J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Eri Yamamoto’s Goshu Ondo Suite

It’s like writing for a small town. Composing for a fifty-piece chorale group and jazz trio is no small undertaking, especially when it is your first work incorporating vocals in any form, but that is the sort of daring jazz is supposed to represent. Eri Yamamoto lives up to that ethos all the time, but she takes it to a new level with the Goshu Ondo Suite, an extended composition produced and performed in collaboration with Choral Chameleon. If you want to hear the second-ever performance tonight you had better be prepared to wait-list for some improvised seating, because all tickets are sold out, just like last night’s premiere.

There have been attempts to fuse jazz and chorale music before, most notably some of Dave Brubeck’s sacred music. Yet, Goshu Ondo works particularly well, because it is all so well integrated and unified. This is not like other works attempting to fuse jazz with disparate styles that sounds distinctly sectional, wherein the jazz combo plays the head, the “special guests” play, the jazz musicians solo, the guests come back in, and then the combo restates the head. The musicianship could be great, but you could take them apart and listen to them separately without losing anything.

That is not the case here. You need both parts to make sense of what’s happening. It is all intimately married together right from the start and becomes even more so as the piece progresses. The final movement of the continuous suite might be the exception that proves the rule. The melody sounds like it could be adapted for Yamamoto’s trio more easily than the rest of the suite, but having chorale group layered on top more than doubles its power—and then its time to dance (don’t worry, the moves aren’t much more complicated than the Hokey Pokey, but it looks somewhat more elegant).

Goshu Ondo is inspired by the song and dance performed during traditional Japanese summer festivals, so it is fitting the performances have such a festive atmosphere—there will be green tea (supplied directly from Japan by Nishimura Banchaya Honten) and sake (from Brooklyn), as well as many visitors from Japan in attendance. Choral Chameleon was able to unlock Eri’s rhythms (which can be tricky), because they are clearly in the spirit, grooving to the music. Her regular trio-mates, Ikuo Takeuchi on drums and Dave Ambrosio on bass (two of the best in the business) are rock-solid and on-the-money, like they always are. Again, this is the world premiere of some ambitious music, but they sound like they have been playing it all their lives.

Eri Yamamoto and her trio are terrific musicians, who always sound great together, but this is an opportunity to hear them in a totally different setting. The acoustics of the Paul Taylor Dance Studio are also quite nice. It is the place to be tonight for jazz fans, but if you miss it, AUM Fidelity will be releasing a live recording.

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Tara Macken in Intensive Care

Healthcare workers are not so different from commandos. Neither can afford to get squeamish at the sight of blood. You do not have to worry about that with Alex. No siree. The former elite Special Forces recon veteran is now giving palliative care to a dying rich lady, but her skills have not atrophied. A trio of villains will learn that the hard way in Jared Bentley’s Intensive Care (trailer here), which is now available on VOD.

If it were up to her former commander, Alex would still be part of his unit, but she had to leave after some really bad things went down during a mission in the Philippines (sounds like the stuff of a possible prequel). Wanting a quiet life, Alex mostly gets it with the terminal but still spirited Claire. Unfortunately, things will soon change when the elderly lady informs her deadbeat grandson Danny he has been disinherited. He takes the news rather badly, but he still keeps to his best behavior around Alex.

As a result, he will be able to distract her with an unlikely date while his two meathead accomplices try to plunder Claire’s cash. The problem is Grandma’s safe is way harder to crack than they anticipated and Danny is not nearly as distracting as he thinks he is. Before long, Alex is making like John McClane in Die Hard.

Basically, Intensive Care is exactly what you think it is, if not slightly less. Seriously, Alex versus three bad guys—really more like two and a half—is some pretty small ball. However, the important thing about the film is that it makes us total believers in its lead, stunt performer Tara Macken in her first starring role. She has done stunt work on dozens of Marvel productions and Wolf Warrior 2, so she obviously has the action chops, but she also has the presence to carry a feature film. Her turn as Alex suggests she could be a legit action star, bigger than Zoe Bell and maybe even bigger than Gina Carano (both of whom we also like just fine).

So yes, Intensive Care is about as straight forward as a movie can get. Still, Bentley deserves credit the way he clearly stages and films the fight scenes, so that we can easily follow the action (that is actualy higher praise than it might sound). It probably will not go down in cinema history as a film of towering importance in its own right (a little understatement for you), but it is enjoyable in a meathead kind of way and it just might be remembered as the film that started something for Macken. We certainly want to see her starring in more complex films, but still kicking butt. Recommended for fans of action B-movies, Intensive Care is now available on VOD.

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Saturday, November 17, 2018

Welcome Home: Not Worth the Effort

It’s like 14 Cameras set in Umbria, but at least it comes with a better class of stalker-voyeurs. Cassie Ryerson and Bryan Palmer can’t decide whether they love or hate each other, so they will make-up their minds during a super-awkward Italian vacation, while the creepy Federico watches through spy cameras. However, he departs from his standard practices when he decides to take an active role in their drama in Welcome Home (trailer here), which is now playing in Brooklyn (just barely).

“Welcome Home” is the name of the up-scale Airbnb-like service on which this luxurious converted monastery was offered at a suspiciously low price. Like your mother used to say, if something is too good to be true, it must be a case of state-of-the-art voyeurism. Frankly, “Welcome Home” isn’t a good name for the online share site. “Be Our Guest” would make more sense, but maybe then Disney would have sued them back to the Etruscan age.

Be that as it may, things are bad between Ryerson and Palmer. On the night of a drunken office party, he caught her cheating on him with a sleazy co-worker. He had already been experiencing performance issues before that (TMI). Ever since, it has been like frozen tundra between them. Federico is not here to help. To be honest, he sort of really saves her when she twists an ankle on her morning jog, but he keeps coming around. Of course, Palmer immediately picks up on his bad vibes, but Ryerson just thinks he is jealous, which he is.

Lucky for Federico, the couple is drinking heavily and barely communicating, so it is rather easy for him to sow further dissension between them. Naturally, neither can speak Italian either. Plus, they are dumber than a bag full of hammers. Break up, stay together—whichever, just don’t have kids.

The Medieval vacation home really is a fab pad and the surrounding Umbria landscape is quite lovely, but, alas, the combination of Aaron Paul and Emily Ratajkowski is not about to make anyone forget Tracy & Hepburn or Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. On the other hand, Ricardo Scamarcio (Fosco in the latest Woman in White) clearly enjoys the villainous gamesmanship and generally gorging on the scenery.

This is the sort of film that lags days and weeks behind viewer intuition. Ratliff had no trouble lecturing viewers with films like Salvation Boulevard and the documentary Hell House, but apparently either thrilling or scaring them is beyond his reach. This is a dumb, flat film that isn’t worth the effort it would take to find it in theaters or the 93 minutes it takes to watch it via VOD. Not recommended, Welcome Home is now screening (once a night) at the Kent Theatre in Brooklyn (according to Google, but Fandango won’t give it the time of day).


Friday, November 16, 2018

Sundance TV’s Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle

It was a horrific event that should have decisively illustrated the perils of utopianism. After all, the members of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple all insisted their Guyana settlement was utopia, because they would have been in serious trouble if they denied it. Following investigative journalist Jeff Guinn’s book as a guide, the full story of shocking mass suicide-homicide is carefully chronicled in the four-part Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle (trailer here), directed by Shan Nicholson, which premieres tomorrow on Sundance TV.

Some observers and surviving Temple members still try to give Jones credit for being progressive during his early years in Indianapolis. Yet even then, he had an un-churchly-like desire for power and adulation that drove him to California, where people used to go to pursue their ambitions. Followers found him charismatic and altogether righteous, but the audio recordings of his sermons from those relatively calm years still sound like someone teetering on the brink of megalomania. However, members of the Peoples Temple chose to focus on the sense of community and belonging they found there.

To its credit, Terror in the Jungle clearly and explicitly establishes Jones’ socialist ideology. Tellingly, it quotes Jones on the Spartan communalism imposed on his followers: “keep them poor, keep them tired and they’ll never leave.” That sums up socialism pretty perfectly, doesn’t it? Guinn also points out Jones chose Guyana for the Temple’s international settlement precisely because it was then a socialist country. Yet, the film largely lets local Bay Area liberal Democrats (including the unmentioned Harvey Milk) off the hook for the Faustian bargains they struck with Jones.

Still, in most other respects, Terror is quite thorough and should have plenty of new details for most viewers. Everyone should know Jones had Rep. Leo Ryan murdered (the second sitting Congressman to be killed in office since Republican James M. Hinds was assassinated by the KKK during Reconstruction), but the step-by-step timeline of events is absolutely chilling.

Yet, the most important point Guinn and the survivors persuasively make during the course of the film is that the majority of the Temple member who died on November 18, 1978 were victims of homicide, not suicide. Even those who “willing” drank the store brand powdered drink (Kool-Aid is unfairly associated with the whole ugly business) really did not have any choice in the matter, as the piles of used syringes attest.

Jones emerges as a true monster throughout the docu-series, but his own unhinged words are far more damning than any of the incidents of drug use, sexual hypocrisy, or Machiavellian manipulation related by the survivors. On the other hand, Jones’s sons Jim Jones Jr. and Stephan Jones come across as deeply humanistic figures. At a time when support for extremist ideologies, most definitely including socialism is on the rise, Terror is a timely and instructive warning of the dangers they represent. Highly recommended, Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle airs tomorrow and Sunday nights (11/17 & 11/18) on Sundance TV.

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The Coen Brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs

No period of American history is as vilified in popular culture as the days of the Western Frontier, but not for reasons usually stated. The mythology of the Old West established the Frontier as a safety valve and a guarantee of personal liberty. If the local authorities and society ever became too stifling, a man had the option of moving further off into that great open expanse of possibilities. Of course, that is a dangerous notion for those who take it upon themselves to tell others what to do. That is why nearly every contemporary Western produced by studios or major minis is a revisionist Western (an usually quite lectury about it). The Coen Brothers got away with a traditional Western when they remade (quite rousingly) True Grit, but they play it safer this time around. Still, there are a few traditional elements in their mostly cynical The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (trailer here), which launches today on Netflix.

Scruggs, a.k.a. “The San Saba Songbird,” is not our narrator. He is our title story, sort of like “The Outcasts of Poker Flats.” He also sets the tone. He croons and dresses all in white, but he is a decidedly black-hearted villain, the irony of which he delights in pointing out. Scruggs has been a hit with the sort of critics who hate Westerns, but real viewers will probably find his shtick grows tiresome. The same is even truer of the second story, featuring James Franco as a bank robber plagued by luck so bad, it is sort of like Final Destination as written by O. Henry. It is easily the weakest installment of the anthology film, as you probably already guessed, because of Franco.

Death is a constant the Coens’ stories, but so is exploitation, which is particularly pronounced in the third tale. Liam Neeson appears as a Mephistophelean Impresario who cold-bloodedly tours backwater towns with circus geek-like orator of 19th Century literary favorites. The grotesque elements are distinctive, but the real point of the story is to rub our noses in how nasty and brutish the Old West was.

That is a rough start, but the film then turns a corner offering up three ripping good yarns. We next meet Tom Waites playing an old prospector who might be getting a little dotty, but he is persistent. He will also be forced to confront issues of mortality and exploitation before the tale is done.

By far, the best constituent narrative is “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” which really could pass for a lost Bret Harte story. Alice Longabaugh is a young woman of nervous disposition, due to the unhealthy influence of her jerkweed brother Gilbert. When he dies not long after setting off on a wagon train to Oregon, she is left at the mercy of their hired wagon driver. However, the caravan’s guides take a liking to her, especially smitten Billy Knapp.

Frankly, we’re impressed the Brothers Coen had the guts to tell this tale, because it incorporates some decidedly old school traditional elements. It is also the most emotionally engaging and honestly tragic. Zoe Kazan is absolutely terrific, in a heartbreaking way, as mousy but resolute Alice Longabaugh. As Knapp, Bill Heck hits the perfect “aw shucks” note, while developing some winningly earnest chemistry with her. Yet, as Knapp’s crusty partner Mr. Arthur, Grainger Hines really makes the story work, with the sort of performance that sneaks up on you and then lowers the boom.

The concluding segment is also a bit jokey, but the macabrely gothic riff on John Ford’s Stagecoach works so much better than the first three tall tales, precisely because of its weird ambiguity. Plus, Brendan Gleeson plays a crooning Irish bounty-hunter, so what’s not to like.

Fortunately, the best ballad in Buster Scruggs is also the longest. As a bonus, the wrap-around segments are really cool, featuring a hand turning the pages of an early 20th Century book with color plates rendered in the style of N.C. Wyeth. That probably means more than 50% of the film is solidly entertaining, which is not a bad ratio for anthology films. Recommended for fans of the Coen Brothers and [mostly] revisionist Westerns, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs starts streaming today (11/16), on Netflix.

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Thursday, November 15, 2018

Bali: Beats of Paradise

It’s about time somebody made a documentary about Gamelan music. It is as percussive as music gets, yet it has a bright, irrepressibly upbeat sound. People say it “shimmers” with good reason—it has to do with the tuning. Granted, Gamelan has not quite cracked the mainstream here in America, but its popularity continues to grow steadily. Master Gamelan musician and dancer Nyoman Wenten is determined to kick it up a notch through a collaboration with R&B singer Judith Hill. Livi Zheng documents their creative process and the making of the music video (also directed by her) in Bali: Beats of Paradise (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

In the 1960s, Nyoman Wenten and his wife Nanik performed good will tours through Mao’s China and Kim Il-sung’s North Korea, preparing them to live in today’s California. They teach in universities and train eager, multi-ethnic ensembles of musicians dedicated to traditional Gamelan. Something about the sound caught the ear of Judith Hill, whose own solo career has been on the upswing after she was featured in 20 Feet from Stardom.

Fusing their two styles of music would be a complicated process for many reasons, starting with the size and complexity of Gamelan ensembles. Yet, Wenten set an ambitious goal of one million YouTube views for the resulting music video (appended to Bali in its entirety as a stinger following the closing credits).

Frankly, “Queen of the Hill” is a much better, more representative showcase for Hill than for Wenten’s Gamelan ensemble, but it is still an opportunity for good publicity. Zheng also incorporates some really cool performances by Balawan, a crossover Gamelan guitarist, influenced by the finger-tapping style popularly associated with Stanley Clarke.

Bali clocks in at a succinct 55-minutes, but it features some highly cinematic images of Indonesia that would have looked incredible in IMAX. Zheng directs with confidence and flair, crafting an unusually dynamic doc. It is a rather unexpected follow-up to her previous feature, the martial arts narrative, Brush with Danger, but it featured some fight scenes that were also quite nicely directed and choreographed (it was just the script that was a little weak).

Bali looks good and sounds great. The film has a buoyant spirit, just like the Gamelan music it documents. Highly recommended for fans of world music and crossover soul and R&B, Bali: Beats of Paradise opens tomorrow (11/16) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Speed Kills (And So Does the Mob)

Don’t let the “off” fool you. Ben Aronoff is transparently modeled on speed boat designer and manufacturer Donald Aronow. In fact, this film is explicitly based on Arthur Jay Harris’s non-fiction account of Aronow’s rise, fall, and murder, so why bother with such a minor name change? Aronoff/now sold boats to the US Customs Service and plenty of drug runners, but his old associate Meyer Lansky insisted he chose a side: his. At least that is the version of events presented in Jodi Scurfield’s Speed Kills (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Think of this as Casino in the ocean. ‘Noff/Now was a contractor in Jersey who made a fortune building projects “referred” his way by Lansky’s outfit, but things got too hot in 1959, so he skedaddled down to Miami with his family. Initially, he wanted to keep his old mob associates at arm’s length. Right, good luck with that. Soon after arriving, he got an eyeful of boat-racing and was immediately hooked. Soon, he was designing and marketing his own line of cigarette boats. He made a splash by racing his designs to victory in a number of high-profile races, but fielding and supporting a full-time racing team would greatly sap the company’s resources. Hmm, what other markets for power boats could you tap into in the Miami area?

In a way, Noff/Now is also presented as the DeLorean of boats, but screenwriters David Aaron Cohen & John Luessenhop suggest he really wanted to divorce himself from the mob. However, he is still a complete jerk, who cheats on first wife, played by Jennifer Esposito, and steals away his super-model second wife from King Hussein of Jordan (seriously, he does). In between getting whacked in medea res and his tom-catting, Noff/Now participates in a number of predictable races and several staring contests with Lansky’s thuggish, drug-running nephew, Robbie Reemer. Plus, he sells a few boats to Vice Pres. George H.W. Bush and future Treasury Sec. Nicholas Brady.

As Noffsky, John Travolta never ages a day over the film’s nearly thirty-year span, probably because he already looks far too old and creaky to be playing the boat kingpin in his early 1960s racing prime. However, James Remar nearly saves the day as the hardboiled, bourbon-hardened Lansky. Matthew Modine is also surprisingly on-target with his more-or-less respectful cameo as Bush Senior. Tom Sizemore adds some random edginess as the hitman seen in the wrap-around segments. Unfortunately, Katheryn Winnick and Esposito are grossly under-employed as Noffy’s wives, but it is downright embarrassing to watch Kellan Lutz as Reemer, probably the dullest, dreariest, most unsightly mulleted villain to ever barge across a movie screen.

Miami Vice probably would not have been the same without Aronow, but his case is probably better suited to a series of magazine article or a true crime paperback than a full-length feature. Scurfield never elevates the predictable material and the flashback structure largely scuttles any possible suspense right from the start. Not recommended, Speed Kills opens tomorrow (11/16) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

HIFF ’18: The Third Wife

It is one of the great scientific injustices throughout human history. Women, especially those married to Henry VIII, have been blamed for not producing a male heir, even though it is only the father who can supply that Y chromosome. May finds herself in a similar dilemma. As the junior-most wife of a wealthy Vietnamese plantation owner, her position depends on her ability to give birth to a boy. The dysfunctional family dynamics and her first stirrings of passion will also confuse May in Ash Mayfair’s The Third Wife (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Frankly, May looks even younger than her fourteen years, so the idea of her marrying anyone is rather disturbing. Nonetheless, she fulfills her wedding night duties well enough to soon be pregnant. She is probably rather fortunate, because the senior wives, Ha and Xuan are quite supportive and protective of her. She also makes fast friends with Xuan’s daughters, Lien who is not much younger then May and spirited eight-or-ten-year-old Nhan.

The passions simmering within May’s new extended family definitely match the hot and humid Vietnamese countryside. This is especially true of the patriarch’s unstable son, who has been secretly carrying on an illicit affair with Xuan that has made him problematically co-dependent. Inevitably, his Werther-like brooding will destabilize their hothouse environment.

The Vietnamese-born, US & UK-educated Mayfair has crafted a wonderfully lush and evocative film. You can just smell the wild flowers (and the deadly nightshade). It is also very steamy, in every sense of the word.

As May, Nguyen Phuong Tra My does indeed look distressingly young and vulnerable, but she also makes a convincing pivot when her character starts to make some cold, hard decisions. Tran Nu Yen Khe is also wonderfully forceful and charismatic as Ha. However, My Cat Vi steals nearly all of her scenes as the wide-eyed, yet surprisingly resourceful Nhan.

Visually, Third Wife is absolutely gorgeous. Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj drinks in the rain forest backdrop and luxuriates in the trappings of 19th Century, fin de siècle wealth and [male] privilege. It is hard to watch the tragedy as it inevitably transpires, but Mayfair holds the viewers in a vice-like grip. She makes you want to immerse yourself in this world, despite its social inequities. Highly recommended, The Third Wife screens tomorrow (11/15) and Saturday (11/17), as part of this year’s HIFF.

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Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah: Four Sisters

If there was a Nobel Prize for conducting interviews, the late Claude Lanzmann would have surely been a laureate. Through recorded oral histories, he documented the Holocaust in directly personal terms. The ten-hour Shoah felt distinctly radical in 1985 and it remains the single most important cinematic exploration of the National Socialist genocide. Lanzmann continued to revisit the Holocaust in subsequent films, employing the same sensitive but persistent interview style. Essentially, this is a collection of outtakes from Shoah, but they are decidedly weighty and compelling outtakes. Four women tell how they witnessed and survived the horrific in Lanzmann’s Shoah: Four Sisters (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

The “sisters” are both alike and different in significant ways. Ruth Elias was from a well-established, long-assimilated Czechoslovakian family, but she had the dubious misfortunate of finding herself pregnant at the worst possible time. Her condition would eventually bring her face-to-face with Josef Mengele. Needless to say, the title of her segment, “The Hippocratic Oath” is meant to be darkly ironic.

Ada Lichtman hailed from the Polish hamlet of Wieliczka, where all the men were executed en masse, very much like the Katyn Forest Massacre, except it really was perpetrated by the Germans, rather than the Soviets. She lived with the constant expectation of death, yet she survived, because she was one of only three women selected for a work detail in Sobibor. However, her job including the soul crushing duty of washing and repairing dolls confiscated from Jewish children.

Paula Biren explains the realities of life in the Lodz Ghetto, where issues of complicity start to arise. Her well-to-do family were fully aware of the brewing danger of National Socialism, but they remained in Poland, because they didn’t have any other place to go. For a while, she worked for the ghetto’s Jewish Women’s Police, but she was wracked with guilt over the grim fate of the black marketeers she arrested. Biren resolved to quit the Women’s Police, despite the dire consequences she would face, but her decision was superseded by greater historical forces, which was a mixed blessing for her.

Hanna Marton’s segment will be the most controversial, because she survived as one of the fortunate passengers on the so-called Kasztner transit. She is fully aware of the controversies surrounding Kasztner, but maybe not as forthright and contrite as slightly frustrated-sounding Lanzmann would prefer. Although he is as soft-spoken as ever, he still grills her on the moral implications of Kasztner’s rescue mission. However, attitudes have maybe softened towards the leader of the Hungarian rescue committee. He was definitely practicing lifeboat ethics, but that is rather understandable, given the nature of the times.

All four women have a lot to say, but their stories need sometime to properly unfold, which is presumably why Lanzmann had not used most of this footage previously. However, it is hard to get around the rather static nature of Lanzmann’s straight-forward, long-take interview format. At least the background scenery changes during Biren’s segment, because she insists on taking Lanzmann out for a walk on the beach.

As it happens, the Quad is screening Biren and Marton’s segments together and pairing up Elias and Lichtman for the other Four Sister program. Arguably, the first block has the most dramatic subject matter, whereas the second is the more emotionally draining. Regardless, it is good for the future of civil society to have this material more widely available. Highly recommended as either a warm-up or a chaser to Lanzmann’s indispensable Shoah (1985), Shoah: Four Sisters opens today (11/14) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Touched: The Things That Haunt Us

This is why we have to pay last month’s rent whenever we move into a new apartment. One of Gabriel Tillman’s tenants has disappeared under mysterious circumstances, but he just can’t let it go. Unfortunately, the socially stunted landlord is completely unsuited for amateur sleuthing in Karl R. Hearne’s Touched (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Toronto.

Tillman is not good with people, but it is not his fault. Apparently, he had a difficult childhood that he will probably never fully recover from. Nevertheless, he was able to plug along as a super, eventually inheriting the building when the owner died. Alas, he is afraid the missing Caitlyn has also shuffled off the mortal coil, but he failed to adequately investigate when he had a chance. Tillman already fears the worst when he starts to be haunted by visions, hallucinations, or the actual ghost of a young girl, who may in fact be Caitlyn, or rather a younger version of herself.

Routine is important for Tillman. Every Friday he visits the same bakery to buy a fresh-baked loaf of brown bread. Gumshoe snoopery could be unhealthy for him in more ways than one, but he still starts tracing her previous whereabouts. It turns out they might have abusive childhoods in common. Tillman could also be losing his grasp on reality, but even if he is, she still could very well be the victim of foul play.

“Haunting” is indeed the right word for Touched. It is a subtle and frequently ambiguous film, but its truths ring with crystal clarity. Frankly, it makes a strong case genre cinema is better equipped than straight, preachy melodrama to deal with some subject matter, because of the flexibility and latitude the [possible] fantastical elements provide.

Regardless, Hugh Thompson is absolutely riveting as Tillman, despite the quiet, low-key nature of his breakout performance. You can just feel the depth of his emotional pain and ill-ease. It really is some remarkably assured work. Chimwemwe Miller also nicely grounds the film with his humanistic portrayal of the unnamed bakery clerk, which sounds like a nothing-part, but is actually quite significant.

Touched is truly a delicately calibrated film. If it had been a few degrees off in any respect, it could have been a tonal train-wreck (or at least a big “so what?”), but Hearne gets the balance just right. As a result, the film really sticks in viewers’ heads, haunting them, so to speak. Very highly recommended, Touched opens this Friday (11/16) in Toronto, at the Carlton Cinema.

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The Marine 6: Close Quarters

Whitey Bulger is now pushing up daisies and nobody feels sorry for him. Even before this rather acceptable news, we could well understand why another Irish mob boss would want to avoid prison. His strategy has been hanging juries by targeting jurors’ family members. However, his plans will go up in smoke when not one, but two Marines stumble across his gang’s latest victim in James Nunn’s The Marine 6: Close Quarters (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

Jake Carter, the EMT hero of the last three straight-to-DVD Marine movies, is accompanying his old comrade Luke Trapper as he pays a house call on an old homeless vet squatting in an enormous abandoned factory. Trapper works for the VA, but he refuses to ever visit a doctor, so you do the math on that one. Regardless, as Carter and Trapper make their way through the strangely empty squatters’ paradise, they stumble across Sarah Dillon, who is being held against her will by the gangster’s homicidal daughter Maddy Hayes and her disposable henchmen. Fighting ensues.

That is pretty much the long and the short of it, aside from several allusions to Last Year at Marienbad and a lengthy explanation of the sub-prime crisis. This is definitely a meat-and-potatoes, throwback action movie, but its unabashed patriotism and workman-like grit are rather refreshing.

Not to be spoilery, but Craig Walendziak’s screenplay has the guts to pull a third act surprise that will forever alter the course of the Marine franchise, but it should still keep chugging along regardless. Where else will you find this many pro wrestlers in dramatic roles. It is easy to see why Mike “The Miz” Mizanin’s comfortable screen presence as Carter has worn well with fans. Shawn Michaels cranks up the energy and the attitude and just generally brings the fun as Trapper. However, the real discovery for non-wrestling fans is Becky Lynch, who has real crossover action star potential, based on her scene-stealing and scenery-chewing work as the villainous Hayes.

Worry not, even if you are not familiar with the previous five Marines, you should be able to follow Close Quarters just fine. It doesn’t set its sites too high, but it hits its target. There is a complete lack of pretense here and we’re okay with that. Recommended for fans of the WWE and old school Michael Dudikoff movies, The Marine 6: Close Quarters is now available on DVD.

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Monday, November 12, 2018

RIDM ’18: Self-Portrait: Sphinx in 47 KM

They might make for demanding cinema, but those long takes do not lie. They unblinkingly show reality as it is and force viewers to acknowledge it. Ostensibly, the subject is Diaoyutai, the small village 47 kilometers from Suizhou, where documentarian Zhang Mengqi’s father and grandfather lived. Her latest doc is not just the eighth installment of her Self-Portrait series, but also part of the larger ethnographic Folk Memory Project. Memories can be painful for Zhang’s interview subjects, but they are critical for understanding how Diaoyutai particularly and China in general reached their current states. Zhang introduces viewers to several residents in Self-Portrait: Sphinx in 47 KM (trailer here), which screens during this year’s RIDM: the Montreal International Documentary Festival.

It looks like an abandoned farm house, but apparently an old woman lives there. An old slogan (presumably from the Cultural Revolution) adorns the outer wall, but it is interrupted by a structural gap, so it now reads: “only … ism can save China.” For the old woman, it is especially, painfully ironic.

Throughout the film, she will explain how her late son was repeatedly wronged by corruption and a staggeringly unjust legal system. The unfortunate Jinhu sounds very much like Yang Jia, whose long-suffering mother was the subject of Ying Liang’s When Night Falls. He was also pushed too far and then convicted and imprisoned by a system that protects exploiters instead of victims.  However, after Jinhu had already served several years of a life sentence, the state then retroactively applied the death penalty to his case.

Hearing Jinhu’s mother give her oral history is absolutely devastating. Arguably, Zhang’s aesthetic decision to film her in almost excessively wide shots lessens some of the emotional impact, but it also emphasizes how small and powerless she is in contemporary Chinese society.

There is no question her segments are the strongest parts of the film. However, Zhang periodically visits with other villagers. They are either very young or very old, because every working-age adult has left in search of employment elsewhere. We meet a young teen who is bright and a rather talented artist, but we can tell she is approaching the point when she too will have to leave, if she is to have any kind of future. Yes, there are also long, quiet, almost entirely still shots of village life.

Frankly, Sphinx (a reference to the act of asking questions) can be a challenging experience for viewers, but just by documenting the testimony of Jinhu’s mother, Zhang has made a valuable contribution to both cinema and history. RIDM also deserves a lot of credit for programming it, thereby keeping it in the public consciousness. Highly recommended for hardcore cineastes, Self-Portrait: Sphinx in 47 KM screens this Wednesday (11/14) and Saturday (11/17), as part of this year’s RIDM.

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We, the Marines

It’s Veteran’s Day (observed)—do you know any veterans to thank? Do you know them well enough for it not to be awkward? For many, the answer is increasingly no. We are able to fight wars with an entirely volunteer military. In most respects, that is a good thing, but it means a steadily widening social chasm has opened up between veterans and military families on one side and civilians with no personal perspective on service across the divide. That is not healthy for our society. If you want at least a small taste of what it is like to train and deploy as a U.S. Marine, viewers can watch Greg MacGillivray’s short IMAX documentary, We, the Marines (trailer here), which screens at the National Museum of the Marine Corps and streams on Netflix.

Narrated by the great Gene Hackman (once a Marine, always a Marine, so don’t call him a “former” anything), We, the Marines follows the arrival of fresh recruits at Paris Island and new officer candidates at Quantico. Yes, it is tough, but anything less would be irresponsible. We get a taste of how arduous the physical training gets as well as a (most likely sanitized) selection from the motivation drill sergeants provide, but it has to be hard, considering we are training young people probably one-half or maybe even one-third your age to serve under warfighting conditions.

They do look young too. Watching We, the Marines should make viewers understand how much we demand of these men and women, mostly fresh out of high school or college. If they are not perfect 100 percent during their deployments, they will be crucified by the media and politicians eager to discredit their mission. When was the last time you were perfect in your job? Ever?

We, the Marines incorporates a little bit of actual combat footage, but it mostly focuses on boot camp and the process of physically delivering Marines to a theater of combat. There is plenty of good IMAX footage of modern military hardware that should interest Jane’s Defense readers, plus, there is also an extended sequence featuring dog-handling training, which is sure to be a crowd-pleaser.

At 38-minutes, MacGillivray’s film only scratches the surface of the Marine experience, but at least it is a start. It looks good and has respect, which is more than you can say for so many recent genre movie depictions of veterans. Recommended for general audiences, We, The Marines screens daily at the National Museum of the Marine Corps’ Medal of Honor Theater and it streams on Netflix.

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Sunday, November 11, 2018

DOC NYC ’18: Welcome to the Beyond

Hoyt Richards should have had more fun during the 1980s. He was considered one of the first male supermodels, on a similar level as Cindy Crawford and Stephanie Seymour, with whom he worked. Unfortunately, Richards was simultaneously a member of a New Agey cult with its own alien mythology. Richards explains how he fell prey to the cult and how he escaped in Brent Huff’s Welcome to the Beyond (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

A former Ivy League college athlete, Richards had a rugged New England kind of look that would have particularly suited Ralph Lauren, who did indeed use him in some of their campaigns. He was one of the only male models who had any fraction of the publicity devoted to his more famous women colleagues. Life should have been great for him, but he was under the sway of Frederick Von Mierers, the guru of the “Eternal Values” cult. According to his spiel, Von Mierers and his followers were really enlightened alien beings from the spiritual center of the universe, who had come to Earth to save it from our tacky, evil ways, but of course, he was the only one who retained his former memories.

Yes, it is crazy, but Von Mierers shrewdly planned his seduction of Richards. In fact, he played an instrumental role encouraging Richards’ early modeling career. Huff also clearly establishes how some of the dysfunctional dynamics in Richards’ family made him particularly susceptible to the tactics typically employed for cult recruitment. As a result, Richards was bankrolling Eternal Values and faithfully returning to Von Mierers’ Manhattan pad each night, instead of partying into the early morning hours.

The story of Richards’ cult ensnarement is pretty crazy stuff on its own, with the supermodel glamour giving it additional sex appeal. He is also remarkably candid in his interview segments, readily admitting how deeply he was sucked in and how badly it warped his perception. The film definitely makes its point: if someone who has as much going for him as Richards did could still be vulnerable to cult manipulation than the same is probably true for just about everyone else too.

Unfortunately, there is an inescapable scruffiness to the film, despite a surreal animated sequence illustrating the loopy Eternal Values creation myth. Partly, that is because so much of the footage was clearly shot on consumer-grade video, particularly that of Richards’ mother and Von Mierers, while they were still alive. There might be no way around that, but whether it is fair or not, the resulting film has a look and vibe that is probably better suited to television than theatrical screenings.

Ironically, Richards was envied by men and desired by women at a time when he was leading a double-life. There are important lessons to be drawn from his experiences, but the presentation still just isn’t very cinematic—a more distinctive score definitely would have helped (we’re always happen to recommend artists). Still recommended for its real-life drama and Richards’ often painful honesty, Welcome to the Beyond screens this Tuesday (11/13), as part of DOC NYC 2018.

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Saturday, November 10, 2018

DOC NYC ’18: A Little Wisdom

It is sort of like the Buddhist Garden of Eden, except it really exists. At least you can visit the Sacred Garden of Lumbini in Nepal, where Lord Buddha was born. Rather logically, the pilgrimage site is home to a number of monasteries, including this one dedicated to training young potential novice monks. Yuqi Kang follows five-year-old Hopakuli as he goes about his cloistered life in A Little Wisdom (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 DOC NYC.

The young children in this unidentified monastery are under no obligation to take their vows once they come of age. They are free to leave whenever they want, but where would they go? Most have been left in the monks’ care by desperately poor families, both to ease their financial burdens and so the young boys can enjoy better food and living conditions. In fact, most of the novices readily concede their lives are much easier in the monastery than they were back home.

Unfortunately, life is still tough for Hopakuli. Even though the boys are wearing robes, they still do all the rotten things you would expect from ordinary kids. In this case, they bully Hopakuli because he is the youngest. Frankly, his older brother Chorten is one of the worst offenders. In many ways, Vija is more of a brotherly figure to Hopakuli, but the fifteen-year-old is approaching a crossroads, when he will have to decide if he will stay or return to secular life.

Many viewers expecting something serene and meditative in the tradition of Walk with Me will be utterly shocked to find it is more of a cross between Kundun and Lee Hirsch’s Bully [Project], which, ever so awkwardly in retrospect, was distributed by the Weinstein Company. Poor Hopakuli is just a kid, who really is not that bratty for his age, so he really deserves a break.

Nevertheless, Kang and her co-cinematographers, Amitabh Joshi and Paola Ochoa, vividly capture the hushed vibe and tranquil surrounding environment of Lumbini. Clearly, she developed a high degree of trust with the young novices, because they obliviously forget she was filming when they really start to let Hopakuli have it. Yet, there are hopefully moments too. To her credit, Kang has also been quite fair to the monks, especially in her publicity interviews. Seriously, if you think you can do a better job sustaining a monastery full of kids in a remote corner of Nepal than you’re welcome to try.

A Little Wisdom will definitely transport viewers to Lumbini, but it is not the transcendentally immersive experience many patrons will be hoping for. Yet, they will find a bit of that wisdom therein, if they look for it. Recommended for viewers intrigued by monasticism and exotic locales, especially on a full-sized theater screen, A Little Wisdom has its New York premiere today (11/10), as part of DOC NYC, ahead of its arrival on iTunes scheduled for 11/20.

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Friday, November 09, 2018

River Runs Red: The Judge Turns Jury and Executioner

If a conservative is a liberal who got mugged, what happens when a liberal judge’s son is killed by cops? Apparently, he turns vigilante. Frankly, we will be much better without cops who are this rock-stupid. Of course, they are racist too, or at least the really obnoxious, loud-mouthed one is. Alas, this movie is not so bright either. Any resemblance to logic or reality is purely a coincidence in Wes Miller’s River Runs Red (trailer here), which opens today in New Jersey.

C.J. Coleman, Jr was driving to his first day at the Police Academy, where he hoped to follow in the footsteps of his father, Judge Charles Coleman, a former cop, after having spent the last six months caring for lepers in Mother Theresa’s former Kolkata mission. Okay, we made the last part up. Regardless, it is pretty hard to believe two of the biggest meathead cops you ever laid eyes on could get away with planting a gun on the police cadet son of a sitting judge, after blowing him away in a hail of bullets during a completely gratuitous traffic stop, but that is what happens. In our world, they would be crucified by the media and politicians, but in Miller’s alternate universe, the city’s African American mayor circles the wagons around them.

Frustrated with the perfunctory investigation, Coleman turns to his former partner, Horace, a hardboiled undercover cop, who did a stint in Internal Affairs. He digs up the shooters’ dirty history, which leads the Judge to Javier Garcia, another grieving father. Initially, Coleman approaches him with a half-baked notion of suing the city, but they eventually agree on a more direct and Biblical course of action.

RRR is a strange mishmash of a film that seems carefully calibrated to alienate everyone and appeal to nobody. Black Lives Matter-style polemics sit uneasily side-by-side with cathartic payback in the tradition of Death Wish. Taye Diggs is actually rather intense and brooding as Judge Coleman, but he does not have five consecutive minutes of screen time in which his character’s behavior and decisions ring true. George Lopez looks alarmingly old and out of shape as Garcia, but at least he maybe deserves credit for De Niro-ing-up to play the schlubby, soul-sick father.

Surprisingly, the most interesting character is John Cusack’s Cassandra-like Horace, who powerlessly watches the all the tragedy go down. Arguably, it just might be Cusack’s best work since The Numbers Station, for whatever that dubious claim might be worth. In contrast, the two trigger cops are mirror image stereotypes: Luke Hemsworth portrays the guilt-ridden basket case, while Gianni Capaldi plays the abrasive, unrepentant racist.

Clearly, Miller desperately wants the right people to take RRR seriously, but he also tried to maintain its commercial appeal to mainstream, big-box-store-shopping consumers. That strategy is nearly always doomed to fail—and this is no exception. There are some nice performances in here that will make open-minded viewers root for the film to eventually pull its act together, but it just doesn’t happen. Not recommended, River Runs Red opens today (11/9) in the Tri-State Area, at the AMC Loews Jersey Gardens.

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Thursday, November 08, 2018

HIFF ’18: The Unity of Heroes

What Christopher Lee is to Dracula, Vincent Zhao Wenzhuo is to Wong Fei-hung. They were not the first to play the characters, nor are they the most iconic, but over the years, they kept getting pulled back into the part. Zhao took over from Jet Li portraying the late Qing era Foshan martial arts master in the last two Once Upon a Time in China films and the mid-1990s TV show. He now returns to dispense beatdowns, acupuncture, and stern warnings of the insidious influence of all things Western in Lin Zhenzhao’s The Unity of Heroes (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Wong is a lot like Ip Man. He is not wealthy, but his skills are so much sharper than any of his rivals, he must be magnanimous to upstarts like the newly arrived Master Wu. He has more pressing business anyway. In addition to training the local militia, Wong must also look out for Lady 13, his thoroughly Westernized, medically trained in-law and possible romantic interest. On top of all that, Wong is determined to investigate a rash of kidnappings possibly connected to the rage-fueled madman Zhao subdued when after he trashed the dojo courtyard.

It turns out that was one of Dr. Vlad [Feelgood]’s test subjects. Supposedly, his Western-style clinic was founded to treat opium addiction, but he is really dosing patients with an ultra-concentrated opium extract, in hopes of creating some sort of super-soldier. Of course, naïve Lady 13 has gone and joined the staff there.

Zhao has massive chops and all kinds of steely badness, so it has always been rather baffling that he never seems to get the respect he deserves (fight scene-for-fight scene, Wu Dang remains one of our favorite under-heralded martial arts films of the decade). Twenty years after his last outing as Wong, Zho remains comfortable and confident in the role. Unfortunately, he cedes way too much screen time to his three goofball disciples and the ridiculously unintuitive Lady 13. Without question, there is way too much shticky humor in the cobbled together screenplay (credit to the battery of Gao Yuhao, Li Zhenyi, Niu Xinyao, and Ning Yang).

However, Wei Xiaohuan comes out of nowhere to basically steal the film out from under Zhao, as Captain Lu, Vlad’s morally conflicted chief henchperson. She has the moves and the screen presence to be an action star in her own right. Plus, Lu is by far the film’s richest, most intriguing character.

The fact that the evil Westerner is named Vlad is truly laughable. It is not exactly a stereotypically Western name, but maybe it signals a welcome return to the anti-Russian caricatures that were a hallmark of Chinese films in the early 1980s. Regardless, the anti-Western slant is clumsily didactic. Yet, fans should definitely enjoy the wildly over-the-top, high-flying martial arts action. The tone is often pretty silly, but Zhao and Wei still deserve credit for taking care of business. Easily watchable and nearly as forgettable, The Unity of Herpes screens this Saturday (11/10) and Monday (11/12), as part of this year’s HIFF.

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Shunji Iwai’s Last Letter

Paper letters seem old fashioned these days, but they have their advantages, like being hack-proof (but they do leave a literal paper trail). They certainly played a significant role in the lives of Yuan Zhihua and her recently deceased sister Zhinan. In fact, letters from the past might even provide some closure to her family in Shunji Iwai’s first Chinese language film, Last Letter (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Yuan Zhinan struggled with poor health, abuse, and depression throughout her life, so her sister and parents were not shocked by her suicide, but they still passed it off as the tragic result of an unspecified illness. Rather conveniently, it happened during the school break leading up to Chinese New Year, so Zhihua’s preteen daughter will temporarily move in with Zhinan’s teen daughter Mumu, while her little brother stays with her aunt and uncle.

As fate dictates, notice of a middle school reunion comes soon after the funeral. Zhihua attends with the intention of informing her former classmates of Zhinan’s death, but she panics when everyone mistakes her for her sister. Yin Chuan is especially eager to renew their acquaintance, making things incredibly awkward for her. He was her high school crush, while he carried a torch for her more popular sister. She even offered to deliver his love notes, but that did not go according to plan. However, Zhihua cannot resist sending him hard copy letters, sans return address, to prevent her tech savvy husband from discovering her correspondence.

You can think of Last Letters as a cross between Beaches and Cyrano de Bergerac, produced in Mandarin. Fortunately, it is a remarkably effective tear-jerker, since Iwai is apparently already at work on a Japanese language version. He and the first-class cast are not shy when it comes to manipulating our emotions and yanking on our heart strings. However, this film works so surprisingly well, because the characters are always quicker to figure out each deception than the would-be deceivers realize. Granted, these people are damaged, but they are not stupid.

It is a little odd to see the radiant Zhou Xun playing Zhihua, the ugly duckling sister, but she is terrific and deeply moving in the part. Qin Hao also brings a rumpled, sad sack dignity to the film as the older, disillusioned Yin. However, Zhang Zifeng is absolutely devastating two-times over as young Zhihua and her daughter Saran. She also develops a wonderful rapport with Enxi Deng, primarily in her scenes as Mumu, but also in flashbacks as young Zhinan—rather significantly, the adult Zhinan is never seen on-screen, as if she only exists for Zhihua and Yin as her high school ideal.

Arguably, Chinese cinema has a comparative advantage when it comes to tearjerkers and Iwai is no stranger to the genre himself, making this a shrewd choice for his first Mainland project. Last Letter will totally choke you up, but in a way that is ultimately rejuvenating. It is the kind of film that makes you feel good about people. Of course, the ridiculously attractive cast does not hurt in any way. Highly recommended for fans of sentimental romance and family dramas, Last Letter opens tomorrow (11/9) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2018

DOC NYC ’18: It Must Schwing—The Blue Note Records Story

As record labels go, Blue Note almost had it all. They had the greatest artists, the best recording sound, the most striking covers, and the most legit street cred with fans and musicians alike—everything except money. Yet, that was okay with label co-founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, because they were only interested in thee music. The history of the label that has consistently brought us “the finest jazz since 1939” is finally done justice in Eric Friedler’s outstanding It Must Schwing: The Blue Note Records Story (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

Lion and Wolff were forged a life-long friendship in their native Germany, based on their mutual love of jazz. Swing was the style of the day, but their Blue Note recordings essentially codified the “Hard Bop” sound as we now know it. Yet, their sessions still had to swing, or “schwing,” as it sounded with Lion’s thick German accent. He was the first to arrive, with little prospects and hardly a penny to his name. Nevertheless, Lion started recording and issuing sessions in 1939, starting with the Boogie-woogie pianists, Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons. Even today, they sound like a freight train coming at you.

Even hardcore aficionados might not understand how close Wolff cut things when he finally joined Lion in New York. According to Blue Note producer and archivist Michael Cuscuna, Wolff was on the last ship that left Hamburg without Gestapo inspection. Indeed, even those who think they know the Blue Note story pretty well might be stunned (and deeply moved) by some of the revelations regarding Wolff.

On the other hand, any jazz fan worth his salt peanuts will recognize Wolff’s arresting session photography. They are a major reason why vintage Blue Note LPs are so desirable as objects in their own right. Of course, what was in the grooves was even more important—and it always sounds wonderfully warm and clear, thanks to the techniques perfected by Blue Note’s regular engineer, the legendary late Rudy Van Gelder.

Frankly, Friedler made his documentary just in the nick of time, because it represents Van Gelder’s final interview. He pretty much gets everything else right too. Whereas Sophie Huber wastes a lot of time in Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes flailing around, trying to make political statements, Friedler zeroes-in on Lion and Wolff and their relationship to musicians. We hear from nearly all the surviving greats, including Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, “Sweet Papa” Lou Donaldson, Kenny Burrell, Ron Carter, Sheila Jordan, and perhaps most memorably, Bennie Maupin (but not Dr. Lonnie Smith, which is odd, considering how photogenic he is).

Granted, Schwing is not perfect. Like Huber’s film, it largely overlooks Blue Note’s commitment to free jazz (or at least freer, more exploratory) artists, aside from a brief discussion of Jackie McLean. Friedler completely ignores the 1980s re-launch, but instead concentrates on Lion’s tenure with the label, up through the sale to Liberty Records and Wolff’s death in 1972. However, the narrower focus allows Friedler and his interview subjects (nearly all of whom knew Lion or Wolff personally) to do justice to that classic Hard Bop era.

Naturally, Schwing sounds terrific, thanks to the extensive Blue Note recordings heard throughout (including classics, like Coltrane’s “Blue Trane,” Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father,” and Sidney Bechet’s still staggering rendition of “Summertime”). It is also unusually dynamic visually, thanks to Tetyana Chernyavska and Rainer Ludwigs’ black-and-white animated sequences, recreating pivotal moment in the label’s history. Again, Friedler and company just get it right. It is a pleasure to spend time with the film and it will send you out of the theater eager to revisit all these classic recordings that really ought to be in your collection. Very highly recommended, It Must Schwing: The Blue Note Records Story screens this Saturday (11/10) at the SVA Theatre, as part of DOC NYC 2018.

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