J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

NYICFF ’12: Cinderella Moon

So many little Chinese girls could have used a fairy god-mother. Young Mei Mei only has an ancient matchmaker to counter-balance her rotten step- mother. Though not magical, the old woman certainly has ambitious plans for her. Based on the Chinese legend of Ye Xian that predates Perrault’s Cinderella by about 800 years, Richard Bowen’s Chinese-produced English-dubbed Cinderella Moon has obvious relevance for China today, but should still charm little girls of any cultural background when it screens at the 2012 New York International Film Festival.

Little Mei Mei is a gifted potter, like her mother, her father’s younger second wife. When Mei Mei’s mother dies in child birth and her spiritually ailing father soon follows, she finds herself the de facto servant of her cruel step-mother and idiot step-sister. However, she takes comfort from her mother’s legacy: a pair of bejeweled gold-fish slippers and the promise of a special destiny.

Mei Mei hopes to follow in her mother’s footsteps, finding a love match by dancing in the village festival. Unfortunately, the moon is stuck in the sky, putting life on hold for the kingdom. It also puts pressure on the young defiant king, who is responsible for keeping the heavens in equilibrium.

Moon is surprisingly rich in archetypes, mixing Fisher King mythology with universal Cinderella motifs. In fact, the celestial themes raise the stakes of the story considerably. However, the core of the film involves Mei Mei’s struggle to find her place in world that essentially treats girls like chattel. Indeed, the parallels with One-Child China, where girls are all too frequently the victim of abandonment and sex-selection abortions, are difficult to overlook. Young Mei Mei is sweet tempered and vulnerable, but to her credit, she refuses to accept the chauvinism around her.

Thanks to the two highly expressive Mei Mei’s, Xiao Min at age fifteen and Yang Zhicheng at five, viewers will feel a strong emotional connection to the young protagonist. Under Bowen’s sensitive direction, they convey a sense of wonder perfectly suited to a fairy tale. Bowen and cinematographer Wang Yu also capture some breathtaking vistas shot on location in the Southwest Yunnan province.

Moon is a finely crafted period production, featuring some striking costumes designed by Laurence Xu. However, the disembodied-sounding dubbed voices will grate on the ears of cineastes. Still, it might be a necessary trade-off for the film to reach audiences of a certain age.

Of course, it is more important for Moon to reach Chinese audiences. Admirably, it is a mission Bowen takes seriously, having cofounded with his wife Jenny the Half the Sky Foundation, which provides support to Chinese orphans (mostly but not entirely girls like Mei Mei). Deeper and richer than most fairy tale films, Moon is highly recommended (for boys too) at this year’s NYICFF. It screens this Saturday (3/3) at Cantor, Saturday the 17th at the Asia Society, and Sunday the 25th at the IFC Center.

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The Snowtown Murders: the Bodies in the Barrels

The grisly discovery of a number of bodies dumped into barrels rocked the working class Adelaide suburb of Snowtown in 1999. The critically hailed “based on a true story” film will not do much to restore the community’s reputation, depicting all manner of depravity happening there behind closed doors. Disappointingly, Justin Kurzel’s The Snowtown Murders (sometimes simply billed as Snowtown, trailer here) mostly repackages conventional banality of evil themes, Cannes plaudits notwithstanding, when it opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Jamie Harvey’s mother Elizabeth sure can pick them. She dumped her last boyfriend when his pedophilic tendencies began to surface in earnest. At least, her next beau has some standing in the community. John Bunting is the leader of Snowtown’s self-styled neighborhood watch. He is also psychotic. Nobody objects when he hounds her ex out of town. However, his pathological hatred of pedophiles (which includes more or less anyone he does not like) manifests itself in steadily escalating acts of violence. Before he knows it, the impressionable Harvey has helped fill up a barrel of body parts.

In Kurzel’s film, most of the actual murders happen off screen. Instead, he shows the audience fraternal rape, sexual abuse, and some of the least appealing nudity you will hopefully ever see on film. At least Snowtown cannot be accused of cheap titillation.

Yet, despite the lurid subject matter, Snowtown is a shockingly draggy film. When a crime drama is described as brooding that means it is slow. It is also unpleasant to look at, luxuriating in the tacky décor of the white trash bedroom community. It will inevitably be compared to David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, which is somewhat fair, since they share a common cinematographer: Adam Arkapaw. Snowtown simply lacks the strongly drawn characters and memorable performances of its predecessor.

Still, to give credit where it is due, Daniel Henshall takes viewers to some interesting places as Bunting. He clearly suggests something of a Napoleon complex at work and conveys Bunting’s uncanny ability for sizing people up. His scene swaying Harvey over to the dark side truly crackles with intelligence and menace. Unfortunately, the balance of the film simply lacks that fire.

Deliberately withholding genre satisfaction, Snowtown is the sort of psycho-vigilante movie that tells viewers to eat their peas and then finish their homework. Yes, it convincingly makes the point the schlubby guy next door could be a monster, but that is surely well worn ground by now. After all, the Shadow was telling the Greatest Generation they had no idea what evil lay in the hearts of men back when radio was the biggest thing going. Ultimately, Snowtown has some sharply written moments, but the whole is rather flat. It opens Friday (3/2) at the IFC Center in New York.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Panahi’s This is Not a Film

The Iranian Islamist regime continues to develop new methods of oppressing its people. Despite international protests, the government upheld Jafar Panahi’s conviction on ill defined thought crimes. However, it has lifted his infamous house arrest as he waits to serve his six year prison term. Ironically, according to those who have spoken with Panahi, he would prefer to start serving his sentence, so he can move forward with his life, but the regime has perversely left him to twist in the wind, banned from filmmaking, prohibited from traveling, and unable to make any long term plans.

Unfortunately, many in the international film community who rallied to Panahi’s cause, have been somewhat deceived by his relative liberty. Meanwhile, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Panahi’s collaborator on his latest but hopefully not last film, faces his own set of criminal charges. At least he will have a good idea what to expect. With Panahi, Mirtahmasb co-directed This is Not a Film (trailer here), a documentary record of a day in the life of the award winning filmmaker chafing under house arrest while contemplating his now certain twenty year ban on movie-making, which opens this Friday in New York at Film Forum.

With his doomed appeal still pending, Panahi is confined to his comparatively upscale but not all that spacious Tehran flat on the eve of Persian New Year. Since he cannot make a film, he makes This is Not a Film, with the furtive assistance of Mirtahmasb, a digital video camera, and the odd handheld device.

Considering we are simply watching a man putter about his apartment (with Igi, the scene stealing pet iguana), Not a Film is surprisingly engaging. Even under extreme stress, Panahi is clearly a man of considerable wit and charm (a fact that makes him all the more threatening to the regime). We watch as he blocks out scenes for a film that might never be produced and listen as he cryptically discusses projects with Mirtahmasb in an effort to shield him from presumed eavesdroppers. These are the small grimly fascinating day-to-day realities of artistic repression in Iran. Just in case any of the significance is lost on viewers, the blank closing credits ought to bring it all home.

Not a Film is a quiet film that resolutely avoids anything that might be deemed provocation. Frankly, the circumstances that gave rise to the not-film should never have happened. Yet, since it is here, in its way, Not a Film is an inspiring example of the creative impulse as it flows like water through the cracks of an oppressive state. It is already justly renowned as the film that was smuggled out of Iran in a cake. Indeed, it has probably devastated Iran’s bakery exports.

