Thursday, December 31, 2009

Bronson [movie review]

* Released theatrically in October; available on DVD in February 2010
Bronson tells the strange story of a man who gained notoriety by becoming "England's most violent prisoner", as the press called him. It features a powerhouse performance from Tom Hardy (recently seen in RocknRolla) as Charlie Bronson, which the character changed his name to from Michael Gordon Peterson in an effort to bolster his tough guy credibility during a short-lived bare knuckle boxing career. Before Bronson turned being an inmate into a career after his first arrest in 1974 at the age of 22, he spent a little time working as a sideshow strongman. This fact isn't seen in the film, but bears mention. Bronson favours the prototypical strongman look: tattoos, shaved head, handlebar moustache, and massive frame (Hardy reportedly gained almost 100 pounds for the role). It's a distinct look and suited to a man who doesn't fit in anywhere in his life except one place - the British penal system.
Since his first arrest for armed robbery, which lead to a seven year sentence, Bronson has spent all but four years of his life to this day in prison as a result of crimes committed inside and out of jail. 30 of his 35 years of incarceration have been spent in solitary confinement, in dozens of facilities and institutions. Judges have ruled him clinically sane and he has never killed anyone.
So what makes him tick? The movie alludes vaguely to a motivation by Bronson to attain some level of celebrity based solely on his violent deeds. But really, Charlie's rage seems to be driven by the simple fact that he's great at beating the hell out of people. He takes pleasure and pride in his pugilistic proficiency, resigning himself early on in life that he'll never be as good at anything else, so he may as well embrace his talents. During the brief periods where Charlie is not in jail he almost seems uncomfortable in his own skin, unsure of his place in society. Fascinatingly, during his years in prison, Bronson also developed into an award winning painter and poet (he has published 11 books). I guess he had plenty of time to work on honing his craft.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Brock Norman Brock) was clearly influenced by A Clockwork Orange, recreating similar elements of that film's surreal sadism in his own work, such as bloody fight scenes set to symphonic scores. Interspersed throughout the movie are bizarre inner monologues that Bronson delivers in a theatre to a full audience and to the viewer by breaking the fourth wall, putting on his own one-man show while caked in clown makeup. The device is a little overused and pushes the boundaries of pretension, but it's still fascinating to watch Hardy do his thing.
Hardy's remarkable portrayal of the oddly charismatic sociopath somehow manages to elicit sympathy and good will from an audience that should be repelled by his brutality. The movie certainly has its problems, such as stretches where not much happens and a tendency for the violent scenes to blend into one another. When he's looking to scratch his asskicking itch, Bronson has a fondness for taking a prisoner, stripping naked, covering himself in paint or whatever greasy liquid is around, and then waiting for the riot police to take him on. This formula, or some variation of it, repeats more than a few times. It's still entertaining to watch, but it comes at the expense of deeper story development. Despite these flaws, it's still well worth a watch just for Hardy's fascinating performance.
Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Halford - Winter Songs [music review]

* Released in November
An album of Christmas-themed music from Rob Halford, the self-proclaimed "Metal God", surely qualifies as one of the odder music releases of the year. Halford had the idea in mind years ago, but never got around to fulfilling it due to a busy work schedule (this is his first solo release since rejoining Judas Priest in 2003). The thinking was to put out an album of original and traditional Christmas songs that would both celebrate his favourite time of the year (who knew?) and throw his fans and critics for a loop. Job completed on the latter.
Opener "Get Into The Spirit" certainly doesn't sound Christmas-y, aside from the lyrics. It's a gut punching mix of loud guitars, double bass drums, and Halford's distinct wail. And it rรถcks. If this album somehow makes its way into the CD player on Christmas Eve with the family gathered around the tree then I give it about 10 seconds of life before somebody old replaces it with something tamer...which would be just about anything else. Second track "We Three Kings" completely transforms the traditional number into an even more amped up metal stew than its predecessor, this time with some piano thrown in that somehow manages to stand out amongst the jackhammer drums and extended guitar solos.
"Winter Song" brings a nice change of pace four songs into the album, exchanging the metal for mellow. It's a cover of a song by, of all people, pop singer Sara Bareilles (of 2007 hit single "Love Song" fame). Halford and his production team use piano, xylophone, a string section, trippy keyboard effects, and some tasteful blues guitar in their arrangement, resulting in one of the best songs I've ever heard from him. I'll even go as far to say it's one of the best songs I heard this year.
The album sags somewhat in the middle with the leaden "I Don't Care", which probably should have given way to another traditional number. "Christmas For Everyone" is a tad stronger, but serves as more of a curiosity. It's downright surreal hearing a fun Christmas song with chiming bells and honky tonk piano from the almost always serious Halford. Case in point, his last album with Priest was a bloated double length concept album about Nostradamus. Lots of levity there, no doubt.
The final three tracks breathe life back into things, even if the songs are all in the moody, more restrained vein of the title track. Album closer "O Come All Ye Faithful" rolls out a military style percussion arrangement to lift it up to epic heights, aided by Halford's bombastic vocals.
Winter Songs likely won't find a future on any holiday playlists at the local malls, but it's a damn sight better than the other limited options out there for metal fans, such as A Twisted Christmas by Twisted Sister or anything by the awful Transyberian Orchestra.
Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

My top movies of 2009...

These are the best movies I saw from the past year (in no particular order):
Dead Snow
District 9
Inglourious Basterds
In The Loop
The International
Paranormal Activity
Last Chance Harvey
Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired
State Of Play
Anvil! The Story Of Anvil

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My top albums of 2009...

I couldn't narrow it down to a list of ten, so here's my favourite albums from the past year (in no particular order):
Emm Gryner - Goddess
Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown
Keith Urban - Defying Gravity
Bruce Springsteen - Working On A Dream
U2 - No Line On The Horizon
Kelly Clarkson - All I Ever Wanted
Megadeth - Endgame
Manic Street Preachers - Journal For Plague Lovers
Martina McBride - Shine
Placebo - Battle For The Sun
Powerman 5000 - Somewhere On The Other Side Of Nowhere
Stryper - Murder By Pride
Metric - Fantasies
Chantal Kreviazuk - Plain Jane
Honourable mention to Metallica's Death Magnetic. It actually came out in September of 2008, but I'm still listening to it on a regular basis. With the decade coming to a close, I'd have to say it's probably the best album I've heard during it.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Blind Side [movie review]

* Released theatrically in November
The trailer for The Blind Side did little to compel me to invest a couple of hours watching it. The movie-of-the-week sap quotient looked off the charts, plus I had coincidentally already watched a couple of awful football movies in the past week (Any Given Sunday and Leatherheads). Those two duds only helped to fortify my disdain for the game and movies about it. So perhaps it was the need to balance out my recent film consumption that has skewed topically towards the darker side, or perhaps it was just that I wanted to watch a sexy blonde Sandra Bullock walking across the screen in a series of tight pants and skirts (well at least I'm honest). Whichever, I gave The Blind Side a shot and have no regrets.
The movie is based on a 2006 book titled The Blind Side: Evolution Of A Game by Michael Lewis, which devotes approximately half the pages to discussing football strategy and half to the story of Michael Oher, an at-risk youth who went from being practically homeless to a first round draft pick in the NFL (he currently plays for the Baltimore Ravens). As a 16-year-old, Oher's troubled upbringing (absent father, addict mother) has him heading down a path to nowhere until he gets accepted at a Memphis private Christian school. The enrollment is spearheaded by a football coach who insists "You don't admit Michael Oher because of sports. You admit him because it's the right thing to do". His altruistic intentions appear to be sincerely expressed, but I can't help but think the guy is just salivating at the opportunity to get the 6'4, 330 pound future linebacker suited up in the school's colours. One night, Bullock's character (Leigh Anne Tuohy) is in the car with her family when they notice a somber looking Oher walking through the cold and rainy night wearing just a t-shirt and shorts. Aware that he's a new student at her children's school, she suspects he could use a helping hand and extends an offer to him to spend the night at their mansion (she is a successful interior decorator and husband Sean owns 70+ fast food outlets). One night turns into weeks, until finally the family ends up adopting him. Along the way, the extremely introverted Oher starts to come out of his shell and, with the help of a tutor the family hires, improves his grades to a level which will help him earn a college football scholarship.
Bullock is a tour de force, clearly relishing the opportunity to stretch a little dramatically and her character gives her plenty to work with. Leigh Anne is a spitfire, unwilling to suffer fools gladly nor keep her strong opinions to herself. It's the kind of weighty role Bullock needs to try on for size a little more. Other than a couple of serious roles in Crash and Infamous in recent years, most of her movie choices have tended to be interchangeable roles in forgettable romantic comedies. Country singer Tim McGraw (almost unrecognizable without his goatee and cowboy hat) plays her husband and proves to be a revelation. His Sean character really isn't given a substantial amount to do other than agree with whatever Leigh Anne says and support her decisions, yet McGraw has such a likeable, calm easiness that his performance resonates more than it has any right to. Quinton Aaron, as Michael, is the focus of the movie, yet he still plays second fiddle to Leigh Anne (everybody does in this movie), despite his imposing physical presence. He is the proverbial "gentle giant", a young man of very few words. Too few, actually. We're given brief insights into what makes him tick, but not nearly enough. Aaron does a decent enough job at conveying Michael's inner pain, as well as discomfort at acclimatizing to his new posh accommodations, by using his body language and facial expressions to make up for what he is unable to express orally. Still, the character does't feel as fully formed as you'd like.
As that trailer suggested, The Blind Side indulges its lowest common denominator impulses more than a few times. We get a cheesy scene with Michael and S.J., the youngest Tuohy kid, driving in Oher's new truck and trading off vocal lines on Young MC's "Bust A Move". Then there's another precious montage with the two where the little scamp assumes the taskmaster coach role and puts Michael through his workout paces. S.J. is supposed to be the comic relief in the film, but his incessant mugging and one-note cuteness get old real fast. Speaking of not being able to act, the film has cameos from several real life college football coaches that I guess I would care about if college football meant anything to me. Seriously, what's with the insane popularity of this sport in the States? I don't get it.
The sap in The Blind Side is held to a slow trickle, a welcome relief in a film whose premise could have made it rife for a deluge of the sticky stuff. We get a scene with Leigh Anne where her friends question her efforts to help Michael. After some awkward exchanges, including one where a friend asks her if this is "a white guilt thing", one of them tells her "Honey, you're changing that boy's life". Leigh Anne responds with "No, he's changing mine". Another scene has Leigh Anne interrupting a football practice to have a one on one with Michael, who somehow doesn't seem to be grasping the fundamentals of his linebacker position (uh, hello? You're supposed to knock the crap out of someone on the opposing offence). Leigh Anne's strategy for him is to imagine his team as family members and his job is to protect them from harm. Presto! The brilliant metaphor pays instant dividends for him and a roll of the eyes from me.
Some reviews of The Blind Side have heavily criticized it for presenting Leigh Anne as a great white saviour, rescuing the poor black kid from the wrong side of the tracks. This I find laughable. The facts are the facts and people who are looking for racist motives where none exist from a family film are taking their entertainment way too seriously. Are some people that cynical that a heartwarming story about one human being selflessly changing another's life can't be, well, just that? To my eyes and ears, there seems to be an appropriate amount of discussion in the movie about cultural differences and race. In-depth examinations on the topic are best suited to other forums.
Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans [movie review]

* Released theatrically in November
Abel Ferrara, director of the 1992 version of Bad Lieutenant, was fairly blunt when asked of his opinion about director Werner Herzog remaking his film (along with producer Edward Pressman, who worked on the original): anybody associated with the production "should die in hell", Ferrara said. Herzog, quick to clarify that his movie is actually more of a "reimagining" than a traditional remake, pointedly addressed the comment with a baiting "who is Abel Ferrara?".
Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans is saddled with an unwieldy title, and star Nicolas Cage gives an appropriately unwieldy performance. He plays his cop character of Terence McDonagh with enough oddball traits and idiosyncrasies that would render most other actor's performances as cartoonish. Cage, on the other hand, has been perfecting this art of unrestrained weirdness his whole career (and I don't necessarily mean that as a compliment), so it's not overly jarring when we see him re-enter Face/Off or Wild At Heart territory here. At least with this role there's a sound basis for him acting like a loon.
The film is set in post-Katrina New Orleans and opens with McDonagh debating with his partner, Stevie Pruit (played by Val Kilmer), whether or not to save a prisoner being held in the police station's basement lock up, which is quickly flooding. McDonagh decides to play the hero, rescuing the man and sustaining a serious back injury in the process. In turn, this earns him a department medal of honour (never mind that he and Pruit were initially taking bets on how long the prisoner might survive), a promotion, and a wicked painkiller addiction that escalates to crack, heroin, and cocaine.
The rampant drug use seems to fuel most of McDonagh's erratic behavior, including falsifying and stealing evidence, making shady deals with criminals, heavy gambling, and intimidating senior citizen women (the scene involving the latter is shockingly disturbing, yet guiltily amusing). The lieutenant manages to get by on the job on the strength of his good cop instincts and fearless attitude.
The main plot, involving a quintuple homicide that seems to point in the direction of drug kingpin Big Fate (played solidly by rapper Xzibit), struggles to support the film's weight, with little help coming from separate secondary stories involving McDonagh's junkie hooker girlfriend (played by Eva Mendes in a wasted role), his father and stepmother, or his bookie. No, this film is pretty much all Nicolas Cage, with his slanted posture, drug-induced hallucinations involving reptiles and break-dancing ghosts, and a huge revolver ridiculously tucked inside his belt front. Even noted scenery chewer Val Kilmer plays it uncharacteristically subtle in his surprisingly limited role, seemingly aware that there's only so much crazy to go around in one film.
The Cage/Herzog endeavour is rarely dull, but not always cohesive, either.
Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Taking Chance [movie review]

* Premiered on HBO in February; now on DVD
It feels wrong to trash a movie like Taking Chance, which deals with the highly delicate subject matter of transporting the remains of a killed in action U.S. marine, yet ambivalence and sheer boredom won out over the film's intended reaction of heart tugging sympathy. The movie is "based on actual events" as the credits tell us, from a 20 page journal written by Marine lieutenant colonel Mike Strobl (played by Kevin Bacon). Strobl, a Desert Storm veteran, is now a military number cruncher who spends every night perusing the names on an Iraq War casualty list. The name of Chance Phelps catches his attention, as the two hail from the same Colorado hometown. Despite his seniority, he volunteers as an escort for Phelps' remains, which comprises the bulk of the movie as the two embark on their solemn road trip.
The film treats its subject matter with the utmost dignity, taking a neutral stance on the political arguments of the war and focusing on the escort ritual and its accompanying procedural elements, as well as the personal effect on Strobl and the people he crosses paths with. It just doesn't make for a remotely interesting dramatic film - a documentary on the subject would have had more of an impact. Scene after scene shows Strobl encountering sympathetic looks and well-wishes from those that see him alongside the coffin draped with an American flag, as he reverently salutes constantly. One scene in particular rankles - it shows Strobl driving behind an SUV carrying the coffin to a funeral home and as other vehicles go to pass the two cars we see their headlights come on. As the camera pans back we see it has now turned into an impromptu 12 car funeral procession. At this point, it just feels like we're being hit over the head with a sentimentality club. It doesn't help that a weepy, manipulative score intrudes ad nauseum.
Bacon plays his character with a rigid, emotionless understatement, choosing to let his stoic demeanor replace wordy displays conveying his pride and honour. This makes it difficult to connect with him, presenting a serious problem in a movie where he is the constant figure that also relies on changing faces to tell the story.
At a scant 77 minutes that still manages to drag, Taking Chance may not work well as a movie, but it is a noble endeavour that reminds us of the human cost of war, shining a light on something that has been embarrassingly swept under the rug by the Department of Defense since 1991, who decreed back then that virtually all media coverage of deceased military personnel returning home be banned (the policy is now being reconsidered).
Rating: ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

Friday, December 11, 2009

Metallica - Francais Pour Une Nuit [music DVD review]

* Released in November
"Francais pour une nuit" translates to "French for one night" and serves as the title to Metallica's new live DVD. The project is unique, in that it's only being sold in France and on Metallica's website, although various online retailers have now bought their own copies from these outlets and are selling it a healthy markup. Also unique is that everything on the DVD is shot and produced by an entirely French crew.
The DVD captures the veteran metal icons playing this past July on their World Magnetic Tour at the historic Arenes de Nimes, an ancient Roman amphitheater in Nimes, France. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more impressive looking venue for a concert and the producers take full advantage, making use of numerous aerial shots that capture the time-ravaged beauty of the stadium. Accompanied by the band's traditional intro music of Sergio Leone's haunting "The Ecstasy Of Gold", the opening shot of the DVD hovers above the back of the stadium facade, showing fans perched precariously at the top, seemingly only a tumble away (or a blast from a James Hetfield power chord) from falling over the edge. One of the next shots shows the band members walking alone through the gladiator tunnel leading to the stage.
A gladiator metaphor may be laying it on a little thick, but it's not a huge stretch. Nobody ends up dead at a Metallica show (at least not usually), yet they too are entertaining a rabid crowd based on a display of testosterone, aggression and punishing physical demands. Although it'd be an undertaking whose reward wouldn't nearly equal the effort, I'd love to see someone with too much time on their hands calculate the total number of notes and percussion hits played by the entire band in the course of one of their average concerts. It'd have to be in the hundreds of thousands.
The ...And Justice For All album is well-represented, with four tracks from it making their way into the setlist, including a scorching "Blackened" to open the show. Most of the Metallica concert staples are here: "Fade To Black", "Enter Sandman", "Master Of Puppets", "Creeping Death" and "Nothing Else Matters", which is the only song in the entire show I could have done without. It's a fantastic song, I'm just completely burnt out on it. A great version of "Fuel" reminds fans that their mid 90's output was much better than it got credit for. Tellingly, nothing from the much maligned St. Anger album is played. Death Magnetic, their newest release (and one of their finest yet, in my opinion), merits four songs, all of which take on an added level of heavy and translate extremely well live. "Broken, Beat & Scarred", in particular, sounds impressive, propelled by a highly original stuttering guitar riff that qualifies as one of the most badass I've ever heard. The band does a spirited take on Queen's "Stone Cold Crazy" and the somewhat obscure "Motorbreath" (from their debut album) receives a healthy airing out for the diehards before perennial closer "Seek And Destroy" concludes the show.
Two weeks prior to watching this I viewed a 1988 performance from the band that I hadn't seen in years, which I recently acquired on DVD. The hair may not be as long or thick, but Metallica in 2009 is still a formidable live act, equal (if not better) than their younger selves. Frontman James Hetfield is a friggin' riff machine, with a voice that is still strong and capable of enduring 2+ hour shows, plus he knows how to get the best out of the crowd (which isn't difficult at this show, as the French fans fortify the live reputation of European fans as the best in the world). Drummer Lars Ulrich is a whirlwind of flying arms and feet and relatively new bassist Rob Trujillo provides a solid bottom end, even if his background vocals aren't up to the snuff of his predecessor, Jason Newsted. He's also fun to watch, assuming almost animal-like predator poses at times and a curious, squatting crab-like pose at other moments. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammet has always been a little one dimensional for my liking, playing too many notes seemingly just because he can, with a tiring reliance on the wah-wah guitar effect pedal.
The band's stage setup for the Nimes concert is slightly altered from the normal one they've been traveling with, with an overhead lighting rig implementing coffin visuals (taken from the cover of Death Magnetic) absent. There also seems to be a noticeable lack of exploding pyro, normally a Metallica concert standard, but perhaps a concession to the historic nature of the venue. There are plenty of columns of flames that belch skyward intermittently, though.
A similar DVD release from a show in Mexico is tentatively set for release, as is an "official" DVD release (to be available worldwide) shot in Quebec City and Ottawa in late 2009. If, like me, you missed the band on their current tour then Francais Pour Une Nuit is a highly worthwhile substitute.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Killshot [movie review]

* Released theatrically in January; now on DVD
What a mess. Killshot, based on an Elmore Leonard novel, was shot in 2006 and underwent serious post-production work in an effort to produce something more satisfying than the trainwreck it was deemed to be by early test screening audiences. No dice. After collecting dust for an extended period, the film was meekly given a two week release in Arizona on five screens this past January, perhaps in an effort to steer clear of the stink a "straight to DVD" label would have for the film. Again, no dice.
The plot is threadbare and clumsily executed. A hitman for the Toronto mob, Armand "Blackbird" Degas (played by Mickey Rourke) pisses off his employers and makes the mistake of getting involved with a wannabe roughneck named Richie Nix (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Their partnership is explained by the fact Richie reminds Blackbird of his younger brother, but the credibility of the relationship is cast in doubt almost immediately. Blackbird is a seasoned criminal veteran, while Richie is a complete whackjob prone to unpredictable behavior that only calls attention to their nefarious deeds. As laid back and reserved as Rourke plays his character, Gordon-Levitt overacts wildly, to the point of annoyance. Methinks he picked up a few too many acting lessons from the always hammy John Lithgow during their years on TV's 3rd Rock From The Sun. Besides, Richie's extortion plan (that piques Blackbird's interest) is completely full of holes.
Caught up in the bumbling pair's plans via a case of mistaken identity are on-the-rocks married couple Carmen Colson (played by Diane Lane) and Wayne (played by Thomas Jane). The pair are placed in witness protection, which proves to be far from safe as Blackbird and Richie track them down with comical ease. Lane and Jane do as much as they can with their bland roles, with an inordinate amount of time spent on a throwaway subplot about them rekindling their relationship. Director John Madden somehow even manages to get Lane, a respected mature actress who surely is above such pandering to the puerile male audience, down to her panties and a tight white top that leaves little to the imagination for a couple of completely gratuitous scenes. Rosario Dawson has a small role as Richie's girlfriend - why she took it is beyond me. She may have a few more lines than the actress listed in the credits as "Barmaid", but the two roles share about the same amount of depth and relevance to the story.
Everything about Killshot says "troubled". The action is scarce, the tension is limp and the rough edges from the heavy editing are hard to miss. Johnny Knoxville originally had a role as a deputy, but is now nowhere to be seen after being relegated to the proverbial cutting room floor. And why else would a film starring Mickey Rourke, hot on the heels of serious Oscar buzz for The Wrestler, have been dumped in its own form of witness protection program, getting a limited theatrical release literally the day after Rourke was nominated in the Best Actor category? Even the studio knew this turd wasn't worth the effort of trying to piggyback on the success and high profile of actual quality film work.
Rating: ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame 25th Anniversary Concerts [television review]

* Currently airing on HBO and HBO Canada
On October 29th and 30th, New York City's Madison Square Garden hosted historic concerts to mark the 25th anniversary of The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame And Museum. Why, you might ask, did the concerts take place in NYC and not Cleveland, the actual home of the HOF? That probably has something to do with the fact the annual induction ceremony and dinner has always been held in the Big Apple, plus it sounds a wee bit more prestigious holding such an event at the hallowed Garden, as opposed to Cleveland's arena, which is saddled with one of the worst venue names in North America (Quicken Loans Arena). You've gotta love the advent of corporate naming rights.
HBO edited down the best moments (in their opinion) from both shows into a four hour program that presents a ridiculous abundance of music legends on one stage. As is the custom with special events like this that bring together such diverse talent, the results are very much hit and miss, but when they really hit it's a joy to watch and listen to.
After a brief introduction by Tom Hanks, a 74 year old Jerry Lee Lewis starts things off with a lively solo performance of "Great Balls Of Fire". At the song's conclusion, rock and roll's original badass kicks his piano stool over and then, for good measure, picks it up again and gives it a toss. The crowd eats it up.
Next up is Crosby, Stills and Nash, who I've never been a fan of. Their sleep-inducing set here only reinforces my opinion of them. Joining them at different points are James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne, who all similarly leave me reaching for the fast forward button on my PVR. Question: how the hell have Browne and Taylor managed to get their names included in the company of great 70's singer/songwriters? I've never gotten it. And has Browne's haircut changed since 1974?
Stevie Wonder is on next. I'm not much of a fan, although you can't help but respect a guy who's been doing what he has for so long (especially with the whole, you know, blind thing to deal with). Wonder does provide the night's first surprise for me, as his energetic set and phenomenal sounding band act as a highly effective antidote to the musical Ambien that preceded him. The highlight is a spot-on version of Smokey Robinson's "The Tracks Of My Tears", sung by Robinson himself. John Legend then takes the stage to accompany Wonder on a tribute to Michael Jackson with "The Way You Make Me Feel", which takes on added emotional depth as Wonder breaks down during one of the verses, unable to complete the words as he fights back tears. After a duet with B.B. King on "The Thrill Is Gone", Wonder brings out Sting for a smokin' version of "Higher Ground", with a healthy portion of The Police's "Roxanne" sandwiched in the middle (where a couple of times Wonder misses his "put on the red light" vocal parts). Jeff Beck gets a little wank happy during his guitar solo on "Superstitious", but it's still an exceptional performance of the song.
Paul Simon's portion of the broadcast starts with "You Can Call Me Al". Utter dreck, in my opinion, but it's worth watching if only to see the elfin, mid 60'ish Simon dancing absolutely horribly. Graham Nash and David Crosby join him for a version of "Here Comes The Sun" that I deem not worth my time because I don't care for any of these singers, plus Simon has now picked up an acoustic guitar and is longer dancing. Another duet with Dion on "The Wanderer" follows and then a cool acapella version of "Two People In The World" by 50's doo-wop group Little Anthony And The Imperials. Eventually, Art Garfunkel comes onstage, much to the crowd's delight. The pair deliver a haunting and sublime take on "The Sounds Of Silence", which I know is considered a classic, but I must admit I've never cared for (nor any of Simon & Garfunkel's music). I now look at the song completely differently. The rest of their set, including "Bridge Over Troubled Water", doesn't make a similar impression on me.
Aretha Franklin is next. Her voice still sounds amazing and Annie Lennox does well to keep up with her during their "Chain Of Fools" duet. True to form, Franklin played her diva card by threatening to pull out of the event unless some of her outrageous demands were met (the best of which was requesting that all ventilation in the arena be turned off a few hours before her performance).
Next, going about as far in the other musical direction from Aretha Franklin as possible, Metallica blows the crowd's face off with a tight "For Whom The Bell Tolls", save for a noticeably clumsy drum fill from Lars Ulrich early on in the song. Perhaps he was a little over-amped at either the upcoming guests about to join Metallica onstage, or just finally getting a chance to play on the same stage as U2, something he mentioned in recent years as probably the only goal left in his career to accomplish. The first of the guest vocalists to join the HOF's newest inductees is Lou Reed, who looks out of it, quite frankly. I've never subscribed to the "genius" label attached to him (that awful voice!) and his lacklustre effort on the ultra repetitive "Sweet Jane" bores. Ozzy Osbourne then joins the band for "Iron Man" and "Paranoid". His voice still sounds good and he's as manic a physical performer as ever, but he constantly resorts to the same annoying mid-song stage banter that he's been doing for decades now, screaming at the crowd to make more noise. Metallica lead singer/guitarist James Hetfield is clearly enjoying his experience playing with Osbourne, though. In one of the program's more surreal moments, as Ozzy walks offstage following his appearance, Bonnie Raitt is seen in the audience raising her arm and presumably throwing the devil horns (her hand is just out of frame...let's just assume she was). Ray Davies of The Kinks then appears and leads the band through what surely must be the heaviest version ever of his band's classic, "All Day And All Of The Night". A faithful version of "Enter Sandman" closes Metallica's set, although I could have done without the pandering to the New York crowd by showing video images of New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera on the screen behind them (Rivera takes to the mound in every home appearance while the song plays on the stadium's P.A.).
Night two headliners U2 hit the stage with an aggressive "Vertigo", with Bono hinting at an upcoming special guest by throwing a snippet of the Rolling Stones' "It's Only Rock 'N Roll (But I Like It)" into the song's ending. Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen later emerge from the stage wings, with the musicians turning in a powerful version of "Because The Night" (written by Springsteen and Smith). After Smith leaves, Springsteen duets with the band on "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, with additional piano accompaniment from E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan. It's a reprise of their performance from U2's induction in 2005 and, while it sounds great, it would have been nice to hear another U2 classic tackled. Springsteen exits and Bono introduces Will.I.Am and Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas. As a U2 fan, I hate the fact they sing the praises of this band, as I'm at a loss at the last time I saw such an out of whack ratio of talent to number of albums sold. U2 starts into the Stones' "Gimme Shelter", which immediately gives thought to "is Mick going to appear?". Yes, he does. Jagger comes strutting onstage, but even his presence can't save a weak version of the song. At Jagger's request, the song's guitar arrangement has been slightly altered, detrimentally so. And Fergie's off-key singing doesn't help. Aside from her butchering the song, one other thought comes to mind as I watch her slink around in her tiny dress: the only thing she's missing onstage is a stripper pole. Jagger hangs around and the musicians redeem themselves with a solid version of "Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of" (Jagger actually recorded background vocals for the studio version, which were never used).
Jeff Beck is up next (subbing in for an ailing Eric Clapton). Again, I'm not a fan, but he does a pretty good version of "People Get Ready", with Sting assuming the vocal role. I fast forwarded through most of his set (which includes appearances from Buddy Guy and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons), although I found myself fascinated by the presence of Beck's bass guitarist, who is female and looks to be in her teens. In fact, she is 23, her name is Tal Wilkenfeld and her resume is already scarily impressive.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band closed the concert on night one and they show up as the final act of the TV program. Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave fame) accompanies The Boss and a horn section with extra background singers playing with the E Street Band, churning out killer versions of his soul classics "Soul Man" and "Hold On I'm Comin'". The slight distance between Springsteen's music and his r & b influences is immediately bridged. Moore and Springsteen are obviously having a ball...Moore occasionally busts out some slick dance moves and sounds in fine voice, while Springsteen can't wipe the grin off his face, frequently breaking into a two step shuffle. Moore exits and Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine comes onstage for "The Ghost Of Tom Joad". He contributes vocals (such as they are) and guitar to the song, which goes on damn near forever. Morello displays some nice fret work and fancy moves, but by the time he does his record scratching effect you're asking yourself "uh, is Born To Run coming any time soon?". And really, HBO? You couldn't find a stronger song than "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" to broadcast?! John Fogerty arrives next, dueting on "Proud Mary" (good) and "Pretty Woman" (not so good). Springsteen's own "Jungleland" is next and it's as good a live version as I've ever heard of the epic song. At the song's subdued climax, lingering camera shots show a performer giving his heartfelt all to the performance, even if for the 5oooth time - veins bulge on his forehead and his shirt is drenched in perspiration, which also dramatically drips off his arms and fingers as he accentuates his words with arm gestures. The heavy intensity of "Jungleland" gives way to the feel-good spirit of "A Fine, Fine Boy" , with 60's r & b legend Darlene Love. Billy Joel follows, trading off verses with Springsteen on a boring "New York State Of Mind" and then "Born To Run". "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher" is the final song of the program, with all of Springsteen's guests (and a couple of others) returning to the stage for the traditional "everybody out for the last song" appearance. Normally, they're cheesy and unmemorable, but the group keeps its head above water with this one. Unfortunately, much of it isn't visible, as HBO ran credits and still shots from the concerts over the music.
All in all, HBO has compiled a worthwhile souvenir of these two memorable shows. Five hours from the two concerts were cut from the broadcast portion, which will inevitably see the light of day in a future DVD box set.
Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Them Crooked Vultures - Them Crooked Vultures [music review]

* Released in November
This is easily my most disappointing album release of 2009. As I wrote in my review of Chickenfoot's recent album, I should know by now to approach supergroups with a healthy amount of trepidation, given their dubious track records. Them Crooked Vultures is comprised of vocalist/guitarist Josh Homme (Queens Of The Stone Age, Kyuss and Eagles Of Death Metal), drummer Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters and Nirvana) and John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin). Those are some pretty impressive credentials, though I must admit I've never remotely been a fan of any of Homme's other bands. My hope was that the input of the other two thirds of the group would at least make Homme's contributions tolerable, an admittedly sizeable task given the fact he's doing lead vocals and guitars. Those hopes were immediately dashed, as Them Crooked Vultures sounds basically like just another awful Queens Of The Stone Age album, albeit with a kickass rhythm section.
The band had been an idea in Grohl's head back in 2005 and the group finally sorted out their schedules to record their debut this past summer. That Grohl managed to convince Jones to participate is miraculous, given Jones' preference since Zeppelin ended for producing and arranging other artists, while mostly shying away from other projects where he would be a full-fledged band member.
The album is an overlong, confused mishmash of noise and unfocused ideas that, frankly, I found virtually unlistenable until I had waded eleven songs deep. There, I found "Caligulove", which, in addition to being an excellent title, also initially stays away somewhat from the excesses and overly artistic reachings of its ten predecessors. Of course, everything is relative. The song still has multi-layered guitars, sound effects and xylophone (!) on it, but the arrangement succeeds until the song's final thirty seconds, where it spins off into a pointless cascade of noises accompanied by a plinking piano. Amazingly, the track is then followed up by what appears to be another keeper. "Gunman" is a groove-heavy dance number with funky bass, wah-wah guitars and some nice disco style offbeat high hat cymbal work from Grohl. I keep waiting for it to derail with a pompous, schizoid sidetrack into a minute long theremin solo or some such weirdness, but it thankfully never happens. Next is the song "Spinning In Daffodils" to close the album, which brings us right back to the dung heap we'd temporarily escaped from.
Homme's voice is an acquired taste and sixty six minutes of it (the length of this album) is more than enough for me. Even more of a challenge? The quirky arrangements that are all over the bloody place as far as tempo changes and mood. "Elephants" starts off with a cool, slow strutting attitude during the guitar and drum intro that sounds like a lost Zeppelin song (a good lost Zeppelin song)...then the tempo increases dramatically and I completely lose interest. The bulk of the material follows this formula, throwing in jarring time signature hiccups that almost dare the listener not to throw up their hands in anger.
Group? Yes. Super? Not even close.
Rating: ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