Saturday, March 03, 2007

NFL Hot Stove

Now that spring training has begun, and considering the fact that the NFL is a bigger enterprise with more fans, it seems only fitting that there be an MLB-like hot stove offseason for the NFL, chock full of signings, trades and draft-related minutiae (hey, did you know Steve Young's cat had a higher Wonderlic score than Chris leak?!)

Therefore I bring you my first installment of the Pigskin Hot Stove.

-Bucs sign two quarterbacks, one of which might actually play in Tampa Bay
Only Chucky & the Bucs can produce a story like this. Yesterday word came over the wire that the Bucs were about to complete a trade with the Broncos for devastatingly mediocre quarterback Jake The Fake Plummer. The deal was held up when it was discovered Jake really didn't want to leave the greater Denver area, which was quickly realized after Jake declared that he would rather retire than play anywhere other than Denver. He must really love LoDo.

Alrighty then. The trade's off, right? Well, it was, temporarily. After a night of thinking things over, the Bucs decided to go ahead and make the trade anyway, dealing a conditional pick to Denver, with the condition being if they can convince Jake to suit up in scarlet & pewter the Broncos would receive an as-yet-to-be-determined 2008 pick. Ah, okay.

Meanwhile the Bucs aren't content to have four quarterbacks with NFL experience on the roster-Simms, Gradkowski, Luke McCown and potentially Plummer- they decided they should add a fourth to the mix, so they signed Jeff Garcia to a 1-year, $5 million dollar deal.

The free agent was recently let go by Philly after he guided the Eagles to a 5-1 record and playoff berth after starting QB Donovan McNabb went down for the season with an injury. His release by the Eagles was partially expected when the team announced McNabb would regain his starting position next season, and many teams were believed to be in the hunt for the 37-year-old veteran's services.

I just find it odd that his services would be headed to Tampa Bay, especially after the Bucs just signed incumbent starter and recent splenectomy patient Chris Simms to a 2-year, $10 million extension in December. Garcia obviously feels pretty secure in the knowledge that he will be given every chance to unseat Simms, especially given Gruden's penchant for favoring Pro Bowl veterans over unproven youngsters. But if Plummer didn't want to come here before the Garcia signing, imagine how he feels now.

The way I see it shaking out is this: Gradkowski carries a clipboard for the entire season, McCown rides the pine or becomes the practice squad QB, Plummer takes his grizzly beard, porn 'stache and inability to win a big game and moves to a secluded mountain hideaway, while Simms and Garcia wage a classic battle of tug of war for Chucky's affections and the starting QB position.

Should be an interesting mini-camp at One Buc Place this summer.

-Pats beef up LB corps with addition of Pro Bowler Thomas
With their linebacking department depleted in recent years due to free agency (Willie McGinest), retirement (Ted Johnson) and injury (Tedy Bruschi), New England took a huge step towards shoring up what was becoming a weakness on the defensive side of the ball by signing free agent linebacker Adalius Thomas away from the Baltimore Ravens.

Thomas is a 6-year vet and 2-time Pro Bowler who made it to Honolulu last month where he played for the Hooded Genius, and has recorded 28 1/2 sacks over the last three seasons, including a career-high 11 in 2006. The 29-year-old specimen out of Southern Miss is both big (6'3", 270) and quick, so much so that he played a variety of defensive positions for Brian Billick in Baltimore, including lineman and cornerback. By all accounts he is a fierce competitor, versatile enough to be moved around and impressive enough to make a difference wherever he plays on the field.

In other words he'll be a perfect addition to the Patriot family.

New England also inked 35-year-old tight end Kyle Brady to a deal, ostensibly as a replacement for the soon-to-be-departed free agent Daniel Graham. Brady is a 12-year vet, the last 8 with Jacksonville, and he will primarily be a blocker in the Pats' two-tight end sets, with stud Ben Watson serving as the primary offensive target for Tommy Boy.

Oh yeah, plus they signed Dolphin WR Wes Welker to an offer sheet; New England reportedly offered $1.3 million for one year to the 3-year vet, and Miami has one week to decide whether to match the offer or not. Welker is considered an up & coming pass catcher in the league, and the 25-year-old out of Texas Tech caught 67 balls last year in his second season as a regular wideout. If Miami doesn't match the offer they will receive a 2nd round draft pick as compensation, something many insiders consider to be a steal for a player with Welker's potential.

