Friday, April 30, 2010

Slash - Slash [music review]

* Released April 6th
Slash is billed as the top hat aficionado and iconic guitarist's first solo album, which is somewhat misleading, as his Slash's Snakepit outfit put out albums in 1995 and 2000 (It's Five O'Clock Somewhere and Ain't Life Grand, respectively). That project might have consisted of Slash and a set band, but there's no doubt that Saul Hudson (his birth name) was calling all the shots. Their debut release produced a handful of decent tunes, but neither album warranted much revisiting on the CD player. His latest uneven set ends up being doomed to suffer the same fate, only being saved from the ignominy of a used CD store trade-in by the fact I bought an autographed copy online from Newbury Comics (check out my post about them here).
The album was written and recorded during the downtime brought on from the inactivity from Slash's main gig, Velvet Revolver, who have been spinning their wheels the last couple of years looking for a replacement for departed vocalist/diva Scott Weiland. This time around he goes the Carlos Santana route, working with an array of mostly well-known vocalists from different genres, anchored by a rhythm section of bassist Chris Chaney (Jane's Addiction, Alanis Morissette) and Josh Freese (Jane's Addiction, A Perfect Circle, Nine Inch Nails, and uh, latter day Guns N' Roses...how's that for symmetry?) that plays on all the tracks but one. The songs were mostly assembled via a lot of back and forth/long distance writing between Slash and the guest vocalists, each of whom receive a writing credit on their respective song (Myles Kennedy from Alter Bridge is the only singer who appears on more than track).
Here's a sequential, track-by-track review, with the guest vocalist's name in parentheses:
"Ghost" (Ian Astbury): Easily the best song of the bunch (by a landslide) and one that wouldn't have been out of place on Astbury's band's (The Cult) previous couple of albums. A complex, creeping guitar line snakes its way through the song, acting as a badass counterpoint to the straightforward power chords that also populate the track. Former GNR bandmate Izzy Stradlin contributes additional guitar (the only guitar on the album that isn't from Slash), offering a welcome (if too brief) glimpse of the memorable guitar interplay the two created on the classic Appetite For Destruction, which still hasn't lost any of its edge, even after 23 (!) years.
"Crucify The Dead" (Ozzy Osbourne): Pretty standard Ozzy fare, although Slash's solo is one of the better ones on an album loaded with top notch guitar work. I've been an Ozzy fan for a good 30 years now, but I must admit that my level of interest in his musical career has been eroding the past few years faster than the brain cells in the Ozzman's noggin. Is it me, or has his voice always been this grating?
"Beautiful Dangerous" (Fergie): This musical pairing has garnered the most attention from the album, much of it negative and questioning Slash's willingness to work with such a hack. In my opinion, Fergie's group, the Black Eyed Peas, have concocted some of the worst musical (and fashion) atrocities in recent memory ("My Humps" anybody?). That said, the woman does have a decent voice. Her appearance with U2 and Mick Jagger on the Stones' "Gimme Shelter" at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert was completely overrated, though. Here, she acquits herself competently, bringing an all-too-familiar level of skankiness to the lyrics and vocal delivery.
"Back From Cali" (Myles Kennedy): I wasn't very familiar with this musician, except for knowing he was being touted as a replacement for Robert Plant in Led Zeppelin (that may be a dream gig, but dude, are you nuts?) and that he fronted Alter Bridge, which 3/4 of Creed formed after that band mercifully imploded. Kennedy has an extremely strong rock voice, which gets a full workout on this slower bluesy number, that, appropriately, has a definite Zeppelin feel.
"Promise" (Chris Cornell): Cornell sings on the album's second strongest track, covering familiar Audioslave and Soundgarden territory and thankfully steering well clear of anything resembling the colossally misguided musical direction he went in on his recent solo album, Scream (read my, ahem, less than kind review here).
"By The Sword" (Andrew Stockdale): An acoustic slide delta blues intro gives way to Slash's classic, full-on, Les-Paul-through-a-Marshall-stack onslaught. Shame about the vocals, though...Stockdale's (from Wolfmother) vocal style is an unwelcoming, whiny reminder that the world already has one Jack White. That's more than enough, thank you.
"Gotten" (Adam Levine): As if lyrics like "You just get me like I've never been gotten before" weren't bad enough, it's even worse that they're coming out of the mouth of Adam Levine, singer from the butter-knife-dull, smooth rock band Maroon 5. Other than a few tasteful licks here and there, this cut does the least to showcase Slash's musical identity.
"Doctor Alibi" (Lemmy): Yet another example of a musical collaboration from this album coming off as half-baked filler.
"Watch This": This track is an instrumental that features a pretty impressive rhythm section of Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters) on drums and Slash's GNR and Velvet Revolver bassist Duff McKagan. Unfortunately, Grohl declined Slash's invite to sing on the track, which leaves us with a song that has a good groove, but the aimlessness inherent to most instrumental music. By far, the most disappointing song on the album, given the talent involved.
"I Hold On" (Kid Rock): After enjoying Kid Rock's music back when he first made a name for himself, I completely lost interest for a good decade before rediscovering him last year. It'd be an understatement to say that this track is nothing special, however.
"Nothing To Say" (M. Shadows): Things get a lot heavier on this one, as you'd expect for a song involving the lead vocalist of metal band Avenged Sevenfold. Slash and Shadows may have brought the heavy, but they left behind the quality.
"Starlight" (Myles Kennedy): A passable power ballad.
"Saint Is A Sinner Too" (Rocco DeLuca): The shit sandwich gets even thicker with this terrible number that has Slash shelving the electric guitars and keeping it totally acoustic. DeLuca, relatively unknown, does himself no favours by laying heavily on the falsetto, resulting in a song that I knew I'd never want to hear again before I even hit the one minute mark. It wouldn't have salvaged the end result, but Slash originally wanted Radiohead's Thom Yorke to sing on it. What happened? "I didn't have the balls to call him", as he said in a recent interview. It's nice to know that even superstars get starstruck once in a while, too.
"We're All Gonna Die" (Iggy Pop): The album's final track stems the tide of mostly putridness that preceded it to at least exit on a high note. Iggy brings a looseness to the song that is sorely lacking on the rest of the album.
Stylistically, the album is all over the place and just far too overreaching. For the most part, Slash steers the sound of each track too much towards the style and comfort zone of the specific vocalist he's partnered with, which ends up leaving the album feeling more like an assembled group of vocalists who put together a project with Slash as the guest guitarist on each of the tracks than the other way around. In the end, there's simply a serious lack of memorable tunes and the whole endeavour comes off feeling like a highly forgettable vanity project.
Rating: ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Swell Season - Strict Joy [music review]

