28 February 2011

83rd Academy Awards

Just a short blurb here about last night's Academy Awards. I didn't watch it as I don't have television, but I did familiarize myself with the results.

The King's Speech seems to be the biggest winner, with four awards including the coveted Best Picture and Best Director awards, as well as Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay. I must admit that I have not seen this film yet. Personally, I was actually kind of hoping that Toy Story 3 would win Best Picture, if for the very fact that I don't recall an animated feature ever winning that category, and that it's honestly the one movie that was in the running that I would honestly consider owning one day.

At any rate, Inception tied with The King's Speech in the number of awards, but not in the level of "prestige." All four of its awards fall in the technical categories with Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. I have seen Inception, and while it was certainly entertaining, it was a far more technically impressive film than anything else, so none of this is too surprising. That said, I think Black Swan had better cinematography, personally.

However, there was one place where I was really, really hoping for "my" film to win, and it did. Yes, the only category at the Academy Awards that I really care about is Best Foreign Language Film. Not because I am so snooty as to think that foreign films are the only things worth watching and that American films are all garbage. No, it's because the rest of the categories won't really change what kind of movies we see. Not in any major capacity, anyway. However, countries that win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film often gain a larger American audience in the years following their win.

So what am I getting at? Well, in case you missed it, In a Better World (Hævnen) won the award for Denmark, but I wouldn't be surprised to see all Nordic nations getting a bit of a boost from this. After all, Nordic films are often international productions between numerous countries, and then attributed to the nation that, essentially, originated the idea. In a Better World was financed by both Denmark and Sweden, as well as the Nordisk Film-Fond, an international company that funds films from all of the Nordic countries. As such, the film features both Danish and Swedish actors who speak their native language to each other (the Nordic languages are similar enough that they could almost be considered very distinct dialects).

At any rate, I'll be watching In a Better World as soon as it becomes available on Netflix and letting you know what I think. I'll also be excited to see the influx of Nordic films to the States that this award will likely bring.

Oh, and I figure I might as well mention it here: My essay "Understanding the Politics of Friðrik Þór Friðriksson's Devil's Island" is going to be published in the new issue of Senses of Cinema, and online film quarterly. I'll be sure to let you guys know when it goes up.

25 February 2011

A Mother's Courage: Talking Back to Autism

Recently, I sat down and watched Friðrik Þór Friðriksson's documentary A Mother's Courage: Talking Back to Autism (Sólskinsdregurinn, a.k.a. The Sunshine Boy, 2009). Although Friðriksson began his filmmaking career in the '80s with a series of documentaries, A Mother's Courage makes his first return to the format in almost 25 years. Of his early documentaries, the best-known (and the only one I have actually seen) is Rokk í Reykjavík (Rock in Reykjavik, 1982).

However, A Mother's Courage also places itself among some of Friðriksson's more recent feature films in its focus on mental illness. In 2000, he made Angels of the Universe (Englar alheimsins), a film adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by the author Einar Guðmundsson (who also wrote the film's script). The novel and book are both based on the life of Einar's schizophrenic brother Pálmi (renamed Páll in the book and film). Also, following on the heels of A Mother's Courage is Friðriksson's 2010 film Mamma Gógó (2010), another semi-autobiographical work in which his mother struggles with Alzheimer's disease.

A more realistic touch
I had seen both Angels of the Universe and Mamma Gógó before watching A Mother's Courage, so I was curious about how he would handle the subject of autism in this film. The two feature films were rife with Friðriksson's style of surrealism that delicately challenges our notion of reality. For example, there is a scene in Angels of the Universe where Páll appears to be hovering above his bed. Then, the camera rotates and we realize that the bed is propped against the wall and Páll is standing next to it. Likewise, in Mamma Gógó, we are present for various delusional scenes in with Gógó, in her confusion, believes that she sees her dead husband. In one scene, we hear running water. The dead husband wakes her up. And she steps out of bed into a large puddle of rising water that is slowly flooding the room. We wonder, at first, "Is this part of the delusion as well? Or is this real and she has accidentally left the water running?"

