Friday, February 23, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: The Martian (2015)

And we're back with yet another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at!

Set your time machine for 2015, because we're going all the way back to Ridley Scott's sci-fi drama-comedy(?), The Martian, starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor and a host of other recognizable supporting actors.  Essentially a desert island movie set in space, The Martian tells a simple and familiar story but does so with great attention to detail, a lighthearted sense of humor, and some stunningly convincing special effects.  The film is set in the not-too-distant future where NASA has begun sending manned missions to Mars, and during one such mission a dust storm sends an AV unit crashing into one of the astronauts, presumably killing him.  His team evacuates the planet before the storm disables their ship, and heads back toward Earth.  But Mark Watney is still alive and now must figure out how to survive on a barren planet until the next Mars mission arrives in four years.  Through video diary entries and fun montages we watch Damon's character try to tame this hostile environment, supplementing the team's food stores with potatoes he grows inside the habitat, fertilized with the team's frozen excrement.  Back on Earth though, NASA uses satellite images to deduce Watney is still alive and scrambles to plan a rescue mission.

Oscar Film Journal: The Zone of Interest (2023)

Nine down, one to go!  Welcome to another Oscar Film Journal, here at

Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest is unlike any other film you'll ever see about the Holocaust.  Told entirely from the point of view of Nazi Commandant Rudolph Höss (Christian Friedel) and his family, stationed in an affluent home adjacent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, the film is startlingly dispassionate in its depiction of the most heinous of war crimes.  Höss takes his family swimming, goes horseback riding, gets a boat for his birthday, throws backyard parties, leads a typical well-to-do suburban lifestyle.  And just over the garden wall plumes of smoke float up from the incinerators next door.  Höss's young son mimics the mechanical furnace sounds they hear all night, his daughter has trouble sleeping and watches the orange glow of the fires through a hallway window, but aside from his wife pilfering the occasional stolen fur coat and his older son examining his collection of gold teeth, this family scarcely acknowledges the unfathomable horrors taking place in their own backyard.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

WWE Elimination Chamber 2024 Preview & Predictions

Sigh....I'm not sure why I'm still covering WWE PPVs right now given how much awful shit has come out about that company and some of the people still working there, but here we go....

This Saturday the Elimination Chamber emanates from Perth, Australia, and like the Royal Rumble the card consists of the two gimmick matches plus two other matches.  As usual the Chamber matches will be a rather toothless affair since there's no blood allowed and the company substitutes weapons and occasional high spots for brutality, but there's enough talent in both matches that they should be pretty entertaining.  Aside from that we have a women's title match with a forgone conclusion, and a tag title match with a forgone conclusion (though that one should be excellent).

Let's take a look.

WWE Tag Team Championship: Finn Balor & Damian Priest vs. Pete Dunne & Tyler Bate

Thank Christ Pete Dunne gets to use his real ring name again.  That "Butch" stuff was fucking stupid.  Because most of Vince's creative ideas are fucking stupid.  Fuck that guy for all eternity.  Sorry, back on track.  This should be a helluva match; the challengers are fantastic wrestlers and the champs aren't too shabby either.  In fact I'd be shocked if this doesn't steal the show.  Give these guys 15-20 minutes and let 'em fly.

Pick: Champs obviously retain

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Don't Look Up (2021)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal, here at!

Plugging away at the list of 601 all-time Best Picture nominees, I'm now ten away from the halfway point, having just watched Don't Look Up, the sociopolitical satire from Adam McKay, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence.  The two leads play a pair of Michigan State astronomers who discover a comet somewhere between five and ten kilometers wide, which they've calculated will collide with Earth in just over six months, causing an extinction-level event.  When they present this information to the vapid, unqualified US President (Meryl Streep), her response is predictably dismissive and she cares more about how this will affect her polling numbers than the near-certainty that the world is going to be destroyed.  And even after the government's scientists confirm the data, the POTUS is nonchalant about formulating a plan to divert the comet, aborting the mission after an obscenely wealthy industrialist (a creepily soft-spoken Mark Rylance) informs her the comet contains ultra-rare minerals that can be mined for a massive US profit.  The story plays out as something in between a satire and a farce, I guess?

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Mank (2020)

The Oscars are only a few weeks away, so let's revisit a recent Best Picture nominee in this installment of the Oscar Film Journal!

I've seen this film a few times now and it's paradoxically both immersive and emotionally distant, it's David Fincher's Mank, starring Gary Oldman as infamous screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, the man who co-wrote Citizen Kane.  Jumping back and forth between Mank's 1930s heyday and his early 1940s exile, this unusual biopic tackles his self-destructive alcoholism, his touchingly sweet friendship with actress Marion Davies, his tangental involvement in the Upton Sinclair gubernatorial election bid, and his alienation of newspaper magnate William Randloph Hearst via the Kane script.

Recovering from a car crash at a southern California ranch and accompanied only by his secretary, Mank is recruited by Orson Welles (Tom Burke, doing maybe the best Welles impression I've heard) to pen the script for his debut feature film, for which Welles was famously given creative carte blanche (the only time the studio would ever entrust the young iconoclast with such control).  Deprived of alcohol by the ranch owner's "dry house" policy, Mank suffers writer's block until having booze smuggled into the house.  From here his script comes together quickly, a scathing indictment of Hearst that threatens to ruin Mank's career if the film is allowed to be made.  

Friday, February 16, 2024

Top Ten Things: Oscar Snubs, Best Picture Edition

Welcome to another Oscar-themed edition of Top Ten Things, here at!  The big Academy shindig is just days away, so why not take this opportunity to do more complaining about stuff they ignored over the years?

You may have seen my previous Oscar Snubs list, which centered on individual performances Oscar failed to recognize, but this time I'm talking about entire films that flew under the radar in the all-important Best Picture category.  So many great films both mainstream and otherwise have come and gone with little or no attention paid by the Academy, and some of them seemed tailor-made to garner award nominations.  But for whatever reason (in some cases political) they garnered large quantities of the shaft instead.  Here are twelve such examples, in chronological order...

1. City Lights (1931)

Only one of Charlie Chaplin's classic films, The Great Dictator, was ever nominated for Best Picture (partly because much of his work predated the Oscars), but here's a second film that should've been included.  City Lights is the delightfully touching story of Chaplin's Little Tramp, who falls in love with a blind flower girl, happens upon some money, and gives it all to her so she can get her eyes fixed.  Such a simple plot, but executed in the signature Chaplin style that earns both laughs and tears throughout.  The Academy was still finding its legs in 1931 (the release window was split over calendar years at this point), but surely there must've been a slot for what is widely considered one of Chaplin's greatest films.

Key Scene: The finale in which the now-seeing flower girl hands the Tramp a flower, touches his hands, and realizes he's the one who helped her see, remains one of the most genuinely touching in cinema history.  If this doesn't choke you up, you're a monster.

2. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Walt Disney's first full-length animated film broke box office records and blew everyone's mind-holes upon its release.  Disney had gambled basically his entire career and studio on this ambitious, expensive project, hoping to revolutionize animation, and it paid off in truckloads of cash and a cartoon feature dynasty.  An art form that had previously been aimed at entertaining children for 5-10 minutes in front of "real" movies was now looked upon as a true artistic achievement, and just about every animated feature since owes something to the success of Disney's first homerun.  But the Academy more or less viewed the animated film as something of a cheat, not to be judged alongside live-action movies.  Thus when it came time for awards season Walt Disney was given a somewhat begrudging Honorary Oscar instead of a bona fide Best Picture nod.  It wasn't until 1991 that an animated feature was given the big nomination (Beauty and the Beast), and not until 2001 did the Academy create a separate category for animated features.

Key Scene: Hard to pick just one, but I always loved the Queen's transformation into the old hag, reminiscent of Jekyll & Hyde.  Kids back then must've freaked the fuck out.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Top Ten Things: Oscar Upsets

Welcome to another edition of Top Ten Things, here at!  It's a list of ten things that stand aTOP all other things.  See?

Well we are in the midst of movie awards season, which for me means a mad dash to catch up on all the Oscar bait I haven't seen yet.  Thus when the Oscars roll around I'll be much more educated and opinionated about the winners and losers.  Over the years we've seen some pretty shocking winners; some pleasant surprises, some bile-churning outrages.  Very often it seems Mr. Oscar suffers from acute myopia, as literally dozens of Best Picture winners fail to make much of a lasting impression on the American lexicon, while many of the losers are universally lauded as masterworks for decades to come.  The same can be said of individual performances and the actors attached to them.  Sometimes an actor or actress can win the gold statue and go on to do literally nothing of note, while perpetually snubbed thespians continue to impress critically and commercially despite the lack of Academy love.

So let's take a look at the ten most noteworthy upsets in Oscar history.  This list includes nominees for Best Picture, Director, and acting awards.

10. Crash over Brokeback Mountain

One of the most infamous recent shockers took place in 2006, as Paul Haggis's ensemble piece about racial tensions in America took home the gold despite the outpouring of support for Ang Lee's touching cowboy love story.  Almost immediately Crash suffered something of a backlash, and few people today recall it as an all-time classic, while Brokeback Mountain helped launch the serious acting careers of Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, and of course the late Heath Ledger.  For the record I enjoyed both films but I didn't consider Crash a multiple-time watch.

9. Bob Fosse (Cabaret) over Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather)

Speaking of memorable vs. not-so-much, in 1973 choreographer/musical theater director Bob Fosse won the Best Director award for Cabaret, despite Francis Ford Coppola seeming a shoe-in for his masterful work on The Godfather.  The epic mafia drama has since become an essential part of any cinephile's collection, while Cabaret is.....well, not so much.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Top Ten Things: Oscar Snubs, Acting Edition

Hello and welcome to a special Academy Awards edition of Top Ten Things, here at!

Today I'll be talking about some of the great acting award snubs in Oscar's long and glorious history.  Every year it seems there are at least one or two major films or performances that either go ignored by the Academy or lose to inferior competition.  I can think of several films now heralded as all-time classics that were shown little Oscar love back in the day - Citizen Kane, It's a Wonderful Life, and the original Star Wars for example. 

Then there are the baffling upsets like Shakespeare in Love beating out Saving Private Ryan, Ordinary People being chosen over Raging Bull, Kramer vs. Kramer over Apocalypse Now, and of course Forrest Gump trouncing both Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption.

Additionally certain universally-acclaimed films over the years have simply been shut out of the proceedings.  Hoop Dreams for Best Documentary in 1994, The Lego Movie for Best Animated Feature in 2015, and for me, Boogie Nights for Best Picture in 1997.

But maybe the most common examples of the Academy failing to recognize deserving achievements fall into the acting categories.  So many great performances have gone unnoticed by the myopic Oscar over the decades.  I can name many more than ten, but this being a Top Ten Things column I've narrowed it down to what I feel are the ten most egregious snubs in Oscar history.

***Note*** Given how difficult it is to rank acting performances I'll be presenting these in chronological order.

1. Miriam Hopkins - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

As fiery dance hall girl Ivy Pearson, Hopkins delivered a performance on par with her Oscar-winning co-star Frederic March.  Their onscreen chemistry was phenomenal and helped elevate this version of Stevenson's classic novella into much more than a typical 1930s monster movie.  Throughout the film Hopkins' character is horribly victimized by the sadistic, abusive Hyde, and she amazingly conveys Ivy's desperation and hopelessness. 

Key Scene: Ivy visits Dr. Jekyll for help, unaware that he and Hyde are one and the same.  As she implores Jekyll to save her she erupts into tears while he looks on, overwhelmed by guilt at being the cause of her torment.  This is a heartbreaking scene.

2. Jeff Goldblum - The Fly (1986)

Another horror film that didn't require an Oscar-worthy performance per se, David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly is largely remembered for its gross-out makeup effects, as its protagonist Seth Brundle gradually deteriorates into a repulsive larva-man.  But underneath all that disgusting makeup is Jeff Goldblum, who went above and beyond to make Brundle into a three-dimensional character we simultaneously fear and pity.  The film is essentially an AIDS parable; Brundle's condition is presented as a cellular disease that both breaks down his body and strips him of his humanity.

Key Scene: Late in the film Brundle's ex-girlfriend Veronica (Geena Davis) visits his apartment one final time.  By this point Brundle has become a lumpy brown mass with insect mannerisms whose human side has almost totally receded.  He warns her to stay away, delivering a tragic monologue about the brutality of the insect brain.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: American Fiction (2023)

Welcome to the Oscar Film Journal, here at - eight Best Picture nominees down, two to go!

**Here there be spoilers**

Today's subject is Cord Jefferson's feature directorial debut American Fiction, starring Geoffrey Wright, Sterling K. Brown and a host of strong supporting actors.  Part family drama, part sociopolitical satire, American Fiction is about a struggling black writer who can't seem to sell any of his books to a publisher because they aren't "black" enough.  Thelonious "Monk" Ellison is an intellectual and a literature professor, and unfortunately the literary marketplace seems to only have room for black voices if they convey the usual stereotypes - poverty, broken families, violence and oppression.  Case in point a fellow novelist Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) publishes a novel called We's Lives in Da Ghetto to widespread critical acclaim and massive sales.  So Monk decides to write a similar novel under a pseudonym (Stagg R. Lee) as a middle finger to the publishing industry, a pandering, cliche-ridden downer called My Pafology, and much to his surprise and chagrin, his agent is able to sell the book for a whopping $750,000, plus a $4 million offer for the movie rights.  

