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- 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Stryper - No More Hell To Pay [album review]

Released in November 

Stryper proved that there was still gas in their creative tank in 2009 with the first-rate Murder By Pride album (I reviewed it here), which was followed up by two types of releases that are seemingly a late-in-their-career requirement for every 80s hard rock band: the covers album (2011's The Covering, an album head and shoulders above any covers collection I'd ever heard from a band, although it was saddled with embarrassingly amateurish cover artwork) and an album of the act's classic songs that've been re-recorded (early 2013's Second Coming, reconfirming the artistic pointlessness of a group reproducing faithful versions of earlier songs that will always take a distant backseat to the originals. This one was done for the same business reason that most of these kinds of albums are done, though - because the band wasn't making any money from sales of their back catalog due to a bad record deal). No More Hell To Pay marks the first time Stryper's original lineup of lead vocalist/guitarist Michael Sweet, guitarist Oz Fox, drummer Robert Sweet, and bassist Tim Gaines have put out a collection of new music since 1990's Against The Law album. [Any future references to "Sweet" in this review will be referring to Michael, the band's leader, main songwriter, and No More Hell To Pay's producer].

Rather than mellowing with age, Stryper seem to get heavier. They've always been heavy, mind you...their handful of late 80s pop-metal radio and video hits has always tended to obscure that fact, however. There's certainly nothing poppy about album opener "Revelation", with its ominous riffage and bleak Book of Revelation-referencing lyrics warning that "Sin is counted and the fee is tolled" and "Blood will run and turn the waters red". It's followed by the title track, which drops down the tempo from its predecessor, while losing none of the beefy presence of Robert Sweet's percussion and Gaines' bass, nor the six-string crunch and signature dual lead guitar harmonies of Fox and Sweet. As Sweet discusses in this recent interview, Stryper's newest album draws inspiration in its title, heaviness, and eye-catching album artwork from the band's best-known release, 1986's To Hell With The Devil. The foursome ratchets up the heavy level yet again with the rapid-fire delivery of "Saved By Love" (where Sweet's ridiculously broad vocal range hits intense levels that sound downright violent during parts of the choruses), "Legacy" (where the singer conversely shows one of his rare vocal limitations by unconvincingly pulling off the snarled lyrics during the verses), the fiery "Te Amo" (meaning "I love you" in Spanish), and album closer "Renewed", a track that reflects the strong influence of Judas Priest on the Christian outfit. The fitting "Jesus Is Just Alright", originally recorded by The Art Reynolds Singers in 1965 and later popularized by The Doobie Brothers, further demonstrates Stryper's knack for adding their own engaging spin on classic rock favourites. "The One" is No More Hell To Pay's lone subdued number, a solid guitar power ballad that inventively recycles the falsetto vocal melody from the song "Blue Bleeds Through" off Sweet's 2000 solo album, Truth. "Sticks & Stones", "Water Into Wine", and "Sympathy" adhere more to Stryper's melodic hard rock side, with the latter track dipping back into the sound of the band's Sunset Strip early days on the guitar, bass, and drum parts during the intro and verses, before smoothly transitioning into a memorable chorus that feels much more contemporary.

Sterling musicianship, great production, and just one weak track amongst its 12 songs ("Marching Into Battle") add up to No More Hell To Pay being the best hard rock or metal album I heard in 2013, maintaining the high standard reestablished on Murder By Pride. It arguably stands as Stryper's strongest album yet, an inspiring feat for a band that celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. Sweet's 2014 looks to be very busy - in conjunction with a Stryper tour, he's also releasing both a new solo album and autobiography in May.

Rating: A