However, given that A Mother's Courage is a documentary and not a feature, he never played with our sense of reality like that. I can understand why. Documentaries are, by definition, more "real" than features. Still, part of me hopes that he would've found a way to sneak a few scenes in here and there that began to bend our understanding of just what is "real." In his two features, these scenes give us a glimpse into the reality of its subjects. It gives us a clearer understanding of what life must be like to them. I felt like he never fully attained this in A Mother's Courage. Perhaps the closest is a scene where we watch Keli (the "Sunshine Boy" and son of the "Mother") struggle to walk down a flight of stairs. The narrator explains to us that Keli's visual senses becoming easily overloaded, and as such he largely uses hearing and touch to navigate his world. However, when he is in a new environment and needs the visual cues to help him navigate, he becomes easily lost and confused. The stairs in question look oddly isolated in this shot, and his facial expressions help to give us a small window into his mind.

Overall, the cinematography is as starkly real as in Rokk í Reykjavík.

I think I found the use of music the most interesting in this film. Much of the soundtrack is composed of songs by Sigur Rós, though Björk provides the track "Human behavior" as well. Although the music primarily serves to add to the overseas market (Björk and Sigur Rós are the most well-known Icelandic musicians internationally), I found the choice of music also had some interesting cultural significance as well.

If I remember correctly, the film begins with the Sigur Rós song "Svefn-g-englar," the music video for which featured autistic theatre performers. Overall, Sigur Rós is perhaps one of Iceland's most introverted band. They are notorious for their awkward interviews, in which they squirrel around and dodge questions. I suppose this may have changed a bit lately, but they can still be a bit eccentric in their interactions with the media.

At any rate, their cultural presence and musical style often evokes a certain introverted, almost "autistic" feeling that blends well with the subject of the film. Björk, who is certainly eccentric but hardly introverted, fits in well due to the lyrics of the song. "Human behavior" begins with these words:
If you ever get close to a human
And human behavior
Be ready to get confused
There's definitely no logic
To human behavior
It also describes the illogical nature of human emotions, saying, "They get terribly moody / Then all of a sudden turn happy."

At any rate, all the music ends up coming full circle during the film's final scene, in which Keli is finally able to communicate through the help of his teacher in order to tell his mother that he wants to learn to play the piano, as he has songs inside his head that he wants to let out.

Final conclusion
The film is certainly interesting and worth watching, though it also falls a bit into a niche market of those specifically interested in mental disorders and autism. The American release's change in title definitely gears itself more towards to this niche market. I find The Sunshine Boy a much more intriguing title, though I suppose it's less specifically descriptive for a market that is far less familiar with Friðriksson's name. However I think it shifts attention from Keli himself and his attempts to express himself and onto the mother's attempts to understand him.

Of course, they may have also renamed it to avoid any possible conflict with the 1975 film The Sunshine Boys.

23 February 2011

My favourite Icelandic albums of 2010

10 - Jukk by Prinspóló
Prinspóló is the solo project of Skakkamanage frontman Svavar Pétur Eysteinsson. Jukk is his debut album and second release, following the 2009 EP Einn heima. His style is rather poppy, even behind all the lo-fi static, with the songs ambling about quite playfully as he sings about such things and candy, food, and grandfathers.

This album could be much higher on the list, but sometimes the lo-fi style overpowers what else is there and causes it to come up feeling a bit lacking. However, when it really gets rolling, it's a lot of fun. If the entire album was a bit more like "Mjaðmir," "Skærlitað gúmmilaði," and "Niðrá strönd," this could easily jump up to number 6 or 7.

Listen to a free stream here.

9 - Í annan heim by Rökkurró
Rökkurró is beautiful, delicate, and soft, and these can all be very good things. However, sometimes it feels a little too soft. It might remind one a bit of earlier Sigur Rós but without as much energy. It definitely demands a certain mood from it's listener in order to truly enjoy it. Try putting it on while you curl up under a warm blanket on a cold winter night, sipping tea and reading a book of poetry.

"Sólin mún skína" and "Augun opnast" remain my favourites.

Listen to a free stream here.

8 - Kimbabwe by Retro Stefson
I had heard some early stuff by Retro Stefson and never thought much of them, but as Emily and I were preparing for Iceland Airwaves last year by listening to as many of the bands that would be there as we could, we came across Retro Stefson's song "Kimba." We were grooving to it immediately. The album is pure pop, but it's just so damn catchy that you have to put it on again and again and again. I dare you to listen to "Velvakandasveinn," "Mama Angola," "Kimba," and "Karamba" and not find yourself tapping your feet and bopping your head along with the music.

As of writing, the album is not streaming anywhere, but here's where it will be when Gogoyoko finally puts it up.

7 - Puzzle by Amiina
Amiina is probably best known as the string quartet that plays with Sigur Rós. Their style is decidedly soft and feminine, not unlike Rökkurró. That said, they're a bit higher because I find their feel a bit more unique and interesting.

This album builds upon their previous work by developing their sound into more distinctive and complex compositions. Puzzle feels more consciously composed and orchestrated than their earlier works, which sometimes sounded less like songs in the traditional sense and more like musical tinkering. Perhaps this is because Puzzle features far more singing than previous works. It could also be the new addition of the boys, Magnús Trygvason Eliassen and Guðmundur Vignir Karlsson (a.k.a. Kippi Kaninus). In particular, Magnús provides the all important addition of drums, which gives the new songs a strong backbone to rest upon.

My favourites off this album are probably "Over and again," "What are we waiting for?" and "Thoka."

Listen to a free stream here.

6 - Theater island by Sóley
This EP from Seabear member Sóley might be easy for a lot of people to miss. It's just six songs, but they showcase a lot of talent, especially for such a humble beginning. I saw her open for Seabear in Chicago and again during Iceland Airwaves, and she's certainly new to the whole thing. Sure, she plays with Seabear and provides keyboards for Sin Fang, but then she's not the one doing all the talking. She's not the one with all the attention. But despite all her nervousness, she really does create some remarkably beautiful and haunting music.

Although the album features an array of musical instruments, at the forefront is almost always her voice and the piano. The lyrics are just the right amount of bizarre, grotesque, sad, and even at times a little humorous. Marvellous stuff, and I can't wait to hear what else she has to offer. Okay, so I already heard a bit of her new material at Airwaves, but still.

Listen to a free stream here.

5 - Easy music for difficult people by Kimono
Okay, so technically this came out in December 2009, but I'm counting it anyway.

I remember getting Kimono's debut album Mineur-aggresif way back in high school and having my mind blown. I would usually save up my money and order a lot of Icelandic CDs at once to save on shipping, but when their second album, Arctic Death Ship came out, I order it right away. My first visit to Iceland, we saw them play a concert in Hafnarfjörður and I told frontwoman Alison MacNeil that I was her twin. Ah, so many memories.

Anyways, Kimono is really a fantastic rock band. Their guitar work is great. The two guitars weaves melodies back and forth, building energy and power. I'm really happy that they've gained some popularity in America, because they definitely deserve it. I'm a little disappointed that we weren't able to see them live at Airwaves, but... c'est la vie!

It's hard for me to pick favourites, but "Vienna," "Black," "Karen," and "Kente" all seem to be crowd-pleasers. I'm also rather fond of "Animal."

Listen to a free stream here.

4 - Ljótu hálfvitarnir by Ljótu hálfvitarnir
This would be Ljótu hálfvitarnir's third album. I have to point that out because all three of them are eponymously titled Ljótu hálfvitarnir. Now let me point out that "Ljótu hálfvitarnir" literally means "The ugly halfwits" although the band says it's probably closer to say "Stupid bastards." Got an idea of what kind of band this is yet?

Yeah, they are fun as hell and funny to boot. The stuff has a definite folk feel with a lot of punk spirit. You'd be hard-pressed to find music more suitable for a bar full of rowdy drunks. To be honest, I don't really know what else to say about this album. If you like it, you're gonna like it. If not, then get bent! My favourites are probably "Gott kvöld," "464-pönk," "Eftirmæli," "Pörpúlókei," and "Hætt'essu væli," but to be honest, the whole album is amazing.

