Wrestling Isn't About Endings

In the "old days", advertised house show main events would take place prior to a scheduled intermission with the express purpose of promoting the next show in that town. A screwy finish would work up the crowd, then during the break a return match would be announced: "...and tickets are available now!" Pro wrestling has dramatic peaks and valleys, but this entertainment business with no off-season is never about endings; it's about selling the next show.

The 2017 edition of WWE's Money in the Bank event opened with the first ever women's Money in the Bank ladder match - that card placement being the first clue the match itself wouldn't be the last we'd hear from this narrative thread before the program's end. The match was impressive as expected, featuring Becky Lynch taking a back bump on a ladder, Charlotte Flair corkscrewing from the top rope to the outside, and more. Regardless of any kind of finish, the match happened and it did not disappoint. Then, with everyone laid out, awkward escort James Ellsworth ascended a ladder and grabbed the match-winning briefcase for Carmella.

Twitter exploded. And that explosion included tweets from SmackDown Live authority figures Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan - indications presented carefully throughout the rest of the event that the follow-up to this controversy will be the main reason to tune in to their show on the USA Network at 8PM EST this Tuesday. Brock Lesnar lost a match in less than two minutes. Jinder Mahal upset Randy Orton for the world title. Now this. WWE has gotten better at utilizing matters we "smartened-up" fans truly care about to create loads of buzz stretching beyond the hardcore fanbase.

Now, Carmella was my personal pick to win the contract for a  "cash-in" title opportunity (though all options seemed conceivable) as she has been perennial of late but not enjoyed much legitimacy - and I certainly did not foresee her winning in particularly dominant fashion - but I did expect a visual of a woman standing atop a ladder triumphantly wielding her trophy. I would have treasured such an image as would have many others, but I also loved the completely unexpected result we got instead. Last time Carmella made a televised entrance, I lamented how the crowd is always completely silent for her (read: apathetic). I don't foresee this being an issue henceforth. In fact, 'Mella emerged again later in the night for an entertaining cash-in tease during Naomi and Lana's title match, and the crowd appeared in near frenzy. I recall bemusement when Ric Flair helped his daughter win her first WrestleMania match in Houston when many of us desperately wanted to see Sasha Banks holding the new women's belt above her head, but I'd say that's all panned out quite nicely as Charlotte is already at home being mentioned alongside some of the greats.

Female wrestlers are now referred to as "superstars", just like all other talent. The title belts now look just as legitimate. Several have main-evented special events, and even more have done the same on weekly TV. The same women's images have been used to prominently advertise WrestleMania (and the subsequent matches were arguably the bests on their respective cards). Asuka toppled Goldberg's undefeated streak, and she's helping cultivate a new crop of talent in NXT including Peyton Royce and Lacey Evans. Alexa Bliss has recently emerged as one of the most popular stars in the company today, and she's far from alone. There have been tables, cages, cells, and kendo sticks. The women's division has seen many overdue milestones in the past several years thanks to incredible in-ring talent and responsive fans, and that will not stop. The inaugural Mae Young Classic is only one month away. A heel winning a heel-oriented gimmick match in a heelish way that got people talking does not change any of that except to potentially put more eyes on it. If WWE didn't care about women's wrestling, the women would not be the main hook selling this week's SmackDown Live.


The Best Films of 2016

After two years of circumstantially slicing more than half my typical film viewing like a seeping appendage, I'm back. Try to contain your enthusiasm. After considering over 100 films I subjectively place as "2016", I feel confident recommending these ten standouts for your contemporary viewing pleasure.

Perhaps the year's cinematic landscape was merciful, or perhaps my scrutiny's simply improved, as 2016 featured fewer outright stinkers than I've become accustomed to. Among the sea of "really good" there is an unusually large helping of somewhat undercooked offerings, as many films start well and falter along the way (The Girl on the Train, The Legend of Tarzan, Chevalier...) while others meander before cementing moderate memorability (L'avenir, Sunset SongAquarius...). Still others nearly give me qualitative whiplash as they bounce from excellence to dreck and back again (okay, I'm pretty much just referring to Nocturnal Animals). Plenty thoroughly strong titles are to be found, however, and are well worth your time.

For the full, updating rankings from best to worst, visit my "2016" list on Letterboxd.

Honorable mentions (#25-11)
Hail, Caesar! (Coens), The Fits (Holmer), Sully (Eastwood), Allied (Zemeckis), Hell or High Water (Mackenzie), Moonlight (Jenkins), Fences (Washington), The Nice Guys (Black), Queen of the Desert (Herzog), Wiener-Dog (Solondz), The Witch (Eggers), O.J.: Made in America (Edelman), 君の名は。 [your name.] (Shinkai), The Light Between Oceans (Cianfrance), Paterson (Jarmusch)

Top Ten (#10-1)

Childhood of a Leader, Corbet
One of my favorite intangibles in a great film is assurance. Experimentation is well and good (except when it's not), but if a filmmaker can provide a sense of confidence in their art from beginning to end I am all the more impressed. Such assurance is especially impressive in the case of a feature debut, which is precisely what we have with Brady Corbet's profile of a period in the youth of a future fascist leader. A daunting score charges through the carefully composed series of "tantrums", graced by a glass-cutting turn from Bérénice Bejo - ingredients enough that the compelling subject matter feels like icing.

Kubo & the Two Strings, Knight
Family fare that dares to challenge its younger audience members can be difficult to find anymore. Enter "Kubo" - an immediately heart-wrenching, often horrifying, and ultimately indelible (while occasionally cute) original tale deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Today's children will be proud to revisit this gorgeous stop-motion animation as adults and realize how excellent it truly is. Bonus: the innovation of the "Sword Unbreakable" sequence is worthy of standing alongside Ray Harryhausen's marvelous Dynamation creations.

Team Foxcatcher, Greenhalgh
As of this writing, my #1 of 2014 remains Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher" - a haunting depiction of a mentor/protégé relationship in the vein of the core "Boogie Nights" narrative, or, more fittingly, that of Soderbergh's underseen Liberace film "Behind the Candelabra". Quite nearly as captivating is this documentary of the true events that led to Dave Schultz' murder at the hands of John du Pont. The amateur wrestling backdrop, the utterly fascinating character that was du Pont, and the looming consequence his fortune and misgivings culminated in, all presented primarily through actual home video footage from the Farms... it's an experience that had me pressing 'play' again as soon as the credits began to roll.

Warcraft, Jones
The biggest surprise of my year came when I decided to get drunk and laugh at how embarrassing Duncan Jones' alleged trainwreck based on a video game series I've never cared for turned out. Six Yuenglings and something with gin (the theatre called it a "Godfather") later, I wound up having a blast with what feels like a campy 1980s 'B' fantasy (think "Gor" or "Krull") was given a nine-figure budget boost. It's possibly an even bigger surprise that the fun holds up sober. Unique, albeit convoluted lore benefits an unabashed commitment to depicting in film a tumultuous and somewhat whimsical world where magic spells are as commonplace as Dunkin' in Boston. It's silly, but I'll sit down and rollick in this silliness any time. Give us the sequel China wants, Universal!

Knight of Cups, Malick
My Terrence Malick critique tank may still be empty from declaring "To the Wonder" a dream-like odyssey at TIFF12, which doesn't say much to combat the mentality that Malick has just been making mini versions of "The Tree of Life" since 2011, but... well, he hasn't. There's more to this continued departure from the random curves of nature to the sharp edges of manmade structure. Admittedly it took revisitation before I fully came around on this characteristically masculine journey through the relationships that define a man, which leads me to feel if you've never seen a Malick this might not be where you wish to begin. As a fan, I have come to regard it as one of ol' Terry's better outings. He can stay away from beaches for a while, though.

Everybody Wants Some!!, Linklater
Richard Linklater has provided some of the defining films of our lifetime, yet we've been waiting since the middling and oft-forgotten "SubUrbia" for the auteur to truly return to the day-in-the-life ensemble hangouts he broke through with. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried this logical college-in-the-'80s successor to "Dazed & Confused" I've always wished for would fall flat. To my pleasure, "Everybody Wants Some!!" - while not instantly as iconic as "Dazed" - delivers signature Linklater goodness in droves. Complete with era-specific soundtrack and wardrobe, this snapshot of young men seeking definition between grade school and their careers gave me exactly what I wanted.

クリーピー 偽りの隣人 [Creepy], Kurosawa
During my viewing of this expert thriller that absolutely lives up to its name, you could have poured hot coffee in my lap and I would have stayed desperately still for need to remain trained on the screen to the end. On top of purely entertaining me more than many films do - while providing visuals that are nothing to scoff at - my first from Kiyoshi Kurosawa proved I would do well to quit inadvertently passing by the director's taut work.

Silence, Scorsese
Please forgive in advance my preferred description of one of Martin Scorsese's greatest achievements. Generally, one of the most impressive aspects of Scorsese's work is curiosity. The indisputably legendary director adores his craft so much, he is not satisfied to simply persist in creating new versions of what has worked for him in the past. Far more often than not this curiosity leads to results that would make anyone uninitiated believe he has spent a lifetime developing what are actually new ventures - the stunning and felicitous use of 3D in "Hugo" being the prime recent example. Not to discount ingenuity also found in "Silence", but the passion project completely blows me away for an entirely different reason. Rather than find one or two particular curiosities to hone in on, what Marty has done here is reach deep in to his black cashmere slacks of rarely rivaled filmmaking expertise, extract a gargantuan phallus from within and wallop it upon a marble display as if to exclaim, "Behold! Behold and cower before my unbridled cinematic virility!" He probably flexed, too. It's a very good movie.

山河故人 [Mountains May Depart], Jia
A familiar song. A soft, unbroken look. A single act three scene so out of place it nearly topples the entire piece, but we're not going to let that spoil our day. Jia Zhangke is a renowned filmmaker I've lazily allowed to linger in my periphery, and his deliciously titled "Mountains May Depart" changes that. Or at least it will, once I tire of rewatching it so I may explore his other works. It's certainly saying something when a film contains the line, "It's like Google Translate is your real son" yet still manages to hold me in a state of perpetually damp-eyed adoration. I'll never be able to listen to the Pet Shop Boys without weeping ever again.

Certain Women, Reichardt
You could probably travel through Montana's Paradise Valley filming two hours of passing bushes, and I'd love it simply for the setting. Kelly Reichardt has utilized those 50 sumptuous miles between Gardiner and Livingston to give us three vignettes that capture in their deceptive simplicity the swelling aspirations and bittersweet eventualities of our lives. And for all the everyday beauty we are party to, the whole can be summed up in its tiniest moments. An awkward silence. The sip of a milkshake. A pile of rocks. Seriously, I've never felt so much emotion looking at a pile of rocks. Reichardt has been a filmmaker to prioritize for over a decade now. "Certain Women" is by far her best work.


Election 2016: We Are Pagliacci

Alan Moore's "Watchmen"
I'm not much of a political mind. I can't sing all the US presidents in chronological order. When you share an article I probably begin skimming by the end of paragraph three unless it's about pro wrestling or Skyrim. But I believe in true equality, and I have a voice. So do you.

Though I once was a CNN-watching, Obama rally-attending citizen encouraging people to "get out the vote," I have consciously become quieter as the social climate has reached toward a point where discourse even with those I wholly agree with can quickly become a vile enterprise. Earlier this week I was relieved we had neared the end of 2016's grating election cycle. I avoided what of it I could, and tolerated references and spoofs amid my standard stable of sanity-bolstering entertainment. I've never needed to deliberate over what vote to make, and I'd never believed putting up signs or knocking on doors makes any kind of impact. There was no way a crass, skyscraper-dwelling, beauty pageant-owning billionaire from reality television with more failures under his belt than successes could be taken seriously as a presidential candidate, anyhow. I was excited to have to look at that face and listen to that voice on a far less regular basis after Tuesday night.

Then it happened. And at 3AM on Wednesday morning I realized simply exercising my right to vote is clearly not enough. The nightmare sensation - an almost fight-or-flight response instinctively telling me this isn't actually reality - has yet to wane. When comedians open their talk shows with a harrowed tone clocking somewhere between "9/11" and "David Bowie dying", you know something has gone horribly wrong. Silver lining: Erwin Schrott's glorious bass-baritone reminding me there's still elegance in the world is just about the only thing maintaining my relatively even keel right now, so I am becoming slightly more versed in opera (albeit not versed enough for this diatribe's heading to be anything more than a semi-cryptic "Watchmen" reference).

I'm aware the United States has had reprehensible leaders in its relatively young history, but this is the information age and through inaction we've elected someone who's basically like if Elmer Fudd had been raised by the Rockefellers. We've elected someone who actually makes George W. Bush's inadequacy seem retrospectively endearing. Someone who makes that proverbial beer with Mitt Romney sound pleasant. Someone who wishes to tear down what the past eight years have built by reinforcing fossil fuels, kicking people out of homes, closing borders, revoking healthcare, reintroducing witch hunts, and-- well, you know all of this already. You also know he's failed on several opportune occasions to denounce the KKK, while at other times referring fondly to segregation as "the good old days." Yet we still elected him.

Was Hillary Clinton not a good enough candidate? Well, you're right. I don't think she's particularly the greatest, either. But that doesn't mean don't vote. It certainly doesn't mean vote Trump just because of one or two issues. Every valid candidate is going to have a few relevant aspects you dislike. Maybe the candidate you oppose even has a stance or two you jive with. Shoot, there's a detail in Trump's tax plan that would directly benefit my family. You're not going to find me turning a blind eye to the rest of his platform in favor of that detail, though (in our case the loss of health benefits cancels it out anyhow, but that's beside the point). I mean, can you imagine this ivory tower idiot in an international peace talk? I digress.

And please stop voting third-party. I've listened your arguments - I actually do believe many of the conspiracies - and I know you don't want to hear this. Like it or not, however, the system is the way it is and a non-vote or a vote for someone who does not have a chance to win is essentially a vote for the candidate you like the least. It's not a perfect world and idealism will not make it as such. Truly don't like Trump? Really wish he wasn't the president-elect? Probably should have gone with the person with the best chance to take him down, then, because here we are. If nothing else, this "trap" election has shown that we cannot trust a projected landslide.

Photo source: BaltimoreRavens.com

I watched Thursday Night Football last night. Cleveland at Baltimore. No, it did not turn out to be a "trap" game for the passable Ravens hosting the winless Browns; where I'm actually going with this is that for the first NFL outing of the Trump era, I was afraid I'd feel disgusted listening to our national anthem. I thought I'd cringe thinking of our new, 45th Commander-in-Chief immortalized in historic photographs, commemorative libraries and even derisively in adult cartoons. I thought, "If I punched the head off his animatronic likeness at Disney World would they ban me permanently or just for the calendar year?" Then, when Sergeant Joey Odoms of the Maryland Army National Guard began singing "The Star-Spangled Banner", I instead felt my heart hurting for our nation. I felt a resounding urge to fix this.

If you're just as scared for the future now as I am - if you also feel like the floor has been ripped out from beneath you, and your stomach churns and your body convulses each time you think of this misguided joke framing up the latest portrait of himself for the Oval Office while nearing his goal of tearing away freedoms under the guise of freedom - use your fear. Don't sit out. Vote. Vote in the midterms. Register early. Register with a party if it means you can weigh in on the primaries in your state. None of that takes very long (and do check your state's voting regulations so you don't get shut out of the primaries like I did). If you're motivated, find your local office and volunteer if you can. Spread the word before people become complacent to Trump's America. If you have friends who abstain from voting because they "don't like politics," find a way to show how performing that simple civic duty every two years can make a difference. I "don't like politics" either, but look how close those percentages were. Look at that popular vote tally. Due to that slim margin - due to lack of Democratic voter turnout - millions upon millions of people are going to be affected for the worse, including many who "don't like politics." I only did the bare minimum this year because my candidate of choice did not resonate with me on a deep level, and I couldn't conceive of a reality in which she wouldn't win. Donald Trump does not represent us, but we did not effectively select an alternative and, hopeful as we may be, we cannot rely on his track record as assurance he'll wind up impeached.

My time for worrying about offending friends and family is over. By merely voting and calling it a job well done, the blood of those who have already been attacked by victors who feel vindicated is in part on my hands, and the same goes for that of those who will suffer further in the version of our country Mr. Trump considers "great."
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