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Saturday, Jul 19, 2008

God, who apparently obsesses on Bootsy Collins a little too much, has a problem in his afterworld corporate structure. Seems mortal souls are having a hard time giving up the non-holy ghost, and without available deadites to finagle into heavenly worker bees, the Omnipresent CEO is experiencing a heavy staff shortage. So he makes deals with potential pearly gate crashers: they help the living kill themselves and as casualty catalysts, they become a welcomed part of His Mothership Connection. The latest recruits, a couple of dead Chicago goombahs, agree to travel back down to the plane of reality to help Tex, a sick Stetson stick figure, kill video artist Leon DeWilde.



Seems our elongated doogie puncher despises this girly generator of must die TV and his pouty, bib overall wearing “canvas” stretcher Ray. Leon is obsessed with death, so much so that he Betamaxes anything in the throes of imminent mortality and calls it Jasper Johns. But even with anger just a rootin’ tootin’ to rage, our slender vittle just can’t seem to off the cathode offender. So it’s up to God’s goodfellas to use their skills at roller boogie and gay bashing to bring cow and party poke together for a final Brooklyn style wild west showdown. But who is the victim and who will be the victee…oh wait. Only Allah, and his Angels, knows for sure.


Meanwhile, in that addled bastion of otherworldly ethereality and make believe, also known as Hollywood, young actresses named Sin and Heaven just can’t seem to get a job offer…acting, that is. When a policeman stops our Miss Afterlife Paradise, it’s love at first ogle. Typical of getting out of a ticket, Heaven gets out of her blouse, and after a night on top of her cloud nine Valhalla, the oppressed officer becomes wildly possessive. He wants to marry Heaven, or at least take her home to “Momma.” But she wants to be a legitimate film star, even though she looks like a lemur and speaks like Perini Scleroso.



Hoping to land a much sought after audition with local “producer” Mr. Salacity, the girls primp and preen and practice their self-gratifying improvisation skills. But all Mr. S wants is a little slice of vice and a long hard night in the valleys of the kingdom of God. After a picnic debacle that leaves the lecherous S soaking in his own secretions, Mr. Big Shot now won’t give the always-willing women the time of day. So our beauties concoct a plan to kidnap the moviemaker and fornicate him into providing Equity cards. And all the while we learn that, apparently, the Bible is wrong. No matter if you are a rich or righteous dude, it’s pretty damn easy Getting into Heaven.


What in the name of nudity possessed Harry Novak, purveyor of rather solid soft-core sex farces and champion of the grind house grift, to release Angels? It’s not like it’s so blasphemous or teeming with Last Temptation tawdriness that churchgoers would line up simply to denounce its non-depravity. While the notion of angels as God’s private assassins may seem a little outrageous, there is never once a slanderous shot taken at Jehovah or his need for contractual hit men (or women). Maybe Harry thought that, with the advent of Sheilds and Yarnell and Doug Henning, the world was ready for a movie co-starring wistful, effeminate manboys, one of which specializes in the deadest of ancient arts—the pantomime. Really, there is nothing here for or by or to remotely engorge the well-worn exploitation enthusiast.

The scorecard of carnality is putrid. There is a half-topless shot thirty minutes into the narrative, and some completely under the cover horizontal handsprings at the forty-five minute mark. But the rest of the movie is like one big long inferred homosexual brain buster, since the film is chockfull of gay imagery, queer suppositions, and way too many sequences of well-muscled mime. Sure, this could all be chalked up to the mid-‘70s retreat into an “anything with anyone goes” attitude that seemed to welcome disco and its 54 feyness right through the velvet ropes. But the movie just makes no sense as a sellable item. It doesn’t have anything novel or naughty to say about how the Lord works, either in mysterious or (as in this case) monotonous ways. And the avant-garde art angle of exploring entities on videotape the moment before they die sounds like a bad dream Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once had.


Kind of like a bong hit version of Peeping Tom, Angels wants to say something cogent about accepting life after death via the Sony camcorder. Unfortunately, it does so with a Fire Island road company version of Godspell.


