A Big Bang Theory of the Kansas City Royals

By , April 11, 2010 10:27 am

The Royals Pitching Staff Break Down FIPS, DIPS, UZR, BABIP, and OPS.

You know Zack Greinke.  He’s last year’s American League Cy Young Award winner, all the more amazing because he pitched for one of the worst teams with one of the worst defenses in baseball.  You know about Zack’s battle with social anxiety disorder, in which he quit baseball for almost an entire season, then asked to stay in AA so he could play for a winning team.  You may know that Zack is a fascinating interview, prone to giving long, meandering interviews analyzing the relative merits of Chipotle burritos, elaborating on how baseball is a stage play, and admitting that he cried when Brad and Jennifer broke up

What you may not know is that Zack Greinke is one of the most advanced thinkers in major league baseball.  One key to last year’s historic season, other than Greinke’s treatment with anti-depressants, was Zack’s embrace of statistical analysis.  Over the past two decades, sabermetricians have revolutionized our understanding of baseball by calling into question “traditional” statistics and creating new statistics that more accurately assess player value.  Last off-season, Greinke was introduced to two of these newer “advanced” stats:  FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and UZR (Ultimate Zone Ratings). 

FIP is predicated on two discoveries:  1) Pitchers mostly control strikeouts, walks, hit batsmen, and homeruns, and 2)  Pitchers have limited control over whether batted balls turn into hits.  On average, the overall Major League BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) is a remarkably consistent .300.   So, pitchers with high strikeouts, few walks, and few homeruns will likely have a good ERA whether no matter the quality of the defense behind them.  But pitchers who allow a lot of balls to be put in play will likely have a higher ERA because a certain percentage of balls in play end up being hits—either by luck or otherwise.  To wit, Zack Greinke was third among American League starters in strikeouts per nine innings (K/9 = 9.50), second in strikeouts to walks ratio (K/BB = 4.75), and first in fewest homeruns allowed for any starter who threw over 180 innings.  Thus, Zack led the league in FIP—meaning that he was going to have a low ERA no matter how bad the Royals defense was.

Man-oh-man, was it.  The Royals were probably the worst defensive team in the league, by advanced metrics and more traditional stats like Unearned Runs, in which the Royals were last in the American League.  This is why Greinke’s great season is all the more remarkable.  FIP measure’s a pitcher’s value independent of his defense, but ERA—the most popular way of measuring a pitcher’s value—is somewhat dependent on his teammates’ defense.  The question is:  How did Zack Greinke have the league’s lowest ERA (2.16 vs. 2.49 for Felix Hernandez) while pitching in front of the league’s worst defense? 

Greinke used UZR—a measure of the range and play-making ability of defenders—to understand that while the Royals’ infield defense was atrocious, the outfield was often above average.  Thus, at Kauffman Stadium, one of the most spacious ballparks in the majors, Greinke used a rising fastball that induced fly balls.  Of course, Greinke got lucky that an unusually low number of his fly balls were homeruns, but Greinke also knew that Kauffman Stadium’s “park effects” indicate that The K gives up significantly fewer homeruns than the league average.  More to the point, you would expect Greinke to have a large BABIP because the Royals defense was so terrible, but Greinke was actually under the league average at .292.  Using UZR, Greinke understood that he needed to play to the strength of his defense:  the very highly rated left fielder David DeJesus and centerfielders Coco Crisp and Mitch Maier routinely tracked down fly balls.  Greinke relied less on the iron-gloved middle infield disaster of Alberto Callaspo and the worst defensive shortstop in the history of Major League Baseball, Yuniesky Betancourt.   In short, Greinke used statistical analysis to transform a great season into a historic one.

