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Kimberly Chun

Women with movie cameras

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CAAMFEST A beautiful butch moviemaker with a penchant for Peking opera divas. A dogged indie documentarian willing to stalk her prey, be it politically radical or the hard-partying dead. These are but a few of the unusual suspects caught in the viewfinders of CAAMFest 2014‘s Asian and Asian American female directors.

Is there a way to knit together their concerns, essentialize their imagery, and boil down their movies to something beyond stereotype and cliché? It would take a revolution in imagination, underlined by a political charge and peopled by well-defined personalities pushed to the margins. Their few numbers on a larger directorial stage dominated by white men throws their strong subject matter into sharp relief.

You can feel it in even the shortest of documentaries, like the 26-minute festival-closing documentary Delano Manongs, by Emmy-winning Berkeley moviemaker Marissa Aroy, who gives Filipino bachelor farmworkers and organizer Larry Itliong their due in the formation of the United Farm Workers union. Or in films that span more than a half a decade of interviews, such as American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, even when LA director Grace Lee quips in a voice-over aside that while interviewing Detroit activist and citizen intellectual Boggs, she’s not immune from “going back and forth with her on Skype trying to understand what she’s talking about.” (More on that film below.) What gets lost in translation? These directors, more often than not, foreground their attempts to read between the lines and penetrate a fog of forgetfulness and counter-histories in order to get to a few truths, subjective and otherwise.

Such is the case of Hong Kong documentarian S. Louisa Wei, who unearths the once-dumpster-relegated tale of SF Chinatown-born-and-bred Esther Eng, the first Chinese American woman director, in Golden Gate Girls — with rich, mixed results. Now little-known due to the loss of many of the 10 Cantonese-language features she made in the US with producer Joseph Sunn Jue (whose Grandview Film Company gets its own CAAMFest tribute), among others, and Hong Kong during its first “golden age” of moviemaking, the inspiring, enterprising Eng appeared to take difference in stride. First, she was a producer of likely the first Cantonese-language film made in Hollywood (the 1936 nationalist melodrama Heartaches), and then the versatile director and writer of women-centered features starring her favored Peking opera performers. All the while, she lived as an out lesbian who liked to be called “Brother Ha,” wore suits and her hair styled in a boyish crop, and cohabitated with one of her leading ladies and “bosom friends” in 1930s Hong Kong on the brink of Japanese invasion.

Candid about her struggles and sidetracks in uncovering the facts of the director’s life, Wei interviews intimates, like Eng’s youngest sister Sally, cohorts who knew her as a trans-Pacific moviemaker and film distributor who hobnobbed with legendary figures like James Wong Howe, and finally as a popular NYC restaurateur. The documentary maker fills out the cultural context of Eng’s life, with lengthy, at times highly editable, comparisons to Hollywood counterpart Dorothy Arzner and Anna May Wong; riddles the movie with fascinating if weird factoids (the infant Bruce Lee, for example, made his first film appearance in Golden Gate Girls as a baby girl); and regretfully loads on some rather cheesy, cheap-looking digital animation. Still, the sheer interest of Eng’s lost history makes up for any shortcomings.

Wei and Brooklyn Filipina American director Esy Casey know the road to piecing together a documentary is rarely a direct one. Casey’s affectionate Jeepney takes its time over the course of 61 minutes to enjoy the vibrant colors and refracted lights in its ride into the world of the wildly imaginative, color-splashed, mural-and-tagline-spangled jeeps, once in service to World War II US armed forces, now souped-up cheap-fare city buses. The chaos of Manila street traffic, as well as Casey’s interviews with jeepney auto painters, craftspeople, drivers, policy makers, and passengers, as taxes rise and threaten to put customizers and drivers out of business, spur the question “where next?” and add up to a freewheeling and pungently poetic slice of urban Filipino life.

With American Revolutionary, Grace Lee goes deeper with one of the subjects of 2005’s The Grace Lee Project — her study of women who share her surprisingly common name — and plunges into an inspiring life. To say Boggs’ story could only happen in America is a grotesque understatement: Hers is an exceptional tale of American individualism working on behalf of those left behind by American exceptionalism.

Lee details her beginnings as that rare Asian American woman to earn her Ivy League doctorate in the ’30s, only to discover that she was barely employable due to her race and gender; the film then moves to Boggs’ organizing efforts in the African American community before and after the civil rights movement, her role as a grande dame in Black Power circles, and more recently as a community activist instrumental in founding the leadership-nurturing gardening and artmaking projects of Detroit Summer. Less grand but nonetheless revealing are the question ducks, the intellectual battle royales, and the moments when, say, Lee cuts Boggs’ hair in her kitchen. These instances — along with Lee’s highly entertaining 2007 mockumentary, American Zombie, also playing CAAMFest — reveal that Lee is also uniquely and, despite her protests to the contrary, compassionately, one of a kind. *

CAAMFEST

March 13-23, most shows $12

Various SF and East Bay venues

www.caamedia.org

 

Spiking the box office

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YEAR IN FILM It’s tough to remember much of the ’90s — what with the air horns and kindercore, flannel and Flavor Flav — but I seem to recall Spike Lee giving the orders that seemed to finally, fully come to pass in 2013: “Make black film.”

Irony of ironies, when it seemed like so many black filmmakers were following through and doing just that — telling their communities’ stories, visualizing their own histories, and fearlessly unlocking troubling and painful key themes — Lee sidled away from Red Hook Summer, last year’s murky return to the fabled Brooklyn stomping grounds of 1989’s Do the Right Thing, and seemed to move toward a fallback position as actioner-for-hire with his redo of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, as if to prove that, testify, he can crush skulls just like his old Amerindie-boys-club rival Quentin Tarantino.

Yet isn’t Lee’s Oldboy a “black film” concerning unjust incarceration or bondage, as much as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Hunger are? Perhaps. The connections were in place, if you cared to look: the stasis of 12 Year‘s near-still opening shot, as Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and other slaves facing the audience, waiting and listening to a white foreman’s directions, has its corollary in the multiple shots in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, of Forest Whitaker’s butler Cecil Gaines, face frozen. He’s the veritable “invisible man,” instructed to disappear into the background at White House dinners and forever listening for direction. And waiting — as if wondering when the moviemaking establishment will move on from its habit of bestowing statuettes for African American portraits in servitude, à la The Help (2011) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989).

It’s been a long time coming — much like a certain African American president that butler Gaines had waited a lifetime to meet. Five years into that presidency, the man who tried to “do the right thing” has, intentionally or not, changed the conversation on black representation on screens both big and small. The country’s ready to look at its past and break down the codes, whether they concern slavery, birthers’ loaded allegations about Obama’s “un-American-ness,” Paula Deen’s alleged workplace racism, or Julianne Hough’s wrongheaded Halloween costume — a blackface tribute to “Orange is the New Black” character Crazy Eyes.

This year’s contenders looked to not only historical role models like Jackie Robinson in 42 and Nelson Mandela in Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom) — in movies made by white filmmakers — but also lighter, aspirational figures such as Tyler Perry (who laid siege on the box office with two efforts, A Madea Christmas and Peeples), as well as the glossy buppies populating popular comedy sequel The Best Man Holiday. Fans blew up the Interwebs with indignation when some misbegotten USA Today editor came up with the headline “Holiday Nearly Beats Thor as Race-Themed Films Soar.”

The Best Man Holiday is bourgie worlds away from Spike Lee favorite Fruitvale Station. (One wonders if the acclaimed indie will serve as a model for Lee’s own Kickstarter-fueled Trayvon Martin project.) Filling out the many shades of his protagonist’s story, and leading with cell phone footage of the fatal shooting, director Ryan Coogler never overplays the naturalistic narrative centered on Oscar Grant, so often writ larger than life all over Oakland in posters and street art. Though it was released at height of Martin-related outrage, the film keeps sensation and sentimentality at bay, apart from a foreboding scene of a stray dog’s sudden death. Like that hound on the run, Michael B. Jordan’s Grant is a driving, hustling, partying study in movement. Fully immersed in a multicultural Bay Area where racism operates in subtler and more complex ways than ever before, he, like any other restless rider, is just trying to get home.

Whitaker threw his weight behind Fruitvale Station as a producer — but his Gaines and The Butler seem wildly different on their stiff, sad surfaces. So much is simmering within Whitaker’s stocky form, his steadfast servant with access to power that he’s forbidden to use, and those blank looks. “We got two faces: ours and the ones that we got to show the white folks. Now to get up in the world, we have to make them feel non-threatened,” mentor Maynard (Clarence Williams III of The Mod Squad) offers. Surrounded by Daniels players like Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz, Gaines has one leg in a horrifying sharecropper past and another in upwardly mobile mid-century America, which filmmaker Daniels emphasizes by juxtaposing lynched black men with the stars and stripes at The Butler’s start.

The director goes on to unfurl his showiest stylistic flourishes in a series of jump cuts aimed at the spectacle of hypocrisy perpetually unfolding in the White House, as a table is carefully laid for a excruciating formal state dinner, and the Freedom Riders — Gaines’ son among them — are humiliated while staging a stoic sit-in at a Southern lunch counter. Passive resistance, in all its many forms, is the locus of both tragedy and heroism in The Butler.

Nature, with its dripping moss, strange sunsets, and even Biblical pestilence, provides brief snatches of beauty in 12 Years a Slave, as McQueen foregrounds the mechanistic business of slavery in the tools used for cutting cane, the wheels of a river boat. Free-born violinist Northup is beaten into a kind of tool after he’s kidnapped and sold into slavery. His body, nude and exposed to traffickers and buyers, is transformed into a commodity that doesn’t belong to him. His talents are also forced into new uses, as when he fiddles frantically while a mother is torn from her children in a horror-show of a salesroom floor — and later, during a torturous, late-night dance staged by Michael Fassbender’s damaged, sadistic slave owner. The effect of seeing familiar white actors (like Fassbender, and the stars who play The Butler’s various commanders in chief) reel by in a parade of status quo perpetrators, not saviors. In both 12 Years and The Butler, it’s disorienting — as if everyone in Hollywood is also aching to “make black film.”

12 years a slave

Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave

Bridging McQueen’s explorations of physical and psychological abjection, Hans Zimmer’s slow-burning, string-laden score picks up where it left off in McQueen’s 2011 Shame, about Fassbender’s sex addict enchained to his confused desires. In terms of desire, it’s all too clear where Ejiofor’s Northup stands (“I don’t want to survive — I want to live!” he declares), and to his credit, McQueen makes his nightmarish 172-year-old descent all too relevant, especially at a time when the Obama administration addresses the persistent crime of human trafficking. It’s just a small leap of imagination to think of one’s story, name, and legal status blotted out and turned around by force and a gnawing “you’re nothing but a Georgia runaway” counter-narrative, reminding the viewer that no one is truly free when others are enslaved. *

 

KIMBERLY CHUN’S US-DOMINATED 10 FOR ’13 

 

 (in alphabetical order)

Best second time around: 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, US/UK)

Luxe clucks: The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, US/UK/France/Germany/Japan)

Best off-base SF-by-way-of-Jersey: Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, US)

Finest funny-sad threesome: Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener, US)

Bay pride: Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, US)

Best flouting of the laws of physics: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, US)

Best use of entire songs: Inside Llewyn Davis (Ethan and Joel Coen, US/France)

Best tortured threesome: The Past (Asghar Farhadi, France/Italy)

Inspired grills and thrills: Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, US) Rapturous apocalypse: This Is the End (Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, US)

Not from around here

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MUSIC It was a case of the French pop love that dared not speak its name, as earlier this month rumors roiled about a Coachella coupling — mon dieu, deux! — to truly rave about: headliner Phoenix along with possibly, just maybe, hush-hush special guest Daft Punk, returning to stage de triomphe that it dominated seven years ago. The Phoenix guest that materialized, R. Kelly, wasn’t exactly the faceless freak the audience had imagined springing from the closet, and instead the mob had to cool its jets and content itself with an old-school LP ad from Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo.

The abbreviated 102-second spot saw the duo in glittery soft focus performing new single “Get Lucky” alongside Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers — the kind of clip you’d uncover on late-night TV during Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert — and announcing Daft Punk’s own special guest stars, including Giorgio Moroder, Panda Bear, past Daft Punk collaborator Todd Edwards, Paul Williams (who must have had Phantom of Paradise-tinged flashbacks), and Pharrell Williams. Just a taste, but enough to stir the pot in the lead up to the May 21 release of Daft Punk’s fourth studio full-length, Random Access Memories, on Columbia.

Is it so strange that Daft Punk and Phoenix should find their fortunes so intertwined out in the Cali desert, so far from Old World Paris and Versailles? After all, the two share a past — and a future: Phoenix guitarist Laurent Brancowitz, Bangalter, and de Homem-Christo all started out in a Beach Boys-inspired combo called Darlin’. And much like fellow French native Anthony Gonzalez’s M83, the two groups are managing to find creative juices to grease their wheels out west, in the fantasy industrial complex of LA — with Daft Punk stressing the importance of a West Coast feel à la Fleetwood Mac to Memories guest Edwards, and Phoenix telling MTV that its new CD, Bankrupt!, was inspired by its work on Thomas Mars spouse Sofia Coppola’s 2010 movie Somewhere.

Not to mention the fact that Bankrupt! and Memories are two of the most buzz-ridden releases of the year, particularly judging from the homemade “Get Lucky” remixes and videos already proliferating online. Long gone are the old rockist daze — the same that slurred “Disco sucks” — when French rock was derided as just another thing an entire country does wrong, like loving Jerry Lewis. Thoughts surely far from the minds of Daft Punk obsessives, though from the start the duo’s vocoder-obscured vocals and helmeted visages proudly proclaimed, “We’re alien, a.k.a. not from around here.” That tease is the name of Daft Punk’s space-rockin’ game this time around, taking control with a carefully orchestrated marketing campaign after a humbling day job scoring a sorry Tron sequel.

Working with its biggest crowd of collaborators yet, Daft Punk appears to be bursting the mythic bubble of an enigmatic twosome working solo behind the decks, letting others into the party, circling back to its clubland origins, and reaffirming that, as “Get Lucky” goes, its “ends were beginnings.”

And though indie seems leached of meaning, Phoenix sounds far deprived when it came to ideas for Bankrupt! Nate Chinen of the New York Times may quibble with Mars’s Dadaist “word salad” — why not attack a fellow for singing with an accent? — but then Phoenix isn’t the first band to privilege the sound of lyrics over content. Bankrupt! isn’t as “experimental” as promised early on, but it’s by no means as polished and predictable as your average Killers or Imagine Dragons product.

Starting with title and extending to the cover symbolism of a lucky peach, and the busy little rickshaw of an orientalist motif on opener “Entertainment,” Phoenix sounds as if it’s grappling with a Daft Punky notion of alien-ness, too — and the global economics of pop success, having hit it big at the height of an economic downtown with 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. The distorted, bristling synths grinding beneath songs like “The Real Thing,” in fact, make Bankrupt! one of the noisier mainstream rock albums of recent years. Scope out the lonely cries of the entitled asking to have their names put on lists on “SOS in Bel Air,” the fluty synths opening the languorous “Trying to Be Cool,” and hear the sound of a band conveying the seduction — and anxiety — of too many bright lights, big cities, and marathon tours and responding by mainly turning up on the volume.

So why French pop and why now? In fits and starts, leaps and stumbles, Daft Punk and Phoenix are creating less a pop language of diplomacy than a kind of lingua franca between classic sunny pop hooks, Beach Boys style, and the all-mighty often-electronic groove, be it analog or digital, IDM or EDM, boyish or girlish, human or alien.

LPs like Memories hark to another time, while satisfying on the primal level of da funk. As Pharrell Williams has said of “Get Lucky,” “The only click track they had was the human heartbeat, which makes it really interesting because these are robots.” So how does the sunlit, smoggy terroir of the west touch two French aliens and a band of Versailles refugees? Perhaps we’ll know when Daft Punk unveils Memories even further out West: May 17, at the the 79th Wee Waa Regional Show in Wee Waa, Australia.

Tribeca Film Festival wrap-up: the best of the rest!

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It was the best of sequesters: oh, Tribeca, how to wrap up the many, many days spent hidden away in the dark, watching flickering images dart across a screen? I can only try, as I speed through the best of the rest — and the notable not-so-muchs.

Kids these days: Poets and the young girls that love them are at the very funny heart of indie comedy Adult World, which is sure to make a star of Emma Roberts. She’s the shrill, just-graduated, wannabe-verse-slinger Amy, who’s moonlighting in an adult video store alongside hollow-eyed cutie Alex (American Horror Story’s Evan Peters) and hoping scuzzball genius will rub off if she “interns” (read: cleans house) for her favorite poet, Rat Billings (writ world-weary and hilariously cynical by John Cusack). First-time feature director Scott Coffrey (also, weirdly, a graduate of the same Honolulu high school where I did my own Amy impression) lets a few rough edges (i.e., edits) show, but it’s all good when the filmmaker winds up Roberts, playing the cringe-worthy Tracy Flick for the chapbook set, and lets her go.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z6DJSGrfNbk

Just as funny — and very of-the-moment — is G.B.F., as in gay best friend. As in every Bravo-watching gal’s latest, greatest slice of arm candy. Tanner (Michael J. Willett of United States of Tara) is just your average, comic-book-reading closeted gay teen when bestie Brent (Paul Iacono) decides his path to social success will be established once he comes out as the first openly gay teenager at their high school. He’s sure to become the pet pick of the would-be prom queens: the girl-with-the-best-hair Fawcett (Sasha Pieterse of Pretty Little Liars), drama mama Caprice (Xosha Roquemore), and Mormon good girl ‘Shley (Andrea Bowen). Alas, the wholly unprepared Tanner gets outed first — and the battle for the O.G. G.B.F. ensues.

Working with a fast, sassy, and slangy script — and teen comedy vets Natasha Lyonne, Rebecca Gayheart, and Jonathan Silverman — director Darren Stein (1999’s Jawbreaker) has already traversed some of this uber-camp territory: yes, there’s a multiplayer saunter down a high school hall and a maj makeover montage. But the snappy, laugh-out-loud dialogue by first-time screenwriter George Northy (fresh from the Outfest Screenwriting Lab, as he discussed after the film in a Q&A with Stein and much of the cast), along with some high-speed-DSL improvising by the cast, made this one of the more effortlessly enjoyable — and commercial — movies at Tribeca.

Speaking of effortlessly commercial, I mean, adorable: It sounds like NYC went stir-cray for Lil Bub and Friendz, especially when the lil’ permakitten herself materialized for a free open-air screening of the Vice documentary on a Saturday night. Short (at about 60 minutes), sweet, and definitely crammed with more than you’d ever wanted to know about Internet cats (even after Bravo’s LOLwork), their owners, and their merchandising, Lil Bub fortunately keeps its eye firmly trained on the prize, namely the wide-eyed little mutant in the center of a viral firestorm, while framing visits with Nyan Cat, Grumpy Cat, and Keyboard Cat with Bub’s life story.

This runt o’ the litter may not appear to have any bone marrow in her leg bones, zero teeth, a permanently extended tongue, and extra toes on every paw, yet she’s won more than just owner Mike Bridavsky’s heart — she’s repping for all the totes-adorbs misfits out there, making their fortunes just by being themselves (or by creating a grabby persona) on the Interwebs. Now we just need a 24-hour Bub-cam to fill in the gaps of our Bub-Friends-Forever obsession.  

Lighter fare? Paul Verhoeven’s crowd-sourced sex comedy Tricked was a mildly diverting exercise in group think, or better, gang-grope creativity. It’s no The Fourth Man (1983), Starship Troopers (1997), or even Showgirls (1995). There’s only a dash of that eye-tinglingly perverse psycho-drama that Verhoeven specializes in is evident in, perhaps, that tampon spinning in the toilet or this luscious ingenue suddenly flashing her ta-tas.

On the perversity tip — it doesn’t get much more against the grain than cannibalism, Maori family style, in the Kiwi cult-circuit-primed OTT Fresh Meat, which wallows then practically whirls in its own trough of bad taste. When a group of shoot-’em-up screw-ups invade the suburban home of an upstanding Maori suburban family, they learn that their freezer’s contents are less than savory — the hard and gory way — in a tone that seems derived from ‘80s Hong Kong martial arts comedies. Still, you have to appreciate the salacious brio with which director Danny Mulheron tackles this homecoming to Z-grade yuck-fests. 

Keeping it real: Ground-level neorealistic storytelling made its stand in features about everyday, blue-collar folks just trying to keep their head above the … snow. The best of which was Whitewash, a journey into the heart of a murder mystery with Thomas Haden Church cast as a snow-plow driver forced to rough it in the snow-swathed woods of Quebec. Church ably navigates that thin line between a kind of natural, deadpan humor and serious, even deadly, drama.

Kitted out with a cast that includes John Slattery (Mad Men), Adam Driver (Girls), and Margo Martindale (who’s in everything), Bluebird checks in on a similar, northerly terrain, an isolated, snow-cloaked Maine logging town, on the pretext of investigating the dire ramifications of single lapse by a well-meaning school bus driver (Amy Morton of Boss). Frustrated by that traumatized character’s deer-in-the-headlights muteness, you know there’s nowhere to go but up.

Much better, down south in burn-out, strip-mauled Florida, is Sunlight Jr. — otherwise known as Walking Dead heartthrob Norman Reedus’s return to the big screen, as yet another scary redneck, this time wielding a big-wheeled truck rather than a crossbow. Serenaded by an elegant guitar soundtrack by Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, Naomi Watts is as fantastic as usual, as a convenience-store honey struggling to stay sober and maintain a relationship with a hard-drinking, wheelchair-bound boyfriend (Matt Dillon). Director and writer Laurie Collyer (Sherrybaby) keeps her focus tight, only adding to Sunlight Jr.’s power.

Meanwhile, earnest Iowa farm-centered At Any Price, which opens theatrically in the Bay Area tomorrow, wasn’t quite the breakout movie for a mugging, dead-eyed Dennis Quaid, but it might be for Zac Efron, who rises above the fray in an indie that aspires to the gravitas of A Thousand Acres.

A continent and millions of concerns away in Italy, Ali Blue Eyes made a case for the story of two rebellious teenaged pals — one an Egyptian Muslim, the other a Catholic Italian. Nader (Nader Sarhan) may wear blue contacts in order to, rather lamely, blend in, but his loyalties and cultural ties are tested after a Romanian kid is stabbed in this compelling glimpse into an immigrants world at the edges of affluent Milan.   

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSTjh9Sd5Vs

Shock and awe: Midnight movies abounded — two of the best that I caught were The Machine, a relatively polished, low-budg Frankenstein story set in an English weapons research lab where researchers are intent on building the ultimate cybernetic super soldier. Riddling his script to references to quantum computers and the like, director-writer Caradog James manages to infuse a solid sense of Cronenbergian dread — as well as a tenuous moral ambiguity — into a sci-fi narrative that’s as old as the Romantics.

Much more disappointing — and marred by technical roughness — was Dark Touch, Marina de Van’s (2002’s In My Skin) rendition of Carrie, this time in the form of a telekinetically gifted (or cursed) 11-year-old. I get it — child abuse leads kids to act out, in this case, in murderous ways — I just kept tripping over the lapses in continuity and logic, the beautiful female characters’ uniform Breck Girl look, and the tragic special effects.

Fun, in the way that a blood-sucking brotherhood brandishing the “pointed nails of justice” can only be fun, is Byzantium, Neil Jordan’s return to the world of the undead, so long after 1994’s Interview With a Vampire. Here, the would-be malignant spirits choose to their path by visiting a wicked island that gushes blood when another little vampire is born. They also stroll about conveniently by day — though the isle and its keepers forbid women to make vampires (childbirth, I suppose, is considered sufficient). Still, it’s a trashy good time, with a lush Gemma Arterton wildly vamping as harlot-prey-turned-madam-predator and taking a garrote to her hunter (though after sitting through The Host, I’m not sure how much longer I’m willing to buy Saoirse Ronan’s ethereal space-cadet act).

The final, very wonderful monster in the room? A certain pantless Broadway legend who has shared a stage with Harpo Marx, dated Jack Kennedy, and has had Noel Coward and Stephen Sondheim write for her. The doc Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me follows the feisty song-and-dance Broadway icon on the verge of 87 as she tosses off wisecracks, appears on 30 Rock as the mother of Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, copes with diabetes, and bosses around documentary maker Chiemi Karasawa. It’s a unique delight — much like its subject. Yes, she just moved out of her digs in the Carlyle Hotel and back to her native Michigan — but Shoot Me allows us to bask in the considerable afterglow left in her wake.

Noodles, street dancers, and more from the Tribeca Film Fesival

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The only-in-Noo Yawk perks of the Tribeca Film Festival? The proximity of theaters like AMC Loews Village 7 to repositories of ramen deliciousity like Momofuku Noodle Bar, a scant two blocks away. You can keep the free ketchup-flavored popcorn distributed by sponsors in front of other theaters. I’ll take Momofuku’s house ramen, which overwhelms with porky goodness (a.k.a. pork belly, pork shoulder) and comes with a soft poached egg and gotta-have-it fish cake, cabbage, and nori.

Momofuku’s mini mason jar of flavorful kimchi also makes an ideal spicy side to such Tribeca talkies as The Broken Circle Breakdown, Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, and Flex Is Kings.

The grass is blue out in Belgian farm country in the completely recognizable albeit lovable The Broken Circle Breakdown. Imagine the sad-eyed, death-fixated songs of Appalachia with a tattooed rocker twist and European political bent (we’re talking socialized-med lefty rather than Bush-booster Hank Williams Jr.). Director Felix Van Groeningen gives his familiar love story a slight twirl through a nonlinear time-and-space mixing machine, and we pick it up as country-music-playing sweethearts Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) are anxiously watching over daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), hospitalized with leukemia.

Little is made of the disjunctions and commonalities between bucolic Belgium and backwoods America, though Van Groeningen dutifully charts the lovers’ highs (their sexual chemistry and affinity for high and lonesome music) and lows (the fights and personality conflicts in the form of Elise’s creative impulsiveness vs. Didier’s anger management issues) with affection and small moments of grace — much of which is brought to the screen by Baetens, who pulls her tattooed vintage girl beyond the cliche with the passionate intensity of a rock ‘n’ roll Noomi Rapace.

Serving up an inspired, wonderful, flawed glimpse of the inspired, wonderful, and sadly, happily flawed James Broughton and his multigenerational ride through Bay Area bohemia, Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton got its suitable Tribeca send-off with an afterparty hosted by radical-fairy-identified documentary-makers Stephen Silha and Eric Slade (spurred to make the movie with the remaindering of the poet’s many books) and a clutch of Broughton’s beloved Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

In the process of documenting the polymorphously creative life and times of the Modesto-born, Bay Area-nurtured poet, filmmaker, activist, teacher, dancer, and Pauline Kael baby daddy, the directors gather invaluable footage — including clips from Broughton’s pivotal experimental films, like The Potted Psalm and The Bed; frank interviews with ex-wife Suzanna Hart and son Orion, and footage of the man’s death-bed send-off — as well as talking-head snippets capturing Broughton friends and colleagues such as George Kuchar, Anna Halprin, Armistead Maupin, and Broughton’s onetime San Francisco Art Institute student and great love Joel Singer. I confess: the ‘80s-merry, multicolored-swiggle aesthetic of the film’s titles and animations isn’t quite my cuppa — but who can resist Broughton himself, the movie’s ineffable, mutable, magical center? 

Also irresistible, and just as immersed in pure-product-of-American-going-wild subculture, is Flex Is Kings, a snapshot of the so-called extreme street-dancing scene of East Brooklyn. Documentarians Michael Beach Nichols and Deidre Schoo take aim at Flex crew, a group of practitioners in this tough-to-define art — though I’ll try. The miraculously fluid, double-jointed hybrid of breakdancing, moonwalking, popping and locking, vogueing, and super-slo-mo anime-cum-zombie-martial-arts-video-game action plays off the violence of both comic books and street corners, valuing molten flow over crisp, sharp moves, weird new sights over tried-and-true repertoire.

We follow Flizzo, the stocky, eyelinered OG with an infant daughter on the way, who prides himself on his creativity (and predilection for gimmicky moves straight out of a magician’s bag of tricks) but can’t quite imagine his way out of petty fights with his girlfriend. And then there’s Jay Donn, the scrawnily handsome dancer who embraces spectacle, can take an artful spill off the roof of a building onto the walkway below, and manages to skillfully stumble his way into a legit dance company’s production of Pinocchio.

It’s a shame that Nichols and Schoo didn’t trust these dancers’ routines to hold the attention of viewers: they insist on cutting away and mashing moments up into sliced-and-diced montages. But such issues seem like quibbles when you picture these performers otherwise lost to history — and then sees their fellow dancers perfecting their moves on the subway. So savor it.  

Tribeca Film Festival report: opening night (and beyond)!

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Ah, welcome to the land of Law and Order — and the Tribeca Film Festival —as Richard Belzer introduced the event’s opening night movie, Mistaken For Strangers, on April 17.

“As if Bob doesn’t have enough money with his American Express commercials …,” he drawled of festival founder Robert De Niro and its splashy sponsor. He went on to say that De Niro started Tribeca to bring people back to the neighborhood after 9/11, so it follows that this year’s fest is dedicated to those suffering the after-effects of the Boston Marathon bombings.

After a brief monosyllabic appearance by the Bob himself — it’s really not about him despite his presence on key red carpets; he quickly passed the spotlight to cofounder Jane Rosenthal — out came the grateful, guileless-looking Mistaken For Strangers director Tom Berninger, brother to the National vocalist Matt Berninger and the maker of the doc ostensibly about the band but a really about brotherly love, competition, and creation. Looking like a viking Zach Galifianakis and playing like a bumbling, hard-partying, apolitical Michael Moore in the film, Tom Berninger looked like he could not quite believe his incredible luck as he was joined on stage by the suited-up National, as well as his small crew, the latter thanked for editing down and “cleaning up this mess.”

And Mistaken for Strangers is certainly a fun, loving, and loveable mess. National fanboys (and fangirls) will love this sidelong glance into the group and the indie rock life as it stands with its endless tours of Europe, its riders, its moments of tedium and instances of performative ecstasy. But likely more — perhaps future National fans — will get this family yarn about intertwined sibling support and rivalry, spinning off a somewhat genius conceit of brother vs. brother since the combo is composed of two sets of siblings: twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner on guitars and Scott and Bryan Devendorf on bass and drums respectively. The obvious question — what of singer Matt and his missing broheim?

Turns out little bro Tom is one of those rock fans — of metal and not, it seems, the National — more interested in living the life and drinking the brewskis than making the music. So when Matt reaches out to Tom, adrift in their hometown of Cincinnati, to work as a roadie for the outfit, it’s a handout, sure, but also a way for the two to spend time together and bond.

A not-quite-realized moviemaker who’s tried to make his own z-budge scary flicks but never seems to finish much, Tom decides to document, and in the process gently poke fun at, the band (a.k.a. his authority-figures-slash-employers), which turns out to be much more interesting than gathering their deli platters and Toblerone. The National’s aesthetic isn’t quite his cup of tea: they prefer to wrap themselves in slinky black suits like Nick Cave’s pickup band, and the soft-spoken Matt tends to perpetually stroll about with a glass of white wine or bubbly in hand when he isn’t bursting into OTT, albeit elegant, fourth-wall-busting high jinks on stage.

Proud of his sib yet also intimidated by the National’s fame and not a little envious of the photo shoots, the Obama meetings, and the like, Tom is all about having fun — at one point, while he tries to commune with bearded, long-haired drummer Bryan Devendorf via praise: “You’re more metal, and they’re more coffeehouse.” But it’s not a case of us vs. them, Tom vs. Matt, he discovers, but a matter of connecting with family and oneself. In, again, a Michael Moore-ian sense, the sweet-tempered Mistaken for Strangers is as much, if not more so, about the filmmaker and the journey to make the movie than the supposed subject.

After the screening, the audience got a sampling of what the National does so well — well-timed to the movie’s premiere and the May 20 release of their next album, Trouble Will Find Me (4AD) — with a performance, just a quick subway ride uptown, at Highline Ballroom. Opening out of the blue with “O Holy Night,” the band also played new songs such as “Demons” and “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” the latter acknowledged by Matt Berninger as the topic of online criticism: he quipped that fans have renamed the song “Don’t Swallow the Cat.” The new recording’s sound comes off as bigger, more percussive, and vaguely more ’80s-ish than that of 2009’s High Violet.

Serenaded by the now-Brooklyn-based band, chomping mint ice cream pops, and throwing back espresso mousse shots, the packed crowd was clearly starting Tribeca on a high — and I was hard-pressed to imagine a better opening (though after seeing Flex Is Kings, Michael Beach Nichols and Deidre Schoo’s fantastic documentary on Brooklyn street dancers, I wished a few of those flexers found their way on stage, too).

Stay tuned for more of Kimberly Chun’s dispatches from the Tribeca Film Festival.

Punk democracy

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC When the going gets tougher in the music biz, scrappy little South Bay punk label Asian Man Records has kept on going, downsizing yet sticking to its guns. That means standing by bands that have a chance to jump ship to a bigger imprint — by wishing them well.

Such might be the case with San Francisco’s Wild Moth, which came heavy with its sprawling, epic post-punk on the Mourning Glow EP released by Asian Man last summer, plays this week’s showcase, and has recently completed a full-length. “There’s some bigger labels that might be interested,” says Asian Man’s main man Mike Park, 43, on a recent morning in the office in his mom’s basement garage in affluent, arcadian Monte Sereno, right where it’s been for the past 16 years. “Our thought pattern is we want what’s best for the band. We’re here for you, but we want you to get the best deal.”

DIY, book-your-own-life punk has always hinged on that kind of support to Park, no slouch when it comes to both music-making and community-building. I last spoke to the vet of the South Bay ska scene and linchpin of Skankin’ Pickle about eight years ago when he was embarking on his “Bike For Peace” tour, cycling down the coast along with others to play and raise funds for a local youth center. Five years along from the opening of the first drug- and alcohol-free arts-focused Plea For Peace center in Stockton, Park continues to keep the faith — and to keep Asian Man out of the red — by staying small, though over the years he’s sold more than a 1 million albums by artists as disparate as Alkaline Trio, Andrew Jackson Jihad, the Queers, Kepi Ghoulie, the Lawrence Arms, and Slow Gherkin.

“A lot has to do with, when the music industry started to tank, I had a big jump-start on it,” says Park today. “I felt there was going to be a big turn and I started cutting back quite a bit. Bigger labels were still spending a lot of money and doing well in 2000, but I’ve always been able to turn a profit and, with the present-day music industry, I cut back even more.”

“We’re really upfront with the bands as far as our limitations — and we don’t do much at all!” he continues, chuckling. Yet despite the fact that Asian Man doesn’t harbor a major’s or major-indie’s marketing team (Park employs only one full-time employee besides himself) it does what it can, fostering a space that helps everyone help themselves. “Mostly the bands want to be part of this community. A lot of bands come over and hang out, help us pack records, lend a hand. We try to go to each other’s shows, and bands help out other bands when they tour.”

Park clearly took the lessons of Ian MacKaye’s Dischord Records to heart: keep prices low, maintain integrity, the works. The upcoming show with Wild Moth, the Exquisites, and Shinobu might be considered a good example of punk democracy in action: “They’re all on the same level,” Park says of the groups. “We’re just hoping we get a decent crowd. It’s a test to see how many people we can get out with no real headliner!” He got SF’s Great Apes on the bill because he’s known member Brian Moss since he was a teenager playing music: “He’s a super-talented guy and very supportive of all bands. You can tell some people are into it for what can further their careers, but instead with him, it’s ‘how can I help others?'”

Sounds a little like someone else we know. Still, punks mature, get married, and have kids, much like Park, who, despite an upcoming reunion show for his combo the Chinkees at a ska festival in Las Vegas in May, seems most excited about his latest project: his album of kids music and his kids label, Fun Fun Fun, which aims to release children’s music by punks. So far, the imprint’s Play Date, composed of Greg Attonito of Bouncing Souls and wife Shanti Wintergate, has shown up on NPR, and Park himself won a spot as the “Super Music Friend” on this winter’s Yo Gabba Gabba! Live! tour. “Other than the fact that we try to put out music that isn’t dumbed down, musically, it can pass for any of the records we normally put out,” he explains of Fun Fun Fun’s sounds, “only more G-rated and more educational lyrics.”

Whether he’s teaching kids when it’s safe to cross the street via ska or learning about new hardcore genres from the high schoolers that come by the office to help out, Park certainly can’t be accused of turning into a cranky punk nostalgist, grumbling about awesome mosh pits long gone.

“Punk’s evolved like everything. Things can’t stay the same with technology and the social media tools that artists have,” he says optimistically. “Let’s say there’s an underground show, and it gets canceled. Someone says, ‘Let’s do it at my house and here’s the address,’ and after a social media blast, you have 100 kids in a house in an hour. I remember pre-Internet you’d have to call people, and no one would have a cell phone, and someone would camp out at the old location and say the new location is here. I think it’s kind of cool, to be honest.”

SHINOBU, WILD MOTH, THE EXQUISITES, GREAT APES

Sat/20, 9pm, $9

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF

(415) 621-4455

www.bottomofthehill.com

In the blood

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FILM Even Fukushima Daiichi-style nuclear meltdowns can’t sever the blood ties that bind a brood of CAAMFest films that focus on family. Modernity nevertheless ushers in a set of unique struggles in these films, not exactly family-friendly fare, though most are fulsome with empathy for these clans under pressure and in the viewfinder.

Throwing the lid back on the Mosuo Chinese ethnic minority, while unveiling the economic and cultural stressors weighing on families struggling to keep up in the soon-to-be world’s largest economy, The Mosuo Sisters documents the lives of two young women from a small village in the Himalayan foothills. Eldest sibling Juma is trying to maintain her role as family breadwinner — she sings in big-city clubs that trot her out like an exotic specimen — while the younger Latso is rooming with her, studying accounting and embracing urban life. It takes a global downturn to tear the two apart, as Latso is encouraged to help out on the farm and Juma finds it harder to remain the de facto matriarch-at-large, while the Mosuos’ way of life — in which “walking marriages” place the power and offspring in the hands of women and their households — is chipped away from afar by the draw of neon-dappled cities, rendered as eloquent, inexorable rivers of headlights by director-cinematographer Marlo Poras.

Two families — one far from home and the other navigating a thicket of cultural, political, and product safety issues — feel the pain of Xmas Without China in Alicia Dwyer and Tom Xia’s gently humorous and humane doc. Chinese-born, California-raised Xia is by all respects American (apart from his green card), but as a firestorm ignites over the lead in Chinese-made toys and the threat of Chinese industrial might, he comes up with the genius plan of finding out just how deeply China and its goods have rooted itself in the US, despite Americans misgivings. He finds a family, the Joneses, who are willing to go without anything made in China through the Christmas season — just to see if they can.

Meanwhile, Xia’s parents, who have set themselves up in their own American dream, a colonial McMansion, are also put under the lens as they struggle to keep up with their own neighboring Joneses, plotting the biggest Christmas-lights display on the block — and coping with homesickness for family back in the old country. As dad Tim Jones sneaks into the stash of verboten Chinese goods for his beloved Xbox, Xia uncovers his own insecurities, as he finds himself lying to the Joneses about his citizenship and hiding behind a facade of assimilation.

Taking the kin out on a pulpy, not-for-youngsters thrill ride, director-writer Ron Morales’ Graceland uncovers a lurid Manila of child sex workers, corrupt politicians and cops, and trash mountains. Chauffeur Marlon (Arnold Reyes) is tasked with enabling the dirty work of his politico boss, Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias), including packing up and paying off the little girls he drugs and rapes. The switch comes when kidnappers come for both their daughters, and the once-powerless servant becomes inextricably embroiled in the crime. Though occasionally threatening to topple over into scene-chomping territory and finally revealing drive-through gaps in its plot, the full-frontal Graceland is still capable of inspiring admiration for its sheer gusto, refusing to flinch at the brutality wrought on young girls’ bodies and likewise daring you to tear your eyes away in complicity.

Blood — whether it pulls a family unit together or rips them apart with fears of radiation contamination — underlies the apocalyptic scenes of The Land of Hope, the first feature film to grapple with the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Life in fictional Nagashima seems idyllic until the arrival of an earthquake and tsunami that ushers in a largely unseen nuclear disaster. Dairy farmer Yasuhiko (Isao Natsuyagi) forces his son Yoichi (Jun Murakami) and daughter-in-law Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka) to leave him behind, along with wife Chieko (Naoko Ohtani), who suffers from dementia; it’s a sacrificial gesture that evokes 1983’s The Ballad of Narayama‘s mash-up of filial piety and noble embrace of death.

Yoichi denies reality as vigorously as he can, until Izumi becomes pregnant and learns that their new home also reads high in radiation. Writ with an eye to psychological trauma rather than physical dangers, Sion Sono (2002’s Suicide Club) has likely made his most ambitious film to date with Hope. It makes stirring use of exquisitely subtle images that imbue empty towns and blowing wind with dread; eerily surreal sights of a mother-to-be puttering around town in a Hazmat suit; and symbolism made literal, as when Ugetsu-like child phantoms materialize in wreckage from the waves.

Set in a country that prizes purity and conformity — and has a legacy of dealing with the aftermath of nuclear disaster — Hope may not leave you with hope, exactly. But it certainly imparts the expected horrors and unpredicted highs when the safe family home finds itself under siege, leaving on your mind’s eye the shadowy imprint of a woman, dressed in her finest kimono, dancing to festival music only she can hear, in the snow near a contaminated town reduced to tinder.

CAAMFEST

March 14-24, most shows $12

Various venues, SF and Berk.

www.caamedia.org

 

Chick it out

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YEAR IN FILM Cluck as you may, it was only a matter of time before the chicks started rewriting those chick flicks. Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, and their peers represent the girls — how politically incorrect — in all their messy, sexy, oozy, frizzy-haired, fallible, flabby, and unflappable glory. And this year saw a major meeting in the ladies room, films out real soon, that poked fun at women’s work, relationships, identities, and insecurities.

The pedestal that history’s most notorious auteur-patriarch was so quick to place his icy blondes upon, rhapsodized in the nostalgia-laced Hitchcock, was toppled in feminist Pygmalion revamp Ruby Sparks, penned by lead actress Zoe Kazan. Meanwhile, Rashida Jones took a revisionist tact and rethought the second-wave myth of the woman who can have it all by writing and playing the lovable power bitch who nevertheless kicks her slacker soul mate to the curb in Celeste and Jesse Forever.

>>Read more from our Year in Film issue here.

In a more clearly chick-flicky vein, writer-star Lauren Miller amped up the sexual side of the rom-com with For a Good Time, Call…, whereas Julie Delpy reveled in an old-world/new-urban interracial culture clash while writing, directing, and starring in 2 Days in New York. Zoe Lister Jones got the second-banana gal-pal’s revenge by writing herself all the best lines in the unsettlingly girlie Lola Versus, a movie that seemed designed to test the patience of men, critics (especially male ones) by wallowing in one girl’s mournful sexual shenanigans.

Why take on the notoriously powerless role of screenwriter? “A pretty dreary lot of hacks,” Raymond Chandler once put it. “On billboards, in newspaper advertisements, [the writer’s] name will be smaller than that of the most insignificant bit-player who achieves what is known as billing.” It’s a critical step in deconstructing the tropes, disassembling the lines, and unpacking the baggage so many so-called women’s films have been supplying for years. No wonder female actor-writers so often seem to be in a race for the bottom with the guys, writing themselves roles that make themselves look more morally ambiguous, sexually conflicted, taste-testingly lurid, and simply screwed-up. Born in Flames (1983), these movies aren’t.

Instead, dub them the natural byproduct of a DIY video-making movement or simply a pendulum swing away from 2011, when it seemed like all the blockbuster roles for women lay in servant’s quarters of The Help and females were protagonists of only 11 percent of all films, in contrast to 2002’s 16 percent (according to a report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University).

Chalk it up to the afterglow of Wiig’s Bridesmaids (2011), spinning off the comedy that won over audiences with its flurry of frenemy backstabbing, scatological humor, and extremely close attention to women’s bizarro rites of passage. Or attribute it to the seismic activity set off by Lena Dunham, who satirized the YouTube generation in 2010’s Tiny Furniture, a comedy she herself shot on a Canon 5D digital camera. Dunham’s HBO hit, Girls, only added fuel to a blogosphere backlash that seemed less about Dunham (her looks, her privileged background) and more about hipster-culture smugness, an entire generation’s perceived sense of entitlement, and good ol’ jealousy.

That kind of outcry is a risk that women are increasingly willing to take, as they wrote themselves onto the big screen and told their own stories. They spun tales about their perhaps petty, perhaps big-deal concerns, and went there — to the not so deep, but sort of dirty little secrets in the Hidden World of Girls, to crib the title of that Fey-hosted NPR series.

And however you felt about her genre-defining rom-coms, there was a certain sad poetry to the fact that writer-director Nora Ephron quietly passed away amid this year’s girlquake. She spent less time in front of the camera than many of these actress-writers do, but you know the woman who directed and co-wrote 1992’s This Is My Life — the film that inspired Dunham to make movies — would have been eager to pass the baton.

 

 

KIMBERLY CHUN’S TOP 10 SHOTS IN THE DARK OF 2012

 

Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece, 2010)

Crazy Horse (Frederick Wiseman, USA/France, 2011)

The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, UK, 2011)

Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, US)

Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia)

Gerhard Richter Painting (Corinna Belz, Germany, 2011)

Gimme the Loot (Adam Leon, US)

I Wish (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2011) Marina Abramovich: The Artist Is Present (Matthew Akers, Jeff Dupre, US) Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/UK)

All in the game

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM How might filmmaker Nicholas Jarecki measure the success of Arbitrage, his debut feature about a hedge fund honcho’s attempt to sell his way out of desperate circumstances? Perhaps a gauge can be found in the response the writer-director received at a recent East Hampton screening for a roomful of magnates such as John Paulson, figures who provided some of the initial inspiration for Arbitrage.

"I think the net worth of the room was somewhere around $20 or $30 billion," recalls Jarecki on recent visit to San Francisco. "They came up to me after the screening and said, ‘You know, we really liked the film and we just have to tell you — it made us uneasy from beginning to end. Really, what you put up there is our nightmare.’ I said, ‘Well, thank you.’"

The boyish Jarecki looks as pleased as a high-roller who has just bought low and sold high; he’s crafted a capitalist all-American horror story of sorts, for billionaires as well as the fascinated and repulsed 99 percent. As Arbitrage opens, its slick protagonist, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), is trying to close the sale of his life, on his 60th birthday: the purchase of his company by a banking goliath. The trick is completing the deal before his fraud, involving hundreds of millions of dollars, is uncovered, though the whip-smart daughter who works for him (Brit Marling) might soon be onto him.

Meanwhile, Miller’s gaming his personal affairs as well, juggling time between a model wife (Susan Sarandon) and a Gallic gallerist mistress (Laetitia Casta), when sudden-death circumstances threaten to destroy everything, and the power broker’s livelihood — and very existence — ends up in the hands of a young man (Nate Parker) with ambitions of his own.

It’s a realm that Jarecki is all too familiar with. Though like brothers Andrew (2003’s Capturing the Friedmans) and Eugene (2005’s Why We Fight), Jarecki’s first love is documentaries (his first film, 2006’s The Outsider, covered auteur James Toback), his family is steeped in the business world. Both his parents were commodities traders, and Jarecki, who describes himself as a "computer geek in my youth," once owned his own web development firm and internet access provider, among other ventures. Nonetheless, the filmmaker —who graduated from New York University film school at 19, served as a technical adviser on the 1995 film Hackers, and co-wrote the script 2008’s The Informers — continued to hear the siren call of feature film.

"I had knowledge of venture capital and the markets, but at the same time it was, what’s a credit default? What is this?" he remembers of the time he started writing Arbitrage‘s script in 2008. Bernard Madoff interested him less than "someone who was a good guy but who became corrupted along the way and started to believe in his own invincibility and his own press releases."

Jarecki found his "King Lear-esque" nouveau robber baron in Richard Gere, after convincing the actor to take a chance on a first-time director. He ended up digging in deep with Gere and the rest of the cast during a month of rehearsals, research, and rewrites. "I was doing my own mad arbitrage and putting the film together — the voluminous amounts of documents they make you sign, and I borrowed many millions of dollars from a major bank," Jarecki explains. "So it was rehearsing in one room and calling the wire desk on the other."

As a result, the moviemaker found himself understanding Miller’s part only too well: "When I was writing and the characters had to do something, the person I modeled the decision on was myself. What would I do? And the more surprising and frightening the answers, the more I felt I was onto something."

There’s a memorable moment when Miller’s daughter confronts him on his transgressions and he explains, in a moment of startling, almost lamely ineffectual self-consciousness, that he’s a patriarch simply playing his part. Still, Miller doesn’t believe it’s the end of days for those men gathering in East Hampton screening rooms.

"There was a joke I had with the distributor, ‘Will this still be relevant when it comes out?’" he muses. "Yet every week there’s a new revelation of a new fraud: MF Global losing billions of dollars in customer funds in unauthorized trading. A Knight Financial computer glitch and they lose $420 million — I think that’s the exact number lost in the movie — and it just happened two weeks ago. And now it’s, ‘Where’s my morning coffee?’"


ARBITRAGE opens Fri/14 in Bay Area theaters.

The comeback king

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM As told in Searching for Sugar Man, the tale of the lost, and increasingly found, artist known as Rodriguez seems to have it all: the mystery and drama of myth, beginning with the singer-songwriter’s stunning 1970 debut, Cold Fact, a neglected folk rock-psychedelic masterwork. (The record never sold in the states, but somehow became a beloved, canonical LP in the closed Petri dish of repression and imminent revolution of South Africa.) The story goes on to parse the cold, hard facts of vanished hopes and unpaid royalties, all too familiar in pop tragedies.

Yet loping into the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in a black suit and teal troubadour’s shirt, guitar slung around his shoulder, the long-haired man in sunglasses known as Sixto Rodriguez by friends and family in his native Detroit seems far from bitter, decades after his hard-to-classify music failed to make an impact on charts then dominated by BJ Thomas and Simon and Garfunkel.

“People who make me mad don’t inspire me — it’s issues. Hate is too strong a passion to waste on someone you don’t like, if you know what I mean,” he mutters, half easygoing ramble and half shy-guy mumble. In the decades since Cold Fact, Rodriguez has channeled the streetwise poetry of his lyrics into a politically active life, attending demonstrations and running for Detroit city council and even mayor at one point, though he’s never won an office.

“Social issues are more interesting to me. I’m about peace and prosperity and the pursuit of happiness — and how about justice?”

His is a curious, complicated conversational mixture of hipster-philosopher whimsy, stream-of-consciousness bohemian spiel, and numbers as hard as cash. The latter inspires the 70-year-old to start to breaking down his appeal in terms of seats sold (5,000 here; 10,000 there), celebrities in the audience (Alec Baldwin was at one recent show), and the money to be had in licensing (the Rolling Stones can charge $100,000 for a song!) — as if he needs to justify his presence with raw data.

Nonetheless, it’s an understandable response. Searching for Sugar Man lays out the ballad of Rodriguez as a rock’n’roll detective story, with two South African music lovers in hot pursuit of the elusive musician — long-rumored to have died onstage by either self-immolation or gunshot, and whose music spoke to a generation of white activists struggling to overturn apartheid.

Opening with the soulful strains of Rodriguez’s unforgettable “Sugar Man” and images of a sunlit drive along the South African coast, the film makes its way to the snowy urban wasteland of the Motor City. Filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul orients himself around the efforts of Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, who wrote the South African CD liner notes for Rodriguez’s second full-length, Coming From Reality (both of Rodriguez’s Sussex albums have since been reissued by Light in the Attic, which is releasing the doc’s soundtrack with Sony Legacy), and music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, who wrote the story of the search that eventually led Rodriguez’s eldest daughter, Eva, to make contact with Segerman and ultimately Rodriguez’s wildly disconnected fans.

Swedish documentarian Bendjelloul first got wind of Rodriguez’s tale in 2006, from Segerman. “I saw this was an amazing story, but after I heard the album, I thought, what amazing music — it needs an amazing director,” says the filmmaker, sitting across a conference table from Rodriguez. “I didn’t think it would be me. I was nervous that I would screw it up.”

His devotion to the project — which led him to quit his job, pour his savings into the movie, draw his own animation sequences, and resort to filming Super-8-like footage on his iPhone — took him on his own four-year journey.

Rodriguez came to the project in 2008, memorably materializing out of the shadows in Searching for Sugar Man in the window of the house he’s lived in for the last 40 years (and purchased for $100, he swears). He made a living doing demo on construction projects. “I’m from a working class background and that’s what I do,” the musician declares proudly. “I always like to say, ‘Never throw away your work clothes!’ I think it’s good for people to stay active: you can kick a lot more ass if you stay physically fit.”

Of his story’s fairy-tale trajectory, Rodriguez says, “I didn’t believe I was anything in South Africa. In this music business, everybody’s the greatest and latest. Everyone’s a sweetheart. But underneath that, there’s a lot of realism in music. People aren’t as successful as they appear to be. They talk about the wonderful Motown thing, but if you list all the tragedies they had, it wouldn’t be such a pretty picture.”

Still, even one as familiar with the cold facts as Rodriguez can’t deny the power of a great song — and one that he wrote. “This current issue of Esquire magazine has a song of the month: it’s ‘I Wonder,’ a 20-year-old song. The longevity of music amazes me,” he offers laconically, the barest hint of pleasure creeping into his voice. “It can last.” *

SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN opens Fri/3 in San Francisco.

RODRIGUEZ

Sept. 29, 9pm, $20

Bimbo’s 365 Club

1025 Columbus, SF

www.bimbos.com

Dream Layers

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC Unable to resist a siren song with dark underpinnings, hanging low with heartbreak then taking you higher? Let Chairlift co-founder Caroline Polachek love you down when it comes to “Take It Out on Me,” off her Brooklyn band’s second album, Something (Kanine/Sony).

Maybe it has to do with the choked-up soul with which Polachek wraps her hollowed-out vocals around the fat, round syllables of the chorus, “Forget forgiveness / Forget all the rules / Just please don’t do it here / Bring on the fire / Cause business is cruel.” Or the way that the track’s clear, bell-like synth tones shiver delicately in the background — icicles pelted by a thunder shower of arpeggios. But the overall effect sounds like a consummate sad girl’s hit, à la Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

“That’s one of my favorite songs on the record,” Polachek, 26, says sincerely as her band’s vehicle makes its way to Montreal for a show. “I don’t want to get all emo on you in an interview, but it was about a frightening series of events in a dream. My dream family was being threatened, and I offered up myself in exchange for them and I was killed. I witnessed my own funeral at the end, too…”

She abruptly stops. “Wow, we just saw an eagle, a big white raptor!” A moment later she’s back. “There’s all kinds of vultures circling above us. Well, if our vehicle goes missing, you’ll know where we were!”

Edging away from that particular blackened fantasy, Polachek — part visionary with a watchful, Patti Smith-like eye for opportune inspiration and part down-to-earth every-girl happy to start an interview late so she can eat a sandwich — quickly picks up her thread once more: the blazing hot August 2010 day she and bandmate Patrick Wimberly, 27, worked on the song.

“The idea for the vocal movement came into my head, and I got excited about how it was sounding together, but all I could think about this was this horrible dream I had. The mood of the song was so sexy and fun and grooving, but this mood was so dry and awful and dark — somehow the two things happening at once was what that was. I think that’s one of the neat things about this record — there are layers like that, and darker songs have elements of lightness.”

The feeling of willingly bearing adulthood’s burdens — Chairlift co-founder Aaron Pfenning is long gone — combined with Polachek’s tendency to gravitate to the uncanny has rarely sounded so sumptuously effervescent than with the compulsively listenable, synth-dominated, and undeniably ’80s-hued Something.

If you’re itching for pop hooks, discover “Met Before” and “Amanaemonesia,” but if you’re yearning for aural thrills and spills, you’ll find those, too — in the spiraling Slinky keyboard runs of opener “Sidewalk Safari” and the tinkling, buzzing textures of “Frigid Spring.” The feeling of hermetic sonic richness, combined with Polachek’s undulating jazz- and R&B pop-touched vocals, stands alongside nothing less than Kate Bush’s The Dreaming (EMI, 1982) in its epic scope, tapestry of fictions, and blending of pop and prog.

“I was thinking a lot about textures when I was working on this record,” explains Polachek. “I kind of have a mental genre in my own head that kind of sounds like swimming pool music — with a chorus on it that makes everything sound not culturally cool but literally refreshing. Things that sound frosty and crystalline.

“And I got into a mental genre of sounds that were acidic and driving, like a dragon opening its mouth and hissing,” she continues. “I was gathering playlists, and some of those ideas found their way into the record. We’re living in a really playlist-y age, digging through the crates of history. I’m really into new age bath-time music.”

Unfortunately while the pair was busy drawing Something‘s warm bath, Polachek’s art-making has fallen by the wayside, apart from Chairlift videos. Still, her creative energies have obviously found a consuming outlet in her band. “It’s about all the desire,” she says, “to play like little kids play.” 

CHAIRLIFT

With Nite Jewel, Seventeen Evergreen

Tues/10, 8pm, $15

Independent

628 Divisadero, SF.

(415) 771-1422

www.theindependentsf.com

Where there’s a Will

0

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FILM You gotta love a guy who is willing to poke fun at his man handles. But the consistency with which Will Ferrell is willing to drop trou has had even Terry Gross wondering, what’s with the vast expanses of exposed carne asada, dude?

Ferrell’s new Casa de mi Padre — a Spanish-language jab at telenovelas, spaghetti-burrito westerns, and just plain low-budget moviemaking, circa the early 1970s — is no exception. It, er, climaxes with a sweet, sweet love scene, complete with close-ups on rumps.

“Well, that was always in the script — that was literally written in the stage direction: lots of butts. Way too many butts. And that made me laugh, if that was going to be our big crescendo lovemaking scene,” Ferrell says gamely. “Of course, lit beautifully with soft lenses and elegant tracking shots and dissolves.”

Tanned, gold-tressed, and outfitted in a gingham shirt and khakis, the actor resembles the tall, well-groomed human incarnation of a Steiff teddy bear. He also comes off as one of the nicest every-guy movie stars around — the kind that justifies the response you get when you tell someone you’re interviewing Will Ferrell (inevitably: “Omigod, I love him!”)

Maybe that appeal has to do with a willingness to embrace the painfully awkward. Anything to heighten the comedy of the moment, he explains, but also, “I think we’re so body- and image-conscious in this culture, and there’s so much emphasis on staying in shape, looking good, plastic surgery, this, that, and the other, that it’s just kind of my protest against all of that. It’s just, that’s what real bodies look like, and if mine happens to look funny, then that’s good, too.”

The latest challenge in a long line of actorly exercises and comic gestures — from his legendary stint on Saturday Night Live and his Funny or Die videos, to his long list of comedies probing the last gasps of American masculinity, and such serious forays as Stranger Than Fiction (2006) — is Casa de mi Padre. Here Ferrell tackles an almost entirely Spanish script (with only meager high school and college language courses under his belt) alongside Mexican superstars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna and telenovela veteran Genesis Rodriguez.

The entire project, directed by Matt Piedmont and written by Andrew Steele, sprang from Farrell’s noggin. “I had this idea for the longest time, just from watching telenovelas,” he recounts. “It’s one of those things where you’re cruising around the dial, and you stop, and you watch it for four or five minutes, and it’s like, my god. It’s way over the top, but it was so funny to put myself in that world. I’ve never seen that before and I thought, wow, it would be a unique opportunity to take someone from American comedy and have them commit to speaking Spanish. That could be a cool movie.”

So Ferrell worked with Patrick Pérez, who translated the script from English to Spanish, before the shoot and then during the production, driving to and from the set every day, going over lines and working on pronunciation. “It was a little bit crazy — a lot crazy,” Ferrell confesses. “But it was so much fun. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a more fun yet stressful experience.”

All of which led to almost zero improvisation on the actor’s part; plenty of meta, Machete-like spoofs; and a new twist in the world of Ferrell’s films, which seem to all share a glee at poking holes in American masculinity. Yes, Casa punctures padre-informed transmissions of Latin machismo, but it equally ridicules the idea of a gringo actor riding in and superimposing himself, badly or otherwise, over another country’s culture.

“That theme of the macho Americans, ‘USA! We’re number one!’ has been so fascinating and such a great thing to make fun of. That we think we’re the best,” Ferrell observes. “I’ve always been fascinated with that level of ego.” 

CASA DE MI PADRE opens Fri/16 in Bay Area theaters.

Here’s lookin’ at you, kids

1

arts@sfbg.com

SFIAAFF As the mainstream movie industry undergoes a senior moment and tips toward grandfatherly nostalgia, this year’s San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival seems to be in the throes of a youth movement. You can trace the growth spurt from Eduardo W. Roy Jr.’s reproduction production line Baby Factory and the childhood Xmas fantasy of Kim Sung-Hoon’s Ryang-Kang-Do: Merry Christmas, North! to Wang Xiaoshuai’s coming-of-age snapshot 11 Flowers and the teen gang wars of Byron Q’s Bang Bang. A closer look at three — Christopher Woon’s Hmong hip-hopper doc Among B-Boys, Akira Boch’s girl-band indie The Crumbles, and Takashi Miike’s tot action farce Ninja Kids — finds the disparate troika taking aim at shared themes of bonding and identity.

Among B-Boys gives outsiders an hour-long, respectful immersion in the lives of Hmong breakdancers, here “getting lost” in their impressively athletic moves and speaking for themselves, away from the flinty-eyed filter of Gran Torino (2008). In his quest to follow the Velocity/Soul Rivals and Underground Flow crews, Woon takes his camera from Oklahoma to Left Coast exurbia where the kids are attempting to dream with acrobatic handstands, freezes, and crazy-fancy footwork — and finding their efforts rewarded with trophies.

Their triumphs in gritty gyms and community centers are made that much more poignant in the context of their parents’ memories of war, displacement, and poverty. The elders’ stealth contributions to the CIA’s shadowy adventures in Laos casts a pool of lingering darkness on these hip-hoppers, who are striving to carve out a life for themselves while coping with the unique challenges that the Hmong have encountered in the states. As Joua Xiong, the rare B-girl in the Soul Rivals Crew, explains, “Hmong mean ‘the Free,’ and that’s basically what we are: we don’t have a certain country, but we don’t really know our original customs because we’re so mixed up. We have a lot of Thai, Lao, Chinese in us, and we’ve been running away so much from people trying to destroy our customs and make us conform with them.”

Cast away in a semi-rural Merced, Fresno, and Sacto, these kids appear to be finding another kind of freedom. “It’s not just breaking,” says Soul Rivals’ Kyle Vong. “It’s the culture of hip-hop — it’s about teaching yourself to understand life in general and expressing yourself.”

The awkward slackers and damaged hipsters of The Crumbles seem to be worlds away from the humble, proud B-boys of the Central Valley: theirs is a sun-strafed, paved-over Los Angeles habitat of coffee shops, taco trucks, bookstores, budding filmmakers, and living room-bound band practice. Darla (Katie Hipol) is slouching nowhere fast when her zany, charismatic cool-girl chum Elisa (Teresa Michelle Lee) enters the picture, looking for a place to crash.

Elisa’s wacky, erratic, and unreliable, but she’s also capable of generating real excitement — and a mean little keytar hook — and the girls’ band, the Crumbles, gets off the couch and threatens to get all involved to bust out of their shells. Though director Boch never quite dips into the deep background of his characters’ various dysfunctions — the threatened readings of Darla and Elisa’s psychic friend never quite sheds light — the first-time feature filmmaker has a real feel for the drifting, up-for-anything quality of Cali 20-somethings and an appreciation for their highs and lows that makes this familiar, loving, lets-put-on-show-kids update compelling.

With kindred ultraviolence vet Martin Scorsese throwing himself into his own kiddie roller-coaster of a cinematic ride with last year’s Hugo, it makes some sense that Takashi Miike — whose 2010 13 Assassins might have bested both Ichi the Killer (2001) and 1999’s Audition for sheer bloodletting — would enter the children’s field with such gusto. Manga fans will appreciate Miike’s broadly farcical, spoofy élan with comic book touches — down to the freeze-frame mucus drips, the CGI hatched-background stills denoting way-ramped-up action, and fourth-wall-bust-outs/pop-up trivia interludes by your “friendly ninja trivia commentator.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVjoh-jG36o

Rantaro — your archetypal geek toddler, complete with thick glasses and bad haircut — has left the family farm and been sent off to ninja nursery school to learn all about deadly boomeranging stars, big-headed villains with testicular chins, and ninja master-slash-hair stylists. Does Rantaro, er, find himself amid the rigors of class, attacks from dastardly ninja outfits, and a final challenge that has him literally biting the dust? And does it matter when Miike digs in with such glee to lampoon the samurai genre, and kick up dust with the ankle-nibblers in this insanely comical alternate universe of ninja mini-mes?

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL

March 8-18, various Bay Area venues, most shows $12

www.caamedia.org

DOCS AND SHOCKS: MORE FROM THE SF INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL

SFIAAFF Documentary fans, prioritize Give Up Tomorrow, Michael Collins’ probing examination of a high-profile murder case in the Philippines. If the Paradise Lost films got your blood boiling, expect to rage even harder at the unbelievably shifty way the events detailed here unfolded.

As with the West Memphis Three, the crime at Tomorrow‘s heart is horrific: in 1997, two sisters in their early 20s were kidnapped, raped, and murdered. Or were they? Only one body was found, and it was never quite confirmed that the dead woman was actually one of the missing sisters. Of course, that didn’t stop authorities (almost all of whom had ties to a local drug lord, who was also connected to the victims’ family) from fingering a group of local teens, including Paco Larrañaga — who became the case’s main target, despite the fact that dozens of his culinary-school classmates swore he was with them, hundreds of miles from the crime scene, at the time of the alleged murders.

Give Up Tomorrow offers a searing study of a corrupt court system, and the heartbreak that happens when a cause célèbre falls victim to the short attention span of the international activist community. Without spoiling all of its twists and turns, know that this story is better than any fictionalized crime drama, and more powerfully wrenching for being true.

Other docs worth checking out include Mr. Cao Goes to Washington, an insightful look at the American political system via Joseph Cao, who was the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress. But that wasn’t the most unique thing about him: he was a Republican, elected amid post-Katrina disarray in one of New Orleans’ traditionally African American and staunchly Democratic districts. S. Leo Chiang’s film follows Cao as he makes hard choices in the year leading up to his battle for re-election, including voting first for, then against, President Obama’s health care reform bill. (Reason for the switch: he’s passionately anti-abortion.) Even if you don’t agree with his views, Cao puts a human (and surprisingly honest) face on the great divide between the political parties in this country.

More hopeful is No Look Pass, Melissa Johnson’s quite enjoyable documentary about first-generation Burmese American Emily Tay, a basketball superstar who turns pro after graduating Harvard (eat your heart out, Jeremy Lin), and, oh yeah — happens to be a lesbian. No Look Pass also screened at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, and it’s not hard to see why it appeals to a wide range of audiences: Tay is an inspiring figure on the court, and endearingly awkward off it, especially when trying to relate to her deeply traditional parents.

Even more uplifting, and perfectly compressed at 39 minutes, is Lucy Walker’s Oscar-nominated The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, which examines the “beauty and terror” of nature, as perceived by Japanese survivors of the recent earthquake and tsunami — and the spiritual significance of the cherry blossom, which is shown to be a key element in the country’s healing process.

Genre fans! I Am a Ghost, the world-premiere latest from prolific local H.P. Mendoza (2006’s Colma: The Musical), starts slowly but — holy ghost! — stick with it, and you’ll be shriekingly rewarded. And another recent IndieFest selection, Marlon N. Rivera’s satirical The Woman in the Septic Tank, returns to delight another wave of crowds with its tale of three ambitious filmmakers (and a hell of a leading lady) determined to make the most popular Filipino movie of all time. Best line: “Fuck Cannes, bro! We’re talking Oscars!” (Cheryl Eddy)

Whither indie?

4

MUSIC How does one trace the warp and woof of Bay Area indie rock’s silky, sick, multihued tapestry — with ticket stubs to long-ago shows, holey concert T’s, or grainy snapshots of sweat-swathed guitar players, red eyes gleaming in a haze of smoke machine emissions? Perhaps one way is to chart SF indie’s course from the first Noise Pop to the latest 20th anniversary edition, teasing out the tenuous connections between the first fest’s headliner Overwhelming Colorfast, reunited this year, and newish local poobah Young Prisms.

