Posted by mike in Entertainment,Sports at 11:40 pm on March 26, 2009

A sentiment I seem to encounter often is that it is wrong for college sports to be such a big-money business, and that tying the high expenditures of running nationally prominent programs and the corresponding high ticket prices to the pursuit of higher education is a practice that should be tempered, downplayed, or disbanded altogether. This thought process universally comes from those who are not sports fans themselves, but more importantly, it typically comes from a position of ignorance for how the world of collegiate athletics actually functions. I don’t claim to be an expert on the matter by any means, but I have noticed a significant amount of evidence that contradicts the basis for nearly all of these arguments.

“This is what my tuition money goes towards?” While that might be a funny comment to make, especially as a means of downplaying a particularly embarrassing loss by your school’s team, it’s not based in any sort of truth. I heard this often at the University of Illinois, whose school paper recently ran an article that explicitly disputes it: “We take no university funds,” assistant athletics director Kent Brown was quoted as saying. This is, as I understand it, typically the case at major university athletic departments: they are self-sustaining (and then some), through booster contributions, ticket sales, and media contracts.

The funniest recent example of this type of dispute coming to a head was when a “reporter” last month asked Connecticut men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun if he might be morally obligated to return a portion of his nearly $2 million salary to the school, as the state’s highest-paid employee during a time of economic crisis. Calhoun responded in the manner of making the strongest argument possible: with facts.

He points out what should be obvious, that in the true fashion of capitalism, college athletics are big business because they are profitable. The sports teams are in a mutually beneficial relationship with their institutions: they promote their university’s image nationally, while bringing in high dollar amounts for the school in the process ($12 million a year, according to Calhoun, in the case of Connecticut’s men’s basketball program—and their women’s team, as one of the top women’s basketball programs in the country, presumably does nearly or equally as well). In exchange, by being tied to universities, the sports programs get a semblance of credibility (and innocence) that they would not have were they not affiliated with educational institutions. There’s also the fact that they often attract a lot of student-athletes who would not have otherwise attended college at all, in some cases (as with Bob Knight’s track record, for example) maintaining graduation as the ultimate goal. The argument here is often that these athletes are less deserving of receiving the educations they are given for free, which might have some validity, though it’s hard for those adopting this position to phrase it in a way that doesn’t smell of racial undertones.

What I mostly take issue with, at any rate, is how this discussion is often framed as being a matter of those who are concerned with the “purity” of higher education decrying the institution’s sullying at the hands of those silly sports. As if a student-athlete is doing anything less valuable, or serving a lesser social function, than the more traditional areas of study. Personally, I don’t see much of a difference between a major in Sports Management and one in, say, Philosophy or History or any of the other liberal arts degrees that are notoriously the butt of jokes about their applicability to the job market. In measurements involving the bottom line, especially, I certainly find Jim Calhoun’s to be the more compelling argument.

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Posted by mike in Religion,Sports at 10:26 pm on March 26, 2009

College sports are big business, and at the nation’s premier athletic schools, it’s exceedingly cutthroat. Fan expectations run correspondingly high, with most fanbases not having much patience when it comes to “rebuilding.” We’ve seen this with Notre Dame football and Ty Willingham, Indiana basketball and Mike Davis, and many other examples. The most recent coach at a big-name program to find himself on the hot seat is Billy Gillispie, who has coached Kentucky’s men’s basketball team for the past two seasons (he was preceded by Tubby Smith, who was coaxed to resign when he didn’t make enough Final Fours to live up to the fans’ standards, despite the fact that he’d won a national championship in 1998… as I said, high expectations).

After his second season at Kentucky ended with a loss to Notre Dame in the NIT, Gillispie was asked about his thoughts on how his performance will be judged, as word of a potential firing was already beginning to spread. He responded,

There’s only one judgment I’ll ever be concerned about, and I hope I pass that judgment. That’s the only one I’ll ever be concerned about, and I’m really proud that that’s the only judgment that will ever have a real effect on me, and I hope I pass that one with flying colors.

(Note that the ESPN article on the matter initially completely missed the point of the above quote, but they’ve since un-editorialized their version of it.)

The statement is obviously a reference to Gillispie’s religious beliefs, his feeling that the only judgment that matters, presumably, being the one that happens outside a set of brass gates that sit atop clouds and is passed by a really old guy with a long white beard. Or something along those lines. The irony is funny enough (he doesn’t plan on being judged on how he’s judged), the apparent belief being that whichever all-knowing weightless cloud-man will ultimately judge him, competence at his job will not be considered as a factor.

This type of hands-off approach to life is actually one that seems to be pretty prevalent among modern-day Christians. The teaching seems to be that, rather than taking an active role in what happens to you or those around you, it’s better to stay out of God’s way and let him do things as he knows best, without your interference. Megan receives forwarded emails encouraging her to adopt this stance from Christian friends of hers fairly frequently, and I always insist that she share them with me, not only because I find it dumb-foundingly amusing, but because it’s useful to remind myself that this is how a large percentage of Americans view the world. (As I try to spend my time with rational people more often than not, this is a sentiment that I occasionally fail to recognize as much as I should.) Here is an excerpt from one such email:

This is God. Today I will be handling All of your problems for you. I do Not need your help. So, have a nice day. I love you.

P.S. And, remember…
If life happens to deliver a situation to you that you cannot handle, do Not attempt to resolve it yourself! Kindly put it in the SFGTD (something for God to do) box. I will get to it in MY TIME. All situations will be resolved, but in My time, not yours.

(The odd capitalization is maintained from the original.)

Apparently people derive inspiration from such messages. I guess I don’t have too much trouble believing that, seeing as I’m really lazy and don’t like having to do things for myself, either (or even having to get off the couch, for that matter). That doesn’t lead me to believe that the solution to my problems is to ignore them and hope that magic will resolve them for me, though. Ignorance is truly bliss, I suppose.

As for Billy Gillispie, he seems to be in the perfect place… for the time being.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 11:51 pm on March 24, 2009

Status: In theaters (opened 3/20/09)
Directed By: John Hamburg
Written By: John Hamburg and Larry Levin
Cinematographer: Lawrence Sher
Starring: Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Rashida Jones

I’ve read that the impetus for The 40 Year Old Virgin—the forebear to many of the major comedies that have come since, including I Love You, Man—was a single joke that Steve Carell and Judd Apatow came up with while discussing ideas for a film. That joke was about an adult virgin who, trying to “prove” that he wasn’t a virgin, describes touching breasts as being similar to feeling bags of sand. From this idea, a whole script eventually grew, with that virgin character being fleshed out and eventually portrayed by Carell on screen. That character had fully established relationships with his neighbors and coworkers, and throughout the course of the movie, he developed a romance that grew, hit some rocks, then eventually reconciled—everything you’d want from a well-made romantic comedy. Imagine instead, though, if rather than progressing from that early scene, Carell’s character simply spent the majority of the movie making other attempts at disavowing his own virginity, and you’d have something more along the lines of I Love You, Man, which in stark contrast to that (wholly successful) film also starts with a cheap establishing joke, but then fails to take things any further.

Here’s the premise: Peter (Paul Rudd) is going to be getting married to Zooey (Rashida Jones). She is going to have lots of bridesmaids, but Peter realizes that he doesn’t know enough groomsman candidates to match. In fact, Peter has zero friends whatsoever (somehow). And so, Peter embarks on a mission to find himself a new friend to function as his best man at his wedding, because, I suppose, that’s the obvious thing to do. What’s funny about this—and I feel obligated to spell it out—is that Peter has no idea how to approach men (ostensibly in order to befriend them, but I’ll get into that more in a second). He is set up with and arranges “man-dates” with various prospective friends, where he is universally nervous and awkward. Things don’t go well until he meets Sydney (Jason Segel), and the two seem to “hit it off,” becoming fast companions.

Throughout these attempted meetings, Peter is awkward, as if he’s a nervous teenager on a date. Rudd embodies this quite well, the funniest aspect being the way he handles his character’s propensity for stumbling over repeated attempts at cool “dude-speak” (you can see some examples in this outtakes reel). Here’s the thing, though: Peter is gay. No, the movie never acknowledges this, nor does it even accept this as a possible explanation for any of the events that transpire. But I challenge anybody to watch this movie with the thought in mind that Rudd and Segel are simply two homosexual men falling in love, and find evidence to the contrary. They meet, are initially drawn to each other, tentatively arrange for more meetings, and quickly progress to spending inordinate amounts of time together. They even exchange thoughts about Chocolat (which, admittedly, is “delightful”), and attend a concert where they dance together like teenage girls. I don’t think I’m really spoiling much to reveal that they eventually have a bit of a falling out, only to reconcile in the end—via a grand romantic gesture, no less—while professing their love for each other by reciting the film’s title. Does this sound like anything other than a typical romantic comedy storyline, save for the fact that the two characters I’ve just described are of the same sex?

Of course, this is supposed to be the point, the aforementioned singular joke being that Peter and Sydney’s courtship resembles that of a “normal” onscreen relationship, except for their overt innocence and benign sexuality. This doesn’t work, though, because the entire plot of the movie revolves around them becoming emotionally invested in each other (like a gay couple would), betraying the basis of the joke in the first place. It doesn’t help, of course, that the humor to be plumbed from such a premise can only be stretched so thin, and this movie goes well beyond that point.

The biggest shame of the film is that it’s filled with above-average performances, including a quality supporting cast that is completely wasted by the one-dimensional storyline, which relegates them all to background decoration and wallflowers. Jon Favreau shows up in one of those very Favreau-ish cameo roles, but he is relegated to barely more than a couple of sneers and the occasional snide remark to his onscreen wife (Jaime Pressly, who is even more wasted). Even Rashida Jones’s character is given a shockingly small amount to do, playing the wife-to-be who seems more indifferent than anything for most of the film.

Rudd and Segel have no problems carrying the movie between the two of them, trading off occasional genuinely funny lines (though you’ve already seen all of the best ones—in chronological order, no less—if you’ve watched a trailer for this movie). The premise gets old really quickly, though, and without much surrounding the central “joke” (which, in case it wasn’t clear already, I didn’t find to be all that funny in the first place), the film rapidly grows tiresome, despite a nice star turn from Rudd in particular, and over-acted yet still fairly enjoyable right-hand-man work from Segel. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh at times, but in a movie whose purpose is almost exclusively to provide constant laughs, I found the legitimately clever moments to be few and far between. It’s tempting to say that this movie would’ve worked better as a straight-forward love story between two men, but frankly it would still suffer from the same plight: it takes more than one idea to constitute a complete Idea for a movie, and in that regard I Love You, Man was largely a failure before it ever got started.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 12:54 am on March 20, 2009

Catching up on reviewing some pre-Oscar movies; this is the last of the 2008 releases, with a few 2009 releases still to come in the next week or so.

Status: Opened in limited release 10/3/08; released on DVD and Blu-ray 3/10/09
Directed By: Jonathan Demme
Written By: Jenny Lumet
Cinematographer: Declan Quinn
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger

Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married is a movie that really wants you to think it’s not a movie. It really thinks that it makes you feel like you’re there, man. Cinematographer Declan Quinn’s camera bobs and weaves among the guests at the titular gathering, awkwardly close at times, strangely aloof at others. Demme and editor Tim Squyres take you in and out of scenes at seemingly random points, coming in to the middle of a conversation, leaving before you’ve realized the point. If this is realism to the filmmakers, I’m glad I don’t have their lives, because it’s utterly dizzying. More distracting, even, is the way it exudes a smarmy self-awareness. Look how realistic this scene feels, how we just wander amongst wedding guests only catching snippets of their conversations (and not knowing what any of them are up to). Look how “there” we are, feeling this strange scene involving a dishwasher-loading competition… and exiting from it just as a character finally starts to reveal a little emotion.

Yes, these characters have dishwasher-loading competitions. And they celebrate the joining of a white upper-middle-class family from Connecticut with a black upper-middle-class family from Hawaii with an Indian-themed wedding, for unknown reasons. The bridesmaids wear saris, the cake is shaped like a blue elephant, and all of them seem to know what’s going on, not ever feeling the least bit of desire to explain to us, the lowly audience, what they’re up to. The groom (Tunde Adebimpe) has some sort of vague musical background that inspires him to sing his vows, which go on way past the point of causing restless discomfort in a typical audience member (me), but which the fictional guests all appear to accept and appreciate without any sense of irony—and without the snickering that would certainly be present were this stunt attempted in a real-life setting.

The only character, in fact, who appears to inhabit a somewhat relatable plane of emotional existence is Kym (Anne Hathaway), the younger sister of the bride (Rosemarie DeWitt). And she’s a self-centered bitch who expects everybody around her—especially her immediate family—to go out of their way to recognize her for the special little flower she is. Hathaway is oddly compelling in this role, embodying the character’s myriad emotions with screen-commanding ease. She makes us alternate between feeling sorry for Kym and hating her. (In contrast to the rest of the characters, who I hated quite thoroughly…).

The main story is of Kym, who is granted leave from a rehab facility in order to attend her sister’s wedding. Rachel does, in fact, get married, and over the course of the weekend the family’s dysfunctional relationships and a past tragedy are revealed. The way this film is put together, though, makes the experience of seeing it like watching a movie via peripheral vision: you sort of catch glimpses of what’s happening and where these characters come from, but you only rarely are afforded the opportunity to look at things head-on. There is a notable exception, of course, centering around a scene with Kym and her mother (Debra Winger); such scenes are Rachel Getting Married‘s primary draw, and they’re good enough to make it not completely unwatchable, though sparse enough to not actually make it a compelling film overall.

I’ve recently been acquainting myself with some of the films of the so-called “mumblecore” movement (a couple of my favorite examples include Funny Ha Ha and The Puffy Chair), and I found—somewhat to my surprise—that Rachel Getting Married had a lot in common with the genre: loosely-structured, conversation-based storytelling, plot points that are subtle more often than they are revelatory, and an almost exclusive use of handheld, in-the-midst-of-the-action camera work. What Demme’s film suffers from, though, is one of pedigree: he’s not making this movie look bad or feel sloppy out of necessity, as is the case with the low-budget mumblecore offerings; he’s doing it for contrived style points, and trying much too hard while somehow managing to completely miss the genuine feel and tone that the truly indie films have as their most defining characteristic. Hathaway’s performance is captivating enough to carry the film on its own, but good as it is it’s not enough to completely overshadow the film’s stylistic shortcomings; they feel false because they are, and that fact ends up creating a largely unsatisfying experience.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 9:08 pm on March 10, 2009

Status: In theaters (opened 3/6/09)
Directed By: Zack Snyder
Written By: David Hayter and Alex Tse
Cinematographer: Larry Fong
Starring: Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley

Quite frankly, Zach Snyder’s film adaptation of Watchmen—widely hailed by comic book nerds and movie marketing posters alike as the “most celebrated graphic novel of all time”—is the movie The Dark Knight wanted to be. The similarities between the two are numerous, and hard to ignore: both are sprawling tales set in fictitious yet richly-realized cities where crime runs rampant, featuring heroes of questionable moral fortitude who find themselves wrapped up encountering complicated psychopaths in not only your run-of-the-mill crime-fighting dilemmas but facing far-reaching issues of societal importance as well. That latter point is where Watchmen really outshines Christopher Nolan’s box office juggernaut from last year, and it’s due to the strength of the source material: the only graphic novel to appear on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century is a rich source of social commentary, replete with vividly imagined and realistically flawed characters, moral conundrums of a grand scope, and scathing indictments of the military-industrial complex, hero-worship, and the nature of humanity itself.

Director Zack Snyder has produced a meticulous recreation of the fictionalized parallel universe of his source material. When I first read the book, I remember being most struck by how it was drawn almost in the style of movie storyboards, and indeed, there are several instances in the film that are precise, live-action recreations of specific panels from the graphic novel. This is not an entirely direct translation, however, and David Hayter and Alex Tse’s screenplay does diverge from its inspiration in several ways, the most notable being the climactic ending, which has been turned from one of the biggest what the fuck? moments in the history of writing into something that is now a more striking, more believable, more chilling way of getting the same point across, in more dramatic fashion. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story here is essentially a straightforward murder-mystery, with a man who calls himself Rorschach—the one remaining quasi-hero who has refused to give up his vigilantism in the face of a government ban—serving as narrator and lead detective. He believes that the murder of The Comedian, another former vigilante who had been working for the US government, is not an isolated incident, and endeavors to warn the rest of his fellow ex-costumed heroes of the existence of a “mask killer.” Through this we are introduced to the former members of the Watchmen, with frequent flashbacks providing the backstory of each character as we go.

These digressions are numerous and often fairly lengthy, but they serve to quite capably establish the richly deep universe in which the story takes place. It’s a bit much to be thrown at an audience, especially those who are coming in “cold” without being familiar with the graphic novel, but the exposition of this film is handled with an impressive sense for which details to explicitly include, which to leave for the audience to infer on their own, and which to omit in the interest of keeping the story moving along at a pace a film-going audience is going to be able to accept. Particularly noteworthy is the opening credits sequence, which rapidly establishes the bizarro-world 1985 setting, the highlights being that the United States has a glowing blue superman on their side, which led to us winning the war in Vietnam, which led to the abolition of term limits and Nixon being elected 5 consecutive times. What isn’t different in this world is that the US and USSR still find themselves in a Cold War stand-off, but the implication here is that the glowing blue guy, called Dr. Manhattan, is the one factor keeping things from escalating into all-out nuclear war.

The opening sequence also establishes the first instance of what will add up to an end-to-end poignant use of popular music throughout the film. Starting with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” incorporating Nat King Cole singing “Unforgettable” and Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “All Along the Watchtower,” and making clever use of K.C.’s “I’m Your Boogie man” and Nena’s “99 Luftballoons” on its way to climaxing with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during an overly-dramatized, old-school-style sex scene, Snyder’s musical sensibilities are nearly on a par with those of Martin Scorsese, though they are even less understated. The heavy-handed, in-your-face pop music tracks fit the tone and style of the film really well overall, adding dramatically to the filmgoing experience.

Speaking of which, the amount of pure style that is pumped into this production is awesome, in the literal sense of the word. Snyder’s penchant for slowing time during action sequences is tastefully used here, and fits the spectacle of the movie perfectly (as opposed to his earlier 300, where his over-use of the same technique was one of many aspects that amounted to nothing but absurdity). Some of the fight sequences, still, do take the blood-spattering, bone-crunching violence beyond the point of what should be considered reasonable, but there’re few enough such scenes that the film is able to recover, leaving this somewhat stereotypical aspect of its origins behind. A lot of the style on display, in fact, is due to the comic panel-inspired framing that is often used, frequently from dramatic Dutch angles or staggering vantage points, or both. There is a sense that the world in which the film takes place is very real, very alive, and fully imagined—a testament to the incredibly detailed set design, yes, but also to the nature of the tale itself. Frequent appearances of black-and-white photos, newspaper clippings and the like adorning the bedside tables, walls, and refrigerator doors of the characters themselves, for instance, go a long way to establishing that this is not only a story of the particular setting we’re seeing it told within, but one of an era and with a full history as well.

All of this would be for nothing if the characters themselves weren’t fully realized, and here again we are treated to some first-rate examples of movie-making, in the form of a quartet of brilliant performances. Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian take turns competing for the Heath Ledger Memorial Most Disturbing Supporting Role award; both give performances that are simultaneously larger-than-life and subtly nuanced in deeply affecting ways. Similarly, Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan is eerily mesmerizing, particularly during an extended flashback sequence detailing the story of how he came to be the only character in the film with actual super-powers. He also lends his star quality to a chill-inducing piece of exposition, where we see his glowing blue character holding a black-and-white Polaroid photo of himself in normal human form with a pretty young girl; even if the CG effects have rendered him largely unrecognizable in appearance (though they have certainly not diminished the beauty of his soft-spoken voice), we as an audience still know who Billy Crudup (the actor) is, and are instantly aware that the man in the picture is the same person as the super-being holding it. It’s a small point, but a great example of how the film is able to take things from the book and make use of them in uniquely filmic ways.

Crudup is matched and counter-pointed by Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg, a past-his-prime character who used to parade around as the Night Owl II (following in the footsteps and costume stylings of an earlier crusader, played by Stephen McHattie, who handed over the use of his name upon his retirement). He’s as much of a traditional hero as this story has, and Wilson is up to the task, bringing the character’s foppish insecurities and naive sense of justice to life. He exhibits that oldest of comic book cliches to perfection: glasses on, Dreiberg is a clumsy, pudgy, insecure (and impotent) man who borders on pathetic, but exchanging his normal prescription for the infrared-seeing glasses of the Night Owl (and the latex costume that goes along with them), he becomes a paragon of strength and truth and good and everything else a superhero is supposed to be. Wilson embodies both sides of the character ably, my personal favorite moment being when he exclaims, in response to a shocking display of brutality on the part of The Comedian, “Whatever happened to the American dream?” and it’s clear that the character, decked out in full Night Owl regalia and making a futile attempt to protect the citizens of his city, really means it as an honest question, even while the rest of us—The Comedian included—laugh at his naivete and gullibility.

Unfortunately the entire cast is not as gifted as these four, and the film suffers a bit because of it. Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II, who serves as the Night Owl’s love interest, and also Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, the “world’s smartest man” who is also its richest and most well-appointed hero, are both a bit awkward at times, their line delivery feeling flat and sometimes lifeless, especially when compared to their costars. (It’s not lost on me that these also happen to be the two actors in the film who are not American-born, and as such I must concede that perhaps their awkward delivery is a sign of them struggling with their accents; nonetheless, it detracts from the movie, though not to an extent that makes their scenes completely unenjoyable, for the most part.)

Outside of this core of main characters, Snyder relishes in the absurd, going overboard with many of the characterizations of the smaller roles, many of which are historical figures that are sprinkled throughout the story to further ground it in the mid-80s. Some of these are a joy to encounter: Andy Warhol during the opening sequence doing a paneled painting of the Night Owl, for instance, or a humorous exchange involving a lecture from Ozymandias to Lee Iacocca on his company’s production of gas-guzzlers. Even a Strangelovian depiction of Henry Kissinger in the war room seems to fit to a point, striking a suitable balance between ridiculously over-done comedy and plot advancement. President Nixon, however, is parodied by Robert Wisden to an absurd extent, with an exaggerated prosthetic nose that I found distracting enough to all but completely take me out of every scene in which he appeared.

This is the exception, though, not the norm: the little touches are everywhere, most handled artfully and tastefully, and I think they’ll give this movie the kind of repeat viewing experience on video that will prove writer Alan Moore’s lamentations about the differences in the mediums of comics and film to be unfounded. I loved catching the 80s references, both subtle and overt, from a fake McLaughlin Group episode to the vaguely early-Macintosh-style desktop interface used on a personal computer. Small nods to fans of the graphic novel abound as well, my favorite here (at least of those I’ve noticed thus far, after two viewings) being a computer called S.Q.U.I.D., whose function I’ll leave up to you to find out. It all adds up to a dense, stylized, and fully engaging experience that can be enjoyed on many levels. I thought that Iron Man was perhaps as close to a perfect comic book movie as we’d see, and in that vein I think Watchmen is as close to a perfect graphic novel movie as there has been (though Sin City belongs in that conversation as well). I think that it is, above all, one of the best examples of adaptation from one medium to another that has ever been undertaken, and for that alone it’s a remarkable achievement. That it hits on so many of the points it’s going for, both those drawn from the source material and those developed uniquely for the movie, makes it even more impressive.

I find that I’ve rambled here, the fact that I have a lot to say about this movie being reflective of the fact that it has a lot going on and a lot to say in its own right, but in the course of this I’ve committed the same sin I’ve accused The Dark Knight of, in merely stating that Watchmen provides a compelling social commentary but not clarifying the “why” or the “how” of its methods of doing so. This is mostly due to my personal rule of not including anything that I’d consider to be a “spoiler” in my movie reviews, but I realize that’s somewhat of a cop-out. This movie’s defining characteristic, though, has been the voluminous amount of discussion it has already inspired, and I’ll hope to make more contributions of my own to that, including expanding on my claims of its deep and heady relevance, in the near future.

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