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FROM THE VAULT: Summer Bear

July 21st, 2017

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally posted on Sept. 5th 2012

BY JONATHAN VALANIA It is another blazingly hot and hip mid-summer day in Brooklyn. Boomboxes, guinea tees, gold chains, water ice, open fire hydrants. It’s kind of like Do The Right Thing without the race riot. The girls walk by in their summer clothes. The boys walk by in their skinny jeans. The subway is redolent of stale urine and diesel. It’s high noon and the sun is punishing and relentless. There are many things in abundance in Brooklyn — coffee shops, craft beers, beards — but shade isn’t one of them.

Ordinarily, I would not venture outside the igloo on a day like this, but today is special. The Bear has awoken from it’s three year hibernation, grabbed the horn of plenty and started making beautiful music again. I always say there are only two things that get me out of bed:

1. A teenage riot. (Obligatory Sonic Youth reference. Look it up, son.)

2. A new Grizzly Bear album. (Actually, I never say that, but it just seems like the kind of thing that should go here.)

Said new album is called Shield, a fact Grizzly Bear kept a secret and teased well into late summer. That’s the kind of thing you do in the Internet era — tease basic facts about your release. Basic facts that would have been given away for free in the pre-Internet era will now cost you. Ironically, music is free (if you know where to look) but knowledge (which is not to be confused with information, a much baser coin) you will have to pay for with the most precious commodity in the Internet Age: your attention. And so the fan is strung along for weeks with cryptic hints on Brooklyn Vegan and Stereogum about the when and what and why of once quotidian details like cover art and album title and release date. And, hey kids, be the first on your block to Tweet/Facebook/Reddit to the world and be king of the goddamn Internet for all of 10 seconds! Whoopeee!

Determined not to have the new album leak in advance of the release date the way Veckatimest did, the band’s handlers have taken to sending out watermarked streams of the new album to journalists with a fake band name (The Toddies), fake album title (False Salmon) and, just to make matters even more confusing for the likes of me, fake song titles like “Mango Lassi” and “Toad To Nowhere.” What japes!

Upon accepting the Grizzly Bear cover story mission — which was relayed to me via mail drop on a cassette tape that played once and then self-destructed Mission Impossible-style, totally fucking up my tape deck — I followed my marching orders: Go to Brooklyn, don’t call us, we’ll call you. When the call came through the instructions were as follows: go to the underground parking deck at 110 Livingston Street and stand next to the pillar by space # 57 and a chain-smoking man in a rain coat who looks like Hal Holbrooke will tell you what to do. Turns out the first chain smoking guy in a rain coat to approach me was not an agent of Grizzly Bear, but just the sort of garden variety sick fuck  perv often found lurking in the shadows of these underground parking garages, which explains why he wanted me to get into the back of a nearby Chevy Impala and give him a Cleveland Steamer. Which I did, because I’m a nice guy. Plus he reminded me of my grandfather.

OK, none of that actually happened, except for the part about the Cleveland Steamer and him reminding me of my grandfather. Even that’s not true. It was a Rusty Trombone. OK, okay. I will make a deal with you, dear reader, from here on will stop making up fantastical semi-obscene plot twists and tell you the unadorned boring-as-shit truth if you promise to stop being so fucking gullible. Deal? OK, good. Now where was I? Ah yes, Grizzly Bear. The call came in from their handlers saying I should meet the band in 10 minutes at Calexico — the restaurant, not the band, which, by the way, has paid me good money to tell you it has been voted best Mexican restaurant in New York by Zagat’s readers. MORE

_______

From the new Grizzly Bear album, Painted Ruins, due out August 17th on RCA.

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BEING THERE: Kendrick Lamar @WellsFargoCtr

July 20th, 2017

Kendrick Lamar @ Wells Fargo

Photo by LIAM MCKENNA [ENLARGE]

Oh Kendrick Lamar! I often remind myself how grateful I am for his existence and his talent. In the 20-something years that I have been listening to Hip-Hop, no other artist has been able to embody so much of my black experience in America. He is political, hood, eloquent, exceptionally creative and may very well be a genius.  So, I was beyond ecstatic to see Kung Fu Kenny live in person last night at the Wells Fargo Center for the Philadelphia leg of the DAMN Tour. Aside from that one meet and greet that radio station Power 99 hosted at Ubiq, the last time I saw Lamar in real life was back in 2012 when he performed Section 80 at a free concert at Penn’s Landing.

The night kicked off with opener D.R.A.M. and his obnoxiously catchy hit “Broccoli.” By the time Travis Scott took to the stage, or should I say took to the enormous flying phoenix above the stage, the crowd was live as fuck. When he performed “Antidote”, pretty much the only song I knew, Scott’s high energy dancing made me almost sure that he would fall off of the bird. Much to my, and everyone else’s delight, it didn’t take long for the Wells Fargo stage crew to dismantle the fowl and set up shop for K. Dot.

Before the man of the hour rose from the depths of the stage, the story of Kung Fu Kenny played out on the big screen. The video showed Kendrick practicing his martial arts, the footage was reminiscent of old school karate moves. The lights when dim and Lamar appeared from behind a plume of smoke wearing an unflattering yellow tracksuit that reminded me of Beatrix Kiddo. Throughout the night, Lamar totally played up the Kung Fu Kenny schtick. During the Rick James-sampled beat switch up of “DNA,” the first song he performed, Lamar was accompanied by what most would be considered to be a ninja who was fully equipped with a sword. For a while the ninja danced/shadowboxed around Lamar until they faced each other and began to battle – Lamar’s weapon of choice being his bars.
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NPR 4 THE DEAF: We Hear It Even When U Can’t

July 20th, 2017

Billy Bragg Skiffle

 

FRESH AIR: It’s hard to believe, but before the 1950s, guitars were rarely heard in British music. Billy Bragg says the first guitars to hit the British pop scene came as a part of skiffle, a musical movement inspired by African-American roots musicians.Bragg, who’s written a book on skiffle called Roots, Radicals And Rockers, describes the genre as “a bunch of British school boys in the mid-’50s playing Lead Belly’s repertoire… on acoustic guitars.” One of the most pivotal performances was Lonnie Donegan’s 1954 cover of Lead Belly’s “Rock Island Line,” which Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin later described as a song that changed his life. But Bragg notes that the entire genre was transformative in that it opened the door for The Beatles, Van Morrison and other Brit rock bands that followed. MORE

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DATELINE WOODY CREEK: Home On The Strange

July 19th, 2017

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First a note of justification. I’m about to say a few words about Hunter S. Thompson, the writer, in what is ostensibly a column about music because: a) HST was rock ‘n’ roll incarnate; we’re talking balls the size of cantaloupes. b) Despite the pharmacopia of substances controlled and otherwise he ritually pickled his gray matter in, he was in possession of one of the sharpest minds of the 20th century, possibly even up until he personally disconnected it with a gun to his head. c) I just happen to be hiking in the Rockies.

Which is why I’m writing this from a patio table at the Woody Creek Tavern. Located a stone’s throw from HST’s Owl Farm, this was Thompson’s semiprivate watering hole, and I’m knocking back a few too many Flying Dogs, a tangy local microbrew with quite literally eye-popping label art by HST illustrator Ralph Steadman. As the sun drops behind the purple mountains, Christmas tree lights twinkle into incandescence on the umbrellas overhead and a folksinger warbles harmlessly over in the corner.

HST’s widow is sitting at the next table. She discusses Dylan selling Live at the Gaslight at Starbucks with her dinner companion. I apologize for the intrusion and tell her I just wanted to let her know I’ve come from Philadelphia to pay my respects. She seems a little gunshy … er, poor word choice. Nonetheless, she’s gracious, grateful and probably younger than I am. So we leave it at that, and I go off in search of the signed affidavit wherein HST promises the proprietors of the Woody Creek Tavern to never again set off a smoke bomb in the bar. It’s supposedly hanging on one of the walls, somewhere in the dense mosaic of HST paraphernalia and tippling snapshots of less famous habitues.

On the night of HST’s funereal moonshot, at the moment of ignition, they played “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but they should have played Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” because the man clearly earned his stripes. He was a lot of things, most of them genius or at least ingeniously funny, or true in their lies, and all of them dangerous — often to himself, sometimes to others, but always to the status quo. Chaos was the ace up his sleeve, the reason God made fire extinguishers.

But above all things, he was a great American. He was part of the Great Days — before the wave broke and rolled back. A time already long past when Jack Nicholson declared in Easy Rider, “You know, this used to be a helluva good country.” And if HST couldn’t quite remember that time after years of unbuttoning his peyote mind, he could at least envision it. And he would light his hair on fire and bray to the moon every day it ceased to exist — up to a point. Eventually you just say, “Fuck it. Let’s go to the bar.”

The final years were sodden and fallow, save for a fairly exhaustive closet cleaning, wracked with infirmity after the better part of 67 years of abuse. With his great red shark of a legend burnished and looming, he seemed aware for some time his best work was behind him, that he was a man for his season, and that season had passed. He went out in a blaze of self-inflicted glory, his atomized DNA snowing down on pastures where the buffalo roam. I never did find that affidavit, but nowhere was heard a discouraging word as the crescent moon set on the ridge like a smile over Woody Creek. – JONATHAN VALANIA, August 24th 2005

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NPR 4 THE DEAF: We Hear It Even When U Can’t

July 19th, 2017

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FRESH AIR: In August 2016, three months before the presidential election, Republican nominee Donald Trump was behind in the polls. Instead of staying on message, the candidate was engaged in a politically damaging fight with the parents of an Army captain killed in Iraq. On Aug. 17, in an effort to change course, the Trump team appointed Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of the conservative Breitbart News, to lead the campaign. Journalist Joshua Green of Bloomberg Businessweek says the switch would Devil's Bargainprove to be a turning point.

“[Trump] was headed toward a pretty serious loss, and Bannon brought his wealth of anti-Clinton knowledge into the campaign and managed to keep Trump focused on a target,” Green says.Green argues that Bannon’s experiences with Breitbart gave him a framework for mobilizing disaffected young white male voters who were attracted to Trump. Without such guidance, Green says, “I don’t think that Donald Trump would have been elected president.”

Despite Bannon’s success in the campaign, Green says that the adviser’s nationalist vision remains largely unfulfilled. “The kind of tragic, Shakespearean irony of the Donald Trump-Steve Bannon relationship is that Bannon finally did find the vessel for his ideas who could get elected president … [but who] now doesn’t have the focus, the wherewithal, the self-control to even do the basic things that a president needs to do.” Green’s new book, Devil’s Bargain, profiles Bannon and explains his role in Trump’s election. MORE

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CINEMA: Bedtime For Gonzo

July 18th, 2017

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Hunter Thompson would have turned 80 today.

gonzofist.thumbnail.jpgNEW YORK TIMES: HUNTER S. THOMPSON, who has been lionized in two feature films, served as the model for a running character in “Doonesbury” and is the subject of enough doctoral dissertations to build a bonfire, now has a documentary devoted to him, “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” by Alex Gibney. Thompson, who always seemed to keep one drug-crazed eye on posterity behind his ever-present shades, would surely be pleased but not surprised.

But how to freshly document the life of a man who was his own Boswell, whose books and articles slavishly documented his own every tic, whoop and hallucination? A journalist who announced his arrival in American letters by riding with the Hells Angels and in the end choreographed a memorial from the grave that made the Burning Man bacchanal seem chaste? Few writers have commodified narcissism so completely — his participatory style of journalism became its own genre and gives the film its title — but still we are invited to sit in the dark of the theater and have a flashback about his flashbacks. When the film opens on July 4, why willgonzofearandloathing.jpg people, as Thompson would say, buy the ticket, take the ride?

The documentary by Mr. Gibney, who also made “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Taxi to the Dark Side,” does not attempt to work around Thompson’s endless self-consciousness but uses it as leverage instead. Produced by Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, and narrated by the actor Johnny Depp, “Gonzo” mirrors the subjectivity and immersion of the journalism Thompson and his trusty arsenal of psychoactive agents perpetrated in Rolling Stone and elsewhere. Mr. Gibney eschews narrative conventions and switches point of view on a dime, creating a prism of interviews and episodes that gradually assembles into a compelling portrait.

In his long-running fever dream about America and its abundant pathologies, the bald man, with the tumbler of whiskey and head full of Schedule 1 narcotics, captured not only a mood — your government is not your friend — but many realities of civic life, most notably that if candidates were willing to do what it takes to get elected, they would probably arrive in office corrupted beyond hope. Thompson, whose defects of character could occupy a separate ZIP code, was not just an original, he was also a patriot and a romantic. Working from the far reaches of the culture and often lucidity, Thompson, who died in 2005 at 67, changed the way that much of America thought about itself, in part because his version of journalism threw a grenade at the bland convention of formal balance and straight reporting. MORE

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WRECKLESS ERIC: Q&A With Eric Wareheim, Philly Homeboy & Exactly One Half Of Tim & Eric

July 17th, 2017

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally published in the summer of 2014 on the occasion Tim & Eric’s last world tour. We are posting this special encore edition in advance of Tim & Eric’s 10th Anniversary Tour stopping at the Merriam Theater on Thursday. While Dr. Steve Brule, tragically, will not be joining them this time, a second season of Tim & Eric’s creepy-as-fuck Bedtime Stories, which is discussed at length in this Q&A, is slated to air later this year. Enjoy.

BY JONATHAN VALANIA In advance of the Tim And Eric & Dr. Steve Brule (aka John C. Reilly) 2014 Tour stopping in Philly on Friday for two sold out shows at The Keswick, we got Temple alum Eric Wareham on the horn. DISCUSSED: Their new show Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories, Twilight Zone, and the horror of the every day, Bob Odenkirk, Emmet Walsh, John C. Reilly, Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifanakis, Three Stooges, Dr. Steve Brule, Darkside, Fishtown, White Rainbow, and Philly soul.

PHAWKER: The two episodes of Bedtime Stories, your new show on Adult Swim, that I watched were very funny and really, truly unnerving. I’m not a big horror guy. I’m not easily scared, I usually just roll my eyes. But in the ‘Hole’ episode, Tim is truly frightening. The ‘Toes’ episode, which takes place is some bizarro universe where people have their toes removed for cosmetic reasons, is equally unsettling. Both are only a step or two removed from current reality. It strikes me that the subtext of Bedtime Stories is ‘the horror of the everyday’? Like the suburban dad hardass jock guy Tim plays in ‘Holes’ — I find those people terrifying.

ERIC WAREHEIM: Yeah. You couldn’t have said it better. Each of these episodes is really based on the horror of everyday life, and what’s really going on. For example, the ‘Toes’ episode is not far from plastic surgery. In Los Angeles, we see insane things: people injecting concrete into their butts, and to me that’s not too far off from being like, ‘Ah, yeah, toes are disgusting. Let’s get rid of ‘em.’ And with ‘Holes,’ I just feel like most of life is a nightmare. Just walking around and encountering people who are assholes, and your neighbors are freaks. I remember growing up, and there were a couple people in my neighborhood that I didn’t really see very often that I kind of imagined what their weird lives were like. I also had neighbors that my parents would quarrel with, and I kind of developed these little stories in my head because of the nightmare worlds in their homes, and that’s what it’s based off of. It’s also based off of this dream I had, which was the worst dream I’ve ever had in my life at this point, where everyone turned on me. Like my girlfriend, all my friends, Tim and my parents disowned me. All of this happened in one dream. It was so heavy, that when I woke up, I felt it. That’s kind of what we want to do in the show. We want to make you laugh, but we also want you to feel all of these other emotions that are part of life.

PHAWKER: Yeah, and it’s funny, but it feels like a bad dream afterwards. You sort of shiver a little bit.

ERIC WAREHEIM: Yeah, totally.

PHAWKER: I wanted to ask you about Twilight Zone, which seems to me to be a direct influence on Bedtime Stories. I’m assuming you guys are fans.
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SUFJAN STEVENS: Neptune

July 17th, 2017

Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister will perform “Mercury,” taken from their new collaborative album Planetarium, on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” tonight. Also, the video for “Neptune,” the latest from the album, premieres today—watch it here (SEE ABOVE). Stevens, Muhly, Dessner and McAlister are in the midst of a limited run of special dates, accompanied onstage by strings and brass. Following a concert at the Philharmonie de Paris, the band will play July 18 in New York at Celebrate Sufjan_PlanetariumBrooklyn!, July 20 in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and July 21 at the Fox Theater in Oakland, CA.

PREVIOUSLY: In 2005, when I was all of 15 years old, Sufjan Stevens’ angelic voice drew me into Illinoise’s whispery bedroom ballads about serial killers and cancer-claimed lovers and its swelling orchestral epics about Chicago and UFO sightings. The otherworldly sonics and emotional depths of the music on Illinoise! were matched by the lyrics, which I scribbled all over the covers of my high school notebooks and white canvas Chuck Taylors. When my obsession with Illinoise waned, I moved onto his earlier albums, namely Michigan. Friends told me that he was set on the endearing, but ludicrously ambitious goal of writing an album for all 50 states. Listening to his music while walking around the tired landscapes of home, through the cookie-cutter housing developments bifurcating endless cornfields, my imagination surged with the myriad possible narratives Sufjan might find in the rest of the union. MORE

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VIVA LA RESISTANCE: Q&A W/ Henry D’Arthenay Of Venezuelan New Wavers La Vida Boheme

July 14th, 2017

LA Vida BOHEME

 

BY ERIN BLEWETT Present day Venezuela is a miasma of deprivation, violence and mayhem that has become the de facto legacy of deceased socialist leader Hugo Chávez. Citizens are being kidnapped for profit by criminal syndicates and killed with shocking regularity for speaking out against the government Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s successor. Venezuela’s beloved La Vida Bohème is known for their high-octane, politically-charged, nouveau New Wave music which eventually got them declared as conspirators against the government on live television. Soon after, their tour manager was kidnapped and their booking agent murdered. As a result, they are now living in exile in Mexico.

La Vida Boheme will be in the City of Brotherly love this weekend when they headline WXPN’s NUEVOFEST at FringeArts on July 16th. The festival is an all-ages, outdoor concert. Doors are at 1 p.m. and the shows will begin at 2 p.m.  This year will be the biggest NUEVOFEST to date with eight  bands performing that will represent Venezuela, Chile, Colombia and Puerto Rico. Also on this year’s bill is Manchester Mariachi from East Los Angeles which plays mariachi versions of Smiths/Morrissey songs. In advance of their appearance at NUEVOFEST, we sent La Vida Boheme’s Henry D’Arthenay a set of questions asking him to explain what exactly is happening in Venezuela these days, what exactly went down with the band’s booking agent and tour manager and why they are currently living in exile. Here’s what he had to say:

PHAWKER: Please explain what exactly is going on in Venezuela for the benefit of American readers who la_vida_boheme-650may have no clue. Why is there so much unrest, economic misery and anti-government protest?

HENRY D’ARTHENAY: Venezuelans have taken the streets to protest the government of Nicolás Maduro and, by consequence, the legacy of Hugo Chávez. You see, our average life in the country from a really long time includes: scarcity of food and medicine, a rampage of violence and insecurity which has made Venezuela the second country with more violent deaths in the world, no separation of power as the political party of Maduro rules the institutions of the country in a biased way (always to their convenience, to the point that when the opposition won congress the government immediately has used the Supreme Court to bypass congress), people are being judged in military trials instead of civil courts and the ties of our government with drug trafficking is, not only concerning, but quite an open reality: the nieces of the president (who controlled the national airport of the country) were captured in Haiti by the DEA trying to traffic 80 kilos of cocaine to the US and Europe.

This crisis happened because our government is corrupt and managed to bankrupt an oil country in record time. We have the worst inflation in the world (800%). They are willing to do whatever it takes to be in power even if it means taking the country down to save their asses (ironic how short minded they are, right?). They have choked the production within the country of food and are unwilling to accept humanitarian help from other countries, in spite of the country going right now through a deep malnutrition crisis (especially with newborns and small children). In more than 80 days of protests there has been almost 80 killed, most by the unlawful use of force by government forces (military and policemen). A big majority of the people killed have been kids that don’t even reach 30 (17 year olds, 22 year olds: young people who wanted a brighter future, or a future at least…a future which has been taken by force from them).

As you can see, we are in the streets defending ourselves from tyrants, defending our right to live freely and become whoever we want to become (political opinions aside: just being able to live without being killed and to buy food with the money we make would be such a huge step for us).

PHAWKER: Even though the band is currently living in exile in Mexico, can you tell us what daily life is like for the average Venezuelan? What was your daily life like before you left in 2014?

HENRY D’ARTHENAY:  It’s hard for me to see it as exile. I want to come back to Caracas as soon as possible, personally, to see my family, protest and sort my life out there (something which was kind left on hold because of the band, the situation of the country and our leaving of the country). I can come back…what I don’t know if what I’ve been saying could generate when I enter the country once again. Last time I had to enter through the border with Colombia because I didn’t know if I was subject to any flag in my passport since during that year the vice-president of the country declared me as a conspirator against the government in public tv. In the end it was a smokescreen, but I don’t know if that stills stands just as a smokescreen today as the band is more in the public eye nowadays.

Day to day life in Caracas is more surviving than existing. You have to learn to go with the flow of the La-Vida-Boheme-La-Lucha-Portada-960x960anarchy that rules the country. My most recent memories from being there I can sum up in my last year there: Long clinic days with my mom, a night after playing a show driving really fast because I was being chased by a car really near my the girlfriend’s house, not finding certain medicines and trying to reach out to people who might have them for my mom, at least three days a week without water, maybe twice a week without light, social unrest: protests and barricades blocking the way to the clinic from time to time, hearing news of friends being kidnapped, hearing news of friends being killed, postponing things the band was going to do because of Chávez death, spending a whole month hearing the late Chávez sing rancheras simultaneously in all radio and tv stations (which is very expensive) while seeing the garbage accumulate in the streets I roamed, less concerts by the week, less places to go which you can consider safe, stuck in home, being a nurse and an internet activist (which in hindsight was very weird, didn’t slept well maybe for months). It’s also hard to speak of daily life in Venezuela as, sadly, has been changing every day for the worse since a long time. This outburst of protest gave us back a lot of life and courage that we all needed as the country’s situation can quickly drive you to despair.

PHAWKER: Given all the shortages and deprivations of life in Venezuelans tell us about some of the challenges of trying to get your mother medical treatment when she was dying of cancer. (Our condolences, by the way.)

HENRY D’ARTHENAY: Thank you, but It’s ok, it’s the cycle of life: we live we die. It’s in the contract we sign when we get pushed out into the world. The hardest part of my mother’s last years on earth was achieving  peace of mind in an environment which is everything but peaceful. My dad, God bless him, had to go though all kind of odysseys to get some of the medications which were absolutely necessary (anti convulsion pills, for example). He always managed to get them no matter how far he had to go or how long he had to stay in long lines to get them.

Cancer, and I think this is a global thing, generates a big community around the people affected by it, and thanks to that community of people going through similar hardships we were able to help each others out when ever something was missing. I also used a lot of my contacts with the band (mainly non profit organizations) which devote themselves in some way to helping out people going through any medical condition by helping them get their medicines to help our every time it was truly impossible to get them at a drugstore.La Vida Sera

It was especially scary for my mom each time we had to go to her chemos and there were barricades and protests on the way, sometimes we encountered face to face with them and were able to go through because of some of the kids knowing the band and also seeing that I was in a different situation with my mother. Biggest challenge, I believe, was maintaining good spirits in the midst of it all. Me and my mom really achieved that thanks to Twin Peaks, by the way, it became our escape from our hardships.

PHAWKER: Your tour manager was kidnapped and your friend and former booking agent murdered. Can you explain what happened and why? Is kidnapping and extortion a big problem in Venezuela these days?
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CINEMA: On The War Path

July 14th, 2017

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WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017, directed by Matt Reeves, 140 min, U.S.)
LOST IN PARIS (2016, directed by Dominique Abel & Fiona Gordon, 83 min, France/Belgium)

Buskirk AvatarBY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC I remember how perplexed Charlton Heston’s Taylor was back in 1968 when he made the realization that the planet he and his men landed on was ruled by apes. As the third of the rebooted sequels touches down in blockbuster season I find myself similarly flummoxed by glowing reception of War For the Planet of the Apes, a terribly turgid, self-serious, gloomfest.  Have the critics all exchanged brains with gorillas, like in the mad scientists films of the 1940s?  If you loved the endless battles, one-dimensional characters and the over-written plotting of that recent Hobbit trilogy, I guess you’re in for CGI smothered treat.  Me, I’m feeling like pounding the sand beneath the Statue of Liberty on some barren and rocky beach.

How’d things go so wrong?  The opening chapter, Dawn, back in 2011 got off to a fresh start, with James Franco bringing a human dimension to the story, a smaller-scale drama about the scientist responsible for first increasing the intelligence of our primate friends.  By the end of the film it built to a climax of marauding chimps laying seize to downtown San Francisco and finally taking off across the Golden Gate Bridge for the wilds of Marin County (presumably taking over there one hot tub at a time.) Rise in 2014 found the apes struggling to live peacefully among humans, who are mentally regressing as a result of the same virus that is giving the apes increased intelligence.  With War it’s the final showdown with an all-out conflict waged to decide whether ape or man will rule the planet.

The ape leader Caesar (content with his slave name?) is motivated to fight this battle by the easiest of all writer’s devices, the old “this time it’s personal” gambit after the murder of his wife and kids at the hands of The Colonel (Woody Harrelson shamelessly attempting to channel Brando’s Kurtz from Apocalypse Now).  This opens the first of three acts, each pilfering a different genre.  Before long Caesar and his rag tag crew are (semi-ludicrously) off on horseback for a old time western trip through the woods. Then Caesar is captured for a shout out to the prison movie genre and finally the climactic war movie finale, featuring extended battlefield action without strategy or creative staging, just ape to man clashes that hold out for a long as a CGI budget will allow. I miss that generation of film makers that fought in WW II and used the experience to try to convey the horror of war that they knew first hand. War on the other hand is part of the tradition that portrays war merely as violent, spectacular and oddly sterile. I don’t think the audience is well-served by this illusion.

The most interesting element about the film is the hand played by its makers that national disgust with the state of the nation and its citizens is so high that audiences will have no trouble siding against their species and rooting for the apes in this apocalyptic showdown. I think they made the right bet but the film doesn’t go very far in making us have mixed feelings about our extinction, the humans on view are a pretty unlikable bunch. Still, it’s a little shocking how quickly the film gets us to sell out of fellow Homo sapiens, maybe all that dismal climate change news has us convinced mankind’s fate is a lost cause anyway.

It seems that for many critics, Andy Sirkis’s motion capture performance beneath the Caesar animation is some kind of breakthrough. It all feels too deliberate to me, a sort of hyper-expressiveness that draws too much attention to itself to feel real. And the character himself, not conflicted, singularly motivated and as solemn as Moses in a silent Biblical epic, might be admirable but certainly not memorable. And like a silent melodrama, War has a young mute orphan on hand for extra poignancy and a secret identity to tie her to the ’68 original, just one of a handful of ways the film attempts to close the loop between the rebooted trilogy and its original Roddy McDowell-led franchise.

And what an oddball franchise the original was, with its groundbreaking make-up, weird pagan design and an avant score, holding together time travel, racial metaphors, an anti-nuclear bent and a violent revolution. This latest trilogy adds up to something much less, just the regular mundane bludgeoning these modern epics deliver, inhibited from doing anything truly daring on a 150 million dollar budget. At that price, War of the Planet of the Apes may deliver what audiences want but it lacks the imagination to deliver the originality the blockbuster genre so desperately needs.

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If the widely-acclaimed Apes saga can’t thrill me, what does? At the expense of going full-on film snob, how about the French-Belgian comedy team of Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel? In their fourth feature, Lost in Paris, the pair further refines their outrageously clever brand of physical comedy and ingenious production design, like a merging of the acrobatic skills of Buster Keaton with the handmade quaintness of Wes Anderson.

In their latest, Fiona (who resembles Pippi Longstocking’s geeky sister) is a Canadian librarian who comes to save her beloved and aunt from being forced into a retirement home (“I’m only 88!” she argues.) Stepping back for a selfie with the Eiffel tower, she falls in the Seine River and emerges without her back pack, penniless, wet and without her belongings. A homeless man (the slender dynamo Dom Abel) finds the backpack, changes into her clothes and then falls in love with her at first sight. Fiona is not interested but engages his help to find her runaway aunt as she lives the vagabond life in Paris.

Both Gordon and Abel have lovely, lanky bodies and the expressiveness of dancers as they awkwardly navigate a world that can plunge into near-disaster at any moment. Searching for Fiona’s lost aunt, the pair narrowly skirt death by drowning, falling, and cremation as they dazzle us with the intricate gags that fall into place so naturally. It would all collapse into its own whimsy if Gordon and Abel were not so brilliant with their comedic designs and their willingness to look into the abyss from time to time. Like their earlier films, Lost in Paris is both unique and personal while providing a connection to timeless talents like Chaplin and Jacques Tati that makes the film feel like a longtime classic. It’s a deliriously impressive feat.

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CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: #TreasonWeasel

July 14th, 2017

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CINEMA: Blackmail Is My Life

July 13th, 2017

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NEW YORK TIMES: Roger J. Stone Jr., the subject and star of “Get Me Roger Stone,” struts through this documentary with peacock feathers fully fanned. He’s first heard from a perch in some luxury digs, dressed in a tailored chalk-stripe suit with an olive martini at the ready. “My name is Roger Stone,” he says, “and I’m an agent provocateur.” The scene suggests James Bond cosplay, although it’s worth mentioning that the definition of an agent provocateur isn’t a supercool British fantasy spy but someone who persuades others to do wrong.

So, who is Mr. Stone persuading? It’s an inevitable question given his relationship with President Trump and how Mr. Stone’s name just keeps popping up in the news churn. […] Whatever else, this is killer timing for Netflix, which is releasing “Get Me Roger Stone” on Friday in theaters and via streaming. That’s especially true because in any other year and perhaps under any other administration, this documentary — the directors are Daniel DiMauro, Dylan Bank and Morgan Pehme — might have disappeared into the ether. But topicality is all or at least a large part of the movie’s draw. A sometimes illuminating, often slapdash and frustrating affair that mixes on-the-scenes bits, found material and original interviews (with the likes of Jeffrey Toobin), it opens with Mr. Trump accepting the presidential nomination in July 2016 and ends soon after his election. Much of the rest is a chronological march through Mr. Stone’s life, which is studded with scandal and boldfaced names like Roy Cohn.

As it maps the road to Trumpville, the movie offers glimpses of Mr. Stone’s youth, including an oft-repeated story about a light-bulb encounter with Barry Goldwater’s book “The Conscience of a Conservative.” An ideological true believer is born who backs legal pot and has a few Nixon-theme bongs that he likes to show off along with his other Nixonian paraphernalia. After a brush with Watergate, Mr. Stone pokes around here and there; works for both of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns; and helps establish a firm that grew into Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, one of a number of companies that earned the nickname “the torturers’ lobby” for repping countries condemned as human-rights abusers. MORE

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ALBUM REVIEW: Cactus Blossoms You’re Dreaming

July 13th, 2017

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Cacti are rare in Minnesota, about as rare as brothers who are able to shake off the competition for their parents’ affection and join their voices in harmony. Brothers Page and Jack produce classic rockabilly-inflected twang-pop akin to the Everly Brothers. In standard arrangement, their band The Cactus Blossoms opens portals to foregone decades where life was every bit as complicated but more was put into maintaining the facade of simplicity.

On You’re Dreaming, “Change Your Ways Or Die”, with its wailing guitar slides and Desperado riffs, summons up images of loners struggling to make their way out West to claim a plot of land and start a life. In “Mississippi” the brothers’ voices meld over tremolo guitar and a four-piece drum kit, singing of an angel waiting on the shores of the river and spelling out M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P, pivoting the final “I” to the next line about watching the sun sink towns. These songs ring earnest as their predecessors. The difference tcbtpcreditsis that Jack and Page live in the age of the internet, where distractions and unpleasant truths abound. Despite these shackles of their time and circumstance, The Cactus Blossoms maintain an innocence and unity in their songs. They have a way of creating self-contained worlds like those of classic Oaters where the world was as black and white as the images on the TV.

In our technology and information saturated era, The Cactus Blossoms are escapist and surreal, tapping into a way of playing music and writing songs that had its heyday decades ago. Hmm. Media that delves into the past to express the surreal tension between facades of simplicity and life’s complexities. That sounds familiar. Let me just meditate on it for a second. Try to catch the big fish. Oh right, The Cactus Blossoms’ songs have that glossy, dreamy quality of David Lynch films. Listening to some tracks they’d just recorded a few years back, Jack told Page that they’d be getting a call from Mr. Lynch himself. It was a joke. A dream. As farfetched as a third season of Twin Peaks almost twenty years after season two. Well, life can often work like a funny dream, and they got that call, appearing at the end of episode 3, season 3. Jack told me that, on set, he shook David Lynch’s hand, and Lynch transferred him some of his creative energy a la Michelangelo’s The Birth Of Adam. Another joke. Another dream. Jokes, dreams, and serious faces. That pretty well sums up The Cactus Blossoms. — DILLON ALEXANDER

THE CACTUS BLOSSOMS + A.M. MILLS @ JOHNNY BRENDAS TONIGHT @ 9 PM

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