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Relient K Interview - 11.14.07
11/24/07 at 12:54 AM by Jonathan Bautts
This is a phone interview I had the great opportunity to do with Relient K guitarist Matt Hoopes.

So how’s the co-headlining tour with Switchfoot going?

It’s been going great. We’re really good friends with the guys, and it’s been awesome to hang out with them.

I heard part of the proceeds are going to Habitat For Humanity.

Yeah. We kind of decided to work with them after playing a show with Switchfoot earlier in the summer. I had never had a lot of contact with the organization — I had never volunteered or been friends with anyone that did — but the more we helped out the organization, the more we respected it and thought it was something we wanted to get behind and promote.

Now you guys just released a new Christmas album last month too, right?

Yeah, it actually just came out. It’s called Let It Snow, Baby… Let It Reindeer.

And isn’t it kind of an expansion on your first Christmas album?

Our first Christmas album was never technically released as a stand alone thing, and they were just going to release it as is. We were like, “It’s not quite good enough to release as an album,” so we did 6-7 new songs.

You guys covered some pretty classic Christmas songs on there. How were you able to put your own spin on them?

Honestly, we just took a no rules attitude. On the first batch of songs, we mostly tried to keep it to the pop-punk rock side of things. So every song we’d make really fast, loud and maybe a little bit off for a Christmas song. On the newer ones that we did, we just had no rules. We were like, “Well, whatever.” “Sleigh Ride,” for example, has like a jazzy, ‘50s, dancy kind of feel to it. Other songs are slower, while other songs are rock but kind of crazy. We had no rules really. Let’s just have fun with it.

I’ve noticed the band also has a pretty unique sense of humor and personalities. Were you always like that?

I like to think that all the guys in our band are pretty hilarious people, kind of all in their own way. I think we kind of have a brand of humor, and I think it comes out in different ways. Our first few records, we did a lot of really funny lyrics — kind of silly-ish songs. I think the humor tends to come out in different ways now as we get older. But we still don’t take ourselves seriously and just try to have a fun time on the road.

On a more serious note, you guys lost your tour bus to a fire over the summer. Did your optimistic attitudes help you get through that?

It is kind of a bummer to lose your computer and your clothes — it’s just a hassle to have to deal with. I lost my wallet and had to go get new credit cards and a new license. We’re on the road, so it’s hard to deal with all that stuff. But honestly when you think about it in the grand scheme of things — no one was hurt and there was nothing lost that was irreplaceable — it was just an inconvenience at worst. When we look back on it now, it seems kind of trivial, but at the time, it was slightly frustrating.

Five Score And Seven Years Ago was your fifth album, and it debuted at #6 on the Billboard charts back in March. Having grown up in Ohio, did you ever expect something like that would happen?

Oh, never. When we were a band starting out in Ohio, I don’t think any of us thought that we’d go past high school — we were all planning on going to college. Then we got a record deal right before we went to college, so we’re like let’s try it out and make a record. Hopefully try to tour for a year, have fun, and then we can get all up in alarms. So we made our first record, and then we made a second record and then a third, and it kept going. We felt like we were getting better as a band and still having fun making music that we thought was interesting. People seem to like it for the most part, so we’re going to keep doing it as long as people keep coming to the shows.

You also worked with big-time producer Howard Benson on the record. Are you happy with how everything turned out?

Yeah, it was a cool experience. We had only ever worked with Mark Townsend, who’s my father-in-law, who’s done all our records and is actually a great producer. Working with Howard, we realized a lot of stuff isn’t as different as you might think from what we were used to. It was a good experience, and it was cool to work with people on that caliber that have worked on huge records and stuff like that. So it was a good experience overall.

I noticed this record is a little bit poppier than the last one. Did Howard have something to do with that?

I think that’s just where we were at at the time. Howard’s main input was song structure. Making sure all the songs are palpable — you can understand where things are going — and there’s not as many crazy transitions, key changes and all that sort of business. I think it helped push us a little bit further in that direction, but honestly that’s where the problems were at. That’s how it would have turned out with whoever would have produced it.

You have already released two videos from the album. Are there any plans for another one?

Not right now. We have the Christmas record right now, so we’ll just wait and see where that goes into the new year — keep doing what we’re doing and see what happens. I don’t know if they’ll be another video or single off this record. It depends on whether we’ll go into the studio now or keep touring on this record.

The last song on the record is an 11-minute song entitled “Deathbed,” which not only features a wide array of instruments but also tells a very powerful story through the lyrics. What was the inspiration behind the song?

It kind of portrays this idea of what grace is — this idea of forgiveness and entering heaven that’s not something earned by doing everything right your whole life, as far as what we believe. It’s just an interesting way of portraying that in that it’s not like a preachy, sermony kind of thing. It’s more like this is real life, and a picture of how we believe it can happen. It’s not a transient, all encompassing thing for sure. As far as music, it kept going on and on, adding verses, ideas, instrumentation and whatnot. It was a fun song to do, and I think it’s the best song we’ve ever done as far as a group.

Jon from Switchfoot also sings on the song. Have you been performing it on the tour at all?

No. We actually had talked about that, but it just came down to performing an 11-minute song means that we can’t do 3-4 other songs. [Laughs] So we decided to be able to play more songs. Also, pulling off the instrumentation might be a little bit tricky. We thought it might be better served for when we’re doing a headlining tour on our own when we don’t have a time limit, and can fill the stage with random useless instruments and have people help us play it. But yeah, it does seem like it would work out well when we are on tour with Switchfoot. [Laughs] It just didn’t come together before the tour started.

Last month, Dave announced he would be leaving the band at the end of the tour. Did that come as a bit of a surprise?

Honestly, no. He’s been talking about doing his own project, and we’ve just been able to talk him out of it until now. [Laughs] We’re all on really good terms with him, and we’re all just trying to enjoy our last tour together and have a fun time hanging out with each other. Dave’s going to pursue his own musical project with his wife, and we all wish him the best with that and hope that he does well.

The band has also seen a couple of other members come and go throughout its existence. Has it been hard to readjust and keep on going?

Yeah, in a way. I still talk to Brain, our old bass player, and I definitely miss him. We’re still friends and we still hang out when I’m at home — it’s that sort of thing. In a way, it brings a new light to the band. We’re very careful to bring someone on who would be an uplifting person to be around, and someone that would bring the whole group up as a band. We brought someone on who was a really good friend and a solid person. I think in a way it’s just a growing process. It’s the same with the drummer. We’re hoping to try out friends first, and I really hope that one of them works out. It’d be cool to bring someone on who we already know their character really well.

You guys are frequently labeled as a Christian band, and it seems that you’re always having to answer that whole Christian music question. Does that ever grow old?

Honestly, no. I understand there is a Christian industry, Christian bookstores and people who are concerned with whether music is Christian or labeled Christian or not. I understand that, and I’m not angry about it. We choose not to label music in that way, and we’re people who don’t think it’s that important what the label is on the music. It’s more of a non issue to us than an issue of contempt — it’s not like we have anger towards it. We just explain that we write songs about our lives and things we experience, and as Christians that’s definitely a part of our life experience. It’s really whatever you want to call us. We’re not angry if someone calls us a Christian band, but we probably wouldn’t introduce ourselves as a Christian band. That’s my philosophy on the whole thing.

You kind of just want to let the music to speak for itself.

Yeah. I mean Christian music as you define it is a little bit odd in the fact that it’s the only kind of music that’s defined by lyrical content rather than musical content. I think when you bring that up to someone when you say you’re a Christian band, it automatically puts connotations in people’s heads — whether it’s good or bad and whether they’re a Christian or a non Christian. It puts a certain idea of what the music is, and we try to avoid that connotation.

Outside of yourselves and Switchfoot, lately it seems there’s been an influx of bands into the mainstream who are Christians but don’t fall under the Christian label. Have you witnessed any reason for this at all?

I don’t know. We feel like we have our philosophy, and I think that as Christians we believe that there are different Christians called to different things. Some are called to be pastors and teachers, some are called to be lawyers, doctors and park rangers. We feel like this is our place as far as Christianity goes, and we’re secure in that. I don’t really know if there’s a reason for a large group of bands feeling the same way or not, so I can’t really speak to that.

You guys are going to be celebrating your 10th anniversary next year, right?

Lets see… Yeah, I guess so. [Laughs] That’s kind of funny. I didn’t even think about that.

That’s a pretty phenomenal accomplishment in and of itself.

Yeah. We feel lucky to do this as long as we have. It’s almost funny because you think of the band starting in 2000 when our first record came out, but we had actually started at the end of ’98. It’s pretty crazy to think about where we were then and where we are now.

After having released all those records and having been around for that long, what do you think is the next step for the band?

Honestly, I don’t know. We’ve always just kind of taken life as it comes and taken the opportunities that are there. We’re honestly just thankful for the opportunities that we’ve had and don’t expect there to be any more necessarily. [Laughs] We have fun with what we’re given — have fun touring and making records. We don’t really have a set plan, like a project or goal or anything like that — just living life as it comes.

Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

Just to say that we’re thankful for the fans that have appreciated our music, and thankful that we’ve been able to do what we’ve done so far. It’s a blessing to us personally.
Tags: Relient K, Matt Hoopes, Five Score And Seven Years Ago, Interview
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Movie Review - No Country For Old Men
11/17/07 at 05:16 PM by Jonathan Bautts
After having dabbled with a romantic comedy (“Intolerable Cruelty”) and a troubled remake (“The Ladykillers”), acclaimed directors Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski”) return to a criminal tale reminiscent of those earlier in their career. Renewed with a vengeance, “No Country For Old Men” is some of the best work they’ve done yet.

Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, the story is purposefully paced and unafraid to follow its characters for extended periods of time. At its center is common man Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong while out hunting. Among the carcasses, he discovers a case filled with $2 million in cold cash and decides to take the money and run. Wrong move.

The simple plan quickly backfires as Brolin (“Grindhouse,” “American Gangster”) spends the rest of the film evading the certain death assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) threatens to exact. Brolin, whose performance is driven by his rough demeanor instead of dialogue, is forced to rely on his resourcefulness merely to remain alive. On the other hand, Bardem steals the show with an Oscar worthy performance.

Bardem (“Before Night Falls,” “The Sea Inside”) is chillingly masterful in his role, making for one of the best villains in recent memory. His weapons of choice — a supercharged cattle stun gun and an oxygen tank — are brutal. He flips a coin over the impending fate of some of his victims, rarely breaking from his calm disposition. His character is also shrouded in mystery — we learn little about who he actually is — but a single look into his odious eyes is enough to freeze any man dead in his tracks.

In the meantime, local sheriff Ed Bell — a part tailored for Tommy Lee Jones — tries to put the pieces together and figure out what is causing the wake of corpses. In between dishing out nuggets of wisdom, he personifies the type of honest, old-fashioned lawman that has almost been extinguished. Now embittered by a world of constant violence, he is left questioning if he will ever wake up from this grueling nightmare.

Even though at first glance the story appears to be straightforward, there is much happening beneath the surface. Questions of mortality and the adverse effects of aging are contemplated and discussed. More importantly, it explores a world inundated by violence — not unlike our own — and wonders if there is any hope for change.

The stark nature of the story is made all the more harrowing by the talent behind the camera. Frequent Coen brothers’ cinematographer Roger Deakins encases the film in an arresting array of light, shadows and blood — beautiful and striking in their essence. The film also lacks the arrangement of a traditional musical score, and the first note of music isn’t heard until the end credits. This places the emphasis solely on the Coens’ stellar writing — which remains laced with their dark sense of humor — and the performances from the story’s participants.

While it first might appear fairly routine, “No Country For Old Men” is anything but. The Coens’ sure handed directing, combined with powerhouse turns from much of the cast, elevates it to the same heights their greatest achievements reached. This thrilling game of cat and mouse is not to be missed.

The Verdict: A- (90%)
Tags: No Country For Old Men, Coen Brothers, Movie, Review
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Thrice Tackles The Elements On Ambitious Alchemy Index
11/16/07 at 07:44 PM by Jonathan Bautts
Fire. Air. Water. Earth. These four classical elements were identified by the Greek philosopher Plato, who believed them to be the basic building blocks of life. Now over 2,000 years later, they are the subjects of an ambitious four-disc undertaking from Thrice.

At first glance, making a rock record centered on the elements doesn’t seem like a very natural or obvious venture.

"Originally it was Dustin, our singer’s, idea," guitarist Teppei Teranishi explains. "He kind of came up with it randomly, and when he brought it up to us, we thought it’d make a good record."

After expanding their sonic palette on 2005’s Vheissu, which branched out from their punk and metal influences, this step into the unknown required something of a leap of faith.

"At first we were a little apprehensive and weren’t sure if we could pull it off," Teranishi confesses. "If we did [do] it, we wanted to do it right."

The band, which also features Biola alumnus Dustin Kensrue on vocals/guitar, as well as brothers Eddie and Riley Breckenridge on bass and drums, initially sat down to talk about what each element would sound like, formulating a basic outline for the project.

Teranishi describes the process as locating "the kind of instruments and sounds which felt earthy to us, or airy or watery or whatever [until] we started to come up with ideas which felt like… okay, this could work for Water or this idea could work for Fire."

The band, which hails from nearby Irvine, opted to stay at home and produce the album themselves, which freed them up to work at a pace of their own choosing.

"We ended up doing everything that had to do with this record ourselves. Even the artwork, Dustin did," Teranishi says. "It was challenging, but it was a good experience."

However, the process wasn’t without a bit of strife. While in the midst of the recording sessions, they parted ways with Island Records — who had released their last two studio albums — citing "different visions for the band’s future."

The label was generous enough to let them keep their current recordings, and the band would go on to finish the record. Soon after, they signed with Santa Monica based Vagrant Records, a return to their independent roots.

With their epic endeavor now complete, the band chose to spread it out over two distinct phases.

"We felt like the best way to let people grasp the whole breadth of the project was to split it up into two pieces," Teranishi explains. "It’s 24 songs to give people all at once, and especially with something that’s pretty heavily conceptualized like this record, we thought it would be a little too much."

Fans finally received their first taste last month, when The Alchemy Index: Vols. 1 & 2 - Fire & Water hit stores. Teranishi describes Fire as "all heavy and guitar based" with traces of their older material, but it was the Water half which proved to be a big divergence.

Immersed in a collage of electronics, Water "uses a lot of reverb and subtle modulation to make it seem more underwater. A little more muted tone [with] electronic drums," Teranishi says.

The second half of The Alchemy Index, which is set for a spring release, further ventures into unexplored territory. For Earth, this meant adopting a stripped down approach, complete with an array of instruments such as acoustic piano, upright bass, acoustic guitar and even horns.

On the accompanying side, Air brings the concept full circle. Teranishi reveals it to encompass a stripped down quality, as well as electronics and traditional band aspects, and "everything just ties together with all the songs on there."

Aside from their musical pursuits, the band is also active in a number of charities and nonprofit organizations, including Invisible Children and To Write Love On Her Arms.

"It’s just something we want to do, and I think it’s a personal decision," Teranishi says, describing the band’s involvements. "I think the reason why we even mention more or less isn’t to tell people, ‘Hey, look what we’re doing.’ It’s more or less to just bring awareness to the causes we think are worth supporting."

Along with their charitable work, Thrice donates a portion from each one of their records to a different cause. Blood: Water Mission, an organization which seeks to promote clean water efforts in Africa, was picked for Fire & Water.

"Clean water is something that I think we all take for granted, especially being in a rich nation, but children and a lot of people in this world don’t have it," Teranishi explains. "It’s something that’s very important for health and survival, and we thought it was a pretty cool cause [to be a part of]."

After creating the most expansive effort of their career, what does the future hold for Thrice?

"When we signed to Vagrant, we actually signed for only the two Alchemy Index releases, and then we’re free agents after that. So it’s literally up in the air for us," Teranishi admits. "We’re not really sure what we’re going to do. We’ll see… I guess the music industry is at an interesting point right now."

If The Alchemy Index is any indication, it most certainly is.

The Alchemy Index: Vols. 1 & 2 - Fire & Water is in stores now. For more information, visit www.thrice.net.
Tags: Thrice, Alchemy Index, Teppei Teranishi
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Thrice Interview - 11.07.07
11/11/07 at 08:09 PM by Jonathan Bautts
This is a phone interview I had the great privilege of conducting with Thrice guitarist Teppei Teranishi. It’s part of an article I’m writing on the band for Biola’s newspaper, which should be coming out later this month.

You guys just released the first half of your album a couple weeks ago, The Alchemy Index, and each disc is centered around one of the four natural elements. How did you guys arrive at that pretty abstract concept?

I guess originally it was Dustin, our singer’s, idea. He kind of came up with it just randomly, and when he brought it up to us a while ago, we just kind of thought it’d make a good record. At first, we were a little apprehensive, we just weren’t sure if we could pull it off... Just trying to figure out ways to do it. If we did it, we wanted to do it right. So we just kind of talked about it for a while.

At first, we actually decided to do it as almost like a Thrice side project… It still would have been a Thrice release. It wasn’t going to be like a traditional record, it was going to be a little more indie. Kind of experimental stuff… Less song based. And the more we wrote for it, the more we started to realize we were actually making some pretty cool stuff. I guess along the way we decided to make the record what it is.

How did you go about creating each disc’s unique sound, and was it hard to get the different styles to feel right?

Yeah, definitely. I guess we sat down first and discussed what we thought each element sounded like to us, and plotted out a basic outline. For Earth, mostly acoustic instruments... The kind of instruments and sounds which felt earthy to us, or airy or watery or whatever. Then we started to come up with ideas which felt like… Okay this idea feels like it could work for Water or this idea could work for Fire.

Then in the recording, we tried to record every element pretty different. With the Water stuff, we used a lot of reverb and subtle modulation to make it seem a little more underwater. A little more muted tone, electronic drums… Stuff like that. Fire obviously is all pretty heavy and guitar based.

Like I was saying with Earth and Air, which are coming out next year, Earth is all stripped… I guess just getting a lot of acoustic instruments, like acoustic piano, upright bass, acoustic guitar, even horn. Air is kind of the most in the middle of all the elements. I think there’s some stuff on there a little stripped. There’s stuff on there that’s electronic. There’s stuff on there that’s traditional band, like guitar, bass, drums… I guess everything all just ties together with all the songs on there.

Just kind of a combination of all of them.

Yeah, that makes sense. [Laughs.]

You guys decided to produce this yourselves and were essentially just working at your own pace. How did this come about to affect the creative process?

I thought it was really cool. We pretty much ended up doing everything that had to do with this record ourselves… Even the artwork Dustin did. I think it just gives you kind of the ultimate creative control… You know what I mean? We were in control of everything about this record, and it was fun. It was nice. It was challenging, but it was a good experience.

You were the main producer right?

Yeah, I engineered the record and was in charge of basically recording it.

Did you find it difficult to handle both that producing aspect and the writing stuff?

Yeah, definitely. It’s hard because you have to have your head in two different places at the same time. While I’m worrying about writing stuff and doing songs, I’m also worried about how to record it, get it on tape and get it to sound good. It’s definitely challenging, but it’s also fun. I really enjoy recording, and it’s something I want to keep doing. So I definitely enjoyed it.

You produced Please Come Home (Dustin’s solo record) too right?

Yeah, yeah.

So this is something you can see yourself getting more into in the future?

Yeah, definitely. I like it a lot. It’s fun.

The Alchemy Index was originally the title for your guys’ website while you were writing the album. Was it always the plan for it to be the final title?

Yeah, pretty much. I think by the time we ended up making that journal page, we were pretty sure that was going to be the title. But it wasn’t 100% set in stone.

The whole project is split up over two releases. Was this your decision or the label’s?

It was our decision. I guess ironically we felt like the best way to let people grasp the whole breadth of the project was to split it up into two pieces. It’s 24 songs to give people all at once, especially something that’s pretty heavily conceptualized like this record, and we thought it would be a little too much. We wanted people to take their time with each record and really grasp each one, and we thought the best way to do that was to split it up in two releases.

One of the things I most admire about your band is how you support a number of charities and different causes. You donate a portion of the proceeds from each record to a different organization, and the one for Fire & Water is Blood: Water Mission. What are they all about, and what made you pick them?

They’re an organization that raises money to go to Africa to go build wells in communities. Clean water is something that I think we all take for granted, especially being in a rich nation, but children and a lot of people in this world don’t have it. It’s something that’s very important for health and survival, and we thought it was a pretty cool cause.

We like the way they do things. They go into communities and instead of just erecting a big building and kind of westernizing the society, they try to integrate themselves into the community… They help do sustainable wells that will be dug by the people and run by the people. They also collect clean blood for blood transfusions and whatnot.

Having been blessed with your musical success and the fan base and influence that comes along with that, do you feel somewhat responsible to get involved with things like this?

I don’t think it has to do with being in a band or anything like that. It’s just something that I think we’d be doing even if we weren’t in a band, or in some other type of public place. It’s just something we want to do, and I think it’s a personal decision… I think the reason why we even mention more or less isn’t to tell people, "Hey, look what we’re doing." It’s more or less to just bring awareness to the causes we think are worth supporting.

How’s the new tour going? Is the new stuff getting a good reaction?

Yeah, it’s been awesome. It’s been a lot of fun, and the shows have been cool. All the bands on the tour are super rad, and all the people on the tour are super rad. So we’re having a really good time.

After the tour’s finished, what’s next? Are you going to be doing a headlining tour any time soon?

We’re trying to figure that out. I think the rough plan is to release the next record sometime in the spring, and then do a headlining tour after we release the record.

The whole Radiohead thing from last month got a lot of people talking about the future of the music industry and the role of major labels. Now that you’re back on an indie, where do you think music is heading, and how do you see Thrice fitting into that spectrum?

I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. When we signed to Vagrant we actually signed for only the two Alchemy Index releases, and then we’re free agents after that. So it’s literally up in the air for us. We’re not really sure what we’re going to do. We’ll see… I guess the music industry is at an interesting point right now.

Can you see the band releasing something yourselves without a label?

Yeah, I think that’s definitely something that at least we’re considering in the future.
Tags: Thrice, Teppei Teranishi, Alchemy Index, Interview
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Concert Review - Brand New w/ Thrice, mewithoutYou @ The Wiltern (11.3-11.4)
11/09/07 at 01:37 AM by Jonathan Bautts
With each of their respective discographies, Brand New and Thrice have constantly reinvented their sound and pushed musical boundaries, leading them to become two of the most respected bands in today’s music scene. Last weekend, they each brought their dynamic live show to the Wiltern for a three-night stand — the first two of which I saw — and, with help from indie rock guru mewithoutYou, put on arguably the best concert I’ve seen this year.

MewithoutYou’s unique sound, which oftentimes consists of more speaking than singing from lead singer Aaron Weiss, translated remarkably in the live setting. Over the course of half an hour, the band’s high level of energy amid fine musicianship was clear from watching Weiss and his unpredictable behavior, which ranged from running wildly around the stage to playing an assortment of instruments, including tambourine, maracas, accordion and acoustic guitar. The songs, about half of which were from last year’s Brother, Sister, frequently blended into one another, feeling like a series of separate movements in an epic composition.

Orange County’s Thrice was simply flawless. Playing a shade under an hour, they showcased a nice mixture of old and new material, including five songs off of last month’s The Alchemy Index. The new songs sounded fantastic, from the blazing “Firebreather” and “Burn The Fleet” to the airy electronics of “Digital Sea” and “Open Water,” which was particularly impressive to see pulled off live.

Former Biola student Dustin Kensrue’s voice was spot on, and the entire band never missed a beat, revealing their exceptional skill as musicians. Fan favorites “Deadbolt,” “Stare At The Sun” and “The Artist In The Ambulance” were all precisely executed, with other standouts being “Silhouette,” “Red Sky” and “The Earth Will Shake.” The latter was the perfect song to end with, and its intense finale was a sight to see.

Closing it out was Brand New, who went for 90 minutes and were expectedly incredible. On the first night, they played everything from 2006’s album of the year, The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me, and only three old songs — “The Shower Scene,” “Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don’t” and “The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot.” For the second night, they played everything off of Devil minus “Welcome To Bangkok,” as well as “Tommy Gun,” “Sic Transit Gloria…Glory Fades,” “Jaws Theme Swimming,” “Demo 1” and “Play Crack The Sky.”

Night two turned out to be a definite step up from night one, with the band sounding tighter over the improved set list. Highlights included “You Won’t Know” and “Limousine,” along with “Jesus Christ” and the moment when singer Jesse Lacey brought out his acoustic guitar for a solo performance of “Demo 1,” segueing into “Play Crack The Sky.”

Lacey was more talkative on the second night too, and his vocals were especially strong, from his delicate whispers to his raw screams. The select usage of two drum sets, which they employed on their last tour, was again carried over, and helped in the creation of a power-charged atmosphere. Guitarist Vinnie Accardi furthered this factor, providing solid backup vocals while tearing into certain songs with an untapped ferocity.

The band chose to encore with “Untitled,” an unusual decision but one which paid dividends. Accardi first came out and played a few riffs, looping them over one another, and then Lacey came out, adding a few more. This produced a cacophony of tones until eventually the rest of the band joined in, culminating in a raucous jam session. It was unlike anything I had seen before, and a potent display of their avant-garde nature.

Not only do I consider these three bands unbelievable live performers, I also rank them among the most innovative artists writing music today. They demonstrated both facets each night, even though Brand New didn’t quite match the power of their performance from earlier in the year. In the face of the vapid landscape known as mainstream music, mewithoutYou, Thrice and Brand New prove that if you venture below the surface, not everything is barren.
Tags: Brand New, Thrice, mewithoutYou, Concert, Review
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Movie Review - Bee Movie
11/08/07 at 12:48 AM by Jonathan Bautts
Over the last few years, the animation genre has seen a downward spiral in the quality department. The current craze for computer animation has led to an over saturation in the marketplace, and the end results have suffered accordingly. While there have been some great accomplishments (“The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille”), they have been few and far between, and even the mighty Pixar showed it wasn’t infallible with last year’s “Cars.” Sadly, “Bee Movie” does little to change this trend.

The concept of talking insects is nothing new — it has been seen in numerous movies including “A Bug’s Life,” “Antz” and “The Ant Bully.” The plot of “Bee Movie” closely resembles its bug brethren, following Barry Benson (Jerry Seinfeld) who has become disillusioned after learning his sole meaning in life is to make honey. Upon leaving the hive and its rigid structure, he befriends the human florist Vanessa (Renee Zellweger), discovering an exciting new world and a renewed purpose.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is — “Ratatouille” was built on a similar premise. However, where that film excelled — a combination of cute comedy with excellent voice performances and the tackling of sophisticated themes — “Bee Movie” proves no match for. It repeatedly is content to rely on the talents of Seinfeld in hopes that having him involved will miraculously elevate it, but Seinfeld can only do so much.

Seinfeld, who also serves as a producer and one of the writers, manages to integrate some of his trademark humor and wit throughout. This is his first major project since the end of his beloved sitcom, but the fact he selected this to be the one comes as a bit of a surprise. He seems restricted by having to appeal to kids, and it never materializes into the laugh track one would expect given Seinfeld’s track record.

The main reason for this is the story itself, which is so outlandish it’s hard to take the movie seriously. For example, there is a romantic subplot involving Barry and Vanessa — apparently trying to one up “Beauty And The Beast” — and if that wasn’t enough, Barry later sues the human race for stealing the bees’ honey. Whoever came up with these — Seinfeld or not — was clearly not thinking straight. In a movie that already suspends reality with talking bees, they stand above and beyond as nothing short of outrageous.

One of the greatest strengths of Dreamworks Animation (“Shrek,” “Madagascar”) is how they poke fun at our society and pop culture. This is one of the highlights here as well, and it’s fun to see the clever ways they relate the bee world to our own. The string of cameos is also entertaining, especially those by Sting and Ray Liotta. The animation itself, although short of what Pixar has recently created, is well done and showcases the studio’s technological growth in that area.

Another trait of Dreamworks is how it seems to put most of its emphasis on acquiring A-list vocal talent and less developing a compelling story. “Bee Movie” fails to challenge that theory — the voice deliveries are good but not great, and the story is often poorly executed. In the end, this prevents “Bee Movie” from flying above the second-rate nature its title suggests.

The Verdict: C+ (79%)
Tags: Bee Movie, Jerry Seinfeld, Movie, Review
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Movie Review - Dan In Real Life
11/02/07 at 01:29 PM by Jonathan Bautts
It seems actor Steve Carell is sitting on top of the world these days. He’s proven himself formidable in a variety of roles, from leading man (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Evan Almighty”) to solid supporter (“Anchorman,” “Little Miss Sunshine”) to TV star (“The Office”). “Dan In Real Life” — his second movie this year — finds the former “Daily Show” correspondent bringing his trademark brand of humor to the romantic comedy genre.

In the film Carell plays Dan Burns, a widowed father who works as a newspaper columnist dispensing relationship advice. On the way to attend a family get-together, he hits it off with a charming stranger named Marie (Juliette Binoche) at a local bookstore. As it so happens, she is already dating his brother (Dane Cook) and has been asked to join the family for the gathering. The two try to play everything off as normal by keeping their encounter a secret, which results in a wild week for the entire family.

Carell has been embraced by audiences as Hollywood’s latest everyman, and he furthers that designation here. Not only is he juggling the difficulty of raising three daughters, coping with the death of his wife, and worrying about a possible job promotion, he is simultaneously trying to win the affections of Marie. This provides him the opportunity to show off a portion of his dramatic side, allowing the assortment of embarrassing proceedings to naturally evolve. Through it all, Carell’s patented penchant for awkwardness and deadpan wit remain on display, which is sure to please his expanding fan base.

The rest of the cast spend their time supporting and playing off of Carell’s talents. Oscar winner Binoche (“The English Patient,” “Chocolat”) develops a good chemistry with Carell, making the premise at least somewhat plausible. Displaying a diluted amount of the free-spiritedness of the latter film, she makes for a nice contrast with the more down-to-reality Burns family. Even though I’ve never been a huge fan of her work, her character is easy to like and a distinctive part of the cast.

Cook, who has experienced a rough transition from stand-up comic to leading man, demonstrates he can actually act when given the chance. His role is one of the more serious ones he’s tackled and, by leaving most of the comedy to Carell and the others, frees him up to focus on the character. While it’s far from an Oscar worthy performance, it indicates he may have a career in acting after all.

While the film incorporates a higher dose of realistic drama than your average romantic comedy, it still exhibits many of its familiar traits. From the opening outset, it’s easy to predict how things will play out, and it never deviates from this expected outcome.

However, director Peter Hedges (“Pieces Of April”) has injected the right combination of heart and warmth so that we don’t mind retracing this familiar territory. His depiction of family and characters is easy to relate to and care for, despite whatever disagreements or peculiarities they might possess. In a time when America is being torn apart by dysfunctional households, it’s refreshing to see one portrayed that supports and looks out for one another.

In the midst of the family dynamics, the film is not without its fair share of laughs. While it is never overtly over-the-top like many recent comedies, Carell remains in his element the entire time, and the part proves to be another step in the right direction for creating an enduring career. Count this as another fine feather in Carell’s rapidly filling hat.

The Verdict: B (85%)
Tags: Dan In Real Life, Steve Carell, Movie, Review
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Movie Review - 30 Days Of Night
10/31/07 at 02:40 PM by Jonathan Bautts
Vampires have been a staple in filmmaking almost since its very inception. First appearing in 1913’s “The Vampire,” they gained notoriety with 1922’s German classic “Nosferatu” and Bela Lugosi’s memorable turn in 1931’s “Dracula.” Fast forward 70 plus years and they continue to be a lucrative part of pop culture, as the recent “Blade” and “Underworld” films can attest. “30 Days Of Night” looks to capitalize on this popularity by offering its own spin on the vampire mythos.

Based on the graphic novel by Steve Niles, it appears to have more in common with zombie films like “28 Days Later” or the “Dawn Of The Dead” remake than typical vampire fare. Here the vampires strike fast as lightening, inflicting with brutal and lethal precision. Despite their ferocity, they never come across as terribly menacing, and their leader — a hardly recognizable Danny Huston — speaks in a foreign tongue more weird than frightening.

The aesthetic look of the vampires also seems plain and unimaginative — far from the drastic change the previously listed films elicited. Ultimately, these vampires are rather uninteresting, and we learn very little about either their history or who they are. It might have been more effective if nothing was known about them at all, and focus was solely on the humans instead of this half-hearted attempt at both.

Director David Slade, who previously helmed the indie gem “Hard Candy,” is better off handling human characters. He sets things up efficiently, following the townspeople of Barrow, Ala., the northernmost settlement in the United States, as they prepare for a month without sunlight. In the meantime, sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) investigates a series of peculiar criminal activity — a burned pile of cell phones and the butchering of sled dogs — and his estranged spouse (Melissa George) misses the last flight out, leaving her stuck in Barrow.

Eben tracks the crimes to a mysterious stranger (Ben Foster), who appears out of his mind when he declares this is just a taste of what is to come. As it turns out, a host of vampires soon attack the unsuspecting town, quickly taking out the power plant before exterminating the civilians one by one.

Foster, who already delivered a breakout performance this year in last month’s “3:10 To Yuma,” steals the show once again. His mannerisms engender a wildness and unpredictability that make him both imposing and pathetic, made all the more bizarre when we discover it is part of his plan to get turned into a vampire. It’s a shame he’s given too little screen time to show off more of his talents.

Hartnett and George make for slightly above average horror leads. Of the two, Hartnett fares the best, playing the role of the heroic sheriff well but not as convincing when it comes to the darker aspects of the character. On the other hand, George is given a much more routine role and, though the relationship between the two is predictable from the outset, manages to avoid turning into a hapless heroine.

Perhaps the film’s strongest element is its setting, as the isolated and harsh climate suit the story perfectly. The film does a nice job of capturing the desolate atmosphere but is often reduced to watching the group of survivors scurry from house to house to avoid the vampires, which soon grows tiresome.

When the big showdown finally arrives after 30 days — though it never actually feels a whole month has expired — its small scale is a letdown, especially when the logic begins to border on the absurd. The concluding scene also plays cornier then I’m sure was intended, falling short of the touching moment the writers were obviously striving for.

In the overall vampire spectrum, “30 Days Of Night” lies somewhere in the middle. While it does look cool and features pretty good acting, when it comes to the actual vampires themselves, it disappoints. In the end, what could have been a shot in the arm to the genre turns out only to be a mild punch.

The Verdict: B- (81%)
Tags: 30 Days Of Night, Movie, Review, Vampires
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Movie Review - Michael Clayton
10/17/07 at 06:47 PM by Jonathan Bautts
Lately superstar George Clooney has been conjuring up images from the age of Hollywood past. “Ocean’s Eleven” was an updated Rat Pack extravaganza, “Good Night, And Good Luck.” a throwback to the fifties and “The Good German” an homage to noir. His newest film, “Michael Clayton,” is a deliberate, character-driven thriller, the type of which has rarely been seen since the ‘70s.

Michael Clayton (Clooney) is the “janitor” for a powerful New York law firm — charged with the task of cleaning up their dirty messes. The latest fiasco involves a class action suit that’s been dragging on for six years, with the massive settlement finally heading towards closure. However, the lead lawyer on the case, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), appears to have gone mad, having stripped down during a deposition while rambling incessantly. Clayton believes this to be an adverse reaction from not taking his meds until strange things begin to happen, signaling his colleague may have been onto something after all.

This is one of the most intelligently written films of the year — intricately complex where nothing is cut and dry. Tony Gilroy, who helped write the “Bourne” films, makes his directorial debut and takes full advantage of working from his own strong screenplay. He constructed a narrative that reveals itself gradually, allowing the complicated characters and interwoven plot to unwind at a natural pace. It takes awhile to let it soak in but because it relies on the strong cast and their personal dilemmas over cheap thrills or twists, the story never falls apart. Gilroy then brings everything together for a gripping and satisfying conclusion, in part by steering away from a neat or contrived resolution.

With the strong source material already in place, Clooney responds with the strongest outing of his career. Gone is his famed aura of suave and charm, replaced by a nuanced determination to simply stay afloat. Having been worn down by his grueling profession and the mounting pressure to stay out of debt, Clooney is left scrambling to survive amongst his cutthroat surroundings. As it progresses, this slowly begins to wake him up, forcing him to reevaluate what his ethical conscience has become. Clooney never loses sight of this inner struggle and, in the face of being pulled apart by business, money and family problems, keeps us invested and dialed in.

Clooney is not the only one with a brilliant performance — the supporting cast all nail their roles too. Wilkinson is haunting as a man on the brink of sanity, yet hinting at a morsel of truth below the surface. Tilda Swinton deserves accolades as Karen Crowder, the firm’s chief counsel, who is given the ultimatum of pushing the settlement through at any cost. Even though she serves as a villain in the piece, it is never purely black and white, and her behavior indicates she is battling with the same tough issues as Clayton. Sydney Pollack, perfectly cast as Clayton’s boss, provides the tough-as-nails personality one would expect from a man in his position, and is at his best alongside Clooney.

With one of the smartest scripts of the year and an equally impressive cast, “Michael Clayton” is sure to attract attention come awards season. Clooney is the one most likely to reap the benefits and could score his second acting nomination after winning two years ago for “Syriana.” However, Gilroy is not to be forgotten in the mix, having turned in the job of a seasoned veteran, and it’s largely because of him the film ranks among the year’s best.

The Verdict: B+ (88%)
Tags: Michael Clayton, George Clooney, Movie, Review
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Movie Review - The Heartbreak Kid
10/15/07 at 05:09 PM by Jonathan Bautts
The Farrelly brothers (“Dumb And Dumber”) and Ben Stiller (“Meet The Parents”) have been involved in some of the most beloved comedies of the last fifteen years. Their first film together, 1998’s “There’s Something About Mary,” proved to be the pinnacle of their respective careers — at least in terms of quality. Nine years later, the trio has reunited for a remake of the 1972 film, “The Heartbreak Kid.”

The story follows Eddie Cantrow (Ben Stiller), a 40-year-old bachelor who remains hesitant to make the commitment despite pressure from his father (Jerry Stiller) and best friend (Robert Corddry). One day he bumps into Lila (Malin Akerman) and they immediately hit it off, causing him to hastily conclude she must be the one. On their honeymoon, he quickly doubts the decision after he discovers his wife to be a completely different person. Matters are further complicated when he falls for the unknowing Miranda (Michelle Monaghan) at the hotel, leaving him torn between ending his short marriage or letting this new love get away.

Stiller brings his easygoing and likeable personality to the film but never strays from the familiar string of characters he has built his career upon. Despite providing a few funny moments — an improvement after the flat “Night At The Museum” — there is nothing remarkable to make this turn differentiate. At the forefront of this predicament is the character himself, who never fits any heroic archetype due to his questionable decision-making. Eddie is also not as innocent or well intentioned as some of Stiller’s past roles, and the story suffers from this lack of sentiment.

Opposite Stiller, Akerman and Monaghan are serviceable as the female leads. Akerman, who landed the role of Laurie Juspeczyk in the anticipated “Watchmen” adaptation, is charming enough in the beginning to make the set-up convincing. However, her transformation from normal to crazy fares much worse and the annoyance quickly wears thin. It’s the writing, not the acting, that is the main problem. In the end, she is unable to overcome its one-dimensionality or her appearance as a second-rate Cameron Diaz.

Monaghan isn’t given a chance to show off her acting skills as her character is also hampered by the poor writing. She displays a decent chemistry with Stiller and has learned how to play the part of the nice “girlfriend” effectively. Overall though, her character is just as shallow as everything else, with the deficiency on full display over the course of the film’s ridiculous final third.

The Farrelly brothers are well known for their over-the-top and at times raunchy humor, but one of the chief reasons their movies have worked is due to the heart and message they carry. This time around, those qualities are in short supply. There is no central character to root for — we can’t help but feel Eddie somewhat deserves what has happened to him because of his own foolishness. There also isn’t a significant theme included, and the most prevalent one — don’t rush into marriage — is discarded and played for laughs with the concluding scene.

The script, from a hodgepodge of five writers (seldom a good omen), never rises above the limitations of generic, mainstream comedy. A lot of the humor is of the physical, slapstick variety — a Farrelly Brothers staple — but falters as much as it succeeds. A prime example is the incident where Eddie is stung by a jellyfish and Lila subsequently pees on him to diminish the sting — a pointless bit neither funny nor memorable. For the rest of the film, the dialogue is rarely witty or clever, and it lacks any scene genuinely side-splitting.

“The Heartbreak Kid” fails to live up to its billing, succumbing to the trappings of a typical run-of-the-mill comedy. Most of that can be attributed to the uninspired and uncreative writing but, on the other hand, partial blame is reserved for the talent as well — the Farrelly brothers’ continuing struggle at the box office and Stiller’s struggle of finding a challenging role. Hopefully on their next collaboration, they will have learned from this mishap and will be able to strike comic gold once again.

The Verdict: C+ (78%)
Tags: The Heartbreak Kid, Ben Stiller, Farrelly Brothers, Movie, Review
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Movie Review - In The Valley Of Elah
10/05/07 at 04:19 PM by Jonathan Bautts
At the 2006 Academy Awards, “Crash” pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Oscar history, slipping past heavyweight “Brokeback Mountain” to seize Best Picture. Now nearly two years later, writer/director Paul Haggis returns with his directorial follow-up. Instead of tackling the ugly realities of racism again, he turns his attention to a different but equally sensitive topic — the war in Iraq.

During his first weekend back from serving in Iraq, Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker) mysteriously disappears. When his parents (Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon) are alerted of this disquieting news, his father, Hank, a former military man, travels to the base to help track him down. Once he arrives, things begin to look increasingly discouraging, and the evidence piles up suggesting his son was murdered. With the help of a local police detective (Charlize Theron), Hank attempts to uncover the truth behind the shocking act, no matter how dark it might be.

The driving force behind the film is Tommy Lee Jones, who turns in one of the best-rounded performances of his storied career. While his character never strays too far from those he is well known for (“The Fugitive,” “Men In Black”), there is an element of brokenness to his demeanor which makes this one different. His grave facial expressions insinuate a sorrowful past, stemming from the loss of his elder son to overseas combat. This adds an additional dimension to his rough and tough persona, as well as casting his forthcoming violent outbursts in a new light.

Theron, while not given as much to work with as Jones, delivers as both a haggard cop and a single mother. She is limited to working almost solely on the investigation yet infuses a likeable personality into the part, keeping us involved.

The rest of the ensemble provides good performances, although some are never developed. James Franco as an army officer and Sarandon as Jones’ wife serve as little more than footnotes in Jones’ journey. The movie squanders a great opportunity to contrast the crisis from Sarandon’s viewpoint, a valued component that the similar-minded film “In The Bedroom” skillfully demonstrated.

With strong acting on display, the film’s main downfall lies in the writing department. Much of the run time follows the slow-trodden investigation, and the meticulous pacing is sure to garner complaints. When the big mystery is finally resolved at the end, it also lacks the level of fulfillment that “Crash” excelled at.

Haggis takes a subtler approach to develop his themes this time around, focusing on the characters and choosing to let things unfold in front of their eyes. He shows a growing maturity in that regard, and this more organic storytelling is certainly a step in the right direction. The message responds by being less heavy-handed than “Crash,” save for the last scene, but no one will leave the theater without knowing where Haggis stands on the issue.

On the other hand, the emotional response and insight which made “Crash” so powerful are largely absent here. While we feel for Jones’ character, we never get a chance to connect with any of the soldiers, failing to understand them below a surface level. This is ultimately were the movie fails.

Its arguments against war and the personal damage it causes centers on these soldiers’ responses. When this aspect fall shorts, the whole story crumbles as a result. It doesn’t help that similar themes have been explored in countless war stories — the superb “All Quiet On The Western Front” immediately springs to mind — making it all the more apparent when Haggis stumbles.

Coming off the major success of “Crash,” “In The Valley Of Elah” can only be considered a disappointment. First off, it never reaches the heights of the former or resonates as profound an emotional chord. It is also plagued by many of the same problems as the Haggis-penned “Flags Of Our Fathers,” stalling in its quest to portray war in a rarely-seen setting. Despite a brilliant effort on behalf of Jones and an ambitious attempt from Haggis, these missteps are difficult to ignore.

The Verdict: B- (82%)
Tags: In The Valley Of Elah, Movie, Review
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Concert Review - Cornerstone: Day Two (9.29.07)
10/03/07 at 09:16 PM by Jonathan Bautts
Cornerstone Festival started in Illinois in 1984 and has since become one of the largest and most acclaimed festivals in the country. In June, thousands of fans flocked to the annual five-day event, featuring performances by bands such as Anberlin, Copeland, Flyleaf, Pillar, Skillet, Switchfoot and Underoath. Borrowing a page from last year’s Bamboozle Left, Cornerstone decided it was finally time to make their hard-hitting presence felt in Orange County last weekend, Sept. 28-29.

Night one’s schedule included Emery, Thousand Foot Krutch and Demon Hunter, but the second night was the main attraction. The first highlight belonged to Orange County’s own Project 86, who turned in a vigorous set consisting of eleven songs. Led by the active charisma of singer Andrew Schwab, the veteran rock outfit skewed towards material off of this summer’s Rival Factions.

While they pulled it off handedly most of the time, as evidenced by scorching opener “The Forces Of Radio Have Dropped A Viper Into The Rhythm Section” and “Evil (A Chorus Of Resistance),” during others it was a more mixed affair (“Illuminate,” “Pull Me Closer, Violent Dancer”). The band should have chosen to stick closer to their guns and pull more from their strong discography, as they did on “The Spy Hunter” and “My Will Be A Dead Man.” Closing with the only song of the night off of Drawing Black Lines – arguably their best album – “Stein’s Theme” proved they were merely saving the best for last. It all amounted to another solid outing from one of OC’s finest.

Anberlin was up next, putting on nothing short of a terrific performance. Kicking things off with “A Whisper & A Clamor” and “Never Take Friendship Personal,” the band’s set was equally full of both old and new material. Although “Readyfuels” was the only song from their debut record, the big surprise was that they played six off of their second. The noticeable standouts were the rocking “Paperthin Hymn” and “The Feel Good Drag,” but it was especially satisfying to see “Dance, Dance Christa Paffgen” live.

The band spent the rest of the time highlighting one of this year’s best releases, Cities. This included tracks “Hello Alone” and “Adelaide,” both of which were precisely executed, while the powerful duo of “Dismantle. Repair.” and “Godspeed” ended things in an emphatic manner.
Lead singer Stephen Christian did a pretty good job with the vocals, not quite up to his best but far from his worse, and impressed on a couple of high notes. He displayed a charming command of the stage as well, helping to compensate for the times when his frail voice was overshadowed by the guitars.

The Florida five-piece also maintained a high level of energy, led by rhythm guitarist Christian McAlhaney and bassist Deon Rexroat, with Nathan Young pounding away behind the drum kit. When all was said and done, Anberlin confirmed why they have become one of today’s brightest up-and-coming bands.

Metalcore act Underoath was given the task of closing out the festival, and the organizers couldn’t have selected anyone more fitting. The six-piece band, taking time out from their first headlining tour in over a year, brought their “A” game with a dominating 12-song set. They came onto the stage to the instrumental murmurs of “Salmarnir,” offering little more than a tease of what lay ahead, before exploding into the brutal one-two punch of “Returning Empty Handed” and “In Regards To Myself.”

Quick to follow were “It’s Dangerous Business Walking Out Your Front Door” and “You’re Ever So Inviting,” showcasing the dual vocals between screaming frontman Spencer Chamberlain and singer/drummer Aaron Gillespie. A portion of their quieter, more experimental nature was next demonstrated on the epic “To Whom It May Concern,” the closer off of last year’s phenomenal Define The Great Line.

“A Moment Suspended In Time” and “Young And Aspiring” kept things progressing at a high pace but were soon eclipsed by “Writing On The Walls” and “Everyone Looks So Good From Here,” which cranked the dial all the way up to eleven. Chamberlain then unexpectedly joined in on guitar for a stirring performance of “Casting Such A Thin Shadow” before the band closed with an oldie, “A Boy Brushed Red…Living In Black And White.”

Despite the festival’s constraints of production aspects and a limited set time, Underoath held nothing back and delivered an excellent show. Their seemingly limitless stamina, from the headbanging madness of keyboardist Chris Dudley to the controlled frenzy of guitarist Tim McTague to the vicious beatings generated by Gillespie, was living proof why they rank among the top live acts in today’s music scene.

In the end, Cornerstone California’s inaugural year turned out to be a fair success. While the lineup could have been stronger – it still has quite a ways to go to match its Illinois sibling – the headlining bands, especially the electrifying Underoath, proved they were up to the challenge. With some additional improvements and slight tinkering here and there, Cornerstone’s newest addition could be a force to reckon with for years to come.
Tags: Cornerstone, Underoath, Anberlin, Project 86, Concert, Review
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Movie Review - The Kingdom
09/29/07 at 02:48 PM by Jonathan Bautts
The conflicts in the Middle East and the threat of Islamic extremists are two of the most pressing issues facing our country today. This fall, Hollywood responded by rolling out one of its most politically minded lineups in recent years, with several films tackling these issues with stories uncomfortably close to today’s headlines. “The Kingdom” is one of the first of these to be released and, though it might not be as politically motivated as some of the others, it still manages to make an important statement about the times in which we live in.

The story begins in Saudi Arabia, where a terrorist attack inside an American housing complex leaves more than 100 people dead. Back in the states, Washington officials determine it is best to let the local government handle the case. Angered by this decision, FBI Special Agent Robert Fleury (Jamie Foxx) arranges an unauthorized covert operation, giving him and three other agents (Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman) five days in Saudi Arabia to investigate further. Upon arrival, they have a hard time accomplishing anything constructive, restricted by the local authorities who don’t want their assistance. Finally, with the help of a sympathetic colonel (Ashraf Barhoum), they slowly start to unravel the identities of those responsible.

Actor-turned-director Peter Berg (“The Rundown,” “Friday Night Lights,” Will Smith’s upcoming “Hancock”) has turned in another terrific effort at the helm. While more of a military thriller than a political piece, it is an involved look at a group of soldiers well out of their comfort zone, offering a glimpse into a part of the world many of us are unfamiliar with. Expanding further on the handheld tactics he employed in “Friday Night Lights,” while also trying to one-up the likes of Paul Greengrass (“United 93,” “The Bourne Ultimatum”) and Michael Mann (“Heat,” “Collateral”), Berg is able to ground the film in a stark sense of reality. While the style can be a bit exhausting at times, it suits the tone of the picture capably.

The cast, while all turning in solid performances, never capitalizes on the potential their talents suggest. Foxx plays a resolute and serious leading man, yet despite his efforts, he never generates a strong sense of emotion necessary to carry a story of this magnitude. The dependable Cooper is a joy to watch, playing the group’s explosives expert, but the part easily could (and should) have been expanded. As a result, he never is allowed to sink his teeth into the character, as he did earlier this year to great effect with “Breach.”

Garner, in a tough girl mode reminiscent of her “Alias” days, doesn’t distinguish herself except during the action scenes, highlighted by an impressive fight with one of the terrorists. On the other hand, fellow TV alumnus Bateman (“Arrested Development”) proves he can do more than just comedy, showing off a surprising dramatic range, and Jeremy Piven (“Entourage”) is effective as a U.S. diplomat in his limited screen time. However, the most surprising performance belongs to Barhoum (“Paradise Now”), who is more than able to hold his own against his more famous colleagues.

The script, by Matthew Michael Carnahan (who also penned the forthcoming politically-charged “Lions For Lambs”), proves to be both a blessing and a hindrance. For the most part it is intelligently written and successful at creating an atmosphere of believability but at other times, it hinges on being too dense for its own good. Even though it never attempts the ambitiousness of something like “Syriana,” it can be a little confusing in places, especially when multiple characters are introduced in a matter of moments. The pacing also gets bogged down in the second act, slowing down considerably when the investigation gets underway. Meanwhile, the ending approaches a sense of being too convenient and neatly wrapped up, in a way violating the film’s core perception of realism it was trying to create.

While not as compelling as his masterful sports drama “Friday Night Lights,” Berg has still put together a worthwhile look into a team of a different sort faced with far graver dilemmas. Managing to be both exciting and absorbing, it nevertheless falters in its execution of story and characters, particularly in the middle section. It’s a shame because the film concludes with a scene so powerfully poignant, it casts the rest of the movie in an entirely different perspective—evidence of the high level of promise it failed to completely encompass.

The Verdict: B (86%)
Tags: The Kingdom, Movie, Review
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Concert Review - The Academy Is w/ AFS, TRS, Sherwood @ HOB Anaheim (9.21.07)
09/29/07 at 01:46 PM by Jonathan Bautts
Fresh off their opening stint for Fall Out Boy during this summer’s Honda Civic Tour, The Academy Is… is now in the midst of the first headlining tour in support of their second album, Santi. Boasting three very good opening bands, all of which were solid live, last Friday night’s stop of the Sleeping With Giants Tour at Anaheim’s House Of Blues is likely to be one of the best shows this fall.

Starting the night off was San Luis Obispo’s own Sherwood, who turned in a 30-minute set of seven delectable pop-rock songs. “Never Ready To Leave” got things going right off the bat, led by the dual vocal exchange of lead singer/bassist Nate Henry and singer/guitarist Dan Koch. For the rest of the time, they drew almost exclusively from their latest release A Different Light (the only old song was “Learn To Sing”), with highlights including “The Best In Me,” “Song In My Head,” and the stirring closer “For The Longest Time,” which showed off Henry’s vocal range. My only complaint was the similarity between this set list and those from their last two tours. It would have been nice to see them switch things up more or better yet receive an extended playing time. Nevertheless, it was another impressive display.

After Sherwood was The Rocket Summer, who stole the show with a 30-minute set simply bursting forth with energy. From the first song “Break It Out,” they had the whole place moving, and it never let up from there. Whether it was oldies “Around The Clock” and “Brat Pack” or new stuff like “Do You Feel” and “So Much Love,” it was all fantastically done, easily turning into the highlight of the evening. Lead singer Bryce Avary is one of the most energetic frontman I’ve seen, constantly moving around and giving his all while never missing a note in the process. Switching off from guitar to piano almost every other song, he showcased his extraordinary musical talents, even playing the drums during one transition. The only disappointment was once again how short the set was. The release of this summer’s Do You Feel and a live show that can’t be missed should ensure it won’t stay that way for much longer.

Armor For Sleep was given the difficult task of following up The Rocket Summer. While they weren’t able to match their effort, they still put together a solid nine-song, 40-minute outing. Kicking things off in high fashion was “The Truth About Heaven,” displaying a harder rock sound than the rest of bands on the bill. They went on to play several favorites off of their last release What To Do When You Are Dead, with obvious standouts being “Remember To Feel Real,” “Stay On The Ground” and “Car Underwater.” The New Jersey outfit also showcased a handful of new tunes off of next month’s Smile For Them, indicating a heavier direction on tracks such as “Williamsburg” and “Smile For The Camera.” Throughout the set, singer/guitarist Ben Jorgensen delivered consistent vocals, and the other band members sounded tight musically. Even though it was the weakest performance of the night, it was by no means a bad one, and proved why they have now achieved major label status.

Closing the night was The Academy Is…, who put on an entertaining show over the course of their 75-minute set. The Chicago quintet started things off in style with “Same Blood” before transitioning to older songs “Attention” and “Slow Down.” This proved to be a trademark of the night as the band split 18 songs evenly between their two albums. All of their best songs were included too, from the old (“The Phrase That Pays,” “Black Mamba,” “Down And Out,”) to the new (“We’ve Got A Big Mess On Our Hands,” “Bulls In Brooklyn,” “Neighbors,” “Seed”). They closed with “Checkmarks,” one of their finest songs to date, before coming out to encore with the b-side “40 Steps” and an impassioned performance of “Almost Here,” which ended things perfectly.

Frontman William Beckett’s rock persona was also on full display the entire night, which was quite amusing. Whether strutting around on stage or posing atop the risers, he demonstrated a remarkable presence, and it seemed he was able to work the crowd into a frenzy with the simple twist of his hand. Despite the antics, he never came across as arrogant or ungrateful, and his vocals were spot on for almost every song. The rest of the band, while not nearly as fun to watch, performed well in his shadow.

It baffles me how The Academy Is… has not received more mainstream attention, especially considering how they are among Fall Out Boy’s inner circle and Beckett can actually sing and perform live (unlike Panic!’s Brendon Urie). With their set, they not only showed off the musical diversity of Santi but played almost everything off of their debut as well, which was more than enough to please both old and new fans alike. Coupled with three other great up-and-coming bands, including an amazing showing from The Rocket Summer, it turned out to be quite the night for music.
Tags: The Academy Is, Armor For Sleep, Rocket Summer, Sherwood, Concert, Review
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Movie Review - The Brave One
09/28/07 at 06:57 PM by Jonathan Bautts
In a flawed legal system amid an imperfect world, can true justice ever be attained? Can an individual, exacting justice in ways in which the system has failed, fulfill it? Or is no single person capable or even worthy of a responsibility of this magnitude, due to the inevitable reality of turning into that which he or she is trying to avenge?

These questions and more have been examined in countless films, and “The Brave One” is the latest to offer an opinion on the role of the vigilante. The film opens in a predictable and unremarkable way—the characters and the set-up are nothing new. However, after the story catalyst, it becomes a fascinating character study, setting off to explore deeper themes. What is particularly interesting is that it is from the perspective of a woman, not often seen in these types of male-driven stories.

Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) is enjoying life as the host of a successful radio show while preparing to marry the love of her life (Naveen Andrews). In the blink of an eye, a brutal mugging eradicates her world to shatters, putting her in a coma and leaving her fiancé dead. When she awakes, she is slowly transformed into someone unafraid to stand up and demand justice, by violent means if necessary. It isn’t long before her path crosses with a sympathetic detective (Terrence Howard) tracking the elusive “justice” killer, and he is soon forced to make the most difficult decision of his career.

Foster has always excelled at playing strong-willed characters and does a fine job with this one. She brings a haunted brokenness to Erica, who is desperately trying to pick up the pieces and find a reason to go on living, and it’s this depiction which makes up the backbone of the film. She also conveys believability for when Erica finds that purpose by handing out her own form of lethal judgment, discovering strength within herself she never thought attainable. Not many actresses could have pulled off this conflicting type of duality, but Foster does admirably in both areas.

Terrence Howard, while not on the same level as Foster, is solid nonetheless. Turning in his best work since his breakout year of 2005 (“Crash,” “Hustle & Flow”), he provides a determined, multi-layered performance, and the scenes between him and Foster are among the film’s highlights. He remains in top form on his own too, whether it is on the trail of the killings, wrestling with a failed marriage or dealing with a murderer he can’t put away due to the lack of evidence. Nicky Katt does a nice job as Howard’s partner, providing a few lines of comic relief that don’t feel out of place in the serious surroundings. Sadly, the same can’t be true of Naveen Andrews (Sayid from “Lost”), whose talents are sorely wasted here, amounting to little more than a cliché in his handful of scenes.

Director Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game,” “Interview With The Vampire”) is successful in creating an atmosphere parallel to what Foster’s character is experiencing. The cinematography is cold and desaturated, emphasizing isolation and hopelessness. He also relies on a number of interesting shots from extreme angles, capturing Foster’s sense of paranoia in riveting fashion.

Sustained by another fantastic performance from Foster, “The Brave One” is a gripping look at a woman grappling with the dark recesses of her mind. In spite of its intriguing promise, it ultimately fails to deliver a message either well-thought out or profound. Let down by the writing and an unbelievable ending, which seem to contradict all that has come before it, the film squanders the opportunity to say anything meaningful. It really is too bad because for a second it looked like it was going to be something special.

The Verdict: B (85%)
Tags: The Brave One, Jodie Foster, Movie, Review
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