Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mesrine Part 2: Public Enemy #1

Gangster and self-styled revolutionary Jacques Mesrine never lacked for nerve, but he might have started to believe his own hype. That never turns out well. At least we have reason to believe he will not go quietly at the conclusion of Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (trailer here), the second part of Jean-François Richet’s two-film bio-epic, which opens this Friday in New York.

After his notorious detour through Quebec, Mesrine is back in France, plying his chosen trade. A celebrity criminal who assiduously cultivates the media, his capture becomes the top priority of Police Commissaire Broussard. Actually, catching the flamboyant Mesrine seems relatively easy. Keeping him behind bars was the tricky part. When he teams up with François Besse, an unassuming but equally slippery fellow inmate, all bets are off.

Largely eschewing the personal drama of Killer Instinct, Enemy features two shoot ‘em up escapes sequences, a number of mostly disastrous capers, some cold blooded killing, and the brilliantly edited conclusion. Essentially, Public delivers the pay-off on Instinct’s emotional investment. Yet, all the really juicy supporting turns come in the second, action-driven film. As Besse, the perfectly cast Mathieu (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) Amalric is an intense counterpoint to blustery Mesrine. Likewise, Dardenne Brothers regular Olivier Gourmet brings some heft to Broussard, making him a worthy antagonist for Mesrine. Instinct standout Michel Duchaussoy also makes a brief but touching return appearance as the gangster’s meekly loving father.

Of course, it is problematic using terms like “hero” or even “anti-hero” with regards to the Mesrine films. He is presented as a consistently problematic figure, albeit one not without charm. Arguably though, it is his efforts to preserve his good press that contribute to his undoing. Vanity—it’s a killer.

While Instinct had the occasional slow patch, Enemy speeds along like an escaped fugitive. It is all held together by Vincent Cassel’s dynamic lead performance and the film’s cool retro 70’s look. Of course, the Mesrine films are best seen as a whole, but of the duology, Enemy is definitely the superior film. It opens this Friday (9/3) in New York at Angelika and AMC Empire 25.

The Great Migration: Last Train Home

Whether you consider it an unintentional disconnect stemming from China’s rapid industrialization or outright hypocrisy, the chasm between official rhetoric and reality is wide and stark in the Communist People’s Republic of China. It might be go-go times in the big coastal commercial centers, but the rural areas are desperately poor. An estimated 130 million migrant workers leave for the cities, working long hours for exploitative wages. They only make one annual return home for the traditional New Year holiday. Considered the world’s largest migration of people, documentarian Lixin Fan examines the taxing ritual through the eyes of one struggling Chinese family in Last Train Home (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin are second class citizens, veritable illegal aliens within their own countries. Under the government’s restrictive residency laws, they have few formal rights and no access to social services outside their home district. Yet, they have had little choice but to seek work in China’s teeming urban centers. As a result, they have rarely seen the teen-aged daughter and young son they left to be raised by their grandmother.

Mother-daughter relationships can be difficult even under easier circumstances, but the three years Chen and her daughter Zhang Qin have been separated are taking a toll. Yet, on one level, Chen cannot blame her for feeling abandoned, lamenting she has not been a good mother. Unfortunately, the resentful daughter spitefully drops out of school, becoming a migrant worker herself. It is a bitter turn of events for her parents, who now must face the possibility much of the sacrifices will have been for naught. They also know only too well the rough education she is in for, especially when navigating the yearly mass exodus.

Sharing an obvious stylistic affinity with the Digital Generation of independent Chinese filmmakers, Chinese-Canadian director Lixin Fan is not afraid of holding long, quiet shots. However, he captured some uncomfortably intimate family drama, while conscientiously refraining from adding any outside commentary. Clearly, the filmmaker built up a large reservoir of trust with his subjects. In return, he lets them speak for themselves in their own words, unfiltered and unhurried.

Train is a very personal film, but it is hard to miss the underlying point that approximately 130 million more migrant Chinese workers currently endure similar conditions. Ironically, China’s peasants used to be the PRC’s privileged class, but now the laws are now rigged against them.

Should digital auteur Jia Zhangke ever remake John Hughes’ Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, it would probably look a lot like this. An unvarnished exercise in cinema vérité that takes on tragic dimensions, Train is a pointed corrective to the uncritical media coverage the Chinese government carefully cultivates. It is all the more difficult to shake, since it is not at all clear everything will ultimately work out alright for the Zhang family. Indeed, such is the nature of life. Uncompromising but deeply humanistic, Train opens Friday (9/3) in New York at the IFC Center.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Norwegian Resistance: Max Manus

When the Russians invaded Finland in 1940, Max Manus and his fellow Norwegian volunteers bravely fought alongside their Scandinavia brothers, halting Stalin’s forces a scant 150 kilometers past the eastern border. When the Soviets’ National Socialist allies then rolled through Norway in a mere two months, it put Manus somewhat out of sorts. This became the Nazis’ problem, when Manus found his calling as a legendary resistance leader, whose deeds are dramatized in Espen Sandberg and Joachim Roenning’s Max Manus (trailer here), Norway’s official 2009 submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration, which opens this Friday in New York.

Manus had little education and few marketable skills. However, on the Finnish Front, he exhibited a marked aptitude for killing Soviets. Though it left deep psychic scars, Manus would soon rely on his deadly talents in his native Norway. Trained by the British, Manus had spectacular early success sabotaging the German shipyards, but the massive transport ship the Donau remained safely operational. Of course, this unfinished business hardly sits well with Manus either.

Pale and unimposing, Manus hardly looks the part of the inspiring resistance hero. Still, the German occupiers clear pick him as their target to freeze and demonize. As they torture and kill his friends in a desperate effort to get to him, Manus is plagued with agonizing survivor’s guilt. Indeed, in Sandberg and Roenning’s film, he is convincingly presented as a bundle of neuroses, sharing the psychological extremes of both the impulsive Flame and socially awkward Citron, the Danish resistance heroes brought to life on-screen last year.

The vaguely David McCallum-looking Aksel Hennie has the perfect spot-on intensity as the driven Manus. Unfortunately the German Ken Duken (a dead-ringer for Starship Trooper’s Casper Van Dien) is a bit bland as the square-jawed villain. While much of the supporting cast is more or less adequate, functioning as moths to Manus/Hennie’s flame, Norwegian actor-director Petter Næss (best known for the Academy Award nominated Elling) has a memorable scene-stealing cameo as the celebrated Captain Martin Linge.

While some historians argue the Manus bio-film overstates his participation in the Winter War, it is certainly an accurate reminder of where the term “Quisling” came from. It is also surprisingly realistic in its depiction of the war’s emotional aftermath for those that survive.

Heroic but unsentimental, Max Manus is a very good war drama. According to the press kit, 1,000,000 Norwegians saw the film in its first six weeks of domestic release (despite a well publicized case of local piracy). It seems that many Norwegians really cannot be wrong, at least about films. Enthusiastically recommended, it opens Friday (9/3) in New York at the Quad.

One-Upping the Coens: A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop

Maybe their take on True Grit will be different, but the embarrassing Ladykillers suggests the Coen Brothers should leave remakes to others, like Zhang Yimou. Transferring Blood Simple to Imperial China, Zhang preserves all the hardboiled character of the original while adding a layer of outrageous visual humor in A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Reportedly a hit with audiences at the 2010 Berlinale and the Coens themselves, Noodle is quite faithful to the plot of the original Blood. In China’s remote northern desert, the wealthy Wang lives with his caustic wife and the employees of his noodle shop. Abusive towards his wife and too stingy to pay his veritable captive employees’ wages, he makes everyone around him miserable. His wife is getting ideas though. Carrying on an illicit affair with the meek Li, she buys a gun from an itinerant merchant who seems to have stepped out of Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen.

According to her plans, divorce will flow through the barrel of the gun she instructs her spineless lover to hide. Unfortunately, Wang gets wind of her intentions, hiring the corrupt patrol officer Zhang to murder her first. As those familiar with the Coen Brothers’ film will expect, the double crosses come fast and furious from this point on, but Zhang (the director) adds a really cool scene of Li spinning noodles like its gravity-defying pizza dough, truly distinguishing Noodle from it inspiration.

Some stick-in-the-mud critics seem determined to nit-pick Noodle, asking how Wang’s noodle shop in the remote Shaanxi province could stay in business. One could just as easily ask how Norman Bates could afford to buy groceries. Who cares, just go with it.

Volumes could also be written about the political context of director Zhang’s body of work. He was banned from filmmaking for two years for the unvarnished depiction of the Communist government’s collectivization campaigns in To Live, but his martial arts epic Hero has been criticized for a perceived allegorical subtext perhaps arguing in favor of a strong centralized Chinese government. In contrast, Noodle does not readily lend itself to ideological interpretation.

Instead, it offers thoroughly entertaining skullduggery and some wacky (if often violent) humor. Yet, it all works because the entire cast plays it straight, including the stone cold stone-faced Sun Honglei as Officer Zhang. As Wang’s wife, Yan Ni is a fantastic femme fatale, keeping in character throughout some rather incredible situations. Cheng Ye (and his conspicuous teeth) is also clearly game for some over-the-top physical comedy, while moving along the noir plot nicely.

Throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, Noodle has a wickedly playful spirit. Still, it has a tactile sense of place thanks to Han Zhong’s painstakingly crafted sets. Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding also makes the forbidding landscape sparkle through his lens. As a result, Noodle has a classy, art-house sheen, but it is still just a ruckus good time at the movies. It opens Friday (9/3) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Canine Valentine: My Dog Tulip

For the British, the immediate post-war years were a period of economic recession and national uncertainty. However, for one tweedy man of letters, they were happy times thanks to his ideal companion, a willful but affectionate German shepherd. Despite a relatively slim body of work, J.R. Ackerley’s literary reputation endures almost entirely thanks to his memoir of faithful dog ownership, My Dog Tulip, which has been adapted by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger as an animated feature intended for discerning adults. The first acquisition of the happily re-launched New Yorker Films, Dog (trailer here) opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

Though not deliberately abused, Tulip was too much dog for her original harried working class owners. However, a “confirmed bachelor” like Ackerley is perfectly willing to put up with a little barking and the occasional mess on the floor. In return, Tulip loved him with a possessive fervor. Caring for Tulip presents its challenges for the set-in-his-ways gent, the most pressing of which is finding a vet both he and Tulip feel comfortable with. Eventually, they are referred to Dr. Canvenini, who we know will be compassionate since she has the soothing voice of Isabella Rossellini.

With Tulip now receiving better care than most of the English suddenly navigating the National Health Service, Ackerley finds he enjoys her company far more than that of humankind, most definitely including his jealous sister Nancy. It is a love he explains with colorful details as he works on what will surely become his beloved memoir throughout the film.

Dog’s refined visual style has been likened to that of New Yorker magazine cartoons, which is a relatively apt comparison. While deliberately “sketchier” during flashback sequences and such, it conveys a spirit of wit and elegance throughout. Still, do not let the classy look and literary credentials mislead you. The film has a gleefully scatological disposition, displaying a Mehmet Oz-like fascination with the consistency of Tulip’s number two. All of which means Dog is a heck of a lot of fun.

Christopher Plummer’s voice is a perfect fit for Ackerley’s curmudgeonly urbanity, taking audible delight in his sly turns of phrase. John Avarese’s jazz and light classical soundtrack also further heightens the film’s air of sophistication. Yet, while Dog’s gentle pace and episodic structure might sound suitable for children, parents should be cognizant it really was produced with adult viewers in mind (featuring for instance a rather frank subplot involving Ackerley’s attempts to mate Tulip).

Forget about Marley and Me or any other saccharine pet movie. The Fierlingers’ animated take on Ackerley’s canine valentine is a smart and wistful pleasure for discriminating dog and film lovers. Warmly recommended, the droll Dog begins a two week run Wednesday (9/1) at Film Forum, with the filmmakers scheduled to attend the 8:00 screenings opening night and Thursday (9/2).

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ozu at IFC: Early Summer

Sorry, no CGI or 3D here, just family drama of a universal nature. Few directors handled such material as assuredly as Yasujiro Ozu. For a prime example, check out Ozu’s Early Summer, now screening at the IFC Center as part of their ongoing Ozu weekend series.

Life is realistically pleasant for the Mamiya family. The eldest son Koichi is a doctor, married to the dutiful Fumiko. They live with his parents, their two young mischievous sons, and his younger sister Noriko. There is someone missing though: the younger brother still listed as missing in action, several years after the war. His fate remains a source of pain for the Mamiya parents, but it has dulled with the passage of time (a major Ozu theme). In fact, they have more immediate concerns, like that unmarried twenty-eight year-old daughter of theirs. It turns out they are not the only ones considering her matrimonial prospects, starting with her matchmaker boss.

In many ways, Summer is a perfectly representational Ozu film, featuring a relatively large ensemble cast in an intimate family setting. As in next week’s Late Spring, the plot is driven by attempts to marry off a daughter named Noriko played by Ozu regular Setsuko Hara. It also features two willful young boys, who come across a bit brattier than the brothers of I Was Born But . . . It also features his trademark still shots that in Summer (as well as Spring) evoke a feeling of comfort and security in the characters’ working middle class homes. Ozu’s pacing is gentle and reassuring with important events often happen off-screen, as they usually do in real life.

Of course, it is hard to imagine either Noriko lacking a parade of suitors. A radiant screen presence, Hara was dubbed the “Eternal Virgin” in Japan, largely for her roles of familial fidelity in Ozu’s films. (She also played the assertive, morally ambiguous lead in Akira Kurosawa’s unfairly dismissed adaptation of The Idiot, almost single handedly rescuing the troubled production.) Indeed, she had a pure but earthy beauty, like a Japanese Loretta Young. Her performance as Summer’s Noriko is lovely, charming, and ultimately quite human.

However, in Summer Hara has plenty of support, including small but endearing turns from a spirited Chikage Awashima as her decidedly single best friend Aya and Shûji Sano as her slightly goofy but well meaning boss Satake.

Though hardly a conflict driven plot, Ozu still keeps us engaged thanks to the ever present sense of tempus fugit. Time passes and it is clear these mostly idyllic moments will not last forever. Wise and sensitive, Summer is a pleasure to watch quietly unfold. A good place to start appreciating the work of both Ozu and Hara, it screens today (8/28) and tomorrow morning at the IFC Center.

Friday, August 27, 2010

L.A. Lawless: Takers

Even in this ever-deepening recession, business is booming for five Angelinos. They are up-scale bank robbers. If they only steal TARP money, would the twice-appropriated funds still count as larceny? It would remain an act of taking, which is very definitely the name of the game in John Luessenhop’s Takers (trailer here), which opens today nationwide.

As the film kicks off, the fab five are putting in a good day’s work. Located high in an L.A. skyscraper, this bank ought to be a daunting assignment, but it is a walk in the park for our masked gunmen. It is a nifty action prologue, tightly choreographed, featuring an ingenious plan shrewdly incorporating the cluelessness of the news media. That bank never had a chance. However, just as they are about to celebrate, things get a little strained.

Enter “Ghost,” a former accomplice who was pinched on one of their rare unsuccessful gigs. Though he never rolled over on the old gang, everyone is a tad on edge to see him again, particularly Jake Attica, who is now engaged to Ghost’s ex. After laying down a vaguely menacing guilt trip, Ghost makes his proposition: a rush job hitting an armored car. He just happens to have next week’s route through his contacts with the Russian mob (gee, you don’t think that might be significant later, do you?). Against their better judgment, the team ramps up for the big score. Further complicating matters, cop-on-the edge Jack Welles is slowly closing in on them. Then stuff starts to blow up and people shoot at each other.

Takers is beyond slick. There are more shots of the setting sun glinting off L.A.’s soaring glass skyline than in the entire series run of L.A. Law. There is also plenty of over-the-top posturing and sneering passing between Ghost and his rival. Yet, the film deserves credit for some crowd-pleasingly amped-up stunt sequences, including a Parkour-style pursuit that looks like it was inspired by the District 13 films.

As the leader of the crew, the towering, strictly business Idris Elba is all kinds of bad. Likewise, Hayden “Anakin” Christensen is a surprisingly cool screen presence as A.J., the technical mastermind who also plays a bit of jazz piano (Hoagy Carmichael's "The Nearness of You"). (Again, Takers is further evidence Lucas cannot direct anyone out of a paper sack.) R&B star Chris Brown (of Rihanna notoriety) is convincingly immature as the younger Attica brother, while displaying some real action movie cred in the cranked-up-to-eleven chase scene. It even delivers a suitably serpentine villain played with smooth-talking verve by Tip “T.I.” Harris (the rapper who named himself after his favorite calculator).