To give credit where it is due, the international film festival network initially did good work speaking out on Panahi’s plight, but their attention has drifted in recent months. It is also important to remember Panahi’s filmmaker colleagues Mohammad Rasoulof (the director of The White Meadows with whom Panahi was originally charged) and Mirtahmasb, who are just as much prisoners of artistic conscience, but might not have the same name recognition on the world stage. Highly recommended, Not a Film should hopefully kick start such efforts when it opens this Wednesday (2/29) at Film Forum.

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NYICFF ’12: Lotte and the Moonstone Secret

Not many cartoon characters have airplanes named after them, but Estonians have that degree of love for a young canine from Gadgetville. There are stuffed Lottes for sale in their toy stores and now her name will grace one of Estonia Air’s NextGen aircraft. It seems appropriate enough, considering how far and how effortlessly she travels in her latest animated adventure, Heiki Ernits & Janno Põldma’s Lotte and the Moonstone Secret (trailer here), which screens during the upcoming 2012 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

In Gadgetville, Lotte’s father is a constant tinkerer. She is a dreamer in an idealist way, while lazy Uncle Klaus prefers the more conventional kind. One night, when everyone in the quiet hamlet should be sleeping, two mysterious rabbits sneak about trying to find the foot that fits a particular shoe. Klaus would be that Cinderella. After an awakened Lotte sends the mystery bunnies scampering, Klaus recalls he lost the shoe on the same hiking trip where he a found the strange stone whose radiant warmth he curls around whenever he sleeps. (Klaus probably will never have puppies now, but fortunately Lotte and her parents seem to be enough family for him.)

As Klaus recalls, he inadvertently swiped three uncanny stones from a hidden mountain temple, which he and his two buddies divvied up between them. Intrigued by the mystery, Lotte prods Klaus to take her on the road, collecting the other two stones. Unbeknownst to them, the uncanny lepus are right behind them.

Lotte is a cute kid (or pup or whatever) and her resourcefulness is appealing. In this adventure, she is unquestionably much more responsible than her slacker uncle. Even though old Klaus teaches her to trust in providence more, parents should still approve of her example.

Ernits & Põldma’s animation is hardly Studio Ghibli quality, but it is at least bright and cheerful. Indeed, it matches its protagonist’s indomitable pluckiness rather fittingly. Neither is the story particularly complicated, but it takes viewers to some fairly fresh fantastical places. Indeed, the Lotte franchise is definitely targeted towards younger viewers, so the dubbed dialogue is understandable.

Everyone loves talking dogs and bunnies and Moonstone has plenty. Pleasant and upbeat, Lotte should charm youngsters and it has absolutely nothing for even the most vigilant parents to object to. Recommended for mature tots and animal loving first and second graders, Lotte and the Moonstone Secret screens this Saturday (3/3) at the Cantor Film Center, Sunday (3/11) at the Scholastic Theater, and Saturday (3/17) also at Scholastic.

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NYKFF ’12: Late Autumn

The setting is Seattle and the lead actress is Chinese, but it is based on a classic 1961 Korean film. Yet, this is a universal story that might remind viewers of films like Brief Encounter and Before Sunrise. Two not-lovers’ abbreviated relationship will be ambiguous but deeply meaningful in Kim Tae-yong’s Late Autumn (trailer here), which screened at the recently wrapped 2012 New York Korean Film Festival.

Kim’s Late Autumn and Lee Man-hee’s before it should not be confused with Yasujiro Ozu’s classic film of them same name. Still, they are similarly distinguished by their wistful tone and humanistic sympathy for their flawed characters. Anna is serving a seven year prison term for killing her abusive husband. Released on a seventy-two hour furlough for her mother’s funeral, she shares a long bus ride with the caddish Hoon. Initially, the “escort” thinks she might be a soft touch, but she is not impressed with his act. Ironically, she is the one who makes an impression on him.

Stifled by the awkwardness of her homecoming, Anna prefers the solitude of walking through Seattle’s historic downtown area, but her path keeps crossing Hoon’s. As they spend guarded time together, something develops between them. Yet, whatever it is, cannot last, which is the delicate beauty of the film.

Yes, we have been told before, time is fleeting. Yet, it is quite exquisitely expressed in Autumn. However, Kim’s film has a dark side unlike the David Lean classic or a host of sentimental copycats. In addition to Anna’s tragic past, Hoon is running away from something rather ugly. Time may or may not be quite fleeting indeed.

Tang Wei is achingly vulnerable as Anna, showing a remarkable range of emotions while maintaining her frozen façade. Best known for her breakout turn in Ang Lee’s erotically charged Lust, Caution, she was to have appeared in the Chinese Communist Party creation myth propaganda film The Founding of a Party, but reportedly Mao’s grandson had her scenes cut for reasons of ideological philistinism. It is not much of a recommendation for Founding, but another good reason to keep an eye out for Autumn.  Tang is a beautiful and remarkably talented actress, who has worked in Chinese cinema since the Founding debacle. Hopefully, Korean and American productions will continue to be an option for her as she contends with the Party’s institutionalized dogma.

A true multinational South Korean-American-Chinese-HK coproduction, Late Autumn is an elegantly simple story, even if its funding is head-spinningly complex. Heart-felt and emotionally mature, it is an assured work highly recommended for those who missed its opening night screening at the tenth annual NYKFF. After a double-secret theatrical release, it seems like a strong programming candidate for one of the Asian film showcases in New York. For those eager for more Korean film on the heels of the festival, the Korean Cultural Service hosts their regular free screening tonight (2/28) at the Tribeca Cinemas, featuring Park Shin-woo’s sinister film noir White Night.

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Monday, February 27, 2012

NYICFF ’12: Ninja Kids!!!

Rantaro’s folks are like most parents. They only want a better life for their son. They just think it will involve bombs and darts. To that end, the first grader is trundled off to a sort of Hogwarts for the deadly martial arts in Takashi Miike’s Ninja Kids!!! (trailer here), which screens during the upcoming 2012 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

The mere thought of a Miike film at a children’s film fest might sound distressingly wrong to those familiar with his more notorious films, like Audition. Nonetheless, Ninja Kids, based on a popular anime and manga series, really is quite kid friendly, while still being manic enough to satisfy the director’s cult following.

Rantaro supposedly comes from a long line of low-ranked ninjas. However, farming is the only work he has ever seen his father do. At considerable financial sacrifice, his parents are sending him to Ninja Academy, so he can make something of himself. The bespectacled young boy hardly looks imposing, but he is one of the better students in the problematic “Ha” class. He is smart and has heart, which is the most important thing according to the old and silly, yet still comically spry headmaster. As it happens, he will need those traits when the first graders become entangled in a Ninja power struggle.

It is a good thing kids have soft bones. Frankly, viewers will worry more about the old-timers Miike tosses around like rag dolls. It never leads to permanent damage though, at least on screen. To give parents an idea of the mayhem involved, when a character is hit in the head with a cannon ball, he just staggers about woozily. If you prize slapstick humor (and what’s not to like?), than Ninja Kids is your Citizen Kane.

Not that it really matters, but Yoshio Urasawa’s adapted screenplay is a bit thin, never really developing the rivalry with the Usetake clan. Of course, this is hardly a plot driven film. It is all about its young characters and cartoony gags. Fortunately, Seishirô Katô plays Rantaro with a winning charm and a toothy grin the camera loves. Hugely likable but never cloying, it is impossible not to buy into him.

Both kids and cult film enthusiasts should eat up Ninja Kids’ lunacy with a big spoon. It also celebrates the value of courage and teamwork in terms that should mollify stick-in-the-mud parents. Recommended as a high-energy crowd pleaser, Ninja Kids!!! (with three exclamation points) screens this Saturday (3/3) at the Cantor Film Center and Saturday the 24th at the Asia Society as part of this year’s NYICFF.