Monday, February 12, 2024

Top Ten Things: Well-Deserved Oscars

Welcome to another Oscar-related edition of Top Ten Things, here at!

Taking a break from reviewing Best Picture nominees, here's a list of acting performances that absolutely deserved to win Oscars and rightly did.  I've talked before about times the Academy snubbed a great performance, and about shocking upsets, but there have certainly been times the right person won for the right role.  In fact there have been years when I've decided, "Regardless what wins Best Picture and all the others, as long as this person wins this award I'll be happy."  Below are sixteen such examples, in chronological order.

1. Rita Moreno (West Side Story)

Steven Spielberg's West Side Story may have defied expectations for a remake of a beloved classic, but said beloved classic still holds up all these years later, and one of the main reasons is because of the supporting turn by Rita Moreno as the strong-willed, sassy firecracker Anita.  Torn between her independent streak and her loyalty to boyfriend Bernardo and his gang, Anita reluctantly supports her best friend Maria's romantic pursuit of sworn enemy Tony, while at the same time trying to instill upon Maria how futile such a relationship really is.  Moreno lights up the screen every time she appears, bursting with effortless charisma and drawing all eyes to her.  When I discovered this film at age 13, it was Anita, and not Maria, whom I had a crush on.

Key Scene: I've never been a huge musicals guy, but for some inexplicable reason the "America" musical number brings a tear to my eye whenever I watch it.  This scene is just so spectacularly executed, plus the song itself so organically expresses the conflicting viewpoints of the American immigrant experience.  Bernardo and his friends long for Puerto Rico, a place where they aren't treated as second-class citizens because of their ethnicity, while Anita and the girls love the opportunities America affords them.  Such a neat little microcosm of this country's advantages and drawbacks.

2. Robert DeNiro (Raging Bull)

The Academy may have dropped the ball in many other categories from 1980 (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor), but one award that absolutely went to the right guy was the Best Actor statuette.  Robert DeNiro's tormented, violent turn as middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta remains his most noteworthy performance, and it's also the most famous example of an actor altering his body shape for a film (DeNiro gained about sixty pounds for the later scenes in which LaMotta lets himself go and becomes a seedy nightclub owner).  Had anyone else walked away with this award it would've been a crime.

Key Scene: Probably the most purely visceral scene is the one in which LaMotta goes to prison and throws a self-loathing-induced fit, pounding the crap out of the cement wall and wailing like a madman.  I can't imagine an actor having to endure more than a single take of this scene.

3. Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda)

A rare case of a comedic performance outshining the competition, Kevin Kline's brilliantly hilarious turn as Otto provided dozens of quotable lines and managed to steal the show from comedy legends John Cleese and Michael Palin.  Kline brought to life a dimwitted character in the smartest way possible, with an amazingly nuanced, uproarious delivery.

Key Scene: Probably my favorite moment (and my favorite to quote) is the profanity-laced chain of insults Otto hurls at Archie (Cleese) after catching Archie with Wanda.  Such a magnificent tirade.

4. Kathy Bates (Misery)

Stephen King's thriller about a crazed fan taking her favorite author hostage was skillfully adapted by Rob Reiner in 1990, and the main reason the movie version worked so well was the performance of Kathy Bates.  A relative unknown at the time of her casting, Bates adeptly alternates between matronly warmth and terrifying emotional instability.  She is totally effective as this obsessed manic-depressive, but in a very realistic way, making the whole ordeal that much more harrowing.

Key Scene: Upon learning her guest Paul Sheldon has been out of his room, she ties Paul up and drugs him, and explains both her discovery, and his punishment.  The calmness she conveys as she prepares to hobble him is truly chilling.

Friday, February 9, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Tàr (2022)

Welcome to yet another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at!

Backtracking a bit to last year's field and one of the three films I missed at that time, today it's the psychological drama Tàr, starring Cate Blanchett in yet another Oscar-nominated masterclass.  Directed by Todd Field - shockingly only his third feature as a filmmaker - Tàr is a character study about an acclaimed orchestra conductor whose life begins to come apart at the seams amid accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power.  As public opinion turns against Lydia Tàr, her mental/emotional state spins out of control and she alienates everyone in her circle.  

Despite being centered around a fictional character, this film plays very much like a biopic, namedropping several real-life figures (Lydia was mentored by Leonard Bernstein) and structuring the narrative as an episodic series of events.  The first act is elegantly written, dumping lots of exposition about Lydia - her accomplishments, her views on music - in the form of an interview with Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker.  We learn that she's set to record an album performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony in Berlin, where most of the film ends up taking place.  

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Past Lives (2023)

Seven 2023 Best Picture nominees down, three to go....

Today it's the debut feature from director Celine Song, a romantic drama called Past Lives, about two childhood friends who were separated at age twelve just as they were developing feelings for each other, now reunited after 24 years.  Na Young (renamed Nora after her family immigrated to Canada and then the States) and Hae Sung find each other on social media in their twenties and develop a very close virtual courtship, but their respective situations preclude them from meeting in person.  Another twelve years pass, and they finally have a chance to see each other, but now Nora is happily married.  Thus the major theme of nostalgic romance vs. a practical, loving marriage is explored.

Past Lives stars Greta Lee in a delicate, understated performance (Lee has a particular gift for conveying so much character insight and emotion with just her eyes), Teo Yoo as her would-be forever partner, still so unsure of himself after two-plus decades he almost seems in a state of arrested emotional development, and John Magaro as Nora's husband Arthur, a successful writer who is self-aware to a fault, acknowledging that in a traditional rom-com he would be the villain in this love triangle.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Anatomy of a Fall (2023)

Still rolling along with this year's Best Pic nominees, it's time for another entry in the Oscar Film Journal!

Today's subject is the procedural drama Anatomy of a Fall, from French director Justine Triet, about a woman unexpectedly put on trial after her husband is found dead from a three-story fall out a window.  Did he fall by accident or was he pushed?  The government suspects it was the latter.

Sandra Hüller stars as the wife (coincidentally named Sandra), a famous novelist who lives with her husband Samuel and their visually-impaired son Daniel.  The married couple has a strained marriage, in part due to her infidelity but probably even moreso because of her success as a writer where he failed.  Sandra is being interviewed by a female student when her husband, working in the attic, begins blasting music so loud the interview has to be rescheduled.  Sandra takes a nap while Daniel goes out to walk his dog Snoop, and on his return Daniel finds his father unresponsive and bleeding on the ground.

This sets in motion an investigation in which it feels like the authorities have already determined Sandra's guilt and at the ensuing trial it seems the burden of proof is on her rather than on the prosecution.  In one alarming moment the state's lawyer is actually allowed to present character dialogue from one of her novels as evidence Sandra herself was inclined to murder.  Throughout the trial we're given an increasingly clear picture of a crumbling marriage, leading up to a climactic flashback sequence (via secret recording) where Sandra and Samuel have a fiery conversation that dissolves into a shouting match and worse.  But of course the problem with the prosecution's case is that no one's life can be distilled down to a random five-minute recording, and Sandra insists her husband had become suicidally depressed in recent years, in spite of what his therapist claims.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Oppenheimer (2023)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal here at!  We're five weeks away from this year's awards ceremony, and coincidentally here's the fifth entry about one of this year's nominees....

The overwhelming favorite to take home the Best Picture trophy (and likely several others) this year is Christopher Nolan's epic biopic, Oppenheimer, chronicling the development and realization of one of the most important and terrible inventions of the 20th century, the atomic bomb.  Starring Cillian Murphy as the titular J. Robert Oppenheimer and a veritable who's who of a supporting cast, Nolan's three-hour opus is a cinematic tour-de-force, covering not only the American team's race to harness atomic weaponry before the Nazis did, but the far-reaching consequences of the bomb's World War II-ending implementation.

Murphy gives a career performance, playing Oppenheimer as a rather haughty but brilliant physicist whose political leanings are quite at odds with those of his imperialistic superiors in the war effort.  He understands that the atomic bomb is going to be invented, and that such a terrible power cannot fall into the hands of Hitler, but is also rightly haunted by the moral implications of such an innovation.  His opposite number is Rear Admiral and Atomic Energy Commission member Lewis Strauss, whose Machiavellian post-war plotting results in Oppenheimer's public disgrace once the government had gotten out of him what they needed.  Robert Downey is brilliant as this slimy, vindictive politician, quietly making moves to destroy the man who had made him look so foolish in front of the General Advisory Committee.  The third standout is Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer's wife Kitty, a sharp-witted free spirit who's able to see through the government's machinations and keeps Robert honest with himself.  

Monday, February 5, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

Welcome to another entry in the Oscar Film Journal, here at!

Today's subject is a doozy, Martin Scorsese's latest (and longest) film, Killers of the Flower Moon.  Adapted from David Grann's non-fiction book and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert Deniro (together onscreen for the first time in 30 years), KOTFM chronicles an appalling series of murders against members of the Osage tribe, who stumbled onto a massive Oklahoma oil supply in the 1920s, quickly drawing the attention of white opportunists.  Chief among them was William King Hale, a cattle baron and political boss who ingratiated himself with the tribe and inserted his dimwitted nephew Ernest Burkhardt as a benefactor by convincing him to marry into the family.  Hale and others then proceeded to consolidate the tribe's exorbitant wealth by killing off several members so more and more of the headrights (shares of the oil estate) would go to Ernest and his brother Byron in the event of their Osage wives' death.  The film chronicles one of the most shameful episodes in American history, as Hale and his accomplices commit these atrocities in plain sight, knowing that the systemic racism in place at the time would shield them from consequences.  

Friday, February 2, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: The Holdovers (2023)

Time for another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at!

Another of the current Best Pic nominees, this one comes from the director/star team that brought you the classic buddy/road/wine comedy Sideways, Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti.  Reunited after two decades, the pair are back with The Holdovers, a comedy-drama about a cantankerous teacher and his disobedient student, shut in together at their Massachusetts boarding school over the 1970 winter break.  Professor Paul Hunham gets stuck with this two-week assignment as punishment for failing a legacy student, while junior Agnus Tully is stranded at school after his mother cancels their planned family trip so she and her new husband can get away alone.  Both student and teacher profoundly resent each other but slowly begin to find common ground, thanks largely to a neutral third-party, the school's head cook Mary Lamb, whose son was recently killed in Vietnam.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Maestro (2023)

Rollin' right along with this year's Oscar Film Journal....

Today's movie is the Bradley Cooper-helmed biopic about Leonard Bernstein, entitled Maestro, in which a barely recognizable Cooper also plays the title role beneath some absolutely stunning makeup (about which there was some quite unnecessary to-do online).

The film documents Bernstein's rise to fame and prestige as one of the world's eminent orchestra conductors and composers, set as the backdrop for the film's real focus, his roller coaster relationship with wife Felicia Montealegre (an always fabulous Carey Mulligan).  Using numerous film formats (mostly 4:3) and color palettes (the first act is shot in glorious high-contrast black & white), Cooper and his cinematographer Matthew Libatique (A Star is Born) plunge us right into Bernstein's topsy-turvy world of music, parties and torrid affairs (mostly with men).  We follow the composer and his marriage from the mid-1940s to Felicia's tragic death of cancer in the late 1970s, and the camerawork and art direction really capture each era splendidly.

Less effective is Maestro's structure, which follows the tried and true biopic format - a series of important moments and episodes in the lives of these two people, almost entirely in chronological order.  Had Cooper et al found a less conventional way of assembling the screenplay it would've resonated much more strongly I think; the film keeps us a bit at arm's length, both in terms of never quite letting us past Bernstein's public persona, and via first-act dialogue that's so snappy and 1940s-esque it's hard to keep up with at times.  I did however appreciate the script's Orson Welles approach of having characters talk over each other as people tend to do in real life.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Barbie (2023)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal here at!  Yes, my years-long trek toward viewing every Best Picture nominee continues for the fourth Oscars season (286 out of 601 as of now)....


Catching up on some of the 2023 summer fare I missed (trips to the movie theater are sadly all too few and far between these days), I finally took a gander at the year's top blockbuster Barbie.  Directed and co-written by Greta Gerwig (with her husband Noah Baumbach), this monumental smash-hit pulled in over $1.4 billion at the worldwide box office and alongside The Super Mario Bros Movie and Oppenheimer, became part of the first triumvirate of films since 2001 to top the charts without a sequel among them.  Granted, two of the three are based on well-known toy/game properties, but it's a start.

But all that is neither here nor there, is the film any good?  Yes, quite actually.  Starring an absolutely magnetic Margot Robbie as "Stereotypical Barbie," Gerwig's first popcorn movie is rife with her signature biting sense of humor and quick wit, but also plenty of valuable social commentary.  

