Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich

A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich
Directed by Ralph Nelson
Koch Vision

Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson were a very successful cinematic couple, with both earning Academy Award nominations for their work as the parents in 1972’s Sounder. Five years later, they paired together on-screen again, but this time Winfield played Butler, the prospective step-father to Tyson’s single mother. This is a crucial distinction for her son Benjie, the confused thirteen year-old protagonist of A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (trailer here), now available on DVD.

Benjie’s environment is less than ideal. Director Ralph Nelson shows us a smoggy, blighted Los Angeles in his opening shots, in which crime is increasingly a fact of life. Yet, Benjie has a loving mother and grandmother, as well as Butler, his mother’s live-in boyfriend, who earnestly tries to do right by the entire family. However, his father’s desertion has left Benjie in a state of denial, leading to resentment of Butler, despite his obvious potential as a father-figure.

This is most definitely the 1970’s, and institutions like Benjie’s George Washington Carver Junior High are in turmoil. His homeroom teacher prefers African-Nationalism to academics, whereas his English teacher is a holdout for standards. They clash over issues of curriculum and whether to deal openly with the school’s burgeoning drug problem. Unfortunately, Benjie will fall victim to neighborhood pushers, developing a nasty heroin habit, which leads him to steal from Butler and his grandmother, putting the proceeds up his arm.

Sandwich is a product of the 1970’s in a good way too, featuring a smoothly funky, flute-heavy soundtrack composed by Tom McIntosh and performed by flutist Hubert Laws group, including Victor Lewis on drums and Barry Finnerty on guitar. Musicians for the large ensemble arrangements also include the composer on trombone and jazz studio veterans like Plas Johnson on tenor and Victor Feldman on vibes.

Altogether, Sandwich is an interesting time-capsule of the late 1970’s, featuring an interesting cast, including Larry B. Scott (who would later attain some notoriety as one of the geeks in the Revenge of the Nerds franchise), as Benjie. The standout performance though comes from Paul Winfield as Butler. A former jazz musician forced to accept janitorial employment, Butler is still a proud man, who finds no shame in hard work. He is in fact, an excellent role model, but Benjie’s head is not in a place that would allow him to see Butler clearly. Nelson, the director of classics like Lilies of the Field and Charly, would end his career with a string of made-for-tv movies, and at times Sandwich has that kind of look. However, his use of still photo montages during Benjie’s dramatic stretch in rehab is surprisingly effective.

Based on the young adult novel by Alice Childress, who also wrote the screenplay, Sandwich is definitely an “issue” film, but the drama is substantial. Clearly, Sandwich is a product of its time, but is well worth revisiting on the strength of Winfield’s exceptional work and the cool tunes from McIntosh and Laws.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Trouble with Indy Movie Romance

Hyatt Regency Century Plaza looks like a very nice hotel. In addition to their well-appointed rooms, they keep all their annoying guests on the same floor. At least it seems to work that way in Gene Rhee’s The Trouble with Romance (trailer here), an anthology film about four problematic couples staying in four different rooms in the Hyatt, which opens today in New York and is available from Warner Brothers On-Demand.

In room #1, Jill certainly looks healthy, but mentally she is a mess. During a one night stand, she starts hallucinating visions of her former boyfriend, much to the understandable alarm of her partner for the evening. Next door, a married couple checks-in, looking to spice things up with a romantic evening alone. Or so he thinks. Actually, the wife has very different plans, involving her attractive co-worker, Rachel.

The real trouble with romance in Rhee’s film is that there just is not very much of it to be found. Eventually, romance does show up (sort of) in the third story. James is clearly too immature for his girlfriend Stephanie. He is the kind of guy talks like Snoop Dog will be calling him to hang, while slaving over spreadsheets in his office cubicle. When he invites his “homies” over for some clubbing on the night of his anniversary, he finally gets the dumping he had coming. Unfortunately, he had been planning to propose later in the evening.

As Steph, Emily Liu seems way too smart and attractive for this knucklehead. At least she gets one of the best written scenes of the film with Judith Montgomery, who brings a much appreciated touch of class to the proceedings as an older and wiser woman, who advises Steph while both are stuck in an elevator.

While room #3 showed definite signs of improvement, the fourth is probably the strongest, thanks to the chemistry between Sheetal Sheth and Jordan Belfri, who play a prostitute and her john, respectively. Although their story and fleeting relationship does exactly break new ground, they just click together on-screen. Sheth is particularly effective as an unlikely defender of love as an ideal, and quite alluring in Rhee’s striking closing shot, accompanied by Gene Ammons’s big warm jazz tenor sax playing “Someone to Watch Over Me,” licensed from Prestige Records. Great way to end.

Trouble starts out as a train wreck, but Rhee pulls it together (to an extent) down the stretch. He elicits some good performances and sets some nice scenes in the final two stories, but in its entirety, the film remains too inconsistent and trifling to get excited about. It opens today in New York at the Quad. Scenes from Trouble will also be shown during the second program of the Korean American Film Festival New York, this Saturday (2/28) at 8:00.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Buddy Movie: Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead

Robert Blecker is an unusual liberal. A New York Law School professor, Blecker is one of the few academics dedicated to defending the politically incorrect position on the death penalty. He would find the most challenging intellectual sparring partner of his career in death-row inmate Daryl Holton. Surprisingly though, they seemed to share similar opinions on the death penalty. Both supported it as public policy and believed it should be applied to Holton himself. That strange common ground leads to an unlikely relationship that approaches friendship in Ted Schillinger’s documentary Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday.

Unlike most capitol punishment advocates, Blecker never shies away from the concept of retribution—in fact, it is central to his arguments. At times, his world-view sounds distinctly Biblical, as when he often quotes: “The voice of your brother's blood is crying to Me from the ground.” In a nutshell, Blecker’s supposedly radical position is that those who take life in particularly heinous fashion deserve to die, accordingly.

Schillinger is scrupulously fair to his primary subject, giving him sufficient time to adequately explain his positions. Though passionate to a fault, Blecker should not be written-off as a zealot. Early in the film, he unequivocally opposes death sentences for unpremeditated murders committed during arm robberies and the like, which make up the majority of American death row cases. His outrage is palpable when watching death-row inmates playing dominoes or lifers enjoying a friendly softball game, raising a legitimate point that the American justice system is preoccupied with duration, but ignores the question of intensity.

To bolster his case, Blecker started interviewing death-row inmates, which is how he met the disarmingly self-aware Holton. Though Blecker himself uses terms like smart and witty to describe Holton, the film never lets the audience forget the nature of his crimes. The Tennessee man lined-up his three sons and step-daughter (ages 4 to 12) and executed them with an assault rifle.

Blecker finds Holton refreshing because he readily admits his guilt and fights all attempts to appeal his sentence. Their major bone of contention is Holton’s motive. Blecker is driven to force Holton to admit he killed out of wrath or spite and not to save his children from a sinful upbringing in the hands of his morally bankrupt (according to Holton) ex-wife. Then as Holton’s execution is nearly at hand, he does the unthinkable. He files his own last minute appeal.

It might sound like an odd little story, but the saga of Blecker and Holton has some unexpectedly engrossing twists and turns. Blecker’s personality is a force of nature, pulling audiences through the film despite whatever preconceptions they might have entered with. Most documentaries claim to be even-handed and then proceed to exercise unconcealed favoritism. However, Schillinger is remarkably fair to all sides of the issue and never loses sight of the horrific nature of Holton’s crimes. As a result, Blecker compares quite favorably to At the Death House Door, another recent death penalty documentary which is much more of a stacked deck. It opens Friday in New York at the Cinema Village.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Back to Bossa with Eliane Elias

Bossa Nova Stories
By Eliane Elias
Blue Note Records

Throughout Calle 54, Fernando Trueba’s exceptional Latin jazz performance documentary, only one woman is seen on-screen. At least Eliane Elias made the most of her appearance, giving the film a power-shot of elegant glamour, as she leads her own trio in a performance of a Baden Powell tune. Now Elias unapologetically embraces that alluring image with her latest CD, Bossa Nova Stories, a set of romantic Bossa standards and arrangements, featuring lush strings and her own vocals.

