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 ...

... its 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. And it turns out it's a time to celebrate!

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 it's 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 ...

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

Try this beautiful composition on for size and then we'll get back to 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? The film starts 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 and 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 no holding back in 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 the inspiration 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.




Ciani's excitement over each one of her projects, whether in mass merchandising or beautifully arranged piano pieces is always there. By pointing out how the invention of music as effect took matters to a new psychological level Ciani proves her true trailblazer status. 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 who you would love to be sharing time with, regardless of setting or situation. It's a pleasure that we're at least able to get this close to her through Witcomb and Thomason's efforts, featuring first-rate production values with a 76-minute presentation that takes no more or less time than is needed to tell Ciani's story.



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.