J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, May 31, 2010

On-Stage: Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Mother is addicted to morphine, elder brother spends all his money on prostitutes, and everyone drinks too much. Such are the family values of the Tyrones, who are thought to bear a strong resemblance the family of their creator, Nobel Prize winning playwright Eugene O’Neill. The posthumous winner of the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is widely considered the most significant work of O’Neill oeuvre, both for artistic and biographical reasons, making its return to the New York stage a happy event, thanks to the York Shakespeare Company, whose revival officially opened this weekend at the Lion Theater in Theatre Row.

The Tyrones have issues. The youngest brother, Edmund, has a suspiciously persistent cough. His father and older brother Jamie suspect consumption, but he and his mother are in denial. The family is also not unduly concerned about how she would respond to stressful news, given her history of morphine addiction. Though she seemed to shaken the monkey off her back, her recent erratic behavior starts to give the Tyrone men more cause for concern. These are the tribulations the Tyrone family will face, with help of generous alcoholic fortification, over the course of one fateful day.

While billed as a production of Journey clocking in at less than three hours, the Sunday matinee ran substantially longer. However, as a more important measurement, the York staging seemed much shorter than its actual running time. As directed by York founder and artistic director Seth Duerr, this staging seems more in tune with O’Neill’s frequently caustic dialogue, eschewing the atmosphere of decaying languor that often marked past productions. Indeed, the cast shows genuine relish for the playwright’s language, as when Duerr, who also appears as Jamie Tyrone, sneeringly dismisses his father’s roots in the Irish peasantry, who are apt to live in a “hovel on a bog.”

Employing the once dominant but now relatively scarce actor-manager model of theater administration, Duerr clearly selects material for the York that play to his strengths. Indeed, he perfectly embodies the dissipated, morally complex Jamie Tyrone. Yet, Journey is a true ensemble piece, with each member of the family getting more-or-less equal stage time (at least in this production). Fortunately, they are quite evenly matched, playing with and against each other to create some sharply compelling family drama. Bill Fairbairn nicely expresses the rigid rectitude of James Senior, while also conveying his own resentments. Alexander Harvey also effectively handles Edmund’s artistic sensitivity and physical fragility without wilting in comparison to the more outwardly dynamic characters.

Given the frankness of its subject matter—drug addiction (linked with possible mental illness), patronization of prostitutes, and raging alcoholism—Journey still feels surprisingly bold fifty-four years after its original stage debut. Indeed, that freshness is also a product of the York Company’s brisk staging and the cast’s muscular performances. An accessible and entertaining production, the York’s Journey should be a great introduction to O’Neill and his most celebrated play for those not previously familiar with his work. Now open, it runs at the Lion through June 12th.

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Jordan’s Ondine

Life as the only admitted alcoholic in a small coastal Irish village is difficult for Syracuse, especially with his mean-spirited ex-wife constantly belittling him in front of his wheelchair bound daughter, Annie. It is easy to see how both father and daughter would welcome a bit of fantasy into their lives in Neil Jordan’s Ondine (trailer here), which opens theatrically this Friday in New York, following its high-profile run at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Syracuse made a hash of his life through binge drinking. Now on the wagon, he uses the church confessional as his surrogate AA meeting. Barely eking out a subsistence living, one day he pulls up his fishing nets and finds a beautiful woman tangled up inside. Adamant that she not be seen by anyone, Syracuse lets her recover at his recently deceased mother’s ramshackle cottage.

Though Syracuse tells Annie about the mystery woman calling herself Ondine as if it were a fairy tale, the bright young girl automatically assumes it to be the truth. Inevitably, Annie soon meets the woman she believes to be a selkie, a mermaid like creature from Celtic mythology, half convincing her father and perhaps even Ondine herself with her ardent conviction. Yet, Jordan periodically drops hints that Ondine’s origins might be darker and worldlier than Annie’s romanticized version of reality.

The human need to believe in something good and edifying lies at the heart of Ondine, but Jordan also deftly incorporates themes of family and personal responsibility. Completely shedding his movie star persona, Colin Farrell is thoroughly convincing and undeniably likable as Syracuse, despite the character’s myriad of faults. Indeed, he is the lynchpin of the movie, serving as the tragically flawed moral center of this emotionally deep film.

Ethereally beautiful, the Polish Alicja Bachleda powerfully combines both an exquisite sensitivity and an earthy seductiveness as Ondine. In a small but meaningful role deliberately written with him in mind, Stephen Rea again displays his talent for projecting world-weary dignity as the village priest. Jordan also makes the picturesque village of Castletownebere (where he maintains a home away from Hollywood), conveying both the good and the bad aspects of life in such a tight-knit community.

While likely to be compared to John Sayles’s The Secret of Roan Inish, the last notable selkie film, Ondine takes the legend in a drastically different direction. Yet, both are films of quiet beauty in their own distinctive ways. Indeed, they suggest the selkie movie might be a subgenre worth further exploration.

Jordan masterfully balances Ondine’s fantastical sense of wonder and its intense climatic scenes. With Christopher Doyle’s evocative cinematography soaking up the rugged beauty of the sea and coastline, the film is a rich visual feast. Honestly touching, but scrupulously free of any cheap sentiment, Ondine is a tiny miracle of a movie. One of the best films this year at Tribeca, it opens Friday (6/4) in New York at the Sunshine Cinema.

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Staten Island True Crime: Cropsey

Staten Island is the greenest, least urban borough of New York City. Residents tend to be more conservative and family-oriented than the rest of the City, which is why the borough was shocked by a rash of child abductions in the 1980’s. Staten Islanders had long told cautionary tales about Cropsey, an escaped mental patient at-large in the woods, but when confronted with the case of Andre Rand, the urban legend suddenly became all too real. Staten Islanders Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio examine the folklore and strange factual circumstances surrounding the Rand case in Cropsey (trailer here), which opens Friday in New York.

Many cases of missing children have been linked to Rand, but as the documentary opens, he had only been convicted of the abduction of Jennifer Schweiger. However, with the discovery of new evidence, the Staten Island D.A. filed charges against Rand for an earlier kidnapping. While the trial was presumably quite dramatic, Zeman and Brancaccio’s cameras were barred by the court. Still, even without courtroom footage, the directors had a fair amount of intriguing material to work with, including: cooperation from the original investigating officers, eerie backdrops, unsettling rumors of cult activity, and a classic archetypal boogieman.

The shadow of the notorious Willowbrook Mental Institution, which had been shutdown after its abusive conditions were exposed by an ambitious local muckraker named Geraldo Rivera (easily the film’s most horrifying image), looms over the Rand case and the Cropsey legend. Rand had worked as an orderly at Willowbrook in the late 1960’s. At the time of the abductions, he lived a bizarre existence, camping out in abandoned houses in the wooded Greenbelt near the decaying Willowbrook building. Known as the “Pied Piper,” he operated as a poor man’s Mansion Family cult leader.

Though the filmmakers expend a great deal of fruitless energy trying to get an interview with Rand, he is clearly just toying with them. Frankly, it is just as well. Serial killers are always boring personalities. If anything, it is the mysteries surrounding their cases that are interesting, and Zeman and Brancaccio certainly reveal a bizarre milieu in the “Forgotten Borough.” It seems odd that so much suspected cult activity was afoot in Staten Island, but the wild woods of the Greenbelt were clearly conducive to strange nocturnal activity.

While there are some entertaining chills in Cropsey, it is ultimately a tragic film. After all, many of Rand’s presumed victims have yet to be found, and the convicted predator still refuses to cooperate in their recovery. He is simply an evil man, whom the filmmaker wisely refrain from glamorizing. Though perhaps better suited to Court TV or the History Channel, Cropsey certainly holds viewing interest, documenting some intriguing New York City history from the perspective of its most unfairly overlooked and maligned borough. After screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival and resurfacing for a special showing at the 92 Y Tribeca, the Staten Island doc finally makes it out of the Tribeca neighborhood, opening its theatrical run at the IFC Center in the West Village this Friday (6/4).

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Friday, May 28, 2010

One-Way Trip: Goodbye Solo

Every travel professional should be wary of one-way trips. While our TSA might be clueless, one immigrant cab driver is instantly suspicious when an old man offers him one thousand dollars to leave him at a remote mountain-top on a pre-arranged future date. Reluctantly, he accepts the offer, in hopes of convincing the suicidal fare to change his mind. Such are the life and death stakes of Ramin Bahrani’s quiet drama, Goodbye Solo (trailer here), which concludes the current season of PBS’s Independent Lens this coming Tuesday.

Solo is a born optimist. Preternaturally charming, the Senegalese immigrant has ambitions beyond driving a cab. For reasons he is not about to share, the hard-bitten William has seen enough of life and is presumably ready to end it all. Why else would he hire Solo to leave him at “Blowing Rock,” a peak known for its swirling winds that blow the snow back up into the sky? Rather than accept his money without question, Solo tries to befriend William, even moving into the old man’s motel room to keep an eye on him. Despite the obvious generational and cultural divides, Solo seems to make a connection with William. Yet, the old man still insists he does not want to be helped.

While there are a handful of supporting players, Goodbye is practically a two-hander for its radically different leads (though Diana Franco Galinda shows far greater talent than most child actors as Solo’s young daughter Alex). Indeed, Souléymane Sy Savané and Red West are completely riveting when playing off each other. Probably best known as Elvis Presley’s former bodyguard-crony, grizzled character-actor West is perfectly understated as the world-weary William. By contrast, Savané’s charisma lights up the screen in a fully realized, multi-layered performance that earned the former flight attendant and fashion model an Independent Spirit Award nomination.

There is an air of fatalism that hangs over Goodbye, yet it is not a depressing movie thanks to the presence of Solo. Unlike most current immigration dramas, he is not a helpless victim. Rather, he is a smooth operator and a relentless self-improver. As a result, he is a far more compelling and cinematic figure than the cardboard stereotypes of more issue-oriented films. Those who have ever worked the graveyard shift, including cabbies, will also recognize how well Bahrani evokes a sense of that strange nocturnal milieu. He demonstrates a remarkably sure hand throughout the film, crafting several scenes of quietly devastating emotional power.

Dramatic features are the exception rather than the rule on Independent Lens, but in the case of Goodbye, they certainly made its selection count. The winner of International Critics Prize at the 2008 Venice Film Festival, Goodbye was definitely a critical darling, but it is also a profoundly sensitive, widely accessible examination of human vulnerability. An outstanding film by any standard, viewers should absolutely avail themselves of the opportunity to see it on free TV thanks to ITVS (even if William’s saltier language is obviously edited out). It airs this coming Tuesday (6/1) on most PBS outlets.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Parent-Teacher Associating: Mademoiselle Chambon

In general, the French excel at infidelity. There are exceptions though. When a rough-hewn married construction worker falls for his son’s teacher, it lead to pain and confusion for them both in Stéphane Brizé’s Mademoiselle Chambon (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Jean is not a smooth talker. A contractor, he works with his hands rather than words. As a result, he is surprised when his son’s teacher, Mademoiselle Chambon, asks him to address the class on their monthly career day. Though they do not have much to say to each other, there are definitely the subtle stirrings of attraction between them. Those vague temptations become much more pronounced when Mlle. hires Jean to replace her drafty windows. It is consummated with achingly poignancy when he convinces the teacher to play her violin for him at the end of the job. Though chaste, their encounter is so intimate it is tantamount to betrayal.

Frankly, Chambon should have ended at this point. Though the cast is uniformly excellent throughout the film, Brizé’s handling of their “courtship” is so powerful the more conventional infidelity drama that follows seems like a let-down. Had that made it a short subject rather than a feature, then so be it.

Still, the cast brings their characters to life with exquisite sensitivity. The casting of real life exes Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain as the potential illicit lovers surely raised eyebrows in France. However, they have the perfectly physicality for their roles (him hulking but hesitant and her fragile yet mature) as well as an undeniable chemistry together.

Exhibiting remarkable patience, Brizé lets each scene unfold with unhurried grace. The stark romanticism is brilliantly enhanced by the music, both licensed classical recordings and the violin of Ayako Tanaka (whose work significantly contributes to the film’s melancholy ambiance). Yet, Brizé is also just as effective in his use of silence. Indeed, it is a finely tuned production that looks and sounds quite striking.

Impressionistic and fatalistic, Chambon is perhaps a victim of its early success conveying the quiet yearning and uncertainty of its leads. Though it loses some of its potency once it settles into a familiar story arc, it remains an elegant examination of emotional betrayal. A film for mature adults (in the best sense of the word), Chambon opens tomorrow (5/28) at the Cinema Village.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Romero’s Survival of the Dead

They say island residents always stick together. Unfortunately, for decades tiny Plum Island has been divided by two bickering clans, the O’Flynns and the Muldoons. They also have hordes of shuffling zombies to fight off, but that is just the way of the world in George A. Romero’s Living Dead films, the latest of which, Survival of the Dead (trailer here), opens in New York this Friday.

Patrick O’Flynn might have his faults, but he is not hesitant about dealing with the undead. A bullet in the head works every time. By contrast, Shamus Muldoon is determined to protect his infected people in hopes some sort of treatment will eventually be discovered. Since the Muldoons outnumber their rivals, O’Flynn finds himself brusquely escorted off the island. Being a crusty old sod, O’Flynn still finds ways to make trouble in exile, advertising Plum Island on the internet as a haven from zombies. Eventually he hooks up with a group Army deserters to make his less than triumphant return home. Of course, there will be trouble, with the living and the dead.

For those looking for a film with a lot of zombies getting shot in the head, Survival has the goods. While Romero has a reputation for injecting social commentary into his horror opuses, his latest is relatively straight forward and it is just as well. Nothing will ever top the stinging conclusion to his original 1968 Night of the Living Dead, so why try? Indeed, the last thing we need is yet another horror film offering pretentious polemics on the war in Iraq.

Though Romero presents something of conflict of ideologies between the two patriarchs, the intended “take-away” is decidedly murky. O’Flynn kills zombies as fast as he can, rather than live in the hope of a cure. Muldoon kills innocent people looking for a peaceful life on Plum, but keeps flesh-eating zombies chained up in his stables. Take your pick.

If not an elegant film, Survival has a few bright lights in the cast. Recognizable from his stint as the villainous Windom Earle on Twin Peaks, Canadian actor Kenneth Welsh chews the scenery with irascible glee as the cantankerous O’Flynn. Kathleen Munroe also shows some charisma as his daughter, maintaining her dignity amid Romero’s chaos. Hardly anyone going to Survival is likely to recognize her from the recent Hallmark Channel original movie The Wild Girl, but such radically diverse credits deserve acknowledgement.

Frankly, there is something refreshing about Survival’s lack of ambition. It is what it is and nothing more: just blood-splattered, old school meathead fun. A guilty pleasure that many can probably safely wait for DVD, Survival opens Friday (5/28) in New York at the Village East.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Restored and Rereleased: Breathless

It was the cynical bad cop paired with the sensitive good cop of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Together, the two films essentially launched the French New Wave and radically altered the way the world perceived cinema. Loosely based on a treatment by Truffaut, crediting Claude Chabrol as a technical advisor, and featuring Jean-Pierre Melville in a supporting role, Breathless was produced with the contributions from four major French directors, but director Jean-Luc Godard is its unquestioned auteur. Now Breathless (a.k.a. Á Bout de Souffle, trailer here), his first and arguably greatest film, will be rereleased this Friday at Film Forum in a freshly restored print with newly retranslated subtitles to mark its fiftieth anniversary.

Michel Poiccard does not have much of a plan. In Marseilles, he steals a car, ditching his girlfriend accomplice. Almost surprised to find the police giving chase, Poiccard fatally shoots a motorcycle gendarme, more or less on impulse. Somehow he makes it to Paris, where he takes time out from shaking down ex-lovers to seduce the not very impressed American Patricia Franchini. Despite the desperation of his circumstances, he convinces her to accompany him on the lam, but it will be a rocky road for them to travel.

Poiccard is an immature young man, who fancies himself a bad customer, aping the mannerisms of American movie gangsters, especially Bogart. Tragically, his posturing escalates into a full-blown crime spree. In any other film, this would make him a pathetic jerk, but for Godard, his accidental violence is his existential redemption. Though many Nouvelle Vague filmmakers were influenced by American film noir, Godard was the first to pay explicit homage in his films. Martial Solal’s music also helps evoke the noir atmosphere with themes that swing robustly, but have a hint of underlying menace. Indeed, his main theme, “La Mort” is classic crime jazz that will happily stick in your head for days.

Breathless has been interpreted as an anti-American statement: a Frenchman seduced by Hollywood images into a life a crime is betrayed by a callous American working for The New York Herald Tribune, an arm of the supposedly omnipresent American media. Knowing where Godard went in later films, it is probably a reasonably fair interpretation. It hardly needs be said that millions saw those very same gangster movies without being similarly effected as Poiccard. They simply had stronger personalities and moral compasses. Of course, that makes them boring to Godard.

Super cool yet oddly naïve, Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Poiccard became an overnight screen icon, making the actor France’s biggest movie star for the next thirty-some years. In a way, he is a hardboiled version of Truffaut’s cinematic alter-ego Antoine Doinel. Of course, it was the surface cool that lingered in public perception, but it is a rather nuanced performance, especially given the working conditions of Godard’s shoot.

Though not generally improvised per se, the director never allowed his cast must prep time, writing each the scene the night before. At least his cast did not have to worry about memorizing their pages each night. In fact, with all the dialogue to be dubbed afterwards, Godard often fed his cast their lines during their scenes.

For all the attention given Godard’s unorthodox filmmaking techniques, like the then unprecedented use of deliberate jump cuts within scenes that now seem old hat, there is something about Breathless’s characters that still holds the fascination of young cinema hipsters, like Youth in Revolt’s Nick Twisp. Jean Seberg became nearly as much of a cool movie icon in her newspaper t-shirt as Belomondo’s lip stroking rebel. For sheer movie charisma though, neither of them can hold a candle to Jean-Pierre Melville’s wonderfully eccentric, wholly spontaneous performance as Parvulesco, a verbose novelist holding an airport press conference. His greatest ambition? “To immortal, and then die.” Top that.

Viewing Godard’s Breathless is absolutely essential for anyone wishing to attain any measure of cinematic literacy. Fortunately, the newly restored print offers an excellent opportunity to see it for the first time, or to experience its idiosyncratic verve yet again. It opens at Film Forum this Friday (5/28).

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The Father of My Children

Which children are first in the heart of film financier Grégoire Canvel, his adoring daughters or his art house movies? Unfortunately, one problem child has run way over budget, threatening the stability of his respected production company. Those Russian-Scandinavian co-productions of avant-garde science fiction will do it every time. Canvel’s professional travails will have tragic repercussions for his nuclear family in Mia Hansen-Løve’s The Father of My Children (trailer here), the winner of the Un Certain Regard’s Special Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, which opens in New York this Friday.

Canvel’s charm kept Moon Films alive for years, but cost over-runs on his current productions threaten to topple his fiscal house of cards. His family has no idea though. While he is intimately connected to his cell phone during their weekend in the country, such professional preoccupation is nothing new for his patient family. In fact, his two younger daughters affectionately satirize his workaholic tendencies in their family variety show. Meanwhile, Canvel is dancing as fast as he can, but the tempo is unforgiving.

When the crash comes, it devastates the family, but they have to carry on. In a smoothly executed pivot, Hansen-Løve shifts her focus to Clémence, the eldest Canvel daughter. Perhaps as a means of justifying her family’s tribulations, she starts to embrace the rarified cinema her father championed at Moon. As is usually the case in the real world, the Canvels find some measure of closure, while leaving plenty of messy loose ends. Indeed, neatness in life is pure fiction.

Actual father and daughter Louis-Do and Alice de Lencquesaing have a similar brainy screen charisma, nicely carrying their halves of the film. The younger de Lencquesaing is particularly impressive, handling her character’s pain and confusion without indulging in melodramatic theatrics. In contrast, Chiara Caselli’s aloofness as Canvel’s Italian wife Sylvia, though a function of her emotional defenses, leaves not nearly as memorable an impression with viewers. As a result, Alice de Lencquesaing frankly takes command of the latter half of the film. Still, there are many intriguing small supporting turns, including for truly hardcore cineastes, a cameo by Tajik film director Jamshed Usmonov as Moon filmmaker Kova Asimov.

Sensitively helmed, Hansen-Løve handles the film’s pivotal moments with an effective matter-of-factness and elicits some honest performances from her young cast. Not exactly escapist entertainment, Father is a very good film. While there will be a temptation for many to proclaim its relevance in the ever deepening recession, its circumstances are certainly unique to Hansen-Løve’s story. Smart and touching, Father opens this Friday (5/28) at the IFC Center.

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Turkish Film Days ’10: The Breath

The scenery might be striking, but a lonely military outpost perched amid the mountains of southeast Turkey is quite a dangerous posting. However, for the Socialist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorists, the terrain is ideal. Though it scrupulously dodges the underlying ideological conflicts, the Hellish nature of war is depicted with visceral force in Levent Semerci’s The Breath (trailer here), which opened Turkish Film Days last night in the East Village.

Captain Mete and his seasoned troops have been pursuing “The Doctor,” the mysterious mastermind behind a number of PKK attacks along the Iraqi border. Having just lost two men in a brutal ambush, the officer is not in a forgiving mood. So when he arrives at the remote military base only to discover the soldiers on watch duty asleep at their posts, he lets everyone have it. In short order, Mete re-establishes discipline among the men, but the watchful waiting takes a toll on everyone’s nerves.

Though most of his enlisted men are indistinguishable from each other, Mete Horozoğlu absolutely burns up the screen as the intense Captain. His dressing down scene truly ranks with R. Lee Ermy’s iconic work in Full Metal Jacket. Frankly, he is the movie.

Semerci’s approach to the material is also consistently intriguing, particularly his handling of the near mythic Doctor, who truly seems like a phantom when interrupting Mete’s radio communications. In truth, Breath would have been stronger had Semerci shown a bit more restraint. Though he has a weakness for pretentious imagery, the violence, while disturbingly graphic at points, is utterly appropriate to the story. This film is definitely a romanticism-free zone. Despite such occasional excesses, one can definitely understand why Semerci was driven to make this film based on the results on the screen.

If not exactly The Hurt Locker, Breath certainly holds its own during its battle sequences. By cinemateque standards, the effects are quite impressive. It also dramatically captures the fearsome beauty of Turkey’s craggy southern vistas, the kind of landscapes one would probably prefer to see in a movie rather than visit in real life.

Regardless of its imperfections, Breath is a film of undeniable power that viewers will remember for a long time after the Turkish Film Days screening. One of the boutique distributors should give it a serious look, because it is far better than many of the films that wash in and out of art-houses. An impressive representative of Turkish cinema, Breath was a fitting selection to kick-off TFD, which continues through Wednesday night (5/26) at the Village East.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

The Musical Unity of Berkson’s Oylam

Everything is connected, even music. Finding those connections is often the tricky part, but Judith Berkson has a talent for exactly that. The Brooklyn-based vocalist and composer worked with artists as diverse as Joe Maneri, Theodore Bikel, and the Kronos Quartet, while still maintaining true to her identity. A cantor as well as a fixture of the downtown experimental music scene, Berkson synthesizes musical forms seemingly worlds apart on Oylam, her latest CD from ECM Records, which she officially launches tonight with a special release concert at Joe’s Pub.

Accompanying herself on acoustic piano, electric Rhodes, and Hammond organ, Oylam is a starkly intimate solo outing. The program begins and ends with differing takes of Berkson’s instrumental original “Goodbye Friend.” Dramatically impressionistic in style, they demonstrate both Berkson’s jazz and classical influences. “Goodbye” number one seamlessly segues into her first vocal, “Brute.” Rhythmically forceful, it is an effective vehicle for her unique delivery, in which the lyrics seem to tumble forth, the product of an ecstatic reverie.

Logically, the most explicitly jazz-oriented performances come during Berkson’s interpretations of the Great American Songbook. Showing a remarkable range that distills the lyricism of Cole Porter’s “All of You” to its essence, she also takes a swinging piano solo that should satisfy jazz traditionalists. Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” almost sounds funky in comparison to rest of the CD due to Berkson’s switch to the Hammond. Again, she takes a brief but legit jazz solo, but her vocal treatment is lighter in tone, playful even.

Still, the undeniable highlights of Oylam speak directly to Berkson’s faith and heritage. Accompanied by the Hammond set to high church, the cantorial prayer for unity “Ahavas Oylam” becomes the spectacular centerpiece of the session. With her heartfelt, deeply spiritual performance, it is clear Berkson has a genuine affinity for such music (and the Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation is fortunate to have her cantorial services).

Technically, Berkson arranges Mordechai Gebirtig’s Yiddish folk song “Huylet, Huylet” a cappella, but accompanies herself through overdubs. Indeed, the lyrics penned by Gebirtig, the Polish poet fatally shot during the round-up of the Krakow ghetto, are quite musical, while simultaneously evoking the tragedy and dignity of the poet’s life.

Fusing jazz, experimental, classical, and cantorial music, Berkson’s uncompromising music defies categorization. The resulting Oylam is a truly memorable, often arresting set, but it demands attention casual listeners might not necessarily be prepared to give. Berkson performs her stirring music live at Joe’s Pub tonight (5/24) and Oylam officially goes on-sale tomorrow at all online retailers.

(Photo: Jacob Garchik)

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Cinema Tropical: The Wind Journeys

We know the Devil loves music. After all, he played a mean fiddle down in Georgia and tuned Robert Johnson’s guitar at the fateful crossroads. According to local legend, he also cursed a certain accordion particularly well suited to the Vallenato music of tropical Colombia. A world-weary musician sets out to return that instrument to its rightful owner in Ciro Guerra’s The Wind Journeys (trailer here), Colombia’s official 2009 submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration. Following an acclaimed run on the film festival circuit, including Cannes, where it won the Award of the City of Rome, Guerra’s Wind now screens in New York for two nights only starting this Thursday as part of Cinema Tropical’s series at the 92Y Tribeca. However, it is also currently available on Film Movement’s VOD Film Festival Channel.

The itinerant Ignacio Carrillo and his horned accordion are famous among the hardscrabble villages of northern Colombia. Mourning his late wife, he has had enough of the wayfaring life. Yet, he will only relinquish the notorious instrument to the master musician he apprenticed under. It will be quite a trek to reach his secluded cottage, but Carrillo has the unforeseen help of Fermín Morales, a young teenager wishing to learn the troubadour’s trade from the taciturn accordionist.

Visually, Wind is an absolutely arresting film. Cinematographer Paulo Andrés Pérez captures the ferocious beauty of Colombia’s unforgiving countryside. While Guerra can dazzle with his artfully choreographed shots, he also displays restraint when called for, patiently holding his camera for moments of closely observed drama. Despite the archetypal imagery and demonic motifs, Guerra surprisingly de-emphasizes the allegorical suggestions, grounding the story with a tactile sense of place. Indeed, the pacing is intentional languid, but there is a considerable “there” there.

For the most part, Wind is a quiet fable, but when Carrillo and his rival Vallenatos perform, it sounds amazing. Played by real life Vallento musician and composer Marciano Martínez, who obviously knows his way around a button accordion, Carrillo naturally takes the honors during the film’s musical sequences. However, he has first class support (or competition) from fellow Vallentos Beto Rada, José Luís Torres, Rosendo Romero, and Guillermo Arzuaga in their accordion duels, which appear to be truly hardcore cutting contests mixed with the dozens. Martínez is also quite a fine actor, evoking the buried pain and regrets of the stoic journeyman. Yet, perhaps the film’s most intriguing turn comes from the truly cinematic looking Agustín Nieves as a suitably mysterious hermit, who also happens to repair satanic accordions.

As an entry in Cannes’s Un Certain Regard competition, Wind is obviously a film for discriminating audiences. However, any viewer with an adult attention span should be struck by the film’s subtle power. A work of visual and musical beauty, it is a richly rewarding film that should not be missed. Currently on VOD, it screens at the 92 Y Tribeca this Thursday (5/27) and Friday (5/28).

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

New NOLA: A Village Called Versailles

Most armchair political analysts were stunned when a Vietnamese-American Republican defeated scandal-plagued Democrat William Jefferson to represent nearly the entire city of New Orleans in Congress. Party registration will remain a challenge for freshman Rep. Joseph Cao, but the strength and resiliency of the Crescent City’s Vietnamese community has emerged as a major post-Katrina political development. Documenting the unexpected rise of the New Orleans East neighborhood that challenged an out-of-touch municipal government, S. Leo Chiang’s A Village Called Versailles (trailer here) airs this coming Monday as part of the current season of Independent Lens on most PBS outlets.

Many of the older Vietnamese residents of the Versailles neighborhood (named after a large housing complex in Eastern New Orleans) had already endured two painful dislocations. Mostly from two predominantly Catholic towns in the North, they had first fled the North Vietnamese Communists to the South, only to come to America as refugees following the fall of Saigon. Indeed, the Katrina evacuation brought back many painful memories.

However, this time they returned, reclaiming their homes and neighborhood, in large measure thanks to the unifying role played by Father Vien Nguyen and the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, their rebuilding efforts were nearly sabotaged when then “Mayor” Ray Nagin used dubious emergency powers to dump an environmentally questionable landfill in their midst.

Refreshingly, Chiang’s broadcast cut refrains from the sort of cheap political shots that are often commonplace in Katrina related documentaries. However, there is just no papering-over Nagin’s arrogant disregard for the Versailles community. Of course, he is now gone, but they are still there.

While documentaries about so-called “political empowerment” are often rather dull and stilted, Village is legitimately inspiring. It unambiguously illustrates the positive role faith can play in public life at a time when organized religion and the Catholic Church in particular do not get a lot of love from the documentary film community. Village also celebrates the voluntarist spirit and genuine grassroots activism. The film’s only real shortcoming is the largely synthesized soundtrack. Though some pleasant incidental music was obviously composed to evoke the neighborhood’s Vietnamese heritage, in general, it is disappointing to hear only incidental snatches of distinctly NOLA (or Versailles) music.

Appearing only ever-so-briefly in the film, Cao’s victory became the obvious capstone for Village. Indeed, it clearly explains the circumstances apart from the Jefferson scandal that made his election possible. The winner of the New Orleans Film Festival’s Audience Award, Village is easily one of the more uplifting documentaries about the Katrina aftermath. The film offers a number of important lessons, not the least being the positive role faith can play in a community. Definitely recommended, it airs Tuesday (5/25) on most PBS stations.

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Bombay at Lincoln Center: Pakeezah

It was a difficult production, over thirteen years in the making, witnessing the deaths of its principal composer and cinematographer before Kamal Amrohi could complete his troubled film. Meena Kumari, his lead actress and ex-wife would also pass away soon after its completion. Indeed, their divorce substantially contributed to the film’s many delays. However, Amrohi’s Pakeezah would eventually become a longstanding Bollywood favorite, making it a logical selection for Social Dramas and Shimmering Spectacles: Muslim Cultures of Bombay Cinema, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s ongoing retrospective of aesthetically ambitious and socially conscious Bollywood films.

When casual viewers hear the term Bollywood, they most likely think of films like Pakeezah. Unabashedly melodramatic, it tells the story of a prostitute whose fate is entwined with that of a noble family. There is also a lot of singing and dancing, as well as gender and class based critiques of India’s rigid social hierarchy, and even a major foot fetish.

Sahibjaan is indeed a prostitute, like her mother Nargis before her. However, her life appears to be more like that of a geisha, singing, dancing, and entertaining rather than engaging in cruder services. She is still considered a scandalous, fallen woman, despite being born into her brothel through no fault of her own. As the film opens, her mother thinks she has escaped that demeaning life when the son of a prominent Utter Pradesh family falls in love with her. Unfortunately, his rigid father forbade their union, breaking Nargis’s heart and spirit. She would die in child birth shortly thereafter.

Now a grown woman, her daughter Sahibjaan attracts her share of admirers. Yet the love of her life is the mystery man who wrote her an anonymous love letter after spying her feet while she slumbered on an overnight train. Sure, it is a little creepy, but we just know destiny will eventually bring them together again.