Elias has dazzling technique at the piano, but this CD is more about flirtation and seduction, starting with the all-time Bossa classic, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl from Ipanema.” While the string arrangements follow the style of Jobim’s 1970’s CTI sessions, Elias’s caressing vocals never let the song of unrequited love feel too melancholy. Growing up in a musical Brazilian family, Elias actually knew Jobim as a teenager, so it is not surprising he is well represented on Stories with three tunes. His nearly-as-famous “Desafinado” gets a similar orchestral treatment, but more space is allotted to Elias’s piano statements, while the gentle swinger “Chega de Saudade” features Elias and her trio of drummer Paulo Baraga and bassist (and husband) Marc Johnson (of Bill Evans Trio fame), along with Brazilian guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves.

In addition to Bossa standards, Elias also recasts a number of traditional jazz standards as Bossas. Harry Warren’s “The More I See You” might be her strongest vocal of the set, thanks to the nicely suggestive turn she gives to the lyrics. The Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take that Away from Me,” likewise has a pleasingly sultry Diana Krall-esque vibe.

Two prestigious musicians well versed in Brazilian musical idioms also lend their talents to Stories. Representing contemporary Brazilian music, Ivan Lins appears as a composer and guest vocalist (briefly) on the dreamy “I’m Not Alone (Who Loves You).” Though not the first jazz harmonica player, Toots Thielemans is certainly considered the greatest and in recent years he has frequently explored the possibilities of Brazilian music. His wistful sound is instantly recognizable on “Estate (Summer)” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman,” given a legitimate jazz treatment by Elias and her group.

In more or less confining herself to the Bossa, Elias can only range so far in terms of tone and tempo here, but it makes for an effective mood-setter. Elias is a wonderful pianist and her vocals are surprisingly strong throughout the session. Recorded at London’s storied Abbey Road Studios, Stories is a well-crafted showcase for her talents that should prove popular with the Starbucks set, given its consistently warm and appealing sound.

(Photo Credit: Fernando Louza)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Nina Simone Live on Campus

Great Performances—Live College Concerts and Interviews
By Nina Simone
Orchard Music

Considering Billie Holiday’s sense of ownership of “Strange Fruit” and the song’s visceral lyrics, it remains a bold choice for vocalists. Of course, Nina Simone was not exactly a shrinking violet. As an artist who often sang socially conscious songs and deeply respected Holiday, it was in fact a logical choice or her repertoire. “Strange Fruit,” the grim protest song decrying lynching in Southern states, is indeed representative of Simone’s songs and philosophy, as recorded in Nina Simone: Great Performances—Live College Concerts and Interviews (trailer here), a previously unreleased treasury of Simone recorded live in 1968 at the University of Massachusetts and Morehouse College, now available exclusively on i-tunes, beginning today.

While Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” remains one of the definitive versions of the jazz standard, it is not included on College Concerts. Instead, setting the tone is Simone’s funky “Revolution,” with lyrics like: “Yeah, your Constitution. Well, my friend, its gonna have to bend.” However, when a Simone interview track is played on top of the song, it is difficult to distinguish either. It eventually bleeds into the first of two version’s Simone’s distinctive take on “My Way,” reconfigured into an anthem of female empowerment. Other thematically-related songs Simone interprets include: “Black is the Color,” and indeed, “Strange Fruit” (accompanied by gruesome archival photos).

A classically trained pianist, Simone usually sings from the piano bench, but does switch off with a second pianist on the rousing “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life.” By 1968, Simone had refined her sound, seamlessly mixing jazz, pop, and folk, frequently backed by guitars and multiple percussionists. Her performances often had a stark, dramatic quality, like the particularly pronounced folk sound of “Suzanne.”

Simone was a close friend of Raison in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry, whose work clearly inspired her music. Her rendition of the traditional “Take Me to the Water” is dedicated to the writer, and the title of her unfinished play directly inspired “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” co-written by Simone with her then music director, Weldon Irvine. In her 1968 performance, she dedicates it to the three hundred-some African-American students out of a student body of roughly fifteen-thousand, in what is probably the emotional high-point of either concert.

College Concerts collects some very deeply felt performances by Simone and also conveys a good sense of the time in which they were recorded. Like her 1976 Montreux set, her 1968 College Concerts is fascinating viewing both for the music it documents and what it reveals of her strong personality.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Best Oscar of the Night: Toyland

In his acceptance speech, Toyland director Jochen Alexander Freydank spoke of spending four years of his life on a fourteen minute film. As winner of the Academy Award for best live action short film, those efforts seem to have paid off. Though seen by relatively few, it is arguably the worthiest winner of the night, saying much in those fourteen minutes.

In Toyland (Spielzeugland), terms like Aryan and Jew mean little to two little boys, but have tragic wider implications in 1942 Germany. For a single Aryan mother, it is too difficult to explain to her son that his best friend will soon be transported with his family to a concentration camp, so she tells him they are leaving for Toyland. Naturally, her son wants to go to a place like Toyland too, as the mother’s white lie leads to complications she had not foreseen. It is difficult to write at length about Toyland without revealing too much of the story, given its brevity. However, it well earns the emotional payoff of its elegant conclusion that implies a lifetime of memories through its poetic closing image.

Toyland vividly captures a mother’s panic for a lost child, but also shows a moment of dramatic heroism. Months after screening the film, I still ponder the mother’s original intentions in that pivotal scene, but always come to the conclusion that it does not matter. It is truly a film with staying power.

To its credit, the Brooklyn International Film Festival programmed Toyland last summer. New Yorkers have also had an opportunity to see it as part of Academy screenings of this year’s nominated shorts. It was one of last year’s best films, of any length, and the best recipient of Oscar gold this year.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

On-Stage: Universal Robots

One might think of 1920’s Prague as Old Europe, but it produced some remarkably forward thinking science-fiction, which still influences how we think about the future—that brave new world to come. Specifically, the plays and novels of Karel Čapek, sometimes written in collaboration with his brother Josef, would posit the frightening possibility of a post-human future. It was their best-known play R.U.R. (Rossom’s Universal Robots) that first coined the term “robot” (for which brother Josef actually received the credit). Karel Čapek himself now comes face-to-face with Rossom’s Robots in Universal Robots, Mac Rogers re-imagining of R.U.R., now playing at Manhattan Theatre Source.

As Universal opens, we see the Čapeks in their element, holding court at their Friday salon for poets and artists. In this reality, Karel now has a sister Josephine, but he still claims the ear of Tomáš Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia. It is for this influence Helena Rossum seeks Čapek out. Her mad scientist mother (evidently convinced she is her late husband) has invented a series of human-like automatons. To perfect them, she needs the Masaryk government’s financial backing. Čapek and Peroutka, the sole scientific member of the Friday group, convince Masaryk they have seen the future and Czechoslovakia must be involved in shaping it. However, the devout Masaryk appoints the skeptical Jo Čapek to his ethical advisory board for robot development in hopes of counterbalancing their enthusiasm.

Following the general story arc of R.U.R., Universal also becomes a cautionary tale about ideology as well as science. Much of the first act is devoted to Stoppard-like ideological debates between the agnostic anti-Communist Čapek, the socialist ideologue Vaclavek, and the Christian Masaryk, culminating with an unspeakable act of ideologically motivated terrorism. In the second act, the specter of Hitler creates a moral dilemma of truly cosmic proportions. Yet the play is always faithful to spirit of Čapek’s work, particularly R.U.R. and The War with the Newts, where the anti-Communist liberal expressed his profound distrust of attempts to create a New Man. Despite the best of intentions, it always seems to lead to death for the Old Man.

Rogers’ play is a heady brew of ideas and ethical issues, but it also packs an emotional punch, thanks to a great cast. Particularly touching are the scenes between Jennifer Gordon Thomas as Jo Čapek and Jason Howard, first as Radosh, the barkeep she fancies, and then as Radius, his robot doppelganger. David Ian Lee and David Lamberton, as Čapek and Masaryk respectively, also effectively convey the deeper humanity of their famous characters. Their scenes discussing the Christian subtext Masaryk perceives in Čapek’s work are in fact, some of the highpoints of the play.

Though it addresses some pretty advanced concepts, director Rosemary Andress never lets the proceedings get bogged down in dry intellectualism. In fact, Universal seems much shorter than its actual running time. It is a richly satisfying play, highly recommended to those who enjoy the work of Stoppard and Michael Frayn’s recent plays. It runs at Manhattan Theater Source through March 7, with the February 25th performance designated Czech night.

Friday, February 20, 2009

On-Stage: Soul Samurai

If you know your Blaxploitation, you probably know your martial arts movies too. After all, the genres frequently overlapped in films like Black Belt Jones and The Dynamite Brothers. It is those funky, violent, and sexually charged films that inspired Qui Nguyen’s Soul Samurai. Described as a super-hero comic-book-inspired-hip-hop-martial-arts-Blaxploitation-post-apocalyptic play, Soul Samurai opened Off-Broadway last night at the HERE Arts Center, bringing a distinctly Shaft-like sensibility to the New York stage.

Dewdrop is a ronin—a masterless samurai. By definition, she should be out for revenge and she does not disappoint. In addition to her former master and teacher, the Shogun of Queens, she also must avenge the murder of her lover, Sally December. To do that, she ventures into the most dangerous place on Earth: the Badlands, a.k.a. Brooklyn.

Her quarry is Boss 2K, the Kingsborough King and leader of the “Long Tooth” ninja-zombies. Though he chafes at the term, Dewdrop has a b-boy “sidekick” in tow, known as Cert: “As in Death Cert . . . ificate,” which nobody takes seriously for obvious reasons. While on the run from the Long Tooth hordes, Dewdrop narrates flashback sequences to explain her origins and quest for revenge, including a flat-out hilarious send-up of the martial arts training montage.

Truly, Samurai has attitude to burn, dropping colorful dialogue bombs like Samuel L. Jackson in a Tarantino director’s cut. Nguyen clearly loves the genres he cleverly sends up, hitting all the tropes at one time or another. Robert Ross Parker’s brisk direction is actually quite a feat, deftly juggling multiple flashbacks, extended fight sequences, puppetry, and projected video intervals, even including a tripped out animated sequence. Adding to the almost over-the-top vibe, the small cast of five plays all seventeen roles (or nineteen depending on how you count them).

The entire cast handles the physical demands of the play quite well, with several actors taking full advantage of their multiple death scenes. As Dewdrop, the appropriately attractive Maureen Sebastian projects an endearing vulnerability, while simultaneously cutting (literally) through the Long Tooths like the Grim Reaper himself. Jon Hoche seems filled with the spirit of Blaxploitation as Grandmaster Mack, the Shogun of Manhattan, sporting a seriously old school Afro. Paco Tolson shows a real facility for physical comedy, legitimately earning his laughs as the meant-to-be annoying sidekick. Sheldon Best also gives a notably intriguing performance as the title character of the highly stylized so-called “Completely Uninteresting Tale of Marcus Moon” interludes, which nicely capture the flavor of comic book origin myths.

Those who do not know Foxy Brown from Jackie Brown might be a little out of their element here. However, if you see the appeal in watching a beautiful woman kill bad guys with a sword, you will be sound as a pound at Samurai. It is an enormously inventive production that delivers a satisfying blend of humor and violence. Now officially open, it runs at HERE through March 15th.

(Photo: Jim Baldassare)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Documentary Fortnight: Neither Memory Nor Magic

The story of a Jewish Hungarian poet killed during the Holocaust might sound eerily familiar. First Hannah Senesh was the subject of the Oscar short-listed documentary Blessed is the Match. Now Miklós Radnóti is profiled in a new film screening as part of MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight. Relying heavily on the power of Radnóti’s own verse, Hugo Perez’s Neither Memory Nor Magic is a deeply humane examination of one of Hungary’s greatest Twentieth Century literary figures.

The similarities between the lives of Radnóti and Senesh are tragically obvious. Yet, they were vastly different people. Senesh embraced her Jewish faith and the Zionist cause. While Radnóti never denied his Jewish heritage, he was in fact a genuine Roman Catholic convert. Above all else, he considered himself Hungarian, never losing his patriotic love of country even as his homeland descended into madness.

Unlike Senesh, Radnóti’s poetry was widely read and highly regarded within his own lifetime. With the rise of Hungarian Fascism, Radnóti’s greatest concern was preserving his archive. He would eventually be deported to a Serbian work camp, where he incredibly maintained his creative output. In on-camera interviews, survivors tell how Radnóti would share his poems with fellow prisoners in hopes of preserving them. Even on a harrowing forced march that would end in a mass grave, he would write “Postcards,” his final poems, which would be discovered in his overcoat pocket when his body was exhumed after the war. It is the poems from this period that would posthumously cement his reputation.

Throughout Magic, Perez’s focus constantly returns to Radnóti’s poems, dramatically integrating them into the film, with excellent readings that are both sensitive and crystal clear. One such poem we hear is the all too appropriately titled “Forced March:”

“A fool he is who, collapsed,___rises and walks again,
Ankles and knees moving___alone, like wandering pain,
Yet he, as if wings uplifted him,___sets out on his way,
And in vain the ditch calls him___back, who dare not stay.
And if asked why not, he might answer___– without leaving his path –
That his wife was awaiting him,___and a saner, more beautiful death . . .”

Though just under an hour, the well put together Magic says a great deal in its brief running time. Perez judiciously balances the archival and the contemporary, documenting the annual Radnóti celebration at the public school which bears his name. He concludes with a parting shot that perfectly encapsulates the humanity of the man and the tragedy of his loss.

Informative and emotionally engrossing, Magic is an excellent documentary. It screens this Sunday (2/22) at MoMA, with special readings of Radnóti’s poetry scheduled to follow.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Documentary Fortnight: Shonenko

It was by pure chance a Japanese teacher and his students happened across a monument to a group of Taiwanese boys killed during a World War II air-raid. When asked by his students what those boys were doing in Japan, the baffled teacher started researching, efforts that ultimately uncovered the history of the Shonenko: young teenagers from Taiwan (then a colony of Japan), lured to work in Imperial Japanese munitions factories. Their story is now documented in Liang-Yin Kuo’s Shonenko, which screens again this Saturday as part of the MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight.

While most of the Shonenko ranged from about thirteen to fifteen in age, the oldest recruit was a ripe old twenty-years of age. “Recruit” is probably too genteel a word for the Shonenko enlistment process. Though it was an ostensibly voluntary decision requiring parental consent, many surviving Shonenko tell stories of being physically browbeaten into “volunteering” by their Japanese teachers. As problematic as the Shonenko program was, strictly speaking, it was not slave-labor in the National Socialist tradition. They were in fact paid a wage more than competitive with the meager opportunities available in Taiwan. However, promises of opportunities to study while working in Japan turned out to be classic bait-and-switch.

Expecting a program billed as “work-study,” the Shonenko quickly found themselves toiling under highly regimented, military-like conditions. Of course, the biggest drawbacks were their worksites—some of the highest value targets for American bombers in Japan and the Philippines. For some Shonenko, things even got worse after the war. Though most were eventually repatriated after the occupational government realized they were there, some remained, living a twilight existence on the margins of Japanese society.

In later years, Japan also offered undesirable Shonenko the option to repatriate to Mainland China, which some opted for. In retrospect, this was a mistake. During the Cultural Revolution, being an ethnic Taiwanese with work references from the Imperial Japanese war-machine guaranteed profound suffering.

In the Shonenko, Liang-Yin Kuo found some very compelling previously untold stories, thoroughly but concisely related in a running time just over an hour long. Given the strength of her source material, her approach to documentary filmmaking is appropriately straight-forward, relying on the power of its interview segments and dramatic archival photos. It is effectively supported by Hungarian composer Tibor Szemző’s mournful flute score.

Shonenko is a surprisingly epic story about stolen youth. For most of the nearly 8,500 boys in question, it would be a crime that would irrevocably alter their lives. It is a fascinating film, worth seeing when it screens again on Saturday (2/21).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sanborn at Montreux

Live at Montreux 1984
By David Sanborn

Eagle Rock Entertainment

Millions of Americans know David Sanborn and his alto sound from his regular sitting-in gig on the Letterman show. Some either love him or hate for his success on lite “smooth jazz” radio, a label (epithet) he himself eschews. Yet, Sanborn has truly legit jazz credits, having worked with Gil Evans and recorded on Tim Berne’s tribute to avant-garde altoist Julius Hemphill, which is about as heavy as it gets. As a result, he is sort of a giant musical Rohrschach. Such is also the case with his live set Montreux 1984, now available on DVD, which includes elements of funk, rock, and Fusion jazz.

As the title-track to a pivotal record in his career, “Hideway” was a natural set opener. It starts out as an up-tempo funk workout, but takes on a distinctly rock-n-roll hue thanks to the rock-oriented solo from Hiram Bullock, the jazz-funk guitarist who passed on far too young only last year. It certainly is not a performance that would come with the Marsalis seal of approval, but it hardly qualifies as “smooth” jazz.

Sanborn is instantly recognizable on ballads, like “Straight to the Heart.” There is no denying his expressiveness here, but the keyboard sweetening effects are the sort of cloying trappings which have found their way into some of his recordings, making it difficult for purists to embrace him. However, the stripped down arrangement of “Autumn Leaves,” featuring guest vocalist Rickie Lee Jones, is about as straight ahead as it gets, and features another lyrical solo from the leader. Larry Willis, an excellent bop-based jazz pianist best-known for his stint with Blood Sweat & Tears, matches Sanborn’s lyricism with his own eloquent solo. (He also has a nice feature solo later in the set.) Sanborn has hired some well-respected jazz musicians for his bands. In addition to Willis, bonus tracks from Sanborn’s 1982 Montreux set include “Lotus Blossom,” a lovely feature for vibraphonist Mike Mainieri.

Sanborn also has tremendous facility with the alto’s upper register, which can be heard throughout his 1984 set, particularly on tunes like “Morning Salsa” and “Heart.” That combination of peeling high notes, funky rhythms, and warmly tender power ballads suggests Sanborn might as easily be considered a rock musician (in the best sense) as a jazz artist. Arguably, both contexts can be readily heard through the 1984 set, and Sanborn has recorded extensively in each genre.

Sanborn really has a signature sound and his Montreux sets are certainly upbeat, funky affairs. His 1984 set is sure to appeal to his many fans, and includes some legit solo statements from him and Willis. New Yorkers can also hear him live in-person this week during Sanborn’s stand at the Blue Note, beginning tonight through Sunday (2/22).

Monday, February 16, 2009

Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn

Propaganda can kill the spirit just as surely as bullets kill the body. So the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda argues in his latest film. On September 17, 1940, the Soviet military massacred 15,000 Polish prisoners of war and local civic leaders, dumping their bodies in mass graves in the Katyń Forest. For their families, subsequent Soviet lies and denials would be nearly as painful as their grief at losing loved ones. Arguably the most personal work of the director’s accomplished career, Katyń (trailer here), one of last year’s Oscar nominees for best foreign language film, finally opens in New York this Wednesday.

Katyń is not just another example of Poland’s tragic for Wadja. His own father was among the Polish POWs murdered that fateful day, on Stalin’s direct orders (rubber-stamped by the Politburo). The date is important. For years, the Soviets claimed the Germans committed the atrocity in 1941, until Gorbachev and Yeltsin finally confirmed Soviet culpability (which the Russian state media now again denies).

In his opening sequence, Wajda gives the audience a probably much needed visual primer on the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and Soviet-National Socialist cooperation in the early stages of World War II. It harrowingly depicts Poles from the east fleeing the Russians, only to collide on a bridge with Poles from the west, fleeing the Germans.

Katyń moves back and forth in time, jumping to and from the events surrounding the massacre in the Russian woods, and the post-war aftermath. Many will challenge the official story, but pay dearly for their dissent. A principal of the Fine Arts Academy seems more realistic when she flatly argues: “Poland will never be free again,” so it is best to scrape out what little consolation is available.

Discussions of the massacre are not academic or theoretical in Katyń. They are established historical fact, which Wajda forces the audience to confront directly. He dramatically concludes the film by returning to the actual incident, showing it in unflinchingly detail, down to the Soviets’ drainage system for the resulting blood. The effect is simply devastating (probably the most chilling scene I have ever seen on film). Katyń makes it inescapably clear evil does exist in the world.

Katyń is a great film—perhaps not Wajda’s masterpiece, but certainly a masterwork. Granted, it is not perfect. Characters are introduced and then suddenly dispensed with, having only been partially developed. However, Katyń is such powerful film, its passion overwhelms such shortcomings. Wajda’s scenes are brilliantly composed and the cast is first-rate. Andrzej Chyra is particularly effective as a cavalry lieutenant, who personifies guilt as the lieutenant who survives in place of his captain.

To call Wajda a great director is no exaggeration. In 2000, he was awarded an honorary Academy Award. Eight years later, Katyń became his fourth film nominated for the best foreign language award (and at eighty-one, he is reportedly at work on his next film). It will be impossible to discuss his oeuvre without addressing Katyń. If not his greatest film, it is certainly his most visceral. It is a withering examination of the Soviets’ cold-blooded machinery of death, the corrosive effect of their campaign of lies, and the moral cost of willfully accepting injustice, proving Wajda’s powers remain undiminished with age. It is a powerful film that should be seen by anyone who takes film seriously as an art-form. It opens Wednesday in New York at the Film Forum.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

On-Stage: The Book of Lambert

It opened on St. Valentine’s Day and uses Romeo and Juliet as a recurring motif. However, The Book of Lambert is far from being a theatrical box of chocolates and a dozen roses. Love is definitely a powerful thing in the play, but it may have irreparably damaged the leader of six homeless people living deep in the subterranean tunnels of the New York City subway. Originally written thirty years ago, Tony-Award nominated playwright Leslie Lee’s The Book of Lambert recently premiered on-stage, officially opening at La MaMa e.t.c. on February 14th.

Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet have tremendous resonance for Lambert, a former college professor living a shadowy underground existence. The tragedy’s famous prologue is our first introduction to Lambert, who returns to Shakespeare’s words throughout the play (mixing in a fair amount of Hamlet as well, for good measure). There would seem to be strong parallels between his life and Shakespeare’s play when the African American Lambert becomes romantically involved with Virginia, a white woman from an affluent family. Yet much to his regret, their relationship fell far short of the romantic ideal in ways that ultimately sent him into an emotional tailspin, ending somewhere deep beneath the A/C/E line.

While haunted by visions of Virginia, Lambert shares his mattress with Priscilla, a former exotic dancer with a voracious sex-drive. Crashing in close proximity are: Bonnie, a pregnant junkie, Clancy, an amnesiac ex-cop, Otto, a blind old man, and his wife, Zinth. All seem to consider Lambert an authority figure, even though the ex-professor keeps aloof, preferring to spend his time writing his book, which in the obsessive tradition of outsider art, sounds like a diverse collection of epigrams, dramatic vignettes, and academic minutiae that conceal an obscure wisdom.

Lee is an undeniably incisive writer, penning some shrewdly observed scenes between Lambert and Virginia in which the racial dynamic is ever-present, but never simplistic or didactic. In one particularly telling argument Lambert relives, he makes a compelling case on behalf of Robinson Crusoe’s literary merits. She prefers the rhythm of Langston Hughes. At first she goads him for not being black enough, disappointed he will not take her to a black church with “singing and clapping,” but when a meeting with her mother who lunches predictably degenerates into disaster, suddenly he is all too black.

Lee’s best scenes though involve Lambert’s rough psychoanalysis with Clancy, pushing him to rip open the psychic scars that derailed his life. These exchanges are brutally honest, visceral drama. Unfortunately, it is often hard to know what to make of the other denizens of the tunnel. While each gets a realistic back-story explained in a sharply written speech, they are left in such circumstances it leaves the audience puzzled about Lee’s intended meanings and questioning the nature of Lambert’s reality rather late in the play.

As Lambert, Clinton Faulkner gives a powerful performance, deftly balancing the extremes of his character. He clearly conveys the charisma of the man, as well as his deeply guarded vulnerabilities. Howard L. Wieder matches his intensity, bringing a sense of humanity to the highly flawed Clancy. However, it is difficult to understand Lambert’s feeling for Virginia, who Heather Massie simply portrays as an ethereal coquette, but maybe that is the point. Emotion always defies logic.

One leaves Lambert with much to digest, but unsure if you are taking away from the play what you are supposed to. Faulkner’s stage presence is undeniable though, as is the distinct sense of place evoked by Andis Gjoni’s set design. The unsettling mood is also heightened by the incidental music composed by Joe Gianono (also an arranger and guitarist in jazz contexts), which sounds like it may have been inspired by Miles Davis’s spacey but lyrical In a Silent Way. Though a bit long, Lambert is a well designed, altogether memorable theatrical experience, featuring a terrific lead performance. It runs at La MaMa through March 1st.

(Photo: Joe Bly)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Italy’s Gomorrah

The Camorra was robbed. Oscar watchers were stunned when Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone’s epic examination of Italian organized crime, failed to make the short-list for best foreign language film. Frankly, the Camorra was probably pleased by the snub. Roberto Saviano, the author of the book which inspired the film, has been granted indefinite 24-hour police protection by the Italian government. Recently, Salman Rushdie voiced his support for Saviano, telling the media: “Saviano is in terrible danger. Worse than me.” Opening today in New York, Garrone’s Gomorrah (trailer here) starkly and unsentimentally dramatizes Saviano’s expose of the Camorra’s pervasive violence and corruption in the Naples region.

The Camorra is not the Cosa Nostra. While it generates billions of Euros in illicit income, their clannish organization extends down to the neighborhood block level. The corrosive effect of their lawless reign is apparent in every frame of Gomorrah. Naples is one of the oldest and most celebrated cities of Italy, a member-state of the G7, EU, and NATO. Yet in Garrone’s film, it looks like a squalid third world country. In many ways the Camorra is directly responsible for that condition, not the least being their environmentally dubious waste management enterprises, which hold an effective monopoly thanks to their cut-rate prices.

Gomorrah follows a number of very average people who are involved with the Camorra, in one way or another. Don Ciro looks like a nervous accountant in a Members Only jacket, and that is not far wrong, but the accounts he manages are the small weekly remittances to family members of Camorra soldiers keeping silent while doing time. Pasquale, probably the film’s most sympathetic character, has a passion for garment work, daring to moonlight with a Chinese competitor to his Camorra affiliated boss.

We also meet two young Camorra recruits. Roberto essentially lands a management training position in the waste management division, while thirteen year-old Toto is gung-ho for the more blue-collar work of a Camorra soldier-in-training. Everyone is quite ordinary, except for Marco and Ciro, two true loose cannons with a taste for chaos, trying to establish themselves as free-lance gangsters.

Garrone’s approach is fascinating, draining the subject matter of all false romanticism. Honor means nothing in Gomorrah, it is all about violence, fear, and money. Garrone stages killings particularly effectively. Even though they are frequent, they are always brutally realistic, coming as a complete shock. However, his style is so matter-of-fact, he allows little opportunity for emotional investment in the characters’ dramas. As a result, it takes a while to acclimate his Altman-esque panorama of vicious thugs and their tacky bosses. Eventually, it all clicks, as one becomes aware of the massive tragedy represented on-screen.

Ultimately, it is the drabness and banality of Gomorrah that are most disturbing. These are not Mafiosos in shark-skin suits committing shocking acts of violence. It is neighbor killing neighbor. Demanding but memorable, Gomorrah is an uncompromising film, both substantively and stylistically. It opens today in New York at the IFC Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Faded Glory: Cabin in the Sky

Even if you have heard Duke Ellington’s band play “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” thousands of times before, you are still likely to feel a jolt of energy when they launch into it in Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky. Though his appearances in the classic MGM musical are brief, Ellington made the most of them. Simply being in such a high-profile studio project was a significant milestone at the time. From the 1920’s through the early 1940’s, nearly every film intended for an African-American audience was produced independently by entrepreneurial filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux. That makes Cabin in the Sky (trailer here) one of the few studio ringers in the Lincoln Center Film Society’s current retrospective series, Faded Glory: Oscar Micheaux and Black Pre-War Cinema.

Even though Cabin is the screen adaptation of the Harold Arlen-Vernon Duke Broadway musical, it is a film jazz enthusiasts ought to see for the cast alone, including Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, and Lena Horne, in her first substantive screen role. It tells a Heaven Can Wait story of Little Joe, a small-time gambler who suffers an untimely demise, but is granted a six month reprieve to straighten-up and avoid spending eternity in a very hot climate. He might be tempted by the fast life, but his wife Petunia, played by Waters, is a truly devout woman. However, the forces of darkness, led by Lucifer, Jr., are not about to relinquish their claim so easily, calling in their secret weapon, the temptress Georgia Brown, played by the perfectly cast Lena Horne.

Even though Cabin was considered progressive at the time for its portrayal of serious, sympathetic African-American characters, many contemporary commentators take umbrage at its persistent racial stereotypes. While that is certainly fair to an extent, there remains much of enduring value in Cabin. In addition to some stirring music, the Christian themes are presented in a respectful, legitimately heartfelt manner. (In a case of life imitating art, Waters would perform extensively with Billy Graham’s ministry late in her career.)

Although some of the arrangements in Cabin are overly sweetened with strings, Ellington’s band swings hard. Featuring stalwarts like Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Lawrence Brown, and Sonny Greer, they tear through “Things” and “Going Up.” Waters also gives near definitive performances of the standards “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” and “Taking a Chance on Love.” However, we only hear a brief solo from Armstrong, as he revels with Lucifer, Jr.’s minions.

Frustratingly, Cabin is nearly as famous for what was left on the editing room floor as what was released on-screen. For years we were denied Horne’s “Ain’t It the Truth,” because the sight of her singing in a bathtub was considered too risqué. An Armstrong instrumental take of the same song was also excised, editing out what in retrospect would seem to be the most commercial scenes of the film.

Cabin very clearly illustrates how differently the two jazz greats managed their images. While Ellington’s band plays at a nightclub associated with sin and vice, Ellington himself is as dapper and sophisticated as always. Instead of mugging for the camera, he swings the band, period. Armstrong however, is stuck wearing devil horns in a supporting comedic role.

Granted, Cabin is in many ways imperfect and dated, but it is also a film of enormous historical significance. It also features some of the most entertaining numbers in the MGM musical catalog. It screens at the Walter Reade Theater on Monday (2/16) and Wednesday (2/18).

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Scow & Brough

Sharon by the Sea
By Eva Scow & Dusty Brough
Adventure Music

If you programmed a computer to generate a group best suited to the editorial preferences of No Depression (formerly the magazine, now the bookazine, whatever that is), the result would probably bear a striking resemblance to the duo of Eva Scow and Dusty Brough. Mandolin prodigy? Check. Diverse world music influences? Check. A blatant disregard for genre boxes? It’s all in there, and can be heard on their debut CD Sharon by the Sea, which is now available from Adventure Music.

Though defying category, Scow and Brough can sort of be thought of as a bluegrass string duo performing largely acoustic jazz with Latin and Brazilian rhythms and a folky attitude. That is an imperfect description, but at least it is a place to start. In fact, Scow and Brough are a string band unto themselves, with the former playing both acoustic and electric mandolins, as well as violin on Sharon, while the latter is heard on guitar (nylon string and electric), acoustic bass, and the Turkish cumbus. While their musical voices clearly dominate the proceedings, they are augmented by several musicians, most frequently percussionist John Martin III.

Despite their dazzling technique, Scow & Brough keep the mood relaxed throughout Sharon, never letting the music get overly frantic or rushed. Having co-written most of the tunes, the co-leaders show a knack for up-beat melodies, as on the opening pseudo-flamenco “Bird with Beastlike Qualities” and the easy-going “Rodolfo.” Scow and Brough’s highly attuned, seamless interplay is quite impressive throughout their set, at times requiring concerted listening to untwine their blended lines.

Their influences are indeed quite diverse, as on the classically inspired “Theoretically Speaking,” the traditional Venezuelan “Pica Pica,” and the vaguely Hot Club-sounding miniature “Best in Show,” (which clocks in at a mere forty-two seconds). However, some of the best tracks incorporate unexpected aural colors and combinations, particularly Javon Davis’s Fender Rhodes, which takes the title track in an unexpectedly funky direction and makes for an intriguing aural combination with Scow’s mandolin on “Gateway Chronicles.” On the concluding “Saturday,” Scow herself over-dubs on the Fender Rhodes to pleasing effect, before segueing into an appropriately greasy coda (complete with nightclub background noise), to close out the set.

Scow and Brough have an audible rapport and a really fresh sound. While Sharon might have benefited from a bit more contrast in terms of overall mood (like a legitimate up-tempo burner), it is surprisingly accomplished musical statement that actually appreciates with repeated listening.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

CUNY: Sweet Love, Bitter

His name is Eagle and he plays the alto saxophone. Does that sound like any real-life jazz musician? A musical titan with a drug habit approaching the superhuman, Ritchie “The Eagle” Stokes is indeed patterned after bebop innovator Charlie “Bird” Parker in Herbert Danska’s Sweet Love, Bitter, one of the better cinematic treatments of the jazz life, which screens this week on CUNY’s City Cinematheque.

The parallels between Stokes and Parker are even greater in John A. Williams’ novel Night Song, on which Danska’s film is based. At one point we meet a former Stokes sideman who has made good in a big way. With his flashy car and elegant clothing, it hardly seems a stretch to consider Miles Davis the inspiration for the character named Yards Brown.

While his ex-sideman might be on the way up, Stokes is bottoming out, both in Williams’ novel and Danska’s film. However, he is not alone. Mourning the death of his wife, former college professor David Hillary’s goal is to literally drink himself to death. To facilitate this plan, he hocks his wedding ring, but in the process meets an African-American man pawning his sax.

As a fan of jazz in general, and Stokes in particular, Hillary is all too willing to let the Eagle show him the ropes of binge-drinking for the down-and-out set. A quick learner, he and Eagle are nearly whisked off to the drunk-tank, but for the intercession of Keel, Stokes’ self-appointed minder.

The African-American Keel hires the depressed white professor to work in his downtown coffee-house, setting up an unusual racial dynamic for 1967. Further complicating their relationship, Hillary finds himself attracted to Della, Keel’s white lover. In between pointed comments about race, Hillary and Keel try to corral the self-destructive Eagle, often finding him at the home of Candy, a white admirer seemingly inspired by the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the jazz patron at whose home the real Parker died. (Bitter however, seems to posit a presumably fictional sexual aspect to their relationship.)

In his first screen role, Dick Gregory looks scarily dissipated as Stokes. Though Eagle can be playful, Gregory plays it straight, creating quite a tragic portrait. Also making his screen debut, Robert Hooks (the original Mr. T in Trouble Man) brings legitimate intensity to a standout supporting performance. However, though Don Murray’s Hillary is supposed to be a fish out of water, his stiffness seems excessively wooden at times.

Music is critical to a film about tortured musical genius, and in this case Bitter delivers the goods. Jazz pianist Mal Waldron’s moody bop soundtrack perfectly fits its characters, with George Coleman eloquently ghosting Eagle’s alto. Bitter was Waldron’s second film score, but it would be his first soundtrack album. While he composed themes for Shirley Clarke’s Cool World and is heard performing them with Dizzy Gillespie in the actual film, Gillespie would record the soundtrack album with his regular working group, including Kenny Barron in the piano chair.

Bitter is a jazz film that gets the jazz right. It hasn’t always worked out that way. Danska’s sympathetic direction and Waldron’s passionate music make the film work even for the most discriminating jazz audiences. It screens on CUNY-TV 75 at 9:00 this Saturday and Sunday. While it seems like most of City Cinematheque’s post-screening commentators are more miss than hit, Danska, who should have plenty of insight to offer, will discuss the film with the program host.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Breadlines & Champagne: Gabriel Over the White House

During times of depression people have to make do without a lot of luxuries. Should that include the checks and balances of representational democracy? It would seem William Randolph Hearst advocated as much in Gabriel Over the White House, his explicitly propagandistic foray into film production, directed by Gregory La Cava (better known for light comedies), which screens next week at the Film Forum, as part of their Breadlines & Champagne series of Depression-era films.

As Gabriel opens, the nation is mired in the depression, but the old boy network still reigns supreme. An unnamed party which seems to bear a passing resemblance to the GOP has installed one of its most genial and obedient members in the Oval Office. For staff, he has his governmental secretary, Hartley Beekman, and his “personal” secretary, Ms. Pendola Molloy. He calls them Beek and Pendy, insisting they call him Major. Until one day, a severe accident radically alters Hammond’s personality. While recuperating, the President is visited off-screen by the angel Gabriel, who evidently gives him a good talking to. Suddenly, it is strictly “Mr. President.”

Fed up with the fecklessness of his former colleagues, the new Hammond declares martial law, suspending Congress and instituting an economic plan not radically dissimilar to the New Deal. Waging war on domestic racketeers, Hammond prosecutes gangsters in military tribunals, holding the pre-determined executions in sight of the statue of liberty. As a result of his harsh policies, Hammond’s popularity soars. Gabriel is prescriptive, not cautionary.

Gabriel cannot be considered very effective propaganda, because neither side of the ideological spectrum wants to claim it as their own. One recent commentator tried to draw parallels between Gabriel’s President Judson Hammond and our President George W. Bush. However, given the documented editorial input Hearst granted FDR and the incoming president’s expressed admiration for the film, the left is stuck with Gabriel, like it or not.

Frankly, Roosevelt’s embrace of such an explicitly authoritarian (arguably dictatorial) view of the presidency seems more than a little strange in retrospect. However, he most likely had little use for the film later in his administration. After all, Hammond becomes an ardent proponent of disarmament. Using a display of America’s assumed superior military might as a veiled threat, the possessed president convinces foreign heads of state, including Germany and Italy, to beat their swords in to plough-shares. Of course, mere days before the film’s 1933 theatrical release, Germany passed the infamous Enabling Act, setting the stage for Hitler’s ascension to Fuhrer. That naïve pacifism would quickly date the film.

Although never banished to the vaults, Gabriel has never been widely viewed since its initial release. At one time available on VHS, it has yet to see life on DVD. To its credit, Walter Huston is perfectly cast as Hammond, but his single-minded intensity hardly seems desirable in a chief executive. As Beek and Pendy, Franchot Tone and Karen Morley are likeable enough fielding all the predictable questions about their boss, but the film itself never engages the audience on any level deeper than the political. It is more of an intellectual curiosity than an emotionally involving movie experience.

Gabriel is a product of its time. Though flawed (and a bit disturbing), it is a perfect selection for the Film Forum’s Depression retrospective. It screens appropriately (I guess) next Monday on Presidents Day. Look for more 1930’s films, including more escapist fare, as Breadlines & Champagne continues through March 5th.

Photo: Photofest/Film Forum

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Nominated Short: New Boy

His entire so-called Barrytown Trilogy has been adapted into the well received films: The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van, the first directed by Alan Parker and the latter two by Stephen Frears. Yet, the latest cinematic adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s work has been seen by relatively few people, despite receiving an Academy Award nomination. That is because it is a dreaded short subject, one of those unheralded awards that are dispensed with early in the Oscar broadcast. At least two of those nominated shorts this year are in fact quite good, including writer-director Steph Green’s New Boy, based on a Doyle short story, now playing at the IFC Film Center as part of the package of Oscar nominated live-action shorts.

It is young Joseph’s first day in a new school and it is conspicuously obvious he is not Irish. Derisively called “Live Aid” by one of the school’s Hellions, he is clearly in for a long day. On the plus side, the feisty class brain, Hazel O’Hara, clearly takes a real shine to him. In between class-work and standing up to bullies, Joseph flashes back to his tragic final days in Africa, when the war and strife of the outside world roughly intrudes into the loving shelter of his school.

Olutunji Ebun-Cole and Sinead Maguire display enormous screen charisma, as Joseph and Hazel respectively. Spending an entire feature-length film with them might be enough to induce diabetes, but in New Boy’s brief but effective eleven minutes, their sweet charm is undeniable. While the characters of Joseph’s would-be tormentors and clueless new teacher are not nearly as sharply drawn, New Boy’s brevity probably necessitates a certain reliance on stock characters.

Cinematographer P.J. Dillon’s rich, warm visual style serves the heartfelt film quite well, particularly during the light saturated flashback scenes. Although the narrative does not really hold any earth-shattering surprises, the final payoff is reasonably satisfying. The real attraction in New Boy though is its winning lead performance from Ebun-Cole and Maguire’s endearing supporting turn. It screens as part of the nominated shorts package playing at the IFC Film Center and at various Academy sponsored events leading up to the February 22nd awards broadcast.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

On-Stage: The Wendigo

In recent years, vampires have been a flop on Broadway. Frankenstein’s Monster fared little better Off-Broadway. Perhaps those creations are simply too stage-worn at this point. That certainly is not the case with the Wendigo, the mythic monster in the woods in Algernon Blackwood’s classic supernatural short story. Adapted for the stage by Eric Sanders, the Vagabond Theatre Company’s production of The Wendigo officially opened Off-Broadway at the Medicine Show Theatre last night.

Nature is dangerous, perhaps even malevolent in Blackwood’s tale of an ill-fated hunting excursion. In the 1890’s, vast stretches of the Canadian woods remain virtually untouched by humankind. It ought to be the perfect environment for moose hunting, but for Simpson, a young divinity student, and his doctor uncle, game has been elusive. Perhaps out of frustration, tensions have been growing between their guides, the brash Hank Davis and his moody French Canadian friend, Joseph Defago. Hoping to improve their chances of bagging moose, Davis recommends they split up and head in different directions. In retrospect, this proves to be a mistake.

It would seem the Wendigo is indeed out there, stalking them, but the precise nature of the beast is wisely kept deliberately mysterious. At times, the Wendigo is described as a giant Sasquatch-like creature of supernatural proportions, whereas at other points it sounds more like a primal force—the very embodiment of nature, in all its wrath. It is a being that inspires not mere garden variety fear, but deep existential dread. Few can resist its siren call of the wild, but Defago’s superstitious and anti-social inclinations make him particularly susceptible.

Wendigo is an old-fashioned story staged in a very contemporary manner. The lighting, rear-projected images, and sparse but evocative set create a legitimately unsettling atmosphere. Against this backdrop, Matthew Hancock’s shrewd direction builds the tension organically through suggestion and the performances.

Nick Merritt is quite convincing as the neophyte outdoorsman, who also assumes the play’s expository duties as narrator. He is well paired with Kurt Uy, who effectively conveys Defago’s inner turmoil. Unfortunately, the second pairing of hunter and guide sometimes comes across a bit stagey. Still, Hancock keeps it all moving at a good pace, eliciting some very tense moments.

At about an hour and fifteen minutes in duration, Wendigo is certainly staged with economy. It brings to mind Edgar Allan Poe’s aesthetics of the short story, in which all elements should work in concert towards a single desired emotional response. Those who enjoy a good supernatural yarn, but prefer the suggestive to the graphic, will find it a cool little production. Now officially open, the entertaining Wendigo runs through February 28th, with a special Friday the 13th program, featuring staged post-performance readings by from Blackwood, Poe, and H.P. Lovecraft, three of the great English language writers of supernatural horror.

Friday, February 06, 2009

China's Blind Mountain

Blind Mountain
Directed by Li Yang
Kino International

The Qinling mountain region of China is striking, but lonely country. Though near the great former capital city of Xi’an, many residences still lack basic utilities, like electrification. Marriageable women are also scarce (as a result of the One-Child policy) and the rule of law is questionable, which is why white slavery has become a boom industry in rural China. Based on director Li Yang’s extensive research, Blind Mountain (now available on DVD) is a visceral depiction of one such woman sold into a so-called marriage and the shocking callousness of those who refuse to assist her during a time of plight.

Pretty and university educated, Bai Xuemei is anxious to find work to help her family pay off her school debt. Naively, she is duped into accepting work with a man who claims to buy traditional herbal medicines from the remote provinces. However, during their first trip together, she is drugged and sold as a “bride” to a middle-aged farmer possessing no charm or empathy. Perhaps even worse is his severe mother, who acts as Bai’s principle minder and jailer.

Many women have been sold into slavery/marriage in their hamlet, so her captors expect events will conform to an established pattern. At first, Bai will try to escape, but without money, identification, or help from the locals, she will eventually get frustrated. When she finally becomes pregnant, her concern for the baby will insure she remains. Yet Bai proves to be heroically difficult to break. In an absolutely harrowing role, Huang Lu gives a devastating performance. Watching her ordeal is heart-rending and enraging. It is difficult to imagine any other screen character engendering such an intense emotional investment from the audience. Viewers will want Bai Xuemei to escape, desperately.

Mountain is a brutally realistic indictment of a cruel practice and the pervasive corruption which permits it. The China that emerges in Li’s film is one in which clueless Party inspectors are blind to crimes perpetrated under their very noses and the local authorities venally side with the slaveholding husbands. It is not a pretty picture, but the visual sense of Li and cinematographer Jong Lin is often quite arresting. The sweeping vistas of Qinling often dwarf the characters, emphasizing just how large a country China is and how difficult it would be to find someone in such a remote corner.

Blind Shaft, Li’s first film, told the story of two criminals who seek to exploit Chinese coal mines’ notoriously dangerous working conditions out of simple greed. Together with Mountain they appear to be pieces of a mosaic that might be called “Blind China,” where turning a sightless eye on widespread corruption and cruelty is the rule rather than the exception. Mountain is a distinctly disturbing but relentlessly compelling film, elevated beyond the level of simple issue film by Li’s forceful direction and Huang Lu’s riveting lead performance.

(Photos: courtesy of Kino International)

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Working Comic Con: R.W. Goodwin & Takasi Miike

It is not just for comic books anymore. If you are releasing a genre picture, NY Comic Con is practically Cannes and Sundance combined. Filmmakers and studios are working the show hard, building media events around it. R.W. Goodwin and Takashi Miike are two such directors in town for Comic Con this weekend.

Goodwin is best-known for his long stint on The X-Files as a co-executive producer and sometimes director. After five seasons, when the show relocated from rainy Vancouver to sunny Los Angeles, Goodwin stayed behind, bowing out before the Files jumped the shark. Now he returns to the flying saucer genre with Alien Trespass (trailer here).

Trespass officially opens April 3rd, so look for the review then. Simply comparing it to the Files, it is much lighter in tone than most of the episodes Goodwin directed, which tended to advance the overarching storyline or so-called mythology. It would be closely akin to the satirical episodes produced during Goodwin’s tenure, like the Roshomon­-esque “Bad Blood” or the self-referential spoof “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” guest-starring Charles Nelson Reilly as a Truman Capote figure writing a thinly disguised novel about a particular X-File case.

In Trespass, much of the satire involves an elaborate back-story Goodwin and company created to suggest the film is actually a long-lost vintage B-film. Trespass itself has laughs, but is really more about nostalgia for films like The Blob, The Thing, and The War of the Worlds, which might have had hooky effects, but were produced in earnest sincerity. Those who have affection for the genre should check out Goodwin’s Comic Con appearances. He and actor Dan Lauria are doing a Trespass panel on Friday, February 6th from 3:30-4:30pm in room 1A08 and a poster signing from 5-6pm.

Unlike Goodwin, Japanese auteur Takashi Miike is a newcomer to the science fiction genre with Yatterman, which receives its American debut at Comic Con. Known for some fairly violent excursions into the horror and gangster fields, Miike’s last film, Sukiyaki Western Django, was an idiosyncratic re-importation of the spaghetti western back into feudal Japan. It certainly has moments of violence and cruelty, but nothing approaching the infamous torture scene in Audition, most likely his best-known film.

Miike has an undeniable aptitude for disturbing imagery, but his greatest talent is probably his ability to create a sense of mounting dread. In both Audience and his horror thriller One Missed Call (the basis of last year’s American remake), even his exposition is unsettling. It will be interesting to see how his style manifests itself in a SF context. Given his intense cult following, his Con appearances are likely to draw capacity crowds. (However, considering I was somewhat unnerved by the oddness of NY Anime Fest, I’m not sure I’ll make it there.)

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Benny Golson: The New ‘Tet and Some Old Favorites

New Time, New ‘Tet & The Best of Benny Golson
OJC/Concord Records

Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal had problems in its execution, but the premise is cool. Tom Hanks’ character is trying to enter America to get Benny Golson’s autograph, as a tribute to his late jazz-loving father. Golson himself briefly appears in the film, and he can also be heard joking with Horace Silver in the Academy Award nominated documentary, A Great Day in Harlem. Both give a sense of Golson’s easy stage manner and popularity with fellow musicians, which has led to a long, prestigious career, and now two new releases, New Time, New ‘Tet and his Greatest Hits, timed to coincide with his 80th birthday.

‘Tet is short for Jazztet, which was the name of the sextet Golson co-lead with Art Farmer from 1959 to 1962, and later reunited in the 1980’s. Together they developed a sound that married the fire of hardbop with more ambitious and structured arrangements than the standard blowing session fare for the Jazztet’s three horn frontline. It proved a perfect vehicle for Golson, so it makes sense that he would return to the sextet format with his new group.

New ‘Tet starts with “Grove’s Groove,” an easy mid-tempo get-to-know-you workout, providing each of the horns, Steve Davis on trombone, Golson on tenor, and (Dr.) Eddie Henderson on trumpet, as well as pianist Mike LeDonne and bassist Buster Williams in the rhythm section, nice solo space to introduce themselves. There is also one special guest on New ‘Tet, vocalist Al Jarreau, whose sophisticated interpretation Golson’s classic standard “Whisper Not,” complete with brief but pleasing scatting, should satisfy both the vocalist’s smooth-ish fans and Golson’s core jazz audience.

Golson draws from some eclectic source material, including an elegant but soulful cover of El DeBarge’s “Love Me in a Special Way,” which features particularly warm solo statements from the leader and Davis. His arrangements also morph the music of Verdi into the jazz waltz “Verdi’s Voice,” and Chopin’s ballad “L’adeau” into a showcase for Henderson’s muted trumpet.

New ‘Tet concludes with the lesser known Golson original, “Uptown Afterburn,” another up-tempo workout with a kind groove that never gets overly hectic. Frankly, it is pretty impressive how fresh and vital New ‘Tet sounds, considering it was recorded by an artist about to crack the octogenarian mark.

Of course, as a compilation, his new Best of release will hardly generate any review ink, but it still counts as part of Concord’s busy release schedule. The tracks themselves are culled from some great albums since Concord now holds the rights to the Prestige, Riverside, Contemporary, and Milestone catalogs, but selection choices will always debatable on collections. Here, several of his classic standards are indeed represented, including an earlier version of “Whisper Not” and “Along Came Betty,” but oddly there is no “I Remember Clifford,” his tribute to Clifford Brown, which is probably his best known, most covered composition.

Rights are always an issue too of course, which is why instead of the Jazztet’s original “Killer Joe” this collection includes a relatively recent version recorded for Terminal 1¸ a session of music inspired by the Spielberg film. However, not that the anyone could ever replace the great Art Farmer, but in one way some might actually prefer Golson's 2004 quintet take (featuring the New ‘Tet line-up, minus Davis), if only because it allows more time for the musicians to stretch out.

New ‘Tet is a timely and convincing reminder of Golson’s talents as a musician, arranger, and composer. It is great to hear him still at the top of his game after six decades in music. New Yorkers can also check out Golson and the New ‘Tet live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola through Sunday (2/8).

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Pearl’s Twelfth Night

It is one of Shakespeare’s most enduring plays, but one of his most frustrating titles. It is generally accepted that the Twelfth Night is an allusion to the Feast of the Epiphany (the Twelfth Day of Christmas). Some suggest it refers directly to the time of year in which the play is set, pointing to a rather drunken rendition of the traditional carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Others interpret it metaphorically, pointing to an old English tradition of mischievous masquerading on the feast day, including cross-dressing, which definitely plays a role in Twelfth Night. Also featuring mistaken identity, separated twins, true love, and wild revelry, it is clear why Twelfth Night (Or What You Will) remains one of the bard’s most entertaining comedies in the Pearl Theatre Company’s new production, which opened last night.

Precisely where or when the kingdom of Illyria exists is a bit vague, but young shipwrecked Viola washes up on its shore. Assuming her twin brother Sebastian is lost to the sea, she disguises herself as a man and enters the service of the local nobleman, Duke Orsino, intending to live an essentially cloistered life (but in the company of men). Orsino pines for the Lady Olivia, who herself mourns the death of a brother. One of Viola, a.k.a. Cesario’s first assignments for the Duke is to woo Olivia on his behalf. Singing Orsino’s praises comes easy to Viola, since she has fallen in love with the Duke. Unfortunately, instead of winning the Lady’s heart for the Duke, she falls in love with his page, Cesario. Then things get complicated.

Twelfth Night has romance and brisk wordplay, but it also has a dark undercurrent, as when Olivia’s wastrel uncle Sir Toby Belch and his cronies entrap Malvolio, her dour steward, in a surprisingly cruel prank. Naturally, it quickly spirals out of control. Feste, the minstrel fool, has a particularly pronounced mean streak, which Sean McNall’s interpretation oddly seems to minimize.

Regardless, Viola is the make-or-break role in the play. She is essentially Shakespeare’s version of the endearing, plucky tomboy archetype, both sensitive and resilient (sort of like Jo from Little Women). If the audience pulls for her, the entire play pulls together. Fortunately, Ali Ahn perfectly captures Viola’s depth of feeling and innocent likability without coming across as overly cute or saccharine, thereby firmly establishing the play’s rooting interest. (While Joseph Midyett is not exactly a dead-ringer for Viola as Sebastian, he brings enough energy to the part to suspend disbelief.)

Committed to the classic repertoire, the Pearl plays it straight in their staging. However, given the play’s indeterminate time, their costumes seem to mix elements of classical, Elizabethan, and early Twentieth Century dress. With a solid cast anchored by Ahn’s excellent performance, their Twelfth Night is scrupulously respectful of Shakespeare’s text, but thoroughly entertaining.

(Photo credit: Luke Redmond.)

Monday, February 02, 2009

Pulp Fiction: Killing Castro

Killing Castro
By Lawrence Block
Cover art by Sharif Tarabay
Hard Case Crime

Killing Fidel Castro is a dangerous business. Would it be worth twenty grand in 1961 dollars? Heck, I know plenty of people who would be willing to do it for free, if there was a viable plan in place. Of course, that part about the feasible plan has been the tricky part, both in real life and in Lawrence Block’s pseudonymous hard-boiled 1961 paperback novel, Killing Castro, recently reprinted under the author’s actual name for the Hard Case Crime retro-pulp imprint.

Hard Case has a visible affection for the look of classic pulp, particularly the seductive femme fatale, preferably clad (or semi-clad) in something tight and low cut. Presumably, Sharif Tarabay’s appropriate cover depicts Maria, an anti-Castro freedom fighter who draws the unwelcome attention of Matt Garth, one of five American mercenaries sent to fulfill the title’s mission. Recruited with the brutish Garth are a stone cold bounty-hunter, a drifter with a murder wrap hanging over his head, a college student looking to avenge his brother, and the sharpest drawn character of Block's Cuban Rat Pack, Earl Fenton, a former bank teller with terminal lung cancer looking to give meaning to his impending death.

Of course, for a book like Killing Castro, characterization is a secondary concern, if it factors at all. The sex and violence are the real priority and there are plenty of both here. However, Block throws in a few interesting twists, pairing the Garth, easily the most despicable of the five prospective assassins, with Fenton, perhaps his most sympathetic character. As one of the anti-Castro guerillas confesses to the nebbish but driven American:

“When I first met you, I thought you were less of a man than you are. I mean that I did not know you would be good at the fighting. I thought you were a quiet man, you know?” (p. 136)

Weighing in at just over 200 pages, Killing Castro does not have the time for intricate plotting, but the conclusion truthfully comes as a tad bit of a surprise. His historical interludes explaining Castro’s rise to power and descent into dictatorship do not hold up as well, essentially blaming the precedent set by the Batista regime for the bearded one’s “revolutionary justice” meted out with firing squads, sans trials.

Even in 1961, Block was a professional grade writer, who could clearly produce entertaining pulp on demand. Unquestionably a man’s book, Killing Castro remains a quick, lurid read, living up to the expectations set by its cover.