J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Sundance ’15: Chuck Norris vs. Communism

Irina Nistor was the voice of the Romanian revolution. The brawn was supplied by Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone, and the rest of their 1980s action movie colleagues. Together they were an unbeatable combination—just ask Ceauşescu. Oh, but you can’t. Wildly popular but strictly forbidden, American action movies (thousands of which were dubbed by Nistor) directly undermined the Communist regime, as Ilinca Calugareanu chronicles in Chuck Norris vs. Communism, a World Cinema Documentary Competition selection at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Just when you thought films like Missing in Action couldn’t get any cooler, Calugareanu’s documentary comes around. Ceauşescu kept Romania even more isolated than the rest of the Warsaw Pact nations and his censors were relentlessly thorough—to an almost comical extent. As a result, Nistor was pretty disgusted with her work translating for the censorship authorities, so she jumped at the chance to dub illegal American VHS tapes, often mastered from second or third generation copies, regardless of the risks.

Her boss was the mysterious Theodor Zamfir, who identified an unmet demand and spread around enough bribes to keep the tapes flowing. Of course, there were still dangers, especially for Nistor working in the lair of the beast. Fortunately, many high ranking Party members were also hooked on Zamfir’s tapes, because what else would they watch?

As films go, Chuck just about has it all. It is an inspiring story of courage and defiance in the face of oppression that takes some truly ironic twists and turns. It celebrates free expression, while also serving up a healthy dose of pop culture nostalgia. It is strange to think Romanians were watching kick butt Cannon films on VHS at the same time we were, but they were risking imprisonment and who knows what else by doing so.

We do hear from the real life Nistor and Zamfir, but the film is also interspersed with interviews featuring former customers, who really sound a lot like us or our friends at Unseen Films. In a potentially risky move, Calugaranu utilizes extensive dramatic recreations that make it a bit confusing when the actual historical figures finally appear on screen. However, they convey a vivid sense of the era and the paranoia that went with it.

Nistor and her associates were true heroes who made the world a better place, both in the short term and the long term. While the film is wildly inspiring, it also makes you wonder if the films produced in this day and age would have the same efficacy undercutting repressive regimes. Regardless, the fascinating and wholly entertaining Chuck Norris vs. Communism is very highly recommended when it screens again tomorrow (1/27) in Salt Lake and Thursday (1/29) and Friday (1/30) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Sundance ’15: Reversal

Don’t say payback is a you-know-what and whatever you do, don’t say it wasn’t personal. Eve is in no mood to hear it. After months of captivity, she has turned the tables on her sex fiend tormentor. However, her revenge gets a little more complicated when she gets a sense of the scope of his operation in José Manuel Cravioto’s Reversal, which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

The odious Phil always said Eve was special, but he never knew how right he was. After cold cocking him with a loose brick, Eve fashions a choker-noose to keep him controllable, but at arm’s length. She nearly capped him right then and there, but held off once he revealed the existence of other women at various hiding places. Fueled by outrage, Eve forces the sexual predator to take her to each one of them, but every successive trip never turns out to be as simple as she hopes.

You have to give Cravioto credit for understanding the point of a vicarious revenge thriller. We don’t want to mention any names, like Eli Roth, but there are a number of frustrating films playing in Sundance in which we wait for the poor central characters to turn the tables on their tormentors, but the sadistic antagonists just keep batting them down at every turn. That’s just no fun to watch.

In contrast, Reversal starts with the table-turning and follows Eve’s efforts to maintain the upper hand going forward. Granted, it is a dark and disturbing milieu to wade through, but the resulting comeuppance is undeniably satisfying. Thankfully, Cravioto never cheapens the proceedings with a lecture on violence or a lame ironic ending.

Frankly, it is also rather meta-creepy that Richard Tyson, the star of Zalman King’s 1980s softcore sex dramas plays the thoroughly gross Phil, but he is effective in the part. Likewise, Tina Ivlev is pretty awesome as the empowered and embittered Eve. There are too many flashbacks mixed into the action and none of its third act reveals are remotely as surprising as screenwriters Rock Shaink, Jr. and Keith Kjornes think they are, but the film delivers what it promises.

Frankly, Reversal is exactly the sort of film the Zoë Bell vehicle Raze and the I Spit on Your Grave reboot should have been. Yes, it is a sleazy exploitation film, but it brings female victimization to an abrupt halt. If you want to see some payback, it has your payback right here. Recommended for fans of grindhouse vengeance, Reversal screens again tomorrow (1/27) and Thursday (1/29) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.


Slamdance ’15: Body

It is sort of like an episode of Girls, but with Larry Fessenden. When three former high school friends break into a McMansion for some Christmas Eve partying, they wind up with some explaining to do in Dan Berk & Robert Olsen’s Body (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival.

Home for the holidays and slightly stoned, Holly, Cali, and Mel are looking for something to do on a cold Christmas Eve. Cali suggests they kick up their heels in her rich uncle’s pad, because he doesn’t mind her having the run of the place. Holly and Mel agree, even though there is something funny about her story (they’re stoned, remember). After a little breaking and entering (seriously, he won’t mind), they start hit the rec room hard. Eventually, Holly has the sense to ask why there are so many pictures of an Asian family on the wall.

It turns out there is no rich uncle. Cali used to babysit for the owners years ago and knew they would be away for the holidays. As this uncomfortable truth sinks in, the girls are surprised by the creepy caretaker. Things get a bit confused, resulting in his apparently fatal accident. With no legal justification for their presence there, the three friends need to get their stories straight, but the circumstances and resulting moral dilemmas keep getting more complicated.

The good news for Larry Fessenden fans is he has a new genre film at Slamdance. The bad news is he spends nearly the entire film flat on his back. Still, let’s just say he has his moments. Nevertheless, the relationship between the three twentysomething women really forms the heart of the film. Berk & Olsen take a fair amount of time to establish their complicated relationships somewhere along the continuum between friends and frienemies. Viewers get the sense they have long histories together and are used to being around each other, even if their feelings are a bit ambiguous. There is also something vicariously enjoyable about watching them run amok in that swanky pad.

Inevitably, matters take a dark turn and get progressively darker, but Body is more closely akin to a claustrophobic stage-thriller than a horror movie. Helen Rogers anchors the film quite effectively as Holly, who passes for the film’s voice of reason and the closest thing it has to a conscience, whereas on the other hand, Alexandra Turshen clearly enjoys getting the film’s best opportunities for scenery chewing and most pointed lines as the mildly sociopathic Cali (hey, nobody’s perfect).

Oddly, Body feels a bit restrained, especially with Fessenden along for the ride, but it vividly captures the weird vibe of being somewhere rather isolated during a time of collective celebration, like the holidays. It is a clever and aesthetically economical dark thriller, recommended for genre fans when it screens again this Thursday (1/29) at Treasure Mountain Inn, as part of this year’s Slamdance.

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Above and Beyond: Israel’s Original Top Guns

Twice they answered the call to protect democracy, prevailing against the odds each time. In 1948, a number of former American WWII military pilots volunteered to fly for the fledgling state of Israel when it was under attack from nearly the entire Arab world. They were vastly outgunned and outnumbered, but their experience and sheer guts became game-changers. Director Roberta Grossman and producer Nancy Spielberg (sister of the other Spielberg filmmaker) chronicle the birth of the Israeli Air Force in Above and Beyond (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

When the Arab nations launched the War of 1948, it looked pretty grim for Israel. The Israeli military did not have a single plane to its name, but the Egyptians had an extensive fleet. Rectifying the situation would be a tricky business. Although Pres. Truman supported the creation of Israel, his foreign policy advisors were much less enthusiastic. In fact, they pushed through an arms embargo, ostensibly for the entire region, but disproportionately falling on the almost entirely unarmed Israel.  It was not like there were not plenty of surplus fighter planes leftover from WWII. Fortunately, engineer Al Schwimmer (formerly with TWA and Lockheed) devised a plan to smuggle planes from America to Israel.

Of course, he also had to recruit pilots, such as Lou Lenart, whose Lindberg-like flight over the Mediterranean serves as the film’s gripping prologue. They were not just risking their lives, they were also risking their American citizenship and perhaps even their liberty for violating the Neutrality Act, but they had their reasons. While not necessarily ardent Zionists, most predominantly but not exclusively Jewish volunteers were determined to avoid a repeat of the Holocaust’s genocidal horrors. However, they were still military aviators, with all the swagger you would expect.

Above documents a truly desperate time in Israeli history, yet it is also hugely engaging, thanks to the boisterous reminiscences of the surviving volunteers. They all have great stories to tell, but Grossman and Spielberg were particularly blessed by the documentary gods when they sat down with Gideon Lichtman, who couldn’t tell a boring story if he tried.

Through its first-person interviews and supplemental commentaries, Above assembles a full portrait of Squadron 101’s early days that is chocked full of fascinating episodes. Shrewdly, it refrains from playing the conspiracy card with respects to the untimely death of legendary ace Canadian volunteer Buzz Beurling, but its straight reporting of the facts still makes you wonder.

This is a flat-out terrific film that is not ashamed to celebrate heroism and derring-do attitude. Indeed, it is truly inspiring (and often wickedly funny) to hear the volunteers recount their exploits. Grossman and company have crafted a fitting platform for their oral history, supplying solid historical context and some surprisingly cinematic visuals. Rigorously researched and wildly entertaining, Above and Beyond is very highly recommended (especially for students) when it opens this Friday (1/30) in New York, at the Village East.

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NYJFF ’15: The Go-Go Boys

Turning Superman into a bomb-banning peacenik was an idea destined to fail. Nobody should have understood that better than the men who brought the world the American Ninja franchise. Unfortunately, they got caught up in the deal and the predictable failure of Superman IV: the Quest for Peace spelled the beginning of the end for scrappy Cannon Films. The rise and fall of the self-made, 1980s defining moguls Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus are chronicled in Hilla Medalia’s The Go-Go Boys: the Inside Story of Cannon Films (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New York Jewish Film Festival.

While working in his native Israel, Menahem Golan attained a level of international respect for films that combined popular appeal with critical respectability, such as his Oscar nominated Operation Thunderbolt. His first English language productions were not so successful, but he kept trying until he found the right formula. Indeed, formula would be the right word. With his cousin, Yoram Globus, Golan acquired Cannon Films, turning it into the little studio that could, by releasing a series of cheaply produced but highly satisfying action movies.

With a regular stable of stars that included Chuck Norris (including the Delta Force and Braddock: Missing in Action series), Charles Bronson (especially the Death Wish sequels), Michael Dudikoff (the American Ninja), and a Belgian waiter named Jean-Claude Van Damme Cannon became the action house of its era. Any guy who remembers the 1980s will have found memories of Cannon. When Golan and Globus respected their competitive advantages, they were wildly profitable. In fact, Cannon became notoriously successful pre-selling films they had not yet made (a standard practice these days), largely on the strength of the stars they had signed and a bankable concept.

Even dabbling in art cinema did not doom the Cannon empire. The same team behind Ninja III: the Domination (a longstanding fan favorite) also scored an Academy Award for foreign language film for the Dutch WWII drama The Assault. In some cases, they even leveraged distribution for prestige pictures with their signature action movies. Unfortunately, when the more artistically ambitious Golan convinced the fundraiser-extraordinaire Globus to start bankrolling traditional studio level budgets, the box office results were disastrous.

Anyone who loves martial arts films and B-movies will inhale Go-Go Boys. Medalia scored long in-depths sit-down interviews with the late Golan and the surviving Globus, even capturing their reunion after years of estrangement. She also talks to most of the principle supporting players, including a highly animated Van Damme and a more reflective Dudikoff. It is also nice to see Andrei Konchalovsky get his due as a Cannon artist (most notably for Runaway Train). However, the oversight of the late great cult action star Steve James, who played an important role in many iconic Cannon hits, is frankly inexcusable.

Clearly in retrospect, Cannon never should have never bothered with the middling middle ground. Their bread-and-butter action films like Avenging Force and Bloodsport still hold up to this day, while their art house releases, such as Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance and Godard’s King Lear remain distinctive for their idiosyncrasies. For the most part, Medalia gives them their due in a breezily affectionate profile. Even though the absence of James will annoy fans, The Go-Go Boys is still recommended for cult film connoisseurs when it screens twice this Thursday (1/29) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYJFF.

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Berlin & Beyond ’15: Stereo

Film noir fans know when a tough motorcycle guy never talks about the past, there is usually a good reason. In truth, Erik is a little fuzzy on that score himself. Unfortunately, his past will catch up with him good and hard in Maximilian Erlenwein’s Stereo (trailer here), which screens during the 19th Berlin & Beyond Film Festival in San Francisco.

Despite his “scoundrel” tattoo, Erik seems to have made a fresh start, opening a garage in a small, but welcoming provincial town. He has charmed his single mother girlfriend Julia and her adoring daughter Linda. Her cop father Wolfgang is considerably less impressed, but Erik can handle him. The man who will call himself Henry is another story.

The hooded mystery man appears alongside Gaspar, a suspicious looking type who seems to know Erik and some dangerous gangsters they supposedly did wrong. Gaspar has some sort of plan to finish them off, but Erik sends him packing. However, Henry refuses to leave, ever. It turns out he and Gaspar were not together. In fact, nobody can see him except the increasingly alarmed Erik. Eventually, the mechanic will seek non-traditional treatment, but he cannot shake off the antagonistic presence. As the underworld power struggle roughly invades Erik’s new life, Henry will reveal their secret connection. It will not be pretty.

Stereo is sort of a big twist movie, but the 800 pound shoe drops early in the third act, driving some bizarre dramatic dilemmas for Erik. It is fiendishly cleverly constructed by Erlenwein, who pulls off some brazen narrative sleight of hand right before our eyes. Yet, he is also patient enough to set the scene and establish his cast of sinister and straight characters. Erlenwein also gets a huge assist from Ngo The Chau’s carefully framed, visually hypnotic cinematography.

As Erik, Jürgen Vogel’s bald, beading head looks suitably intense through Ngo’s lens and he masterfully sells his wild ride of character development arc. Moritz Bleibtrau is more restrained as the ominous Henry, but he seems to relish the taunting and totally pulls the rug out from under the audience down the stretch. There are plenty of minor players orbiting them (Fabian Hinrichs as a young, not as dumb as he looks doctor scores considerable points in limited screen time), but it is the oppositional chemistry between Vogel and Bleibtrau that really makes the film tick.

It is hard to understand why a genre specialist like Magnet has not scooped up Stereo for distribution yet. It oozes noir style, while Erlenwein skillfully builds the tension organically, going from slow burn to fiery combustion. Highly recommended for fans of dark psychological thrillers, Stereo screens this Thursday (1/29) at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, as part of this year’s Berlin & Beyond.

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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sundance ’15: Z for Zachariah

Lets face it, the future surely won’t be utopian, like in Star Trek, and most likely won’t be dystopian as in 1984 (although some days you have to wonder). Chances are, it will just sort of be topian, as it is now. However, Craig Zobel puts his chips on a radioactive post-apocalyptic future in his adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s young adult novel Z for Zachariah (clip here), which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

One by one, Ann Burden’s family members left the safety of their self-contained valley looking for survivor, eventually leaving her with only the family dog for company. One day, Loomis, a scientist in a heavy radiation suit staggers into the sheltered ecosystem. However, just when he thinks he has found an unspoiled Eden, Loomis contaminates himself in a stream fed from an outside source. With the help of his meds, Burden slowly nurses him back to health. He appears to be the companion she has long prayed for, but his scientific materialism is somewhat at odds with her rugged Christian faith.

Nevertheless, mutual attraction steadily percolates between them, until it is interrupted by the arrival of another stranger. On paper, Caleb the former coalminer would be a better match for Burden because of their shared values, but she is surprisingly frustrated by Loomis’s passive reaction to his potential rival. At least an additional set of hands can help build Loomis’s proposed hydroelectric generator, but then what?

Perversely, screenwriter Nissar Modi removes everything that was distinctive and challenging about the novel written by the Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of NIMH author Robert Leslie Conley under the O’Brien pseudonym, replacing it with a shopworn post-apocalyptic love triangle. Since Caleb was Modi’s creation, he could have at least made him more interesting. However, the watering down of the pitched struggle between Burden’s traditional values and Loomis’s scientific fanaticism is real loss. Frankly, one would have thought that was what attracted Compliance helmer Zobel to the project in the first place.

Still, Z is notable in one respect. It makes a major career statement for Margot Robbie, in a radical departure from her sexpot roles. It is a sensitive performance that presents Burden’s faith in a respectful manner, while also convincingly portraying the slow awakening of her long dormant sexuality. As usual, Chiwetel Ejiofor exudes wounded dignity as the new and improved Loomis, but evidently Chris Pine has seen as many apocalyptic films as the rest of us have, because he just looks bored out of his mind as Caleb.

If you are not going to preserve its themes, why pretend to adapt a book in the first place? Obviously, Modi’s adaptation is an attempt to cash in on the craze for dark futuristic YA projects, but the final product is guaranteed to disappoint fans of the novel (and the earlier 1984 BBC adaptation). As a point of comparison, J.C. Schroder’s Forever’s End has a similar feel, but is far more compelling. Only recommended for fans of Robbie who want to see her take her craft to the next level, Z for Zachariah screens again tonight (1/25) at the Sundance Mountain Resort, tomorrow (1/26), Thursday (1/29), and Saturday (1/31) in Park City, and Friday (1/30) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Sundance ’15: It Follows

Finally, the abstinence education movement has the horror film it has always needed. When a suburban neighborhood bombshell finally sleeps with her newest boyfriend, she would have been much more fortunate to be infected with an STD. Instead, she picks up some sort of supernatural stalker. She can run or she can try to pass it on to someone else, but there will be no hiding from the malevolent entity in David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Everyone on the block is devoted to Jay, including her less glamorous younger sister, her dweebish elementary school boyfriend Paul, and Greg, the high school bad boy living next door to him. Ill-advisedly, she has decided to take the plunge in the mysterious Hugh’s back seat. At first, it is all lovey dovey, but after a spot of chloroform, she wakes up bound to a wheelchair. At this point, he gives her the bad news, pointing it out, in the spectral flesh.

An uncanny entity will now stalk her. It can take the form of any person, but only she and the formerly infected can see it. It can only walk and it is suspensefully slow, but it never stops until it catches it prey. Hugh does not want that to happen to her, because it would then follow the chain back to him again. Naturally, Jay and her friends assume it was all part of some sick game devised by the jerk calling himself Hugh, but a few unsettling incidents soon convince them otherwise.

It Follows is a distinctly creepy film due to the nature of its bogeyman, who often impersonates close family members, just to be cruel. Other times it assumes some truly ghoulish guises, but it could be anyone purposefully walking towards Jay. Yet, Mitchell also takes the time to develop his characters and establish their relationships. Even the location of their respective houses is important to his narrative.

Granted, Adam Wingard’s The Guest went south about halfway through, but it and It Follows really herald Maika Monroe as the up-and-coming “It-Girl” of genre cinema. She does the scream queen stuff well enough, but also forges believable chemistry with her assorted costars. Keir Gilchrist (a bit of a cold fish in Dark Summer) is particularly effective in this respect as the torch-carrying Paul.

Okay, so their big third act plan does not make much sense, but the movie essentially acknowledges as much, by having it go spectacularly awry. You would hardly expect it from his previous film, The Myth of the American Sleepover, but Mitchell’s horror film mechanics are unfailingly sure-footed, while Mike Gioulakis’ massively moody cinematography and the eerie electronic soundtrack concocted by Richard Vreeland, a.k.a. Disasterpiece, give it the look and ambiance of vintage 1980 horror, in the best sense. Highly recommended for genre fans, It Follows screens again today (1/25) and Friday (1/30) in Park City and Saturday (1/31) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Slamdance ’15: Ratter

Surely, even the most tenacious cyber-stalker has to go to work or buy groceries sometime. Somehow, the predator tapping into Emma’s life always seems to be watching. That monomaniacal focus makes it is even more unsettling to watch her through his eyes throughout Branden Kramer’s Ratter, which screens during the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival.

Obviously, we cannot see the man who has maliciously hacked Emma’s computer and assorted internet accessing devices, but he did quite a job on her. Through their web-cameras, he (and we) see just about all of her presumptively private moments. She moved to New York following a rough patch back home, but in retrospect, that seems to be a mistake. When she finally realizes she has been hacked, she immediately suspects her still bitter ex, but he seems an unlikely culprit from our perspective. Unfortunately, the cyber harassment dangerously escalates when the unknown perpetrator starts sabotaging her relationships.

Ratter is the sort of film that will scare viewers into moving a good portion of their lives off-line. Like Bobby Boermans’ more conventionally thrillerish App, it makes retro flip phones look like an idea whose time has come again (they make and receive calls, period). Kramer takes some time to set the scene and flesh out Emma’s backstory, but he steadily builds the claustrophobic tension until you want to scream at her: “get out of the apartment.”

Given its online video look and the menacing vibe, Ratter feels somewhat akin to the original V/H/S anthology film. The most notable dissimilarity—and it’s a significant one—is Ratter’s lack of fun.

In a way, Ashley Benson (of Spring Breakers and Pretty Little Liars) is too realistic as Emma. We see her make dozens of mistakes and in just about every unflattering moment imaginable, yet she always seems like a generally decent, somewhat naïve kid. She also develops some surprisingly down-to-earth flirtatious chemistry with her prospective new boyfriend Michael, also nicely played by Matt McGorry. They certainly do not deserve what befalls them.

Kramer exercises commanding control of the film’s twisted mood and psychopathic concentration, while Benson withstands the relentlessly intimate focus remarkably well. However, even mildly sensitive viewers might be disturbed at where it ends up. Recommended for luddites looking for a bitterly black thriller, Ratter screens again this Wednesday (1/28) at Treasure Mountain Inn, as part of this year’s Slamdance.

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Slamdance ’15: Clinger

It would be a shame if Fern Petersen’s brief high school romance with Robert Klingher were to hold them both back. In Petersen’s case, she hopes to attend MIT, whereas Klingher needs to move onto the next spiritual plane. Yes, he is dead and not loving it. It is also rather awkward for her too in Michael Steves’ Clinger (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival.

When Klingher first asks out Petersen, it looks like they have the makings of a cute couple. Unfortunately, Klingher doesn’t know when to crank it down and go with the flow. Exhausted by his over-eager attention, Petersen has resolved to break-up with him, but a mishap with his latest guillotine-like Rube Goldberg love contraption renders the question tragically moot—or so she assumes.

It turns out the decapitated Klingher is not ready to move on. He also wants to keep dating. As her “love ghost,” only Petersen can see Klingher. However, it turns out her mysterious track coach was once an exorcist. She wants no part of Petersen’s paranormal business, but might have some reluctant advice to offer.

Granted, Clinger might not be blazingly original, but it deftly juggles multiple forms of gross-out humor while maintaining a good heart. Perhaps the film’s vibe is best illustrated by Petersen’s best friend, the Evangelical Moe Watkins, who is constantly inadvertently blurting out the raunchiest things in perfect innocence. Yet, the film never feels like an attack on her faith.

Maybe we’re all just getting older here in the Slamdance press corps, but Clinger’s principal cast-members all really do look like high school kids. As Petersen, Jennifer Laporte is appealingly down-to-earth and admirably comfortable with the film’s chaotic style of comedy. Vincent Martella’s Klingher is an appropriately nebbish sad sack, but Shonna Major really shines through as the deliriously sweet-tempered Watkins.

Clinger might not generate the most buzz in Park City, but if you just want some raucous genre laughs, it delivers. In fact, it is quite a welcome palate-cleanser amid all the hype and noise. Affectionately recommended for fans of horror and teen comedies, Clinger screens again this Thursday (1/29) at Treasure Mountain Inn, as part of this year’s Slamdance.

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Sundance ’15: The Amina Profile

Razan Ghazzawi is one of the few Syrian dissident bloggers who posts under her real name. A critic of censorship and an advocate of women’s rights and tolerance for gays and lesbians, Ghazzawi has been arrested twice by the Assad regime and still faces potential prosecution and constant interrogations. This film should have been about her, but it is not. Instead, it chronicles the short but provocative history of Amina Arraf, who was very much like Ghazzawi, except she was a hoax. It is a strange and ultimately unhelpful story told in Sophie Deraspe’s The Amina Profile, which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

What started as an online flirtation for French Canadian Sandra Bagaria soon turned very real, except it wasn’t. Perhaps she should have been more suspicious in the age of catfishing, but the ostensive Arraf always had good justifications for her elusiveness, such as the fact Skype is blocked in Syria. With Bagaria’s encouragement, the Arraf persona launched the Gay Girl in Damascus blog, which soon became a retweetable phenomenon. To their credit, the person behind the phony identity had a decent handle on the Syrian situation, but said individual (easily findable online) misjudged badly when they decided to have Arraf kidnapped.

Having been widely cited in credible media outlets, as well as The Guardian, news of Arraf’s abduction ignited an online firestorm of protest. However, as real deal Syrian dissident Rami Nakhla explains, it diverted attention from legitimate known prisoners of conscience, such as Ghazzawi. It also gave an opportunity for the pathologically anti-Israeli Electronic Intifada to do the Assad regime a favor by following the i.p. trail of the person behind the Gay Girl in Damascus.

Ironically, Profile does exactly what it decries, by concentrating almost entirely on the Arraf story, at the near total expense of Ghazzawi and other imprisoned Syrian activists. It would have made much more sense to divide the narrative between the very real perils facing Ghazzawi and the bizarre Arraf narrative unraveling concurrently. However, we have to deal with the film as it is, rather than how it might have been.

To an extent, Deraspe justifies Profile’s editorial strategy by following Bagaria’s long-term efforts to process the revelation. It is good to know that she was able to reach some measure of closure, but without the wider Syrian implications, her experience would not be so very different from that of Manti Te’o.

Anyone intrigued by Profile should definitely try to catch it while it makes the festival rounds, because it is hard to see it playing on PBS, given some of its early erotic imagery. Of course, HBO might be a possibility. It is never dull, thanks to Deraspe’s solid sense of pacing and the hot button issues it addresses, but one cannot help wishing she had widened her focus. For those who are fascinated by media hoaxes and feeding frenzies, The Amina Profile screens today (1/25) in Salt Lake and tomorrow (1/26), Thursday (1/29), and Friday (1/30) in Park City, during this year’s Sundance.

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NYJFF ’15: Natan

Bernard Natan (born Natan Tannenzaft) should have been the Louis B. Mayer of France and for a while he was. Unfortunately, a Jewish mogul helming the storied Pathé film studio was more than the French establishment could handle. With the help of a dubious “whistleblower” and an unfortunate secret in his past, the French media destroyed Natan’s reputation and largely erased him from the cinema history books. David Cairns & Paul Duane defend the groundbreaking producer from malicious slander and historical neglect in their expressionistic documentary Natan (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Since Natan lived in 1930s France and his doc was selected by the NYJFF, you can probably guess why he is not capable of defending himself. He did indeed perish in a German concentration camp, after the French authorities eagerly deported him, but there is far more to the story than that.

Natan was a Romanian Jew, who became a naturalized French citizen after honorably serving his adopted country in WWI. He had an instinctive affinity for motion pictures, scuffling his way from a projectionist and lab technician to a scrappy mini-magnate, who acquired the famous Pathé brand when Charles Pathé decided to liquidate rather than deal with the advent of sound. Unfortunately, while he was still a desperately poor immigrant, Natan was convicted of peddling dirty movies. Much will be made of this later, to the detriment of Natan’s historical standing.

Even though it is the last thing Natan would probably want, his docu-exoneration will make you despise the French. It will not do much for most viewers’ estimation of film historians either, particularly those that specialize in “stag films.” Frankly, as screenwriter, Cairns thoroughly persuades the audience to consider Natan a mid-Twentieth Century Job, who was done wrong by nearly all quarters.

Especially mind-blowing is the role of a rather unsavory figure named Robert Dirler, who wormed his way onto the Pathé board to undermine Natan, despite his criminal record and suspicious German connections. That last part gives one pause, does it not? To their credit, Cairns & Duane do not overplay the conspiracy card, but the shadowy Dirler clearly merits further research.

The film also uses various stylistic strategies that are likely to be divisive. Cairns & Duane often depict exaggerated re-enactments from Natan’s life, featuring the producer with a large papier-mâché head, largely modeled on National Socialist propaganda, including a famous exhibit in occupied Paris, prominently featuring Natan. It is somewhat distractingly surreal at times, but there is an underlying point to it. In fact, it makes Natan considerably more distinctive visually than most documentaries.

The eerily sensitive score by Irish Alt band Seti the First further distinguishes the production. Cairns & Duane also incorporate plenty of clips from Natan’s acknowledged classics, such as Marco de Gastyne’s La Merveilleuse Vie de Jeanne d’Arc, but aside from Serge Bromberg (admittedly quite the fitting expert commentator), the French cinema establishment is largely absent. It just makes them look all the worse. In a mere sixty-seven minutes, the film assembles a damnably convincing case that inspires rage and sorrow in equal measure. Anyone who takes cinema seriously as an artistic and commercial endeavor really should see it. Highly recommended, Natan screens twice this Wednesday (1/28) at the Walter Reade Theater (with How to Break Into Yiddish Vaudeville) as part of this year’s NYJFF.

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Sundance ’15: Seoul Searching

Suppose they threw a cultural camp and a 1980s teen comedy broke out instead. Evidently, it happened quite regularly. Not so surprisingly, the sponsoring Korean government was not too amused—hence the program for children of the Korean diaspora was eventually discontinued. However, the camp will have one big horny, heartfelt last hurrah in Benson Lee’s Seoul Searching (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Prepare to get your eighties on. They are the children of Korean immigrants in America, Germany, England, and Mexico, who have assimilated more completely than their parents. In many cases, they do not even speak Korean. They have been packed off to reconnect with their Korean heritage, but they are really just there to party. Grace Park, the New Jersey pastor’s daughter, has modeled her style on Madonna. Sid Park has adopted Sid Vicious as his idol. These two might be perfect for each other, but it will take them a while to overcome a really rough start.

S. Park will bunk with Sergio, the aspiring Latin lover, and the ever so German Klaus Lee. The latter is decidedly reserved, but he will come out of his shell a little when he helps American adoptee Kris Schultz track down her biological mother. Meanwhile, military academy cadet Mike Lee wages an open war with three kids who want to be the next Run DMC. Yet, the stern Mr. Kim only seems to want to bust Sid Park’s chops.

Searching is based on writer-director Lee’s fondly remembered 1980s summer at Korea’s cultural summer camp—and you can really feel the nostalgia. Honestly, if all the Clash, Go-Gos, Erasure, and Violent Femmes tunes do not bring the decade flooding back for you, you just weren’t around back then. In terms of tone, it is four parts John Hughes and one part American Pie, but the underlying themes of generational culture clashes and the need for roots gives it greater bittersweet substance.

The entire cast is ridiculously charismatic, even when selling the grossest make-out session ever and plenty of manipulative melodrama involving Schultz and her birth-mother. Frankly, it seems like Justin Chon and Jessika Van are way due to breakout as major stars (he was terrific in the short film Jin, but might be better known for the Twilight franchise, while she made a strong impression in indie fare like Bang, Bang). They really have great chemistry in their punked out, material girl Moonlighting-esque sequences. However, Korean actress Byul Kang sort of steals the third act out from under everyone as the taekwondo tomboy Sue-jin.

Even if you weren’t at the Korean government sponsored summer camps, Lee and his cast will make you fondly remember something from your teen years. He juggles at least a dozen well defined characters and two or three times as many mood shifts. Yet, he holds the overstuffed film together and makes it work quite well. Slightly naughty but wholly endearing, Seoul Searching is recommended rather highly for all kids of the 1980s when it screens again next Saturday (1/31) in Park City and Sunday (2/1) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Sundance ’15: Eden

An aspiring French garage DJ does not plan well for the future. That probably isn’t so shocking. Frankly, it is rather surprising just how long he can keep the party going. Nonetheless, when he crashes, he flames out hard in Maria Hansen-Løve’s Eden (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

In 1992, the garage scene was still fresh and new. At least that is how it sounded to Paul Vallée. While attending a rave in a decommissioned submarine, he has something of a musical epiphany, as his friends partake of more hedonistic indulgences. It is moment Hansen-Løve renders almost magically—and it will help compensate for most of Vallée’s horrendously irresponsible behavior that follows.

Together with his chum Stan, Vallée forms a DJ duo known as “Cheers” that will enjoy the curse of early success, but it pales in comparison to breakout fame achieved by their real life colleagues Daft Punk. Girl friends come and go, as Cheers evolves into a satellite radio gig and eventually a hand-to-mouth nightlife promotion business. Perversely, Vallée seems to do more drugs as the money gets scarcer, burning through his inheritance and thoroughly trying his mother’s patience.

The style of music is different, but if you have read one or two jazz biographies, you will immediately recognize the trajectory of the narrative. However, the details of the garage or “French Touch” scene are definitely legit, thanks to screenwriter Sven Hansen-Løve (the filmmaker’s brother), who based the film on his own DJ career (hopefully somewhat loosely).

There is no doubt Vallée’s self-absorbed narcissism gets old quickly. The special guest star presence of Greta Gerwig and Brady Corbet (as Vallée’s American ex and her yuppie husband) only further buttresses its nauseating hipsterness. Yet, Eden is so immersive, it simply pulls you into its world, making you feel it in a sensory, tactile way. Even if French electronic music is not your bag, you will get it during Eden.

As Vallée, Félix de Givry is a bit of a cold fish, who is often hard to read. At times, he comes across like a borderline sociopath, which is rather effective in the film’s overall dramatic context. Arguably, the successive women who take him on as a project really supply the film’s soul. In a performance of great power and fragility, Pauline Etienne acutely expresses the resentment and self-doubt of Louise, the one that got away, but somehow can’t make a clean break of it. Likewise, Iranian exile Golshifteh Farahani (a one-time performer in Tehran’s underground music scene) portrays Yasmin (perhaps Vallée’s last, best chance for a healthy relationship) with tremendous warmth and sensitivity. It is also something of a bold turn for her, considering how much of Eden the current Iranian regime would object to, starting with the decadent music.

Who knew French garage DJs could carry such an epic? Probably more years pass in Eden than Doctor Zhivago, but it is still very much an in-the-moment, experiential kind of film. It is sort of exhausting, but it is worth seeing for exactly that reason. Recommended to a surprising extent, Eden screens this coming Tuesday (1/27) and Wednesday (1/28) in Park City, during this year’s Sundance.

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Sundance ’15: Beach Flags (short)

They might be lifeguards, but their lives are nothing like Baywatch and Vida is not anything like Pam Anderson. For one thing, she happens to be an excellent lifeguard, but because her team is required to wear headscarves in international competitions, she can only participate in one event: her weakest. It is unnecessarily hard to be a young Iranian woman in Sarah Saidan’s terrific animated short film, Beach Flags (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Vida knows she deserves to represent Iran at the Australian meet, because she is the best on her squad, even when it comes to their only allowable event—a race across the beach to capture the flag. She outclasses everyone until the coach brings in the abnormally tall and fleet Sareh. Try as she might, Vida just cannot catch her. Understandably, she resents the newcomer, vibing her hard. However, when she inadvertently spies on Sareh’s home life, Vida’s perspective changes radically. It turns out it is even harder for Sareh to be a young woman in Iranian.

Beach Flags says volumes about the state of women’s rights in Iranian, beginning with the absurdity of the restrictions placed on the lifeguard squad, but shifting to the profoundly depressing circumstances faced by Sareh. It is a pivot Saidan makes with considerable grace. Yet, even though the film addresses pressing human rights issues, Beach Flags is really a lovely little coming-of-age tale that will leave viewers feeling good—which is quite a trick to pull off.

Saidan’s animation is not as richly detailed as a Studio Ghibli masterwork, but it has an appropriately Persian vibe that transports the audience to the two very different Irans inhabited by the rival team members. It is a powerful piece of storytelling that also happens to be rather timely. Highly recommended, Beach Flags screens again today (1/24) in Salt Lake and Monday (1/26) and next Saturday (1/31) in Park City as part of the Animation Spotlight shorts program at this year’s Sundance.

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Sundance ’15: White God

It is like a cross between the Incredible Journey and Willard/Ben franchises, but carrying the baggage of recent rise of Hungarian nationalism. The underdogs are truly underdogs, but they will have their day in Kornél Mundruczó’s allegorical fable, White God (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Much to everyone’s consternation, Lili and her faithful mutt Hagen must spend the summer with the father she barely knows. He is not crazy about it either, especially when a neighbor tips off the authorities to the noisy Hagen. To encourage purebreds and provide an ominous symbolic parallel, the authorities have levied a punitive tax on mixed mongrels, like the gentle Hagen.

Of course, Lili’s veritably deadbeat Daniel is not about to pay Hagen’s licensing fee, so he dumps him off by the side of the road. He is not the only one to get this idea. The confused Hagen soon falls in with a pack of newly wild mix-breeds, learning to evade the animal control thugs. Lili and Hagen try their best to find each other, but unfortunately, he falls into the hands of an underground dogfighting trainer, who hopes the mold Hagen into a contender through his savage conditioning.

When you get right down to it, Hagen’s story is more eventful a complete Noah Baumbach retrospective, but he meets his destiny when he is finally captured and sent to the pound. Rather than simply wait to be euthanized, Hagen will rise up like Spartacus and lead a massive dog revolt. In all honesty, this is what most people will be going to White God to see—and it is pretty spectacular.

Lest anyone fret, White God was filmed using American guidelines for animal handling. No animals were harmed during the process. Presumably, no humans were either, but it is harder to be so definitive on that point. Regardless, the canines are all eerily expressive, particularly Luke and Bodie, who play Hagen. Three years ago, everyone’s tail was wagging for Uggie in The Artist, but the Labrador-sharpei-hound brothers take animal performance to a higher level.

Cinematographer Marcell Rév captures the action from a remarkable dog’s eye level. His intimate perspective really helps anthropomorphize the canines. His wide angle shots also powerfully render the apocalyptic third act. Oh, the human beings, Zsófia Psotta and Sándor Zsótér are not bad either, but her acting-out drama with older school mates gets a bit tiresome.

The White God title is apparently a half-baked reference caste, creed, colonialism and everything else that imposes hierarchies on people, but even when the dog-pack is rampaging, the film never feels as clumsily didactic as that would suggest. Somehow, Mundruczó just flips the allegorical anarchy switch and we accept it. It is a pretty impressive feat of direction and animal handling. Indeed, Arpad Halasz and Teressa Miller (daughter of veteran handler Karl Lewis Miller, whose credits include Cujo and White Dog) are key collaborators in realizing Mundruczó’s vision. Hard to define but absolutely worth experiencing, White Dog screens again tomorrow (1/25) and next Saturday (1/31) in Park City, during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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NYJFF ’15: The Tugendhat House

Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building might be an exemplar of International style architecture, but its glass and steel basically are what they are. That is often the case with his American work, but the Villa Tugendhat in Brno is something else entirely. While it still reflects his modernist aesthetic, it also happens to a house that breathes and welcomes occupants. It is a surprisingly livable space, which is why it has been consistently repurposed by subsequent appropriating regimes. Dieter Reifarth chronicles the history of the home and its original [rightful] owners in The Tugendhat House (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.

Reifarth opens the documentary by opening up Tugendhat House, slowly panning through its restored rooms and open flowing spaces, as disembodied voices read the polarized reviews it originally garnered in the architectural press. The Tugendhats no longer reside here, thanks to the National Socialists and the Communists who followed them, but philosopher Ernst Tugendhat fondly remembers the years he lived there as a small boy. So does one Tugendhat sister, but the youngest was born while the family was in exile. However, the entire Tugendhat-Guggenhein-Hammer family takes an active interest in the restoration campaign, including one  who happens to be a refurbishment expert.

Although they lost many extended family members to the Holocaust, the Tugendhat nucleus managed to get out while the getting was good, resettling in Switzerland and later Venezuela. Given their sensibilities, it is rather remarkable the Tugendhat House survived the Nazi and Soviet occupations. While the Germans simply used it as another piece of prime real estate to dole out as they deemed fit, the Communist authorities fashioned it into a long-term children’s spinal clinic. Frankly, the Tugendhat form seems completely ill-suited to such a function, but former patients found the natural light quite cheerful. Decades later, the final divorce decree between the Czech and Slovak Republics was ironed out there, permanently fixing the building in the Czech collective memory.

T House is an unusually balanced fusion of architectural appreciation and sweeping history. If you don’t know Ludwig Mies van der Rohe from Ludwig von Mises you might find many passages of the film rather archi-geeky. Nevertheless, Reifarth really gives you a vivid sense of the villa as a distinctive space and place. He also doggedly follows the twists of the Tugendhat family story, as well as the wider cultural context of their increasingly iconic home.

After watching T House, the Villa Tugendhat will almost assuredly become viewers’ favorite Mies van der Rohe building, which may or may not be thunderous bragging rights given their respective interest in the art and practice of architecture, but that still means it is rather smart and effective as a work of documentary filmmaking. Of course, for those who are well versed in Mies van der Rohe and the International School, it is like catnip. Yet everyone should find some meaning in the tragedies and resiliency of the Tugendhats’ exile experience. Highly recommended for those fascinated by the art and history under discussion, The Tugendhat House screens this coming Wednesday (1/28) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of the 2015 NYJFF.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Sundance ’15: What Happened, Miss Simone?

If you ever heard Nina Simone live, you should have been on your best behavior, because she could vibe an inattentive audience member harder than Keith Jarrett. In all honesty, anyone not fully appreciating her classically trained piano chops and deep smoky vocals deserved a bit of shaming. A forceful presence on stage, Simone knew what she wanted and maintained high expectations—fact we should all respect. However, the tumult in her personal life also contributed to her uncompromising and sometimes self-sabotaging public persona. Through extensive archival recordings and interviews with her closest associates, Liz Garbus paints a complex portrait of the jazz and soul diva in What Happened, Miss Simone? (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

You could see Simone’s classical attack in the way she deconstructed and recombined standards into something entirely new and rhapsodic. Her great ambition was to play a classical recital at Carnegie Hall, but that path was not open to an African American child of the Jim Crow Yellow Dog Democrat South. She never really forgave America for that, even though she eventually played the hallowed hall as the folk and soul influenced jazz vocalist we remember so well.

Initially, she indeed had a lot of success with standards like “I Loves You Porgy” and “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and a strong manager in her husband, Andy Stroud. Unfortunately, their union took a sinister turn, with Stroud, the ex-cop, becoming increasingly violent as Simone became more politically radicalized. Although the late Stroud’s abuse is well documented in the film, he has a chance to speak for himself through never before seen footage shot for a prior unrealized documentary project. In fact, the film is remarkably balanced for a music doc, fully exploring Simone’s own abusive behavior to her daughter, executive producer Lisa Simone Kelly. It also suggests some of Simone’s late career scuffling was partly her own fault, as well as a function of her late diagnosed bipolar disorder. To Garbus’s credit, this is definitely not the stuff of hagiography.

Garbus and her producers tracked down a lot of never before heard interviews conducted for Stephen Cleary, the “co-author” of her memoir and an earlier aborted autobiography. However, the holy cats centerpiece of the film is the 1976 Montreux Concert (wherein Simone pretty much gives everyone what-for), which has been available in full on DVD since 2006. Still, Garbus gives more context to better understand the off-stage dynamics at play.

For music fans, some of the best sequences feature Al Schackman, her longtime guitarist and musical director, who survived a baptism of fire to become her close musical collaborator. That is what the spirit of jazz is all about. After watching Miss Simone, you will also probably find “My Baby Just Cares for Me” is stuck in your head, but that’s not a bad thing. Highly recommended for fans of jazz vocals, What Happened, Miss Simone screens again today (in an hour and a half) and next Friday (1/30) in Park City and tonight and next Saturday (1/31) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Sons of Liberty: From the Streets of Boston to 1776

It is always bad news for an oppressive government when the wealthy elites start making common cause with the drunken rabble. Such was the case at the Second Continental Congress. Bostonians Sam Adams and John Hancock had little in common, but they both loathed to pay British taxes. Together with their fellow Patriots, they changed history and ultimately founded our great nation. Their early skirmishes on the streets of Boston and the campaign to unify all thirteen colonies are dramatized in the History Channel’s three-night mini-series Sons of Liberty (promo here), which begins this Sunday.

Not surprisingly, Sam Adams was a terrible tax collector. When his leniency evolves into outright insurrection, Loyalist Governor Thomas Hutchinson calls for his head. For the sake of stability, the wealthy merchant John Hancock tries to play peacemaker, paying off Adams’ debts and convincing the future revolutionary leader to cool his rhetoric. However, Hutchinson soon radicalizes the moderate Hancock by clamping down on both his legitimate mercantile and smuggling operations (which were largely indistinguishable in duty-despising 1760s Massachusetts). Tensions build until blood is finally shed in 1770, concluding the first night with the Boston Massacre.

At this point Dr. Joseph Warren enters the story, not just to tend to the wounded, but also as a prominent patriot in his own right. Those who know their history will understand what lies in store for him, but at least he gets the mini’s only love scene with Margaret Kemble Gage, the New Jersey-born wife of the brutal new military governor, Gen. Thomas Gage. Their affair may or may not have been true, but there is enough historical speculation to justify its inclusion here.

Meanwhile, the reluctant Sam Adams accompanies Hancock and his brother to the First Continental Congress. Although it is not very productive from his standpoint, they meet two key allies, a lecherous old eccentric named Ben Franklin and the quietly commanding George Washington. Essentially, the second part of Sons sets the scene for Lexington and Concord, as well as the vote-counting at the Second Continental Congress, which will play out in the third climatic night.

By focusing on less celebrated Founding Fathers like Hancock and Warren, screenwriters Stephen David & David C. White help distinguish Sons from HBO’s John Adams and the old 1980s Barry Bostwick George Washington miniseries, its natural comparative titles. Frankly, the best part of Sons is the way it celebrates the idiosyncrasies and unruliness of the early Patriots. Was Franklin a bit of a hedonist? You bet—and a genius too. Clearly, they had to be wired slightly differently to challenge the mighty force of the British Empire, but they were also highly intelligent (both strategically and tactically), courageous to a fault, and indeed willing to sacrifice their lives, fortune, and sacred honor.

Ben Barnes is suitably intense either brooding or raging as the mercurial Sam Adams, whereas E.T.’s Henry Thomas is stuck playing the far less cool John Adams as a bit of a worrywart. Of course, nobody has more fun than Dean Norris, who gleefully captures Franklin’s sage insight and mischievous humor. Ryan Eggold also adds a nice bit of romantic dash as the good Dr. Warren. Yet, the biggest surprise is how well the historical Hancock holds up as a central figure and how convincingly Rafe Spall portrays the steady blossoming of his leadership and integrity.

As period productions go, Sons is okay, but not exactly sumptuously detailed. Nonetheless, Canadian director Kari Skogland keeps it moving along at a brisk trot. To their credit, she and the screenwriter tandem never water down the colonials’ complaints amount intrusive government and confiscatory taxation, making it rather timely for Twenty-First Century American viewers. Definitely recommended for those who enjoy historicals, especially those that come with a bit of ale-swigging, Sons of Liberty premieres this Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday evenings (1/25-1/27), on the History Channel.

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American Songbook at NJPAC: Osnes & Fontana do Duets

They are Broadway stars, but they have serious pop culture cred. Laura Osnes won a network reality show competition to land the leading role in the most recent Broadway revival of Grease. Santino Fontana gave voice to the prince in a little animated movie called Frozen. They also shared the stage together in the recent Broadway production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, so they are clearly comfortable performing together. Given their crossover appeal, they are quite the logical choice to kick off the second season of American Songbook at NJPAC this coming Wednesday on NJTV.

For Osnes and Fontana’s concert, everything comes in twos. Throughout their set, they pair one classic with one relatively contemporary thematically related Broadway duet. Not surprisingly, the newer material will be less familiar than the old standards, but those turn out to be some of the set’s best surprises. While they attack a pseudo-novelty number like Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do” with admirable gusto, an unheralded tune like the Off-Broadway ringer “First Date/Last Night” really sneaks up on the audience. They also maintain a sense of the piece’s theatricality in way that is appropriate to the cabaret-like nature of the concert.

Naturally, there are a few selections from Cinderella, including a lovely rendition of “Ten Minutes Ago.” It is odd to think of a Sondheim song as popular crossover selection, but with the Into the Woods movie now in theaters, many more viewers will now be familiar with “It Takes Two.” Frankly, it is a very Sondheim song with some really awkward initial lyrics, but they stick with it and land it like champs.

Arguably, there is something old school about Osnes and Fontana. They can patter and rib each other in between tunes, launching into the next number perfectly on cue. You have to wonder how many performers coming up could handle that kind of cabaret-revue format. They also introduce the musicians onscreen (rhythm section, guitar, and two strings), which seems like the obvious, classy thing to do, but might have easily been cut by an overly time sensitive producer.

Both vocalists are charismatic performers with strong, clear voices (particularly Osnes, who starred in Bonnie & Clyde, a somewhat short-lived original Broadway musical that deserved a better fate). Showcasing artists like them is simple concept, but it’s the sort of real deal arts programming more PBS affiliates should be producing. It is good for the talented, but maybe not quite household name artists, good for NJPAC, and good for the American Songbook. Recommended for fans of Broadway and popular standards, American Songbook at NJPAC: Osnes & Fontana premieres this Wednesday (1/28) on NJTV and later airs on WNET Thirteen on March 21st.

(Photos: Daniel Cardenas/NJTV)

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