Reviews

Tribeca Film Festival 2012: 'Mansome' + 'Knife Fight'

Betsy Kim
Jason Bateman and Will Arnett in Mansome. Photo Credit: Warrior Poets

Mansome and Knife Fight make their premieres at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.

Mansome

Director: Morgan Spurlock
Cast: Morgan Spurlock, Zach Galifianakis, Will Arnett, Paul Rudd, Jason Bateman, Judd Apatow

Knife Fight

Director: Bill Guttentag
Cast: Rob Lowe, Jaime Chung, Julie Bowen, Saffron Burrows

Two entertaining movies, both premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, focus on a candid truth that we must project images of ourselves to get what we want out of life. It's superficial but also undeniable that our looks, appearances, and the impressions we make on other people, in this world -- matter. Mansome by Morgan Spurlock and Knife Fight by Bill Guttentag have fun with that notion.

Mansome (Photo credit: Warrior Poets)

Although promoted as a "sexual politics" documentary, Mansome (a made-up word, combining "masculine" and "handsome") is basically a comedy. Concluding that men groom themselves to help define their identities and to attract women, the film does not offer cutting-edge or provocative revelations. Yet it is funny and original.

Spurlock, perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated documentary Super Size Me, presents several odd "manscaping" vignettes. Movie-goers travel with Jack Passion to Austria as he competes in an international beard and mustache championship. They accompany pro wrestler Shawn Daivari while he gets his back shaved and explains the extreme hair and makeup regimen required of a live "action hero". They observe Ricky Manchanda, a clothing buyer, getting his eyebrows threaded. Manchanda has taken his interest in his personal grooming, (manicures, tanning sessions, facials, laser skin treatments) to a heightened level, constantly reading up on trends and cosmetic procedures. He admits, "My looks have become my hobby. Am I a metrosexual? Absolutely. Without a doubt."

Interspersed among the featured stories, academics, celebrities, experts, men and women provide comments and confessions on different aspects of male grooming:

"Deep down, secretly every guy wants to know what he looks like with a mustache."

"If you look like you can't build a shelf, I won't sleep with you."

Executive producers, actors Jason Bateman and Will Arnett, appear on-camera throughout the film as they undergo multiple beauty treatments in what appears to be an all-day trip to a spa. They discuss men's grooming efforts and how that relates to masculinity.

As part of their banter, friendly competitiveness to demonstrate their masculinity mixes in with their often ridiculous discussions of manhood. While in a sauna, Arnett refers to an attractive but hirsute woman he once dated as "mustachioed." Bateman suggests the term "mustached" but staking his dominance, Arnett confidently reasserts his original term, "mustachioed."

Although far from serious sociological commentary, the film successfully pokes fun at the differences in how we still judge men and women. Bateman's and Ackerman's blatant competitiveness remains a sign of masculinity, behavior stereotypically less acceptable for women.

While undergoing massages, they jokingly challenge each other as to who can handle the harder pounding: "I'm a bit more of a man. I can take it."

The movie's charm lies in the characters' not taking themselves too seriously and in their abilities to laugh at themselves. Actor Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover movies) sports a scraggly, red beard and hefty lumberjack style. When asked about his own appearance on a scale from one to ten, Galifianakis answers: "To certain people, I’m probably a one. And then to other people, I’m a strong two."

The movie does not set out to educate, shock or offend people. It playfully entertains with a cheeky, honest confession of male vanity in its many, quirky and vulnerable forms.

Rob Lowe. Photo Credit: Angeline Herron

Knife Fight

To win an election, it's not just how you look physically, but how you look overall -- and not just to a potential mate but to the public. Cultivating an image, grooming for a political office requires a much thicker skin. "To win in politics you've got to be the person who is willing to bring a gun to a knife fight," says political strategist Paul Turner (Rob Lowe).

Two-time Oscar winning director and filmmaker Bill Guttentag teamed up with political operative Chris Lehane to co-write Knife Fight, a fictional behind-the-scenes look at campaigns. Turner’s character is based on Lehane, who previously served as special assistant counsel to President Bill Clinton and press secretary for Vice President Al Gore and the Gore-Lieberman campaign.

Lowe reunites with West Wing co-star, Richard Schiff, who plays Dimitris, an experienced, shady, behind the scene campaign handler. The bright, young, up-and-coming Kerstin (Jamie Chung) serves as Turner’s protégé in the fast-paced, cutthroat world of people "in it to win it". Their clients include a Kentucky governor (Eric McCormack) whose affair with a young intern surfaces in the midst of a campaign; a California senator (David Harbour) blackmailed by a former prostitute/ masseuse; and an ethical, compassionate doctor (Carrie-Anne Moss) who runs a low-income medical clinic. She wants to be the next governor of California for all the right reasons.

In an April 25 Tribeca Talk, political reporter Mark Halperin moderated a discussion with Guttentag, Lehane and Republican campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt, who had a cameo role in the film. (As John McCain's campaign manager in the 2008 elections, Schmidt also prominently appeared in Halperin's best selling non-fiction, Game Change.)

Guttentag and Lehane wanted the film, although a satire, to capture the appeal of true-life political dramas.

"The film lives and dies on if you feel you are right in the room," said Guttentag. "So, I think for our process, while we were writing it, as we were doing it, we kept saying does this feel true? Does this feel real? And I think if you're pulled in that way then it enables you to buy into the story."

Lehane described the film as a "love letter" to political operators who believe in a process much bigger than themselves. As Turner explained to Kerstin, Lehane said, "These are tough campaigns. This is how the game is played but at the end of the day there are very noble ends. You have people flawed just like anyone in life, who can run for office but they can also do enormously powerful things."

Lehane emphasized the critical consequences at stake in politics. He felt very proud to have had a role in the election of people who have done tremendously positive things for this country and for the world.

"It’s that space where cynicism and idealism collide together. You’re trying to win this election. You believe in this candidate. You come to believe these are people that have great strengths but also great flaws," said Schmidt. He said people who work on campaigns want to advance the county’s future but cynicism enters in as to what you have to do to win a campaign. This tension central to the film resonated with him.

As documented in Game Change, Schmidt had strong regrets about Sarah Palin's suitability for vice president.

In a Huffington Post article, Geoffrey Dunn quoted Schmidt on the choice of Palin, a selection initially focused on perceived political gain.

"I think that she helped usher in an era of know-nothingness, and mainstreamed it in the Republican Party to the detriment of the conservative movement... And I think her nomination trivialized American politics, and had a lot of results that I'm not particularly comfortable with. And, of course, you know, I had a very personally difficult relationship with her during the campaign. But it was a mistake. There's just no two ways about it."

As with true politics, the film's charismatic figures showboat with entertaining, often barbed sound bites. The movie provides pleasant light fare as comedy, but does not offer substantive food for thought. Although produced in time for the 2012 election cycle, it's a movie you most likely have seen before.

The groundbreaking documentary War Room provided a uniquely insightful look at the gritty resolve, gut intelligence, organization and stamina required to power a campaign to victory. The subsequent laundry list of political movies including Wag the Dog, Primary Colors and Knife Fight lack the punch of fresh originality.

The film is enjoyable as light-hearted satire that does not realistically convey a struggle in questioning whether the ends justify the means. That ethical question takes shape as a straw man superficially constructed only to tear down without much deliberation. Knife Fight too repetitively and simplistically hits its audience over the head with a slightly sanctimonious theme of being kingmakers for the greater good.

Knife Fight Panel by Betsy Kim:

Steve Schmidt, Chris Lehane, Bill Guttentag and Mark Halperin.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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