Monday, July 2, 2018

The 15:17 to Paris [film review]

Released theatrically on February 9th; now available on all physical and digital media platforms 

Written for Live in the Six

Clint Eastwood may have just turned 88 on May 31st, but his more than 60-year-long career continues rolling on. Eastwood’s latest project finds him behind the camera for The 15:17 to Paris, which may be the oddest film you’ll watch this year.

It’s based around the events aboard a Paris-bound train in August 2015, when three American tourists stopped a lone terrorist from inflicting mass carnage. The group of Americans (longtime friends Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler) did get some help from a few other passengers, but were the ones who risked the most. Stone, in particular, demonstrated the most bravery by charging the gunman, whose AK-47 jammed before Stone tackled him.

So far, so good, right? Sounds like perfect fodder for a compelling, ripped-from-the-headlines thriller that’s been placed in the hands of a skilled filmmaker. Unfortunately, the dramatic centrepiece of the movie ends up being the only part of it worth watching. And considering the most dramatic part of that event takes up less than five minutes of screen time, that’s a huge problem for a film that runs 94 minutes.

The only part of the film worth watching isn’t just brief, it also doesn’t arrive until shortly before the end credits start rolling (which can’t be considered a spoiler since we know how things are going to play out). Getting to that point in the film will test even the most patient of viewers. The 15:17 to Paris may very well be the most padded movie I've ever seen.

For almost the entirety of its running time, virtually nothing compelling happens onscreen. It’s a slow procession of one exposition scene after another, with precious little of interest actually being exposed. We see a trio of unremarkable young actors playing Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler growing up in Sacramento (and doing unremarkable things). Then we see the men in their early adult years before Eastwood shifts the film to 2015 and it becomes a beautiful-looking, but painfully boring European travelogue as the trio heads toward their fateful train trip.

With all of these major issues working against it, they’re arguably not even the movie’s biggest problem.No, we haven’t even gotten to the really crazy part yet, which is the fact that Eastwood chose to have Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler play themselves as adults. If that sounds like an absolutely terrible idea to you, you would be 100% correct.

The leads, all with zero acting experience, are hopelessly lost trying to pull off the feat, especially Skarlatos. And that’s a whole other level of weird, when someone plays themselves onscreen and still doesn’t come across as authentic or natural. They’re not done any favours by the terrible screenplay from Dorothy Blyskal. Then again, she based her work on a book authored by (you guessed it) the three men and writer Jeffrey E. Stern. Like I said...weird. Eastwood also casts a few of the real-life train passengers to play themselves, which only adds a further layer of strangeness to everything if you’re aware of that fact while watching.

Even the real actors in the film fall flat with the thin material they have to work with. The recognizable faces in this drama are all curiously primarily known as comedic actors. They include Judy Greer, Jenna Fisher, Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale, and...Jaleel White? Yes, seeing Steve Urkel in a Clint Eastwood film is a tad surreal.

Despite this being the kind of “American heroes” premise Hollywood loves making and American audiences eat up, it’s still shocking The 15:17 to Paris actually got made. It’s a testament to Eastwood’s legend and influence that he somehow convinced a studio to greenlight a $30 million movie with the glaring issues this one clearly had before filming began.

Eastwood’s leap of faith in casting Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler as themselves proves to be disatrous. It’s a true shame their noble act aboard that Paris-bound train could be even remotely sullied by their involvement with such a poorly conceived film, especially one helmed by a Hollywood veteran who really should have known better. 

Rating: D

Friday, June 1, 2018

Keith Urban – Grafitti U [album review]

Released on April 27th

Written for Live in the Six

If giving a new Keith Urban album a listen isn’t on your to-do list because, well, you’re just not a country fan, here’s a little secret – he’s not really a country artist. At least not these days.

Yes, Urban’s earliest work may have been more rooted in a country sound. And sure, he came up through the Nashville scene and is still based there. There’s also that hard-to-argue fact that he’s always been exclusively branded and marketed as a country artist, even now.

But if you go back through his catalog of 11 studio albums, you’ll find the country/pop/rock hybrid sound that defined his output up until the past few years has shifted dramatically. 2016’s Ripcord marked an audacious step forward in terms of Urban’s musical experimentation with a more modern pop style, along with an occasional foray into R&B territory.

On Graffiti U, his newest release, Urban comfortably continues to explore some of the unpredictable musical avenues he’s been heading down with each successive album release, while still retaining many of the core elements that got him to where he is. It’s a shame Urban’s desire for poppier songs comes at the expense of letting his guitar talent shine as frequently as it has on past albums, however. That’s another fact that may surprise those who aren’t very familiar with the musician – Urban has absolutely monster guitar skills.

Opening track “Coming Home” shows Urban hasn’t completely abandoned his country roots. A banjo complements the guitar tracks and the song samples a riff from Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried”. Make no mistake, though, this is a pop track, through and through (the accompanying vocals from songwriter/pop singer Julia Michaels help to cement that fact). The bass-heavy “Never Comin’ Down” shows Urban combining funky verses with the kind of rousing arena-ready choruses his fans know well. A melodic bass guitar riff also propels the upbeat “Drop Top”, a song about a free-spirited woman that also gives Urban a chance to work in one of his most oft-used subjects – cars and driving.

The two Graffiti U tracks that adhere most to the kind of sound Urban is perhaps best known for (mid-tempo songs with a great hook) are the excellent “Same Heart” and “Horses”. He also has a long track record with including at least a couple of well-crafted ballads on each album and his latest release is no exception. The soulful “Parallel Line” and “Way Too Long” capably fulfill that requirement here.

The album’s best song is “Female”, which happens to feature Nicole Kidman, Urban’s wife, on background vocals. It’s hard to find much fault with its tasteful musical arrangement that’s highlighted by Urban’s spare, bluesy guitar lines. It’s the song’s lyrics that have drawn the most attention, however. “Female” was first unveiled back in early November, just a few weeks into the #MeToo movement. Some eyebrows were raised with what was perceived to be a patronizing tone in the lyrics that are meant to celebrate women. I personally think it’s much ado about nothing and it bears mentioning that a woman (Nicolle Galyon) co-wrote the song.

Admittedly, Urban undercuts his feminist message somewhat a few songs prior to “Female” with “Gemini”. Whereas the synth-heavy track sounds like it’s right out of the 80s, the cringy “She’s a maniac in the bed, but a brainiac in her head” line feels like it time-warped from the 40s or 50s when men were even less inclined to think a woman’s sexuality and smarts couldn’t co-exist. The song does a lot of things right, though, especially the extended guitar solo at the end that sounds like a clear homage to Thriller-era Michael Jackson in both guitar tone and style. Urban also channels the 80s with some two-handed tapping on Graffiti U’s only other guitar showcase, closing track “Steal My Thunder”.

Calling Graffiti U a heavily collaborative effort would be an understatement. There’s a veritable small army of personnel involved here, including 18 – count ’em, 18 ­­– producers credited (including Urban) for the album’s 13 full tracks. Nearly all the co-producers do double-duty as songwriters as well, in addition to a number of strictly songwriters contributing to the tracks. It’s a formula that doesn’t always work. “My Wave” is the latest in a long line of examples that show why white guys doing reggae is never a good idea. “Love The Way It Hurts (So Good)” just never catches a spark and “Texas Time” evokes the dull, too-laid-back vibe of Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do”.

Urban’s satisfaction with Ripcord’s results and its fan reception is obvious, if Graffiti U’s pop-centric collection of glossy songs is any indication. The album finds Urban continuing to take risks with his material, while still dipping just enough back into familiar territory to cater to longtime fans less inclined to adapt to the musician’s creative experimentation.

Rating: B

Related posts: my June 2016 review of Urban’s Ripcord album, September 2011 review of the Toronto show on Urban’s Get Closer World Tour, October 2009 review of the Toronto show on Urban’s Escape Together World Tour, and July 2009 review of Urban’s Defying Gravity album

Friday, December 2, 2016

Hell Or High Water [film review]

Released theatrically on August 19th; now available on all physical and digital media platforms 

Brothers Tanner and Toby Howard set off on a crime spree to rob from the crooked financial institution that foreclosed on the family ranch. On their tail are a grizzled U.S. Marshall and his partner trying to outsmart and apprehend the duo.

