The Two Towers, review by Greg Wright

With the Hobbit films having run their weary course, and 10 years having passed since The Lord of the Rings wrapped up its home video run, the time seems right to revisit my reviews of the Rings films.

The Nature of “Story”

In Tolkien’s novel The Two Towers, Sam and Frodo take a little time to rest and philosophize as they approach Cirith Ungol. They talk about the story in which they find themselves, and about the nature of Story in general. Not surprisingly, Tolkien’s Hobbits observe that we don’t hear about all stories: the unlucky or the unfaithful are not memorialized. No; it’s those who stick it out to the end that we hear about, those who persevere to the conclusion of their quest.

Of course, that’s not entirely true, nor has it ever been. But it’s certainly true of the kind of tale in which Frodo and Sam find themselves. And it’s as true of Peter Jackson’s movies as it is of Tolkien’s books.

two-towers-insetJackson’s is a Different Story

Jackson’s filmed version of The Two Towers is not the same story as Tolkien’s. The titular towers are not even the same as those emphasized by Tolkien: Orthanc and Barad-dûr have been substituted for Minas Morgul and Minas Tirith. The framework of Jackson’s story is provided by the Axis of Evil which hems in and ravages Rohan and Gondor; Tolkien’s framework places more emphasis on the battle for right, waged in the shadowlands which form between darkness and light.

With a different framework come different details. The story line of Jackson’s movie departs from Tolkien’s text in more marked and radical ways than did the previous installment. This comes as no surprise to Tolkien fans, however, as the many teasers and trailers for The Two Towers give up many of Jackson’s secrets fairly easily.

It’s Not Just the Plot

So when seeing Jackson’s movie, we find that Éowyn plays a very different role for Jackson than she did for Tolkien. After all, her voice is featured more, perhaps, in the previews than in the entirety of Tolkien’s novel. We know that she goes not to Dunharrow, but to Helm’s Deep; she gets far closer to Aragorn than Tolkien ever let her. And this is only one of many such details that change in Jackson’s story.

It’s sufficient to say that the well-read Tolkien buff will find plenty to squirm about in The Two Towers, if there’s plenty of squirm in the buff. But such details are really not the way to measure any story, much less Jackson’s. Plot variations are just the window-dressing for what the story is really about. Why is Jackson’s story particularly worth telling? Why is it particularly worth watching?

It’s About Responsibility

In The Fellowship of the Ring, we saw a very different Aragorn and Arwen than Tolkien envisioned. In The Two Towers, we see more of them, and it’s not just more of the same. We also see a very different Theoden, and a different Faramir. Why are they different? Why has Jackson given us consistently conflicted characters where Tolkien served up stock archetypes?

Jackson’s treatment of Arwen in The Two Towers is a good case study. We see more of her influence on Aragorn, physically and metaphysically. We see more of her in flashbacks, and in flash-forwards. We see more of the tension between her and Elrond than Tolkien even included in his Appendices. Arwen, like other Jackson characters, exhibits precisely what drives Jackson’s movies: the tension between being and becoming, and the responsibility that comes with free will and the exercise of choice. You may want to reject what your family has stood for, Jackson tells his audience, but there will be a price to pay if you do. Count the cost, and pay the piper when he calls.

It’s About Redemption

It’s also no spoiler, even for those who have never read the books, that Gandalf makes a return engagement in The Two Towers. Having fallen into the abyss with the Balrog in Moria, he emerges victorious and is sent back to aid in the defense against the onslaught from Mordor and Isengard. For Tolkien, this was a major event. For Jackson, it’s merely a presage of what’s to come. Time after time, Jackson’s characters appear to fall, only to rise again.

Of course, the repeated motif of victory over death points precisely to the evangelium which Tolkien designed into his story: the joyful good news of the victory of mercy over judgment, the victory of life over death. Tolkien called the effect eucastastrophe. Even Jackson’s Boromir, we will remember, redeemed himself with his valor in defense of Merry and Pippin, and with his dying fealty to Aragorn. The Two Towers is all about such redemption, and sets the stage for The Return of the King.

It’s About Faithfulness

Finally, and ultimately, Jackson’s movie is about the faithfulness to be found even in seemingly broken fellowship. The image of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli gamely pursuing the marauding Uruk-hai indelibly defines the guiding heart of The Two Towers. Because of the chosen framework for his story, Jackson’s movie is darker than Tolkien’s. Because of the details that hang from his framework, his movie is more grisly, and may be hard for many to watch, particularly children.

But in the end, Jackson’s movie makes a strong case for perseverance; for faithful service to those you’ve sworn to uphold; and for standing by the right thing, after all has been considered and doubts have been weighed. Do the right thing, Jackson says, and do it whatever the cost.

Greg Wright is the author of Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004).

The Two Towers is available to stream at Amazon.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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The Fellowship of the Ring, review by Greg Wright

With the Hobbit films having run their weary course, and 10 years having passed since The Lord of the Rings wrapped up its home video run, the time seems right to revisit my reviews of the Rings films. We start this week with my original review of the theatrical release of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Peter Jackson’s Vision of Middle-earth

The director of The Fellowship of the Ring has walked a very fine line between faithfulness to J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision and placing upon that vision his own unique stamp; and he has managed to do it, for the most part, consummately.  Alternately rushed and elegiac, perfunctory and moving, Jackson’s film version of the novel manages to portray the key elements that make Middle-earth a fantasy reader’s preferred destination.  At the same time, Jackson has lifted some of the lesser themes from the novel into the foreground, presenting some new spiritual ideas to his audience for consideration.

First and foremost, the story remains one of the tension between Free Will and Providence.  The best of Gandalf’s words from the book remain intact, if condensed mostly into one speech to Frodo at the crossroads in Moria, reminding Frodo (and the audience) that, first, there are other hands than our own guiding our fate; and second, that it remains up to us to decide what to do with the time that we have.

fotr-insetBut the first of the elements that makes this uniquely Jackson’s picture, and one that works very well, is the emphasis on the temptation of The Ring.  Gandalf, Bilbo, Boromir, Galadriel, Aragorn and even Elrond (partly through the Prologue) are all given extended, lingering chances to ponder the significance of the chance at unrestrained power.  While most of these encounters occur in the book as well, the opportunities that are added (Boromir at the Red Horn Pass and Aragorn at Amon Hen) and the time devoted by Jackson to the other encounters makes it clear that personal response to temptation is one issue with which he hopes to confront his audience.

The second element dominates the closing moments of the film, though it is foreshadowed in the extended treatment of Gandalf’s visit with Saruman.  For Jackson, it doesn’t seem enough that Tolkien’s heroes go on motivated by the conviction of things not seen (the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11:1, one with which Tolkien seems utterly content).  Instead, the characters can only go on by knowing precisely where they are headed, and why.  For instance, Pippin and Merry no longer play an unwitting part in protecting Sam and Frodo; instead, knowing that Frodo is leaving the Fellowship, they deliberately draw the fire of the Orcs.  Likewise, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli do not go in pursuit of the two Hobbits having to guess at Sam and Frodo’s fate; they know.  I doubt that Tolkien would have been enthused at this change.  In his vision, acceptance of not knowing was precisely part of properly understanding the relation of Free Will and Providence.

The third element comes at the very end of the film, as Sam sinks into the waters of Anduin, reaching out for help.  To this point (the exception being very brief sequences in the Shire), Jackson’s film has been exceedingly dark.  Even in Rivendell it is fall, and the colors are muted; and most of the truncated Lórien sequence takes place in twilight.  Why?  Where is the light?  Jackson answers with a vision straight from Michelangelo: the vision of the hand of Man reaching out to God for Salvation, coming in the form—here—of the hand of another Hobbit assisted by a bright Light.  It’s an audacious addition to Tolkien’s vision, and it works!

Visualization from the Printed Page to the Screen

A (mostly) live-action film has been in the minds of many a fan since the days of the first Star Wars movie.  The ability of cinema technology to blend live-action sequences with CGI and other special effects has finally made the film presentation of even the most fantastic images a reality.  So how does TFOTR score?  Excellent, in most ways.  The art direction in general is fabulous (well, it kind of had to be, didn’t it?), and certain locations (the Shire, Rivendell and the Argonath, as examples) are terrifically realized.  Overall, though, the world of Middle-earth seemed a little greasier and dirty than I had imagined it.

Expanded Roles for Some Characters… 

It’s natural that some details of the plot and characters should change in order to make the transition from book to screen.  In past efforts, as in the present, it has been obvious that you just can’t pack all those characters into the available screen time.  So what do you do?  Obviously a lot have to go (like Tom Bombadil!) and others must be presented as composites.  But what’s up with the expanded roles for Arwen and Elrond?  In the book, they surface only in Rivendell, while in the movie, they explicitly become significant players in the drama.  Why?  Presuming that expanded roles weren’t the price to pay to get the actors Jackson wanted, it’s pretty easy to account for Liv Tyler’s presence.  With the second movie still a year away, you can’t really wait until the second movie for Éowyn to appear as the series’ primary romance interest.  A viable love interest must appear early to give the movie a strong, young, attractive female character, making the stand-alone-film formula work.  Regarding Elrond, his newly-visualized (Prologue) warrior status (though true to the novel) will presumably just simplify things, obviating the need to account for his sons Elladan and Elrohir.

…And Reduced Roles for Others

Tom Bombadil is not the only character MIA.  There are myriad others.  But, as with other adaptations, Bombadil’s absence is the most significant, and troublesome.  Does he disappear simply because, like the rest of us, Jackson has no clue what Bombadil is to represent?  Certainly, Tolkien spent a great number of words on Bombadil for a reason, and it could only have been to clarify things spiritual: for instance, that there are powers in the world over which things material (and even magical) have no power.  Do these spiritual implications come through strongly enough in the movie without Bombadil?  Do they need to?  Jackson seems to have substituted magically-powered females and wizard-duels for the role intended for Bombadil.  Why do Elrond and Celeborn seem so, uh, reserved in comparison to their female counterparts?

The Performances

It’s certainly a pleasure to see many familiar faces from around the world cropping up in wonderful and delightful ways.  After The Matrix, for instance, it’s great to see Hugo Weaving get a turn at ancient nobility as Elrond.  Likewise, it’s absolute genius to cast Ian Holm as Bilbo.  And while other international favorites such as Christopher Lee, Ian McKellan and Cate Blanchett contribute in major roles, I’ll go out on a limb here and nominate Sean Astin as the casting coup of the series, and the heart of the film.  Ever since Rudy, Astin has deserved a shot at anchoring a major film, and here he shines.

The Bottom Line

Though it’s clear that this is a darker—and scarier—vision of Middle-earth than comes across on the printed page, obviously, the film succeeds as terrific entertainment for adolescents and adults, and will no doubt sate the appetite of Tolkien addicts at least for a few months.  Box-office records will fall, and fall mightily.  But what about the entire series?  Will it become flabby and perfunctory, like the Star Wars series?  Or will it actually build momentum, and end with as satisfying a conclusion as the novels?

Greg Wright is the author of Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004).

The Fellowship of the Ring is available to stream at Amazon.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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The Presence, review by Greg Wright

What can you say about an effective ghost story… without spoiling the effect?  Without spilling key plot points and character arcs?

The answers are: Not Much, and Very Little.  So prepare for what may be the shortest film review I’ve ever written, as I have no intention of ruining the very simple and intense pleasure that is a screening of The Presence.

I will, however, just mention that my wife and I recently spent a long weekend at a “cabin in the woods” and had some creepy experiences. So the timing of this review is at least a propos of something.

Here’s the basic setup:  A troubled young writer schedules a secluded week or two holed up the remote cabin where she spent time with family as a child.  The catch: the cabin is now inhabited by a ghost.  The other catch: the writer ends up with some additional unwanted company, human and otherwise.

So just a few things to note.

the-presence-insetFirst: While this is writer/director Tom Provost’s feature-film debut, he’s hardly a greenhorn in the business.  His background in theater is on display with the creative staging of the copious cabin interior sequences—but his lengthy (if spotty and varied) experience as a TV actor, screenwriter, and editor/producer/director of commercial films comes to culmination here.  This is really a pretty brilliant first film, one with which any director would be immensely pleased.  Even though Provost has mentioned his awareness of the film’s many shortcomings (so says he), I can’t think of a single significant thing he could have done to improve the effect.  Certainly, a larger budget wouldn’t have helped a bit—and it’s not often you can say that.

Second: The major roles are brilliantly cast.  In the past, I’ve usually felt that Mira Sorvino has been given a free pass by directors (and critics) because she’s just so darned appealing. But she’s really working here, and contributes immensely not only through her performance but through the influence of her craft.  The synergy that’s created between her character backstory and Provost’s script is pretty remarkable.  It is, in fact, what really lends the story’s climax its weight and significance.  In addition, Shane West, Justin Kirk, and Tony Curran are all seasoned vets and turn in A-list supporting work here.  Again this reflects well on Provost.

Third:  It’s worth pointing out that this is a film that really nails what a good ghost story should do.  Yes, it works at a metaphorical level—as Sorvino’s writer gets a chance to work through her “inner demons”—and takes seriously the notion of the metaphysical world.  But it also takes that extra step, taking very, very seriously the idea that the metaphysical world has both a bearing on the here and now and, literally, the hereafter.  It’s a stirring vision of mercy and redemption.

This is a wonderful film to not only watch and enjoy but talk about and think about for days afterward.  If you’re looking for intelligent, well-crafted, thoughtful filmmaking in the form of a ghost story, invest in The Presence.  You won’t regret it, unless you suffer extensively from either clinical or culturally-induced ADD.

Just don’t expect chase sequences, blood and guts, zombies, or slasher gore.  This is a smart film that takes its time getting under your skin.

Well, now… I guess that wasn’t so short after all!

The Presence is available to stream at Amazon.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest, review and interview by Greg Wright

It seems to me absurd to be talking about “entertainment” in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Nepal. The real story there, after all, is the damage in Kathmandu and the human toll involved; and yet we also find headlines about “the deadliest season in Mount Everest’s history.”

Thanks to the quake, the world’s tallest mountain is back in the news again, as some 150 climbers on hand for the pre-monsoon summit season are now more or less trapped above the notoriously unstable Khumbu Icefall, through and over which poured the avalanche that killed over a dozen at Everest’s base camp.

While perusing the abundant discussion of the Nepal disaster on social media, I was reminded of my talk several years ago with three-time Everest summiteer Conrad Anker, who was in Seattle promoting his “documentary,” The Wildest Dream. The film attempts to answer the question, “Could George Mallory and Sandy Irvine have possibly summitted Everest before they disappeared in 1924?” Anker’s angle on the answer was to attempt a “free climb” of the “Second Step” on Mallory’s Northeast Ridge route—a feat which has only been accomplished by two climbers. The Wildest Dream documents Anker’s attempt.

wildestdreaminsetMy discussion with Anker following the screening was pretty detailed. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I am something an Everest junkie, and will read or watch just about anything connected to Himalayan mountaineering.

I am also a huge, huge fan of David Breashears’ IMAX Everest film starring Ed Viesturs and the team that was on the mountain during the deadly climbing season of 1996.  If I came across that film playing on Dick Tracy’s wristwatch, I’d find myself glued to even that postage-stamp sized screen.

In any event, here’s a bit of my what I talked about with Anker. You can read the entire interview here.

GW: I read Jim Wickwire’s Addicted to Danger.  It seemed to me he was saying climbers are all adrenaline junkies.  And since there’s nothing quite like the rush of climbing an 8000-meter peak, we keep going back for more—because it’s just such a thrill.

CA: Yeah—free-soloing a rock face or climbing an ice climb, or driving a jet boat: everyone responds to risk in a different way.  And risk is what creates adrenaline.  And adrenaline—like that “No Fear” thing—has been maligned.  It’s not risk; it’s what we need to do.  And the risks that I take, to someone not in it, I seem like the craziest person in the whole world. “You’re going to go climb Everest—you’re doing it for the second time.  You are completely nuts.”  And yet this same person can be sitting in a board room running billions of dollars into a hedge fund, selling short and buying long, working with these derivatives that tanked the whole thing. And they have a tremendous amount of risk.  It’s just they’re looking at it in a different way.

GW: At the same time, in spite of processing all of this at the intellectual level, we come head to head with the unanticipated and the unexpected.  With Wickwire, it’s on Denali or with Marty Hoey on Everest; with you it’s on Shishapangma with Lowe.  At that point, something else clicks in, right?  Or you say, “Now it’s happened; now it’s reality.”  And you have to go through the survivor guilt, and say, “Did we go too far?  Did we manage the risks?”  What makes you want to get back on the bike, as it were, after that?

CA: Obviously, in a balanced intellectual sense, you would have to say, “Well, the rewards are greater than the risks.”  Something like that.  And I think some people can analyze that, and say, “Yes, that’s what it is.”  And someone else can say, “Well, I’m not going to climb any more.”  But doing that at a certain level where you’re not crossing the line over into that danger zone, I just think that there are certain people who are hard-wired in their DNA to go out and take on more risk than their fellows.  And that’s what has allowed humans to become what we are.  For just one example, look at Homer’s Odyssey: these great tales of leaving behind the family and going off into the unknown—and great risk of death or disfigurement.  And then they come home and are heralded as heroes.  They might come back with bounty, and things like that.  It goes back into when we were hunter-gatherers.  The men would have to go out and do this, and it is sort of the basis of how we have created society.

GW: Well, at a survival level, even then there had to have been some people who said, “No, that doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.”  And because of the extremity of the circumstances, they tended to be bred out of the equation.

CA: Or they became the ones who made the better baskets.  And for their tribe and their clan, they were able to have worth in a way that wasn’t necessarily equated with going out on the hunt.

So in this case, we have the climbers—and the film producers. Anker puts himself on the line at 28,000 feet while National Geographic suits figure out how to “make a better basket,” as it were, about Mallory’s pursuit of Everest.

The Wildest Dream itself is not really a documentary per se, but a kind of Himalayan reality TV, with high-def camera crews on hand to capture Anker’s staged recreations of George Mallory’s final assault on Everest in 1924, and his attempt to free-climb the legendary “Second Step,” the obstacle which most likely—most likely—turned Mallory and Irvine back before summiting.

But I digress, in a way.  There’s a ton of mountaineering history behind this film, and even a little cinematic history as well.  Ever since Mallory and Irvine disappeared in the third British Everest expedition, speculation about their odds of summiting prior to their deaths has varied widely.  Their last known position on the north ridge was somewhere in the neighborhood of 27,000 feet (depending on which version of sole eyewitness Noel Odell’s own recollections was actually correct) and it has been impossible to entirely rule out either of the major options: success or failure.

But in 1999, Anker was a last-minute addition to a speculative expedition that set out to recover the body of Irvine—and instead found Mallory himself.  The story of that expedition has been contentiously told elsewhere: online, in print, and on video.

What that expedition failed to do, however, was answer the key Mallory question: would it have been technically possible—from a purely mountaineering point of view—for Mallory and Irvine to have surmounted the Second Step and pressed on to the summit?

In spite of a fairly settled conclusion in his own account of the 1999 expedition, the question has obviously gnawed at Anker over the intervening decade because the Wildest Dream expedition sets out to answer that question once and for all—not definitively, of course, but to Anker’s satisfaction.

To up the ante this time out, Anker’s team includes a young Himalayan neophyte, Leo Houlding, as Anker’s climbing partner—in an attempt to replicate the Mallory-Irvine pairing.  Further, the climbers are outfitted with replica clothing and equipment from Mallory’s era.  Ideally, the climbers would tackle the critical highest reaches of the North Ridge route in the replica gear as part of the challenge.

The movie earns high marks for documenting the Mallory saga.  With an all-star voice cast that includes Liam Neeson and his late wife Natasha Richardson as George and Ruth Mallory, letters and period writings from the pair (and others) accompany Ken Burns-style photo montages and newsreel footage to tell the tale of their ill-fated and tragic romance.  Interviews from Mallory’s descendants, Anker, and other Everest/Mallory experts round out the drier, technical part of the program.

The re-enactments of the 1999 expedition aren’t terribly convincing, however, especially for those familiar with the professional and ethical squabbles associated with that effort; but from a historical documentation standpoint, the film nonetheless excels at putting us right on the slopes of Everest for sorting that story out in a condensed and simplified fashion, and it completely nails the drama of finding out exactly what climbing in Mallory and Irvine’s gear might entail.  Wisely, the production team abandoned the idea of using the replicas aside from a few short high-altitude excursions.  While Mallory and Irvine might have been used to climbing in gabardine and hobnails, Anker and his partner were not—and the risk of frostbite or sliding off the mountain was simply too high.  But the sequences are no less stunning for the failed attempt.

Finally, it’s probably an excellent idea that the early stretches of the film feature a post-summit Anker.  Otherwise the tension that mounts during his unaided climb of the 90-foot-high rock face called the Second Step might just be too much for audiences.  The stakes of such technically challenging climbing are always high—but at 28,000 feet, well into the so-called Death Zone… well, only a handful of climbers would be so daring (foolhardy?) as to attempt such a thing.

Knowledgeable climbers, as Anker himself notes, will well know the significance of a fixed belay—which Mallory would have been climbing without—but try telling that to a lay audience.

Also try telling newbies that Anker isn’t the first to “perform” as Mallory on Everest (the honors there go to the British actor Brian Blessed), that Anker also tried free-climbing the Second Step in 1999 and (just barely) failed, or that Anker is almost certainly not the only climber to have succeeded in the attempt—and so what?  Those facts are probably best left out of what is most certainly Anker’s attempt to best not Everest but himself.

Why climb Everest?  Mallory famously answered, “Because it’s there.”  The real answer was probably, “Because it’s still there.”  Anker is drawn to Mallory because he’s driven by the same impulses: when you aim high and fail, and it’s within your power to try again, you simply go back for another round.

Never mind the details.

So my biases aside… Is this worth a rental?  I’d say probably yes.  I know way more about Everest than is likely good for me, but I still know an entertaining film when I see one.

The Wildest Dream is available to stream at Amazon.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, commentary by Greg Wright

Sergio Leone transformed the American Western. Literally. As one of the major exponents of the low-budget guerilla filmmaking genre dubbed the “Spaghetti Western,” Leone transcended the limitations of a pulp brand and elevated it to a fine art. Yes, there had long been “Horse Operas.” But Leone’s grandiose Italian heritage really did ultimately produce a form of Western that was baroque in its scope and style. His films were mythic operas of justice.

leone-insetOne of the reasons Westerns are so effective, of course, is because the very material from which they draw their stories is myth. The tradition is literary. As the American Frontier was opening, homeward-bound letters were already re-writing history, and pulp novelists like Ned Buntline (see: the “Duke of Death” hagiographer in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven) were johnny-on-the-spot to capitalize on the East Coast appetite for all things Cowboy and Indian. Stories about gunfighters were especially popular. Even noted 19th century-born European writers like C.S. Lewis raved about the influence such books had on their imaginations.

The trick is this: Western stories don’t have to actually be true. Nobody expects that. No, they just have to feel true. And most good Westerns have that in spades.

But what makes them feel true? Not the landscapes, which are often Mexican, Canadian, or Spanish. Not the sets, which are often far too aged for newness of the frontier. Not the costumes (though Halloweenish conventions help a lot!). Not the performances, which can often be alternately wooden and over the top. As Spaghetti Westerns demonstrate, the voices don’t even need to sync with the lips.

No, the issue is this: Does the human dilemma, the heightened drama of primal urges, feel right? Does the story portray essential, raw motivations in palpable, tangible fashion? Does an Old Testament, ruthless, almost bloodthirsty appetite for justice ooze through every frame of celluloid?

As the Western genre “matured” (read: bloated), Hollywood sort of lost sight of the purity of motivation in favor of a post-war psychologizing. Sure, big-budget films like The Searchers, Shane, and The Big Country can be considered classics of the genre. But in reality they were almost domestic dramas disguised as Westerns. Thanks to the clarity imposed by low budgets (and the inability to, you know, make their films in the actual Old West), a new school of European ragtag auteurs took advantage of the freewheeling 1960s to recapture the zeitgeist and energy of the early films of John Ford and the works of Bud Boetticher.

Seriously. Compare High Noon, Yellow Sky, The Gunfighter, Stagecoach, The Oxbow Incident, or Winchester ’73 with Hollywood’s colorized 1950s and ’60s Western epics. You can see where Leone and company were coming from.

But not where they were going to.

leone-inset-1Leone introduced Europe to TV’s Rawhide costar, Clint Eastwood, in 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars. In this very rough film (one that couldn’t possibly get distribution today), Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” (an appellation that stuck after the fact) rides into a town pinned under the ruthless and dictatorial thumb of a feud between two rival families. More free-agent mercenary than hired gun, Eastwood’s character sees the opportunity to both balance the scales of justice and profit financially by playing the two sides against each other, using the money to help the innocent. Justice is served, but not by a saint. Eastwood’s character is more an Angel of Death.

The feel is right: If you see injustice and a gun is handy, what are you gonna do? Just stand by and watch? Well, not if you’re Eastwood. You squint your eyes, bite your cheroot, and take a stand.

leone-inset-2For a Few Dollars More upped the ante in 1965 with a higher budget, a more sprawling storyline, and a consummate character actor in Lee Van Cleef. Here was a co-protagonist worthy of Eastwood. This time the story is more a quest, and the justice pursued by Eastwood’s “Manco” has personal connections via Van Cleef’s Colonel Mortimer. Great Wrongs are perpetrated by the villain Indio, and once again the Angel of Death pursues and enables Right with brutal effect.

Again, the film is very rough; but the feel is also right: When somebody wrongs you, do you really feel like turning the other cheek? If your family is slaughtered, do you remarry and raise another passel of kids for the monster to destroy? No. You go after the bastards.

leone-inset-3Which brings us to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. (The film was released in 1967, the same year that the first two films made their North American debut.) Eastwood is back; but “Blondie” is no deathly dealer of concrete and motivated justice here. Instead, he’s figuratively manacled to a much uglier character, Tuco, a manic outlaw who shares half the secret to a secret hoard of Civil War gold; Blondie holds the other half of the secret.

Van Cleef is back, too, as a Union officer (and hired gun gone rogue) who’s also on the trail of the lost Confederate bullion. This tale, which takes nearly three deliciously detailed hours to unfold, culminates not in a clear-cut battle between a Hero and a Villain but in a three-way showdown between the lesser of evils. Good is not absolute in this universe; instead it’s the relative judge between the Bad and the Ugly, delivering very sweet just desserts. There are not just two kinds of men, Leone’s script tells us. Things are not that neat.

Once more, it feels right, in spite of the moral murkiness. The film is about betrayal, and Leone takes the time to spell out very clearly that the frontier is no place for maidens or the naïve. No; in fact, the naïve had best not even entertain the notion of goodness on the frontier: it’s all dirty, it’s all corrupt, it’s all brutal. It’s all desperate, and almost pointless.

And wasn’t this the disillusioned reality that was about to dawn in the United States? Didn’t we all feel that way already, after Kennedy, but especially after King, after the other Kennedy, after Kent State and Viet Nam? And after Watergate? Our hands were dirty; the United States was no longer a moral beacon but had turned into just another special case of the Bible’s book of Judges. The best we could hope for was to chop the corpse of a gang-raped concubine into twelve pieces and send them out to all the tribes as warnings of the bloodbath to come… right?

leone-inset-4Well, we can thank God, sort of, that Leone didn’t quit with a trilogy. His fourth (and in many ways, best) Western was the truly operatic and literally mythic Once Upon a Time in the West (1969 U.S. release). Eastwood and Van Cleef don’t appear; instead Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda (yes! as a villain!) take the leads. And here, Leone gets to stage his film in John Ford’s iconic Monument Valley, a setting that fittingly never actually hosted such grandiose stories.

Fonda plays Frank, the hired gun of a railroad Empire Builder. The Iron Horse is opening up the West, and the West is changing dramatically. Bronson’s nameless vigilante is nominally the protector of a homesteading (and not so helpless) heiress played by Claudia Cardinale; but he’s really there because he’s got a history with Frank, and a score to settle.

Yes, the story sprawls like a big-budget Hollywood picture (and, in reality, it was, spawned by Leone’s independently-produced successes). But nobody here looks as spiffy as they did in Shane or The Searchers. The Spaghetti Western grit still covers everything in sight, and Ennio Morricone’s epic score underlines the oddity around every corner.

And oh… the climactic confrontation between Frank and Bronson’s “Harmonica” feels oh-so-right. In an oh-so-Old-Testament sort of way.

One critic, I forget who—perhaps it was Film Comment’s Bob Cumbow, but I can’t track down the reference—noted that Leone’s work was characterized by long silences punctuated by blazes of gunfire. (This is true even in Duck You Sucker, aka A Fistful of Dynamite, a misfire of a film that closed Leone’s foray into Westerns—a film that is hard to classify at all, much less nail down as a Western.)

In this way, Leone’s films model God’s seeming interaction in our world, as reported in the Bible. He starts us out in Eden, serves justice, then goes silent. He sends a flood, serves justice, then goes silent. He delivers us from Egypt, plants us in Palestine, then goes silent. He sends invaders from Assyria and Babylon, serves justice, then goes silent. He returns us to Jerusalem, serves justice on our neighbors, then goes silent. Jesus comes, conquers death and sin, then disappears to heaven. He ransoms our souls, stands in for justice, then leaves us to work out our salvation through suffering and sorrow, often seeming to vanish for days, weeks, even years. Yes, the pattern of quick justice followed by silence is scripturally familiar.

But make no mistake: there are no Christ figures in Leone’s Westerns. Mercy is as out of place in his landscape as Leone’s dusters. This truth you will not find in Leone’s vision: God is found not merely in the satisfaction of retribution via human agents; he is also there in the desert, between oases, calling us to sit and dwell in the silence and wait not for an explosion but a still, small voice.

As humans, we want justice, and we want it now, served our way. Leone’s films are visions for December 8 or September 12.

Just don’t learn to live there. God’s a lot bigger than that.

Sergio Leone’s films are available to stream at Amazon.

Check one out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

New garden spaces make it possible for PowellsWood to expand offerings at their annual Mother’s Day weekend event. Each year Monte and Diane Powell offer up a taste of English Garden-inspired hospitality during their Mother’s Day open days, and this year is no exception with guest speakers, a book signing, tea, tours, and music.

If you haven’t seen the revamped garden since it reopened two years ago, you really should take the opportunity. It’s stunning.

Three generations enjoy tea in the Garden Room. Photo (c) Christopher Nelson

Three generations enjoy tea in the Garden Room. Photo (c) Christopher Nelson

Mother’s Day weekend hours are 10:00 – 5:00 both Saturday May 9th and Sunday May 10th. Entrance is $5.00, free for children under 12.

The garden is located on the upper edge of Redondo in the Cold Creek watershed. Visitors are requested to take the shuttle from Sacajawea Park, just east of the garden, at 1401 S. Dash Point Road. On-site parking is limited to handicapped vehicle parking only. Though the garden has just added a new parking area for normal operating hours, neighbors appreciate visitors not parking on local streets for special garden events.

PowellsWood has released the full weekend event schedule as follows.

Garden author and blogger Angie Nerus

Garden author and blogger Angie Narus

Saturday only:

  • Angie Narus author of Walking Washington’s Gardens will be signing copies of her book in the Spring Garden from 10:30 am.-1:30 pm.
  • Elizabeth Kroker, reigning Pierce County Beekeeping Association Honey Queen, will speak on bee keeping in the Woodland Garden at 11:00 am. PCBA members will also be on hand with educational materials.
  • Bluegrass musicians WB Reid and Bonnie Zahnow return to delight audiences with their lively tunes on the House Garden Patio from 1:00 – 3:00 pm.
Autistic artist Chris Stiles creates hundreds of works using only a palette of Sharpies. Photo (c) Christopher Nelson

Autistic artist Chris Stiles creates hundreds of works using only a palette of Sharpies. Photo (c) Christopher Nelson

Sunday only:

  • Gardener extraordinaire Marianne Binetti will share “What Mama Never Told You – Tips, Tricks and Dirt Cheap Ideas for your Garden” in the Woodland Garden at 1:30 pm.
  • Harpist Deborah McClellan will play from 1:00 to 3:00 pm in the Garden Room.

Both days:

  • Tea hosted by Diane Powell in the Garden Room from 11:00 am. – 4:00 pm. Menu and pricing available at the PowellsWood website:
  • Local artist Chris Stiles displays his unique prints and cards, which are available for purchase in the Upper House Garden.
  • Garden tours beginning every hour on the half hour in the Entry Garden. Tours include bits of garden history, maintenance tips, and plant identification.
Diane Powell's handcrafted English tea service. Photo (c) Christopher Nelson

Diane Powell’s handcrafted English tea service. Photo (c) Christopher Nelson


by Greg Wright

Are you a fish taco aficionado?

I am not. In fact, until yesterday I had never eaten a fish taco. In my mind “fish” and “taco” have historically gone together like “steak” and “tartare.”

fish tacos

Tides’ fish tacos

Well, that changed last night when my wife, the “Petite Eater,” saw the signs for fish tacos as we approached Tides restaurant at Saltwater State Park. She said she’d like a bite. I said, “I don’t eat fish tacos. I don’t even know if I’d like them.” But I said I’d ask the proprietor for a sample.

Owner and chef Keith Lionetti opened Tides in October under a contract with Washington State Parks, replacing the old “Saltwater Cafe.” Lionetti is no stranger to our local parks, having operated Chainbangers Disc Golf at White Center’s Lakewood King County Park for years. So he’s a professional concessionaire.

And he’s an experienced chef as well, having worked in the food service industry on and off since he was twelve years old.

He opened Tides at Saltwater as a means toward better utilizing the open spaces there. With the encouragement of park Ranger Johnny Johnson, Lionetti also hopes to eventually establish a disc golf course at Saltwater as well.

The "best pork sandwich around" features roasted pork tenderloin,tomato,onion,pepper jack & avocado with a savory mesquite bbq sauce on a northwest roll

The “best pork sandwich around” features roasted pork tenderloin, tomato, onion, pepper jack and avocado with a savory mesquite barbecue sauce on a northwest roll

In the mean time, Tides is open three days a week–Friday, Saturday, and Sunday with seasonal hours (now noon to 7 PM)–serving a wide range of desserts, espresso drinks, chili, clam chowder, shaved ice, “the best pork sandwiches around,” and Lionetti’s signature fish tacos.

But don’t expect a sample! When I inquired about getting a newbie’s taste, Lionetti apologetically explained that the fish tacos are made to order from fresh ingredients–so it’s an all-or-nothing proposition.

I chose to go with “all,” and opted for the blackened cod.

Lionetti was right. A few minutes after I ordered, his cook served up the blackened cod on a crisp flour tortilla with shredded lettuce, pico de gallo, and other fresh ingredients. The cod was firm and substantial without being too dry. The Petite Eater had her three bites and loved them. I wouldn’t call myself an “afishionado” just yet, but I can’t imagine a better introduction to fish tacos. I’ll be back to Tides, and I’ll be ordering the tacos again.

The next time I visit, though, I’ll probably order the pork tenderloin sandwich, which looks awfully good.

Chocolate Hazelnut Torte

Chocolate Hazelnut Torte

The Petite Eater and I also shared a few desserts (with a couple taken home!), including the Chocolate Hazelnut Torte, which was pretty much to die for.

Prices are on a par with other local eateries. For a meal and a dessert, you can expect to spend about $12 to $15 per person.

You’ll also, of course, have to deal with the Discover Pass issue, as you’ve got to park in the Park to dine at Tides–or walk in, quite a challenge except for the very-most-local folk. Personally, though, I expect to visit Tides pretty frequently, amortizing the $30 fee for the annual Discover Pass over the course of the year.

And you know what? If the Discover Pass helps make Tides a well-kept secret, well, I’ll just have to keep Lionetti in business all by myself.

The dessert case at Tides

The dessert case at Tides

The interior of Tides -- clean and cozy

The interior of Tides — clean and cozy

Tides' exterior at Saltwater State Park

Tides’ exterior at Saltwater State Park

Breakdown commentary by Greg Wright

Jonathan Mastow’s Breakdown is an expertly executed, unpredictable, pulse-pounding thriller. Some call it a B-movie, I call it pure cinema.  —Film Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Exorcism of Emily Rose)

Here is all you need to now about 1997’s Breakdown: Kurt Russell stars as a typical upwardly-mobile late-30-something who, while on a road trip through the Southwest with his adorable wife, has the misfortune to break down in the middle of nowhere. A friendly stranger offers to give his wife a lift to the nearest service station for help… and then she goes missing. Cue the suspense… and the payback.

breakdown-insetIt’s super, super tough to say much more about the film without ruining it. In fact, if you like a good suspense film and have never seen Breakdown, I’d advise you to stop reading right here and see it—without Googling it, without watching the trailer.

Just stop right here.

I mean it.

You didn’t listen, did you?

Since you’ve demonstrated that you’re either brave, foolish, or just too smart for you own good, go ahead and watch the trailer below… and then, if you’re REALLY intent on spoiling the movie for yourself, read through an exchange that Scott Derrickson and I had on Facebook after he posted the above thumbnail review.

Breakdown really is an excellent case study in how NOT to make trailers… if you actually care about the film, and about moviegoers in general.

What happened with the theatrical release of the film also demonstrates that production companies really don’t give a rip about films and moviegoers. What they really care about is, sad to say, giving moviegoers exactly what they expect… because that’s what feeds profits. They know that, for the most part, audiences don’t like to be surprised—unless they are surprised in very predictable ways.

I can just hear the conversation between Mostow and the producers who were cutting the film’s trailer.

Mostow: You can’t put that shot in the trailer. It will give away the identity of the bad guy.

Suits: If we don’t put that shot in there, audiences will be completely lost. Your film is too complicated.

Mostow: You can’t be serious. Moviegoers aren’t that stupid.

Suits: Yes, they are. You give them way too much credit, Jonny-boy. They’re so distracted by their popcorn and coke and the noisy kids down the row that they couldn’t possibly follow your plot. We’re helping you out. Without us, your audience would be lost within twenty minutes.

Mostow: You’re crazy.

Suits: Crazy smart. How does it feel to know your film is going to get out-grossed by Starship Troopers and Anaconda? And Flubber. So, who’s the smart ones here?

Yes, I’ve got an overactive imagination. So anyway… go ahead and watch the trailer if you must. And read on.

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GW: Breakdown inspired me to start rating films on the predictability scale. Absolutely nothing surprising happened in the first 70-odd minutes.

SD: Greg, you think nothing surprising happened in the first 70 minutes of Breakdown? Poppycock. Nothing in that movie is predictable. It sets up predictable beats but almost never makes them. It’s specifically what makes the script so great.

GW: Yeah, my friend Dave and I, with whom I saw about 300 movies a year in those days, called every shot in that one until about the 70-minute mark. Half an hour in, we knew something “special” might be happening so we started watching the clock to find out exactly how far the movie would go before it surprised us at all.

It was very enjoyable because it does use the beats so well—but none of the setup caught us offguard at all.

Of course a great deal of that has to do with spoilers in trailers, too. Like with Miller’s Crossing. If you saw the trailers you KNEW Turturro’s character wasn’t dead. A real crime, that one.

SD: No, you didn’t call every shot in that movie. You just didn’t. You didn’t call that J.T. Walsh was going to literally pretend to Kurt Russell’s face that he never met him. You didn’t call that Russell would return to Belle’s diner and a guy pretending to have a mental disability would privately disclose where his wife had been taken. I could go on and on… And saying that you knew something “special” might be happening… well, that’s what every good thriller makes you feel.

GW: Well, yeah, Scott, I did—because those moments were given away in the trailer. And when you consume trailers the way you do movies, as I did in those days, those details stick with you. I just went back to the original theatrical trailer to prove it to myself—and those details are indeed there.

So when I say “special,” I mean that I knew Breakdown had been thoroughly ruined for me by the suits who decided how that trailer should be cut—a whole new level of stupidity.

The film itself is fine, and like most films should be experienced cold (a rule I set for myself once I became a reviewer). But in those days, I was just a very letdown popcorn muncher.

There is such a thing as knowing too much for one’s own good—and everyone else’s.

SD: Then you didn’t call those moments, you were shown them. Big difference.

The movie itself is unpredictable. I remember Roger Ebert being careful not to reveal much about the plot in his review to protect its unpredictability. And he saw more films than either of us.

GW: Scott, when I said Dave and I called those moments, I explicitly added the caveat that “a great deal of that has to do with spoilers in trailers.”

But when you put two seasoned moviegoers together alone in a screening, armed with eight or ten digestions of a spoiler-laden trailer, significant filmmaking knowledge, a load of intuition, and the ability to compare notes—there’s often not a lot left in the way of surprise. There just isn’t.

It’s really a cautionary tale for filmmakers, in my book—and one I’ve specifically shared over the years with filmmakers, critics, and students I’ve taught. The trailer is part of the filmgoing experience. If you cut that part loose to the suits to do with what they will, it can kill the experience for the audience. Breakdown and Miller’s Crossing are two prime, prime examples.

(I imagine Ebert, as I did when I was reviewing films, probably avoided trailers.)

Let me throw in another comparison that I usually make when talking about Miller’s Crossing and Breakdown — from roughly the same period.

The Usual Suspects. Dave and I actually walked in to a screening of that film by mistake, having bought tickets to a different movie. Knew nothing about it—hadn’t seen a trailer at all. Fantastic moviegoing experience—and I’m sure that Breakdown could have been like that for us. But it simply wasn’t.

It’s not that Breakdown is a bad film. Not at all. I called it a “fine film” above. But real moviegoers do see trailers, and tons of them, and that’s part of how they process the movies they see.

So, no—absolutely nothing surprising happened in the first 70-odd minutes. That’s says everything about me, and nothing about the film.

SD: I read the script for The Sixth Sense before I saw the movie. I’d be a moron if I said that when I saw it, I called the twist ending which was totally predictable.

GW: I’ve been called a moron before, and worse!

SD: Richard Schickel once called me “a dope” in Time magazine, and that was back when people read Time magazine.

GW: My favorite reader comment was “You, sir, are a long-winded fool.” That was it!

Breakdown is available to stream at Amazon.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

Serenity reviewed by Greg Wright

Firefly fans were pretty pleased with Serenity. Plenty of ordinary people were, too. Writer-director Joss Whedon directed this film adaptation of his own sci-fi TV series with confidence and style, giving audiences more to cheer about in space since long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. A really good thing even today, when “reboots” of the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises leave folk like me crying, “No mas! No mas!”

Can it really have been almost ten years since this film’s theatrical release?

For those who don’t recall Firefly, Whedon’s genre-busting space dramedy, which blended Sci-Fi with a Western ethos, didn’t even survive a single season on Fox. But the radical fan base never gave up hope that the show would return. It didn’t, of course… but Whedon eventually convinced the studio to give his story the big-screen treatment.

serenity-insetThe movie Serenity is not, however, just a retread of Firefly. In fact, many of the signature elements of the TV series have disappeared: the cowpies and cattle, for instance, and those mysterious men with the blue gloves. More importantly,Serenity fleshes out the universe and storyline of Firefly—and takes its characters to places the series has never gone before.

