Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Prestige Label @ 60

The Very Best of Prestige Records
Prestige/Concord 2-CD set

Arguably, Prestige and Blue Note Records were the two greatest labels of the Hard Bop era. They recorded many of the same artists, including jazz giants like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Jackie McLean, and Sonny Rollins, as well as less publicized musicians like Gil Mellé and George Braith. They even shared the same recording engineer: the venerable Rudy Van Gelder. However, where Blue Note’s sessions had a burnished intensity, Prestige’s were looser, more spontaneous. They were the two sides of the same jazz coin. After their counterparts recently marked their 70th year, Prestige now celebrates their 60th anniversary, with The Very Best of Prestige Records, a commemorative double-disk collection of their classic instrumental jazz sessions.

Though the label would be known for its earthy Hard Bop and funky Soul-Jazz, the first session produced by label founder Bob Weinstock showcased the cool, cerebral music of pianist Lennie Tristano and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz. Logically enough, the anniversary set starts here with “Subconscious-Lee.” It is immediately followed by one of the label’s all-time greatest hits, James Moody’s “I’m in the Mood for Love,” which the tenor titan has probably played nearly every night since this 1949 recording. “Mood” is actually a bit of an anomaly, because it was a Swedish recording licensed by Prestige, uncharacteristically featuring Moody on the alto saxophone.

Probably Prestige’s most important signing was a young Charlie Parker sideman named Miles Davis, so naturally he is well represented in this collection. Although many critics were initially unimpressed by Davis, he would develop during his Prestige tenure into one of the best-selling jazz artists of his time. His stint with the label included the bulk of his recordings with what is now considered his first great quintet of pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Philly Joe Jones, and of course John Coltrane on tenor. Included in the anniversary set is their rendition of “If I Were a Bell,” recorded during a marathon session Davis cut to satisfy his Prestige contract before leaving for the big money offered by Columbia Records.

Several of Davis’s own sidemen would also sign with Prestige, probably the most notable being Coltrane, who would cut his bop teeth at the label as he was developing his “sheets of sound” innovations. Trane is heard in several contexts here, including “Why Was I Born?” from a beautiful late-night duet with guitarist Kenny Burrell. Sonny Rollins, another tenor player Davis recorded with and long coveted for his working group, also signed with Weinstock, recording Saxophone Colossus, which remains probably the most analyzed album in jazz history. “St. Thomas,” included in this collection, is a defining example of Rollins’ jazz calypsos, which still sounds fresh and invigorating.

The second disk is largely dominated by the greasy soul-jazz sounds that became Prestige’s bread-and-butter in the 1960’s, which is all good. If any artist personifies the soulful side of the label, it would probably be R&B-influenced tenor-man Gene Ammons. Despite serving two considerable prison stretches, Prestige kept his records in circulation, most certainly including his perennial favorite, the azure blue “Hittin’ the Jug.” There are also a couple of departures from the soul-jazz vibe on disk two, the most notable being Yusef Lateef’s gorgeous “The Plum Blossom,” taken from the Eastern Sounds LP. Recorded in 1961, it was Lateef’s fullest exploration of Eastern musical forms up to that point, yet he still kept it firmly grounded in the jazz idiom. Here Lateef plays the Chinese globular flute and bassist Ernie Farrow plays the rebat (or rabaab), sounding like a cross between the upright bass and the mbira.

The Very Best exclusively collects instrumental jazz, foregoing Prestige’s significant jazz vocalists like Mose Allison, and not even touching on the music of their Bluesville subsidiary label. While the Prestige catalog has had several owners since Weinstock sold his interest, a great number of their jazz sessions are available on CD, including the original source albums for every track on the 60th anniversary set. However, there are a few sessions that really deserve a long-awaited reissue life, particularly the three LPs released by the Morris Nanton Trio, with Norman Edge on bass, who still play together and have a loyal following for their monthly Shanghai Jazz gigs, but perhaps I digress.

While everything collected here is available elsewhere (often in multiple formats), it is all certainly rewarding music. Prestige has an undeniably rich jazz discography, well worth celebrating on its 60th anniversary.

Monday, March 30, 2009

RJFF et al: The Case for Israel

Though allowed little more than a cameo appearance in The Man from Plains, the fawning documentary recording Jimmy Carter’s book tour for his incendiary anti-Israel polemic, Prof. Alan Dershowitz still nearly undermined the entire exercise in secular hagiography. While Carter still refuses to debate him, the celebrated jurist is at least granted sufficient time to state his full case in Michael Yohay’s The Case for Israel: Democracy’s Outpost (trailer here), which screens at several Northeastern film festivals in the coming days.

In a provocative opening argument directed squarely at Israel’s detractors on the left, Prof. Dershowitz states unequivocally: “I am pro-Israel not only because I’m a Jew, I am pro-Israel because I am a civil libertarian, because I have devoted my life to fighting for human rights, because I am a feminist, because I’m an environmentalist, because I’m a gay rights supporter, because I’m a lover of peace.” As he rightly implies, Israel is not just the only state in the Middle East which shares all of these ideals—it is the only nation in the region which values any of them.

In his over-riding thesis, Dershowitz argues peace will only be possible when the Palestinians want their own state more than they wish to deny Israel’s right to exist, pointing to lost opportunities for a Palestinian state in 1938, 1948, 1967, and during the infamous 2000-2001 Camp David negotiations. While generally criticizing Carter for willful ignorance and deliberate distortion of the historical record (a charge supported by Prof. Kenneth Stein, the former head of the Carter Center) his most serious question regards what advice, if any, the former president might have volunteered to his good friend Yasser Arafat, just before the PLO strongman reignited the intifada, despite the historic concessions offered by Israel at Camp David. According to Dershowitz, it is a question Carter has steadfastly refused to answer, leading him to conclude the Man from Plains “has blood on his hands—the blood of 4,000 Palestinians, the blood of over 1,000 Israelis.”

Yohay’s film offers a welcome crash course in Israeli history from 1948 through Talba, dispelling many pernicious myths. He calls on several leading figures of Israeli politics, from both sides of the aisle, including Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni. Some of Dershowitz’s key witnesses make perfect sense, like former Soviet Refusenik Natan Sharansky and Dore Gold, the former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. However, the appearance of Dennis Ross, the Clinton Administration’s Middle East point man, is a bit of a surprise, considering his years of blind allegiance to Arafat as a supposed partner in peace. (With friends like these . . .)

Outpost clearly illustrates why Dershowitz has been such a successful advocate throughout his career. He marshals the facts into a logical, understandable case, which he cogently argues. When he shows emotion, it is never to obscure the facts, but simply to emphasize his sincerity.

Outpost also happens to be a well produced film, featuring a soundtrack composed by Alon Yavnai, one of the best musicians on the contemporary jazz (and salsa) scenes today, with his frequent collaborator, flutist Amir Milstein. While most of the soundtrack is generally supportive in nature, their themes for the beginning and ending titles are more suggestive of their richly textured music. (For a full representative sample of his music, check out Yavnai’s latest CD, Travel Notes.)

Informative but well paced, Outpost is an accessible corrective to so much misinformation uncritically passed along by the gullible western press. It underscores Israel’s importance, both as an American ally and a nation which shares our democratic principles. In fact, Outpost’s screenings could potentially improve the current level of discourse on Israel and the Middle East. Outpost is available for purchase on its website and it will screen at the Rockland Jewish Film Festival tonight (3/30), the Jewish Film Festival of New Hampshire tomorrow (3/31), the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival (4/28), and the Buffalo International Jewish Film Festival (5/3).

