Sunday, July 26, 2009

That's Dope!

Le Grande Boucle is over, and like the results of many of the recent tours, these are a bit dubious. Now, I don't actually have that big a problem with doping- the training still has to be done, the genetic advantages and mental fortitude present. All the EPO in the world isn't going to make me into a pro cyclist- among other issues, I don't have the mental strength, love of pain, or dedication. And the same is true within the pro peloton- doping isn't going to turn pack fodder into a grand tour contender. Doping makes things faster and punchier, although it does reduce the chances of a game-changing, uber-dramatic collapse on some important col (schadenfreude lends armchair sporting a particular potency). I wouldn't mind a leveling of the drug playing field (as well as some better safety regulations), but all the same, the prevalence of doping doesn't really change the way I watch cycling. And there's the bonus thrills of the "who's doping and what are they taking" game. Quelle thrilling!

But I am amused by the increasing brazenness of doping among the GCers. El Pistolero, I'm looking at you.

Let's review, shall we?

1. Homeboy is a climber, that much is clear. But suddenly, he is also beaucoup time trialest! Winner of the Spanish national championship (not that that's saying a whole lot), able to go toe to toe with the best TT specialists in the peloton. 2nd in the prologue! Beats Cancellara in the TT! There's a reason that climbers are rarely great TTers- like sprinting, the disciplines require different physiology. Yeah, you can offset this with training, but only to an extent. And here is Contador, head and shoulders above EVERYONE on the climbs and the very next day, beating everyone against the clock (on the flats!). Think of the Schleck TT performances. Solid, perfectly respectable for GC favorites, but not exactly leaving a trail of fire behind their tires. Exactly what you'd expect from top-tier climbers. Just like Contador used to be- in his 2007 Tour victory, he placed 15th in the prologue (35" back) and 5th & 7th in the two TTs (2'18" back). And these results were after Contador changed his training to focus specifically on time trialing for GC purposes.

Now here's where you jump in with "but Armstrong was dominant in both disciplines too etc etc". Well, for starters, I don't think Armstrong's blood is quite...pure...either. But the other rejoinder is that Armstrong was never a great climber, especially on the steepest ones- he was naturally more suited to a powerful TT. Pantani, for example, and other pure climbers were often able to drop him. He was a smart climber with an insanely strong team, but he was much more vulnerable in the mountains than his results would suggest. Yeah, he could climb Ullrich off his wheel, but that's not really saying much. And, as awful as it is to say, Armstrong had that fortuitous bout of cancer to help him out. He was able to essentially rebuild his body from scratch into exactly what it needed to be for grand tour victory. Anyone who's tried to lose those last five stubborn pounds (ahem *Ullrich*) can tell you its incredibly hard to change your body. Contador, on the other hand, apparently didn't even need to change his body from that of a wispy wee climber to that of a power-rider in order to suddenly rock TTs.

2. Let's talk about that climbing. Dr. Ross Tucker over at The Science of Sport wrote a fascinating analysis (and follow-up) of Contador's climb up the Verbier on Stage 15 of the Tour. It was impressive as hell to watch- Andy Schleck couldn't even start to respond (that pain-grimace as he made a futile attempt to follow, and failing that, to bridge, ugh!). I've never seen anyone accelerate on a hill like that (I mean, until his attack on the Colombiere a few days later).

But apparently it was even more impressive than it looked- Ross' analysis is long on calculations and variables but the bottom line is that, even conservatively estimated, Contador's climb was straight-up (get it?) record-setting. Contador's vertical climbing rate (VAM, velocita ascensionale media, one of the accepted means of comparing rides on different climbs) on the Verbier was faster than EVER before in the Tour. And not by a little bit- Ross' original estimate was 652.8 vertical meters at 1,900 m/hr. He later revised that downward (to 640 vertical meters) because of ambiguity over where the climb actually began, which still gives an ascension rate of 1864 m/hr. Ross has data for all Tour climbs in the last twenty years, and the highest previously recorded was Bjarne Riis' climb up the Huatacam in 1996. And, as he quite rightly says, we all know what powered Riis to that summit.

So here's a handy chart of the top 12 VAMs in the last two decades:


Riis- admitted doper
Armstrong- meh, probable doper
Pantani- busted
LeBlanc- admitted doper
Ullrich- busted
Indurain- who knows? he was at his peak during the pre-Festina, undetectable EPO era...
Peloton? That fucker's juiced to the gills!

