Thursday, October 28, 2010

Iron Man 2 [movie review]

* Released theatrically in May; now on DVD and Blu-Ray
Do one of these superhero franchises up right and it's a license to print money. Take a gander at these numbers for Iron Man 2: its Canadian and American theatrical gross was $312 million, foreign gross was $309 million, and earlier this month it sold an estimated 1.1 million DVD's and Blu-Ray's in its first day (with that number growing to over 5 million units sold by the end of the first week it was on sale). That kind of coin certainly softens the blow of the movie's estimated $200 million budget and hefty marketing costs.
Directed once again by Jon Favreau (who has a small role in the film), Iron Man 2 picks up where its 2008 blockbuster predecessor left off, except this time around the filmmakers forgot to include the fun that made the first one such a standout. As our memories are refreshed of the revelation by playboy industrialist Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) that he is Iron Man, we're introduced to Ivan Vanko, a Russian physicist with a major axe to grind against the Stark family. Vanko is played by Mickey Rourke at his scuzziest, with greasy multi-coloured hair, head-to-toe tattoos, gold teeth, and a bad Russian accent. Fast forward six months and Stark, now drunk with power due to Iron Man's success in stabilizing the unrest in the world, is given a rude awakening at the Monaco Grand Prix by a (metaphorically) reborn Vanko, aka Whiplash. The scene turns out to be the highlight in a movie that is disappointingly bereft of them.
Screenwriter Justin Theroux inserts too many subplots and characters into his script, a flawed strategy that movies based on comic book characters sometimes make. Honouring the source material and being thorough are one thing, but cramming many issues of storytelling into two hours is a tricky balance. In fact, one need only look at that jam-packed movie poster for the first signs of the overload in store. The central plot has the narcissistic Stark struggling to overcome complications from the source of his power: the reactor implanted in his chest. Sandwiched around that are numerous other storylines, including the one with Vanko that also incorporates Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer. An industrialist rival of Stark's who matches him on the ego level, but trumps him in the douchebag department, Rockwell plays his character to the hilt. Also fighting for screen time are a wasted Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark's Girl Friday (and maybe something more), Don Cheadle as Stark's buddy Lt. Col. Jim Rhodes/aka War Machine (replacing Iron Man's Terrence Howard), who commandeers an extra Iron Man suit and kits it out with a major weapons upgrade, Garry Shandling as a U.S. senator determined to have Stark Industries' research data handed over so the military can exploit its benefits, and Scarlett Johansson (eye candy personified) and Samuel L. Jackson as members of espionage and law-enforcement agency S.H.I.E.L.D.
My two other major complaints: Downey's eccentric charm from the original movie gives way to annoying smugness in the sequel, and the CGI falls short, which is a major problem for a movie that relies on it so much (especially during the anti-climatic, drawn-out conclusion). I found myself bored for long stretches watching this film, occasionally wondering if somehow Michael Bay, the king of empty, overly-commercial, tentpole franchise movies had slipped his greasy fingers on the controls. A third Iron Man movie is a lock - here's hoping the filmmakers take a bit more time and care than they did with this outing.
Rating: ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Super [movie review]

