J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Kobayashi’s The Human Condition

The Human Condition
Directed by Masaki Kobayashi
Criterion Collection 4-DVD set


The history of the Twentieth Century was marked by the horrors of National Socialism and Fascism, followed by bitter disillusionment with the Soviet system. In a few short but epic years, one Japanese idealist experiences both firsthand as the anguished protagonist of Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (trailer here), a closely linked cinematic trilogy now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Kaji, a humanist intellectual of vaguely leftwing convictions, seems determined to martyr himself. As No Greater Love (part I) opens, he tries in vain to reject his beautiful girlfriend Michiko, but their love is too strong. However, Kaji’s fear that marrying him will only bring her painful tribulations proves all too prescient over the course of the roughly nine and a half hours that follow.

Given his pacifist inclinations, Kaji wants to avoid military service, but he is not one to do things the easy way. He accepts a promotion to manage an important provincial mine (and the military deferment that goes with it) in order to implement his enlightened theories of labor management. However, he soon finds himself undermined by openly insubordinate overseers and a thoroughly corrupt boss. He is also surprised to discover the camp’s contingent of “comfort women” also come under his management purview. Despite his co-workers’ obstructions, Kaji makes some initial progress, only to see it collapse with the arrival of six-hundred Chinese POWs delivered by the Japanese military, precipitating the first of Kaji’s many crises of conscience.

In Road to Eternity (part II), Kaji has lost his military deferment and must endure the brutal basic training regimen "under suspicion." Yet his hard-headed nature and physical strength make him decent soldier material. Unfortunately, the cruelty meted out on weaker conscripts only confirms his antipathy for the military. Kaji still does his duty as a soldier, but it comes as a futile display of honor as the Soviets quickly overwhelm his company.

Kaji had been preoccupied with the question of how to be humane in an inhuman system, but throughout A Soldier’s Prayer (part III) his only concern is simple survival. As Japanese soldiers become lowly bandits (and worse), Kaji watches in horror. Still, his greatest disillusionment will come in a Soviet POW camp, where “good intentions are suppressed and evil is tolerated.” To some extent a former fellow traveler, enduring the same brutality from the Soviets that he had witnessed from the Imperial Japanese may well be the death knell of Kaji’s idealism. As he bitterly complains to a leftist comrade-in-arms: “They can send us to Siberia and work us to death. But take down the ‘peace’ and ‘liberation’ signs.”

Condition is a true cinematic masterpiece—and that word is not used lightly. It is not merely an indictment of the Imperial Japanese war machine, though it most assuredly acts as such. Condition in its totality, is a complete rejection of the ideologies (of all stripes), which ravaged the last century. Yet for all its clashing historical dialectics, Condition is fundamentally a Zhivago-esque love story of a man and a woman cruelly separated by fate.

Tatsuya Nakadai gives a fully realized performance as Kaji, brilliantly evolving from an inflexible moralizer to a literal shell of a man. The luminous Michiyo Aratama is also quite remarkable, expressing the naiveté and surprising strength of the loyal Michiko. Condition also boasts a host of accomplished actors in supporting roles, including Hideko Takamine (who appeared with Nakadai in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs) as a desperate refugee seeking Kaji’s protection.

Though Condition played in its entirety on the big screen at New York’s Film Forum (even making a brief return engagement), Kobayashi’s monumental film cycle requires a time commitment most viewers can only muster for home viewing. Fortunately, Criterion beautifully renders Yoshio Miyajima’s glorious black-and-white cinematography and Kobayashi’s long tracking shots of sweeping vistas (that often reduces Kaji and his companions to tiny dehumanized figures along the expansive horizon) in their deluxe letterbox edition, making it a very cinematic DVD experience.

Condition is a truly great film (or film trilogy if you prefer). It is an angry but compassionate examination of what it was like to be human during some of the darkest hours of the past century. Viewers should not be intimated by the running time or the subtitles. It is a film about big picture themes everyone can relate to—love war, and basic human decency—brilliantly crafted by a master filmmaker, finally available in a worthy DVD package.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

As Seen Through These Eyes

The same talents that eventually lead to work in the Warner Brothers and MGM animation studios literally saved Dina Gottliebova Babbit’s life in Auschwitz. The sadistic Dr. Mengele spared the nineteen year-old girl so she could serve as his personal artist, painting portraits for the Nazis guards and documenting his cruel experiments. For many young Jewish and Roma artists, maintaining their creative voices during the Holocaust was a means of spiritual and sometimes even physical survival, and their work now serves as solemn testimony to the crimes of the National Socialists in Hilary Helstein’s documentary As Seen Through These Eyes (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Babbit and her mother came to Auschwitz via Theresienstadt, a temporary camp dressed up like a benevolent Potemkin village to successfully fool guileless Red Cross inspectors in an episode that will forever shame the organization. As part of the Nazi ruse, prisoners were actually encouraged to participate in artistic endeavors, before their eventual deportation to the death camps. Of course, children like Ela Weissberger were also part of the elaborate illusion. Now a resident of New York State, she was one of only two cast members of Brundibar, a children’s opera produced and filmed for propaganda purposes, to survive.

Laudably, Eyes does not ignore the frequently overlooked Roma Holocaust. In fact, Helstein clearly tries to unite the Jewish and Roma experiences by presenting Babbit as the film’s touchstone figure. Bizarrely obsessed with the Roma people, Mengele initially forced Babbit into his service in order to better capture their skin tones through her paint brushes than was possible (in his judgment) with photography. She made a point of painting one young Roma girl, in hopes of saving (or at least prolonging) her life. Years later, Eyes shows her emotional meeting with Karl Stojka, a Roma artist who survived Auschwitz as Mengele’s errand boy, who did indeed know her short-lived friend.

The thoughtfully selected art displayed in Eyes runs the gamut from Babbit’s sensitively rendered portraiture to the grimly surreal. Some is the work of obviously accomplished fine artists, while other pieces have the blunt power of so-called outsider art. Further heightening the poignancy, the soundtrack features contributions from harmonica player and survivor Henry Rosmarin, who was spared thanks to his ability to play Schubert on his instrument.

Eyes is a respectful film that deserves credit for recording the stories of both Jewish and Roma artists. However, much of the material covered in Eyes might be familiar to some from other somewhat recent documentaries (such as Clarke and Sender’s Prisoner of Paradise about the Theresienstadt camp; Alexandra Isles’s Porraimos specifically documenting the Roma-Sinti Holocaust; and Berge, Newnham, and Cohen’s Rape of Europa, a truly outstanding film that illuminates the strange National Socialist preoccupation with art). Still, most viewers will find Eyes quite informative and at times genuinely moving. It opens Friday (10/2) at the Cinema Village.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Ferrara’s Chelsea on the Rocks

I have only been in the Chelsea Hotel once, to buy an LP record (it was Benny Carter in Paris, won on ebay for the princely sum of $1.00). Of course, the Chelsea always had a certain reputation as the frequent site of much less innocuous transactions. For years, it was also the preeminent bohemian address, boasting a cultural who’s who as occupants, including Jack Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, Dennis Hopper, Arthur C. Clarke, and most notoriously Sid Vicious. Controversial director Abel Ferrara also lived at the Chelsea while filming Chelsea on the Rocks (trailer here), a documentary about the venerable Manhattan landmark, which finally opens in New York this Friday, following the cancellation of its previously scheduled opening this past March.

The Chelsea started out as a conventional upscale hotel, which is how the new management would like it to operate now. However, during its heyday under Stanley Bard’s laissez-faire supervision, the Chelsea became a magnet for the artistically inclined, including both the celebrated and the anonymous alike. Bard was famously indulgent about collecting rent, and illegal activity, like drug dealing and prostitution, was reportedly widespread. As a result, it became a congenial home for Beatnik poets, hippie rock stars, and members of the Warhol Factory. For the soon-to-be former residents Ferrara interviews, these were indeed the “good old days.”

As an interviewer, Ferrara is absolutely awful. Often sounding completely out of it, he has a habit of mishearing something a subject says and then fixating on it, taking the discussion in a random direction his interlocutor never intended. However, the Chelsea denizens seem comfortable opening up to the filmmaker as a both fellow resident and eccentric, relating to him some fittingly strange anecdotes.

Almost in spite of himself, Ferrara effectively captures a sense of what the Chelsea was like during the height of its notoriety. He elicits some very amusing commentary from many well known former residents, including Miloš Forman and a surprisingly funny Ethan Hawke. Unfortunately, his brief dramatic recreations of infamous episodes in Chelsea history, including the death of Vicious’s girlfriend Nancy Spungen, are ill-conceived (often approaching outright cheese), despite the participation of talented actors like Giancarlo Esposito.

Ultimately, Rocks is strongest when Ferrara simply revels in the Chelsea’s bohemian spirit. It might be raggedly uneven and frankly the execution might at times be a little odd, but for a documentary about an institution as unconventional as the Chelsea Hotel, directed by an idiosyncratic filmmaker like Ferrara, Rocks is surprisingly cohesive and entertaining. Appropriately, it opens this Friday (10/2) at the Chelsea Clearview Cinemas.

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Jeff Golub Plays the Blues

Jeff Golub
Blues for You
E1 Music


Most guitar players claim to have an affinity for the blues, but it does not always show in their music. Though known primarily as a star in the so-called “smooth-jazz” genre, Jeff Golub has always been inspired by the three kings—the legendary bluesmen B.B., Albert, and Freddie. Now the guitarist amply proves his blues street cred with a legitimately greasy album of electric blues simply titled Blues for You.

BFY is a departure album for Golub in many ways. Not only is it his first blues (and blues-rock) CD, it is also his first session as a leader featuring vocal tracks, laid-down by four well known rock and pop artists. Golub starts off by digging into the soul jazz bag with the high energy “Shuffleboard,” sounding particularly funky thanks to the guest appearance of the tune’s co-writer Chris Palmaro on the Hammond B3 organ.

Golub then takes things in a blues-rock direction, with a vocal assist from Peter Wolf, formerly of the J. Geils Band, that totally evokes the right juke joint spirit. The following “Goin’ On” brings in special instrumental guest Kirk Whalum, a tenor player also tagged with “smooth” label, to blow some bluesy soul jazz for a change. Billy Squier, Golub’s next vocal guest, offered the guitarist his first steady gig in the music business. Now, in addition to singing lead vocals on “Everybody Wants You” (a song he is well acquainted with) he also backs up Golub musically, playing rhythm guitar on the ruckus blues-rock track.

Inspired by his six year-old son, Golub’s original “Blink of an Eye” might be the one track that gets “lite” FM radio play. While perhaps “smooth” in some respects, Golub’s pleasing melody and heartfelt playing give it considerably more character than most workaday easy listening instrumentals.

For the remaining vocal tracks, Golub twice dips into the repertoire of Mose Allsion, the idiosyncratic jazz pianist-vocalist. Marc Cohn is surprisingly effective channeling Allsion’s laconic phrasing on “I Don’t Worry About a Thing.” However, John Waite does not seem comfortable with the blues on “Lost Mind,” a Percy Mayfield tune familiar to many jazz listeners through Allison’s cover.

Following the easy-going original “Gone Fishin,’” Golub continues both the down home vibe and fish motif with Freddie King’s “Fish Fare.” BFY closes out with another King cover, Albert King’s blues anthem, “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” an effective vehicle for some of Golub’s most dramatic playing, augmented by horns and Marc Cohn’s brief vocal refrain. Those who buy BFY through itunes or in Japan will also receive the “bonus” track “Easy-E,” a pleasantly groovy blues-funk tune co-written by Golub and Jeff Lorber (also featured on keyboards).

Regardless of their opinion of “smooth-jazz,” nobody ever said Golub lacked skills. With BFY he convincingly demonstrates his blues chops, creating music that could be described at times as electric blues, blues-rock, soul jazz, and instrumental R&B, but not “smooth-jazz,” which is ironic since that is where most stores will shelve it. There is nothing not to “get” in BFY. It is a fun session that delivers various shades of the blues with energy and respect for the tradition.

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

NYFF ’09: Wild Grass

Georges Palet is a name of infamy. Or so he claims, but Palet is not a trustworthy character. Parsing fact from Palet’s fabulations is a tricky business, as is establishing any sense of truth at all in Alain Resnais’s Wild Grass, the opening night film of the 2009 New York Film Festival.

Palet might be a scandalous figure with a checkered, perhaps even criminal past. Yet evidently nobody besides Palet seems to see him in that light, except maybe his twenty-something son. Of course, that might just be the surliness of youth. Still, for Palet it appears to be reality, which is why the chance discovery of a stolen wallet causes him great anxiety.

While debating his next step, Palet studies the contents of the wallet, developing a strange fixation on the owner, Dr. Marguerite Muir, a dentist with her pilot’s license. With some trepidation, Palet turns the wallet over to the police, who do not appear particularly impressed that he is the Georges Palet (but they are somewhat distracted at the time). Eventually, Muir calls Palet to thank him, but when she fails to live up to his expectations, Palet tells her so, repeatedly. Suddenly, Palet starts exhibiting stalker-like behavior, repeating what he calls past mistakes. And then Resnais gives the film a series of dramatic twists.

Grass will certainly be among the most talked about films of the festival. It could well rank alongside Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad in terms of significance within his filmography, and will be impossible for anyone seriously studying his work to ignore. What begins as a meditation on the randomness of life becomes an object lesson in the slipperiness of truth. However, Resnais’s approach to the story (based on a novel by Christian Gailly) is largely linear and completely accessible.

Regardless of viewers’ response to Resnais’s sly gamesmanship, Grass is an absolutely masterful piece of filmmaking. Like a magician, Resnais essentially tells the audience what he will do, then through misdirection and sleight of hand, leaves us stunned when the film ends where he hinted it would. With a jarringly eccentric conclusion sure to baffle many, Resnais flat out tells the audience we just got served.

Unlike most postmodern films attempting to undermine narrative structures and problematize notions of reality, Grass is a richly crafted film. Resnais stylishly superimposes dramatically rendered fantasies and seamlessly integrates Palet’s wildly unreliable interior monologues. Eric Gautier’s cinematography is sumptuously moody, with the crime jazz-influenced soundtrack composed by Mark Snow (best known for his work on the X-Files) further heightening the noir atmosphere.

Like Resnais, Andre Dussollier also keeps the audience utterly off balance with his performance as the quite possibly unbalanced Palet. While maintaining complete consistency of character, Dussollier makes it impossible to judge if he is sympathetic, deluded, dangerous, or a bizarre combination of the three. Grass notably also reunites three members of the cast of Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, including Mathieu Almaric, who shows a real comedic flair as police officer Bernard de Bordeaux.

Those who get headaches when they hear terms like “playful postmodern subversion” will probably get exasperated with Grass. Those who enjoy coy cinematic puzzles will be thoroughly charmed. It is a very stylish film that enjoys its deceptions for their own sake. The NYFF continues through October 11th, with Main Slate selections screening at Alice Tully Hall.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

NY Anime Fest ’09: Evangelion 1.0

If Schopenhauer and Freud had collaborated on the Transformers, it might have resembled Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion anime. Despite attracting a cult-like following, the series reportedly became notorious for its philosophical flights of fancy and an abundance of unresolved loose ends. However, a projected trilogy of anime feature films promises to tighten up the storyline while answering persistent questions, beginning with Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone (trailer here). Though Evangelion’s run at the Village East just concluded, New Yorkers now have another chance to see it at the 2009 New York Anime Festival.

As the Evangelion “rebuild” opens, mankind is in a precarious position. Having barely survived an event (kept deliberately vague) known as the “Second Impact,” Earth is now plagued by rampaging “angels,” robotic extraterrestrial beings impervious to almost all conventional weaponry. Of course, the citizens of Tokyo-3 never seem to ask why (perhaps having been desensitized by decades of Godzilla attacks).

The only means of combating angels are the Evangelions, enormous armored cyborg-like fighting crafts that can only be piloted by pre-teens, for reasons we should just accept. While there is a long tradition in science fiction of placing the fate of humanity in the hands of children, Evangelion’s Shinji Ikari is a particularly problematic protagonist. Unlike Ender Wiggins, his low sense of self worth and acute father issues threaten to undermine the entire Evangelion (Eva) program, which happens to be managed by Dear Old Dad.

It might sound oddly inappropriate to refer to these agents of cosmic destruction as “angels,” but Anno is just getting started. There is some extremely unsubtle Christ imagery in the film, with a clear promise of more to come in future installments. Parents should also note there is brief partial anime nudity (the technical term for this is “fan service”).

Unlike The Transformers movies, Evangelion has a plot. Still, it is at its best when depicting big hulking robot fight scenes. Graphically, it is several cuts above workaday anime, delivering some very impressive visuals, like the huge retractable fortified city of Tokyo-3. Indeed, the animation is often quite detailed, though it never departs from the stylistic traditions of the genre.

Evangelion is briskly paced, grudgingly doling out exposition on the fly. The action scenes are well constructed and its apocalyptic vision of the future is pretty compelling. Aside from Ikari’s neurosis, which gets old quickly, Evangelion is an entertaining, somewhat idiosyncratic anime film (though probably not the best introduction for genre neophytes). It screens at the NY Anime Fest on Saturday (9/26).

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NYTVF '09: Durham County

Canadians have a reputation for being peaceful and polite, yet hockey is their national game. That hidden aggression lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface of our northern neighbors is what Ion Television’s Durham County (trailer here) is all about. Following in the tradition of Twin Peaks (but without the giants and dwarves), things are not as peaceful as they seem in that suburban community, as quickly discover in the first episode, “What Lies Beneath,” which had a special screening last night at the New York Television Festival.

Previously known as the Pax, Ion’s name change was part of a rebranding effort to make the network more attractive to younger, hipper audiences. Already a hit in Canada, the noirish Durham is certainly part of that effort. After the death of his partner and his wife’s bout with cancer, Toronto cop Mike Sweeney moves his family back to his boyhood hometown. Unbeknownst to him, he buys a house right across the street from his high school nemesis Ray Prager.

Though the two rivals initially agree to bury the hatchet Prager still seems a little off, in an unsettling way. Rather than offering support and encouragement, he has nothing but contempt for his literarily inclined teenaged son. As it turns out, he might also be implicated in a ritualistic murder, but it is hard to judge the extent of his involvement due to the shrewdly fragmented editing and camera work. Still, by the end of the first episode, it is safe to say Prager is definitely bad news.

Based on “Beneath,” it seems the series will be quite moody and perhaps even a bit graphic—not at all Pax-like. As Sweeney, Hugh Dillon already shows an intense screen presence, completely looking and sounding the part of a decidedly imperfect police officer. It is hard to adequately judge the rest of the cast from the initial episode, but there no glaring miscues in “Beneath.” Ultimately, episode one does its job, raising several intriguing questions.

In addition to premieres and showcases, the NYTVF continues its pilot competition screenings. Of the programming blocks, the animation showcase is quite strong. God & Co. (trailer here) features some recognizable voice talent (Bob Balaban and Jonathan Katz) and some legitimately funny dialogue, much of it improvised. Stylistically, Elliot Cowan’s The Stressful Adventures of Boxhead and Roundhead (trailer here) was far and away the most striking pilot, but considering its somewhat surreal nature, it is difficult to imagine it on any commercial network. Still, it is a richly inventive piece (actually consisting of two short shorts) that ought to help establish Cowan as an emerging talent to watch.

Durham County airs Monday nights on Ion. The animation block screens again tonight at NYTVF, with the festival concluding tomorrow night (9/26) with the awards presentation.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Chanel: The Beginning

Her name is synonymous with style. Disdaining corsets and frilly ornamentation, Coco Chanel’s look was perfectly suited to the liberated flapper era, yet she maintained her position at the pinnacle of the fashion world until her death in 1971. However, it is Chanel’s early years that fascinated director Anne Fontaine, who focuses on the “rags” portion of her rags-to-riches story in Coco Before Chanel (trailer here), which opens in New York tomorrow.

A trailblazing model of independence, Chanel famously never married. She certainly had her share of lovers though, perhaps including Igor Stravinsky, but that will have to wait for an upcoming film (also from the same distributor, Sony Pictures Classics). Yet throughout Before, Fontaine clearly implies the pain of finding herself suddenly orphaned (along with her sister Adrienne) was the greatest formative experience of Chanel’s life, fueling her drive to succeed and shaping her relationships with men.

When the audience first meets the Chanel sisters, they are performing songs in a rowdy nightclub, where they are expected to shill champagne in between numbers. Actually, neither is much of a vocal stylist, but Coco is a wizard with needle and thread. When it becomes clear they have no future in cabaret, both sisters become secret lovers of ostensibly upstanding society gentlemen. Though she chafes at the expectations of her new position in life, Chanel has yet to become the future paragon of independence. Essentially, Before could have been titled A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Kept Woman.

Audrey Tautou plays Chanel as part Audrey Hepburn and part Elaine Stritch. Frankly, the Stritch half is more fun. At times, her peevish appeal to her wealthy lovers seems a bit obscure. Still, Benoît Poelvoorde becomes convincingly captivated by her, finding unexpected depth and humanity as her initially lecherous lover-keeper, Etienne Balsan.

With the carefully worded credit line of: “freely adapted from the book by Edmonde Charles-Roux,” Before seems to roughly conform to Chanel’s biography, passing a cursory wiki inspection (with allowances made for dramatic license). Fontaine and her co-screenwriters only take Chanel up to her first big triumph as a designer, so those hoping for high fashion intrigue should look elsewhere (perhaps the 1981 biographical melodrama Chanel Solitaire starring Timothy Dalton and Rutger Hauer will be running on cable). Likewise, Before completely avoids Chanel’s controversial activities during World War II. It is just scrappy young Chanel trying to find her place in the world.

Though scandalous things happen during the film, they are largely unseen and rarely spoken of directly. In fact, Before is a conventionally respectable prestige picture, but it is unlikely to be a player during awards season or to factor on many critics’ top ten lists. While certainly a good fix for Francophiles, most viewers will simply find it a modestly pleasant diversion. It opens tomorrow (9/25) in New York at the Angelika Film Center and Paris Theatre.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

NY Anime Fest ’09: 20th Century Boys

Japan has had unnerving experiences with cult violence beginning in the early seventies when the United Red Army terror cell killed twelve members in a now notorious exercise in Maoist “self-criticism.” The Japanese public would also watch in horror as the Japanese Red Army committed the 1972 Lod Airport Massacre in Tel Aviv and the Aum cult perpetrated the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. As a result, there is arguably a deep apprehension of cult activity present in the Japanese collective conscience, which the 20th Century Boys franchise deftly tapped into, first as manga and now as a soon to be completed film trilogy.

The 2009 New York Anime Festival was scheduled to premiere the third installment of the live action film series, but production delays forced its cancellation—news which will have many fanboys crying into their chocolate milk and cheetos. That is unfortunate, because based on unresolved cliffhanger ending of part one (which duly plugs part two), back-to-back screenings is probably the most satisfying way to watch the series.

20th Century Boys (trailer here) bounces back and forth in time like a ping-pong ball, but our primary point-of-view character is Kenji Endô, a failed rocker who works in his family’s convenience store. He has only vague memories of his childhood, but his friends remember him quite well. In addition to trading comic books and girlie magazines, Endô and his classmates created The Book of Prophecy, an apocalyptic story about a malevolent cult leader plotting to destroy the world at the turn of the millennium. In fact, they recall Endô as their primary artist and writer. Years later, an ominous cult leader known as “Friend” has appropriated their mythology and even the symbol of their club for his own nefarious ends.

As “Friend” starts replicating the devastating biological attacks from Endô’s book, several of his old friends come to the unsettling conclusion that “Friend” was one of them. Suspicions logically fall on Sadakiyo, an awkward kid always seen in flashbacks wearing a Halloween mask or hopelessly out of focus. Faced with the growing political and social influence of “Friend’s” cult, Endô and his comrades are forced underground, as they desperately try to remember their past to save humanity’s future.

Before you can say “Holy back-story Batman,” Century One has introduced about a dozen characters. Still the major players are delineated reasonably well, with Toshiaki Karasawa projecting the right hound-dog moroseness as the apparently put-upon Endô and Takako Tokiwa bringing some welcome energy as Yukiji, the former tomboy of the group who now works as a customs officer.

Just as Hollywood has embraced comic books as source material, the Japanese film industry has had enormous success recently with manga-inspired films. Yet in contrast to American films like Iron Man, Century One does not have a lot of stuff going boom. Instead director Yukihiko Tsutsumi goes in a more noir direction, creating a moody atmosphere of mounting paranoia.

Part one leaves a host of questions unanswered and its prologue is just as befuddling at the end of the film as it is in the beginning. Yet Century One is creepily effective depicting the mystery of “Friend’s” roots in Endô’s perhaps not-so-innocent childhood. It leaves viewers intrigued by its secrets. Those attending NYAF will at least be able to see parts one and two on Friday (9/25), with L: Change the World, featuring the enigmatic sleuth from the Death Note series, replacing part three on Sunday (9/27).

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NYTVF ’09: Late Show

Want to direct an independent feature film? Just assemble a skeleton crew and max out your credit cards. Granted it might be difficult, but it is within the realm of possibility. Independent television production is a different story. Sure there are web-based portals, but like it or not, credibility for hour-long dramas and half hour sitcoms remains contingent on placement with the networks or major cable players.

The New York Television Festival was created to address this situation, offering a venue to showcase aspiring television program developers. Acting something like an IFP for television, the NYTVF sponsors independent pilot competitions and offers fellowships to emerging creators. You might not necessarily see this year’s competing pilots on television, but you could see future projects from the talent that produced them. Past NYTVF alumnus have developed pilots and even sold series to outlets like Fox, Spike, and A&E.

As a big television industry gathering, NYTVF is also an opportunity to spotlight major network premieres and tap leading figures for panels and seminars. Tuesday night it was the Late Show with David Letterman writers taking the stage at the Times Center, to discuss professional comedy writing in all its unvarnished glory.

Moderated by SNL’s Jason Sudeikis, the representatives of the Letterman writing staff gave a general overview of their daily routine, but most of the program was dedicated to war stories. Yes, Joaquin Phoenix’s name did come up. Evidently, he was always a little tightly wound when he came on the show. When asked, essentially their response to uproar caused by the sexually suggestive joke made at the expense of Sarah Palin’s under-age daughter was Dave’s apologies made for good television.

Describing the fluidity of the show, head-writers (and brothers) Jason and Eric Stangel explained they often wrote new material on-the-fly during tapings, based on Letterman’s off-hand remarks. As fellow writer Bill Scheft put it: “one man’s aside is another man’s order.” One writer ended the evening using a jazz analogy to evoke the give-and-take process between Letterman’s improvising, the responses of his guests, and their scripted material, which was cool, if largely unappreciated by his colleagues.

NYTVF’s next network premiere will be ABC’s Flashforward tomorrow night. Their pilot screenings continue throughout the festival at New World Stages (free and open to the public), with the winners announced on Saturday night (9/26).

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tucci Remakes Van Gogh: Blind Date

Dutch director Theo Van Gogh was in the early planning stages of an English language remake of his acclaimed film Interview when an Islamist’s bullet cut short his life. He had dared to suggest Islamic fundamentalism was less than tolerate of homosexuality in his short film Submission Part 1, sadly proving the basic point with his life. In the wake of his death, Van Gogh’s producers set out to adapt not one but three of his films with American actors. Following Steve Buscemi’s remake of Interview, Stanley Tucci’s Blind Date (trailer here), the second film of the so-called “Triple Theo” project, opens in New York this Friday.

Though like Interview, Date has no clear political implications, as an intimate examination of the painful grief of two parents, in some sense it is an appropriate choice of film to adapt in Van Gogh’s memory. A man and a woman meet in a bar. They pretend not to know each other, but they have years of history together, some of which is quite painful. When Don and Janna’s young daughter died, it tore their lives apart. Now the only way they can relate to each other is through play-acting on staged blind dates. Finding it too painful to stay together, but loving each too much to stay apart, their “dates” become unhealthy rituals for the damaged couple.

In truth, anyone who has recently suffered a deeply felt loss is strongly cautioned not to see this film. While it is in many ways a compassionate, humanistic film, it offers no cathartic relief or comfort. Frankly, Don and Janna’s game-playing is most likely making things worse rather than better, but they simply do not have any other ideas of how to carry on.

The dilapidated nightclub (designed by Loren Weeks) in which they meet night after night is a fitting scene of faded glory that reinforces the overall mood of loss and regret. Tucci also filmed Date using Van Gogh’s three camera technique, keeping two dedicated cameras focused on the primary leads as the third framed the couple together. Indeed, Don and Janna’s scenes together are uncomfortably intimate, but the narration by the couple’s deceased daughter and strange interludes of Don performing his comedic magic act are self-consciously cinematic distractions.

In truth, these strange interludes help establish Don’s Chaplinesque qualities. He is definitely a crying on the inside (and sometimes outside) kind of clown. Frankly, both Tucci and Patricia Clarkson are frighteningly good as the heartsick parents. Their pain and humanity (messy as it might be) seem absolutely credible in Date, despite the film’s occasionally odd stylistic flourishes.

After screening Date, it is difficult to get it out of one’s head. Date is distinguished by two truly excellent lead performances, but they come in service of one of the saddest films audiences are likely on screens this year. It opens Friday (9/25) at Cinema Village.

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Janeiro in New York: Wandering Heart

Arguably the greatest figure of the Tropicália musical revolution, many sides of Caetano Veloso have been presented on film. He appeared as the romantic balladeer performing in Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her. Often times, he is presented as an icon of artistic conscience or simply the spiritual godfather of Brazilian music in general, as in films like Carlos Saura’s Fados. However, director Fernando Grostein Andrade offers a different perspective on Veloso, capturing the musician-vocalist’s laidback sense of humor in Wandering Heart, which screens Wednesday as the first of three Brazilian music documentaries in Cinema Tropical’s Janeiro in New York film series at the 92 Y Tribeca.

Loosely structured, Heart essentially follows Veloso during the American media campaign for his first English language album, and his subsequent tour of Japan, where he seems to have remarkably photogenic fans. As a result, the audience gets to hear some of his renditions of American popular song (like the Berlin standard “Blue Skies”) in addition to his traditional favorites.

Veloso’s fans know him as a charismatic performer, but they might be surprised how funny he is in private. Sometimes he even cracks himself up, as when he tells a Lady Di anecdote that is incomprehensible due to his giggling. Still, the music heard throughout Heart is of the consistent high quality his listeners will expect.

While Andrade by-and-large paints a portrait of an artist living the good life, late in the film he includes Veloso’s oblique references to his personal tragedies, which add considerable context to the musician’s apparent happy-go-lucky attitude. Ultimately, Veloso emerges as a genuinely likable individual, joking with fans and laughing off criticism, secure in his estimable place in the Brazilian music scene.

Though Heart’s running time barely exceeds one hour, Andrade uses nearly every second. Viewers should be advised to stay through the entire final credits, because they are liberally interspersed with further candid footage and a brief but complete performance.

Heart is an entertaining profile of Veloso that should please longtime fans and intrigue new listeners. Refreshingly, he comes across like a person who would be fun to hang with—youthful in his sixty-six years, despite his arrest and period of exile during the years of the military regime. It should be a crowd pleaser this Wednesday (9/23), when it kicks-off Janeiro in New York.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Jaglom’s Irene in Time

Henry Jaglom was an independent filmmaker before indie was cool. He holds the distinction of having directed Orson Welles twice, including the cinema legend’s final film appearance. Still, Jaglom’s films are notoriously talky, limiting his cult appeal as a maverick filmmaker. True to form, Jaglom’s latest film largely consists of emotionally revealing conversations between women on how their relationships with their fathers affected their relationships with men. Yet, even though the title character’s father was a loving, supportive figure, she seems incapable of having a healthy relationship in Jaglom’s Irene in Time (trailer here), which opens in New York this Wednesday.

Irene Jensen’s father was a fun guy. As the film opens, his gambling cronies regale her with colorful anecdotes about him. These scenes are talky in a good way, featuring Zack Norman (recognizable as Danny Devito’s brother Ira in Romancing the Stone) as Larry, a natural born raconteur who would bet against the sun coming up if you gave him the right odds. Regrettably, Jensen soon leaves their company for the first of many uncomfortable episodes of failed romance.

Throughout the course of the film, we will see Jensen crash and burn in one relationship after another, despite the glaringly obvious warning signs. Admittedly, that happens in real life too, but it is still frustrating to watch. When not talking to her friends about her father and her love life, Jensen records tracks for her forthcoming CD. As Jensen, Tanna Frederick has a reasonably pleasing voice. Unfortunately, due to the tinny synthesizers and Helen Reddy-style lyrics, these musical interludes often border on the cheesy.

However, there is one strong musical moment that comes from cabaret star Andrea Marcovicci. Playing jazz singer Helen Dean, a mysterious friend of Jensen’s father, she makes quite an impression singing “Forever in Time We’ll Be,” and has some fine dramatic moments as well. Indeed, there are several excellent supporting performances in Time, including a radiant looking Victoria Tennant as Jensen’s mother, one of the film’s few emotionally mature characters.

Time’s performances are certainly heartfelt and its dialogue is often quite pointed. However, the film cries out for a firmer editorial hand. While some scenes are undeniably effective screen drama, others meander into dead ends. Also problematic are a big revelation that comes as no great surprise and a real head-scratcher of a conclusion—not that the storyline really matters anyway. After all, Jaglom films are all about the conversations rather than the plot.

Although Time is sure to delight Jaglom’s established admirers, it is unlikely to expand his audience. At least it showcases the considerable talents of Marcovicci and Tennant in meaningful supporting roles. It opens this Wednesday (9/23) at the Quad.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

On Screens Everywhere: Rage

In the 1960’s colorful sprawling epics were filmed in Cinemscope or Panavision to deliver a huge widescreen viewing experience. Today, directors are deliberately calibrating films for the small screens of wireless phones and online video sites. Evidently, this is progress. Sally Potter, the acclaimed British director of Orlando and The Tango Lesson, took the trend a step further, filming her latest film Rage as if it were shot by a student on his cell phone. After premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival, Rage (trailer here) will be released by Babelgum online and as a series of cell phone downloads starting tomorrow, with the DVD hitting stores on Tuesday.

Rage is the knowingly ironic truncation of the fashion industry cliché: “all the rage.” For the ill-fated show Michelangelo ostensibly documents for his school project, it becomes especially apt, as protestors picket the outsourcing of textile jobs and models start dying under mysterious circumstances. How Michelangelo gained entrée into this rarified world is never explained, but presumably there is something disarmingly unassuming about him that gets the leading lights of haute couture to reveal their insecurities to him, which of course, he duly posts on the internet for all to see.

Shot with a single camera from Michelangelo’s POV, Rage is essentially a series of dramatic monologues with no interaction between characters. The success of Potter’s approach varies depending on the actor on screen. Not surprisingly, Dame Judi Dench provides the film’s highlights as Mona Carvell, the journalistic terror of the fashion world. While her caustic philosophical musings are thoroughly entertaining, Dench also convincingly brings out the jaded critic’s buried humanism.

Steve Buscemi also fares particularly well in Rage’s minimalist structure. Though he essentially does his regular shtick as Frank the gonzo news photographer, his bug-eyed cynicism is perfectly suited to be diced into snippets and posted online. Danish actor Jakob Cedergren is surprisingly believable as Otto, the corporate PR flack, and Eddie Izzard plays fashion mogul Tiny Diamonds with appropriate larger-than-life panache.

Ironically, John Leguizamo might give the best performance of the film, capturing the physical presence and emotional alienation of Jed, Diamonds’s bodyguard, but it might be too nuanced for installment viewing on handheld screens. Unfortunately, Jude Law is simply an embarrassment as Minx, the androgynous supermodel. This was a case of gimmicky casting that went terribly wrong.

Due in part to its stylized format, Rage is a hit-or-miss affair. While several characters are frankly dull, Potter elicits some nice performances, particularly from Dench, Leguizamo, and Cedergren. Potter’s use of saturated color backgrounds is quite effective on miniature screens and the moody background music she co-composed with avant-garde guitarist Fred Frith strengthens its cinematic cohesion. It might be uneven and stagey, but Rage is more successful than other films made expressly for digital dicing that have recently screened at New York film fests. Look for it online tomorrow and on DVD the next day (9/22).

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sikh International Film Festival ’09: Mothers and Aviators

1947 was a pivotal year for Sikhs, culminating in mass migrations from soon to be Pakistani cities following the Indian Partition. Though less well known, the highly controversial 1984 government assault on the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar also sent shockwaves through the Sikh community. Of course, the years of 1939-1945 were challenging for most nations, including India, who contributed troops and pilots to the British war effort, particularly in Burma. These dramatic historic events factor prominently in the program of short feature documentaries that opened the sixth annual Sikh International Film Festival.

Ironically, the MIAAC Film Festival screened Shyam Benegal’s big screen treatment of the life of Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian nationalist who sought alliances with the Axis during World War II, nearly a year ago in the Asia Society’s theater. Last night, the same venue hosted the Sikh Film Fest’s world premiere of Navdeep Kandola’s Flying Sikhs. Unlike Bose, many Sikhs volunteered for British military service, despite their desire for independence, finding disproportionate success in the RAF.

Of course, following the Battle of Britain, RAF fighter pilots were the rock stars of their day, which evidently included the Sikhs stationed in England. Flying interviews the two surviving WWII-era aces, Air Chief Marshall Arjan Singh DFC and Mohinder Singh Pujji DFC. Pujji, who flew against the Axis in England, Italy, and Burma, might be well into his nineties, but remains a great interview, providing the film’s best soundbites.

Flying is the Sikh Art & Film Foundation’s first foray into film production, and it is a good place to start. It nicely utilizes archival film and photos to tell a little known chapter of WWII history. At forty minutes in length, it does justice to its subjects, without becoming repetitive or bogging down in excessive detail. It ought to have a nice run on the festival circuit and would not be out of place airing on PBS.

Though a much more personal film, historical events certainly intervene in Safina Uberoi’s My Mother India. With an Australian mother and an Indian father, Uberoi grew up feeling like a distinct minority because of her whiteness. Her mother was definitely different, often scandalizing the neighbors when she hung her underwear out to dry on the clothesline.

Without belaboring the point, Uberoi also demonstrates how her family history was shaped by the great events of their time. For instance, the difficult trek from Lahore following Partition directly led to her grandparents’ irreparable falling out. Then years later, the events of 1984 would inspire Uberoi to embrace her Sikh heritage and convince her mother to finally become an Indian citizen.

Mother directly addresses notions of overlapping familial, national, religious and ethnic identities. More importantly though, Uberoi and her parents come across as funny and likable people, so the time the audience spends with them (approximately an hour) passes fairly quickly.

Mother and Flying both combine appealing personal stories with turbulent historical events, making them effective selections for the Sikh International Film Festival’s opening night. The Fest continues tomorrow (9/19) at the Asia Society with narrative and documentary short film programs.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

On-Stage: COBU EN

As much athletes as musicians, most drummers are disgustingly healthy. Amongst percussion instruments, the Japanese taiko drum can be particularly grueling. Combine taiko with high octane tap dance, and you have one physically demanding show, but it never even winds the COBU dance troupe. While honoring tradition, COBU brings plenty of noise and a hip attitude in EN (trailer here), their new show now playing at the Theater for the New City’s Johnson Theater.

COBU founder and guiding light Yako Miyamoto began her studies of taiko drumming at the age of eight, but majored in chemistry while in college. However, when she discovered tap, Miyamoto came to America to study with Savion Glover. Eventually, she would land the part in the Off-Broadway hit Stomp that she has held for the last nine years while simultaneously performing with COBU (all of which sounds truly exhausting). Yet based on the evidence of EN, stamina does not seem to be a problem for Miyamoto or any of the company members.

Though not originally conceived as such, COBU has evolved into an all-woman company. The seven members (including Miyamoto) who perform EN are indeed thoroughly impressive dancers and musicians. Miyamoto’s choreography is often quite spectacular, inventively integrating the kinetics of drumming with a very funky, hip-hop influenced tap. Some numbers, like the appropriately titled “Combat,” also add martial arts fight choreography into the dizzying mix. Actually, the clash of quarterstaffs and drumsticks looks a bit dangerous, but happily no dancers were hurt during last night’s performance.

Clearly, EN is all about rhythm. Though COBU play a variety of percussion instruments, the large kettle-like taiko drums dominate the program. Throughout the show, you can feel the vibrations traveling through the floor and up the risers. As a result, it is hard not to get caught up in COBU’s groove.

Miyamoto is particularly charismatic on-stage, but the entire company—Hana Ogata, Yuki Yamamori, Micro Hisada, Nozomi Gunji, and Yoko Ogawa—brings an energetic and energizing spirit to the show. COBU’s show should have a similar appeal to Drumstruck, which had a reasonably successful commercial Off-Broadway run several years ago (and was a pretty entertaining show). EN though is a better production, featuring more dynamic choreography and foregoing forced attempts at humor.

COBU is a very cool group that seamlessly blends the drumming and dancing disciplines. EN should be a crowd pleasing show for both hipster New Yorkers and tourists looking for some entertaining on-stage spectacle. Highly recommended, EN runs through Sunday evening (9/20). Following their run at the Johnson/New City, COBU will tour Japan starting October 9th. Cities will include Tokyo, Fukuoka, Hirosima and Sendai. They return to New York for the Madison Avenue Festival December 6th.

(Photo courtesy of DARR Publicity)

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Big-Screen Anime: Evangelion 1.0

If Arthur Schopenhauer and Joseph Campbell had collaborated on the Transformers, it might have resembled Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion anime. Despite attracting a cult-like following, the series evidently became notorious for its philosophical flights of fancy and an abundance of unresolved loose ends. However, a projected trilogy of anime feature films promises to tighten up the story and answer persistent questions, beginning with Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

As the Evangelion reboot opens, mankind is in a precarious position. Having barely survived a deliberately mysterious event called the “Second Impact,” the Earth is now plagued by rampaging “angels,” robotic extraterrestrial beings impervious to almost all earthly weaponry. Of course, the citizens of Tokyo-3 never seem to ask why (perhaps having been desensitized by decades of Godzilla attacks).

The only means of combating angels are the Evangelions, enormous armored cyborg-like fighting crafts that can only be piloted by pre-teens, for reasons we should just accept. While there is a long tradition in science fiction of placing the fate of humanity in the hands of children, Shinji is a particularly problematic protagonist. Unlike Ender Wiggins, his low sense of self worth and acute father issues threaten to undermine the entire Evangelion (Eva) program, which happens to be managed by Dear Old Dad.

It might sound oddly inappropriate to refer to these agents of cosmic destruction as “angels,” but Anno is just getting started. There is some extremely unsubtle Christ imagery in the film, with a clear promise of more to come in future installments. Parents should also note there is some brief partial anime nudity (the technical term for this is “fan service”).

Unlike The Transformers movies, Evangelion has a plot. Still, it is at its best when depicting big hulking robot fight scenes. Graphically, it is several cuts above workaday anime, delivering some impressive visuals, like the huge retractable fortified city of Tokyo-3. Indeed, the animation is often quite detailed, though it never departs from the stylistic traditions of the genre.

Evangelion is briskly paced, grudgingly doling out exposition on the fly. The action scenes are well constructed and its apocalyptic vision of the future is pretty compelling. Aside from Shinji’s neurosis, which gets old quickly, Evangelion is an entertaining, somewhat idiosyncratic anime film (though probably not the best introduction for genre neophytes). It opens today at the Village East.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Klapisch’s Paris

In large metropolitan cities, many diverse lives intersect, while still living in their own socially distinct worlds. Though such multi-character degrees-of-separation treatments have become staples at recent film festivals, when the city is Paris and Juliette Binoche plays the female lead, it is worth taking another cinematic tour across municipal divisions of class and ethnicity. Indeed, everyone is somehow connected in Cédric Klapisch’s Paris (trailer here), a decidedly bittersweet valentine to the City of Light, which opens tomorrow in New York City.

Pierre is dying—most likely. It is possible that a Hail Mary heart transplant could save his life, but he refuses to live in false hope. Estranged from most of his family, he eventually breaks the news to his sister Elise. Though there is tension in their relationship too, she immediately moves in (with her children in tow) to care for him. As a professional social worker and single mother of three, taking care of people is what she does.

Before his body betrayed him, Pierre was a dancer. Now it is difficult for him to leave the apartment, so he contents himself with watching the teeming Parisian life he spies from his window. Across the street, there is the pretty college student who has attracted the awkward romantic attentions of her celebrity history professor. In the neighborhood bakery, the snobbish proprietor oversees her pleasant new immigrant assistant. Nearby, the fish-mongers and produce-sellers peddle their wares, and everyone can somehow be traced back to Pierre and his sister.

Perfectly cast as Elise and Pierre, Juliette Binoche and Romain Duris look and feel like real siblings. Frankly, Binoche is one of the great screen actresses of her time, who always brings something intriguing to each new role. Duris, a mainstay of Klapisch’s films, nicely captures the emotional and physical pain of the formerly vital Pierre as he is forced to confront his mortality at a tragically early stage of life.

When Paris focuses on the relationship between the grown siblings, it is an honest, powerful film. However, the further it wanders from Pierre’s apartment, the less it holds together dramatically. The fish-mongers are in fact quite well delineated, salty characters that have a definite place in Elise’s world. However, when the scene shifts to North Africa to follow the family of an immigrant she counsels, Klapisch roams too far off course (the film is called Paris, after all).

Despite the considerable pain and ugliness that characters endure, the film is still a loving tribute to the title city. Klapisch shrewdly juxtaposes the ancient and the ultra-modern, thoroughly conveying a sense of what it is like to live in Pierre’s neighborhood. In fact, cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne makes the city sparkle with beauty.

Though the multi-character format gets a bit messy, the central story of Paris is ultimately quite moving. Featuring excellent lead performances from Binoche and Duris, it is also an effective commercial on behalf of Parisian tourism. Sure to please Francophiles and Binoche admirers (surely that includes nearly everyone), Paris opens tomorrow (9/18) at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

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The John Abercrombie Quartet: Wait Till You See Her

Wait Till You See Her
By the John Abercrombie Quartet
ECM Records


In 1974, the USSR expelled dissident novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Oskar Schindler passed away, Philippe Petit walked a high wire between the Twin Towers, and jazz guitarist John Abercrombie recorded his first session as a leader for ECM Records. Thirty-three years and twenty-six albums later, Abercrombie is still recording for the label, now fronting a slightly reconfigured quartet that prominently features violinist Mark Feldman on his latest release, Wait Till You See Her.

While guitar and violin are hardly an unheard of combination in jazz, the Abercrombie Quartet is not at all Hot Clubby. Much of the group’s character is actually derived from the sound of the violin, although the music and conception is undeniably Abercrombie’s. Indeed, the plaintive quality of Feldman’s violin is particularly pronounced on the aptly named opener “Sad Song.” Marked by Abercrombie’s thoughtful solo and drummer Joey Baron’s sensitive brush work, it might sound like a counter-intuitive choice to kick-off Wait, but it is certainly a distinctive one.

Conversely, the following “Line-Up” is taken at a more vigorous tempo, yet it is a freer piece that allows the quartet greater latitude for exploring. The sole standard of the set is the Rogers & Hart title track, originally composed for the 1942 musical By Jupiter (which ran just over a year on Broadway for 427 performances, but is not particularly well remembered today). Again, like “Sad Song” it is a lyrical lament that derives much of its tonal colors from Feldman’s contributions.

Feldman then sits out on the most traditionally boppish tune, the logically titled “Trio,” which is quite a virtuoso spotlight for Abercrombie, ably abetted by the rock-solid support of Baron and bassist Thomas Morgan. However, listeners will probably find the strongest melodic hooks in Abercrombie’s “Out of Towner,” as well as a soaring solo from Feldman, contrasting nicely with Wait’s more pensive moments. Indeed, it might be the most radio accessible track of the disk. The Quartet concludes with their most dramatic selection, the spellbinding “Chic of Araby,” which channels exotic sounds and hypnotic rhythms for a truly trance-inducing effect.

Throughout Wait the Quartet’s seamless interplay is quite remarkable. Abercrombie and Feldman deliver consistently inventive jazz solos while combining the discipline of classical chamber music with the openness of freely improvised music. It is an accomplished group that New Yorkers will have an opportunity to hear live when they open at Birdland on September 30th.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Coetzee’s Disgrace

When J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace was first published, the South African Nobel Laureate became the first writer to ever win a second Booker Prize, the prestigious British literary award. Shortly thereafter, he immigrated to Australia. While it might be a writer’s job to hold a mirror up to society, it seems Coetzee’s native country was still not ready to look into it. As adapted by director Steve Jacobs, Disgrace (trailer here) is a deeply troubling depiction of South African society that opens Friday in New York.

Apartheid has fallen, but Disgrace’s South Africa is hardly a post-racial society. Rather, it is hyper-racial. Professor David Lurie has yet to fully appreciate this though. As the film opens, his primary racial considerations involve his carnal desires. After a mixed-race prostitute spurns his growing attachment, he shifts his attention to a student. When his unwelcome desire escalates into harassment, it causes a scandal that ends his academic career. Given the steady erosion of the prestige and privilege of his position, Lurie takes his disgrace in stride. Still, he finds it advisable to leave town temporarily, so he visits his somewhat estranged daughter Lucy in the countryside.

If not exactly overjoyed to see Lurie, she initially appreciates the novelty of his visit, notwithstanding the precipitating circumstances. Lurie even makes an effort to fit in, helping out with her flowerbeds and volunteering at a local animal clinic. However, he can not shake his vague suspicions of Lucy’s neighbor and supposed protector Petrus. Then one afternoon, when Petrus is conveniently absent, everything changes.

Three young boys brutalize Lucy, while the severely beaten and burned Lurie is powerless to intervene. As bad as the attack was, the aftermath is even more painful for Lurie. Despite Lucy’s silent indictment of his ineffectualness, she refuses to report the assault to the police. When they later discover one of their assailants is a kinsman of Petrus under his protection, Lucy expressly forbids any confrontations, determined to bear her pain as her share of the collective guilt engendered by white South Africans.

Screenings of Disgrace are not likely to become a Mandela Day tradition anytime soon. It portrays a post-Apartheid South Africa paralyzed by vengefulness and white guilt—a perfect storm of social pathologies. It is not a story of false hope, but weary resignation.

John Malkovich is riveting as Lurie, convincingly portraying his humbling transformation. However, as Lucy, Jessica Haines is hobbled by a character that too often seems to be acting as a symbol than a believable human being. Still, the raw honesty of Coetzee’s story has an undeniable power that Anna-Maria Monticelli’s screenplay preserves, addressing the dramatic situations directly without resorting euphemism. Using the Australian outback as a stand-in, Disgrace also effectively captures the savage beauty of South Africa’s semi-arid highlands, a land that seems to exert a persistent hold on its residents, despite the danger of its remoteness.

Disgrace is often a challenging film to watch, but it is gripping, highly literate drama. It is frankly impressive how uncompromising it is, given the hot button racial issues it tackles. Disgrace opens Friday (9/18) at the Quad.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

New Russian Short Films

Think of the qualities we often associate with Russian literature: fatalism, naturalism, absurdity, an obsession with paperwork. They are all on display in the New Russian Short Films program sponsored by CEC ArtsLink in conjunction with the Telluride Film Festival, which screened in Tribeca last night.

Aleksey Andrianov’s The Last Day of I.S. Bulkin, the first and most accessible short, cleverly builds to its ironic conclusion. A mysterious stranger arrives to deliver some bad news to the title character. His time is almost up, but first he has some forms that need to be checked off. Very much in the spirit of great Russian short stories, it is essentially a darkly comedic sketch that does not overstay its welcome.

Regrettably, contemporary urban Russia is now associated with crime, drugs, and even separatist terrorism. Petr Zabelin explores this seamy underworld in Resurrection, the grittiest selection of the program. While it involves redemption of a sort, it is hardly edifying in its depiction of humanity, but a grimly naturalistic portrayal of the ultimate costs of addiction.

Inspired by the writings of Venedict Erofeev and Sasha Sokolov, Natalya Govorina’s Sanitorium (trailer here) is probably the most literate and fantastical selected film, however it is still comfortably linear in its storytelling. A young man with a bucket of beer and a middle aged man wearing pajamas meet like Beckett’s tramps, waiting on the platform of a remote provincial station for a train that never comes. While it is always pretty clear why the two men have been summoned to the Sanitorium station, the strong lead performances (particularly that of the older man) and Govorina’s striking visual sense make it an absorbing journey anyway.

Eschewing narrative form, Shota Gamisoniya’s Fields, Clowns, Apples was the surprising high point of the quartet. Following in the tradition of Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark, Gamisoniya’s film consists of one long tracking shot, encompassing a host of eccentric people and surreal sites. It is an impressive feat of direction and cinematography, marshaling a wide array of figures in and out of the field of vision, as the camera sweeps through the open meadow. Gamisoniya also makes effective use of the ambient noises, grounding the audience in the natural location, despite the weird events happening in the background. It is a relative rarity: a cool piece of abstract filmmaking.

Though largely conventional in terms of narrative structure and almost entirely non-political, New Russian Short Films is still a challenging lineup of shorts. Those steeped in the tradition of Russian cinema as well as adventurous cineastes would definitely appreciate the work of these rising young (average age of 30) filmmakers.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Expose: Fatal Promises

Mind your business and don’t get involved. Those are words many New Yorkers live by, but it allows some pretty disturbing crimes to continue unchecked behind closed doors. Much to her horror, Academy Award winning actress Emma Thompson learned Eastern European women had been held in sexual servitude behind the blinds of a house in her own tony London neighborhood. That revelation led to her involvement in the international anti-slavery movement and Kat Rohrer’s documentary Fatal Promises, which opens in New York on Wednesday.

Human-trafficking is one trade that does not need any economic stimulus. Second only to drugs, human beings generate an estimated seventy times more illicit profit than the arms trade, according to the film. It is not just women sold into sexual bondage, though that is certainly a considerable percentage. To underscore that point, Rohrer interviews five survivors of modern slavery, two of whom are men.

Katja and Nadja endured the sort of sexual abuse conjured up by the term “white slavery.” Anja would be considered an “economic” slave, forced to toil in an apple orchard without pay, but she was also sexually assaulted during her ordeal. The eighteen-year old Eugene and forty-five year old Nikolai were not afraid of hard work, but were physically broken by their time held captive on Russian crab ships. Their harrowing stories vividly illustrate this is an international problem far greater than a few women sold into brothels.

Rohrer also turns her camera on the international campaign to stop human trafficking, but what she documents does not always inspire confidence. The UN’s GIFT (Global Initiative to Fight Trafficking) spent almost three million dollars on a conference in Vienna that produced no results, but at least the delegates heard a lovely opera aria. After addressing the confab, Thompson derisively described it as “karaoke of the concerned.”

For her part, Thompson comes off far better than most celebrity activists, perhaps because she has a personal connection to the issue. Having befriended one of the women held in bondage in the “massage parlor” that once operated on her street, she has since become involved with The Journey, a multi-media installation dramatizing the experiences of her friend and women like her. (It is scheduled to come to New York in November.) She was even willing to do a Q&A for the film on last Saturday morning in New York, where she never sounded the least bit patronizing or self-important, but like someone genuinely concerned.

Although there are certainly political ramifications to Promises, Rohrer wisely tacks a non-partisan course. When documenting the passage of a New York State anti-trafficking bill, Republican State Sen. Frank Padavan gets credit for shepherding the bill through the State Senate. The documentary also acknowledges the irony that soon after Eliot Spitzer signed the bill he resigned due to a prostitution scandal. As a result, Promises maintains its credibility, making it particularly effective as an advocacy film.

Promises is a disturbing documenting, shining a much needed spotlight on the hidden horrors of a shameful practice. While Putin’s Russia is identified as arguably the most conducive environment, it is clear modern day trafficking rings operate around the world including suburban America and High Street in London. While it might sound like a depressing viewing experience, Promises is an informative film, produced with admirable passion. It opens in New York this Wednesday at the Cinema Village.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tomorrow on PBS: Note By Note

For jazz pianists, the process of paying dues often involves showing up for a gig and finding a crummy, out-of-tune upright piano. They pay those dues for the opportunity to perform on the elite concert grand pianos handcrafted by Steinway, a process lovingly documented in producer-director Ben Niles’ Note By Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 (trailer here), which airs on many PBS stations tomorrow night.

Eschewing mechanization, Steinway’s manufacturing techniques have changed little in the company’s 150 year history. Note takes the audience step-by-step through the year-long process of making one instrument, the film’s protagonist: L1037. Wood hand selected by Steinway specialists is carefully molded into the basic frame and rests for several weeks before the various production phases can continue. You see the stringing, staining, assembling, and tuning, all done by specialized craftsmen. As a result, almost imperceptible variances in production can affect the piano’s sound in ways that cannot be predicted.

In between production periods, we see classical and jazz musicians testing various models in the Steinway showrooms. Jazz listeners will be happy to see artists like Bill Charlap, Hank Jones, Kenny Barron, and Marcus Roberts presented on a par with classical artists like Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Helene Grimaud. Throughout the film all the musicians speak eloquently about their relationship to the piano and what they prefer in an individual instrument. Harry Connick, Jr., for instances, prefers a piano “that plays back a little.”

It is fascinating to watch the audition process, as elite artists like Aimard test pianos for the precise sounds they are looking for. Due to the fidelity limits of film, the subtle shades of difference are not really audible to the audience, but that is sort of the point. As Hank Jones says at one point, perfection is unattainable. The subtleties of each instrument’s sound are so mysterious they defy quantification and can best be heard only in live performance. That mystery is what Note is all about.

Most of the music heard in the film is fragmentary in nature, produced to test the feel of each instrument. However, if you want to hear every note ever recorded by Charlap or Barron, then you will want to listen as they test-drive Steinways with “The Very Thought of You” and “Yesterdays.” We actually hear somewhat more classical music, since Aimard’s hunt for the perfect piano to perform Ives’ Concord Sonata is a substantial plot point, and not to be a spoiler, but Grimaud’s Rachmaninoff is a fitting conclusion to L1037’s story.

Obviously produced by music lovers, Note is also a surprisingly good looking film. The Steinway facility in Queens must have the best natural light of any factory in America, as it often appears bathed in golden sunlight. For their part, the Steinway employees, while taking obvious pride in their work, relate to music in different ways. Some are quite respectable on the ivories themselves, while others might be musical but refuse to play any sort of keyboard.

Note may well be the most effective product placement ever filmed, if one can afford the six figure price tag for Steinway’s concert grands. It is obviously worth it though. Despite the rarified reputations cultivated by Fazioli and Bösendorfer, I have personally heard many jazz pianists profess their preference for Steinways. As is clear in the film, many classical artists share that partiality.

Ultimately, it is almost shocking how emotionally satisfying it is to see L1037 finish its journey. Also quite surprisingly, Note engenders real patriotic sentiments by showing an American company based in Queens, meticulously hand-crafting pianos sought by world-class artists. It is a finely crafted, thoroughly engaging film that should not be missed when it airs tomorrow at 10:00 PM here in New York on WNET 13.

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

NYC Shorts ’09: Program C

What does it mean to be free? It is a complicated question for two French vagabond lovers, but for gay Iranian refugees in Britain, it is a concrete issue with life-and-death ramifications. Though radically dissimilar, itinerant protagonists trying to live on their own terms are featured in both Vincent Vesco’s La Tangente and Glen Milner’s Iranian, Gay & Seeking Asylum, two distinct highlights of the 2009 NYC Short Film Festival’s Program C, now screening at 92 Y Tribeca.

Vesco seems to have studied his Nouvelle Vague, as surely most contemporary French filmmakers have. Of course, it is impossible not to think of Godard during any film about passionate lovers, driving heedlessly (or breathlessly) through France, while occasionally contemplating the odd crime or two. However, the couple in La Tangente (trailer here) are not really criminals, despite her somewhat checkered past (which might include prostitution). He however, has a strong work ethic, but willing turns his back on conventional life to be with her on the open road.

Tangente brings to mind the French New Wave stylistically as well as thematically. With its disembodied dialogue, jarring transitions, and emblematic use of pop music, the film often seems to be tipping its cap to the celebrated French auteurs. Fortunately, Vesco maintains the energy level, keeping the audience invested in the lovers, despite their familiar bohemian vs. bourgeois conflicts.

While it would not be the end of the world if Vesco’s lovers settled down and got jobs, if the subjects of Milner’s short documentary returned to Iran, they would surely be killed. That is because they are gay, and the ruling Islamic authorities’ policy on homosexuality is simple: execution, usually by hanging. Though far from exhaustive, Milner’s subjects recount stories of lovers enduring torture to protect their identities, painting a picture of a frighteningly oppressive state.

With a running time of eight and half minutes, Milner only scratches the surface of the oppression faced by Iranian homosexuals. Instead, his primary focus falls on the challenges faced by the asylum-seeking protagonist, an Iranian flamenco guitarist. It is tough being a musician anywhere, but he must have stories that could fill a feature length documentary.

What the mad mullahs do to gay and lesbian Iranians is appalling and the lack of outrage expressed by western GLBT groups is a scandal. Asylum is a timely reminder of human rights abuses committed daily by the Iranian Islamist government. Along with Tangente, it is a memorable highlight of Program C, which screens again tonight. The NYC Short Film Festival concludes Sunday afternoon (9/13) with Program K for kids.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Sal Tieri

Speaking before a vigil during the immediate aftermath of September 11th, Sal Tieri’s mother remembered his hard work and dedication as a young boy, harvesting crabs every morning to help his struggling family make ends meet. That same industrious spirit brought him success and the respect of his peers in the business world, where he earned the position of managing director of Marsh & McLennan at the still youthful age of forty. However, it was his work with Marsh that brought him to a meeting in the World Trade Center on that fateful morning in 2001.

Remembered as a devoted father, Mr. Tieri left behind two sons, then aged five and seven. As a father, husband, brother, uncle, son, friend, and esteemed colleague, clearly many people grieved his loss and remember him fondly. Of course, we should all mourn Mr. Tieri and the other 2,995 individuals murdered on September 11th. We can not even imagine how they would have further contributed to society had they not been taken before their time, and we have been denied the opportunity to be personally enriched by them as friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

Let us hope Mr. Tieri’s family and friends find a measure of solace and comfort on this solemn anniversary.

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