March 29, 2015

Cory Branan ~ Sunday March 29, 2015 @ Velvet Jones

photo by paul dunkley

No Hit Wonder

If you follow musicians like Frank Turner, Jon Snodgrass, or Chuck Regan, most likely you’ve heard of singer/songwriter Cory Branan. If not, let me introduce you…

The Southern boy from Nashville played an acoustic set to an intimate crowd at Velvet Jones last Sunday in support of his latest album, The No-Hit Wonder. With four studio albums under his belt, Branan is known for his poignant storytelling, husky voice, and guitar wizardry. Branan’s repertoire of songs is more country-twang than punk-rock, more reflective than upbeat, taking you on a journey into what it’s like to be a musician and family man on the road. His songs are full of contradictions, being both hard and soft at the same time as he tells tales of meeting the love of his life at a diner in Memphis, of day-drinking and thinking of home, of trudging along the tour trail living hand to mouth, gig to gig.

The crowd slowly made their way to the stage as Brannan
photo by paul dunkley
began his set, his voice too dark and husky for the tiny frame that held it. Branan worked the guitar, beating on the strings as only a country guitarist knows how to, firing lyrics at the crowd like gun shots. “At least that last sip of whiskey was warm and wet / As good a goodnight as I’m gonna get…” (Missing you Fierce). “Out on the corner of what I want, what I intend to get / day drinking and dreaming of you, I let the ashtray smoke my last cigarette…” (The Corner). “But all the rivers in Colorado couldn’t wash you off of my mind / Not that I’m trying, just a thought though, might be nice to keep from crying…” (All the Rivers in Colorado).

Branan is one of those songwriters that makes one stop and think about what is being told in the song, each line deliberate and smart. His twist on country music is fresh and appealing, and will make a country music lover out of the most hip of hipsters. This No-Hit Wonder has a hit or two in him.

February 5, 2015

The American Riviera Awards Tribute ~ February 5, 2015 @ The Arlington

It’s All About Balance

The American Riviera Award was established to recognize actors who have had a strong influence on American Cinema. The two iconic actors honored this night by the Santa Barbara International Film Festival exemplify the spirit of this award.

Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are being celebrated for
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their performance in Boyhood, a film with six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. This is the first time this award has been given to two recipients in its twelve years of existence. According to the night’s moderator, SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling, either of the two could have won the award on their own. 

Rising to stardom in the '90s, both actors were the voice of their generation. Between them they starred in such iconic movies as Dead Poets Society, Reality Bites, True Romance and Flirting With Disaster, all of which epitomize the '90s. Over the course of their respective careers, they have had the opportunity to work with many of the most reputable directors, writers, and actors. Hawke shared that he had seen many actors burn out over the years, not just from drugs and alcohol, but from their creative flame, including the recent loss of Hawke’s co-stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) and Robin Williams (Dead Poet Society).  “I don’t know what it is about creative people and the inability to find balance in their personal life,” Hawke stated, choking up over the memories.

As their careers grew, they both were able to take ownership of their craft and their careers. Arquette was able to use the power of her name to oppose TV executives that wanted her to lose weight for her role on the TV series Medium.  “I simply said 'No'. It didn’t make sense. My name meant enough that I brought power to the show, I didn’t have to make concessions. I am sick of the conversation over weight, we should all be over it.”

All the while, they were making Boyhood. The film has received much acclaim and has done well at the box office, but Arquette was not without her doubts. “How are you, one, going to get the funding for a twelve-year project; two, sell a normal story that has no drama; and three, have actors stay on for twelve years that have no contracts (contracts max out at 7 years).” It was a big risk, but one that paid off.

“Boyhood is a selection of scenes that would have been cut out of any other movie,” claims Hawke. Hawke is most proud of the movie because it normalizes kids growing up in a divorced household. It’s a regular, simple story that replaces plot with time and shows that “regular life is awesome.” According to Arquette, “This movie is low tech, literally shot in time. It shows that audiences are ready for a lo-fi connection.” 
The American Riviera Awards were presented to the two by their Boyhood co-star Ellar Coltrane. During his presentation he said he saw both of them grow as actors, even though he wasn’t aware of it at the time. “Both of you refuse to be ingenuine (sic) to yourselves. Watching you guys here tonight – you never ceased to amaze me.”

Hawke claimed recognition creates an imbalance in one’s universe. But it is good to see two of Hollywood’s most influential actors work so hard towards maintaining that balance.

February 4, 2015

The Outstanding Directors Awards Tribute ~ February 4, 2015 @ The Arlington

A Community of Generals

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To some, movie award season is just a beauty pageant of stars; a time where actors, writers, and directors can compete for the position of top dog of the movie industry. But according to Foxcatcher’s director Bennett Miller, award season, as well as film festivals, are a time to congregate with like-minded people who share your interest and experience in creating movies. Like seeing a fellow general and understanding what he has gone through, and thus bonding immediately. It is a time to meet those whose work you admire, a time to share ideas, and a time to just mingle with your peers.

The Santa Barbara International Film Festival adopted this mentality this year, deciding to combine the Outstanding Director of the Year Award with the Directors Panel and honoring five, not just one, of the year’s top directors in one evening at a prime Santa Barbara location, the Arlington Theater.

The directors honored this year by SBIFF are all brave visionaries bringing outstanding and very different stories to the big screen. Directors are a different breed; responsible for creating something from nothing but an idea. To manifest something material and tangible from written words, thoughts, ideas, and visions, takes a very special talent – and obsession. Moderated by Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter, directors Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher), Laura Poitras (CitizenFour), and Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) shared their obsessions Wednesday night.

Damien Chazelle is the freshest and youngest of the tributes.  Chazelle wrote and directed Whiplash, which first appeared as a short before getting funding for a full-length feature. It first gained notoriety at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and has flown into popularity since.  Based on his personal experience at a prestigious band school, it tells the tale of a drummer whose teacher motivated his students though fear. “It was difficult to persuade people that this was something they wanted to sit through. It’s about bullying and abuse,” Chazelle explains. “Inflecting harm on another for art is different than inflecting harm on yourself… It begs the question, does the outcome justify the abuse?” Although he admits he made the teacher more of a monster in the film than he was in real life, he is still terrified of playing the drums to this day.

The most seasoned of the directors, Richard Linklater, has a much different tale to tell in Boyhood. The movie was filmed intermittently over a 12-year period, following the main character from ages 5 to 18. The story is a fusion of Linklater’s memories growing up and his experiences in adulthood. It has to do more with time than with plot. “I feel that it’s real; in our own narrative of our own lives, there is no plot… It kinda happens that way.” It stars Linklater’s daughter, who became bored with the project around age 12 and asked her dad, “can my character, like, die?” Luckily, Linklater declined claiming it would be too dramatic. She was able to complete the project, learning to enjoy the process and the extra income.

Bennett Miller, better known as the “Best Actor’s Director,” is awkward and funny at the same time. His film Foxcatcher, based on the lives of the Schultz’s brothers and multimillionaire John E. du Pont, contains well-known Hollywood stars in roles that stretch their own limitations. Miller received the story from a random stranger in a store that gave him an envelope of newspaper clippings stating “You should be interested in this.” That stranger served as executive producer on the film. Miller is mainly interested in narrative films, the only thing available to him he felt passionate about and that didn’t require permission. As to being the “Best Actor’s Director“, Miller bragged that Brad Pitt claimed it was "most uncomfortable to work with him and not in a good way uncomfortable,” as Miller too struggles, clumsily to achieve the performances he shares with his actors. 

Laura Poitras is the only female, and coincidently, the only documentary director in the night’s tribute. CitizenFour is the documentary of a reporter meeting with Edward Snowden in Hong Kong, right after he leaked classified information from the NSA. Snowden sought her out as a reputable journalist not likely to cave into pressure from authorities, not to create a film. She kept her contact under radar and met with legal representatives to assess the risk. Contrary to normal documentary releases, they had no early press releases. The press, public, and government got to see the film at the same time. Poitras stressed that source protection was her utmost concern with this provocative documentary.

The only foreigner in the tribute was director Morten Tyldum, with his first English language film The Imitation Game. According to Morton, the film is about “a gay mathematician that kills himself.” The story is based on the true story of the man who helped solve the Enigma code during WWII, and later committed suicide after he was prosecuted for being gay. Like Chazelle, Tyldum had a hard time realizing a dark concept like this could be a crowd-pleaser. “The characters are relatable… It’s the human aspect of the movie, not the history lesson that is appealing.”

Andrew Davis, director of The Fugitive and the self-proclaimed “guy from back in the day,” presented the awards to the five honored directors. The respect and admiration they shared was obvious as they exchanged comments and tales amongst themselves. It was refreshing to see the directors sitting as comrades celebrating film rather than adversaries fighting for awards. A true community of generals.

January 31, 2015

The Modern Master Award Honoring Michael Keaton ~ January 30, 2015 @ The Arlington

Risk. Above. All. 

Three simple words flashed on the screen before a clip from Birdman featuring the recipient of the SBIFF Modern Master Award: Risk. Above. All. These words accurately describe Michael Keaton’s acting career.

It is hard to determine which one of Michael Keaton’s movies is my favorite. The characters he has portrayed span across comedy, action, suspense, and drama genres so effortlessly. His eclectic career has seen the rise of Beetlejuice, Batman, and now Birdman. My favorite film of his may be Beetlejuice, however my favorite character is definitely Ray Nicolette in Jackie Brown. That said, Keaton is my favorite Batman of the entire Batman movie franchise. All this is debatable.  

Saturday night, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival honored Keaton for his brave portrayal of Riggan Thomson, a has-been actor who once played an iconic superhero now desperate to regain his former glory in Birdman. His performance already received over 30 awards internationally and has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor – which would be the first for this seasoned actor.

“Call it a renaissance,” proclaimed the night’s moderator, Leonard Maltin, as the tribute began. “Birdman is a reaffirmation of Michael Keaton’s enormous talent.” Maltin made no bones about being a huge fan of Keaton’s, stating that he was hooked when Keaton first burst on screen in an extraordinary comedic performance in 1982’s Night Shift.

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Addie MacDonald, Keaton’s co-star in 1992’s Multiplicity, introduced his video montage of film work, stating that Keaton was both an inspiration and friend. “At 63, he is brave enough to run through Times Square in his underwear… He has balls!”

Keaton’s film career flashed before our eyes. Night Shift, Mr. Mom, Beetlejuice, One Good Cop, Batman, Pacific Heights, Much Ado About Nothing, Jackie Brown… and on and on. Until finally, Keaton jumped up from his seat, paused to play air guitar in the aisle, and made his way to the stage facing a standing ovation.

“This is oddly intimidating.” Keaton stated immediately to Leonard Maltin. “This is overwhelming… You think you get it, then you see it all. It’s a lot to take in. I am truly blessed.”

Keaton’s birth name is Michael John Douglas. “It’s, actually Michael John Daniel Douglas,” he clarified, “I had communion.” The youngest of seven kids born into an Irish family, Keaton enjoyed being silly and getting lost in books. He would run around the neighborhood naked, his brothers would scare him with stories about a boy named Johnny living in the attic, and his father would have shady characters over with thick Irish accents. There was too much to do and see. So essentially, Keaton got into acting as an outlet for his over-active imagination. “It had to come out somehow, and it came out as acting.”

Keaton first released his imagination on the comedy circuit doing improv at open mic nights in New York, which he called “performance based mini plays,” while working crappy day jobs. He used improv groups to feed his need to perform, eventually trying his hand at television. “I am not good on TV,” Keaton admits, “I don’t know why… I don’t know…”  

Moving out to LA, Keaton, still Douglas at this time, was
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informed by the actor’s union that there was already a Mike and Michael Douglas, so he had to use another last name. “Ironically, Michael Douglas’ last name isn’t Douglas, it’s some Russian name I can’t recall,” Keaton complained jokingly. His family had called him Jackson as a nickname, so he thought about using Michael Jackson, but that too was a bust for obvious reasons. So he randomly picked Keaton. It had nothing to do with Buster or Diane. “But it’s nice. I don’t use Keaton for anything except my work,” explains Keaton. “It really keeps my personal life separate.”

As Maltin began the parade of movie clips, we really got to see Michael Keaton – the creative force, as he spoke about why and how each character evolved.  “It’s an odd job. You can’t put your finger on what you did that day,” proclaimed Keaton. “Unlike working outdoors, there’s no dirt to wash off.” 

His characters were born from the union of visions of the writers, directors, and actor… and sometimes other crewmembers. Bill Blazejowski in Night Shift was born when Ron Howard saw Keaton dance into the audition room. Beetlejuice was harder. “Tim was not describing anything I could understand,” admits Keaton. So he met with make-up artist Ve Neil and they just went for it, the energy building upon that collaboration. Batman’s voice came from Keaton’s need to rationalize the scenario. He believed there was no way anyone would not know Batman was Bruce Wayne once Batman talked – it wasn’t rational. Without “the voice,” he was just Bruce Wayne in a tight bat suit. Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing was based on a particular shady friend of Keaton’s father. And Birdman’s voice was the result of telling director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu the story about the Batman voice. These antidotes all lovingly told between clips from some of Keaton’s best work.

As we came to the end of the evening, Roger Durling emerged on stage, “sobbing watching the greatness of Michael Keaton.” This is the 30th anniversary of the Film Festival and the 25th anniversary the Modern Master Award. Ironically, Michael Douglas received the 1st. Durling exclaiming, “This was all meant for me to honor you tonight.”

And to honor Leonard Maltin: The Modern Master Award will herby be called the Maltin Modern Master Award.  Danny DeVito awarded the first “Maltin Modern Master Award” to his Batman costar and friend, stumbling a bit over it’s weight.

Taking risks wasn’t the original game plan. Keaton originally just wanted to do good work.  With Birdman, Keaton knew it would be different. “Deep inside, I knew I knew it… It was more different than I thought it would be – you’re exposed, literally. I have a weird job. Alejandro said you are going to go deeper than you ever have – and I did. You are here for a millisecond, you have to make the most of it. You must have courage.”

Risk. Above. All. An example well set by Michael Keaton. 

January 18, 2015

Kenny Loggins & Michael McDonald ~ January 18, 2015 @ SOhO

This Is It!

photo by paul dunkley
Three large tables sat in front of the stage, chairs lined the dance floor labeled with patron’s names, and the bar was roped off for standing room only. This is what SOhO’s 20th Anniversary & “Friendraiser” performance featuring Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald look like upon arrival at 6 o’clock.

The artists involved in the “Friendraiser” Series donate their time and talent, with all proceeds going to fund venue upgrades so that SOhO can continue to bring live music to Santa Barbara. Patrons paid anywhere from $70 (standing room) to $300 (tables) tonight to enjoy an evening of music with Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald. The standing room area, aka the bar, was packed with people holding their ground. “I’ve been here since 6!” stated one female patron, solidly holding her ground next to the restroom doors. I pitied the fool who would try to stand in front of her.

I elected to take an abandoned dinner table on the rise located in the back of the bar, one with a chair and a good view of the television that transmitted the show for those of us not so bold to brave the crowd.

The anticipation was tangible as we waited for the duo to take the stage. Loggins and McDonald did not disappoint, starting off with McDonald’s hit “Minute by Minute” then moving smoothly into “Heart to Heart.” Michael McDonald has one of those remarkably soulful voices that makes you stop and remember, “oh yeah, this is really good.” Loggins is no slouch in this area either, following up with “This Is It” and a solo acoustic sing-a-long version of  “Danny’s Song (Ain’t Got Money).” 

And apparently Kenny Loggins wrote every hit song for every hit movie in the 80s, with the duo choosing to perform “Dangerzone” and of course… “Footloose.” Playing 14 songs of their own, with two short breaks, the duo ended the night by getting funky with a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City,” sending the already rambunctious crowd into a fervor.

Make no mistake, this was it!

November 30, 2014

Toad the Wet Sprocket ~ November 30 @ SOhO

A Walk On the Memory Lane 

If you were alive in the 90’s you know Toad the We Sprocket. I thought I knew them vaguely, until I saw them live at SOhO this last Sunday. It turns out I knew them quite well. 

“They mean so much to so many,” according to opening act Cory Sipper. “People came up to me when they heard I was opening for Toad, saying things like, ‘You don’t’ even understand… I played them in college, at my wedding… for my kids.’ I understand.”

It was obvious the crowd at SOhO that Sunday night felt the same. Looking through the crowd you could see the who’s who of the local music scene along side parents out for the night, all here to catch an intimate glimpse of the Santa Barbara born band. (Fun trivia: TTWS’s song “Little Heaven” was featured in the 1992 movie Buffy The Vampire Slayer. What other local Santa Barbara band’s claim to fame is from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer franchise?)

Hearing the familiar upbeat progression of the music and
Glenn’s poignant vocals as they opened with “The Moment” brought a pain to my stomach as I was whisked away, back to high school and the angst of growing up. The music is upbeat, but the lyrics can be heart wrenching, creating a weird balance in the emotions. “Glen is an amazing lyricist,” proclaimed Michael Cantillon, keyboardist for Beta Play, just off tour with Toad the Wet Sprocket. “Tommy (lead singer) has been writing songs with him. Glen definitely brings out the best in Tommy.”

As the crowd sung every word of every song along with the band, it was evident that the music meant a lot to a lot of people. Toad brought us through a journey of 23 songs, including their biggest hits “Something’s Always Wrong,” “All I Want,” and ending the night with my favorite, “Walk on the Ocean.” It was definitely a night with a walk on the memory lane.

Think you know Toad?

All I Want: (chorus)
All I want is to feel this way
To be this close, to feel the same

Something’s Always Wrong: (chorus)
It seems we meet
In the spaces
In between 

Walk on the Water: (chorus)
Walk on the ocean
Step on the stones
Flesh becomes water
Wood becomes bone 

October 18, 2014

New Noise Conference & Festival – Saturday, October 18th

We Came To Rock

What better way to let off some steam than to rock out to some good ole punk rock? Am I right?

Well a packed Velvet Jones agreed with me on the 4th night of the New Noise Conference & Festival. The showcase held a lineup of heavy punk rockers all bringing a unique twist to the “punk rock” genre. False Puppets is somewhat poppy; Dark Waves is, well, dark; Plague Vendor is heavy; and Joyce Manor is straight punk rock. This was a nice sampling for those who enjoy their punk. 

According to promoter Eddie Numbskull, Plague Vendor was the must-see band of the night. Recently seen at the Warped Tour and Riot Fest, Plague Vendor has built a reputation for a wild on-stage performance reminiscent of a young Iggy Pop. “They’re like The Refused with no social content,” according to New Noise attendee Matt H., “But I like it.” The southern Californian band is young and exploring with sound, mashing up heavy guitar riffs with manic lyrical hooks that take you from zero to one hundred in sixty seconds. The impression they left was huge. 

The showcase produced what it promised, a night of great new punk rock, and Santa Barbara came out to rock!