Super joins a recently born niche genre dedicated to sending up superhero movies, with a common theme being the protagonists not actually possessing any superpowers. Last year's festival saw the premiere of Woody Harrelson's Defendor (which was extremely disappointing) and earlier this year came the terrific Kick-Ass. Super was already well into development before those films came out and though fatigue hasn't set in quite yet on this type of movie, there's an air of "sucking hind tit" accompanying it, especially when Kick-Ass has set the bar so high. To compare the two is perhaps unfair, but certainly obvious.
The film stars Rainn Wilson (from TV's The Office), whose acting range appears limited to recycling his weird guy persona from role to role. Here, he plays Frank, an invisible-to-society loser working as a short-order cook who recently had his wife (played by...Liv Tyler?!) run off with a drug dealer named Jacques. Said drug dealer is played by Kevin Bacon, in a performance so utterly one-dimensional you'd accuse him of just doing the movie for the paycheque if you weren't aware that Super was an indie film with a miniscule estimated budget of only $2 million. Neither Bacon nor Tyler have anything remotely substantial to work with in their characters, with the latter barely even registering in her role, which is admittedly limited. Super is essentially a revenge story, as Frank seeks to reclaim his woman and exact retribution on Jacques. Aiding Frank in his endeavour is his newly created alter-ego, The Crimson Bolt, who has no special powers and uses a pipe wrench to bludgeon criminals or anyone who crosses him, even if it's just a couple who line cut in front of him at the movies. Along the way, Frank picks up a sidekick named Boltie (played by Ellen Page). Page is one of the few redeeming things in the movie, bringing a liveliness to her role as the adventure-seeking, violence-prone Libby (her character's real name) that at least takes some of the dullness off the finished product. Even she wears out her welcome eventually, though, mostly because her over-enthusiastic personality begins to feel somewhat grating.
Kick-Ass was loaded with clever humour, shocking language, and over-the-top violence...Super pushes even further in the brutality department, has its share of off-colour dialogue, but misses the mark virtually time after time in the joke department, although you wouldn't know it from the inexplicably frequent laughter around me at this screening. The comedy in this film is reduced to these levels, just as a couple of examples: Frank mistakenly thinks that "Jacques" is spelled "Jock" and his motto is "Shut up, crime!". Genius.
Aside from the humour problems, there's too much in Super that doesn't add up. It wears its off-kilter sensibilities on its sleeve, but that still doesn't excuse the plot holes and twisted logic: Frank's marriage to Liv Tyler's character is too farfetched (despite the script's efforts to deliver some exposition on their relationship), the city's embracement of the vigilante crime fighting duo makes no sense, and the level of violence which The Crimson Bolt and Boltie mete out on anyone they believe warrants it is always hugely disproportionate to the actual crimes committed.
IFC Films purchased the distribution rights to Super at the festival, so it should be coming to a theatre near you soon (I'm guessing it'll see a limited release). Watch it at your own peril, however...the best thing I can say about it is the animated opening title sequence was pretty good.
Rating: ★★★☆☆☆☆☆

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Black Label Society - Order Of The Black [music review]

* Released in August
Order Of The Black is Black Label Society's eleventh release since their debut, Sonic Brew, was released in Japan in 1998 (followed by the rest of the world the next year). That output consists of eight studio albums, two compilations, and one live release. One need not be a math whiz to quickly figure out that that's pretty much one album a year, which is almost unheard of in the modern music era. On top of that, BLS leader Zakk Wylde was also maintaining a busy career as the guitarist and co-songwriter with the man who discovered him, Ozzy Osbourne. Osbourne may have only put out two albums during that period (the disappointing Down To Earth and Black Rain), but he toured regularly with his Ozzfest festival.
In 2009, Osbourne announced he'd be looking for a new guitarist, citing the main reason as a concern that his own music was starting to sound too much like that of Wylde's band. The departure was poorly handled by Osbourne, whose Swiss cheese brain apparently failed to compute that he should have communicated directly with Wylde about it instead of doing so through the media. Wylde also experienced a couple of major losses in his life over the past year or so: the death of his father and the death of his drinking life. A notorious boozer, Wylde started experiencing blood clots, with the only remedy being to quit consuming alcohol. Despite his recent obstacles, he remains amazingly positive about life, as evidenced by a recent candid (and typically profane) interview he did with Sun Media here. And the exit from Ozzy's band seems to have benefited both camps: Scream, Osbourne's latest album with new guitarist Gus G., is his best in years and Order Of The Black is hands down the finest album BLS has released to date.
Album opener "Crazy Horse" puts an immediate exclamation point on the band's return to form. Meaty detuned guitars drenched in a flange effect lay down the song's groove, with an occasional harmonic squeal (one of the signatures of Wylde's guitar playing) thrown in from time to time. The gonad rattling rhythm section makes its presence well known as well, with some excellent drum work here and on the rest of the album from new drummer Will Hunt (formerly of Evanescence). Wylde's raw, yet tuneful, vocal style makes up the other half of his double threat status, with a great "Iiiiiiii am!" yell during the song's chorus. A shredding solo plays out over a rhythm guitar part that cleverly throws in traces of the main riff from Black Sabbath's "Paranoid". "Overlord" follows, transitioning from a stoned-out intro to more servings of tasty meat and potatoes metal (and the amusing ragtime-style vocal outro is a cool touch). "Parade Of The Dead" kicks up the album's tempo a notch, representing possibly the best track Wylde's ever been associated with (including his Ozzy career). It's a track that demands volume (and lots of it) and you could do no better than this song in introducing a curious outsider to what best represents the band's sound. The rest of Order Of The Black's heavy tracks ("Black Sunday", "Southern Dissolution", "Godspeed Hellbound", "War Of Heaven", and "Riders Of The Damned") maintain a highly impressive level of quality. As the titles suggest, the lyrical content on these songs isn't exactly what you'd call "sunny".
It wouldn't be a Wylde album without a healthy portion of ballads, usually of the piano-laden variety. This is one aspect of the musician I've always been somewhat fascinated by, the bizarre duality of his musical side that is weighted mostly towards testosterone-fuelled metal that sees him perform live with a microphone stand adorned with a half dozen skulls on it (the Tap lives!), but rounded out by a curiously sensitive guy who isn't too much of a he-man to cite Elton John as an influence. The dichotomy is made that much more baffling when you look at the man's personality (best described, probably even by Wylde himself, as coarse white trash) and look, which has evolved (some might say devolved) over the years into something now resembling a Viking weightlifter biker. Nevertheless, there's some beautifully restrained work here on "Darkest Days", "Time Waits For No One" (better than the cliché title and lyrics would suggest), and especially "Shallow Grave", a great power ballad that manages to create gripping quiet-loud dynamic shifts without using any electric guitars on the track. Bonus tracks offered on a version of the album sold at Best Buy have Wylde performing solid stripped down versions of Black Sabbath's "Junior's Eyes" and Neil Young's "Helpless" (unaware it was a Young cover, I was thrown when I heard the opening line of the song: "There is a town in north Ontario..."). The only real dud on the album is "Chupacabra", a brief classical guitar instrumental shredathon. It's technically impressive, but will fail to have most listeners do anything but skip the track on subsequent listens to the album.
The four year gap since their last effort, Shot To Hell, definitely appears to have recharged Wylde's creative juices, and I'm guessing the turmoil in his life only added some fuel to the fire. My main criticism of BLS, if their previous few studio albums were any indication, has been that there tended to be a sameness to their sound that only grew more stale as the band took up residence in a Prince-like "quantity over quality" output territory. The BLS formula hasn't really been altered this time around, with Wylde providing a steady diet of punishing riffs, strong metal 101 vocals, and brief respites from the sonic onslaught with some ballads. As much as I try to deconstruct the songs to find out what it is about this batch that has me returning again and again, I can't come up with an answer. It doesn't feel all that different...they just have that mysterious "it" quality that makes Order Of The Black stand out as the best metal album I've heard this year.
Highlights: "Southern Dissolution", "Parade Of The Dead", "Shallow Grave", "Crazy Horse", "Godspeed Hellbound"
Lowlights: "Chupacabra"
Rating: ★★★★★
* Wylde plans to bring BLS back into the studio in the next couple of months, after tour commitments, to record an acoustic/unplugged version of the entire Order Of The Black album. It should see a release early in 2011.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Trigger [movie review]

Trigger is the latest film from Canadian director Bruce McDonald, no stranger to helming movies set amidst a music-themed backdrop. He directs a screenplay by Daniel MacIvor that explores one night in the life of a relationship between former bandmates and childhood friends Vic (played by Tracy Wright) and Kat (played by Molly Parker). The duo were the frontwomen for a successful Toronto 90's alt-rock band named Trigger, until egos and substance abuse led to the fracture of both the group and their friendship. Vic and Kat are brought together a decade after Trigger's end, meeting for dinner prior to an awards ceremony that includes a tribute to the band's legacy.
McDonald drew inspiration from the movie My Dinner With Andre, most noticeably in the opening restaurant scene, and Trigger's focus (like the 1981 film) rarely strays from its two principals. Early on in the creative process, McDonald had intended for this project to be a sequel to his 1996 film Hard Core Logo, but the busy television careers of that film's lead actors, Hugh Dillon and Callum Keith Rennie, proved to be overly problematic.
Parker and Wright have great chemistry and deliver excellent performances, with sparks occasionally flying as their characters suss each other out, reopen old wounds, pore over their tumultuous relationship and reinvented post-Trigger lives, and reconnect broken ties (a lengthy monologue where the camera stays close-up on Wright's face is a particular highlight). Be forewarned, though: Trigger is extremely talk-heavy and its languid pace makes it feel much longer than its slim 78 minute running time. I was also surprised at occasional lapses in authenticity during the movie's few live music scenes, particularly considering McDonald's pedigree in this genre. Kat plays bass, which, in conjunction with Parker's physical similarities to her, brings to mind Melissa Auf der Maur (formerly of Hole and Smashing Pumpkins and now a solo artist). Parker's bass mimicking isn't terribly convincing, unfortunately, which detracts somewhat from the legitimacy of the proceedings.
Trigger garnered strong notices from festival-goers and critics alike, also being deemed worthy enough to be the film that was picked for the premiere screening at the fancy new TIFF Bell Lightbox facility. The most focused-on aspect of it centres around a sad storyline, however: Wright passed away in June from pancreatic cancer shortly after filming was completed. The Toronto theatre and indie film veteran knew she had terminal cancer when she took on the project, which had its production schedule significantly pushed up to accommodate Wright's illness and was shot on four consecutive weekends in the spring. There are several instances in the film where her character refers to death and mortality, which makes for some uncomfortable viewing. Wright's strong performance, especially considering her grave health issues, manage to elevate Trigger from "skip it" to "worth a watch" level.
Rating: ★★★★★

Friday, October 1, 2010

The High Cost Of Living [movie review]

The High Cost Of Living received its world premiere at the September 15th Toronto International Film Festival screening and lead actor Zach Braff (best known as the star of television's Scrubs) was in attendance, along with French Canadian female lead Isabelle Blais, and director Deborah Chow (who also wrote the screenplay for the film, which is her first feature). Braff sat just across the aisle from me, about ten feet away, so I was hoping to glean some interesting insight from watching an actor view one of their performances for the first time onscreen (the finishing touches had just been put on the movie in the last couple of weeks). The actor played it cool throughout, however, with legs crossed and sticking out in the aisle. The audience's polite but unenthusiastic applause at the film's conclusion only reinforced what Braff must have been thinking as he watched the movie unfold: it was a noble effort with some good performances, but certainly isn't destined to be a standout piece of work on his resume.
Braff plays Henry, a Montreal-based low-rent pharmaceutical drug peddler. Our introduction to Henry through an opening montage reveals that he keeps bad company (is there any other kind for a drug dealer?) and likes to party, which leads to an accident one night where Henry hits a woman who is eight months pregnant with his car and then leaves the scene in a panic. The woman, Nathalie (played by Blais), loses the baby and her emotional trauma as she struggles to accept the loss is compounded by a temporary inability to undergo surgery to deliver the stillborn child, due to the injuries she herself suffered. It's a clever (and cruel) plot point, making Nathalie literally carry around her expired, tragic burden, and Blais uses it to great effect. Henry, mortified at his actions, insinuates his way into Nathalie's life, a feat made easier by Nathalie's marital difficulties with a workaholic, distant husband. Henry's motivations are rooted in pure guilt, but he soon finds himself developing true feelings for his unwitting victim. Unfortunately, the pair's relationship, which forms the main basis of the movie, strains credulity. The uninspired ending only adds to the film's overall disappointing results.
Looking to the positives, the two leads deliver fine performances, particularly Blais. Braff, who was looking for a rough-around-the-edges, unsympathetic character to play, proves he can tackle such a role, and his name on the project will garner it a little more attention than a Canadian low budget indie, set in Montreal, with a fair amount of French subtitles, would have otherwise received.
* TIFF's Skyy Vodka Award for Best Canadian First Feature Film was presented to Chow for The High Cost Of Living, which includes a $15,000 prize. When she accepted the award, the director announced she would not be returning to her job at Starbucks.
Rating: ★★★★★