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Korean Cultural Service Presents: White Night

Keigo Higashino’s Byakuyako is the hottest literary property you’ve never heard of. Within a five year span, a Japanese television miniseries and a feature film have dramatized Higashino’s tragic decade-spanning mystery. In between the two productions, a Korean adaptation shifted the story to the ROK. Faithful to the source material, but radically different in tone from the subsequent Japanese version, Park Shin-woo’s White Night (trailer here) makes its North American debut tomorrow as the latest free screening sponsored by the Korean Cultural Service in New York.

Kim Yo-han’s father and Lee Jia’s mother were thought to be carrying on rather openly. When the senior Lee turns up murdered, she becomes the logical suspect. There are a lot of incriminating circumstances, but little hard evidence. When Lee’s mother apparently commits suicide, the case is conveniently closed. However, Detective Han Doong-soo cannot let it lay.

Over the next two decades, the three go in seemingly disparate directions. Han’s career flatlines after the accidental death of his son. Conversely, Lee Jia overcomes the stigma of her infamous mother, with the help of a name change. Now known as Yoo Mi-ho, she is poised to marry a very wealthy man. Kim more or less disappears into anonymity, but he secretly acts as Lee/Yoo’s guardian angel. Anyone threatening her advancement will answer to him.

In both films, Higashino’s two lead characters really have a way of getting into your head. Yoshihiro Fukagawa’s Into the White Night invests more time up front on their traumatic childhood, which pays greater dividends later in the film. It also more fully explains the complex circumstances of the original crime. On the other hand, Park’s version plays up the sex and scandal, making it considerably more accessible to general audiences.

White Night features a strong ensemble, but Go Soo might just take the honors over his Japanese counterpart as the adult Kim Yo-han. It is an intense performance, viscerally projecting his pain and ferocity in equal measure. While her character is icier and less vulnerable here (by design), Son Ye-jin is undeniably a striking and rather nuanced femme fatale (much as she was in the stylistically similar Open City). Indeed, her limited screen time with (or near) Go Soo is powerfully potent stuff.

While Fukagawa’s Night is a tour de force among psychological thrillers, Park’s Night is still a devilishly twisted crime drama. It also happens to be playing in town for free, which cannot be said for either Japanese version this week. Highly recommended in its own right, Park’s White Night screens tomorrow (2/28) at the Tribeca Cinemas, courtesy of the Korean Cultural Service.

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Sunday, February 26, 2012

NYKFF ’12: Moss

Divorced and resentful, Ryu Hae-guk is not someone you want to cross. He looks underwhelming, but he simply will not let things drop. A public prosecutor abusing his position learned that the hard way. A tyrannical village chief might learn a similar lesson when Ryu attends his estranged father’s funeral. Unfortunately, his new antagonist plays by different rules in Kang Woo-suk’s Moss (trailer here), which screens today at BAM as part of the tenth annual New York Korean Film Festival.

Ryu makes enemies. The terms of his alienation from his father Mok-hyeon are not completely clear, but it seems to involve his long absence during the younger Ryu’s formative years. Revered as a guru by his followers, the elder Ryu spent years in prison as part of a corrupt cop’s frame-up job. Yet, instead of breaking the spiritual leader, his incarceration only won him new devotees. Believing he could harness Ryu’s powers, his old nemesis, Cheon Yong-deok, founds a village of ex-cons around Ryu’s pacifying influence. A lot of things went wrong after that, culminating in Ryu Hae-guk’s unwelcomed arrival.

They do not like city folk in the village and they make the fact clear to the junior Ryu. Yet, their reluctance to answer simple questions, like how did his father die, stokes his doubt. Before long he has discovered a network of underground tunnels and witnessed a wide array of questionable behavior. Increasingly suspicious, he enlists an unlikely ally—the only public prosecutor he knows.

Moss has an indescribably eerie vibe that is deeply atmospheric while hinting at something vaguely supernatural. Surrounded by forests, the village setting bears an obvious comparison to Twin Peaks, yet Kang keeps it all reasonably grounded. There are no dwarves or giants, but there are plenty of temporal shifts. Frankly, at well over two and a half hours, Moss probably has one or two flashbacks too many. Indeed, several characters have more time in their backstory narration than in the present day.

Even with healthy doses of old man make-up, Jung Jae-young makes a dynamite villain, oozing fierceness and self-righteousness as Cheon, while chewing the scenery like a monster termite. Park Hae-il’s bland Ryu is no match for him, but he soldiers on as best he can. However, Yoo Sun brings unexpected pathos to the proceedings as Lee Young-ji, a witness, victim, and co-conspirator to Cheon’s crimes. Seen only in the flashbacks of others, Heo Jun-ho also adds tragic gravitas as Ryu’s conflicted father.

In fact, Ryu Mok-hyeon’s sympathetic ambiguity is one of the more intriguing elements of Moss. Even though Evangelical Christianity has grown tremendously in the Republic of Korea over recent decades, it has not been kindly treated in Korean films, like Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine and Lee Yong-ju’s Possessed (which is so unlike Hollywood’s enthusiastic embrace of the Evangelical community here in America). In contrast, Ryu Mok-hyeon is a flawed but earnest and ultimately noble figure. Though he is not explicitly identified as an Evangelical, the signifiers are pretty clear.

Moss is a spooky thriller with an eerie sense of place. Thanks to art directors Zoh Sung-won and Lee Tae-hoon, its mountain village looks great, but you would not want to visit there. Though admittedly on the longish side, Kang dexterously handles each new revelation, keeping viewers hooked throughout. Well worth seeing on a big screen, Moss plays this afternoon at the BAM Rose Cinema, where the 2012 New York Korean Film Festival concludes tonight (2/26).

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Saturday, February 25, 2012

NYKFF ’12: Hindsight

Se-bin is like a Korean Lisbeth Salander, except she is younger and crack marksman rather than a hacker. Otherwise, she is just like her alright. She certainly interests a retired mobster, but not in a sleazy way. Yet, their non-romance constantly flirts with tragedy in Lee Hyun-seung’s emotionally complex Hindsight (trailer here), one of the highlights of tenth annual New York Korean Film Festival now underway at BAM.

Du-heon was an old school gangster who never really made the transition from cutting implements to guns. Perhaps that is why he wants to be a chef. Always the favorite of the soon to be deceased boss of bosses, rival factions have Du-heon under surveillance. Their spy is Se-bin, Du-heon’s impatient partner in his culinary class. Her punky look and vastly superior skills intrigues the former racketeer.

Once a top-ranked competitive shooter, Se-bin’s career was cut short by an accident. Reluctantly, she agreed to keep tabs on Du-heon after she and her ambiguous girlfriend Eun-jung became indebted to the Busan mob. When Eun-jung makes their situation worse, Se-bin is forced to take a more active role in the brewing gangland power struggle. However, her hard to define feelings for Du-heon complicate matters tremendously.

Lee Hyun-seung is best known internationally for Il Mare, which Hollywood remade as the watered-down Lake House. While he concentrates on Du-heon and Se-bin’s not exactly paternal but scrupulously chaste relationship, he has a pretty good handle on the gangster genre elements, which gives him the space to let the two leads breathe and evolve.

One of Korea’s biggest stars and easily the most recognizable to American art house audiences, Song Kang-ho delivers a knockout performance as Du-heon. Instead of the schlubby loser in The Host or the reckless oddball in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, he gets to play the Clint Eastwood role in Hindsight. Cool but not smooth, he brings a hardnosed gravitas to Du-heon American audiences really have not seen from him before, while sharing some unusually sensitive chemistry with Shin Se-kyung’s Se-bin, who is cute and vulnerable to a truly scary degree (especially for a would be assassin).

Perhaps a tad long at a smidge over two hours, Hindsight also probably has one or two hired killers too many. However, it is a genuinely fresh and mature spin on the gangster morality play. Lee and Song’s reputations should assure it will be programmed by many Asian and general interest film festivals around the country, but if the rights are available, an American distributor really ought to take a good hard look at it. Unexpectedly endearing, Hindsight helped launch the 2012 NYKFF in fine style last night. Screenings continue tonight and tomorrow (2/25 & 2/26) at the BAM Rose Cinema, two blocks from the Atlantic Avenue subway hub.

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Friday, February 24, 2012

The Cool Master: Cab Calloway

With the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess back on Broadway, it is a fine time to pay homage to the original Sportin’ Life. It was a role modeled on and originated by the timelessly hip jazz vocalist and bandleader Cab Calloway. Though far from exhaustive, Gail Levin hits a lot of his career highlights in the breezy and informative Cab Calloway: Sketches (trailer here), which airs on PBS’s American Masters this coming Monday.

Naturally, there is a lot of “Minnie the Moocher” in Sketches. It is the Calloway song everybody knows, even if they do not know they know it. Here’s a hint: “Hi de hi de hi de ho.” Sound familiar? Legions of fans were first introduced to it in the Blues Brothers movie. Understandably, Sketches spends a great deal of time on this late career renaissance for bandleader, featuring the reminiscences of director John Landis and Blues Brothers band members Steve Cropper, Lou Marini and Donald “Duck” Dunne, who still give Calloway props for coolness.

Levin also assembles the usual suspects of jazz talking heads to place Calloway in a musical-historical context. However, some of the most insightful commentary comes from his grandson Chris “Calloway” Brooks, the leader of the Calloway ghost band. While his stage persona is a bit shticky, Brooks really breaks down the inner workings of Calloway’s band and music in a way that should inspire fresh appreciation for the bandleader among those who previously had trouble getting past the zoot suits.

Sketches touches on the Cotton Club years, The Hepster’s Dictionary, and his appearance with Lena Horne in Stormy Weather. Of course, there is plenty it misses, like his run on Broadway in Hello Dolly opposite Pearl Bailey or the spitball controversy involving his soon to be former sideman Dizzy Gillespie that inspired Jean Bach’s award- winning documentary short (which it actually saves as an outtake for the American Masters website), but as a bite-sized sampler, it is an easily digestible introduction to the American Hepster Master. After all, when was the last time you saw Calloway on free TV, besides maybe a rebroadcast of The Blues Brothers?

At just under an hour, Sketches is brief, but entertaining and affectionate. Arguably, if it leaves viewers wanting more, it has achieved its purpose. A nicely put together jazz tribute, Sketches is recommended for general audiences when it runs on PBS this Monday (2/27), as part of the current season of American Masters.

(Photos: Artline Films / J.-F. Pitet)

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Infiltrating Hollywood: Behind the Scenes of The Spook Who Sat By the Door

Don’t call Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat By the Door blaxploitation, it is revolutionary cinema. Of course, with its funky soundtrack and racially charged politics it still fits relatively easily within the general genre rubric, but the makers had something more ambitious in mind. Surviving cast-members and Sam Greenlee, the co-producer and author of the original source novel, discuss the production and legacy of the controversial film in Christine Acham and Clifford Ward’s Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of The Spook Who Sat By the Door (trailer here), which airs on the Documentary Channel this coming Tuesday.

TSWSBTD and The Help are two films not often mentioned in the same breath, but that sort of happened when both Infiltrating Hollywood and the mass market Civil Rights era drama won honors earlier this month at the Black Reel Awards. Somehow, TSWSBTD had been overlooked at the Academy Awards after its limited 1973 release. Helmed by actor and TV director Ivan Dixon, best known to the square for his role on Hogan’s Heroes, TSWSBTD was based on the novel by Sam Greenlee, a former Foreign Service veteran decorated for his service during the 1958 revolution in Iraq.

Admittedly, Infiltrating follows the standard behind-the-scenes feature format, but the stories of TSWSBTD are pretty fascinating, regardless of where reviewers are coming from. Though Dixon passed away in 2008, both Greenlee and his widow discuss their collaboration in depth. Despite the passage of years, Greenlee has apparently lost none of his radical fervor. Be that as it may, the production remains a triumph of independent filmmaking. Of course, they had some advantages other indie crews cannot count on, like having the Gary, Indiana Police Department at their service.

Undeniably extreme and arguably racist in its advocacy of political violence, TSWSBTD is nonetheless a hugely entertaining film. In large measure, this is due to the late Lawrence Cook’s stone cold performance as Dan Freeman, the first African American CIA officer, who uses his agency training to organize the Chicago gangs into urban guerrillas. J.A. Preston, recognizable as the presiding officer in the A Few Good Men court martial, adds all kinds of cool cred to TSWSBTD and appears in Infiltrating, helping to put the film in context. Inexplicably though, Herbie Hancock’s legendary soundtrack is never addressed in the documentary, despite the fact it continues to attract scores of fans to Dixon’s film.

However, Infiltrating continues to advance the story that the FBI sought to suppress TSWSBTD, but never really offers any evidence beyond the highly circumstantial. It is hard to blame them for printing the legend though, considering it has become an article of faith for many. Indeed, it was not the only not-blaxploitation film to feature revolutionary characters, but unlike Oscar Williams’ The Final Comedown, in which the paramilitaries are stabbed in the back by rich white New Left activists, Freeman and his guerillas really do start a violent insurrection.

Infiltrating presumes a certain audience, yet even those who are not the intended political-demographic type should still find it a fascinating time-capsule look back at an impossible to replicate film. Recommended for cult film connoisseurs, it makes its cable broadcast debut this Tuesday, February 28 at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on Documentary Channel. For more information on finding DOC, check their website here.

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The Wooster Group At-Large, At AFA

Joan Jonas, Irving Pichel (with producer George Pal), and Paul Verhoeven have all adapted the work of science fiction novelist Robert A. Heinlein. However, one has to wonder what the SFWA Grand Master, Navy veteran, and god father of libertarianism would have made of Jonas’s highly experimental Double Lunar Dogs, inspired by his novella Universe. Traditional sf audiences might find themselves out to sea as well when it screens as part of the "At-Large" sidebar to Anthology Film Archives’ Wooster Group retrospective, featuring group members cast in outside productions.

Universe was one of the earliest incarnations of the “generation ship” motif, in which the presumably last vestige of humanity has come of age on a great spaceship, forgetting their origins on the long dead Earth. Jonas and Spalding Gray are two such interstellar travelers in Lunar, who try to impose some order onto the jumbled surviving images of Earth.

There is a lot of distortion and technical gamesmanship going on in Lunar that looks rather cheesy by contemporary standards. In fact, subsequent interviews suggest Jonas somewhat regrets her over reliance on these tricks, in retrospect. Ironically though, it makes it a real time capsule of early 1980’s video production technology. While experimental cinema connoisseurs will be able to relate to it in the context of Jonas’s full oeuvre, sci-fi fans will find it more interesting as a footnote than as a viewing experience in and of itself.

The Wooster sidebar collects a number of films across the narrative spectrum, including features helmed by Raúl Ruiz and Kathryn Bigelow. Somehow, Bruce & Norman Yonemoto’s Made in Hollywood manages to be both totally narrative driven and self-consciously post-modern. Riffing on the Wizard of Oz, it tells a Hollywood ingénue discovery fable, in blank-and-white and color, while including ostensive behind-the-scenes interviews with the cast.

