March 31, 2009

I Wanna Meet That Dad

You've probably never seen this man before.

His name is Bill Irwin. He's appeared in Across the Universe, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Midsummer Night's Dream and, apparently, many "Sesame Street" episodes and straight-to-DVD movies.

He's also the dad in last year's mini-masterpiece Rachel Getting Married, a performance that really should have garnered him an Oscar nomination. However, like everything else in Rachel not named "Anne Hathaway", he was snubbed.

Rachel Getting Married got positive reviews but was shunned by most during awards season; partly, I imagine, for demanding too much from its viewers. It attempts to be a "slice of life" drama - a camera has suddenly been dropped in on this family at a very real, emotional time for them, and the audience is expected to learn about their past struggles and present squabbles in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Unlike other movies that span entire lifetimes, or those that exist as distinctive two-hour detours from the off-camera lives of its characters, Rachel Getting Married takes place over a weekend that feels like a weekend. When changes occur in its characters, we feel blessed, in a sense, to have caught them at this moment of such interesting family upheaval, rather than being taken out of the movie with forced revelations or extraneous controversy.

Almost every actor and actress in the film embodies a person who is about to boil over, capturing the realism of explosions made inevitable at such a stressful time, but the straw that stirs the drink is Bill Irwin's character. He is the father of the titular Rachel, along with Anne Hathaway's protagonist Kym, and he plays arguably the most cheerful, enjoyable father figure in recent movie history.

He is overwhelmed with excitement at the prospect of his daughter's marriage, and the pure joy on his face during toasts, speeches to his family and even witty family banter is unmistakable. He hops up and down like a child when he finds out about his daughter's pregnancy, and he beams when defending his honor as the master of loading the family dishwasher. Simply put, he's a marvel, and his happiness is infectious.

It also serves to carry the movie. Each time his family verbally brawls, you can see the pain on his face. The tears when he's reminded of the child he's lost, the strained look when catching his ex-wife's eye at the wedding festivities, and his refusal to engage in difficult conversations shows a man who, against all odds, was probably once even more engaging and delightful than this. You get the impression that life has beaten him down a bit, but now, at this wonderful occasion, he's recapturing how full of love and life he used to be.

This is not spelled out on paper - it comes after two viewings of this incredible movie, after being led on a rollercoaster ride of emotional ups and downs by director Jonathan Demme. However, it is further proof of the necessity of picture-perfect character actors, especially those on whom a movie hinges. Anne Hathaway has drawn a great deal of praise (and rightfully so) for being the catalyst that drives her family both together and apart, but without Bill Irwin's mesmerizing, captivating, hilarious performance, Rachel Getting Married would not be what it is. People like him, actors and actresses like him, never receive enough praise for the little things they do. So, consider this the best I can do for an actor who brought out the best emotions in me.

March 29, 2009

Stairs-way to Heaven

I bought this a week ago.

Some people might say it's silly, and it kind of is. Matt Stairs might not even make the 2009 Opening Day roster.

But to me, that's what makes it so special. For so many years, I bought Jim Thome jerseys, Jeremiah Trotter jerseys, Jeremy Roenick jerseys. I was anticipating the future, not embracing the present (which was understandable for a mid-90's Philadelphia sports fan, but still). I was hopping on the bandwagons of acquired superstars, hoping they'd be the ones to lead Philadelphia to a championship (I bought my Trotter during his second go-around in the city).

There's nothing wrong with this - JR was one of the most interesting, charismatic hockey players of the last 20 years, and Thome brought a much needed respectability back to Phillies baseball. I'm still proud to have their names and numbers on the back of my shirts.

But Matty Stairs is more than that - to borrow a line from Batman Begins, he's a symbol. I've been telling people that Lidge's winning strikeout in the World Series was the third best moment of my life, and the whole parade experience was the best (in between at no. 2 - my first sexual encounter. But who cares about that?). However, the truth of the matter is, the best moment of it all was Matt Stairs's home run.

It was the first time I realized they really could do it, that a Philadelphia team was getting all the breaks, coming through in the clutch, and playing with the swagger of a champion. At the time, on this very blog, I wrote, "Simply put, I'll never doubt this team again. I'll never doubt what they're capable of, and I especially won't doubt the inescapable thought that this is really something special." I was right.

