Friday, September 30, 2011

Shana Tovah! - Danny's 2011 Rosh Hashana Address

- Shana Tovah! Yesterday, I had the opportunity to give a short speech at Valley Ruach's (a Jewish community for young professionals in LA) high holiday services. I wish I had had a little more time to polish things up and focus the theme a bit more, but I wanted to share what I said here on the blog, in honor of the Rosh Hashana holiday. As part of Rosh Hashana, we put aside the day-to-day for a bit and reflect on how we can be better people and how we can improve ourselves in numerous ways, including morally and spiritually. To that end, I thought it appropriate to do the same on the blog. So, in lieu of movie or TV reviews, here are the Rosh Hashana thoughts I shared for the assembled group yesterday, edited slightly for the format:


When we look around us – in our communities, in our country, around the world – there’s a sense lately that we’re in this strange state of limbo, a frustrating feeling that because of clashing ideologies, politics, and unbreakable deadlock, we’ve somehow gotten to the point where the sizable problems we face cannot be fixed. But here on Rosh Hashana, we are reminded that there is always an opportunity for a fresh start and a new beginning.

Many people would argue that religion and pragmatism don’t mix, but those people must not be familiar with the Jewish high holidays. Rosh Hashana is a time for personal reflection, but there is also a real sense of urgency. We have to better ourselves, right our wrongs, atone for our sins, actively work to make each year better than the last. To be inscribed in the proverbial Book of Life, we can’t just sit around and mope. We can’t even merely confess our sins. We have to actually plant the seeds for positive change.

We all want to improve ourselves, but I think that Rosh Hashana can also be a call to action to make an impact in the world around us. And I think that now, in particular, we as a generation have a chance to step up and to be a force for good. We can voice our opinions. We can be active participants in political and cultural discussions. We can be positive forces in our communities. Rosh Hashana is about renewal and change, so why not get to work? Here are some things that we can do, right now:

We can vote. In the next year there will be important political primaries. Isn’t it about time that the millennial generation was the key voting bloc in a major election?

We can spread our values. We can use social media and other digital avenues to talk, debate, be active in the cultural discussion. We all love to use Facebook or Twitter for our mundane observations, but why not shake things up a little bit? Create some controversy, get a debate going, comment on more than last night’s episode of New Girl. (and trust me, I am the worst offender here).

We can be smart. We can follow the news, keep up on the issues, and understand what’s going on in the world. We can be spiritual, we can be philosophical - but that should never come at the expense of facts, of science, of the truth.

We can unplug. I really think our generation is beginning to recognize that, as much as we love technology, we’re headed towards a level of saturation that is mentally and spiritually damaging. This is where we can learn from Jewish tradition. We have Shabbat to unwind and unplug, Rosh Hashana to reflect. So let’s occasionally talk instead of text. Let’s put down the blackberry or iPhone and pick up a book. As hard as we may work, let’s not be single-minded about it – let’s remember the importance of art, music, relaxation, and yes, sleep!

We can have a sense of humor. Comedy is all about perspective, and it’s that same sense of perspective that allows for compromise and for progress. Comedy reminds us of the absurdity of getting too caught up in things that are ultimately trivial.

We can be tolerant of others of all different backgrounds and beliefs. Really, the one thing that we should not tolerate is intolerance. With each generation we should be more open-minded, so let’s be sure to leave behind those who would rather move backwards and not forwards.

We can redefine what religious communities are and what role they play. I think many of us here love Judaism and its teachings and traditions, and want to see it survive and thrive. But we may also want something different out of Judaism than what we grew up with. And I think that’s why we can help to shape something that’s a mix of the traditional and the new – new types of specialized Jewish communities designed specifically to meet the needs of our generation. We can help to mold that new community and collectively decide what we want from it, and we can and should get involved and active.

These are just some of the things we can do - relatively easy things that might just chip away at the status quo and help to foster positive change. In a way, it’s daunting. There’s a part of me that would be plenty happy and comfortable living in a bubble of my own making. But there’s another part of me that wants to continually improve myself, and yes, there’s a part of me that wants to change the world. And I suspect that most of you are the same. So let’s use the occasion of Rosh Hashana to be ambitious, to think big, and figure out how we’re going to change the world for the better.

Thanks, and shana tovah!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

September ROCKS: Hard-Rockin' With HEART, DEF LEPPARD, and CHEAP TRICK!

It's been a pretty crazy month. This week alone, I turned 29, celebrated Rosh Hashana, and made it through another insane week at work. But I wanted to take a little time and look back at some of the reasons why this past September rocked. Literally. So indulge me for a minute as I recap two epic concerts that I was fortunate enough to attend over the last few weeks.

DEF LEPPARD and HEART at the Gibson Ampitheater:

- I saw Def Leppard a few years back, at an insane classic rock triple-bill with Foreigner and Styxx. But the prospect of a Def Leppard / Heart one-two punch just seemed too awesome to pass up, and so I snagged some last-minute tickets to the show, which took place at the beginning of September. It was one of those shows that clearly attracted all ages - you had your middle-aged 80's-rock groupies out to recapture their youthful years of rock n' roll craziness. You had your twenty-something metal-heads who at some point declared that yes, they loved the 80's (I certainly d0). You even had a multi-generational thing going on, with parents bringing their kids to experience a taste of what rock n' roll was and is all about. LA may not always have the wildest or craziest concert crowds, but at this concert, I definitely felt like I was living in a city built on rock n' roll.

The concert was opened by HEART, and the original rock divas were true show-stealers. Anyone who thought of them as a gimmick band or as stock 80's rock clearly had another thing coming. These women rocked and rocked *hard*. Truly, I was blown away. The Wilson sisters were absolutely in top form, and reminded the crowd why they are true icons of rock. Singer Anne Wilson's vocal talents are still ultra-formidable, and her piercing, powerful voice rocked the Gibson arena over and over again. And man, Nancy Wilson is just, flat-out, one badass chick. She wears the bands Led Zepellin influence on her sleeve, shredding on the guitar while, at the same time, channeling some sort of inner rocker zen, as if she is one with the very gods of rock n' roll - the same divine entities that powered the likes of Janis Joplin, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and Stevie Nicks. Still looking lean, mean, and positively cougar-ish, Nancy tore the house down all night long.

Speaking of Heart's Zepellin roots, the band opened up with a blistering cover of Zep's "Rock n' Roll" that got the crowd on their feet. Later in the night, they got magical and mystical with a trip to Middle Earth, via a transcendental cover of "The Battle of Evermore." In between, Heart played one classic hit after another. The driving rocker "Magic Man," the soaring power ballad (and my personal favorite) "What About Love?", classic rocker "Crazy On You," and finally, their iconic anthem "Barracuda." Also in the mix was the more soulful, ethereal tune "These Dreams," and the newly-popular "Alone" - which had the crowd singing along. There was also "WTF," a cut off of Heart's most recent album, which propelled them back into the Billboard Top 10 and resestablished them as a top-selling rock act. The final song of the night was an absolutely thundering, epic endition of The Who's "Love, Reign O'er Me," that ended the set on a true high note.

Again, I really was blown away by the power of Ann Wilson's incredible voice and Nancy's guitar prowess. These gals still have it, and they are legit - talented as hell and badass to the bone. It was a real treat to see HEART kick ass and play at the top of their game, and I think that on that night in September, they quite simply stole the show.

Now, DEF LEPPARD had a tough act to follow, but comparing them to Heart was a bit of an apples and oranges scenario. While Heart has a couple of full-on 80's-style rockers, they really owe more to the 70's-era stylings of Led Zepellin and Fleetwood Mac. But DEF LEPPARD is just straight-up, no-apologies 80's pop-metal arena rock. And though some may knock them for it, to me, they are the best in the business at that particular style. Each of their songs is designed simply to get a crowd on their feet, fists in the air, lighters (or here in 2011, iPhones) a-wavin'. And though the band may be a step slower, and singer Joe Elliott's voice a tad raspier than in their 80's heyday, the band still knows how to work a crowd like few others, and they have the catalog of classic rock anthems to do it.

The band very quickly dove headfirst into the vault of iconic Def Leppard rockers. After kicking things off with the slightly more obscure "Undefeated," it was mostly just the hits from that point on. In succession, we got "Let's Get Rocked," "Animal," "Foolin'," and "Love Bites." All classics tailor made for three things: driving down the street with the window down on a summer day, singing along with friends in a crowded bar, or sharing with thousands of others in a jam-packed arena. Later, the hits kept coming in the form of "Two Steps Behind" and "Bringin' On the Heartbreak." Eventually, the band wrapped up with a crowd-pleasing sequence of "Hysteria," "Armageddon It," "Photograph (my personal fave)", and of course, everyone's favorite, "Pour Some Sugar On Me." Finally, the band closed things out with an epic encore of "Rock of Ages." There were no big surprises, but for me, Def Leppard is still an awesome band to see in concert with a huge crowd - and you could tell that the band was genuinely appreciative of all the fans who came out to support them, a full 30 years since they first hit the scene.

One thing was for sure - on this night, rock n' roll was alive and well.

CHEAP TRICK at the Greek Theater:

- Now ... this one was a surprise. A while back, I was actually supposed to have seen Cheap Trick open for Aerosmith, but we ended up getting to that concert late and missing Cheap Trick altogether. As fate would have it though, a couple of years later, I finally got to see Cheap Trick up close and personal and at a special performance as part of their Dream Police tour. It all worked out for the best: not only am I a bigger fan of the band now than I was then, but after seeing this show, I realized that, clearly, Cheap Trick is worthy of seeing in their own show - they are truly too awesome of a band to be anyone's opening act.

Now, this was actually my first time at LA's fabled Greek Theater. But, my friends and I, through a lucky twist of fate, managed to score free tickets - and not just any free tickets, but VIP box seats that put us front and center at one of the most famous music venues in the world. And this couldn't have happened for a better concert. Because Cheap Trick is one of those bands that - as good as they are in the studio - they're really and truly a band that needs to be seen live. For one thing, they just bring an amazing energy and showmanship to the table. For another, their songs are surprisingly intricate, complex, and just plain impressive when seen performed live. The band is known as a pioneer of the power-pop style, but their songs mix classic-rock power and crunch with new-wave experimentalism and unpredictablity. On top of all that, this show was part of the Dream Police tour - a celebration of the band's Dream Police album that, back i nthe day, helped transition their style from more simple classic rock to more complex, full, and even symphonic rock. To celebrate the album, the band is now touring with a full orchestra and choir, lending the entire show an added air of epic grandeur and overall "bigness." Suffice it to say, from a visual standpoint alone, the effect was jaw-dropping, with the band's flamboyant rock act backed by dozens of supporting musicians, perched high up on an elevated, two-tier stage. Both tiers were equipped with giant video screens, projecting all sorts of thematically-linked pieces that tied into each song. We got dazzling displays of color and light, archival footage of the band, a montage of all of the band's music or mentions in movies and TV shows, and even a specially-commisioned video graphic novel inspired by one of the songs. Awesome.

As for the songs themselves - it was a true pleasure to see Cheap Trick roll through a mix of big hits and lesser known rarities. I genuinely came away from the show with a handful of new favorites from their catalogue. At the same time, it was amazing to hear blazing renditions of all-time favorites like "Dream Police," "I Want You To Want Me," and of course, "Surrender." Even the cheesy-yet-hopelessly-catchy "The Flame" was a hell of a lot of fun to see live. But like I said, there were plenty of great surprises during the show. I wasn't familiar with the grinding, ultra-badass rocker "Gonna Raise Hell" before the show, but my friends and I were all totally enamored with the song - an instant new-favorite. "I Know What I Want" was another great one that really kicked ass.

Really though, it was cool to just sit back at the Greek and watch the band in action. Singer Robyn Zander, well, he's still got it. The guy is a legend, and seeing him rock out onstage with his trademark police uniform was great - we were watching an icon in action. And again, for a guy who's got to be getting up there in years, his voice is in pretty remarkable shape. Same goes for guitarist Rick Nielsen, who's just a true master. The guy absolutely shreds, and powers through power chords like nobody's business. He had some great energy, even if he seemed a little winded by the end of the show. But the guy just has a great presence and rapport with the audience. He seems like he's having a blast up on stage. And bassist Tom Petterson is a machine - ripping through songs on the setlist with the utmost levels of badassery. Also cool: the fact that Rick Nielsen's son Daxx was subbing in on drums for this tour. Daxx just seemed to be in seventh heaven playing along with his legendary dad, and he brought an added jolt of youthful, head-banging energy to the precedings.

All in all, I came away from the concert feeling like I had just witnessed true legends in action, and these were not just fossils, but guys who could still rock and rock hard and show up most bands half their age. I came away with a much greater appreciation for how deep and diverse the Cheap Trick catalog is as well. Definitely a show to be remembered, and a great way to bring the month of September to a close.

Just another reminder that even as you get older, you're never too old to rock n' roll.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Is MONEYBALL a Home Run?


- Moneyball was co-written by Aaron Sorkin, and like last year's Social Network, it seeks to dramatize the beginnings of a thought-revolution, and create something semi-epic out of a relatively small-scale story. I would say that Moneyball partly accomplishes its goals. It's got some fantastic acting from Bradd Pitt, Jonah Hill, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. And it's got moments in the script that are full of wit, humor, and intelligence. In many ways, it succeeds in making you think about the role of stats in baseball, in other sports, and in the grander scheme of things. Can success be broken down into a simple stat line?

Moneyball tells the true-life tale of Billy Beane (Bradd Pitt) and the 2002 Oakland A's team of which he was the GM. Through flashbacks, we see some of Billy's backstory - how he was a promising talent recruited to the majors straight out of high school, how he passed up a chance to go to Stanford to play for the Mets, and how he eventually became a rather high-profile big-league bust - eventually transitioning from player to scout. The flashbacks help to set up Billy as a guy contantly trying to atone for the mistakes of his past, to somehow redeem his failed career as a player from his front-office position with the A's. Of course, just as Billy and the A's endure a strong but ultimately disappointing season, they end up losing two key star players to other teams. With a depleted roster and a miniscule budget compared to giants like the Yankees, Billy has to figure out how to keep his team - and their chances at a winning season - from totally disintingrating. Frustrated by the futile-seeming suggestions of his old-timer colleagues at the A's, a lightbulb goes off in Billy's head when he meets a young prodigy by the name of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). Fresh out of Yale, Peter is a numbers whiz who maintains that with the right combination of under-the-radar but stat-friendly players on the roster, the A's could defy conventional wisdom and stay competitive. And so Billy and Peter recruit all manner of outcasts, also-rans, and aging vets to the A's, hoping that the combined power of their collective statistical games equals an unbeatable equation for success.

Pitt does a great job as Billy Beane, and he tones down his movie-star cool to portray a guy who's world-weary, beaten down, and a little bit desperate. Similarly, Hill is in fine form as Peter - he's very believable as a fresh-faced math genius and baseball nerd, and his rapport with Pitt is also very good. They have a great chemistry and an amusingly realistic boss/employee relationship. Same goes for Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the A's beleaguered manager. He doesn't have any "big" scenes in the film, but he does a great job of showing his just-barely-contained, slowly-simmering rage at his GM's increasingly unorthodox tactics. I was also very impressed with Chris Pratt of Parks and Recreation fame, as fill-in first-baseman Scott Hatteberg. Pratt is amiable and goofy, without being over the top, as Hatteberg, and shows signs that he can pull off more realistic drama, in addition to his usual comedic prowess.

Where Moneyball falters is in the pacing and in the overall intensity-level of the film. Whereas The Social Network pulsated with an almost apocalyptic urgency, Moneyball just never feels like that big or that important of the movie. The history presented here is so recent that it's easy to see that, yes, in some ways Beane and Brand had a sizable effect on baseball, but overall, the game itself is not inherently all that different today than in 2002. It's the inherent danger of making a movie like this based on a fascinating but pretty small-scale true-life story: what happened in real life doesn't always lend itself to the most dramatic possible story. Without spoiling anything for the unitiated, the story of the 2002 A's has some interesting twists and turns, but ultimately, it's only an okay story, lacking a resolution with much punch. Similarly, while the movie attempts to flesh out Beane's backstory and character, it feels like too little. We get some interesting scenes with Beane and his daughter, and with his ex-wife and her new husband, but these scenes weren't quite as revealing or as substantial as I would have liked. As for other characters, like Brand, we really get little to no background on them, so they become a bit hard to latch onto. Overall, the story just feels a little bland and emotionless.

Honestly, I think what Moneyball most lacked was a director with the kind of mad-genius vision of a David Fincher. Director Bennett Miller does a nice job of framing the film with some really gorgeous-looking shots of Oakland, Boston, and other locales. But the overall pacing and style of the movie is just too laborous and plodding. This is a movie about the power of stats and numbers, and so I wanted to be dazzled with stats and numbers. I'm not a hardcore baseball fan, but I think it would have been cool and interesting to really dive into why the numbers were in the A's favor in 2002. What, exactly, changed - for example - between their season-opening losing streak and their improbable 20-game win streak that followed. We see the broad strokes of it, but I wanted the movie to dazzle me with mathemagic (yes, I just said mathemagic). A guy like Fincher might have been able to yank every globule of awe and wonder and tension out of a story like this, but Miller seems to think he's making Field of Dreams, when this just isn't that sort of story. In fact, knowing that teams like the Yankees *still* enjoy a huge and completely lopsided advantage over smaller market MLB teams lends the film an air of somber futility that conflicts with its central underdogs-triumphant message.

That said, Moneyball is still a fun, interesting, witty movie that works on a number of levels. I thought it was very good, but I also think that Oscar talks around it are overstating the film's overall effectiveness. Bradd Pitt had a better individual performance in this summer's Tree of Life. Warrior was the better underdog sports movie of this Fall. But Moneyball is an easily-digested bit of sports-trivia fun - a well-executed, well-acted movie that is certainly worth a look, but not quite a home run.

My Grade: B+

Is WARRIOR a World-Class Fight Film?


- We've seen an abundance of underdog fight movies over the last few years, and admittedly it can be hard to get excited about yet *another* entry in the already-crowded genre. But, there's no denying that boxing lends itself to high drama, and that many a great movie has been mined from the intense, drama-filled, and high stakes world of championship fighting. Now, along comes Warrior, and the first thing that it does is that it modernizes the concept a bit by ditching old-school boxing for the currently-hot world of MMA (mixed martial arts) fighting, which for several years now has eclipsed boxing in terms of popularity and cultural relevance. Now, I am not a huge MMA fan, though I occasionally follow it, but I get the impression that MMA is viewed both by its fans and by the public as grittier, more brutal, and less regal than traditional boxing. The biggest star in MMA seems to be the promotions themselves, like UFC, and the personalities like Dana White who run them. I don't know that MMA has yet had a fighter who truly transcends the sport like others have done in boxing or even professional wrestling. And so I have to admit, when I first heard of an MMA-centric movie like Warrior, I imagined less of a Rocky-style drama and more of a Bloodsport-style violence-fest. Something a little less AMC and a little more Spike TV.

But here is where WARRIOR defies expectation and probably where the marketing went a bit wrong -- Warrior is indeed a Rocky-style melodrama. Not only is it in the style of Rocky, but it generously apes that franchise in terms of plot points and character types. But Warrior goes a step further. It literally throws every fight-movie cliche, and the kitchen sink too, and creates a sort of ultimate hybrid of Rocky, The Fighter, The Wrestler, and countless other greats of the genre. But wait ... don't dismiss the movie yet. Because somehow, through sheer force of will and persistance, Warrior makes it all work. Even as you begin to roll your eyes at the over-the-top melodrama, you'll find yourself caught up in the movie's go-for-broke exuberance. This one defies the odds, and lo and behold - it's a damn good movie.

Aside from being perhaps the first major movie about professional MMA, the other big twist in Warrior is that it's not merely about one underdog fighter, but two. Hey, you can't fault the movie for lacking ambition. Because man, it really shoots for epicness. Warrior introduces us to two men, and not just any two men, but two *brothers* - brothers who each, for their own reasons, are considering entering a major MMA tournament called Sparta, despite each having a number of factors working against them and limiting their chances of success.

The first brother is Brendan, played by Joel Edgerton in what is most definitely a break-out role. Brendan is a guy who had dabbled in MMA when he was younger, and who appeared in UFC, but who was more of a midcarder even in his prime. Now, he's been retired for five years and has taken a job as a high school teacher. But finances are tight, and Brendan's taken side jobs doing small-time fights for extra cash. When some of his students discover that he's still a part-time brawler, Brendan gets suspended from his teaching job and becomes desperate for cash. He's got a loving but frustrated wife (Jennifer Morrison) and a young daughter with a history of medical problems, and more and more it's looking like a full-time return to the octagon is his one hope for a big payday. The trick will be working his way back up through the ranks and gaining a spot in the elite Sparta tournament.

The second brother is Tommy, embodied with psycho-stoicism by Tom Hardy. Tommy was a high-school wrestling champ, but never fought professionally. Instead, he joined the military and, eventually, went AWOL, abandoning his troop in Iraq and changing his name to avoid prosecution. Tommy is a brute, and a hell of a brawler. He's also sworn to provide for the widow and son of his fallen army friend, and therein lies his motivation to enter Sparta.

The connective tissue between Brendan and Tommy is their father, Paddy (Nick Nolte). Paddy was a fighter himself, and trained both of his boys to fight from a young age. But he was also a drunk and an abusive dad. When his kids were teenagers, Paddy's wife and his boys' mother left him, and Tommy went with her and became completely estranged from his father and brother. Brendan, reluctantly, stayed behind. He hated his father, but was in love with his high school sweetheart (and future wife) and didn't want to leave her. Thus formed a family rift that kept brother, brother, and father at odds for years. Only now, with both brothers entering Sparta - and Tommy coming back home to recruit his hated father to train him - does the family finally come together.

It's a hell of a story, crafted for maximum melodrama, and designed from the start to manipulate our emotions. It might not have worked, except that - whoah boy - Edgerton, Hardy, and Nolte turn in career-best performances that completely elevate the film beyond what it might have been otherwise. Edgerton is fantastic - he's the level-headed teacher desperate for cash, the guy who was never considered great but just might have been underrated. Edgerton plays off of Morrison, off Nolte, off Hardy extremely well. This to me was a star-making turn for an actor I wasn't that familiar with, but who I now can't wait to see more of. And Hardy - wow - he turns in a monstrously great performance in this one that is just hard-hitting, scary, and intense as all hell. He plays Tommy as unstable, violent, and unshakeably badass. After this performance, there's no question that he's the right guy to mix it up with Batman in the sequel to The Dark Knight. This guy is just scary-good. Meanwhile, this is just a classic performance from Nick Nolte, and it's one that I think should warrant legitimate Oscar-buzz. We've all seen this type of role before - the volatile mentor, the washed-up trainer, the drunk father trying to make amends for his abusive past. But man, Nolte brings something extra to it here. And yes, there is an added poignancy in seeing a man who's had his share of problems bring some of those real-life struggles to the screen. Nolte is phenomenal in the film, a scene-stealer. And this feels like a reminder of what he's been, and an exclamation point on a career. There are some nice supporting turns as well - Morrison as Brendan's concerned wife, Frank Grillo as his old friend and trainer ... wrestling superstar Kurt Angle even shows up as a jacked-up Russian grappler (which is sort of weird, to be honest - the All-American gold-medalist as a sinister Russian? Um, what?). Again though ... a lot of the characters in this film *could* have been one-note and cliche, but the acting on display here, particularly from the three leads, is just off-the-chain awesome.

I found Warrior a lot of fun, and it's just a great audience movie. People were clapping during the climactic fight scenes, and the overall emotion and intensity of the movie were really ratcheted up to eleven during key moments. If anything, I think the movie almost packs in too much into its running time. Somehow, the novelty of two estranged brothers competing for the world title isn't enough - we get enough supplemental subplots to fill five other movies, from Jennifer Morrison's arc (predictably going from unsupportive to her husband's biggest cheerleader), to the school principal who suspended Brendan slowly coming around to support his new star teacher. The movie just barely manages to glue everything into a cohesive whole, but I do think some things end up getting skipped or glossed over. One of the biggest holes in the film, to me, was the overall lack of explanation of how Brendan and Tommy were able to come from nowhere and each do so well in the Sparta tournament. Movies like Rocky Balboa and the recent TV series Lights Out did a nice job of explaining some of the technique that allowed their underdog characters to perform so well in the ring. I wish Warrior had gone a little more in-depth in that regard. Tommy at least comes off as an unstoppable brawler, but Brandan's winning streak is a bit more puzzling and random-seeming, especially given his age and lack of previous success in UFC. The movie barely delves into the various clashing styles and techniques that make MMA unique, which left me a little frustrated - as I was hoping for more explanation of Tommy and Brendan's improbable success. I also felt that, again, the movie just felt rushed in some key moments. The revelation to the public and MMA community that Tommy and Brendan were, in fact, brothers - that should have been huge. But the reveal felt underplayed, undercooked - nowhere near as dramatic as it should have been, as the movie seemed rushing by that point to get to the big finish. Similarly, I actually thought the film ended too quickly. I would have liked some additional closure with regards to Tommy, Brendan, and their fractured relationship with their father.

Overall though, Warrior was a superbly entertaining film that most definitely had a big-fight level of drama, intensity, and emotion. With three outstanding performances at its center, thrilling fights, and involving family drama, WARRIOR is certifiable championship material, and up there with the best fight films of the last few years.

My Grade: A-

Danny Digs DRIVE - One of the Year's Best Films!

DRIVE Review:

- It's rare that a film combines the over-the-top badassery of the best B-movies with the sense of artistry inherent in many Oscar-worthy dramas. But DRIVE is that movie and more. It's violent, pulpy, noir-ish, and sometimes downright strange ... but it's also so beautifully directed, grippingly acted, and pulsing with hard-boiled intensity that it transcends genre and just becomes a great film, period. DRIVE is simply awesome, and I have no doubt that it will rank among my own personal best films of 2011. The question is whether the critical establishment will be able to recognize the movie for the tour de force that it is, and whether audiences will find it over time and embrace it as a sure-to-be (cult?) classic in the making.

From the opening minutes, DRIVE simply bleeds cool. Director Nicolas Winding Refn does a masterful job of setting up a mood of neo-noir foreboding, an atmosphere that is simultaneously 70's / 80's throwback and something totally postmodern and new. The pace of the film is slow, deliberate, haunting, and methodical. But at times, it simply explodes in violent outbursts, releasing all of the tension that's been built up to that point. The pacing, the mood, the absolutely awesome 80's-style synth soundtrack ... it all adds up to one of the most atmospheric and immersive movies in years. Trust me, after seeing this film you will want to own the soundtrack and play it in your car while driving around at night, just to recapture some of that feeling of cool that DRIVE positively exudes from every frame.

The story of Drive is simple, basic, but effective. As I said, it's very noirish - in the sense that it feels like we're watching characters being moved across a chessboard by the hand of fate. But the details of the plot are less important than the iconography at play here. The characters are all archtypes, and the mystery about them - particularly around our main character - adds to their larger-than-life mystique. The movie follows the unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling) as he navigates the shadowy streets of Los Angeles. He is a mechanic and a movie stuntman by day. By night he is a driver-for-hire, picking up criminals and other shady characters, facilitating their escapes from crime scenes and from the law, and carrying out his assigned task with silent, ruthless efficiency. The Driver is a lone wolf - little to no emotional connections. When he does his jobs, he doesn't talk, he doesn't want to know the details of what he's involving himself in. Slowly though, the Driver begins to open himself up a bit when he befriends his neighbor, a woman named Irene (Carrie Mulligan). He allows himself, for a moment, to get mixed up in her personal life, and suddenly his world gets turned on its head. The Driver lands on the radar of two feuding criminal heavies (Ron Pearlman and Albert Brooks), and soon finds himself in a battle for his life and for the lives of the few people he has come to care for.

Up until now, I was a fan of Ryan Gosling, but I had yet to see him in a part that really blew me away. Part of it may have simply been that some of his most acclaimed roles to date were in movies that just weren't quite my cup of tea. But here, in DRIVE, Gosling has his most memorable, iconic role to date. In some ways, he's a throwback to the types of stoic action heroes played by the likes of Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood. But there's also something off about The Driver, something unstable and unbalanced. Part of that likely comes from the offbeat, arthouse sensibilities of Nicolas Winding Refn - he crafts scenes that walk the line between darkly comic and flat-out weird. And he makes The Driver quirky to the point where some have speculated if he was legitimately supposed to have some sort of disorder. To me, I saw The Driver as a stand-in for the archtypal Hollywood star, maybe even for Hollywood itself. A cool and flashy exterior hiding a dark and disturbing underside. In that sense, there's an almost Lynchian darkness and surrealist poetry to DRIVE. You get the sense that while certain scenes feel off, almost abstract, there's a lot of meaning and metaphor bubbling just beneath the surface.

The supporting cast of DRIVE is fantastic. A lot of people are talking about Albert Brooks in an against-type role as Bernie, a tough-as-nails crime boss. And they are right to praise the performance - Brooks is menacing, unpredictable, and downright scary as Bernie. He's one of the best on-screen villains I've seen in quite some time. Similarly great is Ron Pearlman as Nino, another of the film's nasty criminal antagonists. Pearlman has often played gruff-yet-lovable types, but not here. Here he's funny and charming on occasion, sure, but he's also downright mean. As if that wasn't enough of a one-two punch of awesome, Bryan Cranston is also in the film in a key supporting role as Shannon, one of the few friends of The Driver - a mentor of sorts who also sets him up on key jobs. Cranston plays a much more blue-collar type than we're used to from him, but it's a testament to his greatness that he seems to slip right in to the role. He's so good as Walter White on Breaking Bad that, these days, it's hard to see him as anyone else. but somehow, he effortlessly creates a much different sort of character in Drive. Christina Hendricks also pops up as a low-level criminal. It's a small-ish role, but a key one, and Hendricks does a nice job with it. And man, the fate her character suffers makes for one mind-blowingly memorable scene. Finally, Carrie Mulligan does a great job. Like Gosling, she has to convey a lot without a lot of dialogue. But her expressive performance allows us to easily read between the lines and get a sense of her inner self. And again, the direction is so good at creating emotion, tension, and chemistry that the minimalist dialogue style 100% works.

The performances all help to give life to this neon-lit, ultra-cinematic world that Nicolas Winding Refn has created. Many movies take place in Los Angeles, but in most the setting just feels like a matter of convenience. But DRIVE harkens back to great film noir and neo-noir films - from Sunset Boulevard to Chinatown to Blade Runner to Mulholland Drive - in that Los Angeles itself is a vital character within the movie, and clearly, the movie has a lot to say about the city and the people who call it home.

DRIVE is one of those movies that seeps into your brain and doesn't let go. The visuals, the music, the "feeling" of this movie will stick with me for a long time. You'll want the soundtrack, the eventual blu-ray, and the awesome scorpion-emblazoned jacket that The Driver wears throughout the film. Suffice it to say, go out and see it now if you haven't already - this is one of the year's best and most badass films.

My Grade: A

Monday, September 12, 2011



- I am always on the lookout for interesting new films that fall outside of the mainstream. Here in LA, we re lucky in that regard. There are several fantastic theaters that play all manner of new independent films. In fact, on a given week there are so many interesting indie flicks out there that it's often hard to keep track, to weed out the legitimately great films from the clutter. When it comes to indie flicks, foreign films, etc., I usually try to pay attention to anything that's getting major critical or fan buzz. Still, every so often I stumble on something out of the blue, something that grabs me. Sometimes, a movie that I'd barely heard of just leaps out and demands to be seen. And that is what happened with DETECTIVE DEE. I was flipping through the pages of LA Weekly, pre-Labor Day weekend, and saw a glorious full-page ad for the film that just screamed "kick-ass." The title alone - "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame." I mean, come on - now *that's* a flipping movie title right there. I went online to check out some reviews. I didn't want to spoil too much, but I saw many superlatives being bandied about, and my resolve to see the film was now firm. So my brother and I hit up LA's Landmark theater to see Detective Dee, and apparently, a number of others had been similarly intrigued by the movie's mysterious yet tantalizing marketing. The theater was nearly full as the movie began. And what we saw ... well, it was mind-boggling, eye-popping, and downright strange. But it was wonderfully weird - a circus of Hong-Kong cinema that was historical epic, supernatural fantasy, mystery, and wire-fu martial arts extravaganza all in one. My god.

DETECTIVE DEE is based on a true story from China's past, but it takes history and gives it an over-the-top, fantastical twist. The story takes place way back in 690 AD, when China's first female ruler, Empress Wu Zetian, is about to be annointed. But there is trouble a-brewin' as preparations are put in place for the ceremony. A series of the Empress' loyal subjects appear to spontaneously combust, and theories abound about what happened. Some think there is a plot afoot to ruin the Empress' reign. Others think that the construction of a giant statue on the ceremony grounds is blasphemous and has angered the gods. Others think that food or water consumed by the victims may have been poisoned. So, we have ourselves a mystery, and to solve it, the Empress recruits the one man capable of getting to the bottom of this perplexing puzzle - Detective Dee. Problem is, Dee was a loyalist to the old regime who's been in prison for years. But, Dee is reluctantly recruited, and paired with a team of some of the Empress' most trusted protectors, to figure out the truth behind the mysterious deaths.

The film starts out in more of a straightforward historical epic mode. With sweeping shots of the under-construction ceremonial grounds and the initial setup of the mystery, the movie plays it relatively straight for its first act. Very quickly though, we meet a number of possible suspects, and learn of all sorts of potential motives that various people and factions may have for disrupting the Empress' grand ceremony.

But man, by the halfway point of the movie, things just turn bat$#&% crazy. We get an indicaiton of the craziness to come early on, when the Empress is greeted by a sacred deer -- who talks. But soon enough, Detective Dee's investigation takes him to the Underworld, and he's fighting demons and shape-shifters. And suddenly, the movie takes on an insane,, surrealist bent. Not only does the action shift to crazy wire-fu stuff like you've probably seen in movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - but the overall tone of the movie just shifts to full-on psycho. Things start to not quite make sense, characters come and go ... but at some point you just sit back and go with it - which isn't hard, as by mid-movie you're undergoing total sensory assault.

What is consistent throughout the film though is the consistent quality and charisma of the actors. Andy Lau - a notable HK actor who's starred in such films as Infernal Affairs and House of Flying Daggers, plays Dee is like some crazed Honk Kong Sherlock Holmes - part detective, part ladies man, and part kung-fu ass-kicker extraordinaire. Carina Lau, meanwhile, plays the Empress, and is suitably regal and aloof, though she doesn't get a ton to do - not a part of substance comparable to, say, the great Gong Li in Curse of the Golden Flower. Bingbing Li (what a name ...), however, gets to shine as Jang'r - a female protector and guardian of the Empress who ends up an ally and enemy of Dee (and a potential love interest). Jang'r gets many of the film's most kickass moments - using a variety of crazy weapons to combat her foes. Also quite good is Chao Deng as Pei, a badass albino servant to the Empress who becomes Dee's trusted right-hand-man. Overall, it's a loaded cast of Honk Kong luminaries, and though I'm not super-familiar with some of the names, there are many faces that popped up that looked familiar. And overall, the performances are excellent throughout.

One name that American audiences will know though is Sammo Hung. Hung is not in the film, but he did serve as its action coordinator. Hung's action scenes surprise with their impact and energy. Although there is wire-fu, and though Dee does crazy things like fight a talking deer in mid-air, the action always maintains a somewhat grounded, hard-edged feel. A climactic battle taking place on the wooden skeleton of the in-construction ceremony site is super-epic in size and scope. Overall, the direction by Hark Tsui is pretty damn spectacular, with some gorgeous shots comprised of vivid colors and exotic landscapes.

From what I understand though, Tsui is generally known for quieter, more personal films, and perhaps that's why the overall tone of this movie is so all-over-the-place. The movie veers wildly from slow-paced historical mystery to surrealist martial-arts fantasy. And you're never quite sure to what extent we're supposed to be taking all of this seriously. Sure, Hong Kong films tend to be a bit melodramatic and self-serious, but when Dee has an epic fight with a deer, or when we meet a character known as Donkey Wang (yes, seriously), you're not quite sure what the hell is going on here. Surely, Tsui is doing this with a wink at the audience, right? And yet, despite all of the surrealism and moments of oddball humor, the movie more often than not sticks to melodrama, stubbornly reverting to detective fiction after some balls-out action scene. And by film's end, the characters and plot become something of a jumble (okay, a huge-ass jumble). It's a trip, that's for sure.

I would heartily recommend that any fan of crazy HK cinema check out DETECTIVE DEE if and when they get a chance. It's a frustrating film at times, but it's also absolutely amazing-looking and thoroughly entertaining. Certainly, this is NOT your typical Hollywood epic. No, this is something much weirder, crazier, and most definitely worth giving a look.

My Grade: B+

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years Later: Thoughts From a Post-9/11 World

More than anything -- wow -- it's hard to believe that 2001 was already ten years ago.

As I looked through my blog archives the other day, I re-read what I had written on the fifth anniversary of September 11th, 2001 - in 2006. At that point, there was a real sense that there was little to commemorate and little sense of closure to be had, as we were still very much living in the aftermath of the events of that day. We were all still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Five years later, ten years since 9/11/01, I think in many ways it has. Osama Bin Laden has been killed. Revolutions have occured in the middle east without any direct US military intervention. While the threat of terror attacks still looms large, any number of other issues and potential crises - economic collapse, natural disasters and climate change, cultural upheaval - have to some extent eclipsed that threat in terms of immediacy and urgency.

And yet ... there will never be true closure, because America and many other parts of the world fundamentally lost their innocence ten years ago. As some morbidly fascinated part of me re-watched the news coverage from 9/11 on MSNBC this weekend, I was struck by how the newscasters were simultaneously grasping to frame what had happened in old-world terms, while also quickly coming to realize that this was a very new sort of threat. Tom Brokaw called the attacks a declaration of war. And so many in government - and so many of us - couldn't help but think of what had happened in those terms. In fact, the desire for a good, old-fashioned war was so strong that we somehow ended up in Iraq, under the false pretenses that Saddam Hussein and his regime were instrumental in the 9/11 attacks. But even in the news broadcasts from that day, it was clear that this would not be a war like others before it. There was no specific enemy. We weren't fighting another nation. We were fighting an ideal, a sickness, an evil that had been spreading in various parts of the world for a long, long time. And like any virus, you'll never truly wipe it out. Ridding the world of Bin Laden was a moral victory, but when he was killed, no treaties were signed, no land was redistributed, no truce was agreed upon.

Similarly, as much as we'd like to paint things in black and white, I think 9/11 woke many of us up and showed us that the world is a much more complicated place than we'd been taught. When you learn history as a kid, when you study the great wars, it's all spoken of in generalities. Germany, Japan - the Axis Powers. This country vs. that country. And too often, people still think in that way. But more than ever, there is no umbrella that allows you to just lump all people in a country or region together. The terrorists behind 9/11 had no particular loyalty to any one country or nationality. Sure, the Taliban government harbored them, but ultimately, there are any number of countries in the region that could have been their base of operations. Meanwhile, the recent uprisings in Egypt, Libya, etc. have shown us that there is often a great divide between the ruling regimes of a country and its people. In Iraq, Americans quickly became privy to the fact that this was a country that was completely factionalized. The world is a much more complex place than it was fifty or sixty years ago.

Sometimes, you can't help but feel the same way about America. There was undoubtedly a feeling of unity and solidarity in 2001, but that quickly faded into divisiveness. Five years ago, a lot of my reflections on 9/11 were colored by my discontent with the Bush administration and its policies - by the way in which they so quickly squandered the goodwill towards America post-9/11, by the way they fostered an atmosphere of fear and paranoia and began taking liberties with the truth in the name of politics. I couldn't have quite anticipated then the feeling of hope and new beginnings that would come soon after with the historic election of Barack Obama to the presidency. Finally, in many ways, America could move on.

There have been many moral victories and policy victories since Obama's election, but there's also been a greater ideological divide in our government than ever before. I don't want to make this a political post, but the point I'm getting at is that it's easy to feel, here in 2011, like there is not one distinct America anymore. Not that there ever was ... not for any long period of time, anyway. But for a moment, it did feel that way ten years ago. And when I talk to friends and go online and take stock of the collective voices I hear from my peers, I do feel like, hey, we are all sort of in this together. We've all got basically the same hopes, dreams, and fears. We're all reflective - I mean, our generation is nothing if not nostalgic - and so we're all looking back on where we were ten years ago, and how we heard about the attacks, and remembering those who died or were hurt on that day. And to me, that's a good thing. Because our generation likes to be emotive, and chatter, and spread thoughts and memories over the interwebs to the extent that we have a pretty damn strong collective cultural memory. That's a good thing because it means that no, we won't forget, and yes, we'll know what to do to avoid the same old mistakes of the past.

It's amazing to think about the communications revolution of the last ten years and what that means for a post-9/11 world. It's good and bad. If you're plugged in, it's hard to live in a bubble. It's hard to be exposed to only one ideology or mode of thought. People who rose up in countries like Libya were very much aware, I think, that there was something better than the lives they were living. They knew that the rest of the world was watching them. They knew that their cause was part of something larger going on elsewhere - a movement - that couldn't be stopped. Of course, the flipside is: if you're a crazy person, a conspiracy theorist, a fanatic -- well, now it's easier than ever to find others who share your views and who help to validate your fringe beliefs. Truth - science, logic, fact - can get lost in a neverending stream of information and misinformation. Just look at our own country for proof of this - we have a major political party that now includes among its core beliefs the notions that evolution didn't happen and that climate change is a myth. That to me is what's scary. Because is it really that far of a leap to go from major political candidates who thinks that god talks to them and informs their political actions, to suicide bombers who think that they are acting in the name of allah? I know, there's still a large gap between the two. But one thing that has profoundly affected me in the last ten years is a deep, deep skepticism of religious fundamentalism in all of its forms. I place a high value on spirituality, on community, on morality and ethics. But we've seen religion warped too much in the last ten years, too often invoked in the name of horrible atrocities, to not be skeptical - and perhaps even afraid - of those who believe that their specific views, their specific actions, are somehow divinely justified.

On one hand, part of me wants to say that the attacks of 9/11 were futile. Indeed - they succeeded in needlessly taking lives, needlessly ruining the lives of those who survived and were affected. They succeeded in creating tragedy and misery and ruin. But then what? They didn't ultimately stop us from living in freedom and relative peace. They didn't fundamentally change the balance of power in the world. We're still here in America living our lives. For Al Queda - did the attacks do *anything* to improve *their* lives? Was there any sort of tangible victory for them, other than whatever sadistic pleasure they took in mass murder? That's what's so backwards about the whole thing - they were a group in theory driven by religious fanaticism and ideology, but their attack was more about simply causing anarchy and terror than any sort of tangible gain. For them, it accomplished exactly nothing. On the other hand, I'm also weary of downplaying what happened on 9/11. The attacks could have been even worse - if not for the heroic passengers of United 93, for example. And as much as the War in Iraq was initiated under false pretenses, that doesn't mean that there was no threat of a weapon of mass destruction getting into terrorist hands. And that threat still looms. There are enough crazy people in the world and enough loose nukes that, as much as we like to think we're safe, there is always that fear of catastrophic tragedy. Since 9/11, we always react to the latest potential threat with a very direct response. We take off our shoes at the airport, we pack our liquids and gels. But 9/11 was a wake-up call that terrorism can surprise us, and as much as we prepare, you just never know what could happen.

It's been ten years since September 11th, 2001, and man, it's flown by. I was 18 then, now I'm 28. Since then I studied in London, lived in New York, moved to Los Angeles, and had my feet firmly planted in the dreaded "real world." Sometimes, I worry that our generation is so obsessed with pop-culture and other trivialities (and who am I to talk, I moved to LA to work in the entertainment industry) that we don't have enough drive to change the world and take the reigns from previous generations. But then, I realize that in some ways, pop-culture obsession can simply be thought of as cultural obsession. We're hungry for ideas, for creativity, for something - anything - beyond the mundane. We know the darkness that is out there, but we also know the possibilities. We know that music, art, ideas, discussion, cultural exchange - these are the things that will bring about revolution. But we also know that ideological rigidness and fanaticism will accomplish nothing - pragmatism is the name of the game, and we know that if the rank-and-file fanatics of the world were to use their heads and really say "what do we want, and how can we accomplish it?" - well, we know that terrorism and mass-murder is not the answer they'd logically arrive at.

That's the method of thinking that I want to see more of. Every day, all of us in our own way is a problem-solver. But too often, those in power, or those looking to shake things up, are only problem-causers. The attacks of 9/11? Solved nothing, benefitted no one. That's the extreme example, the ultimate Exhibit A on the futility and pointlessness of terror attacks in the big picture. On a smaller scale, you look at so many of the ongoing problems that are out there. The Israel-Palestine conflict, the deadlock in our own Congress, and you want to shake the idealogues by their collars and say "Do you want to argue for years, for decades? Is this about power or is this about solutions?"

And that's what I'd like to think that 9/11 was, in retrospect - the last great gasp of the old way of thinking. One final lashing out by the vile, venal, and insane among us, desperately trying to interrupt the flow of progress, peace, and change.

But today, even as we try to be hopeful and look ahead, we can't help but look back - even if just for a moment - and remember what happened and those who died.

Monday, September 05, 2011

No Monkey Business: Danny's TOP 10 MOVIES OF SUMMER 2011

It's hard to believe, but - wow - it's already September. It's been a long, hot, hard summer here in LA. Craziness with work, a new apartment, and a lot of late-quarterlife crisis moments that kept me from writing here on the ol' blog as much as I might have liked. But now, as the ... oh, who am I kidding, here in LA, September is pretty much indistinguishable from August, weather-wise. But, at the least, we have the movies to let us know when the seasons are a-changin'. As blockbusters give way to Oscar-bait, as Michael Bay makes room for Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher ... that's when we here in La-La Land truly know that Summer is on its way out and the Fall is here.

So, how was Summer 2011 at the movies? It's funny, because right up until late July / early August, things were looking prett bleak. Sure, there'd been some decent blockbuster films. THOR was a lot of fun and X-MEN FIRST CLASS was surprisingly enjoyable. SUPER 8 was an interesting divergence from the typical blockbuster, and BRIDESMAIDS was another one that, I think, really benefitted from high quality vs. low expectations. But ... where was this year's Inception? This year's District 9? That one mega-blockbuster that rose above the pack, that was both a great blockbuster and a great *movie*, period. Well, we finally got that film, in my opinion, with RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Who would have thought that Apes would end up being *the* blockbuster of the summer, the one big summer movie that was both pulse-pounding *and* thought-provoking. Apes was perhaps the savior of the summer, although it had some competition in sheer fun-factor from CAPTAIN AMERICA. Captain America ditched the attitude and edginess of your typical modern-day superhero film, and just delivered a good, old-fashioned, two-fisted adventure the likes of which you just don't see anymore. I absolutely loved Cap - it's one of my favorite superhero movies to date. And, there was an early-summer animated adventure that was similarly smile-inducing - KUNG-FU PANDA 2. With a fun story and eye-melting animation, this was a worthy sequel that improved on the original and was a total roller-coaster ride. And by the way, I thought most critics were way too harsh on CARS 2. It wasn't in the top tier of Pixar movies, but was a fun and gorgeously-animated film nonetheless.

Also, as often happens in recent years, a little-movie-that-could came out of nowhere and showed-up many of the bigger-budgeted action movies ... and this year, that movie was ATTACK THE BLOCK. Believe it, fanboys - this film is an awesome action/horror/comedy that is funny, imaginative, and just plain badass. I had the privelage to see the film at the San Diego Comic-Con with director Joe Cornish and producer Edgar Wright in attendance - certainly, one of my favorite movie-going experiences of the Summer. Attack the Block stood out in particular in a summer when there were all these big, high-concept movies about aliens and robots and such that just fell flat. Cowboys & Aliens, Transformers 3, Battle Los Angeles (back in April) ... it was awesome to see a movie that brought wit and imagination back to the sci-fi/action genre.

As for the biggest movie of the summer, box-office-wise ... well, I've talked many times here about how I feel about the Harry Potter movies. Truth be told, I really enjoyed The Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 ... but at the same time, I couldn't help but think that - like many of the other entries in the series - it was merely *very good* when it should and could have been *great.*

This Summer, there was a huge glut of R-rated comedies, each trying to be the next Hangover (unless we're talking about The Hangover 2, which tried to be funny, but failed). I saw a pretty good chunk of these comedies - Bad Teacher, Horrible Bosses, The Change-Up - most were decent but not great. Of course, the big surprise hit comedy of the summer was BRIDESMAIDS, and the movie deserved its success. It was a funny, smart movie and yes, it's notable for transferring the typical Judd Apatow style of sweet-meets-vulgar comedy to a script with female leads. This movie and Bad Teacher sparked a lot of pop-cultural conversation this summer, and overall, I thought it was cool that we finally got some movies with strong female leads that were *not* sappy romantic comedies. That also includes COLOMBIANA, which I thought was cool if for no other reason than to see Zoe Saldana emerge as a legit female action star who can carry a movie by her lonesome. But back to comedies for a moment, to me the real sleeper comedy (and future cult classic) of the summer was 30 MINUTES OR LESS. Reviews of the film were very mixed, but I am here to tell you that this movie was absolutely hilarious and brilliantly-written. It's dark, vulgar, and just plain wrong in parts - but if you're down with pitch black comedy then you've got to check this one out.

Finally, the Summer season is one where we always focus on the blockbusters and high-profile comedies, but oftentimes a couple of legit Oscar contenders slip into the mix as well. Two years ago, The Hurt Locker snuck in and won over critics during the crowded summer months. This year, the big Oscar-bait movie that everyone was talking about was Terrance Malick's TREE OF LIFE. I saw and enjoyed the film, and I truly admired its ambition. At the same time, it didn't 100% work for me for a variety of reasons. I did really enjoy Woody Allen's MIDNIGHT IN PARIS - it was one of Allen's best films in quite a while. Still, I am very weary of putting it up there as Oscar-quality. The two prestige films that I DO think belong in that category, however, are BEGINNERS and A BETTER LIFE. Beginners is a thoughtful, contemplative, amazingly-acted movie with some knockout performances. Highly recommended. But, my favorite overall movie of the summer, the one that just floored me, was A BETTER LIFE. A lot of you likely have not seen this one yet, as it unfortunately came out in very limited release, and didn't seem to get enough of a push to really expand. But, I would urge everyone to give this one a watch when it's out on DVD, etc. This story about the plight of an illegal immigrant and his fight to preserve his family is incredibly powerful and, overall, a stunner. I am really hoping that the movie gets a second round of support later this year and gets some Oscar love - it really is that good.

All that said, I still think there are only a handful of summer movies that are going to end up on my year-end Best Of 2o11 list. I'm hoping that some Fall and Winter movies really come out and surprise me, because so far this year has really only yielded a couple of movies that I'd truly call great.

So, here are my TOP 10 MOVIES OF SUMMER 2011:

1. A Better Life

2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes

3. Captain America

4. Attack the Block

5. 30 Minutes Or Less

6. Kung Fu Panda 2

7. Beginners

8. Super 8

9. Bridesmaids

10. Midnight in Paris

Runners Up: Thor, X-Men: First Class, Cars 2, Colombiana, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2, The Tree Of Life

Friday, September 02, 2011

JUSTICE LEAGUE #1 Review - The Dawn of the New DCU and A Turning Point For Comics


- I don't do a lot of comics reviews here on the ol' blog ... but yes my friends, I am a bonafide comic book fanboy. And I've always had a soft spot for DC Comics in particular. My affinity for DC's characters dates back to early, early childhood, when I'd watch syndicated episodes of Superfriends every day after school. But soon enough, I discovered the comics. Circa the early 90's, during one of the industry's biggest boom periods, I (like many of my generation) was hooked via DC's big-event storylines of the time. The Death of Superman. The breaking of Batman's back by the ubwer-villain Bane. The shocking turn of Green Lantern Hal Jordan to the dark side. While comic shops were rare if not nonexistent in my part of Connecticut, I sought out comics wherever I could find them. For a while, during the height of the boom era, there actually was a huge influx of comics stores, but the surge didn't last very long - by the late 90's, many had closed. During this period, new comic shops kept opening up and then shutting down, seemingly in the blink of an eye. The bubble bursting led comics shops to close, and also causing the industry to crash. The speculator boom led many to believe they could get rich off of comics, and the publishers were happy to feed the collectible market with a nonstop barrage of big events, multiple printings, and all manner of foil-embossed, gatefolded, hologram covers ... the shinier the better. It was a collectors market at that time, not necessarilly a readers market. Hyped-up comics like X-Men #1 sold over a million copies - but only a fraction of purchasers actually *read* the thing. There were lots of comics with flashy art but paper-thin stories. Traditional superhero comics got edgier, flashier - characters died, turned evil, were replaced. Longtime readers were put off, but if you were like me - a kid at the time - it was all sort of awesome. I was eleven years old - I didn't care about the boom or the speculator market. I liked all the shiny foil covers, sure (my copy of Robin #1 was like a piece of valuable treasure - and Batman #500, with the fold-out cover - oh baby) ... but mostly, I loved the stories. The superhero soap operas. The anything-can-happen feel. The sense that all these adventures were taking place in this big, shared universe that I was only just discovering, that I had still only just scratched the surface of.

When I was a kid ... through my teens, and even into college ... my comics fandom was something I pretty much kept to myself. On the rare occasion I met someone else who was into comics, it was like meeting someone who was part of some secret brotherhood. It was this feeling of "oh my god, there are others out there." When I was a college student in Boston, that's when I think the tide began to turn, when comics quietly started to become, dare I say it ... cool.

I partly started to realize this when I first ventured into Newbury Comics in Boston. Newbury Comics is a record store chain in and around Beantown that sells comics alongside CD's, DVD's, T-shirts, toys, posters, and all sorts of other pop-culture stuff. But the stores - especially back then, before they expanded into malls and such - had this too-cool-for-school vibe. You felt badass and rock n' roll just walking into a Newbury Comics. And it was through Newbury that I realized that - wait a sec - comics had become (or had they always been?) rock n' roll. They were counterculture. They were cutting edge. It helped that the early 00's saw an influx of great new writers doing experimental, boundary-pushing work. Suddenly, all the hipster types (and me) were picking up edgy books like Planetary, Preacher, 100 Bullets, and Y: The Last Man. Even mainstream superhero books were getting a kick in the pants thanks to writers like Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, and Jeph Loeb. I was too young to read all the great, literary comics of the mid-80's as they were released, but there was definitely a renaissance in the early 00's. It felt like comics had grown up with me. The comics of the 90's were perfect for twelve year olds. Now, comics had matured as had we. But, there was another factor in comics gaining more and more street-cred and mainstream acceptance: Hollywood. It started, I think, with Kevin Smith. I give Smith credit because movies like Clerks and Mallrats popularized a new kind of geek archtype - the cool geek. The fanboys who made talking comics sound smart and funny and cool. There was that. Then Blade came out. And then ... X-Men. Soon there was Spiderman. Batman Begins. Iron Man. The Dark Knight.

And now here we are, in an age where superhero mythology has truly gone mainstream thanks to the movies. Comic-Con is a mecca not just for nerds, but for all of Hollywood and pop-culture. Hollywood's biggest franchises are comic book adaptations. It's easier than ever to find someone who's read Watchmen or The Walking Dead. Walk into Barnes & Noble, and the shelves are lined with graphic novels and trade paperbacks.

And yet ... comic books - particularly the superhero books - have not necessarilly been in a boom period. Manga, certain graphic novels ... there've been some pockets of mainstream success. But comic shops are now rarer than ever. And monthly sales of ongoing comics are lower than ever. The publishing industry in general is in a state of flux, with Borders going out of business, and the transition to digital creating an uncertain and volatile marketplace. But most of all, the people who are buying monthly comics are getting older. I am probably part of the last generation that really got onboard with mainstream superhero comics. And the response from DC and Marvel has traditionally been ... milk the existing readers for all they're worth. But that strategy only goes so far. Event fatigue sets in. Longtime readers see the same characters die, come back to life, change costumes, get married, have their origin retold so many times that it all becomes numbing. The nature of ongoing comics is that the stories are cyclical ... but that only works if you constantly bring in new generations of readers. And the younger generation has not embraced comics. I partly blame that on things like inaccessiblity and lack of a proper push for new readers. Most superhero comics of the last ten years are not written for kids or even teens, but for an insular group of longtime readers. And even the older generation - for most, comics are too expensive, too impenetrable and confusing, too difficult to find. So ... what is to be done? It might sound crazy given that superheroes in general are nwo more popular than ever. But we are at a point where the question had to be asked -- How does the great American artform of comics - and especially superhero comics - survive?

Well, DC has decided that drastic change is necessary. Beginning this week, the DC Comics Universe as we've known it is no more. It's all going back to square one, with DC rebooting its entire line of comics - launching 52 new issue #1's throughout September. Long running titles like Action and Detective are being restarted with new #1's. There will be a diverse array of genres represented in the new 52 - horror comics, war comics, fantasy comics, and sci-fi comics. But many of the 52 will be DC's bread and butter - superheroes. Now, superheroes tend to accumulate lots of confusing backstory and convoluted continuity as the years go by, so to that end, DC is attempting to simplify its characters and its universe. In the new DCU, the Age of Superheroes - kicked off by the arrival of Superman in the public eye - is now only five years old. So most of DC's new #1's will tell stories of heroes who are relatively fresh on the scene and inexperienced. Two key comics will be set in the past, laying the groundwork for the rest. In Action Comics, written by Grant Morrison, we'll see the story of Superman's public debut, and see the earliest days of his superhero career. In JUSTICE LEAGUE, written by Geoff Johns (DC's Chief Creative Office, and the company's highest-profile writer of the last ten years), we'll see how DC's biggest heroes first met and formed the world's greatest superteam. Justice League marks the first of the new 52 to be released. This past week, DC released only two comics. FLASHPOINT #5, which closed the book on the old universe, and Justice League #1, which kicks things off for the new DC.

So ... how is JUSTICE LEAGUE #1 ...? To be honest, it's a bit hard to judge on its own merits. The story is clearly only Chapter 1 of a much larger saga. It focuses, mainly, on two characters - Batman and Green Lantern. But very quickly, we see some of the foundations of the early days of this new DCU. For one, when we first meet Batman, he's an outlaw - even as he pursues an alien monster across the rooftops of Gotham, he himself is being pursued by heavily-armed policemen. But, rest assured - personality-wise, this is the same Bruce Wayne that comic fans have read about for years. Greener, maybe, less omniscient. But he's still a grim crusader with little patience for flashy heroes like Green Lantern, and yep, he's still uber-paranoid when it comes to dealing with people with powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men. Meanwhile, this version of Green Lantern is a little bit of the Hal Jordan from the comics, and a little of Ryan Reynold's version from the recent movie. He's overconfident, and he has swagger to burn. The pairing of Hal and Bruce makes for some fun banter, and a couple of memorable moments between them. A highlight? Bruce actually steals Hal's ring in a show of one-upsmanship - showing that even without powers, he can still get a leg up on his superpowered ally.

Overall though, there's a bare minimum of plot here. Hal and Bruce meet while pursuing a mysterious alien creature. They argue and banter. They get the first hints of the new apocalyptic threat they face (a threat that will be quite familiar to those who know the the comics or cartoons). We get some brief interludes with Vic Stone - the man who will eventually become the hero known as Cyborg and who is being set up as a potential League member. But mostly, Batman and GL feel each other out. And eventually, they run into Superman - who's now wearing his new Jim Lee-designed duds.

Speaking of which, the art by Jim Lee is pretty great. It's always a treat to see a Lee-drawn comic. He's got the ability to make old-school superheroes look new-school cool. I'm mostly just worried that his new costume designs will look silly when drawn by anyone else but him. His Batman and Green Lantern are pretty similar to the classic designs, but his Superman is already rubbing me the wrong way. I'm fine with Supes ditching the classic red trunks, but there's something about his new V-neck collar / cape combo that looks kind of lame, in my opinion. It's not terrible, but I also wouldn't be surprised to see the Superman costume eventually revert back to something more akin to the classic threads.

To the comic's credit, it's 100% accessible and essentially baggage free. Anyone can jump right in and get onboard. For a kid just joining the party, I could see how John's handling of Batman and Green Lantern's first-ever meeting might have a certain wow-factor. Afterall, if you only know these characters from the movies, the idea of them meeting and sharing an adventure might end up being fairly mind-blowing. For most comics fans though, the issue will have something of a been-there, done-that feel. I know I was a bit frustrated that, well, so little actually *happened* in the issue. I hope that the pace picks up a bit in subsequent issues, and that we start getting more complete stories with each installment. This felt like a very quick, all-too-brief prologue to a story that will hopefully soon become much bigger and much more epic. For those expecting this one to have the widescreen, big-event feel of Grant Morrison's classic, action-packed Justice League run in the 90's, they may come away disappointed with this Issue #1. This is a very deliberate, very carefully set up comic. But there is reason to give Johns the benefit of the doubt. Afterall, he's best known for his action-packed epics like Blackest Night - I assume it's only a matter of time before business picks up and $%&# gets real.

Personally, I'm eager to get the origin stories over with and get to the good stuff. I'm not as interested in all the new universe-building as I am in just seeing some good stories being told. I'm also a little nervous that the DCnU could quickly become unwieldy and confusing. Early indications, for example, are that while some characters will experience drastic changes from the old universe, others - like Batman - will have their histories mostly intact. But if that's the case, then how does Batman's established history - which includes three separate Robins and a twelve-year-old son - possibly fit into a five year timeline? Again, if the stories are great, most of us will be less hung up on these sorts of details. But if the quality is uneven, I'll begin to wonder if DC made a mistake by not either a.) doing a cleaner, more all-inclusive reboot, or b.) just keeping continuity intact and employing some other tactic to create a good jumping-on point for new readers.

But if the New 52 can attract new readers, then you know what? - I'm all for it. Like I said, if nothing else, Justice League #1 makes for a pretty ideal starting point for a new reader. And I haven't even mentioned the fact that, starting this week, all DC Comics will be available day-and-date digitally. That means that you don't even need to find a comic shop if you want to check out the new comics. You can simply download new issues digitally to your iPad or tablet or PC. And man, I think reading comics on an iPad or other tablet could really be the wave of the future. The colors are vivid and eye-popping. The books are easy to scroll through and enjoy. And the comics are right there at the touch of a button. You don't have to worry about the issues selling out or about venturing into a comics shop or about where to store all those monthly issues in your cramped apartment. I'm not sure if, personally, I'm going to transition to digital just yet. But I think it's only a matter of time before a majority of my comics purchases are, in fact, digitally done.

So, is this the beginning of a new dawn for superhero comics? Will YOU be trying out one of DC's new 52? Like I said, Justice League is a solid jumping-on point. But if you've got more eclectic taste, then hey, you might want to hold out for Jeff Lemire's Animal Man #1, or Scott Snyder's Swamp Thing #1, or the continuing adventures of Wild West outlaw Jonah Hex in Weird Western Tales #1. You may want to jump onboard with Action Comics or Batman or Nightwing or Birds of Prey. There are a lot of options, and it seems like, to DC's credit, they're keeping each new book fairly self-contained, at least for the moment. And look, I'm not trying to imply that superhero comics are the only genre that the medium has to offer. I know plenty of people who would prefer sticking to non-superhero fare like The Walking Dead, Locke & Key, or Fables. And I'll admit, mroe and more that is the kind of stuff that I'm drawn to in the comics world. But here we are, we've got kids and people of all ages into superheroes thanks to movies and whatnot. Why shouldn't they also love the comics - where budgets are unlimited and anything can happen - where stories are limited only by imagination? Purely from a fan perspective, I'm curious to see what Johns and Lee - a veritable writer/artist dream team - can do with the Justice League, and how their run will compare to others that have come before. From a larger perspective, I'm curious to see what happens from here with comics. Is this the moment where the people who love the movies or cartoons or videogames get hooked? I, for one, hope so.

Should You Be Afraid of DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK ...?!


From the opening minutes of DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, there's a great vibe to the film that took me back to the days of being a kid and watching things like Jim Henson's "Storyteller" series. There's this dark, creepy, magical, fairytale-ish feeling to this movie that really is its biggest strength. And it makes perfect sense then that the movie is in fact a remake of an old, obscure, made-for-TV movie that entranced a young Guillermo Del Toro way back when. Co-writer and producer Del Toro, along with director Troy Nixey, help to recreate that same sort of late-night creepshow feel. It's a lot of fun, because the heightened, whimsical reality of the film is a breath of fresh air from the glut of grittier, more realistic horror movies we've seen of late. At the same time, I think the movie nails the vibe, the atmosphere - but misses the mark when it comes to the details. The script, the story, the characters - they never quite come together in a way that makes sense or that gets you 100% invested. The scares are there, but the movie ultimately feels somewhat flimsy and inconsequential.

DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is in many ways a classic haunted house story, but with a distinctly fairy-tale twist. The movie's prologue takes us back 100 years or so, and immediately sets a gothic, visually-stunning tone. We see the sprawling manor where the movie is set. We go down to its dungeon-like basement, where Blackwood - the manor's frantic, bloodied owner -grotesquely feeds a plate of human teeth to a mysterious assemblage of creatures that dwell deep within the bowels of the house. We don't see the creatures - not yet. But hear their hissing, needy voices. A bargain had been struck - children's teeth in exchange for the life of the man's son. But he's brought them adult teeth. No good. The creatures are displeased, and extract their bloody pennance. Now, it's decades later - the present day. We meet a young girl, Sally, who's come from California to dank, rural Rhode Island. She's come to live with her father Alex and his new girlfriend Kim. Together, they restore homes, and their current project is of course the gothic Blackwood manor from the prologue, where they've taken up residence while they work. It isn't long before Sally's presence stirs the long-dormant creatures who dwell in the dark corners of the house. Soon enough, they come after her. And Sally - terrified and going out of her young mind - can't convince Alex or Kim that monsters lurk in their new home.

The premise of the film is set up with a lot of visual imagination and cool creepiness. The movie just oozes darkness and wetness and chilly New England air. It definitely gave me a certain feeling that reminded me of cold, spooky nights as a kid in Connecticut. And on that level, the film really gets a lot right. It helps that Guy Pierce as Alex and Katie Holmes as Kim do a great job at maintaining the movie's heightened tone. Pierce always excels at bringing a slightly-left-of-center theatricality to his roles, and that is why he's such a great genre actor. He does a great job hear of playing a dad who's going a bit mad trying to balance caring for his newly-arrived daughter with his all-consuming architectural project. As time goes on, Alex comes across as increasingly dickish, but I think he is here to play a very specific role. He's the skeptic. The guy too caught up in real-world work problems to pay much attention to the fact that tiny demonic monsters may live in his home. And Holmes is very solid as well. She's the more down-to-earth character who's a bit more attuned to what's really going on, and it's a role that suits her well. As for Bailie Madison, who plays Sally ... she's good but I have to say, the way she plays Sally, the character almost seems *too* sad and depressed. Like Sally is seriously crying and miserable and sullen for almost the entire movie. It's too much, I think. Sally gets to have a couple moments of pluckiness where she gets to fight back against the creatures a bit, but man ... she is one of the saddest kid characters I've ever seen in a movie. Honestly, I think Sally's constant depression makes the film just a bit sadder and more depressing than was intended. Nixey and Del Toro could have possibly tweaked the script a bit, I think, to give Sally some more moments of playfulness to counteract all the glumness.

And I think that the script is where the movie falters the most. There just isn't a lot of internal logic from scene to scene. The creatures' motivations never quite make sense, and neither does the way they act towards Sally. At first they try to convince her that they are her friends. At some point, they ditch the act and just seem to be trying to kill her. Or do they want her teeth? Or what? And there's something about a prophecy where the creatures have to take one life every hundred years as well, but that's never really explained either. And why can't they leave the house? What's keeping them there? I don't need a ton of details or over-explanations, but the movie keeps throwing us all of these plot points that eventually get contradicted, or else are just never really followed up on. Meanwhile, there are a lot of the expected scenes where Sally unsuccessfully tries to convince Alex and Kim of the creatures' existence. But, the movie only half-heartedly lets Sally really try to make her case. And Alex and Kim never really come around until the very end of the movie. Suffice it to say, there's A LOT of Sally pleading with them that she's being stalked by little monsters and Alex and Kim just brushing her off and assuming she's crazy (there's mention of the fact that she's medicated and in therapy, but still ...).

I also had slightly mixed feelings about how the creatures were handled. They are at their coolest and creepiest, I think, when we don't actually see them. Or, when we see them in the creepy drawings of Blackwood and then Sally (both, it seems, are artists with a flair for the grotesque). But when the creatures are in full view, they don't look quite as cool. Too much like humanoid rats or something. And they feel a bit flimsy in that CGI-rendered sort of way, lacking the visceral punch of old-school hand-made creatures like, say, the Gremlins. And like I said, what the creatures actually *do* when they're unleashed varies wildly from scene to scene. You're never sure if they're out to kill, maim, terrorize, or just make mischief.

Still, despite the narrative inconsistincies, Nixey gives the movie a nice, deliberate pace that really ups the creepiness. There were many scenes that had me biting my fingernails, and there were definitely some big jump-scares as well. The tension definitely gets nicely ratcheted-up at certain points.

And overall, I appreciated the movie most for that visual imagination and fairy-tale darkness that permeated the film. It's not quite as lush an gorgeously-rendered as some of Del Toro's best-known directorial efforts, but the film definitely has that signature Del Toro vibe as channeled by Nixey. I did wonder what the movie might have looked like if it had been directed by Del Toro himself. Perhaps Guillermo could have cranked up the visual craziness just enough to help the movie overcome its other issues. As is, the movie's failings keep it from being great, but it's enjoyable enough if you sit back, relax, and just allow yourself to get pulled in to the movie's creepy, gothic world.

My Grade: B