Archives for January 2014

Asaf Avidan’s new album “Different Pulses”, Israel’s answer to Jimmy Scott.

"Different Pulses".

Dif­fer­ent Pulses”.

When Bob Boilen played the title track from Asaf Avidan’s 2012 album Dif­fer­ent Puls­es on NPR’s All Songs Con­sid­ered (reviewed ear­li­er here) a few weeks ago, you could hear the sound of var­i­ous jaws hit­ting the floor. That’s because the voice of this lat­ter day Janis Joplin belongs in fact to a 33 year old Israeli man.

Unlike poor old Jim­my Scott though, there’s noth­ing unfor­tu­nate about the sound that he pro­duces. It’s just very unusual.

Lit­tle Jim­my Scott, as he was dubbed, was born with Kallmann’s Syn­drome. This meant that he grew to be no taller than four foot eleven until he was into his late thir­ties, when he sud­den­ly spout­ed anoth­er 8 inch­es. The result was that the diminu­tive Scott sound­ed for all the world like a female jazz singer.

Little Jimmy Scott, with fans Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, David Bowie and Antony Hegarty.

Lit­tle Jim­my Scott, with fans Lou Reed, Lau­rie Ander­son, David Bowie and Antony Hegarty.

And sure enough, he was right roy­al­ly screwed by most of the peo­ple he seems to have met in the music indus­try through­out the 50s and 60s. Thor­ough­ly deject­ed and unfair­ly ignored, he retired in the 70s.

Hap­pi­ly though, he was res­cued again in the 1990s by the arche­typ­al out­siders Lou Reed and David Lynch, who pro­vid­ed him with a belat­ed renais­sance. Reed invit­ed him to per­form on his 1992 album Mag­ic and Loss, which was ded­i­cat­ed to their mutu­al friend Doc Pomus. And Lynch brought him in to work on the sec­ond series of Twin Peaks, which you can hear here.

Avi­dan in con­trast seems to be a per­fect­ly con­ven­tion­al man phys­i­cal­ly speak­ing. Which makes the sound he pro­duces all the more remarkable.

Avi­dan began tour­ing his native Israel with his band in 2006, and over the next four or five years they pro­duced 3 huge­ly suc­cess­ful albums, where they quick­ly amassed a siz­able cult fol­low­ing. They went their sep­a­rate ways in 2011 though, and Dif­fer­ent Puls­es is his debut solo album.

If Jim­my Scott had had Janis Joplin’s oomph, and she his vocal range, this is what it might have sound­ed like. Impres­sive­ly, it’s a range and emo­tion­al depth that’s main­tained across the whole album.

Asaf Avidan.

Asaf Avi­dan.

There’s very lit­tle sense how­ev­er of the East or of the Ori­ent. There is occa­sion­al­ly a slight hint of the few years Avi­dan spent on Jamaica soak­ing up their rhythms. But for the most part it’s a rich­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed RnB album that would 40 years ago have been put out by Stax and dis­trib­uted by Atlantic Records. Doc Pomus would been called in to pro­vide a lyric or two. And Jim­my Scott could eas­i­ly have been smug­gled in to pro­vide back­ing vocals. Un-cred­it­ed of course.

You can see the video for Dif­fer­ent Puls­es and hear Avi­dan for your­self here.

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Women Without Men”, One More Must See Film from Iran.

Women Without Men.

Women With­out Men.

Women With­out Men sounds like it could be one of those dull, edu­ca­tion­al chores. In fact, it’s a sump­tu­ous, rich­ly evoca­tive film that calls to mind the heady days of Ital­ian cin­e­ma in the1960s and ear­ly 70s.

Think late Vis­con­ti, De Sica’s The Gar­den of the Finzi Con­ti­nis (reviewed ear­li­er here) and the Taviani broth­ers. What if Bertoluc­ci had ever man­aged to use his tech­ni­cal bravu­ra to actu­al­ly say something.

Shirin Neshat, whose first film this is, has said that she was influ­enced by Kiarosta­mi when she decid­ed to make the move from con­cep­tu­al art into the world of fea­ture films. But she is very much part of that new wave of Iran­ian film mak­ers of Ash­gar Farha­di, who made A Sep­a­ra­tion and About Elly (reviewed here and here), and poor Jafar Panahi, (reviewed here), who, out­ra­geous­ly, remains under house arrest in Iran.

This Is Not A Film

Panahi’s This Is Not A Film.

Inter­est­ing­ly and unlike them, she is look­ing at Iran from the out­side, hav­ing lived most of her life as an exile in the US.

Neshat has tak­en Shahrnush Parisipur’s famous novel­la, which charts the lives of four women, and has posit­ed their sto­ries against the back­drop of the events of 1953. It was then that the British and the US joined forces to over­throw the demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed gov­ern­ment of Mosad­degh, and sup­plant him with a mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship under the Shah, so the British could main­tain their con­trol of Iran’s oil supply.

Inevitably, indeed nec­es­sar­i­ly, rev­o­lu­tion fol­lowed 25 years lat­er. Imme­di­ate­ly after which, the same crowd armed and fund­ed Iraq in its war against Iran. And then they invad­ed Iraq, and then Afgan­istan, again, over yet more oil. And on it goes ad, patent­ly, infini­tum. Lit­tle won­der then that Iran looks at the West with such jaun­diced eyes.

Women Without Men.

Women With­out Men.

All of which could have result­ed in a painful­ly dull film, part his­tor­i­cal lec­ture, part fem­i­nist tract. But what Neshat has made instead is a mar­riage of mag­ic real­ism and exquis­ite, for­mal pre­ci­sion. The result is rav­ish­ing­ly beau­ti­ful and qui­et­ly mov­ing. Four female arche­types set against the back­drop of polit­i­cal tur­moil, in the face of which, resis­tance appears futile. And yet, resist they must.

It won the Sil­ver Lion at Venice in 2009 – in fair­ness, the Gold­en Lion went to the bril­liant Lebanon. You should see them both, and you can see the trail­er for Women With­out Men here.

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American Hustle”: Goodfellas, Once More but With Feeling.

'American Hustle".

Amer­i­can Hustle”.

Amer­i­can Hus­tle is so self-ref­er­en­tial it goes past know­ing­ness and back to sin­cer­i­ty, before going around for anoth­er half turn to end up star­ing at itself approv­ing­ly in the mir­ror. It’s post-parody.

It’s 1978, Don­na Sum­mer dis­cos, the men all John Tra­vol­ta and the women wear dress­es designed exclu­sive­ly to demon­strate that they have absolute­ly noth­ing else on under­neath. Chris­t­ian Bale plays Robert De Niro who meets a char­ac­ter played, obvi­ous­ly, by De Niro, play­ing a char­ac­ter con­nect­ed (see what I did there?) to one he’d pre­vi­ous­ly played in the God­fa­ther. And so on.

If this were an aca­d­e­m­ic paper, it would come in for crit­i­cism from the lat­est breed of French pseu­do-intel­lec­tu­al, neo-Marx­ist, post-struc­tur­al, decon­struc­tion­ist lit­er­ary giants on the grounds that it’s gra­tu­itous­ly post-mod­ern, and far too clever by half. And, all too pre­dictably, I loved it.

No strings attached.

Amy Adams; no strings attached.

I can see why it’s been get­ting so many luke­warm reviews. If you haven’t spent quite so much of your time trans­fixed by the sil­ver screen, if in short you have a life, then its charms might very eas­i­ly pass you by.

But for a select few, the thought of a film mak­er being asked to re-make Good­fel­las, only this time to do it like they were real­ly, real­ly in thrall to every con­ceiv­able aspect of Amer­i­ca cul­ture, and not just the music, films, clothes and mores, its very sound, will send shiv­ers down your care­ful­ly con­struct­ed meta spine.

This is one of the most tac­tile films you’ll ever sink into. You can feel the hair­spray, cheap nail var­nish and the vinyl as it rotates beneath that unfor­giv­ing nee­dle. And true to its col­lege cam­pus roots, your enjoy­ment is reflect­ed and refract­ed through the vis­i­ble plea­sure that every­one involved on the screen is hav­ing at being up there enter­tain­ing you.

