Tuesday, February 23, 2016

My Favorite Movies of 2015

I've been doing this for a decade now. Here are my favorite movies of the year.

10. Beasts of No Nation

Netflix made a big bid for this in an effort to get into the prestige movie niche like they’re in the prestige TV niche. It didn’t really work, as the movie didn’t pick up any Oscar nominations, which is too bad because it’s a great movie. It’s an intense look at a kid who’s roped into becoming a child soldier in a civil war with no heroes. Idris Elba is particularly good as a charismatic but evil militia leader. It’s certainly not an uplifting movie but it’s powerful and memorable.

9. Ex Machina

This got a lot of hype in the spring when it was released in the US, and rightfully so. It’s one of the best science fiction movies of the past few years, a drama that works not only in terms of the interaction between the human programmer Caleb and the robot Ava but also as an exploration of the larger themes of sentience and self-awareness. It’s easy with those sorts of themes for the characters and drama to take a backseat, but that doesn’t happen here. It’s a really smart film and I can’t wait to see what director Alex Garland does next.

8. Sicario

With a talented cast and a drug war theme, you wouldn’t expect the cinematography to be the star of this movie, but it may be the most gorgeously shot movie all year. The long shots of the deserts and border towns of the southwest are just so striking. Roger Deakins did a phenomenal job here. Emily Blunt delivers a tremendous performance as well and that helps to overcome a story that’s hard to swallow at times.

7. The Revenant

This is not exactly a movie to be enjoyed, but my god what an experience. Alejandro Inarritu throws you into an absolutely savage world and doesn’t let you up for air. I left the theater wondering why Leonardo DiCaprio would agree to even play that role. Forget having to experience what the character went through; just playing that role must have been hell. It’s a little lower on my list because it’s so grim, but as far as experiences in a movie theater this year it’s right up there at the top.

6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Okay, so it didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel. Force Awakens felt almost like a remake of New Hope thematically. However, for people who love Star Wars, the familiar tone struck all the right notes and was thoroughly satisfying after the prequel movies went off in some undesired directions. Rey is a great protagonist, the original actors were used well, and I can’t wait for Episodes VIII and IX.

5. The Martian

Everything about this movie works. The setting on Mars is convincing and desolate. The cast is consistently really strong, even in the smaller roles. The story is dramatic and makes you root for Matt Damon’s character as increasing obstacles are thrown at him. If this is Ridley Scott’s last great movie, it’s an impressive feat over 35 years after Alien.

4. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

This fell under the radar a little bit, which is a shame, because it’s the most touching movie of the year to me. The story, adapted from the book by Jesse Andrews, is about a high school kid who develops a friendship with a girl suffering from leukemia. He’s still discovering himself in his young life, filming goofy little short films and making questionable decisions, while trying to come to grips with her reality. It’s at times messy and sad, silly and uplifting. It’s just a great little low budget film and the best movie of that type this year.

3. Inside Out

As a massive fan of Pixar, it was disappointing to see a series of underwhelming movies by the studio since 2010’s Toy Story 3. It felt like Pixar was running out of steam as far as producing unique, novel stories. Luckily, Inside Out reversed that trend in a big way. The premise is smart, the melancholy tone really hits home and the message of the movie is an idea I hadn’t really thought of but that I think has a lot of merit. It’s just a fantastic overall movie.

2. Creed

When I heard that they were making a movie about the son of Apollo Creed with the director and star of Fruitvale Station, I was immediately sold. Creed might have even over-delivered a little on my original expectations. It’s a great action movie with likeable characters and a satisfying direction. Like Force Awakens, it borrows much from its predecessor, but it feels fresher. I can’t wait to see where Ryan Coogler goes from here. He’s the best young director out there for my money.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is the best action movie in years. The cinematography is just incredible, the world is so unique and different, and it keeps pushing from beginning to end. The funny thing is I wasn’t even that big of a fan of the original three Mad Max movies but this one I found tremendously gripping. I’m so pleased that it got year end recognition because it isn’t the sort of movie that tends to and it is very much deserving. If you didn’t see it in the theater, you missed out. It’s what the big screen was made for.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Book Tier List

Tier 1: Best of the Best
Chokehold by Jim Wilson, Wrestlers are Like Seagulls by JJ Dillon, Tangled Ropes by Superstar Billy Graham, Listen You Pencil Neck Geeks by Freddie Blassie, Have a Nice Day by Mick Foley, Hitman by Bret Hart, Foley is Good by Mick Foley, A Lion’s Tale by Chris Jericho, Hooker by Lou Thesz, My Life in Wrestling by Gary Hart

Tier 2: Highly Recommended
Midnight Express 25th Anniversary Scrapbook by Jim Cornette, Inside Out by Ole Anderson, Cheating Death Stealing Life by Eddie Guerrero, Broken Harts: The Life and Death of Owen Hart by Martha Hart, Queen of the Ring by Jeff Leen, To Be the Man by Ric Flair, The Pain and the Passion by Heath McCoy, Mondo Lucha A Go-Go by Dan Madigan, The Cowboy and the Cross by Bill Watts, National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly that Strangled Pro Wrestling by Tim Hornbaker, Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels by Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson, It’s Good to Be the King Sometimes by Jerry Lawler, Blood in the Cage by L. Jon Wertheim, Fall Guys by Marcus Griffin, Walking a Golden Mile by William Regal, Catch Wrestling by Mark Hewitt, Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams by Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson, No Holds Barred: Evolution by Clyde Gentry, Total MMA by Jonathan Snowden, Becoming the Natural by Randy Couture, Stone Cold Truth by Steve Austin, Pure Dynamite by Dynamite Kid, More than Just Hardcore by Terry Funk, Brisco by Jack Brisco, Undisputed by Chris Jericho, Let's Get It On by John McCarthy, Last Outlaw by Stan Hansen, King of New Orleans by Greg Klein, Shooters by Jonathan Snowden, Mad Dogs Midgets and Screw Jobs by Pat LaPrade and Bertrand Hebert, Hardcore Truth by Bob Holly, Pound for Pound by Brian D'Souza, Rags Paper and Pins by Jim Cornette and Mark James, Is This Legal? by Art Davie and Sean Wheelock, Live as a Man Die as a Man Become a Man by Enson Inoue, Grappler: Memoirs of a Masked Madman by Lynn Denton, Kamala Speaks by Kamala, Yes by Daniel Bryan, My Fight Your Fight by Ronda Rousey, Backlund by Bob Backlund

Tier 3: Solid Reads
Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America by Scott Beekman, How Dr. Death Became Dr. Life by Steve Williams, Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Canadians by Greg Oliver, Batista Unleashed by Dave Batista, Rise and Fall of ECW by Thom Loverro, Hardy Boyz: Exist to Inspire by Matt and Jeff Hardy, Bruiser Brody by Emerson Murray, Stu Hart: A Lord of the Ring by Marsha Erb, Gorgeous George by John Capouya, Bang Your Head by Missing Link, Heart for the Fight by Brian Stann, The World According to Dutch by Dutch Mantell, Catch Wrestling Round 2 by Mark Hewitt, Little Evil by Jens Pulver, Made in America by Matt Hughes, Got Fight? by Forrest Griffin, 100 Years of Australian Professional Wrestling by Libnan Ayoub, Swimming with Piranhas by Howard Brody, Top 100 Pro Wrestlers of All Time by John Molinaro, Bodyslams by Gary Michael Cappetta, Brody by Larry Matysik and Barbara Goodish, Wrestling at the Chase by Larry Matysik, Bobby the Brain: Wrestling’s Bad Boy Tells All by Bobby Heenan, Reflections of an American Dream by Dusty Rhodes, Controversy Creates Cash by Eric Bischoff, Why I Fight by B.J. Penn, Godfather of Grappling by Gene LeBell, Lita: A Less Traveled Road by Lita, Hardcore Diaries by Mick Foley, Adam Copeland On Edge by Edge, Heartbreak and Triumph by Shawn Michaels, Between the Ropes by Brian Fritz and Christopher Murray, Brawl by Erich Krauss, Hardcore History by Scott Williams, Drawing Heat the Hard Way by Larry Matysik, Countdown to Lockdown by Mick Foley, MMA Encyclopedia by Jonathan Snowden and Kendall Shields, Straight from the Hart by Bruce Hart, Too Much Too Soon by Tony Atlas, Wrestling Reality by Chris Kanyon, Last Laugh by Bill De Mott, Hey Boy Where'd You Get Them Ears by Paul Boesch, Gatekeeper by Gary Goodridge, Nikita: A Tale of the Ring and Redemption by Nikita Koloff, Hacksaw: The Jim Duggan Story by Hacksaw Jim Duggan, From the Fields to the Garden by Stitch Duran, Uncaged by Frank Shamrock, Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: Heroes and Icons by Steven Johnson and Greg Oliver, Superfly by Jimmy Snuka, The Three Count by Jimmy Korderas, Fightnomics by Reed Kuhn, Into the Cage by Nick Gullo, Best in the World by Chris Jericho, Capitol Revolution by Tim Hornbaker, Damn Why Did I Write This Book by JTG

Tier 4: Only If You Have Particular Interest in the Subject
Assassin: The Man Behind the Mask by Joe Hamilton, Behind the Mask by Rey Mysterio, Bruno Sammartino: An Autobiography of Wrestling’s Living Legend by Bruno Sammartino, Mouth of the South by Jimmy Hart, Arn Anderson 4 Ever by Arn Anderson, King of the Ring by Harley Race, Sex Lies and Headlocks by Shaun Assael and Mike Mooneyham, In the Pit with Piper by Roddy Piper, Hollywood Hulk Hogan by Hulk Hogan, Ring of Hell by Matthew Randazzo, My Life Outside the Ring by Hulk Hogan, Is That Wrestling Fake by Ivan Koloff, Under the Mat by Diana Hart, The Solie Chronicles by Robert Allyn, Chairshots and Other Obstacles by Bobby Heenan, Adventures in Larryland by Larry Zbyszko, Ted DiBiase: The Million Dollar Man by Ted DiBiase, I’m Next by Bill Goldberg, Whatever Happened to Gorgeous George by Joe Jares, First Lady of Wrestling by Missy Hyatt, Life and Legacy of Frank Gotch by Mike Chapman, It's True It's True by Kurt Angle, Octagon by Kevin Lynch, Iceman: My Fighting Life by Chuck Liddell, Inside the Lion’s Den by Ken Shamrock, Tales from a Dirt Road by Dutch Mantell, The Road Warriors: Danger, Death and the Rush of Wrestling by Animal, Often Imitated Never Duplicated by Lou Albano, Woo Mercy Daddy by Jimmy Valiant, Masked Decisions by Vincent Evans, The Voice of Reason by Chael P. Sonnen, When Wrestling Was Rasslin by Peter Birkholz, Wrestling with the Devil by Lex Luger, Mid Atlantic Memories by Mike Mooneyham, The Third Man by James Beard, Fight for the Forgotten by Justin Wren

Tier 5: Avoid

Wrestling with the Truth by Downtown Bruno, Master of the Iron Claw by Fritz Von Erich, The Story of the Development of NWA TNA by Jerry Jarrett, Tales from the Ring by Tito Santana, First Goddess of the Squared Circle by Fabulous Moolah, Rock Says by Rock, Rope Opera: How WCW Killed Vince Russo by Vince Russo, Gordon Solie: Something Left Behind by Robert and Pamela Allyn, If They Only Knew by Chyna, Positively Page by Diamond Dallas Page, Forgiven by Vince Russo, True Lies and Alibis by Blackjack Mulligan, Be Ready When the Shit Goes Down by Forrest Griffin, Every Man Has His Price by Ted DiBiase, Oklahoma Shooter: The Dan Hodge Story by Mike Chapman, This Is Gonna Hurt by Tito Ortiz, Sheikh of Baghdad by Adnan Al Kaissy, Cross Rhodes by Goldust, Death Clutch by Brock Lesnar, Say Uncle by Jake Shannon, Wrestling the Hulk by Linda Hogan, Best of Times by Jerry Jarrett, If You Don't Want the Answer Don't Ask the Question by Bill Dundee, Physical Chess by Billy Robinson, From Prison to Promise by Booker T, 1000 Lives by Dick Slater, 50 Greatest Wrestlers of All Time by Larry Matysik, It's Time by Bruce Buffer, Animal by George Steele, Hart Strings by Julie Hart, Who's Your Daddy by Ryan Danes, Multiple Personalities of Mark Lewin by Mark Lewin, Wrestling for My Life by Shawn Michaels, My Rise to Wrestling Royalty by Booker T, I Probably Screwed You Too by Kenny Bolin

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

My Favorite Movies of 2014

10. Whiplash

I had trouble finding anyone who wanted to see this in the theater. I think this was because it sounded like a movie that everyone has seen a million times – the story of the tough teacher who motivates students to perform at a higher level. But Whiplash was no more a traditional motivational teacher movie than Unforgiven was a traditional western. Rather, it was a deconstruction of the theme. Is J.K. Simmons’ brand of tough love beneficial to his pupils? Or does it make them worse human beings? Does it benefit a few to the detriment of many? Is it even tough love at all? It’s an interesting, open ended examination of what it means to teach.

9. Gone Girl

It’s a pulpy, implausible story but David Fincher uses that to his advantage in creating a fun, over-the-top noir. The novel, so much about narration, ended up being perfectly suited to the screen. It also features one of the most memorable femme fatales I’ve ever seen, a crazy, unforgettable villain.

8. Boyhood

Boyhood deserves its best picture frontrunner status, because no movie was a greater achievement. The filming over 12 years was no gimmick, as watching a character truly grow up right in front of your eyes added poignancy to the story. I’ve heard the criticism that it’s long and relatively uneventful, but the idea wasn’t to tell a remarkable story but rather to capture the messy imperfection of growing up. I enjoyed other movies more but there may not have been any more worth seeing.

7. X-Men: Days of Future Past

It’s hard for the 7th in a series of comic book movies to get its full due, but this was a really fun summer movie. It had everything you’d want: a remarkable cast, a great screenplay and big budget special effects. Quicksilver and Mystique were particular highlights. The X-Men film series has featured its highs and lows, but it will be difficult to top Days of Future Past.

6. Edge of Tomorrow

After years of Scientology madness and uninspiring star vehicles (Knight and Day, Jack Reacher, Oblivion, etc.), it was easy to forget what a compelling leading man Tom Cruise can be. Between Cruise, a breakthrough leading role from Emily Blunt and a sci-fi take on Groundhog Day that somehow didn’t feel at all like a rip-off of Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow was one of the best action movies in a year full of really good action movies. I might have had this even higher were in not for the ending, which to me didn’t fully fit the tone or established premise of the rest of the movie.

5. Imitation Game

The best of the Oscar best picture crop, Imitation Game is a great, traditional biopic in a sea of pretty good ones. The story is powerful and relatively unknown, the acting is terrific, and the themes interesting. A lot of biopics feel principally made to attract awards show buzz, but I’m glad they brought Alan Turing’s story to the screen and told it in a compelling manner.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy

Like most people, I wasn’t terribly familiar with Guardians of the Galaxy prior to its release and it’s not as if there is a shortage of comic book adaptations during the summer. Turns out Marvel knew what it was doing. Guardians was perfectly suited for film, with a collection of endearing and funny characters who didn’t feel like reproductions of ones we’d already seen.

3. Snowpiercer

No one created a more memorable cinematic world in 2014 than Bong Joon-ho with Snowpiercer. On a planet frozen solid, the audience travels with the protagonists through a train full of one unexpected setting after another. From the dark and dreary caboose through aquariums and clubs all the way to the engine, you never know what you’re going to see next. And who can forget Alison Pill’s Sunday school?

2. Nightcrawler

In a year with a really weak crop of “prestige” films, it’s a damn shame that the most interesting, distinct and compelling of the bunch didn’t even get a best picture nomination. Lou Bloom, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is in my opinion the most memorable cinematic psychopath since Travis Bickle. His attempts to advance his own career at any expense speak to the larger paparazzi culture, but mostly it’s just a really well told story in a dark and unglamorous version of Los Angeles.

1. Lego Movie

Lego Movie didn’t sound like a winner to me. Released in the doldrums of January, it had mediocre kids’ movie written all over it. It proved to be anything but. It’s a hilarious, joke a minute blast of energy with a downright biting sense of humor at times. No movie was more fun to watch and more likely to leave you feeling everything is awesome.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Memories of Seeing the Ultimate Warrior Live for the Only Time

I was thinking about the Ultimate Warrior’s passing over the week and wondering to myself if I had ever seen him live. I couldn’t remember one way or another. So I went back to look through some old results. I went to my first house show in 1993 when Warrior was gone, so it would had to have been in 1996 in his short lived return. I went through old house show results from 1996 and found a show that Warrior wrestled on at the Baltimore Arena on May 17, 1996.

Scanning the results quickly, there was no confusion about whether I was at this show. I remember it vividly. This was the last house show run for Scott Hall and Kevin Nash in the WWF before they left to form the NWO (two days before the infamous curtain call incident at Madison Square Garden), as well as the first house show run back for Ultimate Warrior. Adding in talented newcomers Vader and the newly christened Stone Cold Steve Austin, it was one of the more loaded house show cards I can remember from that period.

What I really remembered about that card, however, was that I somehow managed to score front row seats. During that period, I would call the box office on the day and hour that tickets went on sale to Baltimore Arena or Capital Center events. That was usually good enough to get me in the first five or so rows but rarely ever would you get further up than row 2. I’m not sure whether those tickets were reserved for scalpers or if other people had a better method for getting through, but I was accustomed to being a few row backs. So I was blown away when I had the chance to buy front row seats for the final matches of Nash and Hall plus the return of Warrior.

I then seemed to remember something else about that night. I thought that I took a roll of photos at that show. I rarely did that, but I was excited for the lineup and the great seats. So I dug around through my old photos. Sure enough, I found a bunch of pictures from the night that I hadn’t looked at in probably 10-15 years. I thought I’d share them as a fun but also kind of sad time capsule of a bygone period. Hope you enjoy. They’re obviously not professional quality or anything as I was just a kid with a disposable camera having the time of my life. Hopefully the lack of polish adds to the charm.

The show started with the Bushwhackers beating the “New” Rockers. I was not a happy camper, as I was a big fan of Al Snow from his Smoky Mountain days and here he was losing out to a comedy act collectively over a hundred years old.

If there’s a fondness apparent in the way JBL talks about Zeb Colter on commentary, it’s because they go way back. Here, Zeb (as Uncle Zebekiah) managed JBL (as Justin “Hawk” Bradshaw”). His opponent, laid out in the background of the picture? Aldo Montoya, who went on to greater fame as Justin Credible in ECW.

Savio Vega next defeated local Maryland star Mike Khoury in less than a minute.

Things get a little more glum at this point, with a match between Ahmed Johnson and the late British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith. Johnson was a hot act at this point, a month away from winning the Intercontinental Title. Like Warrior, I liked Johnson despite his subpar in ring work because of his natural intensity and charisma. Johnson won the match via disqualification when Smith’s tag team partner Owen Hart interfered.

A month before Steve Austin defeated Jake Roberts in the finals of the King of the Ring tournament and cut the famous Austin 3:16 promo, he defeated Roberts with a rollup on this house show (shown in the third pic). Roberts got his revenge by draping his snake around Austin after the match. This was during an up period for Jake. He got a great reaction a few months before at the Royal Rumble and parlayed that into a role behind the scenes and as a wrestler. Unfortunately, the demons would come back again for Jake and this 1996 run was his last for the WWF. Austin, of course, was destined for much bigger things.

That led to the match that got me to put this together, with Warrior taking on another great who was taken from us too soon, Owen Hart. I remember Warrior getting one of the biggest reactions on the show, as fans were eager to see him after a nearly four year absence. He beat Owen clean in what would end up being his final northeast run for the WWF.

In the next match, Vader defeated the late Yokozuna. Vader entered the WWF with great momentum off his long WCW main event run and a lot of people (including myself) thought he would fare even better in the WWF as the sort of big man that Vince McMahon always loved. But things never clicked for Vader in WWF as one would have hoped. Apart from an excellent SummerSlam title match with Shawn Michaels, he didn’t have a lot of highlights for the company. But during this period, there was still the hope that Vader would be a big factor for the company.

The Body Donnas retained their tag titles by defeating the Godwinns. Not that you’d know from this photo. Unfortunately, no pictures of that match survived. A number did of Sunny.

In the second to last match of the night, Triple H was given the rub by his buddy Razor Ramon. HHH beat Ramon in many house shows on the way out with the pedigree. Obviously, big things were being planned for Hunter. Then came the curtain call two days later and those plans went up in smoke. Austin got King of the Ring instead and HHH would take a more circuitous route to the top.

Without context, the first photo might give you the wrong impression. Shawn Michaels during this period was on fire. He’d give you great house show matches every time out and this was no exception. He had a great match with Diesel and beat him clean. Diesel and Razor would show up on Nitro the next month and wrestling history would change.

RIP Ultimate Warrior.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Favorite Movies of 2013

10. Her

When Spike Jonze burst onto the scene with Being John Malkovich and Adaptation over a decade ago, a lot of people (including myself) tended to group him tonally with his collaborator Charlie Kaufman. The films were funny and unique, but they were so abstract and postmodern that they didn't really speak to larger human themes. A description of the plot of Her, that of a man who has a relationship with a computer, might suggest a similar approach. But in fact, Jonze, writing and directing himself, is much more ambitious with Her.

Her could be termed a science fiction film, but it doesn't feel much like one. The world exists very much like the one we live in and the technology feels like it could be coming in the near future. The premise of a person falling in love with a computer and other people accepting this is a little harder to buy, but I've seen much, much bigger stretches in mainstream science fiction. In short, you can buy into the world Jonze creates. As such, Her explores not just our relationship with evolving technology but the nature of human relationships and what we expect and desire from others. Joaquin Phoenix is terrific as always and Scarlett Johansson's voice is crucial to making the movie work. It's a movie that makes you think and the most human movie of Jonze's career. I'm excited to see what he does next.

9. World War Z

I went into World War Z skeptical. The reviews were pretty good but not great and there was a lot of negative buzz based on rumored behind the scenes production problems and complaints about the faithfulness to the source material. I came away thinking this was one fun summer action movie that didn't really get the respect it deserved.

This is not a horror movie. It's an action movie with zombies. But it has the benefit of taking the elements that make zombie movies fun and adding top flight production values and an A list lead. So you get really cool sets in South Korea, Israel and elsewhere mixed with your typical thrills of zombie attacks. It doesn't reinvent the genre by any means but it was the most enjoyable blockbuster of the year for me.

8. American Hustle

It was going to be pretty difficult for a David O. Russell film with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence to not work. Russell has been pumping out one great movie after another, getting great performances out of his casts. Here, he just threw together the leads on his last two movies (The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook) in a fun comedy romp about scam artists trying to get the best of the FBI.

Jennifer Lawrence received the most Oscar discussion for American Hustle, but to me Amy Adams steals the show. She's just terrific as a woman with mixed loyalties and very hard to figure out intentions. Christian Bale for his part again shows his willingness to transform himself into a role. It's an actors' showcase and another Russell success.

7. Mud

Dallas Buyers Club became the central 2013/14 discussion point for Matthew McConaughey's remarkable surge as an actor, which is a shame. Yeah, he lost a lot of weight for that role. But Mud is a better performance, a better story and a much better movie. McConaughey plays the role of a drifter in trouble with the law and looking to connect with the woman he loves and who gives his life meaning, with the help of some kids. In a year full of antiheroes in the movies, he may stand out most of all. It's just a masterful performance, simultaneously strong and vulnerable, dangerous and warm.

Adding to the movie greatly is the setting, on the Mississippi River. It feels almost like a Mark Twain story. Jeff Nichols, following his captivating and bizarre Take Shelter, announced himself as a real directorial presence. I think this is a movie that is going to become more and more popular as time goes on. It's a gem.

6. You're Next

I'm a sucker for a good horror movie. That makes it all the more sad for me that a good one only comes along once every five years. You're Next fits the bill. The best horror movies are ones where you don't quite know what the menace is or what's going on. That uncertainty adds to the scares. You're Next, with the true villains not fully revealed until late, keeps you guessing along the lines of Scream. 

You're Next also benefits from mixing in humor without going too far in that direction. That's a tricky balance. A dour horror movie isn't much fun, but horror movies that go completely over the top lose their visceral effect. This one hits the right spot and it's highly recommended to fans of the genre.

5. Fruitvale Station

Lost in the summer's releases, this should have gotten recognition by the time Oscar season rolled around. I wonder if it's even worth releasing a prestige movie before September, because they so rarely get awards season recognition. Michael B. Jordan is terrific as Oscar Grant, the man who was tragically killed at a BART station in 2009.

The risk with that story is that it could be preachy or that it would deify the young man in an unrealistic way. But that isn't the case. Grant as played by Jordan is a fully formed human being. He isn't a saint but he doesn't deserve the fate that befalls him. The ending is heartbreaking, as the honesty in the storytelling makes the tragedy hit so much harder.

4. Wolf of Wall Street

When Wolf of Wall Street starts, it feels like it might end up being a remake of 2000's underrated Boiler Room. As the movie rolls on, however, you realize this isn't really a movie about brokerage firms. This is another Martin Scorsese gangster film. It's Casino, set on Wall Street. It's an audacious, overlong, funny as hell roller coaster ride and Scorsese's ballsiest film in years.

People have complained that the movie makes you like and root for the sorts of unscrupulous financial scam artists that wrecked our economy. And that's true. You do in fact end up rooting for these terrible people. But is that so much worse than rooting for literal gangsters who spend the movie murdering their enemies? Scorsese doesn't  care. He's not spending any time moralizing. He's just telling a story and entertaining. It's the rise and fall of a charismatic charlatan. Leo isn't Madoff. He's Corleone.

3. Spectacular Now

Every year, there are dozens of smaller independent films that get strong reviews but that don't stand out or move you. Way Way Back, Kings of Summer and the like are perfectly fine. Spectacular Now is transcendent. Miles Teller is totally relatable as a kid who wants to be good but seems resigned to a future of trouble. He charms Shailene Woodley, who cares for him and is brought into his troubles.

It's a coming of age story and it's also a classic story of a man who loves a woman but comes to believe she would be better off without him. Is he right? Is he redeemable? Should he give up on that relationship if it means giving up on himself but a better life for her? I left this movie deeply caring about these characters and their lives. It's a great little movie.

2. Captain Phillips

More than any movie this year, Captain Phillips gets your heart racing from the start and will not let up. It's a tightly crafted classic thriller that isn't trying to do too much. Tom Hanks stars as a captain whose ship is attacked by Somali pirates and ends up held at gunpoint for much of the movie.

While sympathy for Hanks as the every man drives the movie forward, the struggle of the Somalis gives the story a dual thrust. By the end, it's clear that they are in as much, if not more, danger than Hanks and it's unclear how aware of that they are. If you're sympathetic to some degree to some of the pirates (I've spoken with some people who are and some people who aren't), it adds to the drama of the third act. Either way, it's gripping.

1. Gravity

I've been a big fan of Alfonso Cuaron for a long time. Y Tu Mama Tambien was one of the best of the wave of great Mexican films in the late 90s/early 00s and Children of Men was just exceptional. It was a long wait for his next project but Gravity delivered huge.

Movies at their best transport you into a world that otherwise you could not experience. Most people find space fascinating and Gravity more than any film ever made makes you feel like you are on an adventure high above the Earth's atmosphere. The visuals are spectacular but you aren't left wondering how they shot it. You feel like they just went up there to shoot. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are their typically comforting presences and the straightforward story still packs plenty of thrills. It transports you to a place it's fun to explore and that you'd love to go back to.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Favorite Films of 2012

It has been a great year for movies, maybe the best since I started doing these lists for the year 2005. Not only was there a solid crop of Oscar fodder at the end, but throughout the year there were consistently entertaining, well-made mainstream films in a variety of genres. From comedies like Pitch Perfect, 21 Jump Street, This is 40 and Ted to genre films like The Grey, End of Watch and Looper to dramas like Flight and Arbitrage, I was really satisfied with this year’s crop. Here are my ten favorites. The only film that I think might end up on the list that I haven’t seen yet is Zero Dark Thirty.

10) Bernie

Jack Black and Will Ferrell have both kind of settled into their own comedic comfort zones, repeating similar mannerisms and jokes. They both departed from those comfort zones this year. Ferrell’s deadpan telenovela Casa de Mi Padre didn’t work. Black’s dark comedy Bernie most certainly did. Based on a strange true story, the movie is told through Shirley MacLaine and Black, who play a difficult but rich elderly lady and a likeable younger man with questionable motives. The characters and story are intriguing and it’s very funny to boot.

9) Argo

Ben Affleck has rightfully received a lot of credit for his directorial work over the past few years, with Argo receiving even more acclaim than Gone Baby Gone and The Town. I’m not sure it’s a better movie than those two, but it is more Oscar friendly. You’ll like it better the less you know about the real story, as the dramatic climax of the film is entirely made up and predictable as a result. But the movie is very well acted and it’s a great story.

8) Life of Pi

I haven’t read the novel, but I’d heard that Life of Pi was considered unfilmable. After watching the movie, it seems perfectly suited for the screen. The visuals are gorgeous and the ending is touching and thought provoking. It’s Ang Lee’s best movie since Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

7) Ruby Sparks

Despite coming from the directors of Little Miss Sunshine, this didn’t get a lot of credit or recognition. That’s a shame, because it works really well. The premise, of a writer who brings a character to real life, seems gimmicky. But it has surprising depth and one of the best conclusions of any movie this year. I can’t wait for more from writer Zoe Kazan.

6) Lincoln

Directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and written by Tony Kushner, it was hard to tell what sort of movie this would end up being. Would it be an acting showcase? Would it be a sweeping historical biopic? To me, Kushner wins out in defining Lincoln. This movie more than anything else is about dialogue. The snappy discussion about principles and strategy in the context of the passage of the 13th Amendment drives the film forward. By design, it’s not an epic. It’s just a very well-constructed slice of a time and place.

5) The Avengers

A movie about a bunch of superheroes uniting is a risky play. With superhero movies in general, less is almost always more. The more characters are introduced, the more convoluted the plot and less intriguing the individuals. But The Avengers didn’t fall victim to that trap at all. Each of the characters with the possible exception of Hawkeye is well defined. The interplay between Tony Stark and the others works particularly well and the Incredible Hulk works better in cameo form than carrying an entire movie. The whole thing is great summer fun.

4) Skyfall

Daniel Craig’s Bond started with such promise in Casino Royale, making Quantum of Solace all the more disappointing. That put a lot of pressure on Skyfall to deliver, and it did not disappoint. Javier Bardem made a memorable villain and M was given more depth than probably at any other point in the series. The big action set pieces are spectacular without going too far into the realm of disbelief.

3) Dark Knight Rises

On the one hand, it’s understandable that Dark Knight Rises didn’t get more critical acclaim. Dark Knight and Inception, Christopher Nolan’s last two movies, were masterpieces and Dark Knight Rises isn’t quite as that level. If Inception couldn’t win Best Picture over the vastly inferior King’s Speech and Dark Knight couldn’t get a Best Picture nomination at all, one wouldn’t expect Dark Knight Rises to do all that well. But it’s still a shame, as Dark Knight Rises is easily one of the best films of the year. Bane makes a tremendous villain, Anne Hathaway shines brightly and the poignant ending wraps up the trilogy perfectly.

2) Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook pulls off a tricky feat. It starts off by giving you a very negative impression of the two romantic leads. It then spends the next two hours getting you to care about them and their relationship deeply without in any way running from their human flaws. It’s just a really nice character study with some of the best storytelling of the year. It’s no wonder that it got such buzz and recognition despite seeming on the surface such a stereotypical rom-com.

1) Django Unchained

If everything about Hollywood were the same except that Quentin Tarantino had never released his first seven films, Django Unchained would have been one of the most controversial movies ever. It speaks to what a distinct voice Tarantino has had thus far that an ultraviolent slavery Spaghetti western as ballsy as Django seemed more familiar than unfamiliar. It has Tarantino’s trademark style, language and ambition. Jamie Foxx and Christopher Waltz make a great pair of protagonists. Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio are memorable villains. It has fun with its characters without trivializing slavery. It’s just a terrific movie.

Monday, July 23, 2012

WWE Raw Report

Date: 07/23/12 from St. Louis, MO.

The Big News: Raw celebrated its 1000th episode with a star studded collection of returning wrestlers and a memorable CM Punk heel turn.

Show Analysis:

They premiered a new WWE logo video to start, reading “then,” “now,” and “forever.” The show then featured video of Raw moments throughout the years. There was plenty of good stuff in there, but also a heavy emphasis on the ridiculous and on celebrity guest hosts. They have a new set on the stage too. It looks good and is basically the same as before.

Vince McMahon came out next and thanked the fans for 1,000 episodes of Raw. The crowd chanted “thank you Vince” back. Vince then did the old “Welcome to Monday Night Raw” line that he used at the start of all the early episodes of the program. It was an appropriate start as I always liked that intro. He introduced DX.

Shawn Michaels and Triple H came out, doing the more recent version of DX with the glow sticks and merchandise. Michaels said it felt like they were missing something. HHH pointed out there used to be more of them. That got a big crowd reaction. HHH and Michaels pointed to the entrance way and X-Pac, Road Dogg and Billy Gunn came out in a jeep like the Norfolk WCW invasion. They all looked good.

Road Dogg did the old New Age Outlaws intro but wouldn’t say ass. HHH then did the old Are you Ready routine. HHH made a crack about being the only one left with a full head of hair, which broke up X-Pac. HHH said he’d see everyone for Raw 2,000. Billy Gunn and Shawn Michaels disagreed about who would get to get their spot in next. HHH said they didn’t want Shawn to lose his smile and pose in Playgirl. Michaels responded that he needed the money. Gunn and Michaels were about to do it again when Damien Sandow interrupted.

Sandow belittled DX. Michaels said he would go to a church and beg for forgiveness. Sandow said he knew DX could kick his ass, but that would make him a martyr for everyone who appreciated a sophisticated mind. DX huddled to decide what to do. Michaels then gave Sandow sweet chin music and HHH gave him the pedigree. Gunn said if you’re not down with that, they have two words for you. This was a very fun segment. It was funny and you could tell everyone was having a blast.

Sheamus, Sin Cara and Rey Mysterio beat Alberto Del Rio, Dolph Ziggler and Chris Jericho. Jim Ross came out commentate for this match but then unfortunately left. The heels worked over Cara, who tagged Sheamus. Sheamus avoided attempts at the Walls and code breaker but Jericho avoided the Brogue kick. Ziggler then took a cheap shot on Jericho and Sheamus hit the Brogue kick on Jericho for the pin. Clearly, Chris Jericho vs. Dolph Ziggler is the next program and hopefully it helps take Ziggler to a higher level.

After the match, the announcers spoke with Charlie Sheen via Skype. He appeared a few times during the show, putting over the things that happened. Backstage, A.J. told Layla she doesn’t know why people call her mentally unstable when the whole place is nuts. She opened a door to Jim Duggan, Roddy Piper and R. Truth jumping rope with Truth’s imaginary friend, and Mae Young with a guy in a hand suit claiming to be Young’s grown up son. Michael Cole did the exaggerated fake laugh for the lame comedy.

Brodus Clay beat Jack Swagger immediately with a splash. Dude Love cornered Clay and danced with him after the match. They cut to backstage, where Trish Stratus was trying to talk HHH into yoga. HHH was bending over with Stratus behind him when DX came in. This appeared to be playing off a similar gag HHH and Stratus did years back, but they seemed reluctant to be overt with the gag.

The 9PM hour featured the A.J.-Daniel Bryan wedding. Slick was the reverend for the ceremony but didn’t get much of a reaction. The crowd chanted what at him and then no at Bryan and A.J. They both said yes, but A.J. said she wasn’t saying yes to Bryan but to someone else who made a proposal to her earlier in the night. Vince McMahon’s music hit but Vince said it wasn’t that kind of proposal. Vince said he made A.J. a business proposal and she is the new permanent GM of Raw. A.J. skipped around and left. This wasn’t the best of payoffs.

After a commercial break, Bryan was flipping out in the ring. CM Punk came out to make fun of Bryan and say that he’s still the best in the world. Bryan said not only is he better than Punk, but he is the greatest WWE superstar of all time. That brought out Rock. Rock said Bryan doesn’t get to say who the greatest of all time is because the people do. Bryan started to interrupt Rock. Rock stopped him and pointed out he won his first WWE title in St. Louis.

Rock said he wasn’t there to talk about Frodo (Bryan) but the title. Rock announced that he will challenge the WWE champion for the title at the Royal Rumble. This got a shockingly non-existent reaction and I don’t really have any explanation why. It’s smart that they announced this on a heavily viewed show to get people thinking about ordering the Rumble next year. Punk vowed to be champion at that point and beat Rock at the Rumble.

Bryan flipped out again and said this was supposed to be the greatest night of his life. He said he will be champion at Rumble and the face of WWE. Rock made fun of Bryan’s height some more, calling him an Oompa Loompa and Hobbit. Rock said he got Bryan a wedding gift and gave Bryan the rock bottom.

On the one hand, you could argue this segment elevated Bryan by having him interact with Rock and thus presenting him as someone important. On the other, you could argue Bryan was presented as a joke and mocked for his height. I guess I’m somewhere in between. I think they could build on this in a way to make Bryan more important but it also could end up more of a negative than a positive.

Bret Hart came out to introduce the Intercontinental title match. He mentioned that one of his greatest moments was winning the IC title from the great Mr. Perfect Curt Hennig. Miz then beat Christian to win the IC title. Miz avoided the kill switch but Christian hit a sunset flip off the second rope for two. Miz went after Christian’s leg. Christian went for the kill switch but Miz avoided it again. Miz went for the skull crushing finale but Christian avoided that and tried the kill switch a third title. Miz avoided it yet again and Christian landed gingerly on his leg. Miz then hit the skull crushing finale for the pin. Miz sold winning the title big, which was a nice touch.

The 10PM hour break featured the HHH-Brock Lesnar angle. HHH came to the ring. He said he wants to fight Lesnar at SummerSlam and wants his answer. Paul Heyman came out. HHH said he wanted to speak to the horse’s head, not the horse’s ass. Heyman said Lesnar’s answer is no. HHH threatened to go find Lesnar. Heyman said that would mean a third lawsuit against WWE. HHH suggested Lesnar is a coward. Heyman mocked HHH for name calling and asked if he teaches his kids to do that.

HHH knocked the microphone from Heyman’s hand and told Heyman not to talk about his kids. Heyman said he shouldn’t talk about them because the sins of the father will be visited upon the children. That brought out Stephanie McMahon. They openly acknowledged her as HHH’s wife and the mother of his children. Stephanie told Heyman not to speak about her kids. Stephanie said the lawsuits aren’t about Lesnar but Heyman’s business failings in WCW, ECW and WWE. Stephanie said compared to Vince, Heyman is in the rearview mirror. Where does that leave Stephanie? Stephanie added that at least Vince had the guts to wrestle HHH, which isn’t true of Lesnar.

Stephanie went further, saying that Heyman’s children are ashamed of him because their father is a professional parasite. She slapped Heyman. Heyman got mad and said Lesnar-HHH is on. Heyman realized he had been baited and said Stephanie always gets what she wants, just like Vince taught her and she teaches her children. Stephanie attacked Heyman. Brock Lesnar finally came out and fought HHH. HHH knocked Lesnar from the ring. I didn’t care for this angle. To me, HHH and Lesnar fighting is a perfectly effective direction and instead they’re building it through Stephanie vs. Heyman and lawsuits. Lesnar-HHH at SummerSlam just doesn’t seem like a big deal at all. Heyman was really great, though.

Lita beat Heath Slater. Howard Finkel introduced Slater. Slater challenged anyone to a no-DQ, no-COR match. Lita came out but said she brought protection. The APA joined her. Slater went to leave but all the legends Slater has fought brought him back to the ring. Lita hit a twist of fate on Slater. Bradshaw gave him a nasty clothesline from hell. Lita then gave him the moonsault for the win. Ron Simmons said damn. This was fun. Slater is perfect for this sort of foil role. There’s something annoying about him that makes it fun to see him get beat up and it isn’t like he has upper card potential.

Sean Mooney of all people interviewed Daniel Bryan backstage. Bryan was angry about the night’s events and complained. He was particularly angry at Charlie Sheen for making fun of him via Skype and said if Sheen were there he would put Sheen in the yes lock. Later, Sheen said he’d be happy to confront Bryan any time in Los Angeles. They teased an appearance by Sheen at SummerSlam, but it didn’t seem like they had a deal for that. I guess we’ll see.

John Cena, Zack Ryder and Gene Okerlund were talking backstage. Ryder thought Okerlund was behind GTV. Rock showed up and Okerlund left. Rock wished Cena good luck. Cena said he wanted another shot at Rock at the Rumble. Rock said he looks forward to that.

Kane came to the ring. He was interrupted by Jinder Mahal, Hunico, Camacho, Curt Hawkins, Tyler Reks and Drew McIntyre. Memo to WWE prelim guys: don’t band together to rise up against main event talent. I’ve seen this one before and it always ends so poorly for you. Mahal said they haven’t been given chances and now they are taking one. They surrounded the ring to attack Kane when Undertaker’s music hit. Undertaker and Kane laid out the other six. They did a double throat slash and double tombstone on Hawkins and Hunico. There was a weird delay for a while, they finally rolled Hawkins and Hunico out of the ring, and they posed together.

In an interesting bit, they asked people on Twitter whether they’d rather see Rock-Cena, Rock-Punk or Rock-Big Show at Rumble. Rock-Punk won handily. I don’t take a Twitter survey to mean much of anything, but I would have expected Rock-Cena to win big and it lost decisively 55-35 (with 10 percent for Show). Rock-Punk interests me more too but Rock-Cena is probably a bigger PPV draw. They’ll probably do one at Mania and the other at the Rumble anyway. Maybe Rock-Punk at Rumble and Rock-Cena plus Punk-Austin at Mania.

John Cena beat CM Punk via DQ. There was a long mat wrestling sequence early. Punk set up for the GTS but Cena shoved Punk into the referee. Cena hit the FU and covered, but there was no referee. Big Show came out and speared Cena. Show then set up for the KO punch with Punk sitting in the corner watching. This was subtle at first, as you could see Punk was conscious and aware of what was going on but wasn’t doing anything. But he was just sort of watching without any facial expression selling what was going on. He let Show hit the KO punch on Cena and Show then left.

At this point, Punk got up and was left with the decision of what to do. He seemed conflicted and seemed to be going back and forth in his head about whether to take advantage of the situation. Punk revived the referee while still seeming torn. Finally, Punk made the decision to go for the pin. He covered Cena, but Cena kicked out. Punk then went for the GTS but Cena reversed into the STF. Show came out and attacked Cena for the DQ.

Show continued beating up Cena after the bell as Punk just watched. Punk finally decided to turn his back and leave. At that point, Rock ran out for the save. Rock went after Show and hit a spine buster. He went for the people’s elbow but Punk ran back in and cut off Rock with a clothesline. Punk looked at his hands intently and then gave Rock the GTS to close the show.

This was a phenomenal heel turn. I’m not sure yet whether this story is a money direction, but Punk was so awesome doing this. Even more so, the writers really deserve credit here. This was just a wonderfully told story, with a man confronted with a tricky moral decision and showing his true character by making the easy wrong move rather than the more difficult right move. He wasn’t a cartoonish villain just being bad for the sake of bad either; he recognized that he was doing the wrong thing but retaining the title meant too much to him to resist. That story is enhanced by the fact Punk has often sermonized over the years in a self-righteous manner, only to have done the wrong thing when the chips were down. It’s one of the better heel turns WWE has ever done, and Punk is better as a heel than a face anyway.

Final Thoughts:

As expected, this was a fun show. It’s hard to bring back all the stars they did and not have it be entertaining. I thought the show was good but kind of underwhelming going into the final segment, but the CM Punk heel turn was a memorable and very well executed finale that elevated the rest of the show.

And that will do it for these reports. It’s really amazing to me how many doors opened up on the writing front since Dave asked me to write more for the Observer website so many years ago. Thanks first and foremost to Dave for the opportunity and more so just for putting out such a phenomenal product that I’ve been reading well over half my life now. My primary motivation for starting to write about wrestling was a simple desire to be associated in some way with Dave.

Thanks also to Bryan for bringing me on board and being so supportive over the years. If it hadn’t been for that support, I would have stopped a long time ago. He’s one of the most genuinely good people I’ve ever known.

Special thanks to Houston Mitchell, who was more supportive than anyone and so important in opening doors for me.

Thanks very much to everyone for reading over the last decade or so and to everyone who has written over the years to say positive things. I appreciate the support.

And finally, thanks to WWE for producing a show that has presented so many great moments over the years. It’s no secret that I have a lot of problems with the current direction of WWE. The years I’ve been writing about the show have coincided with what in my opinion has been a downturn in the quality of the show. But nobody would care about that downturn if it weren’t for the years of goodwill WWE had built with its core audience. Long term fans that have stuck around to this point badly want to like the product and there’s another large group of people that monitor the product on the outside, hoping to hear things have gotten better and it’s worth diving back in. Hopefully sooner rather than later WWE can reengage those fans with an exciting and improved product.