Monday, September 17, 2007

The Blog gets ROCKED LIKE A HURRICANE! The SCORPIONS in Concert, EASTERN PROMISES - Reviewed, and Emmy Awards Thoughts

Okay, it's been way too long since I updated, and that's mostly been to craziness at work. Actually, the last time I posted, last Tuesday, I had a whole rant ready to go about all things political, mostly centered about Larry "Wide Stance" Craig and the hypocricy of all thes right-wing social conservatives who are, in fact, the last thing from morally-sound themselves. In fact, Jonathan Alter wrote a great editorial for Newsweek documenting the history of Republican leaders who have not exactly practiced what they preached when it comes to morality. Check it out:

Basically, there's such a long history of these right-wingers being exposed as morally-questionable hypocrites, that for anyone at this point to call themselves a Republican in the name of Family values is themselves being fairly hypocritical. As for Larry Craig, he needs to stay away from political office, and likely deserves all the embarrassment that he has coming.

- Anyways, I want to take a moment and say "Shana Tovah" to all of my fellow members of the Jew Crew. May everyone have a happy and healthy new year.

- As for my Rosh Hashana, I had a decent time participating in J-Connect's services. The crowd, as per usual with these things, was a bit of a motley crew, with an eclectic mix of very religious Jews with many who were much more secular. It's funny how us middle-of-the-road conservatives (Jewish-ly speaking, not politically) seem to be few and far between here in LA, where everyone is apparently either a beard-sporting super-Jew or else one of those people who asks "wait, which one is Yom Kippur again?" Thursday night I had a nice time with my great-uncle Josh and aunt Liana, at their friend Hannah's home for a Rosh Hashana dinner. It was exhausting though, driving from Burbank to West LA through terrible traffic, then back to Burbank, then back to Beverly Hills for dinner. But it was a nice way to break up the week, and a good way to get re-focused. I love that us Jews have a time of the year where we basically are forced to evaluate our own behavior and think about how we can better ourselves in the new year. Especially here in LA, all of us need a little self-reflection now and then.

- Okay, on to the EMMY AWARDS.

Basically, I thought the awards this year were decent, with most of the nominees consisting of the usual suspects, with a few left-field choices thrown into the mix. Of course, shows like VERONICA MARS and GILMORE GIRLS were shafted as usual in the nominations, and surprisingly, LOST was left out of the Best Drama category in favor of Heroes, which had a good first year but is not necessarilly one of TV's five best dramas. The Emmy show itself was okay, nothing spectacular. Ryan Seacrest had a few decent jokes and was suprisingly servicable as host. the Family Guy opening was pretty funny, and I enjoyed the tribute to Roots. Other than that, Stewart and Colbert were hilarious as always, but noting else really stood out except for Sally Field's trainwreck of an acceptance speech. UGH. Why do all these Hollywood stars feel the need to use a crappy awards show podium as their personal pulpit? It's one thing if the star in question is coherant and concise. But it's emotional crazies like Field who give liberals a bad name. Doesn't she realize that her rambling mess of a political statement does nothing but SET BACK whatever anti-war cause she's trying to advocate? GET OFF THE STAGE, says I.

In terms of who won, the main things that stood out to me are these:

- First off, a huge congrats to LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN, whose writing staff won a well-deserved Emmy that was a looooooooong time coming. I can personally attest that Conan and his writing team are all bonafide comedic geniuses, and they've had some of the best comedy-writing on TV for years and years now. I think the tendency is simply to give the award to a Stewart or Colbert, since their shows have a perception of prestige and highbrow humor. But nobody does random, Mad Magazine-esque Ivy League lowbrow like Conan and his crew, and it's 'bout time they got some recognition!

- I personally was really happy to see Ricky Gervais win Best Actor in a Comedy. His work on Extras was simply phenomenal, and Gervais has the rare ability to portray a character who is both hilarious and sad - like The Office, EXTRAS is a miniature comedic epic that is amazing in the scope of its storytelling.

- I was also really happy to see 30 ROCK win Best Comedy. I quickly became a huge fan of the show last season, and really wish more people would watch. Midway through last year, 30 ROCK began to hit its stride and really began to strike that perfect balance between having a likable, well-rounded cast and being packed to the brim with crazy, random humor. Tracy Morgan and Alec Baldwin are freaking hilarious, and Tina Fey is the perfect straight-woman. Personally, I'd give the edge to The Office in terms of being the better overall comedy this past season, but 30 Rock is gaining a lot of creative momentum, and hopefully the ratings can catch up as well.

- Finally - Terry O'Quinn gets an Emmy! O'Quinn is an amazing actor who brings a depth to his characters that is simply remarkable. He's helped to elevate LOST to another level with portrayal of John Locke, and even if his character's arc has had its ups and downs, O'Quinn is undoubtedly Emmy-worthy for his overall body of work on the show, including the instant-classic "Walkabout" from Season 1, perhaps one of the best episodes of a dramatic program ever aired. The award couldn't go to a cooler actor.

- Also congrats to Jamie Pressley for her Emmy for Earl. What an unlikely success story. Before Earl, Jamie was probably best known for less-than-respectable roles in movies like Poison Ivy 2. Just last week, the DVD of DOA dropped, featuring Pressley in the B-movie videogame adaptation. And yet, she has proven on EARL that she's a talented comedienne who plays one of the breakout characters on a show filled with great actors like Jason Lee and Ethan Suplee.

And really, those are the awards that stood out to me. I've yet to see much of THE SOPRANOS, but I'm sure it's deserving of the recognition it got. But plenty of people will tell you that it's a crying shame that shows like THE WIRE, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA got little to no recognition. As I've said before on the blog, the nominations process for the Emmys really has little merit. It's a bunch of industry insiders who likely DON'T WATCH many of the best programming on TV. I know for a fact that people I've talked to who had Emmy ballots have barely heard of Veronica Mars, and sure as hell aren't about to put it on an Emmy ballot. I mean, half of the people in Entertainment only watch whatever shows their husbands or wives TIVO for them - hence all of the love for things like Ugly Betty, Grey's, etc. It's a miracle that someone like Ricky Gervais made it onto any ballots in the first place, let me tell you.

- So ... totally shifting gears here, let me talk about this weekend. Good times yesterday at El Guapo in celebration of Jule's big b-day, and man, myth, legend - Aksel - was in town as well. But, the big highlight was that me and the Axe-Man saw legendary rock band, THE SCORPIONS, live and in concert!


So, the Scorps have long been a favorite band of mine. Many people only think of them as an 80's one-hit-wonder, but in fact, The Scorpions have had a lot of hits over their long career and are really a pretty accomplished band with a great sound and a huge catalog of cool rock songs. And they are still kickin', with a new album set to hit soon and a band that, if Saturday was any indication, is only barely showing any signs of age. Because this weekend at Gibson Ampitheater, the Scorpions unleashed hell and rocked like a hurricane!

I really wasn't sure what I was going to get from The Scorpions. I mean, as far as I know they haven't toured in years, and prior to a few months ago I didn't even necessarily realize that they were still together as a band and making new music. But lo and behold, what I got on Saturday was a couple of hours of straight-up rock n' roll - not many bells and whistles - just classic tunes from start to finish. The band itself was in great form. Clean vocals and shredding guitars, sick drums, and plenty of energy. These guys were running and jumping around like it was 1986 ... I mean, a few weeks back I talked about Poison seeming well-preserved, but they had nothing on the Scorps, who pranced and jumped around the stage like middle-aged men-possesed. Their drummer in particular was INSANE, looking like a 1980's-era Ozzy and playing some ridiculous solos. The banter was kept to a minimum, and when the band did talk it was often unintelligible thanks to the German accents. That's what was so impressive - they played for hours with barely a pause for breath.

Now, the setlist was pretty good, but I would have liked to have heard more of the classics that I'm familiar with from my well-worn copy of Best of Rockers and Ballads. We got about three or four songs off the new album, Humanity, and while they were unfamiliar, the new stuff was actually pretty good, with the title track being particularly rockin'. On the other hand, there was plenty of time for a number of vintage Scorpions. The band opened with a new song, but quickly broke out two of my all-time favorites, with a kickass rendition of The Zoo followed by an undeniably epic version of Holiday, that drew out the power ballad well past its normal length, with plenty of crowd participation along the way. Some other favorites that got played were Black Out, Still Loving You (perhaps, in my mind, the undisputed King of Power Ballads), No One Like You (a must-play), Big City Nights (one of the all-time best songs to listen to while driving through LA or Boston or wherever at night), Send Me An Angel (Aksel's fav) and of course, Rock You Like a Hurricane, which served as the penultimate closer to what was an epic evening of all-out Rock. The strangest thing though, was that they never played Winds of Change! I was sure that that would close out the night, but it never got played. So odd, and the crowd was dyin' for it. Even without Winds though, there were plenty of great songs, and the concert was an awesome time, with even the newer material sounding pretty much like vintage Scorpions. I would have liked to have heard Winds, and other favs like Rythm of Love, Love Drive, Hey You, and one or two others from the Greatest Hits catalog, but, overall, I didn't have much to complain about. But I came away a believer that The Scorpions were in fact the real deal, and delivered bigtime. I went in looking to be Rocked Like a Hurricane, and Rocked Like a Hurricane I was! Another concert for the record-books.

- As a bonus, here are my all-time Top 10 SCORPIONS songs:

1.) STILL LOVING YOU - to me this is the quintissential 1980's rock n' roll power ballad. Epic, melodramatic, and building from a slow thump to a thundering cresecendo, Still Loving You has gotta be my all-time fav Scorpions song.

2.) ROCK YOU LIKE A HURRICANE - the lyrics of this song are so hilariously kickass ... you can't go wrong with songs about rocking and rocking hard, and you can't rock much harder than a hurricane!

3.) NO ONE LIKE YOU - Similar to Hurricane, this one is power-chord infused arena rock at its finest.

4.) HOLIDAY - The build-up in this power ballad is so over the top it's totally awesome. There's like three minutes of operatic singing, when all of a sudden there's a thunderous power chord as the tempo picks up, "LONGING FOR THE SUN! HERE WE COME!"

5.) WINDS OF CHANGE - Okay, I think the Scorpions are the undisputed masters of the power ballad. Winds is another one that is almost comically over the top but kicks all the more ass for being so.

6.) THE ZOO - Best opening guitar riff ever, followed by an awesome song about ditching yer dayjob and rocking out like an animal!

7.) BIG CITY NIGHTS - Is there anything more rock n' roll than a song about crusing through the city at night? Nope! This is like the Scorps' version of GNR's Night Train, except cheesier and with a chorus that's repeated about 5 million times, growing awesomer each time! Big City! Big City Nights!

8.) HEY YOU - I can never quite tell if there is a woman singing backup in this song or just some dude from the band. But the effect is that of a guy and girl having a back and forth pick-up line session. Great song.

9.) RYTHM OF LOVE - "It's the rythm of love! Keeps me dancing in the night!" Cheesy, classic, sugary goodness.

10.) LOVE DRIVE - Did I say cheesy? "It's a love drive, on wings of fire, a love ride, just one desire!" Yeaaaaaaaaaah. 80's rock at it's over the top best. Scorpions rule!

- Okay, so not only did I see a classic band this weekend that rocked, but I saw the latest film from David Cronenberg which also rocked me like a hurricane! So let's get on with it ...


- I won't come here and pretend to be an expert on the works of David Cronenberg, but I can say that he's a director who I am already an enormous fan of even though I still need to catch up on some of his most revered works. Seeing films like Videodrome, Scanners, Spider, Dead Ringers, and Crash is something I need to do soon. I've always loved The Fly, and I was totally blown away by A History of Violence, which I named the best film of 2005 right here on the blog. So, I was really excited to see EASTERN PROMISES this weekend at a screening held on the Universal lot, in which director Cronenberg reteams with Violence star Viggo Mortenson, and covers similar thematic territory. What I got was pure Cronenberg - dark, brutal, graphic, and more than anything, a thought-provoking character study - a film that is less about plot and more about characters, ideas, and the big questions of human nature and WHY it is that these people behave the way they do. This is no mere crime drama. Eastern Promises is, like A History of Violence, a psychological film that is far removed from the typical genre piece that another director might fashion from this material.

The plot takes many unexpected twists and turns as the movie takes shape, but the basic setup is this: Naomi Watts is Anna, a London-based midwife who delivers the baby of a young, dying prostitute. Watts finds the girl's diary, written in Russian, among her possessions, and becomes obsessed with retracing the girl's steps. As the mystery of the girl is unraveled, it becomes clear that she was hopelessly embroiled in the strange and violent world of London's Russian mob. Anna herself, hoping to discover if the orphaned baby has any relatives in London, becomes wrapped up with Semyon, the godfather of a Russian crime family. Semyon has an unstable son, Kiril, and both the father and son seem to be concerned that the diary that Anna has may implicate them as participants in any number of criminal acts. Enter Viggo Mortenson as Nikolai, a rising star in the criminal underworld who has become Kiril's #1 man and the mob's designated Fixer. Nikolai appears cold and vicious - a killer with no concious. but there is something more to him - he is strangely sympathetic towards Anna and seems to have some kind of hidden motive. And this is where the plot begins to get interesting ...

The supporting cast here is great, but the real star is easily Viggo, with a total knockout of a performance that may even top his great turn in A History of Violence. As in that film, the characters here have a pulpy, almost B-movie quality to them, but the magic is how Cronenberg creates these archtypal, almost stock movie characters (in Viggo's case here, the standard mob-movie cold-blooded killer), and subverts them so that they defy our expectations. Viggo has some scenes in Eastern Promises that are just ridiculously intense. The much talked-about nude fight scene sounds almost funny on paper, but rest assured, it's one of the most brutal, intense, and just plain f'd-up action sequences I've ever seen on film. It takes a brave actor to partake in such a scene, that's for sure. Ultimately, I think Viggo's performance here is so good because it's all about gradually revealing new layers to the character. Like I said, Nikolai initially appears to be just like every badass enforcer-type in any number of crime movies. But the layers peel away, figuratively and literally, and we are left with a complex character who is nothing like the man we initially think we are being presented with. This is a remarkable, Oscar-worthy performance from Viggo Mortenson, and I hope that it gets is due recognition when the time comes, especially after the lack of kudos given to A History of Violence.

As I mentioned, the supporting cast is also great and filled with a number of welcome character-actor-types who bring a lot of color and vibrancy to what is a very dark tale. Naomi Watts is perfect. She always excels at playing seemingly ordinary women who get sucked into a much darker and depraved world than they are used to (see Mulholland Drive for Exhibit A). She is similarly great here, though her character is really pretty basic in that she's our eyes and ears into this dark world of crime and vice. It reminded me a bit of Laura Dern in Blue Velvet.

Some other standouts are definitely Vincent Cassel as the on-edge Russian Mafia Prince, Kiril, who is one of those classic villains who always seems to be on the verge of a breakdown. Armin Mueller-Stahll is really great as Semyon, Kiril's father, and one of those great elderly-types who act kindly but are really old-country-style brutal SOB's. One actor who's always cool to see is this cracy looking dude named Mina E. Mina. I first noticed him on The X-Files back in the day and he is just creepy as hell in general. He's good here as a longtime henchman of Semyon.

The cast really is great, especially considering that it takes a special kind of actor to pull off Cronenberg's unique style of characterization, in which many things are painted in broad strokes and there's a kind of abstract, almost overly-simplistic quality to the dialogue. Like History of Violence, Eastern Promises has an almost Lynchian, surreal quality to it. This isn't a Scorcese-esque street-level crime saga, it's off-kilter, dreamlike, and more about the bigger picture than the details.

This is, in turn, the film's one flaw. Some major twists are introduced as the plot unravels, and it's a credit to Cronenberg that he's not heavy-handed about them, and never talks down to the audience. But he's almost too casual about some of the movie's big revelations. I like a movie that leaves some things to the viewer's imagination, but the last act of this film is simply a bit too abrupt, leaving too many fascinating questions posed by the various twists very much unexplored. This is one that leaves you with A LOT to think about, but you get the feeling that if only one or two more key tidbits of backstory had been dropped, it would feel like a much fuller and more satisfying movie.

Otherwise, this is another must-see from Cronenberg. Cerebral, engrossing, and memorable - this is a film that will burn many of its powerful images into your brain for a long time to come. Eastern Promises is well worth checking out, and a movie filled with ideas and performances that you won't soon forget.

My Grade: A -

- Alright, once again, Shana Tovah, congrats to everyone at Conan on the big Emmy win, and here's to the next rockin' edition of this here blog.

BTW - Tonight, PRISON BREAK Returns~! Oh man, I can't wait! T-Bag liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiives ...

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