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Friday, Sep 5, 2008
Cutting My Teeth and My Venison: A Introductory Guide to TIFF 08!

Last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, all kinds of strange things happened to me, ranging from transcendent to downright dire. I sat next to the freaky Marilyn Manson at a screening, unbeknownst to me, and when the lights came up I audibly gasped in fear. I was shoved, stalked and harassed by a homeless, deranged drug addict who made me miss seeing legend Max Von Sydow speak live at a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (thanks!). I somehow also managed to thoroughly embarrass myself in front of hundreds-strong crowd by asking a director a question he didn’t particularly like and openly scoffed at to the crowd, following a film screening that no one else in attendance particularly liked.


Whether it was being propositioned by streetwalkers while asking for directions (honest!) or simply making the rookie mistake of choosing the most aesthetically pleasing, yet highly torturous footwear I own over something sensible and proceeding to trek several miles, for several hours like an idiot, last year’s festival was a genuine learning experience.


Crippling blisters, bleeding feet, and terror in the streets aside, Toronto’s festival days are mainly exciting and fun, so here I am again, white boots at home in the closet where they belong. I am ready to spit out thousands and thousands of words that will be, for those of you actually keeping track, part “blog”, part actual film criticism. I’ll have to just get over the fact that some people don’t really care what I am wearing (though I have brought the Holy Gay Trinity of Gucci, Prada, and Miu Miu along to help this year), but, since everyone is so up in arms lately about the differences between a “blogger”, a “film critic”, and being a “fan” lately, I feel like I now have extra audiences to please. Again, thanks.


I will try desperately to keep the focus on the films, but in such a spontaneous climate filled with zany film industry comings and goings, who knows what will happen? All I know is I am writing about anything and everything that crosses my path, because, let’s face it: Toronto can get crazy at festival time.


This year, I was mostly jazzed to come back for the year-end prestige films that seemed to eminently loom on the filmic horizon, and after being so completely blown away by the sheer multitude of high-profile releases my prior trip to the Toronto Film Festival offered me, it seemed a logical assumption that all of these hugely anticipated films would make their debuts at Toronto. Chatter amongst most bloggers and movie devotees I know centered (in fact, it still centers) largely on the following films:


Doubt. The Reader. Australia. Revolutionary Road. Grey Gardens. The Road. Milk. Frost/Nixon. The Young Victoria. W. The Soloist. Body of Lies. The Time Traveler’s Wife. Cheri. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.


This group of 15 movies seems to be the heavy artillery brigade of award contenders that will be trotted out come trophy time. These are the juggernauts that Oscar prognosticators have on their “major nominations” maps, which feature the biggest, brightest stars. In other words, they are the flagship prize-winners and powerhouses that Toronto is generally known for launching.


Guess what? None of those will be included in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival’s program. Not a single one.


Some have been bumped to 2009, and some are probably still not even all the way finished yet, but one thing is certain: the most anticipated flicks of the year will be released mainly to theaters first, rather than to festivals. Cinema enthusiasts will just have to wait a little longer to get word on these buzzy releases. Most entries premiering at Toronto this year, instead, will actually be auspicious North American debuts, rather than world premieres. Many are still desperately seeking distributors. A large handful will have already been shown at Venice and Cannes, and many still will be shown next month at the New York Film Festival.


Clint Eastwood’s The Changeling was nixed by Toronto because star Angelina Jolie decided to stay home with her newborn twins, rather than hauling her celebrity across the continent, out to Ontario, to stump for the flick (how’s that for punishing a working mother?). Curiously, the New York fete will feature The Changeling. With or without Angelina, we still don’t know, but at this point, we’ll take what we can get –- film aficionados (me included) are damn-near chomping at the bit to see if the Cannes buzz is to be trusted.


Speaking of Cannes, this year it looks as though the “international” will be forcibly inserted back into the festival’s title: films by such intercontinental auteurs as Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, Walter Salles, Agnes Varda, and Wong Kar Wai pepper the schedule, and in place of the more high profile English-language releases (like last year’s buzz-gobblers Juno and Atonement), there are several smaller indie releases that don’t really compare: does anyone honestly care about the new Guy Richie gangster idiocy, or Kevin Smith’s lame-brained Zack and Miri Make a Porno? Nope.


Last year’s slate featured almost every single important film, presented with luscious sound and perfect picture (Toronto’s technical elements are sublime), by all of the most important directors of the season; the only Oscar prospect that didn’t play in Toronto last year was probably There Will Be Blood. So, I was, many ways, disappointed in what was being offered for 2008, after being so consistently blown away by the sheer volume of star wattage the previous year (as were so many other film fans, festival patrons, and other journalists I know). Of course, when a film critic whines, it makes the Baby Jesus cry.


When I began my plan of attack by writing out my ridiculously awesome schedule, I realized I had become one of those jaded, shrill, complaining industry types that I had run afoul of so many times last year and despised so much (all that was missing was a ubiquitous BlackBerry surgically attached to my ear and a steady stream of complain-y epithets). I discovered that the line-up, despite it’s rather, um, cozy feeling, was going to be filled with an excitingly quiet fury and a divergent, thorough intelligence. In other words: get over it, Mazur!


Coming to this fest is exciting. It’s an adventure. It’s also a privilege. Crazy, random things happen at events like this and to be so close to the action is literally energizing -– you would be surprised at how late I can stay up, how many films I can see in a day, how much I can write, and how little I eat; it’s as though I am a beautiful fern existing on air and films alone. This year, organizers and programmers have taken careful consideration to assemble some of the best hidden gems you haven’t heard about (yet), but should definitely familiarize yourselves with, pronto.


Last year, I saw only one film on day one, Neil Jordan’s The Brave One, starring Jodie Foster. This year’s first day began with a scheduling snafu, born of my inability to read press conference dates properly and my insistence on drinking one too many tequilas at a random Irish pub in Toronto’s Gay Village, somewhere on Church Street.


I had to scramble to find something to occupy my time, and unfortunately landed at the screening for the Argentinean Liverpool, a film from director Lisandro Alonso that I didn’t know the first thing about. I followed that rueful misfire with Olivier Assayas’ newest, the invigorating Summer Hours (which will be given the full treatment in another blog as I will be speaking with the esteemed Mr. Assayas later this week), and, finally, I was supposed to see Brick director Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, which stars Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel Weisz, and Rinko Kickuchi, but because of a major screw-up on someone else’s part, I was put in the wrong waiting line and got shut out. When I got to the right line, the other press and industry folks standing there were rabidly jumping the line, yelling at each other, and generally acting like petulant school children. So, in place of that film, and all of the uncontrollable nonsense being allowed in the rush line, I had a lovely meal of venison with mushroom au jus and fried gnocchi at a Leslieville lounge called Barrio.


Liverpool (dir. Lisandro Alonso, 2008, Argentina/France/The Netherlands/Germany/Spain)

But now, it’s time to get on with the single, lame film review of the day, and to do that, I will need to bring out a massive chopping block, and immediately put the offender out of it’s misery: Liverpool is a challenging film that is full of subtle ideas that wants to be an important art-house film with a maverick indie pedigree, but it just doesn’t work, it barely entertains. I can’t see this playing to even the most staunch crowd of independent film fans and it going over well.


The film begins with scenes of men at work in a factory-like atmosphere, in solitude. The director actually does a very good job of establishing a claustrophobic mood in the first 15 minutes, showing a maze of nightmarish industrial complexes and the stagnation of these men’s hard-working existences. The tight, locked-in feeling instantly melts away when the camera follows the alcoholic lead character Farrel (nicely captured by Juan Fernandez) outside as he catches a much-needed breath of fresh air, and we realize that the employees are on a freighter, out to sea.


The glimpses of the panoramic ocean vistas are spectacular, but fleeting in this exhilarating moment. In these scenes, the director does show a flair for being able to construct solid, well-framed shots, even if they do linger much too long. This is something that could easily be fixed with a little bit of editing room magic, though I suspect this lethargic crawl is what Alonso had in mind.


Farrel is going to home, to the mountains at the southern tip of the continent, to see if his mother is “still alive”. This is the single action that propels the story forward, and it happens so excruciatingly slowly, and paced so aimlessly, that at times, it becomes very hard to watch as there is little dramatic action taking place. Often, the camera just inches along, preferring to stop and simply capture the banal, which is a nice artistic statement, but, for viewers, can be tedious. I kept thinking “why not just make a documentary?”


Very little dialogue in this piece makes for a spare, still experience. Fernandez’s ruggedly handsome, weathered face is enough to at least intrigue the viewer, but when he’s not on screen, things fall slightly apart. What started out promising, with a rollicking original score, quickly devolved into a mediocre character study that took way too long to set up, and that’s not just American impatience speaking, either. It is extremely interesting to watch this man’s re-entry into society after (it is implied) a life spent as a ne’er do well, but a picaresque series of documentary-feeling images does not necessarily make for a pleasant film-watching experience. The director does achieve a clear sense of disconnection, as none of the characters communicate with one another, really, and most, are in many ways, isolated.


This loner’s journey to see his mother certainly has its moments. The visual grandeur being its most obvious positive characteristic, with Alonso painting imaginatively with natural light sources and robust views of the rugged countryside, but the emotional payoff is missing. Despite the flaws, Liverpool remains remarkable mainly because of its canny showcasing of a place and culture that are rarely represented on film, for North American audiences, and for that, it must be lauded for bravery. In giving us a glimpse of this slice of life, it does succeed, but in terms of either cinematic convention or innovation, it rarely moves past being a middling art experiment, and borders on being a chore to watch. Had I not been seated squarely in the middle of the theater, surrounded by people, I might have been tempted to leave.


While Liverpool is devoid of plot and largely anti-climactic, it is, at least, much different than anything else you’re likely to see this year. I’m not sure that is a compliment, but it sets the film apart from the usual fall season offerings. The ending is cheeky, and tries to be clever, but by then, it’s too late to care anymore as most people in the theater had their eyes fixed on the exits.



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Tuesday, Sep 2, 2008
A backstage chat at Lollapalooza with Blues Traveler co-founder Chan Kinchla. Words by Chris Catania and pictures by Colleen Catania.

Over the last 20 years Blues Traveler has gone from underground jam-band stalwarts to mainstream multi-platinum success including a Grammy for 1994’s single “Run Around”. In that two decade span, they’ve also founded a festival (H.O.A.R.D.), weathered the death of a band mate and battled other personal issues while still continuing to release music and tour. 


And in 2008 the New Jersey quintet is on a new label (Verve Forecast) and has recorded their latest album in a different way than previous albums. This time the plan on their ninth studio album North Hollywood Shootout released August 26th was to capture what rose the band up from the East Coast underground jam-band scene back when guitarist Chan Kinchla and John Topper (vocals/harmonica) founded the group in 1991. As the title suggests, the effort to harness Blues Traveler’s live ferocious mixing of improvosational blues, rock and singer-songwriter swagger was a new kind of challenge that forced the band to adapt a songwriting style they hadn’t explored before.
 
An hour before their Lollapalooza set on August 3rd, I had a brief chat with Chan Kinchla who took me on a tour through the new album, as he explained the difficulties of working with the new recording and touring approach, what it was like having Bruce Willis contribute and how it feels to play Lollapalooza 2008 as one of the few jammier bands on the bill.


We sat down at a table in the artist lounge backstage with the Chicago skyline as our backdrop as Chan took a swig from his drink, told me that he was excited, smiled a big hearty grin and unexpectedly offered up the interview’s first question jokingly asking who had been my most annoying interview so far over the festival weekend.


I dodged the question for obvious reasons. Kinchla smiled again and confidently assured me that I “hadn’t seen nothing yet.”


Luckily, he didn’t keep up his promise. And our chat was far from annoying.


How does North Hollywood Shootout capture the live show more than previous albums?
Well, with North Hollywood Shootout we wanted to try something different since last couple of records we kind of got in this singer songwriter mentality where we really worked on arrangements, trying to get the songs in a very tight form and then go in the studio and record them like that.


Then we realized that when we play live there’s so many things we sort of stumble on that we weren’t really getting on to our albums. So we decided to switch it up and try to do a lot more jamming which we did in the beginning of the record. Just playing, having some drinks and getting these cool little grooves going. Basically, we kept the parts that we liked, and sometimes we would take that part and make it the foundation for the a song or stretch it out and groove longer on it.


It took a lot of listening back for a long time and [producer] Dave Bianco (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Ozzy Osbourne, Mick Jagger and Teenage Fanclub) helped us find what was really good.  We ended up having a lot more grooving on an album that we’ve ever had before and the recording process was really different for us, too.


How hard was it trying to capture that live element?
In the past we had really tried to separate playing live from recording in the studio. When you’re playing live you’re improvising, there’s people there in front of you and so much is going on onstage and in the crowd and new things happen every night. When you recording in the studio you’re going for a more precise goal, trying to get things exactly the way you want them. I think we were really trying to wed those two ideas together and I think we did a really good job and I’m looking forward to doing the same thing on the next record.  We had a lot of fun recording like this album because songs would come out of thin air and we could play in a stream of conscience. The technology we have today also allows us to record like this. You couldn’t really do this in the past.


What’s most exciting for you guys about the new album and playing live this summer?
Since we’ve recorded it with a live focus all the songs are really playing great live and the crowds are loving them. People are getting up and cheering for new songs they’ve never even heard before. That’s really exciting because sometimes when you make a record, release it and then six months down the road there’s only like one or two songs that make it into the live set rotation. With this album we already have six or seven. I can’t wait until people have the album and they actually recognize them.


What are some of your favorites so far?
I’ve really been enjoying “How I Remember It”, and the first single “You, Me and Everything” and (pauses) “Beacons”. Sorry about that, I’m having a hard time remember the names of the songs because we always call them something stupid in the studio when we’re recoding them.


You have Bruce Willis on the album doing a spoken word blues rant on the last track “Free Willis”. How’d that come together?
Bruce has been a friend of ours for a long time and he sat in with us. John Topper and [Bruce] are good friends.  They’re were hanging out and joking around and came up with this idea.  That song is a live blues jam. We just played for 20 minutes and then Dave took all the best pieces and college them all together. Then Bruce came down, smoked a lot of pot, and then free-formed over the our jams. It was a fun experiment to try something a little different.


Is Bruce going to be a part of the live show?
Hey, if Bruce ever shows up, you bet your ass we’ll do it!


You guys have had some lineup changes over the years. How has it been working with those changes?
Well, since Bobby died we’ve had Tad in the band, my brother for eight years and the first five years of that was really learning how to build the band back up again and how to stay out of the way. We really feel we’re hitting our stride with this lineup. We’re able to relax and just play. It’s a lot of fun.


This is your second time playing Lollapalooza since you played in 2006.
Festivals are just a total crap shoot. You don’t have any sound check. You don’t know how you line up is going to play with the crowd, so you have to just throw your hands up and see what happens. It’s kind of nerve racking because you don’t have control over your own show. The most important thing is just to go up there and have fun, because the reality is that something will go wrong. You have to just roll with the punches. 


We love playing in Chicago because we have a lot of fans here and I’m really looking forward to playing. Lolla has an alternative slant and the line-up especially. We’re one of the only jammier bands, which might actually work for us because it’ll be something different for the fans.  There are probably a lot of alterny kids out there who have never heard us so it should be fun. We’ll be sure to bring the rock for them.


Now that was a promise that Kinchla and Blues Traveler kept as they fired rapid fire shots from Shootout while slipping in a few crowd favorites and multiplatinum hits.


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Thursday, Aug 21, 2008
Words and pictures by Thomas Hauner.

I’m not sure what moment in a singer’s development triggers the jettisoning of one’s inbred voice for a contrived, crossbred, and assumed vocal style. They pretend to sing like someone they’re not. Or do they? Maybe they’re actually just conjuring up a past life or an endured yet unsettling emotion that’s inexpressible in their current method of singing and must be articulated. You can probably guess that Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson is this type of songwriter. In the style of Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, Robinson eschews perfect pitch and lacquered tones for an earnestly distraught and wounded sound. And the informal setting of Joe’s Pub provided an intimate setting to absorb his distinctly raw playing.


Robinson’s recent eponymous release was partially overshadowed by collaborators Chris Taylor and Chris Bear of Grizzly Bear and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio. But this set—debuting his new backup band “The Family Robinson”—was entirely his own. Carrying a dejected inertia, “Buriedfed” was sullen but with hints of revival while “There Will Be Mud” was the most rousing of the night. Despite his youthful appearance and exuberance onstage (he warned the audience that the new band was certain to fuck up) his weathered voice exudes age. Only “Someday” sounded lyrically adolescent, though Robinson did seem a bit scatterbrained, taking hours to get set and switch guitars between songs. But his uncanny synthesis of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Langhorne Slim, and Josh Ritter by being at once familiar and new is intriguing—regardless of his downtrodden vocal source.



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Tuesday, Aug 19, 2008
Words and pictures by Thomas Hauner.

Ben Harper once said, “I refuse to age disgracefully in rock ‘n’ roll.” It’s an apt mantra that aging rockers should adhere to for the sake of their music, but mostly themselves.  Mike Gordon, former bassist of reunion-rumored Phish, and touring in support of his latest release The Green Sparrow, did bring his musical aestheticism with grace and humility to a packed Highline Ballroom last Wednesday night. But his aging fans should give it equal credence because no matter how yuppified a Phish-head can become, their nostalgic nights out are all too predictable.


Just as Gordon’s bluegrass ballads followed a tried and true formula—so much so that the only variable was the number of players that joined him as he progressed through that portion of the program—so too did his faithful: Weathered Birkenstocks, homemade purses and bags, and apoplectic dance. 


 


They did have some reason to gyrate, though. “Dig Further Down” and “Traveled Too Far”, both from the new album, weren’t too bass heavy, but exuded that light funk Phish could easily toy with. Arguably the best song of the night was “Takin’ it to the Streets” with keyboardist Tom Cleary thankfully singing lead.  (Gordon’s voice has always been intrinsically goofy and awkward. He sings with exuberance but it just sounds like his sinus is the vocalist.)  A close second was the C+C Music Factory cover, “Things that make you go Hmmm”, showing some alacrity on Gordon’s part. That guitarist Scott Murawski played Trey Anastasio’s signature guitar (which is only made by Phish’ audio engineer/guitar-tech/luthier Paul Languedoc) emphasized the show as a diluted recapitulation of Phish’s best, and worst, characteristics.



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Friday, Aug 15, 2008
Word and pictures by Mehan Jayasuriya.

I used to think that only an act of God could keep me from a Radiohead show. Well, much to my surprise, this past spring, God decided to call my bluff on that one. So it was with a fair amount of trepidation that I approached Radiohead’s performance this past Tuesday in the Philadelphia suburb of Camden, New Jersey – a makeup date, of sorts, for the washout this past May. This time around, I took every precaution. I checked the weather forecast compulsively. I packed a GPS-equipped phone, just in case I got lost on the way. I double-checked to make sure my name was on the guest list. I left for the venue earlier than was probably advisable.


Despite all of these precautions, just about everything that could go wrong en route to the venue went wrong. I took a wrong turn and got lost in the suburbs of Camden. My GPS-equipped phone ran out of batteries. The car charger for the phone didn’t work. None of the gas station attendants seemed to know where the Susquehanna Bank Center was (not that I can blame them, what, with a catchy name like that). I eventually made my way to Camden, only to get lost yet again in that city’s vast, spooky underbelly. The setting sun completely obscured my view of the road. My girlfriend told me to settle down, repeatedly.


Eventually, I made my way into downtown Camden, where I asked a police officer for directions. He shot me a befuddled look before pointing directly across the street from where he stood.


As for the show, well, there’s not much left to say about the In Rainbows tour and even less left to say about Radiohead as a live act. As always, the five lads from Oxfordshire were on point, crafting a career-spanning set-list and attacking it with both passion and precision. And as you’ve surely heard countless times by now, the band’s LED light spectacle was, for lack of a better word, spectacular. Standing there in awe of the music and lights and amazed that I had made it to the show at all, I couldn’t help but identify with the band’s choice of a closing number. As Thom Yorke’s disembodied voice rang through a sampler, the LED spires scrolled in tandem: “EVERYTHING IN ITS RIGHT PLACE”.



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