Friday, July 20, 2012

The Big C, Californication, Shameless reviews...

I originally had my reviews below of The Big C, Californication, and Shameless as part of one large post after oddly similar occurrences of complete frustration and apathy towards the TV shows hit me roughly halfway through viewings of each of their most recent seasons. All Showtime comedy-dramas, a lot of the same issues seem to plague each show, whose first seasons I all thoroughly enjoyed. This convergence of correlations seemed like a logical reason to just do the one large post covering all three, but I decided to break them up individually to make for more digestible reading (people are less inclined to read the longer posts).
Specifically, the two biggest issues plaguing all of them: too many of their characters became thoroughly unlikeable over time, plus they all suffer from an over-serving of unrealistic "only on TV could all these things happen to someone" moments. Yes, I know the latter is a basic component of most TV writing, but some shows go too over-the-top and Showtime programs are particularly guilty of it. It's one reason I was so unimpressed with the highly overrated Homeland (whose season one finale was utterly ludicrous), gave up on Weeds before reluctantly returning, bailed on Dexter after season three, and it threatens to pollute the excellent (so far) Nurse Jackie (all four are Showtime series). A show like Breaking Bad, which puts all of the aforementioned programs to shame with its consistent quality and pacing, isn't exempt from straying into plausibility-stretching territory itself, but the brains behind it know when to rein in their creative licence and stop short of inducing eyeball rolls from its viewers. One more gripe: all of these shows, along with a number of other network and cable programs, have run the idea of playing a hip, modern-day song over an episode's final scene (usually some sort of montage) into the bloody ground. Please stop.
The repetitive and unrealistic writing that seems to inevitably find its way into most cable and network dramas and comedies suggests that the British television model, which tends to favour shorter seasons and series runs, is the ideal approach to avoiding creative staleness. On to the reviews...

The Big C [television review]

Premise: Laura Linney plays Cathy Jamison, a reserved middle-aged schoolteacher who develops a new outlook on life after being diagnosed with melanoma.
I can't remember the last time I did a 180 on a show as severely as I have with The Big C, which premiered in the summer of 2010, just finished airing its third season last month, and whose fate for season four is currently undecided. Two great leads in Linney and Oliver Platt (so good on the sadly missed Huff) were able to transcend some of the half hour show's overly whimsical writing that reached unintentionally comical levels during the final scene in season one and only went further downhill from that point. The progressive self-involvement and selfishness of Linney's character, even as someone dealing with cancer, had become insufferable by the conclusion of season three. Platt has held his own and deserves recognition for being the only regular character on the show not to have managed to alienate me.
An annoying core supporting cast is made up of Gabriel Basso as Cathy's sullen son, John Benjamin Hickey as her homeless brother whose mental illness is played for wacky laughs, and Precious' Gabourey Sidibe, all whose presence just add further points to The Big C's "reasons not to watch" column. Sidibe's role as a sassy black woman trying not to be defined by her plus size was expanded as the series went on, and involved some of the laziest writing I've seen this side of most of the episodes from the last season of The Walking Dead. The writers laughably shoehorned her in as a new resident at Cathy's house, seemingly just to get her more screen time, while a too-painful-to-watch story arc this past season has seen her getting in touch with her African roots, further cementing her stature for me as the most annoying character I've seen on TV in recent memory.
The Big C relies a fair bit on guest appearances from well-known actors that usually extend over multiple episodes, with decidedly mixed results. Less successful turns have come from Liam Neeson, Victor Garber, Susan Sarandon, and Parker Posey, while decent-to-good appearances were delivered by Alan Alda, The Wire's Idris Elba, and Sex And The City's Cynthia Nixon.
No amount of outside talent being brought in can distract from the fact that The Big C has squandered a promising premise and the talents of two highly capable lead actors with inept writing and poor support help. The show's ratings, which have declined significantly since a record-setting debut, suggest I'm not alone in my disappointment and dissatisfaction.
Rating: D