These signings should prove to be very solid acquisitions for a team that knows it needed to replace some shaky parts in order to get back to the winner's circle.

-Other free agency news:
Dallas resigned WR Terry Glenn to a one-year deal...Houston resigned their only offensive threat, WR Andre Johnson, to a 6-year, $60 million deal...the Broncos continued their tradin' ways by dealing a 6th round pick this year to Miami for former #1 pick Big Daddy Wilkinson, who to my amazement is still in the league...guard Eric Steinbach was the first non-glamour player to reap the rewards of Steve Hutchinson's mega-deal of 2006 when he signed a 7-year, $49.5 million deal, $15 million in guaranteed money, from cash-happy Cleveland...WR Drew Bennett agreed to leave the Titans for the Rams when St. Louis offered him 6 years and $30 mil, $10 mil guaranteed...and the Titans also released RB Travis Henry when the team refused to pick up an $8.3 million bonus owed the tiny tailback on Monday. Henry rushed for 1200+ yards and 7 touchdowns last year and will certainly fond another home quickly.

Whew. That's a lot of movement.

And plenty enough kindling to keep the Pigskin Hot Stove burning.


Friday, March 02, 2007

Why are so many athletes dying?

I had been pondering covering this topic for days now, ever since I heard the news that former USF player Javon Camon died after a helmet-to-helmet collision in a minor league indoor football game, the latest casualty in what appears to be a depressing and accelerating trend: athletes dying suddenly under a bizarre variety of circumstances.

Obviously when an athlete or celebrity dies the story is magnified because of the public's familiarity with the person, even C-listers and minor leaguers. Therefore I thought perhaps it was just my imagination making it seem like the number of athletes to die in the past 6 months from unexpected circumstances was exceptionally high. Until I started to compile a list (morbid, I know, but inherently this is a sad subject.) Here are some of the recently deceased athletes and the reasons behind their unfortunate demise:

  • Cory Lidle P, NY Yankees (private plane crash, Oct 06)
  • Bryan Pata DE, Miami Hurricanes (shot in his yard, Nov 06)
  • Darrent Williams CB, Denver Broncos (shot in a limo Jan 1, 07)
  • Mario Danelo K, USC Trojans (fell from a cliff, Jan 07)
  • Keeley Dorsey RB, USF (collapsed after workout, Jan 07)
  • Damien Nash RB, Denver Broncos (collapsed at home, Feb 07)
  • Javon Camon DB, World Indoor Football (game hit, Feb 07)

Seven athletes in less than six months, and I'm not even including former players like NFL DB Andre Waters from a self-inflicted gunshot wound last November or former NBA great Dennis Johnson last week after an unexplained collapse. These were all active, apparently healthy young men who fell victim to a strange assortment of unfortunate events, leaving family, friends and fans mourning and scratching their heads, wondering why.

Of course I don't have the answer to the rhetorical question I posed in the title. How could anyone have a logical explanation when the various causes of these passings range from the freakish (Lidle, Camon) to the unforeseen (Williams, Pata) to the unexplained (Nash, Danelo)? None of these players were out patrolling the clubs looking for trouble, a la Pac Man Jones, although Williams' death was reportedly the result of a nightclub altercation. The scariest part of this is that for every accident that has happened there is another accident waiting to happen, like a Tank Johnson, Stephen Jackson or with any active member of the Cincinnati Bengals.

The hair is standing up on the back of my neck as I am typing this piece because a news story has just come on reporting that a bus full of college baseball players travelling through Atlanta has plunged off an overpass and crashed onto the road below, killing at least six occupants, including four young players.

And the disturbing trend continues.


Thursday, March 01, 2007

NFL cut day marked by a surprising addition

The day before free agency begins and roster bonuses kick in the National Football league brought out the sharp edged implement, went out to the gridiron and did some chopping.

When the dust settled no fewer than four big name vets were told they were free to sign with another team, some surprising (Pittsburgh LB Joey Porter), others not so (Dallas QB Drew Bledsoe.)

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all came here in Tampa, and I'm not talking about the Bucs releasing Kenyatta False Start Walker, a move that was at least two seasons overdue.

No, the shockwaves of surprise rippled throughout the Bay area when the team announced the A-Train will be rumbling through Ray Jay for at least one more season. Long thought to be a goner due to Alstott's less-than-chummy relationship with Chucky Gruden (as we know, you're either one of Chucky's boys or you're not, and Alstott, for whatever reason, has NEVER been one of Chucky's boys) and the decline in production from the bruising fullback, the Bucs announced that Alstott would suit up for one more season, his 12th in a Buccaneer uni.