In truth, Takers inspires hearty chuckles nearly every step of the way. Sometimes it is intentional, more often times not. Still, an hour and forty-five minutes of solid laughter with some impressive stunt work tossed in is certainly entertainment of a sort. It also looks great recycling every heist cliché under the sun thanks to the uber-glossy cinematography of Michael Barrett. Trashy fun, Takers opens wide today.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Thompson’s Change of Plans

Dinner parties are a time-honored social convention. With the right mix of people they can be quite enjoyable. It turns out a guest list of eleven is a bit too long in Change of Plans (trailer here), Daniéle Thompson’s comedy of relationships and manners that opens tomorrow in New York.

Considered a shrewd divorce attorney, ML thinks she is happily married to Piotr, her unemployed househusband. However, he is deeply unhappy for reasons too numerous to mention. Having just remolded the kitchen, they plan to inaugurate it with a dinner party, inviting close friends and some acquaintances they hardly know.

Of course, as the night progresses it becomes clear there are a number of hidden connections between the various guests. Since everyone had a pleasant evening or at least pretended to, they vow to do it again next year. A year is a long time though, and events of that night set off a chain of complications that might necessitate the titular change.

It might sound terrible, but one of the Plans’ biggest problems is the difficulty in telling apart its several white bourgeoisie French women characters. One is a lawyer who seemingly lives a charmed life, one is a doctor who is in for a difficult year, and another works in the film industry, yet they all blend together. Ironically, Thompson (with her co-writer son Christopher) is more successful fleshing out her male characters.

Perhaps Plans’ best chemistry comes not in its many romances, but rather with the fast friendship between the estranged father and considerably older boyfriend of Juliette, the production designer. Obviously, they share many points of reference, both cultural and personal, much to her consternation. It is sort of a sly alternative take on the themes of Something’s Gotta Give. In fact, Pierre Arditi (who somewhat resembles John McLaughlin, the musician not the commentator) and Patrick Chesnais deliver the film’s most memorable, finely tuned performances.

Unfortunately, Thompson is too good a host in Plans. Whenever it seems like the film starts to click, she compulsively checks in with another set of characters. As a result, we see all the not so ironic marital woes of ML’s partner in law and the angst of her boring husband (played by an oddly flat Dany Boon, recognizable to many for his Chaplinesque turn in Micmacs).

There are some nice moments in Plans but it is too over-stuffed. Several subplots remain half-baked, while others (the attorneys’ relationships) get tiresome. While it still approaches its relationship issues with an honesty that distinguishes it from many supposedly quirky indie films, Plans is not as satisfying as Thompson’s big hits, like Avenue Montaigne and Cousin, Cousine (which she co-wrote with director Jean-Charles Tachella). It opens this Friday (8/27) at the IFC Center in New York.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Lewis: The Former Sidekick

We Yanks seem to enjoy watching Brits knock each other off and then figure out who did it and why, particularly on Masterpiece Mystery, where the feature-length installments have time to fully develop the crimes and subsequent investigations. Still, some rather workaday mysteries became popular simply on the strength of their characters. Arguably, the Inspector Morse series, as well as the Inspector Lewis spinoffs, are prime examples. With the death of both the central character and lead actor John Thaw, Morse was presumed to have run its course, but the enduring popularity of his sidekick formerly Detective Sergeant, now Inspector Lewis has been a bit of a surprise. However, the first two episodes of the upcoming Inspector Lewis Series III are in fact better than average for standard-issue BBC crime dramas.

Sunday’s season premiere, Counter Culture Blues, is definitely distinguished by its guest stars, including a perfectly cast Joanna Lumley as Esme Ford, a sixties rock icon long presumed dead, who mysteriously reappears out of the blue. However, it is Simon Callow who really vamps it up as Vernon Oxe, the band’s refined Col. Tom Parker. The actual mystery involving the aged drug-addled rockers is hardly extraordinary, but Callow’s droll scenery-chewing is quite entertaining.

The following Sunday’s Dead of Winter is better conceived mystery with a vaguely Da Vinci Code-like angle that also involves the personal back-story of Lewis’s sidekick, the seminary-trained DS James Hathaway. It too appears to have some considerable added star power with the guest presence of Nathaniel Parker (a.k.a. Masterpiece Mystery’s Inspector Lynley), but he is essentially wasted in little more than a bystander role.

However, Winter is probably most notable for Lewis’s awkward attempts to mentor his straight-laced DS. Frankly, between the two franchises, Lewis has quite an interesting character arc, having lost not just his own mentor but his wife as well. Somewhat ill at ease assuming Morse’s curmudgeonly mantle as well as his rank, Lewis often asks “what would Morse do?” This line of inquiry usually ends at the pub.

Anchored by Kevin Whately’s winning lead, comfortably balancing pathos and cynicism, Lewis seems to be growing as a franchise. At least based on the first two episodes of Lewis Series III (as airing on PBS), the overall series that started out just okay is becoming fairly good. Series III premieres this Sunday (8/29) with Counter Culture Blues, followed by Dead of Winter (9/5), with new installments to follow throughout September.

(Lewis photos: Courtesy of © ITV for MASTERPIECE)

Centurion: No Pax Romana Here

It is 117 A.D. and the Roman “conquest” of Britain has been a miserable, blood-soaked experience—for the Romans. Just ask Centurion Quintus Dias whom we first meet running for his life from a very ticked-off war party of Picts in Neil Marshall’s Centurion (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Posted to the most distant Roman outpost, Dias is miserable in Caledonian Britain (what is more or less Scotland today). Things only get worse when his fort is over-run by a Pict surprise attack. The sole survivor, Dias escapes his captors, making his way to what just became the newly Northern-most Roman outpost. Tired of taking a beating to his prestige back in Rome, the local governor commands General Virilus to hunt down the mysterious Pict leader Gorlacon with his vaunted Ninth Legion, to which Dias is now attached.

Virilus is not thrilled with his assignment, but he supposedly has the advantage of the services of Etain, a Pict tracker ostensibly civilized by the governor. Given the way her eyes smolder with hatred, following her into battle is probably a bad idea, but they do it anyway, with predictable results. Now Dias must lead the remnant of the Ninth as they try to rescue their revered General behind enemy lines.

Centurion is a fairly straight-forward historical hack & slash, with maybe a hint of the fantastical. At one point, Dias and his men find refuge with Arianne, a woman shunned by the Picts as a purported witch—not that she really is one. She just seems to know a lot about healing herbs. Neil (The Descent) Marshall definitely has a knack for gritty battle scenes, and the clever symmetry of his opening and closing scenes perfectly suits the story of ancient (if misplaced) heroism. Unfortunately, the film lags a bit in-between, with too many scenes of rock-climbing and limping through the Caledonian forests.

Michael Fassbender is one of the few actors working in film today with potentially movie star-like screen presence. Yet in Centurion, the grizzled badness of Dominic West’s Virilus somewhat outshines him. Still, he has some credible chemistry with Imogen Poots as Arianne the witch. Unfortunately, Ulrich Thomsen is a bland villain as Gorlacon (probably because the film is too conscious of its alleged modern parallels), while as Etain, former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko looks distractingly blue, almost like she walked out of Avatar. Oddly, the Centurion’s Romans are played by Brits, whereas the Britons are mostly played by Scandinavians, Slavs, and even the Belgian Axelle Carolyn.

Centurion’s craftsmanship is definitely above average for action films. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy’s dazzling vistas make the Caledonian mountains look like the Alps. It also boasts one of the cooler opening title sequences of the year. Still, its heavy-handed “occupiers” versus “insurgency” themes often sabotages the film’s momentum. Ultimately, it is an okay summer diversion, but it is effectively limited by its reluctance to definitively pick a side and stick with it. It opens Friday (8/27) in New York at the Angelika.

(Poster by British comic artist Simon Bisley)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

French Christie: Towards Zero

It is always satisfying to hear: “I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve called you all together,” those magic words that signify an Agatha Christie book or movie is getting down to business. Technically, the Colombo-like Commissaire Martin Bataille never utters that fateful phrase, but that is about the only thing missing from Towards Zero (trailer here), Pascal Thomas’s French take on Dame Agatha now available on DVD.

A diverse cast of characters has gathered at the elderly Camilla Tressilian’s stately but secluded coastal mansion, but they all brought plenty of baggage. Of course her nephew and heir Guillaume Neuville is on hand with his beautiful but difficult second wife Caroline. Complicating matters, Aunt Camilla has also invited Aude, his wronged wife #1. At least she can count on the attentions of family friend and itinerant wanderer Thomas Rondeau, who is so eager to reconnect with the ex-Madame Neuville, he fails to recognize the torch Marie-Adeline, Tressilian’s retainer-companion, faithfully carries for him.

Assembling this party in an isolated setting is bound to lead to murder, but the first victim is a relative outsider, Tressilian’s old friend, the distinguished police inspector Charles Trévoz. When asked for a career anecdote, he regales the dinner party with the tale of a precocious child murderer he encountered years ago. Though he refuses to even specify a gender, he assures everyone he would recognize him or her anywhere. In retrospect, this is probably a mistake. As Bataille investigates Trévoz’s subsequent death, he soon finds plenty more work where that came from.

Zero is quite an entertaining cozy whodunnit, appropriately filled with hothouse jealousies and long buried secrets. Unfortunately, for the sake of fairness, it rather clumsily drops an all-too-obvious clue early on. Still, it is largely faithful to the spirit of great previous Agatha Christie adaptations, down to the thumbnail pictures of the cast running across the bottom of the DVD cover. Yet, it also occasionally displays an enjoyably absurdist flourish just to remind us its French.

Perfectly rumpled, François Morel looks like an old shoe as the shrewd Bataille. In contrast, Jacques Serys is an elegant scene-stealer as the ill-fated Trévoz and Laura Smet is convincingly hot and overwrought as the second Madame Neuville. Unfortunately, Chiara Mastroianni comes across a bit flat as the wounded ex.

While not on the level of the Finney and Ustinov Hercule Poirot films, Zero is definitely superior to the recent BBC Christie adaptations airing on Masterpiece Mystery. Smart and sophisticated, Zero is definitely worth catching-up with on DVD.

Birth of a Legend: Louis

Louis Armstrong is the quintessential musical Horatio Alger story. Though not born on the 4th of July as he believed, Armstrong undeniably came from mean circumstances. A child of New Orleans’ Storyville red light district, Armstrong received quite an education in life at a tender age. Those early formative years are stylishly dramatized in Dan Priztker’s Louis (trailer here), retro-silent film to be presented Monday the 30th in New York with a live soundtrack accompaniment performed by composer Wynton Marsalis, classical pianist Cecile Licard, and a 10-piece small big band (almost entirely consisting of Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra alumnus).

Though Armstrong’s memoirs largely sanitize his childhood, it is generally accepted that from time to time, his mother engaged in the work Storyville was infamous for. Louis dispenses with euphemisms, taking viewers inside the venerable bordellos of New Orleans (hence the R rating). A worldly tyke, young Armstrong already has a crush on one of the working girls, Grace, a local near-celebrity who has just made her triumphant return to the Crescent City and the world’s oldest profession. Unfortunately, the thoroughly corrupt but politically ambitious Judge Perry also has eyes for Grace in an exploitative Jim Crow kind of way. Ironically, since the six year-old Armstrong is essentially invisible to Perry and his cronies, he finds ample snooping opportunities as he tries to foil the crooked jurist’s plans for Grace.

As one would expect given it carries the Wynton Marsalis seal of approval, Louis definitely gets its jazz correct. Mixing Marsalis originals with the compositions of Jewish-Creole classical composer L.M. Gottschalk, the film-concert experience definitely captures the sound of early Twentieth Century New Orleans. Indeed, Marsalis’ portions of the soundtrack are similar in tone to his music for Ken Burns’ Jack Johnson documentary, Unforgivable Blackness. While clearly inspired by Armstrong, there is also the hint of an Ellington influence, which echoes throughout Marsalis’ music.

Louis might look as good as it sounds thanks to Vilmos Zsigmond, the celebrated Hungarian cinematographer who defected shortly after the 1956 Soviet invasion. Indeed, his use of black-and-white with sepia color tints gives the film a vibrant yet sophisticated look. To his credit, rock musician turned jazz movie director Pritzker also shows an intuitive flair for camera movement, nicely conveying the earthy energy of its setting.

Despite its lack of dialogue (aside from periodic inter-titles) Louis had at least four credited screenwriters, including Pritzker. While their story arc is fairly simple, they add some nice period touches, like appearances from Buddy Bolden, the never-recorded cornetist considered the original jazz musician. The film also cleverly shoehorns real incidents in Armstrong’s life, including the circumstances that sent him to the so-called Colored Waifs’ Home, where he providentially joined the marching band, ultimately setting in motion a career as the most significant and influential musician in American history.

Bearing a strong likeness to the young Armstrong, charismatic Anthony Coleman also hints at the familiar Satchmo mannerisms fairly well, without descending into caricature. Deliberately resembling Chaplin (albeit in his later years) Jackie Earle Haley is strangely effective as Judge Perry, mixing in some surprising pathos with his physical comedy and scenery chewing villainy.

Louis is one of the better jazz films produced in recent years that will surely be even more rewarding with the live in-theater soundtrack performance. Though Marsalis might be controversial in some jazz circles for his perceived aesthetic conservatism, he is an energizing soloist with a charming stage presence and a golden trumpet tone. It’s a great band too. Known for excelling on gutbucket blues, trombonist Wycliffe “Pinecone” Gordon should have a particularly strong affinity for the material, having composed his own soundtracks for silent films. Affectionately recommended, the Louis tour starts Wednesday August 25th in Chicago, reaching New York’s Apollo Theater Monday (8/30).

Monday, August 23, 2010

Mesrine Part 1: Killer Instinct

Jacques Mesrine was white and bourgeoisie, but he wanted to be the French Iceberg Slim. A veteran of Algeria, Mesrine became France and Canada’s “Public Enemy #1,” eventually getting his wish, dying in a hail of bullets. Before the inevitable, he glamorized his exploits in two memoirs/novels, making him something of a cult hero to the French-speaking counter-culture. As a result, he became a very PR-conscious public enemy, who would be delighted to know his story has now been adapted in Jean-François Richet’s two-film bio-epic, the first of which, Mesrine: Killer Instinct (trailer here) opens Friday in New York, with part two to follow a week later.

In Algeria, Mesrine killed and tortured without a second thought. Returning to France, he is incapable of following in his timid father’s footsteps of working middleclass respectability. Of course, he has certain talents to offer, which the “establishment” gangster Guido recognizes. While Mesrine takes to racketeering like a fish to water, his wild streak is an obvious liability. He also seems to have issues with women. While his conquests are many, he also seems primed for some rather ugly misogynistic violence.

Despite his unruliness, Mesrine eventually finds himself married with children. When he even gets a straight job after an early prison stretch, it appears Mesrine might be ready to settle down. Unfortunately, when he is laid off during an economic downturn, Mesrine soon returns to Guido’s organization.

Ironically, as the violence of Mesrine’s criminal endeavors escalates, his press becomes increasingly favorable. He became the gentleman bandit, with a strict code of conduct and New Left street cred. When things get too hot for Mesrine in France, he takes a sojourn to Quebec, falling in with French nationalists, further refining his revolutionary persona.

Killer Instinct is a decent gangster movie on its own, but it is really meant to establish the characters and story that continues in Public Enemy No. 1, the second film (that confusingly has the number one in the title). Indeed, Instinct handles the heavy-lifting of character development, setting up the slam-bang action sequences of Enemy. Yet, Richet presents a compellingly unvarnished portrait of Mesrine in the first film, never ameliorating his abusive behavior.

The bulked-up Vincent Cassel is like a French old school De Niro as Mesrine, vicious yet undeniably charismatic. Gérard Depardieu also adds plenty of color as the Jabba the Hutt-like Guido. Unfortunately, Mesrine’s women (even his Spanish wife) are not well delineated either in the script or in the various supporting performances, problematically seeming to exist only as plot devices. Still, Instinct is not bereft of humanity, thanks to Michel Duchaussoy’s touching turn as Mesrine’s father.

After a tour-de-force opening, Richet allows Instinct to lag somewhat in the middle. This is definitely not a problem with the next installment opening September 3rd. Essentially, Instinct sets up the pins and Enemy knocks them down. Altogether, it is an ambitious, shrewdly executed crime drama worth the investment of two trips to the theater. Instinct opens Friday (8/27) at the Angelika, AMC Lincoln Square, and Empire 25 Theaters.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Manu Katche’s Good Grooves on Third Round

Americans would probably be surprised to hear a jazz musician is a judge for Nouvelle Star, the French equivalent of American Idol. Yet, few understand the mechanics of successful pop better than Manu Katché, who first came to international prominence in the bands of Sting and Peter Gabriel. Also a veteran of many continental jazz sessions, the French-African drummer is nothing if not flexible. His latest outing, Third Round, is a jazz affair with a decidedly funky edge, now available from ECM Records.

Though it starts on a deceptively delicate note, the set opening “Swing Piece” settles into a smoky late-night groove, showcasing Tore Brunborg’s warm tenor saxophone, subtly propelled by the leader’s crisp brush work. Part insistent bop, part backbeat-driven funk, the following “Keep on Trippin’” constantly changes hue and texture based on each successive solo, with some pretty tasty ones coming from pianist Jason Rebello and Brunborg.

Katché has a knack for penning fresh-sounding melodies like the spritely up-tempo “Being Ben,” which features a real clinic from the drummer on producing tonal colors from cymbals. Even when Katché dials down the dynamics on “Springtime Dancing” his new group constantly sounds energized by his grooves. Then on the odd but cool “Out Take Number Nine,” the shortest track of the session, Katché really lets loose his inner “Funky Drummer” while Rebello conversely dips deep into a Bill Evans bag. Yet, somehow it works quite effectively.

Though a steady diet of guest trumpeter Kami Lyle’s breathy vocals might be like ice cream for every meal, they come as a sweet palette cleanser on the achingly lyrical “Stay With You,” perfectly complimented by Brunborg’s rich, insinuating tenor. Lyle switches to her horn on the following “Flower Skin,” a moody hardbop piece also distinguished by the evocative work of another guest musician, Norwegian American guitarist Jacob Young. In an act of true musical generosity (and confidence), Katché sits out the elegantly minimalist “Urban Shadows” entirely, though frankly he is somewhat missed.

During the most memorable sequence in bassist Victor Wooten’s New Agey novel The Music Lesson, one particularly masterful drummer remains silent during his solo, simply nodding to the beat, because the groove he has already created remains so strong the audience can still feel it. Katché’s playing on Round often has that palpable rhythmic vibe. Highly melodic and downright fun, it is jazz anyone can appreciate.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

ADFF Summer Series ’10: La Colombiana

The Colombian coast is where the Caribbean and South America meet. As one would expect, quite a diverse mix of influences are reflected in the region’s traditional music, reflecting the people’s African, indigenous, Spanish, and even Moorish heritage. Preserving Colombia’s musical legacy is truly the life’s work of Totó La Momposina, the country’s unofficial cultural ambassador to the world, who is profiled in Jake Holmes and Amanda Homi’s La Colombiana: Passing the Torch (trailer here), which screens next Sunday during the African Diaspora Film Festival’s 2010 Summer Series.

Usually simply called Totó in the film (like Elvis), the traditional cantadora vocalist became a favorite of the European festival circuit after her high profile performance at the Nobel Prize ceremony for Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Though host-co-producer-co-director-vocalist Homi never says so specifically, it seems clear European audiences support Totó’s music far more than her fellow Colombian countrymen. Yet, she is determined to keep her music living and vital in land where it was born. In fact, the younger generation has been fertile ground for her efforts. Indeed, the growing popularity of Cumbia dance contests among Colombian children visibly encourages the cantadora.

Totó has also recruited her grandchildren into her touring show for a series of numbers featuring the three musical generations of her family. Even though Homi clearly esteems her subject (freely admitting her suck-uppery), to her credit she still shows Totó’s stern taskmaster tendencies during rehearsals, occasionally even pushing her grandchildren to tears.

Regardless of her rehearsal demeanor, Totó’s music is both powerful and sophisticated. While it might have its own unique regional characteristics, there is an audible kinship to Cuban music, with its infectious percussion and impassioned trumpet accompaniment. Of course, that is hardly surprising given the geography of the hemisphere. In fact, she even includes a number of Cuban boleros in her repertoire.

With a running time of about an hour, Colombiana is the first of what Holmes and Homi obviously hope will become a series of profiles of world music divas. Homi might not be the most probing interviewer, but as a musician herself, she was rather successful getting Totó and her family to open up on-camera. She also has a lovely voice, heard during the closing credits.

Colombiana could be the start of a cool series that ought to be a good fit for PBS. For now, it screens next Sunday (8/29), followed by a special musical performance from Homi, as part of the ADFF Summer Series currently playing at the Riverside Theater.

Friday, August 20, 2010

ADFF Summer Series ’10: Arugba

A Nigerian clinic has just lost its fiftieth patient to AIDS. A world heath NGO has earmarked millions to shore up such provincial health centers, but do not expect it to trickle too far down. Indeed, graft is an every day fact of life in Tunde Kelani’s Yoruban drama Arugba (trailer here), which screens during the African Diaspora Film Festival’s 2010 Summer Series.

The royal Kabiyesi is a model of corruption in both his public and private lives. However, the people are growing increasingly impatient with his ineffectual economic reforms. Yet he spends more time worrying about his adoptive niece Adetutu’s fitness to serve as the Arugba or votary virgin during the town’s Osun Osogbo festival, than creating new jobs. He has his reasons, which will be revealed as the film unfolds.

Adetutu knows her pseudo-uncle is bad news, but she has yet to make up her mind about Makinwa, musician-choreographer who wants to perform with her, on-stage for starters. A case of Nollywood cribbing a page from Bollywood, Arugba includes several fully produced musical interludes featuring the not-yet couple.

Though Arugba had a particularly long gestation period by Nollywood standards, it is still fairly representative of the Nigerian film industry, albeit on the high end. Shot at warp speed on a shoe string budget, Nollywood films are often distinguished by their refreshingly odd plot turns. Evidently filmmakers who know they will crank out a dozen or so films in a year do not have much incentive to play it safe.

Arugba follows in that tradition, mixing satire and mysticism to tell an offbeat morality tale recognizably inspired by the former Preident Olusegun Obasanjo. In truth, the film’s attitudes are perfectly crystallized in an early scene featuring a deranged Christian street preacher railing against official corruption. Two matronly vendors basically admit he might be crazy, but he is not far wrong.

Neophyte Bukola Awoyemi has an appealing earthiness as Adetutu, making her a model of African female empowerment (despite the cheesy fight choreography she was stuck with). A veteran actor in international demand, Peter Badejo projects the right sinister gravitas as the corrupt sovereign. However, Segun Adefila is bit dull as a leading man, but his hip-hop influenced choreography is pretty cool.

Arugba is one of a number of strange-in-a-good-way films to have come out of Nigeria in recent years. The ADFF seems to have a knack for skimming the cream of Nollywood’s bounteous crop, like the curious evangelical fantasy Changing Faces. While it requires certain aesthetic allowances, Arugba is an intriguing film on several levels (despite several Obama references that already feel dated). It screens next Sunday (8/29) as part of the ADFF Summer Series now underway at the Riverside Theater.

ADFF Summer Series ’10: Wedding Song

He is the Axis powers’ ally quite conveniently forgotten in recent years. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem incited attacks on Mid East Jewry, propagandized for the Germans, and even recruited volunteers for special Islamic Waffen-SS units. Thanks to his efforts, life becomes quite precarious for Tunisia’s Jewish citizens in Karin Albou’s The Wedding Song (trailer here), which screens next Saturday during the African Diaspora Film Festival’s 2010 Summer Series.

Friends since childhood, the Jewish Myriam and the Muslim Nour, are interested in love, not war. However, war finds the young women anyway in 1942 Tunisia, thanks to periodic Allied bombings. Unfortunately, in the short run these make life more difficult for the Jews of Tunis. As part of its strategy to secure Arabic support, the occupying National Socialist soldiers demand reparation payments from Tunisian Jews, which Myriam’s mother cannot afford.

In a twist of fate, the war becomes the catalyst for each woman’s very different marriage. Despite her protests, Myriam’s mother arranges her marriage to Raoul, a wealthy doctor many years her senior, in exchange for the money demanded of them by the Germans. Conversely, Nour is happily betrothed to her cousin Khaled, but her father has withheld his final consent until her unemployed fiancé gets a job. This he achieves with the occupying forces, assisting with the round-ups of Tunisian Jews.

As would be expected, the circumstances of the occupation put a strain on the young momen’s friendship. Ripe for anti-Semitic propaganda, the Islamist Khaled forbids Nour from seeing Myriam. Of course, as the one who taught Nour to read Arabic, Khaled might also consider the educated Myriam a dangerous influence on his prospective wife, possibly encouraging her to think for herself.

Given its traditional Tunisian settings, the frankness of Song is quite surprising. At times, the film feels intrusive, as when we see far too much of the difficult preparations Myriad undergoes for her wedding night. However, in other respects, Albou’s direction is quite sensitive, capturing some remarkable performances, particularly from Lizzie Brochere as Myriam and Simon Abkarian as the surprisingly complicated Raoul. The director’s perspective on the German forces is also quite effective. Seen as boots on the floor or ominous shadowy figures in the street, her camera refrains from direct eye contact, and thereby never humanizes them in any sense.

Song is an intimately human film, focusing squarely on the personal dramas of Myriam and Nour rather than the wider issues of war and ideology. Still, its depiction of occupied Tunis convincingly evokes the confusion and desperation of the time. Even though it concludes a bit abruptly, Song is a delicately crafted film that completely immerses viewers in a very specific time, place, and culture. Definitely recommended, it screens next Saturday (8/28) as part of the ADFF Summer Series at the Riverside Theater.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Soul Kitchen: Who Stole the Soul?

Talk about bait and switch. Instead of soul food, they serve nouveau fusion cuisine and alt-rock has replaced the classic soul music, yet Zinos still calls his restaurant Soul Kitchen. It does not seem to hurt business though in Fatih Akin’s Soul Kitchen (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

German-Greek restaurateur Zinos is not much of a cook, but his regulars eat up his greasy down-home offerings anyway. Recuperating from a back injury, Zinos makes a fateful decision, hiring a legit gourmet chef as his temporary replacement. In addition to being a culinary artist, Shayn happens to be Roma and intimidates people with his knife wielding prowess (nope, no cultural stereotypes going on here). Shayn alienates the local clientele with his new menu, but the hipsters start coming in droves. When Zinos hires his waiter Lutz’s grunge group to be the house band, suddenly Soul Kitchen is the in-scene.

Of course, Zinos is still besieged with a plague of dramas, most of which stem from Neumann (insert Seinfeld joke here), his long lost childhood chum, now a successful real estate developer. In Kitchen’s contrived world, such a profession guarantees his villainy. True to course, as soon as they reconnect, Neumann is scheming to swindle Zinos out of his primo property. Unfortunately, the unkempt restaurant proprietor is seriously distracted with his efforts to save his relationship with the severely Teutonic Nadine. Not for an instant though, are they remotely believable as a couple. On top of everything else, Zinos has to worry about his compulsive gambling brother, currently enjoying a prison furlough. Hey, no worries, everyone’s family at Soul Kitchen.

From the evil businessmen to the grumpy old neighbor, Kitchen does not miss a single cliché. That might have been forgivable had the film had a sense of fun. However, it is a surprisingly dour and uninvolving film. And yes, the largely Euro-alternative soundtrack is a major disappointment, given what one would expect from the title (and the misleading trailer).

Adam Bousdoukos tries to hit a likably nebbish note as Zinos, but he is such a doormat for trouble, it is hard to maintain a rooting interest in him. As Nadine, Pheline Roggan looks uncomfortable in every scene, which frankly makes her performance Kitchen’s most believable. The most intriguing turn comes from Anna Bederke as Lucia, the slightly less Teutonic waitress. Most of the cast though seems stuck on uber-indie quirky.

To get an idea of the fantasy world Kitchen is coming from, Zinos can expect compassion from the tax inspector and treachery from anyone with a real job. With few laughs in the offing, it all gets rather tiring. Aside from a bit of Quincy Jones’ “Hicky-Burr” (which is all kinds of awesome, by the way) the dark, hard-edged soundtrack is also mostly off-key. Safely skippable, Kitchen opens tomorrow (8/20) in New York at the IFC Center.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

ADFF Summer Series ’10: Hearing Radmilla

During the Miss Navajo Nation beauty pageant, contestants are required to butcher a lamb, which is pretty cool. They also must demonstrate proficiency in other traditional aspects of Navajo culture, including fluency in the Navajo language, the area where Radmilla Cody particularly distinguished herself when she won her crown as the first bi-racial Miss Navajo. Cody revisits her controversial (but largely uneventful) reign and the dramatic events that followed in Angela Webb’s documentary profile Hearing Radmilla (trailer here), which screens this Sunday during the African Diaspora Film Festival’s 2010 Summer Series.

Cody is the daughter of a Navajo mother and an African-American father, but she was raised by her traditional Navajo grandmother. Eventually, she left for the big city of Phoenix, getting involved with a fast crowd and very definitely the wrong man. Though her reign as Miss Navajo required a chaste year-long separation from her Ike, it was evidently not enough, since she eventually took up with him again, despite his abuse and criminal activity. While she tried to resist, the former directly led to her involvement in the latter.

Indeed, the relationship cost Cody nearly everything, including her liberty. The sympathetic film clearly suggests the sentence she served was unfairly harsh, given her fear of her ex, but when she went to the trouble of unperjuring herself with the grand jury, but then did not come completely clean, she put herself in a tough position. She herself readily admits she made mistakes, but she has certainly paid for them.

If not the most artful documentary, Hearing is an informative film, particularly for those of us living in the Northeast, who are likely unfamiliar with Cody. It frequently challenges the New Agey politically correct vision of Native peoples, with the vitriolic response to Cody’s selection as Miss Navajo from some within her community. Webb quotes one hyperbolic letter to a Navajo newspaper likening her victory to “ethnic cleansing.” By and large though, she seems to be accepted by her fellow Navajo, even after her conviction. Indeed, she seems to be a superstar in some areas of Arizona and New Mexico thanks to her music, bringing a soul vocalist’s sensibility to traditional Navajo lyrics, as Robert Doyle, the president of her record label, cogently explains.

Still, most New Yorkers probably will not be familiar with Cody, which makes Hearing a good festival programming selection. Frankly, Hearing is a long shot to get much distribution outside the Southwest, so curious City patrons should check it out this Sunday (8/22) at the Riverside Theater, where the ADFF’s Summer series runs from the 20th to the 29th.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Artistic Freedom: Mao’s Last Dancer

For fifty-plus years, Mainland China’s Communist government has experienced bitter factional rivalries and instituted enormously destructive campaigns for ideological purity. While the pendulum has swung back and forth from relative stability to institutionalized insanity, it has remained an authoritarian state, where artistic freedom is simply impossible. That is why twenty year-old ballet dancer Li Cunxin defected to America in the early 1980’s. It was a bold decision that would define Li’s bestselling memoir and Oscar-nominated director Bruce Beresford’s subsequent big-screen adaptation, Mao’s Last Dancer (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday.

As a young boy, Li was slight but flexible as enough to be accepted at Madame Mao’s ballet academy. Diligently training to build his strength, his natural talent blossomed, even in the didactic productions foisted on the academy by their ideologue patron.

Eventually, Li was entrusted to study with the Houston Ballet as part of a cultural exchange program. Primed to expect unspeakable misery, Li slowly discovers America is not as he was led to believe. Acclimating to the new environment, he actually finds he dances better in land of class enemies because he “feels freer.” He also falls in love with Elizabeth Mackey, an aspiring dancer. Then his life really starts to change.

Li indeed decides to defect, news the Chinese government does not happily receive when he ill-advisedly delivers it in-person. In fact, they forcibly detain him in the Consulate, with the intention of whisking him out of the country against his will. However, Li’s friends refuse to leave quietly (fortunately Texans can be an unruly lot), precipitating an international incident.

Dancer is a truly inspiring crowd-pleaser of a film, but it is not an overly-sanitized or conveniently simplistic reduction of a complex, real life story. In fact, the guilt-wracked Li, fearing dreadful repercussions for his family, frequently quarrels with Mackey, eventually even divorcing. Yet, as a result, Li emerges as a flesh-and-blood human being. We can also forgive the film for indulging in its manipulative coda, having more or less earned its triumphant freeze frame.

As wildly improbable as it might sound, much of Dancer was shot on-location in China. Reportedly, once shooting was underway, the authorities began demanding changes to the script, but to his credit, Beresford rebuffed them. As a result, there are indeed scenes of Madame Mao (who remains an official non-person in China), played by a truly eerie dead-ringer for the Gang of Four leader. We also watch as Li’s mentor at the academy is purged for perceived ideological offenses, such as teaching the techniques of counter-revolutionary defectors, like Nureyev and Baryshnikov. (Granted, the film also seems to imply contemporary China may be loosening up, at least to an extent.)

Perhaps Dancer’s greatest challenge was casting credible dancers for its key leads roles. Again, fortune smiled with the discovery of the considerable acting chops of Chi Cao (currently Principal Dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet) and Chengwu Guo (a member of the Australian Ballet) as the adult and teen-aged Li, respectively. Both prove to be charismatic performers, with Chengwu making a surprisingly strong impression, even with his limited screen time. (Hopefully, they will both be allowed to return home, despite their participation in the film.)

Dancer also boasts two Twin Peaks alumnus, including Kyle MacLachlan, making the most of a small supporting role as crafty immigration attorney Charles Foster. It is Joan Chen who really delivers the film’s emotional punch though, as Li’s spirited mother Niang. Even thoroughly glammed down for the role, she still remains a radiant beauty.

Dancer is a well-rounded, fully satisfying bio-picture. The product of Australian filmmakers, it refreshingly refrains from kneejerk political cheap shots, even implying then Vice President Bush played an important role securing Li’s freedom. It also vividly captures Li’s passion for dance, which is the fundamental cause of nearly every event that unfolds in the film. Emotionally engaging and politically astute, Dancer opens this Friday (8/20) in New York at the Paris Theatre, Landmark Sunshine, and Kew Gardens Cinema.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Deconstructing Propaganda: A Film Unfinished

In any documentary film, each and every visual and sound-bite has been carefully chosen. Consideration of what might have been left out is just as important as what is included. Unfortunately, the ability to actively scrutinize and parse images on-screen has atrophied in the general film-going public. If it is in a documentary, it must be true, is the too common, too passive assumption many make. That is why Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished (trailer here) is important, both as a historical documentary in its own right and an object lesson in critically dissecting propaganda, which opens this Wednesday at the Film Forum.

Innocuously labeled “Ghetto,” for years the film inside a dusty can discovered in an East German vault was taken at face value as an accurate representation of life in the Warsaw Ghetto, slowly creeping into many documentaries of the Holocaust. A strange artifact, the never-completed film included scenes of both extreme suffering as well as images of wealthy Jews living ostensibly happy and prosperous lives in the Ghetto. However, the extent to which the entire so-called Warsaw Ghetto film, particularly the episodes designed to stoke class envy, was deliberately staged by its film crew only became apparent with the discovery of nearly half an hour of outtakes. In Unfinished, Hersonski shows the audience the entire surviving Warsaw Ghetto footage, with the help of a handful of surviving residents of the Warsaw Ghetto, who provide crucial context to understand just what really happened while the cameras were rolling.

Not so much a deconstruction in the contemporary academic sense, Unfinished is more a forensic inquiry into Warsaw's production. Viewers see nearly all the extant footage, including many retakes and the occasional stray cameraman. We see the Potemkin footage as well, but with the additional knowledge of whom and what were outside of the camera’s chosen field of vision. As a result, it is clear Warsaw is not an accurate portrayal of how things were. Just what their propaganda plans were for the film remains somewhat murky, despite the discovery of a surviving cameraman, who not surprisingly tries to present their filming in the best possible light.

In addition to methodically analyzing the film and providing much needed context, Unfinished also acts as a corrective to notions (which Warsaw not coincidentally contributed to) that the Jewish Ghettos created by the National Socialists might have been uncomfortably cramped, but were not deadly per se. However, as Hersonski and her interview subjects make vividly clear, the Ghetto was indeed an environment intended to cause death and suffering, lacking only the fearful efficiency of the camps.

Recently, Unfinished has been at the center of a small controversy when the MPAA bestowed an R rating on the film for “disturbing images of Holocaust atrocities including graphic nudity.” While there are indeed such images in the film, they are never presented in a titillating or lurid manner. It is a problematic ruling because Unfinished is an educational film on multiple levels. Yet, in an odd way, it underscores the film’s point that images on film can have an insidious power on people’s perceptions. Meticulously assembled and scrupulously responsible in its treatment of admittedly “disturbing” imagery, Unfinished is a challenging but highly recommended work of nonfiction filmmaking. It opens this Wednesday (8/18) in New York at Film Forum.

Honore’s Making Plans for Lena

Léna is the sort of person who compulsively avoids making decisions and then resents being told what to do. She is also a mother—good luck kids. Indeed, the family drama is often quite messy in Christophe Honoré’s Making Plans for Léna (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

With the help of her father, Léna recently walked out on her English husband Nigel and her hospital job. Her family would like to know what she intends to do now, but she has no idea, responding only with anger when questioned. Inviting Nigel to join them during a family holiday in Breton does not help either. Though she is understandably put out by his presence, her parents seem to recognize he is a slightly more stable influence for their grandchildren than their eternally finding-herself mother.

Naturally, Léna makes the holiday miserable for everyone, fighting with Nigel, precipitously leaving, only to turn around and come straight back, just in time to run into her brother’s friend Simon (played with admirable restraint by Louis Garrel), whom she may or may not be romantically interested in. Surprisingly, she just cannot make up her mind which. Eventually, the grandparents leave on their Italian vacation and their ostensibly grown children return to Paris, but their dysfunctional behavior patterns remain unchanged.

It is certainly a testament to Chiara Mastroianni’s performance and Honoré’s uncomfortably intimate direction just how excruciating it can be spending time with Léna. In a way, Plans follows in the tradition of 1970’s films starring Jill Clayburgh, but it has a distinctly French sensibility. It also has the courage of its convictions, rather boldly concluding with a scene perfectly in keeping with Léna’s well established emotional issues, instead of imposing a pat feel-good ending of feminist empowerment.

Perhaps audience reactions to Plans will cleave along gender lines, but one would think most women would find Léna’s parenting highly problematic. Still, the relationship between her and her highly intuitive son Anton is convincingly developed. It is also provides a strange fantastical interlude, when he recounts the Breton legend of Kallet Gollet (Catherine the Damned), whose significance within the film is not immediately revealed, beyond what it might suggest of his state of mind.

As annoying as Léna’s petulant indecision might be, rather than passive-aggressive she is aggressively passive, her scenes with both Nigel and Simon have an honest intensity. The French-American Jean-Marc Barr is particularly nuanced as Nigel, believably exasperated yet still credibly attracted to his unstable ex. However, the comfortable but loveless marriage of her parents seems like a rather obvious (almost clichéd) counterpoint.

Even 109 minutes with Léna is trying, but credit Honoré and Mastroianni for not sugar-coating or soft-pedaling their depiction of maternal confusion. A film easier to respect than to love, Plans opens this Friday (8/20) in New York at the IFC Center.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Bjornstad and Co: Remembrance

Although their fellow countrymen Terje Rypdal and Jan Garbarek might be better known in America, the trio of Ketil Bjørnstad, Jon Christensen, and Tore Brunborg constitutes something of a Norwegian jazz super-group. It was a real studio summit meeting brought together by ECM’s Manfred Eicher, which yielded the elegant Remembrance, now available on CD from his highly esteemed label.

The eleven movements of Bjørnstad’s Remembrance effectively comprise a suite, supplying a general framework for a very in-the-moment session. With forty years experience playing together, pianist Bjørnstad and drummer Christensen clearly have a strong musical affinity. Tenor saxophonist Brunborg and Christensen also shared a decade-plus together as part of the drummer’s band Masqualero. All three come from a similar classical-ECM-influenced jazz bag, so they easily fit together throughout Remembrance.

Bjørnstad’s cascading introduction to “Remembrance I” again demonstrates why his music is often likened to things aquatic. Indeed, Christensen was part of his so-called Water Trio that recorded albums like Water Stories and The Sea. It is a somewhat stormy passage that ultimately gives way to the contemplative second movement, which brings out quite a dramatic mournfulness from Brunborg’s tenor.

While “III” has a more minimalist vibe, Christensen’s sly brush work gives it a subtle swing. “IV” continues in a similar mood, segueing into a showcase for Brunborg’s deeply expressive tenor on “V.” Christensen’s evocative percussion effectively punctuates the deliberate build of “VI.” The tempo slows markedly on “VII,” probably the most introspective movement of the set.

“VII” again frames the some sensitive but powerful statements from Brunborg, who really distinguishes himself throughout the session. The darkly hued “IX” (sans Brunborg) aptly illustrates Bjørnstad’s facility in the lower register and Christensen’s flair for skitterish accents. Perhaps the highpoint of the session is the absolutely gorgeous melody of “X,” perfectly suited to Brunborg’s impassioned playing, nicely capped by Bjørnstad’s delicate coda. It all comes full circle with the concluding “XI,” which revisits the theme of first movement.

Though titled Remembrance, Bjørnstad’s pseudo suite is not explicitly dedicated to specific person or event. Yet, it is certainly music conducive to reverie of times past. Richly suggestive music, it holds a strange power that deepens with additional listening. It is an excellent release from three of Norway’s finest musicians.

(Photo: Ken Opprann/EVA 2009)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Crazy Brazilians: The Last Madness

Though we are never explicitly told what went wrong in Danilo Porto’s last production, we know it happened during a simulated hanging. Obviously, that would not be an opportune time for technical difficulties. It took a toll on Porto as well. After a breakdown, he finds himself checked into a friend’s sanatorium for a little “rest” in Cris D’Amato’s The Last Madness, now available on DVD.

Though not exactly mad, Porto has several unhealthy obsessions, most notably with Goethe’s Werther and Motta Coqeiro, the subject of his ill-fated production. Though little about Coquiero is available in English (at least online), he is evidently quite well known in Brazil as a historic symbol of injustice. A wealthy landowner, he is thought to have been wrongly executed as a result of his wife’s duplicitous scheming.

Though the emperor could have commuted his sentence, he refused to avoid charges of class favoritism. Indeed, Coqueiro very definitely seems to be a victim of class warfare. He was also most likely innocent. His case is thought to have ended capital punishment in Brazil, though some historians apparently dispute such claims. There are also hints Coquiero’s tragic life holds additional significance for Porto, even before his stage meltdown.

Thanks to the support of his friend and former lover, Dr. Márcia, Porto rebounds. He puts the moves on the “just-friends” girlfriend of an out-patient and even starts teaching a drama class at the sanatorium. Then he has the bright idea to stage a revised version of his Motta Coquiero play with his students. Right, put a bunch of mental patients in a play that ends with a hanging, what could go wrong with that?

Actually, the big shocking conclusion is not the obvious twist one might expect. Madness does not play games with objective reality either, though at times one might wonder. Unquestionably though, it presents a darkly fatalistic vision of humanity. While D’Amato’s direction is about on-par with above average TV-movies, he makes shrewd use of the Motta Coquiero story to evoke a sense of ancient deceit that continues to haunt the present.

As Porto, Eduardo Moscovis is pretty intense and rather convincing acting crazy and acting with crazies. Of course, the supporting cast of mental patients are a colorfully diverse lot. While you might not hire the actors for your production of the Motta Coqueiro story, they are more or less adequate to the job in Madness. Milena Toscano in particularly, has some uncomfortably creepy moments as the nuthouse femme fatale.

Madness is a small film, yet it is surprisingly ambitious. A decent rental if not an instant classic, it is more memorable than at least half the films that wash in and out of art house theaters each week. It is now available on DVD from Pathfinder Entertainment.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Miyazaki’s Tales from Earthsea

Forget the Syfy (Sci-Fi) Channel’s Earthsea miniseries. Ursula K. Le Guin, the author of the Earthsea novels and stories, would certainly prefer you did. Her reaction to Gorō Miyazaki’s anime adaptation of her fantasy world has also been decidedly mixed, but not necessarily as vehement. In fact, Miyazaki’s film is not without merit, especially for those not intimately grounded in the Earthsea mythology. Three years after its Japanese premiere, Miyazaki’s Tales from Earthsea (trailer here), finally has its American theatrical release, courtesy of Walt Disney, opening today in New York.

While the legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki long sought to adapt Le Guin’s Earthsea stories, it was his son Gorō, a relative new comer to animated filmmaking, who was assigned the project by Studio Ghibli, the anime house co-founded by Miyazaki the elder. The result is a visually striking, if thematically familiar, fantasy.

Like the epics of Tolkien and Robert Jordan, Tales follows a young protagonist of destiny, Arren, a confused prince who has apparently just murdered his father, the king. Fleeing in shame, he encounters the wizard Sparrowhawk on the road. Like his late father, Sparrowhawk is concerned about the chaos sweeping over Earthsea. The weather is unseasonable, crops are failing, livestock are dying, and two dragons were recently spotted off the coast fighting to the death, an unprecedented event in the Earthsea fantasy world.

Naturally, there is a Sauron-like evil overlord to contend with. In this case, it is the androgynous sorcerer Cob, whose slave-trading minions appear to be out to get Arren. Indeed, Tales follows the standard epic fantasy template, but does so reasonably well.

Miyazaki the younger is most successful creating an epic look in the film, employing watercolor backgrounds and hand-drawn animation. Indeed, his fantasy landscapes and cityscapes have an exotic beauty that elevates Tales well above standard issue anime.

Redubbed for an American audience (not an uncommon practice with anime distribution), the English language cast mostly ranges from adequate to fairly good. Timothy Dalton (the under-appreciated James Bond) is the class of the field, leading his commanding voice to Sparrowhawk. In contrast, Willem Dafoe’s work as Cob often sounds campy, in the wrong way.

The first Disney animated release to carry a PG-13 rating, Tales is similar in intensity (and subject matter) to Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated Lord of the Rings. Richly crafted but predictable (as is the case with most contemporary epic fantasy fiction), Tales is better than genre diehards might have heard at their conventions. It opens today (8/13) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

Grievance Cinema: Salt of this Sea

In a rare feat of self-governance, the “Palestinian Authority” has consistently submitted films for the Best Foreign Language Award, even snagging a nomination in 2005. Their 2008 submission was a bit of a surprise, since it somewhat forthrightly depicts the corrupt and arbitrary nature of life under the PA. After kicking around the festival circuit, including Tribeca last year, Annemarie Jacir’s Salt of this Sea (trailer here), finally launches its theatrical run today in New York.

Soraya is an American citizen, but her family roots are in the British Mandate. Deeply steeped in grievance politics, she travels to Ramallah, by way of Israel, hoping to connect with her heritage. Soraya also wants to recover the long frozen bank account her grandfather had originally opened during the era of the Mandate. However, the corrupt bank managers refuse to recognize her claim, naturally invoking Israel as a scapegoat. Actually, Israel has the most accessible court system in the world, but since this is the lawless PA, she is pretty much SOL. Rather than even bothering with legal options, Soraya opts to rob the bank with her new boyfriend Emad and his aspiring filmmaker buddy, Marwan.

Somehow they pull off the job with unloaded guns and high-tail it to safer territory. That of course would be Israel. With Soraya and friends on the lamb, living solely in the moment, SOTS veers into Breathless territory. Jacir nicely captures the unreal qualities of these moments of deceptive peace that clearly cannot last. Unfortunately, the film’s attempts to be politically provocative always fall flat. For instance, the security wall is often used as a backdrop, obviously intended as an ominous symbol. Yet, in actuality it has the innocuous look of a non-descript industrial park (again it is worth noting reports terrorism-related deaths fell by fifty percent since the wall’s construction).

There is no doubt the camera loves radical spoken word performer Suheir Hammad as Soraya. At times, she is an exciting screen presence, but has a tendency to over-act, eventually giving free reign to a petulant anger that seems misplaced even in the highly politicized context of the film. Saleh Bakri by contrast, is more credible and consistent as the easy-going but disillusioned Emad.

Frankly, this is a pretty silly film with no sense of perspective. That Soraya’s hair is mussed by airport security is treated like an epochal human rights violation, yet it has nothing whatsoever to say about the bloodthirsty terrorism of Hamas and their ilk. At times, SOTS is so overwrought, blaming Israel for suffering apparently caused by the PA within the very narrative of the film, one would almost suspect it is a Jerry Zucker spoof. Still, Jacir is an impressive visual stylist, nicely mixing gritty realism with some memorable imagery. However, SOTS is ultimately undermined by the same biases and resentments which plague its unbalanced protagonist. An attractive looking misfire, SOTS opens today (8/13) at the Quad.