Reviews

The Last Winter

The Last Winter suggests that the Arctic, the environment itself, has a point of view.


The Last Winter

Director: Larry Fessenden
Cast: Ron Perlman, James LeGros, Connie Britton, Kevin Corrigan, Jamie Harrold, Pato Hoffmann, Zach Gilford
MPAA rating: R
Studio: IFC Films
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2007-09-19 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer
It is pretty intense out here.

-- Jim (James LeGros)

"Alaska, the land of black gold." So named by a promo film for the fictional North Industries, the setting for Larry Fessenden's new eco-horror film is wide, white, and windy -- and not nearly so willing to give up its riches as North Industries presumes. Watching the footage with remote in hand, young Maxwell (Zach Gilford) appears transfixed. Working at a Northern Alaskan base camp for North, Maxwell catches up on the company's history of plunder and rhetorical flourish. "Working with environmental experts," the promo promises, North will open a secret well dug two decades ago and so tap heretofore untapped resources. "One step closer to energy independence," the reel asserts, closing on the company motto: "Trust, risk, results."

Maxwell clicks off his TV remote, and The Last Winter commences. Combining eco-politics with allusive cinematography, Larry Fessenden's horror movie isn't so much scary as it is poignant and provocative. With North Industries cast as the obvious villain, the Arctic environment appears alternately vulnerable and absolutely menacing. Maxwell's Uncle Ed (Ron Perlman) embodies the company’s most egregious aspects: large and blustery, he arrives at the camp all geared up for making money. He knows he's right, his can-do energy contrasted with the implacable snowscape all around him, as well as with the weariness of his advance crew: as Ed soon learns, they've been waiting for temperatures to drop in order to begin drilling in a formerly protected wilderness preserve, as an unusually warm February has precluded bringing in the necessary equipment. Ed is impatient with such details ("Feels cold as a witch's boob out here to me!"), and starts imagining alternative ways to get the machines moving.

Aside from the weather, Ed's most visible obstacles are the "environmental experts" North has installed at the base. Hired to write a company-friendly "impact statement," the greenies Jim (James LeGros) and Elliot (Jamie Harrold) have instead found problems. "We don't work for North," Jim clarifies during one of those group dinners that typify films about isolated groups about to confront unspeakable horrors (see: Alien). "We work for the American people." Jim submits not only that the project is environmentally unsound, but also that the environment is unsound, or more eerily, as he notes in his journal, "unfamiliar and erratic."

As Ed presses Jim for a more positive assessment, he also resents him for sleeping with Abby (Connie Britton). His own on-again-off-again squeeze, Abby has apparently found some other sort of solace with the younger man, though her motives and desires never come quite clear. This ambiguity is in part a function of The Last Winter's most extraordinary aspect, its suggestion that the Arctic, the environment itself, has a point of view.

On Ed's first night in camp, he presses the team into a game of football (yes, Ed is manly and Elliot is left with a bloody nose). Afterwards, they retreat to their separate quarters, the camera pulling out and up and then, slowly, pushes back in, peering into the window of each individual, one at a time, lurking to the simultaneously ironic and sensual sound of Nina Simone's "My Baby Just Cares For Me." It's a stunning, long and mobile take, predatory but also patient. It sets the curse for the rest of the film: no matter what the humans believe they're doing, they are at the mercy of much larger forces.

When morning comes, the petty conflicts continue to prick. Ed worries over what he sees as Abby's betrayal, framing it in professional terms ("I have no idea how you ended up in the sack with that guy," he complains, "I consider it a security breach"). In turn, Abby says she's only managing the threat Jim poses, gaining his "confidence" in order to shape his report. Neither of them knows that Jim has his own agenda and fears, that he's spent long hours writing in his increasingly incoherent journal, pages and pages of projections. Seeing the "biosphere" is changing, he writes, "I would say vengeful, but nature is indifferent to us. We fight or our survival, not nature's. There's a fierceness in the wind I've never felt before. Something is being unleashed."

Indeed, the wind becomes The Last Winter's most effective sign of trouble. While rain falls, ice melts, and Jim makes his fervent case against bringing in the heavy vehicles, Ed insists the project continue. Frustrated by the lack of support from his ostensible friends and subordinates (including the resident mystical native, Lee [Pato Hoffman]), he pleads, "Jesus Christ, can I get a little fucking positivity here?" But even he can't stop the mounting fear. When a team member wanders out into the vast white, the rest devise a plan. But as two men set out on skidoos, the camera doesn’t indulge their suddenly spirited "positivity." Instead, it hangs back, watching them scoot away into the distant horizon, the very stillness of the frame intimating their imminent failure: they cannot win over the white.

The wind is pervasive, sometimes low and moaning, other times pitched higher, building to some climax that never comes. The film's literal explanation for nature's "vengeful" turn is corny, if grand. A set of beastie-ghosts thunder and dissolve before the sensitive "kid," Maxwell, approximating a returned repressed, fossil fuel sources re-embodied and really mad. Like other horror movies that filter existentialist fears through the Arctic's isolation (John Carpenter's The Thing being a kind of ghastly ideal, itself modeled on Howard Hawks' original), this one emphasizes the effects of endless milieu on an eroding, increasingly desperate community. The metaphor is almost too neat: if the goal is to extract the "black gold," the sticking point is always the whiteness.

As such terror is harder and harder to articulate, the film is most effective when it abandons dialogue and leaves the camera to do its very spooky work. As men walk into the snow, their shapes recede until they're almost illegible. As the winter ends and ice melts, the camera remains intensely motionless. Such stillness is insistent, sad, and uncanny, more daunting than any ghost.

7

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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