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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.

by Rob Horning

24 Sep 2008

Matt Yglesias linked to this NYT article about the disappearing Mediterranean diet, and he makes a point that reminded me of what I was trying to get at yesterday about the to-go mentality. Yglesias writes

As an American, I suppose it’s somewhat comforting to learn that our bad habits seem to have a quasi-universal gravitational pull and we’re not just a uniquely cursed nation. Conversely, the news that the state of public health in the developed world is likely to deteriorate is pretty disturbing.

It seems to me that what spreads is not our taste for specific sorts of food, but our attitude toward eating itself, whereby we treat meals with a kind of disrespect and choose options that allow us to eat with as little time and thought wasted as possible. Globalization and the aggressive spread of consumerism may be making this kind of time pressure universal, seducing people with the idea that their time is better spent consuming more stuff than lingering over a well-prepared meal.

That sounds a little conspiratorial, but it is the planned achievement of the advertising campaigns of multinational convenience-food manufacturers. The NYT article reports:

Dr. Antonia Trichopoulou, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Athens Medical School, said the problem had grown acute with the spread of supermarkets and, especially, convenience foods.
“In the last five years it’s become really bad,” she said. “The children are all quite heavy. The market is pushing a lot, and parents and schools seem unable to resist.”
Advertising geared toward children has invaded Greece full force, stretching into the countryside. On television there are commercials for chips; at supermarkets there are stands of candy. Last year, Coca-Cola sponsored a play about healthful eating.
But facing both aggressive convenience food marketing and obesity for the first time, many rural residents here have little resistance to or knowledge of the dangers.

The question is whether resistance is even possible at this point. Americans, at least, haven’t figured it out yet. An “elitist” froufrou commitment to diet and exercise and healthy ingredients may help, but the ability to pursue such a course remains class bound. And even among those who can afford to eat healthily, the compulsion to consume more—the deeply felt symbol of having become successful in a consumer culture—is very hard to escape. Resisting the allure of convenience is linked to breaking the quantitative logic that suggests consuming more in the same amount of time means one’s quality of life has improved, a logic that is facilitated by the technological developments that make measuring and processing culture as data easier. But is it possible to reverse that logic once it has taken hold, or is it a form of path dependency?

by Bill Gibron

23 Sep 2008

You’d figure such an announcement would stir geek nation to its very core. After all, the battle for respectable treatment for all superheroes has been trailblazed since a certain Caped Crusader “boffed” and “zipped” his way through a ‘60s pop art landscape. Granted, the Green Hornet had less commercial cache than Bruce Wayne’s alter ego, but the character still suffered from a similarly styled disrespect during the Peace Decade - Bruce Lee or no Bruce Lee. Ever since his less than successful media cross over, the emerald icon has been sitting in that most sullied of cinematic spaces - development Hell. Everyone from Kevin Smith to Michel Gondry has been attached to a big screen adaptation, with leads ranging from Jake Gyllenhaal and George Clooney to Jason Scott Lee and Jet Li.

But when Seth Rogen was announced as the new creative force behind the franchise, the fanbase became a tad apoplectic. After all, with Batman Begins revitalizing the genre with its combination of scope and psychological serious, someone best known for his superb slacker comedy inspired little confidence. Even with The Pineapple Express showing some action scene scripting panache, Rogen remains a question mark. Oddly enough, when his co-star and director was announced last week, the arguments all but faded away. Yet it would seem that Stephen Chow should inspire even more unease. Though he truly is a Hong Kong legend, his output as a filmmaker suggests a return to the more jokey, cartoonish qualities of the past.

Most American fans know the 46 year old superstar as the genius behind Shaolin Soccer and the universally beloved Kung Fu Hustle. While his last effort, the ET-inspired family comedy CJ7 failed to resonate outside his native land, DVD has allowed the icon’s better known films (God of Cookery, King of Comedy) to finally get some exposure. Still, Chow is not some manner of guarantee. He’s been part of China’s cinema since the late ‘80s, and it took him nearly 20 years to develop into an international name. And the scariest part is, he’s done it through a devotion to all things slapstick and hyper-stylized. While Soccer and Hustle were wonderful, some fear there will be too much Looney Tunes in his Hornet

Of course, many are completely unaware of the character’s true origins. He wasn’t born out of pen and ink, but wireless waves and Saturday matinees. Clearly inspired by Bob Kane’s celebrated crimefighter, George W. Trendle and Fran Striker created the concept for ‘30s radio. During the ‘40s, celluloid stepped in and serialized the man. Soon, comic books and other marketing moves kept the story of newspaper publisher turned masked vigilante Britt Reid and his Asian manservant Kato in the public eye. Yet after the aborted ‘60s series featuring Van Williams and Bruce Lee, the Hornet fell out of the cultural conversation. While linked properties including the Lone Ranger (who is actually a blood relative) saw a cinematic send up, Reid and his butt kicking butler remained in entertainment exile.

The Green Hornet does seem to have a limited appeal. He’s not a man of inordinate powers or otherworldly abilities. He is very much cut from the ‘playboy as punisher’ dynamic. Though he’s considered quite skilled at hand to hand combat, Kato tended to take up most of the martial artistry. This was especially true of the TV series, which saw Lee extending his influence over the genre by turning the sidekick into the center of action attention. There was never a hint of humor in the Hornet’s story, no satiric slant or sense of inferred irony. Instead, we have Batman minus the winged obsession, most of the heroic heavy lifting done by a technologically advanced vehicle known as The Black Beauty.

As in the case of most movies, initial casting should cause concern - or at the very least, send out warning signs. Rogen is great at slovenly self deprecation, but can he manage a more mature role? Even playing the cop in Superbad, his proposed authority was countermanded by a mutton-chopped mimicry. His ability to fill Reid’s shoes seems questionable, especially when you consider his well honed persona is based solely on the silly. The biggest hurdle The Green Hornet faces however will be finding a proper balance between competing cinematic types. On the one hand, fans aren’t anxious to see their established stars swaying too far from what’s familiar. Rare is the instance where someone known for humor - say a Michael Keaton - manages to make the transition to champion of choice.

Chow is another story all together. His limited exposure as part of mainstream moviemaking suggests someone with an equal number of potential strikes. For all the brilliance he brought to Kung Fu Hustle, CJ7 suggested a man equally adept at feigned emotions and abject manipulation. He owes as much to the Golden Age of Hollywood as he does his Hong Kong brethren, with the biggest debt claimed by such classic silent comedians as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Again, this fails to inspire much Christopher Nolan like knowledge of the superhero’s story needs. Chow may be able to concoct a great fight scene, or bring his unbridled imagination to the entire core concept, but he’s not a warranty against failure.

Sure, the same could be said for Mr. Dark Knight, or the man first pegged to put a new spin on the growing graphic novel influence - one Tim Burton. But Chow has less of a track record, at least when it comes to handing Hollywood a pure popcorn experience. And remember, we are now looking at the genre through a necessary new wave wariness. Iron Man proved that acting is just as important as F/X in selling such outsized ideas and yet even someone as skilled as Edward Norton couldn’t completely salvage The Incredible Hulk. In fact, it seems Rogen and Chow are facing odds so monumental that if they succeed, it will certainly say something about both men’s ability and talent. But what if it tanks, or merely underperforms?

We’ve got a couple of years to wait, since The Green Hornet is not scheduled to appear at your local Cineplex until 2010. By then, we will have seen the way Watchmen redefines everything, while Marvel will be offering their takes on Thor as well as another journey into Tony Stark territory. A few years ago, a substandard superhero film like Daredevil or Ghost Rider could find a supportive audience. But thanks to the Summer of 2008, the entire paradigm has shifted. While one has to hope that Rogen and Chow know what they’re up against, the suits who supported their signing typically inspire little faith. For the time being geek nation is settled and sympathetic. If they stay that way, everything should be fine. If not…

//Mixed media
//Blogs

Violin Virtuoso L. Subramaniam Mesmerizes in Rare New York Performance (Photos)

// Notes from the Road

"Co-presented by the World Music Institute, the 92Y hosted a rare and mesmerizing performance from India's violin virtuoso L. Subramaniam.

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