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CINEMA: Paths Of Glory

January 17th, 2020

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1917 (Directed by Sam Mendes, 119 minutes, USA, 2019)

Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC It’s officially peak awards season and that means war movies, because awards show voters love a man in uniform. Enter 1917 is the latest film by director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) who, along with cinematographer Roger Deakins (Bladerunner 2049, The Shawshank Redemption, pretty much every Coen Brothers movie), has produced a film that took home two Golden Globes recently causing a major upset in both the Best Picture and Director categories beating out Once Upon a time… in Hollywood, and The Irishman. Co-written with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, 1917 was inspired by a true story as told to Sam Mendes by his grandfather.

Set in World War I, 1917 follows two young British soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) who are dispatched on an impossible mission. With the lines of communication severed, the two men have to traverse the devastated German countryside to hand deliver a message that could save 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother. You see, these 1,600 men are soldiers walking into a trap, thinking the Germans have retreated, when in fact they’ve just pulled back and regrouped, and are currently lying in wait. The crux of the film is a gimmick: shades of Birdman, the entire film transpires in a single uninterrupted take and the camera continues to roll as they journey through eerily abandoned German trenches, evacuated farms and war-ravaged ghost towns in the course of the film’s two-hour run time.

It’s ‪Saving Private Ryan meets Dunkirk, but with one fatal flaw. Since the film never really stops its frantic pace, there’s just not enough character development to get the viewer emotionally invested and this disconnect is further compounded by a rather divisive story choice that occurs about midway through the film. Aesthetically the film is exquisite, Deakins vividly captures the carnage of war — the requisite blood, guts and shit blowing up all over the place — but the stylized camera work feels a tad too calculated and composed at times. The production design is period perfect and everything feels fetishistically authentic. But the longer the film plays out the more it begins to feel less like a film and more like a twitch stream, as our protagonists encounter obstacle after obstacle.

1917, simply stated, is pure visceral style over substance. The film at times is so overwhelmed by its gimmick and its need to push an almost non-existent narrative, that it sacrifices the connective tissue between the audience to keep upping the ante. While the performances are superb, their humanity gets lost in the flawlessly fluid movement of Deakins’ camera as it captures Blake and Scholfield’s odyssey through the eye of an unsympathetic god. While I can tell objectively appreciate this film as a stunning feat of cinematography, ultimately it’s to the detriment of the story, reducing the film to nothing more than a gorgeously rendered shooter on rails.

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

January 16th, 2020

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NPR: Growing up in New York City’s Little Italy, as a kid, filmmaker Martin Scorsese spent a great deal of time surrounded by images of saints and martyrs at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral.”Those images certainly stayed with me,” he says. As did the sermons, which often focused on “death approaching like a thief in the night. You never know when. You never know how.” Scorsese attended seminary school with the intention of becoming a priest but was expelled when he was 15 for being a class clown. Instead, he went on to become a noted filmmaker, directing Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Casino and more.

Scorsese’s latest movie, The Irishman, stars Robert De Niro as a truck driver and World War II veteran who becomes a hit man for the mob. Like many of the director’s previous films, The Irishman features backroom deals, shootings and explosions. But Scorsese says the film is also an expression of his “religious beliefs or concerns or obsessions” — particularly in the way it explores morality and what happens to gangsters at the end of their lives. “I realize gangsters are bad,” he says. But, he adds, “Can a person change? And can a person be redeemed? … What are we capable of?” MORE

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INCOMING: There’s A Creep In The Cellar

January 15th, 2020

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THE LOCUST ABORTION TECHNICIAN: Q&A W/ Gibby Haynes, Frontman Of The Butthole Surfers

January 15th, 2020

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally published on July 19th, 2020.

Valania AvatarBY JONATHAN VALANIA Saints be praised! Butthole Surfers frontman/madman Gibby Haynes will be celebrating the publication of his debut novel Me & Mr. Cigar with a book released party/concert (backed by The Paul Green School of Rock) at the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville on Friday January 17th — and we are totally there for this. To help get the word out, we got Gibby on the horn for a wide ranging, no-holes barred interview. If you are new to the Gibby/Surfers’ weird-ass corner of the universe, I suggest you read my beginner’s guide Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About The Motherf*cking Butthole Surfers But Weren’t Sure It Was Even Legal To Ask before digging in.

One more thing before we get started. We first did this interview last Friday. Saturday I realized it didn’t record for reasons still unclear. Sunday I sheepishly texted Gibby to tell him tragedy had struck but I was happy to do it all over again — “you know, for the kids” — though I would totally understand if he didn’t want to and I apologized for wasting his time. Gibby texted back: “Call me.” Lord knows Gibby Haynes is not a role model, but he is a gentleman and a scholar. Long may he weird.

DISCUSSED: Fatherhood, penis reconstruction surgery, LSD, how to burn down the Chesnut Cabaret without really trying, the JFK assassination, growing up with a dad Gibby Haynesnamed Mr. Peppermint who was in Dealey Plaza when JFK was assassinated, his forthcoming Young Adult Lit novel Me And Mr. Cigar, living with Timothy Leary, the University of Texas Tower Massacre in 1966, the curse words of children, Woody Allen, the Great White Fire, getting thrown out of the Viper Club for heckling Johnny Cash, the future of the Butthole Surfers, the death of the flaming cymbal, the meaning of regret and why playing Butthole Surfers songs with the kids from Paul Green Academy Of Rock is such a gas, gas, gas.

