Friday, September 25, 2009

U2 - 360° Tour / part 2 [concert review]

* September 16th, Rogers Centre, Toronto
Awesome. That's the best word I can come up with to describe the show that U2 puts on. They continue to raise the bar for stadium concert spectacles, while maintaining an emphasis on not living merely off their rich past. The band opened their show at the Rogers Centre with four tracks from their latest album, No Line On the Horizon - that takes balls. In all, seven tracks from the newest release were played, with nearly all of them connecting solidly with the sold-out crowd of 58,000. Interestingly, the one that seemed to have the least impact was "Breathe", which opened the show. No worries, was virtually all uphill from there.
No Line On The Horizon's title track was next and the response of the crowd definitely picked up, energized by the quicker tempo driving one of the best songs from the album. "Get On Your Boots" followed and then came "Magnificent", with lead singer Bono engaging the crowd in a singalong. "Beautiful Day" marked the first older song in the setlist and Bono ended it with a snippet of Elvis Costello's "Alison" (he mentioned that Costello was in the audience). Somewhere during all of this (I believe it was during "Get On Your Boots"), Bono ventured out from the main stage to the outer stage ramp and eventually made his way to directly in front of the spot my brother Jay and I had in the first row in front of that outer stage. Here's a photo, taken during Snow Patrol's set:
Click to enlarge
Jay and I are right where the yellow arrow is and the two arched things on either side of the main stage (in the picture they're black because they're covered with a tarp) are the bridges the band used to come out and visit us. Watching this whole production in action was most impressive. The bridges were attached to a track on the inner part of the outer stage and could swing right around to the very middle front of the outside stage. The cameras shooting the show for the video screen were on similar tracks on the outside part of the outer stage, allowing the camera men easy access to move around. The above picture doesn't do the whole thing justice. When the full stage was in action it was breathtaking, especially accompanied by the light show coming from the CN Tower. The video screen above the stage was jaw dropping. It was cylindrical shaped, pieced together in hexagonal segments. Later in the show the segments break apart and the whole thing expands (while still showing images), dropping down to just a shade above the band's head as well as skyward to the intersecting top of "the claw", as the stage design has been nicknamed..."spaceship" is another word being used to describe it. The design was inspired by the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport.
Before the show, a roadie had taped some lyrics onto the stage right in front of us and I was able to read something about "Yonge Street" and "TTC". At the end of "Beautiful Day" Bono stood over the lyric sheet and inserted some of the lines from it into the song's ending. Before this concert I'd seen U2 seven times, the last three from the front row (close enough that I've shaken 3/4 of the band's hands on different occasions). Being mere feet from the people entertaining you never gets old, especially when it's the biggest band in the world. What's that, you say? The Rolling Stones are the biggest band in the world? I beg to differ. Sure, they sell out stadiums worldwide and hell, they're the Stones, with such a great history, but creatively they peaked almost 20 years ago. They haven't made a truly great album in decades now and any new release from them sells modestly in comparison to U2. U2 have made three brilliant albums in a row now over the last nine years and continue to put on the best live show on the planet. To me, it's no argument, but I digress...
Next was one of the high points of the show, with "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", which Bono let the audience sing alone for the first couple of verses. A segue into "Stand By Me" worked beautifully, resulting in one of three moments during the show which gave me goosebumps (and not from the cool temperature). The momentum slowed considerably with the snail-like pace of "Your Blue Room", a semi-obscure track from the band's 1995 side project titled Passengers that they'd only played live once before, a couple of days earlier in Chicago. Paired with some pre-taped video footage of an astronaut from the International Space Station, the song (and its overly artsy pretense) appeared to get lost within the circus-like surroundings. Not so for a great acoustic version of "Stay", with guitarist The Edge adding spot-on accompanying vocals.
