Monday, June 30, 2008

NYAFF: Assembly

War, what is it good for? On a macro level: closure. In 1950 China, like it or not, the Communists won and the Nationalists lost—period, end of story. However, Red Army Captain Gu Zidi is in desperate need of closure in Assembly, the Chinese epic of war and its personal repercussions, which screened at NYAFF.

 According to Assembly, there was a huge difference between KIA and MIA in the PLA. If killed in action, a soldier’s family received seven hundred kilos of rice and recognition for a hero’s sacrifice to the revolution. Without a body, they get two hundred kilos and the unspoken stigma of implied desertion. In post-war years, that distinction will haunt Gu, pushing him to the brink of madness.

After serving time in the brig for ordering the execution of unarmed POWs, Gu is reinstated for a suicide mission—covering the retreating PLA from vastly greater Nationalist forces until they hear the bugler call assembly (a plot point important enough to supply the title). As per his instructions, Captain Gu fights to the last man, himself, but his efforts to protect the bodies of his fallen backfires. After loyal service in the civil war and Korea, Gu dedicates himself to fighting the military bureaucracy, hoping to rehabilitate their reputations.

Director Feng Xiaogang does the grit and grime of warfighting quite well. When the bullets and bodies literally fly through the air, Assembly is at its best. However, things get a bit bogged down during its years of post-war angst. Also, when viewers have time to think about the film, some aspects can be a bit troubling, like its favorable view of “political officers” (read ideological enforcers) or Gu’s lack of remorse for his acknowledged war crimes.

There is no question Assembly thinks the right side won in 1950. It is frankly propaganda, but propaganda of an artistic order in the tradition of Battleship Potemkin. Given its unflattering portrayal of the post-war military bureaucracy as well as some cold-blooded battlefield decisions of the PLA, Assembly could conceivably find itself out of favor in the future, should power shift in the poliburo. If it can be separated from its ideology, Assembly is an intense war film, that draws you into Gu’s dilemma. Reportedly, Assembly was leading in the vote for the festival audience award, so maybe greater distribution is in its future.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sal Mosca, Sung

Film Festivals are the last real forum for short prestige films, but the internet represents an untapped frontier. Youtube might already be the go-to pace for quicky moron movies, but the potential of online distribution for quality shorts has attracted the attention of some film festivals.

This year, the Jackson Hole Film Festival established the Online 2 Onscreen competition, in which the winners in each category of short films posted online received a real life festival screening. In a nice turn of events, the winner for best documentary was James Lester’s Sal Mosca, Unsung a profile of the under-recognized jazz pianist.

Mosca, who passed away last year, often shunned the spotlight and declined offers of road gigs, preferring life as a family man and his studies with jazz great Lennie Tristano. It is clear his mentor loomed large in Mosca’s life, as we see his framed photo occupying a place of honor in the pianist’s music room. We can also see and hear Mosca’s skills remained undiminished, when Lester lovingly focuses on close-ups of Mosca’s hands in performance.

Though short by design, Lester shoehorns in a fair amount of context and interview segments, giving audiences a reasonable sense of Mosca’s career. The story of his bandstand encounter with Bird and Miles alone should be enough to fortify Mosca’s street cred.

Unsung looks great, even on a monitor, and what music we hear sounds fantastic. It compares well to other nonfiction shorts I have seen on the festival circuit, despite its online pedigree. You can check it out here.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Chet’s Zeitgeist

When introducing his Chet Baker documentary Let’s Get Lost at the MoMA last night, director Bruce Weber described the trumpeter-vocalist as a “character.” However, someone can be both a character and a crummy human being. Lost actually screened as part of a retrospective tribute to the Zeitgeist Films, the independent distributor, not the Jazz Score series, but the timing is fortuitous now that the MoMA attracting more jazz patrons to its screenings.

As a film, Lost is undeniably impressive. Weber has a keen eye for dramatic images and Jeff Preiss’s cinematography is starkly effective. The problem is the subject. Deep in a Dream, James Gavin’s biography of Baker, paints a picture of an abusive junkie, who happened to occasionally play jazz. Weber’s treatment is not nearly as harsh, but there is no camouflaging the toll Baker’s habit wrecked on his body. Some in the audience audibly gasped on hearing the emaciated trumpeter was fifty-seven at the time of filming. (He would be dead at fifty-eight.)

Weber might consider Baker a character, but it is difficult to understand why. We only see a flicker of light behind his eyes when Halema (wife #2) is mentioned, but it is quickly extinguished. The Chet Baker of Lost seems like an empty shell, onto which his wives and girlfriends (and maybe even Weber) projected what they wanted to see.

Baker recorded some magical sessions for Dick Bock’s Pacific Jazz label. However, his later discography is very “hit-or-miss,” reflecting the corrosive influence of his habit and the resulting frequent need of a quick buck. Arguably, his greatest talent was for squandering his gifts and exploiting those closest to him.

This is the second time I have seen Lost on the big screen in just over one year. While my response remains mixed, I enjoyed it more last night, probably because greater time has passed since reading Gavin. Again, this reaction is all about the problematic Baker and not the film itself. Lost is an iconic jazz documentary that has permanently shaped how Baker is remembered, both as the withered death’s head of the 1980’s and the La Dolce Vita-like Italian movie footage that Weber uses as the film’s inspired conclusion. It is worth seeing Lost if you have the opportunity, but how you might feel about Baker afterward, I can make no guarantees.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Norma Winstone at Joe’s Pub

Something about Norma Winstone seemed perfect for Joe’s Pub, the club connected to Joseph Papp’s Public Theater. In concert last night, she was warm and expressive delivering lyrics, but also witty and charming between songs, commanding the attention of what looked to be a full house with her stage presence.

Accompanying Winstone were her current working group of Klaus Gesing on bass clarinet (and sometimes soprano) with Glauco Venier on piano, heard together on Winstone’s latest release, Distances. Their musical and personal rapport came through clearly on-stage, as when both Winstone and Gesing volunteered their enthusiastic appreciation for the music of the Alpine region of Italy, which inspired some of Venier’s compositions.

As would be expected, much of the first set was drawn from Distances. Instead of sounding rote or perfunctory, Winstone’s songs rang like audio gems, polished to near perfection. Their renditions were not note-for-note from the session tapes though. The percussive introduction to “The Mermaid” seemed longer and more pronounced, giving the piece a slightly more upbeat vibe. On the other hand, their take on the Cole Porter standard “Every Time We Say Goodbye” might have been even more dramatically austere than their recorded version. For an encore, Winstone returned with Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes the Flood,” performed in much the same spirit as on the album, but proving a perfect vehicle for her nuanced in-the-moment vocal interpretation.

Maybe a third of Winstone’s selections were drawn from outside of Distances, but most still sounded quite compatible to the new release in style and tone. The closest to an exception was a nice change-of-pace duet for Winstone and Gesing that was downright bluesy.

Distances is quite a disk. Over a week after posting the review, I still find myself revisiting it, which does not often happen, even with very good albums. Usually after days of intense listening, one is ready to move onto something new. There is just something elegantly compelling about Winstone’s voice that entices repeated listening. A British subject honored for her contributions to the arts, Winstone does not often tour America, so future opportunities to hear her in an intimate performance, like at Joe’s Pub, should not be passed up.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

NYAFF: Shadows in the Palace

The New York Asian Film Festival is screening war films, horror movies, and gangster shoot-outs, but the cruelest deeds seen on-screen probably come from the maids in the royal court of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty. Their court intrigue leads to murder and other heinous crimes in Kim Mee-Jeung’s historical mystery, Shadows in the Palace.

In her directorial debut, Mee-Jeung submerges the audience in an often sinister world, in which young women consigned to court service are subject to harsh discipline and sadistic rituals. What men they have limited contact with appear weak and decadent. The king reigns supreme of course, but through proximity to him comes real influence. As Palace opens, the Queen is engaged in a deadly serious power struggle with her rival, Hee-Bin, the king’s favored concubine. As the mother of the king’s only son thus far, she stands to secure her position if the king declares him the royal heir. However, her efforts are jeopardized by the murder of her chamber maid.

Needless to say, scandal is to be avoided at all costs, so Chun-Ryung, the court nurse, is under great pressure to sweep the affair under the rug. In defiance of her own interests, Chun-Ryung becomes a reluctant sleuth, pursuing the case (officially deemed a suicide) as suspicion falls on highly placed members of the court.

Palace is a well-crafted period mystery, featuring some great performances, starting with Park Jin-Hee as the nurse-investigator. However, some of the abuse meted out on the young maids is literally painful to watch. (Let the squeamish be warned, you might be more comfortable in Tokyo Gore Patrol.) Still, the cinematography and production design are creepily effective, allowing for elements of horror to creep into the mystery, even including the archetypal image of the terrifying woman with long, flowing tresses.

As ruthless as life in the court can be, through Mee-Jeung’s lens, it also represents a rare opportunity for social mobility to common-born women. It is a world where a young girl scrubbing floors can aspire to become a royal concubine, wielding power behind the scenes. It is not an easy climb though, as Palace dramatizes in exquisite detail.

Palace is a smart, compelling film. While uncomfortably graphic at times, its images last well after viewing. It screens this Friday and next Tuesday, as part of NYAFF.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

NYAFF: Action Boys

No animals were harmed in the filming of the Korean documentary Action Boys (or at least not that many). However, the stuntmen took a tremendous beating. Former stuntman turned filmmaker Jung Byung-Gil follows seven of his fellow 2004 stunt school graduates (and himself to an extent) as they are chewed up by the Korean film industry in Action Boys, screening at NYAFF this Friday (6/27) and the following Thursday (7/3).

Byung-Gil and his friends started in a group of thirty-six prospective students. Only sixteen graduated, and by the time Action was filming, just the eight friends were still somewhat active in the business. It is not hard to see why, as their work involves constant physical pain. Time and again the proper safety equipment is mysteriously missing, but the cameras roll anyway.

Action shows behind-the-scenes footage from several Korean films, the best-known of which to American audiences will probably be Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host, in which the acrophobic stuntman Kwon Gui-Duck has to jump off a bridge. For some reason, the stuntmen’s assignments always seem to play to their fears and weaknesses.

The young stuntmen apparently live rootless lives, but it would not be right to call them slackers, as the have the daylights kicked out of them for a mediocre living. Some frankly, appear a little odd. Jeon Sye-jin for instance, is basically a screw-up for whom getting a simple tattoo becomes an epic comedy of errors. Director Byung-Gil himself often looks a little off, particularly in his audition tape, during which he is admonished for looking “spooky” and “dreadful,” (but give him credit for having a sense of humor about it).

Not all the action boys seem so socially underdeveloped. Kwak Jin-Seock appears to have a very healthy relationship with his family, including a mother he can joke about his profession with. You do feel bad for his little niece though, who becomes visibly upset when she sees her uncle getting killed on television, as shown in one scene that feels inappropriately exploitative.

One thing is clear from watching Action. Either the Korea’s version of OSHA is completely defanged, or for some reason their film industry is exempt from the rules. Yet Byung-Gil and his friends still seem to have a perverse affection for it. Action was clearly a shoe-string enterprise, but Byung-Gil and his crew were able to cover an impressive amount of ground. It might be a small film, but it often displays a weird charm. Byung-Gil, Jin-Seock, and producer Lee Ji-Youn are scheduled to attend the 7/3 screening.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


It rains a lot in Indonesia—perfect film noir weather. Screening tonight at the New York Asian Film Festival, Joko Anwar’s Kala (Dead Time) has plenty of noir, wrapped up in a horror movie, with a fair amount of existential dread thrown in (trailer here).

As the film opens, a particularly grisly vigilante attack has gone down and two cops, Eros and his older partner Sutrisno, must investigate the charred debris. The nature of the attack shakes the hard boiled detectives, leading Eros to ask if “our nature is just like this?” Coming late to the carnage is the narcoleptic Janus, a reporter in danger of losing his job because of his condition. While following up at the morgue, Janus has another untimely spell, but his tape recorder fatefully captures the film’s macguffin.

Kala is in large measure an Indonesian combination of The Ring and National Treasure, by way of the Coen Brothers. Like The Ring, Kala is most effective when the fear builds through suggestion and suspense. When the supernatural being is actually seen, it loses much of its power. The trigger for each bloodletting also somewhat parallels that of The Ring, but leads to a particularly clever obliteration of a government death squad. In fact, much of the gore in Kala is kept just off-screen (or pouring through crevices after the fact).

Although set in an unspecified time and place resembling Indonesia, Kala creates its own history as part of a fable of the wise “first president” and the treasure he hid for the future glory of his country. Seen only briefly in deliberately blurry newspaper photos, he does not seem to suggest to Sukarno, who probably would have had others ideas of what to do with riches untold, besides waiting for destiny to claim it.

Director Anwar creates some dramatically creepy scenes and his script ties together each story element in a conclusion that bears up under post-viewing scrutiny reasonably well (especially for a horror movie). The woeful Janus is a bit of a one-note sad sack, but as Eros and Sutrisno, Ario Bayu and Frans Tumbuan play their world weary cops with intelligence and nuance.

Kala has a lot of style and it consistently respects the internal logic of its story (of course with allowances made for characters’ occasional superhuman feats). For horror fans, it is well worth checking out tonight and Thursday, when at screens at the IFC Center as part of NYAFF.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Devil, Skip James, and the Blues

I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues
By Stephen Calt
Chicago Review Press

Some bluesmen were born legends, never playing a false note throughout their uncompromising careers, if you believe the hagiography written about them. The truth is always more nuanced. In the recently republished I’d Rather Be the Devil, Stephen Calt gives an unvarnished depiction of the so-called “folk-blues movement,” the sycophantic blues fans who created it, the plantation system that gave rise to many “country” bluesmen, and even his subject, Skip James, which pretty much covers all the bases of a blues biography.

Calt developed a complicated friendship with James, recording hours of interviews with the musician. Evidently, James often made demands on Calt, coming to rely on his assistance, but probably opened up to the younger man more than he realized. It seems safe to say Calt was left with mixed feelings about the experience, writing of their fateful meeting: “Had I known how our lives would intersect over the next four years, I would not have initiated that initial conversation.” (p. 265)

The Skip James Calt describes was a man conflicted between the sacred and profane—a great bluesman (at least in his early years) and reasonably successful bootlegger, but an underachiever as a minister. Calt often suggests elements of hypocrisy in James’ “nihilistic Christianity,” described as a “vigorous, vainglorious exercise in self-deceit.” (p. 180)

Biographer and subject first met at the Newport Folk Festival. However, the term “folk-blues” is essentially a meaningless marketing term to Calt, describing the sort of dead-end coffeehouse gigs that booked “re-discovered” blues artists like James. Calt argues:

“By 1950, when Leadbelly died, it was clear what a folk singer was, as opposed to what was written about him. He was someone unemployable as a singer in any other context.” (p. 255)

The author is downright withering when examining the frequently patronizing and often avaricious behavior of 1960’s blues geeks. Calt does make a notable exception for James McKune, the eccentric record collector who largely shaped the aesthetic tastes that would be codified under the “country blues” rubric. However, his assessment of cult-musician John Fahey, who was responsible for re-launching James’s blues career, is particularly pointed:

“James was treated as a trophy of the tiny Takoma label, which had only one record on the market (by Booker White) and had been created with a view towards providing a forum for its founder John Fahey. It is doubtful that anyone in James’ retinue was even aware of the fact that the singer was capable of self-interest, or entitled to exercise it.” (p. 272)

The one aspect of the Skip James story for which Calt displays an unequivocal enthusiasm are his early recordings for the storied but short-lived Paramount label. Calt identifies James as unique in the blues field for his equal mastery of both guitar and piano (as opposed to a mere workmanlike doubling). Calt also suggests:

“James was able to add a loftier ingredient that gave his songs an ethereal quality: a sense of drama, all but absent elsewhere in the blues genre.” (p. 144)

One might speculate that writing Devil was somewhat cathartic for Calt. From online interviews it seems he does not consider the book to be as critical or ambiguous as it might read to others. Regardless, it makes for compelling reading and an interesting corrective to the many fawning blues volumes also on the market.

Friday, June 20, 2008

NYAFF: Shadow Spirit

Welcome to post-war Japan, but watch your daughters. A psychopath is dismembering teen-aged girls and packing them in boxes. There are indeed such elements of the macabre in The Shadow Spirit, but it is tempered by its careful period detail and pulp magazine-inspired sense of adventure and mystery. Directed by veteran Japanese filmmaker Masato Harada, Shadow Spirit (trailer here) opens the New York Asian Film Festival today, kicking off seventeen days of screenings at the IFC Film Center and the Japan Society.

The difficult to briefly encapsulate story of Spirit starts when Enokizu, a clairvoyant detective, is hired to find the kidnapped daughter of a famous actress poised to make a comeback. Eventually, his inquiry dovetails with the concurrent dismemberment investigations by detectives Aoki and Kiba and journalists Sekiguchi and Atsuko. Kyogokudo, an exorcist and antiquarian book-seller, provides Zen-like leadership for the disparate band of heroes as they face the forces of evil, which seem to include not just the serial killer, but a mysterious new religious cult dedicated to the Box of Sacred Mystery and an evil scientist playing God in his box-like fortress (yes, the box motif looms large in Spirit).

Spirit is a film of dark secrets, in which events of the past have a tangible effect on the present. In fact, much of the nefarious doings have their roots in bizarre events set in motion by the Japanese military during the war. Ironically, Spirit implies greater criticism of Japanese actions in WWII than recent Hollywood films.

At one point Sekiguchi, the button-down writer sighs: “Don’t drag me into your weirdness.” Good luck with that. Spirit has plenty of weirdness, throwing in fantastical elements and a few disturbing images of the killer’s surviving limbless victims. Fortunately, the cast pulls you through with their earnestness, particularly the gaunt but compelling Hiroshi Abe as the extra-sensory detective, and Rena Tanaka, whose plucky cub reporter is cute but not cloying.

Spirit is a fast-paced, stylish film that pretty much throws in the kitchen sink, but is loath to waste much time with exposition, with characters’ past relationships quickly glossed over. You sort of have to go with it. Director Harada juxtaposes splashy, colorful visuals with rain-soaked noir, creating a great looking picture. Spirit is the second stand-alone film based on a series of Japanese mysteries by Natsuhiko Kyogoku, the first of which appears to be scheduled for U.S. publication in the winter 2009 season. It is an entertaining start to the festival, playing this afternoon and again on July 1st.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Distances from England

By Norma Winstone
ECM Records 2028

When Norma Winstone performs at Joe’s Pub next Thursday, it will be an opportunity to hear another European jazz artist who does not frequently perform in America. It will also be a pretty rare opportunity to hear a member of the Order of the British Empire in performance, since the MBE was bestowed on Winstone last year (when most of the Queen's Honours recipients were overshadowed by the Rushdie knighthood). Preceding Norma Winstone MBE to American shores, her latest CD, Distances, is itself an intimate listening experience.

The almost title track “Distance” establishes the dreamy mood right from the start through Winstone’s breathy vocals and the eerie accompaniment of Klaus Gesing on bass clarinet and Glauco Venier on piano. Winstone’s lyrics reinforce the sense of existential mystery, speaking of “weightless wanderers” “turning in heights of invisible air” above “a city of unfathomed streets below.”

Many of Winstone’s songs read like prose poems, but she also includes one standard and a pop cover. She wrings all the regret imaginable out of Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” underscored by Gesing’s plaintive soprano. A Peter Gabriel song again proves to be a surprisingly hospitable vehicle for reinvention in a jazz context. “Here Comes the Flood” is a beautiful example of Winstone’s subtle but dramatic vocal interpretation and the sympathetic support of Gesing and Venier.

Winstone’s band-mates are more than just hired accompanists. They really sound like a cohesive unit together, with the conceptions of each shaping the music of Distances. Gesing and Venier both penned music for two originals, and the three collaborated on a spontaneous composition. Venier’s “The Mermaid” probably exhibits the most buoyant jazz solo of the session provided by the composer, egged on by Gesing’s bass clarinet. While a bit at odds with Winstone’s mournful lyrics, it makes for an appealing interlude in her tale. Gesing also should get credit just for taking a soprano saxophone anywhere near “Giant’s Gentle Stride,” their reworking of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and he actually solos quite eloquently.

Distances concludes with “A Song for England,” the trio’s impromptu calypso setting of an Andrew Salkey poem, which ascribes the neurosis of the English to their depressing weather. Simultaneously humorous and triumphant, it is a pitch-perfect post-modern national anthem. One could easily envision it running over the end titles of future British films to express both irony and affection.

Distances has a deceptively sparse atmosphere, from which many exciting musical moments unfold. It is an intriguing session that stays in your head long after listening. It is definitely a recommended CD, some songs of which are likely to be interpreted live by Winstone’s group, during two sets at Joe’s Pub on June 26th.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Brick Lane Opens

Abuse stemming from arranged marriages in the Islamic world has been largely ignored by the media. Horror stories like that of Shafilea Ahmed are becoming increasingly common in Europe, so one would think the practice would offer powerful grist for cinematic drama. Despite some initial suggestions to the contrary, Brick Lane does not pick up that gauntlet. Opening Friday in New York, Lane is a very well acted, but confused and contradictory film that ultimately shrinks from causing offense to any inclined to take umbrage (trailer here).

As it opens, Lane, named for the London neighborhood traditionally home to successive immigrant communities, appears willing to honestly address the realities of life for Muslim women. Following her mother’s drowning suicide, teenaged Nazneen is sent from her idyllic Bangladeshi village to London in an arranged marriage with an older man she has never met. Director Sarah Gavron then flash-forwards sixteen years, finding Nazneen still married to Chanu, a corpulent blowhard, with two westernized teenaged daughters.

All the terms of the marriage, including those of their marriage bed, favor Chanu. She gives, he takes. However, when he rashly quits his position after being passed over for a promotion, he has difficulty holding up his minimal end of the bargain. As a result, she takes on piecemeal seamstress work to help make ends meet. In doing so, she meets the younger, passionate Karim, experiencing forbidden love at extreme risk to her position in the Bangladeshi community.

As Nazneen, Tannishta Chatterjee’s performance is flat-out remarkable. Unfortunately, the entire film comes crashing down around her. While Lane starts as a fairly eloquent portrayal of a lonely and loveless arranged marriage, a radical about-face comes late in the film, undermining Nazneen’s presumed motivations and making her final decision completely inexplicable.

When portraying Muslim characters, Lane treads ever so lightly, taking extreme pains to avoid offense. When the September 11th attacks occur, their only significance in the film is the admittedly legitimate concern about anti-Muslim backlashes. When Chanu challenges the rhetoric of the increasingly radicalized Karim at a meeting, the characters and film essentially just shrug it off. In the end, the very practice of arranged marriage is in effect exonerated, even glorified. Frankly, the only Islamic character Lane is willing to cast in a consistently negative light is the usurious Mrs. Islam—an evil capitalist.

Along the way Gavron and DP Robbie Ryan create some striking visuals. However, Lane is at heart the cinematic equivalent of an Oprah book (it is actually based on a novel by Monica Ali), boasting sensitivity to all, but deathly afraid of offending anyone, no matter how extreme. In the process, tremendous performances by Chatterjee and Satish Kaushik as Chanu are undercut by the weaknesses of the script. It opens Friday in New York at the Sunshine.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

HRW: Letter to Anna

If ever there was a woman who personified strength, dignity, and a commitment to human rights, it was Anna Politkovskaya, the crusading Russian journalist assassinated for investigating the neo-Soviet Putin regime. Unfortunately, there is not much human rights watching going on at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, besides Letter to Anna, Eric Bergkraut’s dogged documentary investigation into her death (trailer here).

Of the thirty two films at the HRW Fest, five focus their fire on Israel and four concentrate on America, clearly safe targets to shoot at. Few films at the fest, besides Letter, tackle a government perfectly willing to murder those who questions its policies, as in the case of Politkovskaya in Putin’s Russia. (To be fair, it sounds like China’s Stolen Children also deserves recognition for taking on the country’s one child policy, but the fest completely ignores Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea.) However, the sins of the festival should not be held against Letter, a first-rate documentary.

When Politkovskaya looks into the camera and tells Bergkraut she expects to be killed, it is spooky. Obviously, she knew what she was talking about, having already survived a poisoning attempt (evidently no Polonium was available to those would-be assassins). Politkovskaya made her name exposing human rights abuses (real ones) in Chechnya, again nearly getting killed in the process. It was while filming a documentary on the Russian Dirty War that Bergkraut filmed hours of interview footage with Politkovskaya, which formed the backbone of Letter.

Although one could uncharitably characterize Letter as a film built around outtakes, much of that footage is quite insightful. Perhaps most controversial will be his decision to begin by taking the audience through her assassination step by step. As Bergkraut marshals the facts and circumstances around the event he makes a compelling case against the Putin machine. By American legal standards, he would probably have enough to indict, but not convict. Of course, on a common sense level, the notion that a free-agent in Putin’s Russia would take out a prominent Putin critic without the go-ahead from the highest levels, stretches all believability.

Things are bad in Russia—no question. Relatively few have been willing to publically challenge Putin’s authoritarian rule. Some of those who did join Politkovskaya, like democracy activist Garry Kasparov, participated in the film. We also hear from expat billionaire Boris Berezovsky, perhaps a problematic anti-Putin spokesman, but always a good interview.

Letter would make for good, if depressing, companion viewing with Poisoned By Polonium, as Litvinenko appears in the former and Politkovskaya is also featured in the latter. Politkovskaya had everything to live for, having just heard she was about to become a grandmother. However, she never backed down in her attempts to hold Putin’s government accountable for its crimes. If you want to see what “patriotic dissent” looks like, Politkovskaya is its human face.

Bergkraut makes another credible case against Putin’s criminal reign, and give Susan Sarandon credit for recording the English narration (and Catherine Deneuve for the French), but are people paying attention to the increasingly frightening developments in Russia? Letter screens only once during the fifteen day film festival, Thursday the 26th, at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.

(Thanks again to La Russophobe for sharing this review with their readers.)

Monday, June 16, 2008

J.B. Spins Interview with TOMOKO

Today J.B. Spins inaugurates an occasional interview feature of emerging jazz artists, by immediately breaking format. I first heard TOMOKO sing at St. Peter’s, but strictly speaking, she is more of a soul and R&B vocalist. Her recent high-profile gigs include a booking at the Blue Note. To get a sense of her music, watch her video “Love Me” on youtube here.

JB: How familiar were you with New York before you moved from Osaka? How difficult was that transition? Could it be called a leap of faith?

T: My very first visit to New York was a one-week trip about a year prior to eventually settling down here. Osaka people are brave and relentless. The first night I went straight to 125th Street—the Apollo theater—and went into the Amateur night, it happened to be Wednesday. They had a Step-Up-to-the Mic segment, so I raised my hand and sang a song by Monica (popular R&B tune then), and had a great response.

My mentality was always different, and when I came to New York, I felt like this was my real home. Yes, I can call it a leap of faith because until I got here, I really did not have any particular person or place or business plan to count on, not to mention having just few dollars in my pocket. But I have done all I could do in Japanese show business till that point, and I totally felt the need to break free and expand myself in New York in order to become an authentic artist of this genre. And after I did so, I realized this was my destiny.

JB: At your own gigs, you are essentially singing soul, but I have heard you perform in jazz contexts as well. Are you looking for opportunities to blend genre distinctions?

T: Such a timely question! I have always tried to present myself as an “R&B singer” only because our business requires and expects you to belong to one genre. It made me feel that it was important to declare my style and where I belong as an artist, and maybe it still is important. But in my opinion “rhythm and blues” lives in every musicians and singers hearts. And it has branched out of jazz, gospel, blues and rock, or maybe pop or even country music for that matter. And the branches have even expanded into hip hop.

I have always been a fan of all these genres, especially crossover jazz and smooth jazz, such as George Benson, Al Jarreau, Rachelle Ferrell, Anita Baker, George Duke, Natalie Cole, Sade, Joe Sample, Herbie Hancock, Lalah Hathaway, etc. And when my debut CD Organically Afro Asiatic released, so many people responded to what they called a “very jazzy smooth R&B feel.” So yes I recognize my niche, and am looking into the genre blending to some degree.

JB: The great jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon was the executive-producer of your CD. How did you first meet?

T: I met his younger brother who was at that time stationed in Navy in Tokyo, starting out as a rapper also, and we performed on the same stage at a hip hop showcase in Yokohama! He always told me about his big brother Wycliffe, and after I came to New York, I got to know him backstage, and the bond was instant and he treated me like family because of that.

He is very versatile. He's from Atlanta, his roots are also blues and R&B, and all that fusion. And you can say the same for my producer Jamba. Wycliffe is my executive producer along with me, but not on the creative side for this CD. But he did play trombone with other horn players on my tracks #1 and #4. And it was very natural to everyone not worrying about what particular genre we were playing. We were focusing on squeezing together a collection of tasty notes.

JB: To give readers a better sense of who you are, maybe we can close with your favorite CD, jazz CD, book, and film?

T: I honestly think that Stevie Wonder's trilogy: The Songs in the Key Of Life, Inner Visons, and Hotter Than July, are the best three albums in my collection, ever. My other favorite R&B CDs are gonna be difficult to narrow down.

First old school: Marvin Gaye’s What's Going On, Donny Hathaway (self titled), Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, Cheryl Lynn (self titled), Earth Wind & Fire (I just can’t mention only one, just too many), Stylistics Greatest Love Hits, Isley Brothers' Groove with You.

New school: Black Street (self titled), Kipper Jones' Ordinary Story, Total (self titled), Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Raul Midon's State of Mind, Billy Porter’s Untitled, Freddie Jackson's Transitions And oh, do you know the CD by Phillip Bailey Soul on Jazz? This is what we are talking about—blending the two genre, such a great CD.

My favorite jazz CDs: Nina Simone’s Broadway Blues Ballads, Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, George Benson's Breezin,' but I love all of his CDs. All of them! Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington's Great Summit: the Master Takes, and Dee Dee Bridgewater's Live in Paris. And I have copies of all my favorite albums of Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan on cassette tapes.

Books: Conversations with God by Neal Donald Walsh, Ask and It is Given by Esther and Jerry Hicks, A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle—the best book I have ever read!

Movies: All 6 films of Rocky series! Ultimate American Dream! And my most fav classic forever: The Way We Were!

JB: From a blogger known only by his initials, to the single-named TOMOKO (remember that’s all caps), thanks for taking the time to be the first interview here. You can often hear TOMOKO live in New York and you can purchase her CD here.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Jazz Score: Martial Solal

“If A Bout de Souffle didn’t exist, nobody would think its music was particularly interesting.” So Martial Solal says in the liner notes to a French collection of his film soundtracks. That film is known to English speaking audiences as Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, the watershed film of the French New Wave, regarded as much for its perceived revolutionary aesthetics as for its own cinematic merits. However, Solal himself played no originals, cinematic or otherwise, during his concert at MoMA last night as part of the Jazz Score series, opting instead for a program of standards.

Even though the recently arrived Solal explained it was 2:30 in the morning by his time, he was in the mood to play, performing approximately two hours, including a lengthy encore. He was truly in the mood to play “Caravan,” playing two significantly different versions in a row and later head-faking the audience with a sizeable quote from the Tizol standard before starting a completely different tune.

Solal is still at the top of his game, simultaneously playful and explorative. His approach to standards can be almost cubist, but he always brings things back into the pocket. He and bassist François Moutin were perfectly in-synch playing together, though at times Solal seemed to be changing things up to make things interesting. “He’ll get tired before I will,” he told the crowd.

Solal’s wit came through in both his music and his banter, delighting a sold out house. Those who return tomorrow can screen Breathless, Godard’s radically influential directorial debut (music-less trailer here). Loosely based on a treatment by François Truffaut, crediting Claude Chabrol as a technical advisor, and featuring Jean-Pierre Melville in a supporting role, Breathless is the end product of contributions from at least four major French directors, but Godard is the unquestioned auteur.

Breathless is nihilism triumphant, but fascinatingly so. In any other film, Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel Poiccard would be a pathetic jerk. For Godard, his accidental violence is his existential redemption. He apes the gangsters of American film noir, particularly Bogart, and after much effort, seduces the not very impressed American Patricia Franchini, played by Jean Seberg. He convinces her to accompany him on the lamb, until she betrays him more or less on a whim. Like Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Marc in Le Départ, Poiccard is an immature young man, who fancies himself a bad customer, but his posturing escalates into full-blown criminality. Solal’s music helps evoke the film noir that influenced both director and character, with themes that swing, but have a hint of menace. Indeed, his main theme, “La Mort” is classic crime jazz.

Breathless has been interpreted as an anti-American statement: a Frenchman seduced by Hollywood images into a life a crime is betrayed by an unfeeling American working for The New York Herald Tribune, an arm of the omnipresent American media. Knowing where Godard went in later films, it is probably a fair interpretation. It hardly needs be said that millions saw those same gangster movies without being similarly effected as Poiccard. They simply had stronger personalities and moral compasses. Of course, that makes them boring to Godard.

Breathless screens again at MoMA this afternoon, as part of the well programmed Jazz Score retrospective. MoMA’s concerts in the series have had a distinctly international flavor, with the French-Algerian Solal following that of Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko. Solal does not play in America that often, so hearing him live last night was a rare treat.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Bill Finegan, RIP

This week the Jim Flora online mafia (which I suppose I qualify for membership in) marked the passing of Bill Finegan, an arranger’s arranger and the co-leader of the under-appreciated Sauter-Finegan Orchestra (check out J.D. King and the Jim Flora blog for more information). During its five year run, the band recorded for the RCA labels, which is how Flora’s distinctive art came to grace their covers.

Finegan made a reputation selling arrangements to Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, two bandleaders who were dependent on quality arrangers to maintain their romantic and sentimental sounds. His future partner Eddie Sauter’s resume included work with Benny Goodman and Red Norvo. Together they created a distinctive big band sound, lauded for its aural colors and textures.

After disbanding, Sauter maintained the higher music profile. He is probably best remembered by jazz fans for his work on two classic Stan Getz albums, Focus and the Mickey One soundtrack. Finegan did contribute charts to Holiday with Mulligan, the only recorded collaboration between Gerry Mulligan and vocalist Judy Holiday, before her premature death from cancer. Released almost twenty years after her death, it is an overlooked minor classic, unfairly dismissed by the cynical, because Mulligan and Holiday were involved at the time (no Flora cover though). Bill Finegan 1917-2008.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Snowy, Sleep-Walking Winnipeg

It is not inappropriate that the production designer and cinematographer get their due before the actors in the opening credits of director Guy Maddin’s new so-called documentary. Maddin’s films have always reflected his distinctive style, but that keen visual sense is particularly effective in his bizarre love letter to his Manitoba hometown, My Winnipeg (trailer here).

Mixing fact and mostly fiction, with his own family history (the truth of which is anyone’s guess), Maddin creates a hypnotic vision of Winnipeg that is utterly convincing during the film, despite its highly stylized flights of fancy. When watching Winnipeg, you will believe that the city’s abnormally high rate of sleepwalking led to a municipal law requiring citizens to watch over somnambulists until they wake, should they let themselves into their former residences during their nocturnal ramblings.

In order to leave Winnipeg, Guy Maddin, played by Darcy Fehr, decides to cathartically recreate scenes from his childhood in the old family home. Playing Maddin’s supposedly real-life mother is cult-actress Ann Savage, best remembered for the cult-film Detour, in a performance that can only heighten her cult-following. However, the real star of Winnipeg is the deceptively prosaic Midwestern Canadian city itself.

North of Minnesota, but safely south of the Arctic, Winnipeg is portrayed as a mysterious city of perennial winter, taking on mystical power from its location near the geographic heart of the continent and the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Maddin often uses the image of the forked rivers to compare Winnipeg to part of the female body (if you’re not getting the picture, I can’t help you). Winnipeg is full of such weird sexual images and representations, but it is not prurient, just idiosyncratic.

What is really seductive about Winnipeg is the secret history Maddin concocts, presumably, but which always seems oddly plausible somehow. We see a séance performed through interpretive dance in the provincial capitol building. We visit a Winnipeg make-out spot, “the horseheads,” formed when spooked horses were freakishly frozen solid in the river, as they stampeded away from a racetrack fire. We watch an episode of Ledge Man, Winnipeg’s only locally produced television show, naturally starring Maddin’s mother, as a woman who talks her suicidal son off the ledge every weekday afternoon.

Ironically, it is only when Maddin shows us something of Winnipeg that is obviously real, in this case the beloved old hockey stadium that was demolished and the new corporate-sponsored facility that replaced it, that the film becomes unconvincing. It jars us out of our sleep-walk through the city’s hidden back alleys with commonplace complaints about the evils of modernism and corporate development. Unlike the rest of Winnipeg, this is something we have seen before, frequently.

Production designer Rejean Labrie and DP Jody Shapiro do indeed deserve credit for transforming Winnipeg into a surreal Neverland. Aside from maybe the last ten minutes or so, Winnipeg is a very funny, thoroughly entertaining film that totally pulls the viewer into its alternate reality, regardless of the constraints of logic and common sense. It opens today in New York at the IFC Film Center.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Megumi Yokota Story

What does a so-called pariah nation have to do to be treated like a pariah? That is what the parents of Megumi Yokota would like to know. The North Korean regime admits it kidnapped their daughter and has never satisfactorily explained her fate, but has faced little or no consequences from the Japanese government as a result. The nearly forty year ordeal of the Yokotas is the subject of the heartbreaking documentary, Abduction: the Megumi Yokota Story (trailer here), airing on PBS’s Independent Lens on June 19th.

North Korea’s guilt in the Yokota case is not in dispute. Despite the initial denials of the state media, North Korea officially admits kidnapping thirteen Japanese citizens (the film estimates real number to be around 100), including the then thirteen year-old Yokota. However, what happened to her in North Korea remains shrouded in mystery, as the government’s official story constantly evolves.

According to “An,” a North Korean defector interviewed in the film, abductees were forced to teach spies in training the Japanese language and culture. He explains: “At that time, every North Korean spy who infiltrated Japan tried to kidnap someone.” Typically, they targeted victims in their early twenties. At thirteen, Yokota was actually a mistake, but her abductors never considered turning around to return her. As An describes the appalling treatment endured by the frightened girl during her transit to North Korea, it is both heartrending and infuriating.

As would be expected, her family also suffered greatly as a result of her abduction, with their marriage severely strained by guilt, uncertainty, and exhaustion. While her mother finds some solace in Christianity, her father appears to be a near shell of a man. It is impossible not to sympathize with them or to be moved by their daughter’s plight. By all accounts in the film, Yokota was a bright, happy young girl with a particular talent for music, heard taking a solo in Schumann’s “Gypsy Life” during a school production.

In response to revelations of the North Korean abductions, the Japanese government responded with some strongly worded statements and large shipments of food aid to the DPRK. That surely taught them a lesson. It is clear most Japanese politicians would like the abduction issue to simply disappear. When pressed by demonstrators, one arrogant LDP politician actually says: “Get elected and then come talk to me.” Exasperated with Japanese inaction after yet another incident of North Korean bad faith, her father complains at one point: “If this happened in America, they’d go to war.” (Though one fears our leaders would be just as inclined to policies of appeasement.)

Through news footage and interview segments directors Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim have assembled a documentary that is part spy mystery and part family tragedy. At crucial points in the narrative, they create real suspense through their careful presentation and editing. Executive-produced by Jane Campion of The Piano fame, Abduction had a long theatrical run in Japan, and now after making the festival circuit, will air on most PBS markets next Thursday (in New York look for it at 12:30 am on Saturday the 21st). It is an important film, revealing the very real human suffering deliberately caused by a thoroughly evil government.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Czech Beauty in Trouble

If you tour Prague with a local, they will periodically point out the waterlines from the 2002 flood, their first legitimate crisis post-Communism. The flood devastated many Czech families, including the highly dysfunctional married couple of Jan Hřebejk’s Beauty in Trouble (trailer here), opening in New York this Friday.

Even without the flood, Marcela and Jarda would probably be creating drama to strain their relationship, but it has added financial stresses. All that holds them together is their sexual codependence. When Jarda’s chop shop is busted, it presumably spells the end of their marriage. In probably the oddest “meet-cute” in film, Marcela attracts the attentions of Evžen Beneš, the wealthy older owner of the fateful car sending Jarda up the river, while both cool their heels in the police station.

Marcela also faces family issues, forced to move in with her mother and new step father, who can only be described as icky. His scatological and sexual preoccupations might not be outright dangerous, but are certainly creepy. Yet her mother remains willfully blind. Eventually, the disgusted daughter accepts the free use of an apartment in the Beneš family home, while he tends to business in his Tuscan villa.

The Beneš family, evidently taking a cue from the Hungarian Revolution, expatriated to Italy after 1956, where they obviously made good. Now he represents security for Marcela, but cannot match the sexual lure of her deadbeat husband. Inspired by the Robert Graves poem of the same name, Beauty is about Marcela’s uncertain choice between the financial and emotional stability of Beneš and the lustful chaos of Jarda.

The generous Beneš, played by Josef Abrhám looking like a distinguished Michael McDonald, often finds his trust betrayed by those around him, as Marcela is unable to resist Jarda’s charms, while another tenant attempts to swindle him out of his family house using a technicality in post-Communist reclamation laws. Not knowing how common the Beneš surname is in the Czech Republic, I cannot say if he is intended to recall Edvard Beneš, the democratic president emasculated by the Communist coup of 1948. It is safe to say Beneš the expat has been identified as a potential mark, too gentle and gentile to offer resistance to those looking to take.

Beauty is a very sexually frank film, but like Eyes Wide Shut, its sex scenes are only erotic out of context. Within the film their implications are excruciatingly uncomfortable, often leading to nervous laughter at the screening I attended. This is not Sex in the City, more like Last Tango, without the explicit excesses.

The noble Beneš is an easy character to like, even when pushed to his breaking point. The rest of the cast of characters, including Marcela, the Beauty herself, can be quite trying. As a result, Beneš’ continuing attraction is often difficult to understand. When the film does connect emotionally, it is usually with the help of Hřebejk’s shrewd use of music, particularly the songs of Glen Hansard, including the Oscar winning “Falling Slowly” from Once. However, Beauty is a surprisingly intellectual examination of passion, cold rather than hot-blooded. It opens at the Angelika on Friday.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Cultural Survival

Cultural Survival
By David Sánchez
Concord Picante

In a sense, jazz artists are in constant dialogue with their musical ancestors. In the case of David Sánchez’s new CD, Cultural Survival, inspiration from familial and historical sources dovetailed serendipitously, particularly on the cornerstone track: “La Leyenda del Cañaveral.” The resulting album is a searching session of hard to classify music, combining many influences into its musical melting pot.

Though Sánchez employs Latin rhythm and percussion throughout Survival, the overall session often has more of a hard-bop vibe, prominently featuring Sánchez’s heavy Coltrane-influenced tenor. Aside from two guest appearances by Danilo Perez and one from Robert Rodriguez, Lage Lund’s guitar provides Sánchez’s chordal foil in his pianoless group. This gives the musical a funky undercurrent, further contributing to the slipperiness of its genre classification.

Survival opens with “Coast to Coast,” benefiting from the presence of Lund’s guitar in the easy grooving introduction, before Sánchez delivers a surprisingly explorative solo. Perez joins the combo for “Manto Azul,” but blends with Lund quite effectively. The one standard of the session is Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood,” interpreted with respectful tenderness by Sánchez. Survival is richly textured throughout, but the concluding originals carry the greatest gravitas.

“The Forgotten Ones” is a mournful dedication to New Orleanians, featuring a ghostly melody and a passionate solo. Despite being the briefest track, it says a great deal. (It seems like the inclusion of a New Orleans dedication is becoming increasingly common on jazz releases, like Metheny’s recent Day Trip, but if the music is inspired as well as simply well-intentioned, as on Survival, than so much the better.)

The concluding “La Leyenda del Cañaveral” is an extended composition about the African diasporic experience in the Caribbean, sparked by his sister Margarita’s poem “Molasses.” It was performed live with poetic recitations at Zankel Hall, but on this recorded version, the vocal elements consist exclusively of opening and closing chants. It is a dramatic tour-de-force, evolving from one exciting sound to another. An early vamp motif emerges from the chanted prologue, segueing into thoughtful solos from Lund and Sánchez, moving through passages of turbulence and reflection, then reconciling back into the vamp, given a funkier hue from Rodgriuez’s shift to the Rhodes.

Sánchez dedicated Survival to the recently departed Mario Rivera and Cachao, again making an explicit connection between the work of the present and the legacy of those who came before. It is a worthy musical statement that rewards repeated listening.

Monday, June 09, 2008

BIFF: August

Indy filmmakers seem to share Hollywood’s contempt for the supposedly evil businessman, but if there is one exception to the stereotype, it is the tech guru. Internet start-up wizards who created business plans with no appreciable stream of revenue are not typically portrayed like the crass capitalist. A fresh example would be Josh Harnett’s Tom Sterling, a one-time Wired magazine cover-boy with an ugly neck tattoo, whose spectacular fall is told in the upcoming film August (trailer here), which screened at the Brooklyn International Film Fest.

Sterling capitalized on his younger brother’s innovations to create Landshark, the last of the tech start-ups to get Wall Street’s blessing. What they do is kept purposefully vague. Harnett tells a potential client: “We’re not the e-commerce, we’re the e.” So how is that “e” working out? Not well. After a blockbuster IPO, Landshark has come crashing down to Earth and desperately needs an infusion of capital to stay afloat.

Harnett’s Sterling is portrayed as a snake oil salesman without any oil. His brother’s breakthroughs are the real deal, but their revenue projections are not. There simply is no market for whatever Landshark has to offer—at least not yet. All Sterling really has to sell are image and rhetoric, running the company in his words: “on fumes.” When Sterling finally gets his comeuppance at the hands of old school moneymen, personified by David Bowie, it is stone cold business.

Sterling might be self-important, but he is also self-destructive, as witnessed by his sabotage of a second chance with Sarrah, an ex-girlfriend, played by Naomie Harris, who brings a distinct charm to a thankless role. He also has issues with his parents, former sixties radicals who sold out to academia, but cannot understand his dreams of capitalist glory. (They do listen to John Coltrane and Benny Goodman, so they can’t be all bad).

August moves at a lightning quick pace as the Landsharkers scramble against time to save the company, but it is hard to fully sympathize with Sterling along the way, due to the limitations of its lead. For his part, Hartnett is totally convincing as an arrogant jerk, but less so expressing more complex emotions, so director Austin Chick wisely plays to his strength.

When Landshark crashes, it is pretty dramatic, but August seems to keep it all in perspective. The title refers to the specific time in which it is set, August 2001, a month before September 11th. The implication seems to be that in a September 10th world, the doings of Sterling’s start-up could considered quite important, but in a post-September 11th world, much less so. In effect, August depicts an innocent time that thought it was cynical, as evidenced by clips of the moron media’s celebrity coverage and manufactured controversies.

August is pretty smart in its portrayal of the death rattle of the internet boom. Much of it will ring true to those who first heard constantly about stock options from friends at dotcoms, and then suddenly nothing, when their company’s stock certificates became cheap souvenirs of the late 1990’s. It effectively recreates a specific time and place, as well as the attitude that went with it. It opens in New York at the Village East on July 11th.

BIFF: Shorts

Film festivals are just about the only venue left for short films, aside from the occasional theatrical round-up of the year’s Oscar nominated shorts. Last week, BIFF held up its end with an extensive selection of shorts, which varied widely in every discernable measure. Three were particularly memorable, again for very different reasons.

The best single film of the festival had a mere thirteen minute running time, but each minute counted. In German director Jochen Alexander Freydank’s Toyland (Spielzeugland), an Aryan mother cannot bring herself to explain to her young son that his Jewish best friend will be imminently transported to a concentration camp. Instead, she tells him that friend is going to Toyland. Naturally, her son wants to go too, as the mother’s white lie leads to complications she had not foreseen. It is difficult to reveal much of the story given its brevity, but it well earns the emotional payoff of its elegant conclusion.

Toyland handles the subject of the Holocaust with respect and dignity. Unfortunately, The River of Copsa Mica, simply uses WWII and the Holocaust as window dressing for an allegory about environmental pollution and the military-industrial complex. Making a statement on current controversies is perfectly legitimate, but using such a significant event as a rhetorical device borders on the offensive.

Thabo Wolfaardt’s surprisingly intense Joburg (trailer here), though certainly self-contained, would be the one short film of the festival that most cries out to be expanded into a full feature. Filmed entirely in Johannesburg, it effectively captures the danger and squalor of the city. Tshepo, a newspaper hawker desperate to pay for his brother’s medicine and overdue rent, carjacks a pregnant woman having a very bad night. The relationship between these two characters is deftly handled, leading viewers to speculate about further dealings between them.

The best short films require the discipline of the short story and the imagery of poetry. Making a really good one is hard, but Toyland and Joburg are excellent examples.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

BIFF: Panman

The drum has always held great spiritual significance beyond its ostensible role making music, particularly in the Caribbean. It inspired Duke Ellington to write A Drum is a Woman, the story of Carribee Joe and his personified drum Madam Zajj, for an installment of CBS’ the United States Steel Hour. It was a program that probably would have appealed to the lead character of Panman, Rhythm of the Palms (trailer here), which screened at BIFF this weekend.

The drum in question for Panman is the steel pan drum, which originated in Trinidad, but spread throughout the Caribbean, including the Dutch Antilles. It is the instrument that has given meaning to Harry Daniel’s life, but as the film opens, his traditional style of music has fallen out of favor. He labors through a demeaning resort gig, before his deteriorating body collapses, which cues a flashback of his musical rise and fall, told through the narration of his estranged student Jacko.

Though fictional, Daniel’s career follows a path recognizable to those who have seen a lot of musical biographies. As a young man, his musical talent initially makes him a star, but his business concerns are damaged by his troubled brother’s incompetence. Along the way, he meets the right woman, but his obsessive dedication to his music leads him to neglect his family.

Oddly, there is not a lot of steel pan in Panman. It seems more interested in using the instrument as a symbol—representing both the traditional music losing popularity to modern electronic forms, and African culture, as opposed to the Dutch, which many on St. Maarten persist in identifying with. Fortunately, Panman is relatively restrained when addressing issues of cultural identity. (It is considered the first film to be produced by St. Maarten, though directed by the Dutch Sander Burger.)

As a result, the individual drama has to carry the load in Panman, and to that end, screenwriter Ian Valz is quite credible as Daniel, giving the audience both rage and nuance. Frankly, the entire cast holds up well, considering there are not a lot of musical interludes to leaven the script’s trials and tragedies.

Although Valz’s Daniel avoided the cliché of self-destructive substance abuse, there is much in Daniel’s story arc which seems predictable. In a sense though, the lack of faith shown in pan music by the filmmakers undercuts their lionization of Daniel. However, things never get irreparably bogged down in melodrama, and Panman does convey a good sense of life on St. Maarten. Highly watchable, it still might disappoint hardcore steel drum enthusiasts.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Mongol from Kazakhstan

The Academy rules for what constitutes a foreign language film are sometimes controversial, but a film from Kazakhstan, by a Russian director, about Mongolia’s national hero, evidently qualified. That film, Mongol, the surprise best foreign language nominee, opens today in New York (trailer here).

If screening Mongol without the opening credits, one could easily be convinced it was a new subtitled blood-and-guts historical from Mel Gibson. Despite its exotic lineage, it has the elements of a traditional epic. The young Temudgin loses his father, but swears vengeance against his killer. He develops a Kane and Abel relationship with his childhood blood brother and future rival. Though often separated from his wife by the machinations of his enemies, he always finds her again, often pregnant with another dead husband lying at her feet. Characters from his past continually re-emerge to foretell his eventually greatness. Of course, they are not wrong, as Temudgin would eventually be known as Chinggis (or Genghis) Khan. Director Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol chronicles his early life, filling in some historical gaps with its own fictional speculation.

During the Soviet occupation, the Communists vilified the Mongolian hero, fearing his power as unifying symbol. (In 1962, they briefly flip-flopped on their anti-Khan propanganda, trying co-opt his national prestige.) Oddly, many in the west adopted Soviet characterizations of Chinggis Khan as a blood-thirsty savage, but his rule has been credited by scholars as the first anywhere to establish religious tolerance, women’s rights, the abolition torture, and lower tax rates for doctors, clergy, and teachers. To the pride of Mongolians, Khan was dubbed the “Man of the Millennium” by the Washington Post.

Some of the best scenes of Mongol show the seeds of Khan’s grand vision for a modern Mongolia in early germination. However, the film is really about sweeping historical drama, with many of scenes of armies clashing on the wind-swept steppe. There is plenty of hack-and-slash in Mongol, but action fans might feel cheated when the film’s mysticism trumps battle carnage.

Most of the Mongols in Mongol are played by Mongolians, but Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano plays Temudgin and Chinese actor Honglei Sun plays his one-time friend, Jamukha, with villainous relish. Probably the best performance comes from first-time Mongolian actor Khulan Chuluun as Temudgin’s resilient first wife and true love Borte. In many respects, Mongol is an old fashion epic love story, but it is a film Hollywood could not make these days because they do not have any young actors manly enough to play Temudgin.

Bodrov’s previous work includes co-scripting East/West, a critical examination of the Stalinist era. In a way, making Mongol can be seen as a further rejection of the Communist propaganda Bodrov grew up under. Granted, the constant parade of sufferings to be born gets exhausting, but the Twelfth Century was pretty much one darned thing after another. While sometimes the mysticism is laid on a little heavy, Bodrov keeps the action moving along at a good clip, showing a particular talent for grit and gore. It opens today in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

BIFF: Blue Hour

The Los Angeles River is probably best cinematically remembered in James Cameron’s Terminator 2. It plays a role of even greater significance in Eric Nazarian’s independent film, The Blue Hour (trailer here), a completely different undertaking altogether, which screened at the BKLN fest.

Nazarian’s film is a painfully personal examination of individual tragedy and alienation as seen through the eyes of several characters whose paths cross but lives do not intersect, in the Pulp Fiction style of overlapping narratives. Blue Hour in contrast, unfolds in a deliberate pace, making John Sayles look like the Wachowski Brothers.

Emily Rios plays Happy, an essentially unsupervised young teen, who uses the river embankment as her canvas. Avo and Allegra, played by Dutch actor Yorick Van Wageningen and Alyssa Milano, still mourn the death of their young daughter, as their relationship frays. Derrick O’Connor plays Humphrey, an old man going through the motions of life, still mourning his wife’s death. In an inspired act of casting, Clarence Williams III plays Ridley, a blues guitarist, staying in a low rent hotel while he tends to his dying mother wasting away in a hospital. These lonely, disparate lives are tied together by a few locations: the river, the cemetery, and a blues-rock bar, and a doomed homeless man.

This is not a talky picture. Nazarian’s isolated characters go for long stretches without speaking, but music does play an important role in the film. Happy takes inspiration from hip hop, and the blues supplies Ridley’s living, such as it is. Various characters drift into a lounge where Eric Burdon of the Animals leads the house blues-rock band. Their take on “Motherless Child” perfectly suits the film’s melancholy.

Burdon actually had personal significance to Nazarian, who was in fact named after the British invasion star. In the production notes he explains: “Burdon’s music was an escape for my father’s ‘Soviet hippy’ generation in the USSR. ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ and ‘They Can’t Take Away Our Music’ were their anthems and battle cries against the oppressive years during Brezhnev’s era.”

Nazarian is a patient director, with a painter’s eye for composition. His cast is uniformly good, especially the great Williams. His character do experience redemptive moments, but they are subtle and fleeting (as in some Russian literature). Elegantly crafted, Blue Hour is a demanding film, which wins the respect of those who stay with it. Like the makers of The Collective, also screened at BIFF, he conveys a strong sense of his subject city, but unlike the dangerous (and by extension seductive) New York of the former film, it is a city of sadness that Nazarian portrays on- screen.

BIFF: Pang Nat Det (Punk Not Dead)

Given the political corruption of Indonesia’s political system and its traditional Islamic society, it is understandable how its younger generations, feeling repressed, would be so receptive to punk rock. Punk might be little more than a nostalgia trip in the West, but evidently Indonesia’s scene is thriving, which is why the long-in-the-tooth German punk band Cluster Bomb Unit periodically tours there. It is one such tour that Andreas Geiger follows in his documentary, Pang Nat Det (Punk Not Dead a.k.a. Punk im Dschungel), screening as part of the Brooklyn International Film Festival (trailer here).

Cluster Bomb Unit never really became huge, so do not be alarmed if you weren’t previously hip to them. Still, despite living quiet suburban and rural lives, they periodically get together for shows and tours. Before leaving Germany, they play a gig for a few hundred uninspired listeners. During the tour they play for thousands of Indonesians moshing and rioting in front of them, which explains why they come. It is not for the money. During the tour, they crash at local punk collectives and receive no upfront guarantees, but they get rockstar treatment, of a sort, from their loyal fans and friends.

We hear a whole lot of Cluster Bomb Unit in performance. If you are a German punk enthusiast, this is the film for you, but if you are not already a fan, their music might not win you over. In German, punk sounds even more severe, and translated for subtitles, their lyrics read like self-parody. However, the band members seem very down-to-earth and good-natured when interacting with Indonesian punks when off-stage. They also appear genuinely interested in all aspects of their host country’s culture, like guitarist Werner Nötzel, who buys some campy, but intriguing looking Indonesian pop on vinyl.

The initial set-up for Pang shows a lot of potential. Indeed, the visual images of big, grizzled German punks making their way through sleepy Indonesian villages are undeniably intriguing. Unfortunately, the film never really gets beyond the basic travelogue. Rather late in the film, Geiger does try to establish the local punks’ credentials as political activists, particularly as advocates of an anti-consumerist D-I-Y campaign. (Ironically though, the punks seem quite enterprising, coordinating ambitious tours for clueless European bands.)

Geiger also seems to want to position punks within the Indonesian mainstream, recording one punk’s Imam pronouncement that: “punks are good people.” It is great that he is so accepting, but one wonders what kind of responses Geiger would have received had he polled twenty or thirty more Imams.

It is definitely fascinating to see this Indonesian sub-culture based on western music survive and even thrive. It is also encouraging to see Cluster Bomb Unit can still bring it loud and rude, but once you have those points, you largely got the entire film. It screens again as part of BIFF on Saturday at the Brooklyn Lyceum.