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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.

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?

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Cage the Elephant Ignite Central Park with Kickoff for Summerstage Season

// Notes from the Road

"Cage the Elephant rocked two sold-out nights at Summerstage and return to NYC for a free show May 29th. Info on that and a preview of the full Summerstage schedule is here.

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