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MusicfestNW 2011 In Review

This last week/weekend found most of downtown Portland and beyond dominated by the massive musical festival that is the annual MFNW. Set over 5 hot and muggy summer days and dozens of venues around the city, it featured an outdoor stage in Pioneer Court House Square and acts ranging from the local to international. Here’s a smattering of what I caught, a fraction of the action to be sure.

Sebadoh by Daniel Cronin

My first show of the fest was one of the biggest. A headlining set by the recently reunited Archers of Loaf and a supporting set by Sebadoh, with local duo Viva Voce opening. Set in the sweltering Crystal Ballroom, the show was a shot of nostalgia with both “The Doh and The Loaf,” as Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow put it, sharing the bill at a venue show for the first time in, well, ever. Sebadoh’s set was marked by Barlow and compatriot Jason Lowenstein switching off from sludgy, slanted indie pop, to straight up punk thrashing. The trio perfectly set the stage for Archers of Loaf, and the influential 90’s rockers shot through a catalogue crossing set featuring a band that is a little older, and a little easier on the gear, but no less exciting. The wide eyed grins coming from generations of fans after the show spoke of that.

Friday was a younger version of Thursdays events, starting at the Star Theater with Seattle troublemakers BOAT cruising through a set of catchy, hooky indie rock with a Pavement-esque appeal and a deadpanned passion that had audiences signing along and throwing confetti like some kind of  house party. To contrast to that, Dirty Beaches played a set over at Dante’s with a minimal and anti-pop approach. Songwriter Alex  Zhung Hai utilizes prerecorded beats and a dissonant guitar to accompany his growling vocals in what could be a primordial soup of rock and roll. A very surreal set of music. Following that, back at the Star Theater, San Francisco psyche rockabilly band Thee Oh Sees absolutely tore the place apart with their hyperactive roots and punk rock.

Thee Oh Sees by Andy Wright

For all the frenzy and excitement of the first two days, the weekend was downright pleasant, though no less scorching. Saturday saw an outdoor show at Pionner Court House Square that featured some local and not-so-local acts. Opening up was ambient producer Eluvium, aka Portland’s Matthew Cooper, who makes wonderful music to watch shadows dance across buildings to. Next up, beloved Portland ensemble Typhoon played an appropriately rousing and spirited set. After that followed sets by Brooklyn scenesters The Antlers and Austin’s instrumental post rockers Explosions In The Sky. From there, Avi Buffalo and Blind Pilot played at the Crystal Ballroom. While the young and eager Avi Buffalo suffered from both equipment and banter failures, not to mention a sloppy set, Portland’s Blind Pilot saved the day by putting forth a solid set of both folky harmonic tunes and and their newer, more rock leaning soon-to-be-hits. This show was their official album release for We Are The Tide, and by the reaction they got at the Crystal Ballroom, bet on Blind Pilot to really take off this year.

OK, enough puns, down to the last day. With festival fatigue setting in, it was nice that Sunday was the shortest day of the week, with only the outdoor show downtown happening. Cass McCombs delivered a sublime set of music, most of it off his recently released album Wit’s End, and all of it stunning in it’s melodic simplicity. An artist who can do very much with a minimal effort, it would be nice to see him again live, maybe in a more intimate setting and one with less distracting circumstances. Headliners Band of Horses were the main attraction of the show,  and they played a fun and lively set to be sure. Thankfully, a few cuts off their superior debut album made it on the set list, as well as a few new as yet still untitled tracks that could have been worse. All in all, a fitting end to the long week.


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The Fighter

There’s two things you need to know to figure out The Fighter. One: it’s based on a true story. Second: it’s a boxing movie. Put together the plot yet? Can you guess how it ends? There’s not a single surprise in the entire course of this movie, except how good it all is.

Ever since the days of Rocky, America has loved the underdog, the regular Joe who comes out of nowhere to win one for the rest of us little people. So when a story as good as that of small time boxer Micky Ward, played here by Mark Wahlberg, actually exists, it makes instant fodder for the masses. But, that’s only half the story. In the film we are first introduced not to the titular fighter, but his older brother, the  big talking former hero of Lowell, Mass, Dicky (Christian Bale). Turns out Dicky is the subject of a documentary chronicling his comeback to the ring, or so he assumes. In reality, Dicky is a crack-head, training Micky but more often than not found jumping into dumpsters out the second story window where he gets high.

And it’s quickly revealed that Dicky is the real heart of the film, played by an almost unrecognizable Bale, in one of his finest performances since, well, ever. He dominates the screen when he’s around, pushing Micky into the sidelines and out of the focus. In fact, Micky’s whole family is casting a shadow over his life. His high strung manager mother (Melissa Leo) and legion of harpy sisters, seven of them, have stunted him almost to the point of having no real personality. Only when Micky meets and begins a relationship with Charlene (Amy Adams) does he really stat to find his own voice and take on an active role in his career as a fighter.

The film takes all of the usual steps in exploring the dynamics of Micky’s family. There are the predictable beats in the movie, like  fights lost and relationships on the ropes, but The Fighter is good enough to keep our attention even through these labored cliches. In fact, once Dicky is finally faced with his addiction, the documentary was on his crack use, not his comeback, he makes as big a turnaround as Micky does,  and everything ends in a predictable but surprisingly satisfying climax.

Director David O Russell has made some of my favorite movies and showcased some of Wahlberg’s best performances to date, the dynamic Three Kings and the hilariously philosophic I Heart Huckabees. And while The Fighter is nowhere near as imaginative as his previous films, Russell still excels at every aspect of film making here. Yet, again it’s Bale who should be receiving more recognition for his role, he disappears into the skin of Dicky. Seriously, my friend didn’t even know it was him until I said something. And it doesn’t get any better than Dicky trying to con a group of Cambodians or screaming “WHEEAD YA PAAHK THE CAAA-AAHH?!?” in a wicked New England accent. It really doesn’t.

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Black Swan

Director Darrern Aronofsky’s films all have a common theme; the quest for the unattainable. Whether it’s knowledge (Pi), escape (Requim for a Dream), immortality (The Fountain), or redemption (The Wrestler), his films showcase obsessive heroes and anti-heroes battling themselves and their environment to unlock secrets and discover new worlds. Often these quests end in tragic form, and the the secrets revealed destroy what the journey couldn’t. Black Swan, the latest from the award winning filmmaker, is no different. If anything, it may be the grand culmination of this theme before Aronofsky potentially departs from art house cinema for large blockbuster fare.

The film begins with a haunting prologue, a dream in which our protagonist, vetern ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman), lives out a nightmarish version of one of ballet’s most celebrated works, Swan Lake. We follow Nina in a simplistic, stark manner, very much like the way Aronofsky followed Randy “The Ram” in The Wrestler. Nina lives a solitary life, sharing an apartment with her equally obsessive mother and dedicating herself solely to ballet. When the announcement is made that the company will be producing Swan Lake, Nina takes this as a sign and tries out for the lead role of the Swan Princess. It’s actually a duel role, with both a good and evil version, and predictably this is where things start to turn.

Nina has unhealthy compulsive control issues, like an apparent eating disorder, that she maintains and functions with.  But things quickly become very dark as her precious control is threatened both by her sleazy director (Vincent Cassel), and her apparent rival Lily (Mila Kunis), a dancer who possess all of the carefree passion in life that Nina can never know. Though she lands the lead after a questionable interview, Nina is not living up to the role. As she struggles things close in around her with menacing results. Soon, she herself is undergoing a Kafkaesque metamorphosis and seemingly destroying everything around her. All in the name of her own unattainable goal: perfection.

This film actually works in many ways. On one level is a psychological suspense story, on another it’s a straight up horror flick. Aronofsky seems to channel a host of other influential masters throughout the film, and some scenes almost play out as homages to Hitchcock, Lynch, or Cronenberg. Heck, I’d even throw Miyazaki on that list. As events become more confused and chaotic in the film, Aronofsky handles it deftly, keeping us guessing but not confused. The stark handheld cinematography compliments Nina’s world of mirrored walls, whispered threats, and a growing disassociation from reality, and everything remains believable if increasingly improbable. All of the performances are spot on, especially Portman and Kunis, who’ve earned all of the praise they’re receiving. They and the film itself command your attention every second of the movie, never letting up or backing off.

Black Swan is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, but my viewing list is a little light. It’s not Aronofsky’s best yet or his masterwork or anything too grand, but it’s an achievement that, if nothing else, made ballet a lot more interesting. And that’s not easy.


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Inception: The spoiler free review

Everything they say about Inception, the new film from writer/director Christopher Nolan, is true. All of it. Even the negative stuff.

Joseph Gordon-levitt as Arthur.

It’s a film that goes as far as it wants, and it keeps you riveted for a sprawling 150 or so minutes. It’s the work of a man who has experience dealing in mysteries, be it his breakout hit Memento or the magic of The Prestige, and Inception trumps them all in scope and sheer imagination.

Most impressively is just the fact that this movie will have people talking, really talking, not only about dreams but about the film, the portrayal of what is for us, our most personal realm. You won’t see Iron Man 2 or Knight and Day springing up real discussion. And thank goodness Nolan gave us an adult film this summer, we almost had to abide on cartoon toys for maturity.

Just take a look at this trailer. I have nothing more to add to that. Go see this one in the theaters. And yes, you are safe. Inception is NOT in 3D!

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The End of ‘LOST’

Last Sunday, Annie and I were the last two people admitted into the Baghdad Theater in SE Portland, where the finale of LOST was playing on the big screen for free. We grabbed a pair of seats, a pitcher of beer, and bravely faced the end of a television era,  an event six years in the making.  So, how did it go?

In many ways, LOST was the quintessential TV show. It contained a little bit of everything. It had character driven drama. It had mystery, intrigue and more cliffhangers than Stallone could shake a stick at. It gave us everything we wanted in good television, except the answers. And the finale was no different.

But before we could even get to the finale, we had to sit through an exhaustive retrospective of the LOST universe in the form of a two hour recap. It was another in a long list of recaps that have preceded season openers and closers, as if everyone watching the last episode ever were just a bunch of newcomers looking to be a part of this whole LOST nonsense. For me, the recap kind of killed the finale in terms of emotional resonance. I know I didn’t really have to watch this recap, but if I wanted to see it on the big screen I did, and by the time the finale really got under way I was already dipping into my ‘sappy TV montage’ reserves, as the whole 2 hour recap served as a “sweetest memories” collection from the last six seasons.

Geez, how long is this gonna take?

As for the finale, it worked and it didn’t, in very much the same fashion that the series itself did/did not work. I was simultaneously satisfied and bitter about the end. I felt it was at once an inevitable conclusion and a far reaching desperate grab at sentimentality. And that’s the way the show has worked from day one.

On island: The conclusion to the Locke vs. Jack story was perfect. We finally get to the light in the island, and predictably, it’s powered by a random stone stopper in a well. Desmond can go down there because of his electromagnetic abilities (why?) and pulls out the cork. As Jacob explained earlier, that cork is supposedly what keeps evil at bay in the world. So, the light dies and a red crimson glow engulfs the waters. This act nullifies, basically, everyone’s supernatural ability on the island, making Locke mortal (as well as Richard) and also begins the act of destroying the island.

See, like the island is this wine bottle, man. Get it? That's the best I can do.

It's like, the island is this bottle, man. Get it?

Now, see how none of that is really explained or logical? Why is a cork causing light? Why does the uncorking mortalize otherwise immortal beings? No answers, but like the rest of the show, it’s still compelling – and it sets up the best fight sequence in LOST history. The final showdown between Jack and Locke was spectacular, simply put. All in all, I loved everything that happened on island. Six great characters lived to escape, Hurley became the island’s defender, and asked Ben to help. Kate and Jack expressed their love for each other. It all ended as it should have. The other reality? Well, that’s still under debate.

Off island: The reveal at the end that the sideways reality was a purgatory state for our now deceased characters was both overly predictable, and I think less impacting than it was meant to be. It tried to hit too many emotions, and tried to incorporate too many minor characters.

The sentimentality is something that’s just overplayed in this show. Too many montages, too many long goodbyes and tears welling up, too much sad piano music. It’s the same stuff we saw all season, all six seasons, especially in 2 hour recap extravaganzas. We are all waiting to say goodbye, just walk into the fucking light already!

At least they kept it multi-denominational

Alright, here’s the thing. The creators, Damen Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, knew there was no way to fully wrap this up. LOST, like other great TV shows (cough cough X-Files), just opened up too many doors and left them open, went sideways both in reality and tone too often, and overall dragged on too long as it was. It’s inconsistency in plot and development was it’s hindrance.

Yet the genius move in this last season was how the show told us all, directly told us, to let it go. Let it be the mystery. Let it end. And I think this season has been a cathartic end to the journey. I’m sad in some undefinable way that it’s over and I will miss it as a show, but I have truly just let it pass on, and I think that’s the ultimate victory in this finale. It says goodbye and tells us not to mourn. I certainly won’t.

But, if you guys do decide on some spin offs here’s a Quick Top 5 choices you could make.

1) Fantastic Island. The continuing adventures of Hurley and Ben Linus. They could just call each other number one and number two the whole time. That and Ben saying, “The plane, the plane” really ominously when another jet liner crashes.

2) Frank Lapidus-Pilot for Hire. An Indiana Jones style adventure series starring everyone’s favorite fly boy, Frank!

3) Richard Alpert is Lost in New York City! A 17th Century man transported to modern day city living. Keep an eye out for crazy Miles, Richard’s neighbor with a chatterbox ghost for a room mate.

4) My Two Mommies. Kate and Claire team up to raise baby Aaron while struggling with the every day pressures and still being kind of crazy from living on that fucking island so long.

5) Law and Sawyer. I would actually love it if Sawyer really became a cop. He’s a reformed con man gone straight. And since Law and Order is also ending, maybe this is just the show to fill that court room procedural hole in your heart.


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Classic Movie Review: Flashpoint

It’s been a day or two since I watched Flashpoint, one of my latest Laserdisc aquisitions, and I’m still trying to figure out a lot of shit. Even the title of the film is a mystery to me. A “flashpoint” is defined as:

1. The lowest temperature at which the vapor of a combustible liquid can be made to ignite momentarily in air.
The point at which eruption into significant action, creation, or violence occurs

Now, I can tell you that at no time are liquids ever involved in this movie. Believe me, it takes place in Texas. And I’m pretty sure the moment of significant action actually comes offscreen in this feature, though the resulting violence itself is sweet, sweet justice This means spoilers people, spoilers on a 26 year old movie. You are warned.

The film opens on Border Patrol agents and good buddies Bobby (Kris Kristofferson) and Ernie (Treat Williams). These guys are close, man. So close, that the movie opens on them taking a totally non-erotic partolman shower together. Well, really, Ernie is passed out drunker ‘n shit, and Bobby blasts him with the cold wake up call. This ruins Ernie’s day, so he spends the rest of the movie being a hot headed, whiny, “and the horse you rode in on” kind of dick. Bobby, on the other hand, is too old for this shit and doesn’t give a fuck either way. So, yea-not the most likable leads, but it’s cool.

These guys are all bent out of shape because “the man” is replacing their patrol jobs with sensors. You see, this being 1984 and all, the film carries a slightly out of left field anti-technology stance, as the evil Feds come in and wreck everything for the little guys. Thanks a lot big brother.

It’s in the desert that our boys run across their respective love interests, Doris (Jean Smart) and Ellen (Tess Harper) stranded wih a broke down car. It doesn’t take much to convince the ladies to hook up with the gents, as they quickly couple up,  Bobby and Ellen, and Ernie and Doris. Or as Ernie call her, “the mean one.” And he’s right too, she’s a big ol’ bitch. Please enjoy this scene from the movie overdubbed with a Kristofferson song (way to do it Youtube).

After about 20 minutes or so, our movie decides to try and start it’s plot, when Bobby finds a Jeep buried in the desert. He digs it up, along with the skeletal driver, a rifle, and $800K. Well, now. Thing are getting interesting. But, Ernie’s not so sure about this. I mean, the money is 20 year old, but still good. They could be living the good life, all he’s got to do is say yes. But the poor bastard’s all hung up on the morality of it all.

In the meantime, these guys are still Border Agents, and thus have some illegal drug smuggling to bust. Unbeknown to them, some higher up are in on it, as Bobby and Ernie are forced to team up with Agent Dickwad (Kurtwood Smith) and his goons. Suspicious after the feds seemingly tip off the dealers, our two heroes decide it’s time to take the money and run.


You see, this whole time, this whole movie, it’s all been a conspiracy, man. Yea, those guys in their suits? They’re the spooks, man! They were in on it man. We’re talking the big one. The real deal. See, this movie’s actually about JFK, man! That rifle in the jeep? That’s the one ‘at did it. Oh, man.

Damn you, gun!

Sadly, the climax of the film doesn’t go so well for Ernie. Moral hang ups having gotten his partner killed,  Bobby finishes this movie by thankfully getting revenge in the best possible way. There’s yelling, There’s a show down,and Kristofferson totally unloads a whole clip on Red. But, at what point do things flash? I have no idea.

This is a surprisingly slow and thoughtful movie. Things take time. The guys talk about stuff. There’s very little action at all. Often I thought of No Country For Old Men, and not only because Tess Harper also played Tommy Lee Jone’s wife in that one, but for the overall pace off it. Surely, it’s nowhere near NCFOM in terms of tension or overall effectiveness, but it goes for that vibe, rather than making this an old west shoot ’em up. I liked that.

The hole cast in this is great. Treat Williams is one of my personal favorites anytime, but everyone here is pretty right on, especially Kurtwood. And there’s even the likes of Rip Torn and Miguel Ferrer too.

But the best part? That’s easy. Tangerine Dream. They did the whole soundtrack. Awesome! Please, now enjoy some of the music overdubbed across shots of the soundtrack LP. Again, many thanks Youtube.

But you know what sucks? They were going to do an end title song, you know for the credits and stuff? But no, the director didn’t want that. Well, turns out he wants to use some super expensive Rolling Stones song, the studio says no, and some intern writes the “Flashpoint” end title song. AND it sucks! It’s the worst song to end the movie you could possibly have. AND now we live in a world deprived of a Tangerine Dream song about Flashpoint.

This one has mostly been forgotten, and it’s easy to see why. But, there’s still some great moments. A solid 7.JUst don’t go in expecting any flashiness whatsoever.


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Shutter Island

As this is yet another in my ongoing series of delayed film reviews, this will undoubtedly have some spoilers happening. I won’t give it away, but consider yourself warned. So what’s up on Shutter Island?

Director Martin Scorsese is usually a solid bet. His films range in topics and tones, but the work is always fascinating. He has a catalog of great films that attest to his ingenuity, his daring, and his visionary scope as a film maker. Sadly, he employs none of these abilities to Shutter Island.

I expected the film to follow a path of dead ends, deceptions, and red herrings. Just as I was willing to fore go my general disbelief and ride the formulas with abandon. But the whole thing is so labor intensive, so stacked with exposition and explanation, so spelled and re spelled out  to the audience that I could barely keep my attention on it for the excruciating two and a half hour run time.

We begin on a boat, emerging from mist, where Leo Dicaprio is giving us his best seasick impersonation. He steps on deck with his new partner Mark Ruffalo. In a bland one shot, we get all the details necessary to voyage to Shutter Island with them. Why these two Federal Marshells are only now introducing themselves is quickly forgotten as they arrive on the island, tasked with finding an escaped mental patient.

Obviously enough, everyone is acting strange. Well, it is a loony bin after all, but things just don’t add up. Combine this with Leo’s increasingly trippy dream sequences and you have a taught and engaging psychlogical thriller, right?

Sorry, folks. For some reason, Scorsese prefers taking the long road on this one. The very long road. The film is a mish mash of pointless scenes, clues that go nowhere, never to be explained, and characters that show up for the briefest of flashes, also rarely making an ounce of sense and leaving almost immediately, never to be interrogated again. Honestly, I failed to see how most of this movie was driving the plot forward.  There are a few particularly painful moments when info is apparently being delivered, but in such a dull and ultimately forgettable way that it’s rendered useless after the climactic reveal, which itself actually reveals very little that we did not already conclude ourselves.

Most infuriatingly, Scorsese insists on filling this movie with more cliches than you can shake a stick at. I mean, seriously, if I never watch a man scream “NOOOOO” into the sky again, it will be too soon. There’s a lot of raised eyebrows and the inevitable, “what’s with the raised eyebrows?” talk going on. There’s a terribly overstated musical score. There’s spooky yet unrealistic lighting and the cheap scare of things that jump out from the dark, mostly mental patients.

And then there’s Leo’s accent. Yes, he’s playing another Bostonian, just like in The Departed. And yes, there’s a lot left to be desired. I’m sorry, but I have never seen Leo perform a convincing accent, be it Gangs of New York Irish, or Blood Diamond South African. It’s just not his specialty. I have seen Leo do a much better job before, though. In fact, everyone involved in the film has done extraordinary work before, they just didn’t get a chance to bring their A-game today. And ultimately that’s Scorsese’s failure. He is supposed to, if nothing else, make sure every other genius in the room is at full volume.


All in all, I was sorely disappointed in this film, but others I know were delightfully surprised. Maybe my Scorsese expectations are too high. After all, the man has made some of his best work in the last decade, and I’ve already forgiven this brief rough patch.

But, Marty. Please, please, please try to cast someone else as the lead in your next film. Please. The whole you and Leo partnership is starting to go stale. Maybe it’s time for a change. I blame the comfort zone you’re operating in more than you personally. Try something radical, try something unprecedented. You can do it, they’ll let you get away with anything. You need to embrace that kind of freedom and stop wasting it on remakes and adaptations of already popular works. Please.


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