Monthly Archives: April 2014

R.I.P. Phoenix Suns (2013-2014) – Eulogizing the NBA’s Motliest Crew

By Jake Sweltz

main

 

“It’s better to burn out than to fade away…”

It was Neil Young who wrote those words, and Kurt Cobain who infamously commandeered them, but neither figure could shred like the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns.

Alas, the Suns have finally set in the West.  Their playoff hopes were extinguished by the Memphis Grizzlies at US Airways Center on Monday, as the team lost 97-91 in a game that saw 15 fourth quarter lead changes.  Phoenix went down early; the Grizzlies had a 13-point advantage with three minutes to go in the first half.  Then, just as they had all year long, the Suns scrapped back, and by the final quarter, the score was tied at 67.

Phoenix’s resistance was glorious, but ultimately futile.  Just as in its previous two games (each almost equally as crucial), they were narrowly out-dueled in the final minute, capping their epic season-ending trilogy of tragedy.

But let’s not dwell on the sad times.  We’re not here to mourn how the Suns died.  We’re here to celebrate how they lived.

Two weeks ago, there were three bubble teams clawing for the last two playoff seeds in the most loaded conference in years:

(1) The Memphis Grizzlies.  A team that won 56 games and made the Western Conference Finals just last year and that has made no major roster changes except adding a bench guy who can actually shoot (Mike Miller).  A team with an elite defense that features one of the league’s most skilled two-way big men in Marc Gasol.  Not to mention the indomitable Zach Randolph, somehow averaging a double-double from deep under the Earth’s crust.  A franchise widely recognized and respected as a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future.

(2) The Dallas Mavericks.  A grizzled squad of battle-tested sharp shooters and savvy veterans.  Plus Monta Ellis, who actually posted great efficiency numbers and blossomed into a top two-guard.  A team with perennial All-Star and future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki still shooting the same percentages he did at 30, still climbing the all-time scoring ladder with the same frightening speed, and still sinking unguardable fadeaways in the grills of flummoxed forwards on a nightly basis.  A group helmed by long-time basketball guru and noted Carrey-lookalike Rick Carlisle.  A franchise with one of the strongest cultures in the NBA, a smart owner, and a history of success.

(3) The Phoenix Suns?  The team that traded its starting center a week before the season began?  The squad that lost its starting point guard and prize offseason acquisition for 40 games?  The franchise that hired a rookie coach and signed an arsenal of anonymous three-point bombing strangers?  The team that hasn’t made the playoffs since the days when Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire were more than just walking (painfully lurching?) contracts?  The team that Vegas projected to win 19 games and contend for nothing except the top draft pick?  Those Phoenix Suns?

If you asked any reasonable NBA fan before the season which of those three teams would get squeezed out, is there any doubt who they’d pick?  So sure, at the end of the day, the Suns did eventually set in the West.  Maybe that’s just nature taking its course, but honestly, what sounds natural about a roster consisting of the following characters:

Eric “the Bled-Show” Bledsoe

bledsoe

The six foot ninja with speed like Sonic the Hedgehog and athleticism that has been compared to LeBron James.  Bledsoe turned heads last year as the backup point guard for the Clippers after Chris Paul went down, but there was widespread skepticism around the league that he could match the value of a real franchise player.  Over time, that might prove true, but as long as he keeps slicing up guards and blocking the shit out of 6’11” dudes, he’s worth every penny on highlight credit alone.

Goran “the Dragon” Dragic

goran

The skinny Slovenian with the ever-pubescent crustache and the on-court approach of a highly caffeinated coyote.  In a league chock full of talented point guards, Dragic has flown under the radar for several years, and now he’s getting national attention as an All-NBA candidate.  His always-effective, super-funky Euro slash and kick game reached a new level this season.  As Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry pointed out, Dragic is third in the league in creating corner three opportunities, behind only LeBron James and John Wall, two of the league’s biggest franchise cornerstones.  As ambiguous as the criteria for Most Improved Player is, it seems pretty obvious that Dragic should be a leading candidate to take home that hardware.

Miles “the Plum” Plumlee 

plumsThe overlooked big man who you don’t take seriously until you actually watch him play a couple games and realize he’s just busting his freaking ass out there.  He’s averaging eight points and eight boards, which is beyond good for guy who didn’t see a single significant minute off the bench in Indiana.  But in a way, stats are besides the point.  This piece of Luis Scola trade driftwood turned out solid as an oak tree, and that’s all his team needed.

Gerald “Lean, Mean” Green

gerald

The buzzer-beating, gravity-defying, mean-mugging Super Mario of the NBA.  The player most likely to actually be an NBA Jam avatar magically wished to life.  A guy who bounced around in and out of the league for years, who was playing in Russia and seemed destined to wash out as an über athletic afterthought before finding a home in Phoenix.  He started out with the Celtics as a physical freak of nature who just couldn’t grasp the nuances of the pro game.  Over time, he honed his skills, but was still known mostly as a one-dimensional dunker until he started putting up scorching numbers for the Suns during Bledsoe’s injury.  He evens out as a reliable spark plug off the bench, but if you give him a lane, he’ll still swallow your soul.

The Morris Twins

twins

The butt of countless jokes before the season about symbolizing the arbitrary gimmickry of Phoenix’s roster, Marcus and Markieff both ended up having career years, with Markieff in the running for several NBA awards, including Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved.  (But, then again, you could make a case for virtually every player on this Suns squad for the latter.)

And that’s before even getting to guys like Channing Frye, PJ Tucker, and Ish Smith.  Seriously, right when you think this Phoenix team can’t get any more fun, you remember that they have dudes named Channing, PJ, and Ish.  Is it too late to add the Suns to my Coolest NBA Roll Call list?

But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the man behind the clipboard, first-year coach and cheek-rubbing enthusiast Jeff Hornacek.  The man took a roster of young unknowns, low-radar journeymen, underwhelming role players, and no starting center, and he turned it into literally the winningest regular season team ever to miss the playoffs.  It’s often hard to parse how much influence a coach truly has on the success of his team, but in this case there can be no doubt.  Virtually every player on this roster ended up outperforming their career averages by some significant measure.  Hornacek is, to me, the most obvious and deserving choice for Coach of the Year, and despite the number of worthy candidates this season (S/O to Thibodeau, Carlisle, Popovich, and Stotts) I suspect he’ll win it.  After all, Phoenix was the feel-good story of the season all year long; absolutely everybody loved this Suns team: fans, media, players, everybody.

And that’s really the thing I’ll miss the most about this year’s squad.  The damn near universal adoration for this unlikely team of lovable misfits that succeeded despite the odds.  Which is what delineates these gratifying underdog stories, right?  The odds?  Because once a long shot beats the odds, they’re not a long shot anymore.  They lose the very essence of what made them special in the first place.

Next year, the Suns won’t be the league’s goofy Slumdog Millionaire, plundering victories from established contenders.  They’ll be one of those established contenders, and that means they’ll have to deal with all the not-so-fun baggage that being an emergent competitor entails.  “Can Eric Bledsoe make the next leap?”  “Will Hornacek get fired if they don’t make the playoffs?”  “You know, Miles Plumlee isn’t the long-term answer at center.”  “Does this team need to trade for another superstar?”  And so on.

There’s no doubt that after this season, the Phoenix Suns are in a better place.  And yet, I still can’t help but shed a tear for the loss of their childlike spirit.  Liberated from the burden of competitive expectations, the Suns were free to spread their wings and fly the way they wanted.  Because a team that’s not weighed down is a team that might soar highest.

dunk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

God bless the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns.

Shine on you crazy diamonds.

 

(all images courtesy of Google Search)

 

 

Notes on a Scandal: Reading QT’s The Hateful Eight

By Jake Sweltz

qt

The screenplay for Quentin Tarantino’s now-defunct project The Hateful Eight is 146 pages of cotton candy.  It reads like a sugar rush, gives you ulcers the size of gum balls, and finally leaves you feeling empty and rotten.  But confectionary greatness isn’t about nutrition; it’s about flavor.  And The Hateful Eight is admittedly pretty freaking delicious.

Note: the following contains major spoilers re: the setting, plot, and characters of The Hateful Eight.

THE STORY:

Set in post-Civil War Wyoming, the plot involves two bounty hunters who encounter one another en route to a small town called Red Rock.  They are each transporting recently captured bounties, including three dead outlaws and one live female prisoner named Daisy Domergue.  An approaching blizzard forces the group to shack up in a small, saloon-like haberdashery with an assortment of wily misfits who may or may not be in cahoots to free Daisy.

Most of the movie is devoted to the various games of verbal poker that take place amongst the motley crew as they wait out the blizzard.  Here are all the classical signposts of a typical of a QT feature: the colorful snatches of character backstory, the sudden bursts of brutal violence, the elaborate feigns and bluffs the characters make as they maneuver to conceal/reveal each other’s true identities and motivations.  Plus: a strangely affectionate attention paid to coffee as a crucial plot motif.

THE CAST:

Before the script leaked, Tarantino had reportedly sent copies to three actors: Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, and Michael Madsen.  The latter two are Tarantino regulars, and if the movie ever made it to the development stage, I expect we’d have seen plenty of faces familiar to long-time QT fans.  Luckily, since the film will never actually be committed to celluloid, we’re free to eternally indulge in every fanboy’s favorite pastime: throwing out a ton of hypothetical casting decisions and then drooling over how awesome they would be.

Now, this movie is called The Hateful Eight for a reason.  In the tradition of flicks like The Dirty Dozen and the myriad other hyper-masculine westerns from which QT draws inspiration, pretty much all these characters are rotten bastards.  Correspondingly, I’ve tried to fake-cast this non-picture with actors who can convincingly play villainy, actors who can wear the black hat.  Which, in this case, is especially appropriate since a few of the characters literally wear black hats.

Having said that, here’s my Hateful Eight Dream Cast (brought to you by Sega™):

Maj. Marquis Warren : Chiwetel Ejiofor (Understudy: Samuel L. Jackson)

chiwetel

A few articles mentioned that Tarantino had written this part with Jackson in mind, but reading the script, I couldn’t help but visualize Chiwetel Ejiofor instead.  Fresh off his very somber work in 12 Years a Slave, it would have been an intriguing change of pace to see Ejiofor in a role as pulpy as Maj. Warren’s swashbuckling bounty hunter.  Plus, the stage veteran’s theatre bona fides would surely come in handy given that the entire movie mostly takes place in one small room.

John “The Hangman” Ruth : Matthew McConaughey (Understudy: Michael Madsen)

mccon

Middle age has done something magical for McConaughey.  He’s still as charming and roguishly appealing as ever, but his rom-com prime is behind him.  The cracks in that stunning visage are starting to show, and his whole persona has been grown subtly darker.  Starting with 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer, and continuing through his work in Killer Joe and True Detective, McConaughey’s performances have taken on a hint of menace.  Sure, his characters have always been mischievous, but it wasn’t until recently that they’ve actually felt dangerous.

At this point in McConaughey’s career, I can think of no director better equipped to bring out his glorious bastardry than Tarantino.  The idea of matching QT’s alternately playful and sinister dialogue with McConaughey’s famously slithery silver tongue is, to me, a no-brainer.

Daisy Domergue : Reese Witherspoon (Understudy: Chloe Sevigny)

reese

While we’re talking McConaughey, we might as well make this a Mud reunion and cast good old Reese as John Ruth’s fiery prisoner, Daisy Domergue.  Daisy is handcuffed to Ruth for most of the script, and throughout the story the two develop an interesting “frenemy” type of chemistry.  It would be great to see Witherspoon in a role where she could tap into some of that Dukes of Hazzard outlaw craziness she unleashed in Atlanta last year.

Chris Mannix : James Franco (Understudy: Adam Driver)

In the text, Chris is introduced as an “early thirties, untrustworthy, rotten teeth hillbilly.”  Hmm.  Lots of options here, but I’m thinking we should probably call the dude who turned himself into this guy:

hateful_eight

I’m not the biggest Franco fanatic, but I think that he could bring just the right flavor of zany energy to this role.  Spraaaang breaaaaak foreeeeeeeeever.

Bob the Frenchman : Denis Menochet (Understudy: Jean Reno)

menochet

It was rumored that had this movie actually been made, Christoph Waltz would have been tapped for this role.  But y’know what?  I kind of don’t want Christoph Waltz in a (hypothetical) third consecutive Tarantino movie.  Especially since the dude is not even French to begin with.  Besides, Bob is too terse a character for an actor like Waltz.  Perhaps future drafts would have expanded this part, but given Bob’s relatively thin dialogue, I was thinking the role would actually be perfect for Waltz’s sparring partner from the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds, French actor Denis Menochet.  As dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite, Menochet achieves a strong, quiet dignity, even as Waltz’s relentless Col. Hans Landa is slowly tearing it to pieces.  I’d be interested in seeing him bring that same element to this story’s mysterious Bob.

Oswaldo Mobray : Jude Law (Understudy: Tim Roth)

jude_law

Oswaldo is described in the script as “a blonde little man who wears a grey european cut business suit” and is “a bit of a Fop.  Not a gigantic Fop, just a bit of one” (sic).  This is ostensibly the role that Tim Roth would have read for, but my first choice would be Jude Law.  Another stage vet, Law exudes the kind of slimy smugness that’s perfect for Oswaldo, an eloquent British gent who claims to be a traveling hangman.  His recent work in Dom Hemingway proves he can play rough, plus Law can ham it up with the best of them.  I’d love to see him deliver Mobray’s juicy monologue about how his duty as the passionless executioner separates “real” justice from “frontier” justice.

Cowboy Joe Gage : Woody Harrelson (Understudy: Josh Brolin)

woody

This laconic “wise ass” of a character is a tough nut to crack, fake-casting wise.  He doesn’t have a ton of dialogue, but he’s still an important character and his scenes are compelling.  One of his exchanges with the extra-suspicious John Ruth is among the script’s funniest moments.  Ruth is interrogating Gage about who he is, where he’s headed, etc.:

Gage: I’m a cow puncher…I was coming up here to spend Christmas with my mother.

Ruth: Really?

Gage: Really.

Ruth: Funny, you don’t really look like the coming home for Christmas type.

Gage: Well then looks are deceiving.  Because I’m defiantly [sic] the coming home for Christmas to spend it with my mother, type.

Reading this, I was reminded of Josh Brolin’s less-is-more approach to playing Llewelyn Davis in No Country For Old Men, and the dry humor he displayed in his scenes with Woody Harrelson and Kelly McDonald. Eventually, I settled on Brolin as my first choice…

…until I realized that Harrelson is actually the real answer here.  He’s more suitably cartoonish than Brolin, his resume practically screams “laconic wise-ass,” plus casting him here nets bonus points for turning the above exchange into a revival of McConaughey and Harrelson’s crackling True Detective bromance.

Gen. Sanford Smithers : Bruce Dern (Understudy: Harrison Ford)

dern

This is most likely the role that Bruce Dern was supposed to read for, and honestly, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate actor to bring Gen. Smithers’ to life.  This proud old Confederate general is a cranky bastard, but he’s also wounded and vulnerable, sadly making his way to Red Rock to bury his son.  What he learns about that son’s death while holed up with the other bastards in the haberdashery I won’t spoil (at least not yet), but suffice it to say, it is…rather unpleasant.

Jody Domergue : Jeremy Renner (Understudy: Brad Pitt)

renner

Jody, head of the infamous “Domergue Gang” isn’t introduced until later in the story, but his presence is instantly electrifying.  He’s a dangerous outlaw, but when we first meet him, he is posing as a kindly country preacher man, his demeanor that of a perfect gentleman.  Renner is one of the few actors I can see convincingly embodying the charisma, chivalry, and wickedness the part requires.  Besides, we need to get this guy some more work outside of the Avengers franchise.

 

THE THREE MOST TARANTINO MOTIFS OF THE SCRIPT:

1.) 70MM SUPER CINEMASCOPE.  In between scenes and/or long stretches of dialogue, Tarantino frequently inserts notes about how the rugged Wyoming landscape will be shot in “big super cinemascope 70mm filmed gloriousness.”  He mentions 70MM SUPER CINEMASCOPE repeatedly throughout the script, but always with slight variations on how gorgeous and amazing it will look.  His emphasis on big, outdoorsy exteriors is probably at least partly about contrasting the cramped, claustrophobic interiors of the story.  But you also get the feeling like the guy just really loves cinemascope.  His enthusiasm for the format is very palpable, and it lends a fun bit of continuity to the reading experience.

2.) HATS!  QT is one of the most unabashed stylists in Hollywood.  His characters are always distinctive, not only in their speech, but also in their dress. (Who could forget the iconic French gangster suits Jules and Vincent don in Pulp Fiction, or the Bruce Lee-inspired bumblebee jumpsuit Uma Thurman rocks in Kill Bill, Vol. 1?)  In The Hateful Eight, QT again indulges his sartorial fetishes, giving us at least half a dozen rich outfit descriptions to go along with his character intros.  Capping nearly every one of these descriptions?  A word about what sort of sweet hat is being worn.  There’s John Ruth’s “drop dead black hat” and Joe Gage’s “cool brown cow puncher hat” and Maj. Warren’s “supercool non regulation cowboy hat he picked up sometime after the war.”  You’d think the main reason QT wanted to write another Western was just so he could dream up some fresh head gear.

3.) Coffy.  As I mentioned earlier, coffee (or “coffy” as QT spells it throughout the text), plays an important role in The Hateful Eight.  Before John Ruth and company initially arrive at the haberdashery, he comments several times on the quality of the coffy there.  “Hot, strong, and good,” is the film’s running tagline for the stuff.  This setup provides a few good jokes and one huge plot point, which isn’t really worth spoiling here.  It’s been awhile, but this isn’t the first time Tarantino has made coffy a fulcrum of conversation in one of his movies.  Remember Jimmie from Pulp Fiction?  The suburban white dude that reluctantly plays host to Jules and Verne as they frantically try to dispose of poor Martin’s dead body?  If you recall, the passive-aggressive chat between Jules and Jimmie starts off with the former awkwardly complimenting the latter’s home brewed coffy.  It stands to reason that QT is something of a caf-fiend. (as in, a fiend for caffeine).  “No kidding,” responded everyone who has ever seen Tarantino give an interview.

THE THREE MOST BATSHIT INSANE PARTS OF THE STORY (NOTE: EXTRA SPOILER-Y)

1.) The part when Jody Domergue and his gang infiltrate a rest stop posing as a a contingent of devout Christian gentlemen before blowing everyone away in a hail of gunfire and burying them all in a shallow mass grave out back.

2.) The part when John Ruth is poisoned and responds by violently assaulting and then puking blood all over Daisy Domergue as she cackles maniacally.

3.) The part when Maj. Warren (a black Union Army Major) recounts to Gen. Smithers (an old white Confederate General) the story of how he captured, tortured, orally raped, and killed Smithers’ son in excruciating detail….just before setting the old man on fire and watching him burn to death.

THE VERDICT:

The script’s non-linear progression, confined setting, slowly ratcheting tension, and explosive finale recall several memorable scenes and tropes from Tarantino’s earlier work, specifically Reservoir Dogs and Inglorious Basterds.  In many ways, The Hateful Eight reads like an expanded variation on the “basement bar” scene from the latter film, with its deliberate build-up and guns-under-the-table climax.

Obviously, the script isn’t perfect.  There are a number of character-related odds and ends that don’t quite add up, and a few interesting story threads are introduced only to be left hanging loose and unformed for the rest of the film.  The dialogue, though sparkling in places, is clearly far less developed than it would have ultimately become had the movie been made.  And for all the salivating tension that Tarantino creates leading up to the end of the story, the conclusion is a bit of a letdown.  QT has come a long way since Reservoir Dogs, but he’s still a sucker for a good old Mexican stand-off.  Unfortunately, in this case the gimmick feels less like a natural culmination and more like regression.

But keep in mind, this is a first draft, and most of the problems are a result of there being too many ideas rather than not enough.  If you’re a QT enthusiast, you really couldn’t ask for a more entertaining read.

Overall, I’d give it 4 out of 5 cups of coffy.

 

(all images courtesy of Google search)