Reviews

Sweet Land

This film has such an innate sweetness that it will sweep viewers along in the romance, the nostalgia, and the beautiful sense of what it is like to overcome adversity to truly create and become part of a supportive community.


Sweet Land

Director: Ali Selim
Cast: Elizabeth Reaser, Tim Guinee, Lois Smith, Alan Cumming, John Heard, Ned Beatty, Alex Kingston, and Patrick Heusinger
Distributor: Fox
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Fox
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2007-07-10

For wearing the disguise of an underground, independent American feature film, Minnesota native and director Ali Selim's Sweet Land is deceptively well-put together. It is an assured look at familial and romantic bonds and small town ideas of community. There are a lot of ideas packed into the proceedings, but the viewer is never condescended to with saccharine philosophizing or preaching: this is one of the most honestly good-natured films I have seen in a long time.

Based on Will Weaver's 1989 short story "A Gravestone Made of Wheat", the film opens with an epic, fluid flashback. Many disjointed images flash across the screen: First we see an elderly woman lying in bed, presumably dying and hallucinating. Then there is a white farm house seemingly in the middle of nowhere set against a stark, clouded gray sky. There is a quick flash of a woman being photographed.

There are many characters introduced in the first few minutes (some wearing contemporary garb, other dressed in rags from out of the past), and a kaleidoscope of farm imagery. When the filmmakers finish with this dynamic, effective opening sequence, it is clear that three distinct time periods have just been explored: the '20s, the '60s, and the present. At first, the rapid-fire succession of fragmented images seems a little bit sloppy, but as the film progresses, and the back-story begins to unfold, each seemingly random image has an explanation.

As the film starts to unfurl, flashing back and forth through these time periods, we first meet the central character of Inge (played by Elizabeth Reaser as a young woman, and the brilliant character actress Lois Smith as the senior version) as an old woman who has just lost her husband. To the veteran performer's credit, she is able to convey with a single glance a life's worth of sadness and passion.

There are so many tender details packed into her delicate performance in the first few minutes she is onscreen (and it is absolutely glorious to see this actress land a decent role), that it quickly becomes clear that Sweet Land will be, first and foremost, a beautiful, old-fashioned love story -- one that is filled with unforgettable images of nature: the glacial blue sky, the fuzzy golden sheen of the crops glistening and rustling in the purplish twilight sun, and the other-worldly ethereal green prairie are all equally important "characters".

Just as quickly as we get acquainted with the elder Inge, we are transported back to the very beginning of the romance, when as a mail order bride she is dropped off in rural Minnesota to meet her betrothed, Olaf (Tim Guinee, quiet and strong). Inge (at this time played by Reaser) is a German sent to live in America among the Norwegian immigrant community. Speaking no English and Norwegian, she is immediately alienated by the cliquish, tight-knit band of small-towners who are still smarting from Germany's anti-American sentiment during World War I. There is a palpable air of suspicion towards the mysterious stranger, and more than one accusation that she is a spy.

Minister Sorrensen (John Heard, who has been sadly MIA as of late) immediately goes on the offensive and lets the couple know that there is no way for them to be properly married. He publicly dismisses Inge (and, shockingly, all foreigners and other outsiders) as being "idolaters and immorals". Which, of course, is a preposterous, misguided message; it's another scathing look at just how hard it is to be a non-English speaking immigrant in this country. One surprising realization is that this section of the film is taking place in the '20s, and not much has changed as far as attitudes towards cultural hybridity goes.

The small-mindedness of the clergyman continues, as he equates non-English speakers with being "the enemy". When the Minister finds the couple dancing playfully together, he commands the congregation to shut them out completely. He scares the followers into thinking that they could become "tainted" by pair's "sinfulness". The inherent fear and judgment of the community forces the pair to enter into a "sinful" living situation: they are unmarried, yet the woman has nowhere to go. Lucky for Olaf, Inge is handy with a scythe and the couple begins to fall in love as they harvest the land's crop. Olaf teaches the young woman to speak English amidst the scattered corn husks and the aged, dangerous-looking farm machinery.

The mise-en-scene is evocative, yet elegant, reflecting the quote that begins Sweet Land: "Let us all hope that we are preceded in this life by a love story". There is a scene that briefly shows Inge standing in the stables against an inky, bucolic landscape. Her rigid, starchy garments seem to constrict her as she dutifully soldiers through the daily chores. It is a blink-and-you-miss-it sort of moment that gives Selim a knockout chance to display a Terence Malick-like gift for capturing and putting together very painterly images with very little dialogue (and as a film enthusiast who has a penchant for the master, I do not make that comparison frivolously!). In fact, the two leads have very little to say at all over the course of the film, as far as actual words go -- an that is a refreshing change of pace.

The film, over its course, scathingly explores the hang-ups of small town America, and the prejudices it can sometimes harbor against the unknown. This can be read as a very modern, astute commentary by the filmmakers on our contemporary society as well as taking the time the film is set in to task. It is a relatable jumping off point for anyone who has ever been ostracized or vilified for being different or unique. Also explored is the value of a hard day's labor, the thought that a good work ethic will be its own reward. There are several of these forgotten, traditional ideals placed throughout Selim's movie, and in every single one of them, there are valuable, simple life lessons that can be gleaned.

This home-spun wisdom may be a bit antiquated and cornball to some, but the sweetness and good intentions are clear. The interesting cast of characters that flows through the film (and this is indeed a wonderful, overlooked ensemble), along with the stunning camera work conspire to gently portray this epic, pastoral-set love story in a way a big-budget film could never accomplish without feeling artificial. Selim raised about $1 million to produce the film himself, mostly from private investors in Minnesota, which makes Sweet Land a clear labor of love. It may be predictable at times, but there is such an innate sweetness that it will sweep viewers along in the romance, the nostalgia, and the beautiful sense of what it is like to overcome adversity to truly create and become part of a supportive community.

8

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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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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