Monday, March 26, 2018

Moneyball, or The Modern Prometheus

The baseball season has started up and fans are thrilled by the bunting and the umpires who have spent the entire winter brushing up on their HRAAAAANNNNTTTT strike bellows and the possibilities of World Series glory for the approximately eight professional baseball teams interested in winning games.

Each ump, upon graduation from Hey Ump! The Sacred 
and Ancient Order of Umpires, must symbolically call 
him or herself out, forever killing their former self before 
becoming reborn behind the plate, and choosing their 
Strike Call that they get after taking mind-altering substances, 
going into a fevered dream state, killing a hippopotamus, 
and claiming its death bellow from YAA AIII to WRRRRRONNNK

The baseball offseason is usually marked by a flurry of free agent signings and trades, but this winter featured a horrible months-long tedium where teams remained frozen in their tracks and all-star-caliber players found themselves in the curious position of having no teams willing to pay them large sums of money.  For baseball fans hoping their team would snag a player on the open market, the entire thing played out like the ending of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly if Sergio Leone had just continued to cut to increasingly narrow pictures of Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef squinting at each other for three solid months while a mournful harmonica played an Ennio Morricone piece entitled "Boras's Lament."

Sergio Leone got this shot by having his actors read an opthamological 
chart that said in tiny type in the bottom "ok shoot now"

The central question that haunted baseball's frozen stove involved collusion, whether the team owners had all gotten together to purposefully refuse to sign free agents and drive down their prices-- after a brief flurry of hefty contracts to stars like Yu Darvish and Eric Hosmer, increasingly desperate players signed for far less than they anticipated from ad hoc free agent spring training bivouacs.  The more likely explanation involves a soft collusion that comes from a combination of free-spending teams saving their money for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, who are such transcendent talents that they will likely command the treasury of a small country to lure them to those organizations and the fact that all baseball teams are owned by unimaginably wealthy people whose interests include:

1. Acquiring as much money as humanly possible
2. Having all of their wealth converted to coins and bills and sacks of doubloons
3. Forcing a man-servant to photograph each piece of money individually
4. Staring intently at a picture of each of their individual monies all day every day
5. Occasionally suing people

And yet, even as the baseball diehards outside of internet comment sections where the prevailing ethos seems to be that baseball players should play for free or at the very least haul some sacks of coal around on off days and also why don't they have guys named "Pinwheel" and "Squeaks" anymore complained at the endless days of constipated transaction lines, this offseason provided the most grim and depressing result of analytically-inclined writers attacking free agency as a sucker's game and the triumph of teams that have tanked their way to October glory.

Over the past two decades, we've seen sophisticated statistical analysis break through to the mainstream, to emerge from the Proverbial Mother's Basement fully formed, suited, and hair-slicked, to the Sloan Conferences of the world to expound on Assets.  We can all agree that this is for the best, that the fact that sports analysis is no longer primarily done via amateur phrenology by columnists who guard against retaliation by wearing hats.  The fact, though, is that the type of salary inefficiency championed in Moneyball and in fantasy sports all results in finding ways for organizations to figure out how to spend less money.  In baseball, this means taking advantage of a bizarre inverted salary structure where teams' competition for top free agents often means paying them into their graying years.  This year, teams have found that they could stop paying for players' descent into overpaid chumps by not competing for their services at all.  They also figured out that they could avoid paying competent major leaguers in favor of young and unproven players because they can either convince fans it's part of a long-term tank and rebuilding plan or, in the case of the Marlins, get rid of all of their good players and pay only to emblazon their taxpayer-funded ballpark with their new team motto Who's Going to Stop Me?

One of  the most fascinating subplots of the Marlins is Derek Jeter's transition 
from universally beloved baseball icon to the face of a despised, penny-pinching 
ownership group as shown from his new office's decorative scheme "Volcano Overlord"

The salary efficiency mindset has spread well beyond baseball.  NBA players might as well have their salary on the backs of their jersey because the league's insane salary cap and labyrinthine trade rules make their paychecks vital aspects of player movement.  These rules are impenetrable to all but a select number of professional Salary Cap Knowers and podcasters that pretty much spend hours listing how much money everyone makes.  The prevailing wisdom in the NBA is that teams should either be one of the three or four championship contenders in a full-on free-fall for draft lottery ping pong balls; therefore a full third of the NBA has been actively trying to lose games for months.  Regardless of anyone's thoughts on The Process or the dozen Counterfeit Processes currently ongoing in professional basketball, the owners have finally found a way to fill their arenas with low-paid basketball excrement while being celebrated for being forward-looking because they are starting four heretofore unknown centers named Phil Lumberman and Miroslav Oaf so they will have a two percent greater chance to pick a nineteen year-old. 

The Bulls's tanking efforts became so extravagant that the NBA threatened 
disciplinary action against them unless they started to play functional 
NBA player Robin Lopez; Lopez has rewarded Bulls fans with entertaining 
bug-eyed flip outs

The NFL also has a salary cap, but it is aided by players signing inscrutable contracts that allow them to be cut or restructured so often that it is impossible to tell whether the cap exists; I have never seen the national football league enforce the salary cap, and I suspect that if they tried to do it to the Dallas Cowboys, Jerry Jones would threaten to shoot them with a pearl-handled revolver.

CUBS PREVIEW

The Cubs remain in the enviable position of baseball's teams trying to win.  They brought back nearly every key player from last year's NLCS team except for Jake Arrieta, who has now joined the Phillies after a long offseason in limbo.  Instead, the Cubs shelled out for Yu Darvish, fresh from a disastrous World Series and a career of being what highly technical baseball analysis would describe as insanely cool.  Darvish has been one of baseball's best pitchers and slots in with Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Tyler "Spin Rate" Chatwood whom the Cubs hope can salvage his career away from Coors Field, and Kyle Hendricks, who continues to dorkishly bamboozle major league hitters to form a fearsome rotation.

Every year brings a new update on Jon Lester's various attempts to conquer his fear of throwing to first, which has previously included underhanding, running the ball over, throwing his whole dang glove, attempting to hire a courier, and finally standing at the mound saying "I prefer not to."  Lester is now divebombing his throws into the ground like a cricket bowler.  This has already worked against Ryan Braun's stealing technique of sort of walking around, and I look forward to seeing how Lester plans to throw to bases next including building a miniature bullpen car for shuttling the ball or constructing an elaborate rube goldberg machine that draws the ire of the ump after he calls time for 25 minutes to figure out why the dowel connected to the boot that kicks over the row of dominoes and activates the third conveyor belt has malfunctioned.

This is my all-time favorite Jon Lester pickoff moment

The other major change for the Cubs this season involves Chicago's Beefy Boy Kyle Schwarber reporting to spring training svelte, muscular, and having a patchy beard instead of a hideous chin goatee that looks like he is trying to make do with a child's Civil War General Facial Hair Kit.  This may or may not help Schwarber's hitting or prevent him from lumbering about the outfield like an anthropomorphic thumb.  Aesthetically, it is a complete disaster.  The robust lefty-slugger who waddles over to home plate to blast enormous dingers and make cartoon coconut noises while stomping around the basepaths is a proven baseball archetype.  The best exemplar is Matt Stairs, a man who spent years summoned to the batter's box once a game from flipping burgers on a grill to launch a baseball into low earth orbit.  The only other perfect baseball shape is the relief pitcher who is just a load, his undulating belly straining against his baseball pajamas or satin pitcher's jacket.

This is an aesthetically perfect baseball image

There is little to say about the Cubs, a very good baseball team who should be very good.  They have made the NLCS three consecutive years, they won a World Series and ended the greatest championship drought in American professional sports, they play in an outdoor mini-mall that turns into a terrifying festival of drunken maniacs like what happens at night in Castlevania II, and they compete in a division that is competitive because it features three teams that took advantage of baseball's free agent market and the Great Marlins Exile.  After years of futility and heartbreak, the best extended stretch of Cubs baseball since the Theodore Roosevelt presidency is also its least compelling.  It would take an unforeseen baseball calamity to bring back the fear of inevitability back to Wrigley Field, one that would probably require at least two players to duel, to vanish into thin air, or to get attacked by a wild animal in the course of a playoff game for me to even flinch.

CHICAGO'S NINETEENTH-CENTURY UNDERWORLD

You would have done well as a resident of Chicago in the nineteenth and early twentieth century to make it through a month without getting bonked about the head and relieved of your possessions.  At least, that is the impression I got from Herbert Asbury's Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld.  Asbury, most famous for his study of New York's stabbiest criminal organizations in Gangs of New York, published Gem of the Prairie in 1940, just after Al Capone's reign of terror, and each page is filled with people with insane nicknames involved in ingenious and horrifying schemes of crime and violence in some corner of Chicago that used to be known as Little Hell or Bedbug Row or some other beguiling combination of words like Satan's Bloodnest.  Asbury at all times seemed appalled and angry at the municipal corruption that allowed crime to flourish while scarcely being able to hide his delight in prurient details and swashbuckling thievery.  Here's an example of the type of thing you'll see from Gem of the Prairie:


Asbury started at Chicago's transformation from a wilderness trading post to a growing town, one, as he described, built so ineffectively on a gigantic plain of mud that sidewalks varied in height threatening to force pedestrians to have to climb or plummet like they were navigating an M.C. Escher painting.  He followed gamblers, strongmen, prostitution rings, gangsters, and even the notorious murder house serial killer H.H. Holmes whose skin-crawling exploits regained widespread infamy in Erik Larson's Devil in the White City.  He also discusses the exploits of corrupt aldermen "Bathhouse" John Coughlin and Mike "Hinky Dink" Kenna that have already appeared on this blog.  Asbury's episodic anecdotes follow a format where a person with an impossible nickname did something terrible and then either got away with it in a mansion, got brutally murdered, or had something else equally improbable happen such as:
One of the famous hoboes who made Duncan's place [that's Bob Duncan, King of the Pickpockets] their Chicago headquarters was Wyoming Slivers, who left the road about 1896 and married a widow in Minnesota.  She died after a few years and left him ten thousand dollars, and Slivers and a score of his cronies went on a six months' spree in which ten of them died of delirium tremens and Slivers himself lost an ear and three fingers in fights.
One might think that a book on the Chicago underworld would spend a great deal if time on the city's most famous gangster Al Capone, but Asbury only turns his attention to him, his boss Johnny Torrio, and a host of "such notorious gunmen and bandits as Handsome Dan McCarthy, Bugs Moran, Maxie Eisen, Frank Gusenburg; Vincent Drucci, better known as the Schemer; Two-Gun Louis Alterie, also called the Cowboy Gunman because he owned a ranch in Colorado; Hymie Weiss, who was O'Bannion's alter ego and second in command of the gang; and Samuel J. Morton, called Nails..." towards the end of the book.

