Wednesday, October 31, 2012

KISS - Destroyer (Resurrected) [album review]

Released in August

One of the latest products in KISS' long line of cash grabs from diehard fans (and I used to be one for almost three decades) involves the latest reissue of their best album, 1976's Destroyer. Initially teased as a lavish deluxe edition featuring plenty of previously unreleased material, Destroyer (Resurrected) delivers next to nothing of value in the way of special extras. All that paying fans/suckers will get is one of the original album's tracks with a different guitar solo on it, a brief essay from Destroyer producer Bob Ezrin (who remixed the album to minimally noticeable effect), a few previously unseen photos, and the original album cover artwork. Artist Ken Kelley's originally intended piece was deemed to be too grim by the band's label, Casablanca Records, so Kelly added more colour and changed the band's outfits for the iconic replacement painting that ended up on the front of KISS' first platinum album.

With virtually no worthwhile extras in the package to speak of, the main draw towards this reissue for fans will be Ezrin's remixes. A posting on the band's official website prior to Resurrected's release promised Ezrin had "fleshed out the drums and guitars, bringing out the bottom end to the bass, making his mixes tight and tough". Because I clearly don't have enough of a life, I conducted an experiment: through a good set of headphones, I went back and forth between listening to a song from the 1997 remastered Destroyer CD reissue and then following it with a listen to the same song on Resurrected. I'd like to think I have a pretty good ear and all I could hear on the supposed upgrade is an unnecessarily fiddled-with recording with some very minor differences, and perhaps some other subtle improvements that will stand out if you're one of the miniscule percentage of the population who earn their livings as audio engineers. I'm simply not hearing the advertised "punching up" of the original recording and only one enhancement was immediately obvious to me - the sound of some acoustic guitars that were previously buried in the mix on "Beth". Hearing them now supplement the orchestral foundation of the song is slightly interesting, but do I like the ballad any more after their unearthing? Nope...loved it before, love it just the same now. There are supposedly also some extra vocal tracks on the track, but I can't discern where they are. Other questionable vocal tinkering takes place on "Detroit Rock City", where an extra "Get up, get down" line is added during a chorus, as well as one word in the third verse being changed ("Movin' fast down 95" has been changed to "Movin' fast, doin' 95" shattering, huh?). I've heard the original version of this song many hundreds of times and neither change was apparent to me upon my first three listens of the Resurrected version, until I read about them in another review and then went back and could make them out. The "extra track" is nothing more than the song "Sweet Pain" with the brief original solo from then-lead guitarist Ace Frehley edited in. His solo was shelved for Destroyer's release and replaced by a superior one from Dick Wagner, who Ezrin had worked with as a producer for Alice Cooper. And get this regarding the song "Flaming Youth": one of the digital versions of the track (the one I have and the one most likely to be purchased) and initial CD versions of it have a jarring flaw at the five second mark, where a half beat section from the song is missing (apparently the higher quality and pricier digital track on the iTunes store is okay). How on earth does something like that make it past the band or record company's quality control?

I had a long history with this band until reaching the end of my rope with the levels to which KISS founding members Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley will whore themselves out for a merchandising buck, along with other misguided career moves that tarnished a name that meant so much to me for the majority of my life. In a shameless KISS marketing universe that offers up crap like a KISS coffin, KISS footed pajamas, KISS/Hello Kitty toilet paper, and a new KISS book with a price tag of $4,250 (!), Destroyer (Resurrected) is a relatively less embarrassing example of the latest product to roll off the band's merchandising assembly line. Unfortunately, it does little to enhance an ambitious, truly classic rock album that has sounded just fine for the past 36 years. And for the record, I'll readily admit to reviewing this release from an illegally downloaded copy of the album (JPGs and some online research informed me as to what the album artwork and packaging consisted of). For some of you, that may totally negate the credibility of this review. All I'll say to that is I've already purchased Destroyer four times over the years: on vinyl, cassette, its first CD pressing, and the subsequent CD remaster in 1997. Considering how much I've soured on the band in recent years, there for damn sure was not going to be a fifth. 

