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by PC Muñoz

24 Aug 2009

“Don’t You Want to Be There” - Jackson Browne
Written by Jackson Browne
From The Naked Ride Home (Elektra, 2002)

This V-C-V first appeared in slightly different form on pcmunoz.com, June 14, 2005

In his speech inducting Jackson Browne into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, Bruce Springsteen coined a fitting term to describe Browne’s music: “California Pop-Gospel”. I like that description quite a bit, because not only does it distinctly locate Browne as a Californian artist, it also acknowledges a kind of spiritual component to his work. Like his musical soul-brother Bob Marley, Jackson Browne has often urged us to consider the state of our spiritual selves as well as our connectedness to others, concerns that are usually addressed in the liturgical realm. The fact that he writes about these concerns with probing self-doubt (and often self-indictment) is significant, and in my mind a major reason why his many admirers have such a strong, emotional bond with his work.

“Don’t You Want to Be There” is primarily a meditation. Like a lot of Browne’s best work, it will break your heart, call you to reflection, and inspire you to hopeful action, all in the span of one listen. It opens with a simple enough invitation: “Don’t you want to be there / Don’t you want to go / Where the light is breaking / And the cold clear winds blow?” Around the middle, that invitation softly becomes an encouraging challenge: “Don’t you want to be there? /  Don’t you want to cry / When you see how far you’ve got to go /  To be where forgiveness rules / Instead of where you are?” The last line of the last verse then contains the most potent variation of the titular question, one that no listener can escape: “Don’t you want to be where there’s strength and love /  In the place of fear?”

by Faye Rasmussen

24 Aug 2009

L.A. based Fitz & the Tantrums have had a very productive 2009. It started with Fitz purchasing an old church organ at his ex’s suggestion, then by night’s end, the first single, “Breakin’ the Chains of Love”, was written.

Fast forward to a new record contract with Future Sounds, the August 11th release of a five song EP, Songs For a Break-Up, Vol.1 (which was all recorded in Fitz’ living room), and now a 13-stop west coast tour with Flogging Molly, and you’ve just defined the word “productivity”.

Fitz moved to L.A. from France as a child, and brought some European flair with him. Songs for a Break-Up, Vol.1 has not only the muse church organ, but has layered in a background of horns, female vocals and a Motown-meets Gnarls Barley-meets the Black Keys sound that is both original and organic. Fitz & the Tantrums may be a Future Sounds’ recording artist, but they’re definitely using some retro sounds to their appeal.

Check out their upcoming tour after the jump, as well as their new single “Winds of Change”.

by Diepiriye Kuku

24 Aug 2009

Chocolate City Washington D.C. recently moved to recognize same-sex unions and marriages from any American state. “Heather has two mommies,” sounds ridiculous when chided from a Black Christian fundamentalist’s mouth. All the Black Heathers any of us know have two, maybe three mommies and several surrogate daddies. Collectivism is our way of life, distinct from clanism in Asian joint families, or even the guilds throughout Europe. Each culture is distinct and with unique merits. So, where have African-American Christians gone wrong? Why is it that Blacks have so often been co-opted into serving as the mouthpiece on the ‘rong side of modern day civil liberties and human rights?

“To be sanctified by a clergy person,” probes Dr. Dyson (who doubles as a clergyman), is the central issue around all civil unions. Moreover, no relationship can sustain itself by itself. Rather, relationships are sustained by concerted efforts; those that are communal are stronger.

Same-same but different, scream the proponents regarding the justice of legal and socio-religious consecration of same-gender unions. And evoking the extremities as Americans always do, we might ask, what of bestiality, pedophilia and polygamy? Or, why even collapse these few and add stigma?

by Bill Gibron

23 Aug 2009

Two years ago, films about the War in Iraq were all the rage - almost literally. Somewhere along the long creative line between idea and greenlight, filmmakers and their supporting studios decided to turn our dedicated men and women in uniform into sad psychological freaks, their post-traumatic time in the Middle East a catalyst for everything from self-destruction and mental illness to out and out serial murder. Turning soldiers into villains may work when it’s the Nazis, or the Viet Cong, but few members of the Red, White, and Blue fraternity want to see their armed forces armed and dangerous - outside of a combat zone, that is. You can see the turn in this year’s celebrated The Hurt Locker. There, cockiness and commitment are channeled in ways that result in more suspenseful heroics and less blood-splattering horrors.

It’s the same with a smaller entry from the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, American Son. Starring Nick Cannon as a 19 year old Marine on 96 hours of leave before heading overseas, this is another examination of the war’s effect that’s reflective, not reactive. Instead of turning this small, simple attempt at individual import into a grand, grating political statement, writer Eric Schmid and director Neil Abramson keep things closed and personal - and for the most part, it works. Sure, there are characters that we don’t quite connect with, and the core love story seems pat and poorly defined, but at least we aren’t witnessing another jarhead on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Indeed, American Son is one of the few modern takes on the material that never once apologizes for its warrior-in-waiting.

