Wednesday, 13 September 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 kudos 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, 6 September 2017

TWO MOTHERS (2013)


So the story goes like this ... It's not like you can just go and have it done. Lawyers speak in hushed tones for a reason. Doctors make it clear that money will have to come their way, so you better have it. Some offer the procedure in a home instead of an office, so as not to attract attention.

Anne Zohra Berrached's film doesn't cover the plight of women looking for back-alley abortions in those times when such a procedure broke someone's law. Quite the opposite - Isabella (Karina Plachetka) is looking to get pregnant. Problem is, she and her lesbian wife Katja (Sabine Wolf) discover one road block after another in their quest to have a child without adopting.

Facing their approaching middle years, both women are initially enthusiastic towards the idea of bringing a third member into the fold. Being the one most galvanized by the notion, Isabella offers to carry the child.They discover what's good for the heterosexual goose is off-limits for the gay gander. Excitement gives way to frustration as they encounter the inconsistent and baffling laws pertaining to the non-straight set in Germany. Any gatekeeper who may help pave the way in the legal and medical professions are always men - males who also expect to be heavily compensated for their involvement. That's pretty much a no-win situation for two people not seeing a hoard of disposable income via their career paths (waitress and video store manager ... and we all know what happens to video stores). They finally come across a sympathetic physician with somewhat more affordable services - but no guarantees that his fertility procedures will lead to success. There's also that last hurdle to overcome: finding a sperm donor. At least one they can tolerate. The first batch of candidates are strikeouts as far as the two women are concerned: some are too old (more on that later), some have concerning genetic characteristics like height (as in too much of it) and a few don't appeal when it comes to attitude; those are the ones who prefer to have sex with a female - lesbian or otherwise - rather than shoot their wild oats into a cup. Up steps a more affable chap named Florian who scores well on most of the checklist, with one catch - he would like to visit the infant on a regular basis. This goes over much better with the increasingly desperate Isabella than it does with her progressively perturbed mate. Katja develops third-wheel syndrome as she notes how chummy her wife and Flo become. The strain between the two women intensifies as Katja points out the mounting expenses that Isabella is oblivious to.

The rest is spoiler territory.

(Ahem ... there's some intimacy sans clothes in the trailer. Don't say I didn't warn ya ...)



The film Two Mothers is described in the credits as ein dokumentarischer, appropriate in that this brisk 75-minute effort is based on the input of three different lesbian couples who experienced the kind of tribulations depicted here. There are also a slew of regular folks in the cast: doctors playing doctors, sperm donors portraying sperm donors, and other non-professional actor types. Their contributions add to the cinéma-vérité feel of the film (as does an absence of a musical soundtrack and any flashy montage/mise en scène intrusions). For such an emotionally charged topic, there is enough distance provided to allow the viewer to both empathize and scrutinize with clear heads.

The casting of the two leads pays off in spades. Wolf's silent moments are all telling; you can feel her sinking into a more isolated state as the story continues. Plachetka does a fine turn as a person whose myopic outlook overtakes her.

ALAS, NOT EVERYTHING HERE SMELLS RIGHT: the women are shown interviewing a slew of men but Berrached elects not to allow the conversations to be heard - except when it comes to the certified jerks. In the case of the older man, their consideration of him seems to end upon hearing his age. Perhaps sperm counts are down in the sunset years of a male but we never find out this chap's background (University professor? Research scientist? Noted artist?) - it's strictly a case of ageism. The couple's picky paint-by-numbers approach to pregnancy (and outright dismissal of adoption) will leave some viewers less sympathetic to their plight.

Still, the importance of detailing the b.s. people encounter when it comes to sexual orientation is always worth the effort. Two Mothers deserves an audience.

This film deserves some nods for:

- strong performances.

- an approach to storytelling that doesn't descend into melodramatics.

- avoiding the cinematic bloat that so many other feature films suffer from.

Monday, 4 September 2017

MAUDIE (2016)

Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins
So the story goes like this ... Racked with rheumatoid arthritis that affects her gait, Nova Scotia born and raised Maud (Sally Hawkins) discovers her asshole brother has sold the property of their deceased mom - the fink needs some of the cash to pay off their control freak of an aunt to look after the sibling he prefers to ignore. Devastated that she's not heading back to the one joint she considered a home, Maud (kinda) rebels; first by dancing solo at a local jazz club in the wee hours, and then by announcing that she is taking a powder on Aunt Ida's hospitality. Fate strikes as she finds herself in a local store just as grumpy illiterate fishmonger Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) arrives to whine his way into convincing the proprietor to write up an ad for a housekeeper. Maud answers the call, arriving at Lewis' no-frills shack of a domicile to a cold reception and a mountain of nit-picking doubts from her potential employer ... but - wink - you know he's going to eventually cave. Unfortunately, not all of Everett's criticisms of Maud's lack of attention to chores are expressed solely through words (the one such outburst shown in this telling of their story is difficult enough to sit through); nonetheless, an unconventional romance develops, leading to marriage. Everett has no use for the cheerful paintings of plants and animals Maud creates to decorate the cottage walls but a New York socialite staying in town commissions some work. This leads to local fame (and a bit of coin), which leads to the insecure husband trying to keep his fragile ego in check for as long as possible - one guess as to how that goes. But even with all of their falling outs, Everett helps Maud learn the truth regarding an explosive situation from her past.



I see the name SALLY HAWKINS on the credits and expect a performance that shines, but this time she's outdone herself. This may be the best work of her career. You may have heard some Oscar buzz surrounding this gig and it is well deserved. Hawkins seems a natural to take on her role; what is particularly interesting (and highly impressive) is how Hawke manages to keep pace. In my books the guy is a little too Handsome-Hollywood-Leading-Man(ish) to have been an obvious casting choice for the role of husband Lewis - that's driven home by a brief clip at the end showing the real Maud and Everett from the CBC documentary alluded to in this movie. Nonetheless, eye-candy Ethan delivers the goods when it comes to conveying Everett's uglier internal moments. Put a star next to this performance on Hawke's curriculum vitae.

The cinematography displays several Left Coast scenery-so-crisp-and-beautiful-you-can-practically-smell-it moments (aside: Newfoundland actually stood in for Nova Scotia - follow them tax credits, ya all!). The pacing of the film is, for the most part, appropriate, although the threats of separation between the not always happy couple provides for some tedious junctures. While the storytelling is conventional in approach, director Aisling Walsh seems to sense that Sherry White's script would be well-served by hanging the narrative on the strong shoulders of the two leads and leaving it at that. Smart choice.

This film can take bows for:

- standout performances.

- beautiful cinematography.

- a moving tale told without sappiness.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Reviews: Beyond The Grave and Bodom

I finally get back to some reviews, more of the mini variety as I try to get healthier. Here goes...

Beyond The Grave (2010, now on Hulu)

Something has led to the gates of hell opening up (in, what they tell us at the beginning of the film, after a Nietzsche intro, "another time, another place") with a corresponding zombie apocalypse having transpired in Davi de Oliveira Pinheiro's feature debut. Thing is, the walking dead are mostly onlookers as a dude known as "Officer" goes searching for a demonic serial killer using the handle of The Dark Rider (appearing in different incarnations, including a female one). The former cop comes across others who come along for a (short) ride in his beaten up but dependable car as the story takes more loops than a roller coaster.



Solid production values and a seemingly talented cast largely go to waste in what is apparently meant as some sort of existentialist head-trip. Beyond The Grave is too pretentious for even more open-minded viewers, too deficient in character development and back story for mainstream folks, and not quite blood splattering enough for the gore crowd; in short, a movie without an audience.

Bodom (2014, available on IndieReign)

Just  when you thought you've had your fill of found footage flics, along comes a decent and refreshing offering, supposedly Hungary's first entry in the genre. At a tight 65 minutes, directors Gergo Elekes and Jozef Gallai make sure their story does not outstay its welcome, while providing enough genuinely creepy moments to make for worthwhile viewing.

Not be confused with an upcoming slasher film of the same title scheduled for release in 2016, this production follows two media students creating a documentary on the infamous Lake Borden murders of three teenagers (one of the campers survived) that took place some five decades before. The scenario, however, covers less of the historical incident and more of the present bickering between two people in a cold forest who seem to have a strange layer of tension that's obvious but not immediately explained.



Bodom is effectively presented in a fake documentary envelope with the so-called found footage sandwiched inside. As with all such films, there is a bit of a slow build to anything that really grabs you and a few of those "...but why would the camera be running then, showing that?" moments exist. On the plus side, most of the actors do a good job of looking natural and not obviously "acting", with the fake interviews of those who knew the two students enhancing the intrigue. Atmospherics are, of course, crucial, and this is where Bodom pulls ahead of many of its contemporaries.

The movie answers few questions and raises many others; this is certain to rankle those who like to be spoon fed, while those who prefer the intrigue of many possibilities will enjoy to take part in the guessing game. Count this reviewer in the latter group.

Clearly, The Blair Witch Project is the bar by which similar entries are judged. Bodom hardly comes across as BWP-lite and will appeal to those fans of the format, while introducing enough originality and style to cement a respected place in films of this type. Worth catching.


Monday, 13 April 2015

The Fine Art Of Falling Apart - Down The Neorealism Memory Lane

The film:
The Fine Art of Falling Apart (2014)

The under-the-radar factor:
Done on a budget of $2,500, the debut feature of Ace A. McCallum features a (mostly) non-professional cast of performers. The flic is currently available through the online screening company Film Rabbits. Additional information can be found through the production's website.

The review:

While the mid-1960's to early 70's saw French Canadian cinema win accolades with the (comparatively) prodigious outputs of the likes of Gilles Carle, Denys Arcand, Claude Jutra and others in the Quebec scene, their English counterparts struggled to receive critical and popular domestic attention. Still, there were notable releases in a vein that came across in what could be described as "English Canadian Neorealism". Donald Owen's Nobody Waved Goodbye, Don Shebib's Goin' Down The Road, and (if one regards it as the neo-fiction side of the same coin with neo-documentary on the other), Allan King's A Married Couple, were critical standouts, if indeed still hard pressed to find large audiences. (Side note: watch Owen's classic for free on the NFB website). The look and feel of these films could, of course, be largely attributed to their paltry financial resources but one could also see the intention to chronicle lives in as straightforward and real a manner as possible, Hollywood plot contrivances be damned.

With its black and white visuals, scant soundtrack (although music is used appropriately, à la Dogme 95) and naturalistic acting, The Fine Art of Falling Apart looks and feels like the kind of throwback a previous generation of English Canadian filmmakers would be proud to accept as a cinematic kindred spirit. That's to say that it is a film with integrity, while hardly being a groundbreaker.

There isn't much of a plot to speak of here - Daryl and Faye (Rich Piatkowski and Nelia Amaro) can't agree on burgers vs. tofu but they both seem committed to starting a family ...although by varying degrees. She frets that there may be medical circumstances to explain why she hasn't been able to get pregnant but seems unaware there are other reasons to worry about their family life. Daryl's growing attention towards an attractive fellow employee at a watch and jewelry store signals where his priorities are. Once the couple receive the diagnosis revealing where they stand on the possibility of parenthood, Faye goes into a tailspin. What ends up filing the void for the shattered pair includes swinger parties, cocaine, infidelity, separation, more cocaine, more infidelity, ...and the list goes on.



Some may find the ground covered here to be too overt but there's no doubt that the film takes off as the lifestyles of the two main protagonists become more extreme; this is done without succumbing to sensationialism. Others may appreciate that the delusions we place on ourselves and others need to be recognized more often and this movie documents that well.

A realistic slice of life project that doesn't subject one to the same sort of day in, day out things most of us suffer or celebrate through,The Fine Art of Falling Apart is a more than competent film that gives it a solid try in depicting a couple that's doing all the wrong things and keeping that interesting enough for 71 minutes. The production values are very solid (the framing of some shots tells you a lot more of the character's inner states then they ever could articulate themselves) and the performances are done in an appropriately unshowy style.

That bit about Hollywood plot contrivances be damned certainly shows in McCallum's debut. A production that will hold a good level of interest with fans of indie cinema, perhaps it's a film that's hard for some mainstream tastes to get excited about but should be easy to admire by most. In other words, it's worth taking a (viewing) chance on.