Friday, February 13, 2009

"The Class" (Laurent Cantet)

Film / Review

Film: "The Class"
Director: Laurent Cantet
Year: 2008

Awarded the Palm D'or at this year's Cannes film festival, Laurent Cantet's fluid and free-form drama, “The Class,” commits itself to the natural, unaffected representation of the student/teacher relationship. Free from the binds of a traditional dramatic arc, Cantet's film finds a rhythmic pace and settles into an agreeable ebb and flow. The narrative alternates between extended takes inside the classroom and a sort of behind-the-scenes look at the meetings held in the teacher's lounge. Both situations are presented from the perspective (and viewed through the moral lens) of Mr. Marin, a French teacher at the school, who at the start of the film is beginning his fourth year. This is a refreshing approach since so many films of this particular genre (if you choose to call it that) find a fresh, upstart educator arriving at a run-down school with the dream of making a difference; Marin seems to just want to make it through the year. That's not to say that he doesn't want to genuinely help these kids and give them a good education, he's just not naive about his role; he knows his limits. And however you feel about films like “Lean on Me,” “Dead Poets Society,” and (yuck) “Dangerous Minds,” I still think you'll find Cantet's dynamic to be a nice change of pace, as well as an effective way of capturing the natural back-and-forth between teacher and student.

In my opinion, it's the best film made about this subject that I've seen. Like Nicolas Philibert's stellar 2003 documentary, “To Be And To Have,” Cantet's film finds beauty and fascination in the simple process of imparting knowledge to a future generation. But whereas ‘Have’ is set in a rural French village, and focuses on a kindly, middle-aged preschool teacher, “The Class” finds its principal character braving more violent waters. Unfurling over the course of a riveting two hours, Cantet's narrative feature utilizes its modest setting, a middle school in a tough inner-city Paris neighborhood, and explores universal themes of race relations and economic strife. Acting as a microcosm of modern Parisian society, the class which Mr. Marin teaches is populated by blacks, whites, and asians, who demonstrate the desire to coexist that their parents perhaps do not, as well as cautious paranoia that unearths hidden prejudices. Fascinatingly, arguments over which nation has a better sports team serve as a sort of compromise, stifling much more volatile disagreements and cultural rifts. They also serve as a reminder of the domesticity of these immigrant-born natives, one of which struggles to retain his heritage by tattooing his faith-based beliefs on his arm.

Marin and the rest of the faculty at this particular school could be viewed as those on the front lines, but to say that is to imply a metaphorical war between the two, which overly-simplifies the complex job these teachers have. They're tasked with making very tough decisions, such as the intense moral quandary which confronts them at the end of the film (its one dramatic conceit). “The Class” imparts to its audience the gravity of a teacher's choice, especially when it comes to deciding whether an act of insubordination can be treated with disciplinary action or whether that will simply inflame the behavior. More than almost any other profession, teaching requires emotional nuance and empathy, to do the job well, and Cantet and his cast clearly understand this.

So much here could have gone wrong. The performances (everyone here is a non-actor) could have tipped too far in one direction or the other, by being either histrionic or amateurishly distracting. The script could have felt over-cooked, overtly telegraphing important information about its many characters, or singling out those who would later become more important to the story. And the filmmaking could have stifled the work's artistic merit with poorly framed shots or awkward transitioning. None of these problems present themselves, as Cantet is an extremely talented craftsman who knows how to shoot and pace a film. In fact, I find it very difficult to pinpoint any flaws “The Class” possesses, at the very least any that it does have are not worth expounding on in this review.

Cantet understands the necessity to find a cast who can play variations on themselves without actor-y pretense. These are traits which certainly don't apply to François Bégaudeau, who plays Mr. Marin in the film. His is a performance that ever-so-carefully balances sincere good-intentions with cynicism and pride, flaws and strengths of the human condition which congeal to form a full-blooded and complex character, one who embodies various contradictions. Bégaudeau may not be an actor, but he draws his inspiration for the part from a different source; he's an author, and he in fact wrote the autobiographical book of the same name which “The Class” is based on. So it's his knowledge and experience which imbue the film with both authenticity and credibility, but it's Cantet who brings it all together. Knowing when to back off and let a scene play out is a vital skill, but so is the instinct to know when it's time to get on to the next scene, and the director musters a formidable momentum all-the-more commendable when one considers the unique dramatic approach.

This is Cantet's fourth film and of the three that I've seen it is by far his best. 2002's exceptionally crafted “Time Out” ably critiqued economic and social stigma in the modern world via its allegorical story of a man who loses his job and can't bring himself to tell his family (all the more topical now), but it was dwarfed by an often suffocating and unnatural stillness. While 2005's 70s-set Haitian drama, “Heading South,” presented a vision of race relations and exploitation between middle-aged white women and their young black escorts, yet suffered from an all-too literal approach rote with heavy-handed symbolism and predictable plot turns. Both films saw a talented director exploring important and thought-provoking themes, but leaning a bit too hard on filmmaking/screenwriting 101 crutches (the fourth-wall breaking confessionals in ‘South,’ the convenient occupational opportunity in ‘Time’). In contrast, “The Class” finds Cantet figuring it all out, fulfilling the promise he showed in his earlier films, and relying on his material and his strengths as a filmmaker to communicate with the audience on a visceral level.

Grade: 3.5/4

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Layout Change, Other Stuff Marginally Worth Discussing

So I just thought I'd check in real quick with those four people that actually keep up with the goings on of this blog (a number which includes me), and for those who might stumble upon it via my main site, In Review Online. Basically, as the little bio to the right suggests, I intend to use this blog as a forum in which to post my work for various outlets (mostly InRO). That includes film reviews, music reviews, and some commentary regarding both mediums. As well as random shit (like that post on Ryan Gosling's new band) if I so choose. (Note: I can change this guideline later if I desire, so if you see some stuff on here that doesn't fall into these categories, deal with it.) I'll also try, but will not commit, to posting a recap of my week on this blog, every Wednesday or so. We'll see.

First thing worth a mention is that I started a new writing gig for the burgeoning website Blog Critics (.org), as one of their contributing writers. So far I've submitted about 6 or so film/music reviews for publishing (most are up now). They're deal, basically, is that I can post stuff I submit to them in other areas (like here or on InRO) as long as they get it first-- which, consequently, is why my review of Laurent Cantet's "The Class" has been delayed longer than I expected it would be (it should show up here and on InRO in the next couple days). More than anything, BC will serve as yet another outlet in which to get my writing out there, and to promote InRO (my name links back to the site, which is pretty awesome exposure).

Same goes for this other proposition I've been offered. Well, I guess it's more like an affiliation. The social networking site MoovieLive has offered to feature select reviews off InRO as "Editorial Reviews" (so alongside Amazon and other big names like that, which is pretty swell). I only just got the email about that yesterday though, so it's all still in the planning stages; I'll keep you posted on its progression.

I'd also like to point out (as it is oh so important) that InRO now has a Twitter page, and that myself and InRO Music Editor Jordan Cronk have been tweeting (term?) up a storm about all sorts of things. I've also added a Twitter feed to the InRO homepage, and will probably do the same with this blog relatively soon. I encourage anyone who uses Twitter to please "follow" us (you'll know what that means), as perhaps someday one of us may say something marginally witty or topical, and you definitely don't want to miss that.

Lastly, I'd just like to talk up Counter Clash, my upcoming project with former AIR-ONLINE Editor Ivan DeWilde. Counter Clash is to be a site that critiques, in a sort of tongue-in-cheek manner, various forms of "counter culture" (anime, games, manga, cult films, comics, other websites, etc). Some of the other InRO staffers may get involved with this project too, which will basically fuel our collective tendencies toward odd hobbies and interests we don't usually brag about. It may be a total catastrophe of an idea or it may end up being a lot of fun, who the hell knows. Just know that, either way, Counter Clash is coming! (probably late April)

Oh, and I changed the layout of this blog. Look better? Good, then you know the reason.

That's all for now. I'll check in again next week some time, if you care; and if not, why did you just read this?

