Wednesday, 16 August 2017

A LIFE IN WAVES (2017)



Perhaps you're like me, getting pretty depressed about the way this world is going. It's not only the hate and confusion, the lies and deceit, the posturing and pretense ...

... it's a world that doesn't seem to have enough inspiring people in it. Or at least we don't hear about them often enough. Sure would be nice if ... wait!

This account of the life of Suzanne Ciani has arrived just in time.

Suzanne Ciani

So the story goes like this... In the end, all things come back to Buchla.

That is to say the Buchla synthesizer, the prime (but far from exclusive) tool used by Suzanne Ciani to forge a career (if not a name) that would find its way into every household.

Now, listen carefully to the music in the backgrounds:

If you've seen/heard a Merrill Lynch commercial featuring a bull walking through a china shop ...




... or traversed through the Atari universe ...




...  or played a Xenon pinball machine that made "oooh" and "aaah" sounds to its Ciani-scored musical accompaniment.



And here is a clip from the documentary itself; how refreshing does a Coke sound after Ciani gets through with it?



Okay, maybe you're not that impressed with all this Madison Avenue-type stuff. Hmm ...

I invite you to try this beautiful composition on for size and then meet us back in the review. The piece is called Neverland.




I guess I didn't mention Suzanne Ciani is a five-time Grammy nominee. Well, now you know. A bio-pic on the life of the person behind these music and sound design innovations has been long overdue. Fortunately, director Brett Witcomb and writer Bradford Thomason have now answered the call in top-notch fashion with A Life in Waves.

How do you create immediate interest and historical placement re: this largely unknown figure? Answer: start with a clip of Ciani's appearance on David Letterman's NBC show circa 1980, with the host looking bedazzled with the offerings of the effervescent musician. After some testimonials from New Age music pioneers/practitioners (including Tangerine Dream's Peter Baumann) the doc then catches up to its subject in 2015, with her returning to Wellesley College to accept the Alumnae Achievement Award, where her face fills with pride and admiration upon regarding the photos of past graduates who made their mark in many of the male-dominated professions (including a super-string theorist, an astronaut ... someone named Hillary Clinton). The career highlights that follow emphasize a similar refusal on Ciani's part to be held back from anything. There was no holding back on the pursuit of electronic music, despite the lack of support she received while attending the U of Cal at Berkeley. There was the determination to continue working in the studio of synth pioneer Donald Buchla, despite a misunderstanding that led to him firing Ciani after only one day on the job. (Not to worry - he still became a mentor and an inspirational force for much of her work.) She wouldn't allow male-dominated Madison Avenue stand in her way after her move to the Big Apple, and she didn't care if the record labels weren't ready when she did a piano-based neo-classical pivot - Ciani just found ways to release the music on her own. (The category New Age came along just in time, although she admits it was largely "a club nobody wants to belong to".) Needless to say, no one was going to tell this artist what to do when she came full circle to once again embrace the sounds of the Buchla invention.




By pointing out how the invention of music as effect took matters to a new psychological level Ciani proves her true trailblazer status. And while I'm hardly an electronic music aficionado (although I've always dug Brain Eno), I think it's safe to say Ciani has brought a particular feminine sense of sensuality to her compositions. The film is fascinating enough given the many self-determined twists and turns the woman's career has taken but there's more to it. Hers is a radiating spirit and exuberant personality that captivates; it's a pleasure that we're at least able to get this close to her through this film (although, as some others have pointed out, her private life remains pretty private throughout  example: her hardly discussed marriage. Sure, maybe it's none of our business, but...) And with only 76-minutes spent as it is, there could have been a little more examination re: the nuts-or-bolts behind some of her work. Nonetheless, we are treated to a smooth flowing presentation featuring solid production values as it is.



We may not all carry the genes this immensely talented person has but her "go for it" message serves all. As promised, Witcomb and Thomason have introduced us to an inspiring story in a world that seems to need such.

So now I'm not going to say anything more, because output on my part would seem very dry compared to the pleasure that comes from actually watching this film. The screener link was supplied by a PR rep who I will thank immensely - this was one of the most enjoyable films I have seen in a LONG time!

As you've already guessed from my gushing, this one is way high up on the recommended list.

This film deserves hugs for ...

- a revealing look at a great talent we didn't realize was around us. 

- an exploration beyond the traditional boundaries of what many regard as music and the means to create such. 

- offering seventy-six fascinating minutes with such a charismatic personality.   

(The first three videos in the post were embedded from Suzanne Ciani's YouTube page. Check it out.)

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

LIVING WITH THE DEAD (2015)

Emily Jackson and Benjamin Frankenberg


So the story goes like this ... She guzzles booze, hankers for hallucinogenics, and gets into a Lolita phase of one-nighters. These "good times" only end when she pops enough sleeping pills to take her to within a step of death's door. Eighteen-year-old Max McLean (Emily Jackson) hasn't been able to live in her skin since the suicide of boyfriend Adam (Benjamin Frankenberg). Her status-conscious folks brag about their girl going to Yale, while displaying thinly veiled relief in anticipation of the troubled one being out of their hair in the near future. Max decides to set her own schedule for leaving the nest, sneaking out in the middle of night, in spite of the efforts of her brother Gabriel (Chris Bellant), the only family member in genuine anguish over her state when he isn't being her harshest critic. A train trip with a destination chosen at random finds her in a township with a library ... not that she lacks for reading material; her suitcase is stuffed with the same books Adam used to mull over, penned by famous writers who had taken their own lives. Enter a chap named Ish (Craig McDonald-Kelly), a quirky local snapping Polaroid pictures of Max that annoy her to no end. Her unwanted follower does provide one bit of practical help, that being a place to crash - Max finds herself slumming on a library couch, having hid with Ish till closing hours. From there a relationship develops as the couple frolics through the woods, bantering philosophical musings when Ish isn't urging Max to climb trees as a sort of inner strengthening exercise. Alas, it gradually comes out that the lad has his own issues to deal with: a long-gone mom and an alcoholic father that has made Ish a pariah in the community. Throughout all of this Max continues to experience visions of Adam, with the tête-à-têtes the tuxedo clad spirit initiates not exactly being of the supportive kind.




Living with the Dead presents itself as a kind of existentialist sandwich; large parts of the meaty middle section find the two protagonists in a realm of their own in the woods where they can reflect, disconnecting with the outside world while pondering its metaphysical and spiritual makeup, as well as their own. The surrounding passages are the white bread territory with the characters involved with less abstract situations. The philosophical jargon that seems apropos in the out-in-nature settings comes across as cringe-worthy elsewhere, particularly when recited by Jackson, as if she was reading off a teleprompter supplying lines from brainyquote.com. This doesn't help the fact that the actress has some struggles in the early part of the film, coming across as too blank to suggest the torment the character is suppose to be going through. Getting past the twenty-minute mark one starts to yawn and wonders if there is going to be a payoff.

Fortunately, things improve as the narrative unfolds, particularity after the introduction of Ish. A theater prof I knew always said acting is really reacting; that holds true here as Jackson's performance improves substantially at the point McDonald-Kelly comes on the scene. Playing off her engaging co-star helps Jackson to peel off the layers surrounding Max while one becomes increasingly interested in the mysteries surrounding the backstory of Ish.

As noted, Jackson delivers a performance that improves with screen time and McDonald-Kelly is spot-on as the straw that stirs the drink of the storyline.  As naked as these two performances end up as the real emotional core of the film belongs to a short but memorable turn by Thomas Poarch as Ish's alcoholic dad. Rather than portraying the character as a stereotypical drunken lout, Poarch evokes sympathy and heartbreak as he muses on a life he found to be overwhelming. Unexpected and beautifully done.

The film is Christine Vartoughian's first foray into feature territory and for the most part it marks an impressive debut. I would have liked to have seen less cutting on dialogue and for the words spoken to sound more like they were coming from real human beings, but these unfortunate failings are not fatal. One may still be left at the end with a little head scratching as to why Adam did what he did but the film struck me as being more about effect rather than cause anyway. Vartoughian shows genuine promise and it should be interesting to see what follows in her career. The overall production values are impressive for a film at this budget category.

A timely tale told in a sensitive manner, Living with the Dead is, overall, worth the time spent to regard it.

Hugs go to this film because of ...

- generally good acting.

- a promising feature directorial debut.

- earnest exploration of a timely topic.


(Full disclosure: Producer Rebekah Nelson requested a review and provided a screener link to the film.)

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

LITTLEROCK

(This very indie-ish offering was originally reviewed on FGP,  17/07/2104)

The film:
Littlerock (2010)

The under-the-radar factor:
This small indie production has screened at over 40 film festivals and picked up awards at the AFI Fest, the Independent Spirit Awards, and the Reykjavik International event, among others. In spite of crossing the globe at these gatherings and winning positive critical notices, this work has received extremely limited exhibition possibilities and nothing too significant by way of digital channels.

The review:

We've all encountered those people who you meet for the first time and they just can't stop it. The loquacious. The wind-bags. The gab-a-holics. People who talk a lot but really say little, if anything. But they go on and on. Then there's the quiet introverted types who feel drained by even attempting to put forward a welcoming remark.

And then there's the young Japanese girl who stares blankly with hardly an utterance since she can neither understand nor make herself understood in Littlerock, put out by Indie Spirit "Someone to Watch" winner Mike Ott. Fortunately, his film, a second feature effort for him, is itself mostly well worth watching.

Siblings Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka) and Rintaro (a young gent named Sawamoto, also going by his real first name) are taking a trip across the United States, much to the disappointment of their father back home. He's detail driven and cautious - she's more relaxed and open to experiences when they come up. Bro speaks a tiny bit of English, which is lot more than his sister can muster. Their rental car breaks down in the Los Angeles exurb of Littlerock, a place which is about as anti-glamorous as California gets and the driest the state has been seen on screen since Polanski's Chinatown. While waiting for a replacement vehicle they first meet some of the shiftless locals at their motel in a confrontational manner but are quickly adopted by the populace at large as new friends. Much of this has to do with the fact that many of the Caucasian boys find Atsuko attractive and alluring. Two in this boat are Cory (Cory Zacharia), a somewhat effeminate fellow in trouble with the local drug dealer for having smoked most of what he was suppose to distribute, as well as Jordan (Brett L. Tinnes), a wannabe musician who can't suppress the glint he has in his eyes for the oriental visitor...for which she "glints" back. Together they take their new Japanese friends sight-seeing (in this town, that doesn't amount to much) for which two-wheeler bikes (not the motorized kind) are supplied. These same two locals blokes are not, however,  too broken up when Rintaro decides to go ahead with a visit to San Francisco without his sis. She proceeds to find romance with one fellow, artistic endeavors of sorts with another and gets to pass time alongside an immigrant cook (Roberto 'Sanz" Sanchez) that she can't talk with but can relate to. Rintaro eventually returns and, while I won't go into the details here, the last leg of the trip taken by brother and sister delivers a poignant (and unexpected) conclusion to their tale.



Ott seems at home delivering a film at this scale, which is not as easy as it sounds. Staying within smaller confines and resisting the temptation to paint bigger pictures is a discipline not everyone possesses. Littlerock is a simple and appropriately subtle tale. The characters in the film are neither saints nor satanic - they're simply real. The Asian girl finds herself alone with the guys of the town, instilling enough creepiness and suspense to her plight. At the same time, while Atsuko may be unworldly, she's not naive or stupid. It's obvious the local residents are their own worse enemies, particularly true of Cory. Even though he's the one who can speak English, he seems less clued in to what is going on around him than she does though surveillance and intuition. She discovers, he spins. It makes for a mostly interesting, if somewhat predictable relationship. (Unfortunately, you can see her rejecting of his advances from a mile away, one of the few significant weaknesses in the film.)

The town of Littlerock itself is an interesting ingredient in the movie, a place that seems to be in the middle of a desert and a fairly comical locale to drop off two foreigners "discovering" America. But it's on this blank slate of a nowhere town with a group of inhabitants going nowhere in particular that makes for an appropriate place for the protagonist to get her bearings. Littlerock is largely a film about communications and miscommunications, experienced by both the protagonist herself and observed in the dealings of others who supposedly speak the language.

Mainstream audiences who prefer their movies with popcorn and a heavy lathering of Michael Bay on top will be bored to tears by Littlerock. And even some of the latte crowd will accuse Ott of delivering less than meets the eye. But there are enough of those out there who will appreciate this quiet character study and the naturalistic acting style of the cast to make the trip to this nowheresville a destination appointment.

Monday, 31 July 2017

AMERICAN BOMBER

(A re-post via FGP from 06/12/2013. These days the film is also available on Amazon and iTunes.)

The film:
American Bomber (2013)

The under-the-radar-factor:
Low budget independent production is being released on VOD and DVD by IndiePix Films. The movie has picked up a few awards at a couple of lesser known  festivals.

The review:

A dishonorably discharged veteran agrees to become an American suicide bomber but romance and FBI surveillance may change everything in Eric Trenkamp's feature debut American Bomber.

The life of John Hidell (Michael C. Freeland) is recounted in mock documentary fashion in the early portion of the film. Accounts from his mother and others who knew him conflict; some seeing him as a good egg, others describing ill temper and violent behavior. Abuse seems to have been an element in his life borne outside and inside the home. It's made clear that John reacted badly to the news of the death of his half brother, leading to an internment in which he was exposed to the thinking of the persuasive Barry Aaron Speiler (portrayed in a enthralling manner by Kenny Wade Marshall).

Upon his release, John discovers employment doesn't come easily for a disgraced solider who will undergo background checks. Distant from the remaining family he has, he commits to the ideas of Speiler, a pseudo-brother teacher that has filled the void John feels. Hidell heads on a one-way trip to NYC with a wad of cash and a backpack full of explosives, determined to enjoy what he can in the last few days of his life. His big city contact puts him up for accommodation in the same building as an attractive bartender named Amy (Rebekah Nelson), who bums cigarettes and charms the troubled vet.  With her days as free as his, they spend afternoons together and become closer. As the scheduled time to take action comes nearer, John can't help but feel the possibility of a future with Amy, while also suspecting that he has already been detected by law enforcement officials. His conflicting feelings leads to a violent act that solidifies his status as a fugitive, jeopardizes what he has with his new woman and narrows the choices left to him.




The last indie fiction film I had reviewed prior to this one was Roulette, often displaying the opposite strengths and weaknesses of American Bomber. While that film came charging out of the gate and immediately demanded attention, Bomber takes it's time in setting up it's story and involving it's audience. While Roulette displayed fully developed characters, the real nuts and bolts behind the thinking and feelings of Hidell are never fully explored in Trenkamp's film.

On the other side of the coin, while it was clear Roulette had some technical competence, it also displayed unevenness in the level of acting, as well as some occasionally insipid digital imagery. American Bomber quickly shows a production value level substantially up from most films at this budgetary level with it's sharp cinematography and crisp editing. Also importantly, the acting skills become more impressive with the introduction of each character. While Freeland only achieves a status of being "ok" in the lead role, Nelson really commands the screen whenever she appears and Marshall has some impressive moments, especially delivering a mind-blowing "God is a farmer" monologue towards the end of the film.

There are other strengths as well; among them, a soundtrack that legitimately enhances the mood of scenes, rather than trying to force the viewer into what they should be feeling. The sound recording and editing is also done at a consistently high quality level. And the examination of the surveillance state the U.S. finds itself in post 9/11 times brings out the best and the worst of that culture; the fact John is spotted as quickly as he is upon arrival in the greater New York area could be seen as both reassuring, as well as unsettling...or creepy.

While the first half of American Bomber shuffles along without any sense of urgency, the last 45 minutes of the film becomes highly involving and makes the total effort worthwhile. I also like the fact the conclusion played out in a straightforward manner and left contrivances for other filmmakers who try to substitute being clever for being intelligent. While not perfect (even I'm not that), American Bomber has a lot going for it and I feel confident in recommending it to audiences looking for a solid indie offering. Also keep you eyes open for Rebekah Nelson in the future...coming across here as charming, sexy and intelligent, she has real potential.

RECOMMENDED.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

DARWIN'S NIGHTMARE

(This documentary was reviewed on FGP on 06/06/2014. Well worth another look.)

The film:
Darwin's Nightmare (2004)

The under-the-radar factor:
Nominated for Best Feature Documentary at the 2006 Academy Awards, it's safe to say this film has never garnered the same attention or audience as the winner of the category that year, March of the Penguins.

The review:

I have lived in the city of Toronto for all of the years of my life and at this juncture find myself residing in an area with the Humber River to the west and High Park to the south-east. I go for walks and see different birds hanging out in each area. The Red-winged Blackbird seems to rule the Humber valley, with a fair smattering of Goldfinches to boot. Marsh birds, Woodpeckers, Blue jays, Cardinals and far more exotic species can be found around High Park, especially as one makes their way to Grenadier Pond. There are all sorts of flying creatures that one will find in either location at various times of the year because...they belong there.

As the documentary Darwin's Nightmare points out, there were once a plethora of different fish that belonged to Africa's Lake Victoria. Then about fifty years ago someone (identity unknown...or, at least, unidentified) began depositing significant quantities of Nile Perch into the waters. Goodbye to the indigenous species, as the predator fish virtually wiped out whatever else was swimming in the lake. The Nile Perch fattened up to the extent of making it a most desirable delicacy to be packed and sent off for European consumption. The resulting industry that grew in Tanzania created winners and losers...although some on the down side of prosperity still felt they were better off than in their previous circumstances.

Something else has also been introduced in the Tanzanian landscape corresponding to the presence of the Nile Perch industry - planes. Aircraft fly into the region regularly and not often on a scheduled basis. The cargo crafts don't always arrive empty; some say guns are regularly brought in to supply those in battle in other parts of the continent. Before the planes fly back out with their loads of fish, the crews (mainly Russian and Ukrainian) take time to party with their "girlfriends" - the prostitutes they return to on a regular basis. These are the flashier women who are available for the visitors with the real big bucks but gals who have come in from the countryside with no other means of procuring income turn tricks for the local men looking for such distractions. Not surprisingly HIV infection and AIDS becomes an issue, helping to jack up the number of children living in the streets. The youngsters find their chief means of coping with the gloom around them comes by way of their makeshift means of sniffing chemicals found in the local refuse. And as far as diet for all are concerned, only the maggot-infested heads and other scraps of the Nile Perch are available, if that - the fillets that fly off in the aircraft are far too expensive to be considered by the indigenous population that finds themselves at the bottom of the economic totem pole of Tanzania.



Yes, there are all these specific references to what is happening in Tanzania but director Hubert Sauper uses the micro examination of the country in order to arrive at macro estimations of what the worst aspects of globalization/imperialism and the exploitation of those with lesser means amounts to.

Raphael still hopes.
Such an example is offered by the presence of Raphael, an ex-solider being paid a dollar a night to guard the fisheries institute. He "lucked" into the job when his predecessor was killed during an attempted robbery. Raphael knows an advanced education would help improve his standings but is aware that a more practical means for getting ahead would be the outbreak of war. If the government were to need him again, he could ditch his poisoned arrows and get equipped with real firearms and a better salary. It's kind of like an insane version of Thoreau's improved means to an unimproved end - better things can happen for some when bad things go down for others. But it's not the same means of amelioration he wishes for his son - Raphael would be pleased to see his offspring become a pilot, flying those planeloads of Nile Perch off to the well-heeled customers in Europe and returning with....actually, he's not sure what. Raphael just knows it would represent advancement, comfort...less of the nightmare.

Sauper hasn't constructed a let-me-connect-the-dots-for-you type of documentary, of the excellent Inside Job variety. There is also no Michael Moore-type intrusions, aside from some off-screen questions addressed to the participants. His film spools out more like an album - a collection of snapshots your regard from the beginning to the end and then arrive at your own conclusions as to what has really been broached. Perhaps an important missing element is the "before" picture - what life was really like for the people of Tanzania before the introduction of the Nile Perch. By way of omission of this examination, the inference seems to be that it was, of course, not as bad as now. Really? Perhaps it was more of a just-as-bad-in-a-different-way type of life, although it is safe to say the local eco-system was in better times. Perhaps widespread corruption has always been the issue, the force that kicks open the door for other evils? The film doesn't really try to reveal this significant type of back story.

Still, the bottom line becomes that what the locals go through now is plenty horrible and the exploitative nature of extreme globalized interests will not be the way out for these folks. It may not be the real cause of their troubles but it certainly ain't no cure. Even the Russian airplane crews seem to be a sad lot - while they enjoy the material benefits that come from their workload they seem embarrassed, saddened and perhaps even a little frightened by the ramifications of what they are involved in, even when they insist with a shrug that "it's business".

In spite of it's somewhat incomplete nature, Darwin's Nightmare is a film that refuses to leave the viewer unmoved. While this story may be set in what seems a world away, one is left with the creepy feeling that the Tanzanians are one of the folks who are first experiencing what may be to follow (or already has) for many of the rest of us in different ways. Look around...after you've first watched this film, of course.