J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Blissfully Thai: Mon-Rak Transistor

Poor Pan is not about to become the next Thai Idol. He actually has the look and the voice for it, but destiny is doggedly working against the provincial crooner in Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Mon-Rak Transistor (trailer here), which screens as part of Blissfully Thai, the Asia Society’s retrospective of Thai cinema in the Twenty-First Century.

Pan can sing, but he is not too bright. However, that hard head of his is a blessing when wooing the sweetly innocent Sadaw. Her father does not exactly approve of the big dummy, but he is worn down by Pan’s persistence. They indeed marry and share about five minutes of wedded bliss. Unfortunately, Pan is drafted into the army, where he proceeds to make a thorough hash of his life.

Initially, Pan plugs away as a grunt, but when he happens to win a fly-by-night talent contest in town, he goes AWOL to pursue his dreams of stardom. Instead of crooning though, he winds up as the indentured gopher of a sleazy promoter. In the tradition of one-darned-thing-after-another melodrama, just as Pan appears to turns a corner, fate slaps him down harder and lower.

Transistor is a pseudo-musical, incorporating the songs of Surapol Sombatcharoen (1930-1968), a popular Thai easy-pop balladeer who died at the height of his fame. It also consistently bobs and weaves between comedy and tragedy, making any hard-and-fast classification difficult. Indeed, Ratanaruang employs a variety of styles, simultaneously. Yet, somehow they never seem to clash. At least it is safe to definitively say Transistor makes Thai prisons look like a good place to avoid.

Supakorn Kitsuwon is maddeningly effective as Pan, the big dope. As Sadaw, Siriyakorn Pukkavesh is ridiculously cute and genuinely endearing. Viewers can absolutely believe Pan would claw his way back to her through some rather nasty muck and mire. While more of a framing device than a character, Chartchai Hamnuansak sets the perfect tone as the old prison guard who serves as our fourth wall-defying narrator.

It would seem like a dubious recipe mixing Sombatcharoen’s sugary songs with salty tears and a fair amount of scatological humor. Yet, the chemistry between the romantic leads holds it all together. Zesty but fundamentally humane, Transistor is considerably deeper than the average quirky for quirkiness’ sake indie. It is very strong selection for the Blissfully Thai series, definitely recommended when it screens at the Asia Society this Friday (6/3).

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Art of !WAR

It is a provocative question: can you name three female artists with museum or high-end gallery credibility? How about Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keefe, and Berthe Morisot? They all happen to be safely canonical, as well. However, many of the New York hipsters filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson caught coming out of the Whitney could only name Frida Kahlo (thank you Salma Hayek). Perhaps the Blue State elitists are not as smart as they like to think, but Hershman Leeson is not interested in such questions, preferring to explore the gender politics of the fine art world in !Women Art Revolution (a.k.a. !WAR, trailer here), which opens tomorrow at the IFC Center.

Hershman Leeson had documented the highly politicized Feminist Art movement for decades, eventually editing and distilling her raw footage into a documentary covering the artists’ nearly uniform ideology just as much as their art. At least, the work of !WAR’s touchstone artists was about something, radically contrasting with the arid (and male dominated) minimalism then en vogue. Yet, in a way, both dissimilar movements relied on external theory or dogma to give it meaning. (Clearly, this would not be a happy period for formalists.)

Regardless whether viewers agree with the politics of the !WAR artists or are impressed with their technique (which frankly spans the gamut), they will find a number of interesting stories peeking out from heavy-handed didacticism. Unfortunately, Hershman Leeson lets some of the more promising avenues of inquiry die on the vine. Most conspicuously, she appears to deliberately protect the image of Feminist icon Judy Chicago by scrupulously avoiding obvious follow-up questions when fellow artists blame her sharp-elbowed leadership style for undermining their collective.

However, Hershman Leeson deserves credit for tackling the case of Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta head-on. When Mendieta’s husband, prominent sculptor Carl Andre, was accused (and later acquitted) of dispatching her from their 34th floor balcony, the Feminist movement evidently largely joined the patriarchal establishment in closing ranks around the alleged wife murderer. One bold interview subject pointedly complains about the silence of The Guerilla Girls in particular, noting the monkey-suited merry pranksters who regularly embarrassed museums for not exhibiting enough women could not muster any outrage for the art world’s equivalent of the O.J. Simpson trial. It is no wonder the Guerillas maintain their anonymity, out of embarrassment.

Indeed, Mendieta’s life and the circumstances surrounding her death merit a documentary in their own right. At least !WAR will increase awareness of a distinctly troubling episode in recent art history. It also boasts one of the coolest posters of the year. How much enthusiasm the film generates for the work of the other artists it profiles will largely depend on individual viewers’ predispositions. Flawed but at times intriguing, !WAR opens this Wednesday (6/1) at the IFC Center.

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Monday, May 30, 2011

Godard’s Film Socialisme

A Mediterranean cruise sounds like a pleasant indulgence, but of course, none of the standard rules apply to Jean-Luc Godard. Certainly narrative and aesthetic conventions will be flaunted, as will polite decorum. Indeed, some might argue Godard’s latest and possibly final film (he has been somewhat coy on the subject) represents the height of self-indulgence. Yet, for hardy cineastes, the arrival of Film Socialisme (trailer here), Godard’s latest cinematic-essay-provocation is as serious as a heart attack. Needless to say though, there will be plenty of shaking heads in the audience, even amongst the initiated, when Socialisme opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Dubbed “a symphony in three movements,” Socialisme is not Breathless, which proceeds along a more or less traditional narrative course, despite Godard’s periodic winking subversions. It is closer to his 1987 anti-adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, but even there Godard left enough structural building block laying around for viewers to impose their own order. Rather, like his other post-2000 works, Socialisme is largely a cinematic collage providing viewers hints of narrative only for the sake of immediately snatching them back.

As Socialisme’s initial non-setting, the luxury ocean liner offers Godard a vehicle for some striking images and a frequent water motif. Just how the non-characters came to be on this cruise scarcely matters. Though a colorful assemblage, including a French philosopher, a war criminal of undisclosed nationality, a spy of some sort, and a chanteuse (played by Patti Smith), they are only here to give voice to Godard’s polemical slogans. As he segues into his second and third movements, the film becomes something of a movie mixtape, juxtaposing text and visuals for ideological purposes.

It is not snarky to question just who Socialisme is meant for, because of Godard’s signature gamesmanship. While the French dialogue is relatively conventional (if stilted), Godard’s subtitles are translated into crude Tarzan-like English, formatted in a style befitting e.e. cummings. Are English audiences seeing Socialisme as it is truly intended, or were the French, for whom it was presumably exhibited sans subs? Perhaps the film is best appreciated by those fluent in both languages, watching outside the francophone world. Is this a film primarily produced for French expats?

Naturally, Godard’s mischief is not limited to subtitles, but extends to soundtrack drop-outs and film-stock adulterations as well. As one would also expect, his extremist politics are also front-and-center, including a pre-occupation with the Arab-Israeli conflict and the rather unsettling observation: “strange thing Hollywood Jews invented it.”

It is important to understand what Socialisme is and what it is not. However, that does not mean it is not fascinating, particularly for those who have followed Godard’s work to any extent. Truly, Socialisme is a post-fin de siècle film. He is like a secular version of a fundamentalist preacher embarrassed by the rapture’s failure to come at its ordained time. As a faithful Maoist, Godard knows capitalist democracy is dead. Yet, the West persists in conducting commerce, holding elections, and engaging in all sorts of petty bourgeoisie activities. Socialisme is much like a journey into Godard’s subconscious as it struggles to reconcile an outward reality that profoundly conflicts with his own subjective world view.

