Tuesday, May 5, 2015

SunFest 2015

"We don't get down here much, so let's make the most of it," saith Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy during SunFest 2015's opening night (Wednesday) show.  A blistering, mostly raucous good time that oddly ignored the album Summerteeth but was otherwise a stellar set of old and new, favoring louder cuts which allowed guitarist extraordinaire Nels Cline plenty of opportunities to shred, including a rockin' version of "Camera".  There was also an old Uncle Tupelo tune and a slightly slower tempo version of "Walken".  Before he began "Hate it Here", Tweedly wrly noted, "Don't worry, this song's not about you." Wilco gleefully played longer than scheduled and blew through the usual walk-off-the-stage before the encore interlude.  This was a Top 10 show for me, quite amazing.

On Sunday I caught a 2:15 Pixies concert.  It was surprising that a band that easily could've been a headliner was relegated to such an odd time.  Plus, they had to stick to a 75 minute set as there was someone else in the wings waiting their turn.  Nonetheless, Black Francis and company delivered a breathless cacophony of sublime noise without taking a breath between tunes - or saying a single word to the audience, but that's nothing new, apparently.  The quartet, which included replacement bassist Paz Lenchantin (who held her own in Kim Deal's absence), did do a collective bow at the finish, after their beloved "Hey".  "Monkey Gone to Heaven", "Here Comes Your Man", "Velouria", and "Gigantic" were surprisingly absent, but thankfully "Where Is My Mind" and "U-Mass" were not.

I would've loved to have heard their grinding, absolutely perfect cover of the song from ERASERHEAD, "In Heaven, Everything is Fine".  There were some tracks from the recent Indie Cindy album, unfamiliar to me but sounded much like the old stuff.  Guitarist Joey Santiago at one point threw his axe down and played it via the feedback pedals.  Moments like this separate the devoted from the casual fans.

During both shows the waft of bud was strong.  During the Pixies gig, a group of 20-somethings next to me unashamedly passed a joint.  Where were the cops? Probably too many bodies to haul off, and no one was hurting anybody.  The Pixies audience - a surprisingly young crowd, were very well behaved.  Not a single mosher. Ain't like the old days.

This year's Fest had a good lineup.  I would've attended Lenny Kravitz's show but it was at the same time as Wilco's.  Tweedy even commented on that, wondering if their music would swirl together in "some kind of mash-up." 311, Stone Temple Pilots (no Scott Weiland), Sammy Hagar, Boston, Eddie Money, and a some others were on tap for the older fans.  Fall Out Boy et. al were there for the current target demographic.  On Sunday my wife, her mom, and some cousins and I spent a lovely afternoon enjoying some spectacular breezes and hearing bits of Some Kinda Wonderful (their name belies how I felt about 'em) and Matisyahu (to whom I've always been strangely indifferent. I've tried, but I just can't appreciate his music).

Did you go?

Friday, May 1, 2015


There are spoilers

The notion that humans only use 10% of their brains was debunked some time ago, but given the growing idiocracy, perhaps a case can be made after all.  Ah, but that's another movie, invisible audience.  In any event, it makes for a swell jumping off point for science fiction.  Luc Besson's LUCY from 2014 continues the writer/director's fondness for eye popping visuals and breathless paces.  It recalls his efforts as early as 1985's SUBWAY, with generous allusions to THE FIFTH ELEMENT and LEON.  Besson is a stylist, mostly concerned with what looks the most striking at any given moment.  Logic, plausibility, and scientific accuracy are coincidental.

Arguably, for pure popcorn fiction, that's how it should be.  Many love to grill movies like GRAVITY for their lack of accurate science, but if one is attempting to paint the canvas of a patently artificial landscape, a fanciful race through the imagination, we should lower our scopes and just let them get on with it.  Besson is not trying to play by any rules but his own.  That established, the critic should just sit back and let the movie wash over him or her.

"But..." cries the veteran movie viewer, "2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY had trippy visuals that washed over me but maintained the laws of physics and wasn't at all stupid..." True, but Kubrick was working from Arthur C. Clarke's tome, purposing restricting his film.  Entirely different animal, despite some who say that LUCY is a modern day 2001.   Besson is making it up as he goes along, using scraps of verifiable science as chum to keep the malcontents at bay, at least for a few seconds.  LUCY flirts with true research and then gleefully barrels ahead.

Scarlett Johannson is the titular heroine, a young student in Taiwan tricked into delivering a briefcase filled with a blue powder called CPH4, a synthetic pharmaceutical that can up that mental capacity far beyond 10%.  After some harrowing developments, she awakens with a bag of the drug sewn into her abdomen.  She learns from a gallery of well dressed Asian and British toughs that she is to be a mule somewhere into Europe.

Lucy will discovers the effects of the mysterious substance when it is accidentally released into her bloodstream.  She begins to discern powers of telekinesis, super hearing, mental time travel, imperviousness to pain, and eventual omniscience.  Besson alerts us throughout the film (via title cards) as to the advancing percentage of her brain power.  One unfortunate by-product is her increasing robotic state.  Recognizing this early on, Lucy places her a call to her mother to tell her she loves her and plants a kiss on a French police chief  "to remind myself" of what desire feels like.

Meanwhile, professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) delivers a lecture on cellular biology and cerebellar function.  His discussion, which includes time lapse footage of animal behavior in the wild, will foretell and mirror Lucy's evolution into knowledge itself.  By the finale, I was oddly reminded of Johansson's role in the film HER.   Think about it.

The early scenes in LUCY are great fun, dazzling us with whiz bang shots and intriguing with its heady concepts.  The later scenes don't fare as well, becoming over-the-top both in its CGI and frantic attempts at hard scientific explanation, often becoming giggle inducing and downright silly.   Always a risk in this genre.  And Besson is still in love with scenes involving flanks of gunmen firing down hallways.  The mix only occasionally works.  The running time is short and just right, though in some ways the story was just beginning when Lucy finally transformed into a flash drive.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Another Passage

To my dearly departed stepfather-in-law:

I wanted to take this space to thank you for the past fifteen years. For the advice, guidance, and knowledge imparted.  For your razor sharp wit.  For your compassion - not just toward me but to so many individuals of wildly different social strata.  You treated everyone the same, showing love in a manner of the Christ you followed.  You encouraged this former Baptist to appreciate and even take joy in a Catholic mass.  I wish you could've witnessed the memorial service at your parish, the one at which you worshipped and volunteered for so many years. It was a beautiful time. It brought so many family and friends together.

There is an incredible amount to recollect, to write down. Our many conversations that spanned topics of art, science, theology, politics.  You were fascinated by my career in audiology as you had much knowledge of both medical and acoustic studies.  We shared a similar appreciation for both the low- and high-brow.  Lots of laughter.  Some tears, some anger. You had me over for music appreciation - lights down low listening of classical and even The Beatles.  Memories of those once a month Saturday nights when you and my mother-in-law opened your home to your neighbors, including a guy named Harry, documented here so many times.  You took the reigns after his death, organizing the shambles of a house he left behind. A formidable task.

I take special delight in knowing that your final meeting with my wife's father, at my grandmother's funeral a mere few months ago, was a cordial one, a peaceful coda quite different from a rather discordant past between you and he.  
I want to believe that somehow you can read all these thoughts. That you're chatting with my grandmother in that sweet by and by.  That thought provides comfort now.  Please know that my wife and I loved and still love you for eternity.  You have left behind beautiful children and grandchildren, all of whom will miss you more than metrics can express.  We will grieve, be reduced to a bag of tears for many days to come, but we will also smile at your memory, your legacy.  I still hear your voice.  That reassuring, gentle tone.

R.I.P., Mr. Roy.  We'll be seeing you.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Star Wars

In honor of the upcoming release of Episode Seven, and in response to the repeated urging of an anonymous LD post commenter, I will review the first six installments of this much beloved series.........

I can still see the marquee of the Cinema 70 in West Palm Beach, FL, back when it was a uniplex: "It's Here!" exclaimed the metal letters.  And there it would remain for over one year.  In this age, it's hard to imagine a film playing in a theater for more than a few weeks before heading to the home video market.  In 1977, only those with a grand with which to part could afford a VCR, and STAR WARS wouldn't arrive on videocassette or cable for several years anyway. 

I attended at least a dozen screenings of George Lucas' game changing sci-fi opera.  Once even for someone's birthday party.  Drove my father crazy.  But the movie was mind blowing.  I really had not seen anything like it. I became obsessed along with many of my peers and millions of instant fans.  I don't really know what to add that hasn't already been written about this film, one that became a runaway smash and inspired not only multiple sequels, but a merchandizing blitz that gave birth to the possibilities of film tie-ins, a multimillion dollar industry in itself. I had the bed sheets and land speeder replicas.  I join legions of others who are kicking themselves for discarding the original action figures which fetch some serious cash nowadays.

Lucas was a '70s wunderkind whose talent was evident in the dystopian future opus THX 1138 and the nostalgic hit AMERICAN GRAFITTI (review to come).  While the more cerebral 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and SILENT RUNNING had already dazzled audiences with mind blowing special effects, STAR WARS provided old fashioned movie thrills and characters with whom even the dimmest audience member could relate.  Most didn't know or care that Lucas borrowed many ideas from old serials, Westerns, and even Kurosawa films.   You might even say that STAR WARS was a tribute or homage to such.

Last year I posted about NPR's 1981's radio series inspired by STAR WARS and again I highly recommend it to any crazed aficionado.  To anyone who'd like some back story on Luke Skywalker, a lonely farm boy in a galaxy far, far away with big dreams and who eventually finds himself fighting the evil Empire, led by Darth Vader, a once decent man now encased in a metallic mask that distorts his voice and allows a near constant exhalation that was imitated in schoolyards the world over. 

Luke (Mark Hamill) responds to the distress call of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) whose home planet has been destroyed by the Empire.   Skywalker is assisted, albeit reluctantly, by a spice smuggler named Han Solo (Harrison Ford) who pilots a bucket of bolts spaceship and has a companion called Chewbacca, a tall, shaggy member of the Wookie species. Trusty droids C-3P0 and R2-D2 provide language interpretation and on-the-spot maintenance, respectively.  A fair amount of comic relief, too. There to guide the naïve Luke is wise, elderly Jedi knight Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), whose past is linked with Vader's.  Luke himself will discover his own connection with this nemesis, especially in Episode V, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

STAR WARS, which lately has been referred to by its full onscreen title: EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE, is such an important piece of my history as it not only kick started my lifelong film going jones, but really defined so much of my childhood.  Just about everyone my age with whom I was close shared my aggressive interest in Lucas' world, and to this day it binds us in unexplainable ways.  Somewhat like club (or cult) membership, but something deeper.  I guess you could call the whole thing a religion we share(d).  Drew us out of ourselves and created healthy bonds among us, the way participation in athletic events also might.  It seemed like everyone was into it back then, even the girls. Fistfights were avoided when it was discovered that the would-be combatants had a similar affection for those multiple species in the Cantina.  We all pretended to be STAR WARS characters during recess, acting out the film's scenes and creating our own.

Speaking of religion, many in my Baptist church began drawing comparisons between "The Force" and the way, the Truth, and The Light.  It was exciting; "George Lucas must be a Christian!" Sunday school teachers conjectured.  But my later readings revealed similarities to many other philosophies, much the way so many other films immediately championed for Christian imagery have.  As I get older I've stopped trying to aggressively unearth such Meaning in movies, unless sufficiently compelled. As Obi Wan might say, "One can usually find what One seeks if he gazes through but one filter".  Or at the very least, "consider the source".

Many people have a cultural benchmark of this sort from their childhood, something that they relay to younger folk as they listen impatiently.  STAR WARS is mine.  Unlike other bits of pop culture from decades past, this one and its offspring just won't die.  Even with Lucas' ill advised latter day tinkering special editions.......

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Last Days of Disco

You know you're inside a Whit Stillman motion picture when even a sleazy nightclub owner asks his employee why he used the past perfect when he answered his question.  Or when that same guy explains that he chose Hemingway for his undergrad thesis.  Writer/director Stillman was/is virtually solitary in his creation of characters who speak like Ivy Leaguers and consider Harper's bathroom reading.  While any number of Generation X  film auteurs wrote lengthy, verbose rants for their self-absorbed onscreen dopplegangers in the '90s, Stillman steered his charges through a distinctive brand of erudition very rarely heard in cinema.

The third in Stillman's self-described "Doomed Bourgeois in Love" trilogy, 1998's THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO continues the numerous (sometimes over-) analyzations spouted by attractive, well-dressed youth who are primarily consumed with what people these days called "first world" problems.  Yet they deal with the same insecurities and hang-ups as that of the great unwashed, though their commentary on it is far more studious than what might be heard in most non-Yuppie watering holes.  This time the story takes place in 1980, in the waning days of the disco era in Manhattan.  Just as the title states, the culture of Studio 54-type excess is rapidly fading.  The carefree coupling, drugs.  Working your life around your leisure and not the other way around.  It was never just about the music. 

Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) are former college acquaintances who work at a publishing house in the City.  They are trying to become editors, er, associate editors.  Reality is harsh.  Their parents help them somewhat but New York is awfully expensive.  The duo, frequent companions but not exactly chums, find a "railroad" apartment with a third young woman named Holly (Tara Subkoff).   They all frequent an exclusive club where the doorman turns away anyone who isn't on the List (or wears brown coats).  While yes, the women are all beautiful, it helps that they know Des (Chris Eigman), one of the managers. 

Each character is drawn carefully.   Alice is reserved, cautious, observant.  Charlotte is conceited, manipulative, blunt, mindless of others' feelings.  Des is also a "big personality", brash but wildly insecure.  He often breaks up with women by telling them he just discovered his homosexuality after watching an episode of Wild Kingdom. THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO also follows ad exec Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), forever having to bluff his way into the club as the manager doesn't want "his kind" there, Josh (Matt Keeslar) an assistant D.A. who takes a liking to Alice, and Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), another attorney with an interest in Alice that becomes a one night stand.  Also in this circle is Dan (Matt Powers), co-worker of Alice and Charlotte and, while being a Harvard grad himself, is the Common Man's Greek chorus, calling the women out on their lineage and behavior, certain that they will continue their supposed fairy tale lives by marrying some lawyer or such.

Stillman strikes many fascinating observations, the most obvious of which is the whole class structure of the disco scene.  How getting into the right club is like getting into the right college.  Some of the characters may actually be poor, but appearances and connections are everything.  Friendships, such as they are, are as disposable as your last bed mate.  There is much discussion about group social activities versus "pairing off".  For the characters in LAST DAYS, their fragile lifestyles are threatened by things like sexually transmitted disease, mental illness, corrupt bosses, looming jail sentences, and possible pregnancies.  But then, whose life wouldn't be? Is Stillman moralizing?  Perhaps...a few characters even sing old hymns with conviction - and nary a sign of condescension - late in the film, when the pleasure dome collapses.

The director is not so interested in specific evocations of the early 80s, other than the near nonstop music and few old television clips.  If you want that, watch THANK GOD IT'S FRIDAY (and best of luck).   In LAST DAYS, the clothes and hair are too contemporary.  The subways cars too clean.  I was never convinced these characters were living in the era depicted. Often, they rather looked and acted like 1990s urbanites who spend time at Starbucks debating the finer points of sitcoms, albeit the way Proust might've.  Ordinarily, this would be an issue, but the film is so swiftly rendered and engaging that for once I didn't care.  Stillman has used the early '80s backdrop as merely an excuse to have another fascinating talkfest. And it's sublime. The film gets better every time I watch it. 

THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO's pleasures are many, from the wordy by play to the beauty of the women.  To me, Sevigny has never been more appealing or alluring.  Stillman always features a quieter, less confident character such as Alice in his works but Sevigny puts it across with an elan that is singular.  Eigman, often hilarious,  plays the same sort of smug, neurotic smart aleck he did in the director's METROPOLITAN and BARCELONA, beautifully, I might add.  Here he hones it to some sort of perfection.  He and everyone speak the director's words like music.  Watching Stillman's films, his patently manufactured surrealities, I'm reminded of a friend who explained that when he was robbed overseas, the gunman quoted Shakespeare to him.   I could see Whit Stillman writing such a moment.  With the victims' witty ruminations on why this is happening to them, of course.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

National Lampoon's Animal House


"Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son."  That line, aside from being pretty sound advice that many in our society have not exactly taken to heart, perhaps gave birth to the modern gross out/slob/underachiever comedy.  Prior to 1978's NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE, audiences weren't accustomed to seeing gags involving vomit, urination, rubber glove masturbation, dildos, dead horses, and wayward golf balls in a Hollywood feature.  Yes, Mel Brooks had been around to fill the bad taste quota, but most mainstream comedies were fairly button downed and restrained.  ANIMAL HOUSE announced, with great vulgarity, that a new sort of comedy, perhaps a bit dangerous, was now here to stay.  A comedy of considerable gall and brio, yet with a certain degree of craft and even (gasp!) sophistication.

Immediately, the imitators raced to film their own juvenile epics.  Films like THE HOLLYWOOD KNIGHTS, UP THE ACADEMY, MEATBALLS, STRIPES (the latter two made by ANIMAL HOUSE producer Ivan Reitman) and countless others.  And those were the OK to good ones.   There were also true grade Z knock-offs like FRAT HOUSE that exhibited no apparent purpose other than to fill an hour and a half with as many boobs and flatulence gags as possible.  Truly reptilian brained entertainments that sometimes flirted with the softcore.  But ANIMAL HOUSE, for all of its deviance, is actually a really good movie.  A skillfully made, well acted, and sometimes even inspiring underdog comedy that may have no other real purpose than to celebrate bad behavior, but underneath the lasciviousness there may be a life lesson or two.

1962. The Deltas are the worst fraternity on campus.  Their grades are the lowest in Faber College's history.  Every Halloween they fill the trees with underwear.  Every Spring, they cause toilets to explode. They instigate food fights, climb ladders to peek at topless sorority girls, and have liaisons with underage girls, dead girls' roommates, and even the Dean's wife.  They have raucous parties and destroy the homecoming parade.  Freshmen Larry (Tom Hulce) and Kent (Stephen Furst) are would-be pledges who wind up in the filthy Delta House populated by Casanova "Otter" (Tim Matheson), wise guy "Boon" (Peter Riegert), motorcyclist "D-Day" (Bruce McGill), and all-around animal "Bluto" (John Belushi).

Hardass Dean Wormer (John Vernon) desperately wants to kick the Deltas off campus.  Revoke their charter.  He enlists the Omega fraternity: hissable, clean cut fascists led by Greg (James Daughton) and Neidermeyer (Mark Metcalf).  It doesn't go well for any of them, to say the least.  Check the film's prologue and/or the special edition "Where Are They Now?" segment on the DVD.

ANIMAL HOUSE became a cultural phenomenon.  The famous toga party sequence inspired many colleges to engage in what had been previously a rather obscure practice.  Fictional party band Otis Day and the Knights went on tour.  I remember a teacher's aide for my 4th grade class telling us about the movie at lunch one day.  What a scene: an attractive 20 something blonde, who might've been right at home in the movie as one of the sorority girls, describing this forbidden piece of cinema to a group of prepubescent boys.  Eyes were wide and our lust thick.  Our imaginations conjured wilder imagery than the movie allowed, though surprisingly not by much!

We were all frustrated that we were too young to see ANIMAL HOUSE in the theater.  Though, as I wrote in an earlier post, one afternoon at a multiplex, my father went to the restroom and I wandered in to watch about twenty seconds of it.  I caught the scene as Bluto loads his tray in a cafeteria with pretty much everything he can grab.  I can still hear some of the laughter in the audience, like it was yesterday.  I saw the edited version on network TV a few years later, and then the real thing a few years after that.  It managed to live up to an impossible legacy, fueled by classmate whispers and their excited recreations of scenes.

The film would be a breakout for director John Landis, who only had two low budget comedies under his belt.  He created a perfect look and tone for the picture, even with a somewhat out of place marijuana scene.  His assurance and sense of timing are surprising and his leering, winking sensibility was a perfect fit for this material, written by Harold Ramis (who would go on to direct his own slobs versus snobs comedy, CADDYSHACK), Douglas Kenney, and Chris Miller, who based the screenplay on their experiences.  According to Landis, their original screenplay was even more socially irresponsible and gross.  What ended up on screen is just the right balance of naughty and good hearted, though you could charge the picture with racism at times.  Had Landis himself gone to college, I imagine he would've been just like Otter or Boone.

Does ANIMAL HOUSE have any sort of worthwhile message beyond "it's OK to screw up"?  That bad behavior and incompetence may even be rewarded? If you dig deeply you might find a political thesis, explorations of anarchy and extreme conservatism.  Class struggle.  That maybe the whole "college is necessary for success in life" may be a royal scam.  Especially given what we learn of each character's fate, that even someone who's spent seven years in undergrad with a 0.0 GPA can become a Senator. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Flaunt the Imperfection

Flaunt the Imperfection, released in 1985, is quintessential era pop with which few Americans are familiar. Unfortunate, as it is just as pleasing as many of the stateside giants' output.  Brit New wavers China Crisis had a video or two on MTV earlier on, but in the U.S. they were little more than an across the pond curiosity.  While preparing to record Flaunt, their third effort, the group were contacted by Walter Becker, then former of Steely Dan, to produce.  Becker also contributed synthesizer and percussion on each track (and received credit as a fifth official member). His touch is unmistakable.  This was a heavenly union, as China Crisis already had jazzy Dan leanings in their repertoire.  And the lyrics are often quite baffling, so there you go.

Flaunt the Imperfection, unheard by me until about two years ago, almost instantly became a mellow favorite, a go-to album when I'm craving something easy and warm.  Its sound is so very '80s, comparable to artists like Spandau Ballet, OMD, and a myriad of others.  I will always have a soft spot for those ineffectual vocals and that cleanly produced, keyboard heavy style, something Becker certainly knew a thing or two about.  Many of the tracks are in a joyously rapid tempo, like "The Highest High" and "King in a Catholic Style".  Others are more reserved ("Blue Sea"). After a few listenings, the tunes seemed as if remembered from thirty years ago.  Repeat listens now feel like fond memories, the way something by Heaven 17 or English Beat might. While I do enjoy other China Crisis albums, Flaunt the Imperfection is a near perfect collection.