Reviews

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Matt Mazur

The Pursuit of Happyness is the male version of a "chick flick": aimed at wringing tears from even the most macho dude in the house.


The Pursuit of Happyness

Director: Gabriele Muccino
Cast: Will Smith, Thandie Newton, Jaden Smith, Brian Howe, James Karen, Dan Castellaneta
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Columbia Pictures
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2007-03-27
Website
Trailer

What do Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat), Edward Norton (The Painted Veil), Clive Owen (Children of Men), and Matt Damon (for The Departed and The Good Shepherd) unfortunately have in common with one another this year? Each gave a remarkably skilled performance that was passed over at this year's Academy Awards to make way for the predictable mediocrity of Will Smith's cloying star turn in The Pursuit of Happyness. This is an alarming state of affairs if Smith's formulaic routine is being considered, by anyone, to be one of the best male performances of the year.

Most people who go to the movies have the coined (rather audaciously) a pet term that labels moving films starring women as "chick flicks". These "chick flicks" more than often entail some sort of triumphant fit of crying over a random form of adversity, and usually there are huge stars in the lead role (see Erin Brockovich, Steel Magnolias, or any other picture starring Julia Roberts, for example). The Pursuit of Happyness is the male version of a "chick flick".

Recently a rash of films featuring sensitive guys such as Happyness (along with other guy/cry flicks like We Are Marshall, The Astronaut Farmer, etc.) have jumped on a disturbingly similar bandwagon: they feature ultra-tough manly men at their most emotionally vulnerable. They uplift, they manipulate. These films are aimed at wringing tears from even the most macho dude in the house. As with so many of these films, rocky father/son relationships are a recurring, humdrum theme.

The proceedings are all rather mechanical and boring, but the filmmaker (Gabriele Muccino -- director of several unremarkable Italian films) doesn't pull any wretched, cheap punches as he tells the story of salesman Chris, a hard-scrabble dad who just can't seem to catch a break. This, of course, is Smith's preachy vehicle, so the desperate Chris is completely homogenized and beyond squeaky-clean. He barely breaks a sweat as his restless wife Linda (a shrill, bizarre Thandie Newton) decides to abruptly leave her husband and son Christopher (played, yawn, by Smith's real life son Jaden, proving his arrogant little act presenting at the Oscars was no act). Linda was apparently tired of breaking her back as a hotel maid (as the bills mounted and went unpaid) as Chris squanders the family's money on a bone density measuring machine "investment" that proves to be a turkey.

The departure of Linda sets in motion a major event: Chris decides he will become a stock broker (with zero experience). He wants the American Dream. He wants to be rich, rich, rich. He spends all of his time as an unpaid intern for a prominent brokerage firm and much less time with his son and his money-making job. His head is firmly planted in the clouds, it seems. No need to worry for Chris, though, because it turns out being a stock broker is the kind of job you can pull off if you simply got a few good grades in high school. Chris is the old, tried and true living proof that hard work and a good attitude will pay off. Perseverance will not only advance you in life, but also financially and spiritually. This is the point where I should mention that The Pursuit of Happyness is an alleged trued story.

If things weren't already confusing and convoluted enough, the two Christophers are suddenly rendered homeless and must contend with the proverbial "system". Shelters are too crowded, they must be separated sometimes, and elder Chris is so obsessively hell-bent on finishing his fantasy internship and getting a paid job at his firm that he sometimes can't even make it to the shelter.

Following these sequences are some predictably foolish scenarios in which the father and son are "harrowingly" forced to sleep overnight in a variety of not-so-desirable spots: on the subway, in a bus station, and an on bathroom floor surrounded by toilet paper for warmth. To really drive their point home, Mr. and Mr. Smith have precious little play sessions where they pretend to be in a movie or video game or some other ridiculous nonsense. Remember when Roberto Beginini rocked his vaguely inappropriate concentration camp comedy shtick in Life is Beautiful? That was restrained compared to this nauseating bit. Beginini did win the Oscar that year, though, which Smith no doubt took into consideration when choosing this part. On paper, this is a role that should win its star a thousand little gold statuettes.

Smith isn't completely horrible; in fact he works well within his staggeringly limited range. He relies on his personal charisma, like he does in every movie he's in. He's terribly obvious, which makes the film not-so-exciting to watch. There never seems to be another layer to Chris (or for that matter, to Will Smith), and the film suffers for it. If there was a knock out central performance in Happyness that had some actual gravitas or bite to it (like the transformative Ryan Gosling's raw, electric work in Half Nelson another type of hard-luck performance in which the well-known young actor's persona all but vanished), perhaps the film would have been more compelling.

It is nearly impossible to suspend disbelief that such a huge movie star as Smith can disappear into what should essentially be a more reflective character bit. Chris is always mugging like Will Smith. His real-life son never comes off as anything other than plastic, either: Christopher never really acts out or throws fits or gets upset by his constantly changing (for the worse) conditions. It's like he's a diminutive Stepford robot child dropped off at a dirty soup kitchen, who is enjoying his meal a little too much. He's a clone.

Come to think of it, there is never any real conflict or trouble portrayed in the scenes of homelessness. All of the residents of the shelters seem completely balanced and congenial (and more well-scrubbed than you might imagine, all of them dusted with a preposterous coating of sooty make-up). There is no fighting, everyone waits in line quietly, and there is no threat of any kind of violence. It's another of those devices used to pull tears from cynical eyes, to put a happy (no pun intended) face on such a terrible problem. The Pursuit of Happyness wants it's viewers to buy into it's alleged grittiness, but there is no reality in this real-life story.

Instead, it seems to just plod along until the predictable climax, where everyone's dreams come true, the father and son hug and love each other and spin around in slow motion, and every man in the audience that ever thought his daddy didn't love him wells up with secret joy. The only thing missing is an uplifting song. Oh, wait, Seal wrote the barf-tastic "A Father's Way" that plays as the credits roll and the viewer gets the rather expected news that Chris became a zillionaire and lived happily ever after. It's the manly man version of a fairytale.

The film wants you to cry over the glory of this everyman's inspirational story, but because of misguided writing, poor (though well-intentioned) characterizations, and sloppy direction, it leaves you feeling cheated, instead. Don't buy into the buzz, though, the film is hollow wood and crafted simply to deliver its star to heights of awards season greatness. Take note of this formula and exploit it to the high heavens for next year's awards season, Mr. Baron Cohen. And get Seal on the phone, pronto!

3

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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