Friday, April 30, 2010

2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs - Round 2!

It's time for Round 2. Apparently, I know the Western conference much better than the East, and like almost every hockey prognosticator, I was stunned at Montreal's victory. I thought Halak would steal a game, maybe almost two, but not three or four. Overall, I predicted six winners correctly, and three series perfectly. And here's the crazy thing: If I was ranked in the 15 writers on NHL.com, I am tied for first after Round 1. Ten the writers picked Washington to win the Cup, and of the five who did not, only two had two series losses (WSH and BUF) like me. I'm pretty happy with that. Here's the breakdown of Round 1.

Western conference:
SJ over Col in 6: Perfect!
Chicago over Nashville in 6: Perfect!
Vancouver over LA in 7: Right winner, wrong number of games (6)
Detroit over Phoenix in 7: Perfect!

Eastern conference:
Washington over Montreal in 5: WRONG! (Montreal in 7)
Philly over NJ: Right winner, wrong number of games (5)
Buffalo over Boston: WRONG! (Boston in 6)
Pittsburgh over Ottawa: Right winner, wrong number of games

So, my finalists are still alive, and three of four conference finalists still going. Obviously, I'm going to keep my picks in the West (SJ over Detroit in 6, Vancouver over Chicago in 7), but I have to revise my Eastern picks. I still think Pittsburgh has the best chance for the Finals, and I'm picking them over Montreal in 6. Boston and Philly is a much harder series to call, since the two teams are almost identical - or they were until Carter and Gagne went down for the Flyers and Savard returns for the Bruins. I think those players will be the difference makers, so I predict Boston will win in 6, thus finally proving that the Leafs made the wrong choices in thinking that Justin Pogge and Andrew Raycroft could be better than Tuukka Rask. So, that makes my predictions for the rest of the way only moderately revised: West Final - Van over SJ; East Final - Pit over Bos; Cup Final - Pit over Van. Let's see if my ability to predict keeps up in Round 2!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Official "Gleek"-dom

Every few months, my wife and I binge on a television show, often watching a season in a week or less. (Recent past projects have included Big Bang Theory season 1 and Chuck season 1.) On this past weekend, we caught up on Glee, by which I mean that we watched all fifteen episodes that have aired - over eleven hours' worth. There are a lot of facets of the show that we thoroughly enjoy, and we now consider ourselves "gleeks". It is refreshingly unironic, and ironically refreshing to hear both dated and current songs reinvented in a new context, and also to experience the musical mastery demonstrated not only by the performers but also by the arrangers and choreographers. My favourites so far have been "Don't Stop Believin'", "Jump", the Acafellas singing "Poison" and "I Wanna Sex You Up", the brass band version of "4 Minutes", and the mash-ups. The characters are interesting and dynamic, and the conflicts both realistic and entertaining. It is also fun to watch the show as an educational professional and to evaluate the decisions that are made, as well as the techniques that are used. We have a game in which we count how many offenses each teacher makes which could get them fired; I think that Mr. Shue is still slightly ahead of Sue Sylvester, who is easily one of the most entertaining antagonists on television. It is fun, full of life, and entertaining. I am concerned, however, that it may end up being one of those shows which starts off well but that gets too big for itself too soon. Glee actually reminds me a lot of the first season of Heroes, and not just because it features several of the same actresses: both started off with several characters from different "worlds", including a cheerleader; both built to a mid-season climax and took a break at the apex; both featured an enigmatic antagonist who drove the show forward; and both gained popularity as the season progressed and began to more frequently feature guest stars and become the "water cooler" show. Where Heroes failed was in featuring its antagonist, Sylar, too directly in the second season, and in giving too much to the viewer too soon; had the epic battle in the Season 1 finale left more for the future, the show may have been able to weather the writer's strike and would not be currently almost unwatchable. Glee could go down a similar path if it's not careful; even the recent episode The Power of Madonna walked a fine line and could have descended into complete kitsch. But for now, Glee one of the most fun shows on TV, and I am a committed "gleek".

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

2010 Stanley Cup Predictions

I finally have some street cred to back up my reputation as a hockey prognosticator: I won my hockey pool this year. It has taken five years, but I won, and now I get to defend my title next year in our keeper league. (I kept Nash, Kane, and Heatley.) But, with that said, I now have to back up my new rep by picking the playoffs. Here's how I think the next six or so weeks should break down.

Western Conference:
San Jose vs. Colorado - I don't see SJ losing to an 8-seed again this year. Colorado should eke out a win and dominate a game, but I think they'll lose in 6.
Chicago vs. Nashville - Chicago's goaltending is suspect, but unless Pekka Rinne steals at least 3 games, the Hawks should win in 6.
Vancouver vs. Los Angeles - Vancouver is ready to avenge their loss to Chicago last year, and they don't want to lose that chance. I think Luongo is primed for a long run into the playoffs, but I think it might have a long start. Canucks in 7.
Phoenix vs. Detroit - This is easily the hardest series to pick. Detroit has been one of the hottest teams in the last few weeks, but they have a rookie goalie and a lot of expectations. Phoenix is the upstart with no pressure and a hot goalie. I think that it will come down to experience at the end of the series, and I see Detroit winning in 7.

If my picks hold, that would mean San Jose takes out Detroit in 6 and Vancouver "upsets" Chicago in a 7-game vengeance series, with Vancouver beating San Jose to reach the final. That's right: I'm picking the Canucks.

Eastern Conference:
Washington vs. Montreal - Get out the brooms, unless Halak steals a game. Caps in 5.
New Jersey vs. Philadelphia - This could be the upset special. NJ has a history of blowing first rounds, and Philly is on a bit of a roll. I think it's a 7-game series either way and a crapshoot, so I'm going to go with Philly.
Buffalo vs. Boston - Ryan Miller is hot, the Bruins' offense is not. Sabres in 6.
Pittsburgh vs. Ottawa - Ottawa should win one game, so Penguins in 5.

If this holds, the second round would feature Washington over Philly in 5 and Buffalo bowing to Pittsburgh in 7, with the epic matchup in the Conference Finals, which I think will go to 7 with Sid and company taking it again.

So, in my predicted Pittsburgh-Vancouver final, who wins? I think it's the Pitts again, but in 6 games this time. That's my pick for the Cup: the Penguins.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Mega Mania!

I was about ten years old when I first discovered the Blue Bomber, Mega Man. It was Mega Man 3. I remember beating Hard Man first, because he was a big slow Robot Master. It took me almost a year to beat that game, and I was hooked on the series. It was a brilliant idea in its simplicity and replicability: eight robots go crazy, and they each have a stage you need to beat to get to them and a weapon that you earn once you defeat them. Once you have defeated all eight, you move on to the final set of stages as you work toward the final enemy. Along the way, you have some robotic friends whose help you can enlist, and you can use these unique weapons to make your going easier. The idea has been spun off into over 50 games and 28 million sales in the past 25 years, and it's still going strong with downloadable games like Mega Man 9 and 10, which emulate the classic 8-bit feel of the first six games. It has been a lot of fun to play a new classic game, even though Mega Man 9 is very difficult, even for an experienced player like me. It's nostalgic and great gameplay, and I enjoy it for other reasons, too. When I was younger, I could name any boss' stage from the music alone; That game was made much more fun with the advent of mp3s, and a college roommate who shared an affinity for the tinny tunes. I also remember as a young gamer being able to cite the names of all of the Robot Masters and their weapons. Okay, so I probably still could get 80% of them. The point is that I am really enjoying the releases of these new Mega Man games, and that I may need to replay them on Mega Man Anniversary Collection. Rock and Roll (a pun for any other Mega Man fans.)

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Seven spheres of influence

Our church - The Forge - has been working through a construct called the "seven spheres of influence". This idea came out of the work of Loren Cunningham (YWAM) and Bill Bright (Campus Crusade) in the US in the 1970s as a way to identify areas of society in which Christians had - or needed to have - influence. They identified these seven: home and family, faith and religion, arts and entertainment, education, media, government and politics, and business and finance. Our church has been journeying through each of these spheres by having either members from our congregation or guest speakers come in and speak to each of these spheres and how God is moving within their part of that sphere. It has been very heartening to hear that God is working in each of these areas. Of course, as with any construct, it seems to be incomplete; I believe there should be twelve spheres of influence. In addition to the aforementioned spheres, I think that health care, the military, social justice, the judiciary and law enforcement, and athletics should be added to the list, with other possibilities including academia, as post-secondary education is slightly different from education, and technology (possibly different from business). But what I find really interesting is to consider how many of the original seven spheres I have or have had involvement or interest in: all but business. My primary spheres have been education, faith and religion, and media, but in some way I have had agency in the other spheres as well. It will be interesting to see how my spheres of influence grow and change as I continue on in my career, and how different spheres may be emphasized at different times. It's fun analyzing my life like this.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Art of "Unfriend"ing

Have you ever had a feeling like there was a sudden gaping hole in your life that was filled the day before, but was suddenly opened with a harsh click of the mouse? I've had it occasionally, when I've noticed my friend count go down on Facebook overnight. Of course, I have no idea who unfriended me, or why, but I do know that someone who once agreed to be part of my social network now reneged on that relationship. I have discovered three who have, either through trying to contact them again or through reading through old messages, but there are many more who have unashamedly cut their ties with me. Of course, I just did the same thing to 90 people the other day - and most of them won't even notice. I suppose this is a bit of a continuation from when I started this process over two months ago, but I felt much more thorough this time. That first time I just culled the more random connections; this time I was starting to evaluate whether I really needed to keep contact with people. It was a reversal of thought for me; rather than trying to have the most friends possible, I am trying to have Facebook reflect my real relationships. There is a fine art to Facebook friends that I am still discovering. I suppose this is why Oxford Dictionary declared "unfriend" the word of the year for 2009. This idea of managing friendships through social networks is still relatively new, and I still feel like I'm learning about the ins and outs of unfriending. And if you're one of those people who were culled, it's not personal - it's Facebook.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Review: Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton has a unique place in Hollywood. He began as a creepy outsider, and now he's a still-creepy kind-of insider. Perhaps more than any other working director, his distinctive style is easily recognizable, which it seems may be both a boon and a bane to his career: boon because he chooses his films well; bane because he cannot seem to escape it (or at least he has not chosen to). He chooses films that fit his gothic-meets-psychedelic vibe, or reforms others' stories to fit his style. On occasion, he has branched out into less "Burton-esque" territory - the prime example being 2003's Big Fish, arguably his best film - but most of the time, people want to see Tim Burton's take on the story. Alice in Wonderland does not disappoint: it is distinctively Burton, both to its benefit and to a fault.
Burton wisely does not attempt to recreate the existing Wonderland story. Rather, he creates a construct in which Alice does not recall what happened in Underland when she was a little girl, and she is brought back thirteen years later as a budding young woman. This allows Burton some poetic license with the story, though he chooses to roughly parallel the original story, as he still understands that viewers want to see the classic story and characters. They're all here: the Mad Hatter, Absalom, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the March hare, the Red Queen, the White Queen, the Rabbit, the Knave of Hearts, the Cheshire Cat, and even the Jabberwock! Part of the enjoyment of the movie is seeing how Burton envisions each of these characters and how he manipulates the visuals to achieve his version of the story. The plot is straightforward and serviceable, but what it's really meant to do is get Alice from place to place so that the viewer can marvel at the new spectacle.
Burton turns to some of his typical muses to deliver his vision. Johnny Depp, in his seventh Burton film, is delightfully odd as the Mad Hatter, the centrepiece of Burton's vision. (An aside: Burton-Depp is arguably the best director-actor combo ever. Scorsese-De Niro is up there, as are Coens-McDormand, Clooney, or Goodman. Maybe this is a subject for a future post. But I digress.) Depp's performance manages to bring depth to what easily could have been a one-note character. The same goes for Burton's wife, Helena Bonham Carter, as the Red Queen; she is given a similarly shallow role and thoroughly relishes it. Anne Hathaway is not so fortunate as the White Queen; her performance is more airy than fairy, and she does not execute as well as her comrades. I do suspect, however, that her performance is more due to directing than acting. The supporting cast of assorted voices are well cast and entertaining, especially Alan Rickman and Stephen Fry.
But despite the preponderance of characters, the movie's success is dependent upon the doe-eyed innocence of Alice, ably portrayed by newcomer Mia Wasikowska. I'm sure that much has been written about her "star-making debut", so I will not add much to the discourse except to say that the movie succeeds because of her. Her wide-eyed wonderment helps bring the viewer into the lush landscape of Underland, which is the other primary strength of the movie. There are issues with the movie, too, but nothing that detracts significantly from it. It is an enjoyable, if elementary, trip to Wonderland, and an entertaining movie to watch. It is not spectacular, though it is a spectacle; and even if it's not wonderful, at least it's underful.

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