May 12, 2009

I'm just so tired of all these star wars.

My expectations for Star Trek were both high and low. High, because I love Wrath of Khan, and I think a good filmmaker can do a lot with these iconic characters. Low, because I'm still attempting to get the awful taste of summer-opener Wolverine out of my mouth, and I know the pitfalls involved in an origin story. However, I had a good deal of faith in JJ Abrams - I loved the first season of "Lost", I think Mission Impossible III is remarkably underrated, and anyone who wrote on the masterpiece that is Armageddon is alright by me. And, as ultimately expected, Star Trek did not let me down.

First off, it was impeccably cast. Zachary Quinto is a picture-perfect Spock (get him off the abortion formerly known as "Heroes", please), Chris Pine is a solid Kirk (Abrams was right to cast a relative unknown) and, for the life of me, I can't figure out why the great Simon Pegg's Scotty was confined to just the last half hour. Even Anton Yelchin, known mostly by me as Larry's magician nephew on "Curb Your Enthusiasm", makes a purposely over-the-top Russian accent work as Chekov. I thought Abrams and company were in trouble when trying to fill roles already marvelously defined, but they couldn't have done a better job.

The special effects were also fantastic. This harkens back to the already mentioned Wolverine: for such a big budget, big expectations piece, it had some of the worst effects I've seen in a while. The fourth time Wolverine and Sabretooth bared their claws, turned into CGI versions of themselves and ran snarling at each other, the entire audience was snickering. And let's not even get into the whole "Deadpool" sequence at the end. But Star Trek starts off fast, with a huge space battle, and never really lets up. Say what you want about Abrams, but his transition from TV to big budget Hollywood movies is going about as smoothly as you could ask for.

If only it hadn't been rushed. This was one of the fastest two hour movies I've seen in a while, and I think there could have been more exposition in certain scenes. For example, Future Spock informs Kirk that he can take control of the Enterprise by having temporary Captain Spock betray his emotions...which he does in about 30 seconds. That's all it took? When the famed James T. Kirk is involved, you expect a more brilliant plot to be executed.

That's another issue - Pine's Kirk is brash, handsome and confident, but the script never offers the sense that he is an intelligent, all-encompassing leader. Even his outsmarting of the Kobayashi Maru test, an event much discussed in the Star Trek canon, turns out to be quick, easy and fairly tame. It almost seems like Kirk is TOO destined for success; every decision he makes is the right one, and all he has to do to execute them is show up. At the same time, this version hasn't been portrayed as a Kirk movie in the first place. It's an ensemble piece - the entire crew of the Enterprise gets their fair share. This isn't a bad thing, it's just different.

Also, I know origin stories don't always leave time for well-developed bad guys, but Eric Bana was particularly wasted as Nero, the angry Romulan. I read that JJ Abrams considered only two actors for this role - Russell Crowe and Eric Bana. Frankly, I'm glad it wasn't Crowe, because he deserves much better than this forgettable, uninspired villain. I don't blame Bana at all, though - frankly, even an actor the caliber of a Daniel-Day Lewis couldn't have done a thing with such a bland character.

In the end, though, Star Trek does about everything you could ask from a summer movie. It's not quite an Iron Man or The Dark Knight, but it's light years better than Wolverine or Indiana Jones 4. My expectations might have been raised for what a big budget summer movie CAN be, but that doesn't mean anything less than should be shunned. Abrams has taken a fairly niche-y series, cast it with relative unknowns and made it work. All things considered, that's a praiseworthy accomplishment.

As for the next one...why not go all the way?

May 10, 2009

The origins of Keyboard Cat.

CNN reports on the worldwide hero/sensation. Compelling, and rich.

May 9, 2009

So far.

After 27 games, the Philadelphia Phillies are in first place, and no one is very impressed.

The offense has been terrific - 3rd in the National League in runs, 1st in home runs, 2nd in strikeouts (in the good way, with very few of them). Raul Ibanez has been a more than worthy replacement for Pat the Bat, Chase Utley has recovered from hip surgery much faster than anyone thought and Ryan Howard looks slim, focused and fantastic in the field.

But the pitching has been historically awful. A 5.41 ERA, 28th out of 30. 51 homers allowed, worst in baseball. There's been signs of life lately - Joe Blanton and Chan Ho Park have both put together solid outings (Blanton has thrown three solid innings as of this writing), and Cole Hamels looked like his old self last night against the Atlanta Braves. But Brett Myers seems every bit the headcase he's always been, and Jamie Moyer is making Phillies fans fear that he might be running on empty.

Luckily, we just won the World Series, and fans and management alike seem to have acquired a new championship-style patience. Park is on a short leash, especially with Happ looking good out of the bullpen and Kendrick pitching well in AAA, but the rest of the starters don't seem to be in any immediate trouble. And they shouldn't be - May games matter just as much as September games, but our top four starters' track records indicate they'll turn it around.

However, everyone should keep one thing in mind. The Phillies are currently paying Adam Eaton and Geoff Jenkins millions upon millions of dollars to go away, something that previous Phillies teams would never, ever do. Seems like our World Fucking Championship banner is the cause - ownership has decided (rightly, I believe) that the returns from another deep playoff run will far outweigh the already wasted money owed to those two players.

Does this mean that a guy like Jamie Moyer could be in the same boat someday? Unlikely, but I think it DOES mean that winning now officially trumps all for the Philadelphia Phillies. If May goes by and Moyer is not performing, I have no doubt that a move will be made. All of a sudden, we've got some internal pitching options, and we might have the prospects to bring in an Erik Bedard or a Roy Halladay at the trade deadline. I'm not sure what the Phillies are thinking in that regard, but after locking all of the key cogs up for the next two-three years this last offseason, I'd be surprised if they wouldn't at least poke around.

The NL East is wide-open - despite all those flaws I've mentioned, we're still ahead of the pack. There's a time for teaching, correcting and understanding, and there's a time for action. If the summer begins and a player is still hurting our chances to repeat, I'm not sure how long our memories might be. And I'm not sure that that's a bad thing - as the Philadelphia Phillies have made enjoyably apparent over the last few months, winning is now everything.

May 4, 2009

Lost in the flood.

Something surprising happened last week – I reached my Bruce Springsteen saturation point.

Attending four of his concerts in eight days probably didn’t help, but at the time I bought the tickets, I didn’t expect it to hurt, either. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, and I’m kind of hoping that writing this will let me get down to the heart of the matter.

Each show offered its own experience, although as you’ll read, not distinct enough to make it as worthwhile as I’d hoped. Boston 1 was affected by a post-Marathon Monday malaise, and it probably showed in my level of rocking. The band’s impromptu cover of ZZ Top’s “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” was tremendous, but for the most part, it was a little Springsteen 101. Old standbys like “Rosalita” and “Growin’ Up” are always fun to hear, but not necessarily memorable in their own right. It was great, though, to see my friend Katie rocking out at her first ever Bruce show. She loved it to death, which probably was my first sign that I was approaching dangerously high levels of Bruce.

Boston 2, however, dispelled those early fears by being a masterpiece. Simply put, a show like that is the reason you go to Springsteen concerts. "Candy's Room". "For You". "Jungleland". And the cherry on top was a surprise “So Young and In Love” during the encore that got me screaming and sobbing at the same time. It’s one of my top five Bruce songs, a rarity off of his Tracks outtakes album that is certainly not on his usual setlists. But he opened the second show in Hartford with it on the Magic tour, and it’s one I’ve longed to see for as long as I’ve known it. I doubt it’s a universally shared opinion, but to me a moment like that justifies every cent of Bruce’s exorbitant ticket prices.

The final two shows took place at the soon-to-be-exploded Spectrum in Philadelphia. Philly 1 offered the opportunity to be in the pit, meaning three feet from Bruce Springsteen for the duration of the show. It sounds great in theory, and it IS great in execution. The process by which you get into the pit, though, was the concert equivalent of childbirth. It’s a slow, arduous, excruciating process that is redeemed only by the human capacity to forget the almost mind-altering pain we just endured. I’m not sure how they can make it any better – I just know that I hate it, and now that I’ve gotten in once, I’ll never try it again.

That show, while a near-mirror image of Boston 1, was lifted up a bit by “Fire” and “The Fever” in the sign portion of the show, along with a great cover of the Dovells' “You Can’t Sit Down” in the encore. Oh yeah, and by being THREE FEET FROM BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN. If luck had shined on us a bit more, we could have been as close as zero feet away, but either way, its five days later and my ears are still ringing and my voice is still hoarse.

Philly 2, though, was the letdown show. On the radio afterwards, DJs on Philly rock stations 93.3 and 102.9 were both calling it one of the best shows they’d ever seen, from any group, ever, and I understand where they were coming from. But it was still a letdown, and I think I feel that way for numerous reasons.

Reason number one was that it was the last show he’ll ever play at the Spectrum (as of right now, anyway), and I expected something special. Sure, he acknowledged that fact a few times, and he played the brief “Springsteen grand slam” bit that Harry Kalas recorded for the Boss, and songs like “Kitty’s Back” and “Thundercrack” harkened back to the old days when Bruce made his reputation with jazzier shows in the Greater Philadelphia area. But there were still the Rising songs that even casual fans must be getting tired of, the crowd-killer “Kingdom of Days” and the general jumbled pacing that has defined his setlists thus far on this tour.

Bruce has a message to get across on this tour – if you don’t notice that after the three-song Recession Package of “Seeds”, “Johnny 99” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad”/“Youngstown”, you haven’t been paying attention. It’s a build-you-down-bring-you-up type of situation, where he both laments the downtrodden and then offers an olive branch of hope and love. But the big problem is that his fans are ready to rock, and Bruce is seemingly ready to oblige. When he pops out with “Hungry Heart” or “Spirit in the Night”, the crowd gets on their feet, but he puts them down again soon after with a subpar Rising tune or “Working on a Dream”. It’s a painfully similar setlist every night, and after four shows, I think it’s fair to say that it doesn’t always work. I think it’s also fair to say that I’m surprised he’s keeping it idle for so long, and that back-to-back Bruce shows in the same city can be so alike.

The man is a master musician who’s been working crowds for 40 years, and I’m just some 23-year-old kid with a surprising amount of disposable income and a borderline-obsessive interest in his music. But I’ve operated under the ideal that no two Bruce shows are the same for as long as I’ve listened to Springsteen, and that’s because no two I’ve been to or heard about ever really seemed to be. I caught four shows on the Magic tour, and each was different enough to leave me wanting more. Right now, though, I don’t think I could do another show for a long time.

Did I bring this saturation, this feeling of overkill on myself? Certainly. But when I heard about these four accessible shows, with two of them closing down a legendary arena, there was no way I’d miss any of them. So I took the chance that they’d all be worth my money, and while they partly were, they partly weren’t. I know for a fact that Bruce Springsteen has still got it, but at this point, I wonder if what he’s offering is what I want.