Californication [television review]

Premise: A novelist navigates the cutthroat business waters of Hollywood and perpetually finds himself in hot water as a result of his rampant libido, to the chagrin of his daughter and longtime girlfriend. Hilarity ensues.
David Duchovny's Hank Moody character started off as a seemingly complex, overly horny, charming scamp who never seemed to be without a sharp-witted comeback when Californication debuted in the summer of 2007. Fast-forward to five seasons and 60 episodes into the half hour show's run and Hank has shown little to no character growth, with most of those aforementioned qualities now rendering him an unbearable douchebag. The show's incessant recycling of storylines where Hank sleeps with an endless parade of beautiful woman who throw themselves at him, which nearly always leads to some sort of trouble, is beyond played out. The main sources of disapproval concerning Hank's dalliances are his on/off girlfriend, Karen, (played by Natasha McElhone) and precocious daughter, Becca (played by Madeleine Martin). Karen's overly gracious tolerance level for Hank's shenanigans, even though she does eventually reach a breaking point, make it difficult to have any respect for her and Becca, well, her fragile, eggheaded character remained cloying from the first episode. The oft-repeated instances of Becca telling her dad how disappointed she was in him after his latest screw up came to be as predictable as the show's gratuitous use of nudity .
Californication is littered with "jump the shark" moments throughout its history that would go a long way to steering me away from the show, like the storyline/plot point that involved Becca learning the guitar, becoming a busker at Venice Beach, and eventually starting a horrible band fronted by Zoe Kravitz (Lenny's daughter). The scene where their band hilariously butchers Alice In Chains' "Would?" during their first gig as an opener for Black Label Society at L.A.'s Whiskey A Go Go (yeah, like that could happen), or other stories involving characters played by an out-of-his-element Rob Lowe, Wu-Tang Clan's RZA as an off-his-rocker rap mogul, Rick Springfield, and Callum Keith Rennie also point to this show's overreaching desperation to be edgy and hip, right down to the ridiculous leather wrist bands that middle-aged Hank wears.
The show's last couple of bright spots heading into the most recent season were Evan Handler and Pamela Adlon as Charlie and Marcy Runkle, but even they finally wore out their welcome. Both characters are symbolic of the shock tactic, gutter sensibility that Californication wallows in, whether it's the copious amounts of depraved sex or profanity overkill. As I've stated more than once on this blog, I am far from a being prude, but Californication's generally sleaze-heavy tone, coupled with its other considerable flaws, translates into a show that's run its course for me.
Rating: C-

Shameless [television review]

