Thursday, September 25, 2014

Cut Bank [film review]

Cut Bank, from rookie feature director Matt Shakman (a veteran TV director), squanders an impressive cast that features Billy Bob Thornton, Bruce Dern, John Malkovich, and Oliver Platt in a small-town crime noir story that falls well short of its Coen Brothers-level ambitions. Set in the titular Montana town, Cut Bank centres around a fraud plot gone wrong that ends up leading to all sorts of unpleasant business. That foursome of seasoned actors all turn in solid performances with the thin material, especially Malkovich as the comic relief-providing sheriff who's seemingly out of his element, even though he's been doing the job for years. Dern, Platt, and Thornton all have more limited roles, however, leaving far too much screen time for Liam Hemsworth, who barely registers in his performance as a mechanic dreaming of an escape to the promised land of Hollywood with his girlfriend. Michael Stuhlbarg's unhinged town oddball makes things a tad more interesting whenever he's around, but the disjointed and undercooked story eventually goes off the rails, as Cut Bank and its quirk-heavy characters and plot twists end up leaving little impression.   

Rating: C-

Friday, September 19, 2014

Whiplash [film review]

Whiplash, directed and written by Damian Chazelle, began as an 18 minute short film that dazzled at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it scored the financial backing to turn it into a full-length movie. Shot for a little over $3 million in 19 days, the 106 minute feature premiered at Sundance a year later and took home a rare double win for best drama from both the festival jury and audiences. Whiplash's inspiration came from Chazelle's own experiences as a drummer in an ultra-competitive high school jazz band, with the setting now shifted to an elite New York City music college. 19-year-old Andrew Neyman (played by Miles Teller), a highly ambitious drummer with visions of being the next Buddy Rich, lands on the radar of the conservatory's feared jazz band conductor, Terence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons), who offers the first-year student a chance to prove himself in his ensemble. Given what may be Miles' best opportunity to catapult himself to the legendary status he covets, much blood (literally) and sweat is in the offing for the youngster.

The film's two leads give exceptional performances, each emanating considerable intensity, but in different ways. Simmons played one seriously intimidating dude in Vern Schillinger, the head of the Aryan Brotherhood on HBO's prison drama Oz. Vern, however, seems positively demure compared to Terence, whose teaching methods are akin to those of a sadistic drill sergeant. Terence isn't above hurling emasculating, homophobic, and racist inventive at students not performing up to his almost impossibly high standards, as Andrew quickly finds out. That only pushes Andrew harder and it's thoroughly fascinating being submerged into the world of someone so driven by a dream that they'll endure such hell and have their life absolutely consumed with their passion. An effective minor romantic subplot with a nice performance by Melissa Benoist only reinforces that latter point. Teller's percussive skills merit mention, considering he played all the drum parts in the film (much of it very technically demanding, which I can attest to as an amateur drummer myself). A rock drummer who had played in several non-serious bands over the years, Teller had a mere three weeks to learn a completely new jazz playing style and the film's music, which is ridiculously impressive. 

My only reservation (and it was fairly minor) prior to watching Whiplash was whether or not my lack of interest in jazz would be an obstacle to enjoying the film and it most certainly was not. I surprisingly enjoyed much of the music, particularly the composition by Hank Levy that gives the movie its name. I do wish Chazelle had taken a different approach than the one he conceived for the movie's dramatic crescendo, but that's about the only negative thing I can write about the outstanding Whiplash, which features possibly the best performances by a pair of leads in a film that you'll see this year.

Rating: A  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Adult Beginners [film review]

Adult Beginnersplot: After becoming a pariah to just about everyone he's connected with after a failed product launch, self-centred entrepreneur Jake (played by stand-up comic Nick Kroll) returns to his childhood home where his sister, Justine (played by Rose Byrne), and brother-in-law, Danny (played by Bobby Cannavale), live with their three-year-old son. As Jake licks his wounds and contemplates his next step, he comes to appreciate the value of family and the virtue of humility.

