Sunday, May 6, 2018

What the Raptors Faced (2018)

So what did the Toronto Raptors, now down and doomed three games to zero to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavs, face in even getting to the NBA Finals this year?

Well, let's look at NBA teams that have won without a superstar/'Top 67' player...

I expanded the NBA's Top 50 at 50 list because it came out more than 20 years ago or so, adding players rather than subtracting and adding to the top 50. I came up with 17 more. So the next 17 for me would be the following:

LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Reggie Miller, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Jason Kidd, Dwight Howard...


Last team to make a Finals without a Top 67 was... the Detroit Pistons in 2005. 

And the last team to win without a Top 67 was those same Pistons in 2004. 

But that team had All-Star players having career years (Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton, and Chauncey Billups), one freak who could have been an All-Star if he felt like it (Rasheed Wallace), a great coach (Larry Brown) and a completely dysfunctional Lakers team to beat in the Finals...

Before that? 

Maybe the 1978-79 Seattle Supersonics. But they had one player better than anyone the Raps have this year (Dennis Johnson) and two really good players (Paul Silas and Gus Johnson). They also played a team that had beaten them the year before, the Bullets, which had two HoF/borderline top 67ers of its own (Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes were on the top 50 at 50 list) but not much else.

Before that? 

Um, that's it. 

Even teams that make the Finals without a superstar are rare. 

Even the 40-42 Houston Rockets of 1980-81 who lost to Bird's Celtics, the only Finalist in NBA history with a losing record, had Top 50 Moses Malone in his prime. The Portland Trailblazers, who lost to the Bulls and the Pistons in the Finals in the early 1990's? Clyde Drexler was a Top 50 at 50. 

So yeah. Top-heavy league.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Elvis: The Searcher (2018)

Elvis Presley: The Searcher (2018): written by Alan Light; directed by Thom Zimny: 

This two-part, three-hour-plus HBO documentary is hagiographic to the point of occasional absurdity throughout. 

However, it also offers an overview of Presley's life through photos and footage and commentary from those who knew him (Priscilla Presley, assorted producers and friends) and those who admired him (most notably, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty). 

It's worth your time if you love Elvis or if you simply don't know that much about the arc of his career. By the end, it plays like a tragedy, one that F. Scott Fitzgerald might have penned had he been around for the Elvis Era (1953-1977). Recommended.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

This scene may not be in movie.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018): written by everybody; directed by Joe and Anthony Russo; starring everybody: Mostly diverting, overlong superhero slug-fest struggles to balance bombast and quippiness and mostly succeeds. 

Visually and writing-wise, it's a huge step down from preceding Marvel movies that include Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, Ant-man, Spider-man: Homecoming, and Dr. Strange. It's a bit like eating mush made from cotton candy.

The plot thread starring Iron Man, Spider-man, and Dr. Strange is terrific. The Wakanda battle scenes make little strategic or tactical sense, and suggest that, among other things, none of the Avengers or Wakandans have ever seen Zulu

Or read about military battles after the invention of projectile weapons. Wait, didn't Captain America FIGHT in World War Two?

Thanos has been much-changed from his tirelessly malevolent comic-book self into a mournful giant who desperately needs a hug that he never receives. Maybe in Part Two! Lightly recommended.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Two-Minute Rule (2006) by Robert Crais

The Two-Minute Rule (2006) by Robert Crais: On the day bank robber Max Holman gets out of jail after a ten-year sentence, his son is murdered. Holman had been estranged from his son for more than a decade. And his son was a police officer. So begins The Two-Minute Rule.

Best known for his Elvis Cole and Joe Pike detective thrillers, writer Robert Crais here builds a compelling and sympathetic character in Holman, dubbed "the Hero Bandit" by the press because he got arrested at his last robbery while performing CPR on one of the bank's customers. As his son's murder looks fishier and fishier, and while the LAPD deems it closed, Holman calls on the help of the former FBI agent who put him away, Katherine Pollard.

Crais makes the nuts-and-bolts of crime, law enforcement, and bank robberies entertaining. More importantly, Holman is his most fully developed character, at least within the pages of one novel rather than a series. Holman is believable even when the plot gets twisty and turny. So too Pollard, retired early to raise a son, left alone when her estranged husband died of a heart attack, and now bored -- and in debt -- in her unwelcome retirement.

Everything builds to the sort of climax that seems ripe for a decent Hollywood director. Crais is an expert choreographer of action sequences, and this is one of his best -- and at points funniest. Recommended.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Jack Kirby's Black Panther

Black Panther Vs. Abominable Snowman!
Jack Kirby's Black Panther (1976-78; collected in two volumes 2005): written by Jack Kirby with Jim Shooter and Ed Hannigan; illustrated by Jack Kirby and Mike Royer with Denys Cowan: Jack Kirby's Black Panther followed the cancellation of Jungle Action and the premature end to Don McGregor and Billy Graham's run on Black Panther in that Marvel comic book. Readers who followed the character from one book to the next must have suffered from whiplash. 

Kirby's Black Panther is a super-scientific adventurer whose first multi-issue adventure involves a team-up with a diminuitive collector of weird antiquities named Mr. Little on a quest to find the second of two objects known as King Solomon's Frogs. They've discovered one. It periodically pulls someone or something in from another time. Together, the two assume, the two frogs should form a controllable time machine. OK!

This is Jack Kirby in full-on lunacy mode. It's great lunacy, mile-a-second action, wild double-page spreads, and some of the oddest of Kirby's 1970's narratives. I mean, a time machine shaped like a frog (why?) is weird enough. 

But the time machine will eventually pull in a dangerous, hyper-evolved human from millions of years in the future. There will also be a hidden kingdom founded by seven samurai. There will be a half-brother of T'Challa (that is, the Black Panther) who will seize control of the kingdom of Wakanda. There will be a Council of relatives of the Black Panther who will come together from across the world to battle that half-brother while T'Challa is stuck in the samurai kingdom.

Oh, and a lost Black Panther will stumble across a science-fiction movie filming in the North African desert. It isn't Star Wars, but it's clearly a nod to the Tunisia filming location of Star Wars. Kirby's work on a film adaptation of Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light would be used to help some of the American hostages out of Iran. Remember Argo? They actually shot but didn't use a scene with Jack Kirby. It's true!

Whiplash, though, oh boy! This is rollicking science fantasy laced with absurdity. If you like more serious versions of Black Panther that address social and racial concerns, this is probably not your Black Panther. I love it. I love McGregor's version too. I am entertained by multitudes! Highly recommended.

Black Panther: Panther's Rage

One of many dynamic pages from Graham and McGregor

Black Panther: Panther's Rage (Marvel Epic Collection Volume 1) (1966, 1973-1976; collected 2015): written by Don McGregor; illustrated by Billy Graham, Rich Buckler, Gil Kane, Klaus Janson, and others: Jack Kirby and Stan Lee gave Black Panther life. Don McGregor and artists Rich Buckler and especially Billy Graham gave the character a soul. And note that the character predates the 1960's political movement of the same name by several months.

The recent Marvel movie used a number of elements from the McGregor-penned run included in this collection. Much is different, however. After reprinting the Black Panther's first two-issue appearance in Fantastic Four in 1966, this volume reprints McGregor's entire run on Black Panther from Marvel's Jungle Action comic book. What a ride it is!

The Lee/Kirby two-parter is fascinating insofar as it gives us an African superhero who rules over a seemingly backwater African nation that's actually a hive of super-technological sophistication. Beyond that, Black Panther is fairly boilerplate -- a noble fellow with a desire for revenge against white villain Ulysses Klaw. Still, the storyline is notable not only because the Black Panther is the first modern black superhero from a major comic-book company, but because Wyatt Wingfoot, a smart non-superhero Native American, saves the day in the first of the two Lee/Kirby issues. It's sort of a racial milestone for American superheroes.

McGregor's stuff is a whole different story. The mix of super-science and tradition remains in the Black Panther's country of Wakanda. McGregor's interests are such that Black Panther becomes a self-sacrificing, self-doubting character very early in the arc, with subsequent issues building on these attributes. 

This Black Panther had moved to America and joined the Avengers after his intro in FF; McGregor's work brings him back to a Wakanda that's grown turbulent in his absence. And Erik Killmonger (the villain of the movie as well) intends to wrest control of Wakanda from the Black Panther.

What follows is one of the longest sustained narratives in American superhero comic books to that point in the mid-1970's, one of the first true serialized graphic novels. Initial artist Rich Buckler does solid work. Once Billy Graham comes on board, the art really soars. And it's notable that Graham is one of the first African-American artists to work on a major publisher's superhero book.

Graham and McGregor are ambitious in their storytelling ambitions -- a variety of intriguing single and double-page compositions are just one way the art stands out. Graham is especially good at character work, faces and poses that make each character an individual. An issue inked by P. Craig Russell is especially fine as a horror story filled with grotesques.

The Black Panther's physical sufferings throughout McGregor's run, depicted and described in detail, cast him repeatedly in the role of a suffering Christ figure -- albeit a two-fisted Christ. I don't know that any mainstream superhero has had his suffering depicted in such detail. It ties into McGregor's ethos insofar as McGregor tempers the thrills of superheroics with repeated examinations of the physical and mental ramifications of Men in Tights walloping one another.

Erik Killmonger's plans ultimately occupy 13 (!) issues of Jungle Action. As Jungle Action was bimonthly, this first arc (titled Panther's Rage) went on for more than two years. Subsequently, McGregor and Graham send the Black Panther back to America to battle the KKK. Never let it be said that McGregor shied away from political and social issues. Alas, Marvel cancelled Jungle Action before the Klan storyline was over. It's still a bracing bit of storytelling. In all, highly recommended.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Soylent Green (1973)

Soylent Green (1973): adapted from the Harry Harrison novel Make Room! Make Room! by Stanley R. Greenberg; directed by Richard Fleischer; starring Charlton Heston (Thorn), Leigh Taylor-Young (Shirl), Chuck Connors (Tab), Joseph Cotten (Simonson), Brock Peters (The Chief), and Edward G. Robinson (Sol Roth): 

Soylent Green's grungy, beige-and-green, run-down, over-populated world of 2022 is a great aesthetic creation for the set designers and costume people. The movie infamously adds a ridiculous 'twist' to Harry Harrison's science-fiction novel about Malthusian over-population so as to make the movie more 'popular.' Now it's the only thing people remember about the movie. Oh, well. Chuck Heston is solid and stolid as a dogged policeman investigating a murder and being pursued by shadowy figures who don't want the reason for that murder to come out.

The best thing about Soylent Green is Edward G. Robinson's performance as Heston's partner, a man old enough to remember Earth That Was, and mourn it. Robinson knew that he'd be dead of cancer soon after filming, and he was -- he died days after the final wrap. What he delivers here is a jewel of a performance. He elevates the material to Art in every scene he's in. He moves the whole movie up from lightly recommended to Recommended.