When Mike Holland gets the bad news - his company is shipping out to Iraq almost immediately - he hops a bus and heads back home to Bakersfield. He has 96 hours of R&R before he is deployed and he wants to make the most of it. During the trip, he runs into recent high school graduate Cristina. She is taken by his swagger and his strength. He instantly falls for her innocence and sweetness. Once back in his old neighborhood, Mike realizes that little has changed. His father is still struggling, his Mom working way too hard to care for his sister and new non-committal step-dad. Even worse, his older brother is lost in a world of drugs, a deadly domain that also seems to be sucking in best buddy Jake. As he attempts to connect with Cristina, the upcoming journey into battle hangs over his head. Mike enlisted to challenge himself. He didn’t know the war would be fought both at home and abroad.

American Son is a calm, contemplative movie, an attempt to use little moments and revelations to suggest bigger, more meaningful issues. It’s not out to wave the flag and force feed us jaded patriotic jingoism, nor is it a bleeding heart denouncement of the young people taking up the mantle for an otherwise ungrateful nation. Instead, Mike’s inner journey, his hatred of his home life and the possibility of purity with Cristina take center stage - sometimes, to the film’s detriment. It’s almost as if Schmid and Abramson are afraid of the family and ethnic dynamic at work. Race is never mentioned, even with Tom Sizemore as a deadbeat step-father and Matt O’Leary as a cliché-ridden suburban ‘gansta’. It’s refreshing not to hear the black/white issues rehashed, even if Cristina’s family has their own inferred black/brown one. 

But it would have been nice for the film to explore what’s actually going on in Mike’s life, especially since it’s the foundation for why he joined up in the first place. Chi McBride shows up for a few scenes, playing the absentee biological father who no longer seems connected to his kids. When he takes Mike out to look for his doped up older sibling, we sense a wealth of unspoken issues between the two. Yet said history is reduced to a single garage scene set-up with our hero proclaiming “I’m not you” in standard son rebellion mode. Similarly, Mike appeared to be the only kid of color in a group of hard-partying, rap-loving white boys. While it’s obvious the Marines have changed him (“Semper Fi” and all), why he hung out with this bunch of inebriated losers in the first place is almost unfathomable.

Indeed, Mike is so noble, so seemingly centered with his eye on the prize that very little that goes on around him seems to have an effect. Cannon, whose crafty smile appears too casual to be hiding any real angst, gets a couple of emotion breakdowns, but without any conversational follow-up, we’re not sure what he’s worried about. There is a scene with Jay Hernandez as a recently returned vet with a missing leg, but for the most part, the possibility of dying 5000 miles away in some desert Hell hole barely gets a mention. Of course, it’s all part of Abramson’s plan to avoid the epic to focus on the smaller details. But American Son is almost too languid to make this stylistic choice work. We need to feel the film building to something, not just spinning its cinematic wheels as time ticks down.

Then there is the core relationship between Mike and Cristina. It’s hard to see an attraction beyond the physical, and when the two get together, it’s the usual sexual stand-offs and maneuvers. We can understand why she might be willing to jeopardize her future and fall for this boy - he’s confident, polite, and easy going. But beyond the curves and coy innocence, Cristina herself is a cipher. All we really know about her is that she has a strict Hispanic family and that she wants to go to college. That’s not a lot to hang your major plot points on. While Cannon and actress Melonie Diaz have a decent chemistry, the automatic affection is one of the film’s weaker elements. Even with Abramson and his producers on hand for a detailed DVD audio commentary, we get little insight into this couple.

The rest of the digital package is equally oblique. The Making-of material is more behind the scenes shenanigans and struggles than perspective, and the deleted scenes suggest a different, more direct kind of movie. In fact, what one takes away from American Son is a sense of caution. Instead of getting into the sadness and psychological trauma Mike might feel, it’s all about stoicism and inner strength - and in some ways, that’s invigorating. Sure, the movie ends on an ambiguous note, some situations resolved, others left raw and unhealed, but for the most part, Abramson plays it safe. When compared to other Iraq-themed stories of late, that’s a welcome change of pace. For the particular characters and circumstances here, however, a little more complexity would have turned something good into something great. 

by Bill Gibron

23 Aug 2009

Boxing used to be called “the sweet science.” It was considered one of the more rarified sports, even within its blood, grunt, and sweat domain of violence and pain. Then the modern era occurred, fighters like Ali and Tyson turning the competition into the exclusive kingdom of almost impossible to defeat gods. By the mid ‘80s, scandal and crime undercut the activity, slowly turning it into a living, lying joke. Today, it’s all about extreme, and ultimate, and mixed martial artistry. A boxer can’t get arrested unless he’s wants to - or is on HBO or Showtime. But put a few thick-headed hunks in a cage and let them beat the snot out of each other for public consumption, and Generation Next can’t get enough.