The film opens with an homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, with narrator Helen Mirren explaining how for generations girls' dolls were designed with one objective: to help prepare their target audience for motherhood.  They were dolls modeled after babies and toddlers, and playtime consisted of little future homemakers caring for pretend offspring.  But with the advent of Barbie in 1959, suddenly girls were given a new type of role model, the impossibly statuesque career woman - Barbie could be a doctor, an astronaut, an athlete, etc.  And in a perfect world that would've been enough to create equality among men and women.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

The History of WWE Royal Rumble (2023)

The 2023 Royal Rumble was a large improvement over the previous year's, where two deserving winners earned their WrestleMania title matches (sadly only one actually got their win at 'Mania but that's another conversation), and a major angle took place at the end of the show to set up the main event at Elimination Chamber.

For the first time in seemingly forever, the men's Rumble match had actual stories woven throughout and was designed to set up numerous WrestleMania matches, which is really the bare minimum that should be expected for any Rumble match.  If you just spend a little time creating and/or furthering individual conflicts and sprinkle those things across the hour-long Rumble match, that automatically makes it stand out from the others.  It gives everyone a reason to become invested and makes the 60-plus minutes fly by.  WWE did this in the men's Rumble in 2023.  This Royal Rumble was for me a top-five Rumble match, boosted by the work of Gunther, who entered at number one and was the last man eliminated, breaking the longevity record for a 30-man Rumble (Bryan Danielson still holds the overall record but that Rumble was a 50-man field).  Brock Lesnar entered surprisingly early and after a dominant few minutes was even more surprisingly ousted by Bobby Lashley, thus setting up their Elimination Chamber singles match (which sucked).  Rey Mysterio no-showed his number 17 entrance and it became apparent when his son Dominik entered at 18 wearing Rey's mask that he was attacked backstage (in reality Rey was injured the night before on Smackdown, but this was a pretty good way to cover it up).  Other standouts included Sheamus and Drew McIntyre, who teamed up for most of their time together and looked dominant, Ricochet and Logan Paul, who provided one of the coolest-looking spots ever in a Rumble match, a simultaneous springboard leap that resulted in a massive midair collision, and of course Cody Rhodes, who made his triumphant return at number 30 and survived a brutal seven-minute finale with Gunther to win the whole thing.  This is how you book a Royal Rumble match.  Sadly it was the opening contest and the show never reached these heights again.  

Participants: Gunther, Sheamus, The Miz, Kofi Kingston, Johnny Gargano, Xavier Woods, Karrion Kross, Chad Gable, Drew McIntyre, Santos Escobar, Angelo Dawkins, Brock Lesnar, Bobby Lashley, Baron Corbin, Seth Rollins, Otis, (Rey Mysterio), Dominik Mysterio, Elias, Finn Balor, Booker T, Damian Priest, Montez Ford, Edge, Austin Theory, Omos, Braun Strowman, Ricochet, Logan Paul, Cody Rhodes
Final Four: Cody Rhodes, Gunther, Logan Paul, Seth Rollins
Long Man: Gunther (1:11:40)

The History of WWE Royal Rumble (2022)

Ah WWE circa 2022, a company without highs or lows, where every PPV (ahem, premium live event, a phrase no real human being will ever use in actual conversation) is steeped in mediocrity and there's no reason to get invested in anything because the company will just screw it up anyway.

The 2022 Royal Rumble fits the above description to a tee.  A bunch of just-okay matches, in one ear, out the other, the details of which will all be forgotten by WrestleMania.  No one gets over except the one or two established stars the company wants to push, thus both Rumbles felt like everyone involved was just killing time.  Was it a reasonably entertaining way to spend four hours?  Sure.  Was anything here even close to being a great match or having any historical significance?  Nope.  Even the first-time WWE Title match with a big-fight feel was more of the same ol' shit with repetitious action and a bad finish.  WWE could fuck up a can of Pringles.

Speaking of bad finishes, the show started with Roman Reigns vs. Seth Rollins, in a very well-worked Universal Title bout where Seth, dressed in his old Shield gear and entering through the crowd to the group's classic theme, resided fully in Roman's head.  No matter how badly Roman beat him down, Seth kept smiling and asking for a fist bump.  Roman couldn't stay on his game and Seth dominated much of the bout.  They did the old spot from 2016 where Roman went for a spear and Seth countered into a Pedigree for a near fall.  This was a very good match.  And then the finish happened.  Roman locked in a guillotine choke, Seth struggled to get to the ropes but fell short and went limp.  The referee lifted Seth's arm for one, two, and on the third drop, Seth's hand fell on the bottom rope.  Yes, the referee inadvertently put Seth's hand on the rope, and then demanded Roman break the hold.  Ummm, what?  How can that be a rope break if the referee is the one who put his hand there?  Roman, the heel, rightly refused to break the choke and was disqualified.  So Seth got legitimately beaten and Roman did something stupid to cost himself a sure victory.  Who was this designed to get over?  This was yet another very good WWE match ruined by stupid WWE booking.  And sadly it was the best thing on the show.  

The History of WWE Royal Rumble (2021)

2021: The Royal Rumble comes to Thunderdome, one Rumble match is used to create a new star, the other is used to.......give an old star a win he didn't need....

Tropicana Field - 1.31.21

The 2021 Rumble took place in front of the virtual Thunderdome crowd and was a very mixed bag of a show, par for the course with WWE circa 2021.  Both Rumbles were entertaining.  One elevated two very deserving young stars and it felt like the company's priorities were in the right place.  The other didn't elevate anyone and boasted the oldest field in Rumble history, with the average age being 39 years old and OVER HALF the field being over 40.  We got a mostly very good Last Man Standing match with a hilariously botched ending, another psychology-free Goldberg match, and a passable women's singles bout.  So not a bad show, but not one that will stand out in the Royal Rumble annals either.

The show opened, mercifully, with the Goldberg match.  I was glad to see them get this one out of the way.  It was of course the usual two-minute finisher fest.  Remember in 2003 when Goldberg actually did five or six different moves?  The two guys started before the bell, with Drew McIntyre shoving Goldberg and hitting him with a spear.  Both guys rolled out of the ring and Goldberg returned the favor, spearing Drew through the ring barricade.  They teased Drew not being able to continue, but he demanded the match be started officially.  Goldberg went for a spear but Drew hit the Claymore and covered him.  Goldberg kicked out, becoming only the second guy to do so, after Brock.  Goldberg hit a spear and jackhammer, Drew kicked out.  Drew hit another Claymore and pinned him.  Goldberg was visibly winded after roughly three minutes of activity.  Goldberg shook Drew's hand and said he passed the test.  Oh, I'm sure Drew was overwhelmingly flattered that the two-move guy now respects him...  This was fine as a dumbass finisher match, but why does the company keep doing these?  Fucking pointless. 

Anyone else tired of seeing this same match over and over?

Next up was Sasha Banks carrying Carmella through a solid women's match for the second time.  Still this wasn't bad.  Carmella's valet Reginald interfered a few times, mostly to catch Carmella as she fell out of the ring.  Late in the match Carmella hit a tope and landed on her face, an absolutely brutal-looking landing that she was lucky didn't leave a mark.  She hit a pair of superkicks but immediately fell victim to the Bank Statement and tapped.  That ending was pretty sudden.  But this match was alright. 

The History of WWE Royal Rumble (2020)

The 2020 Royal Rumble served as the coronation of Drew McIntyre, over a decade after his WWE debut.  In that regard it was a success, if Drew as the top babyface is your cup of tea.  I was underwhelmed.....

The show kicked off with an overlong bells & whistles brawl between Roman Reigns and Baron Corbin. This pairing has never done anything for me and this was no different. They fought in the ring for several minutes and then brawled all around the stadium; since it’s such a big venue this undoubtedly helped bloat the running time. Near the end of the match Roman locked Corbin in a porto-crapper and tipped it over. Uhhh, okay. Then both guys ended up on top of a dugout, where Reigns finished him with the punch/spear combo. At least the finish was fun. This didn’t need more than 15 minutes but it got 21. Shane vs. Miz at Mania 35 was more entertaining. 

The women’s Rumble was shockingly early in the lineup. This was definitely better than 2019’s women’s Rumble but not a great one, and the wrong woman won.  This should've been Shayna Baszler's big moment given her buildup the previous few months.  On the plus side though, Shayna was booked like a monster for her four minutes, and Bianca Belair looked like a huge star in her 33-minute run. Each woman tossed out 8. Other than that we got a helluva run from Beth Phoenix, who withstood a bad cut on the back of her head and made it to the final three after tossing out her bestie Natalya (payback for 2018), and a lot of overly quick eliminations of NXT stars.  It came down to Shayna vs. Charlotte, and rather than go the logical route set up at Survivor Series they had Charlotte head scissor Shayna over the ropes to win. Charlotte would go on to challenge Rhea Ripley for the NXT Title, a match I was really excited about until Charlotte got to beat her, thus derailing Ripley's monster push.  Well done, guys.  This Rumble was fine but I didn’t like the result at all, and history agrees with me.

Participants: Alexa Bliss, Bianca Belair, Mighty Molly, Nikki Cross, Lana, Mercedes Martinez, Liv Morgan, Mandy Rose, Candice LaRae, Sonya Deville, Kairi Sane, Mia Yim, Dana Brooke, Tamina, Dakota Kai, Chelsea Green, Charlotte Flair, Naomi, Beth Phoenix, Toni Storm, Kelly Kelly, Sarah Logan, Natalya, Xia Li, Zelina Vega, Shotzi Blackheart, Carmella, Tegan Nox, Santina Marella, Shayna Baszler
Final Four: Charlotte Flair, Shayna Baszler, Beth Phoenix, Natalya
Long Man: Bianca Belair (35:29)

Monday, January 29, 2024

WWE Royal Rumble 2024 Review: Was That the Best They Could Do?

The 2024 WWE Royal Rumble was....a show.  Some stuff happened, there were some winners and losers, and the ending was the right one.

Whereas last year's Rumble show, while not a great PPV, felt purposeful and featured one of the best Rumble matches of all time in the men's edition, this year's felt rather obligatory and pretty bereft of memorable events, some surprise entrants excepted.  Both Rumble matches where just kinda there, and the crowd responded as such.  The hot San Antonio crowd from 2023 was sorely missed, as the St. Petersburg audience this year sat on their hands for a lot of the show, which dragged down large chunks of the two Rumble bouts.  The two non-Rumble matches likewise failed to light up the fans, no doubt in part because the results were a forgone conclusion.  Even CM Punk's return to a WWE ring for the first time in a decade didn't land the way it should have (which just further points to AEW executing his return better).

The History of WWE Royal Rumble (2019)

Well it wasn't the blow-away event it looked to be on paper, but the 2019 Royal Rumble was a fine show with a slew of very good matches and nothing bad.  Hard to complain about that.  Even the pre-show stuff was solid (Check out the blistering Cruiserweight 4-Way especially).

The 2019 Rumble was all about building the two big babyface WrestleMania challengers (who both ended up winning and subsequently started dating, becoming WWE's new power couple).

The show kicked off with a pretty great Asuka-Becky Lynch bout that was rock solid technically and built to a series of traded submission attempts.  After a brutal-looking Asuka cradle neckbreaker off the apron to the floor, Asuka and Becky made their way back into the ring for a climactic stretch where both women attempted to tap the other with her own finisher.  Finally Asuka scored an Asuka lock, and turned it into a Cattle Mutilation-esque variation by bridging on top of Becky for the tapout win.  This match was probably my favorite on the show.  Excellent stuff that made Asuka look really strong but showed Becky could keep up.  I was quite sure we hadn't seen the last of Becky.  Asuka was unfortunately depushed like crazy after this, and took most of the year to recover as they finally built up a rematch.

Next up was the one match I didn't care about, The Bar vs. Shane & Miz.  But this was fun.  Cesaro and Sheamus worked a stiff match as usual, Miz stayed away from most of it, and Shane took some good spots while dishing out a few of his own.  I still have a problem with the near 50-year-old non-wrestler Shane going toe-to-toe with actual wrestlers, but he made it entertaining at least.  The spot of the match was Shane going for a coast-to-coast on both Bar members only for Cesaro to stand up and catch him for a Giant Swing - very cool counter.  Finally Miz hit Cesaro with the Skull Crushing Finale and Shane landed a shooting star press to win the belts.  This title win was designed to build to a Shane-Miz feud, which ended up being horrible and made Miz look like a total geek when he couldn't ever beat his 48-year-old non-wrestler rival.

Friday, January 26, 2024

The History of WWE Royal Rumble (2018)

Time for one of the better recent Royal Rumble shows....

Wells Fargo Center - 1.28.18

2018 kicked off with a helluva good PPV, as WWE continued its rediscovery of how to put on a fun Royal Rumble.  TWO in fact.  For a while there the Rumble had become one of my least favorite events on their calendar, but by 2018 it had fully returned to form, with one of the best examples of the gimmick, plus an historic first women's edition.  There was nary a bad match on the main card, both Rumbles delivered, there were memorable moments abound, lots of fun surprise entrants, a clear direction for WrestleMania, and a monumental debut to end the show.  Hard to ask much more of a Rumble PPV.

First up, oddly, was the WWE Title match.  AJ Styles defended against Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, in a crisply worked 16-minute match.  Nothing spectacular here, but the three of them worked well together and AJ even got to bust out his moonsault-reverse DDT combo (the first WWE instance of this move I remember seeing).  Styles retained after countering an Owens pop-up powerbomb into a roll-up, but Owens and Zayn protested since Owens technically hadn't tagged into the match.  Solid opener.

Next was the Smackdown Tag Title match (SD kinda got shafted with this lineup; both of their bouts went on first), as The Usos defended against Chad Gable & Shelton Benjamin.  Energetic, fast-paced and well-booked, with a shocking two straight falls for Jimmy and Jey, this was a fine undercard match.  I liked that the first fall was long and the second fall was surprisingly short - it was realistic and defied the typical structure for a 2/3 Falls match.

The men's Royal Rumble was third out of six, which was pretty baffling until the end of the show when it was made clear why.  I daresay this was the best Rumble match since 2004.  The booking of this match was predictable in a good way; everyone who should've gotten to shine did.  The final five ended up being the five most plausible winners.  Finn Balor entered at number 2 and made the final four, having lasted 57+ minutes.  And of course Shinsuke Nakamura got his WWE career-defining moment by outlasting both John Cena and Roman Reigns to win the whole thing (after 44 minutes of in-ring time).   This is how you book a Royal Rumble match in 2018.  Other notes: The returning Rey Mysterio looked better than he had in ten years, Andrade Almas and Adam Cole both had good showings and it was great to see the NXT guests not geeked out on the main roster for a change (Almas's main roster career is another matter unfortunately).  Anyway, this was a fantastic Rumble match that ranks up there with the 1992 and 2004 editions.  WWE's follow-up on Nak's big moment of course sucked, as he failed to dethrone AJ Styles for the title at four consecutive shows, two of those matches going to a draw.  But for one night it looked like Nak was poised to break the glass ceiling.

Participants: Rusev, Finn Balor, Rhyno, Baron Corbin, Heath Slater, Elias, Andrade Almas, Bray Wyatt, Big E, Sami Zayn, Sheamus, Xavier Woods, Apollo Crews, Shinsuke Nakamura, Cesaro, Kofi Kingston, Jinder Mahal, Seth Rollins, Matt Hardy, John Cena, The Hurricane, Aiden English, Adam Cole, Randy Orton, Titus O'Neil, The Miz, Rey Mysterio, Roman Reigns, Goldust, Dolph Ziggler
Final Four: Shinsuke Nakamura, Roman Reigns, John Cena, Finn Balor
Long Man: Finn Balor (57:30)

The match given the unenviable post-Rumble spot was Seth Rollins and Jason Jordan vs. The Bar.  This was easily the weakest match on the show and since Jason Jordan was injured and still hasn't returned, the whole angle was pointless, but this was inoffensive.  And The Bar regained the straps as they should have.  So no complaints there.

The History of WWE Royal Rumble (2017)

WWE returns to the Alamodome after 20 years and delivers another strong showing....

The 2017 Rumble (the first to be a four-hour show) and its main event took a lot of flak at the time, mostly due to the booking which was admittedly pretty unexciting.  No one new was positioned to be "made" with this match; it centered around the "safe" choices and we didn't get the expected Samoa Joe debut or a Kurt Angle return.  However we did get a very unpredictable Rumble with a larger field of potential winners than we'd had in a very long time.  There were easily ten or so guys who could reasonably have walked away with the WrestleMania title shot, and that's nothing to sneeze at.  Aside from that, the Rumble match had a couple little surprises, like Tye Dillinger entering at #10 and Jack Gallagher making the most hilarious use of an umbrella I've ever seen.  Other highlights were Jericho as the long man once again (lasting just over an hour), Braun Strowman pulling a 1994 Diesel and killing a buncha guys before being eliminated, Goldberg besting Brock Lesnar for the second time, and Roman Reigns eliminating The Undertaker and setting up their WrestleMania match.  This Rumble match was not unlike the 2001 version in some ways - the surprise entrants were minor but the match had a good amount of star power and primarily served to reinforce the established names.  The real issue with this Rumble match, as is often the case with WWE, was the follow-up.  Randy Orton won the match, turned on his supposed friend (and by this time WWE Champion) Bray Wyatt, and proceeded to have the worst feud of 2017 (if not his whole career).   I had few gripes about this Rumble match itself - it was fine in a vacuum.  It unfortunately led directly to a road of shit.

But what really made this show stand out was the undercard.  I say without hesitation this was the finest Rumble undercard WWE has ever produced.  Two stellar Title matches and two solid title matches, with not one stinker on the entire PPV.  One can't really ask for more than that out of a Royal Rumble undercard, which generally trends toward uneven at best.

The Women's Title match opened the show and this was the absolute right move to get the San Antonio crowd invested.  Charlotte vs. Bayley felt like the first match in a series, and they got a respectable 13 minutes to tell a story.  This match didn't blow the doors off the place but it wasn't designed to - it felt just about right for its place on the card, and the finish was novel if sudden - Charlotte nailed Natural Selection on the ring apron before rolling Bayley away from the ropes and scoring the pin.  Good opener.

Next up was the first of two monster Title bouts, as Kevin Owens defended against Roman Reigns in a No DQ match with Chris Jericho in a shark cage above the ring.  Unlike their lackluster Roadblock match the month before, this was an energetic, wild brawl that made great use of tables and chairs (though Jericho got less on-camera time for comedy than I was hoping for).  After multiple table powerbomb spots, Reigns seemed a lock to win the Universal Title when Braun Strowman appeared and decimated the unpopular Samoan, allowing Owens a cheap win and leading to a months-long feud between them.  This was a fun bells & whistles kinda match.

The weakest match of the night, by default, was the Rich Swann-Neville Cruiserweight Title match.  But there was nothing wrong here, other than the fact that the audience still didn't care at all about these Cruisers.  Neville captured the Title in 14 minutes with The Rings of Saturn and went on to have easily the best title reign to date of this version of the Cruiserweight division before leaving the company several months later.

The show stealer, as expected, was AJ Styles vs. John Cena for the WWE Title.  Goddamn this was great.  AJ and Cena delivered a strong showing at 2016's Money in the Bank and an insane spotfest at Summerslam, and tonally this match fell somewhere in the middle.  There was more storytelling here than at Summerslam but the traded finishers and kickouts were still prevalent.  Cena finally avenged his two losses to tie Ric Flair's 16-time Championship record, but Styles was kept looking really strong in defeat, kicking out of multiple AAs and only falling to a double AA.  This ranks right up there with the best Rumble undercard matches in history.

So I had almost no complaints about this show as a standalone PPV.  Every match was good or great, the crowd was hot, the Rumble was unpredictable.  Aside from the mostly terrible aftermath of this show there was little to find fault with.  A pretty great Rumble PPV.

Best Match: AJ Styles vs. John Cena
Worst Match: Rich Swann vs. Neville
What I'd Change: I'd have debuted Samoa Joe and had him murder a buncha guys in the Rumble
Most Disappointing Match: I wouldn't say anything was really disappointing
Most Pleasant Surprise: That the Rumble winner was under 40
Overall Rating: 9/10

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Thursday, January 25, 2024

The History of WWE Royal Rumble (2016)

2016 - Roman Reigns is struggling to get over, so the company crowns a hot young new champion.....who is 46 years old....

Royal Rumble - Amway Center - 1.24.16

In another case of low expectations paying off, I really enjoyed Royal Rumble 2016.  For the first time in close to a decade WWE presented a Rumble card that had nary a bad match, plus a very fun Rumble match that felt like it shook things up a bit.  The main event scene heading into WrestleMania 32 may have been the drizzling shits but starting here the undercard began to take a more interesting shape, thanks in part to a huge new addition to the roster.

The opening match on this card stole the show, as hated rivals Dean Ambrose and Kevin Owens squared off in a Last Man Standing match for the I-C Championship.  It's well-documented that I'm usually not too fond of the LSM stipulation, but these guys a) didn't waste much time on near-falls (or near-counts?) and b) worked in some clever spots (like Owens rolling out of the ring at the last second and landing on his feet to keep the match going).  They got a solid 20 minutes to create a really strong fight and told a great story of two guys who really despised each other.  Damn good stuff there.

These two know how to stage a fight

The New Day-Usos Tag Title bout was next, and while I was sick of seeing these two teams fight each other, it was a solid outing - well-worked and energetic, and The New Day retained to keep their historic Title run going.

The Kalisto-Alberto Del Rio US Title match was a fun little underdog story; Kalisto had beaten Del Rio for the belt the previous week only to lose it back a day later (I hate when they do that), but he managed to wrest the championship back on this show in a solid eleven-minute bout.  Del Rio would go back to being booked alongside his League of Nations pals before exiting the company again several months later.

Next up was the Divas Championship, which again was a well-worked little match.  Charlotte defended against Becky Lynch in a match nowhere near as good as these two were capable of, but still light-years better than anything since the Trish Stratus era.  2016 would see a major upturn for the main roster women, and this was a pretty good start.  The finish was silly but I actually kinda liked it.  Becky snared Charlotte in the Dis-Arm-Her, but Ric Flair tossed his jacket over Becky's head, distracting her long enough for Charlotte to hit a match-ending spear.  The post-match angle got my engine all revved up, as Sasha Banks stepped up and challenged Charlotte, rekindling their feud from NXT and beginning a main roster rivalry that would last the whole calendar year.

Now for the Rumble match, where WWE Champion Roman Reigns entered at #1 and needed to outlast all 29 opponents in order to retain.  I can't overstate how refreshing it was for the Rumble to be fun to watch again.  After five straight Rumble matches either devoid of star power or full of confounding booking decisions, it felt so good to see multiple people get time to shine, multiple stories play out, and an ending that (while I had reservations about it) made sense on some level.

This moment is STILL surreal for me

The big story for me was of course the debut of AJ Styles.  Seeing Styles in a WWE ring was absolutely surreal.  When he entered at #3 I feared the worst - a three-minute cameo followed by a dump-out at the hands of Reigns.  But AJ got nearly thirty minutes and got to eliminate some guys before being tossed out by Kevin Owens, and the Orlando crowd LOVED him.  Not a bad debut for one of the best pound-for-pound wrestlers in the world.  Thus began one of the best years of AJ's legendary career, and a hugely successful WWE tenure.

The other stories included Brock Lesnar vs. The Wyatts, which was meant to lead to Brock vs. Bray at 'Mania before that plan was scrapped, and the surprise return of Sami Zayn, who eliminated Kevin Owens and kicked off the next chapter of their amazing feud.

Finally we had the match-ending storyline, where Triple H somewhat predictably entered at #30, out for revenge against Roman Reigns.  And the crowd was almost entirely on Hunter's side.  That's not so good for Reigns' prospects as a top babyface.  Also not good for Reigns' fan support was taking Reigns out of the match for half of it - surely he would've looked stronger and more sympathetic if he'd lasted the full hour only for Hunter to swoop in and steal it.  Instead an injured Reigns WALKED to the back, sat out of the match for thirty minutes, and then came back toward the end.  Hunter tossed Reigns out and then turned his attention to the other finalist, Dean Ambrose, for whom the crowd erupted when he nearly won.  Once again a Rumble match clearly demonstrated the disconnect between WWE and its fans when it came to Roman Reigns.

Participants: Roman Reigns, Rusev, AJ Styles, Tyler Breeze, Curtis Axel, Chris Jericho, Kane, Goldust, Ryback, Kofi Kingston, Titus O'Neil, R-Truth, Luke Harper, Stardust, Big Show, Neville, Braun Strowman, Kevin Owens, Dean Ambrose, Sami Zayn, Erick Rowan, Mark Henry, Brock Lesnar, Jack Swagger, The Miz, Alberto Del Rio, Bray Wyatt, Dolph Ziggler, Sheamus, Triple H
Final Four: Triple H, Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, Sheamus
Long Man: Roman Reigns (59:48)

Sorry, did I wander into the year 2000 by mistake?

The 'Mania main event was of course the lukewarm-at-best Triple H vs. Roman Reigns match, which went on too long and ended with Reigns predictably regaining the WWE Title, to the delight of no one in attendance.  Whatever....

This Royal Rumble made me considerably more optimistic and intrigued for WrestleMania season, in and of itself a major improvement over Royal Rumble 2015.  And it was a damn enjoyable night of wrestling to boot.

Best Match: Dean Ambrose vs. Kevin Owens
Worst Match: Alberto Del Rio vs. Kalisto, by default
What I'd Change: I would've called an audible and had Ambrose win the belt, then had Reigns turn on him and challenge him at WrestleMania
Most Disappointing Match: Nothing really
Most Pleasant Surprise: That I actually enjoyed a Royal Rumble card again
Overall Rating: 7.5/10
Better than WrestleMania 32, Summerslam '16 and Survivor Series 2016? - Probably, about even, and no.

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