J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Art-House K-Horror: Thirst

Vampires typically do not display a lot of angst. Unlike werewolves in human form, they usually enjoy their undead gigs. However, Sang-hyun is not a normal vampire. For instance, he is a Catholic priest who dearly believes in the sanctity of life. Inevitably, this new supernatural condition leads to considerable difficulties for the good Father in Park Chan-wook’s Thirst (trailer here), which opens today in select cities.

Feeling powerless in the face of the death and suffering he sees everyday as a hospital chaplain, Sang-hyun volunteers as a guinea pig in a risky clinical trial developing a vaccine for a deadly rare virus. When the testing goes awry, the priest receives an emergency transfusion tainted with vampire blood. The transfusion reverses the ravages of the virus, but at a mortal price.

Repulsed by his new appetites, Sang-hyun uses his hospital access to obtain blood without the loss of life. Yet this situation clearly will not last when Sang-hyun’s tenuous equilibrium is upset by the desires stirred by Tae-ju, the apparently innocent, put-upon wife of a childhood friend. (As readers of paranormal romance know full well, drinking blood is only one of the vampire’s compulsions.) Tae-ju represents the perfect storm for Sang-hyun, stimulating his new found darker urges as well as his lifelong instinct to protect the weak and vulnerable.

Winner of the Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival, Thirst is far more stylish and ambitious than the average k-horror film. Frequent Park collaborator Song Kang-ho is convincingly anguished as afflicted priest and Kim Ok-vin is quite the seductive and scary femme fatale.
While there is a fair amount of blood-letting it is not nearly as gory as most American splatter movies. Instead, Park tries to disturb viewers with transgressive imagery that conflates the sacred and the erotic.

Park certainly employs some theologically charged themes, like life after death and the corruption of innocence, but it often seems like he is only playing with them for shock value and never really plumbing their dramatic depth. At times, the tone of the film is also oddly inconsistent, alternating between heavy scenes informed by religious and archetypal motifs, and moments of black comedy, like those involving the ghost of a particular victim that feel like they could have been lifted straight out of John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London. Still, by depicting concepts like sin and sacrifice with absolute sincerity, Park elevates Thirst above more standard vampire fare.

A Cannes favorite with a cult following that includes Quentin Tarantino, Park is known for his arty violence. His diehard fans should be well satisfied with his latest helping of dark mayhem, even if it does not fully live up to its early promise. It opens today in New York at the Sunshine Theater.

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Dardenne Brothers: Lorna’s Silence

Liège is a city with a rich cultural history, but the recently naturalized Lorna almost never leaves the industrial quarter. Still, she and her fellow Slavic immigrants will take drastic measures to stay in the Belgian city, the least of which being marriage, in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Lorna’s Silence (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York and Los Angeles.

Lorna’s Belgian citizenship papers are the result of a commercial transaction. She married Claudy, a Belgian drug addict whose habit makes him disposable. At least, that is what small-time gangster Fabio is counting on. After paying Claudy to marry Lorna, he intends to arrange a fatal overdose for the guileless junkie, so the newly legal Lorna can in turn marry a shady Russian for immigration purposes.

Initially, Lorna agreed to the scheme to raise the money to open a snack bar with her fiancé Sokol, feeling nothing but disgust for her husband of convenience. However, when Claudy tries to get straight, she begins to develop an unlikely affection for him. Suddenly, she finds herself scrambling to arrange a quickie divorce to save Claudy, allow her to marry to the Russian, and live happily ever after with Sokol. Of course, doing business with the underworld usually does not lead to neat storybook endings.

Though the Dardennes’s Cannes Award-winning screenplay has elements of a gritty crime story, it is a far cry from genre cinema. Instead, it is a stark character study of a woman who reaches her breaking point, and is eventually pushed beyond it. Like many others, she has resorted to commoditizing herself for financial reasons, reducing her humanity to a residency card and a marriage license.

In the challenging lead role, Arta Dobroshi withstands the mercilessly close examination of Alain Marcoen’s unvarnished cinematography. She dramatically conveys the churning fears and stirrings of conscience beneath her frigid façade. However, the standout performance comes from frequent Dardenne collaborator Jéremié Renier, expressing the pain, confusion, and basic humanity of the tragic Claudy.

The Dardennes offer viewers an intimate look into a grim, strife-filled world, where desperation and conscience vie for a woman’s soul. It presents a drab, inhospitable vision of Liège that would probably alarm the Belgian chamber of commerce, if not for the filmmakers’ prestigious international reputation as the country’s leading filmmakers. It is a darkly naturalistic film, but it has a definite moral center that is quite compelling. Recommended for discerning viewers, Silence opens tomorrow (7/31) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Danish Resistance: Flame & Citron

For the underground resistance of WWII, betrayal and treachery were constant companions during the clandestine struggle against their Nazi occupiers. This will hardly come as a revelation to those who have seen Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows, but it comes as a nasty shock to the heroic real-life protagonists of Ole Christian Madsen’s Flame & Citron (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday.

Flame and Citron were the code names of the two most celebrated members of the Danish resistance movement. With his bright red hair, Bent Faurschou-Hviid’s alias was obviously quite fitting. The less conspicuous Jørgen Haagen Schmith was known as Citron (or “The Lemon”) because of his work as a Citroën mechanic. One was the disillusioned son of middle-class respectability, while the other was a working class family man. Yet for both men, the 1944 invasion would drive them commit extraordinary acts of courage. They also quickly discovered they had a distinct talent for killing Germans.

As we watch them in action, Flame is usually the triggerman and Citron is the driver, but in a pinch, they can improvise. However, they might be too good at what they do, or at least their superiors in the resistance seem to think so. Though radically different personality types, Flame and Citron were true freedom fighters and patriots. Unfortunately, while they saw the war in absolute black-and-white terms, those around them (at least in the film) were living in the grey areas, working the angles and figuring the percentages. Eventually, the two partners come to question their comrades, trusting only themselves.

Thure Lindhardt and Mads Mikkelsen (best known as the villain from Casino Royale) are both dynamite as the reckless Flame and the tightly-wound Citron, respectively. They display a riveting, sometimes even uncomfortably intense screen presence that makes their selfless dedication perfectly believable in the dramatic context of the film. They are nicely counterbalanced by a great screen nemesis, Hoffman the Mephistophelean Gestapo chief played with icy zeal by Christian Berkel.

With its double and triple-crosses coming fast is furious, F&C is an engrossing historical thriller, yet somehow it still has that cool Scandinavian vibe. Madsen stages the film’s action sequences with gritty realism and Jette Lehmann’s remarkable production design convincingly recreates the stark look and feel of occupied Denmark. In fact Madsen and Lars K. Andersen’s script may well change how some people think of Scandinavia in general. After all, while Flame and Citron were doggedly fighting the National Socialists, we see scrupulously neutral Sweden serving as a non-aligned playground for spies of both sides.

With its effective framing narration, F&C makes it clear that history often demands a choosing of sides, while refusing to take such a stand is itself a de facto choice with moral implications. Eventually awarded U.S. Medal of Freedoms (posthumously), Flame and Citron are now recognized as heroes for the decisions they made. Simply as a story of war and intricate intrigue, F&C is compelling cinema. It is also a darkly fascinating look at an aspect of the war not often seen on movie screens. It opens this Friday (7/31) at the Lincoln Plaza and Sunshine Theaters.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Ozploitation: Not Quite Hollywood

There was a time when scrappy Australian filmmakers churned out low budget films laden with sex, violence, projectile vomiting, and some occasional cruelty to animals—basically just good, clean Aussie fun. The 1970’s and early 1980’s were truly the golden era of Ozploitation, which finally gets its Chuck Workmanlike due in Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood (“red band” trailer here), opening this Friday in New York.

Hartley essentially divides his survey into four parts: soft-core skin flicks, gory horror films, kung fu and biker actioners, and Ozploitation’s tragic late 80’s descent into cheese, eventually followed by its recent retro Renaissance. Each part has plenty of guilty pleasures to offer, accompanied by insightful commentary by the responsible actors and filmmakers, plus fanboy Quentin Tarantino.

As one might expect, NQH contains plenty of scenes inappropriate for young viewers. Given his subject matter, Hartley takes advantage of the opportunity to show pretty much everything. However, he definitely makes an intriguing case for many of the genre’s high octane films. For instance, George Lazenby getting his one-and-done James Bond butt thoroughly kicked and then burnt to a crisp in Brian Trenchard-Smith’s The Man from Hong Kong just looks like all kinds of awesome. Conversely, many of the grade-Z films Tarantino rhapsodizes over look totally lame, yet the gleeful barrage of bizarre images make NQH relentlessly entertaining.

Serious film scholars can take something out of NQH as well. After all, prestigious filmmakers, like Fred Schepisi (director of Six Degrees of Separation) and John Seale (Academy Award winning cinematographer of The English Patient) started out in the Ozploitation trenches before moving on to proper cinema, but still have fond words for the genre. Indeed, Hartley seemed to have access to just about every surviving Ozploitation veteran, yet his funniest talking head segments come courtesy of a delightfully contrarian Australian writer perfectly willing to unequivocally state on camera that these films are complete rubbish and most of the filmmakers who made them are thoroughly rotten human beings. Let’s hear it for equal time.

Those mere mortals who do not know Hurricane Smith from Mad Dog Morgan might still be interested in the Hollywood stars who turn up to discuss their Ozploitation sojourns, including Jaime Lee Curtis, Stacy Keach, and Dennis Hopper. The film’s only drawback is the omnipresence of Tarantino. Certainly, as the foremost Ozploitation lover, his participation makes sense, but after the first half-hour his pseudo-geeky hipster schtick grows tiresome.

NQH is a breezy, enjoyable documentary made with genuine affection for a class of films that have not gotten much critical love. It also has cool visual style inspired by its drive-in-grindhouse roots. Those who are easily offended should not even think about it. However, if your idea of a good time at the movies involves a giant razorback hog chasing teenagers across the outback, NQH will be your version of That’s Entertainment. Heartily recommended with that major caveat, NQH opens this Friday in New York at the Village East Cinema.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

AAIFF ’09: Pastry (and The Eighteenth Birthday Party)

Movie goers well understand the sort of emotional nourishment to be had from sweet confections. In Hong Kong, the simple egg tart can do wonders for young Mui as she watches her four older sisters struggle with difficult marriages and disastrous romances in Risky Liu’s Pastry (trailer here), which screened on the concluding day of the 2009 Asian American International Film Festival.

Mui’s father slips out to the movies on the mornings of his first two daughters’ weddings, yet he always makes it to the church on time. Young Mui is simply waiting for the egg tarts to be served. There is undeniable merit to both their approaches to wedding day festivities/angst. Unfortunately, relationships will prove increasingly problematic for the younger sisters, but at least the family’s neighborhood café is always open, serving their beloved “Portuguese tarts.”

With its bittersweet mix of love and food, Pastry would sound tailor-made for the American indie market. However, it is a much more down-to-earth screen story, portraying characters free of the forced quirkiness of most foodie films, despite director Liu’s whimsical flourishes that often seem at odds with his largely serious material. Mui’s family must face legitimate, every-day problems that are not always resolved entirely happily. Still, even in a highly imperfect world, it seems hard to believe the five attractive sisters keep getting involved with such losers.

Mui herself has a waifish Amelie-like charm, but matures in realistic ways as the film progresses. Based on the work of writer Chan Wei, Pastry gives a slice-of-life flavor of turn-of-the-millennium post-transfer Hong Kong that de-emphasizes politics, aside from showing news footage of Chris Patten, the final British Governor, triumphantly returning on a book signing tour to enjoy some of those egg tarts.

The cornerstone of Pastry is a quite touching connection between Mui and her father. Ironically, it was preceded by Ching-Shen Chuang’s narrative short, The Eighteenth Birthday Party, which features a horrifyingly dysfunctional father-daughter relationship. A weird epistolary film that veers into gothic territory, the disconcerting Birthday boasts a subtly powerful performance from its lead as Emma, a beautiful young woman, kept physically and emotionally isolated by her twisted father. It was the best narrative short of an incomplete sampling of AAIFF’s shorts and one of the best shorts seen in on the New York festival circuit in recent months. Together with Pastry, it made a memorable for a memorable block of programming

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

AAIFF ’09: White on Rice

Through an incredible forty-eight films, Japanese audiences enjoyed the amorous misadventures of the lovable loser Tora-san and his long suffering family. During his pre-screening introduction at this year’s Asian American International Film Festival, actor Hiroshi Watanabe explained the example of Tora-san inspired his performance as Hajime “Jimmy” Beppu, the luckless protagonist of Dave Boyle’s White on Rice (trailer here).

After his divorce, “Jimmy” has been living with his sister Aiko, sleeping in the bunk-bed above his nephew, Bob. Aiko and Bob are relatively okay with the situation, but his brother-in-law Tak is running out of patience. Supposedly looking for a new wife, Jimmy thinks he has found her when Tak’s niece Ramona temporarily moves in with the happy family, even though he would indeed technically be her uncle as well.

“Jimmy” knows a lot about dinosaurs, but he is out of his depth romancing Ramona. Of course, a series of misadventures follow, which threaten to completely destabilize Aiko’s household. Will Jimmy finally grow up and get the girl? Tora-san spent forty-eight studio films looking for love, can Jimmy pull it off in one indie?

Rice is at least as amusing as most Hollywood comedies and about ten times funnier than the average Judd Apatow movie of the week. Watanabe hits the right endearingly goofy notes as Uncle Jimmy, despite the creepy Woody Allen nature of his character’s romantic obsession. Japanese actress Nae lights up the screen as Jimmy’s indulgent sister, showing an easy rapport with Watanabe. However, Mio Takada and Justin Kwong do what they can as Tak and Bob respectively, but the parts are somewhat underwritten, relying on the stereotypes of workaholic father and over-achieving secret prodigy.

Boyle and Joel Clark’s screenplay has a fair number of laughs, some of which are surprisingly large, but the humor never veers too far into gross-out territory. Likewise, as the family pulls together, the film essentially avoids overly saccharine sentimentality. Still, Rice has some credibility issues, like when Jimmy spurns the advances of Mary (a.k.a. Banana Girl), who as played by Joy Osmanski, is at least as attractive as his niece-by-marriage.

Rice keeps things quick and breezy, wrapping things in just under ninety manageable minutes. If not the deepest film of the year, it was a nicely comedic diversion amongst the serious dramas and documentaries programmed at the 2009 AAIFF, which concludes today with another full day of screenings.

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

AAIFF ’09: Tibet in Song

It can honestly be said Ngawang Choephel’s first documentary was over six and a half years in the making. That is how long he was unjustly imprisoned by the Chinese for the crime of recording traditional Tibetan folk songs. Of course, they called it espionage. What started as an endeavor in ethnomusicology became a much more personal project for Ngawang, ultimately resulting in Tibet in Song, which recently screened at the Asian American International Film Festival.

Though born in Tibet, Ngawang had lived in exile with his mother since the age of two. However, attending the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts instilled in Ngawang a passion for the traditional music of his country that would temporarily cost him his liberty. Though his mother strenuously advised against it, Ngawang returned to Tibet in hopes of documenting the traditional songs before they were completely lost to posterity.

In Lhasa, Ngawang discovered the unofficial Chinese prohibitions against Tibetan cultural, religious, or linguistic identity had largely succeeded. However, like a Tibetan Alan Lomax, he found some people in provinces, usually the older generations, who were willing to be filmed as they sang and played the music of their ancestors. And then a funny thing happened on the road to Dawa.

Suddenly, Ngawang was arrested and his film was confiscated. For years he endured the abuse of a Communist prison, where he still persisted in learning and singing traditional Tibetan songs. Eventually, the Chinese government relented to the pressure of a remarkable international campaign spearheaded by Ngawang’s mother, releasing the filmmaker, who would finally finish a very different film from what he presumably envisioned.

Song is a remarkable documentary in many ways. It all too clearly illustrates the unpredictable nature of nonfiction filmmaking, as events take a dramatic turn Ngawang was surely hoping to avoid. The film also documents the Communist government’s chilling campaign to obliterate one of the world’s oldest cultures. Particularly disturbing to Ngawang are the ostensive Tibetan cultural revues mounted by the Chinese government that feature plenty of party propaganda but no legitimate Tibetan music. In Orwellian terms, they represent an effort to literally rewrite Tibetan culture.

What starts as a reasonably interesting survey of Tibetan song becomes a riveting examination of the occupied nation. Ngawang and the other former Tibetan prisoners he interviews have important stories to tell, and indeed the significance of song is a theme many of them express. It was an excellent selection for the 2009 Asian American International Film Fest that deserves significant theatrical distribution. The AAIFF continues this weekend with full days of programming today and Sunday.

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Restored: All Quiet on the Western Front (Silent)

It might just be the last truly great anti-war film. Nobody begrudged Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (trailer here) its 1930 Academy Awards for best picture and director, not even in retrospect. Yet, very few saw the picture as Milestone had originally conceived it, because of last minute cuts the studio made to the domestic sound print. However, as was common practice at the time, a silent version was simultaneously shot for the foreign market. Considered much closer to Milestone’s intended cut, the longer silent print has recently been restored and preserved by the Library of Congress, and will play a special one day engagement at Film Forum on August 3rd.

Strictly speaking, the restored silent print of Quiet is not completely silent. In addition to the original score, there are ambient crowd noises and other such effects. Frankly, the nature of Erich Remarque’s story is such that extensive dialogue is not necessary. It simply follows the tragic story arc of Paul Baumer and his fellow students, who are encouraged to enlist by a militaristic professor, only to be disillusioned by the harsh realities of trench warfare.

Nearly eighty years later, Milestone’s film is still probably the most successful cinematic depiction of WWI’s miserable fighting conditions. Its reconstruction of the trenches and tunnels along the front lines has yet to be equaled on film. While nothing explicitly graphic is seen on-screen, the horror of war remains inescapable.

As many have observed, there was only a limited window in which an anti-war film with sympathetic German protagonists could have been filmed before the threat of National Socialism would have rendered it highly distasteful to the general public. Still, Quiet also critiques the warmongering attitudes of the German government, as represented by Baumer’s demagogic professor.

Quiet was Lew Ayres breakout film, and even without dialogue, he is quite compelling as Baumer, expressing his religious piety and basic decency, as well as a growing contempt for the German war machine. In fact, all his brothers-in-arms are played with straight forward effectiveness. Arguably, the film only descends into the realm of melodrama during the civilian scenes.

Ultimately, the silent version holds up remarkably well not just as a historical curiosity but as a film in its own right. Though it was produced during the transitional period between the end of silent pictures and the early days of talkies, Quiet is still an impressive cinematic achievement. It will have three screenings at Film Forum on Monday (8/3).

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

AAIFF ’09: Fruit Fly

If you envision the Broadway show Rent without the tragedy, you will have a pretty good sense of H.P. Mendoza’s latest movie musical. It might be set in San Francisco’s Castro District instead of Alphabet City, but the Bohemian spirit is the same in Fruit Fly (trailer here), the closing feature of the 2009 Asian American International Film Festival (which starts tonight with Ivy Ho’s excellent Claustrophobia).

In the film, “Fruit Fly” is suggested as a less derogatory term for a woman who befriends gay men almost exclusively. Bethesda suddenly finds it applied to her, after moving to San Francisco and becoming fast friends with her gay roommate Windham and his circle. They do not break it to her gently either, explaining it to her in a song with the more traditional soubriquet “Fag Hag.”

After a sojourn in the Philippines, Bethesda has come to town in hopes of mounting her one-woman performance-art piece about her search for her birth mother. Almost everyone staying in Bethesda’s Real World-like house harbors artistic ambitions, inspiring some amusing cynicism from their decidedly un-hippy landlord, Tracy.

While Mendoza was the composer, lyricist, and screenwriter for the Indie circuit favorite Colma: the Musical, he also takes the directorial reins in Fly. Musically, the results are a little uneven. Frankly, the intentionally comedic songs are not particularly memorable. However, it starts with an enjoyably upbeat opener, “Public Transit,” and can claim at least one legitimate standout song, “You Do This for a Reason,” that should become an anthem for frustrated artists everywhere.

Despite her character’s many annoying moments, L.A. Renigen shows an easy likability and decent vocal chops as Bethesda. Her housemates are more of a mixed bag though. Some turn in quite solid supporting work, like E.S. Park and Theresa Navarro as the resident lesbian couple, while others do not acquit themselves as well. However, there are some truly rich comedic performances by Don Wood as the crusty landlord and Christina Augello as the bane of his existence: “Dirty Judy,” the rent controlled upstairs tenant. “I’m the reason apartments are so expensive,” she profanely gloats in a sharply written, economically informed scene.

Anytime a filmmaker creates an original movie musical, you have to give credit for their ambition. While a bit hit-or-miss, Mendoza still succeeds fairly often in Fly. It closes this year’s AAIFF this Sunday night (7/26) at the Clearview Chelsea Theater.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Spacey Shrink

Hollywood is that strange place where cut-throat business meets New Age psycho-babble. Yet, it must be somewhat self-aware, considering how often it satirizes itself and California’s other neurotic beautiful people in films like The Player, Bowfinger, L.A. Story, and Serial. While those are all far superior films, there are at least some stirrings of life to be found in that shopworn comedic genre, as is sometimes demonstrated by Jonas Pate’s Shrink (trailer here), which opens in select cities this Friday.

Dr. Henry Carter is a respected analyst to the stars and a best-selling self-help author. He is also a complete mess, smoking marijuana like a chimney in order to cope with his wife’s recent suicide. Most of his vapid Hollywood clientele deserve a shrink on autopilot, but he temporarily snaps out of his torpor when seeing a disturbed African American high school student pro bono.

It turns out they suffer a similar grief, but self-medicate in different ways. He smokes dope, young Jemma indulges in repertory cinema. Yet, their scenes together are surprisingly well written and played scrupulously straight. Kevin Spacey never overplays the role of psychologist on the verge of a nervous breakdown, always tempering Carter’s self-destructive behavior with a sense of fundamental decency (which is refreshing). Likewise, Keke Palmer, recognizable as the lead in Akeelah and the Bee, plays another realistically smart, believably troubled teenager.

While Shrink has some unexpected insight into the grieving process, the comedic Hollywood material hardly breaks any new ground. One of Carter’s patients is a germophobic power-agent. Now imagine the most obvious gags for his character and they are probably in Shrink. Somewhat more interesting is a subplot involving an aging superstar trying to overcome his chronic philandering. One of the film’s big surprises is the unbilled appearance of a well known Hollywood star in this supporting role. Wisely, he foregoes his tiresome manic stage persona and is at least adequate in the part.

Shrink is a highly uneven film. At its best, Spacey and Palmer play off each other honestly and directly. However, at other times, it seems like a shallow, glitzy tour of the Hollywood party scene. At least cinematographer Lukas Ettlin makes it all look pretty.

Though imperfect, Shrink is a film that frankly exceeds expectations. It is most successful when it plays it straight, eschewing cynicism while trying to make real human connections. Maybe there’s some kind of self-help lesson in that. It opens in New York this Friday (7/24) at the Sunshine and Chelsea 9 theaters.

(Photo credit: Jihan Abdalla)

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

AAIFF ’09: Hubad

You can see edgy, erotically-charged theater any night of the week in New York City, even on Sunday. Evidently, that is not necessarily the case in the Philippines. Appearing an explicit, psychologically revealing avant-garde production may rejuvenate the careers of two middle-aged actors, but it also threatens to disrupt their own relationships in Mark Gary and Denisa Reyes’s Hubad (trailer here), which screens during the upcoming Asian American International Film Festival.

Andre Joaquin is a gifted theater director. That means his work is not commercial, forcing him to rely on arts council grants to stage his productions. Unfortunately, his bureaucratic patrons are balking at the explicit nature of his latest work. While struggling to secure funding, he is pushing his actors to their breaking point with his demanding rehearsals. Carmen Manahan and Delfin Bustamante play a bored married couple, who simulate various fantasies during the course of Joaquin’s experimental play, and perhaps reveal something of themselves in the process, if their director has his way.

For Manahan, the play might be the last chance to save her flagging career. Bustamante still finds himself in demand, but for unrewarding gigs, like Disney musical revues. Both are reasonably happily married, just not to each other. However, perhaps as a result of the intimate nature of their rehearsals, they have begun an ill-advised affair.

This is an adult film, but not a prurient one. While Hubad, which translates as “naked” or “stripped,” appears to be about one thing, very little of it is seen in actuality on-screen. However, the many strange stage representations of intimate relations, including s&m sessions, will surely confuse immature viewers.

Hubad also might be a film only its native Filipino audience can really appreciate. While Joaquin’s dramatic vision might well be transgressive compared to say, typical Manilla dinner theater fare, here in New York, it seems pretty pedestrian. There is some fine acting to be found in the film though. Filipino film director Penque Gallaga is particularly memorable as psychologically manipulative director, subtly revealing Joaquin’s vulnerabilities, including his own specific Freudian issues. Nonie Buencamino also brings a real intensity and legitimate screen presence to role of Bustamante. However, Irma Adlawan sometimes strays into melodramatic territory, just like her character, the frequently overwrought Manahan.

Gary and Reyes convincingly capture the hothouse atmosphere of the chaotic rehearsal process. In fact, Hubad seems infused with a genuine affection for the theater. Much like Joaquin’s on-screen production, Hubad is an interesting work, featuring brave performances, but is still more likely to leave audiences intellectually stimulated rather than emotionally satisfied. It screens this Friday (7/24) at the Chelsea Clearview Cinemas as part of the 2009 AAIFF.

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The Jazz Life of Anita O’Day

Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer 2-DVD set
Directed by Robbie Cavolina & Ian McCrudden


She offers no excuses or apologies for living a dramatic, sometimes even lurid life. Anita O’Day is an acknowledged member of the Jazz Pantheon, whom many consider the equal of legendary vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. She was also a longtime heroin addict who had a knack for getting involved with the wrong men. Hers was truly a jazz life, which is documented with appropriate verve in Robbie Cavolina & Ian McCrudden’s Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (trailer here), now available on DVD.

O’Day’s first real national exposure came with Gene Krupa’s band, where she raised eyebrows by playfully interacting onstage with the African-American trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Then following a brief stint with Woody Herman, she reluctantly signed on with Stan Kenton’s outfit, where she tried valiantly to get him to swing more, as she explains in a hilarious segment. Despite Kenton’s terminally whitebread style, O’Day was able to make silk purses out of his novelty numbers like “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine,” before striking out on her own.

Unfortunately, O’Day’s life is nearly synonymous with chaos, with her addictions all too public, yet she kept plugging away at the jazz life. She was commencing another comeback shortly before her death, with the help of her final manager, co-director Cavolina.

We do hear various interviewers ask the requisite questions about drugs and other madness, which she answers honestly and directly. However, true to the jazz ethos, she appears more interested in the present than the dead past. Likewise, Cavolina and McCrudden seem more concerned with O’Day’s music than the details of her habit, which is quite novel. Refreshingly, their interview subjects include many musicians and arrangers like Joe Wilder, Dr. Billy Taylor, Russ Garcia, and Annie Ross, whose reminiscences will certainly interest jazz listeners beyond O’Day’s considerable diehard fans.

Happily, O’Day emerges as the film’s best sound-bite, displaying real charisma and a hipster sense humor even at an advanced age. If nothing else, Cavolina and McCrudden prove she was one cool canary. They also present her music well, including many vintage O’Day performances, many of which are included in their entirety in the bonus section. Also among the substantial extras are interview outtakes featuring O’Day’s reflections on many of her classic Verve albums that will fascinate her serious fans.

Despite the many talking heads, Jazz Singer moves along at vigorous pace. It is a well put together film, featuring stylish graphics clearly inspired by O’Day’s groovy Verve album covers. O’Day fans will be happy to find Cavolina & McCrudden’s approach to their subject and the ultimate execution do right by the jazz great. While they never duck the tough realities of O’Day’s jazz life, they keep the focus squarely where it belongs—on her music. The standard 2-DVD set of Jazz Singer releases today, to be followed by a deluxe edition bound with a special 160 page hardcover book on September 1st.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

AAIFF ’09: Claustrophobia

According to the old saying, familiarity breeds contempt. In some case though, it can also lead to love. For five co-workers forced to carpool together, it leads to a combination of both emotions in screenwriter Ivy Ho’s directorial debut, Claustrophobia (trailer here), which kicks off this year’s Asian American International Film Festival.

After a long day of corporate togetherness, being cramped together for the long commute home might not be the healthiest thing for these employees of a struggling Hong Kong corporation. It seems particularly uncomfortable for Jewel, a young party-girl, and John, the overly-sensitive lover she spurned. Their strained relationship certainly leads to some awkward commuting moments, but the audience soon discovers the real drama is unfolding between John, the married boss, and Pearl, his quietly competent assistant.

Ho tells her story in reverse order, with each scene flashing backwards several months in time. With every successive rewind, Claustrophobia provides more contexts for the preceding scenes. It quickly becomes clear Pearl is in love with John, but his true feelings remain ambiguous. We also start to share Jewel’s ethical suspicions regarding her boss, Karl, an arrogant senior manager and the literal fifth wheel of the carpool.

Claustrophobia’s narrative structure might sound like a gimmicky device. However, it works quite well in the film because of the tremendous patience Ho shows, allowing her vignettes to unfold discretely and organically, rather than as a barrage of quick-cut flashbacks. While Ho declines to spell out every nuance of the relationship between Pearl and Tom, she subtly reveals hints of the disappointments and betrayals that the audience has already seen come to a head.

Ho focuses the film’s spotlight squarely on Karena Lam, the Vancouver-born Hong Kong-based actress, who is simply remarkable as Pearl. Toning down her considerable glamour, she makes Pearl a pretty but not beautiful, smart but not brilliant, hopelessly hardworking professional woman. She expresses the lifetime of frustration experienced by someone who has always done what was expected of her, yet never found the happiness she arguably deserves (at least more than her less conscientious colleagues). Her deeply affecting, fully realized performance is absolutely central to the film’s considerable success.

Ho proves to be a sensitive director, inspiring emotional truth and directness from her talented cast in every painfully intimate encounter, while never allowing the film to descend into melodrama. While Claustrophobia feels understated in the moment, it packs a real punch overall. It is an excellent selection to open the 2009 AAIFF this Thursday (7/23) at the Chelsea Clearview Cinema. Ho will also participate in a special one-on-one interview on Saturday (7/25).

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

AAIFF ’09: No Joke Burma (Short)

Comedy is a tough business. When an act goes over, comedians say they “killed,” but when it falls flat, they say they “died out there.” Such expressions are uncomfortably fitting in Burma, where two members of Moustache Brothers comedy troupe served five years in prison for poking fun at the SPDC military regime while performing at the home of Nobel Prize-winning opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Li-Anne Huang introduces viewers to these principled men of mirth in her short documentary film No Joke Burma, which screens at the upcoming Asian American International Film Festival.

You sort of have to be there to appreciate the Moustache Brothers’ humor. In this case, “there” is their home, where the Moustaches remain under house arrest. Proving their pettiness, the (mis)ruling military tyrants have actually altered the city drainage system in order to flood the Moustaches’ house whenever it rains. Yet the Moustaches persist, using humor to keep their morale up.

Huang captures the spirit that made the Moustache Brothers the unlikely faces of Burma’s oppressed artistic community. Incidentally, they do indeed refer to their country as Burma, not Myanmar. Though they have been known to tease western tourists, they also seem favorably disposed to America, particularly Lu Maw, who shows a fascination with American slang.

As a “Meet the Moustaches” style short, No Joke is timely and illuminating. Given her access, one hopes Huang recorded more footage for a future feature-length documentary. Despite international condemnation of Suu Kyi’s house arrest, Americans are tragically ignorant of the nature of the SPDC, which came to power after quashing the popular 8888 Uprising against the Burma Socialist Programme Party. While its running time clocks in just under fifteen minutes, No Joke is still a good, informative start. It screens as part of AAIFF’s “Life on the Edge” program of shorts this coming Saturday (7/25).

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

K-Horror: Hidden Floor

Hidden Floor
Directed by Kwon Il-Soon
Pathfinder Home Entertainment


A little girl is threatened by an angry spirit with mussed up hair. A disturbing image? That is what Korean K-Horror is all about. Like their Japanese J-Horror cousins, K-Horror films can really get under your skin with their unsettling visuals and the recurring child-in-jeopardy motifs. Such is certainly the case in Kwon Il-Soon’s Hidden Floor (trailer here), now available on DVD.

Single mother Chae Min-young and her daughter Juhee have just moved into a new apartment. It is converted modern office building, so it should not have much psychic baggage, right? While it might not be built on a Native graveyard, there is still a weird vibe to the place. As is common practice, it also lacks a fourth floor, due to tetraphobia stemming from the similarity between the Chinese words for “four” and “death.” Juhee and her mother have moved into apartment #504. Of course, it is easy to do the math and figure they really live in #404. This might be significant.

Their neighbors also happen to be a little anti-social, bordering on the unstable. However, some of the more unsavory ones start to turn up dead in what might be considered mysterious circumstances. Much to her mother’s alarm, young Suhee does not seem to be herself either, exhibiting strange mood swings and skin outbreaks. Something is definitely wrong on the not-the-fourth floor.

Horror films are always scariest when they imply rather than show, and this is particularly true in the case of Hidden. It is downright creepy when Min-young listens to mysterious sounds coming up through the floor boards or sneaks down shadowing stairwells. Yet, when the entity in question finally shows itself, it is nowhere near as effective.

In a sense, the K-Horror/J-Horror formulae are almost cheating, because it is impossible to see a little girl like Juhee in mortal peril and not feel the desired response. As Min-young, Kim Suh-Hyung is a believable single-mother and a sympathetic rooting interest. Her earnestness and the surprisingly compelling screen presence of Kim Yu-Jung as Juhee inspire an emotional investment in the film on the part of the audience, despite its liberal recycling of many familiar horror tropes.

While Hidden might not break any new ground in the K-Horror genre, it still delivers a good number of chills, capitalizing on the austere atmosphere of the cursed apartment building. By American horror film standards, the violence is not that graphic, but the woman-in-jeopardy and child-in-jeopardy scenes are sure to disturb some viewers. Thanks to its two lead performances, Hidden is a reasonably successful little chiller that ought to be pleasantly diverting for genre enthusiasts.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

AAIFF ’09: You Don’t Know Jack

He co-starred with John Wayne and was the first Asian-American artist signed to Motown Records. He was a trailblazer for Asian Americans both on Broadway and network television, but millions only know him as Sgt. Nick Yemana on Barney Miller. The full significance of Soo’s career is now celebrated in Jeff Adachi’s documentary You Don’t Know Jack (trailer here), which screens at the upcoming 2009 Asian American International Film Festival.

Jack Soo was actually Goro Suzuki. After spending time in FDR’s internment camps as a teenager, Soo found it prudent to change his name to the Chinese sounding Soo as he began his show business career in the Midwest. A talented but scuffling singer and comedian, Soo was introduced to his future wife by big band trumpeter Harry James in Ohio, at a time when inter-racial romance was not exactly encouraged.

Soo’s big break came as the lead in the Broadway production, touring company, and film of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. Given the popularity of the cast album, it made sense for a label to sign him. Unfortunately, it was Motown, where Berry Gordy would bury his recording of “For Once in My Life,” in favor of Stevie Wonder’s rendition (in yet another dubious dealing of the controversial hit-maker). Adachi’s film rescues his heartfelt slower version, recorded with soaring strings prior to the familiar Wonder record, playing what sounds like a well-worn test pressing in its entirety.

Adachi interviews many of Soo’s surviving family members and professional colleagues, including Nancy Kwan from the Drum Song movie, as well as Steve Landesberg and Max Gail from Barney Miller. George Takei (a.k.a. Lt. Sulu) also provides insightful commentary and context. However, Janet Waldo, Soo’s co-star on the shortlived ABC sitcom Valentine’s Day, seems to overstate the popularity of their show, given its speedy cancelation, and quality, considering the corniness of the selected clips. Still, her larger point regarding Soo’s carefully cultivated cool cat image remains valid.

At just over an hour in total running time, audiences should sit through Jack’s credits for one of the film’s best images: a candid shot with John Wayne during the making of the under-appreciated The Green Berets. Indeed, Adachi judiciously selected film and photos of Soo that nicely conveys his dry wit and laidback coolness. The film briskly and convincingly makes the case for Soo’s importance as an actor and entertainer, over and above his individual roles. It screens Saturday (7/25) at the Chelsea Cinemas as part of this year’s AAIFF.

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Death in Love

He is a con man with serious relationship issues, yet he is the healthiest member of his profoundly damaged family. It turns out their extreme emotional dysfunction is the result of their mother’s troubling history in Boaz Yakin’s highly sexualized (but not the least bit erotic) family drama Death in Love (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Inconceivably, a selfish couple fleeing the Holocaust abandons their daughter in order to save themselves. To survive the concentration camp, the teenager becomes the lover of a cruel Mengele-like doctor. Of course, such decisions were completely understandable, given the circumstances. However, despite the safety of her position, the girl shows no empathy or compassion for her fellow prisoners. Her passion for the Nazi researcher seems legitimate, but she turns her back on him as soon as the Allied forces approach the camp. Eventually, she will settle in New York and raise two unfortunate sons.

The eldest son has just turned forty and driven away his younger girlfriend with his pretentious monologue on the sexual pitfalls of aging. The only mystery is why she stayed so long in the first place. However, he suddenly misses her once she leaves, which is established only too clearly. He can take little solace from his train wreck of a family. His mother is manipulative and abusive, his father is a doormat, and his younger brother, the composer, is a complete freak. At least he attempts to break the cycle of abuse by moving the anti-social younger brother in with him.

Yakin’s film immediately suggests comparisons to The Reader due to its sexually charged story involving National Socialist atrocities. While it is quite problematic, it is at least superior to Daldry’s film, because it never asks the audience to sympathize with the Nazi doctor or the morally questionable mother. In fact, it clearly condemns their behavior, arguing it continues to exert a poisonous influence on the mother and her offspring years after the fact.

To be fair, Death has more than just a kernel of an intriguing story. There are always dramatic possibilities when the sins of the past manifest themselves in the present. In this case, Mommie Dearest’s old flame seems to have come back to eliminate the competition. However, Yakin’s enthusiasm for perversely sexualized imagery, particularly that stemming from Number One Son’s S&M relationship with his boss, actually sabotages the narrative drive of the story, and his overwritten dialogue becomes much like the act his characters frequently simulate. Still, he gets effective assists from cinematographer Frederik Jacobi and composer Lesley Barber, whose work gives Death a moody Euro-art film sheen.

Jacqueline Bisset is perfectly cast as the ice-queen mother, conveying all sorts of emotional pathologies churning below her coolly sophisticated exterior. Josh Lucas doggedly tries to make his con artist brother likeable, but is not able to really sell his stilted dialogue. (The audience also sees his bare backside way more than is necessary.) However, Lukas Haas is just a mess of affectations as the twisted second brother. Easily the best performances come from supporting players, including Vanessa Kai as the game-playing boss and Adam Brody as a charming new co-worker at their boiler-room agency.

Ultimately, Death in Love is undone by its indiness. Had Yakin been forced to tone down his sexually transgressive material and focus more on storytelling, the final product would have been far stronger. While interesting at times, it remains a deeply flawed film. It opens today at the Quad.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

On-Stage: The Elephant Man—The Musical

Oddly enough, Joseph Merrick (a.k.a. John Merrick, The Elephant Man) has become bizarrely topical recently, as Michael Jackson’s death renewed speculation regarding rumors the King of Pop tried to buy Merrick’s bones from the Royal London Hospital. Evidently, Merrick and Jackson were a lot alike. Both were just lonely song-and-dance men desperately seeking audience approval. At least that is the unorthodox depiction of Merrick presented in No. 11 Productions’ mounting of Jeff Hylton and Tim Werenko’s book musical farce, The Elephant Man—The Musical, now playing on the @Seaport stage.

Much like David Lynch’s film and the actual historical record, Merrick goes from being a sideshow attraction to the charge of a well-known London physician in Hylton and Werenko’s book. However, in this musical version, he finds himself living with the disgraced Dr. James Lipscomb, a specialist in genetic deformity and author of naughty medical romances.

Slowly but surely, Merrick comes out of his shell thanks to the influence of Jessica Curvey, Lipscomb’s aptly named platonic girlfriend, and the memoirs of great Victorian thespians, like William Shatner. In fact, this is a kinder, gentler Elephant Man, taking Merrick all the way to Broadway as the star of his own show.

Clearly, Elephant does not take itself too seriously, but Hylton and Werenko’s book holds up to a cursory googling (aside from the obviously comedic fabulations). As the lyricist, Hylton deserves a lot of credit just for rhyming neurofibromatosis (to the melody of “Moses Supposes, no less). Indeed, the show has a lot of love for musical theater, taking inspiration from tunes like “Broadway” and even “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Liberally quoting from other sources, co-composers Paul Jones and Hylton (again) have penned quite a snappy, entertaining score. The memorable lyrics are performed with zest by a game cast, accompanied by musical director Rebecca Greenstein and drummer Daniel Miranda. Roger Mulligan and particularly Haley Greenstein show strong vocal chops as Merrick and Curvey, respectively. Overall, the four person cast, also including Ira Sargent as Lipscomb and Ryan Emmons in the dual roles of sideshow barker Horace Augsquatch and Broadway impresario Presby Raincoat, earn considerable props for their energetic performance of Simon Gunner’s wonderfully eccentric choreography. Frankly, the musical performances of this outrageous send-up well exceed expectations.

The humor of Elephant is broad and frequently ribald. Those who look for things to be offended by will have no trouble finding them in this show. However, it is a surprisingly upbeat, breezy affair that delights in amusing its audiences as much as its earnest protagonist. It runs through July 26th down at the 210 Front Street @Seaport performance space.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Anonyma: A Woman in Berlin

Soviet propaganda always described the Red Army as liberators during World War II. Of course, the countries they occupied did not always see it that way, even those that were liberated from the Nazis. Yet, the Soviets’ harshest treatment was reserved for the German people themselves, particularly the women, like the anonymous protagonist of Max Färberböck’s A Woman in Berlin (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

She was known simply as Anonyma. She was indeed a supporter of the National Socialists, but was not directly culpable for any crimes against humanity. In the 1950’s she anonymously published her diary of the months immediately following the fall of Berlin. However, post-war Germans were so scandalized by her frank accounts of the raping and humiliations she and countless other women suffered at the hands of the Soviet Army, she withdrew it from publication and closely guarded her real identity (which the German literary press recently revealed) for the rest of her life.

As Berlin opens, Anonyma believes in the National Socialist propaganda and expects the lover who is leaving for the Eastern Front will soon return in glory. However, the fortunes of war were radically different from what they were led to believe. Before long, Soviet soldiers drag Anonyma out of her bomb-shelter hiding place to enjoy the spoils they consider their due as the victors.

This can be a very difficult film to watch. Though Färberböck shows relative restraint in the violence he chooses to show on-screen, there is no question as to the nature of the events depicted. After several such attacks, Anonyma decides she needs a Soviet protector—the higher his rank, the better. At first she becomes the lover of an unreliable junior officer, but she eventually succeeds in securing the protection of Major Andrej Rybkin, the commanding officer.

Anonyma was far from perfect. In fact, she all but admits to being a committed Fascist. However, her experiences are legitimately harrowing. The portrait that emerges of the Red Army is also quite realistic and hardly flattering. In addition to the Soviets’ wanton sexual assualts, Berlin also depicts the racism directed towards a Mongolian comrade and hints at the party purges that were just as lethal as military action.

With her gaunt look and aristocratic bearing, Nina Hoss is perfectly cast as Anonyma. Present in nearly every scene, Hoss dominates the film with her stoically tragic presence. Her truest co-star is the war-ravaged city itself, perfectly recreated by production designers Andrzej Halinski and Uli Hanisch. As the audience watches her daily struggles, every difficult choice becomes understandable. While many who read her published diary considered it an affront to the virtue of German women, we see her greeting old friends by simply asking “How many times?”

Färberböck deftly handles such potentially perilous material, never generating sympathy for the vanquished Nazis, but rather humanizing common people who should have known better. He films some utterly brutal scenes, without becoming exploitative. It is a demanding but engrossing film that brings to light the shocking conditions of life under Soviet military occupation. It opens this Friday (7/17) at the Angelika.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Way We Get By

It often seems like the War in Iraq divides Americans into two groups: those who want it to be another Viet Nam and those who do not. One group of Maine citizens (predominantly but not entirely senior citizens) is determined not to see the notoriously rude homecoming receptions that marked the Viet Nam War repeated for the soldiers currently returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Three of these troop greeters who faithfully see off departing troops and welcome home those returning from their tours of duty are profiled in Aron Gaudet’s poignant documentary The Way We Get By (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Bangor International Airport is the eastern-most full-service air field in the continental United States. It also happens to be blessed with long runways and clear airspace—perfect conditions for transatlantic flights. That is why so many military transports have come through Bangor and the steadfast greeters have been there for each and every one of them.

Presumably, access to his subjects was not a problem for Gaudet, since one of Way’s primary greeters is his mother Joan. Though she had previously been a near prisoner in her home during inclement weather for fear of falling, Gaudet now loyally answers the call regardless of the hour of night or the harshness of the climate. She feels a very personally connection to the troops because her own granddaughter Amy will soon deploy to Iraq as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot.

For Jerry Mundy and WWII veteran Bill Knight, troop greeting is both a deeply significant form of service and an important social outlet. Both men still grieve for lost loved ones and contend with serious health concerns, but determinedly meet each new plane of troops as the filmmakers follow their own dramatic story arcs.

Way is a quiet movie that treats its subjects with respect. Its strongest moments show how complete strangers can make brief but meaningful connections. The audience frequently witnesses Knight thanking servicemen, only to have them turn it around and thank him for his service in North Africa during WWII, which they insist was a far worse tour of duty than the conditions they faced in the Middle East.

Director Gaudet largely keeps the proceedings non-partisan, though he does include some brief complaints about Pres. Bush and “mission accomplished” from Mundy. However, regardless of the feelings of Gaudet, Mundy, or any of the other Mainers, it is patently clear they really do support the troops.

Although the troops play an important role in Way, the focus is squarely on the three greeters and their motivations for doing what they do. It is an honest and legitimately moving film that takes seriously concepts like service, sacrifice, and patriotism. After many successful festival screenings, including this year’s G.I. Film Festival in Washington, D.C., Way opens this Friday (7/17) in New York at the IFC Film Center, with director Gaudet and producer-interviewer Gita Pullapilly present for Q&A following weekend screenings.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

6-Shooter: Eden Log

Eden Log
Directed by Franck Vestiel
Magnolia Home Entertainment

Leave it to the French to make science fiction moody and existential. Though part of Magnet’s 6-Shooter series of international genre films, Franck Vestiel’s Eden Log is not exactly light popcorn fare, which might explain why it has recently bowed directly on DVD, foregoing theatrical release aside from some festival play. Yet despite its limited budget, Log (trailer here) is one of the most visually distinctive science fiction films in years, and certainly deserves to find an audience.

Log kicks off with truly primordial imagery, as an unnamed man crawls out of the mud and muck into the light. He has no memory of who he is, but he has an irresistible impulse to go in one direction—up. At various points he triggers holographic memory units which give him some clues as to the nature of the subterranean world he finds himself in. It appears to be some kind of highly advanced scientific facility that has suffered substantial damage. There are also mutant monsters prowling around.

Viewers learn Eden Log is the name of this facility from the corporate logo of a tree with its web-like root pattern adorning each level of the labyrinth. Fittingly for a French film, there also seem to have been markedly pronounced class divisions between technicians, workers, and guards that ultimately turned deadly. Apparently, the guards had the upper hand.

Clovis Cornillac (a winner of the French César Award and Knight of the Ordre des Arts et Lettres) is quite effective as the taciturn everyman steadily clawing his way up each level of Eden Log, but this is really a film defined by its look. Though technically filmed in color, Vestiel and cinematographer Thierry Pouget employ a palette almost exclusively limited to shades of gun metal gray. Indeed, the darkness is almost oppressive, but Vestiel’s pacing never flags.

For what has been billed as a largely DIY effort, the results are often stunning, thanks to Jean-Philippe Moreaux’s incredible set pieces, which look vaguely Giger-inspired. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Vestiel and Pierre Bordage has a few drawbacks, including a big twist that is a bit ho-hum and an anti-corporate bias that gets to be a bit of a distraction, throwing around loaded terms like “plantation.” Still, the seamlessness of the world they create is remarkable.

Log legitimately qualifies as an almost entirely new cinematic vision. Though its dialogue is not exactly extensive, the DVD release includes both the original French and English language versions. Of course, the real attraction is the remarkable environment Vestiel and his collaborators have created. Those who enjoy more thoughtful genre pictures will likely appreciate the results.

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Hiromi Kasuga Callin’

New York Callin’
By Hiromi Kasuga

It is quite a sight to watch Hiromi Kasuga play on KumGangSan’s mountainous stage precariously cantilevered in mid-air, at their fashionable Korean Town location. Of course, she also plays on more traditional bandstands at well-known New York jazz venues, including the Blue Note and the Kitano. One of the top Japanese jazz pianists currently performing in The City, Kasuga has recently released a new CD appropriately titled New York Callin.’

Kasuga kicks things off with Charlie Parker’s burner “Relaxin’ At Camarillo,” augmenting her trio with trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, establishing the group’s bebop chops right from the start. However, her interpretive gifts are really showcased on the following “Loss of Love,” a Henry Mancini theme from Vittorio De Sica's 1970 film, The Sunflower. Typically performed in a maudlin vein, Kasuga gives it a fittingly meditative intro, before quickening the tempo and adding a Latin-ish flavor, truly transforming the tune with her stylish alchemy.

Kasuga’s originals have a crisp Hardbop vibe, that sound partially rooted in the classic Blue Note era, but have a freshness distinctly her own. “Raindrops” is a trio feature that effectively represents the pitter-patter of precipitation, serving as a launching pad for effervescent solos from Kasuga and bassist Marco Panascia. The similarly aquatically titled “Ripple,” features an augmented front line of Mike DiRubbo on soprano saxophone and Magnarelli on flugelhorn, perfectly in-synch on Kasuga’s lovely melody. Marked by subtle shifts in dynamics, it is a compelling composition that inspires striking solos from DiRubbo and the leader.

It is followed by two original trio tributes, which differ in tone dramatically. While “Ms. Butterfly,” an elegant ballad inspired by the tragic Puccini heroine and “Monk’s Dance” is a sprightly homage to the innovative pianist composer (possibly referencing the little dance Monk sometimes performed to show his enthusiasm for a sideman’s solo), both show the flexibility and swinging musicianship of Kasuga and her rhythm section.

Throughout Callin,’ Kasuga changes up the mood and tempos nicely. Midway through, she digs back into the bebop bag for Bud Powell’s “Cleopatra’s Dream,” arranged as a fiery Latinized jolt of energy. She concludes with a “Honoka’s Lullaby,” a beautifully tranquil solo piano performance dedicated to Kasuga’s niece.

Both as a composer and a soloist, Kasuga has an appealing vitality that really comes through on Callin.’ It is a highly recommended release that rewards repeated listening with its style and verve. She plays KumGangSan weekend evenings this month, before leaving on a Japanese tour in August (check her website for her performance schedule).

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Friday, July 10, 2009

On-Stage: Cocktails at the Centre of the Earth

Welcome to the future promised to us in 1940’s science fiction serials. Now have a drink. You are probably going to need it, because bars have a habit of exploding in Simon Astor’s outrageous musical farce Cocktails at the Centre of the Earth, now playing a limited engagement at the Producer’s Club’s Royal Theatre.

The social structure of Cocktails is much like that of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, where the rich revel in the skies and the drones toils below. In this brave new steampunky world of jetpacks and zeppelins, the workers pour the drinks, and the upper class gets hammered. It is all powered by a special rocket fuel refined from Egyptian mummies, a process that has greatly enriched the Moutarde family.

Cocktails begins its futuristic bar crawl in the terrestrial Albion Club. Two social climbers are putting the moves on the Moutardes, but since they accidentally fell in love with each other, their hearts really are not in it. Before long, the partiers are off to the next exclusive club, located high a flying airship. Then things start getting outlandish, culminating in the Omphalos Club at the center of the Earth.

It all comes accompanied by songs, which are surprisingly strong given Astor’s eccentric lyrics. As Sir Reginald Rakehell, he performs the surreal “Synthesia,” while composer Richard Grant dons the persona of the cowboy singer-songwriter Murray Eel for “Coral Corral.” Borts Minorts also contributes music and lyrics for the title tune, which he fearlessly performs in an uncomfortable looking skin-tight bodysuit, with some truly over-the-top choreography. The standout performance though, might well be Erin Blair O’Malley’s rendition of “The Woman from the Island,” as Paravion Concord, the lesbian rocketeer-chanteuse.

Although it is scripted show, Cocktails has the energy and comedic sensibility of an improv comedy revue. Sometimes the jokes are funny and sometimes they are groaners. Some of the material is a bit “naughty,” but never really explicit. Throughout Cocktails, Astor throws in enough genre tropes to satisfy sci-fi fans looking for an entertaining stage spoof. In fact, the android Daniel Engine and his somewhat mad creator Gepetta Odenkirk (played by Mordecai Knode and Lois F., respectively), greatly resemble characters in Mac Rogers’ Universal Robots, the philosophically challenging reimaging of Karel Čapek’s R.U.R., which ran downtown earlier this year.

To adapt Cocktails as a special effects-laded movie would be prohibitively expensive, but Astor and director Greg LoProto make do with a sparse set of a few cabaret tables and chairs. Its totally DIY sci-fi horseplay, but it frequently works, thanks to a game cast that obviously enjoys the on-stage lunacy. It runs through Sunday (7/12) at the Royal.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Shakhnazarov’s Vanished Empire

For the chronically unambitious Sergey Narbekov, the late Brezhnev years were the glory days. With academia preoccupied with propaganda and jobs tightly regulated, he did not have to worry very much about studying or working. Instead, he is largely free to pursue girls and black market blue jeans in Karen Shakhnazarov’s oddly nostalgic The Vanished Empire, which opens tomorrow in New York.

“The history of the Communist Party is no laughing matter,” young Narbekov is told during a dressing down from his professor. That’s for sure. However, as the grandson of a respected archeologist, Narbekov is a child of moderate privilege, who gets away with quite a bit. In his first year at the Moscow Pedagogical Institute, Narbekov has been majoring in girls, even hooking-up mid-lecture. Yet to his dismay, his charm only takes him so far with Lyuda Beletskaya, a pretty transfer student.

Everyday life in Empire does not look like much fun. There is constant queuing for scarce household items, including vodka. Somehow though, as seen through Narbekov’s eyes, it seems like a carefree time of little or no responsibility. Of course, nothing lasts forever. He starts to learn a few life lessons from the virtuous Beletskaya, and eventually faces a harsh dose of reality within his immediate family. Still, he seems to become even more aimless and apathetic, traveling extensively in the Republics despite his lack of resources.

Given its wistful tone and drably realistic recreation of the period, Empire’s verdict on the Communist Era seems quite ambiguous. Sure, people could not get enough alcohol or buy rock & roll albums. Frankly, the level of medical care does look so great either. Still, people did not have to work so hard—at least Narbekov and his cronies did not have to.

As the brooding collegiate player, Alexander Lyadin’s performance often seems to miss the mark. While Narbekov trades on his rakish charisma, Lyadin conveys a self-indulgent smugness that is far from endearing. However, as his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Lidia Milyuzina brings a refreshing vitality to the film.

Production designer Lyudmila Kusakova renders early 1980’s Moscow with time-capsule exactness, filling the streets with crummy Trabants and the flats with snowy televisions that only seem to pick-up speeches by the comrade General Secretary. Unfortunately, later scenes in the Uzbekistan have a surreal quality that clashes with the prior gritty tone of the film.

If you were somewhat connected and largely oblivious to the crimes of the Soviet regime, like Narbekov, you probably could look back at your coming-of-age years with some fondness. Shakhnazarov skillfully immerses viewers in the milieu of the evil empire at its height, but its story of angst-ridden young love is fairly standard stuff. While it is an interesting viewing experience, Empire will probably leave non-Russophile viewers a bit cold. It opens tomorrow (7/10) in New York at the Quad.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Soul Power: The Music of Zaire ’74

Just about everything that could go wrong logistically for the Zaire ’74 concert event, did go wrong, but the musicians still brought their A-game. Originally conceived to coincide with the “Rumble in the Jungle” title fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, the show had to go on, even when the bout was postponed due to injury. Drawing from the same extensive footage that ultimately produced Leon Gast’s Academy Award-winning When We Were Kings, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s concert documentary Soul Power (trailer here), finally reaches American theater screens this Friday, nearly thirty-five years after the historic musical extravaganza.

The Zaire ’74 concert was organized by record producer Stewart Levine and his friend and partner, South African pop-jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela (who strangely makes only furtive appearances in Soul). According to Masekela’s memoir Still Grazing, there were some decidedly diva-like moments with many of the artists, but Levy-Hinte clearly chose scenes which accentuate the positive. Many musicians, like Bill Withers, regarded the trip to Zaire as a spiritual and musical pilgrimage, or a homecoming to the native-land they had never known.

In general, Gast’s film concentrates on the boxers and Levy-Hinte’s film focuses on the musicians, but Ali still finds his way into Soul, since the musicians often sought him out. However, James Brown emerges as the film’s dominant figure, through the force of his personality in candid interview segments and his songs, like “Soul Power” and “Say it Loud,” which perfectly express the concert’s pan-Afro-Diasporic concept.

There is some stirring music recorded in Soul, with many of the highlights coming from unexpected sources. Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars brought their hot blend of salsa to the Kinshasa stadium for passionate performances of “Quimbara” and “Ponte Duro,” featuring smoking solos from Johnny Pacheco on flute and Ray Barretto on congas. The Crusaders (formerly known as the Jazz Crusaders) also turn in a surprisingly swinging rendition of “Put It Where You Want It,” showcasing Joe Sample’s pleasingly funky keyboard work. Yet perhaps the highlight comes from Zairian soukous innovator Tabu Ley Rochereau with the infectiously rhythmic “Seli-Ja.”

There were a few disappointments during Zaire ‘74, including the cancelation of Cameroonian jazz musician Manu Dibango’s set, but at least the Makossa Man is heard in Soul leading a group of children pied piper-like with his soprano sax. At times though, one feels there were missed opportunities for more cross-cultural exchanges during the concert. While B.B. King and James Brown were incapable of giving lackluster performances (and the Godfather of Soul seems truly inspired during his closing set), surely their fans have heard them play “The Thrill is Gone” and “Cold Sweat” on numerous occasions. Had they played with artists like Dibango or Rochereau on-stage, the results might have been magical.

Of course, Levy-Hinte had to work with the footage he had and the concert producers were probably just happy to hold the show together. From the three chaotic nights of music that rocked Kinshasa, the performances that made Soul’s cut are quite rousing, and were effectively captured by a team of cinematographers that included renowned documentarian Albert Maysles. Conceptually, the Zaire ’74 show was comparable to the 1971 Soul to Soul concert in Ghana (which is available on a deluxe DVD/CD set), but the Kinshasa concert arguably had a bigger line-up and more energized performances. Fans of soul music with an appreciation of Latin, jazz, blues, and African music will have plenty to snap their fingers to in Soul Power. It opens in New York this Friday (7/10) at the Lincoln Plaza and Sunshine Theaters.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Blood: The Last Vampire

This ain’t Twilight. Pretty boy vampires would not last ten seconds with a slayer like Saya. While she might look young and innocent, Saya is actually around four hundred years old, and any undead standing between her and Onigen, the vampire queen, will taste cold steel in Chris Nahon’s martial arts-vampire film Blood: the Last Vampire (trailer here), opening this Friday in select cities.

Saya understands her prey only too well. As the daughter of Onigen and a human father, she also must drink blood to survive. Fortunately, she is supplied with bags of plasma by a mysterious secret society. They also tidy-up after each her slayings, which can get very messy indeed. Having discovered suspicious activity in the U.S. military base outside of Tokyo, those shadowy Men in Black send her in undercover as a new student for the American school. Of course, this requires her to wear a school uniform, following in the time-honored tradition of Japanese genre cinema.

Set in the late 1960’s, Blood has a very cool period vibe. Of course, that means as Saya wages her cosmic battle, the American military is also fighting in Viet Nam. Refreshingly, Blood does not try to make too much of that apparent irony, except for the snarling anti-American, anti-war remarks of one vampire, who happens to be thoroughly evil.

Frankly, the “girl-with-sword-hacks-up-undead-hordes” concept is darn near bullet-proof, and in fact Blood delivers some distinctive action scenes. At times, Nahon and action director Corey Yuen seem to suspend the laws of gravity, much as the Wachowski Brothers did in The Matrix, but the intricate choreography of their ultra-kinetic one-against-hundreds fight sequences are easy-to-follow and energizing.

Gianna, the Korean actress originally known as Jeon Ji-hyun, has tons of screen presence as Saya and is quite credible as an action figure. Liam Cunningham also brings a lot of salty character to the role of Michael, the sympathetic Man in Black. As for the evil multitudes, most are just there as grist for Saya’s mill, aside from Koyuki, the striking Japanese actress and model, as the supernaturally long-haired Onigen.

For the first two acts, Blood is a pretty satisfying exercise in amped-up, highly stylized action. Unfortunately, it largely falls apart during the overwrought, illogical climax, but that is more or less par for the course with this genre. In general, if a samurai-vampire movie based on an original anime/manga series sounds like your cup of tea, you will be quite content in Blood, in a fanboy-meathead kind of way. It opens this Friday (7/10) in New York at the AMC Empire 25 and the Loews Village 7.

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Monday, July 06, 2009

The Cartel

How far does a billion dollars go in New Jersey? Evidently, not very far. The NJ Schools Construction Corporation “lost” upwards of that amount, and how did they respond? Naturally, they demanded billions more from taxpayers. Yet, the SCC is only emblematic of far greater corruption. Bob Bowdon exposes pervasive graft and outright collusion between the New Jersey educational bureaucracy and the NJEA, the state teachers’ union, in his devastating documentary The Cartel (trailer here), which screens during the upcoming Jersey Shore Film Festival.

Even though New Jersey is the number one state in America for school funding, the current governor has proposed further increases. Yet as Bowdon documents, precious little of that money will actually reach students, or even teachers in the classroom. After all, New Jersey is not called the Soprano State for nothing. Still, the corruption in the New Jersey school system is absolutely staggering. In addition to the scandal of the disappearing SCC funds, a KMPG audit of the so-called Abbott districts (economically depressed school districts which receive massive amounts of state aid) revealed twenty-nine percent of expenditures were suspiciously excessive or insufficiently documented.

As scandalous as such potentially criminal financial shenanigans are, the abuse of power at the local level is arguably worse. Bowdon’s interview subjects have plenty of horror stories, like the principal who was unable to fire teachers for watching porn while on duty, because they were politically connected (perversely, he would be the one let go). For fun, Bowdon counts the number of luxury cars in the Jersey City Board of Ed parking lot. (Rather than spoil it, let’s just say the sequence takes a full thirty seconds, which is a considerable amount of screen time.)

There is no question beleaguered NJ taxpayers are taking it in the wallet and shins, but Bowdon always makes it clear the biggest victims of such institutionalized dysfunction are the students themselves. The bottom-line is far too many public school students cannot read at grade-level or perform basic arithmetic, leaving them ill-equipped for the future job market. His touchstone image for the film comes from the annual lottery for a prized place in one of Jersey’s few charter schools. For those kids and their parents, getting out of their “zip-code” school is considered their only chance for a future. Those who win a spot are truly overjoyed, while those who do not literally cry tears of sorrow.

Bowdon is a legitimate journalist, who worked as an on-air correspondent and producer for recognizable Tri-State outlets like WB11. While he conducts several on-camera interviews with union and school board bureaucrats, he is always fair, resisting the temptation of cheap gotcha tactics. In truth, he hardly needs such theatrics, given the strength of the scrupulously reasoned case he presents. Unfortunately, some viewers might dismiss his arguments on behalf of school vouchers as too “ideological,” even though he presents his case with unassailable logic. Yet, in doing so, he offers solutions instead of merely bemoaning the horrendous state of New Jersey schools.

Bowdon repeatedly makes the point that the distressing trends detailed in the film apply nationwide. While that is no doubt correct, the abuses are particularly egregious in the Soprano State. One would anticipate disturbing anecdotes in a documentary about the public school system, but The Cartel surpasses all expectations. It is an important documentary and a valuable alarm bell that both parents and taxpayers need to heed. After winning the Audience Award at this year’s Hoboken International Film Festival, The Cartel screens again at the JSFF on July 8th, July 14th, and July 15th.

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