Monday, May 21, 2007

Review of Spider-man 3

For Spider-man 3, the story is ‘what should have been.’ All the reviews I’ve read/seen have been negative. I refuse to give Spider-man 3 a bad review. It isn’t a failure as a movie. Unlike most of the reviews, my expectations weren’t out of whack—part of that comes from knowing some of the storylines from which this material was drawn. In fact, through much of the film, I was more excited and ‘in the moment’ than in the previous films. This did, however, come to an end in the climax. In three words: bad, bad, bad.

The movie was engaging, the marital question was compelling and kept the story together, and even the campy dinner scene with Bruce Campbell brought brevity that I appreciated. In some ways, the movie felt more like the comic book than the first two did. This is also the source of some its trouble.

There is a lesson to which Hollywood hasn’t caught on with comic book movies: more isn’t better. Since the introduction of Catwoman in Batman Returns, Hollywood has reasoned that a more complex movie would overcome a lack of an origin story. And for as much as it was decent in that particular movie, it leads to a slippery slope: Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. They are both terrible movies, not just because of Joel Schumacher, but because there was too much ‘teaming-up’. Too many nasty villains, too many new, supportive heroes. This doesn’t add complexity but instead abandons what is good about a superhero movie: the battle without and within the main character.

Another version of this is the weaving of too many stories together (see X-Men United). Some of the stories that are trying to be told here (and in the third X-Men movie) are ‘updates’ of classic story arcs, told over years and hundreds of pages. The more-is-better philosophy leads to cutting and pasting in a way that trivializes the origins of these stories: again, abandoning the very idea so important to the first installment.

To be more specific, Spider-man 3 suffers from underdevelopment: underdevelopment of the new bad guys, underdevelopment of plot, and worst, underdevelopment of motivations. We do a lot of the short-hand implicitly, and it works for much of the movie, but doesn’t leave the viewer satisfied or fully confirmed.

There is also an issue of two competing themes that I envision Sam Raimi saw as complementary, but they seem to get in each others’ way: 1) a person can’t do everything alone and 2) one must do what is right even when they feel inclined to the opposite. There is a third theme of the seductiveness of power and how it corrupts the way one sees the world. Am I missing anything else, because there were so many themes to keep track of?

Clearly, the black suit is the story that they wanted to tell. Save the ‘you-can’t-do-it-alone’ stuff for the fourth movie and deal with ‘the seduction of power’. Deal only with the black costume. Sandman served as a vehicle for the dark side, but they should have picked a more low-level thug: someone that isn’t really in Spider-man’s league. Someone that Peter could truly make a ‘mistake’ with. The Rhino would work; I think (and excite the die-hards geekdar).

Secondly, the ad campaign ruined what was supposed to be the surprise. If the viewer is to think that the black costume represents the darkness within, don’t reveal where it comes from in the opening moments of the movie and don’t reveal in the trailers that it becomes a villain! The Sandman and the costume were intended to be a bait-and-switch, but it ends up giving us way too much Sandman and not enough costume (or vice-versa). Another option could have been to save half of the costume story for the next one. I don’t care, but as it stands, it’s convoluted!

What the movie and its subplots remind me of is finger-painting as a kid. You are exploring what colors you can mix to make other colors. Blue and red make purple. Yellow and blue make green. Purple and green, then make brown. Crap-brown. Disgusting brown. I-should-never-have-been-forced-to-see-that-color brown.

Here’s the lesson: cut the extra villain you are tempted to include. Make the subplots link together and make them meaningful. You’ve introduced the Stacey family, so there’s a great plot right there. Make Spider-man 4 the movie 3 should have been.

I know I slipped into a negative review mode, so I apologize for that. The truth is that despite its warts, I liked Spider-man 3. I found it to be no campier than parts of the first two. It’s portrayal of Peter’s dark side as dork-influenced-Rat-Packer leads us deeper into the mind of Peter Parker than a less verbal, edgier, brooding sequence would have. It also shows us how tempting the dark side of your soul can be, because it expresses itself in confidence. Even in this, though, the complexity that Raimi is going for simply leads to confusion and disengagement with the movie, as it is never clear how others see Peter in this sequence—is he a joke or is he weird or both?

