J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tord Gustavsen Returns

Great poetry has a funny way of yielding up secrets to readers at the strangest time. A volume of W.H. Auden’s poetry seemed to call to the Norwegian jazz pianist Tord Gustavsen while he was touring Oxford. Something about the verse spoke to Gustavsen, ultimately inspiring Restored, Returned, his latest CD which departs from the trio format the pianist has hitherto excelled in.

When Tord Gustavsen’s debut ECM recording was released in America, it was about as unlikely a sensation as you could imagine, yet it became a surprise breakout hit of the year. Introspective rather than showy (sublimely so, in fact), it followed honorably in the Bill Evans trio tradition. However, his new ensemble will surely surprise his listeners, incorporating reeds, vocals, and even a different bassist (Mats Eilertsen in place of Harald Johnsen).

Still, there is a tranquility to Restored that is well in keeping with Gustavsen’s previous releases. The new group’s sensitive approach is immediately evident in the opening “The Child Within,” a lovely lullaby that perfectly suits Tore Brunborg forlorn sound on the soprano saxophone. It is effectively followed by the minimalist introduction to “Way In,” which slowly builds into a relatively stormy crescendo, before subsiding again.

The first of Gustavsen’s four settings of Auden’s poetry, “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love” has a surprisingly bluesy vibe, largely due to Kristin Asbjørnsen’s “rootsy” vocal style, which bears favorable comparison to Norah Jones. The slight rasp of her voice also brings a lot of character to the slow building title track, nicely contrasting with Brunborg’s crisp tenor.

Indeed, Brunborg has strong straight ahead chops, which he gets to exercise on tenor with the appropriately snaky but still peaceful “Spiral Song,” probably the “pure” jazz highlight of Restored propelled with subtle insistence by drummer (and trio regular) Jarle Vespestad.

Gustavsen’s compositions are consistently intriguing, evolving slyly at odd angles, often ending someplace completely unexpected, as in “The Swirl/Wrapped in a Yielding Air,” a piece built on a slow groove that segues into a sparse, nearly straight spoken word passage from Asbjørnsen that actually is not a particularly supportive arrangement for her distinctive voice. Much more compatible are the various “Lullaby” tracks that feature her haunting wordless vocalizing.

The selected Auden stanzas have a fatalistic romanticism that perfectly suits the darkly evocative elegance of Gustavsen’s music. Like fine poetry it takes on deeper meanings over time with repeated listening. Truly eloquent music, Restored represents a refreshing departure from an already important jazz talent. New Yorkers also have an opportunity to hear the Gustavsen ensemble in live performance tonight (3/31) at Merkin Hall.

Photo: Hans Fredrik Asbjørnsen

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Counter-Revolutionaries: The Warlords

Despite their crypto-Christian apocalyptic ideology, Mao held up the Taiping Rebellion as a forerunner to the Socialist revolution. However, attitudes towards the often brutal Taiping forces have evolved in China to the point where a Hong Kong-Chinese co-production could focus on military commanders loyal to the empire. Featuring plenty of hack-and-slash action and three of Asia’s biggest action stars as blood brother-generals combating the Taipings, Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s The Warlords (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

General Pang Qingyun is not lucky to be alive. Knocked unconscious and buried under a pile of corpses, it is his eternal disgrace to be the sole survivor of his army. Trudging aimlessly, he takes refuge in an abandoned hovel with Lian, a mysterious girl. Eventually, he finds her again in a peasant enclave under the protection of two bandits, Zhao Er-Hu and Jiang Wu-Yang. Obviously a tough customer, the outlaws want to send him on his way, lest he attract trouble. Unfortunately, trouble shows up independently when the army of Pang’s old rival starts pillaging the outlaw community.

Swearing a blood brother oath, the three men organize their remnant into a makeshift army to obtain firearms and the ostensive protection of the Imperial court. With nothing to lose, they bring the fight to the Taiping rebels, winning battles despite their inferior numbers and arms. The future starts to look bright, but there are storm clouds on the horizon as Pang struggles to suppress his attraction for Lian, who he has since discovered is the lover of his blood brother-comrade Zhao.

While not as long in the tooth as Jackie Chan, Jet Li is well into his forties, which makes grizzled action hero roles like Pang wise career choices. He still packs plenty of punch in the action scenes, but he looks credibly world-weary as the veteran warrior. Actually, his character is something of a contradiction. At times, he sounds like an idealist, fighting for freedom and western notions of democracy, yet he also makes ruthlessly cold-blooded battlefield decisions. However, Li largely sells both sides of Pang’s persona.

Deliberately glammed down, popular mainland actress (and at one time the world's top ranked blogger according to technorati) Xu Jinglei also brings a restrained but forceful screen presence as Lian. In truth, the love triangle subplot is better than it has to be in a film like this, which at its core is really about Braveheart style combat sequences. The fighting here is realistically old school, with strategy taking a backseat to brute force, as opposing armies simply hurl bodies at each other.

Megastar Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro (recently seen in John Woo’s Red Cliff) are perfectly credible as Zhao and Jiang, but it is Li’s film. He carries it quite well despite the often distractingly overwrought “if I had known then” narration. After all, this is a Chinese historical drama. Everyone expects a tragic ending coming in.

Though it cannot compete with Cliff’s truly epic battle sequences, Warlord delivers plenty of gritty fight scenes and perhaps Jet Li’s strongest dramatic work to date. A more than satisfying fix for fans of Asian action films, it opens this Friday (4/2) at the Cinema Village.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous: Seisaku’s Wife

The village refers to Seisaku as their "role model soldier." They have much ruder terms for Okane, a former kept woman. Much to everyone’s displeasure, an intimate relationship develops between the fallen woman and the village paragon in Yasuzo Masumura’s Seisaku’s Wife, one of four films starring Ayako Wakao selected for the Japan Society’s Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: Three Untamed Beauties retrospective of great femme fatales in Japanese cinema, which screens this Friday.

Marriage has not been good to Okane. Her first was more of a commercial transaction that culminated with her inheritance of a modest nest egg. When she returns to her old family home with her elderly mother, the gossipy villagers shun her, knowing full well her checkered past. However, the straight-arrow Seisaku finds her interesting, which she most certainly is indeed.

Seisaku marries Okane, but since his family refuses to acknowledge it, they have what we might think of as a common-law relationship. Yet, they are happy for a while. Of course, there are storm clouds on the horizon, including a brewing war with Russia and the enormous social pressures Okane must endure.

Never a director to shy away from controversial material, Masumura mixes a robust cocktail in Wife, incorporating the fallen woman drama, a scathing depiction of small town narrow-mindedness, a protest against gender-based double standards, and a pointed critique of Imperial Japanese militarism (set in this case during the Russo-Japanese War). Yet it is Wakao’s film, body and soul.

Okane is definitely a femme fatale. Emotionally overwrought and unpredictable, she represents a dangerous presence throughout the film. Yet, she is also deeply human and painfully vulnerable. She is after all, the sum product of her hardscrabble environment and exploitative relationships. In a powerful and richly nuanced performance, Wakao is absolutely enthralling as the defiant but insecure Okane. (Truly, nobody could keep up with her in Masumura’s audacious films.)

Layering passionate heat atop a story of high tragedy, Wife is compulsively watchable art cinema. It is also another fine example of the perfectly attuned collaborations between Wakao and Masumura. Currently not available on DVD in America, Wife should not be missed when it screens at the Japan Society this Friday (4/2) as part of their enormously entertaining (and challenging) Mad, Bad, and Dangerous retrospective.

Photos © Kadokawa Pictures, Inc.

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous: Red Angel

In 1996, an ailing Michelangelo Antonioni willed himself out of bed to attend a retrospective of Yasuzo Masumura’s work. Of course, they would not have been the same films without his frequent muse, the great Ayako Wakao, one of three actresses featured in the Japan Society’s new film series, Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: Three Untamed Beauties. Though perhaps their best known collaboration internationally, Masumura’s Red Angel might be something the outlier of the series when it screens this Thursday.

Nurse Nishi is not bad, and frankly she is entitled to be a lot madder than she is. However, knowing her, or anyone else on the Sino-Japanese frontlines during WWII, is certainly dangerous. For Nishi, even her patients represent a clear and present danger. Still, she does her duty faithfully, but is wracked with guilt none the less. Two cases especially trouble her conscience: a wounded soldier who had once attacked her and the multiple-amputee she had shared brief intimate moments with out of compassion.

Despite all the gore and suffering around her, Nishi falls in love with her senior officer, Dr. Akabe. Once a skilled surgeon, he has become little more than an amputator, making triage decisions as quickly as possible. Now addicted to morphine to dull his conscience, Nishi struggles to reawaken his emotions.

While the nurse-doctor relationship might sound like the stuff of weepy melodrama, Angel is a starkly realistic depiction of the staggering human cost of war. Indeed, the sight of severed limbs is relatively common throughout the film. Though not as epic Kobayashi’s Human Condition film cycle, it is far more graphic, perhaps surpassing its revisionist depiction of the Imperial Japanese military’s brutality.

When considering Wakao’s body of work, Angel is an indispensible film. Though she considers herself a murderess, Nishi is really a sympathetic figure, suffering from massive survivor’s guilt and multiple other traumas. Still, she is something of a cinematic survivor in the Scarlett O’Hara tradition. It is an achingly compelling performance, nicely matched by Shinsuke Ashida’s understated turn as Akabe.

Though Masumura’s visuals shockingly illustrate the horrors of war, he handles the personal dramas with extraordinary sensitivity. It is in fact, quite a humanistic film that resists condemning the often brutish Japanese soldiers, blaming instead the nature of war for their specific crimes (in some cases to an extent that is actually problematic).

Over forty years after its initial release, Angel is still a viscerally powerful anti-war film. While it takes a bit of shoehorning to get it into a film series devoted to wicked femme fatales and action rebels, it is worth the stretch. A classic collaboration between Wakao and Masumura, Angel screens at the Japan Society this Thursday (4/1) as the Mad, Bad, and Dangerous series continues.

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Legacy of Shoah Film Festival: Forgotten Transports—To Poland

Most Americans do not appreciate what a beautiful country Poland truly is. Yet, unspeakable atrocities were committed during the National Socialists (and Soviet) occupations, against picturesque backdrops like the town of Zamość (whose central square has been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List). It is the harrowing experiences of Czech Jewry deported to Poland that Lukáš Přibyl records for posterity in To Poland, one of four films in his Forgotten Transports documentary project that screened in its entirety this weekend at The Legacy of Shoah Film Festival at John Jay College’s Gerald B. Lynch Theater.

In each film certain themes develop. While in To Estonia, Přibyl focused on the experiences of women, in Poland there is an emphasis on surviving by one’s wits, particularly through masquerade and assumed identity. Indeed, two survivors discuss in great detail how they were able to escape from their camps and pass for Polish.

Jan Osers story seems especially ripe for cinematic adaptation. Uncircumcised, once he escaped, he had an obvious advantage that often made the difference between spending a few days in jail for vagrancy or returning to a concentration camp. An expressive storyteller, his interview segments are easily the highlights of Přibyl’s Polish installment.

Painstakingly researched and assembled, the Transports project boasts a wealth of rare photos and historical documents that recreate the period quite effectively. The films are also nicely complimented by interesting but never overbearing scores composed by Petr Ostrouchov (a lawyer by vocation, but also a talented musician after hours), featuring a sympathetic mix of vibraphone and bass clarinet for Poland.

The stories Přibyl preserves are both historically important and fascinating examples of human perseverance. One would eventually like to see the entire series available to a mass audience through PBS and on DVD for school collections. While Poland also screened at this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, two Transports films made their New York debut at the Lynch Theater last night. Hopefully, they will also return for further festival engagements, because they are too valuable not to revisit.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Legacy of Shoah Film Festival: Forgotten Transports—To Estonia

There are literally millions of stories connected to the Holocaust that defy human comprehension. Though many are known well known, some are at risk of going undocumented and therefore forgotten. Preventing such further tragedies was the impetus behind Czech filmmaker Lukáš Přibyl’s four-film documentary project Forgotten Transports, the first installment of which, To Estonia, opened the Legacy of Shoah Film Festival at John Jay College’s Gerald Lynch Theater this weekend.

About 1,000 Jewish Czechs were transported to concentration camps in Estonia, of whom only 46 women survived. They tell their story in Transports: Estonia. Somehow, these innocent but resilient young women were able to stay together, despite enduring dehumanizing conditions. As the war turned against the National Socialists, the Czech women in Estonia were sent west to temporarily work in munitions factories, but were eventually relocated, initially to Stutthof and finally to the infamous Bergen-Belsen camp. Against all odds, they worked together to endure horrific conditions, supporting each other physically and emotionally.

Of the prisoners’ desperate tales of survival in the camps, none was more incredible than the story of Inge Sylten. A striking beauty, Sylten caught the eye of Heinz Drosihn, a senior SS officer at the camp in Ereda. Immediately installed in his personal quarters, Sylten secured better treatment not just for herself, but the entire camp, through her humanizing influence on the formerly sadistic Drosihn. As one survivor states: “only Inge made a human being out of him.”

Given the obvious inequality of their respective positions, it is difficult to consider their relationship anything more than exploitation, let alone genuine romance. Yet, at least one survivor claims: “they truly fell in love with each other.” Indeed, when they were denounced to Drosihn’s superiors, they fled together in a doomed attempt to evade the SS.

Estonian death camps are nearly unknown to the general populace, due to their tragically high mortality rate, which left few survivors to give testimony of the crimes that transpired there. Yet, Přibyl still found a number of survivors who are not just willing to speak on camera, but prove quite eloquent when recounting their experiences.

Like the rest of the informative series, Transports: Estonia uses traditional, straight-forward documentary techniques to respectfully address its subject matter. Přibyl’s photo research is particularly impressive, turning up heartbreaking photos of the women’s lives before the Holocaust, as well as some truly eerie photos of their SS tormentors, in which their eyes seem to blaze with demonic evil. An important documentary undertaking, New Yorkers have a rare opportunity to see the entire Transports cycle this weekend as the Legacy of Shoah Film Festival continues at John Jay.

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Mad, Bad, and Dangerous: Tattoo

Yes, Otsuya is a geisha, but if you expect her to be passive and meek, you would assume incorrectly. One can tell just by looking at her that Otsuya is serious trouble, yet it is equally clear why men keep falling for her in Yasuzo Masumura’s Tattoo (trailer here), which fittingly launches Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: Three Untamed Beauties (series trailer here), the Japan Society’s retrospective of three actresses whose films subvert and contradict the prevailing screen stereotypes of Japanese women. Think of it as the anti-geisha series, notwithstanding Ayako Wakao’s Otsuya.

Her father’s apprentice does not seem like much, but Otsuya convinces Shinsuke to run away with her anyway. Unfortunately, they seek shelter from the wrong person. While Otsuya is sold into servitude as a geisha, Shinsuke finds himself a murderer on the run, having killed his own would-be assassin.

Not surprisingly, Otsuya demonstrates a remarkable aptitude for the seductive geisha business. She does not have much choice though. Having been branded with a man-eating geisha-spider tattoo by her purchaser, Otsuya carries the permanent mark of her new life. Though she claims her tattoo has an eerie power over her, it is hard to tell just how different the new Otsuya truly is from the old. Perhaps only her social context has changed. It hardly matters for the men in orbit around her though. Slowly but surely, her fugitive lover, the man who betrayed them, her former master, and the artist who tattooed her, all become enmeshed in her web.

Much like the celebrated collaborations between Setsuko Hara and Yasujiro Ozu, Wakao was a frequent muse-like presence in Masumura’s films, including all four of her selections in the Mad, Bad series. Clearly not intimidated by edgy subject matter, Masumura was considered the forerunner of the so-called Japanese “New Wave.” Yet he apprenticed under master filmmakers Kenji Mizoguchi and Kon Ichikawa. Just as Masumura defies easy classification, so does Tattoo, a film distinguished by the richly elegant look and feel of Japanese art cinema, despite its often sensational storyline.

Characters frequently make decisions in Tattoo that are both morally and logically indefensible, but as melodrama, it is all great fun. Sultry and severe, Wakao’s performance as Otsuya ranks with Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven as one of the all-time great screen femme fatales. With an emasculating gaze, she reduces the rest of the cast to sniveling children. She is indeed dangerous to know.

Tattoo is one of those films in which the audience never develops a true rooting interest per se. Instead, most viewers will watch in rapt fascination to see what amoral depths the characters will sink to. Yet, Masumura’s visual sense and Wakao’s riveting performance are so compelling it is ultimately a thoroughly entertaining, highly recommended cinematic experience. Not currently available on DVD in America, the Japan Society’s screening will be a rare opportunity to see it. A perfect choice to open the retrospective, Tattoo kicks off Mad, Bad this Wednesday (3/31).

Photos © Kadokawa Pictures, Inc.

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Principal: Whatever It Takes

He is on a divinely inspired mission. Principal Edward Tom will educate his students whether they like it or not. The tough-talking inspirational principal leads his Bronx high school through a new academic year in Christopher Wong’s documentary Whatever It Takes (trailer here), which airs this coming Tuesday as part of the current season of PBS’s Independent Lens, following its festival run that included last year’s Asian American International Film Festival here in New York.

As a student, Tom was driven to succeed. After college, he was on the corporate fast track, yet the work was not satisfying. Instead, teaching Sunday school was the most rewarding part of his week. At the behest of his wife, Tom gave the matter serious prayer. He decided if he could get his provisional license and a teaching position during a one week vacation, he would accept it as a definitive sign from God. It only took three days.

Though Tom’s Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics is a public high school, but it looks like a small private school, complete with uniforms. Clearly a hands-on manager, Tom knows every kid by name and takes an active interest in their progress. There is definitely a bit of a Joe Clark swagger to him, but he seems somewhat less confrontational. Still, he does not mince words, constantly exhorting his students not to give excuses for failure but to fully commit to their education. You had better believe he maintains high standards. 80% is his school’s passing grade, not the typical 65%.

In his broadcast cut, Wong focuses on one student to embody the challenges Tom and his faculty face. Sharifea is smart and ambitious, but she is underperforming academically. Despite their dogged efforts, something just seems to be holding her back. Of course, we are reminded early on that Tom will not be able to succeed with every hard-case kid. That simply would not be realistic to expect.

Whatever is a surprisingly good little documentary. Though relatively modest in scope, it offers plenty of positive messages. Wong’s portrait of Tom reveals a man of deep faith who is devoted to his family. It celebrates one person’s ability to make a difference in the lives of many, but tempers its idealism with constructive realism. Wong also refrains from politicizing his boots-on-the-ground examination of education in urban America. The film never explicitly advocates for any specific policy, aside from the general implication that greater personal responsibility from everyone involved, including students and parents, will always lead to better results.

Tom definitely emerges as a charismatic figure, worth getting to know through Wong’s film. Given the mission he has accepted, it is impossible not to root for him. Whatever airs on most PBS outlets Tuesday (3/30).

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Friday, March 26, 2010

ND/NF ’10: The Red Chapel

What a disclaimer. Danish director Mads Brügger explains all the footage the audience is about to watch had been thoroughly vetted by North Korean state censors. Yet his suspicion that the post-modern irony he would unleash on the world’s most isolated country would not be recognized as such by the Communist authorities proved largely correct. The gutsiest act of cinematic provocation perhaps ever, Mads Brügger’s The Red Chapel (trailer here) is easily the highlight of this year’s New Directors New Films.

Ostensively, Brügger came to North Korea with two Danish Korean comedians, Simon Jul Jørgensen and Jacob Nossell to stage a good will show. However, his real intent was to expose the oppressive nature of DPRK system. Though submission to state censorship was a given right from the start, Brügger thought he had an ace in the hole: Nossell.

A self-described “spastic” (his words, not mine), the subversive director knew Nossell would make the North Koreans uneasy, since those born with disabilities simply do not survive in their socialist paradise. Brügger also hoped Nossell would be able to speak freely on film, because none of the censors would understand his “spastic Danish” (again, his words, not mine).

As soon as the Danes arrived in the North, their minder, Mrs. Pak, stuck to them like glue. Her response to Nossell was particularly bizarre, almost smothering him with attention. However, even Mrs. Pak could not fake an enthusiastic response to the program the comedians had prepared. Featuring skits in drag and an unclassifiable rendition of Oasis’s “Wonderwall,” it was not just bad, it was awe-inspiringly awful. It is hard to say which is funnier, their variety show on crack or the stoned face reactions. However, seeing the propaganda potential of the show, the North Korean authorities set about adapting it to their ideological purposes. So much for cultural exchange.

While Chapel is at times a riotous exercise in comedic performance art, the overall film is as serious as a heart attack. The pathological nature of DPRK society weighed particularly heavily on Nossell, causing frequent rifts between him and the director. It all comes to a head when Nossell very publically refuses to participate in one of the regime’s big scary anti-American mass demonstrations. It is scene fraught with its own irony, as Brügger, the rebellious gadfly, tries to cajole his countrymen into professing support for what he calls the regime’s “mother lie,” the Communist myth that American aggression precipitated the Korean War.

Though he makes a noble effort, Brügger fails to capture the smoking gun scene that would utterly lay bear North Korea’s tyranny. Of course, he was doomed from the start, because the Communists set all the rules and could change them at their convenience. Still, they are plenty of telling moments (particularly the climatic demonstration), as well as some outrageous humor.

Chapel has been compared to the “Yes Men,” but that does not do Brügger justice. Unlike the play-it-safe leftist pranksters, Brügger was punking a target that exercises absolute, unchecked power, on its own turf. Based on the DPRK’s apoplectic response to the film, it is doubtful Brügger will ever return to make a sequel. He probably will not miss the place. Beyond surreal, Chapel simply has to be seen to be believed. Enthusiastically recommended, it screens next Saturday (4/3) at MoMA and next Sunday (4/4) at the Walter Reade, as New Films New Directors continues.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

ND/NF ’10: My Perestroika

Even though he was badly hung-over, he knew there was a national crisis. Though the Russian did not know at the time the hard-line Communist coup had deposed Mikhail Gorbachev, he saw Swan Lake was the only program on television. For some reason, the Soviets always broadcasted the Tchaikovsky ballet during periods of internal turmoil. It is telling details like this that connect the personal to the grandly historical in Robin Hessman’s documentary My Perestroika (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors New Films, jointly presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA.

A Russophile in high school, Hessman was working for LENFILM, the Soviet film agency based in what was then Leningrad at the time of the infamous coup. Through her time working and studying in Russian, Hessman developed a keen appreciation for the stoic nobility of average Russian citizens, which is clearly reflected in Perestroika. Using five former classmates as representative everymen, Hessman subjectively presents the last forty-some years of Russian and Soviet history through their memories and home movies.

Yes, there is a certain nostalgia for their childhood years lived under the yoke of Soviet tyranny. However, it is really for their lost innocence rather than the supposed virtues of the Brezhnev era. As becomes clear in their interviews, as the Perestroika generation came of age, it also became disillusioned.

Still, not all of the film’s lead voices are doing badly. An entrepreneur with a small chain of high-end men’s clothing stores, Andrei has done quite well for himself. He is also the most vocal critic of the current Putin regime. In contrast, life is a struggle for single mother Olga, who works servicing the bars that rent her company’s billiard tables. The married school teachers Borya and Lyuba are somewhere in the middle, still living in the same cramped apartment he grew up in. As for Ruslan the busker, he defies easy classification and harbors few illusions.

While none of the five have led exceptional lives, Hessman had the good fortune to find participants who had been somewhat in the vicinity of great events. Borya and Lyuba in particular, remember the thrill of resigning from the Communist Youth, as soon as it was safe to do so. Later, they joined the protests against the 1991 coup, but again they did so without feeling any threat of imminent danger. Indeed, there is a constant sense of irony throughout Perestroika that seems so fittingly Russian.

Indeed, the experiences of Perestroika’s subjects defy easy classification, at various times lending credence to wide array of political interpretations (though it is hard to find much in the film to justify faith in the Putin’s puppet government). Of course, life is messy that way, especially in Russia. Hessman’s fascinating film captures that reality quite well. It screens today (3/25) at MoMA and Sunday (3/28) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of New Films New Directors.

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ND/NF ’10: 3 Backyards

Prepare to venture someplace exotic: suburbia. Though the quiet Long Island neighbor is not far from The City, it is presented as someplace more remote than Tasmania in Eric Mendelsohn’s 3 Backyards, which screens during New Directors New Films this year.

John does not want to talk. His marriage is experiencing a bit of a rough patch. Though the specifics are hazy, it is probably safe to say communication is an issue. Much to his wife’s frustration, he is using a business trip to avoid uncomfortable conversations. He even accepts a free hotel room when his flight is cancelled, rather than return home to his wife. Of course, they are not the only ones on the block with issues.

Peggy is an amateur artist obsessed with a movie star staying in the neighborhood incognito. When the celebrity asks her for a lift to the ferry, she leaps at the chance to forge a bond with the actress. Meanwhile Christina, a young school girl, is alarmed to discover she dropped her mother’s expensive bracelet in the backyard of a creepy teenager of ambiguous mental capacity on her way to school.

As Christina, Rachel Resheff proves to be a very engaging young actress. Unfortunately, her rather flat story arc is undoubtedly the film’s least developed. While the actress’s story has a sharp edge to it, Edie Falco (a.k.a. Carmella Soprano) painfully overplays as the self-esteem challenged Peggy. In contrast, the comparatively understated Embeth Davidtz is quite effective as the mysterious actress. By far though, the most successful scenes in Backyards feature the quietly intense Elias Koteas as John, the only character to undergo an interesting transformation during the course of the film.

Evidently aware of the frequent depictions of suburban angst in indie film, Mendelsohn gives Backyards a truly distinctive visual style, focusing on the lushness of the nature seemingly just held at bay at the outskirts of the neighborhood. Indeed, cinematographer Kasper Tuxen’s painterly use of sunlight is quite striking. The flute and string score composed by Michael Nicholas gives the film an additional layer of classy polish (even though it is distractingly loud in the overall audio mix).

Superficially, Backyards looks and sounds quite pretty, but it does not have much depth. Still, there is some nice work in the film, particularly from Koteas and Resheff. Ultimately, what probably could have been two decent shorts have been padded together with a third sketch into a rather languid full length feature. An excursion to all-too familiar indie terrain, Backyards screens tomorrow (3/26) at the Walter Reade Theater and Sunday (3/28) at MoMA.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

All the Mouse’s Men: Waking Sleeping Beauty

It is a multi-billion dollar entertainment company, yet it is still guided by the spirit of its charismatic founder, whose family members have held positions of leadership in the company many years after his death. There is only one Walt Disney Company, but the Mouse was not roaring so loudly in the early 1980’s. How Disney’s demoralized animation department recaptured their past glory is now documented in Don Hahn’s documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York and Los Angeles.

For an animator, there was no place like Disney. However, the company seemed to be drifting under the leadership of Ron Miller (Walt Disney’s son-in-law). Still in the business of animated features, Disney’s Fox and the Hound scored a modest success in 1981, but the following Black Cauldron was considered a disaster in all respects. By this point, nephew and former board member Roy Disney had led a shareholder revolt that instilled Michael Eisner as CEO.

Evidently, Eisner and his studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg were not too sure what to make of those weird animators and their costly films, but they had a powerful protector in the new Vice Chairman, Roy Disney. Though they suffered several humiliations along the way, the animation department eventually reasserted itself as the engine of the company with the spectacular successes of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.

Directed by Hahn, the producer of Beauty and King, Waking addresses some surprisingly sensitive company history. However, its allegiances clearly lie with the animators rather than the suits. Indeed, it could have been just as aptly titled Surviving Katzenberg, who probably takes the most hits throughout the film for his relentless self-promotion in the media. Yet the film’s dishiest revelations involve the difficult relations between the triumvirate of Eisner the boss, his lieutenant Katzenberg, and Roy Disney the elder statesman, as well as the mediating role played by the late company president Frank Wells. In fact, Waking clearly suggests the tragic accidental death of Wells signaled the effective end of era for the studio.

Hahn and producer Peter Schneider (former president of Disney Animation) consciously eschewed talking head scenes, instead playing audio interviews over rare archival video of the Disney Studios during the 1984-1994 period under consideration. Though that is usually a more visually evocative approach, there are times during Eisner and Katzenberg’s remarks it would be helpful to judge their facial expressions. Still, they did indeed get the big three on tape, thanks to the hours of interviews conducted by Patrick Pacheco (perhaps not a big name outside of the City, but recognizable to many New Yorkers as a frequent guest commentator on NY1’s Broadway report, On-Stage).

While Waking includes many clips and storyboards from the animated films referenced, it is far more about the corporate-creative tensions at Disney than the animation process per se. Still, even though Hahn keeps the film moving along at a healthy trot, it probably helps to go into Waking with a strong appreciation for Disney’s modern animated classics. More interesting and candid than one might expect, it opens in New York this Friday (3/26) at the Landmark Sunshine.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Asia Society: Betelnut

Calling them rebels without causes would be overstating matters. They are really just causeless. Two rootless, antisocial youths give little thought to the future as the drift through life in Yang Heng’s Betelnut, which screens this Friday as part of the Asia Society’s ongoing retrospective of contemporary independent Chinese cinema.

There is not much difference between two young men living together outside the law, along the Hunan riverbank. When not aimlessly riding through the countryside on presumably stolen motorbikes, they haunt internet cafes and perpetrate petty crimes. They also both have a taste for the titular stimulant and neither is particularly keen on getting jobs or making plans. They just drift.

Still, they are young, extremely unattached males, so it is hardly surprising when they start getting ideas about two local girls. The older boy is relatively straight forward in his pursuit, but his less mature running mate carries out vaguely disconcerting schemes to come into contact with the apparently unobtainable object of his affections. At least he is starting to make plans.

The characters that inhabit Betelnut, especially its protagonists, are net savvy, chatting with strangers across the country. Yet it is nearly impossible for them to communicate face-to-face. They just do not have anything to say.

Yang is definitely a director who believes in holding a good shot. Indeed, many of his tableaus are quite striking. While he patiently allows scenes to develop in their own good time, Yang often allows Betelnut to slow to a languorous pace, even compared to the impressionistic films of Jia Zhangke and his contemporaries of the so-called “Sixth Generation.” Yet, despite the film’s stillness, the promise of heat induced violence always feels palpable.

In Betelnut, Yang reflects a somewhat different perspective of China. Rather than grimly bemoaning globalization or the rise of statist capitalism, it presents a generation defined by its own nihilism and indolence, while showing little concern for the underlying causes.

Except for the occasional bystander, nobody in Betelnut could be past their very early twenties. Though young, the cast is uniformly natural and unaffected, each absolutely looking and acting as if they were plucked from Hunan riverbanks.

The uncompromisingly naturalistic Betelnut is one of the more demanding films of the Asia Society’s current independent Chinese film series. However, almost every frame is obviously painstakingly crafted by a keen visual stylist. Definitely a film for connoisseurs, it screens this Friday (3/26) at the Asia Society.

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Breillat’s Bluebeard

He introduced the world to the dark side of fairy tale romance. Charles Perrault’s notorious French nobleman was married several times, but never achieved a “happily ever after” ending. Still, he is fabulously wealthy, so one young girl gives him another chance in Bluebeard (trailer here), Catherine Breillat’s take on the 1697 fairy tale, which opens this Friday in New York.

After the tragic death of their father, sisters Marie-Catharine and Anne are forced to leave their Catholic boarding school, returning to their middle class hovel with few prospects. However, the local lord is looking for a new wife, since he keeps misplacing the old ones. Everyone knows he is bad news, but he is also rich and powerful, so there is nothing to be done. Yet, he seems sad and sympathetic to Marie-Catherine, the younger, more impulsive sister, so she willingly consents. Of course, we know where this story goes, as do Catherine and Marie-Anne, two even younger sisters scarring themselves with the Bluebeard fairy tale in the film’s narrative framing device.

Though Breillat has a reputation as a feminist provocateur, it seems like the most overtly feminist aspect of her Bluebeard comes in her choice of source material. Yes, the lord is a manipulative, homicidal monster of a husband. He’s Bluebeard, after all. However, Breillat humanizes him to a surprising extent.

The contrast between the very young looking Lola Créton as Marie-Catherine and the hulking Dominique Thomas as the much older Bluebeard is deliberately creepy. Yet, far from a shrinking violet, the young wife initially appears to hold the upper hand, insisting on separate sleeping quarters until she reaches an appropriate age. In fact, the scenes of the courtship and their early days of marriage are played with surprising sensitivity. Indeed, these sequences really distinguish Breillat’s Bluebeard from the many prior film adaptations of the Perrault fairy tale. Still, we know where the film must be heading.

Or perhaps not. Breillat has a strange narrative boom to lower that would seem like a cheat if she had not so deftly established it in earlier scenes. While it might not make her Bluebeard a popular crowd pleaser, it is masterfully effective filmmaking. If nothing else, it is definitely memorable.

Though the trappings of the grotesque nobleman are outwardly sumptuous, Breillat keeps the eerie fable atmosphere cold and dark. Unfortunately, the film’s initial scenes traffic in some tired stereotypes of predictably callous and intolerant Catholic nuns. Ultimately though, Breillat offers a fresh and intriguing reinterpretation of the Bluebeard legend, aided by its small but very strong cast. It opens this Friday (3/26) at the IFC Film Center.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

BCBC: Poncho Sanchez Live

According to Latin Jazz legend Poncho Sanchez, Saturday night’s concert was the first time he could recall playing in Brooklyn. He would receive the Cultural Leadership Award from Brooklyn College’s Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts (BCBC) at their 2010 Fiesta Caliente Gala shortly thereafter—a nice gig to make his borough debut.

“Just a little bit of soul,” Sanchez exhorted during the BCBC concert opener, a rendition of “One Mint Julep,” Ray Charles’s jazz instrumental hit. Indeed, Sanchez has always been a master of hot, rhythmic Latin Jazz with a funky kick, in the Willie Bobo tradition. For his latest CD, Psychedelic Blues, he even enlisted a guitarist deliberately recalling the special sound guitarist Sonny Terry brought to the Bobo band. Though Sanchez still tours with his regular working group (led by music director-pianist David Torres, sans guitar), the Psychedelic tunes are still well within their power zone, including the Bobo medley, “I Don’t Know/Fried Neck Bones and Some Home Fries/Spanish Grease,” which proved to be one of the biggest crowd pleasers last night.

With his silver beard and white taped fingers looking claw like from a distance, the burly, energetic Sanchez cut a bear-like figure from a distance Saturday night. Periodically, Sanchez also got out from behind his congas to front the band with his surprisingly smooth vocals, including the “I Don’t Know” portion of the Bobo tribute and the rollicking concert closer “Raise Your Hand,” courtesy of Stax Soul. He is still a dynamic conguero though, displaying the fleet hands that first brought him to prominence as a member of Cal Tjader’s band.

Sanchez’s regular working group (who can all be heard on Psychedelic) is a great mid-sized ensemble with a big sound. George Ortiz provided strong rhythmic accompaniment on the timbales and made the most of his high energy feature spot in “Do It.” Ron Blake might have been an audience favorite, taking several solos ranging well into the higher registers (though not quite Dizzy or Arturo Sandoval territory), yet maintaining an eloquent articulation. Javier Vergara doubled on multiple reeds, but displayed a particularly pleasing tone on alto, cutting through the roiling band yet still sounding warm and inviting.

Even in a concert hall setting, Sanchez and his musicians easily established a strong rapport with the audience, often joking with the rowdier patrons. In fact, bassist David Barda and trombonist-arranger Francisco Torres were probably just as vocal as Sanchez himself. Definitely, the Sanchez band has a real old school entertain-the-people work ethic.

Indeed, this is fun music that anyone can relate to. Mixing salsa tunes with jazz standards-turned Latin standards, like Coltrane’s “Afro Blue,” showcasing Joey De Leon’s dynamic percussion, Sanchez kept the hall moving and grooving nicely. Some more assertive souls even started dancing in the aisles, even though the hall is not optimal for audience participation.

Still, BCBC is a seriously good deal to hear an artist of Sanchez’s caliber in a two-set concert, as opposed to one set in a Manhattan club at probably two to three times the cost. Upcoming BCBC jazz related shows include the big band music revue In the Mood, and performances by the Brooklyn College Big Band featuring Fred Ho’s Afro-Asian Ensemble and the United States Air Force Band of Liberty. A great live band, Poncho Sanchez in concert is definitely a recommended listening experience, as is Psychedelic Blues, now available from Concord Records, Sanchez’s labels for twenty four releases going back to 1982’s Sonando.

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Canadian Front ’10: Suck

Rock is dead, but it can still make a big mess—at least in Canada. When Joey Winner’s grade-z garage band, The Winners, starts to take off, it is definitely the result of supernatural causes (and a mounting body count). Boasting a host of rock & roll cameos, writer-director Rob Stefaniuk’s Suck (trailer here) is a funnier than average monster mash-up that screens during the 2010 Canadian Front, MoMA’s annual celebration of the cinema of our northern neighbor.

Someone more or less says it in the film: “The Winners are losers,” except Jessica, the band’s bass player and eye candy. Since she started with the ghostly goth look, the band’s meager fortunes have improved. Of course, she has recently been turned into a vampire and has forced the band’s Renfieldesque roadie to become her body-disposing familiar.

When the slow-on-the-uptake Winner figures out the truth, he tries to set some ground rules, like no more killing and no turning anymore band-members into vampires. Right, good luck with that. Of course, he also recognizes the novelty appeal of having a vampire in the band. As they tour from Toronto to their big CMJ showcase in New York, they leave a trail of body parts one-eyed vampire hunter Eddie Van Helsing can easily follow.

Suck is all about rock & roll, but there are recurring scenes that riff on the Robert Johnson crossroads legend, which are pretty cool. They also feature Alice Cooper as the film’s shadowy malevolent presence, making them even cooler. Other notable rock cameo appearances include Iggy Pop (also very cool), Moby (surprisingly funny), and Henry Rollins (totally lame).

The comedy of Suck might not be groundbreaking, but Stefaniuk’s twists on the old “you look pale” jokes are consistently funny. As a screen mash-up, Suck has a good work ethic, splattering out one joke after another, hoping to keep audiences amused (which mostly they will be). Particularly clever are its frequent take-offs on the iconic imagery of rock & roll history. As the lead, Stefaniuk is sort of a poor man’s Ben Stiller, but at least he keeps everything on track. Canadian former Kid in the Hall Dave Foley generates some big laughs as the band’s cynical manager, while Malcolm McDowell chews the scenery with entertaining relish as Van Helsing.

A film titled Suck is just asking for critical abuse, but Stefaniuk’s film is quite funny in its own cheerfully blood speckled way. Those well versed in the Canadian music scene will especially enjoy the cameos (many of whom might be somewhat lost on healthy American audiences) and could even recognize some of the dive clubs in which it was shot. It screens tomorrow (3/22) as Canadian Front concludes at MoMA.

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Rendezvous ’10: The Law

Anyone having pursued serious studies at a four year academic institution probably has a passing familiarity with a little card game called “Presidents and [let’s call it] ‘Non-Presidents.’” As vicious as it can get, American undergrads have nothing on Mediterranean gangsters. Indeed, one fishing village’s institutionalized drinking game serves as the local crime boss’s instrument of social control in Jules Dassin’s 1959 classic The Law, which fittingly plays the final day of this year’s Rendezvous with French Cinema on Sunday.

In a vividly evocative opening sequence, it is clear there is a lot of want in this small town. Unemployed men lounging in the square want a job (as long as it is not too much work) and just about everyone wants Marietta, Don Cesare’s fiery young maid. Though Marietta enjoys her reputation as the town disgrace, she really wants to land a husband. She has her eye fixed on Enrico Tosso, the idealistic agricultural engineer assigned to the district, but of course he does not have two hundred Liras to rub together. She also has to contend with the unwelcome attentions of Matteo Brigante, the more savage than suave racketeer whose power in the village rivals Don Cesare. It is he who rewards loyalty and punishes opposition through the game locals call “The Law.”

How good is the cast of The Law? No less than Marcello Mastroianni is easily overlooked as the earnest but clueless Tosso. There is no overlooking Gina Lollobrigida though as the passionate Marietta. At the height of her standing as an international sex symbol, she burns up the screen, particularly when facing down the reptilian Brigante, played with oily flare by Yves Montand. Rounding out the cast of international superstars is Greek actress and frequent Dassin collaborator (in Phaedra and Never on Sunday, among others) Melina Mercouri as Donna Lucrezia, the older married woman furtively involved with Brigante’s son.

With hot Mediterranean blood pounding every which way, The Law is a good clean lurid entertainment. Setting up scenes that crackle with wit, Dassin pulls viewers through at a breakneck pace. Particularly striking is the shadowy confrontation late in the picture between Montand and Mercouri that resembles dance choreography. In a way, it is like a scandal sheet adapted in the style of classical tragedy.

Filmed in gorgeous black-and-white by Otello Martelli, The Law definitely has a noir look to match its dark melodrama. Yet, for all the terrible things that happen or nearly happen in the film, it is always great fun. Truly, more contemporary film noirs should follow its example. It screens tomorrow (3/21) at the Walter Reade as this year’s French Rendezvous concludes.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

Jia Zhangke at MoMA: Spring in a Small Town

They live in a once grand home half demolished by bombs in a town that cuts off all electricity at midnight. Yet, knowing what institutional madness lies ahead, these were actually days of relative peace and sanity for one family in 1948 China. Banned after the Communist takeover in 1949 for being insufficiently political, Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town, has since been rehabilitated, hailed by many as a true masterpiece of Chinese cinema. Having influenced Jia Zhangke, particularly his short Cry Me A River, it screens tomorrow as the conclusion of the MoMA’s Jia retrospective.

At one point, Dai Liyan would have been a good catch. Now sick in spirit as much as in body, he is tended to by his cold but dutiful wife Zhou Yuwen and Old Huang, the still loyal family retainer. The only spark of life in the house is provided by his vivacious younger sister Dai Xiu, until the fateful day Dai’s old friend Zhang Zhichen pays a visit.

It turns out Zhang also has quite a bit of history with Zhou as well, having nearly been engaged years ago. Inevitably, sparks flare up again between the two frustrated lovers, despite their efforts not to hurt Dai. Further complicating matters, Dai Xiu also seems to have eyes for Zhang, which would be a match her brother would like to make. It all eventually unravels in a Chekhovian melodrama, featuring characters too tired for melodrama.

Helmed with a delicate touch by Fei, Spring is all about regret, but never about anger. These characters have made their choices and are prepared to deal with them. As Zhang, Li Wei is decency incarnate, while Wei Wei exudes quiet fortitude as Zhou. Fei also brilliantly incorporates his two main sets, the decrepit family house and the equally dilapidated city wall (a frequent rendezvous destination), creating a vivid sense of time and place. While it is a bit intrusive at first, Zhou’s frequent narration also heightens the sense of a time gone by.

Old-fashioned in the best sense, Spring is lovely film about the flawed individuals that make up the extended Dai family. It is all the more poignant when one speculates what would happen to them, given their “bourgeoisie” lineage, post-1949. It is a heartbreaking thought. Screening with Jia’s Cry, which also addresses the pain of love denied, Spring wraps up the Jia retrospective at MoMA this Saturday (3/20).

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Prodigal Uncle: Lost Souls (Animas Perdidas)

“I’m their father, but I’m not their dad right now.” Such is the compelling confession a young filmmaker hears from her long absent uncle. While her resulting documentary seemingly begins as an issue-driven examination of immigration law, it quickly becomes a real life drama about one man compulsively avoiding personal responsibility for the mistakes of his life. Just twenty-one years of age when she began the film, Monika Navarro discovers some very personal family history in Lost Souls (Animas Perdidas), which airs this coming Tuesday as part of the current season of PBS’s Independent Lens (trailer here).

Navarro’s Uncles Augie and Gino were not naturalized American citizens, but they served honorably in the U.S. military. Unfortunately, after their service, both got deeply involved in the drug scene as users and dealers. Despite their family ties and veteran status, both uncles were eventually deported, with Gino dying in Mexico shortly thereafter.

Filmmaker Navarro and her mother Gaby, an immigration attorney, both clearly believe Augie’s expulsion was overly severe. However, they seem to place the blame squarely on his shoulders. Wanting answers from the uncle she hardly knew, Navarro tracked him down in Mexico for a series of dramatic confrontations, which of course, she captured on film.

Brutally honest to a fault, Lost often feels downright intrusive. It is hard not to wince when we see Augie “borrow” twenty dollars from his niece. To her credit though, Navarro does not let her prodigal uncle off the hook, forcefully grilling him on the terrible choices he made, which continue to have an impact not just on him, but also on his entire family. Indeed, Lost is the sort of documentary that approaches reality television terrain. Yet, it seriously presents themes of personal responsibility and redemption.

There is a glut of immigration themed documentaries currently on the festival circuit, but Lost is far more compelling than most of its competition. Focusing on its distinct family dramas rather than topical issues, it is a film that fully understands actions have consequences. Despite its uncomfortably voyeuristic elements, Lost has merit, particularly as a debut feature. It airs this coming Tuesday (3/23) on most PBS stations.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Love and Ideology: Vincere

She loved him as an atheist socialist and she loved him as a militant fascist, but he did her wrong. Though his outward appearance altered considerably, the man—Il Duce himself—remained the basically the same manipulator, at least as represented in Marco Bellocchio’s passionate drama Vincere (trailer here), which opens Friday in New York.

While it is a generally accepted historical fact that Ida Dalser and Benito Mussolini were lovers, the details of her life are largely shrouded in mystery, just as the Fascist dictator had intended. When she first met him, he was a fervent leftist, rioting on the streets for the cause of Socialism. It was the man that attracted Dasler though, not his ideology.

Though still professing an ardent faith in Socialism, Mussolini breaks with the party over his fiery support for the Italian war effort, which he prophesizes will become an effective vehicle for the workers’ revolution (one could even argue Russia proved his point). Utterly transfixed by his magnetism, Dasler liquidates her fashion emporium to finance Mussolini’s war-mongering Socialist newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, the eventual mouthpiece of the Fascist party.

Not being a hypocrite at least, Mussolini enlists, but was eventually wounded in action. Rushing to visit him in the hospital, Dasler finds another woman claiming to be Mussolini’s wife at his side. At this point, her life got difficult. When Dasler presses her claim on Mussolini, she and Benito Albino, the son he had once acknowledged, find themselves consigned to convents, monasteries, and asylums to protect Il Duce’s reputation, even though Vincere suggests everyone knew everything anyway.

Bold and sweeping, Vincere resembles grand opera with the arresting Giovanna Mezzogiorno singing all the arias as Dalser. We watch in horror as her obsessive love makes her crazy, but not insane. It is a scary, bravura screen performance. Conversely, Filippo Timi is an icy screen presence. His Mussolini is a stone user, regardless which dogma he championed. Indeed, Vincere is a direct challenge to preconceived notions of labels and their efficacy, inviting the question, what really was the difference between Mussolini the socialist and Mussolini the fascist?

Of course, within the context of Vincere, such terms have enormous import. Bellocchio brilliantly transports the audience to an overheated early twentieth century Italy, where every debate could ignite bloody mayhem. It is a hot house world, obsessed with ideology and propaganda, from news reels to underground broadsheets produced in dark, smelly cellars. Ultimately, it is power over the printed word that damns Dalser to obscurity, even though nobody seriously doubts her story.

Daniele Cipri’s stylistically dazzling cinematography combines film noir with Grand Guignol, almost overwhelming viewers with its visual power. Bellocchio also shows a genuine talent for staging a riot, but he does so in service of a story that critiques extremist ideology rather than celebrating it. This is big filmmaking, yet it is a handful of key scenes that burn themselves into one’s memory, like that of the dictator’s shunned son impersonating his father with such intensity he literally froths at the mouth.

A lot of loaded terms could be thrown at Vincere, like proto-feminist or post-ideological, but it is also high drama rendered exquisitely on-screen. Exhausting in a good way, it opens Friday (3/19) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Meet Lisbeth Salander: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

It seems like a cruel twist of fate that Stieg Larsson’s international bestselling success only came posthumously. Heightening the irony, the ardent Trotskyite’s literary estate has been at the center of protracted legal and media controversies. Yet a far more sinister family drama lies at the heart of Niels Arden Oplev’s big screen adaptation of Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which opens Friday in select cities.

Lisbeth Salander is a difficult woman to get to know. However, the hacker for hire can find out all there is to know about anyone else—for a price, of course. Her latest target she actually finds sort of interesting: Mikael Blomkvist, a leftist journalist about to serve a prison sentence for slandering a controversial businessman. Based on Salander’s vetting, Blomkvist has been hired by retired industrialist Henrik Vanger to solve the decades old disappearance of his niece Harriet during what little liberty he has remaining.

Still grieving the loss of his favorite niece, the old Vanger finds little comfort from the rest of his ghoulish family, many of whom were (and continue to be) open Nazi sympathizers. With a large, ugly family full of suspects to check out, Blomkvist has his work cut out for him, but he finds an unlikely ally when Salander reaches out to him.

Perhaps the most internationally prominent female character in Swedish literature since Pippi Longstocking, casting Salander was a tricky business. However, Noomi Rapace perfectly personifies the goth hacker, capturing both her allure and her creepiness. Though a mysterious figure, Rapace effectively humanizes her, which makes some graphic scenes involving her abusive parole officer difficult viewing. Still, her scenes are far and away the most compelling of the film.

The Vangers’ dark family history and the pattern of ritual killings Blomkvist and Salander uncover form a fantastic set-up, but Dragon falters during the follow-through. The film seems fresh and bold when candidly delving into the legacy of not-so neutral Sweden's support for Hitler’s National Socialism, but the plot ultimately descends into rather conventional thriller devices.

Michael Nyqvist has an appealing Swedish Harrison Ford middle-aged hero quality as Blomkvist, the libelous lefty. In a surprisingly sympathetic role (given Larsson’s politics), Sven-Bertil Taube also portrays the patriarch industrialist with memorable dignity and compassion. However, the film is dominated by Rapace’s riveting screen presence as Salander.

Dragon’s two and a half hour running time is more than a bit long, particularly since it is really a handful of sequences that define the film. Fortunately though, it is not fatally submerged in its author’s politics, retaining his leftism essentially as ornamental window trappings. Not for the overly sensitive, Dragon is a good but not great thriller. It opens in New York this Friday (3/19) at the Sunshine, Lincoln Plaza, and Chelsea Cinemas.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Italian Holiday: Mid-August Lunch

In Matteo Garrone’s Gommorah, co-writers Gianni Di Gregorio and Garrone dramatized the reign of terror of the Camorra, Italy’s clannish criminal organization considered more ruthless than the Mafia. In their new collaboration, they bring us four hungry old ladies who expect to be waited on hand-and-foot. I’d rather tangle with the Camorra. Unfortunately, the down-on-his-luck Gianni is stuck with his 93-year old mother and three elderly guests in Mid-August Lunch (trailer here), Di Gregorio’s directorial debut produced by Garrone, which opens in New York on Wednesday.

Writer-director Di Gregorio also stars as his debt-ridden namesake, who happily still has credit at his local wine emporium. He might not have a lot of prospects, but at least he enjoys good food and drink. Most of his days are spent quietly caring for his mother, who might be difficult but appreciates his cooking. In arrears to Luigi, the landlord, he agrees to take care of his mother during Pranzo di Ferragosto, Italy’s summer holiday weekend.

Much to Gianni’s surprise, Luigi shows up with an extra old lady, his aunt. When the family doctor also asks a similar favor, Gianni finds himself looking after his mother as well. Hit on and put upon by the strange old ladies, Gianni suddenly has to whip up a traditional Ferragosto lunch for four demanding palettes.

While Lunch steadily builds to its titular meal, it really is not a food movie in the Babette’s Feast and Eat Drink Man Woman tradition, because it never truly luxuriates in the scenes of food preparation and presentation. Gianni just puts it on the table and they eat it. Still, even though Lunch is set during the off season, scenes of Gianni and his drinking buddy Viking scootering in and around Rome, nicely evoke the Dolce Vita vibe. Indeed, Gian Enrico Bianchi’s elegant lensing gives the city a warm, inviting look.

While there is not much dramatic heavy lifting for any of Lunch’s cast, Di Gregorio is an appealing protagonist to spend time with. Bearing a certain resemblance to Jerry Orbach, his face is appropriately lined with character. He is a convincing nice guy, who makes the brief Lunch a pleasant if slight cinematic experience.

If spending time with four gabby old ladies is your idea of the good life, Lunch is the film for you. Ultimately, it is more of a light snack than a rich feast, but it has its discrete charms. It opens this Wednesday (3/17) at Film Forum.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Asia Society: Perfect Life

Now connected by a modern rail link, traveling between Hong Kong and the Chinese city of Shenzhen is no big deal. Social mobility though, is far more elusive for two struggling Chinese women. One is real, while the other is fictional, but they both lead similar lives that will eventually bring them to the same corner of Shenzhen in Emily Tang’s Perfect Life, co-produced by Jia Zhangke, which screens this Friday at the Asia Society as part of its ongoing series of independent Chinese films.

Li’s mother pulled her out of school to help support her brother’s studies. Shortly thereafter, she abandoned her family. Dutifully, Li has taken care of her brother, but it is becoming increasingly clear their mother picked the wrong scholar in the family. Working as a maid in a hotel, Li meets a frequent guest obviously involved in something fishy. Though she rebuffs his advances, she agrees to shuttle a contraband painting to Shenzhen, where he promises to establish her in a new life. It is there Li has a brief encounter with Jenny.

Jenny Tse has not been any happier in go-go Hong Kong than Li has been in her dreary northern industrial town. Lured by the hope of profitable employment, Tse married the wrong man. Now she is battling depression and working crummy jobs while embroiled in various legal battles with her ex.

Life’s primary focus falls on Li’s story, with Tse’s appearances coming in relatively brief documentary interludes. Of course, the parallels between the two characters are clear. Neither has any real prospects to speak of, nor do they have any meaningful familial support.

Watching films like Life and those directed by co-producer Jia can be an ironic experience. Often they critique contemporary Communist China and its crony Capitalism with similar cinematic language used to decry western Capitalism by American and European filmmakers. Indeed, in Life Tang pointedly presents a modern China rife with class-based inequity and rampant sexism. Welcome to the new China everybody.

Carrying the bulk of the film on her shoulders, Yao Qianyu is a quietly riveting screen presence. Though still an attractive woman, we can see what a toll life has already taken on her. Audiences definitely feel for her, particularly considering how many of her woes are attributable to simply being a woman born in an economically depressed region.

Independent Chinese films like Life give one the impression China has perversely combined the worst aspects of Communism and Capitalism. Yet more than mere social criticism, Life is also heartrending drama, presented by Tang with unsparing intimacy. Highly recommended (if also somewhat demanding of viewers) it screens at the Asia Society on Manhattan’s elegant Park Avenue this coming Friday (3/19).

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Montgomery Clift at BAM: The Big Lift

In mid-1948, the city of Berlin was in ruins. It hardly mattered to most American servicemen though. They visited often, but rarely stayed long. When the Soviets blockaded Berlin in the first nakedly aggressive power player of the Cold War, they assumed America would abandon its former German foes. Instead, for the next fifteen months the American armed forces delivered 1,783,573 tons of supplies, flying round the clock, to and from Berlin’s barely adequate airfields. One of several notable films set during the immediate aftermath of WWII that starred Montgomery Clift, George Seaton’s The Big Lift screens this Monday during a retrospective of the tragic method actor’s work the BAM Cinematek.

Sgt. 1st Class Danny MacCullough did not serve in the war, but his friend, the somewhat older Master Sgt. Hank Kowalski did. A former POW, he has decidedly painful memories of Germany and is less than thrilled to be returning. Of course, opting out is not an option, so both enlisted men quickly find themselves stationed in Germany and involved with German women.

Clift might be Lift’s lead, but the star of the film is the battle scarred city itself. Shot on location in all four sectors of the divided city by Seaton and cinematographer Charles G. Clarke in a Vérité-like documentary style, the sight of Berlin’s bombed out buildings is arresting. Indeed, as MacCullough and his girlfriend Frederica Burkhardt stroll through the surviving statues of a once grand but now de-foliated park, it looks like a scene from an end of the world film.

Aside from Clift and actor Paul Douglas as Kowalski (who tragically died before he could film the lead roles in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and an episode of The Twilight Zone for which he had been cast), all U.S. military characters are played by the actual active duty military personnel themselves. In fact, the coolest scene of the film is the closing roll call of the real life officers and enlisted men, getting some well deserved recognition for their service.

Writer-director Seaton obviously was also keenly interested in process, explaining in detail the difficulties of the Berlin runway approaches and the technical advances of air traffic control, which gives audiences a further appreciation of the magnitude of the air lift. Frankly, MacCullough’s romantic travails are not the most memorable in cinema history. However, the degree to which Seaton captures both the look and spirit of post-war Berlin makes Lift a film of legitimate historical importance.

Though Seaton is probably best known for the classic Miracle on 34th Street, Lift was arguably his finest technical achievement. Proving realism and patriotism are in fact compatible, Lift ought to be more widely celebrated. It screens at BAM this coming Monday (3/15), as part of their “That’s Montgomery Clift, Honey!” and is also available for online streaming.

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Rendezvous ’10: The Wolberg Family

The Wolbergs love their vintage American soul music. How they feel about each other is far more complicated, as it always is in families. While their particular circumstances might be unique, they still face universal challenges in Axelle Ropert’s The Wolberg Family (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Rendezvous with French Cinema.

Simon Wolberg, the shaggy headed soul music enthusiast, might sound like an unlikely mayor for his provincial French town, but he seems born for the job. Relating to his family is more difficult. Actually, his feelings are not complicated at all. He worships his wife Marianne and is utterly devoted to his son and daughter. He does not have much use for his brother-in-law though, contemptuously labeling him a “bohemian.” Unfortunately, his family has a host of issues with him, but they might not have as much time to work them out as they think.

Perfectly accentuating the drama with classic soul and R&B, Ropert has created a family style Big Chill, cutting out all the annoying parts. Up until the pretentious closing scene (which is just so quintessentially French), there is not a false scene in the film. At first, Ropert digs beneath the Wolbergs’ apparently happy facades to expose their not-so hidden resentments. Then he digs further to reveal their fundamental love.

François Damiens is truly unforgettable as the tragically “Type A” Simon Wolberg. Your heart bleeds for the man even when you wince at his blundering insensitivity. Hey, he’s just like family. By contrast, Valérie Benguigui’s Marianne is smart and tightly controlled—the model of a politician’s wife, yet far more sensitive and complex than we might initially suspect.

Ropert could easily have reduced the Wolberg’s to stereotypes, but instead his approach is gracefully humanistic. Lensed with tremendous sensitivity by Celine Bozon, Wolberg has an intimate feel, but Ropert never lets the pacing lag.

Despite the funky brass of its soundtrack, Wolberg is a film of quiet moments, closely observed. It is a beautiful treasure of a film, heartily recommended at French Rendezvous, especially since it has yet to acquire an American distributor. It screens at the IFC Film Center this Saturday (3/13) and at the Walter Reade Theater March 20th and 21st.

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