Saturday, June 30, 2012

Jim Abbott and Tim Brown - Imperfect: An Improbable Life [book review]

Released in April
Imperfect: An Improbable Life chronicles the life and baseball career of Jim Abbott, a man with unimpressive Major League Baseball pitching stats (a career record of 87-108 with a 4.25 ERA) who is remembered as more than a baseball footnote for two main reasons: he pitched a no-hitter for the New York Yankees and was born without a right hand.
Co-authored by former Los Angeles Times writer Tim Brown, Imperfect: An Improbable Life's "early years" portion is considerably more interesting than the pre-fame sections most autobiographies deliver, as Abbott shares the struggles of coming to terms with his handicap and his drive to succeed in spite of it. Abbott comes up with a way to function quite ably as a pitcher by tirelessly refining a technique of quickly switching his baseball glove to his good hand immediately after throwing a pitch, allowing him to field any hit balls (if a ball is fielded, he'd quickly switch the glove again to throw the ball). Stories of schoolyard taunts, demeaning comments from opposing players in high school, plus the occasional insult from cold-hearted fans when he makes it up to the Major Leagues hit hard, even as Abbot consistently handles the adversity with grace and aplomb. In his home town of Flint, Michigan, Abbott emerges as a football and baseball star, eventually getting drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1985 and turning down their $50,000 offer to accept a scholarship to the University Of Michigan. An impressive amateur career is highlighted by Abbott participating as a member of the American baseball team that won gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, along with some engaging stories of playing games in Cuba against their national team, where he gets a chance to meet Fidel Castro.
Bypassing minor league ball altogether, Abbot quickly establishes himself as a feared opponent during his first three seasons with the California (now Los Angeles) Angels before struggling and being traded in 1993 to the New York Yankees. Abbott's recollections of the difficulties in adjusting to life in the Big Apple, both as a resident and with the intense pressure as a player, are intriguing. He candidly admits to feeling an uncomfortable distance between himself and most of his teammates, which he says "made the clubhouse kind of a lonely place". His no-hitter as a Yankee against the Cleveland Indians is deconstructed and intertwined in short passages throughout the book - that's not a literary device I'm usually very fond of, but Abbott's dissection of his pitching masterpiece is consistently absorbing. The back half of Abbot's Major League career is marked by a steady decline in performance, including an epically bad 1996 season that saw him go 2-18 with a 7.48 ERA. That lead to the pitcher retiring for a year before attempting a short-lived comeback.
Abbott's autobiography features some of the most fascinating insight into a pro athlete coming to terms with their diminishing skills that I've ever read. His detailed remembrance of that awful '96 season, capped off by his eventual release from the Angels, vividly transports the reader inside the pitcher's fractured psyche. Some other notable subjects the book looks at: Abbott's slowly evolving embracement of his role as an inspirational figure to kids with handicaps (which some media, teammates, and late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner think hurt his focus and affected his on-field performance), Abbott's unease with some of the strong-arm negotiating tactics from his ΓΌber-agent, Scott Boras, and the pitcher's surprise at the fact the media attention focussing on his handicap never dissipated over the course of his career.
Imperfect: An Improbable Life succeeds as both a captivating baseball recollection of a journeyman pitcher and a highly inspirational story, which Abbott has used as a platform for a post-baseball career as a motivational speaker.
Rating: B-

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Madonna - MDNA [album review]

