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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Appetite for Destruction Turns 25

July 21 marked the 25th anniversary of the release of Guns N’ Roses’ debut album, Appetite for Destruction.

GNR came from the same mid-‘80s Sunset Strip scene that produced the likes of Poison and Motley Crue, and thus their music is sometimes lumped in with the pop-metal acts of the day. The truth, though, is that Appetite was edgier and far more serious than anything those bands did. In fact, Nicholas Pell at LA Weekly considers Appetite to be the most important album of the past 25 years, edging Nirvana’s Nevermind, a seminal album in its own right.

Personally, I’d agree with that assessment; I’d even argue that GNR set the stage for the success of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the grunge scene to come. Can you imagine going from the popularity of “Unskinny Bop” (Poison) and “More Than Words” (Extreme) to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” without the heavier tones of GNR to act as a bridge?

Appetite eased its way into the mainstream when the first single, “Welcome to the Jungle,” gained popularity on MTV after the album had been out for more than a year. The second single, “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” built on that success, and the third, “Paradise City,” cemented it.

Since then, it’s been a long, strange trip for Guns N’ Roses. They followed up Appetite with GNR Lies in November of 1988. It contained four live tracks and four acoustic songs, including the megahit “Patience.” That held fans over until the dual albums Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II released in 1991 (debuting at #1 and #2 on the Billboard charts). While those albums contain many of the band’s best-known songs, they were also largely uneven. Then, in 1993, came the ill-fated The Spaghetti Incident?, an album of covers that would be the last recorded with GNR’s “classic” lineup (featuring Slash on guitar and Duff McKagan on bass in addition to Axl Rose on vocals).

That was it from Guns N’ Roses until Chinese Democracy finally surfaced in November of 2008 after being rumored since 1999, with Axl Rose being the only original member of the band remaining. Despite a completely different sound than any previous GNR material, it went platinum and was generally well received by critics.

The original lineup of Guns N’ Roses (Axl Rose, Slash, Duff McKagan, Izzy Stradlin, and Steven Adler) was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year. Axl and Izzy did not attend, but the others reunited (along with “auxiliary” members Gilby Clarke and Matt Sorum) to perform three songs from Appetite for Destruction with Myles Kennedy on vocals.

As for the future, it’s very much up in the air. Rumors swirl that the new GNR lineup is preparing to begin recording a new album, while some longtime fans continue to hold out hope that Axl and Slash will try to put their differences behind them for a reunion of some sort.

Whatever happens going forward, there’s no denying the impact that Appetite for Destruction has had and continues to have on the music world. Make sure you have this classic album, as well as GNR’s other work, on your library’s shelves.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Review: Paul Williams Still Alive

Written by Kirk Baird

Paul Williams Still Alive is a nontraditional documentary that generated deserving buzz when it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last year. (Paul Williams Still Alive is not out on DVD/Blu-ray yet, but it’s worth watching for in the future.)

The documentary plays with the conventions of the genre in that writer-director and self-proclaimed Paul Williams fan Stephen Kessler (Vegas Vacation) inserts himself into the movie and becomes as much a focal point of the film as its singer-songwriter-actor subject; consider him a non-political Michael Moore.

As a refresher for some and introduction for others, the 5-foot-2-inch Paul Williams dominated popular music in the 1970s. It’s Williams who wrote “We’ve Only Just Begun” as the theme to a bank commercial and it was the Carpenters who turned it into a No. 2 hit. He also wrote “An Old-Fashioned Love Song” (Three Dog Night), “You and Me Against the World” (Helen Reddy), the Oscar-winning “Evergreen,” which he co-wrote with Barbra Streisand for her 1976 remake of A Star Is Born, and “The Rainbow Connection” from 1979’s The Muppet Movie.

He made appearances in numerous 1970s TV shows and a few films, was a regular on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and was a frequent fill-in host for Merv Griffin. Through that decade Williams’s career couldn’t have been much hotter. But as the cliché goes, drugs and alcohol nearly killed him in the 1980s, put a freeze on his career, and wrecked several marriages. Williams got sober—25 years and counting—got his life and career on track, and continues to perform to sold-out audiences in small clubs and theatres worldwide.

But how many of us knew that?

And that’s the premise of Still Alive: to inform us that, yes, Williams is still around and quite active. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know that; Kessler didn’t either, which is how he came to make a movie about Williams.

Williams and Kessler make for an awkward pair at first, with the documentary’s subject unsure of what to make of the filmmaker and his omnipresent camera. But their friendship grows throughout the 90-minute film. Williams opens up about his past troubles and learns to trust that Kessler isn’t out to get him with an unflattering film; Kessler, meanwhile, has the wish fulfillment of a chance to bond with an idol of his growing up.

Still Alive is not revelatory, rather warm and clever. Kessler’s ongoing narration is rife with witty observations and the film’s pacing is like a veteran stand-up comic working a room through the ebbs and flows of a routine: it’s funny, dramatic, illuminating, and even touching. It’s also a genuinely heartfelt tribute to a talent many of us have forgotten about and, sadly, assumed everyone else had as well.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Remembering Richard Zanuck

Written by Kirk Baird

Famed Hollywood producer Richard D. Zanuck died over the weekend at age 77.

Zanuck was that rare film producer whose name was often as recognizable as any of the others in a movie’s credits. In decades of working in film, he won his only Academy Award in 1990 for Driving Miss Daisy, which took Best Film honours. A year later he was making an acceptance speech again after being awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for his distinguished career as a producer.

Through all his accomplishments in movies, Zanuck is best known as the producer who gave Steven Spielberg his first shot at directing a major film; he also stood by the young director when everything on set was falling apart. Zanuck’s patience and Spielberg’s perseverance were both rewarded with what at that time was the highest-grossing film of all time, Jaws.

In a statement, Spielberg said, “In 1974, Dick Zanuck and I sat in a boat off Martha's Vineyard and watched the mechanical shark sink to the bottom of the sea. Dick turned to me and smiled. 'Gee, I sure hope that's not a sign.'"

More recently, Zanuck partnered with Tim Burton on the filmmaker’s projects, including Dark Shadows, a big-screen version of the 1960s gothic soap opera, which opened in theatres in May.

Here’s a partial list of some of Zanuck’s best and best-known films.

The Sugarland Express (Spielberg’s first feature film) (1974)
Jaws (1975)
The Verdict (1982)
Cocoon (1985)
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Rush (1991)
Road to Perdition (2002)
Big Fish (2003)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

July Milestones

Written by Kirk Baird

Amelia Earhart

This month marks the 75th anniversary of celebrated pilot Amelia Earhart’s mysterious disappearance during her attempt to circumnavigate the world. There have been numerous attempts to determine her fate, including a new expedition by researchers. Here are some film and documentary options to learn more about Earhart and her amazing feats in the air.

The Extraordinary Life of Amelia Earhart (2010)
Amelia (2010)
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009)
Amelia Earhart — Queen of the Air (2009)
Where's Amelia Earhart? (2009)
Biographies of Famous People — Amelia Earhart (2005)
For younger viewers:
Amelia Earhart (part of the Great Americans for Children series) (2003)

Andy Warhol—Pop Art Milestone

Fifty years ago this month, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans exhibition was featured at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. To help celebrate this milestone in the pop art movement, check out these fascinating documentaries examining the life of one of the great artists of the 20th century.

Andy Warhol (in German) (2009)
Andy Warhol (part of the American Masters series) (2006)
Artists of the 20th Century: Andy Warhol (2004)
Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol (1990)
And for younger viewers:
Getting to Know — Andy Warhol (2006)
Dropping in on Andy Warhol (2006)

Friday, July 13, 2012

Hulk Out

Written by Kirk Baird

The Amazing Spider-Man swung into theatres on July 3. If it seems strange to have a reboot of the franchise after the original was released only a decade ago, consider 2003’s The Hulk. This critically and commercially underwhelming origin story of Marvel Comics’ Green Goliath was essentially rebooted in 2008 with a new cast, new director, and what amounts to an apology to fans with The Incredible Hulk.

The Incredible Hulk didn’t live up to expectations either, which is why there is a third actor (Mark Ruffalo) playing Hulk in this summer’s superhero team-up, The Avengers. But this Hulk was much different and, frankly, much better in movie theatres. He was limited in screen time, but he made the most of it, stealing scenes and the movie from the other heroes with a surprising amount of humour to go with the CGI “Hulk smash!” effects.

Now look for an Incredible Hulk TV series next year, executive produced by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) — remember the classic TV series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno in the 1970s and ’80s? There’s also serious talk of another standalone Hulk feature film starring Ruffalo in 2015.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Deliverance Haunts on Blu-ray

Written by Kirk Baird

Forty years after its release in July of 1972, Deliverance still haunts.

Mention the film and most everyone recalls the infamous “Squeal like a pig!” male rape scene. But it’s the heavy toll to the suburban Atlanta men who went into the deep backwoods of Georgia to challenge themselves on a canoe river trip and were pushed in horrifying ways they never imagined that truly resonates after the film’s credits have finished.

Deliverance couldn’t have been better cast, with Oscar nominee Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds as the only two known actors when the film debuted. Reynolds, of course, used Deliverance as a springboard out of TV and into a successful film career for nearly two decades, and Voight would later win an Oscar for 1978’s Coming Home. And Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox quickly found their way in Hollywood as well. Each of their characters in the drama represent an aspect of Deliverance novelist and co-screenwriter James Dickey’s personality: the macho outdoorsman Lewis (Reynolds), the creative artist Drew (Cox), the laidback Southerner Ed (Voight), and the funny and bumbling Bobby (Beatty).

Director and co-screenwriter John Borman creates a memorable and formidable world around them, with dangerous mountain men, a furious river, and the beauty of the forest muted into drab greens and brown. Borman talks about all of this in an informative commentary, and the new Blu-ray book set release includes recent interviews with the four actors who have remained friends decades later, bonded by their experience on the set. There’s the sense they were never the same after making Deliverance. And I’m not so certain anyone who’s seen it isn’t changed as well.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Christopher Nolan and the Blockbuster

Written by Kirk Baird

Christopher Nolan has changed modern movies — at least, the blockbuster as we know it — proving that smarts and popcorn entertainment needn’t be mutually exclusive.

He did it with the brainy summer hit Inception, a twisty 2010 drama set in dreams that bent audience imagination with its pretzel logic. And before that, he redefined the possibilities of a superhero film in The Dark Knight with a deeply disturbed villain wreaking citywide chaos that only the titular hero could stop.

And now Nolan is revisiting that world with what is most likely his final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, which opens in theaters across North America on July 20.

Given the hype surrounding this film, its box-office haul could surpass The Dark Knight and The Avengers, which is now the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time.

In many ways, Prometheus owes a debt to Nolan and Inception, a film that challenged audiences post-screening in similar ways to the Alien prequel currently in theaters. While The Avengers, as different as it is from The Dark Knight in tone, seems to have adopted the same attitude Nolan took with his Batman movies: never talk down to or underestimate an audience.

Nolan is quickly developing into a name brand, a familiar filmmaker audiences recognize and trust. Peter Jackson had a similar run, but the disappointing performance of 2005’s King Kong and 2009’s The Lovely Bones has crippled that reputation. Hopefully Jackson’s two-part adaptation of The Hobbit will repair the damage. Steven Spielberg enjoyed this honor at one point as well, but the luster of his brand has faded through the decades. The most successful filmmaker of all time remains the most-recognized director in the world, but nobody thinks of Spielberg as being the same visionary behind Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Still, we hold out hope that he’ll rediscover that magic on a consistent basis.

In Nolan’s case, his filmmaking prowess is at its peak. Curiously, there is no directorial project listed on his page at His only work listed is as co-writer for Man of Steel, the Superman reboot due next year. Nolan developed the story with his Batman series collaborator David S. Goyer, who wrote the screenplay to Man of Steel. The two are even rumored to be teaming up to write the Untitled Batman Reboot, which Nolan will produce.

Even if Nolan isn’t behind the camera for this project, it’ll be reassuring to fans that he’s involved in shepherding another Batman movie to the big screen. That’s the advantage of a well-earned name brand.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Savages, from Award-Winning Director Oliver Stone

Written by Kirk Baird

Remember when Oliver Stone was as much about entertaining audiences as he was preaching to them?

Apparently Stone had someone or something jog his memory, since his latest movie, Savages, marks a return to form for the filmmaker. Based on Don Winslow’s bestselling novel, Savages is the story of two successful drug dealers in Southern California and their shared girlfriend whose lives are radically altered after a Mexican drug cartel attempts to take over their business. The film is edgy, violent, dramatic, and twisty. And no, you don’t have to dig too deep to find messages either.

Here are some other highlights from Stone’s more than three decades of film work:

Midnight Express (1978): Stone wrote this unforgettable drama about the horrific plight of an American caught smuggling drugs out of Turkey.

Scarface (1983): Stone also wrote this classic twisted celebration of the American Dream and a stern rebuke of the excesses that often come with it.

Salvador (1986): The director turns political in only his second film, assessing the escalating government-rebel war in El Salvador through the eyes of an American photojournalist.

Platoon (1986): Stone’s most personal film about his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam remains his defining film.

Wall Street (1987): Michael Douglas earned his Oscar as corporate raider Gordon Gekko, who utters the immortal line, “greed … is good.”

Talk Radio (1988): An overlooked film in Stone’s career and based on a one-man play, this searing and claustrophobic drama examines a provocative radio host who pushes his audience and himself too far.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989): Tom Cruise plays against type in the stirring autobiographic story of Ron Kovic, a soldier paralyzed in Vietnam who becomes an antiwar crusader.

The Doors (1991): Val Kilmer’s Oscar-nominated performance as Jim Morrison has almost been forgotten, but remains reason enough to see the film.