Premise: The large Gallagher family, led by alcoholic father Frank (played by William H. Macy) and his overburdened-with-responsibility daughter Fiona (played by Emmy Rossum) try not to suffocate from the poverty and extreme dysfunction that dominates their lives in the South Side of Chicago.
Shameless, an American remake of the British series of the same name, debuted in January of last year and wrapped its second season in April. Contradictory (and ironically) to what I wrote in the introductory post to this and my Californication and The Big C reviews about the normally brief runs of British shows, the UK Shameless has actually now aired nine seasons and 115 episodes. I only watched the seven episode first season of the original Manchester, England-set version and never got engaged enough to stick with it. When the hour-long U.S. version debuted, I was surprised at how faithfully they adhered to some of the source material's plots, particularly the episode where the Frank character has a drunken blackout and wakes up far from home (Toronto replaces the original's setting of France). The exaggerated dysfunctional dynamic from the British version also remains intact.
The U.S. version benefits from a much better cast, highlighted by Rossum as the 21-year-old saddled with the role of the Gallagher's matriarch who must run a household of five kids in the absence of her mother (who left the family) and the notorious unreliability of her derelict father. Rossum brings a tough, world-weary sexiness to her character and Macy runs with the wealth of deficiencies Frank allows him to portray, such as supreme narcissism and a caustic bitterness. Frank Gallagher may well be the most unlikeable character ever created for television. This is a man who is not above romancing both a dying woman and an agoraphobic woman (played by Joan Cusack) for financial gain, he illegally collects disability cheques, he's a terrible father who has no qualms about screwing over any of his kids to benefit himself, and he's literally the neighbourhood drunk whose drunken behaviour has thoroughly alienated all of his friends, acquaintances, and family.
The supporting cast is solid, highlighted by Shanola Hampton and Steve Howey as an interracial couple and neighbours of the Gallaghers. Cameron Monaghan and Jeremy Allen White as the elder Gallagher brothers believably portray the combative relationship between Irish Catholic siblings, while Emma Kenney as their eleven-year-old sister is good, even if the writers go to the comedy well a little too often with the wise-beyond-her-years nature of the character. Ethan Cutcosky as the second youngest of the Gallagher brood is pretty much a non-factor, as he's given little more to do than demonstrate one-dimensional sociopath-in-the-making tendencies. The youngest Gallagher is a baby that's black...which neither of the parents obviously are. The novelty from that joke wears off fairly quickly and the issue is virtually dismissed after coming up in the first episode. Cusack's housebound June Cleaver-crossed-with-a-sexual-deviant character is eccentric beyond the point of believability and doesn't deliver much entertainment value. My least favourite supporting player on the show has been Justin Chatwin as Fiona's not-who-he-appears-to-be suitor. He's a fine enough actor, but his character is slick and arrogant to the point of abrasion for me and the couple's messy relationship has been one of the series' weakest points so far.
I'm still on the fence about sticking with Shameless, just because it can be a slog getting through episodes of a series where so many of the characters are as morally bankrupt as this lot, who are constantly conning one another and stabbing each other in the back. Even though their duplicitous behaviour is played for dark laughs, too often the "dark" wearyingly overwhelms the "laughs" part of that formula - truly, this is a show that lives up to its title. No act or subject matter too risque seems to be off the table, as demonstrated in scenes like the one where a character literally pisses on the grave of her recently deceased father, who she'd been estranged from. An excess of "only on TV could all these things happen to someone" writing also hampers the likeability of the show, as does Shameless' sky-high quotient of quirkiness.
Rating: C

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Hunter [film review]

Limited North American theatrical release in April; now available on most home video platforms
While watching The Hunter, which was adapted from a novel of the same title by Australian writer Julia Leigh, I found myself drawing parallels to The American, which I reviewed here last year. On the surface, both would appear to offer the promise of some action or thriller movie excitement, but are actually slow-moving yet engaging films, featuring loner protagonists conflicted by their fundamentally similar occupations who seem to be yearning for a meaningful human connection, in stories set amongst picturesque backdrops.
The Hunter star Willem Dafoe doesn't have the good looks or charm (muted as it was) that George Clooney had going for him in The American. In fact, Dafoe's gaunt cheekbones, creased face, and haunted eyes are actually a physical benefit to his mysterious character, Martin David. Martin is deliberately given little to no backstory; all we know is he's a mercenary-for-hire who you know has been through the proverbial shit. He's hired by a biotech company to track down a Tasmanian tiger allegedly spotted in the Australian wilderness, even though the species is thought to have gone extinct in the 1930s. The company seeks tissue samples from the animal for vague reasons, but they're a multinational corporation, so you know those reasons are probably nefarious. Martin's home base for the job sets him up at the cabin of a woman named Lucy Armstrong (played by Frances O'Connor) and her two kids. Lucy is a wreck, incapacitated by an excess of anti-depressant medication that's supposed to be helping her deal with the absence of her missing (and presumed dead) husband. Sam Neill has a small role as a friend of the family and Martin's somewhat suspicious local contact.
The Hunter, like The American, is one of those quiet films that succeeds or fails almost exclusively on the strength of the lead actor's performance and Dafoe, possessing a resume filled with interesting and unpredictable career choices on which The Hunter fits right in, certainly does his share of heavy lifting here. Dafoe is never less than intriguing to watch, even when the storyline occasionally spins its wheels and strains credulity. Martin's burgeoning relationship with Lucy and her kids plays a significant part in the film, but rings somewhat false, even though they do manage to produce more than a few nice moments together. For someone presented as a lone wolf-type of character, he falls just a little too easily and willingly into the family's vacant male figure position. One scene in particular, which prominently features the usage of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" (the licensing rights probably ate up half of the independent film's small budget), is cringe-inducingly bad, as the screenplay and director Daniel Nettheim step into lazy Hollywood sap territory. When Martin isn't helping to pick up the pieces of the Armstrong's lives, he's off in the lush, rugged Tasmanian wilderness (spectacularly captured by Nettheim) looking for his perhaps-mythical prey, with Dafoe convincingly selling Martin's veteran tracking and survival skills. There's a methodical tedium that goes along with Martin's work and the film doesn't shy away from showing some of it, which is in keeping with the leisurely pace that The Hunter maintains throughout its duration.
"Leisurely pace" may be an understatement for a lot of viewers, who will likely find The Hunter painfully slow and overly sparse in both its makeup and amount of tension. Add in the film's uneven ending and, frankly, the negatives seem to outweigh the positives. At the conclusion of The Hunter, I found myself fairly surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did, not unlike my experience with The American. In the past, there's been plenty of other movies sharing some those aforementioned factors and flaws that I've hated, oftentimes to the point where I've bailed out early. An appealing premise and Dafoe's impressive performance elevates The Hunter substantially above such forgettable fare, though.
Rating: B

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Cult - Choice Of Weapon [album review]

Released in May
Choice Of Weapon is studio album number nine for The Cult, a band that became so disenchanted with the music industry over the past decade that they decided not to release any more music as conventional albums, a format that lead singer Ian Astbury referred to as "dead". Much of that attitude was fostered by contentious relationships with their last two labels. 2010 saw the release of two separate "capsules", as the band called them, which consisted of content including two new tracks each, live recordings, and videos on various media platforms. Frankly, the concept and the four new songs didn't impress me much (they're available as bonus tracks on Choice Of Weapon's deluxe edition). The group eventually bowed to pressure from fans and prospective labels clamouring for new music to be released in proper album form.
Choice Of Weapon disappointingly plays it too safe, delivering all the hallmarks of The Cult's sound, including guitarist Billy Duffy's droning guitar style and wah-wah solos, lots of tambourine, and Astbury's befuddling lyrics rooted in shamanism and Eastern religions, but coming up short with memorable material. "The Wolf", "Amnesia", "Elemental Light", and "Honey From A Knife" all sound like Cult-101 and failed to inspire much passion from me. They're not awful, mind you, they just left me feeling rather indifferent and sounded overly interchangeable with some of the band's past work. Only one track of the album's ten qualifies as what I would call outstanding - the brawny "For The Animals" (and even that song's tail end breakdown section echoes the same type of section from "Fire Woman" a little too closely). The track gets a small, yet welcome new wrinkle added to the band's sound with a simple, repetitive piano part over some of the verses and choruses. The Cult have used piano on their slower material in the past, but I don't recall them using it on their heavier songs before (it shows up on the also-heavy "Honey From A Knife"). The dark "Lucifer" starts off promisingly, but is undercut by shaky verse and chorus sections...which doesn't leave a whole lot else in the song, does it? The bluesy "A Pale Horse" is fairly decent and contains some interesting elements, including a start/stop structure. The Cult is usually reliable for at least one solid epic-sounding ballad per album and "Life > Death" just manages (in terms of the "solid", I mean) to fill that spot, while the other slower songs, "Wilderness Now" and the psychedelia-indulging "This Night In The City Forever" can best be characterized as bland.
My overall impression of Choice Of Weapon is amazingly similar to how I felt about The Cult's last full-length album, 2007's Born Into This. It was also highlighted by one lone killer track ("Sound Of Destruction") and surrounded by a lot of average-to-poor material. Whereas many veteran bands have proven their best creative days are well behind them, The Cult still show flashes of their old songwriting brilliance and it doesn't feel like they're that far removed, time-wise, from the magnificent beginning-to-end results generated on their underrated 2001 reunion album, Beyond Good And Evil.
For a band so keen to shake up the status quo as far as how the music industry game is played, Choice Of Weapon feels like an awfully pedestrian effort. I will give them props for that badass album cover, though, which features Astbury underneath all those feathers, pelts, and horns.
Rating: C