NAFV Fest: Tkaronto

Holding onto one’s traditional heritage in the modern world can be a challenge. Simply forging meaningful human relationships can also be hard. For Ray Morrin, a mixed race Métis, both prove equally difficult. That search for spiritual and personal meaning in an uninspiring urban landscape drives Shane Belcourt’s Tkaronto (trailer here), which screened this year as part of the Native American Film and Video Festival at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Morrin is still more than a bit immature, but he is about to become a father. He needs to get serious about his life, which seems to require landing a technical advising gig on a prospective television show that would largely mock his heritage. While in Toronto (Tkaronto in the original Mohawk) for an important pitch meeting, he is thrown together with Jolene Peltier, an Anishinaabe artist, at a time when both are at a crossroads in their lives.

After painting the portrait of Max, a local Aboriginal Elder, Peltier is deeply affected by his gift of an eagle feather. It stirs a longing for a deeper meaning in her life and a desire to reconnect with the traditions of her ancestors. As she kills time with Morrin, an undeniable attraction starts to blossom, which further complicating their uncertain futures, considering they are both married, to white spouses.

Belcourt’s screenplay features such razor-sharp dialogue, it sometimes induces physical wincing. Morrin endures some blisteringly frank criticism as well as some teasing bordering on the cruel. While their banter is often quite witty, many of his scenes with Peltier play out like confessionals. Yet their dramatic exchanges never seem forced or artificially melodramatic, thanks to the strong on-screen chemistry of the principles. Duane Murray is absolutely convincing as Morrin, a man who essentially sees himself as a loser, who must come to terms with his disappointments and shortcomings. As Peltier, Melanie McLaren is much more reserved in their scenes together, but conveys a compelling depth of yearning, particularly in a remarkable key scene with Elder Max.

Tkaronto is a simple story, but it is told with unsparing honestly. In truth, Belcourt probably demonstrates more potential in Tkaronto as a screenwriter than as a director. His words are forceful, but his scenes are sometimes hard to follow, particularly with his frequent use of off-camera, disembodied dialogue. Ultimately though, it detracts little from his smart script and the strong performance he elicits from the cast. Its next screening will be at London’s Origins Film Festival on May 4th.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

NAFV Fest: Older Than America

The Ojibwe Nation certainly predates the founding of the United States government, but so does the Catholic Church and they have both been the targets of violent discrimination in this country (just read up on the Know-Nothings attitudes toward the “Papists”). That is why it is somewhat disconcerting to see such a virulently anti-Catholic film like Georgina Lightning’s Older than America (trailer here) screen Friday at this year’s Native American Film and Video Festival.

Older is an angry film. Set in the Northern Minnesota Fond du Lac Reservation, it tells the story of a family literally haunted by a decades-old tragedy at the now defunct boarding school for Native Americans. This school however, was run by the Catholic Church, who naturally will stop at nothing to cover up the crimes committed there. When the audience meets the seemingly genial Father Bartoli, they are already on notice that his behavior will prove despicably villainous.

As the film opens, the events at the boarding school remain shrouded in mystery, but visions from that incident have been appearing to Rain, played by director Lightning. This greatly disturbs her, considering her mother has been institutionalized for many years in state of near catatonia. She wants to marry her longtime lover Johnny, but her family history gives her pause. Things start to come to a head when geologist Luke Patterson arrives to investigate a minor earthquake, the epicenter to which happens to be at the old boarding school.

Despite its excesses, Older features some fine performance, including Wes Studi, on-hand to lend the film some instant cool as Richard Two Rivers, the reservation’s longtime radio host with a checkered past. There is also nice on-screen chemistry between Lightning and Adam Beach (well known for his work as reservation police officer Jim Chee in the Joe Leaphorn mysteries), as Johnny, Rain’s reservation police officer fiancé. Fans of Twins Peaks and this season of 24 will also enjoy watching Chris Mulkey as the venal mayor, whose corrupt family at one time employed Two Rivers.

Any film characterizing Native Americans in the manner Older depicts Catholics would be booed out of the festival, and not unfairly so. It is a real shame, because Lightning shows promising talent as a director, using the old dark schoolhouse as an effectively creepy backdrop. There are some legitimately tense moments in Older and to its credit it features probably the most accurate portrait of an insufferably arrogant federal bureaucrat in indie film history. Unfortunately, out of anger at past abuses, it commits its own brand of nefarious stereotyping. Older’s next screening will be at Lake Arrowhead Film Festival in California on April 4th. The NAFV Festival continues tomorrow at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Again, admission is free, but reservations are recommended.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

NAFV Fest: The Trail of Tears

History can be messy, but that is when it is usually most interesting. Such is the case in Chris Eyre’s The Trail of Tears, the third installment of We Shall Remain (series trailer here), an upcoming five-film series running in conjunction with PBS’s American Experience, starting April 13th. A complete self-contained film with some legitimate star-power, Trail had its U.S. premiere as the opening night feature of the 2009 Native American Film and Video Festival, held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in lower Manhattan.

Eyre became an overnight star of the Indie film circuit with Smoke Signals, his feature directorial debut, and has since helmed high profile television projects, including adaptations of Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn mysteries for PBS. Mixing elements of the dramatic feature film with the traditional talking-head documentary, Trail reunites Eyre with the super-bad Wes Studi, recognizable for roles such as Leaphorn and supporting turns in Michael Mann’s Heat and Last of the Mohicans. While Studi, an Oklahoman Cherokee, has portrayed many Native American characters on film, Trail represents his first Cherokee speaking role.

Studi plays Major Ridge, a Cherokee leader who remains controversial to this day for his actions leading up to the Trail of Tears. Eyre made a conscious editorial decision to eschew a traditional victimization narrative, instead focusing on Ridge, his son John, and their chief rival, John Ross, the duly elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, and their actions surrounding the infamous trek. Indeed, very little screen-time is devoted to the incident itself, which everyone should understand was a great tragedy. Instead, Eyre provides context, which means viewers actually might learn something.

Major Ridge was a prominent Cherokee leader, who owned a southern plantation, and yes, a good number of slaves. A one-time ally of Ross, he was one of the signers of the Treaty of New Echota, which formally ceded the Cherokee land in Georgia and Tennessee in exchange for territory in Oklahoma, at a time when Ross was still trying to hold off the Federal Government. Ridge led the first wave of Cherokee settlers shortly thereafter, in what would be a much easier journey than the forced removal that was soon to come.

Eyre’s film seems to suggest Ridge believed the preservation of Cherokee sovereignty as a nation should be their highest priority, whereas for Ross, the integrity of their National homeland was the key to their survival. After watching Trail it is difficult to argue that either man was definitively right or wrong. What emerges is a nuanced picture that forthrightly depicts several instances of internal violence during the power struggle between the Ridge and Ross factions. It also acknowledges not all white Americans were villains, identifying support for the Cherokee cause among Northern National-Republicans (precursors of the Whigs and eventually the GOP), as well as the Christian missionaries living amongst them. However, Andrew Jackson understandably comes across quite badly, the case of “Indian Removal” not being the finest hour for Jacksonian Democrats in retrospect.

Studi is perfectly cast as Ridge, a complicated man of action. Despite the interrupting interview segments and Benjamin Bratt’s narration, he maintains an intensity that drives the dramatic scenes. Avoiding the siren call of misery porn, Eyre has made an even-handed film that educates rather than lectures. Trail will be broadcast nationally as part of We Shall Remain, beginning next month. The NAFV Festival continues throughout the weekend at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Admission is free, but reservations are recommended.

(Photo: Billy Weeks)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Shall We Kiss?

