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CINEMA: Star Bored

December 13th, 2017

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STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (Directed by Rian Johnson, 152 minutes, 2017, USA)

CHRIS MALENEYBY CHRISTOPHER MALENEY FILM CRITIC What do we like about Star Wars? We love the science fiction saga about the struggle between impoverished good guys and ultimate evil. A visually enthralling spectacle of sound and fury with one of the best scores in cinematic history. A timeless tale set in a fascinating other galaxy that mimics the politics and struggles of our own world. We love being assured that even at its most hopeless, good can triumph over evil. It’s that little-kid response, the joy of seeing the bad guys brought down at the last minute by the good guys. But how many times can we watch the same thing before it gets stale?

Look, I’m a Star Wars fan. You’re (probably) a Star Wars fan. If not, I doubt you were going to see The Last Jedi anyway. But, if your holiday season plans include taking in the eighth installment of the most chronologically-confusing blockbuster series, don’t set your hopes too high. The Last Jedi is, at the basic level, a rehash of The Empire Strikes Back that forgets all the things that made The Empire Strikes Back good in the first place.

When The Force Awakens came out, we all knew it was just A New Hope redone. The desert orphan who comes to understand their Force-sensitive powers and their role in a galactic rebellion culminating in an eleventh-hour strike on a planetary superweapon — it was familiar, but it was fun. I remember telling myself that with footing firmly established, the rest of the series would branch out to explore original plots. And yet, here we are, and nothing has changed.

Think of the basic plot of The Empire Strikes Back. It’s considered by many to be the best movie in the Star Wars franchise, but why? It presents a journey of enlightenment in two distinct storylines. As Luke slowly learns the true power of the Force, Han and Leia realize both that they love each other and that their friends are not always who they seem to be. Now swap out the names, stretch it out for another act, pour in a few contractually-obligated cute aliens and jokes, and you’ve got The Last Jedi.

Our new heroes: Rey, Finn and Po are all fun to watch, but none of their storylines are given the proper room to develop into something meaningful. There are just too many characters, too many plotlines vying for attention that none of them feel anything more than nominally worthwhile. None of the Bad Guys feel that bad, which means that the Good Guys don’t come across as all that good. There’s even a line of dialogue that tries to point this out, that good and bad are just points of view. Except there aren’t even shades of grey — the boundaries between good and bad are clearly drawn through imagery, colors, even the warmth of the light, but barely in any of the meaningful decisions the characters make. One side bombs escape pods, and the other frees alien ponies. That’s all there is.

Take, for example, one of the most important moments of Luke’s journey in The Empire Strikes Back, when he goes into the dark cave and confronts the awful shadow of his evil enemy, Vader. When Rey takes her turn to go down into the dark cave — this time a Lovecraftian seaweed-covered hole only revealed at low tide that is one of the coolest images of the movie — she sees first an infinite reflection of herself, and then nothing. The ultimate, horrible truth is not that her enemy and her idol are one and the same, but that this movie — and by extension, the whole latest trilogy –is a fabricated, self-perpetuated vision with absolutely nothing at the center. And when Rey eventually snaps out of it, she is somehow totally unchanged by the revelation.

Some reviewers have tried to read The Last Jedi as a hot take on the modern political climate. The analogy is certainly there; a small group of resistance fighters being slowly cut down by the tides of an insatiable, power-hungry empire that never stops making war, never stops selling guns, never stops enslaving the poor through one means or another. Except, nowhere are we provided workable solutions to these problems. The closest we come to a solution is the idea of desperate torch-flinging, of passing on the spark of hope to the downtrodden, yet besides giving out rings and sending out unanswered transmissions, this is hardly developed into praxis. Magic, the movie suggests, would help take down the Evil Empire. Not exactly a helpful information IRL.

And all of this would be okay, I would be fine with all of this, but for the jokes. It almost feels like an unfair critique, because Star Wars has always been funny. Yet, in past movies the jokes always felt in character. They felt like realistic comments and witticisms the characters would make. Here, something about so many of the one-liners breaks the suspension of disbelief. Why, when Leia first re-meets her lost brother does she open with a quip about her hair? This isn’t Leia. That’s not Luke. It’s the same names, even the same actors, but these are vastly different characters.

I think that this movie doesn’t have a soul. Everything about The Last Jedi feels Disney-fied, and not in a good way. It seems like before writing anything, a committee planned which toys and sets and LEGO machines to package, and then wrapped the plot of Empire around them. And it’s a damn shame because it felt lame. Not in the un-cool way — though that is true too — but in the shoot-yourself-in-the-foot meaning of lame. It limps towards an unsurprising, uninspired fourth act, taking no chances along the way, running no real risks, and ultimately proving nothing.

Of course, it doesn’t matter much what I say, does it? You’ll go see The Last Jedi because, like me, you love science fiction and you love Star Wars. You’ll laugh at the jokes and cheer at the epic moments. VIII will be a smash hit at the box office, and I hate that because I want this to fail. I want every calculated move by the studio to woo an audience with platitudes of morality to crash and burn like a TIE fighter. I want them to make a Star Wars movie with heart and soul and cleverness that gives us something original, something worth enjoying, because this really isn’t that.

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CINEMA: Jedi Mind Tricks

December 12th, 2017

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STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (Directed by Rian Johnson, 152 minutes, 2017, USA)

Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC With Thursday’s release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi  director Rian Johnson picks up the reigns of the space opera mega-franchise left by J.J. Abrams.  Given the bleakness of Looper and cleverness of Brick, I was more than a bit curious to see what Johnson would do in the Disney® sandbox. Surprisingly enough not only did Johnson make it through making the film without being fired — no small achievement, that — but he turned in a film that feels very much like a Star Wars adventure while adding a much-needed layer of complexity to the characters we met all too briefly in The Force Awakens.

Since the decimation of the Republic’s capital at the end of The Force Awakens, the First Order has established dominance over the galaxy. When we catch up with the final remnants of the Republic — the de facto Resistance — led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), they are on the run from the ominously reptilian Supreme Leader Snoke and his terrifying star fleet of mega-destroyers, who are on the cusp of wiping out the Resistance once and for all. In a plot point that feels cribbed from an episode of Battlestar Galactica, The First Order now has the ability to track the Rebel fleet through their lightspeed jumps making it only a matter of time before the Resistance fleet runs out of fuel and is overtaken by the First Order. It’s a race against time as Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac),  Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) cobble together a plan to sneak onto Snoke’s ship to shut off the tracking device just long enough for the Resistance fleet to slip away. In the meantime, Daisy Ridley’s Rey finds she has a much more daunting task ahead of her, trying to convince Luke Skywalker — who, fed up with intergalactic warfare, has self-exiled to the last redoubt of the Jedi on the oceanic planet Ahch-To —  to help the Resistance and train her in the in the ways of The Force.

It’s very apparent Rian Johnson was having the time of his life here. The film is pure visual spectacle, with bigger space battles, more lightsaber duels and higher stakes; all barbed with a razor sharp humor. I can also see why Mark Hamill probably sat out the first film; he is a formidable presence on screen and here he often eclipses the young Ridley with his darkly humorous take on the exiled Jedi master. This dynamic plays into how we come to see this war between the Rebellion and the First Order and the conflict between Jedi and the Sith. It’s not simply black and white, but shades of gray. And sometimes the good guys do bad things. The film begins with a tragic example as Poe Dameron’s ego leads to the death of hundreds of rebels when he disobeys orders and takes on a massive First Order Dreadnought. These sentiments are later echoed by the career criminal DJ (Benicio Del Toro, who revisists the twitchy incomprehensibility of his breakout performance in The Usual Suspects) who lets our Resistance friends in on a little secret: there are those that have been profiting obscenely off of this war, selling arms to both sides, who have a vested interest in keeping it going as long as possible.

After that aforementioned spectacular opening battle sequence, The Last Jedi stumbles a bit trying to find its footing and advance the narrative all the while tying up all the loose ends left over from The Force Awakens. Once the film digs in however it delivers a story that proves to be more original and satisfying watch than its predecessor. It almost feels like Rian Johnson had most of the same issues with The Force Awakens we did — that it leaned too hard on the fan nostalgia crutch — and nowhere is this more apparent than when Snoke — who looks like a burn ward victim in a fancy bathrobe — berates Kylo Ren (the always excellent Adam Driver) for failing to vanquish Rey in the previous installment, belittling him as a Vader wannabe. J.J. Abrams is slated to direct the final installment in the Star Wars re-boot trilogy but after seeing how impressively Johnson course-corrected the series and cleared the board for the imminent endgame of the Skywalker saga, I’d rather see him finish what he’s started. The Last Jedi isn’t perfect but is easily everything a Star Wars fan could want that expands the SW universe into bold new realms while deftly invoking the films we love and remember from a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

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THE X-MAN COMETH: A Q&A With John Doe, Frontman Of The Legendary L.A. Punk Band X

December 11th, 2017

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BYLINER mecroppedsharp_1BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR VICE “The west is the best,” Jim Morrison sang in 1967. “Get here, and we’ll do the rest.” In 1976, John Doe took Mr. Mojo Risin’ up on the invitation. Fed up with the bleak fatalism, shitty weather and general played-out-ness of the East Coast scene, Doe loaded up the truck and headed to the City Of Angels, where he would soon meet fellow East Coast exile/aspiring punk poet Exene Cervenka. Together they would form the legendary X — arguably one of the few bands that could convincingly stake a claim to The Clash’s status as The Only Band That Matters — and light the fuse of the impending West Coast punk explosion. The rest is history, all of which is detailed in Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History Of L.A. Punk, Doe’s recently-published memoir, co-authored with SoCal punk luminaries like Mike Watt of The Minutemen, Henry Rollins of Black Flag, Dave Alvin of The Blasters, Jack Grisham of TSOL, Charlotte Caffey of The Go Go’s and Exene, to name but a few. Recently, we got Doe on the horn to discuss the history of West Coast punk as well as his swell new album, The Westerner.

VICE: The world knows you as John Doe but you were born John Nomenson Duchac, am I pronouncing that right?

JOHN DOE: You mispronounced just like everyone else does.

VICE: Please school me.

JOHN DOE: No reason to. I could have said that my real name was Adolf Hitler but I didn’t think it would go over so well, or that my name was Samuel Clemens. It doesn’t matter. It’s much more fun to be John Doe than anyone else.

VICE: You were born in Decatur, Illinois and came of age in Baltimore. What was the final straw, like ‘That’s it, I’m outta here, I’m going to Los Angeles…’

JOHN DOE: I moved to LA because I was sick of the East Coast. There are a lot of ghosts on the East Coast and there is a lot of sleet and shitty weather. Baltimore, as you know, only has one truly famous person which is John Waters. I had been to CBGB’s, I’d been to Max’s Kansas City. I’d seen the Talking Heads and The Heartbreakers and realized that that music scene was already pretty locked up by 1976. I went to LA with a friend and it was glorious. I was a huge fan of the writers that came out of LA — of Nathaniel West and Charles Bukowski and people like that. There is a freedom on the West Coast that is not available to people who grow up on the East Coast.

VICE: It was sort of like, ‘Let’s go out to LA and invent punk, it hasn’t hit there yet’?

JOHN DOE: It was just getting started, you know, everywhere. It was in the air, that’s why it took hold so fast in England. The Ramones went there in what, ’74, then POW! everything happened. There were people who were also musical outcasts living in LA at the time. We got here right as it was starting.

VICE: In the book there’s a great chapter where you talk about LA in the ‘70s, how cheap and livable it was, how little gridlock there was, how you could buy these cool vintage cars from the ‘50s and ‘60s for $500 bucks and [X guitarist] Billy Zoom would help you fix it up. You could always be in the desert or the Pacific Ocean in less than an hour. How did that kind of mobility impact the West Coast punk scene?

JOHN DOE: Yeah. I think it included the [predominantly Latino] East Side that allowed everybody to break out and have a certain speed and freedom to do the same. Made me feel more connected to my rock n’ roll heroes, Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran and people like that.

VICE: Because they were always celebrating the freedom of the open road?

JOHN DOE: Yes. It was always meant to be about freedom, and there’s nothing more liberating than being in a car. I mean, you’re deciding where and when you’re going to be some place. That’s why people get so pissed off in cars. Because somebody else is interrupting their space and time. Get out of my fucking way! I’m supposed to be there!

VICE: What were you driving back then?

JOHN DOE: I had a 56 Ford Customline. It was just a four door Ford and also, before that was an International Travelall, I think it was a ‘70 or ‘71. That was our first touring vehicle.

VICE: What was the first time you met [X’s singer/songwriter] Exene?

JOHN DOE: Well, I ran a poetry reading series in Baltimore. There was a fairly popular and vital poetry world in Baltimore and D.C. at that time, when poetry became a performance medium rather than just on the written page. People were writing funny stuff and there was a gay and lesbian element that was included in that. I figured the best way to meet people in LA was to be in the poetry world. Exene had just gotten a job through a government program to work at a small press called Beyond Baroque. Beyond Baroque had a writing workshop, like a poetry workshop, I think it was Tuesday nights and we met there.

VICE: Was it love at first sight?

VICE: Oh, you know, she cut a very eccentric figure back then, and she does now. I don’t know if it was love at first sight, definitely wasn’t for her. I mean, it took me a good eight or nine months of hanging around and being annoying for her to really…I don’t know, we were friends first. Then we were romantically involved. I realized that we had some kind of soul mate connection and we will have that as long as we live.

VICE: Speaking of poetry, I’m not sure there is a better distillation of punk’s ethos than “We’re desperate, get used to it.” Except maybe “The world’s a mess, it’s in my kiss.” Tell me a little bit how you guys would write songs. Was a lot of this stuff poetry first, then it became songs? Lyrics written to go with tunes? A little bit of both?

JOHN DOE: Yes…is the short answer. A lot of Exene’s lyrics were written as songs and were kind of written, like “The World’s A Mess” was written top to bottom as a song. There was very little editing necessary. I would write the music and kind of mix and match them. They were all directly from our life experience. We just exaggerated stuff. The first time we rehearsed it was clear, like “Oh this is a really great song, this is going to last.” And then the world was kind enough to be fucked up over and over again and made it last because it’s never going to be untrue.

VICE: How did you guys get hooked up with [Doors keyboardist/ X producer] Ray Manzarek?

JOHN DOE: He saw us at The Whiskey A Go Go. He and his wife Dorothy were at the Whiskey and we were playing the song “Soul Kitchen” by The Doors at a much faster pace and Dorothy said “Oh Ray, they are playing your song!” and Ray said “What? They are doing what? Oh, oh wow, they are playing…!” There was a long article in LA Weekly that talked about the band and the lyrics and they quoted “Johnny Hit And Run Pauline” and he really identified with the dark nature of that because it was similar to what Jim Morrison might write. He talked to us and we were flabbergasted that a real rock icon wanted to work with a scruffy punk rock band.

VICE: There were definite parallels between X and The Doors. Both bands were literary, transgressive, noir-ish and based in LA. What did you guys make of those comparisons? Did it irk you or were you flattered by that?

JOHN DOE: We were huge Doors fans. They were real rock royalty, if you want to call that. They had number one hits and they did it on their own terms. Their music sounds the same now as it did then. Whereas some of Jimi Hendrix stuff sounds dated because it was so based in blues music and American blues. We were incredibly flattered that people saw a connection. I think because we felt some of the same themes that Raymond Chandler or some great film noir movies addressed: In LA it’s all the more obvious to the have-nots how much money is being wasted by the haves. That was sort of where we were coming from in 1977. MORE


JOHN DOE + STEVEN MAGLIO @ THE BOOT & SADDLE MONDAY DEC. 11TH

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CINEMA: The Master Of Disaster

December 8th, 2017

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THE DISASTER ARTIST (Dir. by James Franco, 104 minutes, 2017, USA)

Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC The best in “So Bad It’s Good” cinema usually has one thing in common. Invariably, the auteur at the helm — everyone from Ed Wood to Michael Bay — sincerely believed they were making the best film possible. You can’t fake that kind of sincere ineptitude and those that have tried usually fall short of the mark, with the ensuing film choking on its irony. The Room (2003), the subject of The Disaster Artist, is one of those rare films that was born of the purity of one man’s singular, yet utterly myposic vision. His name is Tommy Wiseau, a likable but misbegotten Hollywood wannabe who made a film about a man living the simple American life he wished he lived, surrounded by the friends he wished he had.

For those who have yet to see The Room, it chronicles is the story of Johnny (Wiseau) a successful banker who is about to marry Lisa (Juliette Danielle) who just happens to be cheating on him with his best friend Mark (Greg Sestero). As strange as it is bad, The Room was written, directed, paid for and stars the eccentric Wiseau who fully expected it to be his ticket to the big time. Filled with cheesy love ballads, stagnant dialog and some of the most awkward sex scenes committed to celluloid, The Room is a film that demands to be experienced on its own terms. Thanks to fans who embraced the film creating a Rocky Horror-like interactive experience around the oddity, almost 15 years later we are still throwing spoons at a screen and berating Lisa for cheating on our beloved Johnny.

The Disaster Artist is based on the memoir by Greg Sestero, one of the stars of The Room and a friend of Wiseau, and directed by James Franco, arguably one of the most underrated actor/directors working in Hollywood James Franco. If you have any doubts about this simply check out the savage Child of God or his ode to Cruising, and our infatuation with celebrity, Interior. Leather. Bar.  It’s that connection of a fellow outsider artist that lends a sincerity to the film that would have simply turned into a parody in lesser hands. The story tackles the making of The Room with the heart of the story being the awkward friendship between Sestero and the strangely mysterious Wiseau. After striking out after moving to Hollywood to achieve their dream of becoming famous actors, the two decide to make their own film casting themselves in the leads with Wiseau financing the film’s six million dollar budget out of pocket.

Franco tackles the role of Wiseau head-on replicating his awkward mannerisms and heavy European accent with frightening accuracy. The only downside to this kind of committed performance is if you haven’t seen The Room, you’re probably not going realize how great this performance is or that Wiseau is in fact a REAL person. Franco manages to make the audience root for Wiseau rather than pity him as the drama on set and off nearly consumes the friendship between Sestero and Wiseau. This is also thanks to Dave Franco, brother of James, who turns in an equally compelling and sympathetic performance as Sestero — who’s book is a compelling cautionary tale for wouldbe directors. For those who’ve read the book, the film doesn’t stray off the path and shows a real affection for its subjects, while still managing to point out the absurdity of some of the key moments in Tommy’s troubled production.

It’s an underdog story that ultimately has the last laugh, given we’re watching James Franco recreate Tommy’s life for a film that has become the dark horse this awards season. It was a real risk that pays off for Franco, thanks to the obvious care taken with its unlikely subject, who even makes a very meta appearance post credits. If you haven’t seen The Room you might want to check out this Best Of The Worst before sitting down for The Disaster Artist, to better appreciate Franco’s performance and to assure yourself what you are watching is truly non-fiction. For Room devotees the film is a touching story of two friends, who ultimately made it, but not in the way they envisioned – in a sort of twisted Monkey’s Paw sort of way. That being said 15 years later here we are still watching and writing about the film’s impact and the fearless eccentric who directed, starred and funded it.

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CONTEST: Win Tix To A VIP Advanced Screening Of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape Of Water

December 7th, 2017

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Easily the strangest film this prestige season is Guillermo del Toro’s eccentric romantic masterpiece The Shape of Water. The film opens in Philadelphia at the Ritz Five Friday, December 14th and is a rather unique love story involving a mute woman named Elisa and a mysterious creature trapped in a top-secret government lab. Heavily influenced by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, City of Lost Children, Amélie), the film has del Toro returning to his roots to give us a darkly fantastic fairy tale that has Elisa falling in love with the monster who feels like a hybrid of Abe Sapien from Hellboy and Gill-man from the Creature of the Black Lagoon. When Elisa finds out the gleefully sadistic Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), plans to perform a vivisection on the creature, she puts into motion a plan to save her love and set him free. The film is del Toro at his most unrestrained and best he’s been in years.

Check out the official synopsis below:

Master storyteller Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak, Hellboy) casts an other-worldly spell with The Shape of Water, an imaginative fairy tale set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works as a cleaner, mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine, Maudie) is trapped in a life of lonely isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures, The Help) discover a secret classified experiment. Visually dazzling and emotionally daring, The Shape of Water merges the pathos and thrills of the classic monster movie tradition with shadowy film noir, stirring in the heat of a love story like no other to explore the fantasies we all flirt with, the mysteries we can’t control and the monstrosities we must confront. Also starring Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones and Michael Stuhlbarg.

We have 30 passes for two to an advance screening at the Ritz East Monday, December 11th at 7:30pm. Want to pick up a pass? Simply click HERE and use the following code: PhawkerSOW

NOTE: No cameras, camera phones, or other recording devices permitted in screening. Seating is on a first come, first serve basis. Theatre capacity is limited and passes won do not guarantee seating. (So please show up early!) Theater is not responsible for overbooking. Ticket holder and guest must enter theater together.

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BEING THERE: LCD Soundsystem @ The Fillmore

December 6th, 2017

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Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER

At 9:00 PM on Tuesday night, the players of LCD Soundsystem scrambled through a crowded, labyrinthine metropolis of instrumentation and stage gear to take their places. The last of them — singer and producer James Murphy — emerged to the roar of a Philly Fillmore at max capacity, heightened to a fever pitch of anticipation over six years of waiting since his 2011 “retirement.”

Murphy is arguably one of the unlikeliest late-middle-aged heroes of a rock-n-roll myth. At 47 now, the frontman’s affect and aesthetic is derived from the unique interface between “don’t care” and “doin’ the damned thing,” and kinda makes you wish Phillip Seymour Hoffman were still around to do the biopic because Brendan Gleeson isn’t quite attractive enough. He croons like Morrissey, yelps like Bowie, and screams like Frank Black, over the electronic house hooks perpetrated by his seven other compatriots, at turns twitchy, funky, brutal.

With “Yr City’s A Sucker” off their 2005 debut, LCD reintroduced themselves to 2500 ecstatic millennials, later nodding to a time thirty years ago when the New-Jersey native lived just off of 4th and South, back when your city was his city too. For two solid hours, Murphy and co. weaved the haunting poetry of old favorites like “I Can Change” and the ringing frequencies of “Someone Great” with unsettling new cuts from this year’s American Dream, and landing the first of three consecutive sold-out shows with a four-song encore, under the glow of the bright white lights of their disco ball world. –JOSH PELTA-HELLER

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CINEMA: A Red Carpet Q&A W/ Director Dan Gilroy

December 6th, 2017

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Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC This year at the Philadelphia Film Festival I got a few moments to pick the brain of screenwriter/director Dan Gilroy on the red carpet, who’s quickly made a name for himself crafting engrossing narratives around unlikely protagonists. The follow up to his acclaimed directorial debut Nightcrawler is Roman J. Israel, Esq. a film starring Denzel Washington as a legal savant with what appears to be Asperger’s syndrome. Roman is forced to fend for himself after the death of his legal partner who was the face of their team, the people person — while Roman was the brains behind the operation. Thrust into the world the driven, idealistic defense attorney, finds himself trapped in a tumultuous series of events after using his inside knowledge of a case to a profit.

Dan Gilroy has been a longtime screenwriter (Freejack, The Bourne Legacy) who has only just begun directing. With Roman the director once again tackles a story that sheds a light on another troubling aspect of our society, this time our overburdened and fractured legal system and how it’s sometimes failing those that get caught in its cracks. Thanks to Gilroy’s script Denzel delivers a much different character than we are use to, in a film that is thought provoking as it is moving thanks to Colin Farrell who tries to help the troubled Roman find his way.
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PHAWKER: First off what inspired the activism angle of Denzel’s character, you don’t see that in a lot of films?

DAN GILROY: I think activism is something that is very important right now, in the times we live in. I was very interested in someone who had dedicated themselves to that at an emotional cost, a financial cost. I was interested in Denzel playing that part and I wrote it for Denzel and it just was something I felt I had to do.

PHAWKER: Like Nightcrawler, Denzel’s character is not your typical protagonist. How was it for you as a writer crafting this odd and awkward character that most probably wouldn’t give the time of day?

DAN GILROY: I think right now everybody is looking for a hero and the truth is everyone has the accessibility to be a hero. Anybody we walk by on the street, that we don’t give a second glance to, could easily be someone who is very important and someone who could help the world in some way and Roman, Denzel’s character is someone you could not thing twice about. Yet he’s a man of great gifts, great energy, and great power. He really does change people’s lives. What I am really trying to say is we all have the ability to that. That we should all find the inner-activist inside of us and whatever we believe in and execute change in some way. That’s really important.

PHAWKER: Roman is a very eccentric character was that all on the page or did Denzel’s have a hand in the character’s mannerisms and quirks?

DAN GILROY: That was all Denzel! I wrote the script, but Denzel authored the character. He created every aspect of that character. Its his character and he brought it to life he was my collaborator and creative partner in every way on this film.

PHAWKER: What as a writer/director draws you to challenging protagonists? Both Louis Bloom NightCrawlerand Roman J. Israel, Esq. are not the greatest of human beings, but you ultimately make us care and root for them.

DAN GILROY: I am very interested in people you could judge at the surface very quickly. Jake’s character in Nightcrawler you could say is a sociopath or a psychopath, there is much more going on. Roman’s character is someone you could say is a marginalized, somebody who is really isn’t that important in the scheme of things. But when you dig down deep he has so much more to give. In this day and age every one of us is important, every one of us has gifts that can change people’s lives. Even if its just in a small way and we don’t know the big scheme, and we don’t know the big plan. But I am very interested into diving into someone’s life and really finding a different part of them other than the surface.

PHAWKER: Being the film deals with the intricacies of the law and is steeped in legalese, what kind of research did you have to do; to make sure you got it right?

DAN GILROY: I spent a lot of time in the downtown LA court system. Which is incredibly overburdened. It’s a system that is utterly out of control and needs reform. I did a lot of research talking to lawyers, I had two technical advisors who were lawyers and they helped me a lot.

PHAWKER: One thing I think people might not realize is how important names are to lawyer’s names in their work. How did you come up with Roman J. Israel, Esq.?

DAN GILROY: I very much saw the character as someone who was in conflict. I think we are all in conflict inside of us. I think all of us inspire to do good things, but there is also the reality of what we need to do. Roman very much has a conflict inside, and I liked the idea of sort of Roman and Israel at conflict with one another. Esq. is something I put at the end, because I am always intrigued by people who put Esq. in their names. The J, Denzel and I never discussed what the J. meant, but it means something. Have you seen the movie?

PHAWKER: Yes I have.

DAN GILROY: Maybe it means Jif peanut butter, I don’t know. [laughter]

PHAWKER: Finally, there was one line that really struck me. Roman says “Purity can’t exist in this world.” I feel like all of us, especially artists have felt that way, where you have to compromise to be successful. What would you say to that?

DAN GILROY: I would also say he says, “Living conditions have bearing.” That line really as much as anything has a much bigger bearing on the story, because people are so quick to judge other people based on ethnicity, sex or whatever it is or where they come from. What I am trying to say is let’s not judge people till you really understand where people are coming from and that is what Roman is fighting for the entire film. Human dignity is something that is being marginalized right now, the value of human life. Every human life is important and every human spirit is important. We really need to acknowledge that.

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BEING THERE: The National @ The Kimmel Center

December 5th, 2017

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Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER

I’m gonna get a little gonzo here. I didn’t go to the Kimmel Center last night because I was a huge fan of The National, I went because fans tend to talk up their live show, because I love live music, and because in best-case scenarios, seeing a band that you like live can make them a band you love. Four or five songs into their set, though, I was wondering why I wasn’t loving The National. Was it the venue, would I be enjoying this same show much more at a smaller club? Maybe. Music halls in my opinion seem like an illogical venue choice most of the time, and I don’t remember ever seeing a good metal show in a basement and thinking “this is great, but I really wish we could all be enjoying the superior acoustics of wood paneling and the forgiving comfort of red velvet cushions right now.”

It could be something else though. The National are a still-relatively-young band that somehow feel as though they’d joined the rock-and-roll body politic already in mid-career. Their show is measured, subdued, quiet — a contrived calculation — with everything from the spotlights to the smooth fanfare of trumpets pinched from Belle and Sebastian polished to the point of impotence. The musicians are talented and play tightly, but even their solos never really open up the throttle, and the engine never seems to turn over. There’s a level of motion hindered, but not in the good way that hints at a really volatile potential energy.

Through at least half of the set, Singer Matt Berninger introduces each song in some strange parade of political dedications, whether unironically to a genuine heroine (“Born To Beg” which he dedicated to US Attorney Sally Yates) or ironically — either to a Trump-henchman-du-jour (“Secret Meeting” was dedicated to Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner), or even a former-Bush-Henchman-not-du-jour (um, why are we still gnashing teeth about Karl Rove, a decade later, guys?). We get it, man. We all read the news too, and we the choir of the already converted will happily affirm this call-and-response in our sold-out white liberal echo chamber.

With each of their songs, Berninger cycles through the same lazy stagecraft, delivering a verse and a chorus and then shuffling restlessly around the expansive real estate up there while nursing a red Solo cup like Toby Keith, visiting with each of his six other bandmates for a few seconds, and doing this redundant dance as though he’s trying to free his arms from entanglement in an invisible shirt. He feels almost uncommitted, like some sort of tourist on his own stage. And twice he awkwardly ventured into the crowd, climbing over the seats and into the back on the venue, forcing stagehands to scramble to give him appropriate slack to run his mic cord over fans’ heads for several dozen rows.

About halfway through the set I recognize that I’m just bored. And then I’m hit by a cold, wet realization. Literally. During “Turtleneck,” the bearded, bespectacled Berninger had hurled his Solo cup half-full of beer into the black abyss in front of him, which ultimately arrived at row Q, striking me squarely in the thigh. Beer splashed across the floor, my pants and my camera, and soaked my brand new right shoe. It was as though I had deserved it for something, somehow, as though he could make out all the notes I’d been documenting for the last hour or so, and was angry. Maybe it was to try to remind us that he really was a rabid rockstar with a wild streak, that a National show really was exciting, and that I should have some goddamned respect. But the inescapable fact remains: The National were boring last night. – JOSH PELTA-HELLER

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

December 5th, 2017

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listenFRESH AIR: Our guest Daniel Ellsberg became one of the best known opponents of the Vietnam War in 1971 when he leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret Defense Department study of the war, to The New York Times and other publications. Ellsberg, then a national security analyst with top-secret clearances, was arrested and tried under the Espionage Act. A judge dismissed the charges when it emerged that officials in the Nixon administration had directed covert actions to discredit or silence Ellsberg, including tapping his phone and breaking into his psychiatrist’s office, looking for compromising information. Ellsberg is now 86, and he has a new book about his days before he studied the Vietnam War when he worked on American nuclear war strategies in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Ellsberg was appalled by much of what he found and wishes he’d been able to leak those plans along with the Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg is the author of a 2003 memoir about the Pentagon Papers and Vietnam called “Secrets.” He’s also the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” And he’s a character in the forthcoming Spielberg film about the Pentagon Papers, “The Post.” FRESH AIR’s Dave Davies spoke to him about his new book, “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions Of A Nuclear War Planner.” MORE

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PARANOID ANDROID: Q&A W/ Gary Numan

December 4th, 2017

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Stampone_Byline_AvatarBY DAVID R. STAMPONE If you’ve been out of the loop on Gary Numan in recent years, you may not know that the highly influential (Nine Inch Nails to Afrikaa Bambaataa et al.) English new wave synth-rock star with the erstwhile icy android persona has become quite active again in the new millennium. Hugely popular through the very late ‘70s/ early ‘80s w #1 singles and albs, he’s in a very good place at age 59, having come to grips with issues like a decline in creative interest and his (eventually diagnosed) Asperger’s syndrome some time ago. (An engaging account of Numan’s struggles and rebirth can be found on last year’s documentary Android In La La Land.) These days, he’s happily if no less seriously making quality, ominously textured  records, touring and raising his family out in sunny Southern California, where he moved earlier this decade. And on a phone chat the other day, done in anticipation of Numan playing Philadelphia’s Union Transfer on Wednesday (Dec. 6) and The Chameleon Club in Lancaster on Friday (Dec. 8th),  he proved quite the amiable chap. DISCUSSED: Savage (Songs From A Broken World), his 22nd studio album, released in September; performing circa now vs. the late ’70s/early ’80s heyday of New Wave; Middle Eastern music appreciation/appropriation; global warming and Trump pulling the USA out of the Paris Agreement; just how adept his young daughter is as a vocalist. Not asked (in ref to Numan’s 1st chart-topper, released in 1979): “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”

PHAWKER: It’s interesting to note that folks see you as an archetypal synth-rock artist but that you got an acoustic guitar at age 5 and a Les Paul at age 15 – so you were a guitarist first, right?

GARY NUMAN: Yeah, I did start out that way. When I got signed to my first record deal, to the Beggars Banquet label in 1978, it was as a guitar-playing singer in a punk band (Tubeway Army). Never played a keyboard in my life up until that point. But then I discovered synthesizers … and in terms of writing, I do it all on keyboards.

PHAWKER: You seem so well-adjusted to performing now, to enjoy it – which didn’t always appear to be the case?Gary_Numan-Savages-2017-art

GARY NUMAN: It’s definitely a change from when I started. I was never entirely comfortable being onstage; I preferred to be at home, writing songs. But then, as time went on, all the things that you might think make touring uncomfortable happened and I realized it’s wasn’t so bad. I began to see the good side of it. And whereas in the beginning, I wasn’t that keen on the travelling and being away from home, now that’s not the case – my wife comes along with me and we even have [our three daughters] come out for hunks of it. I’m very comfortable being onstage now and I’ve been doing it almost 40 years. It’s just great, I really do love it. There’s not really a bad side to it. It can be tiring, with a lot of shows back to back – on this tour, we’re doing 30 shows in 35 days, pretty intense – and the music is much heavier now, more aggressive, so the shows themselves are more physically demanding – but it’s cool, I love it.

PHAWKER: On the new record Savage, there are a number of interesting things afoot: some Middle Eastern musical influences; it’s set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic desert world; there are allusions to this being an eventual fate due to unheeded warnings about global warming, etc.

GARY NUMAN: Well, it’s a combination of fascinations … I love Middle Eastern melodies – they’re quite different to ours and I think they’re beautiful. I listen to an artist called Azam Ali regularly and have for years now – in fact, we’re going to see her in January in Los Angeles, it’ll be my first concert of hers – and I listened to her a lot while making Savage to get a better understanding of how those melodies are structured. She’s Iranian-American and does a fantastic blending of Middle Eastern stuff. With Savage, it’s essentially a musical version of a novel I’ve been trying to write for quite some time.One of the ideas is a blending of Eastern and Western worlds, where everything has become desert & it’s very difficult to survive. Eastern and Western cultures have merged together, a bit like pouring milk into coffee: it becomes a different color, a different thing. So the using and borrowing, if you like, of Middle Eastern melodies was a way of trying to create and express that. Also, the lettering on the album is in English but it looks like Arabic – a visual way to try and express that.

Obviously, global warming in my science-fiction fantasy has made the world a desert but … it wasn’t meant to be prophetic or a projection, it’s just a science fiction idea that I’d been working on. But it happens to be, I think, more relevant at the moment because of what [US President & global warming denier] Donald Trump is saying. I’d thought that when the Paris Agreement was signed [by the USA & a host of nations], that [rampant, untreated] global warming as an issue had almost become yesterday’s news, in terms of the Gary Numan Pleasure Principleworld now agreeing and dealing with it – so my story started to feel slightly out of date. But then Donald Trump comes along and says something very different [pulling US out of the Paris Agreement, etc.] – and I disagree with what he says. So all of a sudden, in my mind, it becomes very relevant again, and it’s back to being a very definite danger to our future.

PHAWKER: On a brighter note and with a look to the future, your daughter Persia [just turned 12] really works well in singing the Middle Eastern-ish vocal parts on the new album track “My Name Is Ruin” – and as seen in the song’s video!

GARY NUMAN: Yeah, she did good! And she’s absolutely there on merit. It’s quite a new thing, really [her singing], but she sings constantly and she’s fantastic. I’d been working on that song for some time and could not get the sound I wanted in my voice. In that song, there’s a Middle Eastern vocal melody that comes in, meant to lift the track between verses and then set up the groove to come in stronger, and then it settles back to the verses again, which is more sparse. When I did it with my voice, it just didn’t work, did not lift it. So one day I was working on it and she’d just come home from school and popped her head around the corner to say “Hello, dad, I’m home” – and I said, “Y’know, while, you’re here, would you mind trying something for me?” And she just absolutely nailed it! She sang that part and then another and then I got her to sing the chorus itself an octave above where my voice was – and it all absolutely made the song. She’s a phenomenal little singer, has great control over her voice and if she wants to do this in the future, she would have no problem. I don’t know – she’s got many other interests but she’s loving it now.

GARY NUMAN + ME NOT YOU @ UNION TRANSFER WEDNESDAY DEC. 6TH

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CINEMA: Frontier Justice

December 1st, 2017

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CHRIS MALENEYBY CHRISTOPHER MALENEY FILM CRITIC If someone asks you to name the essential hallmarks of a Western, what would you say? The cowboy hat? The gunfight at high noon? The frontier town with running saloon fights and and anything-goes frontier feeling? The lone gunfighter on a quest for extrajudicial revenge against a villain too powerful for the law to contain? From Shane to Fargo, each retelling of the western — every reshuffle of the tropes — offers a different interpretation of the quest for justice in America, but all ultimately assure as that it can be found with the help of a gun or a fist, that it can be found at all.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not a classic western, but, make no mistake, it is a western. When the investigation into her daughter’s vicious, senseless murder is seven months stalled, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents the titular three billboards to ask Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), quite publicly, why no progress has been made on the case. From this simple act comes a drama that changes the face of Ebbing, Missouri.

The question at the center of Three Billboards is: What does it take for a poor person to earn justice? Without money or influence, they have little ability to emphasize the importance of their plight. As often as not, the poor end up placed in an adversarial position with the law where they can be arrested or assaulted at any time by the police with little to no legal recourse available. Even in the best of times, as Chief Willoughby explains to Mildred, a case can take months or years to solve. Even when evidence is present, the evil that men do can often go unpunished because the job of the police is not to protect or serve individuals, but to protect each other. As Mildred explains calmly but drunkenly to the town priest, the police — or the clergy, or the bourgeoisie — are a gang working together and complicit always, even when they do not know it.

But even with this starkly true, rotten-to-the-core morality, Three Billboards is not an altogether cynical take on justice, though it is morally ambiguous, because every character, it seems, has a double self. The characiature of a drunken, racist, cruel, incompetent cop that is Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) still has his humanity, even if he must be literally cleansed by fire to find it. Angry Chief Willoughby, though literally and symbolically cancerous, still tries to be a good father, a good husband, and a good public figure. His eventual replacement is not the tough-as-nails fixer we expect, but just another cop with a cop’s priorities. Our hero, Mildred Hayes, has a strong exterior that turns as often to cruelty as it does to fragility. Her violently abusive ex-husband still carries an iota of tenderness, and even their mild-mannered son can wield a knife when push comes to shove.

There are complaints I could make about the movie, of course. Peter Dinklage is not used to his fullest potential, for one. For another, the effects of structural racism is not fully examined, but it is assumed in many ways. One or two scenes are disjointed, out of place between each other. The ending takes a long while to get to, as the solution to Angela Hayes’ murder moves in and out of focus. This doubles as both feature and a flaw as this is not a detective movie, so it is not bound to satisfy us with answers. Instead, it asks serious questions about what policing looks like in the  21st Century, about whether redemption is possible, whether revenge is worthwhile. Go see Three Billboards if you have a strong constitution or a dark sense of humor, but don’t expect to be the same when you come out of the theater.

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SH*T MY UNCLE SAYS: Sweet Home Alabama

December 1st, 2017

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BY WILLIAM C. HENRY Jesus, God, whoda thunk it?! Whoda ever thunk that that imbecilic Oval Office swamp pig could actually outdo himself?! Yes indeed ladies and gentlemen and “children” of all ages, the pin-brained White House boar hog in residence has actually pulled off the SMUSheretofore believed impossible: he has totally and completely outschmucked himself! Way down yonder in Alabysmal — it’s a state of mindlessness and misogyny just inside the southeastern boundaries of the Great Republican Swamp — resides a pedophile by the name of Roy Moore who’s doing his slithering best to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat from that godforsaken … well, what the hell, I’m pretty sure you’ve already picked up on the general gist of my description direction here, so I’ll leave the remaining site, smell and creature features to your imagination.

But perhaps the most shocking aspect of this entire reprehensible, repugnant, repulsive, repellent matter (and that’s stating it just about as mildly as humanely possible given all the facts) is the actual obscene tilt of the typical Moore/Trump supporter’s ethical and moral compasses versus their holier than thou espoused “ordinal” compass orientations. In other words, to hell with all those so-called Godly principles and all those boasted of, bragged about and constantly ballyhooed Christian/Evangelical “family values” when it comes to good ole cotton state Republican politics. Or, as proudly proclaimed in native Alabysmalian, “Hell YES! We’ll take a good old fashioned unprincipled pedophile over one of them damn liberal dems EVERY TIME!”

Anyway, the fact that no fewer than SIX adult women who were teenagers at the time have come forward to state that Roy attempted to molest and/or, in fact, “bed” them when Moore was in his thirties (he was reportedly banned from the local shopping mall) has made absolutely no difference to the nation’s P*ssy Grabber In Chief. The Oval Office’s Official Misogyny Mentor has now publicly announced that Roy is his main man! Why? Because, “Roy says he didn’t do it. Not only that, Roy says he TOTALLY didn’t do it. And, anyway, regardless, we can’t have another liberal dem in Congress!” And to commemorate this aberrant occasion, and by the power vested in me as Head Moronic Degenerate, I hereby announce the establishment of a National Pedophile Day in conjunction with today’s surprise dedication and ground-breaking for Trump Molestation University which will include the altogether unique and permanent provision of reduced or fully-paid tuition for those with pre-existing hebephilia, ephebophilia or pedophilia. Mr. Pence, may I have the scissors and shovel, please! (Okay, I made up those last two sentences.)

Incidentally, Donnie, I know you can’t spell the terms but do you possess even a middle schooler’s understanding of the concepts involved (oops, there I go again, using those big words that only end up wafting through that orange tangle of cobwebs). The terms in question, Mr. President, are H O N E S T Y and I N T E G R I T Y and D E C E N C Y and D I G N I T Y. Yeah, I thought so. The shear ignorance, phoniness and immaturity apparent in this administration are deplorable to say the least. The number of high-level appointees who’ve either quit, been fired or departed under a cloud of noxious gas amount to a shameful legend in tRump’s own time. But the truly obnoxious part is the number of witless and/or complicit lemmings and other assorted TrumPied rodents that continue to be attracted by his piping. They voted him into office and seem willing to throw the entire nation down the Mar-a-Lago sewer rather than admit to their selfishness and stupidity. Never before in history have so “few” been responsible for so much vileness. One thing is for absolute unequivocal certain: on December 12th the entire nation is going to learn how many (if any) DECENT and PRINCIPLED human beings inhabit the state of Alabama. Period.

So, all things considered, say hey, Donnie J., how many Syrian hospitals did your bosom buddy Putin bomb today?! How many plaudits did you send his way?! How many Syrian men, women and children did you help him KILL or MAIM or DISPLACE today?! How many of his denials did you echo today?! How many lies did you yourself tell today?! How many ignorance-laced tweets did you fart forth today?! How many thumbs did you suck and how many tantrums did you throw today?! How many idiotic conspiracy theories did you initiate or confirm today?! How many cheats, incompetents and fellow democracy saboteurs did you appoint or have to find replacements for today?! How many government departments did you gut today?! How many indispensable American diplomats and citizens abroad did you put at risk today?! How many vitally important diplomatic positions did you continue to leave vacant today?! How many patriotic truth-exposing newspersons did you attempt to silence or smear today?! How many Americans did you intentionally try to choke, poison and asphyxiate today?! And, by the way, how many of those “clean” coal industry jobs — you know, the ones that are so much more important than wind jobs and solar jobs and natural gas jobs — did you save or bring back today?! And, finally, how many women did YOU belittle, insult the intelligence of, and/or molest today?! Do America a favor, Swamp Stocker, go schmuck yourself!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Fed up early stage septuagenarian who has actually been most of there and done most of that. Born and raised in the picturesque Pocono Mountains. Quite well educated. Very lucky to have been born into a well-schooled and somewhat prosperous family. Long divorced. One beautiful, brilliant daughter. Two far above average grandsons. Semi-retired (how does anyone manage to do it completely these days?) and fully-tired of bullshit. Uncle of the Editor-In-Chief.

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INCOMING: Velvet Goldmine

November 30th, 2017

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RELATED: David Bowie Will Never Die

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