The pinging, ringing unifier might be found in the cascades of distortion, the buzzsaw guitars, used to drastically different ends. Fighting it out, too, beneath Overwhelming Colorfast’s fleet-footed crunch and Young Prisms’ smoggy overhang of echo-chamber shoegaze are clearly discernible, sensitive hearts, pulsing through the dulcet vocal lines and delivered with perfectly imperfect, threadbare falsettos. You can hear the ties that bind the two bands in the tide of romanticism and even sentimentality running under OC’s onslaught, YP’s haze.

Back in their 1991 to ’96 day, I confess I lost track of Overwhelming Colorfast: I don’t think I even saw them during their brief lifetime, although the music-snob friends respectfully granted that OC were kind of OK. So it feels thoroughly weird to play catch up with the most praised recording, Moonlight and Castanets (Headhunter/Cargo, 1996), by Antioch’s finest. Just as Overwhelming Colorfast was breaking up (only to reassemble, in time, as Oranger), Moonlight came along. Sprawling and ambitious with a bit of everything, it evokes the exploding mind of a particularly imaginative punk/rock fan, stuck in the suburbs and succored on chicken-fried ’70s and ’80s FM rock and moshpit-ready Amerindie hardcore bands that could be your life.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7xH5axRHM4

Of course, much like Young Prisms, accusations of derivativeness dogged Overwhelming Colorfast, whose inspiration and albatross was Hüsker Dü. Founding vocalist-guitarist Bob Reed couldn’t help it — he had clearly ingested far too much SST, with a very special emphasis on 1984’s Zen Arcade and Double Nickels on a Dime and 1985’s I Don’t Want to Grow Up. But listening to Moonlight now —particularly its forward-thrust first side — those snap dismissals and facile comparisons seem unfair.

The side starts “Starcrunch” with its heavy-outta-the-gate guitars that match Bob Mould and J. Mascis lick for lick, moves through “Mickey’s Lament,” which goes Weezer one better with its smart-kid, enjambed vocal delivery, rhythm guitar chug, and Stooges-y impaired piano drone, and closes the tender, breathy “Last Song” with a back-and-forth guitar line that captures the indecision as Reed sings, “Got a stupid note here / It’s from me to you. It’s all I could do / Thought I might just toss it / But it took so long. Tell me if it’s wrong.” Eventually a way-too-exuberant fusillade of guitars busts in, attempting to obliterate uncertainty: it’s as if Reed peered into the overwhelming darkness— wondering whether he should hold this awkward note and whether Colorfast could last—then decided, “Fuck it.”

The precarious, ground-shifting nature of SF indie — so often fielding copy-cat accusations, so far from the so-called music industry centers — also touches Young Prisms, also reared in SF’s bedroom communities yet looking to influences further afield, across the Atlantic, in the form of My Bloody Valentine and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Like Colorfast, the outfit has also coped with its share of membership switcheroos: the title of debut Friends For Now might have foretold the departure of guitarist Jason Hendardy and the arrival of vocalist-guitarist Ashley Thomas, whose vocals along with vocalist-keyboardist Stephanie Hodapp’s, pushes Prisms further toward the vaguely feminized, sonically diffuse space of the Cocteau Twins.

Songs like “Gone,” off YP’s upcoming second LP, In Between (Kanine), hinge on nursery rhyme-like vocal lines and a fluid wall of rhythm guitars against which a singular New Order-like guitar line dances. Guitars are used as pretty, pointillistic devices, seamlessly incorporated with washes of synth. People come and go, but here, sonic elements coexist in a more generalized, less personalized harmony, where lyrics are obscured and vocals are used as effects, rejecting the jolts — and listen-to-me force — of Reed’s more intimate, ungainly urgency. Do the Prisms reflect a kind of indie progressiveness — an evolution from the punky and individualistic to the ambient and collective? For answers, revisit In Between in 15 years.

 

YOUNG PRISMS

With Melted Toys, Tambo Rays, Preteen

Weds/22, 7 p.m., $14

Cafe Du Nord

2170 Market, SF

(415) 861-5016

2012.noisepop.com

OVERWHELMING COLORFAST

With Oranger, Slouching Stars, Peppercorn

Sat/25, 8 p.m., $12

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF

(415) 621-4455

2012.noisepop.com

Sorrow, tears, blood — and dance

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC Musical genius, human rights activist, cultural legend, African icon — late Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti encompassed multitudes, but to his 1980s-era guitarist Soji Odukogbe, he provided not only inspiration but a way into his music.

“The music was written by Fela, so if you were good enough, you could add to it, and he wouldn’t say anything. But if you were not good enough, he’d say, ‘This is the line,'” explains Odukogbe, 49, by phone from Berkeley where he now lives. “Afrobeat is a written music — you can’t add to it. You can add if you know your instrument, and it’s sweet enough, then you can go there.”

Fortunately the Lagos, Nigeria, native — who as a child was inspired enough by Fela’s hits to take a wood plank, hammer a nail into it, and pretend it was a guitar — was good enough to take his liberties on guitar on legendary Fela albums like Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense, Beasts of No Nation, and Underground System (all Barclay; 1986, 1989, and 1992). “[Fela] was anxious to meet me [after he got out of prison], and when he saw me, he was so happy — he said, ‘I have a guitar player that’s really good!,'” recalls Odukogbe, who joined Fela’s band in ’85. “One day I said, ‘Fela, I want to take a guitar solo. He only allowed horn and keyboard solos, and he said, ‘Yeah, go ahead,’ and I blew his mind. He was so proud of me.” Odukogbe appears with kindred Fela player Baba Ken Okulolo at a “Fela Kuti Extravaganza” dance party at Cafe Du Nord Jan. 28.

The guitarist played with Fela for five years before deciding to take his chances in the U.S. where a so-called world music movement was catching fire with the success of Nigerian juju master King Sunny Adé, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares (Nonesuch, 1987), and Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical (Luaka Bop, 1990). Now, with publications such as The New York Times trumpeting an “African invasion” in indie rock and a fascination with African music takes hold once more — morphed and bent to new ends by performers ranging from Vampire Weekend to Dirty Projectors to this year’s Pazz and Jop poll-topping tUnE-yArDs — the time seems right to revisit Fela’s legacy.

Long before African outfits like Tinariwen and Blk Jks threaded rock ‘n’ roll guitar into indigenous rhythms, and hipster-cred comps such as the Ethiopiques and Congotronics series touched down stateside, Fela was hybridizing jazz and highlife with a potent dose of James Brown-style funk, a black power sensibility (not for nothing did he dub himself the Black President), and a driving thirst for justice, even after being jailed some 200 times, suffering at the hands of soldiers (the wounds Fela revealed when he dropped his trousers in the 1982 documentary Music Is the Weapon are heartbreaking), and undergoing a level of government harassment and abuse that would break most mortals. It all appeared to climax in 1977 after the release of his military-mocking 1977 LP Zombie (Barclay) and the subsequent invasion of his Kalakuta Republic commune by soldiers, which led to the death of his mother and the beating and brutalization of the performer, his family, wives, and friends.

Though mainstream superstars Will Smith and Jay-Z threw their producing weight behind the recent Tony Award-winning musical production of Fela!, it’s tough to imagine an artist quite like Fela in today’s music scene, fighting back from the top of the pop charts, occupying the public imagination with his radical politics and spiritual beliefs, and speaking his mind, loudly and outrageously. Still, Fela’s story and music speak louder than ever, especially in the context of indie’s less-than-political appropriation of African sounds, the recent SF run of Fela!, the 2011 rerelease of Fela’s Universal-controlled albums in North America by Knitting Factory Records, the upcoming film directed by artist-filmmaker Steve McQueen, and continuing tide of injustice in Nigeria, where weeks of protests continue over fuel prices and the country has undergone its worst oil spill in a decade.

“The thing that’s most interesting about Fela’s music is how traveling and seeing other cultures, going to the United States, and getting familiar with American music and James Brown and American politics inspired him to fulfill his own roots and look back on himself and to really see these international forces as part of his background and his own culture,” observes Will Magid, 26, who organized the Fela dance party and has played with Odukogbe and Okulolo. Magid’s own forthcoming debut album promises to mix Kuti’s influence with Balkan, pop, and funk sounds. “We need more people who are like that and who are speaking up.”

El Cerrito-by-way-of-Nigeria bassist Okulolo played with Fela as well as King Sunny Ade and has performed with Odukogbe in the Kotoja, the Western African Highlife Band, and the Nigerian Brothers. Magid’s friend and mentor since the two met through Okulolo’s son at UCLA, the musician sees “Fela Kuti Extravaganza” as a teaching opportunity.

“Fela was a great musician, and his music will never die,” says Okulolo. “I think it would be a good idea to continue educating people about his music and how beautiful it is. I worked with [Fela] briefly, and I know the man well, and so many bands are playing Afrobeat now — generally the music needs to be out there.”

“It has funk; it has jazz; it has an African beat; it has everything,” he continues. “It’s our opportunity to showcase it to as many people as we can and make it valuable, to put it in a category that someday will be what reggae is today.”

And during hard times, we can all learn something from Fela, his still-vibrant music, and his way of moving, fluidly and artfully, through oppression, through pain. “There’s this element of social consciousness, of people dancing and then hearing about these oil spills,” muses Magid of the upcoming dance party. “It’s a different kind of dancing when you’re dancing through suffering.” *

 

WILL MAGID’S WORLD WIDE DANCE PARTY: FELA EXTRAVAGANZA

With Baba Ken Okulolo and Soji Odukogbe, Will Magid Trio with Fely Tchaco, MSK.FM, and izzy*wise

Sat/28, 9:30 p.m., $15

Cafe Du Nord

2170 Market, SF

www.cafedunord.com

Hey girl

0

arts@sfbg.com

YEAR IN FILM Picture this dreamy, steamy “Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling” Tumblr thought bubble: “Hey girl, sorry my shirt fell off, but at least I’m one of those new EGOTs (i.e., Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony quadruple threats).” You know, the type that’s got actorly chops, talent, personality, and/or good works to boot — plus a chiseled chest that looks “totally Photoshopped.” Yes, we’re talking award-fielding hotties à la Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt, the kinds of golden boys who can easily pass for Oscar, only with full heads of hair and more soulful glances.

This year’s awards-show heartthrob mob comes to you seemingly straight outta the heated imaginations of Sex and the City-fiending hetero ladies and gay connoisseurs of acute cinematic cutie-pie-ness (witness the many, many YouTube re-edits of X-Men: First Class that pump up the erotic undercurrent between Fassbender’s Magneto and James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier). The crowded field of studly talents is sure to be diverting during the inevitable lagging segments of Oscars, Golden Globes, and so forth. (“Reader, I drooled over reaction shots of Mr. Rochester during the technical awards.”)

But hasn’t Hollywood always served up heapin’ platters of hunky man meat? Sure, but you’ll probably have to go back as far as Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s ’70s heyday to find the current crop’s particular combo of art and pulchritude. Ushering in this dear ab-by generation was Brad Pitt, the pretty boy unafraid to spoof vain self-absorption, as a brainless gym-bunny in 2008’s Burn After Reading. Around the same time he bounced on a treadmill for the Coens, Pitt began to consistently hook his star to more ambitious projects than your average loutish, laddish Lautner-esque chisel-head, stretching the skill set while doing his part to further the art and working with Alejandro González Iñárritu, David Fincher, and Quentin Tarantino. None of their Pitt-centric projects were the directors’ best, and that goes double for Bennett Miller’s Moneyball and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (Happy Feet Two, you’re two too much).

Nevertheless, Tree of Life, despite its lack of shirtlessness, proved the least commercial and most ambitious widely released feature film of 2011 (in part thanks to co-producer Pitt), and his punishing pater familias was one of the best things about it, grounding Malick’s inner-outer space opera, earth mama twirls, and dinosaur tricks down to earth with his against-type alpha-male hard glances — likely the most demanding performance Pitt has grappled with to date.

Shades darker, with a side of honest abs, Ryan Gosling added oft-wordless fashion-plate soul to ’11: take a page from his Notebook, up-and-coming chestys, because whether you’re crate-digging old footage of the young Mickey Mouse Club kid warbling in floppy PJs alongside Justin Timberlake on YouTube or marveling over his viral snippet of street-fighting men intervention, you know Gosling’s loved. It’s tough to choose between Gosling’s George Clooney impression and cheese-eating Dirty Dancing (1987) tribute in Crazy, Stupid, Love.; his vintage Steve McQueen-James Dean style in Drive (that scorpion jacket launched a jillion Halloween costumes); and his quickly-devolving presidential campaign manager in The Ides of March.

In Ides, Gosling’s silky, feline, almost femme-y smoothness hardens into a chilly “Blue Steel,” threatening to plunge into nuttiness, as the film progresses. As with these other award-snagging hunks, he’s an adult caught in the cogs of a terrible, soul-shattering machine, and as Drive‘s romantic wheelman, Gosling’s ready to run off the median into an off-roading wilderness of ultraviolence. Of course, the deadliest mechanism lies within, for the driver driven to kill, the ladykiller breaking down the angles, and the political player who grabs his revenge after having his ideals destroyed (and bromantic boss-crush on Clooney’s candidate quashed).

The abs — and twinkling, then blistering, peepers — that truly seemed to be everywhere this year belonged to Michael Fassbender, who soft-opened the year in an archetypal romantic part, Mr. Rochester, in Jane Eyre. Fassbender went on to add a dose of real class to X-Men: First Class with his vengeance-seeking metalhead Magneto — oh, Jane, his emotional investment in the comic-book creation was the best thing about the reboot.

The latter part of 2011 ended with a seismic splash of wish fulfillment for Fassbender fans as his Carl Jung deconstructed — and entangled himself in — sex and the psyche in A Dangerous Method, and as Shame‘s corporate hot-shot by day, sex addict by night. His character, Brandon, attempts to lose himself in naked abandon, unable to sustain intimacy with anyone, including his boundary-less sister (see recurring support gal/fan stand-in Carey Mulligan). Shame director Steve McQueen, not be confused with Drive‘s inspiration, wisely lets his camera rest, unsettled and ambivalent, on Fassbender’s face at the end of one night of hopeless coitus, after a close brush with a real relationship gets clipped short by flaccidity.

Caught in mid-rut, Brandon’s orgasm face is an anguished rictus of painful pleasure, half horrifying tragedy mask, half laughable comedy mask. It’s all there, the sexual fantasy-turned-nightmare, the tears behind the dazzling smiles, pecs, and full-frontal shots, conveying in one look the perils of manhood and the forces these foxes can — and can’t — control.

Man/machine

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arts@sfbg.com

Year in Music "Here in my car / I feel safest of all / I can lock all my doors / It’s the only way to live in cars." — Gary Numan, "Cars"

Are friends electric? In 2011, synthpop sounded like a safe vehicle with which to whirl forward, one wheel in the quickly receding past and the other in the fast-coming future.

As the light turned green on ’11 and roared on through 11/11/11, those binary 1’s pointed to the synthetic pleasures harking back to Human League, Yazoo, and Depeche Mode. Early in the year, La Roux’s Elly Jackson took home a Grammy for her eponymous debut — signifying the U.S. music mainstream’s approval.

You could detect the synths popping beneath the beckoning, bright textures of Vetiver’s "Can’t You Tell," the Paisley Park-meets-"Enola Gay" washes of Nite Jewel’s "One Second of Love," and the Doppler effect textures of Toro y Moi’s "Talamak," while the much lamented departure of James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem from the intersection of synth beats and rock squall threw up yet another sign that synthpop was on the move. Tellingly, Holy Ghost!, on Murphy’s DFA imprint, cast its eyes back longingly to the chilly dreamtime of the Ministry’s "I Wanted to Tell Her," lodging it in a busy thicket of bumping, rumbling bass and keys.

Don’t fear the ’80s: Yesteryear synth populists the Cars released its first LP with Ric Ocasek since its ’88 split, and the year closed with Gary Numan getting the avant seal of approval as an honored guest at the recent Battles-curated ATP show. Adding fuel to the firing pistons, locally, was a look back at the real Bay underground article: this year’s comp BART: Bay Area Retrograde (Dark Entries) wiped the "Clean Me" messages written in dust from tracks like Voice Farm’s "Voyager." The latter almost seemed to lend its synth tone directly to the sinewy, eerily sensual "Nightcall" by Kavinsky and Lovefoxxx off the Drive soundtrack (Lakeshore).

Much like that violently dreamy film’s Danish-American hybrid, "Nightcall" and College’s "A Real Hero" teetered between the almost OTT strain of romanticism and superchilled detachment embodied by the best of synthpop— the simple hooks and breathy, girlish vocals perfectly complementing the propulsive, forward-thrust mechanism of the tracks. You can’t drive those songs from your head.

In one of the strongest contenders for (double) album of the year, M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (Mute), synthpop was only one component of the deep, ambitious, magnificent sprawl, a recording much like French transplant Anthony Gonzalez’s adopted L.A. home. Its breakout single, "Midnight City," tapped both the brooding nihilism of Grand Theft Auto and the noirish retro-epics of Michael Mann in collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, as leader Anthony Gonzalez emotes wistfully, "Waiting in a car /Waiting for a ride in the dark / Drinking in the lounge / Following the neon signs / Waiting for a roar / Looking at the mutating skyline / The city is my church / It wraps me in the sparking twilight."

Cue the orchestral, rollercoaster synths, faux bird calls, and reclaimed-from-the-cheese-bin skywalking sax. It may say as little as Numan’s "Cars"—making it the perfect tabula-rasa fodder for both Victoria’s Secret commercials and capitalism-happy How to Make It in America —but like a European native finding inspiration in the simultaneously alienating and freeing highways of El-Lay or J.G. Ballard, both songs prove that you needn’t rely on language to move a listener.

Silence is golden

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FILM With the charisma-oozing agility of Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling his way past opponents and the supreme confidence of Rudolph Valentino leaning, mid-swoon, into a maiden, French director-writer Michel Hazanavicius hits a sweet spot, or beauty mark of sorts, with his radiant new film The Artist.

In a feat worthy of Fairbanks or Errol Flynn, Hazanavicius juggles a marvelously layered love story between a man and a woman, tensions between the silents and the talkies, and a movie buff’s appreciation of the power of film — embodied in particular by early Hollywood’s union of European artistry and American commerce. Dashing silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, who channels Fairbanks, Flynn, and William Powell — and won this year’s Cannes best actor prize) is at the height of his career, adorable Jack Russell by his side, until the talkies threaten to relegate him to yesterday’s news. The talent nurtured in the thick of the studio system yearns for real power, telling the newspapers, “I’m not a puppet anymore — I’m an artist,” and finances and directs his own melodrama, while his youthful protégé Peppy Miller (Bérénice Béjo) becomes a yakky flapper age’s new It Girl.

Both a crowd-pleasing entertainment and a loving précis on early film history à la Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, The Artist never checks its brains at the door, remaining self-aware of its own conceit and its forebears, yet unashamed to touch the audience, without an ounce of cynicism. And if you blink, you might miss the allusion to The Artist‘s backstory: in the opening film-within-a-film, Valentin dons a mask and a top hat in a swift tip of the topper to iconic French villain-antihero Fantômas, which provided the initial inspiration for producer Thomas Langmann to approach Hazanavicius.

Langmann wanted the director to do a remake of the 1960s Fantômas movies starring Jean Marais. “I said, ‘No, I can’t do that. It doesn’t interest me,'” recalls the director on a recent visit to San Francisco. Langmann, however, insisted on a movie with the director, who had made the Bond-parody OSS 117 series with Dujardin. “So I said, OK, I’ll do your Fantômas — not your high-tech one, but the 1905 one, the real one, and I’ll do it in black-and-white, and silent.”

In the end, Langmann gave the go-ahead for a silent movie untethered to the Fantômas franchise — “I knew when we met that he was crazy enough to follow me and to support me,” quips Hazanavicius — and with the Valentin character on his mind and two scripts on hand, one for The Artist as it stands and one for the adventure comedy that materializes as the initial film-within-a-film, the director made the silent he had dreamed of, shooting at Hollywood locales such as the Paramount Studio and Mary Pickford’s mansion and utilizing far-from-analog technology when needed (for example, the Hollywood sign is transformed into its original “Hollywoodland” state digitally, and the film’s luminous black-and-white was rendered using 500 ASA color film to get a grainier look).

One of the keys to casting the period spell was keeping everything simple, rather than highlighting obvious tropes. “I put a lot of things out of the frame, always,” Hazanavicius explains, “because when there are too many things, it’s just too much. You show the audience, ‘Look it’s the ’20s! It’s so ’20s! Did you not know we were in the ’20s?’ Sometimes you have to just show a white wall, and that’s enough. The audience is there to believe, so the more you let them believe, the better it is.”

Likewise the lightest touch was required with the actors, who worried about replicating the silent era’s performances and were tasked with conveying everything with the briefest flicker of emotion dancing across the face, or body language (which Béjo memorably plays with in a scene when she mimes an embrace with her would-be heartthrob’s jacket). “I know it was stressful for the actors in the beginning because they wanted to know if I asked for something very special, but I didn’t,” says the director. “They don’t play silent, really — they play ’20s, and I think it’s different. We think [silent film players] overact not because the movies are silent but because the codes of the ’20s are very different from the codes of acting today.

“So what I said to [Dujardin] was very simple: ‘Don’t be upset with the silent thing,'” Hazanavicius continues. “‘You don’t have anything special to do. You have to do what you usually do — you come with your face, your body, your smile, your charm, and you embody the character, and you respect the situation, and everything will be fine.'” Also fueling the feel was the fact that The Artist was shot at 22 frames a second, rather than the standard 24. “It gave us a very small acceleration in the gesture so the way they move is a little bit too fast, so that gives a flavor of the ’20s,” adds the filmmaker.

For Hazanavicius, the draw to make a silent was multipronged. “I wanted to share my experience as an audience member because I love the way the story is told to you in a silent movie,” he says. “There’s a lot of room for you. You can make your own movie. You participate in the storytelling process. I really like it because you’re very close to the story — it’s your voices, your dialogue, your sound design — you’re part of the process, so I really love that.”

Another enticement was the formal challenge of not only assembling the narrative about early film stars, which incidentally echoes that of John Gilbert and Greta Garbo, but shooting in a silent style, playing with era’s visual codes. To that end, Hazanavicius and leading lady (and romantic partner) Béjo did enormous amounts of research, poring through the period’s films and actors and directors’ biographies. “I hope my future movies will be better thanks to this one,” says the director.

“When I wrote the script, I sent it to the script supervisor, and she said to me, ‘You really want to, I don’t know how to say, show off!'” he remembers. “‘You really want to be remarked [upon].’ I said, ‘Yes!’ I think we all want to be remarked [upon]. I don’t want to make a discreet movie that nobody wants to see.”

Sounds like the words of a real artist.

 

THE ARTIST opens Fri/2 in San Francisco.

Don’t say CANT

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MUSIC It’s tough to pin down a busy bee like Chris Taylor — Grizzly Bear’s bassist, an in-demand producer, and now the leader of his own pack called CANT — but once you manage to, he’s as disarmingly engaging as his new dispatch from a darkling, excruciatingly personal plain, Dreams Come True, released on his own Terrible Records.

So it shocks him when he hears critics describe his music as cold, even chilly. “When people say it’s impersonal, it’s like, wow, man,” Taylor marvels from Portland, Ore. “If anything, you should be saying, ‘This record is too emo.’ That was what I was expecting, that people would say, ‘This guy is way too emotional. Go see a therapist and cool out.’

“I was intentionally trying to figure out the worst kind of fears, fears of falling in love and not being able to let go, or fears of losing it when you think you have it. Scary, unpleasant realities.”

But realities rendered far from heartlessly. A probing soulfulness runs throughout Dreams Come True, which often sounds more like a wrenching, pitch-black nightmare than a blissful reverie. Yet the LP teems with pleasures, and the deeper you penetrate, the harder its pull. It’s in the way that Taylor beautifully couples gristly, screeching scads of industrial noise, reminiscent of both Nine Inch Nails and horror-movie violins, with celestial synth in the title track and “Rises Silent.” Skittish electronic beats bang up against gamelan-like percussion in the echoey, prog-pop opening track, “Too Late, Too Far,” while Satie-esque (and Thom Yorke/Radiohead-like) impressionism is paired with an undercurrent of ’90s-era post-punk dissonance in “Bericht.” Brass that cues wee-hours soul bounces off elastic bass notes in “The Edge,” and a softly insinuating Velvet Underground-ish guitar vamp adds menace to “She Found a Way Out” — a song that makes one wonder if that way out was, akin to Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control Again,” something like a permanent check-out.

“It’s about the sort of feeling you feel when the biggest love of your life walks out the door, and you deserve it, and she’s better off for it — it makes you want to scream,” explains Taylor with a rueful chuckle. “No, she didn’t die! She went to grad school. She’s getting smarter by the day.”

Taylor’s education into solo music-making began with his forays into singing with Grizzly Bear — CANT’s name plays off that definition, among angles. After completing production on Twin Shadow’s Forget (4AD/Terrible, 2010), he sat down with TS’s George Lewis Jr. for about two weeks to work on Dreams, playing most of the instruments themselves. Work continued after Lewis departed, contributing to the music’s sense of ratcheted-up intimacy. “I was by myself, and it’s just the worst, especially not having written lyrics before,” says Taylor. “You’re like, does this suck? And it’s just crickets.”

Songs such as “Answer” — with its pacing synth line, moodily ascending string sounds, and brooding refrain, “It’s been a while since you needed me / It’s been a while since I needed you, too” — spoke directly to old demons. “It’s about my ongoing and often difficult relationship with my dad — one of the more trying relationships in my life,” confesses Taylor, whose parents divorced when he was 5.

“It’s about feeling loved, and at the same time, there’s so much, like, meanness. It’s really confusing when a kid is told they’re loved and then treated so badly…” And it’s mystifying, and maybe a relief, that the track’s inspiration has no idea what role he played in its making — and that pain can be transformed so completely into pop. “I think,” says Taylor with disbelief, “when the song premiered on Pitchfork, [my dad] said, ‘I like that!'” CANT With Mirror Mirror and Blood Orange Wed/5, 8 p.m., $15 Independent 628 Divisadero, SF (415) 771-1422 www.theindependentsf.com

Earth mover

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MUSIC I didn’t mean to bring the earthquake to Eleanor Friedberger’s Brooklyn — it just felt that way when I rang a few weeks ago, minutes after her ‘hood shivered and shook like it was attempting a weak imitation of, well, San Francisco. “Actually it sounded like someone was stomping on my roof,” she says wryly, phasing in and out over the line as if spirited away by unexplained forces.

A coincidence, too, that she closes her first, wonderful solo long-player, Last Summer (Merge), with a number titled “Early Earthquake,” a minimalist love song that evokes early solo Lou Reed and spins from those ground-bending emotions that hit far too soon, far too hard. “It was an early earthquake and my heart’s trembling just for you / And when the walls came crumbling down / You know I was waiting right here for you,” she sings with her charmingly verbose hipster-priest phrasing, in a feather-light voice.

“Early Earthquake” ends with a sliver of exotica culled from an optigan. “It’s almost like a toy for adults,” Friedberger says of the ’70s-era instrument. Her brother, Matthew, used one on a song for their band, the Fiery Furnaces, and, she adds, “I said if I ever found one I’d buy it.” That she did, from “an expensive music store in Brooklyn — not very cool,” she murmurs.

That brand of disarming, hyper-self-aware honesty — dotted with a dry, playful sense of irony — runs like a startling thread throughout Friedberger’s conversation, making me wanna be instant BFFs. I can see us now: telling the truth about birthdays (“Always bleak,” Friedberger declares of her Sept. 2 birthday, though she’ll be in the Bay Area that week, so bring her a gift), laughing that she’d make the perfect Patti Smith in the film version of Just Kids, scaring ourselves with the spooky effects in “Inn of the Seventh Ray,” pondering the puzzle of Google-ing dates in “Scenes from Bensonhurst,” and cruising through the borough with the rubbery-bass-bumping “Roosevelt Island” blaring. The latter is the closest thing to a genuine summer song on Last Summer; Friedberger agrees — it’s built to be pouring out of “a Buick, definitely an American car, if there are any of those left,” she says.

Last Summer is the solo record she’s always wanted to make — and when she had the time and summoned the confidence that comes with age and experience, she did, writing the songs last summer and recording them that fall, in Brooklyn. “I felt it was now or never. I always thought I’d regret if I didn’t do something myself,” Friedberger says. “There was no lightning bolt of inspiration—I don’t believe in that.

And in contrast to all those who refuse to ‘fess up to the autobiographical nature of their work, Friedberger offers, “All of it is drawn from my personal life — no imagination used. I’m trying to decide if it’s lazy or brave, I don’t know.”

In the same spirit of full disclosure, she opens the album with an infectious ditty called “My Mistakes,” climaxing with a gloriously cheesy tenor sax solo. “I was trying to copy a Van Morrison-sounding saxophone solo,” she freely admits, though it was a fight trying to get sax player Dylan Heaney to agree. “He has a jazz school background and wanted to do something new or original. I don’t believe in that, though — I’m all for copying.”

Yet Friedberger, whether solo or with the Fiery Furnaces, still manages to have one of the most original voices of her generation. Perhaps it stems from the creative support of a sib. “We have this musical language that I just don’t have with anybody else,” she says of Matthew. “But at the same time, we constantly feel like we need an excuse to do something together — because we’re not a normal band. There has to be an elaborate thought process that justifies it.”

“That’s getting tiring. So it’s liberating to make something that’s small and personal. For me, it’s more about expressing my tiny pathetic feelings.” Slight pause. “I’m kidding.”

ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER

With the Kills and Mini Mansions

Fri/9, 8:30 p.m., $29.50

Fox Theater

1807 Telegraph, Oakl.

(510) 302-2277

www.apeconcerts.com

 

Happy accidents

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MUSIC What’s so funny about sweetness and light? Bright, explosive jolts of jubilance and snappy uplift? Everything and nothing, Givers might say. The Lafayette, La., band embraces an ecstatic fun-for-all aesthetic on its debut, In Light (Glassnote) — though sultry-voiced vocalist-percussionist Tiffany Lamson still feels a need to defend her group’s rollicking, bubbling bliss bombs.

“This is the era where we need to support each other as a human race,” she says from Lafayette as Givers readies itself to hit the road for a tour that lands in SF Sept. 7. “There’s not enough space to be a band that sings about depressing shit and stuff that’s negative toward others. That era is kind of over.”

Still, Lamson, 23, sounds the teeniest bit defensive. “We do get the whole happy coin — that we’re obsessively happy,” she continues, “which is fine. I’m not going to say we’re not. If you come in the van with us for a couple days, you’ll see we’re more like a family. We have our trials and tribulations in turn that help us grow, though we generally love life and try to be happy. Who doesn’t want to be happy?”

So there — hater nation can just go suck on Givers’ generous odes to joy. As Lamson and band co-founder, vocalist, and guitarist Taylor Guarisco yelp, “I choose life!” in In Light‘s final word, “Words,” a shimmering backdrop of elastic West African-inspired guitar, glassy synth textures, and punchy polyrhythms sing out behind them in affirmation.

“The stigma is that the only thing we provide is surface-level statement,” adds Lamson. “There’s deeper roots and introspection, too.”

That music flowed forth immediately, the first time in 2008 that Lamson and Guarisco, both studying music at the University of New Orleans, played together at a friendly, last-minute fill-in show in Lafayette. Drummer Kirby Campbell, trumpet player Josh LeBlanc, and keyboardists Will Henderson and Nick Stephan joined them, improvising two hours of music. “We were just friends who all played in different bands with each other,” recounts Lamson. “It was a magical thing. We were having a really naturally good time, and we were just moving around with these instruments, being free, playing any instrument we wanted to at the moment.”

That night’s music continued to resonate for Givers, providing the basis for the self-produced In Light when the combo sat down to assemble the album last January. “We spent a lot of time arranging the songs and working on them, so they could be the best they could be for the record,” Lamson says. Engineer Ben Allen (Animal Collective, Cee-Lo) and mix engineer Chris Coady (TV on the Radio, Beach House) helped the process along.

Those veterans might have helped to make In Light an album with surprising dimensions, with fresh angles on shiny, happy sounds, but the band would likely look to their upbringing in southwest Louisiana, steeped in the music of the Cajun-zydeco capital of the world, as having a greater impact. “We were born and raised in this environment, this very rhythm-oriented environment,” explains Lamson.

“It plays a huge part in the way that we play music and the way we live ourselves. Without putting cliches on it, there’s a huge sense of unity — it’s such a diverse area, and you have West African music and Haitian music, and those all soak into Cajun and zydeco culture. People live life a lot slower here — there isn’t the hustle and bustle, and people tend to slow down and appreciate things.” She chuckles. “Maybe it’s the heat.”

GIVERS

With Kopecky Family Band

Sept. 7, 8 p.m., $10–$12

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF

(415) 861-2011

www.rickshawstop.com

 

Deep in the heart

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FILM Why do romantic comedies get such a bad rap? Blame it on the lame set-up, the contrived hurdles artificially buttressed by the obligatory chorus of BFFs, the superficial something-for-every-demographic-with-ADD multinarrative, and the implausible resolutions topped by something as simple as a kiss or as conventional as marriage, but often no deeper, more crafted, or heartfelt than an application of lip gloss.

Yet the lite-as-froyo pleasures of the genre don’t daunt Danish director Lone Scherfig, best known for her deft touch with a woman’s story that cuts closer to the bone, with 2009’s An Education. Her new film, One Day, based on the best-selling novel by David Nicholls, flirts with the rom-com form — from the kitsch associations with Same Time, Next Year (1978) to the trailer that hangs its love story on a crush — but musters emotional heft through its accumulation of period details, a latticework of flashbacks, and collection of encounters between its charming protagonists: upper-crusty TV presenter Dexter (Jim Sturgess) and working-class aspiring writer Emma (Anne Hathaway). Their quickie university friendship slowly unfolds, as they meet every St. Swithin’s Day, July 15, over a span of years, into the most important relationship of their lives.

And although One Day‘s story belongs to both characters, the too-easily dashed desires and hopes of a young woman spunkily attempting to surmount age-old class barriers spoke to Scherfig, who immediately thought of her 16-year-old daughter when reading the script. “Emma’s insecurity is an important element for me,” she says now, selecting her words delicately in her interview suite at the Ritz-Carlton. The director hadn’t been outside all day, yet it’s obvious from the way she looks out the long windows before her that she’d love to be free to wander the city.

“There are so many girls who, because of their insecurity, get too little out of life,” Scherfig continues. “You’re so worried about how you look at some family event you almost forget to enjoy looking at everybody else, and what you learn over the years is that people aren’t as critical as you think. The more you get out of whatever surroundings you’re in the happier you become. I think that’s something in your 20s — you sort of have to grow up one more time, which is a major theme of this film.”

In contrast, Dexter is the cute, rumpled brat who can’t be bothered to figure out who he is or what’s truly important to him. “He neglects himself, and he doesn’t try to find out what it is love can be,” says Scherfig. “And it’s meaningful, much more meaningful than your generic romantic comedy where the characters are very much alike, though it’s a different kind of pleasure to see those films because it’s almost like a dance. It’s the variations that you enjoy.”

Despite the blue-collar female lead and UK backdrop that it shares with An Education, One Day feels like a departure for Scherfig, who first found international attention for her award-winning Dogme 95-affiliated Italian for Beginners (2000). From where she’s sitting, she has few preconceptions about rom-coms in general, and how they can sometimes seem like a cashmere-lined ghetto, the cinematic equivalent of a Jane Austen writing corner, for U.S. women directors such as Nicole Holofcener, Nora Ephron, and Nancy Meyers.

“The love itself is what the film’s about, and the facets of it, and where it’s meant to be. Hopefully, [it’s] a classic, emotional love story,” she says. “That, I’ve never done. And this time, it was, let’s go for it. I didn’t feel like I had to fight it at all. Of course, this film has a substance that I felt when I first read the script. But yeah, I wish romantic comedies would attract the best possible directors, the best possible writers because it can be a wonderful genre.”

Her kinship still appears to lie with Dogme moviemakers and their embrace of the unpredictable and dismissal of lighting, props, and costumes (just try to picture a Pretty Woman-style shopping orgy working within those guidelines). “[Dogme] gives me a confidence that I can work on much lower budgets, so I enjoy the luxury of having a higher budget,” she says with a chuckle. “With this film I felt so fortunate that we could get that many period cars and that many music tracks and that caliber of actors in bit parts, so I really feel grateful, because I’m not used to it. This is the biggest budget I’ve ever had.”

Scherfig sounds genuinely humbled, giving off just a glimmer of the young woman that once had to scrape together state funding for her debut, The Birthday Trip (1990). “With [One Day] — even the crew would talk about it as we shot it — we felt privileged to work on a film that had the ambition of being nuanced, in a year when a lot of films had to make money.”

Filming love in the cold climate of the Great Recession has been less of a challenge after An Education, and Scherfig’s not ready to leave Europe yet. She’s set to direct Music and Silence, based on the novel by Rose Tremain, which brings together an English lute player and a Danish servant in the court of Christian IV of Denmark. But after that, America looms in the horizon: namely, a mafia project with Jessica Biel set in New York’s Lower East Side in the ’60s. “I know I’d like to do genre,” she exclaims. “It’ll been great to do something that’s even more cinematic, less character-based, more technical, and more plot-oriented. You won’t be seeing a romantic comedy!”

ONE DAY opens Fri/19 in Bay Area theaters.

‘West’-ward ho

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MUSIC There’s a certain irony to the fact that Wooden Shjips’ forthcoming Thrill Jockey long-player is titled West, considering the once firmly SF-based foursome has started to scatter across this storied region. Guitarist-vocalist Ripley Johnson has resettled in Colorado — when he isn’t touring the globe with wife Sanae Yamada as Moon Duo — and drummer Omar Ahsanuddin recently relocated to LA. All of this gives West — its cover art depicting the symbolically loaded Golden Gate Bridge — a particularly powerful charge for this band of musicians who grew up in the East Coast and Midwest and share a fascination with Left Coast mythology, culture, and music.

“Looking at the bridge, I don’t look at it as ‘goodbye’— I see it as ‘hello,'” explains organist Nash Whalen, paging through Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf and sunning himself on an Astroturf-clad parklet, in front of Farley’s on Potrero Hill. “Being from San Francisco certainly means something to people in the rest of the world — because of the mystique of California and the San Francisco music scene in particular. We all found our way to California — it’s the land of opportunity that I wasn’t going to experience in Vermont. Those are just some of the themes touched on in the songs.”

Those songs are transmitted with amplified immediacy and in-yo’-ear clarity on West —much like the cover image’s picture-postcard familiarity is imbued with a surreal strangeness. Notably, West signifies the first time the combo had worked in a studio with an engineer, a contrast to previous recordings, which were documented on eight-track in the outfit’s practice space. “We didn’t necessarily have good mics, and the room doesn’t necessarily sound good,” Whalen offers. “So there were a lot of elements to our recordings that frustrated us after a while.”

On West, the heavily distorted crunch of opening track “Black Smoke Rise” is beautifully separated from the shaker death-rattle, textures that seemed inextricably entangled in the past. Through the headphones, the effect is less lo-fi garage grind than a well-defined, clear shot of a speedway toward Wooden Shjips’ crossroads of hip-bobbing psychedelia, dream-drone, and charging Krautrock. The dance floor cleared, you hear the Leslie speaker tremelo, tripindicular echo, and spacey backward masking that the Shjips got to use for the first time in the studio, as well as Johnson’s airy vocals, more discernable than ever before and bidding you to take him on a nightmarish ride on the high-propulsion “Lazy Bones.” “Now when you hear a shaker, you don’t just think of it as a shaker,” says Whalen. “You hear it as a shaker in space, it’s going some place, and it’s more dynamic.”

Farley’s was a place Wooden Shjips would regularly sail into when recording West in February with Phil Manley (Trans Am, the Fucking Champs). The base of operations was Lucky Cat Studios, perched at the foot of Potrero’s slope, just steps away from the Guardian.”Yeah, the hardest thing about it was that the studio is at the bottom of the hill, so if we wanted to come up and get some coffee, it was ‘Oh, we have to walk up the hill…,'” quips Whalen, a former engineering geologist who has switched from studying rocks to rocking out full time.

Now, on this seemingly carefree sunny day, Whalen is most concerned with the fires in London: last week, flames consumed the distribution warehouse that housed the new LP. It’s uncertain how many, if any, were lost —”it’s a huge blow to all these businesses, not only bands and labels, but stores and everyone involved,” worries Whalen, who adds that the album will be available at this week’s SF show, ahead of the Sept. 13 release date. “It might be a small inconvenience for us, getting our record out on time, but for a lot of other people, it could be a lot bigger hassle — and devastating.”

WOODEN SHJIPS

With Night Beats

Thurs/18, 9:30 p.m., free (RSVP at tour.sailorjerrypresents.com)

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF.

(415) 621-4455

www.bottomofthehill.com