Kroll would seem to be an unlikely candidate to play a character who rediscovers their humanity in a comedic film with touchy feely leanings like Adult Beginners, considering the abrasive nature of his stand-up act and his television roles on The League and Kroll Show. His snide personality is intact initially, mind you, but that edge is gradually dulled as Jake is welcomed into his sister's home and takes on the nanny responsibilities for his nephew. The fish-out-of-water scenario rarely yields impactful results, however, be they of the moving or comedic variety, and the movie rarely goes anywhere you're not expecting it to. Kroll acquits himself decently with the limited material, as do Byrne and Cannavale, who are given their own marital issues to wrestle with as a subplot. Peripheral characters played by Jane Krakowski, Josh Charles, Paula Garces, and Joel McHale barely register, although one scene with Saturday Night Live's Bobby Moynihan playing a former classmates of Jake's delivers the movie's best laughs and will ring true for anyone who's had one of those run-ins with someone from your past that you wouldn't even want as a Facebook friend. 

Adult Beginners disappoints with its skimpy joke-to-laugh ratio and ability to move the viewer with Jake's transformation, adding up to a slight movie that's unlikely to stay with you for very long.

Rating: C                

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Tusk [film review]

Kevin Smith, whose repeated threats in recent years of permanently exiting the world of filmmaking have taken on the dubious credibility of retirement announcements from, say, most classic rock bands, has apparently found his creative mojo once again with the batshit crazy Tusk. Smith's previous film, 2011's Red State, was justifiably poorly received by critics and audiences, souring him even further on the filmmaking process. Then in 2013, a bizarre discussion on an episode of Smith's SModcast podcast hastily inspired him to write and direct Tusk, a high-concept movie (in more ways than one, I'm sure) that can be summarized with one sentence: Los Angeles podcaster visits Manitoba and gets kidnapped by a lunatic who turns him into a walrus. Still with me? Smith, during the film's second TIFF screening I attended after its world premiere the night before, joked that he had reached the point in his career where "I don't give a fuck anymore", but just because Smith has reached a bitter crossroads in his career that's resulted in quite literally one of the worst movie experiences I've ever sat through doesn't mean you should also be subjected to the man's lack of impulse control. 

Two main things drew me to Tusk: 1) I was a modest fan of most of Smith's work (which you probably can't tell from the contempt being leveled at him in this review, but that just speaks to the permanently scarring effects of this abomination) and 2) the film is mostly set in Manitoba and promised plenty of Canadian references and jokes. The humour, like almost everything else in Tusk, never works, however. I can count on one hand the number of times I laughed during the film and I was surprised, frankly, that Smith, a man with both a sharp wit and an extensive knowledge of this country (as he'll gladly point out any chance he gets about the latter), stooped to such lazy and predictable jokes about not loving hockey and the word "aboot". Johnny Depp shows up briefly to chew scenery as Guy Lapointe, a quirky Quebec detective constructed entirely of French-Canadian stereotypes that become tiresome very quickly. For further evidence of the film's humour deficiency, the name of the comedy podcast hosted by protagonist Wallace Bryton (played by Justin Long, who goes heavy on the douchebaggery) and his sidekick, Teddy (played by The Sixth Sense's Haley Joel Osment), is "The Not-See Party", whose theme finds the hosts making fun of people they've read about or seen on the internet. That kind of half-assed and witless screenwriting also extends to key plot points, like the one that conveniently allows Wallace to contact his friends after being kidnapped by the deranged Howard Howe (played by Michael Parks, who's decent performance is the only thing remotely redeemable about the movie). I could go on about how the supposed big payoff of seeing Wallace transformed into a walrus disappoints mightily with shoddy special effects (the sight of him is slightly disturbing, but not Human Centipede-level disturbing), or how the tease of some much-needed action at the movie's end is practically over before it begins, or how the dreadful final scene provided a fitting end to this turd of a film…but I'm sure you've gotten my point. As I write this, I've gotten six days of distance from watching Tusk and having to revisit it for this review has genuinely made me feel, well, annoyed. 

That annoyance was felt during the screening, too, as a packed audience heavy on Smith fanboys and fangirls at the sizable Bloor Hot Docs Cinema inexplicably laughed and cheered throughout the movie. Normally I stick around for festival Q
A sessions, but as the credits rolled and Tusk was met with rapturous applause, I couldn't head for the exits quickly enough to get as far away as possible from Kevin Smith and anyone who thought his latest film was worthy of such adoration. And fair warning: Smith has two more films in the pipeline that'll complete what he's calling his "True North Trilogy". Yoga Hosers is currently shooting and centres around the pair of surly teenage girl convenience store clerks (played by Smith's and Depp's daughters) that get about five minutes of forgettable screen time in Tusk, to be followed by a Jaws-inspired movie about a killer moose. God help us all. 

Rating: F         

Black And White [film review]

A drama dealing predominantly with the topics of race and a custody battle over an adorable 7-year-old girl is inherently fraught with potential hazards for any filmmaker. Screenwriter and director Mike Binder (a former stand-up comic who also created and starred in HBO's underappreciated dramedy series The Mind Of The Married Man in the early 2000s) is more than up to the task, however, drawing broadly from his own experiences as the adoptive father of a bi-racial child to inform the narrative of the excellent Black And White, which had its world premiere at TIFF. Producer and star Kevin Costner, who reteams with Binder after the pair collaborated on 2005's The Upside Of Anger, believed in the project so strongly that he took the uncommon step of financing the indie's $9 million budget himself after studios both big and small shied away from the movie's racially-charged subject matter.   

Costner plays wealthy L.A. lawyer Elliot Anderson, a man who's a little too well-acquainted with fresh tragedy in his life. Black And White's opening scene finds Elliot having just lost his wife in a car accident, relatively soon after his teenage daughter died whilst giving birth. The couple had been raising their mixed-race grandchild, Eloise (played by Jillian Estell), since the drug-addled father had ended up in prison. Elliot's navigation through his grief and mourning is complicated by his new responsibility as Eloise's sole caregiver, an escalating drinking problem, and soon a custody dispute with Rowena (played by an efficient Octavia Spencer), the paternal grandmother of Eloise who feels her granddaughter would be better off living with her side of the family.

Black And White raises numerous thoughtful points about race and prejudice, most notably during an Oscar-bait courtroom scene where Elliot speaks at length on the topic with a reasoned perspective that also reflects the character's flaws. It's Costner's best role in ages, as he plays Elliot with a perfect balance of deep vulnerability and brusqueness. Newcomer Estell demonstrates impressive range that helps elevate Black And White above the trappings of over-sentimentality that frequently torpedoes films centred around cute kids. Also strong in supporting roles are Toronto's Mpho Koaho as an overqualified tutor and driver hired by Elliot and stand-up comedian Bill Burr as a law associate and friend of Elliot's. Burr, whose hilarious Monday Morning Podcast I'm a regular listener of, shows surprising depth in a meatier role than he got to play on the other acting gig he'd be best known for, as one of Saul Goodman's henchmen on Breaking Bad.

Black And White tastefully deals with its delicate subject matters of race, loss, and family strife, resulting in a touching and powerful film. And aside from an ill-advised final act action scene that allows one character an opportunity at redemption, Binder's screenplay and his character's performances feel very relatable and grounded in reality.    

Rating: A-

A temporary return…

Attending the 2014 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival over the past week has stirred up my creative impulses a little bit, so I'm temporarily back with upcoming reviews of the five films I saw at TIFF.     

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Mediaboy Musings on indefinite hiatus...

After a lengthy struggle of trying to find the inspiration to produce content for this blog on a regular basis, I've decided to stop writing, at least for now. I'll likely resume posting new reviews somewhere down the road. Thanks for reading and take care... 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Bronx Obama [film review]

As Barack Obama's profile rapidly ascended during the 2008 presidential primaries, a bartender in an establishment frequented by Louis Ortiz commented on his striking resemblance to the politician, right down to the prominent size of their ears. The middle-aged Ortiz didn't see it until he shaved his goatee one day, at which point the widowed single father of a teenager (in a fitting moment of optimism-based symmetry) felt stirred by something that had been in short supply since being laid off from his phone company job a year prior - hope. Filmmaker Ryan Murdock saw the potential in Ortiz's engaging story as an Obama impersonator, first presenting it as a radio feature on NPR's This American Life, then as a New York Times short film, and now as his feature length debut, Bronx Obama. As a likeable underdog thrust into an unlikely and challenging situation, Ortiz makes a highly ideal documentary protagonist.

Ortiz's new career starts modestly, as he competes with the costumed characters in Times Square for tourist tips and makes appearances in rap videos, on HBO's Flight Of The Conchords, and in some commercials and a low-rent film in Asia. Eager to improve the overall pedigree of his gigs, Ortiz signs with a talent manager and steps his game up, evolving from a mere Obama look-alike to a full-on Obama impersonator capable of believably emulating the now-President's gestures and voice (losing his heavy Bronx accent proves to be particularly challenging for the Puerto Rican), as well as honing his acting and comedic skills. The manager, a nasty piece of work named Dustin Gold, produces effective results in improving Ortiz's mimicking abilities, but they come as a result of demanding expectations and some oftentimes downright abusive behaviour. Gold enlists Ortiz, along with Bill Clinton and Mitt Romney impersonators, to perform satirical routines at Republican functions during the 2012 election season, where the grind of travelling and Ortiz's discomfort with the humiliating (and borderline racist) material begin to take their toll. Not unexpectedly, a film that's centred around one man's experience impersonating another person eventually crosses an identity crisis threshold, as Ortiz wearily complains "I miss being myself" right before the 2012 election. Along with his sense of self, another casualty of Ortiz's demanding work is his ability to properly parent only daughter Raina, a talented basketball player who Ortiz has to send to live with her grandparents in Florida (Raina's mother died during her childhood). The sweet father-daughter relationship provides a firm secondary layer to Bronx Obama that significantly strengthens the viewer's investment in Ortiz's struggle.

Ortiz's charmingly wiseass sense of humour and the bizarre nature of his work that provides many moments of visual-based amusement (such as Ortiz-as-Obama riding the New York subway, buying a lottery ticket in a bodega, or performing at a music event with Nelson Mandela and Bono impersonators) instill Bronx Obama with a predominantly light tone, but Murdock's delightful film also delivers some thoughtful rumination on the ailing condition of the American dream.

Rating: B

Monday, June 23, 2014

Love & Terror On The Howling Plains Of Nowhere [film review]

The ingredients of Love Terror On The Howling Plains Of Nowhere sound like they've been plucked from a Bruce Springsteen song or a David Lynch movie, as the film delves into the mysterious death of a loner in a remote American midwest town (Chadron, Nebraska), the quirky personalities who populate it, and the eccentric writer documenting it all. Director Dave Jannetta based his film on the 2013 book of the same name from author Poe Ballantine (real name Ed Hughes), a Chadron resident.

The core of the film is formed by the 2006 death of mathematics professor Steven Haataja, who disappeared a few months after taking a job at Chadron's local college. 95 days after last being seen, Haataja's charred body was found tied to a tree on a nearby ranch and while the evidence seems to point to it being a homicide, too many unanswered questions result in a case that remains unsolved to this day. The murder(?) mystery, made more compelling by some shoddy police work and speculations of suicide after revelations of Haataja's history of depression come out, fuels the intrigue of the residents of the quiet town of 5,600. A number of them weigh in with their wide-ranging theories on the case and brief remembrances of Haataja and it's these interviews that really elevate the quality of Love Terror… Jannetta strikes cinematic gold here with one colourful interview subject after another. One, a former detective who worked on the investigation, surprisingly admits to being the case's most likely suspect, while another disgustingly asserts that "If it had been a fucking football coach who disappeared, they would've called in the National Guard". The third component of Love Terror… comes from its significant time spent with Ballantine, who spent six years researching the case for his book. The writer possesses an idiosyncratic charm that fits right in with the documentary's gallery of oddballs, and his philosophical ponderings and recollections from his life never fail to fascinate (like Haataja, Ballantine also struggled at times with severe depression). Ballantine also acts as a sort of tour guide (albeit speculatively) through Haataja's last moments alive, helpfully retracing the likely routes the professor would have had to take to his final destination.

Although its central focus is quite dark, Jannetta and Ballantine add a surprisingly lighthearted and humorous touch to Love Terror…, which is unlike any other documentary I've ever seen. The mixture of these two elements may make some viewers uncomfortable (I was a little), but the end result is a thoroughly entertaining and engrossing film that never disrespects Haataja's memory (it should be noted that Haataja's family declined to be interviewed for the film and was opposed to its making). 

Rating: A-

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger [film review]

Documentarian Joe Berlinger wasn't kidding when he described his latest project as the most dense film he'd ever done during the pre-screening introduction for Whitey: United States of America v. James Bulger. Berlinger (best known for co-directing the Paradise Lost trilogy and Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster) turns his camera this time to James "Whitey" Bulger, the Boston mob boss who terrorized the city during the 70s, 80s, and 90s with impunity from prosecution before going into hiding for 16 years until his 2011 capture in California at the age of 81. For years, Bulger was second only to Osama Bin Laden on the F.B.I.'s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list and he inspired Jack Nicholson's vicious character in Martin Scorsese's 2006 movie, The Departed. Whitey… is a film that demands rapt attention from its viewers, with an avalanche of information being disseminated amidst the complex twists and turns that the documentary takes. 

Bulger's crimes that included drug trafficking, extortion, racketeering, loan-sharking, and murder, along with the 2013 trial for them, are the focal point of Whitey… (curiously, his lengthy time on the lam and eventual capture are barely mentioned). Bulger was implicated in 19 murders and ultimately found guilty of being involved in 11 killings, with a total conviction count of 31 that landed him two life sentences, plus five years. Berlinger was barred from interviewing Bulger, so snippets of a phone conversation between the criminal and his lawyer are interspersed throughout the film, although they add little to the proceedings. The documentary is teeming with interviews from retired cops and F.B.I. agents, ex-wise guys, lawyers, reporters, and the South Boston victims' family members. The latter conversations are particularly impactful, as Bulger's acts of brutality take on added dimension via the permanent psychological toll evident on the faces of the people whose lives he destroyed decades ago. There's also a subplot involving one of Bulger's alleged extortion victims, Stephen Rakes, that takes an especially bizarre turn. Berlinger's examination of Bulger's life and crimes inevitably leads to Whitey… taking on a wider scope that finds the filmmaker also probing the corruption that permeated federal and state law enforcement agencies during the decades that Bulger operated at the peak of his criminal power. Called into question is whether Bulger, who is currently preparing an appeal of his conviction, acted as an informant for the F.B.I. in exchange for immunity from his law-breaking, an assertion he firmly denies. The evidence suggests otherwise and one of the film's biggest questions is just how complicit was the government in allowing Bulger to carry out his litany of crimes?       

Berlinger wisely adopts an impartial stance on his notorious subject, resulting in a more comprehensive and challenging film that cements his status as an unmatched purveyor of first-rate contemporary true-crime documentary filmmaking. The Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning director was recently in contact with Johnny Depp, who requested a copy of Whitey… in preparation for his upcoming role as Bulger in next year's Black Mass. Another drama on Bulger has also been in development by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon for the past couple of years. 

Rating: A-    

Friday, June 13, 2014

Alfred & Jakobine [film review]

After meeting and falling in love in Japan in 1955, American Alfred Hobbs and Danish artist Jakobine Schou impulsively married, with their mutually adventurous spirits taking them to Casablanca shortly thereafter. Here, the newlyweds purchased a beat-up London taxi built in 1934 and spent the next four years driving it on an epic global road trip, where the couple's passion for each other never waned and their exploits brought them minor celebrity. When their journey was over, Alfred and Jakobine (pronounced "Yauk-o-beena") set down roots in New York state. Not long after, Alfred unexpectedly walked out on Jakobine, leaving her shattered. The couple reconnected at a party a few years later, conceived a son, and Alfred soon exited Jakobine's life once again. 40 years later, an 84-year-old Alfred confronting his mortality decides to fix up that same taxi, travel across America with the son he's never really known, and surprise the woman who's heart he broke by offering her "one last ride", as he describes it.

Alfred & Jakobine directors Jonathan Howells and Tom Roberts are the benefactors of this rich source material and have produced a reflective and moving film about the beauty and pain of love. The filmmakers entwine the past and present with an effective balance of first-person recollections and visual aids (taken from the couple's archives made up of 3,000 photographs and numerous hours of their well-crafted 8 mm and 16 mm film footage), and the documenting of both the difficult restoration process of the taxi and the 2,400 mile trip in September 2009 that Alfred and his son Niels took in it from Taos, New Mexico to Jakobine's home in Oneida, New York. Adding to the intrigue encompassing the modern-day trip are the distant relationship between Niels and Alfred, the arduous toll of the trek upon their delicate vehicle, and the fact the unsuspecting Jakobine (who appears to have never gotten over Alfred) has been happily remarried for decades to a likeable chap named Rusty, who actually helped coordinate the reunion. 

Alfred & Jakobine's only real fault is that it doesn't go deeply enough into the many fascinating layers of this story due to the all-too-brief 73-minute running time (presumably due to business considerations involving running times for theatrical screenings and television broadcast, not creative reasons). Specifically, Alfred's mysterious reason for leaving Jakobine never feels explained to satisfaction and the scenes involving the Taos-to-Oneida journey seem scant in comparison to the four weeks it took to complete the trip. Additionally, the lack of stories involving Alfred and Jakobine's adventures in the 50s is disappointing. The film's press kit references one story not included in the documentary that found them "captured by armed guerrillas in (Africa's) Atlas Mountains and being thrown into a desert prison, where they thought they would most certainly die". It's a testament to Alfred & Jakobine's core appeal, however, that a compelling narrative such as this could end up excised from the final cut and the film still has plenty of proverbial meat on the bone. Hopefully, the documentary's future DVD/Blu-ray release allows for a more in-depth presentation. Brevity aside, Alfred & Jakobine proves to be a touching charmer. 

Rating: A

Monday, May 19, 2014

Vessel [film review]

In 1999, Dutch physician Rebecca Gomperts founded the Women on Waves organization, who are dedicated to providing abortion services to women in countries where abortions are illegal. The latest statistics from the World Health Organization estimate that 21.6 million women worldwide experience unsafe abortions every year, with 47,000 of those women dying from the procedure. Vessel is the result of first-time director Diana Whitten spending seven years documenting Gomperts' noble and dangerous crusade.

Following her time spent as a doctor aboard one of Greenpeace's vessels, where she was troubled by the lack of adequate birth control healthcare for women internationally, Gomperts cleverly devised a method to skirt the abortion laws of various countries. Using vessels outfitted with shipping containers converted into medical clinics, Women on Waves sails into different ports (the film shows us stops in Poland, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco), picks up the women in need of help, and travels far enough offshore into international waters where the only abortion laws applicable are those of the country the ship is registered in (in this case it's the Netherlands, where abortion is legal). Once they're in legally safe territory, the organization doesn't perform surgical abortions, but facilitates pharmaceutical abortions that involve patients self-administering a pill that causes an early miscarriage, as well as providing counselling. Vessel also explores the expansion of Women on Waves into a global network via the launch of Women on Web, who also provide reproductive health information and support.

Despite efficient use of animated sequences delivering sobering statistics and the implementation of even more sobering calls and emails from distressed women in need of help, Gomperts' inspiring passion for her cause, as well as a charged subject matter that leads to some tense scenes involving the activist and her crew facing packs of aggressive media, police and military blockades, and angry demonstrators in the ports they visit, Vessel frustratingly fails to leave the impact it aspires to. The film doesn't really go down any unexpected paths and lacks the impartiality and weight of a superior documentary on the abortion issue I took in at Hot Docs in 2010, 12th & Delaware (read my review here).    

Rating: C+

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Monuments Men [film review]

Released theatrically in February

George Clooney's fifth directorial effort, The Monuments Men, squanders both its rich concept (loosely based on the 2010 book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves And The Greatest Treasure Hunt In History by Robert Edsel) and a fine ensemble cast comprised of Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, and Hugh Bonneville. The men play the real-life MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives) unit made up of arts-loving civilians tasked near the end of World War II with recovering artworks stolen by the Nazis and returning them to their rightful owners. Adding a sense of urgency to the multinational group's mission is Hitler's plan to destroy the art pieces should the Nazis be defeated, in addition to the Russian military's intent to keep all the art they find as compensation for the casualties they've incurred. 

