Mandel Maven's Nest Flicks: For the Music (and/or the Dancing)



Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:

Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.


I Am The Blues (Notes: Bobby Rush exults at being home in Jackson, playing with friends at The Queen of Hearts Juke Joint. There’s demonstrations of locally distinctive styles of singing, playing guitar, piano, harmonica, and beating rhythms on a floor board. Duck Holmes’s Bentonia Blues Festival on the front porch of the Café provides an opportunity for musicians' reunion and to discuss the characteristics of Skip James’ style and the “Bentonia School of Blues”, where one master demonstrates the slide guitar technique he learned from old bluesmen, just using his fingers, modestly noting “Takes awhile to learn that.” Bud Spires (1931 – 2014) is justifiably proud of his skill: “Daddy played harmonica. Bought one for me when I was 5. Cost a quarter. Now this one takes a lot of quarters - I got one that’s the best in the west now.” Barrel house piano player par excellence Henry Gray (born 1925, 2006 NEA National Heritage Fellow) cuts off complaints that Howlin Wolf was mean: “Not to me. As long as you followed his rules on the bandstand: first, no cigarettes, second, no drinking. Drink your whiskey before you get on. He was strict.” His niece Carol Fran (2013 National Heritage Fellow, who has since had a stroke) recalls the lover who inspired her swamp blues ballad “Emmitt Lee”. Lil’ Buck Sinegal sets up his amp outside: “You gotta hear it, I can’t teach it to you. I can’t play it again.” Left for an extra on the website is how he introduced electric guitar into Cajun music, along with immersion into a juke joint. Is it politically incorrect that there’s several conversations in heavy patois that I couldn’t decode and would have appreciated subtitles? (7/15/2017)

Skull + Bone (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)

Dare To Be Different (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)

When God Sleeps (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/11/2017)

I Called Him Morgan (at 2016 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (3/24/2017)

Beauty and the Beast (2D) (3/20/2017)

Miss Sharon Jones! Best Woman-Directed Documentary 2016 (previewed at 2015 DOC NYC Festival)

Two Trains Runnin’ (at 2016 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (12/2/2016)

Miles Ahead (previewed at 2015 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/31/2016)

Sonita (reviewed for Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2016 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and at IFC Center) (7/13/2016)

The Beat of Love (Utrip Ljubezni) (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (6/16/2016)

The Lure (Córki dancingu) (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (6/16/2016)

Silent (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (6/16/2016)

The Orchestra (short) (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/2/2016)

Girl Band (short) (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/2/2016)

Strike A Pose (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/1/2016)

Bad Rap (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/30/2016)

As I Open My Eyes (À peine j'ouvre les yeux) (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/29/2016)

Hold On (Houvast) (short) (seen at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/28/2016)

I Saw The Light (4/16/2016)

Sound Of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story) (1/8/2016)

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker (previewed through 2014 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on Tucker as a Jewish woman.) (7/24/2015)

A Poem Is A Naked Person (7/12/2015)

Beats of the Antonov (reviewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: Preserving Cultural Identity Under Stress at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/18/2015)

No Land's Song (reviewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: Preserving Cultural Identity Under Stress at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/18/2015)

The Dream Of Shahrazad (reviewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: Preserving Cultural Identity Under Stress at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/18/2015)

Love & Mercy (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (6/5/2015)

Song Of Lahore (previewed at 2015 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/16/2015)

Cupcakes (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (3/27/2015)

The Wrecking Crew (Notes: Cher remembers walking into the studio at 16 where “they all knew each other”. Revealing the people behind the curtain of the Oz that were record companies then or like audio versions of Walter Keane in Big Eyes, The Association, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, let alone the Monkees, were fronts who weren’t on the records, but they say they learned a lot by hanging around and getting pointers. Another noted documentary about unsung sidemen on classic hits is Muscle Shoals.
Bassist Carol Kaye has posted strong objections to the film. I appreciate that anyone in a documentary resents how they are edited into the final, but I disagree with a couple of her objections. I think the film does make clear that "Wrecking Crew" was a casual name and not a band identifier. Hal Blaine has always said that in interviews I’ve heard over the years. The film also makes very clear they were jazz musicians who first had other gigs, with photographic documentation. I note both of those facts in my review. I hope these tensions behind the scenes won’t harm lobbying efforts to induct her into the Hall of Fame. (3/22/2015)


Keep On Keeping On (previewed at 2014 Tribeca Film Festival) (9/29/2014)

Vara: A Blessing (previewed at 2014 Tribeca Film Festival) (8/3/2014)

Finding Fela (8/1/2014)

The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir (briefly reviewed at 2014 Tribeca Film Festival) (7/29/2014)

Time is Illmatic (briefly reviewed at 2014 Tribeca Film Festival) (7/29/2014)

Super Duper Alice Cooper (briefly reviewed at 2014 Tribeca Film Festival) (7/29/2014)

We Always Lie To Strangers (reviewed at 2013 “Birds Of A Feather” Flock To DOC NYC) (6/9/2014)

Ballet 422 (briefly reviewed at 2014 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/24/2014)

Tomorrow We Disappear (briefly reviewed at 2014 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/24/2014)

Folk (briefly reviewed at 2013 DOC NYC Round-up Part 1: Bio Docs) (1/13/2014)

Revenge of the Mekons (briefly reviewed at 2013 DOC NYC Round-up Part 1: Bio Docs) (1/13/2014)

Mercedes Sosa: The Voice of Latin America (briefly reviewed at 2013 DOC NYC Round-up Part 1: Bio Docs) (1/13/2014)

The Punk Singer (briefly reviewed at 2013 DOC NYC Round-up Part 1: Bio Docs) (1/13/2014)

Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love (briefly reviewed at 2013 DOC NYC Round-up Part 1: Bio Docs) (1/13/2014)

Inside Llewyn Davis (previewed at 2013 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (12/7/2013)

CBGB (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (10/13/2013)

My Father And The Man In Black (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (9/18/2013)

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (Notes: At the screening I attended, the director introduced the film with a passionate declaration for how people exposed to war and genocide as children later suffer PTSD, and that the post-partition violence ranked with crimes against humanity known more widely around the world, even as few in India who cheered Singh’s athletic achievements knew about his personal demons. I wasn’t clear if he faced discrimination as a Sikh in India, or if it was more a class issue; ironically, it’s the president of Pakistan who declares him “The Flying Sikh”. To the terrific music by Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani, and Loy Mendonsa, here’s some of the translations bythe various lyricists. Milkha courts with the duet “O Rangrez” (“O Dyer”); integrates into the army with “Maston Ka Jhund” (“Work Harder”), lyrics by Prasoon Joshi; trains to the anthemic “Zinda” (“Alive”), one verse refers to his run on freight cars collecting coal as he transforms from a child to a man; and integrates with Aussies’ slang to the “Slow Motion Angreza”. (7/18/2013)

Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer (Pokazatelnyy protsess: Istoriya Pussy Riot) (briefly reviewed at 2013 Faith & Filmmaking at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/12/2013)

20 Feet From Stardom (Notes: I may have been more jaundiced than other reviewers because I’m so familiar with Darlene Love’s story, what with her many interviews over past years on Vin Scelsa’s Idiot’s Delight in promotion for her regular one-woman bio-shows at the Bottom Line. Left up in the air and implicit is the basics of the racial issue of black singers backing-up white (male) performers. The closest inference is referring to rock ‘n’ roll as being wide open, compared to the strictures of R & B, but that skirts the blues roots of rock and the white singers as seeking credibility in their sound, especially British bands, i.e. the Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, and Sting seen in the film, striving for American roots. Not discussed are the weaker white imitators, like Michael Bolton, with his popular “When A Man Loves A Woman” cover version, who in effect use black back-up singers to cover up their soul weaknesses.) (6/28/2013)

A Band Called Death (Notes: The brothers’ acceptance of working to support their families in manual day jobs is very similar to the waiting-for-success story told in of the hard rockers Anvil! The Story Of Anvil, and similar to the collectors’ fan support of the raunchy R & B of The Weird World Of Blowfly. The theme of family continued in their lives and their rock resurgence –Bobby’s son heard a downloaded Death song at a San Francisco party in 2008. He recognized his father’s voice on a track he’d never even heard about, and called him up to learn about his and his uncles’ musical past. It’s very touching how they feel their new guitarist, from their spiritual band, is channeling their late brother David on their grateful-for-a-second-chance tour to support the release of their “For the Whole World to See” album. I’m very disappointed that I missed seeing their NYC debut due to a rescheduled performance at Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors that’s glimpsed here.) (6/28/2013)

When The Song Dies (short) (briefly reviewed in Shout Out for Quiet Documentaries at Tribeca ‘13 at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/6/2013)

Mistaken for Strangers (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/4/2013)

Flex Is Kings (categorizing as dance-like) (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/4/2013)<

The Sapphires (Notes: The sister who was forced into white culture is convinced to recover her soul, as well as her family and its racial identity, through American soul music. The visual verisimilitude is aided by cinematographer Warwick Thornton, who directed the morosely realistic 2009 portrait of aborigine reservation life Samson and Delilah.) (3/26/2013)

Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey (Notes: Director Ramona S. Diaz has followed the stories of other famous and not Filipinos and Arnel comfortably switches with her between English and Tagalo. He was about ten in the 1980’s during their most well-known lead singer Steve Perry’s stint with the band. The film climaxes with a deliriously welcoming concert back in Manila, and I appreciated the documentary more after seeing the full concert on VH-1. While Arnel brings fresh eyes to the usual follow-the-concert tour, they are also seen in the studio recording a new song “City of Hope” that reflects Arnel’s experiences. However, seeing the band performing with Rascal Flatts on CMT’s Crossroads Live from Super Bowl XLVII showed Arnel not quite adapting from the third world to that most American context of mixing it up comfortably with country music.) (previewed at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (3/17/2013)

Hava Nagila (The Movie) (Also briefly in Reviewed: New York Jewish Film Festival 2013 of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (Notes: Belafonte movingly recalls singing in Germany what became his #2 most requested song, after "The Banana Boat Song/Day-O”. Elderly popularizers are particularly charming, especially in impromptu performances by Irving Fields, of Bagels & Bongos fame, and dancer Ayalah Goren, daughter of Gurit Kadman, "the Mother of Israeli Dance.") (3/2/2013)

Let’s Dance! (briefly in Reviewed: New York Jewish Film Festival 2013 of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (2/19/2013)

The Ballad of the Weeping Spring (Balada le'aviv ha'bohe) (briefly in Reviewed: New York Jewish Film Festival 2013 of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (2/19/2013)

Max Raabe in Israel (briefly in Reviewed: New York Jewish Film Festival 2013 of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (2/19/2013)

Cabaret Berlin: The Wild Scene (Cabaret-Berlin, la scène sauvage) (briefly in Reviewed: New York Jewish Film Festival 2013 of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (2/19/2013)

Beware Of Mr. Baker (12/16/2012)

Can’t Stand Losing You (briefly reviewed at 2012 DOC NYC Festival) (11/4/2012)

David Bromberg: Unsung Treasure (briefly reviewed at 2012 DOC NYC Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (11/4/2012)

Kinshasa Kids (briefly reviewed at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/14/2012)

The Savoy King: Chick Webb & The Music That Changed America (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (Notes: R & B progenitor Louis Jordan was another Webb protégé, and this danceable jazz is shown as the precursor for “dirty dancing”. Also shown is the influence of Afro-Cuban music, as voiced through Andy Garcia as Cuban trumpeter Mario Bauzá.) (10/3/2012)

Punk in Africa (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (Notes: While bands cooperated on a “Stop Apartheid” compilation release and performed at fundraisers for the African National Congress’s political party, their lifestyles, one was headquartered in an urban commune, multiracial audience, with a few non-white performers such as Kalahari Surfers’ inclusion of African percussion, and grassroots distribution were subversive enough as protest.) (10/3/2012)

The Rolling Stones: Charlie Is My Darling – Ireland ’65 (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/3/2012)

Searching for Sugar Man (previewed at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (7/26/2012)

Tonight You’re Mine (Notes: Dreads-headed Scottish singer Newton Faulkner is seen performing and interacting deadpan with the cast backstage. The bandmate’s enjoyment of the sexy rocker’s overflow groupies encourages him to keep the two distractingly attached. (5/26/2012)

Once Upon A Lullabye (briefly reviewed in Award-Winning Docs at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (Notes: While the world premiere was followed by a Tribeca Film Institute Education Program panel that was to emphasize how the NYC Department of Education “on how new media and technology in the classroom can breathe new life into students’ curricula, capture their attention, and spark eagerness to learn”, the documentary is much more about how the teacher inspires the chorus while paying attention to the kids’ individual personalities, needs, and aspirations, including one whose family is struggling with homelessness, even as they go to Disneyland and Hollywood and they stick to his guidance.) (5/9/2012)

Ballroom Dancer (briefly reviewed in Award-Winning Docs at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/9/2012)

El Gusto (briefly reviewed in Documentaries at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/26/2012)
The reunited band toured the U.S. in 2013 – I cheered them at a lovely evening on 8/3/2013.


How To Grow A Band (4/20/2012)

Boy (3/10/2012)

Sound Of Noise (Brzmienie Halasu) (3/9/2012)

Last Days Here (3/2/2012)

Chico & Rita (Notes: The birth and flowering of Latin jazz is told through the lively, evocative animation of graphic designer Javier Mariscal, co-directing with his brother Tono Errando. From the famed Tropicana on, the tour of Havana is also a montage of Cuban music, including upbeat rumbas and mambos, and sad bolero ballads. Just as there’s racial divides in Havana, Rita is shown not being able to stay at the fancy Las Vegas hotels where she headlines to white audiences. In NYC, the film distinguishes between the popularity of Desi Arnaz-type rhythms at nightspots vs. the sophistication of Latin jazz.) (2/12/2012)

The Miners' Hymns (2/10/2012) (at 2012 Silent Films/Live Music) (also briefly reviewed at 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/22/2011) (Notes: The 3rd movement is like a British version of John Henry. The 4th movement also shows the irony of locals having to glean bits of coal for their own use. Seeing this film with live score at the Winter Garden, the palm trees helped approximate the soaring architecture of the Durham Cathedral, where these flickering figures entered for their last grand march at the premiere in July 2010. The Wordless Music Orchestra’s performance of the Icelandic composer’s score was conducted by Guðni Franzson. I’m not sure how long WNYC/WQXR will keep streaming the webcast. From my Fiction Book Club, the satirical The Twelve Chairs, by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, published in Russia in 1928, notes a Soviet directive to the workers: “A brass band is the path to collective creativity.”
For additional background on The Great Flood, read non-academic, journalist historian John M. Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. Despite a too long segment of pages from the Sears Roebuck catalog standing in for the volume of lost middle-class possessions, the back-breaking roots of the King Cotton economy are vividly shown – the pickers (including women and children), the muscular men working “Tote dat barge!/Lift dat bale!” along the river (the score frequently incorporates Showboat’s “Ol’ Man River”)—until the flood that helped destroy it provides another goad, where African-American are seen triumphantly carrying their cultural and religious traditions up north, in the Great Migration (as seen in 2015 MoMA’s One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series).
In Decasia, this Götterdämmerung of old film footage becomes very specific as scenes of Japanese school children and traditionally dressed women are burned into reverse negatives as if one is watching the horrors from the atomic bombs. I’m not sure how long WNYC/WQXR will keep streaming the webcast of the live score conducted by Timothy Weiss.) (2/12/2012/updated 5/15/2015)


Come Back, Africa (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (1/29/2012)

Iraq ‘N’ Roll (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (1/15/2012)

My Song Goes Round The World (revival briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (1/15/2012)

100 Voices: A Journey Home (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (1/15/2012)

Lea and Darija (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (1/15/2012)

Mary Lou (Tamid oto chalom) ( (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (1/15/2012)

It’s About You (1/4/2012) (Notes: Even as he opens his debut film in aw shucks out-of-focus, Markus jokes about being required not to photograph Dylan on the same tour, so he can only describe photo shots he regrets he can’t make as they travel through small towns, cities, and rural America. While Mellencamp’s baptism in the Savannah church seems stagey in the context of the defiant lyrics of “Each Day of Sorrow”, the lyrical references to dealing with the devil are magnified by recording “Right Behind Me” right where Robert Johnson recorded. )

Pina (previewed in 3D at 2011 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (12/19/2011)

The Piano In A Factory (Gang De Qin) (12/4/2011)

Bombay Beach (My additional note.) (10/21/2011)

Andrew Bird: Fever Year (briefly reviewed at 2011 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/11/2011)

George Harrison: Living In The Material World (briefly reviewed at 2011 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/11/2011)

The Weird World Of Blowfly (9/16/2011)

The Perfect Age Of Rock ’N’ Roll (Notes: The Oyster Bay hometown seems to intentionally reference a Billy Joel lyric, and the blues sojourn Aerosmith, let alone imitating John Sayles’ Honeydripper (2007). Fonda’s old flame “Maggie” is played by Kelly Lynch, who seems to have the same music industry past she has on the new edition of TV’s 90210). (8/5/2011)

Small Town Murder Songs (previewed at MoMA's 2011 Canadian Front) (kudos to the rootsy songs of Bruce Peninsula) (Notes: Those dissatisfied with the ambiguous ending of The Killing will like the similar atmosphere and no final doubts. The director was actually inspired by the concept album of a different group, The Fembots, and appropriated much of their title Small Town Murder Scene. With electric guitar speeding up the stirring lamentations, the song score makes the film an indie rock visualization of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' and David Johansen & the Harry Smiths' dark journeys into the dark rural past that is the present.) (7/2/2011)

Passione (Notes: Despite the opening palmas rhythms, there's no further mention of Roma influence. A statue of the city's patron Saint Gennaro is just glimpsed. The melodramatic storytelling is attributed to the different tax rates for singers and actors. The Borgias colorfully shows just how many cultural influences were storming through Naples back in the 12th century alone. Thanks to Cathy Constantino for her insight and input. Wishing each neighborhood had been identified, she also noted the paradox that many of the performers wore a corno, a pre-Christian good luck amulet, along with their crucifixes, to ward off malochio, curses prompted by jealousy or others aimed at a man's sexuality, but was not discussed as a contrasting lyrical element. She thought it odd that wedding songs, and songs about mothers or the sea were missing in the seemingly random selection.) (updated 7/1/2011)

Rejoice And Shout) (Notes: Also explained is how Thomas Dorsey's music publishing acumen, aided by Mahalia Jackson's song plugging in the 1930's, popularized dozens of his compositions into standards, and how Rev. James Cleveland's training workshops professionalized choirs in the 1960's. Roger Ebert has reminded that these aspects were demonstrated in the 1982 documentary Say Amen Somebody.) (updated 7/1/2011)

When The Drum Is Beating (briefly reviewed in Final Roundup of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/13/2011)

Mama Africa (briefly reviewed in Final Roundup of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/13/2011)

Talihina Sky: The Story Of Kings Of Leon (briefly reviewed in Final Roundup of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/13/2011)

God Bless Ozzy Osbourne (briefly reviewed in Final Roundup of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/13/2011)

Hit So Hard: The Life and Near-Death Story of Drummer Patty Schemel (briefly reviewed at 2011 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/25/2011) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.)

Mahler on the Couch (Mahler auf der Couch) (briefly reviewed at 2011 New York Jewish Film Festival of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (1/17/2011)

The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground (briefly reviewed at 2011 New York Jewish Film Festival of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (1/17/2011)

Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (1/5/2011)

Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie (12/8/2010)

Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench (previewed at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (11/5/2010)

Nowhere Boy (10/10/2010)

Bran Nue Dae (9/12/2010) (Notes: A rained-out date at the outdoor cinema--Sun Pictures is known as the world’s oldest picture garden-- both establishes the erstwhile young lovers as star-crossed and the film's ties to the tradition of the movie musical. Choreographer Stephen Page, who has been involved with the show since its developmental workshops, is the Artistic Director of the Bangarra Dance Theatre and uses that same mode of combining Aborigine culture with contemporary dance.)

Le Concert (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (7/27/2010)

The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Phil Spector (6/30/2010)

Raavan (6/21/10)

sex & drugs & rock & roll (briefly reviewed in There's No Business Like the Celebrity Business at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2010) (Notes: The tenth anniversary of his death provides for frank perspective on Dury's aggressive assimilation of punk with eccentric British music hall traditions, conveyed by opening and frequently returning to a reenactment of a concert in a real theater, culminating in his controversial "Spasticus Autisticus" anthem for the U.N.'s 1982 Year of the Disabled.)

Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries: There's No Business Like the Celebrity Business at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.)

Last Play at Shea (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries: There's No Business Like the Celebrity Business at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2010)

Arias With a Twist: The Docufantasy (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries: There's No Business Like the Celebrity Business at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2010)

Nora (briefly reviewed at 2010 New York African Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center and African Film Festival) (seen at MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight – 2010 International Festival of Nonfiction Films) (4/20/2010)

No One Knows About Persian Cats (Kasi Az Gorbehaye Irani Khabar Nadareh) (with My Tehran for Sale seen in Global Lens series) (4/16/2010)

When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors (4/9/2010)

Who Do You Love (4/9/2010)

Neil Young Trunk Show (3/19/2010)

Leonard Cohen Live At The Isle Of Wight 1970 (1/22/2010)

Ne Change Rien (briefly reviewed at 2009 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/9/2009)

Pyaasa (The Thirsty One) (briefly reviewed at 2009 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/9/2009)

Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! (briefly reviewed at 2009 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (9/26/2009)

It Might Get Loud (Notes: In a visual reference to his side career in movies, Jack White is amusingly filmed with a small stand-in for his ten-year-old self, wearing his signature bowler hat, in Jim Jarmusch-like dreamy memories of music.) (8/14/2009)

Soul Power (previewed at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival)) (7/10/2009)

Afghan Star (previewed at the 2009 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/26/2009) [follow-up: Silencing the Song: An Afghan Fallen Star]

Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love (6/12/2009)

Effedià: On My Awful Way (Effedià – Sulla mia cattiva strada) (briefly reviewed at 2009 Open Roads: New Italian Cinema of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (warning: the lyrics are heard and seen only in Italian) (6/5/2009)

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (briefly reviewed in Part 2: The Kids Are Alright at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/4/2009)

Only When I Dance (briefly reviewed at Part 1 Recommendations of 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/26/2009)

Throw Down Your Heart (emendations coming after 10/26/2009) (4/26/2009)

Anvil! The Story Of Anvil (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman) (4/10/2009)

Carmen & Geoffrey (emendations coming after 9/13/2009) (3/13/2009)

Paris 36 (Faubourg 36) (briefly reviewed at 14th Rendez-Vous With French Cinema of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (3/9/2009)

Fados (3/6/2009)

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (emendations coming after 6/17/2009) (12/17/2008)

Dark Streets (Note: also terrific on the soundtrack are singers Marc Broussard and Solomon Burke, Jim Keltner on drums, and Jean Jacques Milteau on harmonica) (12/12/2008)

Anita O’Day: The Life Of A Jazz Singer (8/15/2008)

What We Do Is Secret (8/8/2008) (Bias: I’m a Ramones fan.)

CSNY: Déjá Vu (Connects to their history with “Ohio”) (emendations coming after 1/25/2009) (7/25/2008)

On The Rumba River (emendations coming after 12/13/2008) (6/13/2008)

The Pied Piper Of Hützovina (emendations coming after 11/2/2008) (5/2/2008)

Young@Heart (4/9/2008)

Love Songs (Les Chansons D’amour) (3/21/2008) (Note: At least for half the film, us straight women get to enjoy Louis Garrel being romantic with an age-appropriate woman who is not playing a relative.)

Wetlands Preserved: The Story Of An Activist Rock Club (3/14/2008) (emendations coming after 9/14/2008) (Notes: Thanks to Gordon Nash for his insights and reminiscences. The club is presented as the missing link between the Fillmore and The Bonnaroo Festival.)

The Violin (12/4/2007) Reaction to my review in an interview with the director (emendations coming after 6/28/2008)

65 Revisited (11/28/2007)

War/Dance (emendations coming after 5/9/2008) (11/9/2007)

Control (Note: Curtis had more frequent epileptic fits than are shown here that the band’s road manager had to deal with.) (10/10/2007)

Antônia (Note: Amidst their idealistic hip hop, it’s ironic that they compromise their artistic principles to do a gorgeous version of “Killing Me Softly” for a wedding gig.) (9/21/2007)

Great World Of Sound (9/14/2007) (Note: It includes an alternative national anthem, actually written by scorer David Wingo and co-scripter George Smith: “Some folks they die for songs/It’s how they know that they belong.”)

Romance & Cigarettes (9/10/2007)

El Cantante (8/3/2007)

Talk To Me (7/11/2007) (emendations coming after 1/11/2008)

You’re Gonna Miss Me (7/11/2007) (emendations coming after 1/11/2008)

Vitus (6/28/2007) (emendations coming after 12/28/2007)

Gypsy Caravan: When The Road Bends… (6/15/2007) (emendations coming after 12/15/2007) (Note: Roma music in situ can be seen in Tony Gatlif's joyous Latcho Drom and Eugene Hütz's tour of destitute walled settlements in Pavla Fleischer's The Pied Piper Of Hützovina.) .

Let’s Get Lost (6/8/2007)

The Hip Hop Project (5/1/2007) (emendations coming after 11/11/2007)

Goodbye Momo (A Dios Momo) (4/20/2007) (emendations coming after 10/20/2007) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women)

Favela Rising on DVD (4/4/2007)

Killer of Sheep (4/1/2007) (and DVD extras)

U-Carmen (U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha) (3/23/2007)

Black Snake Moan (3/2/07) (emendations coming after 9/2/2007)

In the Pit (En el hoyo) (2/2/2007)

East of Havana (2/2/2007)

Screamers (1/26/2007)(emendations coming after 7/26/2007)

Reminiscing in Tempo (12/15/2006)

Romántico (10/31/2006)

Devil & Daniel Johnston (scroll down for my capsule review)

A Prairie Home Companion is a sweet adaptation of Garrison Keillor's radio show. Much as director Robert Altman adds his trademark ensemble dialogue touches, it is strictly for fans. I have been one for decades ever since I caught it on the car radio and mistook it for just this kind of old-fashioned radio program that appears like Brigadoon out of the ether from the opening shot of transmission towers as night falls, just as I used to catch variety shows at night on my AM transistor radio, like WWVA's Country Jamboree, that still airs at the same time as Keillor's.
Unlike the show's brief stint on the Disney Channel (satirized effectively on The Simpsons as too cerebral humor for television) or the recent version of some of the same songs and skits from the film on PBS's Great Performances, this is not just a film of the broadcast, which I've seen in person twice (once at its home base as shown here at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul and once on the road in NYC where I remember the participants running around more frantically jsut in time to sound casual on the air), but a tribute to the kind of show that inspired it.
Keillor's own script, not dissimilar in plot to a Muppets movie, has regular characters from his stories appear, with mixed effectiveness, as real people, literally or as types. Though there is only elliptical reference to Lake Woebegone, Kevin Kline is gumshoe "Guy Noir", Virginia Madsen is an angel of intersecting coincidences (with an ironic joke about NPR driveway moments), and Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly are funnier and more musically talented ersatz cowboy duo "Dusty" and "Lefty", respectively, than we usually hear. Instead of Keillor's monologue all at once, we get a running joke of pieces of his drawn-out explanation of how he got started in radio.
Who raises the film to larger interest is Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin playing a sister singing duo. Not only are they magical masters of Altman's overlapping dialog technique as the camera circles around them (such as we briefly saw when they introduced Altman for his Honorary Oscar), but clearly improv around the situation. They spur Lindsay Lohan as Streep's sullen daughter to new heights of interacting with chemistry and singing in character. Streep's sweet and supportive, but not wholly disingenuous, sister and mother is amusingly the opposite of her titular boss in the simultaneously released The Devil Wears Prada, in case we needed more proof of her range as an actress.
The fictional radio show is almost all musical. Unlike the public radio show's more typical Ed Sullivan Show mix of international, jazz, classical or regional music, this more Grand Ole Opry version has a heavy emphasis on red state values inspirational songs. We see usual guests the Hopeful Gospel Quartet with the addition of a Negro spiritual interpreter to add some visual diversity, along with Maya Rudolph with nothing particularly to do as a pregnant stage manager's assistant. We also see the weekly show's past and present regulars from usual back-up band (Andy Stein, Butch Thompson, Pat Donohue, Peter Ostroushko) and sound effects expert Tom Keith. Most of the songs are Keillor's twist on traditional or familiar tunes with modified humorous lyrics, including an acerbic "Frankie and Johnny" by Lohan in updated celebration of the murder ballad.
Even when corny, the humor was gentle (and the trailer gave away most of the best jokes) and the older audience constantly chuckled appreciatively, in a converted multiplex theater much like the Fitzgerald.
Except for an epilogue that doesn't quite jell, the casual action mostly takes place in a back stage stuffed with decades of performance memorabilia that reinforces the sense of place. This is a lovely tribute to the culture of Midwest America. (7/12/2006)


Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man is an entertaining and informative tribute to the iconic singer-songwriter/poet.
Structuring the film as a mostly chronological autobiographical interview with Cohen, director Lian Lunson intersperses his personal family photographs and home movies with cover performances at a Sydney Opera House concert to illustrate themes in his life. While his experiences in New York City have been well-documented to fans, especially in his own songs, the depth of the influence of his Canadian heritage is a new insight. With only a humorous nod to his reputation as a "ladies man" (he sounds like every rock 'n' roller on VH-1 cheerfully admitting that he became a musician to pick up chicks), his spiritual explorations are well explained, including his Jewish background and a visit with his Zen mentor.
Unusual for this adulatory genre, Cohen is articulate about his songwriting as a painstaking craft in general, though only a couple of specific songs that we see intensely performed or the albums they are from are given more context, such as who "Suzanne" was and working with Phil Spector.
Throughout, the performers from Canada, the U.S., England, Ireland and Australia, male, female, straight and gay, discuss his songs and the impact they have had on their lives and art. While it is not mentioned until the very last credit, this 2005 concert is based on a packed 2003 concert in Brooklyn also produced by Hal Willner, as part of the Canadian Consulate's annual Canada Day sponsorship in Prospect Park, under the rubric "Came So Far For Beauty: An Evening of Songs by Leonard Cohen Under the Stars," which featured many of the same performers captured on stage here, including Rufus Wainwright, who relates surprising personal anecdotes about his formative connection with the Cohen family, his sister Martha Wainwright, his mother and aunt Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Nick Cave, the Handsome Family (Brett and Rennie Sparks), Teddy Thompson and his mother Linda Thompson, and Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen who have backed Cohen on his last two tours, with an all-star downtown NYC band led by the horns of Steve Bernstein and the master guitar of Mark Ribot.
Instead of Laurie Andersen at that magical night, added are Jarvis Cocker and Antony Hegarty (known respectively as the leader of the bands Pulp and Antony and the Johnsons, though that's never mentioned in the film) and Beth Orton. The performers are only identified in the opening and closing credits. While the concert footage nicely mixes close-ups and full band shots, it is more than half-way through the film before we hear any audience reaction, and we only see glimpses of the audience towards the end. Added climactically just to the film is Cohen singing with U2 at a small club.
The interviews are all talking heads, with the extensive Cohen conversations focusing on the planes of his face, particularly as the camera gazes at him adoringly during silences, including a lot of freeze frames. There is an annoying repetitive device of blurring with fades in and fades out, and theatrical focus on a back stage scrim of beads, accompanied by odd theremin-like sounds. This reinforces the somewhat cabaret interpretations of several of the performers that would seem more appropriate to a Tom Waits tribute and are very unlike the two tribute albums that have already been produced.
Cohen himself is so charismatic and his rumbling voice is so magisterial that he surmounts the visual gimmicks.(7/12/2006)


Kinky Boots crosses The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert with The Full Monty in combining the flash of entertaining transvestites with the pathos of working class unemployment.
While we don't often get to see factory workers in films these days, let alone factory processes, and this is ostensibly inspired by a true story of a traditional family-owned shoe manufacturer finding a new market (and I have a friend whose almost identical old business went under without finding such new products though Army boots kept it going during the Gulf War), the trajectory of the genial story feels too predictable.
The humor is mostly of the fish-out-of-water variety, whether it's the drag queen in the Midlands or the factory workers in the Cabaret-like club.
But just as the featured James Brown song we hear that the world would be nothing without a woman or a girl, this movie would be nothing without Chiwetel Ejiofor as the drag queen. And in the same year that he played a Detroit gangster in Four Brothers. (Only Cillian Murphy has had a similar character range this same year from Breakfast on Pluto to Red Eye.) Yes, that is truly him singing and dancing up a storm. We get a few flashbacks about a troubled childhood by the sea due to strict paternal expectations, but oddly don't see him in any relationships to explore more his sexual orientation. A nice touch though, regardless, is how his character gains self-esteem in finding something else he is good at. The choreography is better than in Mrs. Henderson Presents and the song selections for his numbers are wonderful, if more fantastical than realistic, especially at the climax, including the flashy medley of "These Boots Were Made for Walkin' / In These Shoes / Cha Cha Heels / Going Back to My Roots / Yes Sir I Can Boogie," plus additional numbers on the sound track, including, over the credits, the original of the late Kirsty MacColl's sardonic "In These Shoes."
Joel Edgerton is a sweetly wistful schmo as the factory scion torn between a new career in London with a fiancée who is less rigidly stereotyped than in most such movies and saving the family business by adapting to a niche market (very similar to the situation in the Scottish series Monarch of the Glen). The factory workers are an entertaining range of personalities, even if their interactions with the drag queens are as expected.
Unfortunately, Julian Jarrold's direction milks non-musical scenes for slow sentimentality, surprising as his background has mostly been in sharp, gritty Brit TV mysteries.
The shoes - and their matching costumes -- are fun. Too bad most of the good jokes were already seen in the trailer. (5/29/2006)


