J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

5 Japanese Divas: Sisters of the Gion (Isuzu Yamada)

It is a case of good geisha-bad geisha. Omocha is definitely the bad one. Yet, for all her scheming, she is trapped in a man’s world, performing a subservient occupation. Considered a bold feminist statement for 1936 Japan as well as a turning point in his own career, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sisters of the Gion is a perfect showcase for his early muse, Isuzu Yamada, which fittingly screens during Film Forum’s tragically timely 5 Japanese Divas retrospective.

Traditional in her ways, Umekichi accepts her lot in life. In contrast, her younger sister Omocha overflows with contempt for the men who seek their company in Kyoto’s pleasure district. Adopting the strategy of exploiting their exploiters, she is not amused when Umekichi’s bankrupt patron moves in with them. Not one to suffer deadbeats gladly, she manipulates him into leaving with a vampishness worthy of a Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. However, she makes quite a few enemies in the process.

Gion is short but delicious, implying all sorts of mature situations going on off-screen. Yet, despite the confidence Yamada projects, leading us to suspect she will always land on her, um . . . feet, Mizoguchi pulls a naturalistic switcheroo in the third act. Omocha might be her own woman, but it is still a world not of her making.

There is no question Gion is Yamada’s film. She delivers her barbed lines with attitude that burns like acid, even through the subtitles. If not quite as radiantly beautiful as Setsuko Hara or Hideko Takamine (also featured in the 5 Divas series), it is easy to understand why so many men make monkeys of themselves over her throughout the film. Likewise, Yōko Umemura brings out a finely turned human dimension to her subservient sister Umekichi. This truly is a woman’s picture though, as the men are largely interchangeable old lechers.

Frankly, it is rather remarkable that Mizoguchi invites pre-war viewers to identify with such a morally flexible female protagonist. Bordering on film noir, Gion has been paired with Ozu’s Dragnet Girl for a thoroughly entertaining double feature next Monday (4/4). Indeed, Film Forum’s entire 5 Divas series is highly recommended, particularly Ozu’s Late Spring, Early Summer, and Tokyo Story, starring the incomparable Hara. It is also worth repeating, those so moved can support the Red Cross’ efforts in Japan here and find information on the Japan Society’s upcoming (4/9) Concert for Japan benefit here.

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Independent Lens: The Desert of Forbidden Art

Nearly any art the Soviets would suppress, Igor Savitsky collected—using their money. In a remote corner of Central Asia, Savitsky built the Nukus Museum to house an extraordinary collection of Soviet modernist and Uzbekistani folk art. This unlikely institution and its visionary founder are introduced to the world at-large in Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev’s fascinating documentary, The Desert of Forbidden Art (trailer here), which airs this coming Tuesday on PBS’s Independent Lens, hard on the heels of its New York theatrical release earlier this month.


Frankly, as the son of aristocratic stock, Savitsky was fortunate simply to be living in relative liberty during the Stalinist era. After being rudely disabused of his own artistic ambitions, Savitsky returned the scene of his happiest times, the remote Uzbekistani autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, where he had served as a sketch artist on an archaeological dig. Savitsky soon began collecting the local folk art considered verboten under Stalinism. However, his greatest acquisitions were the explicitly banned work of Soviet avant-garde artists who had come to Uzbekistan in the 1920’s and 1930’s to avoid the secret police’s prying eyes.

Figures like Alexander Volkov and Alexander Nikolaev synthesized modernism and the exotic Central Asian art into something new and unique to the region. Clearly not working within the Soviet Realism style dictated by the state, their art was quickly banned. Many, like Mikhail Kurzin, were interrogated and even imprisoned. Yet, somehow Savitsky managed to convince the Karakalpak party boss to fund his proposed museum, (which he did through embezzlement).

While Savitsky’s subversive institution might sound like just another ironic episode of Cold War history, the quality, diversity, and volume of art he collected there is absolutely staggering. Pope and Georgiev choose some genuinely striking pieces to spotlight throughout Desert, but they could only scratch the surface of the 40,000 some works he amassed. However, an estimated 97% percent of the Savitsky Collection is in dire need of restoration.

Not just a remarkable history lesson, Desert is also a call to action, urging viewers to support the museum. The staff, though passionate, is woefully underpaid, and the building’s environmental controls are essentially non-existent. The Islamist specter also looms over the Nukus Museum. Though not yet directly threatened by Taliban-style militias, Uzbekistan is a Muslim country that shares a border with Afghanistan. Indeed, the Nukus curator is all too aware of the fate of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

Truly, Desert is a revelation several times over. A genuine cultural hero, Savitsky and a handful of highly placed allies saved a treasure trove of exceptional paintings and graphics. Pope and Georgiev tell his story beautifully, featuring work after work of power and originality evident even to the untrained eye, as well as the smoothly polished voice of Sir Ben Kingsley, which well serves Savitsky’s words. Perfectly ending on a note of gentle irony, it is hard to imagine a more insightful or informative documentary will find its way onto the broadcast airwaves this year. Highly recommended for all audiences (and to art lovers in particular), Desert airs this Tuesday (4/5) as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Jerry Weintraub on HBO: His Way

Jerry Weintraub is one of the few people in Hollywood with serious Rat Pack cred. As a concert promoter he worked with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. He can sell anything to anyone, but producing movies became his passion. Incapable of thinking small, his successes and failures are the stuff of Tinsel town lore. Relying heavily on colorful anecdotes from the man himself and his famous friends, Douglas McGrath profiles the self-made mogul in His Way (trailer here), which debuts on HBO this coming Monday.


Set to the sounds of Sinatra swinging “World on a String,” His Way’s opening credit sequence perfectly sets the mood for the story that follows. It is so cool, it’s hilarious. Brooklyn-born and Bronx-raised, Weintraub showed an entrepreneurial flair at an early age. After serving in the Air Force, Weintraub fast-talked his way into an agenting gig with MCA. In fact, one of his best stories involves a memorable encounter with the feared and revered agency head Lew Wasserman. Eventually, Weintraub struck out on his own, successfully transitioning from talent agent, to concert promoter, and finally to film producer. Along the way, he signed and quickly married singer Jane Morgan, after they picked up a pair of quickie divorces in Mexico. Yes, the film isn’t called “His Way” for nothing.

Weintraub might be the only person to inspire friendly on-camera reminiscences from lefties like George Clooney and Matt Damon, as well as Pres. George (41) and Barbara Bush. Contrary to popular perceptions, Weintraub also paints an affectionate (if somewhat eccentric) portrait of Presley’s manager, “Colonel Tom” Parker. He can certainly tell a story, though it helps to have material like Sinatra’s chaotic but ultimately triumphant “Main Event” concert broadcast live from Madison Square Garden.

His Way is a very funny film, but Weintraub’s Horatio Alger story is engaging in its own idiosyncratic way. There is no denying his work ethic and tenacity. He also personifies resiliency, clawing his way back on top after going “belly up.” McGrath (the Oscar-nominated co-writer of Bullets Over Broadway) understands the appeal of the material, focusing on the Weintraub attitude. Yet, despite documenting his taste for vodka, neither drugs nor sordid legal scandals factor into his story, in so far as McGrath chooses to tell it. As for Weintraub’s personal life, Charlie Sheen would probably say he is the original “winner.” Oceans co-stars Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts find themselves tongue-tied just talking about it.

There is plenty of gossipy dirt on Weintraub available on the internet, but McGrath wisely opts to keep the tone light and breezy, embracing the Rat Pack vibe with relish. If this constitutes collaborating with Weintraub’s relentless self-promotion, at least it is great fun to watch. Highly entertaining, His Way airs this Monday (4/4) on HBO, where it fits in quite nicely with their documentary programming.

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5 Japanese Divas: Dragnet Girl (Kinuyo Tanaka)

By day, Tokiko works in an office typing pool. By night, she is a gun moll. One has to respect her work ethic. Perhaps most surprisingly, this silent gangster drama was a rare foray into genre cinema from Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu. Featuring Kinuyo Tanaka as the bad girl leading a double life, Ozu’s Dragnet Girl screens during the soon to commence 5 Japanese Divas retrospective series, which Film Forum scheduled well in advance of the earthquake and tsunami that shook Japan. However, it serves as a timely reminder of the exceptional films produced by a country that has become one of America’s closest friends and allies.

Like many Ozu films, Dragnet takes us into the world of the Japanese white collar worker. Tokiko is a loyal member of an office typing pool, who frequently receives extravagant gifts from the boss’s son. She tries her best to keep him at arm’s length for the sake of her job. She really does not seem to need it though. Every night she lives the high life with her lover Joji, a former prize fighter turned gangster. Together, they operate a racket Ozu never spells out, but seems to involve her sex appeal and his brawn. They look like a perfect match, but when Joji starts to fall for the “good girl” sister of one of their flunky henchmen, it leads both of them to reconsider their life choices.

Even if Dragnet were not such an unrepresentative film in Ozu’s canon, it would be a fun little gangster film. Indeed, Ozu offers some quite striking film noir shadow play that is nothing like his trademark “tatami-level” shots. Although most analysis of Dragnet emphasizes how it differs from his mature style, there are certain similarities. Though ostensibly a crime drama, Ozu focuses far more on the emotional conflicts within his female characters. While not exactly like his famous transitional still-life shots, he shows the same facility for investing meaning in everyday objects, like the office typewriters neatly covered, or the orderly row of the office workers’ hats hanging on their hooks.

Of course, this is not an Ozu retrospective, but a survey of five superb Japanese actresses: Tanaka, Isuzu Yamada, Machiko Kyo, Setsuko Hara, and Hideko Takamine. Appropriately, Dragnet is a first class showcase for Tanaka, who looks deceptively cute and innocent, but burns up the screen as Tokiko. She covers the full emotional range, ultimately becoming an unlikely combination of Ma Barker and Mother Theresa.

Dragnet is a silent film, but music plays an important role, so Film Forum house pianist Steve Sterner will have a chance to exercise both his jazz and classical chops. Dragnet might be an anomaly within Ozu’s filmography, but it proves he could handle the classic Warner Brothers-esque gangster melodrama, when he chose to. So there. Dapper entertainment from two masters of world cinema (Ozu and Tanaka), Dragnet screens as part of a double bill this coming Monday (4/4) during Film Forum’s 5 Japanese Divas (which kicks off this Friday). After partaking of some great Japanese films, those so moved can support the Red Cross’ efforts in Japan here and find information on the Japan Society’s upcoming (4/9) Concert for Japan benefit here.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

New Filmmakers: North Dixie Drive

The very name is contradictory. Dayton, Ohio’s North Dixie Drive used to circumscribe a bustling business district, but it has fallen on hard times. Always hardworking and sometimes eccentric, the diverse group of Ohioans scratching out their livings on the commercial loop are profiled in Eric Mahoney’s North Dixie Drive (trailer here), which screens this coming Tuesday as part of the NYC New Filmmakers series at the Anthology Film Archives.


The once bustling Dixie Donuts is now eerily empty. As goes the donut shop, so goes the neighborhood. Times are tough indeed, but there is still money to be made on North Dixie, at least for some. The strippers clear decent tips and two enterprising men have carved out a profitable niche as automotive repo-men. Scrupulously professional yet philosophical about a business dependent on others’ misfortunes, Adam Sampson and Lando Lakes are two of the film’s more intriguing figures. Of course, there are also the colorful types like Gary Hull, an eccentric folksinger (for lack of a better term).

Amidst this racially and ethnically mixed neighborhood, Zeke Levi emerges as the film’s protagonist (he is also the director’s father-in-law). An Iraqi-Israeli immigrant, Zeke and his wife Iris appear to have maintained the Traffic Circle Tire Center as a going concern, despite the inhospitable economic climate. Remembering their early hardships, they often extend a helping hand to their neighbors, including their manager, Herbert Agee, Jr. In fact, NDD might be the most sympathetic portrayal of Israelis to hit New York screens so far this year.

While Agee’s scenes are surprisingly touching, NDD occasionally hints at a mocking impulse that is a bit problematic. However, the scenes of the low-rent IPWA wrestling matches, featuring some of the whitest men in the world as supposed Middle Eastern terrorists, make one wonder if it is all just a gag at Mahoney’s expense.

For those of us with roots in Ohio (mighty Springfield half an hour east on I-70), NDD will bring it all rushing back. At its best, it captures the generous spirit and work ethic of Middle America. Those who dig the song stylings of Gary Hull should also be advised to stay for the stinger when NDD screens next Tuesday (4/5) at the Anthology Film Archives.

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Dupieux’s Rubber

Quentin Dupieux thinks you’re stupid if you want to see his new movie (in a subversive way, of course). Indeed, fanboy insistence on some warped sense of logical realism in their genre entertainment is one of the targets in his cinematic provocation Rubber (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.


Robert is a discarded tire that mysteriously animates itself somewhere in the generic southwest. As it rolls along the highway, it discovers it can make heads telekinetically explode, if it starts vibrating with a purpose. It is boring out there in the boonies, so naturally the bodies quickly pile up. Basically, everyone who crosses his path is in for it, except Sheila, his (human) femme fatale, whom he begins to stalk. However, before we can say “not another movie about a serial killing Michelin with the shine,” Dupieux adds an additional meta-layer of absurdity. As it turns out, Robert and Sheila are being watched.

There is something undeniably appealing about Dupieux’s willingness to chuck the kitchen sink into Rubber, pipes and all. Unfortunately, he is about as contemptuously disinterested in the film’s internal logical consistency as Obama is in the events tragically unfolding in Japan—not very, not at all. As a result, the audience is constantly aware they are being played. Dupieux tells us so straight out through his mouthpiece, Lieutenant Chad, who constantly repeats the mantra: “no reason.”

Serving as his own d.p., Dupieux shot with the video function of an off-the-shelf consumer digital camera, with surprisingly professional looking results. Frankly, it puts the herky-jerkies of the Transformers franchise to shame. The animatronic effects are also nicely executed, but what can you say about a film when the best performance comes from a tire? At least Wings Hauser is able to walk the fine line, signaling he is in on the joke while maintaining a semblance of character relatively well as the “Man in Wheelchair.”

Despite his gamesmanship, Dupieux ultimately conforms to genre conventions when he leaves Rubber wide open for a potential sequel. Here’s hoping it’s in 3-D. Laudably inventive but too self-consciously knowing for its own good, Rubber opens this Friday (4/1) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Family Business: Circo

Running off to join the circus might sound romantic, but it involves a lot of hard work. Just ask the discontented wife of Circo Mexico’s ringmaster. The Circo has been owned and operated by the Ponce family since the Nineteenth Century, but its future is increasingly in doubt due to mounting debts and internal tensions. Aaron L. Schock documents the struggles of the Ponce family as they somehow manage to keep their show on the road throughout Circo (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The Ponce family and the Circo Mexico have always essentially been one and the same. They represent a grand tradition of traveling circuses throughout Mexico. Unfortunately, ringmaster-foreman-animal tamer Tino’s sisters have recently left the circus to settle down with house dwellers, which constitutes an act of betrayal on multiple levels. Ponce looks to his own children to pick up the slack, but their mother Ivonne is not happy about their workload. About the only thing the Ponce children are not doing is studying. She also resents her in-laws, whom she accuses of exploiting their labor. Indeed, Don Gilberto is not exactly media savvy, frequently caught on-camera counting money or making self-serving statements.

Ivonne Ponce’s reservations are certainly understandable, particularly when we witness the difficulties her husband has in merely signing his name. Ultimately, she is undoubtedly correct to argue any future opportunities for their children depend on education. However, after screening a film like El Velador about Mexico’s escalating drug violence, there is something to be said for the apparent security of Ponce’s Circo.

Aaron L. Schock (sorry ladies, not the Illinois Republican voted hottest freshman of 2009 by the HufPo) deftly walks the line between the intimate and the intrusive. There is no question though, the stakes are high for the Ponces and the emotional repercussions are considerable. (They are also freakishly flexible—at least the young ones.) Clearly, this is real drama unfolding. Not even heard during the interview segments, Schock wisely resists inserting himself into the film. Instead, he allows the Ponces to speak their unfiltered peace.

Above all, Schock capitalizes on the Circo’s photogenic nature, dilapidated though it might be. The original soundtrack by the conjunto-tejano-crossover band Calexico also helps propel the film along nicely. Encompassing universal themes of family and tradition, Circo is frankly one of the more engaging observational documentaries in a fair piece of time. Well worth checking out, it opens this Friday (4/1) at the IFC Center.

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Canadian Animation: I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors

According to Bernice Eisenstein, prisoners often referred to the corner of the Birkenau-Auschwitz where their confiscated property was warehoused as “Canada,” because it represented a land of abundance. After their liberation from the notorious concentration camp, her parents resettled in the real Canada. While they led a life of pleasant middle class respectability, Eisenstein grew up profoundly aware of the significance of their experiences during the war. It was an issue she continued to grapple with in her illustrated memoir, I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, which has been adapted as an animated short film by Ann Marie Fleming for the National Film Board of Canada. Selected by the Toronto International Film Festival as one of the ten best shorts of the past year, Child (trailer here) screens this coming Friday in Los Angeles.

In 1961, Eisenstein’s extended family gathered to watch the Eichmann trial televised from Israel. It was the first time she began to grasp the enormity of her parents’ experiences. She subsequently sought out Holocaust books and films in a way she likens to a drug addict seeking a fix. Ironically, Eisenstein’s forthright narration explains how the lack of tragedy in her own life made her feel something of an outsider within her immediate family and their wider social circle, all of whom were survivors.

Frankly, Child is a bit edgier than typical Holocaust-related films, with Eisenstein even admitting to occasionally trading on her parents’ history for sympathy or status among her peers. Yet, there are parts that are quite touching, like the story behind her late father’s wedding ring. Fleming perfectly adapts the art of Eisenstein’s pseudo-graphic novel for the screen, developing some powerful imagery, like the swastika patterns that morph into the notorious death camp.

Indeed, Child is consistently interesting visually, incorporating expressive representations of the Eisensteins with more abstractly symbolic sequences. It sounds great too, thanks to a jazzy soundtrack (with some appealing bass walking from Éric Lagacé), often hinting at klezmer, but not to the point of cliché. Recommended both to animation enthusiasts and those interested in its serious themes, Child screens this Friday (4/1) at Laemmle Sunset 5.

(Photos © National Film Board of Canada)

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Kevin Kline Speaks French: Queen to Play

The fact that the queen is the most powerful piece on the chessboard is surely not lost on Hélène. As a put-upon Corsican hotel maid with an insensitive husband, she could use some empowering. That she achieves through the game of chess in Caroline Bottaro’s Queen to Play (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

To earn extra money, Hélène also cleans the villa of Dr. Kröger, a sophisticated American expat. Watching him play chess with his younger wife stirs something within her—perhaps longings for the sort of relationship she would like to have with her husband. Suddenly, Kröger’s wife is gone, but Hélène’s fascination with the game remains.

Of course, her hubby does not exactly share this budding interest, so her chess development is confined to late nights with the electronic chessboard. Frustrated, she approaches the increasingly sullen Kröger for a game. While initially reluctant, Kröger eventually becomes her chess tutor, sharpening her natural aptitude to the point he believes she is ready for serious tournament play.

To its credit, Queen takes the game of chess seriously instead of using it as a mere plot contrivance. The film’s best scenes show Hélène’s near obsession with the game, as chessboard patterns appear everywhere and common household items suggest problems from the game. However, aside from chess, we never really see her thinking strategically in her everyday life. Rather, she seems to simply react to events unfolding around her.

Throughout the film, audiences will have a good idea where it is headed, right down to the big match between Hélène and the arrogant chess master. Yet, Bottaro wisely never overplays her hand and resists the lure of cheap emotion. Never lurching into Henry Higgins territory, Kröger confines his mentoring to the chessboard and an occasional book recommendation. However, as written, Hélène’s husband Ange, played Francis Renaud, is largely clichéd and occasionally problematically brutish.

Still, Sandrine Bonnaire’s smart, down-to-Earth performance makes Hélène’s transition from mousy maid to self-confident chess master relatively smooth and believable. Sure to get attention for his first almost entirely French-speaking role, American actor Kevin Kline is also quite good as Kröger. In particular, the early scenes with his wife, played by the still very attractive Jennifer Beals, silently imply much history and romantic heat between them.

Indeed, Bottaro sets the wise and wistful mood quite effectively. It also looks quite elegant, capitalizing on its picturesque Corsican backdrop. A pleasant, if predictable story of a late-blooming woman finding her place in the world, Queen opens this Friday (4/1) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza and Angelika Film Center.

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

From Refugee to Humanitarian: Pushing the Elephant

Rose Mapendo has seen the ugliest humanity has to offer, but chooses to embrace a life of forgiveness. It might be the only way she can live with the agonizing choices she made to keep her ten children alive. Mapendo’s reunion with the daughter she had been forcibly separated from forms the nucleus of Beth Davenport and Elizabeth Mandel’s Pushing the Elephant (trailer here), which airs this Tuesday on PBS’s Independent Lens.

Mapendo appears to lead a life of pleasant middle class respectability in a peaceful suburban Phoenix neighborhood. Her past was a much different story. Ensnared in the government’s round-up of Tutsis, the pregnant and recently widowed Mapendo struggled to survive with all her children, save for Nangabire, who was with her paternal grandparents at the time. As part of her pragmatic calculations, Mapendo named her twins after two of their captors, in hopes they might take an interest in their survival. She would ask much of her other children as well.

Mapendo’s stratagems worked, ultimately leading to sanctuary and citizenship in America. However, Nangabire had been left behind. Now, just as the Mapendo family becomes as whole it can be, their matriarch announces a decision to return the Democratic [sic] Republic of the Congo with her campaign on behalf of displaced people, despite her eldest son John’s considerable reservations.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Elephant is the strength of Mapendo’s Christian faith and her determination to put it into action. She has become one of the leading advocates of refugees, particularly women and children, who are victimized by war and civil strife. Yet, it seems like she is often pressing her message on the wrong people, tirelessly addressing the UN’s governing body for refugee issues and affiliated NGOs. Those in attendance might be genuinely moved by Mapendo’s testimony, but they will never do anything to even mildly embarrass a UN club member like the DRC.

Davenport and Mandel clearly recognize the power of Mapendo’s story, but at times they lapse a bit into infomercialism for Mapendo’s non-profit organization. Still, Elephant is respectful, informative, and easily one of the more positive portrayals of Christianity on broadcast television this year. It airs this coming Tuesday (3/29) as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Viz Benefit Screening: Hula Girls

The Fukushima prefecture has long been one of Japan’s more economically disadvantaged areas, even before the devastating natural disasters and subsequent nuclear concerns. However, it could have been far more depressed before the earthquake hit. In the mid 1960’s, faced with the imminent closure of Iwaki’s coal mines, a small group of young women took control of their own destinies, through hula dancing. Based on their true stories, Sang-il Lee’s Hula Girls (trailer here) is a fitting selection for the Viz Cinema at New People’s special Japanese earthquake and tsunami benefit screenings today in San Francisco.

As Hula opens, Iwaki is a one-industry town. Unfortunately, the coal mine has been steadily laying-off workers and will close for good in a matter of years. Rather than adapt, the local miners’ union actively discourages any attempts to diversify the economy and provide alternate means of (safer) employment. This applies in spades to Norio Yoshimoto’s proposed Hawaiian style resort-spa. Despite the prejudices of her mother, the leader of the miners’ ladies auxiliary, Kimiko Tanikawa joins her friend Sanae Kimura as one of the first recruits for the Hawaiian resort’s hula dancers. Of course, none of the local women knows how to hula dance, but Yoshimoto found the perfect instructor.

Madoka Hirayama is a professional dancer from Tokyo with a vaguely scandalous past and a small mountain of debt. When Iwaki calls, she reluctantly accepts. Not surprisingly, she creates quite a stir, making a decidedly strong impression on Tanikawa’s older brother. Initially, the girls are a mass of left feet, but Kimiko has real potential, which she will have to realize without the support of her mother.

Of course, Hula will be following Rocky’s triumph over adversity template, but is not the cutesy story of “plucky” girls one might expect. It resists cheap sentimentality and never whitewashes the meanness of the dancers’ circumstances. (In fact, there is a scene of domestic violence that is a bit rougher than it ought to be in a film with such obvious appeal for young girls.) Still, the young cast, particularly Yû Aoi as Tanikawa (something of a breakout role for her), is entirely charming and engaging. Yet, it is their unlikely teacher that really makes the film work. Although she eventually warms to her students, Yasuko Matsuyuki never loses her edgy attitude, which makes her glamorous character all the more attractive.

Hula is a solidly entertaining film that compares quite favorably to the somewhat thematically related but more clichéd and condescending Made in Dagenham. It is even more recommended today for everyone in the Bay Area. The Viz Theater will be donating 100% of ticket sales from three special screenings to Japanese relief efforts. Indeed, the people of Iwaki are among those who were the most directly impacted by the recent disasters. They will face economic challenges far greater than those of the mid-1960’s. You can also support the Red Cross’ efforts in Japan here and find information on the Japan Society’s upcoming (4/9) Concert for Japan here.

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Friday, March 25, 2011

ND/NF ’11: Octubre

October is a time of hope and pageantry in Lima. Throngs of faithful join the procession celebrating the Lord of Miracles (or “Black Christ”) mural. Clemente is not one of them. Simply known as “the pawnbroker’s son,” he likes to keep things on a strictly cash basis. Obviously substandard father material, Clemente is naturally bit taken aback to find a little bundle of joy waiting for him in Daniel and Diego Vega’s Octubre (trailer here), which screens during the 2011 New Directors/New Films, co-presented by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Clemente lives his dreary life by choice. Loaning small sums to his economically disenfranchised neighbors at rates approaching usury, he allows himself only one real luxury: prostitutes. Though he publically denies it, Clemente never really seems to doubt the baby is his. However, he intends to return her to her mother of ill repute, as soon as he can find her. Until then, he hires Sofia, a devout client, to care for the foundling.

The middle-aged Sofia has given up on everything but hope. Yet, she starts to get ideas living in his Spartan flat, but Clemente is more concerned with passing off a counterfeit bill he mistakenly accepted. Frankly, he has plenty stashed in his oven, including the savings of Don Fico, a homeless eccentric planning smuggle his catatonic common-law wife out of Lima’s charity hospital.

It sounds like a horrendously contrived sitcom, but the Brothers Vega largely play it straight, maintaining a consistently dark and gritty tone throughout. This is a seedy, naturalistic environment, perfectly suited to their aloof protagonist. They do not even exploit the baby for shots of heartwarming cuteness. Ironically, Octubre’s subject matter could dissuade those who would most appreciate it, for fear of saccharine sweetness. Have no such concerns, this film is a perfectly respectable downer.

In a performance of great integrity, Bruno Odar conveys something tragically human in Clemente without making any concessions to likability. Likewise, Gabriela Velásquez takes a decidedly unglamorous turn as Sofia. They are both deliberately understated and completely believable as a result.

Though the Vegas present Catholicism in rather ambiguous contexts, they at least resist the temptation of gratuitous cheap shots. However, they never build up much momentum or achieve a payoff of appreciable substance. Essentially, they provide a showcase for their two unlikely leads. Cold but oddly affecting, Octubre screens next Saturday (4/2) at the Walter Reade and the following Sunday (4/3) at MoMA as part of the 2011 ND/NF.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Book Club from Hell: Peep World

The book publishing industry engages in so many foolish practices, it is ripe for a satirical mauling. (Believe me, I know.) From blindly clinging to disadvantageous business practices to allowing television personalities with dubious middlebrow tastes set their sales priorities, the material is there. Unfortunately, the great big-screen publishing send-up will not be appearing this week, despite the promising premise of Barry W. Blausein’s Peep World (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Nathan Meyerwitz has a bestseller on his hands. While supposedly only loosely inspired by his annoying family, his novel is pretty much the unvarnished chapter-and-verse. This created some rather hard feelings, particularly with his high-strung sister Cheri. As the family whipping post, the eldest brother Jack takes it in stride, while middle brother Joel is too busy being a self-defeating lowlife to give it much mind. Of course, all their petty resentments will come to a head at the film’s main event: the seventieth birthday party for their emotionally distant father, whose unattainable affection they all crave.

In truth, the family-tell-all-that-told-too-much holds a lot of comic potential, but the execution is as flat as the state of Kansas. Indeed, Peep’s “big” ribald sight gag only reminds viewers how much more deftly Blake Edwards handled similar material in Skin Deep, one of his lesser films. Sarah Silverman is particularly embarrassing as the Meyerwitz sister. Allegedly a comedian, she displays absolutely no comic timing, but somehow proves it is possible to screech in a boring monotone.

Ironically, those that best weather Peep are those who play it almost entirely straight. Despite being saddled with some tawdry plot points, Michael C. Hall manages to come across likably grounded as the Number One Son, while Judy Greer brings surprising grace to role of his wife Laura. Although Number Two Son Joel is written with industrial strength quirkiness, Rainn Wilson still brings out something credibly human for us to latch onto. However, rather than laughs or serious drama, Ben Schwartz simply delivers a series of face-palm moments as the shallow youngest brother.

Watching Peep is frankly a sad experience, because it seems like it ought to work on paper, but on film it so obviously does not. It is a shame, because it wastes the talents of two movie veterans like Ron Rifkin and Lesley Ann Warren (who still looks great, by the way), as the problematic Meyerwitz parents. Basically a mess of a film, Peep opens this Friday (3/25) in New York at the IFC Center.

Iranian Theater Festival: Bootleg Islam

Negin Farsad has a lot of metaphors for Iran, but the “bootleg” is not one of them. That stuff is for real. Indeed, in a country she likens to America under prohibition, a dapper gent like her uncle has only one use for his bathtub. She certainly appreciated it during the return trip to Iran that inspired her one-person show Bootleg Islam, which is currently running at the Brick Theater as part of the Iranian Theater Festival.

Farsad has seen a fair amount of the world. Her cousin has pretty much seen her neighborhood. When her halfway-kinda arranged wedding brings Farsad back to Tehran, she cannot help comparing her life to her betrothed cousin. She is also a bit embarrassed by her makeshift chador. Fortunately, she has another cousin, let’s call him “elegant,” who can help her out. Surely, her uncle’s special reserves were a life saver as well.

Loving the people, but hating their regime, Farsad is not shy about tweaking the Revolutionary government. Clearly, finding herself face-to-face with a fundamentalist extremist in the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s mosque was also quite instructive in a very scary way. Still, she never makes cracks at the expense of her cousin’s more traditional faith and lifestyle.

In fact, Farsad has a good ear for material, finding a number of laughs in a country that hardly encourages that sort of thing. However, the piece might work better in spots if she slowed down a bit for a more laconic deadpan approach, rather than her consistently energetic rat-a-tat-tat delivery. Of course, considering the festival’s packed schedule, the organizers are probably encouraging her to keep it as snappy as possible.

Even though her family was not directly involved in the 2009 demonstrations (a fact that did not prevent the government from temporarily imprisoning some of them) the “Green” almost-Revolution plays an important role in Farsad’s work. Throughout the performance she offers a number of spot-on analogies and brings it all full circle in a way that is surprisingly touching. It is unquestionably a show for adults though, but the bounteous penis jokes are a timely reminder that freedom is absolutely worth fighting for. One of the funnier and more endearing calls for regime change (and quite welcome as a result), Bootleg runs again this Friday (3/25) as the Iranian Theater Festival continues at the Brick, conveniently located for City residents near the Lorimar L station.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

ND/NF ’11: Cairo 6,7,8

When CBS journalist Lara Logan was assaulted by a gang of rampaging men in Tahrir Square, it became clear there is a real problem in how a sizeable portion of the Egyptian male population relates to women. When NPR had to delete scores of hateful comments on the Logan story and issue a scolding reminder to its readers (serviced by our tax dollars) that violence against women is always unacceptable, the western media’s deficiency handling issues like the conditions endured by women in Egypt (and the wider Muslim world) also became blatantly clear. Now with his directorial debut, Mohamed Diab offers a blistering corrective to his country’s self-serving denial and outright misogyny in Cairo 6,7,8, which screens during the 2011 New Directors/New Films, co-presented by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Cairo’s buses are a groper’s playground. Fayza understands this only too well. Every time she files onto the titular 6/7/8 line, she is felt up. It is taking a toll on the traditional working class Muslim woman, depleting her spirit and further poisoning her already frosty relations with her boorish husband.

Modern and affluent, Seba was the victim of a large scale sexual assault during a soccer match that eerily parallels the subsequent Logan story. Naturally, her husband blamed her—not directly of course, but through his emotional distance. As part of her own recovery process, Seba begins teaching self-defense and empowerment classes for women, attracting Fayza as a student. Eventually, the two join forces with Nelly, a hip aspiring stand-up comic who has launched the country’s’ first sexual harassment lawsuit.

One day Fayza fights back with a straight pin. And the next day too. On the third day, the media gets wind of the story and Cairo’s buses are suspiciously empty. Finally, the police spring into action—to make mass transit safe for mashers again.

678 is an angry, bracing film. Though written and directed by a man, it clearly vents the rage (if you will) that Cairo’s women are largely unable to express. Yet, it is a tightly crafted drama grounded in its human elements. A braided story with multiple overlaying flashbacks, Diab draws the strands together quite adroitly. While dealing with a scaldingly hot button topic, 678 provides at least one nuanced male figure with a legitimate arc of character development. Indeed, keep your eye on that shrewd police detective.

Of course, the three women are the soul and nucleus of the story, but even here Diab does not take the easy way out, forthrightly exploring their own cultural prejudices towards each other. As Seba, Nelly Karim displays a riveting screen presence, while taking her character to the film’s most interesting emotional places. Perhaps the trickiest role is that of Fayza, who willfully subjugates herself underneath her headscarves and billowing layers of modest clothing, in an apparent attempt to deny her own femininity. Yet Bushra (one name) finds a spark of resistance buried beneath the harassed and self-hating woman. If there is a weak link in the film, it is Nahed el Sebai as Nelly. (Perhaps something was lost in the translation, but both she and her supposed comedian boyfriend seem painfully unfunny during their routines.)

678 is a bold film that has a currency beyond the recent tragic headlines. It certainly seems NPR listeners could benefit from its message as much as its target Egyptian audience. If not exactly subtle, it is a sharply written, tightly executed film. A standout highlight of this year’s New Directors/New Films, 678 screens this Saturday (3/26) at MoMA and the following Monday (3/28) at the Walter Reade.

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From Turkey: Bal

The black honey Yusuf’s beekeeper father collects has always provided for their family. It is a sweet delicacy, but its increasing scarcity drives Yakup deeper into the forests of Northeast Turkey. That sweetness gives way to bitter apprehension in Semih Kaplanoglu’s evocative pseudo-coming of age story Bal (or Honey, trailer here), Turkey’s recent official submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration, which opens this Friday in New York.

Though more of the wiry than burly type, Yakup is definitely a manly outdoorsman. Yet, he has forged a remarkably close bond with his sensitive young son that sometimes even undermines Yusuf’s relationship with his mother. Painfully shy, Yusuf is only able to speak without his stammer when with his father. Unfortunately, the thinning black bee populations require Yaksup to set his hives at greater heights in ever more remote areas of the forest. One night, Yakup fails to come home as expected. Thus begins a long painful waiting ritual for Yusuf and his mother.

Arguably, that is Bal in a honeycomb, but for Kaplanoglu, it is the experience that counts, rather than a neatly stair-stepped plot outline. Shot in the mountainous northeast Rize province, Bal captures a side of Turkey’s natural beauty rarely seen on film. His forest shares a kinship with that of Twin Peaks, palpably mysterious, and perhaps a bit menacing as well. In fact, he uses the suggestive setting to create an expectation of a third act foray into magical realism that never really materializes.

By any objective measure, Bal is a simple, quiet work. However, those same qualities also give the film a tactile impressionism. Bora Altas’s honest, unaffected performance as Yusuf also helps maintain audience focus throughout the unhurried film. Particularly touching are his early scenes with Erdal Besikçioglu as Yakup, conveying the depth and purity of the relationship.

As uncompromising as Bal might be, it always looks stunning, thanks to Baris Özbiçer’s museum-quality cinematography. Still, there is no getting around the exclusive nature of Bal’s appeal. This represents the most rarified of high-end art-house cinema. Hats off to Olive Films for sticking their necks out with releases such as this and Veiko Õunpuu’s The Temptation of St. Tony. Artful but demanding, Bal opens this Friday (3/25) at the Village East.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Gatlif’s Korkoro

They have been romanticized by some and vilified by far more. Once an enslaved people, their traditional lifestyle and culture reflects a unique commitment to freedom. They are the Romani people, or so-called “Gypsies,” the forgotten victims of the Holocaust. Tony Gatlif, perhaps the most celebrated Romani filmmaker, dramatizes a chapter of his people’s tragic history in the historically-inspired Korkoro (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In 1943, French authorities were only too willing to pass restrictive laws targeting the Romani. Duly reporting to a provincial city hall with passbooks in hand, one Romani family finds the rules have been changed on them once again. According to the sympathetic Mayor Rosier, new laws have been established outlawing their nomadic ways. At first, they try their best to ignore his warnings, but it soon becomes clear their legal position is even more precarious than usual.

Using his position with the fascist militia, a former business associate confiscates their best horses. With their mobility impaired, the Romani family is eventually interned in a deportation camp. By signing over the deed to his family cottage, the good mayor is able to save them, at least temporarily. However, tragedy is clearly inevitable, for all parties of good conscience.

Indeed, Korkoro is as much a tribute to the “Justes,” the non-Roma gadjo who saved Romani during the Holocaust, as it is a portrayal of Romani suffering. In fact, Gatlif shrewdly avoids a reductive depiction of victimization through his central Romani protagonist, Félix Taloche, a decidedly unsentimental figure. Wild almost to the point of being feral, Taloche has a pure recklessness that might be self-defeating, but personifies the film’s title: “Korkoro,” the Romani word for freedom.

Played by James Thierrée, the grandson of Charlie Chaplin, Taloche is a force of nature with innate musical talent. The sight of him tearing through the French countryside will rightly become the enduring image of the film. Yet, Thierrée expresses something hauntingly human in Taloche.

Effectively counterbalancing Thierrée are the primary Justes, Mayor Rosier and his halting romantic interest, Mademoiselle Lundi, the town’s school teacher and resistance volunteer. As Rosier, Marc Lavoine looks the personification of integrity, while Marie-Josée projects genuine strength and vulnerability beneath Lundi’s icy schoolmarm veneer.

Perhaps what is most striking about Korkoro is the sense of musicality Gatlif brings to the story, separate and apart from the scenes of the Romani family in performance. He captures the rhythms of wagon wheels and horses’ hoofs in a way that powerfully evokes the Romani family’s way of life. Despite the ugliness of the period, cinematographer Julien Hirsch gives it a beautifully wind-swept look. Indeed, this is bravura filmmaking, boasting a truly bold lead performance from Thierrée. Highly recommended, Korkoro opens this Friday (3/25) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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ND/NF ’11: El Velador

There is a new form of bling in Mexico: pimped out mausoleums. Tacky even in death, the drug cartels have kept the staff of Culiacán’s so-called “narco-cemetery,” quite busy. Documentarian Natalia Almada captures a sense of the everyday turmoil engulfing Mexico through the eyes of Martin, the cemetery night watchman in El Velador (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2011 New Directors/New Films, co-presented by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Setting out to make “a film about violence without violence,” Almada takes a fly-on-the-wall approach, quietly observing the comings and goings in and around the Jardines del Humaya cemetery. Oftentimes, Almada’s scenes raise questions they never answer. For instance, viewers will wonder about the circumstances surrounding “Mercedes,” the young widow of a slain police officer who tends to his shrine in a suspiciously expensive looking marble-floored home. Indeed, Almada’s strategy is designed to keep us at arm’s reach. We see funeral parties approach “El Jardin,” but rather than confront the mourners’ raw emotion, she focuses on the coconut peddler outside the gates.

Perhaps, the most striking sequences of Velador involve the nightly TV and radio reports of each day’s carnage. Like the “before” scenes in Robocop, they present a litany of horrors that suggest if the cartels have not already won the war on drugs outright, they certainly have the whip hand. Clearly, the Mexican media has little patience left with Mexican President Felipe Calderón, reminding listeners several times of the 21,915 narco-related deaths the country has witnessed since he assumed office.

Almada’s intent to avoid actual depictions of violence might be laudable, but the resulting film is not simply bloodless. There is little that constitutes action of any kind. Instead of provoking outrage, Velador has more of a lulling effect.

Clearly, Velador addresses an issue of critical importance, but Almada’s oblique perspective might not be the most efficacious. Still, its unvarnished portrait of a state teetering on the brink of complete lawless is a timely wake-up call. Indeed, it is conceivable we could soon find our southern neighbor dominated by a criminal enterprise, not unlike Hamas in the “Palestinian Authority” or a Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah. Defiantly unhurried, El Velador is truly for a select documentary audience, but it is perfectly in keeping with the programming aesthetics of ND/NF. It screens this Sunday (3/27) at MoMA and the following Tuesday (3/29) at the Walter Reade Theater.

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Ozon’s Potiche

There have not been a lot of films made about umbrellas, but it makes sense to cast Catherine Deneuve in each and every one of them. Indeed, François Ozon tries to recreate some of the spirit of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (right, good luck with that). Still, he achieves an engaging retro-1970’s vibe in his period battle of the sexes and classes, Potiche (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Deneuve’s Suzanne Pujol is the “Potiche,” or trophy wife in American parlance. As the daughter of her husband’s umbrella factory owner boss, she was also something of the brass ring for Robert. Now he runs the factory with an iron fist. If he wants an opinion from his workers, he’ll give it to them. All Robert Pujol is missing is the big Monopoly Man cigar.

Not surprisingly, Pujol clashes frequently with Babin, the Communist mayor and MP for the district. It is not just a matter of ideology though. Babin has a bit of history with his wife. Wound way too tight, Pujol finally has that big Fred Sanford heart attack. With hubby laid up, Madame Pujol takes the factory reins, using the more cooperative methods of her fondly remembered father. She also has an in for dealing with the workers’ unofficial rep, Babin. Frankly, it all works much too well for her husband’s liking. Family drama ensues.

Potiche is probably the lightest, frothiest excursion into class warfare one will see on-screen for foreseeable future. The film nails the disco-dancing tracksuit-wearing 1970’s ambiance and it is always worth the price of admission to watch to legendary pros like Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu circle each other flirtatiously (but if you’ve seen him lately, you know she has her work cut out for her). Unfortunately, Fabrice Luchini is not able to counterbalance (don’t go there) Depardieu, as the rather clichéd and deliberately unlikable Pujol. By playing favorites on behalf of the leftist mayor, Ozon’s skews the film a bit too much for its own good. After all, the whole point seems to be only Suzanne Pujol has the wisdom and grace to chart a Harold Macmillan-esque middle way between the extremes represented by both men.

Still, Deneuve and Depardieu are not legends for nothing. Their “if only” romantic chemistry works on a smartly adult level. You also have to love the groovy umbrellas designed by Pujol’s searching-for-himself son Laurent (these are for you Cherbourg fans). A light and pleasant outing for two of France’s biggest stars (but hardly a treatise on industrial organization), Potiche should satisfy Francophiles when it opens this Friday (3/25) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

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Gorby’s Kids: My Perestroika

Even though he was badly hung-over, he knew a national crisis was underway. 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 opens this Wednesday in New York at the IFC Center, almost exactly a year (to the date) after its successful New York debut at New Directors New Films.

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 Russia, Hessman developed a keen appreciation for the stoic nobility of average Russian citizens, which is markedly reflected throughout My Perestroika. Using five former classmates as POV 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 struggling. 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 rather difficult 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, but they take some measure of satisfaction in their work and family. 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 My Perestroika that seems so fittingly Russian.

Indeed, the experiences of My Perestroika’s subjects are too complex for pat labels, 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. Definitely recommended, My Perestroika opens this Wednesday (3/23) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Canadian Front ’11: The Neighbor

The tragic events still unfolding in Japan even had repercussions at a screening of a Farsi-language feature at a Canadian film festival here in New York City. The producer Amir Naderi, who emigrated from Iran after several of his films were banned by the Islamist government, was in Japan working on his next project when the earthquake and tsunami hit. Clearly, he was on the mind of his former editor Naghmeh Shirkhan last night, despite the justly enthusiast reception for her directorial debut, The Neighbor (trailer here), at MoMA’s 2011 Canadian Front.

Though of somewhat middle-aged years, Shirin is still a strikingly beautiful woman. She is not particularly interested in men though, particularly the one she has been reluctantly seeing. In truth, there are not a lot of eligible men in Vancouver’s Iranian community. There are not a lot of men, period. There is a very real phenomenon causing this demographic state. Frequently, Iranian men working abroad who are called back on business or personal matters have trouble returning—or so they say. Such is the case for Leila, the attractive young woman who just moved in across the hall from Shirin with her little girl Parisa.

At first, Leila wants nothing to do with the older woman. In time though, she starts exploiting Shirin as an emergency babysitter, much to her concern. It is not that Shirin does not enjoy spending time with Parisa—quite the contrary—but Leila’s erratic parenting is obviously not healthy for her little girl.

As Shirkhan observed during her post-screening remarks, Neighbor could never play in Iran while the current regime clings to power. By American standards, it would probably be rated PG, at most. However, Leila’s implied post-coital scene would be unthinkable under Iran’s rigid censorship. Dancing is a definite no-no too, and there is quite a bit of it in Neighbor. Indeed, it is Shirin’s outlet, professionally, artistically, and socially. Her traditional Persian dance classes are popular with Vancouver’s Iranian ladies of means, but on her own time Shirin attends her tango club functions. Featuring close contact between couples and a smoldering sexuality, the tango would definitely be a non-starter in the Revolutionary Republic.

Of course, most average Iranians would love the tango and they would probably appreciate Neighbor too. Though geopolitical issues surely factor into the characters’ back-stories (the circumstances surrounding Leila’s absent husband are particularly murky), Shirkhan focuses laser-like on the two women’s intimate dramas.

In her first acting role, Azita Sahebjam is a remarkably assured presence on screen. Her thoughtful nuance and mature sexuality quietly but surely pull viewers into her life. She is also quite a dancer. Evidently, the tango was new to her, but as the director of the Vancouver Pars National Ballet, she is one of the world’s leading performers of Persian dance. (She was also formerly affiliated with the precursor Pars National Ballet in Iran, before the Islamist government prohibited such sinful practices.) As Leila, Sahebjam’s real life daughter Tara Nazemi is also rather effective in an often less than sympathetic role. Undeniably attractive, she has a far more interesting “look” than that of the current crop of bland Hollywood starlets.

Though always deliberately restrained, The Neighbor is markedly astute in its observation of humanity. Shirkhan displays a sensitive touch, deftly guiding her novice cast through material that must have hit somewhat close to home for them. It is a very good film, highly recommended when it screens again today (3/20) at MoMA as part of Canadian Front. One hopes Naderi will be able to enjoy its continued success and the Japanese people will quickly recover from this disaster. (FYI, our President is so concerned, he is currently on a Bossa nova fact-finding mission in Brazil. Since it is clearly up to private citizens, you can support the Japan Society’s relief efforts here.)

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Save the Yakuza: Ryuji

Some things are worth preserving, like “sin, sex & violence.” Among the many treasures Japanese culture bestowed upon the world is the Yakuza film, a distinctly arty, existential variant of their western gangster movie counterparts. The Japan Society was well into their Yakuza retrospective, Hardest Men in Town: Yakuza Chronicles of Sin, Sex & Violence, when Japan was rocked by the earthquake and tsunami. In response, the Society has become a point organization for New York relief efforts and will donate fifty percent of all ticket sales to the cause through June. This includes Yakuza series, which features many American premieres, like last night’s screening of Ryuji.

In some respects, Ryuji is too appropriate for the times, given the shadow of death that looms over the picture. Though directed by Tôru Kawashima, most consider Ryuji to be Shôji Kaneko’s film. Written by the stage actor to serve as his breakout vehicle, Kaneko would die of cancer shortly after filming wrapped. Protagonist Ryuji Hanashiro is not exactly a stranger to violence and death either.

Hanashiro is a hard-bitten Yakuza foot soldier, living fast and hard with little future ahead of him. Somehow though, he gets involved with a good woman, Mariko, who bears him a daughter, Aya. Despite his dodgy entanglements and mercurial nature, Hanashiro agrees to go straight for the sake of his family. For a while, he works hard as a deliveryman for a liquor distributor (a business that sounds like it would be thoroughly mobbed-up), earning in a month what he used to blow on vice in an evening. Mariko took the man out of the Yakuza, but taking the Yakuza out of the man is a different proposition.

A sleeper-cult favorite in Japan after its initial 1983 release, Ryuji is an odd combination of styles, suggesting the cinematic vocabulary of the New Wave, but with an uber-80’s synth-heavy soundtrack (way past cheesy to our contemporary ears). It might sound like a mish-mash, but it works quite well, thanks to the stone cold integrity of Kaneko’s performance on the one hand and the endearing humanity of his real life wife Eiko Nagashima and daughter Momo on the other.

Sort of like a Japanese version of an early Abel Ferrara gangster movie, Ryuji has a gritty intimacy that is quite effective. Of course, the film takes on further poignancy through the contextual information audience members carry in with them. Seeing the soon-to-be deceased Kaneko in scenes with his young daughter is obviously quite heavy. Yet, the simple background shots of an elderly croquet league speak volumes of the sort of civil society Japan is and how important it is too preserve that way of life.

The Yakuza series concludes tomorrow with two screenings that are recommended unseen, simply on general principle. The Japan Society deserves credit for stepping up to help fill a leadership void that starts right at the top with the current occupant in the White House. Sadly, the people of Japan, a close friend and fellow democracy, must be rooting for Kansas and Ohio State to lose quickly, because with his bracket busted, Obama might finally turn his attention to international affairs. At least, we can help as individual citizens. To support the Japan Society’s efforts go here.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

School for Scandal: Cracks

When “Miss G” speaks of “her girls” it is always in quite possessive terms. Then a new student arrives and all bets are off. Sort of like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with a smidge of Lord of the Flies and the occasional flash of nudity, there is indeed plenty of suggestive melodrama on tap in Jordan (daughter of Ridley) Scott’s Cracks (trailer here), which opens today at the IFC Center.

Miss G’s girls are on the diving team of a remote (presumptively British) boarding school for wealthy but difficult young ladies. They practice regularly, but never compete. However, the red sash they wear allows them to rule the roost. Di Radfield is first among equals, Miss G’s favorite and the de facto head girl. She returns her teacher’s affection several-fold. However, the arrival of the new girl threatens to destabilize their world.

The daughter of Spanish aristocrats, Fiamma is a better diver than Radfield. She has also traveled widely. Miss G is quickly taken with her new charge, but Fiamma recognizes a big fat phony when she sees one. Having none of Miss G’s thinly veiled lesbian overtures, Fiamma inspires mucho jealousy in Radfield. As Miss G’s behavior becomes more erratic, team spirit deteriorates drastically. Tragedy seems inevitable, but at least there is a skinny-dipping scene.

Headfort School in Ireland (Kells, County Meath) is insanely photogenic. It is often more interesting than the girls’ little dramas. Frankly, Miss G never seems believable. Even before Fiamma arrives, the New Age platitudes she drops, like “desire is the most important thing in life,” would even set off alarm bells with a free spirit like Miss Brodie.

If Miss G’s character is a little off, Eva Green is not up to selling it. In fact, she makes her condescending motivational speeches rather cringe-inducing affairs. That might be part of character, but it makes it difficult to credit the fondness her students initially feel for her. However, Juno Temple still manages to scratch out an intriguing arc of character development as Radfield.

A first class production, Cracks boasts some eye-catching period costumes from Allison Byrnes and a classy Merchant-Ivory looking sheen courtesy of cinematographer John Mathieson. Given its striking locales and occasional naughty bits, Cracks is essentially a film to look at rather than think about. Diverting in a half-lurid way, it opens today (3/18) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Limitless: Produced with 20% Brain Functionality

What happened to Obama? So ruthlessly effective on the campaign trail, these days he can hardly chose an iron for his approach shots. Maybe he ran out of NZT. A designer drug formulated to tap into the supposed 80% of the brain lying dormant in mere mortals (a myth says Snopes), NZT offers life changing opportunities to one sad sack would-be writer, but it also comes with a mess of trouble in Neil Burger’s Limitless (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Eddie Morra is a listless under-achiever. His girlfriend Lindy has finally given him the dumping he so richly deserved. Despondent, he mopes around the City until he bumps into his ex-brother-in-law Vernon (no, Lindy is not the first woman to issue Morra his walking papers.). Recognizing his former whatever is a bit glum, Vernon gives him a blue Matrix pill, which the big dummy takes for no good reason. Suddenly, Morra can talk his landlord’s wife into bed, dash off her law school paper on Oliver Wendell Holmes, and then churn out his own novel before calling it a night.

Unfortunately, he wakes up as the same old idiot in the morning, which prompts an emergency visit to his dear old ex-brother-in-law. For some reason, the shadowy cabal developing NZT has entrusted its distribution to a pusher leftover from the glory days of Studio 54. Of course, Vernon’s carelessness gets him killed, but Morra gets his stash. Fueled by smarty-pants pills, Morra takes Wall Street by storm, even attracting the attention of Robert De Niro’s shadowy financier, Thurston W. Focker-Gekko, III, or some such.

Morra might be amped on brainiac drugs, but in Limitless’s world any IQ cracking 100 constitutes genius levels. You would think anyone borrowing money from a loan shark for a quick succession of day trades would make a point of paying that off as soon as possible. Not if you’re a genius, evidently. It would have saved so much trouble though.

Indeed, the clichés fly fast and furious throughout Limitless, while the characters are all pretty slow-witted, NZT notwithstanding. The crooked Focker-Gekko (Carl Van Loo) is a particularly tiresome cliché. The film would have been much fresher and far more engaging had we been invited to identify with his character. Watching Van Loo play a chess match against the younger pharmaceutically-enhanced Morra while relying only on twenty percent of his grey matter and his hard-earned experience, could have been intriguing drama, a la Kasparov vs. Deep Blue. Instead, De Niro just looks bored to distraction.

Years ago, only big movies stars had their names above the title. However, in Limitless’s opening credits, both Bradley Cooper and Abbie Cornish are not just billed over the title, but also above De Niro. Are they joking? De Niro might have made a few too many Fockers, but he is still De Niro. Cooper and Cornish on the other hand, are like actor-widgets, blandly attractive here perhaps, but little more. In the film’s most believable scene, a witness fails to pick Morra out of a line-up. Truly, who could blame her? (Still, Cooper's deadpan neo-noir narration is a plus.)

Given a dull cast and a predictable script, Burger tries to compensate with his execution, using a plethora of razzle dazzle, like fish-eye lenses, time-lapse photography, and Matrix-bullet effects. Frankly, it is appreciated. His pacing is fairly tight and he choreographs some clever bits during the action sequences. It is all rather dumb, but at least on some level, he makes it watchable. Entirely skippable, Limitless opens today (3/18) in New York at the AMC Empire 25 and Loews Lincoln Square.

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