So who is the genius who introduced Zack Greinke to sabermetric analysis?  In other words, if dating Kaley Cuoco is winning the Cy Young, then Zack Greinke is Leonard from “The Big Bang Theory.”  But who is his Sheldon?  That would be Brian Bannister, Royals starting pitcher, former USC art design student, professional photographer, commercial director and hero to baseball supergeeks across the nation.  Bannister is a marginal major league starter, so to stick in the league, he needed a competitive advantage.  While Bannister was in the Mets minor league system, he dabbled in advanced sabermetrics to figure out how to improve his performance.  Three years ago, after he was traded to the Royals for Ambiorix Burgos, Bannister gave this landmark interview to Tim Dierkes at MLB Trade Rumors, outlining how he uses statistics to try to lower his BABIP.  Bannister’s thesis (that more two-strike counts would lead to a lower BABIP) is correct—but only at the margins. The next season, Bannister realized he needed to increase his strike out rate to lower his ERA, but did so at the cost of giving up more home runs, leading to a bloated ERA.  Then, at the beginning of last season, using Pitch f/x measurements, Bannister discovered that to survive at the major league level with below average stuff, he needed to turn himself into a ground ball pitcher because, on average, more ground balls lead to outs than fly balls.      

Brian Bannister then did something unprecedented in the history of baseball:  He used advanced statistical analysis to reinvent his pitching style in mid-career to producing tangible results.  Bannister’s scientific method (study, hypothesis, test, analyze, re-hypothesis, re-test) has made him a hero of baseball geeks, who have long advocated that data analysis disproves much “conventional” baseball wisdom.  During Kyle Davies starts, you can imagine Bannister sitting at the end of the dugout breaking down UZRs to Greinke and challenging him to games of Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock to decide who’s going to refill the sunflower seeds.

Sounds like the kind of competitive advantage a small market team like the Royals needs, right?  The problem is that Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke play for the organization that has most openly and forcefully rejected the use of statistical analysis in evaluating performance.  Royals General Manager Dayton Moore became the mockery of baseball geekdom last year when he admitted that he doesn’t even understand defensive statistics—and, most bafflingly, doesn’t want to.  In fact, Dayton Moore has made it the Royals’ organizational philosophy to reject data analysis and simply scout based on what they “see on the field.”  Dayton talks a lot about “seeing” and “feeling” a player’s ability, that numbers can’t change what he believes about a player.  Take it from the GM himself:

The defensive statistics—I still really don’t understand how some of those statistics are evaluated.  I really don’t.  When you watch baseball games every single day, it’s very apparent who can play defensively and who can’t.

What’s worse, no organization in baseball would be more applauded by its influential fans for a data analysis approach than the Kansas City Royals.  Over the past two decades, no baseball market in America has produced more innovative and influential thinking than Kansas City.  The unfortunate part is that this has come from its writers.  Bill James, Rob Neyer, Rany Jazayerli, Joe Posnanski, Jeff Passan, Soren Petro, Bradford Doolittle…there’s more where that came from.  Starting with Lawrence, Kansas resident Bill James, sabermetric analysis has revolutionized how the game is played.  But the Royals, of all organizations, reject the very concept of data analysis, putting it at least two decades behind most franchises in terms of player evaluation.  Dayton Moore “believes” in his “Scout’s Honor” methods, and no new ideas or data can make him evolve.

Imagine a mid-sized American city whose newspaper columnists are intellectuals like Paul Krugman, Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, Andrew Sullivan, and Fareed Zakaria, and whose city council was made up of can-do ideas people like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.  Now imagine that the city was run by a Daley-esque political machine with George W. Bush as mayor.

That’s the Kansas City Royals.

After the universally-mocked Yuniesky Betancourt trade last year, Joe Posnanski wrote that the most frustrating thing for a fan is “root(ing) for a team that so clearly has a different philosophy about sports than you have about sports.” For no fans is this more true than for Royals fans.  It’s not just the losing—it’s the fact that Dayton Moore runs the Royals like a global warming denier.  Facts?  Statistics?  Data?  Long-term trends?  All Dayton Moore knows is that it’s cold right now so global warming must be a hoax.  Mike Jacobs hit 32 home runs one year, and he looks like a power hitter, so let’s sign’em up!  Yuniesky Betancourt made some pretty good plays when he first came up, so he must have the tools to be a great shortstop.  Kyle Farnsworth looks like he should be able to strike guys out, so despite the fact that his ERA hasn’t been under 4.00 in five years, let’s sign him for two years and nine million dollars! 

