Thursday, May 31, 2007

2007 NBA Playoffs

Disclaimer: As a matter a full disclosure, I feel it necessary to point out that I grew up in Utah and therefore I am a huge Jazz fan. However, I now live in Phoenix and the Suns style of basketball has wooed me to the point where I now count myself among their fans as well.

Now that the 2007 NBA Playoffs are over, I thought it would be a good time to recap the action. "But John," you're probably saying to yourself, "the playoffs aren't over yet. We still have to decide the Eastern Conference Finals and the NBA Finals." Let's stop and reflect for a minute. The San Antonio Spurs versus any team form the East. How about somebody just send me an e-mail when it's all done letting me know who wins.

Let's begin with the first round. The big story is Golden State's dismantling of Dallas (my sympathies to Fatty and Jonny). While I'll agree the Warriors played some excellent high-energy basketball, I wasn't ready to anoint them the champs like everyone else. In fact, after they won the series in six games, I wanted the Jazz to beat Houston worse than ever because I knew that would mean a real chance of advancing the conference finals. The Utah-Golden State series showed that the Warriors' success over the Mavs was all about match-ups, which is why Utah had such an easy time with them in Round 2. I know, Golden State was right there in Game 1, should have won Game 2 and blew out the Jazz in Game 3, but after that, the wheels came off. Their performance in Games 4 & 5 reminded me of Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals where Houston defeated New York because John Starks couldn't hit a shot but refused to stop trying. Talk about one-dimensional basketball. It was as if Don Nelson really wanted to beat Dallas and after he did he just sort of exhaled and went in to semi-retirement for Round 2. Speaking of the Jazz, how can their fans not be excited for the future, especially after the way DeRon Williams emerged as some sort of 22-year-old hybrid of Jason Kidd and Steve Nash. Also, that bench is full young promising stars like Paul Milsapp and Dee Brown, two rookies who both played quality minutes. The fact that Jerry Sloan has never won Coach of the Year is a sham. This year it went to Toronto's Sam Mitchell. Please. The Eastern Conference is the NBA's answer to the NIT and should be treated as such. (In a related matter, the fact that the lottery awarded the top two picks to Western Conference teams suggests that things aren't likely to get better any time soon).

The other half of the Western Conference bracket was just as intriguing, at least in the second round. After Phoenix dismissed the Lakers in five (oh, poor Kobe), and San Antonio did the same with Denver, NBA fans were treated to the true NBA finals. Seriously, with Dallas out of the way, did anybody have any realistic expectations of winning it all besides these two? Too bad David Stern and his cronies had to go and ruin it. I know a rule is a rule but so are traveling and lane violations and how often are they enforced? In essence, suspending Boris Diaw and Amare Stoudemire for almost leaving the bench after Robert Horry's hard fowl on Steve Nash rewarded the aggressor and punished Phoenix even though the two players really didn't do anything. What that ruling did is encourage thuggary in the NBA because it sends the message that if you send in a bench player to commit a hard foul, you've got a good chance of inciting your opponent into behavior that could result in suspensions. It really is a shame because Phoenix most likely would have won Game 5. Would they have won the series? I guess we'll never know.

I've found it interesting how the Spurs have fallen out of favor with me the past few years. It was hard to root against David Robinson and Tim Duncan because of their attitudes and work ethic, but now Duncan has supplanted Dikembe Mutombo as the player with the most outlandish look of disbelief when whistled for a foul. Yes, Tim, when you grab a guy's elbow and clock him in the head as he goes up for a shot, it is a foul. How Tony Parker continues to get calls after driving into the lane and falling down baffles me. The rest of the Spurs are a lot like Detroit's bad boy teams of the late 1980's, but with a more international flavor. Bruce Bowen is a dirty player, despite what he says, and Robert Horry is nothing more than a cheap-shot artist, reminiscent of the legendary Rick Fox.