The A-Train has never been afraid to run over obstacles in its path

Despite declining numbers, advancing age and a frosty coach-player relationship, the resigning of one of the all-time fan favorites was really a no-brainer. He is only going to make about a million and a half, and his value as a blocker and short yardage/goal line specialist only increases as his playing time decreases, saving wear and tear on his already damaged body.

Three toots on the commemorative train whistle for the return of the A-Train.

Other players aren't doing much celebrating today, though, and the list is dotted with guys who were stars on their respective teams just a season or two ago:

-Steelers LB Joey Porter
-Cowboys QB Drew Bledsoe
-Saints WR Joe Horn
-Vikes CB Fred Smoot
-Vikes QB Brad Johnson (Wed)
-49ers WR Antonio Bryant
-Chargers LB Steve Foley
-Chargers WR Keenan McCardell
-Colts WR Brandon Stokley
-Ravens RB Jamal Lewis

Throw in the release of Philly QB Jeff Garcia and you've got a pretty decent caliber of players out there for the taking; old, overpaid with an overinflated sense of self (ahem, Drew) players, yet most of these guys will find new homes quickly. For others it could be the end of the line (ahem, ahem Drew.)

More fun tomorrow when the free agency feeding frenzy officially gets under way.


Hooray! Spring Baseball is underway!

The temps are in the mid-80s, the ball is cracking off the bat, and things are so wonderful here in FLA that not only did Manny Ramirez forgo his trip to Jersey, he actually reported to camp a day early. Which was still 6 days later than anyone else, but hey, give the guy some credit.

The 2007 baseball season is officially underway as the first meaningless spring training games have finally been played. And the football hunger pangs just lessened up a bit.

Six games kicked off the schedule yesterday, including the Sox and Twins in the Battle of the Fort, as well as four other Grapefruit League contests and one Cactus League tilt.

In the Sox game last night Curt Schilling took the mound for what could be his final spring opener in a Sox uni (how many times do you think we'll hear "Schilling's last blank as a member of the Sox..." if his contract situation gets uglier?) Despite controversy and conditioning issues the 40-year-old hurler pitched like, well, the ace of the staff. Schill threw 2 innings of 2-hit ball, with 15 of his 19 pitches finding the strike zone. Not bad for a mouthy, overweight, unhappy camper. Perhaps he is just setting an example for his Japanese protege and fellow media magnet, Dice K.

So the first sign of spring in Florida has come to pass. While the rest of the country is still battling cold and snow and rain, Florida is basking in the glow of open air, fan-friendly baseball. And with a major basketball tournament, golf tournament and auto race plus spring break coming to the Bay area in the next month, this is truly the best time of year to live on Florida's Gulf Coast.

Pass the sunscreen.


Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Durant and Law put on another spectacular show

Texas 98, Texas A&M 96, 2OT

It's games like these that are making Bill Simmons a college hoop fan.

Big 12 Player of the Year Candidates Kevin Durant of Texas and Acie Law IV of A&M helped their teams stage a classic late-season conference battle last night in Austin, a perfect precursor to March Madness that was one of the best games of the season so far.

Freshman sensation and probable #1 draft pick Durant threw up another double-double, this time a monster 30-pt, 16-reb performance, nearly duplicating his ginourmous 37pt/23 reb game vs. Tex Tech, but it was barely enough to hold off the Aggies sensational point guard Law and his typical late-game heroics.

The 6'3" senior had already proven his worth as a money player with many clutch shots in the waning minutes of games, most memorably for Longhorns fans one year ago when his 3-pt dagger over Daniel Gibson at the buzzer gave the Aggies a 46-43 win. He also hit the winning shot in A&M's 69-66 victory at Kansas one month ago for the Aggies first win ever in Allen Fieldhouse, and nailed another game-tying 3 against Texas Tech, only to witness the Red Raiders' Jarrious Jackson get the last laugh with a length-of-the-court buzzer beater for the win.

In other words if it's crunch time, A&M coach Billy Gillespie has only one play designed: give the ball to Law.

