But to quote Merle Haggard, things aren't funny anymore.
In January, Rundstrom came out to Colorado to go skiing. His back was sore and he couldn't swallow. "I'd just done 58 shows in a row," he recalls. "I thought it was because I was singing every night and the pain in my back was from the road. I was healthy -- no drugs, no fast food, no alcohol."
He was immediately diagnosed with squamous-cell carcinoma, the most common and lethal form of esophageal cancer. The disease usually hits men over 50; Rundstrom is 37. Despite four months of non-stop chemotherapy, the cancer invaded his aorta and lymph nodes. The doctors gave him two to six months.
Rundstrom, who has lived to tour and toured to live his entire adult life, called off the chemo and started making plans -- not for a funeral, but for another run of shows, a run he plans to see through to the end.
"I haven't left home since January," he says via phone from Wichita. "I'm a human pin cushion. Every day I am off the chemo, the more I get the drugs out of my body, the better I feel. I'm just now getting the strength to form the chords. But if for some reason I only have a little time left, I don't want to spend it in a bed. I know where chemotherapy puts people. I know where it put me. They've offered me more chemo, with no chance of stopping it, but with the chance of prolonging my life. I don't want to live like that. I'm forcing myself out of bed every day, to get my foot out the front door. To take positive steps toward my cure.
"I think," he pauses, then corrects himself, "I...I am going to beat this."
Before the death sentence, Rundstrom's story followed the contours of the alt-country archetype. In his early twenties, he screamed and thrashed in abrasive punk bands Red Lizard and Technicolor Head Rush, but in the heartland you can no more avoid country than you can growing up.
"Two things happened," he says. "I listened to Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger. And I went to this bluegrass festival in Winfield, Kansas, and saw people rocking on acoustic instruments. I realized there was more to music than Ministry and Pigface."
In 1995, Rundstrom formed Scroat Belly, a quasi-industrial, quasi-twang band assaulting uncouth novelties like "Born in a Barn" and "The Booze Won't Let Me Down." Even the bangers at Bloodshot Records found Rundstrom and company beyond the pale, but the underground punk scene in Lawrence and Kansas City embraced them, and they built a following at warehouse-district parties and opening slots for bands like the Bad Livers. The rest of the Midwest, however, proved to be an exception; burned out and broke from slamming their heads against empty rooms, Rundstrom and then-tour manager Jeff Eaton retreated to Wichita.
"It was back when we were a three-piece, at Kirby's Beer Store," Rundstrom says of Split Lip Rayfield's Wichita origins. "We were just screwing around. We were all broke and wanted beer. We convinced the owner we were a band, and we played for free beer. At that gig, another bar owner hired us to play every Tuesday night at Panama Red's. We took the name from a friend of Jeff's, one of the Rayfields from Gumbo, Missouri, population 82. His mom would always talk about how one boy would let his lip get all dried out and cracked."
Split Lip's unplugged formula wasn't calculated, and Rundstrom never predicted the second coming of progressive bluegrass and acoustic jam bands heralded by O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Leftover Salmon. But with mandolin, banjo, stand-up "stitchgiver" bass and dreadnought guitar, he found he could play as fast and hard as he ever had -- and cream a room, regardless of volume.
"You put electricity and drums behind us and we're a rock band," he says. "We play bluegrass instruments, but we don't do covers; we don't wear rouge or bolo ties. I don't know any traditionals. I couldn't play a flat-pickin' song to save my life. I'm a hack of a guitar player. Eric may be one of the best guitar players I've heard, but we forced him to play banjo. I don't know what Wayne is doing; he's just shredding his mandolin. I wouldn't even want to be associated with the state of bluegrass today. It's lounge music."
Needless to say, bluegrass purists hate the band. But as much as any alt-country outfit before or after them, Split Lip has bridged the divide between punks, thrashers, tie-dye twirlers and acoustic freaks. To speak of the act's evolution over eight years and four albums makes as much sense as charting the historical maturation of bar-room brawls. Even in the context of insurgent country, Split Lip's records aren't very good -- too long, somewhat monochromatic as hillbilly parodies go, almost the antithesis of the group's live onslaught.
"That's my complaint with the last album," Rundstrom says. "It's pretty wimpy -- too many slow and sappy songs. We're probably softer than when we started. I will say this: We are tighter, and we can play our instruments better."
Rundstrom may not break as many strings, and Gottstine (who has rejoined the band after leaving to be with his family) works his mandolin with more finesse, but the group has never refined or reined in its sleazy absurdities -- trailers, six-packs and dirt tracks -- or speed for the sake of speed.
Though Rundstrom has been clean and sober for a few years, he knows that decades of fast living, of booze, drugs and smoking, have killed him. "You are what you put into your body," he says. "I'm a firm believer of that. But everybody has to find that on their own."
The current tour will be built around three-day runs; on off days, Rundstrom will continue with alternative therapies, intravenous vitamin C, acupuncture and a strict, sugar-free diet. He's convinced that he's made the right choice; he knows the facts, but he also knows that for him, conventional treatments were just another way of dying.
"For the majority of cancer patients," he notes, "you get diagnosed, it's such a scary thing. The doctor says they're going to do chemo, which is a little bit of hope, and you jump at it. I think chemo is America's form of euthanasia, for the most part. They can't find a cure for cancer. It's ridiculous. One woman with breast cancer can walk into a hospital, and she gets chemo, and it clears it. Another woman gets the same treatment and it spreads through her body. The doctors don't change the course. They give her the same chemo. I don't know if that's because drug companies took doctors out on a Caribbean cruise and said, 'This is the drug we're pushing this year.' But if something doesn't work, you have to try something different."
As long as his body allows, Rundstrom will keep focusing on his music. He has solo projects planned, another release from the prog-rockish Grain and Demise, and a just-released Split Lip live album, recorded right after he was diagnosed.
"I love playing music," he says. "Doing chemo, I couldn't play. I went from 200 pounds to 140. I just gave up on music. That's ridiculous, because that's what I really love. I'm gonna keep going till I can't."
"I'm having a really hard time with leaving," Jenkins confesses. "It's so hard. I've been thinking about it so much. We've been gone a long time, and it's just really hard, because we're all very, very close to our families and friends."
It's just after noon on June 2. In a few hours, the songstress and sometime bass player will join the rest of her band, Tilly and the Wall, on stage at Omaha's Sokol Underground, where the act will officially release its remarkable sophomore album, Bottoms of Barrels, in front of a hometown crowd. And tomorrow morning, Jenkins and her bandmates -- singer Kianna Alarid, who trades bass duties with Jenkins, guitarist Derek Pressnall, keyboardist Nick White and tap dancer Jamie Williams -- will embark on another cross-country tour that will span nearly two months, with 36 shows in 48 days. Having spent the better part of the past two years on the road with bands like Bright Eyes and Rilo Kiley, the thought of being gone again is understandably a bit overwhelming for Jenkins. Every clap and stomp and note of tonight's performance will be tainted by the looming departure and the impending goodbyes.
"I've just been talking to two of my best friends," she says, after pausing to collect herself and politely apologizing for losing her composure. "I mean, I know once I get on the road it will be fine, but you try to squeeze in all your responsibilities and your friends, and it's a challenge, you know?"
Jenkins's earnest outpouring is befitting, especially considering how genuinely personal the songs on Barrels are -- and how close they make you feel to her and the band as a result. "Rainbows in the Dark," a coming-of-age tale about Jenkins's childhood, ends with a tear-inducing crescendo that finds Jenkins lullabying, "Sometimes you just can't hold back the river." And there are plenty of other pensive moments on Barrels, such as "Lost Girls," in which Alarid wails, "No one will ever save you/If no one can ever find you," and "Coughing Colors," on which Pressnall moans with a quivering vocal style that recalls Conor Oberst, "They'll have you coughing up your colors."
Tilly balances these contemplative moments with the kind of exuberant music that would prompt you to risk eviction by jumping up and down on paper-thin wood floors. This is a band, after all, centered around the use of tap dancing in lieu of traditional drum sounds. Though standard drums and electronic beats do occasionally appear, Nick White's organ and keyboards are mostly bolstered by a gaggle of organic percussive sounds such as hand claps and stomps, all anchored by rolling, heart-pumping bass lines. But what truly stands out about Tilly and the Wall are the band's vocals. The cherubic three-part, male/female harmonies -- a vociferous-here, boisterous-there vocal style, which often draws comparisons to a precocious Belle and Sebastian hopped up on Pixy Stix -- are stacked and layered so seamlessly that even the most meticulous of Jenga players would be given pause.
"I have read reviews, and I do see that recurring theme of us being children and whatever," Jenkins allows. "I mean, if I were to describe us, I'd say we're people who like to make music and hang out and have a really good time. We just love what we do."
That's evident just from taking a look at the act's press photos. One image in particular captures all five members crammed inside a closet-sized bathroom: Alarid and Williams in the bathtub, fully clothed; Pressnall shaving with a disposable razor; Jenkins spraying her wrist with perfume; and White seen only in the reflection of a circular vanity mirror. Add the blood running down Williams's partially shaved leg, and the whole thing looks like what happens when five friends screw around after sharing a bottle of cheap whiskey.
"We're really lucky to have such a good friendship as a group," Jenkins enthuses. "Plus, most of our photos have been taken by friends, so it's always really laid-back and chill, and we get to do whatever we want."
When Jenkins and company are not being photographed acting wry, they are pictured hugging, cuddling and generally holding on to one another. This sense of camaraderie, Jenkins says, is what keeps the band positive when things don't always go their way, on stage or otherwise.
"We've been trying to work on transitions between songs," she says, "but they usually don't go so well. But we're all pretty dorky. We don't try to get up there and be cool. We get up there, and we fuck up a ton. And we're not hard on ourselves about it. Sure, we say 'Okay, we should work on that,' but we do this to have a good time and enjoy each other and have fun."
The band encourages its fans to embody the same type of capricious spirit. On Tilly and the Walls' myspace page, the group invites its followers to bring balloons to shows to pass around the crowd and blow up on stage (water balloons and glitter are also strongly encouraged). And the levity doesn't end when the house lights go up. While zigzagging across the country, the musicians amuse themselves in the van with everything from travel games like Connect Four and Mad Libs to iPods and gossip magazines.
"During late-night drives," Jenkins explains, "we play the movie game -- where someone names a movie and an actor from the movie, and the next player has to name another movie that actor was in -- and a lot of Would You Rather. I think people would actually be shocked by how morbid it is. We totally come off as being really sweet, but we're pretty gross and disgusting."
It's all about perspective. Given the sort of reckless euphoria found on songs such as "Sing Songs Along" -- which opens with the promise of waking up our mothers and starting a commotion and ends with the lines "You better believe that we're all getting down/You know that us feral kids love straying about" -- it's hard to think of Tilly and the Wall as anything but sweet. Likewise, from the sound of it, perhaps being on tour won't be all that agonizing after all.
"It's gonna be hard, for sure," Jenkins concludes. "But we have friends on the road, and that always makes it so much better. Seeing old friends and reuniting with them and meeting new people -- we're excited about it. It will be good. We just love to hang out with our bros."
It's no mystery why Warner Bros. chose to rerelease All the President's Men now; at last we know how much -- which is to say how little -- Mark "Deep Throat" Felt really looked like Hal Holbrook. A new doc on former FBI second-in-command Felt and his long relationship with Bob Woodward is among numerous necessary extras included here. But it's Robert Redford's new commentary that makes this 30-year-old movie feel brand-new, though it needs no polishing off; it's still a masterpiece thriller that turns journalists into noir gumshoes. Redford fills almost every second with some thoughtful revelation, from the writing to the lighting. He's as fixated on the details as Woodward; his description of how Alan Pakula and Gordon Wills shot the phone calls alone renders this both a film-school how-to and a lesson in narrative fiction. Essential stuff, spread over two discs. -- Robert Wilonsky
Ultimate Avengers: The Movie (Lions Gate)
Based on the Mark Millar-Brian Hitch comic book The Ultimates, a sort of leaner and meaner version of Marvel Comics' hoary staple The Avengers, this direct-to-video release looks more like the stuff of Saturday-morning syndication. It's disappointingly rinky-dink for the tastes of anyone over the age of, oh, 8, which pretty much leaves out the 30-year-old fanboy who actually buys the comic. Lacking Millar's ear for dialogue and Hitch's eye for detail, Ultimate Avengers doesn't transcend the wham-bam genre; hence, no troubling marital disputes between Giant-Man and Wasp, and only a hint that Iron Man has a drinking problem. The animation ain't much, the acting's dreadful, and the story offers even less -- standard-issue fare about alien invaders, blah blah blech. -- Wilonsky
J-horror constitutes the largest wave of Asian imports since the Hong Kong action invasion, and for good reason: Americans can't make horror movies for shit anymore. After The Ring, The Grudge, and Dark Water brought in big bucks, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse gets an American remake next month; thus, this DVD release of the original. The story of a group of teens whose dead friend may be haunting their computers, Pulse works so well because it's just plain creepy. Ghostly images pop up onscreen, computerized voices beg for help over the phone. Death hangs over every shot. There's no irony here, unlike with recent American stink bombs. The pacing may be glacial, and there aren't many "jump-out-of-your-seat" scares, so lingering fear can give way to creeping boredom -- but not for long. There are no special features to note, except to say that Magnolia is the type of company whose trailers you don't want to miss. This one's as evil as anything in the film. -- Jordan Harper
Action: The Complete Series (Sony)
Of all the great network series that died so young, Action had it coming more than most. That it even got on the air at all -- with its barely bleeped curse words, hooker handjobs, Hollywood in-jokes, and brutally nasty demeanor -- was stunning. The show, all 13 episodes of which are here, was about a cruel and insecure movie producer (Jay Mohr, before he sold out for a case of Pepsi) and his wise whore-cum-assistant, and it was brilliantly written; the thing dished more dirt about studio shenanigans than a thousand weeks' worth of Page Six. But it was also meaner than a playground bully; it left a nasty taste, like vomit in your mouth. -- Wilonsky
Essentially the film is Requiem for a Dream with a lot less of that overrated indie's shooting-gallery pizzazz, although director Neil Armfield does put his smacked-out couple on one of those centrifugally forceful amusement-park rides in the very first scene in order to suggest that their young lives are, you know, spinning out of control.
Candy's whirlwind-carnival metaphor is maybe not quite as tiresome as it sounds. Dizziness, even to the point of nausea, is both what we crave from the drug movie and what we dread in it: Like the gangster movie, the drug movie tempts us with red-hot outlaws, knowing that we know they're bad, and disturbs us with a violent comeuppance both inevitable and well-deserved. Candy contrives to twist that proven formula somewhat, but it's still a movie in which hell clearly awaits our sexy anti-heroes -- even more clearly in this case, given that the first two of the film's three acts are called, uh, "Heaven" and "Earth." If obviousness is preferable to pretension, then Armfield improves immeasurably on the source material, whose own tripartite plunge is spelled out in such discrete sections as "Invincibility," "The Kingdom of Momentum" and "The Momentum of Change."
Merely unstoppable, suburban Sydney addicts Candy (Cornish) and Dan (Ledger) step off the merry-go-round and get spun at home: The former fixes by needle for the first time while the latter sits nervously at the kitchen table, his head positioned directly in front of the fridge's electrical cord in order for Armfield to illustrate that the guy is indeed wired. Cornish, Kidman-esque in her elusive look-but-don't-touch allure, may have the title role here, but Ledger, long-haired and so soft-looking you'd think he was being shot slightly out of focus, is the movie's real eye candy. Armfield's ample theater background may help explain his facility in staging an early sex scene so that Ledger's nude bod can be appreciated from every angle...er, sorry, almost every angle. But any director would have to be stupid not to take nearly full advantage of Ledger, the rare young movie actor who's willing and able to objectify himself in sexual terms and make it read, River Phoenix style, as the character's vulnerability more than the performer's.
No wonder Candy's trick-turning for cash is presented as a given, as what women junkies always do in order to subsidize their dark habits, while Dan gets to deliberate over whether to prostitute himself. Ultimately, some man's lack of nerve -- the novelist's, the director's or the character's (but probably not the actor's) -- pushes the desperate junkie into the altogether safer realm of wallet-snatching.
En route to "Hell," the film manages some faintly amusing moments. "Heaven" has newlyweds Dan and Candy shooting up at their wedding reception, where poor Dan is treated to a boring elder's Graduate-level career counsel -- real estate, not plastics -- and literally nods off. Even in "Earth," where the honeymoon is over and the strung-out missus complains from across the living room that she can hear her hubby's Bic scratching the crossword puzzle, Armfield's candy-colored sets keep things on the implausibly cheery side of surreal.
Or so they do until the requisite withdrawal scene, which uses nothing more than a room-sized mattress and a pathetically old TV set as props, the quivering junkies left to their own devices. Any drug movie's effectiveness can be measured by the strength of its detox, and Candy doesn't sweeten the cold turkey. Alas, it's a downward spiral from here in more ways than one. Though the particulars of "Hell" vary greatly (and predictably) according to gender, neither one of the addicts makes much sense: He's supposedly a poet and she's allegedly a painter, yet Candy ends up doing all the writing, and Dan, despite his affection for e.e. cummings, remains a dependent partner of clinically low self-awareness. You want to blame all that on the junk, known as "yellow Jesus" and given like communion by the pair's organic-chemistry-teaching supplier (an unforgivably hammy Geoffrey Rush). But no matter the neo-psychedelic pop soundtrack and occasional double-vision cinematography; dope just can't account for the film's fried brain cells.
Set in the present day, this kinetic, character-driven take is intended to serve as the origin story of 007 -- an introduction to the "maladjusted young man" who grows up to inherit a license to kill from Her Royal Highness.
And, of course, Royale is intended to kick-start a moribund big-screen series that's had more low points than high; expectations are minimal when you're next in line after such predecessors as Diamonds Are Forever, Octopussy, The Living Daylights and The World Is Not Enough. Yet to say that Casino Royale ranks among the best Bond offerings is not intended as backhanded praise.
It goes on way too long, clocking in at 144 minutes, and at least half of the damned thing makes no sense at all -- it feels less edited than shaved -- but the film works hard enough to merit its prolonged coda and nonsense storytelling. Because beneath all the gimmicks and gadgets is an actor who brings to Bond all the things he's lacked since Sean Connery was fighting the Cold War in a toupee. Those who sweated and fretted Daniel Craig's casting in the role clearly never saw Layer Cake. Fleming would recognize him as most like his literary creation: damaged goods in a tailored tux.
This Bond, unlike his smug, self-conscious predecessors, is a deadpan executioner with a penchant for letting his guard down too quickly. "I have no armor left," he tells this installment's love interest, British treasury purse-keeper Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), with whom Bond actually falls in love. This Bond's a rookie who makes mistakes that nearly lead to his death on several occasions -- and to a torture sequence so simple yet so devious it makes Goldfinger's crotch laser seem tame. And this Bond has little interest in living up to the legend: When a bartender asks him if he'd like his martini shaken or stirred, Bond shoots back, "Do I look like I care?" In that instant, it's as if the part had never been anyone else's.
Adhering faithfully to the novel, writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (now on their third Bond movie) and Crash's Paul Haggis offer the quintessential Bond plot. There's the oily Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) with the slight disfigurement, in this case a scarred left eye that weeps blood. There's the plot involving the funding of baddies trying to take over the world. There's M (Judi Dench), the scolding boss always one moment away from revoking Bond's license, and CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, wasted in a bit part intended to warm the heart). And there's the bullet-gray Aston Martin, the high-stakes card game, the champagne-and-caviar romp with a villain's wife, the travel-mag settings (the Bahamas, Miami, Prague). We are starting over, but not from scratch. Bond fans don't want reinvention; they'll settle for rejuvenation.
Director Martin Campbell, who resurrected the franchise with GoldenEye upon the hiring of Pierce Brosnan eleven years ago, accomplishes the same thing again, tenfold. No Bond film has ever offered a chase sequence on par with the opening one here, during which Bond and a bomb maker scurry on foot all over Madagascar. It blends the raw materials of such free-running films as Ong-bak and District B13, in which characters gallop and soar through cityscapes like everyday supermen, with the archaic conventions of the franchise and refines the whole lot into something crisp, thrilling and brand-new. And that is great praise to heap upon a 53-year-old character who you were just sure should have retired a long, long time ago. Meet the new Bond, not at all the same as the old Bond.
The 1995 castoff was 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam's remake of Chris Marker's La Jetée; this year's victim is Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón's dank, hallucinated, shockingly immediate version of P.D. James's novel. Never mind that Cuarón saved the Harry Potter franchise and, with Y Tu Mam´ También, directed the highest-grossing Spanish-language movie ever released in America; this superbly crafted action thriller is being treated like a communicable disease.
This, despite the vivid Fleet Street terror bombing that establishes London 2027 and a jolting, bloody car chase shot in what looks like a single take -- the year's most brilliantly choreographed action sequence. Children of Men vaults into another dimension with one more long-shot tour de force as Clive Owen's protagonist dashes from a nightmare prison camp through an urban free-fire zone, cradling a newborn baby. (Not since John Woo's Hard Boiled has an infant been put in such egregious harm's way.)
With five screenwriters (Cuarón included), it's impossible to give credit for the intelligent path Children of Men takes through James's 1992 novel, preserving while enriching her allegorical premise. Humanity is facing its own extinction -- not through nuclear proliferation or global warming, but the end of fertility. Like James's book, the movie opens with the violent death of the world's youngest person (eighteen-year-old "Baby Diego," stabbed by an irate fan in Buenos Aires) and imagines what might happen if the human race were granted a miraculous second chance. Universal may have deemed Children of Men too grim for Christmas, but it is premised on a reverence for life that some might term religious.
The year is 2027, but the mood is late 1940. "The world has collapsed," a BBC newsreader explains. "Only Britain soldiers on" -- barely. The U.K. is a mecca for illegal immigrants as well as a bastion of neo-fascist homeland security. London's smog-shrouded smear of garbage, graffiti and motorcycle rickshaws is the shabbiest of havens. Armed cops are ubiquitous, and refugees are locked up in curbside cages. Religious cultists parade through the streets. Terrorists and looters control the despoiled landscape poignantly dotted with long-abandoned schools.
Enormously sympathetic, as always, Owen plays a wry and rumpled joker -- less an actual character than a nexus of connections. His ex-wife (Julianne Moore) is an underground revolutionary; his buddy (Michael Caine) is a scene-stealing old hippie with a secret house in the woods. He has a well-off cousin in the government (Danny Huston) who lives in what looks like a South Bank power station amid recovered artworks -- including Michelangelo's "David" (missing a leg) and Picasso's "Güernica" -- and no longer worries about tomorrow. Owen's warmth is such that everyone trusts him, including animals and a mysterious young woman (Clare-Hope Ashitey) who needs to be smuggled through the countryside.
It's a measure of Cuarón's directorial chops that Children of Men functions equally well as fantasy and thriller. Like Spielberg's War of the Worlds and the Wachowski Brothers' V for Vendetta (and more consistently than either), the movie attempts to fuse contemporary life with pulp mythology. The war against terror and the battle in Iraq are most powerfully present in the aforementioned set piece where Owen escapes a nightmare Gitmo into the exploding rubble of an incipient Fallujah. Children of Men doesn't entirely elude a sentimental tinge -- I've heard it called a "disaster film for NPR listeners" -- but scenes that express the solace of solidarity or the fragility of human life are viscerally bleak, when not totally brutal.
Infertility is only a metaphor that enables Children of Men to entertain the possibility of No Future. The only parents these days who assume their children will inhabit a better world are either those living in the gated communities of the super-rich or the immigrants imported to tend their gardens. That these refugees are visualized as the persecuted rabble of a crumbling empire is only one of this movie's inconvenient truths.