J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Open Window

Open Window
Directed by Mia Goldman
Image Entertainment

Even in the original Death Wish (which just marked its thirty-five year anniversary), it would not have been believable for Charles Bronson to hunt down his wife’s attackers and extract retribution. While Bronson’s Paul Kersey finds therapeutic value in dispensing vigilante justice, that simply is not a realistic option for most victims of violent crime. The recovery process can be difficult for victims and family members alike, as writer-director Mia Goldman can attest. The survivor of a brutal attack, Goldman’s experiences directly inform her debut feature, Open Window (trailer here), which is now available on DVD.

Izzy (short for Isabel) Fieldston and Peter Delaney appear to be the perfect couple. Newly engaged, everything seems to be perfect in their lives, except for Delaney’s strained relationship with his leftist father and Fieldston’s issues with her over-bearing mother. Then one day, a sexual predator enters their home through the open garage window. Before raping her, he says in words that will later torment her: “Thanks for inviting me in.”

Her fiancé tries to be supportive, but Fieldston’s refusal to go to the police gnaws at him. As she withdraws emotionally and he becomes increasingly irritable, their relationship falters. At least he succeeds in convincing her to see Dr. Ann Monohan, a psychiatrist affiliated with his university, who helps Fieldston start to recover emotionally. Their counseling scenes together unquestionably feature the sharpest writing in the film.

As Izzy Fieldston, Robin Tunney consistently hits the right pitches throughout Window, never over or underplaying her character’s tumultuous emotions. Two-time Academy Award nominated Shirley Knight is also convincingly authoritative and humane as Dr. Monohan. Unfortunately, playing Fieldston’s mother, Cybill Shepherd comes across as an inappropriate drama queen, often taxing the credulity and patience of the audience. (It is sort of interesting though to see her paired again with Elliott Gould, who plays Fieldston’s sympathetic sports-writer father, reuniting after their 1970’s on-screen coupling in the unnecessary remake of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.)

Clearly, Goldman is well regarded in the industry, attracting big name directors Lasse Hallstrom (known for My Life as a Dog and Something to Talk About, which Goldman edited) and Todd Field (responsible for the thematically related In the Bed Room) as Window’s executive producers. Cliff Eidelman also contributes a moody and effective score that at times sounds somewhat jazz-flavored, and features drummer Peter Erskine, trumpeter Wayne Bergeron, and saxophonist Daniel Higgins, all of whom have recorded jazz sessions as leaders.

Goldman proves to be a remarkably sensitive screenwriter and director. While Window might not be what many would consider a fun viewing experience given its subject matter, it is a finely crafted directorial debut, offering genuine insight into the survival process, both for the targets of crimes of brutality, and their friends and family.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Filipino Cinema: Serbis

The décor is rotting, the prints are atrocious, and patrons constantly disrupt the screenings, but nobody really minds. People do not really come to the inappropriately named Family Theater for the movies, but for the “service,” or “serbis” as it translates in Tagalog. Running the theater is indeed a bizarre family affair in Brillante Ma. Mendoza’s Serbis (trailer here), an explicit but not the least bit erotic film, opening today in New York.

During previous times, the Family must have been a grand movie palace, before it went to seed in every possible way. Within its walls, the Pineda family is in turmoil. Once owners of three adult theaters, only the Family now remains. Their finances are so precarious they often take out short-term loans to cover their hot checks. Their personal lives are just as chaotic. Nanny Flor, the matriarch, is prosecuting their father for bigamy and cousin Alan is dealing with a pregnant girlfriend and a painful boil on his backside. Nayda, the dutiful daughter tries to hold everything together, while raising her son amidst such a questionable environment.

Though the films they screen appear to be heterosexual in orientation, nearly all the solicitation happening in the theater involve the local gay street hustlers. Working and living in close proximity to such explicit images and behavior, the Pinedas have become completely desensitized. For the uninitiated audience though, it all seems crazy, but Mendoza’s restless camera follows it all, darting through the once stately building like a bee in flight.

Thanks to the baroquely grungy work of production designers Benjamin Pedero and Carlo Tabije and art directors Harley Alcasid and Deans Habal, the imposing building dominates Serbis, becoming the film’s lead character. While Mendoza’s cast all seem natural and unaffected in their roles, it is his female leads who dominate this cinematic slice of vice. Jaclyn Jose nicely conveys all the pent-up hopes and resentments of Nayda, while Gina Pareno is a force of nature as Flor, a woman desperately trying to maintain some sort of moral standards, while her family lives off the vulgar and licentious.

Clearly, Serbis is not for everyone. However, instead of titillating, its graphic sexual content has the opposite effect, neither romanticizing nor eroticizing the commerce hosted in the Family Theater. In fact, many might feel the urge to shower in disinfectant after viewing the film. Yet, Mendoza’s bold tracking shots and sly humor are undeniably entertaining, and the drama of the Pineda family is completely believable and often compelling. Frequently gross, Serbis is also a bold, surprisingly engrossing film, most definitely for mature audiences. It opens today in New York at the Angelika.

(Regent Releasing, Rated R for sexual content, nudity, and language.)

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Manchevski’s Shadows

When Milcho Manchevski started filming his breakthrough debut Before the Rain, Macedonia was not yet a fully recognized country. While the modern Macedonia is a relatively young country, the region carries the baggage of centuries of dramatic and often bloody history. After all, Alexander the Great began his conquest of the known world as king of ancient Macedon. The past figuratively haunts the work of Milcho Manchevski and literally haunts the protagonist of his latest film, Shadows (trailer here), opening tomorrow in New York.

Dr. Lazar Perkov is a good father, but as a man, he is a bit wishy-washy, avoiding conflict with his over-bearing mother, Dr. Vera Perkova, at all costs. He is so programmed to respond to her, he causes a terrible traffic accident while reaching for his cell-phone to take her call. Nearly embraced by the light, he comes back to Earth—remember the name was Lazar.

Though fully recovered physically, something is still wrong. Returning home, Perkov finds a withered elderly woman in his apartment, speaking in a mysterious tongue. Recording her cryptic speech, Perkov looks for help from the local linguistic professor, but finds Menka, his research assistant wife in his place. According to her, Perkov’s uninvited caller has been demanding in an ancient Aegean dialect: “Return what’s not yours.” Though she is initially contemptuous of Perkov, sparks quickly fly between Perkov and Menka. While at first, he precipitously retreats from her sexual advances, the seeds of obsession are firmly planted. The nature of reality becomes increasingly problematic for Perkov, as visions of the alluring Menka, the old woman, and a hobbled old man with an infant increasingly intrude into his daily life.

Shadows is a ghost story in a very real sense, but not a horror story as such. However, Manchevski maintains an eerily effective mood throughout the film, in contrast to the rather inconsistent tone of Dust, Manchevski’s sophomore slump following the masterful Rain. Ranking solidly between Manchevski’s first two films, Shadows might in fact be his strongest work from a purely visual standpoint, thanks in large measure also to Fabio Cianchetti’s brooding cinematography.

If not as visceral as Rain, Manchevski’s screenplay is compelling and economical. It is also his most sexually explicit work, by far. As in his previous films, events from the past continue to exert a palpable influence on those in the present. In Manchevski’s Skopje, antiquity is only concealed by a thin veneer of modernity. It can be heady stuff, but Manchevski pulls the audience through at a good clip, aided by a strong cast, particularly Vesna Stanojevska, whose performance brings surprising depth to the enigmatic Menka.

With Shadows, Manchevski seems to be back on track. Dark and moody, but oddly satisfying, Shadows is a film for adults—meaning those with adult sensibilities. It opens tomorrow in New York at the Cinema Village.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Hannah Senesh: Blessed is the Match

According to novelist and Israeli Defense Force veteran Alan Kaufman, IDF soldiers are sometimes referred to as “matches,” in an allusion to Hannah Senesh’s beloved poem. Though executed in the waning days of World War II for her part in an ill-fated attempt to rescue Hungarian Jewry, her poetry endures as a source of inspiration and national pride for the people of Israel. Taking its name from that Senesh quatrain, Roberta Grossman’s Academy Award shortlisted documentary Blessed is the Match: the Life and Death of Hannah Senesh (trailer here) opens today in New York.

Filmed with the support of Senesh’s surviving family, Blessed had access to thousands of photos and personal documents, many never publicly aired before, revealing her short but intense life. Born to a prosperous family, the teen-aged Senesh still chafed under Hungarian anti-Semitism, eventually expatriating to Palestine. As Hitler pressured his reluctant Hungarian allies to adopt his Final Solution, Senesh was living safely on a kibbutz. However, the young poet, barely into her twenties, willingly enlisted with the British for a risky mission back to her homeland, putting herself directly in harm’s way.

When Senesh and her two comrades took off for their Yugoslavian entry point, Hungary was still a sovereign country, where Senesh would have freedom of movement as a citizen. When they landed, Germany had occupied Hungarian and installed the SS-like Arrow Cross to do their bidding. As a Jew, Senesh suddenly had no rights in Hungary, yet she persisted in her mission. In his final recorded interview, one of her fellow paratroopers relates an incident shortly before her capture in which she gave him a scrap of paper, which he nearly lost to the sands of time. On that paper, of course, were the lines of her famous poem: “Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame . . . “

For Grossman though, the heart of the film is the relationship between Senesh and her mother Catherine, whose memoirs are voiced by Joan Allen (who also narrated the excellent Rape of Europa, which documented the National Socialists’ systematic plundering of Europe’s artistic heritage.) For months they were imprisoned simultaneously but separately, allowed only furtive glances of each other. However, their emotional bond remained unbreakable.

In Blessed, Grossman uses just about every technique available to documentarians, including talking head interviews, extensive use of still photography, in-character voice-overs, and even dramatic re-creations. While there is an understandable impulse to canonize Senesh, Grossman does include recollections of those who knew the soldier poet, but did not exactly love her (but certainly respect her courage and sacrifice). We also hear from Senesh’s nephews, the always eloquent historian, Sir Martin Gilbert, and even Shimon Peres, who briefly knew Senesh during her kibbutz days.

Though short-listed, Blessed was disappointingly denied an Academy nomination for best documentary. It is in fact, far superior to most of the final nominees, except the outstanding Man on Wire. Senesh’s story is clearly compelling, and Grossman’s absorbing treatment is both informative and quite cinematic. It opens today in New York at the Sunshine Theater.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Night at the Opera with Gianluigi Trovesi

All’Opera: Profumo di Violetta
By Gianluigi Trovesi
ECM Records 2068


Hollywood has an enduring ethnic stereotype of Italian men as frustrated opera singers. Though a caricature, there is undeniably a greater knowledge of the music throughout all levels of Italian society, due to the “banda” tradition of local brass and woodwind ensembles specializing in such operatic fare. It was in such an organization Italian reedman Gianluigi Trovesi began his musical career when his local banda lost their clarinetist. Now an established ECM recording artist, Trovesi pays homage to his banda roots and their operatic repertoire in All’Opera.

Recorded with the Filarmonica Mousike Orchestra, a contemporary banda ensemble, Trovesi’s approach is best described in terms of a mosaic, juxtaposing themes from instantly recognizable operas, with his own succinct compositions, some derived from classical sources, others entirely original. The result is a kind of quilt of banda musical patches, conveying the spirit of traditional Italian music, while remaining true to the jazz idiom.

Some of Trovesi’s originals essentially function as table-setters, like the opening fanfare of “Alba,” which segues nicely into the similarly textured “Toccata,” adapted from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Three Orpheus inspired originals follow, including the sensitive ballad “Euridice,” which proves a perfect vehicle for Trovesi rich contra-alto clarinet sound, concluding with a return to the original Monteverdi in a brief thumbnail of the “Ritornello.”

While the music of All’Opera is highly structured (as one would expect given the size of the orchestra backing Trovesi), many of the selections have an infectious swing. Seventeenth Century composer Maurizio Cazzati might not be widely interpreted today, but Trovesi’s arrangement (with Corrado Guarino and Christina Plihar) of “Intrecciar Ciaccone,” based on his “Ciaccona” has an overtly jazz vibe, vigorously propelled by drummer Stefano Bertoli. Echoes of “Ciaccone” are then later heard in Trovesi’s equally swinging original “Vespone.”

As with L’Orfeo, Trovesi’s treatment of La Traviata mixes extracts of Verdi with originals, including the leader’s two part “Profumo di Violetta.” Marco Remondini’s electronically distorted cello also provides distinctive aural colors to his “Violetta a le alter” without overwhelming the overall Verdi suite. However, as the lead voice on “largo al factotum” from Rossini’s Barber of Seville, the intense wah-wah cello effects do stick out conspicuously.

While Trovesi plays some alto and piccolo (the latter heard to great effect on the playful miniature “Stizzoso, mio stizzoso,” based on Pergolesi’s Servant Mistress) he largely opts for the clarinet on All’Opera, the instrument which first brought him into the sphere of banda music. Although far from a household name in America, Trovesi is one of Italy’s top improvising musicians, who deserves the sort of international recognition his fellow countryman and label-mate Enrico Rava has achieved. His last ECM release, Vaghissimo Ritratto, made my 2007 top ten list, and All’Opera is recommended with much the same enthusiasm.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Rhythm: a Novel

Rhythm: a Novel
By Robin Meloy Goldsby
Bass Lion Publishing


For many jazz musicians, music is the family business. For instance, Chico O’Farill, Ellis Marsalis, Duke Ellington, Art Blakey, Jackie McLean, and John Coltrane all had children who followed in their footsteps. Add to their ranks the fictional example of Latin jazz percussionist Helen Bowman, whose daughter Jane finds her place in the world as a funk drummer in Rhythm (book trailer here), a new novel by Robin Meloy Goldsby, the author of Piano Girl, an entertaining and often hilarious memoir of her career as the house pianist in Manhattan’s big Midtown hotels.

Goldsby is still a snappy writer who infuses her work with verve and energy, but there are not as many laughs in Rhythm due to the heartbreaks life has in store for Jane Bowman. At thirteen, Jane loses her mother in a freak night-club fire, which understandably leaves deep scars. Due to the circumstances surrounding the tragedy, the young musician also feels partly responsible for her mother’s death. It is not logical, but intense emotions rarely are.

At first, music is the only outlet for the young drummer’s grief, but she refuses to play with other musicians or perform in public. The turning point in her development comes with the arrival of Olivia Blue, a music therapist who recruits Bowman for her R&B band at the Allegheny Gatehouse School for disadvantaged boys. Drawing insight from her own psychic scars, Blue helps Jane process her pain and reclaim the music she loves. At first a mentor, she eventually becomes her step-mother as well. Breaking the chain of abuse becomes a major theme of Rhythm, and for a while it does appear Blue has escaped her own tragic past. However, Goldsby has a symmetrical bombshell to drop late in the book and deftly weaves in the horrific events of 9-11 shortly thereafter.

Goldsby has a distinct talent for conveying the life of a musician, which is not surprising given her own experience. After recovering as best she can, Jane pursues a career that places her in the drummer’s chair of S.O.S., a talented all-women funk band trapped in the purgatory of novelty bookings, and backing up Bobby Angel, an R&B singer on the cusp of superstardom. There she learns at least one important life lesson: “Never, ever eat anything while you’re being filmed.” (p. 224) Jane gets this learning experience courtesy of an unflattering plate of mashed potatoes and gravy, but her musician friend takes mischievous glee in a similar experience with more suggestive food. Ah yes, life on the road.

All of Goldsby’s details about the gigging life of a professional musician ring with authenticity, and suggest both familiarity and affection for the sort of James Brown-inspired funk and soul Jane’s bands play. Often the dialogues zings in Rhythm, but the stresses and tribulations Jane endures regularly tempers the overall mood of the book. I guess that’s life, which for Jane is deeply entwined with music. As in Piano Girl, Goldsby again demonstrates she is one of the best at expressing the intangibles of music in the harsh black-and-white of the printed page. Believe me, it is not an easy thing to do.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

NYJFF: The Return of Nathan Becker

August 12, 1952 would be the last night on Earth for thirteen Soviet Jewish writers and intellectuals. Loyal Communists who had promoted the Russian war effort as members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, they were fatally purged by Stalin in what came to be known as the “Night of Murdered Poets.” Among them was one Peretz Markish, a Yiddish poet, playwright, and novelist, who also penned the screenplay for the only Soviet Yiddish film of the sound era, The Return of Nathan Becker, which screens tomorrow at the NY Jewish Film Festival.

Markish was not the only member of the Return production who would not live through the Stalin years. However, co-star Solomon Mikhoels was considered too prominent a public figure as the artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater for the usual show trial and summary execution. Instead, he was assassinated on Stalin’s orders in 1948 through a staged automobile accident. It is Mikhoels that the NYJFF pays tribute to tomorrow with screenings of the 1925 silent film, Jewish Luck, and Return from 1932. The leading Soviet Jewish actor of his day, Mikhoels was the cultural point-man for convincing his co-religionists their faith and heritage were indeed compatible with Marxism. Return was very consciously a part of that program.

The film is in fact, propaganda. Wisely, the National Center for Jewish Film, which restored Return, added an introductory preface explaining Mikhoels and Markish would eventually be killed by the same regime the film proceeds to exalt. As it opens, the burly title character is returning to his homeland after years of toiling for Yankee robber barons. The Great Depression has laid America low, but the Soviet Union is portrayed as the new land of plenty. His idiosyncratic father, played by Mikhoels, has abandoned the shtetl, becoming an ardent Communist. So should you all is the clear message of the film.

The noble worker has difficulty acclimating to his new home. He is so used to the competitive pressures of capitalism, he chafes at what he perceives as half-hearted efforts from his co-workers. While the work leaders try to explain the “Soviet” way to Becker, he will have none of it, challenging them to a bricklaying duel to prove his point. Becker knows only one way to work—100% flat-out. He starts fast, but is eventually worn down by the ergonomically advanced Communist methods. Believing himself disgraced, Becker prepares to return to America. However, his father and the work leaders reassure him he is still welcome in the workers’ paradise. In fact, they can learn from him as well, refining Soviet bricklaying techniques with his own innovations.

In a way, it is hardly surprising that the producers of propaganda telling laborers to work smarter, not harder, would eventually run afoul of the state. As propaganda filmmaking, Return has some interesting visuals, like the broken Becker dwarfed by the looming brick towers of his ill-fated challenge, but it is nowhere near the league of Sergei Eisenstein’s films. It is a highly significant work, but one that must be considered in the proper historical context—specifically the fates of Mikhoels and Markish. A fascinating viewing experience, Return screens tomorrow (1/25) at the Walter Reade Theater.

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NYJFF: The Gift to Stalin

One of the scarier aspects of Stalin’s reign of terror was the effectiveness of his cult of personality. His image was omnipresent, investing his iron-fisted rule with a secular idolatry which brooked no criticism. (Thankfully, nothing like that could ever happen here, right?) In fact, reverence for his personality cult was so deeply ingrained in the Soviet people, many of those who suffered personal persecution under his regime reportedly still wept when news of Stalin’s death was released to the public. That emotional dichotomy is dramatized in Rustem Abdrashev’s The Gift to Stalin (Kazakh trailer here), which screens tonight at the NYJFF.

Under Stalinism, Kazakhstan became the dumping ground for massive deportations of Soviet ethnic minorities (including a surprisingly large Korean community). As Gift opens in 1949, young Sashka’s Jewish family is on one such cramped transport making its way through the Eurasian steppe, in a scene that bears an obvious similarity to recent European history. The train stops at each provincial station just long enough to dump the freshly deceased. However, Sashka’s family takes advantage of that time to smuggle him off the train in the company of corpses, where he is discovered and essentially adopted by Kasym, a fearsome looking, but gentle track worker.

Given the risks inherent in sheltering Sashka, the Muslim Kasym has the village spiritualist rename him something less suspicious and more Kazakh sounding: Sabyr, meaning humble. Though still physically powerful, Kasym is old enough to be his grand-father, so he gets welcome help from his neighbor Verka, the exiled widow of an alleged traitor. Unfortunately, the village cannot simply come together to raise Sashka/Sabyr. Even on the lonely steppe, the Party apparatus, represented by a venal policeman and the sadistic regional military commander, maintain the Stalinist atmosphere of fear.

In addition to victimizing the local women, the party leaders are also preparing for the town’s commemoration of Stalin’s big seven-o. Gifts from children across the USSR are being collected for the nationwide birthday celebration. The child offering the best sacrifice wins the privilege of giving their gift to Stalin personally. It might sound like a questionable honor, but Sashka covets it as an opportunity to petition Stalin for the release of his parents. However, the gift Stalin really wanted was the first successful Soviet test of an atomic bomb, which will soon literally rock Kazkhstan.

Abdrashev dramatically employs the vastness of the steppe to express the alienation of his exiled characters and deftly handles his many young actors. The physically imposing Nurjuman Ikhtimbayev turns in a legitimately touching performance as Kasym, the gentle giant. Dalen Shintemirov comes across quite naturally on-screen, neither cloying nor affected in the role of young Sashka.

Told in flashbacks by the adult Sashka, now safely residing in Israel, Gift is an unabashedly sentimental story of sacrifice and thanksgiving, but honestly earns its emotional pay-off. To its credit, the film does not whitewash the realities of life under Stalinism, particularly for the ethnic minorities banished to the Eurasian republics. One of the best films of this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, Gift screens once tonight and twice on Monday (1/26) at the Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

6-Shooter: Donkey Punch

Yes, that is what the film is about. The apocryphal (one would hope) technique for violent gratification plays a pivotal role in the latest installment of Magnet Releasing’s 6-Shooter series of international genre films, leading directly to one death, and setting in motion of a chain of murder and mayhem which results in several more dead bodies. Mixing graphic violence and hipster irony, director Olly Blackburn’s Donkey Punch (trailer here), opens today in New York.

Tammi and her two friends might be hot, but they are not that bright, blithely partying with four strange men they have known for maybe an hour in the middle of the Mediterranean, with no regard for the obvious risks. To be fair, Tammi is not thrilled at the prospect herself, but acquiesces to her girlfriends’ enthusiasm, particularly their hard-partying ringleader, Lisa (though the third, Kim, played by British actor Ray Winstone’s daughter Jaime, is not far behind her).

As Tammi gets to know Sean, the responsible ship’s engineer, she starts to feel better about the situation. Soon the drugs come out, while Bluey, a middle-class white Londoner who wants to be Snoop Dog, raises provocative sexual topics (including the title term) to test the girls’ reactions. As things heat up, Tammi and Sean stay on-deck for some sensitive love-making, while Bluey takes Lisa, Kim, and his two mates below deck for a session of video-taped debauchery, which eventually turns deadly.

Suddenly, the men have Lisa’s dead body to dispose of, and a videotape record of her untimely demise. Desperate to protect their futures prospects, the men plan to dump Lisa’s body overboard and head to international waters to report her death as an accident. Scared and angry, Tammi and Kim band together in what becomes a pitched battle of the sexes.

With each brutal skirmish, Blackburn gleefully ratchets up the over-the-top craziness of the film’s violence. Not truly a slasher or horror film, Donkey more closely aligns with the tropes of exploitation films, including the “if-I-had-only-known” laments for innocence (such as it was) lost. In truth, Donkey is a disingenuous morality play, reveling in the sins it ostensibly punishes.

At least things never drag. Blackburn might be cynical, but his direction is crisp. He makes effective use of the claustrophobic setting and with co-writer David Bloom, shows a perverse talent for answering the question: what goes horribly wrong next? Unfortunately, many of the actors are often difficult to distinguish from each other (those pasty-white Britons all look the same I guess) and at times their accents are a challenge to decipher, especially Tom Burke as the wannabe gangster Bluey.

Sort of an exploitation version of Titanic, except none of the men look like adolescents, Blackburn’s film is definitely intended for edgier audiences. Compulsively watchable, Donkey might be perfect for midnight movie screenings, but as a main course, will probably leave many feeling hollow. It opens today in New York at the Cinema Village.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Inspired by Hitchcock and the Ripper: The Lodger

In an eminently defensible decision, BBC History magazine’s 2005 readers’ poll selected Jack the Ripper as the “Worst Briton in History.” At least Whitechapel’s notorious serial killer would inspire some interesting fiction, including Robert Bloch’s classic short story, “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” and Marie Belloc Lowndes’ novel, The Lodger. The latter would become the source material for several motion picture adaptations, including Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1927 silent film and David Ondaatje’s contemporary updating of The Lodger story (trailer here), which opens in New York tomorrow.

While Ondaatje’s Lodger takes place in present day Los Angeles and Hitchcock’s Lodger is set in foggy London eighty-some years prior, both films start in roughly the same place. As a serial killer stalks his victims, sensational press coverage heightens the city’s growing anxiety. Against this backdrop, a reserved stranger with a mysterious black bag rents living quarters from a family, but insists the portraits be removed from his walls, because their eyes disturb him. From there, the films diverge completely.

Malcolm, Ondaatje’s secretive lodger, explains to his prospective land-lady, Ellen, that as a writer he keeps odd hours and can never be disturbed. He refuses to meet her husband, but offers plenty of up-front cash. Ellen has no problem with any of his conditions, particularly his cash, but she is also clearly attracted to her new tenant.

Simultaneously, Chandler Manning of the L.A. County Sheriff’s department is pursuing a serial killer who is re-enacting the murders of Jack the Ripper. As an expert in Ripper history Manning would seem to be the perfect cop for the case, but the forensic evidence from the recent killings has exonerated a man Manning previously sent to death row for a similar pattern of murders. With his career in jeopardy, Manning is convinced the key to the case lies in determining which historical Ripper suspect the killer believes he is emulating, so he enrolls his unfortunate partner in a crash course of Jack the Ripper 101.

In what is more-or-less the lead role, Albert Molina is an impressive screen presence as Manning, elevating the film above standard thriller fare. The British actor is great fun to watch as he growls politically incorrect abuse at his partner and delves into the Ripper lore. A number of interesting character-actors flesh out Lodger’s cast, including Philip Baker Hall (who was probably born stern and flinty), as the territorial LAPD Captain Smith. Unfortunately, Simon Baker (star of TV's The Mentalist) fails to convey a true sense of menace as the title man of mystery, but Hope Davis is quite convincing in the surprisingly tricky role of Ellen, his on-screen foil.

Ondaatje and cinematographer David A. Armstrong (known for his work on the Saw franchise) often visually channel Hitchcock and the script even lifts an entire scene from Psycho (not the shower sequence) as a tribute. Unlike Armstrong’s previous films, Ondaatje wisely keeps most of the gore safely off-screen. While the clichéd final ending is a bit of a disappointment, The Lodger is still a modest, but enjoyable little thriller, thanks in large measure to Molina’s thoroughly entertaining performance. It opens tomorrow in New York at the Quad Theatre.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Liverpool: Of Time and the City

If people know anything about the city of Liverpool, it is probably as the hometown of the Beatles. They might also be familiar with its powerhouse soccer teams (football, whatever) and its distinctive architecture, most notably that of the Liverpool Waterfront, officially recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Unfortunately, Terence Davies’ highly subjective new documentary, Of Time and the City (trailer here), which opens today in New York, will do little to alter preconceptions of Liverpool as Beatles Town, UK.

The 1998 announcement of Liverpool’s selection as a 2008 European Cultural Capitol provided the original impetus for the documentary, which would be greatly re-conceptualized by Davies. Described as a visual poem, Time is more of a meditation on time gone by, in which we hear Davies’ somber narration describe his early years growing up in the city, superimposed over rare archival film footage and underscored with appropriately sensitive music. The licensed musical selections are overwhelmingly classical. However, in one particularly effective sequence, Peggy Lee’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” poignantly accompanies footage of the civic authorities razing of old but picturesque slums, in order to build newer, more impersonally modern slums.

In fact, for all of Liverpool’s stately architecture, there are as much or more scenes of half demolished buildings and decaying tenements. Thanks to the efforts of archive producer Jim Anderson, Time is filled with such images of an undeniable ugly beauty. However, Davies’ voice-overs, freely blending the poetry of T.S. Eliot and other famous quotations and epigrams, with his own reminiscences is often quite pretentious.

As for the city’s history, we see film of Gregory Peck attending a premiere in Liverpool and hear Davies rather sarcastically recalling Queen Elizabeth’s marriage to Prince Philip. We quickly understand Davies resents the Royals for their wealth and leisure and he disdains the Catholic Church of his youth for being Catholic, but it never really builds to an epiphany about the city of Liverpool specifically or about human nature in general.

Frankly, Time feels much longer than its 77 minutes. There are indeed some arresting black-and-white images married to some powerful musical selections, but the film has little staying power. Despite its artistic ambitions, Time makes about as much emotional impact as the aerial tours of Europe PBS affiliates constantly broadcast on weekend afternoons. Unlike Guy Maddin’s wild mythologizing (presumably) in My Winnipeg, Davies never really connects the audience to the soul of his city. He just provides pretty postcards from a travelogue. It opens today in New York at the Film Forum.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

70 Years of Blue Note Records: The Blue Note 7

Mosaic: a Celebration of Blue Note Records
By the Blue Note 7


Blue Note Records’ longtime slogan: “The Finest in Jazz Since 1939,” is nothing more than truth in advertising for the loyal fans of the venerable jazz label. On that maiden day in 1939, co-founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff recorded boogie-woogie pianists Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons. During its early years Blue Note cut some excellent sessions from traditional artists, like Sidney Bechet, but it was in the 1950’s and 1960’s that the label really came into its own, as the premiere home of Hard-bop, the earthier, more soulful successor to bebop. Specially assembled to mark the 70th anniversary of Blue Note Records, the Blue Note 7 specifically honors those classic hard-bop sessions with the release of Mosaic.

As the musical director of the Blue Note 7, pianist Bill Charlap is the leader among leaders. He is also the only member of the BN7 signed to the label. However, tenor-player Ravi Coltrane has important family connections to Blue Note. His legendary father, John Coltrane, only recorded one session of his own for the label, but it was a great one: Blue Train. He also appeared as a sideman on Johnny Griffin’s aptly titled A Blowin’ Session, and Sonny Clark’s Sonny's Crib, as well as some historically significant live recordings documenting his time with Thelonious Monk, which were released posthumously, well after the Blue Note’s 1985 re-launch. With trumpeter Nicholas Payton, altoist Steve Coleman and a rhythm section of guitarist Peter Bernstein, drummer Lewis Nash, and bassist Peter Washington rounding out the seven, the BN7 is quite an accomplished group of either distinguished leaders or absolutely top-flight sidemen, all very well known to those supporting the New York club scene.

The title track, Cedar Walton’s “Mosaic,” originally recorded by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers while Walton served as musical director, is a Hard-bop flag-waver, totally in the spirit of the original. It is a good vehicle for some blowing from just about all involved, including Charlap himself. Long associated with his interpretations of the Great American Songbook, Charlap’s bop chops are largely under-appreciated, but he has co-led a number of gigs with the fiery Parker-inspired alto-player Phil Woods. Appropriately, Nash takes it out, channeling the hard-swinging Blakey spirit.

While the BN7’s rendition of “Mosaic” has plenty of fire, they are actually more effective on tunes taken at something less than breakneck tempos. “The Search for Peace,” composed and recorded by McCoy Tyner (an alumni of both Blue Note Records and the classic John Coltrane Quartet), is an elegant meditation, giving Payton and Ravi Coltrane ample space to stretch out. Likewise, the intriguing combination of Wilson’s flute and Bernstein’s guitar perfectly fit Bobby Hutcherson’s “Little B’s Poem.” Probably the highlight of Mosaic though, is “Idle Moments,” a slow blues originally composed by pianist and Blue Note A&R man Duke Pearson for the label’s resident guitarist of the 1960’s and 1970’s, Grant Green. Bernstein is the only solo voice in his arrangement, but the rock solid rhythm section and the supportive ensemble punctuations from the horns give it that late-night vibe that made Blue Note sessions so revered by generations of jazz fans.

The BN7 also follows in the Blue Note super-group tradition begun shortly after the label’s 1980’s resurrection. Whereas Out of the Blue was conceived as a group to promote promising young talent, and New Directions showcased relatively young but innovative artists already recording for Blue Note, the BN7 appear to be recruited mostly outside the label fold, expressly for this project. They have some killer moments on Mosaic and should really lock-in as they tour the country. Their road-show is already underway, with performances in Los Angeles and Orange County this week, culminating with a week-long stand at Birdland, starting April 14th.

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Global Lens 2009: I am from Titov Veles

Many Communist-era industrial behemoths are still around, continuing to plague the environment in former Warsaw Pact countries. Macedonian’s Titov-Veles, now known simply as Veles, is one such city dominated by a carcinogenic white elephant. Its dreary backdrop dominates Teona Strugar Mitevska’s I am from Titov Veles (trailer here), which screens again in New York at the MoMA as part of the Global Lens 2009 series (series trailer here), after closing the 2008 Macedonian Film Festival.

The blight of Veles accentuates the bleak desperation of three sisters’ lives. The eldest Slavica is a recovering heroin addict looking for economic security. Sapho, the middle sister, is obsessed with immigrating out of Macedonia. Deeply affected by their mother’s desertion and father’s subsequent death, the youngest, Afrodita, desperately clings to her older, deeply flawed sisters. Since their mother left, she has not spoken a word out loud, and might even have difficulty fully distinguishing fantasy from reality.

Mitevska portrays a rootless Macedonian, where jobs are scarce and immigration information is discussed in much the same way New Yorkers trade real estate anecdotes. Given the tremendous continuing human and environmental costs of what the press notes call “forceful socialist industrialization,” it is understandable Afrodita’s sisters are looking for a way out. However, when they find apparent escape from the doldrums of Veles, they leave behind Afrodita, in much the same manner their mother did to the entire family years before. Ill-prepared for life on her own, Afrodita’s perceptions and judgments becomes ever more questionable. Likewise, Mitevska’s narrative becomes increasingly subjective, seemingly giving Afrodita’s fantasies equal footing with ostensive reality.

In other words, Titov is most definitely a festival picture. Unfailingly patient, Mitevska lets her distinctive visuals unfold at a very deliberate pace. Often we watch Afrodita from odd angles, observing events at ankle level or over her shoulder. At other times, we see her fully exposed during moments of such vulnerability, the film feels intrusive. Mitevska’s sister and producer, Labina Mitevska, carries the entire emotional weight of the film as the lost Afrodita. It is a powerful performance, holding up well under the scrutiny of director Mitevska’s unforgiving lens.

Somehow Mitevska has crafted a film that is both impressionistic and naturalistic. While casting a critical eye on contemporary Macedonian culture, particularly the gender attitudes of the brutish men the sisters encounter, Titov is a very personal story and a demanding film. Although it might not sound like a Chamber of Commerce promotional film, was Macedonia’s Academy submission for best foreign language. While it failed to make the shortlist, it is a serious, but worthy film. It screens at MoMA this Wednesday (1/21) and Sunday (1/25).

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Naderi’s Manhattan By Numbers

Manhattan By Numbers
Directed by Amir Naderi
Pathfinder Pictures

Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris works to the extent it does in large measure thanks to Gato Barbieri’s passionate music. His lush themes and dervish-like tenor saxophone brilliantly suggest the roiling emotions subsumed beneath the acts of on-screen debasement. It is a different city and different emotions, but Barbieri’s soundtrack for Amir Naderi’s Manhattan By Numbers (now available on DVD) is equally adept at expressing inner turmoil.

Out of work and six months in arrears, George Murphy has one day to pay his back rent or face certain eviction. With Christmas fast approaching, Murphy pounds the pavement with his address book in tow, hitting up every former colleague he can reach out to, but his fellow journalists are either unable, or as he increasingly suspects, unwilling to help. The one name that keeps coming up is Tom Ryan, an estranged friend who was also laid off from his newspaper job.

At first, Murphy hopes that Ryan might be willing to help, if he could only find him. However, as he follows leads to Ryan’s whereabouts, it becomes apparent that if anything, Ryan is in worse condition than Murphy, both financially and emotionally. However, Murphy foregoes other potential courses of action, to continue his search, almost out of compulsion. Feeling guilt for turning his back on Ryan, Murphy seems to fear a similar fate will befall him if he cannot find his friend and make amends.

While all bets are off in the Village, most of Midtown and Uptown Manhattan is organized in a very logical grid format of conveniently numbered streets running across the borough and avenues running up and down. Murphy starts his day in his Inwood apartment on 215th Street and proceeds to work his down the numbers to Wall Street. Along the way he takes numerous detours, which provide a photographic time-capsule of New York some fifteen years ago. While most landmarks remain, much has changed. In most cases for the best, (but briefly seeing the late, lamented Dojo’s restaurant on St. Mark’s will certainly make some nostalgic for their cheap reliable eats).

As Murphy, John Wojda has a distinct Stephen Collins vibe, but is very convincing as the desperate everyman trying to hold his home and family together. Numbers was Iranian director Amir Naderi’s first American film after expatriating to New York for greater artistic freedom. While the film’s simple, uncomplicated plot arguably reflects a sensibility foreign to American mainstream cinema it is a perfectly accessible, linear story, nicely underscored by Barbieri’s music. Clearly, the studio agreed, because as a DVD bonus, they included behind-the-scenes footage of the Argentinean musician in the studio with Teo Macero (Miles Davis’s longtime producer), recording the Numbers score.

Unique as a film that will interest fans of Barbieri, movies set in New York, and Iranian cinema, Numbers is much like the city in which it is set. It can be cold and naturalistic, but it also holds some surprising charms.

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NYJFF: The Wedding Song

He was one of the Third Reich’s most vicious propagandists, inflaming Arab anti-Semitism, inciting attacks on Mid East Jewry, and even recruiting thousands of volunteers for special Islamic Waffen-SS units. Yet the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem’s activities during World War II and the Arabic collaboration he inspired have been largely forgotten in recent years. Against this dramatic historical backdrop, life becomes quite precarious for Tunisia’s Jewish citizens in Karin Albou’s The Wedding Song (French trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.

Two young women, the Jewish Myriam and Muslim Nour, are interested in love, not war. However, war finds them regardless in 1942 Tunisia, thanks to periodic Allied bombings. Unfortunately, in the short run, these make life more difficult for the Jews of Tunis. As part of its strategy to secure Arabic support, the occupying National Socialists demand reparation payments from Tunisian Jews, which Myriam’s mother cannot afford.

In a twist of fate, the war becomes the catalyst for each woman’s very different marriage. Despite her protests, Myriam’s mother arranges her marriage to Raoul, a wealthy doctor many years her senior, in exchange for the money demanded of them by the National Socialists. Conversely, Nour is happily betrothed to her cousin Khaled, but her father has withheld his final consent until her unemployed fiancé gets a job. This he achieves with the German occupying forces, assisting with the round-ups of Tunisian Jews.

As would be expected, the circumstances of the occupation put a strain on the young women’s friendship. Ripe for anti-Semitic propaganda, the Islamist Khaled forbids Nour from seeing Myriam. Of course, as the one who taught Nour to read Arabic, Khaled might also consider Myriam a dangerous influence on his prospective wife, possibly encouraging her to think for herself.

Given its traditional Tunisian settings, the sexual frankness of Song is quite surprising. Albou’s camera inspects every inch of her lead actresses’ bodies, to the extent that one might legitimately fear for the safety of Olympe Borval, the actress playing Nour. At times, the film seems excessively graphic, as when we see the rather invasive preparations Myriad undergoes for her wedding night. However, Albou’s direction can be quite sensitive, capturing some remarkable performances, particularly from Lizzie Brochere as Myriam. Her perspective on the German forces is also quite effective. Seen as boots on the floor or shadowy figures in the street, her camera refrains from direct eye contact, and thereby never humanizes them in any sense.

Song is an intimately human film, focusing squarely on the personal dramas of Myriam and Nour rather than the wider issues of war and ideology. Still, its depiction of occupied Tunis convincingly evokes the confusion and desperation of the time. Even though it concludes a bit abruptly, Song is finely crafted film that completely immerses viewers in a very specific time, place, and culture. Definitely recommended, it screens at the NY Jewish Film Festival this Thursday (1/22) and Saturday (1/24), with director Albou in attendance.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

On-Stage: Hollow Log

It is strange to look on stage and see a set that resembles my apartment—my college apartment, that is. Unfortunately, Denny the aging slacker has not developed in any sense since his undergraduate years. While perfectly content to sponge off his best friend Annie’s inheritance, Denny finds his unproductive existence threatened in Lawrence Dial’s slacker thriller Hollow Log, which opened at the Times Square Arts Center this weekend.

The rat’s nest created in Peter Kay’s picture-perfect set is actually Denny’s corner of Annie apartment. One can see why she is ready for him to leave. With the encouragement of her fiancé, Annie gave Denny two months notice (61 days to be exact), to find a new living arrangement, during which time, he has done nothing except smoke her secret stash. Exasperated, she offers him an ad-hoc plan. An evidence bag of Ecstasy, disguised to look like Smarties, has come into her possession and she has arranged a buyer. All Denny has to do is close the sale and he will be financially self-sufficient. However, Denny is reluctant to go through with it, suspecting the whole thing is an elaborate practical joke.

Indeed, a devious set-up is underway. In Act II, Denny’s sluggish, drug-clouded brain must figure out who is framing who, as he finds himself on the receiving end of rough interrogations from Ray, the uptight fiancé, and the suspiciously Russian police detective, Boris Chekhov, who so carelessly lost the drugs in the first place.

Log is a perfect little thriller for the post-Rent New York, where being a bohemian squatter just isn’t so cute anymore. Dial’s play perfectly captures the trendy East Village milieu, and maintains some sense of mystery as to where it is all going. His dialogue has a cutting edge and his references to the City pass the New Yorker’s credibility test.

Joachim Boyle certainly has the right presence as Denny, the chronic underachiever. Erin Roberts is particularly noteworthy as the long-suffering best-friend. Never coming across as either helpless victim or heartless evictor, her frustrations and reactions are perfectly human and understandable. In fact, the entire four person ensemble is well cast and quite professional. (On the night I attended Log, they were briefly interrupted by a sick audience member, but once that was attended to, were impressively able to snap back into character in a matter of seconds.)

Cleverly directed by Kel Haney, Log is a very well paced, somewhat comedic thriller. A detail might get glossed here and there (like just what the original criminal plan was before Denny started complicating everything, is never fully explained), but overall, Dial’s writing is sharp as a tack. With simulated drug use (actually a lot of it, Denny is a serious stoner) and some intense on-stage violence, Log is definitely for adults, but it is a smart, engaging play. Playing Thursdays through Sundays, its limited run ends February 8th.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

NYJFF: Forgotten Transports—To Estonia

Recently, an Oprah Winfrey hyped memoir of love between two concentration camp prisoners divided by a barb-wire fence was revealed to be a fraud. Both the fabricators and Winfrey should be ashamed of their actions. It was unnecessary and counter-productive, given the number of comparable and thoroughly verified historical incidents which offer the same ethical lessons Winfrey’s fabulists claimed they wish to promulgate when explaining their motivation for their deception. Several such incredible but factual human stories are told in Czech filmmaker Lukáš Přibyl’s documentary Forgotten Transports: To Estonia, which screens Monday at the New York Jewish Film Festival.

About 1,000 Jewish Czechs were transported to concentration camps in Estonia, of whom only 46 women survived. They tell their story in Transports: Estonia. Somehow, these innocent but resilient young women were able to stay together, despite enduring the harsh transit between numerous camps in Estonia and later Germany. As the war turned against the National Socialists, the Czech women in Estonia were sent west to temporarily work in munitions factories, but were eventually relocated to first Stutthof and finally the infamous Bergen-Belsen camp. Against all odds, they worked together to endure horrific conditions, supporting each other physically and emotionally.

Of the prisoners’ desperate tales of survival in the camps, none was more incredible than the story of Inge Sylten. A striking beauty, Sylten caught the eye of Heinz Drosihn, a senior SS officer at the camp in Ereda. Immediately installed in his personal quarters, Sylten secured better treatment not just for herself, but the entire camp, through her humanizing influence on the formerly sadistic Drosihn. As one survivor states: “only Inge made a human being out of him.”

Given the obvious inequality of their respective positions, it is difficult to consider their relationship anything more than exploitation, let alone genuine romance. Yet, at least one survivor claims: “they truly fell in love with each other.” Indeed, when they were denounced to Drosihn’s superiors, they fled together in a doomed attempt to evade the SS.

Estonia is actually part of Přibyl’s four film series, Forgotten Transports, focusing on the Holocaust experience in Belarus, Latvia, eastern Poland, and of course, Estonia, whose death camps are nearly unknown to the general populace, due to their tragically high mortality rate, which left few survivors to give testimony of the crimes that transpired there. At least in the Estonian film, Přibyl found a number of survivors who are not just willing to speak on camera, but prove quite eloquent when recounting their experiences.

Transports: Estonia uses traditional, straight-forward documentary techniques to respectfully address its subject matter. Přibyl’s photo research is particularly impressive, turning up heartbreaking photos of the women’s lives before the Holocaust, as well as some truly eerie photos of their SS tormentors, in which their eyes seem to blaze with demonic evil. It is an informative and often heartbreaking documentary, which screens at the 2009 NYJFF on Monday the 19th and Wednesday the 21st.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Switzerland Meets New York

“We’re more exotic than you think,” Swiss jazz vocalist Beat Kaestli said of his musical countrymen. Performing on last night’s Switzerland Meets New York triple-bill at the Canal Room (co-sponsored by ObliqSound and the Swiss Consulate), Kaestli hoped their showcase would “show old Europe has some spice.” Kaestli’s swinging jazz vocals, followed by Swiss-American singer-songwriter Serena Jost and Leo Tardin’s Grand Pianoramax, certainly illustrated the diversity of contemporary Swiss music.

Kaestli credits American expat jazz vocalist Sandy Patton for beginning his jazz education in Switzerland, but was inevitably drawn to New York, arguably the jazz capitol of the world. However, you can hear a lot of international influences in his music, frequently including Latin rhythms, like his swinging adaptation of Bizet’s “Toreador Song” and the slightly bossa “Esso.” Kaestli also included a relatively recent addition to his repertoire, a Swiss song in dialect, the kind of material from his native land he “had to leave to come back to.” Given the strong tone of Kaestli’s voice and his facility for swinging a lyric, his stint with the Glen Miller band makes perfect sense. Backed by his working trio and violin, Kaestli well represented Swiss jazz with an impressive opening set.

With its clubby atmosphere, the Canal Room could be a tough venue for a singer-songwriter, but Folk-rocker Serena Jost exercised a remarkable degree of control over her audience, successfully hushing them for a particularly dramatic song. “I’ve just learned how to establish a rapport,” she later explained. Originally classically trained on the cello, Jost now considers herself primarily a singer-songwriter, but still incorporates some cello into her sets. Swiss-American, Jost has often played in Switzerland, and is in the process of planning another tour. During her set, she exhibited tremendous poise, and her originals display a knack for the catchy and dramatic.

Probably nobody showed as much diversity within their set as did the evening’s headlining Grand Pianoramax, led by Leo Tardin. Conceived as a core duo to be periodically expanded with rappers, spoken word artists, and other guests, Leo Tardin was joined on drums by Zurich-born Jojo Mayer. Equally adept in jazz and rock contexts, a significant portion of the audience had come out to hear him specifically.

Covering a lot of stylistic ground, Tardin started his set with “The Showdown,” a very adult superhero fable, expanded from the CD version with gusto by Mike Ladd, and closed with the most pronounced jazz moments of his set, featuring a guest appearance by Swiss jazz harmonica player Gregoire Maret. Having frequently collaborated with the high-concept jazz artist Vijay Iyer, Ladd proved a natural fit for Tardin’s jazz rooted, hip-hop influenced electronica. Known for his collaborations with Pat Metheny and Marcus Miller, Maret’s harmonica and Tardin’s keyboards made for a rich combination of soundsLikewise, Maret, perhaps best known for his collaborations with Pat Metheny and Marcus Miller, blended well with Tardin and Mayer, creating a rich aural fusion.

While no one was willing to suggest any discrete property that makes music uniquely Swiss, some common themes did arise, like the value of diversity and the adventurousness of Swiss musicians making their home in the world at large. Those who attended the entertaining Swiss showcase left with a wider conception of the country, beyond stereotype images of cuckoo clocks and private bank accounts. Following a number of European dates, Tardin’s next American performance will be in Miami on March 24th, followed by an April Fools Day gig at the Boulder Theater. New Yorkers can catch Serena Jost again when she plays Brooklyn’s Barbes on March 12th and Beat Kaelsti at Smoke on February 8th.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

NYJFF: Two Lives Plus One

Juggling work and family obligations, Eliane Weiss finds it difficult to find time to write. A lot of us can relate to that, even if we’re single. However, Weiss’s frustrated compulsion to write causes enormous disruptions in her personal and professional lives in Idit Cebula’s Two Lives Plus One, which screens tonight at the New York Jewish Film Festival.

Start by forgetting the confusing title, Deux Vies Plus Une, in the original French. The two lives evidently refer to the simultaneous domestic and professional demands placed on Weiss and the one life is the literary career she aspires two. The film is really about trading one existence, as the dutiful teacher and mother who does everything expected of her, for the prospective freedom of artistic self-expression. Needless to say, she meets some resistance in this transformation from her punctilious colleagues and her self-satisfied, somewhat older husband Sylvain. The only person who understands and encourages Weiss is her father, or at least his spirit, whom she occasionally communes with at his grave site. Indeed, he is the catalyst for her creative outpouring, since it was his stories of life in the Polish shtetl which first sparked her imagination.

Her late father might be supportive, but her ailing mother is difficult to handle. Shabbat dinners at her flat become increasingly insufferable for Weiss, but her husband seems to take great pleasure in them, perhaps as an opportunity to adopt the patriarchal mantle. It is a role his wife’s new life threatens to undermine, as she spends more and more time with her earnest young editor.

The frantic pace of modern life can be dizzying, causing people to make stupid decisions every day. However, Weiss often seems to deliberately or carelessly exacerbate her family tensions, which can be frustrating to watch. Certainly, anyone who has ever tried to multi-task can empathize with Weiss, but the Virginia Woolf Room of One’s Own themes feel a bit shop-worn here.

Ironically, even though Lives is Elaine Weiss’s story, the most memorable performance comes from Gerard Darmon as her husband Sylvain. Looking world-weary, but retaining a spark of charm, Darmon elicits sympathy for his character, despite being quite the insensitive husband. In the lead role, Emmanuelle Devos can be charming and convincingly frazzled. However, maybe as a publishing semi-professional, her dramatic angst regarding the book business seemed over-done. (After all, what does she expect sending unsolicited manuscripts?).

Making her feature film directorial debut, French actress Cebula also appropriately appears as Jeanne Sfez, a successful novelist whose example inspires Weiss. In Lives she keeps the family drama from getting too heavy and elicits some nuanced performances, particularly from the men in her cast. While maybe not a cinematic revelation, Cebula brings a sophisticated sensibility to material that might uncharitably sound a bit like a number of films from the 1970’s. It screens tonight, Saturday, and Sunday at the NY Jewish Film Festival. Co-sponsored by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, most festival screenings, including Lives, take place at the Walter Reade Theater.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cool Jazz in Type and Graphics

Jazz: Cool Birth
By Gary Scott Beatty


Historically, jazz found a home in after-hours clubs and bars of varying degrees of repute. Of course, the nightlife world has always attracted a certain unsavory element, which has caused problems for musicians. Louis Armstrong’s loyalty to his problematic manager Joe Glaser always troubled his admirers, but the father of jazz was always grateful to his well-connected business agent for extricating him from some difficulties with the Chicago mob. In Gary Scott Beatty’s Jazz: Cool Birth, fictional trumpeter Smooth Willie Jefferson also gets caught up with the criminal element, but things will not work out as well for him. Birth is in fact a short, illustrated murder mystery, and Jefferson is its victim.

In format, Birth resembles a comic book, but Beatty uses type and iconic imagery to tell his story. There are no boxes or dialogue balloons. Deliberately using Jim Flora and other 1950’s record jacket artists as his inspiration, Beatty’s figures are representational but abstract, in a hip kind of way, perfectly suiting his story of the perils of the jazz life.

Fontessa, Birth’s narrator pianist, only played with Jefferson once, subbing on what would be the final gig of the trumpeter’s life. Stylistically and temperamentally, Jefferson sounds a lot like Clifford Brown, easy-going and popular with his fellow musicians. According Fontessa: “this hep cat had a real gift of diplomacy.” (p. 3) However, unlike the scrupulously clean Brown, Jefferson got involved with drugs and other dangerous entanglements and it cost him his life.

Needing someone hip to the jazz lingo, Detective Herschel Benedict (could that be a nod to Herschel Bernardi a.k.a. Lt. Jacoby on the jazz-scored Peter Gunn?) enlists Fontessa’s help with the investigation, which leads to the various nocturnal people who patronize jazz clubs.

Beatty’s opening description of Jefferson’s last gig is a nifty piece of jazz writing, as when Fontessa explains the perfect audience reaction: “when a room full of people sit there starin’ for two full seconds before thunderous applause, you know you’ve grabbed ‘em.” (p. 7) However, the hipster jive-talk gets a tad bit overdone. Still, Beatty shows a real affinity for his jazz subject matter.

Birth is a brief story (24 pages), more of an investigation than a full mystery, but Beatty’s art and typography is quite striking. Altogether, it is very evocative of the early hard-bop era of the mid-to-late 1950’s.

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The Sounds of Switzerland: Grand Pianoramax

The Biggest Piano in Town
By Grand Pianoramax (Leo Tardin)
ObliqSound

When you think Swiss music, what comes to mind? Yodeling? The first sounds to go through your head are probably not a heavy mix of funky keyboards, Moogish effects, and rap and spoken word vocals, however that is what Geneva’s own Leo Tardin brings to the table with his group Grand Pianoramax. They perform this Wednesday night in Manhattan as part of “Switzerland Meets New York,” a showcase of contemporary Swiss music at the Canal Room.

Leo Tardin is Grand Pianoramax. The concept is his, and the band is basically the duo format of his piano and keyboards, with drums, augmented with different guests, including rap and spoken word artists, like Mike Ladd and Celena Glenn, who appeared on his latest CD, last year’s The Biggest Piano in Town, and will join him tomorrow at the Canal Room. Biggest Piano starts with “Showdown,” the track that really earns BPIW the parental advisory logo on the cover. There is a “clean” edit too, but here “clean” is relative. It is an explicit fable of dueling voyeuristic superheroes that in its way, makes an idealistic defense of romantic love. Sort of.

There are a few somewhat more jazz oriented tracks as well, like the acoustic “Ride I: the Race.” It is a nice showcase for Tardin’s facility on the keys (which won the premiere Montreux Jazz Festival solo piano competition), giving a sense of the road he is largely not currently taking. Most tracks however, have a definitely pronounced electro-funk feeling, like “The Hook Introduction” and “Ride II: Driftin.”

BPIW segues through a variety of moods, drifting into chill-out territory at times. While “In the Lab’s” plethora of quirky effects over Parks’ steady drum line are at first somewhat dull, the tune dramatically evolves into “Tempest,” a hypnotic trance that recalls the best work of groups like four80east. Given its strong melodic hook, it might be the most compelling track on Biggest Piano, making a strong conclusion for the disk.

Joining GP on the program Wednesday will be Swiss jazz vocalist Beat Kaestli and singer-songwriter-cellist Serena Jost. Tardin in particular, enjoys blurring genres and shaking things up, so it should be interesting to hear his 10:00 set. After all, an artist who makes the digital dance charts and also gets reviewed in jazz publications bears watching.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Submitted for the Academy’s Approval

Between the documentary and foreign language film divisions, it is hard to say which set of byzantine regulations have created more embarrassing omissions for the Academy Awards. Strictly speaking, it is the best foreign language film, not simply the best picture international cinema had to offer. If a film has too much English dialogue, it will be disqualified, like last year’s The Band’s Visit from Israel. Academy voters do not simply nominate their favorite foreign films either. Each country (and occasionally Puerto Rico) chooses one submission each year. This year, ninety-four countries have submitted films that met the Academy’s qualifications. That’s a whole lot of dark horses jockeying for one of five slots, when the nominating polls close tonight at 5:00 PM P.S.T.

If this were March Madness, I would pick Israel’s Waltz with Bashir to go all the way. Critical of its own military during the 1982 military incursion into Lebanon, Ari Folman’s animated film appeals to Hollywood’s anti-war prejudices and could be seen as even more topical in light of Israel recent offensive against Hamas’s apparatus of terror. Having won the Golden Globe last night, the Israeli submission seems to have all the momentum in this category. The Academy has also already shafted Bashir in the documentary category, disqualifying it for opening after the late August deadline, so there could also be a guilt factor working in its favor.

In Norway, Odd is a name. In New York, it is an inadequate adjective. Odd Horten is maybe a bit strange, but the protagonist of Norway’s O’Horten (trailer here) is really just a taciturn, reserved Scandinavian gentlemen, facing the uncertainty of his impending retirement from the Norwegian railway. Directed with exquisite deliberation by Bent Hamer, O’Horten vividly captures the snowy vistas and long dark nights that delineated Horten’s well regulated existence. It might be more than a tad slow for some viewers, but Hamer has a keen visual sense and Baard Owe is excellent in the challenging lead role. Without the benefit of any overt expressions of emotion, he perfectly conveys the essence of Horten’s scrupulously guarded soul.

Many commentators give O’Horten at least an outside shot at sneaking past one of the favorites for a nomination. Despite its chilly Nordic exterior, O’Horten has a warm heart that should appeal to Academy voters. It also has the advantage of an American distributor. Look for a full review here when it releases theatrically in April

Macedonian’s Titov-Veles, now known simply as Veles, is dominated by a carcinogenic white elephant leftover from the age of Soviet industrial behemoths. Its dreary backdrop dominates Teona Strugar Mitevska’s I am from Titov Veles (trailer here), which has had some festival distribution here and there.

The blight of Veles accentuates the bleak desperation of three sisters’ lives. Deeply affected by their mother’s desertion and father’s subsequent death, the youngest, Afrodita, desperately clings to her seriously flawed older sisters. Mitevska’s narrative becomes increasingly subjective, seemingly giving Afrodita’s fantasies equal footing with ostensive reality. In other words, Titov is most definitely a festival picture. While casting a critical eye on contemporary Macedonian culture, particularly the gender attitudes of the brutish men the sisters encounter, Mitevska has somehow crafted a film that is both impressionistic and naturalistic. It deserves all due respect, but it is the darkest of dark horses. It screens again at MoMA on January 21st and 25th.

Sometimes, the popular pick might not be the best foot to put forward. India nominated Taare Zameen Par, the story of a dyslexic boy who is misunderstood by his parents and abused by teachers and students alike, until an interim art teacher arrives and solves all his problems in one montage sequence. Its heart might be in the right place, and raising awareness of learning disabilities in India may well be a worthy endeavor, but TZP is cloyingly precious. Aside from the new art teacher’s first day in class (heard in the trailer), the film’s musical interludes lack the over-the-top Bollywood panache, more closely resembling lame Nickelodeon videos instead. It might be beloved by the millions who saw it on satellite TV, but it is not going to make the cut.

Given the subject matter, Thailand’s The Love of Siam (trailer here) might initially sound like it has an outside chance. After the mysterious disappearance of his older sister, young Tong’s family moves away from the painful memories of their formerly happy home. In the process, he is separated from Mew, his best friend living across the street. Years later, they run into each other as high school students, and their rekindled friendship evolves into homosexual attraction. Unfortunately, overwrought does not sufficiently describe the melodrama of Siam. Particularly cheesy are the ballads Mew sings with his up-and-coming boy band. It has no shot.

For the record, here are my predictions (but not necessarily my recommendations): France’s The Class, Israel’s Waltz with Bashir, Norway’s O’Horten, Italy’s Gomorra, and Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Complex. That would give Sony Classics sixty percent of the nominations. Hopefully more dark horse films will secure American distribution by virtue of their submission, because several sound quite intriguing. Based on what I have seen so far, I will hope against hope for Titov.

Update: The shortlist has just been released. O’Horten misses the cut, which is slightly surprising. The real controversy though is the exclusion of Italy’s Gommorah, which was a critical favorite (look for a review here next month). Some of its champions are downright apoplectic. Three films on the list, from Mexico, Canada, and Turkey, had yet to secure a U.S. distributor, so maybe one will get a second or third look. Without Gomorrah in the running Bashir becomes a lead-pipe cinch. The full short list is: Austria’s Revanche, Canada’s The Necessities of Life, Germany’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, Israel’s Waltz with Bashir, Japan’s Departures, Mexico’s Tear This Heart Out, Sweden’s Everlasting Moments, and Turkey’s 3 Monkeys.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Docs on the Shortlist

A special field gets special rules. Unlike other Oscar categories, we know the best documentary nominees will come from the shortlist of fifteen contenders, winnowed down from ninety-four qualifying submissions. Six of the surviving contenders screened this weekend at the Tribeca Cinemas, presented by the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund. If you take your office Oscar pool seriously, it was a good opportunity to handicap a category that usually inspires a lot of blind guess work.

Some of the documentaries have had little theatrical distribution beyond their Oscar qualifying runs. However, the Tribeca series also featured Man on Wire (trailer here), one of the top-grossing documentaries of the year, and with good reason. When a police officer told the press Philippe Petit’s 1974 tight-rope walk across the Twin Towers was a sight he knew he would never see again in his lifetime, he was more right than he could understand at the time. That death-defying incident is the subject of James Marsh’s documentary, which happens to be one of the best films of 2008, regardless of genre.

Wire perfectly captures the significance of Petit’s unbelievable walk, as well as sheer feat of engineering the World Trade Center itself represented, and how both gave New Yorkers hope that incredible things could still happen in the City, even during its grimmest and grungiest low point. Taut and surprisingly emotional, it is an exquisitely crafted film. It deserves not just a nomination, but the final prize. However, its lack of overt political content makes that less likely, as it would rob the Academy of a potential “teaching moment” during the awards ceremony. This would not be the case with other shortlisted films which screened this weekend.

Profiling a longtime prison Chaplin in Huntsville, Texas, At the Door of the Death House (trailer here) directly addresses capital punishment, and from the first frame it obvious co-directors Steve James and Peter Gilbert are against it. Yet their subject, Pastor Carroll Pickett is such a compelling figure, the film transcends politics.

Pastor Pickett was first called to the Texas State Penitentiary during the infamous 1974 siege, in which two of his flock were held hostage in attempt by a vicious drug lord to extort safe passage to Cuba. Both of the hostages from his church were killed by the prisoners, executed facedown in front of the prison. Several years later, Pickett reluctantly agreed to return to there when the penitentiary desperately needed a Chaplin. In a moving interview sequence, Pickett explains for the camera that every morning going to work, he flashed back to 1974, seeing the bodies of his murdered parishioners in his mind’s eye, throughout his entire thirteen years at the State Pen.

Obviously, in accepting the position, Pickett responded to a higher calling than that which came from the warden. Nobody could blame him if he had turned his back on Huntsville’s inmates, yet he found humanity in them, especially those he ministered to on death row, several of whom he believed to be innocent of the crimes that sent them there. Unfortunately, the 1974 siege is the only crime Death House adequately examines. For instance, one case which particularly troubled Pickett receives a completely one-sided presentation that is far from convincing. Ultimately, Death House is more successful as a character study than a vehicle for changing hearts and minds, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

While the national debt might inspire less passion than the death penalty, it affects far more Americans. Unfortunately, director Patrick Creadon Q&A claims to the contrary notwithstanding, he clearly made I.O.U.S.A. (trailer here) with a partisan political agenda in mind. Never is a chance to criticize the Bush administration passed up. Conversely, opportunities to criticize Democrats specifically are entirely foregone (specifically their culpability as the controlling party in Congress, the budget allocating branch of government, during years of record deficit spending). Sure, lip-service is given to the bi-partisan nature of the problem, but the finger-wagging is reserved exclusively for Republicans. That hurts the film’s credibility, which is unfortunate, because it raises some valid concerns.

Give credit to I.O.U.S.A. for ringing alarm bells regarding the exploding debt, particularly in regards to the significance of the year 2030. At this point, given current revenue and spending projections, entitlement spending—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—and service payments on the national debt would consume one hundred percent of the national budget. The film also makes the important related point that even if Bush’s modest tax cuts were repealed and the war in Iraq ended today, it would only have a negligible effect on the overall looming debt crisis. I.O.U.S.A. proves surprisingly capable at explaining fiscal and monetary issues in readily understandable terms. At times though, it feels like an infomercial for the reasonably nonpartisan Concord Coalition. Despite playing favorites, its warnings need to be heeded.

I.O.U.S.A.’s subject matter might be critically important, but I do not see it making it to the final Oscar ballot. Death House is a legitimately compelling film and fits Hollywood’s politics, so it chances should at least be better than average. As one of the best reviewed films of this or any year, it would be a scandal if Man on Wire failed to win at least a nomination. The pool of voters making the cut is relatively small, so it makes prognosticating the final ballot difficult. For the record, my predictions (but not my recommendations) are as follows: At the Death House Door, Encounters at the End of the World, Man on Wire, Standard Operating Procedure, and Trouble the Water.

(As a dark horse, I will be rooting for Blessed is the Match: the Life and Death of Hannah Senesh. Look for a review here when it opens in New York later in the month.)

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