J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Storm Warnings: The Beads of One Rosary

In that worker’s paradise that was Communist Poland circa 1979, there was no ownership of private property. However, in recognition of years of loyal service, retired miner and military veteran Karol Habryka had been permitted to retain his family’s cottage. Unfortunately, all promises are rendered null-and-void when plans for a new housing complex require the demolition of Habryka’s home. The only question is how long the spirited old man will hold out in Kazimierz Kutz’s deceptively titled The Beads of One Rosary, which screens during the Lincoln Center Film Society’s Storm Warnings: Resistance and Reflection in Polish Cinema 1977-1989 retrospective, presented in conjunction with the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ ongoing Performing Revolution festival.

The Habryka family home might not look like much by the standards of the capitalist West, but the small vegetable patch is not inconsequential for their quality of life. It had also allowed Habryka to enjoy the pride of ownership, even if it was illusionary, through his constant chores and maintenance. One by one, their longtime neighbors are evicted, usually mere hours before the wrecking balls destroys their former homes right before their eyes. He might be a loyal Communist, but Habryka is not about to acquiesce to such plans for his home.

Naturally, the apparatchiks put on a full court press, ranging from social pressure to more outright attempts at intimidation (bricks through the window and the like). Even Habryka’s estranged older son Jerzy is brought in to talk sense to his father, but to no avail. The old man digs in and as long as he stays, his loyal younger son Antek will not budge either, likening themselves to two beads of the same rosary.

As reflected in cinematographer Wieslaw Zdort’s washed out palette, Polish life in the film looks bleak and drab. Everyone and everything in Rosary appears beaten down by decades of Communist cruddiness, including the life-worn Habrykas. Their stubborn patriarch might have a mischievous sense of humor, but he is not some impish character out of Grumpy Old Men. Augustyn Halotta’s performance is much more nuanced than that. He gives viewers a real sense of the steel in Habryka’s spine, without any grandstanding “acting” moments. However, it is the finely calibrated supporting turn by Jan Bógdoł as Antek that really captures the film’s humanist essence.

Rosary is a relatively simple story about what inevitably happens to individuals living under statism. Directed with sensitivity by Kutz, a former protégé of the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda, it captures the mood of mounting disillusionment with the Communist government that gave rise to the solidarity movement. It even has direct relevance for contemporary American audiences increasingly critical of the uses and abuses of public domain (government theft). It screens during the Storm Warnings film series this coming Friday (2/5) and Saturday (2/6) at the Walter Reade Theater.

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Identity and Academics: Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness

It was a life of apparent paradoxes. The Jewish-American anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits was largely responsible for shaping African Studies as a distinct academic field. Though his work would eventually inspire the Black Power movement of the 1970’s, Herskovits vocally opposed the politicization of scholarship. As influential as he was controversial, Herskovits’s career raises many questions of identity and legitimacy explored in Llewellyn Smith’s Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness (trailer here), which airs this coming Tuesday on PBS’s Independent Lens, following its recent screenings at the 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Drawing parallels between his own experiences and those of African Americans, Heart emphasizes Herskovits’s own outsider status growing up Jewish in El Paso, Texas. While he found a somewhat more hospitable environment at Columbia University, he often had to endure his colleagues’ disdain. However, anthropology, his chosen field of study, was experiencing a sea-change, thanks to the work of his mentor Franz Boas, whose famous students also included Margaret Mead and novelist-folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. What had been a discipline dominated by the obsessive measuring of body parts to form rather sweeping race-based generalizations was refocusing on culturally based inquiries, with a pronounced reliance on field work and empirical data. Herskovits would excel in these areas.

This revolution in anthropology is explained quite lucidly in the film, slyly illustrating the point with several of the on-camera commentators posing in scenes of early Twentieth Century anthropologists’ scientistic (and more or less racist) measuring sessions. However, given its relatively short hour-long running time, some episodes of Herskovits’s eventful life seem to get short shrift, particularly his efforts on behalf of European Jewry during WWII.

In truth, Heart seems more interested in the lasting influences and ideological implications of Herskovits’s work, than the actual details of his life. He is credited with popularizing the concept of cultural relativism in academic circles, but as his critics argue, it was a principle he did not apply to National Socialism. His work had the effect of affirming the value of African and African-American cultures, highlighting the obvious (but then controversial) links between the two. Yet, evidently many students and colleagues divined in Herskovits a possessive attitude towards African culture in general and African Studies as an academic field in particular.

Despite the hot-button racial issues under discussion and Herskovits’s own radical political sympathies, Heart is surprisingly restrained. While it presents Herskovits in a political context, it does so matter-of-factly, with very little proselytizing or advocacy, as such. Aside from a few debatable off-hand remarks from its talking heads, most of the film’s more pointed contentions come in critiquing anthropology’s now thoroughly discredited past practices.

A film about early to mid Twentieth Century anthropology might sound dry, but Heart is actually quite intriguing. With a manageably short running time, it never has time to get bogged down in academic minutiae, and makes a good faith effort to avoid ideological bombast. An interesting way to spend an hour, it airs Tuesday (2/2) at 10:30 pm on New York’s Thirteen and Wednesday (2/3) at 7:30 pm on WLIW World.

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Friday, January 29, 2010

Kurosawa Centennial: Yojimbo

As he did in Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa created an influential cinematic template with the first film appearance of Toshirō Mifune’s nameless ronin, which has since been copied in dozens of films around the globe. Yojimbo’s story of a mysterious drifter who cleans up a corrupt small town by playing two rival gangs against each other clearly inspired Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing, and Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django, as well as a host of lesser known imitators. Yojimbo’s influence even extended to jazz when Jason Moran covered its theme on his first trio CD, Facing Left. Indeed, Mifune’s slacker samurai would prove so popular, he would soon return in Kurosawa’s follow-up, Sanjuro, which screens together with Yojimbo (trailer here) as a double feature during Film Forum’s retrospective celebration of the Kurosawa centennial.

A master-less samurai walks into the crummiest town in Edo Japan. How bad is it? Stray dogs walk down the street with severed hands clenched in their jaws. Rival crime lords have waged a prolonged war that has depressed all local commercial activity, except the casket-maker’s business, where orders are booming. Getting the lay of the land from the local tavern-keeper, the crafty swordsman decides to clean-up the town by manipulating the two gangs into killing wiping each other out. Fortunately, sake helps him think.

When pressed for his name, the nameless one replies, “Kuwabatake Sanjuro,” which roughly translates as “Mulberry field, thirty years old.” Being one big, bad customer, both gang leaders want to hire him, ostensibly as a “yojimbo” or bodyguard. Of course, neither side deserves much sympathy, but Ushi-Tora’s faction backed by the local sake merchant is arguably much worse, having kidnapped the wife of an unlucky gambler to settle his debts. They also turn out to be more dangerous, thanks to the return of Unosake, Ushi-Tora’s pistol packing younger brother, (played by Tatsuya Nakadai, who would return as a different foil for the ronin in the sequel, Sanjuro).

If Mifune’s cynical mercenary who still lives by his bushido code sounds like a familiar character type, it is because Yojimbo set the standard for all the mysterious drifter films that followed. Of his many collaborations Kurosawa, “Sanjuro” might be Mifune’s most enduring, quintessential screen role. Often humorous, sometimes deadly furious, but always larger than life, it is a true movie star performance.

Though considered a jidaigeki or Edo period drama, Yojimbo also shares a certain kinship with some of Kurosawa’s film noirs. Inspired by American westerns and perhaps the novels of Dashiell Hammett, it would in turn inspire the spaghetti westerns of Leone and Corbucci, which Takashi Miike would eventually re-import back into Edo Japan with Sukiyaki. Yet, no subsequent film has approached the mastery of Yojimbo. Though acknowledged as one of Kurosawa’s masterworks, it should not be considered stuffy, pretentious art-house cinema. Yojimbo is too much fun to be missed due to reverse cinematic snobbery. It screens during Film Forum’s outstanding Kurosawa retrospective on Wednesday (2/3).

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Kurosawa Centennial: Red Beard

Dr. Kyojō Niide is the House M.D. of Nineteenth Century Edo. Actually, Niide’s bedside manner is not that bad with his needy patients, but he terrifies his under-compensated subordinates at his free charity clinic. He offers a heck of an education though in Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard (trailer here), one of the richly diverse films screening during Film Forum’s retrospective celebration of the Kurosawa centennial.

Red represents a significant turning point in Kurosawa’s career. Not only would it be his final black-and-white film, it would also be his last screen collaboration with actor Toshirō Mifune, with whom the director would have a falling out during the course of the Red’s prolonged shooting schedule. Not surprisingly, Mifune appears as the film’s burly, no-nonsense title character, Dr Niide, nicknamed “Red Beard” in honor of his distinctively hued facial hair.

In addition to medicine, Niide also knows most of the town’s scandals, which allows him to shake down wealthy patients to fund his charity clinic. He can also lay a beat-down on anyone foolish enough to hinder him on a mission of mercy, as a gang of pimps and lowlifes learn first-hand. However, it is not the sort of practice the arrogant young Dr. Noboru Yasumoto envisioned for himself. Unfortunately, he has been temporarily consigned to Niide’s service following the embarrassing termination of his engagement.

A contest of wills naturally ensues, as the petulant Yasumoto sulks and shirks, hoping Niide will eventually send him away in disgust. Yeah sure, get Toshirō Mifune to back down—good luck with that. Of course, as series of episodic crises unfold at the clinic, Yasumoto has a dramatic change of heart.

Thanks to several elaborately constructed sets, Niide’s clinic seems like a very real place with its own peculiar rhythms. Against this evocative backdrop, musician-turned actor Yūzō Kayama is reasonably convincing portraying Yasumoto’s evolution from snob to earnest do-gooder. Appropriately stern and blunt, Mifune is always great fun to watch in all his scenes. Yet, the rest of the ensemble performances are quite sensitive, even affecting, particularly Terumi Niki as Otoyo, a young girl Niide and Yasumoto rescue from a brothel. Indeed, her redemptive relationship with the younger doctor provides some of the film’s best moments.

While Red is quite episodic, the overarching story of Yasumoto’s humanist awakening is still rather rewarding. At over three hours in length, it also represents an even better value for your ticket buying dollar than Kurosawa’s The Idiot. It is a big, heart-on-its-sleeve melodrama, spiced with some pungent attitude and the occasional smack-down courtesy of Mifune. Well worth savoring even if it is not in the top tier of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, Red screens at Film Forum this coming Tuesday (2/2) as part of their continuing Kurosawa centennial retrospective.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Brits Behaving Badly: 44 Inch Chest

An aging football hooligan with a broken heart is not a pretty sight. At least Colin Diamond has friends willing to help make things right by kidnapping his wife’s lover. In between the beatings they inflict on the poor other man, they cuss up a blue streak and generally get on each others’ nerves in Malcolm Venville’s 44 Inch Chest (trailer here), a dark little morality play opening tomorrow in New York.

Aside from his money, middle-aged Diamond is not much of a catch, but he evidently loved his wife Liz with genuine ardor. When she announces her intention to leave, he completely breaks down mentally and emotionally. Fortunately, his mates have just the cure: the offending “Loverboy” tied up and ready to be killed at his leisure.

It is not exactly clear what Diamond’s friends ordinarily do for a living, except for Meredith, who seems to be something of a professional gambler with a Noel Coward demeanor. Naturally, he gets under the skin of Old Man Peanut, a homophobic, misogynistic misanthrope. Despite his smarmy exterior, Mal also seems to have an ocean of contempt bottled up inside him. Even Archie, the faithful mother’s boy, has no reservations regarding the premeditated execution of London’s unluckiest French waiter.

No one would ever want to spend any length of time with this ferocious Fab Four, but as on-screen heavies played by four of the best British character actors working in film today, they are jolly good expletive-laden fun. Ian McShane (a.k.a. Lovejoy) delivers Meredith’s cutting dialogue with panache, investing the film with an electric magnetism and sinister charm. As Peanut, John Hurt is compulsively watchable. Gaunt and twitchy, he looks like a feral cat and projects and similar sense of ill contained menace. Though their characters are not quite as sharply drawn, Stephen Dillane and Tom Wilkerson are unsettlingly effective conveying the not-so latent sociopathic impulses of Mal and Archie, respectively. The weakest link of Inch might actually be Ray Winstone, who does not leave nearly as strong an impression as the psychologically challenged Diamond.

Had Inch simply focused on its contemptible but entertaining supporting cast, letting them start at the beginning, strutting and cursing their way through to the end, it would have been a very satisfying picture. Unfortunately, the script by Louis Mellis and David Scinto (the writing team responsible for Sexy Beast) craters under its own narrative pretensions, leaving audiences to wonder ultimately what was the point of all that.

Though too clever for its own good, the intense supporting performances from the Gang of Four certainly give Inch a distinctive flair that is never dull. Still, viewers should be specifically warned, the film’s profane language makes Mamet’s dialogue sound like a Hallmark Channel original production. It opens tomorrow (1/29) at the Village East.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

WWII in HD on DVD

It was a different era, when the entire American media and political establishment recognized the fate of the world depended on an Allied victory. Thanks to advances in technology, WWII would also be the first war extensively documented on film. Even though color stock was available, most of the familiar video images of the war were recorded on cheaper black-and-white film, for newsreels and the like. However, a surprising amount of color stock was used by military cameramen, recording reels of archival footage that remained virtually unseen for decades. Scouring film vaults and military museums around the world, the History Channel tracked down a wealth of color film which they restored, preserved, and eventually assembled in a ten hour documentary special. Following its five night November premiere on the History Channel, WWII in HD (trailer here) is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.

WWII in HD is billed as an effort to make the war more immediate and accessible to contemporary audiences through high definition color images. However, it is driven by compelling narratives that track the course of twelve diverse Americans through the war. Some are relatively well known like war correspondent Richard Tregaskis, whose Guadalcanal Diary is still recognized a classic of war reportage. Others are less celebrated but lived no less interesting lives, like infantryman Roscoe “Rockie” Blunt, an aspiring jazz drum that fought in the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate a German concentration camp.

Although there is a surfeit of video footage for today’s wars (nearly all of which being in color), it is doubtful the same abundance of primary sources—diaries, memoirs, and original letters—will be available to future archivists, post-e-mail. It is a shame, because despite often coming from mean circumstances, each of the twelve profiled individuals are quite eloquent describing their war experiences in letters home, likely conscious these could be their final recorded words.

While WWII in HD covers both theaters, it might somewhat favor the Pacific, where color film was in greater use among military cameramen. Considering how much more attention has generally been given to the European front, particularly the D-Day invasion in films like Saving Private Ryan and The Longest Day, WWII in HD offers some valuable perspective, pointing out American losses were greater at Okinawa than Normandy. This is a case where color probably better captures the inhuman conditions endured by the American forces, while facing an enemy whose strategy was to inflict as much pain as they possibly could.

Though many of the interview subjects eschew the term “Greatest Generation,” WWII in HD generally supports that honorific. Each of the focal characters was fully committed to victory, including the journalists. Clearly emotionally invested in the men he covered, Time-Life war correspondent Robert Sherrod, as voiced by actor Rob Lowe, asserts: “these guys feel like family to me after what we went through on Tarawa.”

WWII in HD is very well put together, featuring some remarkable visuals, but especially sensitive viewers should be warned some scenes are notably graphic, including footage of liberated concentration camps and the mass suicides of Japanese civilians at Okinawa. Throughout, clearly rendered maps and Gary Sinise’s authoritative but sensitive voice give it all cohesion (and the actor also brings a great deal of credibility with military audiences, having often toured USOs with his Captain Dan Band and serving as executive producer of Brothers at War, a sympathetic portrait of soldiers in Iraq and their families at home).

Respectful and informative, WWII in HD will definitely give viewers a visceral sense of WWII fighting conditions, particularly in the Pacific. Effectively marrying words and images, it is also a frequently moving tribute to the Americans who served in harm’s way. Happily, cable-free households can now catch up with it on DVD.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Eiger Problem: North Face

Evidently, mountaineering was popular under National Socialism. It must have been all that pure white snow. It was also an extreme undertaking that was highly compatible with the regime’s death-worshipping ideology. It was in the service of such German propaganda that two promising young mountaineers were cajoled into the most dangerous climb of their lives in Philipp Stölzl’s North Face (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Conquering the forbidding Eiger North Face was considered “the last problem of the Swiss Alps.” Any team to successfully reach its summit before the 1936 Games would be hailed as Olympic Heroes, assuming of course, they were good Aryans. Given the high fatality rate amongst those attempting the feat, a loyal Nazi journalist is having trouble finding credible climbers to hype. Fortunately for Henry Arua, an aspiring journalist in his office knows two promising candidates from her provincial hometown. Best of all, they also look like perfect Aryans.

Luise Fellner has known Andi Hinterstoisser and Toni Kurz all her life. Hinterstoisser is the brash, impulsive one. Kurz is the modest, self-effacing older brother type, quietly nursing his love for Fellner. Despite his better judgment, he and Hinterstoisser accept the challenge to scale the Eiger, as Fellner, her boss, and many of the elites of German high society watch on from the comfort of their lodge’s observation deck.

North Face might be playing the art-house circuit, but it was not a low budget affair. This is a major production featuring some acrophobia-inducing scenes of high peril. Kolja Brandt justly won a German Film Academy Award for his striking cinematography, which vividly captures the deadly majesty of the Alps. Stölzl also demonstrates a real talent for staging the man-against-the-elements action scenes, easily out cliffhangering Cliffhanger.

What really makes North Face interesting though is its dark side. While the film shrewdly refrains from overselling the point, it clearly suggests the Third Reich was pathologically inclined to send its best and brightest young men out to die, either in war or on a mountain. Still, it could be expressed too subtly for some viewers who might only see an adventure story unfolding in 1936 Germany, without making any attempt to address the horrific crimes of the government.

Benno Fürmann certainly looks the part as the rugged, taciturn Kurz, while Johanna Wokelek shows a bit more gumption than Kate Winslet in this Titanic-like disaster love story set amid the Alps. Although he plays another thoroughly contemptible authority figure, the fine German character actor Ulrich Tukur is again compulsively watchable as the journalist-propagandist Arua. However, Hinterstoisser is basically portrayed as the stereotypical cocky young climber who could have stepped out of any 1980’s Tom Cruise movie and the rival Austrian climbers are never really distinguished as characters, existing only as frostbitten Aryans constantly obscured by driving snows and protective clothing.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 once skewered the old b-movie Lost Continent for its endlessly repetitive scenes of “rock climbing.” With North Face, Stölzl deserves credit for redeeming mountaineering’s cinematic promise. A great looking film with some real white knuckle scenes, North Face opens this Friday (1/29) at the Lincoln Plaza and Sunshine Cinemas.

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Janeiro in New York: The Mystery of Samba

Meet Marisa Monte, song-hunter. Though known as an international Musica Popular Brasileira (MPB) star, Monte has wide-ranging interests in many forms of Brazilian music, most certainly including Samba. Indeed she displays an easy camaraderie with the senior statesmen of Samba affiliated with the Portele Samba School in Rio de Janeiro, while searching for classic unrecorded Sambas in The Mystery of Samba (trailer here), an official selection of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival which screens this Thursday at the 92 Y Tribeca as part of the Janeiro in New York film series.

As our guide to the musical legacy of Portela, Monte also gets valuable assists from samba stars Zeca Pagodinha and Paulinho da Viola, but she is the film’s primary contemporary voice, and for good reason given the warmth of her on-screen presence. Having a family connection to the school, she seems to establish immediate rapport with the veterans of Portela and in some cases their survivors. With a voice beautifully suited to the gentle impromptu a cappella duets she performs with her interview subjects, her interest in preserving these lost songs comes across as a completely genuine Alan Lomax-like impulse. Of course, it also gives her an opportunity to be the first to sing some very cool, previously unheard tunes.

Comparisons to the Buena Vista Social Club are probably inevitable with a film like this, but that is fair enough. Still, Rio’s Samba schools are themselves essentially music-based fraternal organizations, perhaps closer akin to the parading societies of New Orleans. Regardless, the old gentlemen of Samba show they can still get it done, with a party atmosphere pervading throughout Mystery. Most have roots both at the school and in the surrounding neighborhood going back decades. Seu Argemiro is a bit of an exception. Though of the same generation, he is relatively new to Portela, but fit right in when they heard his Sambas.

Directed by Carolina Jabor and Lula Buarque de Hollanda, Mystery is lovely to look at, capturing the charm and vibrancy of the surrounding Madureira neighborhood and the Portela School, with its blue and white colors. It is an elegant film, crafted with respect and affection. It screens the 92 Y Tribeca on Thursday (1/28).

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Monday, January 25, 2010

NYJFF ’10: Within the Whirlwind

In 1934, Sergey Kirov, one of the few Soviet leaders willing to challenge Stalin’s hard line policies, was very conveniently assassinated. It became a handy pretext for Stalin to purge anyone not sufficiently loyal to dictatorial rule. While addressing a group of Kazan Party members, Evgenia Ginzburg assures them the conspirators will soon be brought to justice. As a faithful Communist, she is soon shocked to find herself among the accused in Marleen Gorris’s Within the Whirlwind (trailer here), the closing night selection of the 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival, based on Ginzburg’s memoirs.

As a professor of Marxist-Leninist theory, a card-carrying Party member, and the wife of a local Party official, Ginzburg never imagined she could fall under suspicion. Of course, given Stalin’s widely reported anti-Semitism, her Jewish heritage probably did not help. Still, there seemed to be a Kafkaesque arbitrariness to Stalin’s purges, leading one of her friends to ruefully remark to her: “if it can happen to you, it can happen to anyone.”

Considering herself lucky to be sentenced to a Siberian gulag rather than summarily executed, Ginzburg struggles to endure the harshest of conditions. She was fortunate in one respect, catching the eye of Dr. Anton Walker, an ethnic German prisoner serving as the camp doctor. While working together in the infirmary, Ginzburg and Walker inevitably fall in love. Of course, love is forbidden by the Communists, who quickly moved to separate the two prisoners, transferring the doctor to another camp. As a result, Whirlwind ends on a truly Zhivagan note, as Ginzburg wonders if she and Walker will ever find each other again if and when they are finally released.

Gorris (best known for helming the Foreign Language Oscar winning Antonia’s Line) mostly focuses her lens on the Soviet degradation of humanity rather than the grand historical crises unfolding at the time (with WWII only obliquely intruding on the events on-screen). While she rarely deviates from a conventionally straight forward approach to historical drama, she vividly captures a sense of the horror of the gulag in one swirlingly operatic scene of camp guard running amok.

Two-time Oscar nominee Emily Watson effectively carries the lead, convincingly conveying Ginzburg’s transformation from arrogant apparatchik to emaciated prisoner. However, the greatest revelation is German actor Ulrich Tukur in a rare English language role as Dr. Walter. Often seen in German imports as the heavy, including his truly chilling supporting performance in The Lives of Others, Tukur expresses Walker’s humanism and dignity, without ever overplaying the nobility card.

Whirlwind is a very good film with a great cast. To its credit, it faithfully represents the tenor of Stalin’s purges, in which nobody was safe. Such is the nature of totalitarian regimes that they always turn on their pure-of-heart true believers. An excellent selection to conclude a particularly strong slate of films, Whirlwind concludes this year’s NYJFF with screenings at the Walter Reade Theater this Wednesday (1/27) and Thursday (1/28).

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Still Bill Withers

He hung with Ali in Zaire. He also had some of the biggest hits of the 1970’s, but Bill Withers has resisted the lure of easy money touring the nostalgia circuit. Indeed, Withers emerges as that rare superstar more concerned with family than the fleeting trappings of fame in Damani Baker and Alex Vlack’s Still Bill (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

Withers came to music relatively late in life. A Navy veteran, Withers had a good paying blue collar job making airliner toilets before he was temporarily laid off. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. By the time the factory called to rehire Withers, “Ain’t No Sunshine” was climbing the charts. Instead of going back to work, Withers accepted an invitation from the Tonight Show.

Since Withers has not desperately clung to the spotlight, many younger viewers might be surprised to hear how many of his songs they will recognize, including “Sunshine,” “Lean on Me,” “Just the Two of Us,” and “Grandma’s Hands.” Never a fan of the major labels, Withers directs some pointed remarks at the recording industry. Indeed, anyone who has just had the first hit record should probably talk to Withers for advice both about the industry and for keeping grounded. When recalling his first breakthrough hits, Withers shrewdly remarks: “New words started to enter my life that had never been there before, like ‘handsome.’ Boy, you sure do get better looking when you get a hit record.”

Though access to Withers was initially a challenge for Baker and Vlack, he eventually embraced the project, granting them hundreds of hours of interviews and candid footage. They follow him during the course very documentary-like encounters, like his return to his childhood home of Slab Fork, West Virginia and a reunion with some of his Navy buddies. Yet, even though Withers has plenty to say, he often still sounds rather guarded. However, the filmmakers struck documentary gold when they filmed Withers backstage at a benefit for the nonprofit Our Time theater group for young people who stutter. A former stutter, Withers truly opens when meeting the kids in private in what are easily the film’s most revealing scenes.

Wisely, Baker and Vlack include generous samples of Withers music, including all his greatest hits. We also learn that Withers still makes music, but only what he wants to do for himself rather than what a record label might like to package and market. We even hear him in live performance at a rare tribute concert, performing “Grandma’s Hands” with the great funk guitarist Cornell Dupree. However, perhaps most indicative of music’s current place in his life is his impromptu duet with his daughter Kori on genuinely touching “Telephone Call Away.”

Clearly, Baker and Vlack idolize Withers. Yet, Still Bill delves deeper into its subject’s psyche than has been possible for many recent documentaries on other musical figures. While the film should convert many viewers into fans, the cool thing about Withers is that he still really does not care about such superficial popularity. It opens this Wednesday (1/27) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Global Lens ’10: The Shaft

As a consequence of its One-Child policy, marriageable women are now scarce in China, and the situation is only projected to get worse. This will obviously result in long-term sociological shocks, but the effects are already being felt to some extent. Such realities indirectly influence one family struggling to find its way in a remote mining village in Zhang Chi’s The Shaft (trailer here), which screens this week at MoMA as part of their annual Global Lens collaboration with the Global Film Initiative.

Old Baogen very definitely lives in a company town. Your choices for employment are basically mining and not much else. Baogen has worked in the mines for years while raising his son and daughter as a single parent. His daughter Jingshui now works in the mining company’s front office and has been carrying on a clandestine relationship with Daming, a rather taciturn miner. His son Jingsheng does not want to follow in his father’s footsteps, but having made a complete hash of high school, stopping just short of formally dropping out, he has no real alternatives.

Looking distinctly out of place in this drab environment, the beautiful Jingshui is far out of Daming’s league, but rumors of an affair with her supervisor have disturbed him, fraying their relationship. Still, as a woman, she has certain options for leaving town—namely marriage—not open to her slacker brother.

Though it is organized as a triptych, Shaft forms a complete and sequential storyline without any doubling back or other tiresome narrative games so popular in festival films lately. This is the story of Baogen’s family, incomplete as they might be. After all, someone is obviously missing: their mother, a trafficked bride who was reclaimed by her family after the birth of Jingsheng.

In many ways, Shaft is the flip side to Li Yang’s Blind Mountain, humanizing those who have resorted to buying wives through unsavory means. It is a decision that still clearly tortures old Baogen, both for what his wife endured and that his children grew up without a mother as a result.

Though Shaft never offers any direct criticism of the Chinese government per se, its unflattering depiction of contemporary society could hardly be considered propaganda either. Indeed, Zhang’s sets a grim, naturalistic tone throughout the film. Yet for all the tribulations endured by Baogen’s family, it is not a hopelessly bleak film. In fact, it actually ends on a relatively optimistic note (another rarity among serious festival films). Shaft is also buoyed by a strong principle cast, particularly the haunting Luoqian Zheng as Jingshui. Pulling off the trickiest role, Deyuan Luo keeps old Baogen sympathetic despite his past, giving the film a real humanist heart.

Global Lens tends to select serious art films that can sometimes be a bit of a tough haul to get through. Though the quiet Shaft is certainly not a megaplex movie, it is never obscure or dryly intellectual. At its core, it is a family drama, and a rather good one at that. Easily one of the best of this year’s Global Lens, Shaft screens at MoMA through Wednesday (1/27).

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

NYJFF ’10: Ultimatum

How good a friend is Israel to America? Despite having one of the best military forces in the world, they honored America’s request that they not return fire when Saddam Hussein started bombarding their country with scuds during the first Gulf War. While America was concerned about the sensibilities of the Arab state members of the coalition, Israelis had the Sword of Damocles dangling over their heads. Living with that fear and stress from constant missile attacks severely strains the relationship of one French expat couple in Alain Tasma’s Ultimatum (trailer here), which screens at this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Jewish Museum and the Lincoln Center Film Society.

Luisa is trying to enjoy her New Year’s party, but her boyfriend Nathanael is being a moody pill. However, everyone is really a bit on edge, because the January 15th deadline for Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait is drawing close and of course nobody expects him to comply. Stores cannot keep duct tape and survival kits in-stock, but Israelis still try to go on with the regular routines. For Gil and Tamar that means preparing for the imminent arrival of their first child, whereas for Luisa and Nathanael, it involves a predictable cycle of fighting and making up.

Eventually, the fifteenth comes and goes without incident, but just as an uneasy calm settles, all the fireworks start. Of course, the birth of Tamar’s baby coincides with the start of the bombing two days after the deadline. Meanwhile, the intense emotions of the first round of scuds might draw Luisa and Nathanael closer together, but then again probably not.

The biggest problem with Ultimatum is that it makes it nearly impossible to root for Luisa and Nathanael as couple—quite the contrary, in fact. Jasmine Trinca projects genuine warmth and likability on-screen as Luisa. However, Gaspard Ulliel’s petulant Nathanael just drags down every scene he is in. Still, there is some nice supporting work in Ultimatum, particularly that of Miryam Zohar as Mrs. Finger-Mayer, the tragic elderly neighbor whose presence reflects the contrast between Luisa and Nathanael through their very different responses to her.

Despite the characters’ frequently annoying behavior, Tasma keeps the picture moving along relatively well. He is most successful at capturing the tenor of that time in recent Israeli history marked by watchful pre-war waiting. Ultimately, it also offers a glimpse into the indomitable Israeli spirit that carries on in the face of adversity (though like much of contemporary Israeli cinema exported into America, it takes several potshots at the government’s treatment of Arab Israeli communities).

Ultimatum has its moments, conveying a good sense of what it was like in Israel during the first Gulf War. While Trinca’s lead performance is quite impressive, it often undercut by a problematic central relationship that taxes viewer patience. Still, over all it is an interesting if uneven film that provides insight into the recent Israeli experience. It screens during the NYJFF at the Walter Reade Theater this coming Thursday (1/28).

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Kurosawa Centennial: Rashomon

Beyond winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion, the influence of Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece is constantly seen in dozens of televisions series looking to temporarily break format. Many diverse shows, including the likes of House, The X-Files, and Fame have all done Rashomon episodes, usually trying to exploit their characters wildly divergent accounts of the same event for comedic event. However, Kurosawa’s Rashomon was a darkly serious examination of human nature and the elusiveness of truth and justice. An indispensible classic from Kurosawa’s considerable filmography, Rashomon (trailer here) screens next Thursday as part of the Film Forum’s retrospective celebration of the Kurosawa centennial, the gift to cineastes that keeps on giving.

It is impossible to say what happened that fateful day in the woods, but it whatever the truth might be, it was awful. A priest and a lowly woodcutter were called to testify and what they heard left them shaken. Seeking refuge under the battered city gate during a deluge, they relate the disturbing court testimony to an insensitive drifter. The two witnesses were the last people to see a samurai and his wife before they encountered the dreaded bandit Tajōmaru. The competing accounts of the captured bandit, the victimized woman, the dead man’s spirit (channeled by a medium), and the woodcutter, largely agree Tajōmaru either roughly “seduced” or outright raped the woman, but what happened next varies drastically depending on the narrative.

Much is made of how greatly each character’s version of the truth differs, but analysis of Rashomon often overlooks the commonalities. In each story, something truly terrible transpires between the samurai and his wife after her attack, causing the young priest to question his fundamental assumptions regarding human nature. Indeed, the framing device is the most important part of the film. Great effort and expense went into creating the hulking Rashomon Gate set and it is through the drama that plays out there between the three strangers that Kurosawa really makes his statement about the nature of man.

The woodcutter is the sort of role Takashi Shimura seemed born to play—timid, somewhat compromised, but ultimately redemptive. As the notorious brigand, Toshirō Mifune goes over the top and around the bend, but his craziness adds an undeniable edge that heightens Rashomon’s unsettling effect. Yet, it is the haunting performance of Machiko Kyō, simultaneously heartbreaking and baffling, that truly defines the film.

From the subjectivity of its competing narratives to cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa’s use of sunlight and shadow, Rashomon has been enormously influential, inspiring a host of inferior imitators, like Jennifer Lynch’s absolutely dreadful Surveillance. Surprisingly subtle given its reputation and Mifune’s go-for-broke performance, it remains an intriguing puzzle of film. A masterful milestone of international cinema, no Kurosawa retrospective would be complete without it. A newly restored 35mm print screens next Thursday (1/28) at Film Forum as their celebration of the Kurosawa centennial continues.

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Kurosawa Centennial: The Bad Sleep Well

A public authority has engaged in a massive bid fixing scheme worth billions of yen with a private construction firm. It might sound like an edgy contemporary “ripped from the headlines” thriller, but it is actually a 1960 film noir classic from Akira Kurosawa. Indeed, Film Forum proves there is far more to Kurosawa’s filmography than samurai films when The Bad Sleep Well (trailer here) screens as part of their month long celebration of the towering director’s centennial (1910-2010).

Vague rumors of corruption are swirling around the Unutilized Land Development Corporation. Much to the delight of a cynical pack of reporters, the wedding of Vice President Iwabuchi’s daughter Yoshiko to his corporate secretary Koichi Nishi is interrupted by the arrest of Wada, a financial middle manager. The drama does not end there though. When an enormous cake shaped like an office building arrives, it seems to suck all the oxygen out of the room.

Scandal seems to follow Iwabuchi. In a previous position, his subordinate leaped to his death after finding himself implicated in another corruption probe. That window is conspicuously identified on the mystery cake. What Iwabuchi does not know is that his secretary and son-in-law is actually the illegitimate son of the man who died as a result of his graft. Having assumed the identity of a friend with a clean record, the man now known as Nishi is out for some stone cold revenge. Unfortunately, one unforeseen development complicates his plan. Nishi has fallen in love with his wife.

Often considered Kurosawa’s Hamlet, Sleep is a revenge tragedy that has ample precedent in Japanese literature and drama. Though set at least one hundred years apart, there are strong parallels between Sleep and the story of the vengeful Yukinojo Nakamura who Kon Ichikawa eventually brought to the screen in the classic Revenge of a Kabuki Actor. In both cases, sons insinuate themselves into the company of the men deemed responsible for their fathers’ death. Under an assumed identity, they manipulate their targets, turning them against each other. In the process, both lose their hearts to a woman close to their top targets. However, Sleep is far darker and more jaded than the Meiji set Kabuki.

Indeed, Sleep is quite withering in its depiction of corporate-government corruption and the misplaced sense of personal honor that ironically protects the guilty. Frequent Kurosawa Toshirō Mifune is typically intense as the honor-bound Nishi, almost unrecognizable in such a different context than the scruffy samurai and ronin he is best known for playing. However, it is Kyoko Kagawa and Kamatari Fujiwara who memorably provide the film’s conscience as Yoshiko and Wada, respectively.

The unsentimental Sleep is one of many great films from a master filmmaker. Part of a 28-film retrospective that is a true New Year’s gift to film lovers, Sleep screens at Film Forum on January 26th. The Kurosawa Centennial series continues through February 18th, with new films screening nearly every day in January.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Grudge Match: Misha vs. Moscow

Is he the Georgian Yeltsin or Havel? In truth, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is probably somewhere in the middle. Having launched to national prominence during the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili has not demonstrated Havel’s unwavering commitment to human rights, nor has he completely abandoned the ideals of democracy as was the case with Yeltsin and his hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin. Indeed, Saakashvili and Putin are most definitely not birds of a feather. Saakashvili’s tense relationship with the Russian authoritarian is the subject of John Philp’s Misha vs. Moscow (trailer here), which airs this coming Monday on the Documentary Channel.

Unquestionably, M vs. M’s greatest virtue is its impressive access to the Georgian president. Through a number of interviews and considerable candid footage of Saakashvili, viewers get a good sense of the man. The portrait that emerges very definitely suggests a western-style politician, which makes sense considering he graduated from Columbia Law School and briefly worked for an American law firm.

Philp’s treatment of Saakashvili’s rise to power and his early presidential years also seems even-handed and informative. He did indeed break from then President Eduard Shevardnadze’s thoroughly corrupt party, becoming a reformer at an opportune time. As President, he took bold steps to fight corruption, literally firing the country’s entire police force. Perhaps his most significant victory came in the Georgian Autonomous Republic of Adjara, where Saakashvili peacefully finessed the Russian backed strongman out of office.

Most man-on-the-street interviews in M vs. M are also relatively positive, giving him credit for making Georgia a much more livable environment. Yet, it is always clear Philp is not impressed. Granted, even Saakashvili appears to consider his record decidedly mixed, expressing regret for moving against the opposition broadcasting network (and rightly so).

Still, most of Philp’s scorn is reserved for Saakashvili’s foreign policy, which his talking heads universally criticize as provocative. Evidently, because Georgia borders Russia, it should be more deferential to Russian foreign policy, recognizing their place within what Putin considers Russia’s rightful sphere of influence. Therefore, pursuing fast-track NATO membership is a rash and de-stabilizing course of action. Of course, by the same token, Philp ought to agree Nicaragua should subordinate its foreign policy to that of America (after all, it is in our sphere of influence, right?).

While M vs. M’s expert analysis clearly comes from a stacked deck, it offers an opportunity to hear Saakashvili speak for himself. This is not without value, particularly considering the jury is still out on how his presidency will ultimately be characterized. He has shown flashes of brilliance as well as major Yeltsinesque disappointments, but based on the antipathy he has inspired from the neo-Soviet Putin, one suspects history will be more generous than Philp. M vs. M has its world television premiere this coming Monday (1/25) at 8:00 PM (E.S.T.) on the Documentary Channel.

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Kurosawa Centennial: No Regrets for Our Youth

The university students in Kyoto like to march around in their caps while denouncing evil industrialists, but they are not so eager to take direct action. As a result, only the daughter of their professor and her lover emerge as heroic figures in Akira Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth, a highly politicized story of Japanese war dissenters. Released during the early years of the American occupation of Japan, Regrets is also considered Kurosawa’s only film featuring a female lead protagonist, setting it apart from the rest of Film Forum’s twenty-eight film retrospective celebration of the Kurosawa centennial, where it screens this Monday as half of a double feature of the director’s lesser-known post-war films.

Yukie Yagihara just wants to play the piano and flirt her father’s students. Noge though, is too serious for such frivolities, deeply concerned as he is with Japanese military expansionism in Manchuria. His classmate Itokawa is also duly troubled, but he will cringingly submit to Yagihara’s every whim. However, when Professor Yagihara is fired for his dissenting views, his daughter starts to understand the seriousness of the events unfolding around her.

As in most grand political epics, the professor’s formerly close protégés inevitably take diametrically opposed roads, with Itokawa becoming a government prosecutor while Noge does time in prison. Of course, there is no question who Yagihara will choose when all three wind up in Tokyo several years later. Yet, her romance with Noge is doomed to be short-lived, since the government (and most likely Itokawa) knows Noge is up to something at his think tank (suspiciously dedicated to Chinese area studies).

While addressing pre-war dissent so bluntly in post-war Japan must have been a bit of a touchy proposition, the leftist slant of Regrets probably assured it of a favorable international reception. In fact, it is quite a historically important film simply by virtue of dramatizing the Japanese war resistance, which remains largely overlooked in comparison to their European counterparts. Still, at times the film seems markedly idiosyncratic, as when blaring headlines announce “Academic Freedom Crushed” (but evidently freedom of the press was alive and well). The film even takes a weird Maoist-like turn when Yagihara finds redemption toiling in the rice paddies of her hardscrabble in-laws.

Yes, Kurosawa could make films without Toshirō Mifune. In this case, Susumu Fujita is a reasonably credible Mifune surrogate as the driven Noge, but it is truly Setsuko Hara’s film. She convincingly handles each step of her character’s emotional maturation and political awakening, while unflaggingly holding the audience’s sympathies and attention. Although her romantic chemistry with Fujita is not particularly memorable, her work with Denjirō Ōkōchi ranks as some of the most compelling father-daughter scenes in immortalized on film.

Though Regrets is a very personal story of one woman’s trials and travails, Kurosawa gives it the feel of a sweeping epic. It is an absorbing film, even if it does occasionally trip over its own ideologies and good intentions. Well worth seeing, it screens at Film Forum this coming Monday (1/25).

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

NYJFF ’10: Mary and Max

Pre-Giuliani New York was a tough place to make friends, particularly for a middle-aged science fiction fan with Asperger’s Syndrome. Growing up in the Australian suburbs is not that easy either for an overweight young girl with a tragically conspicuous birth mark. While it might sound like a hackneyed cliché, the two sensitive oddball characters really do learn the value of friendship through their decades long correspondence in Adam Elliot’s bittersweet “clayography” (essentially his non-trademarked term for Claymation) feature film, Mary and Max (trailer here), the opening night film at last year’s Sundance, which now screens as a part of the 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival.

There are several reasons why young Mary Daisy Dinkle is so painfully shy at school. She is a bit on the chubby side, with “eyes the color of muddy puddles and a birthmark the color of poo.” She also has a mother more interested in the sherry bottle than providing a nurturing environment. To find out where babies come from, the confused girl sends a letter to a name randomly selected from the New York City phonebook: Max Jerry Horowitz.

When Horowitz receives her first letter, he has the first of many nervous breakdowns to come. Indeed, he has the distinction of being even more socially awkward than Dinkle. In addition to his Asperger’s, he is also a card-carrying member of the New York Science Fiction Club and a not-so former Communist, neither of which are really conducive to healthy social interaction. However, thanks to their mutual interests in chocolate and the Smurf-like Noblit cartoon characters, Horowitz is able to forge his first genuinely meaningful friendship.

Using the Penguin Café Orchestra’s “Perpetuum Mobile” as an effective recurring musical motif, Elliot brilliantly sets the stage, introducing viewers to Dinkle’s home town and her idiosyncratic family history. Eventually, the scene changes to Horowitz’s grungy 1970’s New York, quite evocatively captured in Elliot’s clay. As they exchange letters over the course of years, Dinkle becomes more self-assertive and Horowitz becomes more self-aware. However, Horowitz’s Asperger’s diagnosis threatens to rupture their friendship. Dinkle, now a confident psychologist in training, wants to cure his condition, whereas Horowitz embraces his identity as an “aspy.”

There is plenty of humor in M&M, both of the blackly comic and broadly slapstick varieties, but it is quite a serious, heartfelt film. Elliot’s figures are remarkably expressive and the voice talent of Toni Collette and Phillip Seymour Hoffman convincingly express their very human emotions. Australian actor Barry Humphries also provides warmly authoritative narration that holds the film together nicely.

M&M is the second clay-animated full length feature to come out of Australia, following Tatia Rosenberg’s memorably wistful $9.99. Arguably, M&M is even better realized as a screen drama in its own right. While it might sound like an oft-told tale, Elliot bestows fresh eccentricities and a genuinely sweet spirit on this ode to friendship. One of twenty qualifying films still officially eligible for the Best Animated Feature Film Award at this year’s Oscars, it ranks with A Town Called Panic as one of the best animated films of the year. It screens during this year’s NYJFF on Saturday (1/23) and Sunday (1/24) at the Walter Reade Theater and is also the opening night selection of the upcoming Reelabilities Film Festival at the JCC in Manhattan.

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Kurosawa Centennial: Scandal

It could be considered Akira Kurosawa’s Christmas movie—sort of. Partly set during the Christmas season, there are Christmas trees, caroling, and plenty of old fashioned tear-jerking in Scandal (trailer here), an early postwar melodrama screening during Film Forum’s twenty-eight film retrospective of the Kurosawa centennial (1910-2010).

Ichirô Aoye is a talented painter of some renown. Miyako Saijo is a beautiful, camera-shy singer much in demand by the press. They would make a perfect couple, but they are not together. So when scandal sheet paparazzi capture them in an innocent but suggestive looking situation, the outraged Aoye files suit. Unfortunately, he hires Hiruta, a compulsive gambling lush of an attorney to represent him. Though hardly blind to his counsel’s faults, Aoye retains him out of sympathy for his angelic bed-ridden daughter, Masako. Needless to say, this is a bad legal strategy.

Obviously, there is something brewing between the not-lovers, but Kurosawa is more interested in Hiruta’s loathing self-contempt. As Masako’s growing suspicions of her father’s corruption weaken her condition, Scandal definitely heads into hanky territory. Like a true melodrama, it all heads towards an emotional courtroom showdown.

While Aoye probably was not the character Toshirō Mifune was born to play, he at least exudes a certain square-jawed likability. Likewise, singer-actress Shirley Yamaguchi (born Yoshiko Yamaguchi in China to Japanese parents before eventually becoming a member of Japan’s Parliament) is appropriately glamorous and her voice is indeed quite lovely in the underwritten role of Saijo. However, most of the heavy-lifting acting falls to Takashi Shimura as the sharply-drawn Hiruta. Though he conveys a compelling sense of pathos, the cringe-inducing self-hatred becomes somewhat repetitive after a while.

Yes, Scandal gets more than a little corny, but that sentimentality gives it an old-school Hollywood sweetness that is refreshing in a way. Though not particularly remarkable, it is an interesting commentary on Japan’s emerging tabloid journalism. Ultimately, Scandal’s somewhat quirky charm adds another dimension to the Film Forum’s impressive Kurosawa survey. It screens this coming Sunday (1/24).

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Téchiné’s Girl on the Train

With an influx of immigration from Islamist states and an upsurge in Neo-fascist activity, anti-Semitic violence is a growing problem in France. Of course, many would prefer to ignore the problem, which is why hate crime hoaxes like the “RER D Affair” (so-called for the commuter train on which it ostensibly occurred) are so counter-productive. Based on that 2004 incident involving a non-Jewish woman who claimed to have been attacked by an immigrant gang mistaking her for Jewish, veteran French director André Téchiné deftly handles some very hot-button issues in The Girl on the Train (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Much to Louise’s eternal frustration, her daughter Jeanne is not particularly ambitious. It is a major victory just to get her to interview for a secretarial position at Samuel Bleistein’s prestigious boutique law firm. Frankly, she is not qualified for the position and rather underwhelming presenting herself, but when Bleistein realizes she is the daughter of a late army colleague and Louise, the woman for whom he once carried a torch, he at least willing to give her a fair hearing.

Not cut out for responsible living, Jeanne instead takes a questionable job with her boyfriend Franck, an impulsive collegiate wrestler, as caretakers of a dodgy electronics warehouse. Though Franck keeps her in a state of willing obliviousness, the violent reality of their criminal enterprise eventually intrudes on Jeanne’s vacation from reality. Unfortunately, Jeanne responds by compounding her troubles, fabricating an attack supposedly motivated by anti-Semitism that will directly involve Bleistein and his family in a burgeoning media frenzy as well as her own personal drama.

Samuel Bleistein is a character many New Yorkers will find distinctly foreign. Yes, he is the leading Parisian spokesman against anti-Semitic violence, but he is not a media huckster looking to capitalize on each new controversy. He truly believes in the rule of law, which is why he seeks to defuse the situation created by a story he has reasons for knowing to be false.

Téchiné has a reputation as a sensitive director and indeed he guides his excellent ensemble cast to some very fine performances. As frustrating as her character might be, Emilie Dequenne is quite convincing, essentially playing a psychologically underdeveloped personality. However, the film is probably best defined by Michel Blanc’s outstanding supporting turn as Bleistein, providing the film a shrewdly unsentimental but deeply humanistic perspective on the controversies that unfold. Of course, for many fans of French cinema, no one will up-stage Catherine Deneuve, playing a bit against her typically chilly type here as Louise, the justifiably concerned mother.

Even though Train hinges on a fabricated incident, the film never has the effect of minimizing the reality of anti-Semitism in France. Again, it is worth noting that it is the film’s Jewish characters that act to debunk Jeanne’s dubious claim. Train is a smart drama that powerfully captures the aimlessness of youth and the volatility French society through some richly rewarding performances. It opens Friday (1/22) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Kurosawa Centennial: Drunken Angel

Dr. Sanada will never be confused with Dr. Kildare. A borderline drunk with a terrible bedside manner and a shady past, he is not exactly your stereotypical kindly movie doctor. However, for those that contract tuberculosis in the post-war Tokyo slums, he is the man to see in Akira Kurosawa’s gangster morality play Drunken Angel, which screens this Saturday during Film Forum’s twenty-eight film retrospective celebration of the Kurosawa centennial.

Sanada’s practice might not be much, but at least he has the opportunity to gauge yakuza seeking emergency treatment in the dead of night. As Angel opens he is digging a bullet out of the arm of Matsunaga, the yakuza’s interim honcho for the neighborhood, sans anesthesia. Sanada also offers a bonus diagnosis to the chronically hacking gangster: he has TB.

Matsunaga initially prefers denial to treatment, but Sanada is a persistent quack. He also appreciates the yakuza’s ready access to real booze. Just as the young tough acquiesces to Sanada’s treatment, Okada, his yakuza senior, is released from prison. Looking to reassert himself over his old territory and Miyo, his frightened former mistress now working as Sanada’s nurse, Okada is definitely bad news, but Matsunaga believes himself honor bound to the sinister gangster. With his career deteriorating faster than his body, violence seems inevitable for Matsunaga, and Kurosawa does not disappoint.

Angel is particularly notable for two things. It offers an opportunity to see Toshirō Mifune shake his tail-feather to popular Japanese swing vocalist Shizuko Kasagi’s “Jungle Boogie” and it was the first of many celebrated collaborations between the actor and director. It also features Takashi Shimura, who was already something of a Kurosawa regular. They were indeed perfectly cast as the dissipated but still deadly Matsunaga and the cynical healer, respectively. Mifune’s smoldering heat and Shimura’s shrewdly restrained cool obviously proved to be a great pairing, which Kurosawa would quickly recombine in classics like Stray Dog.

If one can set aside expectations for another Kurosawa masterpiece like Seven Samurai or Throne of Blood, Angel is actually a nifty little gangster drama, featuring a tense climatic struggle between two of the gauntest looking gangsters you are ever likely to see on film. Though Angel is also famous for the veiled anti-American references Kurosawa slipped past the occupation censors, they are largely lost on viewers not cued to look for them. More importantly, he creates a powerful sense of the dank, disease infested slums and uses a mournful guitar theme to create an eerie noir vibe.

Explicitly likening bacterial disease to the yakuza’s moral corruption, Angel alternates between wildly feverish and grimly naturalistic vibes. Overall, it is a socially pointed but still quite entertaining excursion into film noir territory. It screens Saturday (1/23) at Film Forum.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

NYJFF ’10: Berlin ’36

If you do not already know the secret of German high jumper Marie Ketteler, the picture below will probably give it away (“she” is the one on the left). Conversely, her teammate Gretel Bergmann had no secrets. Everyone on the German track team was keenly aware she was Jewish, and never let her forget it. Their strange, unlikely friendship is dramatized in Kaspar Heidelbach’s Berlin ’36 (trailer here), which screens at this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Jewish Museum and the Lincoln Center Film Society.

Though not yet at war with the Third Reich, many concerned Americans advocated boycotting the Berlin games if Germany’s Jewish athletes were not allowed to participate. As the reigning high jump champion, Bergmann’s absence would be especially conspicuous. Reluctantly, she returned to the Fatherland, joining the German team for the sake of her family’s safety. Of course, training is made deliberately uncomfortable for Bergmann. She is constantly harassed by anti-Semitic teammates and is stuck bunking with the weird Ketteler chick.

Of course, the National Socialists never intended to let Bergmann compete, even though she would have been the prohibitive gold medal favorite. Instead, in an act that vividly illustrated the regime’s sick pettiness, a man was recruited to compete as a woman, with the hopes that she would beat out Bergmann for a spot on the time. Yet, even when Bergmann discovered her roommate’s secret, they remained friends. Berlin’s Marie Ketteler is based on the very real Dora Ratjen, who reportedly had genuine medical issues causing her gender confusion. In Berlin, Ketteler was raised as a girl by an abusive mother, even though he wished to live as a man.

Though the Berlin Games had many dramatic stories, Heidelbach’s film focuses solely on the high jumpers. Jesse Owens is maybe seen in passing, but never factors as a character. Likewise, controversial filmmaker and National Socialist propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, who famously documented the games in Olympia, never appears. Strangely though, the film is rather generous in its depiction of U.S. Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage, who was always considered a staunch opponent of any boycott (and not particularly sensitive to the plight of Jewish athletes).

Berlin chronicles a fascinating episode in history, but it is beset by one rather obvious problem. Granted, the historic Ratjen might not look very feminine at all in the photos available on the web, but as Ketteler, Sebastian Urzendowsky simply never looks like a woman or even somewhat androgynous. Ordinarily, that might be a good thing, but it the context of the film, it is a major distraction. He is not necessarily bad in the role, but he just does not look convincing in the part.

To be fair, casting Ketteler is a tricky proposition. Fortunately, Berlin is driven by a winning lead performance from Karoline Herfurth that largely compensates for her struggling costar. She looks like a track star and expresses appropriate anger and fear, without coming across as weak or melodramatic. Berlin also benefits from an effective supporting turn from Axel Prahl as Hans Waldmann, the team’s first coach, who is naturally fired for being too fair-minded and sportsman-like, as well as for having a decidedly un-German mess of an office.

Though the concluding coda featuring interview footage with the real life Bergmann (now Margaret Bergmann-Lambert) might give Berlin a History Channel vibe, most audiences will probably appreciate the chance to hear from her. (Fortunately, she and her family were able to leave Germany before it was too late.) Indeed, hers is an important story people should hear. Though it has its weaknesses, on balance Berlin is a good film that tells its heroine’s story with proper respect and sensitivity. It screens at the Walter Reade Theater Thursday (1/21) and Sunday (1/24), with Bergmann-Lambert attending on the afternoon of the 21st.

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Kurosawa Centennial: High and Low

It is always interesting to see an international auteur tackle the hardboiled American detective novel. While Donald Westlake’s source novel The Jugger is almost completely unrecognizable in Jean-Luc Godard’s eccentric Marxist adaptation Made in U.S.A., Ed McBain’s King’s Ransom (an 87th Precinct novel) fortunately landed in Akira Kurosawa’s more sympathetic hands. The resulting High and Low (trailer here) still holds up as a top-notch film noir police procedural. Demonstrating Kurosawa’s versatility as a filmmaker, High screens during Film Forum’s laudably thorough celebration of the master director’s centennial.

Kingo Gondo makes shoes, but he does it well. He has clawed his way to the top of the production department of National Shoes, without succumbing to pressure to cut corners. Making a bold play, Gondo has leveraged everything to buy an independently held block of stock that would give him controlling interest. Then in flash, Gondo’s life is undone when his son is kidnapped. Except, it is not his son that was taken, but that of his chauffeur. Yet, even when the mistake is revealed, the kidnapper holds fast to his exorbitant ransom demand, leading to a crisis of conscience for Gondo.

In many ways, Gondo is a hero in the Ayn Rand tradition. Truly, he could care less of the trappings of wealth, solely seeking the satisfaction of creating something of enduring value. Still, Objectivists will ultimately find him lacking for his altruistic weaknesses. The slow burning Toshirō Mifune conveys all the pride and decency of this complicated character with complete conviction. His is counterbalanced by the ice-cold Tatsuya Nakadai as Detective Tokura, the cool cop trying not to get emotionally involved in the case.

While Mifune and Nakadai are probably the most celebrated Japanese actors of any generation, High’s lesser known supporting players are also quite strong. As Tokura’s Bos’n, the big bald Kenjiro Ishiyama totally looks and acts like a cop, while on the other side of the cat-and-mouse game, Tsutomu Yamazaki brings the right touch of creepiness to the mysterious kidnapper, without overdoing it.

High captures the right grittily realistic look and feel of on-the-ground police work. Kurosawa, the master, clearly had a deep command of the genre, shrewdly creating tension through the effective use of Gondo’s Frank Lloyd Wright inspired glass house sitting high atop a high overlooking the city’s slums. He memorably caps High with a strange coda that affords viewers a shrouded glimpse into the criminal’s psyche, warped as it is by class envy and resentment.

Kurosawa’s international reputation might have been made with classics like Rashomon, but he could also craft an intriguing film noir. Had High been the work of another filmmaker, it might be considered their masterwork, but for Kurosawa, it is just another really good movie. Indeed, it is an excellent film, definitely worth seeing when it screens during the Kurosawa Centennial series at Film Forum on January 22nd.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Love and Theft: Copyright Criminals

Ever since rock n’ roll started "safely" repackaging R&B for white teenagers, it has been dogged by issues of musical appropriation. With the advent of sampling, differentiating between love and theft would have legal implications. The music and intellectual property litigation produced by the hip hop revolution are examined in Benjamin Franzen’s Copyright Criminals (trailer here), which airs this coming Tuesday as part of the current season of PBS’s Independent Lens.

It was the time when crate-diggers came into their own. Finding fat beats and killer drum breaks had long been a source of competitive pride among DJs. As technology advanced, it became much easier to edit, distort, layer, remix, and otherwise adulterate samples from existing records in new audio collages. When the formerly underground movement suddenly became the dominant force on the record charts, artists and labels began to take note when their music was sampled. Serious compensation would eventually be demanded to legally clear samples, or risk a costly trip to court.

If one hero emerges in Copyright, it is Clyde Stubblefield, considered the world’s most sampled drummer, as a result of his 1965-1970 tenure in James Brown’s classic band. It is his improvised drum line from “Funky Drummer” that powers some of hip hop’s biggest hits, including Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out,” which the film vividly illustrates with split screens of Stubblefield playing live compared to the videos of the songs sampling his work.

Stubblefield perfectly crystallizes the issues at stake. There is something infectious and soulful about Stubblefield’s drumming that could not be replicated by a drum machine or another artist. That is why DJs and re-mixers are so attracted to it. However, Brown retained compositional credit, only paying Stubblefield for his studio time. As a result, Stubblefield has not been compensated for any of the sampling of his performances. Yet, Stubblefield never sounds bitter, claiming he is not interested in the money, but would just like to be fairly credited. As the saying goes—give the drummer some.

Copyright definitely has a pro-hip hop, anti-lawyer bias. It does allow in a few dissenting voices though, like musician and recording engineer Steve Albini, who describes sampling as “cheap and easy” as opposed to the hard work of making your own music. We also hear from the lawyer who successfully sued Biz Markie for his “uncleared” use of Irish singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally,” who makes a cogent case for artist rights. Still, jazz fans familiar with flutist-composer James Newton’s unsuccessful case against the Beastie Boys will suspect the film somewhat overstates the extent to which the courts have sided against samplers.

While hip hop artists in general are notorious for their legal problems, Copyright wisely confines its inquiry to fair use and ownership issues surrounding sampling. Though it ultimately lines with the mixers and scratchers, it clearly explains the background and context of their legal controversies. Featuring revealing musical commentary from artists deeply immersed in the hip hop culture, including Miho Hatori, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, DJ Qbert, and El-P, the hour-long Copyright is a breezy and informative sampling 101 for the traditionally staid public broadcasting audience. It airs on most PBS outlets this Tuesday (1/19), including New York Thirteen (at 10:00 PM E.S.T).

(Photo: Benjamin Franzen)

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

NYJFF ’10: Happy End

Simon’s family is haunted. Yes, there really is a ghost, though they never see the spirit of his late wife Ada watching over them. It is more their painful memories of the Holocaust which cast dark shadows over the extended Dutch family that has now gathered at what may well be Simon’s deathbed. Director Frans Weisz has revealed their family secrets in a trilogy of films that concludes with Happy End (trailer here), which screens at this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Jewish Museum and the Lincoln Center Film Society.

As End opens, the ghostly Ada provides an overview of the complex family relationships for the benefit of new viewers. Frankly, it brings to mind the deliberately convoluted introductions to the old sitcom Soap. However, the precipitating crisis is clear enough. Simon’s condition is quickly deteriorating and his friends and family are having difficulty coping. While quality of life questions are always difficult to grapple with under such circumstances, it is particularly hard for Simon’s loved ones, because of his experiences during the Holocaust. “One hour above ground is worth an eternity six feet under,” he always told them.

As a man who treasures life, Simon led a full one. He is the father of the fifty-ish Lea and the eighteen year-old Isaac, but by different women. Lea was married to former hospital administrator Nico, who later remarried his first wife Dory. Dory is Isaac’s mother, but she has little time for him, so the teen has essentially been raised by the elderly Simon and his half sister Lea. Confused? Actually, it is even more complicated when Nico’s side of the family is taken into account, but End’s central themes are clearly delineated. As the head of the family, Simon has been the glue holding everyone together, but he is in his twilight years. Conversely, Isaac is awkwardly finding his way in the world as a young man. Yet, even he is deeply affected by the family’s survivor legacy.

A film about a dysfunctional family paying their last respects to their Holocaust survivor patriarch might sound utterly depressing, but End is surprisingly life-affirming. As we encounter Simon in flashbacks, the message that life is to be celebrated comes through clearly and persuasively. Though the ending might seem more than a bit contrived, it is still satisfying in an unabashedly sentimental way.

Weisz’s approach is admirably restrained and sensitive, but the pace never falters. Indeed, the ensemble cast is quite remarkable, keeping the audience fully invested at all times, but never overplaying material that could easily lend itself to melodrama. They truly look and sound like people with decades of shared history (as is indeed the case, since most appeared in the previous installments, Qui vive released in 2001 and Polonaise from 1989). Particularly effective are the scenes between Simon and his unlikely son Isaac, nicely turned by Peter Oosthoek and Jip Loots, respectively.

End presents a consistently interesting cinematic family well worth meeting, despite their many faults. Though it initially suggests a bit of a TV movie vibe, End is a refreshingly mature and nuanced drama, brought to life by a truly fine ensemble cast. It screens during the 2010 NYJFF at the Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater this coming Sunday (1/17) and Tuesday (1/19).

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