JFK (1991): The director takes on the Kennedy assassination in this Oscar-winning drama starring Kevin Costner that dives headfirst into the conspiracy theories that Oswald did not act alone.

Natural Born Killers (1994): A hyper-violent film that decries our cultural obsession with violence and celebrity…and Stone made this film years before reality TV.

Nixon (1995): Stone coaxes yet another tremendous lead performance from his star, this time Anthony Hopkins in the Oscar-nominated role of the disgraced U.S. president.

Any Given Sunday (1999): Stone takes on the NFL in this stylized and violent behind-the-scenes drama featuring a star-making performance by Jamie Foxx.

Monday, July 9, 2012

In Remembrance: Andy Griffith and Ernest Borgnine

Written by Kirk Baird

With the recent deaths of beloved TV actor Andy Griffith and Oscar-winning film star Ernest Borgnine, here are some of their best film and television performances to remember and celebrate their careers.

The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968): Griffith anchored one of the great and enduring sitcoms.
No Time for Sergeants (1958): A classic fish-out-of-water comedy that previewed Griffith’s downhome charm and impeccable timing — this time as the instigator of the jokes rather than as the straight man.
A Face in the Crowd (1957): Directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, this film about a country boy changed by fame is proof that Griffith could handle drama as well as comedy.

Escape From New York (1981): John Carpenter’s cult classic has Kurt Russell sent into New York City — now an island prison — to save the U.S. President, with Borgnine as an inmate who offers him help.
The Poseidon Adventure (1972): Borgnine joins an all-star cast in one of Irwin Allen’s classic — and better — disaster flicks.
The Wild Bunch (1969): Sam Peckinpah’s violent Western masterpiece focuses on the last days of an outlaw gang, including Borgnine, looking for one final big score before they retire.
The Dirty Dozen (1967): This classic World War II action-adventure about convicted murderers trained to kill Nazis features Borgnine as part of a tremendous cast led by Lee Marvin.
McHale’s Navy (1962-1966, TV series): Before he became an actor, Borgnine was in the navy, and plays the titular character in this lighthearted TV series.
Jubal (1956): A loose version of Othello set in the Wild West with Borgnine as a good-natured rancher betrayed by the woman he loves.
Marty (1955): Borgnine won his only Oscar — it was also his only nomination — playing a shy Bronx butcher who finds love.
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955): John Sturges directed this classic drama with Spencer Tracy as the mysterious hero who shows up in a small town and Borgnine as one of the villain’s henchmen determined to make his life miserable.
From Here to Eternity (1953): Borgnine is memorable as a murderous sergeant who swears revenge on Frank Sinatra’s Private Maggio.

For these titles and more, SmartBrowse each actor’s name on

Monday, July 2, 2012

Channing Tatum is Box Office Magic

Written by Kirk Baird

Before a recent screening of Magic Mike, the male stripper movie starring Channing Tatum and directed by Steven Soderbergh, another film critic wondered aloud to me just how successful the movie would be. I told him I thought it would be quite successful based on two themes: female audiences and Tatum.

The weekend box-office performance of Magic Mike returns proved me right, with the R-rated comedy-drama easily outperforming expectations and opening with a nearly $40 million haul. Considering Magic Mike was produced with a budget of only $7 million, that’s a profit four times over. And thus a lesson is learned: Never underestimate the female audience and never underestimate the appeal of Tatum.

It was young female moviegoers who helped make James Cameron’s Titanic the biggest film of all time for more than a decade before Cameron’s Avatar in 2009 took the title away. It’s a lot of the same crowd who struck again with Magic Mike, which drew a 70% female audience. And their reason for flocking to the theatres? Channing Tatum. The former stripper whose life inspired Magic Mike is now a major player in Hollywood. Tatum has a total gross so far of nearly $921 million in combined movie ticket sales at the North American box office. That’s more than action-film star Jason Statham, more than comic-actor Paul Rudd, and about $100 million shy of equaling his Magic Mike costar Matthew McConaughey, who’s been around about a decade longer.

2012 has been a very good year for Tatum. The romantic drama The Vow made $125 million, and the comedy 21 Jump Street made $138 million. His January action-thriller Haywire, also directed by Soderbergh, did underperform, however, with less than $20 million, but it was also budgeted at $30 million, so the losses weren’t significant. Tatum was supposed to appear in the new G.I. Joe movie, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which was scheduled for a June release. In fact, Tatum’s character, Captain Duke Hauser, was killed off early in the film. The rumor has it that test audiences didn’t like his early exit, and that the film is being retooled, in part so Hauser lives to appease Tatum fans.

Based on the success of Magic Mike this weekend, that’s a financially wise decision.