Monday, December 29, 2008

Film Review #185: White Dog
Director: Sam Fuller
Cast: Paul Winfield, Kristy McNichol, Burl Ives

Early in last fall’s Miracle at St. Anna, Spike Lee’s much under-rated homage to the all-Black 92nd Infantry’s role in the Allied Italian campaign of 1944, a group of Black US troops wades across a freezing Tuscan river at dawn while the Fascists on the other side broadcast a personalized message over loudspeakers. Through the fog, a woman’s heavily inflected voice taunts them about their choice to risk privation and death for a nation that still allowed segregation and worse, and urges their defection.

Lee’s long-standing feud with Clint Eastwood about screen portrayals of race issues generally and Black participation in past US wars in particular notwithstanding – I await the next volley since Gran Torino opens here in Syracuse next week – a strikingly similar but smaller-scale scene occurred decades earlier in Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951).

The first US movie set in the Korean War, shot and rushed into theaters well before that conflict ended, The Steel Helmet was hardly your usual war-time propaganda flick. Instead, a captured North Korean Communist officer first taunts the Black American medic Thompson (James Edwards), in perfect English, about riding in the back of the bus back home, then moves on to remind Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo) about World War II-era West Coast internment camps for Japanese-Americans. These conversations occur beneath the inscrutable gaze of a giant gold Buddha in the temple where the US troops have taken refuge, a statue behind which they literally take cover when the shooting starts.

For Fuller, who earned a Purple Heart for infantry service during World War II, the Korean War was pivotal for portraying US race relations because it could dramatize the shift from segregated units to an integrated US Army, especially for “re-treads” like The Steel Helmet’s Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans’ first screen role) – World War II vets who went back for another hitch and then grappled painfully with changed comrade demographics.

A dozen years later and into the New Frontier, Fuller set Shock Corridor (1963) in a locked mental ward populated with casualties of mid-century American life. A Korean War vet, now believing he’s Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, confides in a lucid moment that his Southern upbringing derailed him more than combat (“My parents fed me bigotry for breakfast – it was a cancer they put in me.”) But Shock Corridor’s real bravura performance belongs to Hari Rhodes as Trent, the delusional Black man who proclaims he founded the Ku Klux Klan and, pillowcase-clad, provokes a violent attack on the ward’s elderly Black janitor “before he marries my daughter.”

Among the juiciest of B-movie-makers, Fuller began as a tabloid crime reporter and pulp fiction novelist. He wrote and directed 29 movies of his own between 1949-89, as the studio system waned and its loosening allowed for the first indie projects. Fuller made full and bracing use of film noir’s lurid, sensational, free-wheeling style to portray social ills in confrontational ways. He took on war, crime, prostitution and, repeatedly, racism.

None of Fuller’s films was more controversial than the 1983 feature White Dog, in which the kindly old grandfather of two golden-ringletted little girls with ice cream cones trains man’s best friend to attack Black people and is terrifically proud of it – all to the melodramatic, spaghetti-Western-like strains of an Ennio Morricone score.

Here, former child star Kristy McNichol plays the itinerant actress Julie, whose car hits the white German shepherd late one night on a mountain road above L.A., takes him to a vet, and bonds with him after the dog intercepts an intruder. Paul Winfield is the trainer Keys, who attempts to de-program the animal (now named Mr. Hyde) at a down-at-the-heels animal park run by a crotchety Burl Ives. Mr. Hyde escapes, strays into a Black neighborhood and gruesomely kills a nattily-dressed man who seeks refuge inside a church against a backdrop that echoes The Steel Helmet’s Buddha, a stained-glass depiction of St. Francis and the beasts. Keys and Julie take the dog in one more time anyway, for a cliff-hanging final training session that evokes Shock Corridor’s lesson that racism – not just a matter of opinion and anything but natural – provokes madness.

Fuller’s script adapted French diplomat-novelist Romain Gary’s memoir White Dog, about his wife’s related experience. Curiously, the project made some Hollywoood rounds before landing with Fuller, who had discussed the Southern custom of training dogs to chase and attack runaway slaves – and its surviving modern permutations – with his old friend Gary when the writer was first at work on the story.

After many advance rumors, Criterion released White Dog on DVD in December, when it made NPR’s list of ten best DVDs of 2008. White Dog resurfaces again years after its brief, belated State-side premiere in 1991, when the still-jittery Paramount Pictures continued to cave to bizarre pressure that the film promoted racism. In any case, Fuller moved to France after Paramount locked up White Dog in 1983, never again making a movie here. Young French filmmakers – who saw White Dog and his other films in Europe – embraced him.

If Sam Fuller isn’t a cinematic taste you’ve acquired, dip in this year.

This review appears in the January 1, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in “Make it Snappy,” a regular column reviewing films in current release plus DVDs both new and enduring. Find White Dog on DVD at Netflix, which has a decent selection of Sam Fuller’s other films. Fuller’s 2002 autobiography, A Third Face, is still in print and available at, as is Lisa Dombrowski’s 2008 study of Fuller’s films. And you'll be able to catch Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna on DVD on February 10.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Film Review #184: Doubt
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Viola Davis

How do you know what you think you know? For much of John Patrick Shanley’s film Doubt, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) evades answering that.

“I have my certainty,” she snaps at one point and “I know people!” at another, when asked for evidence that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffmann) is molesting Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the first Black student admitted to St. Nicholas, an old Irish Catholic parish school in the Bronx – something she’s had in mind would happen well before this particular boy returns from the priest’s office to history class “in an unsettled state” with alcohol on his breath.

It’s 1964, just before Christmas, and a year since JKF’s assassination – as Father Flynn reminds the parish in the sermon that opens the film, about the ways doubt binds us together as strongly as faith. It’s also a couple years into Pope John XXIII’s Vatican II, whose liberal reformist winds of change at first seem personified both by the film’s frequent gale-force storms and Father Flynn’s conviction that “the Church needs to be friendlier – people need to feel we are part of their family.”

“But we are not part of their family,” counters Sister Aloysius matter-of-factly in a meeting ostensibly about the Christmas pageant. She also dismisses Father Flynn’s suggestion to include “Frosty the Snowman,” arguing the song promotes a pagan belief in magic. On the other hand, as the school’s battle-ax principal, she likes students to believe she has eyes in the back of her head. She later tells Sister James (Amy Adams), “That’s how it works,” when the young nun protests, “The children are all uniformly terrified of you!”

The story moves along as a series of escalating clashes between Sister Aloysius and others in her campaign to thwart and banish this priest – with Flynn himself, with the earnest, gentle Sister James and, in one brief powerhouse scene, with Donald’s mother (Viola Davis, my vote this Oscar season for best supporting actress).

Doubt also works on the growing contradiction between two psychological trajectories. The first is our own emerging discovery that Father Flynn – profoundly self-deluded, armed with a new era’s persuasive vocabulary and an ancient entitlement – was likely headed right where Sister Aloysius discerned him to be going; the second, that fighting fire with fire has its own cost. As our certainty rises, hers eventually – tragically is a workable word here – crumbles.

These trajectories cross when Mrs. Miller explains that she took Donald out of public school because she was afraid the boys there might actually kill him for “his nature – for the way God sent him” – which his father has beaten him for too – a report that seems inspired in part by Sister Aloysius’ own confidence – the single bit of personal history she shares with anyone – that she was once a married woman herself, widowed by World War II.

Shanley’s original play, Doubt: A Parable, opened in New York in 2004, a couple years after this country’s explosive exposes of childhood sexual abuse by some Catholic priests. Winning both a Pulitzer and four Tonies, among other prizes, the play then toured extensively. Shanley wrote and directed the screen version, returning to his own boyhood parish in the Bronx for exterior shots.

It’s Shanley’s first film in eighteen years and such problems as the film has seem rooted in translating stage to screen. Still, these are distracting. There are more symbolic wind storms than any movie set in the Bronx really needs. And even though the great Roger Deakins shot the film, which is frequently lovely, too often the camera swoops around at great heights for no obvious reason, except that – freed from live performance’s earth-bound lines of sight – it can.

Such distractions sometimes overshadow Shanley’s more subtle use of his settings to mirror other issues his story explores, such as the tension between the Church’s twin duties in providing both sanctuary and vigilance. While a great deal of these characters’ attention goes to enforcing rules and to watch-dogging each other’s often ostentatious adherence to procedures, the contrary tradition of offering refuge to law-breakers is equally strong. And by making the range of such “law-breaking” quite broad in this film, Shanley suggests the issue is anything but isolated and occasional. Here, the impulse to shelter another is more likely to undermine obedience to authority than anything else.

Clearly Mrs. Miller sees Catholic school as a sanctuary for her son from informally but sometimes violently enforced mainstream mores. For Father Flynn to claim he was protecting Donald from punishment for filching altar wine means he understands the strength of this strain of Catholicism. The priest’s appeal to Sister James that she guard her own compassion is really an appeal that she apply it to him. And Sister Aloysius actively shields another nun, the elderly Sister Veronica, frankly enlisting Sister James in the deception, because Father Flynn will make Veronica leave if he learns she is going blind - even though this might be for her own good and, to press that point, she has quite a bloody close call because she can't see. Shanley sets most scenes addressing this tension in either the principal’s office or the Church garden. A vivid exception has Sister Aloysius and Donald’s mother leave the grounds of St. Nicholas entirely and continue their conversation out in the world, where it will matter most to Donald in the end, while walking to Mrs. Miller’s job.

Anyway, there is a final showdown. Here, Father Flynn wrings from Sister Aloysius the specifics of her first suspicion. She’d watched him through a window as he grabbed the wrist of another boy, that boy had pulled away, and that scrap carried the force of revelation. But Shanley’s parable invites us to recognize that art works in much the same way. By the time this scene arrives, a series of similar brief flashes have also prepared us for the priest’s sudden agreement to request a transfer. And when Flynn tries pleading with her – has she never sinned herself? – and she falters, derailed for a beat by some remembered anguish, I know my mind leaped back to that other scrap of history, that small detail about her own marriage once. Was there a deeply-regretted war-time affair, guilt over her young husband’s death – had Sister Aloysius herself entered the convent for sanctuary, or for atonement?