"I Heart Huckabees".

I Heart Huckabees”.

This is David O Rus­sell’s sev­enth film. His fourth, I Heart Huck­abees is arguably the most uncon­ven­tion­al and con­fronta­tion­al film made in mod­ern Hol­ly­wood his­to­ry. And yes I’m in the Orwellian minor­i­ty of one with that film. I’m the one per­son that gen­uine­ly loved it. Well this is its exact corol­lary. The arche­typ­al Hol­ly­wood film. And as such, it’s glo­ri­ous­ly out there. But for heaven’s sake, see it in the cinema.

You can see the trail­er here.

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12 Years A Slave” is that Rare Thing, A Serious Film.

12 Years A Slave.

12 Years A Slave.

In 1967, the now leg­endary Stax Records sent its mod­est ros­tra of fledg­ling stars on a minor tour of Britain and France. It was a sensation.

Otis Red­ding, Sam and Dave, Book­er T and the MGs and co couldn’t believe it. Audi­ences in Britain were respond­ing to them as if they were the Rolling Stones. Actu­al­ly, most of the Stones were there in the audi­ence, and they were as blown away by what they were hear­ing as every­body else.

The legendary Stax Records Tour of 1967.

The leg­endary Stax Records Tour of 1967.

But what real­ly got them, was dri­ving around Eng­land on the mod­est Tour bus that Stax had orga­nized for them, they’d occa­sion­al­ly stop off at some sleepy town at the back end of beyond in rur­al Eng­land, get out the bus, and go into a shop! In the front door! And there, they’d be served their stale sand­wich­es and fizzy pop, as if this was the most nor­mal thing in the world.

It wasn’t. In those days, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, black peo­ple were expect­ed to refrain from con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing polite soci­ety by remov­ing them­selves from every cor­ner of it. Being treat­ed in Eng­land and France like nor­mal human beings, indeed, like stars, was a com­plete rev­e­la­tion for them all. (Actu­al­ly, it kind of ruined them. But that’s anoth­er story.)

That was 1967. Less the 50 years ago.

No won­der Oba­ma took that self­ie at Mandela’s funer­al. Even he must occa­sion­al have to pinch him­self. Imag­ine, bare­ly a gen­er­a­tion after that, there’s a black man in the White house.

The book that it was based on.

The book that it was based on.

Slav­ery is to race what Hiroshi­ma is to the atom­ic bomb. It’s its nec­es­sary con­se­quence. And togeth­er with Hiroshi­ma and the Holo­caust, slav­ery is one of the three colos­sal, unfath­omable ques­tions marks that punc­tu­ate mod­ern his­to­ry. Any film that tries to tack­le it has a hun­dred and one ways of get­ting it hor­ri­bly wrong.

Look at Schindler’s List. By focus­ing on the one good Nazi, Spiel­berg was able to cloak the holo­caust with a begin­ning, mid­dle and end, and there­by turn in into A N Oth­er Hol­ly­wood film. Which is unforgivable.

Remark­ably, 12 Years A Slave gets every­thing absolute­ly right. It’s helped by the nature of its sto­ry. Solomon is an edu­cat­ed, afflu­ent, artis­tic man liv­ing a priv­i­leged life. He is in oth­er words what we all aspire to be. So when he’s kid­napped and sold into slav­ery, our sym­pa­thy for him is immediate.

If on the oth­er hand you were to tell a sto­ry of some­one who was already a slave, there’s the dan­ger of see­ing them, how­ev­er unin­ten­tion­al­ly, as the Oth­er. As one of them. Can any­one imag­ine Spar­ta­cus play­ing the vio­lin in evening wear? By begin­ning in this way, you nec­es­sar­i­ly feel for him and his predica­ment in a way that you mightn’t have done had they approached the top­ic in a dif­fer­ent way.

The fact that he is a clas­si­cal­ly trained musi­cian could have encour­aged the film mak­ers to drape their film in reams of music. Their deci­sion to use music but sparse­ly through­out is again exact­ly the right one. As ever, less is more.

Fassbinder and Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave.

Fass­binder and Ejio­for in 12 Years A Slave.

