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Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Casual Critic — Coach Carter

Samuel L. Jackson and a theme of basketball — an actor who has appeared in a few movies I like and my favorite sport — gave me hope that Coach Carter would help supress my building reluctance regarding sports movies and books. But with a story that seemed to miss the main reason this true story had ever hit the headlines and played up as many clich├ęs as it could without becoming fiction, the film merely strengthened my growing desire to avoid such entertainment options.

Ken Carter (Jackson) returns to his old high school in the tough northern California city of Richmond to turn a squad of underachieving misfits into winners, both on and off the court. Success on the court comes must faster than it does in the court, leading the coach to shut down his team until his players all meet the academic standards they agreed to. Standards set by Carter are higher than those set by the school.

There is just nothing all that special about this film, except for the fact that it is based on a true story. It falls into the inevitable trap of almost every sport-themed film: basketball is basketball. We get the tough-guy coach drilling his team, and pushing them to extremes. A lot of it seemed like a modernized, hip-hop version of Hoosiers, even to the point of showing similar drills and endless running to be fresher at the end of games.

Strangely, Carter's "lockout" of his players until they reached certain standards, which is apparently what brought his story into the national eye, never really feels like the center of the story. This is what made the story different, fresh, and while it was certainly dealt with, the lockout didn't get the attention it should have.

According to the DVD documentary, the lockout became a political volleyball. The California governor, Rush Limbaugh, and the Today Show all got into act. I don't necessarily think the film needed a cameo by Katie Couric, but a more thorough look at, for instance, the lack of support Carter got from the school was in order. It was clear, but the question of why is merely grazed over.

DVD extras also revealed several scenes that I thought fleshed out the characters in a much-needed way. For instance, Carter's son went out of his way to play for his father, leaving a better school to transfer to Richmond. Yes, we see some of the difficulties it brings, but never truly feel the friction. Granted, this is a true story, and maybe it wasn't a big deal. But one of the deleted scenes between father and son at least let you understand it more. Another deleted scene helped explain why Carter pushed his team so hard to achieve more than the standard set by the school. Still another explained at least one question about how a player returned to the team at one point, which is at best brushed passed in the film.

Jackson is ok in the film, but holds par for the course in this one by not doing anything special. Coach Carter may tell the story of an inspiring man looking to do good, but it is just entertaining as a film.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Casual Critic — Pete Rose's My Prison Without Bars

I finally made it down to the new ballpark last week, Citizen's Bank Park for those more tolerant of corporate America's increasing grip on life. Though it was a great game and the Phillies' new home certainly did nothing to deter my rebirth, albeit gradual, as a fan of baseball over the last couple of years, another feeling stayed with me.

Circling the stadium was like walking the boards down the shore. Games, shops, and food stands, everything but rides, have come to baseball. In fact, the first pitch came and went seemingly unnoticed by most folks. Going to the game, it seems, is now a social event.

As a kid, I was a die-hard fan of Phillies, and 1980 will live in my heart forever. My devotion followed my favorite player, Lonnie Smith, to the St. Louis Cardinals leading to the joy of watching my adopted team win a couple more Series. Those were days of seeing every pitch I possibly could and devouring box scores. But Smith's ultimate trip to the American League and later the Atlanta Braves left my loyalties homeless and my love of the game withered.

Recent unemployment led to having plenty of time on my hands, and the romanticism of the timeless, day-in, day-out nature of baseball is again finding a place in my heart. The Phils have once again become the team I root for. Yet, as I struggle to get back to die-hard status, and with all due respect to my man Lonnie, I can't help but think baseball is missing something it seems determined to never retrieve.

Pete Rose.

Yeah, Lonnie was the young guy I latched-on to, learning the game as announcers and news reports chronicled his early education as a pro player. It was a habit of mine to latch on to the younger players as I grew in my fandom of the local teams. Randall Cunningham, for better or worse, was my guy in football. Hersey Hawkins, along with Jimmy Lynam in the coaching ranks, expanded my knowledge of hoops. And while I loved the style of manufacturing runs Lonnie Smith excelled at, Rose was the living legend I got to watch roaming the diamond as a kid.

Playing on my knees in our basement with my brothers, I still "crouched" to bat because Rose did. I wanted to slide head-first or bull somebody over because Rose did. I didn't mind my hair over my ears because Rose had his it that way.

And Pete brought us 1980. Pete was baseball.

Last year I finally read Rose's book. Somehow the kid in me didn't really believe he was the grumbly guy I’d heard would brush passed kids seeking autographs. And, somehow, his version of the betting-on-baseball stuff would be make it ok. He'd be the pure, nice baseball legend kids back then like me imagined him to be.

Unfortunately, Rose's My Prison Without Bars finally killed any naivety still living in the sports fan in me. There was just something seedy about his take, not just on the scandal that has him banned from baseball, but life in general. He's a bit too proud of his tough-guy image. Worse yet, I had a sense, at times, that he fell into the "nothing's my fault, I'm addicted" attitude of the '80s.

Despite Rose having bet on baseball, he should be in the Hall of Fame. Even though I hate the argument that says guys already in the Hall have done much worse — a logic that pervades society far too much in general — the fact is, we are talking about the Hall of Fame, not life. Rose epitomized everything we want our heroes to be, at least on the field. He hustled on every play, truly played to win, did all the little things, and, in fact, won. We’re not talking about some scrappy guy who struggled to make the squad. Pete was doing ''the little things'' long after folks started charting his successful bid to become the all-time hit leader.

I'm certainly not sold on his total reinstatement. He is clearly guilty of the betting charges, but he's served his time. He's not just a Hall of Famer, he's one of the best ever, and yet can't even participate in celebrations of his former championship teams. Don't forget his infractions, but let the man have his due and allow him into the Hall and baseball stadiums on official business.

I look forward to what I hope are many more trips to the ballpark. I'll live with yuppies and the carnival around the game. And I'll remember Pete Rose played the game better than any future Hall of Fame inductee I'll ever see.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Casual Critic — Reaction to Rick Santorum's It Takes a Family

The headline grabbed me better than any I've seen in years: "Senator's book puts blame on Liberalism." Damn straight, baby! While I haven't yet read Senator Rick Santorum's It Takes a Family, I think it's about time somebody in this country stood up and said what millions are feeling.

In the Inquirer story I read, Santorum is criticized by Robert P. Casey, Jr., and the Democratic Party for having the nerve to suggest that there are too many two-income families. The story said he questions why women find a career more gratifying than staying at home to raise the kids, and wrote, "Here, we can thank the influence of radical feminism." The PA state Democratic Party is quoted as saying "every woman in Pennsylvania should be offended." (I guess the Party all gathered to offer the reply in unison.) Casey is quoted as saying Santorum "is out of step with reality."

Why, exactly, should every woman in Pennsylvania be offended? Is it possible that the only real purpose of the statement was to start the campaign to win Santorum's seat in the next election? Skipping the fact that everything most politicians say is about advancing their careers, let's ask the real question. Why should any woman be offended? In fact, let's go even further. Why is it that whenever anyone dare not pussy-foot around an issue, every liberal-minded anything cries foul?

I don't care about Rick Santorum, but I do care about the seemingly endless stream of liberal garbage that floods the media on a daily basis. Everybody and their brother will tell you how the world's headed to hell in a handbag, but question one thing, try to even comment on one problem that might need fixing, and somebody somewhere is getting media coverage bitching about it. We've become so absurdly politically correct that we are now paralyzed to do, or even say, anything in this country for fear of offending someone.

Isn't it possible that Santorum's view on two-income families is a compliment to women? Most would agree that kids are more troubled today than ever. The suggestion that kids are too unsupervised after school hours, giving them plenty of opportunity to get into trouble, has been made plenty of times. After-school programs don't seem to be reversing this trend. Santorum, as I read it in the paper, merely seems to suggest that mothers might be more suited to the job of guiding their children down productive paths than a government program. Yet, the liberals howl.

I'm not suggesting that the liberal and/or minority view shouldn't be heard. I often share the minority view. My problem is that when the so-called conservative view is expressed, the "story" is always about the reaction to that view. It's as though the conservative, and often the majority, is forced to remain silent or be portrayed as the evil oppressor.

Take the issue of making English our national language. Instead of being a relatively small statement that affirms that we are, in fact, a united group of people in this country, it has become a political hot potato that no one wants to touch. Opponents come up with asinine arguments centered around our country being built upon ideals of freedom, and that our history is one of being "a melting pot." So, let's dispose with common sense, and spend more tax dollars creating Spanish-speaking (or any other language-based) classrooms in public schools to educate the children of immigrants who are too lazy to learn the language of the nation they immigrated to for a better life. In fact, let's require every sign, every public document, website, and whatever else to be printed in every freakin' language ever uttered so no one's ever left out.

School prayer is another hot-button issue these days. Encouraging kids to take a quiet moment of prayer is an affront to people who want a total separation of church and state. As always they pick apart the words of our Forefathers and claim there should never be any mention of God in public places. Maybe they should read the opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

How can there be any doubt that at the very least we, in fact, have the right even in public places to pray, and to offer that right to children? We invoked the name of God in the first sentence of our declaration that we were an independent country.

The list goes on and on. Let's not do background checks on potential gun owners because our Constitution gives us the right to bear arms. Forget that semi-automatics couldn't have ever been dreamed of in colonial days, and that the Framers thought of the Constitution as a living document, allowing for adjustments to change with the times when necessary exactly like the one needed to control guns.

Then, of course, there’s the flag burning issue. Somehow our own principles of freedom allow people to burn the most recognized symbol of our country right here in our own country. Opponents of a law making such an act illegal crow about how it would actually be an affront to our freedoms to ban flag burning. Common sense and our sense of patriotism tell us it's wrong, and those performing the act do it to strike a blow against such feelings, yet liberals cry out that banning it will send us down some slippery slope.

And there we have it. The slippery slope. The rallying cry of every pansy liberal.

Yes, we've all used it. I thought about in the Shiavo case. But why do we have to live in fear of it on every stinkin' issue?

Why can't we say, hey, we can ban flag burning and it won’t lead to Big Brother 'cause we damn well won't let it? Or, just maybe, allowing school prayer won't lead to a state where we all must go to the same (or any) church. And, call me crazy, but maybe a waiting period to buy a gun won't . . . well, I’m not sure how that could possibly lead us down a path of doom, but you get my point.

No, I haven't taken account of every point, some no doubt even valid, involved in the issues I've mentioned. My point is not to offer a thorough look at English as the national language, owning guns, flag burning, separation of church and state, or even Santorum's book. It is, however, my reaction to some of the liberal views that go too far and those who continue to trample the right of others to oppose their views in the name of "freedom" or even "America." When a guy suggests that one solution to society's ills is for mothers with the financial wherewithal to stay home with their kids is called "out of step" and offensive to every woman, something is wrong with our step.

Thursday, July 7, 2005

The Casual Critic — Richard Ford's Independence Day

Richard Ford's Independence Day is filled the type of prose most of us who have ever actually sat down to write the great American novel had in mind. Waxing intelligent about everything and anything under the sun, the novel offers a profile of the average Joe after life has been permanently derailed from the original planned destination.

Frank Bascombe has returned to his life in New Jersey after escaping to Florida, and eventually Europe, in the midst of a mid-life crisis brought on by the death of his youngest son and divorce (which ended The Sportswriter, a novel I read years ago but isn't necessary to understand the sequel). Living in what he calls the Existence Period, Frank has settled into life as a realtor, a part-time father, with a not-all-that-attached girlfriend, and a couple small business interests. He is eventually pulled back into the concerns of daily life over a Fourth of July weekend excursion with his teenage son who is struggling to cope with his own problems.

There seem to be numerous ways of looking at Frank Bascombe, which is no doubt at least partly why Ford took home the Pulitzer Prize for this elaborate character profile. He is at various times incredibly self-aware, hyper-sensitive, caring, incredibly funny, smart, annoying, pampas, awkward, and a pain in the ass . . . just like the rest of us. At times the first-person narration (through Frank) makes it difficult for the reader to get a true feel of reality, or at least a balanced picture of what it may be, though this is part of the profile. The reader has to rely on Frank's ex-wife Ann, and their children, for a balanced picture of Frank.

Frank's relationship with the Markhams, an awkward couple that simply cannot decide on a house due to plenty of their own issues, also offers insight into his personality. He pats himself on the back for not jettisoning them, truly wants to help them find their place in life (literally and figuratively), but at times also just wants to make his commission and move on.

I'm slightly torn about the writing in this piece, but only slightly. At times seemingly adorned to be adorned, I keep coming back to the character. He thinks about everything, so when the writing goes on and on about some awkward moment that most of us would notice but quickly ignore, it's a statement about Frank. The true power of the writing, however, may be when he expands on the nuances of the way people relate to each other, the past, and their own circumstance. It makes you think, which I find as a sign of quality in any book, movie, or the like.

Reading this book is, at times, a chore. It's a bit long, and flirts with losing it's reader on a few occasions. But, overall, it is readable, and allows the reader to delve into a character and a story they will care about. That, coupled with powerful writing, makes Independence Day more than worth reading.