Category Archives: friday five

friday five: movie gimmicks that will never, ever work again.

KeatonEvery so often, a film comes along that breaks the rules. It turns the structure and the traditional concept of filmmaking upside down. Sometimes, it’s sheer and utter brilliance (Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction). Other times, it fails spectacularly.

Then, there are gimmicks; some that worked—often prematurely hailed as “brilliant”—and others that didn’t. Either way, they will likely not be repeated anytime soon. Here are five examples I’ve culled for your reading pleasure. As always, in no particular order. Feel free to agree, disagree and/or offer examples of your own in the comments.

Hank & AshaHank and Asha
You never saw it. It’s a small, independent romance film with only two characters who share a long-distance crush via SnapChat-type videos. Credit director James E. Duff for making the viewer feel the connection between two characters who never actually share the same space for the duration of the film.

I’d give Hank and Asha three out of five stars. It’s clever, kinda charming and had characters for whom you could root. Using internet video letters (of sorts) as a device was an interesting way to move the story along, but it also left a sense of longing for more. It’s a decent gimmick, but let’s not do that again.

I know. They’re remaking this film for some inexplicable reason. Seems unnecessary to mess with Memento since they nailed it the first time. It’s a great story with fascinating characters, peculiar twists and a plot that feels like a puzzle. Oh yeah the story is told in reverse. We’re not talking about nonlinear storytelling here. We’re talking a completely backwards movie.

Memento starts at the end and leads you back to the beginning so as to understand how and why we ended where we ended. It was great, but I don’t see how another filmmaker could borrow that storytelling device and make it seem unique. Memento ruined it for everyone else.

The ArtistThe Artist
A black-and-white, silent picture in the 21st century. It was fun and interesting, but in my mind, it was NOT the best film of 2011. It won its Oscar on the back of its hype and its anachronistic feel. Don’t get me wrong. I liked The Artist when I first saw it, but I immediately recognized this was a gimmick movie. That’s okay, but slow down with your finger snaps and orgasmic praise, art school, hipster nerds! You glommed onto The Artist as though Michel Hazanavicius re-invented the entire medium in a manner that became an oracle into the human condition. No. He didn’t.

In fact, he did the exact opposite. He aped a pre-talkies film technique nearly a century later and people went nuts sort of the same way they went nuts for Dane Cook when he first got famous. Pretty soon, people realized Dane Cook wasn’t funny. Or interesting. I’ll say The Artist was entertaining, but a pure gimmick.

Tree of LifeThe Tree of Life
Perhaps not so much a gimmick, unless you consider a steaming pile of shit a gimmick. For the sake of my list (where I make all the rules), I shall call it a gimmick in the hopes that no one ever tries to repeat the mistakes of this pretentious twaddle. No, art school, hipster nerds, I’m not “too American” to understand it. I completely understand The Tree of Life. I understand it sucks.

Perhaps I’m saying Terence Malick should never be allowed to direct another film. There. I said it. I seriously hated this movie and Malick owes me $10.

BirdmanBirdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Right out of the gate, I must admit I truly love this film. It was my favorite movie of 2014. I love everything about it. I love the performances, the visuals, the set…everything. I also love that it was shot as a single-camera, one-take sequence.

Sure, it’s a total gimmick, but it fit perfectly in telling a story about producing a Broadway play. Unlike movies and (most) TV shows, stage productions are performed live, in one take. There are no do-overs. Perfect or not, the audience takes it all in from one, single perspective. Using a single camera in one, long take goes hand-in-hand with the theme and was truly a joy to watch unfold. I suppose it could work again in another film, but why bother trying? Birdman perfected it.*

Too Late* Full disclosure: I wrote this Friday Five more than two years ago. Around the same time Birdman was being produced, independent film director Dennis Hauck was shooting Too Late, which employs a similar, single-take concept. And it worked very well here, too. Too Late stars John Hawkes and is worth checking out.



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friday five: worst acting jobs ever.

Even a great actor has a bad performance. Rarer still, is when a bad actor has a great performance. But for today’s purposes, we’ll focus on the former. The list of bad movies is too long to analyze for a Friday Five, so I thought I’d focus on what I consider five of the worst hatchet jobs of acting I’ve ever watched. In some cases, a bad actor can make a movie entertaining, in its own, weird way. In most cases, it just ruins a good thing. Without further adieu…

Al Pacino in Scarface

If you thought Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian-American portraying a Native American in a TV commercial, was as low as it gets for racial stupidity, get a load of Scarface. Scarface wasn’t presented as satire, but no one told Al Pacino. How Pacino hasn’t been called out for his over-the-top racist minstrel show of an acting job in this movie is beyond me. His scenery-chewing acting is embarrassing. ”You leeeetle cock-a-rooch!” Seriously? The fact that producers hired an Italian-American, painted him bronze and told him to feign a horrendous accent and no one said, “hey, is this all right?” escapes me. How does that happen?!?!

I like Brian De Palma films, but Scarface is just awful; from beginning to end, AWFUL! It’s hot garbage; and a harbinger of more scenery-chewing acting from Al Pacino, sadly.

Keanu Reeves in…anything

What’s the difference between Keanu Reeves and a cardboard cutout of Keanu Reeves? The cardboard cutout is more lifelike. Tell me: does his agent have naked pictures of studio execs he uses as blackmail on behalf of Keanu Reeves? Because I can’t think of any other way he gets so many A-list roles. The only time Reeves has ever been even close to watchable is when he’s playing a stoner. But as a lead in an action movie? Eesh. As a lead in a romantic movie? Eesh. I seriously don’t get it. Not for one second. The man has the acting range of a tree stump.

Cameron Diaz in The Counselor

The idea that every actor should have the range to play various characters is nice, on paper. In reality? Not every actor has that range. In fact, many simply can’t do it. Case in point: Cameron Diaz. She’s great in comedies and lighter roles. But when she’s thrown into the deep end as a heavy character? She flails and flops. As Malkina in The Counselor, we’re supposed to believe Diaz is this soulless, cold, calculating, evil mastermind. Yeah…not happening. She delivers her lines with all the gravitas of a shampoo commercial. I like Cameron Diaz—and make no mistake, comedy is not easy—but her work in The Counselor is a reminder to think twice when straying out of your comfort zone.

George Clooney in Batman & Robin

Hard to remember how adrift at sea the Batman franchise became back in the 90s. Despite a valiant attempt, Tim Burton never fully connected the dots on the Dark Knight; turning him into a goth, anti-hero in a Gotham City that was long one fog and short on lighting and superhero action of any sort.

Then along comes Joel Schumacher and his parade of primary-color cartoonishly hammy heroes and villains, prancing about a Gotham City that looks more like a bad Cirque du Soleil production. Jim Carrey as the Riddler as bad enough, but it wasn’t until Schumacher cast A-lister George Clooney to play Batman when he successfully piled the franchise into the ground. While Clooney is a solid actor and handsome enough to play the regal Bruce Wayne, his performance in Batman & Robin was horrifying. He delivered every line as though he were still on the set of ER. He was nothing more than Doug Ross in a cowl. In fairness to George, he had remarkably little material to work with. Everything about Batman & Robin felt more like a spin-off of the 1966 TV series than an honest attempt to create something epic and dramatic.

Thankfully, Chris Nolan came along and fixed everything.

John Wayne in The Conquerer

Before Chuck Norris, there was The Duke. The original tough guy actor, John Wayne was in charge, whether you liked it or not. His characters were grizzled, hardscrabble heroes who loved ‘Merica, stood up for what was right, would backhand you if you got out of hand and could shoot out your eyeball with a rifle from 100 yards out. He wasn’t some foppish dandy like Hugh Grant, fawning for the affections of a woman in a plucky, British rom-com. He was John freakin’ Wayne!

The iconic cowboy in American cinema; the quintessential embodiment of the rugged, American frontiersman of the Old West. I could go on and on.

When you picture Wayne in your head, you probably see a cowboy hat, a six-shooter, a horse, a bandana around his neck and, quite possibly, an eyepatch. But, in 1956, he traded in his boots and spurs for Mongolian armor as…Genghis Khan? I would love to hear the story of how this period piece came about.

True, filmmaking has gotten more sophisticated over the years, as producers and directors strive for authenticity beyond cartoonish portrayals of ethnic characters (unless you’re Al Pacino in Scarface). Nevertheless, John Wayne as Genghis Cogburn is my all-time favorite worst performance ever.

Sofia Coppola in The Godfather III

It’s not a stretch to figure out how Sofia got a major role in The Godfather Part III. Someone really should’ve talked Francis Ford Coppola out of it. In fact, someone should’ve talked him out of The Godfather III. The entire production is a nightmare, and his daughter looked completely lost in every single scene. Her dead eyes and expressionless face gave no life to the dialogue falling out of her mouth in this disastrous final chapter in the Godfather trilogy. Her performance would barely play in a community theater version of Our Town.

Fortunately for Sofia, she found her talents behind the camera as a writer and director, just like her dad. She won an Oscar for Lost in Translation. Her acting will never win an award. Ever.

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friday five: five launchpad projects for entertainment superstars.

Before we start, let me preface this by saying I intentionally omitted sketch comedy shows from this list. In my mind, sketch shows like Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show and The Sid Caesar Show are supposed to be launchpads for budding talent. We could have a separate list for this category to cover the many great sketch shows throughout television history that launched careers. But that’s not what we’re covering in this list.

I’m focusing strictly on films television and music that, intentionally or not, were incubators of talent and unforeseen future success long before any of those who were involved were A-listers. Perhaps it was pure coincidence, but I’d like to think these projects are what got them noticed and kickstarted their massive success.

School Ties (1992)
school-tiesPut it this way: Matt Damon was a supporting actor in this Brendan Fraser vehicle. I think we know how he’s done since then. School Ties, a 1960s boarding school period piece, featured a slew of young, male actors who would go onto bigger things. While it’s easy to forget, Fraser’s star hadn’t risen yet, prior to this movie. He would go onto become a 90s actions movie star in the Mummy flicks as well as play a major role in the 2004 Academy Award winning film, Crash.

Who else was in School Ties? Chris O’Donnell, Ben Affleck and Zeljko Ivanek, to name a few. Ivanek certainly didn’t rise to the level of movie stardom like Affleck and O’Donnell, but this film was really the starting point of a long and ongoing career for Zeljko as the wormy guy you hate in virtually every TV show created. And it all started in School Ties.

As for Affleck and O’Donnell, think about this: they would go on to play Batman and Robin in separate franchises of the DC Comics characters. Who saw that coming???

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Fast TimesThis classic is somehow forgotten in the pantheon of 80s high school movies; probably because it’s not a John Hughes film. Nevertheless, Fast Times may be the best of that era, of that genre. It’s not a stretch to say it launched the careers of Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold and Jennifer Jason Leigh. But start poking around the supporting cast and you stumble across a couple of Oscar winners: Forest Whitaker and Nicolas Cage, along with Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards and Taylor Negron.
Fast Times Forest
Fast Times Cage
Lest we forget its writer, Cameron Crowe. This was his maiden voyage. And oh yeah, you might’ve heard about a certain scene involving Phoebe Cates and a red bikini.

American Graffiti (1973)
American Graffiti_3The cast, at the time, boasted a few working actors and maybe one or two known commodities. Sure, everyone knew Ronny Howard (yes, that’s how he was billed) as Opie on the Andy Griffith Show, but this was one of his first “grown-up” roles. I think we know how it turned out for him.

Harrison Ford in American Graffiti.

Harrison Ford in American Graffiti.

Beyond Howard, look at who else was in the cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Mackenzie Phillips; even Suzanne Somers had a small, but meaningful part in the movie. And there was this guy named Harrison Ford in a bit part. I wonder if he ever turned into anything.

And oh yeah, who co-wrote and directed American Graffiti? George Lucas. His next film was Star Wars. Gotta wonder if he even gets to make that movie if American Graffiti isn’t a hit.

N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton (1988 Ruthless Records)
NWATwenty-seven years ago almost to the day, this groundbreaking hip hop album was released. It is not hyperbole to suggest it changed everything. When N.W.A. burst on the national scene in 1988, they were “gangsta rap.” They were real-life street kids who turned their experiences into a monster-selling album. They were dangerous. And people couldn’t get enough of them.

Without N.W.A., there is no hip hop scene like we see today. True, N.W.A. wasn’t the first hardcore rap act to break out, but they busted down the door and everyone followed behind them.

Beyond the music industry influence, look at where founding members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are today. One is a successful actor and film producer and the other is an executive with Apple and is widely regarded as one of the best music producers in the business. Nobody saw any of that coming the first time they heard Straight Outta Compton.

As a hip hop act, N.W.A. was short-lived; splintering apart and eventually breaking up in 1991. There were public feuds in the intervening years (which largely came to a halt when founding member Eazy-E died in 1995), but N.W.A. as an act were pretty much done. Their collective time as a group was brief, compared to other influential music artists, but there’s no denying Straight Outta Compton is the birth mother of Cube’s and Dre’s careers as well as an entire genre of music.

Mean Streets (1973)
Mean StreetsAlternate title: When Marty met Bobby. Unlike other projects mentioned here, Mean Streets does not boast a plethora of young actors and actresses who broke out after this film’s release. But Mean Streets is pivotal because it was the first time a budding young director named Martin Scorsese worked with an actor by the name of Robert DeNiro. Truly, the rest is history.

Scorsese and DeNiro have combined for some of the greatest American films of the 20th century, and it all started with Mean Streets. What came next?

Taxi Driver. Raging Bull. Goodfellas. Cape Fear. Casino.

It is not an overstatement to call Scorsese the greatest living American filmmaker and DeNiro the greatest living American actor. Their résumés—both collective and individual—speak to that. But their greatness is not defined solely within their work. They, too, have elevated the careers of many other actors and filmmakers over the years. Undoubtedly, Joe Pesci, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sharon Stone, Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco and many, many more have benefited from working with Scorsese and/or DeNiro. And the flashpoint for it all was Mean Streets. Oh yeah, do you know who else was in that movie? A guy named Harvey Keitel. I wonder if he ever went on to do anything substantial.

Honorable Mention
Freaks and Geeks (1999 – 2000)
Freaks and GeeksInitially, I was going to say Knocked Up was the launchpad, but it wasn’t. Before Judd Apatow and co. went on to massive careers after that 2007 comedy movie, there was Freaks and Geeks; a canceled-too-soon TV show that gave birth to many successful Hollywood careers. Apatow wrote and directed several episodes. We know the rest of his story. But what about the cast? Jason Segal, James Franco and Seth Rogan all have become Hollywood A-listers. Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, Samm Levine, Busy Phillips and Martin Starr all have found steady work on a slew of highly successful television shows.

No matter how well everyone continues to do, Freaks and Geeks fans still feel cheated out of what could’ve been a great series.

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friday five: off with their heads!

This may seem like a morbid topic to cover on a Friday, but I couldn’t help but notice this recent trend in film and television: decapitation. I’m not talking about the ISIL terrorist awfulness that is both sickening and torturous. I’m staying strictly within the confines of movies and TV shows. And from where I’m sitting, it appears we’re seeing more and more victims lose their heads than we used to. I supposed we’ve crossed some sort of creepy rubicon when one of the most frightening and disturbing acts of violence makes its way into mainstream entertainment. Then again, that’s the nature of the beast. It’s always upping the ante.

Are we, as a society, coarsening? Or is it a case of producers and writers trying to go as dark as possible with their stories? Personally, I think it’s a bit deeper than that. Storytelling is intended to evoke emotion—make us laugh, cry, angry, scared…something. Perhaps using decapitation as a storytelling device plays more into our own fears about how we die. Shootings and stabbings in film and television don’t necessarily shock and awe people anymore. But decapitation? That ratchets up fears, phobias and the ick factor exponentially. And it’s happening on TV now! We’ve come a long way, baby, from Luci and Desi in separate beds to scenes of men and women losing their heads.

Here are five recent examples from film and television that depict this rather heady trend.

The Sopranos: Made In America (series finale, 2007)

I don’t know if this qualifies, but I’m including it anyway. Back in 2007, the Sopranos wound down the series by pretty much settling all family business (except for Tony himself, but we’ll save that argument for a later date). In the episode, rival family boss Phil Leotardo (played by the awesome Frank Vincent) meets his demise in the most demoralizing way: shot in the head while waving “bye-bye” to his grandkids in the backseat of his car. But that’s not the worst of it. Philly’s lifeless body collapses to the ground and his head gets run over by a tire on his own car. “Oh shit!” shouts a mortified bystander. Yep, wave “bye-bye” to grandpa…and any hopes of an open casket.

The Counselor (2013)

Adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel, this 2013 film is a rather disjointed mess. Sure, it features a great cast—Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz (okay, she kinda sucks in this one)—but the story is sloppy. However, The Counselor introduces us to the mythical and diabolical bolito! This macabre machine of death, favored by Third World drug cartels, apparently, is used to put down whomever crosses the wrong people and to send a rather visual message in the process.

Supposedly constructed of “some unholy alloy” that is impenetrable by any sort of wire cutters, the bolito is a motorized garrote that is slipped over the head of an unsuspecting stooge and tightened to the point it can’t be removed. A motor does the rest, tightening the metal wire around the neck until it has been completely recoiled. As you can imagine, it makes quite a mess. Once it’s hyped early in the film, you just know the bolito is going to make an appearance! And, oh my, does it ever. London will never be the same.

Stick around, you haven’t heard the last of the bolito.

The Blacklist: The Decembrist (Season 2, Episode 8, 2014)

Network television has a pretty tall order these days, trying to keep up with cable TV and other premium channels. Credit NBC’s The Blacklist for doing its best. This critically acclaimed James Spader anti-hero drama is bringing audiences back to the Peacock. It’s a dark, violent, unapologetic show about a guy with a crapload of enemies whose only goal is to kill them before they kill him. Normally, The Blacklist plays on suspense and drama, more than graphic violence. Yeah, there are shootings and murders, but it’s tame, compared to cable standards.

“Tame” certainly wasn’t the case when it came to friend-or-foe character Alan Fitch, played superbly by Alan Alda. Long story short, Fitch pissed off the wrong people and found himself kidnapped and fitted with a custom-made pipe bomb around this neck. So why didn’t Fitch just remove the necklace and move on? Because in the world of television drama, that is impossible. This bomb is so delicate, so intricate, so diabolical—and covered with flashing lights and other important-looking shit—it can be triggered by the slightest movement. In short, Fitch is a dead man walking…or, in this case, seated. And he knows it. Alda’s final scene, as a man facing his own mortality, is one of the finest moments in the first two seasons of The Blacklist. It’s also kinda icky, but not gratuitously so. See for yourself.

NCIS: Choke Hold (Season 12, Episode 4, 2014)

Who would’ve ever expected this venerable crime procedural to make this list? A show that seems to be more about wink-and-smile lines from Michael Weatherly and Pauley Perrette’s quirkiness (and pigtails) has its moments of gore and violence, but this? Did not see that coming! Call it the CSI Effect. Once the Las Vegas crime lab started dissecting bodies on network television, the rules changed.

Perhaps influenced by The Counselor or some other writers room shenanigans, NCIS introduced its own version of the bolito in the “Choke Hold” episode. I honestly don’t know or care what was the plot of this particular episode, but the bolito plays a prominent role numerous times. Kinda grisly for the Tiffany Network, no? Well, sort of. They don’t go to too many extremes—certainly not like CSI—but they got their point across.

Game of Thrones (2011 – present)

If ever there was a show about gruesome, violent, painful, agonizing death, it’s Game of Thrones. In addition to being a heartless bastard who will destroy every character you’ve ever loved, Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin is also a sadistic, stone-cold murderer! What happens in the opening scenes in the pilot episode? Dude gets his head chopped off. In the penultimate episode of Season 1, what happens? The series protagonist (to that point), gets his head chopped off. Oh yeah, spoiler alert.

But decapitation isn’t the only way people get whacked here. Game of Thrones could easily be retitled A Million Ways to Die in Westeros. When it comes to above-the-neck murder, it’s gotten considerably more creative with each passing season. Sure, we started with standard Valyrian steel sword-to-the-neck stuff, but we quickly moved up to watching a dude get a caldron of molten gold poured over his head. Yipes! My favorite sofar was Jon Snow putting a sword through the back of Karl Tanner’s head in Season 4, Episode 5. Very creative, Jon Snow, you bastard of Winterfell!

To date, the most shocking beheading of all was that of Eddard Stark in Season 1. At the time, fans were apoplectic. They couldn’t fathom the series’ lead character meeting his demise so early on in the show’s run. But remember, this predates the Red Wedding (two heads for the price of one!), the Purple Wedding (millions of GoT fans worldwide cheered for the murder of the most awful teenager in all the land), the Trial by Combat (another great way to destroy a man’s head!) and on and on and on.

Looking back at everything we’ve witness throughout the Game of Thrones run, we now realize this is George R.R. Martin’s MO: make you love someone, just to watch him or her die. Murdering Ned Stark jolted us, shocked us, made us question everything. We were all so innocent back then.

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friday five: five biggest rock ’n’ roll soap operas.

adidas-busentiz-vulc04I’m sure there are plenty more that could’ve made this list. I focused on five of my favorites…along with the fact that most of these are among the most successful rock bands ever. I suppose it should come as no surprise that the same font that feeds the creativity and energy of these musicians also produces major-league volatility. Sure, it sucks when “creative differences” causes your favorite band to crash and burn. But there’s a fair amount of schadenfreude in watching the drama unfold.

This is my top five. Your mileage may vary. Enjoy.

1396298223000-KISS-KISS-BAND-JY-0718-62187918For a band with a larger-than-life stage show, KISS’s off-stage history has been just as interesting. We already know they have never been darlings of the rock media, but so what? Their music and their shows are fun. And, Rock & Roll All Nite truly is the official anthem of rock ’n’ roll. You’d think a band on top of the world could stay there and do nothing to ruin it, right? Wrong.

There’s no question Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons run the band. They showed Peter Criss and Ace Frehley the door—twice—and have never looked back. In recent years, all four original members have written tell-all books harping on one another and spilling all the secrets. The main takeaway from the books? Gene’s an asshole, Paul is a control freak, Peter’s a lousy drummer and a lousy person and Ace is an unreliable drunk, junkie weirdo racist.

In many ways, this band reminds me of pro wrestling. They maintained their stage personas for so long to project a certain image that was almost completely opposite the behind-the-scenes reality. Start reading liner notes on old albums and you realize how many times Gene, Paul and their producers brought in session musicians to perform in place of Peter and Ace.

The 1996 reunion brought the soap opera to its fever point, as the band repeated years of history over the course of four or five years. Just like before, Peter was the first to go, followed by Ace. Why? Same reasons as before. Second verse, same as the first.

Most fans now accept the current incarnation of KISS as nothing more than a money-grab for Gene and Paul. However, they’re still touring—in makeup—and slinging mud with their former bandmates along the way. To be fair, Peter and Ace are slinging it back, too. At this stage of the game, I find the sniping to be more comical and entertaining than disappointing. In many ways, it mimics that whole pro wrestling vibe. Will the original four ever perform together again? Doubtful. There’s entirely too much bad blood to make anything beyond a cordial meet-and-greet happen. In the meantime, I guess we’ll just have to enjoy the soap opera for as long as it endures.

oasis-were-an-english-rock-band-that-formed-in-manchesterThis band was pretty popular back in the 90s. I wasn’t much of a fan, but there’s no denying they were a critical and commercial smash. They were just one in a long line of British acts saddled with that “the next Beatles” moniker. Oasis had a great, unique sound, a talented songwriter in guitarist Noel Gallagher and a talented, albeit temperamental, lead singer in Noel’s brother Liam.

The volatile Gallagher brothers produced some great music and, by all accounts, great live shows, but that volatility also led to infighting and breakups. Anyone remember Oasis’s performance on MTV’s Unplugged in 1996? Noel handled all the vocals because Liam refused to perform. Same thing happened on part of their U.S. tour that year as well. The fact that Oasis lasted until 2009 is a bit of a surprise, honestly. Their popularity waned by the following decade. I don’t blame that entirely on the drama, but I’m sure that didn’t help.

Like I said, I was never much of a fan of Oasis. I thought their lead singer was a jackass and that kinda turned them off to me. But I did like a couple of their songs, I have to admit; especially Don’t Look Back in Anger, which was sung by Noel, not Liam.

The Beatles
beatles.jpgSome of you may be saying, “whaaaat??” But it’s true. The Beatles became a muted, passive-aggressive soap opera in their latter years. The casual fan probably doesn’t even know George Harrison briefly quit the band as they were rehearsing and recording what would become Let It Be. While the fans fixated their ire on Yoko Ono—because she was surgically attached to John Lennon’s hip—time has since vindicated Yoko a bit, because it was John who was so insecure and paranoid that he needed her by his side nonstop. And it was John’s decision to quit the band that ultimately led to the breakup.

Inner-band drama notwithstanding, the soap opera was sometimes sillier and weirder. Case in point: the “Paul is dead” conspiracy rumors that persisted in 1969. Fans pored over the Beatles’ music, images and stories for evidence to support the theory that Paul was, in fact, dead; killed in a car crash in 1966 and replaced by a lookalike. I’m still not sure why the photo of him barefoot on the cover of Abbey Road was considered evidence, but whatever.

Over the last few years they were together, the Beatles basically became session musicians for one another’s songs. That’s nowhere more evident than on Abbey Road and The White Album, so, in fairness, the soap opera never hurt the music. They just seemed to be going their separate ways.

Once the Beatles officially announced they had broken up, that soap opera continued throughout the early/mid 1970s and got a little heated, occasionally, as Lennon and McCartney traded shots at one another in the press and in recordings. Of course, that soap opera came to a screeching halt on December 8, 1980.

Sort of.

Paul was criticized by the press for not being sad enough about the murder of John Lennon. And a few years ago, Yoko Ono took a few swipes at Paul’s songwriting with her “June with a spoon” comments, to say nothing of the revelation that Lennon all but disowned his eldest son, Julian. And, of course, the Paul vs. John debate continues to wage on, so there’s that, too. Mild soap opera or no, the one certainty is the Beatles left behind a musical legacy that is unparalleled.

Van Halen
VH-Band-Photo-webOh, Van Halen. If only you churned out music as often as you churn out drama, we’d have entire record stores devoted to you…if we still had record stores, of course.

Theirs might be the most public of all the soap operas, so there’s really no point in rehashing every detail, is there? It’s pretty simple: Van Halen gets huge in the 70s and early 80s…lead singer quits the band…Sammy Hagar joins the band…Sammy Hagar is fired…band works with old lead singer then remembers why they hated him in the first place and booted him…brought in a guy no one ever heard of and he never even laid down a single track…hired Extreme’s lead singer, the world looked on in astonishment…new album with Extreme singer sucks hard and he leaves the band…Sammy comes back for a tour with VH while Eddie decides to live in a whiskey bottle for the duration of the tour…band splinters apart (again)…Eddie sobers up…Eddie gets cancer…Eddie beats cancer…Eddie has hip replacement surgery…Eddie is pretty much a fucking mess, medically speaking…original lead singer rejoins the band while fan-favorite bass player gets booted and erased from VH history as bandleader’s son joins the band…they tour…they record a new album…they tour again…they release a live album…they tour again, but no one talks to one another. They just tour. And go home.

That about sums it up.

“Who the hell are you?” Mitch Malloy was Van Halen’s lead singer for about five minutes in the 90s.

The funniest thing about Van Halen is, no matter where they are and what they’re doing, fans always wonder if it’s going to hold together long enough to get to the next gig. So far, it’s lasted with David Lee Roth back in the fold longer than I expected. I don’t think Hagar will ever tour or record with Van Halen again, which is too bad. Both the Dave and Sammy years yielded some pretty great music.

Now, as the band is heading into its sunset years, Van Halen has become essentially a nostalgia act. Sure, they released a new album a few years ago; but even that was cobbled together with a lot of pre-1990 demos. The soap opera’s become much less volatile in recent years, but every so often fans are treated to a flare-up. I imagine it’ll be this way until they’re all in the ground. Heavy drama, great music. At least there’s that.

Guns N’ Roses
Guns-N-RosesLet’s get one thing straight, right off the bat: the band with whom Axl Rose records and tours under the Guns N’ Roses banner these days is many things: a bloated mess, an homage to Rose’s arrogance, a waste of time and space. What it is not: Guns N’ Roses. It is ABSOLUTELY NOT Guns N’ Roses!! You can’t call your band Guns N’ Roses when you don’t have Slash, Izzy Stradlin and Duff McKagan or Steven Adler (or Matt Sorum) laying down the music. When 80 percent of the original lineup has either quit or been fired—when they were responsible for that signature G N’ R sound—you cannot call your band Guns N’ Roses, Axl. And that’s why this band is a colossal soap opera: Axl freakin’ Rose.

Back in 1991, when they released the Use Your Illusion albums, I told a friend, “this will be the last we hear from Guns N’ Roses. Basically, I was right. “The Spaghetti Incident?”, released in 1993, was largely culled from the Use Your Illusion sessions. And oh yeah, they’re all cover songs.

The Guns N’ Roses soap opera began firing on all cylinders during the band’s tour in 1991. Between diving into the crowd to confiscate a fan’s camera, storming off stage which caused fan riots and refusing to go on until well past the posted start time, Rose’s onstage antics began wearing out both his bandmates as well as the fans. Of course, the worst of it happened in August 1992, when Guns N’ Roses cut short their performance in Montreal at the same gig where Metallica’s James Hetfield stepped into an onstage pyrotechnic and went off like a human roman candle. The frustrated fans rioted, as a result of Rose’s “sore throat.”

From about 1993 – 2008, Guns N’ Roses became the Axl Rose Revolving Door Show. As all the remaining original members exited—along with several other ridealongs—Guns N’ Roses became nothing more than a narcissistic shit show for its prima donna asshole lead singer. Oh sure, he finally released Chinese Democracy in 2008, but no one cared. Rose and his band toured, too, but no one cared. The bottom line: it isn’t Guns N’ Roses.

The rest of the original band members went on to other projects; some memorable, others, not so much. Izzy Stradlin released a couple critically acclaimed albums in the mid-90s. Slash has done well as a solo artist, as a member of Velvet Revolver (what Guns N’ Roses would sound like without Axl Rose singing) and as being something of a weird rock ’n’ roll mascot that turns up in weird places. Seriously, Slash, with a Black Eyed Peas during a Super Bowl halftime show? Wha??? Is this what happens when rock stars sober up? Eesh.

If Axl Rose would ever get his head out of his own ass and reconcile with the founding members, Guns N’ Roses could sell out a world tour in about an hour, guaranteed. But who wants to put up with Axl Rose? The dude has nothing but contempt for everyone around him, including the fans.

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friday five: diners, drive-ins and dives.

Right from the outset, I realize this list is going to be mostly esoteric and, at times, completely foreign to the reader. While I’m hoping you choose to bear with me as I stroll down memory lane of these great, little eateries—some of which no longer exist—I’m also hoping it conjures memories of favorite places your parents took you when you were kids.

Good Morning Mama’s. Indianapolis, Indiana
MamasThanks to my friend, Roweena, I came to know this place. Though I only went there a couple times, it became one of my favorite breakfast joints anywhere. Ro and I would go there for Sunday morning breakfast. The place was packed. Why? Because the atmosphere is warm and inviting and the food is awesome. I opted for the Eggs Benedict both times I was there, which I highly recommend. Good Morning Mama’s is an excellent neighborhood eatery.

The White Spot. Denver, Colorado
White SpotWhenever I visited my brother when he lived in Denver, I always planned at least one visit to the White Spot. It was a favorite local breakfast place after the bars closed. It was a very popular joint, that I recall. It had the look and feel of every 70s restaurant you’ve ever been to; much like the diner in the opening scene of Pulp Fiction. The food was always great. The service was always top notch and the clientele was always eclectic. I understand that most, if not all, of the White Spot restaurants in Denver are now closed. That’s too bad, really. People today have no idea what they’re missing.

The Fly Trap. Ferndale, Michigan
Fly TrapMy brother Shawn introduced me to the Fly Trap. It’s a popular, little restaurant a few miles from downtown Detroit. I believe it was featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, actually, and I can see why. The food was great, the decor was warm and trendy and the atmosphere was loose, casual and non-pretentious. In the few times Shawn and I met up in Detroit for baseball games or concerts, we always made a point to go to the Fly Trap. It’s worth the trip.

Club Madison. Bay City, Michigan
My grandmother worked at this place when I was a kid. Sometimes I’d go there with her in the summer during a shift while she worked (they fed me, too, of course). Other times the family would go there for a simple dinner. It was a tiny, neighborhood restaurant that served hamburgers and hot dogs to the Sout’ End locals who were their regulars. I suppose it could classify as a greasy spoon. My favorite aspect of Club Madison? The jukebox! They had those tableside jukebox thingies like you see at 1950s soda fountains. I must’ve played Elvira by the Oak Ridge Boys a hundred times before that one summer was over. Giddy up, oom poppa, oom poppa, mow mow!

Walli’s Restaurant. Somewhere in mid-Michigan
wallisAs a little kid, our parents would throw my brother and I in the backseat of whatever monstrous vehicle they drove throughout the 70s and early 80s to make the drive to Detroit from Bay City for a Tigers game. Those day trips rank among some of my fondest memories growing up. Even though it was less than a two-hour drive from Bay City to Tiger Stadium, the entire day was always an adventure. Part of that adventure meant stopping at Walli’s on the way home for a late dinner. I don’t remember a great deal about the place itself, but for its unique sign by the road. It looked like some sort of red, rotating, multi-pointed star. I always called it “Sputnik” in my head. In the dead of night, its glow was unmistakable. I have no recollection of the food, decor or anything, Walli’s still rates high because it was a part of some of the greatest days of my childhood.

Honorable Mention
Denny’s. South Bend, Indiana
I know, I know. Denny’s doesn’t really count because it’s a national brand. I get it. But for about a three or four-year period when I was in college, this particular location was a staple of my pre-21-year old life (and quite a few 3 a.m. breakfasts after the bars closed). I hung out there most often with my Olive Garden co-workers. It seemed we all ended up at Denny’s every Friday or Saturday night. There were a couple servers with whom we were friendly, so that made it all that much more fun.

Azar’s. Mishawaka, Indiana
For those unfamiliar with Mishawaka, this was actually a Big Boy, but nobody called it that. They called it by the owner’s name: Azar. I spent many a night at Azar’s with my college friends. This was our usual post-bowling hangout, post-student government meeting hangout, post-everything hangout. I even went there to study for finals there one night and encountered several friends in the small hours. Even though Azar’s is long gone, I remember pretty much every step of that place. Good times.

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friday five: five great las vegas movies.

For decades, Las Vegas has been a favorite movie setting for producers, and why not? No matter the era, Vegas represents the same things: partying, losing inhibitions and a series of bad decisions. There are several Vegas-themed films I haven’t seen, including Viva Las Vegas (believe it or not), so this list represents only those movies I’ve personally watched. Feel free to make your case for other Vegas flicks in the comments.

Oh, sure, there are a few stinkers worth mentioning (Showgirls, anyone? That movie was HORRENDOUS!), but let’s just stick to the positive. After all, it’s Friday!

Vegas Vacation (1997)
Vegas VacationBelieve it or not, there was a time when Chevy Chase was funny. As Clark Griswold’s nemesis blackjack dealer, Wallace Shawn steals each of his scenes. When I was a dealer in Vegas and would have to check a young guy’s ID at my table, I always said the same thing when I’d hand him back his ID: “Good luck, Mr. Pappagiorgio.” It’s a little sad to watch this movie today and realize Randy Quaid is now crazier than Cousin Eddie, and not in a good way. But we’ll always have Vegas Vacation to remember he used to be funny.

Lost In America (1985)
lost-in-america-movie-posterPerhaps this is more of a personal, sentimental favorite and not really a “Vegas” movie. However, a pivotal scene in this Albert Brooks comedy takes place at the old Desert Inn and has been a reference point for my brother and I for years when getting our brains bashed in gambling. I played at the Desert Inn on my first-ever trip to Vegas in 1999. For my money, the Desert Inn has heart.

The Hangover (2009)
Hangoverposter09Has any movie embodied what people hope is how their Vegas vacations turn out? Well, perhaps without the tiger and the naked Mr. Chow jumping out of the trunk of a car, but The Hangover captures the essence of a weekend on The Strip everyone wants: complete, unadulterated debauchery. After all, bad decisions always make for good stories.

Ocean’s Eleven (1960) & Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
oceans-11-poser-2ocean039s-eleven-2001-poster-artwork-george-clooney-brad-pitt-matt-damonI’m including both films here because, even though the George Clooney-led remake is phenomenal, there’s no way I could exclude the original Rat Pack flick from this list. Let’s start with the first Ocean’s Eleven: it is a time capsule of a Vegas era that no longer exists. Everyone and everything was wild, cool and swingin’!

Certainly, the Rat Pack version looks dated, but that’s part of its charm. And there’s one other reason this movie makes the list: Dean Martin. There is no one alive today who oozes that much “cool cat” awesomeness. No one.

The 2001 reboot is easily one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s smart, funny, witty and purely entertaining from beginning to end. You feel like you’re in on the caper with the gang.

Casino (1995)
casino_1995The most incredible element to this movie: it’s a true story. Sure, the names were changed, but those characters were based on real-life people who are still legendary names in Las Vegas lore. My favorite aspect of Casino is the detail. They get it right on the gaming floor. For example, when Ace (Robert DeNiro) walks past a dice table and catches a dealer splashing a payout, he stops and corrects him: “Heel it off. Pay the bet proper!” From beginning to end, Casino is pure entertainment. It’s vintage Scorsese, vintage De Niro and vintage Joe Pesci.

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