Nov 272012

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By Joe Bendel. China is a big country. In 1917, a man could get lost there if he had a reason to. A court investigator suspects an unassuming paper-mill worker is such a person in Peter Ho-sun Chan’s martial arts historical-procedural Dragon (a.k.a. Wu Xia), which opens this Friday in New York.

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One day, Liu Jin-xi wandered into town, catching the eye of Ayu, a single mother deserted by her husband. Liu married her, adopting her clan name and providing the sort of stability she yearned for. Then one day two escaped convicts start terrorizing the community. Liu dispatches them with a series of “lucky shots” in an unlikely melee that could have been choreographed by one of the great silent film comedians. Or perhaps not.

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Xu Bai-jiu is not buying it. Highly skilled in arcane knowledge, the investigator can practically see Liu radiating chi. Putting two and two together, Xu deduces Liu is actually Tang Long, the presumptive heir of the ruthless 72 Demons criminal clan. Unfortunately, Xu’s efforts with the corrupt judiciary attract the attention of the 72 Demons, who come reclaim their turncoat brother, one way or another.

Considering Wu Xia (as Dragon was then known) broke Michael Jackson’s record for the largest public billboard, one might expect it to be a big sprawling epic. Yet, Dragon is a moody character driven piece, dominated by the cat-and-mouse game played by Donnie Yen’s Liu and Takeshi Kaneshiro’s Xu. Of course, action director Yen does his thing when the Demons show up – including late 1970’s Shaw Brothers superstar Kara Hui, who appears as the Demon Master’s lethal wife. Fans will be happy to hear he stages some great smack-down action, including a super finale smartly incorporating the film’s holistic themes.

Yen has the right mix of affability and earnestness for Tang-trying-to-be-Liu. Yet it is Xu who emerges as the film’s truly tragic figure. Cerebral and intense to the point of snapping, Kaneshiro makes a great movie anti-hero. A man who uses acupuncture to deaden his emotions and holds regular dialogues with his subconscious, Xu’s unyielding fealty to the letter of the law bears bitter fruit for everyone, most definitely including himself. Tang Wei is also right on the money as the sensitive Ayu, still struggling with abandonment issues.

Chan knows his way around the set of a large scale action film, having helmed The Warlords and produced Teddy Chen’s high octane Bodyguards and Assassins. He certainly delivers the martial arts goods, but it is his early scenes establishing Liu as a family man, filmed with a pastoral beauty by Jake Pollock or Lai Yiu-fai, that set-up the film’s dramatic essence so effectively. It is a life viewers will agree is worth fighting for. Smarter and more emotionally engaging than most wuxia period action films, Dragon (or Wu Xia) is highly recommended for genre fans when it opens this Friday (11/30) in New York at the Village East.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on November 27th, 2012 at 11:22am.

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By Joe Bendel. Notorious British Rock and Jazz drummer Ginger Baker is the sort of difficult individual people often call a “character” to be polite. There is plenty of “character” talk going on throughout a new warts-and-all documentary profile of the former Cream musician. However, some of his very former colleagues choose not to mince their words in Jay Bulger’s Beware of Mr. Baker, which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Baker is the king of widely acclaimed but short-lived bands, like Cream, Blind Faith, Ginger Baker’s Airforce, Masters of Reality, and a dynamite legit jazz band Baker formed during his Colorado residency. He is a major reason why each outfit struck a chord with listeners and critics alike, and also the primary cause of their premature demise. Just ask Eric Clapton, Baker’s colleague from Cream and Blind Faith. Bulger does exactly that. While the timeless guitarist tries to be diplomatic, it is clear Baker the Wildman scared the holy heck out of him—and probably still does.

It is mind-blowing to watch Baker’s repeating pattern of career comebacks cut short by self-sabotage. A case in point would be his African sojourn, partly documented in Tony Palmer’s rather engaging Ginger Baker in Africa. Arguably at the height of his fame, Baker went off the grid, traveling to a decidedly unstable Nigeria to explore traditional forms of music. Yet somehow he managed to fall in with Fela Kuti, who was not particularly inclined towards Europeans appropriators, only to alienate the musician-activist by joining the Nigerian ruling class’s Polo Club (that part Palmer misses out on).

