Friday, February 26, 2010

Anvil! The Story Of Anvil [movie review]

* Released theatrically in April 2009; now on DVD
Michael Moore has called Anvil! The Story Of Anvil "the best documentary I've seen in years" and UK daily The Times lauded it with "possibly the greatest film yet made about rock and roll". Critics loved the movie, with showing an average critical rating of 8.2/10. MetaCritic users assigned it the same rating, while users gave it an average score of 98%. You get the idea. Mysteriously, despite the almost universal acclaim, it failed to be recognized recently for Oscar consideration.
If you've never heard of Anvil, you're certainly in the majority. I've been a devoted metalhead my whole life and despite the fact they're also from Toronto (I live in the city's suburbs) I could only name one of their songs - "Metal On Metal" from 1982. The band's failure to attain widescale fame is effectively established during the opening scene with shots taken from 1984's Japanese Super Rock Festival, where we're also informed that Anvil's partners on the bill (including Bon Jovi, The Scorpions, and Whitesnake) achieved huge success, while Anvil was relegated to obscurity. Testimonials from the likes of Metallica's Lars Ulrich, Anthrax's Scott Ian, former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash, and Motörhead's Lemmy all confirm Anvil's influence and impact on the speed metal movement, and all ask the same question: why didn't the group make it big?
Bad management, bad record deals, and plain old bad luck turn out to be the culprits, which is why we see Anvil founders Steve "Lips" Kudlow (lead vocals and guitar) and drummer Robb Reiner supplementing their rock careers by working day jobs they hate in the Toronto area - Kudlow delivers school meals and Reiner works construction. A tour of Eastern Europe is proposed to them by a fan who fancies herself a concert promoter and all manner of disasters ensue when the band accepts, such as missed train connections, getting lost on the way to a venue and then having to physically threaten the club owner to get paid, and underpromoted gigs that are sparsely attended (Anvil headlines the, ahem, prestigious Monsters Of Transylvania Rockfest and only 174 fans turn up in a venue that holds 10,000). Matters are complicated for the band when second guitarist Ivan Hurd becomes romantically involved with the aforementioned fan/promoter.
If any of this brings to mind a certain iconic 1984 mockumentary then you're on the right track - elements of Spinal Tap abound in this movie. There's also the band's cheesy album covers (most of which have an actual anvil prominently featured) and even a visit to Stonehenge. One of the principals even has the same bloody name as This Is Spinal Tap's director.
Redemption for the band is presented via a reconnection with a former producer, veteran Chris Tsangarides, who wants to produce their thirteenth album. Although the recording process is fraught with tension and arguments between Ludlow and Reiner, the finished product makes the band ecstatic. Not signed with a music label, we see the pair shopping This Is Thirteen to various companies, with one cringeworthy scene showing them meeting with an exec at EMI Canada, who gives the album about 20 seconds of ear time before turning it off and greasing their exit out of his office by telling them their longevity in the business "has currency" (does it get more record company weasel-sounding than that?). Another scene shows Ludlow in L.A. dropping off the CD in person to one label's security guard desk, another to the receptionist at the famed Capitol Records building. The fact that he's dressed like a teenager, wearing a hoody and baggy shorts, only strengthens the question anyone watching this film will ask themselves at one point: is this what a 50 year old man should be doing with his life?
And therein lies the heart of the movie - the passion Reiner and Ludlow have for their band and the reluctance to throw in the towel, well after most others would have. This resilience has taken its toll, both on themselves and their families. Interviews with the pair's wives show loyal partners whose love for their husband's dreams outweighs their own cynicism and impatience, but perhaps only marginally. Ludlow's enthusiasm for Anvil is endearing and infectious, and further complicated by the fact it's offset with a sobering wariness that only a 50 year old metal grunt whose band has endured it's fair share of bad fortune and misguided career decisions can possess.
The relationship between Reiner and Ludlow is fascinating to observe, with a love-hate dynamic that occasionally descends to a Davies/Robinson/Gallagher brothers level of fisticuffs. It may sound like a Bon Jovi lyric, but the pair met as 14 year olds and made a pact to conquer the music world together. They may not quite have seen a million faces and rocked 'em all, though...maybe more like a few hundred thousand? Reiner's fashion sense alone is pretty entertaining. He's always got something on his head (no doubt to cover up a bald spot atop his dome) and favours the wearing of some variation of cowboy boots, shirts unbuttoned down to his waist, an 80's style bullet belt, and a fanny pack. Nothing says metal more than a fanny pack, right?
