Monday, September 29, 2008

Music Review: Push Play-- Deserted


I must admit, when I first saw the adorable, but impossibly young, faces of the band Push Play staring back at me from their debut album Deserted,I felt extraordinarily old as someone in their late twenties. In fact, back in the day I was even too old for *NSync or The Backstreet Boys.

Although I must tragically admit to a childhood appreciation for The New Kids on the Block, I always plead a youthful version of the fifth in that it was one of the many sins of the late 80s and early 90s-- right up there with the Hypercolor line of t-shirts that let your sweat act like a mood ring, men who wore Zubaz, and one foot high hair-sprayed bangs. Now just a few years away from turning thirty, did I really want to check out another boy band? I wasn’t sure.

Yet, being game for anything, which as a film critic is especially important when we’re faced with stuff like Mamma Mia!—I let the music do my thinking for me. And it turns out that, while they’re often lumped together with the Jonas Brothers (which has annoyingly prompted many to start mispronouncing my last name) and also Miley Cyrus, whose manager they just signed with, Push Play is like a youthful but far more fashionable version of Blink 182, The Killers, and Franz Ferdinand. While they began locally as the Long Island, New York version of the fab-four, as reported by Newsday, the previously unsigned band skyrocketed to levels of unprecedented fame thanks to a loyal fan-base of young screaming and swooning girls who saw them (following a debut at the basement of Manhattan’s Knitting Factory) in their breakthrough performance last autumn opening for Disney Records’ all-girl band Everlife. And as lead vocalist CJ Baran said, “all the fans wanted to meet us after our set. Nobody was going in to watch them play.”

Frequently bombarded with fan mail and more than a million hits on their ever-popular MySpace page, CJ’s mother Sue Baran who “had been responsible for at least some of the promotion,” took charge as “the momager.” Launching the charitable “Push Play for a Purpose,” Sue Baran and the talented foursome raised money for worthy causes at concerts and even give a portion of the proceeds from Deserted to the Education and Assistance Corp. (EAC), which as the CD describes is “a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting children and seniors.”

In addition to the eleven catchy tracks on the roughly forty minute album, as an Enhanced CD Deserted also features the music video for their song “There She Goes Again.” Although the disc kicks off with the slightly overproduced sounding “Starlight Addiction,” the track actually improves on additional listens, when you can pinpoint some of the band’s unabashedly emo-rock influences. The follow up track “Plastique” is addictive right from the start. Offering much more sing-along potential as the phenomenal hook is toyed with by Baran, he punches the last word of each line as though his voice were a drum until quickly it builds with guitars as the rest of the band including Steve Scarloa on guitar, Nick DeTurris on bass and Derek Ries on drums join in.

With Baran and DeTurris having played together since middle school with their first band Kaution, the chemistry between the four is wonderful and can really be heard with each successive track. In fact, as The New York Times writer Tammy La Gorce amusingly pointed out, “it’s not every day you hear a bunch of teenage boys referring to each other as B.F.F.’s.” And speaking of the tween popular phrase that’s been given a new lifeblood from the increasing popularity of CW’s Gossip Girl, Push Play’s third track “Situation” sounds like it wouldn’t be out of place on the hip show with its simple “sha na na na” chorus that grabs you and doesn’t let go.

While the album contains ballads and “Dreamers” is especially pretty, ultimately it sounds a bit too much like a prom song to remain memorable, along with “Here Without You,” that’s nonetheless bolstered by a terrific use of a keyboard. The change of pace from fast to slow couldn’t be more evident and it’s in the upbeat terrain where the band really finds their footing, especially in the jump-up-and-down anthem “Do It Deadly,” the slightly predictable Boy Band-ish “Far From Beautiful (FFB)” that nevertheless works and the television theme song ready track “The Life.”

Overall, a sunny, fun disc that’s as adorable as its fashion obsessed band who worship Dolce and Gabbana and sometimes design their own suits. Based on their unceasing popularity in cyberspace, it seems fair to say that fans won’t leave Push Play deserted.

Deserted Track List

1) Starlight Addiction

2) Plastique

3) Situation

4) Dreamers

5) Do It Deadly

6) Far From Beautiful (FFB)

7) The Life

8) Stop Staring

9) Here Without You

10) Time To Shine

11) There She Goes Again

Saturday, September 27, 2008

In Memory of Paul Newman

A video tribute to the legendary Paul Newman


Method actor, director, Oscar-winner (earning nine other nominations including one for producer), humanitarian, race car driver, liberal political activist, and co-founder of his own charity-inspired food company, Mr. Paul Newman has died. Following months of rumors about the condition of his health, we’ve since discovered that the admirably private 83-year-old legend that fought a quiet battle with cancer was at his home in Westport, Connecticut when he passed away yesterday “surrounded by his family and close friends.”

Perhaps most universally recognizable for those undeniably sexy, cool blue eyes, the devoted humanitarian who held a special place in his heart for seriously ill children co-founded Newman’s Own brand of food related products alongside his friend A.E. Hotchner,with all profits going directly to charitable causes, including $200 million dollars to Newman’s eleven Hole in the Wall Gang camps around the world, “with additional programs in Africa and Vietnam.” With 135,000 attendees visiting the camps free of charge in order to give children suffering from devastating medical conditions a place “where kids could escape the fear, pain and isolation of their conditions, kick back and raise a little hell,” as Newman’s own vice chairman Robert Forrester, it made the fact that, as Newman joked, “the salad dressing [outgrosses] my films,” all the more vital and indicative of his selfless devotion to others.

And although as a budding young film buff, I’d always been drawn to Newman’s work—first as a hormonal straight female teenager tuned into the enormous sex appeal offered by his earliest work—in my earliest writing pursuits, I actually became a recipient of Newman’s generosity myself. For, when I received a national Silver Award for a dramatic screenplay I’d written at the age of fifteen as part of the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, I learned that the organization had benefited from Newman. In the introductory speech at the Library of Congress, I learned that he, who years earlier had seen some of our work displayed, became so impressed that he reportedly offered assistance right on the spot to the organization that in the past had given awards to such famous scribes as Sylvia Plath and Truman Capote. Needless to say, when I became one of the few female degree-seeking students in the realm of film studies, I liked carrying the spirit of Newman’s courage in the importance of young talent with me through the hardest of times.

However, as a grown woman who sometimes becomes weary by the increasing divorce rate and dissatisfaction of numerous friends and fellow daters, both male and female alike, one of the most inspirational things about Newman didn’t even happen in the public spotlight. For although they shared the screen together countless times, it existed in his own private life as he carried a lifelong torch for his wife and favorite leading lady, Joanne Woodward. Whether, as The New York Times wrote, he gamely remarked to Playboy Magazine that he never was tempted to stray for “hamburger” when he had “steak at home” or casting her in his directorial debut with 1968’s Rachel, Rachel-- the collaboration of Newman and Woodward always ranked first before his other oft-cited label of “Newman and Redford.”

First sizzling together in The Long, Hot Summer, the two married in 1958 and this year marked the fiftieth anniversary of their phenomenal union as you can see in these playful videos, the first of which came from a documentary about Summer and the second was made as a YouTube video collage in tribute to the couple, using romantic clips of their work over the years.

The Story of the Bed

Newman and Woodward

And although he would rake in the awards, accolades, and press for the life he lived off-screen with charity, racing, or political activism, one of his quintessential quotes from CNN came upon learning he earned a place on Richard Nixon’s Enemies List which he called “the single highest honor I’ve ever received.” According to The New York Times, the well-known practical joker from Cleveland, Ohio who served in the Navy and studied at both Yale University’s School of Drama and New York’s Actor’s Studio alongside Brando, tragically earned a big break filling in for classmate James Dean after the actor’s untimely death. Following Newman’s television triumphant turn in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Battler,” he made amends for starring in The Silver Chalice, which The Times continued, he so despised that he took out an ad in Variety to apologize,” before his career took off and the rest as they say, is history.

In order to fully grasp his immense versatility, quick-wit, charm and the type of charismatic on-screen persona you just can’t duplicate, as a critic, I weeded through far too many amazing clips of his awe-inspiring career to put together a celebration of his talent with this video guide. I hope you enjoy it in the spirit with which it was crafted and that is to honor the irreplaceable Mr. Paul Newman who shone just a little brighter than other stars of his era.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

(as Brick, opposite Elizabeth Taylor)

Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961) & Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986)

(as “Fast Eddie” Felson)

Hud (1963): Leaning on the Sides of the Law

Cool Hand Luke (1967): “Plastic Jesus”

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969): “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”

(as Butch Cassidy, opposite Katharine Ross)

Newman and Redford: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: “I Can’t Swim.”

(“Next time I say let’s go someplace like Bolivia, let’s go someplace like Bolivia.”)

The Sting (1973): Card Tricks

The Verdict (1982): “I believe there’s justice in our hearts.”

(as Frank Galvin)

Nobody’s Fool (1994): Theatrical Trailer

Road to Perdition (2002): Piano Duet

(as John Rooney, opposite Tom Hanks and Daniel Craig)

Note:yes, that actually is them playing the piano.

While it’s impossible to show you a clip from the eighty-one film and television credited performances Newman offered his adoring public over a legendary career, I urge you to watch your favorite films again in tribute and click here to learn about the rest that may have passed you by.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Festival Preview: The 8th Annual Scottsdale International Film Festival

With nearly a week of international titles,
critical favorites, and special guests,
SIFF pulls out all the stops.


Although I began as an ardent attendee, my involvement with the annual Scottsdale International Film Festival (SIFF) has grown with each passing year, right along with the festival that has since screened 200 films from more than 48 nations around the globe to 37,000 attendees since its inception in 2001. Utterly inspired by the humanistic outlet for theatergoers and the power of cinema as a tool for global understanding, my devotion to merely attending soon felt like a call to duty as I morphed into first a volunteer team supervisor before finding my footing as an official festival blogger for The Arizona Republic online, became the Festival Ambassador, grant writer, and film festival guide summary contributor and editor here in 2008 as we celebrate our eighth year.

Needless to say, when it comes to SIFF, I’m a bit biased and all the more excited by the incredible events slated for this year’s festival scheduled from October 3 through the 7th. Although despite an impressive lineup of unique offerings that enable SIFF’s mission to “use film to foster a meaningful understanding of the world’s cultures, lifestyles, religions” and provide a haven from the constant barrage of grim realities and inescapable truths for our loyal attendees, this year festival goers are in for quite a treat as a bonus screening is scheduled for Thursday, October 9.

With director Mike Leigh and actress Sally Hawkins scheduled to attend the Arizona premiere of their award-winning critical favorite Happy-Go-Lucky, which earned honors in Berlin, it adds the icing on the cake of our Sundance-favorite Opening Night kickoff Phoebe in Wonderland and Barry Levinson’s supremely funny Hollywood insider comedy What Just Happened? starring Robert De Niro that closes the fest. While these three titles are all English language, it’s always been Festival Director Amy Ettinger’s goal to emphasize the international in the festival’s title.

In fact, when our inaugural festival was scheduled to commence on September 28, 2001, little did our festival director, the Scottsdale community or the rest of the globe know that they would soon be waking up to a very different world on 9/11/01 with the horrifying events that shook our nation. And while the global climate seemed so dire, the SIFF worried that the last thing people would want to do just 17 days after 9/11 was to come to a theatre to see a film yet much to the surprise of the festival, “the community turned out in force at double seating capacity” and sadly, attendees had to be turned away. What better thing for our mourning population to do than to run to “embrace diversity rather than run from it”-- attendees noted to the festival director—in order to utilize cinema as a vital “looking glass into other cultures and ways of life.”

It’s the continued existence of the festival with “an ever-growing audience” base that exemplifies the wish of our attendees “to be global citizens” and keeps inspiring the festival “to seek out even greater cinematic experiences and windows into the farthest reaches of the world.“ Although extreme effort is taken to seek out high value, independent films as well, a “majority of the international works screened at the festival champion stories of people who stand their ground to make a difference and who seek change for the better;” thus, we can leave the theatre “feeling enriched and inspired to become agents of change,” as noted on the site. Additionally, the only festival within the Phoenix metropolitan community that specifically focuses on foreign and international film and routinely attracts official selections from countries around the globe for the Best Foreign Language Film Category of the Academy Awards, it’s a bittersweet privilege to provide audiences with the opportunity to see a large portion of works that wouldn’t normally be released in the community when just five films are nominated for the Oscars. And in the past, films like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Babel, The Kite Runner, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, and The Queen-- all SIFF Official Selections-- have gone on to earn both Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.

While it’s impossible to predict which films may be awards contenders this year and as of now, I’ve only had the privilege of screening roughly a dozen in advance for summary writing and editing purposes, I wanted to offer a mini-guide of selections to showcase the diverse offerings and point out some of the most exciting inclusions for 2008.

Opening Night Selection: Phoebe in Wonderland

Devotees of Lewis Carroll’s beloved children’s classic Alice in Wonderland series will be sure to seek out tickets to writer/director Daniel Barnz’s cinematically dazzling tea party which draws numerous parallels to Carroll’s work. At a crossroads between acceptable childhood innocent curiosity and imaginative exploration mixed with peculiar Alice-like behavior, we follow the tale of the sensitive nine-year-old Phoebe (Elle Fanning), as her tendency to live in her creative mind is beginning to baffle her classmates, teachers, and parents (Bill Pullman and Felicity Huffman). When she’s given the lead role in the school’s theatrical production of Alice in Wonderland by her unorthodox new drama teacher Ms. Dodger (Patricia Clarkson) who likens herself to the Mad Hatter, Phoebe becomes increasingly drawn in by the play, which is coincidentally the same topic of her mother’s scholarly dissertation turned nonfiction work. Mistaking her daughter’s erratic mannerisms as a cry for motherly attention, Hilary Lichten (Huffman) tries to intervene when Phoebe runs into trouble with her strict principal (Campbell Scott), however when it becomes apparent that Phoebe is going through something more than just a fleeting fascination with Alice’s “looking glass,” those around her realize they need to stop listening to themselves and start listening to Phoebe. Tenderly drawn, heartfelt, and filled with gripping portrayals from its ensemble cast, Barnz’s Wonderland was screened in a highly successful premiere at the Sundance Film Festival before it was singled out by several critics as one of the festival’s hidden gems.

Screening and Special Musical Event: Crazy

The opening quote from this superb biopic of legendary 1950’s Nashville guitarist Hank Garland warns that in Garland’s words, “The music business can be hazardous to your health.” However, Crazy director Rick Beiber would have done just as well citing the other famous musician his lead actor Waylon Payne previously portrayed in the Oscar-winning Walk the Line—Jerry Lee Lewis-- by including a line that may have contributed as much to Garland’s unraveling as it did to Lewis, namely that, “Too much love drives a man insane.” Chronicling Garland’s life from his humble debut at the Grand Ole Opry to becoming one of the most sought after studio session players in 1950s Nashville, contributing excellent work to country and rockabilly classics by Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and countless others, the film illustrates both Garland’s tremendous range which found him challenging himself across all genres as well as his passion for the music which often led to fights, disagreements, and reckless encounters as he butted heads with domineering musical executives and other performers. However, as temperamental as Garland was when it came to his music, his pure joy for the medium is unparalleled, which made it all the more complicated when he falls into a love that quickly turns into an obsession with Ali Larter’s beautiful Evelyn, a quick-thinking blonde impervious to his “groupie tactics.” Tragically, after becoming his wife, Evelyn learns that she’s no match for the lure of the road or the promise of a new song, which leads to a rocky road ahead for the married couple as well as Garland’s career when he continually tests the limitations placed on him by corrupt industry. With admirable attention to detail, Crazy gets a mighty boost from the performance of its gripping lead Waylon Payne, in a role that he no doubt knew in his blood, having been born to two country music artists in their own right. Note: Actor and musician Waylon Payne will be in attendance on Saturday, October 4 to introduce the film, participate in a post-screening Q&A and perform his music outside and under the stars in Scottsdale.


“No water, no sex.” Whereas the women in Aristophanes’ classic Greek comedy Lysistrata withheld sex from their men to end a war, the women in the village of Absurdistan concoct a similar plan out of necessity in order to get their community’s water pipe fixed. However, unlike the women of Lysistrata, the results of their decision don’t end a war but rather begin one of epic proportions between the sexes complete with the usual devices of espionage, sabotage and tested loyalties. For Absurdistan, director Veit Helmer’s allegorically absurdist, unusual comedy employs cinematic techniques utilized in Jeunet’s Amelie and Gorris’ Antonia’s Line. Along the way, Helmer balances the broad comedy of the piece with a sweet tale of youthful love among Aya and Temelko, who, born on the same day, have been destined for one another’s arms their entire lives. But will their village’s feud end soon enough for them to finally come together? For the answer, we’ll have to look—not to the stars—but to the water.

Dark Matter

After earning the highest score on a academic qualifying exam, it seemed like the sky was indeed the limit for brainy cosmology student Liu Xing (Liu Ye) who left his Beijing home to work alongside his scientific idol, Dr. Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn) at an American university. However, comingling superstring theory with the indefinable, immeasurable topic of “dark matter” which became his obsession proved to be both Liu Xing’s greatest academic challenge as well as the ultimate metaphor for the darkness lingering just below the surface of Liu himself. When his former academic rival arrives at the university and not only seems far more at ease in embracing Western culture but also threatens to take away Liu’s place as Professor Reiser’s pet, Liu realizes that his dream to find a definitive proof for his theory to win a Nobel prize and marry a quintessential blonde haired, blue-eyed American wife may be jeopardized by university politics and academic egos. Based on a horrific 1991 incident that ended in tragedy at the University of Iowa, the structurally operatic film which is divided into headings of the five elements marks the feature filmmaking debut of internationally renowned theatrical director Chen Shi-Zheng. In addition, it features a wonderful performance from Meryl Streep as a supportive university benefactress whose own love of Chinese culture makes her the natural choice to take the department’s international students-- especially Liu-- under her wing.

The Grocer’s Son

Clip this coupon: Art-house fans charmed by The Station Agent and Pieces of April should be sure to add The Grocer’s Son to their festival ticket shopping list which was inspired by both director Eric Guirado’s love of road movies such as the Wim Wenders classic Paris, Texas as well as his own work as a television documentarian crafting cinematic portraits of traveling grocers over the course of eighteen months. Although it’s set during an idyllic summer, The Grocer’s Son is a warm celebration of the French countryside in the tradition of Eric Rohmer’s Autumn Tale. After having traded what he perceived to be a dead-end existence in the south of France for the hustle and bustle of city life a decade earlier, thirty-year old Antoine sacrifices personal ambition for family duty when he reluctantly agrees to return to his home in Provence upon learning that his father has fallen ill. With his free-spirited, academically ambitious friend and crush Claire in tow, Antoine takes over his father’s work driving the family grocery delivery truck throughout the sleepy, sparsely populated and eccentric community. And while journeying throughout the hamlets, Antoine is surprised to realize that he has a lot to learn, not only about the business which he finds fills an important human need throughout Provence, but his own life as well, while rediscovering the important things in life—namely, love, friendship and family.

Happily Ever After

More than anything else, the endlessly optimistic yet eternally unlucky Yukie Moirta (Miki Nakatani) wants to be happy… if only for a little bit. Unfulfilled in her daily work serving customers as a waitress in a noodle-bar where she’s the oblivious target of her boss’ misguided romantic attention, Yukie’s home life is further complicated by the unpredictable moods of her brawny live-in lover Isao Hayama (Hiroshi Abe). Prone to repetitively flipping over their kitchen table complete with Yukie’s sumptuous cuisine on ever-changing whims, the irrationally quick-to-anger unemployed Hayama who spends his days gambling away the money he steals from his girlfriend’s wages is nonetheless adored by the faithful and loyal Yukie. Unfailingly calling him her “darling,” Yukie fondly recalls the way her lover had saved her from fellow members of his old Tokyo Yakuza street gang. Convinced that he’s a changed man and their love will set him straight, Yukie ignores the naysayers and fights the odds to earn her own slice of happiness in director Yukihiko Tsusumi’s adaptation of Japan’s wildly popular heartbreaking comic strip “Jigyaku no Uta,” from creator Yoshiie Goda.

Not By Chance

Produced by Constant Gardner director Fernando Meirelles, this impressively audacious and high quality debut feature film from Brazilian writer/director Philippe Barcinski follows in the thematic and cinematically stylistic footsteps of Altman’s Short Cuts, Iñárritu’s Amores Perros and 21 Grams, and Haggis’ Crash. Centering on the alternately tragic and romantic yet always unpredictable fates of its seemingly unrelated characters, we first meet Enio, a middle-aged Sao Paulo traffic controller whose orderly existence, driven by mathematical logic and scientific precision is thrown into a tailspin after he discovers there are things beyond his control. After a startling event shakes Enio to his core, we encounter the younger talented billiard player Pedro, who, similar to Enio has a passion for structure in the geometric design of his pool table designs, and later discover that he is also linked to the film’s earlier climactic event. Polished, breathtaking and expertly photographed with a memorable score woven throughout, Not By Chance is one of those films that will not only get audiences talking about the existential matters of free will vs. destiny but will also benefit from a second viewing.

Drifting Flowers

Divided into three hypnotically photographed, thematically linked vignettes, award-winning filmmaker Zero Chou offers audiences an unconventional look at gender and sexual orientation in Taiwan with her third feature film, Drifting Flowers. Although it opens with a fascinatingly heartfelt tale of two sisters struggling to stay together in a society with prejudices regarding disability and homosexuality, the film’s real discovery is in the terrifically naturalistic performance by university student turned actress Chao Yi-lan as Chalkie, the good-hearted, tomboy accordion player who appears in two of the film’s segments. Using a constantly moving train as a symbol for journey and femininity throughout, writer/director Zero Chou transports us as her heroines drift along like tough but delicate flowers blooming in their own time while navigating through self-discovery, familial duty, and friendly loyalty with the ultimate destination of love in all of its incarnations.

The Pope’s Toilet

Upon hearing rumors that 20,000 Brazillian tourists will be flooding their tiny Uruguayan village for the 1988 visit of “The Traveling Pope,” His Holiness John Paul II, the locals of Melo eagerly sell their land and take out enormous bank loans in preparation to erect nearly 400 food stands in the hopes that God will provide them with fortune. While his neighbors opt for mouth watering recipes, long-time smuggler Beto—weary from the lengthy treks he makes along into Brazil to bring back goods to sell to businesses while dodging a crooked customs officer—decides to put on his notorious thinking cap, scheming that logically after one eats, the next requirement will find passersby looking for a suitable restroom. Impulsively, he enlists the help of his devoted but frustrated wife and ambitious daughter who longs to escape her fate and become a journalist, by erecting an enclosed “pay toilet” fit for a Pope on his property. However, when the expenses begin mounting, Beto finds himself struggling to make ends meet, not only to provide for his family but also to create what he deems will be the moneymaking answer to all of their problems, which he—along with his neighbors—feel will no doubt be solved by, if not a Catholic miracle, then a visit from the Pope. Alternately funny and melancholic, with an obvious homage towards classic Italian neorealist films such as The Bicycle Thief, this deceptively simple and quirky offering became Uruguay’s official entry to the Academy Awards. It also raises some vital questions about ethical and moral obligations and implications that arise when religious figures travel to poverty-stricken communities, leading to mixed results that are sure to have festival attendees chatting away, especially while in line for the restroom.


Although if asked honestly, most of us share a preference of dating within our party lines, in America, we frequently express that it’s best to keep politics out of love. However, the discovery of a true romance seldom goes according to plan. And imagine how much tougher courtship becomes when in the Sundance hit Strangers when the man and woman who find they’re becoming increasingly drawn to one another are Israeli and Palestinian respectively. Beginning with a typical “meet cute,” classic romantic comedy set-up, World Cup tourists Eyal and Rana first catch each other’s eye sitting opposite one another aboard a Berlin train. After mistakenly leaving with their opposite yet identical rucksacks and phoning to arrange a swap, the two strangers find themselves stranded in the overly-crowded city and find unlikely shelter in a large apartment upon learning that all hotels are booked. Despite a few tense moments and awkward jokes, they manage to form a bond despite their differences and soon slide rather naturally from friendship to romance amidst the celebrating city. Although unlike the admittedly naïve characters in Richard Linklater’s similarly plotted Generation X classic Before Sunrise, the problems Eyal and Rana face are global in scale. Ultimately, following their separation in Berlin after a night of young passion, the two must come to terms with how their experiences, family duties and ethnicity will impact any chance of a future when Eyal forgoes Rana’s wish and heads to Paris to reunite with his beguiling new love. This becomes especially complicated when a second Israel-Lebanon war begins. Hopefully optimistic, surprisingly touching and exuberantly photographed with earnest portrayals by its young leads, the fast-paced film admirably avoids the predictable tragedy one would fear. And along the way it should manage to inspire even the most politically cynical audience members that perhaps it isn’t too late to remember the old 60’s slogan to “make love, not war.”

Time to Die

If it hadn’t already been used as the title of one of Chekov’s most beloved short stories, perhaps writer/director Dorota Kedzierzawska would have been better off renaming the admittedly melancholic Time to Die, The Lady With the Dog instead. Time is bolstered by the feisty, winsome performance by its 91 year old lead actress Danuta Szaflarska as Aniela, a strong-willed woman who adamantly refuses “to go gently into that good night.” With her loyal border collie Phila (short for Philadelphia—possibly a reference to W.C. Fields’ gravestone of “I’d rather be in…”) at her side, Aniela, prefers to spend her days wandering around the sprawling, dusty, overwhelmingly large and slightly dilapidated wooded Warsaw home that was once the setting of grand World War II era parties. Between spying on her neighbors and sharing nostalgia driven tea (or more accurately liquor) parties reminiscing with her dog, after Aniela discovers that scheming relatives and locals may be in cahoots to inherit her property, the elderly woman realize it’s time to stop living in the past and start planning for the future in order to outwit the others.

An entire schedule of films along with summaries of the rest of the incredible lineup, also featuring Sidebar Programming in the form of Independent Films, GLBT Spotlight, Latin American Spotlight, and Special Advance Screenings and details on the Opening Night Party can be found on the official website. With an interactive new look and the opportunity for users to rate and review films, visit movie websites, see photo slideshows, plan their own handy printouts of self-created schedules, and purchase tickets right from the site, you’re sure to be able to design a tailor-made festival plan for a cinematic trip around the globe, minus the overwhelming expense.

Bring the Festival Home

Purchase SIFF Titles Now on DVD

Often I'm asked where you can find the titles you may have missed at the festival or ones you'd love to add to your collection so I've searched through Amazon to bring you links to many festival favorites old and new.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Soundtrack Review: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

Yes, the playlist is here... but is it infinite?


Based on the hip, wildly popular young adult novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist follows the young, romantically burned bass player Nick (Juno and Superbad’s Michael Cera) over the course of an adventurous, sleepless night lived after hours in the underground indie rock scene of New York. Joining him in his musical scavenger hunt to discover the location of a secret show featuring a legendary band is the far worldlier Norah (Charlie Bartlett’s Kat Dennings). And the two opposites attract over their taste in killer tunes in director Peter Sollett’s cinematic adaptation of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

Arguably the Fall release that’s been receiving the most buzz in the film world with infectious trailers and interactive opportunities for fans to build their own streaming musical playlist, video, or photo filled widgets from Sprout Builder and Sony Pictures, while the film itself doesn’t open until October 3, the soundtrack has been garnering pre-orders since August.

Set to hit the street on September 23, the jam-packed, eclectic and catchy fifteen track album (which will also be released in limited edition in vinyl directly from Atlantic Records), offers listeners the chance to play musical detectives right along with Nick and Norah as we groove to the alternately snappy and splendorous offerings by some of indie rock’s finest bands who have yet to catch on to the general public.

After only a few listens, with refreshingly a different artist for each and every tune, I was hooked. Ready to track down more from nearly every act included and thankfully via MySpace and band websites, you’ll be able to locate them far quicker than Nick and Norah do in the film. Of course, had they just grabbed a laptop, there would’ve been no need for a book, let alone a movie.

The disc opens with the melancholic yet pretty “Speed Of Sound,” by the late Chris Bell which helps evoke Nick’s heartache audibly as it laments tragedy throughout the endlessly depressing lyrics making the beauty of the track seem like an ingeniously ironic counterpoint. However, Devendra Banhart’s “Lover,” a toe-tapping and peppy propositional come-hither tune with a great hook about ninety seconds in, establishes the sheer joy and optimism of whimsical and surprisingly funny new young love.

Ratcheting it up several decibels, Bishop Allen’s “Middle Management,” a ska-punk lite track is a highpoint and used throughout promos for the film and can be heard as one of many soundtrack tunes in the veritable musical scrapbook that is the film’s official trailer.

Theatrical Trailer

The quirky electronic keyboard sounding “Ottoman,” seems oh so much sweeter than one would assume given the band’s far scarier sounding name of Vampire Weekend. Additionally, it’s one of several tracks that I felt a kinship with as a fan of other experimentally prone bands like Belle and Sebastian and The Magnetic Fields as strings and other instruments join in while it continues. The retro sounding “Riot Radio” by The Dead 60s is exactly the type of bar band jump up and down song one would associate with the underground scene the characters navigate, not to mention it makes killer use of the guitarist. And wearing its punk roots proudly, it manages to work in a police siren as well, causing me to check my rearview mirror each and every time it played in my car.

The innocuous, lighter and gentle “Fever” by Takka Takka backs off from the loudness of the previous number and serves as a great intro to one of my absolute favorites on the disc, “Xavia” by The Submarines. An epic track that actually ends and restarts, it invites a sing-along more than any other offering in a truly great collection and the musicality augments the female singer’s voice to breathtaking effect. Picking up the pace and fitting to the film and plotline is the addictive “After Hours” by We Are Scientists, followed by the groovy yet minimalist Band of Horses offering “Our Swords” which uses the lyrics and singer’s delivery as a sort of a call and answer with the rest of the band who accepts the challenge and strengthens the piece.

Army Navy’s affable “Silvery Sleds,” is radio-friendly and has “now heard on the CW channel” written all over it. It builds with angst filled lyrics, sure to strike a chord with numerous characters on the teen friendly network and rocks harder as it builds. “Baby You’re My Light,” by Richard Hawley slows the album down with a romantic ballad, but just to make sure that we haven’t nodded off, Shout Out Louds serve up “Very Loud,” that deceptively begins slowly until it does grow very loud “little by little” as the lyrics promise, with a great hook again heard in the official trailer.

Paul Tiernan’s “How To Say Goodbye,” is unabashedly romantic and makes due with an appropriately minimal amount of instrumentation. Tiernan wistfully sings about love gone wrong with only keyboard accompaniment and his voice decreases into a little above a whisper as he bids the song farewell and strings come in at the last moment, possibly to bid him a mutual adieu. The Real Tuesday Weld’s aptly titled “Last Words” is the last vocal track on the album and again reminded this listener of Belle and Sebastian with its majestic, quiet beauty until the album wraps up with “Nick & Norah’s Theme.” The sole composition from the original score is by the ridiculously talented Royal Tenenbaums, Bottle Rocket, and Rushmore composer Mark Mothersbaugh.

As quirky and inventive as Mothersbaugh’s more famous works, it provides a terrific capper to a stellar album of mostly obscure artists. And no doubt that’s part of the reason they’re so damn cool and warrant including in a film about knowledgeable and hip music fans that you probably wouldn’t see caught dead listening to adult contemporary radio or Hannah Montana.

While initially, I worried that the eclectic mix may seem a bit too far flung to go together well or as a friend bluntly phrased it, fearing that it appeared as though “a hipster party threw up.” Instead it is just the opposite and will no doubt serve as a gateway album to get listeners more acquainted with the other work from the bands and no doubt making other legendary soundtrack compilers jealous such as the king of cool movie music himself, Mr. Cameron Crowe.

Complete Track-Listing

1. Chris Bell – “Speed Of Sound”
2. Devendra Banhart – “Lover”
3. Bishop Allen – “Middle Management”
4. Vampire Weekend - Ottoman”
5. The Dead 60s – “Riot Radio”
6. Takka Takka – “Fever”
7. The Submarines – “Xavia”
8. We Are Scientists – “After Hours”
9. Band Of Horses – “Our Swords”
10. Army Navy – “Silvery Sleds”
11. Richard Hawley – “Baby You're My Light”
12. Shout Out Louds – “Very Loud”
13. Paul Tiernan – “How To Say Goodbye”
14. The Real Tuesday Weld – “Last Words”
15. Mark Mothersbaugh – “Nick & Norah’s Theme”

Friday, September 19, 2008

Music Review: Ernie Halter- Starting Over

Let him be your lighthouse.


Similar to athletes who tell reporters post-game “that they’re taking it one game at a time to do what’s best for the team,” it’s become common practice in the world of media-friendly clichés for musicians to stress that for them making music “is all about the fans.”

Yet in the case of singer/songwriter and acoustic cover genius Ernie Halter, he not only argues the same but in addition to walking his talk, he continually looks for ways to invite fans to come along on the journey with him. In addition to becoming “one of the first artists to really take advantage of MySpace,” the “tech-savvy approach” favored by Halter in using the internet as not just a brilliant marketing tool but as a way to follow through on his belief that “music is a conversation between the writer/singer and the listener,” the talented musician gave fans unprecedented access to the recording and promotional process of his newest album Starting Over.

Broadcasting the entire recording process online as well as running an increasingly popular YouTube channel featuring more than one hundred exclusive videos where fans dish up requests for his endlessly popular covers, plus providing webcast footage of “his concerts across the United States,” as well as sharing a “live ‘tour van cam,’” a Facebook page, a Flickr Photostream of the handsome Halter, and offering up ringtones via Rock Ridge Music (if you text RRM to 71777), it seems safe to say that had he not become a musician, Ernie Halter could’ve become the Bill Gates of online social networking.

Yet unlike the constant error messages of Windows Vista, Halter is quite “user friendly,” in responding to requests, so much that due to the overwhelmingly positive response from playing 150 shows, Halter felt inspired to include three of his most popular covers on the album, including Musiq Soulchild’s “Just Friends,” David Ryan Harris’ “Pretty Girl” (which he describes as “the most beautiful song ever”) and Baby Bash’s typically hip hop club anthem “Cyclone.” Incidentally, the three covers are three of my favorites on his eleven track album and, although they definitely sound different live, I felt compelled to celebrate not just Halter’s respect for his fans but the fans themselves by including footage of the two gaining the most frequent repeat play on my car stereo below.

“Just Friends”


As you can see by his charismatic interaction with the adoring crowd in the “Cyclone” video who giggles and urges him on in his acoustic cover of a hip-hop track, that he explains he “flipped… adding some chords and arrangements that weren’t there,” since “it’s not the kind of song you’d hear an acoustic songwriter singing,” he is a consummate entertainer. And throughout the experience of performing in the neck-breaking schedule of 150 plus live shows, he not only “wrote the material for the new record,” but due to the intensity of the nonstop tour, he confesses that he feels as though, “I’ve started to become a real songwriter in the last year.”

While during this time his first son was born, sadly it was also during this time he refers to as “a total crossroads,” his marriage fell apart and the wide range of emotions, regrets, pain, joy, and life lessons he went through are evident throughout the album he aptly titled to “set the tone.” While throughout the disc, love is the agenda of Starting Over, Halter chronicles the ups (“Crazy Love”) and downs (“Different Lives,”) of romantic love with an emphasis on the burden of long-distance relationships (“Try,” “Count the Days,” “My Heart is With You,”) but in addition to those playful covers offers a few flirtatiously sexy come hither tunes of his own (“Blue Dress” and “Played”) as well. And while emotionally, it’s sort of all over the map, like his tumultuous year has been, and some songs feel a bit repetitive (especially the long-distance relationship anthems), there’s only a few I find myself skipping past regularly but more than anything, it’s his voice that draws you in.

More specifically, worrying that “something tends to get lost a little when I get into the studio,” impressively, Halter chose to make the album sound “more raw and live,” with vocals recorded in “one straight take” sans “editing” or “pitch correcting.” And although he notes that this way he was “free to make some mistakes, to let it be what it is, because I feel that is also fitting with the content of the record itself,” it’s the lack of over-production and human quality of the absolutely awe-inspiring pitch of his voice and the way he can make it sound like a record or train in “Cyclone,” to wistful, sexy and longing a la Maroon 5 in “Blue Dress,” or just downright soulful in “My Heart is With You,” which makes Starting Over an amazing feat.

And indeed, upon the first few listens, he overpowers the band so much with the musicality of his instrument that it’s only later that we realize how talented his band is in ensuring they not just accompany Halter’s unique delivery and the way it changes appropriately throughout each song but heighten it when acceptable, and vocally nary a “mistake” is heard at least from my estimation.

Although he handles vocals, guitar, piano and Rhodes organ throughout, Halter’s impressive lineup includes Jason Spiewak on the organ and Rhodes organ (as well as producing the disc), Matt Chiaravalle on guitar and percussion (along with mixing, mastering and co-engineering the album), Zachary Rudulph on bass and Michael Peters on drums, all working together nearly as a chorus since Halter’s voice is an integral part of the arrangement as opposed to just the “front man” or to quote Almost Famous “guitarist with mystique.”

Yet, aside from a few of the redundant but beautiful heartbreaking numbers about the testing of love when you’re far apart, the album’s most gorgeous original Halter track and Over’s finale “Lighthouse” with piano accompaniment is Starting Over’s standout and a song as “direct,” “simple,” “open and honest,” as Halter aspired his album to be. Moreover, while its lyrics can mean something different to each listener, it also follows through on the musician’s belief that “there is something very healing about music. Whether you’re making or listening to it, it has a way of washing over you, making things alright.”

And in offering to be “your lighthouse,” as the lyrics proclaim, once again, he continues his conversation with his loyal audience of more than 70,000 MySpace friends for whom—to misquote the lyrics, he stands.


Released in August from Rock Ridge, Starting Over’s track listing is as follows:

1) Different Lives

2) Try

3) Blue Dress

4) Count the Days

5) My Heart Is With You

6) Pretty Girl

7) Just Friends

8) Crazy Love

9) Cyclone

10) Played

11) Lighthouse

Music Review: Amy MacDonald- This is the Life

"Let's start a band!"


While it’s not that unusual for twelve year olds to purchase CDs with money given to them by their grandmother, when young Amy MacDonald from Bishopbriggs, Scotland selected the album The Man Who by her fellow countrymen, Travis, little did she realize how strongly the CD would affect her. With their hits like “Why Does it Always Rain on Me?” Travis’s album is one I personally recall playing so often that I darn near wore out my own copy, but while I was content to listen endlessly, Amy MacDonald had a decidedly different idea.

Picking up one of her father’s unused guitars and armed with “just a good ear and a few chord patterns found on the internet,” MacDonald taught herself to play the instrument without any formal training, instead urged on by her “huge burning, raging desire to write and play songs.” As her biography reveals, having left school early to focus on her music, despite securing admission to two universities, MacDonald grew even more serious about her music, playing around Glasgow in locations including amateur open-mic nights until she progressed onto Starbucks and bigger venues like Barfly.

With her own unique blend of folk/indie/soft/alt rock, the precocious talent sent off homemade demos of her work recording in her very first studio — her bedroom — and later impressed London-based Melodramatic Records executive Pete Wilkinson who helped her polish the material. Sure enough, just six months later, she inked a deal with the same company that boasts an impressive roster including The Killers, Vertigo, and with after many higher profile performances in 2006, MacDonald signed a five album deal with Universal’s own Mercury Records.

Initially motivated by popular culture including her older sister’s interest in Red Hot Chili Peppers and Ewan McGregor, one early inspiration for the aspiring songstress was none other than American actor Jake Gyllenhaal, whom she described as “the most beautiful thing that’s ever been created,” and in serving as an unlikely muse since the age of fifteen, she hammered out a tune about him in five minutes and called it “L.A.” The song, along with ten others (not including a hidden track) find their way onto MacDonald’s breakthrough debut album This is the Life, released in the states last month.

This is the Life: Album Promo

Upon its initial release, in early 2008, MacDonald’s album amazingly pulled the rug right out from underneath Radiohead by securing the number one spot and knocking the veteran rockers off the UK Album Chart as Wikipedia reported. By March, the album — which has now sold one million copies — went double platinum and has been picking up momentum ever since, prompting the company to rerelease its first infectious single, “Poison Prince.”

Like every other track (save for the Dougie MacLean’s 1979 patriotic hidden track “Caledonia” and a shared credit with Wikinson for “L.A.”), “Prince” was solely penned by the young singer-songwriter, now just twenty-one years old. A thoughtful and smart track you can either contemplate or dance to (just try not to do both at the same time for fear of injury), she tells the story of a “a poetic genius,” whose “life is like a maze,” but instead of going the maze route herself, she builds the track to a great hook, answering her own lyrical request that “What we all want and what we all crave/Is an upbeat song/So we can dance the night away.”

“Poison Prince”

Although she calls herself “a slight Tomboy” and some have called her singing voice “partly Irish,” and indeed her work does beg to mind comparisons to the former Cranberries lead singer Dolores O’Riordan and other similar “girl power” artists such as fellow Scottish artist K.T. Tunstall and the American Brandi Carlile (or if you’re a bit older Natalie Merchant and Sarah MacLachlan), she’s truly one of a kind. While her inspirations seem to run the gamut musically, to me she’s distinctly Scottish and through rich lyrics that only get deeper on repeat listens or indeed from reading for yourself as they tend to get lost by the pacing of the tracks, she offers wondrous story songs with her irresistible accented inflection. Inviting one to sing along or merely just rock back and forth right from the start with “Mr. Rock ‘N Roll,” MacDonald begins humbly enough but then grows more ambitious in her phrasing with a stanza that offers a maturity and intuition far beyond her years as she sings, “He says, ‘I wish I knew you, I wish I met you/When time was still on my side.’/She’ll say ‘I wish I knew you, I wish I loved you/Before I was his bride'.”

Following up “Mr. Rock ‘N Roll,” MacDonald goes right into her title track, which was inspired by a memorable evening following a performance by rocker Pete Doherty, post-Libertines. The song, “This is the Life,” easily captures the natural high obtained from experiencing live music as she races through a chorus the way kids spin faster around and around on a tire swing as you can see below.

“This is the Life”

While “Youth of Today,” which was written at the age of fifteen does seem a bit predictable and obvious given her lyrics of challenging an elder who judges the youth of today (as we’ve all experienced in our struggles between the various generations), the song that grabbed me the most on my first initial listen pulled me right into attention as she leaves “Youth” behind and launches into “Run.” Deceptively slower paced but infinitely more passionate, MacDonald belts it out to the cheap seats, proclaiming in earnest desire the quintessential female battle cry of, “But I will run until my feet no longer run no more/And I will kiss until my lips no longer feel no more/And I will laugh until my heart it aches/And I will love until my heart it breaks/And I will love until there’s nothing more to live for.”


A trumpet leads us into her next track, “Let’s Start a Band,” which lulls one into falsely assuming it’s a mournful, possibly patriotic ballad given the tone and MacDonald’s lovely accompaniment as she tenderly but proudly delivers the lyrics as though leading a sea chantey. Vocally growing stronger as she seems to play with scales operatically, soon she teases her listeners once again with “yeah-ah-ah,” building the work up until it makes its way into the catchiest, most simplistic yet undeniable shout of “Let’s Start a Band” repeated until one’s blue in the face a little past the three minute mark. To witness her incredible hold on the audience that knows her the best — check out this live footage below as MacDonald performs “Band” in Bristol, ironically the ideal location since she drops the name of the city during the song.

“Let’s Start a Band”

If by now you’re starting to wonder why you haven’t heard of her yet, you’re not alone. But, I think it’s safe to say that, much like she promises in the previous song, “Give me a stage and I’ll be a rock and roll queen/Your 20th century cover of a magazine/Rolling Stone here I come/Watch out everyone/I’m singing, I’m singing my song,” it’s only a matter of time before her work catches on in the states. If the album has one flaw, despite my less than entirely enthusiastic reception to both “Youth,” and the over-produced “Footballer’s Wife,” which is lovely and begins like a 50’s style Douglas Sirk cinematic melodrama theme song seems out of place on what is essentially a “bar band disc,” it’s that sometimes it’s a bit hard to tell one song from another.

While this could be a conscious choice of making sure every work flows into the next as she wholeheartedly succeeds with her final more contemplative, longing pieces like “L.A.” and “A Wish For Something More,” which tells a relatable tale of falling in love with a friend in the less than forty minute album, it could also reveal the fact that MacDonald’s range chord-wise may still be lacking as the same chords are repeated throughout the disc.

Although given her tremendous natural ability and the way she seems to continually improve with each song, performance and year, it’s extremely easy to forgive with such a wonderfully addictive collection of songs that passed my very own “car test,” in that it’s been stuck in my CD player for roughly a week without switching albums. Thus, it should come with a warning label about dependency and I’m anxious to see what is next for the talented Scottish songstress but until that day, all I can say is buy two CDs (this one which you can download below and Travis’ Man Who if you don’t have it already) and call me in the morning.

New as of 12/4/08:
Stream Amy's Holiday Track