Yang Ban Xi: The 8 Model Works is a fascinating look at the impact of cultural propaganda on the participants, the resisters and the different generations in the audience.
Outside of China, we had heard how Mao Tse Tung's wife, former actress and later labeled as Gang of 4 conspirator Jiang Qing, had been the force behind propaganda presentations, but in the West we had neither gotten to see them nor understood that they were the only performances allowed, both in live theater and as films.
A highlight of this documentary, especially as seen in a theater, is the excerpts in faded Technicolor. Because they are surprisingly good. They did not follow the Soviet Socialist realism style, but rather were inspired by Hollywood. Discounting the silent film style superficial acting, which isn't that different from operatic acting anyway, and the lyrical worship of Mao, the talent on display is enormously appealing, especially the dancing and the instantly earworm melodies that also incorporated musical elements from the Beijing Opera. But it is striking how much they drew on MGM and other musicals; many of the women seem to do identical moves as Cyd Charisse. How different is equating Mao's victories to the glory of the rising sun than that paean to capitalism at the height of the Depression of Ginger Rogers dressed only in a large silver dollar in Golddiggers of 1933 singing "We're in the Money"? And the Democrats used "Happy Days are Here Again" from the 1930 Chasing Rainbows as a theme song for decades. George Orwell had Big Brother's minions create politically correct pop songs in 1984.
While the excerpts are interspersed throughout the documentary, writer/director Yan Ting Yuen, who we hear on screen frequently asking quite pungent questions, does not tell their story just chronologically. We meet people today of various generations and only gradually is it revealed what their direct or ironic connection is to the people and productions of the model works. The people in their '60's range from dancers, conductor, writer to censored (and punished) lyricist to performers of the Beijing Opera who lost their livelihoods when traditional arts were banned. Though not having been able to perform for almost 20 years (we see the impact of the political winds changing again), the dancers' marvelous kinesthetic memories recall the divas in Ballet Russes as they put youngsters to shame in their expressiveness. (One confides to the camera: "They're all so young! I'm 57 and they're 17!" then she outshines them.)
The people in their '30's who are now benefiting from the loosened economy remember the difficulties of the Cultural Revolution nostalgically, as we saw in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Xiao cai feng), including the guys preferring the work where the dancers were wearing shorts, revealing legs usually banned from sight. I was curious if man on the street reactions would have gotten the same musical memories as some interviews that seem staged or if Germans felt the same way about Leni Riefenstahl's films. The horrors of this period are not glossed over, however, as filmed scenes of the violence are included.
The very contemporary teen-agers are the most fun, as we see them pursue their musical and dance interests that would have been banned, from folk lore to rock 'n' roll and disco clubs. Very similar to Jennifer Garner's time traveling reenactment of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" choreography in 13 Going On 30 or Janet Jackson bringing back Cab Calloway in the Simon Temple-directed video for "Alright," the very talented kids stage two reinterpretations of the model works that are enchanting, even though they are quite obviously done only for this film.
This staginess also intrudes in having a fictionalized silhouette and voice of Jiang Qing explain her purposes. While we are used to having actors take on the voices of famous people from Ken Burns' documentaries, these are not exact quotes but loosely based on information from Ross Burrill's biography Madame Mao: The White-Boned Demon. This weakness is accented when we finally do see the dragon lady herself in a very brief video at her trial where she's even more formidable than fictionalized. Has no other audio or video of her survived?
Though an effort is made for the English subtitles to be legible, the thin yellow lettering is frequently unreadable against pale backgrounds. Some words seem quizzically translated.
What a shame that though this was being shown just down Houston Street from Chinatown at NYC's Film Forum there were no Chinese-Americans in the audience among the handful at a matinée. (4/10/2006)(Here's the names of the 8 works: Red Woman’s Detachment -- relates to The Red Detachment of Women/Hong se niang zi jun, briefly reviewed at 2009 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center; The White Haired Girl; Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy; Raid on the White Tiger Regiment (aka Sweeping the White Tiger Regiment); The Legend of the Red Lantern; Shajiabang; The Harbor; The Azalea Mountain; Song of the Dragon River; The Warfare on the Plain; Panshiwan; Song of the Yimeng Mountain; The Brother and Sister on the Prairie) (updated 9/26/2009)


Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School is a slow paced, but sweetly charming and amusing film.
It is like a Mad Hot Ballroom for grown-ups, crossed with the period feel of The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio and some of the nostalgia wallowing of Mrs. Henderson Presents.
Extended from a 1990 short film by co-writer/director Randall Miller, much is made that it takes place in 2005 but each of the three periods that are stories within stories has a different cinematographic tint, blue for the opening situation, yellow for 1962 (that are actually from the original film) and color for moving forward.
But the small matinée audience responded with warm chuckles to the humor and poignancy, especially for the flashbacks to twelve year olds that wonderfully captures boys and girls. (Recreating boys' junior war games was particularly effective).
While these are all non-dancing actors, with, unusually, no ringers in sight, the choreography is pretty lame and there’s very little real dance step learning that goes on, and I don’t even watch Dancing with the Stars though this should appeal to those fans. But this is not about the serious amateurs like in Roseland. This is much more about human behavior than dance steps as the Misses Hotchkiss seem to accidentally work a lot like Nanny McPhee.
The large ensemble of recognizable actors is enjoying mostly playing against type, such as Robert Carlyle as an almost monosyllabic baker (like Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck) compared to his usual motor mouth, even as the script manages to finesse his accent; Marisa Tomei as a shy wallflower (there’s a leg here at issue rather than the arm in Moonstruck); Mary Steenburgen as a robotic emcee; Camryn Manheim in a vivid cameo; Donnie Wahlberg as an ineffectual Lord of the Dance (with a joke that “he’s not even Irish”) as several others also play against their usual ethnics). Some of the characters, though, are a bit one-note, such as an exaggeratedly lascivious Sonia Braga and a weepy widower. John Goodman does have the longest wounded monologue scene outside most opera and Shakespeare, but that happens frequently on E.R. as well.
The now grown-up kid from the original film has a small role as Carlyle's co-worker, and it's not far-fetched that we could be seeing that in his imagination.
The opening rendition of "Over the Rainbow" (I couldn't catch if it was by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole or covered in his style) has been way over-used in too many films, but the arrangements of dance music and the musical period selections are fresh.
While the outline of the film is predictable, as each person faces their grief, guilt or other family issues and brightens through dancing and human contact, it is overall a lovely and heart warming film. (4/5/2006)


Neil Young: Heart of Gold is a lovely companion to his latest album Prairie Wind, providing insight into both his life changes and the influences that led to its recording.
The opening pilgrimage to the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the former home of the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts, has been used in many films, including Walk the Line, with the same shots of some of the same musical touchstones, Hank Williams, etc. And we met Young's band Crazy Horse, in more detail, in Jim Jarmusch's Year of the Horse, that documented their years of touring as a jammin' rock 'n' roll band up through 1997; here we get only a very brief introduction as they arrive, and we don't even meet everyone who will be on stage.
But we learn quite matter-of-factly that the album was recorded at the time Young was diagnosed with a brain aneurism and he wasn't sure he would survive the surgery. So this smoothly spliced documentation of two special concerts after the surgery emphasizes his appreciation for music, life and family love that infuse the lyrics even more passionately than on disc. Like the album, the film is dedicated to his father, who passed away shortly before the filming.
Director Jonathan Demme has staged the concerts in a formally conceptual tribute to the Opry. As we hear but do not see the audience throughout, each song is introduced by a different painted scrim of a Western scene behind the performers, reinforced by Ellen Kuras's gorgeous cinematography and lighting, the first act with a gold "harvest moon" hue (a recurring imagery in Young's songs over many albums) and the second with a blue, sunset tinge. Everyone we see fits into the background with wonderful Western-inspired outfits, demonstrating the gloriously distinctive work of Manuel. (From the official web site: "Equally key to the dream-mood of the film's look are the original costumes created by Nashville's legendary artist/designer Manuel for every person seen on stage, including Neil Young's technical crew. Manuel conceived costumes that were both period and timeless. . .") The instrumentation evokes a range of Americana and gospel music with voice and singing styles, guitars, banjo, fiddles/violins, harmonica and autoharp.
Unlike Young's own Greendale that approached conceptualizing his songs by explicitly acting out the lyrics, the words here actually have more impact, reinforced by effective close-ups, as the influences on Young's life and music are there on the stage with him. He is joined by family (his wife Pegi Young), and long time band mates, as well as frequent past collaborators, from the many individually added players to the Memphis Horns, Emmy Lou Harris, noted singer/songwriter Spooner Oldham and the Fisk University Singers, for a selection of songs (though not all of them) from Prairie Wind that reflect on his childhood in Canada, his faith, his daughter, wife, father, Willie Nelson and Hank.
Unfortunately, the second act, with a change to more country-ish costumes, does not quite pack the emotional wallop as the first, as he picks out popular hits from his past albums that fit the theme. Particularly annoying is how Pegi Young overwhelms the angelic harmony of Harris such that she literally seems to be moving her lips with no sound coming out, particularly as she sings so beautifully on the album. (The apparent tension between the two of them reminded me of Patti LaBelle and Joan Baez unequally sharing a microphone at the climax of the first Live Aid concert.) The credits list many, many re-mixers at work so one wonders who dialed her contribution out of the final mix.
But the concluding "Four Strong Winds", with one of Young's few introductions during the film (in addition to the background on "This Old Guitar"), as he explains his fondness for songwriter Ian Tyson and the Canadian memories this classic stirs, ratchets up the sentiment. Similarly, the rendition here of "Old Man" is strikingly different from the one Jarmusch captured, movingly incorporating Young's recent experiences.
Without seeing this beautiful film, I wouldn't have realized that Prairie Wind is as much a concept album as Green Day's American Idiot. This film is an important documentation of a significant artist who has absorbed the heritage of North America's music to create a major body of work that looks both to the past and the future. (4/5/2006)


John Trudell is such a charismatic man, with such a dramatic adult life story and articulate passion in word and song that the documentary Trudell is fascinating despite the frustrating limitations in the film.
While Trudell's early biography is very briefly covered in the first five minutes, the writing/directing team of Russell Friedenberg and Heather Rae are at their best throughout in uncovering a broad range of period news coverage, video and film, from U.S. and international sources, home collections, and more, from news events to interviews to rallies to performances.
While the bare, contextual historical documentation of the 1960's and 1970's was probably limited by the budget, as it includes many stock stereotyped shots, including old Hollywood images of Indians, what comes across strongly is how consistent Trudell has been throughout his life as a forceful spokesman for Native American rights and related environmental stewardship. How many baby boomers or older could appear next to old footage of themselves and appear so consistent, visually and politically and still an activist?
As someone who became more aware of Trudell's contributions through his music (and I still haven't seen either Michael Apted's documentary Incident at Oglala, which is excerpted in this film, or his fictionalized adaptation Thunderheart in which Trudell also appeared and its star Val Kilmer is quoted here), the film is very frustrating in passing over his art, except as therapy in getting over politically tainted tragedies. The film particularly neglects how his songs extend beyond narrow issues to the broader culture, such as his classic "Baby Boom Che" which metaphorizes enlisting in Elvis's Army, an influence that does not come across in the film. We only see a verse or two of mostly political songs, as well as a lovely romantic remembrance of his late wife and not even one full concert performance, some with annoying music video pretensions. We get more banal, predictable endorsements from musicians like Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and an Indigo Girl than actually hearing his music. His combination of rock with native cultural percussion and vocalization is covered, though not how this has influenced the growing bands of rez rockers. The closing song over the credits is Kris Kristofferson's song about Trudell.
What we do get extensively is Trudell's overarching philosophy. While he is eloquent, he does talk in whole paragraphs, so I can understand why artsy images are inserted during his long monologues. The last time I heard a similar brilliant environmentalist speak so extensively extemporaneously with such a three-dimensional ideology that encompassed everything was R. Buckminster Fuller who could also talk for hours at a time.
The more recent biographical elements of a healing life and second family in Canada were very confusing factually, as I wasn't clear of the relation of some of the family members interviewed.
I would have liked for the film to include Native American issues in the post-casino corruption world. The film does include natural resources exploitation issues and we get some hints of conservative tribal elders vs. activists but not much.
I wasn't able to get in to see the film at the Tribeca Film Festival, so appreciated being among the few at a matinee screening during its one week commercial run in NYC. (3/15/2006)


It's too bad that the sweet little Doing Time For Patsy Cline only finally got commercial release in the U.S. in 2006, because its premise has gotten a bit dated in a post-Keith Urban/Jamie O'Neal world where Aussies have now taken Nashville by storm. It's not that crazy a fantasy for a kid to dream of getting from the bush to Music City.
The structure of the film musically turns around two parallel road movies, one a picaresque tour of the back roads of a northern New South Wales peopled with eccentric characters, and the other a fantasy Wizard of Oz-like imagining them all as alter-egos seeking fame and fortune in country music, intentionally mimicking Johnny Cash's bio (as later more seriously filmed in Walk the Line).
The fantasy scenes are amusing satires of country music's rags to riches stereotypes of singers, managers and performances. But even the reality scenes are amusing satires of country bumpkins vs. Sydney sophisticates, salt of the earth station families vs. drug dealers. The prison blues jokes do get a bit repetitive as the film goes on a bit too long in going through every jail and jail music cliché.
Matt Day is personable and cute as "Ralph", the central kid with a guitar, a song and a dream, and his dreams are adorable. But the film is pretty much stolen by the scheming couple who pick him up as a hitchhiker, particularly motormouth Richard Roxburgh as "Boyd" who gets surprisingly more appealing and human as the film goes on. Miranda Otto as the object of their affections does Marilyn Monroe-like wide-eyed sexy yet somehow innocent very nicely, and has a surprisingly nice singing voice.
The song selections are a lovely mix of originals by the other Peter Best, covers of country classics and non-commercial country selections, such as by Emmy Lou Harris.
This film is like a country version of Rock Follies, the British miniseries that satirized rock 'n ' roll fantasies. (3/13/2006)


If Candide had been born a trannie Irishman from the 1960's through Thacherite England, he would be Cillian Murphy in Breakfast on Pluto.
Neil Jordan draws on several genres to create an original view point of politics, music and human relationships -- takes on "the troubles" from Bloody Sunday and Jim Sheridan's films; the cultural changes in the period like Milos Forman's Hair and Forest Gump; drag queens from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and The Naked Civil Servant and the gender-bending combination in his own The Crying Game.
But the story, direction and most of all the central performance create a complete person at a specific time that has renewed contemporary relevance. Whereas Felicity Huffman's transsexual in Transamerica just wants to disappear into normalness, Murphy's "Patrick/Kitten Braden" eschews the frequent importuning to be serious and wants from childhood to live his fantasies to make them real despite a world demanding either/or, with us or against us. This is the first film I can think of with no revelation of childhood sexual abuse for such a character, but rather an orphan's lack of parental love from birth.
Jordan marvelously pulls off the trick of seamlessly integrating for the viewer the gritty, tumultuous reality with "Kitten"s amusing talent for turning a sordid life into the best of all possible worlds as a romantic musical romantic fantasy. We see this world both from "Kitten"s perspective, complete with talking robins and sardonic autobiographical chapter headings that I presume were carried over from Pat McCabe's novel, as he co-wrote the script, and the reactions of friends and enemies, as "Patrick/Kitten" goes from the frying pan into the fire (perhaps too many times) amidst political, cultural and violent turmoil.
One of the continuing themes is no matter what worlds "Kitten" picaresquely glides through, from a small town to Dublin to rock 'n' roll to IRA fighters to cops to nightclubs to London streets and more, homophobia trumps every other hatred that any one has for any other person, place, thing, religion or philosophy. This is adroitly illustrated when "Kitten" becomes enamored of a glam rock bar band, led by a charismatic Gavin Friday, and pushes the boundaries of that gender-bending performance art too far for straight guys' comfort. Rocker Bryan Ferry also has a small, but non-musical role, as one of a string of many, many older men, some down right creepy, attracted to "Kitten" for good or ill in a distorted Oedipal mirror.
While "Kitten" doesn't actually say she is dependent on the kindness of strangers, it is a relief when now and again friends rescue her when she seems incapable of either common sense or self-esteem. Occasionally, "Kitten" does display some perspicacity and even maturity to reveal sanity and intelligence, as well as considerable artistic creativity, behind those wide-eyed baby blues, such as when she explains the layers of meaning behind the title and a pro-life theology that embraces all differences to find family, as well as finally dealing with parent issues.
Murphy's performance is simply astounding. I've used gendered pronouns to indicate when the charming hunk from Girl With Pearl Earring or interMission or Red Eye completely becomes a woman throughout his body, no matter the camera angles, like no other straight male actor before has ever become a male to female transsexual on screen (Lee Pace's performance in A Soldier's Girl is the closest comparison). "Kitten" can be annoying, but she is always a real person, not a guy in drag.
The supporting cast is wonderfully atmospheric, particularly the lesser-known players Ruth Negga and Laurence Kinlan as "Kitten"s life-long friends and Ian Hart as an aggressive cop turned protector.
The Brit and Irish pop music selections on the soundtrack are brilliant. About half are unfamiliar to American audiences, including cover versions of others' hits. The songs are perfectly selected for either lyrics or period evocation or rhythm or emotion, such as two Van Morrison tunes ("Madame George" and "Cypress Avenue"), for additional commentary on the action. It's hard not to hum along.
A warning to American audiences that the Irish brogues are quite thick; I'd welcome seeing the film with not just the robins subtitled. This is exacerbated by Murphy's adopted feminine voice and swallowed cadence, which not only can get irritating, but seemed under-miked or not post-dubbed. I sympathized when cops were trying to shake him out of these mannerisms.
The extremely long credits at the end would seem to indicate some union feather bedding in exchange for the location shooting financial benefits. (12/30/2005)


Ballet Russes is entrancing.
I am not particularly a ballet fan. I had a few lessons as a six year old, basically enough to vaguely remember there are five basic positions. Though one of my favorite memories is seeing Rodeo at the old Metropolitan Opera just before its demolition, I usually find both classical ballet and its bun heads to be boring. I was certainly never able to keep straight in my head the names and places of ballet's 20th century history. I did once take a wrong turn at a summer job at the new Met and froze when I found myself next to Dame Margot Fonteyn as she was warming up alone for a rehearsal. I did drag the family to the NYC Ballet's Nutcracker.
But until I saw them talking so personably, other legends like Alicia Markova, Maria Tallchief, let alone the endless Russians, were just names to me. This documentary is cultural history made fascinating by entertaining raconteurs and amazing illustrative archival footage. Creators Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine have made the best use of talking heads since Warren Beatty's Reds.
The word diva is never used, but these are grande dames and gentlemen, in their '80's and '90's, still with erect posture and various accents from around the world, who have commanded the world's stages with an expression and a hand motion, let alone a lifted leg, and know how to put across an anecdote, especially when talking about larger than life, legendary personalities. (We hear from a few corps members in a round-up towards the end.) With deft and sprightly editing, each point an interviewee makes is supported with illustrative photographs or incredible archival film or ephemera documentation, with beautiful music of course. A past world is literally conjured up for us.
Starting at the dissolution of the Diaghilev company that rocked the worlds of dance, music, art, theater and polite society, the film primarily takes a chronological route. From the Russian emigre community of Paris in the 1920's (what James Hilton novels refer to as "White Russians"), we are introduced, Mikado-like, to three little girls at school. We get glimpses of ballet mistresses recreating the Russian dance conservatories of their youths and are transported to the birth of a company built on this first generation of a new European life.
With only a frisson of gossip and cattiness, the emphasis is on the styles and personalities of each dancer, manager, choreographer, designer, chaperoning mother and impresario over 40 years of astonishingly creative artistry amidst sturm und drang. There's a lovely anecdote of two prima ballerinas battling for the attention of a young protege from each side of the stage during performances. Another regal prima ballerina recalls facts of another's fame, then after what feels like a full minute of silence, lifts an eyebrow and dryly turns from the camera, saying "Of course, I was really the first." There's shades of Citizen Kane in remembrances of an infatuated manager pushing forward a young corps dancer as a star.
From amusing to poignant, real world politics off the stage only occasionally crosses their consciousness, when the story deals with World War II, with great anecdotes of escaping Paris before it fell and trying to convince the strict dance masters that rehearsals weren't possible when they were all sea sick nervous wrecks, and moving accounts of racism during their tours.
Men are some of the most eloquent and voluble interviewees, with the point made how long time artistic director Léonide Massine particularly created ballets for male dancers. The film reinforces my biases against George Balanchine, who was affiliated with the company a couple of times, for his misogyny in insisting that the ideal image of women is like anorexic, pre-pubescent boys.
The filmmakers are a bit too uncritical, only occasionally allowing in shots of reviewers' pans. Much is made of some dancers' war time Hollywood sojourn, but no distinction is made between corny clap trap and 7 Brides for 7 Brothers, one of the all time great movie musicals, though the footage from the former is rarer and they can assume we've seen the latter. While there's no mention of how they must have influenced Gene Kelly, much is made of the impact the company's tours had in small towns and cities, bringing ballet for the first time around the United States.
While some of the footage of a 2000 reunion goes on a bit too much in showing the elderly dancers trying to recreate their glory days, slipping into Russian arguments about steps, it does demonstrate how much of choreography is kinesthetic memory and can only be transmitted person to person. This is reinforced as we see them now as dance teachers in a disapora around the world - from Denmark to Australia to South America to Arizona -- and one noting that while today's dancers are better athletes and technicians "They have no warmth!" as she firmly corrects them -- just as the original Russian teachers did so long ago in Paris.
As is ironically sung in A Chorus Line, "Everything is beautiful at the ballet." This film is a beautiful statement that dance doesn't have to be evanescent - it can be passed on. It lives in these dancers' memories and we should be very grateful that they have been captured in this film. (12/17/2005)


In Rent, director Christopher Columbus does a good job of making a Hollywood-type NYC 1989 that would exist on a parallel continuum with the 1960's NYC of West Side Story and the 1970's NYC of Milos Forman's Hair. Blending sets and outdoor scenes, this Lower East Side seems more like the post-apocalypse Detroit of Land of the Dead than the real Alphabet City, but I'm sure La Boheme had the same relationship with the real Paris. A shot of the World Trade Center reminds us that this is pre-9/11.
At least the script does clearly establish these characters' voluntary poverty as struggling artists and/or addicts who are refugees from suburbia, eschew day jobs, and live and work in high rise enormous spaces with long vistas.
The big plus of the film is the engaging cast, most of whom recreate their theatrical roles. Particularly outstanding voice-wise is Tracie Thoms, though she only gets to break out in a couple of scenes. Wilson Jermaine Heredia in the even smaller role of "Angel" also shines in song and dance. I hope Jesse L. Martin doesn't get straight laced into Law and Order forever as he is a very appealing song and dance man. As a newcomer to the production, Rosario Dawson is outstanding as "Mimi," more charismatically confident than when I saw her this summer at Shakespeare in Central Park in the Two Gentleman of Verona musical and that she only got to briefly show fiercely in Alexander. Sarah Silverman has a funny cameo.
While I haven't seen the Broadway production as the songs I've heard over the years struck me as pleasant pop more than rock, the arrangements here weakened their impact even more and undercut the energy of the performers. A couple of the songs are just restlessly weak (particularly Idina Menzel's performance artist piece), but several of the songs have real zest, such as the opener, "The Tango Maureen" and "La Vie Boheme," which has silly lyrics. The operetta-like recitatives did not come across as well. While the camera work keeps circling around the characters to try and keep the momentum going, some parts just drag and could be more tightly edited.
The deaths are commendably far more realistic than most musicals where characters die of Movie Star Disease, as AIDS here is real issue, though one character's seeming resurrection is consequently a bit surprising.(12/17/2005)


Walk the Line is enthralling from the opening scene as it makes clear this is a bio pic equally of sound and sight.
We are aware of a strong rhythm as we're told a signature date and and place in musical history -- Folsom Prison 1968 -- and only leisurely is the source of that gradually increasing rumbling beat identified. Just as we are anticipating a standard performance recreation, the gray of prison shifts suddenly to a flashback of the wide open spaces of childhood memories that are not as sunny as the sky.
Director James Mangold in obviously close partnership with musical supervisor T. Bone Burnett ties the intertwined, riveting stories of Johnny Cash and June Carter very much to their roots in Americana music at mid-twentieth century, capturing the interplay of music, period life on the road and feelings closer to Almost Famous than Ray which focused separately on artistic vision and life's ups and downs, though both evoke the importance of southern atmosphere. The tense dramatic scenes are silent on the soundtrack, completely enthralling the audience, so that the music emphasis is on music-related scenes.
The detail on music authenticity is marvelous, both in the background selections, like Wanda Jackson, and the foreground re-enactments, as Burnett has done so well from O Brother Where Art Thou? to Cold Mountain, but the film doesn't patronize to explain the historical significance to un-musically knowledgeable audience members as it's more personal here. So it's just background mise en scene that we see Johnny the child drawn to listen to the Carter family on the Grand Ole Opry radio show, as we hear June the child introduced, when his family finds even those icons of traditionalism too far astray from gospel music. Later we see him take in the black and white sounds and rhythms of post-war Memphis, drawing him to legendary Sun Studios. Though Dallas Roberts' portrayal of Sam Phillips seems a bit too bland, at least compared to how charismatic the legendary producer seemed in later interviews (let alone Rip Torn doing a similar character in 40 Shades of Blue), we are gradually brought into the ferment of the rockabilly nexus that revolutionized popular music -- Jerry Lee Lewis (engagingly captured by Waylon Payne, from that signature tinkling of the 88s to the "killer" personality); young Elvis (Tyler Hilton doing one of the mildest of the interpretations on film); and Roy Orbison (Johnathan Rice capturing his look but not quite his sound, as unfortunately Chris Isaak is probably too old now to portray the young Roy), though we don't see Johnny Holiday's Carl Perkins much.
June is a critical musical link for them all from country to rock 'n' roll and the burgeoning folk scene. Her important linkage from the traditional Carter family to rock to Dylan is beautifully, albeit quite briefly, encapsulated through a wonderful segue of Reese Witherspoon herself with an auto-harp singing "Wildwood Flower" as "My mama's favorite song" into a duet with Joaquin Phoenix singing as Cash on Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe," with its lyrics particularly ironic for the duo. These connections become even more personally significant as Mother Maybelle is shown as a key forgiving and steadfast rock in both their lives. Details such as Cash's move from Sun to Columbia are just indicated visually in passing, while fans will finally now get straight how their children Carlene Carter and Roseanne Cash are step-sisters, as the guilt over their family responsibilities are a major plot point.
The love story on stage is as dramatic as its off stage progression, even though we know how it'll eventually end, especially when June tries to limit their interactions to when they click musically. Witherspoon is breathtaking at capturing the complexity of June's life-- the comedy, that we of course know the actress is a smooth pro at, as June explains how she developed the comic persona in the family business to insecurely stand out compared to the musical talent she was surrounded by, as well as the tightly wound, uber polite professionalism of someone who's been on the road since childhood such that she can more than hold her own on tour with these raunchy, macho guys like traveling salesmen. But the depths of June's hurts from fans and family pressures that Witherspoon portrays, the sensuality of the romance and close friendship, and especially the magic she creates on stage with Joaquin Phoenix in the many combustible on-stage performances are new revelations to us of her talent.
All this would be of illustrative interest to music fans if it weren't for Phoenix's intense performance. We see the influences come together that make up his guilt and rebellion that he incorporated into his songs. But the camera seems to restlessly move when it's not focused on him, as he powerfully draws the audience in from the first shot of him back stage at the prison. He is not just physically being another person -- not just living in Cash's skin in a dead-on capturing of body language and even an extremely close approximation of that voice-- but this is as much a psychological portrait as well. It's spooky this year with Philip Seymour Hoffman channeling Capote and David Straithairn doing Edward Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck, but Phoenix goes beyond those recreations to an intensity of capturing the subject's inner life. He'll surely earn the Best Actor for the Golden Globes comedy/musical category.
The camera work and cinematography are beautiful. While the many southern locations are used very atmospherically, each scene has a different cast of sharpness and color, from period brown to the grays of prison to the green of peace.
Shooter Jennings too briefly captures his dad Waylon completely. Shelby Lynne is marvelous as momma Cash singing gospel in the cotton fields. Robert Patrick is a bit stiffly one-note as Cash's father.
At the packed opening weekend matinee with a multi-ethnic and multi-racial audience of all ages of adults as the kids and teens were at the new Harry Potter, the audience was so intently involved in the dramatic scenes that they ganged up on the couple in back of me who kept taking phone calls in some foreign language such that at the third call they successfully yelled at them to leave. (11/23/2005)


40 Shades of Blue updates Tennesse Williams and puts his archtypal characters into the Memphis music scene. Rip Torn is like Big Daddy, here a legendary music producer (as bolstered by taking fictional credit for the classic soul songs of Bert Berns with local color provided by musical luminaries such as Jim Dickinson and Sid Selvidge) and his mannerisms recall Sam Phillips. As his son, Darren Burrows, in a hunky and magnetic return to public consciousness since TV's Northern Exposure, recalls Brick, though here his brooding is Oedipal. Dina Korzun is a trophy girlfriend who depends on the kindness of strangers.
In a mirror image of Laurel Canyon, which also brought a prodigal son home to a legendary music producer parent with a younger lover, co-writer/director Ira Sachs well creates believable strained family interactions. All three interact so sweetly with the lovely young son, that it becomes clear what warmth is missing among the adults. The production design and use of Memphis locales reinforce an industry town where Torn's "Alan James" is well-known, and a lived-in house that includes photos and portraits on the living room wall. We also see that cohort impresarios (whose music is actually passe these days in Memphis, as shown in Hustle & Flow) are mostly surrounded by much younger women.
Korzun's trophy girlfriend "Laura" is the most problemmatical, but it's not clear if it's the script or her acting. Sometimes she is clearly in Lost in Translation mode, as a Russian who has no connection to Memphis music and nothing to say to the people surrounding Torn and vice versa. Sometimes her teen age babysitter has more gumption and insight than she does. The other characters are constantly asking her how she's doing and she gives a different lie each time. Other times she can speak forthrightly and stand up for her opinions, as when she insists to a friend that the father and son do not share looks or characteristics, or acknowledging that she is living better than anyone from her home. From the opening scene of her shopping in the cosmetics section of a department store as symbols of her putting on her game face, her character seems to be Sphinx-like, but Korzun does create a sympathetic portrait of a confused, trapped bird and your heart does go out to her poignant efforts to be her own woman.
The film seems to build toward a confrontation that almost happens but doesn't quite, though that might mean that the characters have made a decision about their lives, as the son chooses not to be like his father, after several scenes where he did seem to be imitating his behavior. The lack of a climax may be realistic, but it doesn't make for effective drama. (9/30/2005)


Corpse Bride is one of the best animated musicals since Beauty and the Beast. Danny Elfman is co-creative force with director Tim Burton, as the delightful songs, music and piano playing courtships match the distinctive ensemble of characters. There are no schmaltzy Disney ballads as the songs, sung by the character ensemble, help to reinforce plot and character points. While the songs aren't classics, they are hummable. With a few more additions, Elfman could turn it into a theatrical production.
Each character has delightfully exaggerated features (who didn't want to cut Johnny Depps's drooping forelock off during the Academy Awards?). The crowded Victoriana setting is as fraught with visual possibilities as Howl's Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro) and Hogwarts in Harry Potter. The colorscape is almost all moon-lit black, gray and blue.
The film is charming and funny from the opening through its smidgen too long 76 minutes (though I didn't stay through the credits). The stream of visual jokes and one-liners may go over kids' heads, such as the head waiter. The tributes to old movies also come fast and furious, from the Harryhausen piano to The Gone With the Wind satire, the Heckle and Jeckle dream sequence from Dumbo, "Barkis Bittern" seems to look a lot like an older "Gaston" from Beauty or maybe "Dudly Do-Right," and more. The Peter Lorre-imitating maggot was a bit much. This isn't the first time we've seen dem bones dance around in animation but this is once again with a lot of feeling.
Christopher Lee voices the minister marvelously and Helena Bonham Carter enlivens the title character.
What's particularly lovely is that none of the characters are really nasty and the magical romantic triangle is resolved with no cruelty. (9/28/2005)


Music from the Inside Out is a sympathetic look at what makes symphony orchestra musicians do what they do.
However, it is less successful at its purported, self-congratulatory goal of exploring the wider mysteries of music and music-making through their narrow artistic experiences.
The film makes an effort at showing that not all the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra are former child prodigies from elitist homes suffused in dead white men's high culture and long hours of rigorous practice that isolates them from the soundtrack of their peers' lives and practically sounds like child abuse. Ironically, that seems who was mostly in the New York audience as they learned more from a few of the musicians' personal forays into jazz, Latin, bluegrass, Arab modalities and contemporary music than from the standard, repetitive descriptions (and violist jokes). In group discussions many of the ethnically diverse musicians make generalized somewhat smug comments about their reactions, motivations and expectations about music that extrapolates from Brahms that are wincible to fans of, say, blues and jam band improvisers or songwriters, let alone music from around the world. (At least the film includes a few minutes of Stravinsky to counter some of their comments.) It is not clear why the musicians who enjoy these avocational experiences chose high culture as their career instead, such as the percussionist who was turned on to his instrument by the Beatles.
The many scenes of following the orchestra on a world tour only paid two interest dividends: watching the musicians enraptured by a street accordionist in Europe interpreting Vivaldi and when they explored native instruments in China which they then learned to incorporate with a Tan Dun composition back in the States, an interaction we see far too briefly. We also very briefly see an arts education class, but the kids ham for the cameras.
The last quarter of the film is the least illuminating and drags, as all these talented, articulate folks submerge their individuality into a rehearsal and performance. I was surprised that there was only a brief look at chamber music, as that would have provided a discussion of the difference in the dynamic of personal interactions and self-expression without a conductor. A symphony musician of my aquaintance commented that he appreciated that the film focused on the players and not on the conductor, as most documentaries do.
The film successfully preaches to the already converted who subscribe to the usual symphony series canon.(9/22/2005)


Mad Hot Ballroom is a valentine to New York City public school kids.
As a parent of such kids, I immediately fell in love with the film and that was even before three-quarters through "some school in Queens" in the ballroom dancing competition turned out to be my neighborhood school five blocks away (though my younger son only attended it for three kindergarten days 16 years ago before I switched him to a school where he wasn't the only kid in his class speaking English) -- no wonder the film played at my neighborhood art house for six weeks.
In a school system starved for arts education, particularly music and dance--whereas in my NJ suburban school our winter gym classes were traditional square dancing, my older son's school only had an annual dance festival consisting of a couple of mostly simplified folk dance routines-- the film also salutes the young and the experienced, dedicated teachers and principals who get swept up in their students' progress and the competition (though their self-serving claims of how the dancing transformed specific "at-risk" kids has to be taken with some grains of salt as we see only tiny evocations and parent reactions to back-up such dramatic changes).
What the film does beautifully is demonstrate the glorious diversity of our public schools, by race--with all shades of white, black, Asian, and Hispanic-- class, national origin and language, with the schools serving now as the melting pot cauldron they did for immigrants and native-born kids a hundred years ago. The specific ballroom dances selected for the competition that have entered the American popular culture pantheon for social occasions dovetail nicely with the kids' sense of national pride as well -- the merengue from the Dominican Republic; the rhumba from Cuba; the pop-based foxtrot; and swing that grew out of African-American traditions. The sexualized aspect of moving their bodies "downstairs" is certainly far less than they get from MTV and is presented as a formal choreography.
While the kids comfortably express their thoughts in front of the cameras --they are just at the age before embarrassment and insecurities take over--about the opposite sex, their families, their futures and their neighborhoods, most of the social and political issues about public education are inferred indirectly. At the Washington Heights school where most of the kids are from the Dominican Republic, the case for bilingual education and the importance of having role models from the same culture is reinforced as the principal and the male dance teacher move easily back and forth between Spanish and English like the kids, which is particularly helpful for drawing out more recent immigrants (or because, as a friend of mine who teaches in the neighborhood says local tradition has the kids going back and forth to the island frequently).
The film spends most of its time in this Upper Manhattan neighborhood (pulling your heart strings to root for them over all the other teams), from the visuals of the housing, families, merchants, statistics about poverty and casual commentary on drug dealing, much more than the school in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn that we quickly have to perceive as working class, and Tribeca in Lower Manhattan, with its scarily articulate middle class kids (though we are told for some sympathy that the program started in that school partly as a morale booster after they were finally able to return to their school post-9/11 and we see them move on to band practice). All three schools, as well as my Forest Hills, Queens school which is included even more superficially, are shown as racially diverse. The lack of more context would probably be confusing for non-New Yorkers or long-time expatriates who aren't up on the current diversity of the city's neighborhoods.
In addition to the usual bromides about discipline and etiquette as a justification for the program, the class and gender issues about dance education as an expression for talent and opening up horizons vs. as a competition are dealt with very well. As the parent of two very active public school debaters, which also is structured as individual achievement within a mutually reinforcing team format, I do see that competition keeps boys involved in a non-athletic activity focused.
For all the sturm und drang from the losers ("We did everything we were told to do!") and their emotional teacher, it is useful that the film carries through to the finals, as it is striking when we see the best kids, to let talent and hard work shine (we saw the winners put in hours of extra after-school practice time). While there's another fleeting touching moment as we see them come out of the subway to walk past Ground Zero to get to the World Financial Center, the filmmakers wisely resist interviewing the noted judges there, including choreographers Ann Reinking and Graciela Daniele, for what would probably be platitudes.
Stay through the final credits and cute song, as not only do the filmmakers graciously acknowledge everyone involved in the program and on screen, the kids' discussions charmingly continue. (8/18/2005)
As the film became what the producers said was the highest grossing doc of the year about humans, it entered popular culture reference points: You can do anything. You just have to believe in yourself. Have we learned nothing from Mad Hot Ballroom?'' said by Logan (Matt Czuchry) on Gilmore Girls episode "Always A Godmother, Never A God" by producer Rebecca Rand Kirshner on 10/4/2005.


9 Songs asks the rhetorical question: "If a guy is stuck in Antarctica, what will he be thinking about that he misses?"
Answer: "1. Sex. 2. Rock 'n' roll. 3. Food 4. Getting high. 5. Pre and post-coital cuddling."
His stream of consciousness is set off by musing something like "in Antarctica you feel both claustrophobic and agoraphobic--like when two people are in bed." The film is in effect a young British scientist's visual mix tape of memories of an affair he had with a "crazy" American woman. Framed by mostly rock performances they saw together, whose lyrics may have some narrative resonance, at least the second one by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club does, we only see the relationship from his point of view, where it didn't much matter if they went on holiday to the seashore or celebrated his birthday at a hotel, as he remembers they pretty much only shared sex-- joyful, thumping, experimental, mutually pleasurable, no inch neglected exploratory, safe sex.
There's hints that she has a life beyond him - phone calls with work and friends and an apartment she only has him over to once. But does he ever ask about her secrets, or as long as they're making love that's what he defines as love? He does seem supportive further on as she mysteriously cries and he questions her taking of prescription drugs, and even does try to get her to eat, but does he even remember any other conversations with her about her problems?
Her issues, of course, only stay in his consciousness as it affects his having sex; she is the one who mostly directs their sexual activities, such as her concerns that her thin body looks like a boy's and her sexual fantasies of voluptuous women that leave him out a couple of times, regardless of how many times he demonstrates that her body turns him on. They had enough of a conversation for her to know to get him a relevant birthday present, so I think their dialog just doesn't register in his recall, in what we see and hear.
So I would like to see writer/director Michael Winterbottom add a "she said" version, of her perceptions of the same relationship -- heck maybe she left for the U.S. because she knew he'd be going off to do research. Because what more did he want? What else did she need? Or maybe she's really been acting like the guy in this relationship.
The film visually demonstrates that you can be inside a person without getting inside a person and in Antarctica at least a man is an island. This film may be an ironic commentary that 90% of sex is really mental.
Suggestion to those seeing this film in a movie theater: eat your popcorn during the loud music, as everyone gets very silent during the many scenes of explicit sex, which gives equal time to aroused and climaxing genitalia of both genders.
The live performances by BRMC, the Von Bondies, Elbow, Primal Scream, the Dandy Warhols, Super Furry Animals and Franz Ferdinand effectively capture a club gig, grungy acoustics with the crush of waving bodies and all, plus there's a brief, surprising view of a formal Michael Nyman concert to show us that the two characters do own nice clothes. (8/4/2005)
From The New York Times August 14, 2005: The Quick and the Dead - A Night Out with Black Rebel Motorcyle Club by Pauline O'Connor: [T]he conversation moved on to the recent art house film 9 Songs, in which a couple has sex in between attending rock concerts, one of which is a B.R.M.C. show. 'I saw it in Russia,' [Nick] Jago said, adding impishly, 'Even though it was dubbed, I was still able to follow the plot.'"


Last Days may have to be considered on two levels. As a film that pointedly denies it is based on the life of a famous rocker (which is why I've listed it in this category of films), it can be looked at on its own, without outside references or plot similarity expectations. But the film is dedicated to Kurt Cobain, most of the plot points are taken from what is known about his last days, lead actor Michael Pitt's hair, body look, use of language and music are so eerily evocative of Cobain that it is difficult to not see it as a sort of concentrated bio pic or "J'Accuse" of who or what killed him.
So if, say, I were my parents and were unaware of the Cobain back story, the film seems to be a heartbreaking look at the ravages of mental illness, aggravated by drugs and pressures, as "Blake" looks and sounds like the muttering schizophrenics who scatter around NYC parks, reinforced by his plastic wristband from a "clinic," and though we never actually see the drug imbibing to easily blame his behavior on addiction. Leslie Shatz's sensitive sound design is an equal partner with Pitt's performance in conveying "Blake"s mental state as almost auditory hallucinations of heightened senses (much more subtle than in A Beautiful Mind) and reflect a musician's sensitivity. We see him first as prelapsarian figure, all his senses reveling in the clear air, water and fire of a woods, until the modern world intrudes with the symbolically redolent sounds of an airplane, train and church bells, calling him to fulfill his physical cravings. Dressing up in outfits ranging from a slip to a hunter complete with rifle, he actively avoids most human contact and is pretty much only lucid when writing or singing or creating music. His final moments are ambiguous but conveyed beautifully, a highlight of Harris Savides' crisp and lovely cinematography.
The second theme is its chilling look at the issue of human responsibility as everyone around "Blake" wants something from him and is oblivious to his fragility in their selfishness. He is approached by a Yellow Book salesman incongruously congratulating him on his success over the past year, his angry tour manager, a befuddled guest asking for songwriting help (an excellent Lukas Haas with owl-like glasses); a possibly hallucinated Kim Gordon nagging him about his daughter; talky detectives sent by "Blackie," possibly his wife who we only hear yelling on the phone, to hunt him down; and he just manages to avoid two Mormon missionaries. His housemates are liars and bed hoppers just looking to avoid any ties or commitments, even if they are probably stoned, possibly reinforced by their grooving to a Velvet Underground song, and one seems to just disappear. Repeating scenes from different perspectives, as writer/director Gus Van Sant did in Elephant, just makes them seem even more culpable in their neglect.
With real world references, there's amusing irony when "Blake" turns on the TV and a Boys II Men romantic video plays, perhaps commenting how absurd it was that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" became an MTV staple. Pitt doing his own songs acoustically recalls Cobain's "unplugged" take on Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night." At the very least, one certainly sees the depths of the anguish that produced Cobain's tortured music and suicide. If this is a tribute to Cobain, it is a sadly sympathetic one. (7/27/2005)


Hustle & Flow shows the power of ambitious arts expression among poor and working class folks that recalls Billy Elliott and The Commitments waiting for Wilson Pickett, though crossed with Rize and Glengarry Glen Ross as these characters are more Mamet-ish than The Full Monty.
The initiating plot device of a home town success's return as a networking aim or a big audition has been done before, including in showing how a community or faux family bands together to support the aspirant, but writer/director Craig Brewer showcases some original elements, especially in the ironic conclusion. Brewer is helped enormously, beyond some of the stereotyped, if very funny, language in the script, by the heartfelt cast. The film belongs to Terrence Dashon Howard, from the opening focus on his mouth, and he is electric in conveying "DJay"s calculating and changing moods, from salesman to paternal partner to artist to enforcer.
Anthony Anderson well plays a very different hard-working, a bit hen-pecked if loving husband, than his gang leader in The Shield but is positively charming. Ludacris has to play a bit more of stereotype, as a gold-toothed rapper, than his low level criminal in Crash, but is quite good.
While the women characters are considerably problematical as to why they are even with these guys except for being dumb or some possible abuse in their backgrounds that has led to their lack of self-esteem and/or drug addiction (including in their self-denying appearances as the black women have hair straightened or died blonde and a blonde with hair extensions) despite some occasional signs of rebellion, the actresses surmount that to create very individual people with burgeoning hopes of their own, as they hesitantly are drawn into "DJay"s fantasy, including one's role as "principal investor."
The cooperative artistic creation process is among the best scenes in the film, even if it has an updated Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland "Let's put on a show!" feel.
Dedicated to the late Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records, and co-starring legendary songwriter Isaac Hayes, the film portrays a bit of a fantasy of a cross-section of the Memphis African-American community from the '50's to the present in its diverse musical soundtrack and look, even as it finally recognizes that times have changed, from musical equipment technology and air-conditioning to showing that the cops and prison guards are also black.
It is kind of wistful to think a jheri-curled, rapping pimp would have a blues station button set on his radio, consider Otis Redding his singing idol, cry at gospel in church, as the hip hop culture isn't usually so old school, not to mention the odd boast that hip hop originated in the South, especially as the final catchy product sounds like last year's summer, Bronx-created hit "Lean Back," even if the language still won't get it radio play.
Memphis, though, is so evocative of music, that almost every shot recalls its history, like the bridge that overlooks where Jeff Buckley drowned. Without quoting Langston Hughes, certainly all these characters are haunted by the theme of "What happens to a dream deferred?" even if hip hop culture isn't quite the Harlem Renaissance. (7/25/2005)
Kalef Sanneh has another perspective on Hip-Hop Conundrum: How Can a Pimp Be a Hero? in The New York Times (July 28, 2005).


Rize rises above anthropological curiosity to be an exhilarating paean to the human spirit.
It is parallel to Bastards of the Party in noting how devastating gang violence, drugs and poverty have been to the social structure of African-Americans living in South Central Los Angeles and how young people desperately seek alternative families for emotional support. But debut director David LaChapelle (and a graduate and proponent of arts education programs) documents the power of artistic expression in literally saving souls and lives, here through a spontaneously indigenous, organized form of hip hop dancing.
It is "Amazing Grace" acted out before our eyes as this is self-help, bootstraps up through specifically African-American Christian culture that grew out of birthday party celebrations, going from clown dancing to crumping. I was thinking of A Chorus Line's refrain of "Everything was beautiful at the ballet" of girls escaping dysfunctional families even before these hyper-articulate entertainers point out that there are no ballet classes available to them, or any after-school activities for kids not interested in football or basketball so they made the choice to dance with organized groups, first in informal than structured competitions.
No white talking head experts are needed in this film, though it is not clear how much influence LaChapelle had over the participants' self-awareness over the three years he was making the film, as we only hear his voice a couple of times asking questions, usually of their mothers. For example, L'il C says such dancing is "in our blood" -- but is that after LaChapelle showed them the footage of African ritual dancing that they had never seen before -- and it is a bit disconcerting that of all the footage he could have selected he uses material from the Leni Riefenstahl archives.
Ethnomusicologist Nick Spitzer of public radio's American Routes could certainly teach them all something about the recurring phenomenon in the African diaspora of similar competitive "families" created around dancing and costumes or make-up, including the samba clubs in Brazil, the Mardi Gras "Indians" of New Orleans and the carnival crews of the Caribbean.
LaChappelle carefully introduces us to the participants as dancers and individuals before we know more about their difficult pasts and home lives, as these are young people who had to grow up too fast and are lucky to have survived, even as they can't avoid the neighborhood's random violence. We also see that these are the kind of individuals who are naturally nurturing and mentor-seeking, as one explanation of how they sought out the arts and why dance speaks to them as a mechanism to work out their emotions.
The sound track assiduously avoids degrading commercial hip hop selections for songs that reflect the spirit of the dancing, as the participants resoundingly note the independence of their culture from corporate forces.
While the story line wanders a bit after the climactic Battle Zone, LaChappelle forcefully links the dancing to Pentecostal and Baptist gospel traditions for the life affirming conclusion.
The closing shots of how it has spread outside the African-American community aren't entirely convincing.
LaChappelle can't resist some artsy music video type shots of beautiful, glistening bodies by the ocean, but that does serve to emphasize their dancing as an aesthetic form, even as the film does go on a bit too long and repitively.
The interviews on Charlie Rose should be included with the DVD as there is no concluding update to learn that some of the participants are now employed professionally as dancers, though we did get a glimpse that Miss Prissy is taking some formal dance training.
Regardless, you do walk out uplifted and feelingly thrillingly positive about life. By coincidence, I went from this movie to a performance by African singer Daby Touré and his percussive band and it was a pleasure to just get up and dance!(7/22/2005)


Schultze Gets the Blues is like a German Straight Story crossed with the Lou Reed lyric "couldn't believe what (he) heard at all . . . (his) life was saved by rock 'n' roll" though here it's a folk music revelation for a guy literally laid off from a salt mine who is saved.
Here, the power of music that reaches through the speakers and speaks directly to him in the heart of traditional Bavaria is the zydeco music of the Louisiana bayous. Like the obsessed Blues Brothers on a mission from God, he is powerfully drawn to the source.
Leisurely paced, there are frequent shots of modern windmills that keep emphasizing how quixotic his quest is, though he is surrounded by equally eccentric people with dreams, such as a waitress who wants to dance "ole," a friend's son seeking a motorcycle championship, a nursing home resident who longs to gamble at a casino and a railroad gate operator who spouts poetry.
The various physical landscapes figure almost as much as the music as the camera sweeps over the home and away environments Schultze explores, though it's more than a bit fantastical as I'm not sure his travels are geographically possible.
Much of the leisurely paced film is of the one simplistic joke per scene variety around the dumpy figure of Horst Krause as Schultze in incongruous situations or activities, but overall it is charming, especially due to the natural, open-hearted characters he disarmingly meets up with everywhere. Seeing him play a zydeco tune at an Oktoberfest is very similar to the bluegrass performers in the Finnish movie Man Without A Past (Mies vailla menneisyyttä).
While The Commitments made a stronger case for cross-cultural empathy in why the Irish could perform African-American soul music, ethnomusicologist Nick Spitzer of American Routes radio show. would be delighted at how the movie weaves a story while affectionately and amusingly tracing the accordion from the Bavarian polka through Czech immigrants to Tex Mex music to the Cajun descendants of the French Arcadians and on to the creole amalgamation that is zydeco. (2/28/2005)


The Chorus (Les Choristes) demonstrates that France is just as able to put out sentimental treacle as Hollywood, for those who thought the Gallic sensibility was inherently cynical, philosophical and intellectual or even romantic.
There is a long cinematic history of similar movies. The brutal reform school lorded over by sadists genre of the British and Irish movies, such as If and Borstal Boy, usually are from the point of view of the rebellious working class inmates, while the American version usually focuses on the inspirational teacher, not necessarily of the downtrodden unless race is also a factor, such as in Dangerous Minds. There's To Sir With Love which brings in all these elements. And there have been several that use music as the key, from Mr. Holland's Opus to School of Rock and Music of the Heart, some even based on true stories.
The marginal originality here is that the focus is on a boys' chorus performing classical music, but I always find those angelic pre-puberty voices more creepily pure than appealing, as they are just so fleeting until their voices change.
It is annoying how quickly the sympathetic chorus master molds the kids into performability - there aren't even any rough rehearsals after the amusing scene where the kids reveal the little exposure they've had to any sort of songs. We're even robbed of the impact of the chorus on a key boy because the film is one long flashback. We only get a frisson of an implication of what else may have gone on in such schools as revealed in Bad Education (La Mala educación).
This film is pretty to look at and listen to and saccharinely predictable. (2/16/2005)


Beyond the Sea is a highly stylized movie musical biography that borrows much of its structure from Bob Fosse's autobiographical All That Jazz, and look and themes from The Al Jolson Story to Gypsy to Julien Temple's Absolute Beginners/Janet Jackson video.
At least co-writer/director/producer/lead Kevin Spacey answered my initial qualms with a shrug of hey show biz is all illusion anyway -- that he's too old to play Bobby Darin, that the toupees look funny, and that Darin, despite inexplicably being among the first to be elected to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, was a white bread crooner neither cool enough to be in the Rat Pack nor innovative enough to make a lasting contribution to a changing pop music. Spacey seems to justify his whole production with a line that inspires Darin's final comeback: "People hear what they see." to show that Darin was more than his pallid music, but was an all-round entertainer.
The production design effectively helps to create the theatrical ambiance of all the world's a stage as what seems to be realistic venues become backdrops for dance numbers out of On the Town, though limited by Spacey's dancing, is aided by editing that emphasizes the magic realism. The furniture settings are particularly evocative of 1950's/1960's decor, the costumes and hair styles less so.
John Goodman's and Bob Hoskins's Bronx accents are overly thick, but Brenda Blethyn and especially Caroline Aaron capture working class ethnicity and pride very well, as well as exemplifying what Darin is both fleeing and keeping around him as a touchstone.
Pretty Kate Bosworth doesn't get to show us too much insight into Sandra Dee, other than in one lacerating argument.
Kevin Spacey's pretty good singing is helped enormously by excellent musical direction of old hand Phil Ramone.
William Ullrich as Little Bobby has a lot of range to have to take on as a child actor and is adequate.
The long film does fade towards the end, but curiousity about Darin's later life keeps one's attention. (1/1/2005)


My knowledge of the story or the music of Phantom of the Opera was only based on what has filtered into general popular culture.
As I like movie musicals, I was prepared to sit back and enjoy on opening day, even when I cursorily looked at the few stars critics gave it in the morning papers. So I really wasn't prepared to discover that director Joel Schumacher is to movie musicals what Oliver Stone is to sword-and-sandal epics-- completely out of his element. I am very disappointed that the brief shining hope that a new Golden Age of Musicals is upon us is gone.
It seems that Schumacher has learned more from the leaden, overblown musicals of the '60's than the technicolor Golden Age of fluid dancing and singing on screen. One yearns for at least Baz Luhrmann. The masked ball scene choreography suddenly echoes Bob Fosse, leading to the bemusement of what he might have done to insert more some razzle dazzle into a musical that thinks elaborate production design and costumes (and awkward wigs) --all of which will be lost on DVD/TV--will fill the eye when nothing else does. Schumacher was probably greatly handicapped by the overwhelming involvement of Andrew Lloyd Webber, as writer, producer, etc. because the music drags down the movie terribly with overblown orchestrations that drown some lovely melodies and slow the pacing inexorably. The recitatives did not sparkle and were not helped by slow camera work and editing.
But the film also stops dead whenever Emmy Rossum is on the screen. I can only understand the accolades and nominations her performance is garnering based on the appeal of how she looks in lingerie, which she wears throughout most of the film, with a heaving bodice. The woman barely moves, giving the camera plenty of time to leer at her. What a relief that this ingenue is just barely legal as the Phantom's interest in her is creepy enough.
While Minnie Driver is over the top as the Diva, at least she's lively. Miranda Richardson seems to be in a different movie, maybe as the housekeeper in that other ghost movie The Others. Patrick Wilson, who was so good in HBO's Angels in America, strives manfully to put life into the stock Nice Guy and he succeeds when he gets to move into action hero mode.
Just when the long movie makes sitting uncomfortable, Gerard Butler's Phantom ramps up the emotions and enlivens the screen.
This is just the kind of opera that Gilbert & Sullivan would puncture. (12/23/2004)


Ray is an effective recreation of Ray Charles and his milieu.
Jamie Foxx is extraordinary in completely embodying Charles, but the terrific production design gives him important context. Without the authentic feel of the mid-twentieth century Florida of his childhood, and the blues and jazz chitlin circuit and the recording and entertainment industries of his young adulthood, Foxx's performance would just be an imitation.
This context is particularly important because Charles was an innovator and unique commingler of influences, gospel with R & B, blues with country, smooth jazz with funk (and thankfully the soundtrack mostly doesn't try to imitate him, but uses his voice for the incomparable songs -- and stay through the end of the credits to hear the final moan).
Vernel Bagneris's choreography was much more authentic looking than in similar period movies, especially in showing the transitions black music was making post-World War II. Also realistic feeling is the verisimilitude of Atlantic Records, including the late engineer Tom Dowd, radio payola, and other business dealings.
The film provides fulsome opportunities for many African-American actors who don't get enough opportunities to be seen, including several actors from TV series like The Wire and Soul Food. Chris Thomas King was excellent as Lowell Fulsom, a very different blues man than the one he portrayed in O Brother Where Art Thou?, though Larenz Tate does a bland Quincy Jones.
I listened to Charles's funeral broadcast over NPR and it was touching that the film showed us how long those who gave eulogies had been a significant part of his life. The genesis of some songs are shown a bit hokily--particularly when the credits show that they weren't written by Charles, such as "Hit the Road, Jack" done as relationship dialogue, but they are fun and the audience can't help but knowingly respond.
The film does slow down into pedestrian bio pic mode towards the end. While the build-up of the increasing dominance of Charles's personal problems with drugs and infidelity is shown realistically and involvingly, his rehab is done as the usual movie cliche, with his consequent successes quickly shown in headlines across the screen.
A nice touch is showing his initial reluctance to be concerned with the civil rights movement, capped by a cameo by Julian Bond.
The audience I was in was racially mixed, and there were visceral, out loud responses to his life and music, like a gospel congregation.(11/2/2004)


The Saddest Music in the World uses many of the visual and political themes of Dogville, but is much more successful at making its cynical points creatively through satire and comedy.
Both take place in the midst of the Great Depression as a symbol of the failure of capitalism; both deal with Americans vs. immigrants; both use highly stylized re-visualizations of earlier presentations as the mise en scene (Dogville using Our Town and Saddest using silent/early talkies to Sullivan's Travels); both degrade luminous Hollywood stars (Nicole Kidman vs. Isabella Rossellini); and both identify America as the source of corruption in the world.
I haven't seen any other work by co-writer/director Guy Maddin to know if he has used these techniques before, particularly in his championing of Canada (focusing on his home town of Winnipeg) against its co-optation by its Big Brother to the south. With various Idol shows #1 hits around the world, the central premise is only thinly fictional as one can shudderingly imagine it's just a matter of time until the treacly international competition that is the film's premise takes place.
Rossellini's character is the CEO of a brewery who wants to capture the post-Prohibition U.S. market through a world-wide publicity gimmick to identify the titular accolade. The characters are coincidentally and heavily symbolically entwined in exaggeratedly absurd connections of family and past and present relationships of love, violence, and death for pointed laughs. With additional acidic commentary relating the past to today's real present as in the more things change the more they stay the same, the Serbian, still living down the initiation of the War to End All Wars, is really a disguised American.
The U.S. producer, who has no creativity other than bamboozle, much like the lawyer with sizzle in Chicago, merrily rolls along manipulating the contest with sex and the flim-flam of sucking in the world's music through the contributions of bribed immigrants.
All become literally awash in and astride beer as happy days are here again whatever disasters befall them.
The soundtrack, provided by various local Winnipeg folk arts groups, is also delightful. (5/21/2004)


A Slipping Down Life is better at showing the power of radio and music than explaining the characters inspired by it.
Lili Taylor's "Evie Decker" is living in a house filled with the sounds of radio and not much else in her life, as we see in somewhat mocking scenes that duplicate from many movies about small town Southern life from Last Picture Show to Fried Green Tomatoes, etc. Her dad spends his time exploring short wave frequencies ("There's too much damn Spanish in the world!") and she's hooked on the romantic dedications and atmosphere created by WLUV.
So it's His Voice that gets to her first, as she hears an interview with a local singer/songwriter trying to establish himself as "Drumstrings Casey" and she's inspired to actually go out to see him at a local club. Guy Pearce perfectly captures the type; while he's singing --quite well-- songs actually written by Canadian Ron Sexsmith, he floored me that his body language of being both sexy and laid-back virtually duplicated rootsy singer/songwriter Chris Whitley from the first time I saw him perform back in 1991 for a similarly small audience. So I can certainly relate to "Evie"'s emotionally charged response -- but her actions are just plain odd, as she changes from passive guilelessness to exhibitionist stalker.
Debut writer/director Toni Kalem (a Jersey girl who is also "Angie Bonpensiero" on The Sopranos and can't resist sticking in Bruce Springsteen references here and there) confusingly shifts gears that the original novella by Anne Tyler does more comically, partly because the original characters are young teenagers, which the movie tries to convey by giving "Evie" a costumed character job at the local amusement park. Both characters start getting more sympathetic and complex as they get more co-dependent and much more than just musician and fan, and more intriguing than Keith Carradine with his various groupies in Nashville.
Though some pithy truths do come out, their artistic and emotional viewpoints are inconsistent as they try to find themselves, together and apart, with only hints of psychological explanations, such as "Casey"'s relationship with his mother, a former singer herself, [not in the book] and his hearing local bluesmen [there's actually more about his blues listening, but it's oddly portrayed as a negative influence].
But in maturing you do have to take a few steps back in order to go forward. The conclusion satisfyingly comes together around music and the radio, but is awkward plot-wise, and is not from the book.
John Hawkes of Deadwood is also charming as the band drummer and promotion-seeking manager.
Nice range of singer/songwriter music on the soundtrack, but it doesn't reflect the Southern milieu that is so carefully visually established.(5/18/2004) (supplemented after reading the book 6/2/2004)


The Company is a lovely commercial for the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago (for New Yorkers this is in fact the same modern ballet company that used to be based at City Center but left the competitive dance fundraising environment here to have the stage to itself in Chicago).
A labor of love for producer/story writer/star/former dancer Neve Campbell, she was determined to make the first film about a whole company, not just using the dance world for a backdrop of individual melodrama, and with long passages of actual performances. So she brought in the primo director of ensembles, Robert Altman.
But clearly she made compromises to get the film made that put his creativity as a director in a straight jacket and only lets his trademark talents fleetingly shine through. The key was getting the Joffrey's cooperation and I can only imagine the tough negotiations that resulted in this pretty much being a whitewash of the ballet world, or of any creative endeavor, in sharp contrast to the behind-the-scenes reality shows Project Greenlight on HBO or The Fire Within about Cirque du Soleil's "Varekai" that was on Bravo. I surmise a long list of thou shalt not's that appear to include items such as: no views of the non-artistic administrators, board, or fund raisers (there's a passing exhortation to a flashy choreographer Robet Desrosiers to stay within the budget, but he gets the complicated costumes and sets he wants anyway); no homosexual relationships (there's a passing reference to the dancers AIDS has taken including "Bob", which cognoscenti have to know refers to the company's founder Robert Jeffrey, and Malcolm McDowall as the egotistical artistic director "Alberto Antonelli," a stand-in presumably for current company director Gerald Arpino, urges fellow Italian-American men not to make their boys, like he had to, "hide their ballet shoes"); no eating disorders (we do twice hear "Mr. A," half-jokingly, urge the company to eat salads and vegetables and there's one fast, quiet exchange in passing that I think was about diet pills); blame dancers' problems on dysfunctional parents and mentors, recalling that vivid song from A Chorus Line - "Everything was beautiful at the ballet" as dancers seek to escape messy situations through temporary perfect beauty.
Altman does get to assert his artistic priorities in a few ways. He effectively seizes on the ageism in dance, showing that it's not just the tyranny of aging bodies, as would affect any athlete, but that dancers with experience speak up for themselves and are more difficult to control in a viciously autocratic environment than ambitious, financially desperate, and, literally, pliable young dancers.
It's also the first time I've seen a camera expose the swarm of acolyte assistants to the director, revealing them as ex-dancers whom "Mr. A" still dismissively calls "babies" and who resent the new stars even as they dance vicariously through them.
The other beautiful Altman touch is when the significant character developments take place not center stage in a crowd but through a look or line happening way in the corner of the screen, like the expression on James Franco, as Campbell's chef beau, when she avoids introducing him to her family amidst a rush of congratulators.
But visually and musically the Joffrey is a wonderful choice, as the choreographers represented range from Arpino to Alwin Nikolais to Laura Dean and MOMIX. A centerpiece danced by Campbell is a sexy Lar Lubovitch pas de deux to the signature song "My Funny Valentine" which is used as a leitmotif, for reasons that still seem murky to me after hearing Altman explain why on Charlie Rose, throughout the film in versions also by Elvis Costello, Chet Baker, and the Kronos Quartet.
The music ranges from classical to jazz to the ethereal pop of Julee Cruise, Mark O'Connor's cross-over "Appalachia Waltz", and the lovely score by Van Dyke Parks. (1/18/2004)


Gloomy Sunday (Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod) is a very mittel-European take on Jules et Jim. It has resonance with The Pianist, but was produced in 1999 and is only being released in the U.S. now.
Based on an urban legend grounded in fact it demonstrates how a piece of music can perfectly capture the zeitgeist of its times, so much so that it influences people's lives to end them. Here's the original facts with a list of recordings, which is how I knew to find Marianne Faithfull's recording in my collection to play as I write this. A love quadrangle starts off as an open, free-spirited affair between a jovial restaurant owner and his high-spirited, sensual hostess, becomes a complex three-some with a sultry composer, then an uptight tourist gets tangled in their lives.
But this is Budapest 1933 - 1945, and the personal becomes the political, as the restauranteur is Jewish, the tourist transforms into an S.S. officer, and the composer's signature melody haunts them and the airwaves throughout a Europe falling like dominoes.
While there are lovely shots of the bridges and narrow streets of Budapest in a warm, lush cinematography, especially as seen on desperate bicycle rides (in dress and high heels no less), much of the movie takes place in the restaurant, so that the passage of time and the resulting changing stresses are marvelously shown by the actors' body language.
Some of the coincidences are a bit thick, but the political commentary up to the present is effectively pointed.
The melody only gains in power throughout the film and is much more timeless in capturing the feelings of the time -- and any parallel experiences--than the pop or patriotic music Americans associate with the period.
From the untranslated credits, it seemed that the closing version in English is Artie Shaw's, though the lead singer wasn't identified there. In the film, the lyrics are an after-thought to try and capture the music's meaning.(11/27/2003)


School of Rock is practically a spin-off for Jack Black of his force-of-musical-nature character from High Fidelity.
Written for him by his friend (and ironically nerdy co-star here) Mike White, it is hysterically funny and has an excellent soundtrack with very apt classic metal selections (ah, it's been a long time since I heard the command "Let's get the Led out!") and original, witty tunes (especially over the closing credits as it makes fun of people who stay to watch the credits- "Hey, get out! They need to clean the theater!").
The character's Peter Pan immersion in '70's culture is recreated down to his sheets -- the same ones I had, but even the rags cut I cut from them fell apart long ago. But it also has an intelligent maturity angle, as Black's character grows into his school teacher role to demonstrate a surprising sense of responsibility for his charges, including respect for legitimate music education, both hands-on and appreciation (the rock history lesson charts are excellent).
Joan Cusack again shows what a wonderful comedienne she is, as she was in the recent Muppet TV movie, so that even as something of the villain of the piece she's still quite human, and the movie doesn't even swerve into a silly romance (though it will probably show up in the "deleted scenes" section of the DVD).
The only weak touch is the Queer Eye for a Straight Guy reference that's over done with one of the kids.
For some reason, though, parents brought very young children as if it's Finding Nemo, including babes in arms and toddlers, who ran around the theater from boredom as they didn't get any of the jokes. ( revised 10/25/2003)


Laurel Canyon isn't a sharp enough barb at the music industry nor is it insightful enough about relationships, but there are individual performances and musical references to make it worthwhile.
Frances McDormand as a Queen Bee, omnisexual music producer is a prime reason to see the film, playing the opposite of her Almost Famous Mom. There are hints about her musical ears being passé, as her house has a lot more shelves and shelves of old LPs than the few new CDs piled up, plus the photos of her in studios with past stars. And classic rock seems to always play around her, but the excesses and record company pressures don't seem new and she is bedding a rocker 16 years her junior (a la Mariah Carey and Tommy Mottola?), basically her son's age.
The realistic musical mise en scene includes appearances by musician Lou Barlow and producer Daniel Lanois, among others. The basic tension is supposed to be her being the fascination of the abomination to her straight-laced son Christian Bale (pretty much playing the same character as in Metroland) and his fiancée, Kate Beckinsale pretty much playing the Susan Sarandon role from Rocky Horror Picture Show. There's also some irony about Bale's character being an effective shrink in training, with all his mother issues, and a new twist on mother-in-law issues.
But that is undercut by virtually all being drawn, a la the Rolling Stones' "Spider and the Fly" song which should be on the soundtrack but isn't, by snake-straight-from-the-Garden-of-Eden Alessandro Nivola's sexy leader of a rock band that sure looks and sounds a lot like Goo Goo Dolls or Coldplay (the film's composer is with the band Shudder to Think) and sincerely says all kinds of unbelievable things about commitment and has no problem writing a radio-friendly ballad. (I see that he's married in real life to Emily Mortimer which made me think that he was the inspiration for the cause of her character's horrific physical insecurities in Lovely and Amazing but he did give such a very sweet acceptance speech for her at the Independent Spirit Awards. After this movie, he could slither into pop music -- would he be the first from Phillips Exeter and Yale to take that career path?) [So I was really taken aback by this exchange in the April 2003 Interview: Q by Anita Sarko: "My favorite {relationship} was the one between you and Frances McDormand. As someone married to a younger man, I was thrilled to witness the romance between you and Frances depicted as neither oedipal nor exploitative. It was just hot." Nivola: "That relationship serves my character and Fran's so well. She is this legitimately sexy woman who is able to command the attention of this younger guy. It completely destroys the stereotype of musicians chasing after 20-year-old blondes. That's really what the movie is about: It deals with important relationships in a realistic but fairly whimsical and unpretentious way and speaks to the idea that people can become more willing to accept each other." HUH?!! ]
I have no idea why Natascha McElhone's husband-temptress is supposed to be Israeli, as her mangled accent is just odd.
There is a neat running visual leit motif about the different symbolic uses of a California swimming pool by different people, from early morning determined laps to late night skinny dipping.
The round-robin apologies (and lack of some) at the end simply make no sense and leave us finally with no catharsis or resolution. (3/30/2003)


Chicago uses razzle-dazzle to give us a terrific song and dance with people who can't really sing and dance (maybe the Broadway show stars like Bibi Neuwirth or even Jerry Ohrbach will get to sing the new closing song at the Oscars). But they sure know how to turn it on for the camera.
Film is a different medium than theater and director/choreographer Rob Marshall does an effective tribute to the Bob Fosse both of dance and movies (he does finally stick in a dedication to Fosse and Gwen Verdon at the very end of the credits to recognize the film's provenance). Though I did fleetingly during the dance numbers long for Fosse's more syncopative moves, especially with hats and chairs, (and wondered how at least Ann Reinking would have done this choreography) the quick editing between fantasy and reality and celebrity faux reality carries the story forward, much like the carefully linked continuity in The Hours, with John C. Reilly eerily doing pretty much the same role in both movies.
This mostly throws out the Astaire/Kelly principle of showing full body shots of dancers to instead show bits of body parts. There is an advantage to having real actors do the very contemporary dialog, especially when we get to see Richard Gere and Catherine Zeta-Jones oozing. So while Gere's tap dance was no competition for, say, Savion Glover, whose feet are their own language, it did whoppingly illustrate the point of the lawyer's sleazy monologue.
Renee Zellwegger is intermittently effective, and I wish she'd kept the weight on from Bridget Jones's Diary which made her look like a normal person instead of painfully thin. (I want to assure Catherine Z-J who was very self-conscious during the filming of having recently had a baby that she looks healthy.)
Queen Latifah does show them all up, because she can both act and really sing (evidently we have to wait for the DVD to see another number of hers that was cut). Nice to see Dominic West of The Wire on the big screen, even fleetingly as yet another ne'er do well .
The principals are surrounded by gypsies who can really dance and the camera focuses on their choreography for sheer enjoyment, not to carry the story forward.
Were lines that seem so post-O. J. trial in the original show? Or in the previous movies made from the same story? I did feel like doing a tap dance to cynicism while coming out of the theater. (2/23/2003)


8 Mile forcefully brings rock' n' roll movies into the 21st century.
While it has striking similarities to Elvis Presley and Beatles movies in how it uses autobiographical elements to make its similarly charismatic lead star comfortable in a new medium to sort of present his own story, Curtis Hanson's direction and the cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto (of Amores Perros) create a thrilling environment for him to explode.
Like L.A. Confidential, Hanson is terrific at getting up close in macho environments and bringing us right into their verbal and actual violence. While I'm quite sure my ignorance of hip hop slang and culture led me to miss references and the point of much conversation, it did seem to me that Hanson captured the why and how behind Eminem's rage.
The movie's climax is the epiphany when his constructive genius takes over as he learns to channel his anger into his lyrics, and to even take it a level beyond the insulting toasting of the local Detroit battle-of-the-rappers to forge a new persona (what will eventually become Slim Shady among other images) and a new kind of rap that will sweep the nation.
It is ironic that here in Detroit (or as the dialog and the credits call it - the 313) how few of the young adults have cars (even though Eminem's character is working in an auto parts plant), and are constantly cadging rides from each other to avoid the humiliation of taking the bus.
Of course the women in this desolate Motor City, that is an urban recall of the Mad Max movies, are either beloved innocents or are traitorously duplicitous; I was taken aback how much of a calculating groupie Brittany Murphy's character is, unlike the usual devoted, loyal girlfriend in such movies.
If the closing song is originally written for the movie (and I don't know if the sing-along audience had seen the movie before or knew the soundtrack), it should be considered for Academy Award "Best Song" as it brilliantly describes the movie and the character's post-life. [Whew, it even won!]
It was not appropriate, however, for a parent in the row behind me to bring a small child to this film (and not just because the kid talked through the whole movie); even if they expose them to profanity-laded rap music at home, this is a mature movie with mature scenes that would be quite disturbing to young children.(12/15/2002)


Drumline is for anyone who has ever been in a high school band, or gone to school football games, or enjoys the Thanksgiving parade, or believes in the power of music, or heck, just likes a feel good movie.
A debut feature by almost all involved, this feels natural from the opening scene of a high school graduation in Harlem on to leading us through the fascinating and arcane boot-camp world of Southern Black college marching band competition. This is a movie about African-American young adults who go to college, who study in the library, have majors, work (OK, and play) hard, have and develop their skills, whose even absent parents are gainfully employed, and are proud to be selected for a national honor society.
And it's a heck of a lot of fun! Sports (and hackneyed sports movies) aren't the only way black kids can shine; as one character explains about these bands: "Half-time is the game."
The band performances are as entertaining as the cheerleader demonstrations in Bring It On. This does feel like a sports movie; there is more than a hint of Slap Shot in the battle between the Old School approach to classic band routines vs. the new one that incorporates hip hop culture (as a fundraiser I was interested in the issue of alumni pressure and the dangling of donations.)
We got a hint in Time Machine that Orlando Jones has a lot more chops than his goofy clown persona but his band leader with principles pressured by his boss and his students is a nice take on Denzel Washington.
The engaging lead, Nick Cannon, evidently used to have a comedy show on Nick and one of the band members has a last name of Poitier, but they were all new to me.
Yeah it borders on predictable melodrama a la Mr. Holland's Opus, but it's so grounded in these unfamiliar specific situations that I was not a step ahead. My only qualm was the women's roles. Even the Old School approach includes scantily clad "dancers" doing MTV-style salacious choreography as the cheerleaders.
While there's one prominent woman band member with corn rows who gives as good as she gets, the rest of the African-American women follow the Halle Berry model of black beauty with straight hair (who have to wear Afro wigs for the '70's tribute).
Are even black producers now particularly looking to cast mixed race women like Berry who have what are perceived as more white features? But I will certainly look forward for when the real marching band championships are on BET! (12/15/2002)


Watch enough of VH-1's Behind the Music and you can figure out the plot of Rock Star.
I was late so may have missed a philosophical discussion of the difference between a covers band and a tribute band (hmm, that may be worth thinking about for a few minutes). Having missed the '80's in music due to having a life, I did try to figure out if the fictional band was just a hair band, a hard rock band, a light metal band, thrash metal or what, as it's based on Judas Priest which is more metal and alienated than this.
But with all those caveats, I was surprised how enjoyable the movie was, and with a fun authentic-sounding soundtrack with folks like Jason Bonham and Zakk Wylde in the fictional band (well, to me as a non-expert in whatever light metal rock genre it is with AC/DC, Bon Jovi, etc.).
Mark Wahlberg is simply charming through all the hair extensions, much more like his earnest eager to please Boogie Nights character than his would-be hero in Planet of the Apes. Jennifer Aniston's character is surprisingly more intelligent and secure than her Friends persona.
The groupies here are much less benign than the Muses of Almost Famous, but then this is a decade later in the travails of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. I don't think I've heard this line from a professional stripper in a VH-1 music movie: "Hey I need to do you now cause I have to get to my job by midnight."
The production values are very high. The concert authenticity is excellent, as they filmed the scenes as opening acts to genuine metal concerts. The soundtrack is worth dancing around the kitchen and re-living '80's days I never had. (9/29/2001)


Ghost World is like an indie fun-house mirror image of High Fidelity, as if we're seeing how those characters were as teen agers and could be as older.
Its painful honesty about its confused, isolated characters in all their complexity is what it has in common with Zwigoff's previous feature, the documentary about R. Crumb and his family (which is visually referred to several times).
Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi are fascinating to watch in an odd-ball relationship, which the movie intentionally references to The World of Henry Orient, balanced in between by a more grounded best friend, a terrific Scarlett Johansson. Even the minor characters are almost cruelly on target, such as Ileanna Douglas's political art teacher and Bob Balaban's milquetoast Dad.
Music is the communication vehicle of choice for these characters who have difficulty communicating and the music selections are very unusual.
My friends and I post-viewing inconclusively disagreed about the meaning of the title and the ending. I'm sure teens and parents will each view the movie quite differently.
Teri Garr's more-than-cameo is not in the credits -- and stay through all them as there's an alternative scene at the very end.(8/4/2001)


Not having seen the off-Broadway version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I can only judge it as a movie (and after hearing long, hagiographic interviews with star/director John Cameron Mitchell using his opposite whispery persona) on radio shows).
It works as a rock musical through the cute conceit of the songs being part of "Hedwig's" cross-country stalking tour of her sweet-faced young protégé, though the raucous songs have too much similarity, relieved by the change-of-tempo ballads.
As another celebration of drag queens and/or transsexuals who use the exaggerated female image as minstrel shows use blackface caricatures, Hedwig doesn't reach the heights of The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert in understanding a real person under the wigs, as the set-up here is intentionally more campy.
Just as I got tired of the gimmicks, the movie finally fulfilled itself as the self-realization of a gay man (and his reverse image partner) and became more human. Consequently I didn't buy the didactic we're all one sex theme, even as charmingly demonstrated through the interstitial back-story explanation animation by Emily Hubley.
Hedwig uses similar editing techniques and tone as Ken Russell's Tommy, achieved with a lot smaller budget and less cinematography quality.(7/27/2001)


Songcatcher is a corny movie with beautiful music.
Writer/director Maggie Greenwald may have researched the roots of Appalachian music, but I would have liked to learn more about how they were really discovered by musicologists than this confusing mix of romance and cultural exploitation.
Janet McTeer was so good in Tumbleweeds that her odd body language and facial expressions must have been at the director's request. Jane Fonda was much better in both Electric Horseman (another uptight woman finding sex in the mountains) and The Dollmaker (another cultural discovery of Appalachian arts) to this trumped-up plot with an odd ending.
I'm sympathetic to the casting difficulties of an indie director as to why the other actors are about half the physical size of McTeer so that some scenes literally have to be shot on a mountainside so the other characters can have a face-to-face conversation with the towering actress. The audience couldn't help but laugh when McTeer was referred to as the actress' Jane Adams' "big sister." Aidan Quinn, one of my favorite actors, is playing a similar role as in The Playboys; hey that's worth my admission money.
But the soundtrack is the reason to see the movie. Iris DeMent should keep her day job, but it is nice to see and hear her in a cameo. She's featured with a Watson who is a natural actor (and fiddle player). Taj Mahal has an even briefer cameo. I recognized Hazel Dickens in another brief cameo (though I was just reading an article that "O Death" was written by Ralph Stanley and is not a traditional song so her moving rendition doesn't really fit in the movie.) Pat Carroll is wonderful as a matriarch of family and musical heritage.
Too bad Greenwald uses her husband's even cornier musical score instead of more appropriate music.(6/23/2001) I got background information on the inspiration for this movie from an unlikely source, the listserv of ARNOVA (the Association of Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Associations) that links the movie to my professional interests:

(posted with permission)
Date: Tue, 17 Dec 2002 10:01:51 -0500
From: Roger A. Lohmann, Professor, Division of Social Work, School of Applied Social Science, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, West Virginia University, Morgantown WV
Subject: Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia
"Songcatcher was a delightful 1999 release and I highly recommend it. While there are certain parallels with aspects of the life of Olive Dame Campbell, the movie is definitely a Hollywoodized version of the Campbell story. Given the important role of storytelling in Appalachian culture, and the role of exaggeration and *fibbing* in storytelling this is perhaps as it should be. David Whisnant presents the historic Olive Dame Campbell in All That is Native and Fine: The Cultural Work of Olive Dame Campbell, Chapel Hill NC, University of North Carolina Press,(1983). There are important ties to the foundation world not well rendered in the film. Campbell's husband John was funded by the Russell Sage Foundation and support to her continued for a while after his death. But none of this was for song collecting or for the folk school. Also, Ms. Campbell's collecting efforts were not independent but in conjunction with the British folklorist Cecil Sharp. There are many other major and minor creative liberties in the movie as well. David Hammack, a regular contributor to this list, has an interesting collection of essays on the early Sage Foundation in Hammack, D. C. and S. Wheeler, Social science in the Making : Essays on the Russell Sage Foundation, 1907-1972, New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 1994. For me, one of the persistently interesting aspects of life in West Virginia is the layer upon layer of stereotype, myths, legends, and other cultural baggage that covers *the real Appalachia*. While much of it is generated by national media, some of those myths are also locally generated in self-defense against outside incursions against an indigenous way of life. For those who may be interested in such things, the American Memory project of the Folklife Center at the Library of Congress has put up a smashing new exhibit of 679 excerpts from original sound recordings, and 1,256 photographs collected between 1992-1999 in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia."


Moulin Rouge proves the Mullahs of Iran right -- Hollywood is The Great Satan, spreading its decadent ways around the world, infecting British actors to an Australian director and lead actress, and spending money opulently beyond most countries' GDP.
I am second to none in my appreciation of Busby Berkeley musicals, but I never thought them lackluster, or modest and understated. Evidently, Baz Luhrmann does, as his charming opening mis en scene builds up from old black and white movie musicals. His script has the bad guy (the most ineffectual British villain on screen in years) shriek to the Bohemians "I reject your dogma!" and Baz most certainly, most emphatically rejects the Dogma 95 filmmakers of social realism. Baz finds even Ken Russell and Terry Gilliam too tame, though I think at least Russell has also done opera directing as Baz has. The eye-popping MTV Movie Awards production of "Lady Marmalade" was more restrained (and in fact more entertaining and more musical) than how the song is used in the movie. The camera and the editing just never stop; every millimeter of film stock is full and moves.
Ewan MacGregor comes out the best; in a total opposite of his Trainspotting druggie, here his wide-eyed innocent is sweet even when singing medleys of romantic clichés. (Too bad effective cynical songs about love weren't countered -- I waited in vain for "What's Love Got to Do With It.")
Poor Nicole Kidman is simply miscast. Much as Marilyn Monroe imitated Carol Channing's performance in How To Marry a Millionaire, Nicole must imitate not one, not two, but at least three Madonna videos (from "Material Girl" through to the pseudo-Indian influenced "Ray of Light"). Did Madonna turn down the role as she was busy with Baby #2 and marriage? Did Baz not offer it to her or did the movie moguls think she couldn't fill the seats? The role needs very little acting so would have fit the Courtesan to the World quite well. (I found it amusing that the term courtesan is used every five minutes when the movie Dangerous Beauty was re-titled from "The Courtesan" because the producers were convinced audiences wouldn't know what the word meant.)
Poor John Leguizamo is as irritating as Jar Jar Binks as a clownish Toulouse Latrec with a lisp; the poor guy has to play a dancing magical sitar. Like Shrek and A Knight's Tale, this is a movie musical with no original music, but highly original use of covers, if most are in pieces and medleys. I particularly liked the version of "Roxanne" as if it were done by Tom Waits in a brothel, while the producers' pitch to the investor paled next to The Producers. I'm quite sure that the audience was frequently laughing at the film, not with it.
Note to movie musical producers -- watch the Tonys and see that there are plenty of talented people around who really do know how to sing and dance. (6/15/2001)


Amy is an Australian Post Almost Famous with the side themes of Rock 'n' Roll Giveth and Rock 'n' Roll Takes It Away, or Our Lives Were All Saved By Rock 'n' Roll.
Combining the kind of grittiness and optimistic magic realism of Billy Elliott with the Ozzie quirky characters of Muriel's Wedding, Amy avoids over-sentimentalizing its story of a grieving rock star widow and daughter and the other dysfunctionals who befriend them against a range of outsiders.
The original music is enjoyable, the covers unusual and the little girl with the luminous eyes and surprising voice startlingly good.
Director Nadia Tass bring out great chemistry for Rachel Griffiths in a changing relationship with a strong Ben Mendelsohn as a reclusive musician who is as touched by the girl as she is by him.
The supporting nuts are great fun, especially when singing.
We also get a nice tour of Melbourne as a bonus. (5/27/2001)


O Brother Where Art Thou? features some of the best and worst tendencies of the Coen Brothers as they reexamine another movie genre.
The cinematography is lush -- where Fargo was visually about white, Miller's Crossing visually about dark and Barton Fink fascinated by the look of fire, O Brother lingers over golden and amber waves of grain.
In Fargo, I thought the Coens had genuine love for their home turf underneath the satire and cruelty, but here we have a South of yokel myth, that makes Preston Sturges' magical Sullivan's Travels --which this is close to a remake of--seem like a documentary. The Daughters of the Confederacy who walked out of Gone With The Wind for showing that the South lost the War Between the States would surely walk out of this one.
Like a humorous counterpoint to Dancer in the Dark, this feels like a European musical's look at the South of the Great Depression, from corrupt politicians, to chain gangs, to river baptisms, to KKK rallies, road kill BBQs, and bank robberies.
But it comes alive through the overpowering music selected by T-Bone Burnett that becomes the central focus of the movie (complete with a pilgrimage to a radio station as in American Graffiti but with a commercial and political exploitation angle: "Hey a man there will pay you for singing into a can!"). Few other than public radio listeners will feel disconcerted having the very distinctive voices of Allison Krauss, Emmy Lou Harris, Gillian Welch, the Fairfield 4 and Ralph Stanley come out of actors' mouths, like in Pennies from Heaven, because the music is the basis for mesmerizing, highly theatrical set-pieces.
It must have been at the directors' direction that John Torturro gives the worst performance of his otherwise exemplary career and Tim Blake Nelsonis worse, as their faces are frozen in Ma and Pa Kettle stereotypes. George Clooney tries a Southern accent for 30 seconds then gives up, which is ironic as he was born and raised in Kentucky. His container of Dapper Dan hair pomade becomes an ongoing leitmotif like the hat in Miller's Crossing with no significance other than the visual.
I did miss the opening minute or so due to strong hunger pains and a slow refreshment line, but I don't think seeing the opening quote from Homer would have changed my impression. I recommend the soundtrack rather than the video. (12/30/2000)


I went to Billy Elliott feeling suspicious of the rave reviews, saying, like Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th St.: "Yeah, yeah, I believe, I know it's silly but I believe." My gosh, the reviews were right -- this is not a schmaltzy just feel good movie.
It's even better then Brassed Off as a working-class-and-the-arts-movie. It reminded me of my favorite scene in King Vidor's Our Daily Bread: "Your contribution to the group will be giving violin lessons to our children." (chokes me up every time I see that).
The emotion is ratcheted up here because the miners are in the middle of the doomed anti-Thatcher strikes and the dancing kid is simply incredible. The story is told visually through his face, body language amidst the different pressures he's caught between, and that irrepressible dancing (though not comparable to be in Oscar contention vs. non-dancing adults).
This isn't just about working class attitudes towards ballet and gays; their political and financial struggles are real, putting their bodies on the line for their solidarity and economic future.
In the midst of being "unfulfilled," as even the middle class representatives are, is one kid's glimmer of something inconceivable--being different. And what that means in every way to every person who knows, and loves, him.
The music's a surprise -- mostly T. Rex and the Clash. (11/5/2000)


Dancer in the Dark is for fans of Cop Rock, of which I'm one. It's Dead Man Walking meets Pajama Game and Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven.
I'm quite biased against Bjork; even after watching a documentary on her on cable and listening to her interviewed on public radio, I find her weird, with annoying mannerisms, pretentious and her music sounds all the same to me (and I just wanted to put a hairbrush to her hair!) But she is the whole movie. The audience burst out in applause when her name came up in the closing credits. She is incredible. But why make her Czech? Why not make her from, say way Eastern Russia, and give her a "son" who looks something like her.
While the American actors are uniformly terrific, the rest of the casting is of the head-scratching variety. The movie comes across like those T-shirts Japanese tourists wear stringing English words that make no sense together. Why is it set in the state of Washington? It seems like a Socialist Realist anti-American movie (particularly anti-capital punishment and our expensive justice system, where Washington State is full of European immigrants with varying accents. Catherine Deneuve as a factory worker??!!! She's a terrific actress but just woefully miscast.
It is interesting to see Dogme 95 filmmakers realist principles tackle the musical as a genre, as the choreography is for non-dancers with virtually no special effects or editing tricks, and I thought the musical fantasies worked quite well. It is a bit long and draggy in parts.
While it's in English with some American actors, it's definitely a very European movie -- I'm not sure an American would think that Sound of Music was a tap dancing movie. But the odd soundtrack, lyrics by the director, music by Bjork, is haunting. (10/8/2000)


I fell head over heels in love with Cameron Crowe with Say Anything, which out-Romeo's Romeo and Juliet for males-in-love stories for me. I gagged on the sentiment and schmaltz in the overlong Jerry Maguire, but his autobiographical Almost Famous made me fall in love with him again, perhaps this time as a person, not just a director.
While the basic story of sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and money have become the 24/7 fodder of VH-1 (including the Behind the Music segment on his wife and sister-in-law the Wilsons of Heart, which I haven't seen, and its recent TV-movies of fictional and non-fictional bands), this is the wide-screen, four-letter word treatment enveloped in love, nay even worship, of the music and its creators and commentators. It's Behind the Music in a warm, adult bath.
Frances McDormand is simply wonderful as the Mom with guts and love, a character who could have been a shrill shrew in one dimension. Guess I'm getting old when I identify the most with her!
Patrick Fugit is an amazing find as Cameron's alter-ego from his road trips with the Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin
Billy Crudup (inspired by the Eagles' Glenn Frey) could attract even more groupies.
Everyone's hair or wigs or whatever look genuine and accurate for a change.
The disclaimer at the end of the film is worded differently than most movies, claiming it's a work of fiction, except for the "Penny Lane" character as loosely based on the real legendary groupie, which Kate Hudson portrays as quite too angelic (the actress is of legal age, but reminder--the character ain't). Yeah, then what about Philip Seymour Hoffman's impassioned tribute to Lester Bangs? The Rolling Stone editors? Stranger than fiction so it's true is a key airplane flight to Tupelo Mississippi -- whose symbolism will totally go over the heads of any other member of my extended family if they see it.
The audience was mostly teens, and the two other boomers in the audience and I howled at a few references and jokes that went way over Generation Y's heads.
The musical choices are a bit idiosyncratic, mixing pop and rock oddly -- rights issues? Evidently the record company is thrilled that Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" is being used as a key motif, with VH-1 showing the entire scene it's used in and a re-release of the single coming, but that's a song I always rated with "MacArthur Park" (though yeah now it's in my head). The fictional band is mostly written, performed and vetted by Peter Frampton.
I look forward to viewing the special edition DVD called Untitled that has more than a half-hour of cut scenes. (9/24/2000)


High Fidelity is a laugh out loud movie for music cognoscenti.
From the movie's snotty clerks (who are quite a bit like the clerks in the stores I frequent who though I give them a good chunk of my weekly pay check still look at me blankly or worse, are absolutely convinced I will not put rejects back in the right order, and sneer at my purchases until maybe twice a year do I earn some momentary approbation with an obscure selection) to John Cusack's "Rob" reordering his CD collection (gee I have mine in alpha order, well mostly, and still my husband complains he can't find anything. Maybe he'd prefer how this character chose to sort his CDs autobiographically, as in he'd find stuff from when we shared the same taste in music) to the loving explanation of what goes into making a compilation tape (has anyone else been as hurt as I when I spend hours doing a mix tape for a friend or relative and they either just don't get it or worse never listen?)--and here the girlfriend even gets what it means. Too bad Iben Hjejle isn't otherwise convincing in her role.
Critics have pointed out how unusual that this is a relationship movie from a guy's viewpoint and even more interesting that both characters do change. I of course adored Cusack before this (it was Say Anything that convinced me that guys are in fact part of the human species though he didn't co-write that as he did with this though he didn't co-write of that as he did with this adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel I haven't read yet as well as pick the music) and I adore him grown-up even more.(4/19/2000)


Topsy-Turvy follows a very similar trajectory as Shakespeare in Love of spending considerable time getting us familiar with the creators and actors of a theatrical piece then watching how gradually the magic of the theatre takes over and a masterpiece is created that is greater than the sum of its parts.
I hadn't expected to see quite so much in the beginning of Princess Ida, but the point Mike Leigh seems to be making is that there's a reason you don't see Ida so often, that it's not Gilbert & Sullivan's best work. and then compares it to The Mikado.
I loved seeing a scene rehearse of The Mikado, complete with nutsiness from the actors, then we get to see the final staged version.
A surprise is that the movie doesn't end with the curtain coming down on the success, but then we see how success affects the participants. I have no idea of any of the historical accuracy.
While I enjoyed the whole three hours, one of my favorite scenes just focuses on Broadbent's face as Gilbert, as he gradually gets the idea for The Mikado. It's wonderful to see the source of inspiration then see what genius does with that. (2/5/2000)


As a portrait of an artist, Sweet and Lowdown felt like two movies, a biography of a fictional musician and a psycho-biography of Woody Allen.
The fictional part is lovely to look at (though with all the translators listed for the Chinese cinematographer it must have been a complicated shoot).
The pacing does get tiring - vignette, talking head like in Reds, vignette, talking head, with no particular plot or curiosity point to propel one to keep watching.
The music is wonderful to listen to, the originals seamlessly fitting in with the covers, almost too lulling, as it started working like a lullaby on me.
So maybe I missed the point of the ending when the musician stops creating. Unless this is where the fictional and nonfictional come together. It's been made clear that the artist is a horror in his personal life (where the female options are a silent madonna (a wonderful Samantha Morton) and a slut who doesn't shut up (a miscast Uma Thurman though she wears the costumes well).
So when everyone leaves him because they won't tolerate him any more then he can't create anymore, so that's why the Woodman's personal idiosyncrasies need to be catered to. (1/16/2000)


The History of Salsa (Yo soy, del Son a la Salsa) is not a great documentary (I learned other information from a roots music series Harry Belafonte narrated on PBS a few years ago) and it simply assumed too much familiarity from the viewer (I knew just about zip about salsa musicians.)
There's not enough analysis of what each artist they raved about had actually contributed to the genre.
I can't believe that in 100 years Celia Cruz is the only woman in the field.
But this is still worthwhile to see to get exposure to Latin music.(9/21/1997)


Brassed Off is a surprisingly tough anti-Thatcher flick, and I did have some problem with the thick accents now and again.
While I could have done with a bit more romance, there was an excellent story line of working class difficulties to attend to that is similar to downsizing heartbreak here.
Pete Postlethwaite as the band leader/black lunged ex-coal miner was terrific, but so was Stephen Tomlinson as a guy with just everything against him under so many pressures.
Yeah it's a heartwarming story of trying to keep dignity vs. Big Business, it's not a fantasy but upliftingly realistic.
Ewan MacGregor took what could have just been the male ingénue role and was quite intense with it.
Amazingly - there's no child abuse in it, what a relief these days. Everyone here really loves their kids, their jobs, their community, their colliery band. It's just the Tories (and management) they hate.
I just hate to think how hopeless things are for them after the movie ends. (6/14/1997)


I caught Empire Records on HBO the other day - virtually the entire cast has gone on to other things in a big way, with each of those other things being touted as their debut - Brendan Sexton Jr. (of Welcome to the Dollhouse), Liv Tyler (American Beauty etc.), Renee Zwhatever (Jerry Maguire), Anthony Paglia (Murder 1), and so on.
Nice little music movie and they're all good in it.(1/9/1997)


What fun at Grace of My Heart to pick out the cinema a clef references!
Evoking early rock 'n' roll as nicely as one of my favorite rock movie American Hot Wax with wonderful cameos by Chris Isaak, Shawn Colvin, the Williams Brothers, J Mascis all playing others recognizably. The audience came out all discussing who was whom and the accuracy of depictions despite the fictive disclaimer.
And this must be the first movie where the writer/director thanks her child care providers and lists them! It will be worth getting this movie on video just to slow down the credits. (11/14/1996)


To the Mandel Maven's Nest Lilith Watch: Critical Guide to Jewish Women in the Movies and on TV
To the Mandel Maven's Nest Reel Life: Flick Pix
To the Mandel Maven's Nest Television Remote Patrol
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