Reviews

What Just Happened

Less an expose than a recap of what even casual observers of the industry know or intuit, What Just Happened relies on clichés even as it deplores them.


What Just Happened

Director: Barry Levinson
Cast: Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, Stanley Tucci, Bruce Willis, John Turturro, Kristen Stewart, Robin Wright Penn
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
First date: 2008
UK Release Date: 2008-11-21 (Limited release)
US Release Date: 2008-10-17 (Limited release)
Website

Posing for the cover of Vanity Fair's Power issue, veteran producer Ben (Robert De Niro) looks gloomy and distressed. Being named one of the 30 most powerful figures in the industry sounds good, he knows, but he also knows he's in trouble. "Power," Ben says as he's being shuffled to the outer edge of the group portrait, "is everything in Hollywood: you either have it, want it, or are afraid of losing it." Right about now, he's straddling all three positions at the same time.

Ben's efforts to keep control take up the bulk of What Just Happened, Barry Levinson's adaptation of producer Art Linson's book, subtitled Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line. Less an expose than a recap of what even casual observers of the industry know or intuit, Ben's story relies on clichés even as he deplores them. Never without his cellphone, he makes his way around L.A. like he's on a series of secret secret but simultaneously showy missions, calculating each meeting -- time and place -- in order to reap maximum benefit. He's always cutting deals, massaging egos, finding compromises.

Even the few minutes he spends with his three children are set up as appointments, ever in flux: arriving at the home of his second ex, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), to take his son to school, he hears, "She says it's okay for you to go in the house instead of using the cell phone." Mm-hmm. And inside, Kelly speaks from the balcony overlooking the spacious foyer, informing him of her decision to re-cover the sofa-chair Ben now realizes that he cherishes the way it was. The metaphor is plain to everyone but Ben. His sudden passionate involvement in her redecorating inspires Kelly's self-defense: "Let's play the roles," she sighs. "This session is called how to learn to live apart."

Ben's own desires change moment to moment, as does his ability to keep boundaries. Unable to sort out his resentment, guilt, and anger as he also strains to maintain his sense of "power," he stops by his first ex-wife's home to pick up 17-year-old daughter Zoe (Kristen Stewart), he notices Arriving to take her to school, he notices her eyes are red. "If it's boy stuff," he says earnestly, "You can ask me." (Her mother, cutting roses in the driveway with a vengeance, growls, "Secrets seem to be the family hobby, must be in the DNA.") Zoe doesn't confide in her father, of course, though he presses and fidgets as she gets into his car, imagining he's a different sort of father than she sees.

Ben has a similarly in accurate understanding of his work -- in particular, how his associates see him. For his latest movie, a thriller starring Sean Penn and directed by edgy and expensive Brit artiste Jeremy (Michael Wincott), is in trouble, and so he's called on to assuage hurt feelings and anxieties on all sides. While Jeremy has a vision (which includes killing a dog at film's end, loudly and with much blood), studio exec Lou (Catherine Keener) is bothered by newly collected, furious audience reaction cards. With the film supposed to premiere at Cannes in a week and the opposing sides dug in, Ben takes what seems to be a direct approach: he puts Lou and Jeremy in a room together, watches sparks (and M&Ms) fly, then promises both they'll get what they need. He puts the director in an editing bay, provides him with drugs (though Jeremy is, at least briefly, proudly sober), and sets off to tend to his next crisis, namely, Bruce Willis' (playing himself) rumored new look.

Ben's first line of intervention is through Willis' miserably neurotic agent, Dick (John Turturro). Terrified to speak to Willis (and beset by an especially awful stomach ailment), Dick does his best to avoid direct encounters ("I'm scared of all of them!" he says of his clients). Even as Ben instructs Dick in the obligations of his profession, their community gathers to mourn (or pretend to mourn) the passing of another agent who has just killed himself. If his death is tragic, it is also predictable, granting his colleagues and faux friends the opportunity to perform their grief and moral upbraiding (Willis is a particularly gracious speaker at the ceremony), as well as make deals while walking from cars to gravesite.

What Just Happened is, in essence, about what doesn't happen in Hollywood, about the incessant phone calls and willful lack of communication, the professions of love and loyalty that everyone knows are false yet still craves. It's about cheating, depression, and survival. It's about the roles that men and women play, hoping to fit in but also desperate to stand out, jealous and hapless and childish. Unsurprisingly cynical, the movie doesn't offer insight so much as reconfirmation.

4

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

Keep reading... Show less
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.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image