Monday, February 28, 2011

Danny's Post-OSCAR Rant O' Doom

- Well, I was way off on my Oscar picks this year.

And here's a little secret: most of the time, I'd rather spend more time thinking about what movies I loved the most in a given year as opposed to what movies will navigate their way through the inherent maze of politics, perception, and longstanding biases that constitute the road to the Oscars.

Strangely, over the last few years, my taste in movies and the Oscars' taste in movies have largely overlapped. Movies like Slumdog Millionaire, No Country For Old Men, and The Hurt Locker - movies that I loved, that I thought were the year's best - were awarded Best Picture. And even this year, I legitimately was a big fan of all ten Best Picture nominees. There was no nominee that I thought was unworthy. Look back at my reviews throughout 2010 - all of the nominees got at least an "A-" from me.

At the same time, I just thought that The Social Network was 2010's best film. Close behind, to me, were Black Swan and Inception. The King's Speech was, in my mind, a great film, but also, clearly, a few notches below the big three I just mentioned.

Now, what I don't like is when people say this movie or that movie sucked just because it wasn't your personal pick at the Oscars. None of the Best Picture nominees sucked, not even close, and if you think that any of them did then, well, it might just be that your taste in movies sucks. I just hate when people overcompensate for liking one movie in particular by hating on others.

That said, I couldn't help but feel that The Social Network was robbed. I know, its chances, in retrospect, might always have been hurt by a couple of key factors. Its heroes were morally ambiguous and not always likable. It was about college-age guys - nerds, geeks, outcasts. None of its lead actors were very established. Its director made his name with dark, nihilistic movies like Fight Club. It was about the creation of Facebook, a phenomenon which many older Oscar voters look at, I'm sure, with a mix of cynicism, disdain, and puzzlement.

Of course, once Tom Hooper won for Best Director, you knew that The King's Speech's momentum was unstoppable. But Tom Hooper? Really? Nothing against the man, he did a fine job with the movie. But for him to beat out the remarkable work of David Fincher? The mesmerizing directing of Darren Aronofsky? That just felt really off to me.

In any case, the overall crappiness of the Oscars telecast this year, combined with some of the (in my mind) questionable award-winners, served as a reality check of sorts on The Oscars. For a while, I really thought that the Oscars were getting better. The last couple of telecasts have been relatively painless and enjoyable, and with the expansion to ten Best Picture nominees, it felt like the awards were broadening their horizons. And certainly, that was reflected in this year's nominees, which ranged from Toy Story 3 to Winter's Bone. But this year was also a reminder that the Oscars can sort of suck. Seeing Anne Hathaway and James Franco try to appeal to the youth demo on one hand, yet having to perform lame sketches and bits written by the same middle-aged writers who have written for the Oscars for decades ... well, it was pretty awful. It felt like the most random hosting duo ever. I mean, James Franco is great, but what made someone think that he was an ideal awards-show host? Plus, even if the hosts were relatively young, everything else about the show felt old and creaky. The jokes felt old, the presenters were old and their banter was stale, and the lame tributes to classic movies were so awkward that they were apparently dumped halfway through the show. I love classic movies, but at least give us a montage or something. The presentation here was just completely boring and pointless.

I don't want the Oscars to become the MTV VMA's, but please, somebody, do something to liven them up. Nix the song performances- they're almost always a complete momentum-killer. Bring back the honorary Oscars / lifetime achievement awards. And make the show less about celebrity and fashion and more about, I don't know ... movies? Show more clips from the nominated movies, do tributes to different genres ... maybe each year, introduce a special honorary category. One year, give honorary Oscars to legends of horror, one year to great character actors, one year to great action heroes. And please, get some new comedy writers to come up with bits that don't feel straight out of some 1950's borscht-belt comedy club. I mean, that opening montage this year was just excruciating. Everyone loves a good "hosts-inserted-into-various-movies bit." But this one fell so flat that it was painful. The Wayne's World Oscar Preview from SNL a few weeks back was way funnier. By the same token, why is it so rare to find the actor or director or producer who can make a short, funny, coherant speech? When someone gets up there and acts like they've just won the award for King of the Universe, it's just hard to watch and horrible TV. I know that actors will tend to be dramatic, but to the Melissa Leo's of the world, please spare us your craziness. Best speech of the night was the kid with the huge 'fro who won for his short film. Imagine - someone who was funny, self-deprecating, and genuinely appreciative of his award.

Conversely, as I said before, I don't like it when people take their dislike for the Oscars and use it to dismiss all of the nominated movies or all of the winners. Don't take the Oscars all that seriously? Fine - no one really should. Don't think King's Speech was Best Picture-worthy? Cool, wasn't my pick either. But, don't try to tell me that The King's Speech and The Social Network are Razzie rather than Oscar worthy either.

One of the most telling lines of last night's Oscars was Steven Spielberg's reminder of all the great movies that never won for Best Picture. And if you think about all of the absurdities of Oscar nominees over the years, it's hard to take them all that seriously. I mean, look at the stunning filmography of the Coen Bros. to date, as an example. Look at all the great movies they've made that received zero nominations. Today we look back and think of Jeff Bridges' most iconic role as The Dude, and yet how many Oscar nominations did The Big Lebowski ever get? The Coens make a great comedy, and few care, but they make a Western with ties to a previous Oscar favorite, it makes a surprising amount of dollars at the box office, and the film gets all sorts of Oscar nominations.

So here is my final point: The Oscars can be fun to watch and speculate on. Emphasis on CAN be. This year's show sucked, and I think they should seriously go back to the drawing board and rethink how their show comes off on TV. I'd like to see The Oscars get better, because in theory they are a way of giving great movies mainstream attention. At the same time, if your cinematic world revolves around the Oscars, then it's time to rethink things. Whether you work in the entertainment biz or are just a fan, it should always be about great movies that entertain and make you think and feel and imagine. Everything else is superfluous.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Danny's 2011 Oscar Picks and Predictions

- Well, it's going to be a very interesting year for the Oscars. If you've read my blog over the last few years, then you know that I've had a pretty good track record of picking some of the main categories, and my record for picking Best Picture in particular has been perfect over the last couple of years. To be honest though, I've been pretty certain of my Best Picture pick for several years running, but this year, I'm finding it a little tougher to call. Same goes for the major acting awards. There were a lot of great, great movies in 2010, and a lot of amazing performances. But there also weren't a lot of once-in-a-lifetime, knockout-punch performances that are guaranteed Oscar winners (think Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood). I think that top to bottom, the Best Picture nominees are all awesome films. I wouldn't be particularly upset if any (well, most) of them won, even though yes, I have my favorites, and yes, there are certain films I do think got snubbed. As always, the academy has certain genres they favor, and certain others they ignore year after year. At the same time, it's kind of funny to see all of the campaigning that goes on and all of the speculation about who will or won't win, about who is or isn't a favorite or a front-runner. There is so much back-and-forth, and you wonder how much actual merit or basis in reality a lot of these conversations actually have.

I mean, all of a sudden, The King's Speech is considered a front-runner for Best Picture, and I know that many are picking it to win. To that I say: "Really?" Talk to people who see a lot of movies and ask them their favorite film of 2010 - most will say they loved The King's Speech, sure, but how many will say it was their #1 movie of the last year? Now, it could still win Best Picture. It wouldn't be a surprise or a shock, but I also wouldn't bank on it. To me, there are three true front-runners for Best Picture in terms of sheer odds of winning - The King's Speech, Black Swan, and The Social Network. It will be very interesting to see which of these comes out on top, but to say right now that one is an odds-on favorite is very, very premature in my opinion. Still, as I'll talk more about below, I think that the overall momentum is still on the side of The Social Network. I'm confident in calling it the best movie of 2010, and I think many feel the same.

At the end of the day though, I am happy to see so many great movies in the running. I was lucky enough to see all ten of this year's Best Picture nominees, and like I said, they are all excellent, top-tier films. The Kids Are All Right, True Grit, Inception, Winter's Bone, Toy Story 3 ... I don't know how much of a chance these movies have to win the top prize at the Oscars, but again, I wouldn't necessarilly be upset if any of them did.

