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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Aug. 1, 2014

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Low's minimalist music leads to maximum indie success

"I'd guess that an overwhelming majority of people who exist in the world do not like what we do."

This is not a typical interview sound bite. In most interviews, musicians and performers want to give a reporter quotes that will sell their product, their sound and tickets to their upcoming show.

Yet the quote from Alan Sparhawk, the lead singer and guitarist for the indie band Low, neatly encapsulates the stripped down, glamor-free and honest allure of the group's music, which it will bring to the Turner Hall Ballroom tonight.

The band originally formed in Duluth, Minn., in 1993. Sparhawk was in another band at the time that worked out of Superior, when he, his wife and the band's drummer Mimi Parker and John Nichols, Low's original bassist, starting toying around with some new songs with a very unique, sparse sound.

"When we started Low, it was sort of out of curiosity and out of this fascination with minimalism, repetition and those kind of things," Sparhawk said.

At the time, grunge music was becoming a mainstream brand of music, with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam moving from their underground origins into popular household names. As a result, Low's smaller, quieter music sensibilities served as a response and an alternative to the loud, punk sound that was dominating radio and pop charts.

"We weren't necessarily trying to be contrary," Sparhawk said. "It's just that when we started, we were looking at being very minimal, quiet and subtle. We knew it was going to be against the grain of what most people were getting excited about at the time. But I guess that was a part of the appeal: making something new and challenging people."

Low released its first album, "I Could Live in Hope," in 1994, and after a few more albums, the band began to develop a reputation on college radio stations, a quality fan base through touring and the label of critical darlings. As they and their unique sound grew more popular, however, people attempted to find a label or genre…

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Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" is in theaters now.
Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" is in theaters now.

"Life of Pi" a magical journey for the eye

Talk about lofty goals.

"Life of Pi," director Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's 2001 bestselling novel, frames itself as the ultimate spiritual, religious adventure. Early on in the film, a character even states that he wants to hear a story that "will make you believe in God." If that wasn't enough, the movie's 3-D is supposed to revive audiences' pre-"Clash of the Titans" love for the gimmick. I don't know which feat would be more impressive.

So does "Life of Pi" have the emotional power to turn the religiously dubious into the devout? Eh, unlikely. Will it restore people's faith in 3-D? Possibly. If there's one thing that's undoubtedly confirmed after seeing Piscene Molitor Patel's sea-based saga, though, it's that Ang Lee is an outrageously talented and inventive visual director.

After setting the stage with a few stories about his unique name, school days and childhood religious experimentation, Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) tells a struggling author (Rafe Spall, previously seen talking cutesy with a deadly alien snake in "Prometheus") his epic tale of survival.

In his story, teenage Pi (impressive newcomer Suraj Sharma) miraculously survives a violent ship sinking while moving from India to Canada with his family. He, as well as a few exotic animals from his family's zoo, find their way onto a lifeboat, but after a sad series of events, only Pi and a beautiful but ravenous Bengal tiger are left alive. Together, the two must learn to survive the elements, hunger, mysterious islands and each other to pass this fierce test of faith.

Most of what ensues consists only of Pi and the tiger, named Richard Parker due to a clerical error, floating out on the lonely sea. It sounds like it has the potential to be a bore, but Lee fills the adventure with gorgeous and vibrant images that keeps viewers excitedly anticipating what surreal imagery they'll see next.

A sinking ship's lights hauntingly illuminate the world under the ocean's surface. The lifeboat looks like it…

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Helen Hunt and John Hawkes star in "The Sessions," in wide release now.
Helen Hunt and John Hawkes star in "The Sessions," in wide release now.

Make an appointment for "The Sessions"

This may be hard to believe (especially with the recent Guy Fieri/New York Times debacle), but critics can have a heart. We may pretend to have cold, black obsidian hearts protected by an impenetrable outer shell of snarky comments and grumpy nitpicks, but really, we love a satisfying cry or emotional moment as much as the next person. It just needs to be done right.

Case in point: "The Sessions," a sweet, honest, sincere and funny indie sensation that toggles just the right emotional switches to hit the waterworks jackpot. Considering Hollywood's typical brand of cloying tearjerkers, it's a delightful surprise to find a movie that can get the tears flowing without guilt.

Oscar-nominee John Hawkes stars as real-life journalist and poet Mark O'Brien. Stricken with polio as a child, Mark is unable to move any part of his body other than his head and is forced to spend most of his life inside a life-saving, but also constricting, iron lung. Despite his affliction, however, Mark decides that at the age of 38, he wants to lose his virginity.

With the blessing of a friendly local priest and confidant (William H. Macy), Mark hires Cheryl, a sex surrogate played by Helen Hunt, to help him learn how to control and find comfort in the frail body that has served as his prison for so long.

As the sessions continue and their intimacy increases, their relationship becomes more emotionally complicated. Mark starts to view Cheryl as a pillar of support – both physically and mentally – and Cheryl worries about what the end of their relationship could do to his feelings of guilt and self-loathing.

Hawkes has gained a ton of Oscar buzz for his turn as O'Brien. It's the kind of transformative, showy role that the Academy loves this time of year. The incredible part about Hawkes' performance, however, is that it doesn't feel like he's putting on a show for awards attention. He effortlessly embodies the character physically – the crooked posture, t…

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul in "Smashed," in theaters now.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul in "Smashed," in theaters now.

Raise a glass to "Smashed"

It's hard for me to comment on the reality and authenticity of "Smashed." I've never known a person afflicted with alcoholism, much less been an alcoholic myself. I can't speak to whether or not this is an accurate depiction of the personal ongoing battle with addiction.

I suppose you could say that about most movies; I've never been a MI6 British secret agent, but I'd be more than willing to tell you about the parts of "Skyfall" I find absurd (anything involving massive gila monsters).

The small indie movie, though, feels very real. In fact, very few films are as awkwardly, hilariously and painfully genuine as "Smashed." It's not a biographical film (though some of co-writer Susan Burke's personal experiences from getting sober in her early 20s helped enlighten the script), but critiquing it and calling it out on its issues seems unfair, like grading someone's life based on my personal assumptions.

While it's definitely fair to say that not all of "Smashed" goes down smoothly, the end result is an intimate, complicated film about an intimate, complicated topic, with a smashing lead performance to boot.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Ramona Flowers from "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World") provides said performance as Kate, a young elementary school teacher. When she's not at the school, Kate and her equally alcoholic husband Charlie ("Breaking Bad"'s Aaron Paul) can be found drinking heavily at the local bar, shakily biking back home and drinking pretty much anything they have there too. Joaquin Phoenix's character from "The Master" would be so proud.

As her awful experiences escalate – namely covering up a hangover-induced bout of throwing up in the middle of teaching class with a lie about pregnancy – Kate decides it's time to try getting sober. With the help of her awkward co-worker (Nick Offerman, endearingly known as Ron Swanson on "Parks and Recreation"), she begins going to AA meetings and gaining a sponsor (the underutilized Octavia …

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