Original Destroyer Rating: A
Destroyer (Resurrected) Rating:

Related posts: my October 2009 review of KISS' Sonic Boom album and my January 2010 review of Ace Frehley's Anomaly album

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Slash - Apocalyptic Love [album review]

Released in May

After the disjointed guest vocalist approach Slash took on his last self-titled solo release (which I reviewed in 2010), Apocalyptic Love sees the musician sticking with the lead singer and touring band he used to support that album: a Canadian rhythm section consisting of drummer Brent Fitz (Union, Theory Of A Deadman, Alice Cooper) and bassist Todd Kerns (Age Of Electric), plus lead vocalist Myles Kennedy (Alter Bridge), who contributed vocals to a couple of the Slash album songs. Collectively, the outfit is known as Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators - not very succinct, is it? The band name may be a little weak, but Apocalyptic Love is anything but, especially in comparison to the highly disappointing results from Slash's last outing. Had some guy named Eddie Van Halen not put out an album earlier this year, Apocalyptic Love would easily be my guitar album of the year. 

Slash sticks to his strength with an album mostly consisting of the sleazy hard rock sound that turned him into a six-stringed icon with Guns N' Roses. The musician really airs it out over the course of the album's 13 tracks, with riff after wah-wah pedal-drenched riff that would assuredly flummox 99% of the guitarists in any band with an album currently on the Billboard 200 album chart, were they forced to recreate his licks. The acrobatic and greasy rhythm lead line he plays in the opening title track sets the tone for the album, with other standout solo turns on "Standing In The Sun", "You're A Lie", and "Shots Fired". The highlight of the album in terms of dynamic fretboard displays, though, is "Anastasia", where a classical acoustic guitar intro gives way to a neo-classical-influenced main electric riff, before eventually working its way towards the song's coda that recalls the epic Slash-led instrumental interplay on tracks like "Coma" and "Double Talkin' Jive" from GNR's Use Your Illusion I album. Slash's Chuck Berry influence is evident on solid tracks like "Hard & Fast" and "One Last Thrill", and there's also a couple of requisite power ballads with the bluesy "Far And Away" and the heavier, less memorable "Not For Me". Rounding out the other notable tracks are "Bad Rain", "We Will Roam", and "No More Heroes".

Slash was wise to rein in his collaborative process, which included leaving Kennedy to compose all of the lyrics (even if his words aren't terribly original) and co-write all but one of Apocalyptic Love's songs with him, resulting in an album that sounds remarkably more focussed than its predecessor and the best thing the guitarist has put out since the Use Your Illusion albums over two decades ago. I'd have thought Slash's former Velvet Revolver bandmate Scott Weiland would have been the guy that could get the guitarist to live up to his potential in his post-GNR years. Turns out that nod actually goes to the talented Kennedy, who, it should be noted, also sounds remarkably like Axl Rose at times, particularly when he pushes his voice into the higher octaves.

Rating: A-

Related post: my February review of Van Halen's A Different Kind Of Truth album

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Emm Gryner - The Best Of [album review]

Released on Tuesday

I won't go on about how Canadian artist Emm Gryner is a woefully underappreciated talent...I already did so in my probably gushing "Get to know Emm Gryner" post back in June. The Best Of nicely summarizes her career since the musician's 1995 debut album release of And Distrust It, with 18 songs that range from aching ballads to highly infectious pop. The first 1000 CD copies of The Best Of come with a bonus disc comprised of 19 more career-spanning tracks. As usual, anyone who put in an early pre-order for the album on her website received their CD signed and a heartfelt note from the musician, an always appreciated personal touch from Gryner. The album booklet also features brief, but illuminating recollections of all of the main disc's songs.

I'm more partial to the mid-to-present-day portion of Gryner's career, so there's a few omissions from her more recent work that are missed, such as her memorable duet with Sass Jordan on "Sunrise Sometimes", "Leftover Love", and "Black-Eyed Blue Sky". Most head-scratching, however, is the absence of "Sweet Destroyer". I'd listened to each of The Best Of discs once before I realized the song was nowhere to be found on either, which completely shocked me. Frankly, it'd be in a dead heat with "North" as my favourite Gryner song. Out of curiosity, I went and looked up the 15 songs I picked a few months back for a Gryner best-of playlist compiled for some friends and family and found it interesting that only five of my picks matched up with those assembled on The Best Of's main disc. But listen, the last thing I want to do is turn this into a petty bitch session when it involves an artist I admire so much. These types of compilation releases will never please everybody, especially if your aim is to provide a representation of your entire body of work, as Gryner has done here (she also sought tracklisting feedback from fans on Facebook). 

That some of my favourite tracks might not appear and The Best Of remains a fantastic collection of songs is a testament to the bounty of first-rate music that Gryner has produced over the years. Again, just sticking to what's on the main disc, it's difficult to argue with the inclusion of earlier tracks like "Summerlong", "Your Sort Of Human Being", "Stereochrome", and her haunting piano-driven covers of Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" and Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar On Me". The Summer Of High Hopes album is deservingly well-represented with four essential tracks: "Girls Are Murder", Blackwinged Bird", "Almighty Love", and "All-Time Low", so that might explain the omission of "Sweet Destroyer", which also appeared on that release. Her uplifting duet with Nova Scotia's Joel Plaskett on "Gold Soul Of Rock N Roll", "Ciao Monday", and "North" round out the tracks representing Gryner's last couple of years of work. The two funked-up new songs (one on each disc), "Trans Am" and "Live Like Legends", are worthy additions to Gryner's catalogue, while additional one-per-disc bonus tracks "The Winter" and "Safety In Solitude" offer a welcome taste of the musician's earliest professional work for those of us fans who have never been able to track down the long-unavailable And Distrust It. "Safety In Solitude" is particularly impressive, with a bigger orchestral sound than I would have expected from Gryner's first outing.  

Coming up for Gryner is the November 6th release of her next project as part of the trio Trent Severn, with Dayna Manning and Laura C. Bates. Sweet harmony vocals and a celebration of Canadiana is promised. After that, Gryner teases in the note she included in The Best Of that her next solo release "might be a rock record", which is certainly interest-piquing as someone who shares her love of 80s hard rock. 

Rating: A

Sample Gryner's music at her SoundCloud page and purchase it at iTunes. Below is a video of her performance of "North" from the CBC studios...yes, I already included the video with my June review of Gryner's Northern Gospel album, but it's so damn good that I thought it merited another posting.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Tragically Hip - Now For Plan A [album review]

Released earlier this month

The Tragically Hip are a group that I've always found enigmatic. Probably only second to Rush as Canada's most beloved rock band (apologies to The Guess Who), the Kingston, Ontario outfit has a history of eliciting either very hot or very cold responses to their albums from me. Back when I actually listened to the radio, I'd immediately reach for the tuner when anything off their first three releases was played (and tracks like "Blow At High Dough", "New Orleans Is Sinking", "Last American Exit", and "Little Bones" were played ad nauseum on Toronto-area rock stations back then). Then 1992's Fully Completely came out and I was transformed from a hater into a lover, albeit on a selective level - I still can't stand their earliest material. To this day, Fully Completely remains one of the best albums in my music collection. Its follow-up (Day For Night) was good, but far less memorable, and the next album (Trouble At The Henhouse) had the outstanding "Ahead By A Century" and little else that left a lasting impression. "Bobcaygeon" from 1998 was the last good Hip song I'd hear for the next decade, as their output during that time either flew underneath my radar, or the singles I did hear failed to stir any interest. Fast forward to 2009, where I find myself emphatically hopping back on board the Hip bandwagon after sampling their We Are The Same album on a whim and being knocked on my ass at how good it was. Which brings us to their 13th studio release, Now For Plan A, promoted by the band with a series of live performances at a Now For Plan A store they opened for four days in Toronto's Kensington market area the week of the album's release.  

Now For Plan A is a worthy successor to We Are The Same, similarly delivering a high level of quality throughout nearly all of the album's eleven tracks ("Streets Ahead" is a bit of a dud), including what I think are a couple of candidates for some of the strongest work the group has ever created in the title track and "We Want To Be It". "Now For Plan A" opens with a 75 second instrumental section constructed of shimmering guitars and light percussive touches that lend the laid-back track a dreamy quality, with guest vocalist Sarah Harmer contributing some beautiful harmony vocals that nicely compliment those of vocalist Gord Downie (Harmer also sings on "The Lookahead"). "We Want To Be It" and its insanely catchy verses and choruses just may be the best Hip song I've ever heard, as Downie's idiosyncratic vocal style is on full display via his oddball "drip, drip, drip" refrain (listen below). Downie's weirdness can be alienating (witness the batty extended live version of "New Orleans Is Sinking" where Downie goes off on a monologue that has him having a conversation with a killer whale), but on Now For Plan A, I find it adds an extra measure of attraction to the material. Certainly, "We Want To Be It" would be a less interesting piece of work without that quality, which also manifests itself in the track's unorthodox lyrical structure. The first few lines of "About This Map" also stand out with some unconventional wordplay: About this map/Here we are here/See, this is us/The exit is here. On paper, those lines shouldn't work, but Downie somehow makes it come together effectively. Now For Plan A is fairly evenly split between poppier material and songs that rock a little more, such as the dark album opener "At Transformation", "Man Machine Poem", and "Take Forever". Further standout tracks: the captivating ballad "Done And Done" and album closer "Goodnight Attawapiskat", referencing the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario that made headlines last year during a housing crisis in their community. 

The Tragically Hip are a perfect example of one of those groups whose bar band sound shouldn't sound unique, but somehow does - you know who it is after only hearing a few seconds of music, before Downie even injects his eccentricities into the mix. I listened to a few of Now For Plan A's songs specifically trying to figure out what gives them that identifiable sound - is it a particular method of mixing/production, or signature styles from drummer Johnny Fay, bassist Gord Sinclair, and guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois? I'm just not hearing anything unique. Whatever method they employ to generate that standalone instrumental identity, it and Downie's signature quirkiness has definitely been working for them to great effect lately. Based on my track record with this band, I wouldn't even hazard a guess as to how much I'll like what the Hip are coming up with ten years from now, though. 

Rating: B

Dokken - Broken Bones [album review]

Released in September

Sadly, Dokken is not so rockin' any more. It's a step up from their last album, 2008's forgettable Lightning Strikes Again, but the hard rock band's latest release sounds like the product of an outfit that is both going through the motions and whose songwriting skills have deteriorated dramatically since their 80s heyday. So it's probably for the best, then, that this looks like it'll be the last Dokken album, as frontman Don Dokken recently told Classic Rock magazine. Studio album number eleven, Broken Bones, finds yet another new configuration of musicians in a band that's had a perpetually increasing number of lineups over their career. The only constants have been founding members Dokken (who by now has lost a ton of his high end vocal range) and drummer Mick Brown, who made news this past summer by getting arrested for a drunken golf cart-stealing escapade after a gig he played with Ted Nugent (click the link for the amusing details and Brown's even more amusing mug shot). Newest addition Sean McNabb, a hard rock journeyman bassist, joins guitarist Jon Levin, who has been with the group for almost a decade and interestingly also pulls double duty as their lawyer.

Levin's playing is probably the best thing about Broken Bones, which is steeped in cliched lyrics and song titles that point to the album's mostly uninspired vibe. Granted, Dokken have never been singled out for their lyrical depth or originality, but one look at titles like "Best Of Me", "The Victim Of The Crime", "Burning Tears", "Today", "For The Last Time", "Fade Away", and "Tonight" gives you an idea of what you're in for before a note is heard. Mostly sticking with the Dokken topical staple of relationships gone sour, a lot of the lyrics are no better: Still these broken bones within my soul remain/Even as your shadow slowly slips away ("Broken Bones"); Sweet little sister, what have you done?/Sweet little sister, are you still on the run? (and some other such nonsense involving tears tasting like bitter rain in the song "Fade Away"). You get the idea. Dokken's musical ideas are, for the most part, only slightly better than Broken Bones' trite prose, with album highlights "For The Last Time" and "Fade Away" injecting a bit of life into things following a sleepy mid-album stretch. The former's effective quiet/loud and slow/fast dynamic stands out on an album overloaded with mid-tempo material and features some George Lynch-worthy guitar soloing from the impressive Levin. Following a burning album opener in "Empire" that demonstrates Dokken's knack of usually producing memorable results when they ratchet up the pace and heaviness level, someone inexplicably decided to bunch three of those mid-tempo songs together (the title track, "Best Of Me", and "Blind"), killing Broken Bones' out-of-the-gate momentum with material that feels completely interchangeable.

Broken Bones has a small handful of quite fine moments, but is mostly saddled with the kind of filler-heavy material the band has been padding their albums with for their entire career. Look elsewhere for your melodic hard rock fix.

Rating: C-

Related post: my 2009 blog entry featuring the hilarious "Dokken vs. Chicken" commercial the band did for software company Norton 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

9.79* [film review]

9.79*, the second entry in the second volume of ESPN Films' acclaimed 30 For 30 sports documentary series, examines the scandal-plagued 1988 Seoul Olympics men's 100 metre final event and the culture of sports doping. For the first time anywhere, director Daniel Gordon assembles all of that race's eight runners to discuss the event and its legacy, producing a briskly paced 80 minute film that is consistently fascinating.

Ben Johnson, the Jamaican-born Canadian sprinter who became the central focus of the scandal after testing positive for anabolic steroids and having his gold medal stripped, emerges from 9.79* as a figure who evokes somewhat mixed reactions. After initially lying about his drug use, the soft-spoken Johnson nowadays seems genuinely contrite about his mistakes, while also deflecting blame by stating that he was pushed to cheat in order to compete on an unfair playing field and also demonstrating a distinct bitterness at being made the fall guy for athletes who break the rules to get ahead. Hearing Johnson and others recall just how brutally he was pilloried after the positive test and now knowing that five of the rest of his seven competitors in the race were subsequently linked to drugs generated more sympathy from me towards the man than I would have anticipated. Toronto Star journalist Mary Ormsby provides a welcome local perspective on Johnson's saga, detailing the rock star status he had risen to in Canada prior to the '88 Games (including a Toronto parade in his honour, decorations from the Canadian government, and the athlete being "followed by armies of women") and contributing to that recounting of the dramatic fallout after the scandal broke.

Gordon is exhaustively thorough in revisiting the race, which he frames with additionally meticulous details of its lead-up and aftermath. Along with Johnson, interviewed are competitors Linford Christie, Dennis Mitchell, Calvin Smith, Robson Da Silva, Desai Williams, Ray Stewart, and Carl Lewis (only Da Silva and Smith have never been linked to drugs). Not surprisingly, the colourful Lewis, who was eventually awarded the gold medal, is the most interesting of the lot. Few athletes in my memory are as easy to dislike as the smug Lewis, with his egotistical personality (including references to himself in the third person) and a hypocritical stance on cheaters. Lewis never officially got caught, but most of his competitors and a lot of track insiders believe he cheated. In fact, it was revealed in 2003 that he tested positive several times for a banned substance in 1988 and had his test results thrown out by the U.S. Olympic Committee, who suspiciously dismissed them as "inadvertent positives". Gordon clearly has his suspicions as well, as is evidenced during a moment in the film where a sports doping historian's statements about users of human growth hormone experiencing dental problems and possibly needing braces is immediately followed by footage of Lewis wearing braces. Lewis' unlikability factor is also elevated with some hilarious scenes showing his awful singing career, plus an anecdote recalling him quickly going over to Johnson to shake the then-winner's hand following the race. Lewis paints it as a demonstration of good sportsmanship, but it plays more like a disingenuous act meant to horn in on Johnson's temporary spotlight. A variety of interviews with other athletes, track coaches, and Olympic insiders adds additional insight into the event and sports doping in general. Some of the most enlightening dialogue comes from Angella Issajenko, the Canadian sprinter who also admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs, and Dr. Don Catlin, who was the director of the UCLA Olympic testing lab and a prominent figure in testing for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Catlin discusses his amazement at the number of positive tests he started seeing prior to those Games, a disenchantment with what he perceived as his indirect "aiding and abetting" of the dishonest athletes' drug schedules, and how the U.S. Olympic Committee mysteriously lost a large number of tests that he assumes were incriminating. 

One of the more interesting parts of the film is the conspiracy theory talk of Johnson's post-race beer being spiked prior to his drug test, which he's always maintained. The alleged culprit is Andre Jackson, a friend of Lewis. Johnson claims that Jackson later told him to his face that he spiked the runner's drink on that and "many other occasions". Even Lewis associate Joe Douglas admits to finagling a way to get Jackson access into the post-race testing room, but that it was to ensure Johnson didn't use a masking agent to cover up any drug use. Things get even more bizarre when Jackson, who declined to be interviewed for 9.79*, responds to Gordon about the allegations with a statement saying "Maybe I did, maybe I didn't".

For Canadians, the Ben Johnson scandal is an embarrassing chapter in our sports history, but that less-than-10-second race provides rich fodder for a story that remains timely, considering the sports doping problems that continue to reverberate in recent headlines involving Lance Armstrong and players from the National Football League and Major League Baseball.   

Rating: B+

Premiered October 9th on ESPN in the United States; currently airing on ESPN and TSN in Canada

Related post: my October 2009 review of Kings Ransom, the first film in the 30 For 30 series

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Artifact [film review]

Artifact originally started off as a document of the recording of 30 Seconds To Mars' third album - pretty standard stuff that wouldn't attract much interest beyond the alt rock band's fan base. What ultimately emerged was a fascinating David versus Goliath exposé of the music industry that will appeal to a much wider audience, revealing the band's ugly battle against an unfair and outdated business model that has been screwing over artists since the industry began. Actor and 30 Seconds To Mars frontman Jared Leto directed Artifact under the pseudonym of "Bartholomew Cubbins" (the name of a Dr. Seuss character) and the film took home this TIFF's Blackberry People's Choice Documentary Award. The recognition rather surprised me, not because the film isn't worthy, but because the award is based on voting from ticket holders of a film's screenings. I saw Artifact's second of three TIFF showings the afternoon after its world premiere and the upper balcony section at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema was only about one quarter full (mind you, the two-tiered Bloor balcony seating area is quite large).

Only a small portion of the documentary features any biographical information about the group (also including drummer and Jared's brother, Shannon, and guitarist Tomo Milicevic...any mentions of "Leto" hereafter will be referring to Jared) and the many hours of footage shot of the third album's L.A. recording sessions with producer Flood. That album's eventual title, This Is War, reflects the contentious legal battle between the band and their recording label (Virgin/EMI) that comprises most of Artifact's content. The protracted legal conflict began when the band asked to re-negotiate their contract, as their first two albums had sold almost six million copies combined and the band was somehow still in debt to the label. Virgin/EMI declined to restructure the deal and ended up suing the band for $30 million in 2008 for breach of contract when they failed to deliver their third album. Where did the $30 million figure come from? Aside from the label (who won't say), no one seems to know, but that number is too much of a coincidence and one has to assume it's some sort of clumsily conceived figure at least partly chosen for its symbolism. The lawsuit drags out for over 200 days, during which the stress can be seen on Leto and his bandmates as they take meetings with Virgin/EMI, their management (headed up by legendary manager Irving Azoff), and try to create This Is War, which they're financing themselves. Best line of the film: Leto threatens to drag his feet on handing in the album, saying they'll "Chinese Democracy this motherfucker". 

Easy-to-digest graphics helpfully illustrate the warped accounting practices and profit sharing structures of the music industry, explaining the one-sided business relationship almost all newer acts toil under. Interviews with a number of industry figures add extra insight into the dire state of the business, with artists like Linkin Park's Chester Bennington and System Of A Down's Serj Tankian helping to represent the artist's perspective outside of the focal band. Enlightening first-hand accounts from former Virgin/EMI executives also aid in giving a more well-rounded picture of how the litigation was handled from the label's end, as well as discussing the purchase of Virgin/EMI by a UK equity firm that further complicated the lawsuit. 

Leto makes an engaging main subject who I developed a new respect for with his band's principled stand against a long-entrenched system of greed. Several times, Leto questions whether or not the system is too big to fight, but the band refuses to cave. I wasn't very familiar with 30 Seconds To Mars before watching Artifact, only hearing a song or two that hadn't inspired me enough to explore them any further. Like I'm sure many have, I partially dismissed the group as another vanity side project from an actor, and we all know the dubious track record of those. Leto's musical credibility also took a hit with me when he released an extremely creepy video last year of himself dressed as Kurt Cobain while playing Nirvana's "Pennyroyal Tea". Truthfully, the 30 Seconds To Mars music heard in the film hasn't turned me into a fan, but I came away from Artifact with an appreciation of Leto's passion and dedication to his musical pursuits. It seems to be his focus right now and I was struck by the fact there was hardly even a mention in the documentary that he acts - the only acknowledgements of it are when he's recognized for his film work by fans on the streets in New York City and Miami.  

Artifact is an eye-opening film that further reinforces the shady reputation of the music business via the engrossing story of one cog in the machine. 30 Seconds To Mars eventually settled their legal matter by signing a more favourable deal with Virgin/EMI, which included a clause allowing them to release Artifact. Perhaps some things never change, however - as the last scene before the credits reveals, they're still fighting to get their fair share from the label.

Rating: A

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Sessions [film review]

The Sessions, starring John Hawkes (Winter's Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene) and Helen Hunt, is probably the best film I've seen so far this year. Originally titled The Surrogate when it played at the Sundance Film Festival in January and took home a couple of awards, Hawkes plays real-life writer Mark O'Brien, who was confined to a gurney or iron lung for most of his life due to polio. The plot is fairly straightforward: the combination of a lifetime mostly devoid of any intimacy and an upcoming writing job on the sex lives of the disabled leads the 38-year-old O'Brien to hire a sex surrogate named Cheryl (played by Hunt) to help him lose his virginity, with guidance coming from his local priest (played by William H. Macy).

Hawkes is a revelation, delivering a graceful and affecting performance with essentially no physicality, as he spends the entire film flat on his back and relying almost entirely on his facial performance and voice, which he affects with a slightly nasally tone. Based on his work here, I believe I'll have to go back and revisit the Oscar-nominated performance he gave in Winter's Bone, a film that bored me so much that I bailed out of it about three quarters of the way through. His Mark character is a warm, wickedly funny charmer that will quickly win viewers over (and not out of sympathy for his disability). Occasional voice-overs where Hawkes reads selections of O'Brien's poetry (it's not remotely as painful as it might sound) nicely provide some thoughtful extra insight into his worldview, mostly involving the topic of love. The path leading up to his decision to hire the surrogate introduces us to Macy's fantastic Father Brendan character, who gives Mark his blessing and becomes a source of counsel, friendship, and laughs throughout the rest of the film. Mark also gets encouragement from his two caregivers, including one played in an excellent supporting performance from Moon Bloodgood. Hunt, who has appeared less onscreen in recent years to focus more on directing and theatre work, matches Hawkes' standout work step-for-step, instilling a dignity and compassion to Cheryl as she educates Mark in the ways of physical intimacy. Those teachings tastefully deconstruct the act of sex and all the awkwardness and uncertainty that goes along with it (she also bravely appears completely nude quite a few times). Slivers of Cheryl's home life with her son and husband (played by Adam Arkin) offer just enough of a look into her own growing conflict, which I won't spoil here. 

Director/writer Ben Lewin, a polio survivor himself, has crafted one of those rare knockout cinematic pieces of work that'll hit you about halfway through watching just how special it is. His efforts and a number of first-rate performances should easily succeed in winning your deep emotional investment in The Sessions, which treats a potentially fragile subject with an admirable maturity and a surprisingly pleasant amount of disarming humour.

Rating: A+

Opens in the U.S. on October 19th, Canada on November 2nd, and the rest of the world beginning in November

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Iceman [film review]

The Iceman is based on the life of Richard Kuklinski, who is thought to have murdered somewhere between 100 and 250 people from the 50s through the 80s (authorities suspect there were many more slayings than the roughly 100 he confessed to). Most of those occurred while he worked as a contract killer for various New York and New Jersey crime families, but Kuklinski also admits to numerous killings outside of his hitman duties. His story gained a wider audience with a couple of HBO documentaries in 1992 and 2002, respectively, where Kuklinski recalled his crimes while demonstrating a disturbing lack of remorse for committing them (he died in prison in 2006 while serving the five consecutive life sentences that were handed down in 1988). Playing Kuklinski is Michael Shannon, probably best known for his work on HBO's Boardwalk Empire and the films Take Shelter and Revolutionary Road. The interesting cast directed by Ariel Vroman includes Winona Ryder as Kuklinski's wife, Deborah, Ray Liotta and Robert Davi in familiar mobster roles, David Schwimmer playing one of their flunkies, Chris Evans as another contract killer, and James Franco and Stephen Dorff in brief one-scene roles (Franco was originally supposed to play Evans' part until a scheduling conflict arose).

The middle years of Kuklinski's life make up the majority of the film, starting in the late 60s where we briefly see him courting and marrying Deborah, while hiding from her his dominant dark side and the fact that he works as a porn bootlegger. That job provides a springboard into the organized crime world, where Kuklinski soon finds himself working for Liotta's Gambino crime family-affiliated character and carrying out thuggish duties that include contract killings. Eventually, Kuklinski finds whacking employment with other upper-level east coast crime organizations, telling Deborah, their three kids, friends, and neighbours that he works in the world of finance. At this point, we're well into the 70s, meaning a number of the actors are sporting some serious porn 'stache facial hair. I had a flashback to my Cloud Atlas screening the day before, where some of the heavily made-up actors were virtually unrecognizable. In this case, Evans was onscreen for several minutes before I realized it was him underneath the handlebar moustache, long hair, and glasses, looking radically different from his clean-cut Captain America character. His wisecracking Robert character is probably the best thing about The Iceman, which isn't a good thing when you consider that his role is relatively minor. The dancing scene involving him and Kuklinski, where the latter takes out their target with poison on a crowded disco floor while Blondie's "Heart Of Glass" pumps over the soundtrack, has a twistedly dark humour to it.  

The stark duality of Kuklinski's life as both family man and sociopath is one of his most interesting aspects, but the film fails to exploit this angle to its full potential. His modus operandi involved the unusual habit of employing various killing methods, like poisonings, explosives, strangulations, and the usage of assorted kinds of weapons, plus temporarily freezing many of his victims (hence the nickname) to confound the police as to their times of death, if the bodies were ever found. It's another pretty fascinating nugget for the film to work with, but The Iceman comes up short once again in terms of creatively exploring this potentially rich plot point. 

Shannon is a fantastic actor who excels at playing complex, troubled characters, as anyone who has seen his work in any of the aforementioned projects can attest to (I'll also throw in his memorable turn in The Runaways as Kim Fowley, that band's creepy svengali-ish my review of it here). The actor can't rise above the too well-trodden crime movie territory that The Iceman inhabits, however, resulting in a hollow effort that feels like a shamefully wasted opportunity. Of the ten films I saw at this year's TIFF, The Iceman easily ranks as my biggest disappointment. 

Rating: C-

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Impossible [film review]

The term "disaster movie" tends to conjure up images of campy and disposable entertainment involving killer asteroids and doomed ship voyages, so attaching it to a film like The Impossible feels wrong, considering the terrible true-life circumstances on which it's based. Those circumstances involve the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that killed an estimated 280,000 people in 14 different countries. Specifically, the film tells the story of the Belon family, British tourists who were separated from each other when the tsunami hit their beachside resort in Thailand on December 26th.

The bulk of the film features the parallel stories of Henry (played by Ewan McGregor) and his two sons struggling to reunite with his doctor wife, Maria (played by Naomi Watts), and the couple's oldest son, Lucas (played by impressive newcomer Tom Holland). The Impossible's focal point is obviously the tsunami event and the sequence is quite impressively executed by Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona. Mostly eschewing special effects and relying on recreating the spectacle in the second largest water tank in the world, the ten minute sequence is gripping and immersive, realistically conveying the magnitude, violence, and unpredictability of mother nature. The aftermath of the big disaster (meaning the vast majority of the movie) inevitably feels somewhat anti-climatic, as the family makes the slow, arduous journey back to one another. Bayona briefly livens things up during one of these scenes with a gruesome close-up shot of a thigh wound suffered by Maria that elicited collective gasps and squirms from the theatre audience. According to this story, that shot apparently caused a couple of moviegoers at The Impossible's TIFF world premiere screening the day before to actually pass out. In either the same scene or one shortly before or shortly after it, the director also made what I thought was an odd decision in showing one of Maria's breasts being exposed to her son because one of the straps on her top had broken off. Considering the hell the tsunami had just put them through, the scenario was completely plausible and the real-life Maria was on set for most of the lengthy seven month shoot (ironically, bad weather slowed down production), so I can't even entertain the notion that the shot was exploitative. Even still, it just seemed like a very strange creative choice on Bayona's part.

Watts and McGregor give sound performances in roles I'd classify as unremarkable, especially McGregor's. Watts has a lot more heavy lifting to do, particularly during the numerous scenes where she's bedridden. Some early reviews of The Impossible wildly speculated on Oscar nominations for their performances, which would devalue that whole spectacle even more in my eyes than it already is. Holland gets more screen time than either star and acquits himself very well. The Impossible's frequent reliance on the youngster's point of view, coupled with the spectacle of the tsunami, also lends the film an unmistakable Spielbergian quality (you can also find it in the occasionally overly manipulative musical score).

I found myself intermittently more emotionally invested with the characters than I would have expected, but The Impossible ends up feeling like little more than average entertainment with one dynamic ten minute segment. 

Rating: B-

Opens in Spain next week and select European and Asian markets through February 2013; opens in North America in late December