2 Notes

Night Moves (2013) 9.1

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  • Direction: 2.9 out of 3.0
  • Writing: 1.4 out of 1.5
  • Performances: 0.9 out of 1.0
  • Cinematography: 0.8 out of 1.0
  • Editing: 0.9 out of 1.0
  • Sound & Music: 0.8 out of 1.0
  • Creativity/Originality: 1.4 out of 1.5
  • Total: 9.1 out of 10

Kelly Reichardt may be American independent cinema’s best kept secret. After four features she’s become a master filmmaker working on a mostly small, intimate scale on films that remain underseen despite the rave reviews and festival awards she piles up. For this reason, it isn’t surprising that Reichardt's superb fifth feature seems to be flying under the radar even with a cast that boasts Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard.

Of course in this case it’s possible that it’s the dark nature of the film itself that limits its audience. This look at a group of environmental activists who execute a plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam is a pretty solemn ride and Reichardt seems to acknowledge as much. In an early scene, a documentary filmmaker who screens her work on the destruction of the environment for an organic farming co-op, is met with complaints that too many horrific images make one feel that it’s just too much to take on and probably it’s too late anyway. Indeed.

Where most filmmakers would approach this material as an ensemble piece, Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond are far more interested in character than plot machinations and limit the activist group to three members. Sarsgaard as Harmon is a former marine explosives technician who serves as the group’s charismatic but reckless leader and Fanning plays Dena, whose wealthy parents unwittingly fund the operation, as a girl straddling the border of true womanhood as she makes the most important decision of her young life. Both are excellent, but it’s Eisenberg who is the real revelation here as the deeply conflicted Josh.   

Even in films like Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less, “conflicted” is part of Eisenberg's stock in trade so his career has been building toward this in a very real sense. It was just a matter of finding the right filmmaker who wouldn't cram his mouth full of dialogue or fallback on his sensibility for awkward comedy. Josh has relatively few lines of dialogue but his eyes contain multitudes. He functions as the planner of the group, making sure they each carefully follow every step and fretting over every inevitable slip-up.     

The first half of Night Moves functions as a process film which gives the film a forward momentum, however deliberate, that is absent from Reichardt's other, equally accomplished, work. The film opens with Josh and Dena examining the dam up close and from there chronicles every step in the preparation of this act of protest. The influence of Robert Bresson is nearly tangible here, not only of his process films A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, but also his own contemplation of action in the face of a declining world, The Devil Probably.

Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, who worked with Reichardt on Meek’s Cutoff, captures the beauty of the film’s Oregon setting but resists the temptation of slipping into nature porn and Jeff Grace's shimmery score compliments the imagery without becoming a distraction. There's also a mastery of editing technique on display here as Reichardt creates white knuckle suspense out of a trip to a farm supply dealer. She doesn’t do it often, but when she chooses to go with touches from the thriller genre, they’re both classic and handled with an expert’s precision. When the boat pulls up to the dam, the scene playing out in shades of black with high concrete walls and harsh security lighting bordering the frame, the film looks and feels like so many prison escape films. This isn’t a coincidence. These characters must feel as though they’re escaping from a prison even as they only succeed in constructing smaller ones for themselves.

It’s a credit to the originality of the piece that it’s not a spoiler to reveal that the trio succeeds blowing up the dam and a credit to the director’s skill that the film works as well as a character study as it does as a thriller.  In it’s second half the film downshifts and the focus narrows to Eisenberg's Josh as he sinks into an existence of paranoia and suspicion and finally desperation. This section plays like an expansion of the last five minutes of The Sopranos series finale with character and audience in lockstep; no matter where your sympathies lie, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

There’s no moralizing here on the part of the filmmaker. She never condemns her characters for their actions but she also refuses to co-sign their righteousness. Night Moves ultimately succeeds in capturing the feeling of living in a world that you know is fucked up, and getting more so by the day, but struggling to find the proper response. Reichardt does offer a glimpse of hope, of a faint glimmer of light at the end of a very long dark tunnel. “I think looking for one big plan is part of the problem,” says the documentary filmmaker,”I’m focused on small plans. Lots of small plans.”   

Notes

Summer Slam 2014 Preview

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Summer Slam had fairly inconsequential beginnings. In it’s earliest incarnation, its main events were a showcase for contrived tag team matches pitting a pair of top faces joining forces to battle a pair of top heels and through the first four summer slams, this format was only broken for the underrated Ultimate Warrior vs. "Ravishing" Rick Rude cage match for the WWF Championship in 1990. The show began to hit its stride in 1993 at Wembley Stadium and in true McMahon fashion began its rise from the bottom to become WWE's second most important PPV, behind only WrestleMania.

This year its level of importance may be ratcheted up even more. With the recent international launch of the WWE Network and renewal time quickly approaching for stateside fans, Summer Slam could be a major key to the company’s immediate financial future. After all of the budget cuts and the repetition of the $9.99 mantra on every available television outlet, it’s clear that WWE understands the crucial nature of the current moment for their product. They know they need more subscribers. The question is, what are they going to do from a creative standpoint to draw them in?

Let’s take a look at the card:

The build to the John Cena Brock Lesnar WWE World Heavyweight Championship match has been nearly perfect. Paul Heyman has been predictably great in cutting some of the best promos in recent memory, Cena has kept the humor and sarcasm to a minimum and even the documentary, video packages and television commercials exceed the high bar the WWE production team sets for itself. Then came Monday night. As Ric Flair, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Jimmy Heart, "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff, Kevin Nash and Soctt Hall celebrated The Immortal Hulk Hogan's 61st birthday during the final segment of RawBrock Lesnar showed up to crash the party and remind everyone that he’s not a superstar, but an asskicker. With just three words, “party’s over, grandpa” and a steely stare he threatened the well being of every legend in that ring before John Cena could rush in to make the save. But it’s worth taking another look at the names of those he saved. We’re not talking about Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake or Tugboat here; these guys are all essentially heels and outside of Hogan, who by this point had been convinced by Hall with help from the fans in attendance to dispense with the red and gold in favor of N.W.O. black and white, none of these guys would ever be associated with Cena. But heels or not, they represent the wrestling business and Cena, love him or hate him, lives the wrestling business. 

Lesnar, on the other hand, is a fighter who will fight anywhere at any time and as such is seen an interloper who just happens to fighting his way to the top of the WWE at the present moment. By ever so slightly aligning Cena with these legendary heels against this part-time mercenary who seemingly has little respect for the legacy of the company, WWE is giving the “smart” wrestling fans who would normally be found chanting "CENA SUCKS!" permission to root for him instead. It’s a wise move by the powers that be and one with more than a touch of cynicism as it seems very likely that Cena will, in fact, drop the title at Summer Slam. For him to retain would mean that the company willingly wasted all of the heat generated in the breaking of a streak more than twenty years in the making by allowing the “1” in “21-1” to lose his very next match.  

The real difficulty for Cena and Lesnar will be living up to the violent intensity of their 2012 Extreme Rules match. Lesnar's vicious elbows to the head immediately after the match had gotten underway sent the message that this wasn't going to be the typical John Cena match. They can give us something different, but anything less in terms of intensity and violence is likely to be seen as a disappointment. It’s possible that WWE's no bleeding policy will be suspended or broken.

*QUICK FANTASY BOOKING*

Considering that a John Cena win seems to be less likely here, an air of predictability hangs over the outcome if not the match itself. One way to dodge this would be to have Lesnar win a grueling physical war that decimates both participants only to have Seth Rollins cash in his Money in the Bank contract and take the championship. This would serve dual purposes in protecting Lesnar and his streak breaking win while leaving the belt(s) on a full-time company employee who is on television every week setting up a Triple Threat WWE World Heavyweight Championship match for Night of Champions with Rollins defending against his former Shield mates Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns. Reigns would walk away with the Championship and begin the build to a match, most likely at WrestleMania, in which Lesnar could attempt to regain the title that he feels was stolen from him. It will never happen, but it’s fun to think about, especially for those in favor of WWE's youth movement.  

Stephanie McMahon vs. Brie Bella - It’s pretty clear that WWE went with the Stephanie McMahon arrest angle a couple of weeks too early. Had this all transpired in the last week with the arrest on Monday and the challenge and matchmaking on SmackDown! this match would be the second most anticipated on the card. Instead the whole thing jumped the shark on the go home edition of Raw with a groan worthy subplot about Daniel Bryan having an affair with his physical therapist that will have to be unwound long after anyone cares about it. That’s if anyone care about it to begin with. As is is, the match should be fun with high potential for some sort of swerve. There are rumors of a Nikki Bella heel turn floating in the air. 

Roman Reigns vs. Randy Orton - Early on in this program there were rumors of terrible, boring matches at house shows supposedly due to Randy Orton's reliance on long rest holds and general unwillingness to put Reigns over. Everything on television, however, has been handled extremely well. Orton, whose attention seems to wane at times, as been as interesting as he’s been in quite some time and you can see Reigns gaining confidence in both mic work and ring psychology. I expect Orton to step up to the plate and to his part in putting on an incredible match as the next step in the ascent of Roman Reigns.

Lumberjack Match: Mr. Money in the Bank Seth Rollins vs. Dean Ambrose - Theonly reason to use a lumberjack match is to put wrestlers who aren’t on the card into an event. The stipulation does a poor job of achieving its stated intent of confining combatants to the ring and the match is almost never well executed. A ladder or cage match would have been ideal in this situation leading to the conclusion that this one will probably not be the blow-off to the feud and will likely end in some sort of schmoze. Fine by me; Ambrose has nudged ahead of Bray Wyatt as the most must watch character on WWE TV and Rollins is as good as anyone inside the squared circle. The can run this program until WrestleMania as far as I’m concerned.

WWE Divas Championship Match: AJ Lee vs. Paige - Kudos to WWE for running two concurrent Divas programs, neither of which revolves around Total Divas storylines or dance competitions. You can see the improvements in the ring work of both of young ladies each time they work together. Paige's character has really taken off since turning heel and AJ has settled in into the face role nicely while handling all of the meta issues that come being the wife of the dearly departed CM Punk. If these girls get time to work a real match, they won’t disappoint. 

Flag Match: Rusev (with Lana) vs. Jack Swagger (with Zeb Colter) - This feud has consistently been one of the best things about WWE TV in recent weeks and has singlehandedly rejuvenated the career of Jack Swagger who was threatening to tumble into irrelevance. I’m not sure he has much of a chance to win given WWE's slow and meticulous build of the Rusev and Lana characters, but I can see them continuing the program for a month or so considering the synergy of their respective gimmicks.    

Bray Wyatt vs. Chris Jericho (Luke Harper and Erick Rowan are banned from ringside) - This match should have been near the top of the card but somewhere along the way this feud fell flat. Maybe Chris Jericho's now predictable part time schedule is the reason or the fact that WWE decision makers have watered down Wyatt's dark mastermind persona with a string of losses. Whatever it is, something just hasn't quite clicked. Wyatt is still the most entertaining guy on the mic this side of Paul Heyman and Jericho is an all time great but sometimes the chemistry just isn’t quite right. Their sit down interview on Raw this week was well executed, as was Wyatt’s appearance on Jericho's podcast, so both men seem fully invested in the program and the actual match should be a good one. Even with Jericho scheduled to be around for another month to put over the Eater of Worlds, a loss for Wyatt here could further damage his relevance.  

WWE Intercontinental Championship Match: The Miz vs. Dolph Ziggler - Keep your fingers crossed that this match doesn’t get consigned to Pre-Show hell and it that it get more than the ten minutes suggested by the list of match times that leaked earlier this week. What The Miz lacks in pure wrestling ability he more than makes up for with his understanding of selling and how to draw legitimate heel heat and Ziggler is quite simply on the short list of the company’s best workers. If given enough time and the proper booking this has the potential to be the most entertaining match on the card.

