Wednesday, February 27, 2008
By Andrea Warner
Scholars, politicians, and religious leaders have spent decades disassembling and examining Iran’s metamorphosis from royal tyranny in the 1970s to the current fundamentalist rule. But in order to understand the years of fighting that have displaced and killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians, what the rest of us needed was a face to connect with, inviting us inside her family’s experiences as their lives were turned inside out. And apparently we needed her in the form of a comic-book heroine.
Based on the autobiographical graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis is a uniquely wonderful animated film that tackles the tumultuous time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran through the eyes and memories of Marjane’s precocious six-year-old self, then follows her from war-torn Iran, to her teenage years in a Viennese boarding school and to her return home after a devastating deviation from her true path as she faces adulthood.
The film is at its most compelling during the time leading up to and just after the Islamic Revolution. The Satrapi family is full of dynamic and rebellious characters that connect immediately with the audience: they are the people we wish were related to. At the age of six, Marjane believes she is a prophet, taking a private audience with God when she needs counsel. She is wide-eyed with fascination at the stories her Uncle Anouche shares about his years in the Shah’s prison, and it’s easy to see her head and heart latching on to the concept of justice and democracy. It’s an exciting thing to witness when you reside in North America where voting and basic freedoms are easily taken for granted.
Marjane’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Satrapi are intelligent free thinkers and political activists who protest the Shah’s rule, and have lost many friends and family members to the fight against him. Marjane’s grandmother (Danielle Darrieux), is a ballsy and brazen woman who encourages her granddaughter’s outspoken criticism of the ruling regime. This character offers a striking and welcome contrast to the typical Western view of Middle Eastern women. She is a first-wave feminist, and an amazing and inspiring role model for any young woman. Marjane’s mother, voiced by Catherine Deneuve, is progressive and liberal, desperate for her daughter to make more of her life outside of Iran. Chiara Mastroianni, Deveuve’s daughter, voices teen/adult Marjane, which may account for the intense emotion in scenes between the pair.
When the Shah is overthrown, the Satrapi family celebrates along with the rest of Iran, but the exultation is short-lived. Islamic fundamentalists surge into power and quickly swing the pendulum back from the Western and more modern influences introduced by the Shah. Suddenly, basic freedoms (and indulgences) Iranians had taken for granted are gone: punk music and lipstick reside alongside alcohol as contraband. Then Iraq attacks Iran, bringing years of air raids, bombing and increasing fundamentalism, forcing the Satrapi family to send Marjane to Vienna.
The story loses a bit of its intimacy during its time in Vienna. Marjane is isolated from her family and takes up with a group of anarchists and is bumped from home to home as she tries to figure out who she is outside of her Iranian heritage. Her experiences with racism, drugs, love, and the accompanying broken hearts feel as rushed this sentence. Her subsequent depression and homelessness are particular elements that raise more questions than they answer. The animation throughout this portion of the story is what keeps the audience so entrenched in the film. That and seeing Marjane tell off a variety of idiotic people who push her to explode.
When she returns to Iran, Marjane is a stranger in her homeland, avoiding friends and family when she can, and finally sees a shrink who prescribes her anti-depressants for her condition. The pills aggravate her depression and the film glosses over her suicide attempt with no more than a euphemistic dream sequence where she floats over a beautiful sea and reconciles with God, who reminds her of her purpose. But, at least this leads to an awesome and tuneless sing-along/dance number set to Eye of the Tiger as Marjane reclaims her drive. It also pushes her into a series of circumstances where she must finally decide if the Iran of today is really her home.
The artwork and animation are things of beauty. The majority is in black and white, with wonderfully textured and vibrant grays that create a cornucopia of haunting and mesmerizing visuals. The backgrounds seem to shimmer with breath, their vitality bursting from the screen during the films louder moments. When the story calls for quietly devastating contemplation, the animation complies, and the winsome and twisted trees are enough to stir tears from even the hardest heart. The animation is incredible, and infuses the artwork with a surreal and magical quality that lightens some of the difficult subject matter without lessening the impact.
Equal parts history lesson, rebel rousing, coming-of-age story, and artistic endeavor, Persepolis is a powerful, stimulating and contemplative film. Long live the comic book.
Monday, February 25, 2008
Saturday, February 23, 2008
The Mountain Goats kicked off their tour in support of their new album, Heretic Pride, at Richards on Richards Friday night, and the pent up energy from their winter hibernation was contagious.
Opening act Jeffrey Lewis and the Jitters set the night off to a great start with an a capella ode to ramen noodles. The band's art-punk sing-song bittersweetness was a great compliment to the Mountain Goat's humourously dark, pulsing indie rock. My favourite moments consisted of Lewis's man-child "films" (large picture books, see the slide show) that illustrated songs about a monster's dismembered hand, and growing up.Read the full review!
Friday, February 22, 2008
Léo at the Firehall Arts Centre
By Andrea Warner
At the centre of the story is Léo (Salvatore Antonio), a poet who fluctuates between impassioned declarations, beautiful imagery, and an almost nihilistic selfishness. Rodrigo (Sergio Di Zio) and Isolde (Lesley Faulkner) are the best friends who form the other sides of this complicated triangle, as love, betrayal, and growing up steer the trajectory of the trio's intertwined fate.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
By Andrea Warner
The premise of Vantage Point, a post 9/11 film that toes the line between suspense and action, is compellingly reminiscent of the great Rashomon, wherein the characters are part of a violent event — in this case, the American president is shot at a huge political summit where peace is about to be declared between the US and the Arab world — and the story unfolds in fragments from multiple points of view.
Vantage Point is entirely likable so long as you don’t dwell on it for too long. The gut reaction is to get caught up in the small details, stepping inside each character as he or she negotiates the circumstances of the assassination attempt, the bombings, the double-crosses, and the long car chase that brings the film to its conclusion.
However, if ruminated on even a little, Vantage Point’s surface starts to crack like a dinged windshield. There are far too many characters and interweaving fates, yet not enough new information to sustain each narrative. Dennis Quaid is dependable as the traumatized Secret Service Agent, and William Hurt gets a few fun moments as the commander-in-chief who refuses to compromise his liberal beliefs. His storyline could have made a much larger impact if the film’s trailer didn’t reveal one of the film’s key twists months ago.
Forrest Whitaker, charming as usual, plays the American civilian hero, an entirely unnecessary character that gives the movie unnecessary heart and dilutes the intensity of the action. The Spanish actors who fill out the terrorist quotient are treated more like cartoons than real people. And, we’re offered no motive for the “surprise” double-cross most viewers will see coming a mile away.
The film works as a popcorn flick, and its better than average February fare; but, for all its dramatic stops, starts, and rewinds, Vantage Point never quite lives up to its true potential.
Friday, February 15, 2008
Today I submitted a profile of the band Elias to Discorder for March's issue. Then I went well beyond my comfort level when I pitched a story synopsis for a feature film production company! It was so much fun, after I got over the stress of knowing nothing about the structure of course. And, this morning, I interviewed Yung Chang, the amazing director and writer of the documentary about the 3 Gorges Dam, Up the Yangtze.
I'll be posting more actual stories, articles, and reviews next week!
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
By Andrea Warner
The Savages has moments great and good, but ends up being just okay. It sincerely wants to be more. With its wonderful cast, compelling subject, and some clever dialogue, it should be.
Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are Wendy and John Savage, estranged siblings struggling to extract themselves from the damage of their fractious childhood. The pair is reunited when they must care for an abusive father who abandoned them, and cope with his recently diagnosed dementia.
The film plunks us down into the middle of the siblings’ individual lives and through a series of scenes that feel more like vignettes, the audience is invited inside a series of uncomfortable, painful, and cathartic family moments.
Wendy Savage is a woman clinging to what’s left of her dignity as she grapples with her failures as a playwright, an affair with a married man, and the petty lies that fill out her existence.
