The Super Bowl Story

Lots of stories out there to get us ready for Sunday’s Super Bowl between the 49ers and Ravens. This is Flip Side’s:

The gun barrel was being pressed too hard against Dr. Lee Chong’s left temple, while the right side of his entire face began to singe. Chong thought he could smell his skin burning.

A football game. It was a football game that would ultimately end the life of this brilliant scientist, whose work radically impacted society. He would go unknown to everyone.

Or almost everyone. There was Barbie. There was also Wax, the sneering gangster who had, moments earlier, turned on the burner in Chong’s hotel-suite kitchen and was pressing the doctor’s face toward the flames with a shining, ruby-red pistol.

“You know why you’re alive!” Wax’s breath was like hot garbage. “My father didn’t give you a king’s life so you could ruin him! How can anyone be so ungrateful!?”

Yes, the smell was skin. Dr. Lee Chong was being maimed and murdered over the Super Bowl.

Wax eased off enough to let Chong lift his face from the stove. They stood face-to-face, eyes aligned. Then Wax struck Chong with the gun. It was like eating a hammer swung full-speed, beyond any pain Chong had ever felt. He was on his knees, hands to busted face.

“We were your family, Chong!” Wax was above him, gun at his side. The gun rose until it pointed right at Dr. Lee Chong’s face.

“You should have pushed the button, Chong.” He was going to pull the trigger. “This was about honor. Why’d you do it?”

“The brothers,” Dr. Lee Chong moaned through blood and teeth pieces.

“Brothers? You were my brother. And brother, you ain’t any more.”

Quite an accomplishment for two brothers to meet as opposing head coaches in the Super Bowl. The last thing that went through Dr. Lee Chong’s head, other than the bullet, was the thought “Their mother must be proud.”

Lee Chong was fast as a baby. He was faster as a boy. He had always been fast, and grew interested in knowing why he was fast.

He got smarter than everyone else. Whatever he wanted to understand, he understood. As a teen he watched a nature show with cheetahs sprinting in slow motion. Later, he watched “Terminator” and was transfixed by the ending, where a robot rose from flames. The images were beyond revelation.

The bionics were easy if you knew what pieces you needed and how to put them together. The legs Lee Chong created helped the disabled walk, but that was ancillary. A bonus. The point was to make human athletes run as fast as cheetahs.

The technology earned him a doctorate. But the procedure to implant Chong’s devices into normal, healthy legs was bloody and invasive. He had achieved his goal and so resigned himself to a comfortable retirement to academia’s highest levels.

Chong died never knowing how his work came to be admired by the gang lord Shark Valentine, who offered an option more appealing than retirement. Valentine wanted Chong’s legs. He loved football and he loved winning money. What he hated was gambling.

“I don’t gamble, doctor,” Valentine hissed when they met, “because I can make anything happen. You’re going to rig the game for me, or you’re going to bleed until you die.”

Shark Valentine had chosen a young man named Colin to be turned into a superhuman. Chong performed the grotesque procedure beneath the trash talking crescent-moon smile of Valentine’s awful son, Wax. “Don’t slip, Doc,” Wax cackled, thumbing the safety on his ruby-red glock.

For doing this, Dr. Lee Chong was given a mansion, and he was given Barbie. She had been a prostitute before they met, he a virgin. Barbie made Chong feel like the king of Rome.

His instructions were to keep Colin ready, those robotic legs tuned, so that with the mere push of a button from miles away Dr. Lee Chong could make Colin run so fast he was impossible to stop. He didn’t do this during every game, only the ones on which Valentine had wagered a fortune in blood money.

Valentine’s hundreds of thousands multiplied into millions, and the 49ers made the Super Bowl.

Valentine was so excited for the game, he put his whole family up in New Orleans during Super Bowl week. He also brought along Dr. Lee Chong, who was to remote-boost Colin’s legs at precisely the right moments to guarantee a 49er win.

Chong brought Barbie. Of course he did. They went out the night before the game, just the two of them, to the nicest restaurant in town.

Seated one table over were two similar-looking men and an old woman. It was the Harbaugh brothers, Jim and John, having dinner with their mother. She was wide-eyed, gray-haired. Sweet and happy. Bliss personified. She clapped her hands and told her sons how excited she was, and how great the game would be.

“I never knew my mother,” Barbie said. Then she chugged down her second glass of wine in 10 minutes and made a trumpet sound with her lips.

Mama in “Mama” is Not a Lizard-like Nightmare Creature

“Guillermo Del Toro Presents” is enough to get my money. There are a few “Guillermo Del Toro Presents” movies, which means they’re produced by Del Toro but not actually written or directed by him. His mere involvement gets touted from the top of the poster and the front (or back) of all TV ads and trailers.

These movies have mostly been good – “Splice” and “Orphanage” began the “Guillermo Del Toro Presents” label and it has carried on with “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” and now “Mama.”

Other filmmakers do the same thing. “Quentin Tarantino Presents” was atop the campaigns for “Hostel” and “The Man With the Iron Fists.” So, meh. And Steven Spielberg is the presenter or producer of all sorts of stuff, including “Transformers,” “Cowboys and Aliens,” “Real Steel,” “Super 8” and the TV shows “Falling Skies,” “Terra Nova” and “Smash.” All those are big-budget, special-effects-stravaganzas… with the weird exception of “Smash,” a TV show about dancing.

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A Del Toro design and monster from “Hellboy II”

The “Guillermo Del Toro” brand is one I buy because it almost always means monsters. Nightmare creatures are his forte. We don’t often get legitimately cool creatures in movies any more – just check out the aforementioned “Super 8,” with a totally forgettable central monster, and the recent “Clash of the Titans” movies, which were built around huge battles featuring gray, generic beasts with no imaginative design elements.

Del Toro specializes in the design elements. A classic recent New Yorker piece on Del Toro included this description of Sammael, from Del Toro’s movie “Hellboy”: Del Toro had given Sammael, who has a lion’s mane of writhing tentacles, a subtle motif of asymmetry; one front limb is slightly longer than the other, setting his gait off balance, and he has an extra eye on the right side of his snout.

“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” was not directed by Del Toro, but because he produced I figured it had monsters. The film isn’t great, but the little black demon fairies who talk trash and eat children’s teeth made it worth watching once.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Does Mama in “Mama” live up to his standards? Not really. The creature is a ghost this time, who keeps appearing in the background just long enough to startle. She kills some characters who aren’t central to the story, while sparing the ones whom she actually hates. And she might be made of moths, or maybe butterflies. It doesn’t really make sense.

So the brand appears to have let us down in this case. That’s OK, though, because of what’s on the horizon. Del Toro has written and directed an crazy-looking summer blockbuster coming out called “Pacific Rim,” about giant government robots fighting giant monsters from another dimension. The trailer is sick:

And he’s directing the pilot for a TV show on FX based on the “Strain” trilogy of vampire apocalypse novels he wrote with Chuck Hogan. FX shows are consistently great, and those “Strain” books were awesome, filled with great heroes and villains and all sorts of demonic characters and horror elements.

So “Mama” is a letdown, but Del Toro fans need not be too worried. Having abandoned “The Hobbit” to Peter Jackson after years of pre-production (Del Toro was to direct the “Hobbit” movies but bailed after numerous lawyer-related production delays), he’s got actual projects coming out. “Mama” is some weak tea coming from the genius who helmed “Pan’s Labyrinth,” but “Pacific Rim” and “The Strain” are going to rock.

“Life of Pi,” Ray Lewis, and Believing in God

The character Pi in “Life of Pi” says he has a story that can make us believe in God, and he’s kind of right. The belief the film fosters isn’t in God’s existence, but rather in the importance of religious stories. “Life of Pi” doesn’t argue for God, it argues that believing in something wonderful makes sense when real life can be so cold and brutal.

Ray Lewis also kind of makes me believe in God.

Lewis is the star linebacker of the Baltimore Ravens, who will play in the Super Bowl in two weeks after beating the New England Patriots on Sunday. Lewis is so in-your-face with his religion that it could totally be considered annoying. This is a snapshot of his insanely emotional reaction to the National Anthem before the Patriots game. He was swaying and crying and smiling huge and saying “Thank you God” and “Praise God” over and over:

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After the game, he collapsed in prayer on the field and was swarmed by cameras. Later, he said this: “No weapon formed against this team shall prosper. And to see us here today holding this trophy, God is absolutely AMAZING!”

Ray Lewis was the MVP of the Super Bowl in 2001, when he led the Ravens to the championship. This almost never happens for a defensive player, though he was not given the “I’m going to Disneyland” line that typically accompanies that honor, probably because he was arrested and indicted on murder charges the year previous.

That’s right – murder. Lewis was partying during the 2000 Super Bowl when a fight broke out between his group and some other party-goers. Two men wound up stabbed to death. Lewis’s lawyers admitted he lied to police and told his friends not to cooperate with the investigation. He wound up pleading guilty to obstruction of justice. The blood-stained white suit Lewis was wearing that night has never been recovered.

So he’s been through that. And not to pile on the guy, but he also has six kids by four women. There are bits of information about this man which make his belief in God appear dubious. Patriots receiver Wes Welker’s wife put it nicely on Facebook after Sunday’s game: “Proud of my husband and the Pats. By the way, if anyone is bored, please go to Ray Lewis’ Wikipedia page. 6 kids 4 wives. Acquitted for murder. Paid a family off. Yay. What a hall of fame player! A true role model!” (She has since taken that down and apologized.)

So Lewis is a relentlessly violent football player (he’s been leading the Ravens in tackles this playoffs), with a past that includes facing murder charges. He is also in everyone’s face about his faith, completely devoted to the cause, preaching every chance he gets.

It appears to be working. Lewis tore his tricep in the regular season this year and thought about retiring. Instead, he rehabbed until the playoffs and has returned to dominate and lead his team to a Super Bowl. He says the game will be his last in the NFL. If he wins, it’ll be a glorious ending for a certain Hall-of-Fame career spanning 16 seasons.

Things are working out for Ray Lewis, I guess is my point. It should be offensive when he gushes about God like a schizophrenic homeless man. But when life is going that well for someone, who are we to judge?

It’s just like “Life of Pi.” I may not be religious because of “Pi” or Ray Lewis, but I understand religion better because of them. It’s all about the story.

The “Zero Dark Thirty” Raid and that Cereal Scene in “The Hurt Locker”

The climactic raid that ends “Zero Dark Thirty” is one of those meticulous, intense, entertaining action scenes that’ll be remembered forever, like the shootout in “Heat” or the car chase in “Bullitt.” Shrouded entirely in the dark of half past midnight, Seal Team 6 urgently talks, shoots and explodes its way floor-by-floor, in pursuit of America’s ultimate individual enemy.

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It isn’t just the viciously efficient way the soldiers cut toward Osama Bin Laden that makes this scene amazing. It’s also what they say to each other in the few seconds they occasionally take to regroup as they fight through the compound. Soldier’s skill and top-line technology get brilliantly showcased in “Zero Dark Thirty,” but personalities shine through as well. The effect this has is to bring on, again, the satisfaction that came with knowing Bin Laden had finally been found and shot down. America celebrated as one.

The buildup to this sublime ending is epic. There are terrorist attacks in “Zero Dark Thirty” before the raid, but they are brief. Most of the scenes are comprised of high-stakes talking. There are torture scenes, including a guy getting stripped from the waste down, fitted with a dog collar and crammed into a small wooden box. There are also a lot of high-level government meetings, with powerful men swearing at each other.

Jessica Chastain just won the Best Actress Golden Globe for this movie because her character is so genuine in her determination and commitment. The hunt becomes personal, which sharpens her focus and makes her work harder to scratch a good lead and find the terrorist who “murdered 3,000 innocent Americans” on 9/11, a fact “Zero Dark Thirty” reminds us of out-loud and repeatedly.

When I was a newspaper reporter I covered veterans’ affairs stuff occasionally. A couple years ago, on two separate occasions, Vietnam veterans brought up “The Hurt Locker,” the previous film directed by Katheryn Bigelow. (It won the Best Picture Oscar over “Avatar,” and Bigelow won best director.) In each of those instances, the veteran specifically mentioned the scene toward the end of the film, when the main soldier is back home with his family and shopping for cereal. He stands staring at all the different kinds of cereal on store shelves, then he sneers, grabs the box closest to him, and throws it into his cart. War veterans, scant sampling tells me, love this scene and completely relate to it.

“Zero Dark Thirty” feels drier than “The Hurt Locker,” but the movies share a humanity that helps make Bigelow our most treasured action director. Both are technically awesome, but they also bring out rich aspects of their characters through understated moments. A few words in “Zero Dark Thirty” can convey intelligence, dark humor and urgency all at once.

Chastian’s CIA agent Maya isn’t crazy like Carrie in “Homeland,” but she certainly feels the drama of this deadly hunt and is hurt by it. We see it trickle through thoughout “Zero Dark Thirty,” until a final shot that flawlessly conveys the complicated satisfaction of a high-stakes mission accomplished. And we are right there with her. This is a really good movie.

Oscar Nominations: The Black Heart of “Prometheus” Gets Snubbed

Biggest Oscar snub? No question: Michael Fassbender’s robot-who-hates-humans turn in “Prometheus” was not only the best supporting performance of the year, it made me believe in God.

Speaking of… “Life of Pi” being nominated for Best Picture is cool, because it’s an awesome movie. A soul stirrer. But the fascinating race is Best Special Effects, where “Life of Pi” is going against “Prometheus,” “The Avengers,” and “The Hobbit.” Not one of those movies has better special effects than the others. I have no idea how you pick a winner there. “Life of Pi” is about a guy trapped on a life boat in the middle of the ocean with an angry tiger. They could not actually put an actor on a boat with a tiger, but you’d swear they did. And “The Avengers” had, uh, the Avengers.

Special effects and Best Actor are the ones I like most from today’s announced nominees. Daniel Day-Lewis as “Lincoln”? Duh, right? Except Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master” made you wonder if he was actually getting plastered before filming his scenes. And Denzel Washington was so good in “Flight.” His performance makes that movie intense, because he keeps tricking us into thinking he might sober up.

Ehh, Day-Lewis probably should and will win.

The Tarantino Tradition in “Django Unchained”

Leonardo DiCaprio gets to be very freaky during dinner in “Django Unchained.” This is a long and mind-blowing scene, in which all the important characters interact with each other, with one dangerous secret after another coming to light. DiCaprio goes from charmer to full-on bloody maniac and back again. Django spends the entire time quiet but far from cool – on razor’s edge to snap and spring from his chair to kill all the bad guys in the room. He could probably do it.

Quentin Tarantino’s best movie is not “Pulp Fiction,” even if it remains the favorite for most of us. Tarantino’s movies have gotten better and better since that genre-jolting masterpiece had us all laughing at a man’s head getting suddenly exploded in the back seat of a car. (Marvin!)

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The “Kill Bill” movies were an homage to kung fu cinema which spun wildly into a modern American classic because the characters were so interesting, their fates so dramatic. “Death Proof” has a car chase with no digital effects. Try watching that movie and not being afraid the whole time for the stunt woman. “Inglourious Basterds” begins with our horrifying introduction to the Jew Hunter, a slithery bad guy immortalized in bronze by the Oscar-winning performance of Chritoph Waltz in the role. It ends with righteous justices both big (Hitler being blown away with machine guns and then exploding) and small (Jew Hunter getting marked as a Nazi for life). My favorite part of that movie is the card game turned shootout.

There’s talk of a Best Picture Oscar nomination for “Django.” That seems crazy, because it’s so goofy in places. It has serious moments, but it isn’t a serious movie. It’s full of jokes and exploding bullet wounds.

The reason it’ll probably be nominated for Best Picture, like “Inglourious Basterds” and “Pulp Fiction,” is that Tarantino transcends how we think of the best movies. The best movies don’t have to be serious. They can have fun (“Royale with cheese!”) and go crazy (“You’re telling me she cut through 88 body guards before she got to O-Ren?”).

“Django Unchained” continues in the grand Tarantino tradition. IMDB says DiCaprio accidentally cut his hand as he was smashing it against the dinner table, then continued the scene and that was the take they filmed. He must have really been into it.

Tom Cruise and Jack Reacher

Jack Reacher is the perfect part for Tom Cruise, because Jack Reacher kicks ass with focus like an animal.

You probably have an opinion about Tom Cruise. Lots of people do. (We’ve covered him before here, when the Scientology-skewering movie “The Master” came out.) Lots of people say he’s too weird or crazy, yet he’s also superstar of so many (arguably) great movies: “Cocktail,” “The Color of Money,” “Rain Man,” “A Few Good Men,” “The Firm,” “Jerry Maguire,” “Minority Report,” “The Last Samurai,” “War of the Worlds,” “Tropic Thunder,” “Valkyrie,” and four “Mission Impossible”movies. He was nominated for Oscars for “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Magnolia.”

The first of 17 Jack Reacher novels was called “The Killing Floor.” What follows is a brief excerpt. The context here is that Reacher knows some townie gangsters are trying to kill him, so he has lured them to a large, otherwise-empty house.

“His back was to me. He was one of the shotgun carriers, tall, lighter than me. I fell in behind him. Reached over the top of his head with my left hand. Stuck my fingers into his eyes. He dropped the shotgun. It thudded onto the carpet. I pulled him backward and turned him and ran him out through the door. Into the downpour. Dug my fingers deeper into his eyes. Hauled his head back. Cut his throat. You don’t do it with one elegant swipe. Not like in the movies. No knife is sharp enough for that. There’s all kinds of tough gristle in the human throat. You have to saw back and forth with a lot of strength. Takes a while. But it works. It works well. By the time you’ve sawed back to the bone, the guy is dead. This guy was no exception. His blood hosed out and mixed with the rain. He sagged against my grip. Two down.”

Cruise is awesome in the new movie, based on a different Reacher novel called “One Shot.” The actor vanishes into character who beats up a string of progressively dangerous bad guys without once getting scared. If you’re smart, he says, you shouldn’t be scared. And if you’re smart and some guys are attacking you, then you’re within your rights to gouge their eyes and bury a boot toe into their balls. Whatever ends the threat.

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Reacher lives his life off-the-grid. He’s a drifter, with few possessions. He likes drinking coffee and eating big breakfasts. He likes having sex. (“We tore each other’s clothes off like they were on fire. She was gorgeous. Firm and strong and a shape like a dream. Skin like silk. She pulled me to the floor through bars of hot sunlight from the window. It was frantic. We were rolling and nothing could stop us. It was like the end of the world. We shuddered to a stop and lay gasping. We were bathed in sweat. Totally spent. We lay there clasped and caressing.”)

Reacher is zen. He is The Dude, except with killing skills and a brilliant mind. He is the perfect part for a famously hard-working professional mega-star whose personal life and religious choices get so maniacally scrutinized by strangers.

“A Tom Cruise Production” begin the opening credits to “Jack Reacher.” Then those words fade and up comes “Tom Cruise.” Before the film even begins, there’s a trailer for “Oblivion,” a huge science fiction movie with monsters and spaces ships, starring Tom Cruise.

Tom Cruise, in other words, is getting it done.

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