Monday, February 29, 2016

Oscars Recap

Welcome to the official Oscars recap!  Mike Drinan and I will break down the show a little and talk about what we liked, didn't like, what surprised us, etc.  Here we go....

Justin: So Mike, impressions about the 88th Oscars?

Mike: Overall, I thought it was a really good Oscars show. Chris Rock killed it as the host, there were surprises and upsets in the categories, and there wasn't much to make fun of at the end of the night. But let's start with the host. I loved how Chris Rock handled the role with all the controversy this Oscars contained. He didn't shy away from it, went right in head first and gave what I think is one of the best opening monologues in Oscar history. I loved his crack about the In Memoriam segment should be all the black people killed by police. Way to wake up the room to the controversy and connect it to events in the real world. But he also didn't seem to fully take a side either. He also took jabs at the boycott, Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith, which I can also appreciate. I also loved his sketches.  The Compton theater bit was fantastic and hilarious. I loved how he kept referring to Suge Knight, and the girl scout cookie sale was awesome. "Leo you made $30 million dollars so you better bring it!" So good. One of the best Oscar hosting jobs in a while.

Justin: Yeah I wasn't expecting to like Chris Rock much as a host - I've never been a huge fan of his - but he knocked it outta the park here.  Loved that he kept bringing it back to the controversy without pandering to either side of it.  It's a strange phenomenon but I've noticed over the years that the Oscar hosts I expect to love, like Neil Patrick Harris, Seth McFarlane, etc. end up pretty underwhelming, while Chris Rock, Ellen Degeneres and Whoopi Goldberg have all been fantastic.

Mike: Yeah, I agree. The common denominator is those three are career stand-up comics and I feel that person is best suited for hosting a show like the Oscars. They know how to play and handle the crowd in their own way. Unlike Anne Hathaway and James Franco....yikes.

Any winners/losers that pissed you off?

Justin: Franco was awful.  Deer in headlights.  Hathaway was clearly just trying to get through it while carrying Franco.  I really liked when David Letterman hosted 20 years ago.  Apparently I was in the minority.  One guy I always wanted to see host is Jim Carrey.

Nothing pissed me off per se, though I was bummed that George Miller didn't win.  Not surprised, just bummed.  Spotlight winning was truly a shock, although strangely when it came out I thought "I could see this winning Best Picture."  Like Argo it seemed like one of those "spoiler" pics the Academy loves.  But then The Revenant came out and took everyone by storm, so I figured that was a lock.

How 'bout you?

Music Review: Anthrax - For All Kings

Of the vaunted Big Four of thrash metal, Anthrax just might be the band that's aged the most gracefully over the last thirty-plus years.  Often viewed as a forgotten little brother of sorts to mainstream metal titans Metallica and well-respected elder statesmen Slayer and Megadeth, Anthrax seemingly has more to prove with their late-career releases.  After the last two albums there's no doubt they're up to the challenge.

This New York-based quintet formed around the same time as their thrash brethren but instead of embracing gloom & doom, Anthrax imbued their high-energy metal with a sense of merriment, finding lyrical inspiration from comic books, movies, and Stephen King novels.  Even their more serious material possesses a tongue-in-cheek quality, which for me has always made Anthrax one of the more likable bands of that ilk; they never take themselves too seriously.

After a pretty radical change in vocalists in the early 90s - Joey Belladonna's clean delivery was replaced with John Bush's raspy, dark vocal timbre - Belladonna made a triumphant return on 2011's Worship Music, sounding better than he ever had during the group's heyday.  Despite being in his 50s, Joey's vocals seem to be emanating from someone at least twenty years younger.  Worship Music proved to be the band's strongest album since their 1990 masterpiece Persistence of Time, and one gets the sense they're having a (headbanger's) ball on that album.  Anthrax had rediscovered itself after an eight-year absence and delivered a good ol' fashioned thrash metal powderkeg; rarely has an aging band shown such vitality this deep into their career.

And that brings us to their latest release For All Kings.  Anthrax has taken everything that worked on Worship Music (in other words, basically everything), and given the headbanging faithful more of the same.  For All Kings sounds very much like a more-than-welcome sequel, with Scott Ian's jackhammer guitar riffing providing the spine of the songs over Charlie Benante's signature driving thrash beats (What a fantastic drummer Charlie is by the way) and Frank Bello's bass rumblings.  Belladonna once again delivers career-high vocal stylings, and with every note I'm astonished how much better a singer he is at 55 than he was at 30.  Lead guitar is supplied by newcomer Jonathan Donais (formerly of Shadows Fall), and while I do miss Rob Caggiano's distinctive touch, the solos on this album are first-rate.

Being essentially a continuation of a previous album does have its drawbacks, as overall the songs aren't quite as strong this time around.  But there are some real standouts like the anthemic "Breathing Lightning," an uptempo groover that feels like it bestows the listener with invincibility.  This is one of Anthrax's most instantly memorable songs and would fit right in on a Best Of compilation.  Other notable tracks include the breakneck opener "You Gotta Believe," the super hooky "Monster at the End," the Dio-esque title track, and the blistering closer "Zero Tolerance."  For me the first half of the album sets an incredible pace which the second can't quite maintain.  By track 9, the 8-minute "Blood Eagle Wings," I found myself not quite as engaged as I'd been during the first five or six tracks.  However there's certainly nothing bad on this album and things pick up again with the last two songs.

In contrast to Slayer and Megadeth's most recent releases, which to me sound somewhat phoned-in, Anthrax is demonstratively a band at the top of its game.  Not all the songs on For All Kings achieve greatness, but the individual performers sound as good as they ever have.  In recent years Anthrax has attained an ageless quality, creating speed metal that puts to shame many of their disciples and never once feels disingenuous.  Of the current slate of Big Four albums, Anthrax has set the bar the highest, and the ball is now in Metallica's court to top it.

I give the album ***1/2 out of *****

Thursday, February 25, 2016

88th Academy Awards Preview & Predictions

Welcome to the official Oscar Predictions, with Mike Drinan and myself.  We'll each go through the major categories (plus a tiebreaker) and offer our predictions for who'll be taking home the statuettes.  Seems like a fairly predictable show this year but you never know.  So let's get to it....

Best Picture

The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

Mike: This year I was able to see 5 of the 8 nominees.  Not terrible but I decided to not watch Mad Max: Fury Road (even though it was free on HBO) because I’m not into the Mad Max movies. I could’ve rented Bridge Of Spies but I was just flat out not interested. The previews for that movie looked so cheesy and overdone. I still have questions as to why it’s even nominated in the first place. The movie Brooklyn was the only one of the nominees that I wanted to see but didn’t get a chance to, however I’m confident that I was able to watch the eventual Best Picture winner. Both Room and The Martian were excellent movies, intelligent movies, that had interesting, complex characters with plots that allowed the audience to see them and dissect, even question their motives (in the case of Room). But this race narrowed late in the year and if you would’ve asked me Thanksgiving weekend which film I thought would be Best Picture, I’d have told you Spotlight. It was dramatic, insightful, subtle with its tension and certainly controversial. The acting was tremendous. The screenplay damn near spotless. BUT...then came The Revenant and just sealed the deal. I don’t think it was a better movie than Spotlight, I just feel that the Leo for Best Actor campaign has reached such a fever pitch that it will transfer over to the Best Picture category. Plus, that bear attack scene was pretty dope. I also don’t count out The Big Short either. It’s a topical film, tied closely to the country and times we live in now and we’re all well aware that Hollywood loves a good cause. The Big Short and Spotlight are prime contenders to play spoiler.

Prediction: The Revenant

Justin: I've also seen five of the nominees but I'm hoping to watch at least Spotlight before Sunday.  Bridge of Spies is pretty low on my to-do list as well.  With a lot of these awards there'll be a discrepancy between what I'd like to see win and what I think actually will (which is not at all uncommon).  Of the five nominees I've seen (The Big Short, Mad Max, The Martianm, Room & The Revenant) I'd say The Big Short was my favorite overall.  Mad Max is my sentimental favorite because I love that franchise and it's so refreshing to see a movie like that get this kind of critical recognition.  The Martian was really well done and surprisingly light and upbeat given the subject matter.  Room was haunting, disturbing, heartbreaking, and yet ultimately hopeful, even buoyant.  Now, about The Revenant.  Visually The Revenant is unlike anything I've ever seen.  Innaritu has taken a timeworn film genre and made it look completely different that what you'd expect, from the intimate wide-angle shots that place the emphasis squarely on the subject, to the meditative landscape montages, this movie should absolutely win Best Cinematography (I'll actually be angry if it doesn't).  It's gorgeous.  However, the story doesn't quite sustain itself for the 150+ minutes.  This film really needed about twenty minutes trimmed to keep things moving a little faster.  By the time the story reached its climax I found myself emotionally disengaged, and that's not where the viewer should be at this point in a film about revenge.  I watched a video review of this film (at where one sentence really summed it up for me: I appreciated The Revenant more than I enjoyed it.  That said, this movie is a mortal lock to win Best Picture.

Prediction: The Revenant

Best Director

Adam McKay - The Big Short
George Miller - Mad Max: Fury Road
Alejandro G. Inarritu - The Revenant
Lenny Abrahamson - Room
Tom McCarthy - Spotlight

Mike: I go back and forth on this category. Originally, I thought Inarritu was all but assured for this award. Then Adam McKay had to remind me he actually made a very serious film and it was so...fucking...good. Then there’s Tom McCarthy and that whole story with its great cast. Lenny Abrahamson also did a great job but there’s somewhat unfinished business I felt at the end of Room that doesn’t make me confident he’s in the running here. George Miller comes to mind quickly. He’s 70 and a first-time nominee and the consistently great reviews for Mad Max lead me to believe that this race is between him and Inarritu. What Miller has going for him is Inarritu won this category last year and I think people might be kind of tired of him. However, Innarritu did win the Director’s Guild Award and historically the winner of that award usually goes on to win the Oscar. (In 67 years, only 7 winners of the DGA have not won the Oscar) I think I’m going chalk here.

Prediction: Alejandro G. Inarritu for The Revenant

Justin: I agree with Mike's take, it's clearly between Inarritu and Miller.  I'd love for Adam McKay to win, particularly since he's a screwball comedy director who clearly stretched his legs with The Big Short.  It's funny but also deals with a heavy topic, and visually it's completely different from McKay's previous work.  But yeah it'll either be Inarritu, to rack up the awards for The Revenant (He'd be the first director to ever win back-to-back Oscars), or George Miller for reinventing Mad Max for the 21st Century (not to mention a pretty darn good overall career).  Just to keep things interesting I'll go with Miller, as the Academy loves to give out unofficial Lifetime Achievement awards.

Prediction: George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Monday Night RAW: The Great Disconnect

So two things.  The first is about Roman Reigns.  After watching the crowd reaction to Triple H straight-up MURDERING Vince's Chosen One, all I can say is "Man, I'm tired of being right."

I for one can't wait to see Reigns NOT get revenge.

Last night Triple H became the most popular star in WWE, for annihilating the top babyface in the company.  I'd like to repeat that: The HEEL WWE Champion got cheered like the second coming of Daniel Bryan as he attempted to end the life of the company's #1 hero.  What's wrong with this picture?  I'm sorry, I have nothing against him, and I don't really blame him for the cosmic ineptitude with which he's been handled, but there's no getting around this: Roman Reigns is NOT The Guy.  Period.  No other top babyface - not Hogan, not Warrior, not Bret, not Shawn, not Austin, not Cena; hell, not even Diesel - was this hated when his time came.  The fans simply, emphatically, do not like Roman Reigns.  They don't want to cheer him, they aren't invested in his journey; they frankly want to see him get mauled.  He's edging dangerously close to "X-Pac Heat."  Making WrestleMania 32 his big coronation will result in an absolutely disdainful crowd, and a miserably awful post-Mania season.

I know Vince still thinks the "casual fans" want to see guys like Reigns as the top stars.  Only one problem with that line of thinking (and Dave Meltzer said this the other night): casual wrestling fans don't exist anymore.  They're gone.  WWE chased them off by expecting them to commit to five hours or more every week.  What you have left is a group of diehard fans who will watch the show religiously, and guess what....a guy's "look" isn't nearly as important to them as it is to Vince.  What they want is a guy they can emotionally connect with who can deliver good promos and matches consistently.  That's it.  What he looks like is completely secondary.

So figure out a Plan B, folks.  Turn Reigns heel, have Rollins come back and be WWE's savior, do something.  Your big Roman-fest isn't gonna pan out like you want it to.  End of story.

Jeezus fuckin' Christ, what year is this??

Sadly, the Reigns situation isn't even the most dire thing to come out of last night's show.  Let me preface this next paragraph by saying I was actually excited for WrestleMania from about 5pm till about 8:30pm.  At 5pm posted a video of Brock Lesnar attacking Dean Ambrose in the arena parking lot, setting up what's sure to be a fascinating, exciting semi-main event for the big PPV.  Lesnar vs. Ambrose - the unstoppable bully vs. the loose cannon.  I love it.  This match is already more intriguing to me than ANYTHING at WrestleMania 31.  So for a few hours I was optimistic about 'Mania.  And then WWE took a giant, Taco Bell-esque dump all over it.  Two words: Shane fucking McMahon.

Monday, February 22, 2016

PPV Showdown: WrestleMania 30 vs. WrestleMania 31

Hello, and welcome to a new variation on my Showdown series!  In the past I've pitted two similar films head-to-head (Superman Returns vs. Man of Steel; Hulk vs. Hulk; Manhunter vs. Red Dragon) and examined in detail which film I thought was superior.  Today though I'll be pairing up the last two editions of WWE's annual flagship WrestleMania!

WrestleMania 30 took place on April 6, 2014 and was primarily built around the against-all-odds Championship quest of Daniel Bryan, who unexpectedly captured the hearts and imagination of WWE fans across the globe as the little guy being screwed by WWE's corporate machine.  WWE's holding Bryan down both onscreen and to a certain extent behind the scenes led to a massive fan backlash, and the company restructured their intended 'Mania card to make Bryan the centerpiece.  Thus Bryan would face COO Triple H, with the winner being added to the Randy Orton-Batista WWE Title match.  Elsewhere on the card, John Cena faced the mysterious Bray Wyatt, The Undertaker defended his undefeated streak against Brock Lesnar, and 20 men competed in the first Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal.  The card was met with very positive feedback, particularly due to the two Daniel Bryan matches, but fans were also appalled by the shocking Undertaker loss at the hands of Lesnar.

WrestleMania 31 followed nearly a year later, on March 29, 2015, and the big story this time was the ascent of Roman Reigns, whom Vince McMahon had picked to be the next big star in the company.  Sadly the fans didn't share Vince's enthusiasm for the young Samoan, offering Reigns a cold-at-best reaction at just about every turn.  Reigns had won the Royal Rumble to a barrage of irate crowd boos, earning him the right to challenge WWE Champ Brock Lesnar at 'Mania.  The card also featured The Undertaker facing Bray Wyatt, John Cena challenging US Champ Rusev, a seven-man Intercontinental Title Ladder Match, and the WWE debut match for Sting, against Triple H.  Despite an infamously poor buildup, this show was an immense crowd-pleaser and received glowing praise from most reviewers, many of whom considered it one of the best WrestleManias of all time.

But which show was superior?  Let's take a look, shall we?