PHAWKER: I actually met you in the late ’80s in the lobby of the now-defunct New York City night club The World where the Butthole Surfers were supposed to play with Spacemen 3, but they were denied work visas because someone had a drug charge or something like that and didn’t play. That is one of the great regrets of my life — that that dream show never happened.

GIBBY HAYNES: Oh, we were supposed to play with Spacemen 3? What a drag.

PHAWKER: Yeah, you don’t remember that?

GIBBY HAYNES: No.

PHAWKER: Oh my god, that was going to be the greatest fucking show on Earth! But anyway, I remember telling you – you had asked where I was from – and I said Allentown, Pennsylvania. And you were like, “Allentown? Didn’t something really bad happen there?”

GIBBY HAYNES: [laughing] I did, uh did it? I don’t know.

PHAWKER: Yes, yes lots of bad things. Lots of bad things happen everywhere. I only mention this because I use that as my go-to ice breaker line when I meet someone from somewhere else and it’s very effective. I just wanted to say ‘thank you’ for that.

GIBBY HAYNES: Right on.

PHAWKER: So you’re living in Brooklyn these days, correct?

GIBBY HAYNES: Yes I am.

PHAWKER: Okay, what is a typical day in the life of Gibby Haynes these days?

GIBBY HAYNES: Oh, well, I wake up. If it’s during the school year, I make lunch for my kid before I take him to school — basically my life revolves around my son nowadays. He’s really my family.

PHAWKER: His name is Satchel?

GIBBY HAYNES: Satchel, indeed. He’s named after – people always say the same thing, “Was he named after GibbySatchel Paige?” And I say, “No, he was named after Satchel Bernstein, Satchel Paige’s manager.” And a lot of times, they go, “Really?” And I go, “No.”

PHAWKER: How old is he?

GIBBY HAYNES: He is nine. And the interesting thing is that Ronan Farrow’s original name was Satchel Allen, but he hated his dad so much that I guess he eventually decided to change his name, and we found that out – we found out that Woody named his son Satchel after we named our kid Satchel. And then we found out that he named his other son Moses. So we named our son after two of Woody Allen’s sons names, without knowing that we did it.

PHAWKER: Yeah that’s some kind of weird cosmic joke the universe is playing on somebody.

GIBBY HAYNES: [laughing] I wonder who.

PHAWKER: Last time we talked you were telling me at the time that kids these days know every curse word in the book.

GIBBY HAYNES: Yeah, they do.

PHAWKER: You told me a story about one of your son Satchel’s friends who was complaining about a mutual friend saying that if his father wasn’t standing there — meaning you — he’d tell Satchel exactly what he thought of mutual friend. You encouraged him to speak freely and he said?

GIBBY HAYNES: ‘He’s a motherfucking asshole!’ or something to that effect [laughing]. He definitely said ‘motherfucker,’ which is like the pinnacle of like – I mean they don’t know what fucking is, but they know that ‘motherfucker’ is a bad word. Like they think to say “Oh, fuck,” but they don’t know what sex is. A lot of them hopefully don’t. But with the Internet, I’m sure they do. You know, I don’t think he’d tell me if he’d seen…he might’ve, well I found, well I’m not gonna say it. One time I had looked at my phone, and it had been googled, “sex in a cab.”
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NPR 4 THE DEAF: We Hear It Even When You Can’t

January 14th, 2020

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FRESH AIR: The stories of the hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal to silence them about their affairs with Donald Trump were first reported in The Wall Street Journal by my guest, Joe Palazzolo and Michael Rothfeld. Last year, their “Hush Money” series won a Pulitzer Prize. Palazzolo and Rothfeld have expanded on that reporting in a new book called “The Fixers: The Bottom-Feeders, Crooked Lawyers, Gossipmongers And Porn Stars Who Created The 45th President.” The hush money payments were made on behalf of Donald Trump with Trump’s knowledge during the 2016 presidential campaign. The National Enquirer bought McDougal’s story with the purpose of preventing it from ever being published and preventing her from talking to anyone else in the media – catch and kill. The payout to silence Stormy Daniels was made by Michael Cohen, who was then Trump’s personal attorney and is now in prison. In telling the story of the hush money Palazzolo and Rothfeld report on the transactional relationship that Trump developed with David Pecker, the publisher of the National Enquirer, the lengths to which Michael Cohen was willing to go to please Trump and how tabloids like the National Enquirer pay for stories by people who have dirt on celebrities.

