Thursday, May 26, 2005

Louis XIV @ Metro (5/25/2005)

Louis XIV: Same Old Song & Glam

The recently remodeled Rock 'N' Roll McDonald's in downtown Chicago has a lot in common with Louis XIV--they both have more to do with appearances and less to do with rock 'n' roll. To even consider the original Rock 'N' Roll McDonald's as rocking is saying something. A #2 Combo Meal (two cheeseburgers) with a #5 Combo Meal (10-piece McNuggets) equalled the cost of one ticket to Louis XIV's all-ages concert at Metro. It begged the question: which of the two were the better choice?

The room was packed inside Metro. Early in the week, Metro and Jam Productions sent out e-mails to people on their individual mailing lists with complimentary passes to the show. So, had the free passes not been provided, perhaps the show would never have reached full capacity. That probably wouldn't have mattered to the San Diego band. Louis XIV walked onto stage with swagger in their steps as if already in their minds thinking what a privilege it was for the crowd to have them come play songs. Seeing the four members in their stylishly knitted threads it's understandable why they would be chosen to share an upcoming bill with current hype band the Killers.

Spreading out material from their major label release The Best Little Secrets Are Kept, Louis XIV gave all the more reason why there should be a moratorium placed on the garage rock revival. No rock band has a hold on originality, but now and then there's a band that provides a different twist on an old trick. All the eyeliner and faux English accents will never take the place for a good song. Hamming it up to the crowd every chance they could, Louis XIV dished out song after song that seemed only to act as a slight variation of the previously performed song. "Pledge of Allegiance" shimmied and shaked to no great heights. "The Hunt" was a poor attempt to flex the band's musicianship to the crowd by proving they could branch out into something that wouldn't even pass for Delta blues.

The hype is terribly misplaced on Louis XIV. Sure, dumb rock songs will never fade away, but the really good, absurd crowd pleasers trip upon some sort of hook that give them feet to stand on. For all the flash that bands like the Darkness or Franz Ferdinand have, they at least back it up with alluring hooks.

The lone highlight of the night came from Chicago's own Caviar who opened the show with fellow locals Ladies And Gentlemen. Lead singer Blake Smith told the crowd that Caviar tried to think of a cover song that was long enough to fill the rest of their set and, so, without a care in the world the band took the Who's 1966 mini-rock opera "A Quick One, While He's Away" out for a run. In the hands of Caviar, the song melted with raw energy. Its free, unrelenting attitude--in front of a crowd that probably never once heard a song by Pete Townshend--made it the epitome of punk and for that moment created something real on stage.

In the end, the french fries weren't too bad.

Monday, May 23, 2005

My Pop Culture Comment

Bridging the Saga - Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

The waiting was over. The lights when down in the theater, a hush fell over the audience, and those famous words in blue that have touched the lives of different generations appeared on the screen. On May 19, the final installment of the Star Wars prequel trilogy opened to the public at midnight screenings across the country. Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith brings to light how Anakin Skywalker finally slips into the well of the Dark Side of the Force to become the iconic masked villian, Darth Vader.

Weekend box office figures and broken records aside, how does this movie rate not only as the end of the prequel trilogy but as the last piece to the Star Wars puzzle? Technology can never replace story. Creator George Lucas set that precedent with the original Star Wars Trilogy. Although technology has caught up to Lucas and his filmmaking vision it has been the quality of storytelling that many have criticized him for with the prequel trilogy, myself included.

I remember seeing Return of the Jedi (1983) at the River Oaks Theater in Calumet City. I was probably near the age of four. I forced my mother to sit with me in the very front row and subject her to a terrible viewing angle. I don't know what made me think that the front row at a movie was the best spot. I blame television.

As the years went by one could only wish that Star Wars movies would come along. I know I certainly did. The re-release of the trilogy as the Star Wars Trilogy - Special Edition in 1997 was not only a celebration (twentieth anniversary) but a signal. With 1999's Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace the doors were once again opened to the galaxy far, far away.

