J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Very Russian Maestro: You Cannot Start Without Me

Valery Gergiev is classical music’s road warrior. Currently the Artistic and General Director of the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly the Kirov) as well as the Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, Gergiev is constantly on tour. As a result, he has become a powerhouse in the classical music world but has had little time for his own family. Such is the portrait of the quintessentially Russian conductor that emerges in Allan Miller’s You Cannot Start Without Me—Valery Gergiev—Maestro (trailer here), which opens this coming Monday at Symphony Space, the performing arts center on Manhattan’s Upper Westside.

The driven Gergiev never minces words telling his orchestras exactly what he wants to hear. With his authoritarian bearing and the Devil’s own comb-over, Gergiev often comes across as the dread terror of classical music. However, there is probably no conductor better attuned to the work of the great Russian composers. Throughout Start we hear as he leads various orchestras through rehearsals and performances of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky, always eliciting the perfect tonal colors from his musicians.

As leader of the Mariinsky, Gergiev has not lacked for ambition, mounting large-scale productions of demanding works, like Wagner’s Ring Cycle. He has proved a decisive leader, quickly rebuilding the Mariinsky’s fire damaged smaller concert hall, becoming a local political player in the process. However, his Russianness extends to an unsettlingly high regard for his “friend” Vladimir Putin. When explaining his admiration, Gergiev uses arguments that sound somewhat like the old “made the trains run on-time” justifications for dictators past.

Miller captures candid scenes of Gergiev and his business manager, constantly booking gigs and making deals. Indeed, it is quite interesting to peak behind the scenes of the rarified world of elite classical music. However, The Maestro is not exactly prone to self-examination, so Start never penetrates too deeply beneath his public persona. While one might wish Miller had pushed Gergiev a bit more during his interviews (particularly regarding his political allegiances), there is no denying his eloquence when discussing music.

While for obvious time constraint reasons Start could not include entire uncut performances, the many excerpts we do hear sound great. Gergiev the perfectionist clearly inspires his musicians, including guest artists like Renée Fleming, heard performing in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Mariinsky.

Start is a colorful, lively, and very Russo-centric portrait of the vigorous Maestro. Co-produced by WNET (New York’s PBS affiliate) and the White Nights Foundation of America (an organization dedicated to supporting the Mariinsky’s international programs), it should fascinate both classical music enthusiasts and Russia-watchers alike. It opens Monday (11/2) at Symphony Space.

(Photo credit: Matt Stuart Burns/A presentation of Thirteen in Association with White Nights Foundation of America and WNET.org)

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Autumn Gem: The Life of Qiu Jin

She is one of the few historical figures esteemed in both Communist China and free Taiwan. She was a marital arts warrior who once had her feet bound. She is a feminist icon in China, a country which granted women’s suffrage before America, yet in recent years has witnessed a surge of white slavery throughout its provincial districts. Such is the complicated legacy of Qiu Jin, whose eventful life is the subject of Rae Chang and Adam Tow’s Autumn Gem (trailer here), a documentary currently playing across the country at colleges and arts organizations, like the Visual Arts Guild, who sponsored Gem’s Tuesday night screening in Tribeca.

Things were kind of a mess in China during the closing years of the Qing Dynasty. Following several humiliating military defeats, foreign influence was at an all time high in China, while their international prestige was embarrassingly low. Concurrently, dubious traditions like foot-binding were still widely practiced. It was this environment that forged Qiu Jin’s ideology—a revolutionary combination of feminism and nationalism.

Married by arrangement rather than free choice, Qiu Jin did not find domestic life blissful. She would eventually heal her feet and find like-minded comrade-in-arms, eventually spending time in exile with Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Though she tried to ignite a truly feminist rebellion, Qiu Jin was ultimately executed (in a manner typically reserved for men), which some of Autumn’s expert historians argue she may have purposefully accepted in hopes of becoming a revolutionary martyr.

Since Qiu Jin was beheaded in 1907, there are few photographs of her extant, nearly all of which are reproduced in Autumn. Given the relative scarcity of historical images, Chang and Tow stage several dramatic re-enactments throughout the film, while also relying on traditional documentary elements, including periodic talking head interviews. Li Jing, who trained under Jet Li’s former coach and has performed stunt work on major Hollywood films, is quite well cast as Qiu Jin, bringing the right physical presence to the role. Based on her performance in Autumn, one could easily envision her as a future action star

To their credit, Chang and Tow paint a full portrait of their protagonist, not just as a feminist rebel, but also as an accomplished poet. However, it seems like they are deliberately vague when discussing the political implications of her philosophy. Still, their resourcefulness is impressive, having recreated many turn-of-the century China at locations throughout the Bay Area. They also filmed several scenes in Mainland China, including an interview with one of Qiu Jin’s surviving ancestors. (Evidently, they also had a rather unnerving run-in with the Beijing authorities while filming in Tiananmen Square.)

Autumn is an informative and entertaining documentary, with a smattering of martial arts thrown in for good measure. At about an hour’s running time, Chang and Tow do not have the time to get bogged down in historical minutiae. Wringing a strong technical package out of a limited budget, they have produced a tightly focused film that memorably introduces the woman often referred to as “China’s Joan of Arc” to American audiences. Autumn’s tour wraps up in California with upcoming screenings in San Francisco (11/9) and Stanford (11/30).

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Back to the Eighties: The House of the Devil

Those kids in the 1980’s were a mess. They were always listening to their Walkmen and getting killed by satanic cults. At least that is the cheesy world of 1980’s horror movies Ti West faithfully recreates in The House of the Devil (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York, just in time for Halloween.

Samantha is a hardworking college student, but she can’t be too bright. To earn money for her first apartment, she agrees to spend the night in an old dark house under highly dubious conditions. Hired in an odd manner by the Ulmans, an obviously weird couple, to “baby-sit” for their unseen shut-in mother, Samantha should have bolted as soon as she saw their well-secluded, ultra-gothic house. The fact that her employers have such a hot date purposely scheduled on the evening of a full lunar eclipse might also raise some suspicions, but Mr. Ulman is offering several hundred dollars for a few hours work, so hey, what could go wrong?

How creepy are the Ulmans? Well, they are played by Tom Noonan, the “Tooth Fairy” serial killer in the original Hannibal Lecter film, Michael Mann’s Manhunter, and Mary Woronov, the cult star associated with the films of Andy Warhol and Paul Bartel. Would you stay in their house during the darkest night of the year?

Of course, Samantha starts foolishly poking into dark basements and the like, generating plenty of gotcha jolts, which is fine as far as it goes. Rather than tweak the conventions of the 80’s films that inspired it, House slavishly observes them, from the dubious “based on a true story” opening claim to the annoyingly ambiguous ending. However, the retro looking titles really are pitch-perfect. Seeing them roll makes you expect to hear Crow and Tom Servo start to riff.

House benefits from the easy likability of its lead, Jocelin Donahue, who shows a young Karen Allen quality as Samantha, which is definitely a good thing. As expected, Noonan and Woronov are also appropriately sinister as the Ulmans. It is also cool to see Dee Wallace Stone (fondly remembered for E.T. and perhaps more applicably Critters, Cujo, and The Howling), even in what is essentially a cameo role as the “Landlady.”

House will bring back memories for many children of the 80’s of those cheap junky chillers we watched on cable or at second-run theaters. Sure, everyone loves nostalgia, but for the cost of a movie ticket in Manhattan, you could buy at least one vintage 80’s horror flick on DVD, probably two or three. Still, for those who want to see it in a theater with a like-minded audience, it opens tomororow (10/30) at the Village East.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Janeiro in New York: The House of Tom

Tom Jobim and Louis Armstrong belong to an exclusive fraternity of musicians who have had airports renamed in their honor. Such is the place of unrivaled honor held by composer-arranger-musician-vocalist Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim in his native Brazil. Yet, it is the private Jobim that his widow Ana faithfully captures in her documentary The House of Tom: Mundo, Monde, Mondo, which screens tomorrow at the 92 Y Tribeca as part of Cinema Tropical’s Janeiro in New York film series.