Also interspersed with grocery store commercials, Hollywood recalls the vibe of watching a classic movie timer-recorded on an old VHS tape. It also boasts quite a well known cast, including Patricia Arquette, convincingly dumb as the innocent protagonist, as well as Michael Lerner, who actually gives a great performance as the last of the old school moguls.

The Wooster Group retrospective and particularly the At-Large sidebar represent the sort of programming only the Anthology Film Archives is bold enough to tackle on a regular basis. Indeed, several selections, like Made in Hollywood, are quite intriguing films well worth discovering. The At-Large sidebar starts today (2/24) and runs through March 1st, with Lunar screening as part of a short film double bill this afternoon and Hollywood screening this coming Monday (2/27).

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Iranian Taboo: Islamist Persecution of Baha’i Followers

For some, Dizzy Gillespie’s conversion is they know about the Baha’i Faith. Many believe it to be a denomination of Islam, but that is a misconception. However, it was founded within the Islamic world, which makes its very existence an act of apostasy to hardline Islamists. As a result, Baha’i followers have often been persecuted in Islamic countries, most particularly Iran. Iranian-Dutch expatriate filmmaker Reza Allamehzadeh exposes Iran’s long and progressively escalating oppression of its Baha’i religious minority in Iranian Taboo (trailer here), which opens this Friday in the Los Angeles area.

Taboo may not be the most refined looking documentary, because so much of its footage was crudely recorded and surreptitiously smuggled out of Iran. Ironically, getting out of Iran is relatively easy for Baha’i followers. Living there in peace is another matter entirely. Taboo tracks one unfortunate family on their involuntary immigration to a less than welcoming Turkey.

Incorporating their video diary with the testimony of other Iranian followers, Allamehzadeh compiles a compelling indictment of the Iranian religious and governmental authorities. Perhaps most eye-opening is the story of the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), an underground university founded to serve followers who were denied college admittance solely on the basis of their religion. Internationally recognized, it probably maintained higher standards than Iran’s officially sanctioned universities, until the government forcibly shut it down late last year.

Openly critical of the Islamist regime, Allamehzadeh was not allowed back into Iran, so he relied on a courageous network of professional and amateur filmmakers, who remain anonymous, for obvious reasons. At one point though, he offers up some kneejerk criticism of Israel that might depress more informed viewers. Yet, it makes it difficult to dismiss him as a “Zionist agent.”

In fact, he was making a similar point, arguing the Israeli-“Palestinian” issue he buys into has nothing to do with the repression of innocent Iranian Baha’i followers, especially those who found themselves absurdly accused of spying for the Mossad, the CIA, or whoever. Still, it is worth noting, as home to the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa, Israel’s tolerance and hospitality stands in marked contrast to the institutionalized discrimination of her neighbors. After all, Allamehzadeh was obviously allowed to freely film there.

Indeed, Taboo vividly illustrates the orchestrated thuggery and systemic prejudice endured by Iranian followers on a daily basis. Though it leans a bit heavily on talking heads during the closing segments, it is overall quite informative and authoritative. Shining a needed spotlight into a hidden corner of contemporary Iran, Taboo is a sobering film, well worthy of audience and media attention when it opens this Friday (2/24) at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills and March 13th for a three day engagement at the Landmark Shattuck in Berkley.

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They Call It Myanmar: Burma from the Inside

Even the Buddhist monks are fed up with Burma’s oppressive military regime. A deeply devout nation, the Burmese people were shocked when the army fired on their peaceful demonstrations. Yet, the junta still rules. Physics professor, novelist, and independent filmmaker Robert H. Lieberman explores the tragic dynamics of the Southeast Asian country from a layman’s point of view in They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain (trailer here), which screens for two nights only this coming Monday and Tuesday in New York.

Perhaps because of the wide variety of professional hats Lieberman wears, he was recruited to participate in a State Department sponsored filmmaker mentoring program. Having gained entrée into the “second most isolated country on the planet,” Lieberman recognized what an unusual opportunity he had. Over the next two years, Lieberman furtively filmed the people and their customs, keeping his eyes peeled for anything that might shed light on the nation’s political and social realities. He even scored an on-camera sit-down interview with the recently released Aung San Suu Kyi, which should always be good for bragging rights around the Cornell faculty lounge.

Culled from hours of footage, Call mixes sort of National Geographic-style appreciations of Burma/Myanmar’s stunning temples and their distinctive application of thanaka facial paste for cooling and cosmetic purposes via handheld camcorder, with legitimate muckraking. Indeed, at not insignificant personal risk, Lieberman conveys a real sense of the fear and paranoia fostered by the military police state. Yet, perhaps even more shocking are the truly Sisyphean hand-to-mouth living conditions endured by the overwhelming majority of Burmese, vividly documented in Call.

For obvious reasons, Lieberman scrupulously maintains the anonymity of his interview subjects. Their commentary is consistently illuminating and more often than not depressing, suggesting the regime’s pervasive oppression has even affected the populace’s psychological ability to think as a political free agent. Still, for true profundity, it is hard to top Suu Kyi’s parting words: “politicians who think they’ve gone beyond being politicians are very dangerous.” Someone should carve that in marble where the current and future occupants of the Oval Office will see it every day.

There is nothing more frustrating than an ostensibly independent filmmaker producing a puff piece in a notorious closed society (as was the case with Justine Shapiro’s whitewashed Our Summer in Tehran, for instance). To his credit, Lieberman chose to take the tougher path. The result is a solid boots-on-the-ground overview of contemporary Burma, periodically spiked with moments of shocking outrage. Interested viewers who find it a good general introduction can then fill in the details with more specific case studies, like HBO2’s Burma Soldier and Luc Besson’s upcoming Suu Kyi biopic The Lady. Recommended for general audiences, They Call It Myanmar screens Monday and Tuesday (2/27 & 2/28) at New York’s Landmark Sunshine, with similar two-evening Landmark engagements to follow in Philadelphia, DC, and Boston.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How to Start a Revolution: A Nonviolent but Dangerous Mind

Dr. Gene Sharp has been vilified by Hugo Chavez, the Iranian government, and bizarrely, the Occupy Oakland blog. Whatever such a man has to say is worth listening to, unless of course you are trying to protect the ruling party. In contrast, Dr. Sharp always sides with the revolutionaries, but advocates strictly nonviolent tactics. Journalist-filmmaker Ruaridh Arrow, who reported from Tahrir Square for the BBC, profiles Sharp and documents the applications of his work in How to Start a Revolution (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Brooklyn at the ReRun Gastropub theater.

Dr. Sharp literally wrote the book on nonviolent revolution. It is called From Dictatorship to Democracy and it is available as a free download from the Albert Einstein Institute he heads. If you ever wondered why so many protests around the globe have signs written in English, it is because Dr. Sharp recommends it. He has a lot of general tactical advice, but eschewing violence is the essential point.

Nonviolence might sound hippy-dippy, but Dr. Sharp comes across as a rather down-to-earth nonpartisan scholar. He has just as readily advised democracy advocates struggling under leftist dictatorships, such as in Venezuela, Burma, Georgia, and Ukraine, as regimes considered friendly to American interests, like Mubarak’s Egypt. Despite the canard he is a CIA puppet, his independence seems pretty evident, based on the Egyptian and Syrian activists who pay homage to Sharp in the Institute’s shoebox offices.

Arrow lucidly lays out Dr. Sharp’s principles and how various democracy movements have put them into practice. However, the results seem like more of a mixed bag than he would like to admit. In fact, Dr. Sharp’s celebrated volume was originally written for the Burmese, who have yet to shake off their military oligarchy, despite the enormous personal price nonviolently born by Aung San Suu Kyi. While applauding their courage, Dr. Sharp also argues the Tiananmen Square protests lacked proper planning and direction. They certainly were not able to co-opt the police and military, which is a crucial step in his playbook. As for Egypt, the jury is still out, but they seem to have traded a corruptocracy for military rule (if they are lucky, that is).

Probably the strongest material in Arrow’s film logically involves the greatest success: Serbia’s ouster of Slobodan Milošević. Trained in Dr. Sharp’s methods by his unlikely protégé, retired Col. Bob Helvey (who is as colorful an interview subject as ever there was), the opposition youth movement Otpor did everything right. It is a fascinating and inspiring story that remains woefully under-reported in this country.

HTSAR to will not spur wholesale conversions to pacifism. However, it will likely challenge and broaden the way people think about the continuing struggle for freedom and constitutional democracy around the world. Indeed, it is rare that a film offers so much to engage with. Unusually provocative and intellectually rigorous, HTSAR is (surprisingly) recommended quite keenly when it opens this Friday (2/24) at the ReRun Gastropub Theater.

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Forgiveness of Blood: the Albanian Family Feud

Albania is a member of NATO and the WTO. In the south, the former Communist country has responded well to free market reforms, but the rugged north lags behind. Facing grim prospects, the traditional honor-based culture codified in a fifteenth century legal code has reasserted itself in the mountainous region. One Albanian teenager’s life is permanently altered by an extra-legal blood feud in Joshua Martson’s The Forgiveness of Blood (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Supposedly the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini values forgiveness above all else, but it has been implemented as a vehicle for eye-for-an-eye retribution. Explicitly banned under Communism and still not legal per se, the principles of the Kanun have been increasingly if selectively practiced in the Northern region where Nik’s family lives.

When his father and uncle kill an old family rival under circumstances both side prefer to keep murky, Nik becomes the prime target for revenge. However, the archaic code prohibits killing anyone in their home. As a result, Nik must endure de facto house arrest indefinitely, unless he is granted a “besa” or temporary furlough.

As young kid interested in girls and possibly having a future, Nik’s frustration mounts as his confinement continues. This leads to friction when his fugitive father visits and forces his academically promising sister Rudina to become the family’s primary bread winner (selling bread, as it just so happens). It is all quite honest and earnest drama, but it might be better suited to the stage than a movie theater. Frankly, even the most disciplined viewer will get antsy watching Nik mope around the house after a while.

Clearly, Marston wants viewers to share Nik’s mounting claustrophobia and he succeeds well enough to that end. However, the film would have benefited from a wider perspective. We see quite clearly that Rudina is just as much a victim as Nik, but the full social context is missing. There are cops out there (including an officer belonging to the rival family) fully aware of the situation. How do they justify it from a legal point of view? Even the terms of the original dispute raise larger questions. For decades, Nik’s father used a certain road cutting through his late nemesis’s property. It actually used to be their family’s property, but a prior regime redistributed it. Was that the hardline Hoxha regime? Is part of the blood feud phenomenon rooted in resentments from the Communist era? At least in this case, we are left to wonder.

Submitted by Albania as its foreign language Oscar contender, Forgiveness was disqualified because Marston and most of his crew (like cinematographer Rob Hardy) are not Albanian or sufficiently exotic by Academy standards. Still the age-appropriate Albanian Tristan Halilaj and Sindi Lacej are quite poised and engaging as Nik and Rudina.

Eventually, Forgiveness reaches a genuinely powerful conclusion, but Marston takes viewers on a slow and static march to get there. Ultimately, it raises more questions than it answers, while threatening to undermine Albania’s burgeoning tourist trade. Well intentioned but rather tiring, Forgiveness opens this Friday (2/24) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Australia Invaded: Tomorrow When the War Began

The freedom of Australia depends on a handful of teenagers. Fortunately, they are mostly quite good looking. That means they have even more to lose and will therefore be fiercer fighters. A rag tag band of students duly unleash their inner Wolverines in Stuart Beattie’s Tomorrow When the War Began (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select cities and streams on demand via Freestyle Digital Media’s Facebook platform.

The time is twenty-for hours from now. The place is coastal New South Wales. It is a nice area to grow up and raise a family. At least it was until a foreign military invaded. Ellie Linton and her friends do not know that yet. They have been camping out in a remote mountain clearing misnamed “Hell.” When they return, cell service is out, the land lines are down, and their families are nowhere to be found.

Eventually, they discover the town’s fairground has been turned into a detention center by a vaguely Asian looking army. After a few narrow escapes and a considerable amount of bickering, they decide it is time to take the fight to their invaders and that strategically positioned bridge looks like a good place to start.

Based on John Marsden’s bestselling Tomorrow series of YA novels, TWTWB obviously owes a debt to the original old school Red Dawn, but that’s okay. Considering how cool the classic Dawn remains, it is downright bizarre it has not been emulated more often. Frankly, Beattie somewhat tarries in the first act, establishing full well and good just which teens like whom (Linton has a thing for the Lee Takkan, while the well heeled Fiona Maxwell fancies Homer Yannos, the slightly delinquent son of Greek immigrants.)

Still, he juggles a lot of teen angst relatively nimbly. His adaptation also treats evangelical character Robyn Mathers with respect, even when presenting her reverence for life as a source of friction with her less conflicted friends. (Why not just throw some St. Thomas Aquinas books at her? Or better yet, throw them at the enemy.)

On one hand, the conspicuous effort taken to not identify the nationality of the invaders is somewhat problematic (one would think that would be valuable intel to suss out). Based on their rhetoric about natural resources and establishing stability in the Pacific region, China sounds like an obvious suspect. Yet, it allows the film to effectively ratchet up the teens’ mood of what-the-heck-is-going-on bewilderment and perhaps sets the scene for big revelations in films to follow.

As Linton and Takkan, the more or less leads, Caitlin Stasey and Chris Pang are reasonably charismatic presences and wholly credible action figures. Phoebe “The Secret Circle” Tonkin is also surprisingly engaging as the Clueless-esque Maxwell, but Deniz Akdeniz’s Yannos seems to be looking for a Welcome Back Kotter reboot much of the time.

Once Linton and her comrade get organized and down to business, the film starts cooking nicely. It certainly sets up viewers, leaving us wanting more. Since TWTWB ranks as Australia’s highest grossing domestically produced release of 2010, more is indeed reportedly on the way. That is rather welcome news. It is certainly fun and professional grade popcorn fare that also seriously addresses themes of freedom, responsibility, and sacrifice. It is exactly the sort of film that could make a mint for Hollywood, but apparently they are content to leave such money on the table.

As is customary for most imports, TWTWB will only open in select cities this Friday (2/24) including the Criterion 7 in New Haven and the Palace 18 in Miami, but it will also be accessible to audiences nationwide, through Freestyle’s digital distribution on Facebook. Recommended as a non-taxing teen action picture with a good message and the promise of even better installments down the road, TWTWB is definitely worth checking out from the comfort of your own laptop.

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The Fairy: Physical Comedy as High Art

A lot of immigrants come to France through the port city of Le Havre, some legally documented, but many more not. Of course, such laws can hardly apply to the Fae like Fiona. She has supposedly come to grant a sad sack hotel night clerk three wishes, but falls in love during the process in the gentle but burst out loud funny comedy fable The Fairy (trailer here), written and directed by the multi-hyphenated Belgian trio of Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, and Bruno Romy, opening this Friday in New York.

