June 20, 2017

The Fourth Kingdom and the American Myth

The Fourth Kingdom depicts life at the "Sure We Can" redemption center.

Amid today’s onslaught of claims about illegal aliens and dangers to a blurry concept of traditional “America”, it’s easy to bypass the human side. We can hate the fearmongering by power-hungry leaders, but what about the people it impacts? Taking a breath and looking closer is hard to do sometimes. In their short film The Fourth Kingdom, Adán Aliaga and Àlex Lora accomplish that by depicting a small group of people at the Sure We Can recycling and community center in New York. They depict individuals of different races and backgrounds, and each one has a unique story.

It’s easy to tie everything to a discussion of Trump’s policies, but there’s no need to make it blatant. With the exception of a brief shot of the President on TV (before the channel changes), there’s no direct mention of him. Even so, his presence hangs over each scene. When a man speaks about the difference between labeling people as “illegal aliens” instead of “immigrants”, it brings us right back to the hate speech. Hearing him speak about walking to the border without any planning is striking. A later shot of the guy going to bed in extremely cramped quarters says plenty. He came looking for the “American Dream”, but what he found instead was something less inspiring.

I shouldn’t focus too much on the political aspects; that’s more of a backdrop than the focus. The residents of this center largely seem content and aspire for a better life. One man spends his time chatting with a friend and wondering about theories like God's involvement in The Big Bang. It’s the type of conversation that you’d expect to hear among friends at a park or coffee shop. Another guy has a personal goal of acquiring 2,000 bottles, and the process makes him happy. He spent 3-4 years at one point living in the streets, so finding a purpose is so important.

Aliaga and Lora find inventive ways to avoid using just a fly-on-the-wall style. One slow-motion shot of a beer bottle opening is beautiful in its simplicity. They also use audio from a vintage promo about plastics throughout the film. That overly positive look at the artificial substance mirrors the way the dream has been diminished for some residents. Plastics took hold of our culture during the post-war era of the ‘50s and connect to the rise of the American myth. The bags of plastic have their own charms, but they also reveal the leftovers of a wasteful society.

While the narrator describes the “dream of the future”, shots of heaping bags of bottles and cans tell a different tale. Stories about alcoholism and homelessness drive home the point that we’re a long way from that idyllic dream. This kingdom of plastics offers respite for people that are barely hanging onto hope. They’re just living day to day and working tirelessly to stay afloat. The Fourth Kingdom finds peace in their efforts, despite the difficulties of each day. It’s a brief glimpse at a world on a separate plane from the grand claims of politicians. Those leaders are stuck in the fantasy described by the deceptive narrator while life continues in the world around them.

The Fourth Kingdom is currently playing the festival circuit, including the Palm Springs Film Festival on June 21. It also recently won the Best Short Documentary award at the Brooklyn Film Festival. Learn more at the official website.

June 19, 2017

Nicholas Ray Retrospective: On Dangerous Ground (1951)

Robert Ryan stars as Jim Wilson in Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground.

For his seventh feature, Nicholas Ray ventured into the crime world that served him well in his debut They Live By Night. Released in 1951, On Dangerous Ground depicts a cynical cop that’s lost his way in the dark city. It’s the type of character that we still see today, particularly on prestige TV series. Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is a grim anti-hero with no interest in playing by the rules. There are even Dirty Harry-like moments where the Chief tells Wilson that he must tone down his behavior or risk losing his badge. He’s a loose cannon that must be controlled!

Robert Ryan (The Naked Spur, Bad Day at Black Rock) is the perfect choice to play this unhinged guy. His expressive face says plenty with limited dialogue. When Wilson mercilessly beats a suspect, the camera stays on Ryan’s face. It’s a frightening look inside a cop that has seen far too much. Screaming “You know you’re gonna talk! I’m gonna make you talk! I always make you punks talk!”, Ryan is quite believable. There is no doubt that Wilson is going to gather the info he needs no matter what it takes. The line between cop and criminal is razor thin, and Wilson might be worse because he’s acting with the arm of the law.

An effective opening sequence presents a series of nighttime calls to cops for an extensive search for suspects. The emphasis on the procedural aspects is surprising from a director like Ray, who often seems more interested in a story’s emotional context (that comes later). During the first act, there’s little sense that we aren’t going to stick with the cops. I knew little about the plot going into this viewing, and the fast-paced opening works well. Ray puts the camera inside the cars and gives us obstructed looks at the action in the city’s back alleys. This helps set the mood of a depressing crime world, and even the audience is likely on board to escape it.

What makes On Dangerous Ground stand out is its odd left turn during its second half. Sending a city cop to the country to investigate a murder isn’t that surprising. What makes the shift different is how little Ray and Co-writer A.I. Bezzerides seem to care about the case. It’s really just a set-up to bring Wilson into contact with Mary Malden (Ida Lupino). She’s blind and living mostly alone in the snowy wilderness. Lupino’s glassy stare helps make sure we get the point, even if Walter Brent (Ward Bond) can’t see that she’s blind for a while. His revenge-minded father of the victim is so blinded by rage that he almost clumsily burns down the cabin. The hard edges of the first act disappear, and we’ve shifted into a family melodrama and love story.

Before Wilson and Brent meet Malden, they join a town-wide manhunt for the killer. It’s the film’s most epic sequence and has a strange town mania for the chase. It’s the most exciting thing to happen in the town for quite a while! In this revenge-fueled setting, Wilson doesn’t seem like he’s out of line. In fact, his measured approach in the new setting is a contrast to the townspeople’s. Bond is dialed up to 11 as Brent, and Wilson seems eerily composed by comparison. Part of the change is this wide-open landscape plus an interest in Malden. The change of scenery pulls the darkness away from Wilson, and he’s comfortable here.

Lupino and Ryan do their best with the material, but the story grinds to a halt in the third act. It’s a surprising move to slow down so much in what’s essentially the movie’s climax. Even when Brent and Wilson chase down the suspect, the result seems more inevitable than thrilling. An exception is the one-on-one meeting between Wilson and the killer, which works because of the cop’s internal conflict. His interest in both Malden and this small-town life means more than catching the bad guy. The conflict appears mostly in Ryan’s facial expressions, which shift as his demeanor softens with Malden. Taking care of her gives him a much-needed mission.

Despite some awkward moments, On Dangerous Ground is a worthy noir because of Ray’s direction. He finds inventive places to put the camera, especially in driving sequences. One crash gives the sense that you’re inside the car as it tumbles over in the icy snow. This film also runs a brisk 82 minutes. A two-hour version of this film would be tedious. A slow Bernard Hermann score adds to the sleepy tone of the scenes inside the house. Wilson needs this quiet life to push back his demons, but it’s less inspiring to us. What clicks is the way his demeanor shifts back to depression when he drives back into the city. That world would eventually kill Wilson’s soul, and he must escape or risk falling prey to the worst parts of himself.

On Dangerous Ground is currently streaming on Filmstruck and available to rent through Amazon.

Updated Nicholas Ray Rankings

1. In a Lonely Place
2. They Live by Night
3. Rebel Without a Cause
4. On Dangerous Ground

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June 16, 2017

Midnight Oil Is Back with a Vengeance

Midnight Oil performs at Webster Hall in New York City on May 13.

There’s a unique sense of anticipation that comes right before a band hits the stage. You can just feel it in the crowd, especially in a more intimate space. That excited mood was on full display last month in New York minutes before the return of Midnight Oil to the stage. Fans had waited nearly 15 years for the five Aussie guys to reunite after their abrupt end in late 2002. Standing in the throng at Webster Hall, I couldn’t believe this moment was going to happen. My favorite band was back, and they would prove once again why they’re the best live act on the planet.

Way back in 1990, I visited a local record store with my brother as a 14-year-old that was just getting into music. I’m not sure why, but I picked up a cassette copy of Blue Sky Mining from Midnight Oil. Maybe I’d seen the video for the title track on MTV, but the reasons are fuzzy. Regardless of how it happened, I was hooked on the politically charged music of Peter Garrett, Jim Moginie, Rob Hirst, Martin Rotsey, and Bones Hillman. Within the next few years, I’d snatched up their past work and become a devoted fan. I caught them live in 1993 at the Riverport Amphitheatre in St. Louis as part of a local radio station’s festival. They sounded great, but the giant venue (and some unexcited friends) made it a less satisfying night.

During the 1990s, Midnight Oil spent more time in Australia and slipped out of the mainstream here in the States. They kept releasing albums but didn’t return for an extended tour until 2001 and 2002. I caught them at six club shows around the Midwest during that time, and the concerts were so much fun. During the last few concerts in mid-2002, I did notice that the guys weren’t as excited by the experience. I wasn’t shocked when they decided to call it quits later that year. With Garrett immersed in politics, it seemed unlikely they would officially reform again. The guys might play a few benefit concerts in Australia, but a full tour was a pipe dream.

The marquee for the Midnight Oil concert at Webster Hall in New York City.

The Announcement

February 17, 2017. Sydney Harbour. Midnight Oil had offered hints about an overseas tour, but we didn’t know if it would be extensive. Sitting on a boat in front of local media, the guys revealed The Great Circle Tour — an ambitious trek around the world that would occupy most of the year. Here in Missouri, I could barely hold back the anticipation as I watched the live online feed on my phone. Where would they play? I knew the guys wouldn’t make it to St. Louis, but would the tour dates work for me? I was determined to attend multiple shows if possible, but I’m not in a phase of life for a long trip. With young kids at home, this would be a quick weekend trip to get as much of the Oils as possible in that short time.

My plans crystalized when the band announced a second show in New York. I could fly there and catch two concerts on back-to-back nights on May 13 and 14. I also have friends in the area that had never seen the Oils live, so it was an easy sell. I bought the tickets just a few months away from the concert dates. Questions were flying around in my mind. Would the Oils still be at the top of their game? Garrett is 64, and the other guys are just a few years younger. What songs would they play? I knew it would be fun, but I was trying to keep expectations in check.

The acoustic set for Midnight Oil playing live in New York City at Webster Hall.

Night 1 – The Power and the Passion

Any doubts about the Oils’ return were gone before they even hit the stage. The female trio BOYTOY opened with a solid 30-minute set, and the anticipation just built during the break. When “Waru” from the legendary Warumpi Band blared through the speakers, the impact of this moment really hit me. Without much fanfare, the guys strolled onto the stage to a huge roar. They blasted into “Sometimes”, the type of song that would normally close a set. This choice set the tone for the night; the Oils were going for broke right from the start. The night’s third song was “Don’t Wanna Be the One”, a fiery anthem from 1981’s Place Without a Postcard album. The oldest tune of the evening, this performance hearkened back to the Oils’ early club days.

After a significant career in politics, Garrett is well into his 60s. Even so, you could barely notice as he lumbered all over the stage throughout the night. There were a lot of smiles from the guys, who clearly enjoyed playing together again. Garrett threw some barbs at Trump (including “dumpster”) as expected, but the general vibe was quite positive. He even took a shot at the difficult range needed on “Somebody’s Trying to Tell Me Something”, which the band hadn’t played live since 1988. Songs like this one built the sense that anything might get a turn in this set.

Hirst grabbed a drum and moved to the front of the stage for an acoustic middle set that lost none of its power. In particular, a stripped-down version of “My Country” made that track from 1993’s Earth and Sun and Moon even more powerful. The bass-heavy “When the Generals Talk” morphed into a dance tune while retaining its cynical look at world leaders. The appearance of B-side “Ships of Freedom” also made an impact with its timely look at the plight of refugees. The Oils have a rare ability to discuss complex, tough issues with catchy rock melodies.

The main set closed with a joyous run through some of the band’s hits. After a refreshing “Arctic World”/”Warakurna” combo, Hirst started hitting the water tank and signified the funky “Power and the Passion”. Easily one of my favorite Oils tunes, the early gem included an incredible solo from Hirst as its centerpiece. By this point, the crowd was full of adults in their 30s and 40s (if not older) bouncing up and down like teenagers. Even critic David Fricke from Rolling Stone was singing along and swaying up in the balcony. It’s hard to beat the massive sing along at the start of “The Dead Heart”, but the guys tried with a closing trio of “Blue Sky Mine”, “Beds are Burning”, and “Dreamworld”.

Standing on the floor in the middle of the action, I loved looking up at the balcony to see people losing their minds and singing along. What could be better? In the encore, the Oils even recalled their 1990 Exxon Protest show in New York by covering John Lennon’s “Instant Karma!”. The night closed with the epic call-and-response of “Best of Both Worlds” from Red Sails in the Sunset. How could they top this show? Heading into night two, I hoped the band could at least match this intensity. Amazingly, this was only the warm-up for an even better concert.

Setlist: Sometimes, Bullroarer, Don’t Wanna Be the One, Bedlam Bridge, Stars of Warburton, Somebody’s Trying to Tell Me Something, Now or Never Land, My Country, When the Generals Talk, Ships of Freedom, Luritja Way, Arctic World, Warakurna, Power and the Passion, The Dead Heart, Blue Sky Mine, Beds Are Burning, Dreamworld. Encore 1: Instant Karma!, Sell My Soul, Forgotten Years. Encore 2: Best of Both Worlds

Peter Garrett and Bones Hillman of Midnight Oil perform in New York City at Webster Hall.

Night 2 – A Dream Setlist

It’s a challenge for me to write about seeing the Oils live without just saying words like “awesome” and “incredible” over and over. It’s even more difficult when describing the second New York show. The first night included eight songs from Diesel and Dust, the band’s most successful album. Even so, I still loved it because they incorporated a variety of eras. Going into this show, I had a mental list of other songs that I hoped to hear. They played all of them. “Progress” and “Redneck Wonderland” were part of that group, and they opened the night. The former was also a key part of the Exxon Protest, while the latter is a scorching title track from the band’s 1998 album. Both set the stage for a more intense and varied performance in night two.

Amazingly, the Oils began their second concert with nine songs that hadn’t been played during the previous night. A highlight was “No Time for Games”, which occupied the early career spot of the show. That song includes a guitar solo from Jim Moginie that was possibly the pinnacle of the entire show. “Only the Strong” and “Read About It” rank among the band’s most powerful anthems, and both appeared during the early segment. The slower Blue Sky Mining tracks “Shakers and Movers” and “River Runs Red” offered a short break from all the mayhem.

The acoustic set again included “My Country”, but it deserved another play given our current political climate. That song connected well to “US Forces”, a stinging 1983 tune that remains so relevant today. This portion closed with everyone singing together on “Kosciusko”, which shifted back to the full band in the middle. It was another example of how the Oils didn’t take the obvious route with songs that already worked. This didn’t feel like a money grab or stale greatest-hits performance. The power emanating from the stage never slipped, and the many setlist changes just added to the impact. The result smashed my already high expectations.

The final run began with “Put Down That Weapon” and “King of the Mountain”, which weren’t played on the previous night. Both could easily anchor a set and show just how deep the Oils’ catalog extends. The last four songs matched the previous night (in a slightly different order), but the hits seemed even stronger on their second appearance. The encore began with “Whoah”, another deep cut that hadn’t appeared live since 1994. A welcome appearance of the more recent “Say Your Prayers” followed, and the classic anthem “Forgotten Years” closed the first encore. I expected the Oils to return for one more song, and I hoped to hear “Hercules”. Amazingly, the guys played exactly that to close the evening. It was that kind of night.

Setlist: Progress, Redneck Wonderland, Tone Poem, Truganini, No Time for Games, Shakers and Movers, Only the Strong, River Runs Red, Read About It, My Country, US Forces, Kosciusko, Put Down That Weapon, King of the Mountain, The Dead Heart, Beds Are Burning, Blue Sky Mine, Dreamworld. Encore 1: Whoah, Say Your Prayers, Forgotten Years. Encore 2: Hercules

Peter Garrett, Rob Hirst, and Martin Rotsey of Midnight Oil perform live in New York City.

Just Getting Started

During the February press conference, the Oils hinted that a new album might happen down the road. After seeing them live, I have no doubts that it could happen. They seemed thrilled to be together on stage once again. More tour dates keep appearing on their schedule, and the variety in set lists has been astounding. It feels similar to the reunion tour for Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band in 1999 and 2000. Following that glorious run, they entered the studio and recorded The Rising. I could foresee a similar approach for the Oils, though likely on a smaller scale.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying we “need” the Oils because of the awful situation in the Trump era. A recurring theme of their music is the idea that history repeats itself and we must have a short memory, to quote their classic song. The Oils’ message connects in any era where governments and corporations take advantage of people and destroy the environment. I also hesitate to pigeonhole the Oils as a political band. Their songs are powerful statements, but they aren’t just educational pieces.

In simple terms, the Oils are the best live band that I’ve ever seen. The second concert in New York stands at the top of my concert rankings, and I’ve seen hundreds of shows over the years. The power and the passion still rings true 41 years after the band initially formed in Sydney. Four of the five original members remain, and Hillman has been with them since the late ‘80s. The catchy hooks, soulful harmonies, and singalong lyrics come together in a potent mix. Midnight Oil has no equal on the live stage, and there's still more to come very soon. I can't wait.