On paper, the card looks pretty stacked. Nearly every match has the potential to steal the show with none looking like obvious bathroom break material. With all that’s riding on Summer Slam and the current state of the WWE product, it isn’t hard to imagine the company pushing all of their chips to the center of the table, coming up with a few swerves and going all in to put on one of the best, most jaw dropping PPVs of the year.

Notes

Saturday Night’s Main Event and the Immense Pleasures of the WWE Network

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On July 31, WWE announced subscriber figures for it’s streaming network, along with the admittedly much worse news that they were cutting seven percent of their overall workforce, that were a disappointment to just about everybody with any interest in the matter. After publicly shooting for 1 million subscribers by the end of the calendar year the company revealed that they have only reached 700,000 (though some claim the exact figure is closer to 690,000) by the end of June. Somewhat more disconcerting is the fact that the number only increased by a net of around 30,000 from the time of WrestleMania XXX when factoring in cancellations. Strangely, the company is still doing decent, albeit significantly reduced business through traditional pay-per-view outlets. This means that somehow there are American wrestling fans who have no trouble shelling out sixty bucks to the cable or satellite company for WrestleMania but can’t bring themselves to commit to getting that and six months of so much more for $9.99 per month, as has been hammered home on the last two editions of Monday Night Raw. The evidence suggests that disposable income isn’t the issue so what is holding these folks back from taking the plunge and signing up for the WWE Network?

It’s possible that the company could do a better job explaining how it all works and the growing multitude of devices that it’s available on. It’s also imperative that fans understand that both the stream and the video quality is about a million times better that almost anything they can find on YouTube. But it’s also likely that some folks just don’t understand what they’re getting beyond the monthly PPVs while others are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choices at their fingertips. For those folks, as well as international fans to whom the network just became available today, I’ll be posting short guides to some of the catalog or Vault content available on the WWE Network. We begin with one of the latest and greatest additions.        

Saturday Night’s Main Event:

At this point, Saturday Night’s Main Event is the easiest way to follow the storylines of the early days of the WWF when there were only a few pay-per-views a year (the company expanded to four in 1988 and it gradually ballooned from there). This show was a big deal. Most of WWF television is those days, shows like All American Wrestling, Wrestling Spotlight, Superstars of Wrestling, Wrestling Challenge; were filled with squash matches of stars destroying enhancement talent in the matter of a couple of minutes. In that environment, Saturday Night’s Main Event, which featured hyped matches with big angles between top stars, was the equivalent of a cross between one of today’s monthly PPVs and a big episode of Monday Night Raw, with a little more than an hour runtime. The fact that it played in the time slot of Saturday Night Live on NBC only made it seem bigger and more important. Not every episode is excellent wrestling television and for a show with ‘Main Event’ in the title it sure didn’t seem to get the concept as the marquee matches were frequently early in the show but at its peaks it’s some of the best stuff in the history of WWE. The first season of Saturday Night’s Main Event debuted shortly after the first WrestleMania with Vince McMahon and Jesse “The Body” Ventura on commentary and "Mean" Gene Okerlund handling interviews. Early episodes featured sketches that amounted to a live action version of Hulk Hogan’s Rock n’ Wrestling cartoon but those were quickly replaced by promos for virtually every match and the show settled into a groove.  Below is a chronological guide, complete with episode numbers and air dates, to some of the better matches and story angles that Saturday Night’s Main Event has to offer:

  • Episode 4 1/4/1986 - Hulk Hogan defends the WWF Championship against Terry Funk in what is easily one of the best matches in Hogan's career.
  • Episode 6 5/3/1986 - In a pairing that showcases the extent of the Junkyard Dog's popularity, he teams with with Hulk Hogan in the top billed match against the Funks. Also, see Jake “The Snake” Roberts DDT Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat on the bare concrete rendering him legitimately unconscious and concussed.
  • Episode 7 10/4/1986 - "The Dragon" looks for revenge against "The Snake" and this time he brings his own reptilian mascot. The WrestleMania 2 Tag Team Championship rematch between The Dream Team and The British Bulldogs isn’t as good as their original encounter but it’s still worth a look. 
  • Episode 8 11/29/1986 & Episode 30 2/8/1992 - These two episodes are grouped together because both feature "Macho Man" Randy Savage facing Jake “The Snake” Roberts, two of the best in the history of the genre. Two very good matches that took place more than five years apart make for an interesting comparison. 
  • Episode 10 3/14/1987 - This episode was the lead in to WrestleMania III and featured a battle royal that included both Andre “The Giant” and Hulk Hogan. Watch Andre completely destroy "Leaping" Lanny Poffo ("Macho Man" Randy Savage's real life brother) with an overly stiff headbutt.
  • Episode 12 10/3/1987 - The seeds of the Mega Powers are sown as Miss Elizabeth enlists the services of the Hulkster to save the "Macho Man" from a vicious beating at the hands of The Honkey Tonk Man and The Hart Foundation
  • Episode 37 2/5/1998 - The epic clash at WrestleMania III between Hulk Hogan and Andre “The Giant” seems to generally be thought of as a culmination but in truth it was much closer to the beginning of a feud that would last well over another year. While that match is a masterpiece of in-ring stroytelling, as is beautifully broken down in Box Brown's graphic novel biography of Andre, this rematch may have it beat in terms of pure entertainment value and it almost singlehandedly set up WrestleMania IV to boot. Also this the most watched wrestling show in the history of American television, so there’s that. 
  • Episode 16 4/30/1998 - Newly crowned WWF Champion “Macho Man” Randy Savage makes his first televised title defense against One Man Gang.
  • Episode 17 10/29/1988 - Making his typically classy overtures to the wife of Jake “The Snake” wasn’t enough for Rick Rude, he had to go and have her face airbrushed onto the crotch of his tights. Here "The Snake" gets his shot at revenge. 
  • Episode 19 1/7/1989 - The story of the Mega Powers is one of my favorite angles in the history of WWE and this episode and the next are the highlights of that tale. Hulk Hogan with Miss Elizabeth at his side faces Akeem the African Dream as the "Macho Man" watches on a monitor in the back alongside "Mean" Gene. His delayed response to the interference of Big Boss Man and the Slickster hints at 
  • Episode 38 2/3/1989 - The Mega Powers battle The Twin Towers but when Hogan decides to act in the interest of Elizabeth, "Macho Man" questions his motives as the partnership dissolves.
  • Episode 21 5/27/1989 - In one of the more impressive spots of his career, the Hulkster superplexes Big Boss Man from the outside of the steel cage back into the ring. If you look closely during this match you can see Boss Man blade himself just before Hogan hits him with a chain. 
  • Episode 22 7/29/1989 - Though they were no longer at the peak of their careers, it’s still cool to see Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard, then known as The Brain Busters, win their first WWF Tag Team Championship over Demolition.  
  • Episode 24 11/25/1989 - See the Hulskter suffer a rare defeat, albeit by count out, in one of the strangest matches of his early career to The Genius (again, Savage's brother Lanny Poffo) who does a humorously wonderful job of generating heel heat.
  • Episode 26 4/28/1990 - Newly crowned WWF Champion The Ultimate Warrior makes his first title defense against Haku and Demolition turns an otherwise very good tag team match featuring two future main eventers into a double disqualification schmoze when The Hart Foundation take on The Rockers
  • Episode 27 7/28/1990 - It’s not hard to imagine Vince McMahon looking on from the announce position at the WWF Championship match featuring "Ravishing" Rick Rude challenging for The Ultimate Warrior's title and seeing the complete success of his early vision even without Hulk Hogan in the top spot. Here we have two steroid sculpted demigods with bucket loads of charisma and outsized gimmicks all served up with side of heat and humor in the presence of Rude's manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan (who, it must be said, did some of his best work as a manager on SNME). McMahon's view would soon grow darker, but here we get a better match than could usually be expected of the Warrior and the setup for an underrated cage match at the following Summer Slam. Also on this episode is a predictably great Intercontinental Title match between "Mr. Perfect" and Tito Santana
  • Episode 40 11/23/1990 -“Mr. Perfect” shows up once again in an excellent match versus The Big Boss Man, who was ridiculously feuding with the Heenan Family because "The Brain" insulted his mama, that illustrates just how to use a count out finish to superb storytelling effect. 
  • Episode 41 2/1/1991 - Much like The Brain Busters, this is post-peak product but The Artists Formerly known as The Road Wariors, or The Legion of Doom if you prefer, show that they still have an impeccable understanding of how to work a match and pop a crowd as they dismantle the unfortunately named Orient Express.
  • Episode 31 11/14/1992 - See Shawn Michaels win his first singles title in a near classic Intercontinental Championship match against The British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith

3 Notes

Money in the Bank & the Problem that Is John Cena

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On Sunday, WWE will roll out one of its most anticipated and unpredictable Pay Per Views of the year.  This particular edition features not one but two ladder matches.  In addition to the traditional ladder match that guarantees the winner a shot at the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, the main event features another ladder match for the title itself.  With so many participants and possible outcomes, let’s take a look at where each man stands heading into the event and where they may find themselves coming out of it. 

Money in the Bank Contract Ladder Match

  • Rob Van Dam & Kofi Kingston - I grouped these two guys together because they basically serve the same function in this match. They’re there to provide big, high-flying spots but neither has a chance to actually win the briefcase. Considering his age and with his style, RVD's current run as a performer at this level can't last much longer and there's no reason to think the company would have him heavily involved in long term title picture plans.  Kofi is an amazing athlete and a credit to the roster but he’ll likely never be a major threat to the championship.  If it was going to happen, it would’ve happened by now.
  • Jack Swagger - Despite, or perhaps even because of, having a previous Money in the Bank Ladder Match and World Heavyweight Championship win, Swagger's chances of walking away with the contract seem very slim.  He has tremendous size and athleticism but his lack of charisma and mic skills limit his potential.  Zeb Colter and the Tea Party gimmick only help so much and creative seems to be stumped as to what to do with him.
  • Dean Ambrose - Ambrose is on one of the hottest runs of anyone on the roster right now but he will not win this match.  What makes Ambrose so special right now is that he’s the only guy in the company who doesn’t care about the title.  He’s not interested in the contract, he’s only interested in kicking Seth Rollins's ass. The jeans and T-shirt fit his character much better than the faux-Soldier of Fortune Shield getup and, and if anything, he’s taken off since going solo. He won’t win, but there is a chance he could keep Rollins from doing so.
  • Dolph Ziggler - Quite possibly the most underused guy on the roster, Ziggler would be an excellent choice to win the briefcase, especially if they pair him up with the returning Ric Flair.  It isn’t all that likely, but it would work.  Ziggler is over with the fans, whether the company wants to acknowledge it or not.  
  • Seth Rollins - Rollins is, of course, the likely winner.  This doesn’t provide much suspense, but the options here are slim.  If Rollins does win, he can wait to cash it in and use the briefcase to continue to draw heat as the importance of his treachery fades. Either way, the match should be an ideal showcase for his tremendous skill set.

