Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Year at TSBVI: The Eyes of Me

Film is a visual medium, so even with the best of intentions, there is always an uncomfortable irony to documentaries about those who are blind or sight impaired. Avoiding such a trap is quite a trick, but first time director Keith Maitland pulls it off by using striking animated interludes to express the mind’s eye of four blind Texas teenagers in The Eyes of Me (trailer here), which airs on PBS’s Independent Lens this Tuesday.

It turns out Texas is quite a progressive state. Since 1856, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) has been a national leader in providing rigorous academic instruction and a sense of community for visually impaired students. Over the course of an academic year, Maitland followed four students, two freshmen and two seniors, as they deal with high school angst without their sight.

Again, to Maitland’s credit, he does not grind out an exercise in cheap sentimental inspiration. In fact, the audience watches as the young men, senior Chas and freshman Isaac, make terrible decisions that will have serious repercussions on their futures. Conversely, the young women, freshman Denise and eventual valedictorian Meagan, seem to thrive at TSBVI, both academically and socially. Indeed, at a time when national studies show women are more likely than men to attend institutes of higher learning, there is no reason not to expect the trend to be reflected at TSBVI as well.

Maitland very definitely humanizes his four primary subjects, warts and all. They are not tragic figures of nobility. They are just kids, though in some cases they have major issues. Such is life. However, it is the all too brief animated sequences that really distinguish the film from other docs. Perhaps the best features Chas, illustrating how he draws on his sense memories from when he still had some limited vision to project a sense of the world around us.

Considering the time and resources that probably went into these interludes, they are understandably used sparingly. They do give the film an interesting character though, elevating the well executed but not exactly groundbreaking day-in-the-life style documentary footage of the four TSBVI students.

Ultimately, even with the distinctive animation, Eyes probably would not have been cinematic enough for a legitimate theatrical run. Still, it makes quite a strong installment of Independent Len, definitely worth checking out on free TV. It airs this Tuesday (3/2) on most PBS stations.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Frigid ’10: Green Man

What do you get if you mix the pagan archetypes of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with the sexual tension of Clint Eastwood’s The Beguiled? If you keep it under one hour, you have a Frigid production, which is indeed the case with Don Nigro’s Green Man, which recently opened at the Horse Trade Theatre Group’s Red Room as part of the 2010 Festival.

It is winter somewhere deep within a Maryland forest. The exact time is indeterminately vague. A soldier lies delirious in a ramshackle chapel, recovering from wounds suffered while chasing a horse thief. The injured Gavin is nursed and perhaps sexually desired by Fay Robey, the wife of a brutish woodsman, and her headstrong daughter Holly. Periodically, he is also visited by Fay Robey’s old mother-in-law, who might be something of a witch, and the crude old man Robey himself, when he is not out hunting or sharpening his axe for his freelance animal castration business (though that might have been a joke, or a hallucination, or who knows what?).

Perception of reality is deliberately problematic throughout Green Man, but the lingering dread is certainly real (within the context of the play) and consistent throughout. Gavin point-of-view might be suspect, but the audience is still given good reason to suspect Robey’s dodgy business and his wife’s intentions. While it creates a rather unsettling mood rife with portent, particularly in the elder Mrs. Robey’s scenes, some of the stylistic devices (especially the periodic narration that flirts with the fourth wall) can get a bit pretentious. Fortunately, the approximate fifty-five minute running time helps preserve the fever-dream vibe, despite the occasionally overwrought excesses.

Appropriately, Green Man references chess several times, since the strongest elements of the play are the various metaphorical chess matches the uncomprehending Gavin finds himself embroiled in with the Robeys. Indeed, the cast plays with and off each other quite well in these contests of wills, creating some real sparks on stage. As Gavin, Jared Sampson faces a real challenge, having to play a character that is zonked out most of the time, yet is also an active participant in the events going on around him. Though she is stuck with some fairly purple prose for her on-stage voice-overs, Laura Lee Williams is a riveting presence as Holly Robey. Likewise, Elizabeth Erwin is engaging but still properly mysterious as her mother Fay.

Green Man is an intriguing work that greatly benefits from the efforts of its committed cast. It is definitely a work for those whose taste run more towards the abstract and highly stylized. Though it could use some tightening (even at its Frigid approved length), it takes the audience to an interesting place. For the adventurous theater patron, undaunted by snow, it continues during the Frigid Festival (so aptly named these last few days) on Sunday (2/28), Monday (3/1), Friday (3/5), and Saturday (3/6).

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Brothers McKerrow: Prodigal Sons

The educated classes look down at reality television programming as emotionally voyeuristic and sensationalistic tabloid TV. Yet, if you film candid footage of average people, cut it into feature length and screen it in art houses, it is called a documentary and considered serious cinema. Sometimes though, it is hard to tell the difference between the genres. While Prodigal Sons (trailer here), director Kimberly Reed’s documentary examination of her difficult family relationships often feels uncomfortably intrusive, it also has the unlikeliest connection to one of the towering figures of American cinema. After well received screenings at film festivals across the country, including New York’s Newfest, Prodigal opens theatrically in the City today.

Reed was born Paul McKerrow and had long overshadowed her older adopted brother Marc as the star jock of their small town Montana high school. She then made some pretty dramatic changes to her life, which her brother had a particularly hard time accepting. Changing her name to Reed, she moved to New York starting a completely new life. As Prodigal opens, Reed is finally returning to Montana for a high school with her partner Claire Jones and much trepidation about the reception she will find.

Refreshingly, Prodigal does not degenerate into a predictable red state/blue state culture clash. Based on what the film presents, it seems Reed was readily accepted by her former classmates. As the subject of rumors for years, Reed naturally fields a number of questions, but she seems to take them in the spirit of genuine friendship. Indeed, some of the happiest moments of the film occur during the reunion activities. Unfortunately, things are not so easy with her older brother.

For years, Marc McKerrow has suffered from some sort of physiologically induced mental disorder that has never been properly diagnosed. He also has more workaday emotional issues stemming from his adoption. Already feeling rootless and unwanted, Paul’s decision to become Kimberly had profoundly confused the formerly jealous McKerrow brother, leading him to act up and even lash out. Then from out of nowhere comes the revelation of his birth mother’s identity: the daughter of legendary actor-director Orson Welles and glamour goddess Rita Hayworth.

While the transgender aspect of Prodigal is inescapable, it is issues of mental health rather than gender that truly drive the film. Reed might very well experience some ugliness based solely on who she is, but from what the audience sees in the film, her brother’s condition appears to be the single greatest cross she now has to bear.

Sensitive viewers should be warned, there are moments of domestic violence in the film that are frankly harrowing. At times tough to watch, Prodigal is viscerally honest—reality, indeed. Some viewers will probably wonder why they are watching such untitillating reality fare, but at least Prodigal is responsible and achingly earnest in its depiction of very serious mental health concerns. It opens today (2/26) at the Cinema Village.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Frigid NY ’10: Medea

Apart from occasional outliers, like the late Dutch director Theo Van Gogh’s five hour modern mini-series retelling, most versions of Euripides’s Medea clock in somewhere around the sixty minute mark. Such a manageable running time makes it a perfect fit for the 2010 Frigid New York Festival, consisting of thirty theatrical productions, all of which have a running time of an hour, or less. Yet, at fifty minutes, No. 11’s production of Medea (trailer here) still has all the betrayal and filicide one expects of the classic Greek tragedy.

