Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Legacy Project: Echoes

For her latest project, choreographer Carolyn Dorfman has attracted truly world-class collaborators, including Norwegian Yiddish vocalist Bente Kahan, and Greg Wall, who holds the distinction of being both a distinctive jazz saxophonist and an ordained rabbi. However, her troupe of dancers, the Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company (CDDC), is just as impressive in The Legacy Project: Echoes, an evening of dance and live music inspired by her Eastern-European Jewish ancestry, which concludes its two night engagement at the 5th Floor Theater of the Tisch School for the Arts this evening.

Legacy has a strikingly cinematic look, beginning with a moving set of solo vocals by Kahan, as she faces the glowing back wall. Dramatic use of light and shadow also enriches the following Odisea, which vividly interprets the events surrounding the immigration of the first Jews to America in 1654. At that time, the Brazilian Jewry of Recife found it advisable to leave for New Amsterdam, following the Dutch surrender of Brazil to the former Portuguese colonial masters. While at times darkly ominous, it builds to a stirring conclusion, evoking hope and resolve. Featured dancers Mica Bernas, Jacqueline Dumas, Mark Taylor, Sarah Wagner, and Jon Zimmerman set a rather spectacular tone for the evening, which the entire company maintains quite well throughout the program.

As a welcome respite from Legacy’s often serious subject matter, “First Look” is an absolutely joyful blast of energy. Excerpted from Dorfman’s Mayne Mentshn, which tells the story of Jewish assimilation in American told through dance, it could have been a showstopper from a Broadway musical like Grease if not for the decidedly swinging soundtrack composed by Wall. Again, Dorfman’s dancers nicely display their athleticism and charisma in a true crowd-pleasing number.

The centerpiece of the program is Silent Echoes, a dance adaptation of Kahan’s Voices from Threresienstadt about the concentration camp “beautified” by the Nazis for an inspection by the International Red Cross and the production of a propaganda film. It features some of the most intricate choreography of the evening, employing wires and precariously stacked benches. It also includes some particularly pointed lyrics describing the Potemkin village camp as the “‘As If’ Town.”

Legacy concludes with the premiere performances of Tikkun (To Repair), probably the most powerful sequence of the program. Dorfman’s inventive choreography makes haunting use of common-place shoes that suggests the arresting visual impact of the shoes of the Danube Promenade memorial.

The impressive CDDC is frequently quite thrilling in Legacy. It is a deeply human production that synthesizes some painful history into a rousing theater experience. It also benefits from a surprisingly diverse soundtrack, including the Wall’s klezmer and avant-garde influenced music, a composition by the genre-defying jazz-classical cellist David Darling, and Kahan’s traditional repertoire, including the classic “Dona Dona” popularized by Joan Baez, as well as Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) songs.

Legacy’s lineup of performances might sound a bit disparate, but in fact their thematic connections are strong enough to produce a logically organized, cohesive show. Boasting some of the best dancing to be seen on the New York stage (most definitely including Broadway) and some consistently intriguing music, largely performed live by musicians refreshingly visible to the audience (and not buried in a pit or hidden off-stage), the Legacy program should not be missed. The CDDC perform it again tonight at Tisch, before concluding their current tour with stops in New Jersey, Michigan, and Massachusetts.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Foreign Language Oscar Winner: Departures

Given the sheer volume of true masterpieces created by legendary filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Kon Ichikawa, it is hard to believe Japanese cinema had only won the best foreign language Academy Award three times prior to this year’s ceremony. However, in perhaps the biggest upset of the 2009 Oscars, Yojiro Takita’s Departures became the fourth Japanese winner. Despite ever-present controversies surrounding the nominating process, the Academy’s foreign language division got it right this time. Easily the best nominated foreign film of the year as well as one of the highlights of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, Taika’s Departures (trailer here), begins it regular theatrical run today in select cities.

Life has been a mixed bag for Daigo Kobayashi. As soon as he fulfills his lifelong ambition of joining a symphony, the orchestra disbands. Realizing he is a mediocre talent unlikely to secure another such position, Kobayashi gives up music, convincing his attractive wife Mika to move back to his provincial family home. In truth, besides their house, there is little there for Kobayashi to move back to. His mother died while he was on tour and his father deserted the family when Kobayashi was a young boy.

Looking for work, Kobayashi answers an ad deceptively using the word “departures.” He assumes it is a travel agency, but it is actually an “encoffination” agency that performs the ceremonial preparations before laying the recently deceased in their caskets. Naturally, he is put off by this, but Mr. Sasaki, his prospective employer, plies him with cash until he reluctantly agrees to try it. Of course, it is a difficult line of work to adjust to, but Kobayashi finds he has a talent for it. His wife though, is less than understanding when she discovers the truth about his new job.

Once again, the shunned encoffineer must deal with the abandonment of a loved one, as well as the rejection of former friends. Yet in Sasaki and his assistant, he finds a surrogate family. He also starts playing his childhood cello again. Music had been Kobayashi’s ambition, and then the symbol of his failure. By returning to his home, he starts reconnecting with what music originally meant to him. Logically, the soundtrack plays a crucial role in the film and probably the film’s biggest gamble was the use of primarily original compositions. Fortunately, Jo Hisaishi’s haunting light-classical themes are absolutely pitch-perfect for the story.

In the hands of a lesser director, Departures could have been painfully schmaltzy. However, Takita has crafted an elegant, deeply felt film. The key to his approach are the encoffining ceremonies he patiently and reverently films, movingly capturing the multiplicity of emotions experienced by the bereaved and the humanity of the encoffineers. Once you understand the importance of the ceremony, you understand Kobayashi.

A film dominated by funereal rituals might sound depressing, but in fact, it is quite the opposite. It does pack a heavy emotional punch, but it is ultimately life-affirming and hopeful. Departures is definitely about loss and regret, but also redemption and how one lost man finds his place in the world. Takita’s sensitive direction always finds the right note and the cast is uniformly excellent. Masahiro Motoki covers a wide emotional range as Kobayashi, expressing the musician’s great empathy as well as the insecurities and resentments deeply rooted in his childhood. Likewise, Tsutomu Yamazaki plays Sasaki with understated wit and grace, without coming across as the stereotypical wise old mentor.

Every element of Departures works together beautifully. It is a richly crafted, highly satisfying film. It is also genuinely moving, with no cheap tears, but a real emotional pay-off earned through its superior performances and character development. It opens today in New York at the Lincoln Plaza and Landmark Sunshine Theaters.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

On-Stage: Vieux Carre

It is probably the first play a Tennessee Williams biographer should read as part of their research, but it has not been produced on the New York stage in twenty-five years. Although Williams’s 1977 Vieux Carré might be infrequently revived, its biographical significance is undeniable, right down to the address of the squalid boarding house in which it is set: 722 Toulouse Street—Williams’s own address in the late 1930’s. Now Vieux Carré has the additional distinction of being the first Tennessee Williams play undertaken by the Pearl Theatre Company, as well as their last production at their current home on St. Mark’s, where it officially opened last night.

The residents of Mrs. Wire’s Toulouse Street boarding house are the dregs of New Orleans. Frankly, most are waiting to die, but one is still trying to find his place in the world. The Writer has recently moved to New Orleans from his native St. Louis, to pursue his literary career and come to terms with his homosexuality. Does that sound like any great American playwright?

