ESPN Can't Get Over It

I very rarely use this format for a rant, but I'm over ESPN and their sad, lonely marketing push to make us care about the NBA's problems.

This morning on SportsCenter I saw two (!) NHL highlights, but they were after their "what NBA games are we not watching" report.  They are coming off as a jilted ex, who can't get over you.  I *get it* they have a financial investment in the NBA, but with NFL, college football, college basketball, and NHL, I seriously do not buy the line that there is nothing else on.  ESPN even pushed out Jim Rome on Tuesday and ranted that he didn't buy that there wasn't anything else to watch except reality TV, which is kind of an indictment of the mentality of people who do watch the NBA: what -- it's ball night or the Biggest Loser or nothing?  Sound like your viewers need to get a life.  

And that's probably just what is going to happen, as what happens with all lockouts.  The fans find something else to do (I saw an outrageous suggestion that you *play* basketball instead -- what, exercise??), someplace else to spend their money, and life moves on.  The problem for ESPN and NBA (and TNT and ABC) is those ratings and those tickets don't come raging back after a lockout.  If the lockout taught the NHL or MLB anything, it's that fans *do* find other things to do that are just as good, if not better.  And cheaper.  In this economy, are you really giving the fans a reason to find something else to do with their money?

And just so we are clear, I'm not a fan(atic) of the NBA, but I usually find myself wathcing playoffs, especially last year with the Heat.  (I root for LeBron because of all the NBA "fans" who couldn't handle it messing with "team play".  Yeah, I hope they win all the championships.  Get over yourselves.)

ESPN is still having serious issues with the NBA lockout, but it's getting better.  Just stop trying to sell it.  Love, Matt

PS:  Jim Rome recanted his rant on Wednesday because he found the 123-point MAC game on Tuesday and World Series of Poker interesting.  See, there is plenty out there to get your sports fix on without the vaunted NBA. 



50/50 is a remarkably light and at the same time an unflinching look at what cancer does to relationships, best encapsulated by a character’s admission during a tender moment, “I’m peeing right now.”  Heartfelt without succumbing to saccharine moments (Levitt’s character actually begins his cancer reveal to his parents, “Have you ever seen ‘Terms of Endearment’?”, signaling this film is definitely not striving to be a carbon copy of that.), the film worked for me with a combination of real moments, laugh-out-loud humor, and actors who have real chemistry.

I know that Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogan got top billing, and their bromance is well-executed, but the scenes between cancer patient Levitt and his newbie therapist Anna Kendrick absolutely carry the film.  And this isn’t a Taster’s Choice support group between men, as in, say, “Good Will Hunting”, but two young kids not quite sure of how to do this.  Levitt is Kendrick’s *third* patient ever, and she’s only a doctorate candidate.  While she gives some plainly blunt great advice, she admits she’s terrified of screwing up her job, because that means screwing up someone’s life.  Their mutual awkwardness transgresses the therapist-patient line in very believable and sincere ways.  You’re rooting for them to shelf the boundaries from minute one, because they so clearly have a real chemistry on screen.  It doesn’t help that Levitt is his usual affably charming self, and Kendrick is about as cute as can be.

I’d even think about picking it up on DVD.


Star Wars: A New Hope (Blu-Ray)

Or “Greedo doesn’t shoot first.  Anymore.”

As I hunkered down for my first viewing of the hotly (by me) anticipated Blu-Ray version of the original Star Wars film (Episode IV), I was conscious that my anticipation had grown less warm as the years had gone by.  This might have been to do with the fact that I’ve seen the film hundreds (!) of times, starting as a lad in 1977, and followed by TV, audio tape (we did not have a VCR when Star Wars first aired on TV, so I taped it with a cassette next to the TV and listened to it incessantly.  This is probably a major reason why you might never defeat me in Star Wars movie knowledge.), VCR, DVD, and Special Most Tinkered DVD release.  But I knew it also had to do with Greedo.

My official stance on Greedo shooting first is that it is not that big of a deal.  But secretly, deep down inside, it bothered me on an emotional level.  Not nearly as insane as those who claim Lucas raped their childhood (!), but enough that I just didn’t want to see that scene again.

Now, examining the original film (where can you do that these days?), note that the angle we take for granted these days, that of the blaster fire exchange, was not included.  There was a violent puff of smoke and the sound of a (or two??) blaster shot(s), and then Greedo slumps over.  So, we *assume* that, Han just shot Greedo in cold blood.  Awesome!

Along comes the much-hated tweaks by Lucas and suddenly that extra angle is inserted that clearly (and clumsily) shows Greedo firing and missing, followed by Han’s shooting Greedo about a half-second later.  In self-defense.  Great for a lawyer, but tres uncool.

Now, fast forward to the unexpected changes of 2011 Blu Ray.  Here comes the scene, and I’m bracing myself for it, when something shocking happens – they changed it again.  Yes, I shouldn’t be surprised by this change because Lucas likes to “improve” his films and put it the way he envisioned, but this time they made it so Han and Greedo shoot at the same time.

I am 40, and I admit, I got completely excited and geeked out.  Not only did it make it acceptably cool (they tried to kill each other at the same time), but it looked plausible and sounded perfect.  It’s no Han killing Greedo in cold blood, but it is a character-restoring improvement, to say the least.  I didn’t think Lucas had it in him.

That is… until I used technology to verify.

See, when you use the Blu-Ray crispness to slow it down to frame-by-frame, you can actually see that Greedo fires a split-second before Han does.  Here’s my camera shot of the moment above.  Now, in real-time, that difference is impossible to see with the naked eye (or ear).  Given that the time difference is probably 1/10 of a second at most, fans of Mythbusters know that it is impossible for Han to have fired in self-defense.  No human has that reaction time (unless he had latent Jedi powers – don’t want open up that conversation), so for all intents and purposes, they shoot at the same time.


Now, if they are going to fix *that*, why in all these tweaked versions of Star Wars did they not improve the lightsaber effects of Luke’s training aboard the Falcon (the effects are positively 70’s compared to any of the other films – the instant snap edit from off to on was even improved in the original Empire), or Darth Vader’s hanging, gesturing hand after he’s done speaking the line “I told you she would never consciously betray the Rebellion” in Tarkin’s briefing room.  Was I the only one who saw that?  Or was it like a beloved error to Lucas, like the Stormtrooper who famously bonks his head as he enters the holding bar control room?  Who knows.  Maybe they’ll fix it in the Blu-Ray deluxe version.

By the way, the film looks and sounds *amazing* on Blu-Ray.  Crisp, clear, and fantastic.  Even the pause effects are cool looking.

Final note on technology.  While I used it above to examine the critical who-shot-first question, I think that it’s not really appropriate to view films in frame-by-frame mode.  For instance, immediately following that later blast, you get this frame:

WTF is that?  It’s clearly not an actor in costume.  The frame was clearly meant to hold your attention for a split-second to establish that (next frame):

Greedo gets shot.  Sometimes it’s not good to look under the skirt of your favorite film.

But I’ll sleep better tonight knowing that Han’s mojo is back.

Thanks George.

Green Zone

Matt Damon (for the life of me, Team America has ruined my pronunciation of his name) plays soldier Roy Miller, a ground commander in charge of finding Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in the early days of 2003 in Iraq, following the “Shock and Awe” campaign.  Within the first ten minutes we see that he’s tired all over of going to “hot” sites and finding excrement or, in one case, an excrement receiving factory.
Also within the first ten minutes I grew tired of hearing “WMD”.  Being in 2011, it’s a tired acronym that just smacks of ineptitude, misdirection, and a phantom target.  See, I’d put “SPOILER ALERT” at this point, but if you don’t know the Miller isn’t going to find WMD, that the source of the WMD is a ruse, that even the Iraqi peeps in-the-know claim they never had any (since 1991), then you haven’t read a paper in the last 7 years.  So, now that we know the macrocosm of the film in the first few minutes, what else do we have to sell interest?

The bad (“bad”) guys of the picture is the Pentagon Intelligence Analyst, Clark Poundstone, whose name is said sparingly so that we don’t chaff too much at its ridiculous nature.  His assets are a Special Forces team who does his bidding, which is mainly to cover up the fact (?) that he made up all that stuff about WMD sites to get the US into the war.  Matt Damon has the moral integrity (?) to go against the US mission and get the truth out.  Because that’s what we do.

The counter-point of conscience is an Iraqi Army veteran (“Freddy”) who lost his leg in 1987 during the Iran–Iraq War, becomes Miller's translator.  He’s trying to do the best for his country by helping out Miller – really the US – to get the Baath baddies left in his country.
Greengrass makes several cases in the film, but its most surprising that Freddy’s case is actually made at all, given the moralistic speeches Miller gives about trust.  We get that lying about WMD was bad, and that the US’ involvement in the war is largely attributable to this magguffin.  But, as Freddy points out (and takes action later), the Iraqi people are going to control their own destiny, not the US.  When he shoots the general – in cold blood – that Miller has been trying to save to show the world Poundstone lied, he says (paraphrasing) that Iraq is not yours to control.  It doesn’t matter how or why you got here, but from here on out, we’re going to take advantage of you ridding our country of this dictator.

That message, while laudable for including in a film focused so much on WMD, is also kind of the problem with the film.  The message that it doesn’t matter to Iraqis any more how got you here, because they have bigger issues to solve than American guilt, we’ve got a country to fix.  In other words, I felt that the film itself is telling me that I should be getting over the film.

The mixed message conjures an internal greater-good discussion, about if I had a time-machine and could have prevented the whole WMD fiasco, (a) would it have prevented the Iraq War and (b) would I want to prevent it in the first place?  The film says that answer depends on if you are an American or an Iraqi citizen.  And it also says it’s irrelevant because we don’t have a time machine so get over it.



Drive is a very still, quiet picture, punctuated with moments of extreme violence and surprising tenderness.  In retrospect, it’s easy to see the influence of two major directors in Nicholas Lynd’s stunning sophomore film.  With the beautiful cinematography and character-driven story, Drive harks of Michael Mann at his best.  Harking to the feel of Heat and Manhunter and Collateral, this LA, too, is threatening and fantastic to behold.  The second is David Cronenberg for the nauseating violence of the film.  It doesn’t happen a lot, but when it does it looks and *sounds* disgusting.  There’s a real visceral feel to the film.

The third is John Carpenter.


Ryan Gosling is mesmerizing as the lead (never named in the film – always referred to as “the Driver” or “kid”), playing a laconic loner who, according to his mechanic, can do anything behind the wheel.  Given the opening sequence where he expertly eludes the police on a hired heist, we have no trouble believing this.
Gosling slowly falls for his young mother neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her young son, albeit reluctantly.  He avoids them in the supermarket until he’s forced into socialization via a broken-down car.  He may even interpret this as fate, as his life revolves entirely around cars.  Their comfortable, quiet conversations eventually give way to a beautifully filmed scene where they just stare at each other for perhaps a half-minute, conveying their feelings of interest clearly without saying a word.  It’s some breathtaking acting and rarer still in this era of very chatty films.

A kink in the plans arrives with the unexpected release from prison of Irene’s husband, Standard, who has fallen in with the wrong crowd.  The Driver tries to help him out of a bad situation to protect his family, but it goes horribly wrong.

This is where I get a strong influence from the third director.  Carpenter by way of Halloween, that is.  And I’m talking about the hero of the film.

Even before the stunning and mesmerizing scene with the mask and Nino on the beach – which is starkly framing the Driver as a horror monster – the scene in the elevator combines all three directors in one amazing sequence.  The Driver, confronted with impending violence (or is there?) of a gangster in the elevator with him and Irene, pulls her aside and they share  a couple of tender, soft, empassioned kisses.  Immediately following this, he proceeds to protect her by attacking the gangster and kicking his face in.  Literally.  The horror of the actions and lengths he will go to protect her stuns them both (her more than him), and likely the audience beyond what we are used to for an anti-hero.  He crosses the line of acceptable “protection” and continues to for the remainder of the picture.  Not necessarily because it is violence but because the violence is naked, stark, and threatening to us.  It’s not easily disgestible, put a bullet-in-him death but visceral, drawn out, and ugly.

As an aside, was Nicholas Lynd trying to tell a twilight-zone story – a kind of What If tale featuring Michael Myers if Michael was a more socially acceptable killer?  Specifically reminiscent of Halloween, the stillness of the main character (Ryan Gosling – unnamed throughout – and fantastic) and his laconic nature juxtaposed with his amazingly violent reactions to his love being threatened – just something I’ll have to re-examine the next time I watch it.


Dracula v. Dracula

This is one of those rare cases where I am going to absolutely champion the film version of the book over the actual book.  After many years of avoidance, I finally read Bram Stoker's classic novel, Dracula, mostly thanks to the fact that Kindle allows you to download and read thousands of books for free.  (Those that have gone out of copywright, for instance.)  And, after being impressed with the opening third, found the book ultimately wanting.  What for, apparently, is the added touch of romance (and a little tidying of plot) that Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (don't quite roll off the tongue) provides.

Why call it "Bram Stoker's Dracula" if it's more like "We started with Bram Stoker's Dracula, but thought it could use a little work, so..."?  Well, the crux of the story is all very Bram Stoker, from the iconic and creepy image of Gary Oldman's (peerless) Count crawling upside-down the castle wall to the seduction and undoing of classic flirt Sadie Frost, is there.  But wasn't in the original is the glue that holds the story together, that of Mina and Vlad's former-life romance.  At first, this might sound a little outrageous, but in the context of the gothic, horror, supernatural tale, it makes complete sense.  And it works.  When I think about the movie, I think of Oldman and Ryder (Winona, sparkling) in their penultimate scene together -- Dracula pulling away from her saying, "I love you too much."  It's some dramatic stuff that is only heightened by the Scooby gang's interruption and the enflamement of their protection.  When Oldman in full man-bat gear scowls, "You think your *symbols* can frighten me?!", it's so on.

Alas, that Dracula that doesn't shrink from godly symbols is reduced to a monster.  A monster whose motivation to move to England seems to only be to find some western flesh to munch on, whereas in film they solve this by, again, linking Vlad to Mina in a past life.  He's in search of her, not just idle destruction.

This is by no means an indite of Bram's original.  The style (told by journals and newspaper clippings) is surprisingly effective and maintains suspense very well.  But, with a richer film to think about, ultimately I ended up getting a little bored with the straightforward nature of the book. Had I read it first, may have been a much different story for me.

So, chalk this one up as an improvement over the book, surprisingly.


Raising Arizona

On a recommendation in the guise of fan outrage, I borrowed a copy of Raising Arizona and tried to erase any misgivings I had about the picture.  It's not easy, because what sat with me as a horrible premise for a comedy (the kidnapping of a baby) just doesn't make me go "ha ha" out of the gates.  But this is the Coen Brothers and so I begrudgingly tried to make room for what is a cult classic.

And I tried so very hard.  There is a single moment in the film that is utterly brilliant and at the same time so obvious that I wonder why I had never seen it before.  It is when Nic Cage's character raises his hands together over his head to hit someone and inadvertently scrapes his knuckles against the deco plaster on the ceiling.  That was a bravura moment in the film.

The rest of the film was mediocre.  The main characters' inability to adopt or have children of their own is just an incredibly sad premise that it's hard to find a lot of comedy in what they are doing are how they go about it.  In fact, the dream ending of the film (where Hi dreams of being old surrounded by children) is almost painful to think about.  Raising Arizona just left me feeling sad for the characters; probably not what you want to have happen for a comedy.

The Time Traveler's Wife

I read The Time Traveler’s Wife years ago, and like all books I loved, I’ve had mixed emotions about seeing it translated to film.  TTTW is told from the first-person perspective from the two lead characters, the titular Clare and the reluctant time traveler Henry.  As with his mutant ability, the episodes are not necessarily told in order, creating foreshadowing and tension.  The book is a story of lifelong romance despite the odds where one partner cannot be counted upon to be there.

Like any translation, the film had to leave out some fleshier subplots in order to streamline the story.  Overall, I found the story to be successful, if a slight lament because the ending was changed.  The final pages of the book were rather sad, but not depressing.  The film changes the end (is it really the end , or they just left off that episode?) to something a little lighter, more wistful, but still very effective.  You really don’t know if Clare and Henry are going to get to embrace, and the payoff works.

It's not really worthwhile to talk about the differences, which could be ticked off in a spreadsheet, but I have a few observations.  One of my favorite scenes in the book is the first one, where Clare has waited her entire young life to meet Henry for the first time in true continuity (he has been coming back in time from the future to visit her for years).  Clare in novel is nearly busting with romantic love, barely able to control her emotions in formally starting her relationship with her future husband -- her future husband who in the timeline hasn't even met her yet.  It's just the right amount of angst, tension, confusion, comedy, and heart.  I was disappointed in the translation to film -- it's a crucial scene to nail and it comes off a little off -- more like a detective mystery as to why she's behaving this way rather than a gushing young woman's first real touch of her true love.  In writing this, I think perhaps the film in parts feels just a little off in the same way.  It's a good effort, but the book will remain the better story.  (Note, WTF on not being available on Kindle!)