Thursday, July 31, 2008

Bass in BKLN

I actually made it out to Brooklyn last night, and no, I’m not waiting for applause. It was well worth making the trek to hear bassist Kevin Tkacz’s gig at Barbès. His first CD, It’s Not What You Think, is in various stages of pre-release, but having already heard it, I heartily recommend it.

I have heard Tkacz (pronounced tax, but skip the annoying I.R.S. related puns) play with Eri Yamamoto’s trio at Arthur’s Tavern. It’s a good example of the peculiar jazz way in which awareness of one cool musician often leads to another. Both on his upcoming CD and at Barbès, Tkacz’s intriguing music defies easy classification. While there is definitely an exploratory, free dimension, it is not at all abrasive. Rather than screaming at listeners, it sort of sidles up to you to say something clever.

The leader was joined by drummer Michael Sarin (also heard on What You Think), Angelica Sanchez on piano, and trumpeter Shane Endsley. Having played before, their easy-going camaraderie was audible, despite the steamy hot environment of the room. Let’s just say they worked hard for it last night (the ice in my drink actually melted). Tkacz’s compositions can be moody and dramatic, but also reflect his sense of humor. A great example last night was the soothingly melodic “Ambien(t) Lullaby.”

If you live in Fargo hearing quality live jazz could be problematic. However, if you live in the City and you’re not supporting live music, you have to get out more. There are great musicians playing every night at affordable venues like Barbès. You obviously have internet access, so have no excuse. Just go to the websites of clubs like Barbès, Arthurs, 55 Bar, and Cleopatra’s Needle, and then check out their scheduled musicians on myspace (90% of them will be there). When you hear one like, go see them, it’s as simple as that.

You could start by hearing Tkacz at Arthur’s over the next three nights, and if you are really polite, you’ll probably be able to buy an early copy of What You Think. (More details will go up here when it is on the market proper.) It’s a great CD and hopefully the start of a long discography as a leader.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hola Mexico: It’s Better If Gabriela Doesn’t Die

Most American films set behind the scenes of major soap operas are upbeat comedies, like Tootsie and Soapdish. Evidently, the work environment on Mexican telenovelas tends to be more neurotic, given that the humor in It’s Better If Gabriela Doesn’t Die (trailer here), the closing film of the Hola Mexico Festival, is of the distinctly black variety.

Miguel hates his work. Having once harbored serious literary ambitions, his writing muscles are atrophying as he churns out scripts for a cheesy evening soap. While he might have contempt for his day job, it makes quite an impression on Bracho, a borderline psychotic cop who happens to be a passionate fan of Miguel’s show. Mild-mannered Miguel gives little thought to trading some upcoming plot revelations to get out of Bracho’s traffic stop, offering up his plan to have arch-villainess Gabriela marry her nemesis. However, events turn deadly serious when Ana Victoria, the actress playing Gabriela, suddenly quits the show, requiring her character to be killed off.

Bracho the braggart, tries to use his presumed inside information to impress his colleagues and cronies. However, when Gabriela’s impending doom is announced, he takes it as an insult to his honor, triggering a descent into psycho-stalker madness. There is humor in Gabriela, particularly towards the end, as Abigail Jardin, the show’s reclusive mad genius of romance, returns to right the sinking ship. By and large though, it is a story of insanity fueled by the allure of fame, bearing some thematic similarities to Scorsese’s King of Comedy.

Directed by Mexican television veteran Sergio Umansky, Gabriela has a dark, disconcerting tone. Ricardo Hernández Anzola’s script has some clever touches, particularly down the stretch, but the character of Miguel seems to specialize in making poor choices designed to make his situation worse, not better. (At times, I wanted to see Tootsie’s Dorothy Michaels come out and give him a good talking to).

Gabriela Roel, as Ana Victoria, as Gabriela, gives the film’s strongest performance. She brings grace and intelligence to her portrayal of an actress coming to terms with the disappointments and indignities of her ostensibly glamorous professional career. Gabriela also boasts several great supporting performances including René Casados as Jardin, and Miguel Pizarro as a desperate extra willing to risk his life for a recurring role.

Gabriela has a lot of strong moments, but its antagonists needed to be fleshed out more. Still, Umansky shows real promise as a feature director in a film that overall was an interesting conclusion to an entertaining festival.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


By Alyssa Graham
Sunnyside/Walrus Records

There is always something alluring about newly unearthed lost manuscripts or heretofore unknown sessions tapes that keep turning up in the vaults. Alyssa Graham’s sophomore release, Echo, on-sale today, has a similar appeal in a song originally penned for Billie Holiday, but shelved by writer Jack Reardon after her untimely death for close to fifty years, until he eventually heard Graham.

Reardon’s “Involved Again” frankly does not rank as a lost masterpiece of a song, but it could have been something special had Holiday lived to record it. Its bittersweet hopefulness would have perfectly suited Holiday’s expressive, world-weary voice, perfectly fitting the intersection of romantic sentiment and existential anguish, which nobody represented better than Lady Day.

Graham’s rendition is quite pretty, but she (fortunately) lacks the accumulated experiences Holiday would have brought to the song. At least on this release, it sounds like she has a greater affinity for the kind of jazz-influenced pop (or vice versa) that propelled Norah Jones’ meteoric rise. However, Graham displays greater range here, with a stronger voice. (Fair warning: more Jones references are likely to follow.)

The initial track, Simon & Garfunkle’s “America” shows her facility with pop standards, here given a particularly lush arrangement. Although only getting brief solo space, Gregoire Maret’s harmonica (previously heard with the likes of Pat Metheny and Marcus Miller) adds interesting sonic textures to the track, much like Toots Thielemans work on Quincy Jones’ soundtracks.

Graham’s sultry cooing of Sting’s “I Burn for You,” also takes the familiar hit to an interesting place, as the jazz rhythm section of pianist Jon Cowherd, bassist Doug Weiss, and drummer Obed Calvaire slowly build to a crescendo. Graham most invites comparison with Norah Jones on some of Echo’s originals, like the dreamy romanticism of “Pictures of You,” and the country-jazz-pop of “My Love.”

Graham herself travelled widely in Brazil and has guitarist Romero Lubambo on the session, so not surprisingly there is also a hint of the Brazilian on Echo. It fully blooms on the concluding tune, “Izaura,” with Cowherd and Lubambo taking nice, if brief solos on the gentle swinger.

Graham has an appealing voice and has chosen some very complimentary arrangements on Echo. Perhaps it is unfortunate that the disk seems to invite comparison to a legend like Holiday and a modern phenomenon like Jones, but at least that is heady company to be likened to. Being the next Billie Holiday will be a tall order for anyone, including Graham, but her vocals could certainly find appeal with Jones’ fans open-minded enough to give something new a spin.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Hola Mexico: 3:19

One probably would not expect to see the work of Czech novelist Milan Kundera represented at the Hola Mexico Film Festival, but a key scene from the Unbearable Lightness of Being found its way on-screen, albeit briefly and in animated form. Dany Saadia’s 3:19 (Spanish trailer here) takes on not just Kundera, but French mathematician Évariste Galois and biologist Paul Kammerer, all in a contemporary story of love and mourning.

