Saturday, July 30, 2016

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice [film review]

Released theatrically on March 25th; released last week on all physical and digital media platforms

Ben Affleck becomes the fifth actor to don the Batsuit in the eighth Batman film outing of the modern era, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which would seem to be an awfully high turnover rate. He acquits himself fairly well in the role, landing below Keaton and Bale and above Kilmer and Clooney on my (Bat)scale of effectiveness portraying Bruce Wayne/Batman. Returning as Superman is Henry Cavill, who first appeared as the character in 2013’s Man of Steel. I must admit I missed that one and while he’s serviceable enough in Batman v. Superman, there certainly wasn’t enough in his performance to inspire me to catch up on what I’ve missed.

Batman v. Superman picks up right at Man of Steel’s conclusion, as Superman battles General Zod, with the city of Metropolis becoming collateral damage in the process. It’s a clever choice to have the perspective of this sequence switch to Wayne’s. His witnessing of the extreme levels of destruction Superman is capable of (even when carried out with noble intentions) sets up Batman v. Superman’s expansive narrative and the conflict between the titular heavyweights.

The film, directed by Zack Snyder, also lays the groundwork for future movies featuring DC Comics superheroes, with cameos by a handful of other characters. The brief appearance by Aquaman is one of the better moments in the movie and provided my best laugh during Batman v. Superman’s bloated two-and-a-half hour running time. That’s because I knew it would have my best friend Mark practically soiling himself with excitement at seeing one of his favourite comic book characters finally appearing onscreen.

The “serviceable” description could also extend to nearly all of the larger supporting roles and performances throughout this movie. Holly Hunter plays a Kentucky Senator eager to reign in Superman’s power, Amy Adams plays Superman/Clark Kent’s love interest and Daily Planet colleague Lois Lane, Jeremy Irons replaces Michael Caine as Wayne’s butler Alfred, and Gal Gadot appears as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. None of them are particularly memorable.

Wonder Woman’s film debut here garnered an inexplicable amount of critical praise, as far as I’m concerned. I’m probably permanently tainted by Linda Carter’s campy 70s turn in the role, but I always found Wonder Woman to be a rather lame superhero. That’s not a sexist thing, either. With an admittedly far-less-than-devout knowledge of comic book history, I’d be hard-pressed to name a more rubbish superhero than Hawkeye, at least based on the character portrayed by the equally terribly Jeremy Renner in the Avengers films. Wonder Woman’s first appearance onscreen here is accompanied by a pounding score, but this intended highly dramatic moment lands with a resounding thud. Instead, the moment gave me my second best laugh of the film at the sheer cheesiness of it.

The worst thing about Batman v. Superman is the presence of a dreadfully miscast Jesse Eisenberg. His Lex Luthor (who’s actually the son of Superman’s archvillain of the same name) ruins every scene he appears in, with an over-the-top performance and a bad wig. The mentally unstable Luthor doesn’t invoke an ounce of menace in Batman v. Superman, which really hinders the level of investment many viewers will have in the film’s story.

Some other issues plague the movie. The climatic and tiredly inevitable battle scene between the main characters and the enemy who’s unleashed by Luthor (an alien monster named Cyborg) had me praying for a quick end to the whole thing. Let’s just say that as far as CGI has come, this sequence proves there’s still a long way to go with this art form. Amusingly, while I found the Cyborg CGI to be atrocious, the aforementioned Mark (who’s a comic book aficionado) praised it as one of the film’s best moments because of how true to the comic book character it looked. There’s also a jarring and bizarre nightmare sequence in a post-apocalyptic setting whose context and significance will likely be lost on all but the most hardcore comic book nerds. One of them speculates here that it’s foreshadowing future Justice League movie events. 

This last issue isn’t exactly a fault of the movie, but is anyone else troubled by the frequency nowadays with which supposed journalists whore themselves out to appear in TV shows and films? Charlie Rose, Anderson Cooper, and Soledad O’Brien appear in this movie and are some of the worst repeat offenders, along with Wolf Blitzer. My God, even the late and venerable Morley Safer turned up playing himself in the second season of House of Cards. Maybe I’m just getting old, but enough already. It’s no wonder the media’s journalistic integrity is in such a shambles.

Actually, that “getting old” thing is a big part of the problem when it comes to how I relate to superhero films now. At 46, I’ve just finally lost that youthful intrigue with these larger-than-life characters and their worlds. Simply put, I am no longer the audience for this type of thing (or to paraphrase Danny Glover’s Lethal Weapon character, “I’ve gotten too old for this shit”). And even if I hadn’t outgrown them, “shit” is another huge obstacle in enjoying superhero films because most of them are just that. This past summer’s X-Men: Apocalypse and Captain America: Civil War were damn near unwatchable. A big part of the problem is also the sheer volume they’re churned out with. Try a little quality control, Hollywood. Hell, Stan Lee, who makes a cameo in every Marvel film, is practically a full-time actor these days. Batman v. Superman isn’t quite a full-on turd, but it’s also just not very good.

Rating: C

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Zakk Wylde – Book Of Shadows II [album review]

Released on April 8th

Few metal musicians have the impressive range of Zakk Wylde. His ability to bludgeon listeners with meaty guitar riffs, shredding solos, and a booming singing voice has been well-established during his 18 years as Black Label Society’s frontman and some lengthy stretches as Ozzy Osbourne’s sideman. What makes Wylde unique and an ongoing source of intrigue for me is his ability to deliver both the heavy and mellow sides of himself so adeptly. The latter side is showcased beautifully on Book Of Shadows II, a sequel to his 20 year old Book Of Shadows album, which has aged nicely over the years.

With the 20th anniversary of Book Of Shadows’ release approaching, Wylde considered the best way to honour one of the most beloved albums in his catalog by fans. Instead of going the tired reissue route where a few bland demos and live tracks from that era get tacked onto the album’s back end, Wylde instead decided to revisit Book Of Shadows’ laid back sound and vibe with a collection of new music.

Wylde’s singing voice had a compelling, lived-in quality 20 years ago and it’s only gotten better and developed more character over the years. It definitely suits the predominantly melancholy nature of Book Of Shadows II’s material. In fact, one look at many of the song titles (“Tears Of December”, “Lost Prayer”, “Darkest Hour”, “Eyes Of Burden”, “Yesterday’s Tears”, “Harbors Of Pity”, and “Sorrowed Regrets”) is enough to approach the album extra cautiously, wondering if we’re in for 66 minutes of oppressive, wrist-cutting music. While there is a sombre lyrical narrative and musical tone running throughout the album, there’s also a healthy dose of optimism, emotional depth, and outstanding songcraft and musical performances to make Book Of Shadows II well worth your time.

The easy lilt, warm Hammond organ, and strong melodies on “Tears Of December” bely its downer lyrics and it’s the same case on “Useless Apologies”, “Sorrowed Regrets”, and “Darkest Hour”. “Harbours Of Pity” and the bitter-filled “Sleeping Dogs” (the rare example of a first single that sits at #13 on the album’s running order) just straight up own their gloominess, both musically and lyrically. All of them have plenty more to offer than just a mournful tone, however. 

Balancing out the cheerlessness are a number of relatively sunnier cuts like “Autumn Changes”, “Eyes Of Burden”, and “Lost Prayer” that make up some of Book Of Shadows II’s best material. Album closer “The King” may well be Wylde’s finest composition yet, though. Its bare structure features only piano, organ, strings, and a beautiful guitar solo, along with lyrics that display a more vulnerable and romantic side to Wylde that’s quite welcoming. The bluesy “Forgotten Memory” also demonstrates a more sensitive side of someone whose imposing exterior suggests he’s more likely a member of the Hell’s Angels (he’s not) than an  Elton John fanatic (he is).

John, The Eagles, 70s Neil Young, southern rock, the blues, and soul music comprise the essence of Book Of Shadows II’s musical influences, making for an intriguing sonic stew. You can actually also add in metal, because Wylde lets ’er rip more than a few times with some incredible guitar solos. The distortion may be dialled way back for many of them (or turned off altogether), but the guitarist still injects many of them with the ferocity we’ve come to expect from him. Wylde also shows tasteful restraint at times, too, such as the bluesy fretwork on “Forgotten Memory”.

