Pittsburgh

Facing Forward: CMU International Film Festival Showcases Women Behind the Camera

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Rasa is a girl of 20 years, bearing the burden typical of someone twice her age.

She’s uneducated, homely, and supporting her disabled father as a low-pay, thankless job as a grunt worker in a vegetable processing plant. Each day, she takes something that was once living, once sprouting naturally from the earth, and shoves it into a pre-made box of artificial components.

Rasa is the focal character of the 2012 film Eat Sleep Die. Her face is one that we pass every day on our commute. It’s the face of the worker, the face of the ever-persistent, and the face that Carnegie Mellon University’s annual International Film Festival seeks to highlight year after year with a collection of humanistic works by a diverse group of international filmmakers.

This year’s theme is Faces of Work, inspired by late CMU professor and filmmaker Paul Goodman’s dedication to giving a voice to the struggle of the common worker.

The CMU International Film Festival is often a varied showcase of all aspects of cinema so rarely represented in the mainstream. Offerings from female directors and foreign filmmakers are classic staples of the festival’s roster, actively defying the pre-constructed confines of the commercial industry.

While festivals such in Toronto, Cannes, Park City, and New York tend to garner the most industry buzz, it’s smaller showcases like the CMU International Film Festival which ditch the slimy, business-driven aspect of the more commercial festivals and places the focus on the craft and how that craft illuminates us as a people.

The struggle of the worker is one that’s easily-relatable to everyone who, well, has a job. The films on display throughout Faces of Work are not new, they’re not flashy, and they’re not making headlines in the trade papers or on the festival circuit at large. They’re merely collected and presented together as a collective work that truly speaks to a common idea. The art is in the presentation of the collective, universal affect they have as a group bolstering a theme.

The focus for us as patrons then becomes not to pinpoint which films are most worthy of distribution or awards attention as we do at most film festivals, but rather to simply indulge in and absorb the art of the craft, and let these filmmakers converse with and engage us.

Eat Sleep Die, from director Gabriela Pichler, made the festival rounds two years ago at the 69th Venice International Film Festival before touring the international circuit. It made its debut on CMU’s campus this past week as part of the festival–a fitting decision to show it on school property instead of at one of the other off-campus Pittsburgh theaters the festival has temporarily taken over. The film speaks to the universality of struggle, and the ever-evolving idea of what it means to truly struggle, which is a potent reality so many college students grapple with, and one the Faces of Work theme so effectively speaks to.

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The film really impacted me because it’s very true to what I’m going through right now,” one of my friends–a recent college graduate currently working two jobs and figuring out the next steps on her path through life–said after the screening of Eat Sleep Die. It’s hard to imagine that she’s alone in that sentiment, watching Rasa struggle to scrape together a sense of self when she loses her job thanks to company budget cuts. Rasa’s superiors tell her that the cuts are necessary for the growth and survival of the company as a whole. It’s great to know that the value of survival is placed on the company at large versus the individual with a mouth to feed and breathing to do.

The film is radical in subtle ways. Where it could have been a simple examination of character in the face of an unfortunate situation, Pichler’s film instead becomes a universal tale of the disintegration of the collective dream. Pichler’s lens consistently catches Rasa at a crossroads between adulthood and childlike abandon. At once we see her blending in with the factory workers, cracking crude jokes, smoking, discussing union politics, and maintaining a household, and at other times we see her engaged in a bike race with a friend, climbing over dilapidated structures in an abandoned playground, or hugging stuffed animals after about with bad news. Rasa is still very much a child, and the society around her has made it possible only for her to be an adult by mere placement only. Her mind is still developing, and it’s being grown in a culture where her body is a number, a placeholder, a cog in the machine.

The idea of a better life for Rasa and her coworkers is simply getting by, not overextending their reach for things like fancy clothing or expensive sportscars that belong to their upper management.

For these people, the thought of something “better” is only teased by common occurrences which only relate back to the central idea of working in the first place. Rasa is asked by a social worker assigned to help her find employment to describe her best qualities. She immediately delves into her skills as a line worker, and the pride she has for how quickly she packages food. This is a classic case that’s becoming all too familiar for students and members of the workforce alike: the job shapes the human, when we should be fostering an environment where a person can easily recognize their strengths and funnel them into a career which benefits, hones, and compliments–not suplements–their life.

Eat Sleep Die shows us the shifting landscape of what it means to live. Its filled with characters whose only expectations out of life are to make enough money to get by to the next point of indifference. A dream of betterment has been replaced with the reality of stagnancy, and striving for middle-ground has replaced the drive for something better.

Pichler’s film is not one which plays strongly to only those in the society of her origin. Eat Sleep Die is a foreign film with global implications, where the value of the worker diminishes in the eyes of the corporate puppet master.

Pichler’s Eat Sleep Die  is only one of the many examples of women filmmakers’ work shown at the CMU International Film Festival. Heather Arnet’s documentary Madame Presidenta, a film about the American political landscape and the potential for a female president, will screen on Wednesday, April 2nd. Iranian director Parviz Shahbazi’s Trapped , screening on April 3, focuses on a strong female lead, while Lisa Fruchtman’s documentary Sweet Dreams (screening on the festival’s closing night, April 5) examines an African drumming troupe formed by women on both sides of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Fruchtman, whose career includes directorial work as well as winning an Oscar for editing 1983’s The Right Stuff, will be holding a Q&A session after the screening.

For a full schedule of the Carnegie Mellon International Film Festival’s program, please click here.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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Filmic Confluence: Oscar Potential for 3RFF Offerings

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Tickets and Showtimes:

http://www.showclix.com/events/14020/

Screening Rooms:

The Harris Theater

809 Liberty Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
(412) 471-9702

Melwood Screening Room
477 Melwood Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
(412) 681-5449

Regent Square Theater
1035 S Braddock Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15221
(412) 682-4111

Waterworks Cinemas
930 Freeport Rd
Pittsburgh, PA 15238
(412) 784-1416

With Night of the Living Dead celebrating its 45th birthday just this past month, the spotlight once again turned to the innovative ideas and inspired cinematic products emanating Pittsburgh’s movie scene.

George A. Romero’s stamp on film history as the definitive catalyst for a single genre’s decades of socio-cultural critique began right here in the Steel City. A place with a rich film history with an even brighter future, Pittsburgh’s cinema-friendly roots bolster the city’s annual Three Rivers Film Festival which this year features a vibrant collection of buzzy awards season contenders, beloved classics, local productions, and various documentaries.

While the city’s future in the domestic film industry continues to blossom (studio spaces have opened across the city, industry executives have purchased homes here, and the Pittsburgh Film Office continues to bring new and exciting productions to our area), Pittsburgh’s independent scene is prospering as well. The winner of the Steeltown Film Factory (My Date with Adam) screenwriting competition will be shown at the festival, and projects from local filmmakers (Blood Brother, amongst others) will have screentime as well.

Throughout its history, high-profile films as Precious, Rust and Bone, and Silver Linings Playbook  have opened the festival’s two-week schedule of screenings preceding their own domestic release dates. A print of Leos Carax’s highly-praised film Holy Motors also played at the festival last year and was, at the time of the screening, the only print of the film in the country.

2013 is no different. This year features a variety of films submitted for the 86th Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film category, which is spectacular—especially in a mid-sized market like Pittsburgh—given the lack of outlets that show these films prior to their nominations.  

So, let’s take a look at a select few of this year’s crop of offerings and dissect their potential at next year’s Academy Awards:

Judi Dence and Steve Coogan in Philomena

Philomena

Initially screened in competition at the 70th Venice Film Festival (winning the award for Best Screenplay), Philomena went on to garner critical and audience praise at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People’s Choice Runner-Up prize.  Judi Dench stars alongside Steve Coogan (also the film’s co-writer) as a woman in search of her long-lost son, giving a performance that could very well lead to an Oscar nomination.

Oscar Potential: Philomena’s awards season potential lies largely within its appeal to the heart. As we saw last year, the change to Oscar’s voting process (as well as a shift in voting deadlines that don’t give Academy members the pleasure of using the guilds as a compass) made for a uniquely diverse set of nominees. Films like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour are films largely backed by passionate admiration, and Philomena could find its footing in a few categories.

It certainly helps Judi Dench’s case for a seventh nomination (though she has never won in the Lead category) that director Stephen Frears has a positive track record for poising his female stars for Oscar glory (Dench was nominated for his Mrs. Henderson Presents, Glenn Close was nominated for his Dangerous Liaisons, and Helen Mirren won for his The Queen). Right now, it’s on the outskirts of any major nominations, but its domestic release and critical reception will tip its Oscar prospects one way or another.

Screenings: Saturday, November 9th (Regent Square) 5:00 PM and Tuesday, November 12th (Waterworks Cinemas) 7:00 PM

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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

2013 has played host to a dazzling array of diverse voices. Still, The Academy has yet to recognize a black filmmaker with an award in their Best Director category. Three black filmmakers are challenging history this year with strong contenders in the awards race. Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station seems poised to make a minor splash at the ceremony, while Lee Daniels’ The Butler will get a significant push once its Oscar campaign ignites in a few weeks. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, however, continues to lead the Best Picture race since its screenings at Telluride and Toronto thrust it to the forefront of the Oscar discussion.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom has played fourth fiddle to these films, though its subject material fits in perfectly with this awards season’s narrative of “minority” voices. Based on Mandela’s autobiography chronicling his anti-apartheid practices in South Africa, the film screened to glowing reviews for star Idris Elba’s leading performance.

Oscar Potential: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is unfortunately teetering on the edge of a select few categories, mainly because 2013 has been such a crowded year for leading men. Elba’s shot at garnering his first Oscar nomination is slim, but still present nonetheless. If anything, the film will remain a vital part of this year’s legacy as a showcase for diverse filmmaking styles and minority representation. U2 also have an original song within the film, which could prove strong enough to receive another nomination.

Screenings: Sunday, November 10th (Waterworks) 7:00 PM and Monday, November 11th (Waterworks) 6:15 PM

 

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Best Foreign Film Academy Submissions: Ilo Ilo and The Rocket

The Singaporean and Australian entries for Best Foreign Film at the 86th Academy Awards, both films seem poised for international breakthrough. Having won the Camera d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Ilo Ilo became the first film from Singapore to win an award there. The film also received 6 nominations at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards. The Rocket opened earlier this summer in Australia to ecstatic reviews.

Oscar Potential: While receiving heavy recognition from foreign institutions and festivals, Ilo Ilo faces unprecedented competition from other foreign entries in the Best Foreign Film category. Asghar Farhadi’s The Past has gotten an overwhelming push behind it and will likely find itself with the top prize come next March. Reviews for Ilo Ilo have been ecstatic nonetheless, which could push it far enough to reach the Academy shortlist in January. There’s no clear indication that it will receive a nomination in the category just yet, and its potential will simmer as voting commences in the next few months. The Rocket’s chances are extremely slim, though the quality of the film shouldn’t be diminished by its lack of awards season prospects.

Screenings: Ilo Ilo Sunday, November 10th (Waterworks) 2:00 PM and Wednesday, November 13th (Waterworks) 4:45 PM The Rocket Friday, November 8th (Waterworks) 7:15 PM

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Bastards

Women have certainly taken control of the conversation with regards to 2013’s film offerings. Whereas male-driven and male-aimed pictures like White House Down, The Lone Ranger, and R.I.P.D. tanked on colossal budgets, female-driven pictures like Gravity, The Heat, The Conjuring, and Identity Thief solidified the notion that a handful of the few remaining box-office stars are women.

It’s not only actresses getting in on the conversation, either. 2013 saw the release of plenty of quality releases from female filmmakers, including Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring amongst others. Claire Denis’ Bastards, screened in the Un Certain Regard category at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, divided audience and critics alike, and will have a screening at this year’s 3RFF as well.

Oscar Potential: Zero. Nada. Zilch. But, that doesn’t mean that your purchase of a ticket is wasted. Support female filmmakers at a time when the industry so desperately seems to want to cast them out. A ticket for Denis’ film is a ticket to build a better channel for female filmmakers to share their voice.

Screenings: Saturday, November 9th (Harris) 8:30 PM and Friday, November 15th (Harris) 7:00 PM

Other opening night screenings/galas:

A Perfect Man – November 8th (Harris Theater) 7:15 PM

The Girl From the Wardrobe – November 8th (Regent Square Theater) 7:15 PM

Leos Carax brings “Holy Motors” to Pittsburgh

Kylie Minogue and Denis Lavant in Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors.”

The Three Rivers Film Festival continued this week with a screening of Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors,” an eternally perplexing film whose presence at this year’s festival is a testament to Pittsburgh’s standing as an up-and-coming hub for the arts.

The print was introduced as one of the only copies in the country, with a 35mm print having not reached U.S. shores as of Wednesday’s screening at the Harris Theater, downtown.

In line with previous screenings at the festival, however, the night didn’t go without its share of technical hijinks. Halfway through the film, buffering issues plagued Carax’s gorgeous film, forcing flustered employees to nervously inform a jeering audience that they may not be able to see the conclusion to “Motors.” Telling an auditorium full of pretentious film buffs they can’t see the end of a film like this is like telling a mother she can’t keep the precious results of the last twelve hours she spent in labor. Some were calm, some were up in arms. But, alas, the wonderful staff at the Harris Theater made sure those who chose to stay for the thirty or so minutes it took to fix the print went home happy.

The film itself eludes description—or “fair” criticism for just that matter. It is a film perfect in its artistic execution, catharsis in its purest form. It feels unfiltered, unburdened by a studio’s overarching creative control, but not lacking a thematic direction. It tells the story of a man, “Mr. Oscar,” given the task of completing various fantastical “appointments” throughout Paris which include masking his own identity to become someone—or something—else within various staged vignettes. Each of the scenarios sees Mr. Oscar applying makeup, full body suits, wigs, weapons, even “dying” a few times, all for the sake of crafting pure spectacle for an audience—not any specific one, simply the “idea” of “the audience” that lies at the core of any performance, filmic or non. “Holy Motors” is laden with elements Film Studies classrooms spend entire semesters reviewing; intertextuality, self-reflexivity, and conflicts between diegetic/non-diegetic aspects all come into play. “Holy Motors” is a film major’s wet dream, an act of defiance against contemporary cinema’s willingness to gloss over the dark (juicy) bits of reality that places the audiences in a position to respond versus passively “receive” at all times.

Edith Scob dons her “Eyes Without a Face” costuming in “Holy Motors”

It’s frustrating, confusing, intense, elaborate, something, nothing, and everything Leos Carax wants it to be all at once. Even in its most irritating portions of reluctance to let “the audience” in, “Holy Motors” is a film which can’t be faulted. After all, dreams can’t be wrong, can they? As a midnight excursion your brain may endure, the film is in a constant state of evolution, deconstruction, and re-imagination; destroying ideologies and scenarios pre-established only moments prior. There are countless references to films–classic and modern–that make “Holy Motors” a veritable treasure trove of cinematic and pop cultural history. Edith Scob reprises her role from “The Eyes Without a Face,” Kylie Minogue plays someone who is not Kylie Minogue in a film where Kylie Minogue music plays at a party, characters from other Carax films (“Tokyo!” in particular) make appearances as if they’ve never had a camera on them before. Scrapbooking for scrapbooking’s sake, I suppose. But not without purpose; this is a film which questions identity, performance, consciousness, and reality. Things taken for granted whilst commuting to work or seeing a concert, but pondered with precision and caution in dreams and cinema, the most pure forms of expression, which collide with dazzling results in “Holy Motors.”

When the print of the film lagged and skipped around thanks to the aforementioned buffering issues, one audience member (proud of himself for having such a brilliant thought) proclaimed (loud enough so the whole audience could hear) “I think the jump-cuts are intentional. This is brilliant.” While fancying himself a modern day Godard, he was shot down not only by the staff’s “fixing” of the “jump cuts,” but also by the one constant thematical message which runs throughout “Holy Motors”. The audience is a cog in a giant machine, victim (and, at times, willing participant) of the cinema’s ultimate power over any who relinquish their conscious state and hand it over to the all-powerful medium of film. He was wrong, but I’m sure Carax would appreciate his earnestness.

Watch This: “Robinson” by Dillon Becker

An acquaintance of mine from the University of Pittsburgh’s Film Studies program, Dillon Becker, has made a film called “Robinson.” You should watch it immediately because a) he’s pretty talented and b) you’d probably planned on spending the next half hour wasting your time and touching yourself, so why not let your mind get off on this biting little film for a change and spare Dillon thirty minutes.

“Rust and Bone” Kicks off Three Rivers Film Festival with a Roar

High profile productions aren’t just made in the Steel City these days; they’re also headlining Pittsburgh’s very own Three Rivers Film Festival, which made its 31st debut tonight with screenings of some of this Oscar season’s buzziest titles. But, that doesn’t stop a little brokedown Pittsburgh “flair” from seeping into the mix. It’s hard to imagine a  projector merely “slipping” off its axis mid-screening, or a festival showrunner announcing the dispensing of sandwiches and cheap wine after the show (simply because “well, uh, because it’s opening night,” he so eloquently concluded) at Telluride, Toronto, or Sundance. But alas, these things happen. You must constantly remind yourself (the cutesy mishaps might do that for you) that this is merely Pittsburgh charm at its finest.

As a city sprawling in artistic evolution, there’s undoubtedly a comfortable amount of room for the film industry to nestle itself firmly in Pittsburgh’s bosom. The Dark Knight Rises and Adventureland are a mere sampling of the big-name studio productions filmed here over the course of the past two years. Pittsburgh is making a name for itself as a Hollywood of the East Coast, and its priority film festival should reflect that.

Around 7:00 PM, small crowds of people dotted the sidewalks of Liberty Avenue as the historic Harris Theater prepped Rust and Bone for its Pittsburgh debut. After screening in competition at Cannes earlier this year, Bone leads an impressive trifecta of Oscar bait goodness headlining Pittsburgh’s two-week long festival. Joining the film on opening night were Silver Linings Playbook and Beware of Mr. Baker, playing at the Regent Square Theater and the Melwood Screening Room, respectively.

The night intensified as Rust and Bone screened, however, with audience members responding audibly (gentle sobbing, jeers of disgust) to the French-Belgian co-production starring Marion Cotillard in a role that surely makes her a worthy contender in this year’s already crowded Best Actress Oscar race. The performance is a thing of fantasy, a fantastical fruit plucked from the highest branch of cinematic perfection.

The film itself is a masterful emotional powerhouse, telling the story of two people entwined in a delightfully tragic dance of magnetic attraction. Stephanie (Cotillard) is a killer whale trainer treading water amid a stagnant love life; Ali is a twenty-something drifter running away from a murky past filled with one-night stands, an ex-wife, and the liveliest souvenir to show for it all; a sprightly five-year old son. Together, the pair feed off what they lack but are able to find within each other; Stephanie’s inherent ability to harness and control what’s “larger” than her and Ali’s ruthless path to self-gratification don’t meet with fireworks, but rather a slow melding together—sometimes messy and dripping with unsightly bits—of a beautiful relationship that’s as imperfect and alluring as the people who comprise it. It’s hard to call Rust and Bone an optimistic film, seeing as its protagonists suffer far more than they prosper, but it is a celebration nonetheless. Rust and Bone finds beauty in pain, delicately savoring the jagged edges of experience learned from life-altering tragedies instead of offering quick-fix, unrealistic solutions to unexpected hurdles.

Opening night sets the tone for the days (in this case, weeks) to come, and the Three Rivers Film Festival will screen pictures such as Holy Motors, Compliance, and a score of this year’s competitors for the Foreign Language Oscar; a dazzling high note hopefully crescendoing to a roar by the festival’s end. Although it’s hard not to chuckle at the inclusion of a low-brow “Pittsburgh Dad”-based production playing the same field as Oscar frontrunners. That’s Pittsburgh for you.

While filmmakers Q&A’s, receptions, and other standard film festival razzle-dazzle are expected, something tells me Pittsburghers will be pleased simply with a comfy chair, a working projector, and a film of any kind playing overhead.

More updates as the festival goes on.

Coming Full Circle; “The Dark Knight Rises” Runs Rings around the Superhero Genre

Eternity; the pang of our unyielding hunger for more Batman goodness has endured for what seems like one. An insatiable need for the raw, the real, and the nitty gritty from the underbelly of the often overly commercialized “superhero” action subgenre birthed itself after our exposure to the cinematic tools (rising above mere goodie-slams-baddie-with-amazing-CGI gimmicks) contemporary auteur Christopher Nolan brought to the table in 2005’s Batman Begins. It was a reboot of an aging film franchise no one dared rouse from its defeated slumber since Joel Schumacher’s 1997 disastrous Batman & Robin, a rebirth which not only taunted the sleeping giant but forcibly prodded its awakening with brute force and cinematic mastery.

The release of Begins’ sequel, 2008’s The Dark Knight, saw Nolan exacting a razor sharp precision and understanding of the essence of his iconic subject; the aura of darkness which surrounded the mythos of the Batman universe oozed from every corner of the film, fully deconstructing our ideas of what a “superhero movie” should be. With these two films, Nolan became the “fantasy” killer; a harbinger of a new breed of “superhero movie” that wasn’t a “superhero” movie at all.

And so, we come full circle. Seven years; the amount of time its taken The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s fantastic conclusion to his Batman trilogy, to see the light of day. Seven years well-spent, building to a momentous finale that’s as viscerally pleasing as Batman Begins yet lacking the lyrical, sinister darkness that made Rise‘s direct predecessor the crowning jewel of the entire franchise, Nolan or non.

In Gotham City, eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent (a political figurehead and defender of Gotham) is dead, the crime rate is down, and the city’s sole beacon of hope hobbles around its decrepit mansion like an old man after one too many whiskey sours. This is a mere shell of a man, limping and struggling to regain composure after one scene sees a woman half his frame and a quarter of his build literally knock him off his feet; this isn’t the man who went toe-to-toe with the Joker but a single film ago—that’s the point exactly—this is Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), the “human” behind the mask, fading away in the shadows of Batman, a face Mr. Wayne can no longer wear thanks to the murderous accusations which taint it. Gotham no longer needs a hero, for Harvey Dent lives on in post-death legislation and honorary holidays immortalizing his protective legacy…or so they thought.

And alas, the image of security can only sustain for so long; Gotham needs Batman once again after a devious plot to destroy Gotham comes via Bane (Tom Hardy), a mysterious brute originating from the Ra’s al-Ghul (Liam Neeson, who makes a brief cameo here) school of villainy, hell-bent on carrying out his forefather in crime’s wishes of scraping scum like Gotham City from the bottom of earth’s boot. Bane’s plot involves shutting Gotham off from the rest of the world, making routes into and out of the city impassable via some impressive explosion sequences, staging a jailbreak of Gotham’s most vicious criminals, and instigating an all-out overthrow of the bourgeois world people like Bruce Wayne inhabit. After a few weeks of the underdogs rising against “the man,” a nuclear weapon will detonate, destroying everything within a six mile radius.

The initial “attacks” range from visually stunning (an airplane sequence which opens the film) to socially commentative (an attack on the stock exchange) to a combination of the two (a football stadium is eviscerated), culminating in a grim tone that, in true Nolan fashion, forces the audience to examine their own commercially conditioned morals, seeing as bourgeois societal control is an equal partner in crime here.

Bane’s villainous intentions share similarities, in many ways, to those of Heath Ledger’s now-infamous Joker in The Dark Knight. Anarchy is key for both men; at the very least it’s stripping power from those who have been deemed worthy only by a public system of urban politics and blind submission of Gothamites, citizens who have been taught to fear Batman because he supposedly killed Harvey Dent, but willingly indulge in the monetary splendors Bruce Wayne pumps into the city. Once Bane shows up, however, they’re more than willing to embrace the former. The point being; power (through fear or through money) rules Gotham, and once fear trumps money and renders it useless, well, what else is left to do other than submit? And it’s here that we truly start to miss the antics of the Joker. Where the Joker played upon the morals of his victims, Bane is a mere brute wall (literally and figuratively) of villainous flesh, a chunk of evil who’s too bulky and cold to inspire empathy yet too fantastical to take entirely serious. Bane is a force where the Joker was a presence, and in that transition of evil we lose a sense of depth (and a key character with whom we could have identified with) along the way.

The Joker, in essence, is the sort of villain birthed from the societal confines of depravity, going after the elite social order that it was, at times, hard not to will the destruction of in The Dark Knight. Part of his appeal (and the film’s appeal, for that matter) was the ease with which we could understand (not necessarily “agree with”) his intentions. Attempting to fill that void in The Dark Knight Rises is an outcast in the form of Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), also born into the lower echelon of Gotham’s class structure, who’s made a career of stealing from the rich and willing the demise of the bourgeoisie; her ideas of overthrowing Gotham’s first-class citizens are realized, albeit not by her own hands. Willing something to happen means nothing if action isn’t taken, and she straddles a fine line between “light” and “dark” that only a wishy-washy, pseudo-villain-with-heapings-of-charm could. While Hathaway is the best “performer” of the actors in the film, her character’s presence is unjustified and, to be honest, entirely unnecessary except to balance the unmotivated “necessity” for Bruce to find love where the death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in The Dark Knight left a void. It’s difficult not to compare Hathaway’s Catwoman to that of Michelle Pfeiffer’s in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, if only to place into perspective the former’s frivolous presence. Hathaway is playfully sassy and Pfeiffer was darkly sinister, the latter a consummated affair where former is but a mere striptease.

In fact, it’s the film’s superfluous elements which ultimately detach The Dark Knight Rises from any level of supreme greatness it could have achieved. The screenplay is bloated with far too many characters, events, subplots, and other excess fat which could have been easily trimmed to narrow the focus. But, I get it; the scope of the Batman universe has never been about downplaying anything, and the task of wrapping up one of the most inventive reboots in cinematic history is no easy task. The strength of the film lies within its ability to simply remain faithful to the tone and scope of Nolan’s initial blueprint in Batman Begins; whereas the evils of The Dark Knight were much more disturbing, complex, and brimming with the passion of indulging within its own sinister mythos, The Dark Knight Rises feels cold and calculated, thrilling on the surface but, thankfully, twisted and morally ambiguous in its own right. It is, at times, difficult to choose a moral “side” of the battle, primarily because the power of Nolan’s Batman saga as a whole has always been the ability to present the material slightly ambiguously; yes, we think killing is “wrong” and there is a clear distinction between “hero” and “villain,” but who can’t feel inclined, at least in part, to side with someone like the Joker, morally corrupt but with intent to destroy an equally corrupt system of bourgeois politics and societal oppression?

Perhaps I’m getting too philosophical for my own good. The savory bits of the conclusion to Nolan’s Batman trilogy really don’t lie within the individual film itself. The importance of The Dark Knight Rises is, in a sense, its ability to successfully wrap up the series which birthed it, and it does a sensational job at that as the last exciting breath of action-packed air to escape (not as subtly as I would have liked) from the lungs of the saga as it dies. A hero is not perfect, and neither is Nolan’s conclusion to his fantastic trilogy, but at least he was able to show us that over the course of three complimentary films that work as an overall package, despite their various shortcomings. Nolan’s interpretation of Batman has always been a fantasy for the people of Gotham; a beacon of hope in a shadowy underworld, the city a mere reflection what we as an audience should see within ourselves, questioning our own governances and societal positions. The line between patriarchal rule and violent force is something which has become altogether blurred through Nolan’s lens, The Dark Knight Rises his Fourth of July fireworks display; the capstone of his blossoming small-scale revolution.

An Evening with Zee Avi: I Interview One of My Idols (And Take Her Out for Primanti’s And a Beer)

Zee Avi and I (Joey Nolfi), September 28, 2011 at Club Cafe, Pittsburgh

The following is an article I wrote about Zee Avi prior to actually meeting her. We’d spoken on the phone, on Twitter, and through email a few times prior, but nothing can compare to actually meeting her, as I did after her show here in Pittsburgh last week. She’s a genuine sweetheart and is filled with artistic knowledge, insight, and is just an all-around good time. We chatted in the green room of the Club Cafe on Pittsburgh’s SouthSide for hours, I bought her a beer at Primanti’s (a Pittsburgh institution, mind you) after. It was more amazing than I could have ever imagined, truly a perfect night. Thanks for everything, Zee!

Zee Avi

By Joey Nolfi

A renegade moped sped along darkened city streets amidst the shadows of a brisk September eve. The driver had exited the Thunderbird Café in Lawrenceville, just north of Pittsburgh, only moments prior. The act had been a rousing one; a laid-back singer-songwriter took over the stage. She unleashed a voice tinged with kisses from another era as if Billie Holliday’s undying cadence seeped through modern day speakers from a sonic limbo, craving center stage once again.

Despite its other-era smokiness, the sophistication of the voice brooded from a pocket-sized frame that was barely a quarter century old.

Said voice was also safely holstered to the back of said moped until its wranglers had the audacity to coerce it (and its containing body) back onto the tour bus. 

 “My tour manager was like ‘We have to go!’,” says Zee Avi, accomplished Malaysian musician, lyrical storyteller, owner of the voice in question and, apparently, rogue musician-gone-wild during tour stops.

She says that night in Pittsburgh, now a hazy mental souvenir from her performance in the city last Fall, is one she’ll never forget. And one year later, with a voice still as timeless as ever, Avi is returning to the Steel City for more.

The seemingly demure brunette says Pittsburgh brings out a much darker side of her; an animal attraction for everything Pittsburgh has to offer, if you will. She’s drawn to the city, having performed here two times since her first appearance at the Three Rivers Arts Festival in 2009. So naturally, exploring the city streets with a starstruck fan (Was the name Aaron? Was it Sanjay? She can’t remember, but it’s the experience that counts) was like the gateway drug into the depths of an intoxicating Pennsylvania metropolis.

“I love Pittsburgh because I have so much fun there,” Avi says. “Everyone is just really warm there. I love the grittiness of it. [I’m always there at] the right place at the right time.”

On her third visit to the city on September 28, she’ll be playing songs from her latest LP, “Ghostbird,” which released in August. Drastically different from her eponymous 2009 freshman effort, “Ghostbird” mirrors its creator’s affinity for and the easy breezy, toes-in-the-sand, laid-back stylings of the beach bum mentality with a twist of her signature quirkiness and sophistication.

But then again, one look at the singer’s exotic, calculatedly-ruffled, busy clothing choice (one that she calls “whatever chic,” mind you) will tell you that, too.

Talking to the infectiously relaxing voice that’s usually crooning on sweet studio-produced melodies immediately places one on such beaches, drink in hand, straw hat covering lazy eyes as they rest under the summer sun looming just above the shorefront horizon.