* Released in September 2009
Irish musician Glen Hansard and Czech musician Marketa Irglova gained worldwide fame in 2007 when Once, their charming gem of a movie, started showing up on critic's lists of the best films of the year. The tiny independent film's feelgood success story then soared to new levels when the pair won the Oscar in 2008 for Best Original Song for "Falling Slowly". Once told the story of two struggling musicians in Ireland who fall in love, which mirrored what was happening in real life between Hansard and Irglova, who released their first album as The Swell Season in 2006 (Hansard has also fronted the relatively unknown Irish band The Frames since 1990).
The Oscar win and the Once soundtrack's significant commercial achievements amped up the anticipation and expectations from the duo's follow-up, which now finds Hansard and Irglova no longer a couple after a two year relationship. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the lyrics are relationship-centric, offering viewpoints from each on where things went wrong. It's an interesting and unique dynamic, this situation the pair now find themselves in, having to navigate the delicate waters of a dissolved romantic partnership while trying to cultivate and maintain a healthy professional one.
The Swell Season's sound pulls heavily from the folk and soul sounds of the 70's - Van Morrison is the most obvious influence, particularly on smooth opener "Low Rising". Numerous tracks start off with just a simple acoustic guitar and vocals, eventually adding a tasteful mix of sonic elements like horns, strings, piano, bells, and various percussive flavourings that crescendo into something very different from where the song started. "In These Arms" follows that formula to a certain degree, but gets bogged down by the bare simplicity of the intro and verse sections, which only sound that much more deficient when the lush choruses kick in. This track and "Back Broke" feature more prominent examples of Hansard's occasionally off-key singing, which is an intentional artistic choice, but not necessarily a wise one. "Feeling The Pull" is a jaunty, rare upbeat song on an album loaded with downers (it does, after all, musically chronicle the couple's break up). The multiple tracks of acoustic guitars sound exceptional, displayed front and centre in the sound mix with the percussive element from the strumming of the strings acting almost as an entirely separate percussive addition. "I Have Loved You Wrong" is pretty much the complete opposite of "Feeling The Pull", as Irglova assumes lead vocals for a stark and haunting ode to self-doubt, rooted by a repetitive fretless bass line and punctuated by well-timed cymbal crashes.
Strict Joy has its share of bright spots - unfortunately, the excess of not just inferior, but downright terrible songs diminishes their glow. "Fantasy Man", Irglova's other lead vocal turn, is a meandering mess. "Paper Cup" and "Love That Conquers" are similarly leaden in their delivery, with the former redeemed somewhat by some excellent classical guitar work.
Highlights: "Low Rising", "Feeling The Pull", "I Have Loved You Wrong"
Lowlights: "Fantasy Man", "Paper Cup", "The Verb"
Rating: ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Ricky Gervais Show [television review]

* Currently airing on HBO and HBO Canada
The Ricky Gervais Show podcast and audiobook phenomenon is one of the odder things I've seen in pop culture in recent years. Odd, in that for something as unquestionably hugely popular as they are, I've never met a single person who has ever heard of them.
First, a brief Ricky Gervais history lesson. By now, most people know who the British comedian is. He created, wrote, directed, and starred in the original version of TV's The Office and its also successful follow-up, Extras. Recent years have seen him break into film, including starring roles in the middling Ghost Town and The Invention Of Lying. Also appearing on his resume are a thriving stand-up comedy career and a series of best-selling children's books, with the latter being a somewhat unpredictable career avenue given the fact that at aged 48 Gervais has no kids and doesn't plan on any with his long-time partner, Jane Fallon. The podcast and audiobooks are offshoots of Gervais' earlier radio career, specifically a weekly show (also called The Ricky Gervais Show) he co-hosted on London alternative music station XFM with Stephen Merchant, his frequent TV and movie creative partner. The pair started at XFM in 1998 and were eventually fired before returning in 2001. The second incarnation of the show paired them with producer Karl Pilkington, who they gradually incorporated more into the program based on the unintentional comedy gold delivered from his quirky outlook on life. After leaving XFM in 2005, the trio released their own free podcasts, which immediately climbed to the #1 spot on the iTunes Top Podcast chart. Several subsequent "seasons" of the podcasts followed, this time with a small fee attached (who can blame them?) and they also instantly took over the top of the charts and were recognized by the Guinness Book Of World Records in 2007 as the world's most downloaded podcast (to date there have been approximately 200 million legal downloads). The podcasts eventually came to an end and December 2008 saw the release of the first in a ten part audiobook series that just concluded this past February, titled The Ricky Gervais Guide To..., with a different topic for each audiobook. Again, it was an instant smash success for each of the installments - in December 2009 they occupied an incredible nine of the top ten spots on the best-selling audiobooks chart (and twelve of the top fifteen). Full disclosure: I am a massive fan of listening to these three chat. In fact, I've listened to them literally on a daily basis for almost four years now, which is both an indication of how entertaining they are and how little of a life I have.
The television version of The Ricky Gervais Show extracts segments of the podcasts verbatim and adds simplistic, Hanna-Barbera-style animation to the trio's free associative ramblings on news stories, philosophical topics, and their personal lives. One could argue just how necessary this whole endeavour is, as the podcasts are more than strong enough to stand on their own and the animation doesn't add much to the overall level of entertainment (the best line on this topic came from Variety, which called it "...a move that amounts to using every part of the chicken"). Many of the scenes in the show are just literal graphical representations of what is being said, with a few extra laughs being generated. The move has paid off for HBO, though. Clearly, the production costs would have to be fairly low and strong ratings have earned the show a second season renewal.
No review of any version of The Ricky Gervais Show would be complete without discussing the idiot genius of Pilkington, who has gone on to become a minor British celebrity and also published several books. The show may have Gervais' name in the title, but by his own admission, the lynchpin of the group is Pilkington and his outside-the-box viewpoints and observations. Gervais' impetus for the shows over the years is basically that he "loves being in a room with Karl Pilkington", who he's seen "blossom - from an imbecile to an idiot". The often unintentionally humorous musings emananting from the man are the source of heavy ridicule and ribbing from Merchant and Gervais, which has invited criticisms that they bully him too much, but it's all in good fun. Pilkington is impressively unflappable and the three are the best of friends off the air. Going back to the XFM days, some have speculated about whether or not Pilkington was even real or just a character created by Gervais and Merchant, which they have always steadfastly denied.
I'm giving HBO's version a 9/10, which is more a reflection of the quality of the source material (which I cannot recommend more highly that you seek out) than the strength of the animated show.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Plastic Kenny Rogers...

The fact that Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton (aged 71 and 64, respectively) have had plenty of plastic surgery is no secret - both have been quite open about it over the years. Based on a recent picture of the pair together, it would appear Dolly has gotten the better end of the scalpel. She looks somewhat odd, but not as bizarre as Plastic Kenny, whose expression suggests a lobotomy may also have taken place. The second picture is from 1987.
(click to enlarge)

Monday, April 12, 2010

My 2010 Hot Docs lineup...

Below are the films I'll be watching at this year's 2010 Hot Docs festival, which is North America's largest documentary film festival (running April 29th through May 9th). I've been meaning to attend for a few years now, based on highly positive feedback from my brother, Jay. Thanks to James McNally of Toronto Screen Shots for hooking me up with tickets - reviews of some of the films I'll be seeing will be posted there.
Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage - One of rock's most influential bands, Rush ranks third-behind only the Beatles and the Rolling Stones-for the most gold and platinum albums. Yet despite international popularity and reverence from fellow musicians, they remain slighted by critics and ignored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They are the world's biggest cult band. Filmmakers Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn are becoming masters of the music doc, and here have constructed a rock-solid, absorbing, and seamless survey of Rush's astounding 40-year career. The testimonials from famous fans - Billy Corrgan, Kirk Hammett, and Jack Black among them - are engaging, astute, and often hilarious. The archival footage is spectacular (Geddy, those outfits!) and, most important, the soundtrack and live concert footage remind us why Rush continues to be a singular phenomenon and Canadian icons: their music is virtuoso, timeless, amazing.
The Parking Lot Movie - Landing a job at the Corner Parking Lot is no easy feat. Bossman Chris Farina empowers employees as de facto owners, creating a work environment that privileges workers over customers. The ragtag crew of misfits he’s assembled contemplate existentialist and misanthropic deep thoughts while setting parking brakes. The car jockeys give equal time to brain-teasers, time-wasters, and the finer points of morality. Park and you will be judged! Your good or evil based on the make, model, and licence plate of your ride. A hilarious indictment of capitalism, class politics, and car culture.
The People Vs. George Lucas - Star Wars is so much more than just a movie—it’s a cultural phenomenon. Since its release and subsequent sequels and prequels, fans have reinterpreted the original films into needlepoint, nerdcore, puppet skits, and parodies. A participatory and democratic documentary devoted to the fans, The People vs. George Lucas assembles fan films, rants, and excerpts from the Star Wars Holiday Special to pose the timeless question: Who owns and controls a piece of art anyway? Does the Star Wars galaxy belong to George Lucas, its visionary author and copyright holder, or to the society that has embraced and expanded it? Appreciation, interpretation, and re-appropriation are crucial in keeping an artwork alive, but what happens when the creation becomes bigger than its creator? An entertaining look at the conflicted dynamic between George Lucas and his fans that might best be compared to the rise and fall of his very own character, Anakin Skywalker.
Gasland - Move over crude oil. Natural gas is the new player in the energy game and an unprecedented drilling boom is sweeping America. The Halliburton-developed technology of “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing has unlocked a “Saudia Arabia of natural gas” across the United States. So when filmmaker Josh Fox is approached to lease his Pennsylvania farmland for drilling, he almost takes the money. But after asking a few questions, he unwittingly stumbles into an environmental disaster. Residents from north to south report contaminated wells, mysterious ailments, and even combustible water straight from the tap. Fox blends terrifying facts of corporate cover-ups and governmental atrophy with a personal and refreshingly absurd take on the whole rotten mess. The Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, Gasland is an astonishing exposé of America’s new energy race.
Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work - Check your plastic surgery jabs and red carpet cattiness at the door. It’s time to meet the real Joan Rivers. Raunchy and unapologetically brash? This we know. But as award-winning filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback) spend a year with the comedy legend, a new and remarkable story of guts and sucker punches unfolds. At a time when women weren’t supposed to be funny, let alone tackling taboo topics like sex, Rivers trailblazed all the way to “The Tonight Show.” But personal tragedies and professional missteps now find her 75 years old and fighting tooth and nail to get back on top. Intimate vérité footage and brutally frank conversations reveal just how far she’ll go. Outrageously funny and unflinchingly honest, the film reveals the ruthlessness of the entertainment industry, the trappings of success, and the bare vulnerability of the performer.
