Friday, December 21, 2012

Rust And Bone Movie Review

My review of Rust And Bone

Rust and Bone could not have had a more apropos soundtrack to its trailer than M83′s “My Tears Are Becoming A Sea.” It’s a love story, yet Rust And Bone will sweep you off your feet in the most unromantic of ways, as though being swept away by an inexorable tide. Director Jacques Audiard follows up his last film, the highly-lauded and Oscar-nominated A Prophet, by delving deeper into some more emotional territory. Whereas A Prophet was about an Arab man who finds himself working for a Corsican gang while in prison and found an incendiary intensity to it, it lacked a bit in its character-developing angle. Rust And Bone (the title refers to the taste left in one’s bleeding mouth after being punched) is a raw and visceral powerhouse of a film.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Top 12 Movies Of 2012--A BYT List


My contribution to BYT's Top 12 Movies Of 2012

2. Best movie to see Bradley Cooper go from smarmy to charming in: Silver Linings Playbook The silver linings abound in the thoroughly disarming Silver Linings Playbook, a glorious mash-up of a mental health issues/rom-com film. Jennifer Lawrence’s character would pull a Daria on the manic pixie chick trope and her self-referential (and terribly not-hot) neuroticism–welcome the new (good kind of) crazy girl on the block. This kind of crazy girl can have a outcrazying-each-other conversation over family dinner with a bipolar guy and call him out on *his* poor social skills. She can talk anti-depressants with the best of them. Bradley Cooper channels his ADD-addledom from Limitless in playing a regular guy who is thrown knee-deep into the world of therapy sessions and “exit strategies,” all the while jogging with garbage bags on to lose weight. DeNiro plays a football-obsessed but loving father with sheer comedic gusto. If there ever is an underdog story from the shrink-wrapped world of “we all have issues,” this is easily the most charming one of all. And yes, what’s a little romantic comedy without some Dancing With The Stars type action!? Whatever cliches are to be found are easily forgiven in this utterly ebullient celebration of “staying positive.” Excelsior!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook Movie Review

My review of Silver Linings Playbook

The silver linings abound in the impossibly endearing Silver Linings Playbook, a glorious mash-up of a mental health issues-rom-com film that is far too cheeky and whip smart to, surprisingly, be a mainstream release. Director David O. Russell (Three Kings, I ♥ Huckabees, The Fighter) adapts Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel about a down-on-his-luck former high school teacher fresh out of a month stint in a mental health hospital. Hell-bent on “winning back” his estranged, restraining-order-wielding wife, Pat (Bradley Cooper) is staging a Rocky-like comeback physically (complete with jogging with a garbage bag on top of his running clothes so he can sweat more) and mentally, by reading his way through the high school English syllabus. Oh, and there is this “dance thing” too that he has agreed to do with the self-described “crazy slut with a dead husband” Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). While Silver Linings Playbook does rely on some tried and tested rom com tropes, this is a far cry from jam-in-every-underdog-story-cliche film.

The family interaction in Silver Linings Playbook strongly parallels the one in The Fighter. Screaming is abound, whether boisterous or bellicose, and the love for the Philadelphia Eagles binds and breaks and is the sports grease that oils the family emotional machine. Jackie Warner’s pacifist mother character is instantly likable. DeNiro brings in his Meet The Parents experience to bear, playing Pat Sr. with impeccable comedic timing. Much ado about something and nothing, obsessive sports betting, and idiosyncracies aside, the take away message is this is one crazy and crazily non-dysfunctional family that loves each other.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Spooky Movie 2012, International Horror Film Festival in Washington, DC

My coverage of the 2012 International Horror Film Festival, Spooky Movie, in Washington DC

Spooky Movie 2012 , an international horror film fest running from Oct.12-18th at the AFI Silver Theatre, is a veritable twilight zone of too ghoul for school films. This festival is the thinking horror fan's Mystery Science Theatre—the films will have you racking your brain for days afterwards, for better or worse.

 In its seventh year of bringing mystery, mischief, and mayhem to audiences, The Spooky Movie Festival delivers impressively on the thrills and chills with 21 features and 31 shorts, including festival standouts “Chained,” “Resolution” and “Excision.” Festival Director Curtis Prather remarked upon how happy he was to have finally landed the festival in the home he had always wanted for it, the AFI in Silver Spring.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Escape Fire Film Review

My review of Escape Fire

Escape Fire: The Fight To Rescue American Healthcare, a documentary by Matthew Heineman and Susan Frömke, sets out to not only expose what ails the American healthcare system but also provide what the film posits to be creative solutions. Unfortunately, due to the byzantine nature of the subject matter, Escape Fire develops a strong case of The Corporation-itis: attempting to cover too much ground and sacrificing a strong cohesive story arc in the process.
The film’s title is a riff on the concept of an escape fire, which are lit to clear an area of grass in the face of an approaching wildfire. It creates a safe space with nothing left to burn in it; in other words, an inventive solution to a thorny problem or as the film’s website states, “an improvised, effective solution to a crisis that cannot be solved using traditional approaches.” This begs the question, however, about how “untraditional” the film’s solutions are: prevention rather than disease management, a lifestyle overhaul, and a move away from reliance on medications are ideas quite prevalent in the health-talk zeitgeist and, thus, not particularly innovative. Still, the breadth of topics covered by Escape Fire is impressively thorough: physicians' fees, inaccessibility of health insurance, prevention vs. mere disease management, over-reliance on drugs, insurance companies’ focus on profit margins at the expense of patient care, patients’ insistence on expensive testing, maximum care, quick fixes, the rise of diabetes as a result of unhealthy eating habits, and the political stranglehold of the health care industry’s lobby.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Liberal Arts Movie Review

My Review of Liberal Arts
Josh Radnor's debut film Happythankyoumoreplease flipped the hipster/indie rom-com formula on its head in the most endearing of ways. Liberal Arts, his sophomore effort as writer-director-stars, stumbles in ways his debut did not, occasionally treading too close to contrived territory but ultimately delivering an enjoyable film.
Radnor plays Jesse, a 35-year-old college admissions counselor in New York, who gets a call from his favorite college professor, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), asking if he'll come back to campus and speak at the professor's retirement party. And so begins the nostalgic trip that ultimately turns out to be a progression through a regression, if you follow.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Kumare Movie Review

My review of the movie Kumare
At first glance, Kumare, a documentary that bills itself as “the true story of a false prophet,” appears take a page out of Sacha Baron Cohen’s provocative oeuvre. How pleasantly surprising that this is not the case. Not only is Vikram Gandhi, the director and protagonist, significantly bolder in riling up a veritable hornet’s nest of hot-button issues, especially the big R-eligion, but he does away with borderline-mean-spirited snark in favor of a thoughtful presentation of a very relevant and timely social experiment.
Kumare is an inquiry into the nature of faith. Jersey-born, Brooklyn film maker Vikram Gandhi sets out to find out if there is a real-deal guru out there by impersonating one. His travels through India and study of religion in college do not bring him any closer to answers and instead reaffirm the idea that the gurus he encounters are egocentric, profit-minded, interested only in “out-guruing one another,” self-aggrandizing, and downright manipulative. He recalls the peacefulness emanating from his Grandma when she prayed and wonders about the source of that feeling. Thus, Kumare is born. Growing out his hair and beard, donning orange robes and an ornate walking staff, Gandhi transforms himself into a guru, modeling his accent after his Grandma’s. As any spiritual leader worth his salt, he heads into the desert. Phoenix, Arizona, to be precise. 


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tongued-Thaid: My First Foray Into Food Blogging For BYT

My very first food column for Brightest Young Things:

So, if you are vegetarian, chances are Thai eggplant or some permutation of tofu and vegetable stir fry is your usual meal of choice when going out for Thai. Surprisingly enough, Thai eggplant is a dish of relatively minimal effort to make at home, yet it is so thoroughly impressive that it is sure to leave your guests tongue-thaid as they marvel at your culinary prowess [my puns get better, I promise].
As you set out on the seemingly very daunting task of making Thai food at home, you are probably imagining it will be something very akin to this experience and, even worse, *gasp* require a trip to that mythical yet thoroughly dreaded place known as the suburbs to procure exotic ingredients you will only use once. Fret not--I would be far too remiss in my role as "pragmatic food blogger" if I recommended you purchase anything that cannot be used in a variety of dishes. For example, did you know that you could use fish sauce essentially as salt in mac and cheese? No, seriously. The cool part about any Asian cooking, especially Indian or Thai, is that there is a roster of staple spices/flavorings that will show up in some combination in most dishes. So any time you purchase ingredients, you can reuse them and, hopefully, that will encourage you to keep trying different things beyond that one time when you were trying to impress that one girl but stumbled 'cause your idea of cooking Indian was sprinkling curry powder on everything. The other part about making that "dreaded trip to the burbs" is that you are not just going to a store to buy "weird stuff." You are getting an edumacation. Sure, you could get Japanese eggplants in Giant or Whole Bucks, but how predictable and DC centric is that!? Why not check out an H Mart, where you can at the very least procure things you had no idea could be shrimp-flavored!

China Heavyweight Movie Review

My review of China Heavyweight
China Heavyweight, a documentary by Yung Chang [Up The Yangtze], is a glimpse into the burgeoning popularity of boxing, a sport that had been banned by Mao. While the extensive footage of boxing training harkens a bit to other underdog stories like The Boxer and other recognizable sports tropes, China Heavyweight is very firmly grounded in its setting and provides an interesting look into an unfamiliar social landscape.
Set at a boxing school in the Sichuan province, the film follows two teenagers, Miao Yunfei and He Zongli. Their trainer is Qi Moxiang, a former professional boxer who still harbors dreams of returning to the ring despite being in his thirties. Without offering any extra commentary, it takes us deeply into the world of Confucianism-informed Asian culture through the eyes of the two teenagers and their interaction with their parents. While boxing is portrayed as a way out of their parents’ very hard life of being a tobacco farmer, we get the sense that boxing is also something that is not done for personal glory but for the greater community. The coaches frequently reference that boxing is what elevates you from your “Mother’s son” to a “son of the people.” Lofty ideals like bringing pride to your family and community, brushing shoulders with the very Confucian values of humility and honoring your elders.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Interview With Rohit Rao, Director of Ultrasonic

My interview with Rohit Rao about the movie Ultrasonic:

Local filmmaker Rohit Colin Rao, the writer/director/cinematographer/editor/composer/musician behind the remarkable film Ultrasonic sat down with BYT to talk about his second feature, a true labor of love. The film is a compelling, hypnotic homage to chiaroscuro, shot in black and white, with occasional flourishes of sepia tones, and its adept use of depth-of-field camera work recalls a certain Drive-esque sensibility. While harkening to the conspiracy-thriller aesthetics of PiUltrasonic's cinematography is not frenetic and claustrophobic. It lends itself seamlessly to the purposely-ambiguous narrative arc--the smoke and mirrors aspect of "reality" and "normalcy." Is the protagonist Simon really hearing a noise no one else can hear [ha] or is it all in his head?
Rao does a superb job of writing a script that allows that ambivalence to linger without resorting to heavy-handed, beat-the-audience-over-the-head tactics. Ultrasonic is a story of one man's isolation and a testament to tenuous nature of reality. It's engrossing and moody but never sinister. Rao's love for DC is palpable in his selection of locations to shoot--with nary a "DC landmark" in sight, this is what our city really looks like at night, with shadows moving in waves, falling away then taking over. The brilliant soundtrack adds an extra element to the milieu, the hum inside Simon's head resembling the undercurrent of threat that underpins the film.


Monday, June 11, 2012

ReadySetDC June Monthly Mixtape

Interview/Feature. June Monthly Mixtape:

This month’s Monthly Mixtape is from Jangala DJ, a DC native behind the trail-blazing Temporal Fusion podcast, which showcases talented electronic dance music producers and DJs from around the world. Jangala, along with long-time co-conspirator Xunfusion, has been on a mission to expose unknown deejays and producers to a wider audience Temporal Fusion‘s seven year reign is a testament to its draw of a true “head” audience with a voracious appetite for drum’n'bass, glitch hop, hip hop, dubstep, and trip hop.
When Jangala DJ first added me as a friend on Facebook, his profile picture was that of a shell (not to mention he is so humble, I had to convince him to actually send me a picture of himself for the article). The shell was a reference to a poem about “the shell of jangala.” In Hindi, jangal means forest–appropriate reference for the offshoot/kind of drum’n'bass music known as jungle. The metaphor of the shell always stayed with me–Jangala’s style has an organic echo and resonance to it and his flair for chiaroscuro is palpable here. This set starts out sort of quietly ominous and brightens up as the sun shining through the leaves of a forest. Few drum’n'bass DJs are able to freely pick from the many branches of the genre’s tree, usually staying grounded in one style, but Jangala has a facility and an unique talent in that regard.
“I mixed this with a thoughtful attitude, wanting to harmonize the dark and light; the old and new; the masculine and feminine; the complex and simple. Mixed together in this set are tunes from new school d’n'b badboys like Dub Phizix, Roy Green, Protone, and DatA along with up-and-coming Russia producers Nuage, Getz, Z Connection, topped off with smatterings of Dillinja and Ray Keith for nostalgia and a sense of completeness.”
“Now settled in DC, I have spent a greater part of my life split between the East and the West and have finally been able to embrace the contrasting and contradictory nature of the universe by mixing heavy baselines and effervescent drum beats.”
Check out his exclusive boundary and genre-defying set for ReadySetDC here and open your ears up to the sounds of the shell of Jangala.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Feature: Baltimore Tattoo Convention

My interviews and feature from the Baltimore Tattoo Convention

The Baltimore Tattoo Convention was a colorful celebration of all things body art--and str-ink-ingly its spirit was communal and well...downright cheery. For all intents and purposes, it might as well have been an environmental fest for all the smiling and good will going around.

It was a microcosm of what has happened in the world of tattooing for a while now--tattoos have long moved past the "freak factor" or its subculture roots and boldly flashed themselves to the mainstream. Not selling out in the process yet with the dissipating of their stigmatization, they have now become truly a medium of very creative and intensely personal self-expression. The artists who create them and the people who commission them come from all walks of life and have an equally broad palette of reasons for getting them.
Baltimore Tattoo
It could be purely aesthetic motivation like Baltimorean Caitlyn Meyer who says, "my tattoos mean nothing in particular at all. I just have so much respect for the artists that I trust that they will put something on my body that they think represents me. I just think they are beautiful so I am happy to wear them." Or it could be a celebration of one's heritage like the Japanese tattoos or a deep seated drive to really morph into a "different species," as Baltimore's Blue Comma.

Why do people go to tattoo conventions, you might ask? For one, for many people who do not live close to specific artists they wish to work on them, this is their one opportunity to get the work done. For some, like tattoo artist Marvin Silva's friends, who had come all the way from New York, it's a chance to both promote the studio/their friend and meet new people. "Yeah, I could have had him do the work in New York, but this is an experience. We wanted to party in Baltimore a bit." [DC, for shame--people go to Baltimore to party!]. Then, there are all the stage shows taking place--think burlesque and sideshows like The Enigma and Serana Rose.

And the tattoo contests, which further give people a chance to promote the artists they admire--all the winners took their plaques to the booths of the tattoo artists that did the work. In other words, tattoo convention are regular lovefests of good will and camaraderie. Everyone I approached was all too happy to talk.

Baltimore Tattoo
Amongst the local tattoo shops represented was Way Of Ink, an apropos pun on Way Of The Samurai considering artist Duong Nguyen specializes in Asian-themed art. There, I met a mild-mannered pharmacist-by-day/sporting a full samurai suite tattoo under the lab coat--Ken Lee. He is friends with Duong and came to the convention to support him and to also get a Japanese-themed leg piece on Friday, which won him third place in the tattoo contest. On Saturday, Duong was diligently working on another Japanese-themed piece--the guy under the needle had already sat there for seven hours. Oh, that's another thing--tattoos take a long time and a lot of hard work. Stafford, VA local, Cupcake, won 1st place for her massive tiger vs. dragon backpiece, which she explained symbolizes the balance between strength and peace. "It took 20 hours a week of work, for several weeks, to finish it!"

Then there was Jim Hall, aka Blue Comma, who by his own admission is the second most tattooed man in the world. You might wonder what compels an erudite, eloquent Baltimore city planner of 40 years, now retired, to cover his entire surface area in blue ink and undergo a series of major body modifications [think implants] to attain this new vision of himself. When talking to him, one gets the sense that this was a deep and well-thought out conversion and not one conducted for the sake of passerby attention-grabbing. He had a lot to say about the city of Baltimore and was clearly a man of ideas and a man with an intense love for his city, warts and all.
Baltimore Tattoo
So what's "hot" right now in the world of tattooing? Well, for one, there was blacklight ink--ravers, take note. Oh, and bio-organic tattoos--as artist Marvin Silva described it, "it's plants and nature but it's all fantasy. Beautiful stuff like that may not exists in every day life--kind of like a meeting of sci-fi and plants." I ask him what kinds of tattoos people are getting a lot of lately--"bigger work. People come in asking for half-sleeves as their first tattoo!" Julia Grow of Fyre Body Arts says,  "People either come in looking to do something small but meaningful or very large pieces. Whatever it is though, they really plan and think this through. We don't get too many impulse tattoos."

Julia Grow, the owner of Fyre Body Arts in Perkasie, PA, is only 28 and has owned a tattoo shop since she was 18. As she describes it, the job requires her to be "a psychologist, a mother, and a boss," to her eleven employees. Her soft-spoken ways and kindness (she studied veterinary science in college, adores animals, and has four horses) bely the image of a business woman, especially in the very male-dominated world of tattooing, but a business woman she is and a good one at that. "I graduated high school at sixteen and was attending college so I needed a job. I started managing the shop and the owner eventually sold it to me when I was eighteen."

How, you might wonder, is she able to have a booming business--the shop is about to expand to a second location in the future--in the farmlands of Pennsylvania. With Donald Trump-envy-worthy business skills--"Since everyone who works for me is a contractor, I am really very careful about who I hire to work for me. I look at portfolio, demeanor, loyalty...It's important for me to have people that are not just talented artists but that also have the right attitude. I have too much on my plate to deal with primadonna egos. Sometimes the artsist that come here look around and see just farmland and they wonder who would get tattoos here, but we are super busy!" Julia's own tattoos and body modifications have gotten recognition as well--she won a prize at the Philadelphia Tattoo Convention and has a cutting/scarification piece that was done by Steve Truitt, who studied under body modification guru Steve Hayworth.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Concert Review: Beats Antique

My concert review of Beats Antique for The Vinyl District

On Wednesday, the 9:30 Club opened its doors to the dubby, world-music-fusion sounds of Beats Antique.
David Satori and Tommy Cappel (who grew up in Springfield and gave a shoutout to his Mom, who was in attendance) provided a seamless sonic tapestry that was refreshingly organic despite the band’s seemingly electronic roots. With surprisingly minimal knob-twiddling and laptop-fidgeting, both spent a lot of time percussively propelling the show forward, with the flourishes of David’s banjo and violin-playing and a French saxophonist blending into the mix.
DJ Laura Low opened for the band, with a lackluster poppy-dubstep-by-the-numbers set that showcased why Skrillex has a lot to answer for and was especially bad following the brilliant Forward Festival this past weekend. Her dubstep remixes of M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” and even the Cranberries’ “Zombie” were downright cringe-inducing and her own amped-up demeanor was hardly contagious.


And speaking of the audience, there was a heavy belly [dancing-clad] contingent, along with the well-dreaded Burning Man cohort. In other words, there was plenty of hair-tossing about ["I whip my hair back and forth, real or not"], but more on that later.
The show opened with “The Porch” from the band’s 2011 album Elektrafone, and to their credit, Beats Antique’s musicianship is nigh perfect—the songs unfurled in a languid yet sonically-sound fashion and none of the usual concert-muddiness problem was present. They also played “Alto” and “Siren Song” from Elektrafone, as well as debuting a new more dubstep-leaning song, which was very well-received by the crowd.

The band clearly has a keen sense of showmanship; their roots in San Francisco’s performance art scene and their work on the music for the Bellydance Superstars (with whom Zoe Jakes dances) have influenced the stage show, which is very much carnival/sideshow-esque in its aesthetic.
Oddly enough, however, raucous and boisterous are not exactly words I would use to describe the show last night—despite the consummate musicianship and the fact that it very quickly started to sound like one long jam session as the songs started to meld into each other, it lacked a certain kind of playfulness and just general elan. In other words, this wasn’t a Balkan Beat Box show and definitely not an Eastern-European wedding (despite the band’s dabbling in the Roma/Bulgarian brass elements). In other words, it was oddly sedate. Yes, there was some dancing in the crowd, but I saw more at the Little Dragon show.

