Film

Nothing Extraordinary about this 'Rendition'

RENDITION (dir. Gavin Hood)

Okay, okay, we get it. In the name of the War on Terror, the United States has screwed up -- BIG time. We’ve made massive military and diplomatic blunders, turned ourselves from last remaining superpower to international laughing stock, and allowed our Red State leanings to manifest themselves in the biggest set of civil rights abuses since African Americans were forced to drink from segregated water fountains. So here’s a message to Hollywood -- enough already. We GET IT. Uncle Sam has ruined his reputation, our own government is complicit in major infractions of the Geneva Convention, and none of this is making us safer. So you’ve got plenty of targets to take out. Terrific. Just know this -- you sell your media-minded position a lot more successfully when you remember to make your harangues entertaining. Without that, there’s just empty, obnoxious jingoism.

Rendition is the result of such pompous over-pronouncements. It’s a well-intentioned screed undone by its desire to make all sides of its conflict saintly simplistic. It wastes prodigious talents both in front of and behind the camera in service of a tale that’s so obvious in its moral underpinnings and thankless in its idea of subtlety that it even finds nobility in a suicide bomber. Any film founded on secret US torture sights should have the backbone to place the blame squarely on the bureaucratic shoulders where it belongs. But in Gavin Hood’s showy storytelling designs and all sides supporting the center script, what we wind up with is black and white cast as all gray and not gray enough. Issues of security and wartime intelligence are indeed important. But Rendition is so existentially earnest that you’re not quite sure where your true feelings are supposed to lie.

While on his way home from a business trip, Egyptian born Anwar El-Ibrahimi is suddenly detained at the Washington DC airport. Seems a well known terrorist has contacted his cellphone number, and the CIA wants to know why. Of course, this leave his pregnant wife Isabella in a quandary, especially when he fails to show up as planned. Though the airlines argue he was never on the flight, our heroine discovers otherwise. She seeks the help of an old college friend, a Senator’s aide who has connections to tough Agency head Corrine Whitman. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, El-Ibrahimi is interrogated by the tough Abasi Fawal. Under the watchful eye of field agent Douglas Freeman, the seemingly innocent man is tortured for information. While his wife waits for word, he’s clinging desperately to life.

There is much more to Rendition than this -- too much more. Fawal has a daughter who is defying his arranged marriage wishes, leading to all manner of domestic strife for the belligerent bulldog of a man. Freeman is having his own internal crisis, a life as CIA lackey leaving him empty and prone to personal doubt. Isabella is pregnant, and her past ties to the Congressional assistant seem to cement the investigation. Then there is the Arab’s anarchic child, pining away for a fellow student and finding herself locked in a surreal interpersonal holy war between rising fundamentalism, a group of terror minded leaders, and the man she thinks she loves. It’s enough to make your head spin, and Hood apparently wants it to corkscrew right off.

Instead of presenting events as they are meant to play out, we get a Pulp Fiction tweaking of the plot point time lines. It’s so jarring, so in your face obvious and arty that, when discovered, we find ourselves rewinding the movie in our mind to see if Hood stayed true to the tactic. Sadly, it also saps any inherent emotion out of the story. Somewhere along the line, Hollywood has gotten the idea that certain standard relationships don’t require character defining backstory. Star-crossed lovers -- especially in a strict foreign country -- are supposedly intriguing in and of themselves, while a mixed marriage in the United States (especially one so clearly contrary to our post-9/11 tolerances) earns intrigue by merely existing. But that’s not the case. Rendition relies too heavily on inference and supposition. As a result, we never identify with these individuals, or empathize when there life goes wildly out of whack.

And that’s a shame, especially since Hood sets up big scope moments of universal import as a means of making us feel. Reese Witherspoon, who’s more or less blank here, gets one of those screeching confrontations that pass for dramatics, while Jake Gyllenhaal’s CIA stooge has a taking a stand situation that’s supposed to turn him from rube to hero. But since we literally know nothing about these people, we never feel their pain. Even strapped naked to a water torture device, Omar Metwally’s El-Ibrihimi is nothing more than a pathetic prop. Granted, Hood stacks the deck during these scenes, turning the interrogation by Yigal Noar’s Fawal into Hostel with higher ambitions, but since we don’t have a stake in this game (and the passé explanation about the title act of illegal detention is not enough to provide one) we end up shrugging our shoulders when we should be shielding our eyes.

Indeed, Rendition’s biggest obstacle is the inordinate number of “who cares?” interactions. What are we really supposed to gain from the Arab boy-girl puppy loving? Is there anything other than kitchen sink drama attached on Papa Fawal’s strident parental approach? Is the presence of El-Ibrihimi’s patient and philosophical mother in Isabella’s life nothing more than a countermand to all the foreign zealotry, and should Meryl Streep play evil when she’s given nothing more than bureaucratic shorthand as speeches? Hood, who filled his Oscar winning foreign film Tsotsi with a real sense of time and place, feels flummoxed here. You can almost sense the pull between paradigms going on in this South African born, American influenced filmmaker. Part of him is looking for all the local color he can get. The rest is wrestling with the standard cinematic designs of the genre (thriller) he’s attempting.

It’s lose/lose all the way. There is a good story buried somewhere in Kelley Sane’s scattered screenplay, a tale to be told about a government so paranoid about losing power -- and innocent people -- that it would stoop to ridiculously reactionary measures to achieve minor Intel-objectives. Let’s not forget that El-Ibrihimi’s ordeal occurs because a random CIA agent is killed in a suicide bombing. Linking this man to the insignificant organization we see (these are radicals who plot their protests out in the open, after all) seems like much ado about saber rattling. None of the participants on either side of the situation seem to care about such a slash and burn approach. Apparently, they’d use a nuke to find a needle in a haystack as well.

Without superb acting to pull us through the rougher bits, without a clear emotional connection to the events unfolding -- heck, without a concrete idea about what is happening when -- Rendition renders itself moot. It becomes an argument where the winner has already been determined, a debate without a clear pro/con dichotomy. Neither side we see is defensible, nor is it determinative. It appears to merely be the best way for Hollywood to state its artistically slanted agenda. Right or wrong, a sledgehammer and additional salt for the wounds never won anyone over -- not even the already converted. Rendition is the reactionary as reality. It paints a portrait that very few, if any, can salute.

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

Keep reading... Show less
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.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image