Friday, March 31, 2006

Film Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004)

A friend had highly recommended Crash and after dinner, my wife and I spontaneously swung by the Chelsea Theatre in Chapel Hill, NC and, because it won Academy Awards in March, this film was playing. It was a difficult and uncomfortable film to watch; I think that it overstated racial problems, but it was worth watching.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Film I for India (Sandhya Suri, 2005)

I am involved with outreach for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and tonight had the fortune of privately previewing Sandhya Suri's I for India documentary on DVD, which will be shown here at the Festival in a few weeks. I thoroughly enjoyed her film, a story of her parents' leaving their home in India in 1965. Her father, Yash Pal Suri, had finished medical school and, part of India's "brain drain", he leaves for England with his wife Sheel and (I believe) daughter Neeraj to practice medicine in the town of Darlington.

One of the first things that Yash does to stay in touch with his family back in Meerut India is to purchase two Super 8 film cameras, two projectors, and two tape recorders. One set he sends to India and the other he uses to document their life in England; each side periodically mails their multimedia journal to the other as an extended postcard/letter.

This film presents a poignant and beautifully made film by his mid-1970s (and youngest?) born daughter, Sandhya. In it, she edits down to 70 minutes her father's 40 years of film and audio journals that chronicle the birth of two more children including Sandhya and Vanita, the pain of the separation from extended family back home, and of the immigrant experience, including excerpts from English news programs about the onslaught of "colored" immigrants.

The film had special significance to me, as my parents also immigrated from India. That said, I think that this film would appeal to anybody interested in bittersweet consequences of families moving ahead due to circumstance while being forced to leave behind some family and tradition.

The story itself is captivating, all the more so since it is made from actual historical footage. Where is home? How should the Suri family respond to urgent appeals to reunify and return to India? Is there opportunity for Yash back in India after some years of building a strong reputation for himself in England? Would the girls prefer to grow up surrounded by people who might look more like them? Does the independence and relative loneliness of English life suit Sheel better than the vibrant chaos of extended family life in India? How does Vanita's interest in settling in Australia impact the already once painfully transplanted family? Voice-over, sounds of old film and tape mechanisms running, and cuts between England and India journals all contribute to the narration. The pathos of the family's being aware of the aging of their parents and other relatives back home but their inability to be there to comfort and assist them is heartfelt in the journal archives. Perhaps the most emotive element is Sandhya's use of contemporary voice-over near the end with film footage from the family's original departure from India being shown.

Coming from a mathematics and German background (uncannily, just as I have), Sandhya built on a shorter family documentary, Safar, to create this film, her first feature-length one. I for India has already won her a number of awards. It is well worth seeing, beautifully made and sentimental but not at all maudlin, a documentary by nature realistically, but also poetically, presented. It's difficult to believe that this is a first feature-length effort; I anxiously await the unfolding of Sandhya Suri's hopefully long film career.

8 1/2 stars out of 10

Links of interest:

Note: all pictures are from the film site and are ©2006 by Sandhya Suri and used with her permission

Friday, March 24, 2006

K. Sridhar Sarod concert, Cookie Music Group live band

I enjoyed a classical Indian concert of sarod music by K. Sridhar at Duke University. He is living locally for a few months in Chapel Hill, NC, and gave a very nice concert today with touches of fusion in his strings toward the end. He was accompanied on tabla by Anil Datar from the Chicago area and a disciple of Anindo Chatterjee.

From the Duke University Performances website: K. Sridhar, Indian sarod master $20 General Admission, $5 Duke students. The two great music traditions of India, that of the North (Hindustani) and that of the South (Carnatic) share the same basic systems but differ in instruments used, the Ragas played and the concept of musical expression. K. Sridhar is an artist who has been able to master both traditions. One of the finest living exponents of the sarod, an instrument of great complexity, Sridhar was, at age 12, the youngest member of Ravi Shankar’s orchestra. He began touring independently in 1981 and has since traveled the world as a solo artist. Cosponsored by Eight Gates Music. More at

Afterwards, I went out for a late night at Tony's Bourbon Street Oyster Bar in Cary, NC, to see Cookie Music Group managed and fronted by Roy Daye out of Charlotte, NC. I loved their 70s music covers, though I thought that their vocals didn't do justice to Marvin Gaye tunes. Otherwise, they were fun to listen and dance to, and even had horns to play tunes by groups like KC and the Sunshine Band as well as Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Film The Governor's New Clothes (Mweze Ngangura, 2004)

Tonight Congolese filmmaker Mweze Ngangura presented at the Duke University Screen Society his The Governor's New Clothes (Les Habits Neufs du Gouverneur). His film spoofs the corruption of petty dictators and is based on Hans Christian Andersen's famous 1835 story The Emperor's New Clothes about a king who thinks he is wearing a glorious outfit, while it is only an imaginary one; do any of his subjects dare reveal the truth of his lack of clothes?

The director chose a musical style, which, in the discussion, he revealed was from the influence of Indian "Bollywood" films. A man is chosen by chance to be the new leader of his African country, causing him embarrassment because he is married to a woman and has a son with her - but they are of rival ethnic background. How does he reconcile his thirst for power with his duty to his family?

I didn't appreciate the film as much as I had expected, and found the music repetitive, simplistic, and even contrived and corny, featuring an ancestor who appears time-to-time singing from within a moon. The story was relatively predictable and didn't keep my interest. But I wouldn't discourage others from seeing it; I may have had cultural blinders on that kept me from seeing more merit in the film.

I posted a review on extracted from here. From the Screen Society web page:

The Governor's New Clothes (Les Habits Neufs Du Gouverneur)(dir. Mweze Ngangura, 2004, 87 min, Democratic Republic of Congo, in French with English subtitles, Color, 35mm)
Not your usual film about African politics, corruption, and vanity -- The Governor's New Clothes is a musical comedy which parodies the trappings of power and African leaders.Mweze Ngangura, the distinguished filmmaker whose work, Pieces d'Identites won the most prestigious award in Africa, the Etalon de Yennega, in 1999, will share his latest feature, The Governor's New Clothes, with the Duke community on Wednesday, March 22, 2006.
Adapted from the Danish writer, Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Emperor's New Clothes" (1835), this remarkably perceptive film is a parable about power and vanity.
Mweze Ngangura on his film The Governor's New Clothes: "[Hans Christian] Andersen exposes the rulers' vanity and mean flattery. What strikes me first in this story is its universal value, more particularly its applicability to the vast majority of African political regimes. …I wanted to situate the action in the political and cultural context of the 'murderous reality' of present day Africa. The film evolves against a background of war between two ethnic groups, the Zerbos and the Krowas. Tabou, the main character (the Governor), is a Zerbo who personally feels the dilemma of being married to a Krowa (Mopaya), with whom he has a son, Little Prince. The choice of names for the ethnic groups - 'Zerbo' and 'Krowa' -corruption of 'Serbo' and 'Croat' - indicates my clear reference to the fact that ethnic conflicts are not an African monopoly. At the same time, the film wants to maintain the universal nature of the fairy-tale. The Emperor's New Clothes is a musical comedy on the theme of abuse of power, with as a main story line the history of a family on the verge of collapse."

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Dancing to Zydeco band Rosie Ledet and the Zydeco Playboys

My wife and I attended a Zydeco dance at the First Durham Music and Dance Festival. I loved my first exposure to Zydeco music on April 25, 1997 at the fabulous annual (pre-Hurricane Katrina) New Orleans Jazz Festival. We went early for Zydeco lessons and then enjoyed dancing to the music of Rosie Ledet and the Zydeco Playboys, as well as watching the musicians. I'm not good at learning dance steps, but we had a very nice time. I found, by the way, a good Zydeco and Cajun site from my alma mater, including online dance steps.

Morris Ledet, Rosie's husband, was on bass; Lanice Ledet was on rubboard; Kent August played guitar (or was it another guitarist?); and a young man, perhaps Morris and Rosie's son, Lukey Ledet played drums. From the Festival web site:

MARY ROSEZLA BELLARD LEDET, born in rural Church Point, Louisiana, learned to play the accordion by watching her husband play and then practiced on his accordion while he worked during the day.

Since rising to the front of her husband's Zydeco band, Rosie has been performing steadily throughout the Louisiana-Texas Zydeco circuit, as well as playing from one coast to the other. Last year she appeared at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, St Louis Blues Festival, Frog Island Festival and others across the country.

Rosie plays more of the traditional style Cajun and Zydeco music, and she composes her own songs. It's been said that Zydeco is 'blues with an accent', and Rosie adds a touch of blues and Creole French to her songs. Rosie and her band have quickly become the act to watch on the zydeco circuit. She scored the #1 song on KVOL with I'm Gonna Take Care Of Your Dog, and won three Best Of The Best awards from Offbeat Magazine, including Best Zydeco Band or Performer, Best New Zydeco Group or Performer, and Best Vocalist.

One of a small handful of women in Zydeco, Rosie has been enjoying year after year of success. Her warm stage presence combined with the infectious Zydeco beat, makes her irresistible to audiences. She also is one of the few younger Zydeco players who still writes and sings some of her own material in Creole French.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Play The Trip to Bountiful

My friend Claire Newlon played the lead role in the Young People's Performing Company production of the Oscar-winning 1985 The Trip to Bountiful, and I had the delight to see her tonight! It was a touching story of Carrie Watts, played very well by Claire, a retiree living in Houston in the 1940s with her son Ludie and daughter-in-law Jessie Mae. Mrs. Watts longs to return to Bountiful, a tiny Texas town that she grew up in, but Ludie is too busy to make what he feels is an unnecessary trip to a town long forgotten by progress. Jessie Mae is unrespectful and demanding.

All the teenagers did laudable jobs! I was surprised how effectively they were able to tell this emotive and mature story. I look forward to attending a future performance by YPPC!

Friday, March 17, 2006

Film His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940); Bands Jaafar Music and Toubab Krewe

I saw His Girl Friday tonight at the North Carolina Museum of Art's Winter 2006 Film Series. What a fun and fast-paced film with dialogue at times flying too fast to catch all of it! It was originally a play named The Front Page featuring I believe two lead male actors, instead of one female and one male, as in the film. From the film series website:

The Front Page, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, a hard-boiled comedy about Chicago cops, corruption and the newspaper business, gets a gender reversal overhaul, outing the workplace romance of Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson. ... Never released on home video—rare print!

My friend Troy who fronts the band Jaafar Music (which just won for the second year running an award from the local Independent newspaper as best local band playing international music) was playing in downtown Raleigh's Lincoln Theatre. After the film, I caught about half of Jaafar Music's 1-hour set - talented and intricate music, always a pleasure to see their brand of fusion jazz with Middle Eastern and some Indian influence.

I stayed on to see Toubab Krewe, and they turned out to be great! This Asheville, NC-based band influenced by West African music has been together about a year and already have attracted the attention of several music festivals they've played at (they're getting ready to leave for Colorado, California, and other places in the West) and several newspapers even including the New York Times. The five musicians made many extended visits to Africa, Mali in particular, and played fabulous music, with tremendous percussion and very interesting stringed instruments, including one instrument that looked a little like a sitar. What a fun evening!

Monday, March 06, 2006

Film Guardian of the Frontier (Varuh meje; Maya Weiss, 2002)

I was disappointed with Guardian of the Frontier that was shown tonight by the Duke University Screen Society. It promised to be a contemporary Eastern European version of the classic 1972 adventure film Deliverance, about three young college women taking a river canoe journey. I found it unconvincing and flat, and was surprised to see that it has won some awards - maybe I missed some cultural context that would have made this more appealing. You can read my more detailed imdb review.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Film Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933)

Tonight at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, I saw as part of the Winter 2006 Film Series the 1933 Baby Face. What was shown was a new 35mm print of the uncensored original, preserved and released on January 24, 2005 by the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry.

This early "talkie" film addresses what must have been a risque subject for 1933, that of a strong woman (Lily Powers, played admirably by Barbara Stanwyck) who, rather than sitting back and becoming a victim of circumstances, uses her charm to gain wealth in New York City. It had a number of funny moments and features Barbara Stanwyck's acting, though most of the other characters are not deeply developed.

From the film series website:

Sultry Lily, pimped by her degenerate father, breaks free and sleeps her way to the top of an Art Deco skyscraper with no regrets. Baby Face was one of the most notorious films of the Pre-Code era, and is often cited as one of the causes of film censorship being imposed in mid-1934. The heroine, Lily, uses her sexuality both for empowerment and well as social mobility, and thrives with her sinful lifestyle. Certainly, there are plenty of men willing to participate in her horizontal negotiations. The censors felt the film was “glorifying vice” and ordered it edited to show “morally compensating values.” Library of Congress Film Curator Mike Mashon recently discovered an unedited negative from which this new 35mm print is restored. Plus the musical short, Don Redman and his Orchestra. New 35mm print.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Film 27 Missing Kisses (Nana Djordjadze, 2000)

The Duke University Screen Society showed 27 Missing Kisses tonight. It is a film from Georgia in the previous Soviet Union. The main character, Sibylla played by Nutsa Kukhianidze, is a free-spirited tomboy who enlivens a small town where she is visiting her aunt. I found the film to be edgy, zany with nonsequiturs, and interesting though perhaps self-referentially absorbed. I probably missed key cultural context, though the film's narrative style did remind me a bit of Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. The setting and photography were quite appealing.

From the official film website:

A hot Summer. A Broken Promise. A tragic comic Love Story.

It was a Summer unlike any other. Sybille promised Mickey one hundred kisses before the Autumn. But he only got 73.

This is the story of a beautiful, romantic and very upsetting Summer, somewhere in the East. The Summer of the Eclipse. Fourteen year-old Sybille arrives in this sleepy little town to spend her vacation with Aunt Martha. By the time she leaves, nothing will be the same.

On day one she falls in love like never before: With Alexander, the astronomer who looks after the old observatory and who is a somewhat lonely widower. He is forty-one and thinks Sybille is too young for love.

Equally fast, Alexander's son Mickey, also fourteen, falls for Sybille. He knows she must belong to him - at all cost - but she doesn´t take him seriously. And Alexander pretends not to see what is happening.

Sybille is not to be underestimated. It is as if she has electrified the small town. Everyone feels a mad yearning for love. Illiopolous, the schoolteacher, has a heart-attack whilst with his mistress. And Pjotr, the night-watchman, has a most unfortunate encounter with a weapons-grade steel ring.

The arrival of a French Captain in search of the Sea, and the secret screening of an old Emmanuelle film at the local armaments factory bring things to a head.....

96', 35mm, DolbySR

Links of interest: