Saturday, September 21, 2013

Changing Mike's Air-rative

Michael Jordan has been a terrible NBA executive. There's no need to mince words, that's not the least bit controversial. He's made nothing but bad decisions, surrounded himself with yes-men for years and season after season watched his teams struggling harder than his jean game.

Air Struggles
Come on, son.
So I've got an idea for him. It won't change any of his past as an owner or change the perception that he's not very good in the front office. It's not about really about basketball at all. If this was just about basketball, or about basketball at all, it would be a no-brainer bad idea. But sometimes the game can take a backseat for the greater good, or at least a greater good.

Michael Jordan and his Charlotte Bobcats should sign Jason Collins.

Jason Collins SI Cover

In case you missed it, Collins came out of the closet this spring, making him the first openly gay active pro athlete in one of the USA's major team sports. But since his coming out, Collins contract expired and he's been a free agent, drawing little interest around the league. There was a brief flirtation with the Detroit Pistons, but it petered out and they instead signed Josh Harrellson, 10 years his junior. So Collins is still very much available.

So why should Jordan do it? THE primary reason is a simple one: signing Collins would completely change the conversation of Jordan's legacy as an owner.

Jordan grin
Say whaaaat?
It doesn't erase the Kwame Brown (or Adam Morrison) debacle, nor does it negate the 7-59 season. But it does add, arguably, a new first line to his bio as an NBA executive. Breaking down the rainbow barrier, signing the first openly gay player would put Jordan in the history books. Not on a level of a Branch Rickey, perhaps, but he'd certainly be moved in that direction, and away from being solely known for losing and lumped in with the Donald Sterling's of the world.

Jason Collins is no Jackie Robinson, several other former pro athletes have come out after they retired and said they were gay while they played but kept it under wraps, whereas there was no way for a black player before Robinson to hide in plain sight in Major League Baseball, but Jordan could help Collins blaze a trail of own, and maybe open the door for other individuals to come forward as well.

I said this wasn't about basketball, but we are dealing with the NBA so let's go ahead and work out the basketball ramifications. Collins certainly isn't going to be much of a difference maker on the court, he's never been that level of player in the NBA and he's been an end of the bench guy for a couple seasons now. But he could add some value. The Bobcats front court currently consists of recent free agent additions Al Jefferson and Anthony Tolliver, incoming rookie Cody Zeller, the disappointing 2011 lottery pick Bismack Biyombo, the mostly ineffective Josh McRoberts and journeyman center Brendan Haywood. Having a "pro's pro" like Collins in the locker room can help the coaches bring the group together, and since Collins is known as a bruiser, going up against him day after day in practice might impart some much needed toughness to Al Jefferson, not currently known for his defense or leadership. Granted, the role Collins normally plays on a team is currently being filled by Haywood, so he doesn't really fit. He would be the 7th big, and that's at least one too many on a team that really needs to add wing scoring, especially if Michael Kidd-Gilchrist continues to struggle with his shooting.

Jason Collins doin' work
Collins battling his future teammates.
But as I said, this isn't a basketball decision. Rich Cho and the personnel team would have to figure it out. Waive or trade Biyombo (he can't catch the ball), try to move Haywood, whatever. Get it done. Charlotte's not going to win this year, and being a bad NBA team in a state with the legendary Duke and North Carolina college basketball programs means you've got to do something to be relevant. Going 7-59 in the lockout season made them relevant for all the wrong reasons. Bringing in Collins would make the team relevant for a positive reason. Being 34, Collins should be able to absorb the slings and arrows of homophobic fans much easier than, say, a 22 year old just starting out in the league.

In my lifetime Michael Jordan has been the best non-mascot, non-cartoon pitchman (although, there was this), and this is an easy sell to the public. All he has to do is sell the social significance, not the basketball. Standing up for a brave man who dared to break down this wall and all that jazz. The people will lap it up. There may be cries of opportunism, but how much publicity can you really gin up off of a 34-year old 12th man? He's not selling jerseys or driving ticket sales. This is for the good of America, people, and so on. The NBA needs Collins on some roster, so Stern/Silver will owe him a favor (perhaps a Wiggins-sized favor?). Collins may not love being perceived as getting an affirmative action roster spot, but I'm pretty sure his agent could come up with 1.2 million reasons why that's preferable to having no spot at all. Plus, if he wanted to fashion himself as a gay rights activist, the platform he'd have as an active player is considerably more than useful than as a retiree, and North Carolina is currently a hotbed of political activity on the gay rights front, so he might be able to effect positive change as a local spokesperson.

The reasons to do this abound. The only reason not to do it is basketball. And thinking about it, Michael Jordan is known to make bad basketball decisions, so maybe he is already considering it.

Pensive Mike
Aight, I'ma think about it.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Sympathy for the Devil (of Raider Nation)


The first pick on Pete Rozelle's watch as NFL Commissioner was the legendary Billy Cannon.
The first pick of Paul Tagliabue's stint was Jeff George.
The first first pick announced by Roger Goodell was Jamarcus Russell.
That trajectory is what learned men might call portentous.

Widely considered one of the biggest #1 pick busts in NFL history, Jamarcus Russell signed a 6 year $68 million deal in 2007 to resurrect Al Davis' slumping Oakland Raiders.
But the fact is, the kid never really had a chance.
Here's a refresher on the situation he was drafted into: The Raiders were coming off a 2-14 season, with 3 shutout losses, 8 games without a touchdown, and ending on a 9 game losing streak.
This was (and unfortunately, still is) a team adrift. Its obvious that losing that Super Bowl to Tampa Bay in 2003 was devastating, but has anyone ever seen an entire organizational collapse of this magnitude? Consider this: In January 2003, the Oakland Raiders had the highest all-time winning percentage of any professional sports team. In the years since, they have the worst. Of all-time.
Even that sentence feels insufficient to explain just how bad it's been.
Oakland Raiders .591 1960-2002
New York Yankees .568 All-time MLB best
Chicago Bears .578 All-time NFL best
Los Angeles Lakers .619 All-time best  win %
Oakland Raiders .306 2003-12
Charlotte Bobcats .346 All-time NBA worst
Los Angeles Clippers .375 Long-time NBA worst
Tampa Bay Lightning .384 All-time NHL worst
Tampa Bay Buccaneers .396 All-time NFL worst
Tampa Bay Devil Rays .460 All-time MLB worst
It's not even close.

(Side note: Tampa is one terrible NBA team away from the cycle! Adam Silver, this needs to be your first order of business.)

All of this cannot be laid at the feet of Jamarcus Russell. This level of rot must stem from the top.
Starting NFL quarterback is the most watched position in sports, and any time a quarterback is drafted #1 overall there is a feeling that he's got to come in and turn things around. Fast. But there are two kinds of teams that land the #1 pick in the NFL: 1) Terrible teams in need of a QB, and 2) terrible teams in need of just about everything. Andrew Luck landed on the former, Jamarcus Russell, the latter.
Consider, since 2003, the Raiders have only had 1 offensive player voted to the Pro Bowl (Zach Miller in 2010-11, also a 2007 draftee, who promptly ran off to join The Pete Carroll Experience).
No matter how good a QB is, he can't win games by himself.


Just before halftime of a game in Jacksonville in December 2007, Raiders defensive tackle Warren Sapp got into a shouting match with the officials, got flagged for 3 consecutive unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and was ejected. And just as Sapp had made his final mark on the league (he would only play one more game before retiring), Jamarcus emerged from the halftime break ready to make his first. And make it he did. A black mark. 3 INTs.  This too, portentous.

You all know what happened next.

18 TDs & 23 INTs. 7 wins, 18 losses. Yada yada yada.

It wasn't pretty, and the less said about it the better. Moving on.

December 13, 2009. The Raiders were at home against Washington, coming off a win in Pittsburgh with Bruce Gradkowski at the helm. Jamarcus has been benched a few weeks earlier and the Grad-man had won two of his first 3 starts since getting the nod. With the team down 13-10, the ball deep in their own end and about 15 seconds left in the first half, Gradkowski dropped back to pass. Seeing no one open he tried to move up in the pocket, but he was grabbed from behind and dragged down awkwardly. The medical staff is summoned as a hush falls over Oakland-Alameda Coliseum. Oh no.

When the Raiders offense took the field for the second half, Jamarcus Russell took the field with them and the hush before halftime transformed into a deafening hail of boos. I've heard visiting players and refs and calls get booed before, I've heard owners and commissioners get booed, but never anything like this for a guy from the home team. The first incomplete pass he fired was met with even more boos. For an incomplete pass, not an interception, not a sack, not a fumble. Just a run of the mill incompletion. It was over. Russell wouldn't start again for the Raiders (though he did appear twice more in relief for an injury-prone Charlie Frye), but it was clear he didn't have what it takes, and, more damningly, it was clear the rift between him and the fans was irreparable. I don't know that anyone in the history of sports has ever been more mercilessly booed by home fans than Jamarcus Russell on that day in December.

Russell was cut by the Raiders in the offseason and hasn't been seen on an NFL field since. In an act of knife-twisting irony, he was replaced by the opposing QB from that game against Washington, Jason Campbell. (And Campbell was actually quite good, leading the team to 12-5 record in his starts before he was injured, then inexplicably demoted and eventually dismissed for [old] Carson Palmer in a Hue Jackson-engineered panic, but that's a whole other story). Jamarcus Russell had become the ultimate object of derision, the signpost of all that was wrong with overpaid athletes and the NFLPA's collective bargaining agreement and the hip-hop generation and every other sports and social malady.
In his time in Oakland, Russell played under Lane Kiffin, who never wanted him, and Tom Cable, who never liked him (When Cable's contract was not renewed after the 2011 season, he, too, signed on for The Pete Carroll Experience). Having the support of your coaches is crucial for a young player, even more than having the support of the fans. Without it, you can't develop confidence in your own abilities nor gain the respect of your teammates. If your teammates don't believe in you, you never develop the kind of chemistry necessary for success. And then you lose. And lose. And lose. But again, this comes from the top. Al Davis forced Kiffin to play Russell when the coach knew he wasn't ready. Davis never trusted his coaches evaluations over his own (with the possible exception of John Madden) and as a result the team foundered, Russell struggled and fewer and fewer fans bothered to show up. Pride was Al Davis' stock in trade, the thing that led him to be a successful coach and owner, helped him lead the way in integrating pro football, led him to steal controlling interest in the team, and it was ultimately his fatal flaw, the thing that led to his downfall as an owner as he watched his team wallow in misery for the last decade. Because he always knew better than anyone else, his mistakes went unchecked and as time went on his mistakes piled up and the team paid dearly as a result.


Anyone who watched the Raiders in the Jamarcus Russell era would be all too familiar with the sight of Russell slinking off the field after yet another 3 and out, sitting alone on the bench wearing a black beanie. Most QBs come off and talk to coaches, talk to their linemen, pick up that sideline red phone and call upstairs and look at pictures; not Russell. He would take a seat and that was that. You can put that on him if you like, but somewhere there has to be a leader on the team or on the coaching staff telling him that that isn't the way a pro does it. And staying after him until he cleaned up his act. Maybe that's coddling, but so what? If you're investing $68 million why wouldn't you do everything you can to help him succeed? Would you rather just watch him flail and fail and do nothing but point fingers as you all ride down on a sinking ship?

Jamarcus gets a lot of the blame for his brief period of miserable-ness, but it hasn't gotten any better since he left. Prior to this past April, the Raiders hadn't drafted a single QB since Russell in 2007, which might be defensible had they found "the guy" through free agency or trade but they didn’t (and even if they had it wouldn’t be a good strategy; in the Tom Brady era alone the Patriots have drafted Rohan Davey, Matt Cassel, Kliff Kingsbury, Kevin O'Connell, Zac Robinson, and Ryan Mallett at QB.).

Here's the W-L record of every Raider QB since the start of Russell's rookie year:
Josh McCown 2-7
Daunte Culpepper 3-4
Jamarcus Russell 7-18
Andrew Walter 2-7
Bruce Gradkowski 3-5
Charlie Frye 1-2
Jason Campbell 12-5
Kyle Boller 0-1
Carson Palmer 8-16
Terrelle Pryor 0-1
Embarrassing. Yet not one member on that woeful brood is persona non grata in Oakland other than Russell. They've got yet another new QB in this year, and Raider Nation remains hopeful that maybe they've finally got their guy and hopeful they can get this thing turned around by the time the next commissioner announces his first pick.

I don't know that Jamarcus Russell would've done better on a different team in a different situation where he could've sat for a year and watched; maybe he really was as bad as he played and no amount of coaching or training or camaraderie could've coaxed more out of him.

I don't know that any other quarterback in the 2007 draft class could've done a better job in his place for the Raiders. Not one of them is starting for an NFL team today, most are not even on NFL rosters. (Brady Quinn, Tyler Thigpen, Drew Stanton, Isaiah Stanback, Troy Smith, Jordan Palmer, Jeff Rowe, Trent Edwards, John Beck, Kevin Kolb...yikes).

I don’t know that any non-QB in that draft could’ve done something to turn things around. I was hoping the team would take Joe Thomas, who’s turned out to be an All-Pro offensive lineman. Calvin Johnson was right there too. (Even though I didn’t think it would’ve made sense to draft a wide receiver without a real quarterback to throw him the ball, seeing Megatron at Georgia Tech destroying fools while hauling in every pitiful pass from Reggie Ball, I was convinced there was nothing he couldn’t do, and his pro career to date has done nothing to change my opinion on him.)

I do know this: Even though Jamarcus Russell had a chance, he never had a chance.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Futzing with Football: Pro Bowl Edition

The NFL & NFLPA decided this week to make a few changes to the Pro Bowl. Some are welcome (adopting the NHL idea of the fantasy draft, eliminating kick-offs aka the most dangerous play in football), some seem more dubious (ball changes hands at the end of every quarter, allowing Cover 2 defense).This is all well and good and it's nice that the league is still concerned with making the Pro Bowl an enjoyable experience for fans, but I think it's still too much like regular football, and I've got 4 or 5 ideas I think can push it even further into the realm of wacky offseason exhibition it really deserves to be.

1) Play 7 on 7 flag football tournament.
Look, it's already a glorified game of touch football, with nobody going all out, why not cut the pretense and take the tackling out all together. Sure there's no chance to see big hits, but no one wants to see big hits in the Pro Bowl. Instead what you could get is the surreal sight of seeing Joe Thomas lined up at Nickel Back against BJ Raji in the slot. Who wouldn't watch that? All you would have to do is mandate that at least say 2 linemen are in on every play as eligible receivers. 1 QB, 2 linemen, 4 skill players/DBs/LBs. Beautiful. Also, this eliminates one factor that is currently in play with the fantasy draft format. Imagine JJ Watt and Arian Foster end up on opposing teams. Do you think JJ is gonna take any chance of laying an injury on his teammate in a (mostly) meaningless exhibition game? Methinks not.

As for the tournament format, make it 4 teams of 25 players, 100 players total (100!). So each team plays 2 games. 1 in the semi-finals, then either the championship game or the 3rd place game. Players pay-outs would based on finish. $100,000 for winning, 75K for 2nd, 50K for 3rd, 25K for 4th.
Since it's 7 on 7 you could play to a score instead of playing a timed game. So it's first to score 5 (or 7 or 10) times OR 30 minutes, whichever comes first to keep it moving.

2) Everybody plays 2 ways (except QBs, obviously)
One of the great things about an exhibition game is, or should be, that there is a certain freedom that you don't have in a game that counts. There's room to take chances on things that you would never do, like certain trick plays or, more importantly, letting guys play out of their normal position. I do that and more by REQUIRING players to play out of their normal position. Everyone who plays, has to play both ways equally. 10 plays on offense = 10 plays on defense (and vice versa). If the time runs out and someone played defense but didn't play just as much offense your team forfeits at least one score for every play missed and the game can't end if you reach the required number of scores but everyone hasn't fulfilled their play requirement.
This is where coaches will really have to earn their stripes, managing everybody's plays. Actually this would just be a miserable task for some miserable assistant coach who already hates his miserable life because he thinks he should be a head coach. This will really help make sure everybody plays and not too much. But it could give us some intriguing matchups.

Besides, who wouldn't want to see more of this?

The one exception here is QBs. They're too important to have them running around the field of play. As much as we'd all like to see it, it's much better for all of us if they stick to what they do best. Good quarterbacking is too important, even in an exhibition. The other QB related thing I'd throw in is this: Each team gets 2 QBs and both have to play, so it would be fun to see how coaches decide which one to start and which one to use as the closer.

3) Fans Design Uniforms
Or at least Nike. One of the things young fans love about college football is the teams (specifically Oregon) with wild uniforms. I think an NFL/Nike collaboration on a contest that allowed fans to design uniforms (via a website or a Pro Bowl Uniform Designer App©) for the Pro Bowl teams over the summer (to keep fans engaged!) then Nike and the NFLPA pick the top 10 and put it up to a fan vote for the 4 uniforms that will go to the Pro Bowl. I can't wait to see what you all come up with!
At the Fantasy Draft, the team with the 4th pick would get first pick of uniforms and so on, and the jerseys could be 3D printed on the spot. The future is now!

4) Super Bowl Scratches Pick Their Replacements
I think this is only fair. If you earned a Pro Bowl spot AND a trip to the Super Bowl I think you ought to at least get to choose the man that goes as your representative. The great thing about this is that they can't choose a teammate, as the teammates are also going to the Super Bowl, so who would they pick? Would they go with an old college buddy? The hometown team's favorite player who didn't make it, in hopes of getting extra swag from the city while you're there? A player from a rival team who was the last man out? Would A Super Bowl-bound QB troll the entire sports world and pick Tebow???
I would invite the players to announce their selections on Twitter, so they could be as friendly or as passive-aggressive as they want to be in inviting someone to take their spot. And would anyone turn down the offer? (Tebow probably would). If you invited someone to take your spot and they declined, then what? Do the rights to that spot go to the player you picked? Oh man, I didn't think this through all the way, we don't want to end up with Pro Bowl roster spot hot potato!
If you're injured and can't play, though, tough; you still get replaced by whatever method is currently in use.

5) Get to the Super Bowl site.
Honestly, Hawaii has been a great host over the decades and there's no question I would jump at the chance for a free Hawaiian vacation too, but this isn't all about the players, there's TV and the league to think about. Having a massive influx of star players in the Super Bowl city the week before the game would be amazing for the league and media (won't somebody please think of the show bookers on Radio Row!); and it's not like the players can't take their vacations one week later. Players can go to Hawaii on their own time, on their own dime. They make plenty of money to afford to take their families on any tropical vacation of their choosing. Besides, if you're the family of a perennial Pro Bowler, wouldn't you want to maybe vacation somewhere else for a change? Same city, same hotel every February? Boooooring. (And shouldn't the kids be in school anyway???)
The NFL has been amping up it's Super Bowl week NFL Experience faux theme park thing anyway and adding the Pro Bowl would be a perfect add-on for regular NFL fans in a regular NFL city to be able to go an event that wouldn't cost a bajillion dollars like the main event. In fact, you could even let season ticket holders in as part of their ticket package, so local fans have a buy-in to the hoopla and not just tourists.

So there you have it, NFL. Implement these changes and watch your Pro Bowl ratings soar. (Especially if Peyton Manning gives his spot to Tebow).

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Tinkering with Television: American Idol

There are lots of people offering up ideas on how to re-tool the aging albatross that is American Idol, so here I go, tossing one more log on the fire.

Bearing in mind I haven't actually seen more than 2 or 3 episodes in the last 3 or 4 seasons, I don't know if any of these changes have already been implemented, so if they have, good for you FOX, but I do believe these are untested ideas worth a shot, since you're going down the drain anyway.

1. Get rid of the WEEKS AND WEEKS of auditions. In fact, get rid of the auditions altogether. Start the show with the finalists. The audience has no say in this process, there's no point in making us sit through it. We trust you to make good choices, and anybody you cut that we might have loved is lost to us anyway. Sure there are some goofballs and sob stories; save it for a special episode or something, the same way The Bachelor(ette) franchise has their (Wo)Men Tell All episode right before the finale where they show bloopers and hash out things that came up over the course of the season that didn't necessarily get hashed out at the time of filming. Or you can use the oddball auditions as bumpers into breaks, as filler pieces (no!), or whatever, but no more full episodes of auditions. Please.

2. Viewers vote for who goes home. I know, I know, it's negative, we want to be positive and encouraging, and all that these days, but the time has come. Every season someone EVERYONE KNOWS IS TERRIBLE lasts longer than they should while a presumptive frontrunner SHOCKINGLY goes home. It's not shocking, it happens every time. If we could vote off the singer who is the worst that would guarantee more quality performances each week instead of getting to the top 6 and having all of your viewers wonder how that one person is still in the competition. It compromises the integrity of the competition. Let's gets this done.

3. Only two judges comments per contestant. We don't need all 3 (or 4 or however many there are now). They all seem to have the same anodyne critique each time, so why belabor it. Two "It was just okay for me, but it wasn't your best"s should suffice. This would free up more time for actual content. Speaking of which....

4. Let the contestants sing full songs. No more of this 1 verse, 1 chorus, 90 second nonsense. They want to belt out the high notes, but the audience can't feel the emotion because there is no time to build to the crescendo. It comes across as an affectation instead of a natural response to the music. And ultimately the winner is going to have to not just sing but perform full songs as a professional artist, and seeing if they have the presence and stamina and creativity to command the stage is just as important as their vocal ability.

Those first 4 suggestions are just nibbling around the edges of a moldy slab, though. This next one is the real game-changer and the one that could really revive the show.

5. Have a different set of finalists (and judges) for the Eastern time zone and the Pacific time zone so both audiences can have an actual live show with live voting instead of a dumb results show. 

WHAT? Okay, hear me out. Here's how this works.
First, we already got rid of the auditions, so the finalists are in place from day 1. Here's your audition show.  Week 1 & 2 functions as a draft. Week 1 there are 12 ladies, Week 2 there are 12 guys. Whichever ones get the highest percentage of the vote from a particular time zone goes to that show. The lowest 2 vote getters from each week get eliminated.
Okay, now we've got 10 singers to the east, 10 to the west. Now the competition essentially proceeds as normal, with one person getting voted off each week from the East show and the West show.
Here's how the show itself would be different, though. I'd pack the performances into the first half of the show (unless they take my advice and let them sing full songs) THEN announce the voting numbers for each all at once for fans to go and call, text, tweet, or vote from the American Idol app or on the website. You see, when the show was launched in 2001, there wasn't really an infrastructure in place to allow for real-time voting other than by phone. Now there are myriad ways of collecting votes, that can be tabulated just as fast as they can come in. This makes the show an event you have to tune in to every week because the voting is live and you don't know when to vote unless you're watching. This may disappoint DVR viewers, but the suspense of the show will make up for the not being able to participate angle, and besides more people will be watching live anyway. I'm sure there's a way to display some sort of on-screen vote tracker showing how everybody is doing. Instant gratification and a reasonable attempt at engaging the 2nd screen experience.

While the voting is going on, you can fill the time with all sorts of things: Those audition oddballs we discussed earlier, the lame medley/group numbers that go on during the results show now, perhaps an update/recap of what's happened last week on the other time zone's show, so this audience can have some cursory familiarity. The media will cover highlights from both shows anyway, so anyone who watched GMA, Today, E! News or whatever else will have a chance to see some of the best (and possibly worst) performances every week.

THEN once you've crowned an East show winner and a West show winner you can have a live Super Bowl of Singing finale on a Sunday evening (8p/5p). If the individual finales are on say Wednesday, May 6, then the following Wednesday, the 13th, can be a build-up week, hyping the show preparations for the finale; showing the training, staging, hometown visits, finale contestants getting together for the first time.
Then on Sunday they have the big show at the Staples Center or Madison Square Garden or wherever, each finalists gets a concert style 3/4-song set with 20,000 fans in the house. It's a big event, and people tune in for events, even if they don't watch the show week-to-week. Live voting once again (make sure there is ample bandwidth, can't have crashes now!) and while the voting is going, have a Super-Bowl halftime show style party on stage, replete with big names, big bands, medleys, crossovers, a celebratory cornucopia of American pop music. Then announce the winner, rain down the confetti on the winner and rain down $1 million on me for giving you this genius idea.

One caveat: What about Alaska/Hawaii? Who cares. Let them watch a replay of one of the shows. I'm not letting them derail my beautiful, beautiful plan. Especially Alaska.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012


I don't know what's been in the water in Hollywood but the first half of this year seems to have been the season of the Warrior (young) Woman: The Hunger Games, Snow White and the Huntsman, and now Brave. On the heels of the "year of women" on TV (with breakout hits 2 Broke Girls, New Girl, Girls, Whitney, Once Upon A Time, Revenge, Scandal, Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23, and the quickly canned Playboy Club, Pan Am, GCB, etc) I suppose it makes sense to see female heroes figure prominently at the movies too.
It seemed promising that Pixar was FINALLY, after nigh 20 years, going to feature a female lead character. After 2 decades of creativity in male leads (toys, a rat, a fish, a car, a trash compactor, etc) Pixar gave us a female.....fairy tale princess. Oh. Don't get me wrong, as far as princesses go, she's awesome. She bucks tradition, she shoots a bow and arrow, rides a horse, climbs rocks. But come on! Princesses are so easy, Disney animation has been doing princesses for 75 years. We expect novelty from you, Pixar. Granted, I'm sure this is an original story, not a re-purposed, sanitized, fairy tale of central European origin, but princesses and witches (about which more in a moment) and spells and royal suitors. Been there, done that. (The scene with the witch in her cottage/workshop and her wise-cracking raven seems to have been dropped in from a different movie altogether. I don't know exactly what happened here but it seems completely out of step with the rest of the movie and pitched in a completely different tone.)

One thing we see in Brave that we haven't really seen from Pixar since The Incredibles, though, is a touching, loving traditional family. Yes, Merida and Elinor bicker constantly, but there is no question that they all care for each other deeply, and the antagonism between mother and daughter is borne out of frustration of being misunderstood, not genuine dislike. And everyone loves the three little impish brothers.

Once again, a Pixar film threads the needle of marrying tradition or the past to progress or the future (see Wall*E, Ratatouille, Toy Story 3, Cars, etc). Brave affirms respect for cultural tradition as useful means of understanding life/morality/culture while also allowing that it need not dictate your choices/way of life today. A lesson vital to understanding America and in need of retelling to maintain progress. You can't move forward clutching the past, but you become rootless, adrift, if you cut all ties to that which came before. The movie reaffirms the necessity of tradition and progress by making it necessary for Merida to understand why her mother was so intent on tradition and passing down the cultural values (and in doing so, saves her mother's life by re-sewing a tapestry her mother had sewn when she was younger, exactly the sort of thing she wouldn't want to be doing) while Elinor develops her own version of her daughter's courage and fortitude in fighting off Mor'du, the demon bear, to save Merida. They discover they do in fact need, and need to respect, each other. They learn acceptance of loved ones for who they are, not who we want them to be. I thought it was great that Merida owns up to her mistake and takes responsibility for what happened to her mother, she doesn't try to pass the buck onto the witch who didn't tell her how the spell worked.

One thing I wish the writers would've done differently is not have the three suitors be such worthless goofballs (even worse prospects than Princess Jasmine had before Prince Ali Ababwa came around). It's easy for us to see this ragtag bunch and say of course she should reject them. I wonder how we would feel if they were more charming, more impressive guys. I think it would make her choice to reject the tradition feel more substantial, because as written it can seem like she's just rejecting these guys because they suck, when in reality she is supposed to be that she's rejecting the whole idea of getting married off due to long-standing tradition. Then again, rejecting more suitable suitors would only be taken as further evidence in by the "Is Merida Gay?" camp.

I love animation and one thing I appreciate about the animation in this movie is they don't go for the creepy uncanny valley realism that keeps Robert Zemeckis up nights; the characters have big expressive faces and are cartoonish in their features and scale.

They arrive on-screen already looking like toys, and with merchandising profits outstripping box office receipts for kids movies, that's the kind of thing that only helps the bottom line.

If you like you're princesses powerful and fighting and brave and heroic, you really need to see Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Hayao Miyazaki's 1984 animated masterpiece. It really is one of the best animated films ever made.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Legacy Celebrated, A Legacy Ignored

Dr. King is most known for his work in racial conciliation in America, but he was not merely motivated by overturning Jim Crow for the sake of American blacks, but by an abiding belief in justice itself, doing right in all spheres, not just those that affect us personally, but a global, universal, concern for the well-being of all mankind. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" he wrote. "I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up." The "liberty and justice for all" of our pledge of allegiance turned outward.

King's social justice vision is rooted in the so-called social gospel, as taught by Jesus and Paul and other writers of the Biblical epistles. Read the Sermon on the Mount or the book of James; feed the hungry, care for the poor, the widow, the orphan. Do we do these things? Honestly? Some do, but most, myself included, do not, not with any real fervor. This is a terrible conviction. It's easy to sit and "celebrate" MLK and his accomplishments and pat ourselves on the back saying, "look how far we've come" on his appointed day and move along, back to our lives, but the fact is the work to which he dedicated, and ultimately gave, his life continues on today, from the folks at Amnesty International to The Innocence Project to the streets of Syria and all over the world, and we would pay far more respect to his legacy by redoubling our personal and collective effort to the causes of justice and rightness than any national holiday or massive marble monument ever could. King would urge you to make your life a monument to righteousness. He would appeal to us to shake off comfortable satisfaction with the status quo of our own lives knowing others are suffering somewhere and there may be something that could be done about it.  In need of a New Years resolution? Here it is.

...we have adopted a sort of a pragmatic test for right and wrong-whatever works is right.  Nothing is wrong but that which does not work. If you don’t get caught, it’s right. That’s the attitude, isn’t it? It’s all right to disobey the Ten Commandments, but just don’t disobey the Eleventh: Thou shall not get caught. That’s the attitude. That’s the prevailing attitude in, in our culture...we must remember that it’s possible to affirm the existence of God with your lips and deny his existence with your life. The most dangerous type of atheism is not theoretical atheism, but practical atheism- that’s the most dangerous type...And I think, my friends, that that is the thing that has happened in America. That we have unconsciously left God behind. Now, we haven’t consciously done it, we, we have unconsciously done it. We just became so involved in things that we forgot about God...All I’m trying to say is our world hinges on moral foundations. It’s not enough to know all about our philosophical and mathematical disciplines. But we’ve got to know the simple disciplines, of being honest and loving and just with all humanity. If we don’t learn it, we will destroy ourselves.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Best of 2011! Movie Edition

I actually wrote reflections on each of the top 10 this year! and Certified Copy at #20 because the piece kinda wrote itself once I started thinking about it again.
I probably won't get around to writing about the others, but they're all really worth seeing.

Top 20 Movies:
1. Hugo
2. Of Gods and Men
3. Melancholia
4. Young Adult
5. The Tree of Life
6. Midnight in Paris
7. Attack the Block
8. The Princess of Montpensier
9. Rango
10. Take Shelter
11. Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives
12. Warrior
13. Cold Weather
14. The Rise of The Planet of the Apes
15. Another Earth
16. Moneyball
17. The Trip
18. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
19. X-Men First Class
20. Certified Copy
The next ten: Meek's Cutoff, The Descendants, A Better Life, Margin Call, Source Code, 50/50, Drive, My Week With Marilyn, The Muppets, Winnie the Pooh
Last and least: I Am Number Four

Saturday, December 31, 2011


Things you may not know about me: One of my all-time favorite movies is Disney's Pollyanna. I LOVE that movie (and you should too...I also love the black-cast musical version, Polly, that Debbie Allen made in the 1989 that seems to have vanished into the Disney vault). Anyway, Hugo really reminds me of a gender-swapped Pollyanna. In that movie, Pollyanna is an orphan who moves to town to live with her aunt and ends up bringing life and wonder and magic to the whole town, particular the elderly. But that takes time. Initially she's isolated and lonely...until she befriends a boy named Jimmy Bean (note: in Hollywood in 1960 a boy and a girl could actually be friends). His friendship helps propels her forward into the situations that help her help everybody else.
In Hugo, the titular boy is an orphan who goes to live with his uncle in a train station, where he meets Isabelle (a positively irrepressible Chloe Grace-Moretz, not unlike Pollyanna herself) who pulls him out of his isolated existence and into the greater world where he can bring magic and life and romance (it is Paris after all), especially to the aging Papa Georges. So, yeah, watch Pollyanna. And Hugo.

Hugo's doggged determination to reassemble the automaton is heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting because he feels its his life's work. Whatever you think of its usefulness as an endeavor, it is his animating passion, and seeing it work out for him is heartwarming, perhaps even life-affirming, in a world where so few people get to work at anything that means anything to them, trudging through one rote day after another. Here's Alyssa Rosenberg on the subject:
We may not face the same dire circumstances as orphans in the pause between the World Wars — or filmmakers who have fallen out of vogue and been reduced to clever tinkering. But that doesn’t mean that the desire for work that is spiritually as well as materially sustaining is the stuff of fairy tales...Not everyone is going to work in a creative industry, or fight for the disadvantaged in court, or run a thriving small business that operates like a genuine family rather than a corporate facsimile of one. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t want to do work that feels in some way meaningful, and that they believe themselves not just qualified for but suited to. And even if economic reality is harsh, you’re not a flake to want those things and to strive for that sense of meaning.
In the movie, Hugo and once-popular filmmaker Georges Melies are flip sides of the same abandoned coin. Melies retreats into the role as tinkerer, feeling forgotten when people turned (briefly) away from movies in the aftermath of WW1. Hugo keeps winding the clocks after his uncle leaves him but he does so discreetly hoping no one knows and lives all alone. When Hugo is locked up by the station master and the clocks aren't wound, it's clear that he has a purpose, just as the discovery that Melies is still alive allows him to return to the life of the cinema as an icon and instructor. As Self-Styled Siren writes:
Hugo scurries around the station and maintains the clock that keeps everyone on the hop, but he’s apart from it all...Hugo is as isolated from Paris as a prince in a tower; or, say, as isolated as a boy in bed with asthma while his schoolmates play in the truant officer comes to see why Hugo isn’t in school, no station worker knows Hugo also labors there, let alone tries to feed or shelter him. Scorsese knows that a child’s fears of abandonment, the reality of his neglect, are close kin to the fears of age--that no one cares anymore, that your accomplishments won’t even survive as long as you do.

Toward the end of this picture, we see a montage of the early years when Melies and his wife and their collaborators were at the top of their game working on their movies. It's ideal that it's Martin Scorsese filming these scenes, as the most prominent advocate for film preservation to be able to make his own version of filmmaking in the first decade of the 20th century had to be the joy of a lifetime. If we see those films today, the "special effects" look crude, but without the aid of computers or big-studio budgets, they had to be both incredibly clever and incredibly disciplined, so it was fitting that Melies had a background as a magician/illusionist. What must it have been like to be there, essentially creating the medium that we know today as the cinema? It's maybe my favorite sequence in anything I saw this year. Glenn Kenny expresses the effect well:
And when the film flashes back to Melies' glory days as a filmmaker, his glass-house studio and the magnificent and magnificently eccentric costumes and sets for his films (which were often adaptations of the man's stage magic act), the sense of wonder becomes practically intoxicating. Cinema, Scorsese is saying explicitly here, is the re-creation of dreams into moving images to be wallowed in and cherished, and the resolutions of the film's varied story lines represent a very humane recognition of the way our dreams mirror our hearts.

For me, this was, easily, the best movie I saw this year.