Saturday, August 29, 2009

Drag Me To Hell [movie review]

* Released theatrically in May; available on DVD October 20th

Drag Me To Hell is director Sam Raimi's first movie that doesn't have "Spider-Man" in the title since 2000's The Gift and marks a return to the horror cheese genre he put his stamp on with The Evil Dead trilogy. His latest effort made a respectable $42 million dollars during its North American theatrical run, eclipsing the modest $30 million budget that is woefully obvious on screen. The movie attempts to function as a horror movie with elements of comedy, but the laughs overwhelm the scare tactics, resulting in a thoroughly unfulfilling viewing experience, save for the unintentional humour.

The story revolves around aspiring banker Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), who has a curse put on her by a gypsy (Lorna Raver) she has to screw over by not extending a loan and then fighting throughout the rest of the movie to keep her sanity and have the curse lifted. The plot is threadbare and some of the scenes and characters present themselves as being the brainchild of complete rookie writers and filmmakers instead of respected veterans (Raimi also co-wrote the script with his brother Ivan). Lohman is completely unbelievable as even a young banker, done in by her petite figure, baby face and lack of emotional range. The actress is almost 30 years old yet struggles to convincingly play characters 10-12 years younger than that. David Paymer, as her bank manager, further adds to his dubious repertoire of forgettable second fiddle "oh, it's that guy" roles. Fellow typecast victim Justin Long plays Brown's boyfriend, resurrecting his clean cut, nice guy boyfriend role once again. If these types of roles don't make him reevaluate his career somewhere down the road then surely the prospect of also being known the rest of his life as "the guy from the Mac ads" will. Sure enough, we see well-placed iMac computers and an iPhone in a couple of Long's scenes.

The title proves prophetic, dragging its ass to the 99 minute mark when probably a good hour would have proved sufficient to tell the story. Unfortunately, 60 minute feature films kind of don't exist. Raimi wrings as much as he can out of the 14-A Adult Accompaniment rating (PG-13 in the U.S.), with a few decent scares involving bodily fluids and regurgitated kittens (I won't elaborate). As with his previous horror work, Raimi works with an obvious tongue-in-cheek, sly wink nod to his audience, but too many of the scares in Drag Me To Hell overshoot their mark and land with an unintended comic thud.

Rating: 3/10

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers [movie review]

* Released theatrically and on DVD in 2006
You don't have to be an American to get caught up in the outrage a documentary like Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers will provoke. Released in 2006, it presents a disturbing probe into the employment of private U.S. contractors in the Iraq war and how greed and incompetence from these companies have proliferated the American war effort. Director Robert Greenwald is no stranger to muckraking docs - he took on Wal-Mart in Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price (2005), Fox News with Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War On Journalism (2004) and previously looked at the Iraq conflict in a broader sense with 2004's Uncovered: The War On Iraq.
The film is loaded with unsettling details that focus on private companies like Titan, Halliburton, KBR (a Halliburton subsidiary), Blackwater and CACI. All have strong ties to the Republican Party and conflicts of interest abound. Former Vice President Dick Cheney used to be the CEO of Halliburton. The CEO of Blackwater at the time of this film's release had donated over two million dollars to Republican candidates. Massive contracts in the billions are handed out with little or no competitive bidding, with the beneficiaries more often than not being Republican Party cronies. Blackwater infamously landed a large contract from FEMA to assist with security in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and we all know how smoothly that effort went.
Blackwater also plays a large factor in the emotional heart of the film, although for the worst of reasons. Families of former Blackwater employees, who were killed, their bodies desecrated and hung from a bridge in Fallujah, deliver angry testimonials of the company's negligence and emphasis on profit over the welfare of their employees. Former Blackwater employees also offer up similar rebukes, including criticisms that workers were frequently put into dangerous situations, including one example where a group of truck drivers were told to deliver goods through an area that was widely known to be hostile. And was.
The Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal garnered a heap of bad press for the military, but an underreported fact is that an estimated half of the prison's interrogators were employed by CACI and thereby not held to the same accountability as standard military personnel. Linguists/translators were hired off the street by Titan with apparently minimal requirements, some barely even having a grasp of English. To think that these hires were entrusted with assisting in gathering sensitive information, that in some cases had potentially life or death consequences, is staggering.
Halliburton, who specialize in Iraq's rebuilding effort, gets the brunt of criticism and deservedly so. A former employee is brought to tears as he recounts his efforts to inform his superiors that the clean water he was in charge of providing to the military was actually contaminated. His complaints fell on deaf ears. Halliburton's contracts function on what's called a "cost-plus" structure, so whatever amount they end up spending they then get that expense back in full, in addition to a profit margin. Think that system got abused? Here's just a few examples: they billed the U.S. government $100 each for a regular load of laundry, convoys of trucks were sent out completely empty while being billed for carrying full loads, Halliburton employees get treated to lavish vacations at expensive resorts and $80,000 trucks are discarded and replaced instead of having simple maintenance to replace an old oil filter or have a flat tire changed. In some cases the vehicles are actually torched and left at the side of the road. And again, the U.S. government is footing the bill for all of it.
The film really doesn't suffer from the fact it's three years old. If you've paid attention to the news then the fact that there's wasteful spending in Iraq doesn't constitute a shocking revelation - it's the details and personal stories that inspire the anger towards these heartless corporations that exploit misery into opportunity. And all the while, Congress turns a blind eye as a result of powerful lobby group influence and the U.S. military establishes a new low as far as their oversight and accountability standards.
The documentary is quite one-sided (how could it not be?), but Greenwald does make an effort to give the companies and their rich CEO's a chance to defend themselves, which they reject. One of the funniest clips in the movie is of then-president Bush being asked a question on the accountability of these private firms and his cavalier response, complete with inappropriate humour as he tap dances his way through it, eventually finishing with him essentially shrugging his shoulders and not being able to answer the query.
Greenwald succeeds in delivering yet another provocative and ambitious examination into the ugly side of corporate America (by way of the Middle East). Clearly not enough people saw this movie though, as I don't recall any large outcry in the past three years south of the border over the issues tackled in this movie and one assumes the wasteful spending in Iraq (and let's not forget Afghanistan) continues. Unfortunately, the people who need to see this film, the same types of people who were giving Bush a positive approval rating throughout his entire presidency, will be the ones least likely to view it.
Rating: 9/10