If Fiona really is a fairy, her magical skills need sharpening. There is no denying her resourcefulness though. When she offers poor put-upon Dom the proverbial three wishes, she actually delivers on the first two. While a third wish does not immediately leap to mind, Fiona assures him he can take his time thinking about it. She is in no hurry to be on her way. Nor is he anxious to see her leave. Unfortunately, just as their idiosyncratic romance blossoms, events intervene. Much like Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, Dom will find himself tangled up with a group of North African illegals as he attempts to bust Fiona out of the mental ward.

Everyone likens Abel, Gordon and Romy to Jacques Tati and in truth, it is a rather apt comparison. Rubber boned and rubber faced, Abel and Gordon have a flair for dramatic contortions and outrageous situations. While Romy fills a relatively small supporting role in this outing, he has some genuinely inspired bits of business as a nearly blind barkeep.

The Fairy is so consistently inventive and gleefully eccentric, it never feels cute or cloying. Like Kaurismäki’s port city tale, Abel, Gordon, and Romy address contemporary issues with the lightest of touches. Rather than a contemporary polemic, it comes across like a paean to underdogs, whoever they might be.

Despite the Potemkin-esque climax, there is nothing heavy about The Fairy. Bright and airy with a pastel color palette, it is clean and refreshing entertainment. Indeed, the filmmaking trio demonstrates physical comedy can be a form of high art. Warmly recommended, it opens this Friday (2/24) in New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center uptown and the Quad Cinema downtown.

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Monday, February 20, 2012

Kart Kids: Racing Dreams

It is sort of like little league, except way more expense. Yet, the parents and/or guardians of three young drivers bear the costs in hopes their children will move up from the Go-Karts ranks to the NASCAR circuit. The ups and downs of three young karters competing for the national title are documented in Marshall Curry’s Racing Dreams (trailer here), which airs this Thursday on PBS’s POV.

Much like NASCAR, the World Karting Association’s Paving Series allots points towards their championship in five races spread out over the year. Frankly, Brandon Warren looks like the youngest of the trio, but he is in fact the top contender in the WKA’s senior division. Though competing in the junior division, Annabeth Barnes looks like the oldest, lending credence to the notion girls mature faster emotionally than boys. While this is her first season in the juniors, it is likely the final year for Joshua Hobson, who expects to be moving up and out after hopefully winning the juniors.

Executive produced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson before the release of Fast Five, Dreams features plenty of karts going round in circles. However, it offers even more Hoop Dreams style family life, the most dramatic of which centers around Warren. He might indulge in some loud acting out, but it quickly becomes apparent the driver and his patient grandfather have put up with a terrible lot from his drug abusing (and perhaps dealing) father. In contrast, the Barnes and Hobson households are stable and supportive, but the financial burden of karting remains a very real concern.

To Curry’s credit, the film never feels like it is looking down its nose at its NASCAR dreaming subjects. Aside from Warren’s problematic father, they are all deeply faith and family oriented, with tireless work ethics. They definitely believe in sacrificing now for the sake of a better future for the children. Yet, one has to wonder if placing such a large bet on racing is the wisest course of action.

In truth, enthusiasm for motor sports probably helps foster an appreciation for Dreams. Curry and his fellow cinematographers capture the racing action quite clearly, making it all easy to follow, even for novice viewers. The three primary drivers are also all pretty engaging for kids, but tweeners can only possibly be just so interesting. Not essential viewing, but recommended for racing fans and New Yorkers who need to expand their familiarity with the heartland, Dreams can be seen this Thursday (2/23) on most PBS outlets as a special winter presentation of POV.

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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 steady 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 soon to be former Communist Youth 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 New York.

Named after Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, Mels is junior party activist who looks like a young Conan O’Brien. Polly is a classic Russian beauty, who runs with the jazz-listening extravagantly-dressed 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, his old 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 toward 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 is 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 already one of the year’s best. It opens this Friday (2/24) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Film Comment Selects ’12: Mortem

Death never takes a holiday. When a young woman’s spectral companion manipulates her into stopping at a desolate hotel, it must be all business. However, things get more complicated than either expects in Eric Atlan’s trippy Mortem (Czech trailer here), which screens during the 2012 edition of Film Comment Selects, hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Jena and her fellow rider evidently enjoy feeling the wind in their hair as they motorcycle helmetless down lonely country roads. The fog though is a little too much forcing them to stop at truly gothic looking hotel. It seems the proprietors have been expecting them, or at least Jena’s companion, whom they can see, but she cannot, yet. It seems the uncanny woman has arranged to do some ominous business at their establishment, once the creepy staff leaves her to it.

Viewers soon learn Jena and the strange woman are profoundly connected and once she reveals herself, it is supposed to be curtains for the mortal woman. To the surprise of her ghostly captor, Jena’s will to live proves quite strong. Much like the knight in The Seventh Seal (a head-smackingly obvious influence on Mortem), Jena shows great resourcefulness navigating the games and rituals of death. As the fateful night advances, the stakes increase for everyone.

Mortem is a very strange stylistic and tonal hodgepodge. The opening scenes play like high camp, but as it cranks up the metaphysics, it gets deadly serious. It is almost like David Lynch took over the helm of Gene Wilder’s Haunted Honeymoon after the first fifteen minutes. Fortunately though, this is no Lost Highway. Atlan actually wants viewers to follow his story, which seems to follow its internal rules well enough once established.

It will still baffle the lowest common denominator, but at least Atlan offers them some steamy distractions. As it happens, Jena’s mysterious tormentor likes her a lot, which gives her a weakness to exploit. Indeed, for a surreal and cerebral genre movie mash-up, Mortem is rather hot.

Atlan and Marc Bercovitz, the co-producer and co-composer of the deliberately overbearing Bernard Hermann on steroids score, were clearly not concerned about going too far over the top with Mortem. In a way though, that is rather refreshing. It has been a while since a film has really gone for broke, but this one certainly does.

Panchenko Daria and Diana Rudychenko are, yes attractive, but also pretty compelling as the supernatural chess players. While their characters could easily be reduced to archetypal cut-outs, they suggest each has a real emotional investment in the face-off.

Gorgeously shot by the director-cinematographer in moody black-and-white, Mortem has all kinds of noir going on. No doubt about it, this is a weird film, but mostly in a good way. Frankly, considering how atmospheric and narrative driven Mortem is (not to mention the other attention generating aspects), it is surprising it has not been snapped up by an American boutique distributor yet. Recommended for genre audiences looking for something new, Mortem screens again this Tuesday afternoon (2/21) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects.

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Memphis on Great Performances

Celebrity casting might sell tickets initially, but their commitment to a production is usually limited. However, if a show hires Broadway actors by virtue of their talent, they stand a chance of keeping the original cast together for a long run. Happily such has been the case for Broadway’s Memphis, the Tony Award winning book musical that may no longer qualify as “new” but still remains fresh. Viewers can find out for themselves, either by visiting New York where it continues its crowd pleasing run or by tuning into PBS’s Great Performances, which broadcasts Memphis recorded live in performance with its original cast this coming Friday.

Huey Calhoun is one of the few white residents of Memphis who is either gutsy or innocent enough to frequent the African American clubs on Beale Street. While his presence makes club owner Delray Farrell understandably uneasy, everyone generally accepts the goofy kid because of his obvious affinity for their music. Smitten with Farrell’s sister Felicia, the big talker promises to get her on a major Memphis radio station. Commandeering the broadcast booth of the station owned by the upright and uptight Mr. Simmons, Calhoun lights up the proverbial phone lines spinning R&B for appreciative white teenagers. Suddenly, Calhoun has a steady job.

For a while, Calhoun actually has it all, including a relationship with Farrell. Yet he just does not understand how things really work in Memphis, whereas she is all too aware of reality. Although their love might be impossible in that specific time and place, their music is the future and it is quite catchy indeed.

Though the score by David Bryan (best known as a member of Bon Jovi, but also the composer of the Toxic Avenger musical) is a bit more orchestrated and well, Broadway-sounding than the genuine R&B and rock & roll of the period, it really delivers the goods. “Someday,” Felicia’s first hit in the context of the show, really does sound like it could have been a chart-topper, perhaps for Etta James. Ironically, one of the show’s highlight comes from Derrick Baskin as the mostly silent Gator, who blows everyone away with “Say a Prayer,” the riveting gospel-derived first act closer. However, the standout song is arguably Calhoun’s feature, “Memphis Lives in Me.” It is actually a twofer: musically it is a legitimate showstopper, but it also explains Calhoun’s character better than any of the previous dialogue.

Granted, Joe DiPietro’s book is not exactly the most original treatment of themes and issues that drive Memphis. Of course, clichés become clichés because they work, and audiences will most likely find themselves charmed by Memphis’s likable and vocally talented leads. Frankly, Chad Kimball’s weird affected, nasally accent and rabble rousing man-child demeanor suggests a pronounced Jerry Lee Lewis influence. Sounding totally Beale Street, Montego Glover takes a star-making turn as Felicia, displaying dramatic poise and powerhouse vocal chops. In supporting roles as Calhoun’s Beale Street friends, Baskin and James Monroe Iglehart also make a strong musical impression.

Memphis boasts far more memorable songs than nearly any of its Broadway contemporaries (most of whom have since come and gone), which is the ultimate measure of a musical. Slickly produced and tightly paced, Memphis looks great and sounds soulful. Christopher Ashley’s stage direction holds up well for those of us who saw it in-person during its early months and veteran television director Don Roy King effectively captures the spirit of the show through Broadway Worldwide’s multiple high def cameras. Recorded in January of last year and briefly seen in movie theaters for four days, King’s live-recorded Memphis is highly recommended for both fans and first time audiences when it airs this Friday (2/24) as part of the current season of Great Performances on PBS.

(Photos: Broadway Worldwide)

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Studio Ghibli: The Secret World of Arrietty

The love for fantastical little people is pretty universal. Perhaps that is why Mary Norton award winning British YA novel The Borrowers transferred rather easily to Koganei, a Tokyo suburb that happens to be home to legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. Following several well received live action adaptations from the likes of Hallmark Hall of Fame and the BBC, Studio Ghibli produced an anime treatment helmed by their youngest feature director to-date and co-written by Miyazki himself. Set to become Disney’s most widely distributed Ghibli release on a reported 1,200 screens, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s The Secret World of Arrietty (trailer here) opens today nationwide.

The so-called Borrowers are tiny but proportional people who live in the cracks and crevices of country homes. They survive by “borrowing” supplies that will not be missed from the human household, like a sugar cube. Up until now, the borrowing has been the sole responsibility of Arrietty’s quietly protective father Pod, but having reached a certain age, it is time for her to learn how to survive as a borrower. As her high strung mother Homily anxiously awaits, she and her father venture into the big house. However, their foray leads to disaster when a recent arrival spies them.

Shō is a sickly human boy, trundled off to the secluded cottage to rest up for an upcoming operation. He instantly recognizes the borrowers from the family legends of the little people living under the floor boards. Even though the scale is problematic, he is also pretty psyched to talk to a girl. Unfortunately, Arrietty’s father is adamant: once borrowers have been seen, they must move on post-haste. Frankly, his concern is not misplaced. Though Shō means them no harm, Haru, the maid of the house, also suspects their presence and intends to treat them like any conventional infestation.

Aside from some CGI here and there, the mostly hand drawn Secret looks richly detailed and lushly evocative. Indeed, the verdant garden is particular suited to the Ghibli magic. The film has plenty of style, but beyond Ghibli’s considerable circle of admirers, it will largely skew towards younger viewers. Still, it is rather watchable for adults so inclined. Indeed, Arrietty is much more agreeably plucky than cloying. Likewise, Shō might be a bit of a sad sack, but at least he is not an energy drain on the film. Even the original songs by French pop-star Cécile Corbel are surprisingly graceful and distinctive.

The only real drawback is the American dubbing, including an over-the-top Carol Burnett as Haru, the bland Will Arnett as Pod, and several tweeners adults will not recognize. Somehow, they just do not sound right. (In contrast, the British release features the voice talent of Mark Strong, Olivia Colman, and Saoirse Ronan, which certainly looks more interesting on paper.)

Secret looks great and parents can feel safe and confident taking their children. Although Haru’s maniacal streak seems a bit excessive (from a credibility standpoint), the overall film is quite gentle and charming. A solid B+ outing from Studio Ghibili, Secret opens today (2/17) in New York at Regal Union Square and AMC 34th Street and in San Francisco at the AMC Van Ness.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Oscar Gets Juiced: Bullhead

It is hard to believe Belgium has any comparative advantage in the beef packing industry. Regardless, watching the Flemish bovine mafia ply their cattle with hormones will not inspire global consumer confidence. One angry breeder takes massive doses himself. Regrettably, he has a very good reason for such treatments, which viewers see in painful detail early in Michaël Roskam’s Bullhead (trailer here), Belgium’s surprise best foreign language Oscar nominee, opening this Friday in New York.

Jacky Vanmarsenille resembles the bulls he sullenly tends (hence the title). He looks all man, but an incident in his childhood left him somewhat less so. To compensate, he has built up his body, but the constant cocktails of testosterone and steroids have exacerbated his anger issues. Poorly socialized, Vanmarsenille’s resentment metastasizes over time. When figures from his past suddenly reappear, his behavior becomes more erratic. Unfortunately, this leads his family to discount his warnings not to get involved with Marc De Kuyper, the duplicitous Godfather of growth hormones.

Bullhead is quite an unlikely Oscar contender. Indeed, Belgium raised many eyebrows when it submitted Roskam’s film instead of the Dardenne Brothers’ French language The Kid with a Bike, but they seem to have known what they were doing. This is a tough picture that is difficult to pigeon hole. As a character study, it broods in a class by itself. Indeed, there may be no protagonist that is as equally sympathetic and scary as Jacky Vanmarsenille. Yet, its gangster movie elements are not mere window dressing for the naturalistic morality play. Roksam’s screenplay also reflects Belgium’s Flemish-French divide in ways not especially flattering to the latter, adding a further layer of context for those who can pick up on it.

Without question though, the key to the film is Matthias Schoenaerts, who really is quite extraordinary as Vanmarsenille. His physical transformation into the hulking protagonist has been compared to De Niro’s bulking up for Raging Bull, but it is really the least of it. With little dialogue, he conveys volumes, keeping the audience fully invested in his character, even when he commits terrible deeds. This is ferociously intense work. Jeroen Percival provides an effective counterpoint as the nervous Diederik Maes, Vanmarsenille’s oily childhood friend and polar opposite physically, sexually, and temperamentally.

Bullhead’s deliberate pacing and wince-inducing plot developments might discomfort less adventurous viewers, but under Roksam’s sure hand they become high tragedy. In truth, few films so directly address what it means to be both a man and a monster. On Oscar night, it will be the longest of long shots, but Bullhead can go toe to toe with any of its fellow nominees, including Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, considered the frontrunner amid a very strong foreign language field this year. Highly recommended, Bullhead opens tomorrow (2/17) in New York at the Angelika Film Center and AMC Empire and next Friday (2/24) in San Francisco at the Bridge Theatre.

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