J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top Ten CDs of 2009

Every jazz musician who released a new CD in 2009 deserves hearty congratulations. The music business is getting even more challenging, especially for jazz artists, but their perseverance has enriched our lives and culture immeasurably. In that spirit, every new jazz release of 2009 not on this list should be considered an honorable mention. What follows is my personal—idiosyncratic even—list of the top ten new jazz CDs of the year, again in alpha order.

The blessedly prolific Carla Bley is a perennial candidate to make year-end top ten lists and this year is no exception. What was different was her choice of material: Carla's Christmas Carols. Yet her music remains as distinctive as ever and she gets major credit for fulfilling her ambitions to release a set of Christmas music, even at the risk of seeming unhip to modernist snobs.

Kurt Elling memorably paid tribute to the beloved Johnny Hartman-John Coltrane session with Dedicated to You. Featuring one of his best pseudo-spoken word tracks ever, it was unabashedly sentimental, in the right way.

A major talent as an improviser and composer, Hiromi Kasuga helped keep bop alive and vital with New York Callin.’ Featuring some of the leading players on the New York scene, Callin’ has a crisp freshness that really stood out from the pack.

How can you not root for a Grammy nominated student ensemble? The University of North Texas One O’Clock Lab Band’s Lab 2009 was more than a mere classroom assignment. It is a fully realized musical statement with two Grammy nominations to prove it: Best Large Jazz Ensemble and band director’s Steve Wiest’s “Ice-Nine” for Best Composition.

The cooperative trio of Mikkel Ploug, Sissel Vera Pettersen, and Joachim Badenhorst made worldess vocalizing cool again with Equilibrium. Employing unusual instrumentation, electronic distortion, and unearthly noises, Equilibrium is about as far from mood music as one can get. Yet their group conception and musical rapport is so cohesive, they draw listeners in with their surprisingly seductive sounds.

Classical-Jazz crossover ensembles are often well intentioned, but they have trouble with that elusive thing called swing. Not so with the Quartet San Francisco, who interpreted the compositions of Dave Brubeck, particularly his sacred music, with classical discipline and jazz verve on the aptly titled QSF Plays Brubeck.

Louis Sclavis has long been a musician who challenges popular preconceptions of the clarinet. He did so again with Lost on the Way, a thematically unified CD inspired by Homer’s Odyssey. Though darkly hued and somewhat rock influenced, it is a surprisingly intimate and melodically accessible statement from a restless musical spirit.

Though Andy Sheppard has often recorded as a leader in his own right, many listeners think of him primarily as a frequent sideman with Carla Bley’s ensembles. His latest release, Movements in Colour ought to set perceptions straight. Seamlessly integrating the tabla into a modern hard bop context, Sheppard’s Colour never sounds like a gimmicky “jazz meets raga” affair. Instead, it is a powerful set of some strikingly melodic originals.

Although the great British bari player John Surman has experimented with Middle Eastern musical forms and avant-garde explorations, his latest, Brewster’s Rooster, is about as jazz as jazz gets. Also, throwing an occasional change-up on soprano for a refreshing combination of sounds, it is a full-bodied, highly rewarding bop-oriented session.

Someday, the rest of the world will catch on to how remarkable Gianluigi Trovesi’s music truly is. Inspired by Italian banda and operetta music, the richly diverse All’Opera: Profumo di Violetta is highly structured, but it had an infectious swing.

There were dozens of other outstanding jazz CDs that were worthy of critics’ year-end top ten lists. Those I have chosen simply spoke to me in an indefinably subjective way more than others and I will continue to argue that they deserve reach more ears in the years to come. Have a Happy New Year and keep supporting the music.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Pimp vs. Serial Killer: The Chaser

It is like a Korean Dirty Harry, except instead of a jaded police detective chafing under the constraints of liberal lawyers and judges, this tale of extracurricular justice follows a pimp who loses all patience with a legal system that coddles violent predators. Featuring one heck of an anti-hero, Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser (trailer here) opens today in New York, following an out of competition screening at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and a run on IFC’s Festival Direct.

Jung-ho made a radical career change. A former police detective, he now pimps out a stable of prostitutes. Business is off though, because his “employees” keep vanishing. He assumes they have either skipped out on their debts or have been kidnapped by a rival outfit. Unfortunately, he will soon come to understand the truth is something far worse.

After browbeating the ailing single mother Ma-jin into meeting a client, Jung-ho realizes the john’s number matches that given before his other women went missing. Suddenly, she is trapped half-dead in serial killer Young-min’s sinister cell-phone-dead-spot home. However, when events force the psycho path to leave his apartment on some unplanned nefarious business, he has the extreme misfortune of hitting Jung-ho’s car. The pimp takes one look at Young-min’s bloody shirt, punches in the fateful cell number, and the chase is on.

Eventually, Jung-ho catches the killer long enough to lay a colossal smack-down on him, but things go downhill fast when the cops get involve. The prosecutors are more interested in protecting Young-min’s civil rights and covering their backs than finding Ma-jin, which of course entails arresting Jung-ho for beating their suspect (though to be fair, he made a pretty thorough job of it). While Young-min toys with the plodding coppers, Jung-ho is forced to do the police work bureaucrats just won’t do.

As one might expect of a film in which the protagonist is a pimp, Chaser is one dark thriller. Na and production designer Lee Min-bog effectively capture the seediness of Korea’s underground sex economy. While the film moves along at a lightning pace, it offers almost no relief from its gritty fatalism. Fans of the vigilante movie genre should be warned Chaser does not provide the sort of payoff they might expect. In short, this is one tough film.

As Jung-ho, Kim Yoon-suk is truly one bad cat. He has plenty of Dirty Harry in him plus a tad bit of Morgan Freeman’s “Fast Black” from Street Smart for extra added edginess. It is a star making turn. In the creepy antagonist role, Ha Jung-woo (recognizable to MoMA Film patrons as the happy-go-lucky Byung-woon in My Dear Enemy) gets under your skin in just about every way imaginable, while Seo Young-hee brings legitimate pathos to the film as Ma-jin. Chaser also gets a memorable assist from Oh Woo-jung in a smaller but pivotal part as Sung-hee, the tough talking prostitute who initially goads Jung-ho into taking action.

Chaser is a slick, street smart crime film, but it presents an unremittingly dark portrayal of humanity. Just the way to ring in the New Year, I suppose. It opens today (12/30) at the IFC Film Center.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Memphis on Broadway

The lily white Huey Calhoun has his faults, but he is not trying to appropriate the music of Memphis’s rhythm & blues musicians. While plenty of other people in the music business will be only too willing to do so, all Calhoun wants to steal is the heart of Felicia, a Beale Street diva. In late 1950’s-early 1960’s Memphis, that just cannot happen. At least he can love the music in Memphis, a dynamic new book musical now running on Broadway.

Calhoun is one of the few white residents of Memphis who is either gutsy or innocent enough to frequent the African American clubs on Beale Street. While his presence makes club owner Delray understandably uneasy, everyone generally accepts the goofy kid because of his obvious affinity for their music. A big talker, he promises to get Delray’s sister Felicia on a major Memphis radio station. Commandeering the broadcast booth of the station owned by the upright and uptight Mr. Simmons, Calhoun lights up the proverbial phone lines spinning R&B for appreciative white teenagers. Suddenly, Calhoun has a steady job.

For a while, Calhoun actually has it all, including a relationship with Felicia. Yet he just does not understand how things really work in Memphis, whereas Felicia is all too aware of reality. Although their love might be impossible in that specific time and place, their music is sound of the future and it is catchy indeed.

Though the score by David Bryan (best known as a member of Bon Jovi, but also the composer of the Toxic Avenger musical) is a bit more orchestrated and well, Broadway-sounding than the genuine R&B and rock & roll of the period, it really delivers the goods. “Someday,” Felicia’s first hit in the context of the show, really does sound like it could have been a chart-topper, perhaps for Etta James. Ironically, one of the show’s highlight comes from Derrick Baskin as the mostly silent Gator, who blows everyone away with “Say a Prayer,” the riveting first act closer. However, the standout song is arguably Calhoun’s feature, “Memphis Lives in Me.” It is actually a twofer: musically it is a showstopper, but it also explains Calhoun’s character better than any of the previous dialogue. It would not be surprising if the city of Memphis adopted as their unofficial anthem in the near future.

