Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Please excuse our appearance...

It's come to my attention that the text formatting on this blog can look a little inconsistent, depending on what browser you're using. It looks fine when I post it via my preferred browser, Safari, but some things (ratings stars, the blue text listing release dates) can look a little wonky in Firefox. I've tried fixing the problem and had no luck, so my apologies. Yet another reason to move MediaboyMusings to a better looking, more versatile blog platform.

Monday, February 27, 2012

This Must Be The Place [film review]

Limited European theatrical release in January; expanded limited worldwide theatrical release in March
Before I even knew a thing about This Must Be The Place, I knew I wanted to see it, based purely on the movie's enticing poster. Sean Penn playing a character obviously inspired by The Cure's Robert Smith? I'm so there. The film's Italian director and co-writer, Paolo Sorrentino, came up with Penn's "Cheyenne" character after meeting Smith and being struck by the fact that the musician, then in the 50ish age range, maintained his onstage visual persona (featuring the big hair, heavy makeup, and black clothing) offstage as well.
Penn, Sorrentino, and co-writer Umberto Contarello add further quirks to Cheyenne by making him occasionally wear granny-style glasses, walk with a stooped shuffle, and speak in a pinched, timid tone, while setting him up as a wealthy, faded American 80's rock star retired in Ireland who is seemingly in a constant state of depression. Notified that his father is dying back in the U.S., Cheyenne returns home, but arrives too late. While filling in some of the gaps from the 30 year estrangement in their relationship, he discovers that his dad, a Holocaust survivor, maintained an interest in the SS officer who tortured him. This spurs Cheyenne to undertake a road trip in search of his dad's tormentor, last thought to be living somewhere in the U.S. Yes, this would correctly be categorized as a "high concept" movie.
Penn taking on risky roles isn't anything new - he did it most recently in Milk and, of course, I Am Sam. I had mixed reactions to those performances, but he's fantastic here in a demanding role that, as per my initial reaction, threatens to be consumed by the novelty of his character's eccentricities. That, no disrespect, Penn's face looks every one of its 50 years only adds to the fascinating and sad sight of his aging goth character caked in makeup, which Sorrentino takes advantage of by giving us multiple shots of Penn's mug in unflinching, extreme close-up. Cheyenne is a study in contradiction: his behaviour mostly suggests a subdued and withdrawn damage case, yet he doesn't shy away from meeting new people and engaging them in conversations that predictably take a turn for the weird. Call him a highly functioning recluse. The supporting cast includes excellent performances from Frances McDormand as Cheyenne's longtime wife, Kerry Condon as widowed waitress, Judd Hirsch as a Nazi hunter, Harry Dean Stanton as a character met during Cheyenne's road trip (Stanton seems right at home in this strangle little film world), and relative newcomer Eve Hewson as Cheyenne's Dublin friend (Hewson also happens to be Bono's daughter).
Penn, who appears in almost every scene, may bring his acting A-game to This Must Be The Place, but that's not enough to overcome the film's often glaring deficiencies. Quirkiness abounds in this movie; frequently, its peculiarities feel forced and serve little purpose, other than to seemingly up the weirdness quotient. Example: one scene shows an elderly Native American man mysteriously showing up as a passenger in Cheyenne's vehicle and then soon exiting in a similarly head-scratching manner, with no explanation given. Any intended symbolism went over my head. Other scenes, such as the one where Cheyenne takes on some town locals in a game of ping pong, don't add much to the story other than being "slice of life" vignettes, but they come at the expense of the movie's pacing, which can be quite slow. Additionally, the ambiguous ending may disappoint, plus the role of one of the film's characters (Olwen Fouere's "Mary") doesn't quite feel fully developed.
Sorrentino, making his English-language debut after garnering wide acclaim for 2008's Il Divo, impresses with a visually compelling film. There's some beautiful sweeping shots, as well as many that employ an odd, but interesting framing structure. He also mines more unexpected comedic moments than you would expect from the weighty topics the film tackles. Music, not surprisingly, also plays a big factor in the film, which takes its title from the Talking Heads song. The track shows up in numerous incarnations throughout, including one great art-rock set piece that features Talking Heads singer David Byrne performing it with his solo group, set to a visual art accompaniment. Byrne also has a few lines of dialog and contributed original music to the film's soundtrack, which proves to be a fairly mixed bag of material.
Between Penn's captivating portrayal and the film's shortcomings, I'd characterize the ambitious This Must Be The Place as a fascinating mess, but one worth your time.
Rating: B-

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas [film review]

Released theatrically in November 2011; now available on DVD and Blu-ray
A few weeks after my post wondering where all the good film comedies had gone, I experienced the incredibly vulgar shenanigans cooked up in A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas...and loved nearly every sick minute of it. Finally, a truly excellent Hollywood comedy movie capable of executing a highly impressive hit-to-miss joke ratio that leaves vastly overrated fare like Bridesmaids, currently basking in inexplicable Oscar-nominated glory, in its dust. The third entry in the Harold & Kumar series picks up several years after the somewhat disappointing Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay's conclusion, finding Harold (played by John Cho) now married, living a straight-laced life in the suburbs, and working on Wall Street. Estranged from the still-slacking and underachieving Kumar (played by Kal Penn), the pair are reunited right before Christmas for a caper that involves the search for a special Christmas tree (to sum it up as succinctly as possible and not give too much away).
Some of the notable new faces to the series include Patton Oswalt in a cameo, Elias Koteas as a Ukrainian mob boss, Thomas Lennon as an uptight suburban dad, rapper RZA in a hilarious scene sending up racial stereotypes, and Danny Trejo as Harold's petrifying father-in-law. Trejo's casting pays off in the laughs department, even if he is playing his familiar rough and intimidating character. Familiar Harold & Kumar characters that return include Paula Garces as Harold's now-wife, Eddie Kaye Thomas and David Krumholtz as the Jewish stoners, and, of course Neil Patrick Harris, reprising his role as the Bizarro World version of himself. As in the previous two films, Harris' brief screen time (the filmmakers smartly don't let him wear out his welcome) delivers some of the movie's funniest moments, mostly derived from the over-the-top portrayal of himself as a drugged-up, lecherous skirt chaser who uses his homosexuality as a front for getting close to attractive women. That Harris' character was killed off in the second film is of little consequence to screenwriters Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg - they casually shrug it off with a thin, but amusing (and extremely blasphemous) explanation. They get away with it, too, purely due to the fact that the tenuous grasp on reality that the stories in this series have allow them such a luxury. Both Cho and Penn are terrific, once again demonstrating great chemistry as the loveable stoners who are game for any of the usually off-colour situations they regularly find themselves in, which brings to mind this bizarre thought: it's impossible to watch this film and not be reminded that Penn literally worked in the Obama administration, as the Associate Director for the White House Office of Public Engagement (look it up) before and after shooting this film. I wonder what the President thought of the can't-believe-they-went-that-far part from this movie that takes a memorable scene from the beloved classic A Christmas Story and disturbingly flips it on its head?
First time director Todd Strauss-Schulson and his team have crafted the ultimate counter-programming feature for the feel-good holiday season, where the comedy in A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas is frequently clever, perpetually crude, and consistently entertaining. What's not to love in a film that features Santa Claus being shot in the face, a coked-up infant, a self-aware waffle-serving robot, and a drug-induced claymation sequence with visual dick jokes? I viewed the movie in regular 2D and although I'm not a big fan of today's 3D trend, I probably would have enjoyed this movie even more in that format. Many of the 3D gags are of the intentionally cheesy kind and look to have been well done, but not too overdone. Hopefully, the series will get a fourth installment, as Christmas underperformed at the box office this past holiday season, taking in less than its predecessor.
Rating: A

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Life's Too Short [television review]

