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.
Film Review #168: The Man Who Laughs
1928/DVD 2003
Director: Paul Leni
Cast: Conrad Veidt, Olga Baclanova, Mary Philbin

In so many ways Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is aggressively a film of our time. It’s not just that Heath Ledger’s Joker – every accolade is true – snatches us joltingly awake. No, it’s right from the opening scene, shot from a plane heading straight for the monumental, looming face of a sky-scraper. And then – just when part of your mind’s bracing for the crash – the first, establishing image of reversal occurs as, instead, the sky-scraper’s side explodes from within.

Like the resurgence of zombie movies since the Twins Towers, Nolan’s Batman films argue that barbarians-at-the-gates is an incomplete explanation, that racial scape-goating and urban decay, corruption and violence as much signify rottenness within – and that the greatest disintegration occurs when we abandon our best selves to turn on one another. Even before the Twin Towers, David Fincher’s Seven (1995) depicted a serial killer who envisioned his final masterpiece as provoking a decent, rookie cop, overwhelmed by rage and grief, to execute him.

So when the Joker baits the Gotham mob to “kill the Batman,” you suspect that’s only a first draft. Joker will really come into his own in challenging Batman’s adherence to his own code of conduct. Gary Oldman’s pragmatic Lt. Gordon first voices what’s at stake in this struggle – “Then the Joker will win!” – clearly echoing Rudy Giuliani’s “the terrorists will win” (if they alter our way of life).

The Dark Knight plays in tantalizing ways with Joker’s taunt that he and Batman are the same – both “freaks,” both outside the circle of community, both somehow mutilated, reverse sides of one coin. This reverberates in crusading D.A. Harvey Dent’s accidental mutilation and his trick coin tosses – after all, luck contains chaos at its core.

A particularly elegant reversal occurs through the mobster Gamble (Michael Jai White) when two booby-trapped ferries idle off Gotham’s shore, hostage to the Joker’s maniac threat to blow up both if the passengers on one don’t detonate the other by midnight. One boat also carries the mob bosses, now in shackles and orange jump-suits. Increasingly desperate, passengers on each ferry debate killing others to save themselves. Apparently living up to his fearsome image, Gamble tells the jumpy guy with the detonator, in a viciously silky growl, “You’re not up to taking a life. Give it to me. I’ll do what you should’ve done hours ago.”

Gamble’s haphazard scars signify a willfully violent life, but until now – when he tosses that detonator into the river through an open porthole – the film’s heavy shadows and fast action have obscured the intentional spiral scar wrapping his throat. Gamble’s scarification also mirrors the Joker’s hacked-open and basted-back-together cheeks. Whether redemptive or calculating, is any motive unambiguous?

So The Dark Knight is a superb in capturing our day, but its sophistication and resonance surely arise because our culture has been working on this story for a while. Clearly Nolan – who has his Rachel (Maggie Gyllelhaal) talk at cocktail parties about barbarians at the gates of Rome – knows this.

Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s original Batman comics in 1940 spawned legions of offspring in print and on-screen, with the Joker by turns satiric, campy and menacing. In 1928 Universal Studios – following the enormous success of deformity-as-classic-horror with Lon Chaney, Sr. in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom of the Opera (1925) – had released The Man Who Laughs, directed by the German Paul Leni and starring his countryman Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine, wandering son of a deposed 17th century British nobleman mutilated by gypsies – cast as the mobsters of their day – so that his face is frozen eternally in a garish grin. A traveling player, Gwynplaine’s profession and its trappings provide the opportunity to display the intertwined faces of comedy and tragedy. An outcast, tragic figure, Gwynplaine is a far cry from Batman’s nemesis, yet Bob Kane acknowledged the film inspired his original Joker. Nolan’s film also features a number of still-recognizable common images and story elements in the dangerous escape by boat, the ridicule of “freaks,” orderly society’s collapse and merging with “ruffians,” and vicious guard dogs – in Victorian melodrama, surely the “hounds of hell,” since Victor Hugo wrote the original tale in 1869, incidentally while exiled for his own political novels.

The Man Who Laughs released several years before Tod Browning’s more extreme Freaks (which also cast Olga Baclanova), but is arguably as important a template for horror film as social commentary. Restored and released on DVD in 2003, The Man Who Laughs has screened theatrically since too, for example, anticipating the premiere of The Dark Knight, earlier this month at the San Francisco Silent Film festival. Enjoy them together.

This review appeared in the 7/24/08 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 and older films of enduring worth. The Man Who Laughs is available in both DVD and VHS formats, at Netflix, and on-line.
Film Review #167: Control
2007/DVD 2008
Director: Anton Corbijn
Cast: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandria Maria Lara

Midway through the film Control, the Belgian fanzine reporter Annik Honoré (Alexandria Maria Lara) says to Ian Curtis (Sam Riley), “Tell me about your wife.”

They are about to embark on the steamy affair in which every contradiction in Curtis’ life unendurably converges. Curtis, original lead singer and lyricist for the British post-punk band Joy Division, pauses for a beat and says carefully of his wife Deborah (Samantha Morton), “She’s at home in Macclesfield. I’ve been trying to escape from there my whole life.”

Anton Corbijn’s 2007 film about Curtis, which released here on DVD in early June, covers the seven years between 1973, when Curtis was still is school and romancing Deborah, then his best friend’s girl, until his suicide by hanging in May 1980 at age 23, literally on the eve of Joy Division’s planned departure for a two-week concert tour in the US. A genuinely reticent young man who scribbled notebooks full of poetry and suffered epileptic seizures – at least one on-stage - Curtis stoked a band sound that has inspired the likes of U2, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, The Cure, and Interpol.

Though called “the best English film of 2007,” Control seems to begin inauspiciously. In a long, bleak, black-and-white shot, Curtis slouches along the edge of a fenced playground in a housing project, carrying a paper bag and ignoring the calls of some kids to throw their soccer ball back over the fence. I confess I looked at my watch as this scene rolled on.

But Control does pick up, and it turns out that Corbijn knows what he’s doing in that first scene, which by depicting such suffocation risks alienating viewers early on but fully informs Curtis’ later remark about a lifetime of seeking escape. This is officially Corbijn’s first feature film, but the Dutch-born photographer’s been making music videos since the mid-80s – Palm Pictures released an anthology DVD in 2005 – and he knows the lay of the land.

As for that first scene, Corbijn says he likes the 70s as an era for film precisely for its slower pace, for the opportunity to take the time to look at things. In Curtis’ early surroundings, Corbijn recreates the “great shock” of northern England’s poverty – “very bleak, very gray” – that he himself was unprepared for after growing up in Holland’s social safety net. And Corbijn chose to make a black-and-white movie because “the entire collective memory of Joy Division is black-and-white” – their album covers, their music videos and the photography by which their public knew them – a fact about which Corbijn speaks with such first-hand authority because in a very short time he directly created so much of that visual record.

Corbijn first heard Joy Division’s music at home in the Netherlands in 1979 and by October of the same year moved to London. Within two weeks he was photographing the rising band. Some of the most iconic images we have of Joy Division – and Curtis particularly – are Corbijn’s. In fact, some of the most iconic images we have of a vast number of musicians and actors over the past three decades are Corbijn’s. One pleasure in watching films like Goya’s Ghost (2006) or the 2003 Vermeer biopic, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, is their painterly look, in each case echoing how that artist saw his world. Corbijn’s film delivers recognition with a similar punch in recapping his own work as much as Curtis’ music. It doesn’t hurt that both Curtis’ widow and Annik Honoré assisted Corbijn – the script is based on Deborah Curtis’ memoir– or that Corbijn could film in the same flat where Curtis lived and even follow Sam Riley through the same streets – eerily frozen in time – to Curtis’ old day job as an employment counselor.

We’ll see lots more of Riley – a band singer multiply-honored for his first film – and Alexandria Maria Lara too, a Romanian from Coppola’s Youth Without Youth (reviewed here recently). But Samantha Morton is utterly convincing, first as a character half her own age when the film starts, then as the tense young woman she becomes. Morton’s short scene before discovering Curtis’ body – almost devoid of dialogue – is worth the ticket.

At Emerald City Video, Jason says they can’t keep Control on the shelf. And Joy Division’s saga steams on: Sunday’s Parade magazine reported that someone has just stolen Ian Curtis’ headstone from the Macclesfield graveyard.

This review appeared in the 7/17/08 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. Netflix also has Corbijn’s 2005 music video anthology plus his Depeche Mode videos.
Film Review #166: Prisoner of the Mountains
1997/DVD 2003
Director: Sergei Bodrov
Cast: Sergei Bodrov, Jr., Oleg Menshikov, Jemal Sikharalidze, Valentina Fedotova, Aleksandr Bureyev

From the photos snapped in his off-the-set moments, Sergei Bodrov, Jr. could cut a striking and magnetic figure. When, just two days into shooting a new film in the Caucasus Mountains in 2002, the 30-year-old actor-director and several of his production crew died in an avalanche, The New York Times said Russia had lost her “hottest young movie star.” You can find him cast in the 1997 gangster hit Brat (released here on DVD last year as Brother) and the Oscar-nominated East-West (2000) – as well as in a handful of his father’s nearly 30 films – for example, both The Quickie (2001) and Bear’s Kiss (2002) are available here.

Then there’s Prisoner of the Mountains, the 1997 anti-war film that won his father honors at Cannes, both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for best foreign language film, and a huge Russian following in the midst of the 1994-96 chapter of that country’s protracted, unpopular and bloody war with Chechnya. Here, the dashing younger Bodrov began his film career as Vanya, a soft-eyed, easily embarrassed new recruit injured his first day in the field and taken hostage along with his more jaded sergeant, the sarcastic, mustachioed Sacha (Oleg Menshikov).

After ordering up “one Russian alive” from the Chechen guerillas, village elder Abdul Murat (Jemal Sikharalidze) steps calmly from behind a roadside explosion’s clearing smoke and takes both men – a spare “in case the first one croaks” – intending to exchange them for his own son, who sits in the next valley in a foul, make-shift Russian prison. A widower, Abdul Murat has lost two sons to the invaders. A third son works for the Russians now as a police officer. So Abdul Murat has only the imprisoned son, a teacher, and a not-quite-yet-marriageable daughter, Dina (Susanna Mekhraliyeva, a Muslim school-girl from the village where the film was shot).

Bodrov Sr. and his Muslim co-writer Arif Aliev adapted their script from Leo Tolstoy’s novella, Prisoner of the Caucasus, written during Russia’s 30-year war of subjugation with Chechnya in the 19th century, when Tolstoy, then a military officer supporting that war, was not exactly in touch with the natural dignity of the Chechen people. Tolstoy’s take on Chechen-Russian relations was still required reading in Soviet schools in the years Bodrov Sr. grew up, so that audience would immediately recognize this widely-known story – filmed about 20 miles from the actual fighting that Bodrov’s updated screen version depicts.

Bodrov begins Prisoner of the Mountains with Vanya’s army physical. After a doctor mostly occupied with eating lunch absent-mindedly completes Vanya’s eye exam, this diffident, naked boy joins the line of other new recruits padding barefooted down a cavernous hallway. Slender and soft-looking, these young men – as startled as birds flying up from a hedge – cover themselves identically with clasped hands, intently looking elsewhere, when a nurse suddenly strides past them, her sturdy heels echoing loudly. With exactly such tender attention to detail might these young men’s mothers imagine them slipping toward destruction.

Vanya’s mother figures importantly in the story. Improvising when the Russian commander turns down his offer, Abdul Murat orders Vanya and Sacha to write letters asking their mothers to plead for them. Vanya expects his mother, a single school-teacher living far to the north, will show up – he tells a childhood story suggesting it’s likely – and so she does. And in her brief meeting with Abdul Murat, we see enemies inch back from the ledge, however imperfectly – just as their children will do – and that earns Vanya, at the cost of enormous grief, his life.

Chechnya’s independence struggle remains a fertile subject for Russian filmmakers. Alexander Sokurov’s Alexandra opened here in March, following an elderly Russian visiting her soldier grandson at the Chechen front. Oscar-nominated this year, Nikita Mikhalkov’s 12 adapted Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men to dramatize a young Chechen on trial for murdering his Russian step-father.

Also Oscar-nominated this year – the first entry from the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan – Sergei Bodrov’s new film Mongol has just opened locally at Manlius Art Cinema. Already a seasoned and extremely proficient, technically confident filmmaker – across the board Prisoner of the Mountains is well written, acted, directed, shot and edited – Bodrov has spent increasing time in the West, particularly in the US, since 1993. Closer to John Adams than your standard exotic battle epic, Mongol is the first of three films about the 12th-century’s Genghis Khan suggests we have a lot to learn. Bodrov’s a welcome discovery.

This review appeared in the 7/3/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in “Make it Snappy” a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth.