Friday, July 31, 2009

Stuff I Saw On YouTube: Commando

A few months ago “Meet the Press” had an episode featuring various state governors as guests, one of whom was Arnold Schwarzenegger. My wife said to me she couldn’t believe someone as stupid as Arnold could get elected governor. I replied that she was way off base. Sure California might be in utter ruins by the time he leaves office but he isn’t stupid. My evidence? Simply this. Could an overly muscled guy with a funny name, a thick Austrian accent, and no apparent acting ability become the biggest box office star in the world if he wasn’t super smart? I don’t think so. Of course luck played a part in Arnold’s rise also. He hit the movies at the perfect time.

The 1980’s ushered in a new kind of action movie. Our ‘80’s army of one-man armies, aided by nothing more than their own superior training, sophisticated weaponry, the suspension of certain physical laws, and millions of dollars in special effects, slaughtered and dispatched hundreds of unmourned mercenaries, foreigners, traitors and aliens. Thankfully innocent bystanders always emerged completely unscathed in the countless explosions and deadly crossfires. Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood probably ushered in the age of the’ 80’s action movie but he opened the door for the combined acting talents of Chuck Norris, Steven Segal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, and whoever else I’m missing. Box-office gold. But Schwarzenegger was the king of them all y’all.

Now Arnold went on to make a few pretty good movies, but if you’re looking for the one movie that defines the ‘80’s era of good clean gratuitous slaughter, the apotheosis of the genre is Arnold’s true masterpiece: Commando. Now believe me, I’m not claiming it’s actually a good movie. You can’t defend this crap on any aesthetic level. But it’s a historic movie, the one introducing us to the on-screen Schwarzenegger persona that went on to rule the box-office. It’s the first time Arnold gets to kill people and be funny. For pure mindless entertainment you’ve got to check it out and the single best way to watch it is not as a full-length feature film, but rather as a series of hilarious clips on YouTube. It’s the only way to appreciate the absurd, gruesome yet cartoonlike violence, terrible acting (beside the point in a film such as this), and of course the classic Schwarzenegger one-liners uttered upon each ruthless dispatch of another hapless victim. Plus, by watching random Commando clips, you dispense with all those boring parts: you know, the parts advancing the narrative, i.e. the parts where Arnold’s not killing people or blowing s##t up. The real challenge is trying to figure out just which scene is the movie’s best.

Is it this one, Arnold’s first kill of the film? I love the stilted stoner dialogue (“Mellow out man”) delivered by the unarmed kidnapper. What was the dude's backup plan? Check out how Arnold offs him with one perfect shot from the gun he never even bothers to raise and aim. And I’m no firearms expert but that gun sure looks like it would blow someone’s head off, not just put a neat little hole in it.

How about this one? The bad dude Henriques manages to raise his arms after Arnold breaks his neck while the passengers mysteriously remain blissfully unaware of this carnage in their midst.

I’ve got a soft spot for this one. David Patrick Kelly, “Sully”, is a classic 80’s movie villain and for my money Arnold ends his miserable existence with the best one-liner of his career. Actually, it’s probably the single greatest line of dialogue in the history of cinema. You don’t believe me? Just watch. The final line’s pretty good too. James Bond did this stuff first but face it, Bond just isn’t all that funny. Arnold’s funny.

Ah, the infamous "Shed Scene". Hundreds of rounds of bullets and one severed arm prove no match for Arnold and some expertly wielded gardening implements. According to some YouTube commenters at least some DVD versions of the movie censor this scene. What's the thinking there? Who could possibly take the scene seriously? It parodies itself.

The final showdown with Bennett. Until this scene, the movie never really established the source of Bennett’s murderous grudge against Arnold’s character. Getting kicked out of an elite commando unit creates a need for lifelong revenge? Seems kind of lame. But at last the scales fall from our eyes during the final showdown. The wounded Schwarzenegger, uh, I mean John Matrix, psychologically manipulates Bennett into throwing away his gun so the two can engage in your classic mano a mano clash. How does “Matrix” do it? With a disturbing speech bursting with homoerotic sadomasochism. How else do you read this?

Put the knife in me and look me in the eye and see what's going on in there when you turn it…It’s between you and me. Don't deprive yourself of some pleasure. Come on Bennett, let’s party.

On top of that, pay attention to the facial expressions on the face of the leather-and-chain-mail clad Bennett while Arnold tempts and taunts him. Just in case the words alone weren’t “subtle” enough to clue the audience in. Yes, in the end it’s the 1980’s version of Gore Vidal’s script for Ben-Hur ("I'm not gonna be overt. There won't be one line. But I can write it in such a way that the audience is going to feel that there is something emotional between these two that is not stated, but that blows a fuse in Messala. That he is spurned. So it's a love scene gone wrong"). “Let off some steam Bennett” indeed.

Or what the hell. If you don’t have time to bleed just cut to the chase. Skip all of the above and just watch the one clip that trims all the fat and extracts the movies’ true essence. Killing. Yes, witness every single killing in the entire movie packed into one explosive four-minute clip. Kudos to whoever put that together. Time well spent.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part VIII

The Sloppy Joe of Super Bowls

What if we watched a Super Bowl that was:
1) Close
2) High-scoring
3) Had a couple 4th quarter lead changes
4) And was decided on a last second field goal

That has to be the greatest Super Bowl of all-time right?

Well, what if we filled out the picture with a few other critical details:

1) Lots of penalties
2) Offensive, defensive and coaching blunders at key moments of the game
3) Terrible special teams play
4) Excepting a five-minute stretch of the 2nd quarter, no scoring in Quarters 1-3
5) Game overshadowed by Janet Jackson’s exposed nipple.

Now where does it rank?

C’mon we can’t be picky. You know how many Super Bowl blowouts there’ve been? If you watched a lot of Super Bowls in the 80’s then you better get down on your hands and knees and thank the football gods every time you get an entertaining Super Bowl like Super Bowl XXXVIII. If it’s close and comes down to the wire it’s a great game. And so it was.

Now calling it the greatest Super Bowl ever is another matter. To earn that honor the game must succeed on a number of levels. And one of those levels is Quality of Play. You want what an earlier generation of sportswriters might have described as a “Crisply played game”. Super Bowl XXXVIII featured too many mistakes to be the best ever. 20 penalties alone (25 called) disqualify this game from best-ever status. And what about the special teams? Adam Vinatieri cemented his legend as the greatest clutch kicker ever with his 41-yard game-winning kick. What’s that? He earlier missed 31 and 36-yard attempts? Move along, nothing to see here. Of course Carolina kicker John Kasay greased the skids for the Pats winning drive by sending his kickoff out of bonds, setting Brady and Co. up at their own 40. Brady and Co. should have been driving for a tying, not a winning FG, but Panthers coach John Fox panicked and started going for 2 prematurely, costing his team three points (New England never would have gone for 2 if they’d led 27-24 instead of 27-22). Then again, Carolina was lucky to even have a shot at the end.

The real story of the game was New England’s continual squandering of chances to put the game away. In the first half we had the two missed FG’s and later a loss of ten yards on a botched trick play on 3rd-and-3 from the CAR 31 that cost NE a shot at another FG. In the 4th quarter, NE gave up a 33-yard TD run right after going up 21-10. Then, leading 21-16 in the 4th, Tom Brady drove his team to the Panthers 9 with less than 8 minutes to play but instead of icing the game the supposed best big game passer of his time threw a pick in the end zone. A few plays later, Bill Belichick’s great D forgets to cover Muhsin Muhammad and he blew all our minds with an 85-yard TD score to give the Panthers their first and only lead of the game.

It was non-stop action the rest of the way. But overall just too many mistakes to be the best ever. Plus Janet Jackson’s nipple. Let’s call it the Sloppy Joe of Super Bowls.

The Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time

Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part I
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part II
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part III
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part IV
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part V
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part VI
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part VII
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part VIII
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part IX
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part X
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Conclusion

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Steve McNair

A second straight post about the recently departed.

It’s hard to know what to say about Steve McNair’s truly shocking death. However, I do know what I’m not going to say. In the news articles posted in the immediate aftermath of his death those who knew him kept repeating three things to describe him: “Warrior”, Leader” and “Charity work”. However, as soon as the sordid details of his death spilled out it all switched to talk about McNair’s “double life”, how McNair’s image didn’t match the reality. Really? Am I supposed to believe that there were grown adults out there who actually had an image of McNair, or any football player for that matter, as a super-moral upright clean-living perfect family guy? How na├»ve would you have to be to think of McNair in that way? I understand that children tend to worship their athletic heroes but you’d like to think that upon reaching adulthood this simplistic attitude would mature into something a bit more realistic. Basically, admire what athletes do on the field and hope that off the field they don’t embarrass themselves and their fans too badly.

The fact Steve McNair cheated on his wife in no way puts the lie to his existing image as warrior/leader/humanitarian. I certainly won’t condone adultery but we all know McNair was no different than a whole lot of other athletes (And Politicians. Preachers. Hundreds of millions of other human beings on this planet. Etc.). What he did with his girlfriend doesn’t change what he accomplished on the field. It doesn’t change the heightened level of play he inspired in his teammates. And it can’t possibly make less meaningful all the time and money he spent helping others less fortunate than he. The fact McNair chose a psycho for a mistress was unbelievably unfortunate for himself and his family but I don’t see why this changes his image. If his wife honestly and truly had no clue about her husband’s extracurricular activities then yeah I suppose you could say he was leading a sort of “double life” but really, McNair wasn’t a Mark Sanford or a Ted Haggard. I don’t recall McNair holding himself out as a paragon of “family values” or preaching about the virtues of monogamy. Basically, all this talk about the “other side” of McNair effectively blames him for his own murder. But his moral failings aren’t crimes. He wasn’t O.J. He was a victim. If we’d first heard about this crazy girlfriend in the context of a messy divorce rather than a murder/suicide would that have irrevocably altered how we see McNair? Of course not. And nobody would have been writing stupid columns about the “real” Steve McNair.

For me, thoughts about Steve McNair begin with his tremendous 4th quarter performance in Super Bowl XXXIV. He brought his team back from 16 points down, still the greatest deficit erased in Super Bowl history. His defense failed him in that game and a superhuman tackle prevented another comeback and a stunning win, but McNair could well have been the best player on the field that night. I associate McNair with all the games he gutted out, ignoring injuries and tremendous pain. He was the warrior everyone says he was and it was too bad all the cumulative injuries eroded his skills and ended his career prematurely. It’s sad but inevitable that from now on we’ll always think of the way he went out when we hear the name of Steve McNair. But those tabloid details only flesh out the picture of who he was off the field; they don’t change who he was on it. The memories stay the same.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Stuff I Saw On YouTube: Michael Jackson

Probably because it’s the biggest celebrity death of my adult life, for some reason I feel the need to write something about Michael Jackson. Unless you count his jeri-curled influence on the look of 1980’s NFL players, Jackson’s one NFL connection was his halftime show performance at Super Bowl XXVII. I personally found it to be underwhelming—ultra-choreographed, over-rehearsed, lip-synched, and “show-bizzy”—though it was probably the kind of show Jackson fans expected at that point. Ironically, he didn’t know it then but playing that halftime show proved to be good timing because the allegations of child abuse that surfaced shortly thereafter undoubtedly would have put an end to the NFL’s interest in him. The stigma of that plus his ever-changing face and skin color, odd marriages, bizarre behavior and changing musical tastes soon turned him from King of Pop into America’s most well-known freak show. The public turned on him for good. Like I said, I wanted to write something about Michael Jackson but the only two observations I have to offer about the man are pretty mundane: (1) He was as talented an all-around performer as anyone we’ve ever seen; and (2) He was an incredibly sick man in every possible sense of that word.

In all the media talk following his death, the performance clip shown and talked about more than any other was Jackson’s performance of “Billie Jean” from that Motown 25th Anniversary Special. That performance proved to be the second-to-last step in his ascent to Elvis/Beatles level mega-stardom (The Path: (1) Off The Wall album; (2) Thriller album; (3) “Billie Jean” video breaks MTV’s black artist blacklist; (4) Motown Special; (5) “Thriller” video). The Motown Special clip unwrapped Jackson’s post-Thriller onstage self for the general public for the first time. It’s all there (except for the crotch tugging)--the dramatic pauses and gestures, the hat business, the Moonwalk. But to my mind this live performance clip from a 1977 episode of the Jackson’s Variety Show posted on You Tube impresses more.

Here, with his brothers, Jackson sings their old Jackson 5 hit “The Love You Save”. As a full-grown man Jackson can no longer hit the impossibly high notes he did as a 12-year old boy so he now sings it in his lower register and gives a tough, gritty vocal performance (a la the bridge on “Billie Jean”). Remember, in the Motown Special clip (as at the Super Bowl) he lip-synchs so you get no sense of his live vocal ability. In this clip you hear him singing great while dancing flat-out at the same time. And not with the precision Vegas-style moves of the Motown 25th or Super Bowl performances. Instead he’s all over the stage, propelling himself James Brown-like in all directions with a whole series of spins, slides and shuffles. His feet never stop moving. It sure looks spontaneous. Marlon and Jackie are up there with him and sometimes Michael joins their choreographed dance moves and sometimes he doesn’t (Marlon spectacularly blows whatever they rehearsed at the start anyway). He’s all up in their camera shots even when it’s Marlon’s turn to sing. But it doesn’t matter. It all works because Michael’s feeling it! He’s a force of nature. He’s getting pumped up with the music and doing whatever it takes to get the audience pumped up too. Michael’s not playing the part of the master showman here, he’s simply giving it everything he’s got because he can’t stand the thought that even one person in that whole damn audience might leave disappointed. It may not be the cultural watershed the Motown Special was but it’s a far purer demonstration of his talent. Just compare it to this (early 90’s) concert clip of him singing “The Love You Save”. Whether due to Jackson’s notorious perfectionism, his preference for spectacle and showmanship, or the simple loss of youthful energy, all the juice is sadly drained out of the song.

In the end, all the unanswered questions about Michael Jackson complicate feelings about his passing. Better to remember him as he was before his pathologies manifested themselves in plastic surgeries and twisted behavior. While simple chronology made discussion of the unsavory aspects of his life unavoidable, for the most part what coverage I saw mainly adhered to the “never speak ill of the dead” credo. Yet a classic awkward moment came when Larry King Live presented us with an “exclusive, inside look” at the interior of Jackson’s now stripped bare home at Neverland. After exciting descriptions of artwork and furniture that we unfortunately could no longer see, we got a look at a massive upstairs closet with a “secret” area in the corner of it. No doubt many viewers wondered exactly what kind of activities might have taken place in that secret space.

For once the media got something right in comparing Jackson’s popularity to that of Elvis Presley and the Beatles (and hence coverage of his death also prompted comparisons to Lennon’s and Presley’s). For most of the 1980’s Jackson’s music and image were seemingly everywhere, penetrating the public consciousness deeply and inescapably. The quality of the music’s a matter of taste but given that he crossed racial and cultural boundaries in a way the Beatles or Elvis never could, you could well argue Michael Jackson achieved a kind of universality unrivalled by any entertainer ever.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Multiple Super Bowl Winning QB's Face Off

If we’re lucky, the 2009 NFL postseason may feature something NFL fans have not seen in almost a quarter of a century. When Ben Roethlisberger bested Kurt Warner in Super Bowl XLII, he, not Warner, joined the pantheon of quarterbacks who’ve won multiple Super Bowl rings. Big Ben made it an even ten. Here they are:

1) Bart Starr (1966, 1967)
2) Bob Griese (1972, 1973)
3) Terry Bradshaw (1974, 1975, 1978, 1979)
4) Roger Staubach (1971, 1977)
5) Jim Plunkett (1980, 1983)
6) Joe Montana (1981, 1984, 1988, 1989)
7) Troy Aikman (1992, 1993, 1995)
8) John Elway (1997, 1998)
9) Tom Brady (2001, 2003, 2004)
10) Ben Roethlisberger (2005, 2008).

But even rarer than the number of QB’s on that list is the number of matchups between any of those guys after having won multiple rings. On the Football Guys Message Board a poster named The Jerk, with a little help from other smart guy (wink wink), produced a complete list of those occurrences which PI will now reproduce here:

1) November 14, 1976: Miami 3 @ Pittsburgh 14
(Griese 2, Bradshaw 2)

2) November 5, 1978: Dallas 16 @ 23 Miami
(Staubach 2, Griese 2)

3) January 21, 1979/Super Bowl XIII: Pittsburgh 35/Dallas 31
(Bradshaw 2, Staubach 2)

4) October 28, 1979: Dallas 3 @ Pittsburgh 14
(Staubach 2, Bradshaw 3)

5) December 30, 1979/Divisional Playoffs: Miami 14 @ Pittsburgh 34
(Griese 2, Bradshaw 3)

6) September 22, 1985: San Francisco 34 @ LA Raiders 10
(Montana 2, Plunkett 2)

As you can see the NFL hasn’t seen a matchup between multiple Super Bowl winning quarterbacks since 1985. Since Starr retired before Griese won a second Super Bowl, no opportunity existed for a matchup of multiple ring-bearers until after Bradshaw won his second in 1975. And that historic matchup took place the very next year, with Bradshaw coming out on top. Staubach winning his second Super Bowl in 1977 made the 1978 and 1979 seasons the only two seasons in NFL history where three multiple Super Bowl winning QB’s were all taking snaps at the same time. From November 5, 1978 through December 30, 1979, a little more than a year, the NFL presented four separate games featuring two of these three men facing off against each other. Though it briefly seemed like a common occurrence, we’ve only had one more matchup of QB’s who’ve won two or more Super Bowls, the 1985 Montana-Plunkett battle. Why? Mainly because there just haven’t been the opportunities. Staubach and Griese retired after the 1979 and 1980 seasons respectively. Bradshaw followed suit after the 1983 season, just as Plunkett capped that year by winning his second Super Bowl. Montana joined Plunkett as a two-time winner in 1984 and the two faced off in their historic matchup the very next season. And that’s been it.

Plunkett, an old veteran, only had one more season left in him and Montana went almost the rest of his career as the league’s only multiple Super Bowl winner. Of course he won two more himself so that meant fewer opportunities for somebody else to win two. And nobody did until seven long years later: Troy Aikman in 1993. Unfortunately, he and Montana played in different conferences in 1994, Joe’s last season. So only a Chiefs-Cowboys Super Bowl in 1994 could have brought us a seventh multiple ring matchup. But it was not to be. John Elway won his second ring in 1998but he decided to hang it up after that season and Aikman followed suit a year later.

So the NFL went the longest it ever has without any QB’s playing who’d won at least two Super Bowls. The four-year drought ended after Tom Brady won his second Super Bowl in 2003. But he had no similar QB to battle against until now. The Patriots and Steelers do not play each other in the regular season in 2009, so any matchup between Brady and Roethlisberger will have to happen in the postseason. Hopefully it will. But if it doesn’t, both QB’s are young enough to make at least one more game between them a likely event.