Radiohead kicked off its US tour in support of its latest album, the King of Limbs, Monday night with a sold out show at the AmericanAirlines Arena. It marked the first time the alt-rock legends performed a show in Miami since they opened for REM in support of the Bends in the mid-nineties. Much has changed in those 20 years since Radiohead’s sophomore release. Fans of REM have faded, as that band has broken up while Radiohead has now (as of this post, at least) eclipsed REM as far as relevance in the independent rock world.

Radiohead are probably a rarity among independent music scene, in order to sell out an arena all by itself without the help of endorsements, heavy commercial radio play and a major label. Add to that the notion that the band has re-invented its sound so many times since its last Miami arena show as an opening act (kids, I’ve been there from the beginning, as this post documents: Radiohead tribute show in Miami, allow me a few words on said band), while still maintaining its line-up all these years (though this show saw the addition of a sixth member), they rendered any music from the Bends, not to mention, its predecessor Pablo Honey, the album that spawned “Creep,” irrelevant. In fact, Monday night saw no selections of those albums in Radiohead’s set list. A couple of dips into OK Computer sounded like nostalgia, in fact, and set a new tone to the show during the first encore. Really, like its new album, Radiohead felt mellowed out. But below burbled a surface of subtle complexity: a moody but mellow show, punctuated by lyrics of grumbling ambivalence to man’s place in existence. It’s almost a fluke miracle that this band has achieved a popular following so strong that it can sell out an arena on the strength of its name alone.

From my view, way far off in the lower level stands, people mostly sat or stood. Some ate nachos and pretzels and drank beer. The King of Limbs could indeed be the group’s most low-key album to date, and I think it’s a grand, if short work. The quieter and slower the record sounded, the better. A highlight moment has to be the coupling of “Codex” and “Giving Up the Ghost.” The latter being the stronger of the two. Its pastoral gorgeousness threw me back to Pink Floyd, in the use of acoustic guitar and tweeting birds. It’s probably the album’s slowest song, at that, but, man, when Radiohead ratchets down the mood, they know how to do it.

Though I posted about what was then the surprise announcement of the new album (Radiohead’s new full-length out this Saturday), I never offered later opinions on it. For the record, my views on the King of Limbs has wavered over these months. I have spun the biodegradablely packaged “newspaper” 10–inch vinyl edition only once. I was quite annoyed by the interruption of the track flow between “Codex” and “Giving Up the Ghost,” and feel so strong about it, I might just get the 12-inch version for home listening. In the end, King lacks the dynamism of In Rainbows, but it still has the intelligent and distinctive songcraft one might expect from Radiohead, and they play mellow so well, even if the beats get hyper.

So how did the album translate live? Radiohead even performed every song from the album except “Little By Little,” probably the weakest and most annoying track on the album, anyhow. I will jump ahead to their keen live version of the album’s closer, “Separator,” which closed the band’s first set:

By now you will have noticed the visual side of this show. Like the In Rainbows Tour (the only Radiohead show I have caught since I saw them open up for Belly in support of Pablo Honey in Miami Beach) video screens were a key element. That show happened two counties to the north, in West Palm Beach, at the Cruzan Amphitheater. But the drive was certainly worth it. That show featured a light show that trumped the venue’s jumbotrons, which were shut off for the duration of the performance. The set came alive with varying close-up images of the band members, as they performed, which pulsed in an array of colors. I made my own videos, way off from the front of the lawn, and it still looked cool. Here’s one of those, which though cut, highlights their use of screens during that tour, four years earlier:

This one is a particular favorite due to the fact that even a plane flying overhead did not do anything to break the mood:

More videos I recorded that night can be found on YouTube that show it was one of the few performances that still paid off from a distance. The show last night also worked thanks to the screen use. During last night’s show, as many as 12 different angles of the band members shifted and floated into an array of positions on the square screens, flashing in various color templates for each song. It made for a dynamic experience and helped highlight the subtleties between the songs. The only time all the screens folded away came during the presentation of one of two new songs, “Cut a Hole,” hinting at its work-in-progress state. Radiohead fans in the presence of its debut in a live setting may have wet themselves, but I found the track rather uneventful. I would have to hear it a few more times to pass solid judgement, and, who knows the band might change it up. Luckily, someone standing up front recorded it for yourselves to judge:

I did happen to record the other new song of the night, “Identikit,” which had a nice building, dynamic quality:

The screens on stage did not always focus on the band. Besides abstract images, frontman Thom Yorke’s face filled them up during “You and Whose Army?”

But the highlight is indeed the music, which proves to be something beyond pop music and trendy hipster rock. Radiohead is among a very few group of bands that still holds my attention, since I first heard them in the early nineties. There is a classic quality to its music that harkens to British rock’s early forays in redefining pop music with experimentation popularized by the likes of the Beatles and carried on by King Crimson and David Bowie. The seriousness of the musicians’ awareness of this was on full display in Miami last night, and it only left me looking forward to more. Here are the other videos I captured that night:

I was surprised to see a sell out show at the AAA in Miami because of the largely low-key experience that is King of Limbs, which did not receive close to as much critical praise and hype as In Rainbows.  If the focus on the new album, minus “Little By Little,” did not establish a tone for this show, I do not know what did.

This was a show for diehard Radiohead fans. There was even the inclusion of OK Computer B-side “Meeting in the Aisle,” a mellow, mood-setting instrumental that fit cozily among the King of Limbs tracks. Though I was surrounded by what indeed seemed locals, I had noticed many commenting on Radiohead boards before the show that they were coming from out of town for this show, seeing as it was the kick-off to the band’s US tour in support of the King of Limbs. The coverage was swift and even saw YouTube videos and set list recordings as the show unfolded at the fansite At Ease. Though my wife (she’s the photographer here) and I kept track of the songs during the show, here is the set list courtesy of At Ease, which I verified based on my notes for accuracy. This is correct:

01. Bloom
02. The Daily Mail
03. Morning Mr. Magpie
04. Staircase
05. The National Anthem
06. Meeting In The Aisle
07. Kid A
08. The Gloaming
09. Codex
10. You And Whose Army?
11. Nude
12. Identikit
13. Lotus Flower
14. There There
15. Feral
16. Idioteque
17. Separator
———
18. Airbag
19. Bodysnatchers
20. Cut A Hole (new song debut)
21. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
———
22. Give Up The Ghost (with a false start)
23. Reckoner
24. Karma Police

My only complaint would be the cavernous sound of the arena, adding an echo that felt annoying. Play any video I captured in 2008 at the open-air Cruzan and compare it to these to hear for yourself.

The show went on for nearly two hours, following the enchanting support act Other Lives, from Oklahoma. Be sure to arrive on time in order to not miss this chamber rock ensemble, who employ effective use of glockenspiel, cello and violin as well as more traditional rock instruments like guitars and piano. It all swells and rides along nicely and seems to fit in well with today’s folk/psyche/dream-pop indie rock scene. Here are two videos I recorded from their brief, shamefully ignored set (apologies for the chatter around these recordings):

Other Lives found another good fit as the warm up act to Bon Iver prior to taking on the task as opener for Radiohead. They were excellent and the complexity of the band set up did justice to the recordings. The band has offered both of the songs I captured above as free live streams on the band’s website.

You can see the remaining Radiohead tour dates here.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Continuing on from part 1 of yesterday’s post, here are the upper 10 of my 20 favorite films of last year that will most likely not receive any major Oscar® recognition tomorrow. Ironically enough, I’ll start by recognizing the lesser praised of the losers of the 2010 Foreign Language Film category, which I would not catch until the following year on DVD, as it never even had a South Florida theatrical run:

10. Dogtooth

Most everyone I spoke with, or every article I read, thought the contrived Incendies should have won instead of the contrived A Better World. Instead, give me Dogtooth, a fascinating and disturbing study of brainwashing within a family. Thanks to the naïveté of the teenage children at the heart of the story, this film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos feels like one harrowing display of existential abuse after another.  Is it entertaining? In a sick way, yes, in the black comedic sense, but it’s also a cautionary tale of a social group following its patriarch without questioning. ;)

9. The Strange Case of Angelica*

With the Strange Case of Angelica, the ever prolific Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira proves— at 102— that there is always room for talent to grow. Shot for shot, the film offers one luscious image after another. The dynamism in the mise-en-scène reveals a director who knows the art of cinema like the back of his hand. Oliveira seems to make up for so many wasted shots by less experienced directors, bringing some balance back to the universe of cinema. A film that celebrates living while meditating on death, be it the end of life or the passage of a lost time, the Strange Case of Angelica is at times humorous in the surreal sense of Fellini and other times philosophical as only a wise, aged man like Oliveira can bring out of a movie.

8. Meek’s Cutoff

Just as the closing credits began to roll for Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff several in the sparse crowd during my screening, the majority of which I would consider of the Baby Boom age, burst into laughter. For a film as stark and unfunny as Meek’s Cutoff, it was the first time during the movie I ever noticed anyone laugh, much less crack up into guffaws. I would interpret this reaction to the film’s seemingly open-ended finale to the fact that the film builds on a suspenseful sense of dread, as the characters head out to reach a destination that remains unrevealed. Behind that is the fact that the true hero of the film is a woman played with seething restraint by Michelle Williams. The fact that the drama unfolds during the beginning of the settlement of the western United States in the early 1800s, one must pick out subtle clues in the film to understand the director’s decision to end it as she did. The is a woman’s film that captures a time where women did nothing but follow men. It feels as though Reichardt has cracked open a portal to another era, and she never compromises that vision.

7. Ten Thousand Waves

More a film installation than an actual movie and impossible to re-experience at home (Ten Thousand Waves was displayed on nine different screens that could be seen from different angles and no image was ever the same), Isaac Julien created one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had with the moving image. For all those that skipped it at the Bass Art Museum on Miami Beach, too bad, but a handsome book was made capturing many of the marvelous imagery of the piece (see link above).

6. The Tree of Life

Only cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has a chance to win the Oscar® tomorrow with this film. And only a philosopher turned filmmaker could leave a viewer with the feeling that humanity, or even a single human being, is as insignificant as a bubble bursting on the surface of mud, yet still instill the feeling that each one of us is as grand as the planet on which we dwell. In an unfurling of imagery comparable in abstraction to the stargate sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Malick melds images of mundane life in 1950s suburbia with glimpses of a prehistoric earth, as a mother tries to express her loss of a young son during a hushed voiceover. As grand images of the evolution of the world unfolds, Malick gives equal measure to a hulking dinosaur peering into a mortal wound, as it lays beached on the shore to the brewing of soap on the kitchen sink dishes. It’s a cinematic symphony of sound and vision rarely experienced in today’s multiplexes.

5. Super 8

“She’s nice to me,” one of the most heart-rending lines in a love story delivered by a young teen to his father who does not want to see him fraternizing with the daughter of a man the father holds a grudge against. Super 8 was so much more than a monster movie. JJ Abrams captured the passion of budding young filmmakers, young love and the marvels of creativity and imagination unleashed with passion for escapist fun. I came into the theater bitterly cynical about Hollywood’s interest to manipulate and make a buck and came out soulfully moved by this movie. A true rarity in the age of tent poles and sequels.

4. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives*

This film exists in that rare world of pure cinema: a place where images and their associative relationship, through editing and even pacing invites deeper meanings. Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an expert at this, and he has shown more maturity with every film. With Uncle Boonmee, the camera lingers much less, and Weerasethakul’s lens has grown more focused. All the while, the director leaves those entrancing spaces that invite the audience to inform the images. The movie feels like a transcendental experience. He does this simply. In what seems like arbitrary images, he captures everyday life mixed with surreal situations with more power than mainstream movies, which prefer to shove narrative, conflicts and character types down the viewer’s throat. Like a great painting or a great song, his film defies written description. His movies exist in and of themselves. They are meant to be experienced. They activate the mind on a near subconscious level.

3. My Joy*

It takes a deep love of country to create such a nightmare journey into the madness of backwoods Russia that is My Joy. One scene after another fascinates, and first-time feature director Sergei Loznitsa, who wrote the screenplay based on stories he heard during his years as a documentary filmmaker, wastes no words of dialogue, as it all seems to reverberate with the ghosts of Russia’s past and the foreboding of its future. The film has an almost literary sensibility, as the seeming anecdotal encounters entwine and illuminate one another while also traveling through time, back to Stalinist Russia. It’s as if Loznitsa is illustrating the collective unconscious of a country that has repercussions on future generations. This director shows immense promise as a feature filmmaker, and he could very well be another Krzysztof Kieślowski.

2. Le quattro volte*

The film may be from Italy, but you need only understand the language of images to get its message. The magic in Le quattro volte lies in that unique aspect of cinema: the gaps or edit splices of the film. Forget the fact that the film has no subtitles. It’s all about the associations between the scenes and the bigger picture that results.I have never seen a film without literal narrative that still manages to tell a story so concrete and profound through associative images. Le quattro volte illuminates the fleeting presence of a man on earth without relying on words. After all, like any spiritual experience worth having, words could only cheapen the film’s message.

1. The Mill and the Cross*

For me, one of the most gorgeous and gripping films released last year was the Mill and the Cross, and yes, I do hold it up against Melancholia* (didn’t make my list) and the Tree of Life (number 6 on this list). Director Lech Majewski is one of the more underrated and obscure masters of cinema working today. It’s tough for a Polish filmmaker, also an admired video artist, music composer, poet, novelist and stage director, to outshine the hype of Von Trier and the mystery of Malick, yet the Mill and the Cross stands tall as a testament to Majewski’s talents. The story is powerful and potently portrayed with mesmerizing images that never stop amazing.

Hans Morgenstern

*a full review of this film ran in this blog during its theatrical run (search for the title in the box at the top of the right-hand column).

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Of course since posting my year-end list of my 10 favorite films of 2011, my opinion has changed. I’ve seen a few more movies, or maybe it’s just Friday. Whatever. Life, not to mention film appreciation, is subjective. Regardless, I hope this read provides a refreshing guide celebrating 20 of what I consider are the best films cinema had to offer in 2011… as far as the independent ethos is concerned.

I could not find the time to see every movie released this year (what human being can?). I even have not seen (sacrilege!) Oscar® contenders like Moneyball and the Artist. But it is safe to say I satisfied by craving for art house films. Any film below that I also reviewed at length in this blog is followed by an *. So, search for their titles in the box to your right for more in-depth thoughts on what made these films special.

Please consider this list as an antidote for all the hype leading up to Sunday’s big night. Sure, I can try to predict what happens on Oscar® night (though the race seems more interesting than years past), but I prefer to dwell on the films I saw that touched me on an artistic level, free from the hype and commercialism that surrounds the Hollywood-centric event. This list goes out to the truly independent spirits, many of whom went under-appreciated partly because they probably did not have the marketing budgets of Hollywood films but also because they offered unusual and original cinematic experiences, be they independent movies, foreign films or people working in Hollywood bucking the “tent pole” and sequel/prequel trend. I’ll start with number 20 (All titles link to their Amazon.com pages. If you click through the links and purchase the movie, you will provide financial support to this blog):

20. Source Code

Time travel films can make for messy movies, and this one seems to be unraveling all the time until it all snaps together in one surprising mental “click” at the very end. It felt as thought director Duncan Jones had just pulled of a magic trick using the narrative techniques of cinema. Sci-fi has never felt both this entertaining and intelligent in a long time.

19. A Dangerous Method

This is as minimalist a Cronenberg film can get: go to the father of psychology (Sigmund Freud, as played by Viggo Mortensen) and examine the tensions between him and his most famous student (Carl Jung, as played by Michael Fassbender) and put a woman seething with id between them. Keira Knightley gives an underrated performance as the Cronenberg monster Sabina Spielrein, the animalistic Russian woman exploding in fits and ticks when encountering authority. Her contorting during Jung’s initial session looks like a special effect: a shape-shifting monster struggling to fix its short circuits in order to retain its human form. The dynamics that ensue thrills on the analytical, psychological level.

18. Drive

One of of the few films I watched in the theaters that physically affected me. I was shivering with nerves like I haven’t in a long time. The slowburn aggression of Ryan Gosling’s character coupled with the stylization of director Nicolas Winding-Refn, who clearly delights in violence, had me quaking like a little kid.

17. Martha Marcy May Marlene

First-time feature director Sean Durkin rises above a stellar, hype-stealing star turn by Elizabeth Olsen (the younger sister of the Olsen twins) with Martha Marcy May Marlene. Though she compliments the film with a delicate and dynamic performance, her character is also a cog in a twisted tale told through a twisted knot of edits that continuously flashback to her life in a cult. Marcy May somehow escapes the cult, returning to the open arms of her sister (Sarah Paulson) to reclaim her birth name Martha. However, she cannot seem to shake her past, which may or may not be catching up to her in real life. The film’s ambiguity does tremendous respect to this mixed up character. The director makes a great, if risky, move at film’s end, staying true to the feeling of helplessness of a person who cannot seem to distinguish “reality”— whatever that is— from fantasy, imagination, hallucination, dreams or what have you.

16. Take Shelter*

A film telling a story from the perspective of a schizophrenic personality always makes for an interesting subject via the cinematic art form. It allows for wide-ranging amounts of mystery. But it can also be a harrowing experience, as one can never tell what lies around the corner from one scene to the next. Take Shelter piles on the stakes, as the main character, family man Curtis (Michael Shannon), slowly unravels while his family seems to need more with each passing day. Some might say there is a big reveal at the end of the film, yet you cannot really trust where director Jeff Nichols decides to place the final frame, as this is a story from the perspective of Curtis.

15. Le Havre*

With Le Havre, Finland’s most popular director, Aki Kaurismäki, reveals a refined, focused talent that has not compromised its sensibilities. The film contains many a breathtaking scene, like the starkly lit stacks of containers at the harbor where we meet the young African migrant Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) at the film’s beginning. Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a good-hearted elderly shoe-shiner, will invest all he has to help that boy get to his mother in London, finding karmic reward at film’s end, represented by a neatly framed shot of a cherry blossom tree in his front yard. Le Havre is a delicate, charming film that recalls the best of the most efficient of world cinema. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes but lost out to the more bombastic Tree of Life. The film flows with the ease and charm for the joie de vivre of both adventurous youth and aging with grace. At the film’s heart is a boy embarking on a new life, daunted by a new, alien land and an old man happy in his groove of life, scraping together the few Euros needed to stay afloat and support his wife, home and dog.

14. Film Socialisme*

If it had a musical equivalent, Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme would be Sun Ra record from. The “music” of the movie’s imagery is one of the wonderful things about Godard’s obscuring of narrative that seems to bring out a rhythm inherent to the medium of cinema. It was as if JLG was exploring cinema in its purist form. As such, it seems to have more in common with a symphony rather than a book, as movies are so often compared or associated with. As with all great art, be it paintings, poetry, sculpture or music, you will get as much out of Film Socialisme as you put into it.

13. Mysteries of Lisbon*

The stories that make up Mysteries of Lisbon offer something beyond anything I have ever seen in a movie theater. It follows a curving narrative line that cannot be contained. One might imagine it follows a path that can only be illustrated as a three-dimensional cone that begins as a dot and spirals wider into a curlicue with gaps as branches sprout off the curls and twirl off in their own twisting manner into a dark abyss. All the stories within this epic 4-and-a-half-hour film. no matter how brief or long, are swollen with implication and possibilities. The movie’s layering of stories comes across almost dream-like, recalling a recent Hollywood movie that excited movie goers by diverting from the traditional form of blockbuster films, meshing together layers of ever-shifting settings and even goals: Inception. Like Inception, when the finale in Mysteries of Lisbon arrives, the audience is left to wonder: was all that happened really a sort of fever dream, brilliantly adding a layer of infinite possibilities to the proceedings with another surreal bow on top.

12. The Hedgehog

This film took me by surprise. Opening with the annoyingly precious precociousness of a young French girl preparing to kill herself, as documented in family home videos of her bourgeois life, the film becomes a testament to living.

11. Project Nim*

As I watched the story of the oft-abandoned and re-purposed chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky, I could not help but think of Robert Bresson’s classic story of a mule, Au hasard Balthazar. Project Nim has no heroes. The people in Nim’s life come off self-righteous in their presumption to know the soul of a chimpanzee. Director James Marsh splices together a moving documentary that hooks you early and never lets go. The film’s richness comes from a cast of characters who express their love for Nim that reveal how good intentions and human folly can wreak havoc on a living creature. Yes, Nim may have a consciousness, but his mind is not human, an immutable fact that dooms this 1970s-era experiment in assimilating a chimp into a human family from the beginning. Laura-Ann Petitto, Nim’s second surrogate mother, lays it plainly at one point in the film: “You can’t give human nurturing to an animal that can kill you.” The film also offered a powerful precursor to that other great chimp movie of the year: Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

This list continues in this post:

An antidote for Oscar hype: My 20 favorite films of 2011 (numbers 10 – 1)

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Though dealing with quite a morbid subject: a toddler stricken with a malignant brain tumor, the French film Declaration of War tackles the subject with a grand sense of humor and joie de vivre. Based on the true life experience of director and lead actress Valérie Donzelli, this film could have easily slipped off the deep end into self-pitying melodrama. I expected as much, but the film shook my prejudices from its opening frame.

Donzelli knows how to compose a shot. The colors stand out first. mother Juliette’s (Donzelli) pale blue sweater compliments part of the cartoon panels painted on the wall of a pediatric waiting room. She sits on a red couch that matches with the black and red striped pullover of her young son, Adam (Gabriel Elkaïm, the actress’ real life son). It’s both a stark and irreverent image at once that reverberates with foreboding. Adam is about to be placed in an MRI machine. As the loud nightmare sound of the MRI scan crackles its percussive, clacking drone, the camera slowly zooms in on Juliette. She is spacing out, her hand on Adam’s foot for comfort. She reflects back on the night she met Adam’s father, Romeo (Jérémie Elkaïm, who also co-wrote the script and is the real life father to the boy actor). As soon as you might feel annoyed by their coincidental names, a few seconds of witty dialogue and action redeems the contrivance.

The flashback continues with the pair’s romance-filled montage. They frolic in Paris’ streets to the perky strains of a little ditty by Georges Delerue, who has composed for none other than François Truffaut. I shall stop the comparison at that, but the film certainly pays sly respect to the French New Wave on more occasions. The couple laugh, run and bicycle together and play with cotton candy. They even share a coffee outside “Café Cherie.” A droll, unidentified man’s voice narrates the action over this ain’t-life-grand section of the film, as we meet the lovers’ friends and relatives. The scenes are so over-the-top, Donzelli seems to wink at her own indulgence in cliché. In fact, these scenes may not be literal representations of what happened. They are more about setting a tone of what it feels like to fall in love, which works on a cinematic level. To punctuate the scenes, she closes them off with an iris-in shot and then an iris-out to the beginning of bad news from Romeo:  Adam (the toddler version is played by César Desseix) will not stop vomiting.

During the following section of the film, where the couple worries over the child, the director inserts images of what appear to be networks of cells under a microscope. Glimpses of the cellular mesh quake and slither between scenes, until finally the cells seem to collapse together into black goo that flushes down a drain located off-screen. It’s a clever move that reveals a director with a strong command of the cinematic language. There is also one single and well-earned moment where she exploits the power of the rapid zoom-in.

Donzelli proves herself throughout this consistent little film. When Juliette takes Adam to his first CAT scan, she captures the complexity of this mysterious and troubling situation in little details. Juliette takes the boy to a hospital outside of Paris for the initial evaluation by specialists. Adam must be put to sleep in order to stay still for the brain scan. She accompanies him to the door of where the procedure will happen, where the technicians order her to wait outside. Adam is wheeled in crying before he is narcotized behind the closed doors. As the doors shut, she turns to run frantically in the hall, as an incongruous beat of a techno/house song kicks in. The camera shakes so hard as it follows her bolting away, she blurs away and slips out of frame. Meanwhile, in cross cut, Romeo and a friend happily repaint the couple’s apartment, oblivious to the horrible news that will soon shatter them.

Donzelli is probably best known as an actress who has dabbled in directing to so-so success, but nothing stood out beyond her native France. With Declaration of War she seems to provide France’s answer to last year’s 50/50. Declaration of War was a huge hit in its native country, grossing over $6 Million there alone. The film was so beloved, France entered it for a foreign language Oscar this year, and it opened Cannes 2011’s Critics’ Week. Besides its popularity, the film earns its right to be admired. It never drags in the misery of the situation. Even though the person stricken with cancer in Declaration of War has not even reached two years of age, the film never takes overly sentimental turns to wallow in what must have been a miserable situation to Donzelli. Instead, the film swings from one spirited scene to an emotional scene and back with an ease that never suffocates the viewer in dreariness.

Here’s the trailer:

Hans Morgenstern

Declaration of War is Unrated, runs 100 minutes and opens in South Florida on Friday for two nights only: Feb. 25 at 10 p.m. and the 26th at 8 p.m.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

If one misconception has plagued the man behind the expressionistic, retro-infused handle Ursula 1000 over his 10-plus-years of recording original music and spinning records as a club DJ it may be the notion that he cannot play an instrument. After all, he plays all the instruments on Mondo Beyondo, the latest record by his alter ego Ursula 1000, released on ESL Music, including drums, guitar, bass, organs and synthesizers. I first met him as a drummer in the Miami band 23. His life as a DJ and Ursula 1000 would come years later. Speaking via phone from his Williamsburg home in New York, he notes that for the first time in 10 years, he is working to put together a band for a small summer or fall US tour. “I’ve been wanting to do this for a while,” he says. “Having played in 23 and stuff in Miami. I miss performing live.”

Though the Ursula 1000 band remains in the planning stages, it seems a longtime coming. He has released five albums under the alias, which pays tribute to iconic sixties actress Ursula Andress (she of the famed bikini in Dr. No) while also acknowledging the futuristic optimism of her heyday era in the quadruple digit tag. He has led a jet-setting lifestyle that has seen him touring the world as a DJ with appearances at giant music festivals and hip nightclubs since the late nineties.* His albums have a style that sounds like a pastiche of sixties pop music run through an electro-dance blender, leading to the notion that he is a sample-based DJ. “I think for me it would be a personal victory,” he says about performing live music, “so people would see that, yeah, this guy can actually play this stuff. There’s still people that see me touring as a DJ, but they know I have albums out. It’s hard for them to connect the dots, and they say, ‘So what is it that you do exactly?'”

What he does is weave together nostalgic sounds from the sixties, be it swinging, jazzy pop or psychedelic rock with modern sounds and some crazy dance beats. He walks me through a quick overview of his oeuvre. “The First two albums were the first two albums,” he says of 1999’s The Now Sound of Ursula 1000 and 2002’s Kinda’ Kinky. “Those were the ones that were very sixties-influenced, and there was some fifties, kind of Latin Cha-cha, mambo kind of elements.”

He followed them up with 2005’s Here Comes Tomorrow and 2009’s Mystics. “Then I started bringing in new wave influences that I loved and post punk and glam rock from the seventies and even sounds that were inspired by my DJ sets,” he says. “So I was very much making a record that was kind of listenable at home but also kind of DJ-friendly, too.”

Mondo Beyondo came out in August of last year. It seems to bring together the past and the present in the most organic way possible for an Ursula 1000 record. “With this one, I tried avoiding things like dub step and any flavor-of-the-month kind of rhythms,” he says. “I had been going back to some of my sixties roots, listening to garage rock and mod soul and all this kind of stuff. I was like, I’m just going to put something out that I want to hear. It wasn’t influenced by current trends, and I thought I may get total shit for this coz people may be thinking, ‘Oh, God, this guy is kinda living in the past,’ or kind of treading old ground, but surprisingly, reviews were very positive. It was nice to see that because I was expecting reviews to really rip me with it. With things like Pitchfork and these kind of trendsetter, taste-maker kind of people, if you’re not like this flavor-of-the-month kind of thing, like chillwave or something, or whatever the hell it’s called, then it’s [not cool] … I just want to do something that I really like and I really dig.”

Here’s the title track’s official video:

When it comes to music that he listens to, it runs a wide range of styles. But a lot of it moves forward while still acknowledging the past. He notes an appreciation for Seahawks, who he says, sound like yacht rock while also incorporating a dub influence, like the Orb. He has an affection for the work of Tame Impala, who he says have a warm, psychedelic soft rock sound. He also lauds Toy, a young band from England influenced by shoegaze music.

Though Gimeno counted himself a fan of shoegaze back in the early nineties (in fact he and his mates in 23 produced music that easily fit into that genre of dreamy, swirly music), he has recently fallen back in love with many of those bands. Just last month he compiled a mix of obscure shoegaze on his Soundcloud:

In fact, Gimeno says, he is on the way to completing an EP of original music that pays some respect to the genre and should see release this summer. He says the music is so far removed from an Ursula 1000 record, he has decided to release it under another alias: Impossible Objects. “I have this mini-LP almost done,” he says. “It’s not as eclectic as an Ursula 1000 record. This definitely sounds like it’s this one band playing this thing … I just love the droney guitar kind of stuff. It’s kind of a shoegazy, droney, space-rock guitar sort of thing, but there’s also heavy synthesizer work in it. So there’s also a Giorgio Moroder [influence], almost like John Carpenter, seventies horror soundtrack stuff,” he says with a laugh.

It marks an almost logical step for Gimeno, who just produced his most organic and flowing Ursula 1000 record to date. In fact, he says, this album originated from a more melodic instrument than the beats he is more accustomed to beginning a song with. “Since I’ve been playing a lot more guitar lately it’s been actually starting, in some cases, from riffs,” he says. “In the beginning, since drums were my main instrument, I used to start with rhythms, and now things have gotten a lot more melodic. I’ve been more confident with my playing, so now I can actually pick up a bass or guitar and actually work out a riff like a traditional band would.”

One guitar riff that stands out in Mondo Beyondo is the one that drives “Don’t Get Your Panties in a Bunch.” He says, “That lock grove, Krautrock-inspired, whatever you want to call it, I’ve always loved that. It’s funny because I didn’t get into Can or any of that stuff until way after the fact. I got into people like Stereolab, you know, like people who were emulating that stuff after the fact.”

Speaking of Stereolab, who happen to feature a French vocalist, another track on Mondo Beyond of note is “Repetez Le Repertoire,” which features another kind of Krautrock influence: the incongruous electronic rhythmic pulses of Kraftwerk. It also features the sensual voice of Isabelle Antena, who primarily reigned in the post punk/art rock, samba-influenced band from France called Antena, during the early eighties. Gimeno says he did a remix for her and always talked about collaborating. “I was re-listening to the first Deee-Light album, which is such a big record and a huge influence also for me too, just the way they were kind of handling samples, so I had this very bubbling kind of electronic track, and I thought it has this kind of French thing, and I asked her and she was down for it.”

Probably the biggest name who collaborated on Mondo Beyondo is Fred Schneider of the B-52s. He sings on the second track, “Hey You.” Gimeno says they both had a mutual friend who wanted the two to meet. It never happened but, during one fateful airplane trip from a gig in the Midwest, Gimeno noticed him on board. Gimeno says he gathered the courage to approach him in baggage claim after landing in New York, and he introduced himself dropping their mutual friend’s name. When Schneider asked Gimeno what he did, Gimeno told him about Ursula 1000. “Oh, I think I have all your albums!” Schneider responded.

Gimeno could not believe it. “I was shocked. How crazy. So we just swapped info,” he says, “He has this side project called the Superions, which is him and two guys from Orlando. They do this weird kind of electro-pop stuff, and I did a remix of one of their tracks, and that’s kind of how we broke the ice.”

Schneider happens to live in Manhattan, and Gimeno offered him a track of instrumental music that needed vocals. He came over to record it in Gimeno’s home studio. “It was great,” Gimeno says. “It was real super easy to work with him. He had this great book of lyrics. It was all so super quick, just right in the pocket.”

Gimeno says he and Schneider continue to work together. “I’ll be producing some tracks for the upcoming Superions album,” he says.

Collaborating on projects beyond his own albums is nothing new for Gimeno. He also will be producing music for the Japanese pop singer Izumi’s forthcoming album, and he recently finished a remix for an an upcoming compilation from Waxploitation called Future Sounds of Buenos Aires.”

Despite his international exposure. Gimeno still comes across as the down-to-earth music and comic book geek I first met as the owner of Bam! Comics and Graphic Novels in North Miami, when he lived in South Florida, back in the early nineties. The cover art of Mondo Beyondo harkens back to his love of comic books, as the illustrations come from an obscure comic book called “Mod Love,” by French pop artist Michel Quarez (he was then uncredited) written by Michael Lutin. “I’ve always been a comic book nerd,” Gimeno says. “I love the genre and stuff, and there’s this comic book that I heard about called “Mod Love,” which came out in 1967 or something like that, and it was this very psychedelic, Peter Max, Yellow Submarine kind of groovy art thing. Totally impossible to find. It was like from some weird, small publisher. I finally found one on eBay last year, after years of hunting for this thing. When I got it, it was just page after page of really beautiful art. As I was working on the album, I kept thinking to myself, this is the artwork for the album, but how the hell am I going to license this stuff because I don’t think the publisher exists anymore. And then I finally tracked down the writer. He does astrology for ‘Vanity Fair’ magazine, and he must have done this comic book when he was like 20 or something. It turned out he had the rights for it.”

Gimeno approached Lutin and told him what he had planned for it, expressing his love for sixties mod culture and psychedelia. Lutin asked Gimeno for his astrology sign and then granted him the license to use it as cover art. “He saw that my intentions were true,” Gimeno says, “and he was super cool with it. It was nice to have something that wasn’t a fourth generation or fifth generation. It was like an artifact of that era.”

Though the album first came out on CD and MP3 back in August, it was not until December that a large format, double LP, gatefold vinyl release saw the light of day to do the art proper justice. “It’s so weird,” Gimeno says, “the physical world is kind of diminishing right now. To get CDs or vinyl pressed nowadays is like pulling teeth. I really wanted this out, even from a limited kind of standpoint.”

Only 500, hand-numbered vinyl copies saw release, and two months later only a few remain at select shops (Amazon seems to still have a few in stock, as of this posting). “It’s weird because 500 now is like 3,000 from like six years ago. When I first got on the label [ESL Music] vinyl was very healthy. To press like 2500 or 3,000 of a 12-inch single for me, it’s like not a problem at all. Now if you do that, it’s like ‘Wow!'”

Gimeno also notes that he recently heard of Neil Young’s rant regarding the loss of sound quality in the digital sound of MP3s, which seems to be the preferred format of the music industry nowadays. “He broke it down in a weird way,” he says of Young. “He had broken it down to decibels and how like even good quality mp3s are like some kind of weird decibel, and there’s this whole body of sound being lost because of it.”

As a DJ, Gimeno is very sensitive to vinyl, and he’s noticed audiences do not seem to care, especially in the clubs. “It’s almost like how loud can you go than the subtleties of the track,” he says. “It’s not even about sound quality anymore. It’s completely like who can be the loudest,” he says with a laugh, noting that it is all about rattling the speakers over the sound of the music. “It’s always like how far can I push this subsonic bass thing.”

But now he is concerning himself with how to recreate his recordings in the purest way possible: a live setting with a band. Besides only two “pseudo live shows” Gimeno has never performed the music of Ursula 1000 in a band. “One was at the World Trade Center,” he says, “at the Windows of the World that used to be at the very top of the building. There was this really cool party that was going on when we first moved here. It was kind of like playing a lot of that J-pop that was around at the time, like Pizzacato 5 and a lot of this lounge revival mixed with a lot of the clubbier [music]. It was interesting. Then Marissa [Gimeno, his wife, who also appears on Mondo Beyondo] and I did a live thing recently in Washington DC in October. But it was very stripped down: bass guitar and beats that were prerecorded, kind of like the Kills.”

If he is going to perform Ursula 1000 music in a band setting, Gimeno says he wants to do it right and also stage a proper show. “I just want to do something cool,” he says. “Like some visual revue thing … A lot of times when people do a live thing, especially when they are in the same boat as I am, they might be this one-man-band that’s electronically-based, sometimes they’ll do a live thing where it’s just them and a laptop, and I really don’t want to do that. I feel like it’s kind of cheating. I really want to do something where I’m stripping everything away and rebuilding it back live … It’s going to happen.”

So far, Ursula 1000 has the following DJ dates lined up, including some dates in Miami

Hans Morgenstern

*He only recently returned from the Green Plugged Red Festival in Seoul, Korea. It was his fourth appearance there over the years.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

If there is a moment in history that does not need overwrought drama, sentimentality and heavy-handedness it is the roundup of Jews to Hitler’s death camps during World War II. Since the 2010 release of La Rafle (The Roundup) in France, where it was a bona fide box office hit, there have been many reviews of the film. Many have accused director Rose Bosch of sentimentality. But I feel differently about her movie, as she does seem to show restraint. Based on true accounts of this dark bit of history in Nazi-occupied Paris, though unrated by the MPAA, she tempers the film for a PG-13 level of audience. Some will argue this weakens the impact of the story, making it in fact sentimental. OK, so she does not exploit the violence. This does not make this story any less powerful. Besides, the horror of the Holocaust can never be matched sitting in a cozy movie theater for a couple of hours no matter how “unsentimental” you make it.

The music, though sometimes melodramatic, remains subdued. Especially if you compare it to, say, John Williams, who composed the score for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. There are few grandiose moments in La Rafle and no abuse of slow motion or other such high-pitched, stylized techniques. Though the production value is high, it serves the story, and never feels too showy. The production even includes a digital effect that sweeps through the thousands rounded up in one day contained in the Velodrome d’Hiver, on their first step to the death camps. This is not a fun film to watch, but a testament, if a straight-forward one, with little standout stylistic flourishes, so despite the fact that this film features Mélanie Laurent, who shines in an emotionally charged performance, do not expect Inglorious Basterds.

I’m not saying La Rafle is a perfect film. It actually falls in a sort of middle ground of compromise of violence and sentimentality that will probably be shrugged away by most. But, I, for one, was moved by the film’s little touches of detail. The story is, for the most-part, told from the perspective of Joseph Weismann (Hugo Leverdez), a naive 11-year-old boy who is based on a real, still living person, who barely escaped the trains to Auschwitz to tell the story that informs this movie. The film is at its strongest when it stays with his perspective. However, Bosch tries to cram too much exposition around Weismann’s story to the film’s detriment. It is in the intimate moments with Jo where the simple power of the film resonates.

The film begins with too much expository dialogue running the viewer through a historical context that should be familiar to anyone who might be curious about such a movie. There is even a brief cut to Vichy, France, the famous seat of the collaborators that paved Hitler’s entrance into France. There are also cutaways to Hitler himself (Udo Schenk) who has such obvious lines as “Everything is happening as I wrote in Mein Kampf.” He also tells Himmler (Thomas Darchinger) of making “ashes” of the Jews so no one can tell the children from the adults. There is one brief moment showing a German officer calling from Auschwitz, with flames raging behind him, asking for the deliveries to slow down. In more deft hands, say Oliver Stone or Quentin Tarantino, that moment could have resonated, but it’s muted and oddly matter-of-fact, as Bosch tries to over-reach for comprehension in the drama.

The truth of the horrors of this period in history do not need such painstaking, all-encompassing re-enactment. It’s the small, intimate moments that ultimately hold the film together, like the little Jewish boy Nono (played by identical twin brothers Mathieu Di Concerto and Romain Di Concerto) who tag along with the masses. Through it all he continues to ask when his mother will arrive to join he and his brother, not knowing that she has already died. He clings to a Red Cross nurse named Annette Monod (Laurent) who knows the truth but tries to keep his spirit afloat as her own spirals downward. There are also more personal details like the disposal of jewelry in the latrines just before the detainees are hauled away to their final camp and the arrival of firemen at the Velodrome d’Hiver offering their hoses to the thirsty masses. Those contained at the stadium also do not pass up a chance to hand over notes to the firemen addressed to those on the outside. These are the sort of details a child might remember from a life experience. The historical context was something far beyond and would have naturally come out in the film in more subtle ways.

It is a difficult line to walk for a director who wants to tell a side of the Holocaust that has not really ever been given such a grandiose, big budget treatment. This was a true human tragedy in France. Anyone unmoved by film’s end, during the reunion of those who should have died, is not allowing themselves a chance to understand the horror that Bosch is trying to communicate. She does it best during the small details, like the unrelenting drive of a Jewish doctor (Jean Reno) to help his people stay alive in the unsanitary conditions they were relegated to. Or the small but powerful lines by the victims as they are rounded up. One woman screams, “I won’t leave. This is my house!” as she clings to her home’s door frame while a French policeman yanks on her. When the neighborhood baker’s wife yells out “Good bye, Jewish vermin” as those gathered up are placed on trucks, a little girl yells back, “I’m not vermin!” These moments resonate with immense tragedy, proving there is no need for melodrama or over-explanation. It is these observant touches of humanity that pay off in the end.

Hans Morgenstern

La Rafle opens Friday, Feb. 17, in select theaters nationwide, in the US. In South Florida it will play the Intracoastal Mall Cinema in North Miami, Sunrise Eleven in West Broward, Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, Regal Shadowood, Regal Delray and Cobb Jupiter 18. The following Friday, Feb. 24, it will start its run at the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale and the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The film is unrated and runs 124 minutes. Up-date: If you missed it at any of the prior venues, it arrives for a limited run at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema as part of Miami Film Month on Friday, Mar. 16. Get tickets to those dates here.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

You can now hear the entirety of the newly remastered Weed Forestin album, the debut recording by Sebadoh. OK, for the sake of historical accuracy, it has been re-attributed to Sentridoh, what was then the solo project of Lou Barlow. Either way, it is the debut recording of the Sebadoh mastermind, recorded at home in the late 1980s, during the early days of Dinosaur Jr., the more famous band for which he also sang and played bass.

You can now stream the whole thing here:

As Barlow promised in my interview with him (Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow talks beginning with ‘Weed Forestin’ (soon to be reissued on LP): an Indie Ethos Exclusive [Part 1 of 2]), there is also a limited edition vinyl record. He had told me only 500 would be pressed, “because no more than 500 people want that record,” but that number has now increased to 800. There is an even smaller run of cassettes (only 100). You can also buy a deluxe edition that includes both cassette, vinyl, MP3s and Child of the Apocalypse, a cassette of outtakes from these sessions, recorded between 1986-88. It can all be ordered here, at Sentridoh’s bandcamp:

Order the remastered edition of Weed Forestin

Finally, if you want to hear the whole remastered package, including  Child of the Apocalypse, you can do that as well. Sentridoh’s bandcamp site is also offering a stream of that “second” album featuring many interesting outtakes, including a faster, more countrified “I Believe in Fate” and  alternate versions of “Poledo” the catalyst of this album, which first appeared on the Dinosaur Jr. album Your Living All Over Me:

Or you can just download the MP3s, another purchase option. But as this is mastered straight from Barlow’s first generation master tapes, the vinyl should prove to be the most interesting difference as far as reproducing the analog sound of the source. But that will not head out until the end of March (the 27th, to be exact). You can pre-order everything right now, however.

But just listening to the live streams proves a revelatory experience. There are some instantly noticeable differences. As Barlow said during my interview with him: the hiss has been virtually erased. But the character of the album’s lo-fi quality has not been compromised, even if it does sound different. The vocals are clearer and words jump out that seemed obscured in the earlier versions of this album. Still, “Jealous of Jesus” has that weird sound quality shift at the center before the collage tape coda, an idiosyncratic but important mood element to the album’s organic quality. You can hear birds in the background of “More Simple,” something I had not noticed until now. As “Brand New Love” starts, the tape has picked up the sound of crickets, adding to its moody, nocturnal quality. Heck, I just heard a car horn briefly blaring in the distance during “Feeding Evil.”

There are also a few surprises in there as far as true changes to songs. “Ride the Darker Wave” has some extra percussion during its coda. The crazed ending of “Brand New Love” featuring remnants of a trio of widely varying songs from folky country to death metal has disappeared. Yes, this Weed Forestin is different, and there is more to notice by anyone who feels they know the album like the back of their hand. However, the soul of the album remains intact. It still has a youthful, pseudo-intellectual mentality that preceded Bright Eyes’ pioneering of the “emo” scene.

I shall close this post with one more bonus included in the deluxe package. According to the press material, more than a decade ago, Barlow received a VHS cassette from a fan featuring an animated video for “Brand New Love.” You can watch it here:

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
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