So Contador not only topped this list of druggies, but he blew them away. Hmmm...

As Jacques Anquetil once said, the Tour de France is not won on mineral water alone.

(PS Props to this year's breakout star, Brad Wiggins! From trackie to unlikely GC contender! Doped or not, watching him claw his way back after every acceleration on the climbs was nothing short of amazing. He was the only one that made Ventoux interesting- Darco and I were cheering him on in his quest for fourth place retention like total dorks.)

Incidentally, if you google-image "wiggins ventoux" this is the first result.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Note to self: dead animals do not belong in my sporting equipment

Not even for charity.

I can't believe I am mentioning Damien Hirst in this blog again, but I can't ignore the cross-over hilariousness of this newest crime against artistic dignity. Why does he persist in doing such ridiculous things?? Well, at least this time he has a partner in ridiculousness- none other than Lance Armstrong. And for a bonus layer of self-aggrandizing mutual fellatio perpetrated by charity-minded celebrities, creation of the bike was requested by Bono. LOL.

The bike above was a creation that Hirst('s assistants) decorated with hundreds of dismembered dead butterflies. Armstrong is set to ride the HirstyBike down the Champs in 2009 Tour de France finale. Sigh.

The really funny thing is that Armstrong has apparently been doing this for years! Usually with artists of a very particular ilk: the immensely rich, carefully-constructed and marketed "bad boys" and enfant terribles of the contemporary art world. This year steps up the mutual-admiration society due to STAGES, a charity "global art exhibition" put on by Armstrong, Nike and the aforementioned enfant terribles. He's riding like 6 art bikes this year! Why is everything ostentatious, egomaniacal or self-serving this man does associated with cancer charity? It makes him much harder to mock. And yet, I persevere...

The media-circusy nature of the two principals involved in this endeavor was today compounded by the near-hysterical reaction of the professionally histrionic, PETA. Reps from the animal rights org further inflated Hirst's sense of relevance by lambasting him in the DDaily Mail. Of course, they cannot attack CancerSurvivorAthleteCharityMan (for those outside the world of bike racing, its like attacked God), so we are treated to rhetorical gems like this one:

"Lance Armstrong is all about life - about not dying and about overcoming adversity.

'Damien Hirst is a one-trick pony who ruins the very essence of this man's spirit by associating him with dead butterflies.

I also particularly enjoyed this poetic number:

'Butterflies are beautiful creatures who should be enjoyed in the wild, not encased in a bike.'

"Encased in a bike." Priceless.

Below are some images of Lance's past patronage of the arts.

Artist: legally-embattled possible plagiarist Shep Fairey, ridden (and crashed on?) 2009 Giro d'Italia

Artist: Shep Fairey again, ridden 2009 TdF

Artist: 80s pop artist Kenny Scharf, ridden 2009 Giro d'Italia TT

Arist: bizarrely psuedonymned KAWS, darling of the "global art toy-collecting community," ridden 2009 Milan San Remo

Artist: Marc Newson, designer of furniture for the insanely wealthy, ridden 2009 TdF prologue TT

Artist: Graffiti artist Barry McGee, ostensibly ridden 2009 Tour of California. Since its a fucking hybrid bike, I don't know what part of that race he would have used it for. Maybe he rode it from the Astana bus to the sign-in tent.

Lastly, and my personal favorite:

Artist: Yoshitomo Nara, ridden yesterday in the 2009 Tdf TT.

I don't have anything snide to say about this one. I like Yoshitomo Nara's work, and when I met him while interning at the Philly ICA, he seemed like a really nice guy. I wish he would design a bike for me. I'll donate it to charity after I beat it to hell, I swear.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Space Oddity

Moon was what I like a scifi film to be. It had that classic "what if" premise- presuppose a technology or event and view it through the lens of some aspect of our human nature, extrapolate and build a story from there. In this case, the tech is our new found ability to mine abundant and clean-burning energy (Helium 3) from sun-charged moon rocks. And the lens? Our species' eternal hunt for the Free Lunch. But as we all know, there's no such thing. And no amount of technological advancement can change that.

Spoilers, minor and major, follow. Read before seeing if you wish- the real quality of this movie isn't in the "twist," revealed early on. Its a human story.

