December 30, 2008

There Will Be Wrestling

There Will Be Blood, released last year, was a movie defined by a performance. Daniel Day-Lewis dominated the film as the treacherous Daniel Plainview, and luckily, he was in almost every single shot. However, at the same time, there was something detached about him. He was animated, absolutely engrossing, and at times, hilarious, but still just a character on a screen. Most moviegoers hadn't grown up near a rig, hadn't spent much time with maniacal oil barons. There was no relating to Daniel Plainview.

But I spent my entire childhood watching wrestling, and I've spent a good portion of my older years learning more and more about their profession. And Mickey Rourke, and his performance in The Wrestler, defines a job, an era, a series of real-life people and in-ring characters as well as humanly possible.

The Wrestler has been compared to Rocky, and that is a mistake for so many reasons. Do not walk into this movie thinking that a good person will overcome the odds to succeed in the end. Randy "The Ram" Robinson, Rourke's character, is not a good person. He's not particularly a bad person, either; he just seems to have spent his entire life devaluing everything but wrestling.

His daughter hates him, and rightfully so, as he sleeps through reconciliation dinners with her after a night of blowing lines and banging groupies. His ex-wife is nonexistent, and his only real companions are the kids around his trailer park, the Randy Robinson action figure taped to his van' s dashboard, and the NES game, starring himself, that he shows off to the same unimpressed kids.

The Wrestler is not about getting your one big shot; "The Ram" had that a long time ago, and for reasons not explained, he blew it. It's not about the intrinsic value of love and family; "The Ram" blew those things, too. In a way, it's about accepting your fate, who you are and what you love.

Randy's place is in the ring; he's not great at dating, fathering, or deli work. In the end, he resigns himself to his fate, and he accepts that resignation not with sadness but with a look of pure joy. He belongs on the top rope, listening to the fans, doing the only thing he appears to have ever been good at in the only place he's ever been respected.

And this is why the movie touches me so much. Anyone who has been a wrestling fan knows what has happened to the stars of years past - everyone but Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair seems to be dead, drunk or legally insane. It's an industry that chews you up and spits you out. As "The Ram" makes clear throughout the film, staying jacked, blonde and tan at an age when none of those things are natural delays not only the aging process but your inevitable retirement from the sport.

But in a way, wrestlers know what they are getting into from day one. Maybe that's why not a lot has been made of all the death, drugs and worse that has come out in the last few years; there's an unspoken bond between the fans, the media, the promotion and the wrestlers that this is a sideshow, a place that only a truly committed person can survive, and a place where the laws and functions of traditional society do not apply.

And it's a place I spent much of my childhood idolizing. The storylines, the matches, the unchained intensity of promotions like Extreme Championship Wrestling (and one of its spiritual successors featured in the movie, Combat Zone Wrestling) - I loved it all. As I grew up, I grew out of watching it on a weekly basis, but I still look back fondly on all the hours I spent enjoying it. And I cringe, sometimes even get upset, every time another favorite wrestler from the 1980s drops dead. I don't know these guys personally, obviously, but I do know that for all they gave fans like me, they deserve better.

So when Rourke gives a performance like this, a tour de force where he is not only scarily realistic but accurately portraying an inhabitant of the old-time wrestling world, it touches me. It'll bring light to an issue, an issue that probably won't change but will be noticed, discussed, and respected for what it is.

A few people behind us in the theater got upset at the ending; they wanted closure. I think you couldn't imagine a more perfect finale. Rourke's face when on the top turnbuckle, tears streaming down his cheeks, soaking in what was, no matter what happened to him, the last truly joyous moment of his life; that was the ending. In that sense, Randy Robinson is a character, just like Daniel Plainview. But the substance of Robinson, the performance of Rourke, and the truly amazing look into a different aspect of the world of professional wrestling; these are things that make The Wrestler something special, that make it the best movie of 2008.

December 24, 2008

Christmas with Armageddon

This year, the best Christmas gift I received was watching Armageddon on Encore Action!.

It's a movie that takes a lot of flack. The Comcast cable TV listings give it only 1.5 stars; IMDB gives it a 6.0 out of 10. It's directed by the universally mocked Michael Bay, strongly features the universally mocked Ben Affleck and offers up an admittedly hackneyed save-the-world plot.

It's also one of the best movies I've ever seen.

It's right up there with The Godfather I and II, L.A. Confidential, Raging Bull, The Royal Tenenbaums and any other movie that I'd consider a modern masterpiece. It may not be about an important social dilemma, a tumultuous time in history or a cultural icon who defied the odds to represent his generation, but it's my opinion that, not only is it as entertaining as any of these films, it's equally as well-made.

I am a firm believer that strong dramas, especially independent films, get far too much acclaim from both critics and award giver-outers. Heart-wrenching, "important" films about female serial killers, a pair of gay cowboys, social upheaval in suburbia - for better or worse, these are the movies that get Academy Awards, five stars in the paper and industry cred for the standout performance. And this is not necessarily a bad thing, or an all-together incorrect thing - Sean Penn in Milk delivers a better performance than Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, despite the fact that both 100% nail their respective roles.

But it's not always accurate. You can't lump all comedies, action films and thrillers into an "Other" category when describing a well-made movie. Armageddon came out in 1998 and was not nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but you will never convince me that Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth and Life is Beautiful were better movies (Saving Private Ryan was, but that's not my point).

At the very least, Armageddon is just about the best disaster movie ever made. Not only are the special effects on and involving the asteroid terrific, but the casting could not be more top-notch. Wonderful character actors like Michael Clarke Duncan, William Fichtner, Peter Stormare, Keith David and Steve Buscemi give every scene the appropriate level of either humor, intensity and/or plausibility. Bruce Willis dominates yet another action film as the steely eyed hero, and Ben Affleck turns in probably the best performance of his career as the ne'er-do-well who desires the love of both Willis and his daughter.

It's a two hour and 30 minute popcorn movie, and it rarely gets tiresome (assuming you go to the bathroom every time a Liv Tyler/Affleck love scene starts). The first half sets up the characters perfectly while never going over the top with the fish-out-of-water, drillers-as-astronauts scenario, and the second half throws you right into the action while convincing the viewer that every character in the movie could die before it's over. As a veteran of these types of films, you take for granted that the big names will make it back. Willis' sacrifice at the end is a pretty big curveball for a make-everyone-happy studio film, and it only adds to the sense of courage and conviction the characters come to stand for.

And it makes me cry. There is no movie on Earth that can make me cry as easily as Armageddon. Willis courageously taking on Affleck's responsibility to save the day, Bruce's speech to his daughter, William Fichtner's request to "shake the hand of the daughter of the bravest man I've ever met" - tears stream down my face every time. I've seen my fair share of romances, love stories, and tearjerkers in my 12 or so years as a serious fan of film, and I can say that no movie does it as well as Armageddon. You cry because you wish you had the understated bravery of Bruce Willis; you cry because you know it kills him to break such a promise to his daughter; you cry because he backs up his words and proves his mettle, and his valor, to every other character on that ship.

So much of Armageddon's strength stems from Bruce Willis and what he brings to the table. He plays the movie straight as an arrow; he's just there to do his job, no matter what the cost. He's playing Bruce Willis, and this gives him a credibility with the audience that few other actors have. We have no doubt that he's going to save the day, but the matter in which he does us gives us another reason to affirm his status as a true hero.

Everyone plays off him; Affleck doesn't have to do much besides look doe-eyed and try to impress Bruce; this is something he's adept at. The one-liners fired off by the comic relief every time Willis takes a stand or says something serious only add to the beacon of stability he represents. Plus, appearances by a young, post-Anaconda Owen Wilson, the guy who played Vegetable Lasagna on an episode of "Seinfeld," the pool hustler Joe Pesci outsmarts in My Cousin Vinny and Lucius Malfoy from Harry Potter make great trivia to impress your friends with.

There's a right way to make movies and a wrong way. Some people like to elevate the medium to an untouchable art form and hiss upon anything that diminishes what they consider to be its elite status, but there's nothing wrong with being entertained in the proper way. With that in mind, Armageddon has everything you could ever want in a movie. There is action, there is comedy, there is good acting, there are special effects, and there is emotion.

If you aren't seeing it, if you think it's fun and clever to point out the foibles in a thoroughly enjoyable film, perhaps the problem lies with you, and not Bruce Willis, Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, and the rest of the fine cast and crew who made this underrated, overwhelming story of human struggle, sacrifice and perseverance.

December 22, 2008

Why Pat Burrell Matters

When it comes to Pat Burrell, it’s not your first memory of the man but the last that counts.

That memory, for most, is his seventh-inning shot off the center field wall of Citizens Bank Park in Game 5 of the World Series. It’s been said recently that Pat took a long look around the field after he got to second base, knowing that this could be both his final moment of the World Series and final moment as a Philadelphia Phillie. Implied there is that each Phillies fan also took their one last look at Pat, and as well they should. There may never be another like him in this city.

His ups and downs, strikes and gutters have been recapped in words both written and spoken too many times to count. His virtues have been extolled, his faults exemplified, and the debate over the proper superlative to brand upon Pat Burrell probably won’t end until his career does. Did he spend his entire time in Philadelphia underachieving, or were the successes at the end enough to justify countless years, dollars and brain synapses spent analyzing, teaching and pondering Pat Burrell?

Short of Brian Dawkins, Jimmy Rollins and Simon Gagne, there’s been no longer tenured athlete in recent Philadelphia sports, and short of Donovan McNabb, there’s been no one more lustily debated about. He came in as the number one pick in the 1998 draft and left haggling over a multi-year contract at age 32, but these are just numbers, dates. These are facts, and they do not make the man. His on-base percentage isn’t what made him special, and neither is his lead-footedness on the base paths.

It is not about the redemption of Pat Burrell. It is not about how he went from victim of incessant booing to grand marshal of a victory parade better than our wildest dreams. The boos can turn to cheers quickly in any town, Philadelphia including. No, it is not about surprise at his late-career popularity, but the change, in everything, that made it possible.

What it is about is that, somehow, he got this city. For all those like Allen Iverson who know how to play to the crowd, for those like Brian Dawkins who feed off its energy, Pat Burrell understood it. He had to, or else those boos would have driven him mad. He slumped as much as a professional baseball player can slump without losing his job, and he participated on some of the worst, and then some of the most underachieving, Philadelphia sports teams of the last 15 years.

But he rejected every opportunity to leave town, and he denied every opportunity to strike back at the fans – almost as if he knew why they responded to successes and failures with such zeal. His only partial rebellion was requesting “Dirty Laundry” by Don Henley as his at-bat music, a shot at the media’s propensity to ‘kick ‘em when they’re up, kick ‘em when they’re down.’ Funny, and apt. For most players, it would imply that one foot is already out of the door.

But Pat kept at it, and he fought to get healthy, and he stayed. And he seemed to come to terms with himself and limitations, too. When it came time for glory to finally be bestowed upon Pat Burrell, it was to be a cog in the machine, not as the machine itself. Inflating salaries had made his previously bloated contract reasonable, and the arrival of true superstars like Cole Hamels and Chase Utley, combined with increasing years of familiarity, meant less pressure on Pat to be something he simply could not be.

And, surprisingly, this worked. For a prospect who had been touted since high school as the second coming of Jesus Christ on a baseball diamond, this kind of accepted regression, accompanied by mutual fan understanding, is not a typical turn of events. But it made sense, and it was a long time coming, and Pat seemed OK with it. And it worked.

In the end, our last true on-field memory of Pat Burrell is not his big hit but his removal for a pinch-runner, and that is how he should be remembered. He is not the idol that some people are now making him out to be; he was a complimentary piece, a slugging right-handed bat, a prodding outfielder prone to hair-pulling slumps.

He was a letdown, he was wasted talent, he was tenacious, he was integral. But he stuck around long enough to mash all that together into something different, to make his removal from the game, his exclusion from scoring the game-winning run a justified, acceptable part of his legacy. That wasn’t what everyone had in mind back in 1998, but for this city, for that man, it’s more than most will ever get.

December 18, 2008

I'll have the Ruben to go

The second most-anticipated administration in America is finally in power. Ruben Amaro Jr. has (essentially) completed his first offseason as general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, and it was a success.

This is not a universally agreed-upon opinion. For starters, much has been made of the switch from Pat Burrell to Raul Ibanez. And I must admit, there will be times when the team will miss Pat's patience at the plate, his commitment to Philadelphia and his right-handed bat. However, every report on Ibanez describes him as a wonderful teammate, a hard-working athlete and a dedicated student of hitting. Greg Dobbs himself stated that if a transition in left field had to be made, Ibanez is the perfect type of guy to move on to.

The Phillies will certainly suffer an embarrassing loss or two, or a half-dozen, to left-handed pitchers like Johan Santana before the year is out, but they will also positively crush right-handers. They are wagering that Ibanez will continue to hit at a steady clip, and they are also wagering that Jayson Werth will continue to develop as a rising star in right field. Both assumptions, in my opinion, have some merit to them. While the logic behind not offering arbitration to Pat Burrell still escapes me, this is a move that guarantees a level of offensive production out of left field.

Of course, offense gets all the headlines, but as the Phillies proved last season, pitching wins championships. And in resigning Jamie Moyer and Scott Eyre while adding Chan Ho Park to the bullpen, the Phillies maintained a commitment to pitching. While Moyer may not recapture last year's truly astounding numbers, he's been the model of consistency ever since coming to Philadelphia. Every other prediction concerning a dropoff in his effectiveness has been proven incorrect, and his style does indicate the kind of pitcher who can survive without a great deal of wear and tear on his arm. Meanwhile, what ended up being the greatest strength of last year's team - the bullpen - seems deep enough to survive a regression-to-the-norm that some of its key pieces are likely to endure. These are good things.

This might read as a Phillies press release, but I prefer to think of it as rational logic from a fan who finally accepts and understands how this team operates. You see, to view Ruben's offseason correctly, you HAVE to look at it through Phillies-colored glasses. As much as fans would like to see them make a big splash with a Derek Lowe or a Manny Ramirez, that just isn't going to happen. The Phillies operate under a budget - a budget that seems to have increased, as it should, after a World Series victory, but a budget nonetheless. This means that their margin of error is slim.

When an Adam Eaton or a Geoff Jenkins is signed to a lengthy contract and does not perform up to par, the team does not have the flexibility to treat the contracts given to them as dead money (unless, of course, you're as God-awful as Adam Eaton and force this notoriously thrifty team's hand). This is why Pat Gillick proved so useful - he was adept at the little moves, and the only way this team was ever going to win the World Series is if they got lucky (or smart) when cheaply plugging the holes. A few Moyers, Werths, Durbins and Dobbses later, we have a ring.

So Ruben Amaro didn't pull out his checkbook, but he did make moves that appear, at the very least, to be safe. Ibanez isn't a spring chicken, but there's no denying that a) he does a lot of things well, b) he has been consistent, even into his golden years, and c) his contract is not that outrageous. Ditto for Moyer. Park is on a low risk, one-year deal, as is Eyre. Jason Jaramillo and Greg Golson were lost causes in Philadelphia, but Ronny Paulino and John Mayberry Jr. come with a bit of potential.

And then there's arbitration. An underrated subplot for this offseason is that, in the days before World Series championships, the Phillies probably could not afford to bring every arbitration-eligible player back. At the very least, another ultimately failed season could provide a reasonable excuse to trade certain expensive players (cough cough Ryan Howard cough cough) away for 80 cents on the dollar. But now, there's no going back. Everyone knows their wallets are more than a little thicker, and everyone knows that each arbitration-eligible player had a whole lot to do with the parade we had just a few months ago. They can't afford the PR hit, and they CAN afford to shell out some cash. So, Werth will get his multi-year deal, Madson, Hamels and Howard will get big raises, and the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies will look a lot like the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies.

This is not the optimal solution (upgrading is always nice), but it's not bad. We still have arguably the best bullpen in baseball, we still have a top-five lineup and opening the season with Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ sure beats Adam Eaton and Kyle Kendrick. Does this insure a World Series repeat? No. Should we be more frightened of the Mets, who have acquired two important pieces for their bullpen? Yes. But JJ Putz and K-Rod are right-handed pitchers, and you know that Raul Ibanez is sitting in his hyperbaric chamber right now, salivating at the thought of teeing off on them in the late innings. Because we are World Fucking Champions, and, so far, Ruben Amaro Jr. has worked, to the best of his ability, to keep us that way.