Castle’s Nathan Fillion plays Malcolm Reynolds, owner and captain of the Firefly-class smuggling ship Serenity. Mal is on a journey of faith. He used to believe in a cause—until the leaders of the rebellion for which he volunteered abandoned his battalion to slaughter. Now that the Alliance has its boots firmly on the necks of the once-independent terraformed “border planets,” a burned-out rebel like Reynolds is left rudderless. He goes where the wind takes him, as he remarks to Inara Serra, the professional escort once based onSerenity. And when his crew members tell him to have faith, he replies, “Not today.” He has no use for the “fuzzy God” of Christians or the Buddha to whom Inara prays.

But when a trusted friend tells him, “I don’t care what you believe; just believe in it,” he steers a course directly into the wind that would sweep him away. At first, we wonder if he will merely become a cheap version of what he wants to destroy; but when he learns the truth, the truth sets him—and a whole host of others—free.

The Alliance Operative who hunts Serenity and its passenger, River Tam, is also on a journey of faith. In contrast to Reynolds, though, he starts as a True Believer—and as Shepherd Book tells Reynolds, believers of any sort are dangerous.

And there are different sorts of believers. Book believes in Christ. Dr. Simon Tam believes in his sister. River believes in God. Inara believes in Buddha.

The Operative, though, believes in engineered human potential, in building “better worlds”—even if it means slaughtering innocent children. And as his and Reynold’s paths cross, we see that the two men are not so dissimilar. But the Operative doesn’t need to learn the intrinsic value of belief; rather, he must learn that there are better things to believe in than human potential. And the truth of this new belief frees him from his dogged pursuit of Reynolds, his search for River Tam, and from the evil he does in service of the Alliance.

River Tam is also on a journey of faith; but she does not move toward faith, nor from one faith to another. Instead, she moves in faith. A literally tortured soul, she longs for deliverance from the damned voices that the Alliance has forced upon her memory. At the apogee of her journey, she nearly loses all hope and cries out, “Please, God, make me a stone!” But when River Tam learns the truth, the truth literally sets her free, too. When the time comes, she is no longer the protected but the protector.

Faith is dangerous, Serenity says, because True Believers of any sort—hijackers, abortion clinic bombers, Mother Teresa, Malcolm Reynolds—are those who change the world. The rest are just along for the ride.

But make no mistake. Serenity does not suggest that one belief is just as good another. It does, however, make a strong case for believing in something as the first step toward finding truth. Hope will sustain the journey, the film says. “I know,” says River Tam. “We’re going for a ride.” And what a ride!

But this film is not ultimately about faith. It’s about the end goal of faith. It’s about love. The film begins there and ends there. The Operative can see it in the eyes of Simon Tam to begin with; and whether Reynolds admits it or not, a love of Serenity has always driven him.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)

If you haven’t seen it yet, the odds are you will love Serenity.

Serenity is available this week on Comcast’s XFinity On Demand. It’s also available to stream at Amazon.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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Foster Helmet LogoThe Bulldog community will honor the past, present, and future with a dance- and music-filled evening on Saturday, March 21.

In 1915, the United States was on the brink of entering World War I, the 47th and 48th states had just been admitted to the Union, and automobiles were slowly becoming available for wealthier citizens.

14667956791_ab0d2b47ae_kIn Tukwila, something just as groundbreaking occurred: Foster High School issued its first-ever diploma to student Ava Sophia Adams (right), setting in motion 100 years of exceptional Bulldog graduates following in her footsteps.

Many of those alumni—spanning almost every decade, including two from the Class of 1937—as well as current and former staff and community members will gather at the school this Saturday for a centennial celebration featuring food, dancing, socializing, and plenty of good memories.

Anyone with an interest or affiliation with Foster High—past, present, or future—is enthusiastically invited!

Members of the centennial planning committee last summer tracked down AvaDiplomaMs. Adams’ family in Montana and brought back her original diploma (pictured at right); that artifact will be on display, and a reenactment of the first commencement ceremony will kick off the official ceremony.

The rest will be a musical tribute to the past, present, and future of the school, including a rollicking dancing-through-the-decades look back at the school’s seminal events featuring alumni musicians.

Members of the 2013 graduating class

Members of the 2013 graduating class

Current students will take the stage for vibrant cultural performances, including singing and dancing from Foster’s Pacific Islander, Burmese, and Hip Hop Clubs.

Over the past century, Foster has transitioned from a simple building in a Northwest settlement area to the sole high school in the nation’s most diverse school district. Throughout these significant changes, the most important character of Foster has never wavered: This school remains the heart of the Tukwila community.

14484493160_50a0e46e04-500“We are all proud Bulldogs, and that’s what matters,” said Ron Lamb, class of 1966, member of the planning committee. “We are coming together to celebrate the story of Foster High School and what we have accomplished—past, present, and future.”

Foster High School Community Centennial Celebration details:

  • Saturday, March 21, at Foster High School, 4242 S. 144th St., Tukwila
  • Doors open at 3 p.m. with an open house featuring tours, an ongoing historical slideshow, a display of artifacts, and socializing. Dinner and refreshments will be available at about 3:30 p.m. The official program will begin at 6 p.m. Following, the gym will open for a sock hop ending at 10 p.m.
  • Foster centennial spirit wear will be available for purchase.

Lawrence of Arabia reviewed by Greg Wright

When the restored “Director’s Cut” of Lawrence of Arabia played at Seattle’s legendary Cinerama theater in 1989, I was naturally at the first showing… even though it meant cutting work that afternoon. (My office was, at that time, just seven convenient blocks down the street!)

As the overture began playing to a fairly crowded house, the lights failed to come down… and the projectionist opened the curtain and unblocked the projection aperture. As the dumbfounded and confused audience looked on, timing marks on the 70mm print were projected onto the screen… and then the curtain closed. And then the projection aperture was closed. The overture continued to play, and a great many members of the audience quickly became convinced that something had gone awry with the print. Several began hooting and hollering, berating the projectionist for having flubbed the premiere screening of the restored David Lean classic.

So much for the intended effect of the overture.

Obviously, the projectionist was as young as many members of the audience, and had never before experienced a film with an overture, intermission, and entr’ acte music.

lawrence-of-arabia-insetLawrence of Arabia is so famous and so lauded as to need very little in the way of a “review.” It’s classic, it’s brilliant, it is storied and legendary. About the most one needs to say of it is that it represents the apotheosis of everything the art form is supposed to be. Every aspect—cinematography, script, acting, direction, music—is executed with the utmost attention to detail, effect, and style. It’s three-hours-plus of cinirvana.

Oh… and it tells a very specific story of a very specific man who inserted himself into the tumultuous history of the region that we call the Middle East. Realistically, it’s safe to say that if it weren’t for T.E. Lawrence, the United States probably would not be embroiled in the Middle East today. Lawrence’s legacy is that significant as a key player in simultaneously Westernizing Arab nations and liberating them from European imperialism. Extraordinary.

One of the central themes of the film, appropriately, is the nature of genius: Are extraordinary people aware that they are extraordinary? And if they are, how driven are they to fulfill their potential? How much do they fear it?

Not coincidentally, it’s the same theme that Martin Scorsese would explore in The Last Temptation of Christ—another film I cut work to see at the Cinerama, in 1988. In that film, as in Lawrence of Arabia, the hero (Jesus) is sorely tempted to leave his calling behind… and simply live the life of an ordinary man: settle down in the country with a wife and child, and a white picket fence. Leave the pain and sacrifice to someone else.

At some level, aren’t we all extraordinary? And yet, don’t we all find ourselves telling the “better angels of our nature” to just quit yammering? Isn’t the path of least resistance awfully appealing at times?

Lawrence of Arabia certainly makes the struggle between calling and the commonplace compelling. And on such an epic scale!

Lawrence of Arabia streams for free in HD on Amazon Prime. How can you lose?

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!


By Greg Wright

This is a team that never quits, that never gives in. That epitomizes a never-say-die, take-no-prisoners approach to every minute in every game. 

That’s what I wrote the day before the Super Bowl. How ironic.

Sad to say it, folks, but the elephant in the locker room — the fact which no one in football is talking about except (ever heard of them?) — is that the Seahawks did not lose the game on the interception Russell Wilson threw in the closing seconds.

The Seahawks lost because they ultimately squandered the opportunity to score another 5 points immediately afterward.

Here’s where they stood with 20 seconds left on the clock:


With the ball on the 1-yard line, the Seahawks have the chance to score a safety — and then with 18 seconds on the clock and one time out remaining, get the ball back with the free kick following… time enough to move downfield and get in field goal range.

What — I’m crazy, you say? What are the odds of that happening, you ask?

Slim to none, of course.

But the odds were slim to none in the NFC Championship against Green Bay when they needed a TD, a successful onside kick, a second TD, a two-point conversion, a coin toss, and an OT TD. But they got all that… and it was beautiful to watch the absolute determination, confidence, and discipline with which the Seahawks executed all the plays necessary to make that happen.

So it was with pure dismay that I watched, with absolutely everything the Hawks had played for the entire season on the line, this happen on Sunday:


Of all the times for a senseless, undisciplined pre-snap penalty. Neutral zone infraction on Michael Bennett for a five-yard encroachment penalty. Totally taking the bait of Brady’s hard-count and the center’s head-bob, precisely intended to draw the Seahawks offside.

Grade-school stuff.

So just as a refresher, this is how things work in the NFL: If Tom Brady fails to get the ball entirely out of the end zone before he’s down, that’s called a “safety.” The defense scores two points.

Following a safety, the team trapped in their own endzone is then required to free-kick the ball back to their opponent, which very often results in a field goal for the opponent because of the excellent field position that a free kick typically yields.

So this game was definitely not over when Wilson’s pass was intercepted.

And with all the accountability this week over that pass call on second down from the 1 yard line, which has been admirable, where’s the accountability been for the Seahawks’ dismal failure on their final defensive stand of the season? How about a few words of explanation or apology from the ever-chatty Bennett?

Mind you, now, I’m not a fair-weather Seahawks fan, and I think they played a marvelous game in which the attrition of injuries, the game of inches, and a style of officiating which oddly favored Patriot aggression barely did them in. They truly showed they can go toe-to-toe with the greatest in the game, and that they are no fluke or flash in the pan.

But someone’s gotta say it.

The Seahawks hurt themselves with pre-snap penalties all season long, and none was worse than the one that wrapped the Super Bowl.

Kudos to the Patriots for exploiting the Hawks’ weakness when it mattered most.

And thanks to the Pete Carroll and his team for another terrific season of football. For my money, the 2012 season has been the most thrilling of this run so far, and the 2013 season yielded the coveted ring.

But 2014 was pretty dang good, too.

It’s relatively no hardship to be quibbling about one play in a Super Bowl loss. We could, after all, live in Cleveland.

Go Hawks!