In fact, polo has often been the downfall of Mr. Baker. Those ponies are expensive and they draw the attention of tax inspectors like a magnet. Still, the polo club Baker founded in Colorado and the jazz concerts his group gave after matches emerges in Bulger’s account as a brief high point in the drummer’s chaotic life.

While not Bulger’s uppermost concern, Beware makes a compelling case on behalf of Colorado’s local jazz talent. If you can satisfy Ginger Baker, than you can play with anyone. In fact, he had a great ear, recruiting excellent musicians like Fred Hess and trumpeter Ron Miles, who also appears as an interview subject. Of course, most of the film’s potential audience will be more interested in the likes of Clapton, Steve Winwood, Stones drummer Charlie Watts, Cream bassist Jack Bruce, Johnny Rotten, Lars Ulrich, Stewart Copeland, Femi Kuti, and various ex-wives. If there is anyone Bulger couldn’t get, they aren’t missed.

There is something perversely inspiring about Baker’s resiliency. He keeps doing it his way, regardless of the consequences. Beware captures all the madness of the Ginger Baker experience, but Bulger tries his best not to let it overshadow the music. Naturally, Baker is often his own worst enemy in this respect. Yet, somehow viewers will want to listen to Baker’s classic tracks after witnessing his spectacularly anti-social behavior. That is a neat trick Bulger deserves mucho credit for pulling off. A thoroughly entertaining documentary chocked full of unforgettable headshaking, face-palming moments, Beware of Mr. Baker is recommended for fans of rock, jazz, world music, and all around excess when it opens this Wednesday (11/28) at New York’s Film Forum.

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on November 27th, 2012 at 11:21am.

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By Joe Bendel. They lack the official recognition of the Falasha Ethiopians, but a small group of Igbo Nigerians remain convinced they are part of one of the ten lost tribes of Israel. ‘Small’ would be the word to emphasize here; in a country almost entirely divided between Christian and Muslim believers, Jewish Nigerians are a distinct minority. Nonetheless, growing numbers of Igbos are embracing Judaism as part of their heritage. Jeff L. Lieberman documents their lives and faith in Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria, which screens as part of the 2012 African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

It is complicated, but many Igbo believe they are the modern day descendants of the Tribe of Gad. It could certainly be possible, but it would have been one arduous trek. One has to have a little faith. Still, the Jewish Igbo point to striking ways their language and culture corresponds to Hebrew and Jewish religious practices. Tragically, the Igbo experience during the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War also somewhat paralleled that of European Jewry during World War II, with an estimated three million Igbo killed due to the massacres and economic blockades perpetrated by the Muslim north.

From "Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria."

Whether Eri, fifth son of Gad, really made it to Nigeria hardly matters to Rabbi Howard Gorin, who emerges in Re-Emerging as one of the most impassioned international advocates for the Jewish Igbos. Like Rabbi Gorin, the Jewish scholars who have visited the Igbo community describe the experience for Lieberman as inspiring and even humbling.

Indeed, there are some surprisingly affecting moments in Re-Emerging. Lieberman also supplies a good deal of helpful cultural-historical context without bogging down the film in anthropological minutia. Nor does Lieberman turn a blind eye on the institutional corruption afflicting Nigeria at large. Yet he raises the intriguing question of what Igbo Judaism might mean for African-Americans, many of whom are descended from captured Igbo slaves, without fully exploring the implications.

Re-Emerging is an informative film that broadens one’s perspective on both the Jewish and African Diasporas. Indeed, it is a laudably inclusive selection of this year’s ADIFF that ought to expand the festival’s audience. Recommended for multicultural and multi-faith audiences, Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria screens next Monday (12/3) at the Columbia Teachers College Chapel as the 2012 ADIFF continues in venues throughout New York.

LFM GRADE: B-

Posted on November 27th, 2012 at 11:21am.

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