Whether Matt Stairs makes the Opening Day roster or not, to me, is irrelevant. Whenever I pop on his jersey and take a look in the mirror, I'll see the gold trim around the name, the World Series Champions patch on the right sleeve, and the giant no. 12 on the back. I'll remember his monstrous homer, and I'll think that, after all the talk of Philadelphia's sports saviors, it was a 41-year-old Canadian with a beer gut who made all the difference.

Now that's something to celebrate.

March 23, 2009

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

-handsome, tough Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn, with a wonderful "burnt sienna" playoff beard

After huge back-to-back wins over the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New Jersey Devils, it's safe to say that the NHL playoffs are a certainty for the Philadelphia Flyers. With that, it's playoff beard time. After a shave tonight, I won't touch it (unless my employer enacts a trim-or-fire policy) until the Flyers are eliminated.

Don't want to say too much about the games, other than the team appears to be getting hot at just the right time. If Marty Biron keeps playing this well and Danny Briere stays healthy, they can beat anyone in the league (except unbeatable Detroit). Should be fun.

March 11, 2009

North America's Team

Over the course of my 23 years on the Earth, I've traveled across many lands, and sailed much of the seven seas. In these journeys, I've met countless sports fans from cities other than Philadelphia...and I hated almost all of them.

Part of it was the obvious - Philadelphia is the greatest, most passionate sports city in America. No one could compare, from the start. Sometimes, though, it went deeper than that. Many sports fans are misinformed, over-the-top and borderline idiotic. Most of them couldn't tell you one insightful thing about their teams. As someone with a strong passion for sports, it's hard for me to accept anyone who appears to be "less than."

However, in the end, two men (and two cities) stand out. Neither can boast the size or (in my opinion) all-around passion of Philadelphia, and neither have the requisite "four teams" that represent a real, true sports city. But both have suffered, and are known quite well for having felt the painful sting of a harsh loss. I'm talking, of course, of my college roommate Brad and my London drinking buddy Mike, and they, respectively, represent Cleveland and Buffalo.

Their stories are similar: both are experienced drinkers, both can be loud and boastful, and both enjoy community service and helping people (if "helping people" means "dropping them on their head while carrying them around after a night at the bar," Mike).

However, what they really have in common is their cities, and accompanyingly, their sports teams. And their pain. Buffalo has the Brett Hull goal, the Music City Miracle and Scott Norwood; Cleveland has Jordan-over-Ehlo, The Fumble, The Drive and Edgar Renteria.

These two cities have been beaten and battered over and over again, economically and socially as well as physically. Someone once told me that Buffalo is basically "50% liquor stores, 50% bowling alleys" (although how is that a bad thing?), and Cleveland's damn river can actually CATCH ON FIRE. They're places I'd prefer never to go, but they both have the underdog quality that all of us should be rooting for in this modern, tainted time in sports.

And that is the reason I am writing this. I've been to the "Cleveland bar" in Boston and the "Bills bar" in New York City, and I can safely say that their fans are among the best I've met. They are passionate, intelligent, friendly; salt-of-the-earth folk. Ever since my visits to these places, I've felt myself connected to both cities, as sort of a backup fan base to Philadelphia. Not especially in sports beyond football, however; I've no interest in the doings of the Cleveland Indians or the Buffalo Sabres. No one but their beloved Bills and Browns really seem to capture the true hearts and desires of these tortured sister cities.

I haven't given it much thought, of course; it mostly manifested itself in a slight vested interest in two non-Philadelphia games each week. But with the Terrell Owens signing, I feel the need to officially take sides. I hate Terrell Owens; I think he is a cancer that can tear apart locker rooms, and his time in Philadelphia certainly didn't end well. But in a one-year deal, with an opportunity to invigorate a sad, desolate city, I think he can really be something special. And I think the Bills can, too, even with the Dolphins and the Patriots in their way.

Meanwhile, Eric Mangini starts a half-assed rebuilding process in Cleveland, hoping that presumed homosexual Brady Quinn can turn into the franchise QB they've needed since running Bernie Kosar out of town. That's all well and good, but to me, it's more of the same-old, same-old for Browns fans.

So I'm officially throwing my support behind an AFC team. My friend Chris Moore is currently doing some volunteer work in San Francisco, and as a result, he's taken a gig as a part-time member in Raider Nation. I figure that if he can choose a team from the other conference, so can I.

My AFC team is the Buffalo Bills.

Even if they don't have what it takes to make an actual playoff run, there might not be a more interesting NFL team to follow this year. And with the Eagles incorporating an interesting "addition by massive subtraction" strategy, I respect any team willing to take a chance. Good luck, Bills fans; I'm proud to be among you. And if your first season with TO goes anything like ours did, you might actually become what he oddly christened you as: "North America's team."