For the most part, TNT and ESPN/ABC's coverage of the playoffs was poor. I think Steve Kerr is the best color commentary guy in pro basketball and Craig Sager is the be all and end all of sideline reporters. I found myself tuning in just to see what suit-shirt-tie combination he would wear next. Aside from them the coverage sucked. I know the NBA season is long, but did anyone else get the impression that the guys picking the camera angles were bored? That wire camera was vastly overused. Also, I wouldn't be surprised if there was a camera constantly fixed on Eva Longoria so they could cut to shots of her at a moment's notice. Of course, that way ABC can plug her show which happens to be on their network. The announcers were mostly pretty bad too, especially during the Western Conference Finals. Mike Breen is fine, but Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy's playful banter and jabs at each other got old fast. Also, some geography lessions might have helped the announcers. At one point Breen, talking about Spurs center Fabricio Oberto, said he was in his second year in the NBA, but was 32 years old because he had played 12 years in Europe: six years in Argentina, one in Greece and five in Spain. Another occasion saw them talking about how when drafting Argentinian Manu Ginobili, the Spurs had a choice between him and another European player. The guys at ESPN Deportes need to slap their colleagues on the back of the head. I suppose it could have been worse. Had it been Bill Walton during every game I would have watched on mute. I've never been a fan of the three-man broadcasting team. The art of the two-man team is apparently lost on ESPN who had no less than 11 on-air personalities at Game 1 of the Utah-San Antonio series. At least none of them was Charles Barkley, the epitome of unprofessionalism. Below is a clip of the post game show following Utah's Game 7 victory over Houston in the first round (1:57). Sir Charles was too busy watching a boxing match to do his job.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Life Imitates Art

Our story begins in 1903 with founding of the Pacific Coast League, a minor league baseball league that was once considered for "promotion" to the majors after WWII. One of the original members of the PCL was the Oakland Oaks who would remain in the Bay Area until 1956 when the New York Giants moved to San Francisco. The Oaks relocated to Vancouver and called themselves the Mounties. In 1970 the team moved to Salt Lake City becoming the Bees and then the Angels and then the Gulls. In 1985 they moved back to Canada becoming the Calgary Cannons.

This is where things get interesting. In 2003 the team moved to its current location: Albuquerque, NM and held a fan-voting contest to choose a new name. It had been only two years since the Dukes had left town, but fans still wanted a new name. They chose Isotopes. The few naive people in New Mexico will say this is because the state deals with nuclear chemicals, but everyone else knows the name comes from a Season 12 episode of The Simpsons entitled "Hungry Hungry Homer." This is the episode that features Blocko Land, the amusement park made entirely of Blocko brand assembly fun blocks. The trip to Blocko Land marks the beginning of Homer's quest to help "schmoes with their problems." He talks a girl into asking Bart on date and helps the hair dressers at Hairy Shearers increase their razor-thin profit margins by switching from loafer lightener to mincing gel. He then moves on to his most daunting task of all, a hunger strike to bring to light the Duff Corporation's plans to move the Springfield Isotopes to Albuquerque. The highlights include Homer getting visited by the spirit of Cesar Chaves ("Why do you look like Cesar Romero?" "Because you don't know what Cesar Chavez looks like."), getting replaced by Paint-Drinking Pete and the brand new Isotope Dog Supreme with Mesquite-grilled onions, jalapeño relish and mango lime salsa, the kind of bold flavor they enjoy in Albuquerque.

My reasons for telling this story are to spotlight the power pop culture has over the masses, and to remind people that The Simpsons was actually funny not that long ago.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Finding Nemo In Sushi

Having worked in direct mail advertising, I can really appreciate the creative genius behind this piece from Australia. The channel TV2 sent sushi to media planners and buyers to encourage them to book advertising space during Sunday Premier Movies. The piece, which was in fact edible, generated unprecedented inquiries to the sales team which managed to sell 100% ad space for the show.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Hollywood's Old Shoe

Even though this summer's movie season is just barely underway, it's never too early to look ahead to next year. In fact, I'm convinced that many of the movie publications out there, including some legitimate ones like Entertainment Weekly, are too obsessed with what's coming in the future. There are two reasons for this. First, the hype feeds the machine that is Hollywood's current business model. It's all about the opening weekend. Sometimes sequels get the green light based solely on a good opening weekend. Second, when nobody has seen a particular movie, there's still a chance that it could be the greatest movie ever. In other words, when a movie is still just an idea, Hollywood hasn't had a chance to ruin it yet. This couldn't be more true when it comes to remakes. Janet Maslin of the New York Times summed it up best:
"Can there be too much of a good thing? For some movie makers, the answer is clearly no. Every so often, one of them is tempted to tinker with success by remaking an esteemed or popular old movie. Sometimes the remake is a labor of love, and sometimes it's an exercise in commerce. Sometimes the endeavor is a homage to the earlier film or its director. Sometimes there is an effort to update an old story. Sometimes the idea is to apply new techniques—color and wide-screen—to a film that once unfolded in black and white on a small screen. And sometimes the remake is pervaded by a challenge—to take the old movie and make it bigger, better, gaudier than before. Hitchcock even remade Hitchcock. The master of suspense made The Man Who Knew Too Much in England in 1934 with Leslie Banks, Edna Best and Peter Lorre. And he did it again in the United States in 1956 with James Stewart, Doris Day and Bernard Miles. As is often the case, there are those who love the first, loathe the second."

So in a effort to do my part to feed hype to the machine, here are some examples of remakes that are somewhere in the development pipeline. Hitchcock set a dangerous precedent by remaking Hitchcock because now it seems everyone wants to remake Hitchcock as well. We've already seen Psycho, A Perfect Murder (a remake of Dial M for Murder) and several remakes of Rear Window (the latest being Disturbia), but on the way are The Birds, The 39 Steps and Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock isn't the only master to get a makeover. Other notable movie remakes you can hope to see soon include Kiki's Delivery Service, Labyrinth (this time with Hillary Swank instead of Jennifer Connelly), The Topkapi Affair (a remake of Topkapi which earned Peter Ustinov* an Oscar, and which will serve as a sequel to The Thomas Crown Affair which is itself a remake), The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and two movies that could sure use an upgrade in the special effects: Clash of the Titans and Logan's Run (the latter of which actually received a Special Achievement Oscar for its visual effects the year before Star Wars came out).

Of course, what would a list of upcoming remakes be without the obligatory recycled horror movies. Coming soon are Creepshow, Halloween, Hellraiser, Piranha and The Fly.

Don't forget the TV shows that will be butchered—I mean adapted—for the big screen. In the past the good ones have been The Fugitive, The Addams Family and... I can't come up with any more, but I'm sure there are some. The list of bad adaptations are too long to list, the most recent ones being Starsky & Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard and Miami Vice. Let's just say I don't have high hopes for the ones I'm listing here except perhaps Get Smart with Steve Carrell as Maxwell Smart and a supporting cast that includes Anne Hathaway, Alan Arkin, Terence Stamp and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. The rest are CHiPs (with Wilmer Valderrama, aka Fez from That 70's Show, as Ponch), Dallas (with John Travolta as JR), I Dream of Jeannie (with Jimmy Fallon as Major Nelson), Knight Rider and The A-Team. And don't forget this summer's The Simpsons Movie.

As for kids' cartoons making it to movie form as either cartoon, CGI or live-action, we have The Jetsons, The Smurfs, Voltron and this summer's Transformers and Underdog.

Following the Success of The Departed (a remake of Hong Kong's Infernal Affairs), expect a slew of other Asian movies being remade for US audiences. And, speaking of imports, TV will also be dabbling in foreign remakes. Popular British shows Life on Mars (about a cop trapped in the 1970's) and Footballer's Wives (changed from soccer to American football and renamed Football Wives) will be remade like The Office was. They will join The Bionic Woman as new shows next season based on other shows.

* The late Peter Ustinov was an accomplished actor who is probably best known to my generation as the voice of Prince John in Disney's Robin Hood. My favorite quote of his is "I believe that the Jews have made a contribution to the human condition out of all proportion to their numbers: I believe them to be an immense people. Not only have they supplied the world with two leaders of the stature of Jesus Christ and Karl Marx, but they have even indulged in the luxury of following neither one nor the other."

Monday, May 07, 2007

2007 Summer Movie Preview

Now that Spider-Man 3 has kicked off the summer movie season, I thought I'd finally weigh in and give my thoughts. Since there are countless other summer movie previews out there, each one more in depth than mine, I will keep it simple and categorize the big summer movies based my interest in seeing them. Who knows, I might actually pay to go see one or two of them in theaters.