Debuted on the BBC in November 2011; premieres on HBO and HBO Canada on February 19th
Life's Too Short presents a fairly daunting challenge for its stars, creators, writers, directors, and producers Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais: to follow in the footsteps of their previous television creations The Office (the original version) and Extras, considered some of the best comedic television made in the last ten years. Their latest production, unfortunately, falls well short of the high-calibre level those series reached, revealing itself to be dreadfully inconsistent in its ability to generate laughs and leaving the distinct whiff of a surprisingly half-assed effort from the duo, who appear to have given us a show that's derivative of themselves. The seven episode series has already been renewed for a second season, tentatively scheduled to air in the spring of 2013. Gervais and Merchant's modus operandi in the past has been to smartly limit their fictional TV work to life spans of just two seasons and a one-off special, so expect the same with Life's Too Short.
The show's premise finds dwarf actor Warwick Davis (best known for his roles in films such as Return Of The Jedi, Willow, and the campy Leprechaun series) playing the owner of a dwarf talent agency who's clinging to the remnants of the minor celebrity he's accrued, while also navigating his way through a divorce that's blindsided him. His day-to-day activities are also being constantly filmed by a documentary crew - sound familiar? Davis plays a broadly drawn fictional version of himself, with Gervais and Merchant writing the character as a narcissistic, bumbling idiot who is so out of touch with his surrounding world that the viewer can't help but feel sympathy for him. Again, sound familiar? Davis does a fine enough job with the role, which requires some frequent physical comedy and a good sportsmanship attitude towards the steady serving of "short" jokes, but it's basically a vertically challenged rehash of Gervais' hapless David Brent Office character. There's some decent cameos throughout the series from celebs playing themselves, including Liam Neeson, Helena Bonham Carter, Sting (gamely sending up his philanthropic reputation), Steve Carrell, the bald duo from Right Said Fred (quite funny), and Johnny Depp. Depp is a bit of inspired casting, considering how mercilessly Gervais ridiculed his film The Tourist while hosting the 2011 Golden Globe Awards, with Depp in attendance. Gervais and Merchant pop up from time to time playing themselves as well, although their appearances feel forced and merely a thinly veiled excuse to get the pair and some of the aforementioned celebs onscreen as a means of increasing viewer appeal. Other secondary characters, such as Rosamund Hanson as Davis' vacant assistant and Steve Brody as Davis' giggle-prone accountant, fail to make much of an impression, comically or otherwise.
Life's Too Short is partially a victim of Gervais and Merchant's previous TV successes, both in terms of how excellent their other shows were (thereby raising the bar) and also by instantly inviting comparisons to The Office with its similar tone and format. The freshness of the single-camera mock documentary concept has now passed its expiry date and the punch once delivered by a put-upon actor looking straight into the camera for comedic effect just isn't there for me anymore. It's one reason I bailed on the American remake of The Office sometime during season three and one of the reasons I've taken so long to warm up to NBC's Parks And Recreation. The latter show has a great cast and excellent writing, but its tired mockumentary format (featuring Adam Scott's character staring into that camera several times over the course of most shows) has made it a challenge to embrace.
It isn't like golden boys Gervais and Merchant are completely incapable of turning out forgettable work - one only has to sample Cemetery Junction, their stinker feature film from 2010. But for the most part, the talented partners are reliably funny, whether it's their immensely popular podcast and audio book series (so good I listened to them virtually every day for about four years straight), or their other stellar TV work on the animated Ricky Gervais Show (read my review here) and the hilarious An Idiot Abroad travel series, starring Karl Pilkington. Skip Life's Too Short and head to any of those.
Rating: D-

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why does a musician's death spike their album sales so much?

