Two sequels tonight, one good, one bad

I caught Rodrigo Y Gabriela for the second time tonight, at the Ford Ampitheatre under a surprisingly clear LA evening sky, the temperature a perfect 69 degrees. It was a bit of a risk because bands with one album under their belt often lack enough material to fill a full set. At the same KCRW Sounds Eclectic concert where I first heard Rodrigo Y Gabriela, Lily Allen mailed in a set where she played her same set list for the umpteenth time. But Rodrigo Y Gabriela were so so good that night...

About a quarter of the way into tonight's performance, Rodrigo addressed just that topic when he said they didn't want to play the same set list they'd been playing all over the world. So he asked for requests, and the usual litany of cries popped out from the audience.



After one person cried "Shakira!" Rodrigo played a few bars from "Hips Don't Lie." But the best cover of the night was when they dipped their toes into "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd--just a few strums from the opening bar--and then decided to keep rolling with it when the crowd started to sing along. Just one of those special moments when crowd and performers meet each other halfway, the type of spontaneous thing that can only happen live. They also riffed on Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," and I look forward to the day when they put out an entire album of covers.

After a few songs, early in the concert, Rodrigo took the mike and, in halting English, said, "I want to ask a question." He hesitated. And then he asked us if wanted to stay seated or to stand. They weren't used to performing in front of a seated audience, he said. "Do you want to stay seated..." Silence. "...or do you want to stand?" Everyone cheered and stood up, and with that, a charge arced through the crowd.

Few musical groups rally the crowd to their support with such unanimity. Even their constant use of the Irish-inflected "fookin" (picked up when they were playing on the streets of Ireland, just before they landed their first record deal) failed to deter the elderly woman seated in front of me, who danced a jig like there was no tomorrow. The music just takes you there.

One thing that always leaps off the stage at their show is the sound engineering. Two acoustic guitars sound like an entire band under the skilled hand of their sound engineering team. A revelation at this show was the video projected on a white sheet behind them featuring live black and white video footage of the two of them on stage, cut together in time with the music. I couldn't see the cameras from my seat, but I'm guessing they were portable wide-angle cams attached to the guitar or mic stands.

The Mexican guitar duo are touring the world for most of the remainder of 2007, so do yourself a favor and get out to see them. They just set down in LA after rocking a 15,000 person crowd at the Glastonbury Festival, and prior to that they've blown folks away at Coachella and Bonnaroo, among others.

After that, I rushed back down to the Bridge to catch another sequel of sorts, Live Free or Die Hard. Hollywood has been in sequel mode for years and years now, but I'm hard-pressed to recall another period beyond the last year in which they've deluged us with more (off the top of my head: Rocky Balboa, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Shrek the Third, Evan Almighty, Spiderman 3, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Ocean's Thirteen, Hostel II, Saw 29). And I haven't seen one yet that caused me to feel much of anything (I haven't seen them all, but perhaps that's for the best).

Tory, Phil, Jen and I were the only ones in our theater cackling our asses off at the sheer risibility of Live Free or Die Hard. In its sheer earnest absurdity it did offer that pleasure along with the usual communal joy of the company of opening night fanatics. As a night out I got my money's worth but

Timothy Olyphant, as the chief villain, gives an epically terrible performance. Just mind-blowingly awful. The grand tradition of Die Hard was the bombastic bad guy, from Alan Rickman to Jeremy Irons. Olyphant is like a constipated Ryan Seacrest for the duration of the movie. I've long considered trying out season one of Deadwood, but it's tough to get over the fact that Olyphant is one of the leads. Then again, we did live through 8 seasons of Robert Iler on The Sopranos, so perhaps you can carry a weak link with a strong ensemble.

A lot of people like to attribute my distaste for a movie like this to being a film snob, but that's far from the truth. I got my start in movies watching popcorn movies, and I'm still the guy who waits in line to get opening night seats to take a big group of friends with me to see the big blockbusters at midnight. I loved Die Hard and think Bruce Willis is quite underrated.

But too many sequels are just excuses for us to hang out with characters again. They've long since halted in any development, and these sequels are excuses for us to see them repeat a song and dance. Story and drama are decoration, draped on a spine of action sequences. I'm not so naive as to think studios would ever initiate plans for blockbuster sequels by focusing on character, but I don't think it has to be an afterthought, either. A character that undergoes some sort of arc during a movie--that's the basis for compelling drama, especially in movies like this where we all know the ending going in.

John McClane is the same guy in Live Free or Die Hard that he's been since the first movie ended. His character doesn't evolve in this movie; he arrives fully-formed and runs around while lots of gear explodes around him. What's worse is that the quasi-realism of the action set pieces in earlier Die Hard movies has been replaced by some of the most preposterous action sequences I've ever seen. Here is where I may spoil an action sequence or two, but maybe not since half of them are in the trailer. Anyway, consider that your spoiler warning.

In one sequence, the bad guys are in a helicopter chasing Willis and his sidekick, the Mac guy Justin Long. Though they are right next to the car firing away with a machine gun, they can't hit anything. It's just shoddy blocking. Then Bruce Willis takes out a fire hydrant and the resulting spray knocks the shooter out of the helicopter. A bit ludicrous, but funny as a sight gag. Willis then drives into one of the NYC tunnels to avoid the helicopter, so Olyphant orders his hacker team to direct traffic into the tunnel from both ends, and then he kills the lights in the tunnel while the cars are driving towards each other. For some reason, none of the drivers think to turn on their headlights so they all crash into each other and nearly crush Willis and Long, the monkeys in the middle. Angered, Willis drives his car into a tollbooth which somehow causes the car to launch up and out into the the hovering helicopter.

In the most ridiculous sequence, though, Olyphant orders an F-35 military jet to take out Willis, who's driving a semi. Thanks to Wikipedia I've learned that the F-35 featured in the movie is of the short-takeoff and vertical-landing (STOVL) variation, and it can fly under highways and hover over the street like a Harrier. The entire sequence culminates with Willis somehow hanging off the back wing of the airplane as it spirals out of control and...well, I won't continue.

As a form of disposable inanity, perhaps it delivers what lots of audience members want, and so part of the responsibility lies with the audience. In the bathroom after the show, a couple guys were high fiving and saying it was the best movie they'd seen all summer. Just now I perused the Metacritic page for the movie and was shocked to see how many critics stamped it with approval. Maybe the critics really have given up and realized they have no effect on popular fare like this. Or maybe I am that film snob.

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