But at the heart of the film are the cen­tral per­for­mances. Chi­we­tel Ejio­for has been hov­er­ing on the fringes of star­dom for some time now – he was par­tic­u­lar­ly mem­o­rable in  Joss Whedon’s crim­i­nal­ly over­looked Seren­i­ty, see here . That will obvi­ous­ly change now. And Michael Fass­binder con­firms, again, why he is one of the hottest prop­er­ties any­where in the world.

And as for direc­tor Steve McQueen. As intrigu­ing as his first cou­ple of film, Hunger (’08)  and Shame (’11) were, this is a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent cal­i­bre of film.

12 Years A Slave is that rare thing; mov­ing, pro­found and seri­ous. You can see they trail­er here.

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All Is Lost, Robert Redford as the Surprisingly Young Looking Considering His Age Man and The Sea.

All Is Lost.

All Is Lost.

The first thing all actors do when­ev­er they arrive for their first day on set is to mark off all the scenes that has their char­ac­ter in. Then they take all of the rest of the pages of the script and throw them into the near­est bin. After all, what pos­si­ble use could they have for them?

So it’s not that hard to see why Hol­ly­wood leg­end Robert Red­ford might have agreed to play the lead in All Is Lost, the sec­ond fea­ture from rook­ie film mak­er J. C. Chandor.

Here’s a film with lit­er­al­ly just one char­ac­ter. Not only is he guar­an­teed to be in every scene, he’s gong to end up in prac­ti­cal­ly every frame.

The last time Robert Red­ford act­ed in any­thing remote­ly inter­est­ing was Inde­cent Pro­pos­al some 20 years ago in 1993, which was at least a good idea for a film.

Since then, his per­for­mances in the likes of The Horse Whis­per­er (’98), The Last Cas­tle (’01) and Lions For Lambs (’07), and the fact that he agreed to be in them in the first place all con­firm that act­ing per se has long since ceased to be of seri­ous inter­est to him.

Redford directed the excellent Quiz Show in '94.

Red­ford direct­ed the excel­lent Quiz Show in ’94.

The omens then for All Is Lost were not good. So it was a very pleas­ant sur­prise to find myself perched on the edge of my seat for almost each and every one of its 106 min­utes. And whilst it mightn’t be Hem­ing­way, it’s an impres­sive­ly craft­ed and well-wrought dra­ma not a mil­lion miles from what the young Stephen Spiel­berg was doing in his made for TV fea­ture Duel in 1971.

Red­ford plays a soon to be mid­dle-aged man – he’s even begun to go grey around the tem­ples – who’s strand­ed on a tiny boat in the mid­dle of the Indi­an Ocean. Sure there are one or two moments when the spell is broken.

Would he real­ly have stood there stitch­ing his fore­head as the boat he stood in sank beneath his feet? And would he real­ly have man­aged to hold on to his read­ing glass­es through­out the whole ordeal? Read­ing glass­es, anoth­er sign of course that he’ll soon be hit­ting his 40s, or at least his mid 30s.

And when he goes out on deck to bat­tle the rag­ing storm that has been CGId behind him, it’s about as con­vinc­ing as see­ing one of those gang­sters in a 40s film noir hold­ing on to a com­i­cal­ly bounc­ing steer­ing wheel, as a film of the street he is sup­posed to be dri­ving down is pro­ject­ed on to a shim­mer­ing cur­tain behind him.

Redford set up the Sundance Film Festival in '78, and met Chandor there when he screened his debut.

Red­ford set up the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val in ’78, and met Chan­dor there when he screened his debut Mar­gin Call (’11).

But these are minor quib­bles. For the most part, this is a sur­pris­ing­ly grip­ping film. And, remark­ably, Red­ford gives a restrained and qui­et­ly mon­u­men­tal per­for­mance that stands up to any of his best work from the 70s.

And as for Chan­dor, this is as impres­sive a Hol­ly­wood call­ing card as you’re like­ly to see. You can expect to see him on board the next mul­ti-houred, entire­ly CGId and point­less­ly 3Dd, fetid fran­chise, com­ing soon alas to a cin­e­ma near you.

You can see the All Is Lost trail­er here.

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