When French actress Julie Gayet tells a story, you want to listen. While there is nothing ground-breaking about a film structured as an extended story or flashback told to a listener, and the audience by proxy, Gayet’s Émilie is quite the storyteller. The telling of her tale is at least as important as the events she relates in Emmanuel Mouret’s Shall We Kiss? (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

When visiting Nantes on business, Émilie happens to cross paths with Gabriel. Despite both being in committed relationships, he volunteers to help her spend her free night in town. After a pleasant evening of dinner and conversation, he moves in for a goodnight kiss. When Émilie throws up the stop-sign, he is confused, so she explains by telling the story of the once platonic friends Nicholas and Judith.

Having taken pity on the frustrated Nicholas, Judith reluctantly agreed to sleep with him. Evidently, even prostitutes failed to provide the relief he sought, because they prohibit the intimacy of kissing. Indeed that no-so-innocent kiss precipitously leads to sexual co-dependency and reckless infidelity, disrupting their lives and those of their partners. As a result, Émilie is leery of running such a risk in her own life.

As Émilie, Gayet has a distinctive Catherine Deneuve quality, so it is hardly surprising when she catches Gabriel’s eye. She has a mysterious charm that is quite seductive on-screen. Though Kiss might spend more time with the story of Nicholas and Judith, it ultimately feels like Gayet’s film. She and Michaël Cohen (as Gabriel) make an intriguing on-screen couple, as well as effective storytellers. Unfortunately, Virginie Ledoyen and writer-director Mouret lack their charm as Judith and Nicholas respectively, despite having far greater screen time.

Sensitively directed, Kiss is an adult film in the best, truest sense of the term. Mouret’s screenplay might be quietly reserved, but it offers quite a bit of wisdom. It deals frankly with sexual relationships without ever degenerating into a smarmy Sex and the City pretender. Also notable is his use of classical music, including the work of Schubert, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, which recalls some of the more effective films of the French Nouvelle Vague.

Kiss nicely captures that late night ambiance, as evening slips into morning while Émilie and Gabriel grapple with the title question. Nothing is meaningless in Mouret’s film, where actions most certainly have consequences. It is a finely crafted, mature drama that really sneaks up on viewers as it unspools. It opens today in New York at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

On-Stage: George Orwell’s 1984

Skip the Watchmen and go straight to the source. Every subsequent depiction of future totalitarian dystopias has borrowed heavily from the concepts and vocabulary of George Orwell’s 1984. Though thematically similar to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Orwell’s 1984 coined terms like “Big Brother,” “Thought Crime,” and “Newspeak” that continue to profoundly influence our political discourse. In addition to being a chilling cautionary tale, George Orwell's 1984 also happens to be a compelling story, which transitions surprisingly smoothly to the stage in a production of British theater director Alan Lyddiard’s adaptation mounted by the Godlight Theatre Company, which officially opened at the 59E59 Theaters last night.

Winston Smith is an everyman, a modest cog-in-the-wheel working in Minitrue, Oceania’s Ministry of Truth (meaning censorship and disinformation), where non-persons are deleted from the historical record to serve the interests of the party. Weary of the constant surveillance and incessant propaganda, Smith is already a criminal, consciously guilty of “thought crime” by virtue of his disillusionment.

There is little opportunity for meaningful human interaction in drab, regimented Oceania, where children are encouraged to inform on their parents and two-way telescreens are omnipresent. However, Smith’s mundane existence is jolted by two extraordinary occurrences. O’Brien, a senior party member exchanges a meaningful glance with Smith, stirring memories buried deep within Smith’s unconscious of a dream long forgotten. Soon thereafter, Julia, one of his particularly zealous colleagues, surreptitiously slips him a note, which simply says: “I love you.”

The Godlight production is officially licensed by the Orwell estate, so despite some condensing for dramatic purposes, it is faithful to the spirit and overall storyline of his novel. That means all events inexorably lead to Room 101. Despite knowing what is in store for Smith there (as everyone should), it is still very disturbing to watch, thanks to the creative staging of director Joe Tantalo and production designer Maruti Evans. While 59E59’s Theater C is an intimate space, they convincingly convey the surreally dehumanizing environment of Oceania.

Most impressive is Gregory Konow’s performance as Smith. At first blush, he seems like the wrong physical type, not being the gaunt Englishman, like John Hurt or Peter Cushing, who we have come to expect in the part. However, he really fleshes out the humanity of the character, expressing the loneliness and vulnerability of the lowly Minitruth drone. He is nicely balanced by Dustin Olson as the coldly calculating O’Brien, who makes his final words with Smith far more frightening than his torturous actions. In fact, the entire production is quite well cast (although the attractive vinyl-clad actresses playing the four telescreens barking orders at Oceania’s citizens might not represent such an unpleasant prospect to some in the audience).

George Orwell’s 1984 is a true masterpiece, which everyone should read. The Godlight’s impressive production remains completely engrossing for those familiar with the novel, and ought to be both accessible and absorbing for those walking in cold. Now open, its limited run at the 59E59 ends April 19th.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Campus Drama: Spinning Into Butter

If you do not get the reference in the title of director Mark Brokaw’s debut film, do not let it bother you. It alludes to Helen Bannerman’s racially stereotyped children’s book Little Black Sambo, first published in 1899. That story figures prominently in Mark Brokaw’s Spinning Into Butter (trailer here), a caustic examination of political correctness and racial relations on college campuses, opening this Friday in New York and other select markets.

Belmont College seems idyllic. It has a prestigious reputation and the skiing is good. However, there are tensions stirring beneath the surface of the sleepy Vermont campus, which ignite when African American freshman Simon Brick starts getting threatening racist notes. The administration finds itself in a precarious position, wanting to keep a lid on all the negative publicity, while also using the incident as a politically correct “teaching moment.” Charged with juggling their contradictory goals is Sarah Daniels, the relatively new Dean of Students, played by the ultra-waspy Sarah Jessica Parker.

Whether she likes it or not, Daniels is the administration point person on racial issues. Frankly, Daniels is not really cut out for the position, but since her previous job was at a predominantly African American college, the administration assumes she has special talent “managing diversity.” In fact, she seems to blunder into one P.C. minefield after another, as when she pressures a Nuyorican student to change his official ethnicity to Hispanic for the sake of a scholarship.

The all-campus meetings are a disaster, leaving African American students feeling patronized, white students angry for being categorically demonized as potential racist thugs, and the rest of the student body resenting their exclusion from the “dialogue.” Butter is at its best when skewering the hypocrisy and white liberal guilt of Belmont’s administration. Eventually, things actually do start to get real at those campus forums, when the so-called “affinity houses,” racially exclusive campus housing units, are vilified either as segregation by some minority students or affirmative action set-asides by white students. Even though it degenerates into a brawl, it does qualify as honest “dialogue.”

I have always found Parker to be a cold, charmless screen presence, and her work in Butter is not about to change that. She deserves some credit though for taking on the altogether unsympathetic character of Daniels. Aaron Carmichael, the local investigative reporter, might be the only character Butter lets off the hook, but at least Mykelti Williamson brings a smart, human dimension to the role. Also, character actor James Rebhorn (a fellow Wittenberg University alumnus), is always enjoyable when playing arrogant bureaucrats, like Belmont’s president Winston Garvey. The problem is Butter does so much hedging, it is not clear what it really wants to say about political correctness on campus, beyond “it’s complicated.”

