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By Joe Bendel. Can you separate an artist’s work from their offensive ideology? Hollywood asks Middle America to do exactly that nearly every weekend. Granted, the case of Richard Wagner is of a much higher magnitude. After all, we know whose favorite composer he was. Stephen Fry is also an ardent admirer, who tries to reconcile his beloved music with the man’s problematic legacy in Patrick McGrady’s Wagner & Me, which opens this Friday in New York.

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Fry is clearly a civilized man of the arts, who actually lost family members in the Holocaust. He also loves Wagner’s music. Love might be an understatement. Touring the celebrated Bayreuth concert hall built to the composer’s specifications as it prepares for its annual Wagner festival, Fry is absolutely giddy. All his sophistication deserts him. It is a total fanboy geek out.

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Frankly, Fry might cringe at some of this footage in years to come, but on the other hand, cynicism is overrated. Fry conveys his passion for the music and God bless him for it. To his credit, though, he does not ignore the dark side of Wagner. While he does not delve too deeply into the composer’s documented anti-Semitic sentiments, he fully explores the way Hitler and the National Socialists used the long deceased Wagner to legitimize their reign of insanity. W&M is particularly eye-opening when addressing the support Wagner’s heirs lent to Hitler at a very early stage in his career. Fry also visits a violinist who survived the concentration camps to get her considered judgment on Wagner, which is indeed quite reasonable and reflective.

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From "Wagner and Me."

Wagner will always be a tricky figure to come to terms with. On a basic level, an artist like Wagner or a veteran of film and television like Fry cannot help it if some unsavory characters become fans of their work. Yet, many will fairly argue there were chauvinistically nationalistic themes in Wagner’s operas that were all too compatible with National Socialism. Fry somewhat tries to rehabilitate his idol (while wisely refraining from the “he was a big fan of Mendelssohn and some of his best friends were Jewish” defense the Wagner establishment has floated), but he never closes the deal.

In fact, viewers might walk away from W&M more critical of Wagner the man than when they walked in. That is a testament to Fry’s honesty if not necessarily his persuasiveness. Sometimes interesting but hardly essential, Wagner & Me opens this Friday (12/7) in New York at the Quad Cinema.


Posted on December 6th, 2012 at 11:02am.

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A new clip has been released from Kathryn Bigelow’s forthcoming SEAL Team 6/Osama bin Laden raid movie, Zero Dark Thirty, which is already receiving awards-season accolades. The film stars Jessica Chastain and Joel Edgerton. Special engagements for Zero Dark Thirty start December 19th, and the film opens wide on January 11th.

Posted on December 6th, 2012 at 11:01am.

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Dec 062012

By Joe Bendel. Ouyang Feng is an agent for freelance swordsmen looking for some dirty work. You could call him a cutthroat’s cutthroat. Likewise, when it comes to love, he is a cynic’s cynic. If you suppose a woman was the cause of his hardened heart, you would be correct. It is a logical guess, considering Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time Redux screens this Friday as part of the Asia Society’s film series Goddess: Chinese Women on Screen.

Instead of adapting Louis Cha’s epic novel The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, Wong conceived of an original pseudo-prequel that can be fully appreciated without prior familiarity with its inspiration. Every year, the swashbuckler Huang Yaoshi pays a visit to his friend Ouyang’s desert home. Both are men with complicated pasts. For his latest visit, Huang brings a bottle of supposedly enchanted wine that is said to induce forgetfulness. Huang imbibes. Ouyang does not.

After Huang disappears, apparently under the effects of the potent drink, Ouyang carries on with business. However, his next clients are somehow involved with his soul-sick friend. Clan leader Murong Yang recruits Ouyang to murder Huang in retribution for spurning his sister, Murong Yin. Soon thereafter, the sister tries to hire Ouyang to murder her compulsively controlling brother. In a hallucinatory evening (which is par for the course in Ashes), Ouyang realizes Yin and Yang are the same divided person.

The seasons pass, but it is hard judge time in the desert. Ouyang recruits a wandering swordsman to defend the village from a band of outlaws. His skills are formidable, but he is rapidly losing his sight. The man’s one desire is to see his native land once again before going completely blind. Eventually, Ouyang also yearns for home, where the woman he once loved lives as his brother’s wife.

Redux is the restored and reworked de facto director’s cut of Ashes Wong oversaw when he realized how many dubious copies of the film were in circulation. Featuring fight choreography by Sammo Hung, it is quite stylistically daring by martial art film standards, bordering on the outright experimental. There is indeed a fair amount of combat, but the action is rendered impressionistically and blurred, almost like a series of freeze frames.

As promised, there are also several divas, including Brigitte Lin in sort of a dual role as the Murongs. Although she is always recognizable, Lin brings a conviction to both personas that keeps the audience off-balance. Yet it is Maggie Cheung who really lowers the diva boom as the woman from Ouyang’s past. Emotionally devastating but never indulgent or showy, it might represent the best second-for-second cameo ever. As a bonus, Charlie Young is a genuinely haunting presence as the peasant girl out to avenge her brother.

While the film’s color palette reportedly varies depending on its various editions, any retrospective of cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s work ought to start or finish with Ashes. The golds and burnt-umbers of Redux are absolutely striking. Frankly, Ashes Redux is a daring classic of the genre that might be new to a lot of people who might think they have seen it already (like a wuxia Blade Runner). Highly recommended, Ashes of Time Redux screens this Friday (12/7) at the Asia Society.


Posted on December 6th, 2012 at 11:00am.

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FX has released a trailer for its 1980s-era Cold War spy drama series The Americans. In the series, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play KGB spies posing as a married couple (complete with kids) living in America, who attempt to maintain their cover and their fake marriage while avoiding FBI counterintelligence agents. The Americans debuts on FX January 30th.

Posted on December 6th, 2012 at 10:59am.

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