Saturday, October 31, 2009

Buckminster Fuller's Biosphère

Because I'm tired of seeing that Grizzly Bear review, here's a picture of the Biosphère in Montreal designed by Buckminster Fuller for Expo '67. Although it used to be covered with white panels, they were damaged in a fire and never replaced. Someone no doubt recognized that the armature is quite beautiful. Located on Sainte-Hélène Island just across the St Lawrence river from downtown, the trees were at their height of fall colors.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Grizzly Bear w/ Beach House: Live @ First Avenue

From a couple of weeks ago. Originally published on In Review Online.

When I first heard that Beach House would be opening for Grizzly Bear at First Avenue, my immediate response was, “Ooo, dreamy!” Representing two less than mainstream stands of melodic pop music, they are a perfect match for each other. Grizzly Bear was in town a few months ago, a mere week after the release of their critically acclaimed new CD and tickets sold out faster than you could even attempt to say Veckatimest. But the show got mixed reviews, employing words such as ‘boring’ and ‘sloppy.’ Ouch! I had seen Grizzly Bear a couple years back, opening for TV on the Radio, and although their performance has faded from memory, I certainly would have remembered sloppy. I chalked it up to heightened expectations and got a ticket so I could see for myself. I was as smitten with Veckatimest almost as much as everyone else and I was very eager to see Beach House, who’s 2007 Devotion swept me off my feet.

Ultimately, the First Ave show did sell out, but not until the night of the show. As I confirm my drinking age to the man at the door, I notice that tickets are still being sold at the door. The crowd is sparse and I easily find a spot near the front. Either people aren’t as excited Beach House as I am, or they are really laid back. They are playing Blade Runner on the large screen that drops down in front of the stage until the band is ready. I am lost in thought about the surreal unicorn scene when the screen comes up and Beach House comes up on stage. A percussionist joins Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally on stage, as the three of them squish into the very small space allotted to them among Grizzly Bear’s accoutrements—instruments and a plethora of funky bell jar lights hanging from poles. Beach House has tried to establish their own space on stage by placing a large white triangle center stage behind Victoria and her keyboards as Alex hunkers down on a chair to her right with his guitar and his Saturday Night Fever white sports coat.

I’m a lazy music fan. I listen without much investigation. So when Beach House opens with “You Came to Me” and Alex’s head is drooped over his guitar—far from available microphone—my blind assumptions about the band are off. Victoria does the vocals, not Alex. It’s like the optical illusion of the old woman/young woman: you’re brain immediately sees one and locks in on it, and seeing the second is a huge discovery. As I stand and watch her sing, I wonder how I could have ever inferred otherwise. Incredibly compelling, Victoria has a way of drawing out her voice that is similar to Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards, another lower than average female vocalist. My intuition was correct: this is dreamy. Their rendition of “Gila” is thoroughly swoon-worthy. Alex’s gentle plucking emerges sugary sweet from his guitar. They employ some iPod accompaniment in the way of beats that gives them a fuller sound.

Victoria’s face is covered by bangs too long to be called bangs so it is hard to see her expressions during the random banter. They insist that the next song is perfect for making out, but then Victoria gets stuck on what day it is. “Is today Monday? Monday is perfect for making out. Is it Monday? It’s Wednesday? Oh. Well, okay, it’s not Monday, but it is hump day, if you know what I mean…” The idea of making out or humping at First Ave is almost nauseating, but Beach House seems like the best option for a soundtrack, venue notwithstanding. They pulled the plug after a very short hour. The set included mostly songs from Devotion, but also a handful of exciting new songs that set me heading for the merch table in hopes of finding a new EP or full length. Not yet. Beach House signed a deal with Sub Pop and will have a new release early 2010.

Milling around, I realize how crowded it has gotten since I arrived. I have given up my front and center spot for a more subdued back-by-the-bar position. Grizzly Bear promptly takes the stage at 10:30 and they shoot straight into “Southern Point.” The opening song to Veckatimest is a stunning song and pulls you in for the remaining 11 tracks. They attempt to do the same thing live, although I’ve always thought there has been value in the common logic of burying the show-stopping songs mid-set—the best for last mentality—but I am all for instant gratification, and that is exactly what “Southern Point” offers. Spotlighting Daniel Rossen’s unique vocals (that remind me more and more of Stephen Stills, the most underappreciated letter in CSNY) and the delicate crescendo and harmonies. They settle back and reel out some of their best songs from Veckatimest and Yellow House including a version of “Knife” that emitted a glow from the chorus that was absent the rest of the show. The wired Bell Jars that titivate the stage with more clutter than decoration flicker in random waves with the music.