March 8, 2009

Watching the Watchmen

I'm glad I didn't write this on Friday night.

That was the first time I saw Watchmen, and on the way out of the theater, I made several remarks indicating that a) Watchmen was a terrific movie and b) it was on par with The Dark Knight.

Those statements are not exactly accurate.

Watchmen gets a lot of things right. It's beautiful to look at, and it's entertaining. The opening credits, a recap of the early years of the Watchmen timeline set to "The Times, They Are A-Changin'" by Bob Dylan, is an inspired idea bordering on genius. Scenes like the Comedian/Manhattan Vietnam flashback, the rape, the Manhattan-on-Mars monologue/flashback and the Comedian/Ozymandias fight are staged perfectly. Jackie Earle Haley and Jeffrey Dean Morgan absolutely nail Rorschach and The Comedian. And the new ending is, in my opinion, better than Alan Moore's original (don't tell him I said that).

Upon my second viewing, though, the movie's flaws stood out. Chief among those is director Zack Snyder's music choices, which are unspeakably awful. Granted, the use of "I'm Your Boogie Man" during the riot scene was another spot of genius. However, "99 Luftballons" over the first few moments of Laurie and Dan's dinner was a bit too jarring, and Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" blaring throughout the strangely long and graphic sex scene sparked laughter more than anything else. "The Sounds of Silence" at the funeral and "All Along the Watchtower" in Antarctica were beyond absurd. Music is supposed to accompany the movie, not take you out of it, and those two songs could not have seemed more out of place. I don't care if lyrics from "Watchtower" are mentioned in the graphic novel, that doesn't mean the songs need to be shoved in our face. Quentin Tarantino he isn't.

But there was more to it than that. In the end, Snyder's devotion to the source material has been his undoing. He correctly realizes, over the course of the first hour, that The Comedian is the driving force behind Watchmen. It's no coincidence that all of those scenes are among the best in the movie. However, Snyder takes almost an hour to cover material that is only 1/8th of the graphic novel. By then, it's up to the other characters to carry the weight, and they're barely given anything to work with. Even the prison sequences with Rorschach, arguably the most interesting aspect of the graphic novel, fall short.

Too many of the scenes were also given the wrong feel. I understand that a comic adaptation with a budget of around $150 million is not going to be particularly introspective and subversive, but there was no need to turn the tenement fire into a death-defying adventure for Silk Spectre and Nite Owl. There was definitely no need to have Rorschach say "my pleasure" instead of "my perspective" during the attempted attack by Big Figure, and there was also no need to make Laurie only mildly perturbed by Manhattan's attempted double team. In fact, Akerman's horrible performance led to a lot of her scenes coming across strangely, and it makes you wonder how Snyder could be so hit-or-miss on his casting.

Watchmen is absolutely worth a view, and if you enjoy the graphic novel as much as I do, you'll be very impressed at how well Snyder brings some of those scenes to life. In the end, though, after Iron Man and Dark Knight set the bar so much higher for comic book movies, the expectations for an adaptation of one of TIME Magazine's 100 best novels were too high to be met by a visually dominant director like Snyder. If he could have figured out how to condense the rest of the movie as well as he did in the opening credits, we'd be talking about this movie for years to come. Instead, it's merely a faithful but flawed adaptation of a truly classic piece of comic literature.

In retrospect, they should have just made this instead:

March 6, 2009

The Price You Pay

Paul Holmgren hasn't made many mistakes as the general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, but one in particular is going to haunt him for the next 6+ years: Danny Briere.

When healthy, Briere is one of the more talented players in hockey. His signing, much like the Phillies bringing in Jim Thome in late 2002, was a necessary tonic for a franchise that had fallen on (sudden) hard times. And his scoring touch last year helped the Flyers reach the Eastern Conference Finals, a turnaround that occured much quicker than anyone expected.

And the reason for that quick turnaround was, ultimately, the work of Paul Holmgren. He essentially turned Peter Forsberg into Ryan Parent, Scottie Upshall, Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen, a move that combined the acquisition of stellar talent with the elimination of any distractions caused by the talented-but-oft-injured center. Add in Braydon Coburn, Joffrey Lupul, former captain Jason Smith and Marty Biron, and you're looking at an unparalleled professional sports house-cleaning, on a team that desperately needed an organizational colonic.

But now, it's becoming apparent that Holmgren may have shot his wad a bit too soon. A subplot throughout the entire season has been issues with the salary cap; they've flirted dangerously close to the $56.7 million ceiling since the beginning. Adding to the turmoil is Briere; Holmgren's first signing, he of the eight year, $52 million contract. Last year, his cap value seemed innocent enough, but injuries have complicated matters in 2009. Danny has missed the bulk of the year with a hurt groin, and every time the Flyers bring him back, Holmgren and his staff must work overtime to make the numbers match up.

His injury has hurt their on-ice production; one of the best players on the team has not developed chemistry with a specific line, or even gotten in hockey shape, going into the playoff hunt. It has also hurt them financially; not only did it limit their acquisitions at the trading deadline, but to fit Briere (and to assure that rookie stud Claude Giroux did not have to be shuttled back and forth to the AHL), Glen Metropolit, Ossi Vaananen and Scottie Upshall were all let go for basically nothing.

This hurt the Flyers' depth tremendously, something that will become even more important as Briere (apparently) has gone down with another aggravation of his groin. What it may hurt even more, and this is something harder to register, is team chemistry. All three were apparently popular, respected players, and they were tossed out like yesterday's garbage. Everyone in that locker room surely understands that this is a business, but, to me, the cap/Briere issues this season dangerously mirror the Forsberg issues of years past.

The Flyers have a very good hockey team; this is a fact. Despite all the talk (and all the moves), they've kept a solid hold on the number four spot in the Eastern Conference playoff standings. At the very least, a playoff berth seems likely. However, their power play has gone almost bone-dry (something Briere was supposed to help with), and their goaltending remains uncertain. Plus, this might be the most competitive Eastern Conference in the recent history of the league. The Penguins, Rangers and the Panthers (the 8, 7 and 6 seeds, respectively) might not be able to beat the Bruins, Devils and Capitals, but they'll certainly beat the crap out of each other.

With all that, the chances of a Stanley Cup run for this Flyers team fall further and further by the wayside. Is this Holmgren's fault? Not really; he did as good a tear-down-and-build-up job as you'll ever see, especially in this cautious era of sports general managing. But whether it's his exorbitant salary or his torn-up groin, Paul Holmgren might be seeing that the future of his hockey team hinges a bit too much on little Danny Briere.

March 5, 2009


Things like this restore my faith in humanity, while also making me wonder what I've ever really accomplished. Whoever made this, he knows how to live.

March 3, 2009

Food for Thought

For so long, Brian Dawkins and Pat Burrell represented their respective Philadelphia franchises better than anyone.

Dawkins was the hard-hitting, never-say-die leader of one of the best defenses in football, racking up Pro Bowl invites as often as his Eagles earned NFC Championship Game berths.

Burrell was the underachieving left fielder, the number one pick who never lived up to the hype while starring for the oh-so-close Phillies through the early 2000's.

Both had spent their entire careers in Philadelphia.

But at the end, it changed.

Dawkins still hit as hard as anyone, but reports indicated that defensive coordinator Jim Johnson had altered his game plan to protect his safety from being exploited in the passing game. After yet another letdown in the 2009 NFC Championship Game, the Eagles, risking the outrage of an entire fanbase, found the courage to let Brian Dawkins walk. Any subsequent comments from Dawkins on his departure were uniformly met with passionate weeping.

Meanwhile, Burrell dominated the opening months for a Phillies team hot off their first postseason appearance since 1993. He faltered down the stretch but his team shined, and his seventh-inning double in Game 5 of the World Series led to the title-clinching run. Receiving a hero's goodbye while leading the first Philadelphia championship parade in over 25 years, Pat Burrell moved down south to Tampa Bay, with seemingly few regrets.

Funny how things work out, isn't it?

March 1, 2009

Lonesome Day

"Let kingdom come, I'm gonna find my way,
yeah, through this lonesome day."
-Bruce Springsteen

A few days ago, I was having a discussion with my roommate about whether athletes should still be considered role models. My point was that athletes, above all, are people. Just because they happen to be good at shooting three-pointers or hitting home runs doesn't mean that they have good hearts, that they care about society or that they conduct themselves in a matter that others should mimic. I said that admiring their talents is one thing, but blindly assuming that they'll live up to some loftier moral code is a bit old-fashioned.

My roommate disagreed, and his point of reference was Brian Dawkins.