Getting into Heaven, on the other hand, gets its raunch and randy factors just right. While not a Novak product (with a title like that it really should be), simply repeating this movie’s marquee moniker will give you the gist, the grist, and the gravy of this seedy little sexcapade in a simple three word phrase. Then add the ample talents of one Uschi “Oh La La” Digart, and you’re in for a goofy delight that is funny as well as frisky. True, the male leads represent manliness at its most bereft of beefcake, but apparently it is easier to convince a paying audience of Everymen that hot babes would rotate their tires if the studs in seduction looked like feed store clerks. Still, there are also a many ribald reasons why Getting into Heaven really ratchets up the rug burns for the connoisseurs of curves.



While the notion of a full body snuggle with gallons of Vicks Vapo-rub seems a tad…how does one put this…mentholated?…the extended incident of Sin lathering up Heaven for a little “alternative” massage aromatherapy is guaranteed to enflame your sweetbreads and coldcock your bi-values. And when Uschi wants to, she can sell the sex act better than any standard, non-hardcore actress. Yes, she does occasionally look like a beaver in search of a good range of cedar to sink her choppers into, but more often she smolders with a fire down below burn that ignites the screen. It’s no wonder she is a darling of the exploitation genre. Aside from being built like a terracotta bulldozer, she can really pour on the pure joy of playing jock hockey.


Getting into Heaven may simply be 80+ minutes of simulated sex surrounded by cornball jokes and comic asides, but it meshes the two so effortlessly that you’ll laugh as much as you leer. And when Uschi is in your eyeline, everything is bound to get steamier.


 


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Friday, Jul 18, 2008

... (Or an Incredible Simulation!): I once saw an ad on the back page of this rag for an upcoming show featuring a band that billed itself as “Colorado’s #1 Widespread Panic Tribute Band!” This particular bit of hype caught my eye and continues to haunt me to this day, because it’s a very odd thing for a band to call itself. It implies that A) there are apparently enough Widespread Panic tribute bands in Colorado for there to be a clearly superior one, and B) there are enough Widespread Panic tribute bands nationwide to make a state-by-state distinction. This, in turn, leads to two inevitable questions: just how many Widespread Panic tribute bands are there in the world, and why?


Rock journalist Steven Kurutz examines the tribute band phenomenon close-up in his book Like a Rolling Stone: The Strange Life of a Tribute Band (Broadway Books, 2008). Kurutz spent a couple of years following a pair of Rolling Stones tribute bands, the East Coast’s Sticky Fingers and Canada’s the Blushing Brides, on their travels, from playing half-empty dives and wedding receptions to the occasional glory gig in Las Vegas or Amsterdam. Kurutz recalls the growth of the cottage industry in fake rock from its origins in Broadway’s Beatlemania (“not the Beatles but an incredible simulation!”) to its current state as a vast subculture, a network of barely ground-level bands and players who, week after week, leave their mundane day jobs to crisscross the country in cramped vans in order to pretend to be rock stars.


Along the way, Kurutz poses the burning question that has to be asked: why, if one is skillful and practiced enough to play like Jimmy Page or Jerry Garcia or Keith Richards, would one not direct that talent and drive toward original music which could result in real rock stardom? The answers are telling. As anyone in a band, particularly in this town, can attest, playing original music may be good for the soul, but it’s hard on the spirit (and the wallet). The guys in tribute bands have the opportunity to play the music they love for more people than just the bartender, and if that means aspiring, as the Keith for Sticky Fingers does, to be “the Keithiest Keith around,” so be it.


Kurutz’s book is alternately affectionate and sad as he documents the highs and lows of the would-be rock-star life, including the online sabotage wars between Sticky Fingers and its West Coast archnemesis of the same name, the monumental ego of a Mick Jagger who believes he’s now better than the real thing, and the bizarre remora-like experience of a band following the actual Rolling Stones’ tour schedule for an endless series of warm-up shows in sports bars around the country. (At one point, Sticky Fingers plays a gig a hundred yards from the stadium where the Stones are going on, and watches its audience trickle out, primed for the real thing.) For an unflinching look at lives spent forever on the fringe or as a cautionary tale to everyone out there polishing up Eddie Van Halen hammer-ons, Like a Rolling Stone is a fascinating read.


