J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Woman in Gold: Restituting a Plundered Klimt Masterpiece

Thanks to Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, art lovers around the world will instantly recognize Maria Altmann’s beloved aunt and her iconic choker necklace. After the annexation of Austria, Bloch-Bauer’s necklace found its way into the possession of Herman Goering’s wife, while her stunning portrait was plundered by Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery. For years, it was the cornerstone of their collection, but Altmann filed a restitution claim as the last surviving Bloch-Bauer heir that ultimately forced Austria to confront its National Socialist past. Altmann’s dramatic early years in Austria and her protracted legal battle are chronicled in Simon Curtis’s The Woman in Gold (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

The Bloch-Bauers were a wealthy, assimilated Jewish Austrian family with a reputation for supporting the arts. This was especially true of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Altmann’s childless aunt. The Bauer sisters had married the Bloch brothers, so the entire family lived together in their elegant Elisabethstrasse home during Adele’s lifetime. Sadly, Adele Bloch-Bauer died tragically prematurely from meningitis in 1925, but she would be spared the horrors that her family would face. She also made quite an impression on young Altmann, which is why her portrait meant more to the niece than its mere one hundred million dollar-plus estimated value.

For years, the Belvedere simply dubbed the painting “The Woman in Gold” to disguise its Jewish provenance, but the world knew it for what it was. Eventually, Austria announced a new restitution process, in hopes of improving its post-Waldheim image, but it was mostly just for show. Altmann and her initially reluctant lawyer Randol Schoenberg (grandson of the composer) make a good faith try to work within the Austrian legal framework, but soon find a more hospitable reception in the U.S. Federal court system. Whether or not Altmann even has standing to sue the Belvedere, an agency of a foreign government, becomes the crux of the litigation dramatized in the film.

Curtis and screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell nicely illuminate the various legal technicalities of the case without getting bogged down in excessive detail. Curtis also juggles the 1938 Austrian timeline with the more contemporary legal drama rather adroitly. He was particularly fortunate to find such a convincing younger analog for Dame Helen Mirren in Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany, who grew up listening to her German language speaking parents in their Canadian household.

Of course, Dame Helen dominates the film and she is terrific as usual. She projects Altmann’s regal bearing as well as her no-nonsense pragmatism. While Schoenberg’s character is somewhat underwritten in the first two acts, Ryan Reynolds capitalizes on some crucial humanizing moments down the stretch. He gives some bite to what might otherwise been a relatively milquetoast role.

On the other hand, Katie Holmes really has nothing interesting to do as Schoenberg’s wife, Pam—and never elevates the thankless part either. However, Jonathan Pryce absolutely kills it in his too brief scene as Chief Justice William Rehnquist, portraying the jurist as quite a witty and gracious gentleman, which is rather sporting of the film, considering he ruled against Altmann in his dissent.

With Gold, Curtis does justice to a fascinating story with far reaching political and cultural implications. He helms with a sensitive hand, while maintaining a healthy pace. Frankly, it represents a marked improvement over My Week with Marilyn, which always seemed to focus on the blandest actor in any given scene. That never happens in a Dame Helen film. Still, the documentary The Rape of Europa remains the most authoritative and comprehensive cinematic word on the disputed ownership of Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer and the systematic National Socialist looting of Jewish property in general (catch up with it now, if you haven’t already). Highly recommended (in its own right) for general audiences, Woman in Gold opens nationwide this Wednesday (4/1), including the venerable single-screen Paris Theatre in New York.

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Annie Lennox: Nostalgia Live (Including Three by Hoagey)

Recently, Annie Lennox, OBE took performers like Beyonce Knowles to task, making the obvious but inevitably controversial point: “twerking is not feminism . . . It’s not liberating. It’s not empowering. It’s a sexual thing that you’re doing on a stage.” It probably needed to be said. It is therefore not so shocking Ms. Lennox was a little conflicted when her cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” was requested for the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack, but she had to admit it fit the film like a glove, so to speak. Now millions of creepy fans are familiar with the unclassifiable R&B classic. On paper, it also stands out as the ringer in Nostalgia, Lennox’s new CD of American Songbook standards, but once again it just fits neatly into the program. Lennox performs nearly the entire album live at the Orpheum Theatre in a concert recorded for Great Performances, which premieres on PBS this Friday.

Lennox must be hip, because she obviously has an affinity for Hoagey Carmichael. The set opening “Memphis in June” is okay, but it is followed by a stirring “Georgia on My Mind,” given a Ray Charles-ish arrangement with strings. Wisely, she does not keep new fans waiting for “I Put a Spell on You.” Lennox is particularly attuned to the song’s eerie subtext, which is why it works so well over the film’s opening credits. (You now have an excuse to watch the first three and a half minutes when the film comes on cable.)

For jazz fans, the arrangement of “I Cover the Waterfront” provides some of the tastiest moments, including an evocative solo trumpet introduction. It is a great tune from the strangely under-recognized Johnny Green, still probably best known for “Body and Soul.”

Lennox also pays tribute Billie Holiday, which is about as jazz as you can get. However, she also demonstrates the pitfalls of covering “Strange Fruit.” You have to give her credit for trying, but it is a profoundly unforgiving song that only really seems to work with the sparsest of arrangements. Indeed, the string section is far too prominent here and having a back-up vocalist echoing Lennox is bizarrely counter-productive. You really have to lay it all out there in nakedly revealing way to do “Strange Fruit” justice, which is why only a select handful, such as Holiday and Nina Simone, have been able to successfully integrate it into their regular sets.

Happily, “God Bless the Child” is a different matter entirely. Lennox performs it in a gospel bag, giving the lyrics a surprisingly sassy interpretation. It is a bit of a departure from tradition, but it sounds great, in a swinging kind of way. “September in the Rain” also has a pleasant jazz-with-strings vibe, featuring some nice piano seasoning. Lennox also nails the aching romanticism of “The Nearness of You,” another Carmichael tune that never goes out of style.

Fittingly, Lennox saves the best (and her third wardrobe change) for the final Nostalgia song, the Ellington standard, “Mood Indigo,” which features a slightly reggae-ish vibe, a second lining brass combo, and some old school New Orleans plunger mute work. Lennox really embraces the bluesiness of the lyrics and brings it all home.

Of course, you do not survive in show business as long as Lennox has without giving fans what they want, so as an encore she accompanies herself on piano for solo renditions of “Here Comes the Rain” and “Why.” Both are shrewd selections well suited to the stripped down performance (she probably should have approached “Strange Fruit” in a similar manner, but it is hard to blame her for seeking a bit of cover for that song).

It is cool to see PBS nationally following the lead of NJTV and WNET Thirteen with their American Songbook programming. Lennox’s concert is one of the best yet. She has a good feeling for the tunes and she is still a very charismatic performer. Recommended for fans of Lennox and the American Songbook, Nostalgia Live airs on most PBS outlets this Friday (4/3), as part of the current season of Great Performances.

(Photos: Robert Sebree)

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That Guy Dick Miller: Walter Paisley Speaks

To hear Dick Miller tell the tale, had the upholstery school offered night classes the world might have been denied some of cinema history’s finest moments. Fortunately, they started bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the early a.m., but the acting school next door was more accommodating. This is the creation legend of cult actor Dick Miller, the man who ate the flowers in Little Shop of Horrors, got run over by a snowplow in Gremlins, sold Schwarzenegger a shotgun in Terminator, and tried to explain the plot of The Terror to Jack Nicholson. You might not know his name, but whenever he pops up a movie, it is a sure sign of awesomeness to follow. The Bronx-born character actor gets his overdue ovation in Elijah Drenner’s That Guy Dick Miller (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Anthology Film Archives, in conjunction with their mini Miller retrospective.

Miller’s first big break came in Roger Corman’s Apache Woman, where he found himself playing both a cowboy and a native character. Thus began a long association that would include classics like Little Shop and the deliciously astute beatnik satire Bucket of Blood. That film would launch his Walter Paisley alter ego, who would periodically re-appear in considerably different incarnations in films helmed by Corman and his protégés. Arguably, Miller is even more beloved by Corman alumnus like James Cameron, Allan Arkush, Jonathan Kaplan, and particularly Joe Dante, than the dean of indie genre filmmaking himself.

It is pretty clear right from the start, with Miller, what you see is what you get. He is a tough talking industry survivor, but has an appealingly goofy sense of humor and stills enjoys bantering with his wife Lainie. Drenner nicely brings out a sense of their personalities and the dynamics of their still-going-strong relationship in a number of relaxed interview segments.

He also scores revealing sit-downs with Miller’s brothers, Roger and Julie Corman, and a number of their old Corman machine colleagues, including Little Shop co-star Jonathan Haze. However, one person comes out of That Guy not looking so hot. That would be Quentin Tarantino, who cut Miller’s scene from Pulp Fiction (inadvertently inspiring Agnieszka Kurant’s short film The Cutaways, which also screens at AFA with Bucket).

That Guy is just a ton of fun. The clips alone deliver a wildly eccentric nostalgia trip. However, there is something rather inspiring about Miller’s resiliency and his generally positive attitude. This is a film that needed to happen, so hats off to Drenner for fully getting it. He maintains a brisk pace and obviously shares the audience’s affection for the films under discussion. With Lainie Miller and Julie Corman on board as co-executive producers, you can have confidence it will all be done right. Hugely entertaining and even somewhat “feel-good,” That Guy Dick Miller is highly recommended (along with the entire Dick Miller tribute series) when it opens this Friday (4/3) in New York, at Anthology Film Archives.

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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ned Rifle: The Grim Family Endures

In 1998, people still talked about independent filmmaking as a movement, while keeping a straight face. You could also get away with characters named “Henry Fool” and “Simon Grim” without being dismissed for clumsy pretension. It was therefore the perfect time to release Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool, which remains his biggest hit to date. The dramedic fable hardly seemed to lend itself to a sequel treatment, yet Hartley delivered Fay Grim anyway. The Grim family is now a full-fledged franchise, with Hartley’s third installment, Ned Rifle (trailer here) opening this Wednesday in New York.

If you remember the first Fool, but skipped the second Grim, you are not alone. Apparently, at the end of her eponymous film, Fay Grim was unjustly convicted of terrorism and her son, Ned Rifle as he is now known, went into witness relocation. Needless to say, this fine state of affairs is all the fault of her husband, Rifle’s father, the jerkweed literary poseur and degenerate drunkard Henry Fool. After seven years, Rifle is finally allowed to see his mother. Aging out of witness protection, he will soon leave Rev. Daniel Gardner’s family to set out on his own. His plan is simple. Kill Henry Fool for ruining his mother’s life.

This would seem run somewhat counter to the Christian faith Rifle adopted under Rev. Gardner’s tutelage, but sometimes a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. To find Fool, Rifle will drop in on his uncle, Nobel Prize winning poet Simon Grim. That is how he crosses paths with Susan Weber, a graduate student sort of stalking Grim. However, as Weber attaches herself to Rifle, it becomes clear she has her own mysterious reasons for wanting to track down Fool.

Despite Rifle’s rather problematic mission, Hartley treats his Evangelical faith rather respectfully. It is very clear he and Rev. Gardner are flawed, but we are supposed to consider them basically good people nonetheless. Fool on the other hand, remains an intentionally Mephistolean figure, as well as an annoying blowhard. Again, there is something hugely compelling about Simon Grim’s idiosyncratically humanistic perspective, but Hartley shortchanges him on screen time this go round.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to take one’s eyes off James Urbaniak when he is on screen. He continues to deepen Grim’s cynical but forgiving everyman persona. Martin Donovan is suitably earnest as Rev. Gardner, while Thomas Jay Ryan continues to be wildly obnoxious and somewhat menacing as Fool. Parker Posey makes the most of her limited scenes, playing Fay Grim like a jailhouse Norma Desmond. However, Aiken (who has played Rifle since he was a mere lad of seven years) grows into the neurotic lead role quite nicely. He also develops some appealingly off-kilter chemistry with series newcomer Aubrey Plaza, who manages to be simultaneously awkward and sultry as Weber.

The problem with the misconceived war-on-terror middle film is that the Grim family is now stuck with a lot of clunky mythology. Hartley does his best to minimize it, reaching back to a scandal furtively referenced in the first film for the film’s big shocking reveal. It all works better than you might expect, even though the characters all seem slightly embarrassed by their continuing longevity. After all, Henry Fool was the sort of you want to seal into a climate controlled vault, lest it be contaminated by a stray ironic remark from outside its ecosystem.

Although billed as the final chapter, if there is a fourth film, it has to focus on Urbaniak again and be called Simon Grim. Of course, we have to deal with what we have before us—Ned Rifle, which manages to get into your head thanks to some eccentric but forceful performances and Hartley’s soothing electric soundtrack. Recommended for fans of Hartley and Plaza, Ned Rifle opens this Wednesday (4/1) at the IFC Center, in New York.

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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Korean Movie Night: Guardian

As a former firefighter, Jeon-mo was briefly famous for saving a group of children. Even though he now runs a florist shop, he still likes to think of himself as one of the good guys. However, when his daughter is abducted, her captor’s ominous demands will push him to his breaking point and fundamental shake his comfortable self-image. Instead of ransom, Jeon-mo is instructed to kidnap another child to exchange for her in Yoo Won-sang’s Guardian (trailer here), which screens this Tuesday as part of the free Korean Movie Night series at New York’s Asia Society.

Jeon-mo and his wife are generally happy managing their shop and running a singing telegram business on the side. He dotes on his bratty young son and frets over his older sister as she approaches middle school years. Initially, a strange caller claims to have snatched their son, but it turns out the cruel game-player actually has their daughter. After stringing Jeon-mo along on a ransom drop that never happens, the kidnapper final reveals his real demand. Jeon-mo is to take a very specific little boy who will be at an appointed place at a certain time and wait to swap him for his daughter.

Given no choice by the kidnapper, Jeon-mo is forced to take the frightened boy to his home for the night. He was already feeling profoundly guilty, but matters get even more complicated when his son recognizes the boy as one of his classmates. However, Yoo has an even more sinister twist in store for viewers.

Kidnapping thrillers tend be rather murky affairs, but Guardian takes its long dark night of the soul to new levels of blackness. Characters in the film do some truly awful things, but it is difficult to pass judgement, given their circumstances. Perhaps most disturbing is what happens when they try to do the right thing. Still, Yoo does not leave the audience completely bereft of consolation, but he hardly ties the film up a neat sentimental bow.

It is pretty unsettling to watch Jeon-mo fall from a position of domestic tranquility and rectitude to utter desperation and self-loathing, but Kim Su-hyeon makes every step believable and painfully compelling. Likewise, Lee Joon-hyeok is quietly forceful as another player caught up in the game. However, they genuinely terrified-looking performances from Yoo Hae-jeong and No Kang-min as the young respective victims are what will really disturb viewers.

Guardian is a tough film with a decidedly dim view of human nature, but it reflects an uncompromising aesthetic vision from Yoo in his impressive feature directorial debut. He grabs the viewers by the labels and drags the through the film at breakneck speed. Still, his decision to hint at but never fully explain the kidnapper’s motive is a mistake. After what he puts us through, he owes us some answers. Nevertheless, those who can digest a thriller marinated in bile will be impressed with his chops. Recommended for emotionally strong fans of Korean cinema, Guardian screens (for free) at the New York Asia Society this Tuesday (3/31), co-presented by the Korean Cultural Service.

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Friday, March 27, 2015

EUFF ’15: In the Crosswind

It was one of the worst cases of mass murder and ethnic cleansing in recorded history, yet the world never demanded the guilty be held to account. At least 590,000 Estonians, Lithuanians, and Latvians met a premature death as a result of the Soviet WWII era occupation of the Baltics and the resulting mass deportations to Siberia. While many would prefer to ignore the Communist crimes against humanity for ideological reasons, the testimony of survivors like Erna Nagel were an inconvenient indictment of the socialist system. To commemorate the victims, Martti Helde has adapted Nagel’s Siberian diary (written in the form of letters to her beloved husband Heldur) as the extraordinary cinematic hybrid In the Crosswind (trailer here), which screens during the 18th Annual European Union Film Festival in Chicago.

Nagel’s domestic life with Heldur and their six-year-old daughter Eliide was so blissful, it blinded her to the mounting Soviet danger. Tragically, when the Red Army arrives, Heldur Nagel is one of the first to be rounded up, since he is a member of the Estonian Defense League. He and his colleagues will be sent directly to a gulag, where they will be tortured for months and then executed without trial. Erna and Eliide will be sent to a work camp in Siberia, where Estonian women are forced to perform slave labor. Food rations are meager and only given to adults who meet their quotas. Estonian children like Eliide get nothing (so much for “each according to his need”). Having already contracted dysentery in the over-crowded cattle car that took them east, Eliide will slowly expire from disease and starvation, while Nagel is helpless to comfort her.

Nagel’s own words will tell her story through Laura Peterson’s sensitive voiceovers, but during her period of Siberian exile, they are accompanied by a series of thirteen black-and-white frozen tableaux, in which Helde suspends time for his cast, amid their snarls and cowering. Realized in excruciating detail, cinematographer Erik Pőllumaa slowly surveys each living picture, often revealing greater horrors as his perspective changes. These are not freeze frames, because the wind and elements, as well as ambient noise and background chatter waft through Helde’s carefully composed images. It is a bold aesthetic strategy, but Crosswind cannot be called non-narrative filmmaking, because Nagel’s entire life unfolds through the narration.

While Nagel’s before and after scenes in Estonia are more conventionally live action in their execution, the tableau vivants constitute the guts of the film. Eerily effective, they preclude any possible melodramatic excesses, distilling the essence of the terror and dehumanization of the Communist prison camps and collectives. As Nagel, Peterson does more than hold her poses. Her deeply expressive face speaks volumes and her voiceovers reach into the soul.

There are not a lot of precedents for Crosswind. In some ways, its vibe is somewhat akin to that of German’s Hard to be a God or Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross, but Helde’s film hits viewers on a deeper, more primal level. It is also more urgently topical, given Russian imperialist expansionism in Georgia and Ukraine. This is an exceptional work of cinematic craftsmanship that is viscerally chilling and hauntingly arresting. Very highly recommended, In the Crosswind screens this Sunday (3/29) and Monday (3/30) at the Siskel Film Center, as part of this year’s Chicago edition of the EUFF.

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New Voices in Black Cinema ’15: David’s Reverie (short)

Dental issues are an occupational hazard for trumpeters. That’s why Louis Armstrong always recommended they develop a singing voice—to save on the chops. Unfortunately, David Johnson has more than his share of health concerns. Just when he starts booking gigs as a bandleader, his resurgent epilepsy threatens to permanently end his career in Neil Creque Williams’ short film David’s Reverie (trailer here), which screens as part of the shorts program at BAM’s 2015 New Voices in Black Cinema.

During the first big club date Johnson books for his band, he collapses on stage. He thought his childhood surgery was supposed to prevent such seizures, but apparently it was not as successful as he hoped. Of course, the attending physician prescribes some medication, but Johnson fears the side effects that dulled his spectacular technique in the past. How much can he risk for the music—and will it be worth it?

Clocking in at about twenty minutes, Reverie is a real jazz drama rather than a narrative that uses jazz trappings for seasoning. Johnson’s arguments with his father about the relative importance of technique versus “feeling” really cuts to the core of jazz. Johnson has tons of Marsalis school chops, but he has yet to find his uniquely expressive voice. Williams has a strong, holistic understanding of the issues and challenges surrounding the music. You have to wonder if he is somehow related to Neal (with an “a”) Creque, the soul jazz organist and keyboard player. Regardless, it is always a good sign when a film has a jazz consultant (Supa Lowery Brothers in this case).

Brandon Fobbs (a former regular on The Wire) is terrific as Johnson. He has the sharp, Wynton-esque “Young Lions” look down cold, but also connects on a deeper level, expressing Johnson’s insecurities and resentments. His scenes with Mark E. Ridley as his musician father and Channing Godfrey Peoples as the band’s saxophonist are as good as anything you’ll see in any award-trolling feature.

Reverie will resonate for anyone who knows someone struggling to make it on the jazz scene. It is a very human and humane film that once again reminds us life is not fair. Highly recommended, David’s Reverie screens this coming Sunday (3/29) at BAM, as part of the New Voices in Black Cinema short film program.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Wolf at the Door: a Kidnapping in Rio

In most violent criminal cases, the cops automatically suspect relatives or someone close to the family. The kidnapper of six-year-old Clara certainly qualifies as the latter. You could say she has a relationship with both the mother and the father. What starts out as a mystery becomes a stark inquiry into motivation, so do not expect any bossa nova in Fernando Coimbra’s uncompromisingly grim and gritty A Wolf at the Door (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

On this fateful afternoon, poor Clara is picked up from school, but not by her mother, Sylvia, who has good reason to panic. Since she and her husband Bernardo have little money, ransom seems unlikely, so they immediately turn to the police. Det. Delgado is aloof, but he has some choice comments for the teachers who blithely lets Clara walk away with her abductor. Those lines provide the only humor, dark as it is, throughout Coimbra’s relentlessly dour narrative.

Suspicion soon falls on Rosa, Bernardo’s mistress, but she manages to talk her way through Delgado’s first interrogation. However, when we learn she knowingly cultivated an ostensive friendship with Sylvia, her presumptive rival, it is safe to assume something is up with her.

Although the first act is relatively procedural-ish, Coimbra quickly lays all his cards on the table, through a series of flashbacks and time-shifts. We get the facts quickly enough, but the film wants us to agonize over questions of motive and madness. While we can admire the integrity of Coimbra’s approach, most well-adjusted viewers will resent the way he forces the audience to wallow in his characters’ existential wretchedness.

Let’s face it, this film is not much fun. Granted, the performances are powerfully effective, but in a scrupulously realistic way. Obviously, there is no escapism in Wolf, nor is there any stylistic devices to distance viewers from the angst and bile on-screen. It is like watching a disturbingly intimate and exploitative documentary.

Nevertheless, the vaguely nauseous dread Wolf inspires is a testament to its small ensemble. Milhem Cortaz is particularly menacing as Bernardo, the low rent Lothario. Juliano Cazarré is also shrewdly understated as Delgado, while Leandra Leal nurtures Rosa’s corrosive craziness quite believably.


It is easy to resent Wolf for rubbing our noses in its inhumanity, but it must be conceded Coimbra plays a masterfully manipulative game of show-and-tell every step of the way. Unfortunately, it rather belabors the same naturalistic and deterministic notes over and over. Recommended for fans of Latin American miserablism, A Wolf at the Door opens tomorrow (3/27) in New York, at the Village East.

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New Voices in Black Cinema ’15: King of Guangzhou (short)

China’s Hukou household registry and rigid residency permit system has turned native born Chinese into illegal economic immigrants within their own country. At least they do not necessarily stand out. Such is not the case for Adede, a Nigerian overstaying his work visa to build a family with his pregnant wife. His desperation makes him ripe for exploitation in Quester Hannah’s short film King of Guangzhou, which screens during the 2015 New Voices in Black Cinema at the BAM Rose Cinemas.

Adede was legal for a considerable time, having duly applied for and received visa extensions. Those days are over. The Guangzhou authorities have launched a get-tough campaign on immigration, routinely denying extensions and aggressively deporting undocumented workers. Unfortunately, it is hard to make the do-the-jobs-Chinese-just-won’t-do argument, when there are scores of rural migrant workers eager for work in the big cities.

However, Adede also has very personal reasons for staying on. He has married Meiling and they have a child on the way. Despite his difficult circumstances, he insists they stay in China, because that is “where the future is.” Maddeningly, he will make some terribly rash decisions in hopes of securing new papers.

It is quite impressive Hannah produced King as a student film pursuant to his studies at NYU, Tisch Asia School of the Arts. After all, this is location shoot in Guangzhou, which has to be tricky under the best of circumstances and even more so when the film addresses a somewhat sensitive topic like immigration. Factoring in the dialogue in multiple languages, King just completely puts to shame the twee indie navel gazers that seem to get the lion’s share of buzz at major festivals (but not here).

There is definitely a street level immediacy to King, but its real power is in its depiction of the central relationship. As Adede and Meiling, Uchenna Onyia and Karen Bee Lin Tan, look and feel like a genuine couple. Their chemistry together is initially quite touching and ultimately rather devastating.

King presents a gritty, unvarnished look at contemporary life in China for the marginalized and dispossessed, while also offering some fine performances. Conceivably, it could be programmed by African American and Asian festivals, as well general interest fests, so it could turn up any number of places, but it is well worth seeing regardless of the venue. Highly recommended, King of Guangzhou screens tomorrow (3/27) with An American Ascent, as part of this year’s New Voices in Black Cinema, at BAM.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

NYTFF ’15: Consequences

One problem with off-the-books building projects is they make it dashed difficult to come clean when trouble goes down. The same is doubly true of secret affairs. A hot shot real estate developer, his fiancée, and his somewhat estranged best friend will learn these truths first hand over the course of a long fateful night of the soul in Ozan Açiktan’s Consequences (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New York Turkish Film Festival.

Cenk was once deeply involved with Ece, but he hasn’t seen her since his stints in rehab and trying to find himself in America. He thought he could handle seeing her again, but evidently not. She is now engaged to his old pal Faruk, who is putting up the architectural designer in a building he is illegally renovating in the gentrifying neighborhood of Karaköy. After an awkward meeting at Faruk’s party, Cenk beats a hasty retreat, but Ece soon follows. It does not take long for things to get hot and heavy, before they are inconveniently interrupted by a pair of intruders, who turn out to be two of Faruk’s undocumented laborers. One thing leads to another, resulting in the older man tumbling down the stairs and cracking his head.

To protect Ece, Cenk sends her off into the night, facing Faruk by himself. The developer and his lawyer Merve quickly take charge of the situation, hoping to minimize everyone’s exposure. It seems Faruk does not have the required permits or even a clear title to the property. Merve also smells something fishy about Cenk’s story, but she doesn’t have much time to worry about it. Unfortunately, the situation escalates precipitously when the man’s companion returns with about a dozen of his belligerent colleagues.

Açiktan and his co-writers, Cem Akas and Faruk Ozerton, do a nice job keeping one darned thing happening after another. Reportedly, the noir thriller is under-represented in Turkish cinema, especially those that are sexually charged to any extent, but they have crafted a distinctly stylish one. It is also rather intriguing to speculate about its beyond-the-screen meaning in an increasingly Islamist and less secular Turkey. On one hand, faithlessness holds potentially dire consequences, so to speak, for the characters. Yet, we sort of get the sense the film regrets Cenk and Ece were not able to get more sinning in before the situation started spiraling out of control. The film also resists class conscious interpretations, depicting the outraged workers in unflattering, thuggish terms.

Ilker Kaleli and Nehir Erdoğan are all kinds of angsty as Cenk and Ece, respectively, but Tardu Flordun really steals the show as the roguish Faruk. He might be insufferably arrogant and a corrupting influence on everyone around him, but it is hard to root against such a colorful figure. Likewise, Esra Bezen Bilgin matches him step for step as the shrewd and cynical Merve. It is nice to see a Turkish film that features a woman as its smartest character, by far.

Ahmet Sesigürgil’s noir cinematography looks terrific and Açiktan perfectly captures the sketchy urban after hours vibe. Everything about this film screams that it will end badly, but it is still entertaining watching matters plummet from bad to worse. Recommended for fans of assignations-gone-wrong thrillers in the Fatal Attraction tradition, Consequences screens this Saturday (3/28) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NY Turkish Film Festival.

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3 Holes and a Smoking Gun: The Script that Dreams are Made of

Can there be a less auspicious start to a film than a trip on the 7 Train? Yet, in this case it is rather apt. Like the desperate screenwriter character making his way into the City, the film longs for Manhattan prestige, but is stuck out in the outer boroughs. One script to die for might just change everything in Hilarion Banks’ Three Holes and a Smoking Gun (trailer here), which opens this Friday in the Los Angeles it so bitterly resents.

Bobby Blue Day was once a Hollywood scribe who worked with the Spielberg-esque Stephen Worthy, but now he is teaching a screenwriting night class in New York. He is paying an unexpected early morning visit to John F. Kennedy Ariamehr, his formerly least promising student, who just turned in a perfect screenplay. Ariamehr has just spent the night with Sailor Stewart (seriously dude, what is up with these names?) a fellow student who was recently involved with Day. Fortunately, she is off to an audition, so Day and Ariamehr can get all thrillery about his screenplay. Day might just kill to get his name on that screenplay, but if he does, he won’t be the first.

As we learn from a long, credibility challenged flashback, Ariamehr already lured the true screenwriter, one Winston Mimsby (he’s British) to his death. In fact, it was a rather prolonged death by poisoning. Frankly, it is hard to believe the guileless Mimsby would write a script called Hijack, but not only did he do so, he cranked it out on an old school Remington. Therefore, Ariamehr must rush out into the night on a hard target search for his own vintage 1940s typewriter. At least, it provides us with the film’s best scene: a slightly surreal encounter in Joey the Junkman’s antique notions shop. Unfortunately, it is followed by a would-be mugging scene that perversely neither Ariamehr nor his hemophiliac assailant want to walk away from.

Once known as 3 Holes, 2 Brads, and a Smoking Gun, the film’s title has wisely been shortened. Are the two Brads like the two Jakes? Actually, they are both Brad Bradley, a nemesis from Day’s Hollywood years met in yet another flashback. The three holes are probably metaphorical, but the smoking gun is readily identifiable.

Regardless, 3 Holes et al is intended to be a screenwriter’s riff on Ira Levin-Sidney Lumet’s Deathtrap, but it is way too overloaded with red herrings and Pacino quotes. The film’s overwhelming MVP by far is Joaquim de Almeida (Desperado, 24) whose too brief appearance as Joey the Junkman enlivens the film and hints at tantalizing craziness that is sadly never realized. On the other hand, cult actor Richard Edson (Joey Breaker) is largely wasted as a third act copper.

Man, let’s hope nobody was killed over this screenplay. James Wilder labors like a rented mule as Day, but he still can’t make it work (he’s also an architect and a juggler, so we applaud his versatility). It was obviously a labor of love, but either the severe budget constraints forced some unduly harsh choices or the creative team lost their perspective along the way. Now available on most VOD platforms, 3 Holes and a Smoking Gun opens this Friday (3/27) at the Laemmle Music Hall 3.

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New Voices in Black Cinema ’15: An American Ascent

Whether you call it Mount McKinley or Denali, it still lacks the sort of mystique that surrounds Everest or K2, despite its status as the highest point in North America. However, real mountaineers respect anyone who makes a credible attempt at it. Unlike other storied peaks, Denali campaigns cannot rely on Sherpas to do all the heavy lifting. Those attacking it have to earn every step they take. It is therefore a fitting site for the expedition documented in Andrew Adkins & George Potter’s An American Ascent (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New Voices in Black Cinema at the BAM Rose Cinemas.

On the 100th anniversary of Mount McKinley’s first summiting (we will use both names interchangeably out of respect for our friends in Ohio and Alaska), a party of nine African American climbers set out to repeat the feat. Aside from the obvious lure of adventure and Denali’s general being there, they also wanted to make a statement. There were frustrated many outdoors sporting and recreational activities were considered “white” things to do. In the long run, many fear support for environmental advocacy will waiver in the African American community, but in the short run, they hope to provide an example for younger, urban school children to consider national parks like Denali part of their heritage as well.

There is a bit of soap-boxing on these issues, but the daily drama of their campaign properly dominates the film. Adkins & Potter nicely establish the personalities of the individual climbers and capture some intense moments. Anyone who has seen any of the recent mountaineering docs (and there have been some good ones) knows you should not consider summiting the determination of success or failure. Nonetheless, there is a fair degree of suspense surrounding this question in Ascent.

Ascent combines a compelling story with good intentions, but it is bizarrely shy when it comes to capitalizing on the stunning vistas visible from Denali. Obviously, such shots look great on-screen, but they also heighten our sense of place. In this respect, Meru, K2, Beyond the Edge, and The Summit are all superior films.

Still, Ascent has its considerable merits, including taking the time to acknowledge trail-blazing African American alpinist Charles Crenchaw. It is solid mountaineering doc, but a bit on the short side at just under seventy minutes, so it is proceeded by the notable short film, King of Guangzhou about a Nigerian migrant worker trying to extend his stay in China. Recommended for outdoors sporting enthusiasts, An American Ascent screens this Friday (3/27) at BAM, as part of this year’s New Voices in Black Cinema.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Cupcakes: Israel the Inclusive

The UniverSong competition is like Pop Idol, but more nationalistic. Israel has never placed highly, despite their assiduous but counterproductive efforts. However, this year they might have an outside chance when six Tel Aviv neighborhood friends are unexpectedly tapped to represent their country—provided they stay true to their own voices in Eytan Fox’s Cupcakes (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Based on the Eurovision Song Contest (which Israel has participated in since 1973), UniverSong is a big deal to for Anat, the bakery owner (care to speculate as to what her specialty might be?). Unfortunately, her husband’s sudden decision to abscond to Thailand puts a damper on her viewing party. The massive egg laid by Israel’s contestant does not help either. To cheer her up, five neighbors sing her an improvised “Sun Will Come Up Tomorrow” style ditty. It actually sounds pretty good thanks to her friends’ heart and the acoustic guitar accompaniment of lesbian alt-rocker Efrat.

In fact, it sounds so good, out-and-proud school teacher Ofer submits his cell phone video to the UniverSong equivalent of the Israeli Olympic committee, who decide to think outside the box and select the amateurs. The presence of former beauty queen turned business woman Yael probably did not hurt. Of course, everyone but Ofer is initially reluctant to participate for their own reasons, but eventually all but Dana, the press secretary to the Orthodox minister of culture, comes around. Even Keren, the shy blogger (is there really such a thing?) signs on for the contest. Unfortunately, the national organizers are determined to make them as cheesy as Israel’s last crash-and-burn competitor.

If you enjoy compulsively upbeat Israeli pop, your film has arrived. It is all very poppy and peppy and candy-colored, but audiences will be hard pressed to remember much by the time the closing credits stop rolling. Yet, Cupcakes is significant in one respect. It paints a vibrant portrait of Israel’s diversity and tolerance.

Everyone knows Ofer and Efrat are gay and lesbian, but that does not stop anyone from rooting for him. Ofer is matter-of-factly entrusted with the nation’s young skulls full of mush, frequently putting on drag shows for his appreciative charges—with no protests. Even his difficult romance with the closeted son of the Israeli UniverSong sponsor is a decidedly low stakes issue. One of the Israeli UniverSong organizers says “we are proud of our proud contestants,” lamenting they did not have an Arab member, as well. Of course, that is hardly likely to happen given said gay and lesbian band-mates.

The cast convincingly come across like comfortable friends with years of shared history together. Their casual moments together feel right. Actress-model Yael Bar-Zohar brings surprisingly rich subtlety and maturity to her ex-Miss Israel namesake, whereas Ofer Shechter over indulgences in shtick as his flamboyant namesake. Separately, Dana Igvy, Keren Berger, and Anat Waxman are a bit dull as their namesakes, but they click as an ensemble.

Fox and co-writer Eli Bijaoui manage to sidestep the worst possible clichés in the third act, but they are not afraid of a little sentimentality either. It is a pleasant but hardly essentially look at contemporary Israel’s inclusiveness. Recommended for fans of Fox’s previous box office hits and Babydaddy from Scissor Sisters (who wrote the “Song for Anat”), Cupcakes opens this Friday (3/27) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

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New Voices in Black Cinema ’15: Ojuju

There is no greater public health crisis than a zombie apocalypse. In this case, it is directly linked to a contaminated water supply, but high population density, unprotected sex, and some wicked strong weed are also contributing factors. Once infection takes hold, it runs like wildfire through a Lagos slum in C.J. “Fiery” Obasi’s Ojuju (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New Voices in Black Cinema at the BAM Rose Cinemas.

People think Romero (hat tip intentional) is a little strange, because the slacker actually seems to be serious about fulfilling his obligations to his highly pregnant girlfriend, Alero. Nobody is more confused by this then his former hook-up Aisha, but his buddies Emmy and Peju also have a hard time adjusting to his domestic bliss. Alas, it is not to last.

The first victim we see fall prey to the shufflers will be Fela, the local drug dealer, who has been selling some particularly potent product lately. He also samples the wares more than he should, so the strange figure staggering towards him just doesn’t set off the alarm bells it should. Inevitably infected, he and his crony begin the feverish process of transformation, despite the local prostitute’s efforts to care for his mystery illness. Soon, nearly the entire neighborhood except Romero, Emmy, and Peju are part of the shuffling horde. Unfortunately, there are limited egress points for the largely self-contained slum, so getting out of Dodge will be a tricky proposition.

Those who might be expecting the weird Evangelical perspective often reflected in Nollywood films can just forget it. Ojuju will not begrudge its socially disadvantaged characters a little sin while the sinning is good. Everyone tokes up a little to get by, even the incredibly foul-mouthed adolescent known simply as “the Kid.” What really makes the zombie (or ojuju) outbreak so devastating are the hard facts of life in a Nigerian slum. Obasi gives us a vivid sense of what they are like, including the bottleneck exit and the razor wire encircling it.

While Ojuju was obviously shot on a micro-budget, the gritty, low-fi aesthetic nicely suits the zombie genre. Obasi delivers enough gore to mollify genre fans, but the sweaty, claustrophobic vibe is what really generates the mounting dread. He also tacks on a long, almost entirely unrelated coda, but it largely works as a short film in its own right, so just consider it a bonus.

Perhaps Ojuju’s nicest surprise is the ensemble’s professionalism. Ranging from solidly presentable to legitimately polished, they are consistent in a good way, with Gabriel Afolayan and Chidozie Nzeribe particularly intense standouts as Romero and Fela, respectively. Making a virtue of its rough edges, Obasi exceeds expectations for his scrappy upstart zombie film. Recommended for undead fans, Ojuju screens this Friday (3/27) at BAM, as part of this year’s New Voices in Black Cinema.

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Monday, March 23, 2015

My Italian Secret: The Cyclist and the Archbishop

Considering the sport of cycling’s most important competition recently lost nine years of history to doping scandals, you would think they would look celebrate a genuine hero from their past, but Italian champion Gino Bartali’s clandestine efforts to save Italian Jewry remain largely unsung. He was not alone in his secret defiance. Eighty percent of Jews in wartime Italy survived thanks to Bartli and a host of like-minded Italians. Oren Jacoby profiles many of Italy’s righteous and the grown survivors they helped save in My Italian Secret (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Mussolini had been firmly entrenched in power since the 1920s, but the Holocaust was slow in reaching Italy. Yes, anti-Semitic laws were passed, but anti-Semitism never really caught on as an ideology. It was not until the German occupation that deportations started in earnest. Of course, there were more than enough Fascists willing to collaborate, but not Bartali.

The Fascists did there level best to coop Bartali as a symbol of Italian physical supremacy, but the cyclist refused to participate in their propaganda. Fortunately, his standing as Italy’s preeminent sportsman granted him certain liberties, such as an excuse for long distance bike runs. Soon, Bartali was shuttling counterfeited documents provided by the Catholic Church to Jews in hiding. Bartali further risked his neck by sheltering a Jewish family in his own home.

Frankly, it is quite eye-opening to see the bourgeoisie or even privileged status of so many of the Italian Righteous, given the carefully romanticized proletariat image of the resistance. Granted, Bartali came from rugged smallholding farm stock, but Marchesa Gallo did not. Yet, she sheltered numerous Jewish families in her grand palazzo. Likewise, Dr. Giovanni Borromeo was a man of considerable position, who ran tremendous risks operating his special “K” wing, where he hid Jewish fugitives supposedly infected with the nonexistent “K” disease. Jacoby also makes it crystal clear how deeply involved the Catholic Church was in rescue efforts. In fact, it was the Archbishop of Florence who recruited Bartali in the first place.

Jacoby uses the tried and true methods of documentary filmmaking, to good effect. He sparingly employs recreations, but incorporates plenty of archival photos and video. However, the most dramatic sequences by far capture the heartfelt meetings between the survivors (now of advanced years) and the children of their protectors. The Hot Club soundtrack selections are also quite pleasant.

Frankly, it is strange more of these incidents have not been more widely reported, especially given Italy’s remarkable high Jewish survival rate. However, Bartali was characteristically modest about his actions. Fortunately, he now has Oscar nominated actor Robert Loggia to literally speak for him. Jaded viewers might think they more or less know the trajectory of its collected stories and perhaps they do, but the details are unusually rich. Secret also helps counteract the ideologically-driven smearing of the WWII-era Church and Pope Pius XII, complimenting recent scholarship, like Rabbi David Dalin’s The Myth of Hitler’s Pope. Recommended for general audiences and especially students, My Italian Secret opens this Friday (3/23) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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From Mayerling to Sarajevo: the Love and Death of the Archduke

This is why “Old Europe” is a term of such derision. In the early Twentieth Century Austro-Hungarian Empire, snobbery was at its most severe when applied within the noble classes. Privilege was assiduously protected and innovation was just as strenuously discouraged. The heir-apparent meant to shake things up, but alas, it was not to be. Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s courtship of Countess Sophie Chotek and their tragic final days take on further significance in Max Öphuls’ woefully overlooked but freshly restored 1940 classic, From Mayerling to Sarajevo, which opens this Friday at Film Forum.

Obviously, this story will end badly for Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. Everyone should know an assassin’s bullet awaits them in Sarajevo. Those who consider that a spoiler should go hang their heads in shame. The Mayerling reference may not be so obvious, but it was the murder-suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf and his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera at the Habsburg hunting lodge in Mayerling that thrust Franz Ferdinand into the immediate line of succession.

As the film opens, the current Emperor Franz Josef has resigned himself to Franz Ferdinand role as his successor, despite his misgivings over the younger noble’s reformist inclinations. Of course, it is his professed preference for decentralization and tolerance that makes the Archduke rather popular throughout the empire. It is generally good for business to keep him busy with inspection tours, but that is how he meets the Countess.

Sophie Chotek is a noble-born Czech, but that was not good enough for the Habsburgs. Supposedly, only nobility directly related to crowned heads of state were eligible to marry the Archduke. Frankly, their initially meeting goes rather badly, culminating with Chotek giving him a dressing down of sorts, but he loves every minute of it. Soon romances blossoms, but they try to keep it a secret for the sake of the Archduke’s future position. However, their love will not be denied, especially when oily court ministers start conspiring against them.

Sarajevo (as it is often more simply known) is one of the oddest star-crossed romances, because it openly invites sympathy for two lovers born into unimaginable good fortune, while it inexorably hurtles towards its catastrophic end. Indeed, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were a couple worthy of Shakespeare, but Öphuls and a small platoon of screenwriters (including Carl Zuckmayer and Jacques Natanson) do them justice. They also rather burnishes the image of Franz Ferdinand, who is largely considered something of a footnote today. While opinions vary as to the extent of his liberalism, it is hard to dismiss his tentative support for the concept of a “United States of Austria” (duly featured in the film) and the necessary loss of status it implied.

Sarajevo also serves as a worthy re-introduction to American actor John Lodge, who is suitably commanding, yet slightly roguish as Franz Ferdinand. Fluent in French, Lodge (the brother of Henry Cabot, Jr.) is now better known for his political career as a Connecticut Congressman and Governor and later the U.S. Ambassador to Spain, Argentina, and Switzerland. He truly looks the part and develops some believably spirited romantic chemistry with French leading lady Edwige Feuillère. As Sophie, she must walk a fine line between fighting for her man and suffering for her country, but she makes her dilemmas feel quite real and pressing.

Watching Sarajevo, we understand Franz Ferdinand and Sophie are not joking when they say the Empire needs him. It is easy to envision a far less turbulent (and bloody) Twentieth Century had he not been assassinated. With the National Socialist invasion imminent, Öphuls clearly invokes his democratic reputation for propaganda purposes, but Öphuls would take refuge in Hollywood, by way of Switzerland and Spain soon after its release.

Frankly, it is rather eerie watching how petty concern for court protocol inadvertently led to such horrific macro events. Throughout the film, Öphuls demonstrates a wonderfully shrewd eye for the trappings and architecture of power while portraying the royal romance with humor and sensitivity. Hugely entertaining in ways both grand and hauntingly sad, From Mayerling to Saravejo is very highly recommended when it opens this Friday (3/27) in New York, at Film Forum.

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Man from Reno: Murder, She Alluringly Wrote

Mystery novelist Aki Akahori’s Inspector Takabe is like a Japanese Maigret, but her life is about to turn into a Mary Higgins Clark novel, except darker. A chance encounter with a seductive stranger leads to more intrigue than Akahori bargained for in Dave Boyle’s Man from Reno (trailer here), the best narrative award winner at the 2014 L.A. Film Festival, which opens this Friday in New York.

Although Takabe rules the Japanese bestseller lists, Akahori is uncomfortable with her success. Tired of her celebrity status, she deserts her publicity tour, taking refuge in San Francisco, where she once went to school. In her hotel, she meets a handsome Japanese tourist from Reno, or so she deduces. She did not have a tryst in mind, but she eventually yields to his charms. However, just when things start heating up, he precipitously vanishes. Even more disconcerting are the total strangers who suddenly want to take a quick look-see in her room for who-knows-what.

Just north of town, Paul Del Moral, the sheriff of San Marco, is also searching for a Japanese man. In this case, it is the individual he accidentally hit during severe fog-in, who up and left the hospital in a suspiciously rash manner. Soon a dead body turns up in San Marco who seems to have some connection to the fellow Del Moral dubbed “Running Man.” Inevitably, Del Moral’s investigation will lead him to San Francisco and the increasingly uneasy Akahori.

Reno represents a quantum step up for Boyle, whose previous films, like White on Rice, have been largely classifiable as romantic comedies. His frequent collaborator Hiroshi Watanabe is also back in the fold, but this time around he plays a strictly serious supporting role. Instead, Ayako Fujitani and veteran character actor Pepe Serna take star turns as Akahori and Del Moral, respectively. Expect to see more of them because they both make major statements with their smart, charismatic, yet understated performances.

As thrillers go, Reno (co-written by Boyle, Joel Clark, and Michael Lerman) has several fresh twists and it nicely captures the between-worlds vibe of the expatriate lifestyle. Technically polished, Richard Wong’s evocatively noir cinematographer also heightens the tension during several key scenes.

Murkier than one might expect, Reno is an effective somewhat romantic suspenser that never rushes to tip its hand. Yet, it even more appealing to see such a film anchored by people who look like Akahori and Del Moral. Granted, Fujitani is a beautiful woman, but in a mature, cerebral manner. Likewise, Serna is wonderfully grizzled, in a confidence-inspiring way. They are terrific, carrying the film relay-style during their many solo scenes. Highly recommended, Man from Reno opens this Friday (3/27) in New York, at the Regal E-Walk.

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

NYICFF ’15: Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet

He was born into a Maronite Catholic family and wrote his best known work in English, but Kahlil Gibran was subsequently embraced as a symbol of Arab culture. Without question, his best known work is The Prophet, arguably the original break-out New Age bestseller, whose celebrity admirers include Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and Salma Hayek. Her regard for the instantly recognizable Knopf title was such that she produced a big screen animated adaptation of the book few would have thought adaptable. The ambition and animation are definitely impressive, but the source material remains unwieldy in Roger Allers’ Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York International Children’s Film Festival.

In order to give the film a central storyline, Allers took some liberties with the framing device. The exiled prophet Mustafa (here more of a hipster painter and poet) is indeed bidding a fond farewell to the citizens of Orphalese, but he will not simply hop on the tall ship and sail off into the sunset. The oppressive Pasha and his thuggish police sergeant are planning permanent measures to halt his progressive influence before they let him go anywhere. The resulting narrative is like a weird passion play, with the assorted peasants in the countryside and merchants in town celebrating his presumed release with much feasting and drinking. At each stop along the way, Mustafa gives the crowd a pithy bit of prose poetry wisdom that are impressionistically rendered by a diverse roster of animators.

No longer is Almitra a seer. She is now the rebellious mute daughter of Kamila, the widowed housekeeper hired to tidy up the prophet’s exile cottage. Sharing a connection with the island’s seagulls, she is the first to suspect the fate awaiting Mustafa. Presumably, these liberties taken with the text pass muster with the Gibran establishment, given their active role in the production.

Regardless, the film as a whole is necessarily uneven, since Allers and Hayek-Pinault (as she is billed here) deliberately embrace its episodic structure. Not surprisingly, the best sequences are “On Love” animated by Tomm Moore (Song of the Sea) and “On Marriage” crafted by Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat). The abstract nature of the texts are also particularly well suited to the styles of Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues) and Bill Plympton (Cheatin’). However, the other four parables largely blend together.

Following in the footsteps of Richard Harris’s Arif Mardin-produced musical interpretation of The Prophet, Liam Neeson continues the Irish Gibran tradition as the voice of Mustafa. To be fair, his husky, reassuring tones are rather well suited to the film. Hayek-Pinault is perfectly serviceable as Kamila. (Since she is once again playing a mother facing difficult circumstances, Prophet should really be considered a companion film to Everly and the two should be screened together whenever possible). Quvenzhané Wallis gets precious little actual dialogue as Almitra (but perhaps that is just as well), while Alfred Molina does his best to keep up with the slapstick humor directed at his pompous Sergeant.

Whatever you do, always observe the authorial possessive in the title, like “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Although the film’s cultish impetus is a little creepy, it is intriguing to see such a high profile attempt at impressionistic, non-narrative animated filmmaking. Unfortunately, some of the contributing filmmakers are better suited to the task than others. A strange hybrid, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is recommended for animation enthusiasts who want to see something a little outside the norm (whereas younger viewers will probably find it indulgently lecture-y) when it screens again today (3/22) at the DGA Theatre, as the closing film of the 2015 NYICFF.

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

VFF ’15: What’s the Time in Your World

The question is not why someone decided to leave Iran, but rather why on earth would they ever come back. It seems especially strange for a woman like Goli to leave the still comparative safety of Paris, but she has indeed returned. She experiences a bittersweet homecoming, with the emphasis on the bitter in Safi Yazdanian What’s the Time in Your World (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Vilnius Film Festival. As our Baltic friends and allies cast a wary eye at their belligerent imperialist neighbors to the east, we salute their commitment to freedom and the arts, the latter most definitely reflected by this year’s “Kino Pavasaris.”

Considering Goli did not make the journey home for her mother’s funeral, many are quite surprised to see her now. It seems to have been a rather impulsively decision, but Yazdanian will slowly explain it through his examination of the expatriate psyche—at least to an extent. While her aunt is happy to see her, nobody is more pleased by the end of her exile than Farhad, the local framer. However, Goli is quite perplexed to receive so much attention from a man she does not remember.

It turns out, she and Farhad distantly traveled in the same extended social circles during her student days, but she obviously made a far greater impression on him than he did with her. Nevertheless, he stepped up considerably while she was in Paris, befriending her aunt and late mother. Given his vouched for status as a friend of the family, Farhad is now determined to woo Goli, but she remains confused and ambivalent about him.

Ostensibly, Time has nothing to do with politics, concentrating instead on fundamentally human issues, such as love, infatuation, and memory. Yet, there is a big conspicuous hole in the film where all of Goli and Farhad’s mutual friends should be. It becomes clear anyone with any talent and a minimal capacity for free-thinking finds a way to immigrate. There is a reason a drop-out like Farhad is the big man of the town. All the best and the brightest have left.

In many ways, Time is a tragic film, but its characters are too mature and world weary to engage in any sort of hand-wringing. Indeed, there is a lot of resignation, but that will not necessarily lead to reconnection and reconciliation. Frankly, that is why the chemistry between co-leads, Leila Hatami (A Separation) and Ali Mosaffa (The Past) is so hard to describe, yet so potent.

This is a small film, but it is acutely sensitive and arguably rather honest, in an oblique way. Clearly, Yazdanian is an actor’s director, but he also gives viewers a vivid sense of the northern coastal city of Rasht, as well as the considerable effort required to get there. Christophe Rezai’s distinctive guitar and strings score further heightens the melancholia, evoking both classic and contemporary musical forms.

It is a classy package well worth checking out. Should you head off to Vilnius to see it? Sure, if that is an option. If not, look for it as it continues to make the festival rounds. Recommended for thoughtful audiences, What's the Time in Your World screens this Monday (3/23) and Thursday (3/26) at this year’s Vilnius Film Festival. (Other notable highlights include Uncle Tony, Three Fools, and the Secret Service; Li’l Quinquin; Timbuktu; The Fool; Gyeongju; and Rocks in My Pockets.

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