The documentary was directed by first-timer Sacha Gervasi, who co-wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg's film The Terminal. Gervasi was actually a roadie for Anvil back in the 80's, so there's obviously a relationship there, but huge credit to him and the band for putting their friendship aside and bravely showing us all the ugly details of the ongoing struggles of a metal band still attempting to break big after 30+ years of missteps and rejection.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Soundtrack For A Revolution [movie review]

* Released theatrically in January; available on DVD March 4th
Soundtrack For A Revolution revisits the story of the American civil rights movement from the 50's and 60's, covering familiar territory, but adding the fresh element of having music from the era performed by mostly contemporary artists. One look at the roster of acts (notably Joss Stone, John Legend, The Roots, Angie Stone, and Wyclef Jean) immediately gave me reservations, as I'm not much of a fan of today's r & b music. I found most of the performances, however, to be entertaining and moving. The goal of directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman (who both won an Oscar in 2003 for their documentary short Twin Towers) was to use these acts as a gateway for a younger audience into learning about the story behind this important time in American history.
The musical performances, as strong as many of them are, end up taking a back seat to the compelling modern day interviews with the people who were directly involved, the "foot soldiers and leaders". Prominent figures such as Congressman John Lewis, Julian Bond, Ambassador Andrew Young, and Harry Belafonte all offer their recounts of the experiences they endured, covering significant periods and moments in the movement such as the lunch counter sit-ins, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus strike in Alabama, the southern freedom bus riders, the 1963 March On Washington, and the assassination and funeral of Martin Luther King. The interviews are intercut with still images and archival footage, some of it restored specifically for the film and every bit as disturbing and shocking today as the first time you saw it, providing a powerful, if somewhat less than in-depth summation of the time. The film clocks in at only 82 minutes and a healthy portion is used for the music, so only so much can be covered. Only a brief description of the background on some of the songs is given, so they're really given their own voice through the performances. The songs are mostly freedom songs that evolved from slave chants and the black church, providing a vital function in unifying the oppressed as they stood up to their oppressors. "Will The Circle Be Unbroken", "We Shall Not Be Moved", "Eyes On The Prize", "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around", and "We Shall Overcome" are just some of the numbers that are featured in the film.
The documentary, which was also executive produced by actor Danny Glover, ended up on the "shortlist" this year for documentary feature Oscar nominations (15 films are shortlisted and only five are selected for the official nomination). It didn't make the cut, which is a shame, as it's certainly worthy. Co-director Guttentag, who attended the screening I saw of the film last week at the monthly Doc Soup documentary series and, in addition to his aforementioned Oscar win has also won an additional Oscar, been nominated for three more, won a Peabody Award, and also won three Emmys, was disappointed, but said he's been very happy overall with the response to the movie. The crowd at the packed Bloor Cinema gave him a standing ovation at the film's conclusion, which my brother (who has seen numerous screenings at the Doc Soup series and Hot Docs festivals) tells me is very rare.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
View the Soundtrack For A Revolution trailer:

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Rob Zombie - Hellbilly Deluxe 2 [music review]

* Released on February 2nd
Making movies seems to be a little more of a priority these days for Rob Zombie, with Hellbilly Deluxe 2 (the actual full title is the long-winded Hellbilly Deluxe 2: Noble Jackals, Penny Dreadfuls And The Systematic Dehumanization Of Cool) being only his third studio album since 2001. In the meantime, he's written, directed, and produced five horror movies, including remakes of Halloween and its sequel, with another remake waiting in the wings (this time it's The Blob). Deluxe 2 was actually completed in late 2008, but post-production work on Halloween II pushed back the release date, with further delays holding things up until its release earlier this month. Zombie says that his fourth solo album may be the last physical CD release he puts out, dismissing the format as "dead".
Which is a nice segue (if I do say so myself) into one of Zombie's favourite topics. Going back to his time fronting previous band White Zombie, the subject of death has been the dominant theme in his lyrics and visual presentation, also supplemented by affinities for the undead, the supernatural, sci-fi, monsters, and other assorted creepy crawlies, usually presented with a cartoon-like, playful humour. 2006's Educated Horses maintained his lyrical focus on those topics, but he toned down the horror visual imagery for the first time, shelving his Halloween makeup and appearing as simply his normal self for promotional performances and the album cover. The release was his weakest since the first White Zombie album, suffering from more bad songs than good.
Deluxe 2 is, as they say, a return to form, with the album cover advertising the fact that he's back to the horror schtick and the much better collection of songs serving as a reminder that he still has some gas left in his tank, musically. I think you either love or hate Zombie's musical style - he's not really one of those artists who elicits an in-between reaction. His vocal style is a unique mix of screams, talking, yelling, and a some very unrefined singing. It's not pretty, but it works for him. One look at some of the song titles confirms that his fascination with the weird and macabre remains intact: "Jesus Frankenstein", "Mars Needs Women", "Virgin Witch", and not one, but two odes to the lycanthropic with "Werewolf, Baby" and "Werewolf Women Of The SS". His continued habit of using snippets of dialogue from cheesy old horror and science fiction movies has worn pretty thin at this point in his career, though.
The music is very much in the vein of Zombie's previous work, which is a whole lot of loud guitars and drums, and little subtlety. Guitarist John 5 may look absolutely ridiculous (and tailor made for Zombie's band), but his guitar work is always inventive and memorable, whether it's here or in his previous stints working with Rob Halford, Marilyn Manson, and David Lee Roth. On Deluxe 2, his unconventional style and impressive technical chops help to improve songs like "Werewolf, Baby", "Sick Bubblegum", "Cease To Exist", and "Burn" (love the brief homage to Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein" in the latter, too).
"Mars Needs Women" is probably the strongest song on the album and it also has one of the most ridiculous (in a good way) choruses I've heard in some time ("Mars needs women/Angry red women", which is then brilliantly repeated three more times). I would have nominated "The Man Who Laughs" for my favourite track, were it not for the completely out-of-left-field four minute drum solo sandwiched in the middle, which sounds like something straight off of KISS' Alive! album, complete with flange effects thrown in. Who the hell puts a four minute drum solo on a studio album anyway? Rob Zombie, that's who.
Highlights: "The Man Who Laughs", "Jesus Frankenstein", "Mars Needs Women", "Sick Bubblegum"
Lowlights: "What?", "Cease To Exist", "Werewolf Women Of The SS"
Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Informant! [movie review]

* Released theatrically in September 2009; available on DVD March 23rd
The Informant! is the latest film from director Steven Soderbergh and his name being attached to the project may be enough to keep most moviegoers away. Not unlike my criticism of director Roland Emmerich in my review of his latest movie, 2012, Soderbergh has an extremely shoddy track record with his directorial work since the turn of the century, although with much different (and significantly less commercial) material than that of Emmerich. Since 2001's entertaining Ocean's Eleven, the overrated filmmaker has given us Full Frontal, Solaris, Ocean's Twelve, Bubble, The Good German, Ocean's Thirteen, Che: Part One and Part Two, and The Girlfriend Experience. The only one on that list I never saw was Bubble (lucky me, I suspect) and the second part of Che (the first part, at a slow-as-molasses-in-January two hours and fifteen minutes, was more than enough for me). So by my count, that's about 14 wasted hours of my life I'll never get back, all at the hand of one man.
Actually, you can add another 108 minutes to that, which is how long The Informant! runs. It's supposed to be a dark comedy, but it's about as funny as The Insider, another corporate whistle blower film...that was about as serious as a drama gets. There is so much about this film to dislike, whether it's the supposedly clever exclamation point in the title (which wasn't in the book title of the same name written by Kurt Eichenwald, on which the film is based), the challenging narrative, the grating hipster 60's score from Marvin Hamlisch that more than fulfilled my yearly quota of xylophone and surf music, the lacklustre supporting performances (led by Scott Bakula as an FBI agent), or the unmemorable leading role played by Matt Damon.
Damon plays Mark Whitacre, the vice president of Illinois agricultural conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland, who blew the whistle on his company for their involvement in global food additive price-fixing with their competitors. Whitacre is an enigma whose irrational behaviour and warped thinking appear completely at odds with someone who had the ability to set himself apart from the pack and become a rising young executive star at one of the 50 largest U.S. corporations. Despite informing(!) on his co-workers (which also entangles himself in the price-fixing), he has delusions of grandeur that his role in exposing the corporate malfeasance will lead to a sizeable promotion. Then there's the fact that the FBI investigation uncovers a skeleton in Whitacre's closet that further displays his amazing lack of common sense for having not connected the potentially self-implicating dots between the two.
The changes to Damon's appearance for the role may seem drastic on paper (30 extra pounds of weight, hairpiece, cheesy moustache, and a prosthetic bulbous nose), but they're actually quite subtle and serve to enhance his performance as an unlikeable weasel. The key word there is "unlikeable", though, which makes it a huge challenge spending almost two hours in Whitacres's world of lies and deceit, as crafted by Soderbergh's pretentious hand that once again turns in yet another deadly dull film effort.
