Getting back into writing with baby steps

July 18, 2013 in Blogging, On Writing by pacejmiller

20130719-225850.jpg

You may have noticed, dear reader, that I have been blogging up a storm lately. Contrary to my best laid plans, however, I do not have extra time on my hands.

I’m on paternity leave this week with the birth of my second child, but most of my spare time has been gobbled up by my ill firstborn, who contracted the cumbersome foot and mouth disease from daycare. It’s an awful affliction that can worry parents to death and requires around the clock monitoring and care. Even with the benevolent assistance of my parents, I am now far more exhausted than before I commenced this so-called “break”, and a part of me looks forward to returning to the office for some much-needed rest (and it has not escaped me how messed up that is).

The reason I have been writing — and reading — like a demon these last few days is because I’m finally starting to rediscover my passion again. I’m not forcing myself to read or write, like I had been at times earlier this year. Admittedly, it felt like a chore and I made excuses to avoid it. But now, I’m doing it because I want to, and I’m enjoying it immensely too. I’m hoping this is a sign of things to come (you stupid, stupid jinxer).

I don’t want to speak too soon. This recent change in attitude could be because I don’t have to write monotonous articles daily for work, or it might be because becoming a father to a new son has given me a sudden burst of energy. I’d thus like to keep taking baby steps rather than proffer some grand declaration. I talk a good dream like every aspiring writer, but lord knows how many promises I’ve broken to myself when it comes to actually getting something done, especially in the last couple of years (too many dick moves on my part, I know).

It seems a stable family life and a cruisy, stress-free and relatively simple job have robbed me of my desire to pursue the goals I once had. And while I despise myself for it I found the drudgery and banality of everyday life too taxing to overcome — at least on a consistent basis. There were days where I’d be productive at work, and by that I mean complete my professional writing assignments quickly (I use the term “professional” loosely here) so I could spend the rest of my day on my own writings, but such days were becoming a rarity. Instead, I wasted most of my downtime at work on junk like Candy Crush, YouTube videos, Grantland podcasts and sports news. It certainly doesn’t help when just about everyone else around you is doing something similar, fuelling a vicious vortex dragging us all deeper and deeper into a depressing realm of utter indifference.

We often don’t realise what we had until it’s gone, but in this instance I am acutely aware that the abundant free time I have during work hours is a rare opportunity. I’m not going to be in this job forever and there might come a time in the near future when I have to take up a more demanding role, and the last thing I want is to look back at this period regretting how I had wasted it (pretty much how I have viewed each preceding period In my life, sadly).

There’s nothing more euphoric than the feeling that you are actively pursuing a goal and you are putting all your heart and soul into achieving it. It’s something a few of my friends back home have been doing and I’ve been following them from afar with a mix of pride and envy. They’ve probably had far more setbacks than victories, but it’s their passion and drive that impress me the most. I want to feel what they’re feeling. Whether I eventually reach my goal is irrelevant, as long as I can tell myself, honestly, that I did all that I could.

So I am hoping that this minor revival means I am slowly turning the corner and that I will rededicate myself to improving my writing with a steady diet of reading, blogging — and once I get my confidence back — novel and screenwriting. For now, I just have to keep reminding myself: baby steps, not dissimilar to this.

Recent Movie Reviews: Part III

July 18, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Admission (2013)

20130719-040916.jpg

Two of my favourite people in the world, Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, together at last in a comedy about America’s university admissions process — sounds like a winner to me.

But unfortunately, Admission is just OK. Fey plays an admissions officer at Princeton and Rudd plays a teacher desperately trying to get one of his unusual but gifted students into Princeton. The student also may or may not be Fey’s long lost son.

Admission is a fairly average rom-com with a somewhat unusual premise and is driven by the charisma of its two stars. Fey’s character has a personality similar to Liz Lemon’s and Rudd’s character is like Rudd in every movie he’s in — which is awesome. The jokes are clever and provide some fascinating insights into how the admissions system works at prestigious US universities, but at the end of the day the film just isn’t funny enough. Amusing in spots but too bland and flat overall, which is a shame given the potential it had to be something memorable.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie 43 (2013)

20130719-041056.jpg

The rule of thumb for ensemble movies these days is the greater the number of stars the worse the movie. Movie 43 stars Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Anna Faris, Emma Stone, Richard Gere, Kate Bosworth, Justin Long, Uma Thurman, Kristen Bell, Halle Berry, Stephen Merchant, Johnny Knoxville, Gerard Butler, Sean William Scott, Chloe Grace Moretz, Elizabeth Banks, Josh Duhamel, among others. I guess that tells you how good it is.

Seriously, I have no idea how this film was made. What did the producers have over all these stars to force them to be in this turd? And calling it a turd is really a compliment.

The film is essentially a collection of comedic sketches strung together by a forced narrative. There are apparently two versions, the first of which is a pitch made by Dennis Quaid to Greg Kinnear, a film executive. The version I watched was the British one, which is about a bunch of kids searching for the most banned film in the world, Movie 43, which they are stunned to discover actually exists.

As for the sketches, let’s see…there is the one where the whole joke is Hugh Jackman having a scrotum on his neck, another one making fun of home schooling, one about a team of black basketballers being terrified of their white opponents, and so on and so forth. And those are the less offensive ones. There’s also the Anna Faris one about her wanting her boyfriend to defecate on her during sex, a really pathetic one about a young girl getting her period, and a really boring and lame one about superhero speed dating. The only sketch I found mildly amusing was the one where Stephen Merchant and Halle Berry dare each other to do a bunch of crazy things, but that was probably only because the rest were so utterly unwatchable.

I’m just dumbfounded by how bad this movie is. I don’t believe in zero star films, but this one tempts me. I don’t wish the experience of watching this monstrosity on my worst enemy.

0.25 stars out of 5

Mama (2013)

20130719-041154.jpg

One of my most anticipated horror movies of the year, starring Jessica Chastain and Jaime Lannister (I mean Nikolaj Coster-Waldau or whatever his name is). The main reason is because visionary Guillermo del Toro served as an executive producer, and del Toro seldom disappoints (The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth both rank high on my list). I mean, did you see that trailer with those two freaky little girls scampering around?

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but Mama wasn’t quite as scary or different as I wanted it to be. Basically, a dude in financial ruin plans to kill his two young girls and himself, but before he gets the chance he is “terminated” by an unseen force. Years later the freaky ass girls, who somehow survived on their own, are found and put under the care of the dude’s brother, Mr Lannister, and his girlfriend, Chastain.

The freaky girls kind of become more normal but they keep referring to someone as “Mama”, who you and I both know is very scary and loves hanging around doing spooky things. Much of the movie is about Chastain learning to accept looking after the girls and finding out just who the heck Mama really is.

There are plenty of old school scares in this one — a combination of “boo” moments and atmosphere — but as usual it’s when Mama begins to appear to us on screen that things become less frightening. Still, it’s much classier and well done than your average horror flick these days, delivering on a decent ending whereas most such films tend to crumble and self-destruct. I don’t know how much del Toro influenced the film but I believe there are some nice touches of eerieness that can be attributed to him.

Mama didn’t scare the crap out of me like I wanted it to, but it will probably still be one of the standout horror movies of 2013.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Last Stand (2013)

20130719-041307.jpg

Here’s a shock. Arnie is still acting (and I use that word in a very loose sense).

The former Californian governor is back as a sheriff of a small town that happens to be the final stop before a highly wanted fugitive makes his away across the Mexican border. Arnie and his gang of local cops and a couple of misfits must dig deep and stop this guy because no one messes with Arnie. That’s the story in a nutshell.

As bad as that sounded, The Last Stand, which received almost no buzz in the lead up to its release, is actually a very solid action flick. I was surprised how effective it was in creating entertaining action sequences and even the humour was pleasantly unexpected. Lots of guns fights, explosions and “holding down the fort” type activity, like an adult version of Home Alone. It’s fun.

Arnie might be closing in on 100 years old, but his charisma as an action hero seems like it will never fade. The supporting cast is pretty decent too, and includes Johnny Knoxville, who manages to keep his obnoxiousness under control to everybody’s amazement.

I suppose credit has to go to Korean director Kim Ji-woon, who made a nice little action movie out of practically nothing. The Last Stand will likely be forgotten in a year or two, but I’ll remember that I had a good time watching it.

3.5 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘The Jordan Rules’ by Sam Smith

July 18, 2013 in Basketball, Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews, Sport by pacejmiller

20130718-181401.jpg

Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules: The Inside Story of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls sparked quite a firestorm of controversy when it was first released in late 1991, months after Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls captured their first NBA title.

At the time, no one could believe the things Smith was saying, such as Jordan’s gambling addiction, his relentless bullying of teammates and the blind eyes his coaches, team management and league officials were turning to the behaviour of the sport’s transcendent megastar.

I finally got a chance to read the 20th anniversary edition of this legendary book, which includes a new introduction looking back on the furore and how the book came into being. There is also, I presume added from later editions, an epilogue written after the Bulls’ first three-peat (the last title coming in 1993), as well as an afterword summarising the events leading up to the second championship.

Even after all these years, The Jordan Rules is still an amazing book because of its incredible insights, revelations, humour and exquisite journalism. The biggest difference, reading it now, is that none of the so-called negative things about Jordan discussed at length in the book can really be considered surprises anymore.

It is now widely accepted that: 1. Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time, and possibly the greatest athlete ever; and 2. He is/was a massive a-hole. These two facts are not mutually exclusive and should not mitigate each other.

It is now actually more unexpected to see a sports superstar who isn’t seriously flawed. People these days expect a mean streak or some level of douchbaggery in their sports heroes. Kobe, for example, is a dickhead, while LeBron and Dwyane Wade are douches and Dwight Howard is a twat. The few “good guys” such as Tim Duncan are considered boring and bland. That’s why people who read The Jordan Rules now will probably wonder what the fuss was all about. Smith himself mentions this in the intro,

The book is titled The Jordan Rules (an allusion to the so-called tactics the Detroit Pistons employed to deny Jordan and the Bulls year after year, as well as the “special treatment” Jordan was afforded by his team and the league, such as skipping practice to play golf, avoiding punishment for dissent, and doing basically whatever he wanted without repercussions) but it’s actually about the entire Chicago Bulls team during the 1990-1991 NBA season.

The first few chapters take us through each of the months in the regular season, then into the playoffs and eventually, the NBA Finals. The narrative weaves in and out of events taking place throughout the year, including key games and incidents off the court, but also takes time out to give us brief biographies into each of the players on the team, coach Phil Jackson and front office guys Jerry Krause and Jerry Reisendorf. The rotund cheapskate GM Krause, in particular, is highlighted as a source of much of the discontent on the team for his unwillingness to reward players with fair contracts and his man-crush on Toni Kukoc, a European superstar at the time.

Smith was in a very fortunate position as a basketball beat writer in Chicago, giving him plenty of access to the players and staff, something which would not be possible in a post 9/11 world. He was also working in the pre-Twitter era where players were much more willing to speak to reporters without fear of it being broadcast to the world seconds later.

But are the stories in the book accurate? I’d like to think so. Smith claims nearly all the anecdotes and stories in the book are from first hand accounts from players and staff (my guess is mostly from Bill Cartwright and Horace Grant, though he claims it was just about everyone). So obviously while there will be mistakes and exaggerations, I’d like to believe the book is credible, for the most part.

Smith has a deprecating sense of humour about his writing ability, but it’s actually very good and straightforward, guided bynprofessional integrity and laced with some timely dry humour. There are no Bill Simmon’s-style cultural references, though the book has no shortage of outrageous jokes and laugh-out-loud moments. It is the kind of book I wished Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings had been. That book made the Bulls’ 1990-1991 season seem like a stroll in the park with barely a bump in the road, but The Jordan Rules revealed just how much tumult there was in and out of the locker room all year.

There is, of course, Jordan in the middle, the once-in-a-lifetime athlete who took the NBA and the sport of basketball to unprecedented heights. Jordan was not close to any of his teammates, not even Scottie Pippen (who was actually best buds with Horace Grant for a long time), and spent much of his time complaining about them because he thought they weren’t good enough to help him win a championship. He belittled many of them, telling his screeners and point guards to get the f*&% out of his way, freezing out teammates he disliked, and even punching center Will Purdue during practice. And he actually hated Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. But Jordan’s relentless drive to succeed was as unparalleled as his god given talents, and I was stunned to discover that he didn’t even start lifting weights until around 1990 and was once a junk food addict.

I don’t believe, however, that Smith was trying to paint a negative portrait of Jordan. He is clearly in awe of Jordan’s unique talents on the court, and questioned why Jordan should not have received special treatment given what he was doing for his team and the sport. Despite his basketball prowess, Jordan was not perfect but felt like he had to project that image of himself, and often that pressure was too much to overcome. He was and is an extremely private person, but can’t go anywhere in public without being hounded, explaining why it was tough for him to hang out with the rest of the team. It doesn’t excuse his bad behaviour but it helps us understand why he might be this way.

Jordan is the focus, but the rest of the team received equal attention. Just about everyone else on the roster was worried about their contracts and concerned about playing time and getting their shots (because Jordan took most of them). They looked at Jordan with a mixture of awe, resentment, envy and jealousy, but at the same time had no choice but to acknowledge that he was by far the best player they had ever seen.

Pippen, for instance, having grown up dirt poor, was obsessed with financial security. He wasn’t regarded as the second-best player in the league at that stage and was frustrated that he wasn’t getting a contract extension as Krause focused all his attention on Kukoc. It was a contract year for him and he wanted to get paid, meaning he often hogged the ball to pad his own stats (and still complained about Jordan taking all the shots).

Horace Grant was Phil Jackson’s whipping boy on the team and hated Jordan. He believed he had the chance to be a star but could not get an opportunity to shine because of Jordan’s dominance. Bill Cartwright was the voice of reason on the team but also longed to be given a fair contract, as was John Paxson, who had been loyal to the team but was getting no love in return. BJ Armstrong was a backup who believed he deserved to start, and Dennis Hopson was a former top scorer relegated to bench warmer. Everyone had their own agendas and gripes, and it was virtually a miracle that they eventually learned to put their differences aside for a common goal — to win the NBA championship.

There is so much gold in this book. I won’t spoil too many but here are some of my favourites:

– Phil Jackson, upon hearing his players’ approval of the Gulf War: “Do you understand, he explained, that these are people who will never forget, the people who lose their father or a brother or a relative? They or their children or even their children’s children. Do you want to see, Jackson wondered, your son killed someday in an airplane explosion because we’ve made Iraq a terrorist nation from what we’ve done?” I know it’s Afghanistan, not Iraq, but the words are nonetheless prophetic and chilling.

20130718-181936.jpg

Stacey King!

– I loved any mention of Stacey King, the 6’11” Bulls forward/center who was fat and lazy and got virtually no playing time but still believed he was a superstar and loved to BS to teammates about his prowess in college. Anyway, he once grabbed a single rebound in three games (84 minutes of game time!), and this is what one of the front office guys said: “A two-year-old could get hit in the head with more rebounds than that.”

– the words of 7’7″ center Manute Bol, the tallest player ever in the NBA, to Bulls coach Phil Jackson after Jackson kept telling refs Bol was playing then-illegal zone defense: “’Mother fuck, mother fuck, mother fuck,’ Bol shouted at Jackson in a sort of soprano hyena form of broken English. ‘Why you pick on me, you mother fuck?'”

– Charles Barkley to an official before a playoff game against the Bulls: “‘Hey, Ed,’ he yelled at Rush. ‘I hope you’ve got some Vaseline. I know you’re planning to fuck us, so maybe you’ll at least make it feel better.'”

– Jordan on why the Bulls could conquer the NBA despite the turmoil on the team: “’The thing is, this is a business, and in business you don’t have to like everyone, but you’ve got to work with them,’ Jordan said. ‘What we’ve been able to do this season is separate. Basketballwise, our focus has been the same from game to game. It’s been proven the best teams don’t always have to get along together, and if everyone likes one another, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win. The difference is in the play.'”

– Pippen on his future teammate, Dennis Rodman, who was playing for the opposing Pistons at the time: “‘They really need to get him some help,’ Pippen was saying to Grant. ‘Really. This guy is crazy. It’s the one thing I’d never realized before and I was always too stupid to not let his stuff bother me. But now I can see it. I think he does have mental problems and needs help. Really. I don’t like him, but I think he is sick and it’s just not right that people like that are allowed to walk around free on the streets. They ought to get him some help. The boy is flat-out crazy.'”

– Jordan did some dickish things such as flaunt his ability to secure tickets for Bulls games in front of less privileged teammates, but could also be extremely generous, such as meeting Make A Wish Foundation kids just about every week, call all his teammates on the stage to receive his MVP award, and agreeing to the famous “We’re going to Disney World!” declaration after winning the finals only if the $100,000 fee is split among his entire starting five.

– Phil Jackson after seeing Jordan take a serious fall during the 1991-1992 season: “The trainer and Jackson rushed over. ‘I was expecting to find blood,’ Jackson related later. ‘Instead, we saw this beautiful blonde in the front row. That’s why we stayed out there so long.'”

So as you might have gathered, I had a great time with this book. My only complaints are that it may have exaggerated a couple of things: the disharmony on the team, making it a surprise to suddenly discover that the team was on its way to a record-setting season; and also the extent of Jordan’s selfishness, as he averaged 6.3 assists that season, hardly a representation of a guy who seemingly never passed the ball.

4.5/5

Recent Movie Reviews: Part II

July 18, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Fast and Furious 6 (2013)

20130718-100024.jpg

It’s rare that a film franchise hitting its sixth entry can still generate so much hype and continue to attract new A-listers to join the cast. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Fast and Furious series (I don’t care much for cars) but I’ve watched most of them and found them to be solid popcorn entertainment.

Fast and Furious 6 is more of the same, but it’s arguably the best of the lot. The Rock and his steroids are back and they need the expertise of the fugitives led my man-sized Mini-me Vin Diesel and Paul Walker to help the feds capture an ex-British special forces dude played by Luke Evans. He’s really mean and nasty, but he has a secret weapon — Vin Diesel’s ex-girlfriend, the believed-to-be-dead Michelle Rodriguez (making this the second time in about a year she’s returned from the grave after the latest Resident Evil instalment — though don’t worry, she’s not a clone this time).

A lot of cheesy jokes, hot women, crazy combat and car chases ensue. I guess you could say it’s a guilty pleasure, but to be honest I think it’s good enough to just be “a pleasure.” Credit to Taiwanese-American director Justin Lin for divvying up the screen time appropriately between the stars and adding a bit of variety to the action so it’s not just the same thing over and over. It’s silly but it knows it and makes the most out of the situations to create unexpectedly effective humour.

The end of the film is even tied up to Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, which I think was the fourth film of the franchise but chronologically the final one — until Fast and Furious 7, of course, which has already been green-lit and will be fast tracked to our screens next year with a different director (James Wan from Saw and Insidious). It will also star new addition Jason Statham, who makes a brief cameo in this one. I’m pretty sure I’ll watch it.

3.75 stars out of 5

Parker (2013)

20130718-100448.jpg

Speaking of Jason Statham, the next film in this review blitz is Parker, a strange little revenge action film with lots of excessive violent behaviour. Even more strangely, it stars JLo in what must be her first role in some time, and she’s playing an unappealing supporting character I would not have expected her to say yes to at the peak of her fame.

Anyway, Statham is the titula Parker, who is a shady fellow with a lot of principles. He gets involved in a heist but is stabbed in the back by his fellow crims and left for dead. He survives, however, and goes about trying to get his share of the money back and making his former partners in crime pay.

It’s by no means an original movie or a memorable one, but watching Statham in action as a ruthless, vengeful crim has its moments. I don’t know if the film had to be that violent but it works on a visceral level.

I didn’t love it or hate it. It was entertaining for the most part but nothing special. In fact, it felt like a very solid straight-to-DVD flick but not much more than that. Oh, and by the way, the film also co-stars Nick Nolte. I still don’t have a clue what the heck he is mumbling on about.

3 stars out of 5

Hotel Transylvania (2012)

20130718-102343.jpg

I’ve come to expect nothing but turds from Adam Sandler these days, but Hotel Transylvania is an animated film, so I thought I would give it a chance.

Well, I shouldn’t have. It sounded like a good idea on paper with many opportunities for great laughs — a hotel getaway for misunderstood monsters like Dracula (Sandler), Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, werewolves, and so forth — but the jokes were so cliched and obvious and lame and nowhere near as cool as it wanted to be. It felt like a film desperate to get laughs but didn’t have a clue how to do it. The whole premise was to make fun of the flipped idea that monsters are really afraid of humans, not the other way around, but the monster stereotypes aren’t enough to keep the film afloat.

The great thing about films like Toy Story and Up is that they appeal to both children and adults alike with a broad spectrum of multi-layered jokes, and they have plenty of heart. The message in Hotel Transylvania is that you need to follow your heart no matter what — a noble message — but one that has been done to death already in much superior films.

This one was a dud, possibly the worst animated feature I’ve seen since the awfully misguided and derivative Shark Tale nearly a decade ago.

1.5 stars out of 5

Stoker (2013)

20130718-102421.jpg

Huge anticipation for this bizarre psychological thriller penned by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller (who shopped around the script using a pseudonym).

Stoker is an eerie, sexually charged, almost surreal film dominated by a trio of formidable Aussies. The lead is played by Mia Wasikowska, a young girl mourning the loss of her father when her mysterious and handsome uncle (played by Watchmen‘s Matthew Goode) comes to stay with her and her mother, Nicole Kidman. The third Aussie is Jacki Weaver, who has a small but important role as Mia’s great aunt.

I found myself intoxicated by Stoker because I had little idea where it was heading and whether what I was seeing was real. Korean director Park Chan-wook (in his English-language debut) infuses the film with a dreamy, horror-inspired atmosphere that is effectively gothic in nature (not surprisingly, as the film has allusions to Bram Stoker’s Dracula — though this is a psychological thriller as opposed to a supernatural one). It’s a film where people do strange things and have strange reactions but draws you in and keeps you unsettled so you never quite feel like you know what is going on.

I wouldn’t call it a brilliant thriller but it definitely had me intrigued with its dark atmosphere and demented characters. The plot twists are interesting but not as clever as I had hoped them to be, but overall it is still a finely crafted film I would recommend, especially for those looking for something a little different.

3.5 stars out of 5