Brian Dawkins is someone we can all aspire to be. He is one of the most passionate athletes ever to come through Philadelphia, and he is, by all accounts, a loving family man and a wonderful human being. If any complaints are leveled against Brian Dawkins, it is because he cares too much. Any late hits or overly zealous tackles are because he plays with a fire that most human beings can only dream of, and when his newborn twins were born premature, his love for them was so powerful that it clearly affected his on-field play. If you were ever to feel something more than the general fan-athlete connection towards someone on your favorite team, it should, and probably would, be directed at Brian Dawkins.

And now, he is a member of the Denver Broncos. This entire weekend has been filled with talking heads and newspaper columns extolling the pros (few) and cons (ample) of this decision, so recapping them is a practice better left to others. All I can say is, the Philadelphia Eagles professed at least a week before free agency that Brian Dawkins would be resigned quickly and professionally. They made it seem like a no-brainer, and to any Eagles fan with an actual brain, it should have been. It's a cliche to say that an athlete brings something unquantifiable to the table, but Brian Dawkins does. Besides Bobby Clarke and perhaps some amalgamation of John Kruk, Lenny Dykstra and Dave Hollins, no one has represented a team as perfectly as Brian Dawkins did for the last 13 years of Eagles football.

For a while, when Dawkins was still, without question, a top 2 or 3 NFL safety, this mostly meant that he was the face of the defense. He was already ready with an interview, a quote or a pregame pep talk to his teammates that would make your hair stand on end. He was important and he was beloved, but you could make the argument that he was just another great player on a very competitive football team.

In recent years, though, that all changed. As his old teammates retired (or, more aptly, were let go with little fanfare), Dawkins became a mentor as much as a superstar. Sheldon Brown, Lito Sheppard, Quintin Demps, Quintin Mikell - all of them have loudly professed how much Brian Dawkins meant to them, as a football player and a man. Eagles guard Shawn Andrews shared the same sentiments yesterday. Much as Jamie Moyer receives a great deal of praise for counseling Cole Hamels, Kyle Kendrick and other young Phillies pitchers, Dawkins set an example, consciously or not, for the next round of Eagles defensive backs.

In doing so, Dawkins became something more. His impact could no longer be measured in tackles, sacks or fumbles; it was ingrained in the team's psyche. During the playoffs only a few months ago, Dawkins was almost a man possessed during games, dancing wildly to the Eagles fight song and delivering arguably his most enthusiastic pregame speeches to date. I don't know if he knew what might happen to him, but at the time, all we could see was a man utterly committed to his team and his fans. Now, remembering it is extremely sad, because it will be the last time any of us see Brian Dawkins in Eagles green.

As much as we try and deceive ourselves, the NFL is a business. It's about making money, and although making money and keeping fans happy are certainly tied together, there will eventually be unpopular decisions made. The Eagles, unfortunately, are masters at this, and perhaps more unfortunately, they have often been right. Lately, though, it seems that Andy Reid has become more egotistical with age. He thinks he can weasel his way out of any situation, whether it's letting go of a legendary player, keeping key positions understaffed or ignoring glaring holes in his depth chart. This time, he has, knowingly or not, declared Brian Dawkins to be "expendable".

Brian Dawkins is not expendable. He is a living legend, a human being with the ability to link generations of Eagles fans, and a player with whom anyone my age has grown up with. Worst of all, he remains extremely talented. He almost defines the term "irreplaceable," and to make things even worse, the Eagles have no replacement plan in action. He might not be the right fit in Denver; he might never make another Pro Bowl outside of this city. But he deserved the chance to try, for what he has done and for what we know he can still do.

Everything I know about Brian Dawkins indicates a man of great pride. He does not seem like the kind of man who would continue to come onto a football field, week after week, if he was not playing at a high enough level. This should have been reason enough to keep him around. He knows what he can and cannot still do, and the Eagles, admittedly, have played to these strengths. And with all that, they still made the NFC Championship Game. At the most basic level, if you are a team who is arguably thisclose to a Super Bowl berth, letting go of one of your Pro Bowl-caliber players is inexcusable.

I heard Brian Dawkins' choked up voice during his Comcast SportsNet interview, and I won't deny that I've choked up a few times myself this weekend. I don't want to see a game at Lincoln Financial Field without Brian Dawkins in green, and even worse, I don't want to see him on the visiting sideline in Broncos orange. For this, Andy Reid, Joe Banner and Eagles management, you will never be forgiven. My only advice to you is win, win big, and win soon. There are too few role models left in the world of professional sports, and one of them was just forced out the door.