Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Academy Award Nominees


It’s award season again and you know what that means: Wins! Losses! Dresses! Scandals! Speeches! Snubs! Surprises! The Golden Globes kicked off Hollywood’s favorite season with some exciting wins for both movies and television but today brought the announcement of the Holy Grail of all movie nominations: The Oscars.

The Oscars are a big deal because, like Grammy nominations, even if you don’t win the fact that you were nominated puts you in a very elite category. The actors and actresses who are billed as “Academy Award Nominee_____” are definitely noticed by both the public and the industry and if you actually win and are then billed as “Academy Award Winner _____,” that elite group gets even more elite.

On a less complicated note, everyone likes to win so when a director, actor, actress, musician or even a costume designer hears his or her name called it’s a game changer and maybe even a life changer. So, whose night will it be on February 27? The nominated movies I still need/want to see are True Grit, Inception and The King’s Speech (I know, I know I really need to see all three like yesterday) but until then I will put a star next to the people and movies I’m rooting for and why:


Actor in a Leading Role

Javier Bardem - Biutiful
Jeff Bridges - True Grit
*Jesse Eisenberg - The Social Network (At this point everyone has heard about this movie and it’s no accident. Like Facebook, this movie has taken over the conversation because of its superior acting, writing and storyline. I never wanted it to end.)
Colin Firth - The King's Speech
James Franco - 127 Hours

Actor in a Supporting Role

*Christian Bale - The Fighter (As drug addict/ex-boxer Dicky Eklund, Bale portrays a former local legend who has let life get the best of him. He is an out of control train wreck who makes people either gawk or literally and figuratively look the other way. As for the performance, I absolutely couldn’t look away.)
John Hawkes - Winter's Bone
Jeremy Renner - The Town
Mark Ruffalo - The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush - The King's Speech



Actress in a Leading Role

Annette Bening - The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman - Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence - Winter's Bone
*Natalie Portman - Black Swan (I haven’t seen any of these movies but if the Golden Globes and the media are any indication Portman has it in the bag.)
Michelle Williams - Blue Valentine

Actress in a Supporting Role

*Amy Adams - The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter - The King's Speech
*Melissa Leo - The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld - True Grit
Jacki Weaver - Animal Kingdom

(I’m torn for this one since both women were so hardcore and so vital to the success of The Fighter. Adams was brilliant as Micky Ward’s no-bullshit girlfriend and Leo was fantastic as Ward and Eklund’s no-bullshit mother. Either choice is a good one and, since it’s such a tough call, who knows if Leo winning the Golden Globe will help or hurt her chances.)

Directing

Black Swan - Darren Aronofsky
The Fighter - David O. Russell
The King's Speech - Tom Hooper
*The Social Network - David Fincher
True Grit - Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

(This is going to be a hard one for the people of the Academy since every single movie is so good. Because I haven’t seen True Grit or The King’s Speech my choice will be The Social Network for its fast-paced storyline, layered characters and perfectly cast group of actors.)

Best Picture

Black Swan
*The Fighter
Inception
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
127 Hours
*The Social Network
*Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

(Ever since the Oscars decided there were going to be 10 choices for Best Picture instead of five choices this category has become impossible to predict. Rather than choose I’ve only starred the movies I’ve seen because I literally have no idea how the powers that be are going to make this decision.)

Music (Original Score)

How to Train Your Dragon - John Powell
Inception - Hans Zimmer
The King's Speech - Alexandre Desplat
127 Hours - A.R. Rahman
*The Social Network -Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (I have to go with my favorite Nine Inch Nails alum for this one. His music was the perfect soundtrack to illuminate the contradictory themes in the movie - darkness and discovery.)

Music (Original Song)

“Coming Home” from Country Strong - Music and Lyric by Tom Douglas, Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsey
“I See the Light” from Tangled - Music by Alan Menken Lyric by Glenn Slater
“If I Rise” from 127 Hours - Music by A.R. Rahman Lyric by Dido and Rollo Armstrong
*“We Belong Together” from Toy Story 3 - Music and Lyric by Randy Newman (I have a special place in my heart for Randy Newman and this movie.)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

American Idol Is Good Again!


Back in September I wrote about the surprising selection of the two newest American Idol judges – Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez – and what the new blood would do for the show. I mentioned that no matter what, the January premiere would be big because regardless of what you think about Tyler, Lopez, Randy Jackson, Ryan Seacrest or the show in general, the amount of publicity this whole thing has gotten is out of this world. In fact, last night’s 10th season premiere began with news clips gathered from the last several months featuring reporters talking about who would be the new judges. No question that those clips were indicative of the level of pop cultural importance American Idol has reached – the show is literally in the news all the time.

After watching last premiere – which kicked off the Tyler/Lopez era – I must say that I was impressed. First of all (and I know this is the least shocking thing ever) I love Steven Tyler. I just love him. I love his mouth, the feathers in his hair, the way he dresses and most importantly – that voice. Wow. Although most of the female contestants he was talking to/flirting with were young enough to be his daughters/granddaughters, I liked what he had to say. He can recognize talent from a mile away and he feels music in his soul. He is the epitome of what American rock and roll is all about and I can’t get enough of it. The more surprising portion of the program was how NOT annoying Jennifer Lopez was. Granted there’s only been one episode so far but I found her to be intelligent, fair, honest and kind – almost as if she checked her “Jenny from the block” bullshit at the door. I thought she was real and I also liked what she had to say. As for Randy “Dawg” Jackson – he’s fine. I can take him or leave him.

Now, judges aside, what people really are looking for from American Idol is new talent, right? Kids from all over the country (and apparently the world as there was a girl from Kosovo) find a way to get to these auditions and get up the nerve to sing in front of three people that could make or break them. Some of these contestants are so bad that I literally thank my lucky stars that I have a DVR which allows me to fast forward right through those people, while others are so unbelievably good that they make me cry like a little girl. Yeah, I said it. My name is Laura Lieff and some contestants on American Idol make me cry. But let me be clear: I’m not tearing up because of their publicity stunt back stories, I’m tearing up because these kids want this so bad and when they get a golden ticket to Hollywood they are so excited that they can’t believe it. Plus, seeing new talent hitting high notes, doing what they love and doing it well is amazing. It reminds me again and again how much I love music and why I love music.

So here’s to 2011 being the best season of Idol yet - talented judges changing the lives of incredible singers from the corners of the world.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Social Network


As promised, I finally watched The Social Network. And you know when the action stopped in that movie? Never. For a movie that was supposed to be about computer nerds and people suing each other for millions of dollars it sure felt like a sports movie with all the best highlights.

At this point most people know that The Social Network is the story of how Facebook was created by a Harvard undergrad who, with a little help from his friends, created one of the most important contributions to popular culture. Not only did Facebook make the term “social media” a household phrase it also turned people’s social lives into something that other people cared about.

What was cool about watching Social Network is that I went through exactly what the students in the movie were going through upon discovering Facebook because I was in college when all of this was going down. I remember back in 2004 when a friend of mine at the University of Colorado asked me, “Why aren’t you on Facebook?” and I replied with, “What the hell is Facebook?” A few days later she helped me make a profile and showed me what this new web site was all about. At that point I wasn’t even on MySpace so the idea of making a profile and typing in my “relationship status” was completely foreign. As I gathered more and more “friends” it became clear how much I enjoyed checking Facebook and how it became, just like my email account, something I checked at least once a day. Then came the ability to upload photos, “tag” friends that were in the photos and posting “status updates.” And that was it –I was hooked and so was every other college kid in the country and subsequently the world.

What I didn’t know about Facebook was the background: It was created by Mark Zuckerberg (played brilliantly in the movie by Jesse Eisenberg) and that Napster “founder” Sean Parker helped Zuckerberg by convincing him to move to California and dropping “the” and just calling the site “Facebook.” I thought Shawn Fanning was the person who created Napster and I was pretty much right – apparently Parker was Fanning’s business partner. (Sean and Shawn…ridiculous). Anyway, Facebook incorporated in the summer of 2004 and Parker, who had been informally advising Zuckerberg, became the company's president. Currently, Zuckerberg owns 24 percent of the company and Parker owns four percent.

Alright back to the movie – which holds up so well because every character is played perfectly by every actor. Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg (I know it’s hard to keep all the “bergs” straight) in such a ferociously intense way that at first I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to keep up with the dialogue. I also initially thought that Zuckerberg might have a social disorder that made him tough to interact with but no – that’s just his personality and Eisenberg nails it. Meanwhile, Andrew Garfield is mesmerizing as Zuckerberg’s best friend Eduardo Saverin who he ends up totally screwing over. Garfield is the soul of this movie as he makes the audience feel for him and all the steps he takes to help Zuckerberg achieve something bigger than both of them. Then there is the phenomenal Justin Timberlake who makes you simultaneously love and hate his Sean Parker who exemplifies the epitome of contradiction. Parker is motivated and full of ideas but he also has a ruthless side to him – I’m still not sure if he’s a good guy or not. Armie Hammer (Like Arm & Hammer? What kind of name is that?) pulls double duty playing the WASPY McWASP twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss who also claim they got screwed by Zuckerberg and end up spearheading the lawsuits. And of course there’s the girlfriend/ex-girlfriend whose presence bookends the movie – we meet her in the very first frame of the movie when she breaks up with Zuckerberg for acting like a verbal nutjob and then the final frame of the movie shows Zuckerberg staring at her Facebook page. Superb.

So should you see the intricate masterpiece that is The Social Network? Absolutely. It’s already earned four Golden Globes including Best Picture so it might just be a sleigh ride into the Oscars. So go right now. Seriously. Walk away from the computer and find a way to watch it. The two hours will be done before you know it and you’ll wish the movie was longer.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Golden Globes


A list of what caught my attention at tonight’s award ceremony:

-Christian Bale winning – he was unbelievable in The Fighter and deserved this award more than anyone. In other news his hair looks like Eddie Vedder circa 1993 and I always forget that he is not American.
-Katey Sagal winning for her turn as the wrong mother to mess with on Sons of Anarchy – very cool to see someone so thrilled to win.
-Ricky Gervais referring to Bruce Willis as Ashton Kutcher’s dad.
-Crowd shot of Angelina Jolie fixing Brad Pitt’s tie.
-Toy Story 3 winning – especially the look on Tom Hanks’s face.
-Ricky Gervais calling out Robert Downey Jr.’s jail time.
-Robert Downey Jr. talking about all the famous actresses he has and has not slept with.
-Emma Stone is bleach blonde now? What the hell was she thinking? Did she want to look like one of Hef’s bunnies? Mission accomplished.
-Annett Bening giving her husband Warren Beatty a shout out during her acceptance speech by pointing out that he was the 1962 winner for the Golden Globe for Most Promising Actor.
-Al Pacino getting a standing ovation.
-Clare Danes – couldn’t miss her in that hot pink dress – hugging Temple Grandin (the woman she played) after hearing she won. P.S. The last time Danes was nominated she won and it was for her performance in My So-Called Life in the 90s.
-I need to see The Social Network immediately. I can’t believe I haven’t seen it yet.
-The boys who will play Thor and Captain America….wow.
-Apparently I need to see Burlesque as well – I wonder if it’s going to be the speakeasy version of Coyote Ugly. Hmm…
-Everyone from the cast of Glee is extremely dramatic – big surprise.
-Melissa Leo winning for her role as the tough-as-nails mother on The Fighter – awesome. Just awesome.
-Rodney – I mean Matt Damon – doing impressions of Robert De Niro. Priceless.
-Seeing a rundown of De Niro’s best work in honor of him receiving The Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement in motion pictures – they don’t call him a legend for nothing. The respect for De Niro in that room was palpable…just ask Tom Hanks who was crying.
-The crowd giving Michael Douglas a standing ovation and Robert Downey Jr. fist pumping for Mr. Gordo Gekko.
-Social Network – watching it tomorrow.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Reckless Road


When I first saw the title of Marc Canter’s book – Reckless Road: Guns N’ Roses and the making of Appetite For Destruction – I was really excited. I couldn’t wait to read all about the creation of one of my favorite records of all time; an album so good that as of September 2008 it had been certified 18 times platinum by the RIAA, accumulating worldwide sales in excess of 28 million as of October 2008. Appetite is also the best-selling debut album of all-time, beating Boston’s debut album Boston, which has gone 17 times platinum.

Released in July 1987 on Geffen Records, people couldn’t help but notice one of the rawest, ballsiest and most aggressive albums of all time. In 1989 Rolling Stone ranked Appetite for Destruction as the 20th best album of the 1980s. The magazine later ranked it at 61 on their list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” In 2003, VH1 named Appetite for Destruction the 42nd Greatest Album of All Time. It was also rated number 18 in SPIN magazine's “100 Greatest Albums, 1985-2005.”

So as I was saying before, I couldn’t wait to read the story behind Appetite and I figured Canter’s book would be it. Unfortunately Reckless Road wasn’t as good as I thought it was going to be but there were some interesting parts.

Positives:

-The photos are awesome. The photographers clearly had all access to Guns N’ Roses, as the reader can literally see every detail of the band members in the performance shots. Every tear in Axl’s jeans, the color of Slash’s nail polish, Duff McKagan’s bass strings, Steven Adler’s huge hair, every piece of jewelry Izzy Stradlin wore and most importantly the look on their faces as they tore through some of the best rock and roll the 80s had to offer.
-Canter says that he “wants the reader to feel the flow of the live shows” and that is exactly what it feels like. Canter even provides a play-by-play of what was said by the band at the 50- plus performances Canter attended – something that could only be given to the reader by a person who was there.
-The tickets and the concert posters are very cool to see – Guns playing at now legendary Sunset Strip venues like the Whiskey, the Roxy and the Troubadour- and seeing those items in the book make me wish even more that I was there.
-Axl’s outfits are works of art: leather chaps with only speedo-type underwear underneath, studded belts, fingerless gloves, countless bracelets, torn jeans, aviators, cowboy boots, snakeskin belts with Harley Davidson belt buckles, bandanas…and the list goes on and on.

Negatives:

-A lot of what was said at the shows is very repetitive. Makes sense for their individual performances but reading them all together in one collection gets old quickly.
-Being the pain in the ass that he is, Axl of course did not contribute to this book so we don’t have anything new from his perspective.
-A lot of what I read in this book I had already heard on VH1 specials, biographies and documentaries.
-Although the book was presented chronologically at times I felt that it was disorganized. For example, the comments from band members and external players were jumbled together when I think they would have been more effective if they weren’t.

Regardless of the negatives of this book I can’t reiterate enough how great the photos are – they show exactly why Guns N’ Roses is so notorious. If you haven’t seen live footage of Axl performing, these photos do a good job of demonstrating why he is regarded as one of the best rock and roll front men of all time. He is constantly in motion, back-bending and slithering his way across the stage; it’s as if Axl and the microphone merge into one. Also, the photos of the scantily-clad women that flocked to this band like moths to a very glittery flame are hysterical. The black leather leotards, thongs, leopard skin, big belts – it’s so unbelievably 80s.

But at the end of the day it’s the music that matters. Appetite For Destruction featured so many Guns classics that it might as well have been a greatest hits album: “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Paradise City” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” are all on this record along with other gems like “It’s So Easy,” “Mr. Brownstone” and “Rocket Queen.”

Canter gives us more set lists and on-stage chatter than the real making of the album which is what I was expecting/hoping for. That being said, it would be great to hear live versions of the band covering “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” both of which Canter got to see numerous times.

I’m glad I read Reckless Road but I’m hoping that the next time Canter writes something about the band that gave him a front row seat to their climb from good to legendary he offers more of the authentic, raw and exceptional details that would make a real page-turner.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Don’t Judge A Talent By Their Looks


By now I’m sure everyone has seen or at least heard about the homeless man with the golden radio voice but if you haven’t here is a quick recap: Two days ago a reporter from the Columbus Dispatch (in Columbus, Ohio) went to a street intersection and filmed Ted Williams, a homeless man holding a sign about his natural radio voice. The handwritten sign read: “I have a God-given gift of voice. I'm an ex-radio announcer who has fallen on hard times. Please! Any help will be gratefully appreciated.”

The reporter conducted an interview on the spot that began with him saying something along the lines of: “You’re going to have to work for your money, say something to us in your radio voice.” Williams, who was wearing a fatigue jacket and was sporting mangy hair and crooked teeth, was happy to oblige and what came out of his mouth was shocking. Not only does he have the perfect radio voice but also the perfect sports announcer voice, television commercial voice, etc. You name it, this guy can sell it. It was unbelievable. When asked how he ended up on the street Williams confessed that drugs and alcohol took their toll but that he’s been sober for two years. For such a haggard looking man he was both kind and charming. I found myself rooting for this guy from the minute he came on my computer screen.

As my friend Justin Reed said, watching this video was kind of like watching the clip of Susan Boyle on the now famous episode of Britain’s Got Talent when everyone (including Simon Cowell) laughed at her until they heard her killer voice. That audience was left feeling ignorant and superficial for laughing at a woman just because she was older and plain-looking and I’m sure the same happened with people who initially saw the photo of Williams. Then, just like with Boyle, the video of Williams went viral on YouTube reaching more than four million views in 24 hours. And also like Boyle, Williams was able to benefit from this clip as he now has job offers from the Cleveland Cavaliers and Quicken Loans Arena which are offering him voiceover work in radio and television. Apparently, Williams is also sorting through numerous opportunities for other appearances on national TV and radio, which could result in further offers in the days to come.

Either way the video of Williams should remind us of two things: 1) Don’t be another ignorant person who judges someone by their appearance. 2) The Internet, specifically YouTube, can do amazing things.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Fighter


Go see this movie immediately. While it’s no secret that I love sports movies – especially those that are based on a true story – this movie is incredible. I also love Mark Wahlberg – especially when he is playing the strong but silent athlete that must overcome all kinds of barriers to reach his dream (see Invincible). And that’s exactly what happens here, as Wahlberg plays struggling welterweight fighter Micky Ward who is talented but is held down by the family he can’t help but love.

Although Wahlberg is great and there is no question that he has been training for this role for a very long time, he is not the star of the movie. The Fighter is actually Christian Bale’s movie – he steals the show. Bale plays Micky’s brother Dicky (yep, you read that right and no, this is not a Cat in the Hat rhyme), a has been fighter turned crack addict who despite his fall from grace is still regarded as the local hero – “The Pride of Lowell” as they call him. Dicky’s claim to fame is taking out Sugar Ray Leonard 14 years prior, an event he talks about seemingly every hour on the hour, as does his nutjob mother and seven aqua net-haired sisters. Bale plays this crack addict/former athlete with a tortured charisma that makes it hard to look away. He is skinny, has jack-o-lantern teeth and dark circles under his eyes but like the people of the neighborhood it’s hard for the audience ignore him. He never stops talking and regardless of the fact that he’s horrifyingly addicted to drugs it’s easy to see why it’s so hard for Micky to walk away from the brother that taught him how to be a fighter in the first place.

While everyone seems to ignore the fact that Dicky is a severe drug addict, Micky is being mismanaged by his chain-smoking, alcohol-pounding mother and is being trained by Dicky who is too whacked out to realize that HBO is filming him as a cautionary tale about crack addiction and not for his big comeback like he thinks. It’s only when Micky starts dating Charlene (played with some serious balls by Amy Adams) that he figures out that he needs help outside of his family. Micky finally gets a real manager and a real trainer and starts winning fights as a result. He’s on his way until Dicky gets in trouble with the law and causes Micky to suffer severe injuries to his hand. Dicky goes to prison and Micky continues to succeed. While in prison Dicky suffers from brutal withdrawal symptoms and only when he sees the HBO documentary of himself as an addict does he realize it’s time to clean up his act.

In an effort to not give too much away I won’t go any further plot wise but I will say that The Fighter is full of extremely layered characters who – regardless of how insane they are – put family first. Wahlberg is strong, silent and resilient – especially for someone whose family causes more pain than the opponents he fights in the ring. Bale’s performance is award-winning in every sense of the word. He is intense, enthralling and in your face and it never stops. And while the Mafioso mindset of this family is as damaging as it is understandable, the mix of drama and action rivals that of The Sopranos with a Boston accent. Go see what all the fuss is about – and make sure you sing along to White Snake.