More frustrating is the fact that Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke are the two players in the majors to have embraced and produced results from statistical analysis.  And yet, the more criticism Dayton Moore receives from the local media, the more entrenched in his outmoded views he becomes.  Now he’s treating statistics like he’s Bush conducting the War on Science.   Moore and Trey Hillman now tell us that they don’t have time to lecture fans on why Baseball Men do the things they do.  We’re supposed to Trust the Process that will eventually turn this franchise around.  For Royals fans, “The Process” is a Kafka short story where the nonsensical labyrinthine bureaucracy leads Judges and Emperors to declare paradoxes as truth, like “Yuniesky Betancourt is a good shortstop” and “Scott Podsednik is a significant upgrade over Mitch Maier” and “Kila Ka’aihue has not earned a shot at the major leagues.”  For non-Royals fans, though, I suspect that this is more like a situation comedy.  Imagine Leonard and Sheldon as cancer researchers working for Phillip Morris, and you get the idea.

Date Night

By , April 8, 2010 8:29 pm

In a piece of desperate NBC synergy, "Date Mike" takes Liz Lemon out for a night at Cooper's Seafood.

 

“Date Night” is the perfect date night movie for exhausted married couples on a night out at the Fork and Screen who need to get the sitter home by 11:00.  Or, “Date Night” is for Date Night.  Tina Fey and Steve Carrell are Phil and Claire Foster, a Jersey ‘burbs married couple exhausted from the rut of work and kids.  You know the drill.  They manage to get neighbor girl Leighton Meester to babysit the kids for date night once a week, which involves dinner at the local kinda-nice place.  There, they share some wine and mock other couples in a sort-of live action “MST3K” by imagining their table dialogue. We discover that the Fosters aren’t socially and intellectually dead suburban zombies, like a couple from a Don Delillo novel or Sam Mendes movie.  They’re witty enough to still make each other laugh.  It’s not them; the efficient machine of their life has sapped them of energy and time.  So, they plan a “nice evening out” in Manhattan to try to defibrillate their marriage.  

The opening act harkens to the great romantic comedies of old:  Think Gable and Crawford, or anything with Cary Grant or Claudette Colbert.  Seriously—as Fey and Carrell have shown in the Emmy-worthy roles as Liz Lemon and Michael Scott, these two can set up and deliver punch lines as well as any actors today.  Carrell’s self-effacing everyman persona stands in stark contrast to the macho motormouthing of, say, Vince Vaughn.  As for Fey, since most comedies use women solely as shrews to propel their put-out men into frat-guy shenanigans (Jennifer Anisten, Leslie Mann), the fact that she’s actually allowed to be funny is a minor miracle.  Because the joke is always on themselves, their banter lacks the mean spiritedness and gross-out tendencies of Apatow comedies.       

This is why the rest of the movie disappoints.  “Date Night” simply doesn’t have a good enough script for Fey and Carrell.  Rather than shoot for “It Happened One Night,” it settles for being “The Hangover” for married couples.  In its title, “Date Night” seems to allude to the Capra classic, but rather than focus on the couple’s banter, it jumps from set piece to set piece.  Why have a ten minute car chase with Steve Carrell and Tina Fey screaming a lot?  Especially when you’ve got an eternally shirtless Mark Wahlbert getting his flirt on with Tina Fey, with Carrell looking on helplessly like he’s watching his car get repo’ed.  Or James Franco and Mila Kunis as petty-cash Bonnie and Clydes with a two-suitcases-down-the-fire-escape emergency plan? 

Handing this concept and cast (a gold star to William Fitchner as the stripper-lovin’ DA) to director Shawn Levy is a real waste.  Levy (both “A Night at the Museum”s, “The Pink Panther” remake, the “Cheaper by the Dozen” remake, “Just Married,” “Big Fat Liar”) is a well-established Hollywood hack.  The movie feels like Levy had a decent script and this brilliant cast, but over a couple of cocktails after “The Hangover” last summer, decided that it would be really cool to add some car chases and explosions, and hey, Steve Carrell was in “Get Smart” so this should work, right?  “Date Night” should have been directed by somebody like Stephen Frears, who directed John Cusack and Annette Bening in “The Grifters” and would have realized that Fey and Carrell need no special effects.  As David Denby said about the Apatow-style comedy in the wake of “Knocked Up,” the classic directors of screwball romantic comedies were trained in Shakespeare, who didn’t bother with staging elaborate action around Benedict and Beatrice or Kate and Petruchio.  “Date Night” tries to distract us from the fact that it’s got nuthin’ to say.  

The Pitch: 

1 1/2 The Hangover

1 1/2 The Hangover

 

 

 

 

 

Plus 

1 "Love on the Run"

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals 

2 1/2 Date Night

2 1/2 Date Night

2 1/2 Date Night

 

Hot Tub Time Machine

By , April 6, 2010 3:07 pm

An intricate piece of generational metacriticism

Apparently it’s been decided that Hughes’ movies “define” Generation X, thus worthy of canonization at the Oscars. But was John Hughes a great filmmaker?  Did he really capture an era like, say, Scorcese and the urban decay of 1970’s New York?  And if so, why are the white-flight Chicago suburbs a cultural landmark?   If anything, Long Duk Dong is emblematic of the cultural insulation of the suburbs.  As for the writing, if “The Breakfast Club” is a film about rejecting stereotypes, then why are the characters simple archetypes?  Besides, wasn’t John Hughes himself just a bit creepy?  Molly Ringwald herself called her mentor “Peter Pan,” as if Shermer, Illinois was some sort of Neverland Suburb.  Matthew Broderick recalls Hughes’ rejection for even thinking about working with another filmmaker, and he broke off communication with Ringwald for fifteen years over a mini-romance with costar Anthony Michael Hall.

Truth be told, the canonization of John Hughes isn’t about him; it was the moment when Gen X officially became old enough for solipsistic Boomer-style nostalgia.  The Academy’s Hughes retrospective featured a mom-ish Samantha Baker and gray-streaked Ferris Bueller saying that John Hughes saw something in “in all of us” that they didn’t see in themselves.  What was that exactly?  Hughes doesn’t mine the inner world of class-bound teens as much as he tries to imagine what it might be like.  Imagine Elizabeth Bennet freaking out on Mr. Darcy:  “Because I don’t want you to see Longbourn, ok?!”  If there’s a grand insight to Hughes’ work, it’s that Boomers would teach their children social and cultural complacency; or, as The Jock (Emilio Estevez) says during detention:  “My God, are we going to be like our parents?”

 

Enter “Hot Tub Time Machine.”  The one Brat Pack era teen idol who has actively shunned the “80’s Movie” is John Cusack.  Cusack hates “Better Off Dead.”  He won’t really talk about “Say Anything.”  He doesn’t remember which Hughes movie he was in.  In fact, Cusack’s greatest memory of the 80’s is getting high on mushrooms during the “Super Bowl Shuffle” game.  The 80’s, sayeth Cusack, is not worth revisiting.  Why?  He elegantly articulates the problem with John Hughes’ films, at the same time sucker punching pretentious Gen X nostalgia:  “I kept hearing a really hip 40-year-old person talking in teenagers’ mouths.”  

If Happy Madison produced “Hot Tub Time Machine,” you’d expect it to be a Rob Schneider high concept version of “Grown Ups.” But Cusack’s involvement as “HTTM”’s producer/script polisher/lead actor is most intriguing.  So how does one go from Farmer Ted’s BFF to a hot tub that also functions as a time machine?  Unlike his fellow Gen Xers, Cusack’s subsequent roles followed the natural progression of his teen persona.  Trading on the coolness of pop culture, the geek applied his brain toward becoming a connoisseur of music and movies, only to be caught in the thirtysomething purgatory:  The fading idealists of “High Fidelity,” “Being John Malkovich,” and “Grosse Pointe Blank.”  Soon enough, the Cusack Male’s resistance faltered, becoming marrying-material in conventional rom-coms like “Serendipity” and “Must Love Dogs.”  In these last films, Cusack seems bored—as if he’s completed uninterested in the script because he, and the audience, know that he’s going to do what he’s expected to do.  Just like these guys know, in the end, know they’re going to do the expected thing.  There’s a subtle, subversive genius to the Cusack rom-com—he shows small glimpses of masculine self-loathing as these “grown up” men finally give themselves completely over to the conventional life.

Thus, a unified theory of Cusack’s 80’s hate.  In the canonization of John Hughes, Cusack sees Gen X’ers as complacent middle-aged Calibans romanticizing a wasted youth, desperately trying to make meaning of artistically—perhaps morally—dead generation.   In short, we’ve become as pathetic and creepy as John Hughes in the 80’s. 

“Hot Tub Time Machine” is Cusack’s only rational response.  It’s not enough to badmouth your movies everybody loves.  It’s not enough to put on thirty pounds and wear pleated khaki pants for an Iraq War widower movie, make moveon.org ads and Halliburton satire films, or star in disaster blockbusters just to intentionally do damage to your indie-sweetheart cred.  A running joke of “HTTM” is that when the heroes travel to 1986, they see their youthful selves in the mirror, like Dorian Gray with box-cut fades and Iron Maiden mullets.  What “Hot Tub Time Machine” actually does is hold a mirror to a generation that has turned John Hughes into Frank Capra.

Or, said another way:  After about ten minutes of literally living in the past, John Cusack’s Adam succinctly states the thesis of “Hot Tub Time Machine”:  “The 80’s weren’t awesome.  The 80’s sucked.  They gave us AIDS and Reagan.” 

 

On its surface, “HTTM” is the typical middle aged emasculation comedy, first-cousins with “Old School,” “The Hangover,” etc.  The film opens with Nick (Craig Robinson) grooming a dog named “Bono,” but then “HTTM” moves to an uncomfortable five minute introduction to Adam (Cusack) and his basement-dwelling nephew Jacob (Clark Duke).  Adam’s girlfriend leaves an extensive answering machine rant about how he’s a loser insurance salesman that she’s cheated on because he’s tired and boring.  Usually, movie women want to “save” John Cusack from his melancholy, but the point soon becomes obvious:  Cusack is telling us that that the geeks and wannabe pop-song poets of the 80’s grew up to be…this

Nick and Adam visit Lou (Rob Corddry), recovering from a possible suicide attempt spawned by a pint of whiskey and air drumming to “Home Sweet Home” in the garage.  Bro’s before ho’s, of course—especially when you’ve lost control of your world.  Their trip isn’t some cute act of liberation, ala “Old School,” but an act of desperation.  Kodiak Valley’s main drag is boarded up, and the ski resort is so run-down it’s not even delightfully retro—a post-recession metaphor for the distant emotional life of the boys.  Our heroes get hammered not because there’s fun to be had, but there’s pain to be forgotten.  A depressing assortment of cheap liquor bottles and beer cans line the hot tub when, spoiler alert (I think), a radioactive energy drink vortexes them to 1986. 

When the movie shifts to 1986, the jokes are mostly in the VH-1 “I Love the 80’s” ironic vein, but with a “No, this actually sucks” tinge.  No need to spoil those here.  What elevates “Hot Tub Time Machine” is its political subtext.  The fear and confusion on Cusack’s face as he stares into a contorted image of Reagan’s “Morning in America” speech perfectly captures the befuddlement of every liberal who’s tried to tell his crazy uncle that the budget deficit skyrocketed during the 80’s or that Reagan’s CIA helped create Saddam and Osama.  The blonde ski patrol guys are inspired by “Red Dawn”  (“If Ann Coulter made a movie, it would look like this.”) to beat up the gang because, for reasons involving an energy drink inspired by Chernobyl, they must be communist spies.  “HTTM” asks, do we want to return to the existential dread and fear of the Cold War?  Today’s preppy Hannity-worshipping assholes were yesterday’s fascistic ski patrol captains looking for the Red Menace.   Is that a world we want to go back to?

After the boys get their footing in 1986, there’s a good twenty minute stretch where “HTTM” takes on a dour seriousness.  They decide to recreate events to not disturb the space-time continuum (of course), which forces the boys to recall what actually happened that night.  Thus, they look back at the 80’s not through Pretty in Pink-colored glasses, but as they were.  Cusack befriends a cute Spin reporter covering some hot new band, doing his deep-feeling John Cusack thing.  Here’s where the concept of the hot tub time machine pays off:  Knowing how Adam turns out transforms his save-me cuteness into desperation.  Adam resists the temptation to change time because he contemplates life he ends up living.  Who would want to do that to someone you like?  A baggie full of mushroom is the more moral choice.   

In fact, “Hot Tube Time Machine” is a work of Cusackian metacriticism.  Here, his melancholy persona becomes A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Wuss.  Implicitly, Cusack argues that Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court don’t make it because, when his big moment comes, he has to let Peter Gabriel do his talking for him.  Nor should Cameron Crowe’s romanticizing of the 80’s be taken seriously simply because he knows the good songs from the era.  If Crowe were directing “HTTM,” the “band-aids” from “Almost Famous” would step off bus into the hot tub time machine because of Adam’s sensitivity.  But the scene at Kodiak Valley shows us that life isn’t, and wasn’t, really like that.  Posers resort to pop song poetry and mix tapes—a lesson the Cusack Male learns in his thirties from Nick Hornby

 

Ebert correctly surmises that filmmakers who name their movie “Hot Tub Time Machine” don’t lack for confidence.  Not only did Cusack produce and have a hand in the script, he picked Steve Pink, writer of “Grosse Pointe Blank” and “High Fidelity.”  There’s no reason to think these men didn’t choose the concept of the hot tub time machine expressly to attack the canonization of movies they hate.  What better way to expose the truth about the era than to transport them there?  The Gen X critic would argue that, say what you will about Boomer nostalgia, at least they long for a time when people actually cared about real things.  They may have spent the rest of their lives shopping at strip malls and overparenting their children, but the Boomers protested an unjust war, brought down a corrupt president, and ushered in one of the nation’s most fertile artistic periods.  What does Gen X have to show for itself, other than “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” IKEA, and complicity with not one but two Gulf Wars?  Perhaps this explains John Cusack’s earnest but ham-handed attempts at “important” films.  It’s not in our training.     

 Don’t get me wrong, “Hot Tub Time Machine” is exactly what you think it is—an emasculation movie with a bunch of gross-out gags, many of which involve the repressed homosexuality of the drunkest of the crew.  But look closer:  where the Boomers’ movie icon of emasculated middle-aged slackers is a complex character like “American Beauty”’s Lester Burnham, “Hot Tub Time Machine”’s generational representative is Lou, the thirty-something alcoholic whose failure in respectable ventures like careers and marriage has created a state of arrested development.  “HTTM”’s legacy will almost certainly be the unleashing of Rob Corddry on an unsuspecting American public.  The genius of Corddry’s variation, however, is a preternatural confidence in his sexual proclivity despite the obvious fact that he’s too disgusting for even the drunkest booty calls.  Lou’s kindred spirit is Jason Mewes—Jay, Kevin Smith’s boastful, loveable convenience store jockey.  Like Mewes, Corddry understands that the joke is the incongruence between his confidence and the basis for that confidence.  In its finale, Lou finds the one grand accomplishment Breakfast Clubbers can claim as our own.  You can almost imagine Ferris Bueller coming up with the slogan.

The Pitch:

2 "Better Off Dead"

2 "Better Off Dead"

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

2 One Man Wolfpack

2 One Man Wolfpack

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

4 Hot Tub Time Machine

4 Hot Tub Time Machine

4 Hot Tub Time Machine

4 Hot Tub Time Machine

The Docket, 4-2-2010

By , April 2, 2010 10:05 am

Hot Tub Time Machine review is on its way soon, y’all.  Yes, it’s awesome.  The pitch is 2 Better Off Dead + 2 The Hangover = 4 Hot Tub Time Machine.

Clash of the Titans:  This trailer reminds me of my love/hate relationship with Troy.  On the one hand, it’s a big dumb stupid Cliff’s Notesing of The Iliad.  On the other hand, I admired that Wolfgang Peterson, a talented director with a couple duds on his CV, attempted to make a atheistic mythology—the gods in Troy are nothing but false idols whose palaces crumble during savage warfare.  Troy turned Achilles into a raging amoral psychopath, and the wussification of Orlando Bloom and his dirt-stache probably killed his career.  Whatever else you can say about Troy, it had ideas and ambition.  And a real actor at its center; give Eric Bana credit for embodying the contradictions of loyalty that tear Hector apart.  Clash of the Titans looks like it wants to be Troy-esque, but louder and stupider—like it wants to turn Perseus into the Scorpion King.  Liam Neeson may bring some badass to Zeus, but what about Ralph Fiennes?  Outside of a bit role in The Hurt Locker, it seems like he’s pretty much in nothing but Harry Potter movies and Nanny McPhee since…Maid in Manhattan?

The Last Song:  If you’re interested in wagering on the current graduating class of Disney Channel Stars, here’s why the smart money is on Zac Efron over Miley Cyrus.  Efron’s post-HSM  projects have been Hairspray, a can’t-miss commercial vehicle that played to his strengths while minimizing the risk.  Efron was the teenage heartthrob; he sang some songs, acted cool…basically, he was Zac Efron.  The movie’s success certainly didn’t hinge on him; the buzz surrounded John Travolta’s cross-dressing role, and Efron was surrounded by names like Walken, Pfeiffer, Latifah, and Janney.  His first star vehicle was 17 Again, a time-change comedy where, again, he put himself in safe hands.  The director, Burr Steers, directed the superb indie comedy Igby Goes Down, and he was surrounded by decent comedic talent:  Leslie (Mrs. Apatow) Mann, Matthew Perry, and “Buffy” vet Michelle Trachetenberg.  This winter, Efron starred in his first “serious” movie, Me and Orson Welles, directed by indie god Richard Linklater.  Again, Efron surrounded himself with talent; here, not only Linklater, but a criminally underappreciated performance by Christian McKay as Orson Welles.  The role played to Efron’s strengths (he has to charm his way into the role of the song-playing servant of Brutus), but he also had to act.  Efron acquits himself as the naïve love interest of the luminous and mature Claire Danes.  Far from embarrassment, Efron seems poised to grow into…perhaps not stardom, but certainly a credible actor with a long career.

Miss Cyrus, on the other hand, put her trust in first-time movie director Julie Ann Robinson.  Worse, she’s expected to carry a Nicholas Sparks script.  Any Sparksian enterprise requires the leads to find emotional depth where only treacle exists; thus, the most successful Sparks adaptation is The Notebook, featuring decent performances by future­-Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams.  Because so much rides on the leads, all your flaws as an actor will be exposed.  When you have to spend ninety minutes of the film emoting, Sparks doesn’t let you hide—especially when you’re sharing the screen with something called Liam HemsworthDear John exposed Channing Tatum, the meathead from G.I. Joe, as a A&F model who caught some breaks.  Apparently, The Last Song exposes Cyrus as a “singularly charmless teenage performer” who may have just short-circuited her post-Disney career.  Not even Greg Kinnear saves her.  This choice of material seems so short-sighted, especially when compared to the Efron’s.  There is a lot to be said for having a good agent. 

Why Did I Get Married Too?:  Apparently Tyler Perry doesn’t feature Tyler Perry’s name as prominently in the title of Tyler Perry movies even Tyler Perry thinks might not be that good.

New on DVD:  An Education.

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