The script, written by Clooney and his co-producer Grant Heslov, presents an intriguing central question for the viewer's consideration: are the lives of men worth sacrificing in order to save history's greatest artistic works? Unfortunately, the lofty ideal isn't partnered with a substantial enough execution of almost all of The Monuments Men's other components (one of the exceptions being the film's impressive visuals and period detail). The chemistry between the cast members never seems to fully click, largely because the characters all feel so disappointingly underwritten. Blanchett's Claire Simone character, a crucial ally in the Men's mission, has the foundation to be an interesting figure, but never seems to become fully realized, even for a secondary character (a misguided seduction story between her and Damon's James Granger character doesn't help, either). Attempts at goofy humour repeatedly fall flat, as evidenced during one of the film's surprisingly few lively scenes involving Goodman's and Dujardin's characters, a scene where Granger has to extricate himself from a land mine he's stepped on, the mangled French spoken by Granger, and the unfunny exchanges between the at-odds characters played by Balaban and a predictably deadpan Murray. Many of the moments where the film adopts a more solemn tone (this is war, after all) tend to come up short, too, such as one where Murray's character receives a musical gift from home (the scene felt tainted by its manipulativeness) and another where Clooney's character has a conversation with a captured Nazi senior officer (the scene curiously doesn't pack the dramatic oomph it aspires to).

It's surprising that a true story as unlikely as this one took so long to make it to the big screen. Regrettably, Clooney's plodding tribute to the brave individuals who were inspired by such a noble cause never finds its footing and comes up well short in doing their remarkable exploits cinematic justice.     

Rating: C

Monday, March 24, 2014

Hot Docs 2014...

Hot Docs is North America's largest documentary film festival, with this year's fest receiving 2,400 submissions that has been narrowed down to the 197 titles from 43 countries set to screen at 10 different venues across Toronto next month. Here's what I'll be seeing at the 21st edition of the festival (film summaries, some of which I've edited, are taken from Hot Docs' website):

Vessel - Under grave threat from hostile governments and violent protestors, Dutch physician Rebecca Gomperts and her crew navigate treacherous waters to offer safe abortions to women around the world. Exploiting maritime legal loopholes, their Dutch ship floats in international waters 12 miles off the coast of countries where their services are desperately needed. Vessel is a galvanizing look at people who take the fight for reproductive rights to where it’s needed most.

The Notorious Mr. Bout - Immortalized by Nicolas Cage in the action-thriller Lord of War, Viktor Bout claims he’s just a businessman. True, he built his empire selling weapons to some of the world’s most violent regimes, but as this amazingly intimate expos√© reveals, the infamous arms dealer is more of an amateur filmmaker than a cold-hearted opportunist. Award-winning filmmakers Tony Gerber (Full Battle Rattle) and Maxim Pozdorovkin (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer) chip away at the Bout mythology, as this revealing portrait navigates the muddy waters of profit and personal responsibility.

Alfred & Jakobine - In the summer of 1955, Alfred and Jakobine were crazy for adventure and each other. Jakobine was certain they’d last forever, but without warning, Alfred left, breaking her heart. 40 years later, their son Niels takes up their story when Alfred decides to head across America to see Jakobine one more time. Thoroughly engaging, Alfred And Jakobine is a beautifully crafted love letter to four decades of heartache, two unforgettable characters and one extraordinary past.

Whitey: United States of America v. James J.BulgerOscar-nominated director Joe Berlinger (best known for the Paradise Lost trilogy and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) strips away the myths surrounding Boston ex-mobster and FBI informant James “Whitey” Bulger, getting past his mystique as the Robin Hood of South Boston. With this past summer’s explosive trial as a backdrop, Berlinger uses his unprecedented access to FBI agents, Massachusetts state police, victims, lawyers, gangsters, journalists, and federal prosecutors to uncover shocking new allegations about Whitey’s criminal empire.

Come Worry With Us! - Violinist Jessica Moss and singer/guitarist Efrim Menuck, founding member of the Montreal post-rock group Godspeed You! Black Emperor, had it all figured out...or at least some of it. Partners in love and art, they were making music and a modest living touring their band, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, but when their son Ezra is born, everything changes. In the age of the digital download, constant touring is synonymous with economic survival. But is the road a place for a toddler? Jessica and Efrim bring Ezra on tour and the film follows the band from tour bus to concert venue as they try to juggle making music at night with a charming bundle of energy tearing up and down the aisles of the bus at dawn. This dynamic, sometimes funny film asks if parents who work in the arts - specifically mothers - can have it all.

Nelson Mandela: The Myth Me - Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in November, celebrated South African filmmaker Khalo Matabane’s latest film takes an unflinching look at the most celebrated individual of our time. Matabane’s mosaic framework is anchored by his personal letter to Mandela, interwoven throughout the film and presented alongside spectacular imagery and interviews with world leaders, intellectuals, and ordinary South Africans. The conflicting sentiments range wildly from idolatry and veneration to disappointment and critical re-evaluation of some of Mandela’s landmark decisions. These divergent points of view are mirrored by the filmmaker as he reflects on Mandela’s post-sainthood legacy, the process of forgiveness and reconciliation, and the elusive promise of freedom, justice, and a better life for all South Africans.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Jennifer Nettles - That Girl [album review]

Released in January

Jennifer Nettles, one half of country-pop-rock duo Sugarland, goes it alone on her new release, That Girl, although the "debut solo album" tag that's been attached to it is a little misleading (prior to joining Sugarland, the singer fronted The Jennifer Nettles Band for three unmemorable independently released albums). The diverse styles on That Girl shouldn't come as too much of a jolt to her fans, given Nettles' varied musical background. Her self-titled band were an alt-folk outfit and Sugarland have always experimented with different sounds, as well as tackled songs in their live shows from a wide range of artists like Beyonc√©, Kings Of Leon, The B-52s, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Madonna, and 80s one-hit-wonder acts like Dexy's Midnight Runners and The Dream Academy. 

Strong opening track "Falling" is the lone number on That Girl written by Nettles without any collaborators, establishing the 70s-rooted organic sound that flows throughout the album's following ten songs (not including the two tracks included on the deluxe edition). It also showcases Nettles' talent for crafting affecting lyrics that evocatively set a scene for her compositions: "I stood out on the road and I watched as you were leaving/The leaves were dancing oranges and reds/And they circled all around me like confetti on fire/They were nothing when compared to the burning in my head". The soothing "Thank You", "Me Without You", and "This Angel" pay homage to the influence of 70s singer-songwriter folk-pop on the singer. The standout songs are stripped down to mostly just Nettles' powerful voice and an acoustic guitar, with some light string touches added on the latter two as the songs build. The upbeat "Moneyball" incorporates reggae elements, but the end result is rather average, while That Girl's most ambitious number, "Know You Wanna Know", only fares moderately better. Nettles co-wrote the track about the ugliness of celebrity idolatry culture with 80s pop balladeer Richard Marx, which is partially why the full-on big band swing style of the song comes as such a surprise. Nettles also pushes herself further outside the confines of Sugarland's core sound on the Latin music-inspired catchy title track and the buoyant "Jealousy". She co-wrote "That Girl" with producer/musician Butch Walker, a fellow Atlantan, and the song offers an interesting spin on "the other woman" theme from Dolly Parton's "Jolene" by taking the perspective of the woman who unknowingly has become a mistress: "A friend gave me your number to tell you watch your lover's tracks/See, I always kind of liked you so I wanna have your back/There's a good chance by the time you hear this the story's gonna say/That I came on to him, but it was never quite that way/I don't want to be that girl/With your guy/To fool you/Make you cry/Wreck it all/For one night/To be with him when he should be with you". Nettles' genre hopscotching continues with the torchy love song "This One's For You" (co-written with singer Sara Bareilles) and a couple of deeply soulful numbers in "Good Time To Cry" and a winning cover of Bob Seger's "Like A Rock". Strangely, two of the best tracks from That Girl's recording sessions aren't even included on the regular album, appearing only on the deluxe edition: "His Hands" delivers potently in both its music and domestic abuse-themed lyrics (and was likely omitted because it sounded too Sugarland-like) and the feel-good "Every Little Thing", with its bouncy ragtime piano, certainly deserved to be heard by a wider audience.     

That Girl producer Rick Rubin had all the songs cut live in the studio with a group of session veterans (including Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith) and the looseness that environment created for everyone involved is one of the album's core strengths. Nettles' already-established rep as one of this generation's finest vocal talents takes on even wider dimensions on this earthy and stylistically broad set that's dominated by retro influences. And while about half of That Girl's material admittedly wouldn't feel out of place on a Sugarland album, it's an indication of Nettles' bigger musical aspirations that she bravely steers away from the big arena country-rock anthems that her and Sugarland partner Kristian Bush do so adeptly. 

Rating: A-