Milwaukee Bucks Turn Back the Clock with “Y2K” Coolio Performance; Milwaukee Needs to Turn it Ahead with New Arena

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The Milwaukee Bucks have the worst record in the NBA at 9-43, which translates to a putrid .173 winning percentage.  They are 31 games back in the Central division, 8-24 in a very weak Eastern Conference and 5-21 at home this season.  They have lost four in a row and are 1-9 in their last 10 games.  The Bucks are also one of the worst-drawing teams in the NBA, but fans can be forgiven for not rushing out into the cold Wisconsin winter to see a team boasting those abysmal numbers.  The Bucks also haven’t won a postseason series since the 2000-01 season, having lost in the first round of the playoffs five times since then. 

Still, the Bucks are important to the city of Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin.  Considering how bad the team is, pulling in an average of over 13,000 in attendance is pretty decent, particularly in a cold-weather city.  Thankfully, the team’s front office and owner Herb Kohl seem to finally have embraced the fact that the Bucks need to start from scratch and go young; really young.  They have started to shed the contracts of older players and have refrained from making reactionary trades that would send out young players to improve the roster for the existing season.  In addition, this time of transition to a hopefully sustainable future for a Bucks franchise that was established in the late 1960s is marked by efforts like Save Our Bucks (@SaveOurBucks), a grassroots effort devoted to trying to imagine the parameters for a new blueprint for the Bucks, to re-establish the winning tradition of the past and to form a template for a successful future in Milwaukee.   

The Bucks haven’t had an All-Star in 10 years.  So where do they go from here?  Their future is further clouded by Milwaukee’s need to build a new arena for the team, as the current BMO Harris Bradley Center doesn’t bring in the kind of revenue needed in today’s NBA.  Lacking in pizzazz and amenities, the league itself has deemed the Bradley Center outmoded.  New NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who took over from longtime head honcho David Stern at the beginning of February, spoke frankly about the BradleyCenter in September of 2013.

Via Probasketballtalk:

“One obvious issue we all have to deal with is we need a new arena in Milwaukee,” said Adam Silver, deputy National commissioner, speaking of the BMO Harris Bradley Center….

“At the end of the day compared to other modern arenas in the league, this arena is a few hundred thousand square feet too small,” Silver said. “It doesn’t have the sort of back-of-house space you need, doesn’t have the kinds of amenities we need.

“It doesn’t have the right sort of upper bowl/lower bowl (seating) configuration for the teams frankly that Milwaukee wants to compete against,” he said.

The need for a new arena in Milwaukee puts the Bucks, their management and ownership in a tough spot.  Not only do the Bucks need to figure out how to fix the present and future in terms of the basketball roster, they also must navigate the future of the franchise’s existence in the city.  It’s not easy political sledding, and while I don’t feel bad for billionaires or millionaires, I would feel bad for people in Wisconsin who could lose their NBA team to the dreaded “relocation” factor, should the local government not find a way to rescue the Bucks from the aging Bradley Center, which opened in the late 1980s.  It isn’t really fair that the city should have to replace the building already, but that’s the reality of today’s sports leagues.  Old, outdated buildings put teams on the chopping block of relocation or contraction.  Just ask the Minnesota Twins to the west in Minneapolis, who were nearly eliminated from Major League Baseball in the early 2000s due their tenancy is the decrepit Metrodome.  Incidentally, the Metrodome is now being pulled down to pave way for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium. 

Whether one agrees with the demands of buildings as imposed by modern sports leagues, or the means to procure those buildings (often taxes), the bottom line clearly is that Milwaukee needs to figure out a way to build a new arena to preserve the NBA in the city for the present and future generations of Wisconsinites.  As Save Our Bucks notes, currently “the team can’t give away the product.”  Still…they are certainly trying to give it away, and rightfully so. 

The Bucks are generous with giveaways.  Of course, a team as bad as the Bucks will want to dangle a little something extra to entice potential ticket-buyers.  But the Bucks historically have offered great deals that either involve discounted tickets, memorabilia/keepsakes, or special events.  All of this leads me to the inspiration for this tirade on the need for Milwaukee to wake up and take action to keep the Bucks in town: the Bucks are throwing a Y2K Night bash on Saturday, February 22 during a home game versus the mighty Indiana Pacers.  Not only does one get tickets starting at “Y2K-era” prices of a measly $7, all fans will receive a free retro Bucks pennant.  But here’s the real treat: a half-time performance by hip-hop hero Coolio!  Seven bucks for a Bucks ticket, free pennant and a “Fantastic Voyage” to downtown Milwaukee: that is truly a “Gangsta’s Paradise.”  Support the Milwaukee Bucks!

ANCHORMAN 2

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By R. David

Viewed December 19, 2013

“Anchorman 2” is a surprisingly shoddy and lazy comedy.  This sequel to 2004’s “Achorman:  The Legend of Ron Burgundy” is highly disorganized and only periodically amusing.  It’s not so much a film written as improvised.  While there have been plenty of great comedies that are largely improvised and get their biggest laughs from lines that were never in the script (“Caddyshack” springs to mind, for instance), the moments of comedic riffing here are obvious and often allowed to drag on far too long – to the point of tedium (like nearly every scene with Steve Carell’s child-like doofus Brick Tambland) – and what there is of a script is severely lacking in anything resembling inspired comedic satire or even just plain old comedy.  All surprising for a film whose stars and producers fought mightily against studio disinterest, to the degree that they all took pay cuts, to get made.

“Anchorman 2” picks up with the 1970s behind Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell).  The styles and attitudes may have changed (something the writers Ferrell and Adam McKay – who also returns as director – never miss an opportunity to make a joke about), but Burgundy is still the same scotch-slamming, chauvinistic, clueless narcissist.  Most of the humor and attempt at commentary comes from how such a cluelessly self-absorbed man assimilates into the more progressive 1980s TV news world.  His wife (Christina Appelgate) is promoted to head anchor instead of him, which prompts him to quit his job and move to the burgeoning world of 24-hour cable news.  His entire former crew (Carell, Paul Rudd, and David Koechner also return), but Burgundy is not prepared for a black female boss, rival vapidly handsome talking heads and his wife moving on with another man.

“Anchorman 2” would like to fancy itself some absurdist comedy that also has something subversive to say about how television news is more concerned with manipulating and exploiting emotions in its attempt to gain viewers and compete with rival news stations, as opposed to reporting actual news from an unbiased perspective.  That’s a noble enough idea, and no doubt there is plenty of biting satire to mine from such a concept, but “Anchorman 2” is only interested in hitting the most broad, obvious targets and calling out offenders that even the most unplugged audience members are already well aware of.  The silly stuff doesn’t work much better, with much of it either falling completely flat or grating on the nerves. 

In fairness, there are a few hits among the considerable misses here.  Sad as it sounds to say, Ferrell’s naïve racism is undeniably amusing, as is some of his sniping with Applegate.  And there is a particularly nuts-o, over the top finale that is impossible not to crack a smile at.  But moments like this, no matter how admireably absurd, only serve to prove just how disorganized and scattershot the comedy here is.  It’s all smacks of the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach and it is glaringly obvious they simply didn’t have enough for a solid film going in.

The character of Ron Burgundy is a one-joke gag that has severely run its course.  Ferrell is game as always, but a little of his shtick in these films goes a long way, and without any sort of purpose to justify “Anchorman 2’s” existence, the film can’t simply skate by on his goofball charisma.  Eventually, he just looks like some idiot flapping around and speaking gibberish while a bunch random, obnoxious stuff goes on around him. 

Yep, that in a nutshell sums up “Anchorman 2”.

1½ Stars (Out of 4)

AMERICAN HUSTLE

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By R. David

Viewed December 20, 2013

I recently watched David O. Russell’s “Three Kings” for the first time in maybe nearly a decade.  Russell has been making movies since 1994 and has moved into the upper Escalon of acclaimed Hollywood filmmakers over the last few years with Oscar-adorned dramas like 2010’s “The Fighter” and 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook”.  But re-watching 1999’s magnificent (and even for all of its adoring reviews, still relatively underrated) “Three Kings” again, it becomes clear that his ascension to mainstream acclaim has come at the expense of diluting his Independent Film spirit and his penchant towards fearless unconventionality.  “Three Kings” was an indie film masquerading as Hollywood crowd-pleaser.  With its big-name cast and big-budget aura, Russell was able to slyly insert enough quirky dialog and idiosyncratic filmmaking techniques to please the masses as well as art-house crowds.  The result was a breath of fresh air and a wholly unique film-going experience.

Russell has consistently brought an indie temperament to each of his projects since “Three Kings”, but they have progressively proved to lack the same gutsy earnestness that made “Kings” so invigorating.  These days, his air of free-spirit filmatism and peculiar dialog feel more like calculated efforts to distract critics from his increasingly conventional takes on tried and true genre exercises.  What, for instance, was “The Fighter” if not a conventional Hollywood underdog story and traditional Hollywood biopic?  Albeit, a terrifically acted and written one; but typical none the less.  “Silver Linings Playbook” also had its fair share of excellent performances and juicy dialog, but did it not play out like every romantic dramedy of its type? 

Never though has Russell’s attempt to convince us he’s still an original filmmaker despite channeling his voice through archetypical molds been more obvious than in his latest work, “American Hustle”.  With hardly-subtle nods to Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas”-style camera work and voice-over tactics, as well as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights”-like era-specific exuberance, Russell no doubt sought to create a film achieving those director’s classic’s style and distinctive energy, but also added his own distinctive voice to the proceedings.  Alas, “American Hustle” rings too slight to stand alongside Russell’s obvious inspirations.

Like all of Russell’s work, the performances here and his witty, unpredictable outbursts of scrappy, honest dialog cannot be faulted.  “American Hustle” is an extremely well-acted film, and often a deliriously juicy gab fest.  But, for a movie about con-artists trying to outsmart the mob, the FBI, other con artists and potentially each other – where their freedom and perhaps their lives hang in the balance – the stakes never feel particularly high for any of the characters here.  “American Hustle” simply lacks the suspense, energy and excitement it seems to assume it has.  But it’s not for lack of effort on the casts’ part.

Christian Bale stars Irving Rosenfeld, an idealistic, 1970s con artist who would have a perfectly comfortable and happy life with wife Jennifer Lawrence (giving a live wire performance in a relatively small role), his adoptive son, their house in the suburbs and his successful chain of New York Laundromats.  But Irving cannot simply settle for “good enough”.  He also employs two-bit schemes involving non-existent loans and forged paintings, because he is a con artist at heart, with an emphasis on the artistry.  It’s not simply the money that gets Irving off (though he is working through some childhood drama where he swore he’d never have to want for anything ever again), but the idea that he is the smartest guy in the room.  Paunchy and balding with a bad comb-over, his confident demeanor and shrewd knowledge of business, financial and legal theories make him a successful conman, as well as irresistible to Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser, a wannabe actress with a similarly desperate upbringing who is attracted to Irving’s intelligence, confident swagger, and exciting lifestyle despite his physical shortcomings.  He recruits her into his world of fraud and deception and with her sultry grace added to Irving’s convincing schemes, the two become wildly successful and fall madly in love.  But when they get pinched by Bradley Cooper’s ambitious but wildly insecure FBI agent Richie DiMaso, they are given the choice of working for him to bring down an idealistic congressman (Jeremy Renner) or go to jail.  But things get complicated when DiMaso develops and attraction to Sydney, the mob becomes involved, and Irving’s nutty wife threatens to expose that he and Sydney are working as FBI informants.

This all should make for a zestfully entertaining and often suspenseful bit of pulp true crime.  And there are moments when that is precisely what “American Hustle” achieves.  But those moments are mostly early on, and then few and far between.  Bale (who won an Oscar under Russell’s direction for “The Fighter”) and Adams in particular are both excellent (though the entire cast shines mightily), but their performances do more the film that it does for their characters.  The two simply move from one plot point to the next, trying their best to struggle upstream against a script that seems to have no forward momentum.  “American Hustle” is presumably building to a climax in which everyone either gets their comeuppance or – better yet – the twists and turns of all the different parallel cons lead to some unexpected surprises.  But despite all of “American Hustle’s” style and attitude, it couldn’t be more ordinary.  Like Irving, the movie tries to play up its considerable swagger and interesting little idiosyncrasies to mask its plain, bloated true self.

Russell still maintains a reliably strong eye for style, and his visual flair and arresting camera angles are often sublime.  And as a writer he has the ability to enthrall as he puts his characters through all sorts of verbal gymnastics.  But era-specific fashions, hair styles and other details only serve as entertainment by themselves for so long.  Sooner or later a movie has to live and die by its actual story and plot developments, and unfortunately, in this department, “American Hustle” is thoroughly marginal and frustratingly monotonous.  You can’t ignore the terrific performances, but that they are so good only further underscores how disappointing it is that the rest of the film is so lacking in grit, focus, and originality.

And that’s the most upsetting con of all.

2½ Stars (Out of 4)

12 Years a Slave

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By R. David

Viewed December 6, 2013

Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” is the story of Solomon Northup, a legally free New York violinist and family man who is living a rather ideal life for a black man in 1840s America.  He accepts a job offer from two white traveling circus promoters, only to be betrayed, stripped of his name, sold into slavery and shipped to a plantation in rural Louisiana – which might as well be a world away from his family and anyone who can vouch for the fact that he is indeed a free man, or rescue him from the twelve-year nightmare he is about to embark upon.

Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays Northup as a terse, intense and shrewdly astute individual.  It is a tour de force performance, not simply made up of the big emotionally explosive scenes one would assume from the film’s subject matter.  The genius of Ejiofor’s performance is that he is somehow able to convey his precise emotions to the audience even while hiding them from his captors and the other players on screen.  He never strikes a false or cloying note.

The film is based on Northup’s 1856 memoir of the same name and very little of his ordeal has been changed for the screen. Writer John Ridley and director McQueen take us step by step through Northup’s hellish journey with uncompromising earnestness.  McQueen doesn’t flinch in portraying the evils of slavery whether they be relatively mild or horrifically sadistic.  Initially, Northup is purchased by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a rather gentle and sympathetic slave-owner.  He is the kind of man who probably feels guilty about owning other human beings and considering them his property, so he tries to ease his conscience by treating them respectably, giving them gifts, and purchasing the children of the women slaves he claims in an effort to keep mothers and children together.  Not exactly an emancipator, but Ford’s sympathetic gestures count as near-malevolence in this environment. 

Unfortunately, Northup’s time on Ford’s plantation is short and he is quickly acquired by Michael Fassbender’s sadistic slave-driver Edwin Epps.  McQueen and Ridley masterfully convey the mechanics of slavery – how they are sold, what becomes of their name, and their families, and their lives – but through the character of Epps and Fassbender’s amazing, incendiary performance, they also dissect the psychology, pathology and hypocrisy of slavery.  Here is a man who is one minute quoting bible verses to defend his abusive actions, yet he is unable to control his insatiable lust for his prized cotton-picker, Patsy (devastatingly portrayed by extraordinary newcomer Lupita Nyong’o).

Most of Northup’s time as a slave, and thereby most of the film, takes place on Epps’ plantation with each of Northup’s conflicts proving more trying than the last.  As a worldly and well-educated man, Northup intimidates the drunken, weak-willed, and self-loathing Epps, who in turn makes Northup his literal whipping boy, both physically and emotionally.  These horrors and Epps’ true cowardly and morally bankrupt nature culminate in the film’s most dreadful sequence, in which Epps ties a naked Patsy to a post and forces Northup to whip her repeatedly, before grabbing the whip himself and forcing Northup to watch as he flays her alive.  The sequence is obviously hard to watch, but it is McQueen the director at his most bravura.  Presented in one lengthy, uncut take, McQueen stages the scene to feel every bit as long and horrifying as Northup’s memoir indicated.  Even if you look away, you can’t escape the feeling of utter dread and discomfort that a sequence such as this lingering on – seemingly forever – forces upon you.  Just, I assume, as McQueen intends.  (Ditto the scene where Northup is hung from a branch with his feet barely touching the ground, literally tip-toing around death, as plantation life in the background goes on as normal.)

As tough to take as much of this can (rightly, purposely) be, “12 Years a Slave” is not merely some depressingly bloody horror show guilt trip.  McQueen’s technique here is actually one of restraint.  He doesn’t pile on the schmaltzy, orchestral-swell moments that typically balance out the more execrable themes in films like this, but he isn’t out to simply shock us either.  “12 Years a Slave” could have been far darker, bloodier and more uncomfortable.  But McQueen is smart enough to walk the line between not pandering to his audience or being emotionally manipulative and obvious, while also avoiding alienating us altogether with some aloof lecture or bleak document devoid of any humanity or narrative redemption.  There is no place in a film that hopes to realistically tackle the concept of slavery for apologies, excuses or half-hearted condemnations; but there is also probably no audience for a film that only wishes to rehash the horrors of the time. 

McQueen seems to understand this.  There is plenty of hope and inspiration to be gained from Northup’s journey, harrowing and disturbing as it often is, and thanks to Ridley’s all-encompassing script and Ejiofor’s deeply affecting performance (as well as superb supporting performances across the board, including the likes of Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, and Sarah Paulson – all aces and supremely effective), “12 Year’s a Slave” is automatically catapulted to the status of the best film about slavery ever made.  However, that is almost faint praise considering its discouraging lack of company.  

Luckily, “12 Years a Slave” is not just a great film about slavery, it is one of the year’s best dramas – and best films – by any measure.

4 Stars (Out of 4)