Hawks-150Expectations are high, and everyone’s paying attention… But every week it seems like there’s some key issue that’s getting glossed over. It’s the elephant in the locker room, if you will, and gosh darn if I’ll let that ride. Join us on Saturday mornings for a little closer look at our World Champions.

By Greg Wright

No lie. Until I heard a random remark from some analyst in the pre-game chatter of the NFC Championship game, it had never dawned on me that the Seahawks have a key player whose name is a homonym for “curse.” Just before the game started, I called out to my wife, “Hey, Jenn. I wonder if the Packers are Kearsed?”

I guess we all know how that played out.

Kearse cradled the redemptive ball and refused to let Green Bay cornerback Tramon Williams wrestle it from him as they fell onto the “W” of “SEAHAWKS” painted in the blue, south end zone. That, and two improbable touchdowns in the final 2:09 of regulation, sent the defending-champion Seahawks back from five turnovers and into the Super Bowl with an unfathomable, 28-22 victory in overtime over some stunned Packers at a completely off-the-hook CenturyLink Field.

Yes, Jermaine Kearse got the W two Sundays ago. Boy, did he. Off the hook, indeed.

Of course, that was just the latest in a string of big plays for Kearse going back four playoff games. The string started in last year’s NFC Championship game against San Francisco. Trailing their nemeses at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Russell Wilson convinces the coaching staff to go for it on 4th and 7 with a “hard count” to get the Niners to jump offsides. They do, so Wilson and Kearse break off the called play for the “free shot” down the field. Touchdown, Kearse.


It was just the game-winning touchdown.

During the third quarter of the Super Bowl two weeks later, Kearse pulled off what has been described by some analysts as one of the best TD catches in the history of the Super Bowl. With the Hawks already up 29-0 at the end of the 3rd quarter, Wilson found Kearse for a 23-yard pinball-play of a TD in which 4 different Broncos bounced off Kearse on his way to the endzone.


Broncos busted, bro.

In the second quarter of this year’s playoff game against the Panthers, Wilson and Kearse connected for the longest scoring pass in Seahawk playoff history, a beauty of a one-handed 63-yard bomb.


And then, as we all well remember, Wilson and Kearse link up on a checkdown play for 35 yards, a miracle comeback, and a ticket-punching TD to the Super Bowl.


I’ve got a sneaky feeling that the Patriots are Kearsed, too. Do you?

It wouldn’t feel right to me to conclude my season of pre-game analyses without going over the details of one of the most mystifying events of the season: Clay Matthews’ disappearing act in the 4th quarter of one of the most legendary games in NFC Championship history.

When the going gets tough, they say, the tough get going. By the beginning of the 4th quarter, both Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas were playing hurt. With a Super Bowl on the line, they weren’t about to come out of the game–and I doubt they would have even if the Hawks had had a lead. They’d have way too much respect for the Packers, and for themselves.

But let’s go over the fourth quarter in detail.

14:35 – Sherman takes a shot from Kam Chancellor in the elbow; Matthews is of course on the sideline celebrating because he doesn’t play offense. But this is important. The Packers are driving, so Matthews is resting, aside from flexing his biceps and facial muscles.

CaptureCM beg 4th

10:46 – The Hawks’ O takes the field; the last fifteen minutes standing on the sideline must have been tiring for Matthews. After one play, and after missing a shot on Luke Willson on a dropped pass, Matthews jogs quickly off the field after clutching himself briefly while lying on the turf. Another important point here: Matthews didn’t break up this pass; it had bounced away from Willson well before Matthews attempted to launch himself through Willson’s ribcage and yet bounced harmlessly away.

On 3rd and 7 at 10:00, Matthews remains on the sidelines. First down, Seattle (Lockette).

At 9:30, CM is back on the field, and Lynch powers for a 12-yard first down, CM playing like a safety rather than a LB. On the ensuing 1st down, CM chases down RW after a gain of 4. CM again leaves the field.

3rd down at 8:22. After an incomplete pass to Baldwin on 2nd down, CM is back in and is caught flat-footed as Lynch powers right into him and through him for 12 more yards and a 1st. On first down, CM drops into coverage as RW is sacked.

On 2nd and long, CM is again mysteriously off the field. Back in on 3rd and 14 at 7:07 — CM rushes the QB, and fails to get by Okung; the pass is incomplete. On the ensuing punt, CM lazily jogs by the end of the line.

At 5:13, the Hawks have the ball back and the game is in the balance. Wilson is intercepted on the first play of the possession… but CM is on the sidelines, not on the field, and celebrating with Brandon Bostick. Huh? And how’s that for irony? This is one screen shot the Packers would probably like to forget.

CaptureCM 5 13
At 5:04, with the Packers trying to mount a game-clinching drive, the celebration continues.

CaptureCM 5 04

At 4:50, with the Packers attempting to get a 1st down, CM hasn’t a care in the world.

CaptureCM 4 50
3:52 – Clutch time… The Hawks have the ball back again, and have to score. CM has to sit. Lynch for 12.

3:32 – Baldwin for 20. CM sits.

3:02 – Incompletion to Kearse on 1st down. On 2nd down, Lynch for another 24. Where’s CM?

2:57 – 1st and Goal for the Hawks… CM settles in for a long winter’s nap.

CaptureCM 2 57

Lynch for 5. Wilson for 3. Wilson for 1 and a TD. 2:09 left.

CaptureCM 2 09
2:07, and an onside kick later… CM is still not on the field. Wilson runs a keeper for 14. At 2:01, CM still shows no sign of getting on the field. Lynch for 3. Get a helmet on, warrior!

CaptureCM 2 01
2:00 – Luke Willson for a 1st Down. Lynch for TD at 1:26. CM? Still sitting, even for goal-line D on the 2-point conversion.

1:25 left. Still no sign of stirring.

CM finally appears at 0:11 for a meaningless snap.

In OT, the Hawks have the ball at the 13… CM is finally back in, and Lynch runs for 3. On 2nd down, Baldwin goes for a first down after being pushed out of bounds by CM. At the 27, Lynch runs for three. On 2nd down, Wilson carries for no gain. On 3rd down, it’s Wilson to Baldwin for 35. CM gets no pressure on the play. On the TD to Kearse, CM is rushing against Okung. No contest. Game over.

I’ve included a screen shot above from every look in the broadcast of Matthews on the sideline, looking for some clue as to why he was not playing. Visually, there’s nothing. He’s not getting treatment, he’s not talking to staffers, he’s not stretching or taping or in any visible pain, disorientation, or distress. In all honesty, it looks like he’s saving himself for the Super Bowl.

Packers fans are naturally extremely put out by Matthews’ disappearing act. Even when he was on the field in the 4th quarter and OT, he was glaringly ineffective.

Following the game, a radio journalist referenced a locker-room quote from Matthews that he was “physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted.” It’s unclear whether he was talking about his own condition in the fourth quarter, or the team’s condition following the game.

Mike McCarthy, the Packers’ head coach, however, was asked about Matthews’ condition after the game:

Q: Why wasn’t Clay in the game at that time and how was he able to come back for the overtime? Did he get hurt?

COACH MCCARTHY: Not that I’m aware of.

ESPN’s Green Bay blog remarked the following:

I remember looking across the field from the press box during the last drive and in my binoculars, I could see Matthews trying to get his legs loose. However, there was no injury announcement made, either in the press box or by the team after the game, and Matthews returned to play the only possession of overtime. After the game, Matthews was asked if his leg was bothering him, and he told reporters: “Yeah, it was a medley of things just catching up to me. Fortunately, I worked with the trainers a little bit during that last drive and was able to get back out there for overtime.”

Matthews, of course, played in the Pro Bowl the following week and had no trouble celebrating. And in the lead-up, he gave this mystifying interview in which the Big Question was completely avoided, and Matthews looked like he couldn’t have cared less about missing out on the Super Bowl.

Earlier this week, reporters finally got a chance for official comment from McCarthy about Matthews’ condition in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship:

McCarthy didn’t indicate Matthews’ absence was a coach’s decision.

“I talked to Clay. He said he needed a minute. Looking him in the eye, I didn’t see any reason for his concern. Unless it impacts a game, I’m not going to be notified,” McCarthy said.

While that may not make a lot of sense, the question was posed as one about whether Matthews had suffered a concussion. Because, for some reason, all the bozos who cover the Packers are unable to state the obvious question in a straight-forward manner.

Why wasn’t Clay Matthews on the field?

So McCarthy said Matthews didn’t have a concussion and then tried to cover for him a little bit by saying the training staff was looking at his knee. He also mentioned that Jordy Nelson waved him over, presumably to take a look at Matthews and see if he was injured.

But the statement is definitive. There is no evidence that Matthews was injured. Nor was there mention that someone decided to take Matthews out of the game.

“He said he needed a minute.”

Matthews took himself out.

The potential “injury” referenced above was that missed shot on Willson at the top of the fourth quarter.

The bottom line is this: If I were the Packers’ GM, I’d consider sending Matthews to the Jets to be with Percy Harvin. I can’t imagine Matthews surviving on the Seahawks. This is a team that never quits, that never gives in. That epitomizes a never-say-die, take-no-prisoners approach to every minute in every game. Go Hawks!

Hawks-150Expectations are high, and everyone’s paying attention… But every week it seems like there’s some key issue that’s getting glossed over. It’s the elephant in the locker room, if you will, and gosh darn if I’ll let that ride. Join us on Saturday mornings for a little closer look at our World Champions.

By Greg Wright

Kind of lost in the ballyhoo over the Hawks miracle win against the Packers on Sunday was a rather stunning first-down completion from Wilson to Baldwin on 3rd and 19 (remember those numbers, Cowboy fans?) with 6:30 left in the third quarter.

And that play illustrated another fact about Sunday’s game that was kind of lost. Take a look at where Wilson took the snap from Max Unger on that play:


I know I wasn’t the only one who noticed the trouble Unger was having getting the ball to Wilson on shotgun snaps. With the rain and the wetness, Unger often shot the ball out to Wilson’s right on Sunday.

Sure would have been nice to get a better grip on the ball, wouldn’t it?

If you’re quick on the uptake, you should be thinking what I’m thinking.

Another team was playing in the wet and rain on Sunday, and somehow somebody got to at least 11 out of 12 footballs and took significant amounts of air out of them–presumably to be able to get a better grip on them.

Bill Belichick’s been accused of cheating already and, I think, plausibly denied knowledge of tampering… though I do agree that he threw Brady under the bus in passing the buck.

Tom Brady’s story about having no idea the pressure was off frankly doesn’t wash. Why is he so particular about 12.5 psi if he can’t tell the difference when he’s handling the ball during a game?

But it doesn’t make sense to think that Brady has anything to gain by taking chances with tampering, even if he could tell something was off. And it did feel to me like Brady was passing the buck as well, taking a cue from his coach.

So who might have something to gain by risking such tampering?

How about Ryan Wendell, who hadn’t played center all season until Sunday, when injury forced rookie starter Bryan Stork to sit out? Wendell’s relationship with the Patriots, after all, has been on-again-off-again after the team initially declined to re-up Wendell as a free agent in the offseason. When Wendell didn’t get a free-agent offer from another team, the Patriots re-signed him. But not as a center. Instead they drafted Stork as their center of the future.

So how many more games as a Patriot–or a professional–do you think Wendell has in him? With the AFC Championship on the line, how many more chances do you think Wendell has at a Super Bowl ring?

How badly do think Wendell might want to have an edge when snapping the ball to Brady 78 times in the driving rain during a championship game, knowing how important Belichick finds the center-QB exchange?

The Worcester Telegram & Gazette ran the following two years and three weeks ago about Wendell:

“The center-to-quarterback exchange is just the most critical part to any play,” coach Bill Belichick said recently. “You can’t have a good play without that. But that’s been a great strength of Wendy’s throughout his career here. Shotgun snaps, under-center snaps, wet games, snow, whatever it is, he’s been very dependable there. It all starts with that.”

The potential pitfalls are many. Sometimes Wendell has to execute a traditional snap and then reach block. Other times, it’s a shotgun snap and then immediately trying to tie up a pass rusher.

“He does a good job of that,” Belichick said, citing Wendell’s discipline and concentration. “You can’t underestimate that part of the center’s job. You take it for granted until you have a bad one, and it’s all bad after that.

Emphasis mine.

But that was two years and three weeks ago. Belichick’s obviously not so hot on Wendell at center these days, having moved him over to guard at the beginning of the season. I wonder why. Actually, no I don’t. It’s pretty clear why. As far as handling the ball goes, Wendell has clearly been in Belichick’s doghouse.

Already on the hot seat, you wouldn’t want to blow your chance on Sunday with off-target snaps, now would you?

So what did Wendell have to say about handling those deflated balls on Sunday? According to the Tampa Bay Times, “Just felt like any other game,” Wendell said. “Felt the same throughout the game. So I don’t know what the difference would be.”

Yep, just felt like any other game… playing guard, handling the ball not at all, much less 78 times.

If it’s not plausible that Brady wouldn’t notice a difference in pressure, how less plausible is it that Wendell wouldn’t? After all, who squeezes the pigskin more regularly than the center?

Now, listen to me clearly on this topic.

Given the not-so-distant chronic history of Seahawks being suspended for the use of various performance-enhancing drugs, no Seahawk or Seahawk fan has any room to be casting stones at the Patriots for being “cheaters.” Seriously.

But if the NFL finds that something fishy did happen, and deliberately so, with those footballs on Sunday, it won’t be Belichick or Brady on the hook.

It will be somebody who had a lot more riding on a single game’s performance.

Somebody like Wendell… or LeGarrette Blount.

You heard it here first.

Hawks-150Expectations are high, and everyone’s paying attention… But every week it seems like there’s some key issue that’s getting glossed over. It’s the elephant in the locker room, if you will, and gosh darn if I’ll let that ride. Join us on Saturday mornings for a little closer look at our World Champions.

By Greg Wright

So before I talk about the Elephant in Seattle’s locker room, how about a few words about the whopper in Denver’s?

If you were like me on Sunday, at some point in the second half of the Broncos’ loss to Indianapolis you were thinking, “This is probably the last time I’ll ever see Peyton Manning play.” And it might have been precisely at this moment:


As Manning lofted this pass toward the sideline (almost to the outstretched hands of the receiver in the upper right corner of the above screen grab)—with the Broncos needing just six yards to avoid a punt—over sixty feet of green stretched before Manning’s eyes. And his best option for the first down was… throwing at the sideline into double coverage. Yup. Incompletion. Punt.

Game over, really, even though it was their first possession of the second half. The moment felt so much like last year’s Super Bowl.

But let’s be generous. Let’s assume that Manning saw something we didn’t. Like hordes of linebackers and tackles bearing down on him from his left, just out of view of the television audience.

Uh, nope. Here’s the “all-22” coaches’ view, and it looks even worse from there. This is what the field of play looked like just when Manning released the ball:


I’m sorry, but this isn’t a coaching problem. This is some combination of piss-poor play and waning physical prowess. And yet John Fox is the one without a job this week. Go figure. Glad I’m not in THAT locker room.

Which brings us to Seattle.

So many, so very many amazing things to be said this week as we head into the NFC Championship, about both the defense and the offense—and everybody else is saying them. So I won’t bother, and won’t recap either.

Instead I’d just like to point out one thing: If the Hawks have a vulnerability during their run to this year’s Super Bowl—if I were a coach looking for a weakness to exploit—I’d be looking at Special Teams.

Even before the Legion of Boom was famous, and when Russell Wilson was still wet behind the ears, Pete Carroll’s Special Teams were awesome. Remember Red Bryant’s perennial kick-blocking skills? Remember Leon Washington’s phenomenal kickoff returns? Remember, just as recently as last season, Golden Tate being a threat to return a punt for a score just about any time he fielded one?

By Mike Morris (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Mike Morris (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Remember last year’s punt coverage team threatening to set a record for the fewest return yards allowed ever? Remember Steven Hauschka becoming the most accurate kicker in the history of the league?

Well, I hope those are good memories—because they don’t represent what we’ve seen this season. Kam Chancellor’s back-to-back line-leaps aside, only one other special-teams moment this season gave us thrills: Doug Baldwin’s blocked punt, which turned into a TD for the Hawks… in a losing effort against the Cowboys at the Clink. And I bet you’ve almost forgotten about that one.

But who can forget the Rams’ fake field goal, or their “fake” punt return for a touchdown in the same Hawk loss on the road?

Who can forget Hauschka missing three field goals in one game?

Would you be surprised to learn that Seattle’s opponents had a higher field goal percentage than the Hawks did this year?

Bryan Walters, in case you didn't know. By Mike Morris (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Bryan Walters, in case you didn’t know. By Mike Morris (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Can you name Seattle’s leading punt returner? Did you even know there is a player on the home team named Bryan Walters? Many fans don’t. But that’s your guy, fans.

Are you shocked that opponents returned kickoffs an average of 24 yards, while the Hawks averaged only 21?

Are you bummed that the only player to return a kick for a score in the last two years isn’t even a Seahawk any more?

That opponents have blocked nine kicks over the last three seasons while the Hawks have blocked only five?

The only Special Teams category that the Seahawks have outdone their opponents in this season is percentage of punts downed inside the 20 yard line. Field position is important, yes… but when that’s your sole claim to Special Teams fame, there’s something awry.

Our hometown Special Teams aren’t awful… but if there’s any facet of the Hawks’ game that’s pedestrian, Special Teams is it.

So here’s my prediction: if the Hawks lose either of the next two possible games–and I don’t think they will, mind you–it will be because they lose the Special Teams battle.

Undefeated reviewed by Greg Wright

This is football, and this is life. Both are games of inches.

And if you don’t believe the fate of men and nations alike turn on the simplest of choices and miscues, just take a gander at this Oscar-winning documentary that’s a cross between The Blind Side and Friday Night Lights.

This is Tennessee, though, not Texas—and the setting is a less-than-dirt-poor public school, not a private Christian school. But as in The Blind Side, the heroes of this story are fatherless black kids… and white coaches and mentors.

Another big difference here, though. Like Blind Side’s Sean Tuohy, coach Bill Courtney is a self-made man from the wrong side of the Deep-Southern tracks. He owns a specialty hardwoods factory, and knows what it means to suck it up when misfortune strikes and rise above it. But the coaching… well, he volunteers at Memphis’ Manassas High, and over the course of six years takes the Tigers from scoring maybe 36 points in an entire winless schedule to a shot at the division title, the playoffs… and maybe, even, an undefeated season.

undefeated-insetHow? As Courtney says, not because he builds character into these kids through football, but that football reveals character in them. And as Courtney also tells his players, because players win games—not coaches. What Courtney and his volunteer staff do very effectively, though, is invest in these boys as people, as young men with potential—and build character in them before and between every snap of the ball through sound teaching, mentoring, and a lot of prayer, faith, and hope.

In addition to Courtney, the camera follows three players in particular: O.C. Brown, a massive left tackle who instantly evokes Michael Oher… and, uncannily, might have a shot at a college scholarship if tutors can help him raise his grades and test scores (!); Money, the team’s scrappy right tackle who will beyond a doubt play his last organized football during this, his senior season; and Chavis, who fits in the most-likely-to-be-dead-by-twenty category. The ups and downs of these three young men are alternately infuriating, heartbreaking, and breathtaking, and Courtney’s right in the thick of it all along the way.

And then there’s the football.

While experienced documentarians Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin won’t exactly be inspiring generations of filmmakers with their compositions or camera work, they have here stumbled on narrative gold—and manage would could have been, in other hands, a by-the-numbers gridiron travelogue in a way that truly dramatizes what’s at stake and wisely whittles away extraneous footage in favor of roughly 120 minutes of real drama.

This film goes straight into my keep-it-forever catalog of great sports documentaries like When We Were Kings, Touching the Void, The King of Kong, Hoop Dreams, More Than A Game, Deep Water, and Surfwise.

Amazing and inspiring stuff. Oscars? Whatever.

Undefeated is available to stream at Amazon Instant Video.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

Hawks-150Expectations are high, and everyone’s paying attention… But every week it seems like there’s some key issue that’s getting glossed over. It’s the elephant in the locker room, if you will, and gosh darn if I’ll let that ride. Join us on Saturday mornings for a little closer look at our World Champions.

By Greg Wright

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

In a collision between two objects, the object with greater momentum wins.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the collateral damage other teams suffer when meeting the Seahawks over the last two seasons. Roughly 75% of the time you are going to lose… and roughly 75% of the time, you will also lose the following week.

I didn’t discover this trend; it was first talked about last year by ESPN. But since I resurrected the topic this season, it’s become talked about quite a bit more. (And not because any of the Real Sports Journalists pay attention to me; it’s just become so hard to miss.)

The thing that’s still not really being talked about, though, is that this punishment is by design. It’s the result of coaching. The Seahawks simply hit harder than other teams. And they do it within the rules.

Here’s the principle: You’re either going to be the one who dishes out the punishment, or you’re going to get punished. Go faster, and go harder, and physics says you’ll be the former.

So for your visual enjoyment on this Seahawks Playoff Day, take a look at some of my favorite moments from the recent past…

Mr. Boldin, meet Mr. Chancellor. In Kam's rookie season, he was often fined for not getting the hits quite right, but this was the prototype for the Seahawk Style that would later develop.

Mr. Boldin, meet Mr. Chancellor. In Kam’s rookie season, he was often fined for not getting the hits quite right, but this was the prototype for the Seahawk Style that would later develop.


Mr. Lee, meet Mr. Tate. This hit was the topic of much discussion in the press last week, so I thought I'd highlight it, for those who don't remember.

Mr. Lee, meet Mr. Tate. This hit was the topic of much discussion in the press last week, so I thought I’d highlight it, for those who don’t remember.



Mr. Watt, meet Mr. Wilson. The coaches’ film of last year’s Houston game is the only place you’ll see the hit that produced Watt’s iconic “look.” Wilson didn’t really dish this out, but it’s still significant that Wilson has NEVER looked as bad as Watt, even when he gets taken down out of bounds.



Mr. Moore, meet Mr. Wilson… who, by the way, was a receiver on this play.



Oh, just for fun let’s take a second look, just a second later.



“Isn’t that illegal?” my wife asks every time she sees this shot from a play called back by penalty (not on Wilson!) during the Super Bowl. No, the stiff-arm isn’t illegal, and it illustrates a point. Even the Hawks’ offensive players know how to dish it out. Mr. Bailey, meet Mr. Wilson.



Mr. Dockett, meet Mr. Lynch. Mr. Lynch, meet the endzone.



Mr. Talib, meet Mr. Baldwin. I’m not sure if you’ve ever noticed, but Percy Harvin aside (and very far aside, now) Seahawk receivers haven’t tended to be the worse for wear since Baldwin’s rookie season. They’ve learned some things from practicing against The Legion.



Mr. Rivers, meet Mr. Schofield. (Bet ya’ll were wondering when I was going to get around to more defensive hits!)



Mr. Crabtree, meet Mr. Wagner.



Mr. Ellington, meet the Rocket. Special Teams play counts, too, doesn’t it?



Mr. Hillman, meet Mr. Farwell. Heath set the tone on special teams for several years before going on IR before this season began. Here is one of two occasions when Farwell separated a ball carrier from the pigskin on the goal line.


Seahawks vs. 49ers

Mr. Davis, meet Mr. Chancellor. Again.


Super Bowl XLVIII - Seattle Seahawks v Denver Broncos

Mr. Thomas, meet the LOB. A fitting metaphor for the whole Super Bowl, eh?


Divisional Playoffs - New Orleans Saints v Seattle Seahawks

Mr. Sproles, meet Mr. Bennett… and an early exit from the playoffs. Oh, and welcome to another team, too.



Mr. Gore, meet… Oh, well, there’s no need to beat THAT dead horse any more, is there? Sayonara, Mr. Harbaugh!

Editorial note: I’ve long lost track of the source of most of these photos, so I can’t give proper credit. If the owners browse through here and can help me out (or want me to take these down) I’ll be happy to oblige! Fair use principles generally apply, however.




Hawks-150Expectations are high, and everyone’s paying attention… But every week it seems like there’s some key issue that’s getting glossed over. It’s the elephant in the locker room, if you will, and gosh darn if I’ll let that ride. Join us on Saturday mornings for a little closer look at our World Champions.

By Greg Wright

On Christmas Eve, my brother Bob and I talked football. It was fun, because Bob and I played together for one year in high school. (Actually, we practiced together. He was a senior on the varsity team for Mike Huard’s Foster High School Bulldogs, while I wouldn’t crack the starting varsity lineup until midway through my own senior year under Huard, thanks to Bob Pesicka’s broken arm.) And it was fun because we were talking about the Seahawks.

We were talking about the remarkable run of defensive performances to finish the season when Bob asked, “Is this by design? What is it that Pete Carroll does differently than other coaches?”

Well, the Seahawks D has been a tremendous topic of conversation in the press this week. Let’s review what key journalists have to say about some truly remarkable numbers and connections.

Clare Farnsworth,

The defense did not allow a point in the fourth quarter of the last six games, and yielded only 13 in the second halves during the six-game winning streak. And that included the Cardinals, who outscored their other opponents 102-64 in the fourth quarter this season.

John McGrath at the Tacoma News Tribune:

The athleticism [Jordan] Hill showed [on his interception] didn’t surprise Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll.

“Everybody in the program has to have good hands,” he said, “and it showed up right there why that’s so important.”

Developing and maintaining dexterity, Carroll explained, “is something we always preach. We throw the ball every day. Everybody has to catch the ball every day in practice.”

Carroll’s belief in a good-hands policy would seem to be another example of his cutting edge coaching principles, but he was taught that 30 years ago as a defensive backs coach on Bud Grant’s Minnesota Vikings staff.

“I give that one totally to Bud Grant,” Carroll said of his close friend and professional mentor. “That was Coach Grant’s deal, and I just swiped it.”

The Seahawks’ defense has led the NFL in average points allowed the past three seasons. The last team to do that was the Vikings in 1969-71, when they were led by those “Purple People Eaters” – ends Carl Eller and Jim Marshall and tackles Alan Page and Gary Larsen, who was later replaced by Doug Sutherland.

And there’s another connection, because Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was the Vikings’ defensive backs coach from 1985-89. The “Purple People Eaters” were long gone, but their coach – Bud Grant – was still around, in his second go-around with the team.

“That was a great time for them and the defense that they played. I know Bud had great regard for those guys that played for all those years,” Carroll said Monday during his weekly day-after session with the media. “There was a point, he would say, that they started the same 11 guys for seven straight years – if you can imagine that in this day and age. That’s why they got their nickname, because they played together so long and were so good at it.”

As for the Seahawks, they allowed an average of 15.9 points this season – and 6.5 during the six-game winning streak to close the season; 14.4 points in 2013; and 15.3 points in 2012.

“It’s a real point of pride,” Carroll said.  “That kind of consistency, it’s rare. When you matchup with a team that’s got a nickname like that, that’s pretty good stuff.”

Steve Rudman at Sports Press NW:

Go back to the beginning of the Super Bowl era (1966). Only seven teams allowed fewer than 50 points in their final six regular-season games:

Year Team Coach PA Opponents, Points
1976 Steelers Chuck Noll 22 KC 0, Mia 3, Hou 16, Cin 3, TB 0, Hou 0
1975 Rams Chuck Knox 32 Atl 7, Chi 10, Det 0, NO 7, GB 5, Pitt 3
2014 Seahawks Pete Carroll 39 Ariz 3, SF 3, Phil 14, SF 7, Ariz 6, StL 6
2000 Titans Jeff Fisher 42 Cle 10, Jax 16, Phil 13, Cin 3, Cle 0, Dal 0
1968 Colts Don Shula 46 Det 10, StL 0, Minn 9, Atl 0, GB 3, Rams 24
2009 Jets Rex Ryan 47 Car 6, Buff 13, TB 3, Atl 10, Ind 15, Cin 0
1972 Steelers Chuck Noll 48 KC 7, Cle 26, Minn 10, Cle 0, Hou 3, SD 2

More from Farnsworth:

Nine teams scored at least 400 points [in 2014] – the Green Bay Packers (486), Broncos (482), Philadelphia Eagles (474), New England Patriots (468), Dallas Cowboys (467), Colts (458), Steelers (436), Baltimore Ravens (409) and Saints (401). And that ties for the second-most in league history.

The league-wide completion percentage (.626), passer rating (88.9) and touchdown passes (807) also surpassed the previous marks that were set last season – .612, 86.0 and 804.

Those numbers against the Seahawks’ No. 1-ranked passing defense were .617, 80.4 and 17. During the six-game winning streak to close the regular season, those numbers were .540, 54.6 and 2 (with seven interceptions).

Brady Henderson, 710 ESPN Seattle:

“When you gain the notoriety and the respect, it’s demonstrated by the fact the ball doesn’t go your way,” Carroll said. “[Earl Thomas] doesn’t see much but that’s a big, big plus for us. That means that post routes and seam routes don’t happen. That’s huge because that’s how people score the most in the league with the throwing game. So he’s been a huge factor.”

Not just in the Seahawks’ pass defense, which finished first in the NFL. They also had the league’s third-ranked run defense, and a big reason why Seattle finished in the top five in both categories was its ability to limit explosive plays, which are defined as runs of 12 yards or more and passes gaining at least 16 yards. According to the team’s website, Seattle allowed the fewest such plays in the league at 76, which was 10 fewer than the next best team.

So, yes — what the Seahawks are up to at the close of this season — and, really, in the entirety of the Legion of Boom era — may be unprecedented when you consider how rules changes have affected the game in recent years. And by any standards, the Hawks’ D ranks with the best in history.

And yes, it’s by design. Pete Carroll developed as a coach under defensive geniuses, and has (as a head coach in the NFL) also valued time of possession, a league-leading rushing game, turnover margin, speed, strength, intelligence, and having fun.

And, as I noted earlier this year, keeping games close in the fourth quarter. What Carroll calls “finishing.”

Let’s take a closer look at this single facet of the Seahawks’ game, since no one else has bothered to.

The following table lists the maximum points the Hawks have trailed by in every game under Pete Carroll.


Playing from Behind — Maximum Lead Held By Opponent
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
3 16 10 4 4
24 24 0 0 13
0 7 5 0 0
17 17 9 17 0
7 3 4 6 7
0 3 13 3 18
30 22 7 0 6
41 17 4 3 0
7 0 7 21 7
18 7 0 0 7
18 7 3 0 0
14 0 7 0 0
33 0 0 6 7
24 7 0 0 4
24 6 0 7 3
0 10 4 0 6
10 14 0
28 20 10
Reg. Seas. Avg. 16.3 9.1 4.6 4.2 5.1
Postseas. Avg. 19 17 3.3
Cum. Avg. 16.6 9.1 5.9 4.1 5.1

Notice how the cumulative average of the opponents’ leads has dropped since 2010 — and how stunning that figure was during the post-season last year. In the Legion of Boom era, the Seahawks simply have not played from behind by large margins.

In fact, as many outlets have noted in recent weeks, since Russell Wilson has arrived on the scene, there has not been a single game, playoffs included, in which the Seahawks have not held the lead at some point.

Think about that.

After you have, you may look at the above table and think, “Well, gee. Maybe I should be worried, then. Seattle’s Average Maximum Point Deficit is almost a whole point higher this year when compared to last, and it’s even worse than in 2012. Maybe this means they’re slipping. Maybe I should be worried heading into the playoffs.”

I thought about that, too. But two factors skew the averages in favor of 2013 — the slow start this year, and the number of games in which Seattle never trailed. If you remove the latter from the analysis, you get the following adjusted averages:


Reg. Seas. Adj. 20.0 11.2 6.6 8.4 7.5

From that standpoint, you can see that the Seahawks have actually improved over last season. And they’re peaking at the right time.

Finally, compare Seattle’s 5.1 cumulative / 7.5 adjusted to the figures for the New England Patriots, the team most likely to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl this year: 6.7 cumulative / 9.7 adjusted. And that includes a game in which the Patriots trailed by a whopping 34 points. The last time Seattle trailed by that much was in 2010.

So here is where Carroll’s design should give us all warm fuzzies in the bye week:

  • Seattle is almost certain not to trail by more than 10 in any post-season game this year… and that figure will likely be 7 or less;
  • every game will at the very least be closely contested;
  • the Hawks will likely hold a lead at some point in each…
  • and the Seahawks know how to finish.