Through a series of chance occurrences, young Ilan sees Lisa, his perfect woman, and even gets her email address thanks to the efforts of a friend. However, chance has not been kind to him. Stricken with cancer, Ilan becomes preoccupied with forging a posthumous connection with Lisa while he confronts his own mortality. He charges his loyal friends, the easygoing Everyman Eric, and Andy, the well-meaning knucklehead, with fulfilling his ambition, but gives them only vague instructions. He is clear on one point—he wishes to be cremated, regardless of Jewish tradition, which supplies the film with its title, from Genesis 3:19: “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Saadia frequently cuts away from his contemporary story with animated episodes from the lives of Galois and Kammerer, as well as the scene from Unbearable. Kundera’s celebrated novel becomes a touchstone for Ilan, because he sees in its tale of people brought together through chance a parallel to his own life. Kammerer’s Seriality Theory that so-called coincidences were really the result of a larger causal force clearly relates to the themes of 3:19. However, the relevance of Galois’s life is less readily apparent, aside from the fact that the mathematician might have been on the receiving end of some rather unfortunate chance events himself. Saadia brings it all together at the end (but in venue that does not entirely make sense).

For all its philosophical egg-headedness, 3:19 packs a surprisingly emotional punch. Ilan’s final scene with his two friends is written with complete honesty and believability, despite his rather unusual request. While there are painful moments shared by Ilan and his family, the three friends’ relationship form the emotional center of the film. Miguel Ángel Silvestre, Felix Gómez, and Juan Díaz, as Ilan, Eric, and Andy respectively, are indeed convincing, keeping the audience invested in their characters.

Even when their significance is somewhat obscure, the animated sequences are stylishly distinct and fascinating, often conveying some lesser known intellectual history. 3:19 also lays claim the coolest opening titles seen in years. While the film might sound gimmicky, the execution is tightly focused and the acting is quite assured. 3:19 is a very satisfying film that really stays in the consciousness after screening it. It was the best film I saw this year at Hola Mexico, which really was a friendly, well run festival that happily should be returning to New York next year.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Hola Mexico: La Zona

Hmm, when a fortified border wall plays an important role in a contemporary Mexican film, could it possibly have some greater symbolic significance? In this case, the wall in question is not between America and Mexico, but the protective border surrounding the mother of all gated communities in Mexico City. Screening as part of the Hola Mexico Film Festival (which concludes on Sunday), director Rodrigo Plá’s La Zona (trailer here) shows the tragic consequences when that wall is breached.

Teenaged Alejandro lives with his parents in the Zone, a protected oasis of suburban safety, literally walled off from the urban blight which surrounds it. Their wall and the private security force which keep watch along it, are there to keep out the riff-raff, including the corrupt cops of the outside world. However, one fateful dark and stormy night, a lightning strike compromises part of the wall. Three smalltime crooks immediately capitalize on this larcenous opportunity, crossing into the Zone. As you might expect, things go awry.

The exact details are initially kept murky, as rumors run through the Zone like wildfire. What the audience knows for certain though, is that one resident and two intruders are dead, with the third at large, somewhere in their community. Rather than call in the outside authorities and risk losing their special autonomous legal status, the residents of the Zone decide to take the law into their own hands, looking to Alejandro’s father Daniel to lead their manhunt. Simultaneously, they must fend off the investigation of Rigoberto, a bent city cop, who picked the wrong day to try to go straight. It all makes for a rude coming of age for Alejandro, as he comes face to face with the scared young fugitive, on his sixteenth birthday.

La Zona is not subtle expressing its point of view. However, despite the film’s radicalized class consciousness, it is hard to fully condemn the residents of the Zone. They fear they are surrounded by criminals just waiting to rob and murder them, and they are proved right five minutes into the film. They consider the outside police hopelessly corrupt and again are ultimately vindicated in their judgment.

Indeed, Plá has crafted a pretty taut thriller that is not weighted down by its ideological baggage, effectively building tension, until suffering from a third act collapse and completely flat denouement. Oh well, these things happen. With only two films under his belt, Plá is already a darling of the international festival circuit and shows real promise in La Zona. Along the way, he gets some impressive performances out of his cast, particularly Daniel Giménez Cacho as Alejandro’s conflicted father and Mario Zaragoza as Rigoberto, the troubled cop. Flawed but interesting, La Zona has a lot of the elements working quite well, before it just hits the wall, so to speak.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Hola Mexico: Born Without

Mexico does not look like a particularly congenial environment for buskers, but Jose Flores is still able to support a wife and now seven children from tips earned during his performances. Years ago, Flores caught the eye of future director Eva Norvind, but initially it was not so much his music that fascinated her, but the very sight of the diminutive street performer born without arms. Eventually she would profile Flores in the documentary Born Without (Nacido Sin), with her daughter Nailea completing the post-production process after her death (trailer here). It screened last night as part of the Hola Mexico Film Festival, following successful festival appearances in Europe and Mexico.

Playing a harmonica strapped around his neck and accompanying himself on güiro with his foot, Flores sounds like a good busker (if not extraordinary like Satan and Adam in their prime). However, Norvind was more interested in Flores’ life than his music. He is indeed married to the devoted Graciela, who is expecting their seventh child as the film opens. We see him barnstorming around Mexico with her help, to play outside carnivals and festivals in search of lucrative audiences. It seems a strange twilight existence he and his fellow buskers lead, but at least the Flores have a respectable home and family to return to.

In addition to music, Flores has also appeared in films, amassing a singularly unusual filmography. His screen credits include Alejandro Jodorowsky’s tripped out The Holy Mountain, Nicholas Echevarria’s only slightly less trippy Cabeza de Vaca, and Didn’t Do It For Love, Monika Treut’s documentary about director Norvind’s S&M career. Of particular interest to cineastes are interview segments with Jodorowsky, sounding either very cool and broad-minded, or totally cold and self-centered, it is hard to tell which.

Clearly, Norvind found Flores to be an admirable subject. However, Without reveals certain problematic aspects of Flores’ life late in the film—essentially as a third act surprise—that definitely make you stop and say: “huh, how about that?” It puts a twist on the audience’s feelings for Flores, but it makes for a more interesting film.

Without is not all noble inspiration, all the time, but rather a surprisingly nuanced profile of a unique individual. The film’s soundtrack is just okay—Latin music lovers need not pine for its theatrical release solely for the score and performances. However, Flores’ story is definitely memorable and one certainly hopes for the best for him after watching Without.

Man on Wire’s Time

When a police officer told the press Philippe Petit’s tight-rope walk across the Twin Towers was a sight he knew he would never see again in his lifetime, he was more right than he could understand at the time. That death-defying incident is the subject of James Marsh’s documentary Man on Wire (trailer here), which I thought was great when it played Tribeca, and have not changed that opinion now that its regular theatrical run begins.

Reading a 1968 article about the World Trade Center’s construction initially sparked the French daredevil’s mad ambition. He had performed unsanctioned walks at famous landmarks before, but nothing could match the scale of the Twin Towers. Pursuing that objective would entail years of planning and plenty of dumb-luck, lovingly recounted in Marsh’s film.

You didn’t just show up at the Towers and toss a line across (it involved a bow and arrow). Aerial photography, scale models, reconnaissance, forging documents, and recruiting an inside man, all figured into Petit’s so-called “Coup,” as well. It is surprising how absorbing all this prep work is when Petit and his cohorts relive those conspiratorial days.

Although never disrespectful to memories of the World Trade Center, Marsh made the conscious decision to avoid references to September 11th, focusing exclusively on that one moment of time in 1974 and the events leading up to it. It is hard to say if that approach is entirely successful, because the weight of that later tragedy hangs over the film at all times.

However, in an unexpected way, Wire is a corrective to a film like The Wackness, which waxes nostalgic for the pre-Giuliani New York, because it was so much easier to buy drugs in the City then. Of course, it was not such a party for honest New Yorkers, who had to work and live amid the chaos. Wire perfectly captures the significance of both Petit’s unbelievable walk as well as sheer feat of engineering the World Trade Center itself represented. Both gave New Yorkers hope that incredible things could still happen in the City, even at its grimmest and grungiest low point.

Blending archival footage shot by Petit’s crew with idiosyncratic recreations, Wire has a distinctive look that is compulsively watchable. Surprisingly, it also elicits some real emotion from Petit’s collaborators, nearly thirty years after the Coup. Altogether, Wire is a totally engaging piece of documentary filmmaking, opening today in New York at Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Tribute to the Sparrow

A Tribute to Edith Piaf
Live at Montreux 2004
Eagle Eye Media

For some, Edith Piaf is associated with drug addiction, prostitution, and the criminal element of the Parisian red-light district, and that is just how her fans remember her. Those less devoted to the chanteuse perceive her time during the German occupation to be a little too comfortable for comfort. All of which frankly reinforces her status as a French icon. To celebrate her legacy, Claude Nobs assembled a diverse group of vocalists for an engaging Tribute to Edith Piaf at the 2004 Montreux Jazz Festival (not tied into any particularly significant anniversary in her career).

The music of the Piaf tribute blends jazz with the cabaret French chanson music Piaf mastered. Backing up the rotating cast of vocalists is quartet of French jazz musicians led by Baptiste Trotignon on piano, with André Ceccarelli on drums, Marc Berthoumieux on accordion, and bassist Remi Vignola. While not well known in America, all have played extensively in Europe, particularly Ceccarelli, who has frequently recorded as a leader and as a sideman with artists like Dee Dee Bridgewater, Biréli Lagrène, and Martial Solal. They start the set with two instrumentals, including “Under the Paris Sky,” a sophisticated swinger featuring Berthoumieux’s accordion, nicely capturing the late-night café vibe of Piaf’s milieu.

Oddly, the first vocalist to pay tribute to the chanteuse is a man, Swiss cabaret and theater performer Michael von de Heide (keep any unkind stereotypes to yourself), who does wring a lot of drama out of “Mon Dieu.” Ute Lemper follows in what was probably a programming error. Her “L’Accordeoniste” is a killer that swings hard and could have easily been the climatic number. Throughout her mini-set she shows the affinity between Piaf songbook and the Weill lieder for which she is known.

A nice change of pace comes in Barbara Morrison’s “Autumn Leaves,” an unabashedly jazz rendition, with Trotignon getting a nice solo blow. Morrison has an appealing voice, which the musicians visibly respond to. Piaf preferred Johnny Mercer’s lyrics adapted from Jacque Prevert’s original French, so it is the only English heard in the concert.

Evidently, singer-actress Catherine Ringer’s credits include French adult films and a Godard picture, which arguably makes her a fitting participant for an evening of Piaf. Interestingly, she gravitated to Piaf’s earthier repertoire, like the sailor’s tune “C’est a Hambourg” and “Poor John’s Ballad,” which has the air of a good drinking song. As probably the biggest star, Angelique Kidjo gets the final mini-set, the highlight being “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” a nice combination of Kidjo’s powerful voice and the elegantly romantic sound of Berthoumieux’s accordion. “La Vie En Rose,” Piaf’s signature tune, is not heard until the collective finale performance, which unfortunately dilutes its impact.

Obviously, Tribute is a very French affair. Though a bit uneven, it has some very entertaining performances, even for someone who did not come in brimming with love for Piaf.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Master Taylor and His Apprentice

The infamous Embraced, Cecil Taylor’s stylistically mismatched live duet recording with fellow piano legend Mary Lou Williams, is considered a train wreck by her fans. (For Taylor’s fans it is just good subversive fun.) So when Yosuke Yamashita likens an upcoming piano duet concert with Taylor to painting with Picasso and boxing with Ali, they are reasonable metaphors. However, unlike Williams, Yamashita is a free-oriented player who repeatedly credits Taylor’s influence on his musical development. As a result, they prove to be quite compatible in the February 2007 concert captured in director Yasuhiko Shirai’s documentary, 4 Hands: Cecil Taylor and Yosuke Yamashita in Concert, which received its American premiere last night at the Lincoln Center. (In lieu of a trailer, here is a link to Burning Piano, a 1973 short film of Yamashita playing a piano in flames.)

My biggest complaint about music documentaries is that they rarely have the confidence in their subjects to show a complete performance from start to finish. No such griping here, since Shirai shows their entire improvised concert, without interruptions or voice-overs. He also shows edited footage from their rehearsals and press conferences, and interview sequences with Yamashita, to provide context for the main event.

Interviewing Taylor however, is a bit of a challenge in any language. He seems to have a tendency to answer reporters’ questions with cryptic koans, if they are lucky, which makes it difficult for them to get their sound bites. At one point, he facetiously asks: “what is this, twenty questions and no answers?” Evidently, that actually works as a sound-bite for me.

Yamashita often refers to Taylor as his “master” and remembers with pride the praise he received from the legend at a Montreux Jazz Festival. Indeed, they clearly speak the same musical language. Although Taylor’s early sessions are surprisingly accessible (and compelling), he would develop an uncompromising style over time that does not offer a lot hooks for neophyte ears to hold on to. However, the concert dialogue between the two imposes a certain structure on Taylor that makes this a good entry point into his music.

Clearly, Yamashita was delighted with the results of the concert and Taylor must have been okay with it too. He attended the first screening last night, and even gave a direct answer to a question from the audience. When asked where the music he and Yamashita created that night came from, he rattled off diverse sources including “Wade in the Water,” Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” as well as the pulse of life on the streets of New York and Tokyo.

In Hands, Taylor is as passionate and percussive on the keys as ever. Though at times respectfully deferential to Taylor, Yamashita hangs with him quite well throughout. Painstakingly editing footage from eight cameras, Shirai crafted an excellent concert documentary. It deserves real distribution in the future, presenting Taylor and Yamashita’s music in a way that could actual stretch some ears not previously accustomed to the freer sounds of improvised music.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Premiere Brazil: Mystery of Samba

Meet Marisa Monte, song-hunter. Though known as an international Musica Popular Brasileira (MPB) star, Monte has wide-ranging interests in many forms of Brazilian music, most certainly including Samba. In the new documentary Mystery of Samba, she profiles the senior statesmen of Samba affiliated with the Portele Samba School in Rio de Janeiro, while searching for classic unrecorded Sambas. It joins the Bossa Nova of Out of Tune and Humberto Teixieira’s baião music heard in Man Who Bottled Clouds in a distinctly musically flavored Premiere Brazil film series at the MoMA (maybe there will be a choro film next year).

As our guide to the musical legacy of Portela, Monte gets assists from Zeca Pagodinha and Paulinho da Viola, but she is the film’s primary contemporary voice, which is a good thing given the warmth of her on-screen presence. Having a family connection to the school, she seems to establish immediate rapport with the veterans of Portela and in some cases their survivors. With a voice beautifully suited to the impromptu a cappella duets she performs with her interview subjects, her interest in preserving these lost songs comes across as a completely genuine Alan Lomax-like impulse. Of course, it also gives her an opportunity to sing some cool, previously unheard of tunes.

Comparisons to the Buena Vista Social Club are probably inevitable with a film like this, which is fair enough. Rio’s Samba schools are themselves essentially music-based fraternal organizations, perhaps closer akin to the parading societies of New Orleans. Regardless, the old gentlemen of Samba show they can still get it done, with a party atmosphere pervading throughout Mystery. Most have roots both at the school and in the surrounding neighborhood which go back decades. Seu Argemiro is a bit of an exception. Though of the same generation, he is relatively new to Portela, but fit right in when they heard his Sambas.

Directed by Carolina Jabor and Lula Buarque de Hollanda, Mystery is lovely to look at, conveying the charm of the surrounding Madureira neighborhood and Portela’s blue and white colors. It is a vibrant film with crisp and clear subtitles, but the English trailer on youtube appears distorted, so the Portuguese version will give you a better sense of the film. It screens again at MoMA this Saturday.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Premiere Brazil: The Man Who Bottled Clouds

Humberto Teixeira was successful both in the music business and as a politician. If you suspect these demands on his time might have led to trouble in his family life, you have probably seen a lot of music documentaries, or at least read about them here. Indeed, it does sound like Teixeira and his daughter Denise Dummont had an awkward relationship, much of which evidently stemmed from her decision to pursue an acting career. Nearly thirty years after his death, she produced and co-wrote with director Lirio Ferreira The Man Who Bottled Clouds, a search-for-the-man-my-father-really-was style documentary which just received its world debut as part of the MoMA’s Premiere Brazil film series.

Teixeira is credited with popularizing the baião music of the hardscrabble northeastern provinces. Most visible through his collaborations with singer Luiz Gonzaga, he wrote over four hundred songs before his election to the national legislature representing his northeastern Ceará home. It would probably be helpful to get a general overview of Teixeira’s life before seeing Clouds at MoMA, because the subtitles often pose a real legibility challenge. (Oddly, as of today, English wiki does not have a Teixeira entry.)

Despite his political sojourn, it is music that defines Teixeira’s life. There are some revealing interview segments in Clouds, and Dummont opens up about some very personal moments they shared, but the film’s strongest sequences are its musical tributes. There are three killer renditions of “Asa Branca,” the unofficial Brazilian anthem he penned—sort of a Woody Gutherie style rural proletarian lament, except it really is a great song. We see historic footage of Caetano Veloso’s angst ridden version as well as David Byrne performing an English translation with Forro in the Dark live at Joe’s Pub. Byrne might be a bit of a loon (nice hat), but he nails it here.

Although Teixeira is not nearly as well known as many of his contemporaries in America, Brazilian musical royalty turned out for Clouds. We hear in interview and performances segments from Veloso, Gal Costa, Bebel Gilberto, and Miho Hatari. Other figures sharing their recollections of Dummont’s father include Gilberto Gil, Wagner Tiso, and the late Sivuca (who has a nice moment with Dummont that might be slightly off-topic, but shows the film’s heart).

Ferreira has a clever visual sense, literally bringing archival photographs to life. However, the quirkier interview segments approach the distracting. They are worth sitting through, even with washed out subtitles, for the fantastic music Clouds assembles. It screens again on Saturday and the following Monday.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Blues for Smugglers

Driving religion underground only seems to make it stronger. Just ask the early Christians of the Roman Empire or the former Refuseniks and Christian dissidents who survived Soviet Communism. Many of their brave fellow believers risked their lives and freedom to smuggle Bibles through the Iron Curtain. Unfortunately, the independent Christian film, Smuggler’s Ransom recently released on DVD (trailer here), does not do their story justice.

As was the case with jazz, the Communist prosecution of Bible possession ebbed and flowed as the winds from the Kremlin shifted, but owning or acquiring one always entailed danger. Many smugglers were only one-time contraband carriers, like this Dutch Christian, who were called to use their vacations for a higher purpose. In Ransom, the smuggler in question is the daughter of a Cuban nuclear scientist who defected to America.

While attending college in New York, Carmen Gonsolo became an Evangelical Christian (always a risk when you send your kids off to the City) and was compelled to help those oppressed by the Godless Communist system. When the Romanians capture her and discover her father’s identity, they threaten to execute their captive unless he renounces his capitalist freedom. Enter American agent Bill Donely.

In Ransom it seems the West could only spare on agent in this covert rescue operation and the Warsaw Pact could only dedicate one operative in their efforts to stop him. Certainly, the film is not well served by its barebones budget. In fact, the opening sequence cries out for Crow and Tom Servo. However, the simplicity of the story is what really undermines the film. The cast is what it is, but as agent Donely, Anthony Tyler Quinn seems to have an Everett McGill (Twin Peaks, Under Siege 2) vibe going on, which is a good thing.

Certainly the intentions here are good. Perhaps those looking for a short drama (52 minutes) that offers Christian instruction will find this film suits their needs. However, Ransom is like Hollywood’s recent crop of anti-Iraqi freedom films, like Lions for Lambs and War Inc., in that it neglects plot and character for the sake of its message.

Christian filmmaking will continue to improve by necessity, as Hollywood is not about to start meeting the demands of this untapped market. They will have arrived when Evangelical filmmakers release pictures that audiences find themselves caught up in regardless of their personal faith. Although director Michael Apted and co-producer Terrence Malick may not consider themselves Evangelical, their film Amazing Grace is perhaps a good early example of such a work. Ultimately it is not budget constraints that are important, but story. There are a lot of good people who deserve films that do not mock their faith, so I would like to see aspiring Christian filmmakers succeed artistically for their sake.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Premiere Brazil: Out of Tune

While the Bossa Nova rhythm swung gently and politely, there was a fair amount of turmoil in Brazil during its heyday. Over the same period, there is also a fair amount of personal drama for Os Desafinados, the fictional Bossa band portrayed in Walter Lima, Jr.’s film of the same name, translated in English as Out of Tune (trailer here), which recently opened MoMA’s annual Premiere Brazil series.

Told in Eddie and the Cruisers style flashbacks, the surviving members of Os Desafinados look back on their almost glory years as their old filmmaker friend shoots a tribute to Glória, the band’s sometime vocalist and flashpoint for jealous sexual tensions. In this case, Yoko Ono was the Girl from Ipanema.

As Tune opens, the band is determined to land a spot in the historic Carnegie Hall concert that featured Bossa Nova greats like Tom Jobim and Luiz Bonfá. Although they nail the audition, four guys without a female vocalist are not considered sexy enough for the show, but they do sell a tune to the American promoter. This is encouragement enough for them to fly off to New York on spec, where they do indeed find their vocalist, Glória, a Brazilian expat, who opens her apartment up to Fab Four and Dico the filmmaker.

Joaquim meet-cutes Glória in Central Park, joining in with her as she practices the sounds of home on her flute (cheesy, but there’s certainly been worse offenders). It’s the early 1960’s, so she takes the whole band into her home and Joachim into her bed. The only problem with their idyllic arrangement is Luiza, the loyal (and very pregnant) girlfriend waiting for Joachim back in Brazil.

Though unaccustomed to New York weather, the band hits the City hard, sitting in at the Village Vanguard. (It looks like they were able to film the Vanguard’s famous red door and awning, but not inside the famous club.) Throughout the film, Wagner Tiso’s soundtrack perfectly captures the spirit of the time. Given the band’s name one would expect to hear a good deal of Jobim, and indeed they play classics like “Meditação” and of course “Desafinado.”

However, when it comes to melodrama, Tune is generous to a fault. While the characters of Joachim and Glória have some fine musical moments, the charms of all three sides of the romantic triangle are frankly suspect, which is kind of a drawback to the film. Jair Oliveira as the bassist Geraldo probably comes across as the member of Os Desafinados who would be easiest to hang with. Conversely, Rodrigo Santoro’s petulant Joachim is real hard to invest in emotionally.

At least the production design of Tune is absolutely perfect, from the artfully produced musical scenes to the hopefully intentionally hilarious clips of the leftist protest film Dico smuggles out of Brazil to the Moscow Film Festival. Despite the melodrama of its annoying characters, Tune is a breezy, entertaining film confirmed Bossa fans should get a kick out of. It screens again at MoMA Sunday the 27th.

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Man Named Pearl

Welcome to Mayberry. Enjoy the topiary. One might expect the agricultural community of Bishopville, South Carolina to conform to every Tobacco Road stereotype of the rural South. Yet despite its economic challenges, Bishopville appears to a harmonious and distinctive community, in large part due to the influence of self-taught topiary artist Pearl Fryar, profiled in A Man Named Pearl, a new documentary opening in New York today (trailer here).

The genesis of Fryar’s large-scale geometric plant sculptures certainly conforms to elitist preconceptions of the American South. When the Fryars’ realtor tried to dissuade them from looking at homes in the traditionally white part of town, because some neighbors voiced concerns they might not properly keep up their yard, it planted the seed of Fryar’s ambition to become the first African American to win the local yard of the month contest. To do so, Fryar believed he needed something really, really outside of the box.

Needless to say, Fryar picked up the gardening club’s award, but kept pursuing his otherworldly landscape art. Eventually, Fryar would lecture at the local college and receive a commission from the South Carolina State Museum. National media profiles made the gracious Fryars’ home a tourist attraction, earning him the thanks of a grateful local business community.

Fryar’s art appears to be a unifying force in his small town community. Fryar and his lovely wife Metra always eat for free at the local Waffle House, after he planted some of his work in front of their restaurant. The good ole boy mayor and Chamber of Commerce chairman are among his biggest fans. It really is an incredibly nice story.

Nice can also mean dull, without a dramatic conflict to keep things interesting. At first, it is crazy watching Fryar trim his enormous trees and bushes while balancing precariously on rickety looking ladders, but Pearl probably has the highest ladder to dialogue ratio of any film in recent memory. Fortunately, it also has a lively jazz score that keeps the film from losing momentum. Composer and pianist Fred Story, whose credits include work with Woody Herman and the London Symphony Orchestra, leads a jazz quartet of Carolina based players, including drummer Al Sergel, trumpeter Jon Thornton, and Phil Thompson on sax, through an appropriately upbeat, swinging program that keeps the film moving along nicely.

Fryar deserves all his accolades and the filmmakers are right to give him his due. As nice and life-affirming as the film is though, it does feel a little light for a full length theatrical feature, despite the swinging assist from Story’s soundtrack. It opens today in New York at the Angelika, with the artist himself on hand for the 6:00 screening.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

NY Gypsy FF: Gypsy Caravan

Life on the road is a fact of life for musicians of all genres. When the World Music Institute put together the Gypsy Caravan Tour of “five bands from four countries speaking nine languages” it surely posed some logistical challenges. However, as documented in Jasmine Dellal’s documentary, Gypsy Caravan: When the Road Bends (trailer here), the resulting headaches apparently were confined to the producers and promoters, with a spirit of camaraderie prevailing among the musicians.

Over the course of their American tour, the Caravan ensembles learned to mix their diverse styles from three European countries and the original Roma homeland, India, into a new fusion of Gypsy music. Having been officially awarded the title: “Queen of Gypsy Music,” Macedonian Esma Redzepova was arguably the senior member of the tour. She was joined by the Romanian groups, Fanfare Ciocarlia, a brass band with a hint of klezmer, and Taraf de Haïdouks (Band of Brigands), a somewhat jazz-influenced string and accordion band, then led by the distinguished violinist Nicolae Neascu. With Antonio El Pipa’s Ensemble, Caravan reminds the audience of flamenco music’s Rom roots. As the tour progresses, Maharaja joined their Andalusian counterparts for some distinctive Spanish-Indian flamenco—world music indeed.

If there was any backstage drama, Dellal declined to show it. Instead, she focuses on the music, which what the tour was all about anyway. There are some great sequences, including vintage groovy 1960’s television footage of Redzepova. Appearing in the film as a charming elderly man, greatly enjoying his late-in-life popularity, Neascu sadly passed away shortly after returning from the Caravan tour. Probably the most emotional scenes in Caravan come during his memorial.

In filming Caravan, Dellal attained the services of both an aspiring documentarian and an acclaimed master. George Eli whose debut film Searching for the 4th Nail previewed at this year’s NY Gypsy FF, provided translation services and on-screen commentary. Remarkably, Dellal’s primary cinematographer was the celebrated Albert Maysles of Grey Gardens, Salesman, and Gimme Shelter fame.

Caravan does indeed look and sound great. Having completed the festival circuit and a theatrical run, it bows on DVD late next month. Its NY Gypsy FF return engagement made for an entertaining conclusion to the spirited festival last night. Hopefully, the NY Gypsy FF is not really over for the year, as organizers are hoping to take the show on the road, which would certainly be appropriate.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

All-Star Duologue

Last night witnessed the final All-Star game to be played in Yankee Stadium, which made the full house that turned out for Eri Yamamoto at the Cornelia Street Café all the more impressive. As it turns out, even those of us who stayed for both thoroughly impressive sets were still able to be home in time to see more than enough baseball. Celebrating the release of her new CD Duologues, Yamamoto and her duo partners for the evening, Daniel Carter and William Parker, put on the better show, by far.

There are plenty of talented jazz pianists in the City, but while they might sound quite nice, I could never recognize them blindfolded. However, I am pretty certain I would know Eri Yamamoto’s playing by ear. She really has honed an individual sound all her own, which is why I frequently hear her with her regular trio at Arthur’s Tavern. While it is almost impossible to describe the intangibles of style, Eri’s strong rhythmic drive and shrewd sense of humor are certainly important elements of her distinctive sound.

Starting with the beauty and elegant simplicity of “Thank You” and concluding with the wit and verve of “You are Welcome,” Duologue is an eloquent series of friendly conversations between the leader, Carter, Parker, and percussionists Hamid Drake and Federico Ughi. In between, she takes us through a variety of moods, with the hypnotic “Circular Motion,” the sensitive meditation “Muse,” and the rambunctious, slightly Monkish “Subway Song,” which she and Parker reprised at Cornelia Street.

Duologue is an excellent new release, showcasing both Yamamoto’s continually inventive playing and her intriguing compositions. It seems like she writes constantly, often inspired by her international tours, with new songs frequently making their debut at Arthur’s.

I recommend picking-up Duologue and when in the City, checking out Eri Yamamoto in her usual trio format at Arthur’s, every Thursday through Saturday, when she is in town. Also note, for those bold enough to venture into BKLN, her regular bassist Kevin Tkacz will lead his own group at Barbès on July 29th to mark the release of his own forthcoming CD.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

NY Gypsy FF: World Survey

The Roma and Sinti did not just wake up one morning and decide to be nomadic. Historically, they have often been given violent incentive to move along by the local powers that be. As a result, a Gypsy Diaspora stretches around the world. Various documentaries screening at the NY Gypsy FF survey the varying situations for Romani people around the world.

Perhaps the grimmest conditions were recorded in Kosovo by Katalin Bársony’s Trapped. Despite being the third largest ethnic group, Roma were the only Kosovar population not represented during the so-called peace talks. A large segment of that community now lives in lead contaminated refugee camps.

Bob Entrop’s The White Whale, follows Lalla Weiss, an international representative of the Roma as she represents her people at conferences and on fact-finding missions. We also hear some good music when she attends a festival commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of Django Reinhardt’s death. Happily she finds the Czech Republic has made marked improvements in the living conditions and education of Czech Roma (though not so much in terms of employment). However, Sterile Dreams, Jehan Harney’s expose of sterilizations performed on Roma women without adequate consent on their part, dampens one’s optimism.

In Searching for the 4th Nail (trailer here) American Romani filmmaker George Eli turns his camera both outward and inward, asking not just what it means to be an American Gypsy, but Roma in general. The title refers to the legendary the fourth nail of the crucifixion, which as the story goes, was stolen by a Gypsy blacksmith. In gratitude, God granted his descendents the right to steal. Eli seems to see this Gypsy creation myth as a double-edged sword, simultaneously giving them a sense of mystical identity, but also facilitating low expectations of rootless lives lived in the margins of society.

Not everyone in Eli’s family was thrilled with the project. The post-screening consensus was that his sons Alex and Christopher stole the show. His wife however, is notably absent. It is his sons’ questions which initiates Eli’s search for answers, at one point leading father and sons to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. While Eli does not deny the existence of anti-Roma prejudice, he is also critical of some Roma preconceptions, particular the notion that education is only for the Gadjie (non-Roma). That lends a great deal of nuance to the film.

The Elis, father and sons, exhibit consistently likeable on-screen personalities. As a filmmaker, Eli keeps the Nail moving a healthy pace and deftly addresses some serious issues without getting overwhelmed by their weightiness. Screened in a sneak preview, Nail looks to be good to go for the festival circuit. It could well serve as an accessible introduction for many people to the issues addressed by a number of the films in the festival.

Monday, July 14, 2008

NY Gypsy FF: Documenting the Holocaust

For a host of frightening ideological reasons, many individuals, including current heads of state, persist in outright denying the Holocaust, or at least minimizing its extent. Perhaps only the murder of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Holocaust is less readily acknowledged than that of European Roma and Sinti populations, but that is a distinction hardly worth making. All should be remembered, which is why this year the NY Gypsy Film Festival focuses special attention on the Roma/Sinti Holocaust experience with several documentaries.

Alexandra Isles’s Porraimos takes its name from the Romany word for “devouring,” which has become their equivalent term for “Shoah.” It provides an informative overview of the period from 1938 to 1945, during which time at least 600,000 Roma and Sinti individuals were murdered by the National Socialists. Isles emphasizes the twisted interest in eugenics shared by Menegele and his protégés, which resulted in many senselessly cruel experiments. The evil doctor evidently had a particular obsession with the Romany people, despite as Isles points out, his own dark somewhat Roma looking features.

Despite the horrors they witnessed, two of the interview subjects in Porraimos would later make contributions to humanity through the arts. Karl Stojka, born into an artistic Roman Catholic Roma family, survived Auschwitz to document his experiences on his canvass. Dina Gottliebova, later a Disney animator, speaks of surviving through her artistic skills, including painting Roma portraits as part of Mengele’s bizarre research.

Several related films screening at the festival are more specific in scope, like Hidden Sorrows, which concentrates on the Romanian Roma, giving special attention the survivors’ current living conditions. With little fanfare, the German government and a Swiss banking consortium announced a narrow window for Romanian Roma to claim, not reparations, but humanitarian assistance. Director Michelle Kelso documents her efforts to find survivors and help them prove their eligibility for the funds. The figures involved were $770 from the Swiss and $500 from the Germans for years of slave labor in the Transistria concentration camps. The only Swiss disbursements eventually approved would in fact go to the Roma she worked with.

It is disturbing how many wish to obscure or even deny the events that took place in Transistria and elsewhere in Europe during the Holocaust. One hopes more festivals will program these documentaries, many of which, like Sorrows, are making their American premiere at the NY Gypsy Film Festival.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

NY Gypsy FF: Guca

“Music and sport make a nation” says a fan at the Guča trumpet festival. Those who excel in each are uniquely capable of making emotional connections with scores of people they will never meet. Once a year, there are a whole lot of connections made at the Serbian music festival, as recorded in Milijov Ilic’s documentary, Guča: the Serbian Woodstock, an Untold Story (trailer here), screening as part of the New York Gypsy Film Festival.

The music of the Guča festival is the traditional brass band music of western Serbia and the more Roma influenced Sevdah music from the Southern and Eastern provinces (as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina). With the Sevdah music considered freer and more spontaneous than the western Serbian style, one of member of the festival jury likens the differences between the two forms to the distinction between Dixieland and genuine New Orleans style jazz.

Although not jazz at all, the music of Guča should be readily accessible to jazz ears, particularly those who follow the New Orleans brass band scene or frequently hear Slavic Soul Party at Barbès. Again like jazz, there seem to be definite notions of authenticity regarding the music. An ethnomusicologist who serves as the film’s expert commentator clearly favors the most traditional bands and is critical of past champion Boban Marković for diluting his music with commercial elements.

Sports comparisons are particularly apt for Guča, because this is not just an exhibition, but most certainly a competition. The Golden Trumpet audience award, the jury’s First Trumpet award, and several other prizes are at stake. As documented by Ilic, it seemed the bands of the 2005 festival are near evenly matched, making it difficult to forecast a winner.

More than anything, Guča looks like a heck of a party. The usually sleepy rural Serbian town attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors, including Miles Davis one year, to dig those crazy sidewise looking Dragačevo trumpet. Ilic captures that festival spirit, filming revelers passed out on park benches and the hoods of cars. Clearly, the music and carnival atmosphere has a restorative effect on those in the troubled country who attend.

While actors are allowed to occasionally phone one in for a pay check, whenever musicians and athletes take the stage, they are expected to perform at the peak of the abilities. In Guča, everyone seems well satisfied that indeed happened. It screens again Tuesday night at the NY Gypsy FF, which has extended its run through Wednesday the 16th.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Japan Cuts: Sakuran

Like Nevada’s special “ranches,” but with culture. That is how the officially sanctioned red light quarters of pre-Meiji Restoration Japan could be described. The oiran, the exclusive courtesans of the Edo brothels, were also accomplished in music and culture, but unlike the geisha class which followed them, they were indeed participating in commerce. Young Kiyoha finds herself sold into this world in Mika Ninagawa’s Sakuran (trailer here), playing at the Japan Cuts festival this weekend.

Despite her Dickensian circumstances, Kiyoha is a spirited kid, vowing to leave when the sterile cherry tree in the pleasure house’s courtyard finally blooms. Enduring an ill-tempered oiran, Kiyoha rises in the ranks, eventually becoming the oiran herself, taking the new name of Higurashi. Yet it is affairs of the heart, rather than professional ambitions that preoccupy Kiyoha/Higurashi.

The Sakuran site quotes an oiran expression: “a thousand gawkers, a hundred customers, ten clients, and one lover.” Indeed, K/H has plenty of prospects from the former categories to fulfill the latter. However, her affection for her ultimate choice is not well established during the course of the film. Perhaps her most interesting relationship is actually with her young attendant Shigeji, breaking the cycle of abuse established by her predecessor.

Using cherry blossoms and gold fish as symbolic motifs, Sakuran is richly visual. Accompanied by a contemporary pop-rock score by Ringo Shiina, Sakuran suggests Memoirs of a Geisha filmed in the style of Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Discerning the passage of time is somewhat problematic though, as K/H matures from childhood into adulthood, while other characters do not perceptively age at all. There is also a certain childish petulance about Anna Tsuchiya’s K/H that prevents complete emotional investment in her character, but she is surrounded by a uniformly strong supporting cast, including Yoshino Kimura, also seen in Sukiyaki Western Django, as the orian with bad karma.

For those excited by the prospect of a film set entirely in a Japanese brothel, this is not exactly what you are hoping for, but you will get a few scenes reflective of what is going through your head. Though based on a manga series, it is very much an adult story. Ninagawa tries to graft a message of female empowerment onto a setting of traditional exploitation. It is not entirely successful, but Sakuran looks great making the effort. It screens Saturday and Sunday at the Japan Society.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

NY Gypsy FF: Musicians for Life

Call it the underdog festival. Now in its second year, the New York Gypsy Film Festival might be the only festival in the City not sponsored by Stella Artois, but that’s OK by them. They say they want to keep things real.

Screening down at the Mehanata Bulgarian Bar on the lower eastside, the NY Gypsy FF has a very relaxed vibe, but the films are serious fare indeed. Programming entirely documentaries, this year’s special focus falls on the Sinti/Roma Holocaust experience. As the organizers point out, the organized mass murder of Europe’s Sinti and Roma has consistently been denied, minimized, ignored, and forgotten. To start rectifying this, they are screening films like Alexandra Isles’ Porraimos (review to come) which shine a light on these horrific events.

In a lighter vein, music has traditionally been a rare aspect of Sinti/Roma life celebrated by an often hostile outside world, so naturally there are several music-related documentaries also screening. Of course, few musicians of any background could match the reputation of Gypsy jazz legend Django Reinhardt, and his spirit clearly still has an influence on the artists featured in Bob Entrop’s Musicians for Life.

Entrop was accepted and befriended by the Roma and Sinti, simultaneously filming footage for what would become five documentaries. In Musician, he follows several artists playing Reinhart-inspired Hot Club style jazz, as well as even more traditional forms of Gypsy music. Along the way, he dispels many Gypsy stereotypes. The musicians we see are professionals, able to sustain a respectable working middle-class lifestyle. They simply choose do so living in their caravan community. Although some do not read music, many do, including Roger Moreno, who not only reads, but composes extended classical pieces using the latest computer software.

While Musicians is largely an upbeat musical documentary, the Holocaust is addressed through Moreno’s composition, a requiem for those murdered at Auschwitz. Moreno confides that after a fast start, his writing was thrown off track by the emotional impact of a visit to the Polish concentration camp, intended to serve as inspiration.

Clearly, Entrop’s subjects trusted him enough to frankly discuss some delicate topics. They were also relaxed enough to casually jam together while he filmed, providing some of the film’s best musical sequences on the spur of the moment. At one point, a musician explains there is no Sinti word for freedom because historically the Sinti have only known freedom. Although he was addressing a different issue, it does help explain why jazz and traditional Gypsy music proved so compatible when wed together.

Musicians is a thoughtful, entertaining documentary. The next Entrop documentary to screen at this year’s NY Gypsy FF will be No Place of Their Own tomorrow night. The festival runs through Tuesday, so consider visiting one night after work.

Japan Cuts: The Inugami Family 1976 & 2006

In a perfect example of ill karma returning to the wicked, the Inugamis relived their spectacular fall from grace in 2006, thirty years after Kon Ichikawa directed the family’s murderous demise in his classic film, The Inugami Family (trailer here). Remade by Ichikawa himself, Murder of the Inugami Clan (trailer here) is often a shot-for-shot remake of his 1976 film. Both screen as part of Japan Cuts’ Inugami X 2 tribute to the master director, and are both recommended.

Inugami Family was not the first film adaptation of the slovenly, dandruff-ridden detective Kosuke Kindaichi, often likened to a Japanese Columbo, but it was by far the most successful. Set in immediate post-war Japan, Kindaichi is summoned to a provincial resort town at the behest of a lawyer’s apprentice, who is inconveniently killed before briefing the detective on his prospective case. Fortunately for the fiscally challenged sleuth, his boss retains Kindaichi’s services anyway, since obviously some kind of crime is afoot.

The will of the Inugami patriarch, a local chemical magnet, is due to be read now that Sukekiyo, the prodigal grandson thought lost in the war, is finally returning home. The terms bequeath the entire estate to the grand-daughter of his mentor, provided she marry one of his grandsons, which pits his three daughters against each other, inevitably leading to murder and calamity.

The Inugami story is a satisfying mystery that takes on tragic overtones, resembling a posthumous King Lear, with the three daughters (each by different mothers) scheming for the family fortune. (Photos of the late old man Inugami even vaguely resemble the Lear-like figure of Kurosawa’s Ran.) Although later Kindaichi mysteries reportedly contain supernatural elements, Inugami haunts his family only in the metaphorical sense, continuing to manipulate their lives from beyond the grave. However, plot elements, like the Phantom of the Opera like mask of the disfigured Sukekiyo, give the films a gothic horror flavor.

If you choose to see only one version (which would not be unreasonable), I would lean towards Ichikawa’s first take. Although a few names are altered, the murderer is the same in both films and you have to love the funkier 1970’s soundtrack of the earlier film. Koji Ishizaka also gets the nod for bringing greater charm to the role of the shaggy dog P.I. However, in the concluding scene of Murder, it almost seems like the ninety-one year-old Ichikawa uses Kindaichi to say his farewell to the audience.

Kindaichi would appear in many other Japanese films (several also directed by Ichikawa) and his grandson is featured in an anime series, but he is not well known in America. An American DVD release program would be welcome, because Kindaichi is an entertaining screen sleuth. The Inugami Family screens Friday night and The Murder of the Inugami Clan runs the following night at the Japan Society.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Japan Cuts: Near Equal Kusama Yayoi

Yayoi Kusama’s staff seems very pleasant and completely dedicated to their boss, the Japanese artist. Kusama herself however, comes across somewhat prickly in a new documentary screening during the Japan Cuts festival. Allowances can be made for real genius though, and to be fair, in her film Near Equal Kusama Yayoi: I Adore Myself (trailer here) much of the work director Takako Matsumoto documents Kusama in the process of creating is actually impressive.

Kusama does not always make it easy for Matsumoto though, sometimes bluntly telling her: “Your being here bothers me.” The Kusama recorded on film does not appear to lack for self-esteem. When speaking of a recent poem she composed, she tells Matsumoto: “There’s the work of a genius in everything I do.” However, late in Near Equal she does open up to Matsumoto about her insecurities and her chaotic childhood.

For many years, Kusama lived in a Chelsea apartment on 19th Street, not far from where the Rubin Museum now stands. She had many likeminded neighbors including artists Edward Clark and Tom Doyle, who pay tribute to her in Near Equal. In addition to obsessively painting the dots that would become her career motif, Kusama also organized Viet Nam protests that often involved public nudity, and are thought to have influenced Lennon and Ono. (It was too much to hope that Matsumoto might ask if she had any later misgivings about these demonstrations, given the mass murder in Viet Nam that followed the withdrawal she advocated.)

When informed by the Japanese cultural agency of another award she is to receive, Kusama chooses the description “avant-garde artist” over “abstract artist,” giving an indication of how she perceives her work. It is a reasonable descriptive starting point. Near Equal follows Kusama as she finishes a series of fifty large-scale ink-on-canvas drawings. Each appears to be large abstract geometric patterns, but on close inspection, frequently reveal representational figures and remarkable decorative detail.

Now a revered figure in the Japanese art world, Kusama displays a Warhol-like love for her celebrity status. She takes great interest in her clippings and periodically makes surreal appearances on Japanese television, including Beat Takeshi’s show. Yet unlike much of Ray Johnson’s work in the very entertaining How to Draw a Bunny, every piece of her work Matsumoto includes holds up on-screen as a work of legitimate artistic merit.

Kusama seems to be the kind of person who is called a character, because people do not want to admit they are difficult to deal with. Be that as it may or may not be, her work seems to back up her enormous artistic self-confidence. While Near Equal bogs down here and there, it remains clear why Matsumoto wanted to make the film about her. Kusama’s wiki page links to another documentary on the artist evidently in production, but Matsumoto not only finished hers first, she clearly had extensive access to her subject. She will be enduring Q&A following the screening on Saturday afternoon (so please ask real questions instead of making self-serving comments).

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


Return to Forever
The Anthology
Concord Records

Budapest is a beautiful city, but the only sight I wanted to take a picture of were the huge transit advertisements for the upcoming Return to Forever concert, much to the bewilderment of my Czech and Slovak companions. Over twenty-five years have passed since RTF disbanded and thirty-five years since Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy redefined the Chick Corea led band in a fusion super-group context. That entire album is included in a new RTF collection, remixed, re-mastered, and released to coincide with their reunion tour, simply titled The Anthology.

In addition to the complete Hymn, 1976’s Romantic Warrior is also included in its entirety. From the intervening releases, just the brief solo piano interludes from Where Have I Known You Before are omitted, which might be nice within the actual album, but can easily be dispensed with in the anthology format. The only substantial tracks from this four year period not included on Anthology come from the No Mystery album, but the hit title track is indeed represented, making it a good value, perhaps not for completists, but for those looking to plug gaps in their collections.

Hymn really is a highpoint of the fusion era. Though RTF had still not coalesced into the celebrated quartet of Chick Corea, Lenny White, Stanley Clarke, and Al di Meola, their now overlooked guitarist Bill Connors was a key ingredient for the first album’s success. The title tune establishes a hard-driving rock edge for the then new RTF incarnation. “Captain Senor Mouse” is an ingenious reworking of the Corea standard for the brave new jazz-rock world. Hymn is actually quite a melodic session, with real bite provided by Connors’ guitar.

On Where di Meola replaces Connors, but the same jazz-rock ethos remains. The vibe is a bit mellower though, particularly on White’s “The Shadow of Lo,” although de Meola eventually heats it up, and on Corea’s short interludes (again, only the guts of the album are included on Anthology). No Mystery, the other partial album of the set, happens to be the most uneven, but it does include a classic rendition of the title track.

With Romantic Warrior, RTF’s imagery shifts from science fiction to fantasy, but that is alright, Corea’s spiritual leader wrote both. White’s “Sorceress” is quite funky, but features an engaging acoustic solo from Corea. Rhapsodic and sweeping, Corea’s title track is also largely acoustic. It concludes with the sprawling jazz-rock epic “Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant, part 1 & 2,” which perfectly exemplifies the strengths and weaknesses of the group. Corea has always been a strong composer, and di Meola’s virtuoso guitar work is frequently incendiary but the keyboard effects can sometimes sound dated (to put it diplomatically).

Their world tour and release of Anthology offers a good opportunity to take stock of RTF and the era they were a part of. Along with Weather Report and Lifetime, the fusion years marked the only real period in jazz history when small groups really were bands, and not just combos backing up a famous leader. Of course, Corea was the driving force of RTF, as Tony Williams was for Lifetime. RTF might sound very much of their time, but the vitality of these sessions remains undeniable. For fans of the acoustic Corea, New Crystal Silence, his latest collaboration with Gary Burton, will be more to your liking. For fusion enthusiasts, your wait will soon be over. The U.S. leg of their tour starts July 31st.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Japan Cuts: Kisaragi

Fandom can be weird. Take it from someone working for a science fiction publisher. Grown men visiting a chat room dedicated to a dead pin-up and would-be pop star are even creepier, yet they indeed make up the five person cast of characters in Yuichi Sato’s Kisaragi, screening as part of the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Miki Kisaragi specialized in cute. Her photo shoots were innocent tease and her musical performances, such as they were, consisted of pure bubblegum. On the one year anniversary of her tragic and apparently inexplicable suicide, five of her oddest fans meet offline for the first time, at a memorial in her honor. However, one of the unfab five, convinced Kisaragi was murdered, plans to use the event to reveal the results of his investigation in an Agatha Christie style “I-suppose-you’re-wondering-why-I’ve-brought-you-all-together” group confrontation.

Needless to say, things do not go exactly according to plan. The truth proves to be quite slippery in Kisaragi, but it is not for a lack of revelations. Each member of the quintet seems to correspond to a certain stereotype of fandom, including the obsessive collector, the older loner, and the overweight goof. However, each has secret connection to their idol, which is revealed during the chaotic night.

Despite essentially being a five-character one-set film, Sato keeps Kisaragi from feeling stagey. His clever shots of Miki (played by Kanako Sakai in a thankless role if ever there was one) show her only in photos and flashbacks, keeping her face out of focus until the very end. It is a nice effect, maintaining a sense of mystery for the object of their affections, but it is undermined by the film’s trailer. (Also, do not leave during what appear to be the first set of credits.)

The clever script by Ryota Kosawa offers some shrewd observations on fandom and effectively straddles the mystery and comedy genres. The cast is strong, particularly Shun Oguri as the earnest collector known as lemoto, and Yusuke Santamaria, as the severe older fan, using the name of Yuji Oda, a Japanese leading man and recording star, as his online handle.

While Kisaragi is at times quite dark, it has a sentimental heart. Like its characters, there is actually nothing cynical about it. It debuts at Japan Cuts on Wednesday and closes the Festival on Sunday.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Japan Cuts: A Filmful Life

MS Word’s spellchecker does not love the title, but it actually represents a very literate film. That is because A Filmful Life (trailer here), Shunji Iwai’s documentary about the great Japanese filmmaker Kon Ichikawa, is much heavier on text than visuals, even before the English subtitles are taken into account. It screens Friday at the Japan Cuts festival as part of a tribute to the director.

Iwai primarily profiles Ichikawa through words and music, quickly interspersed with photos and brief clips from the master director’s filmography. Try not to blink during the screening. As Filmful unfolds his story, it seems Ichikawa was blessed with good luck during unfortunate times. He was twice passed over by the draft board, probably thanks to a childhood misdiagnosis, and his family in Hiroshima evacuated in time to survive the bombing.

Originally attracted to film through his talent for drawing, Ichikawa’s early film work was on animated films, whose characters bore a pronounced resemblance to Mickey Mouse. His first live action film was actually a work of puppetry, A Girl at Dojo Temple, taken out of circulation by the American authorities for fear its traditional Japanese elements would reignite dormant nationalism, and only recently rediscovered.

In truth, the clips of Dojo are probably the most striking images from Ichikawa films seen in the documentary. Based on the brief samples Iwai incorporates into Filmful and the two Ichikawa films screening during the festival, Ichikawa looks like an actor’s director who elicited great performances, more than a self-conscious auteur. He was often attracted to well known Japanese literary source material, like The Tale of Genji, I Am a Cat, and The Burmese Harp, probably his best known film in America. It was also one of the many screenplays written by his wife, Yumiko Mogi under the “Natto Wada” pseudonym they initially shared for collaborations, before she essentially took it over.

Ichikawa took the unusual step of twice remaking his own pictures, helming second versions of Harp and the Inugami Family mystery. (Both versions of the latter will screen during the festival tribute.) Strangely, Ichikawa’s films are not widely available in America, despite the international regard for the director often considered second only to Kurosawa (his one-time senior at the Toho studio) in Japanese cinema.

Iwai’s Filmful is a surprisingly watchable tribute, despite its relative simplicity. His abbreviated visuals can be intriguing and his soundtrack is often very effective, particularly the jazz-influenced music underscoring Ichikawa’s early years in animation. Clocking in under ninety minutes, the brief Filmful should really be seen in conjunction with one (or both) of the Inugami films, but it is a manageable and informative introduction to a great filmmaker.