Moon is the story of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell, last seen by me as the villain in Charlie's Angels. Upgrade!). When we meet him, he's at the tail end of a three year contract with Lunar Industries, apparent monopoly-holders of the Helium 3 industry. He's got the shaggy hair and disheveled clothing of a man who's been alone for a very long time. He spends his downtime carving an intricate model of his hometown, talking to his plants ("You're awfully full of yourself today, Doug") and dreaming of the time when he can return to his wife Tess and daughter Eve. He's also a Tennessee Titans fan. But unfortunately for Sam, he's starting to hallucinate, causing him to crash his rover while out on the job. End scene.

(Here be spoilers)

The next time we see him, he's waking up in the infirmary. But something's off, you feel it right away. There's no sign of injury. His hair is cut and he looks oddly...crisp. Chipper, even. But his robot helper GERTY (more on this fabulous mechano-creature later) is adamant that he stay a-bed, mentioning a crash and a concussion. Newly peppy Sam, however, is having none of it- he wants to get back to work asap. He drives out to the broken harvester, crashed rover still stuck underneath it. And what does he find inside? Why, himself! Unconscious with a big ol head injury. A mystery!

And then things get going and plans are hatched. Details are unimportant, but let it be known that Mr. Rockwell does a wonderful job playing to two Sams- OldSam with a good-natured (though willfully blind, incurious) zen attitude, NewSam with a temper and an aggressive, almost militaristic drive to find out what exactly is going on. And that's enough plot- suffice it to say, what is the logical extension of a search for ever-cheaper labor, given advanced technology? Here's a hint: Free Lunch with a side of sinister.

Although there is ambiguity at first about whether this is just continuing insanity on the part of OldSam, it is dispensed with pretty quickly thanks to GERTY. GERTY is one of the best parts of this movie. Voiced by Kevin Spacey, in serial-killer-in-Se7en monotone, the GERTY 3000 looks like an overgrown 90s-era PC. He's beat up, dirty, covered in coffee stains and post-it notes, and he expresses himself through emoticons. Awesome.

This, actually, is another thing I loved about this movie- it is endearingly low budget. This is not to say that a scifi movie can't be good if its a multi-million dollar endeavor, but because of the futuristic settings the genre is particularly prone to getting bogged down in flashy CGI at the expense of characterization and story. Moon definitely avoided this pitfall. The action takes place mostly within the moon base, a film set that doesn't look much more complicated than the first incarnation of the Millennium Falcon. There didn't appear to be any CGI-constructed environments- everything outside the base was a very obvious miniature. I got a geeky, b-movie warm fuzzy every time I saw that lunar rover, clearly no more than five inches tall pull out of an equally flimsy-looking moon base exterior.

Anyway, back to GERTY. For the first chunk of the movie, that HAL-like name and the overly calm, solicitous Kevin Spacey monotone sparks a vaguely sinister tone. You keep expecting that white eye to go red and for poor GERTY to go off the murderous deep-end. But this early-generation HAL in fact over-corrects the other way. While HAL's ultimate focus is The Mission, GERTY's loyalty lies with Sam. He's there to help the human do his job, but it seems those "job" parameters weren't programmed in quite specifically enough because GERTY goes out of his way to help the poor guy. From constant, mother hen-like offers of food, to pats on the shoulder, to helping Sam discover the truth about himself, GERTY is just plain nice. No doubt lunar industries was a bit peeved by some of GERTY's assistance to Sam- perhaps ultimately leading to a more tightly programmed 9000-series successor.

If you haven't guessed it yet, yes, Sam is a clone. Several iterations away from the original, that three-year contract ends in vaporization and activation of a new unit. But just in case something goes wrong, there is a fail-safe built in: an expiration date. As the movie progresses, we literally see Sam's body fall apart at the seams. Although only alluded to by the Sams in euphemistic terms ("You look awful."), it is clear that both of them know what is going on and how it will end. Darco and I had a post-film discussion about the fact that the subject is never broached directly- it bugged him because he said it felt out of character for the straight-forward and aggressive NewSam. I 100% disagree. Imagine you were looking at a loved one, lying in a hospital bed. You know they're going to die, they know they're going to die...but no one is going to say so. Death is a thing of euphemism, to see someone else dying is to confront your own fate. Even more so if that other person is, in fact, you. And doubly more so if it reveals to you the date of your own demise.

So...what is one to do with that knowledge? Well, you'll just have to watch the film. All I'll say is that Moon ends with a discordant poke at Rush Limbaugh-y anti-immigration nonsense. Whaaa?


Friday, July 17, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Assed Film Adaptation

Right...I have a blog.

Its funny that when I returned to this blog from my months-long hiatus, I was met with Starey McBlueBritches from the execrable Watchmen. I haven't been posting because I hate blogging about myself, and I've been busy with broken arms and dogs and vacations and general spring/summer enjoyment. But there is one thing that is sure to get my hackles up and fuel my tank for a good internet-rant: a crap movie. I don't know why this is so. Maybe its the feeling that I was just robbed of $10 and several hours, although I have no similar reaction to losing equal time and vastly more $$ to, say, an orthopedist. But it doesn't matter why, what matters is Harry Potter and the BlahBlahBlah was the laziest screenwriting specimen I've seen in a while.

First off, let me say that I thought this movie was pretty fun (although I can only imagine what someone unfamiliar with the books thought- completely incoherent is probably top of the list). I thought the beginning was great, especially the Londoner in-joke with the wobbly destruction of the Millenium Bridge (and a cameo by the Tate Modern!). Jim Broadbent was a nice mixture of bluster and fear as Slughorn, and the wee Tom Riddles hit just the right tone of nascent CrazyPantsEvil. I even enjoyed the (slightly forced, chemistry-free) Adolescent Sexual Awakening Played for Laughs. It was kind of a butt-number, but as a Harry Potter Fan (TM), there was enough there to keep me happy.

Also, full disclosure, the 6th book was my favorite and so I may be judging a little more harshly than I would for, say, the lameness that was Chamber of Secrets. I mean really, who expected that one to be any good? I also recognize that there was a hell of alot of exposition in this book and no immediate villian (bar the perpetually whinging Draco) which makes film construction more difficult. Its really just a tee-up for Deathly Hallows. I get it, Mr. Director, I do. Its a difficult book to adapt, the most difficult in the series even.

But that's where my sympathies end. Because what the book does have is a tremendous emotional climax, the death of Albus Dumbledore. And bafflingly that is where the filmmakers decided to get off the direct book-to-film transposition train. Why??? Its the easiest part of the book to adapt! Its all there- Draco's (relative) redemption, the spawn of the Great Snape Debate, Harry's frantic suffering at his physical inability to do ANYTHING to save his mentor & protector, the Hogwarts battle, the death itself (scriptwriting paydirt!)... And then the emotional denouement, Dumbledore's funeral, which, apart from providing closure and a proper send-off for Herr Primary Plot Driver (I mean, beloved character), sets up everything for the next steps.

And what do we get? Well, I'll tell you.

1. We get more of this:

Yep, the same snivelling Draco we had for the last 2 hours. Honestly, did he have a line in this movie? All I remember is "WAAAAAAAAAAHHH." Yeah, he whines in the book, but hey, that's a book and if there's one constant in bad adaptations everywhere, its that things that work on the page don't often translate directly onto the screen. Even in the theater, I couldn't help drifting off into thoughts of Lord of the Rings, and how Peter Jackson et al really thought about the book as a film. They agonized over pacing (as one must when one is dealing with these kinds of running times) and had no compunctions about chopping stuff out, changing the order of action, and moving things from one book to another film- but never without a real narrative or editorial reason for it.

My LoTR uber-fandom makes my Harry Potter fandom look decidedly anemic, and when I first saw the LoTR films (esp Fellowship) alot of those changes enraged my purist sensibilities. But looking at them now, I can see that they do make the trilogy better able to stand on its own as film. The fifth Harry Potter film, Order of the Phoenix, came close to achieving this- it was tighter and much more structured. They pared it down to the essential story and told it relatively well. Unsurprisingly, I have since learned that Phoenix was the only Potter adaptation not penned by Steve Kloves. Blargh. I mean, it was the same director (David Yates) so I feel like the fault has to be mostly in the script. Except for the whole thing where the director is ultimately responsible for the script, of course...

2. We get the removal of all question about Snape's loyalty. Really, even without that ridiculous pre-murder interlude with Harry its pretty obvious that Snape's one of the good ol' boys. One of the great things about the 6th book is that you really don't know where Snape's allegiance lies or why he really cursed the old guy. On the one hand, you have the ultimate betrayal of the ultimate good, cementing Snape as perhaps more evil than the Dark Lord. On the other, you have the potential for a pretty sweet reveal in the final novel, and a staunch statement in favor of trust. Internet debates galore between the release of those two books!

This is his face immediately before/after murdering Dumbledore- come ON!

Yeah, most people seeing the movie have read the books and so yeah, they know- but that ambiguity, apart from its greater narrative interest, informs many of the choices Harry makes in Deathly Hallows. If you give away Snape before the seventh film even starts, aren't alot of those decisions going to a)make Harry look like a blind idiot, or b)become entirely nonsensical? Not to mention the loss of impact of that redemption scene!

3. We get Harry as a free agent during those crucial moments, thus tearing down SIX FILMS (yes, I meant six) worth of characterization. Instead of spending the scene petrified under an invisibility cloak, unable to do anything but watch impotently as Dumbledore is mown down, Harry is simply "ordered" to remain out of sight and not interfere "no matter what happens." So he stands there. Watching through the floor boards like a scullery maid. With his wand drawn. Pointed at feet.

Granted, he looks mighty upset about it. But did you not just spend the entirety of five films and the bulk of the sixth setting him up as an overly impulsive, overly loyal, overly protective boy wonder with no particular regard for orders or his own safety? How does this behavior make sense given anything we've seen from this character? Not one hour ago we watched him run alone and wand blazing into a cornfield full of Death Eaters just because they showed up in the vicinity of his friends' house! And now we're expected to believe he's going to stand there and watch the only father figure he's ever known take the pointy end of a killing curse just because he's ordered to?

Or, even worse, because he actually believes his blood is "more precious" than Dumbledore's, thanks to all those lines awkwardly shoe-horned into the horcrux-retrieval mission?

Or maybe it was because the aforementioned pre-murder interlude with Snape made Harry go all weak at the knees and realize that his years-long hatred for the potions master was actually just insatiable lust. They were making goo-goo eyes at each other, after all. And there was an awful lot of "wand" pointing. And it took place in the Astronomy Tower- everyone knows what goes on up there. Actually, this would make the last film pretty interesting...

But I digress.

4. No Hogwarts battle. While one could argue that its not strictly necessary to the plot (unlike, obviously, the Ron-Lavender make-out sessions), the battle inside of Hogwarts gave a nice sense of immediacy to the story. It was an invasion of Harry's home, his sanctuary, and an hors d'oeuvre of the final battle. It was (if I recall correctly...which I may not) the first chance we get to see Dumbledore's Army in action, and all of Harry's little friends get to have their Not Just Students Anymore moment. Plus, it was a ominous taste of what could happen if Boy Wonder fails to defeat Voldemort. Instead, somehow all these Death Eaters just run right out of the castle without being the least delayed so that Harry can get right to his teary, pathetic confrontation with Snape.

5. No funeral. Instead there was a sort of impromptu candlelight vigil by all the Hogwartians. This bugged me less than it did some others, who felt cheated by the cheap send-off of a hero. They felt they weren't given the chance to grieve. Bitches, you grieved in the book. Quit crying. Seeing Dumbledore's tomb could have been nice, since it has a pretty big role to play in the finale. But narratively speaking, the funeral wasn't super important either. From a filmic perspective though, I don't really get its exclusion- its a pretty easy emotional denouement, wouldn't have had to take any more time than the way they did it (back in the Astronomy Tower??), and would have given them a chance to have one of those CGI-heavy crowd flyover shots filmmakers like so much.

What really gets me though is that I have a sneaking suspicion that the funeral will in fact be rendered on celluloid- but that it will be bumped to the seventh film. Not for any narrative reason (clearly as an opening it will be stripped of all impact), but to help justify the splitting of the final installment into two movies. Double the movies, double the cash!!

And that's essentially how this whole movie felt. Harry Potter films will make money- by now, that's a fait accompli. So it seems like the filmmakers just don't care anymore (if they ever did) whether they make a good movie or a mediocre one. But, dammit, they ought to care! The story is chugging along, the actors are getting to an age where a director can actually do something with them, and the material is good! Its all there! They just have to think about how it translates to the screen rather than make a slavish translation of the book with a soupcon of sops to the fandom.

Although the real kicker here is that it could have been salvaged if it had been a little more slavish. I mean, really, two hours of tedious teenage hormones and you only decide to veer from the book in order to eviscerate the totally cinematic finale? Back to Screenwriting 101, Steve Kloves.