J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Russian Film Week ’11: The Target

In near future Russia, red signifies good and blue designates evil.  Sound familiar? The powerful natural resources minister is preoccupied with a device that reveals the good-to-evil ratio of everyone and everything viewed through it. He would like to put this information into practice and he ought to have the time to do so, considering he will more or less live forever. Of course, nothing is so simple in Alexander Zeldovich’s science fiction fable The Target (trailer here), which screens during the eleventh annual Russian Film Week in New York.

Somewhere in Nowherestan, there is a colossal abandoned Soviet astrophysics research facility. Built into the ground, it looks like a giant target from the surrounding mountains. The bull’s eye collects not just radiation, but also chi force. Those who spend the night in the focal point will apparently live forever. For a man of privilege like Minister Viktor Chelshchev and his increasingly discontented wife Zoya, it is a trip worth the expense and inconvenience.

With Zoya’s brother Dmitri and his friend Nikolai, a thrill-seeking border enforcement officer, they make the long journey east. They also share their passage with another postmodern pilgrim, who turns out to be the woman of Dmitri’s dreams. Together they spend a fateful night in the Target, which turns out to be everything it was promised to be and then some.

Initially, everyone feels energized, buzzed even. However, it quickly becomes clear the target acts as a karmic steroid shot. Their emotions become rawer and their passions more intense, overriding their empathic affinities. As Zoya and Nikolai launch into an affair, taking the film on a futuristic Anna Karenina detour, Chelshchev boldly announces his intention to screen mines and worksites to avoid evil deposits (for real). How do you think that goes over?

A strange but not implausibly exotic environment, Target initially brings to mind the austere, almost antiseptic near future vibe of classic 1970’s science fiction films, like 2001, World on a Wire, and, dare we say it, Solaris. However, things get rather messy in a hurry. Indeed, Target is a tricky film to get a handle on, because it veers into some trippy territory that still has very real narrative consequences. Yet, despite the nature of its themes and motifs, there is nothing New Agey about the film. It is never proscriptive. Rather, it returns to one of the central cautionary principles of speculative fiction: those who would become like gods . . .

As Zoya/Anna, South African born English actress Justine Waddell (who had a smaller supporting role in Bernard Rose’s Anna Karenina) is a brittle, haunting presence, bringing to mind Anouk Aimée and Anna Karina in the films of Fellini and Godard. Likewise, Maxim Sukhanov finds unexpected depths of humanity in Chelshchev, somewhat resembling a Russian Mastroianni. Indeed, Target is perhaps better thought of in Nouvelle Vague and surrealist traditions than as genre cinema per se.

Ambitious in scope, cinematographer Alexandre Ilkhovski’s wide vistas of the Target and surrounding mountains are visually arresting. This is definitely big picture filmmaking. Still, in several respects Target is an alarmingly current film, positing a Russia ever more dominated by a resource hungry China. It also depicts the violent cruelty of mobs in no uncertain terms. Even if they are poor, they can still be evil.

In just about every way, Target is an uncompromising film for the top one percent rather than the simpleminded rabble. For those who enjoy science fiction at its most challenging, Target is strongly recommended. It screens again tomorrow night (11/1) during Russian Film Week in New York.

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Pianomania: Give the Tuner Some

It is a company committed to tradition and excellence. Each Steinway Piano is hand assembled by craftsmen, conscious they are creating heirlooms and altarpieces. That lack of mechanization creates infinitesimal differences between each instrument. This is a good thing, because it gives each piano a distinctive personality. Steinway chief technician and tuner Stefan Knüpfer is a master at matching concert pianos with world class musicians and calibrating their individual sounds for the music to be performed. Filmmakers Lilian Franck & Robert Cibis document Knüpfer’s passionate perfectionism in Pianomania (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Based in Vienna, Knüpfer works with some of the world’s most demanding artists, instinctively understanding requests that sound baffling vague. At one point, Knüpfer determines how to best tune one of Steinway’s concert grands to best evoke the sound of the clavicle for Pierre-Laurent Aimard. The French pianist is preparing for an ambitious Bach recording that will present many more unusual challenges for Knüpfer. Simultaneously, he is also working with Lang Lang and Alfred Brendel (in what will be one of his final concert appearances).

In a sense, Pianomania is somewhat akin to El Bulli and Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, quietly observing as an elite artisan goes about his creative business. Yet, this behind-the-scenes look at Steinway works so much better than those other films, because Knüpfer’s personality shines through so clearly. Yes, he can be a fussy. Indeed, the nature of his job demands as much. Yet, he is undeniably charismatic (in a slightly nebbish way) and exhibits a surprisingly mischievous sense of humor. Classical music jesters Aleksey Igudesman and Richard Hyung-Ki Joo obviously value his musical and comedic judgment, as we see in one of the film’s funnier scenes.

Of course, there is plenty of music to be heard in Pianomania, but it is much more about what Knüpfer does than his clients’ performances. Still, there is something wonderful about hearing such a finely tuned instrument under the hands of an accomplished artist. Witnessing it all come together is enormously gratifying.

Few companies have inspired such ardent loyalty as Steinway, nor can many lay claim to at least two documentaries about their inner workings. Arguably, Ben Niles’ thematically related Note By Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 is even more satisfying and in a strange way even uplifting, but it does not have Knüpfer. Capturing a sense of the uncompromising artistry embodied in Steinway pianos and the dedication of employees like him, Pianomania is definitely recommended to music lovers of all stripes, but particularly classical enthusiasts. Appropriately, it opens this Friday (11/4) at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunim Munroe Film Center.

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Passionate Germans: Young Goethe in Love

Goethe was the greatest literary celebrity of his time, a veritable Valentino of letters, following the bestselling publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Influential in many ways, its brooding romantic protagonist launched a wave of suicides across Europe. Philipp Stölzl dramatizes the formative events that inspired Goethe’s tragic hero in what could be considered a German Shakespeare in Love, except its story of love denied is largely accepted as fact. Indeed, German romanticism hits the big screen in all its moody glory when Stölzl’s Young Goethe in Love (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

Goethe was destined to be a writer, but neither his father nor the German publishing houses agreed at first. Tired of underwriting his bohemianism, the senior Goethe packs off his debauched son for a no-frills internship at the court in Wetzlar, assuming there would be no distractions for him in the provincial backwater. He was wrong. It was there that he met Charlotte Buff, the intended of another, whom Goethe falls hopelessly in love with.

Ironically, Goethe inadvertently acts as Cyrano to his own rival, helping Albert Kestner, his superior at the court, find the right words to propose to Buff. When each rather simultaneously discovers their mutual amorous regard for her, the tragedy begins in earnest for young Goethe/Werther.

While American audiences might not be as familiar with Goethe’s life and canon as their German counterparts, Alexander Fehling’s charismatic turn as the bon vivant undone by passion is easy to relate to. He lives hard and defies authority—all good things for a movie protagonist to do. Likewise, he develops some nice bromantic chemistry with Volker Bruch as Karl Wilhem Jerusalem, Goethe’s even more Wertheresque roommate. Yet, though pleasant enough, it is hard to see Miriam Stein’s Buff inspiring such overwhelming ardor.

Production designer Udo Kramer’s team convincingly recreates the mud and run-down architecture of provincial Eighteenth Century Germany. It might be a dull place, but it is picturesque, particularly the church. In fact, Stölzl shows Buff singing sacred music there, in a lovely scene that celebrates the beauty of the moment for Goethe and Jerusalem, without resorting to cheap kneejerk irony.

Young Goethe is more historical melodrama than high art per se, but it is undeniably smart and literate. Tightly written, it also has a good period feel, without ever getting bogged down in detail. Stölzl keeps it all moving along at a nice pace, while occasionally giving viewers time to appreciate the classy sets and costumes. The net result is quite enjoyable, in a tragically gloomy kind of way. Recommended for fans of historical drama with a twist, Young Goethe opens this Friday (11/4) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Poetry Unplugged: Deaf Jam

As Bowery Poetry Club founder Bob Holman notes, the most purely oral form of poetry performed at his venue is not even oral. It is American Sign Language (ASL) poetry, which uses the physical components of signing to create stories and imagery. An immigrant Israeli high school student finds her voice through ASL poetry during the course of Judy Lieff’s Deaf Jam (promo here), which premieres on PBS’s Independent Lens this Thursday.

One of the greatest ironies of Deaf Jam is ASL poetry, which defies traditional methods of poetic notation, appear to be the only pieces performed at places like the Nuyorican Poets Café that are worth recording. While the contemporary slam poems captured in the film are little more than strident political rants set to sampled drum beats, Aneta Brodski and her fellow students of New York’s Lexington School for the Deaf draw on their experiences and emotions to express things that are deeply personal, yet also universal.

That is not to say the Lexington students are oblivious to world affairs. One of Brodski’s featured poems vividly dramatizes the oppression of Communist China. Yet, such macro issues are mostly used as metaphor for individual struggles.

In many respects, Jam is also a film about Brodski finding her place in the world. Legal immigrants twice over, her Russian-Israeli family’s status remains unresolved after ten years of paperwork. A junior whose friends are all seniors poised to graduate, her future social standing at school appears somewhat uncertain as well. Yet, as the standout of the Lexington poetry pilot program, Brodski finds her niche, taking her ASL poetry to the non-deaf world, challenging audiences to engage with it.

Eventually, Brodski begins collaborating with a non-deaf poet who culturally identifies with Israel’s Arabic population during the period of Britain’s colonial Mandate. Unfortunately, their give-peace-a-chance hybrid poetry somewhat dilutes the power and immediacy of Brodski’s performances. It is starting to become the sort of thing we have already heard way too much of.

A bright, charismatic performer, Brodski is a shrewd choice to represent the ASL poetry movement. In contrast, her non-deaf colleagues are rather dull, slavishly conforming to the aesthetic and ideological norms of their peers. Frankly, poetry in general needs more Brodskis. However, Lieff diligently ignores the listless state of contemporary poetry overall, focusing instead on the empowerment of the ASL program. Pleasant and somewhat informative, even including some energizing music from Cyro Baptista, Jam is still one of the more agreeable installments of the current season of Independent Lens. It airs this Thursday (11/3) on most PBS outlets.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Russian Film Week ’11: Siberia, Monamour

The remote reaches of Siberia remain relatively untouched by Communism, National Socialism, and gangsterism. Instead, man must struggle against the forces of nature to survive, including his own human nature. In this rough environment, man often reverts to his worst instincts, but the possibility of nobility remains in writer-director Slava Ross’s Siberia, Monamour (trailer here), the opening night selection of the eleventh annual Russian Film Week in New York.

Lyochka’s father was a war hero, but his grandfather cannot bring himself to tell the boy his father will not be coming back, having died a less than edifying death in the village. Isolated from the outside world, Lyochka’s only playmate is Fang, one of the wild dogs prowling about their cabin. However, his sternly devout grandfather harbors a primal dislike of the canines, shooting on-sight at every opportunity. Yet, as nature films constantly warn us, man represents a greater danger in Taiga Forest, especially a pair of looters looking for icons and an erratic Army captain dispatched by his superiors to retrieve a prostitute for their enjoyment.

Undeniably slow out of the blocks, Monamour starts out as a quiet, deliberate art film, but flips a switch halfway through, downshifting into a Jack London survival story. Given the film’s rather bleak naturalistic view of humanity, it partly shares an ideological affinity with the Oakland writer’s work as well. Ross though is not an ideologue, portraying the grandfather’s abiding faith in terms that become explicitly heroic. In fact, the third act lends itself to sweeping allegorical interpretations, as the old man sets off ostensibly on a desperate trek for help, but perhaps as an act of sacrifice.

Monamour is high-end cinema that will tax those with short attention spans, but it will fascinate viewers who stick with it. The ensemble cast all look like they spent a lifetime on the outskirts of the tundra, particularly the weathered Petr Zaichenko as the grandfather. Likewise, as Lyochka, Misha Protsko’s refreshing lack of cuteness serves the film well. Yet, it is the riveting Nikolay Kozak who drives the film home, vividly conveying the captain’s stirrings of conscience.

While essentially nonpolitical, Monamour does not paint a flattering portrait of the Russian Army, portraying an officer class prone to abuse their power, while the enlisted men labor with decrepit facilities and barely functional vehicles. Still, nature remains the greatest menace, which every character must engage with to some extent throughout the film. It might be deadly dangerous, but cinematographer Yury Rayskiy captures some absolutely breathtaking natural vistas through his lens, deliberately dwarfing the human figures in the process.

In many respects, Monamour is a deeply humanistic film. Indeed, despite the mean and arbitrary character of their lives, the people of the Taiga willingly endure pain and hardship for their fellow human beings. Demanding but ultimately quite rewarding, it is a film of unexpected surprises. Recommended for discriminating audiences, Monamour screens again this afternoon (10/29) and Tuesday (11/1) during this year’s Russian Film Week in New York.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Anonymous: A Bard by Any Other Name

When you become successful, everyone wants to tear you down. In his day, nobody was bigger than William Shakespeare. He’s still big, it’s the plays that got small. Yet for some reason, there has long been a gaggle of scholars out to attribute most or even the entire Shakespearean canon to other writers. Director Roland Emmerich throws his lot in with the Stratford Truthers with Anonymous (trailer here), his bid for costume drama respectability, which opens today nationwide.

All those tragedies, comedies, pastoral-historicals, and sonnets were not the work of Shakespeare, but Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford, a high-born failure with a scandalous past. A disaster at politics, Oxford is like an Elizabethan Walter Mitty, who simply cannot stop giving voice to the characters in his head. With the help of Ben Jonson, Oxford finally stages one of his dramas for the public. When the play is a smash, a crude but ambitious actor steps forward to claim authorship of the anonymous work. That of course would be Shakespeare.

Neither Oxford nor Jonson think very much of Shakespeare, but they begrudgingly accept him as their public mask. Naturally though, many people suspect the truth, which will have dire political ramifications as the courtly intrigue builds towards the Essex Rebellion.

Screenwriter John Orloff (whose great-grandparents were Fibber McGee and Molly according to IMDb) plays it decidedly fast and loose with historical dates and events, but that can ultimately be forgiven (assuming he really did write Anonymous). Indeed, he makes some clever connections between the plays and figures of the era, most notably Oxford’s nemesis, the Queen’s councilor Robert Cecil.

However, his case for Oxford is considerably problematic. We are told Shakespeare could read (or else how could he function as an actor), but was incapable of writing even a single letter. This notion is difficult to buy into. For various reasons, great efforts are made to keep Oxford’s authorship a secret, yet it seems like half the court already knows. We are even told Oxford staged some of his work for Elizabeth when they were on better terms, so who are they actually fooling?

What really works in Anonymous is Rhys Ifans as Oxford. He plays the Earl exactly as we would like to imagine Shakespeare: a world weary romantic humanist. Indeed, the whole point seems to be Shakespeare’s soul is found in his work, regardless of his biographical particulars. Conversely, centuries later we still seem to love to hate Christopher Marlowe, so the common rabble can enjoy hissing at Trystan Gravelle, who portrays the Doctor Faustus playwright as a snippy conniver.

Light years away from his typically apocalyptic fare, such as 2012 and Independence Day, Emmerich’s approach is still quite visually dynamic. There are also some impressive set pieces that vividly bring Elizabethan London to life. Unfortunately, his management of the two-track flashback narrative structure gets a bit clumsy at times. The lack of a genuine romance also hurts the film, not just in comparison to the obvious antecedent, Shakespeare in Love, but to help explain Oxford/Shakespeare’s lyrically melancholy sensibilities.

Technically accomplished, Anonymous features a strong ensemble cast, but the extent to which it stretches credibility and leaves conspicuous questions unanswered becomes distracting. An interesting home viewing choice perhaps but hardly an essential trip to the theater, Anonymous opens today (10/28) in New York at the Village East.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Hipsters: a Russian Freedom Jazz Dance

During the Cold War, Willis Conover’s jazz program was the most popular Voice of America show with listeners behind the Iron Curtain, despite the constant barrage of Soviet propaganda crusading against America’s greatest original form of music. With its unmistakable message of freedom, the Communists were right to be concerned. One young soon to be former Communist becomes a convert while pursuing the coolest chick he has ever seen in director-co-librettist Valery Todorovsky’s outstanding period musical Hipsters (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

Named after Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, Mels is a Communist Youth member who looks like a young Conan O’Brien. Polly is a classic Russian beauty, who runs with the jazz-listening extravagantly-dressing hipster crowd. A decided underdog, Mel makes little headway trading in his drab proletarian wardrobe for a candy-colored suit. However, when he takes up the saxophone, he finally turns her head. Of course, their romance will be difficult. As hipsters, they are constantly harassed by Mels’ former comrades. It hardly helps matters that Katya, youth brigade leader, has been carrying a torch for him.

By 1955, most American teenagers were more interested in Elvis Presley than Charlie Parker, but rebellious teens in the USSR had to take what they could get. Hipsters’ music is definitely jazz, but it leans towards jumpier big band arrangements, which are a lot of fun and work well in the film’s context. It also makes no bones about jazz’s American origin, clearly associating it with notions of freedom. Even one of Conover’s fondly remembered VOA broadcasts is heard briefly.

Sexy and stylish like a hipster, the film dramatically contrasts the color and flair of the rebel jazzers with the drabness of their Soviet environment. Todorovsky created some wonderfully energetic, period appropriate musical numbers, which display a respect and affection for jazz. The hip jitterbuggery choreography is quite entertaining, yet perhaps the musical highlight comes relatively early, when Mels fantasizes playing “Summertime” as a duet with a Parker-esque alto player in New York. It’s a beautiful scene.

Yet, Todorovsky never ignores the ugliness of the Communist era either. At times, the enforcement of Party discipline at Mels’ school resembles scenes from The Wall. Clearly, this was a time of paranoia and petty abuses of power.

As Mels, Anton Shagin passes the likability test, but hews rather closely to a zone of reserved shyness. In contrast, Oksana Akinsha smolders up the screen with old school movie star appeal. In an acutely human supporting turn, Igor Voynarovsky adds further depth and pathos as Boris (or Bob if you’re hip), Mels’ initial tutor in the school of cool. It is also nice to see veteran Russian actor Sergey Garmash as Mels’ gruff but sympathetic father.

Visually dynamic, Hipsters is a refreshingly inventive, jazz-centric take on the movie musical. It is easily the best Cold War era musical since the Czech film Rebelove, which might not mean much to a lot of people, but is high praise indeed. A wonderfully entertaining film with serious substance, Hipsters is one of the year’s best. It opens tomorrow (10/28) in Los Angeles at the Nuart, with a New York engagement currently scheduled for January.

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Family Business: My Reincarnation

Like many fathers, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu would like his son to carry on his trade. As a teacher of Tibetan Buddhist wisdom, his business is highly specialized. However, Yeshi Silvano Namkhai was not simply born into it, he was reincarnated. Whether the son will accept his destiny as his calling is not initially clear in Jennifer Fox’s documentary My Reincarnation (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche just barely escaped the Chinese military in 1959. Though a close associate of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, the Rinpoche never settled into monastic life, preferring to take his Dzogchen message out into the world. That worldly world is the only one his son has ever known. Born in Italy, the western-centric professional did not feel a cosmic affinity for his birthright, despite having been recognized as the reincarnation of his great uncle, Khyentse Rinpoche Chokyi Wangchuk, a revered Tibetan Buddhist teacher.

Filmed over a twenty year period (during which Fox served as secretary to the Dzogchen teacher for several years), Reincarnation represents quite an investment of time and passion for the filmmaker, but that intimate commitment might have affected her perspective. There has been a mini-bumper crop of somewhat thematically related documentaries on Tibetan Buddhists, including the outstanding Journey from Zanskar and Tibet in Song, as well as the still quite good Unmistaken Child. Yet, even without these films raising the comparative stakes, most audiences seeking to learn about Tibetan Buddhism and the spirit of those who keep the faith would be discouraged by Reincarnation’s surface level focus.

Yes, we hear some of the father’s teachings, but mostly New Age compatible sound bites. The Chinese interference with Tibetan Buddhism however, is largely ignored, despite the long shadow it casts over both men’s lives. Frustratingly, Fox often seems on the brink of potentially rewarding avenues of inquiry, only to promptly close them off. Perhaps the most glaring example comes when the son finally makes a pilgrimage to Tibet, where he has a dream of the Khyentse Rinpoche’s painful final days in a Chinese prison. Wait, what? The late Rinpoche was tortured to death by the Chinese? At this point, viewers have the sinking feeling Fox has not simply buried her lede, she has made her film about the wrong people.

The awkward truth is Yeshe the son, her primary protagonist, is perfectly pleasant and well meaning, but not especially interesting (at least not as he is presented here). Still, there is a scene of the Rinpoche and Yeshe in speedos, so at least the film has something for the ladies.

Reincarnation is the sort of film viewers will feel guilty about not loving. It is not their fault. They can have boundless respect for the film’s subjects, but not be swept up in their father-son drama. For dedicated students of the spiritual family, it opens tomorrow (10/28) at the Cinema Village.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

RA.ONE: India Cranks the CGI

Two video game characters will continue their epic struggle of good versus evil in the real world. At least one of them also sings and dances. It’s not the super-villain. Combining Bollywood style musical numbers with Terminator and Tron inspired science fiction motifs, Anubhav Sinha’s RA.ONE (trailer here) opens today in New York after already setting box-office presales records in India, (a feat that should stand for at least another month, possibly six weeks).

Shekhar Subramanium is a game designer with a bratty son who prefers villains to heroes. For his birthday, Subramanium obliges him with RA.ONE, the monstrous bad guy more powerful than G.ONE, the good guy in his latest cyber-VR game, modeled on its creator. Lucifer, as the kid dubbed himself in gaming circles, is delighted, kicking RA.ONE’s tail in the game’s first round. However, when Lucifer is pulled away before RA.ONE has a chance for payback in the virtual world, the dark lord decides to go get him some in the real world.

While the film pretends to present a scientifically plausible explanation for RA.ONE and then G.ONE making the big Matrix leap to reality, it is really all just hocus pocus. Yes, there are ample science fiction elements, but the film also diligently hits all the traditional Bollywood and Tamil bases. A father dying before his son can tell him he loves him? Check. Flashbacks in the rain? Check. Redemption arriving by way of a surrogate father figure? Maybe, just maybe.

Though at first just a shortening of “Random Access One,” RA.ONE became a digital reboot of Ravana, the Hindu demon king, during Subramanium’s game development process. Similarly, G.ONE became a derivation of the Hindi word for life. That’s about as Joseph Campbell as the film gets, but there are some cool musical numbers.

It might be impossible not to enjoy “Criminal,” RA.ONE’s theme song by Akon, because it is all about booty and the lovely Kareena Kapoor (playing Lucifer’s mom Sonia) shakes hers like she means it. Likewise, the monster sample of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” makes “Dildaara” a real guilty pleasure. As a result, the musical interludes deliver the jolt of energy we expect from Bollywood productions.

Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) has probably sold more movie tickets than Harry Potter and James Bond put together, but he is definitely coming from a Bollywood bag. Kapoor’s Sonia Subramanium is considerably more multidimensional with an undeniable screen presence. Unfortunately the kid is rather annoying, but at least Arjun Rampal understands how to chew the scenery with proper malevolent relish as RA.ONE. Rajinikanth also briefly appears as the Tamil superhero Chitti Babu, in a cameo that will thoroughly confuse anyone not familiar with the film Enthiran and makes little sense within the dramatic context of RA.ONE in any event.

The biggest budgeted Indian film to date, RA.ONE did not skimp on the CGI and VFX, supplying plenty of people hanging in mid air, Mission Impossible style. Indeed, the effects look great, easily ranking on-par with major Hollywood tent-poles. Still, the story is more than a little silly (bringing to mind 1984’s Cloak & Dagger far more than it should), but what do you expect? RA.ONE is exactly what you think it is, except perhaps the “Criminal” musical number. For the right audience in the right frame of mind, RA.ONE is good fun to laugh and groove along with. If you don’t think that’s you, it’s not. If it is, RA.ONE opens today (10/26) in New York at the AMC Empire and Village 7.

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Cold Warriors: The Double

The Cold War is over, technically speaking, but a lot of unfinished business remains. A notorious Soviet assassin is one of those loose ends. Never captured but presumed dead for years, the American intelligence services are slightly concerned when the body of a murdered senator bears the signature techniques of the killer code-named Cassius. Unfortunately, the game is afoot once again for his temporarily retired CIA nemesis in Michael Brandt’s The Double (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Paul Shepherdson thought it all ended with a bang. Cassius’s body was never recovered, but since the killings stopped, closure appeared to be achieved. Years later, the Senate’s leading critic of neo-Soviet Russian aggression is brutally murdered. Pointing to a few variations here and there, Shepherdson insists it is the work of a copycat. However, FBI analyst Ben Geary is certain it is Cassius’s work. He is also something of an expert on the old Soviet bogeyman, having written his master’s thesis on Shepherdson’s investigation. Reluctantly, the CIA veteran agrees to an inter-agency odd-couple pairing with Geary, trying to pour cold water on his enthusiasm every step of the way.

Refreshingly, the Russians and the Soviets before them are the villains in The Double, while the Americans simply scramble to counter their infiltration campaign. (It is a bit of a stretch making the murdered hawkish senator a Democrat and his Russian puppet counterpart a Republican, but if that is the concession that had to be made, so be it.) On the macro political level at least, Double is quite sound and realistic.

Double takes great delight in springing two big twists on the audience, yet inexplicably gives away the first one in the trailer. Several more follow, which naturally alter our perceptions of characters a second time. While viewers will be primed for the second switcheroo, Double has some very smart investigative detail that makes the dot-connecting process considerably more engaging than usual.

As Shepherdson, Richard Gere has the right steely, grizzled presence, maintaining a consistent world weary character throughout his character’s revelations. Frankly, Double is his best work in years (maybe since Chicago). Conversely, Topher Grace’s Geary looks like a mere boy among men. Granted, he is a rookie, but he does not even looking convincing wearing a suit. His presence is a major albatross weighing down the film. Still, the film has Martin Sheen suitably commanding as CIA director Tom Highland and True Blood’s Stephen Moyer nicely projects feral cunning as Brutus, the only captured member of Cassius’s team.

In his directorial debut, 3:10 to Yuma co-writer Brandt maintains a decent if not exactly breakneck pace. He has a nice handle on the details, but never delivers a centerpiece action sequence. Still, Double is a solid Cold War-reloaded thriller genre fans and Russophobes should enjoy when it opens Friday (10/28) in New York at the AMC Empire and Village 7.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Not the Partridge Family: Janie Jones

No matter what 1970’s television told us, a tour bus is no place for a thirteen year old girl. Unfortunately, young Miss Jones does not have a better option when she is abandoned by her junkie mother. The sensitive protagonist will have a hard time adapting to life on the road while getting to know the rocker father she only just met in David M. Rosenthal’s Janie Jones (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The Ethan Brand Experience is not what it used to be, but the eponymous front man can still draw a decent crowd at seedier clubs. He is rather enjoying his blue light special tour, until Mary Ann Jones visits him backstage. A former groupie Brand cannot even remember, Jones has some heavy news for Brand: congratulations, you’re a father.

Naturally, the self-centered Brand wants nothing to do with either of the Joneses, but he has no choice when the single mother deserts her daughter in the club. Of course, Miss Jones can also play the guitar. Obviously, these two are meant to play some serious father-daughter acoustic sets together, but Brand will have to work through some considerable self-destructive behavior first.

Indeed, these are not the Von Trapps anymore than they are the Patridges. To his credit, Rosenthal paints a sometimes withering portrait of a compulsively irresponsible man. Brand just is not cute anymore, nor is he supposed to be.

Brand might well be the part Alessandro Nivola has been waiting for. In the past, he has provided a jolt of energy to middling films like Turning Green and somehow pulling off parts he has been miscast in, such as the overall entertaining Who Do You Love. However, Nivola has the perfect look and sensibility for the aging rocker, fully committing to his drunken rages and angst-ridden self-pity. He totally sells Brand’s sweeping arc of character development and even holds up his end in the musical numbers.

In contrast, Abigail Breslin often looks like a deer caught in the headlights, but frankly that is not inappropriate to the film’s dramatic context. Though her voice is comparatively thin, she is still admirably game in her own musical scenes. Yet, it is Peter Stormare who steals the occasional spotlight as Brand’s long-suffering good old boy manager, Sloan. Veteran TV actor David Lee Smith also scores a brief but very memorable scene explaining what’s what to Brand as Officer Dickerson.

Rosenthal vividly captures the disconnected vibe of life on tour and effectively incorporates the singer-songwriter music of Gemma Hayes and Eef Barzelay’s rock into the film. You could probably convince people it is a Cameron Crowe film, which Rosenthal should consider a high compliment.

Despite the uncomfortable emotional honesty of the first two acts, JJ wraps itself up way too neatly, with a big feel good smile. It revisits some familiar, well-worn cinematic ground, but does so with admirable earnestness. Better than one might expect, if not a genre-redefining rock drama, JJ opens this Friday (10/28) in New York at the Village East.

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Visions of a New China: Beijing Besieged By Waste

Like goats, sheep can evidently eat anything, but it is not particularly pleasant to watch them do it. A herd grazing through the garbage at one of China’s many illegal landfills is one of the many unappetizing sights to be found in Wang Jiuliang’s Beijing Besieged by Waste (trailer here), which screens at the Asia Society this Saturday, concluding their recent Visions of a New China documentary film series.

Wang is a photographer who has documented the ring of landfills encircling the capitol city in various multimedia projects. He has visited hundreds of festering dumps, some legal, others not. Yet, environmental controls appear nonexistent regardless of the site’s status. In at least one instance we see raw untreated sewage openly dumped in broad daylight, without even a pretense of subterfuge.

Literally muckraking, Wang shows some pretty gross images at times, but they are undeniably effective (though the shot of a cast-off Chinese flag surfacing amid the rubbish is almost too perfect.) He lucidly explains the scope and implications of the waste issue, as well as the government corruption that allows it to continue unchecked. Wang also persuasively argues China’s nouveau riche will not be immune to the problem, pointing to the heavily polluted Wenyu River, for which a district of golf courses and horse stables was named.

Though he treats the hardscrabble scavengers picking through garbage landscapes with unfailing respect, Wang never romanticizes them as heroic recyclers, unlike Mai Iskander’s problematic Garbage Dreams. Unfortunately, he never offers any solutions either, dismissing the incineration option rather arbitrarily.

While it becomes somewhat repetitive after a while (if you’ve seen one teeming dump . . . ), Besieged certainly makes its point. It is enough to make an environmentalist out of anyone, at least with respects to China. The irony is hard to miss. China used to venerate the peasant class. That was a while ago and apparently the sentiment no longer applies to the land they work, if it ever did. More than a tad alarming, Besieged screens this Saturday afternoon (10/29), as the final selection of the Asia Society’s Visions of a New China.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

History is a Killer: Whitechapel

London’s Whitechapel neighborhood was originally named for a church that would eventually be destroyed in World War II, but it quickly gained a reputation for crime and vice. While former residents include Lenin and Joseph Merrick, it is Jack the Ripper who will always be most closely linked to the district in the public imagination. Whenever a murder happens there, the so-called “Ripperologists” come out of the woodwork smelling a copycat. Unfortunately for one ambitious Detective Inspector, this time they are correct. A gruesome series of murders will either make or break his career in Whitechapel (promo here), a stylish new mystery series written by Ben Court and Caroline Ip, which debuts this Wednesday on BBC America’s Dramaville showcase.

Well-connected Joseph Chandler is on the fast-track. All he has to do is clear a murder case and he can proceed to the next level. Obligingly, his superior officer, Commander Anderson, assigns him to the first case that comes up. It happens to be in Whitechapel. Initially, Chandler’s new sergeant, DS Ray Miles assumes the victim’s abusive husband simply went too far. Unfortunately, his alibi checks out. Shortly thereafter, Ripperologist Edward Buchan presents himself, offering his services to the team. Miles has no truck with these self-promoting amateurs, but Chandler is more indulgent.

Indeed, the two men do not mesh well, at first. Chandler is a by-the-booker, who insists his team wear ties when on the job. Miles has seen plenty of fast-trackers come and go, so he would prefer to go about his job as he sees fit. He also has some anger management issues rooted in his painful family history, which will come to the fore in Whitechapel’s second story arc.

Due to complications in the Ripper case, Chandler is on the outs with his Commander as the fourth episode opens. However, he has won the trust of his team, even forging something of a friendship with the crusty Miles. In another mixed blessing, the Detective Inspector is told to be ready for another high profile case headed his way. Like clockwork, a badly butchered body is soon fished out of the river, bearing similarities to one of the victims of the notorious Kray gangster twins.

Of course, Buchan (who is still hovering about) recognizes the pattern immediately, but Miles is having none of it. The Kray connection hits quite close to home for him. His father was a small time thief on the outskirts of the Krays’ world, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Unlike the secretive Ripper copycat, the prime suspects in the Kray killings are not anonymous. Rather, they crave attention, much like original Krays. In fact, they claim to be Krays themselves—the secret offspring of Ronnie Kray and a devoted fan.

Court and Ip cleverly integrate the “canonical murders” of the historic cases into Chandler’s contemporary inquiries, maintaining a genuine sense of mystery throughout the first storyline and ratcheting up the angst and paranoia in the second. They really put Chandler through the wringer, giving him some unusual demons that surface during the second case.

What really makes Whitechapel crackle and hum is the evolving dynamic between Chandler and Miles. Rupert Penry-Jones keeps Chandler just on the right side of uptight, ultimately becoming a very human protagonist. Phil Davis is compulsively watchable as Miles, projecting ferocious intelligence, while hinting at deep-seated insecurities. They develop some smart and convincing chemistry that should make Whitechapel a longstanding series. However, a little of Steve Pemberton as the pompous Buchan goes a considerably long way.

Featuring a talented supporting ensemble, including Alex Jennings (perhaps best known for playing Prince Charles in The Queen) as Commander Anderson, Whitechapel nails the gritty cop aesthetic. Highly cinematic, directors S.J. Clarkson and David Evans both build the tension steadily and effectively in their respective story-arcs. Evans also quite deftly handles the Craig Parkinson’s work as both modern day Kray Twins, convincingly showing them interacting together in several scenes.

Whitechapel’s first series (technically two combined into one by BBC America), definitely leaves viewers eager for more. Fortunately London has plenty of infamous murders to draw upon (Sweeney Todd maybe?). In fact, another season of Whitechapel has been commissioned in Britain, this time as a two-story six-episode run, in the manner of its initial American broadcast run. As a result, viewers should have no reservations investing in the Whitechapel detectives. Highly recommended for British mystery fans, it premieres this Wednesday (10/26) on BBC America.

(Photos: Carnival Film & Television)

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Sidewalls: A Shut-In’s Walking Tour of Buenos Aires

Most people think of Buenos Aires as a city of melancholy old world charm, but there is a building boom underway. It has resulted in a hodge-podge of architectural styles a lonely resident blames for all of the city’s ills. Yet, the resulting urban eccentricity might just suit the unplanned nature of the protagonists’ lives in Gustavo Taretto’s unusually stylish romantic comedy Sidewalls (a.k.a. Medianeras, trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at the IFC Center.

Both Martin and Mariana are in a bit of a rut after difficult break-ups. He keeps irregular hours building websites, hardly ever socializing, online or off. She is an architect forced to work designing store windows late at night. Mariana also has a compulsive fear of elevators. They are a cosmically matched couple, but they will need fate to intervene if they are ever going to meet, despite their close proximity.

While Taretto’s script makes a point of bemoaning the city’s close-quartered eclecticism, it is clear he really has an abiding affection for the sprawling city. He and cinematographer Leandro Martinez make Buenos Aires’ diverse structures spring vividly to life, particularly the art-deco Kavanagh Building and the Galileo Galilei planetarium. Indeed, Tarreto invests the film with striking visual panache, even integrating the occasional animated sequence.

However, as Martin, Javier Drolas does not look so good. He needs a good shave and a wardrobe upgrade (even Old Navy would do). In fact, though likable enough, both leads are initially so deliberately withdrawn, they are largely overshadowed the character of Buenos Aires throughout the film’s first act. Still, Pilar López de Ayala is especially convincing slowly bringing Mariana out of her shell. She also has the advantage of more distinctive idiosyncrasies to deal with, including an obsession with an old Where’s Wally book (the striped shirt clad chap known in North America as Waldo).

Shrewdly, Taretto never forces the near-misses and tangential connections as Martin and Mariana go about their solitary lives. Instead, he shows their clear affinities, making viewers want them to get together. In the process, he gives the audience quite an appealing walking tour of Buenos Aires.

Up until the clichéd final sequence, Sidewalls ranks as one of the most artfully rendered romantic comedies in recent memory. It is one of the few narrative films that could easily be screened in an architectural film festival. A rom-com with heart and a solid grounding in urban planning and design (at long last), Sidewalls is warmly recommended when it opens this Wednesday (10/26) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

DCIFF ’11: My Tehran for Sale

Recently, in response to the categorical rejection of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s appeal and the truly barbaric sentence of one year in prison and ninety lashes handed down to actress Marzieh Vafamehr, many prominent Iranian artists (including the great Shohreh Aghdashloo) have called on the world to “boycott official Iranian film and television organizations and sanction its members.” While their outrage is appropriate, the work that caused Vafamehr’s plight should not be thrown out with the bathwater. An important film even before the arrest of its lead actress, the Iranian born Australian-based filmmaker Granaz Moussavi’s My Tehran for Sale (trailer here) recently screened during the inaugural Dialogue of Cultures Film Festival in New York.

In what will become an ever more self-referential turn, Vafamehr plays Marzieh, an avant-garde actress seeking to expatriate because her plays have been banned by the censors. She is well educated, middle class, and ideologically moderate, none of which are much of an advantage in contemporary Iranian society. Navigating the Kafkaesque immigration process for years, Marzieh is hoping to soon liquidate all her possessions to finance her move. Of course, complications arise.

Initially, Marzieh has a bit of good fortune. Attending an underground rave in the countryside with her friend Sadaf, Marzieh happened to be in the stables with Saman, the recently repatriated son of immigrants looking to make his fortune in Tehran. Given the unambiguous nature of their encounter, this scene probably did not help Marzieh’s case. However, the real scandal is the conduct of the morality police, terrorizing women like Sadaf for their unadorned heads.

Quickly Marzieh and Saman become something of an item. Despite his myriad of faults, Marzieh enjoys a somewhat pleasant interlude. Still, grim realities are ever-present in the margins of Sale, represented by a woman committing suicide rather face the disgrace of pregnancy out of wedlock, the whispered news of yet another colleague’s arrest, or simply the general sense of unease surrounding her life.

In truth, Marzieh is not always fun to be around. Flesh and blood humans are messy that way. In a sense, Sale is like Agnieszka Holland’s A Lonely Woman. In both films, the toxic repression of their societies metastasizes inside the respective protagonists, at least spiritually and in Marzieh’s case, physically as well.

Based on a limited sampling of Iranian films to screen on the festival circuit in recent years, Sale is a tad ambitious in the amount of sensitive subject matter it forthrightly addresses, including artistic censorship, drug use, romantic relationships, secular music, and tragically AIDS. We even hear the lashes administered on others which will also be in Vafamehr’s future unless sufficient pressure is brought upon the Islamist authorities to reverse course. As an artist, Moussavi should explore any area her characters take her to. In practical terms though, the extent that she does so is fairly bold.

Shot on location in Iran (with all the proper permits according to Moussavi), Sale was intentionally scrupulous about observing Islamic decorum throughout the production, aside perhaps from a few scenes of women without headscarves. Of course, one of the advantages of a police state is that the authorities do not have to justify a seemingly arbitrary decision. Frankly though, it seems clear Vafamehr is being punished for the manner in which Sale holds a mirror up to Iranian society, presenting a vision the government does not like to see.

While her sentence could be dubbed the harshest review ever, Vafamehr is forcefully compelling as her namesake. Smart but flawed, she conveys Marzieh’s mounting frustration with visceral power that literally bursts out of her in one unforgettable scene. In a less showy role, Asha Mehrabi is also very engaging as the well-intentioned but essentially helpless Sadaf.

This is a film that has been caught up in macro dynamics beyond its possible control. Sale is an intense film featuring a bravely revealing performance from its lead. It ought to be thought of as an Iranian cousin of Cassavetes films like Opening Night and A Woman Under the Influence, but in the current climate, it stands as a pointed rebuke to the hypocrisy amok in Iran today. The fact it deliberately stops short of endorsing anyone or anything outside the current norms clearly matters little to the mullahs in power. Recommended as a film in its own right and as symbol of artistic freedom under fire in Iran, Sale ought to be widely screened by film institutions in coming months as a way to focus attention on Vafamehr’s shocking plight.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sono at MAD: Exte—Hair Extensions (and Into a Dream)

They are not called deadly sins for nothing. The films of Sion Sono prove it. Wrath is a big one in Exte: Hair Extensions (trailer here), perhaps his purest J-Horror film to date. However, vanity plays a part as well, both in Exte as well as the less genre-driven Into a Dream. The latter recently screened during Sion Sono: The New Poet, the Museum of Art and Design’s retrospective to the provocative auteur, with the former screening next Thursday.

In Dream, self-centered television actor Mutsugoro Suzuki is having trouble with his latest theater gig. He is also having difficulty with the old waterworks, which is quite clear from the many scenes of him moaning and grimacing in the gents. In a way, his loyal girlfriend Taeko is fortunate he spurned her for another lover, but he still owes her an awkward conversation. Frankly, he is not sure where he got it, but he will devote more time to answering that question than seeking treatment. Eventually returning like the prodigal to his provincial home, objective reality becomes a dicey proposition for Sauzuki as several persistent waking dreams keep interrupting his ostensive here-and-now.

In terms of tone, Dream is more closely akin to experimental cinema than Nightmare on Elm Street. Despite the strange possibly cosmic circumstances, Sono never attempts to create an atmosphere of suspense or peril, despite the sometimes violent nature of his parallel narratives. Likewise, Tetsushi Tanaka’s cold fish presence as Suzuki is hard to invest in. Still, Sono crafts some fascinating scenes, controlling the narrative shifts quite well. We even get to see scenes from a Japanese production of A Streetcar Named Desire, which is rather disorienting in its own right.

Exte stands in dramatic contrast. Following in the tradition of The Grudge, very bad things happen to the women who get hair extensions taken (unbeknownst to their stylists) from the corpse of a young woman who died a violent death. See, vanity really is a killer. Viewers are also compelled to root for apprentice stylist Yûko Mizushima and Mami, the abused daughter of her trampy sister, who has taken refuge with her aunt. Indeed, like many J-Horror films, there will be a child in supernatural jeopardy, which is manipulative but effective.

Though stylishly executed by Sono (dig those roiling tentacles of hair), Exte is pretty straight forward. It is about killer hair taken for a corpse not at peace—what’s not to get? It is darn scary though and Chiaki Kuriyama is a perfect scream heroine, appropriately cute and vulnerable as Mizushima, a role light years away from Kill Bill’s lethal Gogo Yubari.

Oddly enough, despite the gruesome goings-on, Exte is ultimately rather uplifting compared to some of Sono’s films. Creepy and engaging, it will be a good Halloween warm-up when it screens this coming Thursday (10/27) at the MAD Museum as part of their ongoing Sono film series.

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Dying to Grow-Up: Snowmen

When Billy Kirkfield and his friends find a dead body in a snowdrift, it is cool for the ten year-olds in a Tom Sawyer way. On the other hand, it is also kind of a downer when Master Kirkfield’s narration explains how it foreshadowed his own death. The coming-of-age story has a ticking clock in Robert Kirbyson’s Snowmen (trailer here), which opens today in California and Colorado (but not New York).

Young Kirkfield is a cancer surviving, or so his parents tell him. Recognizing the signs from his last go-round as well as his parents’ nervous behavior, Kirkfield unfortunately knows all is not right. Still, some things are looking up. Kirkfield befriends Howard Garvey, a recent Caribbean transplant to the frozen north, who seems to have some backbone. They also enjoy the attention brought by their discovery of the corpse.

Yet, Kirkfield is too aware he has limited time to make his mark. Fearing he will be forgotten like the old man in the snowdrift, Kirkfield tries to organize his school in an attempt to break the one-day snowman-making record. In the process, he might finally woo his not-so secret crush Gwen and stand-up to the school bully, Jason Bound. Of course, as a coming-of-age story, there will have to be a lot of pain and embarrassment first.

Evidently, the MPAA deemed Snowmen was not sufficiently violent or sexual for New York audiences, despite its favorable reception at the Tribeca Film Festival. Granted, it can be rather manipulative. Yet, it has a good heart and a refreshingly on-target message about the value of friendship and human connections, compared to the hollow bragging rights of records and the like. It is a moral delivered with memorable grace by veteran character actor Christopher Lloyd as the twinkly-eyed town cemetery caretaker.

While the young protagonist can be a bit trying, he never has the psycho eyes depicted on the film’s latest one-sheet. In fact, he develops some rather endearing and credibly realistic chemistry with Demi Peterson as Gwen. Conversely, the stuff with the thuggish Bound is pretty standard issue stuff.

While Snowmen might sound too dark for juvenile audiences, it probably is not dark enough to satisfy them. There are no Byronic vampires getting impaled on stakes here, but there are some scenes with ice-balls, which are really dangerous. A nice, safe film, Snowmen opens today (10/21) in the metro-Denver area at the AMC Highlands Ranch and in other cities across the country.

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Long Dark Night on Wall Street: Margin Call

Who understands the recent financial crisis better, brokers on Wall Street or first-time indie filmmakers? If you answered the latter, than this is the film for you. Have no fear, writer-director J.C. Chandor’s father was at Merrill for forty years, so it’s all in the genes. The toast of Sundance and New Directors/New Films earlier in the year, Chandor’s Margin Call (trailer here) opens for real today in New York.

Junior analyst Peter Sullivan’s boss Eric Dale is about to be unceremoniously let go. His cell phone will be terminated and his email locked. As he is escorted out of the building, Dale gives him a flash-drive with the file he had been working on. “Take a look at this, but be careful,” he cautions. When Sullivan pops it in, up launches a spreadsheet predicting the firm is on the brink of imminent collapse.

Sullivan alerts his new boss, Will Emerson, the British expat head of trading, who calls in his boss, Sam Rogers. As the firm’s long dark night of the soul progresses, the dire projections work their way up to CEO John Tuld, but of course nobody can reach Dale, since they cut all ties with such ruthless efficiency.

Presented in only the most simplistic terms, supposedly because the senior management who have lived and breathed the market for three to four decades needed it broken down in that manner, the firm’s crisis apparently involves sub-prime mortgages they packaged together with less risky assets into extremely profitable packages. The problem is they have been caught with too much junk on the books. Naturally, the steely Tuld mandates a draconian solution: liquidate all of it as soon as the market opens. Of course, this will require the traders burn bridges with all their counterparts, but the firm will survive. Yet, this seems somewhat problematic, turning potential paper losses into serious-as-your-life financial losses. At least, the traders stand to make sizable bonuses if they can pull it off. Rogers though, has profound misgivings.

Nobody should go to Margin for an economics lesson—or to any other narrative drama for that matter. However, those looking for a salty-talking men-in-suspenders pressure cooker drama will probably enjoy the style and attitude on display throughout the film. Producer Zachary Quinto is pretty bland as Sullivan the plugger, but the rest of the cast really digs in with relish. Paul Bettany largely commandeers the film, realistically capturing the swagger and animal charisma of Emerson, a proud “one-percenter.” To a surprising extent, Kevin Spacey and Stanley Tucci legitimately humanize Rodgers and Dale respectively, investing them with nuance and complexity. Although Jeremy Iron’s Tuld is basically an off-the-shelf businessman villain, he certainly knows how to chew the scenery with menace.

Yet, Margin indulges in one of the most persistent and pernicious Hollywood stereotypes with Sarah Robertson, a senior manager played by Demi Moore, largely just carrying on from where she left off in Disclosure. Why is it that businesswomen are unfailingly portraying as cravenly CYA-ing backstabbers out to derail all their male colleagues? Screenwriters really need to get out into the real world more.

Chandor has a great ear for dialogue and he perfectly captures the eerie vibe of being in the office during the wee hours. He just needs to get past some dated gender preconceptions. Sometimes silly, but still a promising first feature, Margin opens today (10/21) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

DCIFF ’11: This Prison Where I Live

For comedians, Burma is a tough room to play. The hecklers can be torture. Just ask beloved Burmese comedian Maung Thura, popularly known as Zarganar, except you can’t. British documentarian Rex Bloomstein shot a considerable amount of footage of the multi-talented performer during his last period of relative liberty. Shortly thereafter, Zarganar was sentenced to fifty-nine years in prison (later reduced to a mere thirty-five). Appalled by the severity of the term, Bloomstein returned to Burma to try to capture a sense of what Zarganar means to his countrymen in This Prison Where I Live (trailer here), which screens during the inaugural Dialogue of Cultures Film Festival in New York.

Relatively funny and wildly charismatic, Zarganar’s humor falls squarely in the tradition of Yakov Smirnoff’s Soviet jokes, not surprisingly, given the similarity of their circumstances. Zarganar is not the only Burmese comedy act to run afoul of the powers-that-be, but he is arguably the most prominent (no disrespect to the Moustache Brothers). To mangle Thoreau’s words to Emerson, how can you be an engaged comedian in Burma and not be in jail or under house arrest these days?

Though he had a wealth of Zarganar material, Bloomstein lacked the resources to release it for public consumption in a meaningful way. Then an unlikely German Zarganar supporter entered the picture. As executive producer Michael Mittermeier explains, he felt an affinity with Zarganar, because nobody expects German or Burmese stand-ups to be funny. Based on the footage of Mittermeier’s act, there is good reason for this. Imagine Carrot Top without the props. He is also shockingly divisive, performing a bit that openly likens the American efforts to topple Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime to the Holocaust early in the film. Not exactly the shrewdest way to broaden the Zarganar campaign.

At least Mittermeier opposes rape and torture in Burma (though evidently not in Iraq), yet as the bankroller, we are stuck with far too much of him rhapsodizing over Bloomstein’s footage of Zarganar. However, Bloomstein’s interview sequences with the film’s real subject are a different matter entirely. Clearly, the filmmaker established a genuine rapport with Zarganar, laughing and joking together like old friends, despite the gravely serious themes of their conversations.

Unfortunately, Bloomstein and Mittermeier were determined to have a present day third act, so we watch as they try to steal exterior shots of the provincial prison where Zarganar is being held. Why they placed so much importance on this is difficult to understand. After all, the video to get is from inside the prison. Not surprisingly, all they have to show for their efforts are some blurry shots, but in the process they got their local fixers into a major fix.

Let’s focus here people. The real story is the desperate situation Zarganar faces, not how sad it all makes Mittermeier feel. Reportedly, the Burmese comic’s health has deteriorated, with his captors providing little or no treatment. Admirably humble, he is also a heroic figure, worth spending time with in any film. Though it is hard to not recommend any film embracing his cause, one just wishes Prison was considerably better than it is. Recommended with reservations nonetheless as we await Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady, it screens this Friday (10/21) in New York at the Quad Cinema as a selection of the 2011 DCIFF.

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Revenge of the Electric Car: a Sequel that Outshines the Original

In Terminator 2, the villain of the previous film comes back as the hero of the sequel. Such is also the case with Chris Paine’s latest film, except it is a documentary. The freshly reformed protagonist? General Motors. The times just might be changing after all in Paines’ Revenge of the Electric Car (trailer here), a standout at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which opens tomorrow in New York.

According to Paine’s Who Killed the Electric Car, despite enthusiastic driver feedback, GM recalled their experimental EV-1, while twisting its mustache and laughing maniacally. Instead, they ramped up production on Hummers. The end, or is it?

Fast-forward a few years and meet Bob Lutz, the Vice Chairman of the automotive giant. The car executive’s car executive, Lutz is no tree-hugger. Yet, like Saul on the road to Damascus, Lutz fundamentally changed his mind about the feasibility and desirability of electric cars. Only Lutz has the prestige to put GM back in the electric business and the guts to allow their old nemesis to document it.

Revenge has other protagonists, like Elon Musk, the tech-centric entrepreneur, who made his fortune with Pay Pal before starting Tesla Motors. Sleek and striking, these sports cars are probably too elite to change the world, but they ought to make electric cool. Unfortunately, Musk has trouble filling customer orders (including Paine’s). As more mass market competition, Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn has “bet the future” of his company on electric, but that shoe has yet to drop.

It is important to note, none of these ventures are the result of government mandates. Indeed, they are highly speculative ventures that might just short circuit careers and fortunes. To his credit, Paine himself gives due credit to the captains of industry and entrepreneurs of Revenge. Though he retracts nothing from his previous film, it is clear he and pre-government takeover GM made a lasting peace.

Of course, Bob Lutz is a major reason why. Although Paine probably has a more natural affinity for the Silicon Valley-based Musk, Lutz’s curmudgeonly charm dominates the film. The camera loves the cigar chomping old school executive far more than the icy Ghosn or the cerebral Musk. (While Revenge eventually addresses the government bail-out, most of the GM segments deal with Lutz’s early championing of the hitherto underwhelming Volt.)

The open-minded fairness Paine brings to bear on an industry he formerly excoriated is quite remarkable. Still, the film raises a few questions that remain unanswered. Granted, it would certainly be advantageous to see electric cars displace a number of gas guzzlers, particularly in light of the Obama Administration’s war on domestic off-shore drilling and contentment to import petroleum from hostile governments, like Venezuela. However, is there sufficient infrastructure in place to plug-in and support them in high density urban areas?

For that matter, electricity is not magically supplied. Could the state of California, which experienced roving “Gray-Outs” in the early 2000’s, handle a significant increase in demand? Paine well might argue the marketplace can respond to these challenges, in which case perhaps Lutz was not the only one to experience a conversion of Biblical proportions.

In a pleasant surprise, Revenge is probably the most favorable depiction of corporate and entrepreneurial America seen in a documentary since who knows when? Again, Paine deserves his just due. As a result, he will probably spread the electric car gospel to previously unreceptive audiences. He certainly makes a star of Lutz (so it is a shame the current administration does not want him involved in “Government Motors”). Informative and engaging, the highly recommended Revenge opens tomorrow (10/21) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

DCIFF ’11: Transit Cities

How can a major metropolis simultaneously become larger but less cosmopolitan? Such appears to be the case when Laila Kamel returns to her family home in Amman, Jordan after a long stay in America. Things have changed for the worse in Mohammad Al Hushki’s Transit Cities (trailer here), which has a special one week New York theatrical run in conjunction with the Dialogue of Cultures International Film Festival, beginning this Friday.

After fourteen years, Kamel returns to Amman a divorced woman. It is a personal failure she is not eager to admit to her family. However, her father is not exactly grilling her for information. Broken by his own disappointments and openly contemptuous of her lifestyle choices, he barely speaks to her. Of course, he hardly speaks to anyone, so acute is his depression.

Much too her surprise, Kamel’s mother and sister now wear the hijab in public. Granted, Amman is not Saudi, but the prodigal daughter is shocked by the radical shift in gender role expectations. Not surprisingly, she has a difficult time acclimating to the “new” Jordan. Nor does she win many new friends disdaining religious hypocrisies, like the practice of charging Murabaha or Islamic interest.

It is more than a bit surprising the state chartered Royal Film Commission Jordan would partner in Transit’s production, yet here it is. Indeed, the film portrays Jordan as a society in regression with a distinctly inflationary economy. In this non-usurious environment, coffee for two in a comfortable café will run you sixty dollars (it must be shade-grown fair-trade). However, if Kamel invites over a man for a long night of wine and reminiscing, it is a scandal.

Saba Mubarak makes a strong impression as Kamel, vividly expressing all her mounting frustrations, resentments, and self-doubts. She is a complex character, who sometimes makes matters worse for a host of contradicting motivations, but is never unreasonably unreasonable. Likewise, Ashraf Farah brings assured nuance to the jaded Rabea, her father’s former young colleague, with whom she shares considerable history the film merely hints at. Together, they develop very intriguing not exactly romantic chemistry together.

Only Jordan’s second “indie” production, Transit is quite stylishly put together. Though Al Hushki intimately focuses on Kamel, cinematographer Mahmoud Lofty evocatively captures the mood of dislocated alienation, like a Lost in Translation with a point to it all. Traditional in its instrumentation but often sounding relatively modern in its melodic and harmonic approach, Nadim Sarraj’s score also perfectly suits the film’s between-two-worlds themes.

While clocking-in just over the seventy minute mark, Transit is a wholly engaging and satisfying film (though alas, not necessarily an optimistic one). A shrewd choice to serve as the DCIFF’s showcase selection, it screens for a full week in New York at the Quad Cinema starting this Friday (10/27)—and tickets are only $5.00.

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DCIFF ’11: Cirkus Columbia

Communism was supposed to create the “new man.” Somehow it did not take in the former Yugoslavia. Perched on the brink of war, a small Bosnian-Herzegovinian town engages in some major score settling throughout Danis Tanović’s Cirkus Columbia (trailer here), which opens the inaugural Dialogue of Cultures International Film Festival, a new nomadic festival devoted to themes of globalization.

In Martin Buntić’s village, the Serbian Communists are on the outs and the politically connected Croatians are in. Much to the surprise of his mother Lucija, this includes her long estranged husband Divko, who has returned from a twenty year exile to evict them from his family home. He also brought along a German trophy fiancé and a considerable bankroll. Supposedly, he will marry her as soon as he divorces Lucija, but it does not seem to hold much urgency for the prodigal father, as the displaced Azra cannot help but notice.

In turn, Martin and his friends certainly notice her. As old man Buntić belatedly tries to play Daddy Warbucks to Martin, at least when not berating him for being such a slacker, the son starts to get ideas about his prospective step-mother. Meanwhile, with the shelling of Dubrovnik reported, choosing sides appears increasingly inevitable. Martin’s surrogate father Ranko Ivanda, an officer in the Serbian dominated People’s Army, is explicitly told to put his ethnic loyalties first, while his best friend enlists with the local Croatian paramilitaries.

Selected by Bosnia-Herzegovina as last year’s official foreign language Oscar submission, Cirkus portrays a considerable amount of ethnic conflict within their borders, but perpetrated by other nationalities. It also presents Germany as a Switzerland-like safe haven, first for the senior Buntić under Communism and later for those seeking to flee ahead of the anticipated carnage.

Petty and manipulative, the audience should loathe Divko Buntić. However, the haggard looking Miki Manojlović humanizes him to a remarkable extent, clearly conveying the emotional weight of his years of alienation. In contrast, Boris Ler’s Martin Buntić comes across like a commercial for Ritalin. What the attractive Azra, played with admirable charm and conviction by Jelena Stupljanin, could see in him is quite the head-scratcher.

Indeed, their Summer of ’42-ish relationship is the weakest link of the film. Rather, Cirkus is most successful capturing the milieu of impending war, as the country appears to hang in mid air, like a towering fly ball at the top of its arc, about to come hurtling down into a maelstrom of violence. (That purple metaphor was dedicated to Tom “Flat Earth” Friedman.)

Frankly, the politics of it all are somewhat tricky to entangle, at least as presented in Cirkus, which is probably appropriately realistic. There is a part of the film that laments the fall of Communism, because it allowed the once unified country to splinter along ethnic lines. Yet, who does it think supplied most of the arms to the Serbian Army and their Bosnian-Serb allies, who committed the worst (but not only) atrocities? At one point, the former Communist mayor expresses regret the Berlin Wall was brought down from the western side. Again, who does he think put it up in the first place? On the other hand, the clear Serbian nationalism of the dissolving Yugoslavian Army is depicted in no uncertain terms.

There are some lovely moments of innocence soon-to-be-lost in Cirkus. Handsomely lensed by cinematographer Walther van de Ende, the film captures the village’s Old European charm and also dramatically illustrates why lifelong citizens would become desperate to leave. Artfully rendered if somewhat uneven, Cirkus is still worth checking out when it opens the DCIFF tomorrow night (10/20) at the SVA Theater and screening again next Monday (10/24) at the Quad Cinema.

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