First in Line at the Box Office: Two years ago when movie theater attendance dropped off significantly, a myriad of causes were being tossed around including a decline in the quality of movies, the shrinking window between theatrical and DVD-release dates, increasingly annoying theater patrons, endless commercials before the trailers, an increase in movie ticket prices, and technological advances in home theaters. I can say that every single one of these has contributed to my decline in movie going. Consequently, not a single one of this summer's movies has me bubbling over with excitement. So, as much I hate to kick things off on a down note, no movies make it into this first category.

Worth Seeing Opening Weekend: There might not seem like much a difference between this category and the previous one, but my basic movie philosophy says that some movies are more like an event than a movie. If you don't see it soon, some appeal is lost. Paying to see a movie in theaters often comes with more than a seat in a sticky auditorium. You get to participate in the conversation with people who have seen it. You get be a part of the excitement. You get to say, unapologetically, "yes, I fully buy into the hype and while I know my behavior is the byproduct of a marketing machine, I feel more American for taking the ride." Star Wars and Independence Day are great examples of movies previously in this category. If you didn't see "ID4" during the 1996 July 4th weekend, the movie just wasn't as good, which is the main difference between this category and one above. This year, the media have deemed three movies worthy of these two categories: Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. I have absolutely no interest in seeing Spider-Man 3. My dislike for Toby Maguire seems to be growing by the week. Not even a free ticket and a tub of popcorn would get me to the theater. As for Shrek, the first two films were charming and certainly had their moments, but somehow I fail to see where the mass appeal comes from. Can someone tell me why Shrek is so much more popular than then your garden-variety CGI film? So while I am discussing Shrek here, my interest in seeing it lies much lower on this page. Pirates, on the other hand, interests me. The first movie was a very pleasant surprise. The second was a little disappointing mostly because there was no ending. So in Pirates 3, we get our ending, thus my interest in seeing it.

Growing Anticipation: The movies in this category actually carry more interest for me than Pirates, however, because of the event movie appeal, the ticket price doesn't carry as much value. The first is The Bourne Ultimatum. I really liked the first two movies. They have all the standard action movie clichés with just enough originality to keep me interested. And while I can't stand his buddy Ben Affleck, Matt Damon brings to his roles a certain level of subtle professionalism. Also this summer, he stars in the other movie in this category: Ocean's Thirteen. While the first one was great, the second one was kind of dumb. However, Steven Soderbergh and crew promise this one will be better, calling it "Ocean's The One We Should Have Made Last Time." I've previoulsy ragged on Brad Pitt for his Long & Serious Trilogy, but I will say this: he does comedy well. When he doesn't take himself too seriously, he is quite entertaining.

Dollar Theater/Wait for the DVD: Pixar has yet to make a bad movie, yet for some reason I find that I enjoy their movies more when I can view them free from the hype and just enjoy the quality film making. Waiting until a movie is in the dollar theater or new on DVD removes a lot of the expectation that come with paying full price in a theater. That is not to say that Ratatouille might disappoint at full price, but it is one of those movies I'd rather see at some point down the road when I'm ready for it. The rest of the movies in this category interest me, but not enough to fork over full price either because I'm taking a wait-until-I-hear-more approach as is the case with Transformers or The Simpsons Movie, or, on the contrary, I know what to expect and don't feel in a hurry, as is the case with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix or Rush Hour 3. You could probably make the stretch and throw Evan Almighty into the category. The original Bruce Almighty was mildly funny, and I've been a fan of Steve Carrell dating back to the short-lived Dana Carvey Show. His "Germans Who Say Nice Things" is a classic bit. It is also worth noting that should I fail to see Pirates during opening weekend (a growing probability since movie tickets in Phoenix are kind of expensive and some theaters think that matinée pricing should end after 12:00 instead of after 5:00), it would fall all the way to this category. I begin to count how many movies once had me excited but I never got around to watching until DVD.

Maybe on TV: The only remaining category applies to movies that perhaps mildly appeal to me, but not enough to pay any money to see them. It's kind of early yet to place many movies here because I have mostly just blocked out the advertising for them and forced them off my radar. I suppose Live Free or Die Hard could be one. License to Wed with Mandy Moore might be one also because it has four cast members from The Office (although it has "chick flick" written all over it). Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Shrek are two more.

Other movies will eventually join these lists and some fluctuation will occur, but for now this is where I stand.