(Asbury notes that Morton died "as the result of what his fellow gangsters regarded as despicable treachery; he was thrown and kicked to death while riding a horse in Lincoln Park" before explaining that his fellow gang members "determined to exact vengeance, kidnapped the horse a few days later, led it to the spot where Morton's body had been found, and solemnly 'bumped it off,' each gangster firing a shot into the animal's head.")

Gem of the Prairie is nearly 400 pages of that.  Asbury seems to have done extensive research in newspapers, government documents, journals, and books such as Vice in Chicago written by a person improbably named "Walter C. Reckless."  But this is not a stolid, scholarly document.  Asbury provides statistics and analysis, but what he's most interested in is the anecdote, the improbable characters, and the over-the-top criminals, politicians, and law enforcement figures that populate the book.  It's also written in 1940, which passages and assumptions that will probably at times jar a reader in 2018.  The most fascinating thing about Gem of the Prairie is its evocation of a city with all of the dirt and grime and swirling possibility of shockingly casual violence and exploitation he seeks to paint a horrifying picture for his readers but he can't help but also romanticize.   

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The First Disappointing Northwestern Basketball Season

Northwestern has had basketball disappointments-- heartbreakingly close losses to miss the NCAA tournament, falling victim to NIT bracketology, having Big Ten championship celebrations derailed by grim tidings from the League of Nations-- but the Wildcats have never had a disappointing season because most Northwestern seasons were considered successful if they played a regulation game without the opposing team bulldozing the arena into a pile of rubble.

The Wildcats entered the season with all the swagger and confidence of a Defending NCAA Tournament Participant.  The Associated Press, which was so bamboozled by Northwestern's improvement last year that they could not find a Northwestern logo for their website, ranked Northwestern to start the season.  With all but one returning starter, the Wildcats seemed like a decent bet to make the Tournament again, to rack up RPIs and Ken Poms, to continue collecting the ire of college basketball fans who were sick of Michael Wilbon's face.  This marked the first season where the NCAA Tournament did not seem like a distant hope or a ludicrous dream, but something to prepare for, that fans could get one of those giant maps and tiny tanks and the tank-pushing sticks and use it to figure out which games they could win and lose before triumphantly arriving in some regional.

Instead, Northwestern struggled all season and floundered their way out of the NCAA tournament, the NIT, and possibly even one of those disreputable fly-by-nite tournaments that are constantly derailed by disputes about whether there're any rules what say a dog can't play basketball.  The purple 'Cats were stomped into wine by Texas Tech, buzzer-beaten by Georgia Tech, and NBA Jammed by Trae Young.  They barely survived overtime against their two crappy in-state rivals DePaul and Illinois.  The Michigan State game involved them racing to a 27 point lead against the conference champions and then slowly sinking into quicksand for the entire second half, a loss so painful and needlessly cruel that Chris Collins turned into a cartoon character.

Collins gets so upset that he reverts to his original toon form

People following this team have spent all season trying to figure out how the Wildcats fell from an NCAA Tournament team to sweating out losses against the likes of Rutgers and Iowa.  They did lose two players, most notably Sanjay Lumpkin, the anchor of their defense, who allowed the team to ride his chest like a burly chariot through Big Ten frontcourts and into and endless conga line of charges.

The go-to explanation has involved the team's temporary relocation to the All State Arena located far from campus at the end of an O'Hare runway.  This is a satisfying reason because the All State Arena is the sports equivalent of a floating garbage island that should be torn down brick by brick during a brawl between fans of what I imagine as a version of Warrant formed by the drummer and the Warrant formed by the guitarist who in this scenario are suing each other and have formed armies of bellicose supporters that have been tearing up arenas and county fairs for the better part of a decade.  Certain uninformed cretins have maligned the pre-renovation Welsh-Ryan Arena as "an arena where you probably could bet on fighting lizards" or "the lunchroom" but those people are missing the charm of melding into the person next to you in tightly-packed bleachers while sitting close enough to spray pretzel crumbs onto Gene Keady's combover, and I will never like a sports venue more.