True, Joe DiPietro’s book is not exactly the most original treatment of themes and issues that drive Memphis. Of course, clichés become clichés because they work, and audiences will most likely find themselves charmed by Memphis’s likable and vocally talented leads. Frankly, Chad Kimball’s weird affected, nasally accent does not sound at all like Memphis, but his energy and powerful singing voice more than compensates. Montego Glover takes a star-making turn as Felicia, displaying dramatic poise and powerhouse vocal chops. In supporting roles as Calhoun’s Beale Street friends, Baskin and James Monroe Iglehart also make a strong musical impression.

Memphis boasts far more memorable songs than most of its Broadway competition, which is the ultimate measure of a musical. Slickly produced and tightly paced, Memphis looks great and sounds soulful. Now running at the Shubert Theatre, it is a spirited show, definitely recommended for R&B listeners and book musical patrons.

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Haneke’s White Ribbon

It is 1914 and Archduke Franz Ferdinand is still alive. Yet these cannot be described innocent days for one rural town in northern Germany. A rash of disturbing incidents will mar the community’s deceptive tranquility, well before the impending intervention of great historical events. Of course, far worse atrocities will be committed in Germany in the coming years when the pre-WWI-era children begin to assert themselves in German society. Austrian director Michael Haneke submits that generation of Germans to a rough session of forensic psychoanalysis in his Palme D’Or winning film The White Ribbon (trailer here), Germany’s official submission for this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar, which opens this Wednesday in New York.

The kids are most definitely not alright in Ribbon, but their parents and authority figures are little better. Random acts of cruelty, often targeting children, have been committed by a person or persons unknown. First, the town doctor is seriously injured when his horse stumbles on a trip-wire, leaving the hamlet without his services for succeeding tragedies. Next, a woman dies in the Baron’s barn, perhaps as a result of negligence. Then the Baron’s son is briefly abducted and severely beaten. Yet the townspeople will soon see even worse crimes.

The local schoolteacher starts to form certain suspicions about the culprits that Haneke unsubtly foreshadows throughout the film. However, Ribbon is less concerned with legalistic questions of guilt than the shocking lack of empathy of the villagers, both young and old, creating the environment that gave rise to the strange crimes. In fact, Ribbon refrains from answering some questions (at least not explicitly), which heightens the film’s unsettling effect.

Naturally, Haneke fingers the usually suspects, like the village pastor’s distinctly Calvinistic version of Christianity and Germany’s severely regimented approach to education. However, there are also elements of class resentment at work, as well. The Baron is deeply unpopular within the village and his son, a true child of privilege, is an early victim. It seems like the final remnants of feudalism are breaking down in Ribbon, leaving a vacuum of authority, which of course will eventually be filled by the National Socialists.

Haneke, the director of Funny Games, hardly set out to make another horror film. Still, the gothic atmosphere created by Christian Berger’s black-and-white cinematography is quite eerie. Frankly, Ribbon is far creepier than The Village, M. Night Shyamalan’s tiresome tale of township suspense. However, the most disturbing aspect of Ribbon is the casual cruelty it depicts through some truly cutting dialogue.

Ribbon is more of a work of directorial bravura than an actors’ showcase. Still, Christian Friedel and Leonie Benesch bring welcome sensitivity to the film as the well-intentioned but ineffectual schoolteacher and his innocent young romantic interest, respectively.

Haneke takes a grim, unforgiving look at human nature, finding it distinctly brutal and malevolent in Ribbon. While he would likely argue his vision of humanity applies universally, Ribbon is seems particularly Teutonic in its austerity and chilly reserve. In spite of its predictably caricatured portrayal of religion, it is a well executed film that successfully provokes uncomfortable questions about man’s fundamental nature. It opens Wednesday (12/30) at Film Forum.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Tennessee Williams’s Loss of a Teardrop Diamond

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tennessee Williams was twice nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Of course he had great source material—his own plays, including the perennial classic A Street Car Named Desire. However, Williams had decidedly mixed record with Hollywood. While there were triumphs like Streetcar, there were also duds like the Robert Redford-Natalie Wood vehicle This Property is Condemned, which so disappointed dramatist, he reportedly tried to remove his name from the credits.

There is also the case of The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, an original screenplay written with director Elia Kazan and actress Julie Harris in mind. Though published, Diamond was largely overlooked by Williams scholars until Director Jodie Markell set out to realize it on film. Now over fifty years after it was originally penned, Diamond (trailer here) finally makes it to the big screen this Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles.

Fisher Willow prefers hot jazz to sweet bands. After seeing Paris, Memphis is just too staid and narrow-minded for her. Yet she still intends to do her social duty, in order to satisfy her wealthy Aunt Cornelia. The only eligible escort she can stomach though is Jimmy Dobyne, the dirt-poor grandson of a former governor whose drunken father works on the family estate.

While they initially act like it is all business, it is pretty clear Willow did not pick Dobyne in hopes of developing an innocent friendship. Despite the constant embarrassment of his father, Dobyne is a proud man, who chafes in the role of hired man. He also recognizes Willow’s attraction to him, setting in motion conflicts rooted in both social status and amour—in short: classic Williams territory.

Fisher Willow follows proudly in the tradition of great Tennessee Williams heroines. At times she can rightly be called headstrong, shortsighted, and eccentric. However, she is not a bad person. In fact, Williams grants her a capacity for tremendous empathy that we do not necessarily see from a Blanche du Bois. During a particularly ill-fated society party Willow attends with Dobyne in tow, she does indeed lose one of her Aunt’s teardrop earrings. In what constitute Diamond’s strongest scenes, she also encounters the chronically ill Miss Addie, who recognizes a kindred spirit in Willow and takes the story in a deeper, unexpected direction.

Sometimes Williams’s characters show a self-destructive tendency that can test audiences’ patience. Bryce Dallas Howard avoids such pitfalls, making a convincing reluctant Southern belle, while also nicely bringing out the humanity of Williams’s flawed heroine. Chris Evans does not fare as well, leaving only an impression of tiresome pride and petulance as Dobyne. However, Tony and Academy Award winning actress Ellen Burstyn makes much of the relatively small part of Miss Addie, conveying much that Williams certainly implied but left unsaid.

Presented in an evocative package, Diamond is certainly not Kazan’s Streetcar, but it is hardly Condemned either. Characters like Willow and Miss Addie are well worth meeting, even if those orbiting around them are a bit under-developed. Like many of Williams lesser revived plays, it is an intriguing work with some rich moments that provides further insight into the playwright’s canon. It opens Wednesday (12/30) at the Quad.

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Online Cinema: Crash Test Dummies

In late April of 2004 the European Union was looking forward to its largest expansion since its original constitution. Anyone holding a valid European would soon be able to drive from the Atlantic Ocean to the Baltic Sea. Anyone that is, except the dysfunctional characters of Joerg Kalt’s Crash Test Dummies, which premiered at the 55th Berlin Film Festival and is currently available for free online viewing at Babelgum.com.

While the growth of the EU should facilitate transit between member states, the characters of the pan-European Crash all have transportation issues. Since Romania is not due to be fully integrated until 2007, Ana and Nicolae are technically illegal aliens in Vienna. Desperate for money, they have come to shuttle a hot car back to Romania. The only hitch is it has not been stolen yet, leaving them in a lurch.

As their cash reserve dwindles, the Romanians’ relationship strains to the breaking point. Bitter and separated, they come into contact with an unlikely circle of Austrian misfits. After a minor accident, Ana finds shelter with Jan, a heartbroken security guard at a Tesco-like retailer, who has recently lost his driver’s license. His roommate Martha works as a crash test guinea pig in an auto safety lab. Meanwhile, Nicolae puts the moves on Dana, a friend of a friend of Martha, who ironically works as a travel agent.