Pre-Show Tag Team Title Match

WM30's in-ring festivities kicked off with a Fatal Four-Way Tag Match as The Usos defended the straps against The Real Americans, Los Matadores, and RybAxel.  The bout was a fast-paced, enjoyable elimination match showcasing The Usos' considerable talent and also brought about the long-overdue split between Cesaro and Jack Swagger.  Cesaro was hugely over, and this was one of two big moments for him on this card.

WM31 featured a similar pre-show tag match but without the elimination rules.  This time it was Champions Cesaro & Tyson Kidd vs. The Usos vs. The New Day vs. Los Matadores in a blazing ten-minute melee.  Cesaro & Kidd were just coming into their own as a killer tandem and this helped build their momentum.

Despite the latter bout involving superior talent, the WM30 opener had more time to breathe and the elimination rules made it a bit more fun.

Point: WrestleMania 30

WWE FastLane Review: Sigh....Here We Go Again.....

I saw an amusing Facebook post after last night's FastLane PPV that read "Apparently FastLane should be renamed MakeRomanLookStrong."  We're back in familiar, depressing territory regarding the build to WrestleMania.  Once again Vince McMahon is hell-bent on Roman being the man to carry the brand through the next decade, but just like last year there's one major problem: He's the only one excited by the idea.  It's really staggering how willfully ignorant Vince is of the crowd response to this guy.  Literally the only time Reigns was over in a way befitting the top babyface was last December, when he'd been screwed over one time too many and snapped, beating the everlovin' shite out of Triple H and regaining the WWE Title the next night on RAW.  For that 24-hour period Reigns went back to being the taciturn, asskicking machine in whom the fans were emotionally invested.

From there Reigns should have gone on a year-long Championship tear, destroying every heel in sight and saying very little.  Instead though, within a month it was back to awkward promos and an overly vulnerable character presentation.  Roman Reigns is not John Cena and therefore can't cut strong WWE-style promos.  Nor is he Daniel Bryan, whom the fans rallied behind no matter how long the odds against him.  Shoehorning Reigns into either of these babyface archetypes hasn't and will never work.  The fans don't see him that way and have no desire to.  Need further proof?  Look at the crowd reaction he got last night after defeating Brock Lesnar and Dean Ambrose (both infinitely more popular than Reigns).  It was a lackluster, mixed-at-best reaction with at least a couple dozen fans visibly throwing thumbs-down signs.  What world does Vince live in where this looks like the conquering hero just won the big match on the way to his defining WrestleMania moment?

It didn't help that Reigns was in there with the two most popular active wrestlers in the company.  Vince is delusional if he thinks Reigns' crowd support was ever strong enough to withstand that situation.  They probably should've booked Sheamus stronger over the past six months so it could've been Reigns vs. Lesnar vs. Sheamus.  Then at least the one heel Reigns actually got cheered against would've been present.  Hell, they could've even set up Lesnar vs. Sheamus at 'Mania.  But no, let's keep Ambrose close to the situation so everyone's reminded how much more exciting the product would be if Vince's trousers grew tight over Dean instead of Roman.  The phrase "tone-deaf" gets thrown around a lot when talking about WWE's booking, but it really is like Vince is living inside a bubble.  Literally all he sees when he watches his own show is Roman punching and spearing people.  He ignores the crowd response, the ratings, the choice of opponent (Christ, even Triple H is gonna get cheered over Reigns at 'Mania, and he's the company's top heel) and just sees MUSCLES.  I wish I could sit in on some of these booking meetings; does not one single person question the guy?

Sunday, February 21, 2016

WWE FastLane 2016 Predictions

Welcome to another season finale of PPV Predictions!!  The annual battle between myself and Dan Moore has come down to this event.  Currently Dan's leading by 2 correct picks.  Can I close the gap?  We shall see.  

The Road to WrestleMania is about to stop in Cleveland, OH this Sunday, and by the end of the night we should have a much clearer picture of the WrestleMania 32 card (Spoiler Alert: It ain't lookin' good so far).  FastLane does have a handful of intriguing matchups, one of which had to be bumped to the PreShow to make room for a talk show segment.  Because it wouldn't be a WWE PPV unless the company did something stupid.

Let's get to the picks....

PreShow 2/3 Falls US Championship Match: Kalisto vs. Alberto Del Rio

Looks like this will be the blowoff to this feud.  These two have delivered some solid work over the past several weeks and traded the belt back and forth.  I'm a sucker for 2/3 Falls matches, so this should be quite good if given time.  Too bad the company deemed a US Title match less important than Edge & Christian plugging their upcoming WWE Network series (Hey guys, if you need to plug a new TV show, there's this great free television platform called Monday Night RAW.  Fuckin' idiots.).  Undoubtedly we'll be subjected to at least one commercial break during this bout since that's what they do on the PreShow.  Nevermind that the PreShow itself is a full hour and there's no reason to save a commercial break for "during a match."  Anyway this should be fine.

Justin's pick: I don't see the point of this match happening again unless Del Rio wins back the belt, thus relegating Kalisto back to the tag division (where Sin Cara is waiting to be given a purpose)
Dan's pick: I think this will be the one match we differ on in this utterly predictable PPV offering. Bumping a championship match to the pre-show is never a good move. Kalisto retaining is.

The Wyatts vs. Ryback, Kane & Big Show

This should be hyped as a Who Gives a Shit Match.  Bray Wyatt will not be wrestling here; instead it's Harper, Rowan & Vince McMahon's handpicked breakout superstar Braun Strowman (Yeah, good luck with that, Vinny).  Anyone else find it just wrong that the long-irrelevant Big Show and Kane are still active wrestlers at age 44 and 48 respectively, but Daniel Bryan's retired at 34?  Anywho, this is likely (by "likely" I mean "a mortal lock") to be ten pounds of suck in a five-pound bag.

Justin's pick: The Wyatts, obviously.  Gotta start making Mr. Strowman the next Ultimate fucking Warrior
Dan's pick: Those filthy hillbillies take it. Also, I'm shocked that the Big Show is younger than Kane. I don't know why, I just am.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

I'd Like to Introduce You To......Big Bad Wolves

Evening everyone!  Welcome to another piece  from my good friend Michael Drinan.  It's a series dealing with lesser-known cinematic gems that you should go out of your way to find.  Without further ado, here's Mike......


Welcome to the series “I’d Like to Introduce You To…” which will focus on independent and foreign films that aren’t widely known but are high in quality.  Let’s face it, big budget, big name Hollywood films are everywhere and are usually uninteresting, formulaic and unoriginal.

Sometimes you really want to watch a film that will actually make you have an emotional response to it, something out of left field, unique that leave you considering how you felt and what you thought about the film.  We all need something different from time to time to strengthen our love and appreciation for movies and the independent movie scene is prime real estate for just that very thing.  So, without further ado…let me introduce you to Big Bad Wolves.  

Mike Drinan Looks at the 2016 Grammys

by Michael Drinan

The Grammys happened this past Monday night to much fanfare and people like me, who hope the trainwreck has to end sometime, tuned in. As a whole the Grammys were not a success, pulling in some of the lowest ratings since 2009. There were sound issues, weird performances, and “wrong” winners. Not all of it was bad, there were a few good moments but some pretty ugly ones as well. Let’s run through it together shall we?


  • Kendrick Lamar - I’m starting off with THE reason I tuned in to the ceremony. I wanted to see Kendrick and his 11-time nominated powerhouse album To Pimp A Butterfly clean up. I wanted to see this event be the culmination of his album being considered a modern day classic. It didn’t happen. The album didn’t clean up as I’d hope. Kendrick did walk away with five Grammys including Best Rap Album, Best Rap Performance and Rap Song for “Alright” along with his collaboration on Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” music video. The real reason I started off with him was his performance. Expected to put on a politically-charged show, he came out onstage wearing chains and prison clothes in a stage set that resembled a prison and kicked things off with his emotionally, racially-charged song “The Blacker the Berry”, a song inspired by the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin and the protests that followed that tragic event. A shot of the audience during this performance showed people (a lot of white faces) watching as if they were unsure how to feel or think about what they were seeing. Before they could come to grips with it, Kendrick switched into his song “Alright” before launching into a what ended being his third performance of an untitled (aka unreleased) song (The first untitled was performed on The Colbert Report shortly before Colbert took on duties of his new late night show, and the second was on The Tonight Show a couple of months ago). The performance ended and immediately triggered a huge response. I was on Twitter that night and saw reactions like “Kendrick just asked 'Kanye who?' and “Kendrick giving out lessons every time he steps on stage.” Even BET made a bold statement saying “Kendrick Lamar is Everything We Hoped Kanye West Would Be”. It's his second Grammy performance that has been considered a classic.  His performance two years ago with Imagine Dragons had so much intensity and power and this year’s performance followed suit. It certainly was one of, if not THE highlight of the night.
  • Lady Gaga’s tribute to David Bowie - After she wowed me and the world with her rendition of the Star Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl with her gorgeous voice that makes you ask the question “Why doesn’t she do that more often?”, Lady Gaga performed a medley of songs in tribute to one of her idols and inspirations, David Bowie. Her tribute has been catching a lot of criticism because, well, it’s dealing with Bowie. Whatever she did wouldn’t have been good enough for Bowie fans so, whatever. She was introduced by having a lot of references to Bowie projected on to her face. The famous lightning bolt dripped its way over her eye as a spider traversed her face. She then began a medley of Bowie’s hits and popular songs. I’ve never been a fan of Bowie’s music. I’m in that category of “not a fan but I get why he’s great” and this medley was perfect for someone like me. Diehard fans are always going to have a problem but most of the people watching the Grammys are young people watching their favorite artists win awards, so it was a fitting tribute in my opinion. People need to relax, including Bowie’s son.
  • Demi Lovato Brings the Fire - One of the few moments that I thought was going to end up as a disappointment was the Lionel Richie tribute. John Legend started things off because John Legend has never had a bad performance (I’m convinced). He was great as usual. Then Demi Lovato came out and, like Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl performance, unleashed this voice that makes you question the decisions most of these performers make regarding their albums. WHY DON”T YOU PUT THAT VOICE ON YOUR ALBUMS!?!?!? It was spectacular even though she took it a little too far and hammed it up a bit but still, it was the most impressive thing Lovato has done or will ever do, as far as I’m concerned. She was the highlight of what turned out to be a rather disappointing Lionel Richie tribute.

Music Review: David Bowie - Blackstar

For years and years I essentially had no opinion of David Bowie's music.  My parents didn't really listen to him when I was kid, so aside from a few radio singles like "Changes" and the Let's Dance stuff that was new at the time (which I frankly didn't and still don't think much of), I was never much exposed to Bowie.  As with bands like Led Zeppelin and Rush, I was almost totally ignorant of Bowie's work until much later (Thank you again, Mr. iPod!).  But after his unexpected death of cancer last month at age 69 I decided it was time to start exploring.  And since his latest album Blackstar came out just two days before he died and was getting rave reviews, why not give that one a listen?  Why not indeed?

The album is pretty short at 41 minutes and only seven tracks, but given that he was probably very ill while recording it that's perfectly understandable.

Blackstar opens with the title track, a ten-minute funeral dirge with a stuttering jazz beat.  Bowie's harmonized lyrics almost sound like a Gregorian chant, lending an overwhelming bleakness to the song.  This track, like many on the album, carry a "last words" kinda vibe.  Midway through the song everything shifts to a more positive tone, evoking images of a spirit rising from its spent body.  The second act then transitions seamlessly into the third, a slower refrain of the first section.  This marathon track's ten minutes fly by and I consider "Blackstar" to be the strongest song on the record.

Probably the weakest song is #2, "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore," a bass-driven, rather repetitious piece lamenting an ill-advised romantic attachment.  With this one there just isn't enough going on for me and the song feels unfinished.

Next up is another death-themed tune in "Lazarus," with its mellow alt-rock guitar and sick-bed lyrics about having "nothing left to lose" and being "so high it makes my brain whirl."  The main hook here is a simple saxophone melody in the intro that lends itself to the song's exhausted tone.  This is the anthem of a man who's prepared himself to say goodbye: "This way or no way/You know I'll be free."

The fourth track "Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)" is built on a Tom Morello-esque guitar riff and syncopated Stewart Copeland-type drum pattern, over which Bowie's vocals float, bidding farewell to a dying spouse, who it's later revealed had chosen another man.  This is probably the darkest song as far as subject matter goes.

My second favorite song on here is track 5, "Girl Loves Me," in which Bowie makes use of Nadsat, the fictional dialect created by author Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange.  Bowie's syncopated vocals bounce over a sparse, dark-sounding guitar/bass/keyboard riff, and the chorus has a very cool call & answer structure.  I like this one a lot.

"Dollar Days" is the airiest song on the album, with its sweet piano and bright acoustic guitars.  This one feels like an old classic rock tune that would maybe fit on one of Bowie's 70s albums.  It took me a few listens to appreciate "Dollar Days" but it's grown on me.

The album's final track feels like one last goodbye.  "I Can't Give Everything Away" sounds very 1980s, between the light soprano sax noodling over a bass/synth pad and Bowie's weary, sparse vocals.  There's even a flighty guitar solo in the middle that reminds me of Mark Knopfler.  The lyrical content to me reads like an attempt to sum up Bowie's career in as few words as possible but realizing such an endeavor would be futile.  "Seeing more and feeling less/Saying no but meaning yes/This is all I ever meant/That's the message that I sent..."  In the end it sums up Bowie's swan song nicely - how can you reduce the career of such an important artist to a few lines?  We all just have to take away from it whatever we can.

Since hearing Blackstar I've become pretty fascinated with Bowie; it's been a strong gateway to discovering his much-varied work, spanning 45 years (I was shocked by how many albums the guy recorded - that is one prolific dude) and covering virtually every genre of rock/pop.  Few artists have such a thirst for exploring new territory once they become famous; they tend to find a comfort zone after a while and stick to it.  But Bowie continually took risks and seemingly never apologized for it.  The seven tracks on this album are all completely different and adventurous in their own way, but the underlying message seems to be one of finding peace with this being the end of it all.  Blackstar is a fitting cap to a truly legendary career.

I give the album ***1/2 out of *****

Monday, February 15, 2016

NJPW The New Beginning, or The Arrival of Kenny Omega

Just got finished watching the Niigata half of NJPW The New Beginning, and wanted to throw in my two cents about this double PPV.  While neither show was necessarily an amazing PPV as a whole, both nights delivered some absolute instant classics and quelled some doubts about the future of NJPW, post-WWE talent raid.

The Osaka portion opened with a really wonderful little Young Lions bout, as Jay White and David Finlay brought some excellent European grappling to the proceeding.  I'd seen both these guys in tag matches before but I'm really impressed with their singles skills, particularly Mr. White's.  Jay has a fantastic look and is already mastering the same intricate mat style that Bryan Danielson pioneered a decade ago.  After enduring one of the most heartbreaking weeks in my time as a wrestling fan this match served as a reassuring reminder that life goes on and there's always exciting, fresh talent waiting to step up and fill the void left by our fallen heroes (Once again, #ThankYouDanielBryan).  I can't wait to see White and Finlay grow into full-fledged members of the New Japan roster.

Another peak was the Jr. Heavyweight Tag match pitting The Young Bucks against reDRagon and Sydal/Ricochet.  This was everything the WK10 opener was and more.  Having one fewer team meant this could be less of a spotfest and tell more of a clear story, and yet this still had almost non-stop offense.  Just an incredible display of Cruiserweight wrestling and I'm thrilled Sydal & Ricochet are the new champs.  Can't wait to see them defend in traditional tag bouts.

The showstopper in Osaka though was the NEVER Openweight match, as Shibata and Ishii built on last month's encounter and somehow managed to top the vicious brutality of that classic.  Instead of trading kicks to the back, this time it was traded suplexes.  Instead of uncomfortable, clunking headbutts (though there were a couple of those too), this time it was traded headbutts to the chest (Which is safer but actually looks more painful).  And of course there was that moment where Shibata swung a backfist that sounded like it shattered Ishii's eye socket.  These two just beat the absolute crap out of each other and set a new bar for the NEVER Openweight division.  Easily a ****1/2 match, and possibly the best NEVER match I've seen.

The main event was a bit underwhelming, as Kazuchika Okada defended against Hirooki Goto (sporting some pretty cool silver body paint covered with Japanese characters reminiscent of Hakushi).  There wasn't anything wrong with this match but it was nowhere near the level of the Openweight bout, and Goto doesn't quite have the chemistry with Okada that he and Nakamura had.  Okada obviously retained the Title and will presumably move on to a new challenger.

The Niigata card had some fun filler tag matches, including Naito & Evil vs. Michael Elgin and Jay White, and a return Six-Man Title match from Osaka (The Bullet Club won the first match and the Titles but lost the rematch in Niigata), but it was the final three bouts that made this show.

Jr. Heavyweight Champ Kushida defended against Bushi in a freaking fantastic match full of crazy highspots but tempered enough to make every move meaningful.  Naito and Evil repeatedly interfered and Bushi TWICE sprayed mist in Kushida's face, but Kushida eventually finished Bushi off with the Kimura.  Kushida is becoming one of the best things about New Japan and it'd be great to see him move into the Heavyweight division after a lengthy run with this belt.  I kinda liked this match better than the Jr. match at WK10.

Another match that seemingly upstaged its WrestleKingdom counterpart was the Heavyweight Tag rematch.  Anderson & Gallows finished their lucrative New Japan run on a high note, with possibly the best match I've seen from them.  Tag Champs Togi Makabe and Tomoaki Honma wrestled like they were ready to be the company's go-to team, and all four worked hard to make this a fitting sendoff for the former champs.

But the main event...sweet, merciful Christ that main event.  Kenny Omega vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi for the vacant I-C Title was a damn-near perfect match.  Omega, sporting new gear and carrying himself like a true main event star, targeted Tanahashi's injured shoulder early and made it the match's main story thread.  After early interference by Cody Hall and Takahashi, Omega banished them from ringside, apparently determined to win clean.  The match then settled into five-star mode, with Omega pulling out new high-risk moves and even stealing the Styles Clash.  Tanahashi on the other hand aped a couple of Nakamura's mannerisms, and worked Omega's leg.  The leg vs. shoulder battle added a fascinating layer and both guys sold like masters.  Late in the match though, The Young Bucks emerged from under the ring to wreak havoc, and Cody even showed up again to distract the official.  But none of the shenanigans got the job done (which I appreciated), especially after Michael Elgin ran in to even the odds, eventually carrying both Young Bucks back to the locker room.  Omega then attempted to finish Tanahashi with multiple Boma Ye knees but Tanahashi simply wouldn't stay down.  Eventually though Omega hit the One-Winged Angel for the win and the Championship.  This match was fucking incredible.

It's hard to pick between the NEVER match and the I-C.  They were totally different but both ****1/2 classics.  Suffice it to say though, both Titles are in very capable hands.  The underlying theme of these two PPVs was that, despite the loss of four members of the roster, New Japan can still deliver the goods.  Kenny Omega has arrived as the company's new top heel, Shibata and Kushida are both good enough to become Heavyweight Title contenders, and Jay White and David Finlay are two shining examples of the company's bright future.  Things are gonna be just fine.

Friday, February 12, 2016

NJPW The New Beginning Predictions, part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of the official NJPW New Beginning predictions!

**In case you missed Part 1, click HERE**

The second half of this double-shot PPV is all about the final three matches, all of which are for major championships.  Sadly the rest of this show consists of mostly filler tag bouts to continue the various feuds.  So I may get a lot of those wrong.  But here we go...

The Young Bucks & Cody Hall vs. Jushin Liger, Tiger Mask & Captain New Japan

After losting the Jr. Tag belts in Osaka (really psyched Sydal & Ricochet won the straps), Matt & Nick Jackson will be teaming with fellow Bullet Club member Cody Hall against the three masked men.  This is little more than a fast-paced opener, but should be fun.

My pick: Bullet Club

reDRagon vs. Kazushi Sakuraba & Gedo

This one is clearly to keep reDRagon's momentum up after Thursday's loss.  They'll get an easy victory here over the aging members of Chaos.

My pick: reDRagon

Matt Sydal, Ricochet & Tencozy vs. Yuji Nagata, Manabu Nakanishi, Ryusuke Taguchi & David Finlay

This'll be a wild clusterfuck-type match and I expect new Jr. Tag Champs Sydal & Ricochet to carry most of the workload.  Not much importance at all, but should be entertaining.

My pick: Team Tencozy

Los Ingobernables vs. Michael Elgin & Jay White

The rebuilding of Naito's stable continues as they face ROH favorite Elgin and rising Young Lion Jay White (who is really impressing me thus far - has shades of Bryan Danielson).  Naito should have some great exchanges with both opponents on his way to another win.

My pick: Los Ingobernables

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

NJPW The New Beginning Predictions, part 1

Welcome to another set of PPV Predictions!  This'll be a two-part piece, as NJPW is presenting their annual double-shot The New Beginning!  The New Beginning in Osaka is the first New Japan PPV post-Nakamura, and while his absence leaves a sizeable hole in the roster, both of these shows should still present some good matchups.  So let's take a look at the Osaka card....

David Finlay vs. Jay White

Both these young lions have loads of potential and this should be a solid opener if it gets enough time.  The company needs to elevate some young talent in a hurry, so this could be a great showcase for both guys.

My pick: Jay White

Jushin Thunder Liger, Ryusuke Taguchi & Tiger Mask vs. Gedo, Kazushi Sakuraba & Yoshi-Hashi

Another one of those filler six-man tags, there's not much at stake here.  I imagine the Liger team picks up the win as usual.

My pick: Team Liger

Tencozy vs. Yuji Nagata & Manabu Nakanishi

A tag battle of four veterans but not a lot going on with any of these fellas lately.  I'm guessing Tencozy wins here to keep them relevant as Tag Title challengers since Anderson & Gallows are about to head west.

My pick: Tencozy

Los Ingobernables vs. Kushida, Michael Elgin & Juice Robinson

This match should re-esablish Naito's stable as rising heel stars, particularly since The Bullet Club is losing three of its top members.  Plus this will be a preview of the Kushida-Bushi match on the other show.

My pick: Los Ingobernables gets a much-needed win

NEVER Openweight Six-Man Championship: Toru Yano & The Briscoes vs. Bad Luck Fale, Tama Tonga & Yujiro Takahashi

A rematch from WrestleKingdom 10, this is the first of two times these two trios will face off at New Beginning.  For some reason the second PPV will feature the same match but not for the belts, which leads me to believe they're splitting the wins.  I'm guessing that means The Bullet Club wins the belts here and then loses the non-title match so The Briscoes can look strong for when they come back to New Japan.

My pick: Bullet Club

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Daniel Bryan's Retirement

Well the thing I feared has come to pass.  Daniel Bryan's wrestling career is over, cut short at the age of 34.  No two ways about it, this fucking sucks.  Bryan's been my favorite wrestler in the world since 2007 when I first popped in the DVD of Ring of Honor's Fight of the Century and watched this diminutive grappler go a full hour with the monstrous Samoa Joe.  Here was a wrestler I'd heard so much buzz about as a true in-ring artist.  I'd attended a live ROH event that January and bought a handful of DVDs, most of which featured Bryan Danielson, and when I sat down to watch Fight of the Century I was shocked to learn this man wasn't a flashy high-flier but a grounded, technical wizard.  It was so refreshing to see the fluid, European style made famous by William Regal but turned up several notches.  From then on I sought out every Danielson match I could get my hands on, and marveled at his numerous bouts against Nigel McGuinness, whom I still consider Danielson's greatest opponent.  If you haven't seen Danielson in ROH, you simply must seek out shows like Driven, Unified (the two best Danielson-McGuinness matches), Dissension (vs. AJ Styles), and the aforementioned Fight of the Century.  The stuff he did in ROH was completely different from his strike-based WWE style, and for me even more compelling.

Daniel Bryan was a guy I'd resigned myself to believing would never be picked up by the 'E.  He was small and didn't have the look or the in-ring style Vince likes.  So I was shocked in late 2009 when Bryan and McGuinness were both signed (Nigel failed the medical screening unfortunately and went to TNA instead), but even then I figured "Ok Bryan'll be a tag team or I-C division guy for a while and then he can go back to ROH but make more money."  Not in my wildest dreams did I think Bryan would get to headline WrestleMania and leave as the company's top Champion.  Of course he mostly succeeded despite the company's best efforts, as they first stuck him on NXT with 7 rookies, booked him to go 0-10, bumped him from his first WrestleMania, had him lose in 18 seconds at his next one, and after becoming the company's hottest star in summer 2013 they attempted to dump him back to the midcard, making him all but an afterthought for WrestleMania 30.  Two things changed their plans: CM Punk, who was scheduled to face Triple H at WM30, walked out of the company; and Vince's plan to use the returning Dave Batista as that year's mainstream WWE Champion backfired horribly.  The fans would not accept anyone but Daniel Bryan as the company's central figure, and Vince begrudgingly shuffled the card around.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

NFL Pick 'em: SuperBowl Week

B-Cuddy’s Super Bowl Pick & Prop Bets

Well this certainly doesn’t have the same feel without the Pats. If their offensive line blocked better than a parking cone, they’d be playing Sunday. Instead, it’s been a Peyton suck fest for the last 2 weeks. I think the guy has had to answer 2 HGH questions. (Now another report is out about Manning hiring private investigators to go “talk” to the Al Jazeera source. Which I’m sure will still be justified by the likes of ESPN). Just compare that to the country shutting down for a squishy football last year. Damn it, I’m getting all pissed off again. Anyways...the Super Bowl is a gambling extravaganza. Even non-gamblers partake. Every office has some kind of pool going. But I never dabble in those. I don’t have the proper disposition to handle losing on a square to Suzy in HR when she’s asking which one is the “blue” team. Then she gets a 7 & 3 for her numbers, and asks “Are those good?” Go fuck yourself, Suzy. For real gamblers, the fun comes from not only the game, but the endless prop bets to choose from. Everything from the coin toss to how many orgasms Jim Nantz will have if Manning completes a 7-yard pass. (The line is 2, hammer the over). So without further ado, here are the best bets for Sunday...

Ya gotta love sports!

Denver vs Carolina (-6) & O/U 45 - The Picks: PANTHERS -6 + UNDER
Might as well get the actual game out of the way first. Everyone is on Carolina. So Denver will probably win or cover because the gambling gods are cruel. But I can’t for the life of me see Carolina losing this game. If they do, it’s because either Newton got hurt, or half their defense gets arrested right before kickoff. As for the Over/Under, I don’t see this game being a shootout. The only way this game going over is if Carolina steamrolls the Broncos and puts up around 40 points on their own, a la Seattle two years ago. Both of these defenses are really good. Add in the typical Super Bowl jitters, and I see low scoring, especially in the first half. Much like how a night with Danny ends, Carolina pulls away after a lackluster time. 26-10, Panthers.

Coin Toss: HEADS -105
Easy money.

First Score of the Game: Panthers Field Goal +350
Love this bet. You’re getting a better payout than a Panthers TD. Figure battling a good defense, this is the way to go.
BONUS: Also throw something on Panther Safety at +3300. You never know.

First Touchdown Scorer: Ted Ginn Jr. +1000
The smart bet is probably Jonathan Stewart +800. But be adventurous for fuck's sake. Newton has hit Ginn for long TDs all year. They will without a doubt take a shot down the field. Probably early. I also like Devin Funchess at +2000. If you want to bet a Bronco, Ronnie Hillman at +1400 is a decent investment.

Gatorade Color: Blue +300
I want to go Red here at +600. But nobody likes the red flavor. I think Carolina goes with a home hue.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Top Five Films of the Year: 2014

2014 had quite a diverse crop of good films.  As often happens, only a handful of memorable films came out in the first half, but the fall/winter season picked up pretty big and left us with some quality cinematic fare.  So let's look at the five best of 2014....

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel


I've historically not been much of a Wes Anderson fan.  He seems to fall into the "you either love him or hate him" category.  In my case it's been more like "I don't get him."  I was less than impressed with Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, finding them almost desperately quirky.  But with Grand Budapest he created a memorable, sardonic, atmospheric little black comedy about a hotel lobby boy (Zero) and his friendship with the head concierge (M. Gustave), who unwittingly finds himself the beneficiary of a deceased female guest, with whom he had a romantic relationship.  The inheritance is in the form of a very valuable painting, now highly sought after by the old woman's criminal son, and the chase is on to keep the painting in the hands of its rightful new owner.  The all-star cast includes Ralph Fiennes, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, and Tony Revolori as Zero.  Sporting a unique visual style and art direction, this film was an unexpected treat.  Watching these characters outmaneuver each other while delivering rapid-fire, stylized dialogue made for a tremendously charming experience.

4. X-Men: Days of Future Past

The sequel to possibly the best X-Men film thus far, DOFP picks up the story in the distant future, where mutantkind has been hunted to near-extinction by Sentinels, a fleet of superpowered robots designed in the 1970s by the bigoted Dr. Bolivar Trask.  Upon his assassination by Mystique, Trask was held up as a martyr and his Sentinel program gained support from the US Government, eventually leading to this dystopian future.  Professor X, Magneto, and the remaining mutants concoct a plan to send Wolverine's consciousness back in time to prevent Trask's murder, thus stopping the Sentinels from ever being commissioned, and altering the timeline.  Only problem is Xavier and Magneto are each at their lowest and least cooperative point in 1973, and Wolverine must talk them into working together for the eventual common good.  Full of great action set pieces and excellent performances (particularly by James McAvoy as the young Xavier), Days of Future Past continues the trend of great X-Men films and kinda sorta restores the continuity X-Men 3 so carelessly tampered with (Okay, it really doesn't restore anything, but who cares; this movie's awesome).

3. Birdman

The 2014 Best Picture winner, directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu stars Michael Keaton as an aging former superhero film star now relegated to a small Off-Broadway play in the hopes of reinvigorating his flagging career.  Filmed largely on handheld and presented as one fluid, unbroken shot, the film almost feels like a stage production and boasts multiple excellent performances by Keaton, Edward Norton as a self-important Broadway star, Emma Stone as Keaton's troubled daughter, and Zach Galifinakis in a rare straight-man turn as Keaton's lawyer.  The film contains themes about struggling with celebrity (or lack thereof), artistic integrity, redemption, and the theater itself.  Iñárritu and company have created a brilliantly unique, thought-provoking cinematic experience, and he would follow it up in 2015 with another one.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Top Five Films of the Year: 2013

2013 ended up being a great year in film.  I was worried there for a good nine months when almost nothing of note was released in the theaters.
The summer movie season, traditionally rife with fun popcorn fare, continued the trend of joyless disaster porn (except for amusing romps like Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness) and left me fearing the film industry had nothing new to show me.  As the fall rolled around I realized how wrong I was. 

2013's Oscar bait season was one of the strongest in recent memory, and four of the five standouts of the year (plus a few other gems) were released during 2013's closing months.

 5. Dallas Buyers Club

This grim but ultimately inspiring true story of rodeo cowboy Ron Woodroof's long battle with AIDS is an intimate character study that showcases two extraordinary performances.  Matthew McConaughey continues his impressive foray into serious cinema after a long stint as a typecast romantic comedy lead, and Jared Leto returns to acting after a five-year hiatus with a career performance as Rayon, Woodroof's transgender business partner.  Jean-Marc Vallee uses muted colors and stark realism to portray Woodroof's physical decline and personal redemption as he opens an unauthorized pharmaceutical distributorship for AIDS patients.  Both actors deservedly won Oscars in 2014 and the movie heralded a major comeback for McConaughey in particular.

4. Blue Jasmine

As someone who is not a self-described Woody Allen fan per se, I was incredibly impressed with this story of a disgraced woman's descent into self-pity and madness.  Cate Blanchett delivers probably the best performance of her career.  As Jasmine, the widow of an ultra-wealthy stock swindler who has lost her entire fortune, Blanchett creates a positively loathesome, self-obsessed character who has spent a lifetime looking down on the 99%.  And yet somehow though we as the audience should revel in her frankly rather well-deserved misery, we find ourselves rooting for her to pull herself out of financial ruin and get back on her feet.  That Blanchett is able to make such an awful woman so sympathetic is remarkable.  We spend the entire movie being disgusted with this character, but when her dishonest and manipulative plot to climb back up the social ladder fails in the end, we still feel for her.  This is the best Allen film I've seen.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Movie Review: Amy (2015)

by Michael Drinan

Last night, I finally got the opportunity to watch the Oscar-nominated documentary Amy, a look at the life and career of the late Amy Winehouse. The film was directed by Asif Kapadia, who also directed the fantastic documentary Senna (never knew I could have an interest in Formula One racing), and was released in July 2015. Films and documentaries about musical artists can be frustratingly shortsighted, choosing to focus mainly on the downfall (drugs, booze, affairs, etc.) of the artist while mentioning their career achievements as if it's merely window dressing. This film had that look so I went into it cautiously.

The first third of the film was refreshing and informative. It told the story of where Amy came from, her home life, how she became interested in music, how she connected with those who helped steer her career in the beginning, and detailed how she saw herself as an artist. I didn’t know she was originally a guitar player. The movie used home video footage and interviews from those who were close to her at the time, adding color to her career before she was a mainstay in the tabloids. She was portrayed beautifully and honestly by her closest childhood friends, and it showed her progression as a singer along with her development as an artist. Interviews from Tony Bennett, Mos Def, Questlove gave their personal stories, showcasing the human side of Amy that no one in the press or the fans ever had a chance to see.

Then, the film took a turn as her ex-husband came into the picture. The arc of her career and her music took a backseat to the tabloid circus she would mostly be remembered for. The recording of her first album Frank was talked about briefly and then the movie quickly moved to her touring on that album. I remained patient, hoping that covering the writing and recording process of her landmark album Back to Black would right the ship. I thought they couldn’t skip out on the details of one of the most successful and landmark albums of the 2000s.

Top Five Films of the Year: 2012

2012 was sort of a weird film year for me.  I had such incredibly high expectations for the year's slate of films, with multiple high-profile comic book-based movies being released, a prequel to Alien, and a new Quentin Tarantino film.  Some of the aforementioned were very good, some of them were pretty awful (*ahem* Prometheus), but I wouldn't necessarily classify anything that came out in 2012 as a truly great film.  Still there was a lot to like.

5. The Avengers

What a fun popcorn movie this is!  I honestly hadn't seen a pure summer action romp this entertaining in many years.  Since just about every action movie around that time tended to be dark, gloomy, disturbingly violent and devoid of likable characters (see Man of Steel), The Avengers was such a refreshing callback to a time when summer action movies were purely about exhilaration and escapism.  It's the deftly assembled climax to a series of Marvel Comics superhero movies, combining all the major characters in such a way that we don't need to spend much time on expository scenes (we've already done that in the previous films) and we can get right to the meat of the story and how these established characters interact with each other.  Director Joss Whedon manages to fit all these larger-than-life personalities into one film without it becoming overcrowded, and keeps the action set pieces fairly simple but memorable, resisting the temptation to make them overly long where they'd become tedious (unlike a certain Superman film I could name). 

The villain, Thor's brother Loki, is charismatic and just menacing enough to be a threat without darkening the mood of the film or distracting from the main thrust of the story - how these egotistical superheroes work together to save mankind.  In that respect The Avengers is almost an origin story in that we've never seen all these characters in the same film. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Music Review: Sia - 1000 Forms of Fear

Sia's 2014 breakout album 1000 Forms of Fear was for me (as I'm sure for most of her current fans) the gateway to appreciating this mammoth talent.  The streamlined, 48-minute running time contains nary an ounce of fat in its 12 tracks, and boasts some of the best-written and performed pop songs I've ever heard.  In general I'm not much of a pop music fan, but every so often an artist comes along who lends considerable substance to the genre and does things you wouldn't expect (I feel the same about Lady Gaga, for example).  In my experience the best albums tend to be the ones you only come to love after three or four listens.  Familiarity breeds further enjoyment, and albums that aren't so easily digestible are usually my favorites.  But amazingly 1000 Forms of Fear is instantly gratifying without simply running its course after three listens.  The songs are instantly hooky, yes, but beneath the surface is a mature singer/songwriter who 1) actually has something to say and 2) fills each song with layers upon layers of ear candy so each new listen brings a deeper experience.  This is the best album of 2014.

The album opens with Sia's massive hit song "Chandelier," about a lonely woman on an all-night bender.  Right off the bat Sia shows off her amazing vocal range and power, belting the bejeezus out of the soaring high notes in the chorus.  The theme of isolation continues in "Big Girls Cry," a more morose number with a very simple hook.  Next up is the more upbeat "Burn the Pages," which deals with the futility of regret - interestingly Sia cannibalized the song's key lyric "Put your past into a book/Burn the pages, let 'em cook" from her earlier ballad "Lullaby."

One of the instant standouts for me was the fourth track "Eye of the Needle," a joyous, anthemic ode to an unnamed songwriting inspiration.  This song feels enormous and inspirational in a totally non-cheesy way - no small feat.  A quirky indie-pop track is next - "Hostage" recalls with a saccharine tone Sia's less mainstream work on We Are Born.

My favorite song on the album is track 8, the other big single "Elastic Heart," a bittersweet power ballad about a messy breakup, featuring guest vocals by The Weeknd.  Both singers emote like crazy on this song, and I'll be damned if it doesn't get a little dusty in here (*sniff*).....

Another irrefutably hooky love song is the sanguine "Fire Meet Gasoline," the tenth track.  Along with "Eye of the Needle" this song contains the most unabashedly optimistic timbre as Sia hammers out the muscular chorus melody.

Finally there's the album closer "Dressed in Black," a bass-heavy dirge with an extended running time that actually imparts an uplifting message of finding love and hope where there was none.  The chord changes were more or less used again in Sia's current hit "Bird Set Free," but "Dressed in Black" feels much more weighty and groove-centric.  After many repetitions of the final chorus hook, the track ends with a pounded-out descending piano line, putting an exclamation point on this remarkable collection of songs.

Sia had a long career as a largely undiscovered songwriter prior to this album, and actually intended for 1000 Forms of Fear to be the obligatory final disc on her record contract before she focused exclusively on writing for other artists.  Fortunately the singles from this record took off, making her a household name and allowing her to continue creating and singing some of the best-constructed pop music out there.  That she finally got her big break in her late 30s is unusual in itself, but more striking is how stylistically different this album is from everything previous.  She has musically reinvented herself with each release and I'm excited to see where she takes it from here (2016's This Is Acting sounds much like 1000 Forms, but each of those tracks was originally written for someone else to sing).  What is happily certain is that the voluminously talented Sia is here to stay.

I give the album ****1/2 out of *****

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Top Five Films of the Year: 2011

Quite an eclectic crop of flicks we have sitting atop the 2011 heap.  We have a raunchy comedy, a comic book adaptation, a morose character piece, a lighthearted love letter to cinema, and a black & white silent film.

5. Bridesmaids

In the tradition of recent comedy hits The 40-Year-Old Virgin and The Hangover, screenwriters Annie Mumolo and SNL alum Kristen Wiig set out to prove female comedic actors could be just as raunchy and hilarious as their male counterparts.  Wiig stars as Annie Walker, a woman whose bakery and relationship have recently failed leaving her dejected and lonely.  Her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) announces she is engaged and asks Annie to be her Maid of Honor, prompting severe insecurity and jealousy issues when Annie meets fellow Bridesmaid Helen, the wealthy and beautiful wife of Lillian's fiance's boss.  A power struggle ensues between the two, who compete both for Lillian's attention and the glory of planning the pre-wedding festivities.  Annie also labors over a potential romance with Nathan (Chris O'Dowd), an affable fellow whose advances Annie's low self-worth prevents her from enjoying.  Bridesmaids assembles an uproarious cast, including The Goldbergs' Wendi McClendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper from The Office, and Melissa McCarthy, in a showstopping Oscar-nominated performance.  The six principle female stars have amazing comedic chemistry and their loose improvisational delivery fits the material perfectly.  Bridesmaids is yet another brilliant entry in the pantheon of Judd Apatow-produced comedies.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Music Review: Sia - This is Acting

Sia's latest album This is Acting doesn't quite have the epic, deeply personal quality of its predecessor 1000 Forms of Fear (which I consider the best album of 2014), but this collection of songs written for other artists does illustrate how gifted she is at crafting pop tunes.  Not only that, but her incredibly powerful, emotive vocals make even the cheesier songs ring true with a sense of world-weary maturity the intended artists probably would've lacked.

The first two songs were originally to be included on Adele's new album 25 (Adele had been suffering from writer's block for months before finally turning these songs down), and one can easily hear Adele singing them.  The simple but commanding "Bird Set Free" is reminiscent of Sia's previous song "Dressed in Black," with a similar chord progression but more melanchony tone, until the triumphant, instantly hooky chorus.  This is one of the album's standouts.  The other would-be Adele hit is "Alive," which features a soaring Adele-esque refrain but also some of Sia's rapid-fire rhythmic lyrics in the bridge.  Both songs take on an anthemic quality (Sia excels at imbuing her songs with universality).

Other standouts include yet another anthem, the exultant "Unstoppable," which would fit right in as an athletic fight song; a pair of Latin-beat dance numbers called "Move Your Body" and "Cheap Thrills," both of which are far better than they have any right to be; and the quirky bonus track "Summer Rain," which recalls some of her alt-pop work on We Are Born.

Overall I enjoy the first half of the album better than the second.  It could be because the songs don't quite have the depth of her previous albums given that she didn't write them for herself.  So it's a bit of a "diminishing returns" situation I suppose.  Her previous three albums had such a feeling of intimacy (and were all totally different stylistically), even on explosive power ballads like "Chandelier" and "Eye of the Needle;" Sia was clearly pouring out her soul on those songs, whereas many of these tracks feel a bit like exercises in hit-making.

The album title of course implies putting oneself in another's headspace while singing these songs, and despite a reduced personal connection Sia certainly does an admirable job of making us believe she means every word.  From a lesser vocalist/songwriter much of this album would be paint-by-numbers, but she adds her unique touch and delivery, so even the weaker tracks have a lot going for them.

This is Acting is most definitely a worthwhile listen.  It fails to reach the heights of 1000 Forms (Understandable given what a career apex that album is), but contains quite a few memorable, hooky pop songs.  Sia is exceptionally skilled at writing tunes loved by both the critics and the radio, and there's no shortage of those on This is Acting.  But now that she's fully accepted her considerable success as a pop star I'm just looking forward to the next record written specifically for herself.

I give the album ***1/2 out of *****

Top Five Films of the Year: 2010

2010 is one of the best overall film years I can remember.  Awards season featured so many good movies and memorable performances it was hard to pick a winner.  Even a few of the summer offerings were award-worthy.  Amazingly, four of these five films take place in Massachusetts.  Here we go....

5. The Social Network

Leave it to director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin to take a movie about the creation of a social media website and turn it into a riveting dramatic thriller.  The (mostly) true story of the creation of Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg's resulting legal troubles could've been a dull piece of techno-babble, but instead the filmmakers focused on Zuckerberg's personal relationships and his inability to relate to other people on a humanistic level.  Star Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark almost as an Asperger's victim.  He approaches every situation completely analytically and speaks to everyone in the most blunt terms possible, almost as though sugarcoating would be a waste of energy.  This has the effect of alienating almost every one of his friends, and his business decisions result in lawsuits, both from his roommate and FB co-founder Eduardo Saverin, and from the Wiklevoss twins, who claim he stole their idea.  The Social Network is presented as a tense, powerful, dialogue-driven pseudo-thriller, and the screenplay by the always excellent Sorkin moves along just fast enough to drive the story but not so fast we can't follow it.  In lesser hands this story would have focused too much on the technical aspects and lost the characters, but Fincher and co. know exactly how to draw the audience in.

4. The Fighter

David O. Russell's true account of Lowell fighter Mickey Ward ranks right up with Rocky and Raging Bull as one of the best films about boxing.  Ward's tale of an unlikely champion finally realizing his dream is a familiar one, but Russell uses hyperrealism for the fight scenes, emulating the look of a television broadcast capturing the action.  The film features three amazing supporting performances, all of which garnered Oscar nods.  Amy Adams plays Charlene, Ward's love interest and tough-as-nails local girl who isn't ashamed of who she is or where she came from.  She is drawn to Ward's awkward shyness and feels for his bizarre family situation, aware that the people he loves most are holding him back.  Melissa Leo won an Oscar for her performance as Mickey's mother/manager Alice.  Alice is incapable of making a business decision that isn't driven by her own personal issues.  She acts as much out of her own need for glory and gratification as for her son's well-being.  The Oscar-winning show-stealer in the film though is Christian Bale as Mickey's half-brother Dicky Eklund, a former fighter who, despite being a hopeless crack addict, still thinks he's going to make a ring comeback.  Like his mother, Eklund is a shaky-at-best hand guiding Mickey's boxing career and preventing him from succeeding.  These three characters engage in a power struggle to win Mickey's trust.  Charlene knows Mickey needs to distance himself from his dysfunctional family, while Alice and Dicky see Mickey as their meal ticket.  Mark Wahlberg as Mickey wisely keeps his performance understated, knowing he can't compete with such huge characters.  I've read some reviews stating Mickey was an unworthy protagonist who gets lost in the shuffle, but I found him easily identifiable as a quiet person surrounded by forceful personalities who are pulling him in different directions.  Russell has made an extraordinary career of taking strange characters and making us sympathize with them.  The Fighter is a showcase of superb acting, and one of the best of all boxing films.