As the sole writer of all 14 songs, producer, and having contributed all guitars, piano, organ, and vocals to the album, Book Of Shadows II represents an extremely impressive achievement for Wylde. The musician lays bare his soul and returns to the stripped down musical direction that he has consistently shown himself to be so comfortable with over the course of his career. Improving on its predecessor’s best attributes, the mellow Book Of Shadows II makes for a great collection of songs to unwind your day to.

Rating: A-

Related posts: my October 2010 review of Black Label Society’s Order Of The Black album

Friday, July 15, 2016

O.J.: Made In America [film review]

Premiered on ABC on June 11th

I’m usually not on board with the entertainment industry’s predictable habit of milking the hell out of the latest hot trends. One bandwagon I’m certainly not adverse to Hollywood hopping on, however, is the current trend of TV-based long-form true crime documentaries. In the past couple of years, this format has been responsible for some of the best documentary filmmaking I’ve ever seen with Netflix’s Making A Murderer and HBO’s The Jinx. Now comes O.J.: Made In America from ESPN Films, as part of their ongoing 30 for 30 documentary series.

The prospect of revisiting a much-scrutinized crime and the central celebrity figure involved likely holds zero appeal to many in their mid 30s or older who experienced the O.J. saga the first time around. O.J. fatigue is further exacerbated by Fox’s dramatic miniseries The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story from earlier this year (I only lasted about 30 minutes into the first episode before bailing out on the cheesy trashfest). One would expect that O.J.: Made In America’s daunting seven hour and 44 minute running time will be another major impediment to securing an audience in large numbers. Ignore all of these potential obstacles, however, because O.J.: Made In America is an absolutely brilliant piece of documentary filmmaking.

The five-part documentary miniseries from director/producer Ezra Edelman surely has to now be considered the definitive word on Simpson’s spectacularly bizarre life story. Edelman explores Simpson’s life from his youth right through to his current incarceration for the dumbfounding 2007 bungled armed robbery in Las Vegas of what Simpson thought was football memorabilia stolen from him. A large number of Simpson’s business colleagues, friends, family members, and acquaintances are interviewed, although Simpson himself declined to participate in the documentary. 

What’s fascinating, though, is how Edelman weaves so many other compelling narratives into his epic piece. Race, expectedly, is at the forefront, both in terms of the Los Angeles Police Department’s strained relationship with the black community and how much of a role that race played in Simpson’s murder trial. The doc also offers insightful examinations of the perplexing American criminal justice system, celebrity culture, as well as the commercialization and decline of the media and journalism.

Two of the documentary’s five parts spend their entirety on the murders of Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, Simpson’s arrest and the infamous Bronco chase, and his 1994-1995 murder trial. Many of the central figures in the case are interviewed, including Marcia Clark and District Attorney Gil Garcetti from the prosecuting side and F. Lee Bailey, Barry Scheck and the slime-oozing Carl E. Douglas from Simpson’s defence team. Douglas takes a little too much delight in recalling how prior to a visit to Simpson’s house by the jury, photos and other artwork there were rearranged and changed to make it look like Simpson had more relationships with black friends and family members (Simpson actually spent far more time in the “white world”). 

The trial is deconstructed in absolutely engrossing detail, with fresh revelations and analysis that even the most devout followers of the “trial of the century” will be surprised by. The prosecution’s mishandling of the case gets plenty of attention, from their misguided use of racist cop Mark Fuhrman to their disastrous strategy of having Simpson try on the gloves used in the murders (it’s revealed that Simpson helped swing the optics of that moment in his favour by not taking his arthritis medication, which likely played a role in the gloves not fitting). A handful of the jurors are interviewed as well and they offer some jaw-dropping comments that certainly shed more light on the trial’s unexpected verdict.

It’s a testament to the filmmaking team’s talents that the absence of any active involvement from the main subject of O.J.: Made In America doesn’t diminish its impact. Having almost eight hours to tell your story can be a blessing or a curse, depending on the filmmaker. Luckily, Edelman’s vision serves the sprawling running time of his well-paced documentary exceptionally well. Frankly, it’s astounding that there’s virtually no fat on the (oversized) bones here – even the outstanding Making A Murderer ended up flagging somewhat in its second-last episode before righting itself. O.J.: Made In America is actually so much more than just a compelling true crime story and should be essential viewing for documentary fans.

Rating: A+

Related posts: reviews of previous entries in the 30 for 30 series, including my October 2009 review of Kings Ransom and my October 2012 review of 9.79*

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

SIXX:AM – Prayers For The Damned [album review]

Released on April 29th

After lacklustre previous album Modern Vintage, SIXX:AM recapture and surpass the fine form they showed on their first two releases with Prayers For The Damned, their latest collections of songs. The band recorded enough material for a double album, but decided to hold off on releasing the other half of the material until later this year. That album, not unexpectedly, will be titled Prayers For The Damned, Vol. 2

It’s an ambitious endeavour from the trio consisting of Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx (I suppose I should be adding a “former” to that now?), ex-Guns N’ Roses guitarist DJ Ashba, and vocalist James Michael. Michael actually established his name as a producer, engineer, songwriter, and mixer who’s collaborated with a diverse range of artists like Meat Loaf, the Crüe, Alanis Morissette, Scorpions, and Kelly Clarkson. Drum duties for the new albums and current tour are handled by Orillia, Ontario’s Dustin Steinke. His performances really stood out on an album that’s loaded with great musicianship.

Prayers For The Damned deals up plenty of songs anchored by huge anthemic choruses, which is a formula that SIXX:AM have perfected at this point. There’s no better examples than “You Have Come To The Right Place”, “When We Were Gods”, “Everything Went To Hell”, and powerful opener “Rise”. The latter incorporates some very effective hymnal-sounding background vocals that add greater dimension to the song, which features lyrics that are defiant yet optimistic about the world’s increasingly unstable state. “I’m Sick” swings between a sauntering verse section and sped-up, aggressive choruses, with a searing solo from Ashba. “Prayers For The Damned” is one of the album’s best songs and is followed up by the more restrained “Better Man”, which feels like a companion piece to the title track with its very similar chord structure. The anthemic “Can’t Stop” sounds like filler on the first few listens before revealing its infectious charms, as does the more experimental “Belly Of The Beast”. “Rise Of The Melancholy Empire” delivers a grandiose and haunting conclusion to Prayers For The Damned, using another heavily leaned-on songwriting device in SIXX:AM’s sound — the quiet/loud dynamic. The contemplative lyrics from Sixx were inspired by last November’s Paris terrorist attacks. 

As far as side projects go, SIXX:AM was considerably better than most. Ashba left GN’R last year “with a heavy heart” to devote more time to SIXX:AM (Axl Rose also asked him to come back to play with the currently semi-reunited group) and Sixx played his final show with the now-retired Mötley Crüe on New Year’s Eve. The pair’s newfound lack of musical distractions is fully evident on the filler-free Prayers For The Damned, which is easily the band’s best release yet. The biggest revelation to me on the album was Ashba’s playing. I obviously knew he was a great guitarist, but he really steps up his game here with some absolutely monstrous solos and a nice assortment of offbeat six string sounds. Until this album, I also had never noticed the clear influence of Slash on Ashba, both in his playing style and tone (it really becomes evident when Ashba breaks out the wah-wah pedal).   

There is one ongoing quibble I have with SIXX:AM, however, and that’s Michael’s voice. I’ve just never fully warmed to it. To my ears, it sounds a little on the thin side, even though he has perfectly acceptable range. It’s always bothered me that I can’t quite get past my issue with it, but I think it’s simply one of those subjective and hard-to-explain oddities we all get with certain songs or singers. Michael, who produced and engineered Prayers For The Damned, does deserves his full due for how great the album sounds, though. There’s an abundance of great ear candy here, which Michael talks about in his revealing Fly On The Wall YouTube series. 

Almost a decade into their career, SIXX:AM hits their stride with Prayers For The Damned. The band delivers their heaviest album yet, comprised of first-rate arena-ready anthems that are also infused with an intriguing level of depth and scope. Considering the album’s soon-to-be-released companion piece was recorded at the same time, there’s no reason not to have very high expectations for Vol. 2.

Rating: A