Crash is one of hundreds of films to hit the festival circuit in which a large cast of seemingly unrelated characters is connected through a series of accidents and random happenstance. However, Kalt ties the film together better than most, without indulging in any cosmic pretentiousness. While appropriately modest, its conclusion is arguably worth the free hour and a half of online viewing time to get to. Unfortunately, despite Crash’s relatively promising international reception, it will be the director’s final cinematic statement. Tragically, Kalt took his own life six months ago.

While Crash is the sort of film where characters often do frustratingly stupid things, it is anchored by two consistently likable and sympathetic performances from Maria Popistasu and Simon Schwarz as Ana and Jan, respectively. They also have genuinely memorable chemistry in their bittersweet scenes together.

Though several supporting characters are somewhat thinly sketched, the Romanian Popistasu and German Schwarz are present in enough scenes to carry the film. A very European production from a French-born Austrian-based German director, featuring Romanian, German, and halting English dialogue, Crash is an interesting portrait of the little changes wrought by macro developments in the EU. If not spectacular, it is still worth checking out while it is available for free at Babelgum.

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Scenes from Lawrence, MA

It is highly unusual to see a Catholic priest positively portrayed in a documentary film these days. However, if ever there was a media-friendly Father, it would be the Harvard-educated Paul O’Brien. Yet, his Saint Patrick’s Parish in Lawrence, Massachusetts seems a world away from the Ivy League in James Rutenbeck’s Scenes of a Parish (trailer here), which airs on PBS’s Independent Lens this coming Tuesday in most markets.

Poverty has become the defining characteristic of Lawrence. Briefly the home of poet Robert Frost, the industrial city’s population was long dominated by working-class Irish and ethnic Europeans. In recent years, a new wave of Hispanic immigration has radically altered Lawrence’s demographics. To reach out to his new parishioners, Father O’Brien began holding bilingual masses—a development that does not sit well with some of the flock. (Perhaps he should ask for special dispensation to return to the Latin mass. That way everyone would be on an equally confused footing.)

We meet several of the good people of Lawrence, MA, and by-and-large, they are good people. Many are involved in St. Patrick’s various Catholic charities, extending a helping hand to their less fortunate neighbors. Indeed, the culmination of their efforts is the construction of the Cor Unum Meal Center to feed the city’s needy. It is a laudable private effort spearheaded by the outspoken priest, with the occasional fundraising assistance of his Harvard classmate, Conan O’Brian.

Father O’Brien certainly emerges as a strong personality in Scenes. Unfortunately, this is not always the case with his parishioners, who drift in and out of the film without Rutenbeck firmly establishing a sense of their personality. The most notable exception is Sarah McCord, a bright prospective college student, whose relationship with her developmentally challenged brother forms the film’s most memorable subplot. Rutenbeck clearly plays political favorites too, casting those who object to bilingual masses in the worst possible light, while never asking why economic conditions are so depressed in Lawrence in comparison to more affluent cities of comparable size across the country.

There are quite inspiring works of selfless giving documented in Scenes, as well as some rather shallow social commentary. Though the opening of Cor Unum functions as a de facto climax, Scenes lacks a strong dramatic arc. It is an effective commercial for the power of private charitable enterprises, which is not without value. Ultimately though, Scenes is all too aptly named, playing like an extended News Hour report on poverty. It airs on most PBS affiliates this Tuesday (12/29), including New York’s Thirteen (at 10:00 PM EST).

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Grammy Nominated UNT One O’Clock Lab Band

Imagine receiving a Grammy Award nomination for a class project. For the musicians of the University of North Texas Jazz Studies Division’s One O’Clock Lab Band, it is a reality, not a fantasy. Of course, their latest Grammy nominated CD, Lab 20009, is more than a mere classroom assignment. It is a fully realized musical statement from one of the best known student ensembles in the country.

North Texas might sound like dry country for jazz, but hip listeners know the Denton-based school was the first American institution of higher learning to offer a degree in jazz studies. While UNT Jazz has several highly regarded touring ensembles, auditions for the One O’Clock Lab Band are generally considered the most competitive. So named for its meeting time, the One O’Clock has been regularly recording professionally produced albums every year since 1967, racking up four Grammy nods prior to Lab 2009. This year, the One O’Clock is in contention for Best Large Jazz Ensemble and their director, trombonist Steve Wiest (previously a Best Instrumental Arrangement nominee), also returns to the Grammy ballot with a Best Instrumental Composition nomination.

The One O’Clock starts cooking right from the get-go with “Sno’ Peas,” a Phil Markowitz composition best known from a rendition on Affinity, pianist Bill Evans collaboration with harmonica great Toots Thielemans. The UNT band nicely maintains the lilting swing of the original, suavely blending cool and hot, starting with Ben Haugland’s Evans-inspired solo, then segueing into some tenor heat from Sylvester Onyejiaka and some remarkably articulate trombone phrases from Luke Brimhall (which surely made his band director proud).

“Dark Matters,” composed by lead trombonist Dave Richards as a tribute to former band director Neil Slater, takes some intriguing twists and turns, while giving space for trumpeter Clynt Yerkes and tenor Brian Clancy to take flight. Indeed, Slater still remains an important figure for the band, contributing two new compositions to the band’s book, “Another Other” and “Time Sensitive.”

Though the Grammy winners will not be revealed until January 31st, Lab 2009 already boasts one award with Kevin Swaim’s arrangement of Neil Hefti’s “Li’l Darlin,’” the co-winner of Downbeat magazine’s 2009 Student Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement, which dramatically showcases the eloquent alto of Sam Reid. Though Wiest’s roots are in the Maynard Ferguson band and historically UNT’s strongest institutional ties were to the Stan Kenton Orchestra, the One O’Clock sounds right at home in Count Basie-Neil Hefti territory.

Dave Richards’s inventive arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s “Here Comes McBride” takes on a cool, bluesy sound from Chris Mike’s baritone saxophone and Ryan Hagler’s bass. A serious groover that won over the composer when he visited Denton, it is a real highlight of Lab 2009 (and check out that sly “Here Comes the Bride” quote as a fitting conclusion).

When he has free time, which between his work with the One O’Clock and his own projects as a leader is just about never these days, Wiest has been known to enjoy classic science fiction and fantasy. Inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, his Grammy nominated “Ice-Nine” is a pyrotechnic set closer that features powerful solos from Onyejiaka and Birmhall in a dynamic jazz-rock context.

One of the joys of the late lamented International Association of Jazz Educators annual conference was the opportunity it offered to hear student ensembles like the One O’Clock Lab Band performing live. It gave one hope for jazz to hear the promise of the next generation of musical talent. Sadly, IAJE’s leadership ran the organization into the ground, but ensembles like the One O’Clock are still going strong. In a way, listening to emerging talent on Lab 2009 is a good approximation of the IAJE experience, as the remarkable level of the band’s musicianship definitely portends good things for the future. Warmly recommended (especially to Grammy voters) Lab 2009 is available for sale direct from UNT.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Best of 2009 On-Stage

You either saw them or you didn’t. Tremendous passion and effort went into scores of independent theater productions that had limited runs and now live on only as memories with those fortunate enough to see them. Such is the nature of theater. The following is this year’s list of the top ten straight plays, musicals, and one-person shows that scratched their way onto the New York boards outside of the proper Broadway theaters and big, just barely off-Broadway venues (while reluctantly excluding some very entertaining dance reviews that did not really have a dramatic component per se).

The Godlight Theatre Company’s thoroughly impressive production of George Orwell’s 1984 was completely engrossing for someone quite familiar with the prophetic novel, yet should have been accessible for audiences walking in cold. Inventively staged with the Orwell estate’s blessing in the 59E59’s intimate Theater C, it was a riveting show, particularly timely in these Orwellian times.

Often, the absence of a dramatic foil gives solo theater a distinctly stagey vibe. Not so in the case of Haerry Kim’s Face, mounted during the terraNOVA Collective’s soloNOVA festival. Based on first-person accounts of Korean so-called comfort women brutalized by the Japanese military during WWII, Kim gave an absolutely riveting performance. It was a viscerally intense theater that still managed to find a small measure of inspiration in her character’s resilience.

Can a Fringe show actually crack the top ten? If it cleverly integrates Edgar Allan Poe’s final poem “Annabel Lee” with his classic short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” in an original book musical, then the answer is sure, why not? Indeed, Fall of the House of Usher was a smartly conceived mélange of the Poe canon, featuring some surprisingly memorable songs.

In a fresh twist on the Great American Songbook, jazz vocalist Stevie Holland performed Cole Porter’s timeless standards in persona of his wife Linda, in Love, Linda, an elegant hybrid of solo theater, cabaret, and jazz. Dramatically, she gave Mrs. Porter her due and vocally she demonstrated a real affinity for Mr. Porter’s sophisticated lyrics and catchy melodies.

Though Mrs. Warren’s Profession has been one of George Bernard Shaw’s most revived plays, as it turned out, we did indeed need another production. That is because leads Joy Franz and Carolyn Kozlowski dug into Shaw’s cutting dialogue with absolute conviction. The result was a night of theater that felt surprisingly modern, bringing to mind the work of Neil LaBute.

Kung Fu Blaxplloitation on-stage? Bring it on. Qui Nguyen’s Soul Samurai had attitude to burn and a killer charismatic lead performance from Maureen Sebastian that delivered a tasty blend of humor and violence.

Transparently based on the life of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, the Oscar winning actor and survivor of the Marxist Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields, Henry Ong’s Sweet Karma was a fascinating meditation on the emotional and Karmic costs involved in surviving such horrifying madness. Tight and compelling despite its fracturing narrative, Karma offered a few big picture surprises and a moving lead performance from JoJo Gonzalez.

Not produced in New York since its 1922 Broadway premiere, The Tidings Brought to Mary was the first of three planned revivals of French Catholic playwright Paul Claudel’s work from the Blackfriars Repertory. Dealing with themes of forgiveness and sacrifice in the starkest of terms, it was an unusually meaty and demanding production.

Brilliantly re-imagining Karel Čapek’s R.U.R, Mac Rogers’s Universal Robots also packed a devastating emotional punch thanks to a talented cast. A cautionary tale of both technology and ideology running amok, Universal was a heady brew of science fiction and philosophical-ethical questions.

One of the best staged genre productions of the year, Eric Sanders’s adaption of Algernon Blackwood’s The Wendigo was a cool little production for those who enjoy a good supernatural yarn, but prefer the suggestive to the graphic.

It is amazing how many theaters there are in the City. Sure, there is a lot of dubious work being produced, but there are real gems constantly running somewhere in town. It is definitely worth taking a few chances to see something truly rewarding.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Ten Best Theatrical Films of 2009

An awful lot of films come through New York’s theaters, but most did not stick around for long. It is a pity many of the best films this year did not have more time to build word-of-mouth, but there is always the second life of DVD and emerging online delivery systems. What follows is a list of the top ten films conventionally released in New York theaters over the past year, in alpha order.

It was a good year for Japanese cinema, represented with three films on this list and the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for Yojiro Takita’s Departures. Though a film dominated by Japanese funereal rituals might sound depressing, Departures is quite the opposite. It is ultimately life-affirming and hopeful film in which every element works together in beautiful harmony.

Even if you are a heretic who never adored the Broadway musical A Chorus Line (like me), after watching James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo’s Every Little Step, a behind-the-scenes film about the original 1975 production and the 2006 revival, you will share a genuine new affection for the long-running show. It is a special documentary that actually serves the much loved musical better than the 1985 film adaptation.

Oliver Hirschbiegel’s brutally honest Five Minutes of Heaven is not about forgiveness and it is not about redemption. With an unusually well written screenplay in which each word is carefully chosen, Heaven eschews cheap “Oprah moments,” instead illustrating how one act of violence can cause guilt and suffering that relentlessly compounds year after year.

Although Yoji Yamada’s Kabei: Our Mother certainly portrays the courage and dedication of a mother, it is a far-cry from a Hallmark card. Indeed, it is an eye-opening account of life for dissenters under World War II Japan, directed with graceful sensitivity by Yamada, one of Japan’s master filmmakers best known for the Tora-san series.

Andrzej Wajda’s Katyń may not be the illustrious director’s greatest film, but it is his most personal, exposing the Soviet massacre of 15,000 Polish prisoners of war (which included Wajda’s father). It is a searing depiction of mass murder that gives the audience no place to hide.

For fans of smart sci-fi, Duncan Jones delivered with Moon a moody, tightly directed thinking person’s genre picture. While the effects were quite effective, Sam Rockwell’s remarkable performance really sells Moon’s premise, wringing authentic pathos out of his complicated situation.

Perhaps it was not the most edifying film of the year, but it is hard to imagine a more cheerfully tasteless good time at the movies than Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood. This affectionate tribute to low budget sex and gore Ozploitation fare will not be to everyone’s tastes, but if you enjoy watching giant razorback hogs chasing half naked teenagers across the outback, you will heartily enjoy NQH’s merits.

Considering it is driven by conceptual ideas and dialogue, Slava Tsukerman’s Perestroika is surprisingly fast-paced and engaging. A former refusenik who eventually immigrated to New York, Tsukerman brings considerable insight to bear on the post-Glasnost Russian experience, as well as more cosmological questions in a dizzyingly intellectual film.

Deceptively subtle, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking has a quiet power that lingers in the consciousness long after its initial screening. It is a painful realistic look at family dysfunction, where characters never really “have it out.” They just carry on as best they can.

This might be a bold statement, but here it is: So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain features the greatest screen performance by a child actor, period. Utterly convincing and completely unaffected, Hee Jeon Kim is simply heartrending as an older sister forced by circumstances to grow up far too soon.

As usual, the leading Oscar contenders are a mediocre lot, but there were a good number of rewarding films that found their way into City theaters this year. While these ten may not have lit up the box office, they are excellent films that deserve to reach a wider audience over time. Here’s to happy screenings in 2010.

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An Animated Joy: Sita Sings the Blues

Dumping someone over e-mail—how lame is that is? Self-taught animator Nina Paley found out first-hand, when her jerk of a former partner ended their relationship after accepting a supposedly temp gig in India. At least the experience provided the seeds of inspiration for her debut feature, Sita Sings the Blues (trailer here), which finally receives a legitimate New York theatrical run after wowing the festival circuit and experimenting with online distribution methods.

The life of Rama deeply inspired the Muslim-born Hindi poet Kabir, whose work has been stirringly set to music by the ecstatic Sufi Qawwal singers. Following in that tradition, Paley enlists the voice of Annette Hanshaw, a popular vocalist of the 1920’s and early 1930’s often backed by top band-leaders like Benny Goodman and the Dorsey Brothers, to tell the story of Rama’s long-suffering wife Sita. Though she retired early, her playful, bluesy style and her impish sign-off, “that’s all,” have maintained Hanshaw’s cult-following over the decades. Her songs of flirtation and heartache now give voice to Sita, who despite being the Earthly incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi, was still done grievously wrong by her man.

Blues retells the parts of the Ramayana (the great Sanskrit epic) that pertain to Sita, from her perspective. She willingly follows her husband into exile when his father is forced to banish him. Their time in the literal wilderness is actually quite happy, until the fateful day King Ravana of Lanka is manipulated into kidnapping her. As we see Rama and Sita devastated by their rough separation, we also witness the contemporary parallel story of Nina and her husband Dave. She also finds the considerable distance between them quite troubling, but for him—not so much. The stressful time spent apart would ultimately undo both couples.

Paley frequently switches gears visually, employing a wide variety of animation styles for each portion of her narrative. Sita and Rama come to life both as ornate figures inspired by Indian classical painting and more whimsical cartoons for Hanshaw’s musical interludes. Nina and Dave are simpler—not quite Terrance and Phillip of South Park, but nowhere near as sophisticated as the various Sitas and Ramas. Giving it all structure and context for western audiences are Paley’s narrator friends, represented in stylized silhouettes. While their improvised commentary might confuse as much as it illuminates, Paley’s accompanying animation is frequently hilarious, even approaching brilliant.

Paley’s film is chocked full of clever bits of business and some sharp dialogue. However, its finest moments come when marrying the music of Hanshaw with the ancient, exotic tragedy of Sita—her rendition of “Mean to Me” being a particularly apt standout. Indeed, the blues are truly universal.

Though it has a very grown-up sensibility, aside from the occasional cursing, it is by-and-large appropriate for audiences of all ages. Absolutely charming and consistently inventive, Blues is far superior to anything released by Disney, Dreamworks, or Pixar in recent years. As a free content advocate, Paley has Blues available for free on several online sites, but it deserves a big screen and an undivided attention. Probably the most genuinely entertaining animated film of the decade, it opens appropriately enough on Christmas Day at the IFC Film Center.

(Images: www.SitaSingstheBlues.com)

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Romanian Oscar Contender: Police, Adjective

Sometimes police work is dangerous, but it also has plenty of mundane drudgery, like stakeouts and paperwork. There are plenty of both in Romania’s latest submission for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award. An intellectual police procedural encompassing questions of conscience and semantics, Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (trailer here), opens this Wednesday in New York.

Alex is just a dumb kid, who made a few mistakes. At least that is what Cristi thinks. Unfortunately, an anonymous informer phoned in a highly suspicious tip that Alex was dealing. Assigned to the case, Cristi is under pressure to bust the high school student in a sting operation. Reluctant to ruin the kid’s life for what he considers a minor offense, Cristi has been avoiding his commander through long stakeouts of his target.

If anyone is pushing, Cristi suspects it is another member of Alex’s circle, which is the direction he would like to take his investigation. However, he will need support to convince the strict Captain Anghelache. Naturally, it proves challenging to persuade his fellow civil servants not to take the path of least resistance.

Cristi might have a beastly boss, but at least he comes home to Anca, his understanding wife. Strangely though, both have a habit of correcting his grammar. While it is just a quirky couple thing with Anca, semantics take on tremendous significance when Cristi presents his report to Anghelache (in a scene that also supplies the film’s odd sounding title).

Distinctly paced by Porumboiu (previously in American theaters with 12:08 East of Bucharest), the first two thirds of Adjective largely capture the long slow rhythms of the stakeout experience, only to then shift gears, culminating with a viscerally uncomfortable, almost surreal verbal confrontation. Without question, this is a film that requires active concentration. It will absolutely madden ADD viewers accustomed to regular on-screen explosions. However, those who can adapt to the initially languid tempo will find it a strangely memorable viewing experience.

Everyone in Adjective looks believably unremarkable and everything looks thoroughly crummy. It is an utterly realistic world where the police feel compelled to lock their office doors when they leave. Dragos Bucur makes a convincing and relatively sympathetic everyman protagonist, wrestling with the ethical dilemmas and bureaucratic realities of the job. Likewise, Vlad Ivanov (best known as the abortionist in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days) is aptly intimidating as the feared Anghelache, while Ion Stocia provides very modest comedic relief as Cristi’s not particularly helpful partner Nelu. Indeed, they all seem like cops in a completely unromantic and un-heroic way.

Scores of great movies have used the issue of morally problematic orders as key dramatic devices. However, Romanian filmmakers have only been able to tackle such storylines in the last twenty years—for obvious reasons (namely the 1989 Revolution). Additionally, it is only with the emergence of the so-called Romanian New Wave, which includes figures like Porumbiou, Mungiu, and Cristi Puiu (director of the internationally acclaimed Death of Mr. Lazarescu), that Romanian cinema could embrace such a gritty, naturalistic depiction of a conflict between law and morality, even putting the film into Oscar contention.

With its truly original story arc and fascination with language, Adjective is unlike any other film released this year. Though very demanding, it is recommended for smart audiences who want to see something different at the movies. It opens Wednesday (12/23) at the IFC Film Center.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

60th Anniversary: The Third Man

This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of zither-mania. While that might be a slight overstatement, Anton Karas’s zither theme became an unlikely international hit after the release of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (trailer here), which is currently enjoying a special anniversary revival run at Film Forum with a new 35m print.

Indeed, Karas’s unaccompanied zither music is perfectly suited to Third Man’s post-war Vienna, where the city’s faded old world glory can still be seen beneath the wreckage and rubble left in the wake of WWII. As Reed’s introductory narration shrewdly explains, the Austrian capitol is now an occupied city, whose administration is divided between the Allied forces. By necessity, nearly everyone is involved with the black market, but some are better at working the rackets than others.

Into this noir world enters Holly Martins, a down on his luck dime novelist expecting to find work with his childhood chum, Harry Lime. Unfortunately, when he arrives in Vienna, he discovers Lime is dead, the apparent victim of an auto accident. To make matters worse, Major Calloway, the top British MP for the zone, is not interested in pursuing the case. He claims Lime was just another racketeer, whose death probably leaves the world a better place. Still, Martins finds at least one potential ally in the inhospitable city: Lime’s lover, Anna Schmidt.

Schmidt is really Czechoslovakian, but fearing repatriation under the Soviets, she presents herself as an Austrian with forged papers Lime acquired. Indeed, Third Man compelling evokes the environment of occupied Austria, where the Soviet authorities are obviously more interested in rounding up nationals of their subjugated states than cracking down on the racketeering ring openly operating in their zone.

Adapted by Graham Greene from his own novella, Third Man is one of three true masterpieces of British Film Noir directed by Reed (along with Fallen Idol and Odd Man Out, which Film Forum also revived earlier in the year). With cinematographer Robert Krasker, he presents viewers with one strikingly off-kilter visual after another. Ironically, many presumed Third Man to be the work of Reed’s co-star Orson Welles, especially given the presence of the Mercury Theatre’s Joseph Cotton in the lead. Yet, Welles steadfastly maintained his contributions were limited to acting, as well as a few memorable improvised lines.

Welles is absolutely perfect as the title character, exploiting his larger-than-life screen presence to make a role relatively small in terms of actual camera time seem much larger. As Martins, Cotton masterfully expresses that earnest Middle American naiveté and resourcefulness in the face of jaded cynicism and corruption. Though Trevor Howard’s Major Calloway is a bit of a stock figure, it is an excellent example of how a great actor can infuse character into a stereotypical role.

A masterwork of light and shadow, Third Man is a film that always deserves a big screen revival. From the Ferris wheel to the underground sewers, it takes viewers on a brilliantly expressionistic tour of a formerly grand city that had become physically scarred and morally compromised. It runs at Film Forum through Tuesday, December 29th.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

NMAI: Necessities of Life

For one Inuit man, Canada’s vaunted free healthcare becomes a truly soul-deadening experience. While Benoît Pilon’s Necessities of Life (trailer here) made the Academy Awards’ January 2009 shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film, it fell short of a final nomination. However, it has still reached an American audience through IFC’s Festival Direct and special screenings, like this week’s “At the Movies” program at the National Museum of the American Indian in Lower Manhattan.

In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, a tuberculosis epidemic swept through Northern Inuit territory. After a few years of dithering, the Canadian government starting screening the Inuit population and whisking away those who had contracted the disease to hospitals in the south. Such is the fate that befalls Tivii, who suddenly finds himself in a Quebec City sanatorium, away from his wife, daughters, and the only life he has ever known.

If anything, Tivii’s emotional state is making his physical condition worse. He constantly worries how his family will get by without him there to hunt game. He is unaccustomed to southern customs, and with no other Inuit speakers in the institution, communication is impossible. One night, the spiritually dying Inuit makes a break for it, but is eventually found in even worse health than before he left. However, when the compassionate Nurse Carole arranges the transfer of a bi-lingual Inuit orphan to the sanitarium, Tivii’s outlook improves. More than just facilitating communication, the young Kaki becomes someone for Tivii to take care of, which gives him motivation to live.

In truth, sneaking out was hardly a challenge, because Tivii’s hospital is nothing like a prison. It is just different from the way of life he has always known. Granted, the Canadian government’s practices might seem problematic to us earnest multiculturalists, but people of good will have to make the best of bad situations. Refreshingly, Necessities refrains from simplistic characterizations, wherein all Inuit are noble and all whites are evil. In addition to his understanding nurse, Tivii’s French-speaking ward-mate Joseph also tries to reach out and encourage him. In fact, one of the film’s most sympathetic characters is a white Catholic priest (“mon Dieu,” indeed).

It might sound like a joke to say Natar Ungalaaq is one of the most recognizable Inuit actors working in film today, but it happens to be true. In addition to garnering considerable acclaim for his work in the art-house hit The Fast Runner, he has appeared in many high-profile Canadian television productions. He brings a compelling screen presence to Necessities, investing the ailing Tivii with genuine dignity and humanity. Likewise, the sensitive supporting performances, most notably Eveline Gélinas and Denis Bernard as the good nurse and Father, respectively, make Necessities a film of gentle human drama rather than angry political statements.

Quiet and thoughtful, Necessities is a small movie with heart. Well worth checking out, it screens again this afternoon at NMAI and it will be available on Festival Direct through February 9th.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Fight Fest: Last Life

The world has ended. Sounds like reason enough for a fight. Though the cause of the apocalypse remains murky, there seem to be a lot of people holding grudges anyway in Last Life, the co-creation of director and Fight Fest curator Timothy Haskell in collaboration with playwright Eric Sanders, now running as part of the Brick Theater’s celebration of the art of theatrical fight choreography.

Somewhere in what was once vaguely suburban America, six individuals will fight to the death. A father blames a former fitness guru for the death of his daughter. He in turn blames the nearby power plant for the destruction of the world as we know it. SkinFace just wants to eat people. None of this really makes any sense, but hey, it’s game on.

Last boasts some of strongest, most convincing fight sequences of the festival. Choreographed by Rod Kinter, resident fight director of the New York City Opera and the Pearl Theatre Company, they have a gritty realism distinct from the more outrageous cartoon mayhem of other Fight Fest shows.

Kinter and Haskell also had the advantage of a cast well familiar with the demands of martial arts. As the questionable protagonist Vadir, Taimak Guarriello, the star of the Berry Gordy produced cult hit The Last Dragon, brings fan credibility and stage fighting experience to the production. Amongst Vadir’s tormentors, experienced stage martial artists and dancers Soomi Kim and Jo-Anne Lee offer their considerable skills as the not-so loving sisters, Urir and Fenrir, respectively. Kim also notably conceived and starred in Lee/Gendary, the adventurous NY Innovative Theater Award winner for best production, inspired by the life and films of Bruce Lee.

While Last certainly has its eccentric elements, as when Haskell frequently steps onto the set Rod Serling-like to apply liberal amounts of stage blood, the production does not have the same joyously zany spirit displayed by other Fight Fest shows. In fact, it is quite dark and pessimistic in its vision of humanity.

Fight Fest is all about fighting, which is indeed quite impressive in Last. However, those who want laughter with their combat will find Ninja Cherry Orchard far more to their satisfaction. Last concludes its Fight Fest run tomorrow (12/19). While the festival proper ends this Sunday (12/20), Ninja will continue with post-fest performances in January.

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The Best Festival Films of 2009

New Yorkers are fortunate to have so many festivals offering the chance to see many distinctive films from around the world. When fate smiles, the right people attend the right screenings and eventually offer a select handful of festival films legitimate theatrical distribution. The following list is the top ten films that played New York Film Festivals, but have yet to be distributed conventionally, in alpha order.

Equal parts speculative fiction and magical realism, Kanji Nakajima’s The Clone Returns Home was easily the finest genre film to play any New York Festival. Screened by the Imagine Science Film Festival, was a surprisingly metaphysical selection for the fest, but a challenging and deeply moving film.

Happily Conor McPherson’s The Eclipse has a shock at making next year’s list of top ten theatrical releases, having been picked up by Magnolia after its successful Tribeca screenings. While it delivers some truly eerie chills befitting an Irish ghost story, it is really a moving meditation on how closely grief and love can intertwine and reinforce each other, featuring a tour de force performance from Ciarán Hinds.

If I fell I love with anyone at a festival screening this year, it was Zhou Xun as cab driver Li-Mi in Cao Baoping’s awkwardly titled Equation of Love and Death, which screened during the New York Asian Film Festival. Though the beautiful actress was glammed down for the hardboiled but vulnerable character, her uncannily expressive eyes owned the film.

Russian cinema still seems to be coming to terms with the Stalinist era, producing some surprisingly honest films, including Rustem Abdrashev’s The Gift to Stalin, which screened during both the New York Jewish Film Festival and Russian Film Week this year. Gift is an unabashedly sentimental story of sacrifice and thanksgiving that honestly earns its emotional pay-off. Also to its credit, the film does not whitewash the realities of life under Stalinism, particularly regarding ethnic minorities banished to the Eurasian republics.

One should not lightly compare directorial debut features to John Cassavetes’s ground-breaking independent films, but Damien Chazelle’s Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench truly has a similarly uncomfortably intimate style and gritty black & white look, accompanied by a cool jazz soundtrack featuring co-stars Jason Palmer and Andre Hayward. Its swinging music helps relieve the tension of its closely observed drama, preserving a sense of life’s freshness that really distinguished Bench from the indie pack at Tribeca.

Seen during New York DocuWeeks, N.C. Heiken’s extraordinary documentary Kimjongilia recorded harrowing first-person accounts of North Korea’s nightmarish concentration camps, acting as a needed corrective to western naivety regarding the rogue regime. It is also presented in a remarkably classy package, with classical music and vignettes of interpretive dance enhancing the emotional impact of the survivors’ testimony.

Gao Qunshu’s unconventional police procedural Old Fish, another selection of the NYAFF, hardly idealized the Harbin police department, showing all the inglorious corruption and bureaucracy. De-emphasizing the traditional elements of the crime thriller, its drama and tension derive entirely from character, particularly its laconic veteran protagonist, memorably played by Ma Guowei, himself a former police officer.

What started as a reasonably interesting survey of Tibetan song became a riveting examination of the occupied nation when exiled Tibetan director Ngawang Choephel was imprisoned while filming Tibet in Song, a selection of the 2009 Asian American International Film Festival. Though it all too obviously illustrates the unpredictable nature of nonfiction filmmaking, Ngawang clearly illustrates the Communist government’s chillingly Orwellian campaign to obliterate one of the world’s oldest cultures.

Seven Minutes in Heaven, Omri Givon’s powerful drama of the aftermath of a Palestinian terrorist atttack starts as a survivor’s search for cathartic closure but delivers audiences a metaphysical curve ball in its third act. Challenging but deeply affecting, Heaven was Tribeca selection that made a return appearance at the 2009 Israel Film Festival.

Stalin’s demise in 1953 should have been reason enough for celebration, but it leads to further suffering at the hands of the Soviets in Horaţiu Mălăele’s Silent Wedding, which premiered at the 2009 Romanian Film Festival. Deftly juggling flashbacks, magical realism, political allegory, low comedy and high tragedy, Wedding hits a lot of notes without ever causing a whiplash effect.

There were many films on the New York festival circuit this year. It would be nice to see many of them proceed to an extended theatrical life, particularly the ten films listed above.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Movie Musical: Nine

1960’s Rome really was “La Dolce Vita.” Indeed, fast cars, beautiful women, and glamorous parties constantly distract a celebrated director who bears a conspicuous resemblance to Federico Fellini’s alter-ego in his 1963 masterpiece . Like Fellini’s Guido Anselmo, the Italian auteur Guido Contini suffers from a persistent writer’s block that directly contributes to his impending breakdown in Nine (trailer here), Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Maury Yeston’s Broadway stage musical opening tomorrow in New York.

Fellini’s title, , referred to its numerical place in his filmography when counting his previous shorts and collaborations as halves, which the stage musical simply rounded up to Nine. However, unlike the enormously influential Fellini, whose previous stand alone film was the widely acclaimed La Dolce Vita, Contini is coming off two so-called flops as the film opens.

Contini might have a vague concept for the next film he is about to start shooting, but he does not have anything remotely resembling a script. While his cast and crew recognize his genius, their patience has its limits. Contini has always drawn inspiration from the women who loved him, including his late mother, whose imagined spirit is still a presence in his life. Yet, it appears the well has run dry for the director. Now in addition to sabotaging his marriage with serial philandering, the director also faces the very real possibility of professional disaster as well.

A veritably star-studded cast plays Contini’s muses, including some actresses not known for their vocal chops. Happily, they mostly fare reasonably well in the film’s musical numbers under Marshall’s guidance. Particularly notable is a still stunning Sophia Loren (the classic face of Italian cinema whom Fellini once tried to cast in a film he ultimately never made) as Mamma Contini. She acquits herself with genuine grace in her musical feature, “Guarda La Luna,” and her striking entrance during the opening number ought to generate affectionate applause in theaters.

Amongst Contini’s love interests, Marion Cotillard is truly the class of the picture as his long-suffering wife, Luisa. Sensitive but sultry, it is difficult even for Contini to understand why he cheats on her. However, on the other end of the spectrum, Kate Hudson is a near disaster as an American Vogue reporter who tempts the filmmaker’s wandering eye. Her highly-glossed, over-produced “Cinema Italiano” feels more like bad 1980’s MTV than sophisticated musical theater.

In between the extremes, Dame Judi Dench does not especially distinguish herself musically, but brings seasoned character to the film as Lilli, Contini’s shrewd costume designer and surrogate mother-figure. Conversely, Nicole Kidman never really has a chance to flesh out the role of Claudia Jenssen, a bombshell actress transparently inspired by Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, but she delivers the film’s standout vocal performance with “Unusual Way.” While Penelope Cruz’s scenes as Contini’s unstable mistress Carla are a bit over the top, there is no denying she brings a sex appeal appropriate to the film’s spirit.

As Contini, a character based on Marcello Mastroianni’s protagonist, originated on-stage by Raul Julia, and revived in 2003 by Antonio Banderas, Daniel Day-Lewis holds the impressionistic film’s fractured narrative together fairly well. However, Marshall’s technique of setting the song-and-dance interludes in a quasi-fantasy setting (in this case the unused set of Contini’s ill-fated production) worked much better in his Oscar-winning Chicago. Yet, the greatest advantage of his previous movie musical adaptation was a far more distinctive and catchier Kander and Ebb score.

Clearly, Marshall is enamored with the hip style of swinging sixties Italy, and indeed, what’s not to like? It reaches such an extent though, that Nine sometimes feels more like a tribute to Italian elegance than a dramatically satisfying story. Still, it offers plenty of entertaining flash and dazzle. In fact, though the film is never really risqué, John DeLuca’s choreography has a certain sauciness that should make it more appealing to young male viewers than most movie musicals. For true film-lovers though, its greatest joys are the showcases it provides for the ever-radiant Loren and another compelling star turn from Cotillard. It opens tomorrow (12/18) at the Clearview Ziegfeld Theatre.

(Photo: David James © 2009 The Weinstein Co.)

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

If the Rains Come

If the Rains Come First
By Somi
ObliqSound


In the 1960’s and 1970’s South African exiles trumpeter Hugh Masekela and vocalist Miriam Makeba were cause célèbres as a result of their political struggles, but they became international superstars for their music—an infectious and compelling variant of African pop and folk music influenced by American jazz and soul. Though she would probably demur at the comparison, the emerging vocalist Somi can be seen as a direct heir to Makeba, combining stylistic elements nu-jazz and nu-soul with African musical forms and themes on her latest CD, If the Rains Come First, which fittingly also features a guest appearance by Masekela, Makeba’s frequent musical partner.

Somi’s voice has a warm breathiness well suited to the smoldering soul of “Hot Blue,” which opens Rains. It is indeed a hot track, given an insinuating groove by electric bassist (and CD co-producer) Michael Olatuja and drummer Nathaniel Townsley. However, it is on the following “Prayer to the Saint of the Brokenhearted” the African rhythms really emerge through Julian Machet’s dynamic percussion and Senegalese guitarist Herve Samb’s catchy upbeat solo.

Indeed, Masekela sounds in good form lending his burnished horn to “Enganjyani,” taking a brief solo and adding some tasty accents here and there, recalling the great funky work on his Chisa recordings. Another notable guest, American guitarist Liberty Ellman, also brings a distinctive acoustic jazz sensibility to the sweetly melodic “Changing Inspiration.”

There is a Cassandra Wilson-like character to Somi’s songwriting, reflected in lyrics expressing earthly longing as well as a higher spirituality. In particularly, she delivers the evocative lyrics of “Wallflower Blues” with audible feeling, and if you will, soul. However, probably the most dramatic and personal track on Rains is the beautifully simple “Be Careful, Be Kind,” written to convey her family’s sense of loss following the accidental death of a young cousin.

Likewise, “Jewel of His Soul” is another poignant example of Somi’s life informing her music. Inspired by a chance encounter with a homeless Senegalese man in Paris, it is a delicate ode to humanity, featuring the sympathetic support of jazz pianist-keyboard player Toru Dodo, who takes a brief but pleasing solo turn on the standout track.

American born to Rwandan and Ugandan parents, Somi has lived in Zambian and is no stranger to the European music scene. Her musical world citizenship comes through clearly on Rains, which should well satisfy a broad cross-section of contemporary jazz, nu-soul, and world music listeners.

(Photo credit: Matthew Furman)

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Brazil in Revolt: Carnal Utopia

Regardless how revolutionary the ideology might be, free love is never free. One Leftist university professor learns as much trying to keep his mistress sheltered while simultaneously stoking their radical fervor against Brazil’s military regime. Indeed, passion and revolution are closely linked in Marcelo Santiago’s politically charged 1970’s period drama, Carnal Utopia (trailer here), now available on DVD.

After years of preaching revolution from the classroom, an academic finally joins the armed struggle in earnest. Though he has to leave campus in a hurry, he takes along the coed who has fallen under his sway. Instead of a love-nest, they set up a cell. Yet the professor, now known as Saulo, uses it as a gilded cage to keep his lover, henceforth called Cristiana, isolated and emotionally dependent. However, following a violent action, Saulo is forced to bring home a wounded comrade for Christiana to nurse back to health. As a strange added complication, their underground organization’s strict security policies require the wounded man wear his hooded mask whenever Cristiana is present.

Much to Saulo’s unfathomable surprise, Cristiana is fascinated by the newcomer. He is after all, a mystery man wearing a kinky mask who has just proved his commitment to revolution in a violent action, having given up his life as an elite ballet dancer. Yes, Saulo is a clueless former academic.

Utopia is clearly packaged to emphasize the naughty bits, but anyone coming to the film expecting late-night pay cable fare will probably find it disappointingly arty and plot-driven. Granted, Santiago most definitely sexualizes political violence, but not with overly prurient intentions. In fact, Utopia is as much about the claustrophobic, hot house dynamic of their cell, (briefly expanded to four when Saulo ill-advisedly takes in another comrade gone somewhat loopy.)

Indeed, at times character motivation unfortunately borders on the dubious, as their jealousies and rivalries fester. Yes, these are extreme ideologues, but they ought to have some measure of common sense. Still, the film is quite well put-together beginning with a striking opening montage and continuing throughout with cinematographer Dudu Miranda’s effective alternating use of color and stylized black-and-white film. It also sounds great thanks to the original score composed by Wagner Tiso, a veteran figure on the Brazilian jazz and pop scenes, as well as several songs from his frequent collaborator Milton Nascimento, which are probably especially evocative of the historical era for Utopia’s Brazilian audiences.

Felipe Camargo blusters and pontificates rather convincingly as the unsympathetic Saulo. To his credit, Sérgio Marone makes a rather decent impression in the film, considering he spends most of the film with a burlap sack on his head. Mel Lisboa’s Cristiana is hard to get a handle on though—is she a true militant or naïve student seduced by her professor? It is hard to determine based on the evidence of the film.

Santiago, (associate producer of Bruno Baretto’s underrated May-December romance Bossa Nova) wisely prevents Utopia from reveling too long in its characters politics, preferring the universal love triangle dramas. Ultimately, it is an imperfect but interesting film that is far more mainstream art-house friendly than its translated title would suggest.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

An Animated Town Called Panic

It is a Belgian Toy Story, but with more attitude. Based on a series of short cartoons that developed a cult following around the world, Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar return their bucolic country village entirely inhabited by those little plastic toy figures that are always getting stepped on and clogging up vacuum cleaners with the feature film incarnation of A Town Called Panic (trailer here), an official (out of competition) selection of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival that opens this Wednesday in New York.

Cowboy and Indian tend to bicker like children, but their third roommate Horse usually acts as a peacekeeper. When left to their own devices though, they cause no end of trouble. Take for instance their ill-advised plan to build Horse a barbeque for his birthday. Intending to buy fifty bricks over the internet, they accidentally order fifty million, which launches a dizzying chain of increasingly unlikely but madly inventive events.

Though the characters of Panic are inexpressive by their molded plastic nature, the film’s distinctive voice talent infuses them with personality. Vincent Patar lends a reassuringly deep and mature voice to Horse. While Stéphane Aubier sounds a bit Mr. Bill-ish as the anxious Cowboy, Bruce Ellison’s nasal quality definitely suits the snippy Indian. Perhaps most effective though is French actress Jeanne Balibar, who makes the equine music teacher Madame Longray, the object of Horse’s affections, sound appropriately seductive and sophisticated (for a plastic toy).

Part of Panic’s eccentric charm is the deliberately low-tech stop-motion animation, which aptly fits its toy characters wobbling along on their plastic bases. However, the simplicity of the animatronics should not be interpreted as a crudeness of style. In truth, Panic’s world is surprisingly detailed and utterly charming. In many ways, it acts as a refreshing alternative to the scrupulously sweet and smoothly rendered animated films cranked out by Disney and Pixar. (You probably will not be seeing a character named “Indian” from those politically correct studios anytime soon either.)

Still, Panic is by-and-large suitable for family viewing, though parents should be advised there is plenty of Tom & Jerry style mayhem and the characters occasionally tell each other off with some colorful language (they call each other “bastards” a few times and it is always quite amusing when they do). The French language Panic might also be some young viewers’ first experience with subtitles, but it would be an accessible and engaging film for them to start with.

Above all, Panic is very funny film that takes some wild flights of fancy. No rules seem to apply here, yet that anarchy suits it just fine. This really is a thoroughly entertaining animated film all ages should be able to enjoy. One of twenty films officially still in the running for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award, the subtitled Panic is surely one of the longer long shots of the field, but it truly deserves a nomination. It opens Wednesday (12/16) at Film Forum.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Modern Jazz 101: The Bebop Era

Ever gone to a record store or jazz club and been intimidated (perhaps deliberately so) by the names and buzz words bandied about? What follows is the first of an irregular series adapted from my SCPS courses to help familiarize new listeners (particularly those making their way here from The Epoch Times) with the richness of modern jazz. Far from exhaustive, it is merely designed to give readers a few names and terms so they can hold their own with vinyl hounds and jazz snobs.

Jazz before the Bebop era seems even further distant than chronological years would suggest. It summons images of frayed photographs from the Ken Burns documentary. However, with Bebop, jazz became self-consciously modern, establishing cultural archetypes that continue to shape the way the general public perceives the music. While the clubs are no longer smoky, it is a style that still holds its currency. One can expect to hear jazz largely based on Bebop and the schools of jazz that directly evolved out of it in most of the major Manhattan jazz clubs on any given night.

Although dates are never conveniently discrete for any artistic movement, one could argue the Bebop era per se began in 1945 when alto-saxophone player Charlie “Bird” Parker recorded “Ko-Ko” and ended in 1953 with the great Massey Hall jazz concert, featuring a quartet of perhaps the five most influential Bebop musicians, Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus.

As legend goes, something about the Charlie Barnett Big Band’s recording of “Cherokee” was stuck in Parker’s head. Eventually, it clicked, spurring Parker to compose “Ko-Ko,” a new piece of music based on the chords of “Cherokee.” Suddenly a new avenue of artistic exploration opened up in jazz. Instead of merely embellishing the melodies statements, solos starting using the underlying chords in a sort of sub-atomic alchemy. While Bebop melodies were considered idiosyncratic at the time, they were still recognizable as such. Unfortunately, they were not conducive for dancing, which took a pronounced toll on jazz’s popularity.

Some listeners did return to the music though. In fact, many were attracted as much by Parker’s personality as the music itself. He became the original tortured genius of jazz. Most non-jazz listeners are well aware of Parker’s notorious drug habit and his erratic lifestyle. In truth, many of the stories that still circulate regarding Parker were exaggerations or pure fabrications. The worst offending gossip may well have been Ross Russell, a record producer who recorded Bird for Dial Records and later wrote a sensationalistic book on the alto-player (however, Russell also wrote an under-rated jazz novel titled The Sound, which was also highly informed by Parker and his fellow boppers, but more sympathetic to the challenges of a musician’s life).

Of course, this revolutionary music was threatening to some established musicians, both aesthetically and economically. The big bands were already struggling in large part due to a wartime tax imposed on dancehalls. Many clubs now found it safer to book bebop artists with their small but loyal fanbase, rather than take a chance on a big band with perhaps a larger but less dependable following. Bebop was also difficult for many players to adapt. One prominent exception was the great swing tenor-saxophone player Coleman Hawkins, whose own playing many argue had been drifting into bebop waters for years. He was not Charlie Parker, but nothing musically ruffled the Hawk.

Despite his unassailable importance to American music, Parker never recorded for a major label. Still, he did record for one reputable producer, Norman Granz, who documented some of the finest swing jazz ever waxed on his Verve, Clef, and Norgran labels. Many of Granz’s records have a distinctive, instantly recognizable look thanks to his frequent use of cover artist David Stone Martin whose style seemed to elegantly combine modernist painting with whimsical caricature.

Martin’s art would eventually grace the covers of Bird’s most commercial release, Charlie Parker with Strings, the success of which would inspire a host of “with strings” albums, establishing an enduring jazz marketing gimmick. (Quick trivia: the only other musician to solo on the Bird string sessions was pianist Bernie Leighton.) The original intention was to showcase Parker in a romantic setting and that it does. While the strings can be syrupy sweet, happily Bird is still Bird. It is an album you can safely listen without any fear of scorn from the jazz police. This is not necessarily the case with some “with strings” imitators.

Parker tends dominate any discussion of the Bebop area, but his friend and musical cohort Dizzy Gillespie deserves near equal billing. More than anyone, Gillespie recorded, notated, and codified the revolutionary music he and Parker developed. Though he had a dramatic life as well, his wife was considered a stabilizing influence on him. As a result, unlike Parker, he had a long and productive career, well into the 1990’s.

Seeking to reconnect jazz with average listeners, Gillespie was the driving force in attempts to adapt the music of Bebop for traditional big bands. However, his greatest contributions might be his more successful fusions of Bebop and Afro-Cuban music. Collaborating with Cuban musicians like trumpeter-arranger Mario Bauzá and the ill-fated percussionist Chano Pozo, Gillespie popularized a Latinized jazz many called Cubop.

In 1953, Parker joined his colleagues for the now celebrated Massey Hall concert, which was recorded for Debut Records, the label owned by his former band-members, legendary bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach. Though probably most closely associated with the Bebop movement, Mingus and Roach would also help shape the later Hardbop and Avant-garde schools of jazz.

Parker however, would be dead in less than two years. Yet his influence would continue to be pronounced and persistent, reflected in the scores younger musicians who followed in his footsteps, including one notable trumpeter. A young man from East St. Louis who idolized Parker, he was decent with Bebop’s breakneck tempos, but really excelled on slower, more lyrical standards. His name was Miles Davis and like the White Rabbit, one can follow him through the following four decades of jazz history, usually defining and even personifying many of the major musical innovations to come.

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