“[“Ghostbird] is inspired by everything and nothing. I create something out of everything or I create something out of nothing,” the 25-year old musician says, charming accent (with hints of coastal origins) in tow. “But it’s not just writing about heartbreaks anymore. Everyone does that.”

Lyrical content on “Ghostbird” ranges from observing personified animals in nature on “The Book of Morris Johnson” to the fear of eviction after a domestic dispute in “Concrete Wall”, with complimentary island-esque production that grounds the album in a natural, earthy sense that wouldn’t feel entirely out of place on a late Bob Marley album. One track in particular, “Stay in the Clouds,” even incorporates the sound of rain drops as they lazily kiss the ground in a sonic dream as free flowing as her hair as it lashed her cheeks on her moped excursion.

“I’m always that girl who’s never quite in touch with whatever ‘reality’ is. Sometimes I wish that people would see things how I see them so they don’t think I’m that crazy” she says (with a laugh) of the track’s inspiration. “It’s basically about the chance for me personally to sort of see things sometimes not as a tree but as a forest, [to] never stop being a daydreamer, [to] never stop being a dreamer in general.”

Avi pursued her own lofty dreams in an unconventional manner as far removed from the beachfront mentality as a webcam and an internet connection can be. After posting a video of herself singing –in which only her sharply defined chin and string-strumming, delicate arms were visible– to YouTube back in 2007, she was signed to Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records, launching her career in the United States and giving her a much larger platform to pursue her craft in Malaysia, where she’s sometimes referred to as KokoKaina.

“I guess back in Malaysia I’m considered like a ‘pop’ singer,” she says, bashfully speaking of her superstardom back home as if it’s a foreign intruder on her subdued musical stylings. “I have hairstylists and makeup artists [there], I’ve never done that before.”

While parts of her image appeal differently to both dedicated American fans and loyal Malaysian ones, Ms. Avi says most Malaysians actually speak English, so the perceived dichotomy between the two  music markets is actually not as deep an opposition as one might assume.

It’s the genuine affection that she craves and relishes, feeling a connection with her fans that brings out her wild side; a side that can sometimes lead to, well, late night gallivanting atop a fan’s moped.

“The appreciation is all the same with everybody,” she says. “The warm welcome is the same kind of feeling as being appreciated. Everyone is equally accommodating. Music touches people the same way, but it might interpret differently to some.”

Still, her roots as a proud Malaysian woman still find their way into the primarily English-language albums she releases. Songs like “Kantoi” and “Siboh Kitak Nangis” are sung almost entirely in her native tongue, and Avi still finds the time to tweet in Standard Malay to some of the over 40,000 fans who follow her on Twitter.

Most of the activity she has with her fans revolves around Twitter, for that matter. Just before the release of “Ghostbird,” Ms. Avi treated fans to a special preview of the new music online. She spent the time proceeding the preview describing her tears over sharing the new music.

“Oh they just mean everything to me,” she says of her fans. “I never fail to meet everybody after a show. I would sit there at the merch table for three hours if I have to, and I have. It’s just like a connection.”

While she’s certainly grown accustomed to bonding with her fans, as for the typically American comparisons to oldies greats like Etta James, Avi says she’ll never quite come to terms with such heavy juxtapositions.

“I tell them there’s something in their water,” she says with a laugh. “It’s incredible to be, you know, in the same sentence as these great artists. I respect and look up to them so much. It’s still surreal to be compared to that but we’re all out to create something new.”

She says “we’re” in reference to other contemporary artists, many of whom fill the sonic space around Avi when she’s not busy birthing (as she calls it) her own harmonies in the studio.  

“I love Andrew Bird, avant-garde artists, tUnE-yArDs…do you know tUnE-yArDs?” she excitedly asks, perking up from her laid-back demeanor to discuss the peers she views as inspiration rather than competition.

“Music is a powerful thing, a universal language. It goes way beyond love sometimes and is a catalyst for love sometimes,” she says of digesting and creating music. “To be able to provide a soundtrack for someone’s life at one moment, even for a mere second, is a true blessing for me. Anybody who appreciates that, I appreciate them.”

But, things aren’t ever going to be strictly business at her show this year. She fully intends to sing her heart out but isn’t planning on traversing the “safe” road (which would entail, you know, sleeping before an eight hour drive to the next city) with her tour managers this time around…well…again.

“I would love to see the city. If I have time would you show me around?” she earnestly asks. “We can get a round of drinks at a local Pittsburgh brew.”

Have all two-wheeled motor vehicles prepped for one extra passenger, Pittsburgh. Zee Avi is coming for you once again.