Monday, October 25, 2010

Superman Returns: A Formal Request for Reconsideration

I have a tangible fear that Superman Returns will soon be less than a blip in the fanboy radar – undeservedly so.

I can still remember the experience of watching the film’s theatrical trailer for the first time. It was at Comic-Con San Diego. I was waiting to hear Kevin Smith lecture on something(s) crude and hilarious. Although I had never been recognized by others or recognized myself as being an earnest fan of Superman, I was certainly a fan of motion pictures – really, just coming into a sort of “film buff” persona. Despite being involved in a persistent battle with my own inclinations toward film snobbery, I remember watching the trailer for Superman Returns and being stunned… impressed. The desperation to watch the trailer for a second time was surpassed only by my deep-seeded longing to not be let down once the finish product came to theaters. Luckily, I wasn’t let down. Unluckily, the rest of the world seemed to be.

As much as I know how praised and revered the Richard Donner Superman films are, it pains me to think that their cult statuses have put an end to all considerations for different takes on the beloved superhero. I point to the James Bond franchise as a form of evidence. The character of Bond has seen a variety of different faces over the years, but each has managed to stake some sort of a claim in the “sacred land.” The most recent Bond films should serve as even more concrete examples of my point. Although I respect what the likes of Roger Moore and Sean Connery did for the Bond character, Daniel Craig has starred in the two best Bond films to date. To my surprise and contentment, both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace stood tall as movies, not strictly vehicles for a cult character. The same, I feel, goes for Superman Returns and its title character. Disagree if you wish, but I regard this latest Superman picture to contain all the “makings” of a successful Hollywood picture.

Personally, I love the work Bryan Singer did with the picture. He brought a creative and directorial flare, not dissimilar to the impact he had on the two X-Men pictures. I also love the idiosyncratically sophisticated performance from Brandon Routh. If he took any misstep, it was simply not being Christopher Reeve. The comparison is unfair to Routh, a splendid and charming actor in his own right, but also unnecessary considering the inflated perceptions of Reeves’ work in the Donner films. You may choose to call me unappreciative of the original franchise or the work of the late Christopher Reeves, but I genuinely consider Brandon Routh to be a better Superman – the best the screen has yet seen. The timidity and vulnerability he contributed to the Clark Kent alias, along with the methodical and tormented characteristics he gave Superman, combined for a stellar performance. One that I consider to be one of the most popularly underrated in recent memory.

Superman Returns is a movie that stands tall by its own merits. Not only are the “standard” Superman components present, they thrive under modern filmmaking technologies. Although I have been critical of modern Hollywood’s obsession with CGI, Superman Returns managed the remarkable feat of implementing heavy amounts of CGI in a sophisticated and entertaining package. Although the film’s storyline is admittedly convoluted, the premise is well explained and lends itself well to the emotional turmoil the main characters undergo. Kate Bosworth has delightful chemistry with Routh, specifically in the plutonic relationship between Lois Lane and Clark Kent. And, although I know specific individuals who will disagree, Kevin Spacey was an effective as Lex Luthor, especially refreshing when compared to the absurd contributions of Gene Hackman to the beloved villain.

Superman Returns is a dead film. Its cast and creative team lost momentum long ago. With another Superman picture already in the works, this film is destined for no place other than the lost and underappreciated pantheon of Hollywood action films. Nevertheless, I implore all you superhero appreciators to reconsider Superman Returns. It is a wonderfully crafted film, and (in the opinion of this author) a worthy homage to a beloved and respected character.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl: A Retrospective Critique

I can say with nostalgic affection that I was at my movie-watching peak during my high-school years. From 2001-2005, practically my entire existence was spent at the local multiplex. As was/is common with many adolescents, my parents’ residence didn’t necessarily feel like home… I sought refuge in unconventional sanctuaries. Apart from merely being exposed to more motion pictures, I developed a love for the movies by identifying my own paradigm for criticism. I was determined, from a young age, not to become a film snob. I was determined to rate/critique/comment on films from a ground-level, far away from the ivory towers which produced so many of the pompous critics I abhorred. This blog entry is an extension of that philosophy.

“How good can a movie based on a Disneyland ride be?” This was the question that raced through my mind as I sat in ambivalence for Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. As much as I had been developing a close connection with “Disney culture,” a big-budget, live-action Pirates film seemed bizarrely out-of-sorts. I not only underestimated Disney’s potential to operate on the action film front, I was downright dismissive. Boy oh boy, was I wrong.

I am inclined to think that many of you are quick to dismiss this film (and the proceeding franchise) based on the fanfare it has received since its opening. Truth be told, I know how that feels. Human beings seem to have impulsive tendencies to be contrarians, or at least try to be. Trust me when I say that I have myself had to fight the urge to be standoffish toward this film, and others like it. The fact of the matter is that I have been able to admire this movie for everything it tried to be – bombastic fun.

Let’s begin with the movie’s most notable contribution, Captain Jack Sparrow. Although more reminiscent of an inebriated Keith Richards, Jack Sparrow reconceptualized the pirate in a way suitable for the overall tone of the film that introduced him. As a protagonist, Jack Sparrow contributes a certain lightheartedness that makes the film re-watchable. I remember being present in a room of dismayed film buffs as Johnny Depp won the Screen Actors Guild award for this performance. The looks on their faces clued me into something… this role was not supposed to be respected in the same way that are other “award” winning ones. Nevertheless, Depp’s award that night affirmed in my mind that the film (and maybe more importantly, the character) struck a chord with viewers.

It is not just the introduction of the Jack Sparrow character that makes Pirates notable or memorable. It could be argued that the film’s score/soundtrack is even more memorable than the lead character. I dare anyone to hear a snippet from “He’s a Pirate” and not feel at least somewhat uplifted at the shear power and excitement the tune produces. The film’s music is just the kind of “pop orchestration” needed to compliment its exciting and enticing narrative. Factor in the production quality and compelling storyline, and you’ve got yourself a big-budget Hollywood film worthy of praise from film lovers across the board.

I have quite frequently proclaimed that Pirates is the “most fun movie of the last decade.” Some of my friends have, quite fairly, criticized such a statement. Their criticisms are valid (and noted), because it is difficult to operationalize a word like “fun.” It means so many different things to so many different people. Nevertheless, I feel completely comfortable and justified in my pronouncement. So, what do I mean by “fun?” Allow me to “tackle” this question with some questions of my own…

… have you ever left a movie with a smile on your face that would not seem to go away? Have you ever felt somber tears run down your face during times of joy? Have your initial perceptions ever been countered to the point that you feel you’ve made some evaluative mistake? I can unequivocally answer “yes” to these questions.

As strongly as I feel regarding the first Pirates film, I feel equally emphatic regarding the shortcomings of the second and third. My apologies to those who disagree with me, but I simply cannot stand behind the latter two films in the way I stand behind the first… or in any way, for that matter. Whether this is due to my “inflated” opinion of the first film is a discussion for another occasion. What is meant by this post is to convey an opinion for a “type” of film that I generally don’t hold in such high esteem. My track record of film recommendations should point to the notion that I am highly selective in the sorts of films I enthusiastically recommend. For all intents and purposes, a film like Pirates does not usually get “Brent’s thumb up.” This film must be special.

Truthfully, I do feel that this film is special. As a film “buff” and as a “Disneyac,” I regard Pirates with sincere admiration and adoration. I call it the most fun movie of the decade because of the way it made me feel when I saw it in theaters back in 2001, as well as for the way it makes me feel when I watch it today. I love this film in the same way I love a sudden cool breeze or the sound of a cork zipping out of a wine bottle. I’ll never experience it again without feeling that special something… for better or worse.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why I Like Wine

Why do I like wine? I hope, dear reader, you can understand what a strange question this is. Strange, not because it is a question unfit for an answer, but because of the shear scope and length of a truly just answer. I shall attempt to offer a concise yet reasonably accurate response for you, as well as for myself.

Wine consumption in the United States has risen drastically in recent years. As a result, there is now at least one winery in every state in the union. Although the state of California still dominates the wine industry by producing approximately 90% of all U.S. wine, other states are starting to develop names for themselves by producing quality wines at reasonable costs (California is arguably the most “inflated” state with regards to wine prices). Washington, Oregon (making some noticeably good Pinot Noir), Arizona, and New York State are all locales on winemaking “upswings.”

As far as the “typical” wine drinker is concerned, people tend to keep track of what they like, and continue to buy that very item, over and over again. Although I sometimes cringe at this behavior (a result that almost certainly stems from my fascination with many different grape varietals, as well as my eagerness to taste them all), I can’t come to blame it one bit. As conventional thinking goes, why would consumers not buy the items they know aren’t going to let them down? For example, my best friend’s family is, as far as I am concerned, comprised of wine drinkers. Every week, while on their grocery runs, they purchase rich amounts of Robert Mondavi Chardonnay (Private Selection, mind you!). By rich, however, I do not simply mean in large quantities. In my opinion, Mondavi Chardonnay is the equivalent of buttered toast with traces of alcohol. Actually, I consider this wine to be rather indicative of the American wine-drinking standard – provocatively rich and sweet. It is no wonder that Chardonnay dominates the American wine market. When people taste something they enjoy, they are bound to buy it again… makes sense, right?

Yes, it makes perfect sense… unless you are someone like me, tragically (or not so) enamored with the subject. Believe it or not, there are approximately 24,000 names of grape varieties on the globe. Of these 24,000, 5,000 are genetically different from one another (Zinfandel, for example, has been genetically verified to be the same grape as the European varietal, Primitivo. These two names would be included in the 24,000, but not the 5,000). Of the 5,000 truly different grape types, only about 150 are commercially planted. Still, this leaves 150 different grape varietals to try (of course, this figure does not reflect the blending of grape varietals). If you have ever been to a winery or carefully perused a wine shop, you should have noticed that a given winery generally does not produce wine made from a single grape varietal exclusively (although this sometimes is the case). Often, rather, a winery will produce wine from many different grape varietals, depending on the decisions made by the winemakers, which are often dictated by the climate in which the winery operates.

Now that I have “set the scene,” so to speak, I’d like to offer some very personal takes on why wine and its study brings me such joy.

First and foremost, wine is delicious. While it may not seem so to the young drinker who possesses ardent adoration for cheap liqueurs and poor tasting beer (I hope you learn better), for myself and countless others around the world, wine is an unrivaled beverage. At it’s most elementary, wine is fermented grape juice. Oh, but it is so much more than that! The brilliance of wine’s taste can be attributed in large part to the complexities behind its taste and smell. When I drink a can of Cherry Coke (one of my other favorite beverages), although delightfully refreshing, I taste what I have tasted every time before. I savor the recognizable flavors, comprehend the copious amount of sugar present in the non-diet cola, as well as the carbonation which should be present (few things are worse than flat soda). These components are as constant as constant can be.

A bottle of wine, as compared to a can of soda, is almost inexplicably more complex. A wine’s flavor is not just influenced by the grape from which it is made, but from elements of the winemaking process. These elements range from the identity of the growing-season climate, the time at which the grapes were harvested, the winemaker’s decision to (or to not) blend different grape varietals, the “vessel” in which the wine was fermented (e.g. French oak or stainless steel containers), along with a myriad of other variables. Each of these influential factors is present in the bottle of wine that will make its way onto a store shelf, and eventually in the glasses of consumers. One of the most exciting things about developing a taste for different wines is learning how to identify some of these nuances in the wine upon consumption. It is rather satisfying to learn about some strange characteristic that affected a particular wine’s creation, only to discover that you are able to detect that very characteristic when tasting the wine.

The subtle and intricate factors that influence a wine’s character also influence why the subject is so near and dear to my heart. Wine truly is an academic subject. More than many scholarly subjects, and certainly more than any beverage, wine challenges and splendors the human mind. In truth, my affection for wine’s gargantuan information base may simply come from some form of scholastic masochism. More likely, however, is the genuine appeal of the knowledge to be attained. I am fascinated by wine from the position of consumption, history, viticulture, global influence, etc. Even more thought provoking is the fascination I have with wine’s elusiveness from the perspective of acquirable expertise. The moment I think I know quite a bit about wine, I am taken back by new and fascinating information. From a more pure academic standpoint, the information available on wine is as grandiose as it is enticing. This “book” knowledge, however, doesn’t touch on one of the most fun and enlightening ways to learn about wine – to taste. While it is certainly true that there is an inordinate amount of information in wine texts, this information is only part of the battle of “conquering” the subject of wine. Here is a decent example…

… there is an organization known as the Institute of the Masters of Wine. Presently, there are only 270-ish individuals to ever earn the title of Master of Wine (MW). In order to earn this prestigious title, one must independently study the subject of wine for an average of 3 years. After a person has thoroughly and properly prepared himself or herself, he or she must pass the MW qualification examination. The exam lasts approximately three days, and consists of essay questions on various topics related to wine (from viticultural practices to wine business, so on and so forth). After the written portions of the test, the candidate must partake in blind tastings of 36 different wines. During this tasting portion, MW candidates must offer responses to questions related to the type of wine they have tasted (varietal, region, etc.), as well as questions concerning the “place” of a given wine. For example, a candidate may blind taste a wine and be asked what “place” that wine has in a global market. Upon completing the exam, candidates are asked, finally, to submit a dissertation on a unique wine-related topic. Although dastardly difficult, the demands of the MW qualification program reflect very well rounded perspectives on wine. In other words, it is not enough to simply know about various fermentation processes or the history of a particular appellation. One must understand wine from having tasted and experimented with it. Emphases should include raw academic knowledge, while paired with extensive consumer-driven knowledge.

Apart from the wine’s fascinating properties, there is a sort of romanticism and mystical quality surrounding its consumption. Although it is true that, like any other beverage of the alcoholic variety, wine can be overused or misused, there is just something about people’s behaviors and conversations when wine is present. One of my greatest joys as a lover and appreciator of wine is sitting in a wine bar, noticing what wonderful times other people are having when accompanied by a delicious Cabernet or Pinot Noir. Whether it is a date between two people (usually indicated by one person’s overzealous perspiration) or a group dinner, empty wine bottles seemingly perpetuate good times. In actuality, the apparent correlation behind wine consumption and the presence of good times may just be the result of the alcohol contained in the bottles. However, I like to think that wine offers something different – subtle, practically undetectable properties that enliven conversation and challenge the human mind.

Surely, one does not have to be a certified sommelier or master of wine in order to enjoy the beverage. The point of this piece was not to promote wine “snobbery,” and was certainly not meant to convince every wine drinker to memorize the Oxford Companion to Wine. Rather, I sought to convey a passion and genuine love for wine by discussing which of its properties I find truly fascinating and enjoyable. In the not so distant future, I hope you can all toast to a subject you feel equally passionate about. Cheers!

© 2010 Brent Bracamontes

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Marathon on Court 18

John Isner didn’t sign up to be a marathoner. As far as tennis goes, however, he ran one… in fact, he ran a few. On Thursday, June 24, 2010, Isner won his match against Frenchman Nicolas Mahut on the third day of match play (sunset on each of the first two days warranted a suspension of play). Adding together the time spent playing over the course of the three days, the match clocked in at an inconceivable 11 hours, 5 minutes. Needless to say, this match was officially logged as the longest played – ever. In fact, the fifth set alone (which ended up being 70-68 games) was longer than any other tournament match in the history of professional tennis. Although the dysfunctional nature of this match does wonders for the coverage of this year’s Wimbledon, I find it rather special for another reason.

John Isner isn’t as good at tennis as Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, and I doubt he ever will be. If you think me rather cruel and cynical about a young adult relatively new to professional tennis, I suspect you would (after some prodding) get the same response from Isner himself. Currently ranked 19th on the Men’s ATP rankings board, Isner is practically a no-name to television audiences. Truthfully, the only real standout qualities he possesses are that he is an American, and that he is, for tennis standards, freakishly tall. Standing alone, Isner’s skills as a tennis player are hardly enough to propel him into the sport’s royalty, or garner consideration from the shortsighted American sports-viewing public.

However, on this day, John Isner is a star. Although he surprised many with his remarkable endurance through match play, he impressed me by what he did when he wasn’t smashing forehand winners. The interviews I saw featuring Isner on court and post-match were fantastic. When probed with questions from reporters on scene (some valid, others absurd), Isner demonstrated a mixture of timidity and poise. This combination, I feel, is extremely appropriate for a young man relatively unacquainted with such attention. A week ago, not even Isner’s 6’9” build could be seen behind the daunting shadows of men like Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic. Today, the spotlight was on Isner, and he flourished under the circumstance. He responded to questions in a surprisingly candid manner. He was refreshingly honest, and demonstrated a sincerely humorous bewilderment for the situation in which found himself.

The question being asked to and by sports media talking heads today is whether or not this tennis match, though memorable, should be considered “good” tennis. My personal response to this question is quite similar to that of Tim Cowlishaw of the Dallas Morning Star News. This match was much better for the game of tennis than it was great tennis play. Towards the end of day 2 (a phrase which still seems strange when discussing tennis), neither of the two men could hardly stand, let alone provide the type of tennis play ordinarily necessary to keep viewers tuned in. If you ask me, the length of play was the only element that sparked any interest. The notion that this historic match wasn’t the best tennis ever played in no way takes away from its grandeur. Frankly, I consider witnessing events like this to be one of the very finest and exciting things in sports, especially as a fan.

I heard it said today that this match shall be remembered for its length, and nothing more. In all honesty, a statement such as “Remember that match that went for like 11 hours? Who played that, again?” doesn’t seem far-fetched. Today, however, I like to think that this match did something greater than put the sport of tennis on the map for a day or two. I like to think that this tennis match gave two respectful, eloquent young men the chances to demonstrate their gracious attitudes for large audiences. I like to think that sports players and fans alike can look at this match and derive a lesson in sportsmanship and goodwill. I like to think that a 6’9” tennis player was transformed into a role model, who happens to swing a racket.

© 2010 Brent Bracamontes

Rob Dyrdek's Fantasy Factory: Keeping the Laughs Alive

Rob Dyrdek made his mark on the mainstream media world when he teamed up with Christopher “Big Black” Boykin in MTV’s hit series, “Rob & Big.” The show was a hit, popularized by the charisma of its two main characters, their relationship dynamic, and of course, Dyrdek’s financial situation, which allowed the duo to explore a fantasy-like reality which the audience was made a part of. After three full seasons on the air, “Rob & Big” came to an end. Questions have risen about the true nature of the show’s demise, specifically regarding the estrangement of its two main characters. Rumors circulated about growing tension between the two leads, while others focused on Boykin’s aspirations of fatherhood over a life of “makin’ it rain.” Regardless of the reason for the show’s expiry, television lost one of its most original and entertaining shows.

For a genuine fan of the show, accepting the end of “Rob & Big” was a difficult task. I look back fondly on times watching original episodes, and being amazed at how thoroughly entertained I was. Even after days of attempting to upkeep a sense of “media snobbery,” “Rob & Big” always made me remember that some things are just plain funny. When I got word that Rob Dyrdek was coming back to commercial television with a new show, I was slightly skeptical. I made the mistake most people made in their criticisms of a spin-off, asserting that the relationship between Dyrdek and Boykin was the element that gave the show its true success. When the trailers for “Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory” finally hit the airwaves, faithful viewers got a sneak peak into the true entertainment genius that is Rob Dyrdek. Promotions for “Fantasy Factory” showed Dyrdek being catapulted into a pit of foam, maneuvering around his “office space” in a car reminiscent of Speed Racer’s, and simply maintaining the persona he established in “Rob & Big”: an enthusiast of fun.

In my own mind, the trailer for “Fantasy Factory” affirmed the notion that Rob Dyrdek is a mastermind. It seems that while the relationship between Boykin and Dyrdek was showcased in the earlier series, Dyrdek’s wacky and entertaining inceptions were the heart and soul of our viewing fun. Looking back on three great seasons of “Rob & Big,” one can see what the heart and soul of the series was. The amusing and extravagant crusades the two main characters went on were almost exclusively drawn up by Dyrdek (at least portrayed that way in the series). This is not to downgrade the impact that Boykin had on the show (he did, after all, provide me with one of the biggest laughs of my life when he brought the mini-horse trailer back to the house adorned with one of the greatest murals I have ever seen), but to simply accept the fact that a series starring Dyrdek without Boykin could still work.

The first two episodes of “Fantasy Factory” lived up to the anticipation brought forth by its trailers. The stunts are intact, the insanity runs rampant, and the cast of quirky characters, combined with an excellent array of guests make this show a gem after just two episodes on the air. Early notions (be myself as well) hinted at the possibility that Dyrdek would be unable to carry on a successful show by himself without his oversized companion. However, exposure to “Fantasy Factory” has led me to view the relationship between Rob and Big much like I do Mario and Luigi. While we will always have fond memories of the two working together, we can expect equally great things from one of them by himself… adorned with his trademark hat(s).

Dyrdek’s unwavering boyhood desire for fun and excitement is infectious. I am never inspired to live my life to the fullest than when I watch Rob Dyrdek “at work.” Regardless of age, race, creed, socioeconomic stratus, etc., I urge everyone to sit in front of their television screens for an episode of “Fantasy Factory.”

(c) 2010 Brent Bracamontes

LT: Linebacker's Terror & Local Treasure

LaDainian Tomlinson is a Charger. He has been a Charger since his draft into the NFL eight years ago, and will (hopefully) sport a bolt-adorned helmet until he hangs up his jersey for good.

The past few weeks have been arduous. Speculation over Tomlinson’s status with the team roared as fans waited in dreaded anticipation for word. The franchise tag on Darren Sproles didn’t help our optimism for Tomlinson’s future, but hope was never lost. I have written previously that Sproles is not an “every down back,” and I assert that same claim here. Now that LT is back in a Chargers uniform, however, my optimism for the team’s immediate potential has skyrocketed.

My area of focus here is not so much on LT as a utility for victory, but as a man with a family, staying home. LaDainian Tomlinson is a quiet man. While his on-field performances roar, his civilian character is subdued. LT is never out in the clubs making a scene, and has never had his off-the-field reputation questioned. In a sports world consumed by the likes of Terrell Owens and Manny Ramirez, LaDainian Tomlinson is one whom we can all look towards as a true role model for ourselves and for our children. While Owens continues his cancerous reign on the teams for which he plays, Tomlinson is a cultural antibody. His hard work and dedication on the field have made him a first-round hall-of-famer, and his contributions to the city of San Diego are quiet endurances of grace and compassion. The city of San Diego owes a lot to the boy from Texas, and even more to the man from Qualcomm Stadium.

The Chargers have been labeled recently as being an arrogant team. When speculation arose about Drew Brees wanting LT to join him in New Orleans, opinionated sports columnists like Michael Wilbon (one of my favorite personalities) urged Tomlinson to go where he was wanted, in hopes of one day coming back to San Diego to show the Chargers all that he had left. Fortunately for the Chargers organization and the city of San Diego, Tomlinson announced his return to the team earlier this week. Regardless of how close LT really was to leaving San Diego, the two sides have now reached an agreement that will allow Tomlinson to spend his remaining seasons in a Chargers uniform. With this move, Dean Spanos and the Chargers organization made it clear that they want LT in a Bolt uniform. Much more significant, however, is what this deal means on the side of Tomlinson. It shows that amongst all other things, professional and lucrative, LaDainian Tomlinson wants to be a Charger, and wants to be in San Diego. Sir, your wish is our command.

One must keep in mind that the NFL is a business. Men can contribute heroically to their teams and to their communities, and still be cut the next day. Luckily for us, the Chargers and LaDainian Tomlinson have recognized the magic of their unity, and have acted on visions of a great future. As players have come and gone, I have always stood by the San Diego Chargers. I told a friend last week that I would trade LT for a Superbowl victory. Today I am ashamed of that statement, and believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that LaDainian Tomlinson means more to the Chargers and the city of San Diego than a Superbowl ever will.

(c) 2010 Brent Bracamontes