Sunday, August 28, 2011

Movie Review: "Paranormal Activity 2" by David Pretty

For my review of Paranormal Activity 2 I was just gonna copy n' paste my review of the first film but for the sake of full disclosure, PA2 is admittedly a bit better than it's predecessor.

This time out, the film follows new parents Kristi Rey (Sprague Grayden) and her husband Dan (Brian Boland) as they bring their new bundle of joy back from the hospital.  Not long after an odd burglary occurs in which every room in the house is torn apart, save the baby's room.  In response, Dan opts to install security cameras all over the house, which conveniently gives the audience lots of opportunities to witness voyeur-style, the increasingly odd occurrences in the house.

This begins innocuous enough with pans falling by themselves off ceiling hooks, high-chairs tipping over, an ambitious automated pool cleaner climbing out of the water by itself, a Mexican housekeeper who tries to purify the house and Dan's daughter Ali (Molly Ephraim) getting locked out when a "gust of wind" slams the door shut behind her.

And of course, this is the great conceit of these films: the audience often witnesses more than the characters and, as such, can feel superior throughout the film.  Especially when the idiots on screen decide for some reason not to watch all of the previous night's video footage as part of a good breakfast.

Now, given the presence of a newborn child and the frequency by which crap starts moving around by itself in the house, I was really hoping that this flick would be an original entry, perhaps seeing a new set of characters deal with a more appropriate threat like a poltergeist.  Well, that wish went right down the dumper when the characters from the previous film show up and Kristi is soon revealed to be Katie's sister (Katie Featherston) from the previous flick.

As soon as I saw this, my disappointment was palpable, since instantly this flick was saddled with all the failures of it's predecessor.  Sure enough, once again we're dealing with the way-too-ambitious bugaboo of demonic forces, which really makes the nominal threats posed by the film seem pretty anemic.

Although I'm being kinda harsh here, I still think this one is slightly superior for the following reasons.  First off, I find the characters to be a bit more sympathetic than Micah and Katie in the original film.  Although Dan does get a few demerits for throwing superstitious maid Martine out just for trying to cleanse the house of bad spirits (so she burns a bit of sage, big deal, put up a friggin' Airwick!), at least he doesn't actively court the vengeance of dark forces like Micah did.

I also think this entry doles out the creeps and scares in a more economical and increasingly elevated fashion, building up to a pretty hairy sequence in the basement when the demon is glimpsed briefly.  Sound design is also exploited a bit better here, with a creepy, unsettling "white noise" effect whenever something freaky is about to happen and some bizarre disembodied noises.  Even if this is slightly improved, the sound still isn't exploited as well a sit should be.  In a film with a limited budget and with few visual payoff, scary and creepy noises should be the director's bread and butter.

When you get down to it, PA2 is just more of the same: static, endless establishing shots of parts of the house, a constant parade of creaky, opening doors, the odd item moving by itself and people being dragged around.  Frankly, I've seen much scarier short snippets on the internet.  The Paranormal Activity franchise certainly has the right idea, I just wish the producers would stop goofing around and REALLY let us have it.  C'mon guys, I promise, we can take it!

Tilt: down.

Film Review: "Paranormal Activity" by David Pretty

Hello, 'Fraidy Cats!  

Let me get this out of the way right now: Paranormal Activity is not the "great white hope" of modern horror films that the highly-effective trailer first led me to believe.  

Even the set-up is perfect fodder for a classic bargain-basement fright flick: a young, upwardly mobile couple pick a new, modern house to move into and strange things begin to happen to them almost immediately. A somewhat skeptical Micah (Micah Sloat), in a brilliant and almost comedically one-dimensional take on "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus", decides he's going to take charge of the problem and help his beloved Katie (Katie Featherston) cope with what she claims is a case of serial hauntings.  
His solution: buy a bunch of camera and night-vision equipment in an effort to try and capture what's happening to them while they're sleeping overnight.

Frankly it's a brilliant set up rivaling that of 1999's indie hit The Blair Witch Project.  I was fortunate enough to have seen Blair Witch just a week after it was released and the only thing I knew about it was an impeccably faked documentary and a viral internet campaign that set the film up perfectly as a modern urban legend.  As a result I bought the whole thing hook, line and sinker; so much so that the final scene of that film had me completely unnerved.

I tried re-watching Blair Witch years later and although I felt that the ending was still impactful, I began to realize that most of the film was much ado about nothing: just a bunch of running around, spooky totems and tearful confessions to the camera. 

Regrettably that's also the best way I can describe Paranormal Activity.   Sorry, but moving doors and flowing bed sheets do not a fright fest make.  Frankly, it takes far too long to get to the "A"-list material. Also, when the nature of the threat is revealed, this also brings the film down a peg or two in my eyes since it goes from the potential of some modest but cool spectral manifestations to promises that the film's limited budget can't possibly hope to deliver on. 

There's also a woefully inadequate use of sound here which should have been director Oren Peli's greatest (and most inexpensive) weapon.  Just one viewing of a film like Ju-On should illustrate to anyone just how effective and creepy the original use sound can be.

Also, I know the budget was limited here but some more manifestations of the threat would have served it well.  Now, I'm not talking about CGI crap as exhibited in the wretched re-make of The Haunting, I'm talking about the audience being allowed to half-glimpse things as the hand-held camera moves back in forth, frantically scanning for the source of the disturbance.

All is not lost here, though.  One of the things that often derails "Haunted House" flicks is the fact that the audience can't understand why the characters just don't up and leave the place.  The film-makers get around this pitfall quite cleverly by making Katie the spiritual nexus for all things spooky.  

Also, the level of restraint on tap here is remarkable for a modern film and it should be praised. It's this dedication to subtlety that still allows the film to add up as a pretty creepy and borderline genuine experience. Finally, the denouement does deliver somewhat, giving us a finale that brings Blair Witch to mind.  Paranormal Activity is a flawed but earnest effort that deserves considerable attention and hopefully will inspire other film-makers to reach for even more ambitious heights of terror. 

 Tilt: up.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Movie Review: "Swimming Pool" by David Pretty

Howdy, Film Snobz. 

I generally have an affinity for foreign flicks because their sensibilities are so far removed from formulaic North American crap.  Typically, these movies usually come part and parcel with an inborn pedigree of fresh perspectives and originality.  As such, I quite enjoyed the early goings of Francois Ozon's Swimming Pool, especially as an interesting and engaging character study.

Unfortunately, a litany of things began to happen which really unraveled the integrity of the picture for me. The more the film moved in that direction, the more I felt as if I was watching the thriller equivalent of Dallas.  At one point in time I even expected Ludivine Sagnier to step out of the shower and reveal that the entire previous 102 minutes of run time was "all just a dream".

Before I wade too far into the deep end, here's the film's trailer:

OooooOooo, scandalous! 

Charlotte Rampling plays Sarah Morton, an uptight British novelist who feels creatively bankrupt cranking out endless installments of her serial mystery series featuring the same recurring detective character. Although John Bosload (Charles Dance), her publisher, is keen to keep draining the cash cow, Sarah admits to a paralytic bout of writer's block.

To help her work through this, John offers Sarah the use of his villa in France.  But even when ensconced in such a beautiful place, Sarah still lives a mournfully regimented and sterile existence until a wild card arrives in the form of Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), John's estranged daughter.  Julie is Sarah's polar opposite: a libertine free spirit who skinny-dips in the house pool, drinks excessively and brings home a different man every night.

Slowly Julie's byzantine ways begin to have an impact on Sarah, which in turn begins to influence the course of her next novel.  After Julie commits a crime of passion, Sarah becomes like a surrogate mother to the girl and goes to tremendous lengths to shelter her from suspicion.  Frankly, this killed the film for me, which is a real shame, since up to that point I really enjoyed watching these two radically different characters develop some common ground.