Tinted Windows - Tinted Windows [music review]

* Released in April
Tinted Windows assembles Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos, former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, Fountains Of Wayne bassist Adam Schlesinger and Hanson vocalist Taylor Hanson. Given the musical backgrounds of all involved, it's no surprise this project proudly flies the flag of power pop at its most polished.
Carlos, of course, is the backbeat behind one of the genre's originators. Iha's tenure with the heavier Pumpkins might not make him an obvious participant with this group, but consider the Smashing Pumpkins' "1979" and tell me that song isn't pure power pop. Besides, his 1998 solo album Let It Come Down owed more to 70's era pop and light rock than the angry angst of his regular band at the time. Iha also has a connection with Schlesinger, as the two co-own an indie label. I've never been a fan of Fountains Of Wayne (probably best known for the MILF ode "Stacy's Mom"). Their playful, humorous lyrics have always had too much of a "novelty" whiff for my taste. Hanson has grown up to become more than just the one-hit wonder voice behind "MMMBop", at least in my opinion. The man (all of 26 now) has one of the purest, most soulful voices in pop today and doesn't get the recognition he deserves, probably because of the "boy band" bias. A listen to Hanson's (the band) three releases this decade shows an accomplished, mature-beyond-their-years pop rock outfit that has had the misfortune of flying below the radar to the general public.
Tinted Windows finds itself in a crowded field, striving to carve out a place somewhere among the power pop domain dominated by Avril Lavigne, Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers and other Disney spawn, although their demographic would also skew a little older. Given the uneven results of their debut, they'll be hard-pressed to be heard above the din of shrieking girls going ga-ga instead over any of the aforementioned tween acts.
The boys have the formula almost right - well-crafted, succinctly tight songs (the songs average around the three minute mark, the album clocking in at just thirty five minutes), huge hooks and your standard lyrics about chicks and love problems. Somehow though, it hits below the mark and doesn't stand up to repeated listens. There's a little too much sameness to the material and the exceptional songs are few: "Kind Of A Girl", "Messing With My Head", "Back With You" and "Take Me Back" (with its obligatory "T-t-t-take me back" chorus stutter) are about it. The rest of the songs are fairly interchangeable and lacking in punch.
Rating: 5/10

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Chickenfoot - Chickenfoot [music review]

* Released in June
Throughout rock history "supergroups" do not have a stellar track record. A list of the most noteworthy ones from the past 25 years reveals more misses than hits: The Traveling Wilburys, Asia, Damn Yankees, Zwan, Broken Social Scene, A Perfect Circle, The Firm, Audioslave, Temple Of The Dog, The Postal Service, Velvet Revolver, etc. Two more outfits, Chickenfoot and Tinted Windows, join the supergroup ranks with new releases.
Chickenfoot consists of Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani and Van Halen alumni Michael Anthony and Sammy Hagar. The Anthony and Hagar connection makes obvious sense...the two have been close friends since Hagar replaced David Lee Roth as Van Halen's singer in 1985 and have collaborated and toured together since both left Van Halen (more than once) under less than amicable circumstances. Satriani, after 20+ years of highly successful (mostly) instrumental solo work, finally fulfills his dream of joining a "conventional" band environment. He had been offered many similar gigs over the years, but none felt right until this one. And Smith? Well, he was just looking to play and have some fun, beyond the casual jamming he was doing at Hagar's Mexican nightclub, as the Chili Peppers take an extended vacation. The trouble with supergroups is that the expectation level is normally heavily outweighed by the end result. You'd think that dozens of spotty albums in this field would temper that but memories can be short, as I came to be reminded (again) after digging into this release.
Chickenfoot's lasting impression is that it sounds like a decent Van Hagar album, perhaps a suitable follow-up to the last studio album Hagar did with them in 1995, Balance. One might interpret that statement as a not so flattering comment on the album's dated sound it shouldn't be taken that way. Even with a couple of oddball pieces in Satriani and Smith, this is about what I was expecting - straight ahead, meat and potatoes rock. One of the most interesting aspects of the album comes from Anthony's backing vocals, revealing his voice was apparently much more a part of VH's signature background vocal sound than originally thought. Satriani's guitars get a chance to rip once in awhile, further reinforcing the Van Hagar similarity ("Future In The Past" and "Down The Drain" - no surprise that they're the album's two longest songs at over six minutes each). Eddie Van Halen and Joe Satriani are two of the most technically gifted rock guitarists ever and it'd be an insult to say they sound similar...still, their "shredding" style does invite the comparison.
"Avenida Revolution" opens the album with a propulsive momentum, shoving each band member's musical attributes right in the listener's face while the lyrics comment on the Mexican drug wars and illegal immigration. Said momentum hits a wall with the next track, "Soap On A Rope", with lyrics as bland as the title is silly and a stop-start style that frustrates more than tempts. Things get back on track with the excellent "Sexy Little Thing", featuring Hagar at his horndog best. Other standout tracks are the fine ballad "Learning To Fall" and the smooth, swampy blues-tinged "Runnin' Out".
Chickenfoot emerges as a solid, unspectacular album while instilling a seed of hope that any further releases from this veteran collective can improve upon the competency of their debut (does anything scream "backhanded compliment" more than use of the word "competent"?). Anyway, it's a damn sight better for Hagar fans than his most recent solo releases, particularly 2008's atrocious Cosmic Universal Fashion.
Rating: 6.5/10

Friday, August 21, 2009

Crank: High Voltage [movie review]

* Released theatrically in April; available on DVD September 8th
Let me cut right to the chase...Crank: High Voltage is the worst movie I have seen in recent memory and is so bad it well might hold a place on a top 10 list of the worst movies I've ever seen in my 39 years. While I normally resent reading movie reviews that give too many details and plot points away I feel no shame in doing so here. Hopefully it acts as a deterrent from inflicting this mess on even just one poor bastard out there.
The first Crank movie wasn't very good...frankly, I have a hard time distinguishing much from it and the rest of star Jason Statham's other generic action franchise of The Transporter movies. The one thing I do remember from Crank was it was fairly over-the-top, notably one car jumping scene that still stands out (until I saw this sequel) as probably the most ridiculous thing I'd seen in a movie. Calling High Voltage "over-the-top", however, is like saying the situation in Afghanistan is "kind of tricky"...the top for this movie isn't even in eyesight. This concept is rolled out early as the movie opens where Crank ended, with Statham's Chev Chelios character flying through the air after being tossed out of a helicopter from high altitude and then landing on the pavement. A truck pulls up and a gangster jumps out with a shovel and (with some assistance) scoops up the limp body. A couple of scenes later Chelios is having open heart surgery...and is conscious during the procedure. This sets up the, ahem, plot of the movie where Chelios must recover his heart, all the while keeping his artificial pumper alive through any variety of silly means involving electrical blasts. We're talking high art here, folks.
The intention of this movie is not lost on me: it was designed to be the epitome of style-over-substance in a balls out, no apologies, politically incorrect sort of way. Obvious influences in both its use of excess and visual style are Natural Born Killers and Shoot 'Em Up, with plenty of shots using quick zooms and pans, split screens and onscreen text and graphics. But the gimmicky facade doesn't hide the fact that the screenwriting is witless, lazy and unfunny and the performances weak. Movies don't get much more "did it for the paycheck" than this.
On top of brazenly insisting on inhabiting a world where reality is essentially unwelcome and frowned upon, High Voltage also ups the ante for mainstream film in terms of misogynistic portrayals of women. There is not a single redeeming female character in the movie. Co-star Amy Smart surely cannot sink any lower (and this is an actress who was in Starsky And Hutch, for God's sake!) than returning to play Chelios' girlfriend who is now a stripper and spends most of the movie half dressed. One scene has her and Chelios having sex in front of thousands of people at the Hollywood Park horse track to generate friction to keep his heart going and the scene, with the couple's private parts pixellated out, goes on and on and on, with the filmmakers apparently pleased with themselves for topping a similar public sex scene from the first movie. Bai Ling has the second most "notable" female part and she exists merely to rant and rave and perpetuate an offensive Asian stereotype. Oh, and she plays a ho. And there's plenty of other ho's and strippers scattered throughout the movie to act as unintentional body shields during the many gunfights. In a particularly mind-blowing moment of bad taste we even see one get shot in her fake breasts and then freak out as the camera goes in for a close up of the silicone leaking out.
I'll throw a few other random ridiculous occurrences in the movie out there, just because I may not get to write about a movie this dumb ever again: characters randomly run into each other on several occasions within the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, the police refuse to shoot their weapons at Statham's character on multiple occasions (even though he's wreaking havoc on the city and they get to within mere feet away from him), the soap opera-like twin brother of a character who died in the first movie conveniently shows up to save Chelios at a crucial moment and is afflicted with "Full Body Tourette's", a character is forced to slice his own nipples off, David Carradine shows up wearing terrible makeup looking like his Kung Fu character gone to seed and finally, there's also a bizarre Godzilla homage where Chelios and the bad guy face off while wearing cheesy rubber masks.
This movie was so bad I couldn't stop watching, which is the only reason I even gave it a half point out of ten. I kept waiting to see how much further they would push the envelope and the filmmakers just never let up - the violence was almost pornographic. Halfway through, I was struck by how much the movie resembled a Grand Theft Auto game - the central character, apparently incapable of incapacitating bodily injury, is driven to carry out non-stop acts of brutality and damn the consequences. As the credits rolled I was also struck by the fact the standard cast credits listed 65 actors while the "Stunt Players" credits clocked in at a whopping 117 people. Yes, I counted.
The final scene in the movie shows Chelios walking towards the camera, his body aflame like something out of Ghost Rider, and appropriately flipping the bird to the audience. Right back atcha, buddy, right back atcha.
Rating: 0.5/10