So a film like Fighting should seem like a Tinseltown no brainer. Take a cult figure filmmaker (Dito Monteil of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints), toss in a few famous faces (Oscar nominee Terrence Howard, MTV muscle boy Channing Tatum) and put them into the grimy and gritty world of NYC underground boxing. Sprinkle with the standard boy meets girl from around the way melodrama, add in a few can’t miss character actors (Luis Guzman) and everything should pump with testosterone-laced fisticuffs. Unfortunately, the casting causes more problems than it solves, the love story stinks, and Monteil may have a feel for the city, but he has little flash when it comes to crafting onscreen action. Fighting is one of the most inert bare knuckle brawlers ever.

Tatum plays Shawn MacArthur, an ‘ah shucks’ transplant from Alabama who is carrying a bit of failed family baggage on his meat puppet shoulders. Keeping to himself, he tries to make it selling fake IPods and counterfeit Harry Potter books to gullible Manhattan suckers. One day, he runs across a Fagan-like ticket scalper named Harvey Boarden. Seeing that Shawn can rumble, the two team up to make some quick cash. Before they know it, they are traveling to Brooklyn to face off against a Russian bad-ass, and then entering the Bronx to battle a beefy, blinged-out homunculus. All the while, Harvey promises a massive payday, but Shawn is sick of seeing little green. When he meets a waitress at the local gangster’s club, he is momentarily misdirected. But then Harvey sets up a huge fight with an old rival from our heroes past - and worse yet, they must throw the match in order to get their cash.

If it all sounds familiar and formulaic, that’s because Fighting is carved almost completely out of the efforts that have graced the street scrapper genre before. There are bits of Rocky here, nods to Fat City and Hard Times along the way. Monteil certainly believes he is making a motion picture completely in touch with the streets. He tosses in so many references to urban archetypes, borderline clichés involving pitbulls, tattoos, and leather that he appears a single step away from restaging Scarface for the late 1990s. Unfortunately, nothing feels that authentic. Instead of seedy, it’s all stagy - and showy. Fighting wants to go for truth and brutal honesty. But its scam sham narrative is about as fictional as such forced storylines get.

And again, the acting is problematic. Guzman is good (he always is) though his dialogue appears made up of repeating Howard’s character name over and over again. Speaking of Mr. Hustle and Flow, there is a real desire on his part to come across as nonchalant, almost comical, about the life and death deals he is making. Howard puts on a slight high pitch pith, languishing over his lines like he’s just remembered them. He’s not bad, but he’s definitely not redefining the thespian art. And then there’s Tatum. The human equivalent of a mathematical null set, he’s so blank, so completely dead emotionally or dramatically, that we aren’t sure why Monteil is making us follow this lox. Surely there must have been someone better to champion - perhaps a really nice cut of prime rib, or a random slab of concrete?

As the script struggles for significance, fake insights giving way to reams of conversation contradictions, Monteil keeps piling on the implied local color. As a director, he has his specific beats down pat. He loves the overhead and underneath set-ups, the better to witness his actors grappling in yawn-inducing, you-are-there closeness. Similarly, his fighters can’t seem to stay in their proscribed arenas. One moment they are surrounded by spectators, the next they are careening through convenience stores and inside apartments. And it has to be said - Tatum’s Shawn never really “shows” why he’s such a great fighter. Fate always seems to step in and aid in his pursuit, be it a handy porcelain water fountain, a hyped up babe with a gun, or a well-placed plaster pillar. If he wanted to win us over, Monteil would have put two men in a ring and let them go at it in an as realistic way as possible.

Even in an unrated version (don’t get excited, all we get are a few extras seconds of mano-y-mano action, along with a dialogue addition or two) Fighting fails to excite. Deleted scenes added to the new DVD offer nothing new or interesting, and the reinserted material does little except add three minutes to the running time. In fact, it’s safe to say that whatever intentions Monteil and his co-writer had for this project appear lost in a haze of faked authenticity. You can just see the sets, reeking of male machismo and stunt coordinator cockiness. We never once feel like Shawn is someone worth investing in and Harvey is just as flawed as a focus. At the turn of the century, when the populace was desperate for some manner of entertainment, bare knuckles boxing was the gentleman’s pursuit. Fast forward 100 years and Hollywood has turned it into a test of tedium. The only thing you’ll be ‘fighting’ is your lagging attention span.

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