Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens [film review]

* Released theatrically in July
The credits tell us that Jon Favreau directed Cowboys & Aliens, but this movie sure looks and feels like the latest crap churned out by Michael Bay, the grand auteur of loud, dumb action cinema. The western/sci-fi mashup wastes a promising concept that finds aliens invading Arizona in the late 1800's to harvest gold to power their spaceships and abducting humans for examination and experimentation, with an endgame, one would assume, towards eventual annihilation (the latter being a heavy-handed and ironic metaphor for the white man's takeover of the Native American's land).
It somehow took six screenwriters to transfer Scott Mitchell Rosenberg's 2006 graphic novel to the big screen and they still couldn't manufacture a compelling story or bring any imagination to the actor's roles. The film is populated with stock characters that feel like watered-down versions of better characters from older, better westerns: Daniel Craig as Jake Lonergan is a stoic, amnesiac badass with echoes of Clint Eastwood's "The Man With No Name" character, Harrison Ford does his usual Ford-like grumpy character as bad guy Colonel Dolarhyde, Paul Dano plays his loose cannon son, plus there's a wide assortment of other western paint-by-numbers figures, such as the persecuted but proud Indian, a preacher, doctor, saloon owner, sheriff, and Olivia Wilde as the requisite female participant with a murky past. Virtually any area in which the movie heads story-wise ends up falling flat, save for one bright moment where the aliens make their main debut (following a quick tease that shows little), as their spaceships swoop from the sky and the townsfolk are lassoed by long cables that drag them away. The momentum from that scene quickly dissipates, however, and the film never manages to regain its already unsteady footing. The aliens themselves look decent enough (they resemble giant cockroaches with an extra set of arms buried in their chest/underside), but the CGI seams are definitely more visible when they're a little more active and running around.
Skip this one, unless you thought this summer's Transformers: Dark Of The Moon was a masterpiece.
Rating: ★★★★

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Foo Fighters: Back And Forth [film review]

* Limited theatrical release in April; now available on DVD & Blu-Ray

Foo Fighters: Back And Forth premiered in theatres back in April, getting one-time only screenings in various countries, just before the release of the band's latest stellar album, Wasting Light (read my review here). The theatrical showings were paired with a live performance of the band playing Wasting Light in its entirety from their California rehearsal studio (watch it here), and truth be told, I actually enjoyed the live performance a little more than the documentary at the time. Not that the doc was bad, mind you, it's just that my initial impression of Back And Forth was that it played as only slightly more weighty than an episode of VH1's Behind The Music, and I was just so blown away by both the new album and their performance of it that the live portion of the double bill had more of an impact on me. All of the new tracks, which the band had been playing live in the previous weeks to promote the album's release, impressively sounded like they'd already been road-tested for a good year. However, a second viewing of the documentary earned it a higher level of respect from me for the fairly thorough, if somewhat rudimentary, job that director James Moll does in summing up the band's often turbulent past, while providing a revealing look at their present with engaging footage of the band recording their latest album.

As Foo frontman Dave Grohl explains in Back And Forth, the band had to go through their growing pains underneath the ferocious spotlight that accompanied them after forming in the wake of the flameout of Grohl's previous group, Nirvana. Significant problems emerged within the group during the recording sessions for their second (and many would consider best) album, 1997's The Color And The Shape. Grohl, not happy with the parts that drummer William Goldsmith had laid down, decided to re-record them, but neglected to mention this decision to Goldsmith. Ultimately, it leads to Goldsmith quitting, whereupon Taylor Hawkins joins the group. Grohl acknowledges he handled the situation poorly, and an interview with Goldsmith reveals a man clearly still bitter about the way things were handled, as he tells Moll that "...him redoing the drum parts has never been explained to me". Bassist Nate Mendel adds some further interesting insight into the difficult recording sessions for The Colour And The Shape when he discusses working with a full-fledged producer for the first time in Gil Norton, a taskmaster who made Mendel humbly feel like he "wasn't a fully-formed musician" and who referred to Mendel and Goldsmith as "the rhythmless section". Further personnel changes are covered with the quitting and eventual return of second guitarist Pat Smear, Hawkins' 2001 drug overdose, Mendel's ill-advised decision to quit in the late 90's and return to his previous band, the obscure Sunny Day Real Estate (Grohl begged him not to and he ended up staying), and the audition and hiring of current guitarist Chris Shiflett, who replaced short-lived guitarist Franz Stahl, who had replaced Smear in 1997. Try to keep up here, people. It's been eleven years since Stahl was ousted due to a lack of musical chemistry with the rest of the band, and in his newly filmed interview segments he still seems completely destroyed at being fired, not to mention somewhat mystified by some of the circumstances that surrounded his departure. Oddly, his current band that I guarantee you've never heard of, are shown opening for the Foos at a recent L.A. club show, an experience that must have been highly emotional (and, one would assume, awkward) for Stahl.

The middle and latter parts of the band's career receive a little less attention due to the amount of time devoted to their earlier years and each member's pre-Foo Fighters resumes, but one of the moments from their recent past that does get highlighted, to great effect, is the band's triumphant 2008 concert at an 80,000 seat sold out Wembley Stadium in London. There's a fantastic shot of Grohl on stage, almost being overcome with emotion by both the scope of the event itself and the enormity of what it represents as a career milestone, while the camera then focuses in on Hawkins in the background as he is taken aback by his bandmate's emotional display. It's a strikingly pure moment in the movie, as it's not every day you see a huge rock star humbled in such a manner. The last 20 minutes of the 100 minute film documents some of the Wasting Light recording sessions, which were unconventionally recorded on analog tape in Grohl's garage with the producer of Nirvana's landmark Nevermind album, Butch Vig. Personally, I could have watched a full documentary on just this, as Moll captures the group in a relaxed, yet focussed atmosphere, that will lead to them creating what I think is their finest album yet. Footage of the band recording and rehearsing are mixed with them also spending time with their families and enjoying barbecues and swims in Grohl's backyard. The unorthodox familial/work environment is beautifully illustrated during one portion that shows Grohl's daughter interrupting him as he records guitar parts and writes lyrics for "Arlandria", pleading with her dad to take her swimming. Grohl's former Nirvana bandmate, Krist Novoselic, is also shown contributing bass to the recording of the song "I Should Have Known".

Yes, the Foo Fighters have packed a fair amount of drama into their 17 year career. That drama frequently doesn't paint Grohl in the best of light for the way he's handled some of the situations involving his bandmates, and the candour and "warts and all" nature of Grohl's interviews often feel like the Foo leader is cleansing himself of his past transgressions. In addition to the two previous examples mentioned, there's another eyebrow-raising account from Shiflett of the way Grohl went about having Smear return to the band in 2006. It's a credit to Grohl's immense likeability and talent (both of which are undeniable in this film) that despite his flaws, he still comes away from Back And Forth fairly unscathed.

Rating: ★★★★

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Insidious [film review]

* Released theatrically in April; now available on DVD & Blu-Ray

The cynic in me would almost think that Entertainment Weekly magazine, a regular read of mine, had some sort of vested interest in the success of Insidious, a horror film made on the cheap (real cheap, at just $1.5 million) that went on to do a highly respectable $53 million in box office receipts. How else to explain how such a completely mediocre-bordering-on-forgettable movie could grab such head scratching accolades as these from the publication: "Insidious...has some of the most shivery and indelible images I've seen in any horror film in decades. Yes, it's that unsettling." (from their review after its theatrical release), and "The year's scariest movie" (trumpeted in the headline attached to a review for the movie's recent DVD/Blu-Ray release)?

The film, which I found to actually be disappointingly light in the "scares" department, is embarrassingly unoriginal, borrowing heavily from its obvious blueprint, Poltergeist, as well as incorporating elements from The Amityville Horror and Paranormal Activity. The writer and director of the latter movie, Oren Peli, produced Insidious, which was directed by James Wan, the man behind Saw. Here, Wan steers consciously clear of the blood and guts that were the calling card of Saw, taking an approach that relies more on manipulating the viewer with psychological terror and cheap scares.

One of the biggest weaknesses of the horror genre, which I must admit is far from my favourite movie genre, is its tiresome formula that almost always guarantees that the first half hour or so of the film will practically be a write-off. The necessary story setup and introductory character exposition rarely produces anything original or dynamic in these type of movies, with the director perhaps throwing the audience a bone with a mildly scary tease or two. Insidious is no exception, as we're introduced to a couple (Josh, played by Patrick Wilson, and Renai, played by Rose Byrne) who have just moved into a new home with their three children. Josh is an overworked teacher and Renai appears to be a professional songwriter. Some oddities begin to occur in the house, such as items going missing, books being knocked off shelves, and strange voices coming through the baby monitor, eventually leading to an incident that sees one the couple's sons having an accident and lapsing into a coma that baffles his doctors. The weirdness in the home escalates, including full-on encounters with ghosts, eventually leading to the family moving once again. A residence change does little to abate the supernatural intrusions into the family's life, which results in the couple bringing in a psychic exorcist named Elise to assist them (after much resistance from Josh, who has dutifully been playing the paranormal skeptic). Elise is played by Lin Shaye, probably best known as the tanned-to-a-crisp next-door neighbour from There's Something About Mary. She assists as a conduit to the spiritual realm and guides Josh to an alternate netherworld known as "The Further", where he tries to retrieve the soul stolen from the couple's still comatose son by evil spirits.

Weak screenwriting is just one of many problems that hamper Insidious, and the man to blame for that, Leigh Whannell, actually has a small role as one of Elise's paranormal investigative assistants. His character and another assistant are supposed to bring some comic relief to the movie, but their back and forth bickering schtick gets old real quick. Whannell also does a lazy job of fully forming the Josh character, who frequently seems oddly detached from the terror his wife is experiencing. Example: despite the fact that Renai becomes absolutely terrified of being in their house alone when all the ghostly shenanigans are in full swing, Josh decides it's a good idea to stay late at school to grade some test papers, work he could easily bring home with him. And on one of those nights he comes home late, his reaction to his wife presenting him with the bed sheet from their comatose son's bed, which has a prominent bloody claw print from one of the evil spirits on it, is one of not so much appropriately reactionary horror as it is just a curiously blank look. The film's score presents another of its problems; normally, a score is one of the things I notice least while watching a movie, but here the incessant onslaught of shrieking violins and dissonant clatter feels overly intrusive and is more effective at grating on the listener's ears than heightening dramatic tension. Coincidentally, the man responsible for dropping the ball here also has a role in the movie. Composer Joseph Bishara, under heavy makeup, plays the primary evil baddie and although his first appearance on screen will scare the daylights out of you (it was the only truly scary moment in the movie), subsequent viewings of the demon-like character had me laughing at how he just looks like Darth Maul with a really bad haircut (the resemblance to the Star Wars character is so similar that I'm amazed George Lucas hasn't sued Insidious' filmmakers yet).

Wan, to his credit, does a fine enough job in wringing as much as he can visually from the million-and-a-half bucks he had to work with because Insidious definitely looks like a movie with a much bigger budget. That's about its only plus, though, as its derivative script, which features an anti-climatic final act capped with a ridiculous and unfulfilling ending, fails to make this a horror thriller of any noteworthy significance. Oh, and the film poster totally sucks, too.

Rating: ★★★★