Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Holland at MoMA: A Lonely Woman

If a filmmaker with artistic integrity working behind the Iron Curtain never ran afoul of the state censors, they probably were doing something wrong. Based on that logic, Agnieszka Holland’s A Lonely Woman was a rousing success, as both film and director were banned in Poland shortly after its initial release. Screening today as part of the MoMA’s Holland retrospective, it serves as a vivid reminder of how grim life was under the Communist system.

Irena and her son literally live on the wrong side of the tracks, in a decrepit one-room apartment. It might not be much, but the landlord is still trying to force her out, resentful that the Party forced them on him. One day the exhausted Irena collapses while walking her beat as a postal carrier. She literally falls into the arms of Jacek, a former miner living on his disability pension after a workplace accident. He might not be much either, but he is smitten with the plain-looking single mother.

Jacek supplements his meager income by charging to shop for his neighbors, capitalizing on his line-cutting privileges. Queuing is a definite motif in Lonely. So are callous bureaucrats, who plague Irena’s unremarkable life. She attempts to petition the Communist Party for redress, but is rebuffed and threatened with arrest. Her superiors at the postal service try to reassign her beat to deny her the meager tips she garners from the many pensioners are her route. Squeezed from every angle, Irena eventually snaps. Suddenly, Lonely veers into Godard territory, as Irena resorts to a desperate (and criminal) flight for freedom that resembles a grim, grey, Communist version of Reckless.

Except for a hint of natural realism at its conclusion, Lonely is a relentlessly naturalistic film. It is a visceral indictment of the system that repeatedly betrays Irena, the very sort of underdog it claimed to protect. Maria Chwalibóg gives a heartrending performance in an often unflattering and unsympathetic role. As Jacek, Boguslaw Linda is pathos personified. Considering the state reaction to the film, their performances were brave in more than just an artistic sense.

Watching Lonely is not a happy experience per se, but it is clearly a passionate film. A film that is finely crafted and acted should not be considered depressing, no matter how great the misery and pessimism it depicts. So have a happy new year watching A Lonely Woman this evening at MoMA.

Final Film of 2008: Good

The Academy likes literary adaptations. They also like films on serious subjects, so Vincente Amorim’s Good begins its limited release on this final day of Oscar eligibility in clear hopes it will find favor with Academy voters. We shall see. Based on C.P. Taylor’s highly regarded stage play about the Holocaust, Good (trailer here) does indeed open today in New York.

Mild-mannered literature professor John Halder thinks he is a good person (hence the title). After all, he has a Jewish friend. That alone should establish his bonafides as a tolerant German. He also cares for his sick mother and supports a temperamental wife. So when the National Socialist cultural authorities notice his obscure novel and ask him to write an academic paper on their behalf, complying does not seem like a significant ethical compromise. The subject of his novel and proposed paper: euthanasia. Does this slope sound slippery?

Suddenly everything is going Halder’s way. His novel is adapted into a motion picture and he ascends to the chairmanship of his department, not that he teaches very much anymore. He now holds an honorary position with the SS as their intellectual figurehead—a so-called advisor on “humanitarian” issues. He has even left his dramatic wife for an adoring younger model. The only challenge to his new life comes from his Jewish army comrade Maurice, who questions his growing involvement with the National Socialists.

Despite his mounting unease, Maurice refuses to abandon the country he fought for during the Great War. Smartly written and compellingly portrayed by Jason Isaacs, he is the redeeming character of Good. However, what he sees in Halder, as played by a wooden Viggo Mortensen, remains a mystery. Halder is supposed to be an ostensibly decent man, who lets ambition and denial blind him to the truth, but there is little sense of inner turmoil in Mortensen’s flat performance. Halder’s ultimate moment of revelation does not make much sense either. Having been mobilized as an SS auxiliary officer during Kristallnacht, he can hardly claim complete ignorance of his colleagues’ crimes.

Good is intended to be an intellectual examination of the attitudes which abet evil, with an emotional kicker at the conclusion. It might have been better served if it had not been released during the award season, where it will surely suffer in comparison to other related films. There are things to recommend in the film, including Jason Isaacs’ terrific performance and production designer Andrew Laws’ frighteningly realistic recreation of Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, their noble efforts are ultimately undone by a lackluster central performance. Good opens today in New York at the Village East.

Happy New Year from J.B. Spins.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Defiance: the True Story of the Bielski Brothers

In a season with a surfeit of Holocaust related films, it might be helpful to think of Edward Zwick’s Defiance as a motion picture of the partisan resistance instead. In addition to sounding different, it also happens to be a more accurate characterization of the film. Chronicling the true story of the Bielski Otriad, a ragtag group of Jewish resistance fighters operating in the Naliboki Forest of Belarus, Defiance (trailer here) opens in New York tomorrow, in advance of a national release in January.

The sibling rivalry between Tuvia and Zus Bielski runs so deep, even the murder of their family and parents cannot fully abate their strife. Seeking sanctuary with their youngest brother Asael in the woods of their youthful explorations, the two elder brothers have vastly different ideas on how to proceed. Zus believes the brothers should look out for each other and extract their revenge on the occupying soldiers and town collaborators when the opportunities arise. Tuvia however, refuses to turn away anyone seeking refuge at their camp.

Their differing temperament leads to a temporary parting of ways for the brothers. Zus joins the nearest group of Soviet dominated partisans, hoping to take the fight to the Germans, while Tuvia stays with the growing band of refugees, building a makeshift shelter in the forest. Though the Communist partisans were initially almost as great a threat to the Bielski Otriad as the National Socialists, an uneasy truce is forged. While Zus proves his fierceness in battle, he still experiences anti-Semitism from his ostensive comrades.

Meanwhile, at the Bielski Otriad, as the community grows, circumstances force a looser approach to relationships, with the development of so-called “forest wives.” Tuvia even makes a clandestine trip to the ghetto, offering an alternative to eventual deportation and certain death. Of course, this was no vacation. In the short term, members of the Bielski Otriad face harsher conditions than those who remained, enduring disease, starvation, and freezing temperatures. However, with Tuvia Bielski there was hope, as the film makes dramatically clear in its finest moments.

Defiance is a bit of a hybrid, fusing elements of the action movie with the serious inspirational message film, yet it all works together reasonably well. Craig certainly comes in with credibility as an action figure and does not disappoint. His early revenge-taking scene (with a mere four bullets) actually ranks with 007’s first kill in Casino Royale as a great, stone-cold cinematic killing. As Zus, Liev Schreiber is frankly a pleasant surprise, intense and completely believable as the action-oriented Bielski Brother.

Unfortunately, Zwick’s direction does not always serve the film as well as his actors. He lets the pacing get bogged down during the sequences of the extreme winter privations and his final battle sequence often feels strangely limited in scope (surely the German military could have spared more than one tank for the operation). He does deserve credit though, with co-screenwriter Clayton Frohman, for not whitewashing Soviet anti-Semitism.

There are no scenes of concentration camps in Defiance, but there is some payback for those killed by the National Socialists. Having reviewed seven Holocaust related films already this holiday season (including new releases, POV, film festivals, and MoMA retrospectives), I almost found that cathartic. Indeed, the film compares well with many of its recent thematic competitors. Defiance is a legitimately inspiring historical story convincingly recreated on-screen. It opens in New York at the Ziegfeld Theatre tomorrow, with a national release on January 16th.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Arild Andersen Trio Live

Live at Belleville
Arild Andersen, Tommy Smith, Paolo Vinaccia
ECM Records 2078

In 1905 Norway dissolved its union with Sweden, becoming the only country to ever democratically elect a sovereign monarch, Haakon VII, formerly Prince Carl of Denmark. To mark the centennial of Norwegian independence from Sweden (an event surely worth celebrating), bassist Arild Andersen composed the Independency suite, which is now the centerpiece of his new trio recording, Live at Belleville.

Belleville, recorded live at the title Oslo jazz club and the Drammen Theatre, launches with Andersen’s ambitious four-part suite. The first movement has a stately but evocative spirit, portending drama to come. The second is more in the free tradition of Andersen’s work with Sam Rivers and Don Cherry, with the Scottish Tommy Smith contributing a fiery solo on tenor.

Independency then segues into an atmospheric, open sounding passage that fits some of the preconceived notions of ECM sound, which Andersen has been a part of almost since the label’s inception (having appeared on Jan Garabrek’s Afric Pepperbird and Robin Kenyatta’s Girl from Martinique in 1970). Andersen’s use of electronic effects also suggests a kinship with some of his soundtrack work, like his Electra, composed for an Athenian production of the Sophocles classic. The suite concludes with a bluesy (if idiosyncratically so) final movement. Throughout, the leader gets plenty of solo space, as does Smith, but his tenor is usually warm or even incendiary, as opposed to Nordic cool.

With Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” Andersen’s trio give the only standard of the session an elegantly sparse treatment that showcases Smith’s free-ranging, but beautifully expressive tenor, subtly supported by drummer Paolo Vinaccia’s brushwork. Belleville concludes with two more Andersen originals. Following a prelude from Vinaccia, still on the brushes, “Outhouse” quickens the tempo, providing a nice vehicle for the trio’s bop chops.

The disk concludes with the haunting melody of “Dreamhorse,” which Andersen introduces on bass in a particularly effective arrangement. The standout track, it also features some of the most sensitive solo statements of the session. (The audience evidently agreed, as they can be heard enthusiastically applauding for the final fifty seconds of the track.)

Andersen covers a great deal of ground in Belleville. Sometimes demanding, at other times lyrically beautiful, it is a richly textured program from a highly attuned group of musicians.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Holland at MoMA: Europa, Europa

Getting outclassed by the Hollywood Foreign Press is pretty pathetic, but that is what happened to the Academy Awards with Agnieszka Holland’s Europa, Europa. More than even Hoop Dreams, it serves as a lingering rebuke of the arbitrary rules established by the Academy in the specialized categories. In a year when Holland’s film was universally hailed as a masterpiece and did indeed win the Golden Globe for best foreign film, the governing German film authority refused to submit it for consideration for the best foreign language Oscar. Coincidentally, it happened to be about the Holocaust. Screening as part of the MoMA’s continuing Holland retrospective, Europa (trailer here) still holds up as a superior film, even in a season notable for a surplus of Holocaust related pictures (of widely varying quality).

Solomon Perel was an ordinary thirteen year old who had the bad fortune to come of age in the Europe of the late 1930’s. After losing a sister during Kristallnacht his father looks East for sanctuary. Born in Lodz, he hastily arranges Polish citizenship for his family, but it is only a temporary reprieve. When the Germans and Soviets partition Poland, he sends Perel and his brother Isaak east again. Separated from Isaak, Perel is taken in by a Soviet orphanage, where he parrots Communist ideology, eventually joining the Komsomol. Again fate intervenes, when he violates the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact.

Now accustomed to living by his wits, the native German-speaking Perel convinces the German army he is a purebred Aryan. Initially adopted as the company’s translator and mascot, Perel is eventually sent to Berlin to join the Hitler Youth as a reward for his presumed battlefield heroics. Living in a state of constant paranoia, Perel falls in love with a hardcore National Socialist girl (which might seem implausible, but she is played by Julie Delpy), yet is unable to consummate his courtship for fear his body would betray him in a moment of intimate contact. He would somehow escape many close calls to tell his tale, as Europa is in fact based on his memoir.

Perel survived the war hiding in the bellies of both Twentieth Century beasts, and Europa illustrates clear similarities between the two. Both the National Socialist and Communist schools are shown to be more about indoctrination than education. Both preach forms of hate, directed either against religion and class enemies, or the Jews.

In Holland’s hands, Europa becomes an epic story of survival, viewed from an intensely intimate perspective. While some scenes might feel a bit contrived, several are unforgettable, like a rare moment of humanity Perel shares with the mother of his Aryan girlfriend. Also the sequences in which Perel tries to fix his anatomical tell are physically painful to watch. Just how good an actor Marco Hofschneider is might be debatable, but his appearance of being constantly overwhelmed by events around him is actually perfect for the role of young Perel.

When initially released, Europa was somewhat controversial for depicting a Jewish character surviving (and at times even thriving) as a member of the Hitler Youth. However, Europa never glamorizes any aspect of National Socialism. To the contrary, it depicts Nazi society as sick and depraved. It is a memorable journey through the horrific ideologies of the Twentieth Century that ought to have a little gold Oscar statuette to its credit. It screens again Friday the second and Wednesday the seventh, as the Holland retrospective continues at MoMA.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bookazine (Whatever That Is): No Depression

No Depression No. 76: The Next Generation
Grant Alden & Peter Blackstock ed.
University of Texas Bookazine (Whatever that is)

Print is dead, or at least so I’ve been told repeatedly as a publishing semi-professional. The magazine business has been particularly brutal over the last ten years or so. Some have tried to maintain a digital life after ceasing hardcopy publication, but it has usually just prolonged the death rattle (case in point: Omni magazine). While No Depression has pursued a similar internet strategy after shipping their final issue this summer, they have also recommitted to ink-on-paper, forming an alliance with the University Press of Texas to publish a twice yearly tradepaperback “bookazine (whatever that is).” With the first bookazine, No. 76: the Next Generation, now out, ND chose a theme of rejuvenation, focusing on youthful string bands currently reshaping the bluegrass scene.

Taking its name from an Uncle Tupelo album and the Carter Family song “No Depression in Heaven,” ND has covered all forms of music which fit under the umbrella of Americana, including: bluegrass, blues, ambitious country music, roots rock, and a smidgen of jazz. For the new incarnation, they made the editorial decision to relegate all live performance reviews to the website, but retained some CD reviews to preserve some of the feel of the original magazine. Indeed, most of No. 76 profiles the youthful string bands, which I am happy to note in a few cases includes artists well into their thirties.

It is cool to see ND find new life in as a bookazine, but as they grow accustomed to the new format, editorial adjustments will need to be made. Unlike the magazine form, the bookish trappings will encourage some readers to start at page one and proceed sequentially to page 144 (like your faithful reviewer). Unfortunately, many of the string band profiles follow the same template, explaining how each group is mindful of tradition, but incorporate a host of outside influences to synthesize their own unique sound, which is exemplified in their latest CD. To be fair, developing fresh hooks to discuss musicians is devilishly difficult (believe me, I empathize completely), but differentiating articles will be a greater concern now than in a proper magazine, which readers typically dip into sporadically.

That said, No. 76 is a thorough primer on the fresh faces on the string band scene. One name that recurs frequently though is no new-comer. As a member of Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet, Béla Fleck is described as: “regularly rated by many to be the most innovative living master banjoist who’s not Earl Scruggs.” (p. 80) His name reappears as an influence and producer for other artists, as well as art director for No. 76, having stage managed the eccentric photo shoot of Washburn and the Sparrow quartet, which graces the cover.

If bluegrass, no matter how reinvented, is not your thing, there is some welcome blues coverage in No. 76 as well. There are profiles of the truly youthful Homemade Jamz Blues Band and Gary Clark, Jr., the breakout star of John Sayles’s The Honeydripper. There is also a fairly lukewarm review of Two Men with the Blues, the collaboration between Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis. While praising some tunes, Rich Kienzle sums up the release writing: “it brings forth nothing new or revolutionary, nor was it meant to.” (p. 142)

It is great to see ND continue covering artists that magazines like Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone will not bother with, in any format. It also represents a potentially interesting publishing development, blurring formats as its artists blur genres. It should be interesting to follow as they calibrate their future contributions to fit the new format.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas in New Orleans: St. Louis Cathedral & Preservation Hall

They love their Christmas music in New Orleans. During the season, you can hear it at some the Crescent City’s most hallowed spaces, including St. Louis Cathedral and the slightly less imposing Preservation Hall.

Originally completed in 1727 and rebuilt in 1794, the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis, King of France might be the most recognizable building in New Orleans, rising over Jackson Square on the banks of the Mississippi. It is also where hip New Orleanians go for Christmas concerts based on Monday night’s turn out for the diverse trio of Theresa Andersson, John Fohl, and David Doucet. Originally hailing from Sweden, Andersson fell in with the city’s legendary R&B scene, while maintaining a rootsy acoustic sound on the fiddle. Fohl is a regular member of one of New Orleans top local organ trios, as well as a sideman in Dr. John’s band. Doucet is a respected standard bearer of the Cajun musical tradition. Together their Christmas concerts at the Cathedral have become something of a tradition for them, even resulting in a CD of their Christmas music.

Andersson has a lovely voice, nicely featured on “Hark the Herald,” but their finest number may have been their instrumental version of “Little Drummer Boy,” displaying their dazzling technique, but not at the expense of feeling. Fitting New Orleans’ history as a port city melting pot, it was a trilingual night, with Andersson performing the German and English lyrics to “Silent Night” and Doucet performing the French carol “Il Est Ne, Le Divin Enfant,” which he learned from the nuns in Catholic school.

Though the décor is meaner, Preservation Hall is certainly sacred ground for those who love traditional New Orleans hot jazz and Dixieland. While the Hall is all about tradition, their Creole Christmas Eve shows are a relatively recent institution, only in their third year. This year, they featured the St. Peter Street Allstars under the direction of Lars Edegran, also a Swedish transplant. Edegran has been leading groups at the Hall for years, usually on piano, but he is also an accomplished banjo and guitar player. With the raspy blues shouter Big Al Carson on vocals and a top notch group of New Orleans style jazz musicians, notably including Freddie Lonzo on trombone and Shannon Powell on drums, they ragged up favorite yuletide carols with old school flair.

Up-tempo pieces like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” were particularly amenable to their hot style of interpretation, but Carson’s finest vocal may have come on their beautiful rendition of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” Edegran and company also mixed in a couple of tunes from their usual repertoire. In fact, it must have been Christmas, because they concluded the first set with “The Saints,” which ordinarily will set you back a ten-spot if you want to hear it at Preservation Hall.

Music is a way of life in New Orleans, so it naturally figures prominently in their Christmas celebrations. St. Louis holds their special Christmas concerts throughout the month of December, featuring important local artists like Ellis Marsalis and Irvin Mayfield in addition to Anderson, Fohl, and Doucet’s annual concert. Preservation Hall is open year round, but Christmas Eve is the day to hear carols there. Of course, it is not impossible to hear Christmas music there on other days, but it might cost some change. Remember, traditional requests are two dollars, other requests are five, and “The Saints” will set you back a full ten.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Kawalerowicz’s Shadow

Directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz
Polart Films

When a film uses the word “kulak” (rich peasant) in a derogatory way, it is a safe bet it was produced during the Soviet era. Throughout his fifty year career, Jerzy Kawalerowicz ranked as one of Poland’s top directors. He was so well regarded, Kawalerowicz’s career (just barely) survived the fall of Communism, even though he publicly condemned his colleagues Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Zanussi when they embraced the Solidarity movement. Though never critical of the Communist system, some of Kawalerowicz’s earlier films, like Shadow (recently released on DVD), offer interesting grist for deconstructive criticism.

As Shadow opens, a man has fallen from a speeding train, mangling his face beyond all hope of recognition. Wearing an overcoat, but no jacket, the mystery man dies on the operating table before he can reveal his identity. The junior officer investigating the case is confident the truth will out, predicting: “Find the shadow, and you’ll find the man.” Dr. Knyszyn (played Zygmunt Kestowicz in the film’s standout performance) is not so sure. As a case study in uncertainty, he relates an incident from 1943, when he was a member of the Polish underground, and naturally a good Communist by virtue of being an anti-Fascist. Somehow, Knyszyn’s cell is manipulated into armed conflict with another loyal cell. Despite the future doctor’s efforts, he never learns the identity of the mastermind behind those deadly machinations.

In an apparent coincidence, a name Knyszyn mentions in passing sparks another story from Captain Karpowski, the senior officer in charge of the investigation. He relates an incident from his military service in 1946, fighting armed bandits sheltered by the deceitful kulaks. Karpowski and a comrade infiltrate a gang of brigands led by the mysterious “Dwarf,” but again, the operation is nearly sabotaged by a mysterious betrayal.

As suspicions mount regarding the unknown train passenger, police at the next station apprehend a man with the dead man’s jacket. Under a little sweating his confesses his story, involving an incident of industrial sabotage earlier that day.

With a title like Shadow, one would expect some dramatic black-and-white cinematography. If not on the level of The Third Man, cinematographer Jerzy Lipman’s work does indeed have an appealing film noir look, particularly in Knyszyn’s story. The film has the right film noir feel, as well. Despite its scrupulously correct political content, there is an aura of paranoia that pervades each flashback. Duplicity is expected, but never explained. Agent provocateurs sabotage and destroy simply out of an evil counter-revolutionary impulse.

Though often compared to Roshomon, Shadow is more closely akin to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Darkness, both thematically and stylistically. Its vision of mystery and betrayal remains compelling, despite the ideology it accepts.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Waltz with Bashir

War is Hell, so the movies tell us. There have been some truly great anti-war films, but the best are universal in their themes, and not inextricably tied to the circumstances of a particular conflict. This is why Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is a great film and the recent anti-war films have been, without exception, dismal failures. Opening Christmas Day in Los Angeles (and New York the day after), Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (trailer here) starts out as a potentially great anti-war film, but bogs down in the politics of its conflict: the 1982 Israeli military incursion into Lebanon.

Billed as an animated documentary, Bashir chronicles writer-director-producer Ari Folman’s efforts to awaken suppressed memories from his military service in Lebanon. Much of what he has forgotten involves the deaths at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps. In retribution for the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the Lebanese president-elect, Christian militia attacked the camps. Initially looking for PLO terrorists who had indeed been harbored there, events quickly deteriorated into bloodshed. While not directly involved, we are told the Israeli military is thought to have had a pretty good idea of what was happening as it went down. In Bashir, Folman and his comrades are still trying to mentally and emotionally process these events.

Out of the recent glut of anti-war films (broadly defined), Bashir might actually be the best. Admittedly, the bar has been set pretty low, but Folman and director of animation Yoni Goodman have created some striking visuals. The opening sequences involving the dogs that haunt a fellow Beirut veteran’s dreams are powerful stuff, forming a most compelling portrayal of the dehumanization of war. As he explains to the director, he knows exactly how many of the savage canines are chasing him, because he vividly remembers killing each and every one as part of a reconnaissance mission. Folman also gets surprising mileage from structuring the story as a psychological investigation. Indeed, the process of ferreting out Folman’s repressed memories makes consistently intriguing drama.

Unfortunately, the more political Bashir gets, the more it looses its way. We see scenes implicating the late Ariel Sharon, which should be considered controversial rather than gospel. Of course, we are shown the Sabra and Shatila massacres in graphic detail, including the only non-animated archival news footage included in the film. What we do not see is the Gemayel assassination or the constant bombardments and terrorist attacks the PLO staged from Lebanon, which precipitated 1982 invasion in the first place. These are only perfunctorily referenced through dialogue.

Bashir has been well received in Israel, where it recently won their equivalent of the Academy Award for best picture, automatically making it their official selection for the Academy’s best foreign language film. Its Oscar campaign should be interesting to watch, given recent history. Last year, France unsuccessfully submitted the animated Persepolis for best foreign language picture, but it did snag a best animated nomination. Israel’s original best foreign language selection, The Band’s Visit, was disqualified for having too much English content, but its replacement, Beaufort, another revisionist Beirut drama, beat out Persepolis and other highly touted releases for a foreign language nomination.

Though technically well made, Bashir lacks the heart of either Band or Persepolis, but its knee-jerk criticism of the Israeli military may well find an appreciative audience at the Academy. While Bashir’s animation is often striking, ultimately the film suffers for prioritizing its lopsided political content above character development. It opens Christmas Day in Los Angeles and on Friday here in New York at the Sunshine Theater.

Monday, December 22, 2008

NOLA Christmas: Aaron Neville at the House of Blues

On a downright chilly Sunday in New Orleans, an ode to winter like “Let it Snow” did not sound so out of place in the House of Blues. Of course, it was Aaron Neville singing, concluding his recent holiday tour. On home turf, he could have sold the adoring crowd any song, but he chose a repertoire largely drawn from Bring It On Home, his recent collection of soul standards, some holiday favorites from his two Christmas albums, and a few of his greatest hits.

Appearing years younger than a man who scored a number one hit in 1967, Neville’s expressive voice, often approaching falsetto range, is well suited to soul classics like “Stand By Me,” “A Change is Gonna Come,” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.” They were songs specially chosen to express the pain and yearning in the aftermath of Katrina. Neville actually supported the CD with an appearance on the Young & the Restless soap opera. Watching the clip on youtube, the best acting clearly comes from Neville when he tells the characters how “proud” he is to appear at their club. His “Stand By Me” was a killer though, at the HOB last night and even on Y&R.

As for the Christmas carols, Neville performed enjoyable enough versions of “White Christmas” and “Let it Snow,” but it was the more soulful fare that was truly in his power zone. Neville’s “O Holy Night” is probably the best you will hear from a vocalist who does not come from an operatic background and his performance of the original “Christmas Prayer” was tender and heartfelt. Though not a Christmas song per se, Neville’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” (included in his encore medley) also hushed the hitherto ruckus HOB crowd.

Backing Neville was a quintet featuring his brother Charles on tenor and alto sax, accounting for half the musical Neville Brothers on the HOB stage. The Neville reedman had a few solo features of his own, including a very jazzy “Besame Mucho.” He has the jazz chops, having recorded his own solo project and appeared on progressive jazz sessions produced by Kip Hanrahan.

Of course, the leader also sang “Tell It Like It Is,” near the end of the night. While Neville has surely performed it thousands of times, he still brings a warm rich sound to his number one hit. Neville has a powerful presence in live performance and his mix of Christmas and R&B is a winning combination, particularly in front of the more-or-less hometown crowd. As a result, there was definitely some real holiday spirit going on in HOB last night.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Racing Daylight

Racing Daylight
Written and directed by Nicole Quinn
Vanguard Cinema

Sometimes weirdness is hereditary. “There have always been Stokes in Cedarsville,” says Sadie Stokes, but they tended to be crazy, haunted, or both. The Stokes’ dark family history truly haunts the present generation, resulting in a willing journey into madness in Nicole Quinn’s Racing Daylight (trailer here), which releases on DVD this week

The first of Racing’s triptych of stories is that of Sadie’s descent into madness. The end of the Stokes line, Sadie has no identity of her own in Cedarsville. She is either her mother’s daughter or her grandmother’s granddaughter, depending on the generation of the townsperson. She is desperately infatuated with Henry, the handyman and avid reader of Civil War history, but he seems to interpret her extreme shyness as either disinterest or mental derangement. In fact, she is going mad, as she says so herself in her voiceover narration.

Sadie is apparently a dead-ringer for her ancestor Anna, whose spirit is slowly taking possession of her. As small town luck would have it, Henry is also the spitting image of Anna’s true love Harry. As Anna was much bolder in affairs of the heart, Sadie eventually decides to go along for the ride, embracing Anna’s dominant persona.

In the second part of Racing we meet Edmund, Anna’s husband and father to the son she conceived with Harry. Like Sadie, he is also haunted by spirits, including that of a runaway slave he accidentally killed as a teenager, who happens to look exactly like one of Sadie’s few friends in modern day Cedarsville. Since Edmund has long grown accustomed to the silent company of his ghost, it is a sad, pointless haunting. However, when Anna dies and also returns as a spirit, her presence makes it nearly impossible for him to carry on with his life.

The third part is “Henry’s Story,” as he tries to make sense of it all, both past and present. Here, Racing abruptly departs from the serious tone of the first two parts. While apparently addressing the audience directly, Henry makes some shrewd observations as he puts his amateur historian’s instincts to good use. In some cleverly cut sequences, we view scenes from Sadie’s story from his ironic perspective. We also get a wild “punchline” that seems completely out of place with the rest of what preceded it. However, “Henry’s Story” has a go-for-broke spirit that you have to admire.

Racing boasts an interesting cast, including Melissa Leo, recognizable from the show Homicide as Sadie and Anna, as well as the perfectly cast David Strathairn, seen in nearly every John Sayles film in recent years, as Henry and Harry. Unfortunately, the film’s other name actor, the cool Giancarlo Esposito (also of Homicide and films like The Usual Suspects) does not get much to do here beyond looking sad as Edmund’s ghost.

Though entirely written and directed Nicole Quinn, one would think Henry’s installment was produced by an entirely different creative team than first two stories. Even if it is somewhat overwritten and highly uneven, the result is at least memorable. Ultimately, Racing is worth checking out on DVD for a fine performance by Strathairn and a few odd scenes of “well-how-do-you-like-that” bemusement.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Scenic Moscow, Belgium

Yes, they also have white trash in Belgium. The Moscou neighborhood of Ghent is not exactly Bruges. Originally deriving its name from Russian forces encamped there during the Napoleonic Wars, it is now a drab working-class suburb. At least that is the sense of place conveyed in Christophe van Rompaey’s Moscow, Belgium (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Obviously, Matty’s life stinks. She works in the post office. Making matters worse, Werner, her art teacher husband has moved in with a former student, but is trying to keep his options open should he later decide he wants to return to his family. Working a stultifying job and raising her rebellious teenaged daughter Vera and socially underdeveloped son Fien has taken a toll on her. However, when she accidentally backs into hot-headed Johnny’s truck, she catches the younger man’s eye (after he eventually exhausts his anger).

Matty does not want a truck-driving boy toy. She wants tomcatting Werner to come home, but agrees to meet Johnny on a date, which ends in the cab of his truck. Despite her intentions, Matty gets involved with the twenty-nine year-old with anger management difficulties. He has other issues too, like a nasty reaction to alcohol and a related criminal record.

There is some fine acting in Belgium, but it is exasperating to watch its characters make one glaringly bad choice after another. Should Johnny have a glass of wine to celebrate their relationship? Probably not. After a while, it is hard to maintain a rooting interest in their relationship, when each seems determined to sabotage it at every juncture. Still, there are some nice performances here, including Barbara Sarafian literally bearing it all as Matty. Anemone Valcke is also quite impressive as the daughter Vera, one of those annoying kids who are smarter than their bickering parents.

In a way, Belgium could be considered the anti-Babette’s Feast. Never before has so much unappetizing food been drowned in mustard and consumed on-screen. Surprisingly, the most stylish aspect of Belgium is its original soundtrack composed by Belgian jazz accordionist Tuur Florizoone. Mixing elements of jazz and French café music, it might sound completely at odds with the mundane environment of Belgium, but is in fact quite effective at setting the film’s moods.

Like the neighborhood it is set in, Belgium is respectable and hard-working. Regrettably, despite a nice score and lead performance, it is not overwhelmingly memorable. It opens today in New York at the Cinema Village.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Big Screen Beck

To thrive in talk radio, you have to be entertaining. With over 300 stations syndicating his three hour radio show and a new television show debuting on Fox News in January, Glenn Beck is clearly doing okay for himself. Obviously, he knows something about entertaining an audience. Still, his ability to carry a one-man stage show came as a bit of a surprise last night in Fathom Events’ live theater simulcast of Glenn Beck’s The Christmas Sweater (trailer here).

Based on his bestselling novel, Sweater is an odd hyrid of cinema, theater, and variety show, based around Beck’s emotional reminiscences of his fateful twelfth Christmas. Still grieving his father, Beck, then known as Eddie, is hoping for some consolation under the tree. Unfortunately, all his hard working mother can afford is the yarn for a sweater. Disappointed, Eddie hurtfully withdraws from his mother and grandparents, setting in motion a story of tragedy and more importantly, redemption.

While Beck supplies all the drama, he is not alone on the stage. He is accompanied by strings and woodwinds, as well as Chanta C. Layton, a show-stopping gospel vocalist with an enormous voice. Her musical interludes help the show avoid the pitfalls of one-person shows, which often seem like one long unrelieved monologue (as indeed they usually are). In fact, an early performance of the favorite hymn of Eddie’s late father plays an important role in Sweater’s character development.

Sneer and scoff all you wish, but Beck shows some genuine acting chops in Sweater. Though not singing or dancing, Beck brings a real physicality to his performance, literally working up a sweat on-stage. Deliberately blurring the lines of fiction and autobiography, Sweater often feels like a confessional, as Beck essentially bares his soul on stage. Unquestionably sentimental, the story is also legitimately moving, up until the disappointingly contrived (but obligatorily happy) conclusion.

Although the energy flags a bit immediately following the ten minute intermission, director Don Brenner generally balances Beck, the music, and the projected background images quite well. Frankly, for what is essentially a concert film, Sweater has an appealing look (far superior to the flat Allah Made Me Funny, for instance).

Beck can actually act and he evidently knows how to hire people who can sing. He is also controversial, so no doubt many will find it difficult to get past their preconceived notions of the radio host. However, he deserves credit for a revealingly honest performance. Though Beck scrupulously avoids the political in Sweater, arguably one can see in it the values of family and faith which shape his world view.

Produced by Fathom Events, known for their Metropolitan Opera simulcasts and special anime screenings, Sweater is an unusual cinema experience, more closely akin to the legitimate stage. I'm not sure what I really expected either, but those with an open mind will be impressed by Beck’s screen presence. Look for Fathom’s encore screening tonight at these theaters.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Broken Arm Trio

Broken Arm Trio
Erik Friedlander, Mike Sarin, Trevor Dunn
Skipstone Records

If you have seen the classic Sweet Smell of Success you might have noticed Fred Katz, a cello player looking as if he would be more at home on a college campus than in a jazz club as a member of Chico Hamilton’s group. Katz was among a handful of cellists to improvise in a jazz context, the most prominent of whom was the bassist Oscar Pettiford. After breaking his arm, Pettiford discovered he could still handle the smaller cello. On that instrument he would eventually record some classic jazz albums, like My Little Cello, which became a favorite of multi-genre cellist Erik Friedlander. Taking inspiration from Pettiford, Friedlander has formed the Broken Arm Trio, whose first self-titled session has recently been released.

Friedlander has worked with experimental improvisers like John Zorn, Dave Douglas, and Marty Ehrlich. As a leader, he has recorded for the Radical Jewish Culture Series on Zorn’s Tzadik label. However, following in the Pettiford tradition, Friedlander’s originals on Arm, are largely grounded in swing. Yet sometimes his music has a minimalist quality somewhat akin to some of Zorn’s work, due to the spacious arrangements and unusual instrumentation. Drummer Mike Sarin and bassist Trevor Dunn (co-founder of the eccentric alt-rock band Mr. Bungle) join Friedlander on cello, who eschews the bow in favor of pizzicato plucking for most of the session.

Arm starts with “Spinning Plates,” an up-tempo bop workout, propelled by Sarin’s swinging brush work. It also features successive solos from Friedlander and Dunn, immediately contrasting the higher pitch of the cello with that of the bass. On the next track, one of only two instances of bowed arco playing is heard on the elegant “Pearls.”

Given their unusual instrumentation, the Arm Trio often sounds surprisingly bluesy, like on the cool-toned “Ink,” which starts with what might be called “walking” cello, or the downright greasy “Tiny’s.” While all members of the trio have wide comfort zones for inside-outside music, the brief “Jim Zipper,” is about as abstract as Arm gets. It is also an effective showcase of the remarkable sounds Sarin can produce on his kit.

Nicely coalescing as a unit, the Broken Arm Trio can claim a unique sound, creating some unusual but accessibly swinging music. Friedlander’s originals have distinctive, off-kilter melodies that are interpreted with relaxed eloquence by the trio. Altogether, Arm makes quite a convincing case for the jazz cello.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Berlin: City of Smoke

Berlin Book Two: City of Smoke
By Jason Lutes
Drawn and Quarterly

During the roaring 1920’s many African American jazz musicians found a more hospitable racial climate in Europe. This changed rather drastically in the 1930’s, for obvious reasons. Several expatriate jazz musicians, like Freddy Johnson and Henry Crowder, were in fact interned by the occupying German forces for a number of years before their eventual repatriation. Touring Weimar Germany in 1929, the fictional jazz band the Cocoa Kids, risks a similar fate if they overstay their welcome in City of Smoke (preview here), the second collected installment of Jason Lutes’ literary graphic novel Berlin.

It is 1929 and Berliners can smell danger in the air. It is a pungent mixture of hot jazz, sex, and extremist politics, from both the Communists and the National Socialists. Still reeling from the past year’s Mayday riots, the death of Gustav Stresemann, seen as the unifying statesman of moderate democratic government, further demoralizes Kurt Severing and his fellow pacifist intellectuals. Unlike his artist girlfriend Marthe Müller, he refuses to take consoling pleasure from the sounds of jazz, which he blames for turning Germans into “little, mindless marionettes in a pointless frenzy.” (p. 38)

Müller by contrast has no problem with jazz or the other pleasures of the night Berlin offers. As her romance with Severing winds down, she finds the city’s underground lesbian clubs increasingly alluring. Meanwhile, the Cocoa Kids are the toast of the town, but are not being compensated accordingly. Evidently, the music business is the same all over. However, they certainly enjoy Berlin’s relative tolerance, particularly their clarinetist, Kid Hogan, who becomes openly and intimately involved with a white Berliner.

Periodically, the Communists and National Socialists take to the streets for demonstrations complete with long fiery speeches. Unfortunately, Smoke can get a bit talky at such times, bogging down in its faithful representations of the era’s extremist rhetoric. While Smoke is unquestionably less critical of the Communist KPD, it seems to suggest their actions were often counter-productive.

Smoke is an ambitious project, encompassing a large cast of characters drawn from all strata of Weimar society. Yet the only sympathetic characters who take any sort of decisive action are the Cocoa Kids, from America. Having spent enough time in Chicago, they know how to get what is coming to them.

Lutes convincingly evokes Weimar Germany through his well-researched historical detail and sophisticated black and white art. In an interesting stylistic and editorial choice, Lutes refrains from showing swastikas, opting instead to put conspicuous holes in their place. (Given the publishing industry cliché that books with swastikas on the cover always sell, his publisher must have had decidedly mixed emotions about this decision.) Lutes also makes interesting use of the late 1920’s hot jazz both in character development and to establish the period feel.

Smoke is definitely a graphic novel for adults, addressing some mature themes and presupposing a basic understanding of the implications of the National Socialists’ rise to power. It is smartly written—definitely for the high-end of the graphic novel market.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Steve Wiest: Out of the New

Out of the New
By Steve Wiest
Arabesque Jazz

Before Julliard or NYU, the University of North Texas became the first North American school to offer a jazz degree. (This is another friendly reminder that the jazz world does not end at the banks of the Hudson River.) UNT graduates have since filled the ranks of many big bands, including Maynard Ferguson’s. As a longtime Ferguson sideman, trombonist Steve Wiest followed the reverse course when he accepted his recent faculty appointment there. He quickly brought further prestige to the jazz department soon thereafter, when he was nominated for an instrumental arranging Grammy in recognition of his work on Ferguson’s final release. Following up his swinging and surprisingly literate big band outing Excalibur, Wiest now looks to contemporary popular music for inspiration with Out of the New, which radically reconstructs new standards by the likes of Coldplay, Green Day, and Foo Fighters.

Wiest culled much of his new repertoire from his daughter’s suggestions, but also looked to his favorite pop album, Sting’s Ten Summoner’s Tales. Sting, who has often employed jazz musicians as sidemen, seems to appeal to those inclined to the jazz aesthetic. However, Wiest’s arrangement is hardly slavish. He kicks up the tempo considerably, recasting it as easy-going swinger, allowing ample solo space for the leader, guitarist Fred Hamilton, and Stefan Karlsson on piano.

Probably the best known tune will cause the most listener trepidation. Indeed, Wiest tackled Aerosmith and Run D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way” as a deliberate challenge. Fortunately, Wiest recombines the song’s DNA so drastically it is almost unrecognizable (in the best sense). In many ways, it is a counter-intuitive tune, full of agitated, nervous energy, yet featuring a bowed bass solos. In a particularly clever arrangement, Wiest’s long solo coda shifts gears, bringing in the gutbucket blues.

Despite the common instrument, it would be a mistake to compare New to the many bachelor pad pop song interpretations recorded by bop trombonist Kai Winding in the late 1960’s. While the Winding LPs still hold a certain charm, the arrangements were largely confined to melody statements, with little room left for improvisation. They also usually attempted to recreate the general vibe of the original tune. New takes exactly the opposite approach. For instance, in Wiest’s hands, the slacker angst of Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” becomes an elegant waltz vehicle for the leader’s muted horn.

The topper though is Wiest’s alchemy on the Foo Fighters’ “In Your Honor,” transmuting the post-Grunge anthem into a golden bossa. Hamilton and Karlsson sound audibly inspired by the leader’s arrangement, taking eloquent solos of their own, before the entire group comes in for the go-for-broke final coda that is the only point in New where Wiest faithfully recreates his original source material. Though only five musicians, for a little over a minute they thrillingly channel stadium rock through their instruments.

Wiest has a big sound on trombone and shows remarkable facility with the bop lines. His arrangements are consistently inventive, even surprising. Though based on pop tunes, Wiest never dumbs down the music of New—quite the contrary. Still, if fans of the originals give it a spin, they will be impressed, as will more experienced jazz ears.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

NYADFF: Where Are You Going Moshe?

Sharia law is not much fun, even for Muslims. Just ask the good citizens of the provincial Moroccan town of Bejjad. To keep their neighborhood bar open, they will resort to desperate measures, including protecting the town’s last Jewish resident in Hassan Benjelloun’s Where are You Going Moshe, which screened at the New York African Diaspora Film Festival.

It might not be as popular as Rick’s in Casablanca but the bar owned by the Frenchman Pierre does a good business. According to the local penal code, the sale of alcohol is expressly permitted to non-Muslims, so as long as there are Jews and Christians still living in Bejjad, the bar stays open. Unfortunately, the dying Pierre will just barely outlive the late King Mohammed V, who was considered the protector of Morocco’s Jewish population. With his death, the Jews of the newly independent state concluded it was time to get out while the getting was good. When the last one leaves Bejjad, the bar closes, which much distresses Mustapha, the prospective new owner.

However, there is one lone holdout. Though an ardent supporter of Israel, Shlomo’s heart and his music are in Bejjad, which serves Mustapha’s purposes. Rechristened Chez Shlomo, the last Jew in Bejjad holds court every night, playing his beloved oud, for his grateful Muslim friends. Of course, the religious authorities are less than thrilled with the relationship, leading to concerns for Shlomo’s safety.

Though very real, the film downplays Shlomo’s potential peril, preferring to keep the tone light. In fact, it is quite charming. It has much the same appeal of a film like The Band’s Visit, but might be even more commercial. Moshe takes the audience back to a gentler time, when Jews and Muslims could be friends and neighbors, without considering it any big deal. Obviously, that changed in Morocco. As a voiceover explains following the opening credits, the country’s Jewish population numbered over 300,000 in 1945, whereas now it is about one percent of that figure.

Actor and oud player Simon Elbaz brings true soul to the role of Shlomo. Like a graduating college student, he knows he has to move on, but cannot bear to leave the site of so many important memories. It is a richly human performance. Indeed, the entire ensemble cast credibly brings the town of Bejjad to life on the screen, under Benjelloun’s sensitive direction.

To his credit, Benjelloun treats his characters with respect, avoiding stereotypes altogether. It is encouraging to see such a movie produced in Morocco, but controversy surrounding the title somewhat tempers one’s optimism. Benjelloun’s first title, My Brother the Jew was evidently nixed by the Moroccan government. (Of course, our protagonist is named Shlomo. There is a Moshe, but he is a minor character, Bejjad’s barber, who leaves in the first wave of clandestine immigration. Maybe Moshe sounded less Jewish than Shlomo to the censors.)

Regardless of titles, Benjelloun’s film itself is wise and gentle. It tackles some tricky issues, but deftly maintains its light touch. Probably the best film of the festival, Moshe screened during the NYADFF’s special Night in Morocco. This year’s NYADFF concludes with special screenings today and Tuesday night.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Holland at MoMA: To Kill a Priest

The face of evil is usually all too prosaic. Such is the case in To Kill a Priest, the first of three fruitful collaborations (so far) between the Polish-born director Agnieszka Holland and American actor Ed Harris. Released in 1989, To Kill a Priest (trailer here) is also her most misunderstood film. It is indeed inspired by the assassination of the pro-Solidarity priest Jerzy Popieluszko, who really was kidnapped and murdered by members of the Polish Security Police with the winking approval of their superiors. However, the nature of Holland’s assassin, played by Harris, is often misinterpreted. Screening tomorrow as part of the MoMA’s Holland retrospective, it might be the film in her oeuvre most overdue for a critical re-examination.

Harris’s true-believing Captain Stefan leads the Fourth Division of the secret police charged with monitoring religious activity. His number one target is Father Alek, an earnest young Roman Catholic priest modeled on Popieluszko (and played by a stiffly miscast Christopher Lambert), who openly criticizes Communist oppression from the pulpit. Not taking kindly to such counter-revolutionary sedition, the Captain tries to trump up a criminal case against the Father. Failing that, he obtains tacit permission from his section Colonel to run a black bag operation to solve their problem once and for all.

Much is made of the secret policeman’s love for his family and heartfelt defense of socialist values, as if this ameliorates his guilt for killing Father Alek in cold blood. Yet, such thinking is deeply flawed. Theologically, evil is not considered the opposite of good, but rather its perversion. Harris’s character is evil for choosing ideology over humanity. It is an ideology that compels him to terrorize his own family, painting gallows and nooses on the door of his flat, while blaming neighbors sympathetic to Solidarity. He has deliberately poisoned his family with fear and paranoia, and murdered the innocent, rationalizing his crime as a means to insure: “that my son can grow up to be a good Communist.”

This might be Ed Harris’s best on-screen performance, capturing the nervous energy of a tightly wound, but all too ordinary monster. He is joined by a very talented cast, including Joss Ackland, Tim Roth, Joanne Whalley, Pete Postlethwaite, and David Suchet, many of whom were cast by Holland before there became well-known actors, proving her eye for prospective talent.

Priest is more deliberate than most political thrillers, but more action driven than typical arthouse fare. While the drab look of the film might have been true to the Communist reality, it gets to be a chore on the eyes. Still, Holland infuses many scenes with tremendous power, as when the confirmed atheist Captain teaches his Colonel how to cross himself. Arguably, the sum of Priest’s parts is greater than its whole, but that still offers much for viewers to chew on.

Like her mentor Andrzej Wajda, Holland was forced into a life of exile in the 1980’s. However, in recent years she has remained a world citizen of a filmmaker, directing American, French, and German productions. According to her Q&A with Harris on Wednesday night, her next project will be an HBO pilot about New Orleans musicians returning to the city. As for Harris, his next project will be a Peter Weir adaptation of The Long Walk, Polish Cavalry Officer Slavomir Rawicz’s memoir of his grueling escape from a Soviet Gulag, which would eventually make quite an interesting double feature with Priest. Holland’s first collaboration with the actor screens again this afternoon as her retrospective series continues at MoMA.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Adam Resurrected

There is an enormous difference between the humorous and the outrageous. Though based on a book by Yoram Kaniuk billed as a darkly comic novel of the Holocaust, there are few laughs in Paul Schrader’s Adam Resurrected. Opening today in New York, Resurrected is not about finding humor in the suffering of others, but rather understanding how one form of madness could produce another.

Adam Stein is a troubled soul who has problems with authority. He is made of similar stuff as Yossarian from Catch-22 and McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He is also a Holocaust survivor, whose survival came at a tremendous emotional cost. Haunted by his experiences, Stein is a reluctant patient in the Seizling Institute, a fictional mental sanitarium in Israel specializing in the treatment of Holocaust survivors.

Before the war, Stein was an entertainer, whose act blended elements of Victor Borge with Cirque de Soleil—perfect for Weimar Germany, but not so well received under National Socialism. Though not particularly religious, it was only a matter of time before he was deported to a concentration camp. Upon his arrival, he is recognized by a former audience member, the camp commandant, who spares Stein’s life for his own twisted enjoyment, forcing him to live as his pet dog.

In a narrow sense, Resurrected is a completely bloodless film that shows none of the actual killing in the camps. However, Stein’s dehumanizing scenes with the twisted Commandant Klein are profoundly disturbing, depicting human cruelty with visceral immediacy. As wild and ruckus as Stein might act years later, his problematic behavior bears no comparison with what was done to him. Though clearly provocative, there is no doubt about the film’s moral center, unlike the often baffling Reader.

Schrader’s direction is visually unsettling, often framing scenes from odd angles, but also sensitive enough to capture the tortured humanity of his characters. As Stein, Jeff Goldblum gives a very strong performance, dialing down his trademark manic delivery just enough to connect with the pathos of his character. Willem Dafoe is appropriately cold and severe as the evil Klein, while the venerable Derek Jacobi exudes compassion as Dr. Nathan Gross, the director of Seizling (but he is not given much heavy lifting to do as an actor). Some of the richest work in Resurrected actually comes from supporting players, like Joachim Krol and Idan Alterman, who play fellow patients in Seizling that suffered similar losses but lack the consolation of Stein’s flamboyant rebellion.

It seems Schrader de-emphasized the black comedy of the film’s original source novel. This was probably a wise decision. Although Resurrected is often uncomfortable to watch, it is always for the right reasons. While the film does not always work (as in the case of Stein’s relationship with a pretty young nurse, which defies credibility), it is darkly compelling throughout. Of the many Holocaust related films releasing this season, Resurrected takes the most risks, which it largely pulls off. It is also by far the most stylistically distinct film of the field. It opens today in New York at the Quad.

Holland at MoMA: Rough Treatment

Strictly speaking, is it even possible to be “paranoid” when living under an oppressive government? If you think the system is out to get you, eventually you’re always going to be right. Polish foreign correspondent Jerzy Michalowski comes to understand that only too well. When the protagonist of Andrzej Wajda’s Rough Treatment, written Agnieszka Holland, suddenly finds himself beset with personal and professional setbacks, it is surely no coincidence. Screening tonight as part of the MoMA’s Holland retrospective, Treatment (a.k.a. Without Anesthesia) dramatizes the Kafkaesque persecutions that were the modus operandi of the Communist Party during the Gierek years (1970-1980).

Michalowski enjoys being a public intellectual. Loosely inspired by Ryszard Kapuściński, Treatment’s protagonist has travelled the world, reporting extensively from Third World trouble spots. As played by Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, Michalowski is gregarious and smugly satisfied with own success. If arrogance is too strong a term for him, he is certainly blessed with self-confidence of a magnitude that sets him up for a downfall worthy of Greek Tragedy.

Given his prestige, Michalowski is chosen as the first guest of new primetime interview show. Relishing the attention, he lets his enthusiasm carry him away, questioning how well “the mass media serves the purpose of truthful information.” This of course, is a bad career move.

After the interview no one will say anything to Michalowski directly, but subtle losses in privileges start to mount. Fully aware of the importance of each apparently minor slight, like being dropped from the circ list for American newsweeklies, the reporter protests to his network patron. However, he is unable to focus his undivided attention on his professional predicament, because of trouble on the home front. He is simultaneously challenging divorce proceedings initiated by his wife Ewa.

It is no coincidence that everything is happening at once to Michalowski. He is paying a price for his candor, slowly becoming professionally and socially persona non grata through a cold-blooded process Wajda himself closely observed when it was applied to his own professional acquaintances. Following Man of Marble during Wajda’s consciously political period of filmmaking, Treatment is clearly a protest film. Although Michalowski’s offending words are kept deliberately vague, there is no mistaking their thinly veiled meaning or the dire repercussions which they cause. On screening Treatment, it is clear why Holland and Wajda eventually found it necessary to seek employment outside of the Communist Era Poland.

Zapasiewicz gives a great performance, fully capturing both the bluster and pathos of Michalowski. Wajda and Holland depict his personal tragedy in cold, unsentimental terms. Far from hysterical, it was a lucid indictment of the then reality of Communist Poland. The state built him up, and then with little warning, the state tore him down. Although Michalowski and Treatment might be hard to love, they are unquestionably compelling to watch. A historically important film in both the Wajda and Holland canons, it screens tonight at MoMA.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

6-Shooter: Timecrimes

It seems like whenever characters venture into the woods in Spanish cinema, bad things happen. Perhaps that is just because so many of the Spanish films recently released in America have been horror movies. While technically time-travel science fiction, Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes shares many of the conventions of movie macabre, including those deep, dark woods. Opening tomorrow in New York and Los Angeles, it is the third and strongest installment so far in Magnet Releasing’s Six Shooter series of international genre films.

Hector’s life is not too bad. He has a comfortable relationship with his wife and a lovely new house in the country, sitting picturesquely on the edge of a verdant forest. Nature watching through his binoculars, Hector catches a glimpse of a topless woman. That gets his attention. Hector delves into the forest to investigate, only to take a pair of scissors in the shoulder from a maniac with a bandaged head. Pursued by the lunatic, Hector is guided by the caretaker of a nearby scientific facility into a heavily reinforced mystery chamber. When he emerges, he has traveled several hours back in time. Soon thereafter, Hector suffers a head injury in a freak accident. As he administers first aid, wrapping gauze bandages around his head and pocketing the scissors, things start getting interesting.

Timecrimes is a devilishly clever movie, best seen cold. Even the trailer gives away too much, which makes it a tricky picture to review, so proceed at your own risk. In addition to its head-spinning time games and creepy chills, Vigalondo also raises some surprisingly philosophical questions. As the various Hectors proliferate through frequent time travel their collective actions lead inexorably to murder. Yet in each separate time frame, he is simply responding to the predetermined events unfolding around him. How culpable is Hector (any Hector) for the actions of his various selves?

As Timecrimes concludes, it feels like the film should be riddled with gaping plot holes, but Vigalondo and editor Jose Luis Romeu flawlessly hide the seams. Romeu in particular, deserves credit for perfectly fitting together the perspectives of each new Hector with those previously established. Karra Elejalde is fantastic as the weary middle-aged protagonist, subtly shading each of his character’s materializations. Director Vigalondo also appears in a supporting role, appropriately playing the caretaker—the man who sets all the chaos in motion through his unauthorized use of the time machine.

While Vigalondo maintains a breakneck pace throughout Timecrimes, the film holds up to deliberate post-screening scrutiny. It is probably the best genre film of the year and the strongest time travel movie in years. Highly recommended, it opens today in select cities.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Reader

Oprah Winfrey book club selections usually conform to a predictable formula. They largely feature female protagonists in rural settings, dealing with issues of abuse, addiction, and empowerment. This made Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader a bit of a ringer when it was selected, though one could argue victimization is an important element of the story. One of several Holocaust related films releasing this year in time for the Award season, director Stephen Daldry’s The Reader (trailer here) opens in New York today.

Schlink grew up as part of the German generation that came of age immediately following World War II. Entirely blameless themselves, they still had to come to terms with what their parents and teachers had done over the last twelve years. His surrogate in the film is the painfully sensitive Michael Berg, played as a post-war fifteen year-old by David Kross and as a present day middle-ager by a reserved Ralph Fiennes.

As the story begins, young Berg has contracted a rather nasty bug while riding the tram home from school. After vomiting in a strange courtyard, one of the residents takes pity on him, cleaning up and seeing him home safely. Upon recovering, Berg returns to thank the mysterious woman. Realizing the adolescent’s desire for her, the older woman embarks on a sexual relationship with Berg. Although she refuses to tell him her name, their affair falls into a regular pattern. Every day after school, he reads to her before they make love. Then one day, Berg comes to the apartment as usual, only to find she has cleared out without warning.

Though deeply hurt, Berg carries on with his studies, eventually enrolling in law school. There he signs up for an advanced course taught by the philosophical Professor Rohl. As part of their curriculum, they will observe the sensational war crimes trial of three women who worked as concentration camp guards for the SS. To Berg’s horror, he recognizes one of the accused as his former lover, one Hanna Schmitz.

In many ways, playwright David Hare’s screenplay is problematic. A great amount of time is spent on the Summer of ’42 set-up, effectively de-emphasizing the predatory nature of such a relationship. Things do pick up somewhat when the trial begins, largely thanks to the electric performance of veteran German actor Bruno Ganz as Rohl. When he is on-screen, the film’s IQ increases at least twenty points. However, the presence of such a character, a sixty-some year-old legal ethicist, raises a few unanswered questions, like what was he doing from about 1933 to 1945?

Ralph Fiennes largely appears as the older, emotional withdrawn Berg in order to frame the flashback sequences, sort of the English Patient without the bandages. In truth, Kate Winslet’s performance is quite accomplished, but in a way, that compounds the film’s problems. The more it humanizes her character, the more it seems to invite viewers to identify with an admitted war criminal and statutory rapist (at least in most states of the union).

Aspects of Berg’s actions as a law student are troubling also. Regardless of one’s feelings for Schmitz, he clearly allows a partial miscarriage of justice to stand. The character of Ilana Mather, the lone survivor of Schmitz’s atrocity, is also questionable. Portrayed by Lena Olin as a cold, wealthy Upper Easider, she seems deliberately drawn to be as unsympathetic as possible. However, she does have an important moment of moral clarity for the film when she reminds the middle-aged Berg he was also a victim of Schmitz.

Ultimately it is difficult to understand the moral center of the film or where it wants to lead the audience’s sympathies. Given the sensitive nature of the film’s subject matter, that is a bit of a problem. With so many Holocaust related films opening this season, it raises the stakes for a film like The Reader. While the film features excellent performances from Winslet and Ganz, as a whole, it is uneven and confused.

(On a related note: Inheritance airs on most PBS stations tonight. Review here.)

Romanian Film Festival: Timisoara, December 1989

In Alexandru Solomon’s Cold Waves, several veterans of Radio Free Europe’s Romanian section complained their country was the last captive nation to break its Communist shackles, aside from Albania. That sense of impatience was also shared by many in Romanian, eventually igniting an explosive protest in Timişoara, which ultimately led to a full-fledged revolution. The events of that signal protest are remembered in Ovidiu Bose Paştină’s 1993 documentary, Timişoara, December 1989, which also screened at this year’s Romanian Film Festival.

A bold aerial shot of Timişoara’s gateway arch sets the tone for the distinctive, almost experimental, style Paştină brings to bear on this turning point in Romanian history. Filming interviews of witnesses and participants in the demonstration from odd angles in a grainy black and white, Paştină’s visual compositions match the chaos of the events under discussion. As witnesses recall, the military did indeed initially fire upon the crowd. However, as the crisis escalated, the Romanian soldiers turned against the Communist regime. One rank-and-file speaks on camera of a telephone conversation with his parents, warning him not to shoot his countrymen.

While Paştină captures some powerful oral history, December is as much a meditation on the birth of 1989 Revolution, as it is a historical narrative. At times almost impressionistic, it displays little resemblance to other (more conventional) documentaries of the period.

Unlike then Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, the 1989 Revolution was indeed a revolution—the only revolt against Communist authority which climaxed with the execution of the Party leader. December captures the courage and spirit of hope, so long deferred in Romania that finally came to the fore in 1989. It also represents what could have been. Tragically, Paştină was lost to cancer before he could follow-up on the promise shown in December and his well regarded student film, The Art of Individual Defense.

December is a rewarding film on its own merits and a sad reminder of what could have been. Given its high historical and artistic value, it deserves the full Criterion treatment and a long broadcast life on PBS. An excellent choice for the festival, it nicely complemented Solomon’s Cold Waves, which discussed the events of Timişoara from a slightly different perspective.