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory [film review]

Premiered on HBO in January; scheduled for Blu-ray and DVD release on August 14th (part of an ongoing series of reviews covering older releases from the past year that "fell through the cracks")
Somehow, HBO's Paradise Lost series of documentaries from the directing team of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky eluded my eyes over the years. As a media junkie, it was impossible to escape the strong critical notices received by 1996's Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills and its follow-up four years later, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Add in the fact that one of my favourite bands, Metallica, received a lot of attention for the then-extremely rare granting of their music to be used in the films, plus the fact that Berlinger and Sinofsky directed both the excellent Brother's Keeper and the brilliant Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster docs and, well, I have no good explanation for missing the boat. I took care of that in the course of one evening a little while ago, watching the first, second, and latest film, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, in rapid succession. I probably wouldn't recommend subjecting yourself to six hours and 40 minutes of emotionally raw cinema in one sitting, but each film was so gripping that it was nearly impossible not to keep watching.
For the uninitiated, the films look at the cases of the "West Memphis Three", three young men (made up of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley) who were convicted in 1994 for the murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas the previous year. Echols was put on death row, while Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences, even though, as the films show, the case was poorly handled by authorities and the circumstantial evidence against the trio was flawed. The first documentary stirred up international media attention and high profile celebrities, including Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines, and Johnny Depp got involved in the movement to have the trio exonerated. Director Peter Jackson also committed himself to the cause, helping to bankroll investigative efforts to aid in freeing the men, as well as making his own documentary on the subject with the upcoming West Of Memphis. And yet another filmmaker has found the West Memphis Three's story ripe for the cinematic treatment (a dramatic retelling in this case) - Atom Egoyan's Devil's Knot, starring Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Amy Adams, and The Killing's Mireille Enos will begin shooting next month.
Berlinger and Sinofsky do a good job in making Paradise Lost 3 function ably as a standalone piece of work, recapping the salient details presented in the first two docs, while also adding some previously unused footage from those projects (the deeply disturbing crime scene footage, showing close-up shots of the naked bodies of the victims, is used once again here). It gives new viewers a fine enough understanding of the case, but I still highly recommend watching those first two films. The first Paradise Lost, in particular, is heralded as one of the best documentaries ever made for a reason. Updated interviews with the incarcerated trio effectively convey both the emotional and physical toll of prison life, along with their obvious ongoing frustration at the lack of justice. One nice side story, briefly touched upon in the series' second documentary, focusses on the relationship between Echols and Lorri Davis, a woman who was so affected by the first film that she started writing him. After establishing a real connection with Echols, Davis ended up leaving her lucrative job as an architect in Brooklyn to move to Arkansas and be closer to him, while also contributing to his freedom movement (the pair married in 1999). Also featured prominently is the fascinating John Mark Byers, a hulking figure who one suspects isn't playing with a full deck. His strange behaviour and unpredictability, on full display in all three films now, is a documentary filmmaker's wet dream. The adoptive father of one of the victims, Byers emerged at the end of the second Paradise Lost as a highly suspicious figure. In this film, he's dramatically changed his previous tune on who he thinks committed the murders.
Paradise Lost 3's most important information reveals new DNA evidence, from testing not available at the time of the trio's convictions, that further strengthens their assertions of innocence. Also notable is new information from a medical examiner that dismisses the originally held belief that the victims were mutilated by the killer(s) (he provides extremely strong evidence that wild animals were responsible for post-mortem trauma inflicted on the bodies). All of the factors pointing to the innocence of the Three led to the dramatic announcement last August 19th that Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were finally going to be released after 18 years in jail. Unfortunately, the state of Arkansas took the cowardly way out by making their release conditional on the men invoking the rarely used "Alford plea", whereby they must sign a confession of guilt, even while asserting their innocence to the crime (basically, it takes the state off the hook for any wrongful imprisonment lawsuits). That announcement came just three weeks before the world premiere of Paradise Lost 3 at the Toronto International Film Festival, which didn't allow enough time for changes to the film for TIFF screenings. An extra dozen minutes covering the turn of events and reaction to it were added for subsequent screenings at other festivals and the documentary's television premiere.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more engrossing or better constructed true-life crime documentary than what the Paradise Lost series of films delivers. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory isn't quite as good as part one, but ranks slightly better than part two. Unquestionably, Berlinger's and Sinofsky's efforts are one of the main reasons these three men are now free, which points to the power of art and the influence it can occasionally wield. Considering the late-in-the-game timing of the trio's release and the numerous angles still open to exploration for the filmmakers, I'd fully expect and welcome a fourth entry in the series sometime in the future.
Rating: A-

Monday, July 2, 2012

Prong - Carved Into Stone [album review]

Released in April
New York City metal band Prong never quite went beyond the "cult following" level of success they attained up through their excellent fourth album, 1994's Cleansing, before calling it quits two years later following the release of its strong follow-up, Rude Awakening. I lost track of the band shortly after that until about a month ago, when I saw they had a new album out and had been putting out releases sporadically throughout the past decade since reforming in 2000. The lone constant in the band is founder Tommy Victor (lead vocals and guitars), with bassist Tony Campos and drummer Alexei Rodriguez rounding out the trio nowadays. Carved Into Stone, their latest, delivers a fulfilling metal fix, along with the pleasant surprise that comes with hearing a great album from a group that had completely fallen off my radar screen as a fan. And chalk one up here for illegal downloading leading to an album sale, as I never would have bought the CD or probably even known Prong were still around if I hadn't seen Carved Into Stone on one of my download sites.
Still intact from when I last heard new material from the band 16 years ago is the aggression and anger in the lyrics and music, as you would expect from a group that integrates elements of thrash metal, hardcore punk, and (to a lesser degree) industrial metal. I always thought Prong sounded a little ahead of their time back in the 90s, so sticking with the core components of their sound from that period doesn't sound dated in 2012. A full throttle threesome of "Eternal Heat", "Keep On Living In Pain", and "Ammunition" open the album and feature some thunderous drumming from Rodriguez and Victor's heavy guitar riffing, accented by fretboard harmonic squeals that the guitarist utilizes almost as much as Zakk Wylde. Speaking of things Ozzy-related, "Subtract" and the title track show an obvious Black Sabbath influence, particularly the latter's "Children Of The Grave"-like mid-song section. "Revenge Best Served Cold", one of the album's healthy serving of about eight top-notch tracks, successfully combines a big, hooky chorus with uncompromising heaviness and some tasteful guitar leads throughout the song. Victor delivers plenty of incendiary guitar soloing throughout the rest of the album as well, notably on "List Of Grievances", "Put Myself To Sleep", and "Ammunition". Vocally, Victor's singing/yelling style may not be everybody's cup of tea, but it serves the material well.
Prong's latest likely won't expand their fanbase much past those already with the band's albums in their collection, but it certainly stacks up with the group's best work from the 90s. In fact, after sampling the last couple of Prong albums I missed (just to give myself a complete picture of their discography), I'd say that Carved Into Stone marks their strongest album yet.
Rating: B+