I would have overlooked all of the problems I had with the story and given the movie a B+ if the ending weren’t so contrived and wretched. That alone should drop it a whole letter grade, but I’m feeling generous today: B-.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

No new frontiers

A thought occurred to me the other day. There is no new frontier.

This, of course, is the principle for Star Trek, right? The only frontier that is available for us is outer space. But the truth is that we can’t access that frontier in the way that we have already colonized the planet.

And when I refer to ‘we,’ I mean the West, really. I don’t mean humanity, because humans aren’t colonists. This is where sci-fi movies get it wrong: there is no human spirit; no single thing that we as humans share that will allow us all to survive in the face of a greater threat. The truth is that this is a Western position. This is the position of colonists, imposers, and dominators that seek to steal in an effort to better themselves. This is what we have done since Constantine. This isn’t the way of the indigenous peoples whom we have exploited. This isn’t the way of The Global South, let alone the East. This doesn’t truly represent the true North American. This is the proto-New Roman people that we are in the United States and Britain

and the worst of ourselves that has infested Eastern and Southern cultures to mimic and take up these same models.

But the truth is, the Roman, then British, then United Statesian (I refuse to call it ‘American’, since we share our continent with others) Empires have been created with a colonial mindset: growth, expansion, and increased productivity are the hallmarks of empire. Constantly trying to control the every increasing land and water around oneself, infects the individual’s sense of place. Our continued fascination with ‘the Wild West’ should prove to even the most skeptical this desire to colonize and expand personal possession beyond articles to land, water, and access to water, minerals found underneath the land, and trees and animals that populate the land.

The fundamental principle of colonization is the creation of a market where there wasn’t one before. In the West, this is claiming ownership of land that wasn’t owned, but was essential to the lives of many people, plants, and animals. In modern times, it is the creation of markets (insurance for instance) and markets within markets (building SUVs instead of reclaiming the original auto market).

We see the same issues of colonization influencing our understanding of human behavior and of systems. Today’s top economists and political scientists operate under a principled indifference to existing systems and methodologies in favor of one that most benefits the haves (and therefore tends to exploit the have-nots). A prime example of this is the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has a 0% success rate in strengthening 3rd World countries, but a 100% success rate in exploiting them in the creation of new markets for American and European companies.

The imperialism that we studied in high school history classes (maybe college: we don’t want to be too controversial by teaching teenagers facts, do we?) is alive and well: it just doesn’t need armies or direct supervision; enslavement to ‘free-market’ economics will do well enough on its own.

The only means of salvaging ourselves as a species (and to save our planet) is to eradicate our tendency toward imperialism and colonialism. We don’t need to grow and own to prove ourselves. As much as you don’t need to buy a new car every year, Ford shouldn’t have to sell you one. There are currently 96 cars for every 100 people in the U.S. alone; that is more cars than there are people capable of driving; so why this slavish dependence on selling more? Our economy wouldn’t fall if it were diversified and we moved away from consumption and exploitation. It would just be different. Wouldn’t you rather make the change by choice, before it is imposed on us by external circumstances?

Monday, May 14, 2007

There is no center; move left my friends!

Take a look at this article:

Its main crux is that the political center in U.S. politics no longer exists; proven in the 2000 and 2004 elections. Democratic tactics to move to the center, or grab ‘centrist’ voters are both ignorant of the facts and foolhardy. This is precisely what I have been saying for the last five years.

No, quarterbacks aren't the only players on the field...

No quarterbacks are created equal. We have some strange expectations for our quarterbacks. I wanted to take a few seconds to jot down correct (and incorrect) axioms about quarterbacks.


The quarterback is a leader.

The quarterback runs the offense.

The quarterback is important.

Finding the right player to quarterback your team is essential.


The quarterback is the leader

The quarterback is the most important player on offense.

You must spend a first-round pick on a quarterback if that is your need.

If you are paying him [this] and picked him [here], he must start immediately.

There are all manner of weird things that we associate with quarterbacks. We expect them to save bad teams and we expect them to win every game. We compare them with our favorite quarterbacks growing up. We compare them to the previous star in that position. It really is a type of scrutiny we give no other position. I don’t think it is all unjustified, but it is a bit out of proportion.

There are three types of quarterbacks:

  • Superstars: the type that are so much better than the rest that it doesn’t matter who else is on the team, they will still make the playoffs. I can think of only a few that fit this, perhaps John Elway, Dan Marino, and Warren Moon.
  • Elite: these guys win, but their ability is inseparable from their team. Players like Joe Montana and Troy Aikman always had top-rated receivers and running backs around them. For them, success was guaranteed, but it was their skills that won Super Bowls.
  • Everyone else: Marginal talents, weak talents, and great talents on bad teams all look the same.

I can understand the Raiders picking Jamarcus Russell first, going for the next John Elway. They are gambling that he has that special something that can take them where they need to go. But this highlights another false axiom: the one that drives me the craziest. It goes like this:

You need to find that ‘franchise quarterback’ around which you can build your entire team.

The 2002 Buccaneers didn’t have a franchise quarterback, neither did the 2003 Ravens. The Panthers a couple of years ago and the Bears last year made the Super Bowl without that franchise quarterback.

In truth, the most important part of your team is the guy that elevates the players around him; the guy that makes the team better and makes them achieve the impossible. That guy can be the Left Tackle that doesn’t allow a sack in the playoffs, it can be a wide receiver whose fearlessness is infectious, or it can be a running back who refuses to go down and takes several tacklers with him. These are the leaders. For as much as we want our quarterbacks to be John Elway or Joe Montana, they probably won’t ever be.

In 2004 and 2005, the Lions scapegoated Joey Harrington. Maybe he was picked too high in 2002 (3rd), and maybe he was the wrong face for the franchise (I never understood why being a master piano player was a bad thing, but people around here thought it was awful, so whatever), but he was, and is, a good quarterback. He sets for us the example of how not to prepare a quarterback. Draft a guy high, to a terrible team; start him right away; make him take a ridiculous number of sacks; give him no protection so that 3-step drops become 2-step flings; give him no receivers (or no receivers that can stay on the field); give him no defense, so he takes over after the other team has scored, not after a punt; pile all of the blame on him. Despite all of this, Harrington had only one public outburst and display of immaturity, and that was the 2006 mini-camp. Not only was it totally justified for him to walk out and not participate after what he went through, but I can’t help that he was bated into doing that by coaching staff.

What is left of Joey Harrington and the number one pick that year, David Carr (who had virtually the same experience in Houston) is backup positions for better teams. Their replacements will have more success, but not because of talent at the position. The next time there is a major opening, a franchise will think about Harrington or Carr, but then go with the inexperienced rookie or second-year player. Harrington and Carr may now remain backups perpetually (ala Brian Griese).

I could dwell on what could have been with these guys. I could suggest that the right teams could make these guys look like Joe Montana. But they reveal for us the inaccuracy and the fear that goes into football executive (and fan) decision-making. Now that the Lions got rid of Harrington, they “improved” to 3-13. Perhaps we should focus on the offensive line. Perhaps we make it a goal for the Lions to give up fewer than 50 sacks (instead of last year’s 62). Perhaps they focus on driving a solid running game. Maybe the issues are personnel and coaching at all levels. Maybe the quarterback isn’t the only player on the field. Maybe we don’t know everything that we think we know. Quarterbacks are a dime a dozen, but real talents, including Harrington, aren’t so common. It’s amazing how easily we can ruin his career.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Draft Recap

So I watched many hours of draft coverage, and still have the last few hours to watch on DVR, but I think it is fair to make some assessments.

Other than the Miami Dolphins, I don’t think many teams botched the draft. Most were kind to Miami after drafting QB John Beck in the second round, but Miami still sucked it.

Oakland is taking a seemingly necessary gamble with JaMarcus Russell (QB) with the top pick, and if he turns out to be John Elway, they will look like geniuses. There is always the potential that he will be Akili Smith (with whom Russell has more in common than Elway, but that’s just me…) and we can pretend that we didn’t rave about this pick.

