Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Super 8 [film review]

Released theatrically in June; released on DVD and Blu-ray today
I do not worship at the altar of J.J. Abrams. His talent and ambition, which have earned him a loyal and hardcore fan base, are hard to dismiss (he's a writer, director, producer, actor, and even composes, for God's sake), but I've just never been able to latch on to most of his previous work, save for the movie Cloverfield (which he produced) and TV's Lost (which he co-created), and I never made it past that show's first season after growing weary of too many nonsensical story lines. Other notable TV projects he's created or co-created are Alias, Felicity, the currently running Fringe, and he's a producer on Person Of Interest, also currently airing. Film-wise, other than Cloverfield, he directed the underwhelming third instalment in the Mission: Impossible franchise and the recent Star Trek reboot, which was supposed to be entertaining enough to appeal even to non-Trekkies, such as myself. Frankly, it bored me to tears. Super 8, which Abrams wrote and directed, finds him teaming up with producer Steven Spielberg, who actually hired a teenage Abrams to restore and organize the collection of Super 8 films Spielberg shot as a youth, based on the 8 mm filmmaking skills that Abrams himself had demonstrated and somehow gotten the film mogul to take notice of.
Super 8's plot: in the summer of 1979, a group of six kids who reside in a fictional Ohio steel town are shooting a zombie-themed amateur movie and find themselves inserted into a whirlwind of events that begins with a violent train derailment at one of their filming locations. Other key elements in Super 8's story include an extraterrestrial, kids from unhappy homes, budding teen romance, and a heavy-handed military force. Sound familiar? Aside from the producing credit, Spielberg's fingerprints and influence are all over this movie, which is unmistakably a tip of the hat to some of the director's late 70's and early 80's work, like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, E.T., Gremlins, and The Goonies (as well as non-Spielberg youth-oriented movies from that era, such as Stand By Me). I felt somewhat conflicted after watching this film as I asked myself the question: at what point does a movie cross the line from being an homage to a shameless ripoff? Super 8 would seem to have its feet straddling both territories, but the ride is still fun.
The strongest aspect of the movie are the excellent performances delivered by just about the entire cast, especially the central character of Joe, as played by 14-year-old newcomer Joel Courtney. Another standout is Elle Fanning as Alice, the only female member in the group of five boys and the object of Joe's affection. The last thing I'd seen her in was Soffia Coppola's dreadfully dull Somewhere, where she acquitted herself fairly well with the thin material she had to draw from. Courtney and Fanning have great chemistry and are the emotional anchor in a film that has loads of heart, which is Super 8's second best quality. Much of the source of that emotion comes from the plot point that finds Joe having his mother die in an industrial accident, leaving his father (a solid Kyle Chandler from television's Friday Night Lights) a broken shell and at a loss with how to connect with his son in their time of grief. The movie's opening scene is one of its best: it simply shows a worker changing the "Days since last accident:" sign at the factory where Joe's mom worked from "784" back to "1", but it's beautifully shot and has a restrained tastefulness to it (aided by Michael Giacchino's subdued score) that stood out to me more than any other scene in a film that uses a moderate amount of CGI, most notably during that spectacular train derailment scene.
Just as Abrams can please on a visual level, though, he can also make his fair share of missteps. There are a ludicrous number of shots in this movie that have a lens flare effect, which apparently is one of Abrams' calling cards. I wasn't aware of this fact until after I had watched the movie and was wondering if something was wrong with my TV. Some other negatives: Abrams plays a little too coy for my liking in revealing the unremarkable alien presence, which feels like a retread of the approach taken with the monster in Cloverfield, which, in turn, is the approach Spielberg took with the shark in Jaws. It was a lot fresher back in 1975. Also, some of the plot details at the end of the movie that work out just a little too conveniently feel lazily written, which is a criticism I would also aim at a few lines of uninspired dialogue that nod to the oncoming technical revolution (a gas station clerk rocking a clunky new Sony Walkman elicits a "it's a slippery slope" comment from a curious customer).
Having come of age during the "golden era" of kid's adventure movies that Super 8 pays tribute to, I had higher expectations that the movie can't quite fulfill. Still, you could find a lot worse ways to spend a couple of your leisure hours than taking in this enjoyable lark.
Rating: ★★★★

Friday, November 11, 2011

Metallica and Lou Reed album tanks...

As a follow-up to my review of Metallica and Lou Reed's Lulu album, first week sales figures for the release are in and it is not pretty. As predicted, this is Metallica's worst first week of sales for an album ever, with just 13,000 (!) copies sold in the U.S. By comparison, their previous release (2008's Death Magnetic) sold just under 500,000 copies in a shortened sales window. Albums are normally released on Tuesdays with their first week of sales tracked through to the end of Sunday, but Death Magnetic received a special Friday release and only had three days to compile those numbers.
To see what kept music fans away in droves, check out the trailer for Lulu:

Monday, November 7, 2011

Metallica and Lou Reed - Lulu [album review]

Released November 1st
Oh my. And Metallica fans thought St. Anger was bad.
When the news broke back in June that Metallica and Lou Reed were collaborating on a project, fans of both artists (or anyone who'd read the story, for that matter) scratched their heads. True, the pair had graced the same stage before, in October of 2009 at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame 25th anniversary concerts in New York, but this was a full-on album project, sparked when Reed asked the metal legends if they were interested in working together again in the future. After completing their extensive tour in support of 2008's stellar Death Magnetic album, Metallica contacted Reed to see what he had in mind. Originally, Reed suggested working together on re-recording some of his more obscure songs, a plan that was nixed at the last minute in favour of taking on another project he had in the works. That project was a concept album titled Lulu, which is based on the plays Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box from the early 1900's by German Expressionist writer Frank Wedekind. Collectively known as The Lulu Plays, their stories revolve around a troubled woman and her sexually charged relationships in various European cities. The subject matter is bleak and violent, and the plays' scandalous content caused much uproar and were banned when first unveiled to the public. The pairing of the two artists was enough of an oddball; throw the typically Reed-ish avant-garde nature of the source material in there as well and you have the potential for a trainwreck of mega-clusterfuckian proportions. And Lulu is just that.
Full disclosure: I am not a Reed fan whatsoever. I respect his influence and impact on some of my favourite artists, like U2, David Bowie, and (apparently) Metallica, but I have no use for his tone deaf vocals and grumpy personality. And let's not forget that this is a man who thought releasing his Metal Machine Music album, which contains nothing but 60+ minutes of guitar feedback and noise, was a good idea. So going into Lulu, I was not optimistic. My fears were confirmed immediately when I looked at some of the track running times (two of the ten tracks ran over eight minutes, two were over eleven minutes, and the awfully titled album closer, "Junior Dad", clocked in at just under twenty minutes) and also when I'd heard the first half minute of Lulu's opening track, "Brandenburg Gate". Following a lone acoustic guitar intro, Reed's first lines, sung in that signature horrid monotone of his, are "I would cut my legs and tits off when I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski, in the dark of the moon". Cue my eyebrows being raised, followed by a perpetually furrowed brow as I spent the next 90 excruciating minutes slogging through the rest of the album. "Challenging" doesn't even begin to describe it. Although Lulu improved just ever so marginally on the second listen (bringing it up to the level of merely "atrocious" from "excruciating"), that first go 'round was easily the most torturous first-listening experience I've ever encountered with an album. And that's really saying something, since Metallica is my second favourite band and, as a lifelong diehard music fan now into his 40's, that's a pretty wide sampling range from which to draw from.
Metallica's backing music isn't a great departure from their normal sound and they frequently bring some fine riffs and quality metal to the table, although much of it is repeated ad nauseum. That repetition becomes a real problem when many of the tracks are so long and drawn out. The aptly titled "Frustration" finds Metallica laying down a decent groove that's broken up with an artsy fartsy interlude featuring drummer Lars Ulrich adding off-tempo percussion fills and Reed spouting choice lines like these:
"I feel the pain creep up my leg/Blood runs from my nose/I puke my guts out at your feet/You're more man than I/To be dead, to have no feeling/To be dry and spermless like a girl/I want so much to hurt you (x 3)/Marry me/I want you as my wife"
"Cheat On Me" starts with a self-indulgent instrumental intro that goes on for three minutes and also features some of the few vocal lines delivered by Metallica vocalist James Hetfield on the album. Reed's tone deafness must be contagious, because Hetfield's repetitive delivery of the "why do I cheat on me?" line is, as they say, a little pitchy. Hetfield's vocals on Lulu are almost all of the background variety, save for a handful of lead lines on "The View" (try not to snicker as he yells "I am the table!"). "Dragon" and "Mistress Dread" both show flashes of signature Metallica, but once again can't fight their way past Reed's buzzkill vocals and the repetitive musical arrangements (I'm getting awfully repetitive in my criticism of the repetition on this album). The worst culprit of the latter on Lulu is the simplistic "Iced Honey", which sounds positively Ramones-like in its welcome brevity at just four-and-a-half minutes, compared to the rest of the songs. "Little Dog", the album's most sparely arranged song, is an eight minute dirge of plodding, directionless mood music. The bloated album closer "Junior Dad" sounds spent way before it even hits the four minute mark, which wouldn't be so bad if there weren't another fifteen minutes to go until the song's and album's merciful end. Oh, and I'd be remiss if I didn't add that most of the back half of the running time on this track is made up of nothing more than an instrumental soundscape of strings, keyboards, atonal droning, and other murky aspects of Reed's weirdness. It all adds up to this album being a veritable shit sandwich for the ears.
Make no mistake with Lulu: Reed is definitely steering this ship. The pair collaborated on most of the music, but Reed handles the bulk of the vocal duties and brought completed lyrics to the project. In the end, Metallica's contributions really don't matter much because Reed's warbling torpedoes any chance of these songs being remotely listenable, unless you're a fan of his (my sympathies). Reed's vocals are more spoken word than actual singing, but there are moments where he does appear to be trying to carry a tune and inserting a noticeable vibrato into his delivery. To my ears, however, it would seem that he's actually trying to be deliberately bad. I mean, can anybody actually be this off pitch? If it is a conscious decision on Reed's part, then that's an artistic decision I simply can't wrap my head around. In what has to be the most astounding quote I've read all year, Reed told The New York Times in this interview last week, "I've never sung so good". Wow.
So Reed's track record of creating polarizing music is well-documented. What to make of Metallica's decision to throw their fans such a curveball? Having followed their career very closely since 1988, I've read and seen enough to say that I think Metallica, moreso than most other groups I've followed, seem to have a disproportionately high number of followers who are not what I would exactly call "open-minded". Many of them freaked out when acoustic guitars appeared on 1984's Ride The Lightning, and mass hysteria and dissension greeted the release of 1991's self-titled "Black Album" due to the shift away from speed metal (never mind that the songs were still heavy as hell and the production was miles better). The alienation and handwringing continued with everything else they've released in the past two decades, whether it was good (Death Magnetic) or bad (2003's admittedly inferior St. Anger), so this is a band that simply can't please the masses any more with any one release. Clearly, the group did Lulu for their own selfish reasons and saw it as an opportunity to work outside their comfort zone and challenge themselves creatively, and I'm usually reluctant to criticize an artist for doing so...but I will. Lulu is so out there that the band must have known they'd alienate nearly all of their fan base, not just the mouth-breathers who, release after release, lament the fact that they're not getting Master Of Puppets part 2. Early reaction to Lulu from Metallica and Reed fans has been overwhelmingly negative; guaranteed, the first week sales figures on this one will be the weakest of the metal icons' career.
If, like me, you consider Death Magnetic one of the best albums that Metallica's ever put out (and other fans have told me I'm crazy for thinking this), it just stings even more hearing any of their efforts wasted on this tripe and not a proper Metallica release (which the band did give advance warning that this was not). They should have been building on the creative resurgence that was demonstrated on Death Magnetic, not making a career blunder on par with the "Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines" fiasco. This is a band that works notoriously slowly and it's a shame that in a career where they'll leave behind a finite number of albums, Lulu will be one of them.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Prince's latest tour gouges fans big-time...

I just finished trying to purchase tickets for one of Prince's two shows later this month in Toronto at the Air Canada Centre and was shocked at the ridiculous prices he's charging for his Welcome 2 Canada Tour. He's playing in the round, so to speak...the stage is actually in the shape of that silly symbol he bizarrely used in place of his name for several years and most of the floor seating looks to be reserved for people purchasing really pricey VIP packages, which bothers me. Knowing that there were few "regular" non-VIP floor tickets (at $268 a pop, which includes Ticketbastard's grubby charges), I decided to try for good lower bowl seats that were near centre ice where the main part of the stage is, assuming they would be less expensive. Well, I was thrilled when I landed four tickets in row 21 of the lower bowl looking directly down on the stage, but I was floored when I saw that they were also $268 each. For seats in the bloody stands! Screw that. Just out of curiosity, I did a little more searching to see what Prince was charging for other sections in the arena. Tickets in the lower bowl, but at the ends and corners of the arena and furthest from the stage were $193, tickets in the upper level at centre ice were $117, and tickets in the section right beside the previously mentioned one were $67. Nice.
I realize that Prince is a huge touring act and plenty of other artists charge a lot for concert tickets, but I just lose some respect for most of them when I compare their prices to someone like Bruce Springsteen, whose ticket prices top out at about $110-120, or U2, who sold general admission floor tickets to their most recent mammoth tour for just $70.
And here's the thing that severely pisses me off about this whole experience: I bought a 14th row floor ticket for Prince's Musicology Tour in 2004 at the same venue and only paid $115. Even if you adjust for inflation, that's straight-up greed in my opinion. Of course, I'm sure both shows will sell out quickly, which means he's just charging what the market will bear, so what do I know?
I blame The (damn) Eagles. They're commonly looked at as the band that pushed concert ticket prices into the stratosphere back in the 90's.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Last Gladiators [film review]

Filmmaker Alex Gibney is clearly a very busy man. The Last Gladiators, which takes a peripheral look at the world of National Hockey League pugilists and focusses on the story of one specific figure in former Montreal Canadiens enforcer Chris "Knuckles" Nilan, is his tenth feature film since 2005, an unusually high amount of output for a documentarian. And you can add in a couple of shorter segments he contributed to some other collaborative documentary projects during that period. Gibney has a track record for matching the quantity with quality, as his latest film proves, even if it's a departure from the kind of politically-charged topics he's best known for, such as the downfall of politicians (Client 9: The Rise And Fall Of Eliot Spitzer and Casino Jack And The United States Of Money), corporate malfeasance (Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room), and American military torture (Taxi To The Dark Side, which won an Oscar in 2008 for best documentary feature). But as a lifelong hockey fan, Gibney, an American, saw rich source material in examining the sub-culture of one of the most controversial aspect of Canada's game, with Nilan's own intriguing story providing about 75% of the film's content.
Retiring in 1992 after being plagued by injuries (he's undergone 26 surgeries), the most notable achievements from Nilan's 13 year NHL career are over 3,000 penalty minutes, a Stanley Cup win with the Canadiens in 1986, and a selection to Team U.S.A. for the 1987 Canada Cup series. After being drafted by Montreal, he played nine seasons for them before being traded to the New York Rangers and eventually his hometown Boston Bruins, eventually ending up back with Montreal to end his career. Nilan's pride and love for the Canadiens still runs deep and it seems as if he never got over the devastation of first being traded from them. His troubled post-NHL history, which proves to be the most substantive part of the film, could make Nilan the poster child for pro athletes who struggle with their post-playing lives. A toxic combination of substance abuse (alcohol, prescription painkillers, and heroin), employment problems (Nilan hated the insurance job he worked at), and legal trouble (including a 2009 arrest for shoplifting) destroy his relationship with his wife and child and nearly kill him. Nilan, who has a very dark and intense side, may be a rough-around-the-edges character, but he's still a likeable one. Part of his appeal is his blunt honesty, openness, and willingness to take full responsibility for his failings. Interviews with his father who, like his son, projects a hardass demeanour and speaks with that always-fascinating thick Boston accent, add real emotional depth to the film, as the senior Nilan holds little back in conveying the profound heartache and shame he felt (and still feels) over his son's struggles.
The non-Nilan portions of the film find Gibney tracing the evolution of the enforcer's role in the game from its mid 70's heyday with the Philadelphia Flyers' "Broad Street Bullies" through to its greatly diminished need in the current game. Numerous interviews with the most prominent fighters over the past couple of decades provide insight into the enforcer mindset, with players like Marty McSorley, Tony Twist, Donald Brashear, and the late Bob Probert weighing in (Probert's interviews, conducted shortly before his death, are sad to watch). The scenes with Brashear are sad for a different reason, as we see the former fan favourite playing in D-list hockey league games and still itching to drop his gloves.
The Last Gladiators is a timely piece in light of the recent deaths of three NHL enforcers that called into question the possible link between their occupations and its negative residual effects on their lives. Nilan, who I heard give an interview on Toronto's Prime Time Sports radio show the week before The Last Gladiators' TIFF premiere, discounted the connection. Nilan's stance apparently escaped the attention of TV's Hockey Night In Canada neanderthal Don Cherry, who criticized him and two other former fighters (also without basis) on the telecast for supporting the supposed theory.
Gibney, who began filming a general portrait of hockey fighters, chose wisely in deciding to make Nilan the central subject. The Last Gladiators is consistently gripping and only misfires when the director chooses some disappointingly obvious music on the soundtrack (like Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild") and unnecessary scene re-enactments to advance his narrative, which temporarily drag the documentary to cheesy E! True Hollywood Story levels. Being a hockey fan isn't even a necessary component in appreciating the film, as I haven't given a toss about the NHL since the inept Toronto Maple Leafs killed my love for the game in the mid 90's.
Rating: ★★★★