Blending the influences of American jazz and the French Impressionist composers, Jobim and Luiz Bonfá, started the international Bossa Nova craze with their bestselling soundtrack to Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus. Many of his hundreds of songs have become familiar jazz standards, like “Wave,” “The Waters of March,” and “Dindi,” several examples of which are heard throughout House. Yet probably more than any other tune, Jobim’s “The Girl from Ipanema” would define Bossa Nova and Brazil in general for millions around the world. However, in the reminiscences recorded by his widow, Jobim recalls the initial resistance to a song about “Ipanema,” a place few Americans had then heard of.

Much of Ana Jobim’s footage consists of Tom Jobim reading poetry—either Naruda’s or his own. In particular, we hear extended excerpts from his long poem inspired by the process of building their final home in Brazil. Naturally, there is also quite a bit of music in House as well, but instead of polished concert hall performances, Ana Jobim shows viewers the informal Tom Jobim, singing and playing with family and friends during parties or when simply relaxing at home. Of course as a legendary composer, the musical talent of Jobim’s nearest and dearest was well above average, so these relaxed sessions prove to be quite entertaining.

Not surprisingly, Jobim on Jobim is an intimate, highly complimentary portrait of the late Bossa Nova maestro. Only briefly do we hear the composer allude to political controversies, clearly comparing himself to the Brazilian classical composer Villa-Lobos for their shared aversion to ideology.

An accomplished photographer, Ana Jobim also intersperses House with images of Brazil’s natural beauty, which was a major source of inspiration for her late husband. As a result, it is also quite an effective advertisement for Brazilian tourism. Still, it is the many previously unseen interviews, private performances, and candid photos collected in her film that will really interest Jobim’s scores of fans. In many respects, House is like some of Jobim’s finest songs, short in duration, but gently wistful, with some moments of real beauty. It plays tomorrow night (10/29) as Janeiro in New York continues at the 92 Y Tribeca.

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On-Stage: Balaton

Daniel’s Family has issues it might never work out. Some are the usually family resentments, but they have at least one buried secret that is a unique product of where they came from: Communist-Era Hungary. Unfortunately, it seems to be too late for his family to fix their mistakes. Instead, they simply keep reliving them over and over in Ashlin Halfnight’s Balaton, which officially opened last night at The Theatre at 30th Street.

Known as the “Hungarian Sea,” Lake Balaton has long been the landlocked country’s resort area. Under Communism, trips to Balaton, were some of the perks doled out to Olympic athletes, like Daniel’s late father. They are some of the few happy memories his mother Margit still cherishes, and she has a long, if selective memory.

Margit still treats Daniel like a child and nurses several lingering grudges against her daughter-in-law, Vivian, most notably for using a weak excuse as pretext to miss the old woman’s funeral. Indeed, Margit would seem to be dead, as would most of her family, which the audience can deduce pretty quickly from the eulogy excerpts that start the play.

Daniel, Vivian, and Margit try to go about their business as they once did, as video projections of yet another eulogy play behind on screens them. For Daniel, this involves incessant tinkering on the VW bug he inherited from his father. However, Vivian frequently interrupts their dreamlike routine, because she hears a young girl she believes to be her granddaughter, Sabrina.

With its abstract set and multimedia elements, Balaton is something of a surreal work that immediately calls to mind Sartre. Yet, surely this is not Hell, because these characters are not bad people—though Margit is certainly problematic. Indeed, Halfnight’s text is not a hollow exercise in absurdism. Rather it is actually working towards something that definitely serves as an emotional climax.

Daniel O’Brien and Jessica Cummings are quite well matched as Daniel and Vivian, nicely expressing the weight of their shared lifetime frustrations. They could emigrate from an oppressive country, but evidently were never free of the overbearing influence of the manipulative matriarch. Yet they bring a sense of decency to the cold, stark environment of Balaton. Also quite impressive was the poise displayed by young actress playing Sabrina Saturday night (the part rotates between Sadie Scott and Charlotte Williams). Unfortunately, as written, Margit’s character is very harsh, making it quite difficult for Kathryn Kates to humanize the prototypical evil mother-in-law.

The Electric Pear’s production, is quite striking, incorporating dramatic lighting, austere sets, and an effective ambient soundtrack. Yet, Kristjan Thor’s firm direction prevents the proceedings from feeling over-intellectual or abstruse. Obviously, Halfnight has the Hungarian details right as well, considering the production is supported by the Hungarian Cultural Center in conjunction with their Extremely Hungary Festival.

Many might find Balaton a challenging play, but it is very smartly written, and it is definitely set in Hungary for a specific reason. It is a well mounted production recommended for somewhat adventurous patrons. Now open, it runs through November 7th at the Theatre at 30th Street.

(Photo credit: Biz Urban)

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Storm

Corruption and ineffectiveness have been the hallmarks of the United Nations, so why should the International Criminal Tribunal be any better? After the UN stood idly by, content to watch as the Bosnians were massacred, at least The Hague is trying to prosecute the perpetrators. Sadly, that effort is not going well in Hans-Christian Schmid’s Storm (trailer here), opening Friday in New York.

Hannah Maynard is prosecuting a Bosnian-Serb accused of war crimes in a maddeningly long, drawn out trial. However, it may all be for naught when her star witness is exposed as a fabricator and commits suicide shortly thereafter. Still, something about his behavior and that of his sister, Mira Arendt, arouses her suspicions. If he was not present when the atrocities in question occurred, perhaps she was. Not surprisingly, Mira is reluctant to even talk to the prosecutor, let alone testify.

Like any government office, the court is a hotbed of political infighting and bloated egos. Her boss, Keith Hayward, is skillful at navigating those roiling waters, but she only trusts him so far. Fortunately she has the support of her lover, Jonas Dahlberg, a jowly older Scandinavian EU representative. Given some rope by Hayward, she learns Arendt did indeed witness some of the events in question. Yet, what happened to her afterwards was far worse—but not covered by Maynard’s original indictment.

Storm is a German-Danish-Dutch co-production directed by a German starring a Romanian actress as a Bosnian, but its lingua franca is English, with some subtitled German, Bosnian, and Serbian thrown in for good measure. It might be an international affair, but it hardly engenders confidence in aspiring world-governing bodies like the international court.

Though they might be jaded, Storm’s supporting players give the film real depth and character. Rolf Lassgård gives a richly nuanced performance as the world-weary Dahlberg, completely commanding the screen in his scenes. Even his deep, haggard voice is intriguing. As the serpentine Hayward, Stephen Dillane’s work is also quite finely calibrated, always keeping the audience of balance, while maintaining complete credibility.

While Storm is well stocked with interesting character actors, the leads are more of a mixed bag. Romanian Anamaria Marinca is fast becoming one of the great international screen actors of the day. After unforgettable work in 4 Months 3 weeks and 2 Days, and a small but compelling turn in Five Minutes of Heaven, she again makes a strong impression as Arendt, convincingly conveying a wide spectrum of emotions, including fear, anger, and resolve. As written though, the character of Maynard is not particularly sympathetic or well developed, and New Zealander Kerry Fox never really fleshes it out.

Written by Schmid and Bernd Lange, Storm is a very smart (and cynical) film, up until the utterly unbelievable Hollywood-style ending. Still, Storm is hardly the first film to have trouble wrapping things up. For the most part, it is a fascinating depiction of the limits of international criminal law and a painful reminder of the crimes committed against humanity by the Bosnian-Serbs and their Serbian allies. It opens at the Quad this Friday (10/30).

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Monday, October 26, 2009

NYKFF ’09: Jiyan

Geography has done few favors for the Kurdish people. Divided between four largely hostile countries, the Kurdistan region has seen much suffering, particularly at the hands of Saddam Hussein, who did indeed have sufficient weapons of mass destruction in 1988 for a brutal poison gas attack on Iraq’s Kurdish population. Five years later, the effects of that atrocity still linger, as one Iraqi Kurd learns when he returns to help rebuild his homeland in Jano Rosebiani’s Jiyan (trailer here), which screened during the New York Kurdish Film Festival—the first America fest dedicated to Kurdish cinema.

Diyari has not been to his ancestral home of Halabja in years, having immigrated to America following an earlier attack on his people. He has come to build an orphanage for the many children whose parents and families were killed by Saddam’s gas. It is an appropriate mission for Diyari, because he seems to have an affinity for children, particularly two young cousins, Shêrko and Jiyan, who only have each other left in the world. Though she hardly speaks, young Jiyan, whose name means “life,” forges an especially deep bond with their new benefactor.

Since the attack killed many of Halabja’s eligible bachelors, there has been little romance in the town. As a result, Diyari’s arrival definitely attracts attention, but he has a wife and two young girls back in America, and is far too noble for anything illicit on the side. Diyari is certainly a laudable protagonist and Shêrko and Jiyan are definitely strong rooting interests, but the film is a bit too sweet for its own good, with no real dramatic conflict to keep viewers focused. Still, Rosebiani elicits some very strong performances from his young actors, (Pisheng Berzinji and Choman Hawrami), and employs some very effective recurring images and motifs.

Koutaiba Al Janabi‘s lens captures the harsh unforgiving Kurdistani landscape, creating a real sense of place. However, the greatest merit of Jiyan is its depiction of the persistent effects of Saddam’s chemical weapons. It becomes clear the attack did not just happen within a discrete time period and was then safely over. Rather, it is as if the village is attacked day after day for five years, leaving a toxic environment where sandstorms become instruments of death, stirring up and dispersing the sedentary chemical agents.

While it might have benefited from a stronger narrative drive, Jiyan is quite powerful when it addresses the life-and-death issues facing Iraqi Kurdistan. It clearly was a fitting selection for the final day of the first annual New York Kurdish Film Festival.

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Corman at AFA: Bucket of Blood

Jazz is not usually thought of in conjunction with genre films, but it does turn up in the odd (or very odd) sci-fi or horror picture. British tenor star Tubby Hayes appeared as himself and played on the soundtrack for one story in the Amicus horror anthology film Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, which co-starred the sophisticated gruesome twosome of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (in separate story arcs). Moon Zero Two, a rare Hammer Films foray into sci-fi, has not aged well, but at least it boasts a pretty cool Don Ellis score. Add to their ranks some of Roger Corman’s more distinctive camp classics, including Bucket of Blood (trailer here), which screens at Anthology Film Archives during their upcoming Poe and Beyond retrospective of the ultra-low budget auteur's films.

Bucket is probably most notorious for facilitating Corman’s immediate follow-up film, The Little Shop of Horrors, than its own on-screen chills. According to disputed legend, after wrapping Bucket, Corman realized his sets were paid-up through for next two days, so why not crank out another picture in that time? Still, Bucket has its own cult following, having even inspired a mid 1990’s remake produced for Showtime.

Both comical horror films also feature a score by jazz cellist Fred Katz. The onetime musical director of the Chico Hamilton Quintet, with whom he is seen in Sweet Smell of Success, the cerebral Katz might seem an unlikely associate for the Corman, the king of grade Z genre fare, but he scored several of director’s pictures. Katz’s Bucket score often swings in a crime jazz mood, while at other times it reflects the goofy whimsy of Charles B Griffith’s beanik spoofing screenplay. Katz’s fellow Hamilton alumnus Paul Horn (before his defection to New Age music) also appears in the opening scene, accompanying an over-top pretentious poetry recital, in the spirit of the jazz-and-poetry performances of the era.

Cult actor Dick Miller plays busboy Walter Paisley (a sad sack character he would revive for future Corman productions), slaving away for unappreciative beatniks in a hipster coffee house. By accident, he kills his landlord’s cat, which he conceals by disguising the body as a statue. When his “Dead Cat” is received as a work of genius, he logically starts escalating with humans.

Many Corman enthusiasts prefer Bucket to its more famous offspring. The story might be ridiculous, but it has its moments of sly dark comedy. In particular, Julian Barton is spot-on as the pontificating poet Maxwell Brock, looking like an unkempt Theodore Bikel, while Katz and Horn, perhaps the greatest talent attached to the film, lend it a touch of class. Clearly a product of its time and budget, Bucket still has an undeniable charm. AFA’s Corman retro starts on October 28th, just in time for Halloween, with Bucket screening on November 2nd, 5th, and 8th.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

ISFF ’09: Sizzle

Global warming skeptics must be evil. The Boston Globe editorial page has likened them to Holocaust deniers. Yet filmmaker Randy Olsen believed they were not sufficiently marginalized in the press, so he set out to deliver the coup de grace in a hybrid documentary-mockumentary. However, Olsen is a laudably honest documentarian, which led to some humorously uncomfortable scenes in Sizzle (trailer here), the closing night feature of the Imagine Science Film Festival.

Olsen envisioned Sizzle as the global warming Borat. As he interviewed scientists on either side of the controversy, his skeptical cameraman would disrupt the interview with his own questions. Meanwhile, the rich liberals supposedly financing his film are scouring Hollywood for a celebrity to serve as the film’s spokesperson. For a film produced by someone clearly to the left of the political spectrum, Sizzle’s satire of Hollywood-style liberalism has surprising bite. It is also very funny.

At first it seems like Olsen stacks the deck with his interview segments, choosing a particularly freaky USC professor as his first skeptical subject. However, he does include Dr. Bill Gray and Dr. Pat Michaels, two reasonably presentable academics, whose credentials Olsen admits are legit, allowing them an opportunity to at least get a word in edgewise. He also scrupulously includes a segment with Julia Bovey, an embarrassingly uninformed representative of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Actually, that leads to Sizzle’s signature motif: polar bears.

At one point, Bovey parrots their talking points about an allegedly precipitous decline in the polar bear population, but when pressed for numbers, she admits she does not have any, but trust her, its really awful. At this point, Olsen looks like a polar bear threw-up on him. Whether he is acting or genuinely reacting in disappointment, Olsen deserves credit for keeping the exchange in the film. Suddenly, those white bears are a symbol of the whole global warming shooting match, so he takes a detour to the zoo.

According to a zoologist, out of a population of 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears, four have been found to have drowned in the last year, or at most 0.02% of the population. However, they are the first polar bears ever discovered drowned, so that relatively small figure could have importance as a portent of things to come, the expert avers. Perhaps.

Olsen made a deliberate choice not to bury the audience with scientific data, which is understandable. However, simply claiming every reputable scientist agrees with him leaves the audience with an unsatisfied feeling. In fact, Olsen seems badly off target when emphasizing the disagreements within the skeptical camp as he defines it, in contrast to the implied monolithic uniformity of opinion amongst global warmers. After all, orthodoxy should always inspire skepticism. Yes, you will have even greater unanimity on say, the principles of gravity, yet any graduate physics student could prove it on the blackboard.

That is exactly the challenge Olsen should take up—a legitimate global warming debate. If Gray and Michaels truly do not have a scientific leg to stand on, it should be easy to dispatch them in a fair fight. Let the battle be joined with verifiable data. Break out the powerpoint slides Olsen so richly ridicules. However, there should be an agreed upon benchmark to determine the veracity of the Warmers’ predictions, which would also logically set up a sequel to follow-up on each sides’ claims.

There is something very weird about a science-based documentary using the term “skeptic” as an epithet. Still, when Olsen is putting the “mock” in mockumentary, its pretty funny stuff. Sizzle concluded the ISFF’s very diverse slate of films about or in some way related to science, including the standout Japanese science fiction film The Clone Returns Home. The festival wraps up with its awards ceremony this Sunday at Kenny’s Castaways.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

NYKFF ’09: Crossing the Dust

His name is legion—Saddam to be exact. The Ba’athist regime used to give financial remuneration to parents who named their sons after Saddam Hussein, but now being the dictator’s namesake has lost all its prestige. In fact, for one lost little boy it is a distinct disadvantage in Shawkat Amin Korki’s Crossing the Dust (trailer here), which screened last night during the New York Kurdish Film Festival.

It is 2003 and Saddam Hussein has just been toppled, in a very literal sense. Having just watched on television as the colossal Saddam statue was spontaneously pulled down by jubilant Iraqis, with an assist from an American tank, Azad and his fellow Kurdish Peshmerga fighters erupt into celebratory song and dance. Unfortunately, Iraq is still dangerous, especially for the Peshmerga, as Azad will soon be reminded.

While on a seemingly routine delivery mission with his gruff comrade Rashid, Azad notices a frightened Arabic boy crying by the side of the road. Taking mercy on young Saddam, Azad tries to find his parents, but communication with the Arabic speaking boy proves difficult. As scared and pathetic as this Saddam might be, Rashid remains unmoved, blaming the boy for diverting them from their mission and only providing the most minimal Kurdish translation for his colleague.

As the two men veer further off course, they witness a microcosm of the Iraq War, including lootings, Ba’ath loyalist guerilla attacks, and Saddam’s mass graves. Korki certainly did not calibrate his screenplay to cater to partisans either side of the Iraq controversy. Yet, the vicious nature of Saddam’s Ba’athist regime becomes only too apparent during the course of the film. Indeed, Korki’s strongest sequence involves the visit to a newly discovered secret grave site, where Azad joins scores of other Iraqis looking for missing loved ones.

Though obviously produced on a shoestring, Korki makes a virtue of necessity, effectively capturing a documentary-like sense of post-invasion Iraq. He also elicits some impressively natural performances from his leads, Hossein Hasan and Adil Abdolrahman, who convincingly convey a complicated history shared by the two Peshmerga. While his novice child actor does alright, he never really stretches beyond looking scared and confused.

Dust readily invites comparison with Bahman Ghobadi’s Half Moon, another selection of the first NYKFF. Indeed, both chronicle Kurdish protagonists on ill-fated Iraqi road trips. While Dust also shares a similarly absurdist inclination, it is never nihilistic. Rather, it presents the boots-on-the-ground reality of Iraq through a highly moral prism. It also offers a wider perspective on the Kurdish people, featuring both Christian and Muslim Kurds as supporting characters. As a film that might challenge some preconceptions, Dust definitely deserves an audience.

The New York Kurdish Film Festival continues through Sunday (10/25) with screenings at NYU’s Kantor Film Center.

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Not Exactly an Island Paradise: Blood Rain

Blood Rain
Directed by Kim Dae-seung
Pathfinder Home Entertainment


There is an ill wind blowing on Donghwa island. It is tax time for the residents. The Joseon Dynasty called it tribute, but same difference. Technically, the owner of the island’s paper-mill makes the payments, but as always, the workers will share the pain. To make matters worse, either a ghost or a serial killer is extracting revenge on the islanders for the sins committed against the former mill owner. It turns out to be quite a trying assignment for a young court investigator in Kim Dae-seung’s Blood Rain (trailer here), now available on DVD from Pathfinder Home Entertainment, who has become the leading distributor of Korean cinema in recent months.

Life stinks on Donghwa—literally. An evil malaise has turned their water fetid. Of course, things are even harder for underground Roman Catholics. Though converts are harshly dealt with as a matter of course, the justice meted out on the unfortunate Commissioner Kang was unusually harsh and suspiciously swift. Though alleged to be a secret Catholic, the ill-fated mill-owner actually might have been an innocent victim of his own kindness, lending at generously low interest rates to many islanders. With his death, all debts were erased.

Lee Won-gyu, an analytical government inspector with severe father issues, arrived on Donghwa expecting to conduct a relatively routine arson investigation, but found a community plagued with guilt, terrorized by someone or something replicating the methods used to execute Kang and his family. Played with admirable restraint by Cha Seung-won, Lee Won-gyu is a refreshingly down-to-business style of protagonist. Likewise, the ensemble cast is reasonably sound, with a particularly memorable supporting turn coming from Choi Ji-na as Man-shin, the village shaman.

Despite the gruesome nature of the murders, by the standards of many Korean genre films, Rain is really not that graphic. However, it might upset PETA extremists, since several chickens apparently made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of the film. Be that as it may, Rain is an intriguing portrayal of early nineteenth century forensic science at work. Art director Min Eon-Ok’s exotic locales and deadly Rube Goldberg-like set pieces convincingly immerses the viewer in Rain’s hothouse period setting. Rarely seen in film, the frank depiction of the subjugation of Roman Catholics also adds a fascinating wrinkle to the film.

If not the most intricate screen mystery, Rain effectively contrasts superstition and scientific method, against a finely crafted historical backdrop. It is solidly entertaining DVD discovery.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

NYKFF ’09: Half Moon

Being is a Kurdish musician in Iran is not easy. At least the esteemed Mamo is still allowed to perform. However, the Islamist nation strictly prohibits women from singing in public. Yet, Mamo is determined to keep Kurdish musical traditions alive, even if his own time is short, in Bahman Ghobadi’s Half Moon, which screened last night during the inaugural New York Kurdish Film Festival.

With the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Kurds are now free to celebrate their music and culture. As a last hurrah, Mamo plans to attend an upcoming “cry of freedom” concert in Arbil, but getting there will be quite a trick, especially considering the old school musician will be bringing Hesho, a respected female vocalist, along with his ten musician sons.

Despite Mamo’s careful preparations and frequent greasing of palms, their journey results in one mishap after another, including the disastrous loss of Hesho and their instruments. However, a mysterious woman named Niwemang (Half Moon) appears (played by the luminous Iranian superstar Golshifteh Farahani), promising to delver Mamo to his final gig.

Moon was banned in Iran and it is not hard to see why. Scandalously, it shows platonic hugging between a man and woman—the sort of innocuous g-rated contact that is strictly forbidden by the Iranian authorities. Perhaps more threatening are Moon’s depictions of gender roles. Women are definitely seen singing, including not just Hesho, but also a fantastical city of 1,334 exiled women vocalists. More generally, aside from Mamo, Moon’s male characters are largely ineffectual, whereas women like Hesho and the possibly supernatural Niwemang are wiser, more humane, and often more powerful figures in Ghobadi’s film.

Evidently, the Iranian powers-that-be objected most strenuously to the film’s perceived advocacy of Kurdish independence. While clearly influenced by current events, Moon largely refrains from political statements. Yet, it is hard to escape the conclusion that even though violence remains prevalent in Iraq (especially near the border), it is now a freer environment for Kurds than the restrictive Iran.

In a style that feels someone akin to Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain, Ghobadi combines surreal magical realism with gritty naturalism, set against stunning natural vistas that dwarf the players in his absurd tragedy. Ismail Ghaffari strikes a similar balance as Mamo, expressing stately grace as well as the eccentricities of age in equal measure.

As the work of a Kurdish filmmaker with a truly international following, Moon was a logical selection for the NYKFF, even though it has already had a theatrical run. It is a demanding, but ultimately quit affecting film. The New York Kurdish Film Festival continues through Sunday (10/25) at NYU’s Kantor Film Center, with features, short programs, and a free screening of Yol, winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s 1982 Palme D’Or, on Saturday.

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Albou’s Wedding Song

He is the one Axis ally conveniently forgotten in recent years. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem incited attacks on Mid East Jewry, propagandized for the Germans, and even recruited volunteers for special Islamic Waffen-SS units. Thanks to his efforts, life becomes quite precarious for Tunisia’s Jewish citizens in Karin Albou’s The Wedding Song (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday.

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

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

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

Given its traditional Tunisian settings, the frankness of Song is quite surprising. At times, the film feels excessively intrusive, as when we see the rather difficult preparations Myriad undergoes for her wedding night. However, in other respects, Albou’s direction is quite sensitive, capturing some remarkable performances, particularly from Lizzie Brochere as Myriam and Simon Abkarian as the surprisingly complicated Raoul. The director’s perspective on the German forces is also quite effective. Seen as boots on the floor or ominous figures in the street, her camera refrains from direct eye contact, and thereby never humanizes them in any sense.

Song is an intimately human film, focusing squarely on the personal dramas of Myriam and Nour rather than the wider issues of war and ideology. Still, its depiction of occupied Tunis convincingly evokes the confusion and desperation of the time. Even though it concludes a bit abruptly, Song is a delicately crafted film that completely immerses viewers in a very specific time, place, and culture. Definitely recommended, it opens Friday (10/23) at the Quad.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Killing Kasztner

The movies usually have it wrong. In real life, killers are boring. It is the heroes who are interesting and Rezső Kasztner was absolutely fascinating. A respected lawyer, journalist, and political leader, Kasztner saved 1,600 fellow Jews arranging what came to be known as the Kasztner Train. Ironically though, it was Kasztner’s name that became anathema to many Israelis, rather than that of his assassin. This strange apparent paradox is explained in Gaylen Ross’s Killing Kasztner: the Jew Who Dealt with Nazis (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It has been said that if Kasztner had not been Jewish, he would have been celebrated as a hero much like Oskar Schindler. Like Schindler, Kasztner dealt directly with the National Socialists as a leader of the Vaada, the Hungarian Aid and Rescue Committee. Every life rescued on Kasztner's train to Switzerland was purchased dearly through bribery. In fact, Kasztner was penniless when he and his family arrived in Israel at the end of the war.

Despite the many lives undeniably saved by Kasztner, the very idea of a Jew negotiating with high level Nazis, including Adolph Eichmann, was difficult for many Israelis to accept. The issue came to a head when the ruling Mapai party strongly encouraged Kasztner to sue for libel when accused of collaboration. Though Kasztner’s victory initially seemed assured, the discovery of an affidavit he wrote on behalf Kurt Becher, his old SS contact, proved to be his undoing. It cost him his case (though he would later be vindicated in a little noted appeal) and ultimately led to his assassination. Strangely though, Gaylen somewhat buries her lede, only briefly mentioning newly discovered evidence that suggests Kasztner acted at the behest of his government in the Becher affair and took the fall on their behalf during his trial.

Kasztner is clearly one of the most complex and intriguing historical figures of the last century. His killer, Ze’ev Eckstein, is not. However, Gaylen gives inordinate screen time to this banally evil figure. Granted, securing Eckstein’s first on-camera interview is a legitimate “get,” but he has little interesting to say. Frankly, his carefully chosen words, expressing guarded regret perhaps, but never actual remorse, quickly become tiresome. As a result, his face-to-face meeting with Kasztner’s daughter is completely unsatisfying for all involved.

In truth, Gaylen’s film is best when advocating on behalf of Kasztner’s legacy. She also got real results, prodding the director of Yad Vashem to recognize Kasztner, after a heated meeting with survivors of his rescue operation. Through this prism, Gaylen offers a revisionist perspective on an Israeli society she argues prefers dead heroes like Hannah Senesh, to living heroes like Kasztner. While such social criticism is not without interest, the film’s best moments illuminate the neglected story of Kasztner and his rescue efforts.

Using straight-forward documentary techniques, Gaylen makes a very convincing case on behalf of Kasztner. One just wishes she had not spent so much time questioning Eckstein, the hostile witness. Still, Gaylen conveys a good sense of Kasztner the man, which is definitely important. As it is, Killing Kasztner offers a challenging look at an unfairly overlooked episode in history. It opens Friday (10/23) at Cinema Village.

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Six Shooter: Ong Bak 2

Tony Jaa introduced the world to Muay Thai style kickboxing in the original Ong Bak, becoming an international superstar in the process. Now he returns, as the star and co-director of a prequel set years in the past during Thailand’s feudal era. While the relationship between Jaa’s characters Ting and Tien is not readily apparent, they still have the same fighting spirit. Fans will have to wait for the promised Ong Bak 3 to tie everything together, but they can soon enjoy the spectacular fight scenes of Jaa & Panna Rittikrai’s Ong Bak 2 (trailer here), the first film of the Ong Bak chronology and the second selection of Magnet’s ongoing Six-Shooter series of international genre films, when it opens this Friday in New York.

OB2 has all the hallmarks of the historical martial arts revenge epic—in spades. Young Tien is indeed noble-born, the spirited son of the wise Lord Sihadecho. Of course, his idyllic childhood will not last long. When the treacherous Lord Rajasena kills Tien’s parents, the young boy swears vengeance on the evil despot. Eventually adopted by Cher Nung, the leader of a band of brigands, Tien learns multiple styles of martial arts to put a serious hurting on his opponents.

Though Tien is happy with Cher Nung and his cutthroats, vengeance still burns in his heart. After completing a dark ritual of spiritual discovery, much like Luke Skywalker’s on the swamp planet Dagobah, the newly empowered Tien sets out to make things right. Despite the radically different settings, there are often odd structural parallels between OB2 and Star Wars, which both feature young powerful protagonists with father issues plagued by black-masked antagonists.

You have to love a martial arts film with elephants. In fact, Jaa inventively integrates the stately pachyderms into his incredibly staged fight sequences. Reportedly without the aid of CGI or wires, Jaa takes on wave after wave of Rajasena’s warriors, leaping around trees and elephants, using any possible weapon that comes to hand in some thoroughly impressive action scenes.

It is possible that OB2’s prequel structure will limit its breakout appeal. The abrupt cliff-hanger ending probably will not go over well with many audiences and its connections to OB1 remain obscure. However, there is no denying Jaa’s talent to kick butt and defy gravity. He’s clearly the real deal. While it will probably be necessary to see OB2 in the context of the entire projected trilogy to fully appreciate Jaa’s vision, it is still an enjoyable showcase for Jaa. It opens tomorrow (10/23) at the Village East.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

ISFF ’09: The Clone Returns Home

If a human body is cloned, is a human soul cloned along with it? It is a heady question, but it is only the first of many posed by writer-director Kanji Nakajima’s thought-provoking debut feature. Though he most certainly addresses the more worldly ethical dilemmas involved in human cloning, The Clone Returns Home (trailer here), embraces wider metaphysical speculation, making it a surprisingly philosophical selection for the second annual Imagine Science Film Festival. Yet, it is particularly appropriate for a fest created to challenge how audiences think about science and art.

In a sense, Clone is an exercise in magical realism as much as it is science fiction. However, the trappings are definitely sf. As the film opens, the Japanese space program has suffered a tragedy during a politically precarious period for the agency administrators. To prevent further loss of prestige, they have developed a unique form of “life insurance.” Willing astronauts will have their DNA recorded and their memories downloaded, so if they should die during the course of a mission, their clone will carry on in their stead.

Obviously, this is a problematic offer, but Kohei Takahara has reasons for agreeing. The astronaut still blames himself for the childhood incident that killed his twin brother Noboru. However, he promised his ailing mother he would not let her outlive him as well.

Given the title, it hardly comes as a shock when indeed it becomes necessary to clone Takahara. The notion of cloning a twin would be presented as a sufficiently rich irony in most genre pictures, but Nakajima takes it to far deeper levels. As his story unfolds, signals from the past intrude in the present, and history mournfully repeats itself. It is not just the “resonance” of Takahara’s past consciousness affecting later incarnations. It seems perhaps time is in flux.

As intellectual as Clone might be, it is also a film of genuine emotional depth. The persistent yearning of successive Takaharas to unite with his twin is ultimately quite moving. However, scenes of his wife Tokie struggling with her pure grief and the manipulative agency bureaucrats are truly devastating, thanks to a perfectly pitched supporting turn from Hiromi Nagasaku. Yet it is Mitsuhiro Oikawa who truly sets the tenor of Clone, evoking the pain of a restless soul, while still keeping the true essences of his psyches obscure.

As lensed by cinematographer Hideho Urata, Clone has a distinctly unusual look for the genre. With Nakajima, he gives the film a haunting visual style well suited to its surreal environment of cold, austere interiors and muddy, washed-out exteriors. It is worth noting German director Wim Wenders served as executive producer on Clone, and one can see a certain stylistic kinship between the two very deliberate directors.

Clone is an outstanding film, highly rewarding on multiple levels. It should have a long life as a work to be repeatedly discussed, debated, studied, and revived for many years to come. Though a bit of a departure, it was an excellent programming choice for the ISFF. The festival continues through Friday (10/23), with more conventionally science-based documentary features and short films.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Royal Flush ’09: Gangster Exchange

Traditions and customs might vary by culture, but dumb muscle is universal. Such is the globalist attitude of Gangster Exchange (trailer here), Dean Bajramovic’s ode to the lowly henchman. The official closing night film of the 2009 Royal Flush Festival, Exchange nicely fits the tattooed, underground spirit of the music and lifestyle magazine for which the fest is named.

Marco “The Immovable Object” and his partner Sasha are disposable soldiers in the Bosnian mafia. They do not even merit a heads-up when their bosses decide to blow away their biker contacts during their regularly scheduled face-to-face. Marco in particular is unhappy, but even he is smart enough not to question his bosses. Grumbling, he moves onto his next assignment: looking after two Japanese couriers on a trial run for a prospective heroin deal with the Bosnians. The yakuza have developed a technique for chemically bonding smack with ceramic, so that toilet Hiro and his partner whisked through customs actually has a multi-million dollar street value.

Unfortunately, when Marco and Sasha deliver their new drinking buddies and the illicit commode for the reconstitution test, the bikers get the drop on them. Suddenly, Marco and Hiro are in business for themselves, if they can stay alive long enough to find a chemist who understands Japanese and is not troubled by trifling ethical concerns.

Employing incidents of over-the-top violence and quirky (occasionally sexually explicit) dialogue for comedic effect, the Tarantino influence is unmistakable in Exchange. However, Bajramovic’s execution is pretty skillful, keeping the action moving along briskly while mining the black humor in every indignity inflicted on the increasingly bloody Marco.

It might not be a star-making role, but as Marco, Christopher Russell certainly plays dumb convincingly. Sarain Boylan also shows some nice comedic timing as Kendra, a chemist who might just fit Marco and Hiro’s requirements. However, the host of eccentric supporting players varies widely in terms of effectiveness. While the hipster dj-grad student is basically an annoying cliché, Aaron Poole’s jittery underworld chemist is surprisingly funny.

Everyone should know going in Exchange is a meathead movie. Of course, it is a bit problematic that a happy ending for the protagonists would involve facilitating a fresh supply of heroin on the streets of New York. Still, that is easily overlooked in a late night festival slot, amongst an appreciative audience. It may not hold up as well for thirteen bucks on a multiplex screen when it opens theatrically in December. Still, it deserves credit for succeeding on its own terms as an entertaining one-bloody-thing-after-another kind of film. The Royal Flush Fest concludes tonight with their "Skullie" Awards at the Slipper Room.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Night Watch: Rembrandt’s J’Accuse

Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Night Watch might be the fourth most recognizable painting in the world, but it is also the most misunderstood work of the great masters. So argues Peter Greenaway CBE, the celebrated British filmmaker and academically trained artist. It is Greenaway’s authoritative floating head that explains the mystery (as he interprets it) behind Rembrandt’s masterpiece in his documentary Rembrandt’s J’Accuse (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

Greenaway bemoans the “visual illiteracy” that allows millions of Rijksmuseum visitors to dutifully gaze at The Night Watch, only to miss the ominous clues hidden in plain sight. Greenaway structures J’Accuse around fifty questions based on his close reading of the painting and the circumstantial evidence of Rembrandt’s life. Though Greenaway stops short of leveling a specific charge as such, he clearly casts suspicions on one Banning Cocq, the captain of the militia company that commissioned Rembrandt’s famous painting, in the untimely death of his predecessor.

Rembrandt deliberately departed from the conventions of the established Dutch “Militia Painting Style”—a decision Greenaway attaches great importance to. Like a good Poststructuralist academic, Greenaway gives The Night Watch a thorough deconstructing, with varying degrees of success. Some of his questions seem quite reasonable indeed, like why is there a smoking musket in the painting and just where did that shot go? However, some of his conjectures seem a bit fanciful, as when he finds sexual implications in where the shadow of Banning Cocq’s arm happens to point.

Greenaway illustrates his case with vignettes of Rembrandt’s life using the cast of Nightwatching reprising their roles from his thematically related narrative film. While the dramatic interludes help the audience visualize the film’s characters and conflicts, Greenaway himself is a quite a compelling narrator who commands the screen with his erudition. While some of his points might be somewhat dubious, listening to him lay out the case is utterly fascinating.

Yet, the obvious objection to Greenaway’s thesis remains: if Night Watch was such an obvious indictment of the nefarious Banning Cocq, why was the painting publically displayed for years at the militia’s headquarters instead of being destroyed or simply hidden away to protect the guilty? Still, Greenaway certainly convinces us there is a great deal of murky intrigue going in Rembrandt’s canvas.

Though at times J’Accuse is largely an extended lecture from Greenaway, it is surprisingly stimulating visually. By evoking the warm light and dark shadows of Rembrandt’s paintings, cinematographer and visual effects designer Reiner van Brummelen further draws the audience into the painter’s Seventeenth Century world.

Created with a painter’s eye, J’Accuse is an elegantly constructed documentary hybrid that will hold viewers rapt with its dazzling feats of historical speculation. It might gloss over logic from time to time, but it will definitely alter audience perceptions of the Rembrandt masterpiece. Given the prevalence of propaganda in our daily lives, Greenaway’s larger point regarding visual literacy is actually quite timely. He definitely gives an interesting demonstration of how to critically parse and analyze imagery, as well an entertaining art history lesson in J’Accuse. It opens Wednesday (10/21) at Film Forum.

(Photo courtesy of ContentFilm International)

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Royal Flush ’09: God of Vampires

These are not Anne Rice vampires. There is nothing erotic about the Kiang-Shi, a.k.a. Chinese Vampires. They do not just consume blood, but spill entrails and splatter gore every which way. Accepting a contract to kill a Kiang-Shi turns out to be a rough gig for one hired killer in Rob Fitz’s ultra-low budget God of Vampires (trailer here), which screened last night during the 2009 Royal Flush Festival as one of their Evil City Horror features.

Frank Ng is so good at what he does, his shadowy business agent nick-named him the Frank-Ng-Stein Monster. Yet, his instincts tell him to pass on a million dollar hit he is offered. At first, the assignment is just another day at the office for Ng, but when the supposed crime-lord won’t stay dead, the hitman realizes he has a problem. Though clearly outmatched, the stone-cold Ng still manages to annoy the Kiang-Shi, who vows to kill everyone the contract killer knows in retribution. In over his head, Ng seeks help from an herbalist in the city’s worst Chinese restaurant, thereby marking him for death as well. From there, things definitely get messy.

With writer-director Fitz wearing five or six different hats during the production, GOV was practically a one man DIY affair. He certainly did not economize on the fake blood though. In fact, he and cinematographer Silas Tyler get credit for producing a pretty decent looking film, considering their modest resources.

Though GOV is definitely in the b-movie tradition, Fitz keeps the energy amped up and throws in some dumb-but-not-too-dumb humor to leaven the gore. He offers some quirky departures from western vampire folklore that lead to some amusingly odd action sequences, as when Ng and his comrades attempt to staple Chinese death certificates to the foreheads of uncooperative vampires to put their souls to rest.

As Ng, Dharma Lim makes a decent screen protagonist and his fight choreography is pleasingly violent and gritty. Unfortunately, points have to be deducted for the lack of a hot female slayer character, but at least the use of a chainsaw as a weapon against the undead lends an undeniable touch of class to the proceedings.

Displaying a good grindhouse work ethic, GOV is an entertaining midnight movie, provided audiences watch it in the right state of mind. Really, GOV’s combination of the martial arts and vampires genres again proves to be pretty bullet-proof, with its dash of the yakuza film adding a nice hint of flavor. The Royal Flush Festival continues through Sunday night with more Evil City Horror features, including Jim Isaac’s Pig Hunt tonight.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

ISFF ’09: Shorts

Whether plumbing the inner workings of the mind or unlocking the secrets of the genetic code, scientists are constantly studying how human beings work in hopes of improving humanity’s quality of life. It one of the noble pursuits of science celebrated at the Second Annual Imagine Science Film Festival, which officially opened last night at the Tribeca Cinemas. ISFF programs a wide variety of science documentaries and hard science fiction, as well as softer narrative films about scientists or science related issues. For instance, issues of aging and memory emerged as unifying themes during last night’s slate of short films.

A darkly unsettling tale that steadily builds to its final revelation, the viewing experience of Emma Sullivan’s After Tomorrow would be ruined by explaining just how it fits into the program. A man would like to leave the country house he is staying in, but a mysterious old woman keeps him locked inside. Making matters worse, he feels a pressing need to apologize to his wife, whom his captor seems to be in contact with. As the audience can clearly tell from the disconcerting atmosphere Sullivan effectively creates, all is not what it seems.

Having witnessed the ravages of senility and infirmity on his father, genetic researcher Philip Zephyr is horrified by the aging process in Jonathan Sanden’s Extropy. Driven to save himself and his family from the indignities of age, Zephyr has developed a course of gene therapy targeting telomeres, the DNA segments thought to control the aging process. Of course, Father Time will not wait for him to complete batch after batch of cautious studies, tempting the researcher to use himself as a guinea pig.

The science of Extropy might be speculative, but it is based on actual fact, integrated into the film with great clarity, but not at the expense of the narrative drive. Sanden’s short is an intriguing twist on the cautionary tale of science’s godlike ambitions, but his protagonist is far from a Dr. Frankenstein. Indeed, Zephyr’s field of research is evidently very real and quite promising.

Cinematographer Chris Lytwyn’s slick, glossy lensing nicely suits the austerity of Extropy’s ultramodern laboratory settings. Sanden briskly covers quite a bit of scientific and sociological speculation in a mere sixteen minutes, while lead actor Gregory Waller keeps the audience grounded in the film’s human element.

The highlights of ISFF’s kickoff program of shorts, certainly including After Tomorrow and Extropy, effectively connect issues of science with individual human drama. It is an ambitious guiding aesthetic for a film festival. ISFF continues through Friday (10/23) with an intriguing lineup of shorts and features at the Tribeca Cinemas and other venues through the City.

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Blaxploitation Movie: Black Dynamite

Given their violent action, killer attitude, hip beats, and fiery racial politics, blaxploitation films often approached deliriously close to self-parody. Unfortunately, previous spoof attempts rarely understood the soul of the films, merely aping the genre’s 1970’s trappings. While there are a few genuinely inspired scenes in Scott Sanders’s Black Dynamite (trailer here), it is more closely akin to the Scary Movie franchise of dumb film spoofs, than The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Superfly, or Coffy. It will inevitably disappoint anyone who knows their Foxy Brown from their Jackie Brown when it opens today in New York.

Dynamite starts with a pitch-perfect 1970’s era commercial for a fictional malt liquor brand that will play a significant role later in the film. It suggests the film is totally in tune with the era. However, for most of the balance of the film, the jokes are either unremarkable attempts at physical slapstick or bland potty humor.

Black Dynamite is a former CIA cat who came back to his old neighborhood to reclaim it from the mob and the drug-pushers. Yet, just when he thought he was out, the agency tries to pull him back in. Investigating his brother’s murder, Dynamite uncovers an evil racist plot targeting the anatomical “mojo” of African American males. Knowing better than to trust the government, Dynamite recruits a number of unmemorable allies to help him storm the island fortress that is the source of the scourge, in a sequence that sort-of-kind-of brings to mind Enter the Dragon.

To give Dynamite its due, its climax is honestly hilarious. Following the trail of dubious clues, Dynamite takes the fight all the way to The Man himself. It’s a flash of comedic brilliance all too rare in Dynamite. For the most part, the jokes seem utterly disconnected from the blaxploitation genre, as if they were recycled from any silly “Blank Movie” spoof.

As Dynamite, Michael Jai White looks fine in the wardrobe, but he’s no Jim Brown or Jim Kelly. Tommy Davidson brings some welcome energy as Cream Corn, but he does not have much to work with in terms of material. Frankly, Arsenio Hall is completely forgettable as Tasty Freeze.

Dynamite has its moments, but not nearly enough to recommend it. While the art direction and wardrobe get the details right, Dynamite just does not have the soul of its forerunners. It opens today (10/16) at the Regal E-Walk.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

40 Years of Python

Monty Python’s Flying Circus was like the Beatles, except Elvis Presley reportedly loved them. They were a one troupe British comedy invasion. All sketch comedy which came before them now seems quaint, while that all that has come afterwards appears derivative. Starting this Sunday, IFC marks the fortieth anniversary of the Pythons with the six part behind-the-scenes history, Monty Python: Almost the Truth—The Lawyer’s Cut.

As viewers learn in the first episode, The Not-So-Exciting Beginnings, the very British Pythons, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones, all came from respectable middle class roots and were educated at Oxford or Cambridge. The ringer of the group was Terry Gilliam, Cleese’s scruffy yank friend, whose surreal cartoons became the bizarre connective tissue between Python’s subversive sketches.

For reasons the Pythons themselves are at a loss to explain, the BBC green-lighted them for a 13-episode trial run, despite their inability to explain exactly what they wanted to do. As one might expect, it took them a while to catch on, but word of mouth spread, eventually building into a comedy phenomenon, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Featuring original interviews with all five surviving Pythons, as well as many of their friends and well known fans, Truth nicely conveys their personalities and the working dynamics within the group. While viewers might be surprised to learn the Pythons were never particularly close to each other, they seem pretty even-handed when assessing the strengths and weaknesses of their fellow group members. However, the third episode, And Now the Sordid Personal Bits, only really delves into the private life of the late Graham Chapman, who candidly discussed his alcoholism and his difficulty coming out to the group on several talk shows, while promoting his memoir.

Not surprisingly, Monty Python and Holy Grail and The Life of Brian each merit their own episodes. However, The Meaning of Life is treated like their hit-or-miss last hurrah in the concluding The Last Episode Ever…For Now, which also covers Chapman’s death from cancer at the tragically early age of forty-eight, as well as briefly addressing the Pythons’ lives after Python.

As one would expect, the Pythons are quite amusing interview subjects. Truth also shows many short clips from their classic television series, stage productions, and films, but includes none of their skits in their entirety. However, the third disk of the upcoming DVD release features some of their greatest hits, including the Dead Parrot sketch and of course “Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition,” complete, uncut and still devilishly funny.

Truth is a brisk, tightly edited documentary that features some rarely seen film of the fab six, including some appropriately humorous and touching footage of Chapman’s memorial service. Above all, Truth demonstrates the Pythons could at times be eccentric, and even a little pompous (much like their characters), but were and still are very funny people. Aside from an opening credit sequence that tries unsuccessfully to channel the Python spirit, Truth is a very entertaining look at the British comedy titans. It debuts on IFC this Sunday (10/18), continuing through Thursday (10/23), with the DVD releasing the following Tuesday (10/27).

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Domestic Drama: The Maid

Raquel isn’t called a servant for nothing. She does all the menial chores the Valdes family cannot be bothered with. In return, she gets a measure of security and a nebulous sense of belonging within the household. It turns out that is enough to entitle her to act fairly crazy in Sebastian Silva’s Chilean drama The Maid (trailer here), which opens Friday in New York.

Raquel works like a dog and it seems to be taking a toll on her health. If not palatial, the Valdes’s house would probably be considered quite large by the standards of most Santiago residents. The Valdes children also keep Raquel jumping, particularly the surly teenaged daughter and a son in full throws of puberty. Pilar Valdes, the lady of the house, wants to hire additional help, but Raquel resists the suggestion, fearing competition for the family’s favor.

When her mistress finally hires a second maid, Raquel does not take it lying down, launching a cruel campaign of psychological warfare against Mercedes, an innocent country girl. Her successor, Sonia, the proverbial bitter old maid, puts up more of a fight, but ultimately fares little better against Raquel. However, when the tough, good-humored Lucy signs on, Raquel may have met her match.

The uneven Maid incorporates facets of many different film genres, without fully committing to any particular one. At times, a psychological drama seems to be unfolding, as Raquel plays her petty cat-and-mouse games. Yet, Silva never tries to build an atmosphere of suspense and keeps the mood relatively light, given the film's conflicts and neuroses. In a sense, it is a family drama, but it explicitly questions the legitimacy of Raquel’s position within the Valdes family unit.

Certainly, there are also aspects of the class-conscious social-issue film as Raquel tirelessly toils for Pilar, a lady who lunches, and her husband Mundo, who spends all his time playing golf and building model ships. Still, the Valdeses come across as more indulgent than exploitative, trying to lighten Raquel’s load while tolerating her sometimes questionable behavior.

Silva delights in discomfiting the audience with one uncomfortable scene after another. As a result, Catalina Saavedra deserves great credit for giving such an unselfconscious performance as Raquel. She keeps Raquel real and expresses her deeply concealed pain and insecurity. She also has several nude scenes, which is no selling point for the film. She is nicely counterbalanced by the vaguely Sarah Palin-looking Mariana Loyola, who brings much needed doses humor and energy to the deliberately awkward proceedings, as the likable Lucy.

Though Silva’s drably realistic style is nothing particularly noteworthy, he captures some very memorable screen performances. The Maid is an odd little film that really sticks in your head, but you’re not sure why. It opens this Friday (10/16) at the Angelika.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

NYMF: The ToyMaker

Though occupied by the National Socialists, the Czechs still put up a spirited resistance, for which they paid dearly. In retribution for the death of regional SS strongman Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazis massacred the inhabitants of Lidice, a Christian village in Moravia. Out of those dark days of death, one man would leave behind a legacy of life in Brian Putnam’s The ToyMaker, now running as part of the 2009 New York Musical Theatre Festival at the Theatre at St. Clement’s.

Thanks to the internet, Sarah Meeks has spent thousands of dollars for two wooden toys handcrafted by a mysterious Czech artisan. It is difficult for her to explain her compulsion, since a series of miscarriages have rendered her childless. Something about the work of the obscure Petr Klimes speaks to her on a deeper fundamental level. Leaving behind her increasingly distant husband Jason, Meeks travels to the Czech Republic, hoping to find Klimes’s rumored final extant creation.

In ToyMaker’s split narrative, we also see Klimes and his wife Anna struggling to endure the Nazi occupation of Lidice in the fateful days leading up to the town’s destruction. Like the Meeks, the Klimeses have had similar difficulties carrying children to term, but the caring Czechs essentially serve as surrogate parents for Capek, the village orphan.

Thanks to the help of Doby, a slick street kid, Meeks is able to follow a trail of clues from Lidice to Germany and back to Lidice, as she seeks both the whereabouts of Petr’s last toy, as well as an understanding of its full significance. Concurrently, we watch as the Klimeses are caught up in the horrific events of 1942.

Clearly, ToyMaker is not a light and frothy musical comedy. Yet, the numbers are tastefully integrated into the show, and Putnam’s music and lyrics are quite strong, particularly Petr and Capek’s “Thy Might,” a stirring ode to the creative impulse. Also notable is the big sound musical director-conductor-pianist Kenneth W. Gartman gets out of the relatively small ensemble of two reeds, two keyboards, and three strings, effectively serving both the vocalists and the score.

The featured cast of ToyMaker is uniformly appealing and their voices are mostly strong and expressive. As Petr and Anna Klimes, Rob Richardson and Jessica Burrows are especially impressive. Ultimately, the fine ensemble work leads to a real emotional payoff that should forcefully hit anyone who does not have a heart completely made of stone. The only trouble with ToyMaker is that the parallels drawn between Sarah Meeks and the Klimeses—their shared pain from losing babies and the motherless young boys they take under their wings—inadvertently suggest a correspondence between lives that simply cannot be compared.

ToyMaker is a very strong work of musical theater with some real emotional heft. Well staged and performed, it also dramatizes the historic tragedies of the Czech occupation, made possible by ill-conceived policies of appeasement. It runs at St. Clement’s through October 18th.

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Fordham Law Film Fest ‘09: Anatomy of a Murder

Who better to play a small town underdog defense attorney than James Stewart? His Paul Biegler is indeed one of the classic screen lawyers, but he is not without flaws. However, his taste in music certainly is not one of them. Many reviewers considered Duke Ellington’s soundtrack an awkward fit for Otto Preminger’s courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder (trailer here), but it arguably compliments Stewart’s character rather well, and it definitely swings. Viewers will have a chance to judge for themselves when Preminger’s classic film plays this Saturday at the Fordham Law Film Festival, with a post-screening discussion with director and film historian Peter Bogdanovich to follow.

Biegler is the former district attorney of Iron City, a small upper peninsular Michigan town, recently defeated in his bid for re-election. We quickly learn Biegler, in a departure from Robert Travers’s source novel, is also a jazz enthusiast, whose records collection goes “from Brubeck to Dixieland.”

Biegler accepts a difficult client in Lt. Manion, a hard case Army officer with anger management issues, accused of murdering the man who raped his flirtatious wife. His investigation takes him to an Upper Michigan roadhouse, where Duke Ellington appears as the bandleader Pie Eye. Biegler even sits in for some four-handed piano, clearly proving he is indeed a jazz kind of guy. Anatomy is a film that deftly handles some very delicate subject matter, with the help of powerful performances from Stewart, Ben Gazzara as Manion, and Lee Remick as his wife, Laura.

The majestic blues of Ellington’s soundtrack are completely at odds with our impressions of small town white America, but it is precisely this dissociative effect which serves the film so well. Viewers first meet Biegler driving home through his familiar town, returning late at night from a long fishing trip, as the Ellington Orchestra swings hard in the background. In effect, it sets Biegler apart from his community—an alienation any former DA reduced to scuffling for divorce cases is likely to share.

James Stewart is perfectly cast in a role that capitalizes on his everyman image, but gives it a twist. Though a decent person and an underdog, Biegler is no saint. We see him subtly lead Manion into adopting an insanity defense and watch as he navigates the grey areas of his legal defense. When his associate asks about the case, he frankly replies: “I’m making a lot of noise and Dancer [the prosecution] is racking all the points.’

After a grueling trial, we hear Biegler teasing out some blues on the piano as he waits for the jury to come in, courtesy of the off-screen Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s writing and arranging partner. According to Chris Fujiwara’s The World and It’s Double: the Life and Films of Otto Preminger Strayhorn made a characteristic effort to fit the music to Stewart’s personality. Fujiwara reports:

“‘He asked me to play something I liked,’ said Stewart, who had studied piano and played with a jazz band as an undergraduate at Princeton. ‘What I think he did, you see, was write something for me that I would have played myself.’” (p. 242)

The soundtrack for Anatomy is an enduring classic of Ellingtonia. Whether it is Johnny Hodges’ sweet alto on the suggestive “Flirtbird” or Cat Anderson’s high notes on “Upper and Outest” heard over the film’s ironic closing scene, Ellington demonstrates his inspired ability to compose for particular sidemen that marked his remarkable career. Anatomy is recognized one the finest jazz soundtracks ever, and the rest of the film is also quite good. Bogdanovich may have some fine insights Saturday night (10/17), but simply by itself, Anatomy remains a thoroughly entertaining legal drama.

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