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Scent of a Winner: Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater” 0

Posted: November 16th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Blog, Reviews | Tags:

Rosewater tells the true story of journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal), an Iranian national working for Newsweek Magazine covering the 2009 presidential elections in Iran.  While covering the civil unrest that follows Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election, Bahari is arrested and taken to the infamous Evin Prison.  What follows is an intensely personal examination of the 118 days Bahari spent in prison, repeatedly interrogated by a government “specialist” played by Kim Bodnia.

Bahari’s memior, Then They Came for Me serves as the basis for the screenplay written by Jon Stewart (this is both his first time writing and directing a film).  The memoir is powerful and translates to the screen well for the most part, but it’s a shame that the film version doesn’t get to know Bahari better.  His motivations are clear enough: he has a pregnant wife (Clair Foy, good in her limited screen time) at home, and comes from a family of people who never capitulated to authority (Haluk Bilginer and Golshifteh Farahani as his deceased father and sister, who appear in flashbacks and as hallucinations during Bahari’s imprisonment).  And García Bernal plays Bahari with an undeniably endearing warmth.  So it feels like a bit of waste that despite all that, Bahari never becomes much more than a proxy for the audience; he comes to Iran from the UK with a camcorder, truly an outsider despite being born and raised in Tehran.  The interrogation scenes that take up the latter two acts of the film feature some impressive tête-à-tête acting between Bernal and Bodnia — yet I couldn’t help thinking that the movie would be better served if it was following the more fleshed-out protestors Bahari meets on the streets of Tehran.

Led by Dimitri Leonidas as a local cab driver who meets Bahari upon his return to Tehran, the group of anti-Ahmadinejad activists illegally selling satellite dishes provide the early parts of the film with a electricity that the latter sections lack.  Stewart’s Tehran (convincingly shot in Jordan) is a place of bustling dichotomies, striking a balance somewhere between Times Square affluence and Mumbai shantytowns.  The most effective tension occurs in these scenes, yet the early parts of the film still maintain a sense of adventure, and the drama between the oppressive Ahmadinejad regime and the protestors that take the street after his re-election wound up having more impact for me than the drama-by-numbers second and third acts. 

Still, Stewart is a humorist at heart, and he injects those latter interrogation scenes with enough absurdist humor to keep them from being one-note — although the bizarre fixation Bahari’s interrogator has with New Jersey massage parlors falls squarely in the category of “slightly too absurd”.  Stewart also provides the interrogator — the titular “Rosewater”, named for his fragrant choice of cologne — with enough pathos (he’s a slave to the bureaucratic machine, just like the rest of us) to keep their interactions from being a purely good-versus-evil showdown.  Yet I wonder if this treatment might undermine the primary message: in his memoir, Bahari details physical and emotional torture miles beyond what comes across in the film, where the near-comic ineptitude of his captors occasionally ventures into cartoon villain territory.  Somewhere buried in the film, there’s a very timely message, one about the harsh treatment of the hundreds of journalists held captive around the world, but that message isn’t always fully allowed to fully make its case.

Those quibbles aside, there’s something infectious and refreshing about the earnestness of Stewart’s direction that make it impossible to dislike.  Featuring one of the best uses of a Leonard Cohen song put to film, this is clearly a labor of love, and by the time the credits rolled I was thoroughly won over by its sincerity.  And I wasn’t alone — the audience in my screening stood and applauded through the credits.

It doesn’t hurt that Stewart is surprisingly good as a first-time director. Pre-release buzz pegged the film as something of a mea culpa for him, as an appearance on The Daily Show may or may not have played a role in Bahari’s real-life arrest and imprisonment. But Rosewater is a well-made film that deserves to be seen regardless of the press narrative surrounding it.  Stewart’s camera is constantly in motion, hemming in on it’s subjects closely, evoking the camcorder of a field journalist in the first act, then transitioning to the too-close manner in which Rosewater closely inspects his prisoner — and the whole time you feel like you’re an integral part of the action.  By the time it’s over, you’re thankful for the ride.

Album Review: Damien Jurado, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son 0

Posted: March 30th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Reviews

Veteran Seattle singer-songwriter Damien Jurado recently put out a new album, a sort of sequel to 2012’s Maraqopa. Based off a vivid dream, Maraqopa was a world that Jurado established and ran with, and this album comes with ten more tracks to expand on the concept.

damien-jurado-brothers-and-sisters-of-the-eternal-son-608x608

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Live in Boston | Typhoon and Radiation City 0

Posted: October 2nd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Blog, Reviews | Tags: , ,

My Sunday was highlighted by the visit of the bands Typhoon and Radiation City to Brighton Music Hall. Being two Portland-area bands that I’ve been following for some time, it was a show I made sure to catch. And the night certainly didn’t disappoint!

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Live in Boston | X Ambassadors 0

Posted: August 16th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Blog, Reviews | Tags: ,

X Ambassadors may not be that well-known a band – yet – but they sure are a lively one to see in concert, especially at a small venue like Brighton Music Hall. With Sam Harris, a frontman who goes wild not only for the crowd, but with the crowd, they’re an enthusiastic bunch who seem happy to be on stage and have a polished sound for a band that’s officially only a couple years old. Unconsolable, their first single about growing up in Ithaca, NY, was clean and wonderfully performed; I walked out humming it under my breath. (more…)

Live in Boston | Sigur Rós 0

Posted: April 4th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Blog, Reviews | Tags: ,

The stage is hidden by a white scrim on all four sides – the audience is restless. We’ve been waiting for almost an hour, expecting opening acts which never materialized.

sigur ros

Finally the lights go out – except for the ones onstage. The curtain becomes a screen, dizzying abstract shapes floating around as the music starts. Sigur Rós’ frontman, Jónsi Birgisson, begins with Yfirborð, immediately crashing his bow down on the guitar in his signature style. The curtain is still up, but now things are taking a distinctly different turn – the shapes are still barely intelligible, but there is the unmistakable feeling that we are witnessing art as they move, synchronized with the music. Circles and close-ups of iron filings and things moving in liquid mingle with definite human movement in a bizarre and beautiful dance.

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Film Review: The Descendants 0

Posted: November 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Blog, Reviews | Tags:

Matt King doesn’t have time for his emotions. He’s in the middle of a real estate deal that could result in signing over to developers of a large plot of virgin Hawaiin land  entrusted to King’s family by their ancestors. Even when taking care of a schoolyard quarrel between his daughter and a classmate, he is reminded that everyone is anticipating his decision. On top of that, he’s clumsily caring for his two daughters and trying to figure out the logistics of his wife’s impending death. The responsibility of being the public face of both a well-known ancestral lineage on large, public scale as well as on a personal level with friends and family takes precedence over his own feelings. (more…)

Album Review: Stephin Merritt’s “Obscurities” 0

Posted: November 1st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Blog, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I have been a fan of nearly everything that Stephin Merritt has put together since the Magnetic Fields’ “69 Love Songs” came out in 1999.  I’ve also grown to really like (if not more) their earlier, lo fi stuff on “Holiday”, “Get Lost”, and “The Charm of the Highway Strip”.  His gloomy work with his Gothic Archies moniker, as well as the guest singers with the 6ths, have also been very enjoyable to me.  Of all the music artists I have enjoyed, I think Merritt’s discography gives me the most satisfaction for any mood.

I think my fandom is mainly because Merritt’s songwriting has the ability to sound cheerful and poppy but has an underlying emotion that may not be as apparent.  There are certainly sad-sounding sad songs and happy-sounding happy songs, but the ones that have a story that goes beyond the tones of the synthesizers, cellos, and ukeleles really draw me in. Even as a scraps on the floor, anything off of “Obscurities” was probably going to win me over.

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Concert Review | Wild Flag at The Paradise 10.14.2011 1

Posted: October 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Blog, Reviews | Tags: , ,

Mary Timony (photo by Catherine Maldonado)

Janet Weiss, Carrie Brownstein, Mary Timony, and Rebecca Cole, collectively called Wild Flag, returned to Boston after their summer show at The Brighton Music Hall, for a concert at The Paradise.My favorite line from their self-titled, debut album as a group is in the song “Something Came Over Me.” The phrase “let the good times toll” which, despite the double meaning, connotes “ring out.” Mary Timony couldn’t help letting a “let the good times roll” squeak out at least once. The lyrics, many of which are directly related to sound and listening to music, truly come alive in concert. The joy and enthusiasm of the performance demonstrates just how much desire all the members of Wild Flag have to continue making music. Having spent time in well respected bands like Sleater Kinney, Helium and The Minders, they’re proving that their time’s not up yet. (more…)

Album Review | “Thank You Happy Birthday” by Cage the Elephant 1

Posted: January 31st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Blog, Freeform, Reviews | Tags: , , ,

Cage The Elephant (ITC2007)
by coxy, on Flickr

Cage the Elephant apparently got some albums from Cake and the Pixies for their birthday. This gaggle of Kentucky boys are back with their sophomore album, titled “Thank You Happy Birthday”, and seem to have ditched the simple rootsyness that permeated their first album in favor of a modern punk sound, keeping to the garage but turning up the volume to make fans pogo instead of sway. It’s a change that makes an attempt to evolve their music and give it a new bite, but as much as it succeeds in providing their audience with something new to chew on, it also fails to deliver the same consistency and brain-trappingly catchy numbers that their eponymous album delivered in spades. (more…)

Album Review | “The King is Dead” by The Decemberists 0

Posted: January 30th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Blog, Reviews

The Decemberists’ newest album, “The King is Dead,” opens with the words, “Here we come to a changing of the season” aptly introducing a new sound for the Portland based folk-rock band. Having toyed with orchestral and operatic rock, produced albums with grand over arching themes, and gained notoriety for songs lasting upwards of 10 minutes, the Decemberists have turned their attention to the simplicity of American folk.  With shorter, simpler songs, new instrumentation, and clear influences of blue grass and country, the album is a large departure from the Decemberists’ earlier work especially their last project, Hazards of Love, a dark, operatic and extremely complex concept album. (more…)

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