To prove that we're watching a real, bona-fide thriller, a completely arbitrary violent crime occurs from out of nowhere.  Additional implausibilities begin to pile up and soon the audience can't help but feel as if writer/director Francois Ozon is trying to pull a fast one.  This begins subtly at first, but soon becomes glaringly obvious as we start to hear all the varied, ridiculous and convenient excuses preventing Sarah from making a simple phone call to John.  When the script keeps throwing up impediments preventing us from learning anything about his daughter and (even more tellingly) Julie's mother, we begin to feel as if someone pinned a "Sucker" sign on our backs.  

Given how extremely buttoned-down Sarah is shown to be, her willful complicity in the crime (which admittedly is a pretty sly wink to her chosen profession of getting rich off fictionally killing people) and her willingness to do just about anything to prevent the body from being discovered are so completely out of character you begin to suspect that what you're witnessing isn't real.  This is substantiated in the final sequence in which Sarah confronts Bosload with a new novel published by a rival company.

In addition to this neatly getting Sarah out of her career rut and excising her unrequited feelings for John, we're then subjected to a father/daughter reunion which really seems to invalidate everything that's come before it. Frankly, this destabilized the core of the film for me and rendered everything that came before it completely moot.

Despite the shortcomings of the script, I loved the performances. Charlotte Rampling's character is almost written like a caricature at first but she still succeeds admirably when asked to inch towards aping Julie's persona.

Speak of the devil, Ludevine Sagnier is suitably alluring and her uninhibited and emotionally raw performance is certainly one of the film's bright lights.

I can certainly appreciate the filmmaker's desire to comment on the artifice of creation and how the process  can be used to exorcise self-destructive impulses and allow us to ground unhealthy flights of fantasy.  But as increasingly preposterous things started to add up, I became convinced that the entire film was all for naught.  In the end I felt cold and somewhat used.  

A surprising disappointment for me.

Tilt: down.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

T.V. Review "Spartacus: Blood and Sand - Season One" by David Pretty

Greetings, Gladiators and Gladiettes!

Y'know, amongst all the other movie, concert and book reviews I'm already doing I really didn't envision penning a whole lotta  T.V. reviews.  But I guess all it takes for me to eat crow on that claim was the right program.  Be warned: the pilot episode of Spartacus: Blood and Sand lulls your expectations into a false sense of superiority and then jams a gladius right between it's eyes.  And then it proceeds to tea-bag the corpse.

Exhibit "A"...the trailer for the show's premiere:

Of course this is a fresh, modern take on the age-old yarn about the legendary gladiator who threw off the shackles of his degenerate oppressors to lead a large-scale slave rebellion.  Everyone's probably already familiar with the classic Stanley Kubrick film starring Kirk Douglas (or at least they should be).  Back in 1960, Kubrick was forced to jettison most of the gory battle footage he shot for the film.  This just blows me away since you couldn't conceive of similar restrictions being placed on Spartcus: Blood and Sand.  Violence is this show's bread and butter.

Kubrick also tried to sneak some subversive sexual content into the film courtesy of a scene in which Laurence Olivier's Roman General character Crassus macks on his slave Antoninus, played by Tony Curtis. Even though it's only subtext in the dialogue ("Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to be immoral?") the scene still got cut out.   Fast forward fifty years and the network that produces Spartcus: Blood and Sand is sending notes to the show-runners telling them to put in more male nudity.  My, how times have changed.      

So, I just have to ask, exactly when did Homer Simpson become a T.V executive?

Beautiful thing

This version is produced under the auspices of Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi, certainly no wilting flowers when it comes to edgy adult content.  After all, its these two characters who originally gave us the Evil Dead films. Naturally, I expected Spartcus: Blood and Sand to be reasonably splatter-riffic, but not many of Raimi's previous film's contained a lot of nudity.  In other words, thus far we've been spared the sight of Bruce Campbell's alternate boomstick.

Spartcus: Blood and Sand tells the story of a Thracian citizen who gets coerced into joining a Roman Auxiliary army to defend his homeland against barbarian invaders.  When our hero makes the mistake of upstaging the General Claudius Glaber, the Romans leave the Thracians high and dry by diverting their main armies to more glorious pursuits.  Our protagonist is betrayed, captured, and then sold off as human chattel.

He's subsequently purchased by Quintus Lentulus Batiatus, who's inherited a rundown gladiator training academy.  Now re-named after the fierce Thracian King of legend, Spartacus is forced to do battle in the arena.  Channeling his rage over being separated from his beloved wife Sura, our hero excels in one bloody spectacle after another.  In order to ensure his new champion's total complicity, Quintus pledges to funnel all of the gladiator's winnings into an effort to track down his missing wife.  Naturally, the mind reels when you consider the opportunities for duplicity here.

I have to say that the pilot really failed to impress me. It's rife with badly-rendered, hyper-stylized violence pilfered from the movie 300, with a bunch of gratuitous nudity thrown in.   But then something amazing happened.  I watched episode two.  Then I watched episode three.  And then I found myself watching two or three episodes per sitting until I ran out and then I was sad.

Did the producers just cram as much sensationalistic content into the pilot as possible to hook viewers?  Well, it had the opposite effect on me and it's a minor miracle that I stuck with it.

But I'm sure glad I did.  Over the course of the next three or four episodes, the characters slowly begin to reveal themselves in increasingly sophisticated ways.  Sure, we immediately cheer for Spartacus right away because we're sympathetic to his plight, but then the writers take a gamble and show us that he's not perfect.   His mindless quest for revenge causes collateral damage.  He's overconfident and sometimes a bit arrogant.  And he's also a bit of an asshole, especially concerning "yesterday's news" rival gladiator Crixus.  Bless the writers for treating the audience like mature adults who are capable of making our own determination about how we view certain characters.

In order to strike the perfect balance between rage, smarm, cunning and charisma the producers needed a talented actor for the title role.  They struck pay-dirt when they found Welsh actor Andy Whitfield.  It's just a bloody shame that he fell ill at the end of the first season and his future participation in the show is in serious doubt.  Fans can only hope that new actor Liam McIntyre has just a fraction of Whitfield's talent.  His presence will be sorely missed.

Speaking of Crixus, his character never ceases to amaze.  When we first meet him he comes across as the typical meat-headed, honor-bound, brainwashed oaf who's irrational hatred for Spartacus springs from his own insecurities.  But after we see him get used and discarded by Lucretia, the wife of Batiatus, all the while secretly pining over the stunning slave girl Naevia (Lesley-Ann Brandt), we feel guilty about viewing him only as a stereotype.  That's a major feather in the cap of the writers.

Much of the character's appeal can be attributed to actor Manu Bennett, who inhabits this role seamlessly. Turns out Bennett studied classical ballet (!) prior to being bit by the acting bug.  This combination might seem a bit odd at first, but his background in dance serves him well in the arena sequences.  In combat, his moves are fluid, vicious and completely convincing.

Lucretia, along with her husband Quintus, form the Lady and Lord MacBeth of the piece.  Once again, the writers do a great job generating sympathy for these two.  After all, it's easy for us to relate to people who are merely trying to operate a business, improve their lot in life and just make ends meet.  However, as their behavior become more and more Machiavellian, we're eventually turned off by their inability to be content with merely prospering.  Both Lucy Lawless and John Hannah are sheer genius in their respective roles.  It's a credit to both actors that we continue to silently plead with them to do the right thing, long after their dark paths become apparent.

Also, if Peter Mensah (who stars as the gladiator trainer Doctore) didn't exist the show runners would have had to have assembled him in some sort of genetic factory.  As a retired champion gladiator, source of wisdom and uncompromising disciplinarian, Doctore is someone you don't wanna trifle with.  Mensah plays the part with such authority and conviction, you can easily see how he was able to survive the worst perils of the arena to earn his reprieve.  Due to his fearsome countenance, he rarely needs to throw down, but when he does it's awe inspiring.

Also worth mentioning is Jai Courtney as Varro, the one and only true ally to our hero.  His casting is inspired; with his neo-classical cherub face and curly blonde hair set atop the body of a Roman bouncer Courtney looks like he was captured during a time machine trip.  He's essentially imprisoned at the ludus, trying to work of his prodigious gambling debts to Quintus.  Like Spartacus, he fights for a chance to reunite with his beloved wife but when it's revealed that she's been forced into some unsavory business in order to survive, Varro begins a downward spiral that's difficult to watch.   Jai Courtney does a fine job with the range of emotions he's asked to convey whether it be hope, envy, chagrin, encouragement, rage or resignation.    

I also have to give praise to all of the actors for being brave enough to jettison any shred of self-consciousness.  Quite often they're asked to appear completely disrobed on screen or indulge in some pretty risque sequences.  I imagine it would be tough to be completely buck nekkid with a veritable army of cast and crew standing around eating sammiches.  In additional to being historically honest, the copious nudity certainly offers up some tremendous eye candy for both male and female viewers.  I, for one, would like to thank the show's producers for giving me the opportunity to finally see Xena's chakrams.  A-hem.

To reward their bravery, the  actors are fortunate enough to have a ton of "A"-list material to work from.  The plotting gets better and better and story threads dropped earlier in the season pay off in the end.  The ending is particularly nasty, like Titus Andronicus meets Apocalypse Now.  Speaking of Shakespeare, this is one of the very few examples that I can think of where the nigh-Shakespearean dialogue actually works.  I love that Steven S. DeKnight and his team of scribes went through the bother of approximating how ancient Romans used to speak, often using one-word sentiments like "Apologies" versus saying "I'm sorry."

Indeed, the dialogue is alive with double entendres, bawdy humor and alliteration.  I wonder if it was as much  fun for actor John Hammond to say: "That shit fuck!  Beckons me to the city only to spurn me like a thin wasted whore!  Once again the gods spread the cheeks and ram cock in fucking ass!" as it is for the audience to hear it  As salty as the dialogue can be, there's also plenty of wit and truisms, such as when Spartacus declares: "It is a distance to travel from a woman's mouth to a man's ears."          

I'm also happy to report that as the series continues to progress, the digital effects get better and better.  One spectacular highlight features a titanic battle with Spartacus and Crixus allied against the monstrous and nigh-invulnerable Theoceles.  Also memorable is a horrible detour into The Pit, a nasty and vile bloodsport den that makes the arena look like a kids soccer game.  Scenes like this even managed to make this veteran gorehound's stomach churn.

To me, shows like Spartacus: Blood and Sand really prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that cable television now consistently trumps cinema as the superior and intelligent creative medium.  For one, these programs don't have the draconian restraints of the MPAA breathing down their necks.  That alone is enough to ensure that the writers aren't bound to directives antiquated enough to make the Comics Code Authority look contemporary.

So, if your interested in a television series that does right what shlock crap like Gladiator failed to do, look no further.  Spartacus: Blood and Sand takes advantage of it's additional freedoms to deliver a show that's appropriately bloody, sexually mature and positively rich with memorable dialogue, engaging plot twists and top-notch performances.

Honestly, it's probably not as good as the review I'm about to give but since I'm hard press to recall the last time I was so consistently and pleasantly surprised by a T.V. show, I'm just gonna gush about it like an arterial spray...

  Tilt: up.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Movie Review: "Sleepy Hollow" by David Pretty

Good Afternoon, Hopeful Hessians of Horror!

Sleepy Hollow was Tim Burton's eighth big-scale directorial effort.  Prior to this film, he'd given us Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Ed Wood and Mars Attacks!   Looking back at Burton's earlier oeuvre, I've come to realize that I really preferred his small-scale films to his bash at blockbusters.  In fact, I still maintain that Ed Wood is his best film to date, a picture that has barely any special effects at all.  Well, no good ones anyway.  Which, in retrospect, I guess is kinda the point.

So, where does Sleepy Hollow stand before the visual maestro went off the rails with his disastrous remake of Planet of the Apes?  Let's dive in after we have a 'boo' at the film's trailer:

Heh, heh...'Boo'.  See what I did there?  

OooOooo, pretty shpooky, huh?

As self-evidenced by the trailer, every square centimeter of the 16:9 frame is chock-a-block with Burton's unique visual flair.  But does it get in the way of telling a good story?  Yes, but it's not worth throwing the goth baby out with the murky bath-water.

Burton starts off by playing fast and loose with Washington Irving's classic short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow".  In this version Ichabod Crane isn't a lanky and homely school master.  No, instead he's incarnated as the very pretty Johnny Depp, but at least the film-makers had the decency to retain the character's craven ways and penchant for fainting spells.

Also, Crane isn't a dorky teacher here, he's a dorky police constable, who tries to use investigation, evidence collection and deductive reasoning to solve crimes, much to the derision of his peers.  Although I'm a bit put out by the decision to make Ichabod a cop, it certain does give Burton lots of opportunities to splatter the squeamish Depp with copious amounts of stage blood.  His reactions to the unexpected spurts of gore alone are priceless.

So, in a test of his abilities, Crane's superiors dispatch him to a tiny settlement "two days journey to the north in the Hudson Highlands" called Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of grisly murders.  When out not-so-intrepid hero gets there he's horrified to discover that a handful of villagers have been decapitated and their heads have been pilfered.

Crane's unconventional techniques and unrelenting disbelief instantly put him at odds with the town's elders, who are convinced that the murders are being committed by a vengeful, spectral Horseman who's hella-pissed to be missing his own noggin.  Our hero remains skeptical until he has his own encounter with the ghoul.  This episode generates considerable sympathy from Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), the young daughter of wealthy farmer Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon).

Man, you know you've dealing with fantasy when you can use the words "wealthy" and "farmer" in the same sentence together.  

With the aid of Young Masbeth (Marc Pickering) who's own father has been claimed by the Horseman,  Crane is able to track the specter through the appropriately creepy Western Woods to the Tree of the Dead.  It's here that we discover the Horseman's restless grave, his portal to the material world as well as his fine collection of cropped craniums.  After some convoluted skullduggery, the Horseman's true puppet-master is revealed, leading to the final confrontation.

Sleepy Hollow is an above-average accomplishment in Burton's early resume.  Although barely resembling the original story which inspired it, it's a spirited, rousing entertainment with a devilish streak of coal-black humor.  It's also one of the most artistically convincing films in the director's accomplished portfolio.

Just in terms of production design, the film is a tremendous achievement.  From the turn of the century depiction of New Your City, to the gray cedar gothic look of Sleepy Hollow itself, the film's visual palette is always trying to impress.  Although clearly a soundstage, the set used to depict the Western Woods is completely evocative of the scary forests we've all had nightmares about as impressionable children.

Burton and his creative team also come through with some fabulously authentic interiors, filled with old books, rustic furnishings and freaky-looking implements of bloodletting.  Crane's amusing array of "scientific" instruments are also comedically over-elaborate, clearing showing the director's influence.

The film's visual effects are top-notch.  The frequent decapitations are carried off with gusto, no more so then the intense spin action generated by Magistrate Philipse's demise.  Even though we kinda see Christopher Walken nowadays in a more comedic light, back in the Nineties he was often cast as the nutcase-du-jour.  With his crazed fright wig of black hair, rat-like teeth and eyes like Stephen Harper, his makeup job as the Headless Horseman is still deeply unsettling:


The headless effect is also a digital triumph.  Even though Ray Park's body and movements don't quite match up to Walken during the flashbacks, the illusion of a decapitated body doing flourishes and participating full-bore in sword fights is perfectly realized and more then just a little trippy.

Although it could be argued that the Horseman is merely the sum of his black leather armor, Darth Maul style blade-twirls and Walken's pop-eyed growling, he does still cut a pretty imposing figure.  Witness the scene in which the Headless Avenger comes to claim the melons of the Killian family.  Between the eerie kaleidoscopic lighting, the demonic fireplace and the sheer unrelenting viciousness of the Horseman's assault, scenes like this are the stuff of nightmares.

Tim Burton isn't often thought of as an action director, but his experience with the Batman films must have had some sort of positive effect.  By the time the plot is finished spinning out in the last reel, the film turns itself over to relentless action.  Soon we're trying to catch our breaths as we witness a three-way duel with the Horseman under a covered bridge, a dust-up at a decrepit windmill and a pretty hairy horse-n'-coach chase through the haunted woods.  Keep in mind that in 1998, CGI was used very sparingly and mainly as a tool to augment a scene.  The practical stunts and effects on display here (including one in which Depp himself is dragged behind a team of horses) are still completely convincing, even when viewed in high def.          
Depp is great in the film.  His take on Ichabod Crane is certainly true to character, with plenty of bluster and prissiness mixed with in the squeamish qualities of a prepubescent girl.  He's like a sissified version of Inspector Abeline in From Hell.  Christina Ricci is hypnotic, even if her accent veers around a bit.  It still freaks me out when older guys lust over her in this film; she was only nineteen at the time and Depp was almost twice her age.  When I hear the crude comments I can't help but think: "Hey, asshole, that's L'il Wednesday Addams yer talkin' about!  Cool it, youse pervs!"

Miranda Richardson pulls double duty as Lady Van Tassel and the Witch in the Woods.  In my scientific opinion: she steals this movie.  Her ability to appear regal, terrifying, malicious and delightfully poker-faced in quick succession is unparalleled.  In a lesser film young Marc Pickering would have been relegated to the role of annoying prat, but mercifully orphan kids in a Tim Burton film are afforded more opportunities.  As Young Masbath, Pickering is appropriately dour, well-spoken when he needs to be and determinedly heroic.

Then you have what amounts to an on-screen rally for the Legion of Awesome British Actors.  Audiences will have a blast spotting Michael "Alfred Pennyworth" Gough as Notary Hardenbrook, Michael "Dumbledore" Gambon as Baltus Van Tassel, Richard "Uncle Vernon" Griffiths as Magistrate Philipse, and Ian "Emperor Palpatine" McDiarmid as Doc Lancaster.  Shots with all of them together in the same scene are nothing short of awe-inspiring to this lowly viewer, as I'm sure it was for the director as well.  This platoon of well-worn, expressive faces is put to good use in the film, displaying a super nova reserve of veteran acting talent at a moment's notice.

And as if that wasn't enough we're also treated to cameos by the great Christopher Lee as the "Burgomaster" and Martin Landau as Peter Van Garrett.  Man, it's fun watching a film made by an obvious film nerd.

A few minor things do aggravate me about the flick.  The "whodunnit" story is so murky and confusing that it actually works to my advantage; every time I re-watch the film I've completely forgotten how it ends.  I'm also peeved that they made Crane a forensic cop (?) instead of the traditional teacher.  It certainly would have made his initial behavior and more believable and his story arc more dramatic.  And to this day I still can't figure out why Peter Van Garrett and the sentry leave perfectly good cover (an enclosed carriage and a sniper hut respectively) when attacked by the Horseman other then to willing place their heads on his mobile guillotine.  But this is just a small patch of irritating burrs stuck to the world's prettiest sweater.

Sleepy Hollow is an evocative, moving canvas of sepia-dream/nightmare imagery.   It stands up to repeat viewings as one of the finest depictions of a Fairy Tale ever committed to film.  Beautiful and fun.

Out of five.   Tilt: up.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Concert Review: Magnetic Hill Music Festival: Carney, Arcade Fire and U2 by David Pretty


Photos by Cheryl Reid and Audrey MacPhee-Slaunwhite

All Hail, Music Worshippers!

Sometimes events seem tailor made for you.  How often do you get a chance to check off not one but two bucket-list bands at one concert?  Well, that happened for me on July 30'th when I had a chance to see a musical act I've been following since 1985 and a band I've been listening to since their inception.

I've already talked about my history with U2 elsewhere but suffice to say that if you've been a fan for over twenty-five years and you haven't seen the band play live yet, well, that just borders on travesty.  I've always made the assumption that I would have to travel to see U2, but when a successful spate of lobbying, campaigning and numbers-crunching managed to tempt the monolithic 360 tour right into my backyard, I rejoiced.

But then to have Arcade Fire included in the lineup...well,  that was like putting a cherry composed of pure, concentrated awesmosium on top of a bliss-flavored sundae. 

Okay, as some of you may have already guessed, this is unlikely to be a particularly impartial review but I do pledge to be as fair and balanced as possible in spite of the "SQUEE!"-factor.

On the day of the big show we were forced to endure more rain then Harrison Ford had to deal with in Blade Runner.  We opted to head out to the concert grounds a good half hour after the gates were slated to open to try and reconcile the chances of  getting as close to the stage as possible with the inevitable saturation factor.  When we got to the site around 3:30 we were surprised find ourselves stuck in what appeared to be  a Soviet-era bread line.  It wouldn't be until much later when we learned that the gates didn't open up as scheduled because someone had misplaced the keys and were forced to break the locks open with bolt cutters!

The lineup did move briskly as soon as the entrance was pried open.  Our collective moods continued to rise as the rain ceased not long after clearing security.  Regrettably, the monsoon-like conditions had already done considerable damage to the field.  The upper bank was a grassy sponge and the foot of the hill was  reminiscent of the Ypres battlefield.

As we made our way down to the stage, we were stunned by how close we were able to get to the outer ring, merely six or seven bodies away!  Opening act Carney took to the stage not long after.  Reeve Carney, star of the beleaguered (but still crowd-pleasing) Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, is the band's impossibly young and clearly still image-obsessed lead singer.

Trust me, I'm not really a big fan of musical acts that drape themselves in bowler hats, embroidered cowboy shirts with their buttons deployed to navel-length and crucifix necklaces big enough to actually mount a life-size messiah on.  But like I said, these guys are still quite young and have a lot of time to come to the realization that substance always trumps style.

Not like these guys are totally devoid of substance.  Reeve Carney was more then capable of delivering an impassioned and highly-adept vocal performance.  Drummer Jon Epcar was given a chance to display his percussive aptitude with a lively and aggro solo, all the while dressed regrettably like Cuban wrestler Konnan.  Zane Carney, lead guitarist and Reeve's  l'il brother, managed to exhibit some choice riffage as soon as he made the decision to doff the ridiculous bowler hat.

Although the band's original material was politely received, the crowd seemed relieved to be able to 'Croon Along With Carney' on two ballsy covers: "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" by the Beatles and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody".  Reeve also managed to single-handedly depress everyone in the crowd over age forty when he casually mentioned that he was first introduced to "Bohemian Rhapsody" while watching Wayne's World at age eight.  Cripes.     

Despite their inherent youth, the band carried off both songs expertly.  Honestly, this band has tremendous potential once they locate their own identities, trim down the musical wankery and stop trying so damned hard to look the way they think rock stars are supposed to look.  After all, even the headliners themselves were guilty of the same thing back in the early 80's.

After a quick set change, Arcade Fire mobbed the stage and attacked the delighted crowd with the no-brainer opener "Ready To Start".  Rocked back by a twin drum assault courtesy of  Regine Chassagne and Jeremy Gara I closed my eyes for a bit and let the impeccable sound wash over me.  At one point in time my body became confused as to what was percussion and what was my own heartbeat.  The effect never fails to thrill me.

Guitarist Richard Reed Parry incited the crowd to clap along as lead singer Win Butler (wearing a stark white jacket likely pilfered from a Mariachi band leader) sang the deathless lyrics "Businessmen they drink my blood"/"Like the kids in art school said they would"/"Well, I guess I'll just begin again"/"You say you and I can still be friends".       

Which brings me to one of the things I love about Arcade Fire: their willingness to sing about what's going on in their lives with real honesty.  A ton of fickle hipster assholes turned their backs on the band when their popularity exploded after the release of Neon Bible.  I love how this song pokes fun at that but also admits what strange bedfellows art and commerce can be.

After this first tune grabbed everyone in the audience by the collective yarbles and asked them to turn their head and cough, their next song gave us all the equivalent of shaken baby syndrome.  Before proceeding Win Butler broke the ice with an earnest introduction: "Hello, Moncton, we're called The Arcade Fire and we're from Montreal.  It's nice to meet you!" and then followed up with the considerably more practical "Okay, let's fucking GO!

I can't stress how expertly the band was able to replicate their ambitious studio sound live.  It required some tricky instrumentation, with Win taking up the mandolin, Regine wielding a hurdy gurdy (!) and Sarah Neufeld and Marika Shaw providing tandem violin and tambourine accompaniment.  Richard Parry, dressed in dashing pink overalls, spent most of the song bent over his guitar coaxing the most eerie noises imaginable from it.   

As if daring the audience to believe that such a fevered pitch was beyond their orchestral capabilities, the band launched into another song designed to drive fans totally batshit insane: "No Cars Go."  Regine produced an accordion from out of nowhere and she and Win wowed us with their beautifully contrasting harmonies.  By now Arcade Fire's Circus of the Sublime was in full swing.  Keyboardist Will Butler began flailing around like a crazed maestro on Brown Acid.  Jeremy Gara's vicious drumming drove the performance into a gallop.  The song's periodic battle cry of "HEY!" was well met by the rabid, first-pumping gathered.

The band finally had a brief respite when Win addressed the crowd, pointing out the presence of social activists campaigning on the concert site.  He mentioned the band's involvement with relief efforts in Haiti via Partners In Health and talked about Canada's responsibility to help.  It was the perfect set-up for the band's next song and the anticipation was palpable.

"Haiti" from the Funeral album was rendered with the band's typical aplomb.  Regine, looking like an 80's era human disco ball, delivered a great vocal performance as she sashayed dreamily around the stage between lyrics.  The large French contingent in the crowd seemed to appreciate the song's bilingual lyrics.   The song  continued an inexorable build, finally cresting with a fantastic example of group-wide harmonies.  Bassist/guitarist Tim Kingsbury suddenly snapped and began launching himself into the air to come crashing down with each punctuation of the drums. 

The band took things down a notch by clattering through a heartfelt and sincere version of "The Suburbs" which saw a return to the double drum effect and Win switching to piano.  After the song peaked, the band indulged itself with the breathy and minimalist coda "The Suburbs (Continued)".  This was Arcade Fire at it's most tranquil and introspective but it didn't last for very long.

Canada's alternative darlings immediately launched into high gear again with a rollicking version of "Month of May".  Fans young and old suddenly started dancing on the spot, seized by a St. Vitus-like contagion provided by the song's retro stylings.  I'm amused when Richard uses a bullhorn mounted on a mike stand to beef up his backup vocals while the now totally-spastic Will began wailing like a human air raid siren.

A spate of spontaneous audience clapping and sing-alongs ushered in an impeccably rendered and boisterous rendition of "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)".  Will continued to be a one-man hype machine, playing a tambourine with more gusto than anyone else to ever proceed him.  This was followed in quick succession with a hair-raising, piano and bass driven version of "We Used To Wait".  In a brilliant move, the band drew out the song's pinnacle as long as it could, insuring maximum impact then their efforts crested in perfect sync.  Unhindered by an instrument Win got a chance to strike a few rare rock-star poses when he held out the mic to catch our screaming and then climbed atop the speakers at the edge of the stage.     

Emboldened, the lanky lead singer paused briefly to threaten that "this is the point in time during our set when we like people to get a little rowdy."   The glorious cacophony that is "Neighborhood # 3 (Power Out)" followed and the combination of musical confidence, unfettered passion and sheer coiled energy was enough to convert anyone previously oblivious to the identity of Arcade Fire into apologetic serfs.  It was worth the price of admission alone just to watch Regina alternate between vocals, keyboards and tambourine and witness Will Butler attack his xylophone like an orangutan on Ecstasy.

As if the band hadn't already served up enough evidence of it's supremacy, they then proceeded to roll out a barn-burning version of "Rebellion (Lies)".  As it progressed, the song gathered up the momentum of a runaway freight strain.  Framed under an appropriate iron-gray backdrop of dark cloud, it felt as if the authoritative sounds made by the band were about to manifest itself and then annihilate anyone within earshot in a Scanners-like moment of aural bliss.  The mantra of "Come on hide your lovers"/"Underneath the covers" offered up a spontaneous moment of audience participation.

In a move well in spirit with the song's title, Will Butler hijacked U2's outer stage by running around the perimeter and hammering on a snare drum, only to hurl it skyward at the end of his sprint.  It was a gleefully anarchic moment which galvanized the crowd's attentions as the band finished it's last two songs.   

After Win announced that they were "almost out of time" to a chorus of boos, Richard began hammering away at a massive bass drum, which signaled the opening notes of "Wake Up".  One of the brilliant things about Arcade Fire's music is that every song seems to include a simple, melodic bit that everyone can sing along to.  The chorus of forty or fifty thousand voices all raised in unison around me was an awe-inspiring moment which easily belongs amongst my favorite concert memories. 

While striking a series of moves seemingly inspired by Cyndi Lauper, Regine returned to the forefront to help her band-mates close out their set with my favorite song from The Suburbs: "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)".  If her hauntingly beautiful falsetto voice didn't give me chills, the song's personal and meaningful lyrics ("They heard me singing and they told me to stop"/"Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock") certainly did.

She finished off her performance by cavorting pixie-like around the stage with a handful of multi-colored streamers while her peers provided a perfectly panoply of sound to accompany her.  After the music began to wind down, Regine gave a few few gracious curtsies and the band soaked up the universal adoration sent it's way for a few moments.  Then Win yelled out: "I"m gonna be out there so I'm gonna hold you to it!  You gotta give everything for U2 tonight!  Seriously!  Let's do it!  Goodnight!"      

Indeed, despite the spectacle thus far, the headliners were still to come!  If the members of Arcade Fire were acting like excited fanboys, it wasn't hard to sense that amazing things were imminent!

During the change up for U2 we were "treated" to an incongruous and oddly unsettling fly-by courtesy of two CF 18 fighter planes.  Now, I can understand a stunt like this before a Nickelback concert but at a U2 show, it just seemed weird, despite how teeth-rattlingly "cool" it was.  Cripes, doesn't anyone remember the lyrics to "Bullet The Blue Sky"?  Personally, I hate it when the military gets shoe-horned into events like this, whether it be a low-level fly-by or guys rappelling from the ceiling during a hockey game.  I smell the influence of our jack-hole, American-wannabe Prime Minister here somewhere...

Indeed, the U2 Fan Cam guys did more then their due diligence to get the crowd hyped.  The sun peeked out for a bit and then promptly went back in behind a veil of cloud, ushering in the darkness.  Time was spent reading all the amazing and/or depressing trivia flashing ticker-style on the view-screens of the massive 360 stage.  The scariest stat: 15, 460 days until the end of oil.  Yikes!

At around 9:30 the warm-up music was cut and we began to hear the haunting strains of David Bowie's "Space Oddity".  At the point of the song's "liftoff" ("Check ignition and may God's love be with you!") smoke began pouring out of the 360 stage structure (which resembled a Covenant power generator in Halo).  The crowd when totally ballistic when the massive view screens activated, showing the band marching out amidst the adoring throng, looking larger then life.  As they made their way to the stage, trying to look bad-ass, they couldn't help by grin in spite of themselves under the crushing weight of the overwhelming ovation.

As they crested the stage the music spun off into strange latitudes and the entire site went dark.  This bled into the distorted strains of Edge's guitars as he began to herald an extended version of "Even Better Then the Real Thing".  The image was perfected with Larry pounding out an alternate drum beat and Adam Clayton laying down a mean bass grove.  As the song turned it's first bend the lights exploded and Bono appeared, lunging at the audience and striking classic mic poses.

Mid-tune, Mr. Hewson took a moment to scream: "Look at you!  Where else d'you wanna be?  New Brunswick!  Moncton!  Where you gonna take take (us) tonight?" before singing at full lung capacity "You take us HIGHER!" over and over again.  Instantly the people around me were driven into a fit of pogo-ing, fist pumping and lyrical call-backs.

Frankly, the band could have opened up with "Pop Goes The Weasel" to similar effect but to have them kick things off with something from Achtung Baby was particularly sweet.  Dressed in dark wrap-around shades and black leather from head to toe, Bono made me believe that the demise of a certain early-Nineties on-stage persona had been greatly exaggerated.  As if reading my wishful thoughts, the Edge began to pick out the opening riff of The Fly, Larry chimed in with his clattering drum line, Bono chopped away with a green guitar and Adam's bass rumbled along with clarion efficiency.  The spectacular light show alone was enough to have us all dazzled.

The stage lights flooded red and with a chant of "Get up!  Get up!  Get up!" Bono led the the band into a note-perfect version of "Mysterious Ways".   He rewarded the crowd's participation on the chorus by crossing one of two movable gantries to the outer ring where he met the Edge for an impromptu duet.  His request to "put your hands in the air" was obediently followed by all, resulting in a sea of hive-mind waving.   At the same time, the image of the band on the massive screens high above was nicely augmented by some provocative imagery.

By this time I'd become convinced that we'd warped back to 1993 and were witnessing a stop on the Zoo TV tour, an illusion further fostered by their next track: "Until The End of the World".  After lamenting about how "somewhere in the world our freedom feels expensive tonight" during a break in the song Bono then serenaded the crowd from the gantry, straddling the rail at one point as if to cast himself over.  He spent the balance of the song hucking flowers in the crowd, taking great pains to save one for the Edge but failing the secure the transfer across the gap as the gantries came together and then moved apart again.

A most welcome and surprisingly faithful rendition of "I Will Follow" came next.  I was amazed how close it came to the version they performed at Red Rocks during the Under A Blood Red Sky show.  There may be a few more wrinkles and a little less hair now (which in Bono's case is not a bad thing) but it was still fun to watch the guys responsible for that historic show playing just feet in front of me, striking the same notes and cutting the same groves.

My hope to hear three more songs from the Boy album were dashed as the band kicked off the crowd-pleasing "Get On Your Boots".  Although I'm not a fan of any song that tries to coax me into getting on my "sexy boots" I do have to admit that this comes across much better live.  The 'Let Me In The Sound' portion of the track was enough to get the crowd screaming the lyrics right back.  One particularly cool moment occurred mid-song as Adam shared a little tete-a-tete with Bono and then scampered across the ramp to meet the Edge for a little spontaneous jam session.

Bono finally addressed the crowd as the band caught it's breath.  "Moncton.  Moncton.  Monk-Town.  Town of Monks" he muttered, almost to himself, as if testing out the name of the last place on earth to host a U2 360 show.  "Well, already this is the best time we could be having anywhere," he said to a roar of approval.  He then took an opportunity to generate some love for Carney and to describe Arcade Fire as "not like a band...(but like) a miraculous event or...a carnival of chaos."

Next came a series of tour stats: eighteen crew/band baby births, two inter-tour marriages, eight separations, and some sad recent news involving the injury of one of their transport crew.  After mentioning that seven million concert goers have been duly entertained during the tour, he commented about the elaborate stage's notable lack of cover from the elements but also had to admit that it "felt like home."

Then, after describing the band as a "work in progress" he introduced resplendent bassist Adam Clayton, eternally immutable drummer Larry Mullen (whom Bono described as "the man who gave us our first job and...we're unemployable after that") and the toque and bedazzle-shirted guitarist David Evans, A.K.A. The Edge.

"People say, and it's true, that without Edge, we'd be nowhere but we sometimes like to remind him that without us he'd still be up in his bedroom twiddling knobs." Bono said of their signature guitarist.

With a signal, Edge began strumming the first distinctive notes of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and the resulting roar led one to believe that the crowd had found precisely what it had been looking for.  When U2's frontman screamed "this is our community!" he was rewarded with a brief siesta as the crowd of 75,000 co-opted the song and bellowed out the lyrics in unison.  The band looked alternately amused and impressed by the effort.   

Bono yelled "Take it to Church, The Magnetic Field!" and then led the masses in a wave of old-time gospel style clapping.  The song culminated with Bono performing an a capella snippet from "Springhill Mining Disaster" a song written about the 1958 underground earthquake which saw 78 miners from the small town of Springhill, Nova Scotia perish underground.  With U2's history of performing the song as far back as the Joshua Tree tour and Springhill being only 97 kilometers away, the band received one of their biggest ovations of the evening.

The sober tone continued with Bono talking about how the band was at a crossroads in 1989 while trying to record Achtung Baby in Germany and how those times really led to the group's perseverance.  The Edge then joined him for a soulful acoustic version of one of my favorite U2 songs: "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)" from Zooropa.  Despite a minor stumble from the Edge towards the end of the song (which coaxed a momentary smile out of the vocalist), the song was beautifully performed and undeniably heartfelt.

The audience also seemed to dig Bono's lyrical improvisations: "Miami, New Orleans, London, Belfast and...Moncton" and "3 o'clock in the morning / As the trucks roll out of town / Ray Daniels we'll be thinking of you / 70 and Eastbound / 110 shows and strangely this feels like home / Glad my wife is here tonight / It's not a night to be alone / Everybody's lovin', everybody's brother / All came here for the show / Some love, some loves are just hard to let go / 3 o'clock in the morning / It's quiet and there's no-one around / Just a bang and a clatter as 360 leaves town."

The band then proceeded to blow the 360 claw and all of it's surrounding environs into orbit.  Introduced with the aid of Commander Mark Kelly's zero-gravity message from the International Space Station high above, the band destroyed with an incredible and well-received version of "Beautiful Day".  By the time the chorus came around, all 75,000 people within earshot were on the same page.  As the song built to it's climax, Bono crossed over to the outer ramp and ran around the perimeter, stopping only to break things down with a recurring "Space Oddity" motif.

The momentum continued unabated as the keyboard strains of "Elevation" were heard.  "We're going up now!" Bono declared, still ensconced in the outer ring of the stage.  The thong of devotees obediently began to pogo up and down furiously and bellow back every hoot and/or holler.  Trust me, I'm really not a huge fan of this song but I have to admit that it was a real crowd-pleaser and one of the biggest hits of the night.

The band also did a very studio-faithful version of "Pride (In The Name of Love)".  Although I would have gladly traded it for just about anything else from Unforgettable Fire ("Bad", "A Sort of Homecoming" or the title track to get specific) the song was impeccably performed.  Bono got the crowd hyped as he mimed casting his heart into the audience, who sang and clapped along as the spirit moved them.  They continued the shout the song's coda long after the music had stopped, earning applause from the band itself.

Bono then grabbed the mic for a slow burn version of "Miss Sarajevo", which also saw him tweak the lyrics to a local bent (asking plaintively at one point if "there was was a time for Main Street shopping").  In true operatic fashion he walked half way out onto the moving ramp and then totally nailed the Pavarotti portion of the song, which raised hackles all throughout the crowd.  The band came in with a subtle accompaniment while the massive screens played clips of exotic Eastern Bloc beauty pageant contestants holding a banner bearing the chilling message "DON'T LET THEM KILL US."

The music and lights then spun down into a white noise recording of people asking incessant questions.  After the video screen extended nearly to the foot of the stage, the haunting keyboard strains of a truncated yet very welcome version of "Zooropa" began.  This was one of the show's greatest highlights for me since I'm a huge fan of the band's boldly experimental, unfairly maligned 1993 album and the title track in particular.  I got chills as I heard the mantra "What do you want?" mash up with the Edge's distinctive, echo-distorted guitar.  I promptly went nuts, singing the lyrics back at top volume and drawing quizzical looks from three young French girls who were probably not even born when the album was released.  

The sheathe of video screens retracted, accompanied by the piano notes introducing "City of Blinding Lights".  This song featured some classic Edge chordage and propulsive percussion from Larry and Adam.  Bono egged the crowd on and by the time he got to the line "Oh you look so beautiful tonight!" a legion of fists and voices were airborne in unison.  Bono stalked back around the outer gantry, pausing for an intimate moment with a hinterland camera and screamed "Blessings!  Not just for those who kneel!  Blessings...falling down like rain!"    

As Bono offered to give us some irresponsible Spanish lessons in the rain, the crowd freaked, knowing what was imminent.  With a collective cry of 'Unos, dos, tres, catorce!', "Vertigo" launched the show into the stratosphere.  Like "Beautiful Day" and "Elevation", this one really clicked with everyone in the crowd, regardless of demographic.  The people around me were taken by a fit of jumping and clapping as they greedily returned every chance to scream 'Hola!' or 'Donde esta!'  when given the chance.

As The Edge plowed out a mean solo and Bono intoned "Just give me what I want and no-one gets hurt!" the crowd went nuts.  As if to drive home the song's rollicking impact, Bono shoe-horned in a few lines from "It's Only Rock n' Roll (But I Like It)".  If this was a deliberate homage to the fact that the Stones had performed this very same song on the same spot six years prior, no-one could say.  The band then coalesced around Larry's drumkit and brought things to a suitably epic crescendo.

Led in by more Stones, this time the disco beat warblings of "Miss You", U2 kicked out a fun (and funny) take on "Crazy Tonight".  The massive 360 video screen overhead began to display the bobbing heads of the band which then changed to that of the tour crew.  Larry threw off the shackles of his drum kit and circumnavigated the outer stage pounding away on a bongo.

The Edge followed on his own tour, his guitar ringing out in pace to the dance beat.  Bono began a call back with the audience and then nudged the band into a cheeky sneak-in of "Discotheque".  Although this song is often decried as the one that really alienated the band's more conservative (and subsequently forced U2 to back-step into more familiar territory), I've always loved it's subversive humor and was thrilled to see it represented here, although only in brief.

Adam passed Larry en route back to his drum kit and then hooked up with Bono who tempted him into some sort of bizarre interpretive dance/bass battle interlude.  This culminated with the front-man draping himself over the bemused bassist and then collapsing in a heap on the ramp.

After the band sidestepped into a snippet from "Psycho Killer" by the Talking Heads the crowd then went ballistic as Larry's military-precision drumming signaled the start of U2's most hallowed concert staple: "Sunday Bloody Sunday".

Considering how many times the band has performed this song live, this rendition was actually pretty traditional.  Like "I Will Follow" from earlier, I relished the chance to close my eyes and pretend that I was at that historic show at the Red Rocks Amphitheater in 1983.  The band's sound was so pitch-perfect, the illusion was complete and a childhood wish felt fulfilled.  One of the great things about the music of U2 is how easy it is for a listener to isolate and pay attention to specific instruments in the song, especially live.  For example, Adam's bass-line was just booming and Larry's high-hat and cymbal work came across crystal clear.

In celebration of Amnesty International's role in the release of Burmese political dissident Aung San Suu Kyi after over twenty years of illegal detention in November of 2010, U2 played a stirring and evocative version of" Scarlett" from the October album.  After the rigors of "Miss Sarajevo", Bono's voice fractured a bit on the high notes of "Rejoice!" but the audience came to his rescue and carried the song to it's conclusion.  It was a genuinely emotional moment that moved even this old curmudgeon's cynical heart.

The band closed it's main set with an equally passionate version of "Walk On", which they'd written for the Burmese politician.  The news of her liberation, coupled with the evocative imagery on the screens, the song's telling lyrics and a march-out by a small horde of lantern-wielding Amnesty International campaigners, U2 managed to engineer yet another emotionally transcendent and memorable moment.

The band left the stage for a brief intermission and we were treated to a video address from Aung San Suu Kyi  herself.  Her message that change can be ignited by one person allowed the band to segue nicely into an especially somber rendition of "One" from Achtung Baby.  Bono only managed to get through the first verse before the song was co-opted by the audience.

In a likely nod to their host country, Bono then performed a solo take on Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" which dove-tailed nicely with Edge's lead-in notes for "Where The Streets Have No Name".  This was one of the tunes I was really hoping to hear and judging by the roar of the crowd I wasn't alone.  Edge stepped to the limits of the stage, stirring up recollections of the song's famous video shot on a liquor store rooftop in San Francisco.

He then proceeded to strum out a song I've been waiting to hear live for close to twenty-five years.  As the guitarist crunched out an endless wave of distinctive chords, Larry's drumming kicked into overdrive and Adam's baseline soared to glorious heights.  The three mobile members of the group converged again on Larry's drum kit and everything sounded just as it should.

Beaming from the overwhelming participation and outpouring of love that followed, the band gave it's thanks and drifted offstage again.  Instantly the video screens came alive with a bizarre little vignette featuring some interstellar space travelers and Zooropa's little astronaut mascot, who showed his own affinity for Bowie classics all the while asking "What time is it in the world?"

We soon found out what time it was: show time.

Sorry, but never in a million years did I think I'd ever witness a live performance of the Achtung Baby B-side/Batman Forever soundtrack classic "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me", but there it was. With the stage now darkly lit and bathed in smoke, a glowing red, revolving steering wheel-shaped object appeared on screen.  Bono, clad in a black jacket covered in red laser-lights, lurched out of the gloom, grabbed the mike and swung around on it like some insane comic book character.

Once again I probably pissed off my fellow concert attendees standing around me as I parroted back the song's wise-assed lyrics as loud as I could.  Bono used the custom mike to great effect, using it to hang out over the crowd and locomote efficiently from one side of the stage to the other.

Kooky, weird Zoo TV/PopMart style antics like this really were a major highlight for me.  The Fly, Mirrorball Man and MacPhisto would have felt right at home.

At the end of the song the huge disco ball that crested the 360 stage suddenly switched on, instantly turning the sprawling concert ground into an intimate High School dance.  The sweet rhythms of "With Or Without You" cranked up, further cementing the band's uncanny ability to dictate the crowd's mood.  Larry's stalwart pacing was nicely contrasted by the Edge's sonic meanderings.  Adam's distinctive base line (the only U2 song I've ever learned to play, co-incidentally) re-enforced the song's moody tone.

Of all the classics, it was this one that Bono initially interpreted with a certain amount of moody resignation.  Although this made the first few verses sound a bit flat, he was forced to bring his 'A' game when his band-mates kicked the song into high gear and the crowd's boisterous singing demanded nothing less then his all-in.

Bono took this opportunity to bid bonsoir to his Star Wars light coat, by hanging it up on the microphone and sending it skyward.  He closed things out classily with a snippet from the Joy Division low-fi classic "Love Will Tear Us Apart Again".  By the end of it, the band look both humbled and stunned by the the level of passion exhibited by the adoring masses.

After thanking a slew of people working behind the scenes, Bono took note of some fan-made signs in the Red Zone section which made claim to 20, 40 and even 75 (!) shows attended.  He then asked everyone in the audience to produce anything capable of illumination.  With that the lights dimmed and, keeping in tune with the show's spacey theme, the concert grounds were instantly transformed into the Milky Way.  Holding my cell phone aloft I chanced to look back and was awestruck by the sea of multi-colored lights behind me.

The stage had been set for a powerful version of "Moment of Surrender" dedicated to the people of Somalia.  By now, the crowd was anticipating finality and singing along for everything they're worth, allowing Bono to indulge in n elaborate troubadour-style rap tangent.  This is certainly one of the best songs on U2's latest album No Line on the Horizon and the live interpretation clearly demonstrates that it's well at home amongst the band's already-expansive catalog of emotional slow-burners.

We'd already had a few rare treats thrown our way, but I was completely floored by what happened next.  After the boys had a quick huddle on stage, I was really hoping they would play "Out of Control".  After the song was resurrected during the U2 Go Home: Live from Slane Castle show back in 2001 it had re-emerged as a fairly common live staple.  I had my fingers crossed that all the commiserating on stage presaged something special. 

Sure enough, as Larry's drums kicked in and spurred on Adam's thunderous base, Bono declared: "This is our first single!  We're a band from Dublin, Ireland.  We're called U2!" and with that Edge's signature guitar stings made the obvious triumphant.  With that, the audience released the last reserves of their energy: jumping, clapping and bellowing "Whoa-OOOO-oooo-OOO!" along with the chorus.  The song's basic and undeniably catchy hooks made me pine for the band's simpler arrangements.  Even the kids, who were scarcely a thought when this song was first released, were swept up by it's primal power.

After he nicked a Dublin flag from the Red Zone to cover Larry's bass drum and then doused the pit-dwellers with a few bottles of water, Bono called a time-out.  "Hold on!  We're not going anywhere without a bottle of champagne, so take as long as you want"  he said in what can now only be considered the worst threat in recorded history.  His band-mates kept the song going in a musical intermission.  

He went on to tell a childhood yarn: "Edge said that the moment he knew adults were different was when he figured out that they weren't drinking alcohol just for the taste."   This inspired a sheepish smile and nod from the guitarist as he tried desperately to concentrate on the business at hand.   "What was it? Sort of a dizzy feeling?" Bono pursued.  A shit-eating grin and vigorous nod followed which prompted Bono to wag his finger and say reproachfully: "Drink responsibly, The Edge!"

"There's another kind of high here.  It's a higher then high here.  An elastic, ecstatic kind of a thing here," Bono observed.  After a pointing out a rabidly passionate Newfoundlander in the crowd (who wasn't me...d'oh), he went on to wax philosophical about the band's long career.  "Well, some things have stayed and the same and some things have changed.  But one thing that's stayed the same is this band:  Larry Mullen, Adam Clayton, The Edge, Bono...still out of control."

The resulting up tempo jolt was pure musical bliss.  As the song's chorus was hoisted up in a collective tribal scream that grew louder and louder, it was if an atomic detonation of pure spiritual energy washed over everything.  It's borderline rapturous moment like this that have made me a dedicated concert-goer for life.

The champagne arrived just as the song ended.  "Thank you for giving us a good life" Bono told the audience moments before the bottle went Old Faithful into the Red Zone.  Despite the system shocks thus far, the band still had one more trick up their sleeve.  I noticed the curious exchange of instruments between Adam and The Edge so I thought that something very special, very rare might be imminent.  Having said that, I would never have guessed in a million years that the band was about to completely and utterly blow away  the expectations of the inner fifteen year kid still alive and well inside of me. 

When the first tentative bars of "40" were played I was struck dumbfounded.  This had been U2's traditional concert closer in the early Eighties and the song itself hadn't been performed live by the band in five years!  This was it: my very own "Under a Blood Red Sky" moment.  I was completely gob-smacked.

At first I was irked by the young people around me who had no fucking clue as to what was going on.  They had no idea that we were all supposed to sing the band off stage with the line "How long to sing this song?" They just stood there blinking , trying to figure out why the band wasn't going out with an "Elevation"-style bang.  Mercifully, a few of my surrounding concert goers were in the know, and we tried our best to compensate.

Quick history lesson, here, kids:

Before he drifted offstage Bono said "God bless you and keep you.  God smile on you and gift you.  God look you full in the face and make you prosper."  After setting us on the lyrical course he simply waved to the crowd and then walked to the back of the stage to say goodbye.  Just like in that now-historic, nearly thirty year old concert, he was soon followed first by Adam and then by The Edge.   Larry paused briefly to take in the moment and then hammered out a final few notes before walking to the mike to address the crowd one last time:

"Thank you Moncton.  We'll miss you guys.  Good night.  God bless."

He then went to join his partners in crime at the back of the stage for some final laurels and to applaud our efforts.  As they descended from the stage, the lights came up to the tune of Elton John's "Rocket Man", providing the perfect epilogue to the concert's otherworldly theme.

As we turned our backs on the stage and began the Bataan Death Match-style trek up the hill through the mud, my irritation over the crowd's inability to seize on a moment of music history began to subside.  After all, the closest emotional attachments we have to music involve tunes linked to pivotal moments in our lives.  For me, these were songs like "40", "Out of Control", "The Fly", "Bad", "Where The Streets Have No Name" and "Zooropa".  For the three girls just barely liberated from High school standing next to me, songs like "Vertigo", "Walk On" and "Elevation" served that all-important purpose.

Which, I guess, is what makes a legacy band like this so great.  By sticking around this long, they've ensured   that every generation has it's own unique U2 soundtrack.       


Carney:  Tilt: up.  
Despite Bono's claim, Carney was the real work in progress here, but at least they're a promising one.  As soon as they drop the cheesy shticks and musical bloat and realize that their undeniable talent is their best asset, I'm confident we'll be seeing more from them in the future.  

Arcade Fire:    Tilt: up.
These guys instantly had me indulging in a moment of self ass-kickery for missing their full set just days prior in Halifax.  It won't happen again.  I know it's probably sacrilege, but I almost enjoyed their portion of the show the best.  After all, the managed to accomplish what they did without the aid of a giant space claw.         
U2:   Tilt: up 
Despite acting as if they'd been on tour for close to three years straight (go figure), the band still gave us a spectacular stage show with plenty of unique and memorable treats.  Yes, I lament not hearing anything else from The Unfogettable Fire but, hey, that's just more incentive to go and see them again!