Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Plants and Animals at the Apple Store

I've been enthusiastic about this band since day uno. A year... has it been that long now???... of touring and these guys sound so pro. Not to say they ever sounded amateur. But they were different at one point. Less confident maybe? Less cohesive? I don't know. I recall nights of seeing one band member working the bar at Divan Orange. But they have matured like a fine wine and I am proud to say that they do not disappoint. Plants an Animals are indie darlings, beloved by fans of alt scenes everywhere. They're hard not to like, because they make good music and somehow maintain a mysterious air about them. They seem so down to earth and yet... so... out there at the same time. Maybe they're more out there? It's almost impossible to capture in words, but such is the problem for many of my favourite bands.

In the past, I have compared Plants and Animals to Simon and Garfunkel. To my mind, the comparison still holds. Now, I know you're thinking about adult contemporary light pop when I say Simon and Garfunkel. You're going to have to get that out of your mind and pretend you're in 1969 and people are protesting the Vietnam War and these guys are singing Scarborough Fair. They are singing about things that are important, making beautiful complicated music, and harmonizing at the same time. That is exactly how I feel about plants and animals. This band is singing about something current... yet with Kabbalistic mysticism around it. They're making beautiful, complicated songs that range from east coast sailing tunes to trippy rock, and they harmonize in three parts. Perfectly to my untrained ear.

No, these guys have just begun their journey.

So, the apple store. Right. This is a review of sorts. Well, I couldn't see a thing over the heads of dedicated fans who responded to a last minute summons to come out for the show. It seems Plants and Animals attracts tall men. Feh. Spicer said the glaring lights prevented him from looking out at the audience, but he only would have seen a row of coolly dressed skinny indie dudes bobbing their heads. Beyond that, about an hour's worth of their songs that were performed richer than I remember. The sound was fantastic, though, and perhaps it is to this that I can attribute that to Apple's particular arts niche market. There's a reason why everyone in the arts prefers Mac. Mac is better (so sayeth I on my macbook). After most of the audience parted, the remaining few applauded the band back for an encore of Sinnerman.

I have been duly impressed by the Apple Store's little music talent display over the past week. Granted, I took a pass on Simple Plan and Good Charlotte or whatever that band is called... but kudos to the store for calling up Montreal's best trio on the smorgasboard of good sounds.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Laura Barrett is All Thumbs

The Up to Your Ears (Jusqu'aux Oreilles) Festival presented Laura Barrett and her magical kalimba at the Christ Church Cathedral Friday evening. With a brief, but always wonderful performance, Barrett backed with two other instrumentalists providing sparse layers, treated the audience to her mythical songs. Mythical is a good word to describe Barrett, but so is futuristic. Couched in songs about robot ponies and mechanicistic tomorrows, Barrett still captures the essence of humanity. She sings about the search for identification, about consumerism, about the inevitability of change -- but she does so without malice or a cross side sneer. Barrett is concerned with purpose and meaning, without getting caught up in the self-importance of her personal experience, as so many other singers do. These current and future themes are juxtaposed with Barrett's sweet, song-of-Roland voice and the fairy tale like melodies of her kalimba, turning each song into a kind of timeless folk song.

Barrett is a wonderful performer, with a distinct personality. She is so warm and so open, and at the same time, so unique. She is truly a delight to see perform live.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tension and Motherhood in Frozen River

Melissa Leo as Ray Eddy Working at the Yankee Dollar
Photos by Jory Sutton © 2007 Frozen River Productions, LLC. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

When your means and opportunities fall short of the American Dream, a woman needs to reassess her dream or find a less savory way to make things happen. Ray Eddy is a woman whose dreams are dashed by the men around her. Her husband runs away with the money to pay for the doublewide, a prefab house that is supposed to replace the family trailer. Her boss refuses to promote her to assistant manager at the Yankee Dollar. As a middle aged woman with a lot of tattoos, two sons, and few options to improve her situation, Ray is the perfect example of the women Barbara Ehrenreich writes about, the women who find themselves choosing between food and gasoline.

Ray's fortunes, though, shift when she meets Lila, a Mohawk smuggler who involves her in a human trafficking operation to bring illegal immigrants across the Canadian-American border through Mohawk territory. The law of either country doesn't apply on Mohawk territory, where a tribal council makes determinations instead. Each trip earns the driver $2400, paid in two installments. But, in order to make the journey, the women have to cross the frozen river between the two countries, a perilous journey as weather conditions affect the strength of the ice to support cars. With four trips, Ray will have enough money for her payment before Christmas.

This film works on the strength and believability of its characters and their relationship to one another. The film is certainly a spin on the buddy film genre in which an unlikely duo must work together. Both Ray and Lila are full of suspicion and distrust in a world that has shown them no pity. But both women are still mothers, and they connect on this one basic point -- a mother will do anything for her children. Their tense and hostile conversations keep the story engaging, as the viewer waits to see if any reconciliation between them is possible past their initial bond of motherhood.

The performanes in the film are excellent. Melissa Leo delivers an outstanding performance as a woman who has come to expect disappointment in life. Despite her life-beaten appearance, she struggles to maintain dignity and raise her two sons with love and discipline. The simple act of applying mascara is transformed into a sanity-saving ritual through Leo's nuanced performance. Ray is an immensely likable character, and perhaps it is difficult to understand exactly why she is in such a demeaned situation in the first place.

The film opens in the AMC on August 22.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Brick Lane A Study in Humanity

Brick Lane is a tremendous effort by first time director Sarah Gavron that captures the transformation of Nazneen from a sheltered Bangladeshi immigrant coping with despair and lovelessness in London's east end to a more modernized and less innocent woman. The film traces Nanzneen's idealized childhood, where she runs wild with her sister through fields. However, this freedom is little more than a memory, when Nanzneen is shown 16 years later in her cramped, dark, cloistered existence. Shrouded in black and keeping to herself, Nanzneen detests her overweight, educated husband, and seems to care only for the care of her two daughters. The romantic visions of her early life return throughout the film, as bright moments of escapism. The suicide of her mother during childhood seems a distinct possibility for Nanzneen, whose entire world consists of her apartment and her view out the window. Only her husband's promise that they will return to Bangladesh gives her a reason to persist. When spunky Razia moves in next door, Nanzeen is inspired to begin a home sewing business to help pay for the return flight to Bangladesh. The business brings her in contact with Karim, a muslim rights activist, and the two begin an affair that forces Nanzneen to re-evaluate her identity.

The film weaves together complicated strands to create an intelligent study of love, memory, and the shifting roles played by men and women in the immigrant family. Through a shattering of her naive and romantic understanding of the past, Nanzneen comes to learn the differences between the real and ideal. The dangerous seduction of idealization is also identified when Karim and his group spout empty platitudes for Muslim unity following the attack on the Twin Towers. Chanu sees through the radicalism and ahistoricity immediately, pointing to the real situation that took place in Pakistan a generation before.

The theme of the immigrant experience is equally well developed, where Chanu is conflicted between his desire for a traditional and a modernized family. He loves his family, but understands none of them. He is educated academically, but lacks common sense. He tries to embrace life as a Londoner, but only comes off as a comic imitation. Even the wall paper in his apartment is a failed attempt to imitate a country interior. Yet for his failures, he struggles with very real emotions of pride and tenderness. Nanzneen's experience is one of awakening and a shedding of her old identity as she learns what the new world can offer her. While her mother was trapped in her Village Life, she has the opportunity to improve her station not through marriage or sex, but through her own efforts.

From the acting to the production values, the film is a great success. Nanzneen's caged existence is mirrored in short, jagged shots that mirror her agony. Her angry, resentful glare softens as she falls in love, as she herself does not have the words. The entire crew does a fantastic job conveying emotion through color and cinematography, rather than through dialogue. This film is highly recommended and a moving study of the new immigrant.

Brick Lane opens August 15th in the AMC forum