In particular, the bond Wendy forms with one of her father’s nurses allows us to understand just how lonely her life has been. Linney does a fantastic job providing glimpses beneath Wendy’s fragile exterior, conveying Wendy’s depression and intelligence with warmth and humanity.
The delighted and amazed glow on Linney’s face as Wendy uncovers her father’s secret suitcase filled with photos and paintings from her childhood reminds us yet again of what a commanding and authentic actress Linney is.
Hoffman is a powerful counterpart, making as much as he can out of a leaner role than Linney as the older, more “successful” brother. John Savage is a doctor of philosophy who teaches theater in Buffalo, unable to commit to marrying the woman he loves and thus saving her from deportation.
Almost all this emotional undoing happens in the background of the film, with the audience meeting the Krakow-bound Kasia only once, but it’s the meat of John’s dysfunction. Hoffman is emotional and subtle, and adds layers to a role that, in less experienced hands, may have been a bit one-note.
The sibling relationship between Hoffman and Linney feels real. A lovely scene between them (one of many) shows Wendy waking up in the middle of the night to hear John on the phone with Kasia. Hoffman’s framed in the light of the open door to the bathroom, sitting on top of the closed toilet seat, weeping, as Wendy watches pretending to be asleep. The moment is quiet, rich, and poignant with the familial bond of siblings.
Philip Bosco is Lenny Savage, the backbone of his children’s neuroses. Gruff and quick-tempered, it’s easy to imagine the childhood horrors he inflicted upon his kids before bolting. An independent and stubborn man, Lenny inspires mixed emotions as we witness him cope with the humiliations of old age.
Bosco does wonders with this unpleasant role — Lenny’s kind of a prick, as the character himself would say — and as we watch him interact with his children as they do their best to care for him, we’re touched by his rare moments of softness.
The script from writer/director Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills) offers glimpses into this dysfunctional family, and brings up interesting questions about love, obligation, regret, and guilt, but always from a frustrating distance.
The performances are top-notch and the cast deserves better than a series of scenes that fail to create a cohesive film. The audience is never allowed enough successive moments to build deeper relationships with the characters — we’re permitted to watch them go through the ups and downs of the quiet re-building of their lives, but we’re never really permitted to care too deeply about them.
Partly, this is dialogue-related. This is a talky movie, full of black humor and wit, and some incredible misfires. One example has Lenny reacting to a movie from his youth, standing up and railing against his own abusive father. This feels unnecessary and trite — Wendy and John don’t react in any way to this revelation, and without it serving some momentum to the story, the moment falls flat. Why throw in 30 seconds of exposition just to create some sympathy for Lenny?
Additionally, some lines — in some cases entire scenes — remind one of dialogue that student filmmakers cling to because they can’t bear to edit their own work. The Savages running time is almost two hours, but 100 minutes would have been sufficient. A leaner film would have intensified the impact, and created a stronger more cohesive picture.
Perhaps this should-have-been-good film reveals everything in its title. The Savages wears its ironic and winking heart on its sleeve, letting the strongest aspects linger right alongside its weakest without bothering to distinguish one from the other.
Monday, February 11, 2008
Grade 10 Drop Out
By Andrea Warner
Her hair is dark and wild, impatient even, she realizes when she looks into the small mirror glued to the inside of her locker and notices that only half of the unruly mop can be contained within the reflection. It is the first day of school and already her body has begun the first of its’ expected many betrayals. Over the summer she’d tried bargaining with her hormones, her flesh, her follicles: Alright, arms, if you just begin to adopt the shape of muscles, even if it’s just pretend muscles like the skinny, wimpy girls who flex their bare arms while sticking their fingers down their throats, I’ll never take up cutting. Her shoulders listened and became broader, but now she just looked like a linebacker on the football team. Fuck the pep squad.
Friday, February 8, 2008
By Andrea Warner
A headset is the modern equivalent to the albatross—a tether to a miserable existence comprised of a coffin-like cubicle, a square desk scribbled with markings, and a chair that squeaks with every passing pound one accumulates while taking the never-ending stream of calls from people with varying degrees of comprehension and ignorance. I am an inbound call centre employee for a chatline company. I am a desk job sex trade worker.
Thursday, February 7, 2008
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
Everything Old is New Again:
A folk/pop music legend takes Charleston by gentle storm
By Andrea Warner
Art Garfunkel holds several honorary titles: most enduring hairstyle in rock 'n' roll, most famous second banana of all time (complete with a loving send-up from the Simpson's themselves), and most miles walked by a mathematics master. This week, the man behind one half of rock's most famously fractious duo takes center stage at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center in support of his newest album Some Enchanted Evening.
"I'm the second son of three boys, so I'm a little complex," he laughs, explaining what motivates him. "I have a nervous energy, and [being the middle child] demands that I be interesting all the time. It's like stage performance, too. It leads to nail biting, calculating. You just want to be interesting."
"Interesting" is almost an understatement. Garfunkel has fascinated generations who have watched his career ebb and flow since the heady days of his part in Simon & Garfunkel. Paul Simon and Garfunkel met in the sixth grade, and began performing under the moniker Tom & Jerry when they were just 15 years old.
They released five albums together, as well as creating the soundtrack phenomenon for the film The Graduate — and, most memorably, the hit "Mrs. Robinson." Their last album, 1970's acclaimed Bridge over Troubled Water, was an unknowingly prophetic title as the duo parted ways soon after, at the height of their success.
Since then, Garfunkel has released 12 solo albums, written several volumes of poetry, and starred in the films Catch-22 and Carnal Knowledge. His signature countertenor and intellectualism set hot, geeky girls' hearts aflutter. His rolled-up sleeves and timeless explosion of frizzy curls has served as the inspiration for the looks of countless counterculture cool kids on TV and in the movies.
However, it's his personal life that proves most fascinating. An avid reader, Garfunkel's web site lists every book he's read since 1968, and the number has passed the 1,000 mark in the last couple years. He has also embarked on several cross-continental walks, trekking across both the USA and Japan between 1983 and 1997.
He began his European walk in 1998, and knowingly acknowledges the envious looks he gets from other people when he talks about his adventures.
"They exhale with a kind of 'I'd do it, too' drop to the shoulders," he says. "It's a way to leave the modern life."
These long walks take Garfunkel to many beautiful places, and it's on these journeys that he connects with his inner writer.
"I looked up and I'm under a canopy of trees," Garfunkel remembers. "Maybe the trees sense each other and leave a bit of space so you can still see the sky from underneath. I'm communing with nature like in the old LSD days." He laughs again.
Garfunkel feels like he's finally hitting his stride and credits this to the strong partnerships with his band.
"Playing with someone is what I did with Simon & Garfunkel, and I feel like I'm doing that again," he enthuses.
Some Enchanted Evening finds Garfunkel covering pop standards, somewhat of a departure from his other work. He describes making a list of 160 songs he liked, and the process of yielding to Richard Perry as the producer, who narrowed it down to love songs spanning the 20th century.
"It's about trust," Garfunkel explains. "I'm trying to show up to the mic and be flexible. We'd record 35-40 demos and I would gauge where I got goose bumps." The standards album includes classics like "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face."
"I'm ready to take over the night for people," he says of performing. "Give me the spotlight. I'm not reticent anymore."
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
By Andrea Warner
Anything is possible in Jeremy Fisher’s world, and it’s this belief that’s catapulted the local Vancouver singer/songwriter into an international phenomenon. It’s the eve of Fisher’s next American tour in support of his latest album Goodbye Blue Monday, his third in six years, and he’s remarkably laid back for a man who is about to play some of the greatest independent venues the US has to offer.
Fisher’s come a long way from his humble beginnings, but he’s always been a musician: studying piano at six years old, picking up the bass and guitar in his teens, and ultimately composing and arranging in college. In fact, Fisher has made the majority of his living in music since he was a teenager.
“I’ve had three jobs that weren’t related to music,” Fisher says. “Leading canoe trips, washing dishes, and being a bike mechanic. I identify as much as a bike mechanic as I do as a musician, but I have a lot of opportunities as a musician right now, so that’s what I’m doing.”
Much of Fisher’s success has been in creating his own opportunities. Back Porch Spirituals was made in his friend’s basement and once it was complete Fisher had to figure out how to get the CD into peoples’ hands. When he thought of his two previoius cross-country bike trips and all of the people he’d met, and his years busking, he came up with an innovative and environmentally friendly plan: bike across North America playing shows in every city he could.
Fisher’s unique approach to marketing Spirituals—30 booked shows and countless impromptu ones as fast as his legs could cycle him there—garnered him plenty of attention and fans, and caught the eye of a major record label. It also helped him forge a deep connection with a hugely loyal fan base throughout Canada and the US. But it was his years playing on the street that taught him how to captivate audiences in the most unlikely places.
“Busking, believe it or not,” Fisher laughs, “is more nerve wracking than playing at an open mic or something. You feel that much more vulnerable because you’re playing a space that wasn’t designed to be a venue. You have to be sensitive and convince people that that’s what that space is for.”
Busking’s bad reputation in Vancouver is something musicians have to contend with, but it’s also an opportunity to hone your skills.
“A lot of people may see buskers as beggars or judge them harshly, you have to draw them in somehow if you want to make a living at it,” Fisher explains. “It’s good for getting over yourself.”
Fisher’s self-made video for “Cigarette”, one of the songs from Monday, cost just $60 to make, and saw him learn animation to create a sweet, funny and slightly sad ode to addiction. Is it possible to know what to expect when you’re at home molding a clay cigarette into various shapes and painstakingly editing thousands of consecutive shots together? So far, “Cigarette” has become a viral hit on YouTube, reaching over two million views and counting.
“I wanted three million hits,” Fisher jokes. “I’d just moved from Sony to Aquarius, and I wanted to try to make something fun, more of a concept. Animation’s something I’d always wanted to do. When I have time on my hands, I like to make stuff. ‘Cigarette’ has done more for me than the two $40,000 videos I made with Sony.”
And this do-it-yourself aesthetic has connected Fisher to his fans in a deep way. Fisher understands the importance of bringing art back into the music industry, and even with major-label support, he still manages to put his own quirky spin on everything he does.
“It’s hard to impress someone with just a budget anymore,” Fisher says. “I just wanted to make a little craft project and broadcast it out to the world. It’s a great way to communicate.”
Fisher’s tenacity and determination have paid off. After signing last year with Wind-Up Records in the US, Fisher was booked for two nights in a row as the musical guest on the Craig Ferguson Show. He’s also appeared on CNN, and Goodbye Blue Monday’s received enthusiastic reviews in numerous publications throughout North America. He toured throughout 2007, and is kicking off 2008 much the same way. Fisher now finds himself in the unfamiliar position of being a role model or inspiration for other struggling artists hoping to emulate his success. His advice?
“Get on your bike and tour across North America. It worked for me,” Fisher laughs. “Just go to any lengths necessary.” After all, anything is possible.
The overwhelming popularity of Jeremy Fisher’s Goodbye Blue Monday is in part a response to his remarkable songwriting skills. Sensitivity is key to the bittersweet landscape of the album. Fisher’s wry lyrics are worldly observations and knowing winks, reminding the listener he’s a storyteller who’s been collecting tales from the road for many years now.
All types of characters seem to fill up his songs, and it’s Fisher’s unique perspective that helps connect his fans so strongly to his music. From being thrown off the grounds of a Catholic Church in Marysville, Ontario to being sprayed by underground sprinklers in the middle of the night in Saskatchewan, one story sticks out in his mind about the kindness of strangers.
“I was in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan [on the bike tour], and I was in this grocery story with all of my gear and my bike,” Fisher says. “And there was this older guy ahead of me in line wearing a cowboy hat and he saw all my cycling stuff and my gear and he just paid for my groceries and walked out! He didn’t even say anything to me. I had to chase after him to thank him and introduce myself.”