Joe Palazzolo, Michael Rothfeld, welcome to FRESH AIR. So your book opens in August of 2015, just a couple of months after Trump announces his run for the presidency. And so the book opens at a meeting with Trump and David Pecker, the publisher of the National Enquirer. And Trump wanted to know what Pecker could do to help with the campaign. How had they developed the kind of relationship where Donald Trump could have actually asked for such a favor? MORE

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FRESH AIR: The American South in the post-Reconstruction era was a land of broken promises and brutal oppression for African Americans, as white leaders stripped former slaves of many of the civil and voting rights they’d won after the Civil War. But in the 1890s, the port city of Wilmington, N.C., was an exception. It had a thriving black middle class, a large black electorate and a local government that included black aldermen, police officers and magistrates.That ended in 1898 with a bloody campaign of violence and intimidation by white supremacists, which our guest journalist David Zucchino calls America’s first and only armed overthrow of a legally elected government. Zucchino chronicles the events in a new book called “Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup Of 1898 And The Rise Of White Supremacy.” David Zucchino is a contributing writer for The New York Times. He’s covered war and civil conflicts in more than three dozen countries and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from apartheid South Africa. MORE

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CINEMA: Dan Tabor’s Best Movies Of 2019

January 10th, 2020

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10. Dolemite Is My Name (Dir. by Craig Brewer, 118 minutes, USA)

Equal parts heartwarming and hilarious, Dolemite Is My Name is a love letter to 70s blaxploitation cinema taken to the next level by the glorious return of Eddie Murphy. The film chronicles the journey of comedian-turned-blaxploitation legend Rudy Ray Moore (Murphy), who when he was told there wasn’t a place for him on the silver screen, made his own way and brought his friends along too. I’m not traditionally one for feel good fare, but thanks to its raunchy protagonist, who also happens to be a consummate optimist, I couldn’t help but spend the entire film rooting for the man who found his calling playing a foul-mouthed, rhyming, kung-fu fighting pimp.

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9. The Irishman (Dir. by Martin Scorsese, 209 minutes, USA)

With a script that is nothing short of a master work, about the “true” story of blue collar hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), coupled with an amazing cast of cinematic legends there is a filmmaking language here that is unmistakably Scorsese. The gangster genre has been the bread and butter of Scorsese’s career and quite deservedly gets a lot of love and a lot of hate. With The Irishman Scorsese has come full circle, closing the loop he launched his career with when he turned his lens onto his New York upbringing in Mean Streets. As Frank tells the story of his life from his nursing home wheelchair, there’s a pervasive sense of loss and regret that slowly ramps up as we see Frank choose this lonely path, eventually pushing everyone away or killing them with his bare hands.

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8. Parasite (Dir. by Bong Joon-ho, 132 minutes, South Korea)

Bong Joon-ho’s latest meditation on class, about a poor Korean family who infiltrates a wealthy family’s life, is filled with dark comedic genius and the kind of underlying themes about class that are universal. Invoking the kind of nepotism that would put Trump to shame, the family of grifters quickly unseat the entire staff of servants at the beautiful mansion, and setup shop. That is until they discover a disturbing secret just underneath their feet. Bong Joon-ho has been making great films for over two decades now, so it’s great to see him get the accolades he deserves.

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7. Uncut Gems (Dir. by Josh and Benny Safdie, 135 minutes, USA)

Uncut Gems is tense, sleaze-filled trip through the dark underbelly of New York’s Jeweler’s Row. Adam Sandler here gives the performance of his lifetime as New York the Jewish diamond district jeweler Howard Ratner, a compulsive gambling addict, an adulterer and neck deep in debt. Howard is hoping for an easy out with an uncut African opal he recently acquired, but the problem is that the universe is aligned against him. The Safdie Brother’s, assisted by Ronald Bronstein, have crafted a sublime slice of sleaze that manages to get its audience to side with its tragically flawed protagonist and even root for him in a third act that will leave you speechless and possibly give you a heart attack.

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6. The Nightingale (Dir. by Jennifer Kent, 136 minutes, Australia)

The Nightingale isn’t an easy watch, but it rewards those brave enough to endure it. Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) turns in a sophomore effort that solidifies her as a powerful voice in film. The film that takes place in Australia in 1825 during the British colonization following Clare (Franciosi) a 21-year-old Irish convict out for revenge after not only being raped by British soldiers, but also being forced to watch them slaughter her family. While we have seen iterations of this tale before, its rarely told by someone who would have suffered under the tyranny of the colonizers, which gives the story an authentic voice. The film doesn’t try to make anyone into a heroes or saviors because it’s too busy making the point that while we may be more civilized today, racism, sexism and brutality is woven into the fabric of our DNA and hasn’t gone anywhere.

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5. Us (Dir. by Jordan Peele, 116 minutes, USA)

Simultaneously terrifying and hilarious, Us is a popcorn movie with the depth and gravity of Kubrick and the hair-raising suspense of peak Hitchcock. Unlike its predecessor, Us fits more squarely in the horror genre, with the occasional pivot from terror to comic relief. The film channels the creeping dread and paranoia that made Get Out so great, and like that film it holds a mirror up to the semi-invisible internecine warfare raging in every atom of present-day America.

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4. Swallow (Dir. by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, 94 minutes, USA/France)

A woman who marries into a wealthy family who has no control over her own life develops pica to prove she still has control over one thing, her own body. As she begins to eat and pass knick-knacks around the house to pass the time, the film almost feels like a comedy until she gets pregnant. When her wealthy in-laws discover her compulsion and attempt to intervene for the good of her unborn child, we are then confronted with the source of her trauma. Brilliantly acted, and flawlessly paced, the film takes an unexpected turn once we discover her secret, with the film morphing from comedy to drama becoming one of the most moving pieces of cinema I had the pleasure of viewing this year.

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3. Knives Out (Dir. by Rian Johnson, 130 minutes, USA)

Edge-of-your-seat mystery that is bitingly relevant as it is clever, and feels like a pointed response to the alt-right trolling director Rian Johnson was subjected to in the wake of The Last Jedi. Armed with a stellar cast and an irreverent, meticulously-paced script, Johnson has crafted a new genre classic that will no doubt give us more adventures of legendary private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) in the near future.

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2. Midsommar (Dir. by Ari Aster, 147 minutes, USA/Hungary/Sweden)

As with Hereditary, Midsommar operates on two very distinct levels, the first being the tumultuous relationship between Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor). The second being the terrifying folk tale about a Swedish cult in a small secluded village that carries out a sacred rite every 90 years and the unfortunate souls that are unwittingly invited like lambs to the slaughter. The way Ari Aster deploys these competing story lines to push and pull the narrative in opposite directions before coalescing in the cathartic third act is a marvel to behold. Midsommar is an exquisitely visceral cinematic experience that leaves you both physically and emotionally exhausted as the credits begin.

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1.Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Dir. by Quentin Tarantino’s, 161 min., USA)

I’ve seen Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to 1969 Hollywood five times now and every time I find some new little detail or nuance in a character I might have missed before. For as opinionated Tarantino is, his latest (and possibly last) film lets the audience draw their own conclusions and find their own meaning with its revisionist take on a moment that changed America forever. For me it seemed like a very autobiographical take on the current battle between old Hollywood and the younger more PC set slowly coming into power. Sure it’s a great hang out movie, and the script is one of his best, but there is so many devils in the details as Tarantino fills this world with some of the most introspective and nuanced characters to date and career high water mark performances by Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio.

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January 9th, 2020

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UPDATE: we’re up to 4.2 MILLION unique visitors since this was made.

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

January 7th, 2020

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FRESH AIR: Director Todd Phillips is fascinated by what he calls “left-footed characters” — people who are “out of step with the world.” His most recent film, Joker, is an origin story — of sorts — for the villain in the Batman series. The movie stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a party clown and aspiring stand-up comic who lives in a city overcome by garbage, rats and unemployment. Cuts in social services mean that Arthur is unable to afford the medications he needs to manage his mental illness. As Arthur’s mental health deteriorates, he begins to adapt the villainous Joker persona. Phillips says the film began as an attempt to create a “deep-dive character study” within the genre of the comic book movie. “The whole M.O. of the film was, let’s make a comic book film where we run everything through as realistic a lens as possible,” he says. Joker has made more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office and garnered Phoenix a Golden Globe award for acting. But it’s also been criticized for glorifying violence. Phillips maintains the film is less about violence than it is about “documenting mayhem and chaos.” He was particularly interested in exploring the consequences of cutting social services for mental health.”We really thought it was important to shine a light on the system,” he says. “I think, like a lot of people, the system’s broken, and why not use a film to make a comment on that?” MORE

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CINEMA: Infinite Jester

January 7th, 2020

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JOKER (directed by Todd Phillips, 121 minutes, USA, 2019)

meavatar2BY JONATHAN VALANIA Before we get started, let me just be clear where I’m coming from on all this: I love comic book superhero movies as much as the next 53 year old arrested adolescent. Large men in tights blowing shit up, and there’s popcorn? Sign me up. Like everyone else, I have too much to do and not enough time to get it done, and yet I have burned something like 100 hours watching every installment in the Marvel Infinity Saga over the last decade, and if I had the chance I would do it all over again. I believe that Joaquin Phoenix is one of the greatest actors currently walking the Earth, I think I’m Still Here was next-level fuck-you genius — that in its own way, and with out even trying, out-jokered Joker — and I think his indelible performance in PT Anderson’s The Master was intensity incarnate. So I was completely psyched to see him play the titular Joker, even after early-word festival buzz smoke-signalled that the movie turns the clown prince of chaos into Travis Bickle of the Incels. After having done so, I take no pleasure in telling you that Joker fails on every level.

Hard.

And so I have come to kill it with fire. Shall we begin?

Joaquin’s Phoenix’s Arthur Peck, aka Joker, is a tormented greasy-haired, Auschwitz-thin sad sack head case slowly descending into madness in the scuzzy ruins of Gotham City, which looks a lot like a slow-rotting Big Apple circa 1981. For the first 90 minutes of this two hour movie, Arthur Fleck is kicked in the teeth at every turn, by the heartless bureaucracy of Gotham City Hall that shits on the poor and gives to the rich, by drunken Wall Street date rapists singing Sondheim in the subway, by the local juvenile delinquents who knock him down and kick him like a deflating soccer ball, by his Ophelia-mad mother who delivered him unto the evil of her sadistic monster of a boyfriend before he was old enough to speak, by his double-crossing co-workers and his asshole boss down at the clowns-for-hire agency he used to work at. All the while struggling to fend off the onset of creeping psychosis. And then the city slashes the budget for mental health services and cuts off his psych meds. Match meets gasoline. He is a man at the end of his rope and vengeance will be thine.

Fine. Have at it.

The film so badly wants to be a gritty edge lord hybrid of Taxi Driver and King Of Comedy, and, just to make sure that’s obvious, casts an utterly unconvincing Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin, a charmless, inexplicably popular talk show host who turns out to be yet another of Arthur’s abusers that winds up one of his victims. De Niro’s not the only one miscast the play. Brett Cullens’ Thomas Wayne (father of Bruce) has all the charisma and indispensability of a Bill DeBlasio presidential campaign and Frances Conroy plays his mother as a muttering unmade bed of a woman.

But the biggest problem with Joker is there’s just too goddamn much Joaquin Phoenix in this movie: Mugging, frugging, preening, pretzeling, all the while cackling maniacally and soft-shoeing psychotic like Chaplin’s Little Tramp on a meth binge. I don’t really blame Joaquin for this, I blame director Todd Phillips and the film editor, who seemingly used every single psychopathic second of every amps-on-eleven take Phoenix committed to celluloid in his iridescent river boat gambler get up. It’s like drinking Joaquin Phoenix out of a firehose.

And it just goes on and on. The movie is only two hours long, but it feels like six. The script is a hot mess of ham-fisted homage, over-acting and muddled intentions. Is this The Rise Of The Incels? An escape hatch from responsibility for the self-made misery of thwarted white male mediocrities? A how-to guide for unfuckable men to cleanse themselves in an orgy of unspeakable violence and be reborn? Or is it the grimy cosplay brutality of overgrown Scorsese fanboys masquerading as a morality play? Or is it a public service announcement reminding us that society reaps the carnage it sows when it arms and then neglects the mentally ill? In which case, why bother when the cable news massacre of the week currently bleeding out at a high school, workplace or WalMart near you has made that point soul-crushingly clear over and over and over again, to little or no avail?

The screenplay, penned by director Phillips and screenwriter Scott Silver, is riddled with logical fallacies and ludicrous improbabilities, from the cops who give Arthur a 50 yard head start before announcing they have come to arrest him, to the scene at the end when, despite having already demonstrated that he is a homicidal maniac with a hair-trigger capacity for horrific violence, he is left unshackled and unguarded in a locked room at Arkham Asylum with a nurse he proceeds to kill with his bare hands. What follows is Joker’s one moment of a true cinematic grace — Arthur Fleck racing down a long blinding-white hallway in slo-mo leaving behind a trail of bloody footprints as he runs to the light — but by then it’s too late. That joke isn’t funny anyone.

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CINEMA: The Bitch Is Back

January 6th, 2020

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ROCKET MAN (Directed by Dexter Fletcher, 121 minutes, USA, 2019)

meAVATAR2BY JONATHAN VALANIA Captain Fantastic — aka Sir Elton Hercules John, aka Reginald “Reggie” Kenneth Dwight, aka the co-architect of so many of the golden age of FM megahits that scored the bleary, barbituated Satyricon of the early-mid ‘70s (“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Your Song,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Bennie And The Jets,” “Last Night Somebody Saved My Life” and the titular “Rocket Man” to name but a few) was not always so fantastic. Born bespectacled, effete and fragile, with a thick thatch of hair stamped with a 20-year expiration date, not to mention a titanic boatload of innate musical talent, to shit parents (war-damaged, hopelessly mismatched, and utterly incapable of giving or receiving love), Sir Elton came of age as a gay man at a time when homosexuality was still a criminal offense in England, so it is no wonder he had so much to unpack in rehab once the drugs stopped working.

All of which is both the madness and the method of Rocket Man, the just-out Elton John biopic directed by Dexter Fletcher, who was called in to finish Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired for being difficult and creepy, or vice versa. Both films follow the same narrative arc — meteoric rise, drug-fueled race to the bottom and triumphant-but-slight return to glory — with the primary difference being that all the same-sex, drug-taking and debauchery that was scrubbed from Freddie Mercury’s biopic is unflinchingly displayed in Elton John’s. Rocket Man is told in impressionistic recall by fortysomething Elton during group therapy, where he arrives at the film’s onset in a halo of blinding white light dressed as the devil himself, having finally hit bottom and gone AWOL from a sold out show at Madison Square Gardens.

Sir Elton is played by Taron Egerton, a British actor with near-zero stateside name recognition, but given how thoroughly he crushes it that will soon change. Although he looks like what would come out of the the other side if George Costanza and Chris Pratt jumped into a teleporter together, and doesn’t really sound like Elton John even when he’s singing the shit out of his song book, Egerton channels the man in all his glittery tragicomic flamboyance and gets to a higher truth about Captain Fantastic that transcends the overrated virtues of twin-like resemblance and note-perfect mimicry. It’s a stellar performance every bit as Oscar-worthy as Rami Malek’s Freddie. Still, the great love story at the center of the film is the chaste but no less procreative lifelong songwriting partnership of Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, who looks like Big Star-era Alex Chilton for much of the film). Bernie wrote the poetry and Elton set it into motion on a gorgeous bed of heartbreaking piano chords and bittersweet voicings.

In his recollections of the early days, we see tender-aged, pre-name change Reggie (played ably by Matthew Illesley as boy Reggie and later by Kit Connor as teen Reggie) sight-reading Mozart by flashlight under the covers after lights out and conducting an imaginary orchestra from his bed, winning a scholarship from the Royal Academy of Music on the strength of his preternatural piano chops, hammering out pompadour’d ‘50s rock in smoky pubs and backing up visiting American soul stirrers. Bluffing his way through an audition with Liberty Records, he lands a record deal that by random luck pairs him with the equally unknown and untested Taupin. But soon enough the hits start coming as Reggie changes his name to Elton John, finds his footing as a performer and comes to grips, privately at least, with his sexuality.

Once he becomes famous — and the film switches to a montage of massive arena concerts overlaid with swirling newspaper headlines that inform us, among other things, that at the height of his fame 4% of all the albums sold worldwide are Elton John albums —  Elton proceeds to drink, smoke, snort and fuck anything and everything that moves. Famous on the outside but crying on the inside, the Elton train eventually jumps the tracks after a long, slow druggy decline, bringing the film full circle as the resulting human wreckage rolls to a stop on the doorstep of an undisclosed rehab literally wearing devil horns. In short order, Elton gets sober, reclaims his career and lives more or less happily ever after.

Screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, War Horse) assembles Elton’s life not as a straight line but a zig-zagging mosaic of thrilling vignettes, ripe for all those big surrealistic choreographed production numbers where characters suddenly break into song and somehow, against all odds, it works. Big time. In fact, Rocket Man is at its best when it goes big — and it always goes big. More rock opera than PBS Frontline, the movie plays fast and loose with history’s timestamp in the pursuit of more satisfying storytelling, which is the beauty of the much-maligned biopic genre given that absolutely everyone’s life is a sad, slow walk from greatness to enfeeblement. Boring! The power and the glory of Rocket Man — which is to say the fun of it all — stems from the fact that it isn’t Ken Burns or Errol Morris telling you Sir Elton’s life, it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber.

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How The CIA Overthrew The Duly Elected Prime Minister Of Iran in 1953, AKA Why They Hate Us

January 3rd, 2020

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NPR: On Aug. 19, 2013, the CIA publicly admitted for the first time its involvement in the 1953 coup against Iran’s elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. The documents provided details of the CIA’s plan at the time, which was led by senior officer Kermit Roosevelt Jr., the grandson of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Over the course of four days in August 1953, Roosevelt would orchestrate not one, but two attempts to destabilize the government of Iran, forever changing the relationship between the country and the U.S. In this episode, we go back to retrace what happened in the inaugural episode of NPR’s new history podcast, Throughline.

Mohammad Mossadegh was a beloved figure in Iran. During his tenure, he introduced a range of social and economic policies, the most significant being the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry. Great Britain had controlled Iran’s oil for decades through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. After months of talks the prime minister broke off negotiations and denied the British any further involvement in Iran’s oil industry. Britain then appealed to the United States for help, which eventually led the CIA to orchestrate the overthrow of Mossadegh and restore power to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran.

According to Stephen Kinzer, author of the book All the Shah’s Men, Roosevelt quickly seized control of the Iranian press by buying them off with bribes and circulating anti-Mossadegh propaganda. He recruited allies among the Islamic clergy, and he convinced the shah that Mossadegh was a threat. The last step entailed a dramatic attempt to apprehend Mossadegh at his house in the middle of the night. But the coup failed. Mossadegh learned of it and fought back. The next morning, he announced victory over the radio. Mossadegh thought he was in the clear, but Roosevelt hadn’t given up. He orchestrated a second coup, which succeeded. Mossadegh was placed on trial and spent his life under house arrest. The shah returned to power and ruled for another 25 years until the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The 1953 coup was later invoked by students and the political class in Iran as a justification for overthrowing the shah. MORE

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IN MEMORIAM: Kill Your Sons

January 2nd, 2020

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Houlon2BY JON HOULON When David Berman hung himself on the eve of his first tour in over ten years – with new moniker Purple Mountains replacing his former Silver Jew tag – the outpouring was incredible.  And as one might expect for this most literate of indie rockers – DCB had an MFA from U.Mass where he studied with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Tate as well a connection with the highly regarded Charles Wright during his undergrad years at UVA – the stuff written in the wake of his death was both moving and beautifully written. I was particularly taken by Sarah Larson’s piece in the New Yorker and Rob Sheffield’s in Rolling Stone. But the one thing that everyone who eulogized Berman seemed to miss was that with his reemergence with Purple Mountains and with his suicide he had finally slayed his father, the notoriously satanic Rick Berman.

In case you weren’t paying attention all along:  after finally taking the Joos on the road starting in the mid aughts, following years of refusing to tour, and achieving a modicum of success, David folded up his silver tent. He revealed that he was the son of a man sometimes called “Dr. Evil.” If you can avert your eyes from Rachel Maddow’s gazelle-like neck and actually listen, this clip will tell you everything you need to know about DCB’s dad. Rick Berman made his fortune building phony organizations – with their attendant phony websites – to fight organizations such as Mother’s Against Drunk Driving on behalf of, for instance, the alcohol industry. Yea, your parents may suck but not this bad.

Anyway, DCB decided that playing with the Joos was insufficient to the task of taking his father down or, at least, making right some of the wrongs perpetrated by a man he called a “demon.” He broke up the Jews and declared that he would spend the rest of his time fighting back against Dr. Evil, his very blood.

Well, in the event, how he was going to do this never became clear. There was a talk of an HBO special depicting Rick but David balked. He sensed that the Home Box wanted to turn his father into some sort of Don Draper anti-hero which would have had the exact opposite effect of what DCB was trying to achieve i.e. Rick would be celebrated rather than reviled.

DCB also apparently immersed himself in political theory and trolled the internet, getting into flameouts with right wingers on reddit and other unsavory sites. But in the end, none of this worked. Ironically, it was a return to music and lyrics – in the form of Purple Mountains — that allowed the boy to finally slay his poisonous father.

Now listen: save your energy and ink. I’m not interested in your letters explaining that I have no idea who David really was or that Rick Berman actually saved David’s life in 2003 after the latter OD’d on Xanax and crack in the Presidential Suite at the Vanderbilt Hotel in Nashville. David claimed, at the time, that he wanted to die where the Presidency itself had died in 2000: Gore himself conceded the election to Bush from the very same room.

Apparently, Rick paid for David’s rehab following this debacle. And I’m sure he paid for a whole lot of other stuff too. DCB was a fragile cat who needed a lot of support. But I’m not interested in the actual David or Rick Berman, per se. Rather, it’s what they stood for and the fight that David eventually won.

The elder Berman stood (well, I suppose, he still literally stands) for winning, accumulation, wealth at any cost.  David: losing, paring down to the essentials, and compassion above all else. In a posthumously published interview, David told Paula Crossland that he always found himself on the losing end of any game. In contrast, his college pal and Silver Jew band mate, Stephen Malkmus, always won. (In the same interview, DCB, much to my horror, cites REM as an influence. I guess no one is perfect!).

The easy read on this is to fault David for adopting some sort of faux slacker pose: the lonely loser, gazing at his shoes, at the party but not part of it. This was a typical ‘90s trope in case you missed it. But, for David Berman, losing, I think, was a true laconic tonic to winning. What is a win but another form of accumulation (a plus one) that was the father’s stock and trade: accumulate wealth at the expense of all else as any capitalist would do.

To be sure, the point here is not to privilege losing above winning. Like me, DCB did his time in the elite echelons of higher education in the 1980s when theory ruled the roost.  The point is not to reify losing but rather to destabilize the binary opposition that makes winning the be all and end all. When done properly, this destabilization results in what the French call “jouer,” a play, a game: in short, a Silver Jeu. (And you must pardon me, folks, if my methods are unsound; my Derrida’s a little rusty, I’m afraid.)

There were father-son skirmishes pre-Purple Mountains. How about this one from “Blue Arrangements”? “My father came in from wherever he’d been and kicked my shit all over the room.” Whew. Who hasn’t been there? Remember what I said about compassion above all else?

Or this line from “Random Rules” (arguably DCB’s song of songs): “They make it so you can’t shake hands when they make your hands shake.”  Forget about Tweedy’s handshake drugs, this is the real item: the alpha male’s bone crushing embrace that precludes any true exchange, the opposite of empathy if you will.

In “We Are Real,” he sings “children wander off into the ultra economic.” And, yea, most of us did in pursuit of happiness, winning, or whatever privileged term you choose in this world of false oppositions. I could go on, but it’s time for the final fight, the main event.  The one that David “won.” These Purple Mountains majesty that he achieved on behalf of we sons and daughters throughout this wicked land.

Check out this flurry of punches:

Right hook from “That’s Just the Way That I Feel”: “The end of all wanting is all I’ve been wanting.” The ultimate blow to daddy’s aesthetic of accumulation, desire made manifest in objects. Zizek points out that in late capitalism it is not enough to Drink Coke © — rather one must Enjoy Coke ©.  Get it? Our wants, our desires themselves become commodities. Another example from Slovenia’s Philosopher King Slavoj: the father in early capitalism asks his son “Do you want to visit your grandmother?” In the late version, the question is reformulated: “Shouldn’t you want to visit your grandmother.” DCB lays down the law here with a resounding “no” – the end to all wanting is all I’ve been wanting, sweet granny or not. Don’t dictate my desires, almighty dollar you.

Jab from “Darkness and Cold”: “The light of my life is going out tonight without a flicker of regret.” The biographical read on this – which again I am trying very hard to avoid – is that DCB is referring to his beloved wife Cassie who he had split with around the time of Purple Mountains. But that’s not the power of the line. The power, rather, is in its celebration of subtraction. The light – which is a privileged presence over the absence of darkness – goes out without a flicker of regret. Take that, Rick!

Left cross from “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son”: “I loved her so because she was so good and kind to me, she was, she was, she was.” DCB said that strumming a guitar helped him cope with his mother’s death, led him to this song, and eventually the whole of Purple Mountains. Another takedown of the father, the lobbyist and lawyer, in favor of DCB’s social worker mother, Mimi. Again, not to put her on pedestal and replicate the very binary that makes a son hate his father and love his mom. Is this too heavy for Phawker? Only one more I promise. I know these title bouts can be hard hitting and bloody.

Uppercut from “Nights that Won’t Happen”:

The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind

when the here and the hereafter momentarily align

see the need to speed into the lead rapidly decline

the dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind

Must I really explain?  No more winning, no more of the pulverizing soul-sucking need to speed into the lead. Minus one, DCB. You took yourself out. One less. But you won nevertheless or because of it. Now get up off that mat, Dr. Evil! And listen: “It’s not the purple hills, it’s not the silver lakes.” I recognize that I’ve privileged the lyrics above the music here. And Purple Mountains is hands down the best music David Berman ever made. In Woods, he found the kind of sympathetic collaborators that – with all due respect to every Jew – brought out a final masterwork that resulted in this most strange victory and strange defeat.

On Saturday night at the World Café, on what would have been David’s 53rd B’day, a group of what I believe to be local Philly artists will convene to celebrate the great man’s work. I can’t vouch for these kids as I’ve never heard of any of them which means that either they are more obscure than I am or I am even more out of it than I think I am. Hop Along? I do it every day. Never heard of ‘em. Speedy Ortiz? Mighta bought a car from someone underneath the El by that name but otherwise he doesn’t ring a bell. Mewithoutyou? Damn straight! TKO! But, again, I can’t vouch for these kids. I doubt DCB could either – like me, he was more of DAC or TVZ guy. But I’m sure he’d appreciate the gesture and if they dig Dave (he hated being called that) they can’t be all bad. Besides, these songs have a punch of their own. Who knows? You may even knock out a father or two which ain’t bad considering.

PREVIOUSLY: David Berman’s Dad Is Shockingly Evil

PHILLY REMEMBERS DAVID BERMAN @ WORLD CAFE LIVE SATURDAY JAN. 4TH

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BEING THERE: The Jesus Lizard @ Union Transfer

December 31st, 2019

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Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER

The Jesus Lizard – if you’re into the trashy side of ’90s alt rock/noise rock/post-hardcore, you either know ‘em, or you don’t know ‘em yet. If you fall into the latter category, I suggest you go blow your ears out to their 1991 record, Goat; it’s a good place to start. What makes this band special is their ability to meld harsh punk tones and belligerent drunken preaching into something that sounds much more mature than the sum of its parts. Their hooks and grooves are the glue that holds this seasick monkey trick together.

The Austin, Texas band formed in ’87 when singer David Yow and bassist David Sims (both formerly of Scratch Acid) joined forces with guitarist Duane Denison and a drum machine. The trio soon moved to Chicago, and the drum machine only made it onto their first EP, Pure, before being replaced by Mac McNeilly, formerly of a noise rock band called Phantom 309. The Jesus Lizard recorded the meat & potatoes of their discography through 1994 with Steve Albini, and then two full-lengths and some miscellaneous releases since. The band are currently wrapping up their third consecutive tour since their second reunion in 2017. I got to see them ravage Philly’s Union Transfer last night, so here’s how it went down.

The crowd was younger on average than last year – not as many old heads, and somehow there was less energy. Last year’s mosh pit took up at least 2/3 of the floor; this year’s was about 1/5. I did notice the same three OG devotees front and center as had attended last year, including one pink-haired woman who had literally tugged David Yow’s pants down to expose his pubus and ass crack. That was when I discovered that Yow goes commando, a revelation that had been confirmed last night as well, because, while OG Pinkhair was not as unhinged this time around, it didn’t stop Yow from taking matters into his own hands by unzipping his fly and letting his bulbous beer gut squeeze his pants down to about last year’s level. His gleaming, albeit hairy, naked belly, by the way, was the star of the show; Yow displayed it proudly, even swinging it into the mic stand to boast its formidable radius. He crowd-surfed at least five times, nearly making it over to the bar, despite the endless supply of Tecate that awaited him on the stage.

The band played a total of 27 songs spanning three sets (including an encore). With “Mouth Breather,” “Boilermaker,” “Seasick,” “Here Comes Dudley,” and other favorites, the setlist left nothing to be desired. I don’t know if my memory was playing tricks on me, but I think they played “Dudley” three times. No complaints here, though. Sims’ bass riffs really stood out to me. His hand spidered across the fretboard with seemingly effortless precision. Denison played a yellow, semi-hollow Travis Bean with three P-90s, very different from the Bean he played last year, and I was geeking out a little. For the narrow slice of time Yow actually had a shirt on, he donned a FUCK TRUMP tee. If you’re so inclined, and have no New Year’s Eve plans, you can catch them tonight in Brooklyn for the finale of their tour. – KYLE WEINSTEIN

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Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER

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