That’s the essence of the plot for Hell Or High Water, which was written by Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie. The bare bones narrative, combined with the rather nondescript imagery provided by the flat West Texas setting, could have pushed Hell Or High Water into “snoozer” territory, were it not elevated by the movie’s great acting performances.

The two main actors are Chris Pine as Toby and Ben Foster as Tanner. The characters are a study in contrasts, with Toby a straight-arrow divorced father of two hoping to secure a better future for his kids. Tanner is a loose cannon ex-con with little to live for other than finding his next adrenaline rush via whatever lawbreaking method he can. Such an opportunity presents itself when Toby hatches a scheme for the brothers to rob several of the banks owned by Texas Midland, who carried out the foreclosure on their late mother’s property. Toby then plans to use the stolen money to pay the bank back the debt owed on the ranch, which is more valuable for the oil reserves recently discovered on it than for sentimental reasons (the Tanners are one seriously dysfunctional family).

Pine, who’s never made much of an impact on me as an actor, delivers an impressive, understated performance that anchors the movie. Foster, one of the better actors of his generation, brings the simmering rage quality he’s now expertly honed to his role as the older brother. Jeff Bridges also doesn’t disappoint as crusty U.S. Marshall Marcus Hamilton. It’s the kind of world-weary role that Bridges could do in his sleep and his character is even saddled with a trite “impending retirement” narrative. Bridges still manages to make the most of his screen time in this supporting role, however, winning the viewer over with his character’s mix of smarts, humour, and offbeat charm. He pulls this off in spite of the consistent racist ribbing of his partner Alberto (played by an excellent Gil Birmingham), who’s a mixture of Mexican and Comanche.

The film doesn’t get too preachy in its political message of how big financial institutions routinely screw over the little guy. The director, whether intentional or not, also highlights the absurdity of Texas’ open carry gun laws with a couple of hilarious moments that illustrate the added dangers of being a bank robber in the Lone Star State. Hell Or High Water may keep things simple and unfold at a leisurely pace, but the principal cast make it one of the better crime dramas I’ve seen in 2016.

Rating: B

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Crisis In Six Scenes [television review]

Released for streaming on Amazon Prime on September 30th

There were some clear warning signs that Crisis In Six Scenes was going to be a disaster. Woody Allen’s latest project, a six episode series for Amazon’s Prime Video streaming service, was announced last year. Some of Allen’s first statements about it include “My guess is that Roy Price [the head of Amazon Studios] will regret this” and “I have no ideas and I’m not sure where to begin”.

At the time, such comments were probably dismissed as Allen cracking jokes and just being his signature ’ol neurotic self. It turns out the filmmaker was almost certainly being more truthful than humorous. Once the project had begun, Allen told Deadline that he didn’t know what a streaming service or even Amazon was, doesn’t own a computer, and how much he regretted the deal (“I haven’t had a pleasurable moment since I undertook it”). Uh oh.

Each episode of Crisis In Six Scenes runs around 22-23 minutes each, with a total running time of two-hours-and-sixteen minutes. Almost all of it is deadly boring, with glacial plot development and scene after scene whose sole purpose is seemingly to pad out the running time of the production. Should you care, the 60s-set series stars Allen as a novelist who’s trying to sell an awful sitcom to a network (the irony is clearly intentional). His comfortable existence in suburban Connecticut with his wife (played by Elaine May) is upended when an on-the-run radical activist breaks into their house seeking refuge. She’s played by a severely miscast Miley Cyrus, who contributes to this project’s dreadfulness with her ample screen time.

Frequent and banal commentary on the tumultuous period in which the series is set, constant headbutting between Cyrus’ and Allen’s characters, absolutely zero interesting principal or secondary characters (including appearances by Lewis Black, Joy Behar, and Michael Rapport), and a spectacularly bad joke-to-laugh ratio are what lay in wait for unwitting viewers. I laughed only once and even that was at a cheap sight gag with Allen. If you’ve seen a Woody Allen movie with him starring before then you’ve already seen his performance in Crisis In Six Scenes. Spoiler alert: the character he plays is overly neurotic.

In the past decade, I find myself asking basically once a year (the rate at which the quantity over quality Allen releases films) why I keep watching his latest work. Off the top of my head, probably 13 of his last 15 releases haven’t been worth my time, with the two exceptions being Cassandra’s Dream and Midnight In Paris. Add in his questionable personal history (which becomes even harder to stomach with his career-long onscreen preoccupation with decidedly young female protagonists, as is once again the case here), plus the fact that Crisis In Six Scenes is as transparent a cash grab as can be and, well, it’s probably time for this one-time fan to part ways with Allen.

Amazon relentlessly pursued Allen and gave the filmmaker carte blanche to create whatever he wanted. Despite huge reluctance on Allen’s part, they apparently paid him a dollar amount that was too obscenely high for him to turn down. These aren’t exactly circumstances that create an environment in which great art is created, which Crisis In Six Scenes proves in spades. Even the most hardcore of Allen fans will find precious little here to appreciate.

Rating: D-

Related posts: my January 2012 review of Woody Allen: A Documentary

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Heart – Beautiful Broken [album review]

Released on July 8th

It’s been frustrating for quite some time to keep the faith as a Heart fan. Until Beautiful Broken, their newest release, more than 20 years had passed since their last memorable studio album, 1993’s Desire Walks On. Nearly as much time had passed since their last merely decent release, which was 1995’s The Road Home live album. Principal members Ann Wilson and her sister Nancy have had a rather sporadic output of music over the past couple of decades, consisting essentially of three Heart albums, a couple of releases from their Lovemongers side project, and a handful of solo releases from Ann. None of these measured up to the talent level of Ann, who I consider one of the best vocalists in rock (no male or female distinction needed, either).

Beautiful Broken thankfully breaks that overlong stretch of musical mediocrity. And when you consider that eight of the album’s ten tracks are reinterpretations or re-recordings of songs from the duo’s past, it boldly defies the odds in doing so. These kinds of “odds and ends” albums almost never deliver very worthwhile results (Bon Jovi’s This Left Feels Right and Bruce Springsteen’s High Hopes, which I reviewed here, immediately come to mind). 

Once you get past that gawdawful album cover, Beautiful Broken rarely disappoints. Sure, it’s heavily weighted towards lighter material that mostly qualify as ballads — two thirds of it, in fact (including the slow-tempoed “Down On Me”, which straddles the fence between a ballad and a bluesy rocker). Most of this material is excellent, so it’s easy to be more forgiving of Beautiful Broken’s overall lighter tone. “Two” might be dismissed as overly sappy by some, but I found it to be an album standout. It also reminds listeners that Heart’s vocal talent runs deeper than just Ann, as Nancy takes over the lead vocals here. The romantic piano ballad (written by R&B artist Ne-Yo) does feel oddly out of place as the second song on the album, however, especially following the scorching title track that opens the album. The other track with Nancy singing lead, “One Word”, is admittedly a bit of a snoozer. “Sweet Darling” and soothing album closer “Language Of Love” are additional album highlights, featuring powerhouse vocals from Ann and some very effective string arrangements.

The rest of Beautiful Broken nicely scratches your “Barracuda itch” for fans that are more partial to Heart’s heavier side. Most notable is the album’s fiery title track, which may be the most aggressive song Heart’s ever done. Driven by Nancy’s badass guitar riff, “Beautiful Broken” also serves up a forceful vocal performance from Ann, who’s joined by Metallica’s James Hetfield. His presence bestows an extra serving of rock grit to an already-heavy piece of music that packs a lot into its concise two-and-a-half minute running time. The reworking of “Beautiful Broken” is truly transformative. It originally appeared as a bonus track on 2012’s Fanatic album, which I’d listened to a good 8-10 times. When I heard this reworked version, I immediately loved it, yet had absolutely no recollection of having heard the song before. The 2016 version is much more fully-formed, especially the bottom-end production. Heart’s strong Led Zeppelin influence is all over the acoustic-electric “I Jump”, “Heaven”, and “City’s Burning”, which also add strings and tastefully employ the Middle Eastern musical accents that Zeppelin brought to the mainstream.   

Considering the majority of Beautiful Broken is constructed of recycled material from Heart’s dodgy early 80s period, it’s significantly better than it probably has any right to be. Regardless of the circumstances, I’ll happily settle for what amounts to a damn fine album from the band. It’s been far too long. 

Rating: B+

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Chantal Kreviazuk – Hard Sail [album review]

Released on June 17th

A focus on family, her longtime dedication to a number of causes (including education, human rights, the environment, and mental health), and a busy and successful career as a songwriter for other artists (such as Gwen Stefani, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Britney Spears, and Drake) have left a seven year gap between studio albums for Winnipeg-born Chantal Kreviazuk. Hard Sail marks her sixth studio release.

Kreviazuk’s classically trained piano skills are front and centre on Hard Sail’s quieter moments, which dominate the album’s back half. “Snowing In The Desert” is one of Kreviazuk’s best pieces of work yet, with her piano accompanied by swelling strings and a standout vocal performance from the musician (including her effective background and harmony vocals). “Lost” and “I Love You” are also particularly strong, as Kreviazuk draws upon an undisclosed recent traumatic event in her life as the lyrical inspiration for the songs. Two-minute-long album closer “Smile In Your Sleep” — a lullaby to one of Kreviazuk’s kids — represents Hard Sail’s only notable dip in quality.

“Into Me” and “Meant For This” are the most obvious nods to the musician’s early-career mid-tempo songcraft. A modern pop production edge adorns the excellent title track, “Ticklish”, the ridiculously catchy “All I Got”, and the potent “Vicious” (which could easily be mistaken for a Florence + The Machine song).

Kreviazuk may be entering the third decade of her career and get labelled as an adult contemporary artist, but she proves once again on Hard Sail that she can balance the safer, more traditional elements of her sound with some ambitious risks that sound fresh and stand high amongst her catalog of work.

Rating: B+

Related posts: my October 2009 review of Kreviazuk’s Plain Jane album

Thursday, August 25, 2016

U2 – iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE: Live In Paris [Blu-ray review]

Released on June 10th on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital media

U2’s November 14th Paris show last year at the Accorhotels Arena was to have been broadcast on HBO later the same day. The Paris terrorist attacks on the 13th lead to a postponement of the event, which was rescheduled for December 7th. iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE: Live In Paris documents that makeup show, which marked the closing date of the band’s tour in support of their Songs Of Innocence album.

With their 40th anniversary approaching next month, U2 continue to push the envelope and shake off complacency. Their previous 360° Tour stands as the highest-grossing tour of all time, filling stadiums and delivering an impressive production featuring a mammoth claw-like stage and no shortage of technological might. This time around, the group downsized to arenas, while delivering an even more impressive technological spectacle by using a 100 foot long double-sided LED screen that hung from the arena ceiling and could be lowered and raised. Suspended above a 118 foot long walkway joining the main stage and a smaller stage on the other end of the arena floor, U2’s staging on this outing seeks to make their concert experience an even more inclusive event for fans. At various points, they play on both stages, the walkway, and even inside the video screen. Accompanying all of this was a new state-of-the-art PA system that strived to dramatically improve the sound of the shows for their audience.

The Paris attacks are employed as a secondary theme for the concert by U2 frontman Bono, as one would expect from the outspoken singer. Several references to it are made throughout the show in an effort to provide a small dose of healing and musical distraction to the sold-out crowd, which was undoubtedly still deeply shaken from the horrible events a few weeks prior. Not that I can compare my numbness following the events of 9/11 with what Parisians were feeling, but I can attest to the benefits of a powerful and emotional rock show in difficult times, having seen U2 in Hamilton, Ontario a few weeks after 9/11. It still ranks as the best concert I’ve seen. The main theme used for this tour (and the heavily autobiographical Songs Of Innocence) finds U2 uncharacteristically looking back to their formative years. This is a band, after all, that typically has an aversion to nostalgia.

The strong material on Songs Of Innocence was unfortunately overshadowed by the overblown outrage that accompanied the album’s unconventional free release strategy via Apple. Along with one-off 2014 single “Invisible”, six tracks are pulled from it here, with all of them fitting in nicely amongst the band’s classic material. While “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” is decent enough, it’s probably one of Songs Of Innocence’s relatively weaker tracks and a risky choice as a show opener, but the audience participation aspect of it makes it work. A five song segment early in the show returns the band to its Dublin roots to great effect, as their centrepiece video screen earns its (undoubtedly pricey) keep. Bono sings “Iris (Hold Me Close)” (about his mother, who died when he was 14) as home movies of her fill the video screen, while “Song For Someone” makes great use of animations acted out by Bono’s teenage son portraying his father in his childhood home. During “Cedarwood Road”, Bono enters the screen and amazingly inserts himself into animations depicting the street he grew up on. “Raised By Wolves” and the older “Sunday Bloody Sunday” address the Northern Ireland conflict. I must admit that while the staging of the latter song was effective (all four band members perform it on the walkway), the stripped down arrangement of it was probably the weakest live version I’ve heard of one of their classic songs.

The always-rousing “Until The End Of The World” cleverly features a giant-sized Bono (in terms of how he’s used on the video screen, not his actual weight) interacting with guitarist the Edge, who’s playing inside the screen. That leads into a brief intermission, where all four band members (including bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.) ares shown going through wardrobe changes inside the screen behind an arena-length recreation of the Berlin Wall as a pre-recorded remix version of “The Fly” plays behind Bono’s live vocals. This behind-the-scenes segment (fly on the wall moment?) is one of the coolest parts of the show and wasn’t seen on the HBO broadcast. I particularly loved the part where Clayton gives a little wink to the camera before taking his place for the next song, “Invisible” (one of the better performances of the show).

There are so many other great moments during the two-and-a-half hour show worthy of mentioning. These include “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and an unbelievable five song stretch of music that begins with subdued piano and vocal performances of “Every Breaking Wave” and “October”, followed by one of the best live versions of “Bullet The Blue Sky” I’ve ever heard, followed by “Zooropa”, which then beautifully dissolves into “Where The Streets Have No Name”. Rounding out the setlist are faithful and well-performed versions of U2 concerts staples like “Beautiful Day”, “Vertigo”, “One”, “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”, “Bad”, “With Or Without You”, and “I Will Follow”.

The show ends with an appearance by Eagles of Death Metal, making their first return to a stage since their Paris show was cut short by one of the terrorist attacks that left 89 audience members dead and many more injured. While it’s a noble gesture on U2’s part and nice to see the American act retake the stage after such a horrific experience, I can’t stand the Eagles of Death Metal’s music or their lead singer Jesse Hughes and his extreme right-wing views. Their appearance here certainly hasn’t swayed my thinking. Following an overlong version of Patti Smith’s “People Have The Power” with the members of U2, Eagles of Death Metal close the show by themselves with their terrible “I Love You All The Time”, featuring some truly awful dance moves from Hughes. Basically, their appearance at the show left me feeling rather off-balanced. The euphoria of watching such a great show clashed with my dislike for the band, which in turn clashed with the heartwarming nature and importance of them returning to a concert stage.      

iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE: Live In Paris reinforces U2’s status as a live rock act that’s second to none. Once again, they combine memorable visuals, technological might, and a stellar collection of classic and new material to produce what I’ll simply call the best live music home video release I’ve ever watched. Even if fans have seen the version aired on HBO, the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE: Live In Paris Blu-ray is well worth picking up. Along with some worthwhile extras, the cut of the show on it is an improvement, albeit a little too “cleaned up” in some spots. On the original HBO airing, there’s a funny moment during “Bad” where Bono struggles a bit to both affix a French flag from the crowd to the bass drum and get it displayed with the colours on the correct side. This causes the perpetually stone-faced Mullen Jr. to crack a smile, making for a nice, genuine moment. Almost none of that shows up in the Blu-ray cut. One additional observation I made is that while they could have overused the video screen, its frequency of use and the ways that the band and show designer Willie Williams choose to use it during the well-paced concert felt just right. 

I’ve seen six different U2 tours totalling nine shows and I’d rate the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour as their best yet – and I missed seeing the tour. The Blu-ray makes the show appear to be that good. Between the Blu-ray and the original HBO airing, I’ve watched the show about 10 times already. Every time I view it, there’s another off-balanced, mixed-feelings experience of complete enjoyment at how good the show is and feeling absolutely gutted that my general admission ticket for their July 2015 Toronto show was never used due to a last minute illness that prevented me from attending.

Blu-ray extras: a mostly worthwhile collection of extras totalling 90 minutes adds to the Blu-ray’s must-have status for U2 fans. Excellent performances of “Out Of Control”, “Bad”, and “People Have The Power” (with Patti Smith) from the December 6th Paris show and “The Electric Co.” from their November 11th Paris show make up the live outtakes. “Cedarwood Road” finds Bono’s childhood friend Gavin Friday delivering narration over the same type of animation used during the live performance of the song. A couple of short films (with one starring Woody Harrelson) based on a couple of tracks from Songs Of Innocence really aren’t very interesting. A video of the Zooropa album’s “The Wanderer” is, however, as a creepy computer-generated Johnny Cash accompanies his vocals on the song. A bunch of standard promo music videos for the Oscar-nominated “Ordinary Love”, “Invisible”, and Songs Of Innocence’s singles are included, with “Song For Someone” and “The Troubles” (featuring co-vocals from Swedish singer Lykke Li) standing out as the best. There’s only a very short behind-the-scenes look at the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour staging, which is a real missed opportunity to give some meaningful insight into such an impressive production.  

Rating: A+

Related posts: my September 2009 two-part review (part 1/part 2) of U2’s September 16, 2009 Toronto show on their 360° Tour, June 2010 review of the U2 360° At The Rose Bowl Blu-ray, July 2011 review of U2’s July 11, 2014 Toronto show on their 360° Tour, October 2011 review of U2’s From The Sky Down documentary, and February 2014 review of U2’s “Invisible” single 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Garbage – Strange Little Birds [album review]

Released on June 10th

The normally reliable Garbage turn in their most disappointing effort yet on Strange Little Birds, their newest release. Studio album number six contains all the Garbage hallmarks that fans have come to expect over the band’s 20+ year career. There’s dense production, pop melodies, industrial and electronic textures, crisp guitars, and lead singer Shirley Manson’s vocal swagger that clashes with her depressing lyrical themes that time and time again return to her struggles with self-confidence.

As a longtime Garbage fan, I hate to admit that it’s started to get downright uncomfortable to continually endure Manson’s autobiographical lyrical pain. Take this snippet from “Magnetized” for example: “You bring your light, I’ll bring the pain/You bring your joy, I’ll bring my shame”. On the surface, how someone with her amazing talent, success, and looks still can’t seem to get past her perceived deficiencies seems like a mystery. Fans would be well-served to watch this fascinating recent interview she did on the CBC’s Q radio program for some illuminating insight. Manson’s angst is complemented by Strange Little Birds’ predominantly dark musical tone (the band is rounded out by producer/drummer Butch Vig and multi-instrumentalists Duke Erikson and Steve Marker). It’s easily their most brooding album yet, which is saying something for a band who don’t exactly go light on the gloomy material.

The moody opening track “Sometimes” sets the appropriate tone for such a cheerless album, but it feels meandering and undercooked. The airy “If I Lost You”, the slow-building “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed”, and “Teaching Little Fingers To Play” left the same impressions. The excellent “So We Can Stay Alive” and “Amends” (another slow-builder) resonated much deeper. Their fuzzed-out basslines and buzzsaw guitars really make the tracks stand out with their aggressive sound and laser focus. They may be in shorter supply on this outing, but there are a couple of tracks slathered in a highly melodic pop sheen, a style which Garbage has done so well in the past. “Magnetized” and “We Never Tell” are solid, but aren’t exactly in the same league as previous Garbage songs cut from the same cloth, such as “When I Grow Up” or “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)”. Resting somewhere between the light and dark (in terms of musical tone) are first single “Empty” and “Blackout”, where Manson shares her opinion of today’s pop music (“Try not to think, be cool, be calm, be fake/Dumb yourself down, numb yourself out/Fake it till you make it”). Once again, the songs are nothing more than average and rather unmemorable.

Five out of six great studio albums is a batting average most bands would kill for, so there’s no shame in the alt-rock veterans finally releasing a generally weak collection of songs. Garbage’s stellar track record is precisely what kept me repeatedly listening to Strange Little Birds at least a dozen times, hoping for that spark of engagement I’ve come to expect while listening to one of their new albums. Not this time.

Rating: C

Related posts: my June 2012 review of Garbage’s May 28, 2012 Toronto concert and my August 2012 review of their Not Your Kind Of People album

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