Monday, January 30, 2012

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol [film review]

Released theatrically in December 2011
Brad Bird, director of Pixar instant classics Ratatouille and one of my favourite movies, The Incredibles, makes his live action debut with the fourth film of the Mission: Impossible series, this time around titled Ghost Protocol. The last J.J. Abrams-directed outing in 2006 predictably made a ton of dough, but was a decidedly flat movie, so the franchise had a bit of redeeming to do, in my eyes. And that it does, lead by an excellent performance from star Tom Cruise.
Cruise's Ethan Hunt character here is surrounded by an almost all new IMF (Impossible Mission Force) support team: back again is Simon Pegg's Benji character for tech support and comic relief, with new additions in the form of the gorgeous and versatile Agent Carter (played by Paula Patton), and Jeremy Renner as William Brandt, an IMF analyst with a mysterious background. Renner's derivative backstory and subplot is the flimsiest part of the film, so combine that with the fact I'm just not much of a fan of his (I've found it somewhat extraordinary watching how much mileage he's wrung out of the hugely overrated The Hurt Locker) and he definitely emerges as the movie's weak link, one of its very few. After an international incident that implicates some of the IMF team, they are "disavowed" by the U.S. government and forced to operate independently, which is what the movie's title refers to. It's a nice story twist that adds a fresh, challenging aspect to the agents' normal way of working...not that much of what they do could be considered normal. The bulk of the story focuses on some severely reheated Cold War tensions that find Hunt and his team scrambling to avoid World War III. And the high tech gadgets return, naturally - one of the neater ones involves an eye-defying projection device that helps Hunt and Benji sneak around The Kremlin.
Cruise reminds us of why he's the gold standard when it comes to anchoring well-crafted movies that aim to be nothing more than escapist fun. His Hunt is a compelling mix of smarts, charm, and badass toughness, which are on full display in a number of lively scenes that Bird executes expertly. The most showy and impressive involves Hunt scaling the side of the Burj Khalifa building, located in Dubai and famed as the tallest building in the world. The action sequence is stunning to watch and the fact that Hunt's aerial acrobatics completely defy the laws of physics doesn't diminish the acute rush the scene packs. There's also a couple of tremendously enjoyable and deftly orchestrated scenes that involve a prison riot and a chase that occurs in an intense sandstorm.
This is a well-paced, humour-laced, perpetually entertaining popcorn flick highly deserving of the franchise's latest commercial success, having just this past weekend surpassed the highest worldwide gross for a film in the series.
Rating: ★★

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Steven Tyler - Does The Noise In My Head Bother You? [book review]

Released in May 2011 and earlier this month in paperback (part of an ongoing series of reviews covering older releases from the past year that "fell through the cracks")
"I've been mythicized, Mick-icized, eulogized, and fooligized. I've been Cole-Portered and farmer's-daughtered, I've been Led Zepped and 12-stepped. I'm a rhyming fool and so cool that me, Fritz the Cat, and Mohair Sam are the baddest cats that am. I have so many outrageous stories - too many - and I'm gonna tell 'em all. All the unexpurgated, brain-jangling tales of debauchery, sex and drugs, transcendence, and chemical dependence you will ever want to hear."
The above teaser from Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler pretty much sums up what you'll get in Does The Noise In My Head Bother You?, his autobiography co-written with Rolling Stone magazine founding editor David Dalton. Tyler, ever the acrobatic wordsmith, lays bare the adventures (and perils) of his rock 'n roll decadence and throws Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry under the bus more than a few times. If even half of what's in the book is true, it's a miracle Tyler is still alive, considering he estimates he's snorted or injected about $20 million worth of drugs alone,
along with numerous addictions to alcohol and painkillers. At one point, the band is so brazen about its cocaine use that they're snorting it off the top of their amps during shows.
The obligatory "early years" portion, which finds the man born Steven Tallarico growing up in Yonkers, New York and spending his summers in New Hampshire, can be a bit of a chore to slog through as the reader makes their way to the meat and potatoes of the book - the period after Aerosmith forms in 1970. There's a decent number of reflections on the band's music, with their 70's heyday and late 80's comeback period getting most of the focus. In discussing specific songs or albums, Tyler frequently brings up several lines of his own lyrics; one would expect this, but it gets a little old because he usually comes off seeming just a little too pleased with his verbal wit. This self-satisfied tone also infects a lot of the non-lyrical prose from the book, which is overweight with sex-related metaphors and has an annoying propensity for rhyming, as is illustrated in this excerpt: "Gotta fly back to my hive, talk that jive, and hit the road again with that beautiful, dirty Aerosmith liquid hydrogen snarl that makes the liver quiver, the knees freeze, and the booty shake". I found myself worn out over the course of the memoir's 350+ pages.
The most fascinating parts of the book reveal the contentious relationship between Tyler and Perry, the two main cogs in a band that would appear to me more dysfunctional than most. Friction between the pair has never been a secret, but it's surprising to discover just how deep their bad blood runs. Tyler's side of things paints that of a love/hate relationship that immediately brought to mind Keith Richards' recollections about his relationship with Mick Jagger in his 2010 memoir, Life. Both yins demonstrate a fierce loyalty to their yangs and are hugely admirable of their talents, but are driven batty by their perceived failings. The similarities are even more interesting, considering how the Stones are Aerosmith's biggest influence and were ripped early in their career for being a pale imitation. Aside from their opposite personalities and expected creative differences, one of Tyler's biggest issues with Perry seems to be the female company he keeps (his wives and girlfriends are regularly ripped). Tyler is put off by the perceived lack of character in all of Perry's romantic partners and that they allegedly infringed on the business of the band, along with his own bro-mance with Perry. Tyler, it should be mentioned, expectedly writes about his own fair share of relationships, sexual conquests, and marital infidelities, so his beefs about Perry's relationships feel like petty jealousy. One of the book's nastier anecdotes has Tyler taking great glee in describing how he practically forced himself onstage at a lightly attended 2009 solo Perry show in New York City. Aerosmith bandmates Joey Kramer, Tom Hamilton, and Brad Whitford receive surprisingly sparse mention throughout the book, occasionally receiving some harsh words; one of those mentions I could have done without, though, where Tyler compares everyone's dick size.
Does The Noise In My Head Bother You?, not unlike Tyler's personality, tends to be somewhat all over the place, wandering occasionally from a linear timeline. This, along with the overly slick wordplay, makes it a challenging read, although I'll give him credit for seemingly holding back little about his colourful life and career.
Rating: ★★

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Man On The Train [film review]

Limited theatrical release in October 2011; now available on video on demand
My sole reason for watching Man On The Train was that it starred the drummer of my favourite band, U2's Larry Mullen Jr., in his film acting debut. Acting seems like an odd fit for Mullen - he may be the percussive anchor for the biggest band on the planet, but he's always seemed content to just blend into the background and keep a low profile (U2 fans were amazed when he took a starring role in the band's "Electrical Storm" video). Clearly, he had a creative scratch that he had to itch, which brings us to this remake of a 2002 French film, directed this time around by Ireland's Mary McGuckian. The verdict? Well, I won't be completely dismissive and say that Mullen shouldn't quit his day job...let's just say that things can only get better in his fledgling second career.
The plot: a mysterious man-with-no-name (literally...Mullen's character is credited as "The Thief" in the credits) arrives in a small town to rob the local bank and meets a stranger, a retired literary professor (played by Donald Sutherland, known only as "The Professor") whose house he ends up staying at through some very far-fetched circumstances. The loners strike up an unlikely friendship and spend most of the next 75 minutes of the film on a lot of overly ponderous conversation peppered with high-minded literary references, examining the paths their unfulfilled lives have taken and contemplating their own mortalities. Getting back to those "far-fetched circumstances"...they include The Thief ludicrously not bothering to check that there would be an open motel or hotel in the town where the bank he planned to rob was located (it's the tourist town's off-season and everything is conveniently closed), as well as the clunky manner in which the pair first meet. That happens in the local pharmacy as The Thief tries to buy some migraine pills, which he's told he needs a prescription for. The Professor, who just happens to be picking up his own prescription of migraine medication, offers the stranger six of his pills. The Thief, with a scowl on his face the entire time, takes them and exits the store without even a thanks. Apparently not put off by the rudeness, The Professor chases after The Thief and invites him to his house so he can take the medication with a glass of water. I include these specific details to illustrate how the film gets off on such flimsy footing in terms of the story's plausibility; it's downright jarring and the movie never recovers.
It's hard to wonder how much to knock Mullen for his one-note performance that doesn't demonstrate much range. The Thief requires little more than for the character to act stoic and like he's got the weight of the world on his shoulders. The problem is, it doesn't make for a very interesting or dynamic character and feels a little too close to the low-key persona that Mullen has projected to the public for over 30 years. Hopefully, his next acting gig will afford him the opportunity to take on something that allows him to register a presence on screen, which this role does not. I also felt too consciously aware that I was seeing Mullen's acting machinations whirring away, not unlike the way I feel after seeing Keanu Reeves act. I will give him credit for having the balls to act opposite a veteran like Sutherland, although the pair don't have much chemistry. Unfortunately, The Professor quickly wears out his welcome with his incessant chatter and insufferable personality.
Man On The Train is very much a two character piece and the fact that neither of them are remotely engaging is just one of its many problems. The film, which was shot in Orangeville, Ontario, is molasses-in-January slow and consistently just keeps the viewer at arm's length with its offbeat flow. Numerous scenes go nowhere (such as the diner scene), the ending is silly and confusing, there's an only-in-the-movies character who speaks once a day at 10:30 in the morning, and the film, admittedly low budget, looks and sounds fairly cheap. Mullen, along with musician Simon Climie, can also take the blame for the terrible soundtrack, which regularly recycles the grating, main pulsing theme of the film. Mullen may be "only the drummer" in U2, but he actually takes a bigger role than you'd expect when it comes to contributing to the band's songwriting process, which makes the amateurish work on the soundtrack here so surprising.
Sorry, Larry.
Rating: ★★