Tonight he added to his resume with two more miraculous, game-salvaging salvos. After Durant hit a three with :20 left to give the 'Horns a 4-pt lead, 76-72, A&M matched with a three to pull within one. Texas freshman point guard DJ Augustin (25 pts) then hit two free throws to give Texas a 78-75 lead with :07 left in regulation, and everyone in the building knew who was going to get the ball. Law didn't disappoint. He took the inbounds and then curled to the right side of the court, loosely guarded by Durant despite Texas having a foul to give. He pulled up behind the arc, and by the time Durant reacted, Law's rainbow rafter-scraper was swooshing through the net, tying the game at 78 and "forcing" us to watch free basketball between these titans.

Once again in the first OT it appeared Texas was going to take control and win it, grabbing an 87-80 lead with 1:16 left to play. But the Aggies' Lithuanian sharpshooter Antanas Kavaliauskas nailed a clutch trey and Law followed with a layup off a steal to cut it to two, 87-85, and after Texas got one free throw to push it to 88-85, Law took over again. No sooner did ESPN's Fran Fraschilla say "you better get out the handcuffs for Law" he nailed another three to tie the game and send the burnt orange-clad crowd into a collective state of shock & awe. Double OT, baby!

In the second overtime, with everyone running on fumes, the teams exchanged leads before Texas grabbed another 3-point advantage on two free throws by Durant (he was 10-13 from the line, including 5-6 in the final 1:15 of the game). But with :05 left A&M once again had a chance to squeeze another extra five minute session out of this masterpiece. Law was fouled before he could launch another backbreaking trey and he made the first free throw; still needing a two to tie, Law quickly missed the second, grabbed the ball off the rebound and nearly got the ensuing shot to fall, yet it bounced off the rim as the game finally ended.

Law finished the game with 33 points on 10-23 shooting while logging 50 minutes of action, and solidified his draft stock by cementing his reputation as one of the best clutch shooters in the game. Durant's awesome evening was almost lost in the shadow of Law's heroics, but his versatility, maturity, and late-game poise showed why he is the leading candidate for the national Player of the Year.

Too bad he might not win the honor for the Big 12.


Monday, February 26, 2007

2007 Oscars Review

Is it over yet?

In the light of day while reviewing my notes regarding the all-night extravaganza that was the 79th edition of the Oscars, the most prestigious & pretentious of all the awards shows, it became clear to me what the highs, lows and "oh no's" were from the telecast.

Well, that and reading 4,576 stories on the web detailing every moment of the event, from red carpet arrivals to bar-frequenting celebs leading to post-show "buzz."

The Departed
definitely came away as the biggest success story of the evening, winning the coveted Best Director-Film-Screenplay trifecta as well as Best Achievement in Editing, but there were plenty of other big winners on the night, and I'm not just talking about Jennifer Hudson. Indie darling and Little Miss Sunshine tossed two trophies in the back of the yellow Microbus, along with Grandpa; Foreign Film loser Pan's Labyrinth still took home three statues for Art Direction, Cinematography and makeup; while Dreamgirls and Al Gore's global warming doc An Inconvenient Truth garnered two wins each.

Of course there was also a plethora of fashion statements made and, perhaps in honor of Best Director nominee and presenter Clint Eastwood, the styles ran the gamut from The Good to The Bad to The Ugly.

And what would the Academy Awards be without a few memorable moments, like a freshly bald Jack Nicholson (it was for an upcoming role as a cancer patient, not an homage to Britney Spears.)

Without further adieu here is my award-winning review. In keeping in line with the Oscars itself, I will try to wrap it up in under 4 hours.

-Biggest Surprises:
1.) Jennifer Hudson winning Best Supporting Actress
I didn't see Dreamgirls so I'm taking my wife's word for the fact that Hudson was great in the role of Effie in the musical drama based on the Broadway play, but I still can't understand how a song-and-dance performance from an Oscar newbie could win out over heart-tugging, meaty turns by Babel's Rinko Kickuchi and/or Adriana Barraza. The choice smacks of a cheap attempt to gain street cred with the American Karoake set.

2.) Alan Arkin winning Best Supporting Actor
Everyone went in thinking Golden Globe winner Eddie Murphy was a lock to win this category, but a funny thing happened on the way to the dais- the Academy decided that a man who still wants to release drivel such as Norbit, as well as get involved with transvestite hookers & crazy Spice Girls and gives terrible interviews, didn't deserve his first gold statue. Now, I don't like to pat myself on the back, but not only did I pick this upset, I won the argument with the wife when she said Arkin's performance wasn't big enough to earn the win. True, Grandpa wasn't around for much of Little Miss Sunshine I agreed, but his heart and spirit could be felt until the very end.

3.)Pan's Labyrinth's Best Foreign Film loss
The Mexican mythic masterpiece earned an impressive 6 nominations, most of them in the technical categories, and has been hailed as a visionary work of art from talented director Guillermo del Toro. But despite scads of critical accolades and pre-Oscar awards such as BAFTA's Best Foreign Film and Cannes' Best Picture, the film lost out to little known German drama The Lives of Others. That's almost as odd as some of Pan's characters.

4.) Ellen DeGeneres didn't completely suck
Don't get me wrong, I don't think she was very good. Her wardrobe was atrocious, her jokes benign and stale, and her casual delivery made the broadcast seem like the Daytime Emmys rather than the Super Bowl of black tie events. Although some of her material worked, like handing Martin Scorsese a script in his seat and having Stephen Spielberg take a picture of her with Clint Eastwood for her "MySpace page", many more jokes fell flat. Such as her vacuuming the carpet in the front row and tossing rolling papers to the band, as well as a ho-hum song & dance number and repeatedly using the quip, "I'd hate to follow that act," as she announced the presenters after an extravagant onstage display. In summary, she wasn't as bad as Letterman, but she certainly was no Billy Crystal or Chris Rock, either.

5.) The acceptance speeches were kept short and to the point
For the most part those who entered into ramble-on territory were promptly cut off by the growing crescendo of the dreaded Get Off the Stage Orchestra. The majority of the speeches were both straightforward, thanking the necessary people while never extending into Mary J. Blige overkill, and pre-written, helping to avoid a dreaded Forest Whitaker "what the hell do I say" Golden Globe moment. Whitaker himself delivered the acceptance of the night, giving a poignant and moving speech while appearing awestruck & humbled. And despite this valiant effort, the show still neared four hours in duration. Amazing.

-Notable Absences:
1.) Dame Judi Dench
Ellen joked that she was having corrective surgery to various body parts but it still seemed odd that one of the five Best Actress nominees couldn't attend the proceedings.
2.) Matt Damon
One of the main players from Best Picture winner The Departed was not there to share in the glory with fellow castmates Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg and director Scorsese.
3.) Brangelina
Pitt played a pivotal role in Best Picture nominee Babel, but after Angelina's scary stare-down with red carpet oaf Ryan Seacrest at the Globes, I think they decided to sit this one out while choosing which country they will adopt their next child from.
4.) Jamie Foxx
The Dreamgirls costar and notorious party hound was nowhere to be found inside the Kodak Theater, but you can bet your last bottle of Cristal he was making the rounds at the after parties.
5.) Scarlett Johannson
She had no particular reason to be there, but I personally believe she should attend every awards show known to man, as well as sporting events, political conventions and, God willing, Dancing with the Stars.

-Best Dressed, Men

The classy Best Supporting Actor nominee brought new age to the classic black suit look.
There are many reasons why this guy goes through supermodels like Britney goes through rehab stints, and one of them is because he looks Old Hollywood cool in a dapper suit.
3.)Mark Wahlberg
Who said street punks from Dot can't clean up nicely? Way to represent Beantown, Marky Mark!
Nobody f**ks with 007 when it comes to wardrobes.
Made up for his dated, black monochromatic look at the Globes with this snazzy, original tux.

-Worst Dressed, Men:
Oh Q, what have thy done? As the wife aptly surmised, this jacket was designed to match the horrific plate-like backdrops hanging over the stage. Bonus points for being with daughter/The Office hottie Rashida, though she was heinously garbed as well.
The only thing that looked worse than his jacket was his superstretched face.
I'm not sure but I think this picture might have been Photoshopped from the Best Actor nominee's Senior Prom collection. Love the Sansabelt slacks; where's the cummerbund?
It's the Oscars, dude- wear a friggin' tie!
A loose tie and bed head just doesn't cut it on the carpet, no matter how many times you've been in jail/rehab.

-Worst Dressed, Women:
How can a 14-time nominee come to the gala looking like she's stuck in the '60s? Oh yeah, 'cause she's got 14 Oscar nominations.' The jewelry was simply HIDEOUS.
Is she auditioning for Cheetah Girls 3? C'mon, Kelly, I know it must be tough to be married to a man-smooching freak but you gotta use better judgement than this.
The Bond babe channeled Morticia Adams with this frightful frock.
4.)Faye Dunaway
At least Meryl tried to put some effort into her wacky look. This is just tired.
Lose the ginourmous bow and extra-long sash and this figure-hugging fiery number might not be so horrible.

-Best Dressed, Women:
Let me be blunt with you, Emily: "you're smokin' hot."
Borat's better half looks sexy and stylish in this daring green gown.
Is it just me or does Reese seem 1,000 times happier, thus prettier, now that she's not dragging dead weight ex-hubby Ryan Phillipe to these things anymore?
Although the wife strongly disagrees with me, I say lose the crazy shoulder strap and this is one of the hottest dresses of the night. (BTW, where the hell was Jay? Trouble in paradise?).
5.) Jessica Biel
The wife was not a fan of this lite bright getup last night and I wasn't either at first. Upon further review and intense scrutiny, I realized that she is Jessica Freaking Biel, and she can make a trash bag, even a day-glo one, look hot.

-Worst Moments:
1.) The intro
Five minutes of boring 'thank yous' replaced Billy Crystal's nominee-parodying montage, followed by Ellen's weak monologue. Awful.

2.)Tom Cruise awarding an honorary Oscar to former studio head/activist Sherry Lansing
After his glowing introduction, I kept waiting for him to jump on the podium and announce that Sherry doesn't believe in psychiatry, post-partum depression or medication, either.

3.)Ellen vacuuming
No one needed to see that, especially after the 3 hour mark of a dragging broadcast.

4.)Jaden Smith trying to read
Poor kid. With all the money Will & Jada have, you would think they would've gotten the kid remedial reading lessons by now.

5.) Chris Connolly's behind the scenes bits
Awkward, uninteresting, and just plain out of place. The Academy needs to stop trying to be like the MTV Movie Awards and just be themselves-formulaic and unoriginal.

-Best Moments
1.) Coppola, Spielberg & Lucas awarding the Best Director Oscar to Martin Scorsese
I just couldn't help but think "there are 4 of the greatest directors of my generation, all together at once." Very. Cool. Moment.

2.) Jack Black, Will Ferrell & John C. Reilly's song about the plight of comedians at the Oscars

This hysterical number brought the house down and was easily the best, most entertaining and original bit of the entire evening. "Helen Mirren and the Oscar will be coming home with me..."

3.)Jennifer Hudson & Beyonce's Dueling Divas Performance

The two of them have enough power in their pipes to light up an entire city. As each tried to outdo the other onstage during the Best Song presentation, they electrified the entire theater.

4.) Jerry Seinfeld's Best Documentary presentation

The reclusive comedian immediately settled in to his familiar schtick, but the "why moviegoers have the right to leave their trash at their seats" bit was funnier than anything Ellen did the entire evening, leading many to say it was an audition for hosting duties next year. If so, he passed.

5.) The ending
Although the awkward, solo acceptance speech by Departed producer Graham King was quite anticlimatic, at least it did signify the end of a long night.

Maybe they'll get it right next year.

But I doubt it.


The Oscars finally ended, and so did Marty's losing streak

Clocking in at just under four excruciating hours, the 79th edition of the Academy Awards could have used Best Achievement in Editing winner Thelma Schoonmaker to to trim the bloated, montage-filled monstrosity to less time than it takes to watch two of the nominated films back-to-back.

Despite a long run time, lackluster hosting job by Ellen DeGeneres and a goofy, creepy dance troupe the end result was rewarding: the highlight of the night came right near the end of the show, when a trio of directing greats- Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg- presented the Best Director statue to Martin Scorsese. The huge, loud ovation the respected filmmaker received for finally winning the big one after 5 failed attempts was both heartwarming and well deserved.

Scorsese's Boston-based crime saga The Departed also took home the coveted Best Picture as well as screenplay and editing statues, as Oscar once again went against what everyone was thinking would win (Babel) and chose something a little safer, similar to last year's Crash upset of Brokeback Mountain.

Here's a quick rundown of the major awards:

Best Picture-The Departed
Best Director-Martin Scorsese
Best Actor- Forest Whitaker, Last King of Scotland
Best Actress-Helen Mirren, The Queen
Best Supp. Actor- Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine
Best Supp. Actress- Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
Best orig. Screenplay- Michael Ardnt, Little Miss Sunshine
Best Adapted Screenplay- William Monihan, The Departed
Best Documentary-An Inconvenient Truth
Best Foreign Film- The Lives of Others
Best Animated Film- Happy Feet

By the way, I went 7-4 with my predictions for whatever that's worth.

Upsets included Arkin besting Golden Globe winner Eddie Murphy in the Supporting Actor category; newcomer Hudson scoring a win in what was one of the toughest categories of the night; and foreign language fantasy Pan's Labyrinth took home 3 Oscars yet was snubbed in the Best Foreign Film category for Germany's The Lives of Others.

The night resembled a Democratic National Convention with Al Gore's global warming doc taking home Best Doc Oscar as well as Best Song by Melissa Etheridge, capping a Gore lovefest from the decidedly pro-Democrat crowd.

All in all it was a stuffy, boring, underwhelming production that ran 45 longer than scheduled. In other words just like almost every other year. Combine that with Ellen in a velvet suit and vacuuming, so many foreign language speeches the thing should have been subtitled, and not one shocking moment and you've got one hell of a long night spent waiting for something to happen.

Kind of like watching Babel.

Full rundown tomorrow after I sleep off the effects of this one.


Sunday, February 25, 2007

Oscar preview: My picks

Just like the good old days of the football season I am here to give my picks for who will take home Oscar gold tonight.

Best Supporting Actor- Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine
Best Suppporting Actress- Rinko Kikuchi, Babel
Best Actor-Forest Whitaker, Last King of Scotland
*Best Actress-Helen Mirren, The Queen
Best Documentary-Inconvenient Truth
*Best Animated Film-Cars
Best Screenplay, Adapted- Departed
Best Screenplay, Original-Babel
Best Picture- The Departed
*Best Director-Martin Scorsese
*Best Foreign Film- Pan's Labyrinth

*= guaranteed stone cold lead pipe locks

Of course if I'm wrong I reserve the right to declare that the Academy is fixed, therefore rendering logical picks obsolete, much like the last few seasons of NFL prognosticating.


Oscar Nominee Review: Babel


Rated: R for violence, language, nudity, sexuality & drug use

Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Rinko Kikuchi, Adriana Barraza, Mohamed Akhazan

Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Running time: 2 hrs, 21 mins
Nominated for:
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Supporting Actress (Kikuchi)
-Best Supporting Actress (Barraza)
-Best Original Screenplay
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score

Babel, another powerful drama from Inarritu, packs an emotional punch yet falls short of greatness

The way the critical accolades, Oscar noms and number of pre-Oscar awards had been raining down on this ensemble drama I thought Babel was going to be one of the greatest movies of the past 20 years.

Turns out it was merely one of the best films of the past year.

Not a bad thing, but with so much hype and praise lavished on the latest non-linear, interlocking tale from Spanish auteur Inarritu ("21 Grams"; "Amores Perros"), I guess I was just hoping for...something more.

There's no doubt that Inarritu, along with Oscar-nominated screenwriter/directing partner Guillermo Arriaga, have crafted a mesmerizing film, magnificently shot on four continents while wringing career-best work from a number of members of the cast. Yet somehow the sweeping epic fell short of delivering on the heavy debt created by incredible expectations.

The story unfolds in Inarritu's trademark non-linear style, i.e. one of the early scenes actually takes place after the rest of the events unfold, a method that doesn't particularly detract from the film but may confuse some viewers unaccustomed with this type of storytelling. There are four main plots involving three globe-spanning families: a Moroccan goat herder and his two young sons become entangled in an international incident with an American couple, Richard (Pitt) and Susan (Blanchett), vacationing there; the couple's Mexican nanny, Amelia (Barraza), travels from California to Mexico with their two young children illegally in tow; and a Japanese teen and her father try to cope with the suicide death of their mother/wife.

**MINOR SPOILERS (revealed early in the film)**

Tragedy strikes quickly after the herder purchases a high-powered rifle from a local man in order to protect his goats from predatory jackals. He teaches his two boys, Yussef & Ahmed, who are in charge of watching over the flock, how to use the rifle, although the younger Yussef appears to know more about firing the weapon than his father. As the boys sit idly watching the animals graze on the side of a mountain they begin toying with the gun, wondering if the sellers' claim that the bullets can travel great distances is true; unfortunately their only targets are a passing car and a large tour bus traversing the snaking road far below their perch. After Ahmed narrowly misses the car Yussef aims and fires a round at the bus, which at first appears to have no effect on the vehicle. However, as soon as the bus comes to an abrupt stop in the middle of the road and screams can be heard emanating from the windows, the boys realize something terrible has happened.

Thus the first connection is made. The person hit by the random shot was Susan, who was innocently resting her head on the bus window when the bullet pierced the glass and entered her collar bone. As Richard realizes what happened he frantically screams to stop the bus while blood pours from his wife's shoulder. Here the disturbing realization that these people are in the middle of nowhere with nary a city, never mind a hospital or doctor, in sight hits home with a sickening thud. Their only option for Susan's survival comes from a local man on the bus, who offers help of a family doctor in a nearby tiny village.

While Richard attempts to contact American Embassy officials regarding their situation, believing Susan's attack was perpetrated by terrorists, Amelia is faced with a dilemma back in California. She originally had been granted the weekend off in order to attend her son's wedding in Mexico, but when Richard informs her of what has happened and that he has no one else to watch the kids he insists she must watch them until he can return to the States. Faced with the prospect of missing her son's nuptials Amelia makes a risky decision to take the children to the ceremony and then return later that night without anyone the wiser.

Trouble is Amelia is an illegal immigrant, and when her drunk nephew Santiago (Inarritu favorite Gael Garcia Bernal), who is taking her back to the U.S., runs from the border cops and forces her and the kids out of the car, she finds herself stranded in the desolate Mexican countryside in the middle of the night with two petrified kids and no means to get home. The best part of these segments is the acting of Barraza, who brings a real sense of kindness and despair to her character.

The final thread concerns Chieko (Kikuchi), a deaf mute Japanese teenage girl who is dealing with a number of emotionally troubling issues: the inability to relate to the world around her due to her disability, the horror of discovering her mother after her suicide, and how the tragedy has negatively affected her relationship with her distraught father. Apparently the father had been a suspect in his wife's death at first, so when a policeman comes looking for the man Chieko assumes it has to do with her mother, but eventually we learn that the father has an indirect relationship to the Moroccan shooting.

The irony here is the connection to the other stories is nothing but a minor, seemingly insignificant coincidence, yet Chieko's storyline is the one that carries the majority of the emotional weight of the film. Kikuchi gives a riveting portrayal of a teenager on the verge of a nervous breakdown, so staved for attention that she flaunts her womanhood to any man within her reach, only to be rebuffed and humiliated time and time again.

It is during these Japanese scenes that Inarritu's brilliance is easily recognized; the way he and Kikuchi made the viewer feel what it must be like to be deaf in a world full of so many sounds was entrancing and deeply moving. The scene that best exemplifies this achievement comes when Chieko and her girlfriends meet a few scruffy-looking boys at a local hangout. The guys quickly have the girls chasing some pills with shots of whiskey, and then the tripping group heads to a thumping, strobe-lit disco for some substance-enhanced fun. As the Earth Wind & Fire classic "September" ramps up to club level in the background, we witness Chieko experience an overwhelming mix of sensations while she copes with only being able to see what others are hearing. Her wide-eyed awe at watching bodies writhe around in silence was amazingly captured by flipping the volume of the soundtrack on & off, and coupled with her sadness after she sees her friend kissing the boy she liked made for one of the most memorable scenes in recent memory. It clearly stood out as the high point of the film.

there was still plenty more to go through. Crawling along at nearly 2 1/2 hours we still must witness Richard and Susan waiting for a military helicopter to come pick them up after the bus leaves them stranded, Amelia suffer a crushing blow when her actions are discovered by American authorities, and the Moroccan boys learn the hard way that crime doesn't pay, even when the action is unintentional.

Despite the expectations of grandeur Babel fell short of the mark for me. Yes, the film is incredible in many ways, visually stunning, emotionally powerful and backed by a haunting score. The acting is first rate across the board, with the standout performances coming from the two nominated women as well as the four young children. While heavyweights Pitt and Blanchett give commendable efforts, there is a reason neither one was nominated here and it isn't because their roles were smaller than usual.

Perhaps it didn't work because the tiring practice of using interlocking stories & flash-backward narrative, traits common in films from Pulp Fiction to Memento to Traffic to Inarritu's own 21 Grams, holds this one back from attaining greatness. Inarritu wanted to tell a tale of communication, love and tragedy on a global scale, and while the messages and many of the images work at conveying the directors grand vision and laudable intentions, the snails pace development and anti-climatic, ambiguous ending conspire to hold this film back from the upper echelon of film greats.

In other words it's no Departed.

Or even Little Miss Sunshine for that matter.