AN HOMAGE TO PHOENIX SPORTS
NOTE: My analysis of Jacques Tati will have to wait a week. My mind has been focusing on the brilliance of the NBA Phoenix Sun's over this past week. So here is a blog for all my Phoenix friends.
I am a West Coast guy. Born in the suburban Los Angeles town of Torrance, Southern California has been my place of residence for the majority of my life. Plus, I have lived all over Southern California (Los Angeles area 21 years, Orange County/Anaheim/Fullerton 8 years, Palm Springs almost 2 years, San Diego 5 years and now Riverside County/Temecula 5 years). I understand the culture of each area well. Not to mention if someone is visiting, I can give killer directions to any location due to my knowledge of the local streets. But during an almost 8-year stretch of my life, Phoenix, Arizona was my home. Despite some issues I had with living in that city at the time and experiencing the ridiculous mortgage crash that impacted this region more than any other, Phoenix left me with more pleasant memories than negative.
Coming from California, my biggest complaint about Phoenix was the lack of culture. But this was an unfair opinion to have at the time. Phoenix has a culture. It was just not something that was suitable for my mindset during the years I lived there. I also had major problems with the food. Even though this has been resolved as many good restaurants have opened in the area since my time of residence, there is something about Arizona coffee and a glass of water that is just plain “different” from my personal experience. Since I am very familiar with Arizona’s neighbor to the east, New Mexico, I always thought Arizona’s bizarre water was a symptom of the region. But this is not the case. New Mexico water tastes better than California’s and their food is exceptional because of this. But I also met a lot of really nice people, had a comfortable and stable job, and owned a home for the first time in my life during my years there. If you are a sports fan, there was something else that happened in that town during my years of residence between 2004-2012. Arizona’s sports teams had some very good and interesting teams.
The Diamondbacks were the most disappointing. Being the only professional team to win the city a championship (In 2001 against the New York Yankees) and winning the division and making the playoffs in three of their first five seasons, the Diamondbacks recent history has not been as memorable. First, their baseball stadium is one of my favorites in Major League Baseball. If you throw in the classic Dodger stadium that overlooks downtown Los Angeles, Petco Park placed front and center in the middle of the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego and the San Francisco Giants stadium resting on the bay, you can argue that the NL West has the most beautiful stadiums in professional baseball by far (Not to forget the wonderful fan experience of Coors Field in Denver, Colorado, the home of the Rockies). The Diamondbacks won two division titles during my eight years there (2007 and 2011). They only had three winning seasons (2008, they went 82-80). The most exciting team was the 2007 one that swept the Chicago Cubs in the NLDS only to get swept in the NLCS by the red-hot Colorado Rockies who went onto win their first and only National League pennant before eventually getting swept themselves by the Boston Red Sox in the 2007 World Series. But the Diamondbacks did not generate a ton of excitement during my years in Phoenix except for two specific seasons.
The Coyotes are a tragedy. I love NHL hockey. During my eight years there, I could show up for a game hours before the puck dropped and get decent tickets. Phoenix has never embraced hockey culture the way that many cities on the West Coast have. The Coyotes were pretty miserable during the majority of my time there. After making the playoffs and losing in the 1st round five of their first six seasons in Arizona, they went on a long streak of playoff-less hockey. The streak finally snapped during my last three seasons there. Despite becoming one of the better teams in hockey in the 2010 and 2011 playoffs, the Coyotes got knocked out by the Detroit Red Wings in both seasons. The streak finally was snapped during my last few months in Phoenix. Arizona made a heroic run to the Western Conference Finals to play my beloved Los Angeles Kings in 2012. My Kings knocked them out in five games on their way to their first Stanley Cup championship (A feat they would repeat two years later). Meanwhile, the Coyotes have entered another dark period. Other than the COVID-19 shortened season in 2020 when they upset the Nashville Predators in the Qualifying Round to get their first playoff series victory since 2012 (The playoffs were expanded to the top 12 teams that season and the 11th seeded Coyotes pulled the biggest upset of the opening round), the Coyotes are in a very dark place as a franchise right now.
As you can see, the history of sports in Phoenix is not great. This can also best be summed up by the experience of the Arizona Cardinals. One of the original teams to begin play during the first season of the NFL in 1920, the Cardinals history has been filled with nothing but disappointment. They won a championship in 1925 that was rewarded to them because the team with the best record, the Pottsville Maroons, violated the territory of the Frankford Yellow Jackets and were formally removed from the NFL. Not to mention the Chicago Cardinals coach at the time hired high school sandbaggers so the Chicago Cardinals (The location of the team at the time) could win their remaining games. It is the only NFL title that is in dispute with both the city of Pottsville and the Cardinals recognizing the championship. Going on 97 years now, many people believe the Cardinals are haunted by the Pottsville curse. In 103 years of playing football, the Cardinals have made the playoffs eleven times. That is 92 seasons of failure. As the Chicago Cardinals, they did make the NFL Championship game twice (Pre-Super Bowl) in 1947 and 1948 coming away with the victory in 1947. That is the franchise’s last title. During 19 of the Cardinals first 20 seasons in Phoenix, the team only had two .500 seasons (1994 & 2007) and one winning season and playoff appearance in 1998 at 9-7 that led to a win over the Dallas Cowboys, their first playoff win since the 1964 Playoff Bowl for 3rd Place. But this all changed when an angel from God (Kurt Warner) took over the team in late 2007. Winning the NFC West in 2008 and 2009, the Cardinals had a fantastic run to Super Bowl XLIII as a 9-7 number four seed losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-23 on a drive by Ben Roethlisberger at the end that may have arguably been the greatest Super Bowl winning drive of all-time (Apologies to Joe Montana, Tom Brady, and Matthew Stafford). The 2009 team went 10-6 and may have won the greatest wild card game of all-time against the Green Bay Packers (51-45 in OT) before the New Orleans Saints knocked them out in the divisional. The good news is that the Cardinals are experiencing their best era of football in the last fourteen years in comparison to the first 89. They went .500 in 2011, 10-6 in 2013 and had their two best regular season records in 2014 (11-5 which ended in a wild card loss to the 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers due to starting their 3rd string quarterback because of injuries) and 2015 (13-3 and another playoff win before being knocked out by the Carolina Panthers again in the NFC Championship). If you are keeping track, the Cardinals have had 5 playoff wins since 2008 (3 during that season). Before that season, they had only had two in their entire history (1947 and the 3rd Place NFL Playoff Bowl in 1964). The franchise had a few down years after that and returned to the playoffs in 2021 where they got knocked out by the eventual Super Bowl Champion Los Angeles Rams in the Wild Card game. But the Cardinals history is looking up and they should be a playoff team again in 2022.
Finally, the best professional sports team in Arizona, the Phoenix Suns, have seen massive amounts of playoff disappointment despite having a very respectable history as a franchise. The Suns have made the playoffs 31 of their 54 seasons as a franchise. Unlike the other Arizona teams, their all-time record is 2271 wins and 2008 losses. They are the most successful team in Phoenix by far. During my eight years there, they also had the most success. The 2005, 2006 and 2010 Suns teams lost in the conference finals each season. They were always interesting and competitive during my time in Arizona. Since 2010, the Suns actually entered the worst decade of its history. Ten straight seasons of playoff-less basketball. But last year, they made the NBA Finals for only the 3rd time in their history (Joining the 1975 Suns who lost to the Boston Celtics, the 1993 Suns who lost to the Chicago Bulls and now losing in 2021 to the Milwaukee Bucks despite taking a 2-0 series lead). With the Golden State Warriors battling injuries and the Memphis Grizzlies as a team on the rise with their best years in front of them, this NBA season looks increasingly like it will end in a Suns NBA championship.
I want to make one wish for my adopted hometown. Even though facing the Golden State Warriors could become inevitable in the Western Conference Finals meaning that I will have to root against the Suns, I have no ill will towards that team. If they play basketball like they have been, they will make short work of the Warriors and get another chance at their first NBA title. And I will be rooting for them against whatever Eastern Conference team stands in their way. No franchise other than the Minnesota Vikings or Buffalo Bills has probably suffered more disappointment in the playoffs without a championship victory. It is time for the Phoenix Suns to join the other 18 NBA teams with at least one title. It is time for them to take their rightful place in NBA history and give the city of Phoenix its much-deserved 2nd sports championship.
To all my friends in Phoenix, I wish you the best of luck. If my prediction comes true, I have no problem with watching that championship parade with all of you. You have dealt with enough pain and agony in the sporting world. It is time for this team to finally bring this city some much-needed joy. Good luck!
THE "KING'S MAN" REVIEW
Every now and then, a movie comes along that is unexpectedly exceptional. One of my favorite films of 2021 that got almost no press was LAST NIGHT IN SOHO by one of my favorite directors, Edgar Wright. A movie that could have been predictable becomes a terrifying horror film during its 3rd act. It also has one of the best soundtrack moments of the past decade when the dark Siouxsie and the Banshees song “HAPPY HOUSE” begins the transition of a party scene into something more sinister. Keeping with the British theme, one of Jason Statham and Guy Ritchie’s best films in years, WRATH OF MAN, had a fantastic and complicated Ritchie-like story that brought out the best in Statham’s acting skills while taking place in some of the seedier and rundown sections of Los Angeles. Despite my enjoyment of these two films, there was one other movie made by a British director (And Ritchie acolyte) that really got my attention during the 1st quarter of 2022. That movie was THE KING’S MAN.
Matthew Vaughn has already made a name for himself since escaping from the Guy Ritchie shadow. His career kicked off by directing the fantastic LAYER CAKE which helped land its star, Daniel Craig, the new James Bond role. This was followed by the well-loved KICK ASS (A movie I did not like) and the misunderstood but solid STARDUST. But his KINGSMAN franchise has been the money maker that has established him as one of the best action directors in Hollywood. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE was an extremely entertaining movie that became a global hit. It was followed up a few years later by KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE, a sequel that did not have the charm nor interesting story of its predecessor (As well as a miscast Elton John who feels like he was placed into a different movie altogether). So my expectations were muted when THE KING’S MAN was released onto HBO MAX back in early 2022. But my expectations were completely shattered. Serving as a prequel to the KINGSMAN universe, this film was superior to the previous two films in almost every possible way.
STORY SPOILERS ARE ABOUND! IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THIS MOVIE, I ADVISE TO STOP READING NOW IF YOU WANT TO GO IN FRESH. WARNING IS OVER!
THE KING’S MAN starts with the always charming Ralph Fiennes advising during the Boer War in the early part of the 20th Century. His participation in the warzone leads to the death of his beloved wife right in front of his young son when the troops are sabotaged. This tragedy leads to his character becoming a pacifist as he raises his son back in England. Meanwhile, a cabal of famous individuals meet on an isolated mountain to scheme the world into war that is guided by a shadowy organization and their dominating leader. This scheme succeeds and the careful balance of peace is fractured as World War I is launched. The movie does not shy away from the history of World War I but the shadowy figure that is trying to organize the world for his benefit is eventually defeated by the reinvigorated Ralph Fiennes which leads to the creation of his KINGSMAN organization. But besides the surprisingly deep and complex story mixed around action pieces, this movie stood out to me for three important reasons.
The history inside of the movie was incredibly solid. While the shadowy organization that led to World War I was a fictional creation, our current world is burdened with its own shadow organizations that have their own interest in creating a new world. Also, the movie reflected on the incompetence of the three main world leaders, Tsar Nicolas II of Russia, King George V of the UK, and Kaiser Wilhelm II in Germany who ruled three of the most powerful countries of that time. The start of World War I was often blamed on the assassination of Franz Ferdinand which is dramatized very well inside the movie. But while this event may have been the powder keg that led to political escalation, history is often more complicated than that. The utter incompetence of the world leaders during the early part of the 20th Century, the decline of the Russian, Austrian-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires simultaneously mixed with a rise in nationalism were more likely causes to one of the deadliest wars in human history. It also may have been the most “avoidable” war in human history. Going back to the beginning of the film, the Boer Wars were two separate confrontations between the colony of South Africa and the British Empire. The first Boer war that lasted only three months led to the creation and independence of the South African Republic. The second Boer war was a bloodier conflict that started because of the discovery of precious metals in the region. The U.K. beat the South African Republic and the Orange Free State and brought the country back under its control despite heavy losses. After Rasputin fails to get Russia out of the war, the shadowy organization hires another Russian influencer (Vladimir Lenin) to accomplish that goal. If you know your history, this is exactly what happened. The February Revolution led to the abolition of the monarchy and the exit of Russia from World War I. This is exactly what happens in the film. The death of Herbert Kitchener was also dramatized in the movie. Even though the boat he was on, the HMS Hampshire, was sank by a German submarine in the film, the real ship was actually destroyed by a German mine.
There were a couple of other story elements that also surprised me with the depth of knowledge that the writers had for THE GREAT WAR. When you see a movie that is a self-described action film, it always is a surprise when the film has much more depth than expected. History books often point out that the sinking of the Lusitania was the beginning of the entry of the United States into World War I. But this is historically inaccurate. Despite the sinking of that ship, the United States maintained neutrality into 1917. The Zimmerman Telegram, the authenticated document that exposed the German offer to the Mexican government and Japan of the re-partitioning of the western United States to Mexico was actually the trigger that led to the United States involvement in the war. But the movie does not shy away from showing the efforts that the British made to drag us into that quagmire. British propaganda inside the United States was rampant during the War. All of this is dramatized in some fashion in this film. After the film ends, Ralph Fiennes’ character even mentions the unfairness of the Versailles Treaty and how it could lead to further conflict. As historians know, the Versailles Treaty is often blamed for laying the groundwork for the rise of the National Socialist Party, AKA The Nazis who would drag the world into a much greater conflict only a generation later. For a simple action movie to dive this deeply into the World History of only a century ago deserves the highest of accolades. This aspect of the movie impressed me tremendously.
I would be remiss to not mention two more things that stand out in the film. The acting is superb especially Ralph Fiennes as the founder of the KINGSMAN and the “No Shits Given” performance by Rhys Ifans as Rasputin. Since the movie has a satirical bent, Ifans embraces the rumors and eccentricities of the Rasputin legend and dives full scale into a performance that steals the film. This leads to the third reason why this movie needs to be seen. I have not seen an action film that had a sequence that stood out to me more than two long, action-filled scenes in this movie. Most action movies are lucky to have one memorable scene. THE KING’S MAN has two. The first involves the assassination of Rasputin which leads to one of the best fight scenes in movie history. Not to be outdone, Ralph Fiennes’ son in the film enlists in the army and fights in the stalemated trench wars of northern Europe. The scene where his character retrieves the telegram that is so vital to ending the war is one long triumphant action scene that when completed, leads to the biggest tragedy in the film. These two scenes need to be experienced on as big of a screen as possible. Even after seeing this film over a month ago, both scenes have remained with me while I am writing this review.
If you are interested in a movie with a dark satirical edge, a surprising knowledge of history and some of the best action you will ever see on film, give THE KING’S MAN a chance. You will not be disappointed. Here is hoping that it will get nominated for Best Picture next year.
Next Week: A review and introspective analysis of Jacques Tati.
EXPERT OF SOME