And speaking of dancing, Zoe Jakes, a renowned tribal belly dancer who is considered part of the band, performed almost throughout the entire show. Some of Jakes’ routines were truly beautiful, such as in the burlesque-influenced jazz dance she performed with giant feather fans, or the skeleton-Mexican-Day-of-the-Dead-like routine during “Beauty Beats.”
At other times, her style, which is essentially a mix of popping-and-locking (think breakdance) and some of the shimmies and hip and shoulder isolations from belly dance, is downright snooze-inducing when viewed for an hour and a half. Jakes’ dancing relies far too much on her wildly tossing her hair about, and the routines where she performed with another belly dancer were out-of-sync enough to make a pre-teen dance teacher cry. No doubt Jakes is a hard-working, seasoned performer… As to whether it is the kind of performance one could watch for extended periods of time is a matter of viewer preference.
Beats Antique’s stage presentation is definitely visually unique and showcases their knack for showmanship. Musically, the band’s palette of glitch, dub, and Middle Eastern and brass motifs is masterfully presented in their live show.

May Mixtape!

A mixtape I created for ReadySetDC

The May Monthly Mixtape: Toni Tileva


Listen Here: http://open.spotify.com/user/1213004545/playlist/40xONqLnsWufNUpcJ5IGjK
“Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing.”
-A Field Guide To Getting Lost
“Lost in the city
Running out of choices
Going nowhere fast
Still hearing voices
Come on legs come on feet
I’m just tryin’ make a little bit of history.”
- Cool Calm Pete “Lost”
“I just wanna live life and survive it.”
- Ghostpoet “Survive It”
“I spread my mind’s wings and watched these verbs take flight.”
- Emskee “Dreams”
When I set out to make the May playlist, I wanted to encapsulate the ethos of summer, while playing homage to my two great musical loves–indie/old-school-vibe hip hop and trip hop/downtempo. The idea was to [wax] tailor together a pastiche of beats and samples and tell a sonic story, with a palpable flow. Only when I was done making the playlist did some themes start to emerge, as though bubbling up from my subconscious. Summer always reminds me of being in the city, kind of finding one’s way, weaving and wandering through the urban terrain [Blockhead's Insomniac Olympics is Jack's Insomnia in musical form]. That’s why I had to put in DJ Vadim, Blockhead, Dan The Automator, DJ Shadow, MF Doom, who literally live and breathe the New York aesthetic.These tracks showcase the organic and very natural synergy between turntablism, hip hop, even dubstep, and downtempo, and showcase why the genre has managed to stay fresh because of its broad influences. Trip hop has long transitioned to/been a turntablist’s game, even if the most obvious examples one can think of are Geoff Barrow’s scratching on Portishead’s “Only You” or the seminal DJ Shadow Endtroducing. In the early 2000s, artists like DJ Krush, Blockhead, J. Dilla, Nujabes, and DJ Vadim continued to carry the torch, despite public opinion that “trip hop was dead” or relegated to Buddha Bar compilations–i.e. pretentious “chill-by-the-numbers” CDs.
If I had to name the themes here [as any respectable English major would], it would be the city, being lost in the city, dreams/miasmas, and love [not the cheesy "summer lovin'" type, I promise. See Murs' "Love And Appreciate" and Slum Village's "Fall In Love"] and its dark underbelly [Cage's Scenester, Ivan Ives' "Wedding Funeral," Mickey Avalon's "So Rich, So Pretty"].
Everyone has a summer.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Sound Of My Voice Movie Review

My review of Sound Of My Voice

Following in the chilling footsteps of last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sound of My Voice’s premise is simple enough: couple Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) set out to infiltrate a cult, make a documentary about it, and expose the leader as a fraud. As in Martha Marcy May Marlene, however, reality and truth are eerie, elusive concepts. The process of joining  this cult is a disorienting and de-personalizing experience. To be allowed into the cult, they have to assume the identities of believers and, in the process, relinquish their real ones. Needless to say, Peter and Lorna’s journey quickly becomes an honest-to-god identity crisis. What's more, the line between wanting to do a documentary on a cult and being in one is as enigmatic as the cult’s enigmatic leader. Who is she? Is she just a manipulative hack, or is she really from the year 2054, sent here to impart knowledge to a select group of “chosen ones?”
Co-writers Brit Marling and Director Zal Batmanglij, both Georgetown graduates, bring a mesmerizing, minimalist ethos to this film. In Marling's other film Another Earth, Marling’s ethereal, luminous presence embodies her walking-wounded character. Her beautiful otherness is appropriately otherworldly and futuristic. Sci-fi tinge notwithstanding, Another Earth was grounded in its human element, yet had enough of a flight of fancy to transport the viewer to a different dimension. The existential “anywhere but here” quest that underpinned is present in The Sound Of My Voice as well. Ultimately, there is this escapist search for meaning the viewer keeps hearing about in both.

The Sound Of My Voice is a gripping look down the rabbit hole of joining a cult. It thoroughly explores the psychology of the process. The stage of “preparing on the outside,” [which includes learning the at-first-seemingly-silly but later on important to the plot elaborate hand signals] is followed by Peter and Lorna’s first encounter with Maggie, to whom they are taken blind-folded and thoroughly cleansed [literally]. They are forbidden from asking questions or making any sudden movements—they are told these precautions are necessary because of the “special”/”chosen” status that is about to be bestowed upon them. The thrust of the message is one must have a great deal of faith and that faith comes at the expense of reason—in one of the movie’s most engrossing, stomach-turning scenes, Maggie likens the eating of an apple to the ingestion of reason and logic, which is bitter. Reason must literally be purged from the minds of the cultees [by throwing up the apple] and replaced by blind devotion. She demands that everyone “stop thinking and start feeling.” In that scene, however, the viewer also gets insight into the predatory, abusive, and manipulative nature of the relationship—when Maggie inexorably extracts the story of Peter’s abuse as a child, telling him how he was powerless then but is not now, the crushing reality of one abuser’s supplanting by another is made starkly obvious. The Sound Of My Voice does a phenomenal job of asking the tough question about who joins cults—at the beginning, Peter is convinced that these people “are weak and they are looking for meaning.” Despite Lorna and Peter’s superficial veneer of normalcy and their seemingly being different from the other members, ultimately, they are both brought here by a search for meaning and are no less “damaged” than the others or than anyone else, for that matter.
. Sure, Peter and Lorna’s very hipster/I am so tired of the scene asides add some levity to the matter [ e.g. bemoaning the superficiality of getting drunk at art installations and one’s life playing out like an episode of Entourage], but this search for something substantive and meaningful belies sweeping generalizations about the cult members as “damaged people” doing damning things.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

My Book Review Of East Of The West

My book review of East Of The West
Not only are we the only people to reverse the head signals for yes and no, but we Bulgarians also hold the dubitable honor of being really sad people. To some readers, Miroslav Penkov's East Of The West: A Country In Stories may not seem to dispel the idea much. There is a profound difference between sad and melancholic and a large chasm between lugubrious and stoically wistful. Penkov's book is about Bulgaria and a very Bulgarian ethos informs it, but ultimately, it is a thoroughly moving, beautifully-written collection of short stories about love, blood, ideals, and borders. Its stories are the product of exile--literal and metaphorical, yet this homelessness is also the story of a journey--at times a very Odyssian journey to a place that only exists in one's mind and resides in our blood.
Language plays an integral role in East Of The West--like a lot of writers for whom English is a second language, Penkov's love affair with it is palpable and he engages the readers' senses with its richness. He is "lexicon drunk." With great ingenuity, Penkov wryly inserts Bulgarianisms throughout the book [Sinko, for example, refers to a "young son," and is not just a proper name] or yad is defined as "what lines the inside of every Bulgarian soul. Yad is like spite, rage, anger, but more elegant, more complicated. It's like a pity for someone, regret for something you did or did not do, for chance you missed, for an opportunity you squandered."
East Of The West is also an eerily accurate yet non-didactic primer on Bulgarian history--it manages to cover almost all pivotal points such as the Ottoman Empire [or Turkish yoke, as it is commonly referred to], komiti, gorilla fighters living in dugouts, the advent of communism, the Macedonia-Bulgarian separation, the fall of communism. To read it is to inhale and grasp some important milestones in the shaping of the Bulgarian spirit, if you will. At times the "centuries-old wrath of the slave," moves mountains, literally, at other times, these ideals ring hollow and only reaffirm their own meaninglessness as in the story of "East Of The West" where a young couple dies just because they live on the opposite sides of a river separating Bulgaria from Macedonia. As the protagonist's seemingly-communist-for-life Grandfather in "Buying Lenin," says "What kind of a world is this where people and goats die in dugouts for nothing at all? And so I lived as though ideals really mattered." Ideals are simultaneously metaphoric and metamorphic.
One of these ideals is the struggle for freedom/liberation and here the very Bulgarian theme of the mountain really towers. The mountain is where all the freedom fighters hide, where people live in hideouts, but more than its geographical advantage, the mountain is literally the mother that holds anyone in need in her bosom and protects those who call for her help. People move mountains and the mountain is moved by them/moves for them. In "Devshirmeh," the girl beset by the sultan's army begs, "Planino, please hide us in your bosom." The song, "I got no father, I got no mother. Father to scorn me. Mother to mourn me. My father - the mountain. My mother - the shotgun," really underscores its mythical, moving power.
Penkov also uses incredibly evocative metaphors to underscore the pull of that blood--not in a literal genetic sense but in the sense of some ancestral knowledge or visceral call that cannot be erased by distance or time. In "Buying Lenin," he poignantly describes the intense loneliness and longing for [a] home he feels as a student here in the US; he has mastered the language but this knowledge is at times pointless and even worse...poisonous in further removing him from home: "My ears rang, my tongue swelled up. I went on for months, until one day I understood that nothing I said mattered to those around me. No one knew where I was from, or cared to know. I had nothing to say to this world...I cradled the receiver, fondled the thin umbilical cord of the phone that stretched ten thousand miles across the sea." He desperately wants to make anyone hear, or at least feel, what he is experiencing in this exile, but ultimately, he can only reassure himself that "blood is thicker than the ocean." And even though he had rebelled against his Grandpa's seemingly laughable veneration of Lenin, he comes to realize that he and Lenin are alike in some small but human sense --"Like me he had spent his youth abroad, in exile. He sounded permanently hungry and cold." In "Devshirmeh," blood literally speaks, underscoring the pride in one's heritage that is so integral to the Bulgarian ethos: "It is your blood you spill. My blood runs in her veins and hers in mine. Blood will make us see."
The life in exile is a thread that runs through many of the stories and is a trenchant commentary on the immigrant limbo. One of the characters yearns to just sit with his Grandfather under the black grapes of the trellised vine. They are all looking back, nostalgic and wistful, to a place that really only lives in their minds, but looking back is dangerously heavy and weighs one down--"you either turn to a pillar of stone or lose your beloved into Hades."
East Of The West's heroes are not heroic in the traditional sense--in an incredibly creative way, the book lauds the "un"heroic cowards, if you will, because "cowardice" is reality and living alone takes courage. In "Makedonjia," a husband bravely reads to his ailing wife letters she had received from her first love--"their love was foolish, childish, sugar-sweet, the kind of love that, if you are lucky to lose it, flares up like a thatched roof but burns as long as you live. I am just her husband and she is my wife." The story is a melancholic but beautiful rumination on aging and love and love's aging as well. "Isn't it good to be so young that you can lose a tooth and not even notice?" it asks. The line "a man ought to be able to undress his wife from all the years until she lies before him naked in youth again" illustrates Penkov's brilliant gift of prose and profound skill at character studies. East Of The West is not a sad book--it is existential yet thoroughly in touch with magical that lives in everything seemingly pedestrian. Ultimately, it is a truly penetrating yet drolly mirthful look into the "deep dark Slavic soul."

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My Book Review Of Another Bullshit Night In Suck City

My book review

Another Bullshit Night In Suck City [on which the film Being Flynn is based] is Nick Flynn’s autobiographical memoir, yet it is as much his story as it is his father’s story, especially apropos because his father’s “literary masterpiece,” will not see the light of day save through his son’s pen. It’s as though through the chain of words, like a literary trail of crumbs, he is attempting to both know and locate his absentee father. The book simultaneously constructs a father out of letters and words, and masterfully documents Nick’s bifurcated take on him—equal parts fascination with this man who or may not be the literary genius he proclaims himself to be and equal parts dread that he may be “like his father.”

Another Bullshit Night In Suck City is set in and around Boston, where Nick grows up with his brother, raised by his far-too-overworked Mom, after his father leaves when he is 4. After a stint in jail and a series of alcohol-induced screw ups, Jonathan resurfaces when he comes to the homeless shelter where Nick works. His limited sense of his father up to that point comes from the bravado-laden letters to Nick, filled with Jonathan’s self-avowals about his earned spot in the pantheon of great American writers and his always upcoming but never really materializing masterpiece of a novel. While Jonathan manifests as an absence in his son’s life, his non-presence couldn’t be more momentous to Nick, not the least of which because Nick is a writer. That very absence is ample kindle for the “who am I and what is my blood” fire and the mythos of him can only grow by virtue of his larger-than-life persona. At its most fundamental level, the source of the tension of their father-son relationship is not wanting to be like his “deadbeat Dad” while wondering how much like him he really is, especially if he really is the undiscovered writing genius he says he is. Discovering the family history is, thus, a road to a more complete sense of personhood yet it is littered with emotional potholes and craters.

Nick Flynn is a talented poet and it shines in his prose, which often flows like a Zen koan. For one, the story is not told chronologically and relies on some really interesting devices—there is a play in one of the chapters, a poem in another, extended allegories in several other spots, like the ones about Noah and Dostoevsky. His language is phenomenally rich and vibrant and beats with a life of its own. And more importantly, while the subject matter is sad, it is not lugubrious or self-pitying, nor is it matter-of-fact. A beautifully-written, instantly gripping story, refreshingly devoid of hero-villain dichotomies, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City’s title rings especially true--this story could take place in any city, on any night. One gets the sense that this is some kind of archetypal tragi-comic play that has been and will be acted out eternally: “Each man has a role—one will be the lunatic king, one will be the fool. One will offer dire warnings, one will plot against us, one will try to help.” And the role of the son will, inevitably, be played by Nick or someone else. The parts of the book that narrate Nick’s time at the Pine Street Inn offer a rare glimpse into the lives of the nameless and the faceless. Nick steers clear of moralistic asides, instead opting to offer us a glimpse of the daily but not the pedestrian. “Nothing in this shelter makes more sense, makes me understand my purpose more, than to kill bugs on a homeless man’s flesh, to dress him well in donated, cast-off clothes, to see him the next day laughing besides a burning barrel.”

Another Bullshit Night In Suck City is, essentially, about homelessness—literally and in the sense of being permanently lost and adrift in the sea of life. Nick Flynn’s metaphor of standing in one place, if you are lost, so you may be found is especially poignant when he adds, “but they never tell you what to do if both of you are lost, and you both end up in the same place, waiting.” Later on, he continues, “I see no end to being lost. It isn’t a station you reach but just the general state of going down.” The novel is haunted by the specter of the ever-presence yet utter invisibility of being lost, especially palpable and trenchant when personified by the ghosts of the homeless who are seemingly all around us, yet entirely invisible to us. The vent that his father sleeps on in the winter is no less a prison because it has no walls: “The blower is a room of heat with no walls. My father stands in this room, an invisible man in an invisible room in an invisible city.” He has “plenty of places to go, but no place to be.”

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

My Interview With Chef Jacob Hunter from Matchbox

Fashion District Flavors w/Chef Jacob Hunter of Matchbox


Chef Jacob Hunter of Matchbox literally wears his love of cooking on his sleeve–he’s got a vibrant, palate-stirring/palette-spanning array of food tattoos on his forearms, including a so, so scandalously delicious giant scanwich. And like a true Atlanta-ite, he references Outkast as one of his favorite groups, who often give nods to Atlanta’s rich culinary heritage in their lyrics ["And if you like fish and grits and all that..."].
Growing up in Atlanta, he was cooking with family from an early age–his Mom is Italian and he cooked BBQ and gumbo with his Dad. “In high school, I worked as a busboy and server and eventually, when it was time to go to college, I decided to go to culinary school because it sounded kind of easy–I hadn’t really thought about how much work and what long hours chefing is. It’s intense.”
After attending the Art Institute of Atlanta, Jacob started working with Levy Restaurants, a massive food group that works with most of the major arenas and stadiums. One of the perks of the job was getting to see concerts. Jacob rattles off The Beatles, Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction, Tool, Bjork, and his hometown Outkast as his favorites. After stints in Chicago, and travel in Florida, California, and Wisconsin, he joined McCormick & Schmick’s as executive chef. He was looking to move South until things went south with his girlfriend and he stayed in DC, finding a job with Matchbox as a sous chef. “I turned down a lot of money to start at what seemed like a lower position, but you gotta go with your gut, you know. It just seemed like the right move for me.” Working his way up, he is now an executive chef and also serves on the operations board, which allows him to consult on the opening of new locations.


“I still really enjoy cooking Italian, BBQ [we participated in the BBQ Battle last year and it was a lot of fun and a lot of work--there is an art to good BBQ], and Asian. I also really like putting a fine dining spin on comfort food, kind of like what Thomas Keller does at the French Laundry.” He laments the lack of a proper taco stand here in DC and cites Little Serow, Toki Underground, Mandu, Mike Isabella’s Graffiato, and small noodleshops in Chinatown as some of his haunts.
“Sandwiches are my favorite food and I love Scanwiches so much that I got one of theirs as a tattoo. I also have a beet, fried eggs, a pig, and utensils on my forearms. I plan on getting some peanuts, as well as bottle of wine pouring out a giant wave ala the stylized Japanese waves. I go to Butch at Champion Tattoo. Some of these he did totally freehand–like the beet one, he just drew on there with a Sharpie! I was a little nervous, but it turned out amazing!”


For Fashion District, Chef Hunter will be preparing a tuna tartare in a crispy rice paper cup [fry a rice paper wrapper normally used for spring rolls], with some sesame, sriracha, soy sauce, nori, and a diced apple and golden beet.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Interview with Chef Ian Reeves From The Queen Vic

My interview with Chef Ian Reeves from the Queen Vic

I knew I was in for a treat when The Queen Vic‘s Chef Ian Reeves asked if I could Marco Pierre White-ify the photos [which, alas, I miserably failed in due to technical difficulties]. In other words, shoot them in that iconic black-and-white, cigarette-dangling-from-the-corner-of-the-mouth, literally dripping with bad boy swagger style. You know…like back in the days when chefs weren’t “famous” for peddling Teflon pans on TV, but were instead infamous for true rock star-worthy antics like physically tossing unappreciative rubes of patrons out of their restaurants [which Marco has done plenty of]. For those of you not in the know–and what kind of a self-respecting foodie do you fancy yourself to be if you do not, for shame–Marco Pierre White is THE eponymous British chef, the youngest chef to earn three Michelin stars, and a veritable maniacal workaholic. He also is probably one of the few men who have made Gordon Ramsay cry in the kitchen–small consolation, Hell’s Kitchen contestants.

So, when Ian Reeves cited Marco Pierre White as one of his major influences, I knew he had good taste! He was also a really good sport, a jocular and jolly fellow, and a frequent user of the “luv” appellation [like, "are you hungry, luv?"]. In other words, he was the perfect host and a brilliant interview subject.


Chef Reeves has been cooking for a decade, with no formal training, “just working his way up in kitchens.” Born and raised in Gloucestershire, England, he touts the home economics course he took in what we Americans would call high school, as well as his Grandma and mother’s cooking as great learning experiences. The holidays he spent in Brittany also contributed to his culinary stylings. In the UK, he worked in country house hotels and honed his skills in “upper-end modern European cooking.” In 2005, he worked as a Chef De Cuisine in Vikram Garg’s Indebleu, where he picked up some of the Indian influence that shows up in The Queen Vic’s menu.

“I would say that one big focus of The Queen Vic is roasted meats, slowly braised. We break down half a side of beef, or pig, every couple of weeks right here on the premises. We have four blackboards in the restaurant, with ten specials on a daily basis. I often incorporate Indian or Northern African dishes, like stews, on the menu. I also have a good basis in Italian and French so we do things like gnocchi.” After a recent stint back home, Chef Reeves came back to the US with his wife. “I am really glad to be here. There are a lot of opportunities.”

At Fashion District, Chef Reeves and his wife will be serving a braised and pulled pork with a Szechuan sauce in a lettuce wrap, with a cucumber/carrot/cilantro/roasted peanut garnish.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Jiro Dreams Of Sushi Review

My review of Jiro Dreams Of Sushi

The Confucian saying goes, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Jiro Ono, the 85-year-old sushi chef behind the counter of a world-renowned 10-seat sushi restaurant in Tokyo, takes this ethos to another level. In his 75 years of work, he has never taken a day off except to attend funerals and, by his own mirthful admission, detests all holidays. Jiro Dreams Of Sushi is a love song to the ethereally exquisite world of sushi, but ultimately, it’s about dedicating your life to mastering a skill and working at it with unwavering dedication. In some sense, it is not about falling in love with *your* work, but more so about falling in love with work. Perfectionism, fanatical dedication, and humility are all we really need to know about Jiro.

Director David Gelb’s cinematography lends itself especially well to the subject matter. Close-up shots of the sushi feel like a dance performance, a time-lapse series of intense, gleaming beauty. The nigiri flutters like a bird as it gracefully settles after being shaped by the mind-blowingly deft handiwork of the chefs.

Jiro’s restaurant is the perfect balance between tradition and creativity. Rigorous routine notwithstanding - Jiro even rides the subway in the same position every morning - he is a rebel. He explains that even after 75 years of doing this, he is always looking ahead and improving his skills. Every element of every ingredient’s preparation is dissected to the minutest of details. For example, octopus has to be hand-massaged for 45 minutes before it can be prepared. The kind of meticulous, exacting standards that he holds himself up to apply to his entire staff, and with even more strictness to his two sons, Yoshikazu and Takashi. One of his apprentices shares the story of how it took him 200 tries over the span of 4 months to make the grilled egg “cake” for the egg sushi—when he finally got it right, he cried with pride. The training takes ten years of sunrise-to-sunset work and few chefs can endure it, but Jiro offers the knowledge for free.

His approach is a far cry from the despotic, sadistic Gordon Ramsey star chef prototype. Obsessive dedication is demanded for its own sake and value—Jiro would serve this kind of food even if he had one customer. His mantra, repeated throughout the movie, is that this is not about money but building a skill and only showcasing the best. Anything less than perfect is unacceptable. The vendors he works with in Tokyo’s famous Tsukuji fish market are equally skilled and “anti-establishment” themselves. Some of them only work with Jiro and will purchase one fish a day. The film offers a glimpse into this underground world of connoisseurship that exceeds all imagination; in an indicative scene, one monger can predict what a fish will taste like on instinct alone. Most of them have been working for decades, almost as long as Jiro himself, carrying on traditions and refusing to modernize for the sake of profit. The rice vendor tells a story of how he refused to sell his rice to a major hotel chain because they “would simply not be able to cook it right.”

Jiro Dreams Of Sushi is a fascinating look into Japanese culture and traditions. It is also the story of a place where, by work being done for its own sake, beauty through simplicity also follows.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Slow Machete: Killing You Softly with the Otherworldly Sounds of Haiti

My interview and feature on Slow Machete for The Vinyl District

Rolling Stone
once described Sigur Ros as “the sound of God weeping tears of gold in heaven.” Slow Machete, a musical collaboration of local artist Joe Shaffer and Haitian sound-makers, is no less otherworldly and intensely moving.

The vibe in certain parts is musically reminiscent of the spirituals written by enslaved African peoples in America; this is ethnomusicology at its finest, devoid of arty, slapped-on electronica stylings to make it palatable for Western consumption.
Even though this was recorded during Shaffer’s many volunteer trips to Haiti, this album is not polemical in its message (and refreshingly free of overbearing Bono-esque humanitarian asides). It is an album that is truly a tribute to Haiti’s spirit, raw and uninhibited and unbridledly beautiful. The harmonium [similar to a reed organ]‘s sound is lushly organic and, mixed with the vocal and other samples, creates a sonic tapestry of something akin to peaking behind the curtain of a really cool place. Slow Machete’s Evening Dust Choir officially releases today free on Bandcamp.

Tell me a little bit about how this project came about. What is its significance to you and how does it relate to the work you do in Haiti?
I’d been going to Haiti for a few years with different NGOs and medical teams, assisting clinics, working in an orphanage, clean water initiatives, and so on. Through these networks, I’d begun making some very close friends who are singers or musicians in Haiti. I recorded an album for them, and that sort of began the relationships that I would later record for this project.
I made this album as a soundtrack for experiences. This is a music group or a collective in a way, and I’m tying these sounds together and writing lyrics that sort of just move the plot along without trying to take the spotlight. Haiti is a wonderful place, music everywhere, honesty and directness in people that’s incredibly refreshing. I can’t ignore the difficult situations people are facing like how horrible cholera is right now, but I think my objective is to give an honest representation of how I perceive the culture, and that culture is incredibly beautiful.
The sound of the album is extremely unique in its strong ethnomusical vibe. Could you talk a little about the special instruments and samples you used?
The recordings are split between a few places: DC, a tunnel in Pittsburgh, Costa Rica, Montevideo, and Cap Haitien, Haiti. I’d record hours and hours of everything and anything then spend the evenings trying to piece things together with field samples, movie samples, and drums that are mostly native percussion with pitched down sounds of machetes (hence the band name).
Two sounds that are prevalent throughout the album—an Indian harmonium and “the 913”—I soldered a few bass pickups and alligator clips in a cigar box that I use a lot for drones and bass sounds. I play that with tuning forks most often.

You sampled a machete chopping?
Correct. I have a machete, and I’d record hitting / chopping / swinging that against a variety of things in my apartment in Costa Rica, then pitch those samples down several half steps.
What do you think of the music scene in DC?
I originally came to DC excited about the experimental/noise scene that’s great here. I love what’s going on with house shows and art house venues, anything that makes people connect more intimately with the music.
Could you talk a little about your musical influences?
I love movie soundtracks. The King’s Speech by Alexandre Desplat—I’ve been in love with recently. The Sneakers soundtrack and Jurassic Park soundtrack were my favorites growing up. Some other faves are Juan Luis Guerra , Compay Segundo, and Rage Against the Machine.
How do you want to move this project forward? Do you plan on releasing this album on vinyl?
I hope so—if there is an interest in it. I would like to play shows, and make videos that match the aesthetic.

Interview With Jesse Miller from Cafe Saint-Ex

My interview with chef Jesse Miller from Cafe Saint-Ex

Like most great chefs, Café Saint-Ex Executive Sous Chef Jesse Miller honed his skills the old-fashioned way, eschewing the chef-in-a-box culinary school route to earn his chops by working in kitchens for years. Originally from Baltimore, Jess studied painting at Towson University. To make money during art school, he worked at The Elkridge Furnace Inn, first as a dishwasher, then moving on to prep cook and sous chef. “You can be good at it [cooking] and hate it or bad at it and love it. It just bit me. I decided to focus on this art.” He spent seven years at the Elkridge Furnace Inn, which he describes as “a great place to learn,” and fortuitously met Saint-Ex’s Executive Chef Billy Klein there as well, who recruited him later to join Café Saint-Ex. Their collaboration continues to bear fruits—“we like pushing each other to get better.”
Café Saint-Ex’s menu is very seasonal and showcases the food of local farms. “We go to meet the farmers and it really makes you care about the food more. When you see how hard they work, it really gets you passionate about representing their food.”
At Fashion District, Jesse will be serving a King Salmon sashimi, with a Thai chili relish, yuzu vinaigrette and a soy reduction, with claytonia greens. The soy reduction has a deep, almost caramel undertone, resulting from the soy sauce being cooked for a really long time with a tiny bit of brown sugar, getting it to the right level of viscosity, with an almost-burned tinge for that little bit of char flavor. The yuzu vinaigrette is vibrant and really matches the equally springy claytonia [Miner’s lettuce] that is surrounded by the salmon.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Being Flynn Review

My review of Being Flynn:

Ernest Hemingway once said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.” In Being Flynn, Jonathan Flynn says, “Life is gathering material.” There lies the absurdity of prose: it is both prosaic and profound, complex in its very simplicity. Being Flynn is a film about bleeding and writing, stumbling and surviving. Based on author-poet Nick Flynn's memoir "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City," it recounts Nick’s (Paul Dano) relationship with his estranged father Jonathan (Robert De Niro).
Nick grows up a latchkey kid, raised by a loving but terribly over-worked mother (Julianne Moore). His only sense of his father comes from the bombastic letters he receives from prison; they are filled with Jonathan’s proclamations that he should have a place in the pantheon of great American writers. While Jonathan manifests as an absence in his son’s life, his non-presence couldn’t be more momentous to Nick, not the least of which because Nick writes just as well. Such is the basic tension of their father-son relationship: he declares “I am *not* like my deadbeat Dad” while wondering “How much like my father am I really?” Jonathan’s absence has built up the mythos of him, yet their approach to writing couldn’t be more different. Jonathan is full of swagger, in contrast to Nick’s meek “I write, but I am not a writer.” And surely enough, it’s through this fraught relationship and struggle that Nick will come into his own.