Released in March
MDNA, Madonna's twelfth studio release, is the worst album I've heard since Metallica and Lou Reed's Lulu debacle from last year. It may be even worse. Most problematic is some staggeringly bad lyrical content, which afflicts all 12 tracks. While Madonna has never been known for the depth of her songs' words, MDNA consistently shocks with the shameful lack of originality and effort put into the wordplay on these tracks. Lyric writing this poor is something I have less patience or respect for from veteran artists - that it's coming from an iconic music figure in this case makes it feel even more inexcusable. Interesting note: MDNA suffered the biggest second week sales drop-off for an album that debuted at number one in the U.S. since the SoundScan era began in 1991.
Perhaps as a disclaimer, I should mention a couple of points. First, the dance music-heavy sound that dominates MDNA is not a style I'm fond of. At all. The genre's emphasis on technology over organic instruments leaves me completely cold, which is my second biggest complaint about this album. It just feels absolutely soulless and as forgettable as any of Madonna's three previous dance remix albums. Secondly, Madonna completely lost the plot for me about a decade ago. I was actually a fairly big fan of her music from 1984's Like A Virgin up until 2000's Music. Since then, I've been increasingly unimpressed with issues such as a huge decline in songwriting quality, as well as too many tracks on 2008's Hard Candy album that were saddled with guest vocal appearances from artists I have absolutely no use for in Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, Pharrel Williams and, worst of all (which is saying something with a group this awful), Timbaland.
Album opener "Girl Gone Wild" sets the tone for the aural wretchedness that will play out over MDNA's 50 minute running time, with song structures made up of heavy synths, auto-tune vocal effects, and a pulsing beat that repeats with a mind-numbing sameness. Madge treats the listener to embarrassing word turds that sound as if they were lifted off the pages of a 16-year-old girl's song journal, as opposed to coming from the brain of a 53-year-old woman and her team of songwriters. A sample from "Girl Gone Wild": "I got that burning hot desi-i-i-ire/And no one can put out my fi-i-i-ire/It's coming right down to the wi-i-i-ire", followed by "Girls they just wanna have some fun/Get fired up like a smoking gun/On the floor till the daylight comes/Girls they just wanna have some fun". She ups the ante in the "horrendous lyrical prose" department on "Superstar", a track that actually injects a sliver of life into the album on a musical level (it's track number seven). The evidence: "You're like Brando on the silver screen/You're my hero in a mythical dream/You are perfect just the way that you are/You're Mike Jordan, you're my superstar"; "You're Bruce Lee with the way that you move/You're Travolta gettin' into the groove/You're James Dean driving in your fast car/You're a hot track, you're my super-duper-star"; and a chorus that goes "Ooh la la, you're my superstar/Ooh la la, love the way that you are/Ooh la la, you're my superstar/Ooh la la, that's what you are".
When Madonna isn't doing damage to her credibility with such inept lyric writing, she invites further derision with her laughable badass posturing on "Gang Bang". Following the "Bang bang shot you dead/shot my lover in the head" refrain comes a spoken word portion at the end of the track, where Madonna gleefully welcomes the opportunity to shoot her lover in the head once again when she gets to hell. And just for good measure, she adds "Now drive, bitch/I said drive, bitch/And while you're at it die, bitch/That's right, die, bitch" a couple of times, just in case her message wasn't completely clear. Oh, did I mention this track has a total of eight songwriters, including Madonna? Fine job, team. Many would assume that the vitriol from this one is aimed at Madonna's ex, director Guy Ritchie, even though there's no specific reference to him. There are, however, a number of unmistakable digs towards him on some other tracks, such as "I Don't Give A", where the singer also boringly runs down her hectic daily schedule. Other album lowlights include a couple of terrible performances from rapper Nicki Minaj, who sings (er, raps) Madonna's praises on the aforementioned track and first single "Give Me All Your Luvin'", just so the self-inflating pop superstar doesn't come across as, you know, too full of herself. I could continue ripping on MDNA and its wall-to-wall rottenness, but that'd be like shooting fish in a barrel.
Aside from MDNA's creative vacuousness, there's other elements of Madonna's career that point to a mature artist struggling to evolve. The recent music video for "Girl Gone Wild" feels like a total rehash of the "Erotica" video, right down to its black and white look with scenes of homoerotic weirdness. I know Madonna was there first, but Lady Gaga and others have now made this type of visual presentation well-worn territory. Then there's her recent behaviour literally flashing her tits and ass to European audiences, which has the distinct, sad whiff of someone desperate to continue perpetuating her button-pushing persona. Some might say that's sexist, but I'd put the same criticism on any performing artist, male or female, well past the middle-aged point who's resorting to such cheap shock tactics. Of course, any sort of distraction away from the latest batch of rubbish material she's concocted probably helps.
Rating: F

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Wanderlust [film review]