Self-conscious rock stars that they are, the four piece visibly perked up when Victoria from Beach House came up on stage to lend vocals on two songs. Her presence on “Two Weeks” seems so natural, I make a mental note to check the liner notes on Veckatimest to see if she on the recorded version. (She is.) Ed Drost who has been irrepressibly focused the entire show is breaking into a smile as the two join forces on “Slow Life,” a song on the upcoming Twilight: New Moon soundtrack. (No joke.) It’s a fantastic song. Someone involved in the Twilight film is doing a very good job of introducing the tweens to artists that they might normally not be exposed to. (In addition to Grizzly Bear and Beach House, the soundtrack includes songs from Thom Yorke, Lykke Li, Killers, Bon Iver, St. Vincent, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Sea Wolf, Ok Go and more.) Victoria’s more organic present as a performer is a marked contrast to the studious workmanship of the Grizzly Bear guys, and I’m sorry to see her leave the stage after two songs.

The fact that Grizzly Bear can’t match the perfection of their recordings is more a compliment to their studio skills than a criticism toward their live prowess. Much of the layering and intricacies are lost in the show—which is to be expected—but the fact that they seem hesitant to commit to a live persona, either harmonizing folk powerhouse ala Fleet Foxes or unrestrained experimental romp ala Animal Collective, leaves them tossing off a pseudo rock show that fails to highlight their strengths. I recently saw Jonathan Caouette’s documentary/montage All Tomorrow’s Parties which celebrates the freeform UK music festival through ten years of footage. At the end of the film there is a scene where Daniel, Ed and Chris of Grizzly Bear, armed only with an acoustic guitar, sing a song on the beach. It was beautiful. Why aren’t they doing any of that? I couldn’t help but think that this snippet was better than anything I had seen tonight.

Chris Taylor shyly speaks up and says, “I know you guys probably hear this a lot…” Yes we do. Everyone loves Purple Rain and Prince, and this is what First Ave represents to most visiting acts. But Prince hasn’t played here in years and probably never will again. The band seems to lumber to the home stretch, closing out with a sweet “On a Neck, On a Spit.” It is a bouncy lullaby that the whole crowd is into, causing obligatory protest of cheers as they leave the stage. They send us home with “Fix It,” a song from the early days of Grizzly Bear. Far from the melodramatic aura of Purple Rain, First Ave is far more grounded in solid, satisfying music tonight. Beach House rocked my world enough that I could forgive the minor lapses in Grizzly Bear’s performance. If the magic is in Grizzly Bear’s recordings, then most fans are going to more than happy to see an apparition of the same brilliance, myself included.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Originally publish on In Review Online.

Ricky Gervais is long on personality and charm. He made “The Office” into the cult hit it has become and made last year’s Ghost Town at the very least enjoyable. A well-seasoned actor and writer, Gervais’ logical next step would be feature film director. Or maybe not. His debut feature, The Invention of Lying proves that he has great comedic and creative promise as a director, but also a disappointing willingness to surrender to predictability and Hollywood rom-com status quo.

The Invention of Lying is set in a hamlet where the population is unable to lie, or, because it is an unnamed skill, unable to say something that is not. It is hardly as benevolent as it seems: not only are people brutally honest, they are also unable to keep opinions or thoughts to themselves. Retirement homes are ‘sad places for helpless old people,’ movies are all fact based narrations where the narrator is the star, and if somebody thinks you are fat and ugly, you better believe you are going to hear about it. It’s no filter in overdrive. How better to demonstrate the intricacies of this age of honesty than a blind date between the plain and self-conscious Mark (Gervais) and the beautiful and trite Anna (Jennifer Garner.) Anna’s disappointment is about as veiled as an army tanker, as she bluntly informs Mark that he is fat, has a pudgy nose and that she will not have sex with him. And—because he was early—he interrupted her while she was masturbating. (Now there is something you don’t normally hear women talk about in movies.) Mark takes it in stride, and at the end of the night he is encouraged by Anna’s inebriated goodbye kiss. The entire date is hilarious, and viewers would be well advised to revel in it.

If Mark’s personal life is on shaky ground, his professional life is no better. His failure to write a blockbuster about the 17th century lands him on the street without a job and kicked out of his apartment. Extreme circumstances demand extreme measures. The flip side to the innate inability to lie is the inherent ability to believe everything. So when Mark shows up at the bank to close his account and his synapses have a moment of clarity and he lies about the amount he has, the teller believes him. Mark has become the ultimate con man: a liar in a sea of believers. With the talent to get just about anything he wants, he folds to the desire for altruism, world peace and universal happiness. Easier said than done, of course. Lying hasn’t changed his physique and Anna hasn’t changed her mind about her unwillingness to procreate with Mark.

Gervais has built one of the most incredible ensemble casts in recent memory with bit parts from Tina Fey, Rob Lowe, Christopher Guest, Edward Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman. But it still can’t save The Invention of Lying from slowly dying in a swamp of predictable schmaltz. The film approaches ‘honest-land’ apathetically and allegorically, but when it changes gears and expects us to have sympathy for the superficial characters and their pursuit of happiness, it is simply asking too much. Gervais charm and spontaneity quickly wears off when it becomes clear that he is on the romantic comedy assembly line.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Trash Film Debauchery brings Cynthia Rothrock to the Turf Club in UNDEFEATABLE!

Monday, October 19, 10pm
Undefeatable (1993)
The Turf Club (presented by Trash Film Debauchery)

Cynthia Rothrock may not be the most well known actress in the world, but for anyone who has seen their fair share of 80s Hong Kong films, Rothrock is the ass-kicking white chick. Corey Yuen made her look pretty good alongside Michelle Yeoh in Yes Madam! (1985) and alongside Yuen Biao in Righting Wrongs (1986), but, unfortunately, those may have been her high points. Perhaps one of the better examples of how her career has plummeted is Undefeatable directed by Hong Kong B-movie "master" Godfrey Ho. Just how bad is this film? Well, as one reviewer put it "The film looks like it was shot in exchange for a White Castle Crave Case." Ouch. Fortunately I have never seen this movie, because I doubt that I could be dragged out on a cold October night to watch this a second time.

The unbearable Undefeatable trailer

A much better showcase of Cynthia Rothrock's skills from Yes Madam

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sian Alice Group's TROUBLED, SHAKEN, ETC.

Originally published on In Review Online. Sian Alice Group plays tomorrow, October 9 at the Turf Club.

My first exposure to the Sian Alice Group was last year when they opened for A Place to Bury Strangers, and, much to my surprise, the under-the-radar UK band had no problem upstaging the hefty psych-rock Brooklynites. The austere Sian Alice and her dexterous Group had a well-executed experimental roar that stole the thunder from A Place to Bury Strangers. The biggest discovery, however, came later when I took a listen to 59.59, their debut fill-length that I picked up at the show: formal and delicately woven, their studio recording was more of a complement than a reprise to their free-form live rendering.

The band comes from understated anti-rock star beginnings. Rupert Clervaux was working as a sound engineer and music producer when he decided to get together with his friend Ben Crook to ‘dabble’ in some music. They eventually roped in their shy friend with the porcelain voice, Sian Ahern, to form the Sian Alice Group. With some interesting collaborators in their hip pocket (Douglas Hart of Jesus & Mary Chain, John Coxon of Spring Heel Jack and Brian DeGraw of Gang Gang Dance), their music is a mash-up of genres that never wavers too far from pleasant. Their second release, Troubled, Shaken, Etc., brings them even closer in style to label mates Gang Gang Dance while maintaining a firm hold on an accessible, mellow post-rock sound. But hidden beneath the veneer of carefully orchestrated pop songs is a flair for things more avant-garde, from jazz to minimalist music.

Much of their musical aesthetic, recorded and live, is probably the product of their unique way of working. The three spend more time improvising to find the structure of a song rather than starting with a structure itself. When they have something they are happy with, they record it live, and from there, they rework the track: adding, subtracting, overdubbing and occasionally re-recording. It is a studio-heavy process that is reliant on that initial—very non-studio—ability to improvise.

Able to shift between ethereal and soulful, Sian Ahern’s voice is the component that brings the band back to center. Without the vocals, the music seems to have the possibility of floating away, as is the case with the diaphanous “Airlock,” or snowballing into a chaotic fury, as in the mesmerizing two-minute heart palpitation “Longstrakt.” Her vocals are disarming and have a way of molding a song into a form. The opening of “First Song – Angelina” builds with a Steve Reich-like piano elation for almost a minute and a half, until the entire arrangement folds around Ahern’s soft voice. Her croon pins the song down, but only momentarily until the piano is let loose again to close out the song accompanied by harmonica and percussion. It’s beautiful and moving to hear how her voice works seamlessly with the rest of the music, and this is especially true with ‘First Song.’

All this talk of experimentation may have you thinking you are in for an album of discordant blips and bleeps. But Trouble, Shaken, Etc couldn’t be further from this stereotype of avant-garde music. Sian Alice Group never loses track of the audience, even in the studio, and they do a good job of keeping the casual listener entertained and the careful listener engaged. From the shamelessly pretty “Love That Moves the Sun” to the deep groove of “Vanishing,” the trio strives not to repeat itself. Gone from Trouble are the self-conscious formal contrivances of 59.59 as the Sian Alice Group comfortably settles between the two worlds of post-rock and experimental jazz.

Monday, October 5, 2009


Easily one of my favorite films ever. Originally published by In Review Online for a Miyazaki Directrospective.

Hayao Miyazaki tested the feature length waters with The Castle of Cagliostro and then unfurled Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky with such poise and confidence that it is hard to believe that they are only his second and third features. The rest is history, or so they would say. But Miyazaki’s filmography cannot be so easily cast aside as status quo work. Each film is special in its very own way, and this couldn’t be more true for My Neighbor Totoro his forth feature—Totoro is an emotional hub from which everything Miyazaki flows. The simple story of a family moving into a new house evolves into a heart-rending masterpiece that is both universal and timeless.

Set in the post-War countryside of Japan, Totoro is largely based on Miyazaki’s own experiences as a child during a time when his mother suffered from tuberculosis. In a truck packed with the family’s belongings, a father and his two young daughters, Satsuki and Mei, arrive at their new home at the edge of a forest. The two girl’s unbridled sense of adventure have them bounding into each dusty room with the joy of discovery. And a discovery is exactly what they make: real, live dust bunnies. Established early in the film, Satsuki and Mei have an intrinsic capability to see things other cannot, especially spirits. In this case, they are the soot sprites that have inhabited the empty house and must be chased away by laughter. In another such case is Mei’s discovery of Totoro. Home with her father while Satsuki is at school, Mei follows two creatures (a small and medium Totoro) into the forest. She falls into a hole within the roots of a large camphor tree, and happens upon the home of King Totoro—the most lovable and cuddly polar bear you could ever imagine. Gleefully grabbing onto his soft tale, Mei climbs upon his belly with utter fascination. Tickling his nose and stroking his chin, a three-syllable grunt reveals that he is Totoro, Mei’s misinterpretation for the Japanese word troll. Her father later explains that Totoro is a special spirit and the keeper of the forest.

The enchanting world of magic within the forest offers a polarity to the reality and the fears of being a child. Satsuki and Mei’s mother is sick and in the hospital, while their father, a college professor, tries his best to take care of his daughters and maintain his work. Satsuki and Mei, each at their own level of maturity, try to understand the unnamed illness responsible for their mother’s absence. Adjusting to their new home is no less difficult than yearning for their mother’s presence. Satsuki tries her best to fill her mother’s shoes, but it is a daunting task with the headstrong Mei. Worried about their father walking home in the rain without his umbrella one night, the girls decide to meet him at the bus stop. When he doesn’t arrive on his scheduled bus, Satsuki gets worried. Within Satsuki’s concern for her father and her weary little sister, who she is responsible for, is something so identifiable—the creeping feeling as a child that you have made the wrong decision and you are about to embark into unknown circumstances. It is at this exact moment of sympathy that Totoro lumbers up, nonchalantly wearing a leaf as hat in the rain, to wait next to Satsuki who is now holding the sleeping Mei piggyback. Playfully distracting Satsuki from the problems at hand, Totoro boards the amazing Catbus only moments before the bus carrying the girls’ father arrives.

Unifying experience instead of divisive conflict drives the story of Totoro forward with subtlety and care. The sheer pleasure of everyday life is given as much weight as narrative landmarks. Mei finding tadpoles or a bucket with no bottom is integral to the film, as is her father enjoyment of the flowers she has picked for him. A monumental scene of simple beauty captures the incredible world that exists between the extraordinary and the ordinary. Satsuki and Mei have carefully planted a package of seeds given to them by Totoro, but they have yet to show any signs of growing. The Totoro trio arrives, just as the girls have fallen asleep, and shows them the power of optimism and belief. As their seeds magically grow to the sky, Satsuki and Mei are also lifted on a spinning top, clinging to Totoro puffed-up belly. A connection between the spiritual and natural world is a more understated theme in ‘Totoro’ than in Miyazaki’s other films, but nonetheless very present. The girls wake to find that their seeds have indeed sprouted and that their dream wasn’t just a dream. Miyazaki does his best to correlate these simple pleasures with real magic.

King Totoro and the Catbus are two of the greatest animated characters to grace the screen. Vividly realized with an uncanny charm, they are only matched, in my mind, by the beloved Pooh-Bear. Part silly bear and part amiable gorilla, Totoro is a creature adorned with amazing facial expressions and physical oddities. With a powerful hop, he can pirouette to the top of his tree with ease. But his mischievous personality comes alive while waiting at the bus stop with Satsuki and Mei. Totoro is frightened by the first large drop of water from the trees that that makes a ‘thwack’ on his umbrella. Eyes wide and mouth set in a cringe, he looks like someone who has just tipped over the milk bottle. Once he understands the phenomenon, he gets nothing other than a shit-eating grin on his face as he jumps up in the air causing a tiny earthquake and a downpour from the trees above. Completely satisfied with a trick well done, he boards the Catbus, still daintily holding his umbrella and carrying his wacked out grin. And what is there to say about the Catbus? Twelve legs flying and eyes glowing, the Catbus’ plush interior opens up with a UFO-like sound.

Much of the credit for the beauty of Totoro should be given to art director Kazuo Oga, whose meticulous background paintings bring the landscapes of rural Japan to life. Although it is hard to take your eyes off the characters in the film, Oga makes it worth your while. Two years ago Oga had a 500-plus piece exhibition a the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art compellingly titled “The One Who Painted Totoro’s Forest.” The Museum extended the show and extended its normal hours to accommodate the popularity of the exhibition. Oga worked on a total of ten Studio Ghibli films, including Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo, but it was his art in Totoro that gave him the notoriety he has today.

My Neighbor Totoro was released in 1988, the same year as Grave of the Fireflies, made by fellow Studio Ghibli director Isao Takahata. Because Totoro was seen as more of a financial risk, the two films were released as a double feature. Fireflies was seen as a sure-sell because it was based on a popular novel that had retained its historical relevancy. Over time, of course, it was Totoro that became a huge hit. The irresistible Totoro has become many things for many people including cultural icon and ambassador, and the face of Studio Ghibli. However, for its legions of fans that span ages and borders, Totoro represents a world without cynicism and irony and where, for 86 minutes, we can believe in the unbelievable.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Cinema Revolution DVD Sale

After six years and five locations, Cinema Revolution closing its doors. For better or for worse, Netflix and Redbox has revolutionized the video rental business and is slowly taking down the mom and pop businesses one by one. Ours is the generation of video store nostalgia that will surely turn into folktales perpetuated by the legacies of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith. John Koch, owner or Cinema Revolution, has, for the past six years, tapped into quality not quantity, engagement not passivity in sustaining his business. This weekend marks the end of Cinema Revolution as a video rental business, but it also signifies the beginning of the Cinema Revolution Society, an organization led by John and a handful of energetic film fans (including yours truly.) The Society of Cinema Revolution will shift focus to film exhibition, programs and outreach with the mission of invigorating film culture in Minnesota. Working from programs established by Cinema Revolution (Revolution Reel, Dance Film Project, Cinema Salon), the Cinema Revolution Society hopes to be omnipresent in the Twin Cities film community.

Which brings me to the DVD liquidation sale. Hopes to continue the video rental business under the umbrella of the Cinema Revolution Society were brandished a dose of reality when it became clear that the short term financial burden might be too much for a long term advantage. This weekend we will be holding a liquidation sale of the entire inventory of foreign, independent, documentary, cult and classic movies on October 3rd and 4th, during the Sound Unseen festival. The sale will be held at 3260 Minnehaha Ave in Minneapolis (next to the Trylon microcinema) and will run from 9-6 on Saturday and 12-6 on Sunday. There will be a $5 admission on Saturday only and Sunday is free, and all sales will be cash only. There will be lots of great deals on previously viewed movies, and also on TVs, DVD players, monitors, and other store fixtures. All the money from the sale will help the Cinema Revolution Society move forward and build a organization that will flourish.

Stop by and say hi and do a little shopping. I will be there early Saturday to shop and later Saturday to work.

Cinema Revolution DVD Liquidation Sale
Saturday, October 3, 9am-6pm and Sunday, October 4, noon-6pm.
3260 Minnehaha Ave (next to the Trylon)
$5 admission on Saturday only. Cash only on sales.