It’s entirely possible that Wade Barrett was originally booked to win this match, but he received some legitimately bad news when he was injured at the SmackDown! taping on Tuesday.  There’s been no official statement on his status outside of initial acknowledgment of the injury, but it’s believed that he suffered a separated shoulder which would likely keep him out of Money in the Bank.  It’s bad news for the fans because he would’ve been great in the match and with the briefcase.  It’s even worse news for the company because the roster can’t afford to take that kind of hit right now.  But just because he’s injured doesn’t mean he should be kept off of television.  If he can’t wrestle, they should put him on commentary.  His stick work is too good to lose just because he can’t physically go.  As for the ladder match, it’s possible that a surprise replacement for Barrett could be put in and walk away with the contract  

Money in the Bank WWE World Heavyweight Championship Ladder Match 

  • Alberto Del Rio - After four title reigns, a Royal Rumble win and a Money in the Bank win Alberto Del Rio's character has literally nowhere left to go.  He has decent in-ring ability but the Mexican aristocrat thing went stale and there isn't much left.  Not only will he not win here, but his days competing for the top prize may be numbered.
  • Sheamus - Despite a somewhat silly gimmick, Sheamus is one of the company’s better workers.  He has elevated the importance of the U.S. Championship in the short time he’s had it simply by defending it but he isn’t likely to take home the World Championship.   
  • Cesaro - People love Cesaro but he’s never struck me as a World Heavyweight Champion.  He’s a throwback with a vast move set and tons of ability but I’m not sure he’s cut out to be the face of the company.  Despite his association with Paul Heyman and recent heel moves there just doesn’t seem to be much to the character.  There is something missing and time needs to be taken to figure out exactly what that is.  Again, he’s a tremendous wrestler and totally unique but there’s just something about his character and look that doesn’t scream World Champion.  Even if you disagree with all of that, it’s likely still too soon at this point.
  • Roman Reigns - Reigns has the look in spades, but like Cesaro, he also isn’t ready.  His mic skills are the least advanced of the former Shield members and his first title win needs to happen as the climax to a one on one feud with a lot of buildup.  Many fans would love to see him win the title Sunday but the powers that be would be wise to hold off at least until WrestleMania 31.  Let him work a program with Triple H and work on his promos for a while. He’s going to be a major star and a top guy for a long time so there’s no need to rush it.   
  • Kane - The Devil’s Favorite Demon is an even more imposing figure in person than he is on television and should be legitimately frightening when you combine that with the way he’s packaged and presented.  On paper he may be the ideal candidate for a transitional championship reign, but the problem is that he’s been around so long and loses so frequently that he has no credibility anymore.  A monster that loses all the time just isn’t that scary. The importance of wins and losses often seems to be an afterthought in WWE booking and Kane is a perfect example of that.  Kane could win if the company wants to bring continue his terrible feud with Daniel Bryan but that wouldn’t just be bad writing, it would be lazy, which is actually worse.   
  • Bray Wyatt - The one thing that I am absolutely sure of about the current state of WWE is that Windham Rotunda is the best actor in the company.  Not will be, not can be, not has the potential to be but right now.  I have no idea about his versatility as a performer but the character of Bray Wyatt would be just as a credible in a narrative feature film or a dramatic cable series (would he be at all out of place on an episode of Justified or the first season of True Detective?) as he is every Monday night. What may be even more impressive is that the character informs his every move in the ring and, for his age, he is a master of ring psychology.  Unlike the other two young guys in this match, Wyatt is ready now.  His character is fully formed, his athleticism for a man of that size is incredible and putting the belt on him would open up myriad story options.  It would signal a major change of direction, but he could immediately enter into a feud with Daniel Bryan as soon as the latter is healthy or any other face the company chooses.  If you go this route, however, you have to keep the title on him for a significant run or risk ruining his credibility after his program with Cena.  It probably won’t happen, but it would be a bold, game changing decision to book the match that way.   
  • Randy Orton - A Randy Orton victory here might just be best for business.  Without some sort of swerve, it represents the best opportunity for Authority interference and thus legit heat.  It also may be the easiest way for a healthy Daniel Bryan to resume his feud with the Authority.  There is staleness issue at play here, but Orton is a top talent and probably the safest choice.

A couple of days ago, the wrestling rumor mill kicked into high gear when Amazon listed the Summer Slam DVD for pre-order, complete with cover/poster art that featured Brock Lesnar and, yep, John Cena. The quick consensus seemed to be that it was an unintentional spoiler, not a prediction, as to the outcome of Sunday’s World Heavyweight Championship ladder match.  Some were quick to point out that those posters usually reveal little about the actual card and they seemed like their’s sounded like the voices of reason on the matter until amazon pulled the image yesterday confirming the earlier suspicions of many. With Lesnar long having been rumored to return to face the champion (whoever he may be) everything lines up very neatly.  The thing is, as much as many fans won’t like it, Cena walking out of MitB with the belt(s) isn’t just the most likely outcome, it’s one of the most workable ones for future storylines if handled properly though there are some longterm considerations that must be weighed.

It’s likely that Lesnar becomes the Champion at Summer Slam so assuming that there’s no immediate contract cash-in or a title change at Battleground, a babyface should win the Championship ladder match. None of the younger guys, face or heel, could sustain that short of a title reign without losing all of their momentum.  No man on the roster, is positioned better to sustain that kind of a loss without effecting anything, which is why it’s so puzzling that the powers that be didn’t use this cachet to put Bray Wyatt over in a clean win instantly turning him into the most feared heel in the company.  Instead they chose to protect Cena.  He doesn’t need protecting anymore.

The biggest concern with another Cena title run is fatigue.  His first came nearly a decade ago but some of this is something of a subliminal projection.  His gimmick is basically a reboot of Hulk Hogan and older, longtime fans feel like this has been shoved down their throat for thirty years.  In some sense, they’re not wrong, but the ill will is misdirected.

Crowds chanting that he can’t wrestle is utter nonsense, he’s a far better worker than Hogan ever was and has an impressive “matchography” that includes many excellent matches that get forgotten and pushed to the wayside.  He’s been an excellent “face of the company” for a decade but the time to step aside is quickly approaching.  

This would be Cena's fifteenth title reign, meaning it could conceivably be his last.  To anyone with even the slightest sense of wrestling tradition, the notion of John Cena eclipsing or even tying Ric Flair's 16 World Championships is sacrilege.  The timing and impact of his final title run should be carefully considered, both for Cena and the guy he drops the belt to.     

He seems to genuinely like working with younger guys and helping them get over so I can’t imagine that this will be a problem when that time comes but it seems like a waste for Lesnar to be that guy.  He doesn’t need it, it would help a younger guy much more, and the likelihood of Cena and Lesnar surpassing their 2012 Extreme Rules match is nil.  

    

Notes

Of Elbow Drops, Guilty Pleasures & Fake Pain

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I can’t say precisely when I started watching professional wrestling.  I can’t say because I don’t exactly remember.  What I can tell you is that it’s one of the first memories I have of watching anything on television.  Before cartoons, or Sesame Street, sitcoms or movies there was Wrasslin’.  

The reason for this is that my grandmother, all soft spoken five feet and one hundred twenty pounds of her, loved the stuff.  If she happened to be impressed with a certain wrestler her brow would furrow, her voice would drop low as she would say “Ooh, he’s really rough!” while shaking her head at angle.  My grandfather, however, was having none of it.  ”Aww, that’s all fakey stuff.” he would gruffly chuckle and walk out of the room.  

The backstory on that is that he, just like my grandmother, had once bought into the reality of pro wrestling.  That is, until he took my grandmother to see a live show and could see for himself that there was some pulling of punches, so to speak.  Back in those days, promoters were so dedicated to the principle of “kayfabe" (basically, pro wrestling’s version of La Cosa Nostra's Omertà code in which the secrets of the business must be protected and storylines must be treated as “real”) that heroes and villains were forbidden from associating with one another outside of the ring with the ban running the gamut from  sharing travel and hotel accommodations to meals and after hours extracurriculars.  This being the case, it wasn’t unusual for fans to believe in the authenticity of the matches they were seeing.  Once my grandfather could see for himself that he was wasn’t watching a legitimate fight, he was done with it.  My grandmother, on the other hand, either couldn’t tell or didn’t care, about the ruse or what her loving husband had to say about it, because she continued to watch undeterred.        

My guess is she had me watching right beside her by the time I was three years old.  My first clear memories are of the old Georgia Championship Wrestling a few years before it became World Championship Wrestling.  My grandmother’s clear cut favorite wrestler was "Rowdy" Roddy Piper.  Piper wasn’t only a wrestler at the time but also a “heel” (the codified wrestling term for bad guys) commentator.  Weekend after weekend we would watch the matches as Piper's wonderfully shrill maniacal tirades were perfectly balanced by the smoothness and laconic professionalism of Gordon Solie's play-by-play.  Needless to say, Piper would become my first favorite wrestler as if he were bequeathed to me.  Through this early exposure to Piper I would learn the importance of what wrestlers would call “working the stick” or “cutting a promo” and simply boils down, in layman’s terms, to the ability to talk.  The best talkers, and Piper was among the very best ever, could deliver wildly passionate spiels aimed at their opponent or the audience and ratchet up the intensity and interest in their conflicts another level.   

Growing up, I watched as much of the stuff as I could.  NWA (once and again later to be WCW) and WWF were the staples but I also gobbled up Mid-South Wrestling (later UWF), ESPN broadcasts of Verne Gagne's AWA as well as their replays of old WCCW show.  In later years this would extend to ECW, Smoky Mountain Wrestling and ESPN's final wrestling show GWF.  Unlike many fans, I loved it all and wouldn’t pick one promotion over another or, to put it more precisely, I wouldn’t have wanted to give any of them up.  At one point I randomly decided to root solely for heels in the NWA and babyfaces in the WWF but I suspect that had more to do with Ric Flair's legendary Four Horsemen faction being NWA heels and Roddy Piper's WWE face turn than any real distinction between the promotions.    

Much like his father-in-law, my dad scoffed at my interest in wrestling.  ”You don’t believe that’s real, do ya?” he’d mock groan and follow it up with a bellow-y cackle.  I’d usually respond with a flurry of (Wooooooo!) "Nature Boy" Ric Flair-style reverse knife edge chops and the occasional diving double axe handle (Oooh Yeah!) from high atop the arm of the living room couch a la the "Macho Man" Randy Savage.  Perhaps in an effort to separate the “real” from the “fake” he took me to the local armory to watch, what was at that point, the richest fight in championship boxing history via the forgotten phenomenon of closed circuit TV.  Dubbed "Once and For All" the main event featured "Iron" Mike Tyson facing Michael “Jinx” Spinks, both undefeated, for the Undisputed World Heavyweight Championship.  

There we sat, after standing in long lines for sodas and popcorn, on folding steel chairs in this vast arena staring at a large screen where, after endless preliminary bouts and pre-fight hype Tyson knocked Spinks out in 91 seconds.  Tyson was a monster, especially in those days, but ninety-freaking-one-freaking-seconds?  Wrestling may not be “real” but it’s rarely this disappointing or lacking in entertainment value.  Even the made-for-TV squash matches were longer than this.  A year later I would set front row in the very same arena for a much entertaining NWA card headlined by a World Heavyweight Championship match between Ric Flair and Terry Funk, and a decade later "The Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels would suffer the dame fate as Michael Spinks when Tyson would knock him out in a WWF ring at WrestleMania XIV.

My parents were good sports though, gamely agreeing to take me to both WrestleMania III (Yes, I was there when Hulk Hogan slammed Andre the Giant… ) and IV (and when Savage won his first World Championship) with a Great American Bash ("The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes over Tully Blanchard in a lights out barbed wire ladder match for $100,000) in between, thus feeding the addiction that my maternal grandmother had instigated just as callously as if she were the mythical playground drug dealer.  I would go on to pass it along to my little brother before he was ten years old.  

I continued to attend TV tapings and house shows throughout my high school and college years as I simultaneously learned that a love wrestling was something that wasn’t going to earn me much in the way of cachet.  Even as wrestling was hitting peak popularity during the Monday Night Wars and most of my floor would gather weekly in a tiny dorm room to watch the shows, I was consistently given grief over it by my then-girlfriend.  As I was studying Film and Popular Culture, one of her favorite refrains was, “I can’t believe you’re this intelligent film buff and you like WRESSSS-LING … ugh,” complete with punctuational eye roll.  Silly me, there I was thinking that professional wrestling fit into the aforementioned Popular Culture.

Enough of this type of abuse drove my wrestling fandom below the surface.  I never lost interest or totally gave it up but I certainly didn’t advertise my now guilty pleasure of fake pain.  I checked in on WWE and dabbled in Ring of Honor but the few times I gave TNA a chance it seemed like the senior circuit so my interest was small.  On occasion I would get an urge and spend a day pulling up recent indie matches on YouTube.  At my least engaged, when I wasn’t watching the television product, I still kept up, read the dirt sheets, searched out results.

That began to change one Monday night about five years ago.  I was flipping channels as I sat beside my girlfriend when I stopped on Raw.  She laughed at first but when made a move toward the remote she asked me not not to.  That was it.  That’s all it took. She was hooked and with that my love of wrestling was back out of the closet. 

I guess you could say it started somewhat slowly with a Raw here and a SmackDown! there and then an occasional PPV before eventually becoming a weekly ritual.  And then came the WWE Network putting nearly forty years of wrestling at my fingertips.  ”Finally, The …” um, never mind.  

When Raw hit Cleveland this past Monday night, I attended my first wrestling show in over a decade.  I saw great singles matches between Dolph Ziggler and Seth Rollins (the two best “bumpers” on the roster), "Bad News" Barrett and Dean Ambrose in a very different physical bout, and the amazing Bray Wyatt and Sheamus before a battle royal and a gimmick stretcher match between John Cena and Kane (who loses very frequently for a guy who’s supposed to be a scary demon) for the final two spots in the WWE World Heavyweight Championship ladder match at the Money in the Bank PPV (not to mention the debut of the wonderful Stardust).  It was the ultimate tasting menu for the wrestling fan but more than anything I was reminded of the high production value and relative smoothness of WWE's weekly, live three hour television broadcast.  Anyone who's ever seen a professional sports draft or an NFL pre-game show should have some idea of the difficulty of this achievement.  WWE does not get enough credit for the technical quality of their television product.  All of this made me begin to question just how guilty I should feel about this pleasure of mine.

It has always bothered me that the word “fake” has been closely associated with wrestling.  I mean, certainly no one doubts that it’s “scripted” and that the outcomes are “pre-determined” but why not just use those words?  Certainly the athleticism and conditioning of these performers (well, most of them anyway) is not fake.  Many of the bumps and injuries aren’t fake either.  Ask Mick Foley how fake it felt when he fell nearly twenty two feet from the top of Hell in a Cell trough the announce table separating his shoulder or ask Triple H about his “fake” torn quadriceps tendon.  Besides no one comes out of The Expendables 47 and complains about the fakery of eighty-year-old men taking out entire armies.    

In an age when comic book publishers have their own movie studios and Hollywood cranks out half billion dollar CGI based disaster porn that even the most thoughtful film critics are forced to treat seriously due their sheer ubiquity, not to mention the relentlessness of their marketing campaigns, is it so ridiculous to treat professional wrestling with the same respect that other forms of populist, mainstream entertainment receive?  Pro wrestling has a rich history, deeply subcultural roots, classical storytelling modes and a large codified vocabulary all it’s own, not to mention all the meta aspects at play with backstage politics and “heat” or animosity between wrestlers, all making it ripe for serious analysis and contextualization.

David Shoemaker aka The Masked Man, whose book The Squared Circle: Life, Death and Pro Wrestling may just be the best non-memoir ever written on the subject, does an excellent job of both humanizing the men behind the characters and placing wrestling in it’s proper pop cultural context in his columns for Grantland and formerly Deadspin but there isn’t much else out there.  Even with all of the wrestling stuff available on the world wide web, once you get past the news & rumors, rants & raves and the ever present fun but frivolous fantasy booking, there doesn’t seem to be that much writing of substance.  Why not throw my hat in the, ahem, ring, so to speak.  I’ve ended up writing about everything else I love so maybe the time has come.  I can promise that I won’t repeatedly write stuff like, “more people used to watch wrestling than currently watch wrestling,” and such grumbly complaints.  ”If you sm…” again, sorry, never mind.      

While we’re one the subject, here are some story ideas and general creative directions that might help steer the course as WWE enters what seems to be a transitional period.  This isn’t fantasy booking but rather some simple story ideas from someone who has a grasp of dramatics and the general principles of storytelling as well as a love and understanding of what Good Ol’ JR would call “the genre”:

  • Considering wrestling’s rich history of working real events from the lives of the participants into storylines, WWE should use its recent financial uncertainty to its narrative advantage.  The simplest way of doing this is to bring Vince McMahon back to television and have him feud with Triple H and Stephanie for control of the company.  This could potentially get rolling at Money in the Bank when the Authority would interfere in the WWE World Heavyweight Championship Ladder Match to crown their handpicked champion.  As he approaches 70, Vince could portray a much more avuncular “Patriarch of Wrestling” character who has seen error of the evil “Mr McMahon's” ways and now simply wants to give to back to the business that has given him so much and will no longer stand for the meddling of his daughter and son-in-law.  This much more traditional “Uncle Vince" type character could align himself with Daniel Bryan, vowing to make sure Bryan gets an immediate title shot upon his return, and others with either some connection to the past or more technical ring styles.  The most successful angle in WWE history was the conflict between "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Mr. McMahon, if handled correctly this could be much closer to that than the failed Raw vs. SmackDowwn! stuff.  The idea fits in easily with the current creative direction and generates countless spinoffs stories organically, a few of which are below.
  • With the news that Ric Flair is on his way back to WWE television on a weekly basis, the opportunity opens up to reference the past as well as advance the careers of some talent that the writers seem to struggle with using.  "The Nature Boy", at the behest of "Uncle Vince", will put together and lead a new Four Horsemen (call them that or don’t, the idea is still the same) consisting of The Miz, Dolph Ziggler"Bad News" Barrett and Cody Rhodes Dean Ambrose(Rhodes was my original idea for this spot before he debuted the excellent Stardust gimmick on Raw, which it appears the WWE is going to run with for the time being.  If they decide to split Cody and his brother up he could still work for this, otherwise Ambrose is appropriate and possibly ideal for a group like The Horsemen).  Each of these guys has either not received the packging and push they deserved or bottomed out creatively and failed to live up to expectations.  This would give each a chance to break their own mold a little bit and borrow some gravitas from wrestling history to go with their already excellent in-ring work.  As for Ziggler, one of the companies best workers, it’s probably too late to get out from under that terrible ring name (though Mick Foley claims to have an idea) but I would dry the hair, pull it back and lose the hot pants.
  • I’ve seen this basic idea advanced elsewhere, most notably by Jim Ross, but it also folds in perfectly here:  Uncle Vince creates a World Television Championship that will be exclusively defended each week on Raw at the same time, in the same segment in a 20 minute time limit bout.  I would argue that this title would be best used on the very top guy last promoted out of NXT.  This would give younger, less experienced wrestlers with high ceilings the opportunity to quickly become seasoned, wrestling matches of significance in front of large crowds on live television or as Ross has suggested you could put it on someone like Ziggler in an effort to guarantee an excellent wrestling match each and every week.  Either way makes a ton of sense.  Needless to say, you crown the champion in a tournament on Raw that could either dominate an entire show (the first time Uncle Vince uses his power?) or string it out over several weeks in what will become its normal time slot.  
  • As rumor has, Vince is not sold on the characters of either Bo Dallas or Adam Rose.  This could also be used creatively as Triple H could use them against Uncle Vince sending Dallas to constantly suck up to him and Rose to repeatedly prank him and throw parties for him.  This would give those characters something to do on television each week giving them the possible chance to get over as well as possibly add some actual laughs to the frequently terrible humor segments.

None of those ideas attempt to reinvent the wheel and it doesn’t take much to see how the initial Vince vs. Triple H and Steph feud could supply endless storytelling options and possibly help pull the company out of what some would call a bit of a funk.     

 … now, where do I pick up my IWC membership card?

4 Notes

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) 8.9

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  • Direction: 2.9 out of 3.0
  • Writing: 1.3 out of 1.5
  • Performances: 0.9 out of 1.0
  • Cinematography: 0.8 out of 1.0
  • Editing: 0.8 out of 1.0
  • Sound & Music: 0.8 out of 1.0
  • Creativity/Originality: 1.4 out of 1.5
  • Total: 8.9 out of 10

To criticize the films of Wes Anderson as being hermetically sealed terrariums with bric-a-brac ecosystems so overly controlled as to leave little room for human emotion would be to overlook the undercurrent of melancholic longing and regret that runs through the director’s work.  That his style, which probably reached its maximalist peak with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, can at times begin to suffocate, however, is difficult to ignore.  The Grand Budapest Hotel, a screwball caper set in three distinct time periods (each with its own distinct aspect ratio) mostly avoids this pitfall by being easily the most visceral entry in Anderson's filmography, throwing in a murder, severed body parts and a first person point-of-view high speed chase down a snow covered mountain.  Danger, at least what passes for it in the cinematic world of Anderson —skull ring and leather wearing thugs and an invading fascist army with one hell of a designer— lurks around every corner for the inhabitants of the fictional alpine state of Zubrowka.

The Grand Budapest Hotel sports several layers of story within story, but the film’s ostensible narrative follows the adventures of the hotel’s charmingly roguish concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) and his wonderfully named lobby boy sidekick Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori).  When one of the many wealthy, older guests that Gustave has made a habit of bedding passes away under mysterious circumstances, the legendary concierge finds himself to be the target of both the authorities and the woman’s treacherous family.  It’s not news that actors seem to love to work with Anderson as what could be considered as his stock company contains some of Hollywood’s most recognizable faces, but the ease with which established and experienced stars such as Fiennes slip into his ensembles remains surprising.  Even if he occasionally underuses a genius talent like Mathieu Amalric, he makes up for it by doing things like having Willem Dafoe chop off people’s fingers. He may never top the freshness and immediacy of Rushmore when it was released, but aside from that, The Grand Budapest Hotel could well go down as his best film.          

Notes

Viewing Habits 

My Letterboxd for the past 56 days.

1 Notes

//M/S/P// Best of 2013: Cinema Edition: Top 50 Narrative Features of the Year

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Each of the above films received their initial U.S. release, theatrical or otherwise, in 2013.  Links to the original reviews of the films that I wrote about are built in to the list on my Letterboxd page which is linked here.  There you can also sift through my viewing diary looking for the holes in 2013 viewing such as Zhangke Jia's A Touch of Sin or Jonathan Rosenbaum favorite Gloria

2 Notes

//M/S/P// Best of 2013: Cinema Edition: Top 10 Directors of the Year

  • 10. Ethan & Joel Coen - Inside Llewyn Davis

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  • 9. David Lowery - Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

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  • 8. Steve McQueen - 12 Years a Slave

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  • 7. Martin ScorseseThe Wolf of Wall Street

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  • 6. Abbas KiarostamiLike Someone in Love

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  • 5. Andrew Bujalski - Computer Chess

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  • 4. Jem Cohen - Museum Hours 

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  • 3. Alain Resnais - You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet 

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  • 2. Spike Jonze - Her 

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  • 1. Shane Carruth - Upstream Color 

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17 Notes

//M/S/P// Best of 2013: Cinema Edition: Top 10 Female Lead Performances of the Year

  • 10. Brie Larson as Grace in Short Term 12

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  • 9. Rooney Mara as Ruth Guthrie in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

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  • 8. Julie Delpy as Celine in Before Midnight 

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  • 7. Bérénice Bejo as Marie Brisson in The Past

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  • 6. Mary Margaret O’Hara as Anne in Museum Hours

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  • 5. Cate Blanchett as Jasmine in Blue Jasmine 

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  • 4. Greta Gerwig as Frances in Frances Ha 

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  • 3. Amy Adams as Sydney Prosser in American Hustle 

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  • 2. Amy Seimetz as Kris in Upstream Color 

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  • 1. Adèle Exarchopoulos as Adéle in Blue is the Warmest Color

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