To enjoy Pakeezah, viewers definitely must have a love and appreciation for all the conventions of Bollywood. Its flamboyance often borders on the garish and it is tone is often inconsistent, which is perfectly understandable considering it was shot in bits and pieces over many years, by a platoon of cinematographers following the death of Josef Wirsching (one of several German filmmakers who helped make Bollywood what it became during the early days of the Bombay Talkies studio). At times though, the film’s vibe is just plain odd, as exemplified by a Final Destination-like scene of a near fatal chain of disastrous events. Physically weakened in scenes shot in later years, Kumari also spends a disproportionate amount of screen time lying prone.

While Mughal-E-Azam and Jodhaa Akbar should have a wide appeal to viewers of epic historical drama, Pakeezah is essentially Bollywood for those that already love Bollywood. It is certainly colorful and Kumari has some poignant moments (as both mother and daughter), but it is very much a product of its time and circumstances. It screens at the Walter Reade Theater today (5/21) and Tuesday (5/25).

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bombay at Lincoln Center: Mughal-E-Azam

It could be called India’s Gone With the Wind. K. Asif’s grand historical epic Mughal-E-Azam was nine years in the making, but would hold the country’s inflation-adjusted box office record until early 2009. Its heroine bears little resemblance to Scarlett O’Hara though. In fact, she is a slave who has captured the heart of the crown prince. There is also plenty of music in Asif’s enduringly popular film, which appropriately screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s current retrospective, Social Dramas and Shimmering Spectacles: Muslim Cultures of Bombay Cinema.

The legendary Emperor Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar (yes, the husband of Jodhaa) has ruled over Hindustan for many years without the blessing of an heir. Unfortunately, when Prince Salim finally arrives, he turns out to be a major problem child. Shipped off to fight in the desert, the bratty Salim eventually becomes a man, but he still has a bit of an attitude problem when Akbar finally recalls him home.

Frankly, the headstrong Salim is a chip off the old block Imperial block. This leads to serious father-son friction when Salim falls in love with the slave girl Anarkali, whom Akbar deems scandalously unworthy. How does this family conflict work itself out? Well, let’s just say one of them is the all powerful emperor and the other one is not, at least not yet. Naturally though, it is poor Anarkali who suffers the most, chained up in the dungeon when not performing her plaintive musical numbers.

At the time, MEA was the most expensive Bollywood production ever. As color photography became more commonplace in Indian cinema, Asif wanted to reshoot the entire picture, but had to settle for filming two color sequences, the effect of which are a bit jarring in an otherwise gorgeous black and white feature. In 2004, the entire MEA was digitally colorized and released for yet another popular run in Indian theaters. Nevertheless, some of the film’s best scenes, like those involving the mysterious sculptor and his eerily powerful statuary seem best rendered in black-and-white.

MEA definitely has everything one could want in a sweeping epic. There are battle scenes, romantic yearning, courtly intrigue, and of course singing and dancing. Considered one of the greatest Bollywood soundtracks of all time, MEA actually might not be as accessible to neophyte Bollywood ears as the ghazals of Mirza Ghalib. Still, the dancing definitely has the grand spectacle of the great MGM and Busby Berkely musicals.

Ill-fated on and off-screen, Madhubala was perfectly cast as Anarkali, effectively handling both the musical and melodramatic aspects of the role. Conversely, while these might be fighting words on the subcontinent, Dilip Kumar just does not make a convincing romantic hero. However, some of the best work in MEA are memorable supporting performances that flesh out the hothouse palace world, like M. Kumar, intriguingly eccentric as the sculptor. Likewise, Nigar Sultana makes a great screen villainous as Bahar, the jealous slave girl who relishes in the suffering of Anarkali and Salim. As Akbar and Jodhaa, Prithviraj Kapoor and Durga Khote look more like Fred and Ethel Mertz than the impossibly good-looking Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Hrithik Roshan, but they have some memorable dramatic moments.

MEA is an undeniable milestone of world cinema. Epic in scope and classically tragic in its sensibilities, it is a perfect selection for the FSLC’s retrospective of socially conscious and artistically ambitious Bollywood films. It screens at the Walter Reade Theater tomorrow (5/21) and Monday (5/24).

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Jungr’s Men

The genre-defying Barbara Jungr has written songs for children’s puppetry plays and regularly covers the work of Bob Dylan. Finally, someone is making cabaret hip and interesting. Admittedly, interpretations of the Great American Songbook can always be fresh and rewarding. However, Jungr greatly expands the field of play, including songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen into a very accessible mix for her latest CD, The Men I Love and in her live shows this week at the Metropolitan Room in Manhattan’s fashionable Flatiron district.

When it comes to bold choices for cabaret repertoire, Jungr’s opening rendition of David Byrne and Brian Eno’s “Once in a Lifetime” undoubtedly qualifies. Yet, it proves to be a surprisingly amenable vehicle for her, thanks in large part to the lovely arrangement she and accompanist Simon Wallace penned, strikingly integrating Frank Schaefer’s cello and Clive Bell’s shakuhachi flute into the familiar Talking Heads hit. Though the tempo is slower and the atmosphere is more hushed, Jungr’s smooth delivery of the thorny lyrics is still quite impressive.

By contrast, the cabaret possibilities of the Leonard Cohen songbook are readily apparent. Indeed, Jungr’s treatment of “Night Comes On” is sensitive and powerful. Given her jazz and blues influences, it is not surprising she shows an affinity for Northern Soul on the appropriately soulful “Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache” that features a nice, if brief, jazz-like solo from Wallace.

Wallace’s funky piano also gives the up-tempo version of “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” a slightly honky-tonk vibe that seems to channel the country side of Dylan. A shrewd choice, it also shows cabaret can indeed be fun, at least when performed with the vigor and range Jungr brings to bear on the Byrds hit. Conversely, Springsteen’s “The River” might be the one ill-advised repertory choice of the set. While the Jersey rocker has written some monster hits, he has also produced quite a few songs that are more maudlin than memorable, as is the case with this tune.

In fitting cabaret style, two of Men’s highpoints are the seamlessly fused medleys: “Can’t Get Used to Losing You/Red, Red Wine” (combining the Doc Pomus and Neil Diamond songbooks) and “This Old Heart of Mine/Love Hurts,” amalgamations that deliver the big emotional show-stopping moments that should satisfy cabaret enthusiasts. Yet the intimacy and brittle delicacy of “Everything I Own” really delivers the goods for devotees of the vocal genre.

Jungr’s Men is an artfully crafted, contemporary sounding session that ought to satisfy both coffeehouse hipsters and the tony cabaret set. A stirring program of standards broadly defined, it should not be pigeonholed by genre or choice of repertoire. For the full effect, Jungr’s live performances can be experienced through Sunday (5/23) at the Metropolitan Room.

(Photo: Steve Ullathorne)

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Good German: John Rabe

Not many Nazis have had institutes for international peace and reconciliation named after them, but John Rabe was an altogether remarkable man. Dubbed the “Good Nazi” and the “Schindler of Nanking,” it is estimated Rabe saved over 250,000 people from the Japanese “Rape of Nanking,” during which time he still considered himself loyal to the Fatherland and the Fuhrer. Though troubling to the other westerners in Nanking (Nanjing), his National Socialist party card makes him an effective chairman of the International Safety Zone in Florian Gallenberger’s biographical drama John Rabe (trailer here), opening this Friday in New York.

Rabe has a vision of China’s potential to become a future economic powerhouse. For nearly three decades he has lived there, building the developing country’s infrastructure and power plants. Having decided to mothball their Chinese operations, Siemens has recalled Rabe to Germany, where he will be kicked upstairs with a dead end promotion. However, before he can leave, the Japanese arrive.

In an ironic turn of events, the swastika becomes an emblem of sanctuary in Nanking, since as “faithful allies” the Japanese refrain from bombing the Siemens facility. As a result, Rabe safely shelters six hundred some individuals on company grounds. He will save thousands more as the chair of the international committee overseeing the strictly neutral safety zone, which the Japanese grudgingly observe largely due to Rabe’s affiliations.

The real life Rabe was initially denied de-Nazification by the allies and was largely dependent in his later years on the monthly stipend paid to him by the Chinese government in gratitude for his courageous actions. Still, he is certainly a multifaceted and often problematic figure, which Gallenberger forthrightly addresses. Rabe clearly loves the people of China, but his attitudes encompass more than a little paternalism as well. He is also hopeless naïve politically. Rabe did indeed write letters to Hitler entreating him to intervene with the Japanese on Nanking’s behalf. Of course, that worked out about as well as you might suspect.