There’s plenty more in this deeply satisfying film, which really is a gift. I’m just shaking the package for you.

Doubt premiered on December 12 and should reach Syracuse any minute. A version of this review appears in the 12/18/2008 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in the column, “Make it Snappy,” which regularly reviews both DVDs and current theatrical releases. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle. Reach her at

Friday, December 12, 2008

Film Review #183: Cadillac Records
Director: Darnell Martin
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Beyoncé Knowles, Adrian Brody

About half way through Darnell Martin’s Cadillac Records, there’s enough of a lull that you wonder suddenly, where is Beyoncé Knowles anyway? We’ve met Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter the teen-age mouth-harp prodigy (Columbus Short), Howlin’ Wolf (riveting British actor Eamonn Walker) and Chuck Berry (Mos Def). So where’s Beyoncé? After all, she’s one of the movie’s major draws as legendary platinum blond blues singer Etta James in her early days on Chicago’s Chess Records label. One of the most enduring discoveries of Chess’ founder, Polish immigrant Leonard Chess (Adrian Brody), multiple Grammy-winner James, spectacularly troubled then, has survived most of the film’s other characters. She released her most recent album, All the Way, in 2006, and her signature rendition of the torch song “At Last” graces more than twenty film and television sound-tracks.

So it’s one of the film’s pleasures – and its story-telling accomplishments – that just as you wonder where a character is, just when the story has unfolded in such a way as to demand her appearance, there she is.

In this richly ambiguous, compact scene, Chess – who scoured the South for Black talent during his label’s run from 1950-69 – meets James because she’s brought to his hotel room for an impromptu audition by his brother Phil (the only appearance in the film of Chess’ actual business partner, but more about that script decision below). The film is narrated by Chess Records’ major songwriter Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), who says as the hotel room door swings open - by way of transition from the last scene and setting up the double meanings about talent and sex and tenderness and money and resentment and gratitude and who’s in charge that thread through all the future interactions between James and Chess – that Leonard Chess “was looking for women too...”

Helping herself to a seat on his bed, James asks if “we’re gonna do it right now?” Yes, says Chess, he’s leaving town in the morning. Well, it’s hard, counters James, “when you’re not in the mood.” “She’s not in the mood!” mutters an exasperated Chess. Then James strolls into the bathroom and from there starts singing, shyly at first. Of course there are two revelations here – what the Chess brothers heard, and Beyoncé herself. Then Willie Dixon finishes his sentence: “… he was looking for a woman to go up against his men.”

This film might have unfolded in another, more expected way. Martin has said that Columbia Pictures wanted a standard Leonard Chess biopic. In that scenario, the doomed romance rumored between Chess and James would have taken center stage early, leaving little room for the four male musicians on whom Martin spends the first half of her film, and little sense of what going “up against them” might actually mean for James as a musician. James would hardly be a musician at all in that scenario, but instead – you know the type - a naïve, unschooled, rawly talented force of nature.

Instead of that standard biopic, Martin set out to portray the music and the musicians coming out of the great mid-century migration north (we meet Muddy Waters in 1941, share-cropping in Mississippi, listening to Alan Lomax’s quavery recording of himself, saying “I feel like I’m meeting myself for the first time,” before he lights out for Chicago), how R & B became “popular” and “crossed over” (besides appealing to white bobby-soxers, Chuck Berry successfully sued the Beach Boys for stealing his “Sweet Little 16” and passing it off as their own in the hit “Surfin’ USA”), how the music overlapped with and influenced the Civil Rights movement (Howlin’ Wolf immediately sets Chess straight about who gives orders to his band members and Little Walter’s response to white cops personifies a tidal shift). Since Martin makes room for these characters up front instead of using them as background – and they are all superbly played – when they find Chess is looting their royalties, that betrayal has real bite because you know them as well as you know him.

And by removing Phil Chess, Martin replaces the standard two-white-brothers narrative – a huge space occupier – with a very different “story of two men,” as Willie Dixon calls it at the start. By using alternating scenes to introduce and follow Chess in his pre-impresario days – junkyard owner dreaming of buying a bar – and Mississippi share-cropper Muddy Waters, Martin structurally underscores the parallel importance of their stories. And that’s only the beginning of dramatic parallels between them – for example, each has a decent and long-suffering wife, and brief but personal, nuanced exchanges of the sort that occur, when you think about it, between equals. Now some reviewers don’t like this movie, I suspect because it so disrupts expectations of what – and who – it “should” have been about. So you better see it quick. Like Bryan Barber’s Idlewild – remember how that film, so steeped in a wonderful fluency with its screen musical forebears, was dismissed by critics as “derivative”? – it might only be here for a minute.

This review appeared in the 12/11/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Darnell Martin wrote and directed two previous features, I Like it Like That (1994) and Prison Song (2001), and directed Suzan-Lori Parks’ script for Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005). All three are available on DVD.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Filmmaker Interview at FilmSlash

To see my interview with Lance Hammer, whose film Ballast I reviewed here on November 7, go to
Film Review #182: Other People’s Pictures
Directors: Lorca Shepperd & Cabot Philbrick

When Syracuse native Lorca Shepperd and her husband/collaborator Cabot Philbrick set out to make Other People’s Pictures, they expected their documentary would focus on the trade in vernacular snapshots and albums that goes on at flea markets, auctions, antique and second-hand shops.

“We thought it would be about the economics and mechanics of that market,” she said by phone recently from New York City, where the couple both work in television documentary. “But the emotions that collectors had about these photographs were really the whole point. We realized that after we started – that this film transcends the niche.”

A casual, sometime collector of the odd “snap” herself, Shepperd was sent to Manhattan’s Chelsea Flea Market by a friend. There she discovered multiple dealers with bins and tables full of cast-off snapshots and regular, sometimes impassioned customers. She was struck by seeming contradictions – that people fleeing sudden disasters like fires can emerge with little more than pets and family albums, yet there’s a flood of recycled snapshots for sale.

Their buyers in turn wonder aloud about their hobby in un-hobby-like terms that recall early superstitions about photography’s eerie capacity to capture frozen likenesses. Are they stealing a stranger’s past? wonders one, while another – speaking to the power of a rapid, unexpected attachment – says she’s the “foster parent of ghosts.”

Shot on week-ends between November 2001 and the summer of 2004, Other People’s Pictures had a brief theatrical run that brought the filmmakers National Public Radio coverage and good reviews. It’s done well at festivals and won some awards. At 53 minutes – really sized for television – the film has screened on the Documentary Channel. Now it’s available on DVD, which may bring it the wider film audience it deserves, even though its commercial distributor, Cinema Guild, seems not to have been particularly energetic about getting it out there to some obvious outlets like Netflix.

Other People’s Pictures comprises overlapping interviews with snapshot collectors and dealers, along with interludes of stills drawn from particular sub-categories of images that people collect. One of the film’s many charms is that Shepperd and Philbrick seem to be equally fond of these quirky, compelling, largely anonymous images and the people who seek and cherish them. Largely filmed at the Chelsea Flea Market, Other People’s Pictures also takes us inside a few of these collectors’ homes.

We might call such collectors “vernacular curators” and each has evolved a specialty. Lisa, who says she can’t afford “real photographs” but second-hand snaps are within her price range, favors early 20th century images of “women with attitude,” often the proud early drivers behind the wheels of cars. The gallery drawn from her collection alone makes this film worth seeing. Japanese-American Don, transplanted to New York, collects images from his native Hawaii. Dan frames and hangs what he calls “banality of evil” photos – snaps of Nazis at weddings, in family groups and relaxing. Leslie collects what he calls the hidden history of male affection. And there’s Fern and Peter and Ken and Leonie, plus several dealers who expound on the virtues of their chosen display method – single images loose in bins, offered by category in boxes or albums, and that’s not counting the fierce debate over whether to break up intact family albums.

For all the flea market chaos, considerable selection is involved here. Shepperd says they scanned over 1,500 images during filming, then used about 300 in the feast that is the final cut. They also survey the range of sub-categories enthusiasts seek: pictures taken at beaches, pictures with flash “shadows,” train wrecks, blurred images of people in motion, photo booth snaps, Down Syndrome children, joke photos or visual puns, mutilated photos with a face cut or scratched out, even people eating watermelon.

That last actually comes from the DVD extras, which add almost double the material of the original documentary. Profiles of two dealers detail how far and seriously they search for wares. And there are several more collectors, including a travel writer, an artist who uses the notations on the backs of snaps in her exhibitions and – though identified here only as “Marty” for her collection of snaps of women with cameras – the photographer Martha Cooper, who pioneered photographic records of early Hip-Hop graffiti and more recently the related global phenomenon of B*Girlz dance battles.

Shepperd says she and Philbrick are “just tossing around ideas” for another film at this point. Meanwhile, Other People’s Pictures ranks as a Genuine Find.

Other People’s Pictures is available online for personal purchase at, which includes galleries of film stills & print resources on vernacular photography as well as a link to Cinema Guild for commericial purchases. This review will appear in the 12/4/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Film Review #181: Apaharan/Kidnap
Director: Prakash Jha
Cast: Ajay Devgan, Nana Patekar, Mohan Agashe

For starters, imagine a dark, Jason Bourne-type thriller about political corruption and double-dealing set in India. In place of professional assassin Bourne’s amnesia – emblematic perhaps of the West’s fatal weakness with regard to history – Ajay Shastri (the magnetic Ajay Devgan) struggles first to escape his revered reformist father’s too-looming shadow through allegiance with an alternative father figure, the corrupt power-broker Tabrez Alam (Nana Patekar), and then to find his way home.

Billed as a story of the brisk trade in kidnapping for ransom in the state of Bihar, located on India’s northern border with Nepal, veteran filmmaker Prakash Jha’s 2005 study of justice and violence premiered just as public revulsion there with such corruption led to the ouster of Bihar’s long-time ruling party. In following the younger Shastri’s winding path, Jha’s film astutely explores how extremism and assassination might come to seem viable even to unlikely men.

By the time Ajay has come full circle, reconciled with his father, given his own confession, and meets a last time with Tabrez Alam, the film’s plot has methodically laid out the corruption of nearly every character occupying an official office and built its suspense on how – over and over, at the last minute – the law alone is powerless to halt their steady advance. Ajay may even think he has his father’s blessing to dispatch Tabrez Alam as the last resort; during their reconciliation Professor Shastri (Mohan Agashe) urges his tearful son not to apologize but to “atone.”

Apaharan begins with the patrician scholar holding a press conference in his family’s courtyard about political kidnappings. Young Ajay slips out the side door. Woefully unsuccessful as a vendor of natural remedies, Ajay tells his girlfriend Megha (Bipasha Basu) of his new plan – he’ll enter the police force, even if it takes paying a bribe. Though brave – early on he’s seriously injured, dragged by a car as he tries to stop a kidnapping – this bribe starts Ajay’s descent down a slippery slope into crime. Soon he’s kidnapping, shooting his main rival Gaya Singh (Yashpal Sharma), and running other gangs out of town. Clearly Ajay’s self-deluded in his new-found power and success. After all, his base of operation is a local cell-block, the only safe retreat.

Just as clearly Tabrez Alam, hardly devout himself, plays on the resentments of his followers, mainly poor Muslim laborers. A minority in Bihar – where over 80 per cent are Hindu – Muslims still suffer discrimination, poverty and lingering resentment over the violent 12th century Islamic invasion. Tabrez Alam provides a powerful portrait of the cynical manipulation of this beleaguered community. In contrast, it’s another Muslim, quiet police officer Anwar Khan (Mukesh Tiwari), who alone stands by Ajay once he decides to bring Tabrez down. We see too few screen stories that treat this particular tension in our own or other nations with anything approaching such nuance.

And we’ve seen almost nothing in US media about the killer floods in Bihar that began August 18th and displaced over 3 million people. In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Brad Pitt went to work on innovative emergency housing. And now, some 5,000 Bihar flood refugees live at Punarwaas, an NGO refugee camp with school, hospital, and both temple and mosque that Bihar native Prakash Jha set up and administrates with support from other major Bollywood figures, including several of this film’s lead cast. The Punarwaas project expects to run, and need continued support, well into next spring when these residents might begin going home.

You can support Punarwaas and see Apaharan tomorrow night on a big screen here in Syracuse thanks to Tula Goenka, associate professor of television, radio and film at SU’s Newhouse School, who arranged the screening as a fund-raiser. Goenka directs SU’s annual Human Rights Film Festival each fall, has screened Jha’s films locally before and has written about his work as an example of how Indian cinema includes dramatic storytelling beyond the lavish musical romances with which many US audiences associate “Bollywood.”

Last May, Goenka took 11 Newhouse students to India for the first four-week summer internship in film there for US university students – a timely move, as it turned out, since in late June Steven Spielberg and David Geffen signed a multimillion-dollar partnership and production deal with India’s Reliance Entertainment.

Waiting to see if Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire makes it to Syracuse? Meanwhile, whether you’re a Bollywood fan or a new-comer, Apaharan is a good way to spend Friday night.

This review appears in the 11/13/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Apaharan screens tomorrow night at 7:00 PM, 11/14, in Newhouse 3, Room 141 (Waverly Ave. entrance) at a special fund-raiser to support filmmaker Prakash Jha’s Punarwaas project. Also see “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not have a theatrical opening in CNY and older films of enduring worth.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Film Review #180: Ballast
Director: Lance Hammer
Cast: JimMyron Ross, Michael Smith, Jr., Tarra Riggs

Like Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, another first feature film that took honors home from this year’s Sundance festival, Lance Hammer’s Ballast tells the story of a near-the-edge family just before Christmas whose hard-scrabble lives occur against a masterfully shot, austere and sweeping landscape – in Hunt’s film, the frozen St. Lawrence River of northern New York and in Hammer’s, the Mississippi Delta.

Hammer opens his film with what amounts to a visual prayer. Twelve-year-old James (JimMyron Ross), a slight boy in a big parka, crosses a rolling open field, hurrying toward thousands of geese that start up suddenly from the frozen stubble, flying across the vast magic-hour horizon. It’s crucial this occurs first because what comes next – before the barest possibility that James’ hopes might turn out - is almost unremittingly difficult.

Ballast opened in New York City on October 1st and has theatrical bookings across the U.S. through the end of February. Unlike Frozen River, which recently did so well here in Central New York at Manlius Cinema that Nat Tobin held it over twice, Ballast will screen here just once – next Tuesday at 8:00 PM at the Westcott.

You should do whatever it takes so you can see it there on the big screen.

Ballast is one of those films in which it seems like not much happens – Hammer says he hopes the narrative “has remained minimal and unobtrusive” – until you try writing a plot summary and realize that the characters’ intertwined histories and ties look a lot like the ancient, vine-covered tree by the road that James’ eyes rest on when his gaze comes back to earth after that first shot.

Down that road lives Lawrence Baptiste (Michael Smith, Jr.), introduced in wordless grief before a buzzing TV set. His twin brother Darius lies in the next room, having gotten in bed and intentionally overdosed. When a neighbor checks – the brothers haven’t opened their convenience store in several days – Lawrence shoots himself. While he’s in the hospital, James breaks in, steals his pistol and, once he’s home, begins robbing Lawrence, immediately because James’ mother, Marlee Sykes, (Tarra Riggs, whose hare-trigger performance deserves notice at year’s end) can’t keep food in their tiny trailer; also because Darius was James’ father.

Some of the best scenes occur when Lawrence allows James to order him around at gun-point. Suicidally depressed anyway, the massive older man could easily disarm this jittery boy (later he does, in a quiet, deft move that proves the point but doesn’t detour into drama). Meanwhile, in the stillness between them, attention and curiosity start to flicker. After an unglamorous, frightening brush with some thuggish older boys – the pistol merely enrages them – James and Marlee move into Darius’ little house next door to Lawrence. Marlee re-opens the store and, one inch at a time, the three start over. This is nearly de-railed any number of times, none more wrenching than the night, while they share dish-washing, that Lawrence tries to embrace Marlee and she pulls away, furious, misunderstanding, sure “this is all you were after.” Watching, James holds his breath – and we’re right there with him.

Hammer filmed Ballast in nine Mississippi Delta townships with a cast of mostly indigenous non-professionals, using available light, no music and a script evolving over two months of rehearsal. Trained as an architect, Hammer has an evident expressive ease with space that amplifies his characters’ sparse dialogue and low-key affect. Against the expansive landscape outside, inside scenes are sometimes filmed in silhouette, or characters occupy cramped rectangles of light in one corner of the screen – the view through a door or down a hallway. Or, for example, when seeking gang approval, James wheels his scooter down a narrow, garbage-strewn ally, you can see this path will be a wrong turn for him.

Both Frozen River and Ballast come from white filmmakers who portray communities of color. Hunt’s film vividly manifests the tensions between Akwesasne Mohawks and outsiders in the complicated, edgy bond between the two mothers. Hammer refrains from this, choosing a different emphasis. So Lawrence’s white neighbor John Dixon (Johnny McPhail) stops by because he’s worried, looks out for Lawrence’s dog and finally coaxes Lawrence out of the house to share a steak. But this means Hammer’s film has the space to dwell more deeply on Black characters’ relationships with one another.

Ballast comes here courtesy of Dropped Frames, a film society based in Syracuse University’s Transmedia department that also hosted the second annual Upstate New York Film Festival in late September, a one-night showcase of short films and videos by regional artists. The L.A.-based Hammer, who wrote, produced, directed and edited Ballast, will speak on campus Tuesday afternoon and again after the screening Tuesday night. He is Dropped Frames’ third visiting artist this fall. In September Emily Hubley brought her animation feature, The Toe Tactic, and last month Ronnie Bronstein was here with Frownland.

A version of this review appeared in the 11/6/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. See Ballast on Tuesday, 11/11 at 8:00PM at the new Westcott Performing Arts Center on Westcott Street, Syracuse. Q&A afterward with Lance Hammer. Check out Dropped Frames at Frownland and Ballast are already listed at Netflix for saving.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Film Review #179: Throne of Blood
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Minoru Chiahi, Isuzu Yamada

A couple years ago, Redhouse Arts Center screened Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) as part of a special Master Directors Film Festival, six classics spread over a couple weeks that the daily paper declined to give much coverage because they were “just some old movies.” Attendance was uneven, yet a sizable number of the audience for Rashomon said during the talk-back session afterward that while they’d seen the movie before on DVD, they had braved dreadful weather at the last minute for the rare joy of seeing it on a big screen.

This movie gives us the ready shorthand term “Rashomon-like.” It hardly seems possible to imagine our culture’s understanding of point-of-view without this film’s presence, even though many people now actually haven’t seen it on any screen. In ancient Japan, a woman is raped in the forest and her husband killed. At the trial, four witnesses – we quickly see they’re defendants – give four accounts, each revealing a little more detail. These jostling flashbacks form the film’s narrative.

A big screen amplifies Kurosawa’s deep blacks and creamy whites, his astonishingly lovely screen compositions and masterful shots. One of the better known – film students diagram this – is the single-take, long, unbroken, pristine tracking shot that follows the man and his wife through the foliage, for which Kurosawa built a looping rail through the forest that would carry a swiveling camera to allow filming the couple’s progress without cuts. In a story about the difficulty of knowing the truth – indeed the depth of our yearning for truth – this single virtuoso scene packs enormous emotional wallop.

In 1957, Kurosawa is back in the woods, with another complicated tale of violence set in feudal Japan. Throne of Blood is Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth (in 1985 he returned to political tragedy with Ran, his take on Shakespeare’s King Lear). Throne of Blood is the classic, enduring tale of a once-honorable warrior who loses his way in familiar woods, perhaps befogged by a lust for power, and – egged on by a calculating and ambitious woman – betrays his friends and principles, achieving the throne but briefly before his downfall. And by the way it’s scary as hell.

There have been so many screen versions of Macbeth – just since 2001, the UK, Australia, Germany and India have each released new ones – that there’s not much point in worrying about plot spoilers. Anyway, two warriors on their way back to the Cobweb Castle after defeating some rebels lose their way in Cobweb Woods. Washizu is played by the great Toshirô Mifune, Kurosawa’s frequent lead actor, accompanied by fellow warrior and friend Miki (Minoru Chiahi).

In the foggy, rain-soaked woods, they come upon a ghostly old woman with a spinning wheel (Chieko Naniwa), who – counterpart to Shakespeare’s three witches –predicts Washizu will take over the throne but Miki’s sons will occupy it later. She also predicts nothing will harm Washizu until the Cobweb Woods move to the walls of the castle. Pretty much following Macbeth in bare outline, Washizu and Miki’s return to the castle brings about Washizu’s murder of his king – pushed forward by his wife, the Lady Asaji Washizu (Isuzu Yamada) – followed by his murder of Miki, his wife’s madness and an advancing army’s siege, during which they cut down the surrounding forest and use the tree branches as camouflage to approach the walls.

Throne of Blood is not justly famous for its translation of Shakespearean language. The DVD version that I watched with two friends Sunday night – even Laurinda willingly watched gore in honor of Halloween – carried subtitles so ham-fisted they had us cracking up at times. When flocks of crows invade Washizu’s throne room during the final siege, one character supposedly wails, “The birds are badly crying.”

But Kurosawa achieves his eloquent dread visually and with few monsters other than the manifestations of our own inner demons. So Washizu may be feudal, superstitious, but right along with him we are overtaken by this sight of misplaced black birds, a viscerally terrifying sign of doom. More than the conventional visitation of the ghosts of his victims, there are the trees oddly rustling across the foggy night plain. Or Washizu’s grisly end, shot down by his own archers for bringing this fate upon their castle.

Or right from the start, back to that early scene in the woods, when Washizu and Miki have lost their bearings and can’t believe it. Over and over – twelve times Kursawa varies this shot – they try galloping confidently into the trees, hoping the way home will appear and open to them. Everything unfolds from this.

This review appears in the 10/30/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Netflix currently has four Kurosawa titles available to “save,” suggesting a wavelet of re-release ten years after his death. “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not opening theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth.
Film Review #178: Caribbean Film Festival at Syracuse Community Folk Art Center October 23-26

Early in Guttaperc, Barbadian filmmaker Andrew Millington’s first feature film, the 10-year-old Eric’s grandfather wordlessly throws down a copy of George Lamming’s classic novel of Black West Indian identity and coming of age, In the Castle of My Skin (1953), for the boy to read. Audiences might take the hint too.

A reluctant summer visitor at his grandparents’ drowsy seaside village while his parents vacation in New York, Eric (Richard Weekes) is bored. His grandfather (Clairmont Taite), proprietor of a small cement factory, considers Eric spoiled and despises the Euro-slanted education Eric’s getting, which omits vast stretches of Barbados’ own political and intellectual history. He sets about filling in the gaps for his grandson. Meanwhile, elderly Sister Pam (the great Jamaican actress Leonie Forbes, a casting coup for Millington) – whom Eric first encounters when she forcefully thwarts his attempt to steal candles from her religious alter – also decides he might just be worth educating in African folk ways still preserved in the countryside.

Eric’s story, narrated in voice-over by an older Eric, unfolds just as his grandfather becomes embroiled in labor unrest over a scheme to displace the village with resort development. The title comes from a sling-shot given to Eric by a village boy. This simple, rough implement, both toy and weapon, provides a ready image of the characters’ fork-in-the-road choices as well as the mental acceleration available when events converge – if we aim our attention properly.

Reminiscent of the deceptively leisurely pace of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and filmed with the same tender eye, Millington’s 1998 film opens this fall’s four-day Caribbean-themed film festival at Community Folk Art Center this Thursday evening. Andrew Millington will be present and on hand Friday too for a screening of a rough-cut of his new film, Zora’s Dream, which also uses a grandparent-grandchild relationship, this time set in South Carolina’s Sea Islands.

Astutely curated by Qiana Williams, CFAC’s new education director, this film festival offers an engaging collection of recent indie features, award-level animation shorts and documentary. Williams’ thoughtful choices speak well for Caribbean film-making both in terms of its cinematic accomplishment – these are admirably well-made movies – and its success in blending art with political comment.

The Caribbean produces some of the best animation in the world – I am fond of Juan Padrón’s Vampires in Havana myself – and the seven-year-old Animae Caribe, under the umbrella of the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, attracts some of the best short animation submissions from around the world and is building a regional network that now includes Cuban filmmakers. On Saturday, CFAC brings Animae Caribe founder Camille Abrahams to present eight award-nominated shorts from this year’s festival, just held in September. As a bonus for kids, artist Yvonne Buchanan conducts an animation workshop after the midday screening.

Ghanaian-born filmmaker Yao Ramesar, who now lives and teaches and makes movies in Trinidad, says that he first met the Black woman who told him the world would be destroyed in a fiery “Apocalypso” twenty years ago in a dream. His 2006 Sistagod, which screens Saturday night, is the first of a projected trilogy exploring that subject. Like Guttaperc, this film has a now-grown narrator looking back. Mari/Sistagod (Indigo Minerve plays the child and Evelyn Caesar Munroe the adult) explains her father was a white US Marine sniper – “one of 467 wounded in Desert Storm” – who married his Trinidadian rehab nurse (Nicole Minerve) but left her when their too-dark daughter ignited his distrust. Mari endures her mother’s grief-struck madness, her grandmother’s loss and, when the spirit enters her at 18, an exorcism by “our aspiring televangelist, Father Divine” (Michael Cherrie). World destruction arises from the fevered dances of costumed revelers in the annual Carneval, led by the blue devils. Edmund Attong’s cinematography and editing are especially worth watching here.

The fest winds up Sunday afternoon with ¡Yo Soy Boricua, Pa’ Que Tu Lo Sepas!/I Am Boricua, Just So You Know! (2005). Noted Puerto Rican actress Rosie Perez enlisted the able documentary team of Liz Garbus and Rory Kennedy to assist her first directing effort, a highly interactive, rollicking cultural road trip she takes with her sister Carmen and her cousin Sixto Ramos, framed by New York City’s annual April Puerto Rican Day Parade. They return to the family village of Aguadilla, consider the 4000-year-old indigenous Taino culture that Columbus encountered in 1493, meet Miami cousins and Nuyorican poets, examine 1950s migration to the mainland, sterilization campaigns, Pedro Albizu Campos’ nationalist movement and the rise of the Young Lords of the 1960s. Infectious and sophisticated, Yo Soy Boricua packs its 85 minutes full.

Such first-rate programming by Williams bodes well for CFAC’s year ahead.

This review appeared in the 10/23/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column usually reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Film Review #177: Where the Money Is
Director: Marek Kanievska
Cast: Paul Newman, Linda Fiorentino, Dermot Mulroney

In this unheralded but sometimes delicious little heist film, cop cars’ lights whirl outside the cabin in the night woods and a bull-horn warns, “Put your hands above your heads! You’re surrounded!”

Seemingly nonchalant, Paul Newman’s Henry Manning turns to Linda Fiorentino’s Carol Ann MacKay and makes a proposal directly from his outlaw heart to hers: “You haven’t lived until someone has said those words to you!”

Fittingly, since a first-rate chase ensues, I was in my car somewhere on East Genesee Street late Saturday afternoon when I heard on NPR that Newman died Friday night. Somewhere in the middle of commentator Bob Mondello’s appreciation of Newman’s long career – over 80 roles in 56 years, not counting stage work – I re-routed myself down Erie Blvd. East to Emerald City Video. They were looking over their inventory to make a Newman section up front. They don’t have The Color of Money anymore, Scorsese’s 1984 sequel to Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961), which won Newman an Oscar for reprising pool player Fast Eddie Felson. Mondello mentioned Fast Eddie, as did lots of writers in the Sunday papers. And I already had Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition (2002) at home – one of my top ten favorite movies – in which Newman plays the Irish gangster John Rooney to Tom Hanks’ hit man.

Despite his legendary younger roles, Newman played older men well – as in Rooney’s sorrowful but thoroughly corrupt mobster-father or, as early as 1982, the deeply world-weary lawyer Frank Galvin in Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict. Who can forget the wallop in that long, long shot of Newman striding up the street and – not a single skid mark – slapping Charlotte Rampling full across the face?

Where the Money Is (2000) hasn’t made the memorial lists but it’s got one of Newman’s best old men. This old bathrobe of a movie is just fine on DVD on a rainy fall night, though it didn’t do very well in theaters. Three weeks’ wide release, three more on drastically fewer screens, and it was gone – on to 20 other countries or so and DVD, largely, safe to say, on Newman’s name. I saw Where the Money Is in a theater the first time and called someone afterward to say what a pleasure it was to watch Newman work.

Ostensibly set in a lush but scraggly part of rural Oregon, filmed in Montreal, and directed by England’s Marek Kanievska, Where the Money Is regards Newman’s bank-robber Manning, who we learn - along with Carol Ann - had eluded police for 30 years until a power outage trapped him overnight in a bank vault. The film’s title and aura play on 1930s-era real-life bank-robber Willie Sutton, who escaped incarceration often and explained that he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is.”

After learning mail-order Tantric yoga to fake a stroke that gets him transferred from prison to a nursing home, instead of picking up his stashed millions and fading north to Canada, Manning crosses paths with Carol Ann MacKay. While it’s hard to swallow that ex-prom queen-turned-nurse Carol Ann has never been out of this town – this is not long after Fiorentino’s steamy role in John Dahl’s The Last Seduction – it’s easy to see where her first suspicions about her stroke patient's fakery will go. An impromptu lap dance in the nursing home fails to startle Manning out of his repose, so she takes him on a picnic. After warning “Last chance!” she grandly shoves his wheelchair off the dock into a lake. Well, let us just say that soon Carol Ann and Manning team up to rob an armored payroll truck. Carol Ann’s husband, ex-prom king Wayne (Brian Mulroney) – credibly jealous after he watches Manning dance with Carol Ann in a roadhouse – insists on coming along and so furnishes both stupid moves and betrayal.

There’s much in this minor key movie that’s both sweet and deftly managed. A wry, affectionate use of music includes the likes of the Cars’ My Best Friend’s Girl and Stephen Lang’s Sexy. Manning’s revenge on the sleazy orderly who steals his watch and hits on Carol Ann satisfies, as does Wayne’s well-deserved undoing. On the other hand, the elderly nursing home residents provide comic turns that move the plot along, but there’s not a cheap shot anywhere about getting old. Henry Manning has achieved that with considerable, ingenious grace. The best parts come when Manning emerges from quiet into the moment’s chaos to deliver some under-stated line to Carol Ann – they’re well-matched as the two most alert characters in the movie – for example, when she rescues him, without any plan except the wild driving she loves, from the van taking him back to prison.

“That’s my girl,” he growls, opening one eye as she frees him. “What took you so long?”

This review appears in the 10/2/2008 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Film Review #176: Jellyfish
Director: Etgar Keret
Screenwriter: Shira Geffen
Cast: Sarah Adler, Nikol Leidman, Ma-nenita De Latorre

You could not say that best-selling Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s work is exactly new to film. Over 40 of his short stories have been adapted to the screen – most recently in Tatia Rosenthal’s $9.99, a stop-motion animation premiering earlier this month at Toronto’s film fest that Entertainment Weekly calls “utterly beguiling.” He made his own first short film a dozen years ago. And he teaches film at Tel Aviv University. Nevertheless when Jellyfish, which Keret directed, won the Camera d’Or at last year’s Cannes Festival, you could not miss the enthusiasm for a first feature’s good fortune – especially one Keret undertook only after a depressingly long list of other directors rejected the project, prompting him to reassure his wife that they could make this film together.

The Jellyfish script comes from poet and playwright Shira Geffen. She and Keret have been partners for a decade. She calls their film and their son Lev “twins” since the boy’s birth and the shoot’s last day coincided. And in retrospect, she said in a late February phone interview, Keret was the perfect choice anyway, exactly understanding the fable-like trio of entwined stories that in heavier, more literal hands could have fallen flat as a cake taken too soon from the oven.

One of this film’s great accomplishments lies is its gentle persuasion that we suspend our usual demands for a sensible plot just a little while longer. Geffen’s script springs from her own unpublished story of eight or nine years ago in which a five-year-old girl, taken to the Tel Aviv beach, floats out to sea on a plastic swim tube as her patents bicker obliviously on shore about her father’s mistresses. Jellyfish picks up her fate and elaborates the ready seaside images – the title’s creatures swept along by waves and tides, the wistfulness of boats in bottles and the ever-present ocean seeping in, say, through a leaky ceiling.

One thread concerns Batya (Sarah Adler), a disheveled, probably clinically depressed young woman who loses her boyfriend as the film opens and her demeaning job as a wedding reception waitress soon after. Sitting in the sand one day, Batya sees this child (Nikol Leidman) emerge from the sea, unspeaking, clad mainly in her plastic swim tube and, as a taxi driver later remarks, with Batya’s eyes. As it’s a Friday afternoon, Batya’s attempt to turn the child over to authorities fails. Having evidently got little nurturing from her politician mother or her distant father – each too concerned with their caring for others – Batya is soon doing her clumsy best with this mysterious, capricious child who begins hiding and shortly runs away. Of course the girl from the sea is a younger Batya. So disconnected is Batya that she doesn’t recognize herself – thus freeing us for a good while too from dealing with such symbolism. Geffen has said, “I think the connection between mother and daughter is maybe the most difficult and complex connection. All the stories have some mother, some child.”

Jellyfish may work so well because its other stories echo Batya’s. Russian émigré Michael (Gera Sandler) and his sabra bride Keren (Noa Knoller), sidelined by her broken ankle from their dream Caribbean honeymoon, sit trapped in a tacky beachfront hotel where they cannot see the ocean. A suicidal stranger provokes Keren’s insecurities and predicts their future disappointments. A Filipino domestic worker named Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre) pines for her small son back home and somehow cracks the frosty reserve of her elderly charge, a woman in turn deeply estranged from her own daughter.

Keret’s readers are accustomed to his compact, seemingly casual mixture of whim and anguish. The US release of Jellyfish in April occurred as part of a cascade of events – press screenings in February with Keret along for interviews; the March DVD release of Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006), adapted from a Keret story with Tom Waits as the undercover angel in an afterlife populated by suicides; Keret’s new book, The Girl on the Fridge later in April – all culminating in media attention Israel’s mid-May 60th birthday with Keret touted as the new generation’s artist in high profile spots on National Public Radio and the New York Times Book Review.

Meanwhile, Jellyfish is just ending its US theatrical run this week after almost seven months. And as of last spring, Geffen had begun a new screenplay – not something she wished then to say much about except that it involved two women, one Israeli and the other Palestinian. Catch the wave early.

Jellyfish releases on DVD on September 30th. This review appeared in the 9/25/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth. Nancy interviewed both Etgar Keret & Shira Geffen by phone in February 2008 in preparation for a pre-recorded interview with Geffen intended for WBAI Pacifica’s 2008 International Women’s Day special programming in March.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Film Review #175: Johnny Guitar
Director: Nicholas Ray
Cast: Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge, Sterling Hayden

Think about any of the get-ups that Madonna has employed in her concert tours over the years and slowly it dawns on you – watching Joan Crawford, as the gun-slinging, old Arizona casino owner known only as Vienna, whom we first meet clad entirely in black except for her gun-belt, or later watch nearly lynched in a long white dress while her establishment blazes in lurid Tru-Color flames against the night sky – somewhere in her past the Material Girl had to have caught Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), a film the wildly admiring Truffaut called an “hallucinatory Western.”

Or think how fine Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were on the current political race during that recent Saturday Night Live and suddenly the rivalry between Crawford’s Vienna and the mob-inciting cattle-owner Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) – who spends most of the story in black funeral garb herself – acquires a delicious contemporary twist. In its excess, Johnny Guitar does walk a certain razor’s edge that always threatens to topple into camp. And it did just that in its 2004 incarnation as a stage musical that is still enjoying regional production around the country, in fact only last month just south of here as the final summer offering at Cortland Repertory Theater.

But Ray and his actual screen-writer Ben Maddow seem instead to have had in mind just how surreal the national landscape had become by the early 50s. Maddow was one of the Hollywood writers accused of Communist ties during Joe McCarthy’s hearings in the House Un-American Activities Committee – hence, the film’s credits list Philip Yordan as screenwriter, since Maddow was black-listed from working. That national battle over democratic values, patriotism and the use of witch-hunts permeates the film.

Nicholas Ray released Johnny Guitar one year and a couple movies before his vastly better known film starring James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause. The basic story isn’t unusual. It’s the old frontier and the railroad’s coming through. The film opens with the title character (Sterling Hayden) riding toward Vienna’s casino through the mountains, where the railroad construction crew is blasting with dynamite, literally changing the landscape. He watches a stage-coach robbery on the valley floor from above, in which the town banker – Emma’s brother – dies, fueling her vengeance. Vienna’s long-lost love, the once-notorious but reformed gunslinger who packs a guitar, Johnny has employed the time-honored American habit of reinvented identity and so gets himself worked over initially at Vienna’s place, principally by the bad apple Bart Lonergan (a terrifically sleazy Ernest Borgnine), one of the Dancin’ Kid’s gang.

Another self-reinvented American traveler and rival for Vienna’s affection, the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) hails from New York City – enough in itself to kindle Emma Small’s hatred – and in the course of the story decides to move on to California. Vienna herself intends to host the new railroad depot on her land and build a new town. Unnervingly keen to lynch them both from the get-go, Emma blames Vienna and the Dancin’ Kid for her brother’s death. Worse, both represent forces of social change and political power shifts that she can’t abide. Eventually it’s the two women who will have a showdown - more surrogates for mid-5os national vertigo than feminist figures - during which formerly blustering men will wonder to each other if it’s finally safe to slip away from a fight they didn’t really want.

Thus Emma declares to the somewhat reluctant posse, “I’ve been right about that woman. The marshal thinks he has to have legal cause. McIver [a fellow cattle baron] thinks he can do it with talk, and the rest of you can’t make up your minds! What are you waiting for? You heard her. They’re trying to run the railroad through here, with thousands of people from the east. Farmers! Dirt farmers! They’ll push us out!”

Though Johnny Guitar might seem constructed on the Let ‘er Rip theory of filmmaking, Ray and Maddow present us with scenes like this which embody quintessentially American debates. They also frequently pause the action so characters may argue – literally sometimes in mid-stream, since the way to the Dancin’ Kid’s hide-out lies through a water-fall – the morality of competing courses of conduct. The most serious and consequential of these occurs regarding whether the Kid’s gang should leave behind its youngest member – the wounded Turkey (Ben Cooper), who actually can’t keep up with the big boys and has fallen from his horse – to save themselves from the pursuing posse. Their decision, strong-armed by Bart Lonergan, leads to Turkey’s capture, his forced confession and false accusation of Vienna, and – despite Emma’s empty promises of leniency – his quick lynching.

If you think about other Westerns – 3:10 to Yuma, for example (either version will do), and the many treatments of Jesse James’ still-captivating demise – the youngest gang member is usually the figure whose disappointed, demanding hero-worship leads to his betrayal of the leader, an object lesson on the costs of celebrity and slavish devotion. This time – Vienna tells Turkey at one point that he’s been “cheated” of his youth – his leaders fail him.

After all, thinking itself is the target this time around.

This review appeared in the 9/18/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Find Johnny Guitar readily & cheaply on-line in a variety of VHS & DVD formats, with at least three DVD editions since 2001.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Film Review #174: The Express
Director: Gary Fleder
Cast: Ron Brown, Dennis Quaid, Charles S. Dutton

As everyone around here in upstate New York knows – or will once The Express has had its world premiere this weekend at Syracuse’s spruced-up downtown Landmark Theater – Ernie Davis was the Orange’s halfback when Syracuse University won the US national football championship in 1959. In 1961 he became the first African American, and only Orangeman, to win US college football’s coveted Heisman Trophy; in the movie, President Kennedy meets him backstage – compressed from the actual cross-town cab trip that occurred in real life – for personal congratulations. By late 1963, both were dead, Davis from leukemia and, six months later, JFK assassinated.

Director Gary Fleder filmed some of The Express on Syracuse University’s campus last year, so interest has been high locally, stoked again by the presence this weekend of cast members, 49 of the surviving 54 members of the 1959 football team, some Davis family and football greats Jim Brown and Floyd Little, whose SU careers bracketed Davis’. On-screen, there’s Hendricks Chapel and the Maxwell School of Citizenship, though you can see the newer Maxwell II discreetly beyond some foliage. The arched entrance to the old Archbold Stadium, rather grander than I remember it, digitally replaces the Carrier Dome. The Quonset hut that housed the early WAER-FM radio station on the quad back then is nowhere in sight. If you know the campus or the story, you see early that Fleder’s film does some compressing and re-arranging and, on the Friday afternoon before the premier, standing on the rain-soaked quad, he stressed the film’s not a documentary.

But don’t settle in for network TV-grade nostalgia. More important forms of authenticity in this uncommonly good film are pitch-perfect. Early on, facing a menacingly inhospitable crowd before the 1960 Cotton Bowl in Texas, Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) recalls his younger self outside Pittsburgh, facing a gang of pint-sized white toughs on some isolated railroad tracks while collecting bottles. His burlap sack of empties tucked under one arm, dodging and leaping over thugs and through underbrush, the 12-year-old outruns them. The urgency of this first pursuit indelibly colors all that follow on football fields, where skirmishes and games alike are more often systematic muggings of the few Black players than gentlemanly sport.

The Express looks beyond the numbers to show “tradition” as what’s handed down to talented youngsters. Not a football fan myself, I couldn’t rattle off an admired player’s stats the way star-struck Ernie Davis rattles off Jim Brown’s record when coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) enlists the NFL pro and former Orangeman to recruit the high school player. A few years later, young Floyd Little recites Davis’ stats in the same ritual greeting when he meets Davis, who comes to him on a similar errand. In town for the premiere, Little recalled, “Ernie told me, ‘Jim Brown chose me and I’m choosing you.’ Listen, I had 47 scholarships to college. I was recruited by General MacArthur. Ernie told me, ‘Floyd, I will have your back.’”

There were hints at the pre-premiere festivities that the marketing plan for The Express might not stress this point, but in a lesser film, Schwartzwalder’s and Davis’ complicated, difficult relationship might overshadow the web of care among these men that also includes a substantial portrait of Davis’ grandfather (a wonderful Charles S. Dutton). Davis asks the old man, who introduced him to Brooklyn Dodger great Jackie Robinson via store-window TV, to help him decide about SU. With the mildest glance and smile, Grandfather asks Jim Brown over pie, “Tell me, how is it there – for men like us?”

How it is, is the way sport on film actually happens rarely – both the sheer melee and then starkly isolated elements of labored breathing, spinning ball, crunching bodies. Scorsese set the standard for this wincing, inside immediacy with Raging Bull (1980). More recently the wheelchair rugby documentary Murderball (2005) came close. Fleder got Allan Graf to wrangle the football scenes, as Graf did – variously credited as “stunt coordinator,” “second unit director” and “assistant director” – for Friday Night Lights (2004), Any Given Sunday (1999) and Jerry Maguire (1996). On Friday, Graf said he’d really used Ben Schwartzwalder’s play-books and added, “I had to teach all my football players to block with their shoulders and not with their heads like they would today.” And despite a few missteps into distracting orchestral sweep, Mark Isham’s score – by turns syncopated and bluesy – mostly supports both the mood and action on-screen superbly.

Finally, The Express is a detailed, keenly observed story about racism on mid-century US college campuses just as the US Civil Rights movement was heating up – not generically, but right here. It’s sobering to consider that Syracuse University has embraced this in which its own university community does not get a pass. It’s one thing to watch Denzel Washington’s recent The Great Debaters – criminally neglected by Oscar and box-office alike – which is longer ago and farther away (1935, Texas), another to watch Davis and his friend Jack Buckley (probably based on teammate John Brown and played by Omar Benson Miller) stroll by the Maxwell School’s statue of “Great Emancipator” Abraham Lincoln, discussing enforced dating norms circa 1960.

Shortly after, Davis and Buckley meet two young women. One, a Cornell student, asks what they’re studying. A shy, polite young man who sometimes helped players up after they tackled him, Davis first answers vaguely. Then he says, “Look, we’re on the football team. I don’t want you to think we’re not serious.” Last week, right before the film’s advance screening, some of today’s Orangemen loomed above me in the popcorn line, reminding me of how my younger brother shot up one winter so I had to bend my head back to look at him. One waved me to the head of the line with a flourish. Yes, they said – suddenly shy and polite – they were excited to see this movie. If we look past the numbers – as everyone around here knows, these last several seasons have not exactly reflected the Orange's glory days – we might remember, with an unexpected splash of grace from Davis, that these young men are serious too.

Slated for wide release in the US on October 10th, The Express opens in Mexico on October 31st and in the U.K. on November 11th. A shorter version of this review appeared in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly on 9/11/08.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Film Review #173: Battleship Potemkin
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Cast: Alexsandr Antonov, Grigory Aleksandrov, N. Poltavseva

Presidential primaries and elections are always times to dust off your old, possibly never-finished copy of Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 book about where propaganda fits into private mass media’s relationship to government and markets.

For a meatier take on the meanings of “making history,” go directly to cinema. Barry Levinson’s satire Wag the Dog (1997), a Robert DeNiro-Dustin Hoffman vehicle about starting a fake war to distract the electorate, has gotten some play recently. But 83 years later, pioneering Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin is still the granddaddy, both for how his version of a 1905 uprising against the Czarist regime has often effectively replaced accounts of the real events and – perhaps more far-reaching – his early, heavily influential techniques for generating emotional responses in audiences. Battleship Potemkin was banned in a number of countries – in England until 1978, longer than any film there ever – because authorities considered its story of political uprising so inflammatory during decades of global economic depression and conflict.

Battleship Potemkin was state-sponsored propaganda, planned as a popular commemoration of the 20-year anniversary of an actual ship’s mutiny and resulting violence in the port city of Odessa when citizens supported the sailors. In his second of only six feature films, Eisenstein condensed and altered historical events to dramatize early rumblings of the Bolshevik revolution and demonize the Czar’s regime.

The actual battleship Prince Potemkin was cruising the Black Sea in 1905 after returning from Russia’s war with Japan. Sailors did mutiny, over rotten meat and their officers’ brutal response to their protests. The Potemkin’s crew did get a warm welcome from the people of Odessa, whom the Czar’s Cossacks violently put down in a series of skirmishes throughout the city.

Eisenstein made three critical changes in his tightly-structured, five episode story. First, he inserted the character of the “new revolutionary man,” the sailor Vakulinchuk (Alexsandr Antonov), who heroically exhorts his fellows and the ship’s guards just as they are about to shoot innocent men. Vakulinchuk dies during the ensuing shipboard battle after the guards turn their guns on the ship’s officers. The sailors take his body to the Odessa docks, where streams of citizens come first to mourn and then to rally. Notably these mourners illustrate extremely wide-spread sympathy for the sailors, featuring many women – both poor and middle class – plus children, old people, even the infirm.

Second, Eisenstein altered the final outcome of the sailors’ revolt, clearly intending to replace historical accounts. In the film, Potemkin’s crew – helpless to save the Odessan people from slaughter – turn their cannons on the great symbol of upper-class oppression and decadence, the Odessa Opera House. Then, the Czar’s naval squadron, first pursuing the rebels at sea, joins their revolt after the Potemkin turns around and sails boldly into their midst. The original Potemkin instead less gloriously fled to safety in Romania.

Third and most important for filmmaking ever since, Eisenstein used Odessa’s multi-tiered Maritime Steps as the site for the major confrontation between the Cossacks and people of Odessa, condensing the real smaller skirmishes into a single bloody massacre, where lines of black-booted, white-uniformed Cossacks – moving with machine-like precision – relentlessly descend the steps, mowing down a panicked, disbelieving, chaotic crowd. The violence in this scene is quite graphic, with crushed children, the now-iconic “Woman in Pince-nez” (N. Poltavseva) who imagines she can “talk to” the troops and is shot in the eye for her genteel illusions, and the famous careening white wicker baby carriage – all have found their way visually into other films.

This fictional massacre – more than the trumped-up ending – is what sometimes replaces the historical events. The Netflix blurb for Battleship Potemkin, for example, cites the “czarist troops’ infamous systematic slaughter of insurgents and bystanders” as if it were an accurate depiction of an historical event. This confusion is likely because, more than any other sequence in the film, the Odessa steps massacre demonstrates Eisenstein’s pioneering use abrupt edits to create montage. Just as changes in rhythm (the analogy Eisenstein himself elaborated most) or heavy use of sharps and flats in music disrupt our expectations and provoke emotional response – think torch songs here – so does abrupt visual juxtaposition override orderly – and more rational – exposition and narrative transitions. Watch this film to see how it’s done and go armed into this election season.

This review appeared in the 9/4/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that do not open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth. Since 1998, at least seven DVD editions of Battleship Potemkin have been released to the US market either as single discs or part of collections. Last year’s stellar two-disc set made Richard Corliss’ Top 10 DVDs list in Time magazine & is reviewed at some length in the current issue of Cineaste. Five of Eisenstein’s six feature films are available at Netflix, all with the Instant Viewing option, although right now the Netflix Potemkin is the truncated 1976 Soviet version.
Film Review #172: Irina Palm
Director: Sam Garbarski
Cast: Marianne Faithfull, Dorka Gryllus, Miki Manojlovic

“Everybody’s always talking about how they’d do anything for their kids,” says Ollie’s mom Sarah (Siobhan Hewlett) to her husband Tom after his mother Maggie comes up with the money they need to get from suburban London to Australia. “Well, she put herself on the line for my son! And frankly, I’m grateful!”

Clearly someone who’s grown up less sheltered than only son Tom, Sarah’s first response to learning there’s a new cure for her little boy’s cancer on the other side of the globe had not been elation and relief but the often-stung realist’s question, “Who pays?”

Sarah and her mother-in-law (60s rock icon Marianne Faithfull, who last played a mother of more means as Empress Marie Theresa in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette) have evidently never been close, but the revelation of Maggie’s job in a London club called Sexy World, where she is something of a celebrity as “Irina Palm,” is an acid test the younger woman understands at once as more than a train ride away from Maggie’s sedate village life.

Three young filmmakers have recently explored the lengths to which mothers will go for their threatened sons. All feature unsentimental, complex performances and unusual attention to the dynamics among the women characters, and all use border-crossing as both story element and resonant image for life-altering choice.

Set on the Akwesasne Reserve that straddles the New York-Canada border, northern Hudson Valley director Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River features blistering portrayals by Melissa Leo and Misty Upham of two nearly broke single mothers, white and Mohawk respectively, who smuggle illegal immigrants across the mile-wide frozen St. Lawrence in an old Dodge Spirit’s trunk. Hunt’s first feature opened August 1st and is now on 26 screens nationwide. If it doesn’t come here, it’s worth driving to Rochester to see it at The Little in late September.

Turn the River, gambling slang for getting caught bluffing, is actor Chris Eigeman’s first foray into filmmaking. Famke Janssen (Jean Grey/Phoenix in The X-Men films) plays pool-hall rat Kailey Sullivan, who descends into Manhattan periodically from somewhere “upstate” for Central Park visits with her 11-year-old son. When his father breaks the boy’s wrist, Kailey aims to buy them passports via high-stakes billiards and escape to Canada. With few festival turns, little theater exposure between the May premiere and July DVD, and an unfortunate plot misstep at the end, Turn the River still deserves a look. Then, you do wonder about a movie-going nation that embraces the brilliance of a Dark Knight one week but dashes off to a mess like Tropic Thunder the next.

Which brings us back to Belgian filmmaker Sam Garbarski’s second feature, Irina Palm, doing well in almost 30 countries but not generating much box office here since opening in March with the tagline, “The best right hand in London.” It’s a mistake to dismiss Irina Palm, now out on DVD two weeks, as just the latest “naughty British granny,” though its script – especially several encounters in Maggie’s village shop, small town life’s court of public opinion – suggests potential in that comedic direction. Rather, Maggie’s journeys away from this village take on the aura of a fugitive fleeing past a border check-point.

Irina Palm is surprisingly thoughtful in appraising how we reach for one another. If we never see Maggie’s hand at work in her booth at Sexy World, we see a great deal surrounding it. And that job stays in mind throughout a film that relies visually on the physical transactions of touching. At the hospital, Maggie entwines her hand in Ollie’s, kissing the little boy’s fingers. When club owner Miki (Miki Manojlovic) interviews her for the “hostess job,” he strokes Maggie’s palm and she withdraws sharply. Later their handshake seals his loan to Maggie; still later he’ll courteously light her cigarette. A young foreigner named Luisa (Dorka Gryllus) from the next booth teaches Maggie the trade and later they share a drink and confidences – always the confidences in this film begin with lost love – that includes how Luisa left a man who struck her. When Maggie unmasks the most sanctimonious among the village widows for having slept with her late husband, Maggie adds, “I understand you liked to be spanked.” Naturally these older women have passed the time together playing cards, making Irina Palm – all three films, really – a riff on playing the hand you’re dealt.

This review appeared in the 8/28/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing recent movies that did not open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth. Irina Palm & Turn the River are both available at Netflix. Read Nancy’s interview with Frozen River director Courtney Hunt at
Film Review #171: War/Dance
2007/DVD 2008
Directors: Sean and Andrea Nix Fine

In Syracuse last October to screen a rough cut of Sweet Crude, her documentary about the ravages that US oil drilling visits upon the Niger Delta’s people and environment, Seattle filmmaker Sandy Cioffi explained her seemingly odd treatment of statistics, which intermittently cascaded down the screen at what was at first perturbingly unreadable speed.

“What number could I put on screen that would make the killing stop?” she asked. Emerging from a long stretch of watching other people’s documentaries, Cioffi had decided that arguments from grim numbers alone don’t change much and, far from being persuasive as forms of argument, may even make it easier to look away.

Cioffi is not alone among filmmakers and some photographers (especially those whose work intentionally leans toward the cinematic) in this conviction. Also last year, local artist Ellen Blalock’s photo and video exhibition Father’s Day at Community Folk Art Gallery set lush, classically posed, large format portraits of muscular young African American fathers in Hip Hop attire cradling their small children against a video stream in one corner with a similar cascade of tumbling numbers, clearly deriding the capacity of statistics to tell us much of what’s true about these young men. Fazal Sheikh’s Beautiful Daughters series, brought to Syracuse University in a controversial show whose extremely large prints he told me in a phone interview were meant to be “cinematic,” portrayed poor widows and girls in India in such lovely images that some criticized him for romanticizing suffering (even as others railed against him for airing India’s dirty laundry). About his photo series The Whipping Post, Brantley Carroll – who says he makes photos instead of movies only because he can “do all the jobs myself” – has been blunt that he means to “rope people in” to confronting slavery with ravishing images that are portals to individual stories and emotional connection.

Although the writer John Berger has distinguished film and photo as looking in different directions – photo after the past moment captured but gone, film toward the pull of what happens next – Blalock, Sheikh and Carroll in different ways all lean toward film’s capacity for story with their photo work. And their work’s reliance on beauty over grit and bankrupt statistics overlaps with films like Hungarian Lajos Koltai’s 2005 Holocaust film Fateless. Or Philip Gröning’s 2005 documentary Into Great Silence, about the ancient order of Carthusian monks in their Alpine monastery, a film that – devoid of any “information” whatsoever about their thriving global business (as the producers of fine liqueur) – focuses instead of how cinema addresses the aesthetic issue of duration as manifested in a life-style of mostly silent meditation. Or Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s Nanking, last year’s documentary about the infamous 1937 “rape” of that Chinese city by invading Japanese forces. Nanking employs – making the conventional grainy archival footage (direct evidence) they include pale by comparison – dramatic performance, readings of letters and diaries from American missionaries present during that siege by actors on a bare, dark sound stage. What effects stay with us? Intriguingly, the filmmaking Taviani brothers recall that it was attending a performance of a Pirandello play as children, during the Fascists’ rule of Italy, that crystallized their grasp of the brutality happening all around them.

Then there’s War/Dance, the documentary by Washington, DC-based husband and wife filmmaker team Sean and Andrea Nix Fine. Oscar-nominated for best documentary this year, War/Dance combines the popular movie template of the school musical performance contest – think back to Mad, Hot Ballroom – with the unlikely subject of the children of Patongo, the most remote and vulnerable refugee camp of northern Uganda’s civil war.

War/Dance came around last January in batches of pre-Oscar DVD screeners sent to reviewers. Talking by phone just days before the Oscars from their car – on the way to another interview in DC – the Fines readily agreed that their film had run a gauntlet of uneasiness over its portrayal of sheer beauty.

Photographed against an astonishingly beautiful landscape that has disconcerted some reviewers, War/Dance embeds a story of equally astonishing savagery within an effort to heal trauma through art. Last November, though clearly admiring the film, the New York Times’ Stephen Holden was uneasy – asking, and I think misreading the Fines’ intentions, “to what extent [can] human savagery be softened…to make it palatable to an audience?”

In 2005, Patongo Primary School competed in the National Music Competition’s finals for the first time in the capital of Kampala. Patongo, home to 60,000 people, is one of the camps to which 90% of the Acholi people have been removed from their ancestral lands by the twenty-year conflict. During that time, the rebels who calls themselves the Lord’s Resistance Army have abducted 30,000 Acholi kids, some as young as five, and forced them to fight.

Only a few statistics in War/Dance – inserted at intervals against a black screen – provide a frame of the enormity of this war’s destruction. The Fines profile three children while relating the weeks leading up to the 200-mile trip to Kampala, that made in an open military troop transport truck under armed escort. Mostly the film focuses on rehearsals – for the “Western choral” (English hymns), musical composition, and traditional dance, an intricate 500-year-old royal dance called the Bwola. Two music teachers – another husband and wife team – come from Kampala to help even the playing field by coaching the children on the finer points of competition and making new, and bracing, demands for excellence. Patonga’s own music teacher says the music heals these children’s trauma “to bring them back to ordinary life.”

This is certainly true of 14-year-old Dominic, whose xylophone-playing takes a national prize. Before that, he practices incessantly in a vast field under a tree, where the serenity coming over face suggests that he also achieves some other state. Then he tells the camera how he was forced to kill some farmers in the field with their own hoes before he escaped the Lord’s Resistance Army, and how he has never told anyone this before. Later, this diminutive boy visits a nearby army post where a rebel commander is held and asks the man – the two of them sit on a wooden bench under another green tree – about his older brother’s fate, so that “I will tell my mother and we can move on in our lives.”

War/Dance also profiles 14-year-old Nancy, who wants to be a doctor, and 13-year-old orphaned Rose, who share equally wrenching vignettes. But for once, we remember them and their stories, and their music, more than the numbers.

An abbreviated version of this review appeared in the 8/21/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not have a theatrical opening in Central New York & older films of enduring worth.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Film Review #170: It’s a Fact! … and it could be true
Director: Takia Thompson
Cast: Takia Thompson, Jake Powell, Charles Jackson

Sometimes, years later, you still wonder how you wound up in certain unlikely conversations. This couple hailed from Baltimore; I knew her first because we were graduate students together. Since their daughter was simultaneously doing pre-med at Cornell, my friend’s husband was in Syracuse a lot during those several years. He is a big man, tall and broad-shouldered, with a deep-voiced, easy-going confidence, immensely gracious.

One day we were discussing what he had observed about the behavior of white men in public rest rooms. My friend’s husband said, “I just don’t understand it. You know, they’re in such a hurry that most of them don’t wash their hands.”

I think then he used the expression that it “skived” him.

Without needing to think it over very much, I said, “They’re not in a hurry. They’re scared of you.”

Although young filmmaker Takia Thompson has focused mostly on young African American women in her film It’s a Fact! …and it could be true, this is the sort of situation that she could turn to biting satire. And Thompson says her film grew out of similar, also unlikely conversations with her white friend Jake Powell, who plays fictional TV host Todd Broakon (and most other male bit parts) in her film. Out of such sharing and Thompson’s already-apparent talent has come this short film, just shy of 18 minutes in run-time but packing a much longer slow burn.

Last week Thompson returned to the other Emerald City – her home town of Seattle – with a filmmaker diploma in hand, the day after arranging a movie-sized screening at SU of her senior thesis project for a handful of those involved in making who hadn’t seen it yet plus assorted mothers, friends and cast. Powell was there, looking far younger than he does on film. Several cast members are well-known locally, like the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company’s Annette Adams-Brown, who plays the back-stage TV director. Sammy Award-winning singer Andrea Moore plays an assistant director who asks Broakon if his news and commentary show “isn’t a little racist?” (He scoffs, “Don’t you know racism no longer exists?”) Journalist and musician Charles “CJack” Jackson plays the best-selling author of Be Proud to be a N___, whom Broakon interviews. Jackson also supplied perfect soft jazz for the closing credits and is working with Thompson, who may return to Syracuse in the fall, in promoting the film.

Thompson structures It’s a Fact! as the taping of an episode in a TV news magazine show whose first segment reports on the results of a purported seven-year investigation of the African American community by the 147 F.B.I. agents and second segment comprises the interview with writer “Assalah Malaykam.” There are three cuts to Broakon’s back-stage interaction with the production crew that comment on the goings-on. A dead-pan Broakon opens by telling the camera that all but one of the F.B.I. agents were lost, their loyalty and attention to business overcome by the “allure” and “witchcraft” of the Black community. Three re-enactments then dramatize what the F.B.I. has since formulated as rules of conduct for whites to safely interact with African Americans. “Never ever touch a Black woman’s hair.” “Never ever tell Black people to quiet down at a movie theater.” “Never ever, ever even think about taking a Black person’s chicken.”

Like that public rest room conversation years ago, these “dramatizations” uncover stereotypes held on both sides of the action that may be uncomfortable to watch or admit – and have certain comic possibilities. The “Never touch a Black woman’s hair” vignette, for example, is an economical little gem of a scene in which three young women chatting on a corner are interrupted by a white man who strides by and raises his arm to catch a taxi, brushing one woman’s hair. Is this “accidental,” or is it a habit of simply not respecting Black women’s physical space so that it’s always her job to step out of the way? Hilariously, as if anticipating that some viewers will ask whether it was an accident, Thompson obligingly re-plays the arm-brush four times in rapid succession. Then, the offended young woman – in slow motion – raises her arms, lets out a thundering roar above the man – now crouching in terror behind a bush – and attacks.

In the second “dramatization” the same three young women set out in high spirits for the movies, much to the consternation of a lone, tight-lipped audience member who employs increasingly indignant whirling around, sighing and glaring to convey his annoyance and the fact that he feels constrained from simply asking for quiet. Actually, I’ve done some whirling and glaring myself, though about the worst offenders I ever encountered were a van-load of snowy-haired white retirees who talked the entire way through a matinee of March of the Penguins at Manlius Art Cinema.

Thompson said she was nervous in May when she showed this film to a full auditorium of other student filmmakers, relieved when most laughed in the right spots and vindicated as the laughter markedly died down. This may owe something to the Wayans brothers’ movies’ popularity among young audiences. Last week, local playwright and poet Jackie Warren Moore praised the younger artist, “This is what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to provoke and unsettle.”

This is a demanding and provocative film that appalls you even as you’re laughing, and you may not be laughing when it’s over. It’s also well-shot, well-edited, and crisply written. Besides film fest entries, Thompson hopes for a more public local screening later in the fall, along with a talk-back. Catch her early work, because we’ll be hearing a lot more from her.

An abbreviated version of this review appears in the 8/14/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not have a theatrical opening in Central New York, older films of enduring worth & occasional other films that deserve special notice.
Film Review #169: A Woman of Tokyo
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Cast: Yoshiko Okada, Kinuyo Tanaka, Ureo Egawa

Last Saturday morning Owen Shapiro spoke by cell phone from Prospect Park in New York City, where he’d just dropped off his granddaughter at a birthday party. He was already anticipating this Friday evening, when he’ll introduce the screening of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu’s early film, A Woman of Tokyo (1933), centerpiece of the final event of this year’s 16-day Cazenovia Counterpoints arts festival on Cazenovia Lake east of Syracuse.

“Ozu is one of the most important filmmakers – period!” said Shapiro. “Not just for Japan. This is a very early work, but in his insight into the human condition and his depiction of women – their role in society and their personal angst – he was always ahead of his time.”

Shapiro heads up Syracuse International Film Festival, held each April. As one on-going popular program, SIFF presents classic silent films with live musicians performing new scores. This year’s collaboration with Neva Pilgrim and the Society for New Music, held at the Everson Museum, had some bumps in the road.

“We originally intended to do L’Age d’Or, but then couldn’t,” said Shapiro. That 1930 film, Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s first feature and a collaboration with fellow surrealist Salvador Dali, caused riots when first screened in Paris.

“But,” Shapiro went on, “Neva Pilgrim knew Wayne Horvitz had done music for a number of films, including A Woman of Tokyo, and he agreed to come.”

The Seattle-based pianist/composer also released his Gravitas Quartet’s One Dance Alone in April on the Songlines label. That CD contains a track titled “Waltz from Woman of Tokyo,” excerpted from Horvitz’s new score for the 47-minute Ozu film.

Then freak storms cancelled Horvitz’s April flight to Syracuse.

But Shapiro’s always run a film festival committed to regional outreach. That means screenings year-round across Central New York, so moving the Ozu/Horvitz program to Cazenovia Counterpoints through the Society for New Music’s connection was a natural. Commissioned by the Seattle Film Festival, the full film score has not been recorded and Friday’s performance is the Northeast premiere.

Unlike the Buñuel, Ozu’s 1933 film is not available at Netflix (though YouTube has a short clip). A Woman of Tokyo never released here until 1982 – 19 years after Ozu’s death – and commercial DVD release waited until a 2006 four-disc anthology; the lone copy currently for sale on-line sells for $79. The DVD used in Friday's screening is a Janus edition that Shapiro acquired in France. Fully a third of Ozu’s 54 films have been lost. In fact, the Singapore-based Asian Film Archives, which screened A Woman of Tokyo last year with a new score for traditional Asian instruments, documents massive destruction of early Japanese cinema, lost to studio carelessness and natural disasters, but also to post-war banning – and in 1946, burning – during the Allied Occupation.

How ironic, this slow-to-waken reception for a Japanese filmmaker so intrigued by Hollywood and American culture in general. A 1930s audience could have discerned much common ground. Japan suffered from the decade’s global economic depression too – before you know the plot you see the frosty breaths of Ozu’s characters in their bare, unheated apartments. Commentators on this film generally mention that Ozu sends his proper young dating couple, the student Ryoichi (Ureo Egawa) and shy Harué (Kinuyo Tanaka) to watch an American movie – on-screen there’s a clip from a drama, set in an American business office, by Ernst Lubitsch, whose work Ozu admired. Central New Yorkers might also notice that Ryoichi’s older sister Chikako (Yoshiko Okada) pounds away on a Smith-Corona typewriter during her day job. With immense quiet grace, Chikako supports her younger brother, his tuition and books, even his movie dates. Early on, she hands him a fresh, clean sock as he tosses aside the one with a small hole worn in the toe, suggesting he takes much of her care and sacrifice for granted.

Chikako’s night job collides with that of Harué’s brother Kinoshita (Shinyo Nara), a policeman, and so undoes them all. Supposedly a “cabaret hostess,” a heavily made-up Chikako enters a smirking man’s car late at night. Learning all this, earnest Harué cannot resist telling Ryoichi. The sheltered couple’s myopic grief and fury at Chikako’s dishonor – Ozu’s family considered his movie-making aspirations similarly shady – sadly seem less dated than we might hope.

On Friday, local Japanese instructor Tomoko Mikakawa Walter translates and reads the film’s “intertitles,” full screens of dialogue text instead of subtitles running beneath the action. The film follows other quartets by Horvitz and Ithaca composer Roberto Sierra.

Thanks to Neva Pilgrim for lending A Woman of Tokyo for preview. This review appeared in the 7/31/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.