J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Lady Day: Dee Dee Bridgewater is Billie Holiday

Many other jazz vocalists had stronger voices and better technique, but it is Billie Holiday we love best. It is complicated—you just have to hear it in her music.  Grammy and Tony Award winner Dee Dee Bridgewater helps illuminate that Holiday mystique in the musical character study Lady Day (promo here), now running at the Little Shubert.

If you do not already know the basics of Billie Holiday’s life then go hang your head in shame.  Like many jazz artists of her era, she had addiction issues, plus her own peculiar talent for getting involved with the wrong men.  Despite her headliner status, Holiday’s legal problems caused her cabaret card to be revoked, preventing her from working in New York nightclubs. Robert, her pseudo-manager and indomitable champion, hopes a high profile London concert will lead to an American comeback.  Although she fully recognizes the importance of the gig, Holiday is still running maddeningly late for the afternoon rehearsal.

When Holiday finally arrives, she is carrying the full weight of her accumulated insecurities.  However, when she gets down to business with her band, the old magic is clearly there: “A Foggy Day,” “Miss Brown to You,” “All of Me,” and “Strange Fruit”—all great.  Unfortunately, the audience can see the demons inside her growing restive.

Even with all the fantastic music, many patrons just will not get Lady Day, precisely because it understands Holiday so well.  Granted, some of the first act flashback-reveries are a little awkward.  Nevertheless, playwright-director Stephen Stahl makes the difficult but ultimately correct choice opening the second act with a gin-fortified Holiday sabotaging the very concert the first act had been building up towards.  It is not an easy task for a consummate artist like Bridgewater, but she stays true to character, performing some appropriately ragged renditions of Holiday standards.  Yet, when we see her slowly center herself and gut out the rest of the disastrous show, we understand why we love Billie Holiday.  It is exactly because of those acutely compelling pyrrhic victories.


Bridgewater has recorded Holiday tributes before and her affinity for the Lady shines through in every song and sequence.  She goes beyond merely matching Holiday’s exquisitely vulnerable cadences, exposing her haunted soul.  Obviously, she is the front-and-center star, but the quartet nicely backs her up, both musically and dramatically.  Led by pianist Bill Jolly, they swing the standards vigorously and sensitively, as the circumstances require, while also convincingly portraying all the subtle backstage (or in some cases, on-stage) frustrations of gigging with Holiday.  As thankless as the role of Robert looks on paper, David Ayers also invests him with a surprisingly degree of empathy and presence.

There is talk of moving Lady Day to Broadway, which would be great in many ways, but this show is best seen in as intimate an environment as possible. At times, the audience genuinely feels like it is watching a rehearsal in a nearly empty concert hall.  Unlike some previous Swing Era inspired book musicals, Stahl’s production really shows a keen understanding of how to present jazz on stage.  Highly recommended for fans of Holiday and Bridgewater (admittedly two sets that probably have significant crossover), Lady Day runs until March 16th at the Little Shubert Theater.

(Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Labels: ,

Friday, November 29, 2013

Ten Thousand Waves, Now Installed at MoMA

There are two goddesses now gracing the walls of MoMA.  Mazu was a traditional Chinese marine deity thought to protect seafarers, while Ruan Lingyu (widely hailed as “the Chinese Greta Garbo”) starred as the saintly fallen mother in Wu Yonggang’s silent classic, The Goddess.  The term “character” might not be particularly apt, but both appear as figures in Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves, a nine screen video installation now installed at the MoMA (behind-the-scenes video here).

Waves was originally inspired by the tragic deaths of twenty-three Chinese cockle pickers, illegally laboring along the northern shore of England for the gang that had smuggled them into country.  Afraid to abandon their work for shelter, they were washed away by a flash storm.  Julien incorporates footage of the rescue attempts mounted by the local British emergency response team.  It might have provided Wave’s impetus, but it is probably the least visually intriguing element of the project.

Julien hopscotches around quite a bit, both thematically and across the nine screens suspended in the MoMA atrium.  For younger patrons, following the darting images, much like a tennis match, is a good deal of the show.  For amateur Sinologists, it is quite fascinating to see the large scale images of contemporary, extremely go-go Shanghai alongside footage of the Red Cadres marching about during the Maoist era mass movements.

However, the most dramatic and cinematic portions of the installation feature Jia Zhangke’s muse (and wife) Zhao Tao appearing as Ruan Lingyu, recreating scenes from The Goddess and appearing ghostlike in the penthouse floors of Shanghai’s gravity defying skyscrapers. Proclaiming her the “definitive and defining actress of our day and age” right here in a review of A Touch of Sin might have sounded somewhat bold at the time, but seeing her expressive countenance shining forth upon the multiple screens in MoMA rather supports the claim.  After all, as the undisputed actress of her era, Ruan should only be entrusted to someone of similar stature.

Of course, Zhao was not the first to portray Ruan on film.  In Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage, she was portrayed by Maggie Cheung, who also appears in Waves as Mazu. Cheung’s iconic looks are well suited to the marine goddess, bringing to mind some of the imagery from her classic films, particularly Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time (Redux), which Julien seems to deliberately evoke.  Watching her float past Zhao’s Ruan through Shanghai’s stratosphere on MoMA’s large suspended screens is almost dizzying.

Some of the audio recordings get lost in the open space of the Marron Atrium (the same space where Marina Abramović faced the public) and subtitles would have helped convey greater meaning in several points.  Nonetheless, Zhao and Cheung have undeniable screen presence regardless of the context or medium. 

More than a mere meditation on migration or globalization, Waves presents a dramatic contrast between China’s presumed futures (that envisioned by the leftist affiliated Ruan in the 1930’s and those essentially driven mad by ideology in the 1970’s) with the strange hybrid-capitalist reality of today, with Mazu looking on as the goddess grieving the age-old values thrown by the wayside. Given its super-star power and some very cool green-screened images, Ten Thousand Waves is considerably more cinematic than most video installations.  Recommended for fans of Chinese cinema that happen to be in the neighborhood, Ten Thousand Waves runs through February 17th at MoMA.

Labels: , , ,

Shotokan Man: On DVD Just in Time for Black Friday

Redneck bullies never learn. If a trouble-making martial arts hardnose says he’s “just passing through,” you’ll never run him off with the typical strong-arm stuff.  Instead, tell him to consider settling down. Needless to say, reverse psychology is not the style of the thuggish proprietor of the local Double Death Dojo.  Get ready to rumble Roadhouse style with the DVD release of Bob Clark’s animated feature, Shotokan Man (a.k.a. Dixie Dynamite, trailer here), now available from FilmWorks Entertainment.

Wandering the earth in search of his absconded American serviceman father has taken the taciturn Dirk to many small towns, but never anywhere quite like Westabooga, Alabama.  Thanks to the influence of the Nipponophile Sheriff Fuquay, Westabooga has largely adopted Japanese cuisine and culture, but their necks are still pretty red.  The Japanese raised Amerasian drifter does not feel as comfortable as you might expect, though.  He has issues with his Japanese heritage, particularly his experiences with missing father’s dojo. 

His Zen-like approach to life and martial arts is quite attractive to single mother Rose Stewart, the owner of the Westabooga Sushi Café and on-again-off-again girlfriend of Dewey, Jr., the narcoleptic sheriff’s entitled son and the leader of the Double Death.  It logically follows Dirk is in for a massive beat down at the hands of Dewey’s students, but the backcountry Possum Master will help him recharge his karma, giving the spiritual conventions of kung fu movies a sly chicken fried twist.

Any film that uses the word didgeridoo more than three times earns points for something.  It is Dirk’s instrument of choice and also sometimes a handy club.  We do not hear much of it played throughout the film, but there is a nifty arrangement of “Free Bird” featuring shamisen and electric bass.  The combination of greasy grits-and-gravy southern living married to higher forms of Japanese art and philosophy ought to produce some outrageous gags, but Shotokan never escalates beyond the level of pleasantly amusing.  There is a respect for both traditions, but not a lot of transcendent inspiration.

Still, voice actor George Faughnan has a way of delivering Dirk’s limited dialogue that maximizes the comedic effect.  The renderings of Stewart and her waitress Tula Mae should also appeal to junior high school boys, bringing to mind the ladies of Twin Peaks’ Double R Diner for older hipsters.

Frankly, Clark (not to be confused with the Bob Clark who directed A Christmas Story and Porky’s) and co-writer-associate producer Mimi Gentry are surprisingly forgiving in their portrayal of 1979 Alabama. They eschew cheap shots and score settling, only resorting to cliché with the loutish but unremarkable villain, Dewey, Jr. Genre fans raised on a steady diet of Billy Jack movies will find it agreeable but not essential viewing.  Of course, all the kids are caught up in Shotokan Man fever these days, making it a hot Christmas item.  Recommended for mild chuckles as a stocking stuffer, Shotokan Man is now available on DVD from FilmWorks Entertainment.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Original Oldboy, Beware of Cheap Knock-offs

As president of the jury at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Quentin Tarantino lobbied hard on behalf of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, but his fellow jurors were dead set on giving the Palme d’Or to Fahrenheit 9/11.  You have to wonder how well that politically motivated decision sits with Kathleen Turner and Tilda Swinton, in retrospect.  In contrast, Tarantino’s judgment looks sound as a pound, particularly in light of a once prominent director’s decision to remake Oldboy in a desperate attempt to maintain his relevancy.  Viewers should accept no substitutes when Park’s original Oldboy (trailer here) returns to New York theaters tomorrow.

Oh Dae-sul is completely awful at being a husband, father, and businessman.  Generally, he is an all around despicable human being, but he will pay.  After a drunken bender, Oh wakes up confined to a seedy hotel room, which is actually a cell in an underground prison.  For the next fifteen years, he will remain secretly confined there, while his nemesis frames him for the murder of his wife.

For no apparent reason, Oh is suddenly released, but it quickly becomes clear the shadowy mastermind has simply moved on to the next phase of his scheme.  With his daughter adopted by foreign parents, the solitary pariah crashes with Mi-do, the young sushi chef in the restaurant he passed out in.  As Oh pursues vengeance and answers, the question becomes “why” rather than “who.” Of course, he will be returning to that prison and he’s bringing a hammer (nope, Spike didn’t come up with that bit).

Arguably, Oldboy is the perfect film for Thanksgiving because it features one of the most memorable celebratory meals ever filmed.  You’ll know it when you see it.  Yes, it has its share of graphic violence and shocking subject matter that would be spoilery to reveal.  However, the psychological torment is far more unsettling than the physical beatdowns.  By the time it reaches its climax, Oldboy absolutely strips Oh emotionally bare—and he is not the only one to have his psyche ripped open in the process.

Starting with Oldboy and continuing with Nameless Gangster and New World, Choi Min-sik has staked a claim as one of the world’s preeminent screen actors, doing the sort of work Robert De Niro should have done instead of slumming in dozens of Meet the Parents sequels.  Choi has that sort of magnetic presence and visceral physicality. Thanks to his powerhouse turn, Oldboy rises to the level of classical tragedy.  He is nicely abetted by the ethereal Kang Hye-jung as the disarmingly waifish Mi-do.

Part noir and part fairy tale, Oldboy is defiantly ambiguous at times, but never nihilistic.  It has an indescribable vibe light years removed from most filmmakers’ comfort zones.  Remaking (or re-conceiving or whatever term they might want to use) it is a highly questionable proposition, doomed to failure whenever hipper audiences compare it to the original.  Avoid shoddy counterfeits and check out Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy.  Highly recommended for the adventurous, it opens tomorrow (11/29) in New York at the Quad Cinemas and streams (now with subtitles) on Netflix.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Chen Kaige’s Caught in the Web

It is the age of the internet troll.  Abetted by the tabloid press, anonymous malcontents offer a steady stream of bullying invective aimed at impulsively chosen targets.  In this case, the locale is central China, but it could happen here too.  One woman is tragically ensnared in a joint new media-old media feeding frenzy at the start of Chen Kaige’s of-the-moment contemporary drama Caught in the Web (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

During a routine check-up, Ye Lanqiu receives some devastating news: advanced lymphatic cancer, requiring immediate treatment she cannot afford.  Dazed, she returns to work on the bus, not noticing the old man coveting her seat.  When he complains, she tells him where to get off.  Unfortunately, it was all captured on the smart-phone of Yang Jiaqi, who is interning at a television station with her cousin’s ambitious girlfriend, Chen Ruoxi.  By the end of the day, Chen will make Ye notorious as “Sunglasses Girl.”

However, Ye’s problems are only getting starting.  Seeking a loan and an emergency leave from her industrialist boss, Shen Liushu, Ye breaks down before she can fully explain her dire circumstances.  At the worst possible moment, Shen’s high maintenance wife Mo Xiaoyu walks in on them, naturally misconstruing the intimate scene.  As Ye becomes a public pariah, Mo pours gasoline on the fire, antagonizing her husband and jeopardizing his big deal with an American firm.  While Shen and Mo wage their cold war and Chen bottom feeds, Ye goes into hiding, hiring her nemesis’s increasingly disillusioned boyfriend Yang Shoucheng as her bodyguard.

Whew, end of set-up. From there things get complicated.  Chen and his co-screenwriter Tang Danian have scripted the closest thing to a Chinese Tom Wolfe story you will find, chocked to the brim with intertwined characters and loads of zeitgeisty angst.  At times, they flirt dangerously with shameless melodrama, but the quiet dignity of Gao Yuanyuan’s lead performance saves their bacon every time.  It is a reserved, but deeply tragic turn, nicely matched by the restraint of the Taiwanese-Canadian Mark Chao as her reluctant protector, Yang Shoucheng.

In contrast, Chen’s frequent collaborator Wang Xuegi and his actress-producer-wife Chen Hong produce some spectacular fireworks as the crafty old Shen and his impulsive wife.  Perhaps fittingly, Chen Ruoxi is played by Yao Chen, who holds the distinction of having the most followers on China’s micro-blogging service, Sina Weibo.  She has also “Weiboed” on behalf of journalists challenging official state censorship, which makes her massively cool as well as popular.  She really digs into the character, portraying both her ruthless ambition and her deep-seated insecurities.  It is award caliber work that truly makes the film.

Cinematographer Yang Shu (an alumnus of Chen’s Sacrifice) gives it a slick, austere polish that well suits the in-the-now class conscious morality tale.  It is a relatively rare contemporary piece from Chen Kaige, but he adroitly manages the large ensemble and keeps the complex proceedings moving along at a healthy clip.  Thanks to Yao and Gao, Caught has real dramatic force, as well as a real message.  As long as the media focuses on the next “Sunglasses Girl,” they will ignore more inconvenient stories for the powers that be. (That applies beyond China too—just compare the coverage granted the Kardashians to analysis warning of the millions of individual insurance policies that will be canceled under Obamacare.)  Highly recommended both for fans of Chinese films and those who appreciate shrewdly observed social cinema, Caught in the Web opens today (11/27) in New York at the Village East.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Orson Welles’ Too Much Johnson

It is not exactly the missing forty minutes of The Magnificent Ambersons, but for Orson Welles fans it is still quite significant.  Long considered lost to the ages, the silent short films Welles conceived for an ahead-of-its time stage production have been found (in Italy, as it happens) and restored by the film preservation department of the George Eastman House. Despite their strange genesis, the shorts known collectively as Too Much Johnson perfectly represent the Welles filmography—they are brash, innovative, and unfinished. Always fascinating and sometimes genuinely entertaining, Too Much Johnson, Welles' first stab at filmmaking, had its long awaited New York premiere last night, courtesy of the Eastman House (promo here).

William Gillette’s summer stock staple Too Much Johnson is not revived very often anymore—and the Mercury Theatre’s disastrous production probably deserves its share of the blame.  It literally bombed in New Haven. Welles’ original vision was rather ground-breaking.  Each act would be preceded by a short silent film in the Max Sennett tradition that would dramatize all the play’s exposition and backstories.  Of course, Welles never finished any of the shorts (and it is unclear whether the Stony Creek Theater could have accommodated them anyway), but since he had cut all the presumably redundant background information from the text, the production reportedly baffled critics and patrons alike.

To help contemporary viewers, the Eastman House’s preservation and curatorial staff provided running commentary throughout the New York screening, in addition to the requisite piano accompaniment.  Eastman House made no editorial decisions, preserving every frame that came in the can.  As a result, there are plenty of gaps, as well as repetitive takes of the same scene.  Yet, the finished restoration is a smoother audience experience than it might sound like. Serendipitously, the multiple versions are often madcap hi-jinks that when viewed continuously appear as if the characters are caught in a surreal loop.

The first act prelude is the most complete and easiest to follow. Joseph Cotten plays a man named Billings, who has been romancing another man’s wife under the assumed name of Johnson.  Coming home earlier than expected, the betrayed Dathis chases the man he thinks is Johnson across the future Meatpacking District, eventually ending on the ocean liner that will take both men’s families to Cuba for a dubious vacation.  (Once there, Billings looks up an old friend, only to find his plantation is now owned by a man who really is named Johnson.  Hilarity no doubt ensues.)

Frankly, Cotten’s prowess for Harold Lloyd comedy is quite impressive.  He shimmies across ledges and drags ladders over rooftops like a rubber-boned pro.  As if that were not enough, the first short also delivers Welles’ ever indulgent producer, John Houseman, as a bumbling beat cop.

The second and third constituent shorts are much more fragmentary, but there are some striking day-for-night shots of a Hudson Valley quarry, decked out with palm trees to resemble Cuba.  Periodically, one gets a glimmer of Welles’ developing eye for composition. Cotten also maintains his energetic good sportsmanship as the caddish anti-hero.

Johnson might be a bunch of odds and ends compared to Welles later masterpieces, but it is strangely compelling to watch the bedlam he unleashes with his co-conspirators.  The Eastman program also includes a three minute 16mm film documenting Welles directing Johnson that seems about as chaotic as you would imagine.  Yet, there is also something very poignant about the happy-go-lucky but incomplete work, prefiguring Welles later abortive attempts to produce his Don Quixote

Too Much Johnson is enormously important as cinematic history but also a good deal of fun.  The Eastman House intends to hold future screenings with live commentary, so cineastes should definitely keep an eye on their website.  They also hope to stage Welles' adaptation of the stage play incorporating excerpts of the shorts, which is impressively ambitious.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, November 25, 2013

11 AM—Korea Takes a Stab at Time Travel

Woo-seok’s shady Russian oligarch patron named his prospective time machine “Trotsky” in the belief history would have turned out radically better if he had bested Stalin in their power struggle.  They should have called “Ice-Pick,” considering the mayhem it will cause Woo-seok’s research team.  They will struggle to cheat fate in Kim Hyun-seok’s 11 A.M. (trailer here), which opens this Thanksgiving Thursday in Los Angeles.

Everyone knows Woo-seok’s obsession with time travel stems from the untimely death of his wife, regardless of what Hawking says about it.  Likewise, many suspect his protégé Young-eun hopes to meet her late theoretical physicist father in the future. His chief deputy Ji-wan is more skeptical.  Nonetheless, their wheelchair-bound benefactor ponied up the funds for their undersea facility for his own personal reasons.  Unfortunately, the financial spigot will be cut-off unless Woo-seok produces results fast.  Against Ji-wan’s advice, he and Young-eun embark on a journey to tomorrow, at 11:00 a.m.

The good news is Trotsky works.  The bad news is they discover the lab has been (or will be) destroyed by a series of explosions.  As they investigate, Woo-seok is attacked by a mysterious assailant.  Whisked back to the previous (current) day without Young-eun, Woo-seok and his crew must determine the source of the impending disaster, as the clock ticks down.

As time travel films go, 11 AM’s internal logic holds together fairly well, explaining its big head-scratching twists in due time. It also has a patina of credibility in the way it acknowledges Hawking’s event horizon.  Yet, despite the sci-fi MacGuffin, it is human nature rather than science that poses the gravest danger in Park Su-jin’s screenplay.

Frankly, Korean film fans will be surprised to discover Kim Hyun-seok, previously a specialist in jaunty rom-com’s, like Cyrano Agency, had this in him.  He nicely balances the more macabre Final Departure-Then There Were None elements with the cerebral scientific speculation.  Production designer Kim Minio’s team also creates a credible sci-fi environment, before it all gets blown to smithereens.

The cast goes to piece rather effectively as well.  As Woo-seok, Jung Jae-young is wound wickedly tight, while still exhibiting the intellectual facilities of a man of science.  Likewise Kim Ok-bin makes the most of Young-eun’s big revelation scenes, the likes of which actors only get in genre films.

Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes is still probably the gold standard of contemporary time travel movies, but 11 A.M. is a smart and grabby addition to the sub-genre canon.  Sort of a SF chamber drama, but with first rate production values, 11 A.M. is recommended pretty enthusiastically for time travel fans when it opens this Thanksgiving (11/28) in Los Angeles at the CGV Cinemas.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, November 24, 2013

StoryCorps for Thanksgiving: Listening is an Act of Love

Think of it as the less noir version of Naked City with its eight million stories. Dave Isay founded StoryCorps in the belief there were real life stories out there from everyday people that deserved to be recorded for posterity.  For ten years, StoryCorps crews have collected oral histories across the country. Sometimes the stories were funny and sometimes poignant, but their inherent drama has become a source of constant inspiration for the Rauch Brothers.  Their short animated adaptations of StoryCorps transcripts have become staples of short film festivals and have regularly been peppered throughout seasons of POV.  Fittingly for Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah, POV will premiere its first ever animated special, Mike & Tim Rauch’s Listening is an Act of Love (promo here) on PBS stations nationwide.

As a wrap-around framing device, Isay’s young nephew Benji interviews his uncle to find out just why he does all this anyway.  He has a memorable answer that nicely establishes the theme of Listening: family.  The POV special includes four new stories, but begins and ends with two old favorites—and it is not hard to understand why those two struck such a chord with audiences.  In the gleefully funny Miss Devine, two cousins swap memories of the titular Sunday School teacher who was a stern, unyielding presence during their summer vacations. Both James Ransom and Cherie Johnson are natural storytellers and the way they crack each other up is appealingly infectious.

Things get more serious and more family-focused during Listening’s debuts, starting with Making It, a simple but inspiring story of the American dream.  On the eve of becoming the first in his family to go to college, Noe Rueda reflects on the difficult jobs he held to help his single mother make ends meet.  It is probably the most touching segment of the POV segment, even if it is somewhat open-ended.  The following Marking the Distance tells the story of a brain tumor survivor, who lost her short term memory, but has since become an accomplished marathoner thanks to the support of boyfriend.  It is a nice, feel good story, but perhaps the least distinctive of the special.

Arguably, The Road Home gives Listening its greatest emotional pop.  Eddie Lanier tells his story of how he went from being the privileged son of a prominent North Carolina mayor to a skid row drunk, until a good Christian Samaritan took him into his home. Wider in scope than the rest of the special, Lanier’s unabashedly redemptive story would be perfect for a Hallmark original film.  There is also unexpected power in the twist to the tale Jackie Miller tells her adopted son Scott in Me & You, which has something for pro-life viewers and fans of Modern Family, alike.

Listening concludes with an encore appearance of No More Questions! Kay Wang was not one to suffer fools gladly, but her son Cheng and granddaughter Chen had learned to appreciate her forceful personality.  Somehow, they managed to get her to sit for a StoryCorps session, laughing their way through her uncooperative responses that so aptly reflected her personality.  In fact, they are probably rather glad it turned out that way in retrospect, judging from the bittersweet postscript.

The Rauch Brothers have a real facility for matching the expressions of their animated figures to the recorded interviews.  In fact, they have been known to nail the likenesses and mannerisms of the speakers without having anything to model them on, besides their spoken words.  Frankly, it is always reassuring to see a StoryCorps film in a festival’s shorts programming block, because of the Rauch Brothers’ commitment to quality.  Recommended for post-turkey family viewing, Listening is an Act of Love airs on most PBS outlets this Thursday night (11/28) as part of the current season of POV.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Johan Falk: The Initial Trilogy

By Swedish standards, Johan Falk is practically Dirty Harry.  For obvious reasons, he has rather strained relations with Gothenburg’s top brass.  In fact, he is kind of-sort of forced to take justice kind of-sort of private in Anders Nilsson’s Johan Falk Trilogy, the first three installments of the Swedish theatrical/straight-to-DVD franchise, which are now available as a three-DVD set in America from MHz Networks.

Falk has no living family.  His only friends are cops.  It is also implied he has more than enough money for his needs.  That does not leave a lot of pressure points for a gangster like Leo Gaut to squeeze in Zero Tolerance.  Not one to follow protocol, Falk drops by Gaut’s pad to express his disappointment after the murder suspect forces the three witnesses testifying against him to change their stories.  In retrospect, leaving his fingerprints behind was something of a mistake.  Framed for assaulting Gaut, Falk goes on the lam to clear his name.  Easily the weakest of the trilogy, Zero is mostly standard issue Fugitive stuff, but it perks up a bit during the third act.

While Falk is back on the force when Executive Protection begins, the handwringing commissioner has relegated him to a future of endless paperwork, despite the protestations of his superior officer, the ever patient Sellberg.  Tired of cooling his heels, Falk will do what he does best when a childhood friend asks for his help.  Sven Persson had hired Nikolaus Lehman, a former Stasi agent turned international consultant, to deal with a protection racket targeting his Estonian factory.  Not surprisingly, the cure turns out to be worse than the disease.  Of course, the cops are incapable of taking preventative action, so Falk signs on with the private security firm run by his old colleague Mårtenson, to handle Persson’s case personally.

A well turned crime drama-grudge match, Protection gives viewers ample opportunity to see Swedes lock and load. It also features private contractors as the good guys and an old Commie as the bad guy. As Falk, Jakob Eklund makes a completely credible hard-nosed action figure.  He also broods nicely during moments of existential angst.  Series screenwriters Nilsson & Joakim Hansson keep the tension building while establishing several key themes they will revisit in The Third Wave (trailer here).

It is Mårtenson who first uses the Toffler-esque term to describe the concerted campaign of shadowy octopus-like syndicates to secretly acquire legitimate businesses, but Falk’s former boss Sellberg picks up on it when he is appointed the EU’s top cop for organized crime.  His get-tough rhetoric attracts the attention of a British banker, whose abusive husband Kane specializes in facilitating dodgy transactions.  Fearing her testimony, Kane’s co-conspirators send a hit squad after her, but the unsuspecting Falk just happens to be vacationing in The Hague.

Forced to improvise, Falk will struggle to protect Sellberg’s witness as well as his girlfriend and her daughter.  He will have some help from Devlin, a British security specialist, who is slightly disappointed to discover the firm he founded was acquired by a conglomerate with secret mob ties. Again, Nilsson & Hansson keep the stakes high, uncorking an early shocker and staging considerable melee during the big climax, which casts radical WTO protestors in a decidedly negative light.

Falk wears well on Eklund and he gets some effectively gritty support from British actors Nicholas Farrell (of Chariots of Fire fame) and Prime Suspect alumnus John Benfield, as Devlin and his chief deputy Stevens, respectively.  Veteran Swedish actor Lennart Hjulström also lends the entire series some stately gravitas as Sellberg.  A solidly entertaining series overall (especially Protection and Wave), the Johan Falk Trilogy is recommended for fans of both British and Scandinavian mystery series.  Recently released on DVD from MHz, it is now available for Thanksgiving binge viewing.

Labels: ,

Friday, November 22, 2013

DOC NYC ’13: Inside the Mind of Leonardo 3D

Probably the best established fact of Leonardo da Vinci’s mysterious life is his brilliance.  It is hardly surprising he has inspired quite a few speculative novels, films, and television shows from the likes of Dan Brown, Ron Howard, Roberto Benigni, and David Goyer.  His art is instantly recognizable, but there are plenty of holes in the historical record, where stuff can be safely made up.  Of course, that just won’t do for DOC NYC or the History Channel.  Scrupulously adapted from da Vinci’s notebooks, Julian Jones gives viewers an impressionistic, 3D portrait of the great Renaissance artist in Inside the Mind of Leonardo, which screened on the final night of this year’s DOC NYC.

Raised by his single servant girl mother, Leonardo had little formal education, but maybe that was just as well, sparing him the burden of a lot of false preconceptions.  Verrocchio certainly recognized his young apprentice’s talents.  However, he was not nearly as prolific a painter as one might assume (or hope).  His journals are another matter.  The extensive da Vinci notebooks offered Jones and his co-screenwriter Nick Dear a treasure trove of material.  With Oxford Professor Martin Kemp vetting for accuracy, they give viewers a good nutshell overview of the original Renaissance man’s life and abiding ambitions.

Forgoing familiar imagery, like Vitruvian Man, Jones and the animation team render da Vinci’s muscular sketches of birds in flight and humans in motion in evocative 3D, while Peter Capaldi performs extracts from the various codexes in the manner of a one-man stage play.  Periodically, Jones also indulges in slow panning shots of modern day Florence and Milan, presumably to anchor the film in its specific locales.  Unfortunately, these often feel like travelogue interludes that get a little snoozy at times.

On the plus side of the ledger, Capaldi is perfectly cast as da Vinci.  He has always been a reliably intelligent presence, but here he vividly projects both the polymath’s arrogance and his melancholy world-weariness.  When watching him in Inside, it is easy to see why he was selected to be the next Doctor Who.  Once he has finished his run as the timelord, he should be able to take a da Vinci show on the road, much like Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain.

Eschewing jerkins, Capaldi’s modern dress actually heightens the film’s intimacy.  (He rather looks like he might be in his Doctor Who wardrobe, complete with a stylish scarf, but not the full Tom Baker, mind you).  Inside works quite well when it really does go inside—either into da Vinci’s chambers or into the pages of his notebooks.  When it goes outside, soaking up Tuscan landscapes and bustling Florentine street scenes, it waters down its atmosphere and character.  Still, it is an interesting docu-hybrid and an unconventional (but sometimes effective) use of 3D.  Recommended for art and history buffs, Inside the Mind of Leonardo is destined to have a limited theatrical release and an eventual airdate on the History Channel, following its premiere at DOC NYC 2013.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Philomena: Mean Nuns and Wisecracking Muckrakers

At least the Irish nuns of Roscrea convent are not cannibals, but that is about all they have going for them. In the early 1950’s, they took in “shamed” young women, forcing them to serve five years of indentured servitude, even after their children had been “sold” to adoptive parents.  For decades, Philomena Lee had searched in vain for her son Anthony, but she will finally get some answers when she teams up with a disgraced Labour press flack slumming as tabloid freelancer.  Prepare to laugh a little, cry a little, and learn a little bit about yourself with Stephen Frears’ shamelessly manipulative Philomena (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

A few hours after finally learning she could have a half brother out there, Lee’s daughter pitches her story to Martin Sixsmith.  Hung out to dry by the Labour Party over some petty kerfuffle, he is looking to grind out a few human interest pieces.  As an Oxford educated hipster atheist, he instinctively looks down on the simple, devout Lee.  However, he recognizes the elements of a juicy tear-jerking expose.

With his new scandal sheet picking up the tab, Sixsmith follows Anthony’s trail from Ireland to America, with Lee in tow.  Yet, a few phone calls and an internet search in the airport are all Sixsmith really needs to crack the case.  Renamed Michael Hess by his parents, Lee’s Anthony became a high-ranking insider in the Reagan and H.W. Bush administrations.  He was also a closeted gay man, who tragically died of AIDS.  It turns out it isn’t just the nuns who are meanies. Republicans are not very nice either, because they did not indiscriminately shovel our cash at AIDS causes.

Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s screen adaptation of Sixsmith’s book is so preoccupied with score-settling, it is frankly rather embarrassing, like that obnoxious relative at Thanksgiving dinner who insists on revisiting each and every perceived slight. If truth be told, they share Sixsmith’s initial contempt of Lee, portraying her as a tacky rube, devouring trashy romance novels and desperately clinging to her blind Catholic faith, despite all the dirtiness done unto her by the Sisters.  Lee deserves better than she gets from Dame Judi Dench shticky Oscar trolling performance.  Even when Dench’s Lee offers her unsolicited forgiveness to the nasty old nun most responsible for Roscrea’s problematic past, what should have been a heavy moment is reduced to a few trite exchanges.

For a film wrapping itself in the “feel good” mantle, Philomena is surprising mean-spirited.  If you do not share its politics, you are necessarily morally and ethically suspect.  If you were not educated at the right schools, you must be an unsophisticated simpleton, like Lee.  If you have faith, you are by definition an idiot.  Yet, it is the Church that is narrow-minded and judgmental.  Essentially, Philomena is an echo chamber for those who share its prejudices.  It gins up plenty of outrage, but it is hollow in the middle.  Not recommended, Philomena opens tomorrow (11/22) in New York at Paris Theatre uptown and the Angelika Film Center downtown.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Narco Cultura: Violent Accordion Music

It makes gangster rap sound polite and progressive.  Narcocorrido is a virulent cousin of cajunto, lionizing the drug traffickers and assassins terrorizing Mexico.  Banned in their home country, narcocorridos are largely based in American border cities and do a brisk business through legitimate American retailers. (Indeed, Sam Walton would not be happy to hear what his stores now carry.) Shaul Schwartz observes the state of underground narcocorrido culture and the violence it celebrates in Narco Cultura (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Raised in Los Angeles, Edgar Quintero fetishizes narcoterrorism on stage as the front man of up-and-coming narcocorrido band BuKnas de Culiacan.  Riccardo Soto sees the fruits of narcocorrido culture every night as a crime scene investigator.  On the plus side, Soto’s skills are in high demand.  Unfortunately, he and his colleagues must wear balaclavas to protect their identity when responding to a call.  For obvious reasons, the dedicated family had tendered his resignation, but his sense of duty compelled him to return six months later.

Almost entirely observational in his approach, Schwartz never asks Soto for a review of Quintero’s latest CD.  Nor does he confront Quintero with crime scene photos of the latest innocent bystanders cut down by his idols.  Presumably, Schwartz was concerned about preserving his subjects’ trust and access, as well as maintaining a consistent tone.  However, this obvious avenue of inquiry forgone casts a long, distracting shadow over the film.

At one point, Schwartz revisits the blinged-out cemeteries previously seen in Natalia Almada’s El Velador, but Cultura has considerably more get-up-and-go than its defiantly oblique predecessor.  Things definitely happen in Schwartz’s film, but it is dominated by the bloody aftermaths of the cartels’ ruthless business rather than action per se.

The picture that emerges of a Mexico plagued by bloodshed and corruption is not pretty.  Frankly, it would have been an important wake-up call, but it may have come too late.  Watching the reckless aggression of the narcos, clearly abetted by crooked government officials, it appears Mexico is teetering on the brink of becoming a failed state.  Schwartz never bothers to seek any elusive solutions.  Who knows, maybe France can re-install the heir of Emperor Maximilian.

Narco Cultura is fully stocked with dramatic images, many of which approach the threshold of outright shocking.  Yet, the film is essentially a cinematic shrug, taking it all in, but never delving to deeply into the dysfunctional pop culture it documents.  Far superior to El Velador, but not nearly as emotionally engaging as Bernardo Ruiz’s Reportero, Narco Cultura is still eye opening stuff, recommended for Lou Dobbs watchers when it opens this Friday (11/22) in New York at the AMC Empire.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Hannah Arendt: the Philosopher Reports

In her landmark book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt examined the close kinship between Stalinism and National Socialism.  Surprisingly, it did not cost her many friendships amongst the intelligentsia.  Of course, her think-piece reporting on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem would be a different matter entirely.  The defining controversy of the philosopher’s career is logically the focus of Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and Blu-ray from Zeitgeist Films.

As the film opens, Arendt has settled into a relatively comfortable life as a naturalized citizen, teaching at the New School and tolerating her husband Heinrich Blücher’s discrete infidelities. The Mossad has just captured Adolf Eichmann—news that electrifies Arendt’s Jewish colleagues.  Intrigued by the implications of the trial, Arendt offers her services to New Yorker editor William Shawn as a correspondent, which he accepts because she is Hannah Arendt.

To the bafflement of old friends, the frustrated Arendt becomes preoccupied with Eichmann’s bureaucratic blandness and his willingness to surrender his status as an individual.  It seems rather strange how divisive her resulting theory of the “banality of evil” was at the time, considering how thoroughly it now informs our collective impression of Eichmann and other war criminals of his ilk.  Perhaps even more contentious, her critical observations regarding the miscalculations of some National Socialist appointed “Jewish Councils” to engage in some forms of temporary tactical acquiesce are not as widely held, but they are far from uncommon complaints today.

Von Trotta’s Arendt captures the intellectual swagger of Arendt and her circle, as well as the still relatively buttoned down tenor of the very early 1960’s.  The New School still looks much the same from the outside, but chain-smoking is most likely frowned upon in lecture halls.  It is a quality period production that looks true to the era during the scenes in both New York and Israel.

Frankly, von Trotta and co-writer Pamela Katz are not above playing favorites, portraying Norman Podhoretz as a knee-jerk hyper-ventilator, whereas Mary McCarthy is faultlessly down-to-earth and sympathetic.  Still, the depiction of Arendt, as written by von Trotta & Katz and played by Barbara Sukowa, is remarkably complex and even-handed.  Viewers fully understand just how thoroughly Arendt’s emotions are subservient to her intellect.  What was once a defense mechanism becomes problematic, preventing her from anticipating the furor stemming from her articles.  Von Trotta shrewdly resists the lure of an easy ending, ending the film on a decidedly ambiguous note.

Sukowa is admirably restrained as Arendt, to a degree approaching the tragic.  Yet, she has some deeply human moments, particularly with Klaus Pohl as her disgraced former mentor-lover, Martin Heidegger.  Cerebral and literate, yet rather forgiving of human foibles, Hannah Arendt is a compelling portrait of a difficult figure to do justice on-screen.  Respectfully recommended for those who appreciate intellectual history, Hannah Arendt is now available for home viewing from Zeitgeist Films.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, November 18, 2013

Weekend of a Champion: When Polanski Went to Monte Carlo

It came between Macbeth and Chinatown, or in less edifying terms, between the horrifying murder of Sharon Tate and the infamous rape of an under-aged girl in Jack Nicholson’s Mulholland home. Even Formula One champion Jackie Stewart seemed rather surprised by Roman Polanski’s interest in the sport, but they got on famously in Frank Simon’s rarely seen documentary, Weekend of a Champion (trailer here), produced by on-camera super-fan Polanski, which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

In 1971, it was debatable who was a bigger celebrity, Stewart or Polanski.  Stewart was looking to win his second Monaco Grand Prix as part of his march towards a second Formula One world championship.  However, this would be his first race in a brand new car.  Although unharmed, Stewart was still somewhat shook up from the accident that had totaled his previous vehicle.  Still, Stewart appears to have a natural affinity for Monte Carlo street course, explaining each twisty turn to Polanski in the drive-along that might be the film’s highlight.

If you are a fan of Jackie Stewart or Formula One racing in general, then Weekend is all kinds of awesome.  If not, the Polanski factor and the nostalgic vibe are just enough to keep non-fans invested.  Evidently, Formula One was a different beast forty-some years ago.  Having already lost most of his closest friends and colleagues to track related accidents, Stewart was arguably lucky just to be alive.  His tireless advocacy of safety reforms would dramatically improve driver mortality rates.  Yet, the sport was also considerably more intimate at the time.  Fans lining the Monte Carlo streets could practically reach out and touch the cars as they flashed by.

The newly restored Weekend adds a new postscript featuring Stewart and Polanski talking about how things used to be.  It is mostly forgettable mutual appreciation stuff, but when they revisit the road course, it really brings home that sense of how time passes.

In all likelihood, Weekend probably will not convert vast armies of Formula One fans, but viewers can easily see how Stewart smoothly segued into a second career as a broadcast commentator.  He has a way of explaining nuts-and-bolts details in clear and descriptive terms.  Frankly, Polanski is just along for the ride, but his rapport with Stewart seems genuine.

Once the race starts, there is hardly any question as to the outcome, but Simon and the battery of editors nicely bake in a fair degree of suspense through sequences addressing the new car and uncertain weather conditions.  While not exactly a cinematic landmark, Weekend is a highly watchable as a sports documentary time capsule, with obvious novelty value to cineastes.  It is sort of mind-blowing that this even exists, but here it is (with fleeting cameos from Ringo Starr and Joan Collins).  Recommended for motor sports enthusiasts and compulsive Polanski apologists, Weekend of a Champion opens this Friday (11/22) in New York at the IFC Center.

Labels: , , ,

DOC NYC ’13: Harlem Street Singer

Reverend Gary Davis was a man of God, but his finger-picking attack sure was fierce.  Eventually embraced by the Blues Revival, the Reverend Davis had spent years performing on the streets of Harlem.  He also took on students, including future neo-roots artists like David Bromberg and Stefan Grossman.  Davis’s loyal students and admirers piece together his story and trace his elusive influence in Trevor Laurence & Simeon Hutner’s Harlem Street Singer (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

Davis was a real deal bluesman from North Carolina, who recorded some real deal blues sides, before dedicating himself to songs of praise and worship.  They were still drenched in the blues, making him rather tricky to classify.  A modest man with an idiosyncratic teaching style, Davis accepted any student bold enough to sign-up with him.  In addition to Bromberg and Grossman (who discuss their teacher throughout HSS), Davis also provided musical instruction to Roy Book Binder, Dave Van Ronk, and Woody Mann, who also serves as the film’s musical director and co-producer.

Davis was legally blind since birth, grew-up in the Jim Crow-era south, and lived most of his life in poverty, yet HSS is a defiantly upbeat movie.  According to those who knew him, Davis just played his music and preached the Word (indeed, the two were always closely related), regardless of his circumstances.  Of course, there is a lot of music in the film and it is consistently great.  Laurence & Hutner scored a coup with the inclusion of previously unseen footage of Davis laying it down at the Newport Folk Festival and they do not keep viewers waiting for it, using it to kick off the film with a big statement. 

Keeping the apostolic flame burning, Mann leads a tribute ensemble that periodically plays some dynamite Davis covers.  Mann and Bill Sims, Jr. have the unenviable role of handling the guitar and vocal duties respectively, but they both sound fantastic, getting first rate support from Dave Keyes on piano and Brian Glassman on bass.  It is a killer quartet that ought to get a ton of gigs together if HSS receives the attention it deserves.

Few docs are as wildly entertaining as HSS, but it still does justice to the seriousness of Davis’s life and times.  Hopefully, someone from PBS has it on their radar, because it is as good as anything that has been on American Masters since Cachao: Uno Mas and is considerably better than most.  Highly recommended to general audiences beyond established blues fans, Harlem Street Singer screens again as part of DOC NYC this Thursday morning (11/21) at the IFC Center, so consider calling in sick for it.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, November 17, 2013

DOC NYC ’13: The Road to Fame & China in Three Words

In years past, if you had to describe China in one word, it would not be “fame.” State ideology demanded the individual merge into the collective.  Only high ranking Party leaders were to be venerated above the masses.  However, the culture is changing in China, even if the Party is not.  In a groundbreaking collaboration with Broadway, Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama stages the stage musical Fame as an ambitious senior project. Hao Wu follows the production from rehearsals to the closing curtain and beyond in The Road to Fame (trailer here), which screened during the 2013 DOC NYC.

Everything bad about show business in America applies in China as well, except maybe more so.  Cronyism is rampant in the entertainment industry, so a potential showcase like the Fame show can make the difference between a going career and graduating into has-been status.  The first cut will be brutal, when the faculty determines the “A” and “B” casts.  Naturally, the students desperately want to make the former rather than the latter.  Beyond the obvious stigma, it has yet to be announced how many performances the “B” cast will be allowed, but assumptions are pessimistic.

Much to viewers’ surprise, the clear can’t-miss-born-to-be-a-star prospective Carmen Diaz finds herself assigned to the “B” cast.  Likewise, the front-running Tyrone Jackson is edged out by a more self-effacing schoolmate.  As representatives of the Nederlander organization take charge of the production, the disparity between the A’s and B’s becomes a sore issue.

On the surface, Road is a Fame-like documentary about the mounting of a Fame production, but it reflects some deep cultural currents.  As astute viewers would expect, all of the POV students are only children.  The one-child law was still in full effect at the time. As a result, every student is highly conscious of their status as the sole repository of their parents’ hopes, dreams, and retirement plans.  Likewise, the corrupt intersection between public and private sectors has led to widespread disillusionment amongst their generation. Frankly, the level of irony in a film ostensibly about young people pursuing their dreams speaks volumes.

Hao Wu is rather circumspect in addressing specific political and economic controversies, but Vanessa Hope’s short documentary, China in Three Words (which preceded Road, trailer here) is brimming dysfunctional case studies.  Based on Yu Hua’s book China in Ten Words, Hope examines contemporary China through the writer’s framework.  Yu (whose novel To Live was adapted for film by Zhang Yimou) explains the word “leader” was once solely reserved for Mao, but has now become ubiquitous.  “Revolution” has a heavy history that hardly needs explaining, while “disparity” is the country’s new fact of life.  As a bonus, Yu offers “bamboozle” as a fourth word, but it arguably relates to all three that came before.

Despite its brevity, Three Words is brimming with material that deserves the full feature doc treatment.  Hope’s expose of how corruption and ideology caused the Wenzhou bullet train collision is grimly fascinating and her footage of Gov. Jon Huntsman returning to China with his adopted daughter Gracie Mei to revisit her former orphanage is unexpectedly touching.  It is rather amazing how much Hope crammed into fifteen minutes.  In fact, the films relate to each other quite directly, with Words providing much useful context for Road.

It is a shame Road and Words only had one screening at this year’s DOC NYC, because both have a lot to say and together they played to a sold-out house. Hao Wu’s feature is an intriguing generational study that captures some very personal drama, while Words helps explain the macro circumstances making it all so acute.  Both are highly recommended as the make their way on the festival circuit, while DOC NYC continues through the 21st at the IFC Center and the SVA Theatre.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Fake: Faith and Fraud in Provincial Korea

Pastor Sung is sort of a Korean Elmer Gantry, except he is the closest thing to a good guy in this dark animated examination of human nature.  He had the profound misfortune to become entangled with a ruthless con artist, but the man out to expose them is the worst of the lot in Yeon Sang-ho’s The Fake (trailer here), which just started a week-long Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles.

The best part of absentee father Min-chul has been his absence.  Physically and emotionally abusive, his homecoming is far from a happy event for his meek wife and daughter, the long suffering Young-sun.  Plundering Young-sun’s college savings for gambling money, Min-chul inadvertently drives her into the arms of the local faith-healing church—the very sort of outfit he most despises.

Devastated by a prior scandal, the gentle Pastor Sung has fallen for the false promises of “Elder” Choi, a wanted con man.  Through drunken happenstance (and a night in lock-up), Min-chul learns the truth about Choi, but nobody will listen to the obnoxious cretin.  A savage war commences between Min-chul and Choi’s henchmen, while the shadowy crook pressures Pastor Sung to finish fleecing his flock.

Fake is nothing like what you probably expect, beyond its pitch black portrayal of human nature.  Its depiction of blind faith might be unflattering, but nothing is more miserable than the abject lack of a higher meaning in one’s life.  Min-chul is not an anti-hero.  He is a vile brute driven by rage and contempt for his fellow man—and he is unquestionably the face of atheism throughout the film.  In a variation on Chesterton, Min-chul suggests those who believe in nothing, hate everything.

With its acrid irony and complete lack sentimentality, Fake is not likely to be embraced by Christian audiences. Yet, it is a deeply moral film.  It is also unremittingly pessimistic, perhaps setting the world’s record for the most grimly naturalistic animated feature ever.  Frankly, Yeon’s figures are not very expressive, perhaps showing slightly less definition than those in his feature debut, The King of Pigs. However, his characters very definitely have something to say.  Set in a provincial small town scheduled to be demolished for the sake of a massive public works project, the film also has a distinctive, vaguely apocalyptic vibe that is hard to shake.

Parents should note, Fake is completely inappropriate for children.  In addition to its very complex themes, there is considerable violence, harsh language, and all kinds of inhumanity directed at man and beast alike. However, the mature audiences for whom it is intended should find it a visceral, but surprisingly thoughtful film.  Highly recommended for those who appreciate challenging adult animation (and Academy members), The Fake is now showing at the CGV Cinemas in Los Angeles.

Labels: , ,

Friday, November 15, 2013

DOC NYC ’13: The Sarnos

The late Joseph W. Sarno was never accused of being a ruthless businessman.  The soft-core sexploitation director is considered an auteur by many, but he rarely had an ownership stake in the films he made.  As a result, the Sarno family finances are a bit precarious, making it a challenge to secure financing for a new film.  Wiktor Ericsson follows Sarno and his wife Peggy Steffans Sarno as they take their bows on the international film festival circuit and plug away on his comeback attempt in The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Movies (trailer here), which screens tomorrow during DOC NYC 2013.

Films like Inga and Sin in the Suburbs made a ton of money for somebody, playing to packed old school Times Square grindhouse theaters.  Sarno just got to make the next one.  At least, he met his future wife when she accepted a part in one of his films.  Like many of his regulars, she was a legit stage thesp, who brought real acting chops to his films.  Frankly, opinions vary regarding the acting you will find in Sarno’s cinematic statements, but let’s just assume the best for now.  Likewise, not everyone buys into Sarno’s press as the “Ingmar Bergman of Sexploitation,” but enough do for us to take it seriously.

Indeed, Ericsson records for posterity the Sarnos enjoying their overdue ovations at a BFI retrospective, which is about as real as it gets.  Not surprisingly, John Waters (the Martin Scorsese of grindhouse docs) is on hand to put Sarno’s career in perspective.  A Sarno film definitely explores sexual subjects, but it is uncharacteristically concerned with female fulfillment.  They are also dark, psychologically complex, and often kind of weird.  Waters suggests they probably were not all that satisfying for 42nd Street patrons looking to take care of business—and he would know from firsthand experience.

Unfortunately, time passed by Sarno’s slightly scandalous oeuvre.  Reluctantly, he accepted some pseudonymous hardcore work, but that was not his thing.  As the product of their circumstances, Ericcson’s Life in Dirty Movies is surprisingly wistful, especially by provocative doc standards.  Ironically, it is a rather nostalgic, almost conservative film, focusing on the Sarnos’ enduring love.

Frankly, the film’s niceness to naughtiness ratio might not go over so well with its target audience.  Dirty is real and honest, but the course of human events would deny it a big finish. Despite the pleasantness of the Sarnos, the doc is rather small in scope, feeling better suited to television than the big screen.  Norwegian jazz musician Bugge Wesseltoft’s upbeat score helps enhance its cinematic quality, but there is no getting around Dirty’s talky intimacy.

Nevertheless, Sarno has a fascinating career that reflects wider cultural trends in unexpected ways.  It is also well worth meeting Steffans on-screen.  Still quite a striking woman with a razor-sharp sense of humor, who helps keep the very personal film moving along.  If Sarno was the Bergman of Sexploitation, than she is the Helen Mirren.  Unlikely to convert new fans wholesale, The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Movies is mostly recommended for Sarno’s pre-existing admirers and grindhouse connoisseurs when it screens tomorrow (11/16) and Monday (11/18) at the IFC Center as part of this year’s DOC NYC.

Labels: , , ,