Reviews

Tribeca Film Festival 2014: ‘Match’ + ‘1971’

A dance choreographer and former rake must own up to his past, and a band of activists risk life in prison to expose the FBI’s domestic surveillance program.

Match

Director: Stephen Belber
Cast: Carla Gugino, Matthew Lillard, Patrick Stewart
Rated: NR
Studio: Tilted Windmill Productions
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-04-24 (Tribeca Film Festival)
Website

1971

Director: Johanna Hamilton
Cast: Peter Gregus, Lauren A. Kennedy, Jonathan Joel Brennan, Rich Graff, Daniel S. Taylor, Dennis Brito, John Isgro, Kerry Malloy, Brian P. McCarthy, Matthew Smith, Marilyn Ness, Danielle Varga, Paul Darren
Rated: NR
Studio: Maximum Pictures
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-04-24 (Tribeca Film Festival)
Website
Trailer

Above: Patrick Stewart in Match

Match is a tight, comically uncomfortable little box of a story about selfishness and pasts that refuse to die. It features enough salty turns of phrase and violently clashing expectations to generate a reasonably entertaining evening in its company. But essential it isn’t.

The movie, which ran briefly as a play on Broadway in 2004 and screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, opens on Tobi (Patrick Stewart), an aging Juilliard choreographer whose fierce internal discipline has led him to a self-induced isolation in the twilight of his career. In a bright practice room, Tobi glides among his dancers, alternating quiet directives with stern corrections (“Arms loose! We are not making pizza”). Then he heads to his roomy apartment at the upper verge of Manhattan (“A neighborhood of Dominicans and Albanians I didn’t even know existed”) to await the arrival of a special pair of guests.

Lisa (Carla Gugino) and her husband Mike (Matthew Lillard) mean to interview Tobi, concerning a long career during which he apparently danced everywhere and choreographed everyone. Lisa is writing a dissertation on dance, while Mike is on hand to run the tape recorder and occasionally stare balefully at Tobi. It's a salon of one, with the verbose Tobi swanning about his apartment like some grand downtown wit, his erudition coy and his obscenities earthy. Stewart makes clear in a series of tart, sexually ambiguous bon mots that Tobi yet believes he was destined for something greater than his current state.

Of course, there’s more to the visit than Lisa and Mike first let on, and that’s where Match heads into rockier territory. In trying to confront Tobi about an episode from his past, the couple is in effect asking him to confront the consequences of his vagabond lifestyle. The film hints at an inquiry into the inherent selfishness of pursing the arts, but just as Tobi shifts from disciplined teacher to motor-mouthed ditz to dispenser of sage advice, so too the film ultimately bangs around from catty comedy to emotive melodrama without much more calibration than a sitcom.

1971

The documentary 1971, also screening at Tribeca, offers a decidedly more nuanced investigation of motives and meanings. Johanna Hamilton’s sharp film looks back on the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, a meticulously organized protest cell who brainstormed possibly the single most significant act of illegal political protest in US history. Perhaps most remarkably, they were never caught.

The film describes not just how these eight Philadelphia-area activists came to break into an FBI office and helped expose the heretofore unknown COINTELPRO, but also why they risked everything to do it. Opposed to the war in Vietnam and also American domestic intelligence efforts to derail the anti-war movement, they wanted to undertake an action that would be significant but also non-violent.

Knowing that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was at that point a law unto itself, operating with no oversight and ensuring that politicians were cowed by the threat of blackmail, the Committee found a good target. Looking in the phone book, they located a branch office in the town of Media, Pennsylvania. Located on the second floor of an apartment building, it was only guarded by one locked door, owing to the agency's arrogance at the time. After months of casing the place -- including Committee member Bonnie Raines's infiltration of the office by pretending to be a student interested in joining the FBI, and another member's teaching himself how to pick locks -- they broke in, a climactic moment recreated judiciously here, in scenes that don't overstate the drama.

In fact, what the group found inside the office provides plenty of drama. Many of the stolen papers described in detail the range of programs the FBI used to keep tabs on and disrupt any political activity that Hoover deemed "subversive" and "un-American." The records showed the agency's activities ranged from the comically inept (an undercover agent wearing wingtip shoes along with a tie-dyed shirt) to the horrific (sending anonymous letters to Martin Luther King Jr. suggesting that he kill himself). Adding insult to injury was the fact that nearly all of these schemes appear to have been totally ineffective. Still, the damage done in terms of the paranoia and cynicism that their agent provocateurs generated can’t be overstated.

While 1971 makes some mention of later scandals like the Pentagon Papers, it also might have made clearer the significance of what happened when copies of the papers found in the Media, PA office were mailed to major newspapers. All of them save for the Washington Post immediately turned the papers over to the FBI. The Post, however, went ahead and investigated, then published their findings as an exposé of the inner workings of America's shadow police force. That direct confrontation of the state created a precedent that made the Post's Watergate diligent investigations possible.

Deftly tracing the skullduggery of the mission and the Committee member's need to keep quiet about it afterward, as well as the impact of the find itself, 1971 crafts a thrilling lesson about how authoritarianism can be curbed, sometimes, by one simple and well-targeted blow. To that last point, the film also underlines the importance of the source, an unlikely coalition of activists. One of the couples at the center of the group had several children, whom they worried about abandoning if they were sent to prison. But as former Freedom Rider John Raines notes in one of his many sage observations, people with children to worry cannot use that as an excuse not to act. Otherwise, he suggests, nothing would ever be done.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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