Like clockwork, album sales for Whitney Houston skyrocketed following her death, which is a trend I've never understood. I've always been fascinated by the sales figures aspect of the music industry and Billboard magazine, its bible, had some extremely interesting numbers published earlier today in relation to Houston. In the day-and-a-half following her death on Saturday afternoon (Billboard's weekly sales figures are tabulated through the end of Sundays), Houston sold an astounding 101,000 albums in the U.S., including 64,000 copies alone of her Whitney: The Greatest Hits album. Her previous week's total sales numbers? Just 2,000. And if you want another example of just how dead the CD format is, only 10,000 of that 101,000 sales figure was physical (CD or vinyl) album sales. On a related note, there's an amusing story here about Sony's embarrassing decision/mistake to jack up the price of a couple of Houston albums in the U.K. immediately following her death.
So exactly who is buying these albums in such quantities? The people most emotionally affected by a music figure's death (outside of that musician's friends and family, obviously) would be their loyal fan base, but wouldn't that group already own most of the artist's work? If not them, then I assume it's other people being caught up in the emotion of the moment, including: a) music consumers who were casual fans of the deceased musician, b) people who had always been on the fence about buying one of the musician's albums, or c) people who don't know anything about the musician and are so easily influenced by media saturation that they go and buy an album. Whoever's spending the money, I don't quite get it. It's almost like there's this weird urgency to pick up the dead musician's work now because people are afraid that they're not going to be able to hear anything else new from them and all the albums will disappear or something. But this is the music business after all...there'll be plenty of Houston outtakes, rarities, and repackaged greatest hits albums to come in the following years.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Diamond Dave and the real story of the brown M&Ms...

Van Halen fans have heard the story of the band specifying in their tour contract rider back in the 80's that there were to be no brown M&Ms included in the catering. This was dismissed over the years as another example of rock star power tripping and excess, but it was actually a fairly clever ploy from singer David Lee Roth to validate the reliability of concert promoters. Watch the video to hear him explain it:

Friday, February 10, 2012

Queensrÿche - Dedicated To Chaos [album review]

Released in June 2011 (part of an ongoing series of reviews covering older releases from the past year that "fell through the cracks")
Being a fan of Seattle prog metal veterans Queensrÿche hasn't been an easy experience over the years since their heyday in the late 80s and early 90s - it's been a long, steady procession of middling to forgettable albums during that time. Just take the last five or six years: 2006 saw the release of Operation: Mindcrime II, the sequel to their seminal 1988 concept album. It was a risky move updating the story of such a highly regarded album, although one also has to assume the expected commercial benefits of revisiting the project they're most identified with was also a motivator, which I don't hold against them. While Mindcrime II can't touch the original, the band certainly didn't embarrass themselves, either. Their 2007 covers album (Take Cover) just felt like a band going through the motions and its followup, 2009's American Soldier, left shockingly little impression. And I somehow missed the fact, until doing a little research for this review, that they toured in '09 and '10 with something called The Queensrÿche Cabaret, which sounds like a horribly misguided career move. One description of it stated the show would " art, lust, dancing, and naughty fun with the band performing their hits and never-before-heard selections accompanied by go-go dancers, burlesque dancers, drag queens, a juggler, ballet dancer, aerial artist, contortionist, and more". Uh, no thank you.
Dedicated To Chaos is their latest album and it's a refreshingly solid effort, although most certainly a challenging one for fans, who are used to the band's penchant for taking risks. I almost wrote this one off as just another disappointing Queensrÿche album when the initial two or three listens didn't sink in. Actually, to be blunt, I kind of hated it. I unusually decided to give it more of a chance, however, practically forcing myself to stick with the album and find something worthwhile, purely based on the belief/hope that this once-great band couldn't have completely lost their ability to produce a good album. Dedicated To Chaos isn't quite great, but it's definitely good. It finds them experimenting further with their sound, going for more of a bass and drums-driven collection of songs this time around, with mixed results.
The good: On a purely sonic level, the album is impressively put together. The band and producer (Kelly Gray) had headphone listening in mind when recording, so there's a plethora of interesting sound textures and stereo effects to enjoy. "Get Started" and "Hot Spot Junkie" get the album off to an excellent start with a couple of the album's more straightforward rock songs. "Higher" steers things in an artier direction, mixing a funky hip hop beat and some jazzy saxophone and guitar solos into the mix - on paper, it shouldn't work, but does. "Wot We Do" moves along on a laid back groove and has plenty of interesting weirdness going on. Lyrically, it's obviously inspired by the band's cabaret experience ("If you've got a wild fantasy, we've got something for you/You like the pretty things you see, don't touch"), but vocalist Geoff Tate getting randy with his lyrics and vocal delivery slightly creeped me out. "Around The World" is the highlight of the album - there's a distinct U2-influenced sound in its grand and slow-building intro, moving its way towards a catchy, huge-sounding chorus. The song probably best shows off the incredible four octave vocal range of Tate. "At The Edge" is Dedicated To Chaos' most ambitious song, evoking a cinematic feel with its moodiness and wide scope. Normally, a 70 second mid-song interlude consisting of artsy fartsy sound effects, tinkling piano, and random vocal lines would be a turn-off, but again, it works. "Retail Therapy", an indictment of consumer culture, is the album's heaviest track and most reminiscent of that revered 1990ish era of the band, while the solid "I Take You" gives it a run for its money in the heavy department.
The bad: Those song titles! Someone mistakenly thought it was a good idea to take a page from the Prince playbook with titles like "Wot We Do", "Big Noize, and "LuvnU" (which appears on the album's deluxe version). The decision to throw a little heavy-funk-mixed-with-Indian-music into the 'Rÿche sound fails miserably on the atrocious "Got It Bad", a song I'd have to select as one of the worst the band's ever released (and it's not done any favours with some more of Tate's horny vocal work). "Drive" comes close to achieving liftoff and falls short, and "The Lie" and "Big Noize" are textbook examples of album filler.
One wonders if Queensrÿche's affinity for experimentation has finally pushed many of their fans' patience to the limit, as Dedicated To Chaos' first week ranking on the Billboard 200 chart was a lowly number 70, the band's worst debut ever for a full-length release. The album delivers a substantive and cerebral listening experience littered with its fair share of flaws, but that's not an uncommon by-product of art that takes risks.
Rating: ★★

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Van Halen - A Different Kind Of Truth [album review]

Released today
Well, well, well. A month ago, I was highly skeptical of Van Halen's new album based on the underwhelming "Tattoo" single. Now comes the rest of A Different Kind Of Truth, their first album with original vocalist David Lee Roth in 28 years, and it leaves me wondering if Van Halen haven't perpetrated the most dementedly genius, reverse psychology-thinking marketing strategy in music history by first purposely lowering fans' expectations drastically, only to knock them on their collective asses with an absolute monster of an album. Warning: this review may contain even more gushing than was used in my review of the latest Foo Fighters album.
Much has been made of the fact that Van Halen went back and "retooled" all of the songs on this album from material written in the 70s, a number of which appeared on the band's first professional demo recording produced by KISS' Gene Simmons (known in bootleg circles as the Zero album). This news initially made me raise an eyebrow and lose some respect for the band, as it seemed such a maneuver disappointingly indicated they were now creatively barren. After hearing the album, however, it now strikes me as a bold move from the group in an effort to recapture their classic sound, based on strong previously unreleased material. A Different Kind Of Truth feels like it was unearthed from a time capsule buried in the early 80s when Van Halen were in their prime, only the album sounds sonically superior than the technology allowed back then (it was produced by the band and John Shanks), delivering a colourful and decadent blast of fresh air to today's stodgy, bleak rock landscape. And although I was quite surprised to read it, I was impressed with Roth's honesty in admitting that the band long ago passed their creative peak, in terms of songwriting skills (read his interesting interviews with the L.A. Times here and with The Guardian here).
"Tattoo" is the album's lead track and although it's improved moderately after a few more listens, it's still easily A Different Kind Of Truth's weakest song, begging the question of what in the world Van Halen was thinking by designating it as the public's introduction to their big comeback album. The only other one of the album's 13 tracks that failed to really connect with me on the same level as the rest of the songs was "Stay Frosty", but even it's pretty decent. It acts as essentially a sequel to the band's classic "Ice Cream Man", emulating that song's bluesy acoustic guitar intro followed by a full band juke joint boogie (there's a lot of boogieing on this album, by the way).
To use a baseball metaphor, aside from those two tracks, the band steps up to the plate and belts one extra base hit after another, with most of them leaning toward the triple and home run side. "She's The Woman" harkens back to Fair Warning's "Mean Street" with its funky swing; in fact, the Zero version of "She's The Woman" includes the same mid-song breakdown the band later used on "Mean Street". Aside from a killer riff from guitarist Eddie Van Halen and some classic yelping Roth vocals, one of the aspects of the song that really grabbed me was drummer Alex Van Halen's high hat sound. Now, drum cymbal sounds might not be something that qualify as "sexy" to discuss in a review, but I was amazed at how bright and prominent in the mix they were, standing out even more because of the funky, crisp beat that Alex is laying down. "You And Your Blues" features one of the strongest song choruses on the album, combining some great background vocals with Roth lyrically referencing some Stones and Zeppelin song titles, and pushing his voice to the limit. "Blood And Fire" has a similar poppy mentality (it reminded me of Women And Children First's "Yours In A Simple Rhyme") and is rendered even more interesting because of some of the inspired creative choices by the band, such as the off-kilter rhythm pattern Alex briefly uses, as well as Roth's familiar "Now look at all of the people here tonight" line sung almost as a throwaway between the chorus and verse sections. At the other end of the spectrum are the album's heaviest songs: "China Town" begins with a short outer space guitar instrumental from Eddie that turns into a piledriving "Hot For Teacher"-style hard rock shuffle, the two-and-a-half minute "Bullet Head" shines in all areas except for a somewhat weak chorus, and the schizophrenic "As Is" feels like three songs in one. Its massive sounding tribal drum and heavy guitar intro took me back to the opening of "Everybody Wants Some!" from Women And Children First, before moving on to the toe tappin' main part of the song, with a stop for a brief bluesy mid-song breakdown along the way. Also adhering to the uptempo song style that dominates the album are "Honeybabysweetiedoll" (featuring one of Eddie's best solos on an album loaded with spectacular guitar pyrotechnics), the wah wah pedal-drenched "The Trouble With Never", and "Outta Space", known as "Let's Get Rockin'" on Zero and one of the best tracks here. The final two songs on the album are "Big River" (formerly "Big Trouble"), with a noticeable element of the fat, single note bass line from their debut album's "Runnin' With The Devil", and "Beats Workin'" (formerly "Put Out The Lights"), which features a simple main guitar riff that sounds like it could only have been conceived in the 70s. The riff is reminiscent of something Aerosmith or KISS might have also concocted circa 1975, but Eddie puts his stamp on it with his signature noodles and dive bomb effects.
It's a measure of how outstanding this album is that I still found myself seriously excited to go out and buy the CD (yes, I still buy those), even though I'd listened to the album about eight or nine times already since it leaked online last Thursday. A Different Kind Of Truth is the sound of a band determinedly returning to remind starved fans of why the early output in their career established them as one of the greatest American rock bands ever. The musicianship on all fronts is impeccably impressive; one of the best playing aspects relating specifically to the Van Halen brothers is how they both fill the space of a song with so many unique and tasteful choices. Eschewing the conventions of most musicians, it's those interesting changes and additional flourishes from verse to verse and chorus to chorus they make that really keep things interesting. "Muscular" is the best word I can think of to describe Eddie's playing - he hasn't sounded this engaged and downright hungry in decades now, making this album a guitar junkie's wet dream. Working in tandem with his uncle Alex's bombastic drumming is a surprisingly mature and first-class bass performance from Wolfgang Van Halen, who I assume is doing the playing and not his father (Eddie). Original bassist Michael Anthony is still missed, but Wolfie is more than up to the task. Then there's Roth, the project's wild card. I wondered if he, at age 56, would be able to recapture that legendary Diamond Dave swagger on record, and damned if he doesn't pick up where he left off on the 1984 album. There's plenty of lascivious slick talking in his guttural lowest voice, shrieks, yelps, tongue-tying wordplay, and other vocal shenanigans to be found here. Roth pulls it all off...including, you know, the actual singing parts.
You can rip the band for using refurbished decades-old material to prop them up, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is that Van Halen have produced a stellar album that emphatically continues the second "Roth era" while doing justice to the first. Other than Anthony's absence, frankly, I don't think a fan of the group could have expected a Van Halen-with-Roth reunion album to deliver anything much more satisfying than A Different Kind Of Truth.
Rating: ★★