At the same time, I do think it's a continual shame that great-but-nontraditional movies like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Let Me In are so overlooked come awards season. It feels fairly futile to argue that these sorts of movies deserve to be mentioned alongside more traditional prestige pics, but to me, they should be right up there in the running for multiple Oscars. Will horror, sci-fi, or comedy films ever get their due? It makes you wonder if the Oscars should in fact introduce some new categories to represent a more diverse array of titles. On the other hand, thank god that the Oscars are not yet at the level of the Golden Globes, where duds like Alice In Wonderland and The Tourist are honored for little more than their relative star-power. Screw that. I'm happy to see under-the-radar (for now) actors like Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, and Jackie Weaver get well-deserved nominations.

And hey, as much as I dismiss most of these big awards shows as self-congratulatory and lame, it's still fun to make predictions and root for your favorites. So that being said, here are my picks and predictions for this year's Oscars.



Should Win: The Social Network
Will Win: The Social Network

- The Social Network was my pick for the best film of 2011, and to me it deserves to win the Oscar for its sheer quality and for its relevance and timeliness. Of all the films I saw in 2010, this was the one that really and truly blew my mind. And it's for that reason that I also think it WILL win. Yes, Oscar voters sometimes go with classic prestige pictures like The King's Speech over hipper, edgier fare. But it's 2011, and there are enough younger Oscar voters to tip the scales. I can't imagine many of those younger voters picking King's Speech over Social Network. Black Swan will probably get some of those younger votes, and deservedly so. If there's any one movie that to me was neck and neck with Social Network, it's Black Swan, a movie that might just be Aranofsky's best. But Social Network, despite claims to the contrary, is still the movie to beat.


Should Win: Jesse Eisenberg
Will Win: Colin Firth
- This is one of the toughest categories to call. I feel like Jesse Eisenberg deserves this one. His performance in The Social Network was awesome, and was a true breakthrough turn. I didn't 100% think of him as a great actor before ... now I do. We all know that Firth is a great actor, and his turn in The King's Speech was another very Firth-ian role. It was an amazing performance, no doubt - but I actually felt like Geoffrey Rush stole the movie a bit and was the real standout as compared to Firth. Overall, I think Oscar voters tend to go with more experienced actors who have that old-school sort of gravitas, and for that reason I think Eisenberg's performance may get overlooked a bit. Firth is the safe bet, though I do think there is room for an Eisenberg upset - something I personally would like to see. Otherwise, Bridges was great as always, but it was more of a supporting role than a true lead. Franco was also great, but not mind-blowing. Javier Bardem was superb in Buitiful, but the movie overall was only okay.


Should Win: Annette Benning
Will Win: Annette Benning

- This is the other one that is incredibly tough to call, and it's another battle between old and new (even though Natalie Portman is very well established at this point). In this case though, I actually think that Annette Benning deserves the win. As good as Portman was in Black Swan, I think it was a director-driven performance. Meaning, Portman's memorable performance was so effective partly thanks to her, and partly thanks to Darren Aronofsky's mind-melting direction and storytelling. It was great work, but I think other actresses could also have pulled it off. On the other hand, Benning flat-out blew me away in The Kids Are All Right. It was a naturalistic, funny, emotional performance that might just be a career-best milestone. And I do think that voters will recognize that, and ultimately give the gold to Benning, even though Portman's turn has been more hyped. By the way, Jennifer Lawrence was awesome in Winter's Bone, and is right up there with the best in the category. She probably won't win this year, but she's a definite dark horse.


Should Win: Geoffrey Rush
Will Win: Geoffrey Rush

- This is a tough one, if only because Christian Bale has been so historically passed over by the Oscars, and because he's so good in The Fighter. But to me, The Fighter is probably the lesser of all of the major films nominated for multiple Oscars. It's a very good movie, maybe even great, but not on the same level as The King's Speech or The Social Network. So I like to award the best actor, but also the best overall part, the best overall character. Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech was that in my opinion. It was just one of those timeless performances that people will remember for a long time to come. As for Bale, he really took it to another level in The Fighter - it's just that the rest of the movie didn't quite live up to that performance. Otherwise, this is a super loaded category. Jeremy Renner was fantastic in The Town, as was John Hawkes in Winter's Bone and Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right. And there are so many other deserving actors that didn't even get a nomination: Andrew Garfield in The Social Network, Michael Shannon in the underrated Runaways, Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception. Anyways, part of me wants to give the nod to Bale, but overall, I think that Rush should and will win.


Should Win: Amy Adams
Will Win: Amy Adams

- This is one of the weakest of the major Oscar categories, lacking a true standout in my opinion. Amy Adams was outstanding in The Fighter, and she's my overall pick here. It's odd though in that I think Bale is the star of the movie, so it's more a case of Adams winning by default thanks to weaker competition in her category. I would definitely pick Adams over Melissa Leo though. Leo was funny in the movie, but Adams played a much more fleshed=out character. I also liked Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit, but she was really a lead actress, and despite that was probably a bit overshadowed by Jeff Bridges. Helena Bonham Carter was also very solid in The King's Speech, but didn't make quite the same impact as the movie's two male leads. I say this one goes to Adams, although I think the category is pretty lacking overall. No love for Chloe Moretz in Let Me In? How about Marion Cotillard for Inception?


Should Win: David Fincher
Will Win: David Fincher

- Look, Fincher is easily one of the best, most visionary directors of the last two decades, and The Social Network might just be his best movie to date. What's so amazing about his work with this one is that he took a dialogue-heavy script that could have looked and felt like a TV episode, and made it into an intense, ominous, apocalyptic epic. I think the voters will acknowledge that achievement. Now, right behind him in my opinion is Darren Aronofsky for Black Swan, which was just an amazing directorial achievement. And of course the Coens are always right up there as well, though I don't think True Grit is them at their absolute best. This category contains easily the biggest, most glaring omission of the awards, though. I mean, how is David O. Russell nominated but NOT Chritopher Nolan? Ridiculous!


Should Win: Toy Story 3
Will Win: Toy Story 3

- First, let me just say that I absolutely loved How To Train your Dragon. It's Dreamworks' best animated feature to date, and is really right up there with Toy Story 3. But I think that Toy Story was just a little bit better and more impactful, so I give it the edge. Now, in terms of predicting who will win, this one has got to be a no-brainer, right? How can Toy Story lose if it's also nominated for Best Picture? That said, I do wish that this category had more than three nominees. I think that both Tangled and Megamind (and maybe Legend of the Guardians) deserved to at least get a nomination.


Should Win: Exit Through the Gift Shop
Will Win: Exit Through the Gift Shop

- Hmm, this is an interesting category. On one hand, Exit was one of the year's best films - a fascinating, thought-provoking look at the nature of art. On the other hand ... was it even "real" ...? I came away from the movie with the impression that the whole thing was an elaborately-staged bit of meta-fiction from Banksy, and I don't know to what extent that ambiguity will influence Oscar voters. But, there's no other huge standout in the category, so Exit is still probably the favorite to win. There is certainly room for an upset though, as voters may want to pick a more straightforward doc. Something like Restrepo could pick up a surprise win.


Should Win: ?
Will Win: Biutiful

- Of the nominees, I've so far only seen Biutiful. Javier Bardem was fantastic in it, but it didn't 100% work for me in terms of its narrative. I imagine others will feel the same, but I'm also not sure what the alternative is. I've been curious to see Dogtooth, but it seems way too out-there for the Oscars. Biutiful, for all its flaws, is a very Oscar-ish sort of movie, so even though I found it to be sort of pointless and needlessly depressing, I'd still predict it to nab a trophy.


Should Win: True Grit
Will Win: True Grit

- I pick True Grit because the Coens are always the best in terms of creating these detailed, left-of-center worlds for their films. Doing a Western really gave the brothers a chance to cut loose in that respect, and all the little visual details in True Grit add up to a totally engrossing genre excercise. True Grit will get a bone or two thrown its way, and this will be one of them.


Should Win: Black Swan
Will Win: Black Swan
- While I think that David Fincher will take the directing award, I think Black Swan will be recognized for cinematography. The film does an amazing job of creating this immersive, nightmarish world, and the overall choreography and dynamism of the film is off the charts. Inception could upset - that zero gravity fight scene alone was stunning enough to make the movie deserving. But I think the haunting cinematography of Black Swan will prevail.


Should Win: True Grit
Will Win: The King's Speech

- When I think of the Coen Bros., I think of memorable, iconic characters. And what would characters be without their costumes? With the help of Jeff Bridges, True Grit's Rooster was that same sort of iconic character, and you've got to give a lot of credit to the costuming department for making it all come together. That said, Oscar loves a British period drama in this category, so I just can't bet against The King's Speech.


Should Win: The Social Network
Will Win: The Social Network

- I'm pretty surprised that Inception isn't nominated in this category. If it was, it might be my pick. But of the nominees, I think The Social Network can and should win, easily. The way that Fincher and co. blended images, music, dialogue, etc. was really pretty incredible. They "mixed" the script in such a way that they somehow, against all odds, created one of the most visually dynamic movies of the year.


Should Win: Tie: The Way Back / The Wolfman
Will Win: The Wolfman

- Man, I wish that THE WAY BACK had been able to get more attention from the public and from the Oscars. Just an epic, badass movie from Peter Weir, featuring an awesome turn from Ed Harris to boot. One thing I actually did notice in the movie was how you really felt like you were going on this epic, crazy journey with its characters, and the makeup was certainly a big contributing factor. When the characters braved the icy tundra, the arid desert, etc. - you could see in their faces the physical toll that they had endured. Really effective makeup in that movie. And yet, I do love a good creature feature, and The Wolfman (which I thought was underrated overall) had some truly kickass creatures, courtesy of monster makeup legend Rick Baker. I think that overall, voters will vote with an eye towards nostalgia for the Universal monster movies of old, and give The Wolfman the prize.


Should Win: The Social Network
Will Win: The Social Network

- A lot of good scores in this category (although, WTF!, where is Tron?! Daft Punk's score was phenomenal). To me it comes down to The Social Network and Inception. But I think that NIN frontman Trent Reznor has the edge - his moody music fit The Social Network to a T, whereas Hans Zimmer's score for Inception was good, but perhaps a bit one-note.


Should Win: ?
Will Win: Toy Story 3

- I don't like the nominees here. For one thing, why is one of Tangled's least memorable songs the one that's nominated? I think that will hurt its chances, unless people just automatically vote for the Disney musical on the list. Also, again, no Tron! Daft Punk's Derezzed and End of Line say hello. Ultimately, I think voters will simply vote for the familiar and proven combo of Toy Story and Randy Newman, based more on name recognition than anything else.


Should Win: Tron!
Will Win: Inception

- Yes, a nomination for Tron! Seriously though, Tron Legacy was total sensory overload, and the sound in the film was awesome. The potent mix of Daft Punk's amazing score, all the crazy-electro-sound f/x, and all the other ambient noise make this my pick. But, I think Inception will get the nod here, more as a way to give it some small semblance of recognition on Oscar night than anything else.


Should Win: The Social Network
Will Win: The Social Network

- Again, it's amazing to me how dynamic The Social Network was on an audio-visual level. The sound mix in the movie was just awesome, and very immersive. I think about the scene where Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake meet up at a club. The music was so pulsating, the wall of sound so thik, that you practically felt that you were right there with them.


Should Win: Inception
Will Win: Inception

- No questions about this one. Inception had the most badass f/x of 2010, bar none. From cities turning sideways to zero-G combat, you've got to give the nod to Inception here.


Should Win: The Social Network
Will Win: The Social Network

- I've had issues with Aaron Sorkin's writing in the past (Studio 60, anyone?), but The Social Network is probably the best thing he's ever written, and one of the snappiest screenplays ever put to film. The dialogue is just crackling, and structurally, the movie couldn't be more tightly-composed. And it ends with such a great exclamation point to boot. Yes, I do still think that the Coens are, overall, the best screenwriters and most ingenius storytellers in the business today - and True Grit was rich with great dialogue and character moments. But this is the year of Sorkin and The Social Network.


Should Win: Tie: The Kids Are All Right / Inception / The King's Speech
Will Win: The King's Speech

- This is a really, really tough one for me to pick. The three screenplays I singled out above are all completely different from one another but each fantastic in their own way. The Kids Are All Right was such a humanistic, heartfelt, authentic-feeling screenplay. It might be my sentimental favorite to win, just because the movie will probably end up being overlooked by the Oscars on the whole. Meanwhile, Inception was one hell of a mind-bending script. Just the sheer thought that had to have gone in to it - the complexity of the plotting - it's amazing. And then, The King's Speech is just one of those classic stories that is filled with great little exchanges and moments. I think The King's Speech will end up winning, just because there is a great human interest story behind the screenplay, and because it's the least divisive of the movies I listed above.

Should Win: ?
Will Win: no clue, really, so I'll just guess ... The Crush

- I feel like short films about precocious kids always have a good chance of winning, so I'll go with the one about the eight-year-old boy with a hopeless crush on his teacher.


Should Win: Day & Night
Will Win: Day & Night

- Okay, so I've only seen Day & Night (I assume most of you are in the same boat), but I have to admit - it was a pretty darn brilliant little short. And hey, never bet against Pixar - right?


Should Win: ?
Will Win: Killing in the Name

- Haven't seen any of the nominees, unfortunately ... but I've heard some good things about Killing In the Name, and it seems like it covers some pretty timely, relevant subject matter ... so I will go with that one.

And there you have it - my 2011 Oscar picks. May the best movies win.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Journey Into the UNKNOWN - A Review of Liam Neeson's Latest!


- I am still waiting for the first awesomely badass B-movie of 2011. Usually, January and February produce at least one genuinely kickass pulp action movie - something that was deemed too cheesy for Oscar season, too out-there for Summer blockbuster season. The past few years have seen movies like Rambo, Doomsday, and Daybreakers - all future midnight movie classics - come out in the early part of the year (the perfect antidote for all the prestige, Oscar-bait pics that come out in November and December). One other movie that belongs in the same category as the ones I just mentioned? Taken. That movie flat-out kicked ass, and with little fanfare or hype, it went on to becomea huge hit - solidifying a middle-aged Liam Neeson as an unlikely pulp action hero. So ... would UNKNOWN be Taken redux? The marketing certainly tried to position it that way. It does, after all, once again feature Neeson as an unassuming American in Europe, forced to fight off an onslaught of sinister conspirators. But whereas Taken featured a simple plot that allowed for maximum gravitas, Unknown goes in the other direction, offering up a convoluted jigsaw puzzle plotline that is nowhere near as clever or as interesting as it aims to be. Taken seemed to wink at its audience just enough, with Luc Besson's unique brand of Euro-action sensibilities driving the tone. Unknown doesn't seem to want to acknowledge how over the top and absurd it is. The laughs here feel mostly unintentional, and instead of a badass B-movie, we get a subpar head-scratcher.

In Unknown, Liam Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris (great character name, I have to admit). Harris is some sort of biologist / botanist who travels to Berlin with his wife (January Jones) for an important bio-tech conference. As Harris checks in to his hotel, he realizes that he's left one of his suitcases at the airport. He runs to get a taxi to take him back into the airport, and gets into a cab driven by a mysterious woman (Diane Kruger). Suddenly, on the way to the airport, the cab crashes. Neeson wakes up in the hospital, having been out for an extended period. And from there, things get weird. He's lost his wallet and ID, and has no proof of his identity. When he track down his wife, she's with another man who claims to be Martin Harris. Somehow, Neeson's existence has been wiped out, and he's been replaced by another man. But how? Why? Is Neeson the victom of an elaborate conspiracy, or is he simply insane - somehow filled with false memories of a life that he never actually lived?

It's a setup that is certainly intriguing, and for a while it's fun to simply follow Neeson as he seeks to put the puzzle pieces together. This is, of course, exactly the sort of role that Neeson excels at - an everyman forced to call upon extraordinary willpower and toughness in order to escape some sort of nightmarish situation. And Neeson is a master at capturing just the right action-movie tone - serious, grounded, and yet just badass and over-the-top enough that it seems natural for him to start kicking ass when called upon.

Diane Krueger compliments Neeson nicely as well. The scenes between them have an extra spark thanks to Krueger's natural charisma and aura of mystery. On the other hand, January Jones mostly falls flat as Neeson's wife. Not only is the age gap between them fairly conspicuous, but Jones plays a crucial role that requires an actress who can really say a lot with a quick glance or subtle gesture. Jones is basically a blank slate in this one, so her character is ultimately pretty disposable. We never get much of a read on her one way or the other, so instead of coming off as mysterious, she just comes off as robotic. One actor who does really stand out though is Bruno Ganz as Jurgen, an elderly, former German secret police officer who helps Neeson figure out what's happening to him. Ganz is delightfully hammy, and shares an awesomely entertaining scene with Frank Langella, who crops up as a possibly-sinister associate of Neeson's (though come on, when has Frank Langella NOT been sinister in any movie he's been in in the last five years?). Unfortunately, not many other scenes in Unknown can match the sheer, pulpy goodness of that one encounter. At least the movie's first half has a nice sense of intrigue and tension. But as we get more answers, things become increasingly absurd, and not in a good way.

I mean, there's something to be said for a movie that can reveal its various twists with a measure of relish and gusto. I think of last summer's SALT, which made me smile with the sheer audacity of its various reveals. In UNKNOWN, the twists are never really that jaw-dropping or fun, they just sort of happen, and rather than add to the plot, they only muddle things. Characters seem to come into conflict in this movie for no real reason, and the individual action / chase / fight scenes are at times cool, but we never have much sense of why anyone is in conflict with anyone else. The movie's climactic fight scene is particularly absurd, with Neeson engaged in a brutal fight to the death for reasons that are largely unknown to us, even by movie's end (pun intended).

That said, the movie does feature one admittedly awesome car chase, that sort of comes out of nowhere and ends up being one of the best car battles I've seen on screen in a while. Unfortunately, it seems like director Jaume Collet-Serra put his all into a couple of scenes, but for the most part seemed content to just give the movie an eerie blue tint and call it a day. Certainly, this one lacks the same barrage of badass fight scenes as, say, Taken.

Unknown has the makings of a great action / mystery movie, but it ultimately drops the ball and never quite comes together in a satisfying manner. It's entertaining enough that it made for perfectly acceptable entertainment on a cold, rainy afternoon here in LA. But this is one that is pretty instantly forgettable. Liam Neeson is a guy who is always fun to watch kick ass ... he does, after all, have "a very special set of skills." But unfortunately, Unknown doesn't quite know what to do with 'em.

My Grade: C+

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

THE EAGLE Has Landed


- If this past summer's CENTURION was the badass, pulpy take on the story of Rome's legendary Ninth Legion, then The Eagle is the slightly less badass, CW-ized and teen-friendly version. However, while Centurion told the story of the Ninth Legion's disappearance, and the resulting saga of its remaining, on-the-run legionnaires, The Eagle picks up years after the Ninth Legion fell, telling the tale of the son of the legendary battalion's fabled commander, and his quest to redeem the perceived failure of his father's lost army. The Eagle has its moments, and it manages to pull itself together in its third act just enough to make the movie a decently entertaining period action flick. But the movie also has a number of issues that keep it from ever really finding its footing. Whereas Centurion left me pumped-up and satisfied, The Eagle produced more of a "meh" reaction when all was said and done.

The Eagle follows Marcus Aquila, a young member of the Roman army who's been transferred to Britain. In this region, the Romans are still haunted by their failed attempts at conquest and expansion deep into the highlands of the country. The Romans most famous setback came years earlier, when the fabled Ninth Legion attempted to conquer the barbarian tribes to the north, only to go missing - never to be heard from again. Marcus' father was the commander of the legion, and so Marcus has a particular agenda when he arrives in Britain - to restore the honor of his father and of the Roman people. How can Marcus do this? One way to achieve a symbolic victory is to recapture "the eagle" - a golden talisman that was a signifier of Roman strength, which had been lost when the Ninth Legion disappeared. In the years since, the Romans have mostly been on the defensive, rarely venturing past the giant wall separating their fortress from the northern tribes. But Marcus aims to go on the offensive - sneaking up into the highlands, seeking the legendary lost eagle for Rome.

Marcus is played by Channing Tatum, and going in, it was hard to know what Channing would bring to this role. A period piece like this one usually requires a certain sort of gravitas to pull off, and you want an actor who can convince you that he's of another era. Tatum does a decent job in the role, but he never really tries to act "Roman." In fact, a number of the film's main actors simply use ordinary American accents, which I definitely found to be a little jarring - especially at first. I realize that a quasi-British accent is not authentically Roman either, but for whatever reason, it just seems to work better for this sort of film. I thought that Tatum overall was good, but he never really turned it up a notch and brought his game up to that higher level either. The Eagle has plenty of moments that were okay with Tatum in the lead, but that could have been great in the hands of an actor with a bit more range.

The rest of The Eagle's cast is similarly okay. Jamie Bell is the other main lead - playing a slave-turned-comrade-in-arms of Marcus'. I wasn't familiar with Bell going in, but he was pretty good here. The main problem wasn't so much him as it was some very thin writing around his character. And the same can be said for the characters played by usually-excellent, veteran actors like Donald Sutherland and Mark Strong. Both just sort of show up, but have very little meat to chew on in their roles.

And that brings me to the first of the movie's two biggest problems - the story structure and the script in general. The pacing of the film just seems completely all over the place. It takes forever to get going, taking its sweet time in explaining who Marcus is or why we should care about him. We are quickly thrown into the midst of a huge, hard-to-follow battle in which we have no idea who is fighting or why. As the movie progresses, it seems to give any number of characters the short shrift. Sutherland, as Marcus' wise uncle, does almost nothing of import. Mark Strong's character, meanwhile, has the makings of a badass. He's a member of the Ninth Legion who is found by Marcus, a guy who once ran from battle but who now has a chance to stand up and fight. Potentially, an awesome character. But we barely get to know the guy, and I was absolutely shocked at how abruptly his character arc ended, with absolutely minimal dramatic impact. The script just seems to spend a lot of time on unimportant scenes, while rushing past key character moments and potentially impactful drama.

The lack of drama can also, in large part, be attributed to the very shaky direction and editing. Battle scenes seem to be going for a Ridley Scott / Gladiator-esque shaky-cam, quick-cutting style, but director Kevin MacDonald really fumbles in this regard. Most of the fight scenes are near-impossible to follow, and lack any sort of compelling or coherant choreography. Characters just get lost in the chaos, and that means that you're rarely emotionally-invested in the action. The editing in the fight scenes and elsewhere is also somewhat questionable. As I alluded to earlier, the movie just seems to skip right ahead past moments that you'd think would be important. All in all, too much of The Eagle feels like a TV show - close-ups, shoddy action, and minimal sense of scope. The film never feels as big or epic as it should. By the same token, the action wants to be as gritty and explosive as Gladiator or other such films, but instead, most of the battles and fight scenes are so quickly and incoherantly cut together that they aren't exciting, just boring.

With all that said, The Eagle does have a certain scrappy charm to it. Some fun bits of dialogue sneak into the movie, particularly some of the exchanges between Tatum and Bell. Their relationship - first as master-slave, and ultiamtely as equals and friends - is the heart of the movie, and the film does a nice job of building up their relationship and creating an interesting dynamic between them. Also, the movie does, as mentioned, begin to build some pretty good momentum in its final act. At that point, the storytelling finally seems to gel and the pace picks up - we become more invested in whether Marcus and co. will be able to bring the eagle back to their Roman countrymen, and there are a couple of pretty exciting fight scenes to boot. Tatum, Bell, Sutherland, and Strong are likable as heroes, and the grey-painted Seal People - their barbarian rivals - are suitably fearsome and savage villains.
One other random but odd thing about the movie. There are NO women in it. None! Okay, a couple of barbarian women briefly appear, but there is not one female in the movie with a single line of dialogue. By midway through the film, this really began to nag at me for some reason, if only because some sort of love interest might have at least given Marcus a little more personality. But more than that ... it was just really weird. How do you make a Roman period piece without a single female character?

The Eagle can be entertaining, but ultimately, it just doesn't have any truly memorable characters or moments. Given that it deals with such a compelling story and time-period, the movie fails to live up to the premise's potential to be epic and badass. There are worse movies out there, but I'd say see Centurion if you want to experience the best recent film about Rome's legendary Ninth Legion.

My Grade: C+

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

BUITIFUL / Dangerous?


- 2010 was, I think, a banner year for bleak and depressing movies. There was the disintigrating relationship drama of Blue Valentine, the hopeless dystopia of Never Let Me Go, and the loss-of-child mope-fest of Rabbit Hole. Well, here's one more '10 holdover, that is just now getting a wider theatrical expansion, and can likely be ranked right up there amongst the recent spate of artfully-shot-yet-soul-crushing cinema: BIUTIFUL. The Spanish-language film, already nominated for two Oscars (Best Foreign Film, and a leading actor nom for star Javier Bardem), is another one of those movies that's elegantly shot and wonderfully acted, but that makes you wonder what, if anything, was the point of all that melancholy. In fact, the film reminded me a lot of Blue Valentine, in that there were individual scenes and performances that I really enjoyed, that really resonated with me - but on the whole, I was left with a similar sort of empty feeling. I just didn't quite know what to take away from the film. That said, there is no denying the artful composition and inspired performances that color the film, and for that reason alone it's certainly worth taking a look at.

BIUTIFUL tells the story of Uxbal - played by Bardem - a character who, I'll be honest, is hard to get a read on. On one hand, Uxbal is a fairly devoted family man, with a deep devotion for his two young kids. Although they seem to be living in somewhat impovrished conditions, Uxbal makes sure that his kids are provided for - especially now that he is separated from their bipolar mother, who was deemed unfit to have custody. On the other hand, Uxbal is involved in some pretty shady stuff. He's a facilitator for illegal sweatshop workers, including children, who he puts to work in delapidated buildings that are clearly hazardous - unfit to house so many people. Uxbal deals drugs and other pirated goods. He pays off the police. He's a criminal, he's facilitating illegal child labor, and oddly, he seems pretty blase about it all. However, Uxbal begins to reexamine things when he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Upon finding out that he has only weeks to live, Uxbal doggedly sets out to figure out his family's future, and also to use what time he has left to make peace with his own corrupted soul.

That is the basic premise of the film, but the movie forsakes a straightforward narrative, instead playing out like an intertwining, slice-of-life collection of scenes, that together form a larger tapestry. We are introduced to all manner of characters that touch Uxbal's life - his erratic and needy wife, his sleazy, womanizing brother, the pair of Chinese sweatshop owners with whom he does business, and many more. There are dozens of interweaving subplots. Will Uxbal reconcile with his wife? What will become of his children? Will the police catch up to Uxbal even as his cancer slowly eats away at him?

As directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Biutiful is a gorgeous-looking movie that is easy to get lost in. Even though the pace is slow, there is always something interesting to look at. Gritty shots of the Spanish slums are intermixed with more artsy scenes that are more symbolic than anything else. But Inarritu deftly creates a veritable collage of images and scenes that make this a very immersive, very atmospheric movie. It's strange, because there is that mix of stark realism with bits of "magical" realism / surreality. It mostly works, although I think that the movie leans heavily enough on its more earthbound storytelling style to the point where the more surreal moments feel a little big jarring. I'm thinking specifically of the film's bookended opening and closing scenes. Without spoiling anything, I found them interesting but also semi-disorienting - in such a way where I don't know that they had the impact that the filmmaker intended.

To that end, I just found it very difficult to get a read on Uxbal's character and/or character arc. Who is this guy, exactly? Perhaps it's because I've been so immersed in TV's Breaking Bad lately. On Breaking Bad, I've watched as this brilliant character arc plays out. as that show's protagonist grapples with the moral implications of activity that so negatively impacts the lives of others - even as he himself stares down his own mortality in the face of a dire cancer diagnosis. On Breaking Bad, we can see that inner conflict manifest on every line of Bryan Cranston's face. In Biutiful, I never quite got the how's and why's of Uxbal's descent into criminality. Even stranger is that, as the movie goes on, some truly awful, tragic stuff happens - stuff so traumatic and unthinkable that it would probably completely crush the spirit of most men. And yet, as the movie keeps throwing an almost comically tragic series of events at Uxbal, he is phased, but a lot less phased than you might imagine. Somehow, the arc of the movie seems to be Uxbal finding peace with himself and his situation -- even though there's not much in the film to indicate that he deserves it. The result is that you end up watching Biutiful more as a detached observer than as someone who is actively, emotionally invested in these characters. We're never quite sure what to make of Uxbal - let alone the film's many other morally bankrupt characters - and so by the time the movie ended, I felt cold and a bit confused.

Again, I couldn't help but admire numerous facets of the film. Javier Bardem does indeed turn in a memorable performance - even though it's hard to get a big-picture read on his character, he makes individual scenes shine with his ability to bring an unmatched intensity to his words and actions. The supporting cast is similarly great - in particular, Maricel Álvarez as Uxbal's wife Marambra. She delivers a totally manic, scene-stealing performance. And, as mentioned, the artistry of the direction, the composition of the scenes ... is often pretty breaktaking. At the end of the day though, a movie can only get so much credit for its aesthetics. There has to be some sort of lasting impact, some sort of exclamation point, some meaning that stays with you after the lights in the theater come on. I didn't quite get that with Buitiful.

My Grade: B

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Blizzard of OZ: OZZY OSBOURNE and SLASH Rock Hard in LA!

Well, it's been a busy week or so, and as much as I wanted to get back into a good blogging groove last week, it just wasn't in the cards. But, I did promise I'd talk about the OZZY and SLASH show that I saw last week, so ... ALLLL ABOARD! (HAHAHAHAHA).

OZZY OSBOURNE w/SLASH (featuring MYLES KENNEDY) Concert Review:

- Growing up, it felt like the great rock n' roll stars had a lot more magic and mystery surrounding them than they do now. Before an endless parade of Behind the Music specials and rehab reality shows, rock stars were an endless source of fascination. Who were these people? What did their music mean? And how could I - an unassuming Jewish boy from Bloomfield, CT - be a fraction as cool as them? As I got more and more into all things rock in my middle school years, two of the earliest - and edgiest - albums I purchased (on cassette!) during that era were Guns n' Roses' Appetite for Destruction and Ozzy Osbourne's hits collection The Ozzman Cometh. Even though this was the period when Guns' future was pretty uncertain, they were still, at least to me, the biggest and baddest band on the planet. Appetite was a pure adrenaline rush the likes of which I have never heard before or since. And the guitar - from the man known only as Slash - was straight out of some fiery cavern of hell. When I listen to the album now, I still know every guitar riff by heart ... I've listened to those songs so many times, and the guitar solos are so iconic, that they are practically embedded in my brain. And then, there was Ozzy - the Prince of Darkness. Discovering Ozzy was the closest that a nice kid with good grades and overprotective parents was going to get to the dark side. In those days before Wikipedia, I didn't know much about Ozzy or Black Sabbath, so you kind of had to use your imagination to figure out who these guys were. Judging from the music, I pictured a veritable rock n' roll madman who sang of black magic and midnight masses.

Now, I remember in college seeing The Osbournes for the first time and thinking that, on one hand, this show was genius, and on the other hand, it was a sort of sad way for a rock n' roll legend to be rediscovered by a new generation. On the show, we saw an Ozzy who was less Prince of Darkness and more kooky sitcom dad / husband. And, worse, we saw a guy who just didn't seem to be in very good shape. Ozzy had always been sort of nuts, but this new Ozzy was a person who seemed like someone with whom years of drugs and alcohol abuse may have finally caught up.

And yet ... I've been wanting to see Ozzy in concert, while he can still go. I was never all that enthused to attend Ozzfest though, because while I love the classic rock stylings of Ozzy and Black Sabbath, I never had much desire to sit through several lame / generic metal bands as part of the show. I love music that rocks hard, but up to a certain point. So, all that being said, there was something about the combo of Ozzy and Slash in concert that I couldn't resist. It seemed like an iconic pairing of two of the great characters of rock n' roll that I grew up idolizing. Both were coming in with something to prove. Slash, for one, released a pretty great album last year in which he teamed with a variety of vocalists. It was one of the better rock albums I'd heard in a while, but no, it wasn't Guns n' Roses. Slash is never going to stop being asked about GnR, and he will forever be associated with that band and with Axl Rose. With other ventures like Velvet Revolver currently on (permanent?) hiatus, Slash was now a lone wolf, so to speak. Sure, he was collaborating with Alter Bridge singer Myles Kennedy on this tour, but it was his name and his name alone that was on the marquee. So Slash had to prove that he was still an attraction, still a force, even without his old bandmates. As for Ozzy, over the last several years we've seen him clean up, get in shape, and put some focus back on the music after years of being known primarily as a reality star. In the past, there's been Ozzfest in which the man himself was just one of many acts. But this latest tour was all about the Ozzman and his stellar catalog of Black Sabbath and solo hits. Could Ozzy reclaim his place as a true rock n' roll icon? Could he prove that his songs are as lasting, as iconic as any of the other hall of famers? We were about to find out ...

After the crowd gathered at the Gibson Ampitheater at Universal Studios Hollywood, there was a definite buzz in the room, as Slash, singer Myles Kennedy, and their band took the stage to open the show. From the get-go, the arena was a-rockin', as Kennedy and Slash launched into "Ghost" off of Slash's latest album. It's a badass rocker, and it has a great, driving guitar riff that is vintage Slash. It's also a great showcase for Kennedy's crystal-clear, uber-powerful pipes. Kennedy's voice is lower and smoother than Axl Rose's, but he can also let out a GnR-style wail with the best of 'em.

After that, the duo did a couple of grittier, more down n' dirty Slash's Snake Pit covers. But then, the crowd lit up as a familiar riff filled the arena - the kickass intro to the Guns n' Roses classic, Night Train. Here was our first real taste of Myles Kennedy as a substitute Axl Rose, and I have to say that Kennedy nailed it. He brought big energy to the song, which also worked as a showcase for Slash's continued status as a real-life guitar hero. It's amazing, because I've seen Axl's revamped Guns play twice, and while both shows were surprisingly excellent, there was something that was clearly missing -- and here it was. This was the other half of the equation - the guitar god Slash rocking and rocking hard, in all of his top-hatted glory.

After Night Train, we got another great song off of the new Slash album, "Back to Cali." It's one of my favorites from the album and it was awesome seeing it live. After that though, I legitimately jumped out of my seat when I realized what was next - one of my all-time favorite songs ... ROCKET QUEEN. Kick ... ass. Now, no one will ever be able to belt out the lyrics of this song quite like Axl, but Kennedy gave it his best shot, and the result was a fairly rocking rendition of the GnR staple. By this point though, the crowd was pretty electric. I don't think people were quite sure what the song lineup with Slash would be, and all of the old-school GnR fans in the house were now going nuts. I mean, this was Slash playing Rocket Queen - not something I was sure if I'd ever see with my own eyes. Now, next up was a song that really surprised me - Starlight off of the Slash album. I'll admit that I usually skip this one when giving the disc a listen, but Myles Kennedy gave such an awesome performance of this Aerosmith-esque power ballad that it made me look at the tune in a whole new light. Post-show, it's been getting a lot of play - a great song that, if you haven't heard, I recommend you go and download ASAP.

After Starlight, Slash, who'd barely said a word up to that point, sheepishly approached the mic and simply said: "I think some of you might know this next one." And then it came, as the crowd collectively rose to their feet and cheered and sang and pumped their fists ... as one of the greatest, most iconic opening guitar riffs of all time echoed through the Gibson Ampitheater. Because yes, in that moment, here, finally, I was hearing the man, the myth, the legend - SLASH - playing SWEET CHILD O' MINE. And lo, it was awesome. Myles Kennedy did the song justice - the more deliberate pace was well-suited to his vocal style, and he knocked it out of the park. In any case, this was, without a doubt, one of the truly transcendant moments of the night.

Next up, Kennedy channeled Scott Wylan with a cover of Velvet Revolver's Slither, and then for the grand finale, he took it on home with GnR's PARADISE CITY. The crowd was rocking, and appropriately so. Not only was Slash absolutely tearing down the house, but I think we all realized that we had just seen one hell of a badass set. Some GnR classics, some great new songs off of Slash's surprisingly solid new album ... it was a great mix of old and new, and Myles Kennedy really brought it as well. And watching Slash, I got that same feeling I did watching Eddie Van Halen in concert a few years back. Even without knowing a lot about the ins and outs of guitar playing, it was, I think, clear that we were watching a true master at work. Do I wish that the cosmic forces of rock would align to allow one final reunion of Slash with his Guns n' Roses bandmates? Sure - that would be truly epic. But, in the meantime, I think anyone at this show would have to admit -- Slash is still the man.

And then ... it was time for the Ozzman to cometh. And honestly, I wasn't sure what to expect. After Slash's virtuoso performance though, the crowd was primed and ready to rock. They wanted Ozzy - the Prince of Darkness - to rise once more. And rise he did. But first, we got a little reminder of new-school Ozzy, in the form of a goofy but pretty hilarious video package that opened the set. In it, we saw Ozzy, inserted MTV-awards-style, into a variety of popular movies and TV shows - from Avatar to The Hangover to Jersey Shore. It might have been sort of lame, except the bits were actually really funny. You had to smile when Ozzy finds himself face to face with Kristen Stewart in Twilight, for example. "Are you ... are you a ...?" she stammers. "A vampire?" replies Ozzy. "No, vampires are [bleeping] [bleeps]! I'm the [bleeping] Prince of Darkness!"

And that's when I realized, Ozzy is still the Prince of Darkness, but he's also one hell of an entertainer. Sure, he was willing to shed a bit of his demonic image for the sake of reality TV, but then again, hasn't Ozzy always been one of the ultimate showmen? I think Ozzy's set proved that that was the case. Yes, he blasted through darkly-tinged goth-rock classics like "Mr. Crowley," but what made the show so special was Ozzy's love for the crowd and their admiration for him. "I love you all!" Ozzy repeated time and again. "Put your [bleeping] hands together!" he cried. Ozzy sprayed the crowd with a foam cannon, he dumped buckets of water on the front rows. He brought out his wife Sharon for a cameo appearance, and daughter Kelly was briefly glimpsed on the jumbotron. This was, in some ways, perhaps a kinder, gentler Ozzy than back in his Black Sabbath heyday.

And yet, this was also a man who lays claim to some of the biggest, baddest songs in all of rock n' roll. This was a man who's played with Randy Rhodes, with Zack Wylde - who always surrounds himself with some of the hardest-rocking bandmates in all the land of rock. And that side of Ozzy was on display as well. As much as this was a fun, good-times show, there were moments - like when Ozzy and his band bellowed the dark, grinding Sabbath classic WAR PIGS, where, even if only for a moment, I travelled back in time. I was back in the dark, dangerous days. The Black Sabbath days. The Prince of Darkness days. And during those moments, I wasn't watching Ozzy Osbourne - middle-aged reality star, but Ozzy Osbourne - rock n' roll icon, certifiable madman.

And that contrast was immediate almost from the outset of the show. After the funny opening montage, Ozzy kicke things off with a bang, via the spooky rocker (and a mainstay on my Halloween playlists) -- BARK AT THE MOON.

Now I will say ... Ozzy looked a bit shaky coming out of the gate. We all know that the Ozzy of 2011 has some physical and vocal limitations, but I was curious to what extent he'd still be able to rock like the Ozzy of old. The truth is, there were ups and downs throughout the show, but as the night wore on, Ozzy seemed to tap into a reserve of rock n' roll energy, and there were moments where he was most definitely in the zone. In fact, it was almost funny because Ozzy just kept filling up this bucket of water that he kept onstage, and would periodically dunk himself in it between songs. I guess you do what you have to to get the blood flowing. But, I am happy that we did get those moments of vintage Ozzy. I don't know how much longer the Ozzman will keep going, but I'm glad I saw him in a show in which he was still able to summon that fire and kick some ass.

Anyways, Ozzy followed Bark at the Moon with the lone song to be played off his latest album - Scream. I'm not crazy about this song in general, but I'll admit it was WAY better live than it is off the album, because it's basically designed to be an arena rocker, and in that respect it did its job and got the crowd going. It's definitely more a nu-metal-ish song than typical Ozzy, but it was actually pretty badass live. However, after that, Ozzy went old-school with MR. CROWLEY, which is, to me, one of the all-time most spooky rock songs ever written. After that classic, menacingly ghoulish intro, the song's driving guitar kicked in, and I was definitely grinning ear to ear. From there, we got I Don't Know, followed by the Black Sabbath song Faeries Wear Boots. For some reason, every time he was about to do a Black Sabbath song, Ozzy would almost sheepishly ask the crowd "Do you want to hear a Black Sabbath tune?!", to which he'd be greeted with emphatic cheers. I don't know why, but I found this sort of funny (probably just the way Ozzy said it). Next up, Ozzy introduced his next song as being controversial, and I can only imagine that it was back in the day, although I wasn't that familiar with the specifics. But yeah, the song was Suicide Solution, and it got a nice reaction from the old-school fans.
It was the next song though that really tore the roof off - the Ozzy solo classic ROAD TO NOWHERE. I think this is probably one of the Ozzman's more personal songs, and you it did feel like this was one where he got into that zone, and put it all out there for the crowd. The lighters were definitely waving back and forth as Ozzy belted out this particular power ballad.

And I will also mention here that Ozzy's band seriously rocked. It was evident throughout the night, although I call attention here because obviously, Road to Nowhere has some killer guitar solos. But new Ozzy axe-man Gus G was seriously shredding throughout the night, and he seemed to more than live up to the legacy of Ozzy's legendary lineup of guitarists over the years. Meanwhile, drummer Tommy Clueftos was also kicking ass and taking names throughout the show, and performed a pretty amazing solo set as well.

But, the song where everyone came together and just knocked it out of the park was the next song, the aforementioned WAR PIGS. It was a true showcase for the band, and the song's methodical pace allowed Ozzy to really get in the zone. This was the one where I just forgot about reality star Ozzy and, for a few minutes, felt like I was at a Sabbath concert sometime circa the mid 70's. As Ozzy's ominous voice rang out, a dark and foreboding atmosphere hung over the arena. It was a reminder that this wasn't a joke, this was some seriously dark and dangerous rock n' roll. Badass.

I was actually really excited for the next song, FIRE IN THE SKY, as it's one of my personal Ozzy favorites. The crowd only seemed moderately into it (the synthesizer-heavy song was maybe a bit jarring after the stripped-down thrashing of War Pigs), but I still thought it was pretty sweet. I have no idea what this song is about, but the lyrics are definitely pretty evocative -- and I was definitely psyched to see it played live. We then got Sabbath song Into the Void, followed by the song that first got me hooked on Ozzy's music -- SHOT IN THE DARK. It's just so moody and atmospheric - every time I hear it, I think of some different story behind the noirish lyrics. But yeah, I'd always get excited when this one would come on the classic rock radio stations in CT back in the day. After that, we got another Black Sabbath tune - Rat Salad - and then the biggest Black Sabbath song of all ... IRON MAN! It's an iconic classic - one I've heard so many times that if I heard it come on the radio I might even flip the dial. BUT ... hearing that legendary intro, hearing Ozzy scream "I AM IRON MAN!" as only he can, hearing that thumping war drum live ... well, it was freaking awesome! I was completely geeking out. I was listening to Ozzy by-god Osbourne sing Iron Man. This was rock n' roll, baby. And it should be noted that, during Iron Man and indeed, during some of the other, heavier Sabbath songs, there was a genuine mosh pit going on in front of the stage (I watched safely from our seats in the back). Now that's what I'm talkin' about.
After the high of Iron Man, we got the more pop-ish I Don't Want To Change the World, which was nonetheless a song that played well with the crowd and was fun to sing along to ("I ... don't wanna change the world! I don't want ... the world to change me!"). But then, the roof was blown off as Gus G played the classic intro to ... CRAZY TRAIN! People were jumping out of their seats, going insane, dancing around like crazy people, and clearly, Ozzy was loving it. Yes, Crazy Train is one of those everpresent songs that is played all the time, but with good reason -- it friggin' rocks. I mean, if you can hear that opening guitar riff and NOT scream "Ay! Ay! Ay!" at the appropriate moment ... then, well, I don't know if we can be friends. This was another great moment in the night - a whole arena of rock fans jumping up and down and singing Crazy Train, with Ozzy caught up in the moment and Gus G positively owning on guitar. Awesome stuff.
That was it for the main show, but man, Ozzy's idea of an encore was kind of funny. Rather than disappearing for an extended period, Ozzy went backstage only briefly and then came out and actually led the crowd himself in their chants of "one more song!" But yes, we did want one more song, dammit, and we actually got two. First off was one of the all-time great rock power ballads (if you're into rock power ballads, which I am), MAMA I'M COMING HOME. Once again, the lighters were a-waving, and the crowd sung in unison along with this Ozzy staple. And then, finally, it was time for the finale. The epic crescendo that Mama built to was such that the show could probably have ended there, but instead Ozzy went out with a fast-paced bang - PARANOID, to be specific. Yet another classic rocker, Paranoid has got to be one of the all-time great rock songs with one of the all-time most adrenaline-pumping intros. Once again, the crowd was jumping around, and Ozzy was feeding on the energy, hopping up and down and going all-0ut, as his band wailed away like nobody's business.

When all was said and done, Ozzy mock-collapsed onto the floor. Sure, he was sort of joking, but I think it's safe to say that he really did give his all for this LA show, and the crowd respected him for it. Chants of "Ozzy! Ozzy!" filled the arena, and I think that most of us were pretty blown away by the show we had just seen. Yes, at age 62 Ozzy is worse for wear. He's jittery and has limited mobility, and his voice comes and goes. But knowing all of that going in, I was impressed. The guy put on a hell of a show, and hearing one classic, iconic rock song after another was awesome - truly making you realize what a stamp this man has left on the world of rock. I'm glad I had the chance to see him live. I don't know how he can go out there and perform like that over and over on an extended tour at this stage of his career. But for one night, he showed why he is still the [bleeping] Prince of [bleeping] Darkness, and beyond that, true rock n' roll royalty.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Libations for Everyone: Disneyland Adventure, Norm MacDonald, Plus Lots of TV: Idiot Abroad, Lights Out, Portlandia, and More!

So ... what have I been up to lately? As you've probably noticed, it's been a busy (and Comcastic) couple of weeks, and therefore, my blogging output has most definitely taken a hit. Sure, I've managed to churn out a couple of movie reviews, but other than that, I'm well aware that it's been slow here in terms of all-new, all-awesome adventures. So let me run through a couple of things I've been wanting to talk about:

LIVE COMEDY: Thanks to my brothers' new gig at a marketing firm that represents comedians, I've gotten to attend a couple of great shows over the last couple of months.

First off, several week ago I was lucky enough to see a show at the Hollywood Improv headlined by comedian Andy Daley. Not a household name, per se, but a recognizable face (he's the school principal on Eastbound & Down), and a truly amazing comedian. Daley really blew me away, performing in-character as a variety of off-the-wall personas, from an increasingly dirty-minded old man to a sleazy fortune-teller whose visions of the future mostly revolved around his predictions of increased sexual liberation. It was an absolutely hilarious show, and there were even some very funny opening acts - including a surprise appearance by Nick Swardson, testing out some new material. Good stuff.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see NORM MACDONALD live. For me, this was really a dream show, as Norm is to me one of the funniest people ever. I started really getting into Saturday Night Live during his 90's stint as Weekend Update host, and I used to go around quoting his go-to jokes ... "note to self," "you guessed it ... Frank Stallone," etc. That said, I wasn't exactly sure what a Norm MacDonald stand-up show would be like. Turns out, it was amazing. Just genius, really. Norm was really on top of his game, delivering a long set of jokes and stories on everything from his father's death to how he would kill someone and cover it up if he was ever so inclined. Norm goes to some really dark and messed-up places with his comedy, but there's a certain world-weary, irony-tinged, anything-goes style that really makes him unlike any other comedian out there. We were sitting feet away from Norm, and I was cracking up, hysterical with laughter, for the vast majority of the set. Brilliant comedy - Norm is still the man! And hey, Norm is one of those "comedian's comedians" who other funny people love, and so it wasn't a huge shock - but still a surprise - that the likes of Sarah Silverman and Geoffrey Ross were in the audience. There was definitely that feeling of being at the center of the comedy universe at the Hollywood Improv that night.

DISNEYLAND: So the other week, a couple of friends and I did a long-time-coming trip to Disneyland. It wa a great weekend to do it - the MLK Day holiday weekend. Not only did we have an extra day off, but the weather here in SoCal was amazing (sorry east-coasters). It really felt like a Summer day. I hadn't been to Disney in a few years, and I was particularly excited to check out the special "ElecTRONica" attraction that had opened in honor of the release of Tron Legacy. Anyways, we spent the early part of the day in the main Disneyland Park - we did all of the classics like Pirates of the Carribean, Space Mountain, and Splash Mountain, but we also had some odd detours. We paddled canoes. We ate ice cream while watching the cartoonishly hilarious Bill Hill and the Hillbillies play bluegrass and country classics. And yes, we saw the revived presentation of Captain EO, which was a total nostalgia trip. I think the last time I saw Captain EO - which I remember being totally enraptured by - was when I was 7 or 8 years old. Later on in the early evening, we crossed over to California Adventure. We did one or two rides there and then entered the neon blue ElecTRONica area. It was awesome, and I was totally geeking out. The whole area was lit up to look like a scene out of Tron and/or Blade Runner, and the centerpiece was a huge dance/rave area where a DJ dressed like Michael Sheen in Tron Legacy played techno music, flanked by a mini-army of dancers dressed like residents of The Grid. There was even a Gem lookalike who was quite, um, mesmerizing. Disney patrons could participate in the free-flowing dance party, or walk over to a separate stage where a guy called Lazer Man performed all sorts of cool lazer tricks. Nearby to that was the End of Line bar, where glowing libations for everyone were served. And past that was, aw-yeah, Flynn's Arcade - a recreation of Tron's famous retro arcade, complete with all manner of vintage 80's-era arcade games, with the famous Tron game acting as the centerpiece. The machines even ran on custom-made Flynn's Arcade tokens. Now that's attention to detail. After spending a good chunk of time in ElecTRONica, we grabbed dinner, rode the Tower of Terror, and then took in the impressive World Of Color water-and-light show. Finally, we returned to Disney for a couple more rides (Mr. Toad FTW), and then ultimately called it a night. Definitely a memorable Disneyland adventure.

And now, it's been a while, but here's some quick thoughts on TV:

- I am watching and enjoying LIGHTS OUT on FX. After three episodes, I am pretty absorbed, and definitely into the characters and plotlines. I still feel like something is a little off - where the show is not *quite* firing on all cylinders just yet. But overall, this has been a worthy new show, and I hope more people give it a shot. In particular, it's great seeing Stacy Keach back on TV, kicking ass as the former champ's grizzled father and trainer.

- Speaking of FX, I can't wait for the return of JUSTIFIED. To me, this was easily one of the best shows of 2010, and I can't wait to see what the show has in store for Season 2.

- Meanwhile, I've been catching up on BREAKING BAD. AMC has been showing two episodes per week, in order, and so I've been dutifully recording and watching each week with my brother. Holy crap, how have I not been watching this show? It's absolutely phenomenal! I'm currently at the tail end of Season 2, and have already seen several episodes that I'd count as bonafide classics. One or two, in fact, I'd put right up there among my favorite TV episodes of all time. The ep with Tuco's elderly uncle and his bell? ... good lord ... just incredible. I wasn't really surprised to discover that Bryan Cranston is amazing on this show, but even with high expectations going on, I find myself continually floored by the level of his performance. Suffice it to say, all of those Emmys have been very much deserved. Watch Breaking Bad - simply incredible TV.

- It's nice to see FRINGE continuing to perform decently in the ratings despite being consigned to the "Friday Night Deathslot" by FOX. This show is simply too good to die a quiet death on Fridays. In fact, I loved its Friday debut, featuring the great Christopher Lloyd as a washed-up rockstar who is in the middle of a time-travel mystery. I also enjoyed this past weekend's mythology-heavy episode, heavily featuring those pesky, otherdimensional shapeshifters. But, I also hope that the show's increasingly convoluted mythology can be streamlined a bit. I'm worried that the show has now introduced so many divergent plot elements that it's hard to relate everything. We've got other dimensions, shape-shifters, Cortexifan trials, Massive Dynamic, the "First People," our giant mystery machine powered by Peter, and the mysterious Observers. Still, Fringe is still the #1 must-watch show on TV, in my humble opinion, and I'm excited to see how the rest of the season plays out.

- By the way, how nice is it to have PARKS AND RECREATION back on TV. All hail the return of Ron Swanson and his Life Pyramid, which incidentally, is a work of sheer, unbridled genius.

- Also, in terms of comedy ... how great and hilarious is AN IDIOT ABROAD ...? This one is basically a no-brainer if you've been a fan of Ricky Gervais' hilarious series of podcasts, but I think this show is flying a little under the radar here in the US - airing on The Science Channel and at pretty obscure hours. But if you like things that are funny, do yourself a favor and set your DVR to record this. Basically, it's The Office co-creators Gervais and Stephen Merchant sending their favorite round-headed punching bag, Karl Pilkington, across the world on a series of adventures. Each episode sees Karl - a blue-collar idiot-savant of sorts - visiting one of the Seven Wonders of the World. And if you're not familiar with the podcasts, just know that Karl Pilkington is an endlessly entertaining man. Gervais and Merchant enjoy making fun of him - and a lot of their mocking is deserved. But Karl also has this uncanny ability to cut at some deep truths with his non-sequitar observations and lame-brained philisophical musings. So yeah, seeing him travel to China, and making the claim that the Great Wall of China should probably only be called the "Alright Wall of China" ... it is a unique sort of hilarity. Watch this. It's on the Science Channel, and it is awesome.

- Finally, I've been enjoying PORTLANDIA on IFC. I'm a huge fan of sketch comedy in general, and I'm always eager to try out alternatives to SNL. Interestingly, Portlandia is produced by Broadway Video and stars current SNL featured player Fred Armisen. It's a little weird to see Armisen on a completely different sketch show while still on SNL, but at the same time, the style of Portlandia is similar to some of Armisen's more offbeat SNL sketches. Overall, the show has a looser, almost Kids In the Hall style to it, with a mix of standalone and interconnected sketches. Some of the humor can be a little too too-cool-for-school and hipster-y, but I've definitely found a lot to like in each episode to date. One nice surprise is Armisen's co-star, Carrie Brownstien, one of the members of indie-rock band Sleater-Kinney. Brownstien has already shown that she's very funny and talented, and that she works really well with Armisen. So yes, Portlandia is definitely worth taking a look at.

Okay, that's it for now. Tonight, I'm going to see OZZY OSBOURNE and SLASH in concert, so stay tuned for a full recap!