Reviews

'The Gift' Examines Motivations and Culpability

The Gift is an absolutely fun thriller that is subtle, smart and worth every moment.


The Gift

Director: Joel Edgerton
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman
Distributor: Universal
Rated: R
US DVD release date: 2015-10-27

The Gift is that rarest of commodities: The thriller that actually thrills.

Jason Bateman stars with Rebecca Hall as Simon and Robyn, the idyllic couple that has just landed back on Simon’s home turf in California after some time in Chicago. They stumble on a gorgeous home and then, while out shopping for things to fill the house with, an old classmate of Simon’s stumbles upon them.

That guy, Gordon (or Gordo as Simon quickly calls him), remembers Simon much better than Simon seems to remember him, and the unlikely and mildly awkward encounter lasts just long enough that Gordon and Robyn have a chance to connect. She’s new to California and it’s obvious that he’s an outsider even in the place he seems to have called home for most of his life.

It’s an innocent enough moment and one of several in the film’s earliest moments that by itself doesn’t carry much menace. In fact, watching the picture for the first time, one might shift a little uncomfortably in their seat as they wait for something to happen. But not much of anything does. At least not at first.

Gordo drops by with a gift here and a gift there and then, during a drunken dinner with Robyn and Simon, he lets down his guard enough that he reveals that he’s a little more off kilter than either one of them thought. Robyn, to her credit, defends him, suggesting that he’s nice. Weird, but nice, the quirky person so many of us call neighbor. It’s not necessary for us to understand them in order to appreciate their kindness in times of need. And Gordo is there in times of need.

Until Simon decides that he’s had enough. He complains about this vestige of his past hanging about, argues that Gordo is just too weird to have around and, when Gordo invites the couple over for a dinner, the tenuous bands slip and Simon demands that Gordo leave well enough alone. Of course he takes it too far, playing a vulgar game with Robyn while his host excuses himself to attend to some private business. He appears to be overreacting, but just enough that we can hope that he reigns himself in once the stress of moving and the stress of this new/old stranger intruding on his life subsides.

Little is as it seems though. Robyn becomes curious as to why her husband continues to overreact to Simon’s overtures and Simon for his part seems to overreact, as well. And so she’s left to puzzle together what’s happened between these two men in the past that places them in such an antagonistic trajectory in the present. When she does and when the audience realizes (or thinks it realizes) what’s been going on, there’s not much to do but hope that it doesn’t come to a bloody end.

This is a scary film but it’s not an especially violent one, and maybe that makes it all the more terrifying: there's no real resolution to the ugliness started so long ago and although we think we know where it’s all going it’s difficult to say exactly where it will all end. This is a story that at first demands patience and then demands even more from the audience as we want to find the most direct route to the answers. Who is it that we should sympathize with here? Who is the real bad guy? And who gets what they deserve?

Bateman turns in a pitch perfect performance as Simon, casting aside the natural likeableness that he’s carried with him though a large portion of his career. Perhaps that’s why we’re patient with the rumblings he makes early in the film. He’s demanding and narcissistic, but like a true narcissist he only shows those less desirable traits in moments of desperation, as when he’s cornered and left with little choice but to lash out.

Gordo (writer/director Joel Edgerton) also carries a likeability to him, even if we’re pained by his creepiness at times. Make no mistake about it, Gordo is the kind of guy you want to get away from at parties but you still feel bad about it. You know there’s nothing there you want to be close to and yet not wanting to be close to him feels shallow. Edgerton plays the role to the hilt, going toe-to-toe with Bateman in several scenes and even threatening to outshine him a time or two.

The ever-impressive Hall gives us another excellent performance, submersing herself into the role in the way that she has done virtually every time we’ve seen her on screen. She brings a depth an understanding to Robyn that some other actors might have overlooked. She's friendly but naïve, forgiving but with deep moral convictions that truly show themselves in moments of crisis.

The writing and action brim with intelligence and once the viewer has caught on to where the story is really going (or where we think it’s really going) the excitement intensifies, making for a film that is just as fun to watch the second or third time as it is the first.

This DVD edition offers the rarest of commodities: extras that are not entirely limpid. The Special Features menu gives us a glimpse at an alternate ending, an examination of Bateman’s dark side in a featurette, deleted scenes, a second featurette on the fate of bullies and commentary from Edgerton.

Let’s we see these three (Bateman, Hall, Edgerton) work together in some capacity in the near future.

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The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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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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