12th & Delaware - Award-winning filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp) plant themselves in the middle of America’s most uncompromising war. An abortion clinic sits on 12th Street in Fort Pierce, Florida. Directly across, on Delaware Avenue, a pro-life centre sets up camp. With an almost identical exterior, it’s often mistaken for the very clinic it hopes to shut down. With unprecedented access inside both facilities, the filmmakers record the astonishing dramas that unfold behind and between their doors. Offering free ultrasounds and her own facts about abortion, Anne, pro-life’s front line soldier, is on a mission to save her centre’s confused visitors, while Candace and her husband, owners of the abortion clinic, usher their clients past sidewalk protestors and secretly transport their doctors. 12th & Delaware presents an unflinching look at an intractable war and the women caught in the crossfire.
Human Terrain - Human Terrain adeptly explores the U.S. military’s controversial new program, the Human Terrain System. The program, designed to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi and Afghan people by making cultural awareness a key counterinsurgency strategy, embeds social scientists with combat troops. While some academic critics consider it misguided and unethical to gather intelligence and target potential enemies for the military, others support the idea of a more sensitive military occupation. The film hears from both sides, giving us rare access to war games in the Mojave Desert and training exercises at Quantico and Fort Leavenworth, and taking us into the heart of the war machine and the shadowy collaboration between American academics and the armed services. Human Terrain is a brilliant and timely positing of what happens when war becomes academic and academics go to war.
Casino Jack And The United States Of Money - The story of how Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff rose to power and subsequently fell from grace is fascinating enough as a study in the disruptive power of money and how it so effortlessly undermines the American democratic process. But by plucking out the scandalous events surrounding Abramoff, including million-dollar swindle schemes, mob-style murder, and trips to the Marianas Islands to interfere with international labour laws, this spy-like drama is almost too bizarre to be believed. With careful structuring of the fantastic material, Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney navigates us through the political circus while Abramoff drives a clown car of offences. Watching in disbelief as the crimes spill out could be funny if the stakes were a little less high.
Shadow Play: The Making Of Anton Corbijn - Anton Corbijn’s photography career began with dark photos of bands in Dutch clubs. Twenty years on and the internationally renowned artist and music video director’s high contrast style now defines the look of überbands such as Joy Division, U2, Depeche Mode, REM, and Nirvana. Bono, Chris Martin, Kurt Cobain and others share how Corbijn captures his shots, illustrating the shifting dynamics of photographers, paparazzi, and celebrity. The film cuts between these iconic subjects and behind-the-scenes footage of Corbijn directing his latest, and perhaps most personal work, a feature biopic of Joy Division’s front man Ian Curtis. Shadow Play is a fascinating glimpse inside the mind of a master.
Life With Murder - Twelve years ago in Chatham, Ontario, Mason Jenkins murdered his 20-year-old sister with repeated rifle shots to the head. Overwhelming evidence led to his conviction, but Mason insisted he was innocent. His parents endured community shunning when they steadfastly stood by him. Extraordinary access to original crime scene videotapes and recorded telephone calls, forensic evidence, and interviews with Mason, his parents, and the police detective in charge of the case deliver an airtight case against Mason. At the same time, the compassionate portrayal of his parents’ grief and their overwhelming need to believe in their son constructs a powerful psychological portrait of the family—and results in an astonishing confession. Award-winning director John Kastner admits to being obsessed with the lives of criminals. In Life with Murder, he extends this interest and asks us to empathize with the tragic effects of murder on the families of criminals.
(all synopses taken from Hot Docs website)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Big Fan [movie review]

* Released theatrically in August 2009; now on DVD
Robert Siegel wrote the script for The Wrestler, which was an engrossing sports-related movie that looked at a man on the fringes of society. Big Fan is his directing debut (he also wrote the script) and he less successfully mines the same territory, this time focusing on the warped culture of rabid sports fandom, embodied here by one man's unhealthy obsession with the NFL's New York Giants.
That man is named Paul Aufiero, as played by Patton Oswalt. Oswalt is best known for his stand-up comedy, being the voice of Remy the rat in Pixar's Ratatouille, and playing Spence, the loser friend on TV's King Of Queens with a crappy job (toll booth collector), no love life, and still living with his mother. Big Fan's Paul character is given virtually the same set of circumstances (except here he's a parking garage attendant), but Paul inhabits a much darker world, driven by a pathological allegiance to the Giants that literally shapes his life and is the foundation of his identity. Sundays during football season finds him and his only friend Sal (played by indie veteran Kevin Corrigan) tailgating in the Giants Stadium parking lot during home games, but reduced to watching the actual game from a small television set sitting in the trunk of their car and powered by a generator, while they soak up whatever atmosphere they can from the roar of the crowd in the distance. During and after work, Paul spends his time scripting the supposedly off-the-cuff regular late night calls he makes to the local sports talk radio show that are well-received by the host and listeners, offering a brief respite from the anonymity and invisibility of his day to day life.
Oswalt is well-cast as the anti-hero caught up in a serious case of arrested development. He clashes with his family over his lack of desire for the societal conventions of a wife (or girlfriend), starting his own family, or a successful career. Paul is always happy to let his Giants freak flag fly, never missing an opportunity to wear a jersey, toque, or cell phone holder with the team's logo, while sleeping under his NFL bed sheets beneath a poster of his favourite player (fictional superstar linebacker Quantrell "QB" Bishop). A chance meeting with QB that turns horribly wrong sets up the latter two thirds of the movie, although that event and some other farfetched plot contrivances that follow feel a little too convenient and ring hollow.
The movie is unsettling, both in its subject matter and the style in which Siegel presents his film. There's a minimalist, low-key feel to Big Fan, not uncommon with this type of indie fare and the dark humour isn't as up front as you'd expect in a movie starring Oswalt. Combine the film's overall uneven tone with the highly unpredictable (and unfulfilling) ending and you're left with a wobbly effort that fumbles instead of scores.
Rating: ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Hurt Locker [movie review]

* Released theatrically in June 2009 (re-released in March); now on DVD
There likely hasn't been a film released in the last year that was more critically adored and showered with awards than The Hurt Locker, which leaves me completely baffled. When it first hit my radar after its initial release last summer, I watched it with extremely high expectations based on accolades such as it being "a near-perfect movie" (Time magazine) and an overall Metacritic rating of 94/100. Somewhere between the hype and the actual quality of the film, though, lies a huge chasm of "huh?". I rarely watch many movies multiple times, especially ones I didn't like the first time around, but the The Hurt Locker's universal adulation prompted me to give it a second viewing. What was I missing? My conclusion: the movie still isn't very good, my initial reaction was correct, and most of the rest of the world is, well, wrong. Pardon the hubris.
Based on screenwriter Mark Boal's reports as an embedded journalist with an Army bomb squad in Baghdad in 2004, the movie focuses on a small bomb disposal team comprised of three figures whose own distinct personalities are an obvious construct to create some drama and conflict. Sergeant JT Sanborn (played by Anthony Mackie) keeps a level head and tends to stick with protocol and Specialist Owen Eldridge (played by Brian Geraghty) is skittish and seemingly teetering on the brink of a mental meltdown. The newest member of the squad is Staff Sergeant William James, whose portrayal by virtual unknown Jeremy Renner was deemed Oscar-worthy this year (he lost to Jeff Bridges). James' character is an adrenaline junkie with a cowboy attitude just verging on reckless, which can be a potentially lethal combination in his line of work.
There isn't much of a plot to the film - seven loosely connected "in the field" scenarios are broken up with dull, inconsequential sequences that show the squad members during their downtime, doing things like getting drunk and punching each other hard in the stomach. The film's action sequences have been highly praised, but I wasn't impressed at all by their setup or execution. One scene showing the squad waiting out a sniper goes on for an eternity. It may be factually accurate, showing that not all combat is chaotic action, but, in fact, plenty of patient waiting for the right moment to strike. That doesn't mean it makes for an entertaining movie scene, however. Critics also heaped praised on the film for its gritty realism, which is fairly meaningless since I'm doubting any of them have ever spent time in the military. Interestingly, a perusal of reader comments on Metacritic shows a less enthusiastic reaction to the film than critics, with a number of comments coming from people claiming to be veterans who actually criticize the movie for its lack of realism.
The factor that plays the largest role in sinking the movie for me is that Renner's lead character is just too hard to root for. His personality is abrasive, the small snippets into his personal life inspire no allegiance from the viewer, and he's extremely hard to read. Mackie's and Geraghty's supporting roles are also completely unremarkable, which means we're 0 for 3 in terms of any engaging performances from the film's principle actors. That's an uphill climb no movie can recover from.
The Hurt Locker has succeeded in pulling the biggest con job on movie critics and the Academy in recent memory. It won six of the nine Oscars it was nominated for, including the coveted Best Motion Picture Of The Year. Director Kathryn Bigelow took home an award for her work, despite the fact the annoyingly shaky camera work distracts from the film, which unbelievably also won an Oscar for best editing (did I mention the movie is also way too long)?. I guess the stupidly quick jump cuts and seasick visuals are supposed to be tension heighteners. Normally, a good screenplay and strong performances should take care of most of that work, but that certainly isn't the case here...although that didn't stop Boal from scoring another inexplicable Oscar win for his limp script. At least movie consumers haven't consumed the Kool-Aid - The Hurt Locker had the lowest box office figures of any Best Picture winner in the last 41 years and a recent theatrical re-release to capitalize on its Oscar love also failed to make much of an impact.
Rating: ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆

Thursday, April 1, 2010

My apologies for the inactivity...

As you may have noticed, there haven't been many reviews posted the last couple of months. Not coincidentally, I started a new job almost two months ago now which is physically demanding (not to mention it's an overnight shift), so I'm pretty fried most days after work and haven't had as much spare time to write as I'd like.
With the beginning of a new month, I'll do my best to pick up the pace a little more. Part of that will be also reviewing some documentaries screening later this month at this year's Hot Docs festival (North America's largest documentary film festival) for Toronto Screen Shots. My review for Soundtrack For A Revolution was recently posted there and I look forward to collaborating with them.