Further highlights included a faithful version of the moody "The Unforgettable Fire", pulled out of mothballs for this tour. "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight", the song from those ubiquitous "Blackberry Loves U2" ads, got a dramatic makeover as the band have opted to perform the dance remix version live. It sounds like a bad idea in theory, but it worked spectacularly, proving to be probably the most fun moment during the show. The entire band made their way around the whole stage, with even drummer Larry Mullen Jr. strapping on a conga to play along with the electronic backbeat. The tail end of the show found Bono assuming his role as music's socially conscious champion for human rights, specifically asking the audience to consider the plight of Burmese political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi before dedicating a powerful version of "Walk On" to her. The song ended with a stream of fans walking out on the outer stage and holding up masks with her face in front of theirs as a gesture of solidarity. The second last song before the encore was "One", introduced by a video message from Bishop Desmond Tutu. Cue goose bump moment number two.
"Where The Streets Have No Name" ended the main set and "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)" from Achtung Baby kicked off the encore. This song's performance floored me, and not just musically. Visually, other than the crazy expanding video screen, it was the highlight of the show. Bono walks out wearing a jacket with lights that looked like mini laser beams running along the sleeves and front, singing the song using a microphone centred in a lit-up ring that hung from a cable in the ceiling. The jacket lights shot out in a bizarre crisscross of beams that, along with atmospheric purple lighting and the dry ice smoke, made for a stunning visual presentation (and goose bump moment #3). At times, Bono would actually swing out over the audience while hanging onto the mic, continuing to sing. Here's a picture of him before he got airborne:
Click to enlarge
"With Or Without You" played it's faithful role as another audience favourite near the end of the show, here being the penultimate song of the night. "Moment Of Surrender" closed the performance, another new track, and while it lacks the familiarity and comfort of its predecessor it made for a fitting closer, with more full-on audience participation.
Opening act Snow Patrol did, shall we say, a serviceable job. I'm not much of a fan of the group (also from Ireland) and their set, while peppered with more than a few songs that had me thinking "Oh yeah...I forgot this song was done by them", was a decent placeholder until the big boys took the stage. There's always been something way too safe and bland about the band for my taste and their set didn't help to change my opinion.
The 360˚ Tour is obviously another massive road endeavour for U2 and the financial and creative risks appear to have been worth it. The band's previous two tours were scaled down affairs, limited to arenas in North America, although still giving full value for the money in terms of the stage show. Both were a resounding success, a welcome change from the uneven Popmart stadium tour from 1997-98. Looking back, I can't believe both my brother and I enjoyed the Toronto Popmart show at the then-Skydome so little that we both thought of leaving it early. I do recall having had a very hard time connecting with the album they were supporting, though (Pop), which didn't help matters. No complaints this time around, however...Bono was in fine voice, the band sounded tight and even the sound was excellent, a rarity at the dome. The roof was open for only the second time in the stadium's 20 year history (the other was a Bruce Springsteen show in 2003 I also attended) and the acoustics certainly benefitted.
Rating: 10/10
Below is a YouTube video of footage shot from a condo overlooking the Rogers Centre on September 17th, U2's second Toronto show. The sound is incredibly good, considering how far away the person shooting it is, not to mention the impressive view. Apparently Bono asked the eavesdroppers in the condos to turn their lights on and off at one point during the show.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

U2 - 360° Tour / part 1 [concert review]

* September 16th, Rogers Centre, Toronto
Here's a breakdown of my day waiting in the general admission line...because the only thing more fun than waiting in a line for 12 hours is, of course, reading about someone waiting in a line for 12 hours. Part 2 (the show review) coming shortly...
I arrive at the Rogers Centre at 6:30 in the morning on show day, dreading the thought of spending the next 12 hours queuing in a lineup, but pumped for what was sure to be a great concert. The fan-operated numbering system, which usually seems to operate at shows where there's general admission tickets, was up and running smoothly. My alter ego for the next half day had a name: "#154". Yes, there were 153 before me who faced the dark and chilly Toronto morning to line up for their favourite band. Word is that the people in a handful of tents at the front of the line got there at 6 p.m. the day before. Now that is friggin' nuts, although perhaps not as nuts as the numerous people I met from all over the globe who were in town following the tour. Fans from Mexico, Germany, Italy, Chicago, Vermont, Brazil, plus numerous Canadians from places like Calgary, Winnipeg, Montreal and Newfoundland. As massive a fan I am of music, I'm always humbled meeting people who go to such lengths to follow their favourite music artists. The furthest I've traveled to a show is twice making a five hour trip to Ottawa to see Bruce Springsteen and I think that's about my limit as far as what lengths I can handle in my pursuit of a great live music experience.
After checking out the lineup situation I returned to my car to grab my anti-gravity lounge chair and "supplies" for the day (iPod, food, reading material). When I initially arrived at the lot I paid a flat fee of $11 at the lot's pay machine, which only lasted me until 6 p.m. Now I noticed the lot attendant had begun work and I was informed it'd cost me another $20 for parking up until midnight (damn "Event Parking" rates!). Normally I'd be peeved at such a raw deal but, (n)ever the optimist, I didn't sweat it that morning. I rationalized that the concert ticket only cost me $70 (including TicketBastard charges) for what would likely be a spot right up at the stage.
Back to the lineup underneath a Rogers Centre overhang - perfect if there had been rain in the forecast (there wasn't), but not great considering a brisk breeze was whipping through the lineup area and the lack of sunshine made for (literally) knee knocking temperatures at times over the next few hours. Chatted a little with some of my neighbors and then settled in with an audio book on my iPod (The Yankee Years by Joe Torre). Couldn't help but notice that some guys came dressed with just shorts and heavy hoodies, which confounded me. If you're wearing something heavy and warm on the top part of your body then why not do the same for your lower part? This is the kind of inane thing one mulls over when they have plenty of time to kill in a 3' x 4' space for hours on end.
My brother Jay joined me at around noon, after a brief period of stress over whether those in the lineup behind me would mind if he joined the line where I was and not have to go to the end of the line (which by that point was in the 300's). That got sorted out and Jay was #155 (I had added his name on the sign-up sheet when I first got there). Having him there was a nice change. This was my fourth time doing the all-day general admission (aka "GA") lineup routine for U2 (and three times for Springsteen), and aside from my first couple of GA experiences for U2 in 2001 I've done the rest solo. Although the fans are always friendly and there's obvious common ground as far as conversation, it was a refreshing change spending the time with someone I actually knew.
A few washroom breaks and coffee runs provided a welcome relief from the coolness of the shady overhang out into the warm sun. I even walked backed to my car once to heat up my bones - it's the first time in the five years I've owned my car that I gave praise for the black leather interior. The line was informed that by 2:00 we needed to get all lawn chairs, tents and sleeping bags put away and that by 4:30 we'd be let into the stadium. Having a tenuous schedule helped set up the rest of the waiting time - most importantly, no more consumption of beverages that you can't get out of your system before being let into the building. It's possible that one can claim their spot in front of the stage and then try and have it held while they use the washroom, but it's also just as likely that you'll come back from emptying your bladder and find some knob inhabiting your slice of temporary real estate and refusing to give it up. There's a method to this thing, people!
So Jay and I kill a few more hours, during which the lineup is condensed with the removal of the aforementioned "luxury" items. Shortly after mentioning to Jay (about 2 or 3 p.m.) that I still felt surprisingly good and not too drained I proceeded to hit the wall. My legs, ass and back started aching and the boredom became more oppressive. It might sound odd to say that sitting around doing nothing for hours on end is grueling, but folks, it is tough to do. I've described my previous GA experiences to Jay, but it's the kind of thing you have to actually do to appreciate, and I believe that 'round about hour three or four he was getting a sense of what I'd described to him. After about three separate announcements between 4 and 5:30 that insinuated the doors would be open imminently, we finally got in shortly before 6:00. I swear that the sadistic security personnel were purposely screwing with the impatient lineup, yanking the proverbial dollar bill on a string just a little out of our reach while we were at their mercy.
Finally, we're let in and most of the crowd (including Jay and I) partake in some weird running/speed walking hybrid...basically, moving as quickly as possible to the stadium floor without catching the ire of the stadium officials yelling at people to slow down and not run. Down to the field we go and the impressive stage comes into view, momentarily evaporating the aches and grind of the day's wait. We claim a spot on the barricade gate by the stage's outer catwalk/ramp, a little to the left facing the stage. Most people head for the inner pit closer to the main stage but I'm confident that we're close enough to the action while far enough back to take in the whole production, specifically the massive cylinder shaped video screen hanging over the stage. The anticipation levels out a little as the aches return during the hour long wait for openers Snow Patrol to start the evening. Once they hit the stage a feeling of satisfaction hits and the body aches disappear once again, as the reason for enduring this whole long and crazy day lies just around the corner.
Me, pre-show. This is what an excited Drew Kerr (aka #154) looks like.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cleanflix [movie review]

* North American theatrical release date TBA
* Screened September 13th at the AMC 7 theatre
Cleanflix looks at the controversial practice by various companies in Utah over the past decade of editing and censoring objectionable material out of Hollywood movies, with the sanitized versions then being rented and sold to a predominantly Mormon population. Co-directors Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi, Mormons themselves, examine the moral questions at the centre of the debate, one which has raged among cinephiles for years now. Who has the right to distort an artist's work without authorization? What specifically constitutes "offensive material"? Why doesn't Hollywood cater to a market thirsty for sanitized versions of the latest popular movies? These are all questions the film looks at, providing a fairly thorough and balanced look at the issue from both the Utah side and from Hollywood's perspective. Clips of regular movie scenes and then the censored versions pop up throughout the movie, all of them eliciting laughter from the audience as the latter versions play out as ridiculously sanitized snippets, frequently with only a tenuous grasp on the context of the story the film is supposed to be telling. The documentary would have benefited by more original interviews from Hollywood directors - a number of the clips from people like Steven Soderbergh and Michael Mann appear to be archival footage, but apparently most in the film industry were reluctant to reopen the discussion (a group of 16 directors successfully sued the film editing companies in 2006, effectively shutting down the entire business). Director Neil LaBute, who left the Mormon church, was willing to talk however, and provides interesting insight for the filmmakers.
One of the most puzzling and amusing aspects of the whole issue is that the Mormon clientele have been instructed by their religious leaders to avoid R-rated fare because of its moral destructiveness, yet they seem to have no issue watching that same "immoral" material after it's had a few trims and edits. And some of the video store owners and distributors are also accused by others within the industry of cutting corners and dealing in shady business practices (and worse). Then consider the fact that the entire censored movie subindustry violated international copyright laws. Apparently, the religious moral high ground these Mormons are perched upon also comes with a powerful set of blinders, too.
Cleanflix takes an odd left turn for the last portion of the movie, as it moves from the central theme to then focusing on one of the principals from the story, a man named Daniel Thompson (pictured in the movie poster). Thompson owned a Clean Flicks store that rented and sold the censored movies and continued to do so even after Hollywood shut down his distributor (he just switched to another distributor and hung his hat on a vague legal loophole that deemed the edited movies permissible if intended for use in an educational context). Eventually, Thompson had to shutter his store, but not before garnering heaps of press for his supposedly "noble" fight. Clearly, Thompson has never met a camera he didn't love and coupled with the character assassination delivered by his business rivals, plus the fact he generally just comes across as an oily snake, well, he sets himself up for all sorts of backlash and viewer ridicule when it's revealed that he and a friend solicited sex from a couple of 14-year-old girls inside his store. Another allegation of underage porn being distributed at his store is leveled. The manner in which the matter is brought up is too jarring, though. Someone being interviewed about Thompson just seems to throw the accusations out there, but they're not really dealt with until a little later on in the movie, instead, just being left there to twist in the wind. It seemed a very odd choice by the directors to introduce such a serious subplot in this carefree manner.
The big question of why Hollywood itself doesn't exploit the current vacuum from the censored movie market is never answered in Cleanflix. The question was posed to the directors in the question and answer session following the screening and they say they could never get an answer. Considering that movies are already edited for airlines and TV broadcast, it does seem strange that the movie industry hasn't tapped into what surely would be a huge revenue stream.
The main theme of the movie and the Daniel Thompson sidetrack are each fascinating to watch and though the two are connected it makes for somewhat of a disjointed viewing experience. Perhaps both would have been better served by a focus on one or the other.
* I must also add that the punk song used over both the opening and closing credits (I never did catch its name or who performed it) was possibly the most wretched, grating song I've ever heard.
Rating: 8/10

Monday, September 21, 2009

Dokken Vs. Chicken

My newest favourite commercial features 80s hard rock band Dokken appearing in the latest series of ads for Norton Internet Security 2010. I laughed my ass off.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Creation [movie review]

* Theatrical release in the UK on September 25th; North American theatrical release date TBA

* Screened September 11th at Ryerson Theatre

The world premiere of Creation opened the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, marking the first time in 13 years that a non-Canadian film was granted opening night gala status. As festival co-director Cameron Bailey remarked during his introduction before the film's third festival screening which I attended, the film seemed like an appropriate "front door to the festival".

Creation is a biopic of the "father of evolution", Charles Darwin, with the movie focusing on the period of his life during the mid-1850's when he authored his landmark book On The Origin Of Species. Given the film's title and central figure, it came as a surprise to find that the core element of the film is not about Darwin's theories, hailed by the the opening titles as having been called "the biggest idea in the history of thought". This part of the Darwin story plays a key role, of course, but it takes a back seat to the portrayal of his marital problems and Darwin's struggle to cope with both the loss of a child and his faith in God.

Paul Bettany plays the scientist with an admirable performance, nicely capturing the complex elements of the man, whether it's Darwin as a doting and then mourning father, sickly mope, passionate scientist, burgeoning atheist or distant husband. Jennifer Connelly (Bettany's real life wife) portrays Emma Darwin, whose strong religious faith clashes with the concepts her husband espouses. The loss of one of the couple's daughters (Annie, played by Martha West) plays a significant part in the film, although several scenes where she appears as a ghost to her father tend to slow down the proceedings. The scenes between Bettany and West (when she's alive) are one of the high points of the film, with the two demonstrating great interaction. Oddly, most of the scenes with Connelly and Bettany don't appear to exactly sizzle with chemistry between the two, which probably actually helps the film as their characters spend most of the movie struggling to connect. Their powerful scene at the end of the film, however, brilliantly displays the considerable talents of each.

Director Jon Amiel (Entrapment, Sommersby) introduced the film and together with screenwriter John Collee (Master And Commander, Happy Feet) fielded questions after the screening. Amiel has crafted a beautiful looking movie, with attractive shots of the English countryside and great costumes, in addition to getting excellent performances from his cast. The movie drags at points, notably during the periods where Darwin battles depression as he blames himself for his daughter's death and also navigates a path laden with inner religious and faith conflicts. Marketing a film like Creation should prove to be a challenge, but this is the type of movie that usually garners Oscar attention, which will likely be necessary for it to gain a wide audience.

Rating: 6.5/10

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Fake Umpires

I'm an avid Toronto Blue Jays fan and couldn't help but notice a couple of characters now known as The Fake Umpires sitting behind home plate at several Jays home games at Rogers Centre this season. What makes these guys stand out is that they dress up in full umpire gear (dark pants, shirt and umpire cap with the Major League Baseball logo, home plate brush, masks and a ball bag attached to their belts, complete with a spare ball) and when the opposition is up to bat they proceed to "call" their own ball games, from whatever planet it is they inhabit.
It's one of the oddest things I've seen as far as sports spectators go. When the real ump calls a strike the two of them stand up and make the hand gesture for a strike, they give the hand signals indicating the count on the batter and best (or saddest?) of all, when a batter fouls a ball out of play they get out of their seats, reach into the ball bag and mimic throwing a fresh ball back to the pitcher.
It's pretty amusing, but I suspect if I was sitting behind or beside these guys and had paid about $225 each for the premium "In The Action" seats that they favour then I would lose my sense of humour real fast. The topper? They work at the Toronto Stock Exchange.
View the ESPN story below:
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In The Loop [movie review]

* Limited North American theatrical release in July; DVD release date TBA
Plain and simple, In The Loop is the best comedy I've seen this year. It's another film adapted from a British television show, this time a BBC series called The Thick Of It. Over there, they take first-rate television and turn those shows into quality films (the recent State Of Play), while Hollywood spends millions to bring crap like Charlie's Angels and The Dukes Of Hazzard to the big screen. Sad.
Being politically engaged is not necessary for you to appreciate the brilliance running throughout this satire of British and American politics, both from the actors and the writing. It's one of the blacker comedies I've seen, populated with characters who rip into each other with a vicious zeal and for whom the notion of "hurt feelings" matters little.
The proceedings move quickly as the film boldly challenges the viewer to keep pace with the brisk dialogue and unpredictable direction of the story. In many ways, the rapid-fire delivery style of the lines reminded me of TV's The West Wing. You have a hard time believing that actual people (even highly intelligent people) talk like this, but it sure is entertaining to watch. Here's the plot: during a radio interview, low level British Cabinet minister Simon Foster (played by Tom Hollander) states that a war is "unforeseeable" (exactly where this war will occur is never stated, but a strong inference is that it's in Iraq). His misguided remark sets off a firestorm that extends to the Prime Minister's office and reaches overseas to Washington, D.C., setting in motion a potential march to war. Foster is then dispatched to America to smooth the waters and save the Brits some face with the U.S.
The dynamic of the two countries' relationship provides great comedic fodder, with the British coming off as a weak, annoying younger sibling to the American's older bully of a brother. Speaking of bullies, let's talk about the character of Malcolm Tucker. Played by Peter Capaldi, he is Foster's superior and does not suffer fools gladly...and Foster is most certainly a fool. Tucker slings criticisms and insults with an almost joyful enthusiasm, relishing every hurt look and stunned face that is on the receiving end of his vitriol. Somehow, his strong Scottish brogue makes the putdowns seem even funnier.
Excellent supporting roles come from Chris Addison (as Foster's assistant, Toby), David Rasche as the gung ho U.S. assistant secretary of policy who uses a live grenade as a desk paperweight, Mimi Kennedy as an American diplomat who's so stressed by her job that her gums bleed uncontrollably and Anna Chlumsky as her assistant. Chlumsky is especially good and had me staring at the screen for a significant amount of time trying to remember where the heck I'd seen her face before. It turns out it was the young girl from the movie My Girl (and its sequel), who dropped out of show business several years ago before returning to it recently. Steve Coogan has an amusing role as a disgruntled resident living in Foster's constituency who provides an annoyingly petty distraction amidst the global scale implications that Foster finds himself embroiled in. James Gandolfini, as an American general, struggles somewhat to leave the ghost of Tony Soprano behind. Soprano was such a strongly defined role who incorporated his imposing size as a character trait and it's difficult to shake that role as you watch Gandolfini on screen, even with him done up in a highly decorated military uniform. As you watch his character lose his temper in one scene and threaten to take a crap on the desk of someone he suspects has stood him up for a meeting, it's Tony versus a member of his crew or some other Jersey lowlife all over again. Still, there are worse things one could be reminded of.
Director Armando Iannucci also co-wrote the script, pulling the same double duty he performed for The Thick Of It. Visually, the film owes a debt to the British television version of The Office, shot with a documentary feel via handheld cameras, including Office traits like shooting a scene from across a room into a closed office, but with the dialogue from inside the room clearly heard. The movie is a superb breath of fresh air, succeeding as a hilarious comedy that expects a level of intellectual investment from the viewer, a combination all too rare in films these days.
Rating: 10/10

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Black Crowes - Before The Frost... [music review]

* Released in September
Before The Frost...
is technically the eighth studio album from The Black Crowes, a band that has put a decided emphasis on their live talents this decade, with four different live releases coming out since 2000. I say "technically" because the album was recorded in front of a small audience at the barn studio of Levon Helm (drummer from The Band) in upstate New York. But this isn't a live album per se. The songs are all brand new and there is virtually no between song banter from vocalist Chris Robinson, with only short snippets of applause from the audience at the end of the songs, which becomes a little distracting. It's an interesting many times have you heard or read a music artist mention in an interview that they wanted to capture the energy of their live show and put it on a studio release? Well, the Crowes strive to do just that and there are moments where the album sizzles with life during extended jam sessions, but ultimately the album suffers from a lack of strong material.
Opener "Good Morning Captain" invites cause for optimism. The lively honky tonk piano and new guitarist Luther Dickinson's tasty slide solo demonstrate a tight live band demolishing a song equal to their talents. Second track "Been A Long Time (Waiting On Love)" drags for its first five minutes before kicking things up a notch (or three) as the tempo increases during a spirited jam. The pace slows down for the country-inflected balladry of "Appaloosa", accentuated with some excellent pedal steel guitar and the passing thought that a song like this is a hell of a lot more country than a lot of the material heard nowadays from acts who actually get labelled "country". Subsequent similar highlights are harder to come by unfortunately, with the rest of the album containing only one strong song, "I Ain't Hiding". Yes, it's a track that sticks in your head, but that it was chosen as the first single is a real oddity. It's not remotely representative of the overall sound of Before The Frost..., or really anything The Black Crowes have ever done before. Why? Well, it's pretty much straight-up disco. A well done disco song, mind you, with more great guitar work, but disco nonetheless. Immediate comparisons to the Rolling Stones' Black And Blue era spring to mind.
Chris Robinson's hippy dippy lyrics can also get a little wearisome. Here's a sample from "Been A Long Time (Waiting On Love)":
Earthbound wingless dream child born to necessity,
Tied to crimson velvet wings (she flies),
New moon midnight star, medicine is in the jar
Before The Frost... was released with a download code that gives fans free access to a companion album titled Until The Freeze, a collection of nine songs rooted in more of an acoustic-country sound that were also recorded during the sessions for the main album.
Rating: 5/10

Sunday, September 6, 2009

9/11: The Falling Man [movie review]

* Originally broadcast on television in 2006; now on DVD
As the eight anniversary of 9/11 approaches, there will be the annual airings of specials and documentaries to mark the occasion. Some are worth watching, such as the powerful 9/11 featuring French brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet and others, while well-intentioned, not so much.
Add 9/11: The Falling Man to your list of must-see works on the subject. The 72 minute film was produced for British television in 2006 and presents one of the more thought-provoking examinations into what happened that day by focusing on the people who jumped from the World Trade Center buildings. Specifically, the film is framed around seeking the identity of the man shown falling to his death in a newspaper photo, which proved to be one of the more moving images from an event that obviously produced many (click on the image to your left to enlarge it). The picture was taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew, himself no stranger to historical events as he was one of only a few photographers present in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel when Bobby Kennedy was murdered. The "Falling Man" photo ran in some newspapers on September 12th, but most media outlets shied away from the image completely. Those that published it were met with public outrage and it was rarely seen again in the mainstream media.
Director Henry Singer attempts to find the identity of the mysterious jumper, talking to families who lost loved ones, as well as co-workers of people who might fit the man's description. The approach runs the risk of being exploitative and opening fresh wounds for grieving relatives, but there's an obvious care being taken by Singer to deal with the matter with the utmost respect and empathy.
The film succeeds at shining a light on one aspect of that day that oddly has never been talked about much, despite the fact an estimated 150-200 people jumped to their deaths that morning. New York's coroner office, however, has "zero" as the number of deaths via this means. Their official explanation is that some victims were either "blown out" or "forced out" of the buildings. This film pulls the importance of these people back out from under the rug of historical statistics that the media and society have been reluctant to address, finally giving some of them a human face.
Rating: 8.5/10

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Iron Maiden: Flight 666 [movie review]

* Released theatrically in April; now available on DVD
This documentary that covers the first leg of Iron Maiden's 2008 Somewhere Back In Time tour isn't particularly original, nor does it really shed new light on the rigors and tedium of touring for musicians. What is original is the method Maiden chose to transport their show from city to city (and even continent to continent). The band devised a concept to have the entire production's mobility encompassed in a single, self-contained unit - a Boeing 757. A year alone of planning with engineers went into figuring out a way to fit the band, management, crew, gear and stage production onto a single plane, eliminating the need for trucks and buses and saving money. Manage it they did, and the experiment was a success (not to mention a first in the music touring biz). The topper? Lead singer Bruce Dickinson pulls double duty as the co-pilot of 'Ed Force One', named after the band's mascot Eddie. The huge aircraft itself is an impressive (if not somewhat bizarre) sight, with the band's legendary logo adorning the side and the cartoonish horror of Eddie's face glaring down from the tail wing.
The day-to-day aspects of life on the road are interspersed with live performance footage of the band's classic songs. I'm a fairly casual Maiden fan, so the live portions carried a little less weight for me than the behind the scenes material. Some might find the latter a bit mundane and boring, but I've always been fascinated by tour docs and gaining an insight into the strange beast that is touring, with musicians having to balance the intense high of their two hours onstage with the grind of the rest of the day involving long travel, bad food, strange beds and a constant revolving door of new faces. Elements of this are captured well through scenes showing the band members keeping busy playing golf and tennis (how metal!), sightseeing, doing interviews and spending time with their families. A couple of short separate scenes highlight the monotony of the job, as bassist Steve Harris (looking amazingly well-preserved) signs photo after photo, passing them off to his son who holds a huge stack in his hands. Harris tells the camera "This is the second box and there's about another four boxes in back that I ain't done yet". The other scene shows Dickinson also on the plane while taking a break from his flight duties, quickly signing one photo after another and sliding them onto the floor in a massive and messy pile, waiting to be straightened up before they get passed onto the next band member. When a musician says that touring isn't all glamour then I assume this would be the type of activity they're referring to.
The tour's first leg covers 23 concerts that span 45 days over 5 continents, starting in Mumbai and finishing in Toronto. That type of routing would be impossible through traditional means. Heavy metal has always managed to transcend worldwide borders and Iron Maiden would likely be near the top of a list of bands whose reach knows no bounds. Their following in South America is legendary, reinforced by scenes from the film of them being treated as if they were The Beatles when entering or leaving their hotels and traveling through airports. A lingering shot following a show in Bogota, Columbia shows a grown man with long hair clutching a drumstick he caught and unable to control his emotions as tears run down his face. A woman beside him is also weeping. He makes the sign of the cross and then blows a kiss to the sky. Damn...and I thought I took my music seriously.
The fan reaction in India is particularly fervent, as the crowd sings along with the songs in perfect English. The global appeal of metal was the subject of an excellent documentary from the makers of this film, Toronto's Sam Dunn and Scot McFayden. Appropriately, it was titled Global Metal and served as follow-up to 2005's illuminating Metal: A Headbanger's Journey. The duo has demonstrated a real talent for capturing the appeal of this long disrespected genre and why metal fans follow it with such passion and Iron Maiden: Flight 666, while not groundbreaking as far as tour documentaries go, is still a worthy addition to their already impressive resume.
Rating: 7/10

Thursday, September 3, 2009

State Of Play [movie review]

* Released theatrically in April; now available on DVD
State Of Play is based on the 2003 BBC mini-series of the same name. The television version was spread over six hours while this film version clocks in at just over two, most of it used efficiently in delivering a sharp political conspiracy thriller. The film underwent a painful birth, enduring numerous script rewrites and recasting of the male leads (Fight Club co-stars Edward Norton and Brad Pitt were replaced by Ben Affleck and Russell Crowe).
The story's setting shifts from its original London to Washington, D.C. and involves the apparent murder of a prominent Congressman's assistant, who he was having an extra-marital affair with. The fallout from the scandal reveals deeper implications involving a private government contractor and national security. Crowe plays Cal McAffery, a hard-nosed veteran reporter for the Washington Globe continually at odds with his crusty editor (an excellent Helen Mirren) and reluctantly paired with a rookie blog journalist (Rachel McAdams). The plot is complicated by McAffery's friendship with the Congressman (played by Ben Affleck). Affleck's performance is typically wooden - when I watch this guy act I'm always very aware of the fact he is acting. He just doesn't possess the ability to inhabit a role and deliver an effortless characterization without seemingly having to work so damn hard at it, which is distracting. He's got nothing on Keanu Reeves, mind you. Affleck's shortcomings as an actor weakens the relationship with Crowe's character (with whom he's supposed to be a longtime friend) and the two characters never gel. It's a different story with Crowe and Mirren, as the sparks fly between the two (and not the romantic type).
Jason Bateman and Jeff Daniels, two actors not known for portraying unappealing weasels play against type in doing just that. Bateman, in particular, is great fun as an unwilling informant. But the movie belongs to Crowe. With noticeable extra weight, unkempt long hair, stubble and shirts untucked, he just looks the part of an ink stained wretch who isn't afraid to ask tough questions and stir up crap in pursuit of the truth. He's the anti-Affleck, with an inherent gravity on display in virtually any role he assumes.
This is a film cut from the mold of All The President's Men and The Manchurian Candidate and the screenwriters, in particular, deserve high marks for their drastic restructuring of the story. It could have led to a complete mess, but instead results in a clever and entertaining thriller.
Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Hung [television review]

* Currently airing first season on HBO & HBO Canada
TV show titles don't get much more provocative than Hung, currently nearing the end of its first season run on HBO (it has been picked up already for a second season). The half hour dramedy stars Thomas Jane as Ray Drecker, a down on his luck high school basketball coach who's glory years are well behind him. Ray used to be a star athlete in his high school days, married the prettiest girl in school and had a bright future before an injury dashed hopes of a professional sports career. Fast forward to the present day and Ray is just struggling to tread water in his daily life. His wife (played by Anne Heche) left him and took the kids, his house was almost burnt down (forcing him to inhabit a tent in the backyard), he has money problems and he doesn't enjoy his job. The job, naturally, is at his old high school, a cruel daily reminder of glory days long since passed. Frustrated with his situation Ray, via a series of events, hooks up with Tanya, a former one night stand (played by Jane Adams) and they decide to go into business together, with Tanya acting as Ray's pimp as they plan to exploit and market Ray's greatest attribute - the size of his manhood.
The show is obviously high concept, but on a week to week basis the story lines play out as believable and transcend the gimmickry of the idea. Jane does a great job in his portrayal of a middle-aged man doing his damndest to stave off defeat. As an actor, Jane has seemed poised at various times to cash in his good looks, acting talent and general likeability into an A-list career, but he's never been able to pull it off. A high profile starring role in The Punisher went nowhere and in recent years he's been relegated to forgettable fare, like a 2007 remake of The Mist. Nothing else in his career has matched up to his great performance as Mickey Mantle in 2001's 61*, oddly enough being another HBO production.
The supporting cast is strong, with Adams creating great chemistry with Jane as the lonely, awkward artist who sees pimping Ray out as a possibly lucrative means to supplement her dream of one day attaining success with a line of baked goods with poems hidden inside, what she calls her "lyric bread". Heche is reliably cold and bitchy as the ex and Rebecca Creskoff is a standout with her recurring Lenore character, always good for some foul language and heaps of attitude.
Hung has definite similarities to another pay cable drama, AMC's Breaking Bad, not to mention Showtime's excellent Weeds. If you're a fan of either of these then Hung is worth a viewing.
Rating: 7.5/10