Based on Rebecca Gilman’s Off-Broadway play of the same name, it is clearly doomed to be compared to David Mamet’s Oleanna. Like the earlier play and film, Butter is as confounding as it is intriguing. It opens Friday (3/27) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Over the Top Noir: The Perfect Sleep

What should audiences expect from a film which draws inspiration from Film Noir and Russian Literature? In the case of Jeremy Alter’s directorial debut, it results in one miserably angst-ridden protagonist, but at least he is filmed stylishly. After various producing gigs, including work on David Lynch’s Inland Empire, Alter cranks the Noir up to eleven in The Perfect Sleep (trailer here), which is now playing in Los Angeles and opens in New York this Friday.

Sleep’s narrator no longer has a name as such. Most who speak of him call him the “Mad Monk.” Ending a long self-imposed exile, he has returned to the un-named city of his youth (that seems to bear a strong resemblance to Los Angeles). Only one thing could lure him back to wherever: Porphyria, the woman he has sworn to protect.

The Monk and Porphyria grew up in the household of Nikolai, the Tsarist master of the underworld, living in a Summer Palace not completely dissimilar to Bradbury Building. Raised together in Nikolai’s home, even Porphyria and her protector are unsure of their exact relationship. She is the daughter of Nikolai’s brother Sergei and a woman presumably known but irrelevant to our story. He is the illegitimate son of Nikolai’s great love, whom Sergei corrupted out of fraternal spite. The father might be either brother or another person unknown. Regardless, the Monk’s feelings for Porphyria become such that he is compelled to banish himself to the wilderness.

Somehow, the Monk knows Porphyria needs his services, as old family resentments escalate into open warfare. Reluctantly he returns, immediately stepping into one of many beat-downs in store for him at the hands of Nikolai’s thugs. Yet, the Monk seems to have a superhuman ability to endure a pummeling, leaving a trail of dead henchmen in his wake. Is the Monk’s uncanny resilience something more than human and why is Porphyria named after a disease associated with vampires? Perhaps it is just coincidence, since Alter chooses not to belabor such questions. Shrewdly, whenever Sleep starts to stall, Alter throws the Monk into a violent melee—a strategy which has undeniable entertainment value.

Sleep is unapologetically over-the-top Noir to a deliberately ridiculous degree. At first, the Monk’s exaggerated hardboiled narration seems like it will get very old very fast, but it is so persistently outrageous, its sheer absurdity will win viewers over. This is definitely a film for those tired of boring character development. It is all about style, reflected in the perfect Film Noir visual sense of Alter and cinematographer Charles Papert. The greatest drawback is co-producer Anton Pardoe as the Monk. Yes, he is supposed to be stiff and emotionally withdrawn, but he lacks the menacing presence required by the character. Happily though, the supporting cast boasts a number of reliably intriguing character actors, like Patrick Bauchau, who brings to mind the great scenery-chewing Hammer Film villains as Nikolai. Also, Michael (Eddie and the Cruisers) Paré makes a welcome appearance as the somewhat corrupt Officer Pavlovich.

Like its protagonist, Sleep is at its best during fight scenes. When it gives the audience time to think, it starts to go awry. Still, its flashy style and take-no-prisoners attitude gives Alter’s film its own weird appeal that seems tailor-made for midnight movie screenings. (Also, check out the amusing anti-trailer for Sleep, featuring actor Gary Oldham, who previously collaborated with Alter on a music video.) It screens in Los Angeles through Thursday (3/26) at the Laemmle and opens at the Quad in New York this Friday (3/27).

Monday, March 23, 2009

Swamp Noir: In the Electric Mist

In the Electric Mist
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
Image Entertainment

While New Orleans might be the birthplace of jazz, there has always been plenty of blues going on in the rest of Louisiana. After all, it is delta country, where bluesmen like Robert Pete Williams and Lightnin’ Slim helped develop an appropriately swampy local sound. The bayou is also the stomping ground of James Lee Burke’s Detective Dave Robicheaux, who makes his second film appearance in Bertrand Tavernier’s In the Electric Mist (trailer here), now available on DVD.

Mist is Tavernier’s first dramatic feature shot in North America, but he seems to have an affinity for the region beyond the French language. The veteran film-maker directed Dexter Gordon to an Academy Award nomination in the classic jazz drama ‘Round Midnight and with Robert Parrish co-directed the documentary Mississippi Blues. Indeed, the sounds of the region are well represented in Mist, particularly in the figure of bluesman Sam “Hogman” Patin, played by the true blues legend Buddy Guy, long a fixture of the Chicago Blues scene, but born in Lettsworth, LA.

Tommy Lee Jones specializes in playing the world-weariness Robicheaux will soon feel in Mist. A recovering alcoholic, Robicheaux has a loving wife and young daughter, but his professional life is about to get ugly, and even tragic. While frustrated by the lack of leads in the case of a savagely murdered prostitute, Robicheaux is tipped off to the location of a decades-old body of an African American man in the swamp. The disinterested cops in the neighboring parish simply dismiss it as a matter of extra paper-work, but the circumstances of the crime scene strike a chord with Robicheaux. As he pursues both cases, officially and unofficially, he begins to suspect a connection between them, focusing his attention on “Babyfeet” Balboni, a local mobster turned Hollywood moneyman.

It is surprising Mist had such scant American theatrical distribution after its premiere at the Berlinale Film Festival, considering it top-shelf cast. Jones is perfectly cast as the craggy Cajun. John Goodman chews the scenery with relish as Balboni, and Mary Steenburgen does what she can in the thankless role of Robicheaux’s understanding wife, Bootsie. Also, look out for indy filmmaker John Sayles in a small role as a director making a Civil War film in the parish, which he pretentiously intends to be an allegory for Iraq.

As Patin, Guy shows impressive screen-presence, probably beating Jones at his own game of understated intensity in their scenes together. He also has some cool musical numbers with Nathan Williams and the Zydeco Cha Chas, nicely integrating the earthy goodtime sounds of Louisiana with the dramatic story.

While the relatively routine crime story of Mist might harbor few surprises, the sheer volume of suffering inflicted on its protagonist sets it a measure apart from other mystery fare. It is a decidedly dark film noir, deeply steeped in the Bayou atmosphere. That music and ambiance, along with the perfectly pitched performances of Jones, Guy, and Goodman make Mist quite an entertaining little thriller.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Return to Forever Returns

Return to Forever Returns
Eagle Records 2-CD set

One of the big three jazz-rock fusion super-groups (along with Weather Report and Tony William’ Lifetime), Return to Forever was no stranger to the Billboard charts, not only ranking high in the jazz album category, but also cracking the pop album list (albeit somewhat lower, but still at quite a level for a jazz band in the 1970’s). Given their enduring popularity, there would be great demand for RTF’s reunion tour last year, which is now documented on the live two-CD set, Return to Forever Returns.

Although the group’s personnel changed several times, de facto leader pianist-keyboardist Chick Corea was a constant presence. In 2008, to mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of RTF’s founding, over twenty-five years after disbanding, Corea reunited with the band’s classic line-up of Al di Meola on guitar, Lenny White on drums, and Stanley Clarke on bass. Fortunately, they recorded several shows for posterity, with the bulk of the CD-set coming from a Clearwater, FL concert, and a DVD of their show at the Montreux Jazz Festival to be released shortly.

For the thirty-fifth anniversary tour, RTF largely gave fans the classic hits they wanted. The only new composition on RTFR is the abstract “Opening Prayer,” which really sounds like a prologue to “Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy,” the title track of one of the most celebrated fusion records of all time. RTFR opens with hard-driving power, propelled by di Meola’s guitar, which slashes through the following “Vulcan Worlds.” However, he tones it down for an acoustic duet feature with Corea, segueing through a medley of their solo compositions and Astor Piazzolla’s “Café 1930,” concluding with “Spain,” probably the pianist’s most covered standard.

The first disk concludes with “No Mystery,” a RTF greatest hit if ever there was one, here arranged largely as an acoustic number, showcasing Corea’s still dazzling technique on piano. Following a solo feature from Corea that blends into a straight ahead jazz trio rendition of “Solar” by his one-time boss Miles Davis, the second disk is dominated by selections from Romantic Warrior, their first album for Columbia, which would peak at #35 on the pop album charts. It was a departure from previous RTF albums in that it took inspiration from medieval fantasy rather than cosmic imagery. Again, their live take of the 1976 album’s title track is largely acoustic, even featuring some arco bass work from Clarke.

“Warrior” recurs two more times on the second disk, including a spirited version recorded live during the BBC ceremony awarding the band a lifetime achievement award. (While Sir George Martin’s presentation at the start of the track is all very nice, it quickly gets old with repeated listening.) The longest track of the set is also drawn from the Warrior album. An extended suite, “Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant” is jazz-rock suitable for stadium concerts, with di Meola blazing away and Corea going electric throughout (with synthesizers occasionally recalling that cheesy 1970’s keyboard sound).

Although RTF will always be considered to some extent Corea’s band, there is no question the strong musical personalities of di Meola, Clarke, and White helped push the band to the forefront of the fusion movement. Thirty-five years after the band first formed, they are still playing at a scarily high level, both acoustically and when plugged-in. RTFR should definitely please their fans and it would also serve as an excellent introduction to the band for new listeners.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Canadian Front: The Death of Alice Blue

Vampires and corporate suits are all the same—they are both just bloodsuckers. Or so a new Canadian indy vampire film would have us believe. The office is quite a dangerous place in Park Bench’s The Death of Alice Blue (trailer here), which screens this weekend as an unusual selection of the MoMA’s annual Canadian Front series of new cinema from our northern neighbors.

To all outward appearances, Alice Blue is a mousy young woman hired for a soul-deadening entry-level job at the Raven Advertising Agency. However, it quickly becomes apparent something nefarious is going on behind the scenes at Raven, and Ms. Blue is a little off herself. At work she is belittled by the popular cliques, while at home she must endure a mother who seems to be doing a permanent Catherine O’Hara impression. Yet, the creative director she pines for seems to take encouraging notice, as does Peter Green, the annoying mail-boy and self-styled leader of the so-called “resistance,” played by the director.

The best thing about Blue is Mark Gabriel’s grungy art direction, which effectively creates a sense of austere menace. The morning office roll call of layoffs is also a nice blackly humorous touch. However, the laughs are few and far between in the deliberately quirky Blue and there no real chills to be found. The corporate vampire motif has been done to undeath by now, often with better results, like the Wolfram & Hart law firm in the Angel television series. In comparison, there is really nothing in Blue to distinguish it from the pack.

Blue has creepy look, but the action on-screen is often hard to follow. With a dearth of likable characters, audiences are unlikely to develop an emotional investment in Alice Blue’s story. It might satisfy a certain goth niche, but for the rest of us, Blue has nothing like the crossover appeal of Let the Right One In. It screens again this Sunday (3/22) at the MoMA and next Saturday (3/28) in Connecticut at the Kent Film Festival.

NYIIFVF: Indoctrinate U

College campuses ought to be a place where the free exchange of ideas is encouraged and protected. However, the college administrators Evan Coyne Maloney tried to interview for Indoctrinate U, his hard-hitting documentary investigating political correctness in higher education, were all decidedly reluctant to engage the filmmaker in any sort of dialogue. After barnstorming across the country showing his film to appreciative campus audiences, Maloney now brings IU (trailer here), to the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival this coming Tuesday (3/24).

When debating so-called political correctness on campus, there is a tendency to minimize or to defend it as mild forms of protection against forms of harassment. However, IU cites many instances of where campus policies, particularly speech codes, are used as by university administrations as instruments to persecute political opinions they disagree with. Many students interviewed in film repeat the point that there is no diversity of opinion on campus—it simply will not be tolerated.

One of Maloney’s strongest case studies is a former student from Cal Poly. His thought crime consisted of posting a flyer for a College Republican meeting to feature a speaker advocating capitalism and entrepreneurialism for the African-American community in a campus building reserved for minority interest groups. Accused of harassment, and by implication racism, he was threatened with expulsion if he refused to undergo Maoist sensitivity training sessions (transcript of his initial disciplinary hearing here).

The CR stuck to his guns and with the help a FIRE, an organization founded by political liberals to defend students’ rights to free expression, won in court. The entire attempted abuse of power cost California taxpayers forty-thousand dollars when the court awarded legal fees to the student. So what did the administration have to say in its defense? Nothing. They went to great lengths to avoid speaking on the record for Maloney’s camera, even threatening him with arrest.

So is it fair to “ambush” college administrators Michael Moore-style, as Maloney attempted? Certainly, at a taxpayer supported public school like Cal Poly, the administration has a special responsibility to represent the university to any reasonable person with a legitimate question about their policies. However, even private school administrators should be willing to publicly defend school policies and their enforcement, since such decisions can have lasting consequences for the individuals they target. That nobody would do so on camera speaks volumes. It seems the administrations of Yale, Bucknell, Cal Poly, Foothill College, UC-SC and other schools featured in IU realized the sausage-making process of enforcing orthodoxy of opinion, particularly through speech codes, would not appear attractive when exposed to sunlight and videotape.

IU is an effective example of guerilla filmmaking. It is not a perfect film. The frequent uses of quick cuts (particularly early in the film) might actually weaken Maloney’s case, allowing his inevitable critics to complain about the conspicuous editing. However, the cases he cites are undeniably disturbing. He is right to try to hold administrators responsible, because their actions will have repercussions on their students’ lives for years to come. Despite the seriousness of his examples, Maloney brings his sense of humor to bear on the subject matter, resulting in an infuriating but often entertaining film.

The NYIIFVF deserves credit for programming IU. These are important issues. Smart, decent kids are being demonized for not towing the administration’s official line and every student suffers from the resulting chilling effect on intellectual discourse. It screens this coming Tuesday (3/24) at the Village East Cinemas.

(Disclosure: I know Maloney, we used to be neighbors. However, he never asked me to review IU.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

CO Indy: Skills Like This

It seems like tempting fate when a film’s screenwriter also stars in the film, playing an undeniably awful writer. However, it must have gone over well at the SXSW Festival, considering Monty Miranda’s Skills Like This (trailer here) won the Audience Award there. It must have been the hair. Starring screenwriter Spencer Berger as the failed playwright with a gi-normous head of hair, Skills opens in New York today.

The Onion Dance, Max’s pretentious play, is so bad it sends his grandfather into cardiac arrest. Think of it as the stage equivalent of Magnolia, except it has onions falling from the sky, instead of frogs. Recognizing the painfully obvious, Max gives up writing altogether. While seeking the dubious consolation of his best friends, Dave the office drone and Tommy the unemployed quirky guy, Max gets a bolt of inspiration. He excuses himself to rob the bank across the street, relying solely on surprise and chutzpah. Suddenly, Max finds something he is good at: crime.

Max’s friends react differently to his big score. Tommy is totally down with it, while Dave nearly has a panic attack. They all agree on the need for drinks though, so it is off to the bar, where Max comes face-to-face with Lucy, the teller he held up earlier in the day. Though she is a bit alarmed at first, Max calms her down, and starts to win her over. Max proceeds to court her, when not dodging the cops or indulging his new-found criminal instincts, but eventually Lucy makes it clear she will not play Bonnie to his Clyde.

As Max, Berger really does have a winning screen presence, but his script is all over the place. One minute a goofball comedy, the next minute a serious drama, Skills suffers from drastic mood swings. Some of the comedy falls painfully flat, like Tommy’s search for “Gloria,” his stolen bike, which would be better suited to an adolescent girl than an ostensibly grown man. Particularly troublesome is a scene in which he seems to be hitting on a young school girl for supposedly comedic effect. Not at all funny, it is frankly creepy and nearly derails the entire film.

While uneven, Skills is best when it sticks with Max. The dramatic scenes at his grandfather’s deathbed are effective, thanks to the dignified presence of veteran character actor Ned Bellamy as Uncle Morris. Despite the unlikely circumstances, Max’s romantic scenes with Lucy (played by Kerry Knuppe) have nice chemistry, but again things are undone by the script’s erratic nature. Just when it seems like the characters will be forced to finally grow-up, the action suddenly spins off into Neverland.

Mercifully, Skills is not The Onion Dance. Miranda keeps it all moving along at a reasonably brisk pace, particularly the scenes of Max’s criminal development, but it is uneven in the extreme. Still, it is worth noting Skills holds the distinction of being the first theatrically distributed film, shot entirely in Colorado, solely by Coloradan filmmakers. So maybe the altitude had something to do with it. Skills begins its New York run today at the Angelika.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dylan Thomas: The Edge of Love

New York is the proud home of the White Horse Tavern, world famous as the site of Dylan Thomas’s last round of cheer. While the Welsh poet had quite the reputation for imbibing spirits, alcoholism is the least of his flaws in a new bio-picture. Opening tomorrow in New York, John Maybury’s Edge of Love (trailer here) is a highly unflattering portrait of a hopelessly self-absorbed individual, who also happened to be a great poet.

As Edge opens, World War II is raging, but not for Thomas. Sharman MacDonald’s screenplay clearly implies he is shirking his duty through a dubious medical deferment. He is also a neglectful father, unfaithful husband, and a selfish, petty man. From this starting point, he only becomes less sympathetic as the film progresses.

A chance encounter with his childhood sweetheart rekindles Thomas’s affections for the beautiful Vera Philips, played by Keira Knightley. Unfortunately, he is already married to Caitlin (portrayed by Sienna Miller), who provides their child some measure of parental supervision, when not pursuing her own affairs. The Thomases invite Philips into their lives, with both harboring some sort of attraction to her. However, it is Captain William Killick who wins her reluctant heart, only to leave shortly after their wedding for a Hellish tour of duty behind enemy lines in Greece.

Married just long enough to get pregnant, Philips (now Killick) moves back to Wales, living next door to the Thomases, supporting their wastrel lifestyle with Killick’s money, while mostly deflecting their advances—though the distributor would surely like to point out that Knightley and Miller have a scene bathing together. When the shell-shocked Captain comes home, his condition is aggravated by the vicious village gossip, which eventually pushes him past his breaking point.

As Killock, Cillian Murphy is quite nuanced, preventing the Captain from coming across as a stereotypical crazed veteran. Frankly, when he finally snaps, the audience is ready to see the egotistically Thomas and his snobbish radio colleagues get the beat-down they deserve. They sneer at concepts like patriotism and service from the relative safety of the countryside, while Killick witnessed the horrors of war first hand. It is when Edge dramatizes such differences of values that it is at its sharpest.

The ethereal Knightley also has some fine moments, particularly early in the film, revealing a hitherto unknown singing talent. Her performances of sweetly sentimental big band vocals are surprisingly enjoyable and the somewhat jazz-influenced soundtrack by Angelo Badalamenti (best known for his work on Twin Peaks) is often appealingly breezy. Unfortunately, Matthew Rhys is rather flat and charmless as the difficult Thomas, which leads to considerable credibility problems for the film.

Co-produced by BBC Films, Edge is sort of a cross between Masterpiece Theater and an HBO original drama, but it is probably too racy for PBS, while not showing enough skin for premium cable. Despite a problematic lead performance, Edge has some diverting moments, certainly including Knightley’s musical numbers. It opens tomorrow in New York at the Angelika.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On-Stage: The Tidings Brought to Mary

Considered one of the great dramatists of the early twentieth century, Paul Claudel’s plays have been rarely produced by American companies in recent years. Clearly, his conservative Catholicism has not endeared him to the contemporary theater world. The younger brother of sculptor Camille Claudel, he served France in a number of diplomatic postings (at one time employing composer Darius Milhaud as a mission secretary), ultimately becoming a vocal opponent of the Vichy puppet regime. Claudel’s The Tidings Brought to Mary finally returns to the New York stage for the first time since its 1922 Broadway premiere, in a Blackfriars Repertory-Storm Theatre co-production currently running at Paradise Factory.

Anne Vercors has amassed considerable land and wealth, but he (yes, he is a he) is alarmed by the chaos and moral decline surrounding him. France has two ineffectual rivals to the throne, while Rome lacks a Pope. In an act of probable sacrifice, Vercors decides to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to pray for France—a journey with a very low rate of survival in Medieval times. Setting his affairs in order before departing, Vercors arranges the marriage of his eldest daughter, the devout Violaine, to Jacques Hurey, who has been like a son to the older man. Violaine and Hurey happily agree to Vercors’ plan, but their wedding is not to be.

With a little help from her jealous sister Mara, Violaine’s past will irrevocably sabotage her engagement. A woman of boundless love and forgiveness, Violaine met with the guilt-ridden cathedral architect Pierre de Craon to absolve him for a clumsy attempt to rape her. After the attack, de Craon was stricken with leprosy in a cosmic act of retribution for his sins. To sooth his ailing spirit and body, Violaine kisses de Craon on the lips. Tragically, such contact is sufficient for Violaine to contract the dreaded disease herself.

When Violaine reveals her condition to her intended, she is banished to the wilderness, forced to rely on the peasantry’s reluctant charity. With her health declining precipitously, she lives like a Stylite saint, maintaining her Christian love for all, including and especially her scheming sister. Tidings might superficially sound like a tale of sibling strife, but the rivalry only travels in one direction: from Mara, projected unto Violaine.

Claudel’s Catholic theology is a far cry from happy church gospel, dealing with themes of forgiveness and sacrifice in the starkest of terms. Like her father, Violaine is willing to sacrifice herself on behalf of her fellow man. Indeed, she is blessed in her suffering, because it those who are most wretched who shall find salvation.

Tidings is an extraordinarily challenging play, but the Blackfriars’ production never loses sight of the fundamental human drama. Claudel’s translated text is obviously quite demanding, but the entire cast handles the material quite convincingly. In particular, Erin Beirnard brings a humanizing vulnerability to the role of the saintly Violaine. Likewise, Ross DeGraw is a commanding stage presence as Vercors, portraying him not as a religious stereotype, but a man of principle and authority.

Claudel’s play might be demanding, but it well rewards the audience’s close attention. It is a meaty work, smartly produced and acted. Happily, the Blackfriars and the Storm Theatre will follow-up Tidings with two more of the French playwright’s neglected plays as part of their Paul Claudel Project. Now officially open, Tidings runs through April 4th.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

NJJFF, etc: The Secrets

In 1577, Safed, one of the Four Holy Cities of Judaism, became the site of the first printing press of the entire Ottoman Empire. Long venerated as a seat of mystical learning, Safed also has a strong klezmer music scene, all of which provides an intriguing backdrop for Avi Nesher’s latest film, The Secrets, (trailer here), an examination of gender issues and traditional authority in Orthodox culture, which screens at three separate Tri-State film festivals over the next few days.

Young Noemi’s faith is strong, but her life is plagued with emptiness. After her mother’s death, she convinces her learned rabbi father to postpone her marriage to a sanctimonious fiancé, allowing her to enroll in a Midrasha, a seminary for young women founded by Orthodox feminists. There in Safed, the bookish Noemi, able to quote long passages of sacred texts from memory, is thrown together with three perfectly mismatched roommates, including the rebellious Michal, a spoiled rich girl from France. To Noemi’s annoyance, the two women are both assigned to serve a new client for their Midrasha’s meals-for-shut-ins program: Anouk a notorious but aging French-speaking murderess.

Hardly an innocent victim, Anouk really did murder her lover in a crime of passion. Facing her own impending mortality, the older woman desperately seeks spiritual redemption from the unsympathetic religious authorities of Safed. Against her own better judgment, Noemi delves into Kabala, looking for an impossible tikun: a cleansing ritual for the sin of murder.

Unlike most contemporary films, Secrets treats concepts like sin and redemption with absolute sincerity. It is at its strongest when portraying the relationship between the two younger women and the ailing Anouk, played by the distinguished French actress Fanny Ardant. The ancient walls of Safed function almost like another character, effectively heightening the film’s aura of metaphysical mystery. However, the development of a problematic lesbian relationship between Noemi and Michal does not really cover any new territory not previously seen in other films about homosexuality in traditional societies, including the Orthodox documentary, Trembling Before G-D.

Nesher helms the film with admirable restraint and sensitivity, while cinematographer Michel Abramowicz invests the action with a warm, mysterious glow. The cast is quite credible, including the great Ardant, and the memorable Adir Miller, as Yanki, the tragically likable klezmer clarinetist, who becomes Noemi’s rival for Michal’s affections.

Along with other recent film imports, like The Band’s Visit and Jellyfish, Secrets well represents the increasing diversity of contemporary Israeli filmmaking. While the drama between Noemi and Michal eventually gets a bit over-wrought, the film is a handy corrective for those who exclusively associate Kabala with trendy red bracelets. It screens Wed. (3/18) at the Hartford Jewish Film Festival, Sat. (3/21) at the Rockland Jewish Film Festival, and Mon. (3/22) and Sun. (3/22) at the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival.

SXSW & IFC Festival Direct: Zift

Film Noir and Socialist Realism both share a kind of economic determinism, in which financial need often leads to tragedy. Director Javor Gardev strikingly blends both genres, employing the severe Brutalist architecture of Sofia and the Kafkaesque mechanisms of Communism, to create a uniquely Bulgarian film noir. The resulting twilight world is a nightmare for an ex-con dubbed “The Moth,” in Gardev’s Zift (trailer here), which screens Thursday at the SXSW Film Festival (in Austin, TX) and will be available on IFC’s Festival Direct, now through June 11th.

Before the Communist coup of 1944, The Moth had a beautiful girlfriend, Ada played by Bulgarian supermodel Tanya Ilieva, but not enough money to get married and live happily ever after. To raise such funds, they turn to the local gangster simply known as Slug. However, when their plan to rob a local jeweler goes awry, The Moth is sent up the river on an unjust murder rap. Feigning an ardent conversion to socialism, he eventually secures parole sometime in the 1960’s, only to find the thugs who once operated in the underworld are now the thugs running the local party—and they want to have words.

In Vladislav Todorov’s subversive script, based on his novel, the underworld now has the force of the state at its disposal. With the Red Star literally towering over the town square, Gardev’s crime story takes on surreal dimensions thanks to its Orwellian political environment. Yet, morality persists in this world, preserved by the Church’s Father Todor, played with heavy authority by Djoko Rossich, in a scene which packs the film’s greatest emotionally punch.

Burrowing liberally from classic film noirs, like D.O.A., Brute Force, and Double Indemnity, Zift has all the elements, including an attractive and very fatal femme fatale: Ada, also called “The Mantis,” a species whose females kill their males when mating. However, Emil Christov’s highly stylized black & white cinematography is the true star of the film. There is an austere beauty to his visuals, with nearly every still of the film suitable for framing.

Style sometimes seems to take precedence over character in Zift, but it is indeed quite impressive, conveying a cold, oppressive world of imposing edifices and unchecked state corruption. Its fatalistic anti-hero, Moth (a species often drawn to flame) is also a cold figure, difficult to embrace or take a rooting interest in. He is surrounded by some very human supporting characters though, who sometimes have their own stories to tell, that serve as clever commentaries on the tragedy unfolding on-screen.

Impressively crafted, Zift was Bulgaria’s official submission for consideration as the 2008 Academy Awards’ best foreign language film. A unique viewing experience, it combines grim naturalism and visual poetry to evoke Bulgaria’s repressive Communist past. It has a late-night screening this Thursday (3/19) at SXSW and is currently available through IFC’s Festival Direct on most major cable providers (including Time Warner and Cablevision).

Monday, March 16, 2009

Criscuolo with Strings

By Matt Criscuolo

The so-called “with strings” records, featuring an instrumental soloist accompanied by a lush string section on a set of romantic standards, account for some of the most popular releases in jazz history, and some of the least regarded. Many times the results are more suitable for the kitschy bachelor pad scene. Happily, that is not the case with Melancholia, Connecticut-based alto-player Matt Criscuolo’s latest CD, very definitely recorded with strings.

Several factors elevate Melancholia above the level of cocktail hour jazz, the most crucial being Criscuolo’s strong, clear tone on alto. His choice of repertoire is also quite shrewd, eschewing Tin-Pan Alley love songs in favor of advanced hard-bop standards by Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, as well as his own originals and one from pianist Larry Willis. Willis also contributed the hip string charts, which are surprisingly lithe and insistent—no wall of schmaltzy sound here.

Melancholia begins appropriately with Criscuolo’s original “When in Rome,” a darkly romantic ballad. With the rhythm section of Willis, drummer Billy Drummond, and bassist Phil Bowler as prominent in the mix as the string section, it establishes the robust sound of the session. The quartet then takes over the second Criscuolo original, “Pensivity,” a dramatic showcase for the leader and Willis, forcefully egged on by Drummond.

Though the soaring string arrangement for Willis’s “Ethiopa” might be a bit over-written and his piano introduction might have a bit of the flavor of “Nadia’s Song,” Criscuolo’s alto cuts through it all. It becomes quite a passionate, emotionally direct performance when the strings subside. However, the string charts on both Shorter standards, “Infant Eyes” and “Miyako,” are perfectly balanced, beautifully reinforcing the mood of the elegant ballads, rather than overwhelming the soloist.

While the string arrangements are more pronounced on the Hancock standards, they never run the risk of sentimentality. In fact, they are quite vigorous on the upbeat “Tell Me a Bed Time Story,” creating a dynamic groove. While the treatment of Hancock’s lovely ballad “Chan’s Song,” originally written for the ‘Round Midnight soundtrack, is more traditional for string sessions, it probably inspires Criscuolo’s most eloquent statements of the record.

Evidently, Criscuolo is something of a renaissance man, overseeing his family’s pizzerias while simultaneously pursuing a career in music. His great sound on Melancholia certainly suggests it would be worth a trip to Wilton, CT, when he is playing at the “Jazzerias.” His full-bodied, expressive alto makes this one of the strongest string sessions recorded in recent years.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

NYICFF: Sita Sings the Blues

Dumping someone over e-mail—how lame is that is? Self-taught animator Nina Paley found out first-hand, when her jerk of a partner ended their relationship after accepting a supposedly temp gig in India. At least the experience provided the seeds of inspiration for her debut feature, Sita Sings the Blues (trailer here), which screens this weekend as part of the New York International Children’s Film Festival.

The life of Rama deeply inspired the Muslim-born Hindi poet Kabir, whose work has been stirringly set to music by the ecstatic Sufi Qawwal singers. To tell the story of Rama’s long-suffering wife Sita, Paley enlists the voice of Annette Hanshaw, the popular vocalist of the 1920’s and early 1930’s, who was backed by most of the top jazzmen allowable in her era (meaning white), which even included Benny Goodman and the Dorsey Brothers. Though she retired early, her playful, bluesy style and her impish sign-off, “that’s all,” have maintained Hanshaw’s cult-following over the decades. Her songs of heartache now give voice to Sita, who despite being the Earthly incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi, was still done grievously wrong by her man.

Blues retells the parts of the Ramayana (the great Sanskrit epic), which pertain to Sita, from her perspective. She follows her husband into exile when his father is forced to banish him. Their time in the literal wilderness is actually quite happy, until the fateful day King Ravana of Lanka is manipulated into kidnapping her. As we see Ram and Sita devastated by their rough separation, we also witness the contemporary parallel story of Nina and her husband Dave. She is also distressed by the considerable distance between them, but for him—not so much. The stressful time spent apart would ultimately undo both couples.

Paley frequently switches gears visually, employing a wide variety of animation styles for each portion of her narrative. Sita and Rama come to life both as ornate figures inspired by Indian classical painting and more whimsical cartoon figures for Hanshaw’s musical interludes. Nina and Dave are simpler—not quite Terrance and Phillip of South Park, but nowhere near as sophisticated as the various Sitas and Ramas. Giving it all structure and context for western audiences are Paley’s narrator friends, represented in stylized profiles. While their improvised commentary might confuse as much as it illuminates, Paley’s accompanying animation is frequently hilarious, even approaching brilliance.

Paley’s film is chocked full of clever bits of business and some sharp dialogue. However, its finest moments come when marrying the music of Hanshaw with the ancient, exotic tragedy of Sita, with her rendition of “Mean to Me” being a particular standout. Indeed, the blues are truly universal. Though it has a very grown-up sensibility, aside from the occasional cursing, it is by-and-large appropriate for audiences of all ages. Enormously entertaining and consistently inventive, Blues is the best animated film produced in recent years—far superior to anything released by Disney or Pixar this decade. A highlight of the festival, it screens again Sunday (3/15) at the DGA Theater.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Carmen & Geoffrey

He is instantly recognizable from the famous 7-Up “Uncola” campaign. She appeared in classic films like Odds Against Tomorrow and Carmen Jones, but frankly those are the least of their credits. Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder are the reigning royal couple of American dance, whom directors Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob pay just tribute to in their new documentary, Carmen & Geoffrey, which opens today in New York.

Most critics concede the Harold Arlen-Truman Capote musical House of Flowers has not aged well, but its use of Caribbean-derived rhythms and choreography was considered innovative at the time. De Lavallade and Holder met as featured dancers in that 1954 Broadway production, which he also helped choreograph. The show would not last long, but their marriage is now in its fifth decade.

Both accomplished dancers and choreographers, the couple has collaborated with the likes of Alvin Ailey, Duke Ellington, and Josephine Baker. Jazz listeners are sure to enjoy the clips shown of de Lavallade’s signature piece, John Butler’s “A Portrait of Billie,” a beautiful tribute to the tragic vocalist Billie Holiday, perfectly suited to the sophisticated dancer.

Atkinson and Doob hit many of the couple’s considerable career highlights, including de Lavallade’s collaborations with Ailey and Holder’s Tony-winning triumph as the director, choreographer, and costume designer of the original Broadway production of The Wiz. Naturally, we see his lucrative commercials for 7-Up and a brief clip of his work as Punjab in John Huston’s Annie. It is all certainly informative and engenders tremendous respect for the power couple of the stage. Yet, even the hint of tribulation in their long, storied careers is notably absent in the documentary.

Now in her seventies, de Lavallade still performs on-stage at a level that could be described as superhuman. Also a painter whose work hangs on some of the walls of highly prestigious galleries, Holder still has numerous creative outlets. However, his days as a dancer, at least on-stage, are behind him. One might think that would have been difficult change to accept, but it remains unexplored in the film.

C&G is an informative celebration of its subjects, but it never shows any inclination to really try to delve beneath the surface. While scrupulously respectful, it never gives a sense of their personalities outside of the public spotlight, particularly in the case of the more reserved de Lavallade. Still, the filmmakers’ portrait is also somewhat refreshing, since it honors not just their artistic triumphs, but over fifty years of marital fidelity. C&G opens today in New York, at the Quad Cinema, with Holder and de Lavallade scheduled to appear for Q&A’s after the 6:00 and 800 screenings, tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata

In the 1990’s Japan experienced something almost entirely unprecedented for post-war generations: economic stagnation. After missing out on the good times of the last decade, one of the world’s most productive, best educated work forces remain plagued with unemployment and underemployment. Such a fate befalls the protagonist of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

The domestic drama of Sonata might seem like a distinct departure for Kurosawa (Kiyoshi), who made his international reputation as a leading J-horror and yakuza filmmaker. The harrowing disintegration of the Sasaki family unit will probably be oft likened to a horror story by critics, and the comparison is reasonably apt. As the film opens, Ryuhei Sasaki is a respected purchasing manager for a large corporation, but by the end of the day, he will be brusquely laid-off as his former position outsourced to China.

While the looming economic implications are hardly inconsequential, Sasaki’s greatest concern is his potential loss of authority as the head of his household. Hoping it will be a short-term subterfuge, Sasaki joins an invisible army of the unemployed who leave for work in the morning as if nothing were wrong, only to spend the day queuing in job centers and eating charity lunches.

The problem is Sasaki does not really fool anyone. They can sense something is wrong and could hazard a pretty fair guess as to what. As an arbitrary exercise of his failing power, Sasaki forbids his youngest son Kenji from pursuing the piano lessons he had been taking surreptitiously, using his lunch money. With the eldest son enlisting in the American military (permissible under a fictional change in law) and his wife Megumi increasingly embarrassed by his behavior, Sasaki’s family is already in endanger of fracturing irreparably Then a sudden act of insanity plunges them into a surreal dark night of the soul.

By and large though, the nightmares of Sonata will be only too real to audiences in these times of economic uncertainty—though perhaps accentuated in Japan by the country’s rigid social structure. Yet arguably, Sonata’s greatest tragedy is Sasaki’s denial of Kenji’s talent, considered that of a true prodigy by his teacher, Kaneko-san (played by the popular actress Haruka Igawa), the only encouraging presence in his life. For all the high drama and bitter angst he marshals, Kurosawa’s conclusion is perfectly understated—both a beautiful and absolutely damning display of Kenji’s sensitive virtuosity.

As Sasaki, Teruyuki Kagawa absolutely personifies pathetic alienation. He seems to be specializing in roles of quiet desperation, having recently appeared in Tokyo! as the Hikikomori shut-in, and as one of the pitiful fanboys in Kisaragi, seen during the Japan Society’s film festival. Truly, his precipitous decline is disturbing to watch. However, Kyoko Koizumi’s haunting performance as the dignified mother trying to hold her family together against a tide of mounting chaos is what ultimately defines Sonata.

Relentlessly naturalistic save for a dark detour into the bizarre, Sonata is a merciless film, but there is no denying its power. Uniformly well acted and sharply observed, it is a finely crafted work that should take on additional resonance for American audiences as domestic markets continue their historic free fall unimpeded. It opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza.