J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

My Father, Die: Southern Exploitation for People Who Hate the South

It is only due to the influence of his father that Asher Rawlings is the man he is today: a psychosomatically deaf-mute introvert. However, he harbors ambitions of becoming a patricidal killer. It would be an improvement. Revenge comes deep fried in Sean Brosnan’s grubby My Father, Die (trailer here) which opens this Friday in New York.

MFD opens with an ultra-stylized flashback that shows us how Rawlings’ dysfunctional family ran fatally off the rails. To teach him the birds-and-the-bees, his older brother Chester sets him up to peep while he pays a call on Nana. She is roughly Chester’s age, but their Neanderthal father Ivan stills considers her his exclusive sexual property. Therefore, the biker father logically murders Chester and beats the snot out Asher when he barges into their rendezvous.

Ten years later, the old man is released due to prison over-crowding, leading Rawlings to understandably freak out. Resolving the best defense is a good offense, Rawlings saws off a shotgun and heads out to kill his father like the rabid dog he is. Thanks to a violent encounter with Ivan’s old pal Tank, Rawlings gets the drop on him in his scumbag motel. However, he ill-advisedly assumes the battered Ivan is dead. You know what assuming does. Thus, Rawlings’ grudge match becomes a mutual thing.

Frankly, MFD probably sounds considerably more fun than it really is. Tonally, it is a bizarre mishmash, over-reliant on black-and-white flashbacks and ponderous narration recorded in Rawlings’ prepubescent, pre-tragedy voice. They are played so achingly self-serious, it makes you wonder if they were intended to parody pretentious indie films. Needless to say, if viewers can’t tell if considerable portions of MFD were meant to be satire that’s a problem.

Brosnan’s oozing contempt for the South also gets old quickly. Whether it is white power bikers or tent revival evangelists who secretly visit pornographic webchats wearing an S&M hood, his vision of Southern men is gothic in the extreme. How would Brosnan (son of Pierce) like it if Southern Evangelical filmmakers made a film in Ireland, portraying the Irish as nothing but drunks and terrorists? Obviously, that would be grossly unjust, but it would be about as fair as the treatment dispensed in MFD.

Since English Joe Anderson spends most of his time as “adult” Asher wearing shades and his late brother’s raccoon skin hat, it is hard to connect with the character and the performance. At least former Merseyside-born boxer Gary Stretch is impressively fierce as the dad from Hell. As Tank, Kevin Gage (from Wisconsin—technically not the South either, but much closer) chews the scenery and howls in pain with gusto.

So, what about that comma between “father” and “die?” Sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not. Its better off without it. Awkward title syntax just seems to generate bad karma. As it is, MFD is already too scuzzy in the wrong, non-retro sort of way. By refusing to fully embrace the payback genre and the bayou milieu, Brosnan ultimately sabotages his own attempt at neo-Southern exploitation. Not recommended, My Father Die opens this Friday (1/20) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Fists of Fury: Kung Fu Clips of Death

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Kung Fu movies were almost as deadly as the fashions. You will indeed see feathered hair, particularly during a clip for our hostess with the mostess, marital arts legend Cynthia Rothrock. However, her timing and delivery are clearly better suited to action than comedy. Still, there is nostalgia to be found in Charles Band’s Kung Fu clip compilation film Fists of Fury (trailer here) which is now available on DVD from Full Moon Features.

You can’t even call Fists the That’s Entertainment of Kung Fu, because it doesn’t cherry-pick iconic scenes. It merely stitches together vintage coming attractions, sort of in the tradition of Drafthouse’s Trailer War, but some of these films are no particularly obscure. For one thing, there is a lot of love for Angela Mao Ying, but that is understandable, because we have a lot of love for her too. It also makes us think Nora Miao is way overdue for a retrospective of her own.

Not to sound grouchy, but Full Moon really could have at least digitally removed the grainy European subtitles half-visible in some trailers. Yet, the awesomeness still shines through for a number of these films. Frankly, it is nice to see Kao Pao-shu get her due as a pioneering woman director in the trailer for Bandits, Prostitutes, and Silver, starring Mao. It is also cool to see Pan Pan Yeung get the A Star is Born treatment in the trailer for The Story of Drunken Master, which appears to be the only collected teaser that featured original footage.

Fists will definitely make you want to watch many of the films teased by the trailers. For instance, Hammer’s Shatter, co-starring Peter Cushing and Lily Li looks like it would make a dynamite double feature paired with Stoner (not included, but too good not to plug). It is also know before Debbie Allen was directing episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and A Different World, she appeared in more reputable projects, like Ebony, Ivory, and Jade, a martial arts thriller about Olympic athletes sold into white slavery.

However, many of these trailers are probably already available on YouTube, like the one for Wonder Women, in which Nancy Kwan’s Dr. Tsu tells Ross Hagen: “it is possible for me to transplant any body part.” You can insert your own joke when he replies: “any body part?” In fact, you will have to, because there is no MST3K style running commentary and the comedy bits in between are excruciatingly painful. All you’re really getting with Fists is curation and compilation. Still, some of these films are just a blast no matter how chopped and diced up they are. Fists of Fury is not really recommended per se, but once you start watching, it is hard to stop, sort of like the infomercials for 1980s one-hit-wonder compilations on late night television. It is now available on Amazon, so there you have it.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

Trespass Against Us: Gleeson and Fassbender as Father and Son

In the UK, Irish Travellers are officially recognized as an ethnic group, whereas in Ireland, they are simply considered a social group. Yet, within both countries, Travellers commonly face prejudice and widespread suspicion of criminal behavior. Chad Cutler’s father is doing his best to perpetuate those stereotypes. Crime is definitely their family business, but Cutler has ambitions of a different, better way of life for his son in Adam Smith’s Trespass Against Us (trailer here) which opens this Friday in theaters.

Compared to the rest of his father Colby’s Traveller campsite, Cutler is the responsible one, but not necessarily by his outsider wife Kelly’s standards. The illiterate Cutler adamantly insists his children must go to school, but his “traditional” father does his best to discourage his impressionable grandson Tyson from his studies. Obviously, that is a major point of contention between father and grown son, but Cutler’s intention to retire from crime and his increasing antagonism towards some of the cruder members of the camp will fray their relationship further. However, Chad Cutler has a hard time resisting a good car chase. Indeed, he and British copper P.C. Loverage are like the Traveller version of Smoky and the Bandit.

Adam Smith has a heck of a name to live up to, so best of luck to him. Obviously, Trespass is an insignificant trifle compared to The Wealth of Nations, but it is a rollicking good time—which is not nothing. Smith has a particular knack for reinvigorating movie car chases, getting a key assist from the Chemical Brothers’ Big beat score. Chases scenes often feel like rote obligations, but they are the best part of Trespass.

Of course, Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson are also two of the very best in the business. When they face-off as Chad and Colby Cutler, they generate all the right kind of sparks. However, Lyndsey Marshal holds her own against both of them as the understandably exasperated Kelly Cutler. She provides the film a reality check and a moral center, without ever coming across like scold. In fact, she is a net plus when it comes to generating on-screen energy in general and particularly in her chemistry-heavy scenes with Fassbender.

Frustratingly, Trespass wilts into a treacly after-school special in its final scenes, but until then, Smith largely hits the right notes: ruckus and earthy, but not excessively quirky, naturalistic, cynical, or violent. Solidly entertaining, Trespass Against Us opens this Friday (1/20) in select cities.

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Duvivier’s Panique

Technically, the Parisian commune of Villejuif has never been a historically Jewish enclave. However, it is the end of the tram line, which still makes it all too fitting for the ill-fated Desire Hirovitch, better known a Monsieur Hire. He is so anti-social, we might speculate he is “on the spectrum” in today’s parlance. Yet, he will be tragically shocked by his neighbors’ hostility and suspicion in Julien Duvivier’s long unseen Panique (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Film Forum in a fresh new DCP restoration.

If old Hire sounds familiar, then you might know him through Patrice Leconte’s Monsieur Hire, another adaptation of the same Georges Simenon novel. Whereas Michel Blanc was a more nebbish, bloodlessly fastidious sort in Leconte’s take, Michel Simon’s original Hire is conspicuously husky, hirsute, and you know . . . foreign-looking. Each seems to cry out to be shunned, which in their own contempt for the ignorant proletariat, a fate both Hires have probably accepted too readily.

Although Duvivier plays down the voyeuristic aspects of Simenon’s story, Hire does indeed first encounter Alice (as she now calls herself) through peeping. At first, she reacts with disgust, but when Hire persistently precipitates “offline” meetings, she and her lover Alfred Chartier decide to frame him up as their fall guy. It is soon revealed Chartier recently bumped off Villejuif’s resident old maid, while waiting for his lover to be released from prison. The murder has the working-class district on edge, but they will be only too willing to pin the crime on Hire. When Alice starts stringing along the awkward lug, she is rather surprised to find she somewhat likes him, but Chartier maintains such a tight Svengali hold over her, she is incapable of backing out.

The plan is simple. Set-up Hire and let the angry mob do the rest. As schemes go, it is pretty elegant in its simplicity and psychologically insightful. This was Duvivier’s French homecoming film after his wartime Hollywood interlude, so it is easy to interpret it as an allegorical indictment of France’s anti-Semitic collaboration. Perhaps to soften the blow, the milieu feels distinctly pre-war, but that ultimately emphasizes how deeply rooted such xenophobic attitudes were within the French social fabric.

It is just painful to watch Simon’s Hire barrel along unaware of the resentments and betrayal simmering around him. He is a tragic figure, sort of the equal opposite of the free-spirited tramp in Boudu Saved from Drowning (the original Down and Out in Beverly Hills), arguably his most recognizable role. Viviane Romance was already an experienced femme fatale, but she makes Alice’s conscience pangs completely convincing, yet hopelessly too little, too late. She has the advantage over Leconte’s Sandrine Bonnaire, in every way. Still, the sly André Wilms certainly distinguishes the later film as the intrepid inspector, whereas all the coppers in Panique are rather colorless government functionaries.

Even by French noir standards, Panique’s criminals are viciously calculatingly sociopaths. The notorious bitterness and archetypal significance of Duvivier highly cinematic climax will surely ring with viewers, even though many will be seeing it for the first time. For too long, Panique has been written about more than screened, due to print quality issues. Happily, it now looks and sounds terrific. Highly recommended for connoisseurs of French cinema, Panique opens this Friday (1/20) in New York, at Film Forum.

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

NYJFF ’17: Scarred Hearts

They thought they were like the Romanian Algonquin Round Table. They just happened to be confined to a sanitarium. As they quip and carp their days away, some will get better, but most will not. Sadly, 1930s Romanian medical treatment engenders little confidence in Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Scarred Hearts is not precisely based on the writings of M. [Max] Blecher, but it is inspired and informed by his autobiographical fiction. Emanuel will be Jude’s stand-in for Blecher or rather lay-in. Like Blecher, the waggish merchant’s son is afflicted with Pott’s Disease (spinal tuberculosis). Soon after his arrival, the rather dubious Dr. Ceafalan will slap a restrictive body cast on Emanuel. Generally, he does not mind, because he was never the outdoorsy type, but it makes his infrequent attempts at hook-ups rather awkward.

Solange is one of the sanitarium’s rare success stories. Aside from an unobtrusive leg brace, she is as good as new. However, she keeps returning to the clinic as a visitor, because the patients have become her only social circle. Emanuel will do his best to woo her with poetry, standing a better chance than he really ought to.

Jude uses static long takes and the boxy Academy aspect ratio to make viewers nearly as antsy and cabin feverish as the unfortunate patients. Frankly, he is probably too effective. In general, Scarred feels like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu reconceived as a vehicle for David Hyde Pierce. Lucian Teodor Rus’s Emanuel is just insufferable in his suffering, but Jude does him no favors by constantly interrupting the drama with super-title extracts from Blecher’s writings. Presumably, something was lost in the translation, because they generally have the ring of failed haikus.

Without question, the most rewarding aspects of Scarred are the character of Solange and the performance of Romanian documentary filmmaker Ivana Mladenovic. We pick up hints of her uncertain social position. We can assume she was once well-to-do, given her former residency in the pricey sanitarium, but she now works in a clerical position. She is also now single, since her husband abandoned her during her convalescence. She looks rather glamorous in spite of it all, but she still shares a kinship with the plastered-up patients. Mladenovic invests her with tremendous sensitivity, but also a mostly appealing flirtatiousness.

You probably already suspected it, but Jude conclusively proves it was a very bad idea to get sick in 1937 Romania. Occasionally, he has characters drop references to the rise of the Iron Guard and Romanian fascism, but nobody really seems interested, so it comes across like a transparent attempt to shoehorn in something properly “serious.” The result is a decidedly mixed bag, so patrons should make no herculean efforts to see Scarred Hearts when it screens Wednesday night (1/18) and Thursday afternoon (1/19) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYJFF.

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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Dearest Sister: Ghosts and Class Distinctions in Laos

Whether or not Voltaire really wrote “lotteries are a tax on stupidity,” he would probably enjoy having the sentiment attributed to him. Nok is the exception. When she plays, she wins every time, because she has inside information from beyond. However, it is unclear if those winning numbers were really meant for her in Mattie Do’s Dearest Sister (trailer here), which now streams exclusively on Shudder.

Nok has come to Vientiane to serve as an all-purpose care-giver for her distant cousin, Ana. Immediately, she understands she is stuck in a precarious position. She is not family enough to be considered equals with Ana and her Estonian expat husband Jakob, yet she is not to lower herself by consorting with their resentful maid and her husband, the surly gardener. Ana is slowly losing her vision and she often sees recently departed ghosts with what sight remains. She is also prone to psychic seizures, during which she repeats winning lottery numbers passed along to her by the spirits. When she comes to Ana never remembers anything she might have said, but Nok will.

Despite keeping the source of her windfalls secret, Nok starts to bond with Ana through her natural peasant’s affinity for the supernatural. Unfortunately, when Nok gets a taste for big city high-living, it will quickly lead to her disgrace. Of course, no matter how bad things look for her, they can always be fixed with a new set of numbers.

As the first Laotian woman to helm a feature film, the American born Do is absolutely a trailblazer. Happily, she has massive filmmaking talent to go along with her notoriety. Even though Shudder acquired Dearest, it is definitely a slow burner rather than a fright fest. Yet, it never, ever drags. Do is clearly an actor’s director, eliciting some subtle but intense performances from her ensemble, but she also controls the mood and atmosphere like an old master.

Amphaiphun Phommapunya totally burns up the screens as the quietly covetous Nok. Yet, Vilouna Phetmany might even outshine her as the entitled but increasingly terrified Ana. She also has a believably rocky rapport with Estonian Tambet Tuisk, who defies all stereotypes and expectations by giving such human dimensions to the ethically-challenged expat.

Frankly, Laos could use more filmmakers of either sex and more freedom of expression in general. It is a one-party Marxist state, albeit one apparently plagued by tremendous class inequities. Regardless, Dearest is the sort of moody and sophisticated supernatural drama that is always welcomed by genre fans around the world. Very highly recommended, Dearest Sister is now streaming on Shudder.

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NYJFF ’17: Home Movie (short)

8 and 16mm video was supposed to help families remember their good times together, but for Caroline Pick’s parents, it was a way to help them forget. She was there when much of the family archive was shot, but she would later see those films in a different light after eventually learning their full family chronicle. Personal history become a meditation on something greater in Pick’s short documentary, Home Movie, which screens as part of the Shorts Program at this year’s New York Jewish FilmFestival.

Originally, Pick’s parents hailed from Czechoslovakia, but she had a rather privileged upbringing in Cardiff. As the images of her nuclear family at-play unspool, Pick’s voiceover starts to describe the friends and extended family who are missing. Of course, they perished in the Holocaust, but that is hardly meant to be a surprise. Instead, Pick wonders at her parents ability to seemingly forget the past.

Granted, we have seen this sort of film before, but Pick’s editorial judgement is unusually assured. We do get a feeling of her parents’ personalities and suspect we see a flicker of sadness in their eyes. She also maybe implies their survivors’ issues manifested in odd ways, especially when we watch the footage her father shot of their mother with men suspected of being her lovers. Regardless, they certainly remained very European and cosmopolitan.

Pick’s approach in Home Movie is simple, but the effect is haunting. Recommended for viewers who appreciate a shrewd eye for “found” visuals, Home Movie screens this coming Monday (1/16) as part of the 2017 NYJFF’s Shorts Program.

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Friday, January 13, 2017

NYJFF ’17: Peshmerga

The Kurdish homeland remains divided between four nations: Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. Sadly, these days Iraq is probably the friendliest nation of the quartet—and the one in the least position to object. Moderate Sunnis also appreciate the efforts of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces countering the advance of ISIS. Is it time to call for the independence of a free, unified Kurdistan? French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy indirectly but unmistakably raises that question in his remarkable documentary Peshmerga (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York Jewish Film Festival.

These are the Kurdish resistance fighters who rose up against Saddam Hussein. It was also the Peshmerga who uncovered key intel that led to the capture and death of Osama bin Laden. Lévy (or BHL as it is often dubbed in the press) flatly asserts they have been the most effective fighting force battling ISIS (they prefer the term “Daesh,” which is good enough for us)—and he ought to know. For six months, the mediagenic BHL was embedded with various Peshmerga companies, with brief time out taken to tend to his wounded cameraman. Yes, they were very definitely under fire.

Understandably, BHL was reluctant to leave Ala Hoshyar Tayyeb during his initial treatment, but the time was not entirely lost. While waiting to either return to the front or shuttle his crew member to France for treatment, BHL visits an Assyrian Christian priest, who fled the Daesh onslaught along with his flock, the last native speakers of Aramaic let on earth, which just shows how closely linked this region is to antiquity.

Initially, viewers might presume Peshmerga was selected by the NYJFF simply because of BHL’s Jewish faith, but the film takes on deeper Jewish resonance when Lévy visits a remote village that still takes pride in its ancient Jewish roots. Surely, the significance of the Muslim Kurds embracing ancestral links to Judaism is so self-evident, it hardly needs belaboring. As an additional fun fact, the Peshmerga are sufficiently progressive to have women’s platoons, whom Daesh particularly fear, because if they are killed by a woman they will supposedly be denied their place in paradise and those seventy-two virgins, so good hunting to the Peshmerga women.

BHL is indeed one of the most important living philosophers, but as an embedded journo, he captures episodes of warfighting comparable to anything in the films of Sebastian Junger. He introduces viewers to several Peshmerga commanders, who are colorful and . . . commanding. Sadly, we will also mourn for one of them. BHL conveys the shock of his loss, but still handles the incident with appropriate sensitivity.

Lévy is clearly a Peshmerga backer, but it is hard to blame him, given the boots-on-the-ground reality. Arguably, his upfront honesty on the subject is rather refreshing, while the film itself is enormously informative and persuasive. The Peshmerga are protecting their homeland, but they are also fighting our fight. Hopefully, the incoming administration will be more proactive aiding them. Very highly recommended, Peshmerga screens twice this coming Wednesday (1/18) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 New York Jewish Film Festival.

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The Bye Bye Man: What’s My Name, *****?

He must be more powerful than Candyman, because you need only say or think his name once, without looking in a mirror, to invoke this bogeyman. On the other hand, Candyman had that killer hook—but this evil cat has a dog—but that spectral pooch hardly does anything. Regardless, if you say his name, you’re pretty much toast in Stacy Title’s The Bye Bye Man (trailer here), which opens today nationwide.

Elliot, his out-of-his-league girlfriend Sasha, and his player best bud John are about to rent a spacious but decidedly creaky off-campus house together. Sasha and John seem to get along super-well together, so foreshadowing. Something feels wrong about the place, so Sasha has Kim, their classmate with the shine do a cleansing after their housewarming kegger. Unfortunately, Elliot’s kneejerk Richard Dawson materialism spurs Kim to stage a how-do-you-like-them-apples séance, during which the E-man foolishly drops the name he saw scrawled on a discarded night stand: “Bye Bye Man.” Thanks to him, they are all as good as dead.

Once you call him, Bye Bye Man gets in your head, showing visions of your darkest fears and tricking you with hallucination. The afflicted commonly resolve to kill everyone they have told, in order to break the chain of terror. That is what happens in the prologue and that is that is the course of action Kim chooses. Unfortunately, the college town cops blame Elliot for her carnage, which is not completely unfair given the circumstances.

It is worth noting Bye Bye was directed by Stacy Title, who made a splash with her feature debut, The Last Supper. As a pitch-black satire on the horrors of political polarization, it obviously speaks to our time. When celebrities seriously advocate martial law to prevent candidates they disagree with from taking office, it is safe to say the time has come for her tale of liberals poisoning right-wingers, out of a sense of smug moral superiority.

Bye Bye is nowhere near as zeitgeisty, but Title still derives some efficient scares from her canny use of moody sets and lighting. It is also pretty inspired when the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” pops up in the third act. (If only they’d had a video clip of the late great John McLaughlin’s “bye bye” sign-off.) The problem is, even with Doug Jones under the make-up, Bye Bye Man just doesn’t resonate. While he looks like an archetypal reaper, he is a distant figure, whereas you always knew it was personal with Tony Todd’s Candyman.

Douglas Smith, Cressida Bonas, and Lucien Laviscount are all adequately competent but never particularly memorable as the three housemates. To her credit, Jenna Kanell brings some refreshing attitude and energy as “sensitive” Kim. However, nobody can top Faye Dunaway’s weird scene as the mysterious widow Redman. Just try to get your head around her credits: Network, Bonnie and Clyde, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Bye Bye Man. Unfortunately, Carrie-Anne Moss’s appearances as the completely unintuitive Det. Shaw just sets her up to be the focus of a potential sequel.

You have seen better than Bye Bye Man and you have seen far, far worse. At least, the execution is tight, so hopefully the Oscar-nominated Title can use it as a stepping stone to a more ambitious project. More or less okay-ish, it opens today (1/13) in multiple New York theaters, including the AMC Empire.

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Claire in Motion: The Missing Ornithologist

The act of faking one’s death has become common enough to require its own term: pseudocide. Initially, Claire Hunger merely assumes her missing husband is laying injured somewhere. However, the more time we spend with the emotionally stunted Hunger, the more we will be convinced Mr. Hunger bailed for the good of his soul early in Annie J. Howell & Lisa Robinson’s Claire in Motion (trailer here) which opens tomorrow in New York.

Paul Hunger assures his wife he is over his dizzy spells, so he can safely go on his extreme survivalist solo camping excursion. Umm, okay. Needless to say, Prof. Hunger, the ornithologist, does not turn up when he is supposed to. The local sheriff’s department scours the woods, but they only find his empty car. When the authorities give him up for dead and/or gone, Prof. Hunger the mathematician, refuses to give up dragging their son Connor into the woods on their own private searches, until the lad finally refuses.

As pessimism sets in, Math Hunger learns the first of several surprising revelations. After doing a bit of feather consulting for the art department, Bird Hunger started collaborating on a large-scale installation with Allison, an attractive New Agey grad student. The fact they almost assuredly never engaged in any hanky-panky maybe makes it an even greater betrayal. Suddenly, Claire Hunger realizes she did not know her husband nearly as well as she thought.

Even though Claire is set in motion by a mystery, the tone is much closer to Josephine Decker’s recent films than the procedural series Without a Trace. There are no ticking clocks in Howell & Robinson’s picture, but there is no shortage of brooding and angst. There are a lot of very credible human emotions in Motion, but they are portrayed in a decidedly un-cinematic manner. If you put a stop-watch to the film, you would probably find Claire Hunger spends more time staring out into space than actually talking to people. Betsy Brandt’s lead performance is certainly intense, but the titular Claire sort of functions as a black hole, sucking in all the life and oxygen surrounding her.

Of course, that makes Paul’s pseudo-betrayal with Allison entirely believable. As Art Allison, Anna Margaret Hollyman is nearly Claire Hunger’s polar opposite. She is also decidedly annoying, in her own distinct ways, but Hollyman frequently infuses the film with much needed energy and a cutting edge.

Frankly, the visuals of cinematographer Andreas Burgess might just be too pretty and sun-dappled. What this film desperately needs is a little grit. (We also believe any film that uses the word ornithology should be required to feature Charlie Parker on the soundtrack, because it makes us think of Bird, so we might as well hear some Bird.) Ultimately, it is too reminiscent of films like Rania Attieh & Daniel Garcia’s H., in which the mystery is so thoroughly wrapped up in an enigma, it becomes unapproachable. There is a certain segment of the market that uncritically hail Motion with the latest critical buzzwords, but most viewers will find frustratingly distancing. For the former, it opens tomorrow (1/13) in New York, at the Cinema Village.


NYJFF ’17: Past Life

Pop music is all very catchy, but it is out of its depth responding to events of great enormity. However, classical chorale music is perfectly suited for grand elegiac concerts. As a composer of such music, Ella Milch-Sheriff would find inspiration within her own family. A somewhat fictionalized version of their story unfolds in Avi Nesher’s Past Life (trailer here) which screens during the 2017 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Sephi Milch (as she is called in Nesher’s screenplay) is a chorale student in an Israeli conservatory who harbors ambitions of composing, but is too mousy to stand up to the sexist dean. During a concert in West Germany, Milch is rather stunned when an elderly woman accosts her, accusing her father, Dr. Baruch Milch of murder. To make it even more awkward, she happens to be the mother of famous German-Polish chorale composer Thomas Zielinski.

For various reasons (including her father’s often excessive discipline), Milch cannot dismiss the encounter, so she takes her sister Nana Milch-Kotler into her confidence. Having an even more fraught relationship with their father, the leftwing journalist assumes there must be some truth to it. With varying degrees of reluctance and enthusiasm, the two sisters start investigating their father’s past. As word of their inquiries reaches Dr. Milch, he offers to reconstruct the lost diary of the years he spent hiding in the Zielinski farm. However, the combination of Milch-Kotler’s lingering doubts and accumulated bad karma might produce tragic results for the Milch family.

The significance of setting the film in 1977 should not be lost on anyone, but Nesher does not belabor the parallels between the thaw with Sadat and the efforts of Sephi Milch and Thomas Zielinski to reconcile their parents. Indeed, it is richly detailed period production that evokes both the good and the bad of the era. For added authenticity, the haunting piece performed during the climax really was composed by Ella Milch-Sheriff.

Joy Rieger is rather remarkable as the initially naïve and submissive Sephi Milch. Her expressive face is like an open book. Nelly Tagar brings more attitude and angst as the razor-sharp but profoundly sad Milch-Kotler. Doron Tavory deftly walks a fine line as Dr. Milch, establishing his severity as a parent, but also a deep sense of his fundamentally decent but scarred psyche. Yet, Rafael Stachowiak might be the film’s X-factor as the constantly surprising Thomas Zielinski.

With Past Life, Nesher further burnishes his well-earned reputation as a filmmaker of great sensitivity. It is also a characteristic example of his affinity for historical dramas that reflect the Israeli national experience through more or less average people (this is particularly true of The Matchmaker). Nesher and his frequent cinematographer Michel Abramowicz (who also shot the first Taken film) have a knack for making a picture look nostalgic, but also darkly moody. Recommended for those who appreciate thematically sophisticated dramas and chorale music, Past Life screens Sunday (1/15) and Monday (1/16) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYJFF.

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Ravenwolf Towers: Bonds of Blood

This seedy apartment building is like a roach motel for transients and furtive lovers. They check in . . . Jake, the earnest new assistant manager already starts to question the macabre way things are done in the building, but it is doubtful he can change much during Bonds of Blood, the second episode of Charles Band’s web series Ravenwolf Towers, which premieres today (the first full moon of 2017) on the Full Moon streaming site and Amazon Prime.

Ravenwolf’s first episode, Bad Mary, was hooky and intriguing, making Bonds look like a relative sophomore slump in comparison. Rather oddly, the episode’s big reveal comes rather early in the episode. It turns out Mary, the pretty girl living on the eleventh floor with the rest of her freaky evil family is maybe not so innocent as viewers and Jake previously assumed. The assistant manager will come in direct conflict with her mutant brood when he tries to protect the new tenants: a pair of fan service-providing lesbian lovers.

Frankly, aside from the scoop on Mary, Bonds does not appear to hold a lot of long-term narrative significance. However, it certainly suggests Sonny H. King could very well emerge as the fan favorite for his salty work as Benji, the massively cynical building manager. He is reason enough to come back for more in twenty-nine days. Bonds of Blood streams today, with the DVD release coming January 20th.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Bad Kids of Crestview Academy: Back in Detention

Remember high school, where kids learn to grow up and cover-up their own murders? That is how things work at Crestview. The family income levels are sky-high, but not so much the life expectancies. This is especially true for wrong-side-of-the-tracks “undercrust” students, like Siouxsie Hess and her sister Alyson—her late sister Alyson. When Hess schemes her way into detention to find out who was responsible for her death, soulless entitled brats start dying like flies in Ben Browder’s Bad Kids of Crestview Academy (trailer here) which opens this Friday in New York.

Yes, this is indeed the sequel to Bad Kids Go to Hell that nobody expected. Fear not, this is a whole new class of sociopaths, but the same bad karma still hangs over Crestview. There is some seriously sinister business going on in the background, but Browder only gives us glimpses. Instead, he focuses on the And Then There Were None day in detention. For fans of the first film and the graphic novels on which they are based, poor old Matt Clark is currently cooling his heels in a criminal asylum for the mass murders he did not commit, but it is probably safer for him there.

Thanks to a hacker-for-hire, Hess will be sharing senior detention with Blaine Wilkes, the senator’s son with serious mother issues, Faith Jackson, the promiscuous daughter of the senator’s “spiritual advisor,” coked-up gay playboy, Brian “Latin Spice” Marquez, and sexually confused, cat video-loving Sara Hasegawa. All four were somehow involved in Alyson Hess’s murder. Collectively, they also start dying during detention, which makes Siouxsie Hess the logical suspect.

Although it can’t keep up with Joseph Kahn’s wildly frenetic Detention, Browder (probably best known as the lead in Farscape) sustains an admirably high energy level. He also embraces the franchise’s black humor and sarcastic attitude. There is truly no place for good taste or restraint at Crestview.

With that in mind, Sammi Hanratty is really remarkably poised as Siouxsie Hess, the film’s primary pinball. She keeps her head and maintains the audience’s focus amid a whole lot of chaos. Erika Daly also earns points for making Hasegawa’s naivete so weirdly distinctive. Speaking of weird, Browder gamely reprises his original role as the anti-social school janitor, Max. However, Gina Gershon upstages everyone as the flamboyantly evil and tart-tongued Sen. Wilkes.

Crestview Academy is not at the inspired level of Detention or The Final Girls, but it still makes dead teenagers pretty darn funny. If only The Breakfast Club had been as rude and subversive. Recommended for fans of warped horror comedies, The Bad Kids of Crestview Academy opens this Friday (1/13) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Crash: Hacking the Markets to Save the Markets

As a private citizen, J.P. Morgan quelled the Panic of 1907 and basically saved the American financial system. In 1910, he participated in the Jekyll Island meetings that ultimately led to the creation of the Federal Reserve, so he wouldn’t have to go through that hassle again. Ever since then, the Fed has been the focus of conspiracy theories from the right and the left. Fuel will be added to the Occupy-Birchian flames when Aram Rappaport’s The Crash (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

The markets have been hacked—all of them, even the Miami MIAX. Thanks to the gloating terrorist chatter, the Treasury Department knows they only have a few days to avert a market meltdown. Out of desperation, Sec. Sarah Schwab (now there's a financial name) cuts a deal with bad boy money man Guy Clifton to save our butts. He was once the golden boy for bailing out the city of Chicago, but he is currently facing prosecution for hacking the NYSE, which indeed he did.

Of course, he didn’t do it alone. With the government’s blessing, Clifton recruits the same team of programmers, coders, and magical typists to put together a similar operation, but on a grander scale. Technically, it often his wife Shannon who does the recruiting, because many of his former associates are not too keen to work with him again. She is not thrilled with him either, but it would not help their critically ill daughter Creason’s survivability chances if her father went to prison.

We quickly learn the mastermind behind all the hacks is none other than Fed Chairman Del Banco (his name is literally “the Bank”), his own oily self, in cahoots with the big banks that took bailout money. In fact, the whole scheme is really TARP II. The bailed-out banks will short everything including the kitchen sink leading up to the crash, after which they will bargain hunt like mad. In return, they agree to keep interest rates low and credit flowing. It is an intriguing scheme that arguably makes the film hard to pigeon-hole in traditional right-left terms. It is also great fun to watch the reliably entertaining Christopher McDonald chew the scenery as Del Banco.

Proving good guys can be colorful too, Frank Grillo and Minnie Driver share some terrific tart-tongued chemistry as Guy and Shannon Clifton. They are almost Nick & Nora-like. However, the whole subplot involving the terminally ill daughter (who naturally starts a relationship with Clifton’s resentful ex-protégé is needlessly manipulative). John Leguizamo is just cringe-inducing as the wheelchair bound cyber-jockey George Diebold (just like the voting machines) and Maggie Q is scandalously wasted as his long-suffering nurse.

In the closing titles, The Crash reminds us there has been a financial crisis approximately every ten years since the Fed was established. That is technically true, but aside from the Great Depression, we haven’t seen bank runs and chaos like the Panic of 1907 since then. Regardless, Grillo, Driver, and McDonald elevate the paranoid LaRouche-Democracy Now subject matter. It is sort of all over the place, but it is always watchable. For fans of Paul Erdman thrillers (whose faults it shares), The Crash opens this Friday (1/13) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Monday, January 09, 2017

Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past

Fortunately, Vince Giordano’s music goes equally well with Italian and Mexican food—maybe because its hot.  In 2013, the closure of Sophia’s forced Giordano and his Nighthawks Orchestra to move their regular Monday and Tuesday night residency to Iguana’s. The 2012-2013 season was quite busy for them, including Newport, Lincoln Center, and Town Hall gigs, but musicians like to be busy. Giordano and the Nighthawks keep the flame of “Trad” Hot Jazz alive in Dave Davison & Amber Edwards’ Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Giordano is an ambassador and evangelist for jazz, much like Wynton Marsalis and the late Dr. Billy Taylor, but specifically for the old school hot style (think Kansas City and Chicago). He might not be as well known, but it is not for a lack of high profile work. As the go-to guy for 1920s and 1930s big band music, Giordano has graced the soundtracks and screens of projects like The Aviator, Café Society, Everybody Says I Love You, and Carol. Probably his biggest hit from a CD-selling perspective has been Boardwalk Empire. In fact, we will see him laying down a track for the HBO show with Buster Poindexter, who needs a bit of time to acclimate to the syncopated beat.

There are no voiceovers or visible interviewers present in Future, but they really aren’t needed. Giordano’s running commentary is sufficiently informative. Giordano is indeed a likable (and likably eccentric) showman, who fills the screen nicely. Davison and Edwards also give the Nighthawks time to play through a number of tunes in their entirety, trusting the musicians’ talents will hold the audience’s interest (as well it should). Of course, the sight of Giordano wailing on the uncommon bass saxophone is worth seeing. It is a big axe to lug, but Giordano also has a tube and a metal upright bass to schlep. Just the load-in process is an adventure for the Nighthawks, but that is the price of authenticity.

It is great to see Giordano get some time in the spotlight, because he is an institution. He keeps a lot of musicians regularly gigging—a feat in itself that deserves cheers. He has also single-handedly saved scores of vintage scores from oblivion as a mad collector-archivist (it takes one to know one). For many of the younger Trad Revival musicians, he is also a godfather figure, while for many New Yorkers, he is the cat who made Mondays fun again.

All those aspects of his career come through quite agreeably. This was a rather dramatic period for the Nighthawks, but the documentary record is a lot of fun to watch. Anyone who appreciates American music should make the scene when Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past opens this Friday (1/13) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Alone in Berlin: Postcards of Resistance

German novelist Hans Fallada had a complicated relationship with the National Socialists. He survived to watch the regime fall, but not long enough to see the publication of his most celebrated novel, a fictionalized account of underground anti-Nazi activists Otto and Elise Hampel (renamed Otto and Anna Quangel). In 2009, the belated English translation became a surprise bestseller. Their story of resistance gets the big screen treatment in Vincent Pérez’s English language Alone in Berlin (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The Quangels never joined the National Socialist German Workers Party, but Anna Quangel was a member in good standing of the Women’s League. They appeared to be loyal working class supporters of Hitler’s government, but the death of their son (Elise Hampel’s brother in real life) left them profoundly disillusioned. He is so shaken, he starts leaving “subversive” messages on spinner-rack consumer postcards in public stairwells. At first, it is a way to release the grief welling up inside him, but with the encouragement and active assistance of his wife, they develop a small but systematized propaganda distribution campaign.

Quickly the cards bearing the heading “Freie [Free] Presse” catch the attention of the authorities. Poor, officious Inspector Escherich is probably the right cop to track them down, because he still favors real police work over confessions extracted through torture, but that inevitably puts him at odds with the Gestapo. Plotting each postcard’s location (there will be over two hundred), Escherich slowly closes in on the Quangels, while his own position becomes increasingly precarious.

Although Euro critics were not especially kind to it, Alone has considerable virtues. At the helm, Pérez (the actor best known for succeeding Brandon Lee in The Crow franchise and the red cloak scene in Queen Margot) shows a remarkably sensitive touch. Frankly, Alone is most effective as a portrait of grieving parents. The ambiguously humanistic portrayal of Escherich is also strangely compelling, but the film definitely feels small in scale, as if the entire Nationalist Socialist power structure were confined to half a dozen blocks in Berlin.

Once again, Alone demonstrates why Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson got to be such accomplished old pros. Both their performances as the Quangels are admirably smart, honest, restrained, and deeply moving. Daniel Brühl’s work as Escherich is also quite notable for its complexity, without inviting sympathy for the obedient government servant. All three are absolutely first-rate, but the film’s limited scope feels like we should be talking about them for Emmy consideration rather than bemoaning how they will be long forgotten by the year-end awards season.

Cinematographer Christophe Baucarne and composer Alexander Desplat give the film an old-fashioned tone that suits the period and Pérez’s unabashed veneration of the Quangels’ courage and dignity. Frankly, it is rather bizarre there has not been more German enthusiasm for a film that celebrates working class resistance to Hitler for a change, rather than the Juncker military elites of Valkyrie. Regardless, it is a fine film worthy of your attention. Recommended for popular audiences, Alone in Berlin opens this Friday (1/13) in New York, at the IFC Center.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Film Forum Double Bill: Carmen Herrera & Elizabeth Murray

The fine art world has a reputation for being about as receptive to middle-aged women as Hollywood producers. Yet, somehow both Carmen Herrera and Elizabeth Murray made their marks and had their greatest career highlights late in life. In the case of Herrera, it truly was a case perseverance winning out in the end. Their lives and bodies of work are surveyed in Alison Klayman’s half-hour The 100 Years Show (trailer here) and Kristi Zea’s hour-long Everybody Knows . . . Elizabeth Murray (trailer here), which screen together as a double bill opening this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Carmen Herrera is represented by the Lisson Gallery, which also handles the work of Ai Weiwei, the subject of Klayman’s outstanding prior documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Herrera’s work has been collected by MoMA, the Hirschhorn, and the Tate Modern. Her first solo show at the Whitney closes tomorrow. That all sounds quite prestigious, but what makes it truly impressive is it all started to finally happen for Herrera during her late nineties. Although she was very much a part of the Paris art scene in the late 1940s and early 1950s, she was always overlooked in favor of her male colleagues. However, she had one important supporter: her beloved late husband Jesse Loewenthal, who never stopped supporting her artistic ambitions.

Herrera lived long enough to enjoy her belated recognition, notably outlasting Fidel Castro in her native Cuba. Although neither Klayman or Herrera belabor politics in 100 Years, she briefly discusses her family’s early support for the revolution against Battista and their change of heart when her brother was arrested by Castro’s secret police. She really has led an epic life, so it is nice to see the final chapters provide some pay-off.

In contrast, the narrative that unfolds in Zea’s Everybody Knows is more conventional. Murray initially struggled to gain traction in the male-dominated gallery world, but when Paula Cooper started showing her, it gave Murray a level of prominence and stability that allowed her to be a full-time professional artist. To her credit, Murray also seems to have been a reasonable conscientious parent during that time as well. Nonetheless, honors like Murray’s solo MoMA retrospective came late in life—really, just in the nick of time.

Everybody Knows is a perfectly respectable film that makes a credible case for Murray’s place in the critical canon. However, 100 Years is the more dramatic, preconception-upending film. Herrera’s persistence and late-life productivity is quite amazing. One is tempted to compare her to Portuguese centenarian filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, but Oliveira’s career really caught fire during the 1970s (when he was in his 60s) and he just maintained the momentum over the next four decades. Recommended for admirers of abstract art, The 100 Years Show and Everybody Knows . . . Elizabeth Murray open together this Wednesday (1/11) at Film Forum.

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Saturday, January 07, 2017

PSIFF ’17: The Spy and the Poet

A news report in this drily comedic spy thriller refers to Russia as “revanchist,” which is rather apt, isn’t it? Not so surprisingly, the Estonian counter-intelligence team-leader Gustav Tukk spends most of his time focused on the Russians. It turns out the Russians reciprocate Tukk’s interest. However, Tukk’s boss knows they have baited a honey trap for his socially inept deputy, but the Russians don’t know that they know—at least not yet. If that were not awkward enough, there is also a mad scribbler of verse who periodically crashes the party in Toomas Hussar’s The Spy and the Poet (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

The on-the-wagon Tukk makes Frasier Crane look like Hunter S. Thompson. He regularly nurses a ghastly non-alcoholic beer at a local café, but for a spy, such habits are bad for business. One night, Tukk can’t help notice Miku the grubby unkempt poet getting brutally shot down by Nala, a mysterious femme fatale straight out of central casting (or Dzerzhinsky Square). On his way home, he comes across the disheveled Nala, looking the apparent victim of a mugging.

Tukk probably should have been suspicious when she turns up at his flat with a token of her appreciation. At least he is the first one to spot Nala in surveillance photos of the local Russian operatives. Further compounding Tukk’s embarrassment, the director orders him to play along. Now both intelligence services can hear just clumsy he is around women, in painful detail. During the course of the investigation, Tukk sort of befriends the hipster manchild Miku, after clearing of involvement with the Russians. Of course, the seducer and the seducee will start developing feelings for each other, in spite of their better judgement—and just about everything else about Tukk, the poor sad sack.

For its domestic audience, S&P evidently has a lot to say about Estonian identity. Aesthetically, you can definitely see it tilting away from a Slavic orientation and towards Scandinavia. In terms of tone, S&P gives viewers a sense of what to expect if Bent Hamer or Aki Kaurismäki adapted a le Carré novel. Still, the Russians are definitely the bad guys, which is pretty true to reality in the Baltics, but bizarrely means Hussar’s film will not be screened in the White House anytime soon.

As Tukk, Jan Uuspõld raises dead pan to an excruciating high art form. He lets us know there is a spark in there, but holy smokes, it is buried deep. Lana Vatsel is quite the fiery contrast, but she brings unexpected depth and humanity to Nala, the Roma vamp. Rain Tolk looks like Zach Galifianakis after a five-day grain alcohol bender, but he is hampered by Miku’s rather limited role. It just seems like he is there to facilitate a handful of plot points. Regardless, the film is peppered with wonderfully subtle supporting turns, including Mari Abel as a colleague who just might have more affection with Tukk than she realized and Loore Martma as the compassionate waitress at the café where it happens.

Cinematographer Rein Kotov gives it a stylish austere look, well in keeping Scandinavian modernism. It is a cool, frosty film, but Hussar is not afraid to let his characters look silly. It is not out of cruelty, but to humanize them. While S&P might perfectly capture the Estonian national character, we can only hope and pray the incompetence of the Russian agents also reflects reality. Highly recommended for sophisticated audience for its offbeat humor and noir intrigue, The Spy and the Poet screens Tuesday (1/10), Friday (1/13), and next Sunday (1/15), during this year’s PSIFF.

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Friday, January 06, 2017

IIFC ’17: Commune (short)

It is hardly surprising this North London house has such bad vibes. Hippies used to live there—just like the Manson Family and Bill Ayers. They might have attained their lofty occult goals, but a malevolent power remains. It will torment the unsuspecting new caretaker in director-producer-screenwriter-editor Thomas Perrett’s short film Commune (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema.

It sounds like a good deal. Tom can live in the spacious house rent-free, as long as he chases away the squatters. It is even furnished, sort of. It definitely looks like the previous tenants were stoners. The abandoned baby carriage is a little creepy, but it is nothing compared to some of the flyers they left behind. Promising means of “transcending” the earthly body, the “Godless Commune of Sodom” probably made the Process Church look like Unitarians.

Obviously, Tom is in for it (especially since Kubrick’s The Shining is one of the director’s key influences). However, the way Perrett goes about making things go bump in the night is pretty smart and convincing. He definitely has highly-attuned horror movie instincts, often suggesting rather than outright showing, leaving room to let viewer imaginations do his work for him. It also must be readily asserted, there is a climatic bit that is totally freaky.

Frankly, Tom Weller is probably better than at least ninety percent of the airheaded victims you find it most horror movies. He looks and sounds like a real person, who really doesn’t make any egregious decisions. Still, the real star is the spooky house and the unsettling clutter. Some terrific art and design work went into Commune, presumably on a decidedly limited budget. The results are quite effectively sinister. Highly recommended, Commune screens Monday morning (1/9) during this year’s IIFC and on January 21st as part of the Horror-on-Sea Film Festival.

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Reel South: Soul City

Floyd McKissick endorsed Nixon in 1972 and was appointed to the bench by Republican Governor James G. Martin in 1990. That made him quite a maverick among civil rights activists, but McKissick was his own man—but he was also a man of vision. He had a plan for a new city entirely conceived, built, and managed by African Americans. It could have been something like Reagan’s “shining city on a hill,” but it was undermined by politics (and one might argue, ugly architecture). The story of the founding and still-born death of the ambitious North Carolina community are chronicled in Monica Berra, SheRea DelSol & Gini Richards’ Soul City (trailer here), which airs as part of the current season of Reel South on PBS’s World Channel (hosted by Darius Rucker).

While McKissick led the Congress on Racial Equality, he pretty forthrightly advocated “Black Power,” even though he sounds a bit slippery in 1960s archival footage when asked to explain what that term meant to him personally. Therefore, many former allies inevitably charged him with selling out when he endorsed Nixon and started accepting HUD money to build Soul City.

Both Nixon and North Carolina’s Republican Governor James Holshouser (quite the rarity south of the Mason-Dixon back in that day) threw their weight behind Soul City, but the newly elected Sen. Jesse Helms did not. As one might expect, he emerges as the villain of villains in Soul City. Apparently, the Soul City project fell victim to rumors and tabloid journalism, which Sen. Helms exploited to cut all Federal funding. Unfortunately, Berra and company never really explain any of the allegations. They just assure us it was all slander, but that only leaves viewers wondering.

Regardless, McKissick is a fascinating, larger-than-life figure, who deserves his own full documentary-profile treatment, beyond the half-hour SC. The narrative of Soul City’s initial development and premature demise is also quite instructive. However, amateur architectural critics might wonder if the shortcomings of 1970s Brutalist and International style architecture hindered the project, at least on a psychological level. The surviving buildings that were erected certainly look very much of their time, which in this case, is not necessarily an endorsement. It also looks like the could-have-been iconic Soul City sign already had conspicuous rust stains streaking the concrete background. That just doesn’t help build confidence.

The filmmakers talk to most of McKissick’s close associates, but sadly nearly all of the relevant political figures, including Nixon, have long since gone to the great logrolling swamp in the sky. Although the helmers are more-or-less conventional in their approach, the film sounds terrific thanks to the groovy original soundtrack performed by the UNCSA Jazz Band. Recommended for the history and music (but not the architecture), Soul City premieres this Sunday (1/8) on World Channel.

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