An Oscars Rant for Oscars Night

Liam Neeson’s beautiful wife, in real life, died. Since that happened he has acted in a lot of violent rolls. He also starred, last year, in “The Grey,” as a suicidal widower battling a pack of wolves in a snowy forest. Neeson channeled the sadness of an ultimate real-life tragedy into a poetic, angry performance. It is total crap he isn’t nominated along with Daniel Day, Denzel and Joaquin Phoenix. F*ck Hugh Jackman.

As any character other than Wolverine.

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Phoenix seemed an Oscar lock when “The Master” came out in September. He drinks chemicals, fights fat strangers, fingers a sand lady and becomes the broken dog of a cult leader. Daniel Day hit the party late, on Christmas, because that’s how real gangsters roll. Of course he would crush it as Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln: [pounds his hand on a table as his cabinet squabbles] I can’t listen to this anymore. I can’t accomplish a goddamn thing of any worth until we cure ourselves of slavery and end this pestilential war! I wonder if any of you or anyone else knows it. I know! I need this! This amendment is that cure! We’ve stepped out upon the world stage now. Now! With the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment now! Now! Now! And you grouse so and heckle and dodge about like pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters!

There’s a blockbuster article in the new Esquire about the SEAL who fired the shots that killed Osama bin Laden. He scoffs at the raid scene in “Zero Dark Thirty,” but calls the portrayal of the CIA analyst who found bin Laden “awesome.” He’s right, it is awesome. Jessica Chastain is awesome in that flick, and she would probably win, except Jennifer Lawrence was such an intimidating, likable, unpredictable widow in “Silver Linings Playbook.” Lawrence freaks us out, befriends us and lets us into her damaged psyche. Bradley Cooper must have this woman; she’s too intriguing to let go.

And Robert De Niro destroyed it as a classic movie dad and a sympathetic nod to all the tortured sports fans out there.

Speaking of Esquire, the magazine also had a short writeup of “Django Unchained” headlined “Catharsis of the Year.” It included this: “(N)early three hours is filled wth slaves being whipped, dogs chewing slaves to death while bystanders watch, slaves being forced to gouge out one another’s eyes, slave women being given to houseguests the way one might give a basket of decorative soaps, slaves dying of thirst in burning holes, slaves having their balls cut off with red-hot blades, and so on. The amazing thing about watching all this is that it’s all perfectly Tarantinoesque, but it’s also for the most part historically accurate. Tarantino himself has neatly pointed out that you cannot make a film as lurid as slavery was in reality. He’s right. While you’re watching the filmic violence, the fact that these horrors really happened keeps intruding. The monstrosity of real history in the United States surpasses any pretend violence. It’s physicality is why Django Unchained is so necessary. … Lincoln is oddly bloodless.”

In “Avengers,” a team of superheroes battles an alien horde coming through a hole over Manhattan. In “The Hobbit,” dwarfs fight monsters. “Life of Pi” is about a boy trapped with a tiger on a life boat in the middle of the ocean. And “Prometheus”? “Prometheus” is a state-of-the-art atheist creature feature and the only film all year to harness the 3-D medium’s potential to make eye-popping artwork. These are the special effects nominees, and I don’t know how you pick a winner. More than any other, that’ll be the race I’m watching tonight.

The fat tear Anne Hathaway blinks off during her singing scene in “The Miserables” is so perfectly timed that she’s gonna win an Oscar for it.

Go Denzel.

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Jordan is to Bond as LeBron is to Bourne

Michael Jordan or LeBron James? Let’s settle this.

Probably my favorite part of the book Dream Team comes towards the end,* when author Jack McCallum writes about the hours before the 1992 gold medal basketball game at the Barcelona Olympics, when Jordan smoked cigars and played cards with teammates until 6:15 a.m., then shot an NBA Entertainment movie and played 18 holes of golf.

aj-xi-concord-confirmed-1-e1324663448642“Micheal tried to get me on his schedule over there, and I just couldn’t do it,” Magic Johnson told McCallum. “I got so I could play cards all night and so did some of the other guys. But then to go out and play eighteen, thirty-six holes of golf? Then come back and get 20 in a game like it’s nothing? Man, nobody could do that. Michael Jordan is the strongest, and the strongest-willed, athlete ever. I don’t care what anybody says.”

And there is also this quote, from legend-coach Mike Krzyzewski: “You understand the respect I have for Michael, but one thing about him – he cannot be kind.”

As we chronicled here after Thursday night’s Heat-Thunder game, LeBron is bombs away from all over the court and setting records for shooting percentage. He’s added the tough play near the basket, where it’s all about jumping from standing position and absorbing big hits. He’s become an unguardable power player with a butt like a snow plow and a cunning assortment of hook shots and head fakes. He is scoring huge points and winning games by scoring inside and outside, while also dominating that burst of speed between points A and points B (for “buckets”).lebron_display_image

In his great book “The Art of the Beautiful Game,” Chris Ballard writes this about LeBron:

No NBA player – perhaps no human being – combines power, skill, speed and grace as he does. Don’t take it from me, though. When Sports Illustrated asked 190 players in the fall of 2008, “Who is the best all-around athlete in the NBA?” an overwhelming 66% chose LeBron. No one else got more that 7% of the vote (Josh Smith of the Hawks)…

When I talked to other NBA players about James, they were hungry for clarification. “How much does he weight, anyway,” wondered Portland Trailblazers forward Travis Outlaw. Stephen Jackson guessed “at least 260, right?” and then described D-ing up James as akin to “guarding a brick wall.” (If so, it is a brick wall much envied by others; when I asked Portland All-Star guard Brandon Roy what one part of LeBron’s game he would most want to steal, Roy responded, “Can I steal his body?”)

Jordan weighed 218 and was (is) tall like my dad is tall: 6-foot-6. (So he has one inch on my dad, but 6-foot-6 is not weirdly tall.) He was never in the conversation for strongest player. He was insanely fast as a younger player but actually improved (six championships) when he started slowing down. Basketball became more of a mind game as Jordan got older, and that’s when he excelled like no one else, ever. (Arguably.)michael-jordan-dunk

Think about that all-night card playing. Jordan made headlines multiple times in his career for staying up gambling the night before big playoff games. He was keeping himself jacked, right? Fire up those competitive juices at night over cards and come day-time game-time, you’re still pumped up to win. The results speak for themselves: Rookie of the year, five MVPs, six finals MVPs, defensive player of the year, 10-time scoring champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist, all the greatest playoff performances ever. Jordan always played great. Always.

LeBron is the best we’ve seen on the physical side of the game, and now he’s added the mental part, the strategy.

Jordan was mental. It made him a darker, more dynamic man than LeBron. Jordan admits with a smile that big games were quests for revenge against some irrelevant or perceived slight. The mind games he played with himself worked every time. One example: In his notoriously aggressive 2009 Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Jordan said “As a basketball player, I’m trying to become the best that I can. And, you know, for someone like me, who achieved a lot over the time of my career, you look for any kind of messages that people say, or do, to get you motivated to play the game of basketball at the highest level. That is when I feel like I excel at my best.”

He ended that speech with Bryon Russell, the Utah Jazz forward who, Jordan says, told him during his baseball retirement “Why’d you quit? You know I could guard you. If I ever see you in a pair of shorts…” So, Jordan says, when they met in the finals a year after he returned from baseball, “I’m at the center circle, and Bryon Russell’s next to me, and I look over to Bryon and I say, ‘Man, you remember the conversation you made in 1994 about ‘I think I can guard you and I can shut you down and I would love to play against you.’? Well, you about to get your chance.”

So the final shot Jordan took, the glorious game-clincher that ended his magnificent career with the Bulls, had been fueled, in part, by a diss from years previous.

Jordan was 36 when he hit that shot. He started winning titles in his late 20s, just like LeBron, who is 28 and looking to win his second title in a row. As with most debates, the question of LeBron or Jordan doesn’t have an answer at one extreme end or another. It’s nuanced, somewhere in the middle. LeBron has better tools, but what he lacks is Jordan’s guts.

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*(My REAL favorite part of Dream Team is this section about John Stockton and Karl Malone:

They were extremely comfortable with each other. I walked them out to their cars after practice one day in Utah and said to Stockton “Well, John, I bet you have something controversial to say as usual, right?”

“Not much,” deadpanned Stockton. “Only this homosexual problem we’ve got on our team.” He jerked his chin toward Malone. “And it’s worse among our black players. Typical.” Malone cracked up.)

Basketball Man-Gods Battle for the Magic Ring in Sunday’s All-Star Game

On Thursday night, LeBron James faced down Kevin Durant’s mutant-spider defense before shimmying his shoulder or stuttering his steps and launching bombs off a perfect jump shot, clearly refined through years of practice and playoff games.

LeBron’s offense has passed automatic – it’s art now, limited only by his own creativity. Durant, when it was his turn to score, had to throw himself at the rim with abandon. He kept crashing to the floor. His jumper – long-armed, satin-smooth, with a high release whose ease makes the ball appear lighter in and off his hands – was struggling.

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Durant, so good, could not best LeBron. Durant is taller, 6-foot-9 to 6-foot-8, but LeBron is better.

My wife was watching at the end of last season’s NBA finals, when LeBron’s Heat beat Durant’s Thunder in five games for the championship. A camera caught Durant in an arena tunnel after the last game. He started sobbing as he melted into a hug with his mother. My wife teared up. Now she likes Durant.

In the 4th quarter of their game on Thursday, LeBron got the ball about five feet behind the 3-point line, which is 23.75 feet from the basket. Durant was in front of him. LeBron dribbled once and took two steps forward as TV announcer Marv Albert said “Shot clock winding down. It’s down to one!” LeBron leaped to shoot over the outstretched reach of a lunging Durant. They landed together, both watching the ball. It splashed the net’s nylon, a perfect swish. Durant held his gaze in that spot, the bucket, for almost three seconds as everyone else started running in the other direction.

The shot had gone in from roughly 27 feet away. Go stand on a basketball court some time and see how much strength it takes to shoot a basketball at all, let alone well, from that far away.

The next 3-pointer Durant took bounced straight down off the front of the rim.

The All-Star game is Sunday. LeBron is a starter on the East team; Durant is a starter on the West. Durant has lost the last six games he’s played against LeBron, including those four in the finals. It has to be eating at him. The only way the Thunder play the Heat again this year is if they meet in the Finals for the second time in a row.

So picture this: Durant hasn’t slept since the Thursday-night loss. He’s been in an otherwise empty gym, shooting over and defending an imaginary LeBron. He has become obsessed with exacting revenge this weekend in the All-Star game. He will guard LeBron on defense and he will find him on offense and he will dominate. He will send LeBron a message: You’ve been lucky; I’m the man.

LeBron, in turn, will embrace this challenge. Surrounded by the best players in the NBA, in a nationally-televised showcase, the two best players will battle for more than an exhibition win and a glass MVP trophy. They will battle for Durant’s soul.

Jack from “Lost” Channels Heath Ledger’s Joker to Take Down Terrible Tyler Perry

The ultimate-fighting super assassin makes a bad-ass bad guy in “Alex Cross,” an otherwise comically terrible Tyler Perry movie newly out on DVD.

Jack From “Lost” (Matthew Fox) somehow slimmed his body down and bulked it up at the same time. He’s freakishly skinny, with bulging, tatted-up muscles. His eyes bug out and his head jerks like a bird’s, but his movements are otherwise hyper-efficient. He wears tight black clothes, a silver suit, or goes shirtless. His head is shaved. He paralyzes victims with an injection before he tortures and kills them, because he’s a “stimulus-seeking sociopathic narcissist.” He cage fights as “The Butcher,” and warns his opponent “Don’t hit me in the face, or you’ll never live to fight again.” He backs it up. The cops call him Picasso, because he leaves elaborate, meticulous charcoal drawings with the corpses he’s brutalized. He’s great with guns. His voice is a little too high, and he speaks in choppy sentences.

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Fox’s performance as this character is freaky and dynamic, and “Alex Cross” is great during his scenes.

But it’s a borderline disaster when Tyler Perry’s on-screen. God damn does Tyler Perry suck. The “Alex Cross” DVD has trailers for “Good Deeds,” where he plays a successful businessman being made to feel guilty for his wealth, and “Madea’s Witness Protection,” where he cross dresses and yells his lines. Perry’s movies are shockingly terrible, yet they keep coming out. A couple years ago, “South Park” featured Tyler Perry, in drag, getting on characters’ nerves for saying things like “You know when a man be cheatin’ he never know what to say!” After each joke no one would laugh, but the show’s recurring black character Token would hand Perry some cash. Also, this:

Perry is not good as the title character in “Alex Cross.” Even when he says his lines well enough, the eyes stay stuck on “Whatever.” If you saw “Boogie Nights,” think about the way Dirk Diggler acts in those action pornos he made. That’s Perry, except Perry really exists.

Perry’s crap acting may, though, actually help “Alex Cross” in an inverse-dumb-lucky way. He’s so bad he’s good (entertaining), and Fox is so good he’s great. Not only is Fox a great actor chewing insatiably on a crazy role, but he contrasts against Tyler “Madea” Perry. It’s embarrassing how much better Fox is in this movie than Perry, which is sweet to watch if you’re into this kind of thing.

Alex Cross is out to a nice dinner with his pregnant wife when The Butcher (Picasso) kills her with a sniper rifle. Cross psychoanalyzed Butcher during a previous phone conversation, teasing about killing animals as a kid and growing up an outcast. After he shoots Cross’s wife, Butcher says she’d still be alive if Cross hadn’t handed down his load of “psychobabble.” She’s dead because he was both a bad cop and a pompous jerk.

Clouded by thoughts of vengeance for wife and unborn child, Cross becomes an even worse cop. They fight at the end – chubby, big-headed Tyler Perry beats up a ripped cyborg killing machine who we’ve already seen is an unbeatable cage fighter. Right. Butcher winds up falling from a great height. Matthew Fox is acting dead when we last see him, with blood around his head and a smile on his face. He wins.

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