J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Requiem for a Reactor: Under Control

In the real world, you will find no Homer Simpsons in nuclear power plants. In point of fact, safety is of paramount concern to the very serious professionals who responsible for Germany’s atomic power. Documentarian Volker Sattel takes viewers on a tour of their computer regulated world in the surprisingly elegiac Under Control (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at Anthology Film Archives.

There are risks involved with any form of power generation, but the plants seen in the not so ironically titled Under Control have multiple levels of fail-safe automation built in. They are marvels of engineering one official boasts. They are also closing. Following Three Mile Island and then Chernobyl, the German public politically turned against nuclear energy. Having overestimated their future consumption, the German government started decommissioning nuclear plants decades ago. (Indeed, Control’s buried lede apparently establishes the thirst for energy in the industrialized West is quenchable after all.)

Despite some sequences involving the storage of nuclear waste, Control is really not a cautionary film, per se. Rather, it is a lament for those nuclear scientists and managers who looked like Robert McNamera and dedicated their lives to an atomic future cut short by politics, as well as the hulking behemoths they left behind.

Stylistically, Control is closely akin to Into Eternity, Michael Madsen’s exploration of a subterranean Finnish nuclear waste site, which also screens at Anthology next weekend in conjunction with Sattel’s documentary. Both films almost fetishize the shiny stainless steel and ominous concrete of the Nuclear Age’s science fiction-like structures. However, Madsen has a clearer agenda, whereas Sattel has a stronger eye for imagery. If you have a choice, opt for the latter.

As director, cinematographer, and co-editor, Sattel masterfully frames his visuals. However, the combined effect of the film’s glossy look and ambient soundtrack becomes lulling over time. More of a film for connoisseurs of experimental cinema than advocacy documentaries, Control is strangely balanced in its presentation nonetheless. Not for wide audiences, Control is respectfully recommended for self-selecting viewers who consider film a canvas rather than a soapbox. It screens at AFA for a week and change, beginning this Friday (12/2).

Labels: , ,

ADIFF ’11: Buried Secrets

Consider this is Upstairs, Downstairs in its darkest manifestation. In a secluded Tunisian mansion, Aïcha is squatting in the basement servants’ quarters with her domineering mother and world-weary older sister. It is not much of a life, but at least it is quiet, until the original owner’s grandson arrives with his lover. The inadvertent intrusion of differing values and lifestyles profoundly disrupts their dysfunctional family unit in Raja Amari’s Buried Secrets (trailer here), the gala selection of this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival.

Largely uneducated but devout, Aïcha’s family barely earns a subsistence living through embroidery work. At least their cloistered existence allows Radia and her mother to keep Aïcha on a short lead. They clearly consider her somewhat off, but it is initially unclear whether she really is a tad slow or has simply never had any outside social interaction. When Ali and his girlfriend Selma arrive, she is magnetically attracted to their fashionable clothes and open affection. Needless to say, her mother considers the “interlopers” indecent, but since they have no right to be there, the three women can only surreptitiously cower in the cellar. Inevitably, Selma discovers their presence in the crumbling manse, prompting the older women to take a rash course of action.

Ironically, the downstairs goings-on are considerably more scandalous than anything happening upstairs in Buried. Though viewers might guess at some of Aïcha’s family secrets, their revelation takes the women to some pretty shocking places. Amari clearly suggests the mother’s ultra-traditional Islamic upbringing has a stunting effect on Aïcha’s sexual maturity, but this is not a reassuring tale of female empowerment. What starts as a class-conscious social issue film morphs into a dark fairy tale, before finally settling into a psychodrama. Yet, somehow Amari maintains a consistent mood while keeping the audience off-balance.

The grand old home is wonderfully cinematic (sort of like a Tunisian Grey Gardens), anchoring the film in a specific strange and isolated place. However, it is Hafsia Herzi’s remarkable performance as Aïcha that makes it all come together. Simultaneously vulnerable and unnerving, it is impossible to take your eyes off her. Arguably though, Rim El Benna’s work is even braver, portraying Selma as a sympathetic, emotionally complex modern woman. Her more revealing scenes also likely generated the predictable disapprobation from Tunisia’s intolerant religious quarters.

Intriguing in many respects, Buried creates an eerie vibe of life in a state of twilight-limbo, implying rather than showing the great repercussions of its accidental clash of cultures. Fittingly, it is another challenging cinematic statement handled by Fortissimo Films, the focus of a recent retrospective at MoMA. Definitely recommended, it screens as part of the ADIFF gala this coming Sunday (12/4) with a regular festival screening to follow a week later (12/11).

Labels: ,

Romanian Film Festival ’11: Digging for Life

Popularly known as “Doina,” the Cemetery at St. Lazar’s in Moldova is one of the largest in Europe, but people are still dying to get in. Now, more than ever, according to the salt-of-the-earth gravediggers employed there. We will have ample opportunity to watch them quietly work in Pavel Cuzuioc’s documentary Digging for Life (trailer here), which screens this Friday as part of the 2011 Romanian Film Festival—and admission is free.

The gravediggers’ work involves physical labor, which is never easy. The ground is hard year round, but usually frozen to boot during winter, while the heat of summer is punishing. They also have to walk to and from the cemetery, uphill both ways. They are not bad people though. They even still get a little choked up when called upon to bury young people, though they take the old-timers in stride by this point. They complain they have been burying considerably more of the former than usual recently.

It sounds like typical work place grousing, but late in the film Cuzuioc reminds viewers of something that suggests there might be something to what the gravediggers say after all. Not to give away the film’s only twist, but as a hint, it involves Moldova’s proximity to Ukraine. Frankly, it is not a huge payoff and the film still putters about the cemetery for sometime afterward. This is definitely one of those oh so observational documentaries. However, for anyone considering opening a cemetery, it is rather instructional.

Though none of the subjects really stand out, their sense of decorum is notable. They might well be hard-living, ribald guys outside of work, but they obviously appreciate the significance of where they are and conduct themselves accordingly. Frankly, in today’s Moldova, they are probably fortunate to have a job, difficult as it may be.

Digging is a modest little film that requires a bit of work from viewers to scratch out some significance. Still, it conveys a vivid sense of the cemetery and its hushed atmosphere. One of several recent Romanian productions for HBO Central Europe, it offers some interesting visuals, but precious little drama, when it screens this Friday (12/2) as part of this year’s Romanian Film Festival at the Walter Reade Theater. Again, the first-come first-served admissions are free, so those so inclined should plan to arrive early.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Zulawski’s Possession

East German border guards can see Mark and Anna’s apartment from their posts along the Berlin Wall. It ought to be the perfect setting for the dissolution of their marriage. However, their union will not be merely severed. It will be torn limb from limb in former Andzrej Wajda protégé Andrzej Żuławski’s notorious art-house pseudo-horror film Possession (trailer here), which finally opens theatrically in all its uncut, restored glory at New York’s Film Forum this Friday.

Previously released in a butchered shorter cut, Possession has something of a reputation—and rightly so. Essentially, it is everything Lars von Trier’s The Antichrist was billed as, raised to the power of ten. If that gives you any trepidation whatsoever, than Possession is not for you, but if you are open to it, take a deep breath and let’s get into it.

Mark is some sort of freelance spy returning home after a long assignment. Strangely though, his wife Anna is less than thrilled to see him. In fact, she can hardly stand to be in the same room with him. Indeed, it turns out there is another man she is determined to leave Mark for. This sends her insecure husband into a self-destructive bender, involving violence directed towards her and to a greater extent, himself. Obviously, this is not a great environment for their son Bob, the symbol of innocence throughout the film, whom Mark deliberately uses as a weapon against Anna.

When he finally rouses from his stupor, Mark hires a private detective agency that follows Anna to a creepy unfurnished apartment in a down-market neighborhood. While Anna might want some space from Mark, she seems to be enraptured by a “thing.” Rather intimately, in fact. This is where things start getting weird and even bloodier.

Mark and Anna could probably use a psychiatrist and an exorcist. They certainly should not be around powerized kitchen appliances. What unfolds is absolutely harrowing and completely bizarre. Żuławski’s control of the audience is masterful. He simultaneously cranks the tension up to nosebleed levels, while constantly bombarding viewers with jolt-inducing imagery. You cannot really call it a horror film, but that is probably the closest applicable label.

The combination of Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani is the kind of intriguing pairing that might convince cautious cineastes to take a chance on Possession. Both leads totally go for broke throughout the film, but it would probably be more accurate to say they develop a convincing anti-chemistry together.

Still, Adjani also has some remarkably delicate scenes with Neill as Helen, Anna’s doppelganger (don’t ask, it would take too long to explain). Indeed, her exquisitely sensitive and vulnerable appearance makes her characters’ transgressive behavior all the more jarring, especially her five minute freak-out in the West Berlin metro. Frankly, it feels more like twenty-five minutes. Just when you think it cannot get any more shocking, she reaches a new level. However, the raw, visceral power of her performance is undeniable, justly recognized at the Cannes Film Festival with the best actress honors.

Adjani’s longtime partner cinematographer Bruno Nuytten gives the film a classy polished look that suggests auterist genre classics from the likes of Polanski and Kubrick. Yet, for all its blood and inhumanity, Possession is not a scarring film for anyone with a fair number of cult films under their belt. Though there is violence, it is never committed out of sadism (just why characters do certain things is another matter entirely). Nor is Possession a nihilistic film. Notions of right and wrong, good and evil, have very real meaning in this world. It is just the case that the latter have the overwhelming upper-hand against the former.

Possession is a true experience. It is draining to watch, but when it is over, you know you have seen a film. Big, bold, and intensely personal, it is a genuine masterwork from Żuławski. Highly but judiciously recommended to those who fully understand what they are getting into, Possession begins its special one week run at Film Forum this Friday (12/2).

Labels: , , ,

ADIFF ’11: Chico & Rita

In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, scores of Cuban musicians found success playing in American. Chico and Rita were two of them—almost. Their Afro-Cuban musical romance is told in Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, and Tono Errando’s Chico & Rita (trailer here), one of eighteen officially submitted films in best animated feature Oscar race and a 2011 European Film Awards nominee, which screened at this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival.

Chico is a Bebop influenced piano player and something of ladies man. Rita is a stunning vocalist and all woman. During their first auspicious meeting, sparks fly and maybe a few faces are slapped. However, when Rita reluctantly sings Chico’s newest song in a radio competition, it is magical. Suddenly, Chico & Rita are the band to book. They also start to admit their mutual attraction, but circumstances keep getting in the way.

Before long, Rita is signed by an American producer, who whisks her away to New York. Chico eventually follows her, hoping to gain entree into the jazz scene through his old compatriot, Chano Pozo, whose tenure in Dizzy Gillespie’s band led to the creation of the so-called Cu-bop fusion of Bebop and Afro-Latin Jazz. Of course, those who are familiar with their jazz history know Pozo is not long for this Earth. Likewise, Chico & Rita’s rekindled romance appears equally ill-fated.

As the director of Calle 54, the best musical performance film frankly ever, Trueba’s participation inspires confidence and he does not disappoint. C&R is an instant jazz classic, featuring infectious and sophisticated original music by Bebo Valdés, whose life sort-of-kind-of inspired Chico’s story. But wait, there’s more, including the classic music of Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, and Woody Herman’s Four Brothers band, performing Igor Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto (which Chico sight-reads early in the film). Still, not convinced? How about Freddy Cole performing one of Chico’s songs as his famous brother Nat, tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath channeling Ben Webster, flamenco singer Estrella Morente appearing as herself, and a whole lot of Afro-Cuban percussion interspersed throughout the proceedings.

Movie musicals do not get much cooler than C&R. Yet, it is also deeply romantic and scorchingly hot (beyond the music). Frankly, it’s a bit of a surprise gkids picked it up for American distribution, but it is a testament to their good taste nonetheless. To their credit, the filmmakers do not ignore the grim realities of Castro’s Cuba, depicting the mean living standards, frequent blackouts, and official government suppression of that “Imperialist” music called jazz. Indeed, this is especially surprising in a contemporary Spanish film, though C&R duly and fairly decries the American racial segregation of the era as well, maintaining an ideological balance.

While C&R sounds fantastic, it also looks great. Rejecting strict realism, animation designer Mariscal’s figures compellingly evoke the spirit of Art Deco and Old Havana. In contrast, C&R’s backdrops are often much more detailed, giving the audience a virtual tour of the city at the height of its glory. All the elements fit together into an elegant, sensual, and ultimately moving film. It is recommended for anyone with a romantic spirit, but jazz fans will truly flip for it. In a year when the Pixar film was lukewarmly received, voters in the Academy’s animation wing should give C&R serious consideration. Regardless, it was one of the highlights of the typically diverse 2011 African Diaspora International Film Festival, which continues through December 13th at venues across Manhattan.

Labels: , , , ,

Fiennes’ Coriolanus

It has long been considered one of Shakespeare’s most divisive tragedies. Though academic appraisals remain quite mixed, Coriolanus always had its champions, including poet T.S. Eliot. As a result, there are few cinematic predecessors against which actor Ralph Fiennes directorial debut might be compared. In the Olivier-Branagh tradition, Fiennes also stars in his contemporary retelling of Coriolanus (trailer here), which begins a one week Oscar qualifying engagement in New York this Friday.

In a Balkan city that “calls itself Rome,” Caius Martius has earned the honorific title “Coriolanus” for his victory over the city-state’s bitter rival, the Volsces. At the behest of his proud mother Volumnia and her ally Senator Menenius, the general consents to campaign for the office of Consul. The approval of the Senate is assured, but Coriolanus’s candidacy must also be accepted by the masses. This is a taller order, especially given the officer’s refusal to pander to the lowest common denominator.

Nonetheless, with Menenius’s help, Coriolanus appears to win over the people. Yet, just as quickly, the deceitful senators Brutus and Sicinius turn the crowd against him, with the help of a cadre of professional activists. Venting his outrage, Corilanus’s contempt for the fickle masses leads to his banishment. It also drives him to Volsces, where he makes common cause with his old nemesis, Tullus Aufidius. Dead to everything except his rage, Coriolanus will have his revenge in a manner befitting Shakespearean tragedy.

Given his abruptly shifting loyalties and his un-Shakespearean lack of introspection, Coriolanus is a difficult figure for many to get their heads around. However, Fiennes’ portrayal really unlocks his character. We can understand how his rigid conception of honor compels each action he takes. Despite Corilanus’s reticence, it is a big, seething performance of great physicality that commands viewer attention. Clearly, this is a man of action, not given to soliloquizing.

This is definitely Shakespeare at his manliest (no tights or sonnets here, thank you very much). Indeed, Gerard Butler matches Fiennes’ testosterone as Aufidius, while Vanessa Redgrave nearly outdoes them both as Volumnia, the motherly Lady Macbeth. Yet, the real soul of the film comes from the great Brian Cox as Menenius, whose humanity leads inexorably to pathos. Though a relatively small part, it is also interesting to see South African actor John Kani, who projects a suitably stately presence as Coriolanus’s former superior officer, General Cominius.

Throughout Fiennes’ effectively streamlined film adaptation it is also obvious why the original play troubles so many critics, given its scathing depiction of the Roman masses as no more than a weapon to be wielded by the unscrupulous. Frankly, in Coriolanus, “the people” get what they deserve. Indeed, the film comes at a time when it rather inconveniently begs comparison to uninformed masses occupying Zucotti Park.

An impressive directorial debut, Fiennes stages some vivid scenes of warfighting. His resetting of the story works more often than not, though the cable news flashes in Shakespearean English can be a bit jarring. Strikingly cinematic, the Belgrade locales also add the weight of contemporary historical tragedy, heightening the on-screen drama. One of the better recent Shakespearean films (considerably more satisfying than Taymor’s Tempest, for example), the unexpectedly timely Coriolanus is definitely worth seeing. It begins a special one week New York run for Academy Award consideration at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square this Friday (12/2) and then opens more widely on January 20th.

Labels: , , ,

Romanian Film Festival ’11: Red Gloves

It was hard being part of Romania’s Saxon minority, particularly in the immediate post-war years. Embolden by the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, the Romanian Communists began targeting the German-speaking minority. Though as a group they were disproportionately anti-Communist (and for good reason), this was not the case for young leftwing student Felix Goldschmidt. His lengthy imprisonment, interrogation, and trial testimony are dramatized in Radu Gabrea’s Red Gloves (trailer here), which screens this Thursday during the 2011 Romanian Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Romanian Cultural Institute.

Goldschmidt tried to believe the excesses of Romania’s so-called “obsessive decade” were an aberration that would soon give way to true socialism. He also craved acceptance. That would be more than enough for his interrogators to work with. In truth, Goldschmidt’s politics were a little slippery. He had associated with several nonconformist elements, but his relationship with them was somewhat ambiguous. In particular, he claims to resent the now banned author Hugo Huegel for stealing his girlfriend, but viewers witness decidedly intimate scenes shared by the two men.

Frankly, Goldschmidt is fairly wishy-washy, which makes him more vulnerable to the tactics of his captors. He seems especially eager to please the German speaking Major Blau, yet for a time he resists denouncing his friends and colleagues. Still, a strong personality can only hold out for so long—and Goldschmidt is not such a man.

Based on fact, but adapted from the novel by Enginald Schlattner, a Saxon-Romanian Lutheran pastor, Gloves is a deeply and pervasively tragic film. Arguably, Gabrea has become something akin to Romania’s cinematic conscience having helmed a adaptation of a previous Schlattner Saxon-Romanian novel, as well as the Holocaust-themed drama Gruber’s Journey, and documentaries about Romania’s Yiddish cultural legacy.

With Gloves, Gabrea focuses squarely on the interrogation process, vividly portraying the breakdown of Goldschmidt’s soul. Though there are frequent subsidiary flashbacks within the main narrative flashback, it is all a bit stage-like, featuring a relatively cast of characters in a confined setting. Yet, it is an effective arena to explore the terrors of Romania’s communist past, particularly through the hard insights offered by a former judge and a priest who briefly share Goldschmidt’s cell.

Though it is essentially by design, Goldschmidt is still a rather hollow figure nonetheless, never really brought to life by Alexandru Mihaescu. In contrast, Udo Schenk is absolutely electric as Blau. He deserves to be an internationally star, but the SS and Communist officers he has played for Gabrea are difficult to embrace, despite the screen charisma he brings to them.

Bitterly ironic and brutally honest, Gabrea’s film is—to use a loaded term from Gloves—a “cathartic” work. It is also a high quality period production that might come as a welcome respite to patrons tiring of the Romanian New Wave aesthetic, even with its grim subject matter. Respectfully recommended, it screens Thursday night (12/1) during the 2011 Romanian Film Festival at the Walter Reade Theater.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, November 28, 2011

Romanian Film Festival ’11: Danube Waves

Given Romania’s shifting positions during WWII, it was a bit tricky setting a Communist-era propaganda film during that time, but the recently deceased Liviu Ciulei managed to do just that. For his second feature, the renowned theater director combined Casablanca with Wages of Fear, adding a pinch of Party propaganda for seasoning. A ripping tale of war and intrigue, Ciulei’s Danube Waves screens as part of the sidebar tribute to the filmmaker at the 2011 Romanian Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Romanian Cultural Institute.

Mihai is barge captain who does not trouble himself over politics. Nor is he much concerned about the poor substitutes for sailors he forces to sweep for mines. He just wants to get home to his young wife Ana. Though expendable crewmen are getting harder to recruit, the Germans are willing to provide a prisoner for his use. He chooses Toma, because the supposed criminal is certainly able-bodied and claims to have served on a ship before.

However, Ana can tell right away Toma does not know port from starboard, but he is a quick enough study to fool Mihai. Suspecting he is more than a common thief, a conspicuous sexual tension develops between Toma and Ana that Mihai deals with through heavy drinking as the barge loaded with German arms approaches a known minefield.

Of course, Toma is an agent of the Communist partisans, which gives the film an opportunity to periodically remind viewers just how deeply the Party loves us and how much it has sacrificed for Romania. Though hard to miss, these messages easily could have been more didactic.

The rest of the film is quite tightly executed. There are some real white-knuckle moments as the barge negotiates the bobbing mines and the dialogue (per the translated subtitles) is surprisingly sharp and even snippy at times. In a powerful performance, director Ciulei’s Mihai is an intense salt-of-the-earth screen presence, like Rick Blaine by way of Stanley Kowalski. In her film debut, Irina Petrescu nicely balances the intelligence, naivety, and sexuality of Ana. Though a bit stiff, Lazar Vrabie has a craggy Robert Stack quality that works rather well for Toma. After all, Communist heroes are supposed to be rigid and unyielding.

Danube is such a good film noir, even the state film authorities could not undermine it. Grigore Ionescu’s black-and-white cinematography is appropriately cool and moody, while the love triangle frankly gets kind of hot. As a bonus, there is even a rendition of "The Internationale." Highly recommended for old fashioned movie lovers who can parse the occasional propaganda salvo, Danube screens this Friday (11/2) as part of the 2011 Romanian Film Festival at the Walter Reade Theater, with a special introduction from Petrescu.

Labels: , , , , ,

Putin’s Premier Political Prisoner: Khodorkovsky

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is now the chief lobbyist for Russian energy concerns. It may explain his less than vigorous interest in the political persecution of Mikhail Khodokorvsky, the chairman of the Yukos Oil Company and a leading bankroller of Russian opposition parties. It certainly helps explain how the Putin regime does business. Unfortunately, not even eight billion (with a “b”) dollars could protect Khodorkovsky from Kremlin persecution. German filmmaker Cyril Tuschi examines both the man and the dubious case brought against him in Khodorkovsky (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

As any Russia watcher knows, Khodorkovsky is complicated individual. He was once an ardent Communist, which is how he was allowed to take control of Yukos during the fixed privatization process. He was not just an oligarch, he was the worst of the lot by any standard of open corporate governance. At this time, he enjoyed close relations with the Kremlin. Around the turn of the millennium, he radically changed the Yukos corporate culture, embracing openness and capitalism. He also started supporting democratic reformers. He is now serving a prison sentence in Siberia, as the result of what Schröder reportedly called “a thing between men.”

Though fascinating and not a little bit scary, this basic story is all well documented. However, Tuschi uncovers new (or criminally under-reported) information (particularly regarding the suspicious murder of a provincial mayor making trouble for Yukos) and scores legitimate interviews with Khodorkovsky himself, mostly conducted via letters but also hurriedly shot in between sessions of the Siberian kangaroo court. Aside from his subject, Tuschi also talks on camera to almost all of Khodorkovsky’s close associates not currently behind Russian bars, notably including his insightful early business advisor, Christian Michel, as well as a surprising number of Russian officials.

Tuschi’s German perspective hardly burnishes the former Chancellor’s image, but it gives the film an intriguing twist. He also includes dramatic black-and-white animated interludes that unmistakably evoke the Orwellian nature of the Khodorkovsky case. A classy package, Arvo Pärt’s fourth symphony, which he dedicated to Khodorkovsky, serves as the film’s soundtrack. Even Tuschi’s commentary is rather sharp. About all that is missing is a happy ending. Indeed, the documentarian had to know he was onto something when his laptop containing the film’s final edit was “mysteriously” stolen from his home.

Frankly, Tuschi’s documentary is timely beyond the prosecution of Khodorkovsky, reminding audiences wealth cannot provide a lasting defense against a government wielding unchecked power, as the case in neo-Soviet Russia. In fact, the circumstances of his imprisonment are so egregious, Milan Horáček, the German Green Party Human Rights delegate to the European Parliament, adopted his cause, stating unequivocally: “One can’t distinguish between human rights for the young, old, poor or rich.”

More documentaries should aspire to be like Khodorkovsky. Never smug or snarky, it is a bold, and sometimes artful film that truly challenges the powerful, An important and engrossing work of big-screen journalism, it is highly recommended when it opens this Wednesday (11/30) in New York at Film Forum, with Tuschi scheduled to attend the 7:50 screening that night.

Labels: , ,

Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage

If a Yakuza gangster causes offense, it will cost him a finger, if he is lucky. The rank and file of the Ikemoto and Murase clans are about to lose a lot of fingers, but through no real fault of their own. A high level power struggle will make the gangsters’ lives complicated and all kinds of violent in Takeshi Kitano/Beat Takeshi’s Outrage (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Ikemoto is a sworn brother to Murase, but the Chairman (his sworn “father”), wants the clan boss to turn on his old friend. It is not a request. The boss of bosses is still old school enough to be appalled by the Murase drug dealing network. To preserve plausible deniability, Ikemoto sends his underboss Otomo to set up his own subsidiary clan operation in Murase’s territory. Otomo duly provokes the Murase organization, leaving them little recourse, given his connection to Ikemoto. Yet, as the betrayals and naked power grabs come fast and furious, even the stone cold Otomo starts to lose his cool.

Beat Takeshi, as he is billed when appearing on-screen, is the Miles Davis of Yakuza movies and Outrage is the perfect vehicle for his return to the genre. Despite the mayhem roiling around him, he keeps it all grounded with his fatalism and “so what” attitude. Indeed, his persona is perfectly suited to the grim logic of the Yakuza, where everyone knows the next one might have their name on it.

As the director and editor, Kitano juggles his large cast quite deftly, clearly delineating the complex relationships and subsequent double-crosses. Amongst the ensemble, Fumiyo Kohinata really stands out as the utterly sleazy crooked Det. Kataoka. Kitano also upholds his reputation as one of the finer directors of violence with several scenes that neatly split the difference between the brutal and the cartoonish. Never operatic in the Scorsese or De Palma tradition, or over-the-top a la Tarantino, his action scenes are shot in a straight forward manner, from a soldier’s perspective, which is rather compelling when it all starts to go down, right in our faces.

It is so good to have Takeshi/Kitano back on both sides of the camera. Outrage is the sort of film that will unleash viewers’ inner Yakuza fanboy, because it truly delivers the goods. Enormous fun for those not overly sensitive, Outrage is enthusiastically recommended when it opens this Friday (12/2) in New York at the Cinema Village.

Labels: , , ,

Fond Memories: Grandma, a Thousand Times

Now a place synonymous with violence and discord, Beirut was once the high-spirited party spot of the Middle East. Teta Fatima’s late husband was one of the reasons the good times were so good. Not just the love of her life, he was also an accomplished violinist who accompanied many of Beirut’s top vocalists. Though he has been gone twenty years, it is clear he is never far from her thoughts when she reminisces to the filmmaker grandson who bears his name in Mahmoud Kaabour’s Grandma, a Thousand Times (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

After raising six children, Teta Fatima now spends most of her days smoking Argileh and drinking coffee. She is still sharp as a tack though and very definitely a force within the tightly knit community in Beirut’s old quarter. Recognizing her advancing years, Kaabour set out to record his grandmother’s wisdom and experiences for posterity. Naturally, his namesake was a frequent topic of conversation. In fact, he led their interviews in this direction by playing a tape of his grandfather’s violin improvisations, recorded in that very apartment, for his grandmother.

Indeed, there is some lovely music in Thousand, which also boasts some inventive graphics. The two together arguably produced the coolest opening and closing credit sequences of any film in recent memory. It also has a sly sense of humor that seems to be the equal product of the director and his grandmother subject.

In truth, Thousand is far more engaging than its modest premise might suggest. For all we know, Teta Fatima and Kaabour might share many of the unsavory opinions rife on the “Arab street,” but they wisely avoid politics throughout the film. At only forty-eight minutes, it is relatively short by feature standards, but it is sweet and stylish one (a rare but welcome combination), nonetheless. Wistful and elegant, it is one of the real surprise pleasures of the year. Warmly recommended, it opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Labels: ,

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Romanian Film Festival ’11: Silent River & Strung Love (shorts)

The Ceaușescu years were not kind to those with an independent spirit or a competitive urge. Even the experience of victory was fraught with irony, but Gregor Totock would not know. However, the swimmer will have a rematch with his old nemesis, the Danube River, in Anca Miruna Lăzărescu’s Silent River (trailer here), the clear standout of the shorts program at this year’s Romanian Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in conjunction with the Romanian Cultural Institute.

Years ago, Totock tried to swim to the relative safety of Yugoslavia, via the Danube. It turned out badly for him—and even worse for his female companion. Several years later, the “rehabilitated” Totock is ready to take another shot at the river. Vali, a telephone authority employee, has clearance to be in the border zone, while he has contacts in Serbia who can smuggle them to Germany. Totock only reluctantly accepts the other man as a partner, adamantly refusing whenever Vali speaks of bringing his wife with them. Of course, Totock’s distrust of his companion is partly validated, greatly complicating their escape attempt.

Watching Silent will make viewers feel damp and chilly. It is grim and naturalistic, yet undeniably tense and even stylish. It vividly conveys the omnipresent fear of the Communist years that could not be called paranoia, because it was firmly rooted in reality. Toma Cuzin is a genuinely intense, gaunt looking screen presence, suggesting the power of a coiled spring ready to erupt. Established Romanian actor Andi Vasluianu also makes quite an impression, playing Vali with convincing nervous energy, without ever becoming ticky or mannered.

In marked contrast to Silent’s grittiness (the real socialist realism), Victor Dragomir’s Strung Love takes a gentler, more nostalgic look back at the supposed “Golden Age.” Viorel Petre is a smart, sensitive underachiever at his industrial high school, recruited by the principal, Comrade Badea, to defeat the school bully in a rivet making contest, and hopefully win over his crush in the process.

Much gentler in its satire, Strung seems to have a perverse fondness for the time when rivets were exalted in classrooms for playing a key role in the state’s industrial plan. Still, the political struggle between the principal and the metal-working teacher clearly depicts the pettier tendencies of Communist-era bureaucracy. Strangely stylized, Strung’s cast deliberately (one assumes) looks far too old for high school, but they scrupulously stay in character and never wink at the audience. Indeed, its goofy, light-hearted spirit is rather enjoyable, even if it largely dresses up the experience of living under the Ceaușescus.

This year’s Romanian short film program is unusually strong, also featuring Ioana Uricaru’s notable Stopover, a sly, subtler take on the basic premise of Spielberg’s The Terminal, written by Cristian Mungiu of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days renown. However it is more of vignette. Silent is a fully conceived and realized film. One of the nominees for best short film at the 2011 European Film Awards, it is a work of a very high caliber, whereas Strung is just a lot of fun. All three screen together as part of the shorts program at the 2011 Romanian Film Festival at the Munro Film Center Amphitheatre this Friday and Saturday (12/2 & 12/3)—and take note: admission is free.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, November 26, 2011

How to Make Book Publishing Interesting with Steidl

If there is a more dysfunctional industry than book publishing, brother, you have my sympathies. Gerhard Steidl’s house is the exception. Specializing in extremely limited high-end photography books, Steidl work is decidedly for the so-called “one percent,” but God bless them. They keep Steidl’s forty-five artisans and workers gainfully employed. His rarified brand of publishing is captured in Gereon Wetzel and Jörg Adolph’s documentary How to Make a Book with Steidl (trailer here), which is currently screening in New York at MoMA.

Steidl has one backlist title you have surely heard of: Günther Grass’s The Tin Drum. He also has extremely lucrative publishing arrangements with Chanel, Lagerfeld, and the German Metal Workers’ Union. They largely underwrite some of the world’s most ambitious art books. There is no standard Steidl template, with each new volume becoming a highly distinctive work of art unto itself.

Like Wetzel’s El Bulli, How to Make simply observes Steidl as he goes about his business. However, the publisher is considerably more talkative than Catalan master chef Ferran Adrià or artist Anselm Kiefer, seen puttering about his studio in Over Your Cities Grass will Grow. We watch him interact with some of the greatest photographic artists working today, including Robert Adams, Robert Frank, Martin Parr, Ed Ruscha, and Joel Sternfeld, who are often surprisingly witty and consistently offer up fascinating tidbits about their lives and work throughout the film.

Serving as the film’s central narrative touchstone, Sternfeld’s upcoming book iDubai will collect i-phone photos taken in an Emirates mall. They present a challenge to Steidl, because of their self-consciously gimmicky nature. Yet, Sternfeld’s sense of composition is still apparent, even when apparently shooting surreptitiously, on the fly.

While El Bulli could definitely drag a bit, the fly-on-the-wall approach works far better in How to Make, because nearly all of Steidl’s conversations are worth listening to. Ironically, it is Grass, the man of letters, who does not bring any memorable soundbites to the table, but perhaps the editing process was unkind to him. In contrast, Sternfeld and Parr are frequently rather droll, while Frank and Adams come across as quite personable and engaging elder statesmen of the art.

Steidl does the nearly impossible. He makes book publishing interesting. Yet, How to Make is really more of a film for photography lovers than book people. That is probably why it works so well. Recommended to all art patrons, How to Make appropriately screens at MoMA through Thursday (12/1).

Labels: , , , , ,

Friday, November 25, 2011

ADIFF ’11: The Story of Lover’s Rock

A distinctly Caribbean-British phenomenon, Lover’s Rock was like the Quiet Storm of reggae, but with a stronger beat. Perfect for slow dancing, the romantic style of reggae was wildly popular, but had trouble cracking the UK charts. The under-documented music and the artists who defined it are fondly remembered in Menelik Shabazz’s The Story of Lover’s Rock (trailer here), which opens the 2011 African Diaspora International Film Festival tonight.

Though firmly rooted in reggae, Lover’s Rock was smoother, mellower, and less political than the music coming out of Jamaica at the time. It also boasted considerably more prominent female artists. Indeed, the acknowledged crossover hits were mostly sung by women, like Louisa Mark’s version of “Caught You in a Lie” and Janet Kay’s “Silly Games.”

Of course, there were plenty of men involved, especially on the production side, including bassist Dennis Bovell, the producer of “Silly Games,” who is probably Shabazz’s best interview subject. He certainly still looks and sounds cool. In fact, most of the talking heads offer a better than average degree of musical insight, though one academic comes across pretty silly explaining how the slow grind stimulated dancers’ chakras (and it is not meant as a euphemism).

While Story might sound like it should only appeal to a narrow range of fans, Lover’s Rock influenced many future top UK recording artists, including UB40 (who charted fifty UK hits, but never got their proper due, according to one rock critic) and even the Police. It has also gone global, inspiring a considerable Japanese scene (including an intriguing but unnamed band briefly seen in the film).

Strangely though, Shabazz largely eschews archival performances, choosing instead to show the artists (who have aged well, for the most part) performing a contemporary PBS-style reunion concert. Still, most artists remain in good voice, such as standout Trevor Walters, whose rendition of Lionel Ritchie’s “Stuck on You” sure goes down easy. However, the same cannot be said for the periodic sketch-interludes featuring British comedians, who are largely unknown in America, for good reason.

With this film, Shabazz makes “smooth” and “sweet” respectable. His tune selections nicely represent the music’s slinky groove, while the expert commentary puts everything in its proper context. Quite an entertaining music doc (even with the occasional comedic misstep), The Story of Lover’s Rock is quite a pleasant surprise, recommended beyond the core reggae audience. It screens tonight (11/25) as part of an opening spotlight on director Shabazz at Symphony Space and then plays for a week at the Quad Cinema, starting this coming Wednesday (11/30-12/6).

Labels: , , , ,

ADIFF ’11: Africa, Blood & Beauty

Sergey Yastzhembsky has surely seen a lot of savagery, but not in Africa. A former high ranking official in the Yeltsin and Putin governments, Yastzhembsky served as the Kremlin’s chief spokesperson during the Chechen “Troubles.” Since then, he has preferred the company of Africa’s indigenous tribes, capturing their traditional ways of life, perhaps for posterity, in Africa, Blood & Beauty, which screens this Sunday as part of the 2011 African Diaspora Film Festival.

Implying an unmistakable hierarchy, Beauty is organized into four sections, explaining the rituals and customs pertaining to children, women, men, and spirits, in that order. It quickly becomes clear spirits might be duly venerated, but tradition favors men over women. In nearly all of the surveyed tribes, the women bear the burden of nearly all the real work, except for hunting and sometime fishing. Still, the Himba of Namibia have something of a safety valve in place, requiring a man who murders his wife to pay restitution of forty-five cows to her family, but mandating nothing from a woman killing her husband.

Indeed, Beauty is at is best when it explains the practical applications of painful looking rites, though even with a compelling explanation, those endured by children might very well distress sensitive viewers. For instance, Pygmies sharpening their children’s teeth has obvious survival applications. However, as presented in the film, the Himba ceremony of knocking out young boys’ bottom teeth makes little sense from a pragmatic standpoint.

Some of Beauty’s most fascinating sequences document the nomadic Berbers of Morocco, whose customs evidently sometimes contradict their Islamic faith. Brides are still tattooed as part of their traditional wedding festivities, despite the Koran’s injunction that, as Beauty reminds viewers, unequivocally states: “any part of the body which is tattooed will burn in Hell.” Indeed, the Berbers apparently often depart from the style of observance practiced by their more radical co-religionists, particularly with regards to women. For instance, though completely veiled during the ceremony, married Berber women are henceforth forbidden to cover their faces.

Featuring a diverse but rhythmically propulsive soundtrack of traditional music and the soothing, lucid English narration by French actor Lambert Wilson, Beauty is quite a pleasant film to listen to. Yastzhembsky’s strategy of juggling the various peoples thematically also works rather nicely (with some credit due to editor Kirill Sakharnov, as well). However, his field of vision is relatively narrow. Not a film for I-max screens or 3-D, he passes up shots of striking vistas and spectacular dances, preferring a personal perspective on their lives and mores.

Beauty is surprisingly effective challenging stereotypes about the traditional tribes of Africa. It is also clearly an advocacy film, designed to alarm the audience with their dwindling numbers. Most endangered are the Bushmen of the Kalahari, whose population is estimated to be less than four hundred. Whether Yastzhembsky is rallying to their cause in hopes of finding redemption, only he knows in his heart. Regardless, Beauty is an educational and respectful film, well worth checking out during the 2011 ADIFF, especially for students of African culture, this Sunday (11/27) at Symphony Space.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Rohmer’s 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle

Events that seem look small from the outside are often quite momentous for those experiencing them first-hand. Eric Rohmer was a master at capturing those deceptively small episodes on film. He offers up a quartet of such vignettes in 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (trailer here), which is currently playing a special one week engagement at Film Forum.

As the audience can tell from the opening credits’ distressing synthesizer pop music, Adventures was filmed quickly in the late 1980’s, while Rohmer’s Le Rayon vert was on a shooting hiatus. Aside from the soundtrack, the rest of the film is quite genteel, depicting the evolving friendship of Reinette, a young aspiring artist from the countryside and Mirabelle, a Parisian law student. In the first installment, The Blue Hour, the title characters are brought together thanks to a flat bicycle tire, while Mirabelle is on holiday at her parents’ “cottage.” A fast friendship develops over dinner and an invitation to spend the night to hear the “Blue Hour,” the brief minutes before dawn when nature is entirely quiet.

As the film progresses, it becomes clear the young women’s values differ in ways akin to what contemporary Americans would consider a Red State/Blue State divide. Reinette is naïve, falling for every panhandler’s sob story, but she is scandalized when Mirabelle assists a shoplifter in the third adventure, The Beggar, the Kleptomaniac and the Hustler, which plays out like a continental fusion of Woody Allen and O. Henry. While the second story, the relatively short The Waiter is often dismissed as a trifle, it is rather funny and it is hard to think of anything more quintessentially French than an encounter with a surly café server.

For many connoisseurs of French cinema, the final story is the real piece de resistance. With Selling the Painting, Reinette sets about to do just that, in order to pay her rent and finally establish herself in the Parisian art world. However, a bet with Mirabelle to remain silent the entire day would seem to complicate matters, but there is a method to their madness. Considerably younger in 1987, Fabrice Luchini was Adventures’ only really established cast-member, already quite adept at playing fuss-budgets. As the unnamed gallery owner, the Rohmer regular (including Claire’s Knee) slyly sends up hipster pretentions, but gets to deliver the old that-was-no-lady style punchline with perfect casual understatement.

Indeed, Luchini is completely in his element in Adventures, but the comparatively unheralded leads are also quite good. Though little has been heard from her since, Joëlle Miquel is somehow simultaneously endearing and convincingly neurotic as Reinette, while Jessica Forde’s intelligent screen presence solidly anchors the film as her more reserved and pragmatic friend/foil. Boasting a widely diverse filmography (including Tsui Hark’s Double Team with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman), Forde has also made several short films, such as Hong Kong 70, which seems more JCVD than Rohmeresque.

Adventures is a charming film, but it has an edge to it. Shot on 16mm, it is not exactly a visual splendor, but it still has a distinctive grace. Witty and tellingly honest, it is a very fine outing from a filmmaker whose credits include several masterworks. Easily recommended for the long Thanksgiving weekend, it runs at Film Forum through Tuesday (11/29).

Labels: , ,

A French Bon-Bon: Romantics Anonymous

Chocolate is the food of romance and indulgence. Two social misfits still love it anyway. They might just love each other too, if they can psyche themselves up enough to take a chance. That will be a very big “if” in Jean-Pierre Améris’ Romantics Anonymous (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Angélique Delange is a gifted chocolatier, but she is paralyzed with shyness. Through sheer force of will, she manages to apply for a job at a down-market chocolate company, run by the gruff but ragingly insecure Jean-René Van Den Hugde. Sensing a fellow chocolate devotee, Van Den Hudge hires her on the spot. Unfortunately, it is for a sales position she is spectacularly unsuited for. Having accepted already, Delange tries to timidly carry on as best she can. Eventually though, Delange realizes she must use her true talents to save the floundering company.

Working under a veil of secrecy, Delange once made confections that delighted French gourmets. However, when her protective boss died, the secret of his chocolatier “hermit” died with him. Yet, resurrecting the old hermit cover proves relatively easy. Going on a date with the boss is devilishly difficult, for both of them.

Like chocolate, Anonymous is sweet film with a hint of bitterness to make it real. While everyone plays it for laughs, Améris and co-writer Philippe Blasband never minimize the challenges of the would-be couples’ extreme social awkwardness. They are not portrayed as freaks or loons, but as people who need a little more encouragement to come out of their shells (granted though, Van Den Hugde certainly has his eccentricities).

Benoît Poelvoorde (probably still best known for the unsettling Man Bites Dog) is fantastic as Van Den Hugde, showing an aptitude for broad comedy while keeping the character totally grounded. Likewise, as Delange, Isabelle Carré engagingly projects both a brittle vulnerability and an arresting innocence.

Combining elements of food porn with the underdog romantic comedy, Anonymous was one of the most commercial international selections at Tribeca this year, which might be why they picked it up for their distribution arm. Sensitively helmed by Améris, it is a completely satisfying film, giving the audience what we want (even if it is predictable on some level). A real charmer, Anonymous opens tomorrow (11/25) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Once Lovers: The Swell Season

With all due respect to “Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s “Falling Slowly” from the film Once had to be the best Oscar winning song since Isaac Hayes’s “Theme from Shaft” took the honors in 1971. Perhaps because their characters were star-crossed ships passing in the night, fans invested special meaning in their off-screen musical and romantic relationships. Yet, the demands of success will tax those bonds in Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins & Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s documentary The Swell Season (trailer here), which the San Francisco Film Society presents for a one week run starting this Friday.

Known collectively as The Swell Season, Hansard and Irglová scored a respectable art-house hit with Once, but the Academy Awards took them to another level entirely. When Irglová wished “fair play to those who dare to dream” in her acceptance speech, even presenter Colin Farrell got choked up. Unfortunately, Seaison is not very diligent catching up viewers up with their lives pre-Once, focusing entirely on the time as established headliners.

Evidently, Irish expat Hansard was living with the somewhat younger Irglová’s Czech family when they began their relationship. Obviously, their courtship involved music, but that is about all the film cares to explain. Instead, it focuses the stresses and strains caused by the demands of fame and constant touring. Indeed, Season may distress the duo’s admirers, because it largely documents the potential dissolution of their romance. Whether their musical rapport is strong enough to endure those personal trials becomes the film’s central question.

Nonetheless, fans should still enjoy the tunes heard throughout Season, as well as some insightful interviews regarding their songwriting processes. Hansard and Irglová’s music typically features strikingly harmonized vocals and their musicianship is completely legit. Frankly, many of their songs are just as appropriate to the end of an affair as the hopeful beginning stages.

Shot by co-director-cinematographer Dapkins fly-on-the-wall style in glorious black-and-white, Season’s look is often reminiscent of U2 videos and documentaries, which is rather fitting. It also gives fans an opportunity to see the duo naked. They certainly look better than John Lennon and Yoko Ono, for what that is worth. There are some uncomfortable but memorable moments of truth shared by the couple, but it will ultimately be of much greater interest to devotees than general audiences. For most viewers, it is a passable diversion, but hardly essential. For Swell Season’s considerable fan base in the Bay Area, SFFS’s screenings start this Friday (11/25) at the New People Cinema.

Labels: , ,

Norma Jean and the Brits: My Week with Marilyn

Sir Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe were on the brink of career highpoints in John Osborne’s The Entertainer and Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, respectively. However, their chemistry was somewhat lacking in their one and only film together, The Prince and the Showgirl, tepidly received by critics and audiences alike in 1957. The behind-the-scenes story of their rocky shoot is told from the perspective of a smitten production assistant in Simon Curtis’s My Week with Marilyn (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Though to-the-manor-born, young Colin Clark wants to make his own way in the world working in motion pictures. Refusing to take no for an answer, Clark parlays a dubious introduction into a gofer job with Olivier’s production company. Recently knighted, the great actor is planning to direct the American bombshell in a light comedic role his wife, Vivien Leigh, originated on-stage. Unfortunately, when Monroe shows up with full entourage in tow, it is quickly apparent she deeply enthralled by the method school of acting, dubious claptrap Sir Laurence has little patience for.

Despite beginning a healthy romance with Lucy, a wardrobe assistant arguably as attractive as the childlike and frequently doped-up Monroe, Clark falls hard for the famous sex symbol. While not exactly mutual, Monroe starts to rely on the solicitous young man’s emotional support. It all leads to much gossip and quite a bit of ill will on the set.

If Marilyn Monroe truly was a ragingly insecure woman who lived in a pronounced state of arrested development, then Michelle Williams plays her quite well indeed. Though she has been doggedly positioned as an Oscar contender, her Monroe seems to be a blank slate on which the other characters project their desires. Was that all there really was to her? If so, how very sad.

In welcomed contrast, the British ensemble cast, including the likes of Dame Judi Dench, Michael “Foyle” Kitchen, and Julia Ormand (as Leigh, no small part to step into either), plays it to the hilt, bandying about witticisms as if they are in The Bad and the Beautiful, as rewritten by Noel Coward.

Yet, the casting of Kenneth Branagh as Olivier is particularly inspired. Not only does Branagh have the right “classically trained” presence and flair for razor-sharp dialogue, one can see parallels of his own career in that of Sir Laurence. Earning acclaim and the not infrequent comparison to Olivier with his early Shakespearean films, Branagh’s recent career had been somewhat checkered (including a critically drubbed remake of the Olivier vehicle, Sleuth), until scoring an unlikely comeback with Thor. Regardless, he plays the iconic thespian with genuine depth and charisma.

Granted, Week is based on his memoir, but the amount of screen time devoted to Eddie Redmayne’s Clark seems wildly misspent, considering the far more interesting actors and greater larger than life figures of cinema history that are also assembled in the film. Frankly, his sad-eyed, love-struck act quickly gets rather dull. Fortunately, the seasoned veterans like Branagh, Dench, and Sir Derek Jacobi can be relied upon to supply Week periodic jolts of energy.

Curtis certainly keeps the film breezing along nicely, capturing a nice sense of the era along the way. Mostly pleasant viewing, Week features some wonderfully tasty supporting performances. It just seems to consistently focus on the two dullest people at a banquet of greatness. A case of a film whose sum of its parts is probably greater than its whole, Week opens today (11/23) in New York at the.AMC Empire and Chelsea Clearview.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Crazy Wisdom: Tibetan Buddhism in a Business Suit

Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche was a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who embraced the 1960’s counterculture, but could not abide rock & roll. He drank considerably more than he should have, openly and often, but he had no use for drugs. A former monk, Trungpa renounced his robes, developing ways to teach Tibetan Buddhism in the western vernacular. A study in paradoxes, Trungpa all too brief life avoided cliché, making him a rich documentary subject in Johanna Demetrakas’ Crazy Wisdom: the Life and Times of Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the Rubin Museum of Art.

A recognized reincarnation, Trungpa was the last of his generation to be entirely educated in Tibet. After the Chinese Communists invaded in 1959, he took a leading role securing the teachings and documents of his faith, personally guiding a group of his fellow monks to safety in India. Living in exile, Trungpa chose to embrace the west, trading his robes for a business suit. It was the start of a transformation that was decidedly controversial with his elders.

Living in Scotland, Trungpa married a young British woman and began teaching Tibetan Buddhism to hippies. For obvious reasons, they were attracted to his “crazy wisdom,” a recognized approach to enlightenment celebrating the eccentric and unconventional, sort of the rough Tibetan Buddhist analog to drunken master martial arts. However, Trungpa liked to keep people guessing.

As one of his students recalls, at the height of the anti-war movement, Trungpa was once asked to comment about aggression in America, to which he replied “I want to talk about the aggression in this room.” Ouch. He was also evidently a stickler for the Queen’s English, perhaps giving scores of hippies their first elocution lessons. However, the greatest irony must have been the Dorje Kasung, the military drill team he established at Naropa University, the American Buddhist school Trungpa founded in Boulder, Colorado.

Clearly, the Ripoche was more responsible than anyone for creating a network of schools and support centers for Tibetan Buddhism, through direct action and the subsequent contributions of his students. Still, he is a devilishly difficult figure to grab hold of. In fact, his wife, Diana Mukpo, readily admits on-camera the inner Trungpa largely remains a mystery to her. He clearly touched a lot of lives, but it is just as obvious he rarely denied himself a good time. With many students-turned-lovers sharing their reminiscences, it is evident he enjoyed the company of women and a good drink. This complicates the beatification process, but it makes for fascinating viewing.

Frankly, the audience will not feel like they know the Rinpoche any better than Mukpo. Yet, he led a short but eventful life, emerging as an intriguing Rorschach for those around him. Featuring better than average graphics and revealing interviews with intimates like Mukpo and his first son, Sakyong Mipham, Rinpoche, the head of Shambhala International, as well “celebrity” admirers such as Allen Ginsburg and Ram Dass, Crazy covers the traditional documentary bases quite well. Yet, it best lives up to Trungpa’s example by constantly confounding viewer expectations of who and what the Rinpoche should have been. A surprisingly challenging documentary profile, Crazy is definitely recommended when it fittingly opens this Friday (11/25) at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York’s home for Himalayan art and culture (not to mention fine jazz and film programming).

Labels: , , ,

A Silent Contender: The Artist

Talking pictures were a truly Schumpeterian phenomenon for Hollywood. As any film lover knows from Singin’ in the Rain, some silent movie stars could weather the creative destruction wrought by the transition to sound, whereas some could not. Matinee idol George Valentin was one of those who could not “talk.” Fittingly, his story is a told silently (or nearly so) in The Artist (trailer here), Michel Hazanavicius’s glorious black-and-white homage to the golden age of Hollywood, which opens this Friday in New York.

It is 1927. George Valentin is at the height of his popularity as a Douglas Fairbanks style swashbuckler. He has just fought the red menace as an agent of free Georgia in The Russian Affair. However, studio mogul Al Zimmer has something disturbing to show him: synchronized sound. Dismissing the future, Valentin returns to work on his next picture, which will be only remembered as the brief screen debut of future superstar Peppy Miller. Obviously thrilled to have any screen time, Miller is particularly excited to share a scene with her favorite star, George Valentin.

When talkies become the standard, Miller’s career takes off like a rocket with frothy romantic comedies. Meanwhile, Valentin’s attempt to finance his own silent comeback vehicle proves disastrous. Yet, Miller’s feelings for yesterday’s leading man remain unchanged.

Hazanavicius consciously draws from dozens of classic films (both pre- and post-Jazz Singer), as well as numerous real larger-than-life Hollywood figures. What follows incorporates elements of A Star is Born, Sunset Boulevard, and Greta Garbo’s relationship with John Gilbert. (Sadly, many modern movie-goers will miss the allusions, but perhaps the notion of a film without diegetic sound might be a brand new novelty item for them.)

As the product of many artists’ work, the film is a visual splendor, beginning with Guillaume Schiffman’s lush and moody black-and-white cinematography (shot in color, but printed in fabulous shades of gray, as per today’s standard practice), which makes the elegant sets and costumes softly glow like a Cecil Beaton portrait. Still, it is the depth of Hazanavicius’s screenplay that really distinguishes The Artist.

Not merely a series of winks at TCM watchers, the film is quite a touching love story, completely free of irony. On the two occasions it breaks format, sound is used in creative ways that cleverly advance the film. Periodically, Hazanavicius also appears to indulge in a witty in-joke, yet in each case, their unexpected dramatic logic catches us by surprise. Likewise, while his inter-titles have a simplicity befitting the period, they convey a surprising richness of meaning.

Familiar to American audiences from Hazanavicius’s French OSS 117 spy spoofs, Jean Dujardin gives another very physical performance here, but the complexity and pathos of his Valentin is in a whole different league. Indeed, it is a tricky proposition to play a mugging actor without ever mugging for the camera, yet he is never overly broad or over the top, keeping the faded movie star acutely human throughout. He also develops some endearing romantic chemistry with Bérénice Bejo as Miller.

Frankly, the Argentine-French Bejo is about the only person working in film today who can approximate the glamorous look of Hollywood in its heyday (yes, this definitely includes Michelle Williams). Exquisite and vulnerable, she deserves a bit of award attention along with Dujardin, the best actor winner at this year’s Cannes. In contrast, the American supporting cast does not have much to do, but John Goodman’s cigar-chomping shtick works perfectly for Zimmer, even without sound.

After winning over all but the most jaded critics at this year’s New York Film Festival, The Artist has emerged as a major Oscar contender. Frankly, this is the film for the Weinsteins to put their chips on, not the Marilyn story or Madonna’s vanity project. It is a beautifully rendered valentine to movie-making, featuring two wildly charismatic romantic leads. Highly recommended, The Artist opens this Friday (11/25) in New York at the Paris Theater and Angelika Film Center.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, November 21, 2011

Edward Yang’s Masterwork: A Brighter Summer Day

In 1961, Chiang Kai-shek was still firmly in charge of the Republic of China, but Elvis Presley was the King. Enormously popular in Taiwan, Edward Yang imagines the singer from Tupelo had a soft spot for free China that actually fits quite well with what we know of him. Presley’s small gesture to a fan takes just a fleeting moment of screen time, but it says much of Taiwan’s ever deepening inferiority complex in Edward Yang’s nearly four hour masterwork, A Brighter Summer Day, which finally starts its belated legitimate New York theatrical run this Friday at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

According to Yang’s preface, many Taiwanese youth joined gangs out of desire for stability in their lives. By the early 1960’s, most of their parents have started to accept the obvious fact they shall not be returning to the Mainland anytime soon. Lives that were meant to be temporary become permanent. 1961 also witnessed Taiwan’s first juvenile murder, on which Brighter is based.

Xiao Si’r father is a government bureaucrat too honest for his own good. Vying with his older brother for the title of family black sheep, he has fallen in with his neighborhood Little Park Gang. A so-so student, his academic underperformance has relegated him to night school (as opposed to the more prestigious university track day classes). His own ambitions are rather ambiguous. However, he is quite interested in Ming, a beautiful classmate from mean circumstances, with a rather dubious reputation. She was formerly involved with Honey, the respected leader of the Little Park gang, who disappeared after reputedly murdering a rival for her affections. Perhaps Xiao Si’r is not mature enough for a serious relationship yet, but kids prowling the streets of Taipei at night grow up quickly.

Indeed, it is almost never daytime in A Brighter Summer Day (which takes its title from a mistranslated Presley lyric), despite the fact its major characters are young teens. Obviously, they are influenced by American youth culture, but their adaptations are darker and more existential, whereas their ever shifting alliances mirror and even outdo the adult political machinations of the era (that Xiao Si’r’s father is so ill-equipped to negotiate).

Brighter is a fascinating period piece, depicting general living standards considerably below what we would now estimate for Taiwan. It is also a richly complex epic, cutting across social strata, but focusing on its more marginalized characters to an almost Dickensian extent. While the rumbles and romantic tribulations of junior high students might seem like small beans for such an ambitious film, it quickly becomes clear we are watching the future soul of a country grappling with itself. Under Yang’s firm hand, it all follows together quite logically and frankly rather economically.

At the time, Yang was directing a cast of hundreds of largely inexperienced young actors. However, Chang Chen would go on to international acclaim in the films of Ang Lee and Wong Kar-wai, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the remarkable but underappreciated 2046. There is something profoundly unsettling about his performance as Xiao Si’r. While acutely sensitive, he clearly projects something erratic about the boy, keeping viewers on edge as they wait for the expected shoe to drop. Though apparently little was seen of her afterward, Lisa Yang is also quite affecting, conveying great vulnerability, while also keeping the audience guessing about her ultimate intentions.

Yang masterfully creates an eerie twilight milieu, perfectly suited to the murky moral drama. Somehow, he steadily builds to a culmination we intellectually anticipate, yet it shocks us nonetheless. Arguably, more cineastes will recognize Brighter by reputation than have actually seen it because its 237 minutes are so beastly hard to program. It does require a greater investment of time, but it also constitutes a real bargain for the ticket price. A powerful film by any aesthetic measure, Brighter’s week long run is the perfect centerpiece of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s current Yang retrospective. Highly recommended, it screens twice a day from Friday (11/25) through Thursday (12/1).

Labels: ,

Jung vs. Freud: A Dangerous Method

Jungians consider Freud to be unnaturally sex-obsessed. Conversely, Freudians argue Jung debased the science with his superstitious mumbo-jumbo. Probably they are both more right than wrong. The birth of this great and enduring rivalry is dramatized in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

Carl Jung married well and lives an upright life. A leading practitioner in a controversial new field of study, he is eager to apply the methods of psychoanalysis advocated by Sigmund Freud. Sabina Spielrein represents the perfect opportunity. Though possessing a rather sharp intellect, she is so profoundly disturbed she cannot function in society. Yet, when Jung gets her talking, the roots of her mental torment become clear. While the word “cured” might be too strong a term, she is able study medicine, with the intent of becoming of psychiatrist herself. Everything might have ended happily at this point, were it not for the libido’s self-destructive drive.

After giving into temptation once or a couple dozen times, the guilt wracked Jung breaks things off with his sort-of former patient rather precipitously. This drives the newly agitated Spielrein to seek the treatment of Jung’s new mentor, Dr. Sigmund Freud. As a result, Freud becomes somewhat disappointed in his younger colleague, while Spielrein increasingly aligns herself with the Freudian in her academic writings. Not surprisingly, these developments exacerbate the philosophical division between Freud and Jung.

Though clearly not nearly as renowned as her male colleagues, Spielrein arguably led the more cinematic life. A Russian Jew who tragically returned to her homeland during the early Soviet era (where much of her family perished during Stalin’s reign of terror), Spielrein was eventually killed by the National Socialists during WWII. Not just a beautiful woman, her scholarship is thought to have possibly influenced both Jung and Freud. (Jung also spanks her quite a bit in Method, if that happens to be your thing.)

Kiera Knightley really goes for broke as Spielrein, laying on the accent a tad thick, but bringing a remarkable physicality to the role. She makes neurotic twitchiness rather hot, even worthy of Oscar consideration. Despite having the screen time of a supporting player instead of a lead, Viggo Mortensen is convincingly smart and compulsively watchable as Freud, avoiding all the shticky goatee-stroking clichés associated with the iconic figure. Whereas the always tightly-wound Michael Fassbender is appropriately intense depicting Jung’s deeply rooted tension-and-release behavioral patterns.

Adapted by Christopher Hampton from his stage play, which in turn was adapted from John Kerr’s book, Method’s greatest problem is its flattening narrative arc. Had it followed Spielrein through her demise in WWII it would have ended on a more significant, if tragic note. As it stands though, the film just sort of runs out of story.

Throughout Method, Cronenberg adroitly handles both the rigorous intellectual debates and the provocative sexuality, largely rendering the latter with wise restraint. Probably more highbrow than old school Cronenberg fans might expect, he and Hampton clearly seem to want to present this critical period in the development of psychological study for its own sake rather than as a vehicle for lurid melodrama. It just lacks that epiphany moment. Frequently fascinating nonetheless, the overall quite engaging Method is definitely recommended when it opens this Wednesday (11/23) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza and Landmark Sunshine cinemas.

Labels: , , ,