Reviews for the week of Wed. the 4th to the 11th of February:

Music Review: Animal Collective - Merri... [links: VHPW, BC]
Music Review: Asobi Seksu - Hush (2009) [links: VHPW, BC]
Music Review: Asobi Seksu - Citrus (2006) [links: VHPW, BC]
Film Review: Hotel For Dogs (2009) [links: InRO, BC]
Film Review: Beau Travail (2000) [links: BC]

- Sam C. Mac

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Asobi Seksu - Citrus

Music / Review

Album: Citrus
Artist: Asobi Seksu
Year: 2006

More so than movies or books, music can sometimes be seasonal. That's not to suggest that a given album can't be enjoyed off-season, but rather that there's a certain added pleasure to listening to it when the time is right. As suggested by the pumpkin-orange artwork that adorns the cover of shoegaze alt-rockers Asobi Seksu's sophomore full-length, 2006's Citrus, this is an album for the fall. Both the lyrical content of the set (that which can be made out, and is in English), as well as the dense and layered arrangements, exude a palpable haziness and melancholia. Yet, there's a warmth too — found in the bouncy, chiming textures of these monolithic rockers — which keeps things from seeming too cold and distant. Citrus is an album that's perfect for the autumnal months, when hot summer days awkwardly (and often abruptly) transition into frigid winter nights.

Blustery hurricanes of low-end and distortion dominate the atmosphere, but not without a fight from lead singer Yuki Chikudate's quivering and ethereal voice, which occasionally breaks through the din, only to be swallowed whole by a colossal wall of sound once more. Take lead single "New Years," for example, which finds Yuki's fragile whisper riding atop a mountain of titanic distortion and trebling bass, eventually dispelling the noise long enough to croon the track's gorgeous bridge, only to be drown out moments later by an even greater sonic assault; it's an auditory struggle akin to the push-and-pull of the seasonal weather. But that's as hectic as it gets, which is important to point out, lest I undersell the tunefulness of this album. Cuts like "Lions And Tigers," which skimps on none of the band's requisite amounts of low-end, but tempers the intensity with Yuki's lullaby-sung verses and playful jingling during the subdued (at least by this band's standards) chorus. Of course, even this song eventually builds to a symphonic, eardrum-shattering climax, but that's more a testament to the restless nature of these sprawling compositions.

Citrus approaches within-its-genre perfection, but, unfortunately, it does stumble a bit. To make matters worse, its two missteps sit right next to each other chronologically, at the dead center of the album. First up, there’s "Pink Cloud Tracing Paper," which lacks the loud-quiet-loud discipline of the other cuts found here, but could be forgiven if not for the decision to hand the mic off to the band's other half, guitarist James Hanna (whose weak, indistinct vocal doesn't do the song any favors); followed by the nearly eight-minute muddle of "Red Sea," which lacks form and goes on far, far too long. Both are relatively minor sins, but they nonetheless soften the impact of the work as a whole.

Thankfully, the two weakest cuts are followed by the strongest; penultimate single "Goodbye" opens with a rousing drum roll only slightly less gratifying than the killer riffs that accompany the verse. Factor in the track's honey-sweet chorus, and what you end up with exemplifies the kind of crystalline art-pop so many attempt and so few execute with such precision. At under four minutes, the track could have easily felt cropped next to the various, more ambitious compositions it keeps company with, but the band is so efficient when it comes to pacing and structure that they're able to imbue the song with enough variance to make it more than just a catchy bit of junk food. Sentiments which apply to the entirety of Citrus, which registers as one of the catchiest pop albums of 2006, while sacrificing none of the layered production values that are the stock-in-trade of the shoegaze formula.

Grade: 3/4

Monday, February 9, 2009

Animal Collective - Merriweather

Music / Review

Album: Merriweather Post Pavilion
Artist: Animal Collective
Year: 2009

The irony of Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective's eighth full-length, named after the ubiquitous outdoor stage in Columbia, Maryland, is that it's the band's least live-sounding album they've made thus far. It's this stylistically different approach to recording — there are more filters on the vocals here, the soundscapes much thicker and layered — that makes this collection of songs, most likely the best batch that the greatest contemporary band on the planet has yet put together, fall just short of classic status. Truthfully, though, only time will tell.

Big words, I know. But any modern rock critic worth his salt will cop to being in awe of this band, even if not everything they've done thrills them. Pretty much everything does it for me though, excepting some very early, particularly indulgent live recordings, and a few tracks off odd LPs over the years. Also, both critics and hardcore fans alike (and there are many) have probably heard most of the cuts on Merriweather (all but the bouncy pop of "Blueish," which debuts on this album) either performed live at concerts, or at concerts on Youtube. That, coupled with interviews with the band stating that this is their "best album yet," and a particularly enthusiastic review from one of the music world's most reputable publications (Uncut), created an almost unbearable strain of hype preceding its release, that which almost any album would buckle under, and couldn't possibly live up to. It's to the great credit of this extraordinary band that they come damn close.

The first sign of greatness reveals itself in the impeccable construction of Merriweather: The album kicks off with "In The Flowers," the most atmospheric track of the set and (next to later cut "No More Runnin'") the most subdued. At least until it suddenly erupts with buzzing synth stabs, before quieting down again for the lead-out, establishing a loud-quiet-loud aesthetic which will remain prevalent throughout. 'Flowers' finds one of the band's two principal vocalists, Avey Tare (real name Dave Portner), waxing euphorically in the name of love about "leaving [his] body for a night." It's a peculiar ballad, for sure, but one that displays a maturity (welcome or not) which contrasts Tare's gorgeously animalistic love song "Purple Bottle," off 2005's Feels.

This sense of gravity and responsibility, a theme that subtly weaves itself into every song on the album, seems appropriate, as a lot has changed since 2005. For instance, one member, Panda Bear (real name Noah Lennox), has become a father, which adds a certain credibility to the powerful lead single (though the band would never call it that) "My Girls." Here, Tare and Panda Bear simply and earnestly proclaim, in unison, "I don't mean / to seem like I care about material things / like a social status / I just want / four walls and adobe slabs / for my girls." The sentiments are felt not only on a human level, but relatable in this time of economic instability, where one can find the most gratifying aspects of life in the love and nurturing of others.

Not all the content here is heavy though; in fact much of it is abstract at best. Lazy, spell-binding Panda Bear cut "Daily Routine" drifts along on skittering break-beats and a vaguely hand-clap-sounding percussive rhythm. Then, halfway through, it slams on the breaks and endlessly repeats its dreamlike refrain, "just one sec more / in my bed," as if to savor that moment in the morning before starting the day. Or maybe coercing someone to stay with him for a while? The ambiguity only empowers the track, and even here we find traces of that nurturing paternal maturity in lyrics like "make sure my kid's got a jacket." Elsewhere, the most catchy track Tare has ever written, "Summertime Clothes," finds the band in a state of freewheeling bliss. "I want to walk around with you," Tare sings, later repeatedly chanting the track's makeshift bridge, "when the sun comes up we'll go out again." The act of being caught up in a moment, or a musical/lyrical stanza, is one of many binding thematic concerns here.

On the album's biggest and best moment, which further demonstrates the superior sense of structure Merriweather has been endowed with, album closer "Brother Sport"-- written by Panda Bear as means to encourage his younger brother Matt (the refrain of the track)-- demonstrates the strengths of the artist's superlative 2007 solo effort, Person Pitch, enhanced by the ingenuity and communal spirit of the band. If no moment in music this year matches the shear ecstatic urgency and rhythmic perfection of "Brother Sport's" midsection, I couldn't reasonably be disappointed. House synths snake around buzzing alarms as a thundering thump lumbers along in the background, giving way to joyful sighs which will be familiar to anyone who's spent time with Pitch.

Aside from being a singles collection (and most every song on here, as a stand-alone track, should thrill at the very least those indie rock fans with range, if not every human being with ears), Merriweather unifies itself in ways no other Animal Collective record has yet been able to (though Feels comes close). Gurgling electronics evoke the fluidity of water, a recurring theme in the band's music, but all the more relevant here. Especially when one considers the album's artwork, a hypnotic, aquamarine-colored illusion replete with interlocking leaves acting as a curtain (or a barrier?) obscuring an astral backdrop. Every aspect of the record, especially its runtime (nearly an hour), seems to purport vast and epic aspirations. And the band comes damn close to pulling it all off.

Save a few cursory criticisms ("Also Frightened" is a bit lacking, and not as tuneful as the rest of the set — it's also too long), and the unshakable sense that in the effort to be sonically cohesive the music has lost a bit of its fervor and humanistic qualities, Merriweather still sits comfortably in the band's overwhelmingly impressive canon, and will most likely tower above the vast majority of '09 releases. Merriweather Post Pavilion might not be quite the classic it's being hyped as (not to these ears at least), but so what? The good news: maybe the band's pinnacle, their defining release, is still yet to come. What could be more exciting than that?

Grade: 3.5/4