Every single time I lose my keys or leave the 
house without some vital item, it is because 
the space it should occupy has been taken over 
by the knowledge from this article that Gene 
Keady spent $600 a week to have Gary Oldman 
Fifth Element Future Hair, and I frankly I deserve it

Or maybe the most reasonable explanation is this:

It would be impossible for Northwestern to recapture the giddy ecstasy from last year's run as the tournament became a possibility and then clinched by an impossible sports movie play at the last possible second.  It is no easy task to continue to make the tournament in the Big Ten, and harder still without being able to ambush opponents who instinctively view Northwestern jerseys as dunk runways.  If Northwestern has fallen from its zenith this season, this same group of players can be celebrated for creating a zenith to fall from.

AN AESTHETIC REVIEW OF THE MATCHUP ZONE DEFENSE

There is a notion that the zone defense is for cowards, a gimmick for overmatched teams that will be instantly vaporized on the dribble, posted up into the stanchion, and relentlessly bullied.  This is ridiculous; teams at every level run zone defenses..  But when a team switches, like Northwestern did, from a brutal man-to-man scheme that got them to the tournament to a match-up zone, the move reeks of desperation.  For Northwestern fans, though, the zone did not just represent a change in basketball strategy but the aesthetic embrace of Northwestern basketball.

Northwestern basketball under Bill Carmody did not involve strategy but an entire ethos.  Carmody's teams sought to bamboozle opponents with unorthodox basketball: a ponderous Princeton offense that involved doing backcuts at opponents until they just let them have a layup under then-glacial 35-second shot clock; a bizarre 1-3-1 zone defense that looked like a basketball jellyfish as players lunged and undulated in patterns that opponents had not seen before that forced them to pause before rising up and dunking through them.  Carmody basketball hoped to confuse opponents for long enough for Northwestern's less heralded players to get a lead.  "Vince played him as well as he could," Tim Doyle said about his center Vince Scott's matchup against Ohio State's Greg Oden in an article with the astonishing title "Cats can't climb Mount Oden." "But Greg is going to the NBA after this season and Vince is going to be an investment banker" is the unofficial motto of Northwestern basketball.

"Minnesotan Gets So Frustrated He Appears to Punt" (2013)
(original image from Insidenu)

The matchup zone used this season is not as aesthetically pleasing as the 1-3-1 zone, with a destroyer like the National Basketball Association's Reggie Hearn terrorizing unwitting guards at the top, and a masked Luka Mirkovic hovering around the free throw line like the Phantom of the Paint.  That particular combination represents the platonic ideal of Northwestern basketball, as long as it is run in front of an enormous number of screaming Indiana fans in Welsh-Ryan Arena, under a malfunctioning dot scoreboard.  But Collins's zone occasionally produces sublime moments: players dashing around the wing to deny entry passes and stay just in front of players rendered into jabronis foolish enough to drive, frustrated perimeter passing, and the most enjoyable sports sight of all, aggressive pointing.

NORTHWESTERN HEADING INTO THE BIG TEN TOURNAMENT

The Wildcats have limped into the Big Ten tournament without Vic Law or Jordan Ash and without a win since February 6.  They've already said goodbye to the All-State Arena, which is only weeks away from giving itself over to Grave Digger, SkullHammer, Car-Nivore, and the other monster trucks to jam it beyond recognition.

Although I post incessant references to Grave Digger constantly, I have no idea how the scoring system for monster jam actually works and I plan to never find out

The team faced an impossible task of topping one of the most joyful sports experiences I've ever witnessed.  Time did not stop when Pardon hit the layup, the Wildcats did not freeze forever in mid-air when CBS announced they were officially in the Tournament, and the world continued to spin even after Pat Fitzgerald burst into the locker room and baptized the basketball team into his cult of the vigorous first pump

It is strange and almost surreal for a Northwestern basketball season to be disappointing because they did not live up to their preseason top-25 ranking.  The Carmody teams that came close enough to knock on the Tournament door or at least make enough noises for the Committee to check and see if it was the wind provided disappointment and heartbreak, but the expectations were never this high.  Most of the time, it was impossible to be disappointed by a Northwestern basketball team, provided that they did not break any federal laws

Sure, Northwestern did not storm back through the Big Ten and shatter records on the way to the NCAA Tournament.  But this team, with Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, and Gavin Skelly who may be playing their final game tonight in the Big Ten Tournament, has already done something I didn't think I'd ever see and changed the entire notion of what is possible for the men's basketball team. 


Until of course, they run the table in the Big Ten Tournament and find their way back to the Dance.  As last year's team proved, anything is possible.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

The XFL and the XFLs Promised


This week, America’s Lumpiest CEO Vince McMahon announced he had looked at the XFL, which only exists as a faded joke emblematic of absurd early twenty-first century boondoggle sporting ventures along with Slamball, the second version of American Gladiators, and the various celebrity boxings and human vs. bear hotdog eating competitions, and decided it needed to return. The XFL comes at a time when the NFL’s bulletproof reputation has faded as it has been smothered by a tapestry of incongruous grievances: people horrified by the league's grotesque cover-up of its devastating concussion problem, people bored by nine-hour games mired in replay review that have turned football into the part of a board game where you scrutinize the inside of the box for rules infractions, the people who have threatened boycotts over the NFL because they have conflated symbolic player protests over police brutality with a charge that the sports league that regularly holds Soviet-style tank parades before games is no longer imbued with enough theatrical patriotism, and relentlessly aggrieved Patriots fans.

Vince McMahon hopes to fill this void by reviving the XFL nearly 20 years on, precisely long enough to hope that everyone has forgotten that it was so dumb.
 
The XFL operated from an organizational philosophy 
that the coolest shit in the world was flames and the 
Boo Berry font

The XFL's original incarnation in 2001 promised a version of football that doubled down on brutality, prurience, and the exciting drama one could expect from the world of professional wrestling where oiled pectoral men screamed at each other and McMahon regularly pretended to die by getting trapped in various exploding limousines.  Off the top of my head, I can still recall the XFL's selling points: an end to the fair catch rule and replacement of the opening kickoff with some sort of violently lawless football scramble; even as ESPN included its "Jack'd Up" segments to celebrate the infliction of brain traumas, the XFL offered viewers the opportunity to see players jacked to heretofore unimagined altitudes.

The XFL emerged as the wheezing death rattle to the 1990s trend of "extreme" advertising, where all products aimed at teenagers and children emanated from the fever dreams of a 57-year-old marketing executive who fell into some sort of cocaine reverie in front of a BMX bike shop in 1992 and spent the rest of the decade screaming at people to put more Xs and Zs in names and throwing terrified subordinates through windows then yelling WHY DOESN'T THIS HAVE A FUCKING SKATEBOARD? For the XFL, this meant making sure all teams had edgy, vaguely violent names that, viewed in 2018, all look exactly like a Korn logo ineptly stenciled onto an Algebra II textbook. 
 
"The team's name and logo were designed to lead the team's 
fans into calling the team "The Ax", a shortened form of the 
word "maniacs". Regardless, the name and logo were roundly 
criticized by advocates for the rights of the mentally ill,[who?] 
believing they were derived from a derisive term for a person 
suffering from mental illness, "maniac", and/or a depiction of a 
deranged axe-wielding murderer, though no picture of an axe 
was in the logo. Still, many of the fans formed their own cheering 
section at the Liberty Bowl unofficially known as 'The Asylum'"
(I already don't have to tell you this is from Wikipedia)

Part of McMahon's plan involved inserting wrestling personalities into the broadcast.  That is how viewers wound up with football games called by Jesse "The Body" Ventura, a supernatural antenna for the late twentieth century's goofiest shit: professional wrestling, Arnold movies, the XFL, stolen valor accusations, third-party politics.

The XFL made it one season and folded, a disaster for pretty much everyone involved except for Tommy Maddox.  Its gimmicks failed to hold anyone's attention past the opening weeks, and McMahon and NBC were left with a league full of also-ran players that no one wanted to see. Its sole influence comes from some camera angles and the fact that a guy put the words "He Hate Me" on the back of his jersey and briefly became a minor cultural phenomenon solely for that reason.  I would venture to guess that anyone who has lingering warm feelings for the XFL regards it as kitsch, a dumb totem from a spectacularly dumb moment in American culture, something that is inherently funny because it actually existed.


I think that whatever ironic nostalgic for the XFL exists concerns an imagined XFL, the XFL promised.  Not the sad reality of NFL Europe washouts humming dumpoff passes into running backs' ankles, but the idea of a professional sports league run not by the staid necessities of sponsors and television executives and team owners every single one of whom is a ruthless oil investor or the incompetent child of a rich person who spent his or her 20s driving sports cars into bodies of water and who all sit around in suits and force everyone around them to call them "mister," but springing from the deranged imagination of someone involved with professional wrestling.  The XFL, in my head, involves a team called the Sacramento Blood Demons rising into the endzone while the entire linebacking corps wails on electric guitars.

The initial appeal of the XFL to me was not necessarily the violence or the implementation of rules dreamed up by every stoned football fan, but it was the fact that it was connected to wrestling, a theater of the absurd.  The NFL at the time and now remains a stodgy, self-serious league that only allowed joy to be expressed once a week by Brett Favre; professional wrestling features undead zombie men, wrestlers reliably stunned into slack-jawed reverie by their arch-rival's theme song, and two guys from New Zealand whose entire gimmick involved silly walks.  Football, long the purview of grim-voiced television analysts and autocrat coaches who force players to wrestle alligators if they are two seconds late to this 7:00 meeting and by 7:00 I mean 6:57 sharp could use that kind of levity.  The NFL sports draconian celebration penalties.  The NFL once specifically forbade players from doing "incredible hulk."  In 2014, Richard Sherman gave a pro-wrestling-style interview that used Erin Andrews as a makeshift Mean Gene Okerlund and the entire football world lost its mind.

That's not the XFL Vince McMahon offers now.  The new XFL will not have nose tackles giving long monologues about how they are going to pass rush someone through the gates of hell, they will not have quarterbacks who are pretending to be space aliens or angry bureaucrats from the internal revenue service, they will not have a team line up for a kick and then Gustav Holst's Mars the Bringer of War comes over the speakers and the quarterback comes running out of the tunnel with the offense to do a two-point conversion even though we all know that's exciting because it is basically how Kentucky chose to end the Music City Bowl.  McMahon's XFL revival seems to be mainly about appealing to the people who have been losing their minds about players kneeling for the national anthem, full stop, which is the dumbest reason I can imagine for watching a minor-league sporting concern.

The sole entertainment value from the new XFL will be from whatever remainder bin quarterbacks end up starting for the Fort Wayne Reverse Mortgages and the five seconds of laughing at Jimmy Clausen getting sacked by a 45 year-old Julius Peppers will likely be its entire legacy instead of Jimmy Claws Son getting mauled by a 45-year-old Julius Peppers who has entered the stadium on third down in a smoke-filled boat accompanied by the Third Down Pass Rush Specialist brass band.  We will never get the XFL we deserve.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Comprehensive Review of the Henchman and Heavies of Ronin


Ronin, the John Frankenheimer espionage and car chase thriller, came out nearly twenty years ago.  The film features an impossible, incoherent plot, inscrutable geopolitics, and De Niro grasping at the final straws of his late middle age action movie career.  But the most important thing to take away from this movie is that is populated by an amazing assortment of henchmen, and the rest of this post is a comprehensive review of all of them.

************************************************************************

 Even in a film stacked with malevolent, leather-clad henchman, this is the most aesthetically pleasing heavy in Ronin.  He's bald with bulging eyes and a murderous leer; all of the other henchmen seem to know him because he's the ur-henchman of post-Cold War Europe, like how the Kurt Russell character in Death Proof was known among the stunt person community as "Stunt Man Mike" even in exclusively stuntmen milieus.  "Sergi" (as he is listed in the credits) has a brief cameo in the movie.  He skulks around with his nameless henchman associate, smartly dressed in the let's do crimes ensemble of leather jacket and black beanie, looking as suspicious as possible before wreaking absolute havoc upon a bevy of innocent tourists in an ancient Roman coliseum.  This is an absolute tour-de-force henchman performance, pleasing to the eye, in action and in lurking around looking menacing.  


One of the most delightful things about Ronin is that Frankenheimer fills the movie with spycraft by characters who are at all times acting as conspicuously as possible.  None, though, have as much panache as this top-notch henchman (listed in the credits as "Dapper Gent" just an unbelievably pure henchman character name) who has gone above and beyond by wearing an overcoat without putting his arms through the sleeves.  Surely there is a person who has done this in real life, a man who has decided that the conventions of modern overcoat technology are beneath him and that he must wear his coat as a makeshift cape even knowing that a stiff breeze could blow it off him and down the street as people run out of shops and scream at him "you could have prevented this by using sleeves" but I have never seen this done except in movies.  Look at how brazen this is.  He's sitting at a cafe, sipping on a tiny mug of espresso, carrying a briefcase, and sidling his way over to a fucking van.  Even in the screenshot, look at all of the people staring at him making his big exit while posed like a classical Renaissance painting called The Nefarious Exchange.  This guy meets one of the gorier ends in the movie after being unnerved by another bad guy's gambit to fire a gun that looks exactly like the transformer Megatron randomly at children.  I love everything about this guy and I would definitely watch an entire prequel about him once MGM gets around to launching the Ronin Cinematic Universe.



Stellan Skasgard's Gregor is an excellent villain because he never expresses a single human emotion, all of his plans involve firing guns at innocent people, he tactically covers his eyes every time he's about to shoot a lock off a gate or a briefcase handcuffed to a henchman, and he says things like "I'll find a place to tilt the field to my favor."  But the absolute best moment for Gregor is when he makes a daring escape from De Niro by leaping off a fence and doing some Tom Cruise-ass running while dressed like a disgraced community college accounting professor.


Frankenheimer really lays down the gauntlet henchman-wise in this first tense encounter.  Here he unleashes the Car Henchmen. The first, a fast-talking arms dealer who could not be more suspicious if every single one of his lines ended with the phrase "I assure you, I will not try to murder you" is listed as "Man at Exchange" in the credits, a real tribute to the art of naming disposable henchmen.  But the real innovation is his colleague, who appears in a tunnel dressed exactly like a member of an order of Evil Shriners who attack hospitals in miniature monster trucks.  This encounter takes place in a seedy dock on the Seine-- there is absolutely no way that any human being witnessing an assemblage of these characters: the Homicidal Jazz Pianist, the Reverse Beefeater, and a crew involving Jean Reno, Sean Bean, and Robert De Niro who spends the entire movie looking as nonchalant as a spy infiltrating an Iron Curtain checkpoint with false papers, and not immediately recognize it as a den of criminal iniquity.  These two, along with their entire crew including a bridge sniper, meet a predictably violent end, but Frankenheimer really sets up the world of Ronin as one that involves daring gun battles against a gang that looks like this and then no one remarks on it again for the rest of the movie.


The moment pictured above is the greatest triumph for Mikhi, a disappointing heavy.  Here Mikhi allows for a brief moment of levity as he flees with a precious case in the chaos after the assassination of his girlfriend, a world-famous figure skater played by Katarina Witt who is shot with a sniper rifle in the middle of a performance during some sort of ice capade in the most ludicrous ice rink related climax to a '90s action movie that does not involve Jean-Claude Van Damme impersonating a hockey goalie to prevent the Chicago Blackhawks from inadvertently blowing up Pittsburgh.  The one thing we know about Mikhi is that he dotes on his ladyfriend; to watch him so callously allow her to fall victim to a public execution and then do some Buster Keaton passport comedy undermines his whole bit. He's fine, but is not up to the admittedly impossible standard set by the bald guy, the overcoat guy, and the bespectacled fur hat guy that we've already seen plotting and waving guns around.


Ronin saves its shittiest heavy for the main villain.  Jonathan Pryce is always revealed to be in a crowd, hiding, because his character is on the run as the mastermind of some sort of Super IRA.  Ronin wants you to make sure that you know that he is a ridiculous Irish stereotype because he talks in a cartoonish brogue ("YA STUPID SHITE," he screams at De Niro in their climactic confrontation), slugs whiskey, dresses like an extra in a period-accurate attempt to stage one of the sex plays in the middle of Ulysses, and his name is Seamus O'Rourke.  It's a tribute to the insane geopolitics of Ronin that his death (that occurred in the aftermath of the a high-profile figure skater assassination) is the final piece of the puzzle that allows the United Kingdom and Ireland to come to the Ronin version of the Good Friday Accords because presumably Seamus would be able to stop it by using the case to disrupt the meetings with an array of hearts, stars, horsehoes, clovers and a red balloon.  Pryce does a good job here, but Ronin really needed a better villain than an anthropomorphic accent.  Stellar eyebrows.


Sean Bean here really raises a central question when it comes to the art of henchman review.  It's impossible to rate a henchman by effectiveness since all heavies, goons, and toughs will, by definition, be blundering oafs who die by gun, fist, explosion, and rotating helicopter blade.  And even by that standard, Sean Bean (his character is "Spence" but let's be honest, like Jean Reno and De Niro, there's no point in naming him) is an inept fraud who has no idea how to buy guns from Car Henchmen, how to set up an ambush without killing everyone involved, or what color the boathouse is at Hereford.  But that's his job in the movie-- to be the skittish nincompoop filled with unearned bravado to contrast with De Niro's cool competence and for that he is unassailable.  The one aesthetic problem is that all inept henchmen deserve a glorious death, this one especially since he is played by cinematic death magnet Sean Bean.  Instead, the character is sent away and warned not to speak of his exploits.  We can take comfort in the fact that there is no way that this doofus could possibly go the rest of his life without discussing an arms deal derailed by a bridge sniper and that Seamus would certainly find him and kill him by punching him to death in a posture identical to the Notre Dame logo.


The wheel man is known as Larry, one of the most bizarre henchmen in the Ronin universe.  He's not menacing at all, he doesn't seem capable of skulking and lurking, and while he's the driving specialist, virtually every other character with a speaking role also gets to demonstrate that he or she can drive a car through four lanes of oncoming traffic while only managing to kill a few dozen other motorists when they swerve to avoid them and their cars all instantly explode.  Larry looks like an affable galoot; unlike the henchmen populating this film whose entire esthetic can be described as ostentatiously criminal, he resembles last guy on the substitute teacher call sheet.  His greatest skill is making the ridiculous Mike Tyson's Punch Out face shown above when it's time to ram a car.  Larry meets the most grotesque and violent end of anyone in the movie and you feel sad for him, the henchmen who didn't want to hurt anyone except the innocent people that perish wrapped around concrete pillars while he's driving an Audi at 70 miles per hour through a city designed to repel Visigoths.


Spectacular henchman.  Bald, in sunglasses, and wracked with terror as his car is rammed and chased through narrow streets. "The Target," as he is credited, really gives you everything you need for the guy handcuffed to a briefcase.  The car chases in Ronin are incredible because they are all for the most part real stunts-- according to the commentary on the DVD, the scene where De Niro blows up a car with a rocket launcher involved actually rigging up some sort of explosive under a car and having a stuntman just get sort of safely blown up and then coast around a twisting mountain road upside down coasting on the roof.  During this car chase, Frankenheimer gives a brief establishing close-up of a fishmarket seconds before like twelve cars plow through it because he knows exactly the movie he is making. 

The fish market scene must have been where Frankenheimer planned to insert Ron Jeremy (credited as "Fishmonger" and billed as "Ron Hiatt") to amuse and titillate viewers who wanted to see a squat, mustachioed porno actor gesticulate angrily at a small convoy of high-performance sports cars who have made his mongering impossible, but we will never know because Frakenheimer cut him out.


The discerning reader might question why Jean Pierre here (played by Michael Lonsdale) is included in a henchman and heavy review.  If anything, he is at best henchman-adjacent-- providing sanctuary for a wounded De Niro, performing extremely amateur bullet removal surgery, becoming a magical source of information to allow the heroes to instantly track down everyone they need to, and clumsily explaining the title of the movie via elaborate Samurai miniatures.  But I needed to include him here only because Michael Lonsdale was also in the BBC version of Smiley's People as a bumbling Soviet agent who eerily resembles Crystal Skull-era Dan Akroyd.


Monday, January 1, 2018

Music City Bowl Review: Pre-Overtime

“I think the kids wanted to go for it. They wanted to try and win it and I don’t fault the effort at all…They deserved the opportunity to have it in their hands,” is what Kentucky's Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart said about coach Mark Stoops's decision to go for two at the end of the game.  But I prefer to think that Stoops knew that he did not want to go to overtime against Northwestern, a team that does nothing but allow teams to go into overtime, to watch the scoreboard hit zero and to win games in a vortex where linear time no longer has meaning, where the game could stretch into infinity and there's no clock to manage, and that Stoops had stayed up all night reading a monograph entitled Schroedinger's 'Cats: Quantum Mechanics and Northwestern's Inexplicable Nine-Win Season and the implications were terrifying enough for him to do anything he could to end things in regulation.  Also it was cold and the game had already entered its nineteenth hour.
 
Opposing coaches go to overtime against Northwestern 

The Franco-American Music City Bowl ended on an exciting last play, but will be best remembered as an all-encompassing descent into madness.  There were bizarre coaching calls on all sides-- Stoops's decision to go for two, Fitzgerald's disastrous trick plays dreamed up after a pregame meal of hot chicken spiced with psilocybin mushrooms, and the takeover of the game by a Maniac Referee who entered the field dressed in a cape and headdress made of writhing snakes.

The program said that the referee crew came from the Pac-12 Conference, but my guess is that a group of wilderness raiders drove up on the referee's vehicle, seized it in a daring heist using balancing poles and grappling hooks and numerous bellowing guys with Aron Baynes haircuts and leather armor, and impersonated the crew with the goal of sowing chaos. 
 
The Pac-12 Conference sends its officials to a Bowl Game

That would explain the reason why the first half took more than two hours to complete because they sent every call to a grotesque carnival parody replay crew, why they ejected Paddy Fisher for targeting a receiver with his arms, and why, when Kentucky running back Benny Snell lightly brushed against a grasping official, they had him thrown into a pit beneath Titan Stadium.
The Nortorious Benny Snell begins his reign of terror against innocent referees

Northwestern's win prevented the bowl from becoming a complete debacle after they carted Clayton Thorson off the field.  The Wildcats then turned to veteran backup Matt Alviti, a senior who never started a game and whose major contribution to the anticipated game plan involved growing a spectacular mustache.  Alviti didn't make mistakes and moved the chains with a quarterback rushing attack Kentucky would have never seen coming unless they dusted off their Kain Colter tape.  Alviti's heroics were bittersweet for Northwestern fans who had been rooting for him for years and were hoping he'd have a chance to get into a game and apparently made those wishes known to the nearest monkey's paw.

Northwestern won the same way they managed to win all year-- a stout defense against the run (though it helped that Snell got ejected, Northwestern's rush defense battled without Nate Hall and without egregious ejection victim Paddy Fisher whom I hope spent the second half commiserating with Snell in that fancy ice cream place on Broadway), a timely interception from turnover hero Kyle Queiro, and of course Justin Jackson.  Jackson finished his Northwestern career with 157 yards on the ground, two touchdowns, a second consecutive bowl MVP trophy, and a mind-melting bevy of records including virtually every record at Northwestern, third all-time in Big Ten rushing yards, and an ascent to the top ten in rush yards in major college football history.  Even Jackson's records and accolades don't fully explain how good his career has been at Northwestern; the Wildcats' offense for four years has hinged on Jackson or the threat of Jackson causing teams to use the entirety of their scholarship players to try to stop him and allow Northwestern's quarterbacks to throw the ball to open receivers, many of whom are also Justin Jackson. 
 
Justin Jackson the Trophy Carrier

The Music City Bowl managed to be the apotheosis of Northwestern's bizarre season.  They got stuck in a perilously close game, battled through heart-rending late comebacks, persevered through a truly bizarre array of fourth-down decisions and ludicrous trick plays that Wile E. Coyote would scoff at as unnecessarily complicated, and managed to hang on to a win.  The egghead football statistics guys say that close games decided by a touchdown or less not to mention overtime are toss-ups completely dependent on luck; Northwestern won every single one of them and did so in a fashion that seems to defy science and mathematics and gets into metaphysical realms that turn into religion.  The 2017 Wildcats were an excellent football team and one that also seemed buoyed by a series of football miracles. 
 
Game-saving Two Point Conversion Preventer Marcus McShepard 
defends the pass with an Unholy Incantation

By the time that Stephen Johnson's pass floated through the fingertips of a heretofore unstoppable Tavin Richardson, it was no longer possible to root for Northwestern as a football team but necessary to do so with robes, orbs, candles, foam hats in the shape of wildcat heads, and other miscellaneous religious implements as they watched another pass fall incomplete to the ground and Pat Fitzgerald bellow from the sidelines in an otherworldly tongue and the band launch into its ancient hymn "U Northwestern Rah" into the ashen faces of the fans of the Apostate Wildcat fleeing into the freezing Nashville air and back into the arms of their true religion because did you see the score of the Louisville game.