The Hard Word (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

Cue sign of suspicion, that is, the frame lingers on Dale's dour face through car window.

The Hard Word

Director: Scott Roberts
Cast: Guy Pearce, Rachel Griffiths, Robert Taylor, Joel Edgerton, Damien Richardson, Rhondda Findleton, Dorian Nikona
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Lions Gate Films
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2003-06-13 (Limited release)

The first few minutes of The Hard Word look like lots of convict movies. A squad of tough prisoners are balling in slow motion, chain-link fence framing and a handheld camera evoking a slightly grainy Nike commercial. A hard guitar track thrums in the background, a fight breaks out, guards blows whistles and pull out their bats. Eventually, the camera makes its way to another convict, grim-faced and calculating, observing the melee from the library, where he shelves books.

This would be Dale (a scruffed-up Guy Pearce), eldest of the Twentyman brothers. It so happens that hotheaded Shane (Joel Edgerton) and sweet-natured Mal (Damien Richardson) are doing time at the same prison, for armed robbery. Bored inside -- there's only so much enlightenment Dale can glean from multiple readings of the Bible and Portnoy's Complaint -- the team is just waiting for the next gig. Arranged by their ultrashady lawyer, Frank (Robert Taylor), it's right up their alley, armored truck robbery.

Job-wise, the brothers are aces: Dale plans all moves to the last fraction of a second, and all adhere to the primary injunction, that no one gets hurt. Personal-lives-wise, they're slightly less assured: Shane's a little psychotic (both evidenced and undermined as he seduces his extremely willing prison shrink [Rhondda Findleton]); Mal's more inclined to butchering, as was their father's business, than toward scaring and stealing from people; and Dale's fetching, bleached-blond wife Carol (Rachel Griffiths) is screwing Frank. While it's obvious enough that this has been going on for some time, Dale seems disturbed to spot it (as the brothers are carted off for the armored vehicle job, he notes Frank lighting wifey's cigarette: cue sign of suspicion, that is, the frame lingers on Dale's dour face through car window).

Though the robbery goes off well, Frank scuttles the brothers' intended escape, and instead has them picked up on non-existent charges and sent back to prison, where they stew and grumble. When Carol comes to visit Dale, she performs as a typical seductress, smearing her "I want you, baby" heat on the window between them, even making a smiley face of it. Dale, however, is having none of this come-on, fixated on the possibility that she's cheating; their reflections show through one another throughout the shot-reverse-shotting of their conversation, indicating mutual duplicity. They're so used to using one another and anyone else who gets in their way, they can't imagine another sort of involvement. She denies any wrongdoing, and he can't decide whether he wants to believe her.

It's the wanting that drives everyone's interactions in The Hard Word. No one is capable of generosity or trust: they all know too much. Figuring that he has to get out in order to find out Dale threatens Frank until the lawyer comes up with a scheme to finish off this increasing headache once and for all (Frank seems to believe that Carol's devotion to him, or at least his money, is for real). This involves stealing the betting monies at The Melbourne Cup, accompanied by a fourth man, the plainly dangerous Tarzan (Dorian Nikona), also the only black man in sight.

A standard caper movie, The Hard Word is less interested in plotty hijinks or even clever editing and zap-pans than it is in characters, to the point of near-abstraction. This makes them difficult as points of identification. Writer-director Scott Roberts says his conception of the brothers was inspired by the familial relations of tv's Bonanza: each has a specific role, established, more or less, by his temperament "Dale is the smart one," says Shane, "Mal's the good one, and I'm the fuck-up"). Shane's matinee-idol-style looks hardly make up for his often ugly immaturity; Mal's pleasantness is tempered by his capacity for cruelty when called for; and Dale's jutty-jawed resolve is complicated by Pearce's nervy performance, his glowering and agitated refusal to give in to viewer desires for leading-mannishness. He can be pretty, certainly, but here he's muddled his diction and bruised his eyes, so that Dale remains distant, taciturn and grumpy.

His anger may be well disciplined or well repressed, and it might even be genuine. Aside from his deathless loyalty to his brothers, Dale doesn't have much investment in any of his relationships or his endeavors, aside from a vaguely macho desire to beat the system, the way noir heroes like to do. This loyalty throws something of a wrench into his relationship with Carol, as the boys -- whose experience with girls ranges from a nipple-suckling sort of womanizing (Shane) to none at all (Mal), tend to think she's up to something, specifically, that she'll throw them all over for cash money.

As Dale and Carol's relationship becomes increasingly vexed, the film grants you access to scenes he can't know about, as when she puts off the slimy Frank. Perhaps she's having second thoughts (he's so sludgy), but then again, maybe it's part of a broader plan, either on her part or Dale's. Carol appears at first to embody trouble of the femme fatale-ish variety, but she's eventually messier than this stereotype suggests, at once ambitious, resolute, and visibly uncertain. This makes her nearly as opaque as her man, which means that their serial betrayals, while predictable in a convict movie, also don't occur precisely when or how you'd expect.

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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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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