Thursday, December 22, 2011

Another Earth Blurb For BYT's Best Movies Of 2011

My blurb on Another Earth from the best of list:

Following in the other-worldly footsteps of Moon, Another Earth is another bright star in the thinking-man's sci-fi constellation. It is metaphysical, minimalist sci-fi that combines a "high-concept" plot device [there is literally another Earth in the sky] with human drama. After all, isn't science fiction’s purpose to reveal something to us about ourselves? Didn't you learn that in your high-school English class? The movie's concept of a parallel universe is a trenchant inquiry into the idea of self and the implications of rewriting history. Georgetown University graduate Brit Marling's ethereal, luminous presence breathes dignity and a quiet resolve into what could otherwise have been a plaintive and downright emo character. There is a romantic longing thread throughout the movie, and the old adage about the greener grass is elevated to an existential quest for a better place: somewhere, anywhere away from what is the now, whether it’s in outer space or in another person's arms. Another Earth is grounded in its human element, yet has enough of a flight of fancy to transport us to a different place.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

As If I Am Not There Review--A Film On The Balkan War

My review of the movie, based on the *phenomenal* book S. :

Based on the 1999 novel S. by Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic, As If I Am Not There, is a film about the mass rapes and violence against Bosnian women during the Balkan Wars of 1992-1995 [by some estimates, as many as 60,000 women were raped as part of a campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing]. It is also Ireland’s entry to the 2012 Oscars’ Foreign Language Film category.

The history of the war reads like a scene from hell, the unfathomable brutality made all the more grotesque by the fact that it happened in Europe, in modern times, and literally in front of the eyes of the international community. The systematic rape of women was so heinous that for the first time in international court history, the coordinated use of rape as a weapon of war was declared a crime against humanity, second only to genocide.

As If I Am Not There, however, is not a documentary: it is a work of fiction that is based on the accounts of the victims. Thus, it is not meant to be a compendium of atrocities or a chronology of events. Yet considering how well-documented by journalists the entire war was, one would expect that history somehow inform the film, the gravitas of what happened, and the real stories of the women should underpin the movie.

Director Juanita Wilson’s film is haunting, atmospheric, and moving. It is not easy viewing. Wilson makes the emotional narrative the crux of the film, forgoing dialogue and instead letting the actors’ muteness speak the loudest. “I wanted to focus on the emotions—for example, how Samira would feel when the soldier walked into the room.” Newcomer Natasha Petrovic turns in a stunning performance almost entirely reliant on body language. Wilson’s characters never cry—she explains that “fear induces numbness and paralysis…almost a disbelief that this is happening.” The women, locked in an abandoned hangar in the middle of nowhere, seem to have no natural solidarity amongst them, almost stupefied by the horrors they are forced to endure daily. That aspect of the film is jarring and not necessarily believable; in the scene where all the men are executed and the women marched onto buses to the camp, we see none of them say a word to each other or express emotion.

One unsettling aspect of the movie was that some of the artistic choices, while certainly giving the viewer a reprieve from the relentless, gut-wrenching brutality, seemed to somehow seek to lessen the harshness. Even the “as if I am not there” title seems to suggest the possibility of escapism as a coping mechanism—when Samira is gang raped, we see her looking at herself from outside her body. Her “relationship” with the Captain also seemed to have an implied “taking control” aspect to it, as though she was using it to save herself [not to mention that as a plot device, it was a singular event not particularly representative of most of the women’s experience]. To suggest that there was any place for woman-man dynamic as opposed to soldier-prisoner is questionable. When the other women tell her that she has “sold herself for too little,” are we to believe she had any kind of choice? What compromise has she made that involved any kind of free will on her part? This grasping for positivity or a reprieve where there is none was uncomfortable. For example, at the end of the movie, Samira decides to nurse the baby that is the product of her being raped repeatedly for months and epitomizes her utter dehumanization; it feels as though the film is grasping at some straws of redemption for the mere sake of it. In reality, the most horrible aspect of the war was how endemic and mundane evil is: the rape-centers the women were locked in were often in schools, gyms, etc. As If I Am Not There is unflinching in its portrayal of those who suffer the worst casualties of war—the civilians, but it is also the story of US. It does manage to steer clear from a voyeuristic fixation on the violence, instead focusing on the human in the midst of dehumanizing circumstances.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Into The Abyss Film Review

German documentary film-maker Werner Herzog [Grizzly Man and his most recent documentary on cave art in France, The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams] takes on a macabre American Gothic-esque tale of death and life. It is equal parts Capote’s In Cold Blood and an expose on the no-less-grisly underside of capital punishment. A particularly timely movie in light of the recent Troy Davis execution in Georgia, Into The Abyss turns the lens on a triple homicide case in Conroe, Texas. Teenagers at the time of the crime, the movie centers on Michael Perry and Jason Burkett ten years later—Burkett is sentenced to life in prison and Michael Perry is facing execution.

While documentaries are inherently “biased” in that they present a position, Herzog’s approach is fresh and interesting. The focus is not on the issue of guilt or innocence—as such, it is not a who-done-it crime procedural. There is no confusion on Herzog’s personal opposition to the death penalty, but as an interviewer, he has an uncanny way of educing visceral, evocative, and unexpectedly eloquent responses from his subjects. For example, when he asks how “something feels,” rather than drawing bafflement, he elicits trenchant answers such as when he asks Jason Burkett’s wife to describe what his hand feels like over hers or how it felt for Jason’s father to be chained next to his son or when he asks the prison chaplain to "please describe an encounter with a squirrel.” His interviewing style, at worst is a bit unsettling, but for the most part, is surprisingly disarming. Into The Abyss makes copious use of police video of the crime scene, as well as footage of what the execution room looks like, grimly named “The Death House.” The interviews with the surrounding characters are what really offer some truly unique perspectives and pack an emotional punch. The segment with Jason Burkett’s father, who himself is serving a prison sentence, is especially poignant. His plea to the court at the sentencing to “please do not kill my son” is a stark and haiku-like encapsulation of just what capital punishment means at its most uncomplicated—taking away a human life.The segment with Fred Allen, a captain in the Death House unit, who after unstrapping his 125th prisoner from the gurney could not bring himself to do it one more time is especially powerful in its insider perspective on the “process.” His conviction that “no one has a right to take a human life,” is cogent in the context of seeing the damage his work did to him and his transformation from a man simply committed to “carrying out the law in a professional manner” to one who could not physically or emotionally continue to do it.

Into The Abyss also does an excellent job of portraying the milieu of violence that haunts the small Texas town, appropriately entitled the “dark side of Conroe.” As such, it also reminds the audience that capital punishment is meted out to people of different backgrounds. It’s a bleak reality—generations of families in prison, rampant violence, struggling working class, gated communities…Jason Burkett’s father, serving a sentence himself, blames himself, explaining how his son never had a chance. When he describes the moment when they were handcuffed together in the same prison bus, he heartbreakingly narrates that he felt like a “total failure as a father, being there with my baby son. Doesn’t get any lower than that.”
The film’s pacing seems reflective of the complexity of the thorny issue of crime and punishment, yet steers clear of dogmatic asides, opting to simply present things as they are. The daughter of the one of the victims describes that she was shocked to see that Michael Perry was “just a boy” and not the monster she had imagined him to be, yet she feels like a weight is lifted off her shoulders when he is executed—her words are a small example of just how slippery the idea of retribution and, even more so, justice is.

Into The Abyss does a tremendous job of humanizing such a broad, firebrand issue as the death penalty. It manages to steer clear of normative polemics or moralizing, instead opting for a subtle view into what it actually feels to take away a life.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Little Dragon Concert Review

My review of the Little Dragon Concert, 10/29

Saturday’s sold-out Little Dragon show at the 9:30 Club was an exuberant, percussion-propelled, lush feast for the senses—a ritual union, if you will, presided over by the high priestess of unbridled soul, Yukimi Nagano.

The band and the crowd swelled with a riotous, jubilant energy that is so rare to see at most concerts. Yukimi Nagano literally bounded about the stage in her impossibly adorable, pixie-sprightly way, cutely bantering, dancing even more than the crowd, and contributing to the percussion-heavy sound with her tambourine and drum pad-playing.

One could hardly imagine a more unlikely candidate for a “jam band” than an electro-soul-downtempo outfit, yet Little Dragon’s show had a funky, beat-happy sensibility that was positively soul-stirring and authentically organic in its pure celebration of just playing for an audience. It’s through this dogged dedication to their live show that Little Dragon has built such a huge following, without a “big fancy record label,” as Nagano put it.

Nagano has lent her unique vocals to a number of tracks, including the Gorillaz’ “Empire Ants” and “To Binge,” SBTRKT’s “Wildfire,” and DJ Shadow’s new “Scale It Back.” From her old days in singing for downtempo-neo jazz band Koop (whose hit single “Waltz For Koop” appears on almost all chillout compilations), Nagano has a knack for infusing the songs with a soulful vibrato that keeps the ears guessing and sets her apart from other figure-head female vocalists—she is a musician in every sense of the word. She was definitely the epicenter of the show and she did it with an effortless and impossibly infectious flair.

Little Dragon played the ebullient title track “Ritual Union” off the new album, as well “Little Man,” and the dubsteppy-glitchy “Precious.” There were also tracks off their previous two releases including “Feather,” “My Step,” “Never Never,” and “After The Rain.” Interspersed with occasional jam sessions, the band stayed away from their more atmospheric, melancholic tunes and kept the tempo up and the dance sensibility more prominent. Only their final song “Twice” hinted at their more somber material, and Yukimi’s vocals took on an ethereal, almost other-worldly quality.

In a word, the show was the perfect embodiment of a band-crowd synergy that builds and truly doesn’t leave an unmoved soul or body in the crowd.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Margin Call Review

My movie review of Margin Call for Brightest Young Things.

Margin Call is essentially the fiction counterpart to the scathing documentary condemnation of Wall Street hubris, Inside Job. Err, except that it is actually based on all too chillingly real story—48 hours in the life of a investment firm during the 2008 meltdown. In that sense, the tension is psychological but no less thrilling, and unlike Wall Street and Boiler Room, it does away with the aggrandization of the macho-centric “old boy network” and slicked-back-hair-swagger of the financial world. J.C. Chandor’s debut, featuring a star cast including Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, and Jeremy Irons, attempts to humanize what are essentially two-dimensional caricatures in the public consciousness—the Wall Street “fat cats” and their trader underling whiz kids. It’s a film that raises more questions than it answers, as it should be—it’s a trenchant commentary on the nebulousness of the word accountability and morality or right or wrong in the paper world of money--literally.

Zachary Quinto plays a young risk management wonk, with a Ph.D. in rocket science no less, who, after some late-night number crunching, “discovers” that the firm is leveraged beyond historical limits and that at current market volatility levels, it is looking to incur losses greater than its value. The big guns are called in, including the CEO [played with appropriate Euro-trash bluster by Jeremy Irons] who literally helicopters in to weigh in with the decision on how to offload the toxic assets pronto. Kevin Spacey turns in a spectacular performance as a world-weary trading floor boss on who falls the burden of doing the dirty job of selling worthless instruments. His character in particular is extremely interesting and nuanced—he resists management’s “sell something worth nothing” plan not from a moral high ground but from the perspective of a veteran salesman—“We are not in the business of selling. We are in the business of buying and selling. And we only sell stuff that we know people will come back for. No one will trust us again.” In his amoral, strange, yet stoically samurai-esque way, he has loyalty to the firm—not its CEOs and not the market. He is also not oblivious to the cut-throat nature of their business—after a particularly brutal lay-off of 80% of his traders, he advises the ones left behind that their co-workers are “not to be thought of again.” His exchange with Quinto’s character on whether selling the assets is “the right thing to do” really encapsulates the message of the whole film--“For whom?” “I am not sure.” “Neither am I.”

Margin Call deserves credit for shining a light on a really broad scope of the Wall Street milieu. For example, the firing of Sarah Robertson, Demi Moore’s risk management character, while her male counterpart stayed on hinted at the chauvinistic nature of the business. The dialogue between the junior staff about their being glorified computer junkies and about this being a game of “one guy wins, one guy loses,” as well as the “f*** normal people” nihilistic ethos of the business was nicely and subtly portrayed. The CEO’s assertion that it “wasn’t brains that got [him] here” were a cheeky comment on the current discourse on the Wall Street fat cats. The hookers-and-blow excess also added a realistic touch to the picture.

Considering that we are still in the midst of the economic quagmire that Margin Call alludes to, the film nicely manages to avoid running into the “too soon” category. No Ph.D. in Economics required, it aptly presents the situation for what it is—with no easy answers, while steering clear of the blatant and vapid money-worship of older financial thrillers like Wall Street. The characters are fallible and complex—some are American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman-esque, some, like Kevin Spacey’s character, are downright likable. In other words, it takes the fairly dehumanized version of the investment banker bad guy and at least attempts to explore him, even though humanization, redemption, or understanding is not exactly easy to come by either.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fashion: District

My review of fashion: district for Brightest Young Things:

Saturday’s fashion: District was a vibrant testament to the creativity, vitality, and relevance of DC’s fashion scene. Much akin to the much-maligned, non-existent DC hip hop scene, many would not exactly conflate DC and a fashion hub. ReadySetDC have single-handedly put DC fashion on the map, showcasing designers that are not only visionaries but who put out high-caliber, professional work well-deserving of the couture label. Plainly-put, it is not every day that you find yourself feeling like you are in Pret-A-Porter or The September Issue in the middle of DC and ReadySetDC are the ones who made it happen with such panache and flair.

Ginger Root Design were a true breath of fresh air with vintage-inspired, smart and original designs. Perfecting the art of upcycling [making something new out of something already in existence], the style was equally parts London-esque, tweed-and-zipper chique and something that Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary would wear. Zooey Deschanel/Manic Pixie Girl would definitely rock Ginger Root! Their designs were funky yet not groan-inducingly, self-referentially hipsterish. The colors were bold yet the patterns were not busy and relied more on a blocks rather than smashing of patterns approach. As the only designer to use “normal-sized” models, it was apparent that while Ginger Root make high-end fashion, their clothes were designed with a more pragmatic brush stroke and with at least some concern for practicality. Their menswear collection was particularly enthralling with two of the more memorable outfits being a tweed jacket with a zipper slicing a diagonal across the front and three leather straps as a closure and gingham shirt under a vest with a three-layered tie composed of overlapping triangles. The vest had a horizontal band of gray silk on the back, making for an extremely interesting layered visual effect.

Espion presented a really unique line of high-end evening couture. Some of the dresses were a really innovative mash-up of dominatrix meets Greek-goddess evening gown elegance. If you can imagine Athena channeling Madonna during the Blonde Ambition tour, you would get a pretty accurate idea. Other dresses were extremely regal—white and made of a stretchy material for a very sophisticated look.

Hugh & Crye delivered a very trendy men’s business wear line—it was solid and respectable and more than a little style. Artaya relied heavily on black, red, and white blocky ensembles with a nod to interesting textures.

SaintCHIC’s style was street-savvy yet high-fashion. For example, a lot of the skirts and pants relied on a “mummy” technique—they were comprised of overlapping-“bandages”/swaths of fabric. Definitely very unique and clever, and maybe a bit inspired by elements in industrial-scene wear which has been using straps on men-skirts for a good while now. The tops show-cased really layered framing necklines with a vaguely graffiti-esque feel that was equally parts hip-hop-dancer-sassy and classy.

Sika’s designs screamed creativity. Some of the fabrics had traditional African prints; some were very Asian. There were daringly plunging necklines and wee little bottom pieces, with bold colors such as orange and batik-like prints. Anthropologie would have been jealous!

Durkl’s line this season was downright underwhelming, at worst, and incredibly confusing, at best, especially considering how well-established and popular their line is. I think I was not alone in my luke-warm response to the fall collection, but maybe like the Post, I just don’t get it. At times, it seemed like they were channeling men’s wear circa Gap 1980, at other times, it seemed like their colors were literally popsicle- inspired [think patterns ala those fourth of July garish blue and red ones].

Derringer Friday deserve credit for figuring out how to make men’s ties swagger-worthy [common, it’s not an easy job]. Having female models strut around only in men’s shirts and thigh-high boots to “Ain’t Nuthin’ But A G Thing” will do that. Their end-of-the-show drinking-a-beer signature gimmick was also interesting, if a little befuddling. Oh, yeah—the ties were great too.

Fashion: District was a perfect mix of flair, swagger, style, finesse, and hard work and definitely an all-around rollicking good time.

Ladytron Concert Review

My review of the Ladytron show on October 11, 2011 at the 9:30 Club for Brightest Young Things:

Liverpool-based Ladytron’s electrifying show at the 9:30 Club was exactly what one would expect from a band that literally started the electroclash movement and heavily influenced an entire generation of bands like Empire Of The Sun, Holy Ghost, Royksopp, Yelle, and Client, to name a few…and practically the entirely neo-electro movement, in truth. It would not be an exaggeration to put Ladytron’s legacy near New Order’s—you know you have longevity in the flash-in-pan electro scene when you can release a greatest hits album of ten years, like Ladytron has. While some of their contemporaries like Miss Kittin and Felix Da Housecat and the electroclash movement as a whole lost its luster in the pop-music zeitgeist, Ladytron continued their reign by consistently putting out excellent albums. A decade-long career and five stellar album releases later, Ladytron proved equally relevant and original [stodgy “forefather” label be damned] as when they first introduced their synth-driven electropop sound.
Since the days of Kraftwerk, it is no big secret that it’s pretty hard to make knob-twiddling and keyboard-button-pushing sexy or particularly thrilling live—it’s the nature of the beast when it comes to electronica. Ladytron’s live show, however, was a really interesting mix of light and well…magic. The band and a well-executed light show were the only components yet they proved more than ample. Lead vocalist Helen Marnie was channeling some sort of a Princess Leia-meet choirgirl-meet nun white get-up, while Mira Aroyo resembled a beautiful porcelain doll. The combined effect was something best described as “demure/pneumatic babydoll chique.” They weren’t going for “sexy” but it was mannequin hot nevertheless—thrilling you with chillness?
The band opened with “Ghosts,” “International Dateline” [whose refrain, “International dateline; let’s end it here” was particularly modern and apropos in its sentiment] and with a new song called “Mirage” off their September-released album, Gravity The Seducer. Helen Marnie was doing the majority of the vocals, in a Jane Birkin-esque lilt, which isn’t always the case on their albums where the two vocalist share in their efforts. It wasn’t until “True Mathematics” that Mira Aroyo stepped away from her very concerted synth-operating duties to deliver an adorably-cute Bulgarian nursery-rhyme vocal on the song. As a fellow countrywoman, there is no doubt that Mira is, by FAR, the coolest and greatest Bulgarian export, period—and no, don’t groan about how there are no other Bulgarian exports! It is especially endearing that so many of the Bulgarian lyrics she sings are all either snippets from old folk rhymes or are very haiku-esque and sparse, yet she delivers them in this brilliant stern-detached-school-marm-way that works so perfectly. No wonder the Bulgarian contingent in the audience last night chanted, “Mira, ti si super!” [Mira, you are the best!].
The energy continued to build with Ladytron’s performance of their hits—“Runaway,” “Ace Of Hz” [both off their more recent releases], “Discotraxx,” and “Seventeen.” The song’s “They only want you when you are 17, when you are 21, you are no fun,” was a cheeky commentary on the length of the pop culture attention span nowadays. They also performed “White Elephant” off the new album and “Little Black Angel” from their greatest hits album. The show ended with a raucous performance of “Destroy Everything You Touch” that was especially apropos—sonic destruction of awesomeness abounded.
The show was a testament to what has kept Ladytron going through an entire decade with such sustained success—their music might be machine-made but it has always remained organic and melodic despite its method of creation. While knob-twiddling and button-pushing has become the norm, they’ve always kept their hand on the human pulse.