Released theatrically in February; released today on all home video platforms
I sometimes catch myself respecting an actor less when I'm watching a movie and finding their performance far too similar to roles they've done in the past, based on repetitions of the same mannerisms and acting style that viewers have become accustomed to. Then I have to remind myself that most actors do tend to stay within the type of persona and acting traits that got them to their level of success in the first place, so to hold that against them is mostly unfair. If you look at music, plenty of artists put out material that doesn't sound very different from album to album - AC/DC has built a highly respected and hugely successful career on that philosophy. Wanderlust finds Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston playing the types of pretty, bumbling characters we've seen from each of them many times before, in the type of crude, R-rated comedy that also feels overly familiar. Somehow, though, the film makes most of it work and emerges a winner.
Director David Wain previously teamed with Rudd in the also better-than-expected Role Models, which was based on the same kind of fish-out-of-water/characters-out-of-their-comfort-zone premise that Wanderlust employs. Rudd and Aniston play married couple George and Linda, who get caught up in dire financial straits after he loses his unfulfilling corporate slave job and Linda, still struggling to find her career niche as middle age approaches, sees her pitched project to HBO as the director of a documentary on penguins with testicular cancer met with a deflating "no thanks". Unable to afford New York City's exorbitant cost of living any longer, they decide to pack up and move to Atlanta, where George's successful brother, Rick, has offered him a job and will let the couple temporarily stay at his home. During their trip, George and Linda end up at a hippie commune in Georgia named Elysium. The laid-back vibe and material possessions-free philosophy of the commune intrigues the couple, but they push on to Atlanta, where their stay is short-lived due to Rick's boorish behaviour. Returning to Elysium, the couple decides to give the alternative lifestyle a go, leading to numerous situations that mine humour from George and Linda's awkward fumbling while adapting to their new surroundings.
Wanderlust benefits from an excellent supporting cast, most of whom make up the eccentric Elysium inhabitants (screenplay co-writer Ken Marino is also quite funny as the dickish Rick). Justin Theroux (Aniston's real-life beau), Malin Akerman, Alan Alda, Jordan Peele, Lauren Ambrose, Kerri Kenney, and Kathryn Hahn are part of that talented ensemble, with Joe La Truglio stealing cheap 'n easy (but still entertaining) laughs as a nudist writer.
Most of Wanderlust's storylines and characters feel like they've been cut and pasted from other movies, which should be enough to submarine the whole project for its lack of originality. There's an unimaginative storyline involving greedy developers wanting Elysium's land to build a casino, with an even lamer subplot involving an unexpected, farfetched villain. The film's ending is also completely predictable. It's the winning charm of both Aniston and Rudd, gifted comedic actors who display real chemistry here, that goes a long way (along with that supporting cast) in covering up Wanderlust's flaws, even if they're not straying out of their acting comfort zone. One scene involving Rudd explicitly talking to himself in a mirror while trying to psyche himself up for a sexual encounter, despite its completely stupid and infantile humour, had me laughing so hard that my tear ducts were flowing and my guts hurt. Most comedy films can't evoke even a fraction of that kind of reaction out of me, so that alone made Wanderlust well worth the watch.
Rating: B-

Friday, June 15, 2012

"Plastic Kenny" is one popular dude...

When I went to check the blog's traffic numbers on Monday, I was stunned when I saw the number of page views had absolutely skyrocketed. Normally, Mediaboy Musings gets anywhere from 70-200 page views a day and by early Monday evening there had been well over 1,300. Data showing what the source of my blog traffic is has taught me that the majority of traffic comes from people looking for images through search engines. I'd like to think everyone getting directed here while looking for an image is also staying to read the words related with that image, but I'm not that naive.
The target of all those page views was a post from a couple of years ago titled "Plastic Kenny Rogers", which showed the singer's unnatural-looking face after one too many plastic surgeries. For some reason, when you type "Kenny Rogers plastic surgery" into the Bing search engine, the picture included in my post now comes up as the fourth or fifth image in the search results.
I've always gotten a laugh out of the fact the "Plastic Kenny" post was one of the most viewed posts out of the 230 or so I've put up on the blog. The most viewed post all-time (until Monday) had been my review of Canadian singer Lights' The Listening album, with around 1,200 page views, which always surprised me as well. The Gambler has now soared well past that, sitting at around 3,600 page views after approximately 2,500 views this week so far. Weird.

Your Sister's Sister [film review]

Opens in limited theatrical release in select U.S. cities today and select Canadian cities next week
I originally reviewed the outstanding Your Sister's Sister for Toronto Screen Shots last year when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and thought I'd repost the review, now that it's rolling out for theatrical release.
"Lynn Shelton"...get used to hearing the name of the Seattle-based writer/director/producer/actor, because if her newest work is any indication, she's got a very bright filmmaking career ahead of her. Her fourth film and the follow-up to 2009's acclaimed Humpday, Your Sister's Sister is one of the smartest, most engaging relationship dramas (laced with charming humour) I've ever seen. Yes, it's that good.
The story doesn't exactly jump off the page, perhaps reading as the type of standard chick flick material that audiences have seen over and over again, with a subdued tone and pace that some viewers might find challenging. The magic in the film lies with the honesty and naturalism that Shelton derives from her characters and their interplay, delivered by equally outstanding performances from the three leads who improvised about 75% of their words. Emily Blunt plays Iris, the best friend of Jack (played by Mark Duplass) and the former girlfriend of Jack's brother, who died roughly a year before the movie begins. Jack, who's unemployed, just can't seem to get out of his mourning funk, so Iris encourages him (practically forces him, actually) to spend some time at her father's cabin on an island in Puget Sound. Jack takes her up on the offer and, upon arriving at the remote cabin, finds a houseguest already there. That would be Hannah, Iris' sister (played by Rosemary DeWitt), who is also seeking a little solitude to clear her head after just ending a seven year lesbian relationship. Mix a bottle of tequila with some bad judgement and the pair end up having awkward sex. The following day, Iris unexpectedly shows up, thus setting in motion the complex triangular dynamic that forms the core of the film.
Blunt, DeWitt, and Duplass have an immediate, winning chemistry with each other and they'd better. Aside from its first fifteen or so minutes, the film almost exclusively features just the three actors on screen and most of that time is spent within the four cabin walls, which gives the film a very intimate theatrical feel. DeWitt and Blunt, in particular, find a familiarity and comfort with one another that successfully sells us on their sisterhood, despite the curious fact that Iris has an English accent and Hannah an American one. I loved that Shelton holds off on revealing the reason for the accent discrepancy until well into the film, as the puzzling detail just kind of hangs there in an intriguing and only mildly nagging way. It might seem like an odd creative choice on Shelton's part, but it actually stems from the fact that Rachel Weisz, a Brit, was originally supposed to play Hannah before pulling out at the last minute. DeWitt, usually one of the best things in anything I've ever seen her in (especially her work on Showtime's United States Of Tara), deserves even more credit for her performance, considering the lack of preparation she had before jumping into the movie's lean twelve day shooting schedule. Along with Shelton's work, another major revelation taken from the film is Duplass, who I'd never heard of. He proves more than capable of handling the movie's demanding dramatic material, while also demonstrating a real flair for its comedic requirements via his goofy charm. And it turns out that like his director, Duplass also writes, directs, and produces films with his brother, Jay. Their latest movie, Jeff, Who Lives At Home, premiered at last year's TIFF.
The film's soundtrack deserves special mention. Composed by Vince Smith (who handled all aspects of sound recording and design on this production), it meshes nicely with Shelton's visuals featuring the scenic Pacific Northwest, and his score plays a key role during an extended montage sequence at the end of the movie that has next to no dialogue. The sequence is a bit of a gamble on Shelton's part, but it's nicely put together and doesn't sap the film's momentum as the story comes to its conclusion.
Hopefully, a movie this quiet and clever can find an audience amidst the clatter of the studio tentpole offerings. Those who do discover it will be treated to a film that wasn't just the best thing I saw at last year's Toronto film festival, but the best film I saw all year.
Rating: A+

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Emm Gryner - Northern Gospel [album review]

Released in September 2011 (part of an ongoing series of reviews covering older releases from the past year that "fell through the cracks")
I've been meaning to review Northern Gospel for over nine months now, but just never got around to it for various reasons. Seeing as Emm Gryner is one of my favourite music artists, I didn't want to let it fall completely through the cracks without writing some words about the album. I had originally incorporated much of the background information from Tuesday's "Get to know Emm Gryner..." post in with this review and decided to split them up, just so the word count wouldn't be too much of a deterrent for prospective readers.
Northern Gospel marks full-length album number 13 for the talented Gryner and finds the Canadian musician delivering 10 tracks of filler-free material that clocks in at a compact 34 minutes. Gryner reteams with producer Stuart Brawley, who helmed her second album in 1997, The Original Leap Year. Northern Gospel's title, as Gryner explained in a post on her blog, has less to do with anything associated with organized religion and "...more to do with what I've learned from where I am, geographically, emotionally, etc." Speaking of "geographically", I love that Gryner throws the occasional Canadiana reference into her lyrics. Northern Gospel offers three such nods, with references to "Victoria rain" (from "Survive"), Gryner's "Stonetown friends" (from "Last Day On Earth", a reference to the nickname of St. Mary's, Ontario, where she lives), and name-checking the country itself in "North". Gryner might not quite surpass The Tragically Hip when it comes to the frequency of paying lyrical homage to their homeland, but it's a small detail that resonates with this Canuck.
"Ciao Monday", Gryner's take on the "Mondays suck" song theme, kicks off the album on an upbeat note. A fairly spare arrangement anchored by the musician's ever-present piano builds over its succinct 2:43 running time, highlighted by some beautiful self-harmonizing background vocals (and I believe I detected a sly reference to her former boss, David Bowie, with the "actors coming into work all cracked" line). Second track "Last Day On Earth" rides an infectious electric keyboard riff over lyrics gleefully kissing off an ex, again packing it all into a less-than three minute package. Interestingly, Northern Gospel's shortest tracks are its five peppiest numbers - of that group, only "Heartsleeves" (which features one of the album's best choruses) clocks in at over three minutes. "Ageless" and the bouncy "Fast Exit" (aptly titled at just 2:31) round out the album's half portion of upbeat material.
As exceptional as the livelier songs are, Gryner excels even further with her slower, more emotive material. There's no better example of that than the beautiful "North", which almost immediately shot to the top of my abstract list of favourite Gryner songs. I'll even go as far to say I'd now have to consider it one of my favourite songs ever - it's that amazing. Every aspect of the song works flawlessly, from Gryner's standout vocals, to the production touches that inform the track's background vocals, to the meaningful lyrics, to the song's haunting yet optimistic air, to the performances from the rest of Northern Gospel's musicians (playing on the album are Matt Mayhall and Lyle Molzan on drums, Joe Corcoran on bass, guitars, percussion, and horns, plus Brawley on various keyboards). The melancholy "Home" tastefully adds some understated horns to Gryner's sound palette, while the mid-tempo "Survive" provides a nice contrast to the preceding "Fast Exit" and the following "Transatlantic", the album closer that shifts back and forth between a sparse musical arrangement and portions where more of those lush, multi-layered background vocals lift the track skywards. Finally, "A Little War", the album's second strongest track, sees Gryner continuing an occasional habit of revisiting some of her past material, as she also did with "Fast Exit" (it appeared on Gryner's obscure The Great Lakes album from 2005). "A Little War" first appeared on 2000's Dead Relatives album in rough 4-track form and benefits immensely from the full band treatment, transforming it from an originally decent tune limited by its lack of polish, to a fully-realized masterpiece (yes, I'll use that strong a word) with epic overtones and dimension.
Northern Gospel doesn't mark a radical departure from Gryner's identifiable melodic pop sound, but it does find the underappreciated songstress delivering her strongest album yet with a memorable collection of concise and skillfully crafted, well-performed songs.
Rating: A
Watch Gryner's solo performance of "North" from the CBC studios:

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Get to know Emm Gryner...

Several weeks ago, I couldn't help but curiously click a link on one of my entertainment news sites that had the bizarre headline "Ke$ha taunts cops with public urination", wherein I regretfully learned about the pop star tweeting a picture of herself peeing in the street and inviting the police to "come and get me if you can find me". Stay classy, Ke$ha. Aside from reinforcing my hatred for the inventors of Twitter, the story just reminded me about how frustrating it is that publicity-hungry skanks like her, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, and any other number of oft-scantily clad pop stars are able to develop such huge followings, while supremely more talented artists like Canadian singer-songwriter Emm Gryner fly so under the radar (and yes, I get that one of the reasons those types of singers amass such a following is because of their "look at me!" behaviour). Comparing Gryner with today's pop tarts is undoubtedly a pointless exercise. While I would best describe her as a pop artist, the two camps' artistic styles and goals couldn't be more contrary, plus Gryner functions without the heft (diminished as it may be) of the music biz major label machine behind her. That being said, it'd still be nice to see a little more balancing of the scales in terms of Gryner's recognition, particularly in comparison to similarly less flashy singer-songwriters who musically have a little more in common with her, like Sara Bareilles, Colbie Caillat, Christina Perri, and fellow Canucks Chantal Kreviazuk and Sarah Slean.

I was first introduced to Gryner when she opened for Holly McNarland in 2003 at Toronto's Phoenix club, where I was instantly captivated by her gorgeous voice and solo piano performance (including some left-field covers of Ozzy's "Crazy Train" and Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar On Me"). Her exotic beauty didn't exactly hurt either (Gryner has a German/Irish father and a Filipino mother). The Sarnia, Ontario-born musician broke onto the Canadian music scene in 1995 with the independent release And Distrust It, which she followed up a couple of years later with The Original Leap Year on her own new independent Dead Daisy Records label. Her third album (and major label debut on Mercury Records), Public, should have made more of an impact, but instead turned out to be a hugely disappointing experience for the musician. Mercury's parent company, Polygram, was bought by Universal Music and management restructuring torpedoed the album and Gryner's status on the label as she, along with hundreds of other artists, were dropped from their roster. Since then, Gryner has taken the DIY approach and released a dozen full-length albums and EPs of dependably high quality music on the Dead Daisy imprint, which also releases work from other artists. Following her most recent studio album, last year's stellar Northern Gospel, came the EP release in March of She's Gone, which featured covers of songs from Hall & Oates. Stylistically, Gryner leans toward a pop-rock sound loaded with melodic hooks, while also exhibiting a deft talent for delivering deeply moving ballads anchored by her accomplished piano skills (she also plays guitars and bass on her albums and live). Over her career, the musician has cultivated a small, but devoted fan base, particularly in Ireland. One of that country's most famous citizens, Bono, turned a few more eyes and ears Gryner's way in 2006 when he listed her song "Almighty Love" as one of the five songs he wishes he'd written in Q Magazine's twentieth anniversary issue.

Aside from my obvious love of her music and a huge respect for Gryner's integrity, another reason I'm such a big fan are her varied and sometimes unpredictable choices. In 2006, she indulged her hard rock side as bassist for the band Hot One, a side project also featuring Nathan Larson. Believe me when I tell you that their self-titled release is an absolute asskicker and probably the best album you've never heard of. She also collaborated with Def Leppard on their Yeah! covers album (and has recently done some writing with Lep vocalist Joe Elliot, who sang on her Gem And I duets album), as well as contributed background vocals to Rob Zombie's The Sinister Urge album. Around the turn of the century, she landed a plum gig as a backup singer and keyboard player in David Bowie's touring band, which lasted for a year and a half. As she prepares for the birth of her second child, Gryner is also currently working on another project with her new group, a female trio called Trent Severn, and also finds time to occasionally produce albums for other acts. Other notable endeavours include her film acting debut in the 2008 Canadian indie gem One Week (read my review here), stints in 2007-2008 as co-host of a program on CBC's Radio One, and appearances in a couple of music videos from Neverending White Lights (watch "The Grace" here).

One of Gryner's other appealing qualities is the fact she maintains a hands-on relationship with her audience and embraces a grassroots approach to getting her music out to them. Her blog delivers entertaining and revealing commentary on her life and she's also known for playing "living room concerts", where she literally plays at the homes of fans. New album releases are accompanied by pre-sales through Gryner's website that she personally handles, allowing fans the opportunity to have CDs autographed and sent with personalized, handwritten notes (at no extra cost). It's this type of personal touch that goes a long way in strengthening an audience's loyalty. Whenever I return to listening to any of the five autographed Gryner albums I have, the experience is always made that much better by seeing that extra little connection evident from her autograph on the CD, or re-reading one of the messages handwritten on her own letterhead.

Gryner, now based in St. Mary's, Ontario, would tell you she's okay with her under the radar status because it allows her to keep a handle on her career and maintain complete artistic control. But anyone who similarly has that one music artist they're passionate about, wishing they were heard by a wider audience, will relate to my frustration with Gryner's underappreciation.

I tried to keep this blog entry somewhat short - I know the wordier a post is, the less chance there is of people getting all the way through it. Obviously, I failed miserably in that department, but brevity when it comes to discussing one of my favourite musicians is a goal I should have known wasn't realistic. Even if just one person reads this and is curious and inspired enough to seek out Gryner's music and becomes a fan, then I'd be thrilled. A good place to start would be any of the Northern Gospel, Songs Of Love And Death, or The Summer Of High Hopes albums, and she also has a greatest hits release in the pipeline. Check out the video below, stop by Gryner's SoundCloud page to stream selected tracks, or purchase her music through iTunes, eMusic, or her website.

Friday, June 8, 2012

John Carter [film review]

Released theatrically in March; released Tuesday on DVD, Blu-ray, iTunes, and video-on-demand
John Carter isn't nearly as bad as the buzz would have you believe...but then, it's not terribly good, either. Released in March, an anemic North American box office performance doomed its financial success with a final tally of $72 million. Even combined with a very respectable foreign gross of $209 million and home video sales, it won't be nearly enough to make the Disney film profitable with its estimated budget of $250 million (not including the expensive costs of marketing and revenue sharing with theatre owners). Ultimately, John Carter's weak performance lead to the departure of Disney studio chief Rich Ross. Click over to my post from March about the wisdom of Disney taking on the project and their poor handling of the film's marketing campaign.
Enough with the overshadowing business distractions of John Carter - does the film's artistic side have any merit? Certainly, although it's notably hampered by an overly confusing plot that employs a patchwork of storylines and themes now more than familiar to sci-fi fans. You can't really fault the film for that familiarity - based on John Carter of Mars, the century-old pulp adventure series from author Edgar Rice Burroughs, nearly all science fiction cinema from the past 50 years is directly or indirectly influenced by Burroughs' work. Ironically, the ghosts of the likes of Avatar, Star Wars, Star Trek, and The Lord Of The Rings end up dulling the impact and sense of adventure John Carter delivers. A brief plot synopsis: while searching for gold in Arizona, Civil War veteran John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch) stumbles upon a medallion that transports him to Mars (known as "Barsoom" by its inhabitants). Carter's ability to survive without oxygen on the Red Planet is never explained, but due to his different bone density and Mars' low gravity, he's able to leap massive distances and possesses enhanced strength. He finds himself captured by a posse of Tharks, a gangly ten foot tall, tusked, and four-armed tribal species. Both parties soon find themselves in the middle of a conflict between the long-warring cities of Zodanga and Helium, with a romance developing between Carter and Helium's Princess Dejah Thoris (played by Lily Collins). Prominent Zodangan bad guy roles are played by Dominic West and Mark Strong, with lead Thark characters being voiced by Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Haden Church. Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston also has a small supporting role.
For a guy with seemingly everything going for him before John Carter was released (having had a prominent role in TV's critically acclaimed Friday Night Lights, upcoming starring roles in high profile "tent-pole" movies, and the looks of a model, which he was), Kitsch now finds himself in the unlikely position of inspiring pity from the public after the similarly disastrous showing of his latest film, Battleship. I can't really say he acquits himself any better than "decently" as Carter. While he certainly looks the part of the action hero, there's an absence of the charm and mischievousness that usually inhabits the lead characters in this kind of throwback Saturday afternoon matinee fare. Kitsch isn't completely devoid of charisma, mind you, but there's enough of a deficiency here that it impacts, for example, the effectiveness of his character's occasional stabs at humour. There's also only low-wattage chemistry between Carter and Collin's princess character, who speaks in an English accent and distractingly uses Brit expressions like "rubbish", which just sounds weird coming from a Martian.
Andrew Stanton, with a host of directing and writing credits for some of Pixar's best films, makes his live-action directing debut here, although John Carter is a movie that relies very heavily on CGI. That's actually its best feature - many of the visuals are downright spectacular, especially the fluid animations of the Tharks. Unfortunately, all that high tech prettiness can't save John Carter from the mediocrity that permeates the rest of the movie.
Rating: C-

