Monday, July 21, 2014

The Failure of The Miami Heat's "Big Three"

Two NBA championships and four finals appearances in four years hardly sounds like a failure, but that’s exactly what it was for the Miami Heat and the “Big Three,” who have now broken up for good. Under normal circumstances that would be a pretty ridiculous statement, but this was definitely not ordinary. For The Heat anything short of a dynasty marked failure, and two championships is no dynasty. So why did the Big Three experiment have such high expectations and end so abruptly? Well it was their own hubris that got them in trouble.
The Heat (mostly LeBron) brought those expectations upon themselves. LeBron James’ “Decision” left a bad taste in many basketball fans when he abandoned the place he had grown up, good ol’ “Midwestern Values” Northeast Ohio, to go win championships with his friends in flashy South Beach Miami. It didn’t help that he did this in pretty much the most obliviously self-centered ways possible, but more on that later. The first thing the Big Three did, before even playing together, was throw a huge celebration in their own honor, where James claimed they would win more than eight championships together. The bar was set high.


Flash forward four years, The Heat have just been beaten down in one of the most one sided final series in recent memory. They managed to eke out one narrow win, but lost the remaining four games by at least fifteen points each. This was arguably more embarrassing for James then when the same Spurs swept him in the finals the sole time he took the Cavaliers to a championship series. LeBron admitted that free agency wasn’t even on his mind at the end of the season, but after seeing how his team held up against the best of the Western Conference that changed quickly.
The Heat never were as good as they appeared, sure they dominated the East, but since the decline of the aging Celtics, and seemingly never-ending injury to Derrick Rose, the only team with even a slight chance to compete with them in the conference had been Indiana. It was a rude wakeup call when the Heat, who had met almost no resistance getting to the finals, were beaten like a drum by San Antonio. In all honesty five or six teams from the West would likely have beaten The Heat in a playoff series this past season.

Why were the Heat simply not good enough? It was because of the Big Three; with three superstars they lacked other talent. Dwayne Wade wasn’t the player he was when he won the finals MVP in 2006; in fact, he wasn’t even the player he was in 2010 when LeBron joined the Heat, age was beginning to get to him. Bosh was still a worthy sidekick but he played out of position as the Heat didn’t have a true center. That was all the help James had, the rest of the team was subpar, just like his 2007 Cavs team. Unlike Miami, Cleveland had actually greatly improved since 2010. Without LeBron the team struggled but were rewarded with draft picks, including two first overalls in four years including Kyrie Irving. The Cavs were brimming with young talent.

It now was obvious to James that the team had abandoned had a much brighter future than his current one. It was time to head back and look to the future. Eight championships in Miami was never going to happen, even if he snagged a few more, he was never going to surpass Jordan or Kobe or in number of championships. So James could either; keep making it to the finals in Miami as a villain and lose to the West, or return as a home town hero and have a chance to raise the Cavaliers to greatness one day after their young stars develop and win the first title in franchise history. The choice seems obvious to me.

Thus ended the failed experiment of the Big Three. Perhaps if he had won another, maybe back in 2010 things would have been different; after all, Shaq won three titles with the Lakers before losing one and fleeing the city, and that was considered a rousing success, but it was apparently not to be this time. James once again left a slew of loyal fans for greener pastures, but this time around he was smart about it and came off looking like a good guy, so he got a pass. In 2010 James had an hour long televised special to announce where he would be “Taking his talents” before letting his own team know he was leaving. This time he wrote a little humble letter, and instead of talking about how easy it would be to win multiple championships, he said it would be difficult and take time. He even got made fun of wearing an awful shirt that looked like a tablecloth so this time he used an old photo of himself in a classy suit. People said he matured, but honestly he just did the opposite of what got him in trouble last time around. Of course, he did bring up points about how Northern Ohio needs him more than Miami, which is true, as after his departure the area felt it economically, and while I may take his reasoning with a grain of salt, I’ll give him credit there.

In the wake of all this there were still two members of the Big Three in Miami after their leader’s departure. Everyone assumed that Wade, who has spent his career in Miami would stay, but it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that, without James, Bosh, the master of photobombing, would depart, most likely for the Rockets. Except that second part didn’t happen. Bosh didn’t ditch Miami the second he realized he was the best player left and there no longer a realistic chance to win a championship. He resigned with the team. The experiment failed, but Bosh didn’t jump ship, he stayed loyal to his fans and teammates, and will become a real leader on the team.

So where does this all leave us? Well first of all, the East is weaker than ever, It’ll probably be at least another five years before a team from the East can win a championship, depending on how long it takes for James to do it with Cleveland. With the downfall of the Heat, the East, with its abundance of bad teams, is just as open as the West, with its good teams. Right now it looks like The Pacers have the best chance of being the lucky team that will lose in the finals next year, but just lost Lance Stephenson, so who knows? Of course a big variable in all of this is former MVP Derrick Rose. His return to the Bulls, along with newly signed Pau Gasol makes the team a dangerous contender. Of course The Heat gutted as they are, can still probably at least secure home court advantage in a playoff series with Bosh and Wade sticking around, and with an abundance of cap space they can hopefully add some much needed depth.
Point is that the super team of 2010 just didn’t work. The chest pounding, boastful team came up short and James saw the failure and left, now trying a much more humble approach, intentionally setting the bar as low as possible. In all honesty I’m glad James went back to Cleveland, it needed him and perhaps he needed to go back, away from the bandwagoners, and repair the relationship with the real fans he once spurned. Bosh and Wade’s decisions to re-sign with the Heat also speak volumes about their character, the bandwagon fans may now have switched to Cleveland, but there are still plenty of real Heat fans in Florida.

The era of the Big Three is over, but a much more interesting time is about to begin. Hopefully with many more Chris Bosh photobombs.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Gravity is a Hollow Spectacle

Awards season is over, and I breathed a sigh of relief when Gravity failed to take home best picture at the Academy Awards. Still, I couldn't help but be a bit bothered when it grabbed an award it definitely did not deserve in the best director category, as well as being nominated for a ridiculous amount of others. Meanwhile other far better films like; Place Beyond the Pines, Elysium, and Rush were not even nominated for a single Oscar. Gravity follows in a recent tradition of films that put special effects above story, along with Life of Pie, and of course the one that started the craze, Avatar. All of these movies are visually stunning but lack compelling plot. However, none of the previous offenders have been so devoid of interesting story, characters and social commentary as Gravity.

Now I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I have something against modern special effects, far from it, I love them. They allow filmmakers to do some amazing things, things they would never have been able to do in the past. Many of my favorite films from the last few years, like Inception and Hugo, have been loaded with special effects. The problem arises when the plot exists to prop up the special effects, instead of the other way around. Gravity might look amazing, but when the audience can’t connect to the characters in a character based film, there is a big problem.

I remember the first time I saw a trailer for Gravity, which I believe consisted of about 90% Sandra Bullock’s annoying cries, I laughed in the middle of the theater because it looked so terrible. Instead of setting up the plot or introducing the characters the trailer was a single scene that told viewers all they would need to expect from the movie; Sandra Bullock is in space and things go wrong, oh and the movie looks amazing. Then I saw that Alfonso Cuaron was directing and I realized right then and there what kind of movie this would be. After seeing Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban I felt like I had a pretty good feel for the kind of movie he makes. Both Harry Potter 3 and Children of Men are some of the coolest looking movies around, but seem to sacrifice plot for stunning visuals. Even so, both are still pretty good movies (although not as good as they should have been) because they have an advantage Gravity does not, they are based on novels. The novels have complex plots, and even while those plots are partially removed or changed they still are the backbones of the movies. Without a strong starting point like that the plot of Gravity is paper thin and is made up entirely of Sandra Bullock’s character moving from one destination to the next.

The movie’s runtime is only about 90 minutes but somehow it manages to feel longer then the second Hobbit movie. The reason for that is simple, nothing happens. The second half is worse than the first because (spoilers) at least in the first there is some dialogue between characters, while in the second it’s just the ever aggravating Sandra Bullock talking to herself. Of course there is nothing wrong with a solitary character struggling conceptually speaking; it’s the execution in Gravity that is wrong. Cast Away, for example, is a brilliant movie because Tom Hank’s character, Chuck Nolan, is one that we as an audience cared about on a deeper level. In fact I actually care more about Wilson the volleyball than Sandra Bullock’s character, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way.

The reason we can connect more with a volleyball than Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock’s character) is due to the fact that Chuck treats him like a real person, he has meaningful conversations with him and Wilson floating away is one of the saddest moments of the film because he has kept Chuck (relatively) sane for the past five years, and was his only friend. Once Wilson is gone Chuck has lost the only thing in the world he had left, we see him at his lowest, which makes his salvation more spectacular. At some point in the movie Dr. Stone reveals she had a son who died, which explains why she is such a sad mopey character. It also explains that she lost her only motivation in life, which makes her struggle to get back to Earth alive more symbolic and meaningful as she decides she has something to live for. Regrettably, her change from mopey astronaut who has given up on life to mopey astronaut who wants to live happens, not over the course of the movie, but in one scene where she hallucinates/dreams about George Clooney and has a brief interaction with someone she can't understand.

The rest of the movie is just Dr. Stone getting from one place from another while we are hit over the head with how visually stunning the film is. She travels from one space station to the next, each one is miraculously intact until the moment she needs to leave it, when the cloud of space debris return and destroys the station she is currently on, but luckily for her, not the next one she needs to get to, until of course she reaches it and the process starts again. Basically Dr. Stone travels at the speed of plot, but makes sure to take breaks to do things like pose for an overly long shot where she looks like a child in a womb, which Stanley Kubrick did better back in the 60’s.

So really, why am I so upset by the success of Gravity? It’s because despite the fact that it is a terrible movie, it still was received overwhelmingly positively by; critics, moviegoers, and the Academy. Its success is a bad thing because it means that the thing that really matters in a movie is not plot or character development, but special effects. The more that films like Gravity and Avatar succeed, the more they dominate the film landscape and other more original thought provoking films are passed over in favor of simplistic hollow films. Think I’m exaggerating? Well, Avatar 4 has already been announced despite Avatar 2 not even having entered pre-production. On the other hand Blade Runner, one of the best science fiction films ever made, actually lost money at the box office back in 1982 and Ridley Scott’s planned sequel still hasn’t arrived after 32 years.

Gravity’s message comes across sloppily; Cuaron attempts to make us connect to Stone by giving her a child who died pointlessly, and then having Clooney’s heroic sacrifice awaken her once again giving her life meaning. Clooney’s death scene is nearly identical to a scene from the much reviled Mission to Mars, and it’s just as unmoving. Even Michael Bay pulled off a better scene where a character sacrificed himself to save someone else in Armageddon. For the life of me I can’t understand why such a poorly acted, thinly plotted excuse for a movie has such universal renown other than this; it was a great experience. However, film isn’t about taking the viewer on a cool ride; it’s about telling a story, or at the very least making a connection to the audience.

There are all kinds of theories about the deeper meaning of the film, which isn’t surprising to me; when something is particularly shallow it can be interpreted any number of ways. The film certainly provides a sense of awe, but for all the wrong reasons. The only way Cuaron seems to be able to connect to audiences is through visuals, so instead of having a relatable character we can root for, or even like, the things that are meant to move us are include Stone crawling from the mud in some kind of weird visual metaphor for evolution. Gravity totally fails when compared to the films it emulates, (or rips-off if I'm being honest) movies like; Moon, Apollo 132001: A Space Odyssey, or even Wall-E. All of these films deal with many of the same issues that Gravity touches on like; isolation, hope, making a connection to your fellow humans and dealing with your own humanity, but these better films address these themes in a much deeper and more profound manner.

It’s honestly extremely saddening to me that the movies which often boast such incredible new special effects are so bland in terms of plot and character. It doesn’t have to be this way of course; Jurassic Park was groundbreaking in its use of CGI, but that wasn’t what made it great. It stands the test of time because we connect to the characters and relate to the movie on a deeper level than “Man, those dinosaurs look cool.” Gollum in The Two Towers is another great example. Modern technology brought to life a classic literary character and it let us see his tragic story in a way we never could before. Special effects are one of the greatest tools a director can use, but the danger comes when the film exists just to show off its own technical merit and simply look pretty.