No stream, but you can download the tracks "Gott kvöld" and "Hætt'essu væli" for free here, along with some tracks from their other two albums.

3 - Go by Jónsi
The fact that Sigur Rós is my favourite band, it might actually be a little surprising that Jónsi's solo abum Go isn't higher on the list. And I can't really explain why that's the case. I like the album a lot. There's so much good to say about it. And when I saw him live in Milwaukee, it was amazing. The concert was so incredibly moving and powerful and beautiful. I can't even begin to tell you how well done the theatrics of the concert were. This might give you an idea of just how well-done it was:

Even watching that YouTube video, I start to get emotional. Imagine seeing that live, with all the waves and waves of emotion that come with live music. I'm not ashamed to say that I cried.

But maybe that's it. I had heard a few of the songs before the concert, but I hadn't really given it a good listen before seeing it live. And after that concert, the recorded album felt lifeless in comparison. It was like someone had tried to take all the beauty and emotion of that concert and put it onto a piece of plastic. Because Sigur Rós concerts have never ceased to completely outdo their records, but I've always gone in to it knowing all the songs by heart. The album had already had it's chance to make me love it on its own before seeing it live and being blown away.

At any rate, my favourite track is, hands down, "Kolniður," though I'm also quite fond of "Boy Lilikoi," "Hengilás," and basically the whole album.

Listen to a free stream here.

2 - Pólýfónía by Apparat Organ Quartet
Oh do I ever love this album. I liked Apparat Organ Quartet before, but this? This knocked them way up my list of favourite bands. They're right there along side Sigur Rós and Seabear now. Seeing them live certainly helped. They were my favourite show at Iceland Airwaves. Such energy and excitement! And although live music is almost always better than a recording, their new album certainly comes close, especially if you really crank up the volume.

This album is my hype album. It gets me pumped and going. If I put it on while I'm at work, I just zip through everything with a bounce in my step. Favourites? So hard to pick. I love every one of them, but some highlights are "Babbage," "Cargo frakt," "Konami," "Pentatróník," "Macht parat den Apparat," and "123 forever." If pressed to pick just one... "Konami"? At least at this moment.

Listen to a free stream here.

1 - We built a fire and While the fire dies by Seabear
While technically two albums, We built a fire and While the fire dies EP, I think the two are thematically and stylistically similar enough to consider them part of the same artistic work. And, in fact, they were bundled together for a while in the iTunes store and elsewhere.

Anyway, if you haven't noticed yet, Seabear ranks up there at the very top when it comes to my favourite music. My single favourite individual songwriter is Sin Fang, and I've been following him even since his first commercial release, Singing arc. That EP was released way back in 2004, when Seabear was just his solo project. I've watched Seabear grow into a band with seven steady members and a sizeable international fan base. When I saw them perform live in Chicago, it was surreal. Six years before, I had gotten the handmade Singing arc EP in the mail, consisting of a burned CD and case made of thick paper stitched together using red thread. I brought that album to the Chicago concert, and when I met up with Sindri after the show and asked him to sign it, all he could manage to say was, "Where do you find this? I haven't seen one of these in years." Perhaps the only CD I have that is more precious to me is the copy of the unreleased Elgar Sisters sessions that my friend Gulli burned for me. Neither look like much, but they are very rare commodities, and the greatest treasures stashed away in my music collection.

Now maybe you are reading that and thinking I am rather elitist. Perhaps you think I am implying, "Look how great I am! I liked them before anyone knew who they were!" I assure you, that's not my intention. Yes, I am proud that I have been a fan since the earliest days, but I do not think I am better than "newer" fans or anything like that. I welcome new fans. I want people to like Seabear, because I think they deserve it. If you are my friend and I have not tried to introduce you to them yet, then I have no idea how you managed to avoid it.

At any rate, We built a fire and While the fire dies may be my favourite works from them yet. There is such complexity of sound and style. You can feel all the influences combining and begetting new and interesting sounds. There is a lot of different emotions as well. Some are sadder, some happier. Sindri's lyrics are fantastically written. There is a lot of cleverness and wildness to it all. Yes, these are my favourite album of 2010, but it is also two of my favourite albums of all time.

I love all these songs, but if pressed for highlights, I'd say "Wooden teeth," "Softship," "We fell off the roof," "Warm blood," and "Wolfboy" off of We built a fire and "Pocket knife" and "Doctor" off of While the fire dies.

Listen to a free stream of We built a fire here.
Listen to a free stream of While the fire dies here.

21 February 2011

The Suburbs by Arcade Fire

As many of you know, there was a major upset at the latest Grammys when Arcade Fire won Album of the Year for their album The Suburbs. A lot of people were confused and annoyed by this because Arcade Fire has had very little airplay on the radio, despite the fact that their album sold incredibly well and has been highly praised by critics. They just aren't really great radio material.

At any rate, I figured, "Hey, here's an 'indie' album that's been so highly praised that it beat out Eminem, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Lady Antebellum for the coveted Grammy for Album of the Year. I might as well check it out." After all, this is a significant event for independent music. At least within my recollection, this is the first time an indie band has been welcomed in to the mainstream music industry with such open arms. I think it's an important event in music history. The growth of the internet has brought with it a new way to find and share music, and smaller bands are given more and more of a chance to prove themselves to the general public. Arcade Fire has clearly won its share of hearts (and made its share of enemies, if http://whoisarcadefire.tumblr.com/ is to suggest anything). So why not give The Suburbs a listen?

It grows on you
I have to admit, on first listen, the album felt... kinda bland. There is a bit of this "wall-of-sound" style I associate heavily with Sindri Már (Sin Fang / Seabear), where layers of sound are built on top of each other to create unique melodies and moods. However, even Sindri's solo stuff under the name Sin Fang has such numerous and varied layers and given that Arcade Fire and Seabear both have seven members, I wanted them to both have same kind of sublime variation and energy. However, The Suburbs felt... lacking. That is at first.

However, it grew on me. I wanted them to be Seabear rather then letting them be who they are. There are similarities, but also major difference. How can I say this?

Yes, I did just compare a Grammy winner
to a Turkish pastry.
Seabear is like the flakiest of strudels and Arcade Fire is like a dense, sticky baklava.

See, both of them have those delicious layers, building up to an amazing texture. But Seabear's layers flake off from each other so easily, their layers of sound trading prominence off and on, with each one getting its own beautiful moment. Inside the strudel that is Seabear there is a sweet filling, like bright trumpets, sawing fiddles, and a certain rhythm and upbeat that just bursts with energy. Meanwhile, Arcade Fire's layers feel denser, like they are stuck together with honey. The layers stay more or less in their place, each one behind the other where they're meant to be. It's also a bit more savoury, with a heavier feeling.

Ah, extended metaphors...

Anyway, just looking at the lyrics, you can see the difference. Both deal with typical human problems and express a certain feeling of existentialism in a rapidly modernizing world, but they address them in different ways. Sindri's writing has a surreal quality to them, with odd references to animals, bones, and other elements of nature. There's a certain wildness to it all, and you feel in it a strong desire to return to the wild. Arcade Fire comes from a far more urban point of view. They are more literal, directly addressing concepts of urbanization, modernization, the suburbs, the sprawl, and a feeling of meaningless. The lyrics in songs by Seabear seem to long for an early time when everything seemed to make sense, while Arcade Fire merely mourns its loss.

Long story short, The Suburbs certainly deserved the award, and if you haven't listened to it yet, give it a try. And if you're still not sure how you feel, listen to it a few more times. You may be as surprised as I was to find the songs stuck in your head. Oh, and for the record, "Sprawl II (mountains beyond mountains)" is my favourite track on the album.

So, all this thinking about music got me thinking about my favourite albums of 2010, and in particular, my favourite Icelandic albums of 2010. So look forward to that in my next post!

19 February 2011

Let's Play! Sega CD XXXmas Episode 3: Make My Video: Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, Part 2

The second part. I tried putting them in the same post, but even that went wonky. So much technical difficulties. Argh.

18 February 2011

Let's Play! Sega CD XXXmas Episode 3: Make My Video: Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, Part 1

After some technically difficulties that caused a bit of a delay, I finally got the video for our Let's Play! of Make My Video: Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch up and working. I just had to split it into two parts. Enjoy!

14 February 2011

Let's Play! Sega CD XXXmas Episode 1: Dragon's Lair

Alas, we probably should've had Dan play it on camera, as his insights into the minute details were revealing and explained why I was dying so damn much. Perhaps sometime he can leave a comment with more specific thoughts on the topic, but for right now, I'll just say that it's not that I completely suck at Dragon's Lair. This version is just a little janky.

03 February 2011

The Triplets of Belleville

I apologize for the lack of posts lately. I have no excuse besides one: I've been dealing with some major writer's block lately. It really hit when I tried to start work on an essay about Friðrik Þór Friðriksson's Mamma Gógó that was submitted by Iceland for this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture but ultimately not accepted. I'm stepping back and rethinking how to approach it now. I also figure that The Triplets of Belleville (2003, Les triplettes de Belleville, dir. Sylvain Chomet) will give me a decent point to start back into writing on this blog, as it's relatively light fare when it comes to more analytical writing. So here we go. Wish me luck!

The Triplets of Belleville 
To be honest, I don't really remember how I found out about this film. I think I came across the trailer at some point and said, "That looks interesting!" I then added it to my Netflix queue, where it sat in waiting for a while until I had all but forgotten about it. Such can be the nature of Netflix.

At any rate, I enjoyed the film for what it was, a fun and unique animation. Story-wise, it's pretty simple. The film starts with a young boy who gets a dog and a bike from his grandmother. He trains on the bike until, one day as an adult, he enters the "Circuit de France." However, he ends up being kidnapped by some men in black, at which point his grandmother, Madame Souza, and his dog, Bruno, set out to try to find him. On the way, they gain the aid of a the Triplets of Belleville, three aging sister who were once famous musical performers.

A story without much to say
There isn't much of a message or a point to it all. It's mostly for the fun of it. The story itself is conveyed visually, with very sparse dialogue that is rather incidental. I watched the English dub, but I could've easily watched the original French (not available on the DVD) and gotten the same basic experience. In fact, only about half of the rather sparse dialogue was translated at all, with the rest (such as the announcers voice during the bike race) was left in French.

Really, all of it points to one thing. This movie is about the animation, plan and simple. Everything else is just there in-as-much as it needs to be to allow the animation to exist. The story and dialogue are pretty bare-bones, because that's not what it's about. It's about having fun with a bizarre and interesting style.

However, the characters are a little more developed than the plot and dialogue. We get a feel for the kinds of people that populate the screen. The strong-willed and hardy Souza, the loyal Bruno, the fun-loving and slightly insane triplets, etc. They come to life, but again, it's mostly through the animation. They are all drawn and animated to really bring out a certain look and feel that defines them.

"A far cry from either Walt Disney or Japanese anime"
The film bills itself as being something different from anything you've seen before. This may not be 100% true, as it certainly takes its cues from some of the original animations dating back to the first filmic era, and there have been other animators to play extensively with the medium. However, it certainly is a film you don't see everyday, with a rather unusual style. The film has a certain dark, dingy quality that's hard to put your finger on, but when you see the scene where one of the triplets goes fishing from frogs using a hand grenade, you might get the idea what I mean.

Emily was reminded of the Professor Layton games while watching this film. The visual style certainly has some connections, though Layton is less peculiar and more polished. Layton is undeniably child-friendly. Meanwhile, even though there isn't anything too disturbing or offensive in The Triplets of Belleville, there is something to its crude peculiarity that feels like its just meant for an older audience.

Meanwhile, I couldn't help but be reminded of one of my favourite shows as a child, Courage the Cowardly Dog. Courage is much more cartoony than Belleville, but both of them have an odd, darker sense of humour that's still appropriate for kids.

Overall, the movie was quite entertaining to watch, if a little bizarre. The scenes with the frogs were just... a little odd. But the music was superb and the animations was fairly impressive.

I almost forgot the music! Much of the score seems to hinge on the song "Belleville Rendez-vous." There's a lot of that swing feel with atypical and inventive instrumentation.

Check out the trailer for a look at both the visual style and the music: