J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Sweetly Diabolic Art of Flora

The Sweetly Diabolic Art of Jim Flora
By Irwin Chusid & Barbara Economon
Fantagraphics Books


There is something quintessentially American about Jim Flora’s artistic career. Though academically trained in fine art, he excelled in the corporate world, producing commercial art as both a salaried staffer and a consistently in-demand freelancer. In fact, some of his best loved images graced the jackets of Columbia and RCA records, particularly their jazz releases. Irwin Chusid and Barbara Economon have taken on the challenge of cataloguing the known Flora oeuvre and sleuthing out previously unidentified Floriana. Their efforts resulted in three collections of Flora’s slyly humorous and subtly macabre art, including the recently published The Sweetly Diabolic Art of Jim Flora.

Jazz collectors were indeed early Flora fans, not only for his record label work, but for the syncopated rhythmic sensibility of his intricately composed canvases and woodcuts. Of course, Flora produced work on scores of subjects, like the many scientifically themed illustrations produced during his short stint as art director for the long defunct Research & Engineering journal, many of which are reprinted in Diabolic for the first time since their initial 1950’s publication. While Flora’s art retains its whimsical charm, R&E's accompanying text sounds very much like a product of its time. However, the art he produced for Look Magazine’s “Who Needs Tax Relief Most?” featuring a fanged 1040 monster chasing a taxpayer seems even timelier today than when first published in 1955.

While Flora has always attracted an enthusiastic following, including graphic artists influenced by his work (like J.D. King), 2009 might well be Flora’s breakout year, with AMC’s Mad Men bringing 1950’s Madison Avenue chic back into vogue. After all, it was Flora (along with his imitators) who greatly shaped the style of commercial art throughout the 1950’s. (Also, as 2012 approaches, doomsday cranks might be attracted to his late career acrylic “Quetzlcoatl Returns.”)

Still, many Flora fans will always be most interested in his musical work, so they will be happy to learn Chusid and Economon found more gold to mine in his Columbia files. In Diabolic, they focus on his illustrations for Coda, a predominantly classical newsletter produced for record stores and the Columbia sales reps. At times, Flora’s images echo Dali, creating surreal landscapes where giant violins and conga drums dwarf abstract human figures.

Chusid and Economon once again prove to be wise stewards of the Flora archives. Diabolic reveals many largely unknown aspects of his work, but also fruitfully revisits his classic Columbia-era work. Thanks to the quality of the reproductions and design of the book itself, the vitality of Flora’s art comes through on each page. An effective introduction to Flora’s art and a satisfying crowd-pleaser for his established fans, Diabolic is another richly entertaining treasury of Flora’s “baroque and subversive” art.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

K-Horror: My Bloody Roommates

Despite its English title, Kim Eun-Kyung’s contribution to One Day Suddenly: 4 Horror Tales, a quartet of k-horror films based on the novels of Yoo Il-Han, is not a slasher movie. However, it certainly features many of the universal elements of the dead-teenager horror film, like its isolated private school setting—in this case an all-girls prep school (so much the better). Though relatively restrained with its blood splattering, Kim wrings plenty of apprehension and angst out of the academic pressure cooker environment in My Bloody Roommates (also known as D-Day, trailer here) now available on DVD.

The Younghwa Academy is the last chance for girls who failed their university entrance exams. As the principal explains in their promotional video, if you can survive a year with them “you’re already half successful.” Still, the emphasis she places on the presence of their school nurse might seem a little odd. As it turns out, Younghwa was rebuilt three years ago following a tragic fire which killed the entire student body. Evidently though, there were no lessons to be learned from this incident, as the faculty prepares to lock in the incoming class for 312 days of academic boot camp.

Since everything is regimented at Younghwa by test score, Eun-Su is number one. She actually passed her college boards, but not at a level high enough to satisfy her perfectionist family. In contrast, her roommates start out much lower in the academic pecking order. Yoo-Jin is a rebellious child of privilege obviously on a collision course with the school’s strict code of discipline. Bespectacled Da-Young is socially awkward, but well-meaning, while the sensitive Bo-Ram supplies the film’s intermittent narration.

Even with its supernatural overtones, Roommates is more of a creepy drama than a shocking fright flick. Its depiction of students breaking under pressure and ultimately succumbing to madness (or something even worse) is surprisingly chilling. The underdog kids versus the Dean of Mean storyline might even inspire some viewers to start humming a little bit of The Wall.

Overall, the cast is quite solid, with particularly strong performances coming from Kim Ri-Na, who shows considerable range as Eun-Su, and the deliberately geeked-down Heo Jin-Yong as the touchingly innocent Da-Young. Kim makes effective use of the claustrophobic atmosphere and the countdown to D-Day, the date of the university exams, maintains the tension reasonably well. Unfortunately, it all falls apart at the end with a typical horror movie conclusion and a total downer of a denouement.

Roommates legitimately exceeds expectations, but it is still probably not a film for multiplex audiences. Still, somewhat more adventurous viewers, especially devotees of Asian genre cinema, will find it a pleasing DVD experience and make note of its talented up-and-coming cast.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

On-Stage: Shrunken Heads

Psychiatrist Robert Hyde has a lot of problems and only fifty minutes per hour with which to solve them. His ex-wife and daughter constantly demand more financial assistance than he can afford, and his most difficult patient wants more emotional support than he can comfortably offer. Her jealous husband packing heat only makes matters worse. They all intrude on Dr. Hyde’s peaceful country getaway in M.Z. Ribalow’s Shrunken Heads, now running at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Theatre Row.

Hyde would like nothing better than to spend some quiet time with Polly, his noticeably younger second wife, to discuss great literature and speak their nauseatingly affectionate baby talk. Unfortunately, their romantic weekend is crashed one-by-one by his overwrought patient Dorothy Putney, his sarcastic ex-wife Jennifer Todhunter Hyde, his daughter Caroline and her dippy hippy boyfriend Carlyle Hiram Peckinpah III, and finally the resentful, gun-toting Norman Putney. Plenty of bickering and misunderstandings follow, all accompanied by the caustic commentary of Hyde’s tart-tongued ex.

The action is fast and funny, yet is entirely contained within the sitting room of Hyde’s country home, which as designed by Daniel Krause, looks like a very elegant but comfortable living space. While there are not a lot of actual slamming doors in Heads, it definitely has that same spirit of madcap farce. Frankly, it is a very commercial script, similar in appeal to the recent Broadway production of Boeing, Boeing and the acerbic family comedy of films like The Ref. Featuring several distinctive supporting comic roles, it would be a joy to cast on Broadway.

The entire cast of Heads appears to enjoy the sharp dialogue and brisk pacing of Angela Astle’s direction. As Todhunter Hyde, the merry Ab-Fab-ish divorcee, Diana Henry is a particular standout, delivering her acidic lines with delicious relish. Producer Mel House also brings an engaging charm to Polly Hyde, the wiser-than-she-acts trophy wife.

For the most part, Heads maintains a light-hearted atmosphere, enjoying the comedic chaos of its dramatic situations. However, Ribalow seems to offer a politely muted critique of Dr. Hyde’s compulsively non-judgmental approach to psychology and life.

Witty and breezily entertaining, Heads is the sort of comedic play that has recently mounted a welcome resurgence on New York stages. Based on the full house last night, there definitely seems to be an appetite for such sophisticated farces, so be advised: its limited run ends Sunday (8/30) afternoon.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

John Surman: Brewster’s Rooster

Brewster’s Rooster
By John Surman
ECM Records 2046

British jazz multi-instrumentalist John Surman has pretty much done it all. Early in his career he performed with British blues rocker Alex Korner (as did a fellow named Jagger). He would quickly become one of Britain’s top jazz artists, displaying a thirst for new challenges, including collaborations with traditional Middle Eastern musician Anouar Brahem, modal-avant-garde experiments with his own groups, and composing for Carolyn Carlson’s dance troupe while they were in residence at the Paris Opera. All the while, he maintained his stature as one of jazz’s preeminent baritone saxophonists. Now Surman further enhances that reputation with his latest recording, Brewster’s Rooster.

In an occasional change-up Surman (the great baritonist) also throws a little soprano sax into the mix on two tracks, giving the set a very pleasing contrast of sounds. The first instance is actually the opening “Slanted Sky,” which is light and airy, yet thoughtfully meditative. It is also an excellent example of the finely tuned rapport within the quartet, resulting from the frequent pairings of Surman, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and guitarist John Abercrombie in various configurations and groups, often recorded on the ECM label. Rounding out the quartet is bassist Drew Gress, whose credits include the likes of Fred Hersh, Ravi Coltrane, and even Phyllis Diller (a gig’s a gig, after all).

The following “Hilltop Dancer” is a catchy, slightly Latin workout that amply displays Surman’s facility on the baritone, which for many is an unforgiving horn at brisker tempos. While “No Finesse” (which seems inappropriately named) starts at a more relaxed pace, it swings forcefully, building nicely into eloquent solos from the leader and Abercrombie.

As Brewster’s single traditional standard, Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” is the kind of lush, languid vehicle often chosen to showcase the baritone. With his sensitive but commanding interpretation, Surman demonstrates a mastery of the language of the jazz ballad. It is followed by the relatively abstract “Haywain” and then a palette-cleansing return to the soprano with the spritely swinger “Counter Measures.” The quartet closes out with the surprisingly groovy title track, propelled by DeJohnette’s funky backbeat rhythm, and the emphatically boppish closer, “Going for a Burton.”

Truly, Brewster is about as jazz as jazz gets. It is a well-balanced program, featuring some sparkling original compositions from Surman and inspired playing by the entire quartet. Those on the East Coast will soon have an opportunity to hear the Surman Quartet live. They begin a three night engagement in Washington D.C. at Blues Alley tonight (8/27), and will play New York’s Birdland next Tuesday (9/1) through Saturday (9/5).

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Kore-eda's Still Walking

Family is family, even when parents break the unwritten rule prohibiting unequal affection for their children. Of course, that kind of favoritism can lead to deep psychological repercussions throughout the family unit. Such is unfortunate case with Dr. Yokoyama, his wife, and the entire Yokoyama family in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Fifteen years ago, Junpei, the eldest son and focus of all the Yokoyama parental pride, died in a senseless accident. Though the Yokoyamas still had two perfectly good grown children, younger brother Ryota and older sister Chinami, neither is able to fill Junpei’s place in their hearts. As a result, Ryota usually avoids family visits, but he cannot beg off his mother’s annual memorial for his late brother on the anniversary of his death.

Outside factors further complicate the Ryota’s awkward homecoming. His parents are at best ambivalent about his marriage to Yukari, an understanding widow with a young son. Ryota also recently lost his job as a museum art-restorer, which he is determined to keep secret, even though he must frequently excuse himself to make networking calls on his cell-phone. At the same time, Ryota’s distant father silently grapples with feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy brought on by advanced age, while Dr. Yokoyama’s wife deliberately nurses all her resentments and disappointments, acerbically giving voice to them as she cooks with Chinami.

While this might sound like a thoroughly unhealthy family get-together, they are still a family, dysfunctional though they might be. In Kore-eda’s emotionally realistic screenplay, characters never really “have it out.” They just carry on as best they can.

Walking is a film of great subtlety that builds slowly but steadily, thanks to the steady hand of the acclaimed writer-director-editor. Its wistful spirit is nicely underscored by the soundtrack music of GONTITI, the Japanese acoustic guitar duo who blend light jazz and polite world music influences into a mix well suited to the intimate simplicity of Kore-eda’s approach.

Throughout Walking, the Yokoyamas seem like a credible real-life middleclass family, thanks to the utterly natural and perfectly complimentary ensemble performances. Abe Hirosi’s quietly understated portrayal of Ryota holds the audience’s sympathy and delivers the film’s restrained but moving dramatic payoff. Surprisingly, former Japanese pop-star and professional celebrity YOU is also quite convincing as the dutiful daughter. Perhaps most crucial though, is the work of veteran Japanese actor Harada Yoshio, who deftly suggests the inner fears of the once powerful doctor, now forced to watch his vitality slip away.

Though Kore-eda has a global reputation, there is the risk Walking might be overshadowed on the art-house circuit by other Japanese family dramas recently released in America. While it lacks the visceral intensity of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata or the overwhelming punch of Yojiro Takita’s Departures, it is a very honest and direct film, whose elegiac conclusion has an undeniable power that lingers in the consciousness long after its initial viewing. It opens this Friday (8/28) at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Angelika Film Center.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Brave New Online World: We Live in Public

It might seem like a no-brainer today, but it was considered somewhat bold when Josh Harris foresaw extensive demand for online chat-rooms dedicated to sexual topics. It led to one of his first big internet paydays. Though he might not be a household name, probably no one better personifies the internet boom and bust than Harris, whose spectacular reversal of fortune is documented in Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

There is no denying Harris saw the potential of the internet well before nearly anyone else. He positioned his market research company Jupiter to take advantage of the developments that were then just over the horizon. As a result, he was able to take Jupiter public and make a bundle that would allow him to move on to flashier projects. One was Pseudo, the now defunct interactive webcasting network that was a brief sensation.

While Pseudo did not make it out of the nineties, Harris’s marked the turn of the millennium with an endeavor that was more performance art than entrepreneurialism. Broadcasting the interaction of one hundred people living in an underground bunker beneath the streets of Manhattan, “Quiet: We Live in Public” was a Big Brother-style webcast that predated the host of similar reality shows now dominating network television. However, nothing would be censored for Harris’s internet viewers, including showers, sexual relations, and the bizarre interrogation sessions that were part of his performance art conception.

Completely stripped of their privacy, Harris’s lab rats ran amok in a weirdly hedonistic online version of The Lord of Flies. Eventually, the NYPD shut down “Quiet,” fearing the bunker residents were involved in millennial cult activity—suspicions which the surviving participants find quite reasonable in retrospect. However, Harris was already thinking about his next online happening: “living in public” with his new girlfriend. You can imagine how that worked out.

Harris truly anticipated the ways in which the internet would break down traditional notions of privacy, stoking a cyber form of exhibitionism. In Harris’s brave new world, it will not be the case that privacy is impossible. Rather, it will actually be undesirable for a generation raised on webcams, hit counters, and friend lists.

Unfortunately, though Harris might be something of a visionary, he is not a particularly interesting figure to spend time with, coming across as immature and easily bored throughout the documentary. Still, Timoner does yeoman’s work building up the drama of his life. She opens with what seems like an unforgivably cold episode: Harris recording a videotape goodbye to his dying mother. Yet, as the filmmaker unfolds the dynamics of his personal life, it becomes understandable, if not laudable. Also, her selection of vintage 1990’s rock tunes is also quite shrewd, appropriately including Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity” heard over the closing credits.

While Harris might be a problematic documentary subject, at least he shows a healthy interest in the Second Amendment. Perhaps a questionable businessman, he certainly had a prescient vision of the changes that would be wrought by the internet revolution. It is when Timoner explores those societal sea changes that Public is most engaging. A Sundance award winner and part of the Museum of Modern Art film department’s permanent collection, Public opens theatrically this Friday (8/28) at the IFC Film Center.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

HBO Documentary: In a Dream

It is difficult to classify Isaiah Zagar as an artist. A graduate of the Pratt Institute, he was the recipient of a NREA fellowship and a grant from the Pew Charitable Trust. He was even an artist-in-residence in Tianjin, China. However, his primary gallery is his South Philadelphia neighborhood, where his mosaics completely envelope several buildings in an obsessive style that suggests the work of a tormented outsider artist. Indeed, Zagar’s deep-seated emotional issues would erupt during the filming of In a Dream (trailer here), his son Jeremiah’s documentary about his artistic parents, now playing on HBO2.

Though director Zagar captures some uncomfortably revealing moments as they happened, the family has evidently made peace with the project, since they were in attendance Sunday afternoon for Dream’s special screening at the Brooklyn Museum. Presumably, they grown accustomed to the attention generated by the film, which was one of fifteen films to make the Academy’s 2008 shortlist for best documentary.

As we meet Zagar the artist, he certainly appears eccentric and self-absorbed, yet it seems he was a reasonably supportive father and loving husband. Yet, after some probing by his son, the elder Zagar discloses some disturbing events in his life, including prolonged episodes of sexual molestation as a youth, which would eventually inspire the fish motifs in his art.

Unfortunately, Isaiah Zagar does not always come across as a sympathetic figure, choosing the worst possible time to admit his infidelity. As a result, his formerly comfortable domestic life comes crashing down around him. In fact, there is a fair amount of uncertainty in Dream not just regarding the future of the Zagars’ marriage, but whether the artist’s delicate mental health can survive the guilt and strain caused by his confession.

Like Surfwise, Doug Pray’s documentary examination of the unconventional Paskowitz family, Dream reveals the dark side of Bohemian living. Still, the Zagars clearly offered their children a much more conventionally structured environment. In fact, the one who suffers most from Isaiah Zagar’s self-indulgent impulses is arguably the artist himself.

As filmed by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, Zagar’s mosaics become truly striking explosions of colors and bizarre imagery. With animated sequences (designed by Cassidy Gearhart and Yussef Cole) incorporating Zagar’s graphic figures, Dream has a trippy, hallucinatory visual style, heightened by the alternative-ambient soundtrack provided by Kelli Scarr and The Books.

Dream encompasses some timeless themes, including family, fidelity, art, and madness. It is particularly notable for showing the consequences of the Zagar patriarch’s bad decisions, rather than blindly venerating his bohemian lifestyle. It plays again on HBO2 tonight (8/24) and Friday (8/28), and will be available on HBO OnDemand through September 13th.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Tin Pan Alley Rag: When Mr. Joplin Met Mr. Berlin

It could safely be called ahead of its time. Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha was hailed as a masterpiece when it was finally performed in its entirety. Unfortunately, that was in 1972, well after the death of the composer in 1917. However, a young music publisher named Irving Berlin is astute enough to recognize its greatness, despite the commercial limitations that are all too obvious to the Tin Pan Alley song-plugger. Such contrasting musical sensibilities mark the fictional meeting of the two giants of American song in Mark Saltzman’s Tin Pan Alley Rag, now running at the Laura Pels Theatre.

Whether Joplin ever met Berlin seems to be a matter of speculation, but the composer searched high and low for a publisher willing to handle Treemonisha, so Tin’s premise is certainly plausible enough. (Ironically, a ragtime scholar named Edward Berlin would eventually write Joplin’s biography.) As Saltzman’s play opens, the ailing Joplin’s hopes for his masterwork have been dealt yet another setback following a disastrous run-through staged for a prospective investor. Conversely, though Berlin is already at the top Tin Pan Alley publishing, his best years were well ahead of him.

Still, Saltzman finds common experiences that allow the composer-songwriters to convincingly bond during their brief encounter. Both rose from mean circumstances, attaining significant acclaim with their music. More significantly, both still mourn wives who died shortly after their respective marriages. At this point in his life, Berlin still bitterly grieves for his first wife Dorothy Goetz, who contracted typhoid fever on their honeymoon (though he would eventually marry Ellin Mackay, his second wife of sixty-three years). For Joplin it is Freddie Alexander, wife number two out of three (who died while he was on tour), whom he remembers with deep regret.

Saltzman integrates the two composers’ stories quite well and makes excellent use of their songbooks. Musically, Joplin is clearly better represented in Tin, which includes selections from Treemonisha, as well as his best known rags, like “The Entertainer” and “The Maple Leaf Rag.” By contrast, most of the Berlin songs selected are appropriately the corny Tin Pan Alley novelty tunes he was cutting his teeth on at the time.

Cleverly staged, the formative events of the songwriters’ lives unfold out of Berlin’s publishing office thanks to Beowulf Boritt’s inventive set design. Most of the actual singing is left to the fine supporting cast, which notably includes James Judy, (who also appeared in the Off-Broadway musical adaptation of Frank Gilroy’s The Gig, another book musical with jazz-crossover appeal) whose multiples roles include that of the progressive John Stark, Joplin’s first music publisher.

Though his numbers are often comedic and decidedly dated “ethnic” tuners, Michael Therriault has some nice vocal moments as well. More importantly, he has excellent stage chemistry with Michael Boatman as Joplin. As a result, the respect and friendship that develops between them feels natural and convincing.

While Tin might overstate the ragtime component of Treemonisha, in most respects, it captures the milieu of early Twentieth Century song-plugging quite well. Repeatedly, Saltzman makes the point that it was the work of Joplin and Berlin, the sons of a slave and a Jewish immigrant, who would finally declare America’s musical independence from Europe. Yet Tin never descends into didacticism. Both well conceived and well intentioned, it is a very entertaining tribute to the men who helped influence the distinctive sounds of American music in the Twentieth Century. Tin’s limited run ends September 6th.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

NY-Tokyo: Detroit Metal City

It is a clash between ultra-cute Hello Kitty-venerating J-Pop and satanic death metal. May the best musical sub-genre win. The prize in this case is the soul of a want-to-be pop idol in Toshio Lee’s Detroit Metal City (trailer here), which had its New York premiere last night as part of New York-Tokyo’s regular Nippon Eiga film series.

Souichi Negishi always wanted to be a “trendy” pop star, singing syrupy sweet love ditties. Instead, through the perversities of fate, he finds himself assuming the persona of the demonic Johannes Krauser II to front a hardcore metal band, Detroit Metal City (DMC). Repulsed by their violent satanic lyrics and intimidated by his leather-clad dragon lady “Boss,” Negishi is profoundly uncomfortable with his DMC gig. However, the band seems to be catching on, since Negishi keeps delivering the wild heavy metal goods on-stage, usually through an accident involving slapstick physical humor.

Suddenly, some cuteness returns to Negishi’s life when he encounters Yuri Aikawa, his old college crush, now a writer for a “trendy” pop magazine. Of course, he inadvertently does everything possible to sabotage her unlikely romantic interest. Adding further anxiety for the broken hearted loser is an upcoming battle of the bands with Jack Il Death, the reigning American king of death metal on his farewell world tour.

To be blunt, Kenichi Matsuyama induces such cringing as the overly sensitive Negishi, it is nearly impossible to take a rooting interest in his pathetic plights. However, DMC deserves credit for going for broke in its metal scenes. The band’s lyrics are fearlessly over-the-top and their KISS-inspired makeup and costumes are hilariously spot-on. Lending further metal cred, KISS’s own Gene Simmons appears as the sinister Jack. Yet, DMC’s true highlights all involve Yasuko Matsuyuki’s outrageous turn as the scary but striking Boss. Whether terrorizing the emasculated Negishi or extinguishing lit cigarettes on her tongue, she has perfect comic timing and an intense screen presence.

Based on a popular manga series which Viz only recently started publishing in America, DMC has some inspired moments of metal madness. Unfortunately, Matsuyama’s Jekyll and Hyde act is too extreme, inspiring little sympathy from the audience. Still, Lee maintains an impressive energy level and you have to dig those manga-inspired opening credits. If prefer broad physical comedy to dry wit and speed metal over sophisticated jazz, DMC is your cup of dark satanic tea, but non-fanboys may find it more difficult to relate to. Expect more screening opportunities if the manga starts to catch on with American audiences.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fringe ’09: The Doctor and the Devils

Just like London had Jack the Ripper, Edinburgh had Burke and Hare. Technically, they were grave-robbers, but the higher compensation paid for fresh bodies created obvious homicidal incentives. While it could not be more different in tone from his better known works (like A Child’s Christmas in Wales), their story would inspire The Doctor and the Devils, Dylan Thomas’s play originally conceived for the screen, which the Rag ‘N Bone Theatre Company has revived during this year’s FringeNYC.

Burke and Hare, whom Thomas renames Fallon and Broom, still sell corpses to the good Dr. Rock (in place of the historical Dr. Robert Knox), with no questions asked. After all, their victims are riff-raff, whose disappearance (and eventual dissection) is unlikely to raise much concern. However, despite the rigid social structures of the time, Rock’s apprentice, Mr. Murray, is somewhat familiar with their world through his relationship with the prostitute Jennie Bailey, which leads to complications.

Doctor is uncharacteristic of Thomas’s oeuvre, focusing on the desperate living conditions faced by the notorious resurrectionists. Yet, while there might be clear social implications to Thomas’s play, the tenor of Rag ‘N Bone’s production is far more surreal than naturalistic. Daniel Balkin’s adaption and direction often evokes the feeling of a fever dream through montage-like sequences of murdering, grave-robbing, drunkenness, and Rock’s zealous university lectures. Particularly eerie is his use of Thomas’s morbid nursery rhyme: “Fallon and Broom sell bones and meat, Fallon’s the butcher, Broom’s the thief, And Rock’s the boy who buys the beef.”

At times the staging is so stylized it keeps the audience somewhat emotionally removed from the characters on stage. However, Abdel Gonzalez, looking much like a hulking Ron Perlman, gives a remarkable performance humanizing the fearsome Fallon, showing the vulnerable man buried inside the monster. Likewise, Madeline Blue (whose credits include The Sopranos) brings vitality and likability to the ill-fated Jennie Bailey.

Doctor is a philosophical production, where the classic question whether the end justifies the means is debated from several perspectives. In his hubris, Rock’s end is no less than the salvation of mankind through medical research. For Fallon, Broom, and their social circle, the end goal is mere economic survival.

Technically well-mounted, Doctor uses its sparse set and moody lighting quite effectively. Though the accompanying music is often jarringly contemporary, it still contributes to the unsettling atmosphere. Thoughtful and macabre, it is certainly a distinctive night of theater. It runs through Sunday at Milagro Theatre as part of Fringe Festival.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

When Broadway Got Real: Passing Strange (The Movie)

It seemed like there was a revolutionary spirit afoot on Broadway in early 2008, when two new musicals brought the theater world an infusion of energy and hipness. While Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Latin-hip hop flavored In the Heights is still up-and-running, Stew’s hard-rocking Passing Strange closed far too soon, despite garnering excellent reviews and a Tony Award for best book. Yet it was too good to go undocumented, so Spike Lee brought his cameras into the Belasco Theatre to record Stew’s show in the live performance documentary, Passing Strange (trailer here), which starts a limited engagement in New York this Friday.

Passing is the semi-autobiographical creation of the uni-named Stew (at one time known as Mark Stewart), the show’s narrator, guitarist, bandleader, book and lyric writer, and co-composer/co-orchestrator with bassist Heidi Rodewald. Although Stew had an understudy listed in programs, it is difficult to imagine the show without him driving the band and offering witty musical commentary on the dramatic proceedings.

In a variation on the on-the-road story, the simply named Youth, feeling constricted by his lower middle class Los Angeles upbringing, sets out on a journey to find “the real.” Yet it is not clear whether the aspiring songwriter really wants to find it, preferring the excesses of Amsterdam’s bohemian hash bars and the hipster pretensions of Berlin. His expatriate voyage unfolds on an austere stage right in the midst of Stew’s band, with only a few plain chairs for a set.

At times the book is quite clever, savagely satirizing the self-important leftist performance art of the Berliners. Featuring sharply incisive dialogue, Passing challenges the audience’s expectations in shrewd ways, frankly addressing issues of personal identity and authenticity in race, sex, and art. When the Youth adopts a militant Black Power persona to impress the Berlin artist collective, his role-playing is undercut by Stew’s narration: “Nobody in this play knows what it’s like to hustle for dimes on the mean streets of South Central.”

Daniel Breaker is quite convincing as the somewhat immature Youth, perhaps benefiting the most from Lee’s cinematic close-ups. Likewise, the power of Eisa Davis’s performance as his mother remains undiminished by the show’s transition to the big screen. However, Stew dominates the show with his music and presence. Together with Rodewald, Christian Gibbs on drums, and Jon Spurney and Christian Cassan, both doubling on guitar and keyboards, they rock the house, far more than any previous so-called “rock musical.”

Indeed, the music of Passing is quite catchy and it legitimately rocks, but the program is a bit unbalanced, with most of the absolute killer showstoppers, like “Arlington Hill,” “Amsterdam,” and “Keys” front-loaded in the first act. Yet throughout the show, Stew’s effective recurring riffs like, “just when it was starting to feel real,” tie the music and drama together quite powerfully.

Employing multiple cameras over three nights of shooting, Lee and cinematographer Matthew Libatique capture the sweaty vitality of the show’s essence. However, it seems like they were a tad stingy with Rodewald’s screen time, which is a shame considering her contributions as Stew’s musical collaborator and her own talent as a musician.

Lee might have directed the film, but Passing is still undeniably Stew’s show. It was as real as it gets on Broadway. When the musicians and actors take their final bows on stage, cinema audiences will probably find themselves up on their feet, applauding along with the Belasco patrons. It is a fine send-off for one of the best musicals of the last decade.

It opens on the 21st at the IFC Film Center, with Stew and Rodewald attending the 6:15 & 9:20 screenings on Friday and Saturday, as well as the 3:30 screening on Sunday.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Guilt and Remembrance: Five Minutes of Heaven

It seems even in the UK, reality TV has had a corrosive effect on television journalism. One prominent interview show is determined to bring Joe Griffin face-to-face with the man who gunned down his brother Jim in cold blood during the height of The Troubles. Their goal is to orchestrate a symbolic handshake between the two men, which hopefully will lead to an offer of forgiveness. However, there will be no cheap “Oprah moments” in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Five Minutes of Heaven (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday.

In 1975, sixteen year-old Alistair Little, an ardent member of the Ulster paramilitary UVF, assassinated nineteen year-old Jim Griffin while his eleven year-old brother Joe helplessly watched. Twelve years later, Little was released from prison a changed man, dedicating himself to the prevention of violence through prison counseling. That much is historically accurate, whereas the planned confrontation between the still grieving Griffin and his brother’s remorseful killer is entirely the invention of screenwriter Guy Hibbert.

The producers expect the meeting between Griffin and Little to be riveting television. However, Little harbors no such illusions. He does not expect forgiveness and recognizes he has no right to ask for it. While the guilt-ridden Little has the calm of a man resigned to his fate, Griffin is highly agitated by the prospect of facing his brother’s killer, particularly resenting attempts to humanize him. As the two approach their taping, it is clear both are broken men, deeply scarred by the events of that fateful night.

Five is not about forgiveness and it is not about redemption. It is about how an act of violence can tear a family apart, causing suffering that compounds years after the fact. Little also talks frankly about the mindset of violent extremists in terms not unlike Eric Hoffer’s True Believer, which he also applies to Islamist terrorists today.

Hibbert’s screenplay is unusually well written, with each word very deliberately chosen. Liam Neeson nicely conveys the anguished conscience beneath Little’s stoic facade. However, James Nesbitt (best known as the star of British television series like Cold Feet) gives a truly remarkable performance as Griffin, portraying him as a bundle of neuroses and insecurities. Yet there is nothing funny about his tragic depiction of human suffering. Likewise, Kevin O’Neill is equally memorable as the traumatized young Joe Griffin in the film’s flashback sequences.

To its credit, there is no place in Five for phony sentimentality. It is brutally honest in its presentation of the guilt experienced by both survivor and perpetrator alike. Directed with tight economy by the German Hirschbiegel, Five is smart, intense, and ultimately quite moving. It opens Friday (8/21) at the Angelika.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Meet the Hamiltons: My One and Only

Everyone who has ever wondered about the formative influences that made George Hamilton the actor he is, should take heart. Your portrait of the tanned celebrity as a young man is finally here. While the subject matter might sound predictable and self-serving, the execution is breezy and relatively diverting in Richard Loncraine’s My One and Only (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York in advance of its September 4th national roll-out.

George Hamilton was the son of the society bandleader George “Spike” Hamilton. In Charlie Peters’s somewhat fictionalized screenplay, he is the son of big band front-man Dan Devereaux, who might be a one hit wonder with the title song, “My One and Only,” but is still famous enough to attract plenty of volunteers for his serial philandering. Catching him in the act, his exasperated wife Ann responds by pulling George and his half-brother Robbie out of school and heading out on the open road in a newly purchased Cadillac.

With limited funds, Ann plans to fall back on the only work she has ever known: marriage. Starting in New York, they generally work their way west as Ann looks up a parade of former beaus and eligible bachelors, played by a who’s who of former sitcom stars.

In Boston she finds her old flame Wallace (Steven Weber from Wings) has fallen on hard times, so she gets hitched Dr. Harlan Williams (Sex and the City’s Christ Noth) instead. However, he turns out to be an unfortunate caricature of the uptight veteran and not proper marriage material after all. Moving on to Pittsburgh, she briefly reconnects with Charlie (Eric McCormack of Will & Grace), a former lover even shallower than herself. Eventually, the trio is forced to crash with Ann’s sister in St. Louis, while she romances Bill Massey (a regular on The Office), an heir to the local paint store fortune.

Renée Zellweger is perfectly cast as Ann Devereaux, a woman desperately trading on her former cuteness. As young Devereaux/Hamilton, Logan Lerman shows tremendous screen presence, giving a nicely nuanced performance. (In fact, he probably shows more potential here than Hamilton did in his early roles.) However, Kevin Bacon seems off-key as Dan Devereaux, sounding like he is trying to do an impression of someone famous, but failing. Still, it begs the question whether Only counts as a “Seven Degrees” connection between him and Hamilton, even though the tanned one never appears on-screen.

Composer Mark Isham deserves credit for a swing-oriented score that keeps things peppy and buoyant. His themes evoke a time when you could still have an elegant evening dancing in a hotel ballroom, even though the sounds of rock-n-roll could be heard just over the distant horizon. Peters’s screenplay has some surprisingly witty verbal sparring and avoids some of the pitfalls of the familiar road movie conceit. Unfortunately, every flamboyantly effeminate cliché is liberally applied to Robbie, the fashion expert, reducing him to a mere stereotype. Still, Loncraine wisely keeps things moving along, never letting the film get bogged down in family melodrama.

One might reasonably expect Only to be painfully campy, but it largely plays it straight, resisting the urge to constantly wink at the camera. It affectionately recreates a sense of groovy Route 66 America (nicely supported by Isham’s very hip score), and provides some decent laughs along the way. It opens this Friday (8/21) in New York and Los Angeles.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fringe ’09: A Time to Dance

It seems Elizabeth “Lisl” Polk was frequently overshadowed by her sister, Lilia Skala, the glamorous actress best remembered for her Academy-nominated supporting performance in Lilies of the Field. Yet, Polk’s influence was perhaps even more profound as a pioneer in the field of dance therapy for special need children. Having previously dramatized her grandmother’s life in the one-person show LiLia!, Libby Skala now shines the solo spotlight on Polk in A Time to Dance, now playing during the 2009 Fringe Festival NYC.

As Skala tells her great aunt’s story, a portrait emerges of a woman of destiny. Born premature, Polk was not expected to live, yet thrived under the care of a loving nanny. Representing another mouth to feed, she forced her father to seek out new business opportunities. That lead to a very lucrative arrangement with the designers of the new-fangled garment snap fastener (or “schnap fastener”), which led to an association with an American factory that very likely saved the lives of Polk and her family during World War II.

In America thanks to the sponsorship of her father’s manufacturing contacts, Polk went through a period of personal and professional uncertainty adjusting to her new life. However, she would find her true calling in dance. A born teacher and a modernist through-and-through, Polk started modestly, simply teaching neighborhood children in her basement. Chancing by a school for the deaf, Polk impulsively offered her services to the principal, beginning a long career teaching dance to physically and developmentally disabled children. An inspiration to students and colleagues alike, she finally retired at the vigorous age of ninety.

Dramatically well structured, Skala ends the show with a moving episode that takes Polk’s story full circle back to Europe. Although Skala lays on the accent a bit thick at times, she convincingly conveys the indomitable spirit of the trailblazing dance therapist. Dance fans should note though, while there is choreography integrated into the show, Time is more about celebrating Polk’s life and love of dance than recreating her performances.

While part of the Fringe Festival, Polk’s story has the potential to appeal to a wide commercial audience as an inspiring story of the immigrant experience. A model of early feminism, Polk pursued her dancing despite family disapproval. In doing so, she touched the lives of thousands of children through her compassion and respect. An accessible show based on a rich life, Time runs through August 24th at the Lafayette Street Theatre as part of Fringe.

(Libby Skala photo by Damon Calderwood)

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Fringe ’09: Fall of the House of Usher

Madness, consumption, and premature burial are familiar topics to Poe scholars, but not typical musical theater motifs. However, FringeNYC is now officially underway, offering patrons an opportunity to see a plethora of fresh new shows, including Brent Cirves’s musical adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher.

In addition to the ill-fated Roderick and Madeline Usher, Annabel Lee, the beautiful subject of Poe’s final poem who indeed died tragically young, also plays an important role in Cirves’s book. She is now part of the reclusive Usher household—Roderick’s common law wife to be exact. Though she charms their visitor, one William Reed, a wayfaring musician Roderick befriended, her constitution is alarmingly weak.

Still, in a clear departure from the source story, the House of Usher initially appears to be a reasonably healthy environment, as recalled in flashbacks by Reed on the anniversary of those fateful events. Annabel Lee and the Usher siblings all seem like friendly, musically talented young people. Yet when the poetically foretold tragedies start to strike, the Usher family’s deep psychological pathologies begin to manifest themselves.

Despite taking liberties with the Usher text, Cirves’s clever book should intrigue Poe fans, compellingly integrating Annabel Lee, both as a character and setting elements of the classic poem to music. Indeed, the frequently recurring “Annabel Lee” motif is quite haunting, in a bittersweet way. Cirves’s original lyrics are also quite memorable, evoking the fleetingness of love and beauty which preoccupied Poe’s verse. They are effectively complimented by Mike Johnson’s music, suggesting the sort of love ballads and folk shanties that would be the stock-in-trade of an itinerant 1830’s minstrel, like Reed. He also contributes some unsettling avant-gardish classical pieces to suggest the hubris and madness of Roderick Usher.

All four cast principles have pleasing voices which sound well suited to the Poe-inspired lyrics. Carolyn and Mary Myers give particularly impressive vocal turns as Annabel Lee and Madeline Usher, respectively. As Reed, Mark Rascati smoothly handles the expository duties and also displays a nice touch on the acoustic guitar. They are accompanied by a sympathetic pit band, including pianist Simon Sun and flutist Rachelle Hunt, who capably synch the mimed on-stage performances.

Usher is a smartly conceived mélange of the Poe canon that is surprisingly engaging on an emotional level. Though the gothic spirit of the story remains, becoming especially pronounced in the second act, it is the elegiac tone of Poe’s poem that truly predominates in this staging. It is one of the more satisfying adaptations of classic genre fiction to be produced on the New York stage in recent months. Now open, it runs at the Connelly Theater through August 19th as part of Fringe Fest.

(Photo: Michael Johnson)

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Have Faith: Mutant Chronicles

Mutant Chronicles
Directed by Simon Hunter
Magnolia Pictures

Where can you find a positive portrayal of religious faith in the movies today? Evidently, one has to look to the year 2707, on an Earth about to be over-run by mutant hordes. Based on a role-playing game, Simon Hunter’s Mutant Chronicles (trailer here), has the virtue of treating themes of faith and sacrifice with respect, which makes for surprisingly interesting viewing now that it is available on DVD.

Make no mistake, Mutant is about one thing: killing mutants. Set in an oddly steam-punkish future, four superpowers are locked in a constant state of battle, transporting armies via rocket ship so they can engage in trench warfare reminiscent of World War I. Unbeknownst to the combatants, centuries ago an ancient monastic order sealed an alien mutant factory beneath their mystic manhole cover. When the warring parties accidently break the seal all bets are off for the Earth. However, Brother Samuel has faith.

With a ragtag team of volunteers led by Major Mitch Hunter, the monk journeys into the bowels of the mutant lair to fulfill an ancient prophecy. It might be the apocalypse, but Brother Samuel is still able to recruit a scrupulously diverse team. Much shooting and a fair amount of hacking-and-slashing ensues.

Mutant essentially follows in the tradition of shoot-em-up creature films, featuring some fairly well staged action scenes. In fact, the gritty opening sequence is particularly effective capturing the confusion when the rampaging mutants surprise two warring factions. Sure, sometimes the film makes no sense at all, like when the intrepid band jumps off a bridge to attack some mutants, thereby giving up their advantage of the high ground, but that just seems to go with the mutant-zombie killing territory.

Still, what distinguishes Mutant is indeed the role faith plays in the story, providing the initial impetus for Brother Samuel’s mission and sustaining it during the darkest hours. Although not explicitly identified as such, his order bears a certain resemblance to Christianity, or at least a variant which presumably evolved over the troubled centuries.

As the good brother, Ron Perlman brings instant genre credibility to Mutant, despite playing a heroic character for a change. Sean Pertwee (the son of John Pertwee, the third Doctor Who) is appealingly hardnosed as Hunter’s ill-fated commander Nathan Rooker. Devon Aoki is also appropriately attractive as the gun-toting Duval and John Malkovich chews the scenery with relish in a brief cameo as Constantine, the leader of the Capital Corporation. Unfortunately, Thomas Jane is a bit too stiff and sullen as the square-jawed Hunter.

Bolstered by several enjoyable supporting performances, Mutant is a reasonably diverting sci-fi action excursion. Probably its greatest drawback is the lack of a strong villain to counterbalance Brother Samuel and company. As a midnight movie though, it moves along at a nice clip and has a refreshingly unusual religious subtext. Altogether, genre fans should find it worth checking out on DVD.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Les Paul 1915-2009

Hip New Yorkers used to look forward to Monday nights. That was when Les Paul ruled the roost at the Iridium Jazz Club, packing the house on what is traditionally the slowest night of the week for any nightclub. When I caught his Monday night gig two years ago, Paul was still an energetic entertainer, flirting outrageously with his bassist Nicki Parrott (whom it should be noted was a very good sport about it all). Though his supportive group helped carry the musical load, he was still playing at a remarkably advanced level, particularly for a musician in his early nineties.

Still, for many fans, it seemed Paul’s personality the biggest draw. That wit and spirit was nicely captured in American Masters’s Les Paul: Chasing Sound, directed by John Paulson, which remains an engaging introduction to the man whose very name is synonymous with the guitar. What follows is revised and edited from my 2007 DVD review:

Paul worked as a musician of the highest order in the jazz, pop, and country genres, but perhaps his greatest contribution was an innovator, pioneering the use of multi-tracking, over-dubbing, and the solid body electric guitar. Without these developments, it would be impossible to imagine rock & roll as we know it.

Wisely, Paul is the dominant voice of Chasing, in both interview segments and performance clips. Through Paul’s recollections, we get a picture of a resourceful young musician. Despite being told by big band leader Fred Waring, “I’ve got sixty-two Pennsylvanians to feed and I’m not looking for any more,” an impromptu hallway audition landed him a position with the Waring outfit. After the Pennsylvanians, Paul became associated with Bing Crosby, and eventually found his greatest popular success with his vocalist-wife Mary Ford.

To its credit, Chasing is still entertaining on the second or third viewings. Paul’s humor and charm come through clearly, particularly in the extensive bonus performance footage, as when he reacts in mock horror when Steve Miller (his god-son) pulls out a Fender (Paul of course is the original designer of Gibson’s solid body Les Paul, called: “by far, the most successful endorsement relationship ever in the history of musical instruments”).

Perhaps the greatest aspect of his live performances, as well as Chasing, was Paul’s personality. Still, the DVD edition included a choice Iridium set, rare archival footage, and Paul duets with the likes of Keith Richards and Chet Atkins that will be rewarding viewing for anyone who ever strummed an electric guitar. After all, they could not have done it without Les Paul.

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Hungarian Rhapsody of the Grotesque: Taxidermia

The Communist era might have been a time of great scarcity in Eastern Europe, but there is no shortage of food for the competitive eaters supported by the state in Hungary’s bizarre official submission for the 2007 Best Foreign Language Academy Award. If such a notion sounds like a sick joke, actually you do not know the half of it. Many tragic events happened in Hungary during World War II and the Cold War, but it is all just a backdrop for the Balatony family freak show in György Pálfi’s Taxidermia (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

It seems like the Morosgoványi-Balatony men are all a little off. The first we meet is Vendel Morosgoványi, a sad sack soldier whose primary military duties seem to be doing the chores on his lieutenant’s farm and enduring abuse from the officer’s family. In his spare time, he compulsively performs peculiar feats of auto-eroticism, before eventually impregnating the lieutenant’s wife.

The second story arc picks up with their illicit offspring, Kálmán Balatony, who now proudly represents Hungary in international eating contests. This is not a pretty sport. Vast amounts of gruel-like substances are consumed, only to then be relentlessly regurgitated on-screen. Balatony has his professional frustrations, but these are relatively happy times for him, as the husband of Gizella Aczél, the women’s champion eater, with a baby on the way.

That child grows up to be Lajos Balatony, a rail-thin taxidermist, who cares for his father, now a shut-in of Jabba-the-Hutt-like proportions, after his mother abandons them, defecting to coach the American speed-eating team. The younger Balatony’s taxidermy profession and his contemptuous disgust for his father’s gross state lead to some pretty disturbing notions of body image, which culminate in a very twisted conclusion to the scatological Balatony family saga.

While the first two segments are based on short stories by Lajos Parti Nagy, the final is entirely the creation of Pálfi. Throughout Tax, he demonstrates an obsession with anatomical deformity that makes hardcore pornography look healthy by comparison. However, he also creates some stunning visuals, like a dazzling montage illustrating the passage of time through the multiple uses of a family bathtub. Yet, it is the preoccupation with bodily fluids and blemishes that defines the film.

Essentially, Tax is a series of dirty jokes dramatized in a Grand Guignol style. Perhaps there is a point in there someplace about the corrosive effects of WWII and Communism on humanity, but it is lost among the shockingly grotesque imagery. Within the triptych, the second segment is both the gentlest and the most sharply written. Gergö Trócsányi and Adél Stanczel bring some welcome humanity to the parts of the competitive eating couple, yet it is largely undone by the unsettling events of the third act.

In a way, Tax is a remarkable achievement in visceral, over-the-top filmmaking. Unfortunately, it is also quite literally a dehumanizing film that reduces its characters to the level of simple meat, finding little meaning in the process. Even moderately sensitive viewers should be strongly cautioned regarding the nature of Tax’s imagery and subject matter, but hardened midnight movie cultists might as well go ahead and have at it. It opens tomorrow (8/14) at the Cinema Village.

(Photos courtesy of Here Media/Regent Releasing)

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Axe Love: It Might Get Loud

If a rock doc doesn’t get loud, fans will want their money back. However, some of the more interesting moments of the great guitar summit featuring Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White, are in fact relatively quiet. Indeed, all three rock stars prove engagingly eloquent when discussing their instruments in Davis Guggenheim’s It Might Get Loud (trailer here), opening in New York and Los Angeles this Friday.

Loud’s concept is nearly foolproof: get together three rock guitarists with legit credibility as musicians to discuss music and jam. Each man is at a slightly different place in life, but all share a love of guitars. Former Zeppelin and Yardbirds guitarist Jimmy Page is a rock legend with nothing left to prove, yet he still has a zest for music. As the lead guitarist of U2, The Edge is currently at the pinnacle of the music business. Having attained some measure of commercial and critical success as part of the duo The White Stripes, as well as a reputation for eccentricity, White hopefully has a long, interesting career ahead of him.

While their harmony vocals on “The Weight” will not become the stuff of the legend, they show an easy rapport when talking about and through their axes. Of course, the three guitarists clearly come to rock, but the deep delta blues lurks beneath the surface of Loud, bubbling up during White’s sequences. Since the White Stripes previously covered “Death Letter,” their fans might already know Son House is the guitarist’s greatest formative inspiration. Watching him listen to the blues legend’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face” is quite an endearing moment for the garage rocker.

Before the summit, Loud shows each musician on his home turf, sometimes revisiting the sites of pivotal moments in their musical lives. Page might have the best reminisces, having played on some pretty diverse studio gigs before becoming a rock star, even including Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger session. Now he looks like a silver-maned English barrister, who ought to have a Dickensian name like “Gogglesworthy.” He can still play though.

White also displays some real down home charm, playing an endearing rendition of “Sitting On Top of the World” with his nine year-old son Little Jack. However, the cerebral Edge’s penchant for electronic effects and sound board tinkering comes across as a bit bloodless and premeditated. After all, isn’t rock supposed to be a little ragged round the edges?

Guggenheim, the director of An Inconvenient Truth, wisely forgoes the PowerPoint presentations and junk science in Loud. His strategy of using their music as a means of getting the artists to reveal their personalities works more often than not. Though White’s inclusion with the two more established artists might seem a bit questionable, he delivers some of the film’s more entertaining moments.

Ultimately, Loud might be a film for the considerable fan bases of the three artists’ respective bands, but it has an infectious guitar love that should hold the interest of wider audiences, even throwing several bones to die-hard blues fans. It is a pleasant music documentary, even for those who are not hardcore rockers. It opens Friday (8/14) at the Sunshine and AMC Empire 25 Theaters.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Cradle of Horror: Grace

One has to worry about those extreme vegan mothers and how they feed their young children. Certainly Madeline Matheson feeds her infant daughter a strange diet in Paul Solet’s Grace (trailer here), a new horror film named for the Matheson bad seed, opening this Friday in New York and Los Angeles.

The Mathesons have been trying to conceive for quite sometime. Now that she is pregnant, Madeline and Michael fundamentally disagree over what constitutes proper care. He and his intrusive mother Vivian prefer nice clean hospitals, while she wants to go to a crunchy granola ashram run by her former professor and perhaps ex-lover, Patricia Lang. What seems like a promising set-up pitting good old pre-Obama takeover healthcare against alternative herbs and crystals is suddenly cut short when Michael and their unborn daughter are killed in a freak traffic accident.

Utterly distraught, Madeline insists on carrying her dead baby until she is ready to deliver it naturally. Despite the obvious physical and emotional perils in doing so (let alone physical discomfort), Lang agrees to midwife the unstable Madeline at her holistic facility. When she finally delivers Grace, the seemingly miraculous happens. After bonding with the corpse of her daughter, the infant comes back to life.

Granted Grace seems to be doing fairly well considering she had been dead for days. However, there is something not quite right about her. Her skins blisters in bathwater, she will not drink milk, and she attracts insects like shoo-fly pie. Soon enough, Madeline discovers the red stuff goes down like mother’s milk is supposed to. Unfortunately, supply is a problem, since Whole Foods does not have a plasma section.

Clearly, Grace is thematically and stylistically inspired by Rosemary’s Baby, but while Polanski’s film is a masterpiece of creepy atmosphere and mounting dread, Grace is just sort of slow. While Solet’s screenplay hardly breaks any new ground, there are some interesting quirks here and there, but it concludes with a typically lame horror movie ending. As Madeline, Jordan Ladd (daughter of Cheryl and granddaughter of Alan) is reasonably credible playing scenes of haggard hysteria, but rest of the cast is largely undistinguished.

Though well received at Sundance, Grace is a horror picture that fails to live up to its pretensions. It might well exceed the production standards for the genre, but ultimately Grace simply is not that memorable. It opens Friday (8/14) at the Village East.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

The Flower of Evil: Kimjongilia

Kang Chol-hwan never learned what crime his grandfather supposedly committed, but he understood only too well what he was guilty of. He was related to his grandfather. Such is the nature of Kim Jong-il’s North Korea, where families of ostensive state enemies are purged to the third generation. Kang and other survivors of DPRK concentration camps give harrowing testimony of Kim Jong-il’s police state in N.C. Heiken’s extraordinary documentary Kimjongilia (trailer here), which screens for a week starting this Friday, as part of New York DocuWeeks.

Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia are hybrid flowers crossbred to commemorate the dictator and his heir. Despite this flower fetish, their North Korea is a hellish living environment. The degree of social control exercised by the Communist state apparatus is reminiscent of 1984, but the ruling Kim dynasty added an element of random cruelty that arguably surpasses the abuses imagined in Orwell’s speculative novel.

Though some might intellectually accept the closed nature of North Korean society, the extent of Kim Jong-il’s oppression truly defies human comprehension. Intellectual and artistic freedoms simply do not exist there. It might sound like a sick joke, but concert pianist Kim Cheol-woong realized he had no choice but to cross the border into China once he had been overheard playing the work of Richard Clayderman, a French light-classical recording artist. However, there is nothing amusing about a government that frequently uses starvation as a weapon against its own people and sentences young children like Kang to work camps as a matter of routine.

While life in Kim Jong-il’s prison camps might be inconceivably brutal, China hardly earns any human rights kudos in the film for its treatment of North Korean refugees captured crossing the border. Women are frequently sold into white slavery and torture is standard operating procedure. For instance, Kim Cheol-woong speaks of the hours of beatings he endured at the hands of Chinese authorities while suspended by his ankles, while desperately trying to protect his hands.

Despite the fact that Heiken never shows her features directly, “Mrs. Kim” is the symbolic face of Kimjongilia. A dancer in her youth, her great misfortune was to befriend a woman Kim Jong-il took as his lover. Although she maintains no sensitive information was ever revealed to her, she was condemned to a concentration camp, along with her entire family. In addition to setting Kimjongilia’s general tone, her story also inspires the dramatic interpretive dance interspersed throughout the film.

Not only is Kimjongilia a chillingly portrait of totalitarianism, it is a remarkably well-crafted film. The work of composer Michael Gordon and dancers Seol-Ae Lee and Yumi Ahn gives the film a classier sheen than the average PBS documentary and effectively enhances the emotional impact of the survivors’ stories. Wisely assembled, Heikin deftly mixes archival footage, the dance sequences, an animated timeline, and devastating first-person testimony. She allows ample time for her interview subjects to tell their difficult stories, yet the pacing never flags.

Heikin documents heartbreaking tragedies deliberately perpetrated by a government with absolute disregard for the well-being of its citizenry. It is a much needed dose of cold, hard reality for those who think a goodwill concert by the New York Philharmonic can alter the behavior of Kim Jung-il. Kimjongilia is an absorbing and horrifying film that deserves a wide audience. Highly recommended, it screens during DocuWeeks, August 14-20 at the IFC Film Center.

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Sunday, August 09, 2009

Jazz from the Philippines: Mon David

Coming True
By Mon David
FreeHam Records


Unlike Japan and the Scandinavian nations, the Philippines is not a country with an international reputation for fostering local jazz talent. However, two Filipino artists are determined to change that. After making a guest appearance on fellow countryman-vocalist Charmaine Clamor’s My Harana, Mon David now steps into the spotlight with his American debut Coming True.

David has a smoky baritone, and with his pencil-thin moustache, vaguely bears a weird resemblance to Robert Goulet in the liner photos. Yet, David’s vocal flair extends beyond crooning for swooning. It turns out he has a real gift for scat singing. In fact, his vocalizing effects are the first sounds to be heard on the opening track, a Filipinized rendition of Nnenna Freelon’s lyrics to the Wayne Shorter composition, “Footprints.” It is a dramatic vocal showcase for David, frequently segueing between scat and lyric interpretation, while allowing space for a brief but swinging solo statement from pianist Tateng Katindig.

Though arranged as a warm ballad, David still shows his powerful range on the standard, “Invitation.” Featuring special guest Justo Almario on tenor saxophone, it is the sort of romantic vocal jazz that never went out of style, and has recently experienced a surge of popularity. David also chose some tunes that could be considered slightly off-the-beaten path, including Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw it Away.” Aside from a few melismatic moments, David’s sensitive interpretation plays it scrupulously straight with her bittersweet lyrics.

Returning the favor from Harana, Clamor herself also makes a guest appearance on True. Though their harmonized scatting is quite impressive on “Only Once,” the tune itself might be a bit too cute. At least it serves as an effective vehicle for another swinging solo from Katindig. In contrast, one of True’s strongest moments comes with David’s stripped down version of “There is No Greater Love,” accompanied solely by bassist Dominic Thiroux.

As Clamor has championed a “Jazzipino” concept fusing jazz and traditional Filipino musical forms, David also brings a distinctly Filipino sensibility to traditional jazz standards. He performs a memorable version of Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” with his own Filipino lyrics, redubbed “Kailangan Yan.” It also proves conducive to David’s most dynamic, uninhibited scatting to be heard on True.

Blessed with a rich voice, David is a well-rounded jazz vocalist, and even shows some finesse on acoustic guitar. While True certainly leans towards jazz’s straight-ahead mainstream, David’s Jazzipino touches give it a distinctive sound. It is a stylish recording that casual jazz listeners will find quite accessible.

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Saturday, August 08, 2009

Shrine of Controversy: Yasukuni

The Japanese call it the “Great East Asia War.” However, in most countries, World War II has seemed a more appropriate name, since there were indeed a few important battles in the European Theater as well. That difference of nomenclature only hints at the extent of WWII revisionist sentiment Chinese director Li Ying examines in his Japanese documentary Yasukuni (trailer here), which opens in New York this coming Wednesday.

Kariya Naoharu is the final surviving artisan forging swords in the workshop connected to the Yasukuni Shinto shrine, which honors those who died in military service to the emperor. Though founded in 1869, eighty percent of the consecrated were killed in World War II. Of course, you will not hear that term in the documentary. Pearl Harbor? Never happened. Neither did the Rape of Nanking according to visitors at the shrine. As translated in the film, the recorded message at the Yasukuni visitor center veers pretty close to Orwellian territory, declaring the war was strictly a defensive affair from the Japanese perspective.

Denial is one thing, but the inclusion of many of the shrine’s honored dead might be even more problematic. According to the film, convicted war criminals, including those involved in a beheading contest in Nanking, are indeed consecrated in Yasukuni. Conversely, some families want their deceased loved ones removed from the shrine for religious or cultural reasons. The Yasukuni flack seen accepting a petition from a coalition of Buddhists and ethnic Taiwanese and then dissing the families certainly does not do any PR favors for the shrine.

Former Prime Minister Koizumi takes heat from some for praying at Yasukuni while still in office, but to be fair he was in a tricky position. It is completely appropriate to honor the Japanese rank-and-file who died in WWII, but one would hope a distinction would be made between them and the militarist government, whose policies led to their deaths, as well as those who committed war crimes in its name.

Although Li interviews Naoharu on camera, there is very little talking in the film and no traditional narration. Long sequences of Yasukuni simply consist of the various ceremonies and protests at the controversial shrine. At times, Li captures some truly odd moments, like an idiot American protestor who feels compelled to show his support for Koizumi, to the understandable confusion of the Japanese present. Unfortunately, the ambient- vérité style often feels sluggish. After a while, you get the point and want to move on.

Periodically, the audience also sees the taciturn sword smith going about his craft with a Zen-like calm (that is oddly fascinating), juxtaposed against historical images of the Imperial war machine. For most viewers, Yasukuni will probably represent the most blacksmithing they will see on-screen in a month of Sundays.

Clearly, the film was originally intended as a challenge to Japanese audiences. The fact that Li Ying is Chinese did not exactly help its Japanese reception. Yet given Li’s meditative style, the film hardly feels like a polemic broadside against the Japanese people. In general though, it seems safe to say there is more than a little denial at work in Japan regarding World War II, which many would probably prefer not to advertise to the rest of the world. Yasukuni is often quite eye-opening, but it would have benefited from a tighter, brisker edit. It opens at Film Forum on August 12th.

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Friday, August 07, 2009

Cine Fest Petrobras Brasil ‘09: Budapest

Readers are rightly skeptical of novels ostensibly written by famous people. Of course, the Brazilian music legend Chico Buarque is not a typical celebrity. He was in fact briefly imprisoned for an experimental play he wrote in the late 1960’s. While composing and performing some of biggest hits of bossa, samba, and MPB, Buarque also maintained his literary chops, writing internationally acclaimed plays and novels, like 2003’s Budapest, now adapted for the screen (trailer here) by director Walter Carvalho and screening tonight at the 2009 Cine Fest Petrobras Brasil film festival.

Budapest is a spectacular city, whose beauty remained undiminished by fifty-some years of Communist misrule. Though it is a world away from Rio, the city would exert an irresistible pull on José Costa following a chance stopover in the Hungarian capitol. Returning home from the annual ghost-writers convention, Costa is increasingly frustrated to see his clients celebrated for his words. Especially disturbing is the extent to which his newsreader wife seems charmed by one particular German expat customer currently enjoying a run on the bestseller list, thanks to his ghost-writing services.

Costa’s intimate relationship with language has been a blessing and a curse in his life, so immersing himself in Hungarian represents an attempt to hit the reset button. He finds himself deeply attracted to his divorced language teacher Kriszta, but is frustrated by both verbal and emotional language barriers. Though Kriszta claims Magyar is “the only language the Devil respects,” Costa soon masters it to the level that he again finds himself facing the same dilemma regarding the ownership of his words.

Ironically, Budapest’s story of a frustrated ghostwriter was in fact written by a celebrity, Buarque, who makes a surreal, non-musical cameo appearance. The film’s soundtrack actually features none of the author’s vocals, instead showcasing Leo Gandelman’s smoothly romantic saxophone and some effective string chamber music.

Leonardo Medeiros is a mass of insecure neuroses as José Costa (a.k.a. Zsoze Kósta), but not a particularly pleasant protagonist to spend time with. However, Gabriella Hámori brings intriguing depth to Kriszta, Costa’s demanding teacher and mercurial lover.

Carvalho effectively uses his picturesque Budapest locations, including a memorable visual of an enormous disassembled statue of Lenin, slowly drifting down the Danube on a garbage barge. While the M. Night Shyamalan-style ending is not very surprising, he maintains some sense of uncertainty by resisting the urge to fit each and every little piece together.

Caustically satirizing the book business, Budapest is a memorable film media professionals would particularly appreciate. Ultimately though, it is a strange, dreamlike love letter to the poetic power of words and one of the truly great cities of the world. It screens again tonight (8/7) as the Petrobras Brasil Fest concludes at the Tribeca Cinemas.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Cult Movie: I Sell the Dead

Grave robbing was a cottage industry in early Nineteenth Century England before the 1832 Anatomy Act made it easier for legitimate medical researchers to obtain cadavers. Still, the real money came from snatching undead bodies for two happy-go-lucky Burke & Hares in Glenn McQuad’s I Sell the Dead (trailer here), opening this Friday in New York.

After years of stealing corpses, Arthur Blake is about to become one. Sentenced to the guillotine for a murder he did not commit, Blake has five whiskey-fueled hours to tell the inquisitive Father Duffy his story of the final snatch that went bad. In flashbacks, the audience sees several very odd jobs, which brought Blake and his mentor Willie Grimes into conflict with the House of Murphy, a grave-robbing cartel allegedly in league with the Devil himself, inevitably leading to his date with the chopping block.

Following in the long tradition of monster movie team-ups, Sell boats a cast of cult film idols, including indie horror auteur (and co-producer) Larry Fessenden as Grimes. Dominic Monaghan, best-known from the television series Lost, takes the lead as Blake. Also notable among the colorful supporting cast are Angus Scrimm (a.k.a. “The Tall Man” in the Phantasm films) as the sinister Dr. Quint and Ron Perlman (the big guy in Hell Boy and dozens of other genre pictures) as Father Duffy. All four actors chew the scenery with a relish appropriate to the film’s spirit.

While Sell might be relatively short, McQuad throws in everything including the kitchen sick, stocking the graves with all manner of creatures, even borrowing from other genres for comedic effect. Yet, it is surprisingly restrained in the gore department, with most of Sell’s special effects displaying an idiosyncratic b-movie charm, rather than going for gross-out shocks.

In many ways, Sell pays homage to the horror films which came before it. Stylistically, it is clearly patterned after the Anglo-gothic Hammer horror films, but includes the occasional nod to the classic Universal monster movies as well. Though produced in the indie trenches, McQuad and art director Beck Underwood recreate a quite credible facsimile of its Nineteenth Century low life environs. Sell also has a distinctly comic-oriented visual aesthetic, starting with the perfect mood-setting opening title sequence. Indeed, McQuad worked with artist Brahm Revel on the forthcoming graphic novel adaptation of his screenplay before the he started shooting the film.

Sell is a horror spoof that never smirks too much, because the filmmakers clearly have real affection for the movies that inspired it. It is a well paced film, nicely spacing the laughs in between the ghoulish business of plundering rotting undead corpses. A great deal of fun, Sell should be a big hit with midnight movie audiences and at horror conventions. It opens this Friday (8/7) at the Quad Cinema.

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