There is plenty of raw material to inspire him in 722, including the shrewish landlady, two destitute elderly women, and Nightingale, an old consumptive lecher who seduces the writer during a moment of vulnerability. He finds a friend in the understanding Jane, a young lady from a proper Westchester family, who has been tragically diagnosed with Leukemia. Unfortunately, it is awkward for him to be near her lover Tye, a brutish strip club bouncer, who seems to protest too much when making crude homophobic remarks.

Williams first started Vieux in the late 1930’s, but he did not complete it until the late seventies with its brief 1977 Broadway production. Granted, it might not be Streetcar, but it is certainly a meaty play, prefiguring most of the themes and motifs of his acknowledged major works. It is also a great depiction of the Crescent City’s seedy glory, in which the promise of freedom is fittingly represented by Sky, a jazz musician.

Sensitively directed by Austin Pendleton, himself an actor often seen on the New York stage, the Pearl’s production effectively evokes the atmosphere of death and decay that looms over the doomed residents of 722. The wall-less set design also nicely conveys the claustrophobic environment and the lack of privacy experienced by Mrs. Wire’s boarders.

The cast is quite strong, particularly George Morfogen, who brings out the complex humanity of the problematic Nightingale. Sean McNall is also notably impressive in the role of the Writer, coming across as an intelligent, multifaceted young man, rather than a mere narrator or a stand-in for the famous playwright.

Like most of Williams’s plays, Vieux might sound depressing, but there is something reassuring about the dramatically messy humanity on view. In fact, Williams was a very humane writer, depicting deeply flawed characters, like Nightingale, with great compassion. It is definitely a strong production of a rewarding play, well-worth catching during its surprisingly rare revival (though parents should be cautioned there are distinctly adult situations and brief full frontal nudity). Its limited engagement at the Pearl ends June 14th, and look for the company’s upcoming 2009/2010 season in their new home at New York City Center.

Teen Angst: What Goes Up

A burned out New York Times reporter falsifies a series of stories out of whole cloth—not exactly a shocking premise. Yet we are not supposed to judge Campbell Babbitt too harshly, because his motives are noble, well sort of. Aside from the fact that he has one of the greatest movie names in recent years, it is hard to get a handle on the troubled and troubling protagonist of Jonathan Glatzer’s pseudo-comedy What Goes Up (trailer here), opening this Friday in New York.

Babbitt has broken one iron-clad rule of journalism after another. The first was falling in love with a woman he was covering: “Angela,” the anonymous mother of young son murdered in a senseless street crime. When the crusading Angela takes her own life out of despair, Babbitt cannot bring himself to report the truth, fabricating multiple stories about her campaign against crime.

A complete basket case, Babbitt’s irritated editor assigns him the kind of human interest story he seems to specialize in: New Hampshire’s Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space. However, in this fictionalized treatment, McAuliffe’s high school has already suffered the untimely loss of one teacher when the broken-down Times scribe arrives. In a twist of fate, the late teacher was Sam Calalluci, an old friend of Babbitt’s.

Sensing a story, Babbitt exaggerates his relationship to Calalluci to win the trust of his grieving homeroom class. It works only too well, as his class of misfits adopts the morally comprised reporter as their new mentor figure. However, he is only too willing to get close to one student, Lucy Diamond, played by teen-aged “It-Girl” Hilary Duff, in one of Up’s several highly questionable subplots.

Up sees itself as a meditation on the reality and perception of real life heroes, which becomes painfully obvious from the ubiquitous presence of David Bowie’s “Heroes” in the soundtrack. Of course, the inevitable fate of Christa McAuliffe and the rest of the shuttle crew hangs over the film, putting a damper on the would-be comedic moments. It is a reality Glatzer never brings himself to deal with, ending the film shortly before the tragic launch.

Clearly, Glatzer and co-screenwriter Robert Lawson want to say much about the nature of heroism, but Up’s tone is so wildly inconsistent, the picture is ultimately a complete muddle. Steve Coogan seems to specialize in films that feature pivotal high school stage productions, but unlike Hamlet 2, he is allowed to keep his British accent here. In fact, he is quite convincing as the world-weary Babbitt. Unfortunately, he is often forced into smarmy situations which border on the outright criminal. Aside from Coogan and a surprisingly effective Duff, Up’s promising cast is largely wasted on stock characters, like the shrewish Penelope Little, played by SNL alumnus Molly Shannon.

At times, Up tries to be a thoughtful examination of the need to be inspired, particularly at a young age. However, it often degenerates into exploitative scenes of teenaged sexuality. While it has one or two interesting moments, Up just does not work as a film. It opens this Friday (5/29) in New York at the Quad.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

soloNOVA: Piccola Cosi

Italians have always been quite hospitable to American expat jazz musicians, perhaps most notably with Chet Baker in the 1960’s (at least before jailing him on drug charges). The fragile romanticism of “My Funny Valentine,” a standard closely associated with Baker, would indeed be a fitting trial-by-fire for an American neophyte jazz vocalist. Aja Nisenson relates that fateful debut live performance, as well as the men and music she encountered in the Bologna jazz scene, with words and music in Piccola Cosi, which opened last night at the DR-2 Theatre as part of the soloNOVA Arts Festival of solo shows.

Unlike other soloNOVA selections, Nisenson has back-up on-stage, in the form of her able jazz trio, led by director Brian Dilg on keyboards, with Joe Nagle on drums and Pete O’Connell on bass. Of course, the only talking they do is through their instruments, which is appropriate since music plays such an important role in Nisenson’s story.

As she presents herself, Nisenson arrived in Italy a shy, inexperienced college student, who had performed opera and musical theater, but never jazz—at least not in front of a live audience. Her first time tackling a jazz standard is a bit of an adventure, as one might expect, but fortunately the piano-player leading the band is indulgent. After a false start, Nisenson demonstrates why she set out on her jazz excursion. It turns out she really has quite a voice, and even shows some scat chops she did not know she had, when cajoled into it by the encouraging band leader.

As Nisenson explains, Italy was a liberating environment for her. She claims she would not have had the nerve to sit-in with an American group, but in Italy everyone seems more inviting, particularly the men. Much of the show involves Nisenson’s attempts to deflect the advances of several prospective Italian lovers, with varying degrees of success. Again, the attractive Nisenson explains she always perceived herself as a geeky sneaker-wearing kid, but in Bologna, she had more romantic attention than she really wanted.

While the roster of would-be suitors sort of blend together for the audience, Nisenson infuses Piccola with a hip jazz sensibility that suggests she really does know of what she speaks. She cleverly integrates classic standards like “Take the A Train,” “Just Friends,” and “I’m Through with Love” into the show to help advance her story. As a crowd pleasing bonus, she even ends with a swinging “Mambo Italiano.”

Nisenson has a charismatic stage presence and legitimate vocal talent. Each standard she performed on opening night (even those intended for comic effect) earned a hearty round of applause. Combining jazz, musical theater, and solo performance, Piccola is an entertaining night of hybrid-theater. It runs at the DR-2 through May 30th, concluding the 6th annual soloNOVA fest.

Japanese Cinema: The Burning

The Burning
Directed by Kenta Hayashida
Pathfinder Home Entertainment

Twins tend to be an unsettling presence in dramatic films, such as The Krays, Dead Ringers, and of course Village of the Damned. Evidently, the Gemini effect also holds true in Japanese cinema, but while Minako and Hinako are indeed deeply disturbed twins, they also happen to be the sympathetic protagonists in Kenta Hayashida’s The Burning (a.k.a. Brulee, trailer here), now available on DVD.

Minako and Hinako have been separated for thirteen years, since they set the fire which killed their abusive father. Hinako was taken in by her uncle, a pastry chef in a seaside resort town, where she lives a relatively normal high school life, aside from her escalating fire-starting compulsion. One day, Minako arrives unannounced, carrying an urn she claims holds the ashes of their grandmother. However, it turns out the urn is for her. The shy Minako (usually distinguishable by her long scarf) has a malignant brain tumor and her time is short.

Together again, the twins obviously share an unusually deep bond. Hinako considers her sister a calming influence on her, yet her arsonist instincts remain unabated, resulting in the burning of her uncle’s shop. Suddenly on the run, the twins are determined to stay together, but Minako keeps her secrets, fearing the truth would lead to loss of Hinako in her last remaining days. Real life twins Rika and Mika Nakamura are quite effective as Minako and Hinako respectively. Rika Nakamura is particularly touching as the tragic Minako, conveying all the unfair pathos of her circumstances.

While much of Burning might lend itself to a macabre treatment, Hayashida seems to consciously resist the conventions of horror films. Rather than build suspense around the arson scenes, he always presents them well underway. Although at times the twins do act more than a little creepy, there is never any doubt where viewers’ sympathies should be. They are after all unquestionably victims in the context of the film. Appropriately, Hayashida maintains an elegiac tone throughout, dramatically underscored by Toshihiro Mizuno’s melancholy classical soundtrack.

Unfortunately, the live-in-the-moment theme of Burning would be tragically fitting for Hayashida, who passed away just as the film was released in Japan. While a relatively brief seventy minutes, Hayashida’s haunting film certainly feels like a complete emotional journey. It is definitely well worth checking out on DVD.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Canadian Zombie Flick: Pontypool

Generally, Canadians are good neighbors, but some annoying aspects of the country’s culture have drifted south of the border, like the music of Celine Dion and a nearly religious devotion to socialized medicine. In true South Park style, we can also “blame Canada” for literally infecting the English language in Pontypool (trailer here), Bruce McDonald’s nifty little genre thriller opening this Friday in New York.

Pontypool is a friendly little village in southern Ontario where people rely on CLSY Radio for weather forecasts, crop reports, and school closings. For shock-jock Grant Mazzy though, it represents the end of the line of a controversial career. Driving into work one typically snowy morning, he has an odd encounter with a woman who appears to speaking gibberish. It seems weird, but at least it will be a good bit for the show.

However, as the show progresses, strange unconfirmed reports start coming in suggesting his experience was part of a wider epidemic. Evidently, a mob of people speaking incomprehensibly has turned murderous. The provocative Mazzy wants to run with it, but his by-the-book producer Sydney Briar insists on proper verification before they report such outlandish stories. As a result, Mazzy must conduct a surreal interview with the cast of the local community theater’s production of Lawrence of Arabia, while Pontypool burns.

As its gimmick, Pontypool posits a new form of disease carried by language, which proves deadly to those who understand the infected words. Of course, the French language is uncontaminated, which is a real drag for the questionably proficient Mazzy. While the language-as-carrier premise might not stand up under the scrutiny of post-screening logic, McDonald holds it all together rather well in his cleverly conceived production.

Pontypool is a brilliantly staged genre film, which brings to mind the claustrophobia of the classic Night of the Living Dead. Rather than relying a makeup and special effects, McDonald draws suspense from the uncertainty felt by CLSY’s skeleton crew as the world seems to be falling apart outside their windowless studio. Shrewdly adapting his own novel, Tony Burgess’s screenplay could easily be produced theatrically, using a small principal cast confined to the few small rooms of the CLSY studio. Yet, McDonald’s direction never feels stagey.

Stephen McHattie turns in one of the best genre performances in recent years as the Imus-inspired Mazzy. He is a crusty curmudgeon with deeply human flaws, whose reactions to the exceptional events of Pontypool elevate it well above standard apocalyptic-zombie fare. Lisa Houle is also quite believable as the responsible Briar, who must contend with Mazzy’s ego as well as the plague of zombies.

Pontypool effectively capitalizes on its outlandish MacGuffin, engaging in some inventive linguistic games, while nicely maintaining the tension. It is a cool little zombie movie that will appeal to the audience for smart, character-driven horror films, like Let the Right One In. It opens this Friday (5/29) in New York at the Cinema Village.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Wayne Shorter at Montreux

Wayne Shorter
Live at Montreux 1996
Eagle Rock Entertainment

Wayne Shorter is jazz history. Since coming to prominence in the 1960’s, he has either led or been a vital member of the groups which defined their respected eras. Arguably second only to fellow tenor titan Sonny Rollins as the top drawing concert artist in jazz, Shorter achieved both critical acclaim and broad popularity (certainly by jazz standards), ensuring a large and appreciative audience for his 1996 Montreux Jazz Festival concert, which was recently released as part of the Live at Montreux DVD series.

As the one-time music director for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the tenor foil in Miles Davis so-called “Second Great Quintet,” Shorter initially made his name during the Hardbop period. His fame exploded during the fusion years as a key member of the jazz-rock super-group Weather Report. Currently, he leads his own acoustic quintet, featuring innovative younger sidemen, like drummer Brian Blade. However, his 1996 quintet was a more transitional group, bridging Shorter’s fusion and advanced post-bop periods.

A bit of that pop-influence can be heard in the synthesizer opening to “On the Milky Way Express,” but the tenor sound is pure Shorter. Weather Report alumnus Alphonso Johnson also brings a funky groove on electric bass, but the tune retains a straight-ahead mainstream jazz spirit, with keyboard-player Jim Beard largely sticking to the acoustic piano.

If not a classic Shorter ensemble, the ’96 group was an intriguing combo. Shorter had appeared on Beard’s Song of the Sun, an interesting CD/video project recorded for Creed Taylor in the waning years of the CTI label. Equally adept on keyboards and piano, he contributes some pithy acoustic solo statements and adds some effective colors on the synthesizer. Guitarist David Gilmore (not to be confused with Pink Floyd’s Gilmour) also brings a distinctly rock-influenced sound to the quintet, nicely showcased on “At the Fair.”

While Shorter briefly introduces “Fair’s” catchy vamp with the soprano, he features it throughout the explicitly jazz-rock (emphasis on rock) “Over Shadow Hill Way,” highlighted by blistering work from Gilmore and a power drum solo Rodney Holmes. Shorter also concludes the set with the soprano on the short but insistent “Endanger Species.”

While much of Shorter’s 1996 set sounds as appropriate for a stadium show as a jazz fest, several performances from his prior Montreux appearances are included as bonus tracks that might actually appeal more to his considerable acoustic fan-base. Playing with Herbie Hancock, his colleague from the Davis Quintet and former label-mate from the Blue Note glory years, Shorter dominates their robust rendition of his classic “Footprints.” Hancock and bassist Stanley Clarke then go electric for another take on “Milky Way,” which makes interesting comparative listening.

Perhaps the highlight of the bonus program (and even the DVD) is a show-stopping version of “Pinocchio,” playfully introduced by Shorter’s Disney-inspired quotations. Part of a 1992 Miles Davis tribute program reuniting Shorter and Hancock with Quintet bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, the playing is consistently inspired throughout.

Much like his former boss Miles Davis, Shorter has always been in the thick of jazz’s latest developments. Now an elder statesman of the music, the 1996 Montreux set offers a nice opportunity to hear an overlooked period in his storied career.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Herz’s Cremator

The Cremator
Directed by Juraj Herz
Dark Skies/MPI

Cremating bodies was a steady business in Nazi dominated Czechoslovakia. It is the crematorium director who is wildly unstable, yet he seems to fit right in with the new powers-that-be. Personally psychosis parallels political madness in The Cremator, Juraj Herz’s macabre classic of the Czech New Wave, now available on DVD.

Karl Kopfrkingl might seem a bit off, but he certainly loves to talk. In contrast, his nervous wife speaks very little. She is also part Jewish, which will become significant, for obvious reasons. Together they seem like a happy if somewhat odd-looking couple, but the truth is much more sinister.

For Kopfrkingl, cremation is an act of spiritual purity, which he supports with dubious interpretations of Christian and Buddhist theology. Though presenting a picture of outer rectitude, Kopfrkingl visits a bordello once a month, after which he promptly visits his doctor for a blood test, using his professional contact with corpses as an unconvincing pretext.

Kopfrkingl suffers more from acute denial than from hypocrisy per se. His perception of reality is highly skewed, reflected by Herz’s jump cuts and warped perspectives. He has a morbid fascination with disease and deformity, which he indulges with an awkward family outing to gruesome waxworks exhibition. Kopfrkingl’s questionable mental state appears to be deteriorating, aggravated in part by the attempts of his former Austrian army comrade Walter Reinke to recruit him for the National Socialist party.

Even though Kopfrkingl is only half German, it seems they could use a man with his cremation experience. Though the self-absorbed cremator is initially a staunch democrat, believing in the promise of a modern “civilized” Europe, he ultimately succumbs to their dark vision of humanity. Unfortunately, that means his partly-Jewish wife and children will have to go, the hard way.

While Cremator has the unsettling foreboding and distorted visuals that suggest the horror genre, no actual murder or mayhem happens on-screen until relatively late in the picture. As Kopfrkingl, Rudolf Krusinsky’s often noted resemblance to Peter Lorre cannot help must establish an eerie mood of anticipation. He is a beady-eye ball of sinister mannerisms and creepy pseudo-intellectualism. This is not a man you would want to be alone with under any circumstances, and particularly not in the gothic crematorium where he “liberates” souls from their bodies through the use of his furnaces.

Herz’s Cremator is a surreal descent into bedlam, which takes on added layers of meaning, both from its explicit historical content and the political context in which it was produced. Finished after the Soviet invasion of 1968, Cremator actually had a brief theatrical release, but disappeared into the vaults shortly thereafter. While clearly not adhering to the aesthetics of Socialist Realism, Cremator could also be interpreted metaphorically in disturbing ways for the Soviet occupiers. Tellingly, the Nazis are often simply referred to as the “Party.”

Cremator is a disturbing little gem of a film, populated with flesh-and-blood monsters preoccupied with disease, mechanization, and the presumed “purity” of blood. Definitely a scary movie, it is a work of lingering horror, rather than sudden shocks.

Friday, May 22, 2009

1950’s Noir: Ghosts of the Heartland

For Roland Lu, home is where the corruption is. It is the only reason why the ambitious reporter has returned from the big city. Corrupt politics and unscrupulous journalism make the Middle American town of Millville a dangerous place for Lu in Allen Blumberg’s indie noir Ghosts of the Heartland (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

When a local Native American leader dies under mysterious circumstances, Lu returns to his hometown hoping to break a major story. Conditions have drastically declined since he left town in search of his Pulitzer. Frank Dugan, both the Mayor of Millville and the demagogic editor of the town newspaper, uses his positions to harass the local Chinese community and anyone else he doesn’t like. As a result, Liz the girlfriend Lu abruptly left behind, has been forced out of her job as a third grade teacher as part of Mayor’s nativist purges.

Evidently, the populist Dugan is involved with every dirty deal in town, including a decades old swindle of the Native American community. Somehow it is all connected to a missing state health department report, one of the more prosaic MacGuffins you could hope to find in a film noir. While pursuing the missing document, Lu tries to reconnect with Liz, but she is not receptive, directly questioning his motivation and integrity.

Heartland has a refreshingly jaundiced view of journalism, portraying Lu more as a self-centered opportunist than a crusading muckraker. Frankly, the film’s actual crime storyline does not make much sense, but it has some sharply executed scenes, largely thanks to Rosanna Ma (recently seen on the New York stage as an electrifying Lady MacBeth in the Pan Asian production of the Scottish Play). Fantastic as the desperate but dignified Liz, Ma is the personification of quiet eloquence. One look from her proves to be a devastating indictment of both the irresponsible Lu and the cowardly Dugan. Unfortunately, Phil Moon is nowhere near her equal, coming across stiff and ponderous as Lu.

In Heartland, Blumberg and cinematographer Antoine Vivas Denisov definitely get the noir right with their elegantly moody black-and-white visuals. Even if it is occasionally lacking in the logic department, Blumberg keeps everything moving along at a healthy clip. With its distinctive look and Rosanna Ma’s excellent performance, Heartland has more to offer than most indie thrillers. It opens today (5/22) in New York at the Quad, with Blumberg in attendance for Q&A following the 8:00 screenings tonight and tomorrow night.

Soderbergh’s GFE

Steven Soderbergh is known for making two distinctly different kinds of films: big Hollywood pictures with the word “Ocean’s” in the title, and small digital video independents. Quickly filmed and largely unscripted, The Girlfriend Experience (trailer here), is definitely the latter. Following its recent premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, GFE starts its regular theatrical run this Friday in select cities.

In addition to his improvisational methods, Soderbergh added further wildcards into GFE’s mix by casting a number of actors in their first mainstream roles, including adult film star Sasha Grey, as Chelsea, a high-class Manhattan escort. Chelsea has dramatically grown her business by offering her clients more intimate options which simulate an actual relationship, as well as the standard “services.” Of course, you still have to pay to play. While it certainly happens off-screen, there are no sex scenes as such in GFE, as part of a conscious strategy by Soderbergh to distinguish Chelsea from less rarified service providers.

Surprisingly, Chelsea has legitimate girlfriend experience herself. In fact, she is in a relatively committed relationship with Chris, a personal trainer well-aware of her line of work. Chris is a relentless self-improver, the kind of guy who probably has a drawer full of self-help tapes. He definitely has a Willie Loman streak, constantly selling his services as a trainer and a line of sports wear to prospective clients, competing health clubs, and sporting good stores. It would be an oversimplification to suggest he sells himself as much as Chelsea, but there is no question she makes sales, whereas he does not.

As Chris, neophyte actor and real-life trainer Chris Santos makes an impressive debut. It is a brave performance, exposing the insecurities and frustrations of a character that audiences will assume to be autobiographical, given the similarities of their backgrounds. Grey by contrast, plays a character who by necessity maintains a nearly impassable emotional barrier between herself and the rest of the world. Her Chelsea is essentially a blank slate on which Chris and her clients project their desires.

GFE is a flawed but interesting film. Soderbergh and cinematographer Peter Andrews’s High Def give the film a rich, sophisticated look, but aside from Santos’s performance, it is a rather cold-blooded, passionless affair. Though some scenes ring uncomfortably true, others seem to meander, which is completely understandable given its improvisational nature. Despite the absence of explicit scenes, it remains a voyeuristic film, preoccupied with the material trappings of luxury. While the character development is often compelling, the film ultimately ends on a rather hollow, anti-climatic note.

Granted, GFE can be talky and uneven, but the sharp provocative dramatic situations are never dull to watch. In truth, it has its merits, including a riveting debut performance from Santos. (It even has a cool drum solo.) Soderbergh fans should find it more satisfying than most of his recent indie offerings. As for Grey fans, I won’t speculate. It opens tomorrow (5/22) in New York at the Sunshine and Beekman Theaters.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Kabei: Our Mother

It was not easy being a reform-minded western scholar in Imperial Japan during World War II. Even a German specialist could attract the unwelcome attention of the secret police. Such is the case for Shigeru Nogami, whose arrest forces his wife to raise their two young daughters by herself in Yoji Yamada’s Kabei: Our Mother (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Based on an autobiographical novel by Akira Kurosawa’s longtime collaborator Teruyo Nogami, Kabei tells the story of a loving family caught up in a time of national madness. Their humanistic father has strong absent-minded professor tendencies and a quirky sense of humor, assigning nicknames for the entire family ending with the affectionate “bei.” Following his 1940 imprisonment for daring to question Japanese militarism in China, Kayo Nogami, or Kabei, will make enormous sacrifices to provide for her daughters, the twelve year-old Hatsubei and the nine-year old Terubei.

Though ostracized by many as the wife of a traitor, including her provincial police chief father, Kabei has some help from her sister-in-law, pretty Aunt Hisako, and the awkward Toru Yamasaki, her husband’s former student. However, life is a constant struggle for Kabei, working from dawn to dark, often foregoing proper sustenance herself in order to feed Terubei and Hatsubei.

Considering recent Japanese historical treatments of World War II have been revisionist to the point of outright denial, Kabei’s portrayal of Imperial Japan is surprisingly critical. Yamada shows dissenters like Professor Nogami arrested in the dead of night and held indefinitely on specious charges. He recreates an oppressive environment, where propaganda is pervasive. Even the deeply conflicted Kabei must lead her elementary students through nationalistic hymns. However, even more damning is the extent to which Yamada’s film suggests average citizens willingly embraced the government’s militarist policies and the tactics used to enforce them.

Conditions of the Japanese home-front and the draconian implementation of the Peace Preservation Law will likely fascinate many viewers, but ultimately Kabei is about family tragedy, compounded several times over. While it clearly honors the suffering born by the Nogami matriarch, it is a far cry from a Hallmark card. It ends on an ambiguously discomforting note that will not exactly make Kabei a Mother’s Day perennial. It is however, a deeply moving human drama, with several beautiful scenes of absolute emotional honesty.

Sayuri Yoshinaga gives a remarkable performance, capturing all the pain and desperation Kabei, as well as her quiet dignity. If not quite as extraordinarily effective as the young cast of So Young Kim’s Treeless Mountain, Miku Sato and Mirai Shida are still completely natural and utterly convincing as Terubei and Hatsubei respectively. Rei Dan also has some surprisingly touching moments as the endearing Aunt Hisako. Only Tadanobu Asano seems slightly off the mark here, coming across somewhat slapsticky as the loyal Yamasake.

Kabei is an excellent film from one of Japan’s master filmmakers, who directs an outstanding cast with tremendous sensitivity. The result is a very accessible, deeply absorbing film, highly recommended to general audiences. It opens this Friday (5/22) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

Odd Norwegian

Odd is fairly common Norwegian name, but the English meaning is also fairly well known in Norway. That made it perfect for the rather aloof protagonist of Bent Hamer’s O’Horten (trailer here), Norway’s 2008 submission for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award, which opens in New York this Friday.

Odd Horten is a man you can set your watch by. For nearly forty years, he kept Norway’s trains running on time and right as rain. His entire life has been strictly regimented, getting from point A to point B within the allotted period of time. However, Horten’s mandatory retirement is fast approaching, forcing him to look forward to a new life free of the comforting structure of timetables and predetermined destinations. It is a reality he is forced to confront a day early when, through a strange set of circumstances, he does the unthinkable. He misses his train.

Out of the engineer’s seat for the first time, Horten proceeds to encounter every Norwegian more idiosyncratic than himself. There is indeed a fair amount of quirkiness in O’Horten, but it is tempered by its cool Scandinavian reserve that makes perfect sense when considered against the backdrop of frozen vistas and empty winter streets, which make up Horten’s world. Horten’s spit-polished uniform and stiff demeanor suggest a military bearing. Yet, he is a gentle soul, who proves to be a strong rooting interest.

Bard Owe’s restrained performance gives just the right hint of vulnerability beneath Horton’s glacial reserve, elevating O’Horten above many recent similar European comedies jam-packed with the requisite colorful characters. Hamer’s direction is patient to a fault, at times letting the pace flag. However, he and cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund bring a dramatic visual flair to the film, capitalizing on the striking winter landscapes seen from the windshield of Horten’s train. John Erik Kaada’s electronic score also nicely matches the cool visual tones of the film.

While most viewers will have a pretty good idea where O’Horten is headed, Owe’s engineer is such a sympathetic figure the understated payoff is ultimately quite satisfying. Clearly, O’Horten does not break much new ground, but it is immensely likable film thanks to the quiet charm of its lead. It opens in New York tomorrow (5/22) at the Quad.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Anglo-American Love: Easy Virtue

Sure, opposites attract, but can they stay together? Noel Coward put that question to the test with the marriage of the very British John Whittaker and his beautiful American wife Larita. While retaining all the acerbic critiques of the British polite society, director Stephen Elliott also throws in the odd modern flourish in his adaptation of Coward’s 1924 play Easy Virtue (trailer here), which opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday, following its recent American premiere at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.

Widowed under mysterious circumstances, Larita is now a minor celebrity having fashioned a career as a glamorous race-car driver. Her new husband, the somewhat younger Whittaker, has never held a job in his life, nor has he ever stood up to his domineering mother. The two newlyweds could not be more dissimilar, encompassing differences of youth and experience, the landed gentry and the industrious middle class, and dare we say it, Old Europe and the New World, all of which were perfect grist for the Coward’s sly wit

Needless to say, Mrs. Whittaker, the severe family matriarch, never envisioned an American black-widow novelty-act as her daughter-in-law. Outwardly, she is scrupulously polite to Larita, but a Cold War of the classes is quickly joined between the two.

Whittaker’s meek sisters prove little more welcoming than their judgmental mother, but she does find some allies in the Whittaker manor. Of course, the servants love her and she also forms a fast friendship with Whittaker’s father. The moody Mr. Whittaker is definitely a member of the lost generation. The sole surviving member of the village regiment, he only reluctantly returned home after months spent deadening his pain with Parisian hedonism. He enjoys Larita’s plucky character and recognizes an inner sadness in her similar to his own.

Elliott shows a strong affinity for Coward’s drawing-room banter. While at times the comedic situations are bit too cute, he keeps the pace brisk and brings out surprising depth in the relationship between Larita and her new father-in-law. Colin Firth is pitch-perfect as Mr. Whittaker, mordantly droll but also genuinely poignant, providing the film’s emotional center.

Indeed, Virtue boasts an impressive cast, led by Jessica Biel. Thanks to her smart, vivacious performance as Larita, it is completely believable both the haunted father and shallow son would be attracted to her. The rigidly proper Mrs. Whittaker is the sort of ice-queen role Kristin Scott Thomas seems to have been born to play to the hilt, digging into her acidic dialogue with relish. However, Ben Barnes is a bit bland as John Whittaker, coming across as a watered down Bertie Wooster.

Virtue is an appropriately elegant production, featuring sheik costumes and an entertaining soundtrack of popular 1920’s songs with a few modern tunes re-recorded in period style by Marius de Vries mixed in for comedic effect. Though it is often wincingly pointed, Virtue has an infectious spirit that is quite appealing. Featuring fantastic work from Firth and perhaps Biel’s strongest screen performance to date, it is a thoroughly charming film. It opens this Friday in New York at the Lincoln Plaza and Union Square Cinemas.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

soloNOVA: Face

For years the Japanese government denied responsibility for holding an estimated 200,000 women captive as sex slaves for their military during World War II. Suffering from shame as well as physical and mental trauma, it would take years for the surviving “comfort women” (also referred to as “wianbu”) to speak out. One such survivor finds her voice to bear witness in Haerry Kim’s Face, part of the terraNOVA Collective’s soloNOVA festival of solo performances running at the DR 2 Theatre throughout the month of May.

Based on published first-person testimonies, writer-performer Kim structures Face as a memory play, told years after the fact by a survivor now in her eighties, but still haunted by the wartime atrocities she endured. As a young girl, life was a struggle in occupied Korea. After the death of her father, she drops out of school to help her mother eke out a subsistence living in the fields. Yet, she still yearns for a better life, which makes her susceptible to a cruel Japanese bait-and-switch. She signs-on to work in a Japanese factory by day, lured by the promise of school at night. What follows is a harrowing story of rape, torture, disease, and mental anguish in the euphemistically named “comfort stations.”

Kim is truly heartrending in Face, conveying the shattering death of a young girl’s innocence and the hard-earned resolve of woman in her twilight years. Kim transforms herself into her character at vastly different ages, without the aid of make-up, simply through her uncannily expressive countenance. By their nature, solo performance requires the considerable courage to take the stage alone, without back-up. However, Kim seems particularly exposed on-stage, bringing to life her character’s unspeakable sufferings.

Even though Kim does all the talking (save for her best friend Sunja briefly heard in recorded voice-overs), Face never feels stagey. Jakyung Seo’s dramatic lighting effectively emphasizes the stark, minimal nature of the well-mounted production. A compellingly written work, Face should also open some eyes in the audience, not only to the tragic story of the “comfort women,” but also the severe cultural policies of the Imperial occupation, which required Koreans to adopt Japanese names and prohibited their native language.

Face is a viscerally intense theater experience, featuring an exceptional performance by its writer. It might be sad and infuriating, but Kim also finds a measure of inspiration in her character’s resilience. Highly recommended even to those not ordinarily enamored with one-person shows, Face transcends its format. It runs through May 23rd as part of soloNOVA.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Trufer Doc: New World Order

Don’t be these guys. Even if you believe the Bilderberg Group is secretly plotting to take over the world, just chill out and take your meds. Otherwise you might wind up in a documentary like Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer’s New World Order (trailer here), which opens theatrically in New York this Friday.

NWO represents a weird confluence of political extremes, encompassing Democracy Now viewers and Ron Paul voters, who insist those airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers had nothing to do with the World Trade Center’s destruction. They also live in fear of the Bilderberg Group, a publicity-shy annual conference of world economic and political leaders, who evidently are bent on ushering in the ominous “New World Order.” The resistance’s leading spokesperson and DVD mail-order salesman is Alex Jones, a radio personality based in Texas.

Neel and Meyers follow the documentary strategy Barbet Schroeder employed with Idi Amin and attorney-for-terror Jacques Vergès, letting their subjects damn themselves with their own words, but the results in New World Order are decidedly mixed. Some trufers (obsessive 9-11 conspiracy theorists) do indeed say embarrassing things, like the Irish-Turkish filmmaker Timuçin Leflef, who jokes about having a chip in his head. There are also scenes of what can only be interpreted as galloping paranoia when Jones is hot on the trail of the Bilderbergers. The silver luxury car behind them is obviously a tail and the fire alarm in his hotel clearly must be an attempt to stop him from calling into a colleague’s radio show. Right?

However, Neel and Meyers never directly question the deceptive claims of Jones and company, like their dubious metallurgy debunked by Popular Mechanics. Of course, it is hard to debate these conspiracy theorists. As NWO documents, they tend to demonize their critics as either idiots or stooges of the evil overlords.

Frankly, NWO is most damning when it reveals how sad most of its subjects truly are. Seth Jackson seems to be a young man of genuine Christian charity in his Katrina relief work, but has alienated himself from mainstream society, pursuing a lonely life of trufer activism. Idaho-based survivalist Jack McLamb, a decorated veteran of the Phoenix police force, has also let his activism take its toll on his health. (To be fair though, having witnessed the Federal assault on Ruby Ridge first-hand, McLamb has a right to be paranoid.)

The scariest aspect of NWO is that its cast of characters continues to attract a following. Unfortunately, the film never explains why. It just keeps the camera rolling as they yell and scream. While at times revealing, NWO frustratingly never delves too deeply beneath the surface of trufer mania. It opens Friday (5/22) in New York at the Cinema Village, ahead of its IFC Channel premiere on May 26th.

BHFF: Nightguards

Those who work the graveyard shift live in a different world from their neighbors. Aside from family, most of the people they interact with are also nocturnal and many are a little strange. It can be somewhat alienating, but work is work. Mahir and Brizla just want to get through their nights without incident as the titular protagonists of Namik Kabil’s Nightguards (trailer here), which screened at the sixth annual Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival.

It will be a long night for Mahir. Something is ailing him, frequently sidelining him from his duties. Usually, his nights are uneventful, spent quietly watching over the model showrooms of a large furniture store. His Ralph Kramden-esque friend Brizla works next door in the bath department, where he reads dated self-help books throughout his shift. Concerned by his younger colleague’s malady, Brizla diagnoses it as a psycho-somatic reaction to dredged up memories of the 1990’s war, evidently a widespread phenomenon he heard about in recent news reports.

On one level, Nightguards asks how pervasive are the lingering effects of recent Bosnian history? Is Mahir’s intestinal suffering rooted in the 1990’s, or is he just sick? However, it is most successful conveying the strange twilight existence they live, dealing with fellow nights owls, like the all-night baker, the cop on the nightshift, and the crank who lives across the street. Yet, Mahir and Brizla’s late-night environment is even more surreal, consisting of artificial scenes of domestic luxury.

The perpetually dark showrooms are part of an excellent looking production designed by Sanja Dzeba that really takes viewers into their late-night world. Kabil is a sensitive director with obvious affection for his working-class characters. His leads are also quite likable, particularly the engaging Vahid Piralic as the queasy Mahir. Milan Pavlovic nicely counter-balances him physically, with his sloppier look and Gabe Kaplan hair. Together they have a nice on-screen rapport and should prove easy for international audiences to relate to.

Since it largely takes place during the Mahir and Brizla’s late shift, Nightguards is a very dark film in a literal sense, but it actually ends on an optimistic note. It is a quiet, evocative film that was an appropriate conclusion to this year’s BHFF.

After the Nightguards screening, BHFF bestowed its audience awards to Slobodan Maksimović’s AgapE for Best Short or Feature Film and to Enes Zlatar’s Diagnosis S.B.H. for Best Documentary. For more information on the award winners and all the films BHFF screened this year, visit their website here.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

BHFF: It’s Hard to Be Nice

The war has been over for more than ten years, but Sarajevo is still a dangerous city, where criminals operate with near impunity. Fudo ought to know, since he happens to be one. However, he is trying to go straight in Srđan Vuletić’s It’s Hard to Be Nice (trailer here), Bosnia and Herzegovina’s official selection for the Best Foreign Language Film of the 2008 Academy Awards, which screened last night at this year’s Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival.

As a cab driver, Fudo is a creature of the night, rubbing shoulders with some unsavory customers. Not only does he sell valuable information to criminal gangs, he has even been known to run errands of a dubious nature himself. After a botched job earns Fudo a beat-down and black eye, his wife Azra temporarily moves out. To win his family back, Fudo agrees to go straight, but it proves more challenging than he expected (as the title suggests). His old criminal associate Sejo is determined to scare him crooked again, but a series of events convinces him of the necessity of virtue.

In a series of sharply written scenes, Fudo hires his new Renault minivan out to a group of Japanese tourists, allowing him an opportunity to see Sarajevo through the eyes of outsiders. He has no good answer when asked why his countrymen do not seem to value their own history. It pains him to see bullet holes defacing the sites of the 1984 Winter Olympics, a time he still remembers fondly. He also genuinely likes his guileless Japanese customers and bitterly resents it when the villainous Sejo tries to take advantage of them.

In the early scenes of Nice, Fudo commits just about every unseemly deed possible, while still maintaining the audience’s rooting interest. He might even alienate some viewers with his behavior, but he does come to a heart-felt conversion, which is the real point of the film. Sasa Petrovic brings a virile charisma to the deeply flawed Fudo, and his scenes with the Japanese tourists have a surprising depth of feeling, which makes the evolution of his character completely believable.

Vuletić’s screenplay is too street-smart to be called “feel good,” recognizing the costs involved in standing up to corruption in contemporary Bosnian society. He effectively uses the city of Sarajevo as a backdrop, capitalizing on its scarred beauty for dramatic effect. The on-screen action is perfectly complemented by a moving score composed by Saša Lošić, a popular Bosnian pop-rock figure, and Bosnian-born Srdan Krupjel, who has scored several British film and television projects.

Though at times rather dark, Nice is in fact a realistically hopeful film. That cautious optimism and Petrovic’s excellent performance are ultimately quite satisfying, making Vuletić’s film an excellent representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s cinema, well-suited to the BHFF’s mission.

BHFF: Man Still Goes to the Moon (Short)

The Moon has long been associated with madness in traditional folklore and contemporary psychology. It literally haunts the protagonist of Dragan Rokvić’s Man Still Goes to the Moon, an animated short that made its American premiere at the 2009 Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival last night.

The year is 2096, one hundred and one years after the formal end of the Bosnian War, but the residents of Sarajevo are still fighting and dying. However, the war is now on the Moon and the enemy is never explicitly identified. The protagonist has returned to a future version of the city, evidently shell-shocked from his war experiences.

Rokvić’s stylized black-and-white animation turns out to be an excellent vehicle to illustrate the horrors of war in a science fiction setting. His visuals are quite memorable, particularly the sight of faceless soldiers encased in spacesuits and helmets, slowly drifting into cannon fire. It is a cold way to die, but as the narrator says: “It is always cold on the Moon.”

Approximately ten minutes long, Moon’s ghostly atmosphere is more important than the actual twist of its tale. The somewhat abstract animation is striking and his portrayal of war’s futile carnage comes across as a universal critique, rather than a specific political statement, which should generate enthusiastic audience reactions as it travels further on the film festival circuit.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

On-Stage: Go-Go Killers

It was a time when women were women and the men were girly. Actually, that time is ten years in the future, as envisioned through the prism of 1960’s exploitation film. Inspired by the work of soft-core auteur Russ Meyer, as well as more PG-rated girl gang fare, Go-Go Killers (trailer here) is an extravaganza of dancing, fighting, and male emasculation, now running at the Sage Theater, appropriately located in Times Square, the historic home of grindhouse cinema.

Of course, Times Square is respectable now, so the halter tops and hot pants stay safely donned. Go-Go is more about dancing and attitude than that other stuff. In 2019, the Tri-State area is largely a wasteland, except for Manhattan, where real estate prices never seem to fall. The rich get richer, but one by one, they are being assassinated by roving girl gangs. (In the exploitation tradition, the politics are kept simplistic to the point of self-parody.) Marietta falls in with one such gang, the Furies, after being violently cast aside by her jealous ex-fiancé Eugene St. Ives, the petulant son of the fourth richest man in the country.

As fortune would have it, Marietta quickly has the opportunity for some payback. The Furies have a mission to take out #4, and kidnap the ineffectual son Eugene as well as Nelson, their creepy family friend, who also happens to have a place on the top 50 list. Let the class warfare man-bashing begin, and dig that crazy beat.

Logically, the biggest attraction of Go-Go is the spirited go-go dancing, choreographed by director Rachel Klein. She stages the dance numbers with a high energy, groovy “boots-were-made-for-walking” retro charm. There are also some great dancers in the surprisingly large troupe, consisting of the Furies, their rival Gorgons, and distinct Gold and Silver Go-Gos. Elizabeth Stewart is a particular standout as Electra, the leader of the Furies, who whips her pony tail menacingly around, like a medieval morning-star.

It is safe to say dramatic realism is not really Go-Go’s goal, but there are definitely some charismatic performers on-stage, particularly Stewart, Jillaine Gill, and Reagan Wilson as Electra, Godiva, and Pandora, the original Furies. Although Go-Go is really about as risqué as Chicago playing right across Times Square, it embraces the subversive spirit of Meyer’s cult classics. More Roger Corman than Russ Meyer, it might sound like a guilty pleasure, but it is really more of a groovy nostalgia trip. Good clean camp, Go-Go runs Fridays and Saturdays through May 30th.

Photo credit: Lisa Soverino

Friday, May 15, 2009

Great Night 2009

It is not a great time to ask for money, so it was heartening to see a full house for the Jazz Foundation of America’s annual Great Night in Harlem at the Apollo Theater. As usual, some of the biggest names in music came out to support a truly worthy cause.

For twenty years, JFA has been a lifeline for jazz and blues musicians in desperate financial need—artists without insurance, pensions, or even proper royalty accounting. JFA has been there to prevent evictions and to provide emergency medical treatment with their partners at the Englewood Hospital and Medical Center. Always overworked, their caseload exploded during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. According to their multi-talented Executive Director Wendy Oxenhorn, ten years ago, they were working with 35 musicians, all based in New York. Last year, the Jazz Foundation had 1,600 clients around the world.

The Great Night concerts usually feature several celebrity co-hosts, but last minute illnesses sidelined board-member Danny Glover and longtime supporter Chevy Chase, so their duties were left to the Sopranos’s Michael Imperioli, Wendy Oxenhorn, and pinch hitter Dick Parsons. Chairman of Citicorp. Of course, it is nice to see famous figures show their support for JFA, but the music is the real attraction at their Apollo galas.

This year’s concert was billed as a “tribute to the blues,” which they broadly defined, in a departure from the all-star jazz jams that characterized their earlier Apollo shows.
Even before the show formally started, there was a relaxed pre-concert set from Piedmont bluesman John Dee Holeman, consisting of variations on blues classics like “Mojo Hand” and “Hoochie Coochie Man.”

Of course, there was still a healthy amount of jazz, including a guitar trio led by Dr. Frank Forte, the Englewood physician who has treated thousands of JFA referrals pro bono. He can play too, leading accomplished jazz guitarists Gene Bertoncini and Bucky Pizzarelli through an enjoyable rendition of “If I Had You.” Jazz pianist Eric Lewis also played a hypnotic power solo rendition of his “(Here) In Your Arms,” complete with rock-star lighting effects, sounding radically different from his stint with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

JFA will probably forever be associated with New Orleans, so naturally there were several performances by NOLA musicians. An all-star group including R&B vocalist Irma Thomas and contemporary blues piano-man Dr. John paid tribute to the late great funky pianist-vocalist Eddie Bo (Bocage). Happily, everyone seemed perfectly in-synch, which is often not the case for all-star blowing sessions. Thomas dug deep into the blues bag on “You can Have My Husband but Don’t Mess with My Man,” inspiring a Chuck Berry-style duckwalk from R&B guitarist Deacon John Moore.

NOLA blues were also represented in the person of Henry Butler, arguably heir to Professor Longhair’s throne as king of the funky New Orleans piano-players. His blues-drenched cover of the Otis Redding standard “Dock of the Bay,” was an obvious audience pleaser. Perhaps the most recognizable musician of the evening was the penultimate Lou Reed, who also got in on the blues act with a medley that included Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” as well as the Velvet Underground favorite “Romeo Had Juliet.”

In keeping with JFA tradition, this year’s Great Night closed with Sweet Georgia Brown belting out “Stormy Monday” and “Let the Good Times Roll,” the former featuring Wendy’s eagerly anticipated harmonica solo, nearly sabotaged this year by a faulty harp. Fortunately, a replacement was found, and she killed the crowd, as usual.

Wendy and the Foundation do amazing work on behalf of the musicians who have made jazz the great American art-form. Just because you play jazz or the blues, doesn’t mean you should the blues if you ever get sick or injured. That is where the staff of the Foundation has been coming in for twenty years. The concert might be over, but you can still hear it tomorrow and next Thursday on Sirius Radio. You can also still donate online or by mailing a check to:

Jazz Foundation of America
322 W. 48th St., 6th Floor
New York, NY 10036

Thursday, May 14, 2009

German Love Triangle: Jerichow

Jerichow is not exactly Paris. Hardly a romantic locale, the East German city and surrounding region remains about as depressed as it was during the Communist regime. It might be a drab place for a love triangle, but that is where the three central characters find themselves in Christian Petzold’s Jerichow (trailer here), opening tomorrow in New York.

As a dishonorably discharged veteran on the dole, Thomas might not sound like much of a temptation to a married woman. However, Ali the abusive Turkish immigrant is not much of a husband to Laura. Ali also has trouble holding his booze, which finally costs him his license. This presents a serious problem since Ali must constantly visit the dozens of snack stands he owns and operates, so he hires Thomas as his driver.

Uncharacteristically, the mercurial Ali takes an immediate liking to the taciturn Thomas, but Laura treats him with apparent contempt. Of course, as soon as they are finally alone, their secret mutual attraction overwhelms them. From there, complications arise, inexorably leading to an illicit lovers’ conspiracy. Yet, despite their considerable differences, both men have similar goals, literally trying to build homes for themselves in this rather unpromising region of Germany—with the same woman.

Definitely the strong silent type, Benno Fürmann’s Thomas radiates a dangerous physicality. As we watch him make the rounds with Ali, he is clearly not without compassion. Yet he carries some unspeakable history with him, which is mysteriously kept off-camera and undisclosed. As Laura, Nina Hoss’s frozen reserve seems appropriately Germanic, if not particularly seductive. The film’s real spark though comes from Hilmi Sözer as the mass of contradictions known as Ali. He is cruel, jealous, and unpredictable, but also disconcertingly human.

Jerichow bears a strong stylistic resemblance to Götz Spielmann’s Revanche, following the film noir template, but de-emphasizing the thriller aspects. Realistically grungy, Jerichow is also an ironic commentary on the new Europe, where ambitious immigrants prosper, supporting and thereby dominating the less entrepreneurial native Europeans. Like the city they live in, the three sides of Petzold’s love triangle are not particularly glamorous, but they have a raw earthiness that makes their dramatic conflicts quite absorbing. It opens tomorrow in New York at the Film Forum.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Assayas’s Summer Hours

French death taxes are a killer. They force the Berthier family to sell off their country home and the tasteful fine art collection it housed following the death of their beloved mother. Yet, their estate sale has much deeper meaning than the mere liquidation of assets in Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Hélène Berthier’s far-flung family has reunited for what will be her final birthday. Since the death of her husband, she has dedicated herself to preserving the memory of her uncle Paul, a highly regarded artist, and his valuable art collection, largely acquired from colleagues early in their careers. However, she harbors no illusions about its fate once she passes on. It is the eldest brother Frédéric who has trouble emotionally letting go of the family legacy, particularly two Corot landscapes, despite the harsh financial realities of French estate taxes.

Evidently, his siblings do not seem to share his sentimental attachments. After all, they hardly see the place. Sister Adrienne lives in New York with her younger boyfriend (played by jazz musician Kyle Eastwood, son of director Clint), while brother Jéremié will soon be moving to China to manage a sweatshop. The sale of the Berthier assets exposes the radically different ideals of the siblings. In fact, without their mother and the country house to come home to, their future cohesion as a family is possibly in doubt.

With its atmosphere of elegant fatalism, Sumimer Hours is a quintessentially French film. It is also directly connected to the French artistic tradition it honors. It is one of two feature films that developed out of a proposed series of shorts that would have been produced to celebrate the Musée D’Orsay’s twentieth anniversary. While the original project failed to materialize, the museum supported Summer Hours, supplying works from their collection and allowing Assayas to film throughout their premises. Appropriately, Eric Gauthier’s vibrant cinematography shows the Berthier collection and the surrounding countryside in a bright, sparkling light that emphasizes their beauty.

Summer Hours is wistfully elegiac, but not tragic. This is not King Lear. Family differences are settled as best they can be amongst mature adults who really do care about each other. They clearly have years of history together, which the three central actors do a nice job of evoking. Juliette Binoche is a smart, luminous presence as Adrienne. (Notably, she also co-starred in the previous film to evolve out of the Musée D’Orsay project, Hou Hsiao Hsien’s lovely Flight of the Red Balloon.) Jéremié Renier is also quite credible as the underachieving brother Jéremié. However, frequent Assayas collaborator Charles Berling’s finely nuanced performance supplies the film’s soul as Frédéric, the sentimental intellectual, struggling with an array of disappointments in life.

Assayas’s Summer Hours is an artfully crafted, subtly rewarding film, with many legitimately touching moments. It might sound deceptively small in scope, but themes like the value of family and the permanence of art are pretty deep and universal. It opens in New York on Friday (5/15) at the IFC Film Center.