Film

Sundance 2017: 'An Inconvenient Sequel' + 'I Don't Feel at Home in This World'

Al Gore in An Inconvenient Sequel (2017)

The 2017 Sundance Film Festival opens with two films about making the world a better place -- in two very different ways.


An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

Director: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk
Cast: Al Gore
Rated: NR
Studio: Paramount Vantage
Year: 2017
US Release date: 2017-01-19 (Sundance Film Festival)
Website

I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore

Director: Macon Blair
Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood, David Yow
Rated: R
Studio: Netflix
Year: 2017
US Release date: 2017-01-19 (Sundance Film Festival)
Website

Two new films at the Sundance Film Festival look for ways to make the world a better place. The first, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk's An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, reinvigorates the argument made a decade ago in An Inconvenient Truth. In a perverted twist of fate, the sequel made its Sundance debut on the eve of Donald Trump's inauguration.

Now, we contemplate the future with an American President who believes the Earth is flat (or at least filled with molten candy), as the new film offers Al Gore's updated slideshow presentation on climate change. The news is pretty grim, but the messenger is not. Nearly 20 years removed from hanging chads, Gore's frustratingly amateurish delivery looks refreshingly endearing. He still shambles about with an awkward, almost Frankensteinian gate, and his Southern drawl still fluctuates based on his audience. He’s also still sharp as a tack and genuinely passionate about saving the planet.

Here Mr. PowerPoint delves into a new ream of data and graphs to break down humanity’s inexorable march toward self-induced annihilation. Glaciers explode on the Greenland ice shelf as 2016 temperatures skyrocket into the stratosphere. Super-soaking "Rain Bombs" absorb moisture from the baking earth and dump flash floods of Biblical proportions upon the Southwestern United States. With weather anomalies becoming an everyday occurrence, Gore implores skeptical world leaders to “have a conversation about cause and effect.”

Gore serves as the moral and reasonable center of An Inconvenient Sequel. The documentary shows how he's been spending his time: between jam sessions with energy experts and heads of state, he gathers together eager students on his Tennessee farm to teach them the subtleties of his AV presentation, new disciples in the Church of Climate Change.

Gore’s global travels lead to the film’s most effective scene, in which an Indian politician rightly wonders why his poor country should embrace expensive solar technology rather than exploit the cheap fossil fuels that enabled the US to become a superpower. It's a rebuke Gore struggles to counter, and one familiar within current debates that pit declining economies against rising temperatures.

At the same time, Gore’s passion and sincerity remain an inspiration. When India threatens to derail the agreement reached at the historic 2016 Paris Climate Conference, he brokers a deal with a California solar company to provide affordable solar panels to India. It's an audacious bit of deal making that will leave climate change opponents choking on their economic pragmatism.


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The movie makes the case that Gore is as correct as he is pragmatic. Most notably, it reminds us that his "outrageous” claim in An Inconvenient Truth that a storm surge could flood the 9/11 Memorial in New York City was vindicated when Hurricane Sandy did just that in 2012. Even his jokes showcase how right he is. When Gore wonders out loud how Florida's governor, Rick Scott, can ignore the elevated tidal surges flooding Miami Beach, a local bureaucrat observes that “Florida is a challenge,” Gore quips, "I can confirm that."

Of course, Gore is not An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power most important cause. A rousing complement to its predecessor, the film is packed with plenty of new information to bolster the already insurmountable case in favor of climate change. It won't change any skeptical minds in today's charged political climate, but it's a galvanizing sermon for those ready to hear it.

Elijah Wood and Melanie Lynskey in I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017)

The case made in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, is slightly different. The better world in this case is pursued by Ruth Kimke (Melanie Lynskey), currently stuck in one where, as she puts it, "Everyone is an asshole!"

Ruth has the cold, perceptive detachment that comes when you retreat to your own miserable corner of society. Minor indiscretions, like violating the 15-items-or-less grocery lane edict, send her into existential crisis. It’s no surprise, then, that the burglary of her beloved grandmother's silverware sends Ruth on an ill-advised investigation that leads into a genuinely dangerous criminal world.

Macon Blair's directorial debut is an exhilarating mix of the absurd, the hilarious, and the sleazy. Blair was obviously taking notes during his collaborations with Jeremy Saulnier on Blue Ruin and Green Room, as his own film, like those, explores the consequences of crossing societal boundaries.

Bones break and blood spews as Ruth finds her way into places she can’t possibly comprehend. Her guide on this journey is Tony (Elijah Wood); a rattail-wearing, roundhouse-kicking metal-head who is only slightly less clueless than Ruth. He knows just enough to get both of them nearly killed, as when he unleashes a throwing star assault on a hapless group of drug addicts. After a prolonged effort to remove a stubborn star that’s lodged in the wall, Tony gloats, “Yeah, that’s how hard I threw it.” Wood's weird energy and wiry frame help us understand Tony, a man who exists somewhere between moral discipline and quacking rage.

As Ruth, Lynskey brings another sort of weirdness. Her mousy voice and sunken shoulders belie a beastly thirst for cosmic justice. She wants to save the world from itself, one browbeating at a time. When she finally tracks down the burglars, you want to throw your arms around her to keep her safe. You feel this way because the film deftly follows Ruth’s descent into darkness without ever compromising her innocence. Because I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore establishes the burglars as genuinely creepy, when she encounters them, you feel as though anything can happen.

If Blair's creation of that sort of unease is impressive, his film's tone can also be inconsistent. Ruth and Tony share a dark sarcasm and goofy likability, while the criminals' sensibility is ultra-serious. At times, these differences seem haphazard rather than deliberate. That said, the final 20 minutes of I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore produce some of the most riveting cinema you’re likely to see in 2017.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

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Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

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Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11
Amazon
iTunes

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