Sunday, October 30, 2005

Film Review: "The Triplets of Belleville"

Film originally viewed 10/29/05; DVD courtesy of Netflix

I've never seen a film quite like "The Triplets of Belleville," and I mean that as a compliment. The plot is simple yet the details are so strange, so fantastical, that simple exposition utterly fails to convey its whimsy. And it is the details that give the film its rich complexion. I'd rather not reveal too much of the plot, because the film's surprises, dark humor, and gift for exaggeration are best absorbed as they unfold.

But the thumbnail sketch is this: Madame Souza adopts her grandson, Champion, and the boy is at first lonely and unhappy. She dotes on him, buying him a dog and a tricycle, and he shows a particular aptitude for cycling. Jump ahead a few years, and Madame Souza is training Champion for the Tour de France, where he is kidnapped by the wine Mafia and taken to Belleville. Madame Souza and Bruno, the family dog, take off in pursuit. Lacking money and huddled together beneath a bridge, the duo are discovered and befriended by a formerly famous trio of vaudeville performers -- The Triplets of Belleville. The Triplets take them in and help in the attempt to rescue Champion.

The narrative is advanced almost entirely without dialogue. This device works well, because the visual portion is stunning; the animation is well rendered but it is the artwork that really shines. Belleville's winding streets, towering skyscrapers, and grotesquely obese populace bring life to the filmmakers' vision of a bustling metropolis with a seedy, thinly concealed underworld.

Perhaps I have given away too much already. But particular delights for me included the square-shouldered mafiosi, the dutiful but annoying boy scout, the musical "instruments" used by the Triplets in their act (including refrigerator shelves, a newspaper, and a vacuum cleaner), Madame Souza's unique training regimen for Champion (including calf-vacuuming!), the Triplets' unorthodox hunting and culinary preferences, and just about every scene with Bruno the dog.

At its heart, "The Triplets of Belleville" is a sweet story rendered in a highly unusual idiom. The protagonists exude virtue; the film treasures love, loyalty, devotion, friendship, and perseverance against soulless villains. The film manages to be funny, touching, and perplexing all at the same time. Highly entertaining and utterly original, "The Triplets of Belleville" is a visual and whimsical tour de force. Check it out if you get the chance.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Saturday Afternoon Linkage

Random tidbits from a quiet Saturday afternoon spent listening to some old Ben Folds Five:

• Craptacular. Embiggen. Smarch. Just three of the many words from Wikipedia's groin-grabbingly transcendent "list of neologisms on 'The Simpsons'" page. Fully annotated with etymologies, episodes of origin, and pop culture cross-references! Minutes of fun for any Simpsons fan! Best viewed at work for extra time-wasting goodness.

• It's no secret lefties hold a special frothing hatred for Wal-Mart, but by playing footsie with the feds on the minimum wage issue, the world's largest retailer has managed also to piss off its free market champions. Lew Rockwell, in his typically eloquent style, penetrates to the heart of the issues for free market proponents:

The left's claims of unfair practices would be valid if Wal-Mart did indeed work to impose legal disabilities on its competitors – in effect making it illegal to outcompete the company. And yet that is precisely what raising the minimum wage would do: impose a legal disability on those companies engaged in lower-wage competition with Wal-Mart. So the economically ignorant left advocates raising the minimum wage.

Lew's insightful article is well worth your time. And speaking of the minimum wage and stunning displays of economic ignorance, check out this forum from today (if you can stomach it).

• In a shocking act of Steinbrennery, the Dodgers fired GM Paul DePodesta today. I realize 71-91 is a lousy finish but shouldn't he have had more than two seasons to prove his worth? DePodesta was hired as much for his "Moneyball" bona fides as for his other qualifications, but even as the scapegoat for the philosophy's perceived failings, two years is hardly time enough on which to judge, is it? Anyway, DePodesta's firing is bad news for Dodger fans but even worse for the AL West -- Billy Beane will probably rehire his former protege and the reunion should prove to be a happy one for the A's.

Monday, October 24, 2005

2005 World Series: Fate 1, Analytical Forecasting 0

Not to pick on the amazing Baseball Prospectus or to disparage analytical forecasting (of which I am a fervent devotee), but this White Sox-Astros series is exactly the kind of matchup that confounds reasoned projections. Houston and Chicago meeting in the World Series was an absurd fantasy 6 (or even 3) months ago; even the smart guys got fooled. I cherry picked some choice quotes from BP2k5's capsule forecasts of the teams for effect:

Houston Astros:

There is almost no chance that the Astros can repeat their '04 success in 2005...This isn't a contending team. The question is whether new GM Tim Purpura can get his hands around that fact early enough to salvage positives from the season. The turning point for the 2005 Astros is as likely to be a 6-1 loss on Opening Day as anything else, what with all their flaws. [For the record: Houston lost 7-3 to St. Louis on Opening Day -- Ed.]

Chicago White Sox:

The investment in pitching is defensible, but for all that, the rotation is still really two and a half pitchers deep: Garcia, Mark Buerhle, and El Duque whenever he's healthy. That won't be enough to make up for an offense ill-suited for its home park and likely to struggle to score anywhere else. The new master plan might be a bold stroke, but it's the sort of gamble that will more likely have the Sox keeping the Royals company in the basement than finally getting them back to the top of the standings.

Not to belabor the point from my previous post, but isn't this why we watch? Sometimes that optimism in spring is not so hopelessly misplaced after all. In March and April, few in the baseball forecasting community predicted this matchup or picked the ChiSox to win it all, and those that did were dismissed as drunks or charlatans.

And not to go too nuts about fate like I also did in my last post, but the White Sox have that look of inevitability about them.'s Bill Simmons wrote about this in regards to last year's Red Sox team; that all the bad calls, weird bounces, and crazy plays that traditionally went against them started to go their way, and they rode the good fortune and timely play all the way to the title. The White Sox seem to be following the same script.

It started in Game 2 of the ALCS when A.J. Pierzynski stole an extra out and the game from the Angels. But tonight furnished the best examples yet: an inside pitch glances low off Jermaine Dye's bat and the foul ball is ruled a HBP; the very next batter (Paul Konerko) wallops a grand slam. And then Scott Podsednik, who hadn't homered all season until Game 1 of the ALDS (507 regular season ABs, 0 HRs), turns around a Brad Lidge heater for the game winning blast!

Sorry 'Stros fans, but that's fate: the White Sox are going to win the World Series.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Fearful symmetry: the Frank Thomas-Jeff Bagwell nexus

One of the best parts about sports is the story within the story. The little connections, coincidences, symmetries, etc., that make the games more interesting. While the big news for Saturday is Game 1 of the World Series between the White Sox and Astros, it's worth noting the individual odysseys of (apologies to Craig Biggio) two faces that represent the souls of these tortured franchises.

The career parallels between Chicago's Frank Thomas and Houston's Jeff Bagwell are positively eerie. Both players are slugging right-handed first basemen. Each won his league's MVP award in 1994. According to the indispensable, Frank Thomas's most similar career comparison is Jeff Bagwell; Bagwell's most similar comparison is Gary Sheffield, but Thomas is a close second (their similarity score is 884). Each missed much of 2005 with assorted injuries and, in a ruefully ironic twist, failed to contribute in any meaningful way to their teams' most magical seasons in recent memory. But here's my favorite bit of symmetry: these two men were born on the exact same day (May 27, 1968).

Imagine that! Coming into the 2005 season, most serious baseball fans would be aware of the parallels and connections that Thomas and Bagwell shared. But if it isn't fate that their long suffering teams should meet in the World Series, doesn't it at least feel oddly scripted? It seems like their parallel trajectories have been planned down to the minutest details, and as if in a giant funnel, they've been shunted in every moment toward this inevitable showdown. Ironically, neither is expected to do much this series (Thomas is done for the year and Bagwell will be limited to DH and pinch-hitting duties), but it's a shame that one of these men must go home empty-handed.

These are the details that color and enrich the experience of sports! Yes, we're talking about athletic competition, and the sports-as-life metaphor has been beaten senseless, but the parallel stories of Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell hint that something bigger is clearly afoot. Coincidence, fate, irony, triumph, and yes, ultimately tragedy -- since one of them has to lose -- are all at work here. You don't have to be a sports fan to appreciate the literary themes.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Song Remains The Same

Roughly 18 hours after another ignominious conclusion to an Atlanta Braves postseason, and I've had time to reflect. My immediate emotional response to Chris Burke's 18th inning "blast" has melted into a calm, measured, rational response, and here it is:

FUCK! fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck!!!

How could the Braves do this to us again? Every postseason becomes more crushing than the last. How does Kyle Farnsworth, the one reliable arm the bullpen had to offer, suffer a meltdown of epic proportions at precisely the wrong time? And against Brad fecking Ausmus? How do these things happen? The names on the backs of the unis keep changing but, sadly, the one on the front doesn't. Only the Braves could find a way to pull the baseball equivalent of a John Starks in a must-win game: 1 for 19 with men in scoring position! Are you kidding me?!?

And I don't want to hear the spin from quintessential politician John Schuerholz. Bright future with all these rookies, blah blah blah. 14 straight division titles, blah blah blah. At some point he must concede that what he's doing isn't working. Logically, I understand that bad luck has played an inordinate role in the Braves' annual demises. I know this. I know the bleeders and dunkers that Chris Reitsma allows are mostly dumb luck (though a power arm would miss a few more bats). I realize that if Ausmus's ball heads inches to the left, it's in play and probably a double. I know, and yet, I don't care.

Here's what I do care about: for all of the ballyhoo about 14 division titles, Atlanta is 1-7 in its last 8 playoff series since the 1999 World Series. They're 0-4 since 2002. At what point does the organization acknowledge that some part of its team building philosophy is flawed? That what works against the Mets in June doesn't necessarily translate against Houston (or St. Louis, or San Francisco, etc.) in October?

I know this sounds completely spoiled, especially to fans of teams like the Reds, Rockies, Royals, Brewers, Nationals, Pirates, etc. But rooting for this team feels like the old "Peanuts" gag with Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown. Every year you think it might be different but, when the smoke clears, you're flat on your ass wondering what the hell happened. I don't want to be the Detroit Tigers or Chicago Cubs but I'm sick of being the butt of October jokes.

The awful truth is, I don't want this team to make the postseason next year. There, I said it. Spare me the anguish of another pathetic postseason flameout. I know you can't win it if you don't get there, and that anything can happen in a short series, but "anything" always seems to happen to us. Perhaps I'm advocating the "nothing ventured, nothing lost" mindset, but geez, can you blame me? It doesn't take a fatalist to grow weary of watching his team invent new and gutwrenching ways of losing 13 of 14 postseason tries.

Next year, just stay home and spare me the heartache.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

MLB Award Picks for 2005

First off, Shanah Tova everybody! I had the pleasure of attending Rosh Hashanah services today for the first time, let's not admit how long. Evidently synagogue membership and tickets for High Holy Day services cost slightly less than season tickets for your average mid-market NHL club. Anyway, we went to services at Congregation Or VeShalom in Atlanta -- it's a Sephardic congregation, something I'd never before experienced. The service and sanctuary were beautiful and the people warm and welcoming. We're going back for Yom Kippur. So Shanah Tova -- party like it's 5999!

The end of baseball season always makes me a little wistful. It's a strange mixture of sadness and relief, actually; I miss my daily box score addiction but not the constant burden of combing injury and minor league minutia for my fantasy teams. By October I'm looking forward to the playoffs and the beginnings of hockey and college hoop seasons. So with the playoffs starting today (and the pucks dropping on the NHL tomorrow), it seems the perfect time to offer my picks for MLB's major awards:

AL Manager of the Year: Ozzie Guillen will be the sexy pick, but call me crazy, I think he'll be fired sometime around 2008. His confrontational style and small ball antics worked this year but how far can he go with a team built in his mediocre image? Despite 99 wins, the ChiSox ranked 9th in runs scored and 10th in OBP in the AL. Feh. I'm going with Cleveland's Eric Wedge. He weathered the storm of a slow start and damn near piloted a young team to an historic comeback.

NL Manager of the Year: Tough call. I'm hopelessly biased here but I choo-choo-choose Bobby Cox. Who better juggles his pieces and puts his players in position to succeed? All those injuries, all those rookies, moving Smoltz back to the rotation, struggling to find a closer, etc. It was a tumultuous year for the Atlanta nine but Bobby did his usual masterful job blending the disparate bits into a division winner. There's no one better.

AL Rookie of the Year: I didn't hear many people talking about this, but it surprised me to learn that Minnesota's Joe Mauer retained his rookie status for 2005. Last year's knee injury cut short his season after only 107 at bats, 23 short of the maximum for rookie eligibility. A catcher who puts up .294/.372/.411 and steals 13 out of 14 is a future MVP candidate and the easy choice for ROY. Honorable mentions go to TB's Jonny Gomes (.908 OPS in 344 ABs) and Oakland's Huston Street, who went 5-1 with 23 SV and a 1.72 ERA.

NL Rookie of the Year: Philadelphia's Ryan Howard (22 HR, .921 OPS in 308 ABs) gets the nod over Atlanta hero Jeff Francoeur (14 HR, .884 OPS in 257 ABs). Francoeur's future is brighter longterm but that has no bearing on ROY voting. So despite missing the playoffs again, the Phillies should have a ROY going for them. Which is nice.

AL Cy Young Award: Bartolo Colon had a good year but take away the wins and losses (which are hugely influenced by factors outside a pitcher's control like run support, defense, and the bullpen) and nobody in the AL outpitched Minnesota's Johan Santana. Santana led the majors in strikeouts and finished a whisker behind Kevin Millwood for the AL ERA title (2.86 - 2.87). Santana had more win shares (23 - 18) than Colon and a better VORP (73.0 - 51.1). A case for Mark Buerhle and Kevin Millwood could also be made (just not by me). Santana won't win but he deserves the award.

NL Cy Young Award: This call is perhaps the toughest of any of the major awards. Roger Clemens has the best pitcher VORP (80.6) in MLB but ranks just behind Dontrelle Willis in win shares (26 - 25). Chris Carpenter might have the best overall surface stats but lags ever so slightly in the sabermetric numbers (just 18 win shares but a slight edge over Willis in VORP: 68.4 - 68.1). Andy Pettitte also has a case but will likely finish 4th. At the end of the day, give me the guy with the 1.87 ERA (especially in that ballpark). Roger Clemens is my Cy Young pick but my sensibilities would not be offended should Carpenter or Willis win instead. It's that close.

AL MVP: I hate to do this. I really, really do. But fairness and objectivity demand it! I love, LOVE Boston's Big Papi, David Ortiz -- how can you not? He's the most clutch player in baseball and looks like he's having a blast just being at the park. His infectious smile and steady leadership drive that team -- he's the Red Sox' spiritual and emotional leader. And he had a MONSTER season. But much as it pains me to admit, A-Rod is the MVP. His traditional stats were mind boggling (.322/.423/.613 with an AL-leading 48 HR) but they are fully supported by the sabermetric measurements -- he led the AL in VORP (101.8) and win shares (37). Yeah, he's a big metrosexual wuss and always looks like he's wearing purple lipstick, but give the man his due. He's a helluva ballplayer.

NL MVP: I've already covered this in a previous post, and 2+ weeks of baseball since have done little to change my mind. Albert Pujols is a worthy choice for MVP but I would not be upset to see Derrek Lee win. Granted, the Cubs stunk and the Cards were great, but Lee had a spectacular season.

There you have it. As they used to say at the end of those editorials on the local newscasts: opposing viewpoints are welcome...