Perfectly cast as Rabe, Ulrich Tukur is fast becoming the international face of German cinema, and with good reason. Outwardly the picture of sophistication, he also compellingly conveys Rabe’s earnestness and gradual disillusionment. As arguably the film’s most complex Chinese character (many of whom are essentially cookie-cutter victims), Zhang Jingchu also offers real screen charisma and touching vulnerability as Langshu, a photographer documenting the Rape of Nanking while trying to save her younger brother. Unfortunately, there is always the “hey, there’s Steve Buscemi” reaction whenever his bug-eyes appear in a film, but he is surprisingly credible here expressing the understandable frustration and contempt of Dr. Wilson, an American anti-Fascist who reluctantly agrees to serve as Rabe’s deputy.

Rabe’s story is definitely important and Gallenberger tells it quite well, drawing extensively from his subject’s diaries. Ultimately, John Rabe is a big, fully satisfying, morally unambiguous historical drama. If that means it is occasionally manipulative, then so be it. A large scale production featuring sensitive performances from Ulrich Tukur and Zhang Jingchu, John Rabe is highly recommended. It opens Friday (5/21) at the Quad.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bombay at Lincoln Center: Mirza Ghalib

He is sensitive, a bit vain, and has no money, having never worked a day in his life. What else would you expect from a poet? Eventually, Mirza Ghalib would be celebrated as one of India’s greatest men of letters. However, that day has yet to come in Sohrab Modi’s 1954 black & white Bollywood biography Mirza Ghalib, which screens as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s current retrospective, Social Dramas and Shimmering Spectacles: Muslim Cultures of Bombay Cinema.

Once again, Ghalib bombs at the Mughal court’s poetry slam. Most of the poets sing their verses, but Ghalib merely recites his more demanding Urdu ghazals. However, on his way home, the dejected poet hears a woman singing his verse. Investigating the sweet voice, Ghalib is immediately taken with Moti Begum, affectionately calling her “Chaudhvin” in reference to the moonlight illuminating her. Not knowing what her favorite poet looks like, Begum indulges his flirting for a bit, before sending him packing. By the time her mistake has been revealed, Ghalib is safely home with his wife and the film’s romantic conflicts are clearly established.

Regardless of their literary merits (which are hard to appreciate without studying the text), Ghalib’s ghazals have an undeniably musical quality. They sound particularly seductive when sung by Suraiya (a singer-actress known Cher-like, simply by her first name) as the lovely and tragic Begum. Unfortunately, as Ghalib, Bharat Bhushan mostly comes across like a whiny drip (or whatever the appropriate Urdu term might be). Still, all is forgiven when his ghazals are dubbed by Talat Mehmood, a popular Indian vocalist who specialized in the form, despite his strict Islamic upbringing.

Like many contemporary Hollywood historical dramas Ghalib definitely looks like it was shot on a studio backlot, but that is part of the charm. It is also interesting to see undisguised opium smoking in a 1950’s film (rest assured, it leads to further trouble). While the political content is relatively limited, the ever expanding British soon-to-be Raj is also presented as a cause of further tribulation.

With its elegantly romantic music and V. Avadhoot’s evocative black-and-white cinematography, Ghalib is hardly the garish spectacle many might uncharitably expect from Bollywood. A classy package that sounds great, Ghalib is a shrewd selection for the FSLC’s Bollywood series. It screens Thursday (5/20) and Sunday (5/23) at the Walter Reade Theater.

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Bollywood Comes to America: Kites

J is a classic Bollywood protagonist: the handsome adventurer caught up in a deadly love triangle. However, his Las Vegas base of operations is quite a departure for the genre. In a deliberate overture to the American market, Rakesh Roshan’s Kites (directed by Anurag Basu) will be released in two versions, the traditional Bollywood cut to be followed a week later by the shorter “remix” overseen by Rush Hour director Brett Ratner. American set or not, if you are going to do Bollywood, you ought to go for the old school original (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Waking up in a Mexican raton-hole with a broken heart and a bullet in his back, J is in bad shape. In classic film noir style, we see how he got to such a sad state in a series of flashbacks. There is also a fair amount of dancing. In fact, J worked in a dance studio, where he had the dubious luck to meet Gina, the pampered daughter of Bob, a shadowy casino owner. To woo her, J enlists Gina as his partner in a dance contest they win with what look like vintage moves from Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo circa 1984. J even sports the MJ hat.

Unfortunately, Bob also had a son Tony, who is even bigger trouble. At least, he is happy about his impending wedding to Natasha. On the other hand, J’s feelings are decidedly mixed, since he happens to be married to Tony’s beautiful fiancé. In addition to his dance classes, J also paid the bills by marrying women seeking legal residency in America. (Though Kites implies the Hindi speaking J emigrated from India, he must have become naturalized somehow, in a detail the film could not be bothered with.) Natasha (a.k.a. Linda) was the only one of his eleven wives J still remembers, due to her obvious hotness. With both on the verge of marrying into a major (but scary) fortune, they end up throwing it away for each other. Naturally, the course of true love does not run smooth as these star-crossed lovers make a break for the border.

In truth, Kites would probably be a good starter film for those unfamiliar with Bollywood. At a mere one hundred thirty minutes, it is a munchkin by genre standards. However, viewers should understand the customary critical norms do not apply here. Kites is a big, glossy soap opera that uses all the glitzy stylistic elements of late 1980’s high concept films. If you are not laughing through the overblown melodrama, I’m afraid the joke is on you. Still, Basu keeps it all moving at a healthy gallop, staging some surprisingly entertaining chases as well as delivering the Bollywood goods.

Kites works by its own standards because of the chemistry between the two attractive leads. While most of the time they can barely communicate that never becomes a glaring credibility issue for the film. Though certainly gorgeous, Barbara Mori also shows a bit of dramatic range as Natasha/Linda, while Hrithik Roshan has undeniable screen presence as J. Son of Kites producer Rakesh and nephew of its composer Rajesh, Roshan can also be seen tomorrow in the monster Bollywood hit Jodhaa Akbar at the Walter Reade.

True to the genre, but American made (except for those clearly phony Nevada license plates), Kites is what it is. Those in the market for an extravagantly tragic love story who understand the conventions of Bollywood should find it satisfying. The full length, legit Kites opens this Friday (5/21) at the Quad.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Truffaut and Godard: Two in the Wave

There have been Czech, Romanian, and Japanese “New Waves,” in which small groups of young avant-garde filmmakers shook the countries’ cinema out of its complacency. Of course, the tsunami of all New Waves was the French Nouvelle Vague, essentially launched by François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. The turbulent relationship between the two former friends turned bitter antagonists and their significance within the Nouvelle Vague movement are analyzed in Emmanuel Laurent’s documentary Two in the Wave (trailer here), opening this Wednesday at New York’s Film Forum.

If there is one touchstone image in Wave, it is a haunting scene from Truffaut’s Blows, featuring the teenaged protagonist Antoine Doinel running across an empty beach. Though controversial, its screening at Cannes was an unalloyed triumph, ironically made possible by de Gaulle’s minister of culture, novelist André Malraux who chose it as France’s sole representative film. Soon thereafter, Truffaut lent his rising prestige to Godard’s feature debut, penning the initial story treatment for Breathless. The resulting film would be radically different, reflecting Godard’s highly unorthodox methods.

Laurent’s film could have easily been called Three in the Wave, with actor Jean-Pierre Léaud being the third of the Nouvelle Vague trio. Forever considered Truffaut’s alter-ego for his work in 400 Blows and in subsequent Doinel films, Léaud also appeared in several of Godard’s increasingly didactic films, like the explicitly Marxist Made in U.S.A.

More than just battling for Léaud’s on-screen soul, the two filmmakers would sever their friendship over a fundamental disagreement over nature of art. As writer-narrator Antoine De Baecque clearly explains, Godard, the Maoist from a well-to-do family, insisted art must serve as overt agitprop to have any social value. Conversely, it was Truffuat, a man from mean circumstance who had seen prison from the inside on more than one occasion, who insisted art should be true to itself and not adulterated for ideological purposes.

Wave is generously illustrated with clips from relevant Truffaut and Godard films, as well as those of some of their contemporaries, like Agnés Varda. Laurent also culled an impressive collection of archival photos and press clippings that he presents in a rather idiosyncratic style. Instead of showing them directly on-screen, he films actress-model Isild Le Besco pensively leafing through them. From a strict documentary standpoint, her selection does not make much objective sense, but she is certainly attractive, so who’s to object?

Sharply edited by Marie-France Cuénot, Wave captures the feeling of the Nouvelle Vague, without slavishly aping the jump cuts and other hallmarks of the movement’s stylistic breakthroughs. Laurent and De Baecque uncover quite a bit of telling video footage that provides fresh insights into both auteurs. However, it probably would not be the most effective introduction to either filmmaker for those unfamiliar with their work. After all, it gives away the endings to Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and Godard’s Breathless, which will also soon open at Film Forum in a newly restored print to mark its fiftieth anniversary. For dedicated Francophile cineastes though, Wave is full of fascinating details, nicely evoking the two very different directors and their groundbreaking films. It opens at Film Forum this Wednesday (5/19).

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Bombay at Lincoln Center: Jodhaa Akbar

Eighty elephants, fifty-five camels, and over four thousand kilograms of gold jewelry reportedly went into its production. In addition to Braveheart style battles and courtly intrigue, Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar (trailer here) also features several lavish musical interludes. Welcome to Bollywood cinema, the internationally popular flamboyant films produced in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Growing in recognition and popular acclaim with American audiences following the success of Slumdog Millionaire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center launches Muslim Cultures of Bombay, a retrospective of Bollywood’s most ambitious and socially conscious historical dramas this Wednesday with a special screening of Gowariker’s three and a half hour epic.

The young Emperor Akbar has finally consolidated the Muslim Mughal Imperium’s hold on all of Hindustan. For the sake of peace with the restless Hindu Rajput principalities, Akbar has taken Jodhaa, a Rajput princess, as his bride. She also happens to be very beautiful, but is less than thrilled by the proposed union, only acquiescing when the Emperor promises to respect her faith and build a modest Hindu temple for her within the palace. While duly married, it will take a serious campaign of wooing for Akbar to win her heart.

Of course, India has experienced years of Hindu-Muslim conflicts, even predating Kashmir and the Partition. It is that subtext that deeply informs Akbar. While Rajput reaction has been highly critical, accusing the film of whitewashing the anti-Hindu campaigns of the historical Akbar and his heirs, western audiences will likely interpret it as a rebuke of militant Islam.

Whether historically accurate or not, Akbar’s pivotal decision to lift the tax on Hindu religious pilgrimage clearly celebrates religious tolerance. While the disapproving mullahs of the Mughal Court are unflaggingly portrayed as deceitful and intolerant, the heroic Akbar’s observance of Islam comes across as simply a requirement of his position rather than an examined faith. By contrast, the only unambiguous example of pure religious devotion is that of Jodhaa’s Hinduism.

Notwithstanding the important social and religious significance of Akbar’s story, it is very definitely grandly epic story telling. Wild elephants are tamed, pitched battles are joined, and there are indeed musical numbers, courtesy of Slumdog’s Oscar winning A.R. Rahman, perhaps the best being the Sufis serenading Akbar on his wedding night. It also has Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, often heralded in internet polls as the world’s most beautiful woman, as Jodhaa, and Hrithik Roshan (soon be seen in Kites, a major Bollywood trial balloon for mainstream American commercial acceptance) as Akbar. While their chemistry is okay, the film is most successful when luxuriating in the grandeur of its enormous scale and lush design. It even inspired a Jodhaa Akbar collection from the Indian jeweler Tanisq.

With some cool battle scenes and most of its courtship done through fencing, Akbar certainly satisfies the audience looking for more on-screen swordplay. It also has plenty of romantic yearning and high tragedy as befits a sweeping epic. Old fashioned in an entertaining way, the extravagantly produced Akbar is a perfect choice to kick-off the FSLC’s new retrospective, Social Dramas and Shimmering Spectacles: Muslim Cultures of Bombay Cinema, this Wednesday evening (5/19) at the Walter Reade Theater.

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

BHFF ’10: Sevdah

When they get the blues in Bosnia, they call them Sevdah, or Sevdalinka when expressed in song. For many younger Bosnians in exile during the war, the Sevdalinka of the older generations came to poignantly represent their homeland and all its sorrows. United by their affection for Sevdalinka stoked by a dearly departed mutual friend, a musician and a filmmaker explore the music as a means of grieving and healing in Marina Andree’s reflective documentary Sevdah (trailer here), the winner of the Audience Award at the 2009 Sarajevo Film Festival, which screened last night at this year’s Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival.

The late Farah Tahirbegović’s love of Sevdalinka inspired her stories and essays, stimulating a similar ardor amongst her friends and colleagues. Musician Damir Imamović was no stranger to Sevdalinka as the grandson of Zaim Imamović, one of the music’s most beloved vocalists. However, he is a relatively recent Sevdalinka convert, adapting his Hot Club-style jazz trio to Sevdalinka, partly as a result of Tahirbegović’s influence. While the music heard throughout Sevdah is all quite stirring, the clear highpoints involve his Sevdah fusions, like a Sevdalinka rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime” and a traditional delta blues take on a Sevdalinka standard.

More meditative than narrative-driven, Sevdah ultimately culminates in the Imamović Trio’s concert at a cultural center for Bosnian youths right on the line bisecting the divided city of Mostar. While Andree explains a bit of the music’s recent history, she avoids extended ethnomusicologic inquiry into Sevdalinka’s Turkish and Roma roots. She is more concerned with its recent cultural currency, especially as a symbol of Bosnia’s primarily urban culture, at a time when it was literally under siege. For Andree and Imamović, it serves as both anthem and requiem, providing the appropriate soundtrack to mourn those killed during war, as well as their friend Tahirbegović.

Imamović’s Trio and Andree’s selected archival recordings (mostly featuring more traditional instrumentation, including violin, accordion, and clarinet) always sound great, conveying a keen sense of the music’s dramatic yearning and its rhythmic drive. Sevdah also looks quite handsome, with Sandi Novak’s lens soaking up the scarred beauty of the Bosnian locales, while filming the performances with an elegant sensitivity.

Though relatively short (approximately sixty-six minutes), Sevdah effectively illustrates how aptly music can represent certain individuals as well as entire cultures, without overselling the point. Often elegiac, but frequently swinging, the music is the thing in Sevdah, and it is very definitely worth hearing. Jazz listeners in particular should find it easily accessible. A great introduction to a beautiful musical form, Sevdah was a highlight of this year’s BHFF, which also included Hans-Christian Schmid’s Storm, a scathing depiction of corruption and incompetence at the International Criminal Court, and Geoffrey Alan Rhodes and Steven Eastwood’s Buried Land, a strange hybrid of fictionalized documentary, mockumentary, and performance art that premiered at Tribeca last month.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Dangerous Real Estate: Project Kashmir

Kashmir has a sizeable Buddhist population in the remote Zanskar region, but you never hear about them. That is because the Muslims and Hindus get all the media and government attention. Killing each other has that advantage. Senain Kheshgi and Geeta V. Patel, two American filmmakers with roots on opposite sides of the partition, traveled to Kashmir to document the situation on the ground in Project Kashmir (trailer here), which airs this coming Tuesday as part of the current season of Independent Lens on PBS.

Kheshgi and Patel have a mysterious guide, who only appears in the film as an electronically distorted voice heard on the other end of their cell phones. He starts them out with one piece of sage advice: “you should not trust anyone, that is important.” Indeed, most of the Kashmiris they talk to seem to have an agenda, like Muzamil Jaleel, the Muslim editor of Indian Express, and Khurram Pervez, an NGO activist. While Project spends more time with them, its strongest scenes capture Hindu Pandit Aarti Tikoo Singh’s heartbreaking return to the burned out husk of her family home.

As they navigate Kashmir’s militant divide, the filmmakers hear a great deal of defensiveness regarding the religious nature of the conflict. Several times, Kheshgi and Patel are told the eviction of the Pandits had more to do with class warfare than religious hatred, as if that were more respectable. Far from challenging their interlocutors, the two filmmakers largely accept everything they are told uncritically. Perhaps most disturbingly, at times they seem to line up on opposite sides of the Kashmir controversy, based on their own religious and ethnic identities.

Though the unseen guide supplies the film’s most salient insights, indeed coming across as an honest broker, Project devotes far too much screen time to decidedly uncinematic scenes of phone calls. However, cinematographer Ron Kaufman successfully a sense of the region’s rugged natural beauty and he and the directors definitely deserve credit for filming under some tense situations, including one of the army’s periodic sweeps for militants.

Despite its periodic protestations to the contrary, Project also reduces the Kashmiri situation to a Hindu versus Muslim conflict. At least in the broadcast cut, no Buddhists and Sikhs (of which there are many), Christians and Jews (who admittedly would probably be difficult to find), or heaven forbid atheists have an opportunity to tell their stories. Again, they do not seem be doing any of the killing, so they do not get the spotlight either.

Ultimately, Kheshgi and Patel come away from Kaashmir without bagging the big story, though certainly not for a lack of trying on their part. While there are fascinating episodes, its context is a bit perfunctory, making it an imperfect introduction to Kashmir for viewers not previously steeped in the regional conflict. It airs on most PBS affiliates this coming Tuesday (5/18).

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Death by Rom-Com: My Last Five Girlfriends

Many deride Alain de Botton and his philosophy for the layman as rather shallow if reassuring musings. Others consider him a “rock star.” Fans and critics alike will probably see vindication in the romantic comedy adapted from his hybrid novel-essay, On Love. Fortunately, writer-director Julian Kemp largely re-conceives the story, producing a reasonably entertaining laughter quotient in My Last Five Girlfriends (trailer here), part of a batch of previous Tribeca Film Festival selections currently getting a limited theatrical run through the fest’s new distribution arm.

Duncan, a British architect specializing in emergency exits, is one swig of booze away from ending it all. He recently broke up with his girlfriend Gemma and is taking it kind of hard. While number five is definitely the precipitating motivation, the previous four girlfriends before her did not do much for his mental stability either. As darkness approaches, Duncan contemplates where each relationship went wrong, with the help of his surrealist construct: Duncan World, an amusement park based on his miserable life.

Duncan’s flashbacks of numbers one through four are dispensed with fairly quickly. Unfortunately, that includes the still very attractive Jane March (memorably seen in the muddled Color of Night with Bruce Willis) as Olive (number two chronologically). Second to the last Natalie gets a bit more screen time, since they were a going concern for quite a while. Duncan would also meet Gemma, his eventual number five, through her.

Five is a bit unusual in the rom-com genre, in that it is very definitely presented from a male POV, and not always a particularly mature one at that. Yet, while we see Duncan do plenty of stupid and boorish things, he is not a bad guy. Indeed, Brendan Patricks fleshes him out reasonably well, bringing a bit of an edge, but always maintaining his everyman likability. As a result, his drama with Naomie Harris’s Gemma induces a whole lot of sympathetic wincing.

Though Kemp’s relationship material is mostly standard issue, he has a good eye for visual comedy, integrating some inventive animation and trippy fantasy sequences into the mix. His affinity for black comedy is also apparent throughout, particularly in the framing device. Still, it really is a comedy, though the romance is often elusive for poor hapless Duncan.

Granted, Five never really breaks any new cinematic ground, but the pacing is breezy and the sight gags are crisply executed. Although the characters are bit older, it should satisfy fans of films like Better Off Dead and Youth in Revolt. Five screens at the Tribeca Cinemas through Tuesday (5/18), as does the dystopian animated film Metropia, one of the highlights of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival also selected for their inaugural release slate.

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

In the Dark: Comrades in Dreams

Suppose you are a western filmmaker who somehow gains access to North Korea, the most closed society in the world. You probably would want to ask something more probing than Barbara Walters questions like, if you could be a character in film, who would that be? Unfortunately, Uli Gaulke largely wastes such an opportunity in his documentary, Comrades in Dreams (trailer here), a selection of the Sundance, Berlin, and Karlovy Vary Film Festivals now available on DVD.

From a fly-on-the-wall POV, Gaulke observes four very diverse cinema proprietors from four very different countries, who all seem to share a passion for bringing films to their patrons. Often they are real entrepreneurs, like Lasanne Badiel of Burkina Faso and Anup Jagdale in India, each of whom dreams of establishing a more permanent cinema.

In contrast, Sunday school teacher Penny Tefertiller presides over The Flick, an institution in Big Piney, Wyoming. Sadly, it is the kind of movie house that is fast becoming a rarity in small town America. Rather than financial rewards, she maintains the theater because of its importance to the town’s social life. Of course, market forces do not concern Han Yong-sil either, as the film programmer for a North Korean workers’ collective.

While Comrades is a mostly harmless ode to dedicated lovers and purveyors of cinema around the globe, its North Korean segments are frequently problematic. Gaulke’s scrupulously non-judgmental editorial policy accepts a lot of weird scenes at face value. A case in point is Han’s movie of the week, Our Flavour, a cheesy revolutionary romance that defends the honor of Noorth Korean kimchi (no kidding). More troubling is an exchange in which the local party functionary explains whenever she has a “problem,” she asks Han to program a propaganda film which addresses it. Yet, despite such avenues begging for further critical inquiry, Gaulke prefers to indulge in travelogue footage of the ugly monuments of the Kim personality cults.

Though flawed, Comrades is not irredeemable. To his credit, Gaulke clearly has respect for Tefertiller’s faith and Big Piney’s small town values. It is also nice to see the entrepreneurial spirit alive and well in Africa. Unfortunately, there is no real narrative arc to the film, so it never seems to get anywhere. Distinguished more by its lost opportunities, the modest Comrades is now available on DVD from Pathfinder Home Entertainment.

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Serbian Love Connection: Here and There

It’s love, Serbian style. But not for Robert, a New York jazz musician, who has hit rock-bottom. He is only the groom. Love, music, and furniture moving all collide for the distinctively coiffed tenor-playing protagonist in director-screenwriter Darko Lungulov’s Here and There (trailer here), the winner of the Best New York Narrative Award at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, which finally opens theatrically in New York tomorrow.

Robert is not making it in New York. He has only cut one poor selling record in his career and he has not even touched his horn in months. When evicted from his apartment, he calls Branko, a cut-rate Serbian mover. When Robert explains his situation, Branko offers him the strangest wedding gig of his career: fly to Belgrade, marry his girlfriend, and legally bring her back to Branko in America. Having burned all his other bridges, Robert reluctantly agrees.

In Serbia, Robert stays with Branko’s divorced mother, the still attractive Olga, who only knows he is a friend of her son. While waiting for Branko to come through with his money, Robert discovers Belgrade is a much nicer city than New York to be down and out in, despite many of the locals’ obvious defensiveness regarding recent Serbia history. There is also no denying the charm of Branko’s mother, who even convinces Robert to start playing his tenor again. However, the nature of Robert’s arrangement with Branko looms over his tentative new romance.

As Robert, David Thornton gives a well-modulated performance, expressing the world-weariness and desperation of a flawed, but not utterly unlikable character. Thornton’s hair will be instantly recognizable to audiences for his many supporting performances in both film and television, including the recurring role of slimy defense attorney Lionel Granger on Law & Order: SVU. He is perfectly balanced by veteran Serbian actress Mirjana Karanovic, who brings a memorable warmth and dignity to the role of Olga.

Thornton’s real-life wife Cyndi Lauper also appears in a cameo role, as a friend fast losing patience with the self-destructive Robert. She also contributes an original, but forgettable, song to the film. However, the rest of Dejan Pejovic’s soundtrack is quite distinctive, incorporating jazz, traditional Serbian Guča-style brass band music (featuring those crazy sideways Balkan trumpets), and some lush romantic mood music.

Sensitively helmed by Lungulov, H&T conveys a strong sense of both cities. In fact, with the majority of its dialogue in English, it should be accessible to those easily intimidated by foreign films. Unfortunately, it was disqualified by the Academy when Serbia officially submitted it for the best foreign language Oscar, for that very reason. Impressively, H&T is a truly rare romantic comedy that almost completely avoids any form of sentimentality. Yet, it still has a romantic heart buried in there somewhere. Highly recommended, it opens at the Quad tomorrow (5/14).

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