Being Flynn is also a film about homelessness, literally and metaphorically. Director Paul Weitz uses his lens to show the brutal Bostonian winter landscape with a gut-wrenching intensity and poignancy. Long after Jonathon leaves prison and descends into alcoholism, Nick meets him at a homeless shelter. Snippets of Nick’s writing provide a literary backdrop to the film. His description of his father’s going to sleep on a Metro grate as “an invisible man in an invisible room in an invisible city,” is a trenchant metaphor for the blind eye toward homelessness. The shelter is a microcosm of the struggles of the outside world and a testament to how hard it is to stay changed. The way up is long but the way down quick and always lurking around the corner. When Nick takes on the job in the shelter, maybe subconsciously he’s hoping to see his father. As Nick says, “if both of you are lost, you both end up in the same place, waiting.”
Through their push-and-pull interaction, Nick and his father tumultuously find a way to reach other. Paul Dano plays Nick with a quiet vulnerability and just enough of the inherited-self-nihilism required. DeNiro plays Jonathan with borderline-insane megalomania, a seething intensity, and a tragi-comic flair (he calls his masterpiece The Memoirs of a Moron). He doesn’t want our pity; he insists he is a survivor. And so is Nick, who finds his own voice.
You can’t kill someone with words, Jonathan Flynn says, but it doesn’t mean the words are not heavy as stones.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Women Hold Up Half The Sky Filmfest

National Geographic’s Women Hold Up Half The Sky is an annual film festival featuring films by women about women.

Here I Am, the feature debut of documentary director Beck Cole, follows Karen, a young Aboriginal woman who has just been released from prison and her journey to find a place outside. Beck’s decision to cast non-professional actors pays off well here, especially in Shai Pittman’s wonderfully subdued yet profoundly eloquent portrayal of Karen. Cole explained that she intentionally picked the women in the film because it not only “added to the film’s honesty, but it also gave them a chance to be humorous and very real.” The story takes places in the Port Adelaide women’s shelter that Karen lives in and, indeed, despite the very difficult circumstances its residents face, the dynamic is vibrant and the environment surprising nurturing. Cole spent time visiting these homes and described how they are often “regular houses on suburban streets.”

Here I Am is unique not only in that it features modern Aboriginal women on screen, but also in that those women are the key characters. While it shows the discrimination and bleak reality Aborigines face, it is also a testament to the strength of the characters who have overcome it—for example, Karen’s social worker and parole officer are both Aboriginal women. The film also portrays the marginalization that Aborigines have to contend with—in several instances, we see the thread of “do not be the way they assume you to be” and the need to get the “white man’s certificate”[and by implication, approval] to find one’s way in the rather divided environment. There is the pervasive sense that the shelter is of life-saving significance to these women who are doubly ostracized for being ex-convicts and for being Aboriginal.

The evocative cinematography is a beautiful milieu for Shai Pittman’s engrossing performance as Karen, who is equally vulnerable and tough. The role’s minimal dialogue allows for Pittman to play up the character’s quiet resolve and indomitable spirit. Devoid of self-pity and platitudes, Karen’s single-minded determination to find her way back to her 2 year-old daughter and her estranged, tough Mother is fervent and intense, without relying on fanciful plot twists and calamitous events or melodrama. Cole said that “it is important, as a film-maker, that your work be inward-looking. I wanted to take a different approach than ‘pointing the finger.’” Her focus on the characters themselves makes for a beautiful paean to getting a second chance.

My Wedding And Other Secrets, based on director Roseanne Liang’s autobiographical documentary “Banana In A Nutshell,” riffs on the all-too-familiar cross-cultural rom com theme. Sure, Chinese-New Zealand-born Emily Chu’s nerd-heavy romance with fellow geek James is cute and endearing, but it is also incredibly contrived and barely elicits a chuckle in the first half of the movie—how many groan-inducing Klingon and Dungeons & Dragons and never-been-kissed jokes can one make!? It would not an exaggeration to call it a geek-romance-by-the-numbers, replete with self-referential “aren’t we just too cute!?” overbearing and cringe-inducing “humor.” It’s only when Emily’s parents’ disapproval of the relationship comes into play that the film hits a stride and sparks some interest. In one particularly meaningful scene, when people applaud Emily for “sticking it to her parents,” by marrying James does the struggle of loyalty to one’s family become palpable. Then, the conundrum of choosing between selfishness-to-a-fault as a signal of “independence” Western-esque bend and the concern for her parents comes to life. The parents’ characters are especially nuanced and not easily dismissed as two-dimensional “narrow-minded”/racist. When Emily plaintively wonders why she “can’t have both,” there is a lot of depth behind this seemingly childish and simplistic sentiment.

Monday, February 27, 2012

A Separation Review

My brief Oscar preview of A Separation:

A Separation is a taut and enthralling film, compelling in its very realism. Although there is a complexity of narratives, including a court drama and an “everything is a version of something else”/who is telling the truth element, it is ultimately a film about a broken home. How stereotype-shattering that a divorce film be Iranian—all the more because the prevailing Western notion of divorce in a Muslim country is either as something as easily levied against women as a male declaring “I divorce you” three times or as something so verboten as to never take place. A Separation’s Iran is a modern, complex [and contradictory] place—a cosmopolitan landscape of traffic jams and women-initiated divorces. Yet, it is also a place of profound class fissures, economic strife, and a religiosity that, as we see in the film, may not be as top-down and imposed as the prevailing notion. Razieh, the woman Nadir hires to take care of his Alzheimer’s-ailing father, is so devout, she calls the mullah to inquire whether her nursing duties, which include changing a man, are a sin. One gets the sense that swearing on a Quran has an incomprehensible onus and gravity—even when she could desperately use the blood money for her family, her spiritual concerns trump all others.

A Separation is also a film about family. There are no one-dimensional “bad guys” to be found and the characters are compelling and universal. Nader’s devotion to his father and his daughter paints him as a man struggling, and at times failing, to keep his family together, a far cry from the patriarchal despot archetype. It is through Termeh, the 11-year-old daughter’s eyes, that the pain of the rift is most palpable as she stoically struggles with the ever-shifting tides and waves that buffet what were once their very normal lives. The theme of fighting vs. running away from things is at the core of the conflict of the film. Without resorting to fantastically left-field or implausible plot twists, A Separation is an absolutely mesmerizing portrayal of playing along with an increasingly upped ante of emotional tolls that life can realistically be.