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Garbage in Toronto [concert review]

May 28th, 2012, Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto
Garbage made a welcome return to Toronto this past Monday night in support of their first album in seven years, the excellent Not Your Kind Of People. The band's charged 100 minute performance thoroughly pleased the sold-out Phoenix Concert Theatre audience, many of whom (such as myself) probably thought they'd never get to experience the alt rock veterans live again after a lengthy hiatus stemming from tour burnout and a disenchantment with the music business.
Vocalist and frontwoman Shirley Manson, emanating a stylish coolness, turned in a reliably dynamic performance, balancing vampy stage theatrics with superb sounding vocals. This was my fourth time seeing the band and she's never sounded anything less than great (she also seemed genuinely thrilled to be back playing live). When the band's monitors crapped out during the beginning of "I Think I'm Paranoid", she deftly deflected the awkwardness of the moment by filling the few minutes of downtime with humour, crowd interaction (meeting a woman who had come all the way from Latvia), and whiskey shots. Flanking Manson onstage were Steve Marker and Duke Erikson (both on guitars and keyboards), with Butch Vig, of course, on drums, and touring bassist Eric Avery (formerly of Jane's Addiction). Now well into their second month of touring, the group is running like a well-oiled machine. I never fail to be impressed with how well Garbage recreate the sonically dense aspects of their albums, as the versatile Vig, Marker, and Erikson juggle their respective "traditional" instruments with the more technological requirements of the band's songs, such as having to trigger samples, or, say, Marker replicating the harmonica sound from the Zeppelin-ish "Control" on his keyboard. By the way, the perpetually stoic Erikson deserves special mention for rockin' a three-piece suit for most of the show, despite the stifling temperature inside the club.
The setlist provided a good representation of the band's best material, leaning heaviest on tracks from their self-titled debut with "Supervixen", "Queer", "Stupid Girl", "Milk", "Only Happy When It Rains", and concert-closer "Vow". Garbage's follow-up, Version 2.0, was also well-represented by "Temptation Waits", "Special", "I Think I'm Paranoid", and "Push It". Four songs from Not Your Kind Of People were featured and I was pleasantly surprised with how enthusiastically "Control", first single "Blood For Poppies", "Man On A Wire", and "Automatic Systematic Habit" were received by the crowd. The songs are strong, as was the band's performance of them, but it's always a bit of a crapshoot in terms of how an audience will respond to brand new material. Rounding out the set were a couple of Beautiful Garbage tracks ("Shut Your Mouth" and a lively "Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)"), three from my favourite Garbage album, 2005's Bleed Like Me ("Metal Heart", "Why Do You Love Me", and "Bad Boyfriend" delivered some of the heaviest music of the show), along with soundtrack songs "#1 Crush" and "The World Is Not Enough". The latter James Bond theme probably scored big points from a lot of diehards for its cachet in terms of obscure catalog material, but it's far from the band's best work. It, along with the similarly sleepy "Milk" (which works much better on the album, in my opinion) were the only two songs of the show that failed to maintain the rest of the set's momentum and win me over. Creating setlists on future tours in support of new music (*fingers crossed*) should present quite a challenge to the group - hopefully audiences aren't too underserved with material from the relatively less revered Bleed Like Me and Beautiful Garbage albums.
Supervixen/Temptation Waits/Shut Your Mouth/Queer/Metal Heart/Stupid Girl/Why Do You Love Me/Control/#1 Crush/Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)/Blood For Poppies/Special/Milk/Man On A Wire/I Think I'm Paranoid/Bad Boyfriend/Only Happy When It Rains/Push It
Automatic Systematic Habit/The World Is Not Enough/Vow
Oddest sight of the night: the tall concertgoer located about halfway between the stage and soundboard who shot the show's opening song on his iPad, holding the tablet right over his head and blocking my sightline of Manson (and I'm not short at 6'3). Thankfully, he put it away for most of the rest of the show. People constantly holding up cell phones and digital cameras at concerts is annoying enough - is this the next step? I know tablets are popular and all, but who the hell brings an iPad to a concert at a packed club?
Rating: A-