A life-long student of film, Godard still has an eye for intriguing visuals. Though eclectic, the soundtrack is rather insinuatingly effective, including tracks from jazz trumpeters Chet Baker and Tomasz Stanko, as well as Middle Eastern-jazz crossover artist Anouar Brahem, and classical minimalist composer Arvo Pärt. Indeed, the film sounds great, except for Madonna’s “Material Girl,” thrown in diegetically for obvious irony. Again, the standard rules do not apply to Godard. It is hard to say what Socialisme is at its core, but is definitely the product of a singular auteur. The bold should let it wash over them just to see if anything sticks when it opens this Friday (6/3) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Hudson Institute ’11: Ronald Reagan—Rendezvous with Destiny

Regardless of politics, those of us who came of age as children of the 1980’s (so-called “Generation X’ers”) will forever measure presidents against the standard set by Ronald Reagan. So far, his successors have come up well short (woefully so in recent years). Yes, he was the “Great Communicator,” but his words were far from empty. The 40th American president’s life and legacy are explained in context for those who might have forgotten in Kevin Knoblock’s Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny (trailer here), which screens tomorrow during the 2nd Annual Hudson Institute Film Festival.

The basics of Reagan’s story are well established. Born to modest means, Reagan became a popular Warner Brothers’ contract star. Parlaying his fame into a successful political career, Reagan defeated Pat Brown, the profligate incumbent governor of California in one of the greatest upsets of the 1960’s. Yet, as biographer Lou Cannon notes in Rendezvous, Reagan’s political rivals kept underestimating him. That did not work out so well for Gerald Ford in the 1976 primary. It was even worse for Jimmy Carter in the 1980 general.

Rendezvous identifies three fundamental goals of the Reagan Revolution: promoting freedom abroad by rolling back Communist expansion, revitalizing an American economy mired in Carter-era stagflation, and restoring the American spirit. Anyone who lived through the 1980’s knows he succeeded on all three fronts. Rendezvous is clearly strongest when addressing the first point, but surprisingly disappointing when tackling the second (relying on the likes of former Treasury Secretary James Baker rather than real Supply-Siders). In fact, the film’s best material consists of behind-the-scenes accounts of the Gorbachev summits, conclusively documenting just how thoroughly Reagan out-maneuvered the final Soviet ruler.

Though produced by the activist Citizens United, many of Rendezvous’ talking heads praise Reagan for his savvy pragmatism as a negotiator. Historian Douglas Brinkley cites a particularly apt Reagan quote on what he learned from his stint as the president of the Screen Actors Guild: “the purpose of a negotiation is to get an agreement.”

Any film boasting commentary from legitimately heroic figures like Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel is significant. Rendezvous also includes some strikingly expressive Reagan photos that have not been widely circulated. Unfortunately the host segments featuring Newt and Callista Gingrich lend the film a distinctly uncinematic vibe. (Indeed, just why we should care what she has to say is certainly debatable, while the film’s target audience is likely to be a bit down on the former Speaker after his ill-considered words on the politically courageous Rep. Paul Ryan.)

Frankly, Rendezvous is a far more insightful examination of the Reagan Administration than Eugene Jarecki’s polemical HBO documentary-opinion piece. Of course, this is a lot like saying it is more technically polished than the films of Ed Wood or more uplifting than Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf. Essentially, the guts of Rendezvous are very good, but the connective tissue is pretty weak stuff. Though worth seeing, the best film at the 2011 Hudson Institute Film Fest by far is Bob Bowdon’s The Cartel, which has been covered here several times in the past. Both screen this Memorial Day Monday (5/30) at B.B. King’s venerable club on 42nd Street.

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Saturday, May 28, 2011

BHFF ’11: Best Documentary—Much Ado in Mostar

In a divided city, young people try to forge personal connections. It sounds almost Shakespearean. Yet, it is Shakespeare who is the catalyst, bringing together not Capulets and Montagues but Bosnians and Croats in the ancient city of Mostar. Wisely though, the nonprofit Youth Bridge Global (YBG) chose to stage a comedy rather than a tragedy in the still war-scarred city. Their 2009 production of Much Ado About Nothing is chronicled in Steve Nemsick’s Much Ado in Mostar (trailer here), the winner of the Golden Apple for best documentary at the 2011 Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York.

With news of the recent capture and impending war crimes trial of Bosnian-Serb Ratko Mladic, Ado is perhaps timelier now than when it screened at the festival. Indeed, bringing some of the worst perpetrators of war crimes against the Bosnian people will surely help many survivors’ personal recovery process. Yet, YBG co-founder Andrew Garrod (brother of the late Sir Martin Garrod, the EU’s post-Dayton special envoy for Mostar) persuasively argues throughout Ado that the real healing will begin for the city when younger generations start to look past ethnic and religious differences, for the sake of getting on with the business of life. That is the whole idea behind the YBG’s staging of Shakespeare’s Ado.

Though his resources are limited, Garrod is determined to mount a professional grade production, with a cast of neophyte actors (mostly in their early twenties, but some in their mid-teens). Some of his casting choices inspire immediate confidence, others will be an adventure. However, if there were any “us vs. them” tensions behind the scenes, they were not recorded in Nemsick’s Ado. That is significant, because Garrod’s only hard and fast rule was that his ensemble would scrupulously reflect all traditional constituent groups of the Mostar population, including Bosnian-Serbs.

The idea of promoting peace through staging Shakespeare might sound hippy-dippy, but Garrod is all business directing the young Mostar cast. Frankly, he is pretty impressive pushing them to up their game rather than fretting over their self-esteem. Low and behold, it seems to work quite well.

Those scenes of Garrod coaching his young cast puts Nemsick’s Ado squarely in the tradition of the inspiring teacher film. Indeed, the film pays off handsomely in the end. Unfortunately, its early attempts at historical context are a bit thin, largely recycling conventional sound bites. Still, as a film about the personal (with political implications) rather than the macro-geopolitical, it is a rewarding viewing experience.

Nemsick’s Ado was one of at least two sell-outs at this year’s BHFF, which is pretty impressive for most New York fests not called Tribeca. As an award winner with increased topical interest, it should have a considerable run ahead on the festival circuit.

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Friday, May 27, 2011

Viz Benefit Screening: Kamikaze Girls

This would probably be the Tarantino idea of cute. Momoko Ryugasaki is girly girl who wears frilly dresses and daydreams of the Rococo era. Ichiko Shirayuri a biker, sort of Japan’s answer to Rizzo from Grease. While they will eventually fight side-by-side, they initially have little in common beyond finding their provincial home of Ibaragi stiflingly dull. Unfortunately, the surrounding prefecture has been hard hit by the devastating recent earthquake, making Tetsuya Nakashima’s Kamikaze Girls (trailer here), an appropriate selection for the Viz Theater’s next special benefit screening for Northern Japanese disaster relief this Sunday in San Francisco.

Even Marie Antoinette would find Ryugasaki’s wardrobe impractical. She is a bit of a loner at school, openly contemptuous of unsophisticated classmates. To pay for the over-the-top creations of “Baby, the Stars Shine Bright,” her favorite Tokyo boutique, she starts selling some of her father’s stash of highly dubious Versace knock-offs, which brings her into contact with Shirayuri. Temperamentally, they are like oil and water, but they are both outsiders with their own idiosyncrasies. Still, it thoroughly baffles Ryugasaki why Shirayuri constantly wants to hang out.

While Kamikaze might sound like a blatant appeal to a wide range of fetishism (biker girls, school girls, etc.), it is all rather safe PG-CW channel material. Nakashima captures the spirit of the light novel and manga source material though, using a lot of visual razzle dazzle, VFX, and even some anime. Frankly, Ryugasaki’s preciousness and her friend’s petulance both get a bit tiresome, but the climatic rumble pays-off big time.