Rating: ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Don't You Forget About Me [movie review]

* Released on DVD in November 2009; also playing on TMN in Canada
Director/writer/producer John Hughes was one of the most successful filmmakers of the 80's and 90's before he grew tired of the Hollywood treadmill and basically dropped out of sight, granting very few interviews. His first four films as a director were (in order): Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Planes, Trains And Automobiles. Not a bad start. He directed eight films in total (all of which he wrote and produced), but his first love was writing - he put up with the headaches and pressure of a director only as a means to protect his written work. Pretty In Pink, as well as the Vacation and Home Alone movies were also all scripted by him. His most recent Hollywood work consists of old scripts he wrote under a pseudonym (Edmond Dantès), which were made into two bad films: 2002's Maid In Manhattan and 2008's Drillbit Taylor. Prior to that, the last two projects in which he was actively involved was as a producer on a little-seen 2001 drama called New Port South and as a writer-producer for a 1998 movie called Reach The Rock, which played in only three theatres and made less than $5,000 at the box office.
Don't You Forget About Me is a documentary that serves as a tribute to Hughes' work and also seeks to find out what happened to the man. We're introduced to the young Toronto filmmakers behind the film (director Matt Austin Sadowski, co-producer Lenny Panzer, producer Michael Facciolo, and producer Kari Holland) as they board a van for a Toronto to Chicago trip, Chicago being where Hughes lives and did much of his filming. Their hope is to get an interview with the reclusive filmmaking icon, which they realize is a highly unlikely goal, but one which they need to attempt. The trip is used as a framing device for the movie, structured around clips from Hughes' movies, interviews with directors (including Kevin Smith and Jason Reitman), film critics, testimonials from a younger generation about how his films have endured, and former Hughes co-workers and actors. Actors Judd Nelson, Andrew McCarthy, Alan Ruck, Ally Sheedy, and Kelly Lebrock all offer their insight on working with Hughes, with Nelson sharing a touching message for his former director: "I miss you very much. I'm tired of talking to you in my mind, I would like to talk to you in person". The film was completed when news came last August that Hughes had passed away from a heart attack.
The filmmakers drop the ball in a number of areas, rendering what should have been a movie dealing with a compelling topic into one that ultimately bores. First, they include far too much of themselves in it, which might have been a good idea if any of them were worthy of significant screen time - they are not. Facciolo, in particular, is extremely annoying. Secondly, they spend an inordinate amount of time showing clips from Hughes' films. Granted, examples of his work are essential for their movie, but not to the degree they use them here. Thirdly, there's way too many scenes with teenagers extolling the virtues of Hughes' movies and how they speak to their generation more than today's movies do. I must admit, I was initially quite fascinated that his work had resonated so much with today's youth. That feeling soon turned to boredom as yet another group of kids appears on screen, repeating the same sentiments we've already heard several times already. Finally, the outcome of the interview-seeking trip is so completely obvious early on (so obvious that my referring to it won't spoil anything) that what was supposed to inject the film with an element of intrigue and suspense instead just makes the filmmakers seem naive and a little desperate. As I mentioned, they had to try and make some contact with Hughes - they just made a bad decision to devote so much of the movie to what was obviously a fruitless task.
Don't You Forget About Me also feels somewhat amateurish. For example, a no-name online film critic is shown talking, with no caption explaining who he is. I counted a couple of times when interesting anecdotes by one of the interviewees was interrupted by yet another film clip, which only served to disrupt the flow of the film. And the movie poster (as you can see) is atrocious, possibly one of the worst I've ever seen. I was also amazed when I saw this move was only 74 minutes long - it felt much, much longer.
I personally don't subscribe to the theory that the man was the genius many (including literally everyone in this movie) make him out to be, that he "best captured the growing pains of adolescence", as one critic put it. This one is for diehard Hughes fans only.
Rating: ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Lady Antebellum - Need You Now [music review]

* Released in January
Prior to this writing and after giving approximately a half dozen listens to Need You Now, the sophomore release from Nashville country-pop trio Lady Antebellum, I was prepared to deliver a rating of six out of ten. Other than the title track, which is a knockout, most of the rest of the album felt merely adequate, with really only one stinker ("Our Kind Of Love") in the bunch. Upon further consideration, however, and going through a careful song-by-song review, a middling score like that does a disservice to the album's merits.
Interestingly, "adequate" (or perhaps, more accurately, it was "serviceable") was one of the adjectives that both my friend and I used to describe their performance when we saw them open for Keith Urban back in October, which was my first exposure to the group. I remember saying to her that based on what I had seen from them I probably wasn't going to rush out to pick up their album. Shortly after, I came across a (*ahem*) less than legal download link for it and decided to give them another shot. I'm glad I did. Their self-titled debut is far from great, but it showed definite promise, with four of the eleven tracks more than strong enough to warrant regular iTunes rotation amongst a crowded field of other new music sitting on my Mac. The arc of success for the 2008 release has been a most unconventional one - a few weeks back it achieved its best sales week ever (45,000 copies sold) after an incredible 83 weeks on the Billboard Country Albums chart. Total sales now sit at just south of 1.5 million, a highly impressive number in an ailing music business and also for a brand new country act.
The late surge in its predecessor's commercial success can be directly attributed to the massive success of Need You Now's title track, which was released as a single way back in August, a full four and a half months before the album dropped, which is virtually unheard of in the music industry. I couldn't find any mention online of album delays, so I'm assuming this was just their music label's twisted marketing strategy. Capitol Nashville must have had a pretty strong idea of the crossover appeal of "Need You Now", which topped the iTunes downloads charts (for all music genres) in November and achieved the extremely rare feat of a country act cracking the top five on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart (which, again, is for all genres). Aside from increasing further interest in their debut it also built up huge buzz and anticipation for the new release, which debuted last week at number one with almost 500,000 copies sold. That number makes it the biggest country debut since Taylor Swift's 2008 Fearless juggernaut and the biggest January release of any kind since 2005.
"Lady A", as their fans refer to them, is made up of Hillary Scott and Charles Kelly on lead vocals, and multi-instrumentalist Dave Haywood. Their sound is a slick, polished blend of pop harmonies, commercial rock, and country influences. Although the band is commonly labeled as a country act, really, they're more closely aligned to the pop genre, with country elements such as fiddle, banjo, and mandolin occasionally making their way in to the mix. Only one of the eleven tracks on Need You Now (the catchy "Something 'Bout A Woman") feels like a true country song and even that one has a foot firmly planted in the 70's light rock sound of The Eagles. The album is carefully constructed to give Scott and Kelley an equal amount of singing time: four tracks see them trading off on the lead vocal lines, Scott takes lead on three tracks, and Kelley assumes lead on four songs, with each regularly providing well-delivered harmony vocals (that are a little lower in the sound mix) when it's the other's turn in the vocal spotlight. Kelly's smooth baritone is a superior instrument to Scott's occasionally thin and generic voice, but the two undoubtedly compliment each other, especially on that standout title track. The co-ed dynamic enhances the effectiveness of the lyrics, adding an element of back and forth dialogue between the two that elevates the song about drunken early morning pinings for an ex lover to a higher emotional level. Musically, its strength lies in the track's almost blatant simplicity, especially making great use of a simple four note piano line.
Nothing else on the album comes even close to matching that song's quality, but then one also gets the impression "Need You Now" is a once-in-a-career type of song, both in terms of songwriting and musical execution. Getting back to me revising my opinion about the rest of the album, most of the other songs reveal their charms with repeat listens, particularly the ballads "When You Got A Good Thing" and "Hello World", as well as second single "American Honey". Initially, I had a really hard time wrapping my head around the latter, tripped up by it's awkward lyrics that employ the use of, well, American honey as a nostalgic metaphor for youthful innocence. Even after a few more listens I still don't think the words work very well, especially when the metaphor takes an even further strange turn by attaching itself to a gender ("Gone for so long now/I gotta get back to her somehow/To American honey"), but the musical arrangement is very well done. "Stars Tonight" is the most rock-oriented song, using a basic structure involving two guitar chords with the distortion on the guitars set to about as palatable a level as possible, while still being able to qualify as a rock tune. The track was clearly written with the stage in mind, what with its party-themed lyrics, "hey!" shouts, and a chorus that's been tailor made for audience participation ("Everybody screaming out 'yeah, yeah, yeah'/And everybody singing out 'yeah, yeah, yeah'/Get on your feet if it feels good, it feels right/Cuz we're all stars tonight").
One doesn't foresee Lady Antebellum being a group that will take a lot of artistic risks in their career. Let's face it, they're highly commercial and about as edgy as a dull butter knife. But this type of music obviously has its place and Lady A have quickly established themselves as one of the finer acts doing it. "Need You Now" is likely as good a pop-country song as you'll ever hear.
Not unlike the "American Honey" lyrics, their name does bother me, though. It's certainly not catchy and, as far as I can tell, it doesn't really make sense. "Antebellum" means "before the war", specifically referring to the U.S. Civil War. Although there's a female member in the group, the "Lady" part still just doesn't compute. It could be worse, I least they didn't decide on something completely ridiculous like "Rascal Flatts".
Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