Thanks to the barbarian princess Medea, Jason fulfilled his quest for the Golden Fleece. She returned to Corinth with the triumphant hero, expecting to become his wife. However, after bearing him two young sons, he spurns her in order to marry Glauce, the daughter of King Creon. That turns out to be something of a mistake in retrospect. If you don’t know where things go from here, shame on you, but at least the affordable Frigid ticket prices offer an opportunity to catch up with a classic that has been performed throughout Western Civilization for the last 2,400 years or so.

Among Greek tragedies, Medea presents particular challenges. Despite the extreme nature of her revenge, audiences are supposed to identify with Medea, the woman wronged. In this staging, what might sound like an eccentric production design strategy—using marionettes as Medea and Jason’s sons—actually helps temper the audience’s natural revulsion at her harsh actions. Indeed, No. 11’s Medea is certainly distinct among classical revivals, crediting a puppet master: Jen Neads.

It might seem odd at first, but the mix of flesh-and-blood actors, including the Chorus of Corinthian women and two living statues, and puppets works surprisingly well in this Medea (also credit Vanessa Wingerath and Mark Ferguson, who double as puppeteers and supporting players, in the roles of the nurse and tutor, respectively). In the critical lead, Julie Congress is also quite effective as Medea, largely focusing the audience on her pain rather than her rage. We do sympathize with this Medea, even though she is indeed Medea.

Director Ryan Emmons keeps the tragedy moving along briskly, which is probably a necessity, given Frigid’s tight house schedule. Though Frigid’s selection process was reportedly a bit unconventional (choosing the first fifteen applicants to submit proposals and then randomly drawing the next fifteen out of a hat), as an inventive but accessible and ultimately quite faithful adaptation of a true stage classic, Medea is a smart programming choice, nicely rounding out Frigid’s line-up. It plays again at the Kraine Theater in the East Village on February 27th, March 1st, March 4th and March 6th, as Frigid New York continues through March 7th.

(Photo credit: Jen Neads)

Indie Road Trip: The Yellow Handkerchief

Brett Hanson weathered the storm of Katrina from the relative safety of his prison cell. Released after six years, he tentatively faces his new life, unsure if his wife will take him back, or whether she even should. Hoping to stay out of trouble on the trip home, he logically hitches a ride with two troubled teenagers in Udayan Prasad’s The Yellow Handkerchief (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Hanson is not really a violent man. He just seems to be his own worst natural disaster. Unfortunately, he is a repeat offender, who was probably fortunate to have made parole. He was definitely lucky to have won over his wife May, considering how rocky their courtship was, as the audience sees in multiple flashbacks. Though not entirely comfortable in the role, he acts as an unlikely de facto chaperon for his traveling companions, while ruminating on all his past mistakes.

Gordy is a squirrely kid, who is on the road because his family does not want to deal with him (and it’s hard to blame them). Martine is a popular high school student, who heads south in the hopes that her absentee parents will eventually notice she is missing. While Hanson closely guards his own secrets, she feels an instinctive connection with the world weary ex-con.

What could have easily degenerated into a parade of indie road movie clichés is truly elevated by William Hurt’s powerful but admirably understated performance. True to his character’s strong, silent reserve, he still clearly conveys the lifetime’s worth of pain and regret Hanson carries around with him. Likewise, Maria Bello projects the right vulnerability and hardscrabble dignity as May. Kristen Stewart, a tweener superstar from the Twilight films, is actually a pleasant surprise, giving a mature and complex performance as the needy Martine. However, Eddie Redmayne’s Gordy is annoying beyond any reasonable credibility. Whenever he is on screen, you would think Yellow is an extended commercial for Ritalin.

Adapting Pete Hamill’s early 1970’s short story to post-Katrina Louisiana, Prasad capitalizes on the Pelican State’s atmospheric environment, but never really embraces the distinctive local music (Cajun, Zydeco, jazz, blues, swampy R&B), opting instead for a conventionally cinematic soundtrack. Sensitively lensed by cinematographer Chris Menges, it all looks right, but sounds kind of dull.

As the odd trio speeds down towards the Gulf Coast, Yellow hurtles towards an unapologetically emotional payoff. Yes, it is absolutely manipulative, but it works thanks to the grit and honesty of Hurt’s performance, which could even be considered Oscar worthy, if it were not in an indie movie released in the month of February. He makes the film what it is—ultimately a modest, nice little film about human frailty. It opens tomorrow in New York at the City Cinemas 1-2-3 and the Regal Union Square.

(Photo Credit: Eric Lee / Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Taiwan Stands Alone: Formosa Betrayed

Once known as “Formosa,” the Portuguese word for “island,” Taiwan has always occupied a precarious geo-political position. After all, the tiny democracy’s greatest military ally steadfastly refuses to acknowledge its existence, despite the overtly hostile ambitions of neighboring Communist China. Of course, the Republic of China on Taiwan was not always so democratic. Indeed, in the 1980’s Taiwan’s evolution from an authoritarian regime to a democratic government was not without violence. Several such incidents inspired Adam Kane’s Formosa Betrayed (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday.

When Prof. Henry Wen, a Taiwanese democracy activist based on the real life Chen Wen-chen, is gunned down in Chicago, the local PD call in the FBI. Special Agent Jake Kelly barely looks old enough to shave, but when all leads point to a conspiracy based in Taiwan, he is sent to Taipei to liaison with the local authorities. Inevitably, Kelly concludes high ranking government officials must be complicit in Wen’s assassination. As he pursues the investigation, Kelly clashes with a shadowy American diplomat sans portfolio and dumps a boatload of trouble on the doorstep of Ming, a local democracy activist with a hot sister.

Dawson’s Creek alumnus James Van Der Beek does not bring much presence or heft to the film as the intrepid protagonist. Basically, he stumbles across the screen, periodically announcing “I did not sign up for this” to anyone within earshot. As it happens, Formosa’s supporting cast is far more interesting than its bland lead. Writer-producer Will Tiao projects real pathos as Ming and the bizarrely under-utilized Mintita Wattanakul makes quite an impression as Ming’s sister Maysing. Perhaps the most intriguing turn comes from respected Hong Kong actor Kenneth Tsang, whose mysterious and possibly sympathetic General Tse becomes emblematic of the film’s somewhat murky vision of Taiwan under martial law.

As Formosa opens and closes, it takes pains to observe Taiwan’s vulnerability to PRC aggression. Yet, most of the film is a highly unflattering broadside aimed at the ruling KMT party, dominated by the survivors of the Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists and their families. Written by Tiao, a one-time aid to moderate Republican Senator Nancy Kassebaum, Formosa explicitly suggests that the PRC needs the ROC, but the self-sufficient (and now democratic) ROC does not need the PRC. It also underscores the irony that both Communist China and the KMT advocate a “One China” policy, whereas Formosa natives are more likely to support an explicitly independent Taiwan. How the Mainland Communists would receive the film is anyone’s guess, especially considering it is the KMT that now advocates closer ties to the PRC, rather than the DDP, Taiwan’s pro-independence opposition party.

As a political thriller, Formosa is pretty standard stuff, but it focuses a spotlight on an often shunned island of democracy amid some very treacherous waters. It is certainly worth noting that Taiwan voluntarily became a democracy without any notable sanctions or Hollywood protests. In fact, Taiwan seems to bear out Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s thesis on the malleability of authoritarian regimes as opposed to the repressive rigidity of statist totalitarian systems. Still, it is hard to tell if the makers of Formosa would agree with such an assessment, considering its inconsistent implications. Somewhat diverting but hardly essential, Formosa opens Friday (2/26) at the Village East.

Frienemy Mine: Toe to Toe

Although she can barely tolerate her vapid wealthy classmates and the annoyingly politically correct faculty, a prep school scholarship student puts up with them in hopes of realizing her dream: admission to Princeton. Right, well at least she will be prepared for the Ivy League. Until then she has to deal with her trampy frienemy and the Muslim deejay they both have eyes for in Emily Abt’s indie drama Toe to Toe (trailer here), which opens Friday in New York.

Tosha lives in D.C.’s economically depressed Anacostia neighborhood. Jesse lives in a McMansion. Yet, both are virtually ignored by their single parent mothers. Tosha’s mother gives disproportionate love and attention to her underachieving brother who is already a neglectful father himself. By contrast, Jesse’s mother is more interested in jet-setting to her next international NGO-busybody conference than the mundane details of parenting.

Tosha uses her resentment to fuel her drive to excel academically. Jesse deals by having risky unprotected sex with any guy sharing her hip-hop “slumming” sensibilities. One approach is much more constructive than the other. Of course, the Rashid, the middle-class Muslim go-go deejay is like catnip to Jesse. Rashid is actually more attracted to Tosha, but she will not put out, whereas Jesse . . . well, there’s the hormonal triangle in a nutshell.

Though never prurient or in any sense erotic, T2T presents a decidedly sexualized portrait of high school kids. Louisa Krause gives a riveting performance as Jesse and while her resume boasts some heavy Off-Broadway credits (including original productions from Neil Labute and Charles Mee), she frankly looks too young to be filming her partial nude scenes.

Krause and Sinequa Martin prove quite formidable indeed as the on-again off-again friends and lacrosse rivals. Unfortunately, their characters just do such stupid things, even by high school standards, that T2T simply exhausts viewer patience. Still, even though differences of race and class are central to the film’s conflict, Abt deserves credit for not leaning on hot buttons or indulging in easy moralizing. If anything, T2T is most critical of the liberal prep school administration’s gutlessness when an evidently racial motivated incident develops on campus.

Despite two fine lead performances, T2T’s fusion of the coming-of-age story with class-based social drama is not especially memorable. Still, T2T is at least indicative of Krause and Martin’s considerable potential. Okay as a not especially irritating indie film (which is actually saying something lately), T2T opens in New York at the Village East this Friday (2/26) with cast appearances scheduled for the initial weekend screenings.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Documentary Fortnight ’10: Vlast (Power)

Over 200 former employees and directors of Yukos, the Russian oil company, have been in some way persecuted by the Putin regime. Unquestionably, the biggest fish among them is Yukos’s former CEO, the visionary Russian entrepreneur Mikhail Khodorkovsky. At one time the sixteenth richest man in the world, Khodorkovsky now resides in a tiny prison cell. How he got there is a chilling story of the not-so-new Russia, compellingly recounted in Cathryn Collins’s Vlast (Power), which screens during MoMA's Documentary Fortnight 2010 (trailer here).

Collins never confuses Khodorkovsky with a choirboy. She makes it very clear Khodorkovsky’s early years are still shrouded in mystery and unsettling rumors. However, she gives him credit for taking on the decrepit Yukos state enterprise at time when the price of oil was at an all time low, eventually turning around the company, making billions in the process.

Khodorkovsky was one of the original so-called oligarchs who largely reaped the benefits of Yeltsin’s privatization plan. Yet, he was a crony capitalist of a different color, becoming a prominent philanthropist and advocate of democracy in Russia. He also started championing corporate transparency, only to find himself behind bars shortly thereafter.

First-time documentarian Collins is admirably even-handed in her profile of Khodorkovsky, never overstating her case or simply appealing to emotion. While giving the incarcerated mogul credit for his business acumen, she is most impressed by his ability to identify and recruit smart, talented young people for his team. Of course, the implications of his story are clear. If a man with an estimated net worth over fifteen billion dollars is not safe in Putin’s Russia, nobody is.

Many of Vlast’s on-camera interview subjects participated at not inconsiderable risk to their well being. In doing so, they definitely convey an unvarnished sense of life in Russia today. Providing clear and concise historical background, Vlast provides the proper context for non-Russophiles and non-Russophobes to appreciate Khodorkovsky’s story. Still, given the long history of Russian and Soviet anti-Semitism, the question of whether Khodorkovsky’s Jewish heritage has contributed to his persecution is strangely never really explored.

Vlast joins the growing ranks of valuable documentaries doggedly raising alarms about the lawlessness of the Putin regime. Unfortunately, previous related films like Eric Bergkraut’s Letter to Anna and Andrei Nekrasov’s Poisoned by Polonium have largely fallen on deaf ears in the West. Given its reasoned tone and access to Khodorkovsky’s inner circle, Vlast should impress viewers concerned about the current state of the world. Highly recommended, it screens again tomorrow (2/24) as Documentary Fortnight continues at MoMA.

Oscar Nominee: A Prophet

There is one place where racial, ethnic, and religious identity is truly inescapable: prison. However, one French Arab convict’s reluctance to embrace such group-think places him in a profitable but potentially dangerous position in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (Un Prophète), the winner of the 2009 Cannes Grand Prix and one of five Oscar nominees for best foreign language film, which opens this Friday in New York and Los Angeles (trailer here).

Life looks bad for Malik El Djebena. Illiterate with no family or outside support system, he is about to start a six year stretch in a prison dominated by Corsican mobsters. He does not feel comfortable with the Arab gang either, particularly when Reyab, a Muslim inmate, propositions him in the shower. As it happens, Reyab is snitching on the Corsicans, who offer El Djebena a classic gangster bargain—kill Reyab or be killed.

It is not pretty, but El Djebena completes the hit, winning the protection of the Corsican godfather Cesar Luciani in the process. Of course, as an Arab, he will never be fully accepted by the Corsicans. Yet, it is also because of his otherness that Luciani trusts the apprentice gangster. Soon work furloughs are arranged for him to serve as Luciani’s confidential messenger to his associates and the rival Arab mob. However, it also allows El Djebena the opportunity to set up his own hash-running business with a friendly former inmate and to forge his own contacts with the various competing criminal factions. (For a prison movie, it is notable just how much of Prophet takes place on the outside).

Good timing is as crucial for a successful criminal as it is for a musician, and El Djebena’s sense of time proves so unerringly acute it approaches prescience (which explains the film’s somewhat misleading title). Loyalties shift and power ebbs and flows, but El Djebena’s position gives him a clear perspective and his instincts tell him when to capitalize.

Despite its Cannes and Oscar credentials, Prophet is far more of a gritty gangster film than rarified art cinema (but that is meant as a recommendation). Though questions of ethnicity are of central importance to the film, they are not addressed polemically. Indeed, Prophet is not at all an issue film, which makes its voluminous critical accolades a bit surprising. Instead, it is a tough, unsentimental crime drama that is by and large quite naturalistic, save for the occasional appearance of Reyab’s ghost that apparently haunts his assassin (or at least his thoughts).

In a breakout performance as the ambitious El Djebena, Tahar Rahim expresses all the intensity and fierceness missing from recent American gangster films. Creased and weathered, Niels Arestrup is an equally chilling presence as the ruthless Luciani. In fact, the entire ensemble cast is quite convincing, with everyone looking appropriately flinty and hardboiled.

Audiard combines the epic sweep of classic mob films with some tough action sequences scrupulously grounded in reality. The result is one of the most accessible foreign films that will play the art-house circuit this year. While The White Ribbon is considered the overwhelming frontrunner for the foreign language Oscar, A Prophet (Un Prophète) is probably running a distant second place. It is a very good movie (far superior to the tiresome Ajami, perhaps the third most widely seen contender) featuring a star-making turn by Rahim. It opens Friday (2/26) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Legalized Plunder: The Art of the Steal

Americans expect their property rights to be respected, including their right to dispose of property posthumously as they see fit. However, those rights evidently do not apply to when the property in question is especially valuable. At least that seems to be the case in Pennsylvania, where the state, the city of Philadelphia, and a group of powerful non-profit foundations have in effect commandeered the priceless Barnes Collection according to Don Argott’s eye-opening documentary, The Art of the Steal (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York following high profile screenings at the New York and Toronto Film Festivals.

Steal opens with the unseemly but appropriate video of Philly Mayor John Street’s news conference, in which he overflows with glee at the prospect of finally getting the Barnes in Philadelphia. All that is missing is a football for Street to spike before doing an end-zone dance. However, Albert C. Barnes hated Philadelphia. The self-made entrepreneur and Roosevelt Democrat amassed probably the greatest private collection of impressionist and early modern art. Yet, when he unveiled his collection in the City of Brotherly Love, it was panned by the local press and mocked by the chattering classes.

Eventually, Philadelphia realized what they had missed, but it was too late. Barnes had established his Foundation in Lower Merion, where some of the greatest Renoirs, Cézannes, Matisses, Picassos, and Degases in the world would be part of a progressive art school, with only limited opportunities for public viewing.

When the childless Barnes passed away, the terms of his will were explicitly designed to keep his collection intact and out of the grasping hands of the Philadelphia and its despised Art Institute. However, as the original trustees passed away, control of the Barnes Foundation eventually fell to Lincoln University, a traditionally African American school that was safely outside the Pennsylvania establishment in Barnes’s day, but had become state affiliated in 1972. As Argott makes crystal clear, from that point on, Barnes’s intentions no longer governed the Foundation that still bears his name.

One of the unspoken ironies of Steal is that Barnes, the New Dealer and sworn enemy of Nixon crony Walter Annenberg, was ultimately undone by Democrats like Street and Governor Ed Rendell. At least the governor consented to an on-camera interview, justifying the hijacking of the Barnes on grounds that incontrovertibly contradict the spirit of his will (like the fact that more people will be able to gawk at his collection on the Franklin Parkway). Conversely, representatives of the Pew Charitable Trust, which Argott identifies as a shadowy power player in the takeover of the Barnes, conspicuously declined to participate in the film.

Argott makes a thoroughly convincing case, lucidly establishing the timeline of the Barnes’s effective demise. Though he is covering the rarified art world, Argott approaches the Barnes case like a criminal investigation, and with good reason. He also memorably establishes the mind-blowing dimensions of the stakes involved, establishing the term “Barnesworthy.” As art-dealer Richard Feigen explains at a blockbuster Sotheby’s early modern show, most of the work on display that would soon be bought for millions of dollars would not have merited a second glance from Barnes. Though Feigen himself declined to assign a dollar figure to the entire collection, its value would be estimated in court filings at twenty five billion (with a “b”) dollars. That is what “Barnesworthy” means.

Steal is a smart, persuasive documentary that challenges some previously sacrosanct notions regarding art. Viewers will start to question whether it is really in the public interest that great art be tour bus accessible, or if society might be better served by the Barnes approach, reserving such masterpieces for dedicated artists and students.

Argott assembles a convincing case that the new projected Philadelphia home for the Barnes Collection overtly violates both the letter and spirit of the Barnes Foundation trust. While some of the finer points of estate law might sound dry, Argott makes it all quite compelling, pulling viewers through step-by-step with remarkable assuredness.

Steal is a fascinating documentary that also has wider political implications, particularly for those concerned about private property rights in the wake of the controversial Supreme Court Kelo decision regarding eminent domain. Highly recommended for both political and arts-minded audiences, Steal opens in New York this Friday (2/26) at the IFC Center.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bong at BAM: Memories of Murder

Evidently, 1986 was a good year to be a serial killer in South Korea, with periodic protests distracting the police. Inspired by the actual unsolved case of the country’s first publicized serial killer, Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (trailer here), opens Monsters and Murderers, the director’s upcoming BAM Cinematek retrospective this coming Thursday.

Probably the centerpiece of the series is a pre-release screening of Bong’s latest film, Mother, the story of one woman’s desperate attempt to exonerate her mentally challenged son of a murder conviction. In fact, Mother and Memories are somewhat related thematically, even sharing some important plot points when the provincial police browbeat a false confession out of a slow-witted suspect. Needless to say, they are soon proved tragically wrong.

It starts with one body, but more soon follow. Lending his expertise to the local force, Seoul Detective Seo Tae-yoon identifies certain patterns: rain, red clothing. However, he clashes rather badly with local slacker cop Park Doo-man, even coming to blows at crucial junctures of the investigation. At least they seem to be on the right track when Kwon Gui-ok, the only often-dismissed woman officer on the force, figures out another key trigger—radio requests for an obscure pop song.

Though Memories was only Bong’s second feature, one can still see hallmarks of his decidedly dark approach to genre filmmaker present throughout. It definitely resists feel good heroics, preferring angst and tragedy. Bong clearly is not afraid to kill off characters that would be sacrosanct in Hollywood films and if you want tidy closure, his filmography is probably not for you.

As a noir serial killer, albeit a particularly dark one, Memories is quite effective. While Mother is more challenging in tone and implications, Memories contemplative contemporary coda memorably encapsulates ambiguities and uncertainty of Bong’s world view. As Detective Park, Bong regular Song Kang-ho does lazy and loutish to perfection, while also digging deeper for the really heavy climax and denouement.

Throughout Memories, Bong masterfully maintains the creepy atmosphere and slow-boiling tension, while also offering an unsettlingly grim assessment of human nature. That all seems to be what Bong films are all about based on the evidence of the four features and three shorts programmed for the Monsters and Murderers series. Far superior to Bong’s breakout hit The Host and nearly as strong as Mother, Memories kicks off BAM’s retrospective this coming Thursday (2/25).

Bong at BAM: Shaking Tokyo

There must be something about the city of Tokyo. Some of the coolest people I know are Japanese musicians living in New York. Yet, Tokyo is often represented in pop culture as a lonely city. Indeed, it is portrayed by Bong Joon-ho and two other stylistically distinctive international directors as a city of profound alienation in the fantastical anthology film, Tokyo! (trailer here). Bong’s contribution, Shaking Tokyo, truly personifies alienation, taking the audience into the closed world of the Hikikomori, urban recluses who have almost no human contact whatsoever. Screening separately from the rest of the Tokyo! film, Shaking is part of a slate of shorts programmed for Monsters and Murders, BAM’s upcoming Bong retrospective.

The so-called hikikomori are youngish, acutely withdrawn shut-ins thought to be a particularly Japanese phenomenon by some social scientists. Such is the protagonist of Bong’s Shaking. He must have food delivered, but he steadfastly avoids eye contact with the delivery people. However, when the pizza delivery girl (played by Yu Aoi) mysteriously collapses during an earthquake, he cannot help but take notice of her. Following their surreal encounter, he is a basket-case for two days. Eventually he tries to see her again, but is alarmed to discover his example might have inspired her to adopt the hikikomori lifestyle as well.

Teruyuki Kagawa, familiar to American audiences from the 20th Century Boys series, is quite compelling as unnamed hikikomori, carrying the nearly one-person film, despite the emotionally withdrawn nature of his character. Bong’s oblique camera angles and claustrophobic environment also nicely convey the neurotic perspective of his protagonist. Though there are no monsters or murders in Shaking, the extent of the hikikomori’s anti-social compulsions and their seductiveness to those potentially sharing the inclination is actually quite frightening. Still, unlike his typical features, Bong wraps it all up on a possibly hopeful note (or perhaps not), yet without sacrificing the integrity of his story.

Whether it is because they suffer from deep-seated emotional issues or are running for their lives from wild-eyed Frenchmen, human connections are maddeningly difficult to forge throughout Tokyo! in general and Shaking in particular. It is probably a strong second best installment in a well above average anthology film. It screens with Influenza and Sink and Rise this next coming Monday (3/1) as the Bong retrospective continues at BAM.

Bong at BAM: The Host

Unlike Japan, Korea is not used to being terrorized by large rampaging monsters. While this scaly mutant might not be Godzilla or Mothra sized, it is quick as a cat and reportedly carries a deadly virus, so it definitely a big time threat to Korean homeland security. Yet for one family, fighting the creature gets desperately personal in Bong Joon-ho’s international breakout hit The Host (trailer here), which screens next week during Monsters and Murderers, BAM Cinematek’s Bong retrospective.

It had already been a disappointing day at Park Gang-du’s family snack shack, even before an amphibious monster jumps out of the Han River. They had watched on television as his sister Nam-joo lost her archery competition because she did not release her final shot in time (a little foreshadowing maybe?). It gets far worse when Park’s daughter Hyun-seo is presumed dead in the aftermath of the creature’s first rampage. However, she has actually been more-or-less safely regurgitated back at the monster’s hidden lair and is able to make a brief cell call to her grieving father.

Since the clueless authorities are completely disinterested in the Parks’ possible lead on the monster’s location, they set off to rescue Hyun-seo themselves. To do so, they will have to sneak through various quarantines, because the monster is also the host for a lethally contagious virus, except not really. It turns out that is just one of many deceptions perpetrated by the U.S. military for mysteriously perverse reasons.

How did the monster come into being? Actually, it was all America’s fault, or more specifically the fault of an American military doctor, who had countless bottles of formaldehyde poured down the drain, simply because he is a creep. Indeed, such persistent anti-Americanism is a frequent distraction in The Host and one reason why the film is not nearly as much fun as it ought to be.

Bong is a filmmaker with a tragic sensibility, but it does not lend itself as readily to the monster movie genre, as compared to his dark crime dramas. Still, one of the cool things about The Host is that a major character could conceivably die at any time, so the stakes are always high. Indeed, Bong is not one to compulsively tie his films up with neat happy endings. While this leads to a compellingly ambiguous effect in his previous film, Memories of Murder, it is basically a downer here.

While the monster effects are in fact quite well produced, frankly that is the least important aspect of a good creature feature. Host might have been billed by critics as good clean monster movie fun, but it is actually quite dour and angst-ridden. Its unflattering take on Americans, particularly the military, is not exactly subtle either. In reality, should a giant mutant ever crawl out of the Han River, one would bet Bong would be decidedly relieved to see a company of Yanks show up to engage the beast. Host is the film that made Bong’s name in America though, so one would expect BAM to screen it during their retrospective. However, Bong’s latest, Mother, represents a definite return to form for the director. It is an excellent film that will be reviewed here in conjunction with its March 12th theatrical release. Mother has one special sneak peak screening at BAM on Friday (2/26) and The Host screens the following day, with Bong present for Q&A both evenings.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Power Plays: Behind the Rainbow

Recently, South African President Jacob Zuma confirmed media reports he had fathered a “love child” with the daughter of a prominent supporter. It was another controversial chapter in Zuma’s dramatic career, having been elected to the presidency following his acquittal on a rape charge and the conviction of his close financial advisor for fraud and corruption. How South Africa’s ostensive democracy went from Nelson Mandela to Jacob Zuma is explained step-by-step in Jihan El-Tahri’s documentary Behind the Rainbow (trailer here), which airs this coming Tuesday on PBS’s Independent Lens.

There is no question Rainbow presents post-Apartheid South African history through the prism of leftist ideology, explicitly advocating socialist redistribution and a large-scale welfare state. However, if you watch the film solely for its insider accounts of the political shenanigans within the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), it is quite fascinating for us political junkies.

Right from the start, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma were perceived as potential rivals to succeed President Mandela. Drastically different in temperament, Mbeki and Zuma had a long association since 1975 when they shared a prison cell in Swaziland. At the time, they also largely held the same political positions. Indeed, many of Rainbow’s commentators concede they could not explain any substantive policy differences between the two men, even when Zuma emerged as then President Mbeki’s chief nemesis and standard bearer of the ANC’s radical wing.

Perhaps because El-Tahri is so steeped in the left (having previous directed a documentary celebrating Castro’s African adventurism), she was able to get so many ANC loyalists to talk frankly on-camera about the behind-the-scenes power plays that threatened to fracture the party’s unified public front. Still, Rainbow’s ideological blinders screen the ANC and their allies in the South African Communist Party from any direct criticism.

Such biases also lead to some odd moments for less radicalized audiences. For instance, Zuma’s use of the ANC fight song “Give me My Machine Gun” as his campaign theme is presented simply as a shrewd appeal to revolutionary nostalgia. It also seems oblivious to the irony that Mosiuoa Lekota, the leading dissident moderate to leave the party, is nicknamed “terror” (reportedly for his style of play on the football field.) However, late in the film, political scientist Achille Mbembe gives a blunt assessment of South Africa’s effective one party rule, stating: “a democratic victory for South Africa will happen the day the ANC faces the threat of losing the elections.”

Most of the time when the American media addresses South Africa, it is in shallow, predictably inspiring films like Invictus. Even with its ample biases, Rainbow acts as a corrective, underscoring the rough-and-tumble realities of politics are the same in Pretoria and Cape Town as they are in Chicago and New Jersey. It airs Tuesday (2/23) as the current season of Independent Lens continues on PBS. As they say, check local listings for exact broadcast times.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Hannay Returns: The 39 Steps

Richard Hannay is one resilient chap. He has foiled German spies in three film adaptations of John Buchan’s classic novel, The 39 Steps, including Alfred Hitchcock’s first acknowledged classic. Recently, he also appeared in an affectionate stage spoof of the beloved 1935 Hitchcock film that delighted both West End and Broadway audiences. He returns again in a new BBC production of The 39 Steps (trailer here) faithful to the source novel’s original pre-WWI setting, which airs this next coming Sunday on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic.

Hannay is a man of the world. A mining engineer recently returned from South Africa, he finds 1914 London deadly dull. However, when his neighbor Scudder barges into his apartment claiming German agents are trying to kill him, at least Hannay has an excuse to draw his revolver. Of course, Scudder turns out to be correct, unfortunately convincing Hannay the hard way, but not before slipping him a coded notebook. On the run for a murder he did not commit, Hannay heads north, hoping to prove his innocence by exposing the Scotland-based spy ring.

In many ways, Hannay is considered the prototypical Hitchcock protagonist—the innocent man pursued by both the villains and the legitimately law, trying to figure out the Macguffin along the way. However, this Hannay is a man who can take care of himself, boasting rather handy knowledge of explosives and a talent for cracking ciphers. While in the Hitchcock film Hannay finds himself handcuffed to his innocent traveling companion, his romantic interest in the new BBC version is far more substantial: Victoria Sinclair, a suffragette with a photographic memory.

39 Steps is a classy period production in PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery! tradition. Although it is prohibitively unfair to compare it to the Hitchcock classic, director James Hawes keeps the chase moving along briskly, navigating the twists and turns rather deftly. The pre-WWI period details all look right and are quite enjoyable as the trappings for an action-adventure story (vintage car chases, burning fuses, and the like).

While there are departures from the familiar Hitchcock, there are still several common scenes. Like the 1935 version, Hannay again finds himself addressing a political gathering through a case of mistaken identity. Sharply written, Hannay’s remarks to the local Liberal Party mocking their naive appeasement give the new production a sly jolt of humor (and may even outdo the original).

Again, it is hardly fair to compare Rupert Penry-Jones to the great Robert Donat, but he is a more than credible gentleman-protagonist. Lydia Leonard, familiar to some viewers from HBO’s Rome, also makes a pleasing romantic foil, not overdoing the bickering banter while never appearing as a clichéd damsel in distress. The great British character actor Eddie Marsan (Inspector Lestrade in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes) is also perfectly cast as the squirrely, ill-fated Scudder.

39 Steps offers good, clean skullduggery, presented with the patina of British respectability. On par with the quality of many theatrical releases (and superior in so many cases), Steps is easy to recommend on free TV. It airs on PBS through the auspices of WGBH and Masterpiece Classic Sunday (2/28) at 9:00pm E.S.T.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Family Angst: Happy Tears

Father issues abound for Jayne’s mostly dysfunctional family. Her husband has a major inferiority complex as the untalented son of a famous painter, while her father Joe is slowly sinking into senility. Yet, there are plenty of bittersweet Terms of Endearment moments for her and her resentful sister in Mitchell Lichenstein’s indie family drama Happy Tears (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Jayne is happy because she has mastered the art of denial. Everyone else in her family is miserable because they are either ruthlessly self-aware, like her sister, or mentally ill. Refusing to believe her gregarious father could degenerate to the extent her sister Laura claims, she keeps manufacturing excuses not to come home. When she finally relents, her first encounter with old Joe is pretty ugly, but she still labors to maintain her compulsive optimism. However, her sister seems to take perverse pleasure from puncturing her storybook existence, when not sponging off her money.

Indeed, there is enough sibling rivalry in Happy for two or three indie films. In between bickering, they both try to deal with dear old dad’s declining health, as well as “Nurse” Shelly, Joe’s creepy live-in hooker. While Happy is realistic to a fault depicting the challenges of coping with a parent in Joe’s condition, Lichenstein really lays the corn on thick when Jayne starts looking for treasure Joe supposedly buried in the backyard.

Lichenstein pretty much hits all the bases of indie family angst, but Happy’s fine art motif somewhat differentiates it from the pack. The paintings of Jayne’s late father-in-law are actually the work of Cy Twombley, which add some welcomed visual panache to the film. Even though writer-director Lichenstein is in fact the son of the celebrated pop artist Roy, we are told not to confuse him with Jayne’s neurotic husband. Likewise, in light of his recent tabloid headlines, it is tempting to conflate Rip Torn with Joe, his increasingly addled character, but probably the less said about that the better.

Jayne, the princess forced to come down to earth, is a perfect role for Parker Posey. Again, she proves compulsively watchable and consistently endearing despite her character’s manifest faults. Demi Moore turns in at least serviceable supporting work as the martyr sister, Laura. As for Torn, let’s say he is convincing and leave it at that. However, Ellen Barkin just looks and acts distractingly weird as the nurse-prostitute Shelly. You would have to be beyond senile to open up your home to her.

Featuring another strong indie star turn from Posey, Happy is not without some merit, but it feels awfully familiar and has more than a few real groaner moments. Ultimately, its strong cast cannot overcome the clichés they are saddled under. For Posey fans, it opens tomorrow in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

(Photo credit: John Baer)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Midnight Movie: Scream of the Bikini

The mid 1960’s were a golden age for Columbian-German co-productions, but the magnum opus of Fernando Fernandez, the era’s visionary auteur, remained lost to posterity until director Kiff Scholl discovered a rare surviving print. Yeah, right. It is a good back story though. For those familiar with the groovy multinational spy films of the 1960’s, Scholl’s Scream of the Bikini (trailer here) is a knowingly affectionate send-up, which is booked for special midnight (technically 11:55) screenings at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in West Hollywood this Friday and Saturday.

Bridgit and Sophia are supermodels by day and superspy-bounty hunters by night (or perhaps vice versa). They have just averted a terrorist attack on an airliner, but Sophia broke a heel in the process. At least they beat their tuxedo-clad rival Humberto to the kill (and the twenty grand). However, the dead man will keep popping up, looking for a microchip or something. Needless to say, Bikini is hardly the sort of film to get hung up on plot, though there is plenty of it, including mysterious death cults, mind-controlling accessories, and plenty of suggestive flirtation. Rather, it is style all the way for its glamorous protagonists.

Eurospy enthusiasts will appreciate Bikini’s vibe, faultlessly recreating the retro color palette and weirdly disembodied dialogue that marked the swinging sixties cult film subgenre. Bikini also features a surprisingly catchy soundtrack that is true to the period and frankly much better than it has to be. And you have to love a trippy musical interlude that includes mimes at play in an open field, right?

It seems like the entire cast also doubled as producers of Bikini, suggesting the film started as an idea concocted by a group of friends over drinks. However, as Latin American actresses Jasmine Orozco and Paola Apanapal playing Bridgit and Sophia, Kelsey Weeden and Rebecca Larsen actually pull off a nice acting feat, keeping their characters cute and likable despite their self-centered cluelessness. Co-producer, editor, and cinematographer Darrett Sanders exudes the perfect hammy flair as Gregorio Peck as man-of-the-world Humberto, while nicely deadpanning some of the film’s funniest lines. Bikini also won the Maverick Movie Awards’ “The Precious” prize for random hilarity in recognition of Walter “Ensign Chekhov” Koenig’s non sequitur cameo, and rightly so.

Saucy yet sweet-tempered (just like its heroines), Bikini is a lot of fun. Deliberately cheesy, but not annoyingly so, it is perfectly suited for midnight screenings at festivals, art-houses, and college campuses. Recommended for MST3K fans (think of the bots skewering Neil Connery in the knock-off Operation Double 007), it plays at the Laemmle Sunset 5 this Friday (2/19) and Saturday (2/20).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Documentary Fortnight ’10: The Miscreants of Taliwood

If the Taliban mullahs want to call you something heavy, they will probably label you a miscreant (a villainous heretic). Unfortunately for entertainment-starved Pakistanis, just about everyone involved in artistic endeavors are automatically considered miscreants, most definitely including actors and filmmakers. Ironically though, the cottage Pashto film industry was largely based in the Taliban stronghold of Peshawar, which is where Australian filmmaker George Gittoes took his camera for an up-close and personal look at militant intolerance in The Miscreants of Taliwood (trailer here), which screens during the MoMA’s annual Documentary Fortnight.

If truth be told, Gittoes was probably fortunate to live through the first thirty seconds of Miscreants. Fortunately, he was only roughed up a bit while filming Islamists building a bonfire of CDs and DVDs in Islamabad, a city that Gittoes reminds viewers contains nuclear weapons. However, as Gittoes pursues his story, he becomes increasingly a part of his own film, at considerably further risk to his own well being.

While it is ordinarily annoying to see filmmakers inject themselves into their own documentaries, Gittoes was hardly motivated by self-aggrandizement. To gain access to the world Pashto filmmaking, he became an actor himself, forming a fast friendship with his co-star Javed Musazai. When the Taliban terrorized Taliwood into submission, Gittoes finances two films on his own, in order to keep the documentary going. Though hardly well-heeled, Gittoes is able to scrape together seven grand, sufficient funds for two Pashto films.

Frankly, Gittoes’s self-financed Pashto films look dreadful (particularly his comedy) and the director is the first to admit he is an awful actor. Based on the clips seen in Miscreants, Pashto cinema in general looks like low rent Bollywood, but Gittoes offers an important caveat. Pakistani filmmaking is in its infancy, and it will presumably develop in interesting directions, provided the Islamist authorities allow it the basic freedom to exist.

Gittoes probably risked bringing a fatwa down on his head simply for championing “Miscreant” filmmaking as an infidel outsider. However, Miscreants delves far deeper, addressing sensitive cultural subjects no previous films has had the guts to touch. Pulling no punches, Gittoes explains how the extreme segregation of the sexes caused most men in North-West provinces to go on the down-low, regularly engaging in homosexual sex, despite their hetero orientation. Again, Gittoes is probably lucky to be alive.

Miscreants is a blockbuster doc that alternates between moments of high camp and utter horror. Viewers should understand from the outset that the film often reflects the idiosyncratic aesthetics of Gittoes’s Taliwood colleagues. The result is unlike anything most viewers have seen before, particularly in a deadly serious documentary.

Even if you are not easily surprised, there are moments in the film that will drop any jaw. From midget comedians to mad mullahs, Miscreants pretty much has it all. It is also one of the few documentaries that can legitimately be called bold, since Gittoes undeniably put himself in harm’s way to make it. Highly recommended, it screens at MoMA on Thursday (2/18) and Friday (2/19), with Gittoes in attendance for post-screening Q&A’s.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Stevie Holland Sings Porter as Porter

Everyone from Fred Astaire to Charlie Parker has interpreted the music of Cole Porter. Yet for many biographers, his scandalous private life often overshadows his celebrated songbook. The nature and frequency of his indiscretions certainly put his wife Linda in difficult positions during their thirty-four year marriage. Still, they shared a deep underlying affection that inspired jazz vocalist Stevie Holland’s one-woman show, Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter, which will soon return for an open-ended run at the Triad Theatre on Manhattan’s fashionable Upper Westside on March 3rd. Happily for those living outside New York, the soundtrack to Love, Linda, starring Holland singing the Porter songbook, is now available on CD.

Backed by a jazz piano trio, Holland performs in the persona of Linda Porter, telling her life story through her beloved husband’s songs and brief dramatic interludes. Listeners will get a sense of the show’s vibe from the opening track, a medley of “So In Love” and “What Is This Thing Called Love” connected by dialogue from the show succinctly explaining the Porter’s relationship.

In a nutshell, Linda Lee Thomas was a wealthy divorcee eight years Cole Porter’s senior when they first met in Paris at an exclusive society affair. While his prodigious musical talent was obvious, his penchant for illicit affairs soon became apparent as well. However, it was not other women that Linda Porter had to worry about. Ultimately though, Holland’s Linda Porter can forgive her husband quite a bit because she finds his music so sublime.

Indeed, Porter was a master at matching sophisticated lyrics to catchy melodies, aptly demonstrated by the songs selected by Holland. In addition to well representing the Porter canon, Love’s musical numbers also serve a real dramatic purpose, nicely underscoring the events of the Porters’ lives, like her torchy “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.

Throughout the show and album, Holland gets rock solid support from her trio of pianist Landon Knoblock, bassist Peter Brendler, and drummer Jeff Davis. To her credit, Holland allows Landon space for some brief but swinging jazz-style solos on several tunes, including their swinging takes on “Love for Sale” and “What is This Thing.”

Arranger-orchestrator Gary William Friedman (perhaps best known as the musical director of The Electric Company) also puts an intriguing twist on several familiar Porter standards, like the typically lamenting “Miss Otis Regrets” which transforms into a surprisingly bop-oriented jazz number, even featuring some hip scatting from Holland. While the arrangement of “Love for Sale” is more traditional, Holland performs it with an unusual edge that fits quite well in the context of the show.

Perhaps Love, Linda’s biggest showstopper is Holland’s achingly romantic rendition of “In the Still of the Night,” which is exactly how listeners want to hear it performed. The stirring closing number “When a Woman’s in Love” is also a real highlight of the set, dramatically summing up the show while showcasing her impressive vocal range.

Holland clearly has a strong affinity for the American Songbook in general and Porter in particular, interpreting his songs with respect and verve. She definitely serves the music of Cole Porter and the memory of Linda quite well throughout the show and resulting “cast album.” In many ways, the stage production of Love, Linda is an elegant fusion of forms (that made my top ten independent theater list for 2009). Structurally it is an effective hybrid of cabaret and solo theater, while musically it is a stylish hybrid of cabaret and jazz. It is perfectly suited to the intimate space of the Triad and now for late night home listening.

(Photo courtesy of 150 Productions)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Shen Yun at Radio City

Like most ancient art-forms, classical Chinese dance was condemned during the insanity of the Cultural Revolution. Even today, it is nearly impossible to see such performances in Mainland China, but the New York based Shen Yun Performing Arts company (formerly known as the Divine Performing Arts) has kept the art alive, bringing Chinese classical dance to audiences around the world. This weekend they mark the Chinese Lunar New Year by kicking off a series of performances at New York’s preeminent dance venue, Radio City Music Hall (the storied home of the Rockettes).

Shen Yun’s media sponsors include the Epoch Times newspaper, which frequently publishes reviews by your trusted correspondent, J.B. The Shen Yun program also reflects a pronounced antipathy to the Chinese government’s systemic human rights abuses that I also share. However, Shen Yun’s most salient critique of the Communist policies comes through its celebration of the great traditions and ethnic diversity of Chinese classical dance still rejected by Party doctrine.

With an entirely new show for their 2009-2010 season (teaser here), Shen Yun can truly be described as a spectacle in the best sense of the word. Marrying beauty and precision their ensemble choreography is quite impressive. Particularly striking are the numbers utilizing long silk sleeves or fan-like handkerchiefs as extensions of the dancers, emphasizing their movements while also creating a kaleidoscopic swirl of color.

As with previous shows, Shen Yun shines a spotlight on ethnic regional Chinese dance traditions, like the Mongolian Hospitality dance, featuring ordinary ceramic dishes employed for a percussive effect. For one dance, the ladies of the company also balance distinctive silver headdresses of the Miao throughout a lively number inspired by the Miao and Hmong of Southern China.

This year, Shen Yun tells more stories within the show, including an episode from Outlaws of the Marsh by Shi Naian (who was also perhaps Luo Guanzhong, author of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which was recently adapted on-screen as Red Cliff by action master John Woo). Adding some humor to the mix, the Shen Yun troupe chose to choreograph the crowd-pleasing episode of the drunken Wu Song’s battle with a ferocious tiger stalking a provincial village.

The troupe also stages the triumphant return of the Buddhist monk Tripitaka, the protagonist of the era novel Journey to the West generally attributed to Wu Cheng-en. It is scene of the kind of pageantry the company excels at creating. Of course, Shen Yun is always controversial for including a handful of vignettes about the current persecution of Falun Dafa practitioners in China today. Indeed, those who have assiduously buried their heads in the sand since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre will probably not appreciate seeing the human rights abuses they ignore or deny dramatized on-stage. Still, the tone of these Shen Yun interludes is generally positive, anticipating a better tomorrow when China is finally liberated from the oppressive Communist system.

Shen Yun always produces an impressive show, bringing to life a history and culture that go back five millennia. It is a rich multicultural stage experience (again in the best sense of the now unfortunately ideologically loaded term). Its New York run continues at Radio City Music Hall tonight and next weekend (2/20 and 2/21) with matinee and evening shows.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Dogs of Katrina: Mine

When Katrina devastated New Orleans, many volunteers rushed into action—to save stranded animals. While that might sound noble, in many cases the rescuers and the animal shelters that took them in have been less than cooperative in subsequent efforts to reunite the pets with their rightful owners. Frustrations and regrets continue to compound for many New Orleanians in Geralyn Pezanoski’s documentary Mine (trailer here), which airs this Tuesday on most PBS outlets as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

Storm shelters, including the infamous Superdome, refused to accept pets, and neither did most motels. With Katrina bearing down, many New Orleanians with limited means were forced to leave their animals behind. Most assumed the storm would pass and they could return to their homes in a matter of days. Of course, nobody predicted the extent of Katrina’s devastation or the complete breakdown of the state and local governments which would follow. Evidently though, some self-styled rescuers jumped to rather judgmental conclusions about the owners forced to leave their pets behind.

It would be nice if Mine were simply a collection of inspiring animal rescue stories, but the reality is much more complex. As the ironic title suggests, many of the cases of disputed adoptions documented in the film boil down to legalistic questions of property ownership.

Mine focuses on a handful of displaced residents as they search for their beloved dogs, including Victor Marino who lost Max, Jesse Pullins who lost J.J. (short for Jesse Jr.), and Malvin Cavalier, an octogenarian missing his beloved Bandit. All were doting owners who will spend years trying to get them back, with varying degrees of success. Although the film clearly invites audiences to view their conflicts through prisms of race and class, there seems to be another factor at play. Indeed, several times rescuers express the notion that Katrina might have been the “best thing” to happen to some pets.

Pezanoski captures some pretty dramatic scenes including a telling phone call in which a “rescuer” flips out on Pullins. While we do hear from some rescuers, those who participated in the film sound rational and moderate. Notably missing from the film are a few pointed queries directed at the less reasonable rescuers, like the one who had taken J.J. The obvious question not being asked is whether they believe in their heart of hearts that the dogs should have been saved before human beings, which was a very real trade-off faced by many of the former owners profiled in Mine.

Granted, Pezanoski can only talk to those who voluntarily consented to interviews, but the absence of the uncooperative rescuers is conspicuous. Still, Mine is quite an eye-opening look at the myriad of unexpected indignities that continue to bedevil New Orleans residents. By contemporary documentary standards, it is relatively restrained in the cheap shots it takes at President and contemporary America in general (but of course, the dubious performance of Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco go entirely unremarked upon).

There is a lot of bitterness in Mine, but there are some touching moments as well. It definitely an opinionated doc, worth checking out when it airs on Independent Lens this coming Tuesday (2/16 at 10:00 PM on New York’s Thirteen).

Friday, February 12, 2010

Percy Jackson, Greek for Harry Potter

He is a confused young man with powers he does not understand, sent to a mysterious camp for similarly gifted students. Why does that sound so familiar? Indeed, Percy Jackson’s world not only bears pronounced likenesses to the Harry Potter series, it also shares the same director for its cinematic launch. However, the Greek mythological trappings of the Rick Riordan books give a distinctly different flavor to Chris Columbus’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (trailer here), the first film in what is obviously projected to be a kid friendly movie franchise, which opens today across the country.

Percy Jackson is not a happy young man. He has ADHD, dyslexia, and a real louse of a step-dad. However, he seems to have an innate ability to read ancient Greek and can hold his breath underwater for inhuman lengths of time. The truth is he is a demigod, the son of a mortal mother and Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. Jackson does not know this yet, so he is a bit surprised when mythological monsters start attacking him.

As one of the few demigods not readily accounted for, Jackson naturally falls under suspicion when Zeus’s lightning bolt is stolen. That also makes Jackson a prime target for those who would challenge the lord of Olympus. Fortunately, it turns out Jackson has a protector, Grover, a satyr (half-goat, half-man) masquerading as an ostensibly disabled classmate. Under attack by a minotaur, Grover successfully leads Jackson to the Hogwartseque Camp Half Blood, but not before Ms. Jackson is magically whisked down to Hades. Of course this sets up a quest for the young hero: get Mom out of h-e-double hockey sticks and hopefully avert a war between the gods that could tear our world asunder.

It is surprising Columbus would take on Percy Jackson after opting out of the director’s chair for future Potter films, given the undeniable parallels between the two series. Still, he clearly has an affinity for such material, staging magical mêlées that are fairly intense, but never inappropriately graphic. In terms of tone and subject matter, this first Jackson film is probably best suited for the older Potter readers who have advanced to the somewhat darker later novels.

Logan Lerman, who displayed a remarkably winning screen presence in My One and Only, again brings an easy likability to Lightning as its young protagonist. More assertive than Harry Potter, yet more sympathetic than the annoying kid from Jumper, he makes Jackson a strong rooting interest, despite being such an awkward tweener. Of the well known supporting cast, Steve Coogan and Rosario Dawson probably fare the best, shamelessly chewing up the underworld scenery as Hades and his resentful wife Persephone.

Lightning is about what you would expect (nothing more or less). It is a competently crafted special effects film targeted at young but not too young fantasy fans. Parents accompanying their children will likely find it somewhat diverting, but not enchanting. Still, they should appreciate the themes of love and sacrifice, as well as the over-riding message cautioning viewers not to judge a book by its cover, because that unkempt man in a wheel chair might just be a centaur in disguise.