Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite: A Dark Historical Comedy for Our Time

The idle classes have been embarrassing themselves in song long before the Strokes or Bon Iver ever mumbled a fractured lyric or two into their phones’ memo banks. Xavier Giannoli‘s hilariously snarky black comedy Marguerite, now showing at the Angelika and the Paris Theatre, 4 W 58th St., explores that dynamic in a Roaring 20s setting, something akin to the Coen Brothers in French.

The film draws its inspiration from Florence Foster Jenkins, an American socialite whose childhood success as a pianist was counterbalanced, grotesquely, by her utter ineptitude as a wannabe opera singer. Where Jenkins largely performed for her fellow one-tenth-of-one-percenters at society functions, Giannoli’s fictional Marguerite Dumont (a spot-on, beaming, sincerely delusional Catherine Frot) warbles, off-key to her special cercle, who only tolerate her since she’s the one footing the tab for lavish soirées at her château.

Enter music critic Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide, in a role that never gets the chance to resolve a couple of potentially tasty subplots), vaulting over the castle wall with his wingman in tow. Realizing that Marguerite is missing something upstairs and that she could be played for her money, Beaumont writes a fawning review. Spurred by this unexpected critical reaction – and then by several which are not exactly glowing – Marguerite fixates on putting on her first big public performance. Meanwhile, her long-suffering husband (a devastatingly deadpan Andre Marcot) is equally dead set against further public embarrassment, resorting to one subterfuge after another.

To further complicate matters, Beaumont hooks her up with a has-been operatic tenor ( Michel Fau, in a hilariously foulmouthed, louche performance) as a vocal coach. At this point, it looks like he and the grifters in his entourage are actually going to get Marguerite to pull together a set and get through it in front of a real audience. Even her husband grudgingly admits that she’s not as bad as she was when she first fancied herself a diva.

It’s here that Giannoli’s satire kicks into high gear. You want to root for Marguerite, the outsider who only lives for her art, mangled though it might be. But every time she tries to justify her hobby-gone-wild, she falls flat on her face. She may play the wide-eyed innocent, but underneath she’s a bored dillettante and a classist pig. Likewise, as hubby’s attempts at sabotage become more and more farcical, it becomes clear that he’s not about to sacrifice any business scheme or schmoozing to placate his increasingly erratic wife.

Giannolli, who both wrote and directed, faithfully evokes both an early 1920s Surrealist demimonde – and its hijinks – as well as a post-WWI French upper crust trying to maintain a shaken stolidity. Snide one-liners fly fast and furious in period-perfect slang (which, sadly, the English subtitles often don’t come close to capturing). The ending is sudden and unexpected, and while not foreshadowed, makes sense considering Giannoli’s worldview, although the implication that Jenkins/Marguerite wouldn’t have made such a spectacle of herself if her husband had been more attentive doesn’t hold water, at least here. Ultimately, karma is a bitch: payback is even more of one.

Advertisements

March 12, 2016 Posted by | classical music, Film, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Suspense Is Relentless in Jon Watts’ New Film Cop Car, Starring Kevin Bacon

On a filmmaking level, up-and-coming new director Jon Watts’ Cop Car is a clinic in how to get the most bang for the buck. With minimal dialogue and a relentless, nailbiter plot that’s all the more sinister for its simplicity, Watts wrings nonstop suspense out of a small, tightly wound cast of newcomers and veterans.

James Freedson-Jackson plays the nonchalantly type A Travis; Hays Wellford is his klutzy sidekick, Harrison. As the film opens, the two middle-schoolers are running away from home on a lark (the comedic opening dialogue, too obscenely funny to give away here, sets the stage perfectly). Armed with a single Slim Jim, they wander upon a police cruiser belonging to Sherriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon, projecting a chilling amorality via a worn but still dangerous presence that harks back to a million Old West archetypes). If you buy the premise that a couple of eleven-year-olds can steal a police cruiser without (sort of) crashing it, you’re in for a wild ride.

The cinematography draws heavily on the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple as well as David Cronenberg’s adventures slumming among the lower classes. The wide-open Colorado vistas predictably owe a debt to Terrence Malilck’s Badlands. In what ought to be a welcoming big sky milieu that turns menacing in a heartbeat, the two kids quickly establish a pattern: who’s going to get killed first? Is the arsenal inside the cruiser that will be responsible (there’s a rather heavyhanded anti-gun subtext throughout the film)? Simple lack of experience behind the wheel? Or will Bacon’s bad cop bring the incessant foreshadowing to a bloodthirsty peak?

Bacon is brilliant in his portrayal of the hypocritical Kretzer. What’s most fascinating to watch is how Bacon plays an actor: everything Kretzer is supposed to be, he’s not. His best moment of many is when he rehearses what he’s going to tell his dispatcher, to convince her to keep in touch with him via cellphone rather than the cruiser’s radio, since the kids are having a ball (for a time) with it. Whether with a slow break of a stony countenance, a hitch in an otherwise confident gait, or, finally, a smile into a feral snarl, Bacon slowly lets pure evil out of its cage. Camryn Manheim provides a brave contrast in a cameo toward the end of the film as the witness who could be the key to the kids escaping from Kretzer’s cat-and-mouse game.

The only Rotten Tomatoes moment is when Kretzer lackadaisically ignores some damning DNA evidence that no one with any basic knowledge of forensic science would ever leave behind. Otherwise, Watts sells the idea that these two clueless kids could go as far as they do on their joyride from hell. Even the ending is unsettled. The film hits theatres on August 7.

August 7, 2015 Posted by | Film, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Controversial Babushkas of Chernobyl Opens Today at the LA Film Festival

One of the innumerable dangers of filming a documentary on the remarkable resilience of the octogenarian women who are essentially illegal squatters on their own land in the “exclusion zone” around the Chernobyl nuclear accident site is that taken out of context, it plays right into the hands of rightwing extremists and Fox News – and for that matter, the nomenklatura left over from the Soviet regime who mismanaged the disaster. “Look, that clod from Kiev just drank from the Pripyat River that runs right past the nuclear plant – and he didn’t die! And he says the water tastes better than it does in Kiev!”

Holly Morris and Anne Bogart’s new film The Babushkas of Chernobyl makes its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival at 11:45 AM today at the Regal 14 and repeats there at 6 PM Wednesday, June 17. On the surface, it’s a celebration of the triumph of the human spirit. It’s also a chilling study in the psychology of denial. It’s a surreal, funny, and very disturbing portrait of the strange characters who’ve gravitated to the deadliest place on earth outside of Japan. It also raises the question of whether subtle, objectively inclined show-don’t-tell filmmaking leaves itself open to dangerous and potentially deadly misinterpretation. On one hand, the film’s only egregious inaccuracy is quoting one journalist’s claim that thyroid cancer is the only form of the disease that’s been definitively linked to the calamity. On the other, is it safe to leave it to the viewer to possibly assume that since a few hundred subsistence farmers can survive on toxic land and fish from a toxic river for thirty years, we can, say, build luxury condos across the street from Three Mile Island?

The women portrayed in the film are touching, and endearing. They’re all widows. They’re as dirt poor as villagers in the third world, yet they hang on, socialize with each other when they can, distill moonshine, drink a lot, sing ancient folk songs and celebrate the seasonal village holidays centered around the harvest cycle. And they’re batty. The most articulate of them – a first-responder on the fateful night of April 26, 1986, when Reactor #4 exploded – credits her vegaquarian diet and regular use of herbs for her longevity. Another brags that the women who snuck under brush and through barbwire to return to their ancestral land are more robust and longer-lived than their contemporaries who were evacuated scores or even hundreds of miles away and never returned. A physician in the area – who, in one of the film’s most most chilling scenes, keeps his thoughts under wraps even as he measures significant levels of cesium poisoning in one of the babushkas – credits the power of positive thinking, people content to be in their homes rather than miserable in exile.

The exclusion zone itself is a misnomer. Until the past decade, the other reactors at the Chernobyl plant were in use. In a twist of considerable irony, the area is now a dumping ground for nuclear waste from other area plants. Scientists regularly visit to gather samples and assess the longterm consequences, and there are regular guided tours. The film’s most surreal character is the chipper young tour guide. Like many of the area workers, she’s fond of the babushkas, visiting them and sometimes bringing provisions. How does she react when confronted with the risk of contamination from the spread one of the old women has put in front of her? “Eat and drink only the minimum,” she blithely observes in her fractured English, munching on a pickle that may well be coated with cesium, strontium or even plutonium isotopes that are virtually as lethal as they were the night the reactor blew up.

The film’s greatest strength is when Morris and Bogart let area workers speak. Doctors and scientists shake their heads:”These people are not living in reality,” one laments. Death lurks in the background everywhere: what’s implied but never addresed is that the “liquidators” sent in to collect and bury the most lethal debris, and the emergency personnel sent to the plant, were dying off fast just months afterward. And while the contamination isn’t spread evenly over the area, “safe” spots on the forest floor lie inches from soil that pins the needle on the geiger counter.

That clod from Kiev who drank Chernobyl river water – whose illegal camping trip in the exclusion zone was modeled on a popular video game – described the area as a “postapocalyptic romance.” It remains to be seen how long the romance will last for him beyond its fenced-off perimeter. If there ever was a documentary that screams out for a sequel, this is it.

June 14, 2015 Posted by | Film, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Josephine Decker’s Menacing Balkan Noir Film Butter on the Latch Debuts This Week

Filmmaker Josephine Decker is also an accomplished accordionist, and a member of all-female accordion group the Main Squeeze Orchestra. She credits the first time she saw a show by Raya Brass Band – the explosive Balkan brass jamband – as a life-changing experience. So it’s no surprise that experience would springboard what would ultimately become her first feature film, the deliciously creepy Butter on the Latch, which opens at the IFP Center, 30 John St. in Dumbo (on a double feature with her second full-length horror film, Thou Wast Mild & Lovely) on Nov 14, when it will also be out on VOD.

Reduced to most basic terms, Butter on the Latch contemplates how men disrupt or fracture relationships between women (although women do the same thing to men – talk to your buddy at the bar, if you can find him on a night when he’s not off with his girlfriend). The disruptions and fractures in this film come suddenly and unexpectedly, even if the progression toward those cataclysmic events makes perfect sense as the narrative unfolds. Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence are pure dynamite in contrasting roles as students at Balkan camp, a retreat in what at first seems like an idyllic northern California woodland setting where bemused expats from Eastern Europe teach the eerie harmonies and befuddling rhythms of their native folk music to an eager cast of American kids.

On face value, Balkan camp seems like the funnest place in the world, where half the population is half in the bag by lunchtime, and where getting laid seems like part of the curriculum. Although Decker’s version maxes out the dread of its deep-woods milieu, it owes less to the Blair Witch films than to David Lynch (much of its iconography borrows heavily from both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks), with a fond nod to Bergman’s Persona. The woman-to-woman dialogue couldn’t have been written any better, or more spot-on, than Sarah and Isolde (who each use their real first names in the film) improvise here. Their sometimes winking, sometimes feral, sometimes tender intimacy captures both the spontaneity and snark that Lou Reed was shooting for with the girls in the Velvet Underground’s The Gift, but couldn’t quite nail.

Ashley Connor’s cinematography careens in and out of focus, which is jarring at first, until it’s obvious that this story is being told from the point of view of a woman who literally can’t see straight. Complicating the picture is that Isolde relies on Sarah for stability, a misjudgment with disturbing consequences. One particular scene, the two staggering into the woods with what’s left of a bottle of wine as the sun goes down and then out, is as chilling as it is funny – and it’s absolutely hilarious.

Further complicating matters is the appearance of Steph (Charlie Hewson), a hunky guitarist that one of the duo can’t resist. A cat-and-mouse game with interchanging roles heightens the suspense, their interaction interspersed among what seem to be actual unstaged moments from music class or performances which help illustrate what the serious (i.e. not alcohol or sex-related) side of Balkan camp is all about. As cruel and cynical as it is surreal, Butter on the Latch is a riveting debut that solidly establishes Decker as an individual voice in 21st century noir cinema.

The soundtrack is sensationally good and appropriately haunting, with contributions by ensembles led by Merita Halili and Raif Hyseni along with Small’s own otherworldly Balkan choral trio Black Sea Hotel and others. It’s a playlist that deserves to exist as a stand-alone album: it could convert as wide an audience to Balkan music as the initial Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares albums did twenty-odd years ago.

November 11, 2014 Posted by | Film, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Filmmakers Sara Leavitt and Ryan C. Douglass Chronicle Martin Bisi’s Legendary Brooklyn Music Hotspot

When Martin Bisi signed the $500-a-month lease for what would become BC Studio, it’s unlikely that anyone would have predicted that the Gowanus basement space would become one of the world’s most revered places to record, to rival Abbey Road, Electric Ladyland and Rockfield Studios in Wales. Sara Leavitt and Ryan C. Douglass‘ gracefully insightful and poignant new documentary film Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio chronicles Bisi’s individualistic rise to underground music icon, via talking heads, candid conversation with Bisi himself and tantalizing archival footage of bands throughout the studio’s thirty-three year history.

Bisi recorded Herbie Hancock’s Rockit while still in his teens, winning a Grammy in the process, which brought in a deluge of work. Beginning in the mid-80s, Bisi became the go-to guy in New York for bands that went for a dark, assaultive, experimentally-inclined sound. A short list of his best-known production gigs includes John Zorn’s Spy vs. Spy album, multiple projects for Sonic Youth, the Dresden Dolls’ debut as well as more recent work with Serena-Maneesh, Black Fortress of Opium, Ten Pound Heads and Woman, to name just a few.

In the late 70s, when he wasn’t doing sound and stage work for Bill Laswell’s Material, Bisi could be found hanging out at CBGB and offering to do do sound for bands. “I like to be around things that are happening and this was one way to do that,” he explains early in the narrative. The Material connection led to Brian Eno putting up the seed money for the studio – although after some initial ambient experiments there, the composer pretty much backed out of the picture, something the film doesn’t address. Perhaps the space was grittier than what he’d envisioned for his more outside adventures in ambient sounds.

The film vividly captures Bisi’s sardonic humor and surprising humility but also a fierce pride of workmanship and sense of place in New York history. All of these qualities inform the grimness that underscores the story. Bisi’s “blood is fifty percent coffee,” as Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione, one of the more colorful interviewees, puts it, and that intensity fuels plenty of the film’s more memorably twisted moments. As the story goes, Bisi kills a rodent with a dumbbell during a Swans session and gets credit for it in the cd liner notes. Thurston Moore pulls a rather cruel practical joke on Lee Ranaldo during a particularly tough Sonic Youth take that ends up immortalized on vinyl. Fast forward about twenty years, and Viglione takes a ball peen hammer to the wrought iron stairs on the way down to the main room, the results of which can be heard on the recording of the Dresden Dolls’ Miss Me. Plenty of time is also devoted to the studio’s role as a focal point in the formative years of hip-hop in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

The film winds out on a rather elegaic note, as Bisi and the rest of the Gowanus artistic community uneasily await the opening of a branch of an expensive organic supermarket, anticipating a deluge of evictions and gentrification as the neighborhood’s buildings are sold off to crowds of yuppies and trendoids. The talented drummer Sarah Blust, of Rude Mechanical Orchestra and Marmalade, eloquently speaks for her fellow musicians in the neighborhood, with a resigned anger. In the film’s climax, Bisi goes out into a snowstorm to pay his first visit to the new store: the scene is priceless. In addition to its aisles and aisles of pricy artisanal food, this particular branch of the chain is especially twee: it sells used vinyl. Bisi’s reaction after thumbing through the bins there drew howls from the audience at the film’s premiere at Anthology Film Archives.

There’s a long wishlist of stuff that’s not in the movie. Admittedly, a lot of it is soundguy arcana: how Bisi EQ’d the room; his trick for mic placements in the different spaces for various instruments; or the magic formula for how he achieves such a rich high midrange sound, his signature throughout his career, in what appears to be a boomy, barewall basement milieu. What’s also strangely and very conspicuously absent is even a single mention of Bisi’s career as a solo artist. A distinctive songwriter, composer and guitarist, his work as a musician has the same blend of old-world craftsmanship and outside-the-box adventure that marks his career behind the board. Other than a playful few bars behind the drum kit – which he appears simply to be setting up for a session – there’s not a hint that he even plays an instrument. But Bisi seems ok with that. Maybe that’s the sequel.

July 18, 2014 Posted by | Film, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The First-Ever Full-Length NYC Subway Art Documentary Resurrected at BAM

What’s most heartbreaking about Manfred Kirchheimer‘s  practically dialogue-less 1981 documentary Stations of the Elevated is that all of the artwork featured in the film is gone forever. Some of it was sandblasted, some sent to the scrapyard and the rest of it is at the bottom of the Atlantic. Did you know that’s where most New York City subway cars have gone to their final resting place in recent years, ostensibly serving as artificial reefs, asbestos insulation and all? Fortunately, you can see all of the long-gone, distinctively New York-flavored guerrilla art immortalized when the film – the first full-length documentary on New York City subway art – screens on June 27 at 8 PM at BAM’s Harvey Theatre. Advance tix are $25 and highly recommended. What’s also hard to believe is that this screening kicks off the movie’s first-ever theatrical run (it premiered at the 1981 New York Film Festival but lacked the music licenses necessary for a fullscale release). As a special enticement, the Charles Mingus repertory ensemble Mingus Dynasty will perform beforehand – it’s a good assumption that they’ll be playing music from the film soundtrack.

How fortuituous for future generations of New Yorkers that the filmmaker was out trainspotting with his camera, catching subways (mostly on the 4 and 5 line) as they rolled past, or into the Dyre Avenue station. Without Kirchheimer, there’s be far less evidence of the haphazard talent of legendary graffiti artists like Lee, Fab 5 Freddy, Shadow, Daze, Kase, Butch, Blade, Slave, 12 T2B, Ree, and Pusher, all of whom are represented. Kirchheimer wisely chose to film from spots where the trains would be moving at little more than a walking pace, and his lens lingers. Yet the effect is often akin to a series of jump cuts, tantalizing the viewer. Obviously, Kirchheimer wanted to capture as much as he could in a limited amount of time (45 minutes): to say that he scored is an understatement.

Kirchheimer’s background, other than as a documentarian, is as a film editor, which served him well here. Juxtaposed with the languid, now rather quaint (and for New Yorkers of a certain age and sensibility, impossibly nostalgic) shots of the trains in all their spraycan glory are images of campy billboards (the smoking Marlboro Man is priceless) and an upstate prison that from above bears a remarkable resemblance to the MTA train yards. The sound editing mirrors the editing of the film itself, a handful of Charles Mingus compositions cut and pasted with a rather sardonic bass solo from the composer himself front and center. There’s also a long gospel refrain from Aretha Franklin as the film winds out.

Kirchheimer has been quick to admit that he knew little about graffiti art when he began work on the film, and that the project opened his eyes to what he has termed a “scream from the ghetto.” Ironically, much as many of the deaths heads, cartoon figures and hastily painted yet stunningly lavish car-length tableaux make for a perverse celebration of civic pride. New York may have been gritty in those days, but it was those artists’ New York. Shame on the powers that be for failing to realize that and for destroying it (a sick cycle that perpetuates itself – yesterday’s cover of Metro featured a gang of gung-ho volunteers hell-hent on eliminating graffiti and graffiti art completely throughout the five boroughs). And kudos to Kirchheimer for preserving it with such a wry, keenly aware sensibility.

June 10, 2014 Posted by | Art, Film, jazz, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment