have frequently pointed out that central Ohioans sound like this when listing our home country, city and state:

I’m ‘Merican, from C’lumbus, Ahia.

but then again, they might be from a place a little way east of Columbus: Newark, which is pronounced something close to “Nerk”.

I took a linguistics class in college where we had to do an assignment on regional dialect differences.  For instance, when informally addressing a group of people, Southerners would say “you all” (often rendered as “y’all”) whereas Midwesterners say “you guys”.

That of course was small potatoes next to the big dialect difference: what do you call those glowing insects we get in the summer–fireflies or lightning bugs?

In her post, Barb also mentions the age-old debate of “soda” vs. “pop”.  (Some also call them “soft drinks” or “fizzy drinks”.)  This one I missed, because in my family we called the drinks by their brand name, but I remember the first time I heard someone call it “pop” I was puzzled.

I’d also never heard of the confusion over “bag” and “sack” that she describes–I’ve always heard both used interchangeably. With the prevalence of television regional dialects have declined over time–maybe that’s the reason. I also never heard “rubber” for “rubber band”.  I shudder to think at the mix-ups that could cause.

I once got into an argument with two of my friends–both of whom are also native Ohioans–about whether you call this a “flathead” or a “slotted” screwdriver. (It’s “slotted”.  Don’t let my evil friends tell you otherwise.) I don’t know if this is a generational or regional thing, but it was interesting.

I’m lucky in that I have relatives all over the country, so I get to hear a lot of different regionalisms.  Even if it does cause some confusion sometimes…

Anyway, you guys–and you all–should check out Barb’s blog.  She’s a terrific writer, and has some very witty observations.  I wouldn’t have made my bet with her if I didn’t think so–and the fun of a bet like this is that everyone wins.

Predictions for the Conference Championship Games

January 22, 2016 12 comments

NFC Championship

 

I live in Ohio, so I used to see a lot of Carson Palmer’s games when he played for the Bengals. He always would throw high and behind his receivers. I can’t tell you how many times I’d see some Bengal receiver have to reach up and catch the ball right over his helmet.

I tuned in to the Arizona/Green Bay game last Saturday, and it was the same story. Palmer doesn’t lead his receivers. It caused an interception in the end zone on one drive.

Palmer is a decent journeyman, but he is not the kind of guy who can carry a team. Cam Newton is. The fact that Carolina’s defense shut down Russell Wilson last week only makes me less optimistic about the Cardinals’ chances. It’s too bad, because I’d love to see the great Larry Fitzgerald get a Super Bowl ring.

Panthers: 34
Cardinals: 17

 

AFC Championship

 

Fascinating matchup, this. Most writers seem to think the Patriots should win easily. “Sure, the Broncos beat them back in November, but the Patriots had so many injuries–with Edelman, Amendola, and Gronkowski back, they are bound to win”, goes the thinking.

Sounds good, on paper. But Denver still has the best defense in the NFL. When a strong defense meets a strong offense, the defense usually wins. Denver knows this all too well–they learned it two years ago when Seattle annihilated them. After that, Elway committed to building a strong, hard-hitting defense so that wouldn’t happen again.

Of course, that same Seattle defense got picked apart a year later by these Patriots and their short passing game. So defense alone isn’t always enough, at least not when you are going against a master of the surgical, precise pass like Brady.

Against the Steelers last week, the Bronco defense shutdown the Pittsburgh running game and the short pass. The only way the Steelers could move the ball was when Roethlisberger bought time for his receivers to get open, and then let them get yards after the catch. The Steelers got five or six big gains doing that, and it almost got them an upset victory.

Brady can’t withstand pressure like Roethlisberger can, though. If Denver can keep his receivers covered, they are going to have a chance. The only reason Brady was able to move the ball against Seattle’s defense in the Super Bowl was that he could get the ball out quickly. If they neutralize that, he’s in trouble.

If I were coaching the Broncos, I’d blitz Brady early and try to make him get nervous in the pocket. Yes, I know Brady is great at reading the blitz and making a quick pass, but let’s face it: he’s going to get his share of completions no matter what. Better to at least rattle him early in the game while he does it, and then he may start to imagine pressure as the game goes on.

Then you’ve got the matchup on the other side: the offensive-coordinator-on-the-field, Peyton Manning vs. his arch-nemesis, Bill Belichick, the wily defensive genius. Belichick used to own Manning in the playoffs, but Peyton has won their last two post-season encounters.

People are saying Manning is a ghost of his former self. Even I was saying that last year. And it’s true that his arm strength is pitiful. But the thin Denver air mitigates that to an extent; as does Manning’s skill at the short pass. Manning played a decent game against Pittsburgh, and his stats would have been much better if not for a bunch of dropped passes.

The Steelers seemed to be doing their best to pressure Manning with blitzes from unexpected directions. It almost worked; they were close to sacking him more than once. But blitzing has never really been Belichick’s game–he prefers to use coverage to confuse the quarterback. But Manning is tough to confuse. He’s still got the mental game mastered, even if he is physically barely able to play.

I haven’t really mentioned the running game much. That’s because, as far as I can tell, neither team has one. I do expect the Patriots to try lots of screen passes to James White. They also have Steven Jackson, but he looked slow to me in their game against Kansas City. As for the Patriots run defense, I think they will take away Denver’s rushing attack and force Manning to beat them with his arm.

As I said above, it seems like the national sports press isn’t giving Denver much of a chance in this thing–possibly to set up a “Manning upsets the Mighty Patriots” narrative, possibly just because they are lazy–but this game has a very odd vibe to it. New England is good, but they are also worn down. The fact that the game is in Denver, where they historically struggle, only adds to their problems. (If the Patriots just hadn’t tried a punt right before halftime of their game against the Eagles, they might well be playing in New England.)

The Patriots deserve to be favored, and I was tempted to follow the crowd and pick them, but I keep hearing this nagging voice in my head telling me the Football Fates have something really weird in store for this game. Denver got to be the number one seed for a reason, and I predict they will show us why in a tough, strange game.*

Broncos: 22
Patriots: 20

*Take heart, Pats fans: I also had a feeling about the Steelers last week, and that came to nothing.

My Predictions for the NFL Divisional Round

January 15, 2016 4 comments

KC: 17

NE: 14

New England has a ton of injuries, and they don’t match up well with the Chiefs anyway. The last time they played, the Chiefs beat them 41-14.   Brady has had no time in the pocket the last few games, so I don’t see them winning this.

ARZ: 30

GB: 20

People are thinking Green Bay is good because they beat Washington, the winner of the weakest division in football, apart from the AFC South. I’m not buying it, even though I picked them to reach the Super Bowl in the preseason.  Arizona demolished them a few weeks ago.

CAR: 35

SEA: 28

Seattle has been a trendy pick all week to upset the Panthers.  I can see why, and was on the point of picking them myself, but when an upset is this popular, it’s no longer an upset.  The Panthers have been hearing all week about how great Seattle is. The ‘Hawks are tough, but Carolina will ultimately win.

PIT: 13

DEN: 10

All logic says to pick Denver. The Steelers have tons of injuries, Peyton Manning is rested, Denver has a great defense, which is normally the key to playoff success. But there’s something about these Steelers–they have an intangible quality that makes me think they can do it.

 

Categories: NFL Tags: , ,
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