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by Kirstie Shanley

26 Sep 2008

Beginning appropriately with “The Night Starts Here”, Stars commenced to play their hearts out for ninety minutes. Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan filled the air with their usual lush male/female vocals, which alternate and culminate in swoons, creating a lullaby effect that’s filled with a soothing kind of chemistry.

Amy Millan of Stars

Amy Millan of Stars

This time around, Stars dropped their usual angst for a much more hopeful vibe. Missing from the setlist were politically-fueled songs such as, “Set Yourself on Fire”, “He Lied About Death”, and “In Our Bedroom After the War”. “Take me to the Riot” was the closest the band came to touching on this element. Even “Going, Going, Gone”, a song previously filled with personal vs. political anger, was reworked and slowed down and replaced with a much more melancholic feeling.

Torquil Campbell of Stars

Torquil Campbell of Stars

Though the five-piece hails from Montreal, they had much to say about how “happening” Chicago is as a city. Appearing humble, Campbell thanked the audience for coming out during hard times, saying how much the band appreciated it. He appeared just as moved by the experience as the starlit set of young eyes gazing from the front row, staring in awe at their favorite band playing on a stage adorned with roses.

Amy Millan of Stars

Amy Millan of Stars

Lyrically, the songs often come across as very intense and personal stories. Yet, they manage to transcend the inner personal domain and venture into the world of shared anthemic experience. Mainly, they accomplish this task by addressing issues that many can relate to. Such is the case for “What I’m Trying to Say”, which was a clear highlight of the set along with “One More Night”. Though at times the songs can take on an edgy tone, they are often sentimental and romantic, especially when the vocals shine strongly via dynamic duets.

Torquil Campbell of Stars

Torquil Campbell of Stars

Amy Millan of Stars

Amy Millan of Stars

It should also be mentioned how well rounded the band’s setlists are. Stars have been releasing music since 2001 with three full lengths and two EPs, and yet they always revisit that first release even while seeming eager to debut new songs. There’s an energy to them that is searching for progress but at the same time understands that it’s futile to ignore the past.

Amy Millan of Stars

Amy Millan of Stars

by Bill Gibron

26 Sep 2008

It’s not the soundest cinematic lineage - excellent foreign fright film to hackneyed American remake followed by one (or more) direct to DVD sequels. And when the main movie in question is the brilliant Japanese shocker Kairo, the pedigree becomes even more problematic. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s amazing movie, about the end of the world as propagated by out of control technology and basic human indifference, resonated with the kind of power only questions of life and death can create. Its wonky Western conversion, the WB-friendly Pulse was a passable imitation at best. Thanks to the resulting influx of PG-13 demographic cash, Dimension Extreme has commissioned a continuing franchise. Pulse 2 shows some promise, but the stink of a calculated cash grab just can’t be avoided.

The world as we know it is dead. Spirits, desperate to reconnect with the life they long for, have used WiFi and cellphone signals to infiltrate reality. As a result, people have been dying, either by having their souls drained or via suicide. Married couple Stephen and Michelle have been separated for quite a while. She’s devastated after losing custody of their daughter Justine, and to make matters worse, her husband is now shacking up with the slutty Marta. When her child turns up missing, Michelle goes ballistic, searching for her baby. Stephen, equally concerned for Justine’s safety, enters the desolate, dangerous world of the abandoned big city. There, technology has destroyed everything, and his only hope is to find his little girl and take her to a safe zone. But as we soon learn, there really is no security from restless, relentless ghosts - or the vengeance of a mother scorned. 

If tone and atmosphere were all a horror film needed to succeed, Pulse 2 would be a certified classic. In the hands of producer turned writer/director Joel Soisson, this moody attempt at recapturing the first film’s modern world mayhem is a decent, often enjoyable attempt. But it’s not a complete success, mostly for reasons that have to do with characterization, narrative logistics, and the faintest whiffs of familiarity. No matter how hard it tries, Pulse 2 cannot escape the mandatory J-Horror clichés. All the ghosts come from the monochrome school of creeps, and their dead eyed ennui grows grating after a while. They don’t even attack, really. They merely walk up to their victims and suck the spectral F/X out of them. Like the metaphysical mumbo jumbo used to explain why this is happening (at least it’s clearer here than in the first film), Pulse 2 just feels overly familiar.

But Soisson deserves credit for employing some interesting stylistic choices to switch things up. There is lots of green screen work, clearly used to broaden the scope of the backdrops and give the locations an eerie, otherworldly vibe. We also get nice shots of society post-apocalypse, the random burning car and deserted streets reminding us of how fragile our existence and world order really is. As for the acting, the no name cast does a decent job, especially in light of the ludicrous character beats they must endure. Jamie Barber as Stephen is stuck in stoic hysterics mode, constantly calling out for his little girl - that is, when he isn’t trying to console her constant whining. As Justine, little Karley Scott Collins switches between sensible and responsive to whimpering and wanting her mommy. Even after she sees that her parent is a poltergeist, she still runs after her like a whelp to a warm teat.

As our female leads, both Georgina Rylance and Boti Bliss are stuck in what could best be described as a misogynist’s misguided fantasy. Michelle is portrayed as a Susan Smith psychopath, the pending divorce sending her straight down the murder/suicide path. Once we learn her secret (pssst…she’s DEAD! ), she’s nothing more than a plot point prop. Ms. Bliss has it worse. As the horndog home wrecker who seduced our hero, she’s hot to trot even during the end of the world. Later on, when she becomes another victim of the wireless plague, it’s nothing but nudity. That’s right; our professional actress is reduced to little more than a bit of fright flick titillation. It seems almost unfair, since Marta is so poorly defined to begin with.

As part of the DVD package, Soisson is joined by several members of the crew, and all spend a great deal of time explaining and praising their efforts. It’s not as self-congratulatory as it sounds, but there are moments when our narrators clearly forget they are talking about a direct-to-video sequel. The same applies for the two deleted scenes offered. One features a character catalyst nicknamed “The Man in Red” - clearly important to Part 3…which is already in the works - explaining the entire story to the audience (by way of an unimportant extra). The other has our harried father trying to comfort his child. Neither does more than the film itself, and suggests a story that always knew what it wanted to be from the very beginning.

In truth, there is nothing technically wrong with Pulse 2. It breezes by without bogging down in unnecessary macabre minutia, and the effective opening moments make up for a middle act overloaded with interpersonal inconsistencies. The ending may seem obvious, especially to anyone who’s been following the narrative nuances from the very beginning, and by reducing the story to a tale of four characters, Soisson avoids biting off more than he can creatively chew. Still, no one will mistake this movie for its far superior Eastern cousin. Heck, it can’t even compare to the lesser efforts from the Japanese genre. Still, Soisson and company should be commended for trying to instill something new and novel into what is usually a staid and stereotypical conceit. Pulse 2 can’t avoid its origins, but at least it doesn’t destroy its celluloid ancestry. 

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.

 

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