Granted, Ryugasaki is often deliberately unlikable, but Kyôko Fukada shows a flair for her snobby eccentricities. However, Mayuko Fukuda nearly steals the picture with her perfect deadpan delivery as young Ryugasaki in Kamikaze’s Annie Hall-esque flashbacks. Conversely, Anna Tsuchiya could have conceivably dialed it down a bit as Shirayuri without undermining the odd couple comedy.

Nakashima employs the basic shotgun approach, but Kamikaze’s breakneck energy pulls viewers through his misses as well as his hits. He gets a big assist from cinematographer Shoici Ato, who stylishly conveys all the temporal shifts, fantasies, and flights of reverie. Yet, perhaps Yojiro Nishimura’s animation provides the film’s coolest sequences.

Essentially, Kamikaze puts the The Powerpuff Girls, 90210, and Kill Bill into a live action blender, while somehow maintaining a light and sweet tone. Even though the treacly soundtrack could put an otherwise healthy person into a diabetic coma, the film has enough edgy lunacy and attitude to keep fanboys focused. It is definitely recommended to support a worthy cause. Viz is only suggesting a $10 donation for their Sunday (10/29) screening, with all proceeds going to the JCCCNC’s Northern Japanese Relief Fund. Donations can also be made directly here, as well as to the Japan Society’s relief efforts here.

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From Prodigy to an Institution: James Levine

Plácido Domingo calls him not just a “great conductor, but a great opera conductor.” Considering the source, that says plenty. In addition to coaching the tenor through some of his signatures roles, James Levine led the artistic and financial comeback of the Metropolitan Opera. As part of its 25th season, American Masters profiles James Levine as he celebrates his 40th anniversary at the Met with the debut of producer-director Susan Froemke’s James Levine: America’s Maestro, which airs on most PBS stations this coming Wednesday.

Levine was a frighteningly precocious musical talent, who fell in love with conducting at an early age. Yet, he credits his father, a “sweet” big band leader, for encouraging him to maintain his piano chops, advice the maestro is “eternally grateful” for. When Levine made his debut the Met was not really the Met, as it is now. Though the filmmakers (working in close collaboration with the venerable institution) do not go into gory details, it is clear the Opera’s fiscal problems were affecting the quality of its productions. It was still a high profile gig though, which is why Levine was advised to accept their invitation, if he thought he could make a production work there. Needless to say, he could and did. Quickly appointed music director, Levine built the Met Orchestra back into one of the world’s most respected ensembles.

Appropriately, Maestro is at its best showing Levine at work. We see him prep the orchestra for their premiere performance of Beethoven’s Fifth (believe it or not) and watch as he brings the same enthusiasm to coaching the singers accepted by the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program (LYADP). Recognizing opera’s increasing reliance on Domingo and Pavarotti, not just as commercial draws, but for fundamental casting considerations (who else was there?), Levine spearheaded LYADP to ensure a future generation of talent. Though he puts on a show of conducting for the crowd, he definitely seems to be much more like the football coach who tries to do all his work in the week leading up to Sunday, rather than during the big game.

Aside from Levine’s struggle with chronic back pain, Maestro entirely ignores Levine’s private life. Frankly, who really cares anyway? If he is in fact married to music, so much the better for his fans (and he definitely has them). A good behind-the-scenes look at a world class opera and a convincing tribute to the man who brought it back to prominence, Maestro airs nationally this coming Wednesday (6/1) on most PBS outlets.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Blissfully Thai: The Iron Ladies

Aside from two weeks during Olympic years, Volleyball is not much of a priority for American sports watchers. However, it is serious business in many countries, even in odd years. In Thailand, a championship team consisting entirely of gay and transsexual players was a big deal in the late 1990’s. That was indeed the dream for a scrappy team of marginalized underdogs. Their true story inspired Yongyoot Thongkongtoon’s The Iron Ladies (trailer here), which screens tonight as part of the Asia Society’s Blissfully Thai retrospective of Thai cinema since 2000.

Mon is not nearly as flamboyant as his friend Jung. Yet, despite his talent, the regional volleyball clubs consistently discriminate against him. However, when Coach Bee moves up from the high school ranks to the semi-pros, she sets a policy of fair and open try-outs, which she really means. She has an affinity for the underdog herself. After all, her short hair and unglamorous attire make everyone assume she is gay as well—a fact the film neither confirms nor denies.

As per viewer expectations, when she accepts Mon and Jung, nearly the entire team quits in protest. Fortunately, they are able to recruit a credible team from their circle of friends, who will have quite a run at the league championship tournament.

Naturally, the team is quite colorful in a drama queen sort of way. There is the elegant female impersonator diva, the strong but sensitive army sergeant, and the closeted son of traditional parents. Of course, he is set to marry a ridiculously cute fiancé, whom he has no interest in whatsoever. If these sound like stereotypes, that is because they are.

The real life so-called Iron Ladies were indeed a Thai cultural phenomenon twenty-some years ago. At the time the second highest grossing Thai film ever, Iron even spawned a sequel, cleverly titled Iron Ladies 2. However, its comedy through “swishiness” formula is likely to make many hip New Yorkers uncomfortable. Yet, its message of tolerance and inclusion comes through loud and clear (essentially hitting viewers over the head). Still, Iron perhaps inspired some Thai audiences to look beyond stock stereotypes by first embracing them, or something like that.

In the spirit of teamwork, Iron’s ensemble cast collectively gives it their all. Yet, the most intriguing performances are those that stay grounded rather than charging over the top. Particularly effective is Sirithana Hongsophon as Coach Bee, who initially comes across as strictly business, but slowly allows her mothering instincts to emerge. Amongst the players, Sashaparp Virakamin is clearly the most credible, showing some degree of nuance, rather than just adapting bits from La Cage Aux Folles.

Breezy and well intentioned, Iron is a harmless piece of movie candy. If not a classic by hardcore cineaste standards, it is certainly a significant recent touchstone film, making it an appropriate selection for the Blissfully Thai series. It screens this evening (5/26) at the Asia Society.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Gansel’s The Wave

Any experiment in social control that deliberately exploits obedience and conformity is cause for concern. In Germany, it is all kinds of disturbing, for obvious reasons. As Libertas readers are well familiar through Patricia Ducey’s recent review of the documentary The Lesson Plan, the so-called “Third Wave” classroom exercise was actually the brainchild of American leftist Ron Jones, who converted his Palo Alto high school into a fascist mini-state in 1967. The incident subsequently inspired Morton Rhue’s young adult novel and Dennis Gansel’s adaptation, the Sundance standout The Wave (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the ReRun Gastropub on a double bill with his hipster vampire noir We Are the Night.

Mr. Wenger is the popular teacher. He lets kids call him Rainer and reminisces about his time on the barricades. He is all geared up to teach a special topics class on anarchism, but a senior faculty member nips that in the bud. Instead, Wenger is stuck with the autocracy course. Yet, low and behold, the topic inspires him. Suddenly, it’s “Mr. Wenger” again, but only during autocracy class. Surprisingly, the students also take to the new discipline he dishes out, embracing the rather stylish white button-down shirt and blue jeans as their uniform. As befits a collective, they also adopt an ominous sounding name: The Wave. Yes, they even have their own special salute.

Naturally, students who are not part of The Wave, feel keenly excluded. Those not enrolled in Wenger’s class are still able to join, provided they blindly submit to the rules of the budding cult. A few, like Karo, the formerly popular ex-girlfriend of Marco, the star water-polo player, recognize the insidious nature of the Wave. Yet, as long as they are not too outrageous in their tactics, the administration condones Wenger’s ill-conceived project.

Indeed, Gansel deftly maintains the appropriate foreboding of violence, without letting things escalate too precipitously as to alarm the adults (such as they are). While it is a bit of a slow build as a result, Wave is frighteningly convincing when it gets where it is going.

Rather than a megalomaniac, Jürgen Vogel plays Wenger as a truly tragic leftwing everyman figure, undone by vanity stemming from his popularity with his students. His arc of character development is quite compellingly turned, but pretty scary to witness. Though it predates Gansel’s Night by a few years, both his films share several common cast members, including the very Aryan looking Max Riemelt as Marco, who effectively conveys his successive conversions to and from Wavism. Unfortunately, most of his fellow students are nearly indistinguishable, even before they start wholesale conforming.

Wave is definitely a challenging film, particularly when showing how easily class warfare and environmentalist rhetoric fit within an explicitly fascist context. A cautionary fable with real world credibility, it is definitely well worth seeing along with the hugely entertaining hedonism of Night, when the Gansel double feature kicks off this Friday (5/27) at the ReRun Gastropub in Brooklyn.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Wakamatsu’s United Red Army

It was certainly red, but not always united. Former underground filmmaker Kôji Wakamatsu witnessed the Japanese New Left degenerate into a loose network of terrorist groups plagued by factionalism and internal power struggles. A sometimes ally and contemporary of the paramilitaries, Wakamatsu has produced a chilling look at the inner workings of the militant left in United Red Army (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Film Center.

Wakamatsu leaves absolutely no doubt where the Marxist United Red Army (URA), as well as its Red Army Faction (RAF) and Revolutionary Left Wing (RLF) predecessors, were coming from. During one of many “self-critique” re-education sessions, their leader, Tsuneo Mori, pretty clearly spells out the need to sacrifice any sense of individuality and embrace death to advance the so-called class struggle. To do anything less is construed as counter-revolutionary, unless you happen to be one of the commanders.

In his largely narrated opening sequences, Wakamatsu tries to suggest the URA terrorists began as misguided anti-war protestors. However, they quickly evolve into violent hardcore Maoists (in fact, when Nixon makes his historic visit to China late in the film, it is a real buzz-kill for the surviving URA faithful). In fact, as Wakamatsu tells the group’s history, one wonders if he realizes how much he actually reveals.

In the second, centerpiece segment of the film, the RAF consolidates with the RLF into the URA, taking to the mountains, ostensibly for military training. Yet, well before the revolution can possibly begin, the Red Army launches a reign of terror within its ranks. Here URA begins to resemble a horror movie, as one-by-one, loyal members are forced to undergo “self criticism,” clearly inspired by the Cultural Revolution, culminating with torture and fatal beatings.

URA concludes with the ill-fated Asama-Sansō hostage crisis, in which a remnant of the terrorist group held an innocent woman captive in her husband’s mountain lodge. Despite his personal disillusionment, Hiroshi Sakaguchi commands his men in this act of horrific folly. As disturbing as the final stand-off might ordinarily be, it is something of a let-down compared to the sheer gut-wrenching cruelty of the self-criticism sessions. What we see in URA is the sublimation of the individual to the collective—a textbook example of how cults work.

Much like Olivier Assayas’s Carlos (in which the United Red Army make a cameo appearance), Wakamatsu’s URA is a whirlwind of dates, places, riots, and terrorist attacks. Yet, as Mori and Hiroko Nagata, the leaders of the URA’s two constituent factions (who also happened to be surreptitiously sleeping together) Go Jibiki and Akie Namiki convey stone cold calculating menace, like nothing you have ever seen on film before. Conversely, Maki Sakai is absolutely haunting as Mieko Toyama, a former friend of Wakamatsu, who comes across as an idealistic peace activist led astray. Indeed, the director clearly wants to consider the entire URA and its militant cohorts in such terms, but he is undermined by the honest brutality of his film.

Wakamatsu is still very much associated with Japanese far left and was banned from entering the United States when URA played at the 2008 New York Asian Film Festival. Whatever his intentions were with the film, it is a tough, disturbing look at violent leftism, unlikely to generate sympathy for his former comrades. Indeed, it shows the line between political extremism and outright insanity is porous at best. Shocking, grueling, and ultimately devastating, the three hour URA is a contemporary masterwork, forcefully recommended when it opens this Friday (5/27) at the IFC Center.

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Gansel’s We Are the Night

Could there be a more hospitable city for vampires than Berlin? With an architecture mixing Soviet drabness with faded Art Deco, even its Western quarters are pretty depressed looking. Yet, despite its dark and deadly history, the city has quite a nightlife that a small pack of women vampires enjoys to the fullest in Dennis Gansel’s We Are the Night (dubbed trailer here), which opens this Friday at the ReRun Gastropub as part of an old fashioned double feature with Gansel’s Sundance buzz-generating The Wave.

Lena is a pick-pocket with a record. Tom Serner is a police detective on the job for the adrenaline rush. You could say they meet cute if Run Lola Run is your idea of cute. Though she temporarily gives him the slip, she makes quite an impression. Unfortunately, she also attracts the attention of Louise, a centuries-old vampire searching for the reborn spirit of the vampire who turned her. Believing Lena might be her, she gives the young woman the transforming bite. Of course, Louise has been down this road before, as her fellow vamps Charlotte and Nora can attest.

Turning men is a big no-no. Only women vampires remain undead. The men were either killed off by us mortals or the women themselves. They were just too messy and conspicuous. However, Louise’s pack has been getting somewhat sloppy lately and their taste in cars is hardly discreet. Naturally, a cop like Serner will start putting together the pieces. Perhaps more ominously, he also stokes Louise’s jealousy. Carnage will ensue.

Night’s MVP might just be its location scout, who found some incredibly photogenic sites that put CGI and matte paintings to shame. The film gives viewers a visceral sense of both the energy and the oppressiveness of the city. That Berliner environment seems to fuel the film, as Gansel gleefully careens from amped-up urban action sequences to high gothic horror.

As Louise, Nina Hoss (recognizable to American audiences from German imports like A Woman in Berlin and Jerichow) is a far icier vampire than the Anne Rice standard, in an appropriately Teutonic way. Yet, she certainly conveys the vampire’s appetites in no uncertain terms. In fact, Hoss digs into the scenery and the gore in a manner worthy of Hammer Horror at its most indulgent. Jennifer Ulrich is almost equally creepy as Charlotte, a former silent film star falling into a Norma Desmond-like depression, while Anna Fischer plays Nora, the vampy ingénue, to the coquettish hilt. Unfortunately, Karoline Herfurth’s Lena is a bit too passive and retiring for a good supernatural protagonist. However, Max Riemelt exceeds the expectations for a thankless part like salt-of-the-earth Det. Serner, displaying some legit action cred and a surprisingly degree of screen presence.

Make no mistake, these vampires are not in Berlin to brood sensitively. They mean business. Loaded with noir style and featuring some clever riffs on traditional vampire mythos, Night is just such a welcome respite from the current crop of teenaged vampire films and television shows. Enthusiastically recommended, Night is top-flight genre entertainment. It opens this Friday (5/27), properly subtitled with Gansel’s Wave, at the ReRun Gastropub Theater in Brooklyn.

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Monday, May 23, 2011

The Pieces Fit: Smirnoff’s Puzzle

Being a mother and wife might be rewarding (mostly), but it is not exactly escapist fun, at least for one middle-aged suburban Buenos Aires homemaker. Yet, María del Carmen discovers a surprising new passion in Natalia Smirnoff’s Puzzle (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

Puzzle’s opening sequence brilliantly encapsulates the essence of María del Carmen’s life. She is serving everyone hand-and-foot at a birthday party, pausing only to piece together a broken plate. Any guesses whose birthday it is? Amongst the presents she eventually unwraps afterwards is puzzle of Nefertiti, which she fits together lickety-split, enjoying every minute of it. In a scene rendered with delicate sensitivity, viewers cannot help but notice a vague likeness between her and the Egyptian queen (whether it is intentional or not, hardly matters).

It seems like puzzle pieces just naturally come together for María del Carmen, in a way that is a soothing respite from her domestic duties. Of course, her husband just does not understand her new interest. However, Roberto, a wealthy competitive puzzle “piecer” and old bachelor appreciates her unorthodox technique (no starting with the borders for her) as well as her elegant charm. A former Argentine champion, he is convinced he can reclaim the national title from his former partner with María del Carmen, but then what?

Puzzle bears a certain thematic similarity to the not half bad Queen to Play. However, Smirnoff’s film is far subtler and much more restrained. Rather than a grand story of empowerment, Puzzle is simply about finding a room of one’s own.

María Onetto has the perfect presence for the weary yet still striking María del Carmen, portraying her frustrations and small satisfactions with exquisite nuance. She also establishes tangible chemistry with Arturo Goetz as Roberto. Indeed, their scenes together smartly crackle with sexual and class-based tensions. Unfortunately, Gabriel Goity is basically just a dumb clod as her husband Juan, without the benefit of much of a character development arc.

Aside from the problematic spouse, Puzzle’s parts fit together quite well into an intelligent and stylish whole. It is all effectively underscored by Alejandro Franov’s minimalistic music that often evokes puzzle pieces snapping together. A quiet and mature film, Puzzle is definitely recommended to viewers who can appreciate such qualities (and shame on those who can’t). It opens this Friday (5/27) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Romanian Infidelity: Tuesday, After Christmas

A big beefy guy, Paul Hanganu does not exactly look irresistible, yet he has both a wife and a young professional mistress. Frankly, he ought to consider himself lucky to have just one of them. We can say this with certainty thanks to the long, revealing nude scene that opens Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

A reasonably successful banker, Paul is fairly good about sharing family duties with his wife Adriana. It is he who escorts their young daughter Mara to her attractive pediatric dentist. As a result, Paul and the younger Raluca do indeed strike up an affair. She has been largely content as the other woman, but when Adriana impulsively decides to accompany them for an appointment it proves to be a destabilizing event. Paul will have to choose between his wife and his mistress—a decision that will directly affect his plans for that titular Tuesday.

Helming Tuesday with all due deliberation, Muntean’s approach is clearly compatible with the aesthetics of the so-called Romanian New Wave. In fact, his deceptively simple story of infidelity particularly lends itself to a style that privileges intimacy over action. In truth, Tuesday is defined and distinguished by a handful of masterful scenes marked by Muntean’s long continuous shots. As the film opens, Mundean half seduces us with Paul and Raluca’s naked forms (she is in great shape, him not so much), only to de-romanticize their assignation, ultimately grounding viewers in all their imperfections. Conversely, uncomfortable hardly does justice to the awkward dynamic when Adriana invites herself along to Raluca’s office. However, her response to Paul’s eventual confession scorches with honesty.

Like so many recent cinema exports from Romania, there is simply no denying the demanding nature of Tuesday. It is definitely a film for grown-ups as well (truly its original festival poster did not mislead). However, patrons with a respectable attention span will be rewarded with some exceptional performances. As the wronged Adriana, Mirela Oprisor is totally convincing and absolutely devastating. Though her role is less showy, Maria Popistasu makes the reserved Raluca a believably fully dimensional human figure. However, Mimi Branescu’s big unfaithful lug should have had more of an edge. Instead, he seems desperate for everyone to like him, which will not be happening.

Individual scenes of Tuesday will sear themselves into viewers’ memory, while some of the connective tissue in between will remind them of the unhurried pacing of the Romanian Wave. Still, altogether it is a brutally honest, well turned work. A far more accessible Romanian import than the forthcoming Aurora, Tuesday is definitely recommended to mature cineastes when it opens this Wednesday (5/25) at Film Forum.

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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Welcome to Tyson Foods

In August 2008, controversy erupted in Shelbyville, Tennessee when the Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr replaced Labor Day as one of eight paid holidays in the new Tyson Foods union contract. Such a headline generating event would seem to be a crucial topic to broach in any documentary examining the town’s reaction to a recent in-flux of Somali immigrants. However, it just did not make the cut for filmmaker Kim A. Snyder. Instead, she goes out of her way to emphasize Shelbyville’s geographic proximity to Pulaski, Tennessee, the birthplace of the KKK, in Welcome to Shelbyville (trailer here), which airs this coming Tuesday on Independent Lens.

Tyson Foods has quite a history employing immigrant workers. In fact, they were indicted (but later acquitted) on Federal charges of smuggling illegal labor into the country (further context missing from Welcome). They currently employ many legal Somali refugees, like the film’s central POV character, Hawo Siyad, a former nurse on-track to become an American citizen.

Welcome is a truly frustrating film, because it ignores so many obvious avenues of inquiry. Those who have seen Desert Flower, the story of Somali super-model Waris Dirie, will remember a scene in which a male countryman tries to prevent her from receiving adequate healthcare for the botched “female circumcision” she endured as a young girl. Do refugees like Siyad still face this kind of traditional misogyny within the immigrant community? We will not find out from Welcome.

Snyder’s documentary is only concerned with what the people of Shelbyville can do for the Somali immigrants. Any notion that recent arrivals should also work to assimilate is completely foreign (if you will) to the film’s world view. There is absolutely no room in Welcome for competing narratives, critical context, or nuance of any sort. However, on the plus side, the food looks delicious and we also hear from Shelbyville’s surprisingly funky marching band.

Throwing subtlety to the wind, Snyder shot most of her primary interview footage in the time leading up to Obama’s inauguration, to capitalize on the constant “historic moment” choruses. Frankly, Welcome is so unbalanced in its presentation and so simplistic in its analysis, it is not worthy of the prestige that comes from the Independent Lens imprimatur. Nevertheless, it airs this coming Tuesday (5/24) on most PBS outlets.

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

On-Stage: I Plead Guilty

Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was a paragon of journalistic virtue, who gave the Putin administration fits with her muck-raking reports of Russia’s “Dirty War” in Chechnya. She was assassinated for her efforts, but not before attempting to mediate the infamous 2002 hostage crisis at the Dubrovka Theater. In retrospect, it seems pretty clear the Russians were determined to attack the Chechen hostage-takers, with little regard for the safety of the hostages. Still shrouded in mystery and controversy, Natalia Pelevine examines the incident through the eyes of two very different women in Dare To Speak Productions' I Plead Guilty, which officially opened on-stage last night in New York at the Gene Frankel Theater.

Natasha is not exactly Politkovskaya, but she is a Russian journalist who was once based in Chechnya. However, she was only at the theater to review the show. (Take note, this is dangerous work, not for the faint of heart.) Seda is a Chechen Muslim, who has made her peace with the gender inequities of her faith to wage war on the Russians. In terms of temperament, they could not be more different. Yet, as Natasha tries to engage her captor, they each find areas of common ground. Unfortunately, the atmosphere of impending tragedy is inescapable.

Frankly, the Russian-Chechen conflict is devilishly hard for Westerners to get a handle on. To outsiders, it looks like a pitched battle between an ideology of death and a tradition of corruption and oppression. Still, the work of Politkovskaya (and its consequences) speaks volumes about Putin’s neo-Soviet regime. An active member of the Russian opposition, playwright-director Pelevine captures the nature Russian thug-in-chief through Natasha’s voice: “Remember when the submarine went down and everyone on board died because the government did nothing? He said to Larry King when asked what happened, he said ‘it sank.’ And he smiled.”

In its miniature clash of civilizations, Natasha displays all the neuroses of the Western world, yet Dana Pelevine keeps her grounded and credible. She also deftly handles her big back-story revelations that could easily come across as contrived or convenient. Evgeniya Radilova is also quite convincing conveying the conflict between Seda’s extremism and her humanity, despite the complications of the religiously mandated veil she wears for a good part of the production. (For this reason particularly, Guilty probably benefits from the intimacy of a small theater like the Frankel.)

Wisely, Guilty does not whitewash or absolve the Chechen terrorists, but it clearly accuses Putin of making a bad situation exponentially worse. There are still a lot of questions that ought to be asked about the Dubrovka Theater incident, but everyone who does seems to turn up dead. Yet, though the production of Guilty (including some carefully assembled displays in the Frankel lobby) definitely hopes to raise awareness of current realities in Russia, the drama itself is quite tightly focused on the two women. As a result it is very accessible to general audiences, including those who are not especially well versed in events in the neo-Stalinist state. An intriguing and challenging production willfully oblivious New Yorkers need to see, Guilty runs through May 29th at the Frankel.

(Photo: Raymond Haddad)

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Great Night in Harlem 2011

What do you call it when Lou Reed, Macy Gray, and Donald Fagen jam on-stage at the storied Apollo Theater? It is a jazz concert, and a pretty important one at that. Each year, some of the hippest rock and soul artists, fully understanding the debt their music owes to jazz and blues, come out to support the Jazz Foundation of America. They also get a rare chance to cut loose and swing like mad with some jazz and blues heavy weights. Last night was no exception when former Saturday Night Live music supervisor Hal Willner took over as producer of JFA’s annual Great Night in Harlem benefit concert, with a less talk, more blues and soul format.

Of course, the sounds of New Orleans are always prominent at JFA events. The Foundation has always been there to help jazz and blues musicians in times of financial and medical need. However, Katrina was something of a wholly different magnitude, increasing their caseload several hundred-fold.

Whenever I hear the Hot 8 Brass Band, the hair stands up on the back of my neck. More than any other group, they represent the resiliency of NOLA musicians. Not even the senseless murder of drummer Dinneral Shavers (covered in-depth by CBS’s 48 Hours Mystery) could derail the indomitable combo. In recent years, tragedy struck the band once more, but the Foundation was also there again. As a result, they were able to triumphantly rock the house last night, with an assist from fellow New Orleanian Dr. John.

In addition to the Crescent City, this year’s great night also featured the sounds of Kansas City, reuniting the all-star band seen and heard throughout Robert Altman’s criminally underappreciated Kansas City. The term all-star here means musicians like Nicholas Payton, Mark Whitfield, Geri Allen, Don Byron, and Christian McBride, all headliners in their own right. The reunion of the KC Band would be a big deal at major festival. Yet, not only did they burn through the 1930’s big band standards that made Altman’s film such a joy, they also backed up Gray, Fagen, and Reed quite effectively. For instance, her uncharacteristically up-tempo “God Bless the Child” might sound like a dubious proposition, but it worked surprisingly well. In fact, Gray’s soulful vocal approach fit the swing and blues eclecticism of the evening quite aptly.

Of course, longtime JFA supporters were eagerly waiting for the Foundation’s executive director Wendy Oxenhorn to wail on the blues harp and she never disappoints. Indeed, her blues chops greatly helped establish her credibility with JFA’s clients in the early years. Jazz musicians are independent by nature (and not infrequently idiosyncratic). Convincing then to accept help, even when they are facing existential crises has been difficult at times. Fortunately, Wendy could convince them she was offering a hand-up rather than a hand-out. Then Katrina hit.

JFA has done incredible work, providing critical medical care with their partners at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey, replacing lost instruments, and preventing evictions or foreclosures. Thanks to the generosity of Vice Chair Agnes Varis, JFA has also provided meaningful work to scores of musicians through their Jazz in the Schools program, which also affords a critical introduction to jazz, the greatest expression of American values in music, to the younger generations. JFA is close to making their fundraising target with this year’s Great Night, but they are not quite there yet. To help them carry on their good work, go here.

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TV on DVD: The Walking Dead

Zombies are slow and dumb, but they have one significant advantage: sheer numbers. The dead are indeed re-animating and infecting the living in Robert Kirkman’s comic-books, which AMC has adapted for television with the first season of The Walking Dead, now available on DVD (promo here).

Sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes is a quiet, self-contained kind of guy. He would be handy to have around during the end of the world, but as fate would have it, he misses the initial cataclysm. Waking up from a coma in an abandoned hospital, much like opening of Day of the Triffids, Grimes sets out to find his family, encountering stray human survivors here and there.

There have been a number of criticisms leveled at Walking, which are somewhat off the mark. Much has been made of the racist white trash character Merle Dixon (presumably named after Merle Haggard) and his violent but useful brother Daryl (presumably named after his other brother Daryl), as representatives of red-state southerners writ large. (Of course, crisis situations bring out the worst in some people. Remember Ray Nagin hiding from his responsibilities on the top floor of the Hyatt Hotel during Katrina?)

However, the Brothers Dixon are not Walking’s only white male characters, besides Grimes. For instance, Dale Horvath, the RV widower, serves as something of a kindly surrogate father for the band of survivors Grimes encounters. Though he also definitely fits the preconceived Nascar demographic, the character of Jim is never depicted in unsavory terms. He is just socially awkward, which the zombie apocalypse is not likely to help.

Perhaps the biggest rap on Walking is there are not enough zombies. It is definitely talky, particularly by the standards of Romero’s franchise. Yet, Walking is most notable for its success setting the scene, creating a vivid sense of zombie-ravaged Atlanta and the surrounding environs. The production and set design work is top-notch all the way through.

The real drawback to Walking is the narrative flow. With just six installments, each chapter should build up the story-line in a logical progression. Instead, once Grimes has his big reunion early in episode three, the series becomes rather episodic. The survivors go into town, then return, only to go back again. Indeed, season one feels somewhat truncated. It leaves several supporting characters in precarious positions, but since it does not show their actual demises, audiences are primed for a late reappearance from somebody, but it never materializes.

While the cast rages from very strong to sufficient by genre standards, English actor Andrew Lincoln clearly stands out as Grimes. Though not exactly blessed with a standard leading man presence, he conveys the grit of someone who can be relied on during times of crisis. Controversies notwithstanding, Michael Rooker and Norman Reedus chew the scenery with relish as the Dixon brothers. Unfortunately, Walking has yet to develop a really good woman action figure to compliment the guys, like a Maggie Q.

Frankly, season one feels like set-up, having set the scene and established the back-stories quite effectively. However, there are scads of loose ends left dangling and no heavy pay-off at the end (there is a big explosion though). Still, there is some entertaining zombie killing and perhaps more importantly, it leaves viewers intrigued as to what the future holds for these characters. Now available on DVD, Walking is recommended for those who wish to invest the second season (coming this fall) as well.

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Blissfully Thai: I-San Special

Evidently, Thailand also has a tradition of evil stepmothers. Unfortunately, Phenprapah is not exactly Cinderella, but perhaps her alter-ego is. Passengers on an overnight bus ride become the characters of a scandalous radio soap opera, but revert back to reality (whatever that is) at every rest stop in Mingmongkol Sonakul’s I-San Special, which screens tomorrow as part of Blissfully Thai, the Asia Society’s recently launched retrospective of Thai cinema since 2000.

In real life, Phenprapah’s persistent nausea has some of her traveling companions gossiping. In their dreamy soap opera storyline, Phenprapah is a former fashion model reduced to waiting tables in a luxury resort as a result of her evil stepmother Mathavee’s conniving. Naturally, she has fallen in love with her young hotshot hotelier boss Danny, who in ostensive reality is a Thai-American backpacker. Though her co-workers initially resent her as a high-bred outsider, they find common ground with the poor little ex-rich girl. Unfortunately, Mathavee has checked into the hotel to savor Phenprapah’s humiliation and to further pursue her wicked schemes. For what those might be, tune in again, after the next pit stop.

Based on an idea by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (the toast of Cannes for Uncle Boonmee), I-San defies all labels. It has been dubbed “experimental,” but there is plenty of melodramatic plot to chew on, all of which is presented in a strictly linear fashion. Yet, it is devilishly difficult to pinpoint the nature of their soap opera reality. It is neither play-acting nor an “objectively real” fantasy world, but somehow Mingmongkol makes it seem perfectly natural in-the-moment. Regardless, whatever this state of being might be, it only exists while the bus is in en-route from Bangkok to the titular northern city.

Despite the film’s deliberate self-consciousness (complete with obvious foley effects), the cast still pulls viewers into the trials and tribulations of their alter-egos. Mesini Kaewratri is particularly effective as Phenprapah and Phenprapah, sweetly endearing, but periodically showing a flinty edge well befitting a plucky soap opera protagonist. She also develops some nice chemistry with Mark Salmon as Danny.

Probably the nearest comparable film to I-San would be Jon Amiel’s charming Tune in Tomorrow, but Mingmongkol and her cast more-or-less play it straight all the way through. Rather, I-San hints at parallels between characters, while ultimately embracing the soothing balm of melodramatic escapism for its struggling working class characters. A wholly original film deftly executed, I-San is an excellent selection for Blissfully Thai. Enthusiastically recommended, even to those normally put off by postmodern cinematic gamesmanship, it screens tomorrow (5/20) at the Asia Society.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

About Those Levees: The Big Uneasy

Journalist Michael Grunwald describes the Army Corps of Engineers as a government agency funded almost entirely through pork. That truly speaks volumes. Giving FEMA a break, the Corps emerges as the unambiguous villain of Katrina in The Big Uneasy (trailer here), Harry Shearer’s documentary investigation of the devastating levee breaches precipitated by the hurricane, which opens this Friday in New York.

Despite the bumper crop of Katrina docs, most viewers will be stunned by the meticulous indictment assembled by Shearer, the Simpsons voice-over artist and part-time Crescent City resident. To start with, most of the worst flooding was caused by under-seepage rather than over-topping of the levees. This is obviously implies some rather profound design flaws in the levee system.

Calling on expert testimony from several academics who investigated the levee breaches on behalf of the State of Louisiana and a Corps of Engineers whistleblower, Shearer establishes a pattern of pervasive negligence at the agency. Essentially, the New Orleans levees were built to unrealistically low specifications, on dangerously porous ground, incorporating a network of substandard pumps. To make matters unnecessarily worse, they created a flooding “funnel effect,” with “MR. GO,” an acronym for a little used but highly expensive commercial waterway. That’s hundreds of millions of your tax dollars at work.

Indeed, in many ways Uneasy is a chronicle of wasteful, counterproductive government spending run amok. Frankly, term “incompetence” is too generous for the systemic failures of the Corps. Yet, the agency has been largely spared the public recriminations leveled at FEMA. As Shearer points out, congressional reps love to put big conspicuous waterworks projects in their districts, which, of course, are duly constructed by the Corps.

As narrator, writer, executive producer, and director, Shearer maintains the right tone throughout, keeping the proceedings largely dispassionate and authoritative. He is definitely looking to assign responsibility, but he does not engage in the sort of finger-pointing that so many previous Katrina docs indulged in. Legitimately non-partisan, Shearer even presents a Republican politician in a favorable light, including footage of Sen. David Vitter effectively cutting through the dissembling of a senior Corps officer testifying before the Senate.

To his further credit, Shearer is not interested in creating more victimization narratives. Though he largely focuses on muckraking the Corps, he occasionally interjects a brief “Ask a New Orleanian” vignette. Hosted by actor John Goodman, these segments contradict most of the helpless NOLA victim stereotypes, offering a portrait of a revitalized city, with a unique and ever evolving culture. Wisely, Uneasy also features a legit NOLA style soundtrack by funky jazz pianist David Torkanowsky to remind so many of us how we came to love the city in the first place.

Uneasy’s release is timely for a number of reasons. Shearer repeatedly emphasizes the issue of inadequately constructed levees effects many communities beyond the Crescent City. New Orleans was simply the most vulnerable. It also hits theaters the day after the Jazz Foundation of America’s annual Great Night in Harlem benefit concert. Created to help jazz musicians in need, the Foundation’s caseload exploded when Katrina hit. Working tirelessly, Wendy and her staff provided housing and medical assistance, replaced lost instruments, and even found paying gigs for hundreds of displaced musicians. To support their efforts and buy tickets for a swinging star-studded show go here. Surprisingly informative and persuasive, Uneasy is also recommended when it opens this Friday (5/20) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well?

Among the hundred-some quotable lines of Casablanca, Rick Blaine famously tells the Nazi Strasser: “there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade.” The same held true for all of England, including the relatively peaceful countryside. In such an unlikely setting, the tight little country village of Bramley End defends king and country from the first wave of the German invasion in Alberto Cavalcanti’s unabashedly patriotic wartime drama, Went the Day Well? (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Film Forum.

The National Socialists were never able to muster the resources for their grimly anticipated invasion of Britain proper. However, according the Our Town-style narrator’s prologue, the “Jerries” did indeed launch a desperate operation, right here in Bramley End (though he assures us right from the start, they did not get far). Disguised as British soldiers on maneuvers, German paratroopers are to set up radio jammers and hold their advance position at all costs. Ominously, they also have a high placed collaborator, Oliver Wilsford, the local squire and civil defense coordinator.

Initially, the good citizens of Bramley End open their arms and their homes to the troops. Eventually though, the Jerries’ cover is blown, but Wilsford tries to minimize the villagers’ resistance through disinformation and self-defeating advice. Right, good luck with that. As the stirring lyrics clearly state: “Britons never never never will be slaves.”

Helmed by a Brazilian of Italian heritage (billed simply as Cavalcanti) and produced by the Ealing Studio celebrated for its wry comedies, Day begins much in the spirit of a classic Alec Guinness charmer, but evolves into Red Dawn. Paralleling the climax of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, it features a host of upright but eccentric Brits, rising up as one against foreign enemy. Land-Girls, spinsters, gossips, and poachers display the British national character at its finest: a stiff upper lip and a steady aim.

Based ever so loosely on a Graham Greene short story, Day empties both propaganda barrels on Wilsford, the Oswald Mosley fifth columnist subverting national security for unsavory ideological reasons. It is impossible to imagine a film like this being produced today on either side of the pond. Yet, Day’s earnest faith in British exceptionalism is both refreshing and nostalgic.

Indeed, Bramley End appears to be an agreeable spot, well worth fighting for. The locals feel real as well, particularly Elizabeth Allan and Thora Hird as Peggy Pryde and Ivy Dawking, two Women’s Land Army members turned legitimate war-fighters, largely stealing the film in the process. Conversely, Leslie Banks exudes an appropriately prissy, clammy vibe as the treasonous squire. It is also quite intriguing to watch David Farrar, probably best known as the tortured bomb disposal expert in Powell & Pressburger’s The Small Back Room, bringing the same dark-hued intensity as a Jerry: Lt. Jung, a.k.a. Lt. Maxwell.

Simultaneously charming and biting (and at times surprisingly violent for 1942), Day is a jolly good war yarn. It is also rather unfortunately timely, released while both America and Britain still face external and internal national security threats. At least all’s well that ends well for Bramley End, a point Day reaches in quite satisfying style. Warmly recommended, Day (in a freshly restored 35m print) opens this Friday (5/20) at New York’s Film Forum.

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Monday, May 16, 2011

Burma Soldier: Myo Myint’s Story

Myo Myint Cho understands the regime in Burma better than anyone. Enlisting at age seventeen, he served in the army until a mortar robbed him of a leg and most of a hand. Later, he would spend fifteen years as a reluctant “guest” of the state, but lived to tell his story in Burma Soldier (trailer here), co-directed by the battery of Nic Dunlop, Ricki Stern, and Anne Sundberg, which premieres on HBO2 this Wednesday.

Only the military junta and The New York Times refer Burma as “Myanmar.” With Western audiences in mind, the filmmakers provide some brief but helpful context to explain how life got so bad in the resource rich country. In 1962, General Ne Win overthrew the civilian government. His ruling Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) nationalized the economy and began wholesale plundering. That will do it every time.

Soldiers are not well paid in Burma and the work is dangerous, considering Burma has been wracked by civil strife for over sixty years, which the BSPP exacerbated with the racial policies favoring ethnic Burmese. Still, there are not a lot of other options for unemployed young men. For years, Myo Myint served loyally under arms. However, when his injury led to a discharge, the former soldier had time to consider his life and the government for whom he sacrificed so much.

Nobody would blame Myo Myint for wanting to see some generals’ heads roll. However, he became an ardent advocate not just of democracy, but of peace and tolerance for all Burma’s constituent nationalities. Throughout the film, he comes across as a gentle humanist, despite the horrors he witnessed and endured. Indeed, he is quite a shrewd choice on the part of the filmmakers to represent the Burmese democracy movement.

Assembling news footage and clandestine video from variety of sources, the filmmakers convey a vivid, often graphic, sense of just how the regime handles dissent. It is not pretty, but it is instructive. However, some of Dunlop’s still photography also included in the film is aesthetically quite striking.

Though the regime has dropped the BSPP label, its nature has not changed. China also remains an erstwhile ally, making it highly unlikely the current administration will rouse itself to action without considerable prodding from the American people. As a result, Soldier’s upcoming broadcast is quite timely and necessary. Reportedly, filmmaker-sanctioned piracy has already made the banned film a veritable blockbuster in Burma. With Colin Farrell lending some celebrity cachet as narrator, it deserves a sizeable American audience as well. It debuts this Wednesday (5/18) on HBO2.

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

BHFF ’11: White Button (Bijelo Dugme)

They were much like Yugoslavia’s version of Czechoslovakia’s Plastic People of the Universe, except they had a much easier time of it with the Tito regime. They only faced a few drug busts, which they do not claim to be altogether unwarranted. Indeed, the hard rock band was a unifying force for the youth culture, but attempts by various nationalities to claim them as their own contributed to the band’s eventual break-up. The rise, fall, and multiple reinventions of the Yugoslav hard-rock band is chronicled in Igor Stoimenov’s documentary, White Button (trailer here), the closing film of the 2011 Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival.

Musically, White Button (who adopted the Bijelo Dugme moniker essentially to prove names don’t matter in rock) is probably best compared to Led Zeppelin. Both bands represented the early cusp of Heavy Metal, but were still very much in touch with the blues and R&B roots of the music. In terms of popularity, they were the Beatles, the Stones, the Bieber kid, and the Grateful Dead, all in one. Their ethnic heritage was mixed, but they all originally came together in Sarajevo.

Evidently, it was good to be a rock-star, even under Tito. Though Stoimenov largely glosses over their relationship with the state, it seems they must have been tolerated as an instrument to keep the Balkan country from Balkanizing. (Also, it would have been the height of hypocrisy for the government to act against Bijelo Dugme at a time when Tito was criticizing the Husek puppet government for cracking down in Czechoslovakia.)

What Bijelo does best is old time rock & roll. The band turned the Yugoslav music scene on its ear, in more ways than one. For instance, their graphic designer recalls how they pushed the envelope using sexual imagery to sell records (see exhibit A). It is not always a triumphant story though. Like any legitimate rock band, they lost a drummer to drugs and personal demons along the way. They also took an ill-conceived detour into the New Wave that the film never shies away from examining in humiliating detail. They would have better luck when Goran Bregocić, the Brian Wilson of the group, looked towards traditional Roma and Macedonian music for inspiration.

Oddly, the film ends exactly when Bijelo Dugme disbands, declining to cover the band members’ experiences during the war. However, the accompanying short, Damir Pirić’s Rock ‘n’ War, fills that gap, but from the perspective of the working rock bands of Tuzla rather than the White Buttoners. Rock concerts “for peace” are a tiresome cliché here, but when the Tuzla rockers organized them in hopes that cooler heads would prevail in the weeks leading up to war, one has to give them credit for trying. Indeed, there is a lot of dramatic footage in the short (sixteen minute) doc. Hearing one band shred through and utterly re-contextualize Neil Young’s “Keep Rockin’ in the Free World,” is frankly kind of awe-inspiring.

Bijelo is a droll, cleverly assembled Behind the Music film, while R ‘n’ W is raw and poignant. They both rock hard though, closing this year’s festival on a high note. A sold-out screening, the BHFF appears to be growing nicely, bringing films by and of interest to Bosnians to a wider audience beyond the local expat community. Here’s hoping for a third day next year.

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

BHFF ’11: Piran-Pirano

How better to start the 2011 Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival than with a film about the arbitrary nature of geography? Antonio is Italian. Veljko is Bosnian. Yet both have only felt truly at home in a particular apartment in the picturesque Slovenian city of Piran. That is where their paths fatefully crossed during WWII in Slovenian filmmaker Goran Vojnović’s Piran-Pirano (trailer here), the opening film of the 2011 BHFF, currently underway in New York.

Antonio was not a Fascist, but his father certainly was. A school teacher whose lesson plans were little more than hateful propaganda, he decides discretion is the better part of valor when Tito’s forces arrive. Only concerned with his own neck, he leaves his college-aged son behind in their flat. Through sheer fortune, Antonio eludes the Partisans’ initial sweep of the apartment, but he is caught flat-footed by Anica, a young Slovenian woman traveling with the partisans.

Mourning her entire family, the vengeful Anica is in no mood to show mercy to an Italian, yet they reach an uneasy truce of sorts for the night. It is there in the apartment that Veljko discovers them. Like Anica, he has also lost his family, but he is not inclined towards retribution. In fact, he is not much of a soldier at all.

Told in flashbacks when the two men meet again decades later, Piran’s themes of cruelty and compassion in times of war have obvious resonance for Bosnian audiences. It hardly glorifies Tito’s army either, clearly depicting the summary executions ruthlessly carried out by the Communist forces. The commander matter-of-factly accepts the brutal tactics, as well as the potential death of innocents, as the cost of waging war. However, some of his subordinates are more enthusiastic about the dirty business of war.

Perched on the Adriatic, Piran is a remarkably beautiful city, which sparkles all the more through the lush lens of Radovan Cok. It is a finely crafted period production all the way around, but Vojnović maintains a resolutely intimate focus on his three principle characters. It is a strong cast, especially Boris Cavazza, whose Antonio comes across as a fully dimensional, deeply haunted human being, while also largely serving as the spokesman for the film’s circumspect critique of war (even a good war, like WWII). Though somewhat manic and nebbish, Mustafa Nadarević (a prominent Bosnian actor probably best known in America for When Father was Away on Business) is also quite touching as old Veljko.

A profoundly humanistic film, but in a way also a lyrical love story, Piran has real commercial potential on the American art-house circuit. Sensitively produced and honestly rendered, it a first-rate representative of Slovenian cinema (with obvious Bosnian interest). Indeed, Piran was an excellent selection to launch this year’s BHFF, one of the friendliest and most provocative New York festivals, which concludes today (5/14) at the Tribeca Cinemas with three diverse programming blocks.

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