Wow, I’ve been meaning to get back to this thing for some time now. I didn’t realize until today just how long it had been though. I have so many “mostly finished” posts drifting around on various computer hard drives that it isn’t funny.

I was starting to spend too much time blogging though, and not enough time doing things I was supposed to be doing, like writing papers for English classes or other some such. It turns out though, that when I constrained my writing time, I never actually finished anything. Then I just finally fell out of the habit of even trying to write this blog anymore.

Although, I didn’t leave blogging all together. I have been writing a fair bit as a sports editorialist over at AZ Snakepit, the preeminent blog and new source for the Arizona Diamondbacks. That too has keep me busy and detracted from time I could have been (and perhaps should have been) writing here.

Then the other day, fellow blogger Alice linked me in one of her posts. That’s when I discovered just how out of date and sad this blog really is. So here I am, trying to update things a bit. Hopefully my return to blogging will work out better this time around.

Out the Window

Hurricane Andrew was easily one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I had only just moved to Orlando, Florida and found an apartment when it rolled right through town. Over the next 4 years, hurricane season in Florida was something of a let-down after the sheer awe-inspiring force of nature that was Andrew introducing me to my first storm season.

 

Out the Window

Ebon storm clouds advance

Across an azure canvas

 

Perilous beauty.

A (Hopefully) Unbiased Review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Now that I have had a few days for my fanboy excitement to subside, I thought I would finally post my review of the latest movie blockbuster, The Hobbit.

Here’s my BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front):

The movie is an enjoyable fantasy adventure epic, complete with trolls, spiders, goblins, orcs, giants, elves, hobbits (halflings), dwarves, wizards and a dragon. Although the film clocks in at 2 hours and 45 minutes, the pacing is appropriate to the material being covered and not a chore to get through. Some of the silliness of the novel remains intact, while darker, more violent action scenes have also been adapted, more closely associating the movie with the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy from a decade ago. Fans of typical action fare, with one battle or chase leading directly into another, are likely to be disappointed by the long opening and the stagnant scenes from Rivendell. Fans of narrative drama that relies on marvelous acting and dialogue within static scenes to move the story along, are equally likely to be disappointed in how the movie progresses when it travels, as the action seems strung together much like a relay race – one action sequence handing off to another. This film tries to straddle the line between the two types of films and, as a result, doesn’t really feel at home in either. However, for those willing to sit back and be entertained by the choices of Director Peter Jackson, trusting that the finished product is greater than the sum of its parts, the film is a fun, entertaining, visual spectacle.

My Grade: 85/100

A Word about the Technology:

While this is primarily a review of the movie, it does seem prudent to at least acknowledge one of the biggest talking points of the movie; it being the first major film to adopt a new, 48 fps frame rate. The 48 fps (or HFR) version of The Hobbit is only available on approximately 450 screens across America. Having seen both the 3D HFR and the more “traditional” 2D 24 fps versions, I would recommend the former to those that have the opportunity to experience it. Combining 48 fps with the current trend of developing films for 3D, The Hobbit is a visual spectacle unlike any other out there. However, it should be noted that 48 fps is merely an enhancement to the experience, and not something necessary to enjoy the movie.

For those still undecided about which format to choose, here are a few points to consider, as, it seems that even seasoned film critics that get paid big money by major outlets seem to be a bit confused on the subject.

What HFR is not:

  • HFR is not a means by which the brightness in scenes is increased to combat the dulling that occurs when a film is shot in 3D. Brightness is entirely a matter of lighting and post-production doctoring
  • HFR is not a higher definition picture. The resolution of the images remains unchanged regardless of what speed the movie is shot or viewed at.
  • HFR does not “speed up” the images on the screen.

What HFR is:

  • HFR means less eye-strain when viewing 3D images. By providing more frames per second, the depth, motion, and transitions are handled more by the picture and less by the eye, this means that there is far less demand on the eye to compensate when viewing 3D pictures on a 2D screen.
  • HFR does mean that the eye sees more images per second for any image on screen. In static, slow-moving scenes, this is not terribly important. Where the difference becomes readily apparent, is in action sequences or in any scene where the camera is panning across a stationary object. In the day of high resolution, it is counterintuitive to then blur the fine details by filming at lower speeds. By filming in HFR, Jackson preserves the details in presentation every time an object or the camera moves. This means that, among other things, fight scenes are now crisp and clear, instead of blurred motion in between static shots of combatants. This also means that the numerous shots of the breathtaking scenery that make up New Zealand remain crisp and clear as the camera pans across long stretches of rolling hills.

A Note about the “So-called Soap Opera Effect”

48 fps HFR has come under fire for giving The Hobbit a soap opera feel. No longer does the movie “feel” like a movie, but it looks cheap and plastic. I can say that the first part is accurate, but that the second part is not being entirely fair. The movie does not look like a 24 fps film. There’s a very good reason for that. It was neither shot at 24 fps, nor was it shot on film. It was shot digitally at 48 fps. The combination of 48 fps, digital capture, and high resolution creates a hyper-real image. Motion blur associated with watching a movie on film is nearly eliminated. Even static shots are crisper and clearer. The softening that comes from 24 fps does not exist. This means that everything stands out more, including the fact that the movie is shot on a set and is not part of real life. Lighting, costume, and set designers in conjunction with post-production editing, are largely responsible for the final image.

Another reason for the soap opera effect is that 48 fps is very, very close to 50 fps. 50 fps is the interlaced frame rate of television outside of North America. Without getting into a great deal of technical jargon that mostly only video engineers care about, the frame rate that a person sees in a television show determined by medium, budget, and geographic location. I may, at some point in the future take the time to explain the differences in frame rates, but that is a separate subject. All that needs to be pointed out here is that 48 fps in The Hobbit while having the hyper-real look sometimes associated with soap operas, manages to retain the hyper-real look even in 3D and during fast-paced action sequences. And it is during those times, when the camera is moving about, that 48 fps makes all the difference. Gone are juddering and shakiness as well.

Having seen The Hobbit in both 3D HFR and “traditional” 24 fps 2D, I can say that any negatives associated with the picture that result from HFR are far outweighed by the positives that also result.

There. That’s all I am going to say about HFR versus traditional. The reality is, the traditional 24 fps viewings were still filmed at 48 fps, they were simply been converted to 24 fps in post-production. So the minuses still exists, while the positives do not.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

The movie itself is highly entertaining. Unlike many fantasy films, no part of The Hobbit seems overly far-fetched (the escape from Goblintown being the possible exception). As a stand-alone film, the pacing does feel a bit off. The introduction is really three introductions. First, the audience is re-introduced to the opening moments of The Fellowship of the Ring. Then, that particular introduction frames the background to the upcoming story, giving a visually stunning explanation of how the dwarves were driven from their home by Smaug. After all of this is addressed, the story then begins. But it begins by introducing the audience to 15 characters; Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and 13 dwarves. This takes time and, quite frankly, there is no way to rush it. To his credit, Jackson did compress the introduction of the dwarves a bit, but he also relied very heavily on Tolkien’s narrative as provided in the novel to dictate the flow of the scene.

There is considerable griping in regards to a 300 page novel being turned into three 3-hour movies. This is quite disingenuous however. It is true that The Hobbit is only roughly 300 pages. But the movie is not, nor, since Jackson took over, has it ever been solely based on the novel. The movie also includes material from other Tolkien works pertaining to Middle Earth. No one seemed to be complaining when The Hobbit was planned out as two movies clocking in at 5 hours. But, now, with even more material added, there seems to be issue with stretching things to three films at 8.25 hours.

If looked at as a film by itself, the movie has pacing issues. If looked at as the opening of 8+ hours of story-telling, then the pacing of the film seems rather balanced. Personally, I can think of two action sequences (and 10 minutes) that could easily be excised from the film without sacrificing quality. One of the biggest offenders in this matter is when Jackson adapted a mood-setting passage that helped (in the novel) to establish how the world was so different from the Shire.

When he peeped out in the lightning-flashes, he saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game and catching them, and tossing them down into darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang. (The Hobbit, p. 68)

This passage takes all of 20 seconds to read. Yet, on the screen, it plays out into a 5-minute fight among rock giants, complete with Bilbo and the dwarves riding on the legs of them. Visually, it was somewhat fun. But, in fairness, it added nothing to the film other than more CGI special effects.

The cast performances ranged from good, to exceptional. Martin Freeman makes an excellent Bilbo Baggins. Ian McKellen is, as always, a perfect Gandalf, and Andy Serkis is, once again, eerily, creepily perfect as Gollum. Richard Armitage does not disappoint as Thorin Oakenshield. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast does solid work, with Sylvester McCoy turning in a humorous take on the “extra material” character, Radagast the Brown.
The story itself is a very straight-forward adventure quest one. It is adapted from one of the more beloved children’s books of the last century. This leaves little room for the story to stink.

Once the movie leaves the Shire behind, it quickly abandons the light-hearted feeling associated with the novel. The overall tone of the movie is much darker, and, the developments are somewhat more violent. A humorous encounter with trolls that, in the novel, is non-violent but somewhat scary (will the dwarves be eaten or not) is turned into a fight sequence with the same end-result. The escape from Goblintown is similarly transformed from a flight through passages to escape the goblins into a somewhat epic CGI-filled battle. Ironically, this is also the one time where some of the silliness returns.

I have heard some folks complain about the time spent (especially in Rivendell) explaining various things, like the naming of the blades. While it is true that such scenes could likely be cut, one of the main things to keep in mind is that, a big reason for the Tolkien fandom is that time was taken to include these details. Tolkien’s world is detail rich. Peter Jackson, wisely IMHO, chooses to err on the side of keeping many of the details rather than risk the movie playing out like the Rankin-Bass animation from 1977.

Could Peter Jackson have tightened up the movie some? Sure he could have. But it’s not that long ago where moves were usually 2 hours or just a bit over. As the opening of a three-part epic, the length of the movie is not really an issue.

In the closing moments of the movie, the party looks out across a vast expanse and sees their ultimate destination, the Lonely Mountain. I must say, it does look like it is about two movies away.

Best Interests of Baseball (Conclusion)

So egregious was the treatment of the Expos by MLB and Commissioner Selig that a group of Canadian business interests associated with the Montreal Expos tried to file a RICO complaint, listing Jeff Loria, David Samson, and Bud Selig as defendants. An arbitration panel ruled that, although Loria had not exactly done business in a stand-up manner, he had not committed fraud as it was laid out in the complaint. Selig promptly announced on the final day of the 2004 that Montreal Expos baseball was being relocated to Washington, D.C. under new ownership. This time the movie did not have a happy ending. But it did have a sequel.

Despite winning the World Series in 2003, Jeff Loria ordered the dismantling of the team, selling off all the high-priced talent until, in 2006, the Marlins were operating with a 40-player team payroll under $15 million dollars (smaller market Colorado spent over $40 million).  Jeff Loria would go on to be the subject of SEC investigations and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association would cite him for pocketing revenue sharing dollars instead of reinvesting them in the team and talent. In 2008, despite over five years of pocketing massive amounts of money from MLB, Jeff Loria went to the Miami commissioners and made it clear that, without a publicly funded stadium, baseball would be dead in Miami and all the money and work dumped into the team to that point would have been for naught. Unlike Montreal, Miami decided in a very controversial move (that led to the SEC investigations and the ousting of several politicians) to publicly fund a stadium for Loria and the Marlins. The move would go on to burden the Miami-Dade taxpayers to the tune of over $634 million dollars, all to save baseball in the area. The amount would represent approximately 80% of the cost of the new stadium.

In 2012 Marlins Park was completed. To usher in the new era, Loria and Samson proceeded to spend wildly on talent to establish goodwill within the community.  The team negotiated over $100 million in heavily back-loaded, guaranteed contracts. Superstar Free Agent Shortstop Jose Reyes was signed, along with star pitchers Mark Buehrle, and Heath Bell. Spirited Latino manager Ozzie Guillen was brought in to lead the team. The Marlins even made a serious run at MLB’s biggest and brightest star, Albert Pujols. Negotiations with Pujols broke down however, when the team refused to include a no-trade clause that would guarantee Pujols would not be moved at a future date. It was a matter of organizational policy that no-trade clauses were never issued, and, no exception would be made for the game’s biggest star and future Hall of Famer.

Before the first pitch of the regular season, turmoil developed on the team. Ozzie Guillen made public remarks that upset a large portion of Miami’s Cuban expatriates. The team’s star shortstop balked at moving to third base, claiming, quite rightfully, he was a lesser player there. However, he was forced to move anyway in order to make room for newly acquired Reyes.  Despite the talent that was brought in during the offseason, the Marlins still fielded a team that was largely made up of developing players. This, combined with personality conflicts between Guillen and the team, led the Marlins to have a rough start. On July 25, 2012 with the Marlins holding a record of 45-53, Hanley Ramirez was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The trade of arguably the team’s best young pitcher, Anibal Sanchez, to the Detroit Tigers soon followed.  The Tigers rode Sanchez’s arm to the World Series; while the Marlins, not sure of their identity, and fielding an even more inexperienced team, finished in last place.

After the season, on October 22, 2012, major offseason acquisition Heath Bell was moved, along with $8million to the Arizona Diamondbacks for a minor league player. The next day, on October 23, Ozzie Guillen was fired as manager. Less than one month later, on November 13, the Marlins sent team ace Josh Johnson, newly acquired Mark Buehrle, newly acquired Jose Reyes, super-utility speedster Emilio Bonifacio, and catcher John Buck, along with $8.5 million to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for a troubled star shortstop in Yunel Escobar and a handful of minor league prospects.  Escobar, making $5 million was then traded less than two weeks later to the cross-state Tampa Bay Rays for a middle-quality prospect.

Less than one year after the Miami taxpayers watched Jeff Loria usher in a new era of baseball to the community, the entire new product was gone, every last piece of it. The team that went into the season with high hopes and over $100 million in payroll for the season was gone. In 2013 the Miami Marlins will be fielding a team with payroll obligations, including the $12.5 million owed to Toronto and Arizona, of just under $34million. The Marlins will be spending a fraction over $20 million on talent actually fielded by the team (by comparison there will be 21 players in MLB in 2013 making more than that individually). Because he was developed by the Miami system, Giancarlo Stanton, the team’s rising star, and a bonafide up-and-coming superstar of MLB, will be making league minimum while playing on a team filled with minor leaguers.  In 2014, after subtracting the final $4 million dollars to be sent to Arizona, Loria’s Marlins are currently slated to spend $1.5 million on guaranteed contracts.

So much for saving baseball in Miami. The night that Loria shipped out all the newly acquired talent and the back-loaded contracts, Giancarlo Stanton turned to social media outlet Twitter. “Alright, I’m pissed off!!! Plain & Simple.” Giancarlo Stanton was upset. The people of Miami were upset. Baseball fans and enthusiasts were upset. Yet, unlike during the McCourt fiasco, Bud Selig was nowhere to be found defending the “best interests of baseball.”  It’s beginning to look like the sequel may end even more tragically than Loria’s first go-around at recreating Major League. At least the people of Montreal are only saddled with bad memories, and not a generation’s worth of tax debt.

A few days ago I asked a very pointed question:  If an owner fielding a competitive team that finds a way to clean up his own financial messes can be stripped of a team, then how is it an owner found to be in violation of the CBA, that fails to regularly field competitive teams, and may have defrauded an entire city still has his team?

Answer: Bud Selig takes care of his friends, especially those from the days when MLB played fast and loose with the good-ol’-boy glad-handing of franchises.

Not too long ago, the country saw a Powerball jackpot of over $500 million awarded. I admit, I had five tickets invested in the drawing. Going into the night of the drawing, I wondered; if I won, would I have enough financial clout to partner with others and run Jeff Loria out of Major League Baseball? After all, if Bud Selig isn’t going to look out for the best interests of the game I was raised on, someone needs to.  I’m not sure I’m up for the task, but at this point, I would sure be willing to try.

Best Interests of Baseball III

Unhappy with the end result of the negotiations and the financial resources that would be required to continue fielding the 1994 team; the Expos’ managing general partner, Claude Brochu ordered a fire sale of all talent. A year later the team’s General Manager quit over the decision to dismantle a quality franchise. By 1999, the team was a shell of itself. Talk of the team being a target for contraction started to swirl. Enter Jeff Loria and stepson David Samson.

In 1989, Morgan Creek Productions and Mirage Pictures developed a film, Major League, starring Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen, Corbin Bernson, Bob Uecker, and little known up-and-comers Wesley Snipes, Rene Russo, and Denis Haysbert. The premise of the film was that the owner of the perennially terrible Cleveland Indians had died, leaving his team to his spoiled, self-absorbed, middle-aged daughter. The daughter desperately wanted to move the team to Miami, but, in order to do so; she needed to find a way to exploit a loop-hole in the team contract in regards to poor attendance. So, she arranged to sabotage the team by hiring scrub players, and providing sub-par facilities and accommodations. The plan was, the team would be so bad, that attendance would drop below the threshold, and she would be free to move the team to Miami. Unfortunately for her, the plan backfired; the Indians took the challenge personally and went on to win the American League Pennant. I remember going to see the film with my father. We enjoyed the comedy, laughing throughout. It’s amazing how something can be so funny in fiction and yet, so sad and tragic in real life.

In December of 1999, American art dealer Jeffrey Loria purchased Claude Brochu’s ownership stake and made himself the Expos’ chairman, CEO, and managing general partner, and naming his stepson, David Samson, executive vice-president. His first act after acquiring the team was to instill some goodwill by spending big on talent while trying to force Montreal to fund the building of a new stadium. Loria insisted that the team simply would not be viable without one. With schools and hospitals were closing due to a lack of public funds, the province decided it could not justify funding a stadium. About the same time, Loria allowed the television rights and rights to English language radio broadcasts of the all the team’s games to expire. Suddenly, the only way to see the Expos on television is if the other team happened to be broadcasting the game, and no one could catch an Expos home game in English on the radio. Attendance dropped precipitously. In 2001 Loria fired the long-time face of the franchise, former player and current manager Felipe Alou while watching attendance drop below minor league attendance levels.

Later that year, Major League Baseball voted to contract two teams, the Minnesota Twins and the Montreal Expos. However, an injunction was won by the people responsible for Minnesota’s Metrodome, the home of the Twins, preventing the team from being contracted as they had not yet fulfilled their commitment to the stadium. This forced MLB to abandon the plans for contraction for both teams. But, Montreal was not off the hook yet.

In 2001, the ownership of the Boston Red Sox decided it was time to move on. The team was eventually purchased by a group led by John Henry, who just so happened to own the Florida Marlins at the time. Since it is a conflict to own multiple teams, Henry divested himself of the Florida Marlins, selling the team to Expos owner, Jeff Loria, for a little over $150 million, $38.5 million of which was provided for through an interest-free loan made by MLB to Loria. Major League Baseball then turned around and purchased the Expos for $120 million and assumed operational control. Only two years prior, Loria had purchased the team for a paltry $67 million.

Upon completing the sale of the Expos, Loria took the entire executive front office, scouting reports, computers, and all other assets he could with him to South Florida, leaving the incoming manager, Frank Robinson with nothing but players and a decrepit stadium with which to field a team. In the true spirit of Major League, the players rallied and made a push for the playoffs in 2003. Despite Bud Selig’s decision to move 22 of the Expos “home” games to San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Expos endured the long travel and shoddy facilities and, on August 28, 2003 were in a five-team-tie to go to the playoffs with only a month to go. With a budget somewhere between $30-40 million dollars (the New York Yankees spent $153 million on payroll alone), and no true home facilities, the Expos were turning in a successful season. That’s when Bud Selig decided that it was not in the best interests of the game to afford the team the extra $50,000 necessary to facilitate the September call-ups of minor league players, a move that would allow veteran players to remain fresh and heal small aches while up-and-coming talent helped push teams past the finish line. While every other team (all 29 of them) was able to call up minor league talent, an exhausted Montreal/San Juan Expos limped through the final month of the season, posting a 12-15 and finishing eight games out of the final wild card slot. Meanwhile Jeff Loria’s Marlins would go on to win the 2003 World Series.

Best Interests of Baseball Part II

Growing up in my grandmother’s house was an interesting experience. Although she was a devout Catholic, the real religion in the house was the national pastime, Major League Baseball. By the time I was six years old, I understood more about the ins and outs of the game of baseball than many grown men. Her team, and thus my team, was the Chicago Cubs. This was in the days before cable television, brought the likes of the Braves and the Cubs into households across America, and the only games to watch were the games televised by one of the big three networks, ABC, NBC, or CBS. As a result, although the Cubs were the household favourite, I was raised to appreciate the game as a whole, and to find players on all teams across both leagues to watch and admire. Locally, the teams to follow were the Arizona State Sun Devils and Phoenix Giants, the AAA affiliate of the San Francisco Giants.
Such close association with the Giants organization led to an appreciation of the National League team, but e team that always stood out to me as fascinating was the Montreal Expos. Looking back, it’s hard to put my finger on what it was about the team that so fascinated me. Perhaps it was the funny looking red, white, and blue “EMB” logo they sported (though die-hard fans from Montreal would be quick to point out that, despite the order they appear in the logo, the official colours of the team were actually blue, white, and red). Maybe it was the really unique stadium they played in, Olympic Stadium, which was a domed stadium with a great big circular hole in the top that rather defeated the purpose of being a domed stadium. Or maybe it was because whenever I watched games being played in Montreal, there were signs all over the stadium written in French, adding an extra layer of mystique to the storied game. Undoubtedly, all of these things held certain amounts of appeal for me as a young boy. Yet, more than all those reasons combined, there was my grandmother’s advice. I had spent time learning to appreciate great players, and oh my, did the Montreal Expos have some great talent.
Starting with the team’s inception in 1969, until its demise in 2003, the Montreal Expos were littered with talent. At one point in time they fielded a team complete with current Hall of Famers Gary Carter, Tony Perez, and Andre Dawson. Current strong Hall of Fame candidate Tim Raines was also a part of those teams. In 34 years of existence, the franchise managed to produce at least three, and possibly four players and two managers that went on to the Hall of Fame. By way of comparison, the Minnesota Twins have existed in one form or another since 1894, and in 118 years have only produced 8 players. It is still perplexing to this day that those Montreal teams never finished above third place. Over the years the Montreal Expos would continue to produce loads of gifted talent with names like; perfect game pitcher Dennis Martinez, Larry Walker, Moisés Alou, Maquis Grissom, Cliff Floyd, Vladimir Guerrero, Andrés Galarraga, and Liván Hernandez, all making their way through the organization as well as sure-fire future Hall of Famers Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez.
In 1994 fortune became the franchise’s fickle friend. It was a historic season all across the game, but for all the wrong reasons. In 1994 Matt Williams of the San Francisco Giants had 43 home runs after 112 games played. That put him on pace to hit 62 for the season, which would have set a new single-season record for home runs, breaking the mark of 61 set by Roger Maris all the way back in 1961. The Montreal Expos, with a record of 74-40 were six games ahead of the second place Atlanta Braves, on pace to win 105 games on the season, a total rarely reached. The United States and Canada were abuzz with excitement and the Montreal Expos were on the verge of finally breaking through and making their mark. Then tragedy struck. On August 12, 1994, the player’s went on strike. Negotiations progressed slowly, extending into the fall, prompting the cancellation of the rest of the season and also the World Series. There would be no historic run to break a hallowed record, and the Montreal Expos would never again see a level of success that would carry them into postseason play.