Sunday, November 29, 2009

Jennifer's Body [movie review]

* Released theatrically in September; available on DVD December 29th
From big buzz to flaccid flameout. Expectations ran high for Jennifer's Body before the movie hit theatres in September, due to the double-barreled presence of hot it-girl actress Megan Fox and screenwriter Diablo Cody, in her first screenplay since winning an Oscar for Juno. Upon release, it was savaged by critics with the same zeal demonstrated by Fox's boy hungry (literally) demonic character, failing to draw a mass audience. Truthfully, the film isn't as bad as you've heard, although it's still a bit of a coin toss as to whether or not it's worth your time.
Jennifer's Body is an updated take on the exploration of burgeoning female sexuality, using classic horror movie devices as metaphors in its telling. Call it a coming of (carn)age film. The story: Jennifer Check (Fox) and Anita "Needy" Lesnicky (played by Amanda Seyfried from Mama Mia!) are unlikely best friends. Jennifer is a gorgeous alpha female who is on the cheerleading squad and is fully aware of the power those attributes have over young men. Needy is relatively plain looking, awkward, bookish and, well, needy (Cody wasn't exactly being subtle here) for the friendship Jennifer provides, while offering her the opportunity to exist in the fringes of a social status orbit that would otherwise relegate her to complete loserdom. The friendship between the two struggles to feel realistic, despite Needy's voiceover explanation that "sandbox love never dies". The two attend a concert at a local club featuring indie rock band Low Shoulder, which is disrupted when a fire (evoking unsettling memories of the Great White fire from 2003) breaks out. Following the mayhem, Jennifer gets into the band's creepy stalker van and they drive off, with an ominous experience awaiting her arrival. Said experience turns her into a bloodthirsty demon and Needy must spend the rest of the movie trying to figure out a way to reign in her friend and protect her own boyfriend (Chip, played by Johnny Simmons in a funny performance capturing the awkwardness of both young love and young lust).
Fox proves she can contribute a little more to a film than just existing as eye candy, as most of her previous roles have shown (even by her own admission), notably in the two craptastic Transformers movies. Yes, her character in this film relies heavily on her looks, but there's a bitchy, evil quality to her that demand at least some level of skill in an effort to render Jennifer as something more than just one dimensional, which Fox pulls off with some degree of success. Much of this comes from her sharp, profane dialogue. Like Juno, Jennifer's Body is heaped with pop culture references and edgy humour that entertains, yet fails to really ring true. Examples: "PMS isn't real. It was invented by the boy-run media to make us seem crazy", "the whole country is getting a huge tragedy boner from all of this" (in regard to the media attention following the club fire and a killing spree) and one of the killing victims is described as looking like "lasagna with teeth". Cody's constant witticisms leave just a little too much of an imprint, disrupting the flow with a "Hey, that was another classic Diablo Cody zinger!" vibe. Besides that, there are also scenes that confuse and some plot holes you could drive a truck through. How did the fire start and why do the people in the club take so long to react to it? Why is the weird telepathic power Needy has with Jennifer so random? Jennifer can feed any time she wants so why is so much importance placed on her doing it at the prom? To her credit though, Cody makes imaginative use of Tommy Tutone's 80's hit "867-5309/Jenny" during one scene.
The humour is dark, the horror is fairly tame, and what Jennifer's Body revels in most is its trashiness, which is a pretty thin base on which to support a movie.
Rating: ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Lights - The Listening [music review]

* Released in September
I must admit, it feels strange writing that I enjoyed this album from Canadian singer-songwriter Lights. Here's why: when I first saw her video for "Drive My Soul" I was appalled at how cheesy it seemed (the video and the song) and also because this is the type of music that generally would attract a demographic of 12 to 18-year-old girls. I am most decidely not in that demographic. Granted, my musical tastes have always been a little, well, all-over-the-place, including a fondness for lightweight, bubblegum pop that a nearing-middle-aged straight male probably shouldn't cop to thoroughly enjoying (examples: The Backstreet Boys, Hanson, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, The Veronicas and some Spice Girls songs...I'm all about the honesty). After The Listening was released in September, I came across a copy of it online and downloaded it almost as a sick exercise in seeing how badly it would suck. Damn, did that backfire. Instead, what I found was an infectious album of electro-pop that began to command a healthy amount of listening time amongst a crowded field of albums already on my computer, and subsequently a CD sale for the 22-year-old Timmins, Ontario-born Valerie Poxleitner (her real name...she actually had it legally changed to "Lights").
Visually, Lights stands out, despite her tiny frame. Whether it's her striking exotic looks, fondness for tattoos (including a large back piece featuring Wonder Woman), once signature headband (which she thankfully appears to have gotten rid of) or propensity for rocking a mightily uncool keytar when she plays live, she doesn't look like every other young pop star out there right now. Add to that the discovery she can also play a number of instruments, cites artists from Bjork to Phil Collins to ABBA as influences, is a talented comic book style artist, and a complete World Of Warcraft geek (going as far as tattooing some WOW themes on her arms) and you end up with someone whose intriguing personality is a bonus companion to her raw and still developing songwriting and performing talents.
Four songs on The Listening appeared on her 2008 self-titled EP and the rest of the full length album doesn't deviate far from that heavily synthesized and robotic percussion sound. Lights' voice has an airy, dare I say "light" quality, and the vocal comparison she seems to draw most is to Vanessa Carlton. The lyrics can tend to have a depth consistent with those straight out of a teenager's diary entry ("When you're gone/Will I lose control?/You're the only road I know/You show me where to go/Who will drive my soul?"), but hey, she's barely in her 20's, so it's hard to criticize too much. There are moments where she displays a more mature outlook, such as on "Savior", "Lions!" and the sombre "Pretend", which is a lament about having to grow up and missing the innocence of childhood. I guess even 22-year-olds can feel old. The song shows up in its regular synthy version and an even better take on it to close the album. Stripped bare with just vocals and piano, it hints at a future where Lights could ditch the keyboards and computerized drum tracks to head in a more musically organic direction. A number of excellent similar "laid bare" versions of her songs, with her simply singing and playing an acoustic guitar, have been posted online (see below).
Overall, it's a highly impressive debut. Of the thirteen tracks, only two don't warrant repeat listens: "Ice", a frothy piece of dreck that amazingly was chosen for the second single, and "Quiet", a reminder of the worst kind of 80's synth pop from the kinds of bands that were relegated to the "one hit wonder" bin. There's a fair bit of auto tune used on The Listening as well, an unfortunate by-product of its popularity in today's music and a contributing factor to my initial dislike of her music. Hopefully, she ditches that in the future, too.
The likability of Lights' music is intrinsically linked to her and her co-writers' (Dave Thomson and Thomas Salter) ears for a good hook, which trumps the innate unreachability of most synth and computer-driven music in conveying an emotion other than one of detached, artificial coldness. The fact that Lights has managed to win me over, despite my many initial obstacles towards that ever happening, tells me she's someone to watch.
Guilty pleasure? Sure. But screw it...I'll just go with it.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
"The Listening" Ustream acoustic video

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sons Of Anarchy [television review]

* Season one now available on DVD; season two currently airing on FX
If you live in Canada, Sons Of Anarchy is probably the best show you've never heard of. Season one aired here in late 2008 on Super Channel, a premium pay network that I'd never heard of and apparently few people subscribe to. Season two however, which debuted in September, is nowhere to be found on their schedule. Odd, considering the series scored impressive ratings on its parent U.S. cable network (FX) as their most successful original show since Rescue Me. FX has emerged as a worthy competitor in the original cable series marketplace, also giving us the riveting Damages, The Shield, Nip/Tuck and the wonderfully loopy comedy of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
Series creator Kurt Sutter (who wrote and produced on The Shield) wears many additional hats on SOA: executive producer, writer, director and he also has a recurring acting role. Sutter sought to create a "West Coast version of The Sopranos", which he has managed to impressively pull off with this show about a fictional motorcycle club. SOA draws liberally from the acclaimed mob series - not so much in terms of being derivative, but in mining rich, dramatic territory derived from the parallel natures of the two worlds which are similarly rooted in violence, paranoia, lawbreaking, honour, tradition, and an adherence to a hallowed code whose practicality would elude most of the general population.
SOA is set in the fictional northern California town of Charming (irony!), where the titular club's presence is tolerated by the locals because of their influence in keeping drugs and corporate development out of the community (the club's full name is actually Sons Of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original, or SAMCRO). Never mind that they earn their living by selling guns to neighbouring Oakland gangs, while fending off encroaching threats from a rival Latino club and a white power group, while using a legit auto garage as a front. The star of the show is Charlie Hunnam, who plays the character of Jackson "Jax" Teller. Jax is young, yet worked his way up to club Vice President, a testament to his dedication, smarts and bloodline (his father started SAMCRO in the late 60's as a hippieish alternative lifestyle ideal with a "brains over bullets" philosophy, a vision which has shifted over the years since his death). The club President is now Clay Morrow (played by Ron Perlman), who helped start the club with Jax's father and ended up marrying his widow, Gemma (played by Katey Sagal, who is also Sutter's real life wife).
This is one of the best casts on television right now, I believe. Central figures Hunnam, Perlman and Sagal bring nuanced complexities to their characters, who carry on the anti-hero tradition that was redefined by The Sopranos. Hunnam's Jax carries an almost comical swagger in his walk and wardrobe (which seems more inspired by hip hop culture than Lynyrd Skynyrd, with his baggy pants and white sneakers)...comical were it not for the fact that if you mocked his George Jefferson-like walk and clothes he'd undoubtedly give you a beatdown you wouldn't soon forget. Although Jax has a lot on his mind as the series begins (women problems,impending fatherhood) it's his struggle with the direction of his father's club which weighs heaviest and Hunnam deftly balances shades of charm, brutality and a level-headedness expected from the heir apparent to Clay. Perlman is perfectly suited to his role, exhibiting a reserved demeanour, wry sense of humour and showing every battle-weary toll on his craggy, massive face. Sagal's Gemma is also a powerhouse, playing the matriarch of the club who is usually a step or two ahead of everyone else and every bit as ruthless as the company she keeps. Sometimes she feels a little overused, though. You can have too much of a good thing and Gemma occasionally finds herself inserted into scenes that don't quite ring true by her character's presence.
The additional cast of SOA is a top notch assemblage of talent that allows for deep storylines and interesting character dynamics. Other notable members of SAMCRO include Kim Coates as Tig, the most unstable member of the club, Tommy Flanagan as Scottish import Chibs, Mark Boone Junior as Bobby and Ryan Hurst as the hulking Opie. Maggie Siff as Tara, Jax's former teenage sweetheart who resurfaces in his life, is excellent in her portrayal as a woman conflicted by her attraction to a man who keeps bad company and does bad things. The struggle within appears to have taken up permanent residence on Tara's face, which seems set in a perpetual state of consternation. Or maybe that's just Siff's normal look. The X-Files' Mitch Pilleggi and the man with the coolest name in showbiz, Titus Welliver, add strong work in smaller recurring roles. Really, the only regular character who doesn't carry his weight is the corrupt police chief played by Dayton Callie. His portrayal just doesn't seem as effortless as it should.
The show has really taken a step forward in terms of quality during the second season. Although season one hit the ground running while establishing a historical foundation and setting up storylines, it seemed to run out of steam around the eighth or ninth episode, as too many plots were being worked into the show. One, where Tara has to deal with a stalker, felt like a misguided attempt to inject more tension and drama into a world that was already brimming with it. Another involving Ally Walker as a federal agent with SAMCRO in its sights had potential, but could have been handled better (although Walker is a real firecracker as the ballbusting agent). Despite all my praise for the cast, which is more a reflection of the fact they've really hit their collective stride as the show progresses, I actually stopped watching after season one's episode nine, as the failure to sustain the early momentum became a decisive factor in choosing to invest any further time with what I perceived to be a sinking ship. That, plus the fact this is a difficult group of people to spend time with. The dialogue and characters are coarse and the lifestyle is seedy, with many characters showing a wanton disregard for the value of human life. Some of the onscreen unpleasantness involves rape, murder, grave robbing, numerous beatings, racism, and a culture that both tolerates the practice of club members being allowed to mess around on their significant others (with extenuating circumstances) and the notion that a woman may act as a "club passaround" in hopes of settling on one guy for whom she can become their "old lady". Yuck.
During the rollout of season two, the show reappeared on my radar screen and I decided to give it another shot. Thank God I did. Additions to season two, now eleven shows into a thirteen episode run, include the introduction of Adam Arkin as the leader of a new white power group and Henry Rollins as his right hand man, the takeover by SAMCRO of a local porn studio, problems with SAMCRO's I.R.A. affiliated gun supplier and, most interestingly, a fascinating and brilliantly written power struggle between Jax and Clay. Still not exactly light fare, but once you get comfortable and used to the inherent slime that populates the world of SOA you'll begin to appreciate the undeniable entertainment value lurking beneath the ugly surface.
Season One Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆
Season Two Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

Up [movie review]

Released theatrically in May; just released on DVD
Up was about as well-received as a movie can be when it was released earlier this year. A look online at overall scores for Pixar's tenth feature-length film shows impressive numbers: a roundup of 37 professional movie critic reviews compiled by shows an average score of just under 90% and 300+ reader reviews give the same average grade, while Up's page shows a whopping 58,000+ readers delivered a median score of 8.5/10. So what is it I'm missing here? As with all of Pixar's work, the visuals are stunning, yet I found myself left at the end of the movie with a feeling of disappointment, that what promised to be something on par with the best of the studio's work (Toy Story and its sequel, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo and Wall-E) instead left the ho-hum impression of the middling A Bug's Life or Monsters, Inc. At least we didn't get another Cars or Ratatouille (the latter being another Pixar film whose universal acclaim totally mystified me).
The plot: lonely widower Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) decides to fulfill the childhood dream, shared with his late wife, of traveling off to South America's mystical Paradise Falls, following in the footsteps of adventurer/hero Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer). Carl was a balloon salesman, which inspires the idea of transporting his beloved longtime home (in danger of being overrun by the persistence of urban sprawl) via thousands of helium balloons. A hyperactive child named Russell (voiced by newcomer Jordan Nagai), who has persistently visited Carl's house in hopes of offering assistance as a means of earning a merit badge, unwittingly becomes Carl's travel partner. When they reach South America we're introduced to a rare mystical bird (which Russell names "Kevin") and a pack of dogs that are hunting the bird, with the canines outfitted with translators on their collars that voice their thoughts and barks as English. The misfit of the dog group is named Dug, who befriends the travellers. Munce turns out to be alive and the man behind the talking dog collars, with the capture of the elusive bird appearing to be his one goal left in life. And not to quibble too much about the plausibilities within an animated film set up on the fantastical premise of an old man flying a house with balloons, but how is it that we see boyhood Carl watching black and white newsreels involving a 40-ish year old looking Munce and when they meet about 75 years later (revealing that shouldn't spoil anything for you) Munce only looks to be in his 80's?
Again, the movie is visually absolutely breathtaking. At this point, Pixar has set such a high standard for CGI animation that one wonders how much further they can improve on it (one theatrical version played in 3-D, but by all accounts it didn't overwhelmingly enhance the experience...many people who saw it commented along the lines of it being slightly more impressive without being intrusive). Whether it's subtle details like the fuzz on the tennis balls at the bottom of Carl's walker, or the fuzz actually on Carl's face as he neglects to shave as his adventure unfolds, it all looks amazingly, painstakingly tended to. The scene where Carl and Russell reach their destination had me reaching for the remote to freeze frame the beautiful view on my TV screen.
The secondary characters and flat story arc end up deflating the lofty levels reached by Up's visual artists (you knew there was going to be at least one balloon metaphor dropped in here somewhere). Asner is perfectly cast as the Lou Grant-like cranky Carl, and Nagai and Plummer are serviceable enough in their voice roles, but the pickings get thin after that. The talking dogs occasionally amuse, though they tend to annoy after awhile. And the bird? I couldn't have cared less about it.
I give Pixar credit for attaining such critical and financial success for a movie centred on a crotchety, septuagenarian protagonist - on paper it looks like a bit of a hard sell. Director Pete Docter and co-director Bob Peterson (who also wrote the movie along with Thomas McCarthy) unfortunately fall short of delivering a story and supporting cast that engages the heart as much as our eyes, save for a moving four minute montage set to a waltzing score by Michael Giacchino that wordlessly looks back on Carl's life with his wife. It's a standout moment in an otherwise letdown of a movie.
Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Collective Soul - Collective Soul [music review]

* Released in August
Georgia's Collective Soul self titled their second release in 1995, so going the same route for their latest album is curious, if not downright confusing. In a recent interview with Sun Media, frontman Ed Roland justified it with the proverbial "we wanted to go back to our roots" (to paraphrase) explanation. Fans have taken to simply calling the album Rabbit, for clarity's sake. When the subject is brought up, Roland responds with the oddest quote from the interview: "People just started calling it Rabbit. But we never would have called it Rabbit; I'd like to think we're a little more creative than that." Uh, you mean more creative than self-titling an album of yours twice, Ed? Surprisingly, the idea has been employed more than you'd think in the music here for further examples.
Listening to Rabbit brought to mind observances that were brought up in my recent Bon Jovi review...namely, that the end result is solid, but feels like simply more of the same. As with the Bon Jovi album, most of the material here is completely interchangeable with most of what's appeared on Collective Soul's previous seven studio albums. And is that enough? Should we expect a little more creative growth from our musical artists or is maintaining the status quo enough?
Collective Soul is good at what they do, although a look back at their body of work reveals an almost odd consistency of just that - simply "good to very good" studio albums, never really achieving individual greatness and also never dropping the ball and delivering a turd. The closest they've come to really shining was on 2005's live Home, a stellar CD/DVD release that paired the band with the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra.
First track "Welcome All Again" sounds like it was specifically written to open Rabbit, constructed with a heavily processed intro that amps up the mood for a minute before kicking the door in with Roland yelling the song's title, followed by an in-your-face guitar riff. The chorus is classic Collective Soul, who never met one they didn't want to lodge in your brain like an icepick. A nice breakdown section near the end of the song works well. "Fuzzy" lives up to its title, with fat, thick guitars that are complemented during the chorus with some tasteful clean, ringing guitar sounds. The song has a David Bowie feel to it, minus the questionable use of whistling that Roland uses. I can think of few songs where whistling is a wise creative decision..."Walk Like An Egyptian", "Dock Of The Bay" and a couple (!) of Guns N' Roses songs, "Patience" and "Civil War", made it work, but even Bruce Springsteen couldn't pull it off on the title track to his latest album, Working On A Dream. "Dig" finds the band getting about as heavy as they have to date during the chorus section, propelled by some rude metal guitar riffing from guitarist Dean Roland (Ed's brother) and an aggressive bass drum kick from new drummer Cheney Brandon.
So yes, Rabbit rocks pretty good in places, but it wouldn't be a Collective Soul release without the more mainstream songs, which can be found in "Dig", "Staring Down", "She Does" and "Understanding", although the latter actually straddles both sides of a commercial/rawer-sounding line, with gentle verses jarred by punk-style choruses that feel almost schizophrenic in their placement within the song. "Hymn For My Father" follows the recent pattern of Collective Soul albums, closing with a ballad. This one is a spare arrangement, with just a solo piano accompanying Roland's vocals for a song he (duh) wrote for his father, a Southern Baptist minister, and the song truly has a hymn-type feel to it.
Collective Soul have been labelled many things over the years: alternative, modern rock, adult alternative and adult contemporary have all been attached to the band. Whatever category you wish to put them in, they are always reliable in producing feel-good, unabashedly mainstream music, which Rabbit demonstrates one more time.
Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bon Jovi - The Circle [music review]

* Released today

The Circle is Bon Jovi's eleventh studio album and few do the melodic hard rock thing any better. A slight departure was taken with 2007's Lost Highway, as the band expanded its sound with country textures like pedal steel guitar, banjo, fiddle and duets with country artists LeeAnn Rimes and Big & Rich (the latter contributing to "We Got It Going On", surely one of the worst songs in Bon Jovi's catalog). The "Bon Jovi goes country" angle was widely overplayed by the media, as the band's root sound was still intact, just accented with some Nashville touches. The result was, in my opinion, one of the band's strongest yet. "(You Want To) Make A Memory", in particular, resonated with me - a more perfectly written, produced, and performed pop song you'll be hard-pressed to find.
Louder guitars and a more straightforward rock album were promised for their next release and The Circle doesn't disappoint. Here's a track-by-track review:
"We Weren't Born To Follow": The album's first single initially underwhelmed me, but I couldn't put my finger on why. Repeated listens subsequently revealed the song's attributes: a massive chorus (with concert-ready lines commanding "Let me hear you say yeah, yeah, yeah, oh yeah!") and the promised big guitars, including a nice delay effect that sounds like an influence from U2's The Edge. The song hits you right in the face immediately, so I'm stumped as to what it was I was missing on my first few listens. To be fair, guitarist Richie Sambora added a new guitar solo for the album version of the song, which definitely rips more than the version from the single that I first heard. Bookended by 80's style whammy bar divebombs, it's only fifteen seconds long but reinforces my opinion of Sambora as one of the most tasteful and underrated rock guitar players around. Lyrically, the song pays homage to those who pave their own road, though one wonders how much of it is self-referential. This is, after all, a band that has borrowed heavily from the Bruce Springsteen playbook, sometimes to the cringe-inducing point. Still, you have to give Bon Jovi huge respect for emerging from the 80s hard rock/hair band scene that imploded on literally all of their peers, while continuing to thrive as both a massive live draw and commercially viable entity in terms of new album sales.
"When We Were Beautiful": The lyrical territory of innocence lost is certainly familiar for Bon Jovi fans and this marks the first of several tracks on The Circle which refer to the theme. The repetitive themes Bon Jovi tends to cover are thankfully usually anchored by catchy music that elevates things to something more than just stale retreads. The spare guitar part at the song's beginning initially seems at odds, timing-wise, with singer Jon Bon Jovi's vocal delivery, but when drummer Tico Torres comes in with some booming floor toms and military style snare drum flourishes it ties everything together. It's the most epic sounding song on the album.
"Work For The Working Man": The song reworks the famous bass line and keyboard intro from "Livin' On A Prayer" for another ode to the plight of the working man...or rather, lack of work this time around, as the band strives to be topical. The "work!" shouts in the background are a nice touch.
"Superman Tonight": Arguably the strongest track on The Circle. To say this song is anthemic is an understatement - one can already see the live light show as it reflects the song's quiet-to-loud progression and the audience's fists in the air during the swelling chorus. It also contains my favourite lyric, as Bon Jovi references the semi-famous Superman logo ink on his arm ("You're looking for a hero, but it's just my old tattoo"). The positive energy jumping from the song seems tailor-made for a cinematic coupling, perhaps playing over the credits of Michael Bay's next popcorn flick atrocity.
"Bullet": JBJ asks the question, "What is the distance between a bullet and a gun?", which, quite frankly, I neither know the answer to nor really understand the question. Either way, this one falls somewhere in the middling range as far as quality and is the heaviest song on the album. Lyrically, it's the most socially conscious, even if only on a simplistic level ("How can someone take a life in the name of God and say it's right?/How does money lead to greed when there's still hungry mouths to feed?").
"Thorn In My Side": A solid uptempo rocker. Sambora and Bon Jovi can pretty much write this type of song in their sleep, which isn't necessarily a slight, just an honest statement that we've heard it before with different chord arrangements and slightly (but just slightly) different lyrics relating to taking your knocks and standing your ground (see "Undivided" and the title track from 2002's Bounce).
"Live Before You Die": The title pretty sums up what to expect. One of only two ballads on the album, it follows more of a linear storytelling structure a la Springsteen, which they've experimented with in the past (as on the similar sounding "Joey", also from the Bounce album and "Blood On Blood" from 1988's New Jersey). Still, it's a serviceable power ballad. I always enjoy when artists make lyrical references to their past work and here they name drop "(You Want To) Make A Memory" at the end of the second verse.
"Brokenpromiseland": Shame about the song title, but the song still rocks. Sambora's guitars shine again with more Edge-style dynamics.
"Love's The Only Rule": Another standout track, this one begins with a very un-Bon Jovi-like beginning that sounds more suited to a dance remix before coming back around to familiar territory with an uplifting chorus, and is then nicely balanced with a subdued bridge, before amping up once again towards the song's conclusion.
"Fast Cars": I hate to keep harping on the lyrics, but it's virtually unavoidable when you examine many of the words from these songs. The music here is unspectacular and the clunky cars-as-a-metaphor-for-life lyrical approach is simply amateurish. As I pondered in my review of KISS' recent Sonic Boom album, I'm amazed that seasoned songwriters can sometimes get so lazy.
"Happy Now": Great song, musically...the lyrics? Any more ragging on them would just be redundant.
"Learn To Love": It overcomes a lifeless intro that appears to present itself as a sappy ballad to build into something more uptempo, closing the album on a satisfying note.
The Circle is nothing more than another fine slab of Bon Jovi slickness, with much of the material demonstrating little growth musically or lyrically. And that's okay. Sure, most of the songs here would be completely interchangeable with anything they've recorded over the past decade, or even further back in some cases, but not every album or musical artist has to reinvent the wheel. While the end product has an assembly line feel, the songs still translate into a smile on your face and will please millions.
Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Bored To Death [television review]

* The series has just completed its first season run of eight episodes; re-airings can be seen on HBO and HBO Canada
Bored To Death is the TV equivalent of a hipster indie movie that revels a little too much in how quirky and eccentric its characters are. The core of this series' idiosyncrasies lie with star Jason Schwartzman, who has mined this territory in films before (in I Heart Huckabees and The Darjeeling Limited, to name a couple). Schwartzman's character is based on New York writer Jonathan Ames, who created and writes the show (the character uses his real name). Ames (the TV version) is a frustrated writer trying to come up with his second book, while also contributing occasionally to a magazine run by editor George Christopher (played by Ted Danson). His girlfriend has just moved out, fed up with a stagnant relationship impeded by Jonathan's immaturity and fondness for wine and weed. Zach Galifianakis (from The Hangover) plays Ray, his best friend, which makes sense as he too is a self-loathing, insecure slacker with a serious case of arrested development. Inspired by reading an old detective novel, Jonathan puts an ad on Craigslist and decides to shake up his life by becoming a private detective (albeit an unlicensed one). Shenanigans ensue.
Danson's and Galifianakis' characters are underused in the series' first few episodes, leaving us with a little more Schwartzman than I care to spend time with. His deadpan, offbeat comedic style isn't completely without its charm, but a little can tend to go a long way. Danson's character is the best part of the show and he thankfully gets more screen time as the series progresses. Still, the relationship between Jonathan and George doesn't always quite feel legit...George is twice Jonathan's age and moves in elite social circles, which Jonathan certainly isn't privy to. The basis of their relationship is that George befriends him for his pot supply and desire to hold on to his youth. Parts of Danson's character bring to mind his Sam Malone character from Cheers, as someone with little desire to act his age.
The storylines so far have been uninspired and, occasionally, fairly threadbare. You can throw in silly, too. Each show involves a new case for Jonathan to solve, sometimes as a detective for hire or just to resolve a conflict in his own life. So far we've had him tracking down an unscrupulous lesbian couple selling Ray's sperm, retrieving a sex tape being used to blackmail a married man, retrieving a skateboard for a boy from some teenagers, getting back a movie script given to him by director Jim Jarmusch that he loses and following a man to see if he's being unfaithful. There's a later episode that involves a ridiculous boxing match the three main characters end up participating in.
The female characters on this show are basically an afterthought. A revolving door of familiar faces shows up from week to week (such as Olivia Thirlby as Jonathan's ex-girlfriend, Saturday Night Live's Kristen Wiig, Parker Posey, The Daily Show's Samantha Bee and Danson's former Cheers castmate Bebe Neuwirth), but they have little to do that is noteworthy, other than assist in advancing the plots. Make no mistake, this is most definitely a guy-centric show.
I haven't completely given up on Bored To Death. Somewhere below the art house noir and hip weirdness exterior, I think this show has potential if the scripts improve and more of the ensemble is used. HBO has already picked it up for a second season, so we'll see if it's more of the same or something better.
Rating: ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Paranormal Activity [movie review]

* Released wide theatrically in September 2009
The box office success surrounding Paranormal Activity is the feel-good movie story of the year, from a film whose actual contents are anything but. By now you've probably heard some of the details: videogame programmer Oren Peli makes his first movie for $11,000 using two unknown actors, shooting it with no script and no crew over the course of seven days in his San Diego home. It debuts at a horror festival in late '07 and, after playing at the 2008 Slamdance Film Festival, gets an offer from the Dreamworks studio, who want to remake it with an established director and known cast. Peli resists, but ultimately agrees on a $350,000 deal, still hoping to convince the studio to release his version. Further test screenings of the original get such a great reaction from the audience that Dreamworks decides they'll release Peli's version, influenced in part by director Steven Spielberg becoming a huge champion of the movie (Spielberg also suggests shooting a new ending, which Peli does, at an additional cost of $4,000). A viral marketing campaign begins as social networking websites spread positive word of mouth on the movie and it's rolled out in limited release. Word of mouth continues to build and in its first weekend of wide release it kicks Saw VI's ass (which maybe isn't all that difficult an accomplishment with this tired franchise...I mean, six movies in six years, Saw people? With them being pumped out at that rate you know quality control isn't at the top of the movie studio's list). Paranormal Activity has now brought in $97 million in North America and has just started playing in theaters overseas. Add in DVD and television rights and I'd say that's a pretty good return on the investment.
So the buckets of hype and mountains of cash is all well and good - is the movie actually worth watching? That'd be a resounding "yes". The film is presented as a real chronicle of a couple's experiences with a supernatural entity in their home, borrowing a page from The Blair Witch Project's faux documentary style. This is just one of numerous similarities and parallels to Blair Witch, which similarly came out of nowhere to be a big hit with a cast of unknowns in a cheap movie about the supernatural. The two main characters are played by Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, who use their real first names for their characters. They're a couple living in a San Diego home that has recently been beset by a number of unexplained noises and occurrences. Micah, a day trader who works from home, buys a video camera to document the events of trying to suss out what's behind the mysterious disturbances. Katie is a student who is reluctant to participate in Micah's camera experiment, with further tension developing between the couple over his glib attitude to the whole ghost thing, even as things with the pissed off spirit begin to escalate.
The movie does a masterful job at creating a very insular environment with its single camera, spare cast (Mark Fredrichs is particularly good in a low-key portrayal as a skittish psychic) and singular location of the house. Between the claustrophobic feel, frayed nerves from the couple and the creeping dread driven by the scenes captured by the video camera left in the couple's bedroom while they sleep, it's an effectively messy cocktail that puts the viewer on edge.
Paranormal Activity ends up being way scarier than the overrated Blair Witch, and is deserving of its acclaim and box office success. Peli is already filming his next project (Area 51) and hopefully Featherston and Sloat fare better than the cast of Blair Witch, whose careers all appear to have been of the flash-in-the-pan variety.
One more not watch this movie at night. It's that scary. I made the mistake of watching it alone at 1 in the morning and was sufficiently creeped out enough to have my sleeping habits, which are already pretty messed up, thrown that much more out of whack. I'd call that a ringing endorsement.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