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Stryper - Murder By Pride [music review]

* Released in July
A Stryper review? Really? Man, these Christian metallers with the yellow and black attack were uncool as hell back in their prime 20 years ago - why pay any attention to their latest release? Hey, we don't discriminate here at Mediaboy Musings. Cool or hip doesn't equal good and Murder By Pride is better than good. It's the band's second studio release since reforming back in 2004 after disbanding in the early 90s. During that hiatus frontman Michael Sweet put out a number of solo albums, all of them unremarkable save for the stellar Truth, from 2000. In my opinion, he's always been one of the better hard rock/metal vocalists who has never gotten his due, probably because of, you know, the God thing. Regardless, the guy's got phenomenal vocal range that occasionally brings to mind the unlikely comparison to Rob Halford of the most certainly not God-touting Judas Priest. This further brings to mind an interesting anecdote of the time I saw Stryper in 1990 at a Toronto club called (appropriately) Rock 'N Roll Heaven. The band was going through its secular phase, which probably paved the way for them being slightly more open to the idea of inviting Halford, in town for rehearsals on Judas Priest's then-final tour, onstage for a duet. Talk about surreal.
My expectations for Murder By Pride were fairly modest given the mediocrity of the reunion album Reborn, but this was one of those CDs that immediately kicked my ass. No repeat listenings required to find the different layers and dimensions - it's all there, right out of the box (I can now hear the question being sarcastically asked: "Stryper has layers and dimensions?"). "Eclipse For The Son" delivers a high-energy opening full of prog rock-influenced stops and starts and classic Stryper double lead guitar harmonies. Don't hold the cheesy double entendre of the title against them too much - the music redeems the poor title. From there, it's a hard rock steamroll through the following eleven tracks, save for the ballad "Alive". It wouldn't be a Stryper album without a ballad, would it? "Alive" is fairly standard and generic in its structure and instrumental delivery, with strings right where you expect them and standard drum fills. Sweet's heartfelt vocals elevate it to something more, though, and not just because the subject matter is about his wife, who recently lost a battle with cancer. Speaking of Stryper ballads, the band does an imaginative reworking of their own "My Love (I'll Always Show)", transforming it from a slow, paint-by-numbers 80s power ballad to a lively grinding jam that wouldn't be out of place as the soundtrack for a burlesque strip show.
Murder By Pride is simply a proper, near-flawless hard rock album with, in addition to the fine vocals, in-your-face guitars and drums that shake your stomach ("Alive" aside). The latter comes courtesy of one of the best drummers around, Kenny Aronoff, who has played with everyone from John Mellencamp to Smashing Pumpkins to being the house percussionist at Barack Obama's Inaugural Celebration. He's as pro as it gets and helped elevate Sweet's Truth album to another level. Original drummer Robert Sweet (Michael's stepbrother) will tour with the band, but was unable to commit to recording this time around due to undisclosed family responsibilities.
Stryper's Christian message will be a turnoff for many, which is unfortunate. There's such a strong level of musicianship and great songwriting that the lyrical content isn't at the forefront anyway (at least for me). As a matter of fact, many of their songs have always had a level of interchangeability between lyrical references to loving God or Jesus or just loving a woman, which has always been helpful to secularists in not being overwhelmed by their religious agenda. Count me in that group. If the lyrics are something you pay a little more attention to then a faithful cover of Boston's "Peace Of Mind" (featuring Boston guitarist Tom Scholz) provides an interesting "reverse" interpretation of originally secular lyrics into a religious context. Michael Sweet toured with Boston as a guest vocalist in 2008.
Rating: 9/10

Changeling [movie review]

* Released theatrically in October 2008; now on DVD
Changeling dramatizes a true crime story set in 1928 Los Angeles amidst the backdrop of rampant police corruption. Single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) returns from work one evening to find her nine-year-old son missing. Several months later she is informed he has been found in Illinois. A highly publicized reunion leads to shock as Christine claims the boy is not her son, despite his claims to the contrary. The police, already embroiled in an ongoing public relations nightmare due to accusations (and reluctant acknowledgements) of police brutality, incompetence and corruption convince Christine that she's mistaken, that the boy's physical appearance has changed merely because he's grown and that the mental stress of the ordeal has impaired her reasoning. And so begins a compelling story rooted in intriguing suspense, outstanding performances and beautiful visuals.
Like Gran Torino, the film is another hands-on project for Clint Eastwood, although this time he stays completely behind the camera, taking on the roles of director, producer and composer. The film ranks in the upper echelon of his best directing work, as he takes a complex story ripe for weepy melodramatics and instead delivers a powerful portrait of a mother's blind hope for justice despite imposing circumstances. The attention to period detail is most impressive - every aspect of what's on screen feels like great care was taken to get it there and an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction was well-earned.
Despite a Best Actress Oscar nomination herself, Jolie has taken criticism for not being credible as a simple, single working mother. People offering this opinion claim that the actress' high profile lifestyle has eclipsed her ability to instill a believability to roles where she isn't playing an assassin or international explorer. Rubbish. If you're 30 minutes into Changeling and you're still hung up on trivial things like that then you're just A) a Jolie hater and B) taking your movie stars too seriously. As Jon Lovitz's Saturday Night Live character used to say, "Acting!". Jolie is excellent, as are the rest of the cast, notably John Malkovich as a helpful minister, Michael Kelly as the seemingly sole representative of the LAPD's moral conscience and Geoff Pierson as Collins' legal representative in fighting the system.
Changeling's hefty running time of 141 minutes isn't an impediment - I was actually shocked when I saw the movie ran that long. In my books that alone qualifies as a ringing endorsement.
Rating: 9/10

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Soloist [movie review]

* Released theatrically in April; now on DVD
The Soloist is based on the 2005 newspaper writings and subsequent book of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (played by Robert Downey Jr.) about his encounters and friendship with homeless and schizophrenic street musician Nathaniel Ayers (played by Jamie Foxx). A random meeting on the streets of L.A. eventually leads to Lopez sniffing out a possible column idea when he discovers Ayers was an acclaimed cellist in his youth and attended the prestigious Juilliard music school. Ayers' mental illness derailed any hopes of a normal life, much less any sort of future involving a music career.
I could just never get engaged with this felt too long and unfocused, never quite sure what direction it was heading towards. On paper, it would seem the most interesting angle would be about Ayers, but the film zig zags back and forth between his story and Lopez's, with neither one really coming across as overly watchable or interesting. Ayers' tale of tragedy is spelled out with dull flashbacks and an admittedly strong performance from Foxx, who eschews Rain Man or Fisher King theatrics in conveying the character's demons and inability to function normally. While we get ample time with Foxx's character and it's not hard to feel sympathy for him there's a lingering, nagging feeling that we're not getting fully enough into this man's psyche and fractured world.
The focus on Downey Jr.'s character elicits even more ambivalence. The title might seem like a straightforward, literal reference to Ayers but after some time with the film it becomes obvious that there is a duality hidden (or not) within there. Lopez is presented as a loner with few friends - he gets home, plays back his answering machine and gets the time-tested "no messages" reply. A further plot device used to reinforce Lopez's disconnect from the enjoyment of life is attempted via the portrayal of his broken up marriage to a woman (played by Catherine Keener) who is also his editor. The thin storyline simply doesn't justify the screen time it commands and becomes even more puzzling for its inclusion when one discovers it was totally fictionalized. Eventually it becomes clear that Lopez needs Ayers as a means to connect back with the world, even if it includes exploiting him to some degree for career gain in a newspaper world that, we're reminded from time to time, is collapsing around him. Downey Jr.'s performance is perfectly Downey Jr.-like. He slings sarcasm, a sly wit, odd moments of comedy...we've seen this from him in dozens of performances already.
Frankly, I got more out of a 12+ minute piece on this subject from earlier this year on 60 Minutes than I did from the two hours of overly Oscar-ambitious earnestness that The Soloist has to offer. Watch the 60 Minutes story on YouTube below and dedicate that extra hour and three quarters towards another movie that hopefully offers more of a satisfying experience.
Rating: 4/10

Friday, August 14, 2009

Daughtry - Leave This Town [music review]

* Released in July
There was a label tagged onto bands like Bon Jovi and Def Leppard in the 80's - "corporate rock". This descriptor's purpose was to neatly sum up the type of populist, slick music that record companies knew would connect with audiences, "shift a lot of units" and fatten their bottom line. I always found the term dismissive (along with the "hair band" label), but then people always seem to feel the need to categorize things, don't they? Obviously I was a huge fan of both bands.
That tag would surely land around Chris Daughtry's neck today. The season five American Idol finalist hit it huge right out of the chute, achieving massive success with his 2006 self-titled debut. In fact, it was the best-selling release of 2007. Initially, I resisted Daughtry's music...mostly because of the Idol connection and, well, the dude's weird facial hair and propensity for wearing black eyeliner bothered me. Lame reasons, yes, but ultimately, after being totally unable to escape his ubiquitous presence on the airwaves or online, I succumbed and went to the dark side. And I loved it. "Home", "Over You", "What About Now" and "Feels Like Tonight" are top-notch songs...not very original, mind you, but who cares?
I similarly resisted the charms of Kelly Clarkson when she put out her first album, again due to the Idol association and also because her first album (other than the song "Beautiful Disaster") was a pile 'o crap. Then the lead single ("Since You've Been Gone") from her sophomore release hit and I was knocked on my ass by her talent. The two albums she's put out since then are excellent as well, especially this year's All I Ever Wanted.
Leave This Town, however, sees Daughtry taking a step back with his career. Remember that atrocious movie called From Justin To Kelly that Clarkson did around the time she released her debut album? Daughtry's latest doesn't quite sink to those depths but certainly qualifies as a misstep. Only one song matches the level of any of the four songs I mentioned from Daughtry - that would be the country-tinged shuffle "Tennessee Line", with a low-key vocal accompaniment from Vince Gill. Most of the rest of the album just doesn't stand up to repeat listens. Opening track "You Don't Belong" employs that generic detuned guitar sound that defines nu metal and the song comes off like a forgettable Linkin Park discard. Virtually all of the other heavy songs are filler between the multitude of acoustic driven ballads/power ballads which are decent enough but cry out for a spark of life. First single "No Surprise" reeks of Nickelback and so it's not a shocker that Chad Kroeger from that band co-wrote it with Daughtry.
Chris Daughtry has proven he's capable of achieving more than the end result of Leave This Town leaves us with. Hopefully the two to three year wait for his next album will be worth it.
Rating: 5/10

Rolling Stone magazine. Still relevant?

Is Rolling Stone relevant anymore? Once highly regarded as the go-to read for in-depth interviews with film and music personalities (with an emphasis on the latter), social and political commentary and the latest information happening in the world of music, it nowadays seemingly has a greatly diminished profile. It's kind of that old reliable that just is, always there on the newsstands but divorced from its once-proud status as the cultural voice of the zeitgeist. A quick poll of about a dozen people aged 20-50, about a third of who fall under the category of "big music fan", told me that zero percent read it, plan to read it or have read it in the last ten years (if ever).
Obviously the Internet is the biggest reason the magazine's circulation has declined sharply from a couple of decades ago. Rolling Stone publishes twice a month (with the occasional larger double issue) so day-to-day music news doesn't appear in the magazine for 3-4 weeks after it actually happens. By then most people have already read details about a particular story online and moved on, so immediacy is not something the print magazine has going for it. assists in filling that gap but I've never warmed up to the magazine's online presence. Their website layout has never knocked me over and a lot of the same content posted there ends up in the magazine shortly thereafter (as you'd expect), but as a subscriber that just leaves me feeling a little cheated that I'm reading the same content twice and paying for it the second time around. So, I tend to avoid It's actually somewhat refreshing in this age of immediate information to read something for the first time on an actual page that doesn't have the prefix "web" attached.
A look at an issue from last month (issue 1082/1083) gives a pretty bang-on representation of why the magazine is still an essential part of my reading diet. On the cover we have (*cough*) The Jonas Brothers. Now, I'm not a fan of these lads, but of course I'm not a 12-year-old girl either. Actually, the demographic issue perhaps isn't as relevant with me because I will admit to being a Hanson fan for years now. Yes, that fact has gotten me crucified by friends and it's pretty damn uncool to be admitting this on a forum open to the entire world, but our ears like what they like, no? The half dozen or so Jo Bros. songs I have heard didn't do anything for me, but I give them full marks for playing their own instruments (and a couple of the brothers can play more than one) and writing their own music, which is one of the things I always respected about Hanson. The interview with them provides some interesting insight into what it's like to be the biggest boy band in the world at the moment.
Also included is a completely fascinating interview with rock legend Gregg Allman. I've never been a fan of his music but he's definitely one of those interesting characters who's lead a colourful life full of excess and this is captured well by writer Mark Binelli. One of the funnier anecdotes involves the time, during his 9 day (that's day) marriage to Cher when Allman was so wasted on heroin that he passed out face first into a plate of spaghetti at a banquet. And here's a great quote regarding his numerous marriages:
He starts to talk about his most recent ex, then stops himself. "When you think about it, it takes a fool to tell half a story," he says. "So as long as she's not here telling you her half, me telling you my half doesn't hold much water. 'Cause, of course, it's going to be pro-me." He pauses, then adds, "To tell you the truth, it's my sixth marriage - I'm starting to think it's me."
As good as the Allman interview is the pièce de résistance of this issue is a lengthy 12 page article by writer Matt Taibbi about banking behemoth Goldman Sachs. I realize a fatigue factor has crept in with us all regarding reading or hearing about the economic meltdown, but Taibbi's piece provides fascinating insight into the influence, negligence and abuses exercised by the world's most powerful investment bank. Taibbi pulls no punches and that's his style. Although he's writing about a serious, complicated topic he'll still pepper it with insults towards the story's subject (perhaps referring to them as an "asshole") and include plenty of gutter talk. It makes for a bit of weird reading experience, but the man has quickly become one of my favourite writers. Consider these strong statements from the first paragraph of the piece:
From tech stocks to high gas prices, Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression - and they're about to do it again. Goldman Sachs is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.
Damn, Matt. How do you really feel? The article, unsurprisingly, has provoked strong reaction with pundits and bloggers questioning Taibbi's facts and statements. A quick perusal of some of these angry responses (mostly from right-wing politicos) provides a healthy amount of skepticism and questions regarding Taibbi's work. Irregardless, one walks away from the piece with their head spinning at the behind the scenes machinations (and often times in open, plain view) orchestrated by Goldman Sachs. Even if only 10% of the allegations Taibbi makes are true it makes you want to take a shower after reading it.
Rolling Stone has always had a strong foothold in the world of political and social writing and I greatly regret having ignored it for most of the time I've read the magazine (which is probably a good 25 years or so now). Occasionally I'd read a piece on, say, why a kid went and shot up a school or perhaps a human interest piece, but when I saw anything pertaining to political matters I'd skip right through the pages. It's just in the past year and a half or so that I began to start to read the politically-themed pieces and this has sparked a real interest in American politics for me. A great cover story titled "Make Believe Maverick" by Tim Dickson last fall during the American election campaign about what a douchebag John McCain apparently is was a real eye opener...there was content in there that you just weren't reading or hearing about anywhere else (except for maybe the brilliant Daily Show). Another riveting recent feature from February titled "Bitter Pill" looked at the irresponsibility of the pharmaceutical industry in marketing a dodgy drug called Zyprexa, that was originally developed to treat schizophrenia, for use in kids.
So therein lies the dichotomy of Rolling Stone. Intelligent, thoughtful writing on deep matters offset with cover stories on the latest lightweights and flashes in the pan (recent examples: Lady Gaga, the cast of The Hills, Taylor Swift) as well as music legends (Springsteen, Dylan, U2) or at least artists of substance (Green Day and Kings Of Leon). This is nothing new...the 70's had their share of David Cassidy, Leif Garret and Bay City Rollers cover stories, too. As the magazine grows older and the younger demographic shrinks, one sees a bumpy road ahead for the old stalwart but for now they appear to have carved out a respectable niche in the declining print magazine world. Circulation has held steady at about 1.45 million since 2006 and an overdue change last year(reducing the magazine from their decades-old oversize format to a more traditional size) should improve newsstand sales, which only account for 8% of total sales. This number is well below the industry average and has been attributed to the fact the previous awkward size didn't exactly lend a helping hand in getting the magazine prime spots on the magazine racks. Apparently those types of things matter in the print world.
Aside from an occasionally annoying "list" issue, which other magazines such as Entertainment Weekly also rely on too frequently, Rolling Stone still remains a vital read for me.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Diving Bell And The Butterfly [movie review]

* Limited North American theatrical release in November 2007; now available on DVD

The Diving Bell And The Butterfly was released to worldwide acclaim a couple of years ago and was nominated for dozens of awards around the globe, including an Oscar in the Best Director category for Julian Schnabel. Visits to review websites and reveal a 93% and 92% positive review rating, respectively. I usually take reviews with a grain of salt, but based on the overwhelming love granted to this film I’d had it on my mental “to see” list for quite some time.

The plot is certainly compelling. It’s based on the real life memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was the editor of French fashion magazine Elle. A stroke at the age of 42 leaves him almost completely paralyzed with a rare condition known as locked-in syndrome. The patient remains fully aware, awake, and in control of their mental faculties but can only communicate via the eyes. In Bauby’s case he can communicate only through the blinking of his left eye…the right eye has no function for him and in a particularly difficult scene to watch we see a doctor sew it up to prevent possible infection. This is seen from Bauby’s perspective as is most of the first third of the movie, an effective device in conveying the limited scope with which he now views the world. An inner monologue that only the audience and Bauby can hear takes us further inside the prison he inhabits, occasionally represented onscreen as being trapped inside the diving bell of the title. As the movie progresses he learns to cope with the new challenges and flashbacks to warm memories before the accident, as well as fantasies of what he wished he could do begin to creep in and the claustrophobic first person perspective gives way to a more conventional and rounded on-screen view.

Before his stroke Bauby had a book deal to write a feminine version of The Count Of Monte Cristo. Afterwards he instead decides to write his memoir in an effort to maintain his sanity as well as prove to friends, family and former co-workers that he is more than some helpless vegetable. A tedious and time-consuming process then begins as he “dictates” his words through only the blinking of his left eye, coordinated with a recitation of the alphabet by an assistant. The numerous scenes where this occur, along with the initial earlier scenes where therapists develop and perfect this technique with him, tend to slow the movie down considerably yet it’s obviously difficult to criticize this as it’s a key element to the film as the central figure strives to have his “voice” heard. Additional storylines involving Bauby’s elderly father (Max Von Sydow) who is so frail he is unable to leave his apartment and a former colleague of the editor who was held hostage for four years in Beirut would seem like lazy and convenient plot devices to show other ways people can become trapped in life…if they weren’t actually true.

I had only seen lead actor Mathieu Amalric in two previous roles – Munich and in the most recent Bond movie (Quantum Of Solace), where he was perhaps the least intimidating Bond villain ever. He does a good job in The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, giving a moving performance and conveying a range of emotions through essentially just his voice and extremely limited facial expressions. The cast is rounded out by a trio of beautiful French actresses in Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze and Anne Consigny.

The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is worth a viewing but be prepared for a slow, depressing movie.

Rating: 6/10

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Metric - Fantasies [music review]

* Released in April

Fantasies is the fourth studio album from Toronto-based indie outfit Metric and their first since 2005’s Live It Out (2007’s Grow Up And Blow Away album was actually recorded in 2001 but never released). Frontwoman and face of the band, Emily Haines, has kept busy with two solo releases while other band members participated in their own side projects during Metric’s downtime. Whereas previous Metric albums were written and recorded over a short period of time the band wisely decided to slow things down and let their latest project evolve at a natural pace without time constraints. The year-and-a-half process of creating Fantasies accomodated writing sessions in the woods just outside Seattle, recording sessions in Toronto and New York and occasional breaks for the band members, including Haines’ trip to Argentina as a tonic in helping her deal with some personal losses as well as writer’s block.

The new approach pays immediate dividends as Fantasies is by far Metric’s strongest release to date. Live It Out and 2003’s Old World Underground Where Are You Now? certainly showed promise but were marred by excessive filler that overwhelmed the few exceptional songs on each album. A recent purge of my CD collection found me ripping a total of only five songs from the two discs, not a reason for optimism as I approached Fantasies for a test drive. Much to my surprise I immediately bonded with the music, a feat in itself as Metric has always proved a tough initial listen for me due to the quirkiness of their sound. The quirks are still there but the songs are now much more listenable for a reason I can’t quite put my finger on. The band’s new wave synth/guitar/bass/drums-with-industrial-textures sound remains intact, as are the big chorus hooks, yet it all comes together this time for a collection of ten songs that doesn’t include one worth skipping.

Fantasies is bookended by the two best tracks: opener “Help I’m Alive” moves from a spare industrial dirge to an ominous footstomper pre-chorus to a beautiful chorus propelled by Haines’ falsetto vocals and then repeats the cycle. The closer “Stadium Love” lives up to its name as the ambitious scope of the song seems ready-made for big crowds who can appreciate a good singalong. Sandwiched in between the two are other standouts such as the poppy “Gimme Sympathy”, “Sick Muse” and the slow building moodiness of both “Twilight Galaxy” and “Blindness”.

Metric’s unique signature of balancing dark lyrics, aggressive guitar, poppy hooks and danceable new wave finally result in a winner.

Rating: 8.5/10