Episode I wasn't the homerun most fans were hoping for, and the follow-up Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002) didn't quite calm the waters either. They definitely were not perceived as movies that could individually stand up next to the original movies in the Star Wars Trilogy. Yes, we were shown a young Obi-Wan Kenobi as a Jedi padawan learner. Yes, we were shown Anakin Skywalker as a child with doubts already surrounding his future. From Yoda dueling with a lightsaber to the character development of Senator Palpatine towards his inevitable rise as the Emperor, the prequels were supplying the backstories but not much of a solid story. These were movies criticized for their stiff acting and simplistic dialog. Yoda seemed to be the one character anyone ever took seriously, and his dialog proper English it is not. That's not to say Lucas was trying for a more serious side to these prequels. No one would want to see a Star Wars movie that took itself much too seriously.

Once a working title for Return of the Jedi, Revenge of the Sith was the last shot for Lucas to redeem the prequel trilogy. To his credit and with a PG-13 rating (the first for any Star Wars movie), I think he did just that. If Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) was the tragic middle act of the original three movies, then Revenge of the Sith is the tragedy at the heart of the six-part trilogy.

The Clone Wars Finale

The opening sequence finds Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) piloting their ships through a raging battle above the Republic capital of Coruscant. This massive space battle makes the land battle in Attack of the Clones, which essentially ignite the Clone Wars, look like a meager skirmish. The half-droid, half-alien General Grievous and his Separatist Army have captured the Republic's leader, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), and are holding him hostage on the general's flagship. The dense scene takes the space battle in Return of the Jedi to a whole other degree.

The two Jedi Knights fly their way through carnage to arrive on Grievous' ship. In there, they encounter more obstacles and proceed swiftly to where Palpatine is being held, atop the ship's spire. Within seconds the Sith Lord Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) appears accompanied by two battle droids. Sure, Lucas has made his mistakes with creating a solid story from start to finish, but it's through the movie's sets that add to the continuity of the trilogy. As the Jedi engage Dooku in a lightsaber battle, Palpatine watches while locked to a seat very reminiscent of the one he sat in located in his throne room on the second Death Star as the Emperor in Return of the Jedi. In fact, the entire room mirrored the throne room that Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader would battle in.

A Master & An Apprentice

Kenobi is knocked out during the duel and Skywalker is left to handle Dooku. Baited by Dooku to act on his anger, Skywalker aggressively overpowers Dooku, slicing off both his hands before giving into the orders of Palpatine to kill Dooku. The decapitated head of Dooku at the feet of Palpatine and Skywalker is haunting. Skywalker cites that his actions were against the Jedi code when dealing with an unarmed prisoner but it's Palpatine who plays on Skywalker's emotions--the voice of evil masked as the council of a mentor.

Fear of Change

Back from battle Skywalker embraces his wife Padme (Natalie Portman) who delivers the news that she is pregnant. Skywalker's reaction reads of overwhelmed confusion than that of joy. Already dealing with their marriage in secrecy to protect Skywalker from being expelled by the Jedi Council there is added tension now as they plan to have the child. Reunited with Padme, Skywalker experiences visions of her death during childbirth. These visions cause great concern to Skywalker as he had similar visions before his mother died during her captivity on Tatooine.

Skywalker has always seemed opposed to change unless it benefitted him. His desire to control change brings him closer to the edge between good and evil.

More is placed on the shoulders of Skywalker as Palpatine expresses his intentions to place Skywalker on the Jedi Council as his personal representative. This appointment by Palpatine is greatly contested by the Jedi Council who allow Skywalker a seat on the council but deny him the rank of a Jedi Master.

Skywalker is insulted by the council's decision revealing his arrogance about his powers. In a private conversation with Skywalker, Kenobi explains the council's true reasons behind allowing the appointment. It is the council's wishes that Skywalker use his close ties to Palpatine in order to discover whether Palpatine will relinquish his executive powers once the war is over. Asked to be a spy for the council Skywalker's trust in the Jedi is shaken.

The Sith & The Jedi

Palpatine is not blind to the Jedi's plans to use Skywalker against him. During a theater show, Palpatine tells Skywalker a tale about a Sith Lord named Darth Plagus and how his apprentice eventually killed him. The Sith were never really explained in the previous prequel episodes or even in the original trilogy. The exchange between Palpatine and Skywalker provides just enough to understand the Sith as Jedi consumed with their passion for power, well-versed in the Dark Side of the Force. It is during this story that Palpatine grabs Skywalker's ear when describing how Darth Plagus used the power of the Dark Side to prevent death. "Is it possible to learn this power?" says Skywalker. Turning his head to give a cold stare the Chancellor replies, "Not from a Jedi."

McDiarmid's role as Palpatine shines in this movie. Christensen becomes an entirely different actor when sharing scenes with McDiarmid and there's a heavy sense of impending doom that builds with each scene.

"Goodbye, old friend."

It is discovered that General Grievous, who escaped the Jedi at Coruscant, is hiding on the planet of Utapau. The information, provided by Palpatine, is unveiled by Skywalker to the Jedi Council. Although it is recommended by Palpatine that Skywalker lead the military campaign to Utapau it is the council's decision to send Kenobi. Meanwhile on the Wookie planet Kashyyk, Yoda (Frank Oz) is leading the defense against a droid army.

Before embarking on the journey, Lucas gives a final glimpse of the master-student relationship between Kenobi and Skywalker. Admitting his mistakes and lack of graditude for his teachings, Skywalker becomes a humble student recognizing the disappointment he has created in the eyes of Kenobi. They stand before each other more as friends who have gone through so much together and less as "coworkers" of the Jedi Order.

The theme of relationship runs strong throughout the trilogy. It's what made audiences care about the characters. It's a theme that has lacked in strength during the prequels.

As Kenobi engages Greivous on Utapau, Skywalker learns that Palpatine is a Sith Lord and has been controlling the Republic Senate with the Dark Side. Tempted to kill Palpatine in his office after this discovery, Skywalker opts to turn Palpatine over to the Jedi. Torn between Palpatine's words about the Jedi seeking to overthrow the Republic and his duty to the Jedi, Skywalker seeks to learn the truth about who is really using him.

Ordered by Jedi Master Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) to remain in the Jedi Temple as he and fellow Jedi Knights apprehend Palpatine, Skywalker is conflicted by his fears of Padme's death.

"Order 66"

Racing to Palpatine's office, Skywalker tries to catch up to Master Windu before he arrests the Chancellor. Unbeknownst to Skywalker, Palpatine has already been confronted by the Jedi and killed the three Jedi accompanying Master Windu. Skywalker arrives to find that Master Windu has cornered the lightsaber-less Palpatine. Not to go quietly, Palpatine unleashes powerful lightning from his hands towards Master Windu. As Skywalker watches, Master Windu blocks the bolts with his lightsaber and turns them back on Palpatine which deforms his face. Both of them call out for Skywalker's help.

It is the defining moment of the movie where Skywalker finally turns to evil. Demanding that Palpatine must stand trial, that he must stay alive, Skywalker lashes out, "I need him!" Before Master Windu can strike down Palpatine, Skywalker severs Master Windu's right arm allowing the opportunity for Palpatine to shock his attacker to death. Windu's body flies out the office's broken window and is sent plunging into the night skies of Coruscant.

In the name of protecting Padme, Skywalker gives himself to Palpatine and the Sith Order. It is here that Skywalker is given the title of Darth Vader. Palpatine, or Darth Sidious, orders his new apprentice to destroy the Jedi Temple and to seek out the Separatist Leaders that have been transferred from Utapau to the planet Mustafar and eliminate them.

With the other Jedi spread throughout the galaxy leading the clone troops against the Separatist, Palpatine sends out a message to all the clone armies to execute Order 66. It is one of the most powerfully sad sequences of all the prequel movies as scene by scene shows Palpatine's orders being carried out. Back at the Jedi Temple, Vader leads troops to kill the Jedi. In a spine chilling moment we see the evil of Vader become this suffocating shadow when he finds Jedi younglings hiding in the chamber room and seals the room before his lightsaber is flashed at the frightened younglings.

Coming to the aid of the Jedi, Senator Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) locates Yoda and Kenobi who have managed to escape the troops they once commanded. The decision is made by Yoda and Kenobi to return to Coruscant in order learn the truth of what took place with the Jedi.

Rise of the Empire

Palpatine addresses the Senate about the Jedi's plot to assassinate him and announces the reconfiguration of the Republic into the Empire. Meanwhile at the Jedi Temple, Yoda and Kenobi discover that Skywalker has turned to the Dark Side. Faced with accepting a difficult choice in the same way Luke Skywalker had to with Darth Vader, Kenobi must set out to locate his fallen student and destroy him while Yoda heads to the Emperor's office in the Senate building.

Kenobi looks to Padme for answers as to Skywalker's whereabouts. She refuses the stories that Kenobie brings about Skywalker's dark actions against the Jedi. Though she doesn't provide the information Kenobi needs, the truth of her pregnancy is clear to Kenobi when he asks if Skywalker is the father.

Disturbed by what she has learned from Kenobi, Padme departs with C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) to Mustafar to find her husband. Kenobi stowaways on her ship to finally confront Skywalker.

The Last Stand

To Skywalker's surprise, Padme arrives on Mustafar. She begs him not to go further down the dark path he has taken. Consumed by his new powers, Skywalker tries to convince Padme that they are now safe and that he could destroy the Emperor so that they could rule the galaxy. It is the same proposition which he would later make to his son, Luke Skywalker. But feeling betrayed, Skywalker nearly kills Padme in anger when he spots Kenobi emerging from her ship.

Lucas intercuts the duels between Yoda and the Emperor with Kenobi and Skywalker nicely to emphasize the gravity of what is at stake for the surviving Jedi. Yoda is clearly far more skilled than the Emperor but is dealt a blow that forces him to retreat from the fight. The Emperor leaves immediately for Mustafar to aid Vader in his battle with Kenobi.

The climax between Kenobi and Skywalker alone makes it worthy of the classic lightsaber battles in the original trilogy. Too sure of his powers, Skywalker makes the final move to end his former master but, instead, is forever disfigured by Kenobi's lightsaber. With nothing but his robotic arm remaining, Skywalker fights to climb the volcanic gravel. This is where Revenge of the Sith succeeds where the past movies have failed to deliver. The sight of this once noble Jedi in ruins makes you think back before he turned to evil and say, "Why did you do it?" This was the emotional connection that the previous prequel movies didn't act on.

Kenobi looks away in repulsion as his student is engulfed in flames by the nearby river of lava. He leaves Skywalker nearly lifeless and rushes Padme to safety. Just like the two battles were sequenced so are the fates of Padme and Anakin. Recovered by the Emperor we are given closure to the Star Wars Trilogy as we watch the construction of the famous black suit that would forever house what's left of Skywalker's charred body. The Darth Vader that fans have known is finally born while Padme dies during the birth of her twins, Luke and Leia.

The Fall vs. The Redemption

For me, watching Luke Skywalker save the humanity that never died in his father seems to have been given added meaning from Revenge of the Sith. Seeing the fall of Anakin Skywalker makes me care more for his eventual redemption by the time of Return of the Jedi. It was interesting to sit in a theater where people were on the edge of their seats to watch a good person turn to evil. The transformation from Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader is without question a painful experience. The sadness for his transition can be felt in the faces of Kenobi and Yoda, both defeated in their own ways. Luke, like his dying mother Padme, felt there was still good in Anakin that needed saving. Where as Anakin was believed to be the Chosen One who would destroy the Sith it is really Luke who fulfills that Jedi prophecy.

Lucas may not have provided his actors and actresses with superb dialog in these prequels, but he still maintained his level of mastery with universal themes that his own mentor Joseph Campbell instilled in him. In Revenge of the Sith, the commanding theme throughout the movie is failure: the failure of democracy and relationships. Anakin's intentions to protect Padme were good, but his greed to control circumstances ended up being that which undid him. But in the cloud of despair that covers Revenge of the Sith there is hope. The birth of Luke and Leia is that very beckon of light that will later bring the redemption of Anakin.

Lucas ties up the loose ends and makes Revenge of the Sith a good bridge into the original trilogy. Christensen truly captures Anakin's twist to great effect. McGregor gives a respectable portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi that ties into what Alec Guinness accomplished with the character. The one actor who played a pivotal role in the original trilogy, Ian McDiarmid, adds to the legacy of his character with the prequel trilogy. Somehow McDiarmid never lost a step from the time he first was shrouded as the Emperor in Return of the Jedi.

I can forgive Lucas for replacing the original actor, Sebastian Shaw, who played the older Anakin Skywalker in Return of the Jedi with Christensen as the ghost of Anakin in the DVD version of the movie. Knowing that the true essence of Anakin Skywalker dies as a young man makes sense, and watching Christensen appear alongside ghost figures of Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda in Return of the Jedi is now fitting.

However, there are moments in this movie that hold it back from being a powerful end to the trilogy. Right at top of the list is the bellowing Darth Vader in full suit. After being told by the Emperor that he killed Padme, Vader lets out perhaps the most un-intimidating "No" ever in movie histoty. None of the romantic exchanges in Revenge of the Sith, or for that matter the entire prequel trilogy, can ever live up to the exchange between Princess Leia and Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back. The parting between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda was extremely flat. Yoda escaping from Kashyyk bordered the classic departure in Steven Spielberg's E.T. Standing with Wookies Tarfful and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Yoda enters his escape pod. If he had just said, "I'll be right here," and a rainbow appear at the tail end of his escape pod, E.T. it would have been. The fact that Yoda's exile to Dagobah wasn't included in the bittersweet final montage was a crime. And no mentioning of the early seeds of the Rebel Alliance after Palpatine anoints the creation of the Empire? Albeit some of these matters were shown in the comic book adaptation and early script leaks of Revenge of the Sith they still would have served the story.

Revenge of the Sith is the lone movie from the prequel trilogy that can stand along side the original movies. If this would have been the only Star Wars movie made that dealt with the backstory of the trilogy, I would have been satisfied. Aside from the PG-13 rating it received, this movie lives up to the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker. There was more heart in this movie that audiences could identify and make connections than with The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones. The answers are given and the questions are laid to rest. If the original trilogy showed how the will of the masses could defeat an empire, then the prequel trilogy showed, or reminded, how power can corrupt.

A space opera it may have been, the lessons embedded in these movies and the characters created will forever spark the imaginations of generations to come just as they did when I was a kid.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Doves @ Vic Theatre (5/13/2005)

Success At The Vic: Jimi Goodwin of Doves (Photo By: Elizabeth O'Halloran)

The marquee outside the Vic Theatre gave the two reasons why so much anticipation surrounded the lenghty line forming around the venue: Doves and Mercury Rev. The sold-out show marked an important return for both bands in different respects.

It was a show that almost didn't happen. Two weeks prior came news that singer/bassist Jimi Goodwin of Doves had to be sidelined due to losing his voice. A postponement was announced and fans flooded websites posting their "get well" wishes and frustrations over the cancelled dates. But soon there was a glimmer of hope as Chicago was targeted to be the first show to jump start their tour in support of their third album Some Cities. For Mercury Rev, they had not step foot in Chicago since opening for Wilco at the Riviera Theatre in November of 2001.

The question still remained how much Goodwin's vocals had recuperated during the tour break. As Goodwin and brothers Andy and Jez Williams emerged onto the stage there appeared to be a calm about their body language. The steady pace of "Pounding" seemed to capture what had been building up inside the audience. Their roaring response was reciprocated by the band. Goodwin's vocals showed no signs of lacking strength. "Words" followed right behind with its melodic march by guitarist Jez Williams.

Spirits were high throughout the show. Goodwin often thanked the crowd for their support and understanding. Whatever spots of rust Goodwin and the others in the band could hear between one another went generally unnoticed by the audience. The seventeen song set may not have thrown surprises to some in the audience who have seen the band on earlier dates of this tour, but it blended a lively mix of material from Some Cities with their first two albums: Lost Souls (2000) and The Last Broadcast (2002).

The Manchester trio, with touring keyboardist Martin Rebelski, played a set that easily gives them license to go through the motions but they didn't. There was a geniune sense that they were excited to have gotten past their detour. The stark "Ambition" blossomed into this massive cache of color and sound. "The Cedar Room" echoed Led Zeppelin's stomp and the soulful, choir sized anthems of early U2. It was the power epic: the song that keeps building with every verse and to end it would be a crime.

It is not the band's physicality that will level an audience but its musicality. If that's the case for Doves, then Mercury Rev's would be theatrics. With their sixth album The Secret Migration recetly released, Mercury Rev essentially picked up where they last left off almost four years ago opening for Wilco.

As the primary architect, singer/guitarist Jonathan Donahue has had to face the comparisons made between his band and his past work with the Flaming Lips. Collaborations with longtime Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann only maintain the correlations, even on Mercury Rev's latest.

Decked out in a stylish suit that would have made Bryan Ferry stand and applaud, Donahue absorbed the cheers, gave the sign of the Cross to the audience, and opened their set with "Secrets For A Song." A video screen was in the backdrop and accompanied the music with images and random quotes from poets and movies; sometimes fitting, sometimes distracting.

Overall, it was like standing through the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Each song flowed into the next like a dissolving scene. Donahue's dramatic presence was at times too much. This is what separates him from Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips--Coyne doesn't take himself so seriously on stage whereas Donahue plays the part of majestic conductor pulling the music from outter space. Mercury Rev played on the strange, the psychedelic, and the disturbing to make something beautiful, none more evident then during the finale, "Dark Is Rising." It was clear to see why the likes of Donahue and Coyne could not be in the same band: it just wouldn't be big enough for the two of them.

Variety in their catalog kept the set by Doves fresh. Goodwin's vocals never faltered and his bandmates provided a strong enough foundation for him to find his feet. Drummer Andy Williams was direct, focused, and not one to overreach. Jez Williams spread out the melodies on his guitar from delicate to razor sharp. There were times during Mercury Rev's set when one might wonder where one song began and another ended. For the audience, it was simply an evening to say, "Welcome back."

Earlimart @ Schubas (5/12/2005)

Fuzz & Whisper: Aaron Espinoza of Earlimart (Photo By: Chris Castaneda)

It has been nearly a decade since Earlimart rose out of the L.A. music scene and established themselves among indie rock circles as a band to watch. With each EP and LP they have added under their belts Earlimart manage to take a step forward towards new opportunities.

As the Pixies act as the shield bearers of alternative rock's past, Earlimart's Aaron Espinoza encapsulates where the Pixies could be had they never broken up in the first place. His whispery, start-stop songwriting bridges the likes of the Pixies with a band like Grandaddy and in-between lies Earlimart. At the very heart of Earlimart is a punk band full of bite. You should be only lucky to ever catch them perform a cover of Wire's "Strange" and you'll hear the punk in them. Last year's Treble & Tremble, the band's third album, was critically hailed as a solid effort.

Earlimart comes across on stage as a different band from the one on record. Atmospheres are key to Espinoza and company. The experimentation with sounds is part of what makes them unique. How they carry that over to the stage is equally as interesting, or, to some, absolutely unexciting. It is easy to label Earlimart as band that doesn't stir the blood. Espinoza's vocals could be construed as overly sleepy and dull. But there is something rather dark about Earlimart below these layers of swirling melodic messages. The crowd that filled the room at Schubas was by no means bored. Even when Espinoza's broken microphone during "Heaven Adores You" turned the song into an instrumental the crowd kept in pace with the inaudible lyrics.

"All They Ever Do Is Talk" was sinisterly twisted while "Susan's Husband's Gunshop" was a reminder that fuzzed up guitars can stride with some swagger. As the night approached its end,"Burning The Cow" was the popular choice by fans for the band to play during its encore and that they did. But the true highlight of the show was not the audience request. In what felt like a somber moment, Earliment quietly and gracefully let "Dreaming Of..." be their final note of the night. They could have let the latter rocker be the last song, but, instead, they took the least rocking song in their catalog and made it their "goodnight" to the crowd.

It was just the right stroke to close a night of gorgeous sounds.