Originally published at Flagpole


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Friday, Jul 18, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Mercury Rev
Senses on Fire [MP3]
     


Clinic
Tomorrow [Video]


PAS/CAL
Glorious Ballad of the Ignored [MP3]
     


The Walkmen
In the New Year [MP3]
     


Tea Leaf Green
Red Ribbons [MP3]
     


Ra Ra Riot
Dying Is Fine [MP3]
     


Grampall Jookabox
The Girl Ain’t Preggers [MP3]
     


Saul Williams
Convict Colony [Video]



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Friday, Jul 18, 2008
"Let no one imagine that in owning a recording he has the music." -- John Cage

A partial digression from my previous post.


The summer of 2000 was when I first discovered Napster. After a bit of peer pressure, I was persuaded to download the software and start searching out MP3s, which were a new technology to me but not one that was completely esoteric. I had downloaded a few of them at tiny bitrates off the unofficial Tool web site to hear some their rarer, less available tracks. To my impressionable 18-year-old brain, it didn’t even occur to me that Napster’s services could be illegal or that they might even cause a wrinkle in the long-term spacetime continuum of music. At a 33k dialup connection, I could retrieve around one song per day before I started making significant dents in the phone bill. Without a CD burner at my disposal, I connected an ¼ inch connector cable from my computer’s speakers to my tape recorder and transferred 20 or so of the songs I downloaded onto a cassette so that I could play them in my car. It seemed no different at the time than taping those songs off the radio, except that I got to choose what the radio played.


Napster materialized as an ideal space to indulge my quirky tastes. I downloaded the Eminem song only available on the “clean” version of The Marshall Mathers LP, songs off the Transformers: The Movie soundtrack that I had been listening to diegetically since childhood, the Moby remix of “Beat It” I knew I’d never elsewise hear,  the Airwolf theme song I’d been humming for years but which no one I knew could validify, and many of the songs I’d heard and enjoyed in the pre-Amazon years through sound samples at the call service 1-800 Music-Now. Far be it for me to prognosticate the collapse off the behemoth music industry, I thought that Napster might have actually been doing the job of the major labels for them. Not only by promoting artists, but by eliminating the need for bootlegs, which at the time were running $40 or so for a single disc of live and/or rare material by major artists (which was still a bargain compared to tracking down overpriced imports) and, the companies claimed, hurting their sales significantly. As I continued to spend all the money earned from my summer job as a smoothie salesman on music, this previously illicit or overpriced material was the stuff I went for first on the free Napster service.


Looking back at all this now, it seems like a different world. Music thievery is practically a full-time job to some downloaders, who load up 800G external drives full of music that it would take a lifetime to sort through, let alone appreciate. CD burners come standard on any home computer and you can get five writable CDs for less than a bottled water. Bootlegs are pretty much nonexistent, as are import singles. All the chains I used to peruse in my hometown of Poughkeepsie, NY are gone: The Wall, Media Play, Sam Goody, Record Town, etc. Even the closest indie store I knew, Trash in Danbury, CT, a 40-minute drive from my house and the site of my first vinyl purchase, closed its doors after it was forced out of its location.


When I went off to college, I experienced a minor love-affair with my T1 Connection. Unaware of the speed of technology, I horded all the free music, movies, and software I could, fearing I would soon move off campus and never experience the lightning-fast joys of ethernet cable again. The transfer speeds remained undiminishingly novel as I devoutly watched the bars move across the screen. Within minutes, you could access any song. It was an instant jukebox, a radio station that didn’t suck. More than that, it brought the music closer and it brought all of us lonely freshmen closer together. My roommate Ben assigned a rule to our room; new visitors to 709B Cashin, which turned out to be quite a few people, had to sign his computer with a marker and download a song onto it. These songs got incorporated into his regular playlist and, by proxy, we inherited a little bit of the personality of the campus that year, as spazzcore, happy hardcore, and Shaggy co-mingled with each other.


With Napster, though no one was paying for it, every one was every one else’s Alan Freed. We all introduced each other to some kind of new sonic cultural experience. Detractors may say that all we were doing was stealing music. But that’s only half of the narrative. The larger story is that we were stealing all kinds of music, a shit-ton of it, and expanding our palettes in the process. Hippies were introduced to house, speed-punks found glory in electro and math-rock, hip-hoppers were able to track their roots in funk, and myriad others found out that Radiohead and Aphex Twin didn’t emerge from a bubble. It was the first and perhaps only time that I felt I was part of something important in music. It was not a democratization of music as some idealists still opine, but a full-fledged free-for-all. Anarchy. Autonomy. Freedom. Absolute leisure upon escaping the shackles of market capitalism. It was only forbidden to forbid. The concurrent college and rock star credos of sex, drugs, and music reigned. But you had to pay for drugs. You had to be careful who you slept with. The music just persisted, with or without you.


Yet, it was revolution communicated through the vernacular of mass consumption. Its problems persisted not in process, but in participation. Those downloading music were not all rebels trying to buck a corporate system. Some of them were just byproducts of a “gimmee” culture of entitlement. To them, there was no difference between ripping off the local band who pressed their LP with pocket change better served paying overdue student loans and the stadium giants hawking $25 T-shirts at their $75 concerts so they could harass hotel maintenance staffs and woo college-aged girls who had downloaded their latest album. It was almost a kind of absent-minded dadaist statement. The musician in absentia became the signatory to blame, for trying to make a living off of their art, or for trying to make art in the first place.


As income diminished for most of my fellow state school students, the cost of rising tuition meant that music, moreso perhaps than drugs and alcohol, was seen as something of a luxury item (and to be fair, it is). So why pay for it when you can just as easily get it free? Their market attention went elsewhere, and soon the cult of hegemony began to take notice.


Not everyone gave up so easily. I continued to spend whatever money I could scrounge together on CDs and concert tickets. So did plenty of others. Yet we were all criminals, victims of a pandemic of antisocial behavior. But perhaps that’s what felt so exciting. It was like prohibition, with industry playing the government’s role as moral policeman. As the lunatics had taken over the asylum, it had begun to look like culture at large, so quick to condemn and judge yet so slow to adapt, was our only real disease, our only lasting psychosis. The cure to this illness wasn’t file-sharing. It was the free flow of information and knowledge, the very thing going to college was all about. It was the choice to have musical literacy be part of our curriculum. It was the music itself, intangible sound waves unable to be captured, bottled, or stopped. It has continued to spread to the point of critical mass, nearly to where the music itself can no longer be governed, no matter how hard the mass media tries to gentrify it. Will we live to see the time when people finally forgo all this baggage and just listen to what they want regardless of what’s pertinent, what’s sanctioned, or what’s for sale?


This is the real deep-seeded fear of capitalism, which has always had an uncomfortable relationship with post-rock ‘n’ roll music (which frequently tries to sell its owners the ropes with which to hang themselves); that one day music will no longer be something they can control. In my previous post, I discussed how they’ve already lost part of that control by diverting its attention from its fragmented consumer base (instead opting to socialize its loses by pushing for federal lawsuits and ISP taxes). Next, I’ll take a look at those people like me, you, and everybody else you know, who take music that isn’t ours, but isn’t rightfully anybody else’s either.


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Thursday, Jul 17, 2008

Duality is the nature of man. We all have good and evil inside us. Which side we choose to embrace earmarks our very existence, putting us on a path toward redemption…or damnation. Christopher Nolan understands the very humanness of his characters. From Memento‘s Leonard to The Prestige‘s dueling magicians, the split personality within all of us has become this filmmaker’s aesthetic playground. When he first revamped the Batman mythos for his 2005 blockbuster, fans were worried that future installments in the series would be more psychological than spectacle. Add to that the death of his choice for The Joker, and The Dark Knight seemed destined to succumb to ridiculous expectations. Instead, it instantly becomes one of the best films of 2008, if not the current reigning champion at the top.


Gotham, still under the crush of rampant corruption and uncontrollable crime, maintains Batman as their shimmering ray of hope. But now the Caped Crusader has a powerful ally in elected office. Harvey Dent, the new DA (and romantic paramour of Bruce Wayne ex Rachel Dawes) may not appreciate the superhero’s tactics, but like Inspector Gordon, he will tolerate the effect the symbol has on the lawless. After a daring bank robbery in which a large sum of laundered money goes missing, Gotham’s avengers believe they can put the mob away for good. Desperate to keep this from happening, the mafia turns to two individuals to protect their interests. One is a Hong Kong businessman who is convinced he can retrieve and hide the cash. And the second is someone called The Joker, a facially scarred madman who has an easy solution to the problem. Kill the Batman.


Like a symphony where every note is exactly where it needs to be, or a painting without a brushstroke wasted, The Dark Knight is an unabashed, unashamedly great film. It’s a flawless amalgamation of moviemaker and material, Christopher Nolan’s calling card for future cinematic superstardom. All those comparisons to The Godfather and Heat are well earned. This is popcorn buzz built for the complex mind, a motion picture monolith constructed out of carefully placed plot and performance pieces. At two and a half hours, it’s epic in approach. But as the battle between men who are each facing their own inner demons and unsettled sources of personal discontent, its subtext and scope are unmatched. This is Coppola at his crime opera peak, Kubrick coming to the comic book and banging on all meticulously crafted cylinders.


While Heath Ledger will get all the print space (and rightfully so - more on this in a moment), it needs to be said that the biggest character arc belongs to Aaron Eckhart as future Two-Face Harvey Dent. When we are first introduced to the maverick DA, we wonder if the pretty boy blond with the pearly white wholesomeness can find the depth to delve into what makes this public official potentially lethal. When the change-over occurs, we are given plenty of time to recognize how desperate he will become. Aside from the outstanding make-up job which renders Dent a zombified version of his former self, Eckhart turns his rage into a pinpoint laser, focusing it on the one person he blames for turning him into a freak.


And speaking of villainous oddities, Ledger is indeed majestic as Gotham’s new threat. Gritty and grotesque, his face caked with rancid clown make-up, this is a Joker as spoiled fruit, a disseminator of destruction using his unusual looks to cover-up a serial killer’s aura. There is a careful cadence in the way Ledger speaks, an inferred thoughtfulness that contradicts his lax murdering ruthlessness. It’s easy to see why critics are calling for some manner of Oscar recognition. In a realm where evil is typically expressed via glorified grandstanding, this villain merely gloats as he gets down to business. When bounced off Eckhart and Christian Bale, Ledger creates a beautiful ménage a menace.


As usual, our hero brings his A-game, a complicated confusion that really humanizes the Batman. If he’s done nothing else, Nolan has expertly explained why one man with the world’s wealth at his fingertips would turn to a life of vigilante justice - and why he would continue on once he fulfilled his payback purpose. The motivation in The Dark Knight is even more multifaceted, involving a series of obligations, duties, threats, promises, protections, and consequences. Nolan never gives the character a break, and Bale brings the proper perspective to all aspects of the role. There is never a false note in any of the movie’s many twists and turns, and its all thanks to a capable cast (Michael Caine’s Alfred and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox included), as well as the man behind the lens.


It doesn’t take much to commend Christopher Nolan for what he accomplishes here. Not just for taking a pen and ink world and realizing it within the crime and punishment confines of our own. Not just for having the vision (and commercial clout) to deliver a 150 minute dissertation on the true nature of law and order, but also for taking the bigger risks within the material. This is not the Joker’s origin story. There are no vats of chemicals or mob boss vendettas to work out. This is not a gadget heavy stream of criminality with gags whizzing by as frequently as bullets. Instead, Nolan is out to make a kind of neo-noir, albeit one that avoids the shady ladies and half-drawn blinds that usually exemplify the genre.


As with any outsized vision, Nolan threatens to let everything spiral out of control. Yet just when we think his approach can’t get any broader, he brings things in close, awarding Bale and Ledger one-on-one’s that provide the heady buzz of a finely aged bottle of whisky. Like the great filmmakers he matches against, Nolan knows that there’s as much power in the little moments as the large. The Dark Knight has many of these narrative kiss-offs, sequences where characters can practically taste the bitterness on each other’s breath. It’s these incredible juxtapositions - the skyscrapers of Gotham stand-in Chicago vs. the claustrophobia of Wayne’s junkyard lair, the optimism of Dent’s initial drive vs. the dread in his need for revenge - that engages and overwhelms us. It’s what allows this film to transcend the summer season to become a stand alone classic.


Indeed, The Dark Knight is one of those experiences that, decades from now, will be viewed with the kind of crazed critical and cult revelry that meets such operatic opuses as Scarface or Goodfellas. It bests the previous incarnation of the Batman character because it never takes the substance as slapstick or cartoon. It guarantees that, whatever Christopher Nolan wants to do next, he will have the opportunity (and budget) to do so. And it will stand as one of the finest examples of human quid pro quo ever put on film. Everyone has two sides to their personality - the one they show to the world and the one they slyly keep to themselves. In the case of this amazing movie, there is only discernible façade…and it’s one of greatness.


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