Monday, April 29, 2013

The Most Unkindest Sack Of All

New York Jets backup quarterback Tim Tebow is off the team after a stint as a highly-paid charismatic bench warmer. It's disgusting. It's insulting. It defies logic.

"Unfortunately," coach Rex Ryan said in the official press release, "things did not work out the way we all had hoped." Here's where I pause to inhale vapors from a simmering stew of irony, denial, and cluelessness.

The Jets paid $4 million in salary and contract buyout to acquire Tebow from the Denver Broncos. Breaking down his stats with the green and white, that works out to $500,000 per pass attempt, $666,667 per completion, $125,000 per rush, $39,216 per rushing yard -- with no touchdowns. Any GM looking at these numbers would declare Tebow wasn't working out. But the key word here is "work."

Tebow spent more time on the bench than the field this past season. When Ryan sent starting quarterback Mark Sanchez to the sidelines, he skipped over Tebow for third-string Greg McElroy. I have heard various riffs on a universal excuse: Tebow just doesn't have the skillset needed for NFL-level football. So why did the Jets pay out the nose for him in the first place? The team had to be thinking of Tebow's fan base -- all those Christian evangelicals and others he would bring in, because they sure as heck weren't thinking about actually playing him.

ESPN columnist Rich Cimini writes:
Tebow doesn't get away unscathed here. He failed to capitalize on his few opportunities, looking nothing like the player who ran through the Jets in 2011. He put on weight, at the team's request, making him slower.

He threw the ball so poorly in training camp, making the same mistakes over and over, that coaches began to question the trade.
Others say Tebow refused to consider playing other positions. The reported fit he threw after the Sanchez-McElroy slight hurt his chances. But distilling out the drama and speculations, I arrive at two indisputable conclusions: 1) Tebow was hired to be a quarterback, and 2) the Jets never allowed him to be one.

Some players don't rise to the occasion until they are put to the test. The Jets never gave Tebow the chance to perform under pressure, in a critical game, in front of his millions of fans. They never gave him a shot at repeating the playoff miracle he worked for the Denver Broncos. They never let him use what was in his toolbox. You can argue football is a high-stakes business, not a motivational seminar. But the Jets never even tried to force their $4 million investment to pay a dividend. If Tebow had blown a big game, gotten sacked or intercepted too many times, we would understand. Now the best the team can do is say "things did not work out" with wimpy credibility, giving an equivalent of "John Doe is leaving to spend more time with family."

As I go to press, Tebow does not have any other NFL offers. Perhaps that will change as his fan base rallies around him, and he still has his foundation to keep him occupied. On Twitter, he offers Scripture as a window into his feelings right now: "Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding... in all your ways acknowledge HIM, and HE will make your paths straight."

If I had to pick a proverb for the Jets, Proverbs 3:27 seems to fit: "Do not withhold good from those who deserve it when it's in your power to help them."

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Ohhhhh, That's Gotta Hurt

Reel To Reel: Pain And Gain

Going Rate: Skip it
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Ed Harris, Tony Shalhoub
Rated: R
Red Flags: Graphic violence, including running people over and cutting them up, graphic sexuality and sex acts, nudity, language

Director Michael Bay says he made Pain And Gain as a break from his stream of bloated multi-million dollar blockbusters, notably the Transformers series. So he picked a darkly comic true-crime tale from 1990's Miami, got Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson to star, held the budget to $22 million... and still ended up making a bloated picture. It's also gross, vulgar, and definitely not the crime comedy he thought he was making.

Pain And Gain recounts Miami's notorious Sun Gym gang, a crew of muscleheads which went down for two murders, one attempted murder, kidnapping, extortion, torture, theft and a rap sheet of other offenses. The gang is led by Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg), a buffed-up ex-con and con man who talks his way into pumping up business at a flailing gym. Lugo is unable to translate his business success into a bigger paycheck, leaving him to live check-to-check in a run-down apartment and drive a car that could've been rejected from a Miami Vice re-run. He's personal trainer to Victor Kershaw (Shalhoub), a swaggering accountant and entrepreneur with a touch of Leona Helmsley: "You know who invented salad? Poor people."

I would think class envy would be enough of a motivator for a disgruntled working man unable to capture the American Dream, but no, the movie introduces us to the first of many bits of bloat. Enter Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), a throwaway motivational speaker injected into the picture to give Lugo more drive. Wu spits and spouts about "doers and don'ters," and Lugo takes it as gospel. He formulates a plan to kidnap Kershaw, take him for all his money, and kill him. Lugo recruits gym buddy Adrian Dorbal (Anthony Mackie), a steroid-injecting bodybuilder who is having -- and I say this politely -- virility problems and needs cash for treatment. The duo also pull in Paul Doyle (Johnson), a purported born-again Christian who's trying to stay off drugs and keep from returning to prison but somehow can't read his moral compass.

Lugo's gang cons its way into getting the tools they need for the job, but they don't pump up their smarts. Grabbing Kershaw happens only after several bungled attempts ("Mission Abort!") in crazy costumes. They bind and torture their mark and get him to sign his life away, but they fail to kill him, even after staging a car explosion and running him over twice. When a battered Kershaw fails to get the police to take his wild story seriously, he turns to aging private investigator Ed Du Bois (Harris). While Du Bois checks out the story with more than a healthy bit of skepticism -- Kershaw's ordeal sounds suspiciously like a drug-related crime -- the Sun Gym gang plows through their mark's plundered wealth, helping themselves to his cars, home and credit cards. Soon they realize they need more loot, and they plot another job that spirals out of control.

None of the film's characters, save for maybe Harris' and Johnson's, are likable. The picture enjoys submerging us in as much of Miami's sleaziness and sultriness as we can handle, as if the torture and kidnapping weren't enough. Miami's Chamber of Commerce should wince. The film paints the town as a haven for crooks, incompetents, derelicts, perverts, and every sort of human trash.

But Pain And Gain's biggest crime is injecting steroids into an already lurid and fascinating true-crime story. Right after seeing the film, I looked up Pete Collins' Miami New Times articles that inspired the screenplay. Collins' reporting contains enough character and plot twists for a solid script without the need for fabricated plot devices, fabricated characters (including the aforementioned motivational speaker), composite characters, throwaway sex scenes, and slowed-down shots of people getting hit by cars or blood dripping from a power saw. What's more, the film wants to be another GoodFellas or Casino with its frenetic edits and multiple narrative tracks -- good influence, poor execution.

Michael Bay is an action director and not a comedy director, and yet he tries to have it both ways, failing on both attempts. This film could be a straight actioner or a dopey gross-out laffer like The Hangover series. Like Lugo's schemes, it wants everything and ultimately gains nothing -- except for the box office money, of course.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How Not To Behave

Some of you have read the crazy email floating around the 'net from a University of Maryland sorority chair decrying her crew's "weird" and "awkward" moments during a Greek Week matchup with a fraternity. I am intentionally not linking to it, choosing to spare you from the possibility of an accidental click which will end up aging you five years prematurely.

I read the profanity-laced, rant-infused, venom-spewing epistle in its hyperactive entirety. "Shocking" fails to describe it. "Insane" comes closer. I'm wondering why I volunteered my eyes to ingest this steaming cesspool of hate after I got a tip-off about it. Now I have a theory: negative reinforcement.

Sometimes the best primers on how to behave come from the reverse psychology of witnessing how not to conduct ourselves. The Crazy Sorority Girl email tops the list. Without sourcing the letter for examples (and trust me, you don't want to read them anyway), here's what I took away:

  • Incessant complaining about others' failure to follow makes me wonder if there's a failure to lead. Or to put it bluntly, the fish stinks from the head. I don't find a lick of proactivity in this email.
  • Mocking, insulting and inferring your sorority sisters are brain damaged for not showing the desired level of enthusiasm and hospitality will only guarantee more awkward moments.
  • Using the f-bomb at a pace exceeding that found in the movie Casino does nothing to endear you to prospective pledges, well-adjusted frat brothers, or the general public.
  • Sororities and their male counterparts already have a bad reputation. This deranged email just wiped out months, if not years, of any goodwill generated by community service projects -- which college Greek organizations do but are never remembered for.

In full disclosure, I never belonged to a fraternity in college. I didn't have to. The 7th floor of Hatch Hall at the University of Missouri had enough antics to qualify without anybody pledging. I also knew I wasn't fraternity material, being more worker bee than social butterfly.

I will advise this to the future freshman lords and ladies: think carefully about the Greek organizations you rush. Don't be conned by fears of dorm life. If you are doubtful in the least about the social dynamic you are injecting yourself into, turn on your heels. Great people come out of great sororities and fraternities, and the prospective organization must exist as a vehicle for developing yourself beyond a token service requirement. The brotherhood and sisterhoood must function like a family, not Mama's Family.

The sorority's national office is quickly distancing itself and investigating. A head may roll, or it may not. National offices deal with these issues and are done with them. No broad cultural shift is attempted or expected. We've come to accept Greek-letter organizations as Animal House. And if that's good enough for the rest of us, it's good enough for them.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Fair Ball, Foul Game

Reel To Reel:  42

Going Rate:  Worth full price admission
Starring:  Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni
Rated:  PG-13
Red Flags:  Adult language, racism, copious uses of the n-word (but not as much as in Django Unchained)

Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line years before the peak of the civil rights movement. But he couldn't have done it without the backing and vision of Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, who recruited and nurtured Robinson, clearing his path from minor-league ball into the majors. If Robinson is the hero on the field, Rickey is the hero in the front office, and 42 gives both due credit.

Rickey is played with a lovable grizzled saintliness by Harrison Ford, proving the aging Han Solo has a few memorable roles left in him. He makes the decision to bring Robinson (Boseman) out of the Negro leagues with ambiguous motives; at first we're not really sure whether Rickey is making a political statement or a business decision. It becomes clear in their first meeting as he lectures Robinson on what he will face and what will be expected. "Your enemy will be out in force," Rickey says. "But you cannot meet him on his own low ground."

Robinson seems to be okay with that, preferring to prove himself as a heavy hitter and base stealer, cheered and booed respectively by black and white fans sitting in separate sections. Robinson has little dialogue compared to his on-field performance, or maybe it just seems that way. We also see the bitter racism of the south and its muted-but-active northern version. A film like 42 could easily degrade into a preachy spectacle, but not here. His teammates, resistant to integrate, slowly come around when they find Robinson, jersey number 42, will get them to a pennant.

Little of Robinson's life outside of baseball makes the screen aside from his relationship with his wife Rachel (Beharie), number one fan and quiet source of strength. We also have a black sportswriter, Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), who serves mainly to help tie together narrative loose ends as he types out details of Robinson's career from the bleachers. Hollywood's minor leagues fills out the most of the roster, which keeps the film from striking out due to egos. According to, producers Howard and Karen Baldwin developed this film after their previous project Ray became a hit. Just like that picture, they ran into difficulty getting this one off the ground, which either tells you something about Hollywood executives or Hollywood's racial philosophies, or both.

42 works because it is content to be a good baseball movie and not an epic biography of Jackie Robinson. Although it has a few compulsory motivational speech scenes inherent to sports flicks, those scenes are handled with economy. I read where Spike Lee was once working on a Robinson picture with Denzel Washington as lead. I thought of how much more charisma Washington could've have brought to the role, but this film isn't about charisma -- it's about baseball.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

We're Sorry, Louis Taylor (Even If Barbara LaWall Isn't)

The case against Louis Taylor was filled with problems. A team of lawyers proved it. The Pima County Attorney's office knew it. And still, in freeing the man convicted of Tucson's 1970 Pioneer Hotel fire, which killed 29 people, the best Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall could do for him was a slimy no-contest deal. It got Taylor out of prison right away in exchange for the equivalent of a guilty plea, when he's maintained his innocence all along.

I can't blame Taylor for taking the deal, flawed as it was. Fighting for total exoneration would've taken at least a couple more years. Worse, Taylor's defense lawyer says the County Attorney's office vowed to fight it all the way. After 43 years behind bars on flimsy evidence, he didn't deserve to spend another day incarcerated. But what's puzzling is why the Pima County Attorney's office feels such a strong need to cover for a prosecution team that isn't around anymore. Furthermore, the lead fire investigator on the case is standing by his investigation, never mind that arson CSI has come a long way in four decades.

"We cannot forget the victims," LaWall said. "This was not an exoneration."

She was right on that one, but not like she meant. We're still left with the stench of a flawed investigation, likely tainted by racism. It took two stories on "60 Minutes" before prosecutors decided they needed to do some damage control. Note that Taylor got out only two days after the news magazine blew the whistle again. If Taylor isn't exonerated in LaWall's view, neither are those who handled the original case in 1970. Yes, we cannot forget the victims. But the victims, if they were somehow able to speak to us, would tell us to convict the right person, not the most convenient one.

As a bonus for the prosecutor's office, the deal limits Taylor's ability to sue the county for wrongful imprisonment. It's troubling that a roomful of lawyers couldn't work out a plan to fairly compensate him for the time he can't get back. Watching Taylor speak, I don't see it in his nature to take Pima County taxpayers for every last dime. He just wants to get on with the rest of his life. But he's going to need help putting that life back together, and yes, that means paying him some money.

Taylor says the Pima County Attorney's office could have done the honorable thing. Instead, it did the easy thing. The CA's handling of the case reminds me of why people make crude jokes about lawyers. Fortunately, knowing the nature of Tucsonans, they are more than willing to apologize for the misdeeds of public officials who act in their name. I'm sure they'll help Louis Taylor begin a new chapter of his life.