Thursday, April 28, 2011

On Repeat: Lykke Li - Sadness Is a Blessing

I'm moving to Stockholm. Sweden has everything I need. The best pop music (Robyn), the best folk singer (Tallest Man on Earth), the most energetic rock outfit (The Hives) and now the best brooding, damaged femme fatale, Ms. Lykke Li. She won me over instantly with "Dance, Dance, Dance" off her 2008 release Youth Novels, but this years Wounded Rhymes has her ditching some of the cutesy, and going for the throat.

The just released music video for 'Sadness Is a Blessing' is the antithesis of the joyous "Dance Dance Dance', but no less affecting. Li has never been one for monologues, preferring to dance when the right words don't come. It's her celebration and her depression, whirling and twisting with the concentrated frenzy of a child. In Sadness is a Blessing, she seems somewhere in between, declaring her sadness both a pearl and a curse. It's something she has known well and is resigned to forever be near, like a doting boyfriend.

As she drinks heavily in a silent restaurant and begins her dance, there's still a glimmering happiness present in the song, even as she is subdued by waiters and tries to wriggle herself free. Even her most devastating songs always carry a hopeful glow, as though she is remembering these miseries with nostalgia, knowing that it made her who she is today. It's a spirit that cannot be restrained.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Insider Guide: IFF Boston 2011

In 8 short years, the Independent Film Festival of Boston has grown from cultish gathering, to cinematic powerhouse, attracting acclaimed films straight out of prestigious festivals like Sundance and SXSW. It's no coincidence that this festival has grown so quickly and has been embraced by the city. They are not the first film festival to try to make it in Boston, but they have succeeded where others have failed because they are impeccably run by people who sincerely love movies. The tiny staff manages to organize the massive week-long festival while holding down day-jobs and being completely non-profit. When you care, it shows. Hundreds of volunteers offer their time to make the festival run smoothly (I am lucky enough to have taken part last year and be welcomed aboard again this year), and area venues like the Somerville and Brattle theatres hand over their keys to IFFBoston for the week, something they do not have to do and illustrates how contagious the staff enthusiasm really is.

Last year I managed to see 8 films, many of which made my Top 10 list and went on to win major awards (Winter's Bone, Cyrus, Down Terrace). Many I didn't see also went on to do big things (Marwencol, I Am Love, The Killer Inside Me, Life During Wartime, Tiny Furniture). Part of the fun (and work) of attending a film festival is figuring out what films are actually worth your valuable time. With nearly 100 films playing, it becomes imperative to do a little research, lest you find yourself stuck in an unbearable dark room for 90 minutes and your wallet $10 lighter. Mercifully, I've done the lion's share of the research for you this year, so you simply have to heed my advice and enjoy the show. The following are the shows I intend to see, or would see if I wasn't volunteering.

4/27 Wednesday (Opening Night):

7:30pm Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey
The story of Kevin Clash, the man behind Elmo. Who doesn't love Elmo. I would pay $10 to see an extended Sesame Street featuring only Elmo, so this is the next best thing. Don't bring children or they will probably be scarred for life to find out Elmo is really a hand and two sticks.

4/28: Thursday 

To be honest, I'm not super jazzed about any of the Thursday evening films. There's a documentary called Convento that caught my eye, mostly because it looks rife with steampunk. There's also a documentary about the seminal Minnesota rock outfit The Replacements, but I think I might save up my energy for the weekend push.

4/29 Friday

7:15pm The Trip
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play two traveling food critics and compete with each other about the level of their fame. I believe this was a miniseries in the UK and this film is the product of editing the episodes together. If the above Michael Caine-off is any indication, it looks like a lot of fun.

9:30pm Submarine
Wales' answer to Rushmore, complete with fantastic soundtrack, quirky characters, and awkward teenage love. Sign me up.

4/30 Saturday

12pm Green
Billed as a blurring of reality and paranoid fantasy, the trailer makes it look like a low-budget Antichrist, which makes me glad it's playing during the day. I hope they dropped the genital mutilation.

2pm How To Die In Oregon
A calm and even-handed look at the topic of physician-assisted suicide. Hopefully the US is beyond the Dr. Kevorkian nonsense at this point and can actually handle this conversation. Won top Documentary Prize at Sundance.

5:30pm Puppet
A documentary about a master puppeteer attempting to create a complex work and shake the stereotypes surrounding puppets. Looks fascinating.

I have to work the rest of Saturday night, but I highly recommend checking out Page One: Inside the New York Times, a documentary about the newspaper and the dying art of journalism. Playing at 7:15pm.

5/1 Sunday 

12:15pm Make Believe
A documentary about six kids competing for the title of Teen World Champion at the World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas. Hopefully it does for magic what Spellbound and King of Kong did for similarly nerdy pursuits. Won Audience Award at several film festivals.

3:15pm Buck/2:45pm Bobby Fischer Against the World
My first real conundrum of the festival. Two interesting documentaries, playing at the same time. Do I chose Buck, the moving story of "horse whisperer" Buck Brannaman, determined to end the age-old practice of horse "breaking", or Bobby Fischer Against the World, that traces the life of Bobby Fischer and tries to understand his eccentricities and whether chess helped or exacerbated them. It's a toss-up, but I've heard great things about Buck, so it gets my vote. Plus, who doesn't want to be a cowboy?

5:30pm Project Nim
From the director of the fantastic Man on Wire, comes the story of Nim, the chimpanzee who was raised as a human and communicated through sign language and taught the world more about humanity than chimpanzees. Man on Wire was amazing, so I have high hopes.

7:30pm Another Earth/8pm Oliver Sherman
Conundrum #2. See Another Earth, the sci-fi Sundance winner about the discovery of another earth and its repercussions or Oliver Sherman, the tense drama of an army veteran seven years off the battlefield trying to pull his life together starring Donald Logue and Garret Dillahunt. Both look wonderful, but I can't resist smart, low-budget sci-fi (Moon, Primer, etc).

5/2 Monday 

7pm El Bulli: Cooking in Progress
Another documentary, what do you know? This one goes behind the scenes of the world-famous restaurant and offers a glimpse into the magic of molecular gastronomy. Impossible to resist for scientists and foodies alike.

9:30pm Bellflower
The description of this SXSW hit film is ingeniously vague. I sleuthed a little more and found a video of P. Diddy giving the director of this film $1000 for some bizarre reason. Further investigation uncovered a loose plot surrounding two friends who build elaborate weapons in preparation for the apocalypse, culminating in a fire-breathing named Medusa. Apparently Medusa herself will be on hand at the Somerville Theatre. I love a good apocalyptic romp and will be there to get my eyebrows singed.

5/3 Tuesday (Both showings at the Stuart Street Playhouse in downtown Boston) 

7pm Terri 

John C. Reilly as a loveable fuck-up principal who teaches another loveable fuck-up the ways of the world? From the team behind Blue Valentine and Half Nelson? What God did I please?

9:30pm The Whistleblower
Billed as a political thriller, Rachel Weisz plays a police officer who risks her career to uncover a Bosnian human-trafficking scandal involving US Contractors and the UN. Monica Bellucci and David Strathairn also star. Terrible poster, but has some good buzz coming out of TIFF.

5/4 Wednesday (At the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline)

8pm Conan O'Brien Can't Stop
This documentary follows Conan along on his Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television tour that occured in the wake of his NBC fallout and before his TBS resurrection. Conan's self-deprecating humor  and resilience makes him impossible not to love, and even this 1 minute clip holds more wit and affability than the full sets of most comedians these days. Playing at his hometown theatre no less, I'm sure Conan's family will be there in droves, if not the wonder himself. Great way to close out the festival.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Old Song Review: The Four Tops - Bernadette

While I take great pains to be on the razors edge of indie music, that doesn't mean my radio dial is forever tuned into the trendiest. There are plenty of songs I don't like, and when this happens, I have no choice but to take my ears elsewhere. My tried and true back-up is 60's on 6, and they never let me down. There was a time when I was ashamed of enjoying Oldies, and my sister and I would roll our eyes as hard as we could and  sigh heartily from the backseat whenever our parents would turn it on. But today, I don't think any decade in music can hold a candle to it. It's been too long since I've shared a great song on here.

When one considers Motown, they inevitably think of The Supremes and The Temptations, and for good reason. They put it on the map, and are responsible for a staggering number of Top 10 hits. But there were several other groups whose music continues to influence, but remain in the shadows. The Four Tops had two Billboard No. 1's I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) and Reach Out I'll Be There, and a string of other hits deep into the 80's, but in my opinion, Bernadette is their crowning achievement. Off their 1967 release Reach Out, it is the perfect evolution of Motown music, maintaining the dense efficiency while never feeling rushed or forced. Frontman Levi Stubbs sings with James Browns intensity but in a deeper register, giving his words added urgency. Gorgeous backing vocals add depth and give the song a steady rudder, while Stubbs is free to make his desperate case for her love. At around 2:30, the song reaches what seems to be a traditional ending with a brief coda and fade out, before bursting out for one more chorus. Of course false endings like this are commonplace today, but it was an edgy choice at a time when most songs followed a very rigid formula. Now its just another reason to love it.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Review: Marwencol

At its heart, Marwencol is a movie about the ways we cope. Everyone has measures they reflexively latch upon when the real world is too much to handle. Drugs and alcohol are popular. Food and exercise are attractive distractions. For some, making art is the only way they can find enough solace and control to function in their normal lives. Mark Hogancamp, the subject of the fantastic and moving Marwencol, had nowhere left to turn but in.

Mark was savagely beaten outside a bar in 2000. He spent nine days in a coma and surgeons had to rebuild his face. His brain injury was so severe he had to learn to speak, walk and write again. After 40 days of progress, Mark could no longer afford treatment was forced to leave the hospital, still a very much disabled man. After a brief stint in physical therapy, it too became impossible for him to pay for. Half a man and very much alone, Mark turned to dolls to continue his therapy.

By all accounts, the Mark before the beating was not a model citizen. Self-described as a drunk who rarely made it into work, Marwencol introduces the possibility that the beating and his reconstruction actually saved his life. When I say dolls, the mind inevitably turns to Barbie. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention that he has several Barbies. But he also has an larger number of more sophisticated dolls with impeccable facial features and hand-made outfits. Mark has placed these characters into a fictional WWII-era Belgian town called Marwencol, where Americans and the SS live together, going about their daily lives in relative peace, punctuated with outbursts of violence. Most of the characters are based on, and look startlingly like people he knows in real life. An old neighbor, friends and family, his boss, himself. They all find their way into his town, and become narrative devices for his stories.

It would be one thing if Mark simply played with dolls and used them as a means to improve his dexterity and motor-skills (he also built every intricate building in the town, an unbelievable feat on its own), but Mark painstakingly arranges these dolls into jaw-droppingly realistic scenes and photographs them. In one series, Mark's likeness is abducted and beaten by the SS. The photographs are as gripping and chilling as real war photographs and often just as difficult to stomach. The dolls are flexible enough to accommodate extremely precise movements, allowing Mark to set them up to perfectly capture what he wants to portray. The results are often extraordinary.

The Mark today has no interest in alcohol. He drinks coffee and wishes he had a girlfriend. He takes photos, sends them out to be developed, and retakes them all over again if he doesn't like something. His life revolves around and for the most part exists in Marwencol, where he is in control and has a beautiful girlfriend and a throng of adoring women at his side. Marwencol has allowed him to finish what physical therapy and his doctor could not. Sure he could have gotten a dog, or read a self-help book, but Marwencol offers him an opportunity that nothing else does: a chance to escape his damaged life and become whole again, on a 1/6 scale.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

On Repeat: Cults - You Know What I Mean

How many hits does it take for a "one-hit wonder" to shake that hyphenated plague? Are there two-hit wonders? Can you even a be "wonder" if you haven't even released an album yet? So many questions, so little material for snarky bloggers to anoint as "the next big thing" or to release the waves of backlash. Cults is a fitting name for a band who charmed the blogosphere (yours truly included) in 2010 with "Go Outside", and then proceeded to release next-to-nothing with the indie world at large ready to eat out of the palm of their hand. Everyone drank the Kool-Aid, and we wanted more, damn it. Well last week, Cults quietly released a new song on their website that somehow managed to improve upon the perfect and recapture their buzz in advance of their album release in May.

The title "You Know What I Mean" sounds like something the Bloodhound Gang would release, complete with countless euphemisms and probably some animals thrown in for good measure, but in the capable hands of Cults, it sounds like an uncovered Supremes song. The gentle guitar swirl and the irresistible Unchained Melody-inspired picking are like a 50 year old time-capsule, a feeling that continues once Madeline Follin enters with her gorgeous voice. She achingly and breathlessly croons about her shaky, fearful brain, begging to be saved from the light and the prospect of sleeping alone. She sings with an earnestness miles away from sultry and more reminiscent of a scared child climbing into her parents bed after a bad dream, calmed just by the whispered assurance that "everything's ok". It's a feeling nobody grows out of.