Latest Blog Posts

by Bill Gibron

26 Sep 2008

Music is the most opened ended of mediums. Individuals can influence the reception of a song or a sonic cycle simply by using their own personal powers of interpretation. What may sound like a collection of purposeful pop hits to some becomes the primer for an entire wounded adolescence. In other instances, self-proclaimed works of art stagnate and slowly fade away. When critics first heard Lou Reed’s follow-up to his crackerjack mainstream monster Transformer, they were at a loss for words. The dark, dirge-like Berlin centered on a pair of desperate junkies, the lyrics exploring such non-commercial themes as suicide and physical abuse. For many, it was just too grim and self-aggrandizing. For painter turned director Julian Schnabel, the 1973 LP became the soundtrack to his troubled teen life.

Now, three and a half decades later, the filmmaker has found a way to celebrate his love of this difficult and dense masterpiece. Convincing Reed to do the au courant thing and play the entire album live, Schnabel set up a five night stint at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York. There, accompanied by an orchestra, a children’s choir, and a sensational back-up band, Reed revisited the story of Caroline, her mentally unsound boyfriend, and their battles with depression and drug addiction. With Schnabel adding a visual interpretation to the story (via filmed sequences created by his daughter Lola) and a locked in look at the onstage dynamic, we are swept away on waves of wounded imagery and tonal misfortune. While not a great cinematic statement, Berlin (now available on DVD from The Weinstein Company’s preeminent Miriam Collection) is still an unbelievably effective concert.

As an artist noted for his imaginative approach, Schnabel’s most shocking invention here is getting Reed to care again. Fans of the former Velvet Underground guide (this critic included) have often lamented the 66-year-old’s sometimes lax performance aesthetic. While never a strong singer, Reed tends to act like a downbeat Dylan, avoiding melody all together for a sloppier, more spoken croak. This frequently renders his outright poptones almost completely uninteresting. Reed got his start in the song factories of Manhattan (at Pickwick, to be specific) and he can’t deny his way with a catchy melody. But when he presents this material onstage, his inferred lack of caring destroys the music’s magic. Here, Reed is back in rare form, sensational with only occasional slippage back into his old, nonchalant ways.

The other startling aspect of Berlin is watching Reed’s reactions. When the audience explodes after a particularly powerful sequence, the man’s manic, weather-beaten smile says it all. Elsewhere, the living legend lets his guard down, flashing obvious signs of appreciation when guitarist Steve Hunter (who played on the original recordings) rips a particularly powerful lead. The best moment, however, is not part of the Berlin album proper. Instead, Reed indulges an encore by bringing UK torch singer Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) up front. There, the pair perform the old Velvet’s classic “Candy Says” in such a stunning fashion that its creator is visibly shaken. It’s an amazing moment, as if Reed is finally realizing just how great his songwriting skill is, and how amazing it is to hear someone really run with and interpret his marvelous ideas.

This does not dampen the impact of the other offerings. Berlin remains a fascinating piece, a collection of simple sentiments expanded by an almost apocalyptic scope. Most of this came courtesy of producer Bob Ezrin, and the concert experience improves on the LP’s rather restrictive mixes. Live, the title track explodes across the stage, while “Lady Day” sounds as definitive as anything Reed has ever done. Both “Caroline Says I” and it’s far more famous follow-up showcased the combined effectiveness of their author’s words and music. By the time “Men of Good Fortune” rolls around, we are sold, and then Reed cements the deal with his readings of “The Bed” and “Sad Song”. Without the dimensions of such a show, Berlin can seem self-indulgent and insular. But in performance, it finds its focus and force.

As part of the DVD release, there’s a five minute interview with Reed and Schnabel (taken from something called “Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…”) that explains some of the motivations behind the album and the movie. There are also six minutes of behind the scene material, clips of the musicians warming up, the crew creating the stage, and blocking being discussed. The only thing missing here is a commentary track from the director. Schnabel clearly relates to Berlin (he calls it a celebration of “love’s dark sisters: jealousy, rage, and loss”) and it would have been wonderful to hear how he interprets the material, especially in light of the comments about his past. Reed’s input would be wonderful as well, yet it’s clear that, as he’s aged, the man has gotten even more closed off and bitter. Sadly, neither man gets a chance for a deeper discussion.

Still, one has to compliment an artist who chooses to revisit a much maligned work. Until recently, it was rare when someone like Reed would play an entire album in concert. For some, going back to a song or sound that may have been part of a one-off or casual studio experiment must be mindboggling. Hits have a tendency to live on outside their creation. The filler and ancillary tracks remain locked forever in their making-of moment. For Lou Reed, Berlin must represent both the best of times and the worst of times. Cash had given him the freedom to create. Sadly, “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” and its accompanying LP removed much of his ability to experiment. The result was a lost gem, undiscovered until now. For Julian Schnabel, Berlin stands as a personal touchstone. Thankfully, he’s allowed the rest of us to rediscover its amazing magic as well.

by Bill Gibron

26 Sep 2008

Chemistry is the key to a good onscreen romance. Remove this vital cog, and the entire cinematic machine sputters and dies, right? Well, that’s only partially true. One assumes that a brilliantly directed script, acted with perfection by performers who can emulate attraction without actually evoking same, could be passable. It’s safe to say that many a mainstream pairing has benefited from such a “professionalism vs. passion” conceit. Nights at Rodanthe, the latest adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks sudser, doesn’t have to worry about ardor. It offers up confirmed compatibles Richard Gere and Diane Lane in their third onscreen pairing. Unfortunately, every other aspect of this pointless drama undermines our lead’s natural allure.

When her estranged husband returns after a seventh month absence and asks for forgiveness, Adrienne Willis is not quite sure what to do. Her kids definitely want their dad back, but she has a hard time accepting his casual adultery and newfound desperation. Retreating to a friend’s bed and breakfast along the North Carolina coast, she hopes to sort things out. There she meets Dr. Paul Flanner, himself plagued by personal doubts. Together, the lost and lonely couple battle a major hurricane and internal struggles, all in a last gasp attempt at happiness. Of course, in this kind of story, such joys are fleeting, and when he finally goes off to South America in search of his estranged son, Adrienne wonders if she’ll ever see Paul again.

Sometimes, source material says it all. A luminous cast and a worthy director will have a hard time making a cinematic silk purse out of a literary sow’s ear. It is clear from his prose that Sparks spent most of his developmental years memorizing the works of Robert James Waller. This Windstorms of North Carolina Counties is so overwrought and Harlequin-ed that only the most susceptible of spinsters or inexperienced poetry majors will fall for its faux passions. While Diane Lane and Richard Gere are a great onscreen couple, the set up stunts their appeal. There is so much hand wringing and heart sickness here, so many unexplained subplots and unclear character motives that by the time the death/denouement arrives, we’re too confused to care.

As with this summer’s monster menopausal hit, Mamma Mia, Nights in Rodanthe is helmed by a novice filmmaker lifted from the far more restrictive world of theater. While George C. Wolfe has done some decent work (most notably, the TV movie Lackawanna Blues), his cinematic capabilities are severely limited. The illogical seashore setting - a baroque B&B that, by all accounts, should have been swept into the ocean the first high tide - gets several scope defying long shots, the helicopter and or crane covering every inch of its dollhouse designs. Indeed, Nights often appears more concerned about art design and location than it does direct emotional connections - and even then, what’s maudlin is also mechanical and manipulative.

And then there are the wasted elements, the performances and plot points that just don’t add up. James Franco, looking dirty and disheveled, plays Gere’s son like a photoshoot cipher. Since both he and his big screen papa aren’t given enough interpersonal backstory, their breakup seems silly and their reunion forced. Similarly, Viola Davis cuts an intriguing swath as the owner of the inn who apparently heads to Miami to answer an international booty call. Her personal explanations, steeped in ethnic history and the African American experience are reduced to a series of ‘spirit’ paintings and the kind of Civil War memories relegated to a Ken Burns outtake. In both cases, these characters play like structural leftovers, elements that had to be included less the fanbase froth over their omission.

At least the craggy face of Scott Glenn has a purpose, albeit an ultimately uninteresting one. As the husband of the woman who died on Gere’s operating table, he arrives with an accent so thick and a mug so wrinkled you’d swear he was a piece of human folk art. His confrontations with his costar are broad and banal, dipped in soap opera slop so sour that we wince at their forced sincerity. Much of Nights comes across as the outline for how not to create a five-handkerchief weeper, avoiding realism and any sense of authenticity to pour on the preplanned contrivances. Nothing here feels normal. Instead, we are witnessing every lonely lady’s greatest fantasy flash into a similarly styled breakdown.

With its numerous false endings, vacant self-importance, and drippy melodramatics, Nights in Rodanthe couldn’t be more unsatisfying. One keeps waiting for the movie to sizzle, to suggest something other than the standard guy/girl/grave strategies. This is the kind of dud which stirs imaginary scenarios where Gere and Lane wind up, inexplicably, in a classic romance that really delivers the tear drops. Again, there’s no doubting their chemistry and compatibility. In a perfect motion picture paradise, such connections would be enough. But our current cinematic state is uneven and often unresponsive. This describes Nights in Rodanthe fairly accurately. This should have been sentimental and sweet. Instead, it’s further proof that one confirmed filmic facet is just not enough.

by Thomas Hauner

26 Sep 2008

As a revered musical institution of sorts I was expecting nothing short of great from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Pioneers of the contemporary New Orleans second line and brass band funk sound, they’ve traveled the world over exporting Bayou brass playing. But it seems that they are coasting these days, riding on the coattails of past successes.

Guitarist Jake Eckert, actually one of the strongest players in the group, opened the show with some funky guitar licks before the rest joined in, kicking off a marathon funk vamp that never seemed to quit. Its players did, though, at various intervals throughout, looking exhausted and more like they were begging coach to rest up on the bench rather than go out for another play. Only trombonist Revert Andrews showed enthusiasm, with unbridled energy and honky-tonk stomping.

Overall it was an awkward funk scenario where meandering solos were atonal and lacked any coherent theme, direction or melodies. Instead the players would only focus on the long ball—stratospheric notes—and get burned out quickly from the exertion. Rhythm (the bedrock of funk) was desperately lacking as the group derailed several times with each brass player playing in a different meter. Adding to the polyrhythmic implosion was a ubiquitous and dependably late wood block and a whimsical empty beer bottle.

When the monotonous funk machine ground to a halt—literally, the ending was as smooth as Manhattan cab ride—an onslaught of unremarkable covers ensued. “Get Up Stand Up” and “Superstition” (which we had already heard in its finer form on the house PA directly before the band went on) had the support of the crowd, but the band sounded disinterested. Some of the players appeared so apathetic—particularly trumpet and flugelhorn player Efrem Towns—that they didn’t even play in the finale “Dirty Old Man”—an awkward funk piece whose feature was a gaggle of uninhibited girls grinding with dirty old men. I guess I wouldn’t want to play either.

The only highlight of the evening was watching a congregation of old men who, despite the band, managed to boogie like caffeinated pogo sticks, albeit with a head of snow-white hair. And the biggest disappointment was that during “Dirty Old Man”, they weren’t even invited on stage! It was too bad they didn’t headline from the get go.

 

by Bill Gibron

25 Sep 2008

Spike Lee has a big mouth. It’s a good thing he’s so talented, since he often loves to write confrontational checks that his filmmaking sometimes can’t cash. When Clint Eastwood offered his definitive takes on the Pacific Theater during WWII back in 2006, both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima were considered classics. Lee’s response was to chide the American icon for not featuring more African Americans in the films. In his mind, the history of Hollywood moviemaking and the entire war genre has purposefully avoided the legacy of the Buffalo Soldier and the role played by blacks in all major military conflicts. Of course, he has a point. Oddly enough, Lee has decided to put up instead of shut up. And while many may see Miracle at St. Anna as a pointed response, the director is just as guilty as flaunting fact for the sake of an artistic statement.

On a calm day in the early ‘80s, postal worker Hector Negron pulled a German Lugar out from his counter desk and killed a man in cold blood. The police are baffled, especially when they find a rare Italian antiquity in Negron’s apartment. Young reporter Tim Boyle pursues the story, and turns up something shocking. In 1943, four black soldiers - 2nd Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps, Sergeant Bishop Cummings, Private First Class Sam Train and Negron - found themselves deep in enemy territory when a river raid went bad. Wandering around the Italian countryside, they befriend an injured boy named Angelo. He leads them to a small village where they are taken in by a local family. Soon, our ‘Buffalo’ soldiers are learning of the vast Nazi presence, the infighting among the resistance, the lack of US support, and the horrible atrocities surrounding the Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre.

Miracle at St. Anna is a real revelation. It is also not a perfect film. It tries to do too many things instead of staying firmly centered on the inherently intriguing story of the Buffalo Soldiers. When it does trip around within its flights of fancy, it can be both adept and aggravating. In fact, Spike Lee’s translation of James McBrides novel is so grounded in the book’s literary fancy that it often fails to do its subjects justice. One imagines there were stronger stories available to champion the black man’s contribution to World War II (and the white man’s bigoted response), and when Lee stays with the issue of race, the movie literally sizzles. But with hints of magic realism, a made-up framing device, and lots of historical liberties, what should have been the retort to the director’s recent attacks on films such as Saving Private Ryan becomes just as dodgy and ethnically disingenuous.

Truth be told, Miracle at St. Anna is more about the crimes committed by the Nazis in the name of Hitler’s military schemes than a real look at the African American experience circa 1943. We see more Italians killed than brave black soldiers, and with the narrow focus on four particular types (the smart aleck player, the no nonsense officer, the innocent homunculus, and the audience surrogate) we don’t really get the scope suggested. Lee is painting his canvas with too big a stylistic brush. He indulges in some rather odd touches, overcranking the camera during close-ups and slowing down the motion as someone spills their coffee. Miracle at St. Anna may be a movie about symbols (water, the crucifix), but to make them so obvious hints at a filmmaker unsure of his narrative focus. And at two hours and forty minutes, it’s definitely too long.

Still, for all its flaws and frequent miscalculations, the acting and environment lend Miracle at St. Anna the necessary entertainment credence. All of the leads are fantastic, with Omar Benson Miller simply great as the larger than life Train, and Derek Luke equally dynamic as the wide-eyed and socially optimistic Stamps. Both have stand out moments, especially when addressing the abject bias surrounding them. And when dealing with the frantic decisions that often come with warfare, all bring a remarkable level of authenticity. Yet sometimes, Lee just gets in the way. Make no mistake about it, Miracle is a preachy film. The director frequently stops the action so that his actors can run off a litany of intolerant ills. Some of these speeches are so affected that one wonders if McBride (who is solely credited with the screenplay) actually wrote them. No one is suggesting that such discrimination didn’t exist, but when you’re hoping to champion someone’s bravery under fire, turning them sanctimonious isn’t the best strategy.

Lee is also the recipient of some excessively lofty ambitions. By scattering his story, piecemeal, over a disjointed three hour narrative, we are left wondering where certain segments fit, if at all. While he has answers for most, a couple linger. For example, there are several sore thumb cameos - John Turturro as a conscientious cop, John Leguizamo as an art dealer handling Nazi treasures abroad - and yet neither nostalgic shout out really works. They play like what they appear to be - stunts. Similarly, the company lothario Bishop chases Mediterranean babe Renata around for most of the movie. Their eventual love scene is one of the film’s weakest, most pointless moments. Again, such sequences foster thoughts of how a different, more realistic movie would have handled these men’s plight. Such musings shouldn’t occupy an audience’s attention.

And yet because of the history that exists both with the Buffalo Soldiers and America’s disgraceful history of segregation, we accept and support most of Miracle at St. Anna. Lee may be the first director to benefit from a situation in which strong outside influences actually save a movie. There are definitely concepts in this movie - the Tinto Brass like propaganda queen taunting the troops, the level headed and humane Nazi officer - that we’re not used to seeing, and Lee does love his sledgehammer metaphors and prostylatizing. But since the story here is so important, a forgotten facet of a conflict that seems picked over and populated by hundreds of Discovery Channel documentaries, we go with the flow. Miracle at St. Anna won’t be winning any Oscars come next year, but if it inspires more films about the Buffalo brigade, it will surely have served its purpose. And so will Lee. 

by Jason Gross

25 Sep 2008

In a touching and instructive announcement, Justin Ouelette explains why he couldn’t sustain the popular Muxtape site on its homepage.  He details the problem he had with trying to make Muxtape legit and major label approved.  Before he got shut down, many folks (including me) uploaded their favorite music into a virtual mixtape.

//Mixed media
//Blogs

PopMatters is on a short summer publishing break. We resume Monday, July 6th.

// Announcements

"PopMatters is on a short summer publishing break. We resume Monday, July 6th.

READ the article