Detroit made the right move with WR Calvin Johnson. Perfect pick. Unfortunately, they screwed themselves a bit by only drafting one lineman, Manuel Ramirez from Texas Tech (a guard), and not until the fourth round. By far, their most glaring need on offense is on the line and they picked two offensive players before addressing that need. They also had four picks in the first two rounds, in a draft that was guard-heavy and tackle-thin, it is shocking that they wouldn’t have gone for Tony Ugoh (OT) or Aaron Sears (OG), both available at their original spot in the second round. I’m sure Drew Stanton (QB) would’ve been available later in the second round at one of their lower picks. Otherwise, this was a strong draft for the Lions.

The big revelation at the draft (aside from Dolphins coach Cam Cameron’s inflated sense of punt returners), was how ridiculously devoted the analysts are to ideologies surrounding quarterbacks. Every draft in the new millennium but one (2006) had a quarterback as its top pick. Since 1990, only six non-quarterbacks have been drafted first, five of which were defensive linemen. We operate under the suggestion that the most important player on any team is its quarterback.

A second ideology has developed since Tom Brady was drafted in the sixth round of the 2000 draft (with 198 players ahead of him). Their seems to be a growing consensus that high-priced quarterbacks are overrated and that one needs to find that ‘steal’ in the later rounds.

This draft showed a preference for second-round quarterbacks, with three teams drafting players in that round, with several more tempted to do so, if the conditions were right.

Plus, with the increased (relative) satisfaction of teams with their incumbent quarterbacks, there is more interest in picking up players that can make more of an immediate impact.

Lastly, there is the salary impact. Teams are more inclined to play their high-priced first-rounders right away, regardless of development and without regard to this possibility. This impacts the team when expectations for a player are too high, based solely on draft position, and the player ‘underperforms’.

With all of this in mind, most of ESPN’s coverage seemed to revolve around whether Brady Quinn (arguably one of the top 5-10 players in the draft) was closer to JaMarcus Russell in talent/impactability or to the second tier (Stanton, Beck, Trent Edwards, and Kevin Kolb). Some thought the later (perhaps based on his ‘slide’ down from projected spots of 3rd and 9th to 22nd), while others still considered him an elite pick.

Here’s what I think: for all but four-six teams, drafting Brady Quinn would have meant a ‘quarterback controversy’ would erupt. Partly money, partly ego, partly fan input; this would be a controversy that most teams didn’t want. The problem is that most people will assume that there are 21 players better than Brady Quinn in this draft (there aren’t) and that JaMarcus Russell is that much better than Quinn (he’s not) and that he’s only marginally better than Kevin Kolb, taken with the 4th pick of the second round (he’s so much better than Kolb). This is aided, not just because of draft position, but in the financial tying of positions: Brady will be forced to take less than Reggie Nelson (S) who was drafted before him, but more than Dwayne Bowe (WR) taken after him. Though this was done to keep contracts under control, it lends credence to the belief that this is actually a head-to-head (-to-head-to-head-to, etc.) competition. It is not.

Brady Quinn has the poise and affability of Tom Brady or even Steve Young. He has a great arm and a propensity to challenge any defense. Despite playing for a weaker Notre Dame team than previous ND products, he always kept them in the game and he never forced bad passes (ala Stanton or even Russell). He shows true leadership potential and a strong presence in the huddle (I’m told!). The knock on his accuracy is odd, but based solely on completion percentage (a statistic dramatically impacted by one’s receivers). I even heard a dig that he always throws one ‘fluttering’ pass each game. What crap is this? Are you scraping the bottom of the barrel to find a knock on this guy? Have you watched any college quarterbacks?

Anyway, he has fewer character and makeup questions than Eli Manning, drafted first three years ago and is struggling to fit into the Manning family mold. Philip Rivers and Ben Rothlisberger have outperformed him so far.

But the real question is how do we, the fans, deal with these competing ideologies? What is there to the draft if Quinn is either ‘overrated’ or ‘too expensive’? He is the closest quarterback to a sure thing in the whole draft, he is in remarkable shape (read durability), and he has such great character and charisma! The only real rationale for the Quinn slide is group think and subscription to these outdated and inappropriate ideologies.

The real question now is which college quarterbacks do we get to start picking on for 2008?