Tuesday, January 25, 2011

TV Show Review: Boardwalk Empire

Finally, a review not about a movie or book! HBO's show Boardwalk Empire recently wrapped up it's debut season. I haven't been this intrigued by a show's first season since Lie to Me. But one thing Boardwalk Empire has that Lie to Me never did was the ability to stray away from the mainstream production techniques and story lines. Set in the Prohibitionist era in Atlantic City, Boardwalk Empire does an incredible job with setting, characterization and dialogue to make the viewer feel as if he or she is watching a legitimate 80-year-old story play out on screen.

Steve Buscemi plays the lead role of Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, the city Treasurer who has his hands in every aspect of business on the boardwalk. He collects dues from everyone, and heads a few illegal alcohol-peddling operations. Even further, his brother Eli Thompson is the Sheriff and can take care of Nucky's dirty work, no questions asked.

Nucky's back story is complicated, and we still never get a great idea of what exactly transpired in his past, but we get a few subtle hints as the season progresses. We know for sure that he had a wife who died and that he raised his right-hand man Jimmy like a son. Boardwalk Empire plays tug-of-war with the viewers' hearts and hopscotch with out minds. For example, Nucky can be a ruthless, cutthroat businessman one minute, and a generous, caring donor the next. It's hard to get a clear read on who they want us to believe Nucky is: cold-hearted, back-stabbing politician, or sympathetic, overwhelmed good guy.

Jimmy Darmody is basically his go-to guy for errands and "hits." Through Jimmy we get a very interesting dynamic with him and his own wife and child, his history in war, and his ties to Chicago and New York-based mobs. Behind the camera though, Jimmy (Michael Pitt - Funny Games, The Dreamers, Dawson's Creek) puts on an absolutely incredible performance. As far as quality of acting, he is definitely my favorite character. He has the vengeful, smart, yet charming mobster role down to a tee.

Nucky's love interest is Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald - No Country for Old Men) in a breakout performance. She also does a great job in her role as the single, immigrant mother who grows up more than anyone throughout the course of the season. It gets to the point where Margaret even stands up to Nucky, something that is unheard of by a woman in the presence of a powerful man those days.

Other great performances are made by Paz de la Huerta (playing Lucy Danziger), Michael Shannon (Prohibition Agent Nelson van Alden), Michael Stuhlbarg (Arnold Rothstein), and Vincent Piazza (Lucky Luciano). And a standout job by a directing/writing team that includes Martin Scorcese, Mark Wahlberg, and Terence Winter gives Boardwalk Empire it's realistic feel.

It's difficult to blog about this show without just wanting to type for hours, or spoil the story's best plot points for you. But what I can tell you is there is a bold mix of politics, love, sex, alcohol, violence and scandal that flows together perfectly in the show's first season.

If you want a gangster drama with great writing and even better acting, definitely check out HBO's Boardwalk Empire. I promise this isn't a cop-out or anything; I really honestly can not write much more without either saying too much or spoiling everything. But PLEASE believe me, Boardwalk Empire is worth watching. Check out the pilot and I know you'll be hooked! Can't wait for Season 2! Overall Grade: A

I know this is probably illegal, and definitely immoral but...-looks over both shoulders-...go here if you want to stream episodes on your computer:

Monday, January 17, 2011

A slightly biased, completely justified analysis of Klay Thompson’s case for Player of the Year

This article comes about due to a recent piece I read on Yahoo! about BYU’s Jimmer Fredette being a “worthy candidate” for college basketball’s annual John R. Wooden (Player of the Year) award. I have no problems with that assertion and even support it. The main reason for my aversion to the article is my undying faithfulness to the Washington State University basketball team; especially Klay Thompson, and the limited amount of publicity he is getting for the award.

Don’t get me wrong, he is on the midseason list of 30 finalists and any coverage of Cougar basketball this season has been chock full of praise for the junior shooting guard (one announcer even raved, “Thompson might just be the best pure shooter in the nation.”). And yes, I am biased. I’m a senior at WSU and a huge fan of the basketball team. Waking up before dawn and camping out in the snow to be first in line for the games is a regular occurrence for me.

But, as the title suggests, making a strong case for Thompson is completely justified. Through 18 games, he is averaging 22.9 points per game; eighth best in the nation. Additionally, he is shooting 47.6% from the field, 85% from the line and 44.1% from three-point range. Throw in 5.2 rebounds, 4 assists, 1.8 steals and 1 block per game and you can really see why Thompson is essentially the only reason WSU is in contention for a tournament berth.

What I did is used a cool website called statsheet.com to pull up and compare Thompson’s stats to the five players I believe are the current frontrunners for the Wooden Award. So here goes a slightly biased, completely justified analysis of Thompson’s case for the award, as measured against Fredette, UConn’s Kemba Walker, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, Duke’s Nolan Smith and Baylor’s LaceDarius Dunn (all stats are per game averages and current as of January 15, 2011). I apologize for the quality of the chart.

Let’s start by looking at the records. In this aspect, Thompson actually is dead last. That being said, everyone else besides Fredette on this list plays at a school with big-time basketball reputations. Duke, Baylor, Ohio State and UConn are all annual powerhouses. They attract better athletes and have an easier time recruiting. Let me tell you, nobody wants to play in Pullman, Wash. It’s cold, it’s in the middle of nowhere and the closest major town is Spokane, over an hour away. And let me tell you, nobody wants to go to Spokane either. My point is that while everyone on this list is their team’s star and best player, Thompson and Fredette have the worst supporting casts. They aren’t bad, just not as stellar as the other four. Also, despite success of mid-major conferences like the MWC where Fredette plays, the overall quality of play does not compare to the Big Six conferences. Essentially I’m saying that Thompson at Washington State, playing in the Pac-10, has to constantly carry his team more often and against better competition than the other five. He does more with less, against better.

Points per game is, at the game’s core, the most important statistic to determine a player’s worth. After all, the goal of basketball is to score more points than the other team. So the more a single player can contribute to their team’s point total, the more important they are. In this category, Thompson ranks behind Fredette and Walker. The leader board for points per game is going to look different at the end of the season, but expect those three guys to still be in the top ten. It might sound strange, but to be the best player in college basketball means to have the best all-around game and be most valuable to your team; we can not solely rely on points per game to determine which of these six players is most deserving. For example, Sullinger ranks last in points per game, but he basically averages a double-double and plays stellar defense as a freshman in a competitive conference. Smith and Dunn have stepped up and carried their teams while averaging over 20 per game, yet they rank far behind Fredette and Walker.

Also, the clutch factor is something that can not be taken into consideration. Every player I am looking at is what I would call “clutch.” I have personally seen it with Thompson; the guy steps up and knocks down the big shot when the situation dictates it. More than a few times, everybody on this list has put their team on their back and willed it to a big victory. If I had to choose the most clutch player, I would have to take Walker, who always seems to hit a game-winning basket for UConn. But, like points per game, the clutch is very arbitrary among these guys; they all carry their teams, they are all stars and they are all clutch. Now, let’s move on to the stats that actually separate these players.

Before we get to this last section, I want to throw out a quick disclaimer. By no means through this article am I claiming that Thompson is the most deserving candidate to win the Wooden Award. In fact, if I absolutely had to make that decision today, I’d take Walker by a hair over Dunn and Fredette. It remains to be seen who will take home the trophy, but for now all I want to accomplish is to show people that a relatively underrated basketball team in the icy wheat fields of Eastern Washington has quietly produced one of the best ten players in the nation.

So, as you can see above, Thompson does a lot more than just score for WSU. He is sharing the ball well, getting his teammates involved, pulling down rebounds and playing stingy defense. He’s also been very consistent, scoring in double digits every game and pouring in almost half of his attempts from the field. Only Fredette has a better free-throw percentage and nobody is more reliable than Thompson from beyond the arc. I am most impressed by the massive lead Thompson has in blocks, especially over a center, Sullinger. His hustle defense is one underappreciated aspect of Thompson’s improved game.

This isn’t an actual mathematical, statistical formula for selecting who is better at what, but I’d like to think it’s a pretty accurate reading into how consistently a player’s non-scoring numbers compare. If you add up assists, rebounds, steals and blocks per game, Thompson sits at exactly 12.0, third out of the six. Smith is at 12.1 and Sullinger, due to the naturally large rebounding number that a center gets, leads the pack at 12.8. So, Thompson pours in almost 23 points per game, shoots the lights out from everywhere on the floor and averages 12 other plays per game in which he is either contributing to the scoring with an assist, gaining possession for the team with a rebound, or playing pesky defense with a block or steal. I just think that’s an interesting, abstract measure of how many big plays a player is a key to in any given game.

The fact that Thompson’s stats do line up to some of the most talented, most talked-about players in the nation demonstrates all I wanted to accomplish by writing this article. Klay Thompson deserves recognition. He deserves to be known among all college basketball fans. He deserves to be talked about in the company of Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette, LaceDarius Dunn, etc. Without being able to watch him play regularly, it’s understandable that he is not a household name yet. Even here in Pullman we often can’t watch the away games on TV. But, I do expect Thompson to keep playing well enough to continue gaining attention and would be shocked if he didn’t make the next cut for the Wooden Award candidate list.

Now, one could make the case that Derrick Williams of Arizona or Isaiah Thomas of Washington are actually better than Thompson in his own conference. Kyle Singler of Duke, E’Twaun Moore of Purdue and Jacob Pullen of Kansas State are just a few of the many players I could have mentioned in the same breath as the guys we just analyzed.

So, obviously there are plenty of worthy candidates, and only time will tell who is actually anointed the best player in the nation. I can only hope that Thompson continues to lead my Cougs to big wins, and continues to get recognition along the way. And to analysts, voters, pollsters, etc. everywhere: Don’t let WSU’s lesser reputation scare you away from lavishing some love on our star, one of the best college basketball players in America, Klay Thompson.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

2010 All-MLB Team

Greatest inventions of all time: the wheel, the camera, Velcro, In-N-Out Burger. Over the last couple years, we can add one more thing to that list; MLB Network. For baseball fans, it is the Mecca of analysis, highlights and coverage. As I sat watching the 2010 Year in Review show yesterday, trying not to throw the remote through the screen as they continually showed those filthy, rotten San Francisco Giants celebrating their World Series victory, I found myself curious as to how they compiled their “All-MLB team.”

First of all, they had to choose just nine position players, one designated hitter, one utility player, one starting pitcher, one reliever and one closer to round out the team. From both leagues combined. Still, they made some…curious choices. In what was such a memorable year for baseball, how do you limit yourself to that tiny roster? So even though it may be more blasphemous than bringing a nun to a strip club, I decided to say, “I can do it better.” I’ve allowed myself a 30-man roster, plus a “backup” starting rotation (give me a break, it was the Year of the Pitcher) in choosing my All-MLB team for 2010:

Starter – Buster Posey, SF
Backup – Joe Mauer, MIN

What better way for Posey to top off a season in which he won Rookie of the Year and a World Series ring? Of course, the next best honor; being a part of my All-MLB team! There were three legitimate candidates in my mind, and Posey, by virtue of winning the ring, edged out Mauer for the starting spot. Not only did he put up monster offensive numbers in just over half of a season, but he handled the best pitching staff in the league with finesse and professionalism. Apologies to Brian McCann (ATL)*

First Base:
Starter – Joey Votto, CIN
Backup – Albert Pujols, STL*

This was by far the most difficult category to choose. I ended up siding with the National League MVP, Votto. He had a crazy offensive season, was extremely clutch, and led the Reds to a long-awaited N.L. Central title. Something I think stands out even more is that according to Yahoo! blogs, he had yet to hit an infield pop fly almost at the season’s end. It’s rare to see a player making contact that good. And of course, the backup is Pujols, who had his typical Hall-of-Fame caliber season. Apologies to Miguel Cabrera, DET; Prince Fielder, MIL; Adrian Gonzalez, SD; Mark Teixeira, NYY

Second Base:
Starter – Robinson Cano, NYY*
Backup – Dan Uggla, FLA

Cano was an easy choice. He almost stole the American League MVP award from Josh Hamilton. Great defense, improved power, 200 hits for the second straight season…easy choice. Cano carried the Yankees at times when they were decimated by injury, poor play, whatever. I chose Uggla as the backup based on his power numbers, but it was tough to say no to these guys: apologies to Brandon Phillips, CIN and Rickie Weeks, MIL

Third Base:
Starter – Adrian Beltre, BOS*
Backup – Alex Rodriguez, NYY

Another tough category, as four of the five A.L. East teams had a legitimate candidate. Beltre had an insane season, his best since his contract year with the Dodgers. That being said, it’s his second great season…both in his contract year. We will see if this is another fluke, and if the Rangers (most likely) end up regretting giving him big money. But as for this year, Beltre led the way at the hot corner on both offense and defense. Apologies to Jose Bautista, TOR; Evan Longoria, TB; Michael Young, TEX; Casey McGehee, MIL; Ryan Zimmerman, WAS

Starter – Troy Tulowitzki, COL*
Backup – Hanley Ramirez, FLA

Who cares if Tulo missed a bunch of time with a wrist injury? He hit fifteen home runs and drove in 40 runs…IN SEPTEMBER. The guy had possibly his most impressive offensive season even with the injury. And as usual, he was a wall at shortstop. He almost led the Rockies back from a huge deficit to win the N.L. West before a late slide killed those dreams. Either way, Tulo dominated opposing pitchers this year. And even in a down year, the backup Ramirez still put up crazy numbers. Apologies to Derek Jeter, NYY; Alexei Ramirez, CHW; Juan Uribe, SF

Starters – Josh Hamilton, TEX*; Carlos Gonzalez, COL*; Carl Crawford, TB
Backups – Matt Holliday, STL; Ichiro Suzuki, SEA*; Nelson Cruz, TEX

What a crop of outfielders this year. Hamilton won the A.L. MVP, Gonzalez exploded to almost outpace Votto and Pujols for the N.L. honor, and Crawford was his typical blend of power, speed, average and defense. Holliday put up huge numbers again, Ichiro reached 200 hits for the tenth straight season, and Cruz complemented the runner-up Rangers and Hamilton, dropping bombs and driving in runs like nobody’s business. Despite all six players having solid seasons, the starters were surprisingly easy to choose. Crawford and Hamilton were no-brainers in my opinion, and Gonzalez played his way in (why, oh WHY did the A’s trade him?). His walk-off home run, er, moon shot to complete the cycle this summer was just unbelievable. Apologies to Adam Dunn, WAS; Delmon Young, MIN; Austin Jackson, DET; Jason Heyward, ATL

Designated Hitter:
Starter – Vladimir Guerrero, TEX*
Backup – Vladimir Guerrero, TEX

No, that’s not a typo. I am going to toot my own horn here for a second; I chose Vlad in the 15th round of my fantasy draft with the uncanny knowledge that he would bounce back and have a monster year. But, is there any DH in the league last year that opposing pitchers wanted to face less than Vlad? The guy is still the most intimidating hitter in the league and still hits the ball from anywhere in the strike zone 500 feet. If the Rangers don’t shell out some money to re-sign him, they are absolutely crazy. Guerrero was just as instrumental to their postseason berth as Hamilton or Cruz last season. Apologies to pitchers anywhere and everywhere who Vlad steps in against.

Starting Pitcher:
Starting Rotation – Felix Hernandez, SEA; Cliff Lee, TEX/SEA; Jon Lester, BOS; David Price, TB; Roy Halladay, PHI*
Backup Rotation – CC Sabathia, NYY; Tim Lincecum, SF; Adam Wainwright, STL; Josh Johnson, FLA; Trevor Cahill, OAK

This was a fun one. There were so many amazing pitching seasons this year that I just had to take ten on my roster. In my starting rotation, I had to include the annually underrated, under-run-supported, A.L. Cy Young-winning Hernandez, the twice-unhittable (once-perfect) N.L. Cy Young-winning Halladay, and a few other A.L. studs. Lee and Price were easy choices and Lester bounced back from a horrible start to claim a spot on the first team. And if my backup rotation was made up of the ace of the Yankees, the ace of the World Champions, and three other guys who almost hit 20 wins, with ERA’s under 3.00? That’s just unfair. The hardest part of this was not being able to find a spot for any of these guys: apologies to Justin Verlander, DET; Carl Pavano, MIN; Ubaldo Jiminez, COL; Matt Cain, SF; Mat Latos, SD; Chris Carpenter, STL; Tim Hudson, ATL; Clay Buccholz, BOS

Relief Pitcher:
Set-up Man – Hong-Chih Kuo, LAD
Rest of the Best – Mike Adams, SD; Joaquin Benoit, TB*; Arthur Rhodes, CIN; Daniel Bard, BOS; Johnny Venters, ATL

Kuo came back from an elbow injury to have a ridiculous season setting up the porous Jonathan Broxton in Los Angeles. He ended the season taking over the closer’s role temporarily and still had a microscopic ERA. Adams and Benoit were set-up men for two of the most dominant closers this year, Bard is the heir to the closer’s throne in Boston, and Rhodes and Venters were un-hittable lefty specialists. A pen with these guys might guarantee victories after the starters hit the shower. Apologies to Scott Downs, TOR; Luke Gregerson, SD; Tyler Clippard, WAS

Starter – Brian Wilson, SF*
Backup – Neftali Feliz, TEX

I hate to do it, but I had to give this spot to Wilson. I don’t think he’s the most consistent, and he certainly doesn’t do it without a scare, but he still had a sub-2.00 ERA, had almost 50 saves, and was untouchable in the postseason. I hate the antics, I hate that he’s on the Giants, but I need a stopper on my team, and based on 2010, Wilson is the guy. Feliz was just as good, he just didn’t record quite as many saves. The kid is young though, give him time! Apologies to Heath Bell, SD; Joakim